Monthly Archives: March 2013

Alder Tongue Gall on the march!

alder tongue gall

Once considered a rarity, the somewhat hideous sight of the Alder tongue gall (caused by the fungi Taphrina alni) is an increasingly common one across the country. On 7.8.2011, I found it in Surrey near the Rye stream beside the M25 near Leatherhead, a few days later on 19.9.2011 it was abundant on a small alder growing in a small balancing pool in a quarry at Hoddesden, Hertfordshire (possibly the first county record). At Beamish open air museum, Durham on 27.7.2012 a small planted alder was groaning under hundreds of tongues, with several coming from every cone.

On seeing the first Swallow of spring

It is getting to that time when one starts to keep an extra sharp eye out for the first migrants. I remember where I see my first Swallow each year, it is always a joyous sight, even over a less than scenic stretch of the M25 near Heathrow. Last year my first was infact of a pair, twittering and swooping over the much more fitting setting of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton. All things considered despite being so widespread across the world, the humble Barn Swallow has to be my favourite bird. The delightful twittering song, the flash of blue as it skims past, the amazing ability to drink on the wing, immortalised by that amazing photograph by Stephen Dalton which graces the cover of the Complete Mike Oldfield album. The touch of the exotic flitting past the friesians!
It is fascinating how folklore had it that Swallows hibernated in ponds and caves in Britain. Reading between the lines, I believe that after his brother ‘Gibraltar’ Jack reported seeing Swallows passing, Gilbert White realised the truth about migration, but his deferential nature meant he was reluctant to challenge the prevailing accepted (absurd!) theory!

Since we have known just how long a journey it undertakes (British Swallows typically go all the way to the Johannesberg area of South Africa!) writers like Oscar Wilde imagined the exotic sights and company the little fliers keep. Indeed does any other bird keep company with as many other species on its travels around the globe as Hirundo rustica?? It is the little Swallow in Wilde’s magical Happy Prince that has for me the most tear jerking line in all literature, ‘you are blind now so I will stay with you always’ . I always choke, and it was an amazing test of emotional genetics to see how my daughters would react as I read it aloud too them. A collective banshee like wail of sorrow! Like father, like daughters!
Just as their return holds so much promise, their departure heralding the end of summer has a powerful melancholic effect, as does the autumn song of the Robin. John Keats knew this too, ending his sublimely evocative ‘Ode to Autumn’ ‘and now with treble soft the redbreast whistles from the garden croft, and gathering Swallows twitter in the skies’
But no use getting sad before they arrive. I’ll leave the last word to Alfred Lord Tennyson..Hope they grace a Brook near you real soon….

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows

Naturalist v.Ecologist

Dear Rev.White,  sorry to report that in my century the term Naturalist is not very fashionable, despite Britain’s most loved and respected broadcaster Sir David Attenborough being a naturalist to his bones. Perhaps it’s because many idiots confuse people who like running around in the buff with your disciples. Whatever the reason, it is time to nail my colours firmly back on the mast of the good ship natural History. Why? I am old enough to remember the pre- Biodiversity days when wildlife was plain old Nature! I find that membership of  a Society of Natural Historians and Entomologists fills me with far more pride than any new fangled Ecological outfit. The ‘happy few’ of societies like BENHS and BSBI chip away at the enormous and unending task of recording and understanding our flora and fauna without resorting to self publicity, and cringe inducing photo-ops of yet another of the seemingly endless round of awarding each other hideous bookends and paperweights in the name of ‘raising standards’. Instead they just get on with it because they are motivated by little more than being just plain interested in the life around them. What they achieve lines bookshelves with fact-packed Journals, monographs, and atlases which will be pored over for decades if not centuries to come!!

  There was a time when colleagues and I insisted that we would never even consider anyone for a job in conservation without them having a field in Natural History as number one in their hobbies and interests. Today thanks to slick marketing and  ‘training’ the way into the ecology and environmental career is open to many who haven’t the faintest interest or passion for wildlife beyond not being able to think of anything much else to do. This is a tragedy, and I believe has much to do with the utter collapse of moral and good-will for ‘ecology’ and the return to the bad old days for the government wildlife agencies.

At a time when TV shows like Countryfile have gone mainstream, primetime, ecologists are in danger of becoming the new estate agents. Maybe increased exposure is showing Joe Public just how much fiddling whilst Rome burns is done in it’s name. Ok, for most of our clients we are a necessary evil, another legislation driven ‘pseudo-tax’, and in these recession hit times,  patience is getting pretty thin when the same old band of so-called ‘rare protected species’ keep popping up again and again, leading to monumental own goals like the dreaded Dormouse bridges.


Alas this is one of the better ones! It’s partner basks under street lights with 20m of open mown verge to cross before the long climb, ensuring TOTAL WIPEOUT for any Dormouse bent on hari-kiri. (Note the street light AKA Owl perch!). Many of the locals thought they were installation Art!

Great Crested Newts wouldn’t even be considered Nationally scarce by the criteria employed for invertebrates, and 20 years on from the start of the great GCN gravy train we still dont seem to have learn’t the very basic lesson that developers have big things called diggers, which can make ponds!! Lots and lots of them, in no time at all!  A few years ago I penned an article called ‘Why do GCN only matter when they are in the way?’ in which I advocated the creation of a slush fund by charging a fee for licence applications which could  then be spent on amphibian conservation across the wider countryside, where the beasties won’t be wiped out by the local new housing estates surplus goldfish within a couple of years!

After 20 plus years the perception that much of species protection does little more than ease middle class guilt, and line the pockets of a new wing of the service industry is hard to shake.

So forgive me for feeling uneasy about being labelled an ecologist, in my defense I was and will always be a Natural Historian, first and foremost, and to prove it , I am publishing my first National Atlas today! Small they may be, but Camphor beetles are cute, they can water-ski! and they matter!


When it is really time to find your hearing aid!

Last night somewhere in S.Yorkshire……
GRANDAD: ‘Im going to put the TV on, England are playing San Marino’.
GRANDMA: ‘Stan Mourhino? I thought he was a manager?’
TV: ‘The big news from England’s camp tonight is that Stephen Gerrard has been rested’.
GRANDMA: ‘Ooo, that’s a shame I always thought he was such a nice lad’.
GRANDAD: RESTED not ARRESTED!!!! …..’you deaf muppet’  (under his breath)…..
Stan Mourhino…. dear oh dear (also under his breath!)

Beware the ice of March!

On this day in 2005 it was 22 degrees C in the shade!, and we had to wet the patio flags so we could walk on them!!  Wish it was like that today, the trend for mid-late march being one of the most settled and lovely parts of the year is very much broken!

In 1770 Gilbert White records ‘milk frozen in the pantry’.

1773 ‘many sorts of insects come out, hot in the sun’

It has always been a fickle old month.

Just last thursday I was watching the likes of Bee-eaters, Sand Martins, and Whinchats sweltering under the Ghanaian sun, already looking northward. Pied & Spotted Flycatchers had already become thinner on the ground from the first week of march, so preumably had started their epic journey!

Good luck to them! Our local guides William and Bafu were astonished to hear of the 19 year-old Pied Flycatcher found in Wales last year. After flying for hour upon hour over so much utter Saharan nothing, that anything makes it across seems utterly miraculous!

Cold weather means amphibians are late to the hop!

After 16 days in Ghana I thought  I would miss out on the peak frog and toad breeding season. The frogs had spawned in my garden pond around the 9-10th March judging by the size of the clumps. This is a whole month later than the mean date in area over past 10 years or so. Trevor Beebee tells me that frogs have yet to spawn in Brighton, so this is indeed a very late year.  In my corner of NE Hampshire it is intriguing how the earliest frog spawn I see is laid in springfed chalk-streams in quite shaded sites which dont see much sun until well into April. Ashford Chace outlet stream often has spawn in late january/early Feb. Presumably the water temp is constant and not affected by air temperature like pondwater.   Trevor Beebee showed a strong correlation between first returning dates for GCN, Smooth, Palmate (plus introduced Alpine) newts and rising spring temperatures over the period from the 1980s to early 21st C. He noted the trend in Common Frogs was not quite as consistent, because Frogs need a few days in spring to mature their sperm and eggs, which are already developed prior to hibernation in the other amphibians. The last three winters have certainly made things complicated again, with the once very rare sight of frogs and toads spawning at the same time becoming commonplace, with mixed pairings with male frogs amplexing with toads.


Jonty’s 12 movie scenes you must see before you die!

Ordet  (1955) (last scene)

 If you do not know the premise I will not spoil what is the most genuinely heart stopping thing I have ever seen. Suffice it to say if cinema, indeed all great art is a way for one person to experience something new through the eyes of another, then this is the ultimate. Whether you are agnostic, or a dyed in the wool aethiest, this scene will allow you for a few seconds at least to know what it feels like to have faith.



City Lights  (1931) (end scene)

Much has been said about this movie; its long production whilst Chaplin could come up with a convincing introduction (itself one of the best in cinema history) which sets the scene so we believe that the blind flower-seller thinks little tramp Charlie is a wealthy society gent. He may have become unfashionable but forget the novelty value of The Artist,  this is the pinnacle of silent movie story telling. For me the final scene is unmatched in all art for its sheer biblically moving emotion. As the (now sighted) girl realises that her benefactor is no wealthy man but a little vagabond who has quite literally given everything he had to give her sight. Yet at the moment when he should claim his longed for prize his pride pulls him away, and in his shame he tries to keep the secret and spare the girl from disappointment. He needn’t worry!

  Shortly before he died, Jack Lemon was interviewed for a programme discussing great movie moments, simply recalling this scene brought the great man to tears. See for yourself, and have a tissue to hand!

 Bladerunner (1982) (tears in rain)

Rutger Hauer could make a living for the rest of his days endlessly recalling the story of the genesis of this seminal scene…the long winded arty-farty wooden script which he was supposed to deliver, and the flash of inspiration which lead him to think up perhaps the greatest evocation of what it is to be a sentiant being ever uttered. Vangelis’s searing other-worldly score adds so much to the out of body feel of this magical movie.


Ikiru (1952) (swing scene)

   The beautiful haunting melody which punctuates this Kirosawa masterpiece about making the world a better place, is accompanied by a swinging motif. As Mr.Watanabe sings the song in the speakeasy it is a swinging bead curtain. When his task is complete we see him swinging in the snow, singing one last time as the camera tracks at 90 degrees, looking through the climbing frame.This is the killer scene, the policeman turns the whole wake on it’s head, and as the string section cuts in, prepare for a very painful lump in the throat!!    Finally when the children are called inside, the empty swing is filmed from the exact opposite perspective, and it is at this moment that I defy anyone not to see the man’s ghost on the swing.

 Däs Boot (1981) (shovelful of sand)

For sheer thrilling terror this astonishing scene has no parallel. The Captain riding on the conning tower like a mad Valkyrie, under a hail of bursting star shells, willing his submarine though the suicidal gap of the Straights of Gibraltar, the crash dive, the relentless fall of the pressure gauge needle, and when the U-boat finally settles way below the indicated maximum on the dial, the cut where the crew have grown ashen and aged into old men before our very eyes has to be seen to be believed.

 The Seventh Seal  (1957) (Jof’s vision)

Many will have other moments as their favourites from this world masterpiece, I choose Jof’s vision for two reasons, firstly because as he sees the Virgin Mary walking the naked little Jesus in the spring sunshine, it would have been so easy, especially if filmed in colour for the scene to have looked ridiculous, but Bergman’mastery of monochrome means it is utterly convincing. Then as Jof faces us and his lovely wife tells him she loves him, we see in his expression the ultimate in human experience, him knowing that she really means it,  he is truelly the luckiest man alive, and he and his family are worthy of the sacrifice the Knight makes to save them.

 Ben Hur (1959) (chariot race)

Again no CGI, the real McCoy albeit it a little over-cranked to intensify the sensation of speed, but the whole thing remains epically exciting. From the parade with the sublime martial score, through the sheer majestic spectacle of teams of four horses at full tilt,  to the amazing ‘christian’ reaction of Judah (Charlton Heston) as his nemesis Marsala (Stephen Boyd) is smashed under his own horses. He looks back anxiously for he has not forgotten their youthful friendship, and doesnt wish such horror on his one time friend, despite his evil deeds. There is talk of a remake, why bother?. Already one of the shortest lists in the world is movies better than Ben Hur!

Shawshank Redemption (1994) (Buxton scene)

I haven’t gone for the obvious Mozart scene, but for Morgan Freeman’s visit to Buxton where Andy (Tim Robbins) has left money and instructions for him to join him in a new life in Mexico. The whole sequence is movie perfection for we are privy to an intimate life changing event for a man utterly alone in the middle of nowhere, under the most perfect, isolated, lonely tree. Morgan Freeman remembers his friend’s instructions, and when it dawns on him that this is for real, he does something utterly unique to human beings he actually looks around nervously incase anyone might be watching! Magic!


 One flew over the cuckoo’s nest  (1975) (world series scene)

Jack Nicholson’s performance is one of, if not THE standout Oscar winning efforts of the 20th Century, and the scene where the evil Nurse Ratched won’t let him watch the Baseball World Series, remains (for men at least) one of the most brutal examples of misplaced control of one human over another ever filmed. As he gazes at the blank TV screen, McMurphy makes up his own imaginary commentary, which is so utterly convincing that the other inmates are totally drawn in, and in their minds eyes are (for a brief moment) free, and right there on the bleachers in the stadium. Immense stuff!

 Wild Strawberries (1957) (end scene)

It was my daughter Laura (14) who nailed exactly why the ending of this Bergman examination of mortality and regret, is….well……astonishing. As the old Professor lies on his bed, he daydreams of the past, walking through his youthful memories, stopping to wave at his parents beside a beautiful Baltic shore (accompanied by the most delightfully simple score on a heavenly harp) he meets his childhood sweetheart who tells him that ‘the strawberries are all gone’. Then he looks up as though hit by a thunderbolt. What is he thinking?? Is his life about to end?? ‘It is like the Mona Lisa’, Laura said. How right she is, it is profoundly enigmatic and open to a thousand interpretations all equally right or wrong!!

 Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (mirage scene)

David Lean’s best picture is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever made, and his grasp of the epic canvases made available by advances in camera technology were as ground breaking in the 1950s and 60s as the CGI wonders of the last decade or so. The legendary scene where Omar Sharif emerges out of the heat haze to shoot dead T.E. Lawrence’s arab guide for using his well without permission, just has to be seen (on as big a screen as possible) to be believed.  No computer trickery here, just astonishing cinematography! The rest of the film ain’t half bad either!


Dark Star (1974) (Pinback’s diary entries)

A friend bought me 1001 movies to see before you die last xmas, and within minutes I had texted him lamenting some of the obvious omissions. If I had to be an advocate for the inclusion of just one movie it would be Dark Star. Few films offer so much from comedy, tension, abstract creativity, and down right existentialism as this crazy movie. Indeed it is perhaps the closest anyone has come to showing just how boring interstellar space travel could actually be! Made at the time of the Richard Nixon impeachment, the scenes I have chosen are where the neurotic Pinback explains to his video diary why he hates the mission (which he appears to be on by accident!), and later tells a joke involving obscene words and gestures which the recording equipment automatically deletes with captions like ‘expletive deleted’ a la Nixon trial. The result is the joke and punchline are utterly ruined, but it still remains hilarious as you fill in the blanks!


GHANA 2013

Just back form a fortnight in the joyously crazy land of the Republic of Ghana. Excellent birding with the prize goal of White-necked Picathartes performing as desired albeit under a sky darkened by a raging thunderstorm! 310 species were encountered, highlights included range extensions for three species, most significant being the first records from the well worked Kakum NP of Yellow-bearded Greenbul Criniger olivaceus.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Yellow-bearded greenbul, Kakum 3.3.13

  Also Sooty Boubou in farmbush at edge of Kakum NP, and Red-billed Hornbill in Shai Hills NP.

Driving around Ghana provides a never ending source of wonder and amusement, as the pious populus, use the word of the lord in connection with everything from ‘Jesus Saves Fast food’ to the ultimate in household decor from ‘Only gods tiles work’. The ultimate goal for many is a great send off to the promised land, and it seems no expense is spared for your final resting place with coffins made to measure and personalisied for your profession.


A taxi driver’s final ride awaits it’s occupant!  Here it’s for a Pastor, a Cocoa farmer and a teacher!!


Santa’s favourite roadsign?                                              Local firewood run

The invertebrates were also spectacular with the butterfly fauna particularly diverse.


   The buses all have blessing emblazened on them, ‘God is great’, but not the almighty being would be too happy to see a taxi with ‘Except God’ on the back windscreen!  Other puzzling signs included ‘Fibre Glass Canadians’ (not sure quite what one would do with said products), but the ultimate, the greatest offer I have ever seen, was attached to an Accra lamp-post 


Only in AFRICA!!