Celebrity Farmland Bird Survey

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 31 December 2010 17:55

Another strange day. Only seven Skylarks using the farm I surveyed today but there were hundreds flying high over the site. Between 9.00 am and 12.00 pm there was an almost continuous movement, many of single birds flying with some easterly component to their flight. I suspect these are birds moving back after a trip to the west during the cold snap. On top of the farmland birds, I also saw a few goodies. There was one each of Marsh Tit, Hawfinch, Firecrest and Red Kite! A great list, shame none of them are the target species.

However, a stranger encounter happened right at the start of the survey. I was heading down a very narrow country lane, just within the recording area of the farm I was going to survey and a mini was heading up in the other direction. There was only room for one car and a stand off  was inevitable. I was reluctant to reverse as twisting whilst seated is not good for a recovering prolapsed disc. The other driver reversed but I could tell he was annoyed so I wound the window down to explain as I drove past. I was quite surprised to see Hugh Dennis and his huge cheesy grin. He sped off before I finished my sentence! What's the BTO code for Hugh Dennis?
Finally, I found these fungi literally bursting out of plastic-wrapped hay bales. I am pretty sure they are Split-gill Schizophyllum commune, Phillips states this is a typical place to find this fungus. This is a new species for me and puts me on 3021 for the end of the year. The challenge to get to 4000 species by this day next year is now on. I'll write another post about this tomorrow and hopefully I'll get a chance to play with my new camera too. Let's see what strangeness 2011 brings! Happy New Year!

Harsh times

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 30 December 2010 17:41

Finally the fog lifts and I can get some surveys done! I have noticed many more 'gull kills' than I usually see today. Wood Pigeons are by far the most frequent raptor kill I find but today I saw four Common Gull kills. Given also that my Dad mentioned the other day he had seen Buzzards taking gulls, I wonder if that is what has been going on down here too? It could just as likely be Peregrines but on this particular farm, Buzzards are very obvious but I have yet to record Peregrine. I don't think I have ever seen a Buzzard catch a bird, I wonder if they drop on the gulls when they are on the ground? It's fascinating how cold weather changes the birds behaviour.

Foreign berry pickers take industrial action

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 26 December 2010 16:20

Look, I know I've been saying for ages I wanted to find my own Waxwings, not twitch some second-hand birds but these were just too close to Jo's Mum's, just five miles down the road in  an industrial estate in Aldershot. Picture the scene, a car full of people heading towards an unknown postcode courtesy of Birdguides and via the guidance of sat nav. We pulled into the industrial estate and there were the Waxwings, we didn't even need to get out of the car. They were feeding very low down on a cotoneaster hedge. I think to non-birders, this whole process seems quite odd. Anyway, got some great shots with Jo's camera I bought her for Christmas. We all had a look outside of the car (except Jo's brother who refused to look through the binoculars stating 'they're just birds'!) and then the flock of 70 + birds flew off over a factory roof out of sight.
I'm well chuffed I've finally seen them this winter, lovely to see them at such close range. They have to be one of my favourite birds and the call is just like sleigh bells!


Posted by Graeme Lyons , Saturday 25 December 2010 07:35

So it was three years ago, I was at Abernethy RSPB Reserve in Scotland and the photo is terrible but this is the very surreal David Lynch like moment when I dropped quickly down from a vast, rather birdless, uniform Heather moor into a wide, stony-bottomed sunken stream bed to watch a (young?) feral Reindeer walk straight past me! Oblivious to my presence (get it!) the only sound you could hear were its hooves negotiating the rocky bottom. Then it was gone. 
We were surveying breeding birds on the reserve between the trees and the mountains. A vast area, with some impressive sightings. Walking up and down the bases of mountains for 17 km in knee deep Heather did make you look a bit like you were dancing and for a few hours after you had finished too. Camping for a month in the Abernethy Forest was a memorable experience too, although when it got to -4 on the first night I was a bit freaked out. This, the Timberman (sounds like a super hero), is one of the most impressive longhorn beetles and can be seen in some numbers at the wood yard there. Look closely at the antennae to see just how long they are!
I have totally lost my voice for Christmas Day, good job the Internet is now my main way of communicating. Have a great Christmas everyone!

Bin bag bad boy

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 23 December 2010 17:25

A completely unperturbed and rather desperate looking injured Herring Gull confronted me on my own door step at lunch time as I crawled to the shops for some chest infection remedies. It had found some old bread  in the wheelie bin, the lid of which was slightly raised due to there being no collection on Monday, and I left it to it after I had taken these shots. The cold weather makes birds do some strange things, none stranger than a story my Mum told me the other day. She took some excess bread across the fields to feed the gulls (as you do) when she was walking the dog (Monty) as there is still a lot of snow in Staffordshire. She was soon surrounded by gulls (mostly Black-headeds up there) but then a Buzzard flew down and scared them all off and started tearing chunks off the bread with its beak and talons! I have never heard of Buzzards eating bread before. Watch out Monty, you might be Buzzard food if things don't warm up!

A lot of people in Brighton get upset with the Herring Gulls tearing black bin bags open in the streets but then do nothing to prevent it happening. Get a bin, problem solved! I love to wake up to the sound of Herring Gulls and like sharing my street with them. We should also remember they are red-listed for long term breeding and wintering declines in the UK. Although the whiny, whistling noise the juveniles make is quite annoying at 4.00 am...

My natural history highlights of 2010

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Wednesday 22 December 2010 19:39

I thought I should pull together my best natural history moments of 2010 as it is has been a really memorable year. I whittled it down to fifteen and that was hard enough. Blogging has definitely made me get out even more than I usually do, I plan to do even more natural history in 2011, watch this space for a post on next year's listing challenge. Anyway, here they are in reverse order.

15 - Stumbling on a rare fly at Windsor Great Park
Jo's Mum, Sam, lives really close to WGP. On my first visit there I found this weird looking fly which turned out to be the RDB Caliprobola speciosa which is confined pretty much to that area. I had never even heard of it, that's the sort of species that dipterists might go all the way there just to see!

14 - White-tailed Eagle at Amberley Wildbrooks
I think the title explains it all. Eagle!? Sussex!? Oh yes, and I watched it fly off into the sun until my eyes burned.

13 - Devil's Fingers
Any fungus that looks like something from The Thing and can induce violent retching at its foul stench deserves another mention. This might be the strangest thing I have seen this year.

12 - Moth ticks at Friston
I had quite a few ticks during an invertebrate survey at Friston this year including the second Sussex records for Raspberry Clearwing, Olive Crescent and this amazing micro moth, Orange Conch.

11 - Heath Tiger-beetle and rare spiders
A trip to Pirbright Ranges in early June and we soon caught up with the mighty Heath Tiger-beetle as well as loads of rare spiders.

10 - Wartbiters
A targeted trip to Castle Hill to look for these big green crickets was very successful, we spotted them by ear first after listening to recordings! They look like they're made of plastic.

9 - Marsh Dagger at Woods Mill
Probably the rarest moth I have ever found in a moth trap.Thanks to Penny for putting the trap out!

8 - Creepy crawlies in Woodvale Crematorium
Thanks to Nick Hunt for getting me on to two great species in this Brighton cemetery, the Purse-web Spider and Rugged Oil-beetle Meloe rugosus.

7 - First for Sussex in Eridge Rocks car park
If it wasn't for Jo running off and hiding in the woods I might never have found this new-to-Sussex beetle in a red-rotten hollow oak tree in the car park at Eridge. It's Pseudocistella ceramboides.

6 - Filming BBC South Today, One Show and Springwatch Wild Night In Live
Three appearances on TV with the BBC this year were all very exciting, finding I was on IMDb in the same line up as David Attenborough though was even more exciting (even though he only appeared on a recording and I didn't meet him on the night).

5 - Arable plants on the edge of Brighton
Arable plants on chalky soils were an unexplained blind-spot in my vascular plant list...until this summer that is. Fields within a few miles of Brighton and even within walking distance of my house produced lots of good species including Night-flowering Catchfly, Narrow-fruited Cornsalad,  Prickly Poppy and Rough Poppy.

4 - Stag Beetle in Bryan's garden in Henfield
Bryan gave me a ring to say they had a few Stags in his garden and I rushed round with my camera. Awesome. The Coolpix 4500 made this photo work due to its twisting body.

3 - Scarce beetles throw themselves at me in the West Weald
A trip to Ebernoe and The Mens during the first really warm day at the end of May yielded a trio of nationally scarce deadwood beetles, all new to me and new to the sites. Two of which were caught as they flew at my head. I think my dreads might look like red-rotten wood to a beetle! Platystomos allbinus above, which landed on my face, might be my favourite beetle and it's the photo I like the most from 2010.

2 - White Stork lands in front of us on a field trip to the Cuckmere
The first and only time I have ever had to shout 'White Stork!' at an oblivious group of conference delegates that were about to walk right into it. Amazing.

1 - Focusing my binoculars on a Polecat in broad daylight
Finding this rare beetle (Lymexylon navale) which was then closely followed by a Badger chasing a Polecat in broad day light, all under the bows of the huge Idehurst Oak at The Mens, was my highlight of the year. Actually, that whole day was pretty amazing. Beetles really caught my interest this year and I expect the trend will continue next year. Next summer seems a very long way away indeed right now though.

Thanks to everyone who has supported me and followed my blog this year, I intend to return to prolific posting in the spring. Comments are very much welcome, I'd be interested to hear what your favourite posts have been! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bird feeders

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Saturday 18 December 2010 12:17

This boring little moth is a male Winter Moth. How can you tell it's a male? Well, the females are completely flightless and belong to a small group of geometrids that have flightless females. They all fly in late autumn,  winter or very early spring. I think it's a fascinating tactic. There is so little energy available in the winter, the moths have to live off energy acquired as a larvae. This is not enough energy for the females to produce eggs and fly so the females have given up flying. Watch out for the Northern Winter Moth too, it looks very similar but is bigger and paler and is coming to the end of its flight season now.
But the remarkable story of the Winter Moth (and the whole suite of winter geometrids with flightless females) does not stop there. They are all larvae, pretty much at the same time around May and they are all more or less (with the exception of a couple of scarce ones) woodland species. I assume that woodland provides a slightly more stable and warmer microclimate for them to sit out the really horrible nights in the winter but it could also be  that the females require structure to crawl up to await the arrival of the males. Along with Mottled and Scarce Umbers, in May, the frass from all these individual caterpillars is actually audible as it lands on the previous year's carpet of dry leaves. This small number of incredibly specialised (but also incredibly abundant) moths, must play a huge part in the fledging success of woodland passerines. So spare a thought for our humble winter moths this Christmas, without them, our woodland birds would be buggered!

White-tailed Eagle in Sussex!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 12 December 2010 14:01

During a course I was running yesterday at about 2.00 pm I got a call from Penny saying there was a juvenile White-tailed Eagle at Amberley. I wasn't going to be able to get there in time so after a rather sleepless night, I headed over early. After hanging around in the freezing shadow of the Downs there was no sign of it. We headed into Storrington to warm up and get coffee. No coffee. Pulborough Brooks RSPB then, they had coffee but the White-tailed Eagle had come back so we legged it round and got some good but distant views of it sitting in the same tree it was in yesterday. Then it flew straight towards us (this time we were viewing from Rackham Plantation). It landed much closer to check out the remains of a kill and we had a great view, the Crows soon moved in and started pecking its tail!
Someone in the group asked "Where is it in relation to the barn" I helpfully replied "It is the barn!". It's great seeing this thing in flight, reminds me of the fell beasts from Lord of the Rings. Deep slow wing beats and vast wings that fold up like a dragon's when it takes off and lands. Feels like it's in slow motion. It's been seven years since I last saw them on Mull. Awesome. It flew back to its favoured perch and then, as we were leaving, flew south into the sun and disappeared out of site heading over the Downs (about midday). I hope it comes back! UPDATE: The bird was back at Amberley (via Arundel WWT) by the time I had written the post! SECOND UPDATE: Although another post on the SOS sightings page says it was in Hampshire by 14.00 pm at Titchfield Haven so it looks like it's gone.

Veterans on the rocks

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 9 December 2010 20:57

Alice and I went to Eridge Rocks to carry out an inventory of the ancient trees there today. We were both surprised at just how many there were. The biggest tree, an oak, had a Girth at Breast Height (GBH) of 5.88 m, bigger than anything we have recorded at Ebernoe Common. In fact the mean GBH of the largest 18 trees was about the same as at Ebernoe, both around 4.50 m. Amazingly there were three trees of GBH > 5 m on the site, all bigger than the huge oak on the boundary between Eridge Rocks and the neighbouring Broadwater Warren RSPB reserve. No wonder I managed to find a deadwood beetle at Eridge this summer new to Sussex. I'm hoping that a further survey there next year will go ahead now. The trees have been in the shadow of the SSSI sand rock cliffs feature in more ways than one. Many of the  trees need work though, shaded by younger growth.
This amazing oak of GBH 4.34 m was actually growing out of the rocks and you could even crawl directly underneath it! So many niches for invertebrates to develop in. Nearby, this relatively young oak is showing the classic 'open-grown' domed shape with very low lateral bows that is rapidly lost when younger trees grow up and shade out the lower branches.
Whilst measuring one tree I spotted these overwintering eggs on an old cocoon of a Vapourer Moth. Closest I have come to seeing an invertebrate for days!
Finally, a bit of vascular plant interest. The rare Tunbridge Filmy-fern.

A big thank you!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Wednesday 8 December 2010 17:59

We had a very interesting discussion about mentoring and the next generation of naturalists today during a biological recording committee meeting. It got me thinking about how lucky I was to have enthusiastic teachers willing to spend time with me in the field when I was a kid, something that I imagine is very unlikely to happen these days. If it wasn't for them, I would literally not be doing what I am doing now. Richard Berry and Ewart Gardner (primary school and outdoor education teachers respectfully) got me into birding before I reached double figures and Ewart also gave me some old wild flower books and took me out botanising, skills that I went on to develop to the point of becoming a professional. Steve Cooper at my high school heard I was into wildlife and showed me a moth trap full of moths. I remember seeing Angleshades and Canary-shouldered Thorns for the first time and was instantly hooked, now I'm the chairman of Sussex Moth Group. 

I grew up in a council estate in a small town in Staffordshire, we didn't have a lot of money or the means to go to many places so without the time these people invested in me, I would not have had the experience of so many different species and habitats. I have some pretty amazing memories but perhaps the one that I remember the most was twitching in 1991 (19 years ago!) at Spurn and surrounding areas, in one day, the following:
Desert Warbler
Isabelline Shrike (I think the above photo is the exact moment I saw the bird, taken from 
Hume's Warbler
Pallas's Warbler
Richard's Pipit
Whilst we were going between these birds a Great Grey Shrike turned up and we saw some Shore Larks. Four of those birds I have never seen since! So I thought a long overdue thank you was in order to the people that gave up their time for someone else's kid! I'm not in touch with Ewart or Steve at the moment but would like to be. You just can't get that level of interaction from a course and it makes such a difference starting to learn when you're young. So, from someone who could so easily not be doing their dream job now, I have nothing but appreciation and thanks for my mentors.

I wish I had a Waxwing's liver

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Saturday 4 December 2010 16:30

Grrrrr! Cooped up for days. Working from home. This was the view from my office window at home into the neighbours garden yesterday (all the snow had gone by this morning). More berries than you could eat in a year but where are the Waxwings? Not here that's for sure. I did see a Goldcrest in the garden and some Meadow Pipits hanging around by the local shops. I have found the last few days really frustrating, Woods Mill has been closed and I have hardly left the flat. I was convinced I might at least get some thrushes in the garden but nothing. So, to fill the Waxwing shaped hole in my life, I was reading about them instead and discovered something I didn't know in the new edition of Collins Bird Guide (I actually love that book). They will occasionally eat fermented berries to the point of being so drunk they can't fly but they have evolved a super-efficient liver to deal with this and get them back on the berries ASAP. I could so do with such an organ as I really can't handle the two day hangover which is such a joy of my thirties. I definitely hold even more respect for Waxwings now. Rowdy gangs of Nordic invaders come to steal our resources and get drunk in the process. Sound familiar?

Scarecrow finds new hobby

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Tuesday 30 November 2010 16:19

I have finished the November visits of the winter farmland bird survey! The Downs were looking pretty amazing this morning and the birds were good too on this the most easterly of the farms. Large flocks of Linnets, Corn Buntings and Skylarks as well as 12 Reed Buntings, 4 Lapwings, 6 Snipe, a Brambling, yet another Merlin and a Mediterranean Gull. Med Gulls are my favourite birds, awesome to see a winter adult flying against the snow. No hare this time but I did see a Crow and  Magpie chasing a Stoat.  Lapwings seem to behave quite strangely in this kind of weather, they seem to move around a lot and then turn up in strange places. When I was driving back, I was just thinking how I found one on a playing field in a blizzard when I was a kid and it was really tame when suddenly there was one sitting on the grass on a traffic island in the middle of Newhaven!

There were even some arable plants still in leaf, being Dwarf Spurge, Small Toadflax and Sharp-leaved Fluellen suggesting this farm might be a good place to look for arable plants in the summer. I also saw some awesome scarecrows (this one appears to be playing football - he's obviously better at that than frightening birds!) although the one that was face down in a ditch did freak me out a little at first.

More Hawfinches than Skylarks

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 28 November 2010 17:10

Today's farm in deepest West Sussex had a surprise in the form of a Hawfinch, followed by a flock of three several hours later, then another five, beating the Skylarks today, of which there was only a single flock of six. I bet some of these birds are from the West Dean estate. I also saw another Merlin and the biggest flock of Greenfinches so far (40+). After walking 38 km this weekend, it's time to crash now.

Winter Chanterelle

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 26 November 2010 17:55

I've been at Broadwater Warren and Hargate Forest today with the RSPB and the Woodland Trust discussing some the issues of heathland restoration. A really useful day and it was good to catch up with some old RSPB colleagues (and meet some new ones!). A bitterly cold day when we were out of the sun and I saw very little other than this Winter Chanterelle that looked familiar but I was convinced it was a new species for me. I realised though when I got home I have seen this species before but I new it under a different name, Trumpet Chanterelle Cantharellus tubaeformis, the perils of using English names.

Against a Dark Background

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Tuesday 23 November 2010 18:59

What a day. I've finished my third farm, one in Hampshire and I walked 19km to do it. There were large areas with no birds at all and then some areas with lots of activity. I saw these two Red Kites 'worming' in winter wheat fields before they flew over to check me out and then flew against this dark skyscape (and I got to reference an Iain M. Banks novel in the process). In a single field, I saw a flock of 30 Skylarks and a mixed finch and bunting flock which included 50 + Chaffinches, a Greenfinch, a Reed Bunting, c10 Yellowhammers, a Bullfinch and two Bramblings. I love looking through mixed flocks, it's like hunting for a green triangle in a box of Quality Street. I also saw a Grey Partridge and two Golden Plover hunkered down in a wheat field. 

With all the extra work I have taken on recently and my job being very seasonal, I am running out of time to write blog entries. I am going to scale things back for the winter with just two or three entries a week as I can't keep the content going right now.

Floating saucer

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Saturday 20 November 2010 19:18

I'm halfway through my last ever weekend of lecturing for Birkbeck University at RSPB Rye Meads, this weekend's module is on aquatic monitoring. Today has basically been pond dipping for grown-ups and as always happens, it's great to watch 25 adults turn into excited children as soon as they start dipping. We saw plenty of phantom midge larvae (Charborus sp.), firstly the students misheard me as saying phantom midgets, then phantom menace and eventually they got it right, phantom midges. Saucer Bugs (photo) got the most attention, especially when I said they can give you a nasty nip. I think it's amazing how the front legs look more like jaws, the tibia and tarsi apparently fused together into a lethal claw. Not sure if these get you or the needle like rostrum, or both! I don't want to find out.

Dense-flowered Fumitory

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 18 November 2010 20:18

This is the second most frequent fumitory I see and this is the third time I have seen it on the Downs. Dense-flowered Fumitory has large sepals, (about 3 mm and quite round), 5-6 mm flowers, bracts longer than the pediclels and channelled leaves. The flowers do appear quite congested and I think noticeably more magenta pink than Common Fumitory, it's these two characters that draw you in in the first place. It's cool that there are scarce arable plants still flowering in November! I also saw White Horehound today although only in leaf. I completed another bird survey today and here is the view looking back towards Brighton around 8.00 am this morning.
Bird highlights included a flock of c2000 Starlings, 100+ Corn Buntings and a hungry Merlin chasing them.

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