Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Going with the flow

One of my favourite views - looking eastwards from the moat, Dungeness Bird Observatory

2016. Not yet with us, but undeniably casting a shadow upon all that we do. Over the years I have found that the days between Christmas and the New Year to be irritants, hours that get in the way of reaching the 'brave new world' that is the coming new year. But it hasn't happened this year. I have been quite content to live in the present and not project myself into some unknown future. It's maybe because I really haven't committed myself to any great plans or aims for next year.

I do have stuff that will bubble away in the background. A repeat of the Surrey v Northumberland patch birding competition has been agreed, with baseline figures in place (mine lowered from last year). There are a few species of plant and moth that I have yet to see that I quite fancy seeing, but these will happen (or not) in a laid back style. I have, for a while, annually visited the Pulborough/Arundel areas of West Sussex and always wondered why I don't do so more often. Maybe I will in 2016. Dungeness visits will happen when the shingle calls me, as it undoubtably will. Harry's bench will be waiting, the skies will need scanning and the mind will wander across the shingle, the sallows and out towards the sea (above). Locally, in woods, downs, farms and heaths, there is much to seek: plants and butterflies to count, moths to trap and release - and maybe 2016 will be kinder from a birding perspective than the paltry rewards my local efforts garnered in 2015.

Above all though, what I wish for my natural history time is that it brings joy. Wonder. Pleasure. Contentment. And if all that comes to me by watching a Dunnock in the back garden, then so be it. As this year proved to me, time and time again, the truly memorable events occur when you least expect them and in places that you hadn't even considered that such things could do.

May your own hopes for 2016 be realised. Live in the moment. Keep well and be happy.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Off the pace

It's been happening for a while now. Slowly, at first, and now seemingly gathering pace on an almost daily basis. No doubt the Germans have a name for it, a bit like schadenfreude, a neat word that encapsulates a concept that us Brits just haven't got around to describing. For the time being, and for conveniences sake, I'll just say that I am suffering from 'being a yard or two off the pace'. Even that offering neatly sums up my predicament, for within my construct lies the word 'yard' an archaic unit of measurement about as up-to-date as 'rickets', 'penny farthings' and 'cinder toffee'.

I'm losing touch with modern life.

It manifests itself in many ways. I increasingly find the need to ask my daughters how to use my phone. Or do something on the computer. Or what I need to do in order to unlock the 'mute' facility of the TV remote. I read newspapers or watch the news only to realise that I have never heard of some of our senior politicians; or realised that 'such-and-such' a celebrity died six months ago; have no idea who or what is number one in the charts; cannot recognise 19 out of 20 of the most influential celebrity figures in the USA; or name half of the players in the Premiership; or can tell you who is currently playing in the England cricket team or what the score is. Ten years ago I could have done all these things and more.

People tell me, "It's just that you're no longer as interested in these things" which is not strictly true. It is also happening within my sphere of interests. Birds, moths, plants - I'm surrounded by fellow enthusiasts who spout out terminology, ideas, information and sheer enthusiasm that I just cannot seem to keep up with. I'm being left behind.

Although not suggesting that my mind is going (although it certainly isn't a sharp as it once (never) was), I can forget the names of people, places and species at the drop of a hat - note use of old fashioned saying once more - who wears hats nowadays? I spent the best part of a day trying to remember the name of the North American dove that sometimes turns up here. ALL DAY! I had to look it up in a field guide in the end because it just wouldn't come. Ironically one turned up in Shetland a couple of weeks later. It might still be there, but, being off the pace, I don't know if it is. But I won't be going into mourning over it...

Last night I couldn't remember the name of an orchid that I have seen on the hills close to my home. A chalk downland orchid, small, quite nondescript, quite local... still cannot remember it's name now... bloody hell, this is frustrating.

Maybe it is an age thing, people say that the brain is another muscle (I'm sure that's not strictly true) and needs regular exercising. Mental work-outs, mindful gymnastics. A decluttering of the trivia that still finds itself 'all present and correct' in my brain such as every FA Cup final result (and goal scorer), the track-listing of every Doors album and, my specialist subject, 'Dungeness rarity records 1952 - 1991'. Maybe this sort of stuff can make way for the arrival useful information, and useful information that will find a home in my grey matter and stick.

Like the name of that orchid.... MUSK!!!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Ho! Ho! Humbug!

Whether you encompass all things Christmas; by being meaningfully religious; praying at the altar of mass consumerism; or breaking out in a rash at its very mention - may I wish you all a happy and enjoyable holiday period. Some of you will continue to get out there and bird, others may slump in an armchair having over-indulged. Whatever you get up to, enjoy yourselves.

I hope to get out with the family, post Christmas festivities, and take in the woods of the north Surrey hills (such as these at Juniper Bottom), which is sometimes home to Hawfinches. There is also the expectation of very good cake at the top!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Surrey 95% Northumberland 107%

Back in December of last year, fellow blogger Stewart Sexton, who resides on the Northumbrian coast, and myself, an inland downs stomper from Surrey, agreed to have a friendly 'local patch' competition throughout 2015 - that is, to see who could have the most successful birding year.

Our way of handicapping the superior coastal site (which would obviously yield more species), was for each of us to nominate a species target, based on previous years and expectations. After a bit of tooing and froing, I nominated a species total of 100. Stewart suggested that he could reach 140. I had initially believed that 90 was my target, but after much deliberation, and taking into account my projected time in the field, added a further 10. Bad move...

As we stand at the moment, I'm on 95 (95% of the target) and Stewart on 150 (107% of total). Regardless of me experiencing a massive change of fortune, the result is a forgone conclusion. It's like being 6-0 down in the FA Cup final with five minutes remaining. It isn't impossible for me to win, but you just know it will not happen.

So how did I fail? I spent plenty of time in the field. It was just that there was a mediocre Spring passage and a bloody awful Autumn one. Out of my list of 40 'realistic' additional species targets I recorded just 17 of them.  There wasn't one moment of genuine surprise. It was a poor year, no getting away from it.

But this has not dampened my enthusiasm to take on Stewart once more. It was fun. It cannot be as poor down here again! So, if I take this year's total as my baseline (likely to be 95), a realistic adjustment will have been made. As to whether or not Stewart chooses 150 as his baseline, I don't know. This year may have excelled his expectations and he may feel it unlikely that he'll reach such a species total again next year. We will see.

2016 will see a rematch. Stewart has agreed to go for it again. He may well be confident of seeing me off once more. The chances are he will. My aim won't be so much to win, rather beat my baseline target. I'm already planning my campaign.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Winter solstice? Not necessarily!

Being mildly pagan, in an uninformed and romantic way, I've always welcomed the Winter solstice. Even in such a mild winter as this, it is still a time of year that lacks sunlight and day length (as I recently posted about). But when we get to December 21st things start to happen, as it is the day that has the shortest amount of daylight. So the following day - today! - the time we spend in daylight is longer... er, not necessarily so.
Each year this can change. In most years the shortest day is indeed December 21st, but in some (as in this year) it can occur on December 22nd. In very rare cases it can happen on December 20th or 23rd. The last time the latter year played host to it was 1903, and the next will be 2303. Confused? The Daily Telegraph website explains:
"The December solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. This year the solstice occurs on Tuesday December 22nd at 04:49 GMT (Universal time) with the sun rising over Stonehenge in Wiltshire at 08:04.
The winter solstice happens every year when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, when the North Pole is tilted furthest – 23.5 degrees – away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year. 
The Sun is directly overhead of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere during the December solstice and is closer to the horizon than at any other time in the year, meaning shorter days and longer nights. 
The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, leading up to the summer solstice in June."

So, the shortest day in 2015 is in fact today. It will start getting lighter tomorrow.

I can almost hear those Swifts screaming from here...

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Bottling it

At the moment the UK is experiencing almost unprecedented December temperature, thanks to a plume of warm air that is coming to us from the Canary Islands. It is bringing with it a host of rare migrant moths, which would even be notable in number and composition in high summer. One species that is being recorded in record numbers is the tiny Syncopacma polychromella. And one of them deigned to grace the MV trap here in Banstead (left). This is possibly the second or third for Surrey. Bottle number one: my images were awful. I don't know why, I can normally manage OK record shots, but these were very poor - plus the waif keeled over in the process. It left me feeling sour.

Bottle number two: last night I posted a response to another bloggers item. He was purely venting frustration, built over many years. My rant was pompous and based on never having experienced his set of circumstances. He magnanimously replied to me, calmly explaining his stance. I went to bed feeling troubled and this morning removed the post. Sometimes it's good to bottle. Having an opinion is fine, but if we are to share it with the world - and it's contentious - then be ready for payback, even if the payback is done in a thoroughly considered way. Sometimes it will be heavy and personal. I don't want that.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Green Hellebore

I'm quite lucky in having our two native Hellebores close to home. Stinking (which I recently posted about here) and Green (Helleborus viridus). The latter is not commonly found (at least where I go looking) and has a preference for shady situations on chalk and limestone. There are at least a couple of patches of it in one of the woods found on Langley Vale Farm. While I was admiring it and taking a few pictures this morning (above and below) I was buzzed by a very vocal Marsh Tit - another local site for this dwindling bird!

Hellebores are quite showy things and are a garden favourite, particularly Lenten-rose (H orientalis).  They can easily hop over a garden fence and start to colonise 'wild' space. I have also found Corsican Hellebore (H. argutifolius) growing on a roadside verge in Banstead, which still persists 10 years after my initial discovery. Incidentally, this latter species was also found growing on the shingle at Dungeness earlier in the year by Dave Walker.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The end and the beginning

Walton Downs, looking across Langley Vale Farm. What odds for Red Hemp-nettle or a Stone Curlew in 2016?

So 2015 is starting to wind down. The hustle and bustle of Christmas might be upon us, but for the birder, mother and botanist (not to forget all those other naturalists looking at all sorts of other wildlife), it is time to get all those records sorted out, sent off and start planning for the new campaign that is, and will be called, 2016.

A few years ago I would have been rummaging through my notebooks, retrieving those observations that seemed worthy enough to send to the recorder (of Surrey, London, Kent and, sometimes, Sussex). Nowadays it is much simpler process, at least for the bird records, via the BTO’s Birdtrack service. Some birders cannot get enough of it, and send in tens of thousands of records each year from across the UK. My own efforts are on a smaller, more parochial level. The only non-local record that I needed to do anything about was the Bonaparte’s Gull at Dungeness back in May. This necessitated a description to be sent to the BBRC, which was duly done. And, I’m pleased to say, was duly accepted.

As for my plant, butterfly and moth records, I must admit to not doing anything with them. I should, especially this year, what with some noteworthy finds and good counts. Maybe I need to address this. No, not maybe, definitely.

So, what about 2016? To set targets or goals just leaves you open to turning everything into work, when it should be nothing but enjoyment. However, there are species that I would dearly like to see, mainly plants and moths, which need a modicum of planning to bring about success. I have a longstanding ‘list’ of targets, and each year manage to knock one or two species off of it, although this year was not a great one for hitting these - having said that, it was a great year regardless. 

If I learnt anything from this year, it was that I didn’t need to go far to get my fix. Admittedly, frequent sojourns to Dungeness dampened down the need to ‘score’ locally, but aside from that, there was so much to see (and learn) close to home. Plants that I didn’t know existed locally (and notable ones to boot) either popped up in front of me or I was told where to look. Butterflies and moths continued to fascinate, with their peaks and troughs never the same from one year to the next. Only the birds disappointed, but that can all change. Maybe 2016 will their year?

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A birding guide to Surrey (sort of)

Is Surrey the worst county to go birding in?

It has no coastline. If we forget about the Middlesex reservoirs, it has little in the way of large bodies of water. Arguably its best birding site is behind high fences and a locked gate. Great swathes of the county are privately owned.

As far as county bird totals go, it must be at the lower end of the league table, possibly struggling with the likes of Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire for relegation (if such a thing existed). Attempts at a big year list will not reach 200 species. One birder recently attempted to break this figure, over back-to-back years, having cleared his calendar by leaving employment. He had an excellent network of informants and he birded from dawn until dusk, seven days a week. He failed to reach 200 on both occasions.

So, if you find yourself in the county, where would you go to get your birding fix? What sites offer you a modicum of hope? 

Beddington Sewage Farm
Unless you want to get arrested while using wire-cutters to force entry, the best way of gaining entry to the farmlands is by hanging around the Hackbridge gate and awaiting the arrival of one of the key holders. These men (for they are all men) are members of a shady cult, who worship the Gull God. Offerings of refuse are made to the gulls, who come from miles around to feed at the altar. Birders who are permitted entry to the inner sanctum need to stoop in subservience and pray through a telescope at these feeding times. Talk of species other than gulls is permitted, but can only be of birds likely to be seen from offshore Mediterranean islands.

Holmethorpe Sand Pits
When visiting you must ensure that you take a pair of step ladders with you, so that you can actually see the open water above the top of the profuse, unkept hedgerows. Any aversion to wire fencing will be sorely tested. A fondness of dogs is recommended and an ability to stomach the removal of the mutt’s ’business’ from your boots. You will most probably recorded a higher number of dog breeds that you will species of bird. 

Tice’s Meadow
Up and coming ‘new kid on the block’ whose birding fraternity is made up entirely of armed forces personnel and carp fishermen. All overseen by a ‘birding elder’ who has landmarks named after him. 

Canons Farm
Try to time your visit with the single day in the year when it is good for birds. If you like counting Wood Pigeons and corvids then this might be the place for you - might, because even they can disappear at times. Another place to boost your ‘dog breed’ list.

Leith Hill Tower
Stronghold fiercely defended by a band of mercenary birders, driven away from other Surrey sites by a combination of boredom and lonliness. Rumoured to shepherd overflying migrants with tame Goshawks.

Island Barnes Reservoir
A mythical thing - a true Surrey reservoir. A magical key will unlock this kingdom, or the alternative is to run the risk of being chased by security men with dogs, or ripping your clothing on barbed wire. Rumoured to be full of seabirds early in the morning. 

London Wetland Centre
At only £50 a visit (£150 if parking a car), this is the cheapest way of guaranteeing seeing a Bittern in the county. Unless you visit…

Frensham Great Pond
…where a fortnight’s wait on the shoreline, in some winters, will give you a 5% chance of seeing one. Sometimes. Also good for Alsatians, Labradoodles and those little yappy dogs.

Thursley Common
Mainly dog free, so if you are searching for that elusive ‘blue roan’ Cocker Spaniel for your year list, best look elsewhere.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The birding journey

Why do we birdwatch?

Not all of us were born into doing so, unthinkingly, responding to some primordial urge. There came a point in our lives when we decided to take notice of those flappy things that flew, to be able to name them, to watch them, to let them into our lives and, in many cases, take them over.

My own journey has been touched on ad infinitum on this blog - infant school wonder at the flocks of birds passing silently overhead in v-formation; a Jay that appeared before me when I was 15, that I could name because a schoolmate had just depicted one in an art class; borrowing my dad’s cheap binoculars to walk around the local parks and golf courses full of wonder at the birds I found, including Nuthatch and Redwing.

But why did I carry on? It wasn’t some sort of appreciation of birds in an aesthetic way. It was more to do with fulfilling a hard-wired hunter-gatherer urge. What could I find? What was out there? Could I name them? It was later that I could take in the more artistic and spiritual merits of birds, and indeed this aspect of birding has become my overriding reason for still being active some 40+ years along the line.

The stages of birding - from grabbing at anything on offer, moving on to rarity and volume, and then finally settling down to fine hone the manner in which you bird, is a simplistic but common thread of an evolution. But when you get to that ‘end point’, what then? Is it just a case of taking on a Zen-like approach to being out in the field? Do we stand and stroke our chins, nodding knowingly as we survey the habitat ahead of us? Do we become the bird, think like the bird and so second-guess the bird? Or do we just do it and not ask the questions, let the mystery and magic behind it all remain just that?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Stinking Hellebore

What better way to forget about all this 'winter' dullness than to go looking for a few plants! Yes, even in the harshest of winters (although this isn't one) some species do their thing throughout the season. One of my favourites just happens to have a few sites close to home.

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is a wild species, occurring on shallow calcareous soils in a snaking band running from the south-east of England, through central southern England and into mid-to-north Wales. It is found widely elsewhere, but most of these come from garden throw-outs and escapes. It is a fecund plant, setting seed and spreading with ease - I have it in my garden and find it springing up all over the place. Its appearance in the garden is a bit of a mystery - we had lived here for quite a few years and not seen it, until one popped up and spread. It is quite possible that this was a wild plant, as it is present only a mile away (on Epsom Downs).

This afternoon I visited Park Downs with the sole aim of visiting a population that is found at the edge of a copse on the upper slopes. 20-30 plants are present (above), and a fine sight they were too, all fresh greens shining out in the gloom. The flowers were not fully out (below, and not to be expected yet), plus there were a few maturing 'seedlings' nearby. The bottom photo was taken this spring to show the open flower that exhibits a wine-red rim.

The light was quickly leaking away from the day, adding even more gloom to the gloom, but seeing the Hellebores had lifted my day. I looked across the open slope and saw that sheep had been introduced into a large enclosure. These were munching away at the sward, helping to turn this chalk downland into even more pristine chalk downland. They, and the conservators, are doing a fine job. Come and visit next summer, when the butterfly population will provide ample spectacle, along with a stunning flora. And this is all within a twenty minute walk from my front door.

Just as I was about to head home I noticed a lone Hellebore, away from the others, on the edge of a small copse. This was a little more advanced than the others, and stood prouder.

Sunday, 13 December 2015


I do sometimes wonder if I suffer from SAD - Seasonal affective disorder - a type of depression that is brought on by the shorter days of winter and a lack of sunlight. The latter may affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which suppresses its ability to produce melatonin and serotonin. A lack of these chemicals can cause sleepiness and affect your appetite, mood and sleep. The continuing dull weather, with darkness starting to nudge daylight as early as 2.30pm, is wearisome. The temperature may be mild, but give me frosty, cold and sunny days anytime. My mood has been on a downward swing since October, and I've never been a fan of January and February, so it could be an interesting few weeks. But these are minor things to quibble about.

This afternoon saw a brief, but enjoyable visit to Priest Hill, a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve just a 12 minute stroll from my front door. I have posted about this place before. Historically it has been farmland and municipal playing fields. There are no real reasons for it being a reserve other than the land has been given to the Trust on the understanding that a small part of it can be built upon. Residential housing is currently being constructed, but you will need a tidy sum to buy one (they start from £1.4 million!) Affordable housing doesn't come into it. For that money you get a view across open ground towards the west of London, and if you are (un)lucky, you might get to see me from time to time - counting the (few) birds present...

Anyway, back to today. The hoped for wintering Stonechats were located (just a male and female), a flock of 50 Meadow Pipits were good value, and 18 Skylark and 35 Fieldfare (above) were noteworthy. The site is at a high elevation (for Surrey) and undoubtably gets a dribble of passage migrants. I'll be intrigued to see what a bit of hard weather does - if we ever get any this winter - I reckon the vis mig here might just be notable.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Birding in the slow lane

Any birding trip taken close to my home is not going to be one laden with expectation. The woods, heaths and downs are picturesque, brilliant for plants and invertebrates, but are lacking when it comes to birds. Breeding diversity is poor; spring and autumn passage is hit-or-miss (mostly miss); wintering flocks are either feast or famine (mostly famine). But working on the assumption that 'if you don't look you won't see' I soldier on. I can always nip down to the coast if I start to get ornithological stir-crazy.

This morning I visited a completely new site, Great Hurst Wood (above). It is situated between Walton-on-the-Hill and Headley, and is bisected by that modern monstrosity, the M25. A section of the wood is elvated on a hill, the soil here being quite wet, and this is where I came across a small party of three Marsh Tits, whose calls were thankfully not drowned out by the thousands of vehicles only a few hundred metres away. There are quieter sections of the wood, but apart from the expected woodland species, little was seen. It is pleasing to have another northern Surrey outpost for Marsh Tit, these birds being close to those at Headley Heath and Little Hurst Wood. It makes me wonder why the Banstead Woods birds seem to be either on the way out, or already gone.

I returned to Epsom Downs via Walton Downs, where highlights were a covey of 4 Red-legged Partridge and 80+ Stock Dove. I didn't manage to locate the Langley Vale Farm Skylark flock, nor any of the roosting Little Owls. With the skies leadening and the wind quickly picking up, I beat a retreat.

Friday, 11 December 2015

A hitch in times...

Derek Faulkner recently posted (on his excellent Letters from Sheppey blog) about his hitching days back in the mid-1960s. This is an attribute of 'folk culture' that has all but disappeared. In today's nervous climate, where every being that doesn't conform or fails to toe the acceptable line is consigned to the status of 'murderer' or 'terrorist', such activity as sticking a thumb out to solicit a lift from a passing vehicle is as rare as a Wallcreeper (couldn't resist yet another mention...). As Derek's post charmingly illustrates, it wasn't always this way.

In my brief twitching days back in the late 70s, I was not unfamiliar with the odd hitch to a twitch and the accompanying sleeping rough. Being a bit of a wimp I preferred not to do it, but circumstance forced me to do so now and again. Not all ended successfully - a Friday night attempt to get to Illfracombe to catch a ferry to Lundy (June 1979, Ruppell's Warbler) found me standing at the entrance to the M4 for so long without a lift that I decided to go back home as I was sure that I would miss the boat even if I were lucky enough to get a lift straight there.

There was one particular lift that has stayed in the memory. After a drunken lunch-time in an Epsom pub (my then art student grant was obviously stretching to such things), I decided that I needed to get to Dungeness - it was October, after all. I managed to get a lift from the M25 (at Reigate) all the way to Rye in a mini-bus full of builders. Great start! The evening was darkening fast, but the weather was dry and mild, so I opted to start walking towards Camber, a winding, desolate road, not known for much traffic - and so it proved. I was almost in Camber itself before anything stopped, that being a low black car, with blacked out windows, which pulled up beside me. A back door opened and I peered in - all the back seating was empty. Sat in the front were two men, both dressed in dark suits, white shirts, black ties, each wearing dark glasses and black homburg hats. They were illuminated by an exotically lit dashboard, the likes of which I had never seen before. I asked if they were going to Dungeness. Neither moved nor spoke a word. The door remained open, the car's engine remained idling. After maybe half a minute I decided to get in, I shut the door and the car pulled away. Silence. I tried some small talk. Silence. I then thought that I may have just made a massive mistake and might well be dead in a ditch by the morning. When we reached Lydd the car drew to a halt, with engine still running. Neither men moved. Or spoke. After a minute I asked them if this was as far as they were going. Silence. I got out of the car and before I had a chance to thank them it glided away into the darkness. I breathed a massive sigh of relief and tried to fathom out what had just happened. Another lift did not come along and I had to walk the rest of the way to the bird observatory.

When I arrived, some birder that I vaguely knew came up to me. "Was that you walking from Rye towards Camber about three hours ago?" "Yes," I replied. "Yeah, I thought it was you as I drove past..." he muttered as he walked away. My reply is not suitable for pre-watershed reading.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

2015 review: October - November; Shingle-minded

A long stay at Dungeness Bird Observatory (above) straddled these two months. For years, when a full-time working man, I longed after spending an entire autumn at DBO. Now that my employment is of a much looser arrangement, the time was ripe to ‘live the dream’. A whole autumn was a bit excessive, so I settled on a four week stay. November is an underrated month and is often overshadowed by its neighbour, October - but the former can be just as exciting and there is something about the dying autumn that has its very own vibe - so I was keen to spend at least the opening fortnight.

Although primarily a birding trip, there is much else to see at Dungeness. My stay did not coincide with any appreciable insect migration, and, apart from a handful of Red Admirals and Clouded Yellows, it was quiet. However, what was on show and grabbed a lot of attention was the late and profuse flowering of many plants. It wasn’t just a case of the odd bloom either. Species such as Sea Campion was rampant, carpeting areas of the shingle with white flower, bejewelled with the blue of Sheep’s-bit. Wherever you looked there was colour. On November 1st, with so much still out, I started to keep a list of those species still at it, and by the time I left the shingle (on November 14th) had recorded 136 species! Among the haul were two new species for the DBO recording area, Slender Speedwell and Marrow. There were times when I spent more effort looking for flowers than birds, and this added an unexpected additional dimension to my late autumn.

The birds were kind. The first 10 days were liberally sprinkled with goodies, such as Rough-legged Buzzard, Great Grey Shrike, Barred Warbler, Dusky Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. Over the whole four weeks a good back up cast was apparent: Sooty Shearwater, Great White Egret (9), Pomarine Skua, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl (5), Woodlark (3), Dartford Warbler (3) and a flock of Crossbill. There were very late Tree Pipit and Common Whitethroat. Very early Smew. Numbers of migrants were not high, few arrivals were witnessed (although Black Redstarts put on a show on a couple of dates) and visible migration was modest and dominated by Goldfinches.

But joy came from unexpected places. A corvid roost at the Open Pits was an evening spectacle. A mixed Golden Plover and Lapwing flock numbered 5,000 and could not be ignored as they commuted between the RSPB reserve and Scotney. I dipped my toe in the muddy waters of ‘gulling’ and came up with a few Caspian. An intimate few minutes was spent with a Blackcap as it readied itself for a sea-crossing, restless among the detritus by the fishing boats. A leucistic Bittern was briefly seen in flight over the Hooker’s reed bed. As ever, a wonderful cast of characters made the stay full of friendship and laughs.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t do too much during the first two weeks of October and the last two of November. Time was spent locally, mostly at Canons Farm and Langley Vale Farm, but what with an upcoming trip to Dungeness (and then a post-shingle slump), expectations were not high and that conviction was ultimately not challenged.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


Do you dream about birding? And by that I don’t mean do you daydream about finding a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater as you go about your daily life. I mean those dreams that visit us when we are fast asleep. I don’t. I wish that I did. I have had dreams that involve being present in ‘birdy’ places - normally Dungeness, sometimes Portland - but they tend to involve me having left my binoculars at home or I’m packing up to leave the comforts of the observatory in the full knowledge that something good will turn up as soon as I’ve left. Birds themselves don’t figure. That seems strange considering the number of years that I’ve been birding. Strangely enough, moths have cropped up a few times, normally involving checking an MV trap that is full of the most stunning and colourful species, none that I can identify. Mainly because they don’t exist. I have had similar dreams involving exotic plants that crowd a grass verge, me standing alongside, a gibbering wreck, confused by the flowers on show.

I know that I dream in colour thanks to these moths and flowers. They are truly stunning. When I awake from such dreams the browns and greys of most noctuid moths, although reality and not fabrications from my dozing mind, are poor substitutes. Real life can be a little more sedate.

Talking of dreams, I have a reoccurring theme, that of troubled travel. This involves trains and buses (either of which I don't normally take). I either get on the wrong train/bus, or miss one by seconds. I’ve had doors slammed in my face. I’ve been involved in the mode of transport breaking down. Or not turning up. I’ve been left sitting on lonely platforms or standing in deserted depots, waiting for something to turn up and take me home. You might be able to deduce from this that, in real waking life, I stress a lot about any travel that involves catching something. Timetables dictate to me that I need to turn up very early indeed to ensure that I can ride on the train/bus/plane.

This can manifest itself in extreme ways. In 1994 I flew to Malaysia. My flight necessitated an early morning check-in. I didn’t fancy a stressful ride around the M25 to Heathrow during the rush hour, so I travelled to the airport the evening before (dropped off by a friend at about 10pm) and spent the night on a bench. But I was relaxed and it was worth every uncomfortable minute. 

Needless to say, I drive my wife and daughters mad as I’m an awful travelling companion. Maybe that’s one reason that I find a sedate drive to Dungeness all the more agreeable!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Friends like these?

A number of my linked bloggers have been discussing the merits (or otherwise) of social media, plus whether or not ‘cyber’ friends can be considered ‘real' friends. Never one to miss an opportunity to sound off, or use the ideas of others, I will join in with the fun.

Apparently now the domain of the middle-aged, as the youngsters of today have largely given up on it in favour of using Instagram and Snap Chat (and before you think I’m really well up on all of this, I’m not. I read it somewhere). My adoption on Facebook was very late indeed. I tend not to use my personal timeline much, and if you were to visit my ‘home page’ you would be hard pushed for find out anything about me at all. 99% of my activity on this platform is as a member of various natural history groups - I must be a member of 40+, all sorts of generalist and specialist subjects. These are useful for keeping up to date with what is being seen, identification tips, taxonomic changes, member’s opinions and archive material. I’m largely passive within these groups. Some are very lively and well subscribed, others moribund, but all are a useful resource.

I love it and hate it. I love the ease of receiving and sending information, primarily field observations and the knowledge that most of the people that I would tell about such things are at the end of the sent message. It cuts down on mobile phone calls and multiple texting. One of the downsides is that, if you decide to follow someone, then you have to accept what they tweet. I follow most of my contacts because they disseminate useful natural history sightings and/or information. But some of them are profuse tweeters and will let me know about the Robin in their garden along with the Osprey that has just flown over. Others retweet ad infinitum. As much as I welcome news about a Glaucous Gull on a reservoir, I don’t welcome the same person telling me how to vote. Or what they’ve just eaten. Or following a conversation with a mate that should really be conducted by direct messaging. The increase in self-promotion is noticeable, whether it be for a blogpost (i have been guilty myself), a website, a talk or a magazine article (remember those?) - some are worthy, most are understandable, but sometimes they do scream “Me! Me! Me!” I do have the choice to unfollow, or can just ignore those tweets that I know are going nowhere, so I persevere. My early adoption of this platform was not due to being savvy, just down to the fact that it was pioneered as a business tool in my then place of employment.

I believe that I first posted in 2007, took a break in 2010 for a few months and then started up again. It is a medium that I thoroughly enjoy. When I sent my first post out into the ether I sat back and wondered who on earth would find it, let alone read it. But people did, likeminded people, many who had their own blogs. The first two people to ‘comment’ on my post were Tony Morris (St.Margaret’s Bay) and Gavin Haig (Not Quite Scilly). Both are still at it - blogging and commenting that is!  Let’s be honest, most bloggers are show-offs. We tend to post opinion, try to create passages of literary worth or use the platform as cheap expressive therapy - well, at least I’ll admit to all of that. There are thousands of natural history themed blogs out there. Some are very good indeed, but I won’t mention them by name for fear of not mentioning others that are equally worthy. I link up to most of my favourites and you can see them as a list on the right hand side of this screen. Like tweeting, some people cannot help themselves and post most days. Others drip-feed us missives. Some go on spurts of creative activity and drown us in posts only then to withdraw into temporary torpor. There are short posts, long posts, photographic heavy posts. Some blogs allow comments to be made, and the comments section can be an interesting and lively place to go. Rightly or wrongly, I judge whether or not my postings are of any merit based on the number of comments received. Visitor numbers to a blog can be obtained and is quite informative. You can see what posts are the most popular and where the visitors come from. Linking to another blog can be beneficial in more ways than one. You forge an identity with another blogger and can provide another source of visitor to your blog.

Virtual friends
When you tweet and post you are entering into a conversation, albeit through the tapping of a keyboard. To those who respond, or if you respond to them, personal contact is made. You may not be able to see them, or hear their voices, but you can gauge an awful lot about what makes them tick, particularly after a number of contacts. Within just a few short months it is possible to build up quite a dossier on them - where they live, what immediate family they have, how old they are, what they like and dislike - and in some cases you can find yourself in contact with them more regularly than you are with your ‘real’ flesh-and-blood friends. I have actually met up with a couple of my ‘virtual’ friends, and found them to be normal, decent folks. I hope they felt the same about me! The bottom line is that we are entering social discourse and as such there is no reason at all not to consider these people as friends. After all, as Stewart Sexton (a virtual friend) recently pointed out, most of the early naturalists forged friendships through the medium of a pen, writing paper and a stamp issued by the Royal Mail.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

2015 review: Aug - Sep: Nirvana

I began August in Dorset and ended it in Kent, two book-ends that sandwiched a frustrating time spent locally. The plants still enchanted, the odd moth came along that excited (including the back garden's second Small Mottled Willow), but the birding was dire. More great flowering was on show, but this time not in the Banstead area. I give you Thursley Common (above), looking more like a formal garden rather than the random flowering of Heather, Bell Heather and Dwarf Gorse; and West Bay (below), a stunning series of mats of Sea-heath, not a species that I've seen in such profusion before.

The natural history highlight in Dorset was the finding of several Cliff Tiger Beetles on the crumbling undercliffs between Charmouth and Eype. This highly restricted species is quite easy to find in the few places it exists. It must be, if a failed coleopterist such as myself had little trouble in seeking them out.

At the end of August I packed up my bags and headed for the shingle, as Dungeness once again beckoned. I wasn't to know that I was about to experience one of the best weeks in the company of natural history that I have had the fortune to spend. As each day ended I didn't think that it could get better - but it did. The list of highlights on its own isn't enough to convey what went on, even though that list is long and crammed with quality.

There were happenings that were of national relevance. DBO warden Dave Walker had discovered a thriving population of Tree Crickets (above) only the week before I arrived. Apart from two lone individuals (and a colony on Jersey), this was the first known UK colony. Each evening was spent wandering the edge of the trapping area and desert, being serenaded by the singing crickets, reminiscent of balmy evenings spent in the Mediterranean, rather than the Kent shingle. This led to much media coverage, including DW appearing on the BBCs One Show. His appearance fee suddenly shot up. But that was not all on the orthopteran front...

Not content with just Tree Crickets, Dave found a small number of Sickle-bearing Bush Crickets (above) in the same place. I saw up to five of them during my week, with daylight searching often revealing them. These were the first multiple records since the colony near Hastings died out. Elsewhere in the UK it is an exceedingly rare species, usually found as a single wandering vagrant from the continent.

My own personal highlight occurred after a heavy rainstorm on the afternoon of September 1st. I flushed a butterfly off of the shingle, close to the old lighthouse, which then alighted on low gorse. I was staggered to see that it was a male Long-tailed Blue. I took a quick photograph before calling DW on my mobile. The sky was overcast and the butterfly seemed settled, so when it flew a few yards and hid in deeper gorse I was not worried - it would surely stay put. Despite much searching, by up to a dozen people over the next few hours, it was not seen again.

Moths, too, got in on the act. We were witnessing unprecedented numbers of the migrant geometer, The Vestal. There were certainly hundreds, possibly thousands across the peninsula, MV's pulling them in every night and any daytime walk through the long grass resulting in Vestals being flushed. There was ample back up in the form of Convolvulus Hawk-moths, Bordered Straws and Scarce Bordered Straws.

And the birds. They didn't disappoint. Drift migrants included single Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike and Icterine Warbler; two juvenile White-winged Black Terns stayed all week; I saw four out of the eight Honey Buzzards recorded; an Osprey flew over my head while I was trying to relocate the Long-tailed Blue; a short-staying Cattle Egret turned up at Hookers; and most mornings saw the visible migration of Yellow Wagtails, Tree Pipits and Siskins. There was also the small matter of at least three days when hirundine passage was heavy, culminating in low loose flocks of several thousand House Martin and Swallow hawking between the observatory and the lighthouses before heading off SW. These were special days indeed.

The rest of September could be excused for not living up to all of that excess, but one other highlight occurred locally to me, and that was a fine show of Autumn Lady's-tresses (below) on a roadside verge close to the Epsom Downs racecourse grandstands. At least 2,000 of these diminutive orchids were in flower. The autumn was being terribly kind.

Friday, 4 December 2015

2015 review: June-July (part two); local rarities

Sorry Dylan, more premature reminiscences and more flowers...

In June I happened to bump into local botanist Peter Wakeham on Park Downs. He told me about the time that he had been spending at Langley Vale Farm, surveying the plants in light of the Woodland Trusts purchase. My ears pricked up at its mention, as I had spent some time birding the area (from public footpaths) and had botanised some of the field margins over the years (seeing such rarities as Night-flowering Catchfly). The WT had opened up access to a great deal of the farm and his offer of a guided tour was eagerly taken up. We met on a swelteringly hot July 1st, which was the start of my visiting the farm on a regular basis. On that initial visit, Peter showed me Narrow-fruited Cornsalad and Cat-mint, both new species for me.

A couple of weeks later I found myself at a bare, chalky field edge on the north-western side of the farm. One of the first species that I spied was a sizeable Venus's Looking-glass, a declining arable plant (above). I wasn't able to look any further at the time, and wasn't carrying a camera, so returned the following day and found this:

I wasn't able to identify it. It did, however, look familiar - there were faint stirrings in my mind that I had read about it, possibly in the Wildguides Arable Plants book. On my return home, I dug out the literature and was pretty confident that I had found Field (or Corn) Gromwell, another one of those declining arable plants. I sought confirmation and was pleased to receive it from several people. It was the first record in Surrey since 1990. Later that same week, Dennis and Rosie Skinner went along to pay the plant a visit and walked further along the field margin than I had. They found several thousand plants! The farmer has been notified and allowed seed collection to take place. This field is not part of the Woodland Trust purchase. If farming practices stay the same then there is hope that this population will survive.

Not too far away, at Fames Rough, the ploughed strip had helped two national rarities to keep on flowering - Cut-leaved Germander (below top) and Ground Pine (below middle). I also paid Park Downs further visits which resulted in seeing Pale Toadflax (bottom image).

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

2015 review: June - July (part one); The great flowering

Sometimes the natural world decides to take you by surprise and bestow memorable moments when you least expect them. The setting doesn't have to be on the top of a Scottish mountain or at the mouth of a powerful estuary -  it could take place at a humble piece of chalk grassland only minutes from home...

Park Downs is but a twenty minute brisk walk from my front door. Until this year I have spent little time there, but have been aware of its reputation as a reserve that holds a number of notable species. After visiting the place back in March to pay my respects to the present Stinking Hellebore, I made a mental note to return in the summer. I did so in late June.

I came across two fields in particular that blew me away. They were packed with flower, including incredible numbers of orchids. A careful count suggested 6250 Pyramidal and 354 Bee (both below). But these were just a small part of the mass blossoming that had taken place. From a distance the fields looked as if an artists giant watercolour box had bled colour across the grassland (top), and as June turned into July so the colours morphed.

I commented at the time about the profusion of Dropwort on show, which prompted local botanist John Peacock to suggest that I needed to visit nearby Banstead Downs as the show there was even greater. I did, and he was right, but what stunned me even more were the carpets of Kidney Vetch. They formed great mats across the open downland - I have never seen so much anywhere (below)!

At this same time our local butterflies decided to stop playing silly beggars and emerge. Like the flowers, in number! At 08.30hrs one late June morning I was watching several hundred Marbled Whites already in action, flitting above the meadows at Park Downs. Within an hour they had formed a piebald haze, numbering over 1,000. I moved onto nearby Chipstead Bottom to see if such numbers were replicated there, and they were, with a conservative estimate of 1,760, together with 2,270 Meadow Browns. These few days became some of the most memorable days in the field that I have had - anywhere! I felt blessed.

But my local patches had still much to share with me before these two months were up...