Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Another big'un

This is another one of the big, easy to do hoverflies - Volucella inanis. (Not as easy to do as I blithely claimed. Andrew Cunningham has quite rightly pointed out that this is V. zonaria) It barged it's way past all of the puny flies, wasps and beetles to land on some ivy and show off its awesome build. They really are spectacular these large hoverflies. If only they were all as easy to identify - but there again there wouldn't be any challenge, would there?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

It's that big hoverfly with the white saddle

This is Volucella pelluscens. It's a hoverfly and it's one that you, me and the person with no natural history knowledge at all can safely identify, because it is large and has a body coloured and patterned like a Giant Panda - all you need to do is master the Latin name to score extra brownie points.

The garden MV is being hogged by Tree-lichen Beauties and Jersey Tigers at the moment. Who could have predicted that a few years ago? I'm still hopeful of a screaming rarity coming my way, but in the meantime have to make do with these recent colonists.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A clearwing before the rain

A poor image, I know, but it is all I have of a Red-belted Clearwing that came to a pheromone in Derek Coleman's Carshalton back garden before the black clouds gathered, the thunder rumbled and the rain fell. Our trip to hunt down Red-tipped Clearwing was thus abandoned. - at least we had this initial success.

A much brighter capture was this Scarce Silver-lines in my Banstead MV last night. It isn't annual here and I always get a thrill out of finding this particular moth amongst the egg boxes.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Interesting times

I doubt that there has ever been such an interesting time to be a naturalist in the UK. It seems as if we are living through an unprecedented era of 'loss and gain'. Land use, climate change, edge of range - they all get the blame (or take the credit) for what we observe. Let's just take my back garden moths as an example of how things have evolved. I moved to my current home in August 1987, and, almost 27 years later, am still recording in it...

This is an area that shows up the changes the clearest. When I first put a moth trap out in the garden, I would record such species as Garden Tiger, Red Underwing and Golden Plusia with some regularity. I haven't seen any of the mentioned species for at least 15 years here in Banstead. But a whole cast of moths have moved in, that, back in 1987, were but foolish dreams: Small Ranunculus (first recorded in 2004), Toadflax Brocade (2009), Tree-lichen Beauty (2011), Jersey Tiger (2012), White-point (2013). I'm still waiting for a Cypress Carpet and it can't be long as they are all around me. There are other species that, whilst not being colonists from the 'coastal fringe or beyond' have lately become far more regular in the garden - such as The Coronet, Orange Footman, Dingy Footman, Hoary Footman and Buff Footman. Rather than local conditions being more favourable for them I get the impression that these are genuine range expansions. And the list of possible additions continues - all you have to do is read the latest addition of Atropos to realise that there are plenty of species colonising the southern and south-eastern coasts of England and, once they have a firm base, might be heading north!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

You can have any colour, as long as it's orange or yellow...

Jersey Tigers are on the wing down here in sunny, hot and tinder dry Surrey. Three were in the garden this afternoon (the three liberated from the morning's MV without doubt) and one of them was of the form lutescens that exhibits an underwing which has a yellow base colour rather than the usual deep orange. I took a photograph of each as a comparison - both were taken in the shade and are actually quite a good representation of the actual colouring. I don't know the percentage of each form, whether or not it varies regionally or even if it is dependent on local conditions - somebody out there knows, no doubt.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

An agreeable stagnation

I'm 21st in the pan-listers league table with 3332 species. That's me that is, dropping like a stone as each week progresses, watching the latest addition to the 'pan-family' go straight in above me. My last additions were Hairy Mock-orange and Bladder Senna on the 24th of June (that's almost a whole month ago!). Admittedly there has been a great deal going on in those four weeks, some pretty momentous stuff, and other stuff that has been time consuming, but still I have had the luxury of spare time in which to go out and look...

And I have looked. I've looked for butterflies. I've searched for plants. I've done a bit of birding, but none of it - none of it at all - has been driven by the need for lifers, the want for a tick, the scratching of an itch that only a brand spanking new observation will stop. My time in the field has been so laid back that I've been virtually horizontal. And I like it. I like it a lot. Whatever comes my way will do so and if I see it, if I nail the identification (or not) then all is well and good.

I see my fellow pan-listers posting, tweeting and commenting with such intensity it is difficult to keep up with them. Some of them seem to be in a different corner of the UK each day, regaling us with another long, juicy list of the rare and the obscure. I once would have been with them (or at least planning next weekend's field outing with targets in mind). At the moment I find all of that, if not pointless, certainly not fulfilling. To gobble up nature as a commodity to feed a constantly swelling number is not tickling my fancy right now. That others do so is nothing other than commendable - they are adding to knowledge, finding valuable data and mostly dealing in orders that have very few people studying them. It's all good stuff - just not stuff that I want to do at the moment.

The autumn is here - the waders are already moving, late summer plants like Harebells are in full flower, and the last of the year's butterfly species that emerge are about to do so. I'm looking forward to a bit of birding. Not necessarily rarity, but maybe a bit of visible migration, possibly a small fall. I don't need anything else at the moment. I'm in a strange place, best summed up as being the willing participant in an agreeable stagnation.

Tree-lichen Beauty

From a UK screaming rarity to a 'nightly' back garden moth, the Tree-lichen Beauty has had its status re-written several times over the past twenty years. I have started to trap it on most nights now, and during last summer had a peak of four on one evening. The individual photographed above shows a particularly colourful moth - some of them can appear almost monochrome.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Dylan time

Blogs. One of the great things about them is that they vary so much. In the 'natural history' department of blogland we have the 'went there, seen that' type; the photographic showcase; the site specific and the stream of consciousness variety. There is a place for them all, but I enjoy mostly the latter. These blogs are like lucky dips - you just don't know what the post is going to be about and whether or not you will be informed, entertained, annoyed or delighted (or, at times, all four!). I still lament the demise of Gavin Haig's 'Not Quite Scilly' but I have a replacement, and that is Dylan Wrathall''s 'Of Esox and observations'. You can access it quickly by clicking here.

Dylan might rock a few boats and could be accused of telling it like it is, shooting from the hip, posting before thinking about the consequences and being provocative, but this is all good in my book. It shows that he cares, that he has an active mind and that he has a soul. I look forward to each new post with some excitement. Blogs like these make you think about what we do, how we do it and why we do it, often coming from a fresh angle. Sometimes you feel vindicated that somebody out there thinks the same way that you do and at other times a post can make the penny drop in your head and answer a question that you have been mulling over for weeks.

Any life is a journey, whether the road taken is as straight as a die or a meandering lane that has dead-ends, trees fallen across the path and places where the view is brilliant. The way that people approach natural history is no different. I'm constantly assessing what interests me, how much effort I put in and what is important to me. To some that is a waste of effort - surely it's enough to look at a Robin and bathe in its wonder - sorry, but that not what it is about for me. If I'm wasting brain cells in evaluating all the time then so be it - but I do genuinely enjoy the process - a bit like Dylan it would seen.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Festoon frenzy

Alright, a frenzy is a bit of an exaggeration, but this summer I have trapped four Festoon in the back garden, where as my total between 1987 - 2013 was also four. It's not as though mature oak and beech woodland has suddenly made a dash towards my garden, is it...

Also last night saw the year's first Toadflax Brocade at the MV, a recent colonist to the garden. There was a time when Dungeness was the only place that I saw this species - Dave Walker told me recently that this has become a much scarcer capture in the bird observatory moth traps - some turnaround.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Just butterflies

I spent this morning and early afternoon in the Juniper Bottom/Top/Box Hill area, otherwise known as 'Hawfinch Valley'. None of the monster-billed finches were seen or heard, but the butterflies were out in force. At least 60+ Silver-washed Fritillary (above), 8 Dark-green Fritillary and a single White Admiral were the highlights. The zig-zag downland was, however, disappointing, with little on the wing and my hunt for an early Straw Belle proved to be a failure. However, in such glorious surroundings and in matching weather it would be churlish to complain.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Life, death, flying, the World Cup and never being able to stop

The Geometrician - Banstead? Dungeness?? No, Greece I'm afraid...

Sorry for the lack of recent posts, but I've been otherwise occupied...

Halkidiki, Greece
A family holiday was taken on this eastern mainland peninsula and as an experiment I left my binoculars behind -after all, it wasn't a birding trip. But I couldn't keep my eyes totally off of the bird life. The hotel grounds provided Sardinian Warblers, Cirl Buntings, Red-backed Shrikes, Pallid Swifts, Red-rumped Swallows, Bee-eaters and Crested Larks. From my sun bed on the beach I watched a flock of c30 Greater Flamingos heading north. Butterflies were thin on the ground although a few Geranium Bronzes proved that this species is continuing to expand. Even though the nights were muggy and there were plenty of flood-lit white walls the only moth excitement was provided by a Geometrician (see above). Botanising was spent in a parallel universe in which species were at once familiar but also slightly different - I might bore you with a selection of images soon.

Even though I've flown over 50 times I find the whole experience truly unsettling - from packing the suitcase, to getting to the airport, the checking in and particularly the actual flying. The last time I flew was SIX years ago as I have avoided doing so at all costs. In fact, the last time I was due to fly I refused to go. This time however, armed with an iPod, ear phones and that 'soother of the masses' Diazepam I made it there and back. I cannot say I enjoyed any of it still, but rather than concentrating on my death by catastrophic hydraulic failure I was more concerned with whether or not the volume of music on my iPod was too loud for the person sat next to me.

World Cup
I was pleased to watch those charlatans, the Brazilian football team, finally be exposed as the mediocre team that they truly are. The media fawning over 'Samba Football' is lazy and inaccurate. Same goes for FIFA naming Lionel Messi as player of the tournament. That should have been given to James Rodrigues of Colombia. More pandering to the sponsors.

Life and death
It has been my misfortune to attend two funerals, both people in their fifties and both of them honest, decent and loving individuals. My atheism is never more vindicated than when I have to say goodbye to such folk. Don't give me that claptrap that they have been 'called by God' or that 'He moves in mysterious ways'. They both went too early and both left behind them many hundreds of people whose lives will be lessened by their departure. It also makes the bleating of birders about missing stuff seem all the more pathetic and trivial.

A telling off
I received this admonishment from a lifelong friend in an email last week - "Still reading your verbose blogs with interest & sometimes extreme irritation! Why can't you let go on this introspection and just relax and enjoy the wonders you so clearly love? Maybe he has a point...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Utter bollocks?

Why do you bother with natural history? What makes you pick up a pair of binoculars, switch on a moth trap or take a flower identification guide off of a bookshelf ? And are the reasons that you do so today the same ones that made you do so when you first started out on this great adventure?

The beginning is where we will most probably find our 'natural history purity', when our feelings towards nature were not clouded by detail. My beginning was staggered - a Tawny Owl that used to sit on a lone conifer in my parents back garden in 1971; an Elephant Hawk-moth that was found resting on a basket of washing in 1973; and the 'dam-buster' of a Jay that hopped around on a Sutton lawn in June 1974 that fired my imagination enough to go out and buy a field guide. The following weeks found me sitting at a bedroom window with my Dad's cheap binoculars, marveling at what type of bird came visiting. They weren't 'species', they weren't a number, they were purely birds, a Dunnock the equal to a Great Tit that was worth as much as a Goldfinch. My constant flicking through the plates in the field guide whetted my appetite not for rarity but for spectacle - could a Green Woodpecker really be that good? It was…

As we become more proficient in recognizing what we are looking at then we are faced with a choice. We stand at several forks in a road that can take us off on differing aspects of our hobby. It could be identification based, it might be of a more scientific bent or our main concern might be geared around the preservation and maintenance of habitats. Some of us try to wander down all of them. For some of us it becomes a career.

It is at this stage that things can change. It is when the chasing of lists evolves. It is when innocence is lost. It is when time spent in the field can replicate time in the office. This doesn't mean that we lose our joy or wonder at what we see, more a case that it can be hidden from view by our evolving approach to what we do and how we do it. It certainly happened to me.

The early excitement - stomach-churning excitement - that I used to get when visiting Beddington as a teenager will never be replicated. There was one particular settling bed that, during the autumn of 1976, played host to a conveyor belt of waders. Each visit provided good birds and each time that I approached the grassy banks (to crawl up on my stomach and peer through the nettles at the hoped for avian jewels beyond) I was knotted-up in anticipation. Typing this 38 years later I can feel the echoes of those emotions still - they must have been powerful. I assumed that this was what birding would always be like.

I started to visit coastal sites on a regular basis soon afterwards. That special suite of waders that I saw on the settling bed at Beddington could not compete with Minsmere's scrape, or Cley Marshes or Pagham Harbour. And after a year or two of visiting such places a day was deemed a failure unless at the very least a Temminck's Stint or a Pectoral Sandpiper could be found amongst the thousands of waders present.  And it wasn't long before even these rarities were not enough. I needed rarer rarity. This is a habit that could not successfully be fed. It is where disillusionment and disappointment lurks, ready to take down any birder that wanders into such territory. It took me down - to the point where my birding was then done on automatic pilot and with little joy.

Some of you reading this may wonder how anybody can get into such a state with birding. There are plenty out there who have. Some give up - or 'phase' as we used to say. Others find something else natural-history based to obsess on (orchids and butterflies used to be the phased birder's crutch). I started to look at moths. Then plants. Then anything else that was 'living'. But, if I were honest with myself, birding was always there. It never went away. It was my first love, after all.

My reconnection with birds, in the purest form, happened over a few years (1997-2004). I can be that specific as it was during this period of time that I had a serious illness. I was off work for two lengthy spells and my medical treatment was pretty tough. Part of my recuperation was to get out in the open and both clear my head and strengthen my body. One of my companions on these walks were my binoculars. Long journeys were not on the agenda, so I stayed local. 

It was like going back to day one.  I rediscovered the joy of walking through a winter woodland and coming across a mixed feeding flock. I went to local patches that had been long abandoned with renewed interest.  I watched the back garden with fresh eyes (maybe hoping that the 1974 Jay might reappear for old times sake). The wonder returned. Since then my birding/planting/mothing has been done on my terms, when I want to and where I fancy. I generally keep local, even though the birding is hard work at times, but I accept that. Dungeness calls now and again, as does The New Forest, the Wiltshire chalk and the Sussex coast. I'm as likely to be moved by a piece of natural history art or writing as I am a living thing. All these things are connected as far as I'm concerned. It's a good place to be.

A connection with nature is a personal thing. We will all see things differently.  For me, if it is based purely on listing (and by inference, collecting) then it will be undernourished and ultimately unfulfilled. But there again, for somebody who has not had the need to think too deeply about what they do, and have a UK list of 500+, this post is most probably utter bollocks.