Saturday, 12 December 2009

Dreaming Spires Day

(thanks for the dreaming spires image en:User:Diliff)

To Oxford and a most interesting symposium on "birds, culture and conservation" organised by Paul Jepson and Mark Cocker. There is a blog associated with the event. Paul's home page should soon have a link. The day was filled with a marvellous miscellany of short talks on subjects including birding in ancient Greece, the bleeding pelican emblem, high class ornithological haiku poetry, and the astonishing difference between the testicles of a Bullfinch and an Aquatic Warbler. I gave an account of how technology has helped to shape some aspects of birding over the past 15 years. And for general amusement we disinterred this historic first-ever BirdGuides home page from 1996.



Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pomarine Skua and Bittern

In our never-ending quest to film all the birds of the Western Palearctic in HD, some species turn out to be trickier than others. Ring-necked Parakeets and plasticky Egyptian Geese are like falling off a log here in central London, but other species are by their very nature a whole lot harder. This applies to pelagic species in their entirety. The last time we filmed European Storm-petrel there were two black pixels, separated by a white one. Not top-quality footage.

The photo galleries had been filling up all week with some stunning shots of a photogenic Pomarine Skua over in Gloucestershire. Last night a quick check of Gloster Birder confirmed it was still in residence, and a commando Saturday twitch was planned, via a rendezvous with a bird of an entirely different sort. So forgive me whilst I digress for a moment:

For those of you who are trapped within the confines of the M25, let me recommend my favourite source of Interesting Things To Do. Ianvisits is a London institution, and I look forward to his weekly email. It's packed full of entertaining ideas, lots free, for enjoying London to the full. It's often quirky, occassionally ever-so-slightly anoraky, but ALWAYS up-to-date and chock-full of stuff. Ian, we salute you. (Not least because I once starred in one of his blog-posts in my alternative life).

So - this morning's first outing was scheduled. We were to intercept a Bittern as it passed through Slough en route to the Pom Skua. Maps were consulted to find a bridge over the mainline railway from Paddington to Slough, and I eventually found myself in a leafy Slough suburb. The Bittern was duly twitched.
Hooray. A marvellous moment as this miracle of steam passed underneath the bridge. Then onward to Beachley, just over the old Severn crossing.
Here's the small twitch. The Pom was in residence at this point but hiding under a tussock - we waited for about half an hour and then it treated us to a fly-by down to about two feet! It's a ridiculously confiding bird. Here frame-grabs. I'll do some YouTube tomorrow with any luck...Some of you may find the following images revolting disturbing. If you don't like rotting sheep brain then look away now!
What a bird! It's slightly tatty - but top marks for filmability and general loveliness. I did warn you about the sheep. So - thanks to all of the kind and helpful birders we met today, and those who were texting me with updates. It was a really great twitch.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Moths and mushrooms

November mothing is always cold and miserable, but has the merits of 1) trap opening is at a civilised hour in the morning and 2) mushrooming can be productive. This weekend was no exception. We set two Skinners, my Robinson and the heath trap, and whilst meandering around Perivale wood with trailing cables I found a lovely patch of Wood Blewitts (amongst other less edible species). Hooray.

Mottled UmberWinter Moth

Dusking was a story of Winter Moths. They were everywhere to the point that we stopped counting. Trap opening in the morning resulted in Scarce and Mottled Umbers, The Chestnut, an orange Satellite, a December Moth and more Winter Moths. A good haul given the conditions.

So on Saturday night I took my life in my hands and had blewitts on toast (don't worry I didn't consume the unidentified Agaricus). I have to report that they were completely delicious. And more than 36 hours have passed and I'm still here. I'm told their might be Ceps in Kensington Gardens...


I leave you with the astonishingly bright rainbow that appeared over Queensway on Sunday lunchtime. Apologies for the duff iPhone pic.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Friday, 20 November 2009

Weekly email improvements

We've been working hard on improving your weekly newsletter experience. Some of you will already have noted some changes. So what's it all about?

We've changed the email address we send the weekly news from to donotreply@birdguides.com. So if you haven't seen your weekly news this week - I suggest you go and look in your spam folder. Adding donotreply@birdguides.com to your address book should keep us permanently in your "good books". The reason for changing is to try and discourage people from replying to an unmonitored email address.

1000 lucky people received our first attempt at an html newsletter this week. It's a bit of a departure from our old text-only version. Hopefully it's easier to navigate, and a bit more interesting on the eye. Of course - if you're not fond of the new version, there's an option to remain with the old plain text version. You can fiddle with your setting here.

We hope you enjoy the changes. We're keen to have your feedback - so do let us know your thoughts.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Fungus Foray at Tower Hamlets

I'm not very good at East London - Tower Hamlets is practically Belgium for us West London softies. But that said I wandered over to Mile End on the tube to join in a seasonable Fungus Foray courtesy of the good people of London Natural History Society and the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery. The weather was mild and sunny after yesterday's gales and driving rain, so it was good to soak up some much needed November sunshine.

Tower Hamlets cemetery is one of the "Magnificent Seven", and is a wonderful nature reserve. No people have been planted there for years. The stones are all higgledy piggledy and skew-whiff, covered in rambling ivy and green algae. There's rotten wood everywhere - so it's the perfect place for a spot of mushrooming.
The foray was ably led by Keir Mottram, and he was quite brilliant. Our little gaggle of almost thirty people explored the nooks and crannies between the graves trying to out-do each other for edibility, toxicity, size and lurid colours. A common mushroom (and happily edible) was the Shaggy Parasol as modelled below:

These are Stump Puffballs, and are no longer edible in this state (but they are when still young and white).

And my favourite tale from this afternoon. This is Glistening Inkcap - named after the powder that is present on its cap when very young. If you hold them up to the light they shine prettily, and someone has charmingly dubbed it the Twinkling Inkling.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Vismigging at Tower 42

I'm still slightly wobbly. This morning saw me out of my front door at 0450 (eek), in Notting Hill for 0505 (picking up David Lindo), outside Paddington Green police station (picking up Des McKenzie - he wasn't in the cells honest) at 0515, and at Tower 42 for 0545. Wow.

We met with Mark Pearson (notable east London birder) and two burly chaps (see below) who would be ensuring we didn't come to any harm, and started to make our way up, and up, and up. Two separate lift rides saw us reach level 42 smartish - but then came "the push". We slogged up a couple of flights of stairs, squeezed our way past boilers and aircon infrastructure, wended up a teeny spiral staircase, climbed two functional ladders, and finally emerged in an exhausted heap onto the surprisingly small roof of London's second tallest building.


We stood around spellbound in the dark for a couple of minutes. Twinkling lights as far as the eye could see, interspersed with legendary views, instantly recognisable and suddenly carpeted like a living map before us. The Eye, Tower Bridge, St. Paul's, Monument, the Gherkin, the Thames, HMS Belfast, Tate Modern all obvious landmarks in the vista.

It soon became clear that filming was going to prove a challenge. The tops of buildings need to serve certain functions. There were enormous fans, boiler outlets, satellite dishes, lightning conductors, a weather station, big lights for air-traffic, vents and poles and bits of sticky-up metal that seemed designed to trip up unwary tripod-wielders. The fans made lots of noise and emitted clouds of steam which (although providing some welcome warmth), was fogging the camera.

Anyway - enough of my moaning. You'll see the results in one of our forthcoming Lindo at Large films. Suffice to say that the promised squadrons of Wood Pigeons did not appear. I leave you with some bad iPhone pictures of the shenanigans.

Monday, 26 October 2009

More green leps

It's an appallingly long time since I last managed to blog. It's desperately busy with pre-Christmas tasks, the usual background of running the website and a company meeting on Holy Island - but that's really no excuse.

The past few weeks have seen me filming David Lindo over at the London Wetland Centre, a trip out to film Queen of Spain Fritillaries and the infestation of my porch with Harlequins.Look - annoying critters. They're spreading like wildfire - and are surely the commonest ladybird in London now. Luckily for them they're in an unreachable corner of my porch.

October mothing at Perivale produced several lovely Feathered Thorns, Red-line Quakers, Bricks, November Moths and this beautiful Red-green Carpet:
Tomorrow I'm off to Broadcasting House to be interviewed for Radio Four. Good grief. Has no-one warned them about my impenetrable Scottish accent? Last time I looked radio didn't come with subtitles...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Shetland Shindig

I've just staggered back to London after an excellent weekend's wildlife exploring in Shetland. More to follow once I've unpacked and triaged the steaming pile of emails that await. To whet your appetites I attach a photo. Roger Riddington (editor of the esteemed British Birds) aka Strider is on the left, and Martin Garner (uber-birder and author of Frontiers in Birding) is on the right. We haven't decided which hobbit he is yet. They're looking for a rostrata Redpoll.
I think it badly needs a caption. Please post your suggestions.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Final Frit



I thought we had completed the full set of British Fritillaries back in June when we finally nailed High Brown in the valleys near Dartmoor. But then reading my treasured copy of Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington's "The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland" I was reminded of the beautiful Queen of Spain.

This has always been an exceptionally rare insect in the UK. The nearest colonies are on the coastal dunes of mainland Europe. Many decades ago, Queen of Spain Fritillaries used to breed near Calais. It seems that individuals from this relatively adjacent colony would occasionally make it across the Channel, perhaps breeding for a generation in Southern counties if they could find the pansies that are their larval foodplant. Sadly, the Calais colony is long gone and sightings in England are now few and far between.

Nevertheless, the mention of coastal breeding colonies got me thinking. A spot of research soon threw up several promising sites in Holland. So on the back of another meeting in the Netherlands, very late in the season, an attempt was made to track down this elusive butterfly that just about makes it onto the British list.

I am delighted to say the expedition was a success. Her Majesty was finally located in some fine sand dunes located in a most dubious situation between a raucous dog pound and a roaring motor racing circuit! The sound track may need a spot of improvement, but the fritillaries themselves performed splendidly for the camera: nectaring, basking and even copulating.

It seems an age to wait for next Spring and the awakening of the Orange Tips that will herald a new season. Let's hope it is as good a one as 2009 has been. Perhaps we will be very lucky and see one final firework this year: with luck the Clouded Yellows may yet perform in October. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tufted Puffin

Good grief! The Red-billed Tropicbird and the Blackburnian Warbler were enough for any week. But no. This morning the phone rang with an excitable and slightly panicking news operator on the end: "I can't get a Tufted Puffin to be a Mega!". I was pondering why on earth one would want a Tufted Puffin to be a Mega as the penny slowly dropped. There was one. Really. In the UK.

Cue quickfire questioning and lots of swearing. Who, what, where, how, WTF? Are we sure? I pressed the big Mega button with trembling fingers and rang Mark Golley: "There's a Tufted Puffin! Yes seriously. Don't know - get yourself to Kent."

The phone immediately rang again: the Press Association. Then it went a bit nuclear. The Guardian, the BBC, photo desk editors, updates from the scene, more press, all interspersed with the usual daily tasks. Slowly the news began to take shape. Yes it was real, there are photos and a magical seven lucky people saw it. Bets are taken as to where it's going to turn up: should we all go and stake out Westminster Bridge with sardines for chum? Is it already whirring past Porthgwarra? Has anyone phoned round the collections yet?

We're all rather dazed. Fingers crossed for the wee gem turning back up tomorrow so that everyone has a fighting chance of seeing this unexpected First for Britain and Ireland. Some of you will remember my previous plea for prospective firsts - this wasn't on it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Pied Wag post script

One of the things we should all do at this time of year is to clear out our nestboxes. Once you've disposed of any contents, you can disinfect the box with boiling water. Let it dry out, and perhaps put some wood shavings or hay (not straw) inside in case it's used over the winter as a roost.

We followed our own advice and cleaned out our poor Pied Wagtail nest. Andrew did the intrepid ladder-climbing and popped the abandoned nest and eggs in a plastic tub for inspection.
The nest is made of twigs and some moss, and has been lined with feathers, hair and some wool. The clutch of 5 eggs is typical (according to the BTO data in our Breeding Birds software). I guess we'll never know why the nest failed. It could have been the super-hot spell we had whilst the birds were incubating. I'm going to re-site the box somewhere more shaded for next year.

Other happenings this week included a trip to visit invertebrate-artist god, Richard Lewington (where entertainingly there was a grasshopper perched on his front wall). A meeting with the good people of Bumblebee Conservation Trust was very productive, and I finally finished fiddling with my new Lindo at Large. It'll be appearing on the webzine very soon.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Fruit Thieves Framed



Far too many green moths and butterflies have featured recently on this blog. Time for some green birds. And what could be greener than this fine family of Ring-necked Parakeets that I finally managed to capture – red-handed – in my pear tree. On HD video that is.

That is Mrs Parakeet on the left, junior in the middle and, Pa Parkeet flying in for a fruit feast on the right. They do this every autumn, although it is devilishly difficult to catch them on camera. They are even worse than crows for knowing that you are attempting to film them. Early morning is best.

These pears are at a height of about 30 feet, and fortuitously there is a window more or less level that provides a convenient vantage point. It is astonishingly easy to miss these brightly coloured birds quietly chomping away in the foliage. Same camouflage technique as Golden Orioles I suppose.

Should we welcome these recent invaders? They have become one of the more numerous and vocal birds in the parks around Acton where BirdGuides' London office is based. Presumably they compete with other hole-nesting birds such as Great Spotted Woodpecker and perhaps Stock Dove. I hear on the grape vine that moves are afoot to curb the Parakeet population. Does anyone know of hard evidence that they are doing harm to the natural population? And are there any reliable estimates of their current population?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Behind the Birdfair

Wednesday
I’d guess for most visitors to the British Birdfair it consists of a day spending money and dodging rain in far too hot and humid marquees. For BirdGuides the Birdfair began several months ago preparing a grand total of 4 (!) new products for release. For me it started on Wednesday, up in a ‘sunny’ town somewhere near Sheffield. Here with Andy Hirst I was to load around 300 copies of Rare Birds Where and When, around the same for Lee Evan’s Ultimate Site Guide, a large quantity of Breeding Birds DVD-Roms, MP4 guides, Frontiers in Birding and Finding Birds in... books, several display boards, a TV, a monitor and two boxes of every DVD we had in stock into a hired van. It was a stiflingly hot day and the van was airless making packing very hard work.
Loading and then unloading all those boxes is like a very expensive game of jenga, especially after four sharp turns, trying to open the door to the rear of the van and not get crushed under the weight of 600 or so falling books. By 6pm Andy and I have set up the backbones of our display and head back to our hotel.

Thursday
Today was the behind-the-scenes bit that not many birders get to see. Having erected the skeleton of our stand yesterday, today was fleshing it out, setting up display boards with all our product information on, going under tables to plug in extension leads and wrestling with Ikea stands. Halfway through this Pete Ellison, the BirdGuides technical support wizard, turned up with a computer and a briefcase full of MP3 and 4 players and proceeded to drill holes in tables and use copious amounts of fishing line to make them secure. It was now 2pm and time to lift the masses of books and DVDs out of the van, sort them by product and number and then place them on the display. One of the embellishments for the stand is a rather funky scrolling digital message display thing, that I’m informed managed to turn up with the instructions for the first time ever. However the instructions weren’t actually any help at all, so Andy set about trying to program it to say “BirdGuides better birding through technology” whilst I was doing all the manual labour.
After a horrendous journey Fiona and Dave Dunford arrive, whilst the semi-legendary Dave Gosney popped around with his new DVD and book to stock the stand with. The whole day (I think) goes fairly smoothly, which is great for stress levels but less so for writing!

Friday
The first few minutes of today were spent panicking, making sure the computers were still working and smartening out the stand. Max arrives and phones for my help. There is a slight problem, he’s in blue car park and I have no idea where that is. I ask a person on the gate who directed me towards the wrong car park, before I find the right track to blue car park. Which is a very long track. Eventually I find Max who needs help carrying 2 boxes and a widescreen TV. We got some dodgy looks carrying that through the fair.
My specific job was to show and sell BWPi, BBi and Breeding Birds. After an hour where no one showed any interest at all in BWPi, except for one person who came to talk to me because I looked bored, Fiona gave me a ‘tutorial’ on how not to scare customers off. So with my new friendly approach I got blamed for Vista and Dell. After a while and a surprise visit from Connor Rand I finally managed to sell a copy of Breeding Birds. For the rest of the day I varied my job between selling BWPi, restocking, talking to people about DVDs and attempting to explain MP3, MP4 and the differences to a cross section of interested people. Other people I met included James and Simeon Grundy, Richard Bonser, someone called Lee Evans and Alan Tilmouth (who caused me some confusion because he looks similar and was wearing the same colour shirt as the man who designed the BirdGuides catalogue, who I’d just been talking to.) On the way out one of the semi-plastic Ospreys flew high over the van.

Saturday
After a slower start to Saturday I was allowed an hour to leave the stand to go around the fair with my Dad who’d just arrived with my AS level results. To my horror the only second-hand copy of Alula going on the Fair Isle stand that I had been eyeing up since they put it there on Thursday had been bought. But I enjoyed the rest of my brief run around the rest of the Birdfair, Marquee 1 in particular (The Sound Approach, Dutch Birding, second-hand books etc.) being a very expensive place to walk through.
By the time I was back on the stand it had become very busy with stock flying off the shelf, a long line forming in front of Lee Evans and David Lindo hanging around the stand.
At this point I was wondering if the heat and dehydration had got to me, or weather I really did just see Nick Baker dancing with an inflatable shark being followed by a badger in flippers over on the Wildlife Trusts stand. The scary thing is, I think that actually happened. The afternoon went well with a steady stream of customers, all seemingly either buying or happy with our products or service.

Towards the end of the day the crowds tailed off, enabling me to talk to David and Viv from the BTO who had been on our stand promoting the nest record scheme and have a talking to from Lee Evans. I finally left for home at 5pm having enjoyed my utterly exhausting time at the Birdfair.

Me selling BWPi. Spot Max.
Me in action at the #birdfair yesterday. on Twitpic
Oooof - we have arrived! Twitterings tomorrow if mobile recep... on Twitpic

Sunday, 23 August 2009

BirdGuides and BTO Plans Hatch at the British Birdwatching Fair




Just back from a hectic and enjoyable couple of days at the British Birdwatching Fair. The event is an intoxicating combination of the Grand Bazaar in Istambul, a Turkish bath, a mega twitch in October and Tescos on Saturday morning. And why, oh why, does almost everyone go around with at least one pair of binoculars dangling round their neck?

The BirdGuides stand featured a fine display of body piercing. Pictured is Dave Leech, head of the BTO's Nest Record Scheme sporting rings in both ear lobe and nostril. And lower down is Lee Evans, wearing a fine crucifix earring, imparting words of wisdom to Alan Tilmouth (kneeling in homage) of Dusted Off Bins fame.

Both Dave and Lee were with us to show off new titles launched at the Birdfair. Dave Leech and his colleagues at the BTO have provided extensive input to our interactive guide to Breeding Birds, presenting almost 9,000 photographs collected over several decades by Peter and Richard Castell.

Lee Evans was signing copies of his new book: The Ultimate Site Guide to Scarcer British Birds. This 3rd edition has been extensively expanded and revised. It has been almost 10 years since the previous edition was published, and the new edition was in great demand.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Last of the Summer Hairstreaks


One of the delights of pursuing butterflies is the way that different species come and go as the great wheel of summer turns. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are five different species of hairstreaks in Britain and Ireland, each named after their vaguely predominant colour. The last of the hairstreaks to appear, peaking in the middle fortnight of August, is the Brown Hairstreak. In fact orange or gold might be a more appropriate epithet for these beautiful insects, certainly the most attractive and quite possibly the laziest of this enigmatic band of butterflies (the name comes from the faint while lines on their underwing). Both sexes spent almost their entire adult lives resting invisible at the tops of tall trees, feasting on honeydew and keeping themselves strictly to themsleves.

Recently we returned to Steyning in West Sussex to have another crack at filming Brown Hairstreaks using the new macro lens on our HD camera. Guess who we bumped into... yes of course, none other than Butterfly-meister Neil Hulme from the Sussex branch of Butterfly Conservation. It was Neil who first guided us to film Brown Hairstreak in 2008. He has not lost his touch. Within an hour he had located a female BH in fine fettle. She had descended heavily pregnant from the inaccessible treetops to flit among the blackthorn bushes at human level, laying the occasional egg. We were able to keep up with her for the best part of an hour, adding some wonderful footage that will be incorporated in our forthcoming butterfly video guide.

That is a project that will keep me busy in the cutting room this autumn. I'd like to have it ready in time for Christmas. The format will be similar to our 16-hour long Video Guide to British Birds. The running time will be shorter of course (61 as opposed to 270 species) but there is now a huge amount of gorgeous material to edit down and write commentaries for.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Great Yellow in the Can


The more I film bumblebees, the more I discover I don't know about their identification. That's why we are hard at work planing an interactive guide to the 20 or so British species. One of the rarest is Bombus distinguendus... or the Great Yellow Bumblebee to give its unscientific name. These beautiful creatures used to be quite widespread in the UK, but now are sadly confined to the very north of Scotland, including parts of the Outer Hebrides. That is the best place to go to film them and I am pleased to say that a trip there last weekend delivered the goods.

The preferred habitat of the Great Yellow is machair. This is exquisite flowering coastal meadow, that yields a succession of different nectar sources through the season. Currently knapweed is fairly widespread and the bees are feasting on it. Although few and far between, there was little problem identifying B. distinguendus: yellow bottom, mostly yellow top apart from a thin black stripe across the thorax.

Other bumbles remaining on the target list include B. jonellus and B. soroeensis. These are MUCH less easy to identify, being only subtly different from much more common species such as B. lucorum. Fortunately our friends at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust have generously offered to scrutinize the footage and pronounce on ID.

Watch this space.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Guest Blog Part 2

So after the first exciting week, it was time to get busy and finish what I’d started. The week went something like this…

Monday
Logging

Tuesday
Logging

Wednesday
Logging

Thursday
Logging and filming!

Friday
Logging

We set our filming date for Thursday due to the forecast. Unsurprisingly the met office got it wrong and our first trip out was aborted as soon as we got onto the road and saw the leaden grey skies and shower of rain. It was however temporarily salvaged with a Thai red curry… But by 3.30pm I was sent out to see what they sky looked like and by 4 we were back in the car, laden with camera and tripod. The destination was Perivale Woods, the target species was Essex Skipper and the shot we wanted was a macro of the smudgy black tip to the antenna, separating this species from the ridiculously similar but orange tipped antenna of Small Skipper; a species of which there is plenty of footage in the BirdGuides archive. I know- I’ve logged it.

Perivale Woods was a surprise to me, I thought all remotely interesting places in London had been bulldozed, concreted over and turned into Tesco’s or instead made into safe community parks with no wild fringes and nice safety fences. But instead this site survives under the Selbourne Society, a fitting tribute to Gilbert White, with a moth list of 600.

We were to have less luck however, as an hours worth of tramping around a lovely meadow turned up only Small Copper, Small Skipper and lots of small Crickets. If it was small it had it… So we filmed Small Skipper anyway. After Max had secured the macro shot of the antennae, just in case, I was let loose with the camera. I expected it to be easy. I was wrong. Firstly the viewfinder is black and white and off centre. Remember looking through an angled scope for the first time? Its like that but in black and white and because its macro, the resulting depth of field is razor thin, so if its out of focus its exceedingly tricky to find anything again, let alone what you wanted to film. And if what you wanted to film comes with wings, is very small and flighty…
Nevertheless I managed to film a short clip of the same skipper in the same pose as Max had.
Here’s what Max got…

…and what I got…

…practice required I think.

Anyway I must now leave for two weeks holiday spent hoping the Pacific Golden Plover at Breydon stays, so my next post should be a behind the scenes tale of the birdfair...

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

It's hard being an intern

You get given all the worst jobs...We thought Steve's blogpost needed a photo for illustration.

Guest Blogging

Hello, I’m Stephen Rutt, 17 year-old intern, tea-maker, logger and now guest-blogger with BirdGuides. Since Monday I’ve been in their London office helping out Max, Fiona and John with their various projects, which contrary to the popular belief of my birding friends is more then just being another news service.

Instead since I arrived here late Monday morning I was launched straight into the proof reading of Lee G R Evans updated ‘The Ultimate Site Guide to Scarcer British Birds’. If there is such a thing as a job from heaven then this is up there, with… warden of Cley? After all you can never read too many bird books. My dad owned the old version of this book and as a keen beginner I found it inspiring and gripping, birds that seemed at the time to be near mythical blockers written about in a confident and easy to read style, seemingly guaranteeing success. 3 years later, those blockers are much reduced but I still find it an interesting resource. This update retains Lee’s easy-to-read writing style but totally refreshed with modern ‘gen’ and liberally punctuated with Ray Scally’s jazzy vignettes, with the Hobby and the Long-tailed Skua particularly special. I wasn’t able to find many mistakes and found it an interesting and at times controversial read for the rest of Monday.

On Tuesday, as compensation for the 50 minute rain soaked, bendy bus commute from hell, I was allowed to have a brief play around with another new product, The Guide to the Breeding Birds of the Western Palaearctic. In essence it’s BWPi dedicated to nests, nestlings, fledglings, eggs and habitats, and just like BWPi its fascinating in its treatment of the subject, ranging from species I’d never heard of such as the stunning Amethyst Starling, to some nice surprises like an adult male attending a recently fledged Guldenstadt’s Redstart and chicks of the near mythical Dupont’s Lark. The amount of work that’s gone into this product is frankly staggering, stemming from many years work in the field to collect such a vast wealth of information and photographs. My work over Tuesday and Wednesday was correcting captioning errors and exporting PDF’s of the BWPi species accounts to be backed up, a task so fun the Mac crashed with excitement. And Mac’s never crash…

Wednesday also saw the arrival of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in Kent, which to my slight disappointment didn’t spark a work twitch, but did provide more pictures to bulk out the rather sparse looking review of the week.

Thursdays task however came as a bit of a surprise. I was fully gearing up to start using CatDV pro to start making inroads into a small mountain of unlogged footage when Fiona gave me new task, to edit together a series of 8 butterflies for use on GMTV! Editing, for those uninitiated in the media dark arts is a lot harder then you think it is. You have to balance timing of shots with the quality of the action and the brief of what your meant to be editing. In this case it was 10-second clips of butterflies “not doing much on pretty plants.” No problems then with a stunning Small Tortoiseshell, a macro Holly Blue where you can count its hairs and an ultra-crisp blood red and burnt black Red Admiral. Slight problem with the distant Large White perched on a leaf. Never mind, for some reason I find editing fun and it was great to play around with proper footage, not the slightly shaky stuff I film on tiny handicams for Media Studies and the results were certainly stunning. With the rest of Thursday spent compiling an album of “ornithologically astute” pictures in the gallery (really hard to do, if you have any suggestions to include, please leave a comment) and selecting pictures to be used as thumbnails for the cover of the Breeding Birds product.

For the last day of the working week I was taught how to use CatDV pro to log footage. Basically this involved importing big files of HD video into the software, separating them out into clips of individual species/action and then entering in the metadata (time, tape, location etc.) This was surprisingly fun as I had to view an awful lot of stunning footage, from Green Sandpipers to an ultra macro Marsh Fritillary, via nesting Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. It also is involving learning Bees, Dragon and Damselflies and Moths, whilst brushing up on my occasionally very rusty Butterfly skills, all of which may come in handy for next week when I go out filming.

With that over for another day it was time to head back up to my home in Suffolk for a weekend of dipping. I’ll be back next week…

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Yet more green(ish) leps

Target species for filming this week have been purple and green. We dipped one, had an unexpected success with another and then filmed something entirely ASTONISHING with the third. And to continue with my colourful musings we filmed something scarlet by accident.

Ok - no prizes for guessing that Target 1 was Purple Emperor. Sadly the weather wasn't sufficiently blazingly hot and we dipped. BUT, whilst lurking around piles of fox poo in Bentley Wood (the approved PE technique) this wee gem appeared:A female Purple Hairstreak. This is our only footage of female, as they don't really do accessible - generally hiding at the tops of trees. The males are more colourful, being purple all over their uppersides. The weather wasn't really playing ball - but a trot through the woods produced this complete stunner!
Cooo! A Silver-washed Fritillary of the form valesina. Lovely thing. She (they only come in female) behaved impeccably, had a bask and a nectar and was filmed from all sides. Marvellous.

Even better - she was courted by a male, and we managed to film the amazing corkscrew courtship flight. The female does a straight-line along a glade or ride, and the male waltzes around her in a cork-screw pattern. Sometimes several males at once do this, and it's quite spectacular. The footage is jaw-dropping - and we're pretty sure it's the first time it's been filmed with a valesina. Here's a "normal" Silver-washed Frit for comparison:
Seemingly valesinas will fly in lower temperatures and on duller days. Anyway - back to my colour theme, I bring you a Scarlet Tiger:

Friday, 3 July 2009

Nestcam news

Oh dear, oh dear. Our Pied Wags have now been sitting for over 25 days. I think that means that the eggs are infertile. We're very concerned about how long the female is going to go on incubating. She's completely devoted, but it can't be doing her any good. The pigeons have turned over an entirely new leaf and are now brooding impeccably. Perhaps we'll get a squab. I've edited together some of the webcam footage for your delectation. For some reason Blogger seems to speed up my video. Enjoy!

video

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Climbing The Mountain


We started the year needing to film four butterfly species to complete our high definition coverage (look out for what should be a stunning new DVD later in the year). These species were High Brown Fritillary, Large Heath, Scotch Argus and Mountain Ringlet. Thanks to our good friend Neil Hulme (whose account of the trip you can now read across on the webzine) we recently had a fantastic time filming HBFs on Dartmoor. And last weekend, both Large Heath and Mountain Ringlet were bagged during an equally successful foray to Cumbria. Ah it is satisfying when a plan comes together!

Steve Clarke, Chairman of the Cumbria branch of Butterfly Conservation, was kind enough to direct us to prime sites for both the target species. By far the most arduous was Mountain Ringlet. Several healthy colonies exist in the hills above Honister Pass. But you have to be there: a) during the only two weeks in the year when the adults are flying; b) when the sun is shining; c) but not shining too much; and d) when it is not too windy. Fortune was on our side. After a near vertical ascent of almost 1,000 ft we were rewarded with superb views of numerous little brown butterflies, patrolling determinedly across the moor.

The next day Large Heath proved to be fairly straightforward at a traditional site for this species in the south of the Lake District.

Now only Scotch Brown Argus remains...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Changing of the guard

The wagtail nest is continuing to prove a distraction. No babies yet. We've set the webcam to automatically catch any action. Here is our first clip:

video

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Productivity plummets

We're all very excited as we're expecting! We've had rats with wings Feral Pigeons trying to nest between the shutter and the windowbox for weeks and weeks. They made a loose collection of crisp packets and McDonalds wrappers and did a great deal of cooing/having sex. The first inkling I had that they were remotely successful was when I found my car with egg all over it one day. They seem to be trying again though.

A few years ago we had Pied Wagtails nest in the windowbox, so I thoughtfully supplied an open-fronted nest box and waterbowl. They chose to ignore these homely additions for a while, but last week - success! I spied a wee tail poking out of the box. You can see their new home just underneath the alarm box. We spent many hours fiddling about rigging up the Heath-Robinson technology. A cheap-and-cheerful webcam was carefully swaddled in clingfilm and tape, a hole drilled in the nearest windowframe, and much computer jiggerypokery was done.
Here we have the close-up. You can just see the webcam poking out of the top of the wrought-iron, and the wag-tail poking out of the box. Hoorah. The bonus is that you can see the pigeons in the background from this angle - giving two nests for the price of one. Wonderful webmaster Dave Dunford did his magic webthing and we now have the image updating here.

The wagtails are completely devoted, with both parents incubating (the female seems to always do the nightshift). The pigeons badly need to go to parenting classes. I suspect they're very inexperienced - disappearing for hours and hours at a time. Anyway - the whole office is obsessing about the nests, and a great deal too much time is being spent watching wags rather than working. We are hoping for babies sometime next week...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Another Green Lep

I'm seriously considering changing the title of this blog. You'll see why shortly. It's been a VERY busy week at BirdGuides London branch. The highlight (by some margin) was an outing to Martin Down in Wiltshire with the good people of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. They've recruited a new field officer, and Ben Darvill was on scene to do some training. We tagged along in the hope of learning something.

There are 23(ish) species of bumbles in the UK. Some of them are easy to see, but many of them are horribly rare and UKBAP listed. With the help of Ben we found and filmed two of them on this outing. The rather lovely Bombus humilis (a ginger crew-cut bee) and the delightful Bombus ruderarius (a black, red-tailed bee and extremely tricky to separate from the common Bombus lapidarius). Both are carder bees (ie they sort of knit a surface nest out of moss rather than occupying a burrow like most commoner bumbles). I can't wait to produce an ID guide to bumbles - I get the impression lots of people would like to learn more about them.

Back to the blog-post title then. On my way to work on Friday I found this enormous male Lime Hawkmoth clinging to a window. I licked my finger and picked him up and brought him to work so that Max could take a pretty photo. (Not all moths will let you do this - but hawkmoths are pretty tolerant). So for your delectation, the fourth green lep in as many posts:

Monday, 8 June 2009

Too much citizen science?

So I've just prepped a story for the webzine about the RSPB's new Make Your Nature Count survey. I published it with very mixed feelings. The RSPB is a fine institution, and do many worthy things. Over a million people (including me) see fit to part with their cash to support their good works. So why am I having a whine? Well - in my opinion with this particular survey they're treading on the toes of my good friends at the BTO.

The BTO runs a perfectly good year-round Garden Birdwatch survey. It has the great merit of being scientifically rigourous, and has recorded all sorts of wildlife for years and years. OK - so the RSPB has the clout to get several minutes airing on the Today programme, but why not use that to implore people to help the BTO out? Surely the RSPB doesn't see itself in competition with the BTO? By running its own survey, what does the RSPB hope to achieve? In my more cynical moments I'd say this was a shameless PR exercise off the back of SpringWatch, which will use a great deal of membership money that would have been better spent on habitat. I'm interested in your thoughts about this. Please post your comments.On a lighter note I spent a very merry weekend butterflying. Marsh and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries went very well - but the highlight for me was this very gorgeous Forester moth. Very twinkly.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Green Hairstreaks


Five species of Hairstreak butterflies can be seen in Britain. Usefully they all have colours in their names, so they are relatively easy to remember: Brown, Purple, White-letter, Black and Green. Last year we successfully filmed the first four Hairstreaks, but managed only a few brief shots of the fifth. So we were particularly delighted to catch up recently with this gentleman and his friends.

Green Hairstreaks are annoyingly difficult to see well... let alone photograph. The general Hairstreak philosophy is to is perch invisibly pretending to be a leaf high up in a dense hawthorn, blackthorn or (in the case of Purple Hairstreak) oak trees. Being predominantly green and brown, Green Hairstreaks are rather good at this.

From time to time, generally when you are looking the other way, they may take off for a brief sortie. If you are lucky, they will be noticed by a neighboring male and a dogfight will ensue. Tracking the spiraling flight of the combatants and hopefully following one of them back to its perch may – with patience and good fortune – allow you to creep up and shoot the beast.

Anyway, many thanks to Lee Evans for guiding us to these particular Green Hairstreaks, rather late in their flight season. Although best known as a birder, Lee is also a keen lepidopterist. His directions were customarily exact: we turned up at the specified bush in Bedfordshire and there were the butterflies.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Not so Top Secret

I returned to my lovely Lesserpecker nest on Monday to get some more footage. Imagine the scene: the camera and tripod is set up, and I've retreated to a very safe distance with my picnic and ginger beer in celebration of good birds, and a sunny bank holiday. I'd been there for perhaps half an hour when three photographers appeared. The peckers were showing well, and the photographers started taking photos, pleasantries were exchanged.

The problem was these guys crept closer, and closer to the nest-tree. I tutted and rolled my eyes a lot in a very cowardly manner. Then began to seethe as one of them turned his flash on. Yes - really! These are relatively scarce nesting birds. But no - there they were - about six feet from the tree indulging in flash photography. I left. Packed the gear, made my parting shot about them being altogether too close and ran away. Humph. I'm not sure what I should have done.
Anyway - on a happier note I have lots of Black Park moth photos courtesy of the lovely David Howdon. I attach the most way-out visually for the evening: a lurid Green Silver-lines.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Mothing from the Black Lagoon

I'm ever so slightly traumatised. Saturday was Black Park mothing night. About once a month, David Howdon, Andy Culshaw and I leave the comparative comfort of Perivale's hut (equipped with electrics and a kettle) to hang around the legendary Black Park. Known as the most filmed location in the world - it abutts (and I use this word advisedly) Pinewood Studios. Yes - think James Bond, think the Last King of Scotland, and a myriad other feature films that star this little patch of paradise sandwiched between Slough and the M25.

So, our general plan is - go and set an actinic heath trap up out on the heathy bit (currently full of what we think might be "bomb craters") - then set up the Robinson and a Skinner on a generator, and indulge in a spot of dusking. Marvellous. So off we popped. Three middle-aged rather deranged individuals in search of an entomological high. Or three eccentric duffers that better belong in Victorian times - and shouldn't we really all be vicars? We were approaching the heathy bit near the studios when an apparition loomed out of the woods. Now - don't ask me what they were filming this week at Elstree - in fact words fail me. Here photo.
Yes - a gimp. I engaged him in conversation, and can confirm that he was an extremely polite gentleman, who was quite happy to have his photo taken for the blog, but wished to remain anonymous. I got the distinct feeling he thought that mothing was MUCH odder than his activities. He's probably right.
Dusking also produced this lovely toad. What great wee beasties. And the inspiration for the title. He reminded me a bit of the inexplicable gentleman above.
So - what about actual mothing? A great triumph. There were hundreds. Really. The definitive ID's will take a while, so I'll update later. The thing that we did catch LOADS of were Cockchafers. Unless the gimp had talc I bet it did too. Here terrible photo.

I've had a very interesting rest of weekend (although less risqué). I'll post another, rather sadder, post tomorrow. But it does include a piece about the unprecedented Painted Ladies influx. A demain.