Thursday, 30 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 had to play the game if you wanted to compete - it was a game that I half-heartedly got involved in.

1983 was the game changer. I had a choice between seeing Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Royal Albert Hall or a Northern Waterthrush on Scilly (or was it a Scarlet Tanger?) The Banshees won. There wasn't even a contest. I knew the game was up. But was it? My refuge then became Dungeness, where a new type of competition opened up, that of becoming a player down in Kent. It is no wonder that I failed, as with a 180 mile round trip I couldn't compete with the locals. But who was I really competing with? It was a self-constructed arena, a place that I took on myself and was bound to fail.

Where did I then retreat to? Moths. Plants. And because I was now a so-called adult, and was entering a place populated by people far, far more proficient than me, there was no pressure. So what if I ballsed-up an identification, it didn't matter, I wasn't up against any peers in this particular environment.

When I returned to birding (although I really hadn't ever left) it was to survey a much reduced playing field. The youngsters were largely missing, there were self-appointed experts who had been birding just a year or two and as for bird numbers... they had plummeted. From a personal perspective, my need to be welcomed back into this world was non-existent. I had exorcised the neediness from my ornithological blueprint. It had happened via the cleansing brought on by getting my thrills elsewhere.

There are birders who have admitted to me that they never question their allegiance to the cause, have never questioned why they do it and could never envisage a world without it. I used to envy that. I don't any more. Questioning what I do and why I do it has most probably opened me up to looking at other orders in the natural world that I never would have done otherwise. It is also why I find myself  enjoying, once more, the simple pleasures of birdwatching, devoid of rarity and full of simple wonders. Full circle, if you like.

Monday, 27 July 2015

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 shimmered over the sward early one morning.

The orchid fields of Park Downs where thousands of Pyramidals and hundreds of Bees made my year.

The discovery of a field on Epsom Downs that was full of arable botanical gems and had a procession of admirers.

More Kidney Vetch and Dropwort in flower than I've seen before.

Maybe these local places and their wonderful wildlife sensed my disquiet and decided to put on a show - it has been enjoyed immensely. I do not take for granted such wonders and can count myself lucky that I live in such a richly diverse area.

Just don't mention the birding...

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

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 would be rude not to go and pay my respects to the Cut-leaved Germander (above). At least 76 plants were counted, many of them in flower. I just casually swept along the ploughed strip, so that figure is undoubtably on the low side. I could find no Ground Pine.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

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 than the Purple Emperor, and his quest to see the all black aberration (iole) had me gripped. I now want to see a 'Black Admiral' and also the valenzia form of the Silver-washed Fritillary. Before picking up this book I was aware of neither. He has turned me from a part-time butterfly lover into something more.

The author has wandered through the years with not just butterflies as his companion - poetry and cricket are obviously great refuges from the 'modern-day systems' that he so clearly despises. We get to meet other butterfly champions, are shown around the butterfly hot-spots and share in his incredible highs and lows. Whether he is forgetting about having taken his two young daughters onto a mountainside, regularly coming across fornicating couples on downland in the dead of night, or rescuing an adult Brimstone from under several inches of snow, just like each butterfly season no page is the same. After reading this, you too will go out butterflying with a new pair of eyes.

By the way, he marked that snow-bound Brimstone on the wing with indelible ink and saw it again, three months later, a kilometre away.

Monday, 20 July 2015

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 Surrey since 1990 and the first from this particular farm. Chances are that they have always been here and were just waiting for someone to meander onto the field margin and look down!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

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 commemorate the centenary of the Great War. Trouble is, such actions will extinguish the botanical gems that the area holds, species that are being systematically destroyed across the country.

Field work carried out across the farm so far this year has revealed that the margins have not been ploughed, which has resulted in the crops growing up to the hedgerow/woodland edge and rank grasses taking over any bare areas - meaning that the uncommon arable flora cannot grow. As far as I understand, farming ceases in 2016. So what does the future hold for the site?

It can only be hoped that the Woodland Trust will understand what treasures lie on their land and will be sympathetic to the keeping and maintenance of some of this arable wonderland. Woodland can still be planted - it's a large area - but hopefully arable areas can be kept. The seed bank for these plants can be long-lived, so a year or two of disappearance needn't mean extinction. Such a suite of species is rare indeed in 2015. It would be a crying shame if they are all lost.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

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 up with far more ease was a low flying Red Kite, that slowly moved south at 10.30hrs.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

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.)

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

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 has not been opening his eyes properly in the past? Clovers, Small and Field Scabious, Lady's Bedstraw, Field Bindweed (variants above), Squinancywort, Cat's-ear... I could go on... are colouring the downland slopes to great effect.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

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...

Monday, 13 July 2015

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 being a misery guts? Do I need to lighten up?

This belter turned up in the garden MV last night - Oncocera semirubella, a pyralid that is localised to the chalk. I couldn't quite bring myself to dangle exposed parts of my body over the moth, and didn't have enough of them so that they could be arranged into the shape of a dick. Sorry...

Friday, 10 July 2015

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 Fritillary, plus a Red Admiral that swept by and got me going for a couple of seconds.

I then crossed the road and went onto Park Downs. I really am getting to love this place. Two weeks ago it was all Dropwort and orchids. Today the overriding colour was brought courtesy of Lady's Bedstraw, various St. John's Worts and Marjoram. I had a grid reference (courtesy of Peter Wakeham) to help me track down a small patch of Pale Toadflax. What a smashing plant it is (see image above) - a delicate and much underrated species, and a new one for me. I could not remember whether I had seen one before and realised that I knew very little about them. I was surprised to find out that it is considered to be a native species (in some reference works only).

I have visited Park Downs at least seven times in the last two weeks and the speed of change-over in flowering plants has been quite dramatic. Also, whereas I was observing a shimmering mass of Marbled Whites over the sward not 14 days ago, today, in good conditions, there were but a fraction of the numbers. Just goes to prove the need to keep on visiting a site, because failure to do so means missing out on so much.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

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 Surrey, just to check on status. And now the alarm bells rang, as there were but three modern day records. Had I made a mistake?

A posting of the images on both the Surrey Moths and Pan-listing Facebook groups resulted in lively debate - some agreement, plenty of 'not proven', mainly down to the poor images. I've sent them off to the two Surrey moth Gods (Graham Collins and Jim Porter) in the hope that there may just be enough in the photographs to attain an acceptance. Lessons learnt? Don't sod about with 'record' shots, keep the moth more securely and don't let the bugger go until I have read up on its status.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

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.

Monday, 6 July 2015

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

Friday, 3 July 2015

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 play war?" As more boys joined our throng the cry to arms would build until an unspoken critical mass was reached and then we broke off into different sides. It was now that we could use phrases that we had gleaned from Captain Hurricane such as "Schweinhund", "Himmel" and "Raus". We knew nothing about their meaning. If we had had enough of killing each other we would play 'It', deciding upon who would actually be 'It' by sticking out our balled-up fists and reciting "One potato, two potato..." "Ip dip dog's shit, you are not it", or the now outlawed "Eenie, meanie, miney, mo..."

There were many other playground chants. I assume that some were universal, others very local. The girls were largely responsible for these (although us boy's had our very own bawdier versions). When they weren't French skipping or cat's cradling you might hear:

"What's the time, half past nine, hang your knickers on the line,
If a copper come's along, hurry up and put them on!"

or, a regional variation of;

"What's the time, half past nine, hang your knickers on the line,
when they're dry bring them in, put them in the biscuit tin"

Or does anybody remember;

"The Salvation Army all free from sin,
Tried to get to Heaven in a corned beef tin,
The corned beef tin wasn't made very well,
The bottom fell out and they all went to Hell"

One particular favourite of us boys was to all link arms, and menacingly march across the playground, reciting in as gruff a voice as we could manage;

"Mrs Marden,
Walking down the garden,
(All make loud farting noise)
Beg your pardon,
Mrs. Marden!"

We used to howl with laughter at this, and what started off as three or four boys doing it quickly turned into twenty. At that point the teacher on playground duty would break up the merriment.

The girl's really did corner this market, with all sorts of chants and rhymes associated with various forms of hand clapping. A playground back then was a museum of folklore and traditions. There is an infants and junior school close to my home, and I can confirm that playtime is still a noisy affair. I'd love to observe what the children get up to, and if any of the 'old favourites' still survive - but alas, if I did I would most probably be promptly arrested and reported to social services.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

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 rest up, apple trees to scrump from and blackberry bushes to raid if we were desperate. Our travels might take us to the canal, where we would hang over locks in feats of daring-do, scoop up frogspawn or try to master the art of skimming stones - and not one of us could swim. Our time was also taken up, depending on the season, by conker fights; throwing burdocks and grass arrows at each other; blowing on grass leaves until they squeaked; popping bindweed flowers out into the air; seeing if we liked butter by holding up a buttercup to our chin (we always did!); capturing butterflies and imprisoning them in glass jars; trying to find bird's nests; creeping through crops that were taller than us; sneaking into barns to chase rats with sticks and then beating a retreat if the farmer came along the track (and heaven help us if his dog got a sniff of us...) We made camps in the woods, and in them took our first puff on a 'liberated' cigarette.

None of us were into nature, it was just there. To climb a tree, to lay out in a field and look up into the sky, to get grass stains on our knees, to pick goosegrass balls and grass seeds from your jumper - these were all just a part of our life - a part of our growing up. We left home in the morning and appeared again at tea-time. If we were very late our parents weren't so much worried about our wellbeing, they would be more concerned that our food was getting cold.

The sun always seemed to be shining. My six-week summer holidays always seemed to last a lifetime. I was fortunate in that my early childhood was without problems and full of carefree happiness. When I look back now, a lot of that was down to the relationship that I had with the outdoors. It was there to explore, a giant natural playground where I felt at total ease. It was full of adventure and possibility. We were whippet-thin, as fit as fiddles and fearless to boot, all through our walking, running, cycling and climbing. The odd broken arm, cuts and bruises here and there, but by and large no harm done. And who didn't enjoy picking the scabs off a few days later?

How many kids in 2015 can lay claim to all of that? And is it any wonder that there seems to be a disconnection between us and nature.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

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-flowering Catchfly are in serious trouble. Without a helping hand they will not survive and the planting of a wood will see them disappear forever...

This morning I met up with Peter Wakeham, a local botanist who knows this area very well. It is a little early in the year for us to expect (or hope for) some of the sought-after arable gems, but we did see a good selection of 'local' plants - Bastard Toadflax (on nearby downland), Green Hellebore (in one of the farmland woods), Dwarf Mallow, Dwarf Spurge, Catmint (considered to be truly wild) and a profusion of Narrow-fruited Cornsalad. The image above gives a flavour of what the farm is (or was) about - copses, plenty of hedgerow, bare strips between the crop and field edge, plus open areas that abound with wild flowers - the yellow flower you can see in the photograph is not a crop, it's both Perforate and Hairy St.John's Wort! Let us hope that the Woodland Trust can see their way clear to managing some of their purchased land as a sanctuary for some rapidly disappearing farmland plants.

Dwarf Mallow
Dwarf Spurge