Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Return to Canons Farm

It's been a clear three months since I've birded at Canons Farm. Lured out by the (imagined) promise of passerine migrants, I toiled under a hot sun for close to six hours, and was scantly rewarded with a Wheatear, a Willow Warbler and low level counts of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Whitethroats and Swallows. Just as well I don't wear 'birding blinkers'...

Butterflies to the rescue? Well, yes and no. Numbers were pants. However, two Clouded Yellows (Reeds Rest Bottom and Fames Rough) were a delight, especially as these were fully coloured-up individuals, unlike my previous two records from here, which were both of the pale helice form. A briefly showy Brown Hairstreak presented itself along a hedgerow by Woodpecker Meadow, and a tatty Silver-washed Fritillary was just about flying at Fames Rough. None of those to be sniffed at.

Botanical highlight was, without doubt, a mass-flowering of Devil's-bit Scabious. The whole of Sheep Brow seems to be covered in literally hundreds of thousands of plants. The area is currently cordoned off (due to livestock issues) but they can easily be seen and photographed from the 'correct' side of the fence. The top photograph hopefully gives you a flavour of what it was like, although if access is allowed in the next week or two I will try and get back for a proper photo opportunity. A single flower head (below) is as much a thing of beauty.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The tale of some knotgrass, plus a local meeting

Last week, whilst wandering along the top of the beach at Sidmouth, I spied several 'fleshy' knotgrass plants lying prostrate on the shingle. I had no camera, no eyeglass, no nothing. I suspected that they might be Ray's Knotgrass, a species that I have only seen once before (further east along the coast at Charmouth). It was a hot day, there were holiday-makers sitting on their towels only feet away from the plants in question and I didn't want to invade their space to collect a piece for later identification. So I left them, but felt that if they were Ray's, then it was something that might just be noteworthy. I wouldn't be going back to Sidmouth any time soon, but I knew of a 'blogging virtual friend' who lived right on the doorstep...

I sent an email to Karen Woolley, author of the excellent blog Wild Wings and Wanderings. She has a deep interest in botany, soon went along to have a look, and indeed they were Ray's and a tick for her to boot! Joy all round!! This blogging lark does have its positives...

And talking of such positives, through this very medium I finally met up with local natural-historian Tim Saunders. We spent a most pleasant couple of hours wandering over Langley Vale Farm and in the process gathered quite a list of arable plants. The three Red Hemp-nettle plants are looking robust and healthy, as too were several Small Toadflaxes. A single Silver-washed Fritillary was my first for the site.

Small Toadflax obviously flourishing in the habitat... was this Red Hemp-nettle.
UPDATE: at 13.50hrs a juvenile Honey-buzzard flew low, south-west over the garden. This is my third record here (since 1987).

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Some alternative meanings for our bird names...

Avocet: the envy of others optics
Bobolink: agitation at not being able to travel for a bird
Bonxie: what happens to your pants after several days in a rain forest
Brambling: the meandering route taken whilst in search of a rarity
Bufflehead: a group of birders watching gulls
Capercaillie: the air quality in a car after an overnight doss
Chiffchaff: soreness on the inner thigh caused by walking to Blakeney Point
Chough: to silently break wind in a bird hide
Dotterel: a loitering crowd waiting for 'the bird' to turn up
Dunlin: most of the stock in an RSPB shop
Dunnock: to be 'caught short' whilst out birding
Fulmar: an excuse made to bunk off work to go birding
Gadwall: to join in a social media discussion in which you have no direct connection
Garganey: to injure yourself while running for a rare bird
Goosander: to come across a courting couple whilst out birding
Hoopoe: the inside of an observatory fridge
Kittiwake: the drowning of sorrows in a pub after a dip
Linnet: a birder who stands away from the crowd
Osprey: the nervousness experienced when starting out on a twitch
Pheasant: a birder who stands in an inappropriate place at a twitch
Pochard: to be caught out in the open when it starts to rain heavily
Ptarmigan: the relief that is felt having just seen a rare bird
Puffin: to falsify whilst writing a description
Quail: the realisation that you have just strung a bird
Ruff: to wear the same socks on the Scillies for a week
Smew: a smug look after the finding of a good bird
Twite: somebody who finds 'small' Canada Geese interesting
Whimbrel: to visit a place 'on spec'
Wryneck: to have to adjust your viewpoint to be able to clearly see a bird

There are plenty more...

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The (un)naming of parts

Mrs ND&B and I are on a short break in a part of the world that we both love - the Devon/Dorset border. Even though we are here sans children (well they are 25 and 20!) we still find ourselves visiting places that we took them to all of those years ago, such as the Donkey Sanctuary east of Sidmouth. After stroking several of the sanctuaries inmates we then took the coastal path to Weston Mouth. This had nothing to do with the presence of a screaming botanical rarity, Purple Gromwell. It is not in flower at this time of year, but there was plenty to be found in fruit. A nice little sideline this botanical lark...

It has been a holiday without me nipping off with binoculars, although, as illustrated above, it is hard not to take notice of the natural history - 4 Greenshank were on the beach at Charmouth on Tuesday, several Peregrines have shown up between Sidmouth and Golden Cap and whilst sitting in a posh Lyme Regis hotel garden, eating a cream tea, a couple of Fulmar were messing around overhead with the Cobb as a stunning backdrop. Nice.

Before these stiff-winged tubenoses appeared, we went on a hike along the under cliff footpath between Lyme Regis and Seaton. This whole area is a part of a world heritage site, bestowed thanks to the terrific geology and fossil record. It is also unstable, with land slippage still a regular feature. The footpath runs between the true sea cliff and another several hundred yards inland, formed when a massive slump occurred in the early 19th century.

The path meanders through broken ground, a grotto of dense woodland, shattered slopes and fern-filled gullies. It is Tolkienesque. I thought I saw a Hobbit in the distance, but may have been mistaken! However, the sensation of place, light and sound in such a dreamlike habitat is heady indeed. Tree roots slither across the paths, plunging into gullies damp with stream and pool. Old abandoned farm buildings betray an almost hidden past. There are ghosts and spirits and sprites around every tree trunk. Noise is concentrated here, clearer and closer than it really is. A Common Buzzard mewing high above, or a boats engine chugging way below are both on your shoulder.

Leaves overlap leaves, ferns drown the earth, smothering flowers that try to reach up to the sun that cannot penetrate the terraced forest. Here there is no room for species - they are just part of a living whole, too big and awesome to be broken into piffling components. Time to dispense with the chore of naming - it is time to accept the 'whole' without question, with no need to list, open notebooks or to name the parts.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Red Hemp-nettle and another mass flowering

I don't need an excuse to return to Langley Vale Farm, home to a fine array of arable plant rarities. Compared to last year, my visits in 2016 have been not as frequent. Some field margins have been specifically spared the planting of crops to hopefully benefit the plants and, to a certain extent, this has delivered. This morning I luckily bumped into local botanist Dennis Skinner. He kindly informed me that Red Hemp-nettle, a species discovered here two summers ago, was showing once again. I know this plant from the shingle beaches of Dungeness and Rye, but not from arable Surrey - it is not common anywhere, and certainly not in my home county. I needed no encouragement to go and look for the three plants reported as being present. I found them easily...

Apart from Small Toadflax and Sharp-leaved Fluellen, there was no representation from the other rare arable plants present. I did come across a few strikingly pale-pink Scarlet Pimpernel flowers. These didn't appear to be 'washed-out' or faded individuals, as the photograph below shows fresh petals.

In some ways the botanical highlight of the morning was once again down to a common species en-masse, this time a 100m long bank of Perennial Sow-thistle. In the harsh sunlight the yellows from the flower heads and the white from the seed heads were vivid and created another vision of wonder for the memory bank.

It wasn't a morning totally bereft of birds, as a single Woodlark flew over, calling as it circled.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

I've been spambotted!!

When I was in Majorca, happily posting away at the end of another hot and bird-filled day, the traffic visiting ND&B was very healthy. A 'normal' day's worth of page views was settled in the 400-600 range, with the odd day total topping these figures. All good for the ego if not for the wallet...

But then things really took off. Over three consecutive days the page views rose - 900... then 1540... then a record breaking 1613... my head started to swell, this drivel that I was pumping out was obviously getting noticed, and fame was surely beckoning just around the corner. I have had spikes in numbers before, especially when a post has been linked on a highly popular site (such as a BirdForum thread). I went searching for such a link, but found none. I then opened up my 'audience' data - hmmm, something fishy was going on. On each of these 'boom-days' I was getting over a thousand hits from Russia! Was I suddenly big in the Urals? Was my Moscow fan-base mushrooming? Were the Siberian hordes that bored that they had adopted a British blog on natural history as a 'go to' form of entertainment and enlightenment? Alas, no. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was suffering from an attack of the spambots.

A spambot is, acording to Wikipedia:

computer program designed to assist in the sending of spam. Spambots usually create accounts and send spam messages with them.

Apparently, these spambots surf the web to attack blogs and forums to submit bogus content. This may take the form of posting marketing information or phishing, or purely to boost search engine rankings for whoever the spambot is working on behalf of.

So, no big surge in adulatory fan behaviour. No admittance to the blogger hall of fame. Just some binary piracy from the land of the cossacks, pumping up the worth of a nameless site on the other side of Europe (or maybe further afield).

Was it worth having got so excited about the traffic surge? Nyet...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A zig-zag full of silver spots and belles

The Victorians referred to the area as 'The Surrey Alps', and although the hills around Dorking may not actually resemble the said mountains of mainland Europe, they are quite impressive all the same - they just don't stand up to a direct comparison.

This morning, with the sun shining, I elected to venture onto the slopes of the Box Hill zig-zag, so called after the narrow road that - you've guessed it - zig-zags its way up to the summit. (See, even I'm getting in on the Victorian's act by using such a lofty term to describe the top of the hill). This area has historically drawn naturalists from far and wide, thanks in no small part to a tremendous assemblage of plants and butterflies.

Todays stars were the number of Silver-spotted Skipper (above) that were on the wing - a minimum of 65. I spent most of my visit with one or two in view, with at least eight at once for one heady minute. Also present was a moth that is found increasingly rarely from just a handful of places in Surrey and Kent - the Straw Belle. At least 30 were found, in quite a discrete area, the moths being easily disturbed as I walked along. They were quite skittish and, although they soon settled, seemed to pick the most difficult areas in which to alight (from a view for me to obtain a decent photograph or two). They would either:
(a) land on an exposed grass stem that swayed in the stiff breeze;
(b) head for the middle of a grassy tuft thus having copious grass blades between it, and my camera lens, or;
(c) land in a perfect place for me, only to fly off just as I was about to take a picture.
What appears below is a typical teasing view, followed by a couple of rare close ups (upper and underwing).

The slopes were a visual treat. Millions of flowers covered them. No photo can ever capture such a spectacle. You can look at the square metre in which you are standing and count a dozen species. You look along a slope and marvel at the abundance set out before you. Burnet-saxifrage, Wild Basil, Small Scabious, Harebell, Clustered Bellflower, Red Clover, Marjoram, Dwarf Thistle, Common Century, Carline Thistle, Autumn Gentian, Yellow-wort, Squinancywort, Eyebright, Hawkbit, St.John's-wort - on and on and on, sweeping across the ground in a carpet, sewn into the grass, dancing above the sward, open to the sun.