Sunday, 1 May 2016

Plants save the morning

For some daft reason I found myself at Canons Farm at the ungodly hour of 05.00... a calling Tawny Owl slightly convinced me that it was all worthwhile, but it slowly went downhill from there, with just a couple of Greylag Geese (patch goodie), a Swift, three House Martins, 4 Swallows and a Wheatear trying desperately hard to turn ornithological water into wine. It didn't work...

However, at times like these I can put another of my natural history hats on, so the 'botanical' one came out and I went to check the freshly ploughed strip at Fames Rough. This disturbance is irregularly carried out to help maintain the two ultra rare species that grow there - Ground Pine and Cut-leaved Germander. And the good news is that they are both present again this year, although the 11 GP and 3 C-LG plants that I found were on last years strip, roughly in the same place where the GP grew in 2015. This made me feel very happy indeed, as I understand that both species are not doing very well elsewhere.

Ground Pine, 01/05/16, Fames Rough
Cut-leaved Germander, 01/05/16, Fames Rough

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Queen of the Wheatears!

April is now practically consigned to history, and with it comes closure on the 4th ND&B Wheatear Trophy. This year's battle was a more sedate affair, with none of last year's dog fight at the end, which saw skullduggery and underhand tactics - most un-Oenanthe-like!

Our previous winners were:

2013 Gavin Haig (Devon)
With Gavin's return to blogging this year, hopes were high that our very first winner would make an assault on the trophy, especially since he has adopted some prime birding real estate on the Dorset coast. But where was he? He posted absolutely no white-arse images at all!

2014 Martin Casemore (Kent)
When you live at Dungeness, and possess an enormous lens (steady now...), there can be no excuse for not having a go at reclaiming the trophy. Although he started with good, early intent, the pressure must have become too much, as he disappeared to Morocco for ten days at the end of April!! Despite this, he managed a creditable seven white-arses.

2015 Jono Lethbridge (Essex)
The man who is more Wheatear than human saw off the devious methods of Surrey's Peter Alfrey to lift the trophy last year, when he posted a record breaking 33 images. But Jono is a man consumed by short breaks away from Blighty and his mind was clearly not on defending his title. Some say he's burnt out, others that he has become complacent. Whatever the reason, he managed a white-arse count of six for 2016.

So, who are the winners?

Earliest posting
This was shared by two Dungeness shingle-botherers, who posted an image on their blogs during the evening of March 25th. Step forward Martin Casemore and Paul Trodd. They both win a pair of DBO-themed thongs, which they will be all too willing to model during the first good day of Pomarine Skua passage this May, most probably outside of the sea watch hide. Hope the weather's not too cold gents...

Best photograph

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude wins, with this portrait of a female doing what Wheatears do best - perching on a post. The smooth green background helps to define this favourite species of us birders.

The big one... so far we have seen the trophy go to Devon, Kent and Essex. And now, not only do we have our first winner from Hertfordshire, but also our first female winner! Step forward

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude

who posted a final total of 18 White-arses!

As is the way of award ceremonies, Lucy was unavailable to collect her award, as she was busy putting together another fine post on her blog, which can be visited by clicking here. But my people are in touch with her people, and the presentation of the trophy will be taking place on the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon at dawn tomorrow, with traditional maypole dancing and cider drinking laid on for the expected crowds. She will also receive a commemorative 'White Arse' gold medal, which Sir Steven Redgrave has recently said is worth far more than "all of his Olympic gold medals put together..."

This is the last year of the competition. Good things come to an end, and this one has run on for probably too many years already. My thanks to all of those fine bloggers who have made us happier naturalists with the posting of images of one of our finest migrants. Keep 'em coming...

Friday, 29 April 2016

Catching it while I can

One of the downsides of watching (or checking) an area over a number of years is that you sometimes observe a slow (and at times sudden) demise of a species. My visit to Epsom Downs this morning (un)helpfully illustrated this.

I have known a spot at the base of Juniper Hill where Early Purple Orchids grow - not many spikes, but reliably flowering each April. A half-hearted attempt last year failed to find any, and today's more thorough visit had the same outcome. In fact, where I was hoping to find the orchids I was confronted by a mound of dumped soil.  Now gone?

Another place I checked was an area of compacted, stony ground, at the northern end of the downs. This is where I can expect to find Rue-leaved Saxifrage (below). Year on year there are fewer plants. Today there were fewer still. How much longer will this species keep a toe-hold here?

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Few-flowered Garlic

Outside of Headley village church is a dense bank of Few-flowered Garlic. This is now spreading into neighbouring areas, particularly by the small pond that butts up to the church wall. It is quite a sight at the moment and well worth a look if you happen to be passing.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Hard work

Phew, it really was a struggle today. With not much happening at Canons Farm, I went off to Mickleham to see how far forward the chalk downland flora was - answer being 'not that far at all'. I took a few snaps, then came home...

Common Groundhopper - I've not knowingly seen one before - if, indeed, it is one...
Greater Stitchwort - undoubtably out all over the place...
... whereas Bush Vetch is only just starting

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Guiding lights

I'm not old enough to remember the effect that the publication of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe had on the ornithological community in 1954. Written by Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Montfort and Phil Hollom, this took the template from the successful American field guide written by the first mentioned author. Gone were the flowery heroic portraits of birds (such as those by Archibald Thorburn) and in came illustrations whose sole purpose was to educate the reader in the ways of how to identify the species. The text was heavily biased towards this new art of field identification, and the plates helped the reader even further by the use of clearly marked key features - there was no second guessing going on here!

This was but the third bird field guide that I owned. I bought it out of a sense of duty towards its perceived worthiness (as much as I also purchased Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds by Richard Fitter and Richard Richardson). These guides, although historically important and ground breaking in their time, were not the publications that inspired and educated me in my early birding days. That accolade goes to two other titles - first up was The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe by Bertel Bruun and illustrated by Arthur Singer. The chances are that, when first looking for a field guide, this was the one that was available in the bookshop that I visited. But it was exactly what I wanted. Each richly coloured plate faced the relevant text and distribution map (which the earlier guides had failed to do). I spent many hours immersed in this book, turning from plate to plate, fantasising about seeing some of the jewels on offer. To look at it now transports me straight back to the summer of 1974, and one particular August morning in the New Forest when I saw my first Green Woodpecker. The illustration in the book had become real life, and I couldn't quite believe it.

Not long afterwards, another birdwatcher that I knew showed me a copy of The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow. The added attraction of this book was the inclusion of regions outside of Europe, so there were plenty of new species covered, some of which I had never heard of. This became my field guide of choice, although the Hamlyn Guide was never surpassed in the emotional stakes. Both of them became dog-eared, mud-caked and torn over several years of abuse in the field. Sadly, at some misguided moment in later life, they were thrown away because of it.

And so the 1970s became the 1980s that soon passed into the 1990s. What field guides that came along - and many certainly did - failed to register much with me. But in 1992 that all changed when Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East was published by Helm. The author and artist, a Swede called Lars Jonsson, redefined the genre. I had already in my possession five slim tomes by him, not really field guides, more 'birds of habitat' guides, so I was already aware of his prowess with the paintbrush. What we had here was an amalgamation of these books, with hundreds of extra illustrations and species and updated text. To use the term illustration was not really doing them justice - they were works of art that managed to combine emotion with function - the best of both worlds. Gulls were shown in differing ages, possibly a first. The plate of skuas (which I'm looking at now) almost fly off of the page, full of menace. It became the 'go to' publication.

And that's the way it stayed until 1999 when the Collins Bird Guide came along and blasted everything else out of the water. A long time in the making, the text was written by Lars Svensson and Peter Grant. This was a more thorough treatment that we had been used to, getting to the nub of the many problems in putting the correct name to a species. Not surprising as it was written by the foremost field ornithologists of the time. So far, so good. But what can you say about the illustrations by Dan Zetterstrom and Killian Mullarney? Well, they out-Jonssoned Jonsson! Every plate is more than a representation of the species. We are treated to a stunning array of angles, ages and postures, plus tiny vignettes than convey the jizz of a bird with just a couple of brush stokes. You can spend days lost in this book, weeks wandering around the plates. I take it everywhere with me. When the second edition came out I just had to have it, as so much had moved on in the world of identification and taxonomy. And will do the same if there is a third edition...

Will there be another game-changing field guide? I have my doubts. The use of phones and tablets in the field will surely mean that any future guides will be aimed at video, sound-recording and image recognition. I have an app on my phone that can recognise almost any music that I play to it - how long before I can hold my phone up to a bird song or call and have it instantly identified, or capture a bird on a camera and be told what it is? In some ways I hope that day never comes, because that would then remove the skills needed to be able to identify what is before you. And where would the fun be in that?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Almost lilliputian flora

For an inland botanist, a trip to Dungeness is an eye-opener in many ways. The suite of plants present will obviously be different to the ones that you are used to and even those that you are familiar with can appear very different indeed. The windswept and open nature of the shingle, the paucity of soil and dryness can all combine to stunt growth. This is no more apparent than in the populations of Blackthorn and Broom that lie, prostrate, across much of the shingle.

I've crouched down to take the photograph above of this Blackthorn bush, most probably a foot high at the most, and this is not as small as they get. Some fight for light with the lichens that surround them! These are no young specimens that will soon tower all around them, but decades old bushes, older than you and I.

Some plants just are small, plain and simple. The Early Forget-me-not is coming out in flower across the shingle right now, but from head height it can be a struggle to see the flowers. My placing of a penny next to a plant illustrates this nicely.

Another tiny flower belongs to Spring Vetch, although I left the penny in my pocket on this occasion.

Last up is Shepherd's Cress, small (but not Lilliputian) and at the moment there must be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of plants across the peninsula. Dungeness is its only known locality in the county of Kent. But being of small stature, the carpeting of the shingle can go unnoticed.