Showing posts from September, 2015

The Moth Snowstorm

A strange, but affecting mix of autobiography; an exploration of the joy and wonders to be found in the natural world; illustrations of man's relentless trashing of the planet; and the author's hope for how the worst can be averted by a mass-embracing of the hard-wired connectivity that homo sapiens have for wildness and wilderness. Michael McCarthy is an environmental journalist who grew up on the Wirral and had his first 'road to Damascus' moment with a buddlieja bush that was covered in butterflies. A troubled childhood was further soothed by his discovering of the wild, open places of the Dee estuary. The author explores how the human connection to natural history has been largely buried in recent times, but explains how this connectivity is still strong, being forged over the 50,000 generations before homo sapiens became farmers of the land. The title of the book is taken from one example of the recent loss of biomass - that of the thinning of the volume of m

Finished, and thoughts on the flycatcher

A few posts ago there was a sneak preview of my latest daubing, and today it was completed. I could have carried on adding layers, tweaking leaves and embellishing the owl, but there came a point where enough was enough. My next piece is a long-promised picture for my sister-in-law. She might just get it by 2017... Meanwhile, down at Dungeness, the dust has settled. The Acadian (for that is almost certainly what it was) Flycatcher remained until dusk on its day of discovery, but decided to move on (or succumb to the efforts of its journey) and has not been seen since. BBC film crews have been down to obtain footage for the regional news, newspapers have run sidebar stories about the 'first for Britain' and Martin Casemore has no doubt been bemused by his current celebrity status. It couldn't have happened to a more dedicated and unassuming bloke - I just hope that some of his magic dust comes my way when I'm down there later in the autumn. Part of the romantic in

Empidonax!! When you know that you're cured...

Only a couple of posts ago  I laid bare my Dungeness bird list on the back of my reconnection with the shingle peninsula. Although there have been 'Dungeness ticks' that I could have gone for in recent months, they have either not been terribly rare or highly mobile. So there really hasn't been the need or the opportunity to do so. Listing can be a corrosive infliction. If taken too seriously you can become irrational, tetchy and ultimately unfulfilled. It's all OK when the listing behaves itself, and you connect with all the possible targets, in that case life is brilliant. But when you dip, things can go dark. I wondered how I would react when a real stonker turned up at Dungeness. Well, at 10.00hrs this morning I found out... "Dungeness mega. Empidonax Flycatcher at the fishing boats now. Showing well" That little gem of information appeared on Twitter via Martin Casemore. I took it all in with more than a little wonder and a feeling of pleasure for the

An autumn viola

Langley Vale Farm has been very kind to us Surrey naturalists this year, with plenty of arable gems appearing in the very few places left for them to do so. 95% of the farm has now been harvested, so with stubble to check for lingering plants I spent Saturday afternoon up hill and down dale. Quite a way from any public footpath I stumbled across two flowering Viola plants - had this been woodland in March I would have walked right past, but this being mid-September and arable farmland, my alarm bells started to ring. Could they be Wild Pansy (Viola tricolor)? Truth is, I don't know. I've read up about them and have so far been warned about variable leaf shape, variable petal colour and the likelihood of hybrids and garden through-outs. But if, after looking at the images below, you have an opinion, I'd be pleased to know.

My Dungeness list

At Dungeness Bird Observatory, one September afternoon in 1981, myself and a group of young regulars sat down in the common room and worked out how many species of bird we had each seen there. A few ground rules were forged that day, the main one being the extent of the countable area. Some argued for the inclusion of Walland and Romney Marsh, but this was quickly torpedoed. A compromised was reached, too convoluted to go into here. I had been visiting the shingle for five years by then, but hadn't given such things any thought - that surprises me now, seeing what a rabid list maker I was back then. From that afternoon onwards, the most important birding list was my Dungeness list. Until 1992/3 that remained firmly the case, and I would drive the 90 miles from home just to add one more precious species to it - a ridiculous state of affairs that I had to knock on the head. I went into a self-imposed exile from then until fairly recently, visiting infrequently and never twitch

Island Going

Why are books like this not written any more? In the summer of 1935, two students from Oxford, Robert Atkinson and John Ainslie, set off to visit Handa Island. Their main aim was to find the nesting Leach's Petrels. And so began what was to turn out to be a 12-year love affair with the west coast Scottish islands, their birds and the people who eked a living out of these rocky outcrops. The book recalls in great detail their summer travels, ultimately taking in North Rona, The Shiants, Canna, the Flannans, Eigg, North Uist, the Monarchs, St. Kilda and Sula Sgeir (todays birders will be familiar with the latter as the rocky outcrop that hosted a Black-browed Albertross between 2005-07). I have not visited any of these places, but so vivid is Atkinson's writing that I feel as if I know each one on an intimate level. These two young men suffered for their studies, cadging lifts on working boats, being abandoned for days on end to squat in ruined bothies, living off meagre

Work in progress

The rain and miserable weather have kept me indoors (so no soaking wet search for a Wryneck for me!) This is good reason to get on with another painting. I started this particular work months ago and it lay abandoned in a portfolio until just the other day. I have posted previous efforts here and here . My approach to all of this is very loose. Take a few pictures, use them as reference, embrace a lurid palette of colour and use graphic shapes to build up the composition. I paint over a lot of what I have done, so at times the finished article may have half a dozen layers of gouache in any given area. My source image for this painting was taken in Banstead Woods one late autumn afternoon (below). True representation, scale and perspective is largely ignored to accommodate for a free-flowing style (Psued's Corner this way, please). The owl is going to end up as an ornate, graphic take on a Tawny... at the moment. Progress is slow, so the finished article might still

Sound and vision

My family keep on reminding me that I've done very well to get to my mid-50s before having the need for reading glasses. It first became apparent that things were not as they had always been whilst examining the egg-trays in the moth trap. My attempts to focus on the smaller moths was at first a minor irritant and then something that needed addressing. This did not, however, get in the way of birding - although having never possessed the pin-point visual acuity of an Alfrey or Browne (both Beddington boys), I can still function perfectly well. Having said that, a recent trend is for me to lose butterflies and moths in flight against a backdrop in vegetation. Not all the time, but time enough to make it a regular event. It is often said that a birder knows when their hearing is going when they lose the ability to pick up the high-pitched calls of crests and the reeling song of a Grasshopper Warbler. I know that I can still do both of them, with a Gropper this Spring being quite a

Dead bird confessional

Imagine a lad in his late-teens, and a long-haired art student at that, walking into a High Street branch of Boots the Chemist and asking to buy a needle and syringe - and, wait for it - being served without any questions! Wouldn't happen now, would it? But it did in 1976, for I was that student, and I also purchased a bottle of formaldehyde at the same time!! I wasn't about to shoot up with said chemical, which apart from setting my arm to a concrete hardness would no doubt have killed me as well. I was in the throes of one of my obsessions, which was the collecting and preservation of dead birds. I'd better explain... At some time in 1975 I had started to make a note of the dead birds that I came across. These were largely found at the roadside, along a tideline, or washed up along the water's edge at reservoirs. If they were fresh enough I would pick them up and examine them, taking in all of the markings, the colours and the bill shapes. It seemed a natural s

Where has all the blogging gone?

Stewart Sexton, he of the excellent Stewchat blog, has recently posted about the tardiness of some of his linked bloggers to posting.  After reading it, I looked at my list of linked blogs and, guess what, ten of them haven't posted for over a month! To be honest, I reckon that only 30% of my links could be considered as regular posters. Not everybody has the time or the inclination to do so, but as Stewart points out, there does seem to be a reduction in the frequency of posting out there. Other 'social media' strands have a lot to do with it. Facebook groups allow illustrated (not word-restricted) posts which are targeted at a defined audience. Twitter is deliberately brief and quick. Blogging does require some commitment to the cause. There may also be a case that many bloggers are coming to the point where they are running out of things to say, and if they are using the platform as a way of reporting along the 'been there, seen that' lines, then it is easier

On a roadside verge on Epsom Downs

Very close to the grandstands that tower over the downs at Epsom is a special roadside verge. The higher section has been close mown, as is the way of the council, but the lower part has been left well alone, for here is to be found the most daintiest of orchids, Autumn Lady's-tresses. The further down the slope you walk, the more numerous they are - I estimated a minimum of 2,000 spikes and there are no doubt many more than that. As I knelt to take photographs, careful not to kneel on any, I could sense the motorists, sitting yards away at traffic lights, wondering what on earth I was up to. My thanks must go to Dennis and Rosy for alerting me to this fine show.

Why I love Dungeness

The past week (and a bit) has shown Dungeness in all its finery. I doubt that there have been many other weeks in its 'natural historical record' that have had so much going on (and some of that at a nationally notable level) - but I'll let you be the judge of that... Butterflies The only reason that I'm starting with the butterflies is because this Long-tailed Blue was self-found and was a lifer. On September 1st, after a hefty and prolonged rainstorm, it was flushed when walking across open shingle. It settled on an isolated gorse bush and stayed long enough for me to take but one photo, before it flitted off, not to be relocated despite much searching. I was under the impression that it was a female at the time, but looking at the image above, and seeing quite a bit of blue on the section of upper hindwing that is uncovered, maybe it is a male after all. Other migrants were thin on the ground, with single figure counts of Painted Lady, Red Admiral and two Cl