Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The jewel of the mountain top

4. Rock Speedwell (Veronica fruticans)

Early July, 2008. A vile day, with swirling force 6-8 winds thrashing heavy rain about with violent abandon. Not a day for botanising, and certainly not a day to be at the top of Ben Lawers, the most famous of the Scottish botanical mountains, with a feast of alpine plants not equalled elsewhere. But here I was, soaked to the skin, barely able to see further than 100m in front of me, and at times that view was down to 10m. Fortunately the path is well marked and worn, and as long as I kept to it and did not wander from it, I was safe.

I had been sheltered somewhat from the elements by Ben Ghlass's shoulder, but, as I ventured towards the final stretch of the summit path the weather got at me unimpeded. What part of me that was dry now became very wet indeed. Every so often the fog-like cloud parted for a few seconds to reveal the way ahead. A boulder strewn grassy rise led up to the cliff base but it was not until I was close to this wall of rock that I could appreciate the size of it towering above me. The maelstrom gave the mountainside a forbidding persona, a roaring shriek seemingly emanating from the vertiginous weeping rock. I found the 'botanists path' that hugs the very base of the cliff and held on to the vegetation hanging over the lower shelfs. Slippery under foot, with the wind grabbing at me, I was aware of the steep decent below and was reminded of this every now and again as the swirling cloud broke up to reveal my fate should I fall.

I inched along the cliff base, with each careful step rewarded with yet more botanical wonders - Rose-root, Alpine Forget-me-not, Purple Saxifrage, Hoary Whitlow-grass, Mountain Whitlow-grass, Alpine Fleabane... this was worth every minute of wet discomfort. I reached a narrowing of the path, the wet grass trying to slide me away from my firm footing, so I reached up to grab hold of the jutting rock face and pull myself up higher - and as I did so came face-to-face with this...

In my sudden fit of excitement I almost lost my balance and fell down into the scree field below. Bloody hell, Rock Speedwell! I had longed for this moment during the months leading up to the trip. The pictures did not do it justice. Two perfectly formed flowers, shining out from the dull sodden turf. Like jewels in the dirt. Even though the rain still fell and the wind tried to whip my camera away, I had to try and take a picture. Needless to say, they did not come out well. The picture above was taken on the following morning, when the sun shone and these little beauties were also out...

Alpine Gentian - not in the Top 12, but possibly should be!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

More green stuff

Two delicate plants for you this morning, both being quite local around here. On the left is Common Valerian. I found a few tall specimens growing on a chalky slope above Chipstead Bottom, and even though I have walked past this spot many times before, have not previously seen it here. And on the right is Pale Toadflax, a modest but rather fine species, which is found sparingly on Park Downs. A quick check at Fames Rough revealed a flowering Ground Pine (looking sickly) and the few Cut-leaved Germander plants that are present are now heavily in bud.

There were modest numbers of Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns on the wing, a scattering of Large Skippers, but butterfly numbers still seem depressed to me.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Ribena and red wine

5. Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum palustre)

This is a very local species in the SE of England, and I have only seen it in two places - Thundry Meadows (Surrey) and - yes, you've guessed it - Dungeness (Kent). In fact, the latter site is the only place in Kent that it is found. It is having a very good 2016 on the shingle, with clearance work across the northern part of the bird observatory recording area having opened up habitat enabling it to flower for the first time since 1984. There are other sites nearby, such as the Oppen Pits on the RSPB reserve, where a discrete population has endured.

I was entranced by the flower long before I saw it. Not many have such a colouring - a cross between Ribena and red wine. And not many look as if they were the product of someone skilled in the art of soft furnishing. My first encounter with Marsh Cinquefoil was on a misty June dawn at Thundry Meadows, and I was not disappointed. Even in the half light it shimmered at me, an exotic flower in a bed of sedge and rush. It was some years later that I saw the species again, at the Oppen Pits, Dungeness.

Part of the reason for the high positioning of Comarum palustre on my list is down to an association with one of the magical places where I have seen it. The Oppen Pits are the only natural water source at Dungeness and are away from public access. I was given permission to visit them in 2012, when I hadn't been there for over 30 years. I chose a beautiful sunny and warm day in July to revisit, and one of my aims was to see this plant. I found plenty. The mix of maroony-red flower and deep green vegetation is a plush feast for the eyes - there is something slightly alien (even disturbing) about it, an out-of-placeness that just adds to the thrill of coming across it. To seek it out it is best to head to the north and west - and take a pair of wellington boots with you...

The Oppen Pits - an enchanted place with the added attraction of Marsh Cinquefoil

Friday, 24 June 2016

"I'm going to pick up my binoculars and walk out the front door - I may be some time"

I tweeted that at 09.00hrs, a few hours after coming to terms with the fact that this country had decided to vote to leave the EU. I can honestly say that I have never been so angry, confused and felt so impotent over a political decision. It was a referendum that did not need to happen, but did so because of petty party political infighting.

I took myself off to Denbigh's Hillside, close to Dorking, to clear my head. I sat down and started to put all of what had happened into some sort of order.

The bare facts are that 51.9% of those who voted opted to Leave, and 48.1% opted to Remain. For such a far reaching decision, it seems almost too narrow a margin to allow any progress to continue. This isn't just a case of the UK coming out of the EU. It has opened up massive chasms between the generations; a deeper fracturing of a fragile United Kingdom; a widening class divide; Northern Ireland and Gibraltar now facing up to being on closed borders; enormous worry for UK passport holders who are living (or working) in the EU (and the same applying to non-UK EU nationals living or working in the UK); cuts to EU funding of science and the arts; removal of environmental protections; possible erosion of workers rights.

The political landscape across Europe might not be all that smooth and easy at the moment, but us leaving the EU does no good at all to the efforts to steady it. There are military threats on its edge that a united Europe would be better placed to keep at bay. The humanitarian crises that surround our region need compassion applied on a broad front, and do not need a major player in the EU family (which we are) walking the other way, pretending not to be a part of it. We will now have an unelected PM. We will now have the most uninspiring set of politicians entrusted to try to sort this mess out. It is a time for leaders, not negligent pupils who have been caught out having not swotted up for their exams.

The youth of this country have been let down by the (largely) comfortably-off over 50s. The statistics say it all: 18-24 year olds voted 75% Remain, 25-49 year olds voted 56% Remain; 50-64 year olds voted 44% Remain and the over 65s voted 39% Remain. So the generation that enjoyed years of full employment, disposable income, golden pensions, affordable home ownership and the chance of early retirement have bestowed upon the youngsters (who have none of the benefits above) even more uncertainties. Thanks Mum, thanks Dad, thanks Nan and thanks Grandad. And why did they decide to play a highly risky game of chance with a future in which they will mostly not be alive to see the consequences of their actions? Just so they could stick two fingers up at Brussels? So that they can have wonky carrots back in the market place? Because of the immigrants? The truth is, we are all, back in time, immigrants. So this game of Russian roulette has been played, with little care (or, it seems, little planning) in the unlikely event that a vote for 'Leave' might actually be carried. It won't happen after all.... will it? I have heard more than one person say that they voted 'Leave' as a protest vote, but didn't think that it would all come to this. Well it has. For every boorish, pub-drunk-like clenched fist of triumph, there are many worried, confused and disenfranchised people, who didn't ask for this. And many that did ask for it, I wouldn't mind betting, are wishing that they didn't.

My troubled mind was soothed by a modest emergence of Marbled Whites. They seemed oblivious to the unrest going on across Europe, as too were the Bee, Pyramidal and Chalk Fragrant Orchids. In fact, I had found a haven away from real life, so was all the angst elsewhere nothing but a bad dream?

Our next PM might well be Boris Johnson, the same man that wants to build London's third airport on the Thames estuary. He won't need to worry about the environmental impact, because without the EU there will be no-one around to stop him. He may well preside over Great Britain turning into Little England. A good friend of mine - 69 years old and a Remain voter - has been in tears this afternoon. He wants to apologise for what his contemporaries have forced upon the younger generations who are, after all, the ones that will have to deal with all the fall-out of this. Maybe it is the beginning of the dying of the old political orders. Youth needs to invent their own and put right this xenophobic, small-minded mess that we have witnessed today.

I need another beer...

I will leave you with the image above. I came across a Second World war pill box on my walk, and thought it apt for today - looking out across the scarp towards the south coast, waiting and watching for the threat of invasion...

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Warm air perfumed

6. Water Mint (Mentha aquatica)

This species is really the twin of my last selection (Ragged Robin). As with that species, it came to my notice by being one of the plants that populated the wet flushes on the shingle at Dungeness. I often smelt it before seeing it, at times in subtle wafts, and at others it could be overpowering, depending on whether or not I had just crushed some leaves underfoot. The flower cannot be described as anything but modest, but is recognisable from a distance, as each neat 'ball' tops another, discretely strewn amidst the vegetation.

You can find it where there is water, whether a damp flush, a village pond or a stream-side bank. I have it growing in my small garden pond, where it is a great attractant to a wide range of bees, flies, wasps and moths. Just sit for an hour and watch the winged procession come and visit. It is easy to plant and will spread across the pond by creeping rhizomes. I look for the spikes each summer and am delighted when I am sure that it will be flowering again - there are a minimum of 15 at the moment.

It reaches so high in my Top 12 by association - the minty whiff transports me back to carefree summers on the shingle, drowsy afternoons when the birding had gone quiet but there was pleasure to be found by meandering through the sallow bushes, dragonflies and damselflies taking flight, insects busy and the warm air perfumed by Mentha aquatica...

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Torn ribbons

7. Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi)

This is another species that buried itself deep into my subconsciousness by being a plant that was with me at the start of my 'Dungeness time'. Back in the mid-70s I could be found regularly helping out with the bird ringing, and as such trudged across the shingle and through the sallow bushes from net-site to net-site day-in, day-out. The wet flushes that were found out on the shingle had their own community of flowers, many not found away from them. These, even to my bird-obsessed mind became little icons, friendly markers appearing by the damp edges.

The coral-pink, deeply-indented petals had got my attention, made me take notice, and encouraged me to find out what it was called. It looked like torn ribbons to me. "Ragged Robin," I was told. I liked that name. And it is a species that still brings a smile to my face whenever I stumble across it. It is not a plant that I see much locally, more's the pity.

Monday, 20 June 2016

The evening perfume

8. Nottingham Catchfly (Silene nutans)

Back in the mid-seventies, when we all wore long hair and flared trousers, my first visits to Dungeness were all about birds. Birds, birds and more birds. But a couple of plants crept into my subconsciousness, by dint of having some more enlightened birders close by who also looked at other life forms that did not necessarily possess feathers. One of these species was Nottingham Catchfly.

I was told that it was rare and that Dungeness most probably held more of it than anywhere else in the UK, and that is all I needed to know to embrace it as a 'worthy' flower. In time I got to know it well, knew where the best populations were and it slowly became an iconic part of my 'Dungeness experience'. - the shingle would have felt bereft without it.

I spent the summer of 1979 at the Bird Observatory. Back then, during late June and July the peninsula used to be vacated by birders, so there were many days when it was just me at the point (warden Nick Riddiford having gone to study seabirds on the Salvage Islands for a few weeks). These few weeks were blessed with fine weather and the company of my botanical friend, the catchfly. It was in fine form. The banks of the moat were full of it, and each evening, in a sinking golden sunlight, I would wander through it, breathing in the sweet scent that was being released to attract night-flying insects and moths (including the stunning White Spot). Instead it had ensnared me.

In 2012 I returned to Dungeness, for the whole month of July. Was it an attempt to relive that wonderful time in 1979? Maybe. As luck would have it, that month saw an amazing flowering across the peninsula, the like of which had not been seen before. Nottingham Catchfly was one of those species that were having a tremendous year - great banks of it, taller and lusher than I have ever seen it. I felt as if it were a personal welcome back to the mid-summer shingle.

Number 8... a bit low really, it should be higher, but when I compiled this list, that's where it ended up. Lists are daft things anyway...

Saturday, 18 June 2016

I wouldn't mind seeing one of these!

Sometimes a fortunate observer (whilst toiling in the field) will find something that will grab your attention. It will grip you by the collar and shake you like a rag doll. It will make you want to see it. It will make you want to give up your right and left arm to do so. What sort of species could make you feel this way? Something like this...

A big, colourful, obvious and very rare beetle. It's called, Calosoma sycophanta. Also known as The Sycophant....

I didn't find it or see it. Graeme Lyons did. He took the picture above that I hope he doesn't mind me using - after all, I'm bigging him up and suggesting that you read his account of the 'find of the decade' by clicking here.

I had spent a most miserable morning on Park Downs, soaked through from my toes up to my thighs via the medium of wet grass, suffering from a mild bout of labyrinthitis, and coming to the conclusion that the orchid meadow that hosted so many Bees and Pyramidals last year is not going to be so well attended in this year. I came home deflated. And then I saw Graeme's posting about his wonderful find. It made me want to put back on my saturated socks, shoes and trousers and get back out into the field. Maybe not for a Sycophant (although I would not grumble if there was one that showed up), but just because this event shows the rewards that are out there.

Graeme is an avid field worker. He has earned this moment in the sun. He will have others. But to find such stuff you need to be out there looking, not sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Number 9: Botanical pom-pom

9. Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

Chalk downland is a favourite habitat of mine, no doubt influenced by the fact that I am surrounded by it. There are certain plants that grow there which are joyous representatives - Wild Thyme, Fairy Flax, Marjoram, Dropwort, Horseshoe Vetch and, in my opinion, best of the lot, Kidney Vetch.

It has the 'yellow and orange' petal colouration that could remind you of Bird's-foot Trefoil (that would undoubtably be found close by), but unlike that plant the flower heads are like pom-poms, all snuggled down on a bed of white fluffy hair. It is the product of a natural history craft fair! Although often found in discrete patches, sometimes it can dominate the short turf, such as that witnessed on Banstead Downs last summer (above). If you do find a lot of it, be on the look-out for the Small Blue butterfly, that uses Kidney Vetch as its foodplant.

Apparently it takes the 'Kidney' part of its name from the shape of its flowerhead. Pom-pom Vetch seems more apt to me...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Number 10: A local rarity

10. Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys)

Barry Banson, a fellow birder and long-time botanist, had often tried to encourage me to take up 'looking at the green stuff' without success. He would often mention a place called Fames Rough, and would point out that it was very close to where I lived, and that I really should go along and try and seek out two of the rare species that were present - Cut-leaved Germander and Ground-pine. In fact, I did accompany Barry to that very place in 1981, but we didn't find either of them (not that I would have known what I was looking at anyway).

Fast forward to 1998. Barry's badgering over the years had paid off, and I was at the start of my immersion into all things botanical. I was still very green behind the ears and was gently finding my way into the process of trying to identify the bewildering array of species that appeared wherever I looked (pavement cracks, flower beds, roadside verges, footpath edges). Fames Rough beckoned, and that meant Ground-pine! The field guides depicted a strange, but obvious plant, one that even I could manage. On 28th June I travelled the short distance to Chipstead Bottom, and, after a period of confusion as to whether or not I was actually at Fames Rough, bumped into a couple who were out looking at the flowers. They sent me in the right direction. Fames Rough was a long, narrow clearing, bordered by wood and copse. Ground-pine was a small plant. Needles and haystacks sprang to mind.

To cut a long story short, I found a few plants. Once my eye was in, and I realised that I needed to look for disturbed ground to increase my chances of success, I found a few more. It was a modest plant, quite small, shy of flower and unassuming. You could look away from an individual plant that was at your feet, look back, and not see it! But close up... well, it had a great deal of character. Strange, wiry, hairy leaves. Small isolated yellow flowers. I was instantly smitten!

Each year I return to Fames Rough to check on Ground-pine. No two years are the same. Sometimes it goes missing - you see, it has a few problems (which is why it is only found at only c10 sites in the UK, mainly on the chalk in Surrey and Kent). This species really needs constant disturbance - it cannot compete with the coarse plants and grasses which will colonise and smother its preferred habitat. Loss of grazing, fewer field margins and the use of herbicides and fertilisers are all other nails in its coffin. Thanks to the Downlands Project, the Fames Rough Ground-pine population is helped by the 'ploughing' of a small strip (on a not quite annual basis). This not only clears the surface vegetation but also brings up the buried seed bank. Fortunately, Ground-pine seed is long-lived. This work is necessary to maintain this rare species. The few rabbits present do not produce enough disturbance to help it much. And this is how 'my' Ground-pine plants survive.

Sometimes this plant will pop up unexpectedly and surprise a lucky botanist. It happened to me on 22nd June 2004. I was walking along the chalk scarp west of Colley Hill (underneath Juniper Hill) and came across an area that had been totally cleared of scrub the year before. I could see some Hound's-tongue further up the slope so walked towards it (I do like Hound's-tongue). But before I got there I was staggered to be confronted by not one, not two, but 20 big, healthy, flowering Ground-pine (see top image). They were spread across several metres. This really was a once in a lifetime find. I returned the following year and could find none. The vegetation had smothered them. However, the seed is still there, lying buried, waiting to be liberated once more...

I have a fondness for Ground-pine that verges on having a personal connection with it. This is down to it being a local speciality, having been one of the first rarities that I saw and also because of that tremendous encounter on Juniper Hill. Even if I live to 100, I will return to Fames Rough each year in the hope that it will still be there, and if it is, I will quietly celebrate its continued survival.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Number 11 - Double delight

11. Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

For a southern botanist, the lure of Scotland, and its wealth of plants, is very strong indeed. My only trips north of the border had been when the 'leafy stuff' did not figure in my thoughts - it had been all 'birds, birds, birds' back then, and I must have walked straight past a wealth of botanical delights on my quests for Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle and Crested Tit. I looked back on this myopic treatment of the natural history around me and shuddered...

In the summer of 2006 I aimed to right these botanical wrongs and, together with Derek Coleman, set out on a grand tour of the highlands. As much as our wish list was heavily populated by the many alpine specialities on offer, there was one plant that I wished to see above all others - Twinflower.

On 27th June we arrived at Culbin Forest, a large pine plantation on the edge of the Moray Firth. This was home to One-flowered Wintergreen and Creeping Lady's-Tresses amongst others - both of which we saw with relative ease - but my main target was nowhere to be found. After several hours of flogging the trails we had all but resigned ourselves to 'dipping' on Linnaea borelis, when we happened to come across a forestry worker. He knew plenty about the flowers of the forest and, yes, he knew of an area where Twinflower had recently been seen. The area he described (close to a carved tree trunk) was somewhere that we had walked past earlier in the day,  so we turned around and hot-footed it back. The path in this area was raised above the immediate forest floor, and we had not wandered away from the level surface earlier in the day - our forester friend had suggested that we needed to leave the path and descend the bank. This we did. A few minutes of wandering had still not provided any success. I could see some red tape tied across two tree trunks further ahead - this seemed odd in so remote a place - and then I was upon it... and knee deep in a large patch of Twinflower!

It was a delicate, dainty plant, with small bell-shaped flowers, paired nodding above neat oval leaves. The flowers were hoisted on thin stems above a creeping, open mat of vegetation that was several metres square. We were lit by a diffuse light that filtered down upon us from the vibrant green leaf canopy above. Magical.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The start of a banal, pointless Top 12

A few posts ago, I suggested that if I were to produce a list of my favourite plants, it would be an act of banality.

So here it is.

I managed to make a list of 24 species, which I whittled down to 12 without too much difficulty. Rather than going with the conventional Top 10 you're going to get a Top 12 - you lucky, lucky people. As always, if I were to produce this list next month (or, to be honest, tomorrow), it would most probably change. So, for the first post, and in descending order:

12. Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
This species was, in my world at least, a myth for an awful long while. I just never came across it. The feeling seemed to be that it pops up out of the blue, stays but briefly, and disappears just as quickly. Plus it isn't common in Surrey. There was also 'something of the night' about it, not just the species ghostingly brief appearances, but its veined petals, apparently foul smell and, last but not least, its poisonousness. Possibly a plant that came from an evil or alien place...

My first meeting with it came as one big surprise. On June 26th 2010, whilst out on a family walk along the banks of the River Mole close to Mickleham, we came across a farmer's field that had been filled with all sorts of muck and slurry the previous year. The bare sloshy mess that I had seen a few months before had became a mass of vegetation, including some 20+ strange looking, large, fleshy, trifid-like plants. They looked decidedly odd and not a little disturbing. I think I knew what they were in an instant. A closer approach confirmed them as Henbane! And they did not disappoint.

Since then I have not clapped eyes on another. A return visit to the same field the following year revealed lots of neat grass but no Henbane. Its mystery is still intact.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

More moth bothering

Well, this infestation of Plutella xylostella has certainly livened up the moth scene no end - it was starting to look like the poor spring was also infecting the early summer. I hadn't been putting the trap out seeing it has been so damn chilly and damp most nights. But now the moth Gods have decided to dump millions upon millions of the little darlings across the country. Some counts (or at least educated estimates) that are being announced are just staggering. The true total will never be known, but that doesn't take away anything from the sheer spectacle being strewn before us. On a parochial level, things stepped up last night, with the single MV in the garden holding 784 xylostella this morning.

Numbers of macro moths are still depressed though, worryingly so here in Banstead. However, there were two (no, three) highlights along with all of those tiny migrants, namely Cypress Carpet (above, second garden record) and two Grass Rivulets (below, second and third records). A single Silver Y was also the first for the year.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

What a difference 37 years makes...

I was leafing through my 1979 diary this afternoon, looking up what that particular year's June had to offer, when I came across an entry from June 24th. I was then acting as assistant warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory, and had gone out into the recording area where...

"I conducted a survey, plotting singing Reed Buntings and Yellowhammers. The trapping area provided 4 Reed and 6 Yellow; the lower long pit 6 Reed and 2 Yellow; the upper long pit 11 Reed and 5 Yellow; revealing totals of 21 pairs of Reed Bunting and 13 pairs of Yellowhammer."

Any current shingle-lurker will know that if you repeated this survey now, you would find no Yellowhammers at all. They've long gone. The last DBO report (2014) records just four single birds each on a single date - and that was considered a 'good' year!

Back in 1979, the ever-present song of Yellowhammers and the almost daily capture of them in the mist nets were an expected part of my summer / early autumn stay at the observatory. I took it all for granted. In 2016, not only have they abandoned the greater Dungeness area, but most of the inland Walland Marsh as well.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Bees have started to buzz!

A very brief wander through the Park Downs 'orchid meadows' revealed three Bee Orchids - last year there were several hundred, so I'm hoping that there are plenty more to come. It was only a few days ago that I posted about the Grass Vetchling at this site, so it was with some surprise to see that the amount in flower had increased greatly. There are tens of thousands on show at the moment, more than I've seen at any time, anywhere. Another great memory for the botanical mind library.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Old camera outing

I have an old DSLR - a Canon 400D - that must be getting on for 12 years old now. At the time of purchase I also obtained a Canon 60mm macro lens - mainly for taking photos of moths at rest. For a while I studiously set the camera up on a tripod, used a remote control thingy and made sure that the depth of field and light was good enough to obtain passable results of the said resting moths. And then I got lazy...

My compact Panasonic camera could take excellent shots with minimal fuss, so I just used that - no setting up, no trial and error, just click and move on. A bit soulless though.

The other day I dusted down the old gear and took it out into the field at Box Hill. Pointed the 60mm at a few plants. Shown here are Sainfoin (top and middle) and Common Milkwort (bottom). Was quite pleased with the results. Of course depth of field is an issue (they were taken with an automatic setting) but in some ways it is quite effective having all but a focus point 'blurry'. I'm trying to convince myself that I really need a 100mm macro. The trouble with the 60mm is that you need to get very close to the subject, which isn't always workable if the subject can fly away (i.e. a butterfly or insect). Can I justify the expense? I already have some relatively expensive lenses that have just gathered dust (not literally!!) in the camera bag over the years, so I do wonder if it might just hide and join them if I did go out and get one.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Xylostella overload

Sometimes a lepidoptera migration event comes along that makes us aware about the vast numbers of individuals that can be involved. Tales of beach tidelines of dead Silver Y's, shimmering clouds of Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies above grassy meadows, Bordered Straws and Vestals popping up in MV's across the country... they become folklore and fodder for reminiscences for the years ahead. And now we can add to this list the great Plutella xylostella invasion of 2016. This very small, nondescript (until you look at it under a lens) micro moth has arrived on our shores in unprecedented numbers, mainly on the eastern side of the UK, but also well inland.

They have arrived during a spell of dull, wet and cool weather and, so far at least, this movement is not associated with any other migrant species. Better men than me will come up with an explanation for all of this. What is obvious is that there has been an arrival of millions - they are being disturbed in big numbers from grassland all over the place, and MV traps are full of them. My own garden MV here in Banstead recorded 98 of them on Wednesday morning - to put this in perspective, the last time I recorded them in high numbers (1996) I counted 222 between June 7th and August 22nd. Most of mine appeared to be of the pale form (a darker individual is shown above). You can also see from the photograph above why the English name for the species is Diamond-backed Moth.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Gull school

On the 27th May, Dominic Mitchell found a first-summer Glaucous Gull at 'The Patch', Dungeness. This was soon photographed by local laridophiles Dave Walker and Martin 'Ploddingbirder' Casemore. Both the DBO website and Martin's blog published several images of the bird that evening. On 29th May the gull was still present and was still considered to be a Glaucous. However, by 30th May, and with further field observation, Dave was not so happy with its identification, and stated that he felt the bird was more likely to be an Iceland. Martin, on the other hand, was still in the Glaucous camp, although did admit that this individual was "odd and not the normal brute of a bird associated with Glaucous." Yesterday Martin posted further images of the gull, plus a video, to which he commented that "in the video it appears to (be) an Iceland Gull, yet yesterday's images seem to me to lean towards Glaucous." On the same day, the DBO website was referring to the bird as an undoubted Iceland. One of Martin's images, with his permission, is shown above.

First up, these guys really know their gulls - I mean, REALLY know them. They spend hour upon hour each week - no, EACH DAY - scrutinising them. Not much gets the better of them, and if something does appear a little odd and starts their alarm bells ringing then there's a bloody good reason for that happening (as the immature Audouin's Gull of two autumns ago proved). What I find most comforting about this incident is that, if the top boys can still be momentarily baffled by a gull, then when the rest of us mere mortals struggle with the bloody things, it makes me feel a whole lot better about the situation. I'm not so shit after all... (but still shit compared to DW and MC, I will concede). The bottom line is that even the most rabid and proficient of 'gullers' are still in the process of learning - they'd be the first to admit that. Gulls are not the precise art that some of us might believe.

Gull identification has come on leaps and bounds in the past 30 years and is still accelerating. The realisation that we are knee-deep in 'new' species, that all ages can be identified with almost 100% certainty and that extra-limital records of rare gulls are not as rare as was once thought, has brought about an increase in gull mad birders. They are a certain type of birder - part cult, part geek, part scientist - who are extending our identification capabilities with their dedication and patience. Not that long ago immature gulls were largely left alone and we had never heard of Caspian, Heuglin's or Armenian Gulls. Today we (OK, mostly others) actively look for them.... for days on end. And with patience, even if they don't find those species mentioned, they will find something else. Maybe something like a Glaucous Iceland Gull...

STOP PRESS: Dave Walker just tweeted that 'that damn gull (is) still at the patch. Confused but now think it is probably a hybrid - presumably Herring x Glaucous. About time it departed!'  Well, if it has got to Mr Gull like that, there's no hope for the rest of us!