Sunday, 30 November 2014

Close up with a December Moth

I have been fiddling around with my two new photographic toys, namely the Raynox Super Macro Conversion Lens and the Nikon P600 Bridge camera. For a dull day and just a few minutes worth of effort, the results were encouraging...

One of two December Moths that came to the MV. I wanted to capture the structure of the antenna and was satisfied with the result. This lens will come into its own with micro moths next year.

Even though there was mist and drizzle in the air, the zoom on the P600 performed well enough. The optical zoom will go up to x60, this shot using just x30 of that power. You can add a further boost via the digital zoom capabilities, although I doubt that the results would be really worth it, certainly not hand held and in poor light.

Pity it wasn't a Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup or Canvasback, but Surrey ponds don't normally do Nearctic ducks, although it has been known.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Number 1

My Top 10 UK natural history moments
Number 1 - 7 August 1979 - Little Gull at the Oppen Pits

Warning! The following post might be considered pretentious and the work of a limp-wristed, arty-farty tree hugger. However, in its (and my) defence, I can only offer the explanation that what I experienced on this day - no, this moment - had never happened to me before and has not happened since. I've longed after replicating it but you cannot place an order and have such moments delivered to you. What elevated this 'ordinary' experience into an extraordinary one is a mystery. Maybe it's best left that way.

The summer of 1979 was already a special time in my life. I had been acting as Dungeness Bird Observatory's assistant warden since mid-June and was having a ball. Days of birding, ringing, the freedom to roam over the shingle and keeping company with like-minded souls was something that was utterly restful, even if I were up at 04.30hrs each morning and rarely in bed before midnight.

I did in fact allude to this 'moment' several posts ago. This is what I wrote at the time:

Calm, sunny, warm and I don’t have a care in the world. I have been over to the Oppen Pits and am meandering back over the shingle towards the bird observatory, very much content and lost in aimless thought. You really are on your own out here, private land with no public access. I look into the sky and in my vision hangs an adult Little Gull that is slowly drifting by only feet above me. The thick warm air is silent. I don’t know why but for those few seconds everything in my world is perfect and at peace and during this special interlude I am not only totally aware of it but fully appreciative too. A birding aquaintence, Bob Smith, has confessed that he is always searching for those rare moments in the field when it doesn’t matter where he is and what he is watching, what is more important is feeling as if he has blended into his surroundings to the point that he is at one with nature. With this Little Gull I understand what he means.

35 years later I can still see that Little Gull with an unnatural clarity. I can still bathe in the moment and feel the emotions that I felt at the time. For that short period of time all of my universe had been distilled down to me, a Little Gull, the warm air and the shingle. Nothing else existed or mattered. We were in a comforting bubble that did not allow in sound nor thought (sorry, told you it was pretentious, didn't I). I cannot explain why it happened and hasn't been repeated since. There have been times when I have felt equally mellow and I have certainly seen more striking birds. As I suggested earlier, maybe I don't need to know why - it just was...

So, my top 10 were made up of events from 1974, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1984, 1989, 2006, 2008 and 2009. They were moments that involved birds (7), plants (1), butterflies (1) and dragonflies (1). Only one of these events was driven by pure rarity.

I now have to start posting about current events - my recent mania for notebook mining will come to an end. Trouble is, that means I need to get back out in the field. Let's hope there are another 10 such moments to come...

Friday, 28 November 2014

Number 2 - the very first Jay

Number 2 - June 1974 - a Jay on a lawn

The prologue - in a fourth form art lesson, our teacher, Mr Jeffries, suggested that we paint a picture on the theme of 'Conflict' - cue many 14-15 year-old lads producing works depicting blood, violence and death. But for one of them it was a chance to paint something of his favourite subject, that of natural history. I stood behind Mark Greenway as he placed the finishing touches of poster paint to the cartridge paper. His work depicted a cat on a garden lawn, paw swiping the air just missing a fleeing bird. The bird in flight was exotic and highly colourful. I assumed that it was a parrot and asked him what such a bird was doing in such a domestic setting. "It's no parrot", came his reply, "it's called a Jay". He then explained to me that Jays were quite common birds and it was more than likely that I'd see one in my garden. I was no birdwatcher, but scoffed at such a claim - after all, even I would have noticed such a striking bird as this.

The main event - maybe a fortnight later I was loafing around at home, no doubt thinking about the next game of football or cricket (or both!) to take place over in the park when I happened to glance out of the window.

And there it was....

On the lawn, hopping about, was the bird from the painting that Mark had created. Several things struck me at once - firstly, I knew what it was (no duck or gull or chicken-type vagueness, but an actual bird that I could put a name to with certainty); secondly, it was bloody beautiful; thirdly, that it was bigger than I thought one would be in the unlikely event that I ever saw one; and fourthly, WHAT ELSE WAS OUT THERE?

The following day I went into WH Smith and purchased a series of mini bird guides to various habitats to be found in the UK, borrowed my Dad's very cheap binoculars (I don't know why he owned a pair, maybe we had a buxom neighbour who undressed  at night without pulling the curtains) and went out and started birdwatching. Just like that. And I have done so ever since.

In my life there has not been a more important bird. It got me started with a fire in my belly and a sense of wonder at what could be seen with a little time and effort. That Jay, hopping about on a Sutton lawn over forty years ago, put in motion events that have seen me travel all over the UK, Europe, Israel and Malaysia with the sole aim of seeing birds. And it is fair to say that it lead to adventures in the company of moths, butterflies, dragonflies and plants. To me, all of the subsequent Jays that I have seen are that very same bird. Thanks Jay!

I wonder what would have happened if Mr Jeffries had decided that the subject for that mornings painting was to be a self-portrait? Or if Mark had decided to join the rest of us and paint a picture full of fists and blood? On such chance does one life evolve.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Number 3 - Paradise

Number 3 - 22 June 2009 - Torcross to Prawle and back

And now we reach the top three. If you are expecting there to be rarity, enormous falls or jammy finds, I am about to disappoint you. The top three are (mainly) of the ordinary - at least on the surface they might appear to be ordinary. But to me, all three are most certainly nothing but extraordinary...

I almost went to Soar Mill Cove to look for Shore Dock, and a more dull species of plant is hard to imagine. But I just couldn't find the enthusiasm in me to get in the car and drive there. Instead, I got out the OS map, opened it out on the table at the B&B I was staying at, and planned a long walk. After all, the weather forecast was for a sunny, warm and calm day and the scenery around Slapton and Torcross was more than agreeable. After a 'Full English' (hats off to the Plodding Birder) I left the pretty cottage garden of the guest house and strode southwards along the coastal path out of Torcross.

I will now post a series of photographs taken during this walk. They will say more than I can about the stunning beauty of this part of Devon, although the captions will add a bit of commentary. I'll meet you at the other side of them...

After a climb out of Torcross you come across this view - the village and ley of Beesands. Who wouldn't want this as their local patch? Imagine what turns up on this water and in the surrounding fields and hedgerows! I want to live here!! And there's a pub as well!!! 

Start Point, taken after I had walked down to the lighthouse on the eastern side and come back along the western flank. There were seals hauled out on the rocks below.

After Start the footpath runs above a series of sandy beached bays. There is nobody on them and it's June! People pay thousands to go and lie on a Greek beach and we've got this on our doorstep... but, don't come here, stay away, 'cause it's way more special without us idiot human beings spoiling the view.

Prawle - the commonest bird here was - no kidding - Cirl Bunting

To sum up, I walked from Torcross, to Beesands, past the abandoned village of Hallsands, via Start Point and then took the footpath above the sandy bays all the way to Prawle. Then I turned around and retraced my steps. It was one of those days when it was not only good to be alive, but I felt as if I were at the peak of mental and physical wellbeing. I most probably walked 20 miles but at the end of it felt as if I had just done 20 metres. I floated along. I was in a ridiculous good mood. I met just six people on the footpath ALL DAY... 

As the day continued in its benevolent fashion I knew that is was going to be one of those rare special days, the contents of which would be cherished and remembered for the rest of my life. Certain moments stand out above others: seeing the ley at Beesands for the first time; being able to clearly hear a conversation from a fishing boat even though it was half a mile offshore; watching a group of seals hauled out on the rocks; being surrounded by singing Cirl Buntings and watching a pair carrying food to a nest. But this day was not about observations per se. It was a day in which I was privileged to be able-bodied, to have the gift of sight and sound, and also the humility to realise that to be able to experience all of this is not to be taken for granted. I'm not a religious man, but on such a day I could have been forgiven for becoming one.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Number 4 - House Martin exodus

Number 4 - 23rd September 1989 - House Martins at Dungeness

It had already been a good weekend, with a Honey-buzzard, two Marsh Harriers, a Sparrowhawk and 10 Kestrels coasting down the peninsula and heading out to sea, plus a Red-necked Phalarope giving corking views on Hooker's Pit. Sunday morning dawned overcast with a light WSW wind that then backed WNW. It was not until 08.00hrs that a few House Martins decided to appear, with up to 300 gathering on the wires by The Britannia public house. After the raptor movement of the day before I had decided to position myself on top of the moat, a raised circular bank close to the observatory. And then, some unseen hand flicked the migration switch to on, and it started...

At first there were but few House Martins making their way past me, in a leisurely style, low and to the S/SW. But as each minute passed, the numbers built. It was still manageable to keep a count, although the trickle of hirundines had become a steady flow. It then became a flood. It was as if a dam had burst and the resulting deluge fell upon the air across Dungeness. I didn't know where to look as I was surrounded by flying feathered bullets, zipping past with urgent purpose, nature propelling them onwards and southwards. In my elevated position I had birds to the left, right, above and below me, some almost clipping my head. I couldn't possibly count them, but count them I must. I could look across the open vista, maybe to a distance of 800m and be sure that the stream was on a wide front. I looked up into the sky and could be happy that the birds were pouring through at height as well as low across the shingle. I conducted frequent counts over a minute throughout the next two hours and knew that they were moving through at a minimum of 500 per minute. This did not let up. That's 30,000 an hour. I couldn't possibly have seen them all. By 13.00hrs it was all but over, just a dribble left, latecomers whose migration impetus was not as urgent or whose journey had begun much further inland. My considered (and underestimated) total for the morning was of 90,000. It was a spectacle that I have yet to equal. There were other birds caught up in the movement: Short-eared Owl (1), Turtle Dove (1), Swallow (5,000), Sand Martin (100), Meadow Pipit (300) and Reed Bunting (20). But it was 90,000 white rumps, speeding towards Africa, that stole the show.

Number 5 - W**********

Number 5 - 9 April 1977 - W********** at Hastings

I've gone on about this at some length before, so if you don't want a second (or third) helping then you'll have to wait until Number 4 is revealed. But if you do, or don't know what w********** stands for, then please click here.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Number 6 - butterfly confetti

Number 6 - 6 August 2006 - Butterflies at Braunton Burrowes

This was the day when I had to literally wade through butterflies. I have never seen so many in such a small area. Braunton Burrowes is, in fact, a huge sand dune system on the north Devon coast, being some 6 x 1.5km in area. I had parked in the Broadsands car park at the southern end and started to slowly wander northwards along a line of vegetation that disappeared into the dunes. It was soon obvious that something special was on offer, as I was disturbing hundreds of butterflies with every few metres that I walked. And this didn't let up for several hundred metres. The air was filled with butterflies, like confetti at a wedding, like a ticker-tape parade along an American city street, like a bizarre multi-coloured blizzard that had gatecrashed a summer's day. There were times that I stopped still, looked around me, and gawped in absolute wonder. I wandered but 600m from the car park. 600m into a reserve that continued for 6km. Wherever I looked there were more butterflies - what if these numbers were replicated across the reserve? It was hard to put a number on what I had seen, but I tried: 4,500 Common Blues, 1,500 Gatekeepers and 250 Meadow Browns were the most numerous species, but there could have been twice that many in reality. A mass emergence across a chalk downland can reach four figures without difficulty, but not along a ribbon of vegetation measuring 3m x 600m. Was this what it used to be like before we poisoned our countryside? Did the Victorian lepidopterists enjoy such bountiful days as these as the norm? Time was pressing, the afternoon was melting away and even if I had wanted to I couldn't have covered the whole reserve in an attempt to estimate the true number - time just to cover a random 3m x 600m strip...

The plants were very special too. I managed to hunt down a number of national rarities, with Sand Toadflax, Round-headed Club-rush, Water Germander and Sea Stock being the highlights. On any other day these would have taken top billing, but not today.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Number 7: There be dragons!

Number 7 - 4th and 5th August 1995 - Dragonfly invasion at Dungeness

Another 'event' rather than a moment.

In the first days of August 1995 an unprecedented invasion of darter dragonflies took place along the east coast of England, and included in that was Dungeness. This was all too much to resist, so, along with Derek Coleman, I travelled down to try and experience this historical event.

We arrived on the evening of Friday 4th August and immediately searched the gardens around the observatory. This revealed at least 4 Yellow-winged Darters and a walk around the station gorse found another four. For a species that hadn't been recorded annually in the UK, this was mind boggling. But this was just the start.

Saturday 5th August saw that more than a few birders had turned into odonata enthusiasts. Throughout the day, dragonflies were arriving from the point and landing on the gorse and broom between the observatory and the old lighthouse. Most remained still, allowing excellent views and firm identification. Most of them were darters - Common, 5 Ruddy, a handful of Black (a new species for Dungeness) plus an unprecedented 80+ Yellow-winged. But better was to come, as Dave Walker found a female Vagrant Darter, the first in the UK for many years and one that we all were able to see, as it had been netted.

At about the same time as this rarity was causing Dave's adrenalin levels to surge, up at Greatstone, Ray Turley was going through a similar experience, as a pristine Camberwell Beauty was on his back garden buddleia. With deftness of mind and hand, it was soon in a net and then on show in a large glass jar, feeding on sprigs of buddleia. This ensured a constant supply of visitors to Ray and Janet's bungalow.

As the afternoon wore on the dragonfly numbers dwindled. We assumed that they were heading inland. To end the day we placed two MV traps in the southern bushes of the trapping area. It was not yet dark before the night's star moth arrived - a Tawny Wave, which chose to alight on Derek's back and caused a flurry of panicked mothers to pot it up while imploring Derek to keep still.

And what about the birds? Oh, I forgot to mention that throughout all of this, a long-staying first-summer Laughing Gull was to be found loafing along the beach... some weekend!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Number 8 - Oriole cathedral

Number 8 - 26 May 1978 - Golden Orioles at Lakenheath

Before Lakenheath was a flagship RSPB wetland reserve, it was virtually bird-less farmland. But it was still a much revered birding site, due to the presence of a poplar plantation, owned by the matchstick manufacturer Bryant and May. Confused? Then read on...

This particular poplar plantation had been adopted by a colony of Golden Orioles, which for us 1970s birders was a welcome splash of Mediterranean sunshine. To reach this fabled woodland you needed to be able to map-read your way along twisting country lanes, and drive along a farmland track until reaching a railway line. Here your journey ended. And it was here that I stood in the breaking dawn having slept in the car overnight. We were not alone - maybe three other cars were also parked up, each having just ejected a gaggle of birders, stretching and yawning into the promise of the day ahead.

Even though it was 05.30hrs it was already warm. And there was already a loud, rich, flutey sound coming to us from the plantation - the unmistakable song of a Golden Oriole. In silence we all trooped across the railway line (via a crossing) and stood at the edge of the trees. We couldn't see the bird, but it carried on singing. Ahead of us was a theatrical set forged by a combination of mother nature and big business, as the spaced out poplar trees, in their rigid rows, were shrouded in ribbons of mist, in turn lit by beams of early sunlight, sparkling in a million places from the dew drizzled vegetation. With another Oriole stating to sing, along with a couple of drowsily calling Cuckoos, the term 'dreamlike' had never been more appropriate. We were birding in nature's cathedral, and as such crept around with humble reverence. It took half an hour before a male gave itself up, the buttercup yellow and black form in the tree tops, flitting around in the ethereal light. Over the next two hours we watched up to seven birds (four of them males). We witnessed much chasing and copulation, one particular male mating with two females, one after the other. The best views were of a male that chased a Cuckoo through the trees, both birds flying above our heads. As the morning wore on and the sun got a firmer hold of the day, the activity reduced. The echoing quality of the song in the poplars diminished and some of the magic evaporated. The predominant sound was now taken over by singing Willow Warblers and Whitethroats, with the odd Oriole song coming from deeper in the wood. I left the scene feeling as if I had been blessed.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Number 9 - Brambling blizzard

Broadfield - without finches on this occasion...

No.9 January 2008 Finch flock at Canons Farm, Surrey

This is not so much a single day, let alone a single moment, more of a rolling event. It all began on January 1st, when I located a large flock of finches at Canons Farm, feeding in a very large field known locally as Broadfield. There were at least 1,000 present, and my initial scan through them with binoculars revealed the odd Brambling in amongst Chaffinches. However, once the scope was put to work it became obvious that at least a quarter of the finches were in fact Brambling - a 750/250 split!

I returned on January 5th. Word of the finch flock had got around, as at least a dozen other birders were also present, unheard of back in these 'early' days at the farm. Throughout the day the finch flock remained faithful to the field, waxing and waning in number, numbers breaking off to forage elsewhere, then returning to swell those that had remained site faithful. At times all took to the air, swirling and twisting over the earth, pitching down only to take flight abruptly. Together we estimated the flock breakdown as Chaffinch (1,650), Brambling (550) and Linnet (200), an overall flock size of 2,400. By 13.00hrs the numbers peaked, but then soon started to dwindle, leaving 700-800 until the light started to fade.

When I visited on January 19th numbers had fallen to 1,400, although Brambling numbers had increased to 800. The following day (20th) Brambling peaked at 1,200, with Chaffinches numbering 800. I spent most of the afternoon transfixed at this seething mass of birds, white-rumps and nasal calls all around me. I knew it was something that I might not see on such a scale again, certainly not locally.  By January 24th the flock was still at a healthy number - 2,000 - although the breakdown had shifted once more, with Chaffinches outnumbering Brambling in a 1,600/400 split. From this point onwards the flock broke up and such counts were not repeated. It was interesting to observe how the flock size had kept relatively stable over the three weeks, yet the composition had not. Taking the peak counts of the three finch species present, a minimum of 3,000 had been recorded, but this was very much a minimum. Was there a turnover of birds, or were the same birds returning each day?

What had attracted them? The farmer had not taken in the flax crop that autumn and it had been flattened by November winds. The flax had then been rolled by machinery, exposing the seed on the soil surface. It was an open avian feast...

This event was not just memorable as pure spectacle, but also a reminder that such things can occur close to home in areas that might not be considered as worthy of spending your birding time. It certainly opened some local eyes to the potential of Canons Farm, something that has been ongoing ever since. We are still awaiting a return to such large finch numbers.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Number 10 - botanical highs!

No.10 13 July 2008 Botanical highs on Ben Lawers

Ben Lawers had attained a mythical status with me due to 'Tales of Botanical Wonders', told by Barry Banson. I needed to go...

From my guest-house bedroom window, the hilltops were obscured by cloud, but there it had been dry and mild, so it was with some surprise that when I got out of the car at the Ben Lawers Visitor Centre it was not only windy (force 6) but also cold enough to need gloves and a woolly hat.  I didn't pause much during the first hour of the ascent, the habitat above the nature trail being a monotonous swathe of Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bell Heather, Tormentil, Heath Bedstraw and Bilberry with various grasses in-between. However, a series of path-side ditches held appreciable numbers of Starry Saxifrage together with Common Butterwort, Lousewort and Hare's-tail Cottongrass along with Mat-grass (the food plant of Mountain Ringlet).

My first new 'alpine' of the day occurred at a fairly low elevation - Alpine Mouse-ear. From here, this species was common all the way to the summit. As elevation was gained some of the species that were common lower down started to disappear, such Wild Thyme, Tormentil and Heath Bedstraw. Wherever a dribble of water could be found so to was Starry Saxifrage, along with a lesser amount of Mossy Saxifrage. Instead of carrying on the path that summits Beinn Ghlass I contoured around it on its western flank. Just before joining a narrow path (that navigates its way through a collection of low rock faces), there is a small pool. In this general area two species became quite common - Cyphel and Moss Campion. Both were flowering freely and were easy to find all the way up to the 'hanging gardens' underneath Ben Lawers summit.

Cyphel (left) and Alpine Mouse-ear (right)

As I skirted these rock faces I finally entered the cloud. At once I became soaked by a fine mist. It was like botansing in a bathroom shower underneath a blanket of cotton-wool. I deferred searching this area until later, although a Fir Clubmoss stopped me briefly. After a further uphill climb at last I came to an area of level ground. To the left of me was the path to the summit of Lawers. To the right, the summit of Ghlass. But, taking a deep breath, I walked straight ahead into the fabled area of the 'hanging gardens' on the cliffs underneath the summit of Ben Lawers...

What should have been a dramatic first view of the delights ahead were lost in the swirling mists and hampered further by a screaming force seven wind. I had been sheltered somewhat from the elements by Ben Ghlass's shoulder, but now the weather could get at me unimpeded. What part of me that had remained dry now became very wet indeed as the drizzle had become rain. Every so often the fog-like cloud parted for a few seconds to reveal the way ahead. A boulder strewn grassy rise led up to the cliff base but it was not until I was close to this wall of rock that I could appreciate the size of it towering above me. The maelstrom gave the mountainside a forbidding persona, a roaring shriek seemingly emanating from the vertiginous weeping rock. I found the 'botanists path' that hugs the very base of the cliff and held on to the vegetation hanging over the lower shelfs. Slippery under foot,  with the wind grabbing at me, I was aware of the steep decent below and was reminded of this every now and again as the swirling cloud broke up to reveal my fate should I fall.

Close up, the flora of the cliffs was amazing. My first scan in front, and above me revealed Alpine Forget-me-not, Roseroot and several plants of Alpine Fleabane which got me most excited. I edged along the path, having to keep bracing myself against the wind. Hoary Whitlowgrass was scattered about, Mountain Whitlowgrass not so common and Green Spleenwort tucked into the odd fissure. As I went to grab onto a ledge to negotiate a tricky section of the path I looked down and there, inches from my nose, was a perfectly formed Rock Speedwell, two flowers facing me like precious gems growing out of the mountain. Of all the special plants on Lawers, this was the one that I most desired. Retreating to the boulder fields below I hunted between them in relative shelter. There was plenty more Alpine Forget-me-not, Holly Fern and Brittle Bladder-fern. The mountain sub-species of Thyme-leaved Speedwell was common, but I couldn't find any Alpine Speedwell at all.

Alpine Fleabane (left) and Rock Speedwell (right)

Although the weather suggested otherwise, I decided to go all the way to the top, at 3,984 feet Scotland's tenth highest peak. By now the cloud was heavier, but the drizzle somewhat lighter. My elation with the success at the cliff carried me up to the munro marker, where in force seven winds I stood with several 'munro baggers' looking out and imagining what the view would be like if it wasn't for the cloud. But I had places to go and had to move on. I wandered 200m beyond the summit and, with precise directions, found a boulder strewn ravine in which several old shielings lay in ruin. Behind one such wall, in short turf, were several plants of Dwarf Cudweed. Carrying on into the ravine, with visibility down to no more than 30m, I struggled to make out the landmarks that I knew would lead me to Drooping Saxifrage. Perseverance paid off as I found several rosettes along with Alpine Saxifrage and Rock Whitlowgrass.

After a couple of hours in this world of half-light and botanical riches, I started to descend, finding other targets on the way, such as Three-flowered Rush, Stiff Sedge, Russet Sedge, Alpine Meadow-rue and a single Alpine Sawwort. I had failed to find one plant that I really hankered after, one that would only open its flowers in sunshine, and that was Alpine Gentian. I would need to come back on another day to see that...

...and I did!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Shedding another skin

Over the years I've shed an ornithological skin on more than one occasion. From novice to keen lister: from twitcher to keen patcher; from confused birder to content wanderer; and now I can feel my current skin peeling away to reveal... what?

All of my recent 'looking back' postings feels a bit like tidying up the past in readiness for something new - the next chapter in life's birding adventure, I suppose. I've not been so excited about a new project for an age, and this is but a modest one, based on my very local patches. Maybe this is what has captivated me so much, the simplicity of putting 40 years of experience into a largely non-birding arena. What is out there? What will I find? What will I miss?

To ensure that I don't get to disheartened during the inevitable dry periods, my eyes will be taking in the plants, butterflies and moths for which the area is justly renowned. But it is the birds that will take up most of my efforts. 

What price a Turtle Dove….?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Brief encounters

Instead of giving you a verbose account of each of the four unlucky moments that didn't quite make the Top 10, I'm cutting a wordy corner and am dishing up this particular course on a paper plate with plastic knives and forks - rest assured, the Top 10 will be served on best china with accompanying posh cutlery!

Maiden Pink
October 22 1982 Dungeness Thrush Rush
I've only just written about this so, if you missed it or want your memory jogged, click here.

July 1 2007 Breckland Plants
A whistle-stop tour of some of the finest sites on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, all of them that held some very special plants indeed, in the company of three knowledgable and agreeable companions - Peter Follett, Stephen Clarke and Barry Phillips. We virtually cleaned up, with my highlights being Proliferous Pink, Maiden Pink and Spiked Speedwell. To cap it all, a Marbled Clover (moth) joined in with the fun!

July 4 2012 Dungeness Oppen pits revisited
Thirty years after my last visit to the only natural water body on the shingle, I returned. I chose a glorious day to venture down memory lane, this time armed with an appreciation of the botanical gems that the pits harbour. Alone and at peace, I wandered around the two main pits and drank in the secluded grandeur before me. I found a blanket of moss and lichen to lie upon, looked up into the blue sky and thanked whoever might be listening for providing such natural wonder. There is something magical about this tucked-away and little known part of Dungeness.

March 17 2013 Juniper Bottom Hawfinches
In the past I've posted at length about this event, so if you want to investigate further please click here, here and here.

Hidden Dungeness - the magical world that is The Oppen Pits

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Top 10 moments - those that didn't make it

The adjudication is over - my Top 10 moments in the company of natural history has been decided. I identified 15 possible candidates for this list and thought it only fair to share with you the five that didn't quite make it. The first of them is:

March 17 1984 Stodmarsh Penduline Tit
There was a bit of previous to this. Back in 1984, Penduline Tit was still a mystical bird. There had been but four previous records and all had been day jobs seen by a select few. None of the 'big boys' had connected with one. When a male turned up at Stodmarsh, interest was rampant. I travelled to the said reed bed twice with Steve Broyd, who was then still an avid UK twitcher - we dipped on both occasions. But the bird kept on reappearing, mocking the mass dipping that was being suffered by the birding elite. Then, one Friday afternoon, it showed well. Cue Saturday at dawn... the car park at Stodmarsh was rammed, hardly a place left to park. As the light bled into the darkness each car ejected its cargo - a yawning, stretching mass of humanity, from as far afield as Scotland. As if in a trance we all walked slowly along the Lampen Wall - no talking, all of us sedated by the promise of seeing one of the most wanted birds on the British list. I looked along the footpath ahead of me at the several hundred birders taking up position and could not quite take in the scene before me. It was as if a monastery of Trappist Monks had been released to sanctify the raised footpath through the reedy wastes, such was the solemnity of the proceedings. I had not witnessed such a mannered gathering of birders before, all in such a beatific and sedate state. On arrival at the target area, all stood still, as if in a church awaiting the arrival of the Lord. This religious analogy was not misplaced. There was an air of expectation at the same time as a realisation that things might still go 'tits-up' as it had done for many of us over the previous few days. Then, after a wait of no more than fifteen minutes, a ripple of activity from those positioned some ten metres further along the footpath - murmurs - no, not murmurs - shouts of joy came forth. The target had played ball, as a cracking male Penduline Tit was ripping the hell out of a bulrush head. The crowd behaved impeccably and the bird seemed unawares of the appreciative audience admiring it. For half-an-hour it performed, moving from head to head until it was lost in the depths of the reed bed. The gathered masses gave thanks to the birding God's such was the release of relief - after all, some of us had already spent days looking for this magical waif! It wasn't the only species on offer as I could also mention the Hen Harrier, the Great Grey Shrike and the Bewick's Swans that tried to vie for our attention at the same time, but that would be over-egging the pudding, wouldn't it? After a couple of magical hours I refaced my steps to the car park. It wasn't the bird so much as the collective emotion of those gathered that imprinted on me. Never had a twitch felt so together.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Desert Island moments

If you had to compile a Desert Island Discs-like DVD of your most cherished moments in the company of natural history, what would they be? You would no doubt think of some of the rarities that you have seen; consider those bigs falls or spectacular sea watches that you have been lucky enough to witness; possibly include one or two long-held ambitions that were met. But then again, these moments might involve the mundane and commonplace that for whatever reason became the inspirational.

After my recent trawl through many years worth of field notes I am putting together my top ten (so that's ten posts worth of material taken care of!). Watch this space… and if you are left underwhelmed by this promise then there is a list of much worthier blogs on the right for you to peruse.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Where I rant about football

The latest addition to my 'Worthy Blog List' comes courtesy of The Hairy Birder, who birds and rings in the Fleetwood and Fylde area - it's good to get a bit of NW England influence, to counter the plethora of blogs that I have gathered from the North East.

And now for one of my occasional 'off-piste' posts that have nothing to to with birding, naff all to do with looking at twigs or even glancing at mothy things. It is also a rant. This is about Football...

I am a lifelong football fan, brought up by my Father to appreciate the 'Beautiful Game', although his supporting of Stoke City did not rub off on me and I chose to follow Tottenham Hotspur - and before anyone should suggest that I should have supported a more local team, back in 1968 (when I nailed my allegiance to the mighty Spurs), we lived in Hertfordshire and they were the first team that I saw live (versus Stoke, November 2nd, 1-1 draw if you're interested).

When we moved south in 1971 I still wanted the buzz of seeing live football, and Crystal Palace FC was but a bus journey away. Between September 1971 (Liverpool 0-1 loss) and April 1974 (Chelsea 2-0 win) I attended almost all of their home games. I was a football fan, the fact that Tottenham were not playing in most of them didn't matter. On my modest pocket money I could:

Pay to get in and stand behind the goal

Buy a programme

Pay for the bus fare to and from the ground

Buy a bag of chips

Remember, Palace were a First Division club then (confusingly what the Premiership is today). Try doing that little lot on a kids pocket money today.

Along came birding, but I still followed football, watched it avidly on the TV, took in the odd game (including some birding/football combinations, such as Swansea v Watford when I went and dipped on the Pwll Killdeer, and West Ham v Watford (FA Cup third round) on a return visit to see the Lowestoft Franklin's Gull.

Back then, at the start of every season, we had no idea who would be the First Division champions  - there was Leeds United, Derby County, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Ipswich Town and, yes, Tottenham all vying for the title (Manchester United were in the doldrums at the time). And sometimes a team would come from nowhere and take the prize - Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa both did just that. So, as you can see, there were surprises to be had at pocket money prices. Kick off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. Same 11 on the pitch unless someone had an injury. And the FA Cup was the biggest event of the season. My God how times change...

2014 The facts

Only one team will win the Premier league title this season and it's only November.

If Southampton have another good season then the big clubs will gang up and plunder them just like they did last season.

Any half decent player at a smaller club will be lassoed by a bigger club and dragged into their vast squad to spend the season sitting on the bench.

Even if they do not need another midfield player, the big clubs will buy one (or two, or three) just to stop anybody else from having them.

The England team is currently made up of players who would not have been good enough to have had a sniff of international football 15 years ago.

Sky and BT television coverage will make out that the 0-0 bore draw that you have just watched meant something and paper over the fact that there are players on £80,000 a week who cannot kick a ball with both feet.

Nobody, apart from teams like Blyth Spartans, Aylesbury and Sutton United, give a shit about the FA Cup.

I am getting to the point where I am falling out of love with the 'high end' of football. It is big business dressed up in tinsel, pretending to be the same game that has been watched for 130 plus years. It is not. It is now just the playground of rich men, who charge extortionate prices for the privilege of watching a team of mercenaries 'kiss the badge' until they find another, more lucrative badge to kiss. Stadiums have largely lost their atmosphere.

I subscribe to Sky and BT Sport. Both are bloated by football, from five-six Premier League games each weekend, same numbers of La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga matches. Watch each one and see the same old thing - histrionics, play acting, wrestling at corners - the players going through the same tired old game plans, daring not to deviate for fear of the wrath of the coach. In todays game there would be no room for a Glenn Hoddle, a Matt leTissier, a Tony Currie, a Stan Bowles, a Rodney Marsh, a Frank Worthington (you see, they didn't track back, they didn't tackle). Maybe they didn't, but they could bloody well PLAY FOOTBALL WITH FREEDOM AND FLAIR...

Just don't get me started on FIFA

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Pagham Harbour - an appreciation

In my mid-to-late teens, pre-car and in my birding dawn, I forged a bond with a lovely part of West Sussex - that of Pagham Harbour. It was my regular coastal haunt mainly because I could reach it by public transport. In those days you could catch a train from Sutton to Chichester, where I then walked across the road to get a bus that, after half-an-hour of twisting country roads, dropped me off at Sidlesham Ferry.

My fellow birders would normally be a combination of the Greenway brothers, Paul Butler, Nick Gardner and Stuart Holdsworth. Sometimes I would cadge a lift with Dave Eland, which meant that the inconvenience of public transport was dispensed with. although I always found the train journey in particular enjoyable - happy memories of Bewick's Swans and Short-eared Owl in the Amberley area (and, of course, I had an ongoing list for this particular journey).

My first visit was on a dull and drizzly early October afternoon in 1975. I had five lifers - Grey Plover, Pintail, Corn Bunting, Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper. The latter two species fed feet away from me on the mud at Sidlesham Ferry, a place that, over the years, was to provide me with unparalleled views of waders, including one very confiding Wilson's Phalarope.

I soon settled on a regular circuit, leaving the Ferry and walking around the southern edge of the harbour to Church Norton, scanning the mud flats as I went along, watching the tide ebb and flow, seeking out the flooded channels and the surprises that they might hold. On reaching the beach I would turn north and walk to the mouth of the harbour, looking out to sea and inland in equal measure, always something to observe, more than enough for a birder in the infancy of experience.

As time went on I ventured further - always on foot - to take in the Severals reed bed; the farmland behind; hiking to Selsey Bill or even ending up at Pagham lagoon which necessitated a long winding wander around the northern side of the harbour.

Some memories have held fast. My first Bonxie that was sitting on a shingle spit off of Church Norton on September; a stunningly close Little Tern feeding along one of the channels by the severals on a still hot May morning; rafts of Slavonian Grebes bobbing in winter seas; two House Martins defying the end of November to hawk above the churchyard while a Barn Owl quartered beneath. Of course there were rarities, none more so than the UK's first Greater Sandplover that appeared in December 1978. I went back on New Years Day 1979 for a second helping only to watch the bird shivering and being barely strong enough to open its eyes. It was never seen again after that.

I haven't visited Pagham for over four years. Too long. If you haven't been, and you get the chance, do go. It has that magical combination of being blessed with high bird numbers, a great diversity of species, a variety of habitats and scenery to die for.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Pompous twat-head

Yes, I was one of those people moaning about the zillion-and-one images of Desert Wheatears that were gumming up cyberspace yesterday afternoon. It seems as if it was just me and Oscar Pistorious who didn't connect with one over the weekend.

And, yes, it's me who has awarded the NDB Wheatear Trophy these past two springs in mock admiration for the blogger who had uploaded the most images of a white-arse in the month of March.

So people like me had it coming - a viper-like response from one of the many Wheatear-fondlers. You can enjoy it all (including some marvellous picture) by clicking here...

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The forgotten bird

Twenty years ago this autumn I saw one of the rarest species on my British list. Far rarer than the Wallcreepers that I always bang on about. And yet this species seems to have faded from my memory bank, never brought out to parade before the birding youth that I meet from time to time. It was a startlingly good looking bird. What was it? A male Red-throated Thrush. You can see an image of the very same bird here. Not bad, is it? So why has this particular bird dropped off of my radar? No idea.

*If you click through to the image, it is dated September 1993. It was, in fact, 1994.

Friday, 7 November 2014


Although the number of species that we record is not the be-all and end-all of our efforts, it is something that can focus the mind and add a bit of fun to the proceedings. So, for next years mini-Uber bash, I've set myself some targets...

Not the most ornithologically blessed of areas, but when you consider that I've seen Ring-necked Duck and Dotterel within its confines then there is always hope. And don't be fooled by that duck - not for me will there be mornings spent scoping wildfowl, as there is no water body larger than a town park pond - which is exactly where that duck decided to spend two consecutive winters (Bourne Hall, Ewell). My aspirations climb no higher than a shrike, Wryneck or harrier, but is likely to get no better than a Ring Ouzel or Pied Flycatcher.

A bit of a punt this figure, and should be easily reachable if I try my hand at grasses and sedges - oh, and ferns! There is some cracking habitat, from the rarity-choked Fames Rough, the orchid haunted Howell Hill and plenty of varied habitat to record a cross section of species. Wetland plants will be thin on the ground.

A good year can see 275 macros in the garden, so chuck in the micros, plus a bit of sweeping on the chalk downland and I should surpass my target figure. A good migrant year can up the excitement, although the recent good spell only produced a couple of Rusty-dot Pearls  - most disappointing.

I'm blessed with plenty of quality on my doorstep - Purple Emperor, Silver-spotted Skipper, Brown Hairstreak and Silver-washed Fritillary for starters, although adding more to this total will be hard - it would need a real goody to turn up.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Watch the birdie

I am envious of those birders that manage to capture inspiring images of the birds they see before them. From the, quite frankly, highly professional quality of Jono Lethbridge's work (if he left the banking world he could easily forge a career in photography) to the stealth-like lens-assassin that is Roger Browne at Beddington, we are offered on-line photography to die for. I, too, would like to be able to join in with them... but, I realise that it takes more than the shelling out a few thousand quid to obtain the right camera body and lens. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes an eye for composition. It takes an uncanny knack of knowing where to look and when to trigger the shutter. Time I'd rather spend doing other natural history related things.

I do own an old (and I mean old) Canon SLR body - a 400D. I also have a collection of lenses, some quite decent (a Canon 60mm macro, Canon 10-22mm wide angle; Canon 17-85mm - all of these more than passable), plus a Raynox macro conversion lens. I'm more than covered for taking pictures of plants, insects and scenery. But not birds...

I do have a crappy old Canon 75-300mm non-stablised lens that I bought early on under the illusion that I might just about be able to get some useful images. To a point, I was right - but on many other points I was wrong. So, what is the solution?

What has helped is realising that I am just after record shots of birds, be it for reference or proving of a record. I don't need all of the extra expense (or time) to reach such low-lying goals, and have come to the conclusion that a bridge camera will do the job. Just a bit of lazy point-and-shoot with a high zoom camera should do it. And there does appear to be a camera on the market that might just do the job for me. A camera for lazy people which will also allow more in-depth usage if so desired.

My pan-listing colleague Mark Skevington alerted me to the Nikon Coolpix P600, a bridge camera that has an unbelievable 60X optical zoom. You can see his results here. It is not expensive and may be just what I need to take a picture of that overflying Rough-legged Buzzard at Canons Farm this winter - or a Great Grey Shrike, Lapland Bunting or Gyr Falcon - I'm not fussy. No need to lug around a collection of lenses, or one BIIIIG lens like the big boys do. I'm tempted...

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Birding in the dark

It's pitch black. The moon is hidden behind cloud and you are at least two miles away from the nearest road. Light pollution is certainly not a problem here. The day's warmth is still hanging on and the odd dip in the ground seems to have held onto the heat all the more - it's a bit like stepping into a warm bath. The heathland all around is quiet, save for the odd Tawny Owl and roding Woodcock, that grunts and squeaks its way overhead. As good as it is to hear them, that is not the reason that you are here. Your quarry is that bit more special and seems to know it - it is not playing ball so far tonight. Another half-hour passes but with each minute your sense levels increase. Visually you may be compromised, but aurally you've never been more alert.

Was that it? A vague sound from way beyond a distant line of birches... and again! Then, much closer, the unmistakable mechanical churring of a Nightjar, fading and then increasing in volume. You cannot see it, but it must be close. A female 'chucks' and the sound of wing clapping sounds crisp in the still air. Before you can quite register it, that flash of white in the dark morphs into a male as it fly across the path in front of you. Within ten minutes there are at least three bird churring away, out of sight but most certainly not out of mind.

It isn't just owls and nightjars that can perform when the light of the day has gone. A most underrated time of 'birding by dark' are the early hours of the morning. I've heard Savi's Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler singing at 02.00hrs at Westbere; a Quail going at full throttle on Walland Marsh at 03.00hrs; a Golden Oriole start up its fluty song in a poplar plantation at Lakenheath an hour before dawn; on many occasions I have had a host of overflying waders, with one particularly memorable time at Dungeness when I was 'sleeping' in my car close to the lighthouse but was kept awake by Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlins passing overhead.

Although not actively birding, those times spent driving to your destination in the dark can be special. Many was the time when an overnight trip to Cornwall or Norfolk was interrupted by a Barn or Tawny Owl. With a car full of expectant birders, one by one falling asleep, until just the driver is left awake (hopefully!), this scene is mirrored across the country. The dark takes on magical properties then, the empty roads and heightened state of hope giving this time a charged atmosphere.

On arrival, still in the dark, still at night, you could stay in the car and try to catch up on some sleep. But don't! Get out and smell the air! Flocks of thrushes call from the murky skies, Robins tick from the darkened bushes - it's going to be a good day - in fact, it's already a good day and it hasn't even begun yet!

My favourite time of the birding day - the hour before light. Full of hope and expectation. Anything is possible. And on some days, the impossible seems to happen...

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Inner, Outer and Greater Uber

Inner Uber, Outer Uber and Greater Uber - grand names for a modest enterprise.

I've bored you before with my creation (self-delusionist term) of the uberpatch - basically a joining together of all of my local natural history patches. From the point-of-view of assisting in the collation of my observations, it works very well. I have three on-line reports, (covering birds, plants and lepidoptera), that I update on a weekly basis. These are, simply put, a systematic list with narrative for each species (status, dates of sightings, counts, etc). I get great pleasure in maintaining these documents.

I've also bored you before with quoting Luke Jennings (from Blood Knots):

"The late Bernard Venables, author of the classic Mr Crabtree fishing books, used to say that there are three stages to the angler's evolution. To begin with, as a child, you just want to catch fish - any fish. Then you move to the stage where you want to catch big fish. And finally, with nothing left to prove, you reach a place where it's the manner of the catch that counts, the rigour and challenge of it, at which point the whole thing takes on an intellectual and perhaps even a philosophical cast."

It has struck me how 'angling' could be replaced with 'birding' - or 'botanising' - or 'mothing' - in the above quote. I feel that I've got to that stage in my study (another self-important word there), where it is almost the manner and way in which I approach - and collect - my natural history data that delivers to me the buzz. An example: this autumn I have spent far more time wandering the closest patches - Canons Farm, Chipstead Bottom, Priest Hill - than in previous years. I haven't visited the coast once. But rather than feeling that my horizons have been limited in doing so, the opposite is true. The net result, so far, has been the discovery of a Merlin, Red Kite, Ring Ouzels, Sedge Warbler (don't laugh, patch gold!), Ravens, and notable hirundine movements. There have been plenty of 'blank' excursions, but these have been accepted as part of the process - an occupational hazard, if you will. I have gone back to a purer form of birding I suppose, wanting to get far more out of it beyond 'nailing' a goody.

The Uber patch is quite large. Next year I want to do as much as I can on foot, and directly from my front door. So I've carved the map up into an 'Inner Uber' (2015 study area, shaded red on the map above) and Outer Uber (no doubt I will stray into this territory from time-to-time next year). Together it forms the Greater Uber - if you've stuck with this post so far, you may remember that the whole area is the basis of my on-line reports. This will be maintained.

I can hear some of you ask why I don't just go out and bird/moth/botanise wherever the urge takes me and not worry about lists, collation of records and projects. And you'd have a point, but I found out long ago that I need a structure and a purpose to my natural history. And at the end of the year I will hopefully have a nice thick report on what I have found over 12 months in the area surrounding home.