Monday, 31 December 2012

And a Happy New Year to you too

We look to the next year without the hopes of previous years......

..... permission for fracking has been given despite apparent good reasons to refuse it.....

.....decades after many of us campaigned under the No Nuclear Power No Thanks banner, it seems that it's now the green energy of choice.....

 ...... planning permission has been granted for houses on part of one of the best habitats of Kingsdown, an irreplaceable home to small blues, scarce plants, rare moths, with a mealey-mouthed ecological report to support it.....

.......... the "most sustainable solution" to aviation expansion in the South East with the "least adverse impact" is just offshore....... it may have the least impact to those near London.

There was another Goodwins plan 20 years ago, with an airport and international port too, which fortunately disappeared.

Good grief, where are we going?

Britain, we need to understand that ours is a declining economy, and it would be better to plan for a sustainable future based not on growth but on reduced wealth and consumption. A misguided belief in a continued demand for air travel will not assist us - the next generations will not be able to afford to fly in the same numbers as at present, so investing in more runways would be foolish.

So a Happy New Year to all - putting the past year behind me I can now look forward to 2013 -
Kingsdowner will be consigned to history and like all history will be revised, rewritten and distorted into something approaching a guide for the use of future.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Letter to the Reverend Bandwell Fumblefinch

John Joseph Briggs
King's Newton

August 1852

To the Reverend Bandwell Fumblefinch,
My dear Sir,

I read with interest your comments about the Northern Willie in your masterful work The Compleat Listershire Birds (volume the three) in which you report that this bird is found in these parts "a long way out, really". I would humbly beg your permission, however, to describe the finding of this species (commonly known as guillemot by the natives who display their close ancestry to the French) on the cliffs near St Margaret's Bay in Listershire. You may be assured that I procured eggs as befits a devoted naturalist. It was to my surprise, however, that the species has not been seen at the location since.

I have had the honour of having this report published in the Zoologist, volume the tenth 1852.

St Margaret's Bay is situated perhaps four miles from Dover near the South Foreland lighthouse on the Kentish coast. It is buried in a deep recess between high and prominent chalk cliffs and contains a few houses occupied chiefly by fishermen and the coast guard stationed there for the prevention of smuggling.

During the month of May in the present year I paid a visit to this remote spot and picked up the following gleanings in Natural History. On the most inaccessible parts of the cliffs overlooking the sea between St Margaret's and Dover I found the guillemot breeding but I was told that this bird existed there in much more limited numbers now than formerly.

The eggs were found resting lightly on the shelves of the cliffs without nest and I can bear testimony to the truth of the assertions which naturalists have made that the eggs of this bird vary greatly both in ground colour and markings.  Of the three which 1 was able to procure one had its ground colour greenish white and its broad end banded with a ring of deep black blotches its sides varied with a few spots but none at the smaller end.  Another egg had a large black blotch on the centre of the broad end from which diverged numerous spots which became smaller in size as they approached the narrow end ground colour white.  A third had some well defined but irregularly shaped black spots scattered over it upon a greenish white ground. These eggs were procured on the 26th of May and incubation had just commenced.

Another species of bird which I found breeding on these cliffs more especially near the Foreland lighthouse was the common gull.  I procured fourteen eggs on the 26th of May.  The nests were situated on the cliffs composed of marine plants and usually contained two eggs occasionally three. These eggs were procured by a person who was suspended over the face of the cliff by a rope like a spider hanging by his web an operation which has frequently been described.

Common as these gulls are there is something very pleasing in their habits and manners.  How delightful is it to stand on some prominent crag with the ocean rolling at its base and watch these birds of snowy whiteness winging their spirit like flight through the deep deep space which intervenes between us and the unresting waters.  Or to see a party chasing each other over the bright blue waves one perchance picking up a glistening mackerel whilst the others are endeavouring to steal away his prize and are pursuing him so unweariedly that is generally obliged to drop it in order to escape the annoyance pursuit.

Nor is it less pleasing to see the solicitude which they manifest for the safety of their young as they fly round and round nests with restless anxiety uttering their low plaintive cry of distress occasionally alighting on the hoary scalp of some prominent crag for a few moments standing motionless like statues cut from the chalk.

On the ledges of the cliffs before alluded to the sparrow-hawk breeds and in my rambles I met with several pairs of these birds.  The merlin too inhabits these cliffs in summer and is said to breed there. Of the truth of this I have no doubt as I frequently a pair which haunted a particular part of the cliff and from their partiality to one spot their manner and also from their being seen there at that period June 23rd I think they must have had a nest in the neighbourhood.  Instances of this bird breeding so far south are I believe considered by naturalists extremely rare.

On the sea shore I met with the stonechat, the hooded crow and the raven. The latter bird I am told breeds annually on the highest parts of the cliffs generally on the same rock but not on the same ledge The common skylark was most abundant on the high grounds above the cliffs and I never remember to have heard the song of these birds so sweetly delivered.

St Margaret's Bay furnishes the botanist with many interesting plants amongst which the various species of Orchis stand most conspicuous.

I remain, Sir,
Your most obedient servant

John Joseph Briggs

August 1852

Sunday, 25 November 2012

On this day in 1703, the wind blew


The weather map for early Sunday morning shows strong winds across the south of England, which brought heavy rain and damage to the south-west especially. At this time of year, in 1703, a strikingly similar weather pattern crossed the country (but with much tighter isobars) and caused devastation on land and at sea.

Daniel Defoe advertised for eye-witness reports of "casualties and disasters" of the tempest and collated a unique record of the Great Storm.

Many of the records from across the country came from vicars and landowners describing damage to churches, houses, farmland and livestock, especially in Somerset and Bristol, which were badly flooded by a storm surge up the Severn. But it was off Deal that the greatest loss of life occurred, with warships and merchantmen sheltering in the Downs between the coast and the Goodwin sands.

"There remained in the Downs about 12 sail when this terrible tempest began at which time England may be said to have received the greatest loss that ever happened to the royal navy at one time either by weather by enemies or by any accident whatsoever"

Defoe wrote a poem about Deal's involvement in the Storm, presumably damning the town for not providing the usual safety to the ships, but perhaps because he believed that the inhabitants might have made a profit from the wreckage that would have been washed up on its shore. It should be remembered that he had recently had to give up his tile-making firm in Tilbury to pay his debts and would otherwise have become rich as demand for tiles would have increased after the damaging storm.
The poem is copied from the website of The Just Reproach micropub in Deal. The wit of the writer, and of the landlord who chose the name, is echoed by the friendly chat of the customers.

In his later book, A Tour through the island of Great Britain, Defoe changed his view of Deal to a more charitable one: "The town of Deal is very much improved of years to which the great resort of seamen from ships in the Downs has not a little contributed. The great conveniency of landing here has been of infinite benefit to the place so that it is and populous containing upwards of 4000 inhabitants is divided into the upper and lower towns adorned with many good buildings being in effect the principal place upon the Downs and on that account having both in war and peace a continual resort of people."

Back in 2012, after the gales overnight it was invigorating to walk to the end of Deal pier. We looked across the churning sea to the Goodwins where so many died on the fateful night in 1703.

For the past fortnight a raft of scoters has bobbed around off the end of the pier over mussel beds harvested by a fishing fleet in the summer. We counted over 200, including four velvet scoters (who revealed themselves only in flight). Also present were a black-throated diver, red-throats, great-crested grebes, a couple of guillemots and an eider.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Getting waxed

I'm sorry to post yet more waxwing photos after all the excellent ones that have appeared on the social media recently, but these birds were self-found and unexpected, on Barrow Mount above Kingsdown. There were 22, perching in a tree sending out sentries to look for food, and looking like they might have just arrived from the continent.
Gradually we managed to approach to sensible photography distance, when they all flew off leaving us cursing our poor bushcraft.... until we looked directly above us to see a circling sparrowhawk. Darn. They flew towards the village, so hopefully someone will find the flock feasting on suburban berries.

The sighting enabled me to contribute to the Twitter network that seems to be spreading rapidly after the Bockhill Birders advertised their involvement, so thanks to them for speeding up the pace of life even more.

Is it me or do there seem to be more reports of arrivals of waxwings into Kent from across the channel, rather than the usual slow spread down from northern Britain?

A fascinating site illustrating bird migration is available from the Belgian airforce (presumably to try to reduce bird-strikes) showing the past and forecast future volumes of birds flying per hour. Notably, it illustrates that  migration occurs mostly at night with much smaller numbers moving during the day, and of these most are early in the morning.

In the afternoon we checked out the two Sandwich Bay short-eared owls, and sure enough they were patrolling in the usual area, giving occasional close views.
A tamer bird (although it doesn't look it) was a goshawk being flown across the downs. Surprisingly brown, it is apparently a juvenile male.

And finally a flower - there's not many around now, but plenty of berries - I think we're going to need them.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Stormy Saturday

A stormy Saturday promised bird movements, and while some tougher souls staked out the north Kent coast, we opted for the protection of Deal pier, which has a convenient glass annexe sheltering us from the northerly gale. Meanwhile the high-tide waves thundered onto the shore, scouring the beach or much of the shingle that had been pumped onto it by contractors over the last month or so.
 The lower decks of the pier were unsurprisingly closed, and as we stood there planks were torn away and tossed into the sea by the waves, and the pier shuddered and swayed alarmingly. The yellow wave recorder showed the peak wave heights to be over 2½m.
We were there, of course, to watch birds passing by, and although the movement was not large there were interesting birds to see and relatively close-to, all flying north into the wind........ flocks of dunlin flew past and occasional knot, eider ducks and scoter, the latter also forming a raft of 40-50 birds that floated past with the current.
 Star for the show was a bonxie, flying slowly past between us and the shore, then circling over our heads and away out to sea.

There have been shocking reports of drowned birds off the coasts after becoming disorientated by the recent fogs and winds. Fishermen have told of flocks dropping into the sea around them, while RSPB Bempton said that large numbers of songbirds were clinging desperately to the cliffs on their first landfall.

Monday, 8 October 2012

And a blue rock thrush sang on the balcony

Ah, the deep blue of the Mediterranean, the warmth of the sun, the crash of the thunder and the lash of the rain...... yes, it was a bit changeable, but we made the most of it.
An early treat by the hotel terrace at Ciutadella (beautiful old town) was an Audouin's Gull, one of a rare breed that seems to be increasing in the western Med. They are specialist fish feeders and reminded us of the delicacy of kittiwakes, despite happily taking bread, cheese and chocolate biscuits.
Generally they would lose out to the more brutish yellow-legged gulls,but as they are unusual in the north it's still a treat to watch them.
The first day (no I'm not going to bore you with a day-to-day diary but the first day was a bit special) we drove a few miles up the coast to Punta Nati, a bleak place of rock and hardy windblown shrubs, of which more later.
On the road we were pleased to see red kites wheeling around, but then were overjoyed to watch red-footed falcons, one with kill, flying over, superb aeronauts of great beauty.
We parked close to the lighthouse, and watched blue rock thrushes and thekla larks, then noticed a large strangely marked bird of prey flying over the fields. Scanning the area of boulders we found more Egyptian vultures, which occasionally mobbed a couple of buzzards while booted eagles and ravens flew slowly back and forth across the landscape. A stunning vista.

Some of the large Menorcan colony of Cory's shearwaters could be seen offshore from the cliffs around the lighthouse, with occasional smaller versions, Balearic shearwaters, with Majorca a shadowy presence on the horizon.
The rest of the holiday was not quite so bird-filled, but a steady stream of sightings were had.......

 This coot was the closest we came to a purple gallinule, reputed to live in the Son Bou marshes which were overgrown at this time of the year, and frequented by nefarious naked figures.

The local supermarket displayed quail and partridge, which were useful ticks.

A visit to GOB (an environmental ornithological group in Menorca) coincided with the arrival of a Scops owl with a broken wing, picked up by an alert driver who turned out to be our waiter! We were warmly welcomed by Dominic, who explained some of the principles and problems of Menorcan environmental work.

The Algendar gorge provided many butterflies (again, you'll have to wait) but also alpine swifts, booted eagles (above) and Egyptian vultures for comparison (below).  [Note - an expert has told me that they are both booted eagles and who am I to argue? We also saw the dark phase of booteds, just to confuse]

The second hotel we stayed in boasted fewer gulls, but overflying ravens, rock doves, booted eagles, a tawny owl .......
 ....and a blue rock thrush sang on the balcony!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Underwater at Kingsdown

May I pass on a link from our local neighbourhood good guys (Deal with It) about the proposed Dover and Deal Marine Conservation Zone which includes a short film of the wildlife just offshore.

If you can't see the clip, it's here:
The sea is characteristically murky and sandy, but although it's not the Great Barrier Reef there's some interesting stuff down there. To copy the site's text shamelessly .......

"The chalk platform extends across the shore and out to sea, with deep sand-filled gullies between tall ridges of chalk covered in seaweeds, sponges and anemones.
"Large crabs and lobsters find shelter within the chalk in recesses, while baby cuttlefish swim around the outcrops, demonstrating their amazing camouflage.
"Further offshore, the chalk gradually becomes covered in coarse sediments. Here, thousands of sandy tubes made by tiny ross worms form significant reefs which can harbour a wonderful diversity of wildlife and support the whole food web."  

Friday, 31 August 2012

Once in a blue moon

Just once 
In a very blue moon

I watched the second full moon of the month rise out of the sea through the dark clouds.
Will it bring good luck?

Get well soon, if you can.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Orlestone in the shade, and fun in the sun

Not complaining about the hot weather, especially since I live a stone's throw from the beach and the sea's lovely - but it's great to be in reach of shade in a cool forest sometimes.
Orlestone is a good place to be, as it has wide rides that are perfect for butterflies. And peacocks have emerged in profusion, feasting on knapweeds and hemp agrimony.

 A surprise was the large numbers of brimstones too, also on knapweed and ragwort but also (in the shade) on a swathe of betony.

Purple hairstreaks flitted about around the oaks, even descending reasonably low to give the closest views I've had (surprising to some readers perhaps, but there's not many oaks on the east coast and fewer purple hairstreaks). More obliging were white admirals, a fine compensation for the loss of purple emperors here.

 Nettle-leaved bellflowers are having a good year in the hedgerows around Hawkinge, lovely!

Another species doing well is the chalkhill blue, which was showing in relatively low numbers in the last two years, but are thriving this month. This web report on their numbers on the Friston Gallops near Eastbourne is worth a read, conservatively estimating numbers at around 800,000. I hope Lydden is doing as well.

 And finally,

there's a lot of good live music around locally at the moment, in the glorious sunny weather......
from the old (Kingsdown Band, and the Kinks) to the new (Gentlemen of Few), the stars on the rise (O'Hooley and Tidow) and some on the fall (sadly, Chumbawamba).    Dancing to folk music at ceilidhs, and to ska at Folkestone harbour -
 great stuff, catch it if you can.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Checking up on Kingsdown

By a series of curious events, I'm no longer representative of Kingsdown, having moved a couple of miles up the coast. The name Walmerer doesn't ring true, however, so until I get complaints I'll keep going, making sure that I make occasional covert forays into the parish to check up on the place.
The domain name will, however, be open to sensible offers (I'm thinking Facebook-value here).

The place remains much as I left it, with a good recurrence of butterflies along Otty Bottom. A few chalkhill blues posed on scabious, and a couple of small blues repeated their cousins' emergence in the usual sites.

Less expected was a pristine singleton, far from any apparent kidney vetch.

On top o't'hill the allotment has had a catastrophic year, slugs devouring anything planted or sown in the damp conditions. It's a real haven for wildlife with only the potatoes resisting the pests. The only thing growing up the runner bean stakes was bristly bloody ox-tongue!

Under the refugia lurk the usual suspects..... Norbert the lizard and one of the adult slow worms that have brought up a family of slivers.

The regular reader may recall that the allotment produced a few (rare) round-leaved fluellens. I left them to seed of course, and now my seed bed is a matted mass of the stuff - probaby more here than anywhere else in the country I'd guess.

A botanical trip to the rifle range was disturbed by a bit of excitement.....
a prawn catcher had got stranded by the rising tide and was calling for help.

The first of a series of calls to the coastguard scrambled the smaller lifeboat - calm and in control.

After an assessment of the situation, they edged towards the old walls and plucked Jamie from danger.
The tide rose another 4 feet or so in an hour.