Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Park Downs to Fames Rough

The past few days has seen a great deal of flower come out, so that the slopes of Park Downs were spattered with the mauve of Hairy Violet. In one or two places Barren Strawberry was in flower, along with a good patch of this Stinking Hellebore.

We are quite well off for this species locally, and I can guarantee seeing it without too much effort. It cheers up the winter months no end. Even though the westerly wind was gusting force 6-7 it didn't stop a fair number of bees to venture out, along with two Brimstone butterflies.

I continued on to Fames Rough where, as I was inspecting the ploughed strip (in readiness for a summer of Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander), a Firecrest sang from a stand of Yew.

Being relatively high and exposed, Canons Farm was being blasted by the wind, but the recently raked fields held at least 340 Stock Doves, but no Wheatears...

Monday, 30 March 2015

Lesser Bloody-nosed Beetles

Another day of fruitless birding along the North Downs, although, if you like counting corvids and Stock Doves, then it wasn't without interest. Actually, I'm not being fair, as at least half-a-dozen Chiffchaffs were singing between Reigate and Juniper Hill. Highlight for me though were the three Lesser Bloody-nosed Beetles that I came across on the steepest section of Colley Hill. These two seemed to be involved in a spot of Greco-Roman wrestling - or something more intimate...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The ticking of time

I started taking notes of what I saw in 1974, but it was not until the following year that I got a bit more serious about it and bought hard-backed notebooks to give my teenage observations the impression of permanence and importance. I still have them all and they can make for an entertaining and nostalgic read. In one such book I had ruled out a number of columns across a double-page spread on which to record my birding year lists. Each column is one centimetre wide and the first year entered is 1975. I can clearly remember looking across the empty pages, the years stretching ahead into the future. It promised of a whole life of birding that was yet to be realised and thoughts of reaching the far end of those two pages was not something that I thought about. But in the year 2000 I did indeed reach that far end, and it was quite sobering. There were 26 year lists completed and nowhere (apart from another two-page spread) to go. I couldn't bring myself to start another one as it seemed to be tempting fate to think that I would reach the far end of that one (in 2026 to be precise).

I've always made a note of my earliest and latest dates for migrants, being especially fond of the first dates for our summer migrants. Most birders will see the first Wheatear as the one that stands out from the rest, the 'gold standard' of our incoming African migrants. Each year sees the chance to beat the previous earliest date recorded, and each year that it was missed would result in a shrug of the shoulders and a thought that there would be plenty more attempts to come. But I'm not so gung-ho about that any more. Don't get me wrong, I'm not being maudlin or depressive about it, but even if I reach the 'three score years and ten' that we've been conditioned to accept as our lifespan, that only gives me another 14 attempts to do so. And this train of thought gets me to look at why I bird and what is it that I want from it. The answers can be quite surprising and reassuring - I'm increasingly not driven by scarcity, more moved by migration and the weather. The way a field is lit by sunlight. A pearly-grey curtain of rain in the distance. A flock of Meadow Pipits falling out of the sky. A Swallow following the contours of the earth only inches from the ground. Screaming Swifts so high in the sky that you can barely see them. The stuff of life in whatever form it takes - and we are a part of that.

North Downs and beyond - affiliated for the day to Pseud's Corner

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A hard slog

The past few days has seen me out in the field a lot, but with little reward. After putting in the hours it can be disheartening when the ornithological return is minimal. It could be pointed out that my venues of choice are hardly inspirational - Epsom and Walton Downs, Banstead Heath and Canons Farm - but there again my expectation levels are hardly set to high. There have been moments of some compensation, with a displaying pair of Lapwings and a light trickle of Meadow Pipits overhead, but it is hardly the stuff of legend. This sort of disappointment isn't just the lot of the inland birder either, as my chums at Dungeness go through exactly the same feelings, although their measure of success and failure is on a far more loftier scale. There was so little to look at on one particular afternoon that I spent a few moments snapping away at this cock Pheasant - I liked the contrast between its gaudy plumage and the dour stubble - this sort of thing happens when you are scratching about trying to winkle out that goody!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The North wind doth blow

I was up and about by 05.30hrs so 'did' the moth trap in the half-light. The promise of a cloudy night hadn't materialised, so the trap was not heaving with moths - in fact, apart from a smattering of Hebrew Characters and Common Quakers there was just the single new species for the year, an Early Grey.

I decided to walk up to Canons Farm, which normally takes 25 minutes. The early sun gave a weak pulse of warmth and together with the calmness made for a pleasant enough start to the day. Thoughts had foolishly turned to migrants (and by that I really mean Wheatears, hirundines and Ring Ouzels!) but the fields remained very quiet, the hedgerows were silent and the skies largely empty. Slowly, but surely, the wind started to pick up from the north, with each passing minute the temperature lowering. As if recognising such conditions, a large feeding flock of thrushes materialised, with 200 Redwing and 175 Fieldfare reminding us fools as to the real season. A lone Great Black-backed Gull flopped over eastward, a local species for the farm. This was an overdue addition to the Patch Challenge list. Cold and a little disappointed I headed home by 10.00hrs.

In other news: with Whitearses now well and truly arriving on our shores, and filtering inland, my favourite bloggers have started to plaster such images all over cyberspace. At the moment the boys from Essex are giving the Kent contingent a good kicking, but Plod and Plover both reside in the Wheatear capital of the South-East, so they should be expected to hit back with a vengeance.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

A bit of a catch up

The past week has felt like Spring. The air temperature has warmed up considerably, the ground has dried out a lot and there are insects in the air - all most agreeable, and I've been able to get out a fair bit. Most of my wanderings have been in the Epsom/Walton Downs area, with side excursions onto  Juniper Top/Bottom, Banstead Heath, Colley Hill and the North Downs Way. Here are the highlights:

2015 Patch Challenge
The total has crept up to 76 species with the addition of Red Kite and Barn Owl on Tuesday (I've already regaled you with these sightings), a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on Thursday (a rare back garden appearance), plus three Lapwings displaying over Walton Downs yesterday morning.

Brimstones seemed to burst forth at the end of last week and this week has seen Small Tortoiseshells and a single Red Admiral in the garden.

The MV is not yet busy, and the night time temperatures have not been anything other than workable, but the 'NFY' column keeps being ticked, with Common Quaker, Acleris literana, Twin-spotted Quaker and Emmelina monodactyla all being welcomed into 2015.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
On a family walk around the eastern side of Juniper Hill we came across this distinctive fungus.

"Oh, I know that one," I confidently said, "It's Scarlet Elfcup." But on our return home, and knowing that this fungus lark isn't as straightforward as I think (thought) it is (was), I picked up the Collins Buczacki guide and was put straight - Scarlet Elfcup is practically indistinguishable in the field from Ruby Elfcup, 'but has narrower spores which do not bud secondary spores and lacks the coiled surface hairs'. I cannot possibly see any of this from my photograph so will now be happy in my 'educated ignorance' that when I see this distinctive fungus again that it is one of two species. I'm not going to start looking at spores down a microscope I'm afraid - well, not at the moment...

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The accumulation of stuff

It should come as no surprise that after 40 years of immersing myself in natural history that I should accumulate a lot of 'stuff' because of it. This has been driven home to me over the past couple of days because I have been emptying various cupboard spaces and populating new book cases that we have had built to accommodate all the said 'stuff'. Two things - I already knew that this mountain of 'stuff' was getting out of hand and my denial that 95% of this stuff was mine (and not my wifes or two daughters) was getting more preposterous by the day.

So what is this stuff? To start with, over 350 books, all natural history themed (and let's not get started on the other non-themed books that I own and read). I did carry out a cull several years ago, but regretted it afterwards and vowed not to do it again. And then there are the annual reports and publications that I have been sent in lieu of being a member of numerous societies and clubs. They look nice all lined up on a book shelf, but 40 years multiplied by a dozen memberships makes almost 500 items (minimum)... needless to say, I've ditched most of this over the years, said goodbye to my British Birds, farewell to my Birding Worlds, adieu to my British Wildlifes - you get the picture. The only collections that I've kept intact are my Dungeness Bird Reports, London Bird Reports and Atropos. I cannot let them go, unlike the Kent, Sussex and Surrey Bird Reports. And then there are all of the newsletters and bulletins. I'm getting dizzy now...

Let us not forget 40 years of note taking. Field notebooks, the hard backed 'proper' logbooks where all of the field notes are written up neatly at then end of the day, the one-off trip reports, various lists, checklists, identification papers that have been photocopied (and all of this for birds, plants, moths, butterflies, dragonflies and anything else that can be considered a living entity). God help me, my family and the shelving in this house if I did start to collect all of the keys and publications needed to become a proficient insect botherer!

I'm now looking at a small collection of one-off items. Things like a pamphlet guide to Ben Lawers, illustrated booklets for the flora of Braunton Burrowes and Rye Harbour, a checklist of the moths of Sandwich Bay. Where do I put them? In the bin? In a box in the loft? On a shelf? Is there any room left on the shelves? Oh, and there is the small matter (well, not that small) of all of the CDs and DVDs to go through. Again, 95% of them mine. Can you see a theme emerging here?

I know these are small problems to have, not really problems at all, but at the moment it is doing my head in. Maybe I should just order a skip and declutter on a large scale.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

A most agreeable afternoon

I can thank two fellow naturalists for inspiring me to get out this afternoon, for both tweeted or blogged about their own successes which, in turn, led to my own. Firstly, Graeme Lyons posted about his exploits whilst beating some Juniper in Sussex which had provided him with Juniper Shieldbug. I have a good population of this tree at nearby Walton Downs, so I took myself off this afternoon with a tray and beating stick - and within ten minutes had seen at least half a dozen (above). What a smart insect. That marking on the corium reminds me of a carved antique chair arm.

Shortly after this success I was watching two Red Kites lazily circling over the valley between here and Headley Village, but they were just the ornithological starters... local birder Ian Jones had found a Barn Owl on Epsom Downs that he had seen hunting in the same spot on two consecutive evenings. Would it put on a show for a third? Thankfully it did, and I was treated to close views as it quartered along a grassy bank alongside the section of racecourse where they start the world-famous Derby. It even perched in the open for me. Did I take my bridge camera? The lack of an image answers that question. Red Kite and Barn Owl are the 73rd and 74th species for my 2015 patch challenge, (74% of target).

I'm hoping that there's a leaf mining expert out there. This poor image is of a Hart's-tongue leaf with mines that I am tentatively suggesting might be made by a moth - either Psychoides verhuella or Psychoides filicivora. Both have been recorded in Surrey.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Turn the switch to 'Off'?

I'd like to ditch the computer. Turn off the iPad. Smash the mobile phone. Turn my back on Twitter. Ignore Facebook. None of them feel organic. They are all shallow.

Yet I cannot - or rather, if I did so it would severely impair my ability to stay in touch with what my friends and acquaintances are up to within the realms of the natural world. The trouble is, 95% of communication is now done through social media - even texting seems to be going the way of the old fashioned concept of actually speaking to each other.

So, the choice is to walk away from the world of Wi-fi, 4G and Blue-tooth and embrace the land of the 'out of touch'. Could I really make that move? I most probably could live with it for a day, but beyond that would find it difficult. My personal communication with many individuals would cease. I'd have to stop blogging. I would no longer surf the numerous sites that prop up my birding (and mothing, and pan-listing) world. For what? To try and recreate the life of a 19th century naturalist? Or to try and switch off the incessant babble of our 21st century existence?

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

March the imposter

March 1st never fails to get me excited. It says "Spring". It says "lighter evenings". It says "migrants". But all too often, after several days of the third month, nothing much has really changed. There might be a handful of early migrants reported on the coast, but generally these will fizzle away and leave us wondering if we dreamed about such observations. It is then that I believe that what March really says is "fooled you again, sucker..."

It happens every year. A warmish mid-March day will provide a few butterflies, a Wheatear and a Little Ringed Plover. I will stand there breathing in the air as if it is charged with life itself (which I suppose it is), look around at the rude health of the fresh green vegetation lit by the sunlight and marvel at the hundreds of insects that have come to life. And then, the following day, all has been replaced by a nasty cold wind, scudding low grey clouds and the natural world seems to have retreated and gone back underground. This situation can then last for days. If I'm being honest, the same is experienced in April - and while I'm being negative, even May. But this is our reward for living as far north and as far west as we do. So, when one of those warm, calm days appears (maybe as early as Sunday according to the Met Office), don't take it for granted!

Monday, 2 March 2015

White arse

They're almost with us*
*apparently already are in Dorset...

Have you got what it takes to win a White Arse medal?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Early migrants

It's March and that means summer migrants! Well, it doesn't really, does it. It might mean a few hardy early migrants making landfall, perhaps a fall or two at the months end, but there will be plenty of days when the winter will still rule, it will feel like December and the Sand Martin that enchanted us in mid-March will regret the day that it crossed the channel so early.

But regardless of all that pragmatism, summer migrants will arrive soon enough, so in celebration of these eagerly anticipated events I've raided my notebooks to bring you my earliest ever dates for the commoner (and some scarcer) summer migrants. Being a largely inland and weekend birder has meant that some of these dates are not all that impressive. If you live by the coast, and get out regularly, you will beat this lot into a cocked hat.

Garganey 27 March 1982 (Dungeness) - also recorded wintering
Montagu's Harrier 19 May 2014 (Dungeness)
Osprey 28 April 1996 (Stodmarsh) - also recorded wintering
Quail 13 May 1995 (Sandwich Bay)
Stone Curlew 16 April 1979 (Dungeness)
Little Ringed Plover 15 March 2008 (Holmethorpe SP)
Kentish Plover 1 April 1982 (Cliffe)
Dotterel 4 May 2012 (Canons Farm)
Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper dates confused by several wintering birds
Sandwich Tern 13 March 1993 (Dungeness)
Roseate Tern 12 May 1982 (Dungeness)
Common Tern 1 April 1978 (Dungeness)
Arctic Tern 18 April 1979 (Dungeness)
Little Tern 10 April 1982 (Dungeness)
Black Tern 22 April 1984 (Dungeness)
Turtle Dove 24 April 1983 (Appledore)
Cuckoo 13 April 2014 Leith Hill
Nightjar 18 May 1995 (Hempstead Forest)
Swift 22 April 2007 (Holmethorpe SP)
Sand Martin 12 March 1978 (Beddington SF)
Swallow 25 March 2005 (Holmethorpe SP)
House Martin 3 April 2010 (Holmethorpe SP)
Tree Pipit 12 April 1980 (Dungeness)
Yellow Wagtail 27 March 1980 (Dungeness) - also recorded wintering
Nightingale 12 April 1981 (Dungeness)
Common Redstart 11 April 1980 (Dungeness)
Whinchat 12 April 1981 (Dungeness)
Wheatear 11 March 1978 (Pagham Harbour)
Ring Ouzel 29 March 1998 (Bockhill) - also recorded wintering
Savi's Warbler 15 April 1977 (Stodmarsh)
Grasshopper Warbler 11 April 1981 (Westhampnett)
Sedge Warbler 5 April 1981 (Radipole)
Reed Warbler 13 April 2002 (Radipole)
Lesser Whitethroat 15 April 2007 (Holmethorpe SP)
Common Whitethroat 7 April 1995 (Dungeness)
Garden Warbler 24 April 2000 (Holmethorpe SP)
Wood Warbler 27 April 1980 (Headley Heath)
Willow Warbler 25 March 2000 (Holmethorpe SP)
Spotted Flycatcher 6 May 1983 (Cheam)
Pied Flycatcher 16 April 1983 (Pagham Harbour)
Golden Oriole 30 April 1988 (Dungeness)
Red-backed Shrike 15 May 1988 (Dungeness)