Showing posts from July, 2015

Full circle

Any regular visitor to this blog will be familiar with the soul-searching, lack of confidence and uncertainty that clouds my relationship with birding. If push comes to shove, in my personal relationship with natural history, I am foremost a birdwatcher / birder / ornithologist (tick box as appropriate). I do not suffer such angst with plants, lepidoptera or the wide open book that is pan-listing. Why is that? Part of the reason is youth. I began my love of birdwatching when I was in my mid-teens. It was a refuge from an uncertain world and one in which I seemed to fit in. My need to be accepted into this new found refuge was strong, so effort was made to be (a) competent and (b) known. My anonymity in 2015 covers up a successful campaign in the late 70s which saw me achieve this state of being. But that was just the start of the battle. Birding boomed around this time, becoming more popular, particularly in the twitching / identification arena, the place that I wanted to be. You h

Sensing my dissatisfaction?

I have to admit that, after a late winter and early spring spent stomping the local patches, I was a little deflated. My efforts had resulted in scant reward and I fled to my adopted shingle kingdom on the SE Kent coast which saw me alright with a couple of beautiful White-winged Black Terns and a self-found adult Bonaparte's Gull (not to forget 25 Hobbys in the air together plus the normal breeding specialties). But it is as if the local patch knew of my dissatisfaction and decided to make it better this summer... The weather has been very hit and miss here in Surrey - a long warm spell (indeed one very hot spell) punctuated by dull periods but not much rain. This has resulted in a good butterfly summer plus a spectacular flowering. I can honestly say that there have been natural history moments spent, not three miles from my home, which will long live in that 'greatest hits' memory bank stored in my head: The mass emergence of Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns that shi

The plants keep on giving

Today, I didn't intend to spend any time looking at plants along the edges of fields, but ultimately I couldn't resist it. Walking along the footpath that snakes around the large field between Holly Lane East and Park Downs, at the meeting point of several footpaths, the crops had not taken, so I got down on my knees and searched the stunted flora. Sharp-leaved Fluellen was not uncommon and several plants of Small Toadflax also caught my eye. A nice start! Next up was Perrotts Farm and the field directly north of Ruffett Wood (called Pipit Meadow by the birding fraternity) which was exhibiting a bare strip at its north-western end - I needed no encouragement to check it! This too was of interest, with more Sharp-leaved Fluellen being found, but also a great deal of Dwarf Spurge (above) - this surprised me as I have not seen this species at this locality before - John Peacock will know of its historical status on the farm. I was quite close to Fames Rough and felt it wou

In Pursuit of Butterflies

What a marvellous read. If you buy but one natural history book this year you should invest in this 450 plus paged treasure. Matthew Oates has spent the past 50 years of his life in love with butterflies and has forged a career out of studying, counting and being enthralled by them. The book is autobiographical, but it is much, much more than a 'been there, saw that' memoirs. Each page is packed not only with anecdote, but also with information - information that is anything but dry. I have learnt so much about butterflies from reading this that when I now go out into the field I am looking at them in a very different way. No longer are they just colourful and fleetingly glimpsed insects to be identified and committed to the notebook - thanks to Mr Oates I have a flicker of understanding about what they are up to and why. In his 50 years study his research has unlocked secrets of their life-cycles that had remained unknown. He certainly has his favourites, none more so th

Many eyes make bigger count

Sorry, more arable plant stuff, I promise to get back to birding soon! Anyway, I returned to Langley Vale this morning, to take a closer look at the Field Gromwell and, blow me, found up to 30 additional plants along the 30m bare strip, with about half of them in flower (above, left). I sent this new information off to some local Surrey botanists that I am in contact with, and Dennis and Rosy immediately went to take a look - they then carried further along the edge of the field and found hundreds more! Plus, in the original chalky corner (where I had seen a single Venus's-looking-glass), they added another 13 plants of that species for good measure. Just shows you what my single pair of eyes had missed... I also visited the Narrow-fruited Cornsalad and Catmint field which is always a pleasure, with the latter species in good flower (above right). I couldn't resist crushing a leaf or two to get a feline hit! Apparently, these Field Gromwells are the first records for S

A plea for an arable time capsule

Langley Vale Farm, that nestles close to Epsom Downs race course, is a botanical jewel. Unfortunately, it might just become a former botanical jewel. Up until a couple of years ago all of the field margins were ploughed and game cover strips were maintained for pheasant shooting. These margins played host to a wonderful selection of arable plants, a disappearing group of flowers that cannot survive with the application of modern agricultural methods. My personal list of species recorded here is wonderful: Field Gromwell, Venus's-looking-glass, Night-flowering Catchfly (left, photographed there in 2006), Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Round-leaved Fluellen, Cat-mint, Rough Poppy, Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Small Toadflax, Dwarf Spurge - enough to get even the most hardened of botanists salivating! Last year Red Hemp-nettle was found, a true rarity in Surrey. The farm came up for sale two years ago and was purchased by the Woodland Trust, whose worthy aim is to plant a woodland to commemo

Changing of the guard

Today was the first time that I felt as if it were autumn. The vegetation is starting to look tired. Red Bartsia, Harebell, Common Toadflax and Nettle-leaved Bellflower are starting to flower. 3 Chalkhill Blues were dancing over the short sward on Park Downs (where I finally recorded Knotted Pearlwort in Surrey). The orchid fields have changed - the top picture was taken this morning (with Common Ragwort and Marjoram being the predominant providers of colour) and the bottom image on 23rd June (where the yellow was courtesy of Rough Hawk's-beard). The orchids have largely gone. Other butterflies seen included several hundred Gatekeepers, a handful of left-over Marbled Whites, Dark Green Fritillary and 3 Red Admirals. Across the road in Banstead Woods at least 4 Silver-washed Fritillaries patrolled the rides and a very large dark butterfly was briefly glimpsed as it hacked through the top of some oaks - I have a strong suspicion as to what it probably was! Something that gave itself

Field Gromwell?

After yesterday's success with the Venus's Looking Glass on Epsom Downs/Langley Vale I went back to take a closer look at the field corner in which it was present, and was glad that I did. I reckon that this is Field Gromwell (Lithospermum arvense), another declining arable species. It has clean white flowers and does not exhibit nerves on either side of the leaf - is this enough to eliminate Common Gromwell? I've seen the latter species but not the former. If anybody out there has an opinion, please share it! (Postscript: Ann Sankey, the Surrey botanical recorder, has agreed with the identification. I have also received thumbs-up from Peter Wakeham, John Peacock and Derek Faulkner. Thanks to them all for their input.)

Downland delight

I was delighted to come across a single plant of Venus's Looking Glass (above) on the edge of Epsom Downs this morning. Chance plays a big part in finding such things, and I just happened to be wandering along the edge of a field that I rarely pass. An open, chalky corner got my attention and as always it was checked for so called 'arable weeds' - bingo! It has been recorded in the area before, but not for a number of years I believe. If there was ever a flowerhead that looks as if it had been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, then this is it - Round-headed Rampion. It is a local plant of chalk grassland and we are lucky enough to have several places on Epsom and Walton Downs where it grows. We are currently experiencing a very good flowering on Epsom Downs. Areas of grassland that previously have been devoid of interest are proving to be well worth a look - I'm assuming that there has been a lessening of cutting and spraying, or maybe this observer ha

Mid-summer finches

With the nights continuing to be warm and the whiff of migrants still in the air, this mornings MV catch was disappointing, but did include this True Lover's Knot, a species that isn't quite annual in the garden. I haven't mentioned birds for a while, mainly because I've been preoccupied with plants and insects, but also because there has been little to grab my attention. There has been an unusual trickle of Siskins over the last fortnight and I have picked up one or two on each day. Today, whilst sitting in a Walton-on-the-Hill pub garden (life can be hard at times) a Crossbill noisily flew overhead, which is species number 94 for the 'inner patch' 2015 list (94% of target total). Maybe an autumnal spurt of avian activity can see off a certain Northumbrian naturalist...

Lacking respect?

Do I detect that social media - in particular the twin evil axis of Facebook and Twitter - are turning even the most competent and level headed of naturalists into greedy consumers and show-offs? There has been for a while, and continues to be, a mania for posting 'selfies' with the target species. An orchid photo isn't complete without a gurning botanist's face inches away from the plant, or a rare hawk-moth hanging off of the entomologist's nose. Or even worse, the positioning of a line of moths on a wall (recently Bordered Straws or any hawk-moths you care to mention) to underline just what a good night's haul it has been, (Strictly Moth Dancing?) To me this smacks of turning our wildlife into a performing circus and lacks a certain amount of respect for it. I am also concerned that in certain elevated quarters the rush to obtain, consume and tick is becoming reminiscent of a seabird feeding frenzy - all panic and no savouring of what is on offer. Am I just b

No Emperor...

My main aim this morning was to hunt down a Purple Emperor in Banstead Woods. It was a leap of faith, as none have been reported there this year, although they have been on the wing elsewhere in southern England. The Emperors of Banstead Woods are a bit of a mystery. They are clearly not in great number, hence they get little attention. The rides through this particular wood are not very open, which makes observation of the tree tops difficult, plus the hope that an observable male will drop down to hydrate on the ground is that less likely. Only a handful of sightings are made each year. I wandered the rides during the recognised hour (10.00 - 11.00hrs) when the freshly emerged males drop to the ground to indulge in a bit of proboscis pumping (at a puddle, rotting carcass or mammal excrement). Well, that is the perceived wisdom, anyway. Banstead Woods is big, so me wandering the rides with no success was hardly surprising. Highlights did include a couple of Silver-washed Fritill

A cautionary tale

The so-called micro moths are something that I keep on dabbling in. I get keen for a week or two, then phase - come back to them with great resolve and then fade away. I should really put far more effort into getting to know them better! Anyway, yesterday I went through the contents of the MV and potted up a few micros that I thought that I could 'have a go at', including a tiny moth in the rather fetching upright 'begging' pose. I took a quick couple of record shots before moving in for something a lot better when the little fellow (or madam) took flight, into the hallway and was never seen again. On looking at the images they were really, really poor, as worse a couple of images as I have taken all year: See what I mean? I thought that I might still have a chance of getting an identification and after a little perusal of the literature on offer, felt quite confident that it was Caloptilia cucupennella . My next port of call was to the excellent Smaller Moths of S

Wear and tear

After a long week of high temperatures and strong sunshine, it is little wonder that some of our wildlife is showing the effects - the top of Box Hill was alive with Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns, but plenty of the former species were tatty and faded (see bottom picture - this particular individual won't be winning any prizes). A quick visit to the Park Downs 'orchid meadows' revealed that most of the Bee Orchids had blackened, shrivelled and will not be looking their best again this year. However, the Marjoram has taken over, and is promising a fine flowering.

Vestal, Cornflower, Phacelia

The 4th garden record of Vestal turned up last night. I'd have preferred a Red-necked Footman... This Cornflower was at Langley Vale Farm - an echo from a bygone age? Most probably not, as this Phacelia was growing just 5m away

More childhood reminiscences

Yesterday's post got me thinking about my time spent in the infant and junior school playground - and as a pupil I'll hasten to add! If my leisure time of wandering the fields, woods and waterways was out of synch with the ways of today's kids, what about my school time? For the time being, let's forget about what went on in the classroom, suffice to say that it was all chalkboards, milk breaks and the manual ringing of a heavy brass bell to announce break times. It's out in the playground that I'm interested in! In the early to mid 1960s us kids were still surrounded by the echoes of the Second World War. Our grandparents possibly served in it, our parents certainly lived through it and there were still comic strips, picture cards and TV programmes (All Our Yesterdays and Hogan's Heroes) that would not let it fade away. As boys we would re-enact British v German battles, starting off with a few of us linking arms and shouting out "Who want's to p

Childhood memories

Between 1962-1970 I lived in Tring, Hertfordshire. It was (and I believe still is) a small market town and it was a wonderful place for a young boy to grow up in. We lived in a new-build on the edge of town, literally a stones-throw from open fields that stretched away to the reservoirs. The new estate on which our home was built had attracted mainly young families, so that there were plenty of children about - and as we lived in a cul-de-sac, the boys that also populated it with me formed a ready gang. Back then 'stranger danger', health and safety and paranoia were largely missing from the world of the grown ups, so us kids were left alone to get on with our lives. Because open countryside was literally on our doorstep we used to go off an explore it, sometimes on foot, at other times on our bikes. We cycled the pavement-less country lanes as a peloton of seven and eight-year-olds, oblivious to traffic (mainly because there was none). We found farmers gateways in which to r

Langley Vale Farm

Langley Vale Farm was recently purchased by the Woodland Trust, where they plan to plant a wood in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. This Surrey farmland is a rare thing - one that has maintained healthy hedgerows, species-rich copses and wide field strips that has enabled arable plants to thrive. The list of 'rare' plants recorded here is enviable, with Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Night-flowering Catchfly, Red Hemp-nettle and Venus's Looking-glass amongst the lengthy roll-call. Part of the reason why such gems are still present is that the land is (was) partially managed for hunting - mainly Pheasants. It is here where shooting and botanical preservation became unlikely bedfellows. With the farming set to cease the hunters have already quit the scene. And with them the wide and open field strips seem to be following them, giving way to coarse grasses and unregulated crops. The areas where I once saw such species as both Fluellens, Rough Poppy and Night-flow