Showing posts from October, 2014

The straws that broke this birder's back

This is the last of the Dungeness retrospectives, that's a promise! I haven't run out of subjects, but like all things, you reach a sell-by date. To end on a downer is not indicative of my times at Dungeness, but this particular episode saw a sea-change in how I approached the shingle kingdom. Dungeness Nov 1992 A Richard’s Pipit has been found on the RSPB reserve. It’s Saturday, so there are plenty of observers around searching for it. The bird is very flighty and settles in a large grassy field. The field is off limits. Sightings of the bird are few and when I appear I do not connect with it. Little is seen until the late afternoon when it appears briefly for a chosen few. The following morning I return to the field early and walk along the footpath on its eastern edge, very slowly, scanning the field intently. When I’m only ten yards from the field’s end I turn back, assuming the bird has gone. At this point another birder joins me, we briefly chat, and he continues w

Even the bad times were good

After all of the ornithological highs that I've bombarded you with regarding my time spent at Dungeness, time for a few lows... they did exist! Dungeness Jan-Dec 1986 This year has been something of a non-event at Dungeness both ornithologically and socially. I’ve put the time in but little has been on offer – hardly any rarities (with the exception of a Collared Pratincole in June), few falls and it’s hard to look back with any satisfaction over the last 12 months. It’s had its moments – a January day when a teeming mass of gulls on the patch included two Glaucous and an immaculate Iceland; two spring male Ortolan Buntings; confiding autumnal Red-backed Shrike and Wryneck; and a vocal flyover Snow Bunting that somehow captured my imagination and elevated its status beyond its true worth on a sedate November morning, but…there has been a sense of doing things by numbers this year. For example, visiting the pits in January with a role-call of wintering species to ‘tick-off’ t

Starlings that just can't be bothered...

Now and again I am told something that makes me sit up and pay attention. It happened last night when I caught a bit of Autumnwatch on the TV.  If I heard correctly, there is concern over the amount of antidepressant molecules getting into our water (via the agency of people prescribed Prozac having to void bladder and bowels). Studies have shown that this can (or is?) having a direct effect on the health of birds. A study on Starlings ( click here for a summary ) has shown that when they were fed on sewage farm-gathered earthworms, because of the levels of antidepressant in the worms, this led to a suppression of appetite and a lowering of sex-drive in the birds. This double whammy could be one of the causes of the slump seen in Starlings since the 1960s. If they are not eating enough during the cold winter nights they are doomed - and if those that survive cannot then be bothered to breed, the population will not be replenished!! My early birding memories (admittedly not going back

Full circle

Walton Downs - I've seen Peregrine, Golden Plover and Whinchat from this spot - what chance a shrike in 2015? I started my birding journey in 1974 by walking out of my front door and birding the local green spaces, and it looks as though things are going to come full circle. My plans for 2015 revolve around a concerted effort on my closest sites: Canons Farm; Banstead Woods, Downs and Heath; Park Down and Chipstead Bottom; Walton Downs and Heath; Epsom Downs; and the Ewell complex of Howell Hill, Priest Hill and the river and ponds at Bourne Hall. Although birding will take up a greater part of my time I will not ignore the plants and butterflies - this is a superb area for both. Then, of course, the garden MV will see its 29th consecutive season of operation - there are still moth surprises to be had. I know that the birding will be slow, with the odd burst of excitement, but that will do nicely. My aims and appreciation of such things are different now. Over the next few w

Surfs up

Dungeness April 1984 A walk out to the Brooks takes a concerted effort. In the first instance you need to drive several miles, via Lydd, and then along a series of pot-holed tracks. Once parked off-road on a steep grassy bank you then have a good mile walk along a raised earth track, 100yards from the sea and running parallel to it. This is wild country. Either side of you is a Ministry of Defence firing range, the army frequently raising red flags to warn you not to even think about wandering out here. The area is obviously uninhabited and seldom visited. The spent shell cases and concrete bunkers are reminders of the regular khaki war games. What makes this place worth the visit is the presence of several water bodies cut off from the sea by a thin shingle bank. They are known as the Brooks. Historical records show that they were once highly attractive to waders, together with the Midrips and Wicks that lie further west. This whole area was well watched after World War Two and h

A summer swarm and a salty banquet

Dungeness July 1983 I’ve seen this sort of thing happen at Dungeness before, but not in these numbers. I’m standing on top of the moat looking northwards over the trapping area at a mass of birds circling over the sallow bushes, some 100-200 feet high. Through binoculars we realise that the birds are actively feeding on flying insects and that the flock not only extends further towards the Long Pits than we thought but also considerably higher. The calm, muggy air has created a heat haze and also ensured that although these birds are several hundred yards away we can clearly hear them calling – the odd individual utterance in a mostly silent gathering. Time and space is condensed. There must be 3,000 Black-headed Gulls along with maybe 300 Common Gulls. There are also terns and hirundines to be picked out amongst this larid feeding frenzy. A menacing dark shape has joined them – an Arctic Skua. It benignly snaps for insects along with the gulls that it would so freely hassle over th

Rendered speechless by a Black Kite

Dungeness May 1983 Today I was literally rendered speechless. You hear about people claiming to have been left speechless but they really don’t mean it, it’s just a turn of phrase. But, as I’ve already said, it has actually happened to me. What caused this? A vision of God? Someone handing me a cheque made out in my name for the sum of a million pounds? No. It was a Black Kite. Admittedly rare, but hardly an apparition to equal an American warbler or colourful Mediterranean overshoot. I’d better explain.  A certain tense build up to me seeing the bird and the fact that I am in the grip of a particularly strong bout of ‘Dungeness Fever’ led to an outpouring of relief and wonder. After all, large raptors are powerful, stunning birds at the best of times. Black Kites are never twitched, they just pick a chosen few and fly by onto selected life lists. We’d arrived at the observatory mid-morning and stared into a grey, cool sky. A Hoopoe was knocking about but little else seemed to b


As birders, we all go through similar stages of development - from absolute beginner; to keen novice; a committed patch watcher; an ardent wanderer; and possibly manic world birder. This will take a good few years to come to pass, and in that time we will gather a number of skills - those of field identification, habitat knowledge, an understanding of how weather conditions will affect movements, effective fieldcraft, where and when to look to maximise the birding potential. Whether you can tell a Booted from a Syke's Warbler, or are just happy with counting Coots on a local lake, we are all from the same extended family - that of the ornithologist, or birder if you prefer. But once we have reached the rarified air of the 'experienced birder', what then? What to do with these life skills so hard won? It would be a shame to sit on them and not share some of the magic with others, who are still on that long journey from absolute beginner... There is joy to be had from

Thrush Rush

Dungeness October 1982 I return to the coastguard lookout and shelter from the howling SW wind by leaning against the east facing wall. Huddling up to the brickwork I have a fairly good view over the turbulent sea, although the braking waves are hidden from my view by the shingle bank. Because of the reluctance of the wind to drop below force 6 or out of the westerly quadrant land-bird observation has been difficult and not an option that I have taken up these past few days. As some form of compensation I’ve been drawn to the sea. Not a great deal of bird movement is apparent but enough to keep my interest. But, even if the birds are absent, the seascapes are not. I find that after the initial discipline of counting the few species on view, my mind reaches a state of calm and I lose myself in the cold greys and greens of the spume-laden sea. Rollers rush in to collide with the shingle beach and although that moment of collision is hidden from me I can hear its climax and see the s

The monastic life of a sea watcher

Dungeness May 1982 I always feel that you have a good chance of finding something special at the Airport Pits. It takes some effort to get to them. You have to park at Boulderwall, take the footpath heading due north for a good mile before then veering off westwards over the shingle towards Lydd Airport. The pit(s) are small, the water shallow and whenever I visit them (which isn’t very often) there are always plenty of exposed feeding areas for birds. The pits are prone to drying out in prolonged dry spells. Today is the classic type of day that I pick to venture out to check them - a quiet day at the observatory, clement weather so as not to risk a soaking on the exposed trudge and bags of enthusiasm and optimism. The walk out is a pleasure, full of anticipation and because of the irregularity of the visits it is somewhat a novelty. My imagination had initially been fired on the tale of when a Spotted Crake was caught in a walk-in trap placed on the Airport pits shoreline. This vi

Figure of Eight

This is a species that I don't get to see very often - Figure of Eight - this being only the second record from the garden in 27 years. It appears to be one of those species that is on the decrease, so catch one while you can!

Smaller still

I first became aware of the Raynox DCR-250 a couple of years ago, via Leicester City's very own mascot, Mark Skevington - you can read his initial thoughts here . It is basically a magnifying lens that is clipped onto an existing DSLR or bridge camera lens. Skev's results with this combination are, I think, spectacular. Because many inverts are so small, and, when you look at them close-up, beautiful, I've longed after the means of obtaining some worthy images. This week I took the plunge and purchased one - and at around £40 it is not silly money. Time was a bit tight this morning, but I wanted to try it out. I clipped it onto the end of my 60mm Canon macro lens (itself attached to my now old Canon 400D). Everything was set up for autofocus, so I knew that the depth of field would be shallow. The result was very pleasing. This is, I think, Pinalitus cervinus (and if you know better, please let me know). It is tiny and to my failing middle-aged eyes lacked any colou

Do I really need a book about seaweed?

I cannot walk into a bookshop without heading straight to the 'natural history' department. This normally results in disappointment as the bookseller invariably stocks his/her shelves with a mixture of the banal  - 100 Penguins to see before you die - the twee - Lady Cattermole's Edwardian Ladies Country Diary - or the plain useless. Where have all the field guides gone? What about a few proper monographs? Atlas's? ANYTHING... I happened to be in Torquay at the weekend and there is some sort of sea safari park along the promenade. You can access the shop attached to it without needing to pay to look at penguins, so, under the vain hope that THERE WOULD BE BOOKS, I went in. And there were! I ended up buying the rather splendid Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland , a photographic guide that claims to be able to help you confidently identify over 200 species of them. As with most things, there are plenty that do need a microscope to clinch an identification, and I'

A Woodchat and some geese

Dungeness June 1981 Dorrian Buffery is away for a week and I’m acting warden. It’s like being back in the summer of 1979 again as I survey my shingle kingdom before me. I might not own it but as far as the birding goes I’m in charge. Sean Clancy remains as assistant warden and together we have a laid-back and enjoyable time. Each morning we swap mist-nets for moth traps, lunchtime field work is replaced by quaffing of beer, but we still see plenty of interest: a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sitting off-shore behind the patch, a Hobby arriving in off the sea, a Melodious Warbler that we find and then trap in the station gorse. But the highlight is a Woodchat Shrike which graces the bushes of the Oppen Pits on my final Sunday morning. I arrive at the RSPB reserve to be taken to one side by the RSPB warden Peter Makepeace. He tells me of the shrike’s arrival and kindly gives me permission to go and look for it. There is a catch – he doesn’t want anyone else out there. I am soon