31 January, 2014

An Unfamiliar Birdsong

With a break in the weather, I tackled Bushy Park yesterday in the hope of locating last year's Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, which should be becoming more active in the coming weeks. The plan failed miserably and the bird(s) never showed, but in the process of failing my attention was drawn to an interesting bird song coming from a row of oaks in the Canal Plantation. It was loud enough to be heard over the Parakeets and sounded thrush-like, but the repetitiveness of the same descending notes was like... so crazy and out there. I looked around a bit expecting a confused Mistle Thrush, and almost completely ignored the fact that the song was coming from a nearby Redwing.

In my slight amazement, I managed to take a rubbish song recording- you should just about be able to make out it's melodic song over the Parakeets at 0:08, 0:20 and 0:44...

I don't know about you, but when it comes to the vocal abilities of wintering Redwings, my knowledge doesn't extend much beyond the usual one note 'seep' you'll hear as they pass overhead. I've always imagined them to be fairly silent birds. Once or twice in past winters, I've come across an individual or two giving out that quiet, warbling sub-song, but for a bird to be performing full blown-song in London, in the middle of winter... what a maverick. It would be interesting to know if anyone else has had similar experiences with singing Redwings? An internet search reveals a few records of odd birds singing in spring, but I'm yet to find a mid-winter occurrence.

Just to balance out the post with a picture, here is the Kingfisher that's been showing amazingly well near the Park's Pheasantry Cafe for the past week...

Remarkably, it doesn't seem to take any notice of the constant stream of toddlers and walkers using the path just a few metres away. If only the sun would shine... 

30 January, 2014

Of Moss and Birds

In between yesterday's rain, I finally managed to fit in a long overdue visit to the local patch, Stokes Field. Unfortunately for my pan-species listing urges, many nooks and crannies that had proved brilliant hiding spots for invertebrates last winter were either completely underwater, or had been washed away.

The birds were slightly easier to catch up with; this Nuthatch being one a showy pair that were busy inspecting oak trees near the entrance.

Half-way around the usual walking route, a familiar sounding flute-like whistle diverted my attention to an distant inconspicuous hedgerow, were an ever-reliable Bullfinch was feeding- and a stunning male at that. I managed recorded this species- in varying numbers- on every visit to Stokes Field last year, and it's great to know that they're still going strong in such a built-up, disturbed setting. Bullfinch has become far from common in some of London's more well-established sites (Staines Moor, Bushy Park etc...), but dare I say they are now pretty much guaranteed at Stokes.

Bullfinches sure know how to make a lighten up a drab hedgerow

I continued on, and had a quick forage around for some mosses before retreating back to the warmth.

Cypress-leaved Plait-moss Hypnum cupressiforme...

Neat Feather-moss Pseudoscleropodium purum...

Rough-stalked Feather-moss Brachythecium rutabulum...

28 January, 2014

A Charming Mystery

With one of those stimulating reading weeks going on at University, I'm back in London for the next few days sampling how the 'other half live', with amazing things like central heating and not-from-concentrate orange juice.

With a few months in between each visit home, it's interesting to come back and note the changes that have come about as the seasons move forward. The most obvious- and most pleasant change- is the sudden increased presence of Goldfinches in the garden. I've left the same feeder in the same spot in the garden for the past three or four years, and not had a single bird take any interest. In the past few months, however, a flock (or 'charm', whatever) has apparently visited the garden most days to feed...

This was the scene earlier this morning. I'm not complaining.

This does seem to go against the general declining trend of finches in the garden. Greenfinch, for instance, used to be a daily occurrence in and over the garden, numbers often peaking in the 20's during winter. From 2010 onwards however, numbers have decreased dramatically and the species is now virtually non-existent in the garden. I've seen less than 10 individuals in the garden since 2012. The same goes for Chaffinch- present in the garden in the winters of '08, '09 and '10 in double figure flocks- now reduced to single birds, and only in particularly harsh weather. It will be interesting to see what kind of trends are spilled out from this year's Big Garden Birdwatch.

So, if you're reading this and you've got my flock of Greenfinches and Chaffinches on your feeders, I want them back. You've got 24 hours... or the Goldfinches get it.

Don't go. Please.

26 January, 2014


Yes, it's that wonderful time of the year again! Your mates know it. Your neighbours know it. It was even trending on Twitter yesterday. If for some absurd reason you didn't know, Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies have started taking orders for the 2014 'Clearwing Season', and if you've never tried searching for any of the wholly un-mothlike Sesiidae family, why not make a start in 2014? 

Typically, these moths are very elusive day-fliers which rarely stray far from the cover of their footplant. Entomologists and people like Darwin in those black and white times about twenty years ago would have gone to great lengths to collect such specimens, which has ultimately led to gaping holes in the current known distribution of most members of the family. Luckily for us modern-day nutters, synthetic 'lures' are now widely available and provide a lazy hassle-free method of attract the superb males, assuming a lure is placed in suitable habitat. 

Gardens are often the best place to start looking, usually from mid-May onwards. Obviously, some species are more likely to turn up than others, and a lure in the wrong habitat is going to be useless. Do a bit of background research on the available footplants in your local area and the species you could realistically attract- especially if you don't fancy dishing out cash on every sex pheromone under the sun. I found that the 'MYO' (for Red-belted) and 'VES' (for Yellow-legged and Orange-tailed) lures worked a treat in my very average back garden...

Orange-tailed Clearwing coming to a 'VES' lure.  This species has historically been associated with Wayfaring tree chalk downland, but its increasing appearance in the garden is surely a sign that it copes well in cultivated, suburban environments. If you've got Guelder Rose anywhere nearby, give this one a go.

Red-belted Clearwing thrives in areas with a high-density of fruit trees. I first hung the MYO lure on our very small apple tree two years ago, and within seconds had six of these beauties flying around. 

This absolutely superb Red-tipped Clearwing was a surprise find near the VES lure, which was hung out in the garden a few summers ago in the hope of catching the two species below. Always expect the unexpected... 

Orange-tailed Clearwing up close. Without doubt one of the most fascinatingly weird lepidoptera families out there.  

Like the Orange-tailed above, Yellow-legged Clearwing is strongly attracted to VES lures. Providing you have a birch, or even better, an oak tree somewhere nearby, expect these gems. 

Said lures can be picked up from ALS here, and if kept well sealed in a freezer when not in use, can provide years of sexual excitement for all. Happy days!

20 January, 2014

Harrap's Wild Flowers

Ask any nature nut, and most will agree that there is little more satisfying in our constantly changing world of identification and classification than adding natural history literature to our bookshelves. I've said it before, but there is just something so satisfying about physically flicking through a field guide, and it's a 'something' that internet-based identification sites will never be able to fully replace.

The most recent addition to my meagre collection is Simon Harrap's Wild Flowers, a photographic field guide to British flora. I'm rubbish when it comes to identifying plants, whether they be flowering or not. I'm also equally rubbish at picking out decent guides to suit my poor level of expertise, so when I unwrapped this book as a Christmas present, I had high hopes for it being 'the one'.

Long story short, I haven't been disappointed. Most wide-releasing field guides and keys nowadays try to advertise themselves on the basis of using a minimal amount of 'technical terms', but this is one of the few I've come across that stays true to its word without seeming totally dumbed down. The first 15 pages are dedicated to plant anatomy, illustrated like they should be through arrow-labelled images of flowers and leaves, which complements the glossary of key terms nicely. Individual species descriptions are thorough, with plenty of information on the status, distribution, ID characteristics and habitat of all 934 species covered. Admittedly, similar books have covered a greater number of species, but unless you're heading out with the sole intention of finding extremely rare, obscure flora on the summit of Ben Nevis, Harrap's guide contains all the species realistically 'gettable' in typical habitat.

Some of the 'old-skool' users may find the lack of a key a bit of an off-putter, but a two page spread of thumbnail images depicting typical examples of each family (and the relevant chapters), should help narrow down a search in the field. Unlike in Collins, grasses are omitted, but there's a surprisingly large section on the aquatic plants and trees/shrubs to make up for it. One of the defining features that really makes this guide for me is the amount of information given for each species. In the majority of cases, the plants are nicely illustrated in both summer and winter form (flowering and non-flowering), with similar species often compared nicely alongside each other for easy referencing (e.g. Bluebells, Poppies, Spergularia species etc...).

The book has been out for a good few months; no doubt many have already invested in it and probably have their own opinions on its usefulness. Personally, I'd recommend Harrap as a down-to-earth field guide for anyone who doesn't always get along well with the technical mine-field of keys offered by Poland & Clement's Vegetative Key to the British Flora, or even Collins for that matter. Of course, anyone who just likes looking at pretty pictures of flowers will probably also enjoy it...

07 January, 2014

Mealy Redpolls, Ombersely

With no lectures to worry about, today seemed like the perfect day to kick-start my Worcestershire birding year. After the compulsory lie-in, I whipped out the bike and cycled the 10 odd miles up to Ombersley Golf Course, where a Redpoll 'super-flock' have recently been observed. The birds had been reported feeding along a line of alders in the southern corner of the golf course as well as in a nearby crop field, and along with sucking in up to double figures of Mealy Redpoll, an amazing Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was found amongst the flock over the Christmas period, but disappearing soon after.

A small group of Redpolls were feeding in a cluster of alders soon after I arrived, and a local farmer- noticing the binoculars around my neck- suggested I viewed the private fields behind their farm, explaining how she'd seen a large flock of finches feeding in them earlier in the day. I don't think I've come across such a friendly farmer since leaving Fair Isle!

Her suggestion paid off (cheers, Mrs. farmer!), as a larger flock of 60+ Redpolls soon flew in to munch on seed crops. Feeding in such close-quarters with each other, it became easier to compare between the darker plumage of the Lesser Redpolls (Carduelis cabaret), and the paler, bulkier plumage of the real stars of the show; Mealy Redpolls (Carduelis flammea)- fresh in from the colder climes of northern Europe...

EDIT: This has become more educational than I first though, and after consulting with others, my doubts were confirmed and none of the birds photographed here are pale enough for Mealy. I was starting to question the ID after I posted this, but it's an unfortunate case of posting the images without doing the research! Although it might be hard to believe after this cock up, I promise you I did see Mealy Redpoll this afternoon. I just took too shit-a-photo of them that I thought I'd save you the distress and not post them. However, here is a true Mealy Redpoll in all its pale glory, feeding in the same place as all the rubbish, boring, wannabe-Mealy Lesser Redpolls that make up the rest of the post... 

An actual... yes, an actual Mealy Redpoll! And one of at least 15! I promise! The birds below aren't Mealy Redpolls.

Two Mealy Redpolls Lesser Redpolls (top and bottom), with another Lesser Redpoll (centre)

Every now and then, disturbed by passing cars, the flock would move into a nearby hedgerow where it became possible to pick out more pale birds...

A puffed up Mealy Lesser Redpoll

On first viewing, this 'Redpoll' appeared a bit too dark for Mealy. And it is too dark. It's a Lesser. 

But revealed beautifully pale flanks and rump once it started preening- a contradicting Redpoll, it seems.  Nope, not a contradicting Redpoll. A Lesser Redpoll. Contradicting Redpoll has never been recorded in Britain.

I'd be guessing if I was to try and give an accurate figure for the number of Mealies present, due simply to the overwhelming number of birds. It was pretty clear, however, that at least 15 'definite' birds were involved- including both those on the golf course and in the crops- with many more pale Mealy 'contenders' that I couldn't get a decent look at. 

Lesser Redpolls in the evening light. 

All in all a pretty educational session in the Worcestershire countryside, with a fantastic sunset over the Malvern Hills more than making up for the stream of constant showers that made cycling the 10 miles back to University a bit of a chore.

A special thanks to Midlands Birder for providing the directions.

05 January, 2014

Glossy Ibis in Surrey? By Golly!

The Christmas holidays seem to have flown by, and I'm now back at University after a relaxing few weeks spent with the family back down south.

The first few days of the new year are- for any self-respecting birder- the most important in terms of getting out in the field and building up a fresh list, which is why I've spent the past week snoozing in late and generally not doing anything much relating to birds at all.

However, the attraction of a Glossy Ibis found in flooded fields in Frensham (cheeky slice of alliteration right there) was too much to resist, and I paid it a little visit yesterday afternoon. Despite the moistness of the weather and rising flood waters, the Ibis looked like it was having a field day; happily flying back and forth from one flooded area of ground to another, accompanied at times by a couple of Little Egrets and a Green Sandpiper. It was awesome to watch one of these increasingly common southern European visitors look so at home in the Surrey countryside.

02 January, 2014

Looking Back on 2013...

Yahoo! It's that fantastic time of the year again when all bloggers simultaneously indulge in a healthy slice of self-centered nostalgia for the year that has just passed! I'll keep this one short of words as I'm sure, like myself, you're probably not in the best mood for reading after celebrating the start of 2014.

The year started in fair ordinary fashion, and I spent much of the winter working full time in a retail store attempting to fund the months ahead. I made the most of any days off with a few sneaky outings here and there...

Bonaparte's Gull, Eastbourne
Pallas's Warbler, Moor Green Lakes 

Smew, London Wetland Centre

February saw a continuation of the Waxwing invasion, with this small flock doing the decent thing and turning up out of nowhere as I played tennis in the local park (I'm still trying to decide which was rarer; the birds or the fact that I was playing tennis)...

A 'street' shot of some local Waxwings, Thames Ditton

February also saw the return of a female Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in Bushy Park. She continued to show brilliantly throughout the month, but was sadly never seen with a mate...

Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, Bushy Park

March saw some unseasonably cold weather, and very little in terms of invertebrate interest on Stokes Field, despite regular visits for the '1000 species in a 1km square' challenge (which I'd certainly recommend attempting in 2014). A few more successful road trips were made to nearby counties though... 

Purple Sandpiper, Southsea Castle

Black-bellied Dipper, Thetford

Otter, Thetford

April started with a marathon twitch via bike, train, hovercraft and then bike again for a bird reported two day previous in a windswept corner of the Isle of Wight. Then this thing popped out... 

White-spotted Bluethroat, Isle of Wight

Of course, the month will no doubt be remembered by the majority of London birders for the spectacular migrant fall that took place in the last two weeks of April. Stokes Field was no different, and the constant coverage I'd given that dog shit covered site for the preceding three months finally paid off with both Redstart and Tree Pipit turning up within a week of each other, in almost exactly the same spot. Some of the words expressed when that male Redstart suddenly flashed across in front of me probably haven't been uttered since the dark ages... 

The delicious duo- Redstart and Tree Pipit five minutes from the front door

On the other end of the size scale, April saw me fully cement my interest in pan-species listing, with a good number of nationally scarce invertebrates and plant species noted on the patch. Highlights included the rare springtail Isotoma riparia; the small leaf beetle Longitarus dorsalis and the scarce fern, Adder's Tongue. All records collected during the spring will hopefully go towards putting Stokes Field firmly on the ecological radar. 

In May, I spent 10 days travelling around Shetland, starting on the indescribably brilliant Fair Isle, before hiring a bike and cycling around the mainland- soaking up beauties such as these throughout the 10 days... 

Long-tailed Duck, Fair Isle

Snow Bunting, Fair Isle

Red-backed Shrike, Fair Isle

Short-toed Lark, Sumburgh Head

And sights such as these...

This is what midnight looks like on Shetland in early summer

A deserted beach near Levenwick. Who needs the Mediterranean?

North cliffs of Fair Isle

Returning back to London in June, I jumped straight onto the tube and hit the Natural History Museum for a 'behind-the-scenes' work placement in the Hemiptera & Coleoptera department, meeting friends old and new, and getting the chance to sort through mad tropical monstrosities not even Steven Spielberg could make up.

Ever wondered what the museum lobby looks like before the doors open?

As it turned out, the following month was to carry on the trend of general madness, as I found I'd been offered a spot as a funded volunteer back at the bird observatory on Fair Isle. Working with a fantastic bunch of people in a sublime part of the world, doing things I never imagined I'd get to do in a gap year; I can't explain how much of an eye opener it was. There were Puffins, Black Guillemots, rare orchids, jellyfish, Long-eared Owls in caves, late night sunsets, drunken island parties, midnight twitches for Roseate Terns, 200 metre cliff tops, Tennants (too much Tennants as my bar tap proved), Rosefinches that needed ringing, self-found Subalpine Warblers, and of course there was that casual night when we recorded three species of Storm-petrel... 

Buness, Fair Isle

The 'classic' Puffin

In August, my brother and I travelled to Santa Cruz, where we spent two weeks kayaking with Sea Otters in Monterey Bay, drinking ridiculously cheap Mexican imported beer, and getting a taster for Californian beach parties. 

... What? I'm was on a gap year! I'm allowed to spoil myself... 

Santa Cruz, CA

The rest of August will be remembered for a welcome burst in lepidoptera numbers. Word on the street suggested that Clouded Yellow butterflies were piling in front the continent, and moth traps were consistently becoming full to the brim night after night. My undoubted highlight during the period was this colourful micro, Ethmia quadrillella, caught in the garden moth trap on the 21st August. The first record of the species for Surrey/London, and one of only a handful of records to have come from the south-east of England in the past 20 years. Who knows where it's come from...

Ethmia quadrillella

Before the month was out there was just time for a quick trip to the Dorset coast, where I was to catch up with Sand Lizard for the first time, and enjoy point-blanc views of this textbook male Ruddy Darter... 

Ruddy Darter

In September, University happened... 

I've been more sober before...

October, November and most of December carried on the general university theme, without too much time for wildlife. I did make numerous trips to my new 'University patch', Grimley Camp Lane Pits, and if I was to make a cheesy New Year's Resolution, it would definitely be to put in more hours at the site over the coming winter and spring. Grimley seems to have hit a bit of a purple patch recently, and last spring there saw ridiculous local finds such as Great Reed Warbler and Temminck's Stint. I wouldn't mind finding my own migrant or two in between lectures, and with a bit of effort put in it's definitely possible. 

... I've got high hopes for this place

So there you have it. That there has basically been my year. 2013 will take some beating, so here's wishing you a very happy and successful 2014! Let's hope it's a goodun'.