Friday, 29 August 2014

Blogging, stats and stuff

I have now been pumping out this North Downs and beyond drivel for over six years now - albeit with a brief break in 2010 when I deleted the entire show and then started up again in August of that year. Since then I have posted 670 times. That's an awful lot of waffle, rant and, at times, observation. I have considered giving it a break on a number of occasions, mainly when I've felt fed up or disillusioned with my 'natural history lot', but thankfully I haven't pressed the destruct button and things always seem better the next day.

Those of us that use Blogger as a platform can see who visits our blog, where they come from and what they look at - don't worry, it doesn't identify exactly who you are! These stats are just a bit of fun to me, although it is always pleasing when the visitor numbers are high, as we all like to think that we are doing something that others may wish to read. I'm going to talk numbers now, something that some bloggers guard with secrecy (I suppose it is a bit like comparing penis size), but hey, I'm easy going...

When I started (back in 2008) my daily visitor rate would be between 25-50 a day, more often at the lower end of those figures. When I relaunched two years later I would normally just edge over the 100 mark. Now, I can normally expect between 150 - 200, with maybe 200-300 every third or fourth day. My record is 600+, but these sort of figures are unusual. I do not attempt to bolster these numbers by joining blogging networks or advertising a post on Twitter. I don't know how these numbers compare to other blogs and it really doesn't matter to me. I would, however, guess that there are some birding blogs out there that must get four figure hits on a regular basis.

I cannot predict what type of a post will prove popular. I used to believe that the more contentious a post the more traffic would be garnered, but that clearly isn't the case. My most visited post is a review I wrote on Robert Macfarlane's excellent book The Old Ways. This is followed by a rant (yes, they do work sometimes) about self-promotion in birding. In third place is my appreciation of Ray Turley's legacy to birding, with my piss-take on the use of the word BOOM! in fourth. Following up behind, in order, are posts on 'Internet-based birding' and the Chinese Pond Heron - Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics. If you missed any of them or want to revisit them, you can just click on the links. Sometimes a post will be boosted by somebody, somewhere, publishing its link. This happened with my post about Ray (which Lee Evans highlighted) and the Pond Heron (via Bird Forum).

It used to be said that a newspaper could gauge its health by the size of its postbag and to me, if my blog is getting comments sent to it, then all is well. Comments do tend to come in waves (and, if I'm being honest, 75% of them come from the same dozen people), but I'm very grateful when I do receive them. There have been a few posts that have developed a life of their own in the comments section, the most memorable being a theological debate between Peter Alfrey and Mel Lloyd. It's well worth a read, but please spare half an hour and make sure that your brain is clear when you do so!

One way that a visitor can come across this blog is by referral from another blog (my own referrals can be found in that 'Worthy Blog' list found over to the right of this post). Who are my top referrers? They can now be revealed...

1st Surrey Bird Club
2nd Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge)
3rd Not Quite Scilly (Gavin Haig)
4th Birding Notebook (Peter Alfrey)
5th Boulmer Birder (Stewart Sexton)

Thanks all!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What am I offered for my spare Wallcreeper?

This morning, on the Rare Birds of Britain and Ireland Facebook group, Simon Smethurst pointed out  that, although certain species can become our bogey birds (with frequent dips), there are others that we cannot but help connecting with. He has seen three different Green Herons in the UK. What rare multiples do others have, he asked? The response was revealing:

Multiple American Robins, Yellow-browed Buntings, Mourning Doves, Scop's Owls, Alder Flycatchers, American Redstarts, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Thick-billed Warblers, Tengmalm's Owls (that's just being greedy, Martin Gray!) and - I had to mention them again - my two WALLCREEPERS... I then posed the question, if these birds could be traded like football cards and stickers, what would I be offered for my spare Wallcreeper? The best offer came from Martin Goodey, who upped his initial offer of a spare Scarlet Tanager to also include a Cliff Swallow and a Northern Waterthrush. I'd be tempted! How did he know I needed them all? Does my reputation as a low-lister travel that far?

But just imagine if listing did involve bartering. And was not just confined to swaps. What if you got fed up with birding and wanted to cash in your list and start on moths. How much would a White-crowned Black Wheatear fetch - is it worth a Willowherb Hawkmoth and a Patton's Tiger? Would somebody be prepared to give me a Ghost Orchid for my Varied Thrush? (come to think about it, I'll keep the thrush...) This would be worth watching, seeing what desperate listers would be prepared to give up for that one elusive seabird, that possibly extinct plant or a horrendously rare migrant moth.

I would make sure that any new kid Surrey lister would pay dearly for my spare Cirl Buntings and Willow Tits, now sadly extinct in the county and unlikely to pop up again any time soon. I could sit back and wait for the offer of their hard won skuas and petrels before coughing up any of my (many) spares. If only we could play such games, this listing lark would be much, much more fun...

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Silver-spotted Skipper

Park Downs is a fairly small south facing chalk slope only a mile outside of Banstead. This morning revealed two highlights for me - this Silver-spotted Skipper plus a female Common Redstart. I could actually claim a third highlight as a couple of Hobbies were dive-bombing a Common Buzzard in the skies above. I don't visit this modest site very often, but I really should do more often.

Friday, 22 August 2014

A mini über patch

I need a purpose behind the time that I spend out in the field. If I don't have a purpose then I tend to wander about aimlessly and the result is a thin notebook populated by meaningless observations. So, to put the time that I spend locally back onto a positive and worthwhile footing, I am keeping my observations focused on the area illustrated above.

It is a combination of downland, farmland, common and woodland. It has very little water. There are no rivers. Botanically it is rich. It is an excellent area for butterflies and moths. As for birds, well, it will be hard work, but anything discovered will be all the more appreciated.

To keep me sane trips to Dungeness will be essential!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Beddington's new media blitz

My old stomping ground - Beddington Sewage Farm (or Beddington Farmlands as it is now referred to) - has undergone a bit of a social media makeover. You can visit the new web site by clicking here. If you are on Facebook they have created an account and you can visit it by clicking here. Are you into Twitter? Well, so is Beddington, under the account name 'Beddington Farmlands'. Last but not least you can keep abreast of all the birding, mothing and political highlights (and lowlights) by visiting Peter Alfrey's excellent blog 'Non-stop Birding' (and you can get there by clicking here).

I have banged on about Beddington frequently on this blog, but for those who haven't visited this blog before (or those of short-term memory), this is the place where I cut my ornithological teeth. It has been birded for almost a century and has an almost unbroken ornithological record stretching back to the 1930s - how many places can boast that? The roll-call of Beddington old boys is one of quality, including such names as Bob Scott and Peter Grant. For an inland site the bird list is lengthy and has some species that even a bird observatory regular would salivate over - Glaucous-winged Gull and Killdeer anyone?

Peter Alfrey deserves a medal for the efforts that he has put into promoting and trying to protect what is left of the old sewage farm. I did a runner long ago, no longer able to accept that the old flooded field systems, the settling beds and the hedgerows had been destroyed in the name of corporate profits and landfill. But Peter is made of sterner stuff, so he carries on battling against the companies and bodies that seem unable to fulfil the environmental obligations that had been agreed upon prior to their desecration of the farmlands. The grand plan for a premier urban nature reserve seems a long way off at present. A trawl back through the posts on Peter's web site will very quickly give you a feel for what he, and the local population, have been up against.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Birding characters

Yes, it's another one of those 'in the good old days' posts, but before you think 'here he goes again' just remember that today will be your good old days in thirty years time...

The seed for this particular post came via a number of Facebook posts and tweets emanating from last weekend's Rutland Birdfair, mostly from grizzled old geezers who are all the wrong side of 40 - but what with global warming, social unrest, looming financial collapse and our impending doom courtesy of a rogue black hole, I reckon it might just be the right side to be of 40! But I digress. These chin-dribblers were all reminiscing about the good old days and how exciting, fulfilling and friendly it all used to be. I looked at the pictures that were posted, populated by long-haired, denim and/or ex-military clad youths, smiling out from the past, looking at us in our gull-obsessed present (stay there boys, you've only got five species of gull to worry about in 1977!!) Of course this was more than enough to encourage me to think back to the late seventies, to remember hitching to Norfolk and Suffolk, to recall ticking off famous birders in The George Pub at Cley, to bathe in the glory of big passerine falls at Dungeness (passerine migrants, remember them?) and to realise that, as birders, we were surrounded by characters. A right old motley crew of characters, but people who made you put down your Nickel Supra telescope and gawp. Do such people exist in birding circles today?

There were the nicknames - not just nicknames that were known locally, but nicknames that were known nationally - Mutley, Spiny Norman, Captain Ticker, Dipper, IBP - I could go on. And then names that, when mentioned, could silence a room as these names carried instant respect, awe and myth - these names had found rarities, travelled to exotic countries, slept in every bus stop between London and Cornwall. Many had worked on Shetland, earning vast sums of money (by late 1970s standards) by cleaning and cooking for the oil industry, only to spend all of the said amount on foreign birding trips, dope and beer. And that was another thing about a lot of these characters, they were social misfits, certainly as far removed from the stereotypical birdwatcher as could be imagined.

Some were considered dangerous - even prone to violence. Fools were not suffered gladly. Cliques were formed and you could forget about joining them as they wandered around in their own universe, where shit-hot birding and an unparalleled knowledge of the best places to pick up lifts to the next big bird were just for starters. A gaggle of such men (they were all men) standing at a bar at Cley/Portland/St. Mary's was given a wide berth unless you were trying to ingratiate your way in. I've seen people try, buying the 'names' drinks all night only to be cruelly rejected as the last orders were called. A few sported lurid hair cuts, think Travis Bickle (Google him) crossed with a Firecrest.

They all had the contacts. Those hard earned phone numbers that were the key to building up a network of rarity informants. And here we meet another set of characters, the hardy souls who acted as the conduits for bird information. They must have had very understanding partners or parents, as every evening, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, they were taking calls from all over Britain, from oiks like me asking "Anything about?" I hated having to phone one of these numbers as I didn't really know the people involved and felt self-conscious doing so. I used to wait for Nick Gardener to do the phoning as he had a swaggering confidence that would always result in getting the gen (good 1970s birding word there...) I believe that 'our' information came largely from Dave Holman, John Miller or Phil Vines. Having said that, there was always a supporting cast of back-ups, such as the 'Incredible String Band' from West London, populated by a load of geezers with nicknames (Surf, J, Bolin and that's just for starters)

Does the way that we communicate today eradicate personality, at least on such a national level? I'd like to think that there is still a right old cast of rum characters out there birding, people that, in 30-40 years time will be remembered fondly (or with fear!). Birding wouldn't be half as much fun without them...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander

Ground Pine

This was quite a small plant - I have seen virtual clumps!

Cut-leaved Germander

This afternoon I visited Fames Rough, nestled along Chipstead Bottom in Surrey. The ploughed strip is certainly producing the goods as no less than 22 plants of Cut-leaved Germander were found (none in flower) and, best of all, a single flowering Ground Pine. The strip was smothered in both Sharp-leaved and Round-leaved Fluellens. Well worth a visit.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Dungeness - then and now

I have had further correspondence with my blogging twin Dylan Wrathall. His recent dilemma, of whether to revisit an old, cherished stamping ground, got me thinking (sorry Mike Netherwood, more thinking coming up). What if I had not revisited Dungeness since the early golden days that I experienced there. What if I were to pay the place a visit for the first time since 1979? What would I find and would that cloud my happy memories of the place?

Fancy a bit of time travelling?...

The Bird Observatory
The modest, grey terrace in which the observatory is housed has changed. Parcels of land have been fenced off and planted. There is more growth along the southern side of the properties where there used to be barely a bush for a crest to hide in. The obs back garden comprised a slumped coal shed and a lone bush (I cannot remember what it was - an Elder?). Now it houses a ringing station plus a luxurious garden of various plants, the stand of Tree Mallow having played host to a fair list of bird species. Inside the obs is all change. The dank, damp kitchen which was stocked with third-hand utensils has recently be refurbished. The old bathroom lacked anything to wash in apart from a pair of sinks. Now you can take a shower. The old ringing room, that appeared as a cross between Steptoe's junk yard and a municipal museum now has a modicum of comfort aided by a large wall-mounted television with a wide choice of channels, plus wi-fi. There is a well stocked library. And I almost forgot - the rattling windows and penetrating coldness has been replaced by double-glazing and central heating. It really has changed for the better.
The recording area is more vegetated, strikingly so if you hadn't visited for 35 years. Where there were bushes there are now trees. Where there was grass there is now bush. Where there was shingle there is now grass. Shingle is, of course, still to be found, but in the trapping area it is slowly being covered. The fauna and flora has changed noticeably, from the loss of breeding Yellowhammers, the fall in Wheatear numbers, the colonisation of many butterflies and dragonflies... a book could be written about these changes there are so many.
Birding habits have changed. The clientele of the obs was mainly ringers. The number of people staying has reduced, but are unlikely to ring. Nobody (apart from PJG) used to look at gulls - they have evolved from a guilty pleasure into an onithological rite of passage.
The habit of all wandering off to the pub at the day's end has largely gone. The Britannia was never the best of pubs, but at least it was a pub. Now it is an open room that sells fish and chips until it all shuts up at 9pm.

RSPB reserve
In 1979 a wooden hut acted as a place to get your membership checked before you walked along to one of the two small hides. The assistant warden lived in a tiny caravan. Burrowes Pit  boasted numerous islands where several hundred Common and Sandwich Terns bred, along with one or two pairs of Roseate. Today the water level is so high the islands are metres under water, BUT... Look elsewhere and be amazed! Where there was disturbed shingle there are reeds. Where there were small excavations there is now a linked mosaic of habitats. Species that in 1979 just didn't appear in your notebook are now ever present - Marsh Harrier, Bittern, Bearded Tit, Cetti's Warbler, Little Egret. I could go on... There are hides aplenty, footpaths giving access to previously hidden areas and as for Dengemarsh, the previous dry fields have been turned into prime wetland. And back in those days the RSPB had no control over...

The sand bowls of the western edge that we used to scope and wander across are now heavily vegetated and have hides overlooking more top-notch wetland. We have swapped the free and easy access of 1979 for the more controlling regime of 2014, but the birding is undoubtably better.

Airport Pits
A wander across to these modest water bodies was always a pleasure, the feeling of peace and being in a wilder part of the peninsular as much a part of the attraction as was the hope of finding something of interest lurking in the shallow water. Try it today and you will end up having your collar felt by security men who would have been watching you intently from the airport.

Lade Pits
In 1979 we would drive up and park on the edge, scanning the water from the car and go walking over the back and sit on the concrete bowls, sun-bathing, chatting, birding. All off-limits now unless you know some holes in the fence.

Is there a better version of Dungeness? Does the shingle kingdom of 1979 hold more for me than the 2014 model? If I had returned to Dungeness after a 35 year gap, my first reaction would be a positive one. The RSPB reserve would be a revelation, as too would ARC. A stay at the observatory would have more comfort - far more comfort. What would be missing would be the freedom to wander - be it to the Airport Pits, Water Tower, Oppen Pits or the back of Lade. But the place would have retained its essence, wouldn't have lost its allure. It would not have disappointed. And what of those things that have been lost? Well, I still have my memories of them, so they are still with me, aren't they...

Saturday, 9 August 2014

To collect or not to collect?

After a week of glorious weather an Atlantic low has swept in (and seemingly swept out again judging by the sun peeking through the cloud) so it is a good opportunity to tackle the thorny subject of pan-listing, league tables and collecting.

Rather than personalise this post, let's just précis what's gone before as this: a few naturalists have voiced an opinion that trying to take on too many orders is destructive to their already attained knowledge and reduces their enjoyment of natural history; questions have been raised over the need for a pan-listing league table; and the collecting of specimens for identification has come in for a good kicking.

Too much?
I have already voiced my opinion on this and admitted that I cannot possibly function as a competent naturalist while trying to identify everything that I come across. This just leads to a watering down of any knowledge that I already possess. Some pan-listers get around this by becoming 'tourists' and latch onto acknowledged experts in difficult fields and are shown stuff - absolutely nothing wrong with this, but unless you are taking in what you have been shown it is all a little empty as far as I'm concerned. I have come back from a day in the field with a notebook full of phonetically spelt Latin names that were shouted out by experts as we looked at mosses, lichens and invertebrates - I then spent several hours trying to decipher what they all were before adding 'ticks' to my pan-species list - it became highly unsatisfactory, nothing stuck in my brain and my time spent doing this was one reason why my ability in my core subjects continued to fall.

League tables
I do not have a problem with there being a league table for pan-species listers. It is harmless fun, can act as a spur to get out in the field and listing is a trait that many naturalists embrace. It is a way of collating what we have seen and has a social element to it as well. You don't have to submit a list (many haven't) and if you have done you don't need to chase it. There is a possibility that avid listers become less caring field naturalists, the tick becoming all consuming, lessening the desire to adhere to good protocol - or, induces the need to collect specimens to prove a lifer - which conveniently leads to...

A can of worms, this one. There are some people who simply abhor the practice of killing a living thing purely to be able to identify it or sticking a pin through it to keep it in a drawer. To some there is no difference between snuffing out a beetle and shooting an Osprey dead - and quite frankly, in the cold light of day, what is the difference? Both are species as equal of the other. Is it permissible to kill one but not the other? And if so, why? (I'm playing devil's advocate here, I don't necessarily have any answers). I have killed moths to establish identification, but don't do so now. However, am I not being hypocritical as I am more than aware that an MV trap will result in the death of moths either due to bird predation, being battered by other moths in the trap or by the weather (ever seen the bottom of a flooded moth trap?). There are many who will defend collecting as the only means of establishing the correct identification of difficult groups, establishing collections for future reference and without collecting our understanding of our ecosystem would be impoverished. At either ends of the debate are people who are passionate about why we should - or shouldn't - collect. I'm sitting this one out on the fence! What I would pay to watch is a well argued debate on this subject. It is not as straight forward as it first seems...

Friday, 8 August 2014

A day by the lake

14 hours is a long time, not just in politics, but also in birding. I had reason to stay close to the holiday home today so thought it a good opportunity to keep an eye on Maer Lake (at the bottom of the garden). The water level is currently low - more mud is being exposed by the day- and is attracting a fine selection of waders.

The Curlew Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Wood Sandpipers of previous days had all moved on, but as the hours passed the 3 Black-tailed Godwits became 5, then 6, then eight. The lone Greenshank of the past two days attracted another mid-morning before both left the site noisily. Green Sandpipers were always a feature, with four birds sharing the margins with five Dunlin, five Common Snipe and a Common Sandpiper.

A Ruddy Shelduck (here for day four) was surprisingly elusive for hours on end; two Little Egrets flew in for just an hour; and the three Water Rails that entertained me for half-an-hour between 05.45 - 06.15 weren't seen at all for the rest of the day.

In all, I recorded 50 species from the garden. The day revealed the comings and goings of the avian visitors and showed that obvious species such as Ruddy Shelduck could go missing for hours on end at a small site. If ever there was a clear demonstration that a quick site visit fails to reveal really what is present, this was it. Each scan revealed something different, something of note. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, another step on my birding rehabilitation.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Long time, no see

This afternoon I was scanning Maer Lake (from the road that runs along it's western side), when a car drew up and the driver asked the universal birder's question "Much about?" At this point we both did a double take. "Steve Gale?" said he. "Harvey Kendall?" came my reply. And so it was that after last seeing each other 35 years before, two birders met again.

In the summer of 1979 (as the years go by fast becoming my own anus mirablis), I was assistant warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory and Harvey and his son Ian were visitors from Cornwall, mainly to gather knowledge in the art of bird ringing. It was during August and, with the clarity that only youth seems to retain in a middle-aged mind, it was a tremendous period of migrant falls at Dungeness, a daily procession of hundreds of Willow Warblers, tens of Garden Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats, Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and the odd Wryneck and Icterine Warbler thrown in for good measure. We reminisced about the time, asked after our subsequent lives and swapped contact details. Harvey lives in Bude and is lucky enough to have all of this habitat as his patch. Ian has forged a career in nature and has worked for various national bodies (also managing to reach 500 species in the UK). It's funny how the past can take you unawares like this and send you, with a sudden jolt, back in time.

My garden list has been built upon: Wood Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper being the additional holiday highlights so far. Both seen from the kitchen sink. I don't mind the washing up when such delights are on offer. I was also able to watch a Dipper for ten minutes at a distance of only 5m this morning at Boscastle, the bird blissfully unaware of the tourist throng just feet away.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

North Cornwall and beyond

Standing at the kitchen window I can quite literally see 6 Green Sandpipers feeding at the waters edge. I'm most certainly not in Banstead - I'm in Bude, north Cornwall, the bungalow in which we are staying backing onto Maer Lake. This property is heaven on earth to a birder, as you get unrestricted views across the reserve. We've been here before and from the garden I have recorded Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Peregrine, Raven and Little Egret. The reserve list includes Citrine Wagtail, Semi-p Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope... I could go on. Needless to say, I'm keeping one eye on the lake and the other on a host of food and drink.

If you haven't done already, check out Dylan Wrathall's  latest offering over at 'Of Esox and observations' where he has re-sharpened  his claws and has gone for the pan-listing jugular. He does have some interesting points to make and I will be responding in a post soon. A lively (but friendly) debate may ensue!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Back to the drawing board

It's been a funny old year for me regarding my natural history studies. To be quite frank, I've lost the plot. Up until 15 years ago I was an avid reader of all things 'identification', be it for birds, moths or plants. I managed to attain a proficient level of identification ability and could generally hold my own with 90% of all field naturalists in these particular areas - but not any more. This year has seen me take several steps back in ability, with a number of sloppy calls made in the field and a certain loss of knowledge that I once so easily held in my increasingly befuddled brain.

Most of this is down to laziness. I still need to work hard to retain information and I just haven't spent the time with my nose in field guides and online sites. I've stopped trying to identify the micros that I trap (even though I really want to master them), have shied away from getting a firm grip on pugs (a family that I used to have good working knowledge of), grasses and sedges have been ignored and my birding - once an area that I could quite confidently claim to be good at - has become error strewn and sloppy.

I know that compared to what is going on in war zones around the world, Ebola virus outbreaks and third world poverty none of this matters one jot. On a very local level (i.e. my own little world), this is still a subject of irrelevance. However, as needy as we can all be, it is something that has troubled me. For some time I've suspected that there is one culprit (apart from me) behind this dip in ability and that is pan-species listing. Put bluntly, I've been fannying around trying to be able to have at least a working knowledge of too many (and also too difficult) groups. If the experts in the fields of mycology, lichenology and those of various gnats, flies and beetles have to use chemicals, microscopes and obscure German papers just to get the specimen to a family, then what chance a middle-aged bloke whose brain is seeping attained knowledge like a punctured tyre losing air?

My remedy is simple. Stop trying to be 'all things to all creatures' and concentrate on the big three: Birds, Plants and Moths. I don't have to give up looking at other things, just not spend time trying to remember chalk-downland mosses or the names of the commoner beetles. If a big bright thing comes my way then I might - if I feel like it - try to put a name to it.

My pan-species list? I will still maintain it, still add to it, but any thought of trying to climb up the table has been banished. After all, I will be visiting west country rock pools in the next few weeks and it would be a waste not to have a nose around and see what I can find - but I won't be obsessing about it.

So, time to get Skinner, Blamey, Svensson and the like off of the bookshelf, blow off the dust and start to relearn what I once used to know - and then add a bit more information for good measure.