Monday, 29 August 2016

Recent garden moths

I've been largely negligent as far as recording the garden moths here in Banstead this year. The MV has rarely been operated, and I don't really know why. However, with the recent heat, and with it the accompanying muggy nights, I have been stung into action. Migrant wise it has been the expected fayre - a few Silver Y, xylostella, ferrugalis and noctuella. Tree-lichen Beauty, White-point, and Jersey Tiger are all present and correct still. A few Maiden's Blush (there has been some forum discussion that some of these might be migrants, but I usually record a few here every summer).

This morning saw the years first Orange Swift (top) and a micro that I have not knowingly recorded before, even though it is very common, Celypha lacunana (left). As always, I am open to correction.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Panning for patch gold

A dreary, blustery morning was spent trudging over the downs and heaths just south of Banstead. That sentence contains more than its fair share of negative and despondent words, but that is how I felt. A lot of effort for little reward. There were many hedgerows, copses and fields apparently devoid of birds, with even the distant call of a Chiffchaff bringing forth bursts of excitement that were disproportionate to the event itself. But us inland (water-body free) patch birders are hardened to this sort of stuff, so I plodded on. After all, it is the season of surprises...

When I got to Mogador things did pick up a bit. This area of farmland, paddock and rough grassland has become a bit of a favourite of mine. It is good for passage chats, and during the winter there is normally a sizeable Redwing and Fieldfare flock. One day this place will turn up something very good indeed. But not today, although single Whinchat and Spotted Flycatcher (left) are not to be sniffed at.

Locally, I burnt myself out last year by spending far too much time (and often entirely on foot) thrashing areas that were, at best, moderate for birds. The trouble is, some of them look quite good. Colley Hill is a case in point: it is at elevation; with a steep scarp slope; offers commanding views to the south (all the way to the South Downs); with very birdable scrub... all that is missing are the birds. My hours spent there have turned up just a handful of Red Kites and the realisation that visible migration bypasses it entirely. It is good for plants though!

To counter the threat of another dose of 'enthusiasm loss', this year I have been taking it very easy. Only going out when I've really fancied it. Stopped flogging dead horses. And it's kind of worked. The mini-uber bird list for 2015 checked out on an underwhelming 95 species. As of this morning, 2016's total is already one better, with a few 'shoe-ins' still to come. What has helped is a run of hard-to-get local rarities, such as Egyptian Goose, Gadwall, Honey-buzzard, Goshawk, Iceland Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Woodlark, Tree Pipit, Ring Ouzel and Dartford Warbler. Looking at that list, I've got a nerve to complain about the area at all! But each of those has been a jewel hidden amongst one very large hill of crap. But that is the birders lot wherever they may be. I bet they still moan about such things on Fair Isle...

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Whinchats to the rescue

The hedgerows and isolated trees of Canons Farm were not dripping with migrants this morning. To be honest, it was hard work. However, the area just north of Reeds Rest Cottages was playing host to a group of four Whinchats (one of them above), and they stayed put for at least a couple of hours, unfortunately keeping their distance from the footpath. Always a pleasure, one of my favourite birds.

Apart from meagre numbers of Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, all the migrant action was in the sky, with three Common Swifts, two Sand Martins and 80+ Swallow feeding above the barley fields.

Friday, 26 August 2016

A bridge camera too far

A few weeks ago, my two-year old Nikon Coolpix P600 bridge camera decided that it had had enough of me and died. The LCD monitor was lifeless, even though the camera was 'on'. However, without the monitor you cannot use the settings, so it was a case of seeing how much the repair would cost - into the realm of three figures as it turned out. It was time to say goodbye.

I had always been impressed with the results that Steve Broyd had coaxed out of his Canon PowerShot SX50, especially those of birds which I rated as superior to mine that had been taken with the Nikon. The upgrade on the SX50 (which is no longer available) is the SX60 HS, and after several weeks of deliberation I bit the bullet and bought one.

A quick power up and point and shoot out in the garden this evening was encouraging, with the zoom lens trained on a couple of Woodpigeon, and the macro setting tested on the micro moth Agriphila geniculea (both images below). Those Canons Farm Red-backed Shrikes and Wrynecks are no longer safe from my 65x optical lens and the resultant papping!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Additions to the library

It's been a busy few weeks for the purchasing of natural history books - Mrs ND&B has quipped that we will need more shelf space for them, but the answer to that one is simple - she needs to ditch some of her gardening and cookery books...

First up is the Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Western Mediterranean by Chris Thorogood (Kew). It is a weighty tome, and I was loathe to actually take it out into the field with me when in Majorca recently. However, armed with specimens or photographs, this really is the first stop when trying to identify those plants that you come across inbetween watching Bee-eaters, Audouin's Gulls and Woodchat Shrikes. At 600 plus pages long, it is packed with photographs and line drawings of over 2,500 species, largely from the camera and hand of the author. It is a monumental undertaking for a single person, and obviously was the fruit from a labour of love. If you visit the area on holiday, or just like to hold and enjoy a well produced book, then it is worth your investment.

Britain's Birds (WildGuides/RSPB) Another bird guide? With a Robin on the cover?? Jointly published by the RSPB??? I wasn't tempted. And then I looked inside it... my folly was soon exposed, and this may well be the best guide to birds ever produced. There were clues to suggest that this would be a publication from the very top drawer, with Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop and Tipling as the named authors. It is beautifully laid-out, a stunning photographic celebration of every single species on the British and Irish list - each one a photoshop masterclass showing all ages, sexes, races and sub-species clearly pictured, carefully labelled and with the identification of each succinctly explained. Difficult groups are treated together, with side-by-side comparisons; flight plates of skuas, ducks and waders will get even the most jaded birder off their seat; even that cultish world of gulls is demistified. There are a few line drawings to sort out some of the tricky identifications (along with tables of key features). The authors, photographers and designers have come together to capture all that we know about identifying our birds, and present it in an easily accessible and understandable format. If you think that you are expert enough to not need to purchase this book, think again!

I have to admit to having not yet read Mountain Flowers by Michael Scott (British Wildlife Publishing/Bloomsbury) - in fact, it only came into my possession this morning. However, this is the fourth book in the BWP series, and the first three were highly readable and accessible. The author is well known in the botanical world and has spent a lifetime in search of my favourite plants of all, those of our mountain tops. It is a work that is as much a celebration of the allure of these high dwellers as it is a guide to what can be seen and where to go to find them. I have twice had the pleasure of visiting Scotland, walking the western Highlands (where I paid homage to Diapensia) and the Breadalbane Hills (including the incomparable Ben Lawers and the charismatic Ben Vrakie). Scott's book isn't Scotland-centric - he also takes us on a journey across the Welsh and English uplands, where a surprising amount of mountain flora is on show for the adventurous botanist. I know that I will be planning all sorts of trips whilst reading this - Glen Clova, the Cairngorms and Snowdonia are calling, and I haven't even read a single word yet...

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Return to Canons Farm

It's been a clear three months since I've birded at Canons Farm. Lured out by the (imagined) promise of passerine migrants, I toiled under a hot sun for close to six hours, and was scantly rewarded with a Wheatear, a Willow Warbler and low level counts of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Whitethroats and Swallows. Just as well I don't wear 'birding blinkers'...

Butterflies to the rescue? Well, yes and no. Numbers were pants. However, two Clouded Yellows (Reeds Rest Bottom and Fames Rough) were a delight, especially as these were fully coloured-up individuals, unlike my previous two records from here, which were both of the pale helice form. A briefly showy Brown Hairstreak presented itself along a hedgerow by Woodpecker Meadow, and a tatty Silver-washed Fritillary was just about flying at Fames Rough. None of those to be sniffed at.

Botanical highlight was, without doubt, a mass-flowering of Devil's-bit Scabious. The whole of Sheep Brow seems to be covered in literally hundreds of thousands of plants. The area is currently cordoned off (due to livestock issues) but they can easily be seen and photographed from the 'correct' side of the fence. The top photograph hopefully gives you a flavour of what it was like, although if access is allowed in the next week or two I will try and get back for a proper photo opportunity. A single flower head (below) is as much a thing of beauty.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The tale of some knotgrass, plus a local meeting

Last week, whilst wandering along the top of the beach at Sidmouth, I spied several 'fleshy' knotgrass plants lying prostrate on the shingle. I had no camera, no eyeglass, no nothing. I suspected that they might be Ray's Knotgrass, a species that I have only seen once before (further east along the coast at Charmouth). It was a hot day, there were holiday-makers sitting on their towels only feet away from the plants in question and I didn't want to invade their space to collect a piece for later identification. So I left them, but felt that if they were Ray's, then it was something that might just be noteworthy. I wouldn't be going back to Sidmouth any time soon, but I knew of a 'blogging virtual friend' who lived right on the doorstep...

I sent an email to Karen Woolley, author of the excellent blog Wild Wings and Wanderings. She has a deep interest in botany, soon went along to have a look, and indeed they were Ray's and a tick for her to boot! Joy all round!! This blogging lark does have its positives...

And talking of such positives, through this very medium I finally met up with local natural-historian Tim Saunders. We spent a most pleasant couple of hours wandering over Langley Vale Farm and in the process gathered quite a list of arable plants. The three Red Hemp-nettle plants are looking robust and healthy, as too were several Small Toadflaxes. A single Silver-washed Fritillary was my first for the site.

Small Toadflax obviously flourishing in the habitat... was this Red Hemp-nettle.
UPDATE: at 13.50hrs a juvenile Honey-buzzard flew low, south-west over the garden. This is my third record here (since 1987).

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Some alternative meanings for our bird names...

Avocet: the envy of others optics
Bobolink: agitation at not being able to travel for a bird
Bonxie: what happens to your pants after several days in a rain forest
Brambling: the meandering route taken whilst in search of a rarity
Bufflehead: a group of birders watching gulls
Capercaillie: the air quality in a car after an overnight doss
Chiffchaff: soreness on the inner thigh caused by walking to Blakeney Point
Chough: to silently break wind in a bird hide
Dotterel: a loitering crowd waiting for 'the bird' to turn up
Dunlin: most of the stock in an RSPB shop
Dunnock: to be 'caught short' whilst out birding
Fulmar: an excuse made to bunk off work to go birding
Gadwall: to join in a social media discussion in which you have no direct connection
Garganey: to injure yourself while running for a rare bird
Goosander: to come across a courting couple whilst out birding
Hoopoe: the inside of an observatory fridge
Kittiwake: the drowning of sorrows in a pub after a dip
Linnet: a birder who stands away from the crowd
Osprey: the nervousness experienced when starting out on a twitch
Pheasant: a birder who stands in an inappropriate place at a twitch
Pochard: to be caught out in the open when it starts to rain heavily
Ptarmigan: the relief that is felt having just seen a rare bird
Puffin: to falsify whilst writing a description
Quail: the realisation that you have just strung a bird
Ruff: to wear the same socks on the Scillies for a week
Smew: a smug look after the finding of a good bird
Twite: somebody who finds 'small' Canada Geese interesting
Whimbrel: to visit a place 'on spec'
Wryneck: to have to adjust your viewpoint to be able to clearly see a bird

There are plenty more...

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The (un)naming of parts

Mrs ND&B and I are on a short break in a part of the world that we both love - the Devon/Dorset border. Even though we are here sans children (well they are 25 and 20!) we still find ourselves visiting places that we took them to all of those years ago, such as the Donkey Sanctuary east of Sidmouth. After stroking several of the sanctuaries inmates we then took the coastal path to Weston Mouth. This had nothing to do with the presence of a screaming botanical rarity, Purple Gromwell. It is not in flower at this time of year, but there was plenty to be found in fruit. A nice little sideline this botanical lark...

It has been a holiday without me nipping off with binoculars, although, as illustrated above, it is hard not to take notice of the natural history - 4 Greenshank were on the beach at Charmouth on Tuesday, several Peregrines have shown up between Sidmouth and Golden Cap and whilst sitting in a posh Lyme Regis hotel garden, eating a cream tea, a couple of Fulmar were messing around overhead with the Cobb as a stunning backdrop. Nice.

Before these stiff-winged tubenoses appeared, we went on a hike along the under cliff footpath between Lyme Regis and Seaton. This whole area is a part of a world heritage site, bestowed thanks to the terrific geology and fossil record. It is also unstable, with land slippage still a regular feature. The footpath runs between the true sea cliff and another several hundred yards inland, formed when a massive slump occurred in the early 19th century.

The path meanders through broken ground, a grotto of dense woodland, shattered slopes and fern-filled gullies. It is Tolkienesque. I thought I saw a Hobbit in the distance, but may have been mistaken! However, the sensation of place, light and sound in such a dreamlike habitat is heady indeed. Tree roots slither across the paths, plunging into gullies damp with stream and pool. Old abandoned farm buildings betray an almost hidden past. There are ghosts and spirits and sprites around every tree trunk. Noise is concentrated here, clearer and closer than it really is. A Common Buzzard mewing high above, or a boats engine chugging way below are both on your shoulder.

Leaves overlap leaves, ferns drown the earth, smothering flowers that try to reach up to the sun that cannot penetrate the terraced forest. Here there is no room for species - they are just part of a living whole, too big and awesome to be broken into piffling components. Time to dispense with the chore of naming - it is time to accept the 'whole' without question, with no need to list, open notebooks or to name the parts.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Red Hemp-nettle and another mass flowering

I don't need an excuse to return to Langley Vale Farm, home to a fine array of arable plant rarities. Compared to last year, my visits in 2016 have been not as frequent. Some field margins have been specifically spared the planting of crops to hopefully benefit the plants and, to a certain extent, this has delivered. This morning I luckily bumped into local botanist Dennis Skinner. He kindly informed me that Red Hemp-nettle, a species discovered here two summers ago, was showing once again. I know this plant from the shingle beaches of Dungeness and Rye, but not from arable Surrey - it is not common anywhere, and certainly not in my home county. I needed no encouragement to go and look for the three plants reported as being present. I found them easily...

Apart from Small Toadflax and Sharp-leaved Fluellen, there was no representation from the other rare arable plants present. I did come across a few strikingly pale-pink Scarlet Pimpernel flowers. These didn't appear to be 'washed-out' or faded individuals, as the photograph below shows fresh petals.

In some ways the botanical highlight of the morning was once again down to a common species en-masse, this time a 100m long bank of Perennial Sow-thistle. In the harsh sunlight the yellows from the flower heads and the white from the seed heads were vivid and created another vision of wonder for the memory bank.

It wasn't a morning totally bereft of birds, as a single Woodlark flew over, calling as it circled.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

I've been spambotted!!

When I was in Majorca, happily posting away at the end of another hot and bird-filled day, the traffic visiting ND&B was very healthy. A 'normal' day's worth of page views was settled in the 400-600 range, with the odd day total topping these figures. All good for the ego if not for the wallet...

But then things really took off. Over three consecutive days the page views rose - 900... then 1540... then a record breaking 1613... my head started to swell, this drivel that I was pumping out was obviously getting noticed, and fame was surely beckoning just around the corner. I have had spikes in numbers before, especially when a post has been linked on a highly popular site (such as a BirdForum thread). I went searching for such a link, but found none. I then opened up my 'audience' data - hmmm, something fishy was going on. On each of these 'boom-days' I was getting over a thousand hits from Russia! Was I suddenly big in the Urals? Was my Moscow fan-base mushrooming? Were the Siberian hordes that bored that they had adopted a British blog on natural history as a 'go to' form of entertainment and enlightenment? Alas, no. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was suffering from an attack of the spambots.

A spambot is, acording to Wikipedia:

computer program designed to assist in the sending of spam. Spambots usually create accounts and send spam messages with them.

Apparently, these spambots surf the web to attack blogs and forums to submit bogus content. This may take the form of posting marketing information or phishing, or purely to boost search engine rankings for whoever the spambot is working on behalf of.

So, no big surge in adulatory fan behaviour. No admittance to the blogger hall of fame. Just some binary piracy from the land of the cossacks, pumping up the worth of a nameless site on the other side of Europe (or maybe further afield).

Was it worth having got so excited about the traffic surge? Nyet...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A zig-zag full of silver spots and belles

The Victorians referred to the area as 'The Surrey Alps', and although the hills around Dorking may not actually resemble the said mountains of mainland Europe, they are quite impressive all the same - they just don't stand up to a direct comparison.

This morning, with the sun shining, I elected to venture onto the slopes of the Box Hill zig-zag, so called after the narrow road that - you've guessed it - zig-zags its way up to the summit. (See, even I'm getting in on the Victorian's act by using such a lofty term to describe the top of the hill). This area has historically drawn naturalists from far and wide, thanks in no small part to a tremendous assemblage of plants and butterflies.

Todays stars were the number of Silver-spotted Skipper (above) that were on the wing - a minimum of 65. I spent most of my visit with one or two in view, with at least eight at once for one heady minute. Also present was a moth that is found increasingly rarely from just a handful of places in Surrey and Kent - the Straw Belle. At least 30 were found, in quite a discrete area, the moths being easily disturbed as I walked along. They were quite skittish and, although they soon settled, seemed to pick the most difficult areas in which to alight (from a view for me to obtain a decent photograph or two). They would either:
(a) land on an exposed grass stem that swayed in the stiff breeze;
(b) head for the middle of a grassy tuft thus having copious grass blades between it, and my camera lens, or;
(c) land in a perfect place for me, only to fly off just as I was about to take a picture.
What appears below is a typical teasing view, followed by a couple of rare close ups (upper and underwing).

The slopes were a visual treat. Millions of flowers covered them. No photo can ever capture such a spectacle. You can look at the square metre in which you are standing and count a dozen species. You look along a slope and marvel at the abundance set out before you. Burnet-saxifrage, Wild Basil, Small Scabious, Harebell, Clustered Bellflower, Red Clover, Marjoram, Dwarf Thistle, Common Century, Carline Thistle, Autumn Gentian, Yellow-wort, Squinancywort, Eyebright, Hawkbit, St.John's-wort - on and on and on, sweeping across the ground in a carpet, sewn into the grass, dancing above the sward, open to the sun.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Narrow-lips and a valezina

Sheepleas, a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve situated between Guildford and West Horsley, is one of those places that had dropped off of my radar. I last visited in 1998, from when I can remember a vast network of footpaths, and was also aware that Narrow-lipped Helleborine can occur there. This local and decreasing species is something of a phantom in the county, often being nibbled by deer (or slugs) before it gets a chance to flower - and that is if it decides to appear above ground at all! So, when a number of twitter and Facebook account holders started to post images of said orchid from said reserve, my curiosity was awoken...

The short story is that I saw 24 spikes in all, within a small, discrete area:

The nearby meadows were crammed to bursting point with flower. I have never seen so much Clustered Bellflower in one place, nudging neighbouring Marjoram, Wild Basil, Agrimony, Common Knapweed, Burnet Saxifrage and St.John's Wort (didn't specify them!) for room. A sensory overload!

I stayed in the corner of one particular meadow, where a small blizzard of butterflies were on show, all crowding around several Buddleia bushes - mainly Peacocks, Silver-washed Fritillaries, Red Admirals, Meadow Browns and Large Whites - when a GIANT Specked Wood flew past. This was, of course, no Speckled Wood. I ran after it, hoping beyond hope that it was what I thought it was... and when it alighted nearby, my suspicions were confirmed - a valezina form female Silver-washed Fritillary! My long-awaited first.

And here's a 'normal' one for comparison:

This afternoon I paid the Banstead Woods Violet Helleborines a visit. Several 'clumps' are yet to flower, but a few were doing so:

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Thoughts on the Purple Gallinule

Chinese Pond Heron... Dalmatian Pelican... and now Purple Gallinule (or Swamphen, if you prefer). These are all birds that have 'arrived' in the UK, whose identification is beyond doubt, and yet whose credentials have (or are) being questioned.

"Can we count them?"

"Are they wild?"

"Where are they kept in captivity?"

"Do they breed ferally on mainland Europe?"

All perfectly good questions that are asked whenever a 'contentious' species turns up.

It's funny how certain species, some screaming rarities, do not elicit any such responses. Mainly passerines, waders and seabirds. They presumably pass some sort of 'acceptance filter', an unwritten and unacknowledged component wired into most birders' brains. The same cannot be said for wildfowl...

But back to the Purple Gallinule/Swamphen. This is a species that does get caught in the 'acceptance filter'. It's not a species that is considered a wanderer, with just seasonal local movements being recorded (in response to drying out of habitat). There are also reintroduction programmes being carried out in Europe - I have just returned from seeing some of these in Majorca. And, most damagingly, it is kept widely in captivity. Basically, it is not a species that anybody would consider to be a likely candidate to arrive on our shores, under its own steam, from a wild population.

(Since I wrote this post, a comprehensive Bird Guides article on the subject has been published - click here to read).

But we all like to dream. Why couldn't it be wild? Many will look back on other unlikely bird species that have turned up against the odds, and use these as ammunition to try and build a case for genuine vagrancy. And like the Chinese Pond Heron (and, no doubt the Dalmatian Pelican), the rarities committee and the BOU will sit down to sift through the evidence and judge on the likelihood of it being the real deal. But they will only be working on probabilities, of forming an educated opinion. In truth, they will be guessing.

If you play the listing game, if you are a part of the BOU or UK400 family, where you compare your list to those of others, then you need a strict set of rules to create a level playing field. Somebody up high (be it committee spokesman or benevolent dictator) will tell you what you can - and what you cannot - count. They are the rules. So you may need to sit and wait for the deliberations to be finalised, and that could be some years away. Some you will win and be allowed to tick (such as the Pond Heron). But others will be consigned to the bin under a cloud of 'unproven' or being 'suspect'.

If, like me, a list is just a personal total that might (and largely might not) be kept up to date, then the question of whether or not a bird is 'tickable' is largely redundant. The question might still be of interest, but purely on an intellectual basis. The current pilgrimage to Minsmere to see the Gallinule will be made up mostly of 'insurance tickers', birders who most probably don't believe the bird to be wild, but will go along and have a look just in case it is accepted a few years down the line. They may also console themselves with the thought that its a nice day's birding anyway, and that 'nothing ventured is nothing gained'. Good luck to them.

There is another reason to go. Just to see the bird, purely and simply. To enjoy it for what it is - a spectacular, large, colourful species. As I mentioned earlier, I saw several in Majorca last month, at S'Albufereta. They were all from an introduction programme, so are nothing but plastic. That didn't stop me getting excited whenever I came across them. They are great birds. So, as for the bird currently in Suffolk, we may never truly know its origins, but that takes nothing away from it being a stunning bird. The question of 'whether to tick it or not' then becomes irrelevant.