Sunday, 27 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 moths in flight that used to be picked up in car headlights during night-time journeys along country lanes. If you were born after 1965 you may not have seen such a sight. This 'thinning' - of our moths, butterflies, birds and flowers in particular - is firmly put down to 'Farmer Giles' through the political machinations of subsidy, grubbing out of hedge and copse and the use of chemicals on the land.

There are harrowing accounts of the destruction of far eastern estuaries, through vanity projects at the cost of the welfare of vast numbers of wading birds. The fall of the House Sparrow is also discussed, with some revelations as to the probable reasons behind its decline. This could have been a book of sadness, but the examples of joy (and wonder) are ultimately victorious. These range from the winter solstice, the first butterfly of the year, the first snowdrop to flower, blossom, colour, form... there are examples aplenty, with the author's awe and thanksgiving writ large.

As someone that, as I get older, can appreciate the sheer wonder of the natural world ever more strongly, this book captured my mood. We all have our personal reasons for being touched by what we see, or smell, or hear, and it is affirmative when somebody else expresses such joy at them - you are not alone!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

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 me likes to think that somewhere, maybe in a parallel universe, such birds and the gatherings that they attract are maintained as a permanent visual record. If there were such a thing then we could see the 1975 Crested Lark striding around the Britannia Pub car park being twitched by long-haired, denim clad birders with draw-pull brass telescopes; the 1916 Cream-coloured Courser is still coursing over the shingle towards the Oppen Pits with its sole observer (HG Alexander) in attendance; and the sea-watch hide is full of an excitable, if motley collection of Kent's finest, as they marvel at the 2001 Black-browed Albatross. Such birds leave behind traces, as do those who were fortunate enough to see them, particularly the finders. Well, I'd like to think so, anyway.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

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 hardworking Martin, who spends more time in the field than most livestock do. There was also a feeling of detachment from it all. I had no thought of going to try and see it, even though the car was waiting in the driveway and I have no commitments for the rest of the day. Why not?

Had I been staying at the observatory this morning I would have dashed over to the boats pronto, not only to see the bird but to take on the role of a bystander in the unfolding drama (it is the third Empidonax flycatcher to be recorded in Britain and a first for Kent). It is without doubt one of the all-time great Dungeness birds, most probably never to be repeated, and the tales of its discovery will be told down the years. It will become legendary. I would have observed all of the locals arrive, panicky with fumbling optics, and watched them calm down as they got onto the bird. But then I would have retired, once the hordes from 'elsewhere' started to descend on the place. And there lies one of the reasons that I am not going down - the crowds that would be waiting to greet me. That scenario does not have a place in 'my' Dungeness of 2015. It would have the feeling of gate crashing a party. There are many birder's at this very moment sweating in their places of employment, clock-watching, working out how they can bunk-off early and head to Dungeness. I do not envy them those feelings as I've been there before. In the 'old-days' my overriding reasons for twitching the bird would have been so that I didn't miss out, be gripped off and somehow be a lesser birder. But, as I sit here typing this, I do not feel an ounce of any of that. And for that I feel really happy. My peace for staying put and doing so out of choice, is total. Twitter is now throwing up 'back-of-the-camera' shots of the bird (nice) and also pictures of the ever increasing throng of birders, many of the faces people that I know. I'm really happy for them. But I won't be joining them.

My time in the field has become one in which I am connecting more with the places themselves - the geography, the geology, the weather conditions and the assemblage of species before me. It has all become a far more personal and, dare I say, spiritual experience. It is of the moment, not twitched, not pre-ordained, these moments just happen. Rarity is always a great bonus (I was more than thrilled when I stumbled across the Long-tailed Blue earlier this month). I am going back down to Dungeness for an extended stay next month. It is undoubtably a good time for rare birds, BUT - the overriding reason for my choosing that particular time of year is the hope for visual spectacle in the form of falls and visible migration, moments in time that will be of a personal nature and cherished. But if the numbers are missing, those intimate moments can still evolve - a Goldcrest foraging in a lone broom bush out on an empty beach; a Redwing falling out of a clear sky and pitching down in front of you; a late Swallow arrowing out to sea in search of an African savannah - all redolent of the need to survive, of witnessing big moments in a single species life. I recently blogged about spectacle over rarity. Last autumn, the Dungeness boys and girls witnessed a day of Ring Ouzel migration that numbered in the hundreds. I hankered after that, I wished that I had been there to witness it - and I'm not feeling that with this Empidonax flycatcher.

Most of those who are there today, witnessing this very rare American flycatcher, would not understand where I'm coming from. I'm not suggesting that they should. Of course, for the finder, coming across such a rare migrant by the vegetation-less fishing boats, will be something that he will never forget. But for me, the events of today, and my reaction to them, are comforting indeed.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

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.

Friday, 18 September 2015

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 twitching a Dungeness rarity (apart from just the one). The list was put on moth-balls.

The past few years has seen an awakening in my relationship with Dungeness. I am staying at the observatory on a regular basis, for periods of time between 1-4 weeks. My enjoyment of doing so is a different kind of enjoyment to that of all those years ago, one that is spiritually stronger. Maybe it is just my age. It was only last month that I got talking to the local birders about the 'Dungeness list' and realised that I hadn't a clue about how many species I'd seen there. So, today, I dusted it down, updated it, and had a count...


That's what it came to. Not too shabby but nowhere near the 300+ of several long-timers and local observers. Had I carried on visiting through the 1990s and 2000s (with the odd twitch thrown in), my figure would have been up there as well. But I didn't and I have no regrets about that. So, what is included in that 279? And what is missing?

Rarities seen (relative)
Mandarin, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Surf Scoter, Storm Petrel, Little Bittern, Night Heron, White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Black Kite, Montagu's Harrier, Goshawk, Red-footed Falcon, Common Crane, Black-winged Stilt, Stone-curlew, Collared Pratincole, Dotterel, American Golden Plover, White-tailed Plover, Least Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Bonaparte's Gull, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Bee-eater, Short-toed Lark, Shorelark, Great Reed Warbler, Booted Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper, Rustic Bunting, Little Bunting.

Contentious inclusions
Quail (found dead), Red-throated Pipit (heard only and never submitted) - and before anyone suggests that I cannot add either of them, too late, they're on!

Tart's ticks missing
Spoonbill, Red Kite, Tawny Owl, Red-rumped Swallow, Bluethroat, Marsh Warbler.

It's always nice to see a new species somewhere, but it's not the be-all-and-end-all. It's just a bit of fun - at least, that's what I keep telling myself. It would be good to get to 300...

Thursday, 17 September 2015

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 rations, getting very wet, filthy dirty, scratched and bitten. But, unlike us modern day softies, the harder the conditions were, the more they revelled in them.

Some of the events of this book are now 80 years old, so it is quite charming to read how they planned their first trip by writing letters to seemingly random people in Scotland to find out how they could get to Handa; digging up petrel nests to take a look and see what was going on; the almost Heath Robinson scientific experiments; the selective eating of a few seabird nestlings; sharing accommodation with fearless Black Rats on the Shiants; playing golf on a homemade course with the lighthouse keepers of the Flannans. The book is full of terrific anecdotes.

The human history behind each island is explored, contemporary accounts being taken with a pinch of salt at times when being compared with the historical record. In fact, in several cases there seemed to be just an oral history to refer to - these really were bygone times. And of course the wildlife is brought to life via the author's refreshingly open-eyed wonder.

I'd not heard about this book until it was handed to me by my literary-recommender supreme, Pete Burness. For that I'm eternally grateful. First published in 1949, my copy is by Birlinn (2008) and is available on Amazon. Pick up a copy and start planning your own expeditions to these magical places. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

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 be weeks away.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

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 distance away. But an event last week got me a touch worried. At Dungeness, most mornings saw a small number of Tree Pipits calling overhead. I stood there on several occasions when a birder beside me called them out. I hadn't heard a thing. This species had never caused me any problem before. After several days of this I started to worry that maybe my hearing was starting to reduce. But then on morning five one flew over my head and I heard it call. Relief was instantaneous! However, it is likely that I am indeed losing the ability to pick up certain calls at a distance.

So, at 56 I need reading glasses and probably struggle a bit to pick up high-pitched calls at a distance. On the other hand I can still walk for miles and keep going for days. I'm not doing too badly...

Thursday, 10 September 2015

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 step to keep some of them as reference material. There was also a listing element to all of this, as I kept a tally of species composition and number between 1976-79. I still have those lists and they make interesting reading.

1976 286 of 53 species
Most numerous species were House Sparrow (35), Pheasant (33) and Black-headed Gull (23). Unusual corpses included Turtle Dove, Nuthatch, Lesser Whitethroat, Marsh Tit, Avocet and Brambling.

1977 183 of 30 species
Most numerous species were Black-headed Gull (23), Blackbird (21) and Starling (19). Unusual corpses included Shoveler.

1978 223 of 43 species
Most numerous species were Blackbird (31), Black-headed Gull (30) and House Sparrow (28). Unusual corpses included Bearded Tit, Barn Owl, Willow Tit, Ruff and Grey Wagtail.

1979 257 of 37 species
Most numerous species were Black-headed Gull (42), Blackbird (16) and House Sparrow (11). Unusual corpses included Brent Goose, Red-breasted Merganser and Skylark.

Pagham Harbour was my most successful hunting ground and I used to scour the tideline, penknife in hand, ready to hack off a wing or a head to take home and add to my growing collection. My rucksack at the end of the day had swapped a cargo of sandwiches with a morgue of feathered bodies. And I was using public transport. One particular large gull wing was just a bit past its best and the railway carriage was soon enveloped in eau-de-blackback.

Back home, to the bemusement of my family, I kept this grisly collection in a chest of drawers in the garage. I had been given a few bits and pieces from other birders, my two prize items being the wings of a Jack Snipe and a Barn Owl. I would inject any meaty item with the formaldehyde, which apart from smelling like a school chemistry lab hardened the flesh and stopped it rotting. A friend of the family had heard of my strange habits, and brought me a pristine female Kestrel corpse. I buried it in the garden, hoping to retrieve a perfect falcon's skull several weeks later, but hadn't bargained for a Fox coming along and digging up an easy meal.

On another occasion, I opened one of the drawers to find a Lesser Black-backed Gull wing had been nibbled by mice. This was the last straw for my father, who insisted that I remove this amateur museum to another place (preferably away from his home). I ignored him, thinking that he would forget about his many warnings, until one day I returned home to find that he had taken the whole lot and burnt them, all gone on a pyre of wood and newspapers.

I don't seem to see as many dead birds nowadays. Maybe there are too many foxes and gulls around to scavenge the corpses before I see them. My best finds of recent years have included a Little Auk and Puffin on Dungeness beach, plus a freshly dead Quail, that lay under the power lines at Dungeness point (it was October 31st 1987, and that is close on 28 years ago, so not so recent after all!) Talking of Dungeness, when the power station first came into being (in the very early 1960s), the observatory and RSPB staff used to walk underneath the power lines, that threaded inland from pylon to pylon, and count the avian fatalities. I'm sure that the figures must survive somewhere. No doubt every other bird was a Corncrake or Stone Curlew...

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

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 to send out that information in other ways.

I have been tempted to reduce my blogging frequency, even considered stopping altogether (I did kill off the original ND and B). However, a blog is a lot more than a collection of my thoughts and records. It is a creative outlet. Sometimes - on the rare occasion - it can be a service to others, making them aware of places and species. I have been corrected on my identification, mainly regarding invertebrates. I have met up with fellow bloggers purely through our Blogger contact. I have a number of 'virtual' friends who I have never met, but enjoy (ir)regular communication with, either through the comments box or the forging of private e-mail correspondence. It seems to me to be the most personal of the 'social media' platforms, as you need to make the effort to visit a site - a post won't pop up on your phone whether you like it or not.

So I would echo Stewart's call for bloggers out there to keep on blogging and for those that have fallen by the wayside to get moving again. I enjoy trawling through them. They educate me and they entertain me. Your audience awaits!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

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.

Monday, 7 September 2015

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...

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 Clouded Yellow (both at ARC).

Undoubted highlight was the unprecedented numbers of Vestal that came to the MV traps each night and could be easily found resting on vegetation during the day. It was a surreal experience to be walking through grassland flushing them up, easily outnumbering the (to be expected) Yellow Belles. There were definitely high hundreds across the peninsula each day and almost certainly they were in their thousands. My best day tally was 58 on September 2nd. Vestals were not the only migrants - Scarce Bordered Straw (3), Bordered Straw (2), Convolvulus Hawk-moth (4, pictured above) and several Hummingbird Hawk-moths were all recorded. All we lacked was a true rarity, but that would have been just plain greedy.

The real stars of the shingle were two species of exceedingly rare orthoptera, both discovered by the bird observatory warden, Dave Walker. Almost every evening the Italian Tree Crickets (above) started to sing, and on the muggiest of them their sound was all surrounding, reminiscent of evenings spent on Greek Islands. They must be present in hundreds. Also in the same, quite small area, were Sickle-bearing Bush-crickets (two images below)

At least seven individuals have been found, and on one particular evening, in the company of the eagle-eyed Mr Walker we (well, in reality, he) found five. All of this amazing activity took place in a small area of lightly vegetated shingle on the edge of the sallow bushes. Singing normally commenced between 19.45 - 20.15hrs with dry and warm nights best. They did not seem to like it being wet or cool, although last Saturday night (September 5th) they were quite vocal even though it was cool and breezy. Careful daytime searching often provided both species.

It was a great week for birds as well. Early-September drift migrants were in strange numbers. A Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike and Icterine Warbler were all duly present but without the supporting cast of Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, which were in depressed numbers (I failed to see the Icterine Warbler despite some very close misses). However, I did latch onto 4 of the 8 Honey Buzzards that crossed the airspace, and also an Osprey which did a lap of the point before heading eastwards out to sea. Two juvenile White-winged Black Terns were present all week, switching their allegiance from the ARC pit to the power station 'patch' towards the end of my stay. Most mornings saw visible migration of Yellow Wagtails, Tree Pipits and Siskins. I could also mention a Cattle Egret, 4 Great White Egrets, 4 Black-necked Grebes, Hobby, Merlin, Raven, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Avocet... rubbish, wasn't it?

They took a bit of a back-seat as I was mainly looking up! However, I was tipped off as to the presence of New Zealand Spinach on the beach (above). A new experience at Dungeness is the formation of a modest salt marsh, due to a combination of the cessation of shingle removal in this particular area and high tide flooding of a couple of 'dips' between the ridges. It is now possible to see glassworts, Sea Rocket, Annual Sea-blite, Sea Purslane and Frosted Orache, among others.

So there you have it. Dungeness. Not bad, is it?