Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Some flickers of hope


I couldn't help but visit Langley Vale Farm this morning to see how the fields are looking from the point-of-view of such arable gems as Red Hemp-nettle (from this very farm last summer).

There is good news. The fields south of Nohome Farmhouse have been shallowly ploughed - the stubble and grass clumps from my last visit have gone. Now, I am no ecologist, and cannot possibly predict whether this in itself is enough to enable the arable flora to freely flower, but it is certainly better than the state of the fields a couple of weeks ago.


This is the bottom of the field immediately east of Nohome Farmhouse, which has also had a similar treatment - the edge up against the hedgerow is where Cat-mint and Narrow-fruited Cornsalad can be found. Last year this area was swamped with grass and both were hard to find.


The top of the very same field. This is very recent tree planting, which has not, so far, been stretched all that far down the field. I do hope that it will be stopped well short of the bottom.


I don't want to end on a sour note, but this picture illustrates one of my concerns very well indeed. This shaw (the central strip of wood-come-hedge) is decades old and at least 12m wide. It has historical and well as natural history worthiness. One of the Woodland Trusts stated aims is to protect such landscape features and maintain their open aspect - but as can be seen, on either side of the shaw the tree planting has come right up to it. This will soon be consumed into scrubby wood.

I also hear on the grapevine that an 'arable plant working party' is being gathered. Good luck to all who take part - I'll be keeping my fingers and toes crossed!

Monday, 27 February 2017

A ray of hope?


The Langley Vale Wood / Langley Vale Farm situation has been getting quite a bit of air on Facebook and Twitter - a few botanists have picked up on the concern over the arable plants present and have been asking the Woodland Trust for clarification via the twitter account @langleyvalefarm

I asked the following questions (and made the following statements) to this very account:

"My concern about the arable plants is they will not be specifically managed. Without this they will disappear!"

"The Woodland Trust know what is present and how to care for them. Please ensure that they do. Very rare plants here."

They did reply - and if these statements are exactly what will happen, then we can sleep soundly in our beds at night...

ALL AREAS OF ARABLE WEEDS WILL BE MANAGED APPROPRIATELY - WT ARE TALKING TO OPEN SPACE CHARITIES ABOUT PROPER MANAGEMENT

NOTHING WILL BE LOST - AND HOPEFULLY THESE PLANTS WILL FLOURISH

So, two very clear promises here. let's just hope that everything will be carried out in time, because the clock has been ticking for too long already.

Friday, 24 February 2017

A local extinction?

Night-flowering Catchfly at Langley Vale Farm. Not seen there since 2014.

There are few greater pleasures than walking along the edge of a field and working your way through a mass of arable plants in flower. It is colourful. It holds hidden gems. It is also disappearing. I am lucky enough to live close to a marvellous site, where such species as Night-flowering Catchfly, Venus's Looking-glass, Red Hemp-nettle, Cat-mint, Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Round-leaved Fluellen and Dwarf Spurge can be found. It is called Langley Vale Farm, situated on Walton Downs in Surrey.

They are all in danger of being lost forever.

Any regular visitor to this blog will have read my previous posts about the purchase of the farm, in 2014, by the Woodland Trust. They plan to use the site to create what will be known as Langley Vale Wood, in commemoration of the centenary of the start of the First World War. A series of environmental and ecological surveys were commissioned, and the Trust were supplied with data that made it very clear to them that the site held highly vulnerable and threatened species, a mosaic of habitat types and recommendations of how to look after these (mainly) botanical and avian gems. Early plans that were made public by the Trust did not seem to be prioritising the care of these threatened species, and many local naturalists fears were confirmed when the first ten thousand trees that were planted were placed on one of the Lapwing's favoured breeding fields (where there had been up to 5 pairs recently). Planting has continued, in some cases right up to the boundary of historical hedgerows, shaws and lanes, which will, of course, be lost in scrub and ultimately young woodland. These not only have a natural history value but also one of social history and a testament to the art of careful and sympathetic land management. It is worth pointing out that the Trust had made early noises about not losing the open nature of the site and keeping such historical features clear of woodland encroachment.

What about the arable plants?

Since the Trust took control of the farm they have become much harder to find, and also in dwindling numbers - and in some cases, not been found at all. Concerns have been made known to the Trust from experienced botanists, which question whether supplied data has been utilised and if the professional advice on habitat and plant management has been taken on board.

Time does not stand still for these species. Lapwings did not return to breed in either 2015 or 2016 (for the first time in living memory). The substantial wintering Skylark flocks have gone mostly missing. Wild flower margins are being swamped with grasses. The ancient landscape is being lost. You cannot set aside a field and expect rare flowers to move to it, anymore than you can expect to direct Lapwings over to a field that you don't particularly want to plant trees in. And all to create another wood in the most wooded county in England.

The Trust are planning to create 'wild-flower' meadows. There is one already by Nohome Farmhouse, and it is a blaze of colour in the summer - but it is the result of bought-in seed, and not a truly 'wild' flower mix at all, with such exotics as Phacelia, Opium Poppy and Cornflower popping up. This cannot be seen as any compensation for the loss of a rare and specialised flora.

I have written to Beccy Speight, the Chief Executive of the Woodland Trust to voice my concern. If you wish to do so as well, you can email her on:

beccyspeight@woodlandtrust.org.uk

It could be argued that the Woodland Trust should not be expected to have anything to do with Lapwings, arable flora and the upkeep of ancient farmland. But if you purchased a stately home and found Tudor panelling in a few of the rooms, would you rip it out, make a bonfire, and redecorate with wood-chip wallpaper and paint it magnolia?

I have walked across the footpaths that criss-cross the area for over thirty years. I'm immensely proud of the place. I think that it, and the wildlife, are worth fighting for.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Dungeness interlude


A two-day trip to the shingle, staying at 'Hotel Hollingworth' where the current offers included a single-malt taster session, Champions League football, Tom Petty playing live in the lounge and personal chauffeur. I well may re-book...

A bit of a whistle-stop tour of the pits and avian highlights that resulted in a tidy total without much effort being needed - the drake Ring-necked Duck on Cooke's Pool was still present, the two roosting Long-eared Owls put in a welcome appearance by the dipping pool, both first-winter and second-winter Iceland Gulls were seen over the patch, a literal 'wild-goose' chase provided both five White-fronted and a single Pink-footed, plus back up sightings such as Smew, Peregrine, Merlin and Mediterranean Gulls. The sea was lively, as good numbers of Guillemots (2000), Razorbill (50) and Great Crested Grebe (330) littered the waves, with a steady offshore passage that included Red-throated Divers, Gannets, Fulmars and Brent Geese. It was a pleasure to catch up with many of the Dungeness 'family', including Chris P, Dave W, Martin C, Pete B, Pam S, Paul T and Barry C. A few dodgy record shots follow...

Drake Goldeneye on Burrowes...
...with a female close by
Redhead Smew from the Christmas Dell hide
Turnstone that interrupted my sea watch
Very dodgy record shot of the drake Ring-necked Duck

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Shaping up nicely

17.50hrs and I've just switched on the garden MV. I could make a case for it still being light, it is undeniably mild and there are several Blackbirds in full song. Yes, it really does feel like spring! My visit to Priest Hill yesterday afternoon was made in (relative for February) positively balmy conditions - weak sun, no wind, just a jumper on - but the downside was that the weather seems to have given notice to the birds that had been present there recently, as not a single winter thrush remained and I could not find any of the Reed Buntings. A winter clear out to make way for the first spring migrants? Too early for a White-arse maybe, but just right for a trickle of these little beauties...

Friday, 17 February 2017

Inverts to the fore


Last night the garden MV was switched on for the first time this year. In previous winters I have run it throughout January and February, accepting each blank as something to endure in my quest to record those few species that do fly when the nights are long and cold. As the years have rolled by my enthusiasm for these nil returns has faded somewhat. However, it was mild enough overnight to expect something in the trap, and so it proved to be, with two Pale Brindled Beauties (above) and a Light-brown Apple Moth - both species to be expected but welcome all the same.

While photographing the moths this morning in gloriously mild and sunny weather, the Stinking Hellebores were attracting a few insects to their flowers, with Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris, below) and Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) being the most numerous. By early afternoon I was surprised not to have seen a butterfly.



I am assuming that the top images are of a worker, with the bottom image being a much larger queen.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Just standing still

At times you can thrash a patch for little reward. My mid-day/early afternoon visit to Canons Farm had seen me yomp across fields, crash through woodland and march up and down hollows - and all I could ascertain was that it was quiet - very quiet indeed. As I approached Canons Farmhouse I did consider cutting my losses and moving on, but instead resolved to stand by the 'watchpoint' and just see what would come to me - and as it happened, quite a bit did. First up were two Red Kites, which meandered their way westwards (cue dodgy record shot of the leading bird). At least four Common Buzzards were in the vicinity, with one pair indulging in a wrestling match on Broadfield, being watched, and then joined, by two Carrion Crows. Scanning the tree-line of Lambert's Shaw was rewarded with the constant too-ing and fro-ing of a large mixed thrush flock, comprising 125 Redwing and 50 Fieldfare. Turning my back on all of this activity then revealed 50+ Skylark and c40 Linnets playing hide-and-seek in Tart's Field. It was an altogether agreeable hour which was also blessed with what can only be described as warm sunshine. Sometimes you don't need to try at all, but just stand still and wait...

Monday, 13 February 2017

Back in the saddle

It's been cold, hasn't it? The thermometer might not have hit the lows that it had done earlier in the year, but the low grey gloom, piercing easterly wind and stinging sleet kept this part-time birder indoors. I found myself a new natural-history themed project to get my teeth into, but more about that another time.

Back to today. Sun! What a treat, all day sunshine which, when out of the still persistent easterly, had a touch of warmth about it. I ended up on Walton Downs, part of which is taken up by Langley Vale Farm - the very same farm where the Woodland Trust is creating the Millennium Wood. I've banged on about this project at length, mainly from the perspective of worrying that the rich arable plant flora will be lost, the ancient shaws and hedgerows be irretrievably merged into the new planting, and that the few pairs of Lapwings that breed there will disappear.


There was a lot of activity going on. A tractor was disturbing the soil in fields to the north of Round Wood, not a ploughing per se, more of a scarifying. Up to 400 Jackdaw, 300 Black-headed Gull and 75 Common Gull were in close attendance. Teams of men were erecting a high fence across the field south of Little Hurst Wood, and when I say high I'm talking 2m plus! More planting appears to have been carried out in the fields butting up to the 'drove way' footpath that leads towards Headley. And the scarifying of further fields has been carried out on the eastern side of the site, with more of those awful plastic pipes for the protection of young trees dumped alongside. It doesn't look promising... however, just to stop me from becoming all 'doom and gloom', one of these fields held a resting flock of 17 Lapwings - they were gone three hours later.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

An inspirational man

Social media was reporting last night that the entomologist, Bernard Skinner, has died. I don't think it is exaggerating to say that he was most probably responsible for inspiring more people to take up an interest in moths than any other person, all thanks to his ground-breaking 'The Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles' that was first published in 1984. Before this marvellous book came along, most of us were struggling to identify our moths using South's two volumes, which both dated from 1907! With the publication of Bernard's book, we were able to pore over colour plates of set specimens, all photographed to scale, showing upper and underwings. Each species had a succinct write up, informing us of similar species, identification pointers, variations, status, range, flight times and larval food plants. Where considered necessary, line drawings were supplied to aid identification.

I purchased the book soon after its publication, and was used to the point of disintegration, being taken out into the field at every opportunity. In the end I needed to replace it with the second (updated) edition. Today we are spoilt for choice with field guides for moths, but back in 1984 this book was simply revolutionary. It was also at a time when the birding fraternity was looking for other forms of natural history to embrace, especially during the summer months. Many took up the 'moth baton' and most of these were inspired to do so because of Bernard's book.

I didn't know him, but did meet him on several occasions. On the first meeting I was nervous about talking to him, and will admit to being a tiny bit star-struck, but he put me at ease and came across as a down-to-earth and modest man. I never did thank him for helping me to move from the status of 'complete novice' to 'passable lepidopterist', but I do owe him a debt of gratitude. Without his book, I would still be floundering with Mr. South. So, belatedly, thank you Bernard.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

When Belted Galloways attack!... vegetation

BEFORE the ungulates start chomping
AFTER they have been let loose for a couple of months
The top two photographs, taken at Priest Hill this morning, illustrate how the Belted Galloway cattle have removed the dead vegetation from the largest field, opening it up for Skylarks and Meadow Pipits to populate this coming spring. The beasts have now been moved to the other (two) smaller fields to start the chomping process all over again. A lively visit, with thrushes starting to gather and good counts of Stock Dove and Starling being made. Kestrel (1), Green Woodpecker (6), Stock Dove (30), Skylark (10), Fieldfare (15), Redwing (160), Stonechat (1 male), Starling (225), Reed Bunting (5, including a very smart male).

The garden feeders back home have seen a ready procession of takers enjoying the sunflower hearts on offer. So far, Blackcap (female), Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit and House Sparrow have been regulars, with Blackbird, Dunnock, Wood Pigeon and Collared Dove hoovering up the crumbs underneath. There is one species of bird that eats far more than all the others put together. Any guesses? Like a clue?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Too much information

I cannot make up my mind as to whether or not the instantaneous feed of other birders sightings is a good thing or not. To the pure lister it is all a gift from heaven. It lessens the guesswork, the effort and the time that might otherwise be spent travelling to and searching for the target species. The choice of venue for a day's birding can made based on up-to-the-minute news. An itinerary can be cobbled together thanks to the input of tweets, blogs and websites.

But does this not take the adventure, the surprise and the joy out of birding? Does it not reduce us to a pack chasing the good fortune of others? Are we failing to discover, for ourselves, what is out there?

Apart from the old twitcher's grapevine (based on who you knew and having access to their telephone number), finding out 'what's about' was through word-of-mouth (normally by bumping into birders out in the field) or actually being out in that field yourself and looking. My early trips to Pagham Harbour, Staines Reservoir and Dungeness were leaps of faith into the unknown, and all the more exciting for it. Many was the time when, on arrival, I would be given the good news about a present rarity, or be told that I "should have been here yesterday". Now, if I were to go down to Dungeness I could almost take you, blindfolded, to each and every avian attraction that is present even though I've not trodden the shingle since November. Yes, I could still wander off and do my own thing, but it would be a bit like paying to see a film and already knowing the ending.

Maybe this is why, after 43 years of birding, I tend to bird the places that are off of the radar - I don't know what was there yesterday. Everything is a surprise. Limiting, may be, but undoubtably satisfying.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Warming up down on the farm



My last visit to Canons Farm was a slow affair, with few flocks of birds and the fields eerily quiet - well today things had picked up a bit. It wasn't exactly heaving, but a gathering of thrushes along the border of Broadfield and Poultry Field comprised 235 Redwing and 60 Fieldfare. The winter wheat in this area has grown above thrush height, so there were most probably many more hidden from view.

Another welcome gathering was 100+ Linnet (below) that sat in tree tops and sang amongst themselves, in a rather distracted and absent-minded way. The sound carried some distance, and together with several displaying Skylarks (and a singing Little Owl) gave the whole morning more than a touch of spring.


Other highlights included 2 Common Buzzard, a Kestrel (top), 5 Rooks and a single Yellowhammer. The countdown has definitely started - the 'downland' passage of Stonechats is now due, Common Buzzards and Red Kites are soon to be expected and it is touching distance before we can start to look out for early Wheatears...

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Spadgers

The humble House Sparrow, once thought of as not really worth the bother of looking at (unless you were James Denis Summers-Smith). Now it is a species that has declined, alarmingly so in some areas. I've been lucky in the part of Banstead where I live, as these characterful birds have hung on, with at least two roosts (of 20-40 birds) within 400m of home. They breed in neighbouring properties and are a frequent visitor to the garden bird bath, as this male from today illustrates.


But although I still see them - and in number, each day - my notebooks from down the years does show a decline. Within the ND&B uber patch, my highest counts are of 400 at Beddington SF on 11 July 1980, 200 at Beddington SF on 7 September 1975 and 200 at Seears Park, Cheam on 6 November 1983. These are now at least 30 years old. In recent years my highest counts have come from Canons Farm, with 80 on both 23 August 2014 and 8 September 2016. My highest count anywhere was of 900 at Dungeness on 19 October 1980. These were in the dying days of a roost at the Long Pits that used to gather in late autumn/early winter, and could reach into the low thousands. Now? Maybe a three-figure count in the moat if you're lucky.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Spring stirs

The unfurling of a crocus is all that it takes for me to believe that an invisible line has been crossed in the progression of the seasons. Winter might still hold all of the trump cards, but Spring has peeked over the parapet and has taken a look around.

After spying that crocus, I spent an hour at Priest Hill and was delighted to hear up to four Skylarks in song and display - the first this year. This species has been otherwise sullen so far. A Common Buzzard also crossed the airspace (the first since early autumn here) and drew an escort of corvids that frantically and noisily chased it away. We have quite a marked Spring passage of this raptor, and I wouldn't mind guessing that this is an early migrant.

We may still see snow, frost and freezing cold, but the next season in line has already put a marker down.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A musical interlude

A little while ago I posted my Top 50 albums of all time, a futile and vacuous exercise demonstrating that I had too much time on my hands. Well, just to prove that I can still tick all of those boxes, I've updated it to a Top 100 albums... idle hands and all that. Unlike the last list, this is not in any order other than alphabetical - I cannot put them in order of preference, that is just impossible - or at least too difficult to successfully complete with any real meaning. I did try!

There will be better albums that are not on it, albums that are musically and vocally superior, and others that were groundbreaking, broke the mould or redefined a genre. But music is a highly personal thing. A mediocre, or average album can come along and speak volumes to you. They sneak up on you when you are at your most vulnerable or receptive. They become your friends, comfort blankets and injectors of joy. The past can flood back with just a few notes played. They become a part of your life. So I make no apologies for anything that appears on the list, even though there will be purists who will deride some of the choices and not understand why there isn't any Stones, Hendrix or Dylan on it. Enjoy.

Aberfeldy – Young Forever
Arcade Fire - Funeral
Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
B52s – Cosmic Thing
Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
Beatles – Revolver
Beatles – Sgt Pepper
Beatles – White Album
Beatles – Abbey Road
Belle and Sebastian – Tigermilk
Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish
Blur – 13
David Bowie – Hunk Dory
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie – Low
Breaks Co-op – The Sound Inside
Jeff Buckley - Grace
Kate Bush – The Kick Inside
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
Kate Bush – Aerial
Bernard Butler – People Move On
Caravan – In the Land of the Grey and Pink
Cocteau Twins – Treasure
Cocteau Twins – Blue Bell Knoll
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash
Deacon Blue – Raintown
Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Searching for the Young Soul Rebels
The Doors – The Doors
The Doors – LA Woman
Nick Drake – Bryter Later
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
The Duckworth Lewis Method – The Duckworth Lewis Method
Ian Dury – New Boots and Panties
The Eagles – The Long Run
Elbow – Seldom Seen Kid
ELO – New World Record
ELO – Out of the Blue
Everything But the Girl – Amplified Heart
Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking
Fairport Convention – Liege and Lief
Field Music – Tones of Town
Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Peter Gabriel – 4
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
Go-betweens – Oceans Apart
Goldfrapp – Seventh Tree
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
Groove Armada – Goodbye Country
Groove Armada – Love Box
Hall and Oates – Abandoned Luncheonette
Steve Hillage -L
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
Kings of Convenience – Quiet is the New Loud
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Aimee Mann – Bachelor No.2
Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffitti
Lemon Jelly – Lemon Jelly
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Paul McCartney - Ram
Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther
Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
Joni Mitchell – The Hissing of Summer Lawns
The 1975 – I like it when you go to sleep…
Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Pink Floyd – Meddle
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Robert Plant and Alison Krause – Raising Sand
Primal Scream – Screamadelica
Queen – Queen 2
Radiohead – The Bends
Radiohead – OK Computer
Lou Reed – Transformer
Sigur Ros – Takk
Simple Minds – New Gold Dream
Spirit – The Family That Plays Together
Spirit – The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
The Staves – If I Was
Sufjan Stevens – Welcome to Michigan
Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinois
Suede – Dog Man Star
Supertramp – Even In The Quietest Moments
James Taylor – Sweet Baby James
10cc – How Dare You
Turin Brakes – The Optimist LP
Undertones – Undertones
Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars
The Who – Quadrophenia
Wings – Venus and Mars    
Neil Young – Everybody Knows this is Nowhere
Neil Young – After the Goldrush
Neil Young – Harvest
Neil Young – Comes a Time
Neil Young – Prairie Wind

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Banishing the mid-winter blues

February 1st. A chilly, grey and drizzly day outside. My SAD (seasonal affective disorder) credentials are kicking in - depressed, lethargic, overeating, irritable, feeling down and unsociable. The NHS website tries to be helpful and suggests these 10 steps to redemption: Keep Active, Get Outside, Keep Warm, Eat Healthily, See The Light, Take Up A New Hobby, See Friends and Family, Talk It Through, Join a Support Group, Seek Help... some of these do seem a bit drastic. I'm just fed up with the lack of daylight and the weather, I'm not living in Aleppo! I am following most of these suggestions already (if eating an apple directly after finishing a packet of biscuits counts as eating healthily that is). No, winter cannot hurry up enough and turn into spring as far as I'm concerned.

Winter does, admittedly, have its own charm and it would take an emotionally bankrupt individual to not take joy from a heavy frost, Redwings and Fieldfares, er... Redwings and Fieldfares... did I mention them already? No, I've run out of positives, which leaves me with thoughts based around freezing cold hands and feet, gloopy mud, dirty puddles, dark mornings, dark afternoons, lack of bird song, dead vegetation, bare trees... no, I've definitely lost all of that positivity.

But there are bright lights on the horizon. There really are. They may be just eggs, chrysalis, seeds or even flitting around an African savannah right now, but they are merely biding their time before coming to say hello. They look a bit like this...