Friday, 31 December 2010

Yet another blog with a Happy New Year message

2010. Not a great year for me if truth be told. So, with the last few hours of it remaining, I will not be too sorry to wave it bye-bye and as the day comes to a close welcome 2011, as it trundles towards us on that great conveyor belt called time.

As all bloggers/naturalists, I have a few plans and goals for the coming year. I've already told you about the Beddington Sewage Farm botanical survey. The reason that I haven't let you in on the others is that, well, there aren't any. I'm going to let whatever comes my way happen, without any hurrying up on my part. I will continue to enjoy my local birding - this year has seen some truly memorable birds within ten miles of home (Ferruginous Duck, Quail, Hen Harrier, Waxwing, Mealy Redpoll and Common Crane). With patience and a bit of effort there should be more like that in the next twelve months.

Beyond that, my only plan is to enjoy what I see and what I do, regardless of luck or a lack of it. It all evens itself out in the end...

To you, dear reader; to my linked blogger friends and to anyone who just 'gets' the natural world around us - a Happy New Year to you. See you in 2011.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Botanical plans

I'm already getting psyched up about 2011. Most of my plans revolve around Beddington SF (birding and botanically) although I certainly won't be neglecting Canons Farm - someone has to keep chasing Devil Birder's species total!

Botany at Beddington will be quite an eye-opener for me. It is an area that has been botanised lightly in the past, although 'lightly' has entailed some highly competent botanists giving the place short bursts of 'grilling'. There are areas that have been untouched by pesticides and have a settled flora, and other areas in which the ground is perpetually disturbed, allowing only those opportunistic species to quickly get a toe-hold before being bulldozed back into the ground.

I am expecting the unexpected - landfill will throw up plenty of aliens. Pictured above is Celery-leaved Buttercup, a feature of sludge lagoons on the farm. I will post regularly on next years findings...

Monday, 27 December 2010

How many?

A post-Christmas birdwatch was enjoyed at Beddington Sewage Farm today, myself already warm with the glow of enough calories on board to fuel the running of Dungeness 'C' reactor and happy with the England cricket teams continued demolition of Australia.

On arrival it was obvious that the landfill site was operational, as thousands of gulls were present. After settling down, having had an hour or more scanning and also having walked across to the enclosed lagoons, the time came to estimate those numbers present. My gut reaction was to plump for a total larid mass of, lets say, seven or eight thousand individuals, based on nothing more than educated guesswork. However, when I tried to add a little bit of common sense to the process, it only helped to prove that my initial estimate was woefully short. I was quite happy to claim a fairly positive count of 375 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. So I used this as a starting point - a number not estimated but actually counted out, one gull at a time. I reckoned that there were at least double the number of Common Gulls present, so I arrived at a total of 750 for them. Pete, Johnny and Frank now joined in. For every Common Gull we had seen there were at least 15, maybe even 20 Black-headed present. Taking the lower figure of 15 and multiplying this by the number of Common Gulls we reached a total of 11,250 Black-headed. Herring Gulls were plentiful, but not as numerous as Black-heads, so we settled on a total of 4,500. Other gull species present were: Great Black-backed (15), Yellow-legged (2), Mediterranean (1) plus a rather fine first-winter Iceland. So, the gull grand total was in fact 16,894, rather more than my initial hunch.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

It's all gone quiet over there...

I haven't posted for almost a week, a long gap for me. So, I hear you ask, what have I been up to Steve? Not a lot actually. In fact, it's been bloody frustrating. First up is the snow. All the main roads are now clear, but the side roads in hilly Banstead are another matter. Then there's the lack of birding due to me having to work. I've been getting texts from plenty of local birders picking off Waxwings, Mealy Redpolls, Iceland Gulls, Firecrests - the list goes on. And when you are stuck in an office, sans any of that lot it can be quite depressing. Plus, the Perth test match didn't exactly fill me with the joys of the season either.

However, there was good news. My wife spoiled me rotten and gave me a new mobile phone for my birthday (the one with an apple on it) and I immediately went to Bird Guides and downloaded the 'Birds of Northern Europe' app. I now spend most of my time playing the songs and calls of almost 400 species of bird. A great way to waste time...

Friday, 17 December 2010

Winter leaf

Back in the first week of December, standing in snow, I scanned the horizon and something didn't quite seem right. After several minutes (it was cold, my brain was going-slow) I realised what was troubling me. I was looking at a wall of green - a line of oak trees, some two hundred metres in length, still in full leaf. Most of this leaf was still green in colour, with little bronze and sickly ochre on show. Since then I've paid attention to what trees are still in leaf. Oaks are still hanging on, as are Silver Birch and Sycamore. I cannot remember this from previous winters, although I may have overlooked it in the past. The skeletal tree branches on a winter horizon are still being muffled by leaf, and that, to me, is puzzling.

This week in North Downs and beyond land: I've dipped on the Belmont Waxwings four times; it is snowing again; I have high hopes of a good flyover this weekend.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Why Waxwings?

Waxwings, Waxwings everywhere. Down here they are easier to find than Greenfinches. Almost every blog that you visit will entertain you with images (yes Gavin, not photographs!) of the crested little fellas, all lined-up on a tree top like a group of Santa's elves. The only reason that I haven't uploaded any images (sorry Gav, really) of them is that I haven't taken any myself. Now, I usually rally against the ubiquitous on blogs. Every spring we parade pictures (pictures - just for you Gavin) of Wheatears, violets and Brimstone butterflies as if we are the only bloggers who have thought of doing so. Therefore we all end up with a parade of sameness. However, with Waxwings it's different. Why?

Is it because they a good looking? I don't think so. Bullfinches are good looking. So are Goldfinches, but we don't all get click happy with them, do we? Is it down to rarity? To a point, maybe, although they aren't really any rarer than a Common Redpoll this winter. And so far Mealies have been left alone by the camera pointers, haven't they. Maybe they are easy targets because they are relatively tame and sit on top of things? But so do Starlings.

I reckon it's a combination of all the above, plus a primal attraction to things nomadic. They come from the arctic wastes, hang around adding exotica to housing estates, industrial estates and roundabouts and then flee back eastwards when the berries have all gone. Plus, they also have one of the loveliest calls that a bird can make.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Waxwings in the UK, and quite a few in the past month, I still walk the streets looking for them. If I came across a flock tomorrow, I would still trawl the local area again the day after.

I think I might have stumbled upon the real reason that we cannot get enough of them. It's because we have no idea when they might come back and visit us.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Bloggers block

I stare at the computer screen and my fingers freeze above the keyboard. Nothing comes. There is nothing to say. No pictures of Waxwings and no pithy comment. Sorry...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

When mediocre is better than good

We were having a chat at the University of Beddington the other day when the subject of bird photography came up. Now, the quality of the images that we see today are, on the whole, nothing short of incredible. Frame fillers, perfect feather detail and dots that can blow up to become perfectly identifiable species are now accepted as the norm. It's not like it used to be.

However, we all agreed that these 'perfect' pictures can be a little too perfect. They somehow introduce us to the avian subject in such a way that we feel we are feasting our eyes on the bird with such familiarity that, even if we haven't actually seen it ourselves, we have! It's all too real.

If you don't know what the hell I'm on about, think back to those old grainy black-and-white pictures that used to grace the annual rarities committee report in British Birds during the 1970s and early 1980s. They were generally of distant birds, not quite in perfect focus, a bit grainy, but maintained an air of mystery. Because of this they gave the subject an air of being unobtainable ("like a picture of a claimed yeti or bigfoot" as one of the Beddington students put it).

There is something spectral about the photos of the Suffolk Houbara Bustard, the Bardsey Yellow Warbler and , indeed, the Beddington Killdeer. None of them frame fillers, with no fine feather detail on offer, just bags of character, making you yearn to see them.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Reasons to be cheerful.

England have won the second Ashes test by an innings...

Tottenham are playing in the Champions League tonight having already qualified for the knock-out stages...

the Common Crane is still finding Beddington SF to its liking...

and most importantly it's my youngest daughter's birthday...HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESS!

Monday, 6 December 2010

LNHS to get new recording area?

The London Natural History Society, that was formed in 1545 to enable King Henry VIII to keep tabs on his moth and beetle list, has always maintained the same recording area, that of all places within a twenty mile radius of St. Paul's Cathedral. This was pretty clever of those 16th century naturalists as construction of the cathedral was not started until 1675...

Recently there have been a number of high profile birds that have had the bloody nerve of appearing in places that may be, or may not be, within the LNHS recording area. The most famous is the singing Savi's Warbler at Amwell Gravel Pits, which decided to confuse all comers by taking up position in a bush that stradled the invisible recording area boundary. Confusion reigned.

I can exclusively reveal, via a source close to the LNHS hierarchy, that to stop such confusion in the future the society are going to ammend the recording area into one that is perfectly easy to see. As from January 1st 2012, and in celebration of the capital being the Olympic host, the M25 will become the limit of what can be counted as 'London'.

No longer will natural history recorders wonder whether they are 'in or out'. There will be some opposition to this highly controversial and highly secretive move. Those who have made this decision fear that the birding fraternity will be up in arms at the loss of certain sites and certain birds which will effect their precious London lists.

However, these birders should be thankful. Early indications suggested that such sites as Rainham Marshes were to be removed from the recording area as, to quote, 'it isn't proper London'. The use of the M25 as a clear border will be welcomed by many, including birders at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. The removal of 'rough elements' from the city, using their countryside-placed sandpits as a convenient place to London year tick, will go down well with the genteel Surrey birders.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

London and Surrey unblocker

There I was prostrate on the sofa, re-watching Series One of Mad Men with man flu as company when the communication system went into overload. Texts from Johnny Allan - 'Common Crane landed on lake at Beddington' - followed moments later by a phone call from David Campbell - "Are you going?" - convinced me to rise from my sick bed, Lazarus-like, and hotfoot it to the sewage farm.

I collected David from his aborted Canons Farm stakeout and we arrived promptly at Beddington without any negative texts being received or accidents on the fast melting slush and ice. A brief jog onto site (yes, I can still run if prompted) saw us feasting our eyes upon a fine juvenile Common Crane (pictured above). It seemed in good condition and stayed for the rest of the day. This was a big bird for London and Surrey listers, the first truly twitchable wild one. Most of the Beddington crew were fairly blase about it (they had seen an adult fly over the farm back in the spring) and I had already scored in Surrey with a bird on Thursley Common in the 1980s. But for many of the 100 birders who visited the farm, it was a case of losing their Grus grus virginity.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A murder of Crows?

A new blog appears in my list to the right of this post. The Crow Council has been set up by Alan Tilmouth, and comprises a group of hand-picked bloggers who are more broadsheet than red top, more bagette than sliced white loaf, more Melvyn Bragg than Paul O'Grady - you get the picture. They promise to take hold of a subject and put it through their collective wringer. First up: apprenticeship in birding.