Sunday, 30 August 2015

A gift that keeps on giving

Just two days into a week at Dungeness and already the shingle is providing me with natural history of the highest order. I won't post in any detail until my return home, but in just 48 hours I've been treated to a rare colony of Tree Crickets, spent a couple of hours botanising in completely 'new' Dungeness habitat and have had incredible views of a low-flying Honey Buzzard. Whatever happens during the rest of the week, the old place has proved itself - as it always does - yet again.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Rarity or spectacle?

What is that you remember most about your birding? What gives you the biggest kick when you are out in the field? What do you hope for more than anything else when you are looking?  For me, all three questions are not fulfilled by rarity, but by sheer spectacle.

I've seen my fair share of rare birds, and some of them were firsts for Britain at the time. I may have travelled miles to see them. But, apart from a very few, they are but a tick on a list.

If I were to compile my Top 10 'greatest birding hits' then it would be mostly populated by sheer spectacle. Off the top of my head I can vividly recall sea watches where skuas, terns, wildfowl and waders streamed past on a conveyor belt of awe; clouds of thrushes tumbling out of pre-dawn skies, calling in the half light; vast finch flocks wheeling over farmland; coastal bushes heaving with warblers and chats; hirundines arrowing by in a controlled frenzy of migration.

Such events cannot be twitched. By and large you have to be present at the time to witness them. An hour later and the happening can have ceased - all that is left is empty skies and vacant bushes. Couple this with the primordial instinct behind the avian action and you have a very special event indeed.

550 Ring Ouzels or a Radde's Warbler? 90,000 House Martins or a Mamora's?

The numbers win every time.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The shingle is calling...

There's only so much an inland birder (and waterless at that!) can take. When coastal stations are awash with migrants and the birders present are busily picking out the scarce and the rare, those of us foolish enough to try and stay local are on a hiding to nothing. Another trip to Canons Farm, another few hours of quiet despair. This Hobby tried to cheer me up, and did succeed - for a few seconds.

It's no good, I need a spell on the shingle...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Both sides of the argument

There are times when I wonder about my commitment to our birdlife. What do I actually do to help it? Going out and looking at them is just passive support. Identifying, counting and sending in the results to bodies such as the local bird clubs or the BTO goes a little way towards helping collate a database on which greater deeds can be planned and carried out. As much as we need foot soldiers to carry out the grinding work in all walks of life, some of us might have experience, spare time and a profile that can be used to great effect in the struggle to better the lot of our birds. I have plenty of the first two - experience and time - but do I use it? No, if I'm being honest, I don't...

I don't do work parties. I don't volunteer. I tend to get turned off by campaigns. Is it just me, or am I the only birder that is fed-up with hearing about Hen Harriers and driven grouse moors? I shouldn't admit to that, for fear of having Mark Avery and his giant stuffed harrier pay me a visit in the dead of night along with Chris Packham clutching a box of harrier-shaped Lush bath bombs. It's not that I don't want breeding harriers to be protected - I do - it's just that whenever we get into such emotive areas, plenty of people on both sides become polarised and will not listen to the opposing view. I haven't read Mark Avery's book on the subject (Inglorious), but have heard that it is a balanced work. But when all people in the countryside with guns are painted as Satan it is no different than hunters reckoning that all birdwatchers are twitching scum who chase tired migrants to death. Both are wide of the mark.

I blame social media for my apathy. When mildly-informed commentators send out inaccurate bile, or spout knee-jerk sloganeering (and this is retweeted ad infinitum), it is over kill. We can all laugh at Ian Botham for his ill-informed staunch support of hunting, shooting and fishing, but the manner of his quotes are no different from some of the tweets that I have seen from birder's regarding the world of shooting. And no, I'm not into field sports, but because I've birded in northern France over the past couple of years I've learnt to appreciate that not all hunters are oafs who blast anything that flies out of the sky. It is because of these French hunters that there is so much brilliant habitat and so many breeding birds along the northern French coast. Now, I know that this isn't Britain, and it's not moorland, but many of us tend to tar all with the same brush.

My outlook on farming has softened somewhat. I am not in denial that intensive agriculture has walloped our birdlife in the 20th and 21st century, but there are farms and farmers out there that do care about how they farm and strive to protect hedgerows, ponds and birds. They are not all money-grabbing subsidy-gobblers who plough Barn Owls into the dirt while exterminating bees with toxic sprays (although some undoubtably do carry out procedures that do not go hand-in-hand with a healthy environment). Until we all learn to listen to each other's viewpoints and are able to discuss how best to move on - so all can gain from the solution - then there will be conflict and there will not be resolution.

I bird over downland that is populated by cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, horse riders and flyers of model aircraft. They all have as much right to be there as me. Not all dogs are out of control. Not all cyclists ride to fast. And not all birders are twitchers who harass tired migrants.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Globe theatre

No, I haven't gone all Shakespearean on you...

After walking the footpaths that cross Epsom and Walton Downs, and failing to tickle a single ornithological taste bud, it was a relief to come across this stand of Blue Globe-thistle, at the foot of the race course. I have known it here for several years, and it was a sturdy patch back then, no doubt the result of a dumping of earth. Some botanists dislike aliens with a passion, whereas I am quite fond of them.

There is a very good second brood of Holly Blue here in Surrey. Wherever I wander I am coming across them, even over the past couple of days, which have been dark and dismal. To see one flitting along a hedgerow in a heavy drizzle can lift the moment instantly.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

A Thursley interlude

Today saw a rare outing to Thursley Common. This is one of those places that I have struggled with over the years. Being a specialist habitat it is always going to produce a small, but notable, suite of birds, but this is only half of (my) story - it seldom manages to excite me and I am without doubt the loser in not visiting the site very often.

In spring/early summer you are more or less guaranteed the summering/breeding stars, with Woodlark, Common Redstart, Dartford Warbler, Hobby and Nightjar. You can sometimes jam in, as I did, with a first-summer Common Crane (6 May 1987) that rose up from the bog before giving a fly past.

Winter is an altogether harder proposition. Birdlife can all but disappear and on one occasion my notebook recorded but 18 species in a five hour visit, but did include a Great Grey Shrike and a Hen Harrier! Having mentioned those two highlights, I have to admit to blanking out more often than not.

But Thursley is far more than just birds. It is one of the best places in Britain for dragonflies and damselflies. Again, the site can be a cruel mistress, dishing up days when they swarm over the bog in numbers too many to count and at other times ensuring that the cloud rolls in and there is little on the wing. Botanically it is rewarding for those that know their sedges and rushes, and it hides its most notable species well, although the show of Bog Asphodel, Marsh St.John's-wort and Sundews (Round-leaved - below, and Oblong-leaved) is not to be sniffed at. I have seen Round-leaved Wintergreen and Marsh Clubmoss here, but only because somebody in the know showed me where they were - a casual search for them would be doomed to failure.

Today's highlight was without doubt another mass-flowering spectacle. The dry heath was coloured by millions of Heather and Bell Heather flowers, in places a swathe of purple, red and pink that stretched to the horizon. The odd splash of yellow was added via Dwarf Gorse. For a brief period the sun came out and with it came a great show of bees, wasps and hoverflies, all taking advantage of the bountiful flowers. A stirring sight.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Pants birding

On Monday I spent a few hours grilling the fields and hedgerows at Canons Farm. It was eerily quiet, not even a 'hweet' or 'hoo-eet' from a Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler to be heard. I almost cheered when a Whitethroat broke cover. My skywatching revealed nothing, apart from the fact that a few corvids and gulls were bothering to move, and even they were doing so half-heartedly. I returned home with the thought that at least I had made the effort.

This afternoon I returned, hopeful that the odd migrant would be lurking - after all, Tree Pipit, Reed Bunting and Curlew had all been recorded there mid-week, and are all good local birds. But a steady drizzle greeted me and the fields and hedgerows did a repeat performance from Monday (although to be honest a single Chiffchaff did call). I wandered lonely as a very damp cloud, my enthusiasm waning with every passing minute. I don't mind birding without highlights, I just like to have something to look at! I was desperate, so started to scan the Carrion Crows and Jackdaws, I grilled the Woodpigeons sitting on wires, I ogled a Dunnock that was stupid enough to show itself. This is not birding made of legend. It was pants.

I'm a great believer in taking the rough with the smooth; that you remember your good days because of your bad days; that you are a minute closer to seeing that good bird or avian spectacle; and the more you bird the luckier you get. But sometimes - just sometimes - it can be hard to accept. Of course, I'll be over there again in the next few days, because you just never know...