Sunday, 30 August 2015

A gift that keeps on giving

Just two days into a week at Dungeness and already the shingle is providing me with natural history of the highest order. I won't post in any detail until my return home, but in just 48 hours I've been treated to a rare colony of Tree Crickets, spent a couple of hours botanising in completely 'new' Dungeness habitat and have had incredible views of a low-flying Honey Buzzard. Whatever happens during the rest of the week, the old place has proved itself - as it always does - yet again.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Rarity or spectacle?

What is that you remember most about your birding? What gives you the biggest kick when you are out in the field? What do you hope for more than anything else when you are looking?  For me, all three questions are not fulfilled by rarity, but by sheer spectacle.

I've seen my fair share of rare birds, and some of them were firsts for Britain at the time. I may have travelled miles to see them. But, apart from a very few, they are but a tick on a list.

If I were to compile my Top 10 'greatest birding hits' then it would be mostly populated by sheer spectacle. Off the top of my head I can vividly recall sea watches where skuas, terns, wildfowl and waders streamed past on a conveyor belt of awe; clouds of thrushes tumbling out of pre-dawn skies, calling in the half light; vast finch flocks wheeling over farmland; coastal bushes heaving with warblers and chats; hirundines arrowing by in a controlled frenzy of migration.

Such events cannot be twitched. By and large you have to be present at the time to witness them. An hour later and the happening can have ceased - all that is left is empty skies and vacant bushes. Couple this with the primordial instinct behind the avian action and you have a very special event indeed.

550 Ring Ouzels or a Radde's Warbler? 90,000 House Martins or a Mamora's?

The numbers win every time.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The shingle is calling...

There's only so much an inland birder (and waterless at that!) can take. When coastal stations are awash with migrants and the birders present are busily picking out the scarce and the rare, those of us foolish enough to try and stay local are on a hiding to nothing. Another trip to Canons Farm, another few hours of quiet despair. This Hobby tried to cheer me up, and did succeed - for a few seconds.

It's no good, I need a spell on the shingle...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Both sides of the argument

There are times when I wonder about my commitment to our birdlife. What do I actually do to help it? Going out and looking at them is just passive support. Identifying, counting and sending in the results to bodies such as the local bird clubs or the BTO goes a little way towards helping collate a database on which greater deeds can be planned and carried out. As much as we need foot soldiers to carry out the grinding work in all walks of life, some of us might have experience, spare time and a profile that can be used to great effect in the struggle to better the lot of our birds. I have plenty of the first two - experience and time - but do I use it? No, if I'm being honest, I don't...

I don't do work parties. I don't volunteer. I tend to get turned off by campaigns. Is it just me, or am I the only birder that is fed-up with hearing about Hen Harriers and driven grouse moors? I shouldn't admit to that, for fear of having Mark Avery and his giant stuffed harrier pay me a visit in the dead of night along with Chris Packham clutching a box of harrier-shaped Lush bath bombs. It's not that I don't want breeding harriers to be protected - I do - it's just that whenever we get into such emotive areas, plenty of people on both sides become polarised and will not listen to the opposing view. I haven't read Mark Avery's book on the subject (Inglorious), but have heard that it is a balanced work. But when all people in the countryside with guns are painted as Satan it is no different than hunters reckoning that all birdwatchers are twitching scum who chase tired migrants to death. Both are wide of the mark.

I blame social media for my apathy. When mildly-informed commentators send out inaccurate bile, or spout knee-jerk sloganeering (and this is retweeted ad infinitum), it is over kill. We can all laugh at Ian Botham for his ill-informed staunch support of hunting, shooting and fishing, but the manner of his quotes are no different from some of the tweets that I have seen from birder's regarding the world of shooting. And no, I'm not into field sports, but because I've birded in northern France over the past couple of years I've learnt to appreciate that not all hunters are oafs who blast anything that flies out of the sky. It is because of these French hunters that there is so much brilliant habitat and so many breeding birds along the northern French coast. Now, I know that this isn't Britain, and it's not moorland, but many of us tend to tar all with the same brush.

My outlook on farming has softened somewhat. I am not in denial that intensive agriculture has walloped our birdlife in the 20th and 21st century, but there are farms and farmers out there that do care about how they farm and strive to protect hedgerows, ponds and birds. They are not all money-grabbing subsidy-gobblers who plough Barn Owls into the dirt while exterminating bees with toxic sprays (although some undoubtably do carry out procedures that do not go hand-in-hand with a healthy environment). Until we all learn to listen to each other's viewpoints and are able to discuss how best to move on - so all can gain from the solution - then there will be conflict and there will not be resolution.

I bird over downland that is populated by cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, horse riders and flyers of model aircraft. They all have as much right to be there as me. Not all dogs are out of control. Not all cyclists ride to fast. And not all birders are twitchers who harass tired migrants.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Globe theatre

No, I haven't gone all Shakespearean on you...

After walking the footpaths that cross Epsom and Walton Downs, and failing to tickle a single ornithological taste bud, it was a relief to come across this stand of Blue Globe-thistle, at the foot of the race course. I have known it here for several years, and it was a sturdy patch back then, no doubt the result of a dumping of earth. Some botanists dislike aliens with a passion, whereas I am quite fond of them.

There is a very good second brood of Holly Blue here in Surrey. Wherever I wander I am coming across them, even over the past couple of days, which have been dark and dismal. To see one flitting along a hedgerow in a heavy drizzle can lift the moment instantly.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A Thursley interlude

Today saw a rare outing to Thursley Common. This is one of those places that I have struggled with over the years. Being a specialist habitat it is always going to produce a small, but notable, suite of birds, but this is only half of (my) story - it seldom manages to excite me and I am without doubt the loser in not visiting the site very often.

In spring/early summer you are more or less guaranteed the summering/breeding stars, with Woodlark, Common Redstart, Dartford Warbler, Hobby and Nightjar. You can sometimes jam in, as I did, with a first-summer Common Crane (6 May 1987) that rose up from the bog before giving a fly past.

Winter is an altogether harder proposition. Birdlife can all but disappear and on one occasion my notebook recorded but 18 species in a five hour visit, but did include a Great Grey Shrike and a Hen Harrier! Having mentioned those two highlights, I have to admit to blanking out more often than not.

But Thursley is far more than just birds. It is one of the best places in Britain for dragonflies and damselflies. Again, the site can be a cruel mistress, dishing up days when they swarm over the bog in numbers too many to count and at other times ensuring that the cloud rolls in and there is little on the wing. Botanically it is rewarding for those that know their sedges and rushes, and it hides its most notable species well, although the show of Bog Asphodel, Marsh St.John's-wort and Sundews (Round-leaved - below, and Oblong-leaved) is not to be sniffed at. I have seen Round-leaved Wintergreen and Marsh Clubmoss here, but only because somebody in the know showed me where they were - a casual search for them would be doomed to failure.

Today's highlight was without doubt another mass-flowering spectacle. The dry heath was coloured by millions of Heather and Bell Heather flowers, in places a swathe of purple, red and pink that stretched to the horizon. The odd splash of yellow was added via Dwarf Gorse. For a brief period the sun came out and with it came a great show of bees, wasps and hoverflies, all taking advantage of the bountiful flowers. A stirring sight.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Pants birding

On Monday I spent a few hours grilling the fields and hedgerows at Canons Farm. It was eerily quiet, not even a 'hweet' or 'hoo-eet' from a Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler to be heard. I almost cheered when a Whitethroat broke cover. My skywatching revealed nothing, apart from the fact that a few corvids and gulls were bothering to move, and even they were doing so half-heartedly. I returned home with the thought that at least I had made the effort.

This afternoon I returned, hopeful that the odd migrant would be lurking - after all, Tree Pipit, Reed Bunting and Curlew had all been recorded there mid-week, and are all good local birds. But a steady drizzle greeted me and the fields and hedgerows did a repeat performance from Monday (although to be honest a single Chiffchaff did call). I wandered lonely as a very damp cloud, my enthusiasm waning with every passing minute. I don't mind birding without highlights, I just like to have something to look at! I was desperate, so started to scan the Carrion Crows and Jackdaws, I grilled the Woodpigeons sitting on wires, I ogled a Dunnock that was stupid enough to show itself. This is not birding made of legend. It was pants.

I'm a great believer in taking the rough with the smooth; that you remember your good days because of your bad days; that you are a minute closer to seeing that good bird or avian spectacle; and the more you bird the luckier you get. But sometimes - just sometimes - it can be hard to accept. Of course, I'll be over there again in the next few days, because you just never know...

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Big stints and something beginning with S

The Dungeness locals found a Temminck's Stint on ARC yesterday morning, and being a part of the RSPB reserve they dutifully phoned in the sighting to the Visitor Centre. The conversation went something like this...

Mark: "There's a Temminck's Stint on ARC, viewable from the Hanson Hide"

VC staffer: (relaying the information to others in the room) "Mark's got a Ten Inch Stint!"

It has been suggested that she had other things on her mind at the time...

It reminded me of something that happened twenty years ago at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. I was wandering the pits one morning only to be accosted by a highly agitated band of birders who had hot-footed it from Beddington Sewage Farm, demanding to know if I had "seen it". What? I asked. "The Great Snipe" came the reply. I hadn't heard about it, and we were all non-plussed when it transpired that I had been with the supposed finder of the bird all morning, who had left for home an hour before. Later, the mystery was solved. Gordon Hay (for it was he), had returned home and told his wife that he had seen a drake Smew at the pits that morning, then went to work. Garry Messenbird (legendary Beddington birder) had phoned to speak to Gordon, to be told that he had gone to work, but was happy because he had seen a good bird at the sandpits beforehand. "What was that?" asked Gary. Gordon's wife was not sure, but thought it was a Great something or other, beginning with an S -maybe a Snipe... these were the days before mobile phones. I couldn't happen in 2015. Could it?

Sunday, 9 August 2015

A fly worth looking at

I tend to leave flies alone. A lot of them look similar, need keys to identify them and give me the impression of being hard to do. Up until now there has been just one species of fly that gave me a bolt of excitement, and that was Tachina grossa, a brute of a beast. Today, that was joined by another, when this Nowickia ferox was discovered at Headley Heath, Surrey. My assumption that this is, in fact, ferox, is game for shooting down - no doubt there are several similar species that need their palps, genitals and the third hair on the right leg examined by a CT scanner...

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Small Mottled Willow

This Small Mottled Willow was a nice surprise in the garden MV last night - well, when I say 'surprise', it wasn't really, as there have been a fair few around this year. A primary migrant, this is my second site record, following on from one trapped on 10th October 1995.

Having just read Billy Dykes latest blog post, he mentions adding Pammene aurita to his garden list. Snap! I did the same last night, and there were six of them. Not so much a case of 'like buses' more a case of my tardiness in looking at micros.

Right, the time is fast approaching for me to get in front of the TV to watch the mighty Spurs take on some small team from the north-west. I'm not all that confident if I'm honest...

Friday, 7 August 2015

395 or 396, but who cares?

This morning's moth trap contents were a strange affair - it was quite a small total but did include a number of scarce species for the site, the fourth Barred Rivulet (left), the seventh Peacock Moth and the 10th Black Arches.

I am getting close to recording 400 species of macro in the garden, so thought that I'd have a count up of where the total actually stood. I wish I hadn't bothered, as I kept on getting differing totals. 395 or 396 seems to be the best guesstimate, but to be honest I cannot be arsed to try again. My mind is obviously elsewhere at the moment, most probably thinking about when Tottenham are going to get around to bolstering their forward line...

I must thank Billy Dykes for pointing out my schoolboy error in initially naming the Barred Rivulet as a Small Seraphim. Maybe I need to spend a bit more time swotting up on my moths this winter!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

What's not to lichen?

They might now be a common moth in the garden, but I don't get tired of Tree-lichen Beauty. From a national screaming rarity to accepted observation in less than 15-20 years is some going. They are beautiful moths, full of greens, greys, browns and blacks (looking a lot like the lichen food plant they are named after) and they vary enormously - no two seem to be the same. The top picture is of one of the brightest that I have seen, compared to below of a couple from 2013, demonstrating the variety in colour intensity.

Monday, 3 August 2015

A couple of local goodies

A couple of rare/scarce plants from yesterday. Firstly was this (just) flowering Ground Pine on the strip at Fames Rough. I had walked past it several times in recent weeks, but was alerted to the presence of a few small plants by Tim Saunders - thanks Tim!

Just to underline that my powers of observation can sometimes not be up to much, Dennis Skinner alerted me to the fact that Violet Helleborine is present on the western side of Banstead Woods. He has been counting the plants since 2000! Local botanist John Peacock was also well aware of them. I have much to learn...

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Painting by flowers

After a week away, it was back to the orchid fields of Park Downs this morning. From a distance it looked as if the vegetation had been delicately washed with a giant paintbrush, the colour being so subtle - yet at the same time strikingly beautiful. The photo cannot do it justice.

Up close, the flowers that were responsible for the colouring could be discerned. The pinks and purples came courtesy of Marjoram (with a little dab of Knapweed), the yellows were largely Common Ragwort (plus subtle hints from Wild Parsnip) and the splashes of white being Wild Carrot.

On the slopes a combination of the sun and the increasing warmth ensured that a number of Chalkhill Blues were on the wing, together with a few Marbled Whites. Prize butterfly though was awarded to a helice form of Clouded Yellow, which flew around me for several minutes, alighting briefly before heading up high, crossing the road and onto the Holly Lane Meadow.

I had some success with a couple of rare plants nearby, but you will have to wait until later in the week to find out about them. Delayed gratification is good for the soul!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Tigers on the cliffs!

Between Lyme Regis and West Bay, the Dorset coastline is very unstable. The coastal footpath that meanders along the cliff tops has been closed in several places because of erosion, and if you walk along the base of these same cliffs you need to be aware of not only being assaulted by loose debris from above, but also from being cut off by rising tides that will give you no option but to take refuge on the unstable bases. As hostile as this sounds, it is a place of strange beauty. The image above was taken from the beach between Charmouth and St. Gabriel's, looking up at one of the more dramatic cliff slumps. It is here where I encountered a very rare beetle indeed...

Cylindera germanica (or the Cliff Tiger Beetle if you prefer), is found only on the soft, south-facing cliffs of Dorset, Devon and the Isle of Wight. It is thermophilic (that's warmth-loving to you and me) and uses the heat of the day to store up energy so that it can hunt on cool days. And boy can this beetle move! My attempts to photograph one was doomed to failure as they raced over the parched mud/clay of the cliff slump. I found them without much trouble, particularly close to any wet flushes.

Even rarer is Slender Centaury (left), known only in the UK from another cliff slump at Eype Mouth (just west of West Bay). There were hundreds of plants in flower, all tight budded when I visited early one morning. Although considered to be a full species, there has been some suggestion that this is just a white-flowered variant of the commoner Lesser Centaury. Currently, the botanist's bible, Stace, considers it a full species.

The whole area seems to be under-birded. The Birds of Dorset (Green) barely mentions it - I wonder if this is due to the close proximity of Portland Bill and the difficulty of accessing a lot of the clifftop? There is plenty of decent habitat for migrants and during my week in the area saw plenty of warblers making their way along hedgerows and disappearing down into the inaccessible cliff vegetation. However, with a bit of patience viewpoints can be found, which enable the observer to watch the birds feeding below. One morning, without moving from my perch, I was able to observe c25 warblers within a ten minute spell, mostly Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, but also including Whitethroats, Blackcaps and an out-of-place Sedge Warbler. A handful of Wheatears escorted me across the open fields and hirundines and Swifts swept by, heading eastwards. Effort here would undoubtably be rewarded.

If in the area, one botanical sight that is worth the effort to see are the great mats of Sea-heath that can be found at the base of the footpath as you leave West Bay heading towards Eype. My previous encounters with this species are of modest patches with sporadic flower - not these Dorset plants. The image below doesn't do it justice.