Friday, 28 June 2013

To Twitch or not to twitch – that IS a question!

Dusky Thrush, Margate Cemetery, May 2013
Not long ago, a rare bird from the far east, a Dusky Thrush turned up in East Kent. This was the first time this species had been available in Britain to be seen by potential admirers since 1960. On this occasion, it attracted about a thousand people during the day after it had been announced the previous evening just before midnight. In fact, it was my wife who told me of it, as she saw it mentioned on Twitter. One of the few who had seen it in 1960, told a friend that in those days, he had been informed of it by a friend in a letter. It seems the great Ron Johns who had the longest list for many years was also informed of the same Dusky Thrush by letter, and in fact the two of them went together by train the very next day. How communications have changed since then! In the event, on this 2013 occasion, the bird remained for just one day after it had been announced.

My experience of it started in a fairly leisurely way with a cup of coffee at a sociable hour in the morning. I consulted Bird Alert to find that the bird was indeed showing quite well, so after finishing my coffee, I got up and then left for East Kent at around ten thirty. How different this was to how I would have been in the early days of my twitching when North Yorkshire, or even Northumberland would have been considered, and I would have left at 3 o’clock in the morning! In the event, I arrived at the site at around midday. The latest news was that it was quite easy to see the bird, but that it was sitting in fairly dense cover where it had been for an hour or two.  Being in dense cover, it had to be viewed in small pieces at a time, that is a tail, followed by a beak, and then a wing if one was lucky.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Scilly Birding - my first book!

Something really good turns up
In just five days time (on 25th April 2013), my first book will be released for publication. Brambleby Books are publishing “Scilly Birding – Joining the Madding Crowd”. In 1984, I joined a group of pretty fanatical bird watchers to spend a fortnight in the Isles of Scilly. I had only been hooked on twitching rare birds for about six months, so the experience of being in the company of over a thousand rabidly keen birders was totally new. This gave me the opportunity to observe from a totally fresh perspective, the antics, joy and despair of dedicated enthusiasts. During that fortnight, I developed a way of being in the right place at the right time by predicting the reactions of the majority, and thereby attempting to be able to enjoy birds in the presence of just a few. 1984 was a most memorable year for birds on the Scillies, and these included several charismatic American visitors, all of which gave us a good old run around. The hours spent in silence under taxing weather conditions in order to catch a glimpse of a little bundle of feathers was an experience I had never had before. The book describes, in a hopefully amusing way, the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys and enthusiasms these experiences gave.

As the fortnight progressed, I got to know one or two of the seriously experienced Scilly birders. People who, during the fortnight, would be lucky to see one new bird. It was in some ways embarrassing that I added an amazing twenty-six new species to my British bird list ending the fortnight with a list of two hundred and fifty. On my last full day I was in the company of two birders with British totals of around the then magical four hundred mark. All three of us had seen the bird of the moment, a quite remarkably beautiful Rock Thrush and a very rare bird indeed in Britain.

“Simon, never let yourself become a yesterday’s man,” They advised. “Always try to end the day without a today’s bird still to be caught up with.” We were sitting on a rock outcrop close to a headland. Suddenly the Rock Thrush flew towards us, and perched on a rock a few feet away. The views we had of it were utterly stunning, and relaxed. Suddenly several birders broke the skyline in the direction from which the Rock Thrush had arrived. It was moments later that they began to rush towards us. Having wings, the Rock Thrush, the bird of the moment, alighted and flew off another quarter of a mile away from its would-be admirers.

“Yesterday’s men……all of them,” my companions scoffed.

“Seen the bird?” a breathless lad demanded as he caught up with us.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

More on the Exciting New Lichens in Sussex

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus - the Tangerine
Mark Jackson who lives in Southampton should be crowned the Teloschistes chrysophthalmus King. Recently, I received an e-mail from him saying that he had found eight bushes with Teloschistes to the north east of Brighton, and another two not too far from where he originally found it. Inspired by this news, I went over to have a look at areas between Birling Gap and Beachy Head where there were masses of thorn bushes in open country that seemed ideal. I was utterly convinced I would be successful, but in the event, I failed to find any. Having never ever actually seen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus without being shown it, I resolved to go and have a look at one of Mark’s sites for which I had very accurate grid references. In spite of this, it took me some time to find his two bushes with it on.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Exciting New Lichens in Sussex – our Sequal

The Teloschistes chrysophthalmus habitat in Sussex weald
The morning was one of the brightest spring days of the year so far. Since January 3rd, my wife Amanda has been taking a photograph of exactly the same view of a field near where we live. Since being shown Teloschistes chrysophthalmus just north of Brighton, we have been keeping our eyes open for it. This morning, having taken her photograph, Amanda was struck by the assemblage of lichens, including the golden Xanthoria species that seem to be associated with Teloschistes chrysophthalmus  growing on a blackthorn bush nearby. She went over to give the bush a casual look.

After perhaps half a minute, the air went blue.

“Sod it!” She cried.

“What’s the matter.” I replied, furrowing my brow in concern.

“Come and see!” she said.

“I’m not sure I want to see something that’s not too pleasant,” I added.

The twig with Teloschistes chrysophthalmus
“You’ll like this,” she replied enthusiastically. I walked over to where she was standing, and she pointed to a very small, very fertile orange coloured lichen. Indeed, the fruits seemed to be raised on definite branches, and I could see what I thought were eye-lash like cilia surrounding the fruit. It looked very promising. Amanda dashed inside to get my hand lens and camera. Moments later, I was able to confirm our suspicions with my hand lens.

The new Teloschistes chrysophthalmus

The lichen was very small, but I was in no doubt whatsoever that this was indeed the beautiful Golden-eyed Lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus and the second record of it for East Sussex and one of the mounting number of sightings in southern England since October last year.

The Excitement and Mystique of Rare Orchid Hunting

Military Orchid in France 2004
There is something very special to most naturalists about seeing a new species. If that species is rare, then the excitement of seeing it is even greater, especially if there has been a lot of effort and planning involved. In my late teens, I had the very great good fortune of spending my Saturday mornings in the Leicester University Herbarium in the company of Professor Tutin (of the Clapham, Tutin and Warburg Flora). On one occasion, he let slip that the very rare Military Orchid had been found in Suffolk. He gave me rather vague instructions. At the time, I was at school about twenty miles from the site, and during its flowering season at the weekend, I would cycle over to the area. The site is to the north of a roundabout from which roads spread north like the spokes of a bicycle. I first had to try and work out which of the roads was the one Professor Tutin had been referring to. Over perhaps three years, I tried in vain to find the site and it wasn’t until I was at University that a friend who knew the exact locality took me to pay my respects. While I was at school, I was a keen plant collector, and I suspect that had I found the plant, I would have collected a spike for my herbarium; I have to say in retrospect, I am somewhat relieved that my youthful hunt did not bear fruit.

A year or two later, I heard the story, possibly apocryphal, of the finding of the Suffolk military orchids. It was said the botanist who found it slipped, and fell into a dell. She knocked her head as she slipped downwards and was at least dazed, or perhaps even momentarily unconscious. When she came round, she found she was surrounded by military orchids in profusion looking like bluebells in woodland, “I must have died,” she said to herself as she began to recover, “Because this must be heaven!”

Military Orchid in France 2004
It had been in the middle of the twentieth century that the military orchid was first found in Buckinghamshire, an event that brought it back from extinction. It was that well-known botanist Ted Lousley who knew where it occurred, and probably had found it. A botanist friend of mine was determined to find it, but Ted Lousley was equally determined to guard the secret of its whereabouts. My friend asked for a clue, and Ted Lousley agreed to let my friend know whether it was to the north or south of a particular main road. About a fortnight later he received a postcard that announced on it, “The Soldiers are alive and well at…….”

Secrecy about the sites of rarities is not always a good idea. There are a large number of people who have a determination to experience the thrill of being in the company of a rare and exotic orchid. Luckily, today few botanists would want to add rare orchid specimens to their private herbaria, and most like to treasure the memory of the experience with a photograph. Policing of fragile sites during the flowering season, and allowing the whereabouts of such sites that can cope to be widely known can be very beneficial for keeping people involved with the natural world. The keen and fanatic orchid hunter is almost certainly going to try every possible way to track down his quarry. Many will travel vast distances to achieve that goal. How much more pleasant it would be for everyone if the site were policed, and the orchid fanatic would not have to suffer that wave of guilt that acting like some international spy would give him. Most are more than prepared to give a generous donation for the privilege of seeing, and photographing a rare orchid.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Yorkshire, 1972
It was an episode of the television series Wild Things that stimulated me to write this blog. In the programme, one of the presenters visited a wonderful clump of Lady’s Slipper Orchids that are the progeny from native wild plants. The good news that there are as many as a hundred plants in various secret sites in Britain was mentioned. Whether the plant I experienced back in the early 1970s is still extant, I was unable to confirm.

In my twenties, I was a determined orchid hunter and had replaced any remnant ideas of collecting actual plants with making a series of my own personal photographs. Perhaps the most mystical and prestigious species is the Lady’s Slipper Orchid. My botanical friend knew of its locality, and undertook to give me detailed instructions for finding the site, provided I never let on who it was who gave me the information. He suggested that I contact the then Nature Conservancy Council and tell them I knew where the site was, having visited it in the past, and saying that I would very much like to improve the quality of my photographs. The officer in the Nature Conservancy Council called my bluff, and suggested I meet him at the entrance to the area.

“I’d like you to show me where your plants are,” he said, “After all, your site may not be the same as mine.” As it happens, the site is a good way from the nearest road, and even with my instructions, finding my way there unaided I knew would be demanding, However, I led him to within a few yards of the orchids’ but I couldn’t actually spot them.

“They are around here somewhere,” I muttered somewhat feebly. In fact they really were only a few yards from where I stood, and my companion pointed them out to me.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Spanish Pyrenees
Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Spanish Pyrenees
I understand that more recently than at the time of my visit, during the flowering season, a guard sat close by and was camouflaged. The guard allowed people to approach within a few yards of the plants before he actually revealed his presence. The Lady’s Slipper Orchid in Britain became an extreme rarity having suffered acutely from collection by Victorian gardeners. Luckily, some of the plants that were dug up are known to be of wild origin, and these have been used for re-introductions into the wild. Abroad the Lady’s Slipper Orchid is also far from common, however I enjoyed a rare experience when I saw a colony of perhaps a hundred plants on a hillside in the Spanish Pyrenees.

Ghost Orchid in 1972 hand held

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Exciting New Lichens in Sussex

Sussex Teloschistes chrysophthalmus
On Boxing Day 2012, I enjoyed some most exciting natural history. On 23rd of December, I received an e-mail informing me that the lichen Teloschistes chrysophthalmus had been found on two hawthorn bushes to the north of Brighton. The finder, Mark Jackson had recently just got interested in lichens, and asked me about the status of Teloschistes chrysophthalmus in East Sussex. The answer is simple, it is the first recent record for Sussex, there being three early 19th Century records from Shoreham, near Brighton and also near Lewes. On 23rd of December my knowledge of the current history of Teloschistes chrysophthalmus was as follows:

·    In 1994, it had been discovered at Slapton Ley, but the bush on which it grew was cleared as part of conservation scrub clearance.
·    Next, it was found on a hawthorn bush on the shores of the Drift Reservoir in Cornwall, but when the water level rose and submerged the bush, its only known modern site was once again lost.
·    More recently it was found on a branch fallen from an apple tree in Herefordshire.

Not a very promising situation for its continued survival, but shortly after that, it was found in County Cork and as far as I know, that site is still extant. It also occurs on Guernsey on two bushes where I saw it recently. In Jersey however, it was last seen in an orchard back in 1966. A recent trip to the site confirmed that all the apple trees had gone.

On Boxing Day I met up with Mark Jackson and he showed me the two bushes each with just one Teloschistes chrysophthalmus. We had a good look round at other trees, but found no more. However, on our way back to the car, Mark found a minute, pink lichenicolous fungus growing on a twig. I photographed it, and sent off the photograph to the experts. It is Illosporiopsis christiansenii and new to Sussex. Mark is lucky in having an excellent eye for lichens, as well as a great enthusiasm for them.

Waxwings and People

Waxwings in sunshine
The weather of New Years Day in East Sussex was glorious, unlike the previous day when it was wet, and cloud reduced light levels to impossible levels for photography. With little hope, my wife and I drove into Lewes to try and take a nice series of photographs of the flock of waxwings that have taken up temporary residence in an area with luscious, bright red berries. One reason for the lack of optimism was an experience we had a day or two previously when there were no waxwings present when we arrived. We were told that they had been driven off by a few over enthusiastic people. The birds had been chased backwards and forwards as they attempted to descend from a row of poplars to feed on the berries below. The berries were on the other side of the road from the poplars. After we had parked the car, it was another two hours before the flock returned, and I achieved silhouette photographs of them sitting high in the poplars. There were still one or two people sitting in their cars, but as soon as the birds arrived, without any care taken, they were out of their cars, and rushing towards the best vantage point, between the poplars and the berries. While I was there, sitting patiently in my car, my wife off shopping, the birds never did descend to feed, and I left without any photographic success at dusk.

Best shot in the rain
It was a different story on New Year’s Eve. I decided to go into Lewes to do some supermarket shopping, and to see if the waxwings were behaving. Before shopping, I went to have a look at the roadside hedge with the berries. No sign of waxwings, or of people. However there really was plenty of rain. I did my shopping, and then thought I might as well go and have another go. There was one car there, and I could see its occupant was pointing his binoculars up at the poplars. A few starling like dots in the trees proved, with the help of my binoculars, to be waxwings. After a few minutes, he came and asked me if I had managed some good photos. All I had achieved were a few distant silhouettes. He drove off. The waxwings began to descend from the poplars, and feed on the berries. For me, the hedge with the berries was on the opposite side of the car, so I drove off, and turned round. By inching the car ever so slowly towards the berry laden bushes with the window already down, I was able to stop opposite, and within about four feet of several feeding waxwings. Two problems arose however. First, as soon as I had lowered the car window, I was splattered by rain, as was my camera lens when I tried to take photographs. Secondly I had not checked to see how much space there was left on the card in my camera. At that definitive moment when a row of three waxwings posed for me on the top of the fence, no more than six feet away, I pressed the shutter button, and nothing happened.