Saturday, 30 April 2016

Queen of the Wheatears!

April is now practically consigned to history, and with it comes closure on the 4th ND&B Wheatear Trophy. This year's battle was a more sedate affair, with none of last year's dog fight at the end, which saw skullduggery and underhand tactics - most un-Oenanthe-like!

Our previous winners were:

2013 Gavin Haig (Devon)
With Gavin's return to blogging this year, hopes were high that our very first winner would make an assault on the trophy, especially since he has adopted some prime birding real estate on the Dorset coast. But where was he? He posted absolutely no white-arse images at all!

2014 Martin Casemore (Kent)
When you live at Dungeness, and possess an enormous lens (steady now...), there can be no excuse for not having a go at reclaiming the trophy. Although he started with good, early intent, the pressure must have become too much, as he disappeared to Morocco for ten days at the end of April!! Despite this, he managed a creditable seven white-arses.

2015 Jono Lethbridge (Essex)
The man who is more Wheatear than human saw off the devious methods of Surrey's Peter Alfrey to lift the trophy last year, when he posted a record breaking 33 images. But Jono is a man consumed by short breaks away from Blighty and his mind was clearly not on defending his title. Some say he's burnt out, others that he has become complacent. Whatever the reason, he managed a white-arse count of six for 2016.

So, who are the winners?

Earliest posting
This was shared by two Dungeness shingle-botherers, who posted an image on their blogs during the evening of March 25th. Step forward Martin Casemore and Paul Trodd. They both win a pair of DBO-themed thongs, which they will be all too willing to model during the first good day of Pomarine Skua passage this May, most probably outside of the sea watch hide. Hope the weather's not too cold gents...

Best photograph

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude wins, with this portrait of a female doing what Wheatears do best - perching on a post. The smooth green background helps to define this favourite species of us birders.

The big one... so far we have seen the trophy go to Devon, Kent and Essex. And now, not only do we have our first winner from Hertfordshire, but also our first female winner! Step forward

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude

who posted a final total of 18 White-arses!

As is the way of award ceremonies, Lucy was unavailable to collect her award, as she was busy putting together another fine post on her blog, which can be visited by clicking here. But my people are in touch with her people, and the presentation of the trophy will be taking place on the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon at dawn tomorrow, with traditional maypole dancing and cider drinking laid on for the expected crowds. She will also receive a commemorative 'White Arse' gold medal, which Sir Steven Redgrave has recently said is worth far more than "all of his Olympic gold medals put together..."

This is the last year of the competition. Good things come to an end, and this one has run on for probably too many years already. My thanks to all of those fine bloggers who have made us happier naturalists with the posting of images of one of our finest migrants. Keep 'em coming...

Friday, 29 April 2016

Catching it while I can

One of the downsides of watching (or checking) an area over a number of years is that you sometimes observe a slow (and at times sudden) demise of a species. My visit to Epsom Downs this morning (un)helpfully illustrated this.

I have known a spot at the base of Juniper Hill where Early Purple Orchids grow - not many spikes, but reliably flowering each April. A half-hearted attempt last year failed to find any, and today's more thorough visit had the same outcome. In fact, where I was hoping to find the orchids I was confronted by a mound of dumped soil.  Now gone?

Another place I checked was an area of compacted, stony ground, at the northern end of the downs. This is where I can expect to find Rue-leaved Saxifrage (below). Year on year there are fewer plants. Today there were fewer still. How much longer will this species keep a toe-hold here?

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Few-flowered Garlic

Outside of Headley village church is a dense bank of Few-flowered Garlic. This is now spreading into neighbouring areas, particularly by the small pond that butts up to the church wall. It is quite a sight at the moment and well worth a look if you happen to be passing.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Hard work

Phew, it really was a struggle today. With not much happening at Canons Farm, I went off to Mickleham to see how far forward the chalk downland flora was - answer being 'not that far at all'. I took a few snaps, then came home...

Common Groundhopper - I've not knowingly seen one before - if, indeed, it is one...
Greater Stitchwort - undoubtably out all over the place...
... whereas Bush Vetch is only just starting

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Guiding lights

I'm not old enough to remember the effect that the publication of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe had on the ornithological community in 1954. Written by Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Montfort and Phil Hollom, this took the template from the successful American field guide written by the first mentioned author. Gone were the flowery heroic portraits of birds (such as those by Archibald Thorburn) and in came illustrations whose sole purpose was to educate the reader in the ways of how to identify the species. The text was heavily biased towards this new art of field identification, and the plates helped the reader even further by the use of clearly marked key features - there was no second guessing going on here!

This was but the third bird field guide that I owned. I bought it out of a sense of duty towards its perceived worthiness (as much as I also purchased Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds by Richard Fitter and Richard Richardson). These guides, although historically important and ground breaking in their time, were not the publications that inspired and educated me in my early birding days. That accolade goes to two other titles - first up was The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe by Bertel Bruun and illustrated by Arthur Singer. The chances are that, when first looking for a field guide, this was the one that was available in the bookshop that I visited. But it was exactly what I wanted. Each richly coloured plate faced the relevant text and distribution map (which the earlier guides had failed to do). I spent many hours immersed in this book, turning from plate to plate, fantasising about seeing some of the jewels on offer. To look at it now transports me straight back to the summer of 1974, and one particular August morning in the New Forest when I saw my first Green Woodpecker. The illustration in the book had become real life, and I couldn't quite believe it.

Not long afterwards, another birdwatcher that I knew showed me a copy of The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow. The added attraction of this book was the inclusion of regions outside of Europe, so there were plenty of new species covered, some of which I had never heard of. This became my field guide of choice, although the Hamlyn Guide was never surpassed in the emotional stakes. Both of them became dog-eared, mud-caked and torn over several years of abuse in the field. Sadly, at some misguided moment in later life, they were thrown away because of it.

And so the 1970s became the 1980s that soon passed into the 1990s. What field guides that came along - and many certainly did - failed to register much with me. But in 1992 that all changed when Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East was published by Helm. The author and artist, a Swede called Lars Jonsson, redefined the genre. I had already in my possession five slim tomes by him, not really field guides, more 'birds of habitat' guides, so I was already aware of his prowess with the paintbrush. What we had here was an amalgamation of these books, with hundreds of extra illustrations and species and updated text. To use the term illustration was not really doing them justice - they were works of art that managed to combine emotion with function - the best of both worlds. Gulls were shown in differing ages, possibly a first. The plate of skuas (which I'm looking at now) almost fly off of the page, full of menace. It became the 'go to' publication.

And that's the way it stayed until 1999 when the Collins Bird Guide came along and blasted everything else out of the water. A long time in the making, the text was written by Lars Svensson and Peter Grant. This was a more thorough treatment that we had been used to, getting to the nub of the many problems in putting the correct name to a species. Not surprising as it was written by the foremost field ornithologists of the time. So far, so good. But what can you say about the illustrations by Dan Zetterstrom and Killian Mullarney? Well, they out-Jonssoned Jonsson! Every plate is more than a representation of the species. We are treated to a stunning array of angles, ages and postures, plus tiny vignettes than convey the jizz of a bird with just a couple of brush stokes. You can spend days lost in this book, weeks wandering around the plates. I take it everywhere with me. When the second edition came out I just had to have it, as so much had moved on in the world of identification and taxonomy. And will do the same if there is a third edition...

Will there be another game-changing field guide? I have my doubts. The use of phones and tablets in the field will surely mean that any future guides will be aimed at video, sound-recording and image recognition. I have an app on my phone that can recognise almost any music that I play to it - how long before I can hold my phone up to a bird song or call and have it instantly identified, or capture a bird on a camera and be told what it is? In some ways I hope that day never comes, because that would then remove the skills needed to be able to identify what is before you. And where would the fun be in that?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Almost lilliputian flora

For an inland botanist, a trip to Dungeness is an eye-opener in many ways. The suite of plants present will obviously be different to the ones that you are used to and even those that you are familiar with can appear very different indeed. The windswept and open nature of the shingle, the paucity of soil and dryness can all combine to stunt growth. This is no more apparent than in the populations of Blackthorn and Broom that lie, prostrate, across much of the shingle.

I've crouched down to take the photograph above of this Blackthorn bush, most probably a foot high at the most, and this is not as small as they get. Some fight for light with the lichens that surround them! These are no young specimens that will soon tower all around them, but decades old bushes, older than you and I.

Some plants just are small, plain and simple. The Early Forget-me-not is coming out in flower across the shingle right now, but from head height it can be a struggle to see the flowers. My placing of a penny next to a plant illustrates this nicely.

Another tiny flower belongs to Spring Vetch, although I left the penny in my pocket on this occasion.

Last up is Shepherd's Cress, small (but not Lilliputian) and at the moment there must be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of plants across the peninsula. Dungeness is its only known locality in the county of Kent. But being of small stature, the carpeting of the shingle can go unnoticed.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Mining bee's-knees at Dungeness

I've just come back from a few days at Dungeness, my first visit since the lengthy late-autumn sojourn. A cool airstream that emanated from colder places to the north and west of the UK are not conducive to Mediterranean over-shoots, but a few migrants did brave the conditions. As ever, the reserve's resident flagship species were readily on view.  Highlights were Black-necked Grebe, Great White Egret, Bittern, Tundra Bean Goose, Whimbrel, Iceland Gull, Little Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Black Tern, Ring Ouzel, Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Bearded Tit and Raven.

Still on the subject of 'flying things', I was keen to catch up with the very rare and localised Grey-backed Mining Bee (Andrena vaga). Since 2010 it has become established in Hampshire and Kent, with a colony being discovered on the RSPB reserve at Dungeness by David Walker.  For some reason (bad timing, woeful neglect) I had failed to see them - until now. My first two visits of this trip to the colony coincided with cold, overcast and wet conditions - I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. But then yesterday things looked promising - the sun came out, and away from the cold wind it was quite warm - and, most importantly, the bees agreed! The RSPB are rightfully proud of this colony and advertise its presence (on a steep sandy bank as you approach Dennis's Hide). All they ask is that you do not go crawling up the bank - the bees will come down to you with patience. I managed to get a few passable images that are below.

Back at the observatory, with the local expertise of David Walker, I was able to also see Andrena clarkella, Andrena barbilalris and Andrena flavipes. My stumble down the pan-listing league table has been partially halted!

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

40 years, White-arses and a Gos

40 years
On April 12th 1976 - 40 years ago to the very day - my 17-year old self first set foot on Dungeness and entered No. 11 RNSS, better known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. This is what I thought at the time...

My first impression of Dungeness is not a favourable one. It appears an open waste of shingle, strewn with ramshackle dwellings and set against the vast nuclear power station that has squeezed perspective to such an extent that it appears two-dimensional, as if it were merely an enormous theatrical backdrop. Peering from the car making its way along the single road towards the peninsula’s point, I’m wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. I am about to join a four-day bird-watching course being held at Dungeness Bird Observatory.

The focal point of our passage along to the peninsula’s snout is always the power station, dwarfing the two lighthouses that as recently as 1960 had been the tallest buildings for miles around. My attention then turns towards the shacks, half in wonder as to who could possibly live in them, the other half searching frantically in their small gardens for any movement that will betray the presence of a rare migrant bird – after all, Dungeness is famous for rare migrant birds. In my naivety I somehow expect that there will always be one about. I pass the new, smartly liveried lighthouse on my left and am soon upon the older, decommissioned version, which looks far more like what a lighthouse should do. It is squatter, fatter and looks as if it has stood firm and seen off many a storm.  I can imagine heavily bearded men in cable sweaters manning the light during times of peril at sea. The new one smacks of not needing people at all – which in some respects it doesn’t. Terribly efficient no doubt but terribly bland all the same.

At the old light the road violently kinks and sends us on our way along the perimeter fence of the Power Station. We virtually cower from the monstrous buildings, not just one vast station but two, with a plethora of outbuildings, pipes, huts and industrial bric-a-brac spilling like innards from their sides. As we approach the cottages, which house the bird observatory, we note that they have seemingly been barricaded from the threat of nuclear fall-out with a high-sided moat. The road breaches this earth mound as if it were a lowered drawbridge. Entering the inner sanctum of the mound, there is, before me, the not unattractive end cottage, 11 Royal Naval Service Signal Station, Dungeness, Kent – otherwise known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. 

I didn't know it at the time, but I had just started an infatuation that has lasted a life time.

With hardly any fuss at all, the ND&B Wheatear challenge has been percolating in the background. Nobody has so far made a mad dash for glory, and none of last year's excesses have been replicated. But I do detect a little bit of fidgeting in the ranks. One or two bloggers have started to slowly, but surely, add Wheatear images to their posts. There are still another 18 days left for uploading...

A Gos
This morning at Canons Farm, Geoff Barter and I had a huge female Goshawk go through northwards, quite low. We soon lost it behind trees. My second record for the site.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Project awoken

Even after 40+ years of birding, this fascinating subject can still surprise me. I am no nearer to being settled in the way that I pursue it, and that in itself is something to be glad of. Each passing year sees me taking on new areas, returning to old ones, putting a bit more effort in, or a little less. So far in 2016 I have found myself being drawn into visiting Pulborough Brooks more often (now overdue a return) and giving the fields and woods of Canons Farm more time than is healthy. This latter site is having something of a purple patch (relatively speaking!) what with White-fronted Geese, Mediterranean Gulls, Iceland Gull, Short-eared Owl, Dartford Warbler and Hawfinch all having been recorded this year. To that can also be added Gadwall (site first - there is no water here), Ring Ouzel and Redstart. Another dimension to the birding experience on the farm is the attraction that the fields can have for birds when the conditions are right for feeding - there have been large flocks of Chaffinches (up to 1200), Linnets (300), Woodpigeons (1000), Stock Doves (350) and several hundred corvids.

Spurred on by this, I have reawakened an old project that had been sitting on the back-burner, that of an historical account of the ornithological record of the 'high ground' close to my home. Much of this is what could be termed 'ornithologically poor', but that really does do disservice to what is a fascinating, if water-free, area. I had started to retrieve data from old bird reports and county avifaunas, and early indications are that the final account may well surprise a few people out there. Some of these places have been birded, on and off, for many decades. To read of breeding Corncrake, Red-backed Shrike, Wryneck.... well, it brings a tear to the eye. Walton and Epsom Downs, Walton and Banstead Heath, Headley Heath, Banstead Downs, the Cheam parks, they're are all included. Oh, and Canons Farm of course!

When complete I will produce it in pdf format so that any interested party can have a copy. I've done this sort of thing before, when collating all of my own personal birding data for my 'uber patch' (left). It kept me quiet for hours, and being kept on the computer means that it is constantly updated. I also produced a similar reports on lepidoptera and plants. This new project is on a larger scale. It may take some time to complete, but I'll keep you posted...

Friday, 8 April 2016

Quiet despair, intense pleasure

It has been a week of mixed work and pleasure. Sitting in an office, trying to remember how to use various software and systems does keep my mind sharp I suppose, and it also reminds me of how to interact socially. If I were just to spend my time walking footpaths and meeting birders then I would soon become a social misfit. Enough said...

My visits to Canons Farm have neatly summed up the lot of a patch watcher - periods of quiet despair punctuated by moments of intense pleasure (this is all relative, you understand!). The joy has come courtesy of both male Ring Ouzel and Common Redstart (below), those eagerly anticipated 'next drawer up' migrants, not quite a Stone Curlew but better than a Willow Warbler. There has also been a marked passage of Common Buzzards. We have 14-15 local birds, with any 360 degree scan of the sky on a fair day resulting in buteo excess. We know where the territories are, where the 'spare' birds hang out, so can gage when migrants pass through. It does help to identify them when they come in groups (up to six) or are escorted off the premises by the breeders. A few Red Kites have also joined in the fun. The fields have had heavy machinery on them, and this disturbance has resulted in a corvid and pigeon feeding frenzy - up to 300 Stock Dove are the current highlight. What with singing Skylarks and Yellowhammers on hand, it is a most agreeable place to be at the moment.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Policing forums

There has been quite a bit going on in the world of forums and blogging. I won't name names, but a few bird-themed places that I spend some quality cyber-time have been getting their knickers in a twist. You see, even though people are invited to comment on them, the administrators of these sites have seen it fit to 'moderate' and delete postings.

Of course, there are times when the need to delete will be the proper course of action - homophobic comments, racist insults, bad taste - I don't think many will disagree with that. But sometimes the removal of words is down to personal bias, political manoeuvring or petty point scoring. This is where waters get muddied.

When anybody seeks response (such as I do on this blog), it is like leaving your front door open with a sign outside that says 'All welcome, come on in'. Trouble is, you don't know who will walk in. But all have been invited. If I were to round up the first 200-300 people who walk past my house, chances are there are going to be a few nutters, a few who are opinionated, a few more who are argumentative. As long as any discussion is done so in a controlled manner, there is room for them all (even the nutters!)

For my blog, it's just me. I can delete a comment if I find it offensive. I've only ever deleted half a dozen over the years, and they were all adverts that had wormed their way in. I keep any 'negative' responses alive, and try to reason with them. However, a forum is a bit different. You need moderators as these sites are under group 'ownership', normally a way of allowing members of clubs and societies to have a good old natter and disseminate information. If these get hijacked by troublemakers, then such contributors need to be sorted out - a quiet direct message to begin with, followed by a warning, then expulsion if they persist. But one person's 'troublemaker' might be another person's 'champion'. When does the line get crossed? Who decides where the line is drawn? Tricky stuff...

More than one forum has been closed down because of infighting. Dissent can spread like a disease. It takes the skill of an international peace envoy to keep everybody happy. It is a thankless task carried out by volunteers. I applaud them all - as long as they leave my posts alone!!!

Friday, 1 April 2016

When 'empty' doesn't really mean empty

I've just come back from a relatively lengthy spell of birding over at Canons Farm. As I left the place I tweeted out the following:

After a six hour stint, I'm off. There's only so much empty sky a man can take.

This comment was made due to a fair-sized dollop of disappointment - what with a southerly airflow, and plenty of migrants having been recorded elsewhere during the week, I really thought that we would be in with a chance of picking up some stuff. At least a Swallow, maybe a Willow Warbler and even a fly-through Marsh Harrier or Osprey. But none of these materialised (the last two species mentioned unsurprisingly). There were four of us out looking as well, so the patch was being well covered.

Empty sky? Did I really mean that? Looking at my notebook, that really was harsh. 10+ Common Buzzard. 1 Peregrine. 2 Greylag Geese (maybe not 'patch gold', but certainly 'patch bronze'), a smart male Brambling, a female Stonechat, a flock of 80+ Linnet, half a dozen Chiffchaff, and up to six of these...

We still get Yellowhammers. Not many places around the edge of London do. We had up to 50+ during the winter and maybe 2-3 pairs will breed. So, empty sky? Hardly.