Showing posts from 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 beca

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

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

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

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

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, f

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.

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 leve

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 bein

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 g

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

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.

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...

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 iridi

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 tra

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 rev

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

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 stoo

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 understandin