Thursday, 30 July 2015

Full circle

Any regular visitor to this blog will be familiar with the soul-searching, lack of confidence and uncertainty that clouds my relationship with birding. If push comes to shove, in my personal relationship with natural history, I am foremost a birdwatcher / birder / ornithologist (tick box as appropriate). I do not suffer such angst with plants, lepidoptera or the wide open book that is pan-listing. Why is that?

Part of the reason is youth. I began my love of birdwatching when I was in my mid-teens. It was a refuge from an uncertain world and one in which I seemed to fit in. My need to be accepted into this new found refuge was strong, so effort was made to be (a) competent and (b) known. My anonymity in 2015 covers up a successful campaign in the late 70s which saw me achieve this state of being. But that was just the start of the battle. Birding boomed around this time, becoming more popular, particularly in the twitching / identification arena, the place that I wanted to be. You had to play the game if you wanted to compete - it was a game that I half-heartedly got involved in.

1983 was the game changer. I had a choice between seeing Siouxsie and the Banshees at the Royal Albert Hall or a Northern Waterthrush on Scilly (or was it a Scarlet Tanger?) The Banshees won. There wasn't even a contest. I knew the game was up. But was it? My refuge then became Dungeness, where a new type of competition opened up, that of becoming a player down in Kent. It is no wonder that I failed, as with a 180 mile round trip I couldn't compete with the locals. But who was I really competing with? It was a self-constructed arena, a place that I took on myself and was bound to fail.

Where did I then retreat to? Moths. Plants. And because I was now a so-called adult, and was entering a place populated by people far, far more proficient than me, there was no pressure. So what if I ballsed-up an identification, it didn't matter, I wasn't up against any peers in this particular environment.

When I returned to birding (although I really hadn't ever left) it was to survey a much reduced playing field. The youngsters were largely missing, there were self-appointed experts who had been birding just a year or two and as for bird numbers... they had plummeted. From a personal perspective, my need to be welcomed back into this world was non-existent. I had exorcised the neediness from my ornithological blueprint. It had happened via the cleansing brought on by getting my thrills elsewhere.

There are birders who have admitted to me that they never question their allegiance to the cause, have never questioned why they do it and could never envisage a world without it. I used to envy that. I don't any more. Questioning what I do and why I do it has most probably opened me up to looking at other orders in the natural world that I never would have done otherwise. It is also why I find myself  enjoying, once more, the simple pleasures of birdwatching, devoid of rarity and full of simple wonders. Full circle, if you like.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Sensing my dissatisfaction?

I have to admit that, after a late winter and early spring spent stomping the local patches, I was a little deflated. My efforts had resulted in scant reward and I fled to my adopted shingle kingdom on the SE Kent coast which saw me alright with a couple of beautiful White-winged Black Terns and a self-found adult Bonaparte's Gull (not to forget 25 Hobbys in the air together plus the normal breeding specialties). But it is as if the local patch knew of my dissatisfaction and decided to make it better this summer...

The weather has been very hit and miss here in Surrey - a long warm spell (indeed one very hot spell) punctuated by dull periods but not much rain. This has resulted in a good butterfly summer plus a spectacular flowering. I can honestly say that there have been natural history moments spent, not three miles from my home, which will long live in that 'greatest hits' memory bank stored in my head:

The mass emergence of Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns that shimmered over the sward early one morning.

The orchid fields of Park Downs where thousands of Pyramidals and hundreds of Bees made my year.

The discovery of a field on Epsom Downs that was full of arable botanical gems and had a procession of admirers.

More Kidney Vetch and Dropwort in flower than I've seen before.

Maybe these local places and their wonderful wildlife sensed my disquiet and decided to put on a show - it has been enjoyed immensely. I do not take for granted such wonders and can count myself lucky that I live in such a richly diverse area.

Just don't mention the birding...

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The plants keep on giving


Today, I didn't intend to spend any time looking at plants along the edges of fields, but ultimately I couldn't resist it. Walking along the footpath that snakes around the large field between Holly Lane East and Park Downs, at the meeting point of several footpaths, the crops had not taken, so I got down on my knees and searched the stunted flora. Sharp-leaved Fluellen was not uncommon and several plants of Small Toadflax also caught my eye. A nice start! Next up was Perrotts Farm and the field directly north of Ruffett Wood (called Pipit Meadow by the birding fraternity) which was exhibiting a bare strip at its north-western end - I needed no encouragement to check it! This too was of interest, with more Sharp-leaved Fluellen being found, but also a great deal of Dwarf Spurge (above) - this surprised me as I have not seen this species at this locality before - John Peacock will know of its historical status on the farm.


I was quite close to Fames Rough and felt it would be rude not to go and pay my respects to the Cut-leaved Germander (above). At least 76 plants were counted, many of them in flower. I just casually swept along the ploughed strip, so that figure is undoubtably on the low side. I could find no Ground Pine.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

In Pursuit of Butterflies

What a marvellous read. If you buy but one natural history book this year you should invest in this 450 plus paged treasure. Matthew Oates has spent the past 50 years of his life in love with butterflies and has forged a career out of studying, counting and being enthralled by them.

The book is autobiographical, but it is much, much more than a 'been there, saw that' memoirs. Each page is packed not only with anecdote, but also with information - information that is anything but dry. I have learnt so much about butterflies from reading this that when I now go out into the field I am looking at them in a very different way. No longer are they just colourful and fleetingly glimpsed insects to be identified and committed to the notebook - thanks to Mr Oates I have a flicker of understanding about what they are up to and why.

In his 50 years study his research has unlocked secrets of their life-cycles that had remained unknown. He certainly has his favourites, none more so than the Purple Emperor, and his quest to see the all black aberration (iole) had me gripped. I now want to see a 'Black Admiral' and also the valenzia form of the Silver-washed Fritillary. Before picking up this book I was aware of neither. He has turned me from a part-time butterfly lover into something more.

The author has wandered through the years with not just butterflies as his companion - poetry and cricket are obviously great refuges from the 'modern-day systems' that he so clearly despises. We get to meet other butterfly champions, are shown around the butterfly hot-spots and share in his incredible highs and lows. Whether he is forgetting about having taken his two young daughters onto a mountainside, regularly coming across fornicating couples on downland in the dead of night, or rescuing an adult Brimstone from under several inches of snow, just like each butterfly season no page is the same. After reading this, you too will go out butterflying with a new pair of eyes.

By the way, he marked that snow-bound Brimstone on the wing with indelible ink and saw it again, three months later, a kilometre away.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Many eyes make bigger count


Sorry, more arable plant stuff, I promise to get back to birding soon!

Anyway, I returned to Langley Vale this morning, to take a closer look at the Field Gromwell and, blow me, found up to 30 additional plants along the 30m bare strip, with about half of them in flower (above, left). I sent this new information off to some local Surrey botanists that I am in contact with, and Dennis and Rosy immediately went to take a look - they then carried further along the edge of the field and found hundreds more! Plus, in the original chalky corner (where I had seen a single Venus's-looking-glass), they added another 13 plants of that species for good measure. Just shows you what my single pair of eyes had missed...

I also visited the Narrow-fruited Cornsalad and Catmint field which is always a pleasure, with the latter species in good flower (above right). I couldn't resist crushing a leaf or two to get a feline hit!

Apparently, these Field Gromwells are the first records for Surrey since 1990 and the first from this particular farm. Chances are that they have always been here and were just waiting for someone to meander onto the field margin and look down!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A plea for an arable time capsule

Langley Vale Farm, that nestles close to Epsom Downs race course, is a botanical jewel. Unfortunately, it might just become a former botanical jewel. Up until a couple of years ago all of the field margins were ploughed and game cover strips were maintained for pheasant shooting. These margins played host to a wonderful selection of arable plants, a disappearing group of flowers that cannot survive with the application of modern agricultural methods. My personal list of species recorded here is wonderful: Field Gromwell, Venus's-looking-glass, Night-flowering Catchfly (left, photographed there in 2006), Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Round-leaved Fluellen, Cat-mint, Rough Poppy, Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Small Toadflax, Dwarf Spurge - enough to get even the most hardened of botanists salivating! Last year Red Hemp-nettle was found, a true rarity in Surrey.

The farm came up for sale two years ago and was purchased by the Woodland Trust, whose worthy aim is to plant a woodland to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. Trouble is, such actions will extinguish the botanical gems that the area holds, species that are being systematically destroyed across the country.

Field work carried out across the farm so far this year has revealed that the margins have not been ploughed, which has resulted in the crops growing up to the hedgerow/woodland edge and rank grasses taking over any bare areas - meaning that the uncommon arable flora cannot grow. As far as I understand, farming ceases in 2016. So what does the future hold for the site?

It can only be hoped that the Woodland Trust will understand what treasures lie on their land and will be sympathetic to the keeping and maintenance of some of this arable wonderland. Woodland can still be planted - it's a large area - but hopefully arable areas can be kept. The seed bank for these plants can be long-lived, so a year or two of disappearance needn't mean extinction. Such a suite of species is rare indeed in 2015. It would be a crying shame if they are all lost.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Changing of the guard

Today was the first time that I felt as if it were autumn. The vegetation is starting to look tired. Red Bartsia, Harebell, Common Toadflax and Nettle-leaved Bellflower are starting to flower. 3 Chalkhill Blues were dancing over the short sward on Park Downs (where I finally recorded Knotted Pearlwort in Surrey). The orchid fields have changed - the top picture was taken this morning (with Common Ragwort and Marjoram being the predominant providers of colour) and the bottom image on 23rd June (where the yellow was courtesy of Rough Hawk's-beard). The orchids have largely gone. Other butterflies seen included several hundred Gatekeepers, a handful of left-over Marbled Whites, Dark Green Fritillary and 3 Red Admirals. Across the road in Banstead Woods at least 4 Silver-washed Fritillaries patrolled the rides and a very large dark butterfly was briefly glimpsed as it hacked through the top of some oaks - I have a strong suspicion as to what it probably was! Something that gave itself up with far more ease was a low flying Red Kite, that slowly moved south at 10.30hrs.