Friday, 29 July 2016

The Beddington human zoo

Yesterday's retro post about Beddington Sewage Farm - (note: NOT Farmlands) - got me reminiscing even further. I have posted about the birding before, but the people who populated my early memories have barely got a mention. It is time to rectify this.

These were times before the reign of the Messenbirds and Alfreys. When I first set foot on the 'hallowed acres' there was a regular, loyal set of observers - Derek Coleman, Nick Gardner, John Bacon, John Dalgliesh, Bill Blake, Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Gent, Dave Eland, Stuart Holdsworth to name but a few - but the two who took me under their wing and influenced me beyond all others were Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood.

Ken and Mike were primarily bird ringers, and two-three times a week would turn up at the sewage farm with the express intention of trapping birds. The Beddington Ringing Group had been a flourishing concern back in the 1960s, but by the mid 1970s it fell to just these two men. I joined them as a trainee ringer in the summer of 1976. Those of you old enough to remember that summer may recall that it was very hot indeed. We mainly used single panel mist nets in the dry beds, where finches were congregating to feed on the Fat-hen, mainly Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Linnets, and if the season was right, Bramblings. During the summer we would target Swifts, utilising a special method of capture that I believe had its origins at Beddington. You can read about it here. Sometimes we got lucky - memorable freak captures included a Short-eared Owl and a Bluethroat - plus a Willow Tit that would have any modern Surrey birder salivating profusely.

Back then, as you crossed Hackbridge Bridge, a long straight road cut right across the sewage farm directly ahead of you. This was Mile Road. And there were two houses, both inhabited, that were along it. The first was just about were the current BFBG hide now stands. It was lived in by a brother and sister, the Murphy's, who kept largely to themselves. Halfway along the road, right out in the middle of the farm, was a not unattractive dwelling where Alf and his wife lived. Alf worked for the sewage farm and kept his eye on things. Near to Alf's house, alongside a series of concrete water tanks, could be found our small ringing hut. Inside were a couple of chairs, a table, and a log book into which we entered our sightings. These may have been the days before you needed a key to access the farm, but to possess a key to the hut was the 1970s equivalent. This hut acted as a meeting point, a library, a handy shelter from the worst weather, and a place to store our bikes (we all seemed to cycle back then). I have happy memories of a Christmas holiday morning when Alf came along to the hut with a bottle of sherry and a number of glasses. Somewhere under all of that landfill the ghosts of that festive meeting are still toasting each others happiness... When Alf retired and moved out, the house was demolished. The ringing hut, without its guardian angel, was repeatedly broken into, then vandalised, and finally removed.

It wasn't just us birders who wandered between the sludge lagoons. A number of traveller people kept their horses strewn across the farm. We got to know them, in particular a chap with a mouthful of rotten teeth who was christened 'Toothy'. There were also a few local oiks who, from time to time, would bring their ratty 50cc mopeds to tear along the trackways. Sometimes the farm was used as a base for a pirate radio station, the practitioners hiding low on the banks of the deepest beds to elude detection from the authorities. I can also remember being barred from the farm on at least two occasions when permission was given for a car rally to take place!

Back then, the human 'footprint' on the farm was largely represented by the charming red-brick outbuildings, concrete channels, farm fencing and a few electricity pylons. The cooling towers to the west were an unmissable landmark, but were forgiven for the visual intrusion as they were the nesting place of Black Redstarts. It may be the result of looking through rose-tinted spectacles, but the place did ooze charm, and those that populated that period of time did so in an unhurried manner. Much has changed.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Old Beddington in late July

Late July will, for me, forever be linked to the old Beddington Sewage Farm. Back in the mid to late 70s, there were a series of settling beds scattered right across the farm, looking just like this:

The example above is of one of the larger beds, and many were half, or even a quarter of this size. They all shared the raised banks, wide enough for two birders to walk along side by side, but in late July it was a struggle for even one of us to make headway along them, thanks to the copious amounts of vegetation - back then it was just all green stuff that got in the way, but in later years I realised that it was mainly Hemlock, Goose-grass and Stinging Nettle. The smell, especially on a hot day, was pungent - a mixture of sewage effluent (not as bad as you might think) and rank vegetation. Hemlock, en masse, does have a distinctive, earthy whiff.

Some beds were filled with water, and these at this time of year were not what we sought. We would winkle out those beds that were drying out. Too dry and they were worse for birds than the very wet ones, but to get one that had wet mud, watery channels and even an island or two of vegetation, then bingo! There was a distinct possibility of waders!

Waders were a virtual ornithological currency at Beddington, sought after above all other bird families. From mid-July the first Common and Green Sandpipers would start to appear, and by the month's end they would be joined by Wood Sandpiper, Greenshank, Ruff and Common Snipe (among others). The numbers would also build, so that double-figure counts of some species (particularly Green and Common Sandpipers) would be made.

100 acre, the name given to the northern section of the farm, seemed to always have the best beds. You reached this area by jumping across a concrete culvert by a fallen willow (the border between the two being the evocatively named Cuckoo Lane). I cannot tell you how excited I would get when I ducked under the willow and across onto 100 acre. A steep bank of no more than six foot in height was directly ahead - I would crawl up this, risking stings and goose-grass seed infestation, to peer over the top onto what seemed to always be the best bed. What would be there? How many? If I had succeeded in my stealthy approach, there would be waders feeding without a care in the world. I would settle down and count, always aware that others could be lurking behind an island, or keeping still in vegetation. But to approach noisily, or to break the skyline would send a yelping flock into the air, to circle in protest before settling down on further beds - in which case I still would have another chance.

You could visit three times in a day, and the wader composition would have changed. As time went on, certain good beds would dry out and become less desirable to the waders, but these were replaced by some of the wetter beds that had started to form small islands. It was always annoying to turn up at a series of 'good' beds to find that they had been flooded with effluent and were thus virtually useless for our purposes.

So, there is a part of me in late-July that is forever wandering the old Beddington. It really was a magical place, now lost forever underneath landfill and incinerators. I'm just grateful that I saw it back then.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Growing old benignly

There comes a time in life when you have to admit that you are not a youngster any more. And I don't mean those 'life' milestones such as learning to drive, going to the pub or having children. I'm talking about creaking joints, getting up in the night for a pee, needing reading glasses, wearing 'comfortable' rather than 'fashionable' clothing, not knowing how to operate technological gadgets, repeating yourself, and, of course, repeating yourself.

But above all, the one that gives the game away and tells you that, yes indeed, you are getting old, is becoming a member of the National Trust. Visiting their properties. And cooing over the flower beds - pointing out what grows well here but not in your garden - and don't those dahlias look lovely! Just like I did yesterday.

For all those of you who are in a similar position, please accept a few filler pictures of said flower beds (left). Taken whilst drinking tea, eating banana cake, and looking out for the nearest toilets... but let's look on the bright side - another day closer to stairlifts, incontinence pads and copious nasal hair!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Escaping rarities at Wakehurst Place

Today, Katrina and I visited Wakehurst Place, Kew Gardens 'annexe' in West Sussex. It is here that the Millennium Seed Bank is held, where over 2 billion seeds are stored and the national collections of several plant families are maintained. As much as the manicured flower beds, walled gardens and arboretums are wonderful to behold and lose yourself in, this post mainly deals with the 'wild' side of the gardens.

At the northern end of Wakehurst is a designated nature reserve which encompasses part of the Loder Valley. A single observation hide overlooks a wooded lake, a sizeable area of reed and bulrush has a raised walkway through its middle and the waterside vegetation is truly wild. An antidote to the manicured and alien world to the south... although, the gardens themselves have plenty of wild areas left, be they un-mown banks full of wild flowers or large open meadows, as can be seen from the images below.

Red Campion, Corn Chamomile and Tufted Vetch abounds!
A wilder bank, full of Bird's-foot Trefoil, Tufted Vetch and Common Knapweed
Rides like this were full of invertebrates!
The area around the Seed bank is particularly interesting. Outside of the building are a series of raised beds that mimic varying habitats - so we have a shingle beach (just like Dungeness!), Heathland, Chalk Grassland, and so on. My favourite was the Arable bed, full of Field Cow-wheat (below), Field Woundwort, Thorow-wax and Weasel's-snout. And guess what? These rare plants like it here! They self-seed! The neighbouring paths, beds and walls are now home to liberated individuals - if you adhere to Wild Flower Society rules, all perfectly tickable.

The Seed Bank building is worth a visit. Apart from the obligatory interpretation boards, large glass panels allow you to look in on the scientists and botanists at work, unpacking, drying and storing the seeds, vital in maintaining the long-term safety of vulnerable species.

You can watch the staff saving species from extinction...
...while outside the raised habitat beds have encouraged some rarities to escape!

Sunday, 24 July 2016

A blizzard of carrot

Langley Vale Farm turned on the spectacle again today, with the No Home field an unbroken sea of Wild Carrot (above). A few weeks ago it was a blizzard of Ox-eye Daisy, a few weeks before that it bled with Red Campion (below). Such expanse of colour is truly memorable - and, unlike the industrial quantity colour hits of crops such as Rape or Flax, these wild flower meadows are more of a natural artistic statement. Last year this same field was dominated by Common and Opium Poppies, and they are much reduced in number this time round. I wonder what will flower in profusion next year? The Woodland Trust are behind this field turning on the botanical spectacle, as they laid down a seed mix in 2014.

Sometimes an insect stops you in your tracks. This afternoon, at Gatton Park, this hoverfly, Volucella pellucens, did exactly that.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Channel View

Channel View is a run-down dwelling that can be found on the beach at Dungeness, close to the new lighthouse. Last October I was lucky enough to find (or re-find) a Dusky Warbler in the vegetation just SW of the property, and the bird stayed for several days, loyal to the tamarisks and brambles in Channel View's front garden (when not in the nearby beach scrub). A constant stream of admirers passed through, standing around the edge of the abandoned building, waiting to hear the tacking call and latch on to the fleeting views of the warbler. Ever since then, when I visit the shingle, I search the same area I have described above, with the joy of that discovery still fresh in my mind. So I was more than interested to see this post on one of the Dungeness-themed websites.

I just hope that they haven't grubbed out the Dusky Warbler friendly garden!!

Friday, 22 July 2016

A virtual walk along a spectacular valley

Last Majorca-themed post for the time being, I promise!

I think it's a fair bet to say that any birder that has visited Majorca, especially if they have stayed (or visited) the north of the island, would have wandered along the Boquer Valley - situated just north of Port de Pollenca, it is in fact an easy stroll from the town itself. The entrance into the valley is at its narrowest point, via the gates of a lonely finca. This area has a number of orchards that are well worth checking, being the haunt of Woodchats, Wrynecks and Cirl Buntings. During spring and autumn some real surprises can pop up.

Once through these gates you pick up a path that runs along the valley to the sea (some 20-30 minutes of steady walking). If you are birding then that same walk can take a few hours! Throw in plants and inverts then you can write off a whole day! The main path is at a moderate elevation, and until you get to the sea there are few paths going higher - however, there are plenty of runs created by the goats that can take you down to the valley floor. Ready for a virtual stroll? Here goes...

Not far into the valley, a rocky outcrop act as a natural gateway to the wonders beyond.
The valley bottom. Home to, among other things, Stone Curlews
Looking to the left as we progress, this higher ground is the best for picking up raptors. I have seen Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Booted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Peregrine and Eleonora's Falcons over the years from this very spot.
Looking right and here is the easiest place to see Blue Rock Thrush and Crag Martin.
Getting near the end and we are now entering prime Balearic Warbler territory.
The sea here is a dazzling array of blues and turquoise. There is a small beach if you so desire a dip.
Looking up towards Formentor. The breeding ground of Eleonora's Falcons.
The valley is not just about birds. There is a specialised flora, and the invertebrate diversity is high. I have only visited in June, July and August, so have yet to experience the area during the heights of migration. As you can see, it is a stunning site that is well worth a visit at any time of year.