Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Last night we lost Amber, our beloved Cocker Spaniel. The vet could do nothing to help her, so we had to say goodbye. She was 11 years old and she had been with us from the age of six weeks.

Amber's birding highlight was flushing a Golden Plover as we walked across the grassy expanse of Epsom Downs - she never did find a woodcock, much to her breeds disappointment.

She had a big part to play in the first Surrey record (for 25 years) of Field Gromwell. We were on Epsom Downs (one of her favourite walks) when she decided to take me off the usual route. I followed. We then came to a chalky field corner, which I thought looked interesting, and so it proved, with not just Venus's Looking-glass but the aforementioned Gromwells. Had it not been on her insistence, then the chances are that they would have remained undiscovered.

People that are not pet owners will most probably not understand that the loss of a close pet is shattering. We are all at loss here at the moment. The picture above is of Amber in the sea at Charmouth. She loved water. We loved her.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Bearded Twitchers after 'tit'

The following appeared on the website 'Welcome to Dungeness UK' on a post called 'Rare Bird and Bearded Twitchers'. I wasn't there so cannot comment on the behaviour of the gathered masses, but author dungieMike says the following:

So the Arcadian (sic) Flycatcher hitched a lift from the States to Dungeness – and then evidently died. Relentlessly pursued by hundreds of bearded twichers it is little wonder it took the easy way out. These so called bird lovers (the Twitchers) seem to disregard normal behaviour patterns when chasing their quarry, with total disregard for private property. One poor lass threw open her bedroom curtains only to be confronted by four of these ‘persons’ leaning over the garden fence with binoculars trained on her very person. Me thinks they were after a different type of tit.

I often wonder, when observing these rambling masses, what their reaction would be if we went to their home, tromped across their gardens with spyglass and camera in hand and causing mayhem – all in the pursuit of an obscure hobby? I suspect they would call the police and the ‘intruder’ placed before the courts the following morning.

The sooner a new owner is found for Dungeness and the 20 foot high razor fence erected the better.

So, were you one of the four 'persons' mentioned, and if so, did you cop an eyeful?

Keep Calm and Carry On Birding

If all things go to plan, I will descending upon Dungeness next weekend. For a month. Yes, I know, that's terribly indulgent, but why not. As the Specials sang, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think..." After my bold proclamation that I wasn't bothered about not seeing the Acadian Flycatcher (see here), I now find myself very restless indeed, scouring the twitter feed for news on what is being seen along the Kent coast. A conveyor belt of easterlies has dumped a load of scarce and rare species from Shetland to Scilly, including a Pallas's Warbler at Dungeness. Today there are a few thrushes making landfall on the shingle and no doubt by the day's end one or two other goodies will have been winkled out. It feels good - it is sounding good.

And my birding paranoia has returned - mildly, but it is definitely there.

This isn't about rarity, it's about migration. It's about spectacle. My angst is down to the belief that it'll all happen this week and the rest of the autumn will be drained of happening. This is, of course, bollocks. If a week is a long time in politics, then a month is an awful long time in birding. That is time enough for several weather systems to form, do their thing and die. This is not unusual amongst birders - I wish I had a pound for every time that I'd heard one fretting about getting their timing wrong. If a commitment has been made to venture to Scilly or Shetland (usually booked months before), and then a raft of rarities or a large arrival has been dumped on the venue days before you're due to arrive, it can feel like a knife to the heart. It's hard to not take such things very personally indeed!

When I used to spend the last two weeks of October at Dungeness Bird Observatory as a matter of course, there seemed to be a run of predictable weather. These weeks were dominated by south-westerly airflows, which sometimes lasted days on end (force 4-6 winds) plus rain. But when it abated, something always happened. Out of nowhere, normally on a NW breeze, up would pop a Yellow-browed, or a Pallas's. One year it was a Rustic Bunting. On another occasion it was a massive dawn arrival of thousands of thrushes. I can only assume that the avian world is so shaken-up by late October that anything is possible. Stuff is already displaced, or gathered waiting for a window of opportunity to move.

With all the easterlies that have been enjoyed so far this autumn, even if the weather gods decreed a shut-down and a switch to predominantly westerlies for the rest of the autumn, there is so much in the mixer that stuff will be popping up for a while yet. The impetus to migrate will not have dissipated. There will be birds...

So, deep breaths, calm down, and enjoy the moments when they come. For come they will.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Rainbow Dust

Peter Marren is one of my favourite authors of wildlife publications. His 'Poyser' on Britain's Rare Flowers and British Wildlife Publishing's Mushrooms are both delights which I re-read with as much enjoyment as their first sitting.

Rainbow Dust explores the relationship between us dowdy people and the brilliance that are butterflies. It begins with the author laying down his own beginnings with lepidoptera and then takes us to meet those who first described them, who named them, collected them, painted them, studied them and conserved them. This gallery of 'movers and shakers' is full of characters, from the plebs to the aristocracy, and shows us how they all contributed to our appreciation of butterflies in varying, but similarly major ways. How these insects have coloured our culture, haunted our folklore and entered our psyche is laid out before us.

I will never look at a Red Admiral in the same way again - the depiction of this species in the paintings from the 16th-17th century was as a metaphor for death; children from the middle-ages (and possibly before) used to tie thread to butterflies bodies and then attach them to their hats, so that they walked along accompanied by fluttering friends; the sources of many of the binomial names are revealed, a mixture of the classical, macabre and mischievous. There are pages and pages of this sort of stuff.

Marren does not do dry - his writing style is as if you were having a pint in the pub with him, so effortless and inclusive is his prose. Full of anecdote, aside and entertainment, he never the less gets to the nitty-gritty of any subject. Hot on the heels of Matthew Oates 'In Pursuit of Butterflies', this is a very different book indeed - my recommendation is that you buy both!

Published by Square Peg, it is a beautifully produced book, with yet another stunning cover by Carrie Ackroyd. Apparently Mr Marren is working on a book about Mountain Flowers - I cannot wait...

Wednesday, 7 October 2015


I have just re-watched Shane Meadows excellent documentary 'Made of Stone', a film about the history, and reformation, of the rock band The Stone Roses. He is a massive fan of the band and the project was (obviously) a labour of love. There was a scene in which the band announced a free gig, in which the first 1,000 people to arrive at the box office (with an item of band memorabilia) were issued with wristbands to gain entry. All of this was filmed. Within minutes, people arrived at the box office, running, sweating, in a panic. Many were interviewed. They couldn't believe it. They were beside themselves. Their favourite band - no, not their favourite band, one of the reasons that life was worth living - were playing at this venue after a gap of 20 years! Forget about the second coming, this was up there and beyond it! Such devotion was obvious, but such oneness - a collective understanding about the relevance of this event - was even more palpable. They entered the gig as one, and left it believing that they could change the world. I recognised it...

Last September I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see Kate Bush's comeback tour. Here was an artist that I had a strong affiliation with, through a love of her music and identifying with the era that her music was a backdrop to. Some artists 'speak' to you. Kate spoke to me. On arrival at the Hammersmith Apollo on that special night, it was obvious that the 3,500 other souls who were attending the gig felt the same. When the, admittedly, mature woman in her mid-50s entered the stage, we all saw the same Kate of our youth. Nothing had changed. We all saw. We were all one. We left the venue thinking that we could change the world.

Whether or not I am in the car singing along with One Direction, Katy Perry or Taylor Swift with my wife and daughters; or sitting in Mark's front room getting misty eyed with a healthy dose of Neil Young, music is a great unifier. It makes you believe.

And so does natural history.

I have been at some great twitches in my time. The (yet again mentioned) Wallcreepers. The Cornwall Varied Thrush. The Scilly Orphean Warbler. The Portland Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Kent Golden-winged Warbler. The Norfolk (How Hill) Black-and-white Warbler. I've seen rarer. But I've not been present at other birds that have elicited such oneness, such connection. Each was anticipated. Each was welcomed with collective gasps and appreciation. The same could be said for sea-watches, visible migration spectacle and falls of migrants that I have been lucky - no, privileged -  over the years to witness. The sharing of wonder, the knowledge that you are not alone in the appreciation of and, yes, obsession of the world around you.

You are not alone. This collective power should be used to shape the way humanity treats our fragile world. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to plunder my music collection for a healthy dose of unity.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Big skies

Why is it that we are drawn to open vistas, panoramic views and big skies? I've read somewhere that it may be that it is hardwired in us, a throwback to our ancestral savannah home, and our need to see into the distance to prepare for possible danger.

Such reasons are largely null and void in 2015, but my need for the 'big sky' is a strong one. I'm drawn to such places, be they Dungeness (above), the North Downs (middle) or humble Canons Farm (bottom). They all supply me with peace. Thinking time. They strip away the immense detail of our daily lives, the media tittle-tattle, subdue the human bustle and act as a balm to the stresses of today (and if you don't think you have any, the way that we live in the so-called civilised world, we are surrounded and bombarded by them).

Human traces are reduced in such situations, so distant towns become islands of lego, roads thin grey snakes wriggling through the green and pylons just silver insects marching across the fields. Traffic and aircraft noise is diminished and has to compete with natural sounds. Time is expanded, there is an opportunity to bathe in it.

And you can see the weather forming, coming and going. Distant rain bands take on an altogether more beautiful form, sunbeams falling on ground twenty miles away full of promise and the night sky, if clear, is uninterrupted and awe inspiring.

And of course, we can see the birds. They, too love the big skies. It is their playground, and when the trees and buildings are stripped away we can watch the birds in all of their aerial glory, be it tumbling Lapwings, hunting raptors or migrating finches.

If I find myself in a town, or a wood, I gravitate towards a park or a clearing. It's second nature.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Autumn at Langley Vale Farm

The fields of Langley Vale Farm called me back again today. I seem to be making a weekly visit at the moment, and although the place is not totally devoid of birdlife (or potential), I once again left without too much use of the notebook. However, on such a fine autumnal day, with warm sun, blue skies and drowsy butterflies, it would be churlish to demand more.

This farm was recently purchased by the Woodland Trust, who intend to turn it into woodland to commemorate the centenary of the Great War (now 101 years since its start, so the centenary tag might be a little out of date when the project finally comes to fruition). As already remarked upon here, this move has been met with mixed feelings, as the area has been farmed sympathetically for decades and boasts an incredible arable plant assemblage. Another endearing aspect of the farm is that it retains ancient hedgerows, copses and woods, home to many species of tree, shrub, flower and, no doubt, an interesting invertebrate community (yet to be investigated as far as I know). The definition of a hedge on this particular farm is not that of a wispy line of vegetation leaning up against a strand of wire - these are vibrant things, metres deep and comprised many species of wild tree and shrub. The copses and woods are many, and harbour such delights as breeding Buzzards and Green Hellebores.

At this moment in time the farming practices are winding down (there may be a year to two more) and exploration is possible as the shooting syndicate no longer meet here. The rare arable plants will struggle to survive without a helping hand, but all parties are aware of the situation and the plants themselves have some big hitters on their side. It is a priority to survey the area now, to add to the already impressive list of plants present and maybe identify any areas that really should be removed from the threat of woodland planting.

Last year saw a change to the way the farm was managed, which meant that the wide open margins around the field edges were not maintained, which resulted in crops growing up to the hedge line or coarse grasses swamping the crop less areas. It was a struggle to find many of the notable plants this summer. Finger's crossed that the recent dialogue between the interested parties will result in a more sympathetic managing of the land for the true rarities that are to be found on it - but they will only remain if something is done, and done immediately - it may already be too late in some instances.