Monday, 31 August 2020

Lose glasses, find iridis

It was a pleasure to once again meet up with Sussex-based freelance ecologist and all-round good bloke Graeme Lyons (you can visit his highly instructive and entertaining blog here). He has been conducting an invertebrate survey at Chipstead Bottom over the summer, and invited me to accompany him on his latest session yesterday. I jumped at the chance. Graeme's natural history knowledge is exceptional and his desire to encourage and inspire others to look at all the natural orders is infectious.

We met at 09.00hrs. It had been over six years since we last met, but immediately struck up the easy going relationship that we had previously enjoyed, chatting non-stop during the following seven hours as I followed him around, watching the master at work. Graeme was armed with a sweep net, suction sampler and beating tray, utilising all this equipment (plus more) to entice the myriad of hiding invertebrates out into the open, ready to be catalogued and identified. There were five sections of the valley to survey (chalk downland/grassland with a single woodland control sector) each timed to an hours search.

Each emptying of the net or suction sampler into the beating tray saw tens - sometimes hundreds - of beetles, spiders, bugs, even moths - to scuttle away to the corners of their temporary holding cell. Graeme wrote everything down in double quick time, calling out each one for my benefit, suddenly stooping down with hand lens to confirm identity if needed, at other times taking a specimen for further analysis at home. He actually took very little, testament to his field knowledge, honed over many years with the Sussex Wildlife Trust. He kindly pointed out relevant identification features, gave me an indication as to the invert's status and habitat requirements. I couldn't possibly take it all in, but was promised a full list of the day's haul, one which will allow me to reacquaint myself with the species that I was shown, at my leisure. Maybe some of it will actually stick!

The time flew. Each sweep or suction revealed yet more, and by the time we finished plot five 165 plus species had been identified, and there will be a few more to come via Graeme's microscope. As we wandered along his eye's were everywhere - bees, hoverflies, galls - all written down on the move. He earns his money.

After we had finished, we took the short journey to the edge of Banstead Downs to visit the site of the giant weevil, Lixus iridis (above). I had seen this species back in June (here and here) so was able to pay Graeme back a little by taking the lead to try and locate this rare invert for him. Within 10 minutes I located one hiding behind a stem of dead Hogweed. After we had admired this most striking of weevils, Graeme showed his professional prowess by then locating a further six individuals, all on nettle close to the dead Hogweed stems. Three of these finds came in comedic double quick time while we were searching for a pair of reading glasses that I had dropped.

Possibly the highlight of the day came at the very end. A sweep of a nettle bank (to try and locate more iridis) brought out a cry from Mr Lyons as he looked inside his net. Within it was a nymph of the Striped Shieldbug (Graphosoma italicum), another rare invert and possibly the first nymph of this species to be recorded on mainland Britain (below). It was a fitting climax to a most instructive, inspirational and enjoyable day.

Friday, 28 August 2020


Whinchats. One of my favourite birds. Luckily for me they are a frequent passage migrant on the neighbouring downland. This afternoon a minimum of five were found at Priest Hill, with at least two of them being 'new' individuals. I would love to know the true numbers passing through. Counts from here of five (24th), three (27th) and five (today) could, purely on paper, be taken as five birds hanging around or 13 different individuals. Fortunately some of these birds have been quite striking - one exhibited a bright orange upper breast (only seen on 24th), while new in today was a grey-plumaged bird plus another that had a strongly spangled mantle. So, a minimum of seven.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Going local

Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I extoll the virtues of local birding, yet on the other hand moan about it in equal measure. This is a post of positivity.

Yesterday saw me at Canons Farm, where a swarm of 220+ Swallows were feeding over the large bean field. They eventually headed off south-westward, with two Hobby, a Swift and a House Martin in tow. A juvenile male Peregrine was also present, trying its luck with some of the 850+ Wood Pigeon on site.

This morning I met up with Steve Thomas, he of Ewell 'nog-mig' fame. Before we retired to the Wheatsheaf in Ewell for an afternoon snifter, we strolled around Priest Hill and uncovered a Wheatear, three Whinchat and three grounded Yellow Wagtails. A tidy return.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Whinchats in the rain

A day's birding (on and off) all on foot from home. Was it worth it? Well yes, it had its moments...

First off was a couple of hours vis-migging from Nork Park. This was the first such session and will most probably be the last. Until you actually try these things for real, the problems are not always apparent. As a site it has a great view, but the best position is alongside a noisy A road. I have enough of a problem picking up the calls of distant Tree Pipits and Redwings as it is, so the backdrop of vehicle noise will not be helpful. The park is also home to hundreds of dog-walkers and their canine companions. I was met with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity and felt quite uncomfortable. If the park returned Spurn-like numbers of migrants I would roll with it, but this is obviously not the case. I returned home and sat in the garden, which was almost silent in comparison. My close-to-home skywatches will be a lot closer to home than I envisaged.

This afternoon I dodged the showers at Priest Hill. The first hour was dreadfully quiet, but then stumbled across a flock of c20 Common Whitethroats which were moving between clumps of bramble. With them, in loose association, were five Whinchats, all wary. There was one individual that exhibited a marvellous apricot upper breast band, but I failed to obtain a photograph despite some ninja-like stalking. Ageing and sexing Whinchats in the autumn is not a simple thing - even though the five birds before me were a mixture of bright and dull plumages, striking and dull supercillia, I could not safely age or sex them. The Kestrel above sat out one of the showers with me.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Trial run

Last autumn I spent some time trying out various spots along the North Downs to test their suitability as sites from which to watch migrating birds. Colley Hill, Box Hill and Denbies Hillside were all given a go, along with a few places further north, on spurs of higher ground (Mogador, Banstead and Canons Farm included). All of them provided some good birding, with sessions at Colley Hill and Box Hill being particularly noteworthy. Those latter two sites are both a minimum of a 20-25 minute car journey. What I would really like is for a regular vis-mig spot to be within walking distance from home. There are two sites that have produced some memorable visible-migration within minutes from the front door.

The first is my Banstead, Surrey back garden, where I have, in the past, recorded such numbers as 4,145 Redwings flying west (8th October 2018), and 1,175 House Martins moving south-west (24th September 2019). Finch passage can be obvious, mainly Chaffinches, but they do include regular Bramblings. Also to be expected are Starlings, small numbers of pipits, larks, pigeons and the odd scarce bird, such as Woodlark, Crossbill or Hawfinch. One drawback to the site is the reduced field of view thanks to a mature Ash tree, neighbouring roof tops and other tall vegetation, all, of which, hide portions of the sky.

The second site is Canons Farm, which I can reach on foot in 20 minutes. It has a good track record for hirundine passage, and I have had the privilege to witness 6,710 House Martins and 4,000 Swallows streaming south (21st September 2017); another 1,900 House Martins move south-west (25th September 2014); and several days of thrush movements in the high hundreds. However, there does not seem to be a particular place on the farm where movement is 'funnelled' and easy to observe (apart from the valley at Chipstead, which adds another 25 minutes onto my walk.)

There might just be a happy medium. Between the two sites - and closer to home - is Nork Park. It slopes up from north to south and allows far-reaching views towards north-west London, with, crucially, unimpeded all-round vision. From home I have often noticed a preference for birds, particularly thrushes, to use the dip at its northern end as a fly-line - from the park this would be much easier to observe than I can from the house. It does seem that any movement across this general area is on a broad front, with just a couple of places where a bit of funnelling takes place, so the park's uninterrupted and far-reaching views should produce the goods. It's got to be worth a try. Tomorrow morning will see the trial run begin. It is already on Trektellen...

Previous local autumn visible migration. Yellow arrows: hirundines. Orange arrow: thrushes. All on a broad front.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Wet but rewarded

Dawn at Box Hill was characterised by low, misty cloud. I descended through the murk, and walked the tree-lined banks of the River Mole, eastwards as far as the garden centre bridge. There were pockets of birds to work through, best being a mixed tit and Chiffchaff flock that also held a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. Two Crossbill moved eastwards and up to four Kingfishers were noisily obvious. By 08.00hrs it started to rain in earnest and by the time I returned to the hill top I was very wet indeed.

Back home a check of the moth trap revealed two of the migrant pyralid Palpita vitrealis (pictured). My first for the site was only last week.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Treading water

Sometimes, birding locally can get to you. Today is such a day. It is a given that my bit of dry, northern Surrey is not going to measure up against Spurn or Dungeness (or Beddington or Holmethorpe for that matter), but when every other London park and Surrey heath is recording multiples of Pied Flycatcher - and I'm not - it starts to get personal.

The last five days has seen me visit Canons Farm, working all the copses, hedge-lines and weedy field corners. The last five days has seen low numbers of migrants. A few passing Chiffchaffs, a flock of four (and a one) Whinchat, a Stonechat, a single Willow Warbler, that's about it. I strongly suspect that all of the Whitethroats and Blackcaps are locally-bred loafers. My effort has been full on, my patience freely given. But each day I've left the farm with a sense of knowing that, even if I had stayed out in the field for an extra hour or two, nothing would have happened. Sometimes it goes like that.

After a barren three hours at the farm this morning I cut my losses to go and take a look at Ian Kehl's Wood Sandpiper at Holmethorpe (it was kind of Gordon to let him find it!!) My recent semi-twitches to Holmethorpe have been failures, so when an hour had elapsed and the wader had not shown on Spynes Mere, I feared the worst. It then decided to stop teasing me, and appeared on a relatively close island. Poor shot above.

In keeping with my dull mood, Holmethorpe irritates me. On the one hand I've had many happy moments here, but the fencing, high hedges, poor viewing points and the feeling of a reserve that is blowing a raspberry at the visiting birder do not help to make the birding experience an enjoyable one.

All highly unsatisfactory, and when you add to it a week of top migrant moth action, enjoyed by many, that bypassed my garden MV, I feel as if I'm out of the loop, off the pace, treading water and not playing my cards right.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Back up

These bridge cameras are remarkable bits of kit. They will never compete with the big lenses in getting those award winning photographs, but as a bit of visual back-up they are great. I was at a very dull and murky Canons Farm this afternoon and saw a blob at the top of a dead tree, lifted my binoculars and could see that it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. As a bit of an experiment, I took a picture of the scene with no magnification whatsoever, then a maximum x260 shot from the same spot, focused on the woodpecker. These are the results:

Pink circle where the woodpecker was perched.
Hand held on a dull old afternoon, digital x260. Not award winning, but if it had been a Middle Spot, then job done!
Once you start taking images with digital zoom settings then you are getting a load of 'made-up' pixels into the bargain, but it is still helpful in clinching identifications, being able to age or sex a bird etc. Just don't hope to win any awards for the quality of said image.

It was a hard slog around the farm this afternoon, with just single Whinchat (top), Stonechat (a spotty juvenile) and Willow Warbler to show for it.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The one that almost got away

These warm, oppressive nights might make sleeping difficult for us humans, but night-flying insects positively thrive in them - just check a moth trap the morning after one! The past two nights have seen obscene numbers of Jersey Tigers at the garden MV - 53, followed by 59 - which is small fry compared to some totals that have been posted. Last night's highlight was a new macro moth for the garden, a Dewick's Plusia. A former rare migrant, it is now slowly establishing itself (maybe just temporarily) in south-east England. Beddington Farmlands, some six miles to the north of me, is one such location and I had expected one to show up here eventually. This is the 627th species of moth here in Banstead, of which 407 are non-micros.

As I went to pot it, it flew off. Had this been 30 years ago I would have been hyperventilating as it would have been a very rare migrant. As it was, a shrug of the shoulders accompanied my smile. The photograph above, in true Blue Peter style, was taken earlier, a few years ago at Dungeness, where I have seen a few.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Job done?

This morning’s ‘gentle’ post managed to encourage a number of people to respond to my rambling thoughts, which were, after all, just a stream of consciousness that had emanated from a tired and hot mind. The bottom line is, if I were being blunt about it, natural historians do not like to believe that those among their number are capable of phasing or becoming indifferent to the rigours of recording in the field. There was a time when I would have been in that camp. But, as admitted today, not necessarily now.

Let’s take myself as a case study.

Started birding at 15 in 1974. Dead, dead keen, obsessional even, until 1983. Watershed moment? Choosing to go and see a Siouxsie and the Banshees gig in preference to a weekend Scilly twitch (I think it was Scarlet Tanager and/or Northern Waterthrush.) And I had seen the Banshees before.

Started to dabble in plants and moths in a very loose way from 1979 onwards, finally making a real effort when purchasing a moth trap in 1987 and starting to go out primarily looking for plants in 1998. Sometime - in 2010 ? -  became an advocate of pan-listing and started to have a go at everything I came across.

Family, career and long-term serious illness obviously took precedence over time in the field. I know that those things (especially the first two) are not barriers for everybody! And I enjoyed a social life. Music. Sport. Reading. As much as birding and natural history were my main interests, I would not let them dominate. So much so that on lengthy stays at Dungeness I would ensure the odd afternoon or day off - spend the time reading or going to look around the local churches, lounging in a marsh pub or walking along the beach to Dymchurch where a bacon bap preceded the 8-mile journey back.

I used to devour any identification papers that were printed in British Birds, avidly read the bird guides and found my fair share of good birds. It mattered to me then that I did, and that my standing amongst my birding peers was a good one. And now? I have no interest in trying to keep up, fell by the wayside some time ago and live off the scraps of what reputation I once had. I doff my cap willingly to a number of young birders locally who are streets ahead of me in the field. They work at it, and I don’t.

Diving headfirst into moths and plants in sudden bursts of enthusiasm got me so far along the knowledge line, but from early doors I was aware of my shortcomings. I’ve tried to bone-up on grasses, sedges, rushes and micro moths, tried to come to terms with hybrid docks and the hundreds of brambles, but settled on a middle-ground where I can name most of what I see - although I will never remember the names of the micro moths!!

When I retired a few years ago there was a self-acceptance that my ‘knowledge’ would push on and grow. It’s gone backwards. In all honesty I have tried and found myself not exactly wanting, more like not wanting to put in the yards to get there. My horizons are contracting. I have more interest in the natural history locally and trying to find and watch migration flight-lines, roosts, the arable and downland flora on my doorstep and anything else that passively comes my way. I’m out in the field just as much, but the drive to achieve, to find quality, to be a ‘player‘ has been swapped for one that relaxes, enjoys and takes what comes along however parochial or menial it is. To me this is not a lessening but a spiritual growing.

It amazes me how questioning the ability or commitment of a natural historian takes on the equivalent of questioning how good a lover or driver they are. To some it’s 100% commitment or bust! Maybe I’ve been a fraud all this time, putting a Cup Final or Test Match before a bird; to be rather reading Thomas Hardy than a paper on gull identification; or putting a pint of 6X ahead of a sea-watch.

The experience is what I crave now. The sky full of migrating birds. The meadow full of orchids. The walk when I feel at one. That’s where I am at now, and if I can share that with others through the medium of this blog, then job done.

No name

Yesterday, in the numbing heat, I stood on a bridge that straddled a section of the River Hogsmill, close to Ewell. The water running beneath, not 12 feet wide and but a few inches deep, was choked on either bank by majestic stands of Himalayan Balsam, in full flower. I leant on the rail, looking down onto the tops of the Balsam, which were being visited by bees. Many bees. They busied themselves, as bees do, by climbing inside the elongated throats of the blooms, and after finishing whatever they were doing, backing out before investigating another flower. There were several species before me, some fat, furry, good old-fashioned ‘bumbles’, many narrower bodied Honey Bee types, one with a hoary frosted body, another with a long and pointed abdomen - as to their specific identities, I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t feel the need to know. Watching them for maybe 15 minutes was relaxing. Not trying to photograph them, or net them, or pot them was an additional pleasure. My binoculars and camera remained in my rucksack. It was an altogether different way of observing nature from my usual manic attempt to catalogue everything. The heat and Mediterranean-style relaxation default setting may have been responsible for my indifference, but there is a sea-change coming. I feel it. I know it.

Back and forward the bees continued. Soporific in the hot air, drowsy buzzing, hurrying without panic. Time could wait for me, even if time was of the essence for them in getting their job done. And they had done a job on me too. “Just watch us. Why do you need to know our names?” They had a point.

Why do some of us want to give everything a name? Does it allow us to consider that we ‘own’ the creature once we have catalogued it? A more sedate form of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ relationship? To put them in a box marked ‘done’ and then move on to the next that we need to identify? Similar thoughts have crowded my mind many times. They normal manifest themselves after periods of attempting to tackle new groups or bio-blitz an area. It is as if any attempt to over-reach myself triggers an inner alarm system - “Stop! This is becoming mechanical!” And that inner voice has a point. Increasingly so.

A sea of grass in the breeze. A jewelled beetle walking across a path. Distant flocks of thrushes punching through low autumn cloud. Stygian woodland floors carpeted in moss. Cloud formations that make you stare and try and make out recognisable shapes. A star-splattered night sky that frightens you with awe. All arresting, all memorable and yet the component parts do not have a specific name. In fact the component parts are not thought of as separate entities at all, they merge into the one. Does not knowing the names of the grasses that are dancing in the wind diminish the visual impact? Or what constellations are above us in the night sky? No, not one bit.

All without a name. And not diminished, but enhanced through feeling and emotion.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Ophelia 2020

For a change I explored the River Hogsmill between Ewell and Kingston, most of its winding length served by a good footpath. From a natural history point of view, it was very quiet, but I did come across this utterly charming mosaic. Completed last year, it has been placed underneath a railway bridge at Malden Manor. Apart from helping to brighten up a spot that had been the haunt of graffiti artists, it is also in honour of the John Everett Millais pre-Raphaelite masterpiece 'Ophelia', which was painted at the very spot. Community funded and completed by a team of artists and locals it is arresting to come across as you step out of the thistle, Himalayan Balsam and Hogweed choked footpath and into the cool underworld of the railway arches.

It depicts a natural world transition from night to day, full of owls, flowers, butterflies, birds, snails and fungi. In a fitting aside, while I was admiring the work, I met a local White Witch. We fell into a long and easy conversation about his work and beliefs. It had quite an effect on me, in so much as I was exposed to a new belief system. Although I am an atheist, I find a great deal of interest (and comfort) in talking to those who have such beliefs and are prepared to discuss them with me. We parted good friends.

Friday, 7 August 2020


The day is hot and the weather forecasters are suggesting that we are in for a very sticky night - in fact, until the middle of next week, they are forecasting that we are in for night time temperatures not dipping below 17-18C, combined with light breezes and a smidgin of cloud. Ideal moth weather! Add into the mix that this pulse of warm air has come in from the continent and that there are plenty of migrant moths being trapped (some being screaming rarities), then there is much for this inland moth recorder to be getting excited about.

I'm not being greedy. Just a small slice of the action would be good. Hot weather spikes have been kind to me over the years, with wanderers turning up in the MV that should not be here - Scarlet Tiger, Royal Mantle and Gold Spot spring to mind, along with a fair scattering of 'commoner' scarce migrants.

I've enjoyed the challenge of trying to identify all of the micros this summer, some straightforward, others with the help of Bill Dykes. There is a folder on the computer desktop named 'Micros to do'. It is pretty full. Today saw Epinotia immundana (above) being welcomed onto the list.

What would I like if I could order any moth (within reason?) A Dark Crimson Underwing would be nice...

Sunday, 2 August 2020


I’ve recently updated you on my diminishing hearing capabilities (with grasshoppers joining the list of disappearing sounds) and not too long ago I confessed that my sight is somewhat compromised in low light. But what about a sense that I possess which still seems to be functioning as it should? Step forward smell!

In fact, my sense of smell is famous throughout the family for being hyper-sensitive. I can pick up on odours (good and bad) way before anybody else, and if you give me a glass of wine or a single-malt whisky I will be dismantling the bouquet into its constituent parts - plums, liquorice, tarmac, apricots, toffee - within seconds. Needless to say from that last sentence, my accompanying taste buds are more than up to scratch as well.

One of life’s pleasures is to take the time to sniff the wildflowers. There are some top smells to be had, small free hits of olfactory wonder. Never walk past Fennel without taking in the aniseed; various labiates that will sooth you with mint, lemon and various herbs; Tansy is another, and that will have the additional effect of making you salivate with its hits of rosemary and accompanying roast dinners. Most plants are worth a sniff and a foliage squeeze. I don’t do it enough, especially since it is the one sense that I am doubly blessed with.

But beware! Some plants are not your friend! Crush Black Horehound and your fingers with smell of a rancid bonfire. Other plants are poisonous or will cause blistering of the skin. You have been warned!