Tuesday 13 September 2022


'Context is everything,' said someone, somewhere, once. When it comes to birding - and probably any other wildlife-related pursuit - how true that is. On a work trip to the States many years ago, it was a novelty to see American Robins everywhere. But if one of my colleagues had mentioned that there was an American Robin hopping about on the hotel lawn back then, I would likely have raised a mildly interested eyebrow, made 'how interesting' type noises, and turned back to my Happy Hour cocktail. American Robin? Pah! Common bird.

How different my response when one was discovered at Turf Lock on the Exeter Canal some years ago...

Apologies, but it has been a while since this photo last got an airing.

It is fascinating how a bit of context can have us reacting so differently to the very same bird. On a less dramatic level, the pleasure we derive from everyday local birding is also heavily influenced by context. On the Axe Estuary at Seaton, most Redshanks will get little more than a cursory glance, but a fly-by at Cogden would be watched the whole way past, and enjoyed on a different level. Are we somehow calibrated to appreciate stuff all the more if it is not the norm? If it is scarce? I'm not sure, but it often feels that way to me. I've noticed it even with something as intangible as the aesthetic appeal of a moth. It might be just a common species but its beauty elevates it to another level, and there is a correspondingly increased pleasure. For a while, anyway. But after you've seen a hundred of them...

On Sunday morning I peered out to sea from Cogden Beach and noticed a gang of Gannets going by. Then another, and another. Within a very short time I was up to 50-odd. It was about 07:00. With hindsight I wish I had sat down right then and started counting. Almost an hour later I could see they were still going strong, and made a 20-minute count. Unfortunately the movement began to fizzle out about ten minutes in, but 148 in 20 minutes was still a respectable figure for here. I cannot recall the last time I saw such a good passage of Gannets locally. And there it is. Context. I am sure we subconsciously do it all the time, i.e., compare what we experience with what we know to be normal - whether numerically, aesthetically, or in some other way - and adjust our pleasure level accordingly.

I do find this kind of nonsense quite intriguing, but anyway...

Gannets moving...

...and Gannets not moving. Sadly there were several new corpses.

Although I felt compelled to photograph the dead Gannet as a token record of this Avian Influenza disaster, for some reason it felt right to make the shot as 'arty' as my abilities could manage. Even a dead Gannet deserves a bit of dignity...

Also moving that morning were Meadow Pipits. I counted 23, the first signs of what will hopefully be a decent autumn passage. Likewise, 3 Pintail E were another signal that the year is bustling on regardless. A Cogden Redstart on Saturday afternoon - a male too - was probably the nicest (context!) bird of the weekend for me. Also the most unhelpful, photographically speaking.

Talking of photographs, here are a lot of moths. The captions give context....

This little migrant has been an occasional visitor to our trap.

Amazingly, our 7th(!) Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Prior to August 19th I had seen just one adult in 63 years!

So far we haven't caught one of these. I found it while working in Seaton yesterday. Pots are always at hand these days!

Blair's Mocha last night. The first time we caught one I was all excited at bagging such a scarce migrant. Except it isn't. Not in Bridport anyway - it breeds somewhere nearby. We have caught several now, and though I am less excited (context again) I am still blown away by the depth and complexity of their subtle markings. It's like thick, multi-coloured face powder.

Blair's Mocha from the night before. Even better, with its intense colour and tiny, white discal spots.

Our first Feathered Ranunculus. Being early in its flight season I hope we get some more of these peppery green beauties.

This is a male. We've not had many, and unfortunately the hindwing pattern - its best feature - is only hinted at here.

Orange Swift. We've had a few, but this is darker than most.

I caught this stunning little item on the mouth of the trap and instantly assumed it was going to be rare. I mean, just look at it! But no, dirt common apparently. It fled the studio and pitched up on the lid of the linen basket. But needs must...

Although plenty have been caught to the east of us, there seem to be no Bridport entries on Living Record, and very few in this corner of Dorset. So, locally, the rarest moth in last night's catch?

I needed help with this one. However, like so many other times, a fairly easy micro to ID when you know where to look. Not many Bridport records, it seems.

In my defense, it is tiny. Hand lens essential.

An annoying one. It is either Endothenia gentianaeana or E. marginana. I must admit to losing interest a bit when I realise the ID is beyond me. Ah well, at least I can enjoy its intricate patterning.

An even more annoying one. Apparently too worn to ID. And in this case I don't even know what the potential options are. Six millimetres of frustration. I released it with gritted teeth this evening...

In many areas of natural history it does not overly bother me that I am unable to name things. But when I am putting in a bit of effort to try and do exactly that...well, yes, it does bother me. Not knowing what a thing is puts context out of reach, and for some reason I find that difficult to deal with. Probably I need help...


  1. Hi Gavin, wondering if the last month might be Elachista canapennella? Or at least an Elachista sp.?

    1. Thanks Mike, yes, that seems very likely. Just a rather worn one. In fact you're the second person to suggest that. 😊 👍

  2. You are right about context Gav, we quickly adapt to a new normal (within reason). Its just demonstrates how we humans learn, adapt and move on. But I doubt even the roughest toughest mothing type would get blaze about Convolvulus moths turning up every five minutes, You are blessed with a fortune in your hobbies that few could dream of.

    1. No, I don't think I shall ever take Convolvulus Hawk-moths for granted. To be fair, I get the impression from othert reprts that it has been an exceptional year for them - and for migrants in general. And yes, I have been very jammy!

  3. Spot on Gav, although growing up birding in the south east I still look at every Buzzard and Raven despite being in Devon for over 30 years! Three Rook today a great case in point, don't raise my bins normally but over the Warren...but also means autumn is starting. The flock of 75 Cattle Egret, although are the new normal, mainly notable as the first of the year and being a new record count, but only by eight.

    1. Old habits die hard; I always look up when I hear that 'cronk'. Never saw Buzzard or Raven in the London Area (and just one Red Kite) prior to moving SW in 2002. And I once drove a long way to see a Cattle Egret!

  4. Gav, when I see Red Kites checking out the trees across the road as a potential nesting site, I think how thirty years ago I went all the way to central Wales to see my first. And of Badgers? Once this was an animal which resided miles away. And the idea that they would live where I do would have struck me as impossible. And now I have them feeding away on my back and front lawns. House Sparrows on the other hand have gone from deafening me en-route to school fifty years ago to nearly extinct by comparison.

    1. So much change in just a couple of generations. House Sparrows nested in the eaves of my boyhood home in Kenton, and we had a chirpy bunch in our garden hedge in Seaton. No idea what the Kenton HS population is like now (apart from a lot smaller, for sure) but the Seaton hedge has since been grubbed out and is now a wooden fence.