Friday, 30 June 2017

Welcome, but not welcome

Sat hello to Cydalima perspectalis, otherwise known as the Boxworm Moth. It was first recorded in the UK some 10 years ago, but has only just started to spread out across the home counties and further afield. This Asian species was most probably imported with its foodplant, Box, but here lies the problem... it can be a pest on Box, which, when involving the cultivated specimens in people's gardens is merely an inconvenience... but let these moths loose on Box Hill and surrounds, then it could cause quite a problem for the truly wild, and local, Box.

So when I found one nestled in the bottom of the garden MV this morning it was a mixture of delight (never seen one before) and horror (I'm not that far, as the moth flies from wild Box.)

Thursday, 29 June 2017


Langley Vale Farm was awash with the colour red this morning, as a number of the fields that have been allowed to 'rewild' have found that the Common Poppy has taken a liking to them. In a few corners Opium Poppy is the dominant species, and in between this festival of poppies are huge numbers of Common Field Speedwell, Scarlet Pimpernel, Field Pansy, Black Bindweed... I could go on. Needless to say, it is a visual feast.

Also on show (and carrying on the red theme) were a minimum of nine Red Hemp-nettles (below), freshly coming into flower. This is a screaming rarity in the county.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

30 years of the back garden moth trap

I recently mentioned that we have lived in our house for almost 30 years, and during that time have run a moth trap in the garden. It seems a good time to look back over those 'mothing years' and try and pick out any themes, trends, surprises, gains and losses. One post cannot do it justice, so thought I'd kick it all off with a look at the site itself.

On August 14th 1987, Katrina and I moved into our three bedroomed house in Banstead, northern Surrey. It is an area that could best be described as 'leafy suburbia', positioned between Banstead Downs and Epsom Downs, relatively high on the chalk, and surrounded by 1930s housing.

Most of the houses nearby had mature gardens, varying in sizes. Ours was well stocked with plants, had a 30ft front and 90ft back garden, which butted up to an area of 'wild' ground. A mature ash tree, a Lawson's Cypress and a small pond were further features. During the past thirty years there have been changes - the wild ground has been built upon, the Lawson's Cypress felled and many plants and shrubs have come and gone. The neighbouring gardens are still largely intact, although there has been a tendency for front gardens to be paved over for the parking of cars - even though all the houses do have driveways. The chances are that there is less vegetation now than there was thirty years ago, but not appreciably less. The road is tree-lined, and although most of these cherry trees have been reaching old age, most that have needed to be felled have been replaced.

An actinic trap was run between August 1987 - February 1990, when I purchased a Robinson MV, the very same trap that is still in use today. I position the trap so that no neighbour can directly see the bulb, and I have been fortunate that nobody has been bothered by the light (at least not to my knowledge). My enthusiasm has waxed and waned. Up until the late 1990s the trap would be switched on most nights, even during the winter, and even if I say so myself, became quite proficient in the dark art of moth identification. However, peaks and troughs in the intervening years has seen this thin veneer of competence knocked off, so that I currently find myself in need of having to go back to 'moth school' to regain what I have lost. There were one or two years where the trap stayed inside, but even during years of relative idleness there would be burst of enthusiasm, normally during the summer months or periods of possible migration.

Macros and pyralids were my thing. I would identify (if possible) and count each and every one and produce end of year reports. This carried on until 1998, when, with 10 years of full data, I stopped. The time spent processing the trap was all too much, what with a career and children, not to mention a patient wife whose patience was being constantly tested. Since then I have noted down whatever took my fancy, normally the scarce or unusual. I started to dabble in micros maybe 10 years ago, but this avenue of study has experienced something of a stop/start nature. It is currently in start mode!

Numbers of moths have fallen. I think it fair to suggest that the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the highest totals trapped, these rapidly falling away by the turn of the millennium. I will be more specific in later posts.

No two years have been the same. Every night can bring rewards, whether that be a migrant, a wanderer, the sudden influx of a species, a year first, or an aberration. Even after all these years I still switch the trap on in hope, and approach it in the morning with anticipation.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Always changing

One of the fascinating aspects of running an MV at the same site over a number of years is to experience the changes of fortune across the species that are being recorded. This August will see the 30th anniversary of us moving to our house in Banstead, and I have run a trap in the garden throughout - plenty of bloggage material there! As a taster, here is a species that has seen a big increase in the incidence of it being recorded and the numbers of individuals trapped - Beautiful Hook-tip.

Over the past 10 days I have recorded it daily, with up to three in a single night. Back in 1987, this was but a dream moth, not appearing in the garden until the mid-1990s and could only be regarded as annual these past five years. The data is full of winners and losers. It makes fascinating reading. I will post more later in the summer.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Chalk scrapes

I visited Priest Hill SWT Reserve for the first time since early May this afternoon, which fortuitously coincided with a Surrey Botanical Society field trip. The society were there to survey the chalk scrapes, which are being steadily colonised by flowers - some plants by natural means, and other species by deliberate spreading of seed, such as the Broad-leaved Cudweed (above). This species is just clinging on at nearby Banstead Downs, but only just. Seed taken from here, by licence, and then spread at Priest Hill safeguards its future just in case the small colony nearby does succumb.

More Broad-leaved Cudweed, with the leaves overtopping the heads, plus yellow-tipped bracts.
The spread of Kidney Vetch (below) has been spectacular, which has resulted in the colonisation of the site by the Small Blue butterfly. None were seen today, although the dull and breezy conditions did not help in my search for them. It was good to catch up with the SBS team, and a pleasure to spend a bit of time chatting to both Peter Wakeham and Eileen Taylor, two fine local botanists.

Earlier in the day I had returned to the Box Hill zig-zag, for second helpings of Musk Orchid and Dark Green Fritillary (both pictured below). Stood at the bottom of the steep valley, with a grey menacing sky, rumbling thunder and dramatic lightening was quite unnerving, and also quite surreal to be watching the Fritillaries and Marbled Whites patrolling above the grass in spite of the gloom.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zig-zag in the heatwave

The heatwave continues, with the Met Office suggesting that here in the south-east we might be hitting 34C today. This mornings check of the garden MV was disappointing. Before the weather conditions became too oppressive, I visited Juniper Bottom (to the NE of Box Hill) that offered a handful of Dark Green and Silver-washed Fritillaries, and then the Box Hill zig-zag, where up to 400 Marbled Whites (above) and 60+ Dark Green Fritillaries danced above the grassy slopes. I also came across 5 spikes of Musk Orchid (below) - without my DSLR, the bridge camera struggled to focus on the plant, as it blended in seamlessly with the grass stems in front, alongside and behind it!

A single Marsh Tit was heard calling. Also present at both sites were a number of Banded Demoiselle (below), some way from water, the nearest source being the River Mole, some half mile away. This female can be told from the similar Beautiful Demoiselle by exhibiting a white (and not buff) spot near the tip of the outer wing.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Scarlet Tiger

The MV was a bit livelier this morning, with higher numbers (and species composition) of moths. There was one clear highlight - a Scarlet Tiger - a garden first and county rarity to boot. This is the 554th species of moth recorded here, of which 397 are 'macros'. This exposes a few things - the fine cross section of larger moths that the garden has played host to; the length of recording (almost 30 years); and the low number of 'micros' on the list...

Monday, 19 June 2017

Too hot

Argyresthia brookeela - a smart little micro
When the temperature reaches 32C in the shade, it's not just us that start to melt and want a lie down, the birds, moths and butterflies do too. This afternoon saw me at Park Downs, unable to get much in the way of my hoped for pictures of Dark Green Fritillaries - they were skittish and fretful. In fact, there were few butterflies on the wing all round, and those that were didn't want to land.

Checking the garden MV on very warm mornings becomes difficult, as the moths are restless and will bolt as soon as you peer into the trap or lift an egg box. A pristine Blackneck would have made a lovely picture, but it left me for dead as I reached for a pot - maybe a lesson to take in what is before me, rather than automatically reach for a container with photography on my mind. The VES lure came up trumps again in the garden yesterday, with an Orange-tailed Clearwing, that danced before me allowing close views, but didn't settle and didn't return.

Friday, 16 June 2017

A scarce micro

The first peer into the garden MV this morning was rewarded with a single Bordered Straw sitting on top of an egg box - my first Banstead record since the 1996 invasion - but things got better...

This is Phtheochroa sodaliana, a scarce and very local resident of chalk downland. In the 'Smaller Moths of Surrey' (published in 2012) there are only four recent records, the latest being in 2005. A brief search on other county websites suggest that this species really is hard to come across. Luckily for me it is a distinctive moth, as my micro identification abilities are not the best.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Pewsey Downs

I spent all of yesterday wandering the slopes of Pewsey Downs in Wiltshire, a return to my ancestral roots. From the top of Milk, Walker's and Knapp Hill, you can look southwards across the fertile plains towards Salisbury Plain or north through farmland peppered with burial mounds and standing stones. It is a world of big skies and lay lines, a place with one foot still firmly in the past.

From a distance it appears an unbroken green. But if you venture into the steep-sided valleys, or contour you way around a hill, you will soon come across the chalk downland flowers, in places a riot of colour. Orchids carpet the ground, with Common Spotted numbering well into six figures.

Apart from the ubiquitous Common Spotted I also recorded Frog (two individuals showing the variation in colour above), Lesser Butterfly (below, just going over), Bee, Chalk Fragrant and Pyramidal. I have seen Burnt here, but they are a late flowerer at this site.

Although the day was sunny and hot, the south-westerly breeze picked up as the day wore on, that kept butterflies and moths down. However, at least 20 Cistus Foresters (below) were found, some posing well for the obligatory portrait, which showed off the clubbed antennae.

I was particularly pleased to find Down Shieldbug (Canthophorus impressus) which is scarce nationally due to its foodplant, Bastard-toadflax, being of limited range. Pewsey has a fair amount of this plant, and out of six 'mats' checked, two revealed the shieldbug (below).

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Stay at home success

Elegant Tern at Pagham Harbour? Red-footed Falcon at Frensham Common? Squacco Heron at Dungeness? Nah... why not be perverse and stay local, you never know what you might find. And find I did - maybe not headline grabbing birds like those above, but species that got my juices flowing...

Scarlet Pimpernel (blue form and maybe the ssp foemina)

This is a 'normal' blue form, overlapping 'full' petals, shortish sepals
Putative foemina, showing petals that do not overlap, are not as 'full', with seemingly longer sepals

ssp foemina is meant to be smaller and slighter - these do look it to me compared to the red Pimpernels
I have posted these images on a couple of botanical Facebook groups and emailed my trusted Surrey botanical contacts, but so far nobody has commented. Feel free to do so if you have any thoughts! Seen on farmland at Langley Vale, Surrey.

Yellow-legged Clearwing
The lawn was mowed, the sun was out and I thought "Why not put a pheromone lure out while I have a cup of tea?" I have hung up the VES lure on quite a few occasions in the back garden and recorded absolutely nothing, but today, after five minutes, this came along!

A male Yellow-legged Clearwing, due to its black, and not yellow, tail fan
My clearwing list is coming along nicely, with Hornet, Lunar Hornet, Red-tipped, Orange-tailed, Red-belted, Currant and Six-belted now being joined by Yellow-legged. Apart from the first two species mentioned, all have been recorded at a lure.

So there you go, you don't need to twitch to see the goodies, although my stagnant UK bird life list might disagree with me.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Stags and Bees

The garden MV has not been switched on for several weeks, the longest period of idleness for many a year. Last night, at dusk, and not without a touch of ceremony, the bulb was lit and I wandered up to the trap to make sure that all was well. OUCH! I looked down at my foot to see the bee that had stung me - it looked like a Buff-tailed to me.

This morning I peered in the trap to see a fair number of moths, at least 20+ bees and also the beast that is pictured above - a male Stag Beetle. I have only seen a single female in 30 years of living here, but used to come across them regularly in Cheam Village when I resided there. I understand that they are still doing well there this summer. As for the bee numbers, I now notice a hole in the ground close to a Lawson's Cypress stump that is being used by them, just inches away from the MV. The trap will need to be re-sited...

This afternoon, elder daughter Rebecca and I visited Park Downs - (it was a choice between that or Bluewater Shopping Centre!!) We visited the 'orchid fields' that, whilst not up to the standards of 2015, seemed to be in better nick than last summer. We counted c75 Bee Orchids (below), plus 1,250 Pyramidal Orchids. Grass Vetchling (bottom) were also in healthy numbers. A check on the Man Orchids revealed them to be swamped in vegetation - they must be in danger of complete shade out in the next year or two.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Becoming shingle minded

Part 11 - April 1976  I had booked onto an RSPB/YOC course to be held at Dungeness Bird Observatory, in Kent, along with my birding friends Mark and Neil Greenway. Being one of the places that was dear to HG Alexander's heart, I was more than a little excited about being there, but my first impressions as we drove onto the peninsula were not favourable. It appeared an open waste of shingle, strewn with ramshackle dwellings and set against the backdrop of a vast nuclear power station that had squeezed perspective to such an extent that it appeared two-dimensional, as if it were merely an enormous theatrical backdrop. Peering from the car as it made its way along the single road towards the peninsula’s point, I wondered what on earth I have let myself in for. 

I had tenuous links to Dungeness from family trips taken at Camber Sands a few years earlier.  From there I had stared at the lines of pylons disappearing eastwards to converge menacingly at some distant point which I knew, from looking at my Father’s road atlas, to be a place called Dungeness. Apparently there was a nuclear power station. Even the name sounded disturbing, not unlike ‘dangerous’ or ‘dungeon’. To leave the comparative safety of the dunes at Camber and visit this nuclear theme park would be sheer folly, as I imagined it to be a poisoned shingle desert where all life had mutated. But being driven there is what was happening to me on this early spring day. The focal point of our passage along to the peninsula’s snout was always the power station, dwarfing the two lighthouses that as recently as 1960 had been the tallest buildings for miles around. My attention then turned 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 would betray the presence of a rare migrant bird – after all, Dungeness was famous for rare migrant birds. In my naivety I somehow expected that there would always be one about. We passed the new, smartly liveried lighthouse on our left and were soon upon the older, decommissioned version, which looked far more like what a lighthouse should do - squatter, fatter and strong. I imagined heavily bearded men in cable sweaters manning the light during times of peril at sea. The new one smacked of not needing people at all – which in some respects it didn’t. Terribly efficient no doubt but terribly bland all the same.

At the old light the road violently kinked and sent us on our way along the perimeter fence of the Power Station. We virtually cowered 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 approached the cottages, which housed the bird observatory, we noted that they had seemingly been barricaded from the threat of nuclear fall-out with a high-sided moat. The road breached this earth mound as if it were a lowered drawbridge. On entering the inner sanctum of the mound, there, before us, was the not unattractive end cottage, 11 Royal Naval Service Signal Station, Dungeness, Kent – otherwise known as Dungeness Bird Observatory. I had unknowingly just started an infatuation that would last for life.

I got out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, binoculars at the ready around my neck. Bedding and food boxes were carried into the observatory. The building was musty. It obviously hadn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if at all. The carpet was threadbare. The furniture had seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils populated the damp kitchen. I loved it!
After meeting our course leader, Peter Robinson, the common room door was unceremoniously flung open, and in walked the warden of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Nick Riddiford. He betrayed his west country roots as he welcomed us with the fact that there was a Mediterranean Gull nearby. Christ! A Mediterranean Gull! I wanted to leave at once to search for it. Buoyed by this exciting news a few of us ventured out onto the area of shingle due east of the observatory -  overflowing with excitement and anticipation as only the young and naive can. To illustrate our state of high excitement, a Skylark was flushed and landed a few yards ahead of us. I knew it was just a Skylark, and so did the others, but this was Dungeness! Try as we might to turn it into a Thekla Lark (or at least a Short-toed), it refused to be anything other than what it actually was. Some compensation came when a Black Redstart flashed into view by Lloyd’s Cottage. This was a new species for me. I stared across the open shingle to the north and east of me, with just small patches of gorse and broom breaking up the honey coloured ground. The horizon is far. The sky is big. I liked this place.

We were given a thorough grounding in observatory life and a whistle-stop tour of the varied habitat to be found in the vicinity of the peninsula. Vivid images from these few days were to replay in my mind, and still do to this very day: looking towards the heavily lit power station at night as we went wader ringing at Lade Pits, surrounded by unseen calling Redshank and Oystercatchers; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Oppen Pits; walking out to the far-flung Airport Pits, leaping ditches and flushing Grey Partridges; a second-year Mediterranean Gull that looked shockingly exotic (for a gull) on the ARC pit; meeting the long-haired and bearded Ray Turley, who was seawtaching on the beach, dressed in biker's leathers. The daily routine of the observatory seeped its way into me and the idea of what a ‘proper’ observatory day entailed was forming in my mind: getting out of bed before dawn; helping erect mist nets in the half-light; alternating between drinking tea, chatting and birding until lunch; sea-watching for a couple of hours; checking the recording area for migrants; going back down to the sea until early evening; having a last look around the moat before dark; and finally sitting in the common room and partaking in the calling of the log. This last act was one that I thoroughly enjoyed, an amalgamation of everybody’s observations in the DBO recording area during the day. It gave meaning to the counts that I was amassing in my notebook. It took on the feeling of a religious act, from the handling of the leather-bound log sheets to the incantation of each species name, read out by the warden in scientific order.

What of the observatory building itself? You entered through a small, fortified porch, which had the front door placed on the eastern wall. This lead to a narrow hallway, with stairs on the left. From a line of pegs along the wall hung a collection of assorted jackets, mostly weatherproofed and in various stages of disrepair. These did not appear to belong to anybody in particular, seemingly abandoned. A cupboard under the stairs housed the electricity meter (which accepted 50 pence pieces) and an ageing selection of household cleaning agents, whose price tags hint at days gone by - pre-decimalised days to be precise. To the right was the ringing room, which reminded me of a cross between a provincial museum and the Steptoe’s front parlour. It was an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac, with virtually no visible wall space. This was hidden behind cupboards crammed full of equipment, cases of stuffed birds (Shelduck, Pintail, Long-tailed Duck), cabinets of bird skins, cardboard-boxes overflowing with paperwork, chaotic piles of books, ancient scientific instruments, fading posters and old black-and-white framed prints. An old pram gets in the way, but was tolerated as it transported a large heavy-duty box in which the binocular telescope was housed. At the far end of the room, in front of the windows, was a wooden shelf. Above this, a line of cord was strung between the walls, on which were placed a series of hooks. Laid out on the shelf were the tools of the ringer’s trade – different sized rings (for different sized birds), pliers (for enclosing the rings around the bird’s legs), rulers (for measuring a bird’s wing length), pesolas (for recording a bird’s weight), callipers (for taking other measurements such as bill and tarsus length) and an obligatory copy of ‘Svennson’s’, the Holy Bible of how to identify, age and sex species in the hand. A wooden chest was hidden underneath the shelf and this was stuffed to overflowing with bird bags. These hand-made bags (fashioned from any old material) had a string-pull opening, into which the trapped birds were placed. This was done for the ease of transporting the bird from trap to ringing room, but also because it calmed the bird down. These bags, when with bird, were then hung onto the hooks above the shelf. The catch would then be processed. All information gathered would be written into a log book and the bird then released back into the wild, through a small opening in the window, in the hope that this bird will be subsequently recovered and such information as its movement and longevity would be learnt.

Straight ahead was the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory, a room dominated by a large table around which hard wooden chairs were placed. Comfort was but an afterthought. A radiogram (it really was that old) sat on the window-sill and proved its worth when we gathered to listen to the shipping forecast, hoping that conditions would be favourable for a fall of birds at Dungeness. Cupboard space was in plentiful supply. Across one wall a notice board was festooned with information leaflets and notices, mostly produced in Nick’s spidery handwriting. From here you gained access to the small, but well equipped kitchen. A back door lead into a tiny yard where a dilapidated and slumped coal shed spewed its contents - a medley of wire, off-cuts of wood and coal - onto a small area of weeds. There was also an outside toilet, which only the brave, desperate or foolhardy actually used.

Back inside, and moving up the steep, narrow stairs, you reached the first floor (not before negotiating a wickedly tight turn and a sign that read ‘No muddy boots’). To the left was a bathroom with two small basins, an ancient washing machine and a toilet cubicle that had been added as an afterthought. The next door along found the warden’s room and opposite that was a large bedroom which boasted a panoramic view of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Continuing up the final flight of stairs took you into the top floor bedroom, which had five beds. In the far corner of the room was a door, which lead to a smaller bedroom affectionately referred to as ‘The Firetrap’ due to the lack of exits provided should flames sweep the building. All the bedrooms were stocked with old, uncomfortable beds, fit for a convention of masochists. The mattresses were thin and obviously once belonged to a home for the incontinent before DBO gratefully inherited them. The pillows were lumpy and dirty. Piles of damp, grubby blankets were free to be used. The Hilton it wasn’t. There was no central heating. Cold could be combated with a couple of electric fires that, once plugged in would make little difference to the room temperature, while eating up all of the 50 pence pieces in the meter. The original sash windows, while charming, were draughty and rattled with the merest hint of wind. For some reason I found all of this acceptable and, what’s more, actually payed for the privilege to stay here.

A feature that appealed to me was that each window had a checklist of birds taped to it - we were invited to add to the tally of species seen from them. I was surprised to note that every window had Rough-legged Buzzard ticked off of the list. Enquiries revealed that the 1974 Rough-leg invasion sent a couple to wander the peninsular for several weeks. This inspired me to sit and look out from them, desperate to add a tick to the list. On this visit, I was unsuccessful.

I returned home with Dungeness buzzing in my head. I felt at home there and had enjoyed not only the birding, but the place itself. It had hidden depths that I wanted to trawl and explore. I would be back, that was for sure. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

One more...

A final trawl through my late-Spring fortnight at Dungeness, by the simple medium of captioned photographs. Keeping it simple...

Four-spotted Chasers were common throughout my stay, although towards the end up to 400 were present
Sea Kale was at its best, strewn across the open shingle and beach looking like giant cauliflowers
Marsh Cinquefoil vanished from the DBO recording area in 1984, but has recently returned
The pale yellow and orange patches is Common Dodder - a parasitic plant that is having a very good year
Sea Clover at Camber. A plant that I rarely come across

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

When Dungeness came to the North Downs

I was delighted to welcome a car-load of Dungeness naturalists to the Box Hill area today, as Dave Walker, Gill Hollamby and Owen Leyshon made the trip north to sample some of the delights to be found on the chalk.

We started off by visiting the Wild Candytuft (below) that can be found on the slopes of Mickleham Downs. Although numbers seem to have dropped off recently, several robust specimens where found in fine flower. A few Stinking Hellebores were nearby.

After parking at the top of Box Hill, we slowly walked eastwards along the ridge as far as Brockham, where we paid our respects to the large colony of Green Hound's-tongue, mostly over, although several were still exhibiting some flower. We retraced our steps, zig-zagging across the open chalk downland, finding Man Orchid, Bee Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid, Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Common Twayblades, Pyramidal Orchid and, under beech woodland, Bird's-nest Orchid. The orchid numbers were not as high as previous years, although 60+ spikes of Man were found and Common Spotted were only just coming out.

It wasn't all about the plants - Bryony Ladybird (below), Juniper Shieldbug (bottom) and Box Bug (the latter on Box, on Box Hill!) were all targetted and found, with our first Large Skipper, Marbled White and Meadow Brown of the year on the wing. With plenty of other insects and plants to divert us, we kept very busy and the time flew. It makes a change for me to be able to show these fine people a few bits and pieces - it's normally the other way round!