Saturday, 31 October 2015

Remember, remember

I like November. It is an underrated month for observatory birding, what with a combination of late but noteworthy movements and the chance of screaming rarity. The tardy summer migrant is still on offer and although it can all have the feeling of clearing away the empties at closing time, there is also a hint of winter offerings. Tomorrow sees the start of that very month - if all is well then I have another fortnight here at Dungeness. My anticipation couldn't be any higher.

Another arrival of crests today, with 60+ in the southern part of the recording area. The Dusky Warbler was still showing now and again, but I kept well clear.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Eastern (and Southern) promise

Several months ago, whilst I was daydreaming about spending the late autumn at Dungeness, one of the subjects that I kept returning to was the weather. Would the winds be favourable for the odd good bird, conducive to arrivals and not too bad for sea watching? If I could have put in an order it would have been for light winds between E and S, a puff of warmth and largely dry weather. I must have done something right in a previous life, because so far there has been several days with such conditions and the Met Office are promising even more of the same well into next week! Thoughts are now turning to Pallid Swifts, Desert Wheatears, Bluetails and at the very least flocks of Pallas's Warblers chasing Richard's Pipits.

Most of today was spent sea watching with the gang and a leisurely drive around the pits with Mark H, Chris P and Ellie the telescope (don't ask...)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

I must go down to the sea again...

Two bouts of sea watching, in the company of Martin C, Tony G and Paul T were lively affairs, dominated by Kittiwakes (over a thousand heading west), Gannets and auks, but also boasting a trickle of Mediterranean Gulls, 2 Pomarine Skuas and a Black-throated Diver.

Rarest bird of the day was seen on the RSPB reserve with Mark H. A couple of weeks ago, while at Hookers, he saw a leucistic Bittern fly over the reed bed. This morning I was fortunate enough to see this milky coffee coloured apparition.

The Met Office are suggesting a period of SSE to E winds well into next week. There are no complaints from me on that forecast!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Phylloscopusfest

The day dawned wet, so I donned waterproofs and welly boots and strode out into the very dull dawn. It was obvious that there were new birds about, with crests seemingly coming off of the beach and taking cover in the low broom and gorse. I watched a dozen move through the lighthouse garden and head inland. An area of vegetation on the beach came up trumps - the chacking call immediately alerted me to the presence of a Dusky Warbler, and unlike the bird of two days ago, this one was quite showy, particularly for the first ten minutes of observation. No identification problems here...

Very soon the great and the good of Dungeness had gathered and were able to get their fill. But, like buses another warbler came along, this time a Yellow-browed that had been found by Sean O in the lighthouse garden. Typically restless, this bird played hard to get, but patience was rewarded. Both were still present at dusk.

Good photos of the bird can be seen on both the Dungeness Bird Observatory website and the Ploddingbirder blog.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

In praise of Black Redstarts

"When a man is tired of Black Redstarts, he is tired of birding." So said Samuel Johnson (or at least something like that...)

Another day of mild south-easterlies although the birds were thinner on the ground. There were at least 20 Black Redstarts around the point and it was a joy to sit in the sun and watch them - normally in groups of 3-5 birds - as they flitted between patches of broom, garden outbuildings and fence posts. I could do this all day and not get bored.

I have come to the conclusion that chats are my favourite birds. Especially if we include Wheatears in with them. What's not to like about Common and Black Redstarts, Stonechats and Whinchats? They are colourful and confiding, mostly migrants so have that extra special dollop of wonder, can turn up unexpectedly even in the most hostile of places and sometimes arrive en masse as a part of unforgettable happenings.

If there is nothing else to look at tomorrow, bar one of these red-tailed flicking beauties, I'll be happy.

Monday, 26 October 2015

A classic observatory day

A south-easterly breeze saw me at the point by dawn, looking out to sea. Passage was light, save for a drake Red-breasted Merganser and a Short-eared Owl. The walk back to the observatory was enlivened by a brief flurry of finches overhead (which included a flock of 13 Crossbills), plus the first signs of grounded migrants in the exposed broom (mainly Goldcrests but including 2 Black Redstarts). There was no sign of these birds on my earlier walk down.

By 08.30 the crests started to arrive in earnest, together with more Black Redstarts. It was turning into one of those special observatory days! A 'tacking' phylloscopus warbler was finally nailed as a Dusky, this bird showing briefly on a few occasions between the power station fence and the sanctuary. Most of the crests quickly moved through and the Black Redstarts began to drift northwards. Final day totals were 100 and 50 respectively. It was a delight to watch the chats, at times 8 on a bungalow roof at once, including some very smart males.

Other highlights included a late Tree Pipit, a male Dartford Warbler (thus different from yesterday's) and a Ring Ouzel. I missed a Great Grey Shrike and, together with Martin C, had brief views of what was quite possibly a Red-throated Pipit.

Same again tomorrow? Yes please!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Gulltastic!

A sunny and mild day that at times put on hold the notion of the end of summer.

A brief but welcome Dartford Warbler livened up a sluggish day at DBO, this female/immature playing hide-and-seek in the large stand of gorse out in the desert.

Highlight was left until the fag-end of the afternoon, when I joined Dave W, Martin and Richard on the beach to observe the regular baiting for gulls that is carried out by Mick S and Richard S. A most showy first-winter Caspian Gull was a delight (even I could manage this individual) this bird spending quite a bit of time in our company, allowing close flight views and settling on the beach well within range of our assortment of cameras. See 'Ploddingbirder' and the Dungeness Bird Observatory blog/website for the images - mine will have to wait until I return home.

A single Red Admiral and Hummingbird Hawk-moth were also recorded.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Shrike stroll

A day of seasonal contrasts. Summer was represented by a rather surprising suite of plants that are still in flower - and not just the odd one or two! Nottingham Catchfly, Sheep's-bit, Moth Mullein, Thrift, Ragged Robin and Sea Campion are all to be readily found in bloom. To be crunching across the shingle in late October with so much colour at your feet is surely unusual.

Winter came courtesy of female Goldeneye and Goosander on the RSPB's Burrowes pit. The cold fingers of winter have started to take a hold...

This afternoon saw me take an unusual route to Hooker's Pit, by walking from the observatory, via the public footpath that runs between Burrowes and New Diggings. After almost 40 years of visiting here, this is the first time that I have walked this path across the pits. The reason for doing so? A fine Great Grey Shrike, that played hard to get but finally gave itself up on top of the bushes at the back of Hooker's. It happily fed on dragonflies and looked quite settled. There have now been three sightings of this species on the peninsula this week, possibly all of the same bird, but there have been so many around that I wouldn't bet on it.

Friday, 23 October 2015

A pulse of crests

With the morning starting grey, mild and eerily calm, there was hope that the birding would pick up somewhat. Initial observations seemed to suggest otherwise. However, from about 09.00hrs crests started to pop up across the point - not in enormous numbers, but obvious enough to be noticeable. The observatory staff had erected mist nets in both the trapping area and the moat, with the former location being far more productive at first, but then the latter taking over with the higher numbers by midday. The crests were not hanging around: very few birds were being retrapped, and we watched a flock of four Goldcrests take to the air and gain height and then disappear out of view. Maybe 100+ Goldcrests, and 2 Firecrests, were involved.

Lunchtime saw cups of tea and sandwiches being abandoned as a Barred Warbler was trapped, the first-year bird being found in one of the trapping area mist nets. This was only the third to be recorded at Dungeness in the past 20 years - it really is a scarce bird here. Even rarer was a Norwegian ringed Dunnock, only the third such recovery in Kent - but it played second fiddle to the warbler!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Alas, poor Linnet

The Scotney Rough-legged Buzzard gave itself up without a fight this morning, and proceeded to hover and hunt in front of us for over half an hour. It even decided to visit both East Sussex and Kent - this is a species that I had not seen in the area before.

After a fortifying cup of coffee at the Plodland Bistro, I walked back to the observatory via Dengemarsh Gully and the beach. This isn't everyone's idea of a good walk, but for me it combines 'big skies' and solitude, plus decent birding.

This afternoon, as the light was fading, a Merlin put on a great show as it hunted down a Linnet that had become disconnected from its flock. The finch tried all it could to shake the raptor off, both birds stalling, rolling and catapulting in a frenzy of the hunter and the hunted. What finished it for the Linnet was the sudden appearance of a second Merlin. Without ceremony and with none of the effort of the chase so far, it effortlessly plucked the bird out of the air. All watched against the backdrop of the old lighthouse and the power station.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A wet arrival

Arrived at Dungeness in the rain at 08.00hrs and within the hour had 'ticked' Messers Walker, Hollingworth, Casemore and Greenland. These fine fellows will be my companions over the next few weeks. It is good to be surrounded by so much competence.

The recent run of easterlies/northerlies have morphed into westerlies. Although not a normally hoped for wind direction, they are not strong, and there are so many rarities dotted around the country that there will be a great deal of wandering going on amongst them (not to mention those that are yet to be discovered). Hopes are quite high down here...

Despite the wet, three Short-eared Owls, a late Hobby, Merlin and Peregrine were all logged. I missed the Rough-legged Buzzard, but this is day three of its stay - maybe it likes the area and will settle down for longer. It should be dry tomorrow. The birding should be easier. Bring it on!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Memories of Hazel

I first met Hazel in 1981 - together with Dave Eland (and Mike McDonnell), we spent the weekend at Portland Bill in Dorset. It was obvious why she was the ideal partner for Dave, with both of them being warm individuals with a wicked sense of humour. Those two days were a fog of laughter, food and alcohol, a recipe that was to be repeated on many occasions.

We all teamed-up again that very autumn, renting a flat in St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, for a fortnight. Despite her slight build and modest height, it was a delight to watch her take on Mike each evening as he attempted to hog all of the hot water (he needed his bath!) and wriggle out of helping to cook the evening meal.

As family friends they were a big part of our lives throughout the 1980s. One particular holiday to Majorca was non-stop laughter for two weeks, and on one boat trip I was royally gripped off by Hazel as she saw some flying fish. Her skill in the kitchen was legendary, especially her famous curry, which had Katrina and I both incapacitated as we had eaten so much that it was a struggle to move. The Red Lion in Cheam and The New Inn in Sutton were favourite haunts when we weren't out birding.

We hadn't seen so much of Dave and Hazel in recent years - they relocated to New Romney with Hazel's daughter and had settled into a most agreeable life. This morning she passed away.

Our thoughts are with Dave at this most difficult of times. I cannot think of Hazel without seeing that twinkle in her eyes and hearing that mischievous chuckle. Happy thoughts of happy days...

Friday, 16 October 2015

Where is Surrey?

A Twitter discussion has erupted this evening regarding the agreed boundaries for the ornithological recording area of Surrey. Some of you may wonder what the fuss is about, as, compared to our coastal neighbour's, it is hardly a county to set the birding world alight - however, as I'm only too keen to point out, it has a number of species up on our 'big brother' Kent, namely American Robin, Common Nighthawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pine Bunting, Killdeer and Glaucous-winged Gull - not bad for a runt county...

Anyhow, back to the recording area discussion. In the 19th century (1852 to be exact) a geographical division of the United Kingdom was devised that resulted in clear divisions of the vice-counties, also called the Watsonian vice-counties. These were adopted by biological recorders as easily identified units in which to collate and publish natural history records, which included the Surrey Bird Club (formed in 1957). I quote directly from Wikipedia:


The London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Wandsworth, and parts of Lewisham and Bromley were in Surrey until 1889. The boroughs of Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton and Richmond upon Thames south of the River Thames were part of Surrey until 1965, when they too were absorbed into Greater London. In the same year, the county gained its first area north of the Thames, Spelthorne, from defunct Middlesex. As a result of this gain, modern Surrey also borders on the London boroughs of Hounslow and Hillingdon.
Today, administrative Surrey is divided into eleven districts: ElmbridgeEpsom and EwellGuildfordMole ValleyReigate and BansteadRunnymedeSpelthorneSurrey HeathTandridgeWaverley and Woking. Services such as roads, mineral extraction licensing, education, strategic waste and recycling infrastructure, birth marriage and death registration and social and children's services are administered by Surrey County Council.

So we can see that, although the northern-most London boroughs of Watsonian Surrey 'left' the political county in 1889, they were still accepted in the biological recording unit for the county. And again, when the remaining London boroughs were removed in 1965, the biological recording unit of Surrey still adhered to the 'old' Watsonia vice-county area.
However, at the same time (1965), the addition of Spelthorne into the political unit was ignored by biological recorders.
What we have now is a bowl of confusion:
To be crass, Surrey listers do not count anything outside of the vice-county (that is to say, those involved in the competitive 'big boys' league table).
Wheatley's 'Bird of Surrey', published in 2007, refers to Spelthorne as a separate, but clearly removed, set of data.
The Surrey Bird Club website embraces all of Spelthorne as if an unquestionable part of Surrey - but if this is the case, why are the London boroughs still also included?
I think there are only two courses of action.
Firstly, (and my favourite), vice-county ONLY. This has the advantage of being a constant area and one that the historical record adheres to. 
Or,
Secondly, admit Spelthorne, but lose the London boroughs. This would, at a stroke, remove the vast ornithological input of Beddington and Barn Elms/Barnes. This would hurt...
At the moment, all areas seem to be accepted, whether they have been added or subtracted from the political map. Surely it is time to adopt one or the other: Watsonian or political...

Thursday, 15 October 2015

4 February 1287

Five thousand years ago, in an area of sea that is today Rye Bay, we would have found offshore barrier beaches that were constantly shifting with the insistence of the sea. Over several thousand years this shingle was moved and deposited in stages eastwards and started to accumulate on tidal sands. Each mini era of activity formed shingle ridges, mimicking the waves they had been sculpted by, and within each peak and swell was laid bare the genesis of the place that would later be called Dungeness. As much as this process was a gradual one, at times, during the dark ages, great storms quickened proceedings, not only reconstructing the shoreline with brutal immediacy but also altering the flow of the nearby rivers. The area inland from all of this activity was a volatile place as well, what with the rising of the landmass, formation of marshland and periodic inundation of the sea. Man also played his part in altering the landscape to serve his needs, draining to create fertile farmland and the building of sea walls to protect these precious gains from the very element he had stolen them from.

However, the beach has not finished forming. Its western shoreline wants to migrate northwards and eastwards, while the east of the peninsula feels compelled to head towards the southeast. Standing on this land is taking a ride on a slow – a very slow – geological rollercoaster. And so the beach shifts and grows, and extends much further inland than most other beaches dare venture. Man has tried to halt its advance as much as the sea throws the loose shingle back on dry land. The only position to be taken, from which to appreciate the size of the beach is from the air. And once there, the scale of the work of the sea can be admired and even feared.

4 February 1287. Even today, meteorologists refer to this date as the day on which one of the fiercest storms ever recorded took hold of this remote corner of England and throttled it.

There were portents – a red moon that shone a sickly light over the shingle shoals and marshland; a relentless gale force wind that refused to subside; a flooding high tide that allowed no ebb between its next, equally high incursion and mountainous waves that crested with thick white spume.

The marauding sea tore across the beaches and temporarily took back the marshes far inland. Two sleepy coastal hamlets were cast aside and dragged down into a watery grave.

Such was the force of the storm that enormous quantities of shingle were ripped from the peninsula, and, together with mud and soil from the hinterland, were transported northwards, to be dumped, a few miles away and with little ceremony, at the feet and over the ankles of the inhabitants of the busy port of New Romney. This harbour silted up in a matter of hours and was sealed from the sea forever; the land level rose by five inches in a day; the River Rother, which exited from here into the English Channel found itself dramatically diverted over 15 miles to the west. Overnight this bustling port found itself a mile from the sea that had, until the day before, lapped against its streets. Dungeness had, in affect, killed off the port. But the beach still remained, albeit cruelly scoured by the storm. It was a day that irrevocably changed the geology of the area.


In this day and age, the shingle seems to be a benign place. But it is still moving. The weather can still be an influence. We walk and bird in an unpredictable place.

(I will not be staying at the observatory for the planned month, but may be able to get down there for the odd day in early November. The North Downs will act as a substitute shingle!)

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Amber


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

Unification!

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.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Hidden resources

In a recent tri-blogger's discourse between Stewart Sexton, Dylan Wrathall and myself, we have been exploring the lessening of blogging, the reasons behind it and why, indeed, people bother blogging at all. In the past 24 hours I was twice reminded of why it is worth carrying on with it and how a humble post can do good even years later.

Firstly, Karen Woolley (of the excellent Wild Wings and Wanderings) got in touch. She is hankering after going to see the rare and frankly bizarre looking Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra) that can be found in a Surrey woodland at Oxshott. She either remembered a post of mine from 2013 or Googled the fungus and was sent to my site. Either way, knowing that I had been there and that Oxshott Woods is quite big, she emailed me to see if I would 'point her in the right direction'. I was only too pleased to oblige.


Then last night I received an email from David Gowing, Professor of Botany, (Environment, Earth and Ecosystems) at the Open University. They are hoping to host a studentship looking at the conservation of Starfruit and wish to advertise the opportunity. He had seen my images of the plant in a post from September of last year and asked if he could use one for the advert. Again, no problem at all.


Blogging can be seen as just an ego trip, another way of shouting out "look at me!" or "look what I've done!", but then something like the above happens. These posts that we send out into cyberspace really can be of use to others. I have often been alerted to a species being 'out there' by a bloggers post (such as the daffodil fly), or picking up a handy ID pointer; I have been royally entertained (especially if someone goes off on one); I have even made 'virtual friends' (even if that does sound a bit sad). Maybe there is a point to all of this malarky after all.