Category Archives: religion

Blitzing spiders and stringing butterflies

A weekend of wildlife began with a sunset.

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Heronry Pond, Wanstead Park (having been re-filled)

A crowd of people waited in the warmth (we are about to break June temperature records again in London with five consecutive days when the mercury has topped out over 30 degrees centigrade) and watched dark shapes scythe through the sky.

We had come to watch bats, but in the light cloudless skies of the evening, it was a huge flock of swifts at first that cut through smoke-like murmurations of midges rising up from the trees like Ashphodel souls.

The bats did come out later, also appearing silently from the trees, and were silhouetted against the sky or water like the bat-sign from comic legend. Silent, that is, apart from the fact that several of us were armed with bat detectors. Common Pipistrelle were picked out from their tiny shapes in the sky, but also from the fast-paced pricking at frequencies well out of range of human hearing. Also too high to hear unaided, but positively bass-like compared with their tiny cousins, were the abstract beats of the beefy Noctule bats punching and pulsing out of the speakers in a way that would have many hip-hop artists drooling with envy.

Friday night ended, not with multiple gin and tonics, as is my normal wont, but with the strangely hospital-like glare of moth traps drawing some moths, but tens of thousands of midges and other tiny flying creatures of the night.

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Moth (and midge!) trapping

All of this activity was for our local conservation group’s annual bio-blitz weekend. Check us out here: Wren Group.

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The wonderful, knowledgeable Tricia Moxley teaching us about introduced and wild plants

I started Saturday leading several of my neighbours (people I know and people I didn’t) on a walk around our local wood. I talked a lot about trees, but the highlights were the butterflies including a year-first Ringlet and a location (but not full patch) first with a Purple Hairstreak (a species that would get me in trouble the following day).

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Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)


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A temporarily trapped Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) and a rather disinterested baby

Overall, it was a reasonable weekend for butterflies. I counted thirteen species in total (a little way off my record patch day total of 16 from last July).

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Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)


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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)*

The number ’13’ is unlucky for some. Unlucky ever since that 13th disciple betrayed Christ for some silver. Well, I too felt mildly betrayed, or was it simply embarrassed, soon after I saw another hairstreak on the ground near some elm trees whilst I was trailing behind one of Tricia’s walks. Elms, as in the favoured tree of the White-letter Hairstreak

I peered down at the little lepid and started breathing a little faster when no large orange eye peered back at me from the hindwing. The hindwing was a little crumpled, not only obscuring the eye, but also rippling the hairstreak into a ‘W’ shape. The newly emerged butterfly was promptly, but gently scooped, into an inspection pot and whisked off to be held aloft triumphantly in front of the wondering eyes of my fellow Wren members. But, on closer inspection, it was, of course, simply another Purple Hairstreak despite my earlier innocent efforts to ‘string’ it into something more exciting.

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Purple Hairstreak again with the offending unfurling hindwings

So we may not have scored any super rare butterflies, but the far less excitable (than me), and far more expert, arachnologist, David Carr did find some great spiders.

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The maestro at work, David Carr

We believe that one of his finds of the weekend was the 19th specimen ever found in the UK, of Philodromus buxi:

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Philodromus buxi


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David and Araneus triguttatus

Across all the activities, we had about 300 participants. An opportunity for many people to find out a little more about the wildlife on our doorstep.

*All photos on here were taken with the iPhone 7. I really am very impressed with the quality of the camera on it.

An epic tale of birding the East; or Tick, Dip, BOC

The four most easterly counties of the United Kingdom are, in descending order: Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, and Essex. With a few days leave that I needed to use up and my wife working abroad, I decided to do some birding in all four. The following is my summarised account of: the birds I saw; the birds I didn’t see; and, any other acts of derring-do that I got up to.

Although most of the birding was conducted in those four counties, my journey took me through a total of ten counties (and not just because of incompetent navigating); some 600 miles of driving and around 30 miles of walking. Despite all being within a few days, I witnessed extraordinary changes in weather: I sat and sun-bathed in a T-shirt; I froze my hands blue despite wearing two jumpers, a coat, hat and gloves; I was buffeted by almost gale-force winds; and I was soaked to the bone by torrential rain.

Kent – Oare

Last Thursday I drove down to Kent in the early morning and spent about an hour at Oare Marshes. I didn’t tick off anything too exciting, but just breathed in the fresh air and the early morning marshland cacophony of Cetti’s Warbler, Skylark, Reed Bunting, Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher.

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View across the Swale from Oare, Kent

It was good for the soul, and prepared me for a long day of walking and beer drinking (tough life eh!?)

Kent – River Stour

[Note: the next few paragraphs take a slight detour from my birding account]

A friend and I walked from Rough Common outside Canterbury to Stodmarsh, following the River Stour wherever we could.

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The weather was simply glorious for mid-March, and I felt enveloped by Spring. I counted 19 Chiffchaff singing along the way and saw my first butterflies for the year (Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and an early Speckled Wood). Violets were everywhere, and some of the old woodlands we passed seemed lit up by Wood Anemone:

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

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Wood Anemone carpeting floor of a coppice wood

I was pleased to show my friend his first Kingfisher, plunging into a lake, and we seemed to be followed everywhere by Buzzards.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

It was also Spring for livestock and we walked past fields full of newborn calves. One of which was so new-born that the umbilical cord was still attached. It lay still and the mother helplessly licked its apparently lifeless body. I found the number for the local farm and spoke to the farmer, who arrived a few minutes later, gingerly approached the distressed cow and swung the calf by its hind legs to clear the airway. Seconds later the calf was on its feet and we were being thanked for having helped save a life.

After all of that excitement, we relaxed in the garden of a country pub, ate lots, soaked up the sun and drank pints of beer with a couple of bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

Before I return to birding more specifically, here is a picture of a frog (I’m not quite sure how else to weave in this non-sequitur):

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European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

Kent – Elmley

The following morning, whilst nursing a hangover, I still managed to brave a bit of birding at another Kent favourite of mine and over the other side of the Swale from Oare: Elmley Marshes.

I can thoroughly recommend sitting in a hide and just observing an Avocet feeding (raking its famous bill side-to-side through the mud underwater and tugging out worms) as a good hangover-friendly activity.

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Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Elmley is probably one of the best places I know – due to the slight car-safari nature of the first part of the reserve – to photograph Lapwing.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

It is also one of the best places I know – near London – where you can almost guarantee sightings of Marsh Harrier; at one point I had three in view at the same time. This was the first year tick of the trip for me (one of fifteen*[see bottom of post] over the five-day period).

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Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

My first big find of these few days of birding was a lone Spoonbill feeding in the ditches at Elmley and flying between pools:

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Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

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Horrendous record shot, but better view of the ‘spoon’!

From cursory research, I believe that this Spoonbill is the first recorded on site for over a year (although I am very aware that the landowners do not report rarities).

Other Elmley highlights included: a close encounter with a Corn Bunting perched on bramble (sadly flushed when I removed my camera from my bag, but which then called well as it flew over my head); the sight of hundreds of Shelduck in flight; similarly hundreds of Wigeon on the Swale; my first Turnstone for the year; and, a hunting Peregrine.

Essex and London

I came back to London where I had a short trip out on the Patch to pick up my first Wheatear for the year (thanks to Bob who found the pair for me after I had drawn an early-morning blank from a couple of circles around the Brooms).

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Male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

After my whirl around the patch, I visited Barking Creekmouth in Essex for the first time, but I shall document this trip separately in a later post. I then drove up to visit my family in Buckinghamshire.

Norfolk – Titchwell

The East Anglian Coast contains some of the most famous and most prolific birding sites in the country. I was lucky enough to visit a few of them over the last couple of days. This began with Titchwell Marsh.

There were large numbers of Brent Goose often grouping in small flocks across the watery pockets of the extensive marshland.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)

After failing to locate a Water Pipit that was apparently on the site, I walked to the beach. Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter had both been seen out to sea. The wind picked up as I walked out, but I was lucky in that I located a raft of bobbing black ducks way out in the waves almost as soon as I arrived.

Sea watching is simply not something I have much experience of and so, commensurately, my sea-bird list is atrociously low (there are common sea birds I still haven’t seen that make me blush with embarrassment). And so I studied this bobbing raft of ducks carefully – expecting them to be largely Common Scoter (a bird I need for my year list, but not my life list) with the hope of maybe a straggling Velvet (a bird I have never seen before) with them as well. To get a sense of what I was dealing with, here is a heavily cropped photo taken at maximum zoom  with a 400mm lens…

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Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Luckily I was armed with more than just my bins and camera as otherwise identification would have been hopeless.

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My scope in better weather near Cley the following day

The photo of the ducks above makes it look like there were two or three of them in view. There were actually ten (or apparently eleven based on what was reported afterwards by other birders), occasionally appearing above and then quickly disappearing out of sight below waves, and annoyingly rarely all in view together despite being in quite tight formation. Through the scope, the white speculum indicating Velvet Scoter seemed to be present on every bird. I was relieved to read that others had also listed this flock as “11 Velvet Scoter”, and so I got the first of my two lifers of the trip.

With all the excitement of a life tick and peering far out to sea, I had failed to realise what was coming in fast from above the waves…

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One of the last photos I took before getting soaked

The weather forecasts had predicted some ‘light showers’, but this is the North Sea. Marine winds un-touched by land since forming in the Arctic slammed the wall of heavy rain at me horizontally from the North as I struggled back to one of the nearest hides for shelter. By the time I got inside I looked like I might as well have just jumped in the sea; I was completely drenched. The pull of a warm shower, and change of clothes from my hotel room meant that the day’s birding ended rather abruptly. However, whilst taking shelter in the hide, I did add Grey Plover to my year list and watched a Chinese Water Deer stare across a saltwater scrape from a patch of reeds.

Kent – New Holkham

I rose very early the next morning with one thought on my mind or, rather, one bird: Pallid Harrier. I had actually spent some of the day before driving around the little country lanes where this juvenile female had been spotted, although had seen no sign of it. On Tuesday morning I started at the crossroads – called Blunt’s Corner – where the highest density of sightings had been recorded.

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The rain from yesterday had passed and the sky was blue, but that arctic wind had not subsided – I could not quite believe how cold it was. 

I almost felt a little silly; a rare bird capable of covering huge distances had been seen here, but what were the chances I would just bump into it?

I walked around to try and keep warm. What really struck me about the agricultural land in North Norfolk was that, despite not looking all that different from anywhere else in the UK, it seemed far richer in wildlife than I am used to. I felt at times like I had been transported back in time seventy years. Almost every field had a partridge or three in it, allowing me to tick off both Red-legged Partridge and Grey Partridge for the year. Skylark song seemed to follow me wherever I went; large flocks of Linnet rose and fell on fields like silk caught on the wind; and, Yellowhammer voices reached out to me from dense holly hedgerows (also a first for year).

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella)

If Partridges were in every field, then hares were in every other…

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European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Buzzards courted and danced over treetops and a Red Kite sailed right above my head seemingly oblivious, or uncaring, that I trampled its hunting ground below.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

I walked up alongside the high hedge in the ‘stubble field’ I’d seen quoted in the reports on the Pallid, flicking my head sharply towards the central copse – which sat like a tropical island or an oasis in the desert – every time a Wood Pigeon came clattering out. But I should have known it was already too late in the morning for a Harrier to be at roost.

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The ‘stubble field’ at Blunt’s Corner

As I turned around to walk back, I raised my bins to check out a grey blob on the hedge in the distance. It could have been anything – a Wood Pigeon or Stock Dove poking out of the top of the hedge – but it wasn’t ‘anything’; it was very much something. I’d only gone and accidentally found a Great Grey Shrike! I was still a long way from it so I crept back towards it with my camera out  – that direction was also my only way back out of the enclosed field – but it flew up in the air almost immediately, its white wing patches flashing in the morning light. It rose way up over my head in a North-easterly direction past the Copse in the photo above. I was left in a state of slight shock and with a couple of crummy record shots.

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Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)

I phoned my find through like a proud child showing his parent a painting they had done at school, only to hear the response: “Oh! Is that still there?” It appears I was more of a re-finder than a finder and that I had missed the reports as I was so focused on a certain Harrier.

At this point I bumped into a couple of other birders who had arrived. After walking around rather aimlessly in a few other directions, I headed back to the crossroads.

Crossroads have always held an important place in folklore. The place where paths meet – the ‘betwixt and between’ – is often believed to be the place where different realms touch and paranormal activity occurs. They are also traditionally a place of death; hangings and the burial places for criminals and suicides.

And so my eyes raised up beyond the crossroads and to the top of the field looking South-West and to a silhouette of a long winged bird that wasn’t right for buzzard or kite. It was something else. And so before I had seen all the distinguishing features; I called it. I literally called out to the other birders – one of whom had already got his bins fixed on it – “That’s it!”

Towards the crossroads it came, not the deathly pale colour of the male, but strangely wraith-like nonetheless, this bird straight out of Africa-on-way-to-central-Asia, but seemingly something straight out of legend. The Pallid Harrier.

I think my hands were shaking as I tried to photograph it, but even in the poor record shots I managed, the sleek harrier shape, the white tail-ring, and golden strips on the coverts of this juvenile female shine out at me.

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Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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The harrier swept across the lane into another field and up out of sight behind a long copse of trees. I couldn’t quite believe it and so kept checking my camera to remind myself what I had seen; I even tweeted a back-of-camera (‘BOC’) image of dreadful quality out to the world, perhaps as a further attempt at ‘making real’ what I had just seen.

For the benefit of those who might be tempted to go, or just for the visually curious, here is a map showing what happened…

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Just left of ‘A’ is the crossroads at Blunt’s Corner; ‘S’ marks the spot where the Shrike was seen, just to the left of the Copse showing as a green pimple; and, ‘P’ is where I first saw the Pallid Harrier, the direction it flew until it disappeared from view in the long copse at ‘?’

Norfolk – Cley and Winterton

Flushed with success, I left Blunt’s corner as the news had started percolating into the arrival of the twitch. I re-lived my Shrike-finder-shame with an elderly local gentleman who arrived:
Me: There was also a GG Shrike in that field just there.
Man: Oh ah! I saw that on compoot’ah.

Cley is, of course, a mini kingdom of birding legend – where so many rare birds have been seen; where the very tribe of ‘birders’ seemed to autochthonously appear in the 1950s and ’60s; where the great stories of the ’70s and ’80s were sown and shared; and, where such things happened as the re-introduction of the Avocet.

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Cley-next-the-Sea from Cley Marshes

To think that Avocet didn’t breed in the UK for around one hundred years seems remarkable now, as I have watched hundreds of them over the last few days, but similar stories are true also of the Marsh Harrier and Red Kite. I watched them all from Cley, along with another suspiciously narrow-winged harrier up over the hill.

But I soon headed further down the coast on reports that 12 Snow Bunting had just landed on the beach at Winterton. I walked the huge  stunning sandy beach and back up over the grassy dunes but there was no sign of the arrivals.

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Winterton

After the Snow Bunting, I then also ‘dipped’ a Cattle Egret and so decided to say goodbye to Norfolk and drove further south to Suffolk.

Suffolk – Minsmere

By the time I arrived at Minsmere, I felt like I was ticking off great reserves, rather than great birds (Titchwell, Cley, and Minsmere have all got to be well ‘up there’ amongst the premier birding sites in the UK).

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Minsmere

I arrived at about 3.30pm and felt a bit hand-held as I was helpfully shown Garganey (year tick) from one side of a hide, and White Wagtail (would be a year tick if it was recognised as a different species) from another:

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Male Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

And with that, my Eastern birding trip came to a close and I can also sign off this rather epic account.

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) at Minsmere

*The fifteen year-ticks during this ‘trip’ were:
Rook
Marsh Harrier
Turnstone
Spoonbill
Avocet
Corn Bunting
Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter (Life tick)
Grey Plover
Grey Partridge
Red-legged Partridge
Garganey
Great Grey Shrike
Pallid Harrier (Life tick)
Yellowhammer

For fun, amongst the birds I tried to see, but failed – the dips – were:
Common Scoter – would’ve been year tick
Water Pipit – not ‘needed’
Cattle Egret – would’ve been year tick
Snow Bunting – would’ve been life tick

The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.

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Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.

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In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

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The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.

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The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

Underneath the bridge

Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling

– Nirvana, Something in the Way

Sometimes, life clings onto existence despite our best efforts.

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Underside of bridge, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf

There is, perhaps, nowhere in the UK as synthetically urban as Canary Wharf. The towers of glass and steel, the steeples of Mammon, that rise out of the graveyard of industrial London’s docklands. Concrete on top of brick on top of mud with the wild ghosts of the ancient marshlands which, for the last two hundred years, have been choked and buried beneath rubble, foundations, and man-made waterways.

But still life pushes its way through, crowding the unloved and functionless corners and crannies. These are places of ‘weeds’ (“a plant growing in the wrong place”); ‘wrong’ as in unwanted.

Underneath a bridge on the eastern boundary of Canary Wharf, pushing aside the pebbles and litter grows a selection of these weeds in the shadows of the graffiti-emblazoned concrete. Catching only the morning sun and occasional spray of horizontally blown rain, these are hardy plants defying the odds of survival like some rarely encountered high-altitude mountain perennial.

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Plants and litter

Amidst the rubble and litter (and yes, those are a pair of pink mens’ boxer shorts), I counted at least 12 species of plant, and there were probably many more.

These are the ‘despite’ organisms. Things that flourish despite the best efforts of humans to sanitise the environs for the office workers like me. ‘Weed’ is a word constructed by humans placing a subjective value judgement on another living being; its life reduced to its value, or in this case ‘lack of’ value, in relation to our lives. This can also be said of the word ‘nature’, almost defined by its ‘otherness’ to the life, existence, and influences of humans, as if, really, we are anything other than just one of the 8.7 million species of lifeforms clinging to this rock as we all hurtle through space.

But perhaps there is an ‘otherness’, not so much of the perceived inferiority of all other life on our home planet, but in the way that we desperately seek to separate ourselves from it, to tame it, to exploit it, or simply to destroy it. That ‘otherness’ has been culturally stamped into us through the centuries by the Abrahamic religions and their comprehensive rejection of anything that might be perceived as ‘animism’. That ‘otherness’ that justifies our subjugation of everything else in the world in the name of ‘progress’.

Setting aside the organisms trampled by ‘progress’ – the birds, butterflies, mammals, and plants now extinct due to the excesses of us – these swarming narcissistic bald apes – a few living beings have the audacity to flourish in our shadows. The ‘weeds’ under the bridge; the gulls that circle the fish market just a short walk from the bridge; the rats that are largely unseen, but we all know are there under the bridge and shudder because of it; and the feral pigeons that roost and brood in the gaps under the bridge. These are organisms that disgust us; feeders on filth, parasites, and vermin. But what really disgusts us? Is it the rats, and pigeons, and weeds, or the fact that they simply reflect the wasteful profligacy with which we live our lives? 

‘Nature’ is ‘good’ when it is beamed into our warm living rooms preserved within the aspic of pixels and remoteness, and preferably with a voiceover by Sir David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. The vulnerability of distant endangered creatures pulling at our heart-strings as we cook, burn, pollute, and trash our planet, whilst the small section of life that has adapted rather well to our appetite for excess and destruction, makes us recoil in fear and disgust.

If you ever want to be reminded that humanity and nature are ‘one’, just take a long hard look underneath the bridge.

If this post was a little hard for you to stomach, don’t worry I shall return with quainter tales of patch birding soon. If this post intrigued you, you may wish to investigate some of these thoughts – more elegantly and thoughtfully put – through The Dark Mountain Project.

Smash and grab birding

Sometimes birding can be an almost spiritual experience: alone in the wild; seeking; observing; experiencing. And sometimes it is… err… not.

I had little time for the patch this weekend, with other commitments. But when our resident larid enthusiast, Tony, found a Mediterranean Gull on Alexandra pond (the first since the likely demise of our annually-appearing old timer, Valentino), or rather when I woke up to see that Jonathan had just seen it on the Western Flats (barely a skip and hop from my front door), I thought I had better check it out.

I found a large flock of Black-headed Gull and Common Gull all facing into the strong wind on the football pitches, and immediately began a thorough scan. I adjusted my position several times to get better views of some of the obscured gulls and scanned again, and again. Despite Jono having seen the Med Gull just half an hour or so before I arrived (and posting photographic proof), I could not find it.

My best find in the large flock was a colour ringed BH Gull. There is something exciting about ringed gulls – to get a sense of the age and provenance of a bird. Was it ringed in Norway, or Germany, or even further afield? When I finally managed to get enough of a view of the markings, I was very quickly a little disappointed. This particular gull, let’s call him ‘2LBA’ now, has already been recorded at least twice on the patch before (once in March of last year, and then again just a few months ago in December), and from Tony’s list, I could see that it was ringed in the exotic location of Fishers Green… just a few miles up the road in June 2015.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) ringed ‘2LBA’

Tony advised me via a certain restricted character social networking platform to ‘try Alex’. I was hungover, I had a meeting I needed to get to on the other side of London, it was very windy. I questioned how much I wanted a Med Gull on my patch year list. But I went. Right across the whole flipping patch in search for this gull. When I got to Alex, my heart sank, most of the gulls seemed to be circling high in the wind and the rest were spread all over the donut-shaped water and the muddy beaches. It would take a lot of time to scan everything, and I did not have time. To cut this rather lengthy story much shorter… I failed. Gave up. Walked back in the wind, and raced off to my meeting.

Rather like the great Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, I woke up this morning to more alerts on my phone telling me that the Med Gull was still out there. On the Western Flats again, where it had last been seen, and where I felt sure I had thoroughly checked the day before. I had even less time than yesterday to find it, but I shot out once again, with a buddhist chant on my determined lips – more as a superstitious good luck charm than any profound spiritual incantation. By the time I arrived, today’s ‘finder’, Bob, had already left. Yet again, there was a – slightly smaller this time – flock of grounded gulls. But this time, after a matter of seconds of scanning, I saw it: Initially its smudgy mid-moult head was turned back and its distinctive bill was hidden in its plumage in roost. But its clean, pure white wing-tips were unmistakeable. Before long the big red bill was out and we exchanged glances, I rattled off a couple of distant pics and I let the gulls be.

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Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

If that was ‘tick and run’ birding, then an hour or two later I descended into a ‘smash and grab’ exercise. Jono – looking for the Med Gull again – stumbled across a friendly female Red-crested Pochard on Jubilee pond. With my wife and mother waiting in the car, I quickly dashed out around the pond to grab a couple of pics. I was struck by the difference in behaviour between this female – without any fear of humans and clearly looking to be fed – and the male I found last year on Heronry pond that stayed well away from everyone. Perhaps they were both feral. Perhaps this female was, and the male was a true vagrant visitor. I doubt we will ever know. What I do know, is that my slow-moving year-lists increased by ‘two’ today.

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Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

 

Amsterdam

So, Amsterdam, where have you been all my life?

I have actually been to Amsterdam a few times before, but only changing flights at Schiphol so I had never actually seen the famous city. I rectified that last weekend with my wife and in-laws (my sister in-law is lucky enough to live in this amazing city).

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It is, of course, the city that never should have been. A city reclaimed from the sea, with a web of famous canals below sea level while the city itself is propped up by pillars.

The famous canals curve round to feed (or, more accurately, be fed by) the Amstel and the mighty IJ – defined by some as  a river and others a lake, whilst it looks like a narrow strip of sea to me from the map. The Amstel not only gave its name to the beer, but to the city itself.

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The Amstel

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Amsterdam is also famous for bicycles (millions of these!), and art…

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.

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The Rijksmuseum

The Vermeer’s are exquisite , the Rembrandt’s are sublime, and there are some other hidden gems in this huge gallery that drew my attention but wouldn’t, perhaps, be featured in any highlight guide of the museum.

From the titillating (this painting of a young woman removing her stocking and exposing her thighs was seen as so outrageously erotic when first unveiled, it was partially painted over)…

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Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1655-1660

… to the spiritual. I was captivated by this chap (below). His name is Ajita. He is one of the legendary Arhats or lohans, a Buddhist sage tasked with preserving the doctrines until the time when the teachings can be understood. He is listening carefully and serenely to a sutra being recited. In an age where we struggle to listen, I think many of us could learn from Ajita.

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A lohan, anonymous. China, c.1200-1400

I drooled over the museum’s library…

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Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…

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Drake Pintail, Rochus van Veen. 1682

Amsterdam is, of course, famous for one or two other things as well. All I will say on those matters is that if the salesperson in a coffeeshop tells you that a ‘space-cake’ is for sharing between two, don’t eat a whole one!

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Coffeeshop, Amsterdam

Birding the Yucatan: Part V (The Island)

My wife on Isla Contoy

My wife on Isla Contoy

There exist few hospitable places left on earth that can claim to be truly ‘untouched’ or ‘unspoilt’, but given its accessibility, the small ‘Isla Contoy’ off the coast from Cancun, gets pretty close.

Only just over five miles long, this narrow strip of rock, sand, and mangrove only just peeks up above the turquoise waters of the Carribbean sea.

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boart

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boat

Much is made of the unspoilt wild beauty of the island, and it is very beautiful, but all is not quite what it seems. The island has secrets, and one of them is quite deadly.

First of all, it is certainly not a pristine habitat, untouched by the meddling influence of man. The scene of tropical paradise below is perhaps somewhat tainted if you realise that the palm trees should not actually be there at all, but were planted or introduced by humans…

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Introduced palm trees

In the foreground of the photo, and covering much of the island, is one of the four species of mangroves (more on them later as they are a clue to the island’s deadly secret).

The palms are not the only signs of the human touch. There are a few buildings, although literally only a few (in single digits), including a dock where visitors arrive, an observation tower where they look out, and a couple of habitations for the four or five rotating temporary conservation workers who are the only human residents. Aside from guides and scientists, only 200 tourists are permitted to visit a day, and must abide by a number of rules to protect the ecosystems (such as not wearing sun cream).

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View from the highest point on the island with dock and observation tower visible

While the human presence is thankfully small, there are large numbers of birds. Frigate birds in their many thousands use the islands as a breeding ground.

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

The chicks perch precariously (frigatebirds don’t actually ever truly perch, they just sort of rest on something) in the mangroves above the lagoons while large fish swim around menacingly below. Sometimes the chicks fall in the water.

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Frigatebird chick

Wading shorebirds visit the islands in large numbers as well. I stood on a small jetty photographing the Spoonbills (below) in the distance on a lagoon when a guide brought his tourists to look at them. He pointed at them and said in Spanish “Mira! Flamencos” (“Look! Flamingos”) – I didn’t embarrass him and, to be fair, they were quite far away and flamingos do apparently visit the island in large numbers, although I didn’t see any there.

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Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

There are good numbers of ibis, herons, and all manner of waders, big and small, including the the ultimate ‘shorebird’…

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(Ruddy Turnstone) Arenaria interpres

I photographed this chap on the beach as we boarded our boat home. The reason it fills the  whole frame is I couldn’t step back far enough or change my lens fast enough to get a more pleasant aspect.

Terns and other sea-birds can also be found circling, or come on to the island to roost or breed. And that’s it. I mean, we are talking over 150 species, so not bad for such a small island, but there are no passerines whatsoever on the island.

The reason there are no resident perching/song-birds or anything similar, or any resident mammals, is the same reason why the island has never been been fully inhabited by humans. There is no freshwater. No rivers, no springs, or ponds, just very salty lagoons.

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Lagoon and the ocean

Humans have visited the islands for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Mayan pottery and carved shells have been found, but these were likely left by visiting sea-farers. The island has only ever been accessible by boat.

On approach and departure from the island, for miles, the sea is shallow and almost impossibly turquoise. We did some snorkelling, although the reefs in this area are not large or in great condition. More impressive is the odd dark circular shape that we saw as the boat moved through the sea. At certain points these rock-like shapes were really quite numerous – and sometimes almost the size of a small car. And they were moving. The island and the sea around it is an important breeding area for sea turtles. In fact all four of the major turtles breed on the island’s beaches: Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and the largest turtle in the world, the Leatherback.

We saw other dark shapes in the sea. From a distance it appeared to be a small black island, and then a floating mat of some sort. We got closer to see a densely packed flock (or ‘gulp’) of several hundred, maybe thousands, of cormorants…

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Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

As our boat powered alongside them, we all watched transfixed as the tightly packed gulp became a flight. The black shape, turned black and white by the splashing wings and feet, soon became an elongated cloud that stretched further than my camera lens could encompass and passed alongside and then out beyond the boat. It was a magnificent wild spectacle of the first order that is only poorly translated into pixels.

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Cormorants in flight

Trip list

Having finally come to the end of this rather long, serialised trip report of my time in Mexico, I can now include the trip list of species positively identified while we were out there.

As I said in a previous post, the list is nowhere near as long as it should have been, but it includes a number of life-firsts (marked below by a star*), and there were an even greater number of fantastic memories. The double-crested cormorants above, were not rare or unusual, but seeing this huge flock on a turquoise sea was an incredible experience I shall never forget. If you have the opportunity to visit the Yucatan, I heartily recommend it.

  1. Spotted Sandpiper
  2. Wilson’s Plover*
  3. Willet*
  4. Mangrove Warbler*
  5. Red-winged Blackbird
  6. Groove-billed Ani
  7. Tropical Kingbird
  8. Least Tern*
  9. Great Egret
  10. Palm Warbler*
  11. Dunlin
  12. Greater Yellowlegs*
  13. Black-necked Stilt*
  14. Mangrove Swallow*
  15. Mangrove Vireo*
  16. Tropical Mockingbird*
  17. Tri-coloured Heron*
  18. American Flamingo
  19. Royal Tern*
  20. Brown Pelican
  21. White Pelican
  22. Laughing Gull
  23. Caspian Tern
  24. Turnstone
  25. Sandwich Tern
  26. Ring-billed Gull
  27. Ruddy Ground Dove
  28. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher*
  29. Yellow Warbler
  30. White-winged Dove*
  31. Golden-fronted Woodpecker*
  32. Osprey
  33. Green Heron
  34. Black Vulture
  35. Northern Jacana
  36. Anhinga
  37. Altimara Oriole*
  38. Social Flycatcher
  39. Magnolia Warbler*
  40. Cinnamon Hummingbird*
  41. Black-crowned Night Heron*
  42. Pygmy Kingfisher*
  43. Lesser Scaup
  44. Double-crested Cormorant
  45. Reddish Egret*
  46. Vermillion Flycatcher
  47. Lesser Yellowlegs*
  48. Blue-winged Teal
  49. White Ibis
  50. Great Blue Heron
  51. Wilson’s Phalarope
  52. Empidonax (sp?) Flycatcher
  53. Turquoise-browed Motmot*
  54. Hooded Oriole*
  55. Clay-coloured Thrush
  56. Yellow-olive Flatbill*
  57. Greyish Saltator*
  58. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  59. Lesser Greenlet*
  60. Spot-breasted Wren*
  61. Turkey Vulture
  62. Hawk (sp?)
  63. Brown Jay
  64. Great-tailed Grackle
  65. Bronzed Cowbird*
  66. Great Kiskadee
  67. Red-throated Ant Tanager*
  68. Rose-throated Becard*
  69. White-bellied Wren*
  70. Myiarchus (sp?) Flycatcher
  71. Plain Chachalaca*
  72. Roseate Spoonbill
  73. American Golden Plover*
  74. Cave Swallow*
  75. Euphonia (sp?)
  76. Barn Swallow
  77. Northern Cardinal
  78. Collared Dove
  79. Black-cowled Oriole*
  80. Common Ground Dove*
  81. Feral Pigeon
  82. Yucatan Jay*
  83. Snowy Egret
  84. Yucatan Wren* (heard only)

*= Life Tick.