Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The boys and summer of 76

It's another 'first time' post, this one concerning the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. It was August 1976 and a disparate gang of 16 and 17-year old birders gathered for a fortnights birding extravaganza...

Theberton is a small village a few miles inland and due west of Minsmere RSPB reserve. On the afternoon of August 10 1976, at a tiny campsite situated behind a small petrol station, seven keen home-counties birders were erecting their tents, eager to get the birding started, pumped up by the thought of a full fortnight with nothing else to do. From Surrey there was Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler and myself. From Hertfordshire was Barry and Ian Reed and Tim Andrews. Some of us had met up in Scotland the year before and had forged a birding friendship. Minsmere seemed an obvious place for us to reconvene.

This reserve was by far and wide the most famous in the country. I had not visited Suffolk before and there were a number of iconic species present that I had yet to see. The build up to departure had been a thing of tension and excitement. My waking hours were full of anticipation at finally seeing Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. My sleep was haunted by booming Bitterns and as yet to be revealed rarities. I was not to be disappointed.

That first afternoon saw us walk the public footpath from Theberton, across the marshes and onto the beach by the sluice at Minsmere. This was a walk that we repeated many times over the next 14 days. Our walk was enlivened by reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. Our anticipation levels were on red alert. My first ever Marsh Harriers (a male and female) were soon seen, high above the extensive reed beds - this being a time when they were still very rare birds indeed. The public hides allowed us our first view across the famous 'scrape' and on this particular afternoon we logged Little Gull, Spotted Redshank, Avocet, Ruff and Greenshank. As we retraced our steps back to the camp site two more of Minsmere's icons flew onto the list - a Bittern and a small flock of Bearded Tits. All this, and we hadn't actually set foot on the reserve itself!

The next day saw us up early and down by the sluice way before the reserve opened up to the public. But that was not a problem as we had the bushes at the sluice to investigate, the sand dunes (with their old concrete tank traps) to comb through and the public hides, which were a window out onto the never ending bird show beyond. Knot and Little Tern were tidy returns, but were overshadowed by the five Spoonbills that were to be seen in the distance. Once we presented ourselves to the reserve visitor centre, and obtained our day permits, we paid our respects to the breeding Red-backed Shrikes - their presence goes a long way in making us realise that 1976 is forty years ago, after all! A whistle stop tour was made of the hides, all named and all destined to become familiar places over the next few days - Tree Hide, West Hide, Isle of Mere Hide... the last named had a real character inside. A voluntary warden, quite elderly, sat in the corner with the air of a military man about him. Mr Denny was his name, I believe. His passion (and his job) was to alert anybody sitting in the hide to the presence of any Marsh Harrier. He would bark out directions in his clipped English - "Marsh Harrier flying right over the ruined building!" - until everyone was on it. He would ignore other birds. They didn't exist.

Minsmere was not the only site on our itinerary. Being fit young things we often walked north along the beach, past Dunwich and up to Walberswick, even beyond to the Blyth Estuary. Round trips of 20+ miles on foot were made most days. It was the summer of 76. It was hot and sunny every day. We were young and carefree. It was an idyllic period.

The birds kept coming: Aug 12th - Garganey and Nightingale (100 species recorded); August 13 - Aquatic Warbler (found by us and accepted by the BBRC); Aug 14 - White-winged Black Tern (that stayed for several days), Wood Sandpiper, another Red-backed Shrike and Pied Flycatcher; Aug 16 - Black Redstart; August 17 - Grasshopper Warbler, Temminck's Stint and male Montagu's Harrier; Aug 18 - Barred Warbler; August 20 - Wryneck (my dream bird, by the sluice), Wood Warbler, a flock of 150 Turtle Doves and Barn Owl; Aug 22 - 2 Icterine Warblers at the sluice, with one remaining until the following day. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. There would be waders on the scrape. Plenty of birds in the reedbed. More surprises hidden and waiting to be found. The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. Life was good.

Postscript: of those young lads mentioned above, two others carried on birding. Barry Reed became a well-known birder who made a name for himself through twitching and world birding, then settled down to be an elder statesmen in the Hertfordshire birding scene. Tim Andrews also took up the twin batons of twitching and world birding. Tragically, while on a trip to Peru in 1990, he was shot by guerrillas who mistook him for an American spy. His body was never recovered.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Too many books?

For the first time in my life I'm starting to question whether or not I need to buy any more natural history books. Or at least, if I do buy them, where are they going to go? We have two large alcoves fitted with bookshelves in our sitting room. There is floor to ceiling shelving along our upstairs landing. We have a book case in one of the bedrooms. Most of these are stuffed with natural history books. My books. There is no more room. Everybody else's books have to fight for space under beds, in boxes or stacked along window sills. I don't know how the natural history books took over, but they have. I'm a little ashamed...

Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I keep lists. Needless to say, I have a list of my natural history books. It is even broken down into subjects. No, really. Would you like to see? Birds (151), Lepidoptera (51), Natural History Literature (26), Fungi (5), Botany (60), Insects (28), Mosses (6), Orthoptera (4), Dragonflies (7) and Miscellaneous (26). That's 364 in total. This is not taking into account the hundreds of pamphlets, leaflets, booklets and reports that I also have. And, here's the irony - I reckon that over 300 of them hardly get looked at at all. Some of them never. So why did I buy them? Well, they all seemed like a wise purchase at the time. Some of them (like the Helm/Poysers, Surrey Wildlife Trust or BWPs) became collectable because they were from a certain publisher or part of a set. If the house burned down, how many of them would I definitely replace? Possibly 20.

The majority of my natural history purchases are now what could be termed as 'literature or writing', publications that are not so much field guides or species/family monographs, more works of art that explore the relationship that we as humans have with the wildlife around us. But they still take up space. And I'm still drawn like a moth to a flame to a book shop. Every single one that I pass. I still get a thrill from a purchase. To sit down with a new book, open the pages for the first time, smell the ink, be thrilled by the images and inspired by the words - it's almost as good a feeling as I get from being out in the field itself.

More shelving? Bigger house? Or fewer books? If this is my only problem in life then things cannot be going all that badly, can they? A few years ago I had a cull. I wish I hadn't. Maybe 25-30 books got shown the door, mainly from my early days, books that would have quite a bit of nostalgic value now. I will not make that mistake again.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Down the pan?

My pan species listing total has stalled somewhat over recent months. It currently stands on 3393 with the last addition being the migrant micro moth Syncopacma polychromella. And that was back in December. My embracing of the pan species concept hasn't loosened, but I have come to an acceptance that I am not one of those naturalists who has the inclination to name everything that they come across. I thought that I did, but I don't.

In the past couple of years I seem to have wandered back into birding as my first port of call when it comes to spending time out in the field. Lengthy stays at Dungeness Bird Observatory have undoubtably fostered this, along with the sharing of quality time with the great and the good folks who haunt the shingle. This has lead to less time being spent birding locally (which was becoming trying anyway) and a rediscovery of going that bit further afield. My recent visits to Pulborough Brooks have been not only enjoyable, but have made me realise that I cannot get my ornithological kicks closer to home. I've tried it and I (or it) has failed.

But my local area is not all about birds (just as well really). I am fortunate to have an incredible assemblage of plants, butterflies and moths on my doorstep - quite literally, as it happens. These three disciplines have been constant companions over recent years, and there is much to learn still. And this is where my pan species listing effort has fallen away.

When I first 'got into' it, I went out into the field and tried to identify it all - mosses, beetles, lichen, flies, fungi - you name it and I tried to put a name to it. But the harder I looked the harder it became. There is no short cut to correctly identifying a lot of this stuff. To do it right takes an awful lot of effort, not to mention the collecting of an awful lot of reference material (printed, online and specimens). Ironically, even though I now have more time to spend on this, I do not have the inclination to do so.

BUT.... just because I will not, as a course of action, attempt to name everything that I come across (or comes across me), I am still inquisitive enough to be curious as to the name of certain organisms that take my fancy. It might be an ornate fungus. A striking hoverfly. Or even a large and colourful beetle, like that pictured above. It is Carabus problematicus, that I found under fallen timber on Reigate Heath a few summers ago. I didn't mind trying to identify it, as there was only one confusable species, and even I could manage that.

I may well be saying "goodbye" to rising up the pan species league table (and have got used to saying "hello" to sliding down it), but that's all fine by me. Maybe this is the gentleman's way of joining in. I can sit back and applaud the players from the side-lines.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Scilly the first time

Continuing with my reminiscences regarding the first time that I visited iconic birding sites, say hello to... the Isles of Scilly! Dateline Friday 13th - Monday 16th October 1978.

"There's a Semi-palmated Plover on St. Agnes."

"Don't you mean a Semi-palmated Sandpiper?"

"No, plover, first for Europe. It's American."

The species that Tim Boultwood had just mentioned I had never heard of. I didn't even own an American field guide.

"I'm going down this weekend. Leave Friday night and drive back on Monday. Interested?"

As a burgeoning twitcher, the fabled Isles of Scilly had yet to appear on my birding CV. That was something that I was desperate to rectify.

Tim picked me up from outside West Croydon station Friday mid-evening. There were two other passengers - Nick Gardner and Steve Robinson. We settled down for a leisurely drive to Cornwall, taking in service stations, much birding banter, and all mixed with not a small amount  of apprehension - would the bird still be there? I also got my hands on an American field guide and came face to face with an illustration of our quarry. Was that it? Looked just like a Ringed Plover! My disappointment was tempered with the thought of possibly seeing my second 'first' for the UK that year, following on from the Stodmarsh Pallid Swift back in May.

We arrived at the Hayle Estuary for a dawn vigil. We did have a reason for being here and that was the presence of a Sociable Plover. Now, this WAS a stunning wader - at least, the illustration in the book looked stunning, but the bird itself was nowhere to be seen. Never mind, we had a boat to catch, so trundled off to Penzance to board the Scillonian 3, our transportation to the promised lands. We spent all our time on the deck, convinced that rare seabirds would come our way, but had to make do with 200+ Gannet, 20+ Shag, 10+ Great Skua and 25+ Razorbill (my notebook from the time is full of + counts). As for that rare seabird? Just wait for the postscript to this particular tale...

After two and a half hours we docked at Hugh Town, St. Mary's. I was terrible excited. A middle-aged birder was lounging about on the dock, laid back and nonchalant, apparently one of the names. He exuded coolness. As we disembarked he relayed the news that he knew that we'd want to hear, that the plover was still present. In a whirl of activity, we boarded a small motorised ferry to St Agnes, and jogged from the small quay to Periglis beach, where, running along the tideline was our target. A desperately underwhelming Semi-palmated Plover. As birders did in the 1970s, we lay down on the ground, drew out our draw-tubed telescopes, balanced the far end on our crossed over leg, and focused the dim image into something approaching 'OK'.  It looked like a Ringed Plover. We heard it call. It called NOTHING like a Ringed Plover, more like a Spotted Redshank. I could pretend that the fact that it was smaller, exhibited palmations and exhibited white-barring on the coverts all hit home with me (they are all noted down in my notebook), but I would be lying. Apart from its rarity, it did nothing for me. After a short while (none of us wanted to grill it for very long), we wandered off towards the vegetation around the buildings. This was better! A Red-breasted Flycatcher was sharing a weedy strip with a Spotted Flycatcher. Nearby, in the legendary Parsonage, an Icterine Warbler was on display along with two Firecrests. No time to dwell though, as we moved onto the dump, where a promised Red-backed Shrike duly performed. Our time spent watching it was cut short as a birder's shout from a nearby field had us scurrying along to share in his good fortune of a Little Bunting, creeping through the low growth. All this in half-an-hour. Our return to St. Mary's was one buoyed by our successes, where we quickly visited Porth Hellick pool to pay our respects to the 'resident' Long-billed Dowitcher.

Back in 1978, birders still slept rough on the islands (and were tolerated doing so). All four of us found a quay-side toilet/changing room and laid out our sleeping bags on wooden benches or the hard floor. I hardly slept all night, due to a mixture of exhilaration and sheer discomfort.

The following morning, after a quiet wander on Penninis Head, we took a ferry to Tresco, home to another underwhelming American vagrant, this one even more underwhelming (if that was possible) than the plover - a Black Duck. We saw it on the open sea as we approached the island and later on the Abbey Pond. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a Mallard. But, to my greedy tickers blinkers, that didn't really matter, as it was a lifer! Another tick come along shortly afterwards, as an Ortolan Bunting had been found nearby and played ball to the assembled crowd. The rest of the afternoon was spent back on St. Mary's, walking along the clifftops between Hughtown and the golf course. The weather was glorious. The islands were showing off their full beauty. It was a good place to be. Before we retired to our makeshift hotel for another nights broken sleep, news broke of a Red-tailed Shrike at Winspit in Dorset (as we then referred to Isabelline). That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags amid the dripping of taps, the realisation hit us that there wouldn't be enough daylight for us to attempt looking for the shrike on the way back home. -our boat docked at Penzance too late in the day to guarantee any birding time in Dorset. However, if we got on board an early helicopter, we would have time to burn. We decided to get up early and be waiting at the airport gates to ensure we got off the island - we already knew that there would be others attempting to do so as well.

To cut a long story short, we were first at the airport. We got the last four tickets on the first flight out. We had time to stop at the Hayle Estuary and successfully see the magnificent Sociable Plover. We arrived at Winspit with hours to spare. Hours in which we wandered around a virtually birdless valley. The shrike had gone...

Do you remember my earlier reference to rare seabirds from the Scillonian? As we were walking back along the valley footpath towards the car, we were met by a carload of birders who had driven like the wind from Penzance, on the off-chance that there would be enough daylight left for them to see the shrike. The light was just starting to go, and they could tell form our forlorn faces that the shrike was nowhere to be seen. But they were all positively beaming!

"You boys really thought you were the cat's pyjama's when you got on that chopper" one of them said, "but I tell you what, I'm really glad that you did and we didn't. On the crossing someone picked out a Black-browed Albatross sitting on the sea. Everyone on board got to see it!" And they had. Go  and look in the BB rarities report for 1978. October 16th. Black-browed Albatross between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly. You couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Murmurating godwits

For the third time in a little over a fortnight I found myself at Pulborough Brooks*, unable to stay away from another helping of Black-tailed Godwits. Numbers today were a little down on last week, but there were still 800+ present, and they put on a spectacular show. There seems to be three default settings for the Pulborough godwits:

1) Roost. Do little, look bland.

2) Feed. All at the same time, eager and animated, much calling.

3) Fly! Turn from grey/buff humdrum into zebra-striped humbugs with a flick of the wing and a turn of the body, in glorious synchronicity.

Today saw quite a lot of aerial activity, as a particularly stubborn Peregrine was hassling birds over the flood throughout the day. I didn't see it, but there is now one less godwit on site tonight, but also one satiated falcon! When spooked, the flock, (which had been feeding or roosting in close proximity), would split into three or four sections, wheel around for several minutes, and then join up again, at other times break up and scatter into the distance, moving as far as the edge of Pulborough village or even leave the north flood altogether. There came a point when the flocks appeared to, just for the sheer joy of it, engage in extravagant manoeuvres - aerial ballet. A comparison with the murmuration of Starlings is not that far-fetched. When they felt safe, or got fed up, they would finally settle.

Also seen were: Canada Goose (350), Shelduck (24), Pintail (250), Wigeon (2,300), Teal (1,100), Shoveler (400), Lapwing (2,350), Ruff (8), Red Kite (3), Common Buzzard (6), Water Rail (2), Marsh Tit (1).

*There is no truth in the rumour that I have forsaken a certain shingle peninsula in Kent for this Sussex floodplain. Normal service will be resumed in the not too distant future...

Monday, 1 February 2016

The 2016 ND&B collection

I've been fiddling around with the blog header recently, and have settled on replacing them each month. So far has seen Goldfinch (January) and Kingfisher (February), but I thought that you might like to see what is coming up, in monthly order. The subjects are chosen to reflect the time of year.

Can anyone out there identify the species depicted in all twelve headers? First prize is the admiration of all the cyber wildlife community...

Winter bees

Yesterday afternoon saw Katrina and I playing the part of a stereotypical middle-aged couple, National Trust membership cards in hand and ambling around the walled gardens of Polesden Lacey. The construction of the grounds date from the beginning of the 20th century, and are a mixture of formal garden, wild planting and vegetable plots. Whatever time of year that we visit there is always colour, even on this particular grey January afternoon. Admittedly there are sleeping earth beds and bare trees that are the expected fare, but there is also a 'winter' garden, constructed in the mid 1960s which was an oasis of flower. Hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconites, crocuses, viburnum, Christmas box (sarcococca) - they really cheered the soul. But what really stirred my blood were the bees. At least 15 of them were busily visiting the hellebores (plus the odd snowdrop) in defiance of the January gloom. It was mild, but even so they were like a message from the coming seasons - "We'll soon be here!" They were all Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera). I did see one bumblebee in the distance and a single hoverfly, both of which escaped specific identification. That didn't matter. It was their presence that was reward enough.