Monday, 30 June 2014

Information junkies

I once knew a birder who spent most of the day - almost every day - in the field. But most of that time was not spent looking through his optics. He would spend it peering at the screen of his smart phone, or responding to the bleeps and whistles that came from a small device that I assumed was a pager. These two objects (phone and pager) dictated his birding life, from where he would be birding in the next hour right through to what he would do when he got there. Also, his awareness of those other birders around him was but periphery, such was his concentration on those devices. He had divorced himself from the reality of where he was and who he was with. However, such behavior, rather than being extreme, is actually quite common.

Being able to communicate instantaneously is something that a bloke of my age does not take for granted. Who reading this can remember the run to a phone box after finding a rare bird, the frantic feeding of coins into the slot and the hope that the person who's number you had just dialed was actually in? None of this palaver has to be entered into now. Just call up the contacts on your phone, or send out a group text, or tweet, or update your Facebook status/groups. All within a minute. Reaching hundreds of contacts so that they have the information and the choice to act on your good luck if they want. Hence the need for the 'birding info junkie' to be constantly checking their feeds. Hence the constant 'bleeps and whistles' of notification alarms going off.

I spent a fortnight at Dungeness back in May, mostly in the company of other birders. Almost to a person they carried phones with which they could access the web, could tweet and could text. There were times when I looked around me and all my companions were looking at their phones as we were supposedly 'birding'. A Black Stork could have sneaked overhead and nobody would have been the wiser. It was as if all of my companions existed in their own little worlds, divorced from each other by this dependency on that small plastic gadget that they held in their hands. We have become information junkies, dependent on a constant diet of bite-sized missives, some good but a lot of it is the equivalent of junk-food. It might not clog-up our arteries, but it surely does clog up our brains...

The way we go about our birding has been improved by technology certainly, but I would argue that it has also lessened the amount of time that we actually spend watching birds.

Sunday, 29 June 2014


Basil-thyme (Clinopodium acinos) is not a plant that I've seen very often and certainly not locally. I had known of its existence on Banstead Downs for a while now but had never got around to paying it a visit - until today. A largish patch was out in flower and appears to be the only population present. It isn't common anywhere in north Surrey as far as I'm aware.

It's a smart flower, not too showy but the white horse-shoe marking making it distinctive. You really need to be on chalk to find it, the UK distribution map suggesting that the North and South Downs, plus the run of chalk up from Dorset to Norfolk being prime habitat - but make no mistake, this is not a common species and it is local across a lot of its range.

I couldn't resist posting a picture of this Fox-and-cubs (or Orange Hawkweed if you prefer), one of several hundred that I saw in flower in a meadow close to the River Mole at Leatherhead. They always brighten up any stroll.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Luis Suarez transferred to Birdguides for undisclosed sum

It was announced this afternoon that Birdguides, the UK-based birding franchise, has secured the services of the disgraced Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez. The deal is believed to cover the period  that FIFA have banned him from playing football, after he once again exhibited his homo-erotic habit of nibbling the shoulders of sweaty men dressed in tight fitting sports wear.

Although Birdguides was not forthcoming as to how they were going to utilise Mr Suarez' services, it is believed that he will be used to police twitches, actively biting photographers that get too close to the Booms and Rares. A birder who wishes to remain anonymous told North Downs and beyond:

"The twitching scene is getting out of hand. Although the crowds aren't what they used to be, the number of birders who bring big lenses to twitches is increasing, so much so that they get in the way of the normal birder, jostling for position to get decent shots to put on their boring blogs, getting too close to the bird, frightening it off and generally being dicks."

There were rumours that during a previous footballing ban last autumn, Spurn Bird Observatory hired Suarez to keep control of the rowdy mobs during a particularly busy autumn. This was largely successful until the Uruguayan lost it, and bit the tame Great Snipe, killing it instantly. A largely successful cover up was instigated, with a local cat being smeared by a shady Spurn-based spin doctor.

This is not the first time that the behaviour of birders has resulted in heavy handed tactics being used to re-establish control. Portland Bill Bird Observatory employed a Weymouth night club bouncer to eject trespassing birders from the observatory garden last October and the RSPB have been trialing the use of taser guns and cattle prods to evict lingering coach parties from the restaurants and cafes at Minsmere and Pulborough Brooks. There has been a surge in the number of requests to bring back 'old-style' bird wardens once more. 62 year old Pete 'Ticker' Bishop was quite adamant that this is needed to tame the rogue birder. "When I were a lad, if you bunked over the fence and onto a bird reserve you were shit scared that the warden would catch you. A clip round the ear was the least of your worries. I had mates who had their heads held under water in stagnant ditches just because they wanted to see a Little Egret. One of me birding friends actually disappeared at Minsmere when he 'went in' to try and flush a Purple Heron. His binoculars were found hung up next to a dozen dead Carrion Crows in a tree."

Suarez was unavailable for comment, but was apparently in training with a Merseyside Police dog-handling unit.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

CK and P Dunkley

Mr and Mrs CK and P Dunkley most probably don't mean that much to you. You may have never heard of them. But if you were to pick up any Surrey Bird Report from the 1960s and 1970s you would find their initials written all over the systematic list. They were avid patch birders.

What I now have to tell you is a tale of my callow youth, in not knowing how things really were and in my having a misplaced sense of importance - for, in the mid 1970s, I came across the Dunkleys and dismissed them as irrelevant to my birding world. Let me explain…

As a teenage birder, with little money and no car, I travelled to the better birding destinations by way of begging lifts or going on organized trips. The latter option was, I'm ashamed to say, considered beneath me, as I had to sit on a coach with 'dude' birders, mostly old and mostly not 'proper' exponents of birding. You can now see what an arrogant little shit I was. The Surrey Bird Club ran such trips and these seemed to be largely organized and lead by Mr and Mrs Dunkley. They appeared to me to be ancient, certainly of retirement age. Mr Dunkley was balding, with a shock of white hair at the back of his head and, rather strikingly, he wore an eye patch. I'm sad to say that as for Mrs. Dunkley I cannot remember a single thing about her, other than she was 'old'.

I could not take these people seriously - after all, they weren't young go-getting birders, they most probably weren't terribly good in the field and they couldn't possibly compete with such young guns as myself.  Therefore I selfishly took for granted their organization of and leading of these trips, as well as looking upon these outings as something to endure to get to places such as Minsmere and Stodmarsh. I doubt if I even spoke to the couple.

Fast forward thirty years. By then I'd grown up (well, maybe a bit I like to think). If Mr and Mrs Dunkley were still alive then they were very old indeed. And I had come to revere these same people. Why? Well, in my 'second coming' of being a largely sedentary and local birder, I had spent quite a bit of time researching the local ornithological record, trawling through Surrey Bird Reports for data from northern Surrey, particularly Banstead, Epsom and Walton-on-the-Hill. And what I found was a wealth of information courtesy of - you've guessed it - CK and P Dunkley. Lots of population estimates, large flock counts, earliest and latest dates, scarce migrants - they were obviously out in the field an awful lot, doing good birding, adding useful data to the archives at the same time that I was scratching my backside trying to look cool and being 'Billy Big Ticks'.

So, rather belatedly, this is my public apology to dismissing Mr and Mrs Dunkley as lightweights, as being an irrelevance and of not being worth my while in getting to know. How wrong can you be?What a smug little tit was I? They are the type of birder that I now aspire to becoming.  I do wonder what became of them. If they are still alive then they must have each had a telegram from the Queen. But they are remembered by this fool of a birder for all of the right reasons, as being tireless field ornithologists, selfless organizers of trips and willing to accept that a spotty long-haired birder, who came along on some of their outings, but didn't have the courtesy to speak to them, just didn't know any better.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Recent moths

A couple of recent back garden moths...

Reddish Light Arches. A species 'of the chalk', fairly regular in the garden MV.

Small Yellow Wave. Not quite annual here.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bastard-toadflax and other stuff

After 36 hours of being without TV and internet connection (thanks Virgin!) I am now firmly back in the 21st century and as a family we can stop gathering around a piano, stop sewing and stop having to talk to one another... whatever next?

Highlights from the past couple of days have been...

Bastard-toadflax on Walton Downs...

Bladder Senna in Banstead Woods

The fifth garden record of Festoon (they always seem to be tatty)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Botanical foray

This morning found me haunting the chalky slopes of Chipstead Bottom, as one of a band of fellow botanists and all-round naturalists who were part of Peter Wakeham's organised walk. As usual, Peter shared with us his knowledge of the area and expertise with the plants - you always come away the richer and wiser from his forays. And there were a few familiar faces in our number: local boys David Campbell, Ian Magness and Paul Goodman; Beddington absconders Nick Gardener and Peter Alfrey; plus I finally got to meet Bill Dykes, fresh from his 'second for Britain' micro moth success.

I began a bit earlier in the day walking the rides of Banstead Woods in the hope of a Purple Emperor. They have been seen already this year on Bookham Common, but I drew a blank. Compensation came in the form of plenty of Marbled Whites, a firm favourite of mine. Other lepidoptera that gatecrashed the botanical party was a Blackneck (disturbed from vegetation but then on show for all to see), a Mullein caterpillar (on, appropriately enough, White Mullein) and the local chalk-loving micro Aethes tesserana, found by Bill.

But we had come for plants. There was much in flower and plenty to learn, highlights being Greater Yellow-rattle in profusion (top photo), White Mullein (above with Mullein caterpillar),  Common Broomrape, Common Spotted Orchid, Pyramidal Orchid, Bee Orchid, Yellow Bird's-nest, Grass Vetchling, Rough Hawk's-beard and Babbington's Leek.

Last but not least we payed homage to the disturbed soil at Fames Rough, and although we couldn't find any Ground Pine we did locate up to six plants of Cut-leaved Germander (above). Peter does not expect these to flower until next summer, so let's hope that they all survive until then.

Another great day spent with a bunch of people who not only appreciate the wildlife on our doorstep but want to share their knowledge with others.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Watch this!!

I have just finished watching one of the most interesting and thought-provoking television programmes that I have seen for quite a long time. 'I bought a rainforest' is a three-part BBC2 documentary which follows a year in the life of wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James as he comes to terms with his purchase of a few hundred acres of Peruvian rain forest.

His reason for sinking £6000 of his own money into this small part of Amazonia (which borders a protected national park) is to safeguard the land from logging and to stop the illegal transportation of felled wood from the nearby park through it.

In each episode we accompany him as he visits 'his' land and hear what his thoughts are about the wildlife within it, the local people who still use it and what he plans to do about protecting it. Things are complicated from day one. Day two dawns no more brighter. As time goes on, Charlie quickly comes to the conclusion that he had absolutely no idea about the realities of living in the region - even though he has visited the Amazon on countless occasions to pursue his career. "Those bastards who chop down the trees are not bastards after all - they are some of the nicest people I've ever met" is his summing up after time spent with illegal loggers, gold prospectors and cattle ranchers.

It is an emotional journey for Mr Hamilton James, and unless you are made of hard stuff, the viewer too. One of his later quotes is most revealing about his journey - "At the start of this journey 100% of my photography was of wildlife. Now 95% of it is of people." This 'project' changed the way he thought about the problems of protecting Amazonia. It certainly made me sit up and reappraise how I thought. It will do the same to you...

You can still see this marvellous series on i-Player.

Kidney Vetch 1 England 0

Kidney Vetch looking stunning against the tall grasses of mid-summer. A visual offering to compensate for another uninspiring performance by our national football team. Taken at Epsom Downs last Tuesday.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Meet the pond

If you have a garden, but not a water feature within it, then I urge you to put that right this summer. It doesn't have to be a pond  - a sunken or stand-alone sink will suffice - plant it up and sit back to await a whole wealth of wildlife that will make a bee-line for your watery offering.

Our own pond is small, some six feet at its widest. When we moved here (pre-children) the pond was already a living thing, full of newts and frogs, damselflies and dragonflies. When our first daughter was born we filled it in as a safety precaution. When our second daughter stopped toddling we excavated the infill, relined it and filled the resulting hole with water. Within an hour a pond skater was on the water surface and the air above was full of gnats. It didn't take long for the wildlife to find it.

I ensured that a few shelves were built into the pond's construction and placed planted containers full of Pendulous Sedge, Water Mint, Marsh Marigold, Greater Spearwort and water lilies. A few uninvited species have suddenly turned up, like the Monkeyflower that has appeared this year. Not only does the ponds edge now have a splash of colour, the plants act as a food source for many invertebrates and a place for odonata to 'hang out'. The dragonfly list is small but worthy - Large Red Damselfly, Azure Damselfly and Southern Hawker all breed in it, plus the odd Common Darter and Broad-bodied Chaser have dropped in for a look.

Birds come down to drink and bathe although they tend to use the two bird baths nearby. To sit by the pond and watch for a few minutes is never dull as there is always something happening. A bank of lavender (don't imagine a hundred yards of well manicured flower here, think four big plants!) nearby is a cafe for a constant stream of insects, some of which might decide to grab an extra snack on the nearby water mint.

So, even if your patch of wilderness is a balcony, a small trough of water can provide plenty of interest for you and act as a resource for the wildlife. It can be an inexpensive way to ensure that our homes are also a home to nature.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Fridge ticking moths

Goat Moth - guilty of being 'fridge-ticked'

Britain's first record of the noctuid moth Aedia funestra made the lepidopteran headlines this weekend. Trapped by Nigel Jarman at Kingsdown, Kent on June 13, it was then taken on a short journey to Dungeness where it was on show to all who wished to see it. There would have been a number of people who travelled a few hundred miles to do so, even if they had made the same journey less than a week before to see Britain's second Banded Pine Carpet, trapped by Barry Banson in his Littlestone garden. This 'exhibition' of rare moths is not confined to Dungeness - most permanent coastal MV's (such as those run at bird observatories) will let it be known when a rarity has been trapped and be more than pleased to share it with those who wish to see it. Even inland trap operators will find themselves being visited by lepidopterists to share in their good fortune - Bill Dyke's second for Britain Euchromius cambridgei that was trapped in his Surrey garden over the weekend being a recent example. A couple of summers ago a Gypsy Moth that I caught resulted in three 'rings on the doorbell'.

Such 'ticking' of moths has been light-heartedly debated on the Pan Listing Facebook site recently, cruelly christened as 'fridge ticks' after the normal practice of keeping these rare moths in the fridge to keep them calm. This practice isn't cruel, as the normal procedure for releasing a trap full of moths back into the wild is to cover the trap with a sheet until the following evening and then allowing them to fly off as the light fades. To keep one or two select specimens potted up and 'chilled' (both literally and metaphorically) does the moth no harm. There are those who see this 'fridge ticking' as a pointless pursuit, that an individual cannot possibly 'count' a moth on their list by driving to another's house, normally many miles away and on a different day of the moth's capture.

Have I been guilty of such action? Yes.

Have I felt happy in doing so? Well, yes and no...

If I'm staying at Dungeness, then the chances are that one of the local moth trappers will come up with something good, and I have made the journey to visit Dorothy Beck, Barry Banson, Sean Clancy and the RSPB reserve MV many times to see such moths. I have even driven from home to the bird observatory to open the fridge door and look at a Death's-head Hawk-moth before climbing back into the car to drive the 90 miles home. Oh, and I did that for a Spurge Hawk-moth as well.

There is no right and no wrong in this situation. It is clearly up to the individual as to whether or not a visit to a distant fridge to see a captive moth is satisfactory or not - and described like that it seems more like a case of being unsatisfactory, doesn't it. I have to admit that my UK moth list is therefore not unsullied. But there again, doesn't all of this just show up the absurdity of listing anyway?

Those who wish to share with others in their good fortune at trapping a rare moth should be applauded for doing so. Those that do the travelling obviously are happy to operate this way. And as for those that disagree with 'fridge ticking' - just look the other way and bask in the glorious light of being 'holier than thou'!

Friday, 13 June 2014

From the Chipstead Bottom of my heart

A brief wander along Chipstead Bottom this afternoon was balm to the soul. Soporific weather, enough butterflies to feel joyous and a handful of good plants which only goes to reinforce what a marvellous area it is botanically, lead by Yellow Bird's-nest (below), Greater Yellow-rattle and Bee Orchid - and I wasn't really looking that hard.

Back at home the moth trap was quiet, although this female Ghost Moth was most welcome. Tonight is shaping up to be cloudier, muggier and dare I even suggest, moth-ier...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The bigger picture

One criticism that has been levelled against me on more than one occasion is that I think too much about how I go about my natural history study. That might be true. My post yesterday (about my current malaise) prompted Neil and Ali to respond (thanks chaps!) I had touched upon 'pan listing' as being a possible reason for my dissatisfaction and Ali (a fellow PSL member) wrote:

PSL enlightens me to how many million things I don't know. When you are working in one group you are always going forwards. With PSL you expand your awareness of ignorance so it can feel that you are actually going backwards. Or maybe it feels too much like a job. Nothing cools my interest in something more than the feeling that I "have to" do it

This struck several chords with me. In fact, it did more than that, it gave me at least two really feasible reasons as to why I feel the way I do at the moment. The 'expansion of awareness of ignorance' point is something that I've not considered before. It does make you feel as if you are going backwards, even if in the process your understanding and appreciation of another part of our wildlife has increased. And the 'too much like a job' comment is spot on. I don't mind getting the hand lens out in the field to check the presence (or otherwise) of hairs on a plant, but I shiver at the thought of staring down a microscope to see whether or not a gnat has got a three-barred prong at the end of its penis. That is too much like work - although what a mean little feature that would be!

I came up with a neat little analogy for all this today. If you can imagine a stunning photograph of open chalk downland, (with woods in the distance and maybe a river meandering across the fields at the bottom of the slope), rather than taking in the whole thing, I have been concentrating on just a tiny portion of the image, blown up to the point that I can only see a few pixels - meaningless blocks of colour which, although part of the final photograph, do not allow you to take in the whole scenario. Well, something like that, it made sense to me when I was thinking about it earlier.

Now, the World Cup beckons. Some of you out there might hate the idea of a month of football, but not me. I love it. And I don't have to think too hard about why I watch it...

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

June doldrums

For some reason I just cannot get my natural history engines firing on all cylinders. Whatever I look at doesn't really excite me (including those two Spoonbills that flew over the garden!). Everything is a chore, from writing notes to checking pugs, from hanging up pheromone lures to examining grasses. It's not a case of not wanting to, more a case of 'can't be arsed'...

This pan-listing has a lot to do with it. I just cannot retain enough information in my crumbling brain to be out in the field and pretend to be informed on a lot of stuff. This has watered down my abilities in groups that I used to have a good hold on - my birding prowess was pants in May, I've forgotten most of the pugs so I tend to (ahem!) ignore them at the MV, and sometimes I stare at a plant and cannot remember its name, even though I know it.

What's the answer?

I've toyed with a break from it all. But I don't want to do that. Stop blogging? No, I still enjoy posting. My note taking has now reverted to just a field notebook without the need for a write-up at the end of the day. My lists are maintained but don't mean much at all - it's just a number, meaningless to everybody else, so if I cannot be bothered with it, then why have 'a number' at all?

The Football World Cup may well come to the rescue. A month's worth of that will entertain me, take my mind off of my poor hoverfly skills, my low spider list and my alarming lurch from decent birder to sham pretender.

If you do things by rote then the joy will fall away, the novelty wear off and everything becomes a chore. Time to shake things up...

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Spoonbills over Banstead

My pheromone failures continue, but the back garden has been kind to me over the past couple of days. Firstly, the MV provided both Peach Blossom (above) and Scorched Wing last night, neither of which are annual here. And secondly, whilst lolling about on the back garden lawn yesterday evening (17.50hrs) I looked up to see, unbelievably, two low flying Spoonbills heading north-west. I was surprisingly calm as they disappeared out of view. Needless to say, a new species for the garden.

Sunday, 8 June 2014


I'm developing a hatred of pheromones. I've spent too many hours staring at the bloody things hanging from a tree/bush/stick waiting for the patter of tiny wings to arrive. Today I targeted a good area of young birch (for White-barred Clearwing), cleared birch (for Large Red-belted Clearwing) and oak parkland (for Yellow-legged Clearwing). I know that one of the sites I visited has recorded the target species before (including last weekend) - so what am I doing wrong?

The flight times are OK. The habitat is OK. I've started to wonder if my pheromone bungs have not been impregnated with the magical chemicals at all! But, having said that, I know that my Six-belted Clearwing lure works OK as that provided my sole success last summer.

I'm leaving the lure out for 20-30 minutes. It's always been a sunny day (with at least a slight breeze). I'm beginning to lose patience... but, of course, I must not give in.

Today wasn't a moth-free zone as I recorded the garden's first Grass Rivulet last night. Better late than never.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Pan's People come to a web site near you!

The Pan-species Listing Web Site has now been officially launched and is open to the great unwashed out there in cyberspace! Please click here to access a world dominated by the geek, the obsessed, the driven and the plain weird - some of those you will meet answer to all four of those accusations!

Seriously though, the all-round naturalist was a dying breed, but not any more! It is heartening to find that many of those naturalists who have been brave enough to submit their lists are under 30! Not all of them are men!! And I've met a few of them and some of them are normal people!!!

Congratulations must go to Graeme Lyons and the team for organising and constructing the site. If you feel inclined to do so, do join in. But please don't do so if your list is larger than mine - I'm slipping down the league table on an almost daily basis, and there's only so much a man can take. I might even have to pull my finger out and start to make an effort to bump those numbers up...

Friday, 6 June 2014


I am currently re-reading "Blood Knots' by Luke Jennings. Here is a book ostensibly about angling but it is far more than that - far, far more. The parallels between fishermen and birders are uncannily close. There is a passage in his book where he discusses the part of ritual and anticipation in angling. This is also true of birding.

I still get excited when I prepare for my time in the field - even if it is just a sky-watch from the back garden. The ritualistic cleansing of the optic lenses, the picking up of the notebook and pen, the arrival on site when the first scan is full of optimism - even after forty years of doing so, I still get a shiver down the spine. But why? My hope of a rarity, of a big viz-mig watch, and of hope for the unexpected is not really there - I do always hope, but realism and pragmatism kicked in years ago. It is all to do with the ritual. It is all to do with the fetish qualities of the tools I use. It is a trip back in time to those early days that were full of wonder.

I hope that I never lose these feelings. They are worth a 'mega' any day of the week.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

London Calling

I've been keeping my head down of late. In fact, I've been back in the land of the earning, plying my trade as a freelance designer, working for a Holborn-based publisher. This has necessitated my becoming a commuter - and boy, is that an eye-opener...

I've always lived around the edge of London, rarely venturing into it. But age has seen my feelings towards our capital city become far more positive. I love the architecture, the theatres, the galleries, the museums and the pubs. Its wildlife has never really registered with me, so I've always looked upon those birders that work it with a mixture of awe and bewilderment. I follow one particular exponent - Des McKenzie - on Twitter, and feel that all of his sightings are that much more hard-won and worthy than my own. He even wanders the 'pavements of gold' searching for exotic species of tree. True dedication.

Last Saturday we visited our eldest daughter Rebecca who currently lives in Bromley-by-Bow, and walked from there, along the River Lea and adjacent canal, to Hackney Wick. This area is being largely regenerated, with warehousing being converted to apartments and business units (and with this does come some awkward social implications), but what really grabbed me was the bird-able habitat. Reed beds. Banks of vegetation alive with wild flowers. Green spaces. Plenty of trees. I imagined all sorts of migrant passerines stopping off on route to wilder places. I envisaged raptors moving overhead. I finally got to understand how such places can get a grip on certain naturalists.

My time this week (walking between City Thameslink Station and Holborn) is largely bereft of natural interest apart from the odd Plane tree. But then you come across a Square and I can see potential. Hats off to Des and the gang - I bet that the feeling they get when they do 'score' is amplified enormously.