Thursday, 27 November 2014

Number 3 - Paradise

Number 3 - 22 June 2009 - Torcross to Prawle and back

And now we reach the top three. If you are expecting there to be rarity, enormous falls or jammy finds, I am about to disappoint you. The top three are (mainly) of the ordinary - at least on the surface they might appear to be ordinary. But to me, all three are most certainly nothing but extraordinary...

I almost went to Soar Mill Cove to look for Shore Dock, and a more dull species of plant is hard to imagine. But I just couldn't find the enthusiasm in me to get in the car and drive there. Instead, I got out the OS map, opened it out on the table at the B&B I was staying at, and planned a long walk. After all, the weather forecast was for a sunny, warm and calm day and the scenery around Slapton and Torcross was more than agreeable. After a 'Full English' (hats off to the Plodding Birder) I left the pretty cottage garden of the guest house and strode southwards along the coastal path out of Torcross.

I will now post a series of photographs taken during this walk. They will say more than I can about the stunning beauty of this part of Devon, although the captions will add a bit of commentary. I'll meet you at the other side of them...

After a climb out of Torcross you come across this view - the village and ley of Beesands. Who wouldn't want this as their local patch? Imagine what turns up on this water and in the surrounding fields and hedgerows! I want to live here!! And there's a pub as well!!! 

Start Point, taken after I had walked down to the lighthouse on the eastern side and come back along the western flank. There were seals hauled out on the rocks below.

After Start the footpath runs above a series of sandy beached bays. There is nobody on them and it's June! People pay thousands to go and lie on a Greek beach and we've got this on our doorstep... but, don't come here, stay away, 'cause it's way more special without us idiot human beings spoiling the view.

Prawle - the commonest bird here was - no kidding - Cirl Bunting

To sum up, I walked from Torcross, to Beesands, past the abandoned village of Hallsands, via Start Point and then took the footpath above the sandy bays all the way to Prawle. Then I turned around and retraced my steps. It was one of those days when it was not only good to be alive, but I felt as if I were at the peak of mental and physical wellbeing. I most probably walked 20 miles but at the end of it felt as if I had just done 20 metres. I floated along. I was in a ridiculous good mood. I met just six people on the footpath ALL DAY... 

As the day continued in its benevolent fashion I knew that is was going to be one of those rare special days, the contents of which would be cherished and remembered for the rest of my life. Certain moments stand out above others: seeing the ley at Beesands for the first time; being able to clearly hear a conversation from a fishing boat even though it was half a mile offshore; watching a group of seals hauled out on the rocks; being surrounded by singing Cirl Buntings and watching a pair carrying food to a nest. But this day was not about observations per se. It was a day in which I was privileged to be able-bodied, to have the gift of sight and sound, and also the humility to realise that to be able to experience all of this is not to be taken for granted. I'm not a religious man, but on such a day I could have been forgiven for becoming one.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Number 4 - House Martin exodus

Number 4 - 23rd September 1989 - House Martins at Dungeness

It had already been a good weekend, with a Honey-buzzard, two Marsh Harriers, a Sparrowhawk and 10 Kestrels coasting down the peninsula and heading out to sea, plus a Red-necked Phalarope giving corking views on Hooker's Pit. Sunday morning dawned overcast with a light WSW wind that then backed WNW. It was not until 08.00hrs that a few House Martins decided to appear, with up to 300 gathering on the wires by The Britannia public house. After the raptor movement of the day before I had decided to position myself on top of the moat, a raised circular bank close to the observatory. And then, some unseen hand flicked the migration switch to on, and it started...

At first there were but few House Martins making their way past me, in a leisurely style, low and to the S/SW. But as each minute passed, the numbers built. It was still manageable to keep a count, although the trickle of hirundines had become a steady flow. It then became a flood. It was as if a dam had burst and the resulting deluge fell upon the air across Dungeness. I didn't know where to look as I was surrounded by flying feathered bullets, zipping past with urgent purpose, nature propelling them onwards and southwards. In my elevated position I had birds to the left, right, above and below me, some almost clipping my head. I couldn't possibly count them, but count them I must. I could look across the open vista, maybe to a distance of 800m and be sure that the stream was on a wide front. I looked up into the sky and could be happy that the birds were pouring through at height as well as low across the shingle. I conducted frequent counts over a minute throughout the next two hours and knew that they were moving through at a minimum of 500 per minute. This did not let up. That's 30,000 an hour. I couldn't possibly have seen them all. By 13.00hrs it was all but over, just a dribble left, latecomers whose migration impetus was not as urgent or whose journey had begun much further inland. My considered (and underestimated) total for the morning was of 90,000. It was a spectacle that I have yet to equal. There were other birds caught up in the movement: Short-eared Owl (1), Turtle Dove (1), Swallow (5,000), Sand Martin (100), Meadow Pipit (300) and Reed Bunting (20). But it was 90,000 white rumps, speeding towards Africa, that stole the show.

Number 5 - W**********

Number 5 - 9 April 1977 - W********** at Hastings

I've gone on about this at some length before, so if you don't want a second (or third) helping then you'll have to wait until Number 4 is revealed. But if you do, or don't know what w********** stands for, then please click here.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Number 6 - butterfly confetti

Number 6 - 6 August 2006 - Butterflies at Braunton Burrowes

This was the day when I had to literally wade through butterflies. I have never seen so many in such a small area. Braunton Burrowes is, in fact, a huge sand dune system on the north Devon coast, being some 6 x 1.5km in area. I had parked in the Broadsands car park at the southern end and started to slowly wander northwards along a line of vegetation that disappeared into the dunes. It was soon obvious that something special was on offer, as I was disturbing hundreds of butterflies with every few metres that I walked. And this didn't let up for several hundred metres. The air was filled with butterflies, like confetti at a wedding, like a ticker-tape parade along an American city street, like a bizarre multi-coloured blizzard that had gatecrashed a summer's day. There were times that I stopped still, looked around me, and gawped in absolute wonder. I wandered but 600m from the car park. 600m into a reserve that continued for 6km. Wherever I looked there were more butterflies - what if these numbers were replicated across the reserve? It was hard to put a number on what I had seen, but I tried: 4,500 Common Blues, 1,500 Gatekeepers and 250 Meadow Browns were the most numerous species, but there could have been twice that many in reality. A mass emergence across a chalk downland can reach four figures without difficulty, but not along a ribbon of vegetation measuring 3m x 600m. Was this what it used to be like before we poisoned our countryside? Did the Victorian lepidopterists enjoy such bountiful days as these as the norm? Time was pressing, the afternoon was melting away and even if I had wanted to I couldn't have covered the whole reserve in an attempt to estimate the true number - time just to cover a random 3m x 600m strip...

The plants were very special too. I managed to hunt down a number of national rarities, with Sand Toadflax, Round-headed Club-rush, Water Germander and Sea Stock being the highlights. On any other day these would have taken top billing, but not today.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Number 7: There be dragons!

Number 7 - 4th and 5th August 1995 - Dragonfly invasion at Dungeness

Another 'event' rather than a moment.

In the first days of August 1995 an unprecedented invasion of darter dragonflies took place along the east coast of England, and included in that was Dungeness. This was all too much to resist, so, along with Derek Coleman, I travelled down to try and experience this historical event.

We arrived on the evening of Friday 4th August and immediately searched the gardens around the observatory. This revealed at least 4 Yellow-winged Darters and a walk around the station gorse found another four. For a species that hadn't been recorded annually in the UK, this was mind boggling. But this was just the start.

Saturday 5th August saw that more than a few birders had turned into odonata enthusiasts. Throughout the day, dragonflies were arriving from the point and landing on the gorse and broom between the observatory and the old lighthouse. Most remained still, allowing excellent views and firm identification. Most of them were darters - Common, 5 Ruddy, a handful of Black (a new species for Dungeness) plus an unprecedented 80+ Yellow-winged. But better was to come, as Dave Walker found a female Vagrant Darter, the first in the UK for many years and one that we all were able to see, as it had been netted.

At about the same time as this rarity was causing Dave's adrenalin levels to surge, up at Greatstone, Ray Turley was going through a similar experience, as a pristine Camberwell Beauty was on his back garden buddleia. With deftness of mind and hand, it was soon in a net and then on show in a large glass jar, feeding on sprigs of buddleia. This ensured a constant supply of visitors to Ray and Janet's bungalow.

As the afternoon wore on the dragonfly numbers dwindled. We assumed that they were heading inland. To end the day we placed two MV traps in the southern bushes of the trapping area. It was not yet dark before the night's star moth arrived - a Tawny Wave, which chose to alight on Derek's back and caused a flurry of panicked mothers to pot it up while imploring Derek to keep still.

And what about the birds? Oh, I forgot to mention that throughout all of this, a long-staying first-summer Laughing Gull was to be found loafing along the beach... some weekend!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Number 8 - Oriole cathedral

Number 8 - 26 May 1978 - Golden Orioles at Lakenheath

Before Lakenheath was a flagship RSPB wetland reserve, it was virtually bird-less farmland. But it was still a much revered birding site, due to the presence of a poplar plantation, owned by the matchstick manufacturer Bryant and May. Confused? Then read on...

This particular poplar plantation had been adopted by a colony of Golden Orioles, which for us 1970s birders was a welcome splash of Mediterranean sunshine. To reach this fabled woodland you needed to be able to map-read your way along twisting country lanes, and drive along a farmland track until reaching a railway line. Here your journey ended. And it was here that I stood in the breaking dawn having slept in the car overnight. We were not alone - maybe three other cars were also parked up, each having just ejected a gaggle of birders, stretching and yawning into the promise of the day ahead.

Even though it was 05.30hrs it was already warm. And there was already a loud, rich, flutey sound coming to us from the plantation - the unmistakable song of a Golden Oriole. In silence we all trooped across the railway line (via a crossing) and stood at the edge of the trees. We couldn't see the bird, but it carried on singing. Ahead of us was a theatrical set forged by a combination of mother nature and big business, as the spaced out poplar trees, in their rigid rows, were shrouded in ribbons of mist, in turn lit by beams of early sunlight, sparkling in a million places from the dew drizzled vegetation. With another Oriole stating to sing, along with a couple of drowsily calling Cuckoos, the term 'dreamlike' had never been more appropriate. We were birding in nature's cathedral, and as such crept around with humble reverence. It took half an hour before a male gave itself up, the buttercup yellow and black form in the tree tops, flitting around in the ethereal light. Over the next two hours we watched up to seven birds (four of them males). We witnessed much chasing and copulation, one particular male mating with two females, one after the other. The best views were of a male that chased a Cuckoo through the trees, both birds flying above our heads. As the morning wore on and the sun got a firmer hold of the day, the activity reduced. The echoing quality of the song in the poplars diminished and some of the magic evaporated. The predominant sound was now taken over by singing Willow Warblers and Whitethroats, with the odd Oriole song coming from deeper in the wood. I left the scene feeling as if I had been blessed.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Number 9 - Brambling blizzard

Broadfield - without finches on this occasion...

No.9 January 2008 Finch flock at Canons Farm, Surrey

This is not so much a single day, let alone a single moment, more of a rolling event. It all began on January 1st, when I located a large flock of finches at Canons Farm, feeding in a very large field known locally as Broadfield. There were at least 1,000 present, and my initial scan through them with binoculars revealed the odd Brambling in amongst Chaffinches. However, once the scope was put to work it became obvious that at least a quarter of the finches were in fact Brambling - a 750/250 split!

I returned on January 5th. Word of the finch flock had got around, as at least a dozen other birders were also present, unheard of back in these 'early' days at the farm. Throughout the day the finch flock remained faithful to the field, waxing and waning in number, numbers breaking off to forage elsewhere, then returning to swell those that had remained site faithful. At times all took to the air, swirling and twisting over the earth, pitching down only to take flight abruptly. Together we estimated the flock breakdown as Chaffinch (1,650), Brambling (550) and Linnet (200), an overall flock size of 2,400. By 13.00hrs the numbers peaked, but then soon started to dwindle, leaving 700-800 until the light started to fade.

When I visited on January 19th numbers had fallen to 1,400, although Brambling numbers had increased to 800. The following day (20th) Brambling peaked at 1,200, with Chaffinches numbering 800. I spent most of the afternoon transfixed at this seething mass of birds, white-rumps and nasal calls all around me. I knew it was something that I might not see on such a scale again, certainly not locally.  By January 24th the flock was still at a healthy number - 2,000 - although the breakdown had shifted once more, with Chaffinches outnumbering Brambling in a 1,600/400 split. From this point onwards the flock broke up and such counts were not repeated. It was interesting to observe how the flock size had kept relatively stable over the three weeks, yet the composition had not. Taking the peak counts of the three finch species present, a minimum of 3,000 had been recorded, but this was very much a minimum. Was there a turnover of birds, or were the same birds returning each day?

What had attracted them? The farmer had not taken in the flax crop that autumn and it had been flattened by November winds. The flax had then been rolled by machinery, exposing the seed on the soil surface. It was an open avian feast...

This event was not just memorable as pure spectacle, but also a reminder that such things can occur close to home in areas that might not be considered as worthy of spending your birding time. It certainly opened some local eyes to the potential of Canons Farm, something that has been ongoing ever since. We are still awaiting a return to such large finch numbers.