Tuesday, 30 June 2020

One last glance backwards


Following on from yesterday's post, a bit more information has come my way regarding the Dungeness school, that was open between 1876 and 1940. The remnants of the school are situated a few hundred metres NE of the bird observatory, just north-west of the Pilot Path before it drops down into the Trapping Area. The picture above was taken some time in the 1920s.

The parcel of land it stood on was given to the Vicar and churchwardens of Lydd for the express purpose of erecting a church school, and was passed over in 1906 to the Kent Education Committee. The school was also used by the community for worship, with an alter and alter rail placed at the eastern window, with celebrations and whisk drives also being held. A measles outbreak caused a brief closure in April 1896. Those who held the post of head teacher were Miss Richards (1883-1885), Miss Bowrick (1885-1889), Miss Stevens (1889-1890),  Miss Abernethy (1890-1892), Miss Marsh (1892-1908), Miss Fox (1908-1925, who became became Mrs Stevenson on marrying the landlord of The George Hotel in Lydd), Miss Wilman (1925-1936) and Miss Bottle (1936-1940).

There is a most illuminating account of being a pupil at the school, written by the daughter of one of the railway workers who settled at the point and lived in one of the railway carriages. For the life of me I cannot relocate it...

Monday, 29 June 2020

Ghosts - Dungeness Part Three


The beach and its hinterland are scattered with the remnants of past lives, set out before us in the guise of concrete bases, broken glass, shattered ceramics, twisted metal and rusted pipes. These can be found strewn across the shingle in several places. The crunch of shingle beneath your feet becomes the crunch of man-made debris without warning, swapping geological crunch for that of the Anthropocene. It is hard not to come across these reminders of the past without wishing to know more, to be able to delve further, for here are long lost lives, largely forgotten and eroding with every winter storm, each blast of summer sun and slowly crumbling by the actions of the roots of vegetative succession. When you look across at the modern re-imaginings of the developments that hug the single-track road which follows the shoreline, it can be hard to fathom out where all of these ‘ghost’ buildings originate from. Dungeness may never have been the home of a bustling town, but the shingle has seen much in the brief time that human beings have decided to call it home.

Dungeness human footfall began in earnest with the erection of the first lighthouse in 1615, beach expansion leading to a re-siting in 1635, and again, in 1790. A redoubt/fortress was built in 1798 in response to the threat of invasion from Napoleonic forces. That was short lived, being abandoned in 1803. An enterprising family settled on the point to sell water to ships that stopped off in the mid-to-late 19th century. With fishing and coastguard families consequently moving in, a school was opened in 1876, the classroom register being swollen when, in 1883, a railway line was laid to the point and with it came the rail company employee’s families. Many of them moved into old railway carriages which they modelled into functioning homes. More beach action required a new lighthouse to be built in 1904. The site of the old redoubt was used as ground to build a row of houses for the use of the Royal Naval Signal Station around the same time. The end house was reserved for the Commanding Officer and today houses Dungeness Bird Observatory. Several hundred metres west of the coastal track shingle extraction took place in the early years of the 20th century, and much temporary infrastructure and a network of carriage lines were put in place, particularly during the 1930s and 40s.

Remains of the school
But time stands still for no man or building. Lighthouses were pulled down or decommissioned. The school was evacuated at the start of World War Two and never re-opened, finally being demolished at the end of the 1960s. The railway line was closed to passengers in 1937 and stopped functioning altogether in 1953. The bases and debris of these buildings are still clearly visible. If you find yourself alongside them, take a moment to reflect on those who’s lives revolved around these places. Imagine the schoolchildren running in through the door to the sound of the bell, listen on the wind and try and pick up the incantation of alphabet and times tables from the young voices. What were their names, these long-gone beating hearts? What were their hopes? What did they see when they looked out across the shingle? In your mind’s eye, observe the train driver as he steps down from the engine at the Dungeness halt, clutching his sandwiches in greaseproof paper, chatting to the guard about the sheep on the line or the squall that he can see coming from the south-west. All been and all gone. Bit part players in the social history of Dungeness, as we too will become. Footnotes.

The beach is literally littered with reminders of the once larger fishing fleet of Dungeness. Lurking amongst the modern plastic netting and fish boxes are old boats, winches, engines and tanning coppers. As much as this abandon of tidiness could be condemned, it holds an aura. I tend to wait until the day trippers have left, and wander through and around this grotto of grot in the early evening. It is the haunt of the artist, the photographer and the soul-searcher. It says as much about the beach life of 2020 as it does of the long-lost fisherfolk.

The site of The Hope and Anchor pub
There is one place above all others that I let my imagination soar within this human history. You will find it at the end of the Dengemarsh Road, close to where the flooded gully ends. You could easily miss it, but if you want a hint as to where to find it, wait until the late-Spring and look for a large clump of Red-hot Poker growing off the eastern side of the road. Here are the foundations of two buildings. One of them was Myrtle Cottage. The other was a pub - The Hope and Anchor- that was used by the crews of passing boats that had rested up in Rye Bay. Today the power station, with its accompanying pylons, dominate the skyline. But when the pub was active – certainly by 1879 and most probably before – this was a lonely, desolate place. I sit here and imagine the sailors walking up from the beach, laughing and joshing as they look forward to their beer, entering the hostelry and greeting the landlord, keen to hear the news. They would have discussed the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria and many would have lamented lost family and friends during the Great War. By the time the Second World War came along both buildings had been abandoned to the elements and were left at the mercy of the fierce south-westerly winds. It is a wonderful, if maudlin spot to reflect on time and place, of our own role in life, and of what we leave behind.

And there's more! The day markers for boats that are now slowly falling over are of a more modern vintage but still part of the evolving Dungeness museum. Groynes that were long buried are re-emerging after storm action, like disinterred skeletons. And you will come across many objects that defy precise categorisation - old walls, shattered bases, rusting metal objects that once were built, served their purpose but then fell out of favour and into disrepair. If only they could talk...

Loads more, and in more detail, here:

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Meeting DBO - Dungeness Part Two

In April 1976, I had booked accommodation 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 trip’s taken to Camber Sands. On a cool July afternoon in 1972, sitting on the edge of a picnic rug, bare feet pushed into the sand and a frown on my face, I looked around in petulant boredom. I didn’t want to be on the beach, this wasn’t my idea of having fun. The land all around was flat, allowing uninterrupted panoramic views which, for nothing better to do, I started to take in. To my left, maybe a couple of miles away, I could not help but notice several lines of electricity pylons on a frozen march eastward. They appeared to be converging at some distant point just out of view. The juxtaposition of the giant metal frames and the unassuming wilderness was disturbing. My vision was drawn eastwards time and time again – just what was this all about?

Later, after the sand-infused sandwiches and the warm lemonade had been consumed, with a little arm-twisting, my Father was persuaded to drive towards this ‘parliament’ of the pylons. We drove in bemused silence along a twisting road that flirted not just with the coastline but also the rows of high voltage cable overhead. The green fields quickly became shingle. The roadside fences increased in height and took on an altogether more menacing character. Disappointingly, on reaching a small town (Lydd), where a Norman church tower tried valiantly to take on the pylons, my Father and various squabbling siblings had seen enough, the car was turned and headed back westward. The discovery of where the power converged had yet to be made. But I was intrigued. Looking at my Father’s road atlas it seemed as if these power lines met at a place called Dungeness. Even the name sounded disturbing, not unlike ‘dangerous’ or ‘dungeon’. And, as if to confirm this uneasiness, it was the site of a nuclear power station. 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 four years later 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 got out of the car with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Bedding and food were carried into the observatory. The building was musty. It obviously hadn’t seen any interior decoration for a while, if ever. The carpet was threadbare. The furniture had seen better days. Third-hand cooking utensils populated the damp kitchen. I loved it!

What of the observatory building itself? You entered through a small, fortified porch, which had the front door placed on the eastern wall. This led 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 a junk shop. 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 sat on the floor, annoyingly in the way, but was tolerated as it transported a large heavy-duty box in which a 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 which 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 from the hallway was the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory, 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 the warden’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 that had been fed into 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 paid for the privilege to stay.

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.

On that first visit 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 whilst being serenaded by unseen Redshank and Oystercatchers; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Open Pits; walking 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. I also was aware of treading in the footsteps of my birdwatching hero, HG Alexander. I was at the place where he found his Cream-coloured Courser in 1916! His Kentish Plovers and Stone Curlews may have gone, but in my vivid imagination he was still here, wandering over the shingle, just out of view.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Dungeness, a personal account - Part One


If you ever find yourself standing at Dungeness, crouch down and pick up a pebble. Any pebble will do. Weigh it in the palm of your hand. Roll it around between your fingertips and feel its smoothness and its imperfections. What shape is it? Round? Oval? It could be either of these or it could be one of a multitude of other shapes. The chances of you having chosen this particular pebble defy the odds, a contemplation and calculation that would drive you mad and be born of folly. This shingle beach is vast - eight square miles of exposed beach to be precise with an additional four buried beneath sand and soil. And this beach has depth. You are standing on shingle that plummets metres beneath your feet. That’s billions upon billions of individual pebbles. And you have just chosen this particular one. A representative of the area’s violent geology, recent when compared to the old hills further to the north.

Five thousand years ago - in an area of sea just west of Dungeness that is today Rye Bay - we would have found offshore barrier beaches that were constantly shifting with the insistence of the tides. Over several thousand years this shingle was moved and deposited in stages eastwards and started to accumulate on tidal sands. Each mini era of activity formed shingle ridges, mimicking the waves that had given birth to them, and within each peak and swell was laid bare the genesis of the place that would later become the Dungeness that you are now standing on, holding that pebble. As much as this process was a gradual one, at times, during the dark ages, great storms quickened proceedings, not only reconstructing the shoreline with brutal immediacy but also altering the flow of the nearby rivers. The area inland from all of this activity was a volatile place too, what with the rising of the landmass, formation of marshland and periodic inundation of the sea. Man had also played his part in altering the landscape to serve his own needs, draining it to create fertile farmland and the building of sea walls to protect these precious gains from the very element that he had stolen them from.

Written accounts do exist of what happened on a February day in the late 13th century, and even today meteorologists still refer to this event as one of the fiercest storms ever recorded. There were, apparently, portents – a red moon that shone a sickly light over the shingle shoals and marshland; a relentless gale force wind that refused to subside; a flooding high tide that allowed no ebb between its next, equally high incursion and mountainous waves that crested with thick white spume. The marauding sea tore across the beaches and temporarily took back the marshes far inland. Two sleepy coastal hamlets were cast aside and dragged down into a watery grave.

Such was the force of the storm that enormous quantities of shingle were ripped from the peninsula, and, together with mud and soil from the hinterland, all were transported northwards, to be dumped, with little ceremony, at the feet and over the ankles of the inhabitants of New Romney, a few miles to the north. This harbour silted up in a matter of hours and was sealed from the sea; the level of the land rose by five inches in a day; the river which had exited into the English Channel found itself dramatically diverted over 15 miles to the west. Overnight the bustling port found itself a mile from the sea that had, until the day before, lapped against its streets. It is not too fanciful to claim that Dungeness had, in effect, killed off the port. Even after such murderous manoeuvres, Dungeness still remained in place, albeit cruelly scoured by the storm. It was a day that irrevocably changed the geology of the area.

Even today, the beach has not finished forming and will continue to do so. Its western shoreline wants to migrate northwards and eastwards, while the east of the peninsula feels compelled to head towards the southeast. Standing on this land is taking a ride on a slow – a very slow – geological rollercoaster. The beach extends much further inland than most other beaches dare venture. Man has tried to halt its advance as much as the sea tries to throw the loose shingle back on dry land.

Over time wind-born detritus has lodged between the pebbles and given refuge for the seeds of pioneer plants to germinate. Generation after generation have flowered and died, giving more volume to the burgeoning soil, and so more room for plant life to establish. Wet spells, droughts, varying water-table height and drying winds have helped or hindered the botanical community of this beach into what is present today.

What colour is Dungeness? For a place constructed of billions of stones it is surprisingly varied. It depends on the current weather conditions. It depends on the season. It also depends on the time of day. Look at the pebble that you picked up again and now glance down at those by your feet. No two pebbles are the same, are they. What appears to be a mono-coloured landscape is one made up of a multitude of colours. There’s white, brown, buff, honey, copper, purple, blue, grey and every colour in-between. Some are multi-coloured, others of a single hue. At times, viewed on mass, the shingle can appear sandy. When the sun comes out it appears as if it has been smothered in honey. And then a cloudbank comes along and everything takes on the hue of grey sludge, although if you are looking into an oncoming storm, the dark clouds then casts the shingle as a contrasting powder white or a shimmering silver. A sun-kissed dawn or a red-skied evening paints the landscape with wide brush-stokes of gold and pink. Botanical forces also come into play, which, during the spring and summer, transforms a land of stone into one of flower, colouring the landscape with wild abandon – a panoramic rusty red from Sheep’s Sorrel; subtle green-creams of Wood Sage; lemon blots of Cat’s-ear; smoky white banks of Nottingham Catchfly; random golden smears of Bird’s-foot Trefoil; star spangled splatters of yellow, white and blue from Stonecrops and Sheep’s-bit; vibrant purple pronouncements from spikes of Viper’s Bugloss; and the confection of reds, pinks and whites of the ubiquitous Red Valerian. Every year is different depending on the fortunes of the plants themselves. In 2012 there was a mass flowering across the peninsula that created, for those who saw it, a never-to-be-forgotten botanical visual overload. Luckily enough, during that year I spent the whole of July at Dungeness and possess a photographic record of that wonderful time. Even during the winter, the stone has contrast with lichens and mosses, whose subtle colours and intricate structures soften the hardness and break up the mass.

And we cannot introduce Dungeness without paying homage to the Big Sky. We stand on flat ground, with no appreciable rise until reaching the old sea cliffs several miles inland. The nuclear power station may dwarf the lighthouses and the churches at Lydd and New Romney, but even these buildings cannot compete with what is above them, a sky that reaches the horizon without interference, that looms up with almost an absurd feeling of weight. It makes you feel small, insignificant, vulnerable. These feelings are doubled if you walk out across the sands at low tide, opposite the lifeboat station, and look back inland. Now, at distance, the power stations are only just peeking above the shingle ridge. They have lost any visual power that they had. The sky is bigger. Heavier. Mightier. Now slowly turn 360 degrees. An emptiness of sand and sea. You are the tallest object for what seems to be miles. You will never feel so exposed.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Close up

The garden MV is producing a half-decent catch each night, although that anticipated 'macro' highlight is missing so far. Fortunately there are plenty of micros to wade through, and a few of the more visual are shown below. If I've mis-identified any then please let me know! Some of these are so small that it is a struggle to make out their markings and colour - sometimes it isn't until I look at them through a magnifying glass - or macro lens - that I can really appreciate them.

Pammene fasciana
Argyresthia pruniella
Caloptia alchimiella
Coleophora deauratella - possibly...
Notocelia rosaecolana

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Close encounters of a purple kind



After the delights of Bookham Common yesterday afternoon it seemed a good idea to go back this morning, especially on the off-chance that I might find a grounded Purple Emperor. After parking the car at the 'Tunnel Car Park' (08.45hrs) I set off towards the grove of chosen oaks. I had got no further than 100m when my attention was drawn to the flashing wings of a large butterfly from the track a little ahead of me. I knew what it was before I lifted the binoculars - BINGO!

The male Purple Emperor was at a tiny damp patch on the ground and was quite happy for me to come up alongside and keep it company, taking pictures and even a video (which can be found at the bottom of this post, please excuse the sound of walker's boots on the gravel track). For five minutes it remained in place, ignoring a couple of cyclists, a jogger and a dog pack, although I was urging them all to give us a wide berth. It then took flight and alighted a short distance away in some brambles, from which I did not see it emerge. Later in the day (12.30hrs) at least two others were gliding above the crown of the same preferred oaks as yesterday. Soon afterwards a Purple Hairstreak descended from on high and alighted in a shady spot where it remained motionless (below).


If anything, numbers of Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral were down on yesterday, although today the heat was more oppressive and what butterflies were on the wing were very skittish. I did see a single White Admiral that lacked the white bands, but not well enough to give it a match to any named aberration.


Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Drowsy with butterflies



Armed with some up to date information from my good friend Gordon Hay, I spent the afternoon on Bookham Common. With precise directions I was able to stand alongside the favoured oaks of that most sought after of butterflies, the Purple Emperor. After only a ten minute wait one came out to patrol the top of an oak tree, gliding in the blue sky and taking up position on an outer leaf. It was roused into action twice - once to see off an Emperor Dragonfly, and again to joust with another Purple Emperor. Both then disappeared into the canopy. The rides were awash with Silver-washed Fritillary (65+) and White Admiral (35+). Hot, drowsy, humid and wonderful.



Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Part three: early books of influence

Let us return to 1974.

It soon became obvious that I should get hold of a book that illustrated the birds that I was likely to observe in the garden. Without it I would be unable to put a specific name to almost all that I would see. A visit to the local WH Smith book department gave little choice, and I came away with a set of three inexpensive flimsy guides, written by Reginald Jones and published by Jarrold of Norfolk - ‘Birds in our Gardens’, ‘Birds of the Hedgerows and Commons’ and ‘Birds of Woodlands’. Each was a 32-page booklet, with colour photography throughout, that depicted the commoner species to be found in the habitat of the title. They met my modest needs. I soon returned home, stationed at a back-bedroom window overlooking the garden, with my Father’s binoculars and newly purchased guides at the ready. House Sparrow, Wood Pigeon, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Blue Tit and Great Tit – all were quickly identified, each of which came with a level of confidence (and almost certainty) that was both novel and enjoyable. My claim of a Tree Sparrow bothered me as soon as I made it, this swiftly being removed within an few hours. Several ‘garden sessions’ followed, each one eagerly anticipated. My eyes had well and truly been opened, and the photographic guides that I possessed teased me further, with images of other species ready to be discovered, but not necessarily at home. All I needed to do was make the effort and step a little further afield.

I didn’t have to travel far. The local parks and tree-lined streets were enough of a change from the back garden to be able to provide me with new species. Two birds stood out in particular amongst the others – a Goldfinch, that sat motionless on its nest in the lower branches of a pavement tree; and a Grey Wagtail, that regularly haunted a water-filled ditch on an allotment. Each were greeted with a joy that I could only liken to celebrating the scoring of a goal or the taking of a wicket, although these ‘bird identification victories’ possessed a deeper level of fulfilment than any sporting achievement did. And, with each ‘victory’, another photograph from the guide ceased to exist purely as ink on paper, but now had reality as blood and feather. Summer-evening games of cricket became a battle of wills between my concentration on the game or on the skies above. The latter often won, as I was able to add Swift and House Martin to my ever-expanding list of birds, although no list yet existed consciously. I did not write my observations down, did not count the number of individuals that I saw. Everything stayed in the moment. I saw, I tried to identify, I moved on. If ‘moving on’ suggested that I treated the birds as a mere commodity, something to trifle with on an intellectual level before dismissing them, that was not the case. I just didn’t have a system in place to record what I was seeing. My observations remained in my memory and could be replayed at will. And they were, repeatedly.

I tagged along with my Father when he went fishing, usually to the River Mole at Leatherhead, on arrival abandoning him at his bank-side station to prowl the nearby meadows; I cycled to Oaks Park, wandering through the open copses and dodging golf-balls as I searched the grassy fairways on the golf course for lurking avian prizes; and I took a bus to Nower Wood, losing myself in the rides on a quest to find woodpeckers. All provided me with new birds and further tests on my ability to name them. I was starting to consider bird watching as more than a passing fad. It was becoming all-consuming. Wherever I went I looked for birds, whether that be on foot, in a car, or on a bus. What was out there? I wanted to know. But I needed further help.

I spent my meagre savings to buy my own (cheap) pair of binoculars and upgraded my reference material to ‘The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Bertel Bruun. This was a major step up from the Jarrold booklets, as it depicted many more species in varying plumages, with the additional bonus of brief identification notes. These were most welcome, as I had started to ask more questions about the birds that were appearing in front of me. I could no longer assume that the Jarrold books would illustrate everything that I could possibly come across. They obviously didn’t, but at the same time how on earth would I know what a new species was when I came across it? So, within a matter of a few weeks I had outgrown my very first reference books. This birdwatching roller-coaster ride was starting to speed up.

My new field guide’s colour plates had been illustrated by Arthur Singer. Unlike the constraints imposed by a photograph, the artist had been able to clearly depict salient features to enable bird watchers to successfully identify what they saw. The book was published almost entirely with this purpose in mind, rather than cater to an aesthetically minded audience. I avidly devoured it, spending hours looking at the plates, familiarising myself with what I might expect to see and dreaming about those that I most probably wouldn’t. Each turning of a page would kick-start a fresh round in the creation of hopes and dreams. Would I ever see a Green Woodpecker? What chance was there of coming across a Hoopoe? Could I ever hope to bump into a Hawfinch?

The guide introduced me to many aspects of bird study for the first time – a systematic list; the existence of summer, winter and passage migrants; distribution maps; and the topography of a bird. As I glanced through the distribution maps, they brought me joy and sorrow in equal measure, as they threw into sharp-focus exactly which species were present in southern England. I was delighted on realising that I stood a very good chance of seeing a Kingfisher. I was crestfallen on accepting that the range of the Bee-eater did not extend across the English Channel.

This wasn’t the only ‘proper’ field guide on offer. I had looked at, and rejected, both the ‘Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom, plus the ‘Collins Pocket Guide’ by Fitter and Richardson. My choice did not do justice to the ground-breaking nature of either of these guides, but merely reflected my seduction by the increased number of species and illustrations within the Hamlyn book.

A family holiday to the New Forest was the first meaningful test for this publication, and with it my first visit to heathland; although I did not return home with a long list of new identifications, it did help me to differentiate between a Stonechat and a Whinchat, it allowed me to attempt to separate a lark from a pipit, and gave me false confidence to begin the long, and at times, difficult process of taking on the warblers. I had, by now, started to note down what I was seeing. Whenever a new species came along, the details of the observation would be marked in pen underneath its description in the Hamlyn guide - the place and date of first observation - as neatly written as possible. I was consigning it to ‘having been seen’ and welcomed it into my ownership. Our hunter-gatherer relationship with birds was still being played out, via a mid-teenage boy, with a pair of binoculars rather than a bow and arrow. My childish enthusiasm took over, and I made a pledge to see at least one bird species on each page of the field guide, and even, if time and luck permitted, to see every species that was depicted on at least one page.

As the summer drew to a close, I went along to Sutton Library and borrowed a book that was to have an enormous influence on me – HG Alexander’s ‘Seventy Years of Bird-watching’. This was an ornithological autobiography and I was captured from the very first page and read the whole book in one sitting. His recollections of bird watching during the early years of the 20th century, and how he kept note of his field observations, were of particular interest to me, and overnight I adopted many of his practices. Within days I had bought a ‘single page per day’ diary and a large hard-backed notebook in which to record my sightings. In them I would keep lists of site visits, I would count the numbers present of each and every species, and also make note of the earliest and latest dates of the migrants. I also decided to join a bird club, in an attempt to legitimise my efforts. The one organisation that I had heard about was The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), so I wrote to them enquiring as to membership. They replied, suggesting that, as I had just turned 16, it would be more appropriate (and cheaper) for me to join their junior arm, The Young Ornithologists Club (YOC). This I did.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The loss of wonder

These days it is unusual for any bird rarity to not be accompanied by a mobile ornithological paparazzi. From the boys (they mostly are boys) with the big lenses to the boys (they mostly are boys) with the bridge cameras. There might even be some retro snappers with their compact cameras jammed up against the eye-pieces of their telescopes. And they too will be mostly boys.

Billions of pixels will have gone to make up the tens of thousands of images that will have been created at the altar of the recent ‘big’ rarity, the Desert Warbler in Northumberland. And many - many - of these images will have been let loose into the public domain via Twitter, What’sApp groups and blogs. Most of them will be of an exceptional quality.

It wasn’t long ago that such saturation of high quality images of rarities was unheard of. When I started birding in the mid-1970s there were but a handful of rarity photographers and some of them were still shooting in black-and-white. A lot of the equipment being used was, compared to what is available today, limiting. This created a world in which the images that were released for public consumption tended to be few in number and modest in quality. Some of them became iconic. The graininess, colour imbalance and subtle blurred edges of the birds that characterised many of these images bestowed upon them a mystery. They were other-worldly. Created a myth that these birds were unobtainable, things you could but dream of. Like a Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster...

And now we have images that leave nothing - absolutely nothing - to the imagination. Pin-sharp. Colour rendering that is accurate. Feather tracts, emarginations, barbs and wing formulae open for forensic examination. From every angle possible. In different lighting. At different times of day. This is true of the Northumberland Desert Warbler, quite a few of the recent Blyth’s Reed Warblers, one or two Red-footed Falcons and many of this Summer’s Rose-coloured Starlings. Close-ups that suggest the photographer must have been getting intimate with the bird to obtain such shots. These pictures almost seem intrusive.

I know I will be in a minority here, but some of the wonder of the bird, and it’s rarity, is lost when the photography is this... pornographic? That seems too strong a word but I cannot find the right one at the moment. When you strip away the mystique and expose the detail then the wonder evaporates. Of course, these images are great educational tools, much cherished by the rare bird records committees and fawned over by the travelling twitching circus. Many of the photographers have spent thousands of pounds on their equipment and put a lot of effort into honing field skills and gaining the know-how to obtain such top-notch results. But - dare I say it - such close-ups lack soul. They can appear cold and insensitive. There is no art involved. They become diagrams, like something from a biological text book.

All of the rare birds mentioned above have had some truly artistic photographs taken of them. A flock of a hundred Common Starlings in flight with one shocking-pink interloper a visual disturbance within them. A Red-foot on a sunlit hunting mission above the sweeping South Downs. The Desert Warbler, beady eye shining through a gap in the leaves. All of them giving so much more than just the rarity they depict but all still capturing the wonder of the bird. It can be done.

One of my birding acquaintances suggested that they don’t feel the need to travel and see these birds once they have been exposed to so many ‘in-your-face’ images. I also believe that, inadvertently, these photographs are casting the birds as consumer goods, to be catalogued, processed and then moved on. But that’s a subject for another post.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Better late than never!


I have tens of thousands of images that I have saved over the past 20 years, some of them dating back to the infancy of affordable digital cameras. I discard most of what I take, keeping just the few that can be thought of as being 'passable'. There are folders within folders on the computer desk top (all backed up, of course, on a removable hard disk) and most of these are of identified species, numbered and dated. Sometimes, especially if I have been away on holiday, or staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory, I will keep everything taken during that trip in its own folder. I have recently been looking through such a folder - this one was titled 'Dungeness, October 2015' - when I came across a series of images taken on the beach while observing Caspian Gulls on the 25th. It was of a group of gulls that had been coming in for fishermen's discards. You can see it above.

I've obviously not looked that hard at it before, because as I worked my way through the gulls, hoping that I might have completely missed something notable, I saw this on a second-winter Great Black-backed Gull...


JZ235 in white lettering on a black ring. A quick check on the excellent European Colour-ring Birding website revealed that it had been ringed by the Lista Ringing Group in southern Norway, obviously some time in 2014. I have sent them the details and hope to receive some information in return. Norwegian ringed Greater Black-backed Gulls are regularly recorded at Dungeness, but few of them will have been submitted five years after observation!

Friday, 19 June 2020

Part two: early sparks

The second in a series of posts that could be laughingly described as my birding autobiography. Lockdown obviously gives us too much time on our hands and a chance to reminisce, but it has been enjoyable resurrecting old pieces of text and embellishing them. Part one can be seen by clicking here.

My Father owned a pair of binoculars that I soon liberated – I had not ever seen them in use and had no idea why he possessed them. They had rested for years, in their case, on top of a sideboard. For the next few weeks they hung around my neck and helped me to observe the birds coming into the garden. As happy as my Father was with me using his optics, he seemed bemused that I was taking part in such a passive activity as bird watching. Admittedly, it was a departure from my usual diet of football and cricket, and not one that he could easily understand. He had been blissfully unaware of any signs that would suggest that I was about to jump feet-first into such an interest. That was hardly surprising as I was still coming to terms with it myself. ‘Birdwatcher’… was that what I now was? Was I prepared to admit to being one? Was this merely a passing fad? I could imagine the double-entendres that would come my way if I told friends and family that I was a ‘birdwatcher’ – the nudging and winking that would accompany such retorts as “not the feathered kind, I bet” and “I like looking at birds myself, but not the sort you do!” Bird watching had certain stigmas attached to it – a pastime beloved of the meek, geeks and vicars. The only celebrity birdwatcher that I knew of was Robert Dougall, an elderly news-reader who dressed in drab suits and was hardly a role model to aspire to. But these concerns were for a future that might not yet evolve. I was merely dipping my toe into water that was still murky with a cloud of uncertainty, although the water did appear to be clearing quickly. I was falling into a parallel universe, one populated by packages of intrigue that flew in and out of the garden, cost nothing to observe and demanded attention. Had there been clues in the past that could point to an earlier appreciation of natural history, if not birds? It didn’t take too much rummaging around in the memory banks to come to the conclusion that there had indeed been moments when the natural world had reached out to touch me.

I was born in Balham, South London in 1958, and after several house-moves around the edges of the city we moved to the Hertfordshire market-town of Tring, in 1962. It was a wonderful place for a young boy to grow up. We lived in a new-build on the edge of town, literally a stone’s-throw from open fields that stretched away towards the reservoirs. The new estate on which our home was built had attracted mainly young families, so that there were plenty of children about - and as we lived in a cul-de-sac, the boys that also populated it with me formed a ready gang. Back then 'stranger danger', health and safety and paranoia were largely missing from the world of the grown-ups, so us kids were left alone to get on with our lives.

Because open countryside was on our doorstep we would frequently to go off and explore it, sometimes on foot, at other times on our bicycles. We cycled the pavement-less country lanes as a peloton of seven and eight-year-olds, oblivious to the little traffic that shared these roads with us. We found farmers gateways in which to rest up, apple trees to scrump from and blackberry bushes to raid if we were desperate. Our travels might take us to the canal, where we would hang over locks in feats of daring-do, scoop up frogspawn or try to master the art of skimming stones - and not one of us could swim. Our time was also taken up, depending on the season, by conker fights; throwing burdocks and grass arrows at each other; blowing on grass leaves until they squeaked; popping bindweed flowers out into the air; seeing if we liked butter by holding up a buttercup to the underside of our chins (we always did!); daring each other to grasp Stinging Nettles and see how long we could hold on before the pain became too much; trying to find bird's nests; creeping through crops that were taller than us; sneaking into barns to chase rats with sticks and then beating a retreat if the farmer came along the track (and heaven help us if his dog got a sniff of us...) We made camps in the woods, and in them took our first puffs on liberated cigarettes.

The sun always seemed to be shining. My six-week summer holidays appeared to last a lifetime. I was fortunate in that my early childhood was without problems and full of carefree happiness. When I look back now, a lot of that was down to the relationship that I had with the outdoors. It was there to explore, a giant natural playground where I felt at total ease. It was full of adventure and possibility. We were whippet-thin, as fit as fiddles and fearless to boot, all through our walking, running, cycling and climbing. The odd broken arm, cuts and bruises here and there, but by and large no harm done. And who didn't enjoy picking the scabs off of the wounds a few days later?

To climb a tree, to lay out in a field and look up into the sky, to get grass stains on our knees, to pick goose-grass balls and grass seeds from your jumper - these were all just a part of our life - a part of our growing up. We left home in the morning and appeared again at tea-time. If we were very late our parents weren't so much worried about our wellbeing, they would be more concerned that our food was getting cold.

None of us were aware of nature as a separate entity, it was just there. But today, from down the ages come forward vivid memories, events that obviously resonated then and still sound over fifty years later. Maybe the natural world was burying her seed within my childish frame, getting ready to germinate when the time was right. The first was of being armed with a jam jar and catching butterflies that were flitting around the flowers in the neighbouring gardens. I didn’t know what they were called, although I had been told that they were Cabbage Whites. By cupping a hand over one I guided it into the glass container and therefore into my possession. My friends also joined me in this dubious exercise. Our aim was to start a mini zoo. Before we went in search of ants, earwigs and spiders to add to the collection, we felt obliged to give the butterflies some leaves to ‘feed on’. Each jam jar was then covered with greaseproof paper and, once that was held in place with elastic bands, holes were punched through the membrane with a pencil. We believed that this would allow the butterflies to breathe and the jars were then placed in a line along the pavement for us to better admire the collection. After half an hour, and with several of the wilting butterflies succumbing to the effects of slowly cooking in the sun, we would get bored and liberate those that remained alive. Not all of our prisoners were white. My memory is of an orange, black and brown butterfly with a studded blue necklace rimming the wing edges – a Small Tortoiseshell.

For want of something better to do we would lay down on a nearby grass verge and stare up into a pure blue sky, idly chatting. I was aware of birds passing overhead, quite large birds. What was most striking was the formation in which they flew. Each flock was quite clearly a V, some flocks larger and more stretched than others, but the lead bird was always at the sharp point of the V. One of my fellow butterfly-kidnappers said that they were geese, because his Dad told him that geese always flew in V formations, so from then on it became clear to us that these birds were geese. As Tring Reservoir was only a couple of miles away the presumption was that these birds were heading towards the water. It was another indication that the birds we were watching were geese. This gentle procession of birds occurred on each subsequent afternoon and I used to make a point of looking out for them. Then one afternoon I showed the birds to my Mother, proudly announcing them as geese. “Oh no they aren’t, geese have long necks. These are gulls.” My first, but not my last, bird misidentification.

My parents may have picked up on my flirtation with wildlife as the first volume of ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Animal Life’ arrived at our house, followed by each of the subsequent 15 volumes over the coming months. The lemon-yellow covers were decorated with highly colourful depictions of various habitats - each graced with a cast of applicable wild creatures – and became a much-browsed set of books. I cannot pretend that I cherished the volume covering birds beyond all the others – that accolade went to the one that included the big cats. Killing machines that were dangerous to Man were far more interesting than things that flew.

I was also fortunate that Tring was where Lord Rothschild had decided to build a museum to house his collection of mounted wildlife specimens. I would regularly take myself there to wander through the glass-cabinet-lined halls of the charming red-brick house. There were stuffed big cats to look at, their glass eyes and yellow fangs frozen for all-time in lifeless poses, but even they would play second-fiddle to anything to do with dinosaurs. A pile of bones trumped sawdust and fur.

I almost forgot about the owl! How could I?...

…the family moved to Sutton, on the very edge of south London, in June 1971. Our back garden (where, three years hence, the Jay would appear), was of modest size and backed onto a much larger garden which had within it a number of mature trees, including a small line of conifers. During that first summer, on an almost daily basis over the course of a week, an owl would appear at the top of the conifers, appearing as dusk fell. I got in the habit of sitting in the garden awaiting the owl’s arrival. It took little notice of me, would stay only briefly and leave as it had arrived, on silent, rounded wings. It didn’t occur to me to specifically name it – it was ‘an owl’ – and that was enough for me. I could have told you that it was brown and that it had a large head. At night I heard it call. It hooted. It would take a further three years before I could confidently say that I had been in the company of a Tawny Owl.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

New blogger test post


So, this is the new improved Blogger is it? The Roe Deer above looks as bemused as I do as I try out the new format. Why can’t people just leave things alone that work perfectly well? I'll keep on using the legacy version thank you very much.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Want some more?

Oh, alright then. I went back this morning for thirds and obtained some better images of that beast of a weevil, Lixus iridis.

You can keep your Blyth's Reed Warblers...


Tuesday, 16 June 2020

A big rare weevil


I was poking around a clump of Hogweed, close to home this morning, when I came across a weevil that stopped me in my tracks. I know very little about weevils, but this one was striking, being large, exhibiting an elongated cigar-shaped body and was a bright orange-brown colour. It was so obvious that I assumed that I would find it illustrated in one of the generalist insect guides back at home. I was wrong.

I then went online. I checked all that I could, including Mark Gurney's fine photographic references, and felt confident enough to assign it to the genus Lixus - but as to species, I could not decide. It seemed to me on what little literature I could find that the five species of Lixus on the British list were all either exceedingly rare or very local. I needed help.

I put out a tweet, together with a couple of poor images that I'd grabbed with my phone, and was delighted to have responses from Billy Dykes and Mark Gurney, confirming the identification as Lixus iridis, a species that has a central western-European range, with a few records extending further east and into Iberia. And as for its British status? Rediscovered this May after last being recorded in the 1830s! And where was it rediscovered? Exactly where I'd found my insect this morning!

After finding all of that out I returned this afternoon to try and obtain some better images. Within 30 minutes I had located four individuals. Being so close to home I will make the effort to see if this weevil starts to spread away from this patch of Hogweed and, Hogweed clump by Hogweed clump, slowly colonise SE England.


Saturday, 13 June 2020

Square bashing


Lockdown has had a few (albeit minimal) plus points, among them a realisation amongst birders that they actually do have good birding resources on their own door-steps. Where once the knee-jerk reaction to a day’s birding was to see what rarities were around, select the tastiest morsel and then jump in the car and drive a few hundred miles, as this was off limits the choices open to us were far more limited. Our choices were, in fact, extremely limited. Early lockdown suggested an hour’s exercise - on foot - from your place of dwelling. Most birder’s plumped for nearby fields, parks or the back garden, if indeed they had one. Some made do with a window. And do you know what? Hundreds of birders up and down the country discovered a brave new ornithological world. One of surprises. One of wonder. It had been set-out before them all along, hiding in plain sight.

At a time of social-distancing, together with climate change, rising air pollution and the ever increasing build in car traffic, our need to question where we go and how we get there has never been more important. Lockdown just might have opened up our eyes to the possibilities - the reality - of successfully swapping a birding life on the road for one in which we just walk out of the front door and carry on walking.

Easier said than done?

It must be cosy for those who live on the coast, or by an inland wetland, to spout on about staying close to home and not needing to wander far to get your birding kicks. I have often read the tweets and posts from such people and thought that it is far too easy for them to be ‘holier than thou’. Would they like to swap prime birding habitat for a city centre - or dry farmland - for a few years, and would they still wax lyrical about staying local afterwards?

I’ve given this a lot of thought recently and have hardened as a local birder. I’ve taken on an almost evangelical zeal regarding finding and watching my birds close to home - you could call it a perverse pride in doing things the ‘right’ way. It is not all necessarily on foot, although most of it is. I will allow myself a 15-minute drive southwards to the North Downs between Colley Hill and Ranmore. I will also allow myself the same time in a car north to Beddington. Without these mini-excursions, birding could - would - become hard at times. But even if the car was taken away, I would still be able to walk to places where I have seen Little Bittern, Ring-necked Duck, Dotterel and Bee-eater, plus have witnessed Brambling flocks in their thousands, Hawfinches in their hundreds and enjoyed vis-mig sessions that would have impressed an observatory warden. How can anyone, in all reality, suggest that such an area counts as birding hard work?

To give this ‘local’ birding a structure, I have adopted three 10km squares. Why three? Mainly because I live at the extreme south-western corner of one - the bottom line literally passes outside my front door and the houses opposite are in another square. These three squares will act as a recording base for my birding, a reason to walk every footpath, search every wood and check every fenceline. High ground will be used to scan from and water bodies (the few that are present) cherished. It just so happens that my home square contains Beddington Farmlands (above). Lucky that...

It is easy for me to make such a commitment, as I’ve already been birding for over 45 years and experienced the many facets that birding has to offer, travelling throughout the UK in the process. I’ve seen my fill of rare birds. I don’t like flying. Car journeys bore me. What sacrifices I will make are not major. If anything, it focuses my birding into something more meaningful than random trips to the coast. Such trips will still take place, but whereas they might have been the first consideration for a day’s birding, they will go to the back of the queue.

Maybe, in my case, these are the actions of an older birder finding a new angle. But such commitment excites me rather than inhibits me. There is still much to see...

Thursday, 11 June 2020

So why carry on?


I first committed my birding observations to a notebook back in the summer of 1974. They were no more than a short list of the birds that I had seen in the garden, carefully scribed in biro, my handwriting as neat as I could manage. By the start of 1975 the notebook had grown in size and was joined by a 'page per day' diary, on which a narrative appeared. This model stayed in place until 1980, when the diaries were dropped and the notebook entries took on the form of lengthy essays, full of flowery writing, bird descriptions, expressions of emotion and what I considered to be noteworthy observations. The notebooks - all smart, hard-backed affairs - remained until 2000, when handwritten accounts gave way to the computer and the printed page. What new technology also allowed was photographs to be inserted into my prose, and these pages became colourful and vibrant reminders of my time in the field, and were held together in a giant ring-binder. It was not until 2013 that I reverted back to the handwritten ways of old, in an attempt to get a bit of an organic feeling back into the process. Since then I've bumped along writing up my nature notes with a tiredness and a lack of enthusiasm that I am now questioning. The writing abridged, messy at times, a bit of a chore.

So why carry on doing it?

Before anybody thinks that my 46 years worth of unbroken note taking is about to cease, that is not going to happen. I am just assessing how I go about it, and ways in which I can get some sort of feeling back into the process. Writing a blog does take away some of the freshness of the notebook, as posting on here often negates the need to express myself fully on paper. In fact, after the Hawfinch irruption of 2017-18, my notebook was just a list of counts whereas the blog posts were full of living, excitable memories. I have printed these posts out and they stand alone as a 'publication' - you can find it to download under the 'Hawfinch corner' tab above if you wish. My notebooks have acted as a warm and friendly place to go, to bathe in the past, to relive great days as much as to be able to look up counts and dates. These last seven years has seen a gradual chipping away at that resource - the blog serves that purpose far more than the notebook does. I barely look at the recent ones.

I do keep my records in other places. They appear as lists for locations, highest counts, earliest and latest dates, etc. If the notebooks ceased to be, the information would still survive in these places, plus the more notable of them uploaded onto BirdTrack and Trektellen. But the notebook is a personal connection to what I have seen, not cold data uploaded onto a website. A notebook calls for thought, choice of words, care.

I have no answers at the moment, although I do need to address this situation. I have even considered buying an expensive, large leather-bound book (not unlike an illuminated bible of old), to transfer and write up all of the best days that I have experienced so far, a way of committing these glorious experiences to a special place away from the eroding memory banks. In the meantime I will carry on lethargically jotting down a few brief counts underneath the date line and weather details until I come up with a solution.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

I spy...


The picture above was taken yesterday morning by Mark Davis, looking northwards from the parapet of Leith Hill Tower. It is an arresting image. In the middle ground is Box Hill, and you can clearly make out the viewpoint where a combination of the feet of thousands of visitors, and the driest May on record, have worn down the grass to a pale creamy buff. The wooded ridge behind that, all smoky blue and mysterious, is where the bulk of the 2017-18 Hawfinch irruption took up temporary residence. And looming up in the distance is the London skyline, one that, even ten years ago, would have looked very different. The tallest, needle-like structure on the right-hand side is The Shard. It is 26.5 miles - as the Hawfinch flies - from Leith Hill Tower. And beyond the structures of London you can make out the Chilterns as they run through Hertfordshire. If you do not know the area you could be forgiven for thinking that those of us who live on the capital’s fringes are looked down upon by a thousand Sauron’s eyes. The lens has foreshortened the distances somewhat, seemingly shoving the city upon the folds of the North Downs as if it is rearing above them in an oppressive and threatening manner. Very Bladerunner.

Let’s go back to Box Hill. If you blow up the image, and check the green slope below, and to the left, of the viewpoint, you might just make out a lone standing figure. It is a figure with a telescope on a tripod, rucksack on the ground, intently vis-migging. It is me, six miles from Leith Hill, a detail of which appears below. Mark, together with Wes Attridge, were also sky-watching. We were updating each other via the Surrey Vis-mig What’sApp account so were aware of each other’s presence. When there are few birds to keep tabs on, there are always the other birders...

Thanks to Mark for kindly allowing me to use his photographs in this post.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Where once they knelt

This morning found me perched on the upper slope of Box Hill, scope on tripod, by 05.45hrs. For the next four hours the first 'autumn' skywatch was made, with little real visible migration on offer, although two Little Egrets flew purposefully south at height, and a noisy flock of four Crossbills headed west.

One of life's pleasures is to just wander. Pick a track, or footpath, and follow your instinct. I did this after the vis mig session, taking a minor road on the northern side of Denbies Vineyard and coming back to Westhumble via Chapel Farm Fields. I came across this...


... the remnants of Westhumble Chapel, constructed at the end of the 12th Century and desecrated by the henchmen of Henry the Eighth some 350 years later. Although I am far from a religious person, I can claim to be a spiritual one, and stood on the grassy floor of the ruin imagining the simple folk who came in to worship. What did they pray for? Who were they? Where once they knelt, there I stood, still here, with them long gone. Sobering.

And then on to the gentle, modest, River Mole, looking splendid in a back-watery kind of way. A Grey Wagtail was feeding young, and posed with a beak-full of Odonata - but of which species? Banded Demoiselle?



Saturday, 6 June 2020

In the beginning

Lockdown has forced many of us to reminisce, to look at what we have done and its link to where we currently find ourselves. I have posted about my first ornithological memories before and have revisited what I had written, adding to the original copy, trying to better recreate the emotions of those simpler times. This is the first of what may turn out to be a series of posts.

Sutton, Surrey 1974

Something wasn’t right. The everyday appearance of the back garden had been disturbed by an alien infusion of colour, wrecking the familiar greens and browns. This visual violation was a confection of salmon-pink, dusty grey, brilliant white, jet black and, at its centrepiece, a fizzing vibrancy of shocking blue. My mind tried to process what was before me, brain and eyes guilty of a malfunctioning synchronisation, senses that had been thrown into chaos by this sudden manifestation on the lawn. The recognition of feathers within this riot of colour was quickly followed by the understanding of what it was I was looking at. A bird. It was a bird that I could put a name to. And that name was Jay.

Jay. I could scarcely believe it.

Name became mantra, inwardly repeated as the bird stood motionless on the lawn. My breathing became shallow, my body still, so as not to spook the bird with any movement. It was a struggle to understand what was happening, why a bird – yes, a bird - was having this effect on me. Several seconds passed. The Jay had not moved, frozen on the grass, imperial and confident, sending out a clear message - “Look at me, see how wonderous I am!”

My attention was owned by the bird. Then, with a sideways cock of the head, as if digesting some usefully gleaned information, it hopped across the grass and took flight. The exit was as sudden as the entry. My audience with this colourful crow had lasted barely ten seconds. I still did not move, my thoughts a mixture of surprise, of wonder and of pleasure. What on earth had just happened? I started to piece together that which had fleetingly appeared before me. The bird’s dusty pink body had been set against pied wings, but most stunning of all was a vivid blue section of feathering, of which I could not tell of where it belonged, that appeared to be on a different plane from the rest of the plumage - dancing out in front, hypnotic and other-worldly. Had I ever seen anything so dazzling? I waited for it to return, but after half-an-hour admitted to myself that it was a no-show. The image of the bird, despite the celestial fanfare of its sudden and shocking entrance, had already started to fade, my recollection becoming just a series of colourful blurs, smudges of a dandified plumage now smeared across my memory banks. I ached to see the bird again.

The only reason that I had been able to give this wonderful apparition a name was down to my fellow Sutton Manor High School pupil, Mark Greenway. Only a week before, we had both taken part in an art lesson in which we were asked to create a picture titled ‘Conflict’. Most pupils interpreted this as an excuse to let their 14 and 15-year old minds loose and depict images of battle, blood and weaponry. The poster paint and charcoal in their hands was soon being used to manufacture imagined violence. I joined in with this mass orgy of machismo, creating a work that has long since been consigned to a waste-bin and utterly forgotten. But one pupil had expressed a different take on the subject matter, and one that was to have a lasting effect on me.

I stood over this ‘alternative’ painting – that of a cat, leaping into the air with paw outstretched, a claw-tipped swipe narrowly missing a fleeing bird. The latter appeared exotic, and my curiosity was aroused. “Is the bird a parrot?” I asked. Mark slowly shook his head, accompanied by a chuckle that suggested I had made a foolish mistake. “No, it’s called a Jay. You’d see them in your garden.” This, I could not believe. I had never before observed a bird that was so colourful, at least not outside of a zoo or the inside of a glass case in a museum. I doubted him. In fact, I just didn’t believe him. Despite the curiosity, a bird escaping a cat could not hold my attention for very long and I soon wandered away from the painting to look at those that the other students had fashioned. The Jay was not given a moment’s further thought.

The very same bird depicted in that classroom painting had now come to three-dimensional life. It had been a larger bird than I thought it would be (not that I had given any thought about the bird’s size until the very moment that I saw one in the back garden). There were two overriding thoughts - firstly, I had been able to identify the bird and give it a name. This was a new experience. Secondly, I wanted – no, I needed – to see it again. This had been a revelation, a hidden world revealed. And although I was not suggesting to myself that the appearance of the Jay, so shortly after seeing the painting was an omen, at the very least it was surely a sign. A sign of what, I did not know, but I was convinced that pure chance was not behind it.

The next couple of days found me looking out over the garden, waiting for the Jay – any Jay - to come and visit. That did not happen. But in its place other birds that did enter the garden were given a modest once-over. This was a practice that was utterly new to me. That birds came into the garden was something that I was aware happened, but of no more a consequence or revelation than that it sometimes rained, the sun might shine and that the grass was green. Some of these birds that arrived I could give a vague name to – sparrow, tit, robin, thrush, pigeon - but I could not be any more specific than that. I didn’t need to, had never wanted to. There were also several that I didn’t know at all. My interest in these garden birds did not, as I thought might happen, fade away after a couple more weeks. If anything, it grew into a fascination. Observing these birds with the naked eye was, up to a point, all well and good, but plumage details were sometimes hard to make out and, I was surprised to realise, I was starting to demand a closer look.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Here be dragons!

Blue-tailed Damselfly of the colour form rufescens
A couple of days ago a wander along the banks of the River Mole, close to Westhumble, found me in close proximity to bank-side Odonata. Here are a few images from that encounter.

There were many Banded Demoiselles perched up in the dull, muggy conditions, but still took to the air on approach.

A single Beautiful Demoiselle was with them.