Sunday, 31 March 2019

More Wheatears


Dungeness wouldn't be Dungeness without its Wheatears, whether they be early spring migrants, big beefy late spring Greenlands, those that stay to breed or the protracted autumn departees. The are all good in my book. This past week saw a modest dribble of white-arses through the area with just the one pair holding territory. Dungeness is full of industrial bric-a-brac which lends itself to being perched on by these smart birds, and also adds a touch of 'something else' to any photograph. There is another option for obtaining an image, and that is when the birds are trapped for scientific study.



Saturday, 30 March 2019

Shrimping with Jacques


When DBO's assistant warden Jacques Turner-Moss invited me to go shrimping with him, citing a few ticks for my pan-species list as an incentive, I didn't need asking twice. Last Wednesday morning found us walking across the sands at low-tide, opposite the Dungeness lifeboat station.  We headed for the shallow sea, with Jacques carrying a Heath-Robinsonesque contraption made of wood and netting that he claimed was his shrimping net. I was very much an onlooker during the next hour, watching him walk parallel with the water's edge, pushing the net ahead of him, every so often examining the catch and hauling it ashore to empty the spoils into a bucket. Most of this was Brown Shrimp which were boiled and snacked upon soon after return to the bird observatory, but much else found its way into the net as the images below show - any identification error(s) are mine alone and any correction(s) would be welcomed.

Five-bearded Rockling
Lesser Weever
Velvet Swimming Crab
Harbour Crab
Idotea linearis
Plaice?
Side view of the Rockling
Brill (with the small Plaice in middle?) 
Brown Shrimp

Friday, 29 March 2019

Inverts to the fore

The final day of my current stay at Dungeness dawned clear and cold, was then followed by a sea fret that rolled in, which finally gave way to sunny and warm conditions. The birds decided to stay away so it was up to the invertebrates to take centre stage.

LARGE TORTOISESHELL. The butterfly that was seen last Sunday, and again on Tuesday, appeared before Dave Brown and I early this afternoon, in the same place as Owen saw it three days ago. I had spent several hours searching for the insect this week and has assumed that today's weather would provide my best chance of seeing it. Rising up close by, taking off from lightly vegetated shingle, it flew towards us and, thankfully, banked as it glided past, providing good views, before being lost in flight.

Over the next couple of hours in which it was unsuccessfully searched for, by-product reward came in the form of single HUMMINGBIRD HAWK-MOTH and LIGHT ORANGE UNDERWING.

Before I left for home in the late afternoon I went onto the RSPB reserve and visited the sandy bank found at the entrance to Dennis's Hide where the colony of the very rare mining-bee ANDRENA VAGA is found. The warm weather and mild start to the spring had ensured that several hundred were on the wing, a living tableau of invert industry and activity.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

A trio of highlights

I couldn't call it a classic Spring morning as it was a curious few hours, with few birds about but plenty of high interest. A cold, grey and calm dawn was more November than March, although the first look out of the Hanson Hide (ARC Dungeness) provided us with a glorious raft of four drake Garganey and up to a dozen Sand Martins. The ducks fed constantly, took to the air several times but returned to their favoured spot. Another four appeared on Burrowes later in the day, and three flew past on the sea, part of a wide arrival in the south-east.

Across the road, on the grassy banks of Cook's Pool, were a minimum of 27 Ruff, a motley collection of birds, some of which were coming into summer plumage, patches of black, white and chestnut dandifying the winter drabness. These birds scattered and were subsequently seen widely across the peninsula. A good count for recent years.

Last but no means least was the ever expanding Water Pipit flock that haunted Hayfield One. Some individuals were in arresting plumage, all pink flushed breasts and stark white supercilliums. Four became eight, eight extrapolated into double figures (although I saw no more than eight). It will be interesting to see how many are claimed tomorrow!

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Good to be back

My first full day at Dungeness in this mini early-Spring break. As always it was a real pleasure to meet up again with my friends (some old and some not so old) and to once more lose myself to the feel and rhythm of the shingle. The light northerly went more westerly, the sun shone and the coolness of the day did have its warmer moments. A few Wheatears, Black Redstarts and Chiffchaffs trickled through and a mid-morning pulse of 20 Common Buzzards came in from the west (in ones, twos and threes) circled above the peninsula and headed northwards.

When it came to the end of the day, in a slowly dying light, it was a joy to wander across the beach just inland from the fishing boats. By now it was calm. A pair of Wheatears were opposite Jarman's, the male in full song, carrying across the honeyed shingle. This is one of my special places. It's good to be back.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Just by 'being around'


You don't need to travel far to conjure up some interesting observations. Just by being around and about the garden throughout the day, and pausing now and again to glance up, I managed to record a second record for the garden (a Peregrine that circled high for a couple of minutes before being lost to view), my earliest ever Holly Blue and a steady dribble of Common Buzzards that headed south to south-westwards. I also paid my respects to a Peacock that alighted momentarily on a patch of earth (above) - I don't think that there is a butterfly that can beat it.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Down by the river


The National Trust have recently - well, maybe three years ago now -  opened up a footpath along the northern bank of the River Mole between the Stepping Stones and Box Hill Bridge. Until this morning I had not trodden along this rather delightful stretch of prime Surrey habitat. Meandering along the flood plain at the base of the North Downs, it looks as though regular coverage would pay off. There are shallow sections of the river, deeper pools, a few small vegetated islands, copses, hedgerows running back up the hill and livestock inhabited farmland.


A handful of singing Chiffchaffs announced that Spring was truly here, and a pair of Grey Wagtails gave the impression of scouting the area for possible nest sites. It was, however, a pair of Kingfishers that stole the show, with one bird, a female, giving close and prolonged views perched up in the dark tangle of waterside vegetation (above and below.)


Crossing the A24 I strolled along the southern bank of the River Mole between Westhumble and Mickleham, where the avian highlights were a pair of Mandarin Duck and a gathering of 10 Little Egret, most of which alighted in a dead tree (below). The day was rounded off with attending the Surrey Botanical Society AGM at Box Hill Village Hall, where it was a pleasure to catch up with old friends and make some new ones.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Stained-glass effect


Last status check, I promise. This morning I decided to go with a 'stained-glass window' theme to the painting, building up the composition out of cells of colour. This treatment will extend to the Reed Bunting as well. As with all my work, how it ends up is not so much pre-planned, more a case of it being haphazard, but that is where the fun lies. I might not get a chance to work on it again for a few days, but when complete I'll be sure to post it.

If it turns out alright that is...

Thursday, 21 March 2019

It's white-arse time!


The past couple of days has seen a large influx of Wheatears into southern England. I have been checking on the high, open ground of Epsom Downs and Canons Farm with some regularity, but with no success - until this afternoon. Standing by Reeds Rest Cottages (at Canons Farm) I was talking to Gordon Hay on the phone, moaning about the lack of Wheatears, when a smart male flew into view. The spell of taking in this most wonderful of birding moments - the year's first white-arse - was broken only by the appearance of another male alongside, and then a third. All flew off, over the green barn, before then alighting on Broad Field, where they were joined by a female Stonechat.



I moved on to Mogador, just north of Colley Hill, where the open ground has been a magnet to chats in the past, but not this afternoon. There was some compensation with a pair of Marsh Tits being extremely vocal in Margery Wood, where I haven't recorded the species for a number of years.

One more picture of a Wheatear? Why not...

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Colour and pattern take over


A little more headway has been made on the painting (detail above.) I'm at the stage where the subject matter takes a back seat and the colour and pattern take over. Whatever little realism existed will now be pulverised under layers of paint - if a colour combination doesn't work it will be painted over - if a pattern jars then it will be replaced. Gouache is a forgiving medium. Ultimately it is all about the detail and not necessarily about the bird or the leaves, which is just as well as realism is not my strong point!

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Backlit bulrushes




Sometimes the birding can get stodgy - little is on show, you seem to be watching the same birds, inspiration is in short supply - and at times like these you grab at anything that excites. This morning found me squelching through the mud at Holmethorpe, a little bit jaded, when I came across the Bulrush bed at Spynes Mere. It was a delight on the eye, the backlit bulrush heads revealing cotton-wool edges to the cigar shaped tops. All that was missing was a feeding Penduline Tit...

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The painting evolves


Another spurt of work on the painting has seen the central subject - a male Reed Bunting - added to the composition. As is the way with my artwork, it will be dominated by shape and colour rather than realism. This is down to two things: firstly, I cannot produce work that the likes of Rose, Lewington and Jonsson can: and secondly, my interest lies in creating images through a layered build up of abstraction. I can spend hours just nudging away with the paint and brushes this way which is good for the mind. Om mani padme hum...

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Busily doing nothing

Well, that's not quite correct, but it has felt like it. The relentless strong westerly airflow, together with sudden downpours or long periods of drizzle have put to bed thoughts of those warm balmy days of late February. I have hardly picked up the binoculars, instead finding stuff to do indoors or seeking refuge in shops, pubs, art galleries, doing artwork or reading books. I cannot complain...

This morning I took part in a bit of community work, assisting in the planting of a wild hedgerow on the local allotment where I'm helping out record the wildlife. 200 mixed plugs of oak, blackthorn, silver birch, rowan and hazel were donated by the Woodland Trust and put in place by seven of us in quick time, helped along by tea, coffee and home made cake.

As for the birding, this stormy interlude has had the feel of pushing a reset button. When it all calms down next week I will enter the field with renewed vigour, and maybe, just maybe, a summer migrant or two will be awaiting.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Out come the paints and brushes


With heavy rain, strong winds and a disinclination to venture outside, there was only one thing for it this morning - start on a painting! Out came the brushes and gouache and a start was made on the latest composition. I have an idea in mind, which is bird-themed, but as with any of my paintings an image of the finished product has not yet materialised in my brain. I start with a vague idea and then let fly with the brushes, building up layer upon layer of colour and pattern. I thought it might be fun to post the work as it progresses  - the photo above was taken after about an hour's work. Much will change, of that I'm sure.

Friday, 8 March 2019

First Wheatear prize awarded!


The 2019 ND&B Wheatear Trophy kicked into life yesterday when Paul Trodd, he of Plovers Blog, waded in with an early afternoon posting of a white-arse that had been found on Dungeness beach by DBO assistant warden Jacques Turner-Moss. The competition rules state:

Earliest posting
Whoever posts the earliest image of a 2019 UK Northern Wheatear wins this one. Blog posting only.

This is open only to those blogs that clutter grace the 'Worthy Blogs' list to the right of this post. And, as if throwing down a gauntlet to announce his attempt at the main prize, he posted no less than three images. Martin Casemore over at Ploddingbirder also posted an image of the same bird, but several hours later. Hard luck Martin...

Just to recap the other categories:

Numbers champion (the big one!)
Whoever posts the most images of Northern Wheatears between now and the end of April 2019. A photograph of five birds together will count as 5 images! Get snapping!!! No repeat images, and that means you, Peter Alfrey!! Blog posting only.

Best photograph
The best image of a UK Northern Wheatear in 2019 (up until the end of April), to be judged by as yet unannounced members of the BBC's Countryfile team - (likely to change) - will be the winner. Or Matt Baker. Or David Lindo. Possibly Bill Oddie. More likely to be me. It might be used on the 2020 Countryfile calendar - might. Or as a nifty t-shirt design to be worn by Chris Packham during live transmission of BBCs Springwatch - outside chance. And, as the other categories, blog posting only. 

Northern Wheatear only. UK only. 2019 only.

Paul has yet to win the 'big one' - can he following the footsteps of these Kings and Queens of White-arse?

2013 Gavin Haig
2014 Martin Casemore
2015 Jono Lethbridge
2016 Lucy@ A Natural Interlude

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Book poverty

Apparently today is 'World Book Day'. I've just found that out. I've also just found out that 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK do not own a single book. Not one. It got me thinking back to my childhood days, that were fortunately filled with books.

Books were just there. Obviously my parents provided them, and when I couldn't read them myself they read them to me. As soon as I could read, I did. All the time. I can vividly remember a particular book where there was an illustration of a city, seen from above, with the roads lined with buildings, showing where the shops were, the churches, the schools, the police station, the library - and I would lie on the floor tracing a route through this printed city with my finger. Another cherished possession was a set of 'The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Animal Life' which arrived at my home volume by volume over a period of months, clad in a garish yellow cover (see above). These were pored over relentlessly and I must admit to just assuming that all kids had access to books like these. My nostalgia button was pressed a couple of years ago when I came across a full set of them in a second-hand bookshop - part of me fantasised that they were my very own books that had come back to say hello. Lack of space on the bookshelves stopped me from buying them.

I loved nothing better than taking a book to bed with me and reading well into the night, defying parental wishes for me to go to sleep by reading by torchlight under the covers (yes, that cliche was carried out by yours truly). Graduating onto fiction this nocturnal reading could be Enid Blyton, Jennings and Derbyshire or Molesworth. I was entertained. I was educated. I escaped into another world - no, many worlds.

So the idea that there are kids out there with no books at all, or growing up in a family where books are either in short supply or that reading is discouraged and not promoted is very sad indeed. Those kids are going to miss out on so much, self-discovery for starters. If it is a lack of money that stops them from being able to read books at home, they are not being helped out with an easy visit to the local library. They are closing at a rate (127 last year) and are suffering from funding cuts, staffing shortages and, of those that do remain, a reduction in opening hours. These establishments rely more and more on the help of volunteers. There should be an investment being made here, which will be beneficial to the population as a whole, especially to its mental well-being. But, like so much in our f*cked up country, common sense and 'doing the right thing' seem to be missing.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Warm blue


Northern France, last spring. A Bluethroat sings from the top reaches of a bush on the edge of a marsh. I forgot that I had taken this photograph until looking through a whole raft of images today. Regardless of the distance of the bird, and its lack of detail, I was at once warmed by the visual, so thought I would share it.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

A return to simpler times please

I have mentioned this 'Private Eye' cartoon before, of a little old lady at the window of a railway station ticket office asking for a "return to simpler times please". That struck a chord with me at the time and still does today.

Simpler times... what does that really imply?

To me it means a world pre-Brexit, pre-Trump and pre-social media. And yes, I do get the irony of that last one, considering that I use it on a daily basis and am doing so in communicating with you right now. The first two points I'll leave well-alone for now, they really are too divisive, particularly the first. But as for wanting to return to a time before 'social media' that might need a bit of explaining, so here goes...

The internet has been a game changer for most of the human race. Information at your finger-tips, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When I was in education and had an assignment to do on, say, King Charles the Second, there were maybe a handful of books in the public library from where I could get the information I needed to complete the task. My ability to gain access to these books was governed by the opening hours of the library and the hope that one of the other 30+ students doing the same assignment hadn't beaten me to them. We did have a general encyclopaedia at home, probably several, but any entry for said monarch would be brief and not up to what I needed - and talking of home references, who on earth possess a printed encyclopaedia any longer, let alone refer to one?

So, access to knowledge with little or no hindrance is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. Just type anything into a search engine. Anything. What comes up are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of sites to where you are guided. The first up will be sites that are, in effect adverts or businesses that are wanting to sell you holidays to the places that you were seeking out or trying to sell you products based on the subject you were looking for. Granted, it isn't so bad with wanting to find out information on natural history subjects.

The information that is dished up is correct, can we assume that? Well, no, not necessarily. Where as the books and encyclopaedias that we used to refer to had been peer-checked, edited and written by experts in the field, any old Tom, Dick or Harriet can post on the internet. I could write an essay on King Charles the Second and claim that he was 6 foot 10 inches tall and had a glass eye and somebody, somewhere could come across it and take it as gospel. Wikipedia suffers from this, with public editing of pages that are either misguided or mischievous.

Let's take Twitter and Facebook. I use the former on a daily basis and the latter rarely, both for the sole purpose of gleaning information about natural history, breaking news of what is turning up and in some cases being sent direct messages for local goodies. If I stopped using them then my ability to stay loosely in the loop would whither and die. A few of my chums do still use the phone, but they are in small number.

Trouble is, we are, as a species, narcissistic. These platforms are used as a shop window by many to brag, post, preen and, quite frankly, bore their followers. And yes, I too have been guilty of such behaviour. If I see another photograph of that sodding Tengmalm's Owl on Shetland I might just jump out of an upstair's window. I can understand that the finder's might post a picture. But do all of the several hundred who have twitched it need to do so as well? Fair enough, you've spent probably hundreds to get there, taken over a day to do so, so why not tell the world that you saw it - and, if I had gone, wouldn't I have done the same? Hmmmm, not as straightforward as I thought, all of this 'social-media' malarkey.

"Why don't you just stop using it then Steve?"

I've tried. I really have. Culled the number of people that I follow. Only looked at the feeds a couple of times a day. But, like an addict, I come back for just one more look. I have alerts for certain accounts, the ones that are more likely to let me know of a good bird, moth or plant close to home. I cannot ignore those when they go off. And so I carry on coming back for another hit. Putting up with retweets about Brexit, Climate Change, Hen Harrier persecution, being reminded of what a grim and shitty world we live in.

So, to once again echo what the little old lady at the railway station said, I'd like a return to simpler times please.