Sunday, 18 March 2018

Hellebores in the snow

The weather Gods decided to scatter a couple more centimetres of snow across the Banstead area last night, so this morning I left the car at home and went on a five mile circular walk (see how I, without thinking, used both metric and imperial measurements there? It's my age...) Up the hill and across the A217 onto Canons Farm, along Chipstead Bottom, skirting Banstead Woods, up onto Park Downs and through to Banstead Village and home. Birdwise generally quiet, with up to six Common Buzzard, 24 Fieldfare, a flock of 60 Linnet and three Yellowhammer. Hawfinches? I'm glad you asked! There were two in the woods directly above the Holly Lane car park.

Park Downs is home to a few plants of Stinking Hellebore, which could not hide their lime-green loveliness in the snow. Two days ago they were bathed in warm sunshine.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Harbingers of warmer days

The snow has returned, the temperature has plummeted and yesterday's warm sunshine is but a dim and distant memory. But fear not, this cold snap is promised to be short-term and before we know it we will be able to enjoy once more those harbingers of warmer days, the butterflies. One of my pleasures is recording their first flight date, and especially those seen before the end of March - so far my earliest ever records are:

Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni

Small White Pieris rapae

Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines

Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

Peacock Inachis io

Comma Polygonia c-album

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria

I'll be keeping them peeled when the sun and mild weather returns...

Friday, 16 March 2018

Box Hill stake-out

A brief but successful undercover 'tea-and-cake' outing to the Box Hill Visitor Centre. There was a side-show of course - that of the Hawfinches. Due west of the cafeteria the steep slopes are generously clothed in Yew, and a couple of flocks (28 and 9) were seen to emerge from the plateau woodland and spill down into their favoured trees. A nearby bench was used as a handy hide, as birds flew in and out, one group of five being seen to fly out high and depart westwards. Much calling and much fun was had by all. 300m to the north a pair were perched up on prominent beech trees with a further bird calling from stunted Yews nearby. According to one of the NT volunteers, birds are being seen throughout the day in the vicinity of the car parks. Over the past two days I have seen birds easily (between 10.45 - 15.15hrs). Seeing as this necessitates little walking, they are probably the easiest Hawfinches to see locally, with the timing of the visit not being much of a factor.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The return of Juniper Bottom

The forecast of a very wet dawn had postponed my planned visit to Bramblehall Wood, but the rain had abated by 08.00hrs so the decision was made to check on Juniper Bottom. This was mainly due to my having seen at least 115 birds there two days ago and the suspicion that the enormous flock from Bramblehall Wood, (once it has headed up the slope and onto Ashurst Rough and Juniper Top) was then spreading out into Juniper Bottom (and beyond). And so it proved.

By 08.45hrs I had taken up my position allowing clear views of the banks of Yew, and the bare deciduous tree-tops, on the eastern flank. Hawfinches were already on show. For the next hour flocks were largely spilling over into the valley from the high ground to the south-east (Juniper Top). They were making their way either northwards along the eastern ridge, or flying across the valley and up onto the western ridge (Box Hill and Lodge Hill). In between frequent showers I was able to witness a number of sizeable flocks on the move (37, 40, 31, 22, 39, 30 and 34 being the largest) with several alighting above me in mature Yews, bestowing upon me an audio Hawfinch accompaniment to the spectacle in front. My total for the visit was of 249 - the pedantic amongst you may prefer c250. I have checked the 'Bottom' several times over the winter, and in the hours after the Bramblehall flock goes largely missing, but with no reward, so these latest encounters seem to me to show a change in the birds behaviour. If you are planning on visiting Juniper Bottom, park in Whitehill Car Park and take the right hand footpath (which runs along the valley floor). After 600m you will reach a clearing on the western side with up to a dozen prominent Larch trees. Walk up this cleared slope to the treeline and then look back across at a wall of Yews and views up to Juniper Top. After 08.30hrs might be best if these are indeed birds from Bramblehall Wood.

Because birds were still dribbling down from Juniper Top I decided to go up and investigate. Even before the top was reached a tight flock of 45 were inadvertently flushed from a stand of Silver Birches and, once at the start of the woodland at the peak of the hill, a further 21 were milling about, so 66 in total. If you are planning on visiting Juniper Top, park in Whitehill Car Park and take the left hand footpath (through the gate). Walk directly up the open hill, scanning trees either side, until you reach the top, and the edge of the woodland. There will be further Hawfinches within the wood but will be harder to see. After 08.00hrs might be best if these are indeed birds from Bramblehall Wood.

Lodge Hill, west of Juniper Bottom, was given several scans and each time a number of Hawfinches were on show. 24 present.

Finally I drove round to Box Hill, driving up the zig-zag until I came to the car park situated half-way up. Walking back across the road I then took the steep path (steps cut out of the slope) directly opposite, walking up to level ground where I could then look back north and eastwards to even higher ground (in fact this is viewing the 'other' side of Lodge Hill). There appeared plenty of Hawfinches, flying across the valleys, with a minimum of 35 being present, including the beautiful brute of a male that I photographed in the rain as it sung from an open perch (above and below).

If you are planning on visiting Bramblehall Wood this weekend (400+ were seen yesterday by visiting birders Nick and Malcolm) do get there very early. After 08.00hrs can be too late! Walk along the footpath (directions in previous posts), maybe half way along the open field, until you come level to two horse jumps. Walk down to the fence line and secure a good view of the opposite tree line and the open sky above - it can be done. Then wait and listen. Good luck!

It has been good to see numbers at Juniper Bottom over the past few days, which was the scene of so much excitement exactly five years ago. Little did we know then that those 110-130 Hawfinches would be eclipsed in such style - eclipsed, but not forgotten..

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Always a crowd pleaser

It's always a pleasure to find an Oak Beauty in the MV. On a chilly morning there was just this, a Hebrew Character and an as yet to be determined micro.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Where to begin?

Yesterday evening might be a good place. I was delighted to see that two Sussex stalwarts - Chris Janman and Dick Senior - had recorded 400+ Hawfinches at Kingley Vale that very morning, one of the few areas in the country that can out-Yew Mickleham and Box Hill. I was already planning on visiting Bramblehall Wood the following morning (today) and their success got me wondering as to whether or not flocks were starting to join forces, or that I would find the Surrey woodland to be a lot quieter as the birds had all moved to Sussex!

I was in the Whitehill Carpark by 06.15hrs and within ten minutes found myself staring across the field and into the tree tops of Bramblehall Wood. I was frankly surprised to see, at this early hour, at least 200 Hawfinches already on show (part of the flock pictured above). They were quite motionless and, I think it safe to assume, had just emerged from a very close roosting site. Over the following hour more birds arrived (mainly from the direction of Ashurst Rough) to join them. From time to time numbers left the tree tops to dive into the wall of Yew beneath, birds being observed moving amongst the foliage as they fed, barging through the vegetation. A flock of c100 then took to the air and headed purposefully northwards along the tree-line, appearing to disappear towards High Ashurst Outdoor Centre, not to be seen again. The rest of the birds then moved off southwards, then settled some 400m further along. At 07.15 things started to get very busy indeed. It began with a lose flock of 200 birds that came in over my head and circled the birds that were already present in front of me. Those in the trees then also took to the air - not the 100+ that I had assumed were present but at least 250 of them - and I was witness to a kaleidoscope of Hawfinches, a blizzard of wing-bars, tail-tips and excited calling. 450+ birds in all. Plus, there were 50+ birds behind me, up in the Yews. Together with the 100 that had left northwards earlier in the morning that made for a minimum of 600. Incredible. And do you know what happened to this mass of Hawfinches? They just melted away. Gone with barely a whimper, to be consumed by that dense wall of Yew trees. All became very quiet indeed.

Back on the footpath I bumped into west-Surrey birder Malcolm Lawford, and together we retraced my steps, but by 08.00hrs could (only!) find 100+ birds. Again, the assumption was taken that these were birds that I had already counted. And this neatly demonstrates how skewed birding perspective can become, as these 100+ seemed like a let-down, small potatoes, a failure. 100!! In most years you would crawl over broken glass to see such a gathering.

Was this boost in number (from a previous high of 420 on 22 February) a genuine increase from birds that had recently come into the area? Or had such a number been here all the time but had just eluded observers? I take the recording of these large Hawfinch flocks seriously. There is a responsibility involved in obtaining accurate counts, for these numbers are of historical proportions. That count of 600 is a bare minimum. It assumes that every bird that appears in front of me from an area where I have already seen/counted a Hawfinch must be a repeat bird. Every time a flock of 50 birds flies to the left and 40 come back 10 minutes later, they must be some of the same. I need to take such a strict stance so that there can be no chance of an incorrect, higher total. But at the same time it is worth bearing in mind that they just might be different birds... at least some of the time.

I then went on a tour of the nearby sites. I can only describe the immediate area as dripping with Hawfinches. Almost every scan over distant treetops would yield perched birds, overflying flocks or unseen birds that would 'tick' and 'seep' from nearby cover. The southern slope of Mickleham Downs was given a half-hour scan which yielded at least 46 birds. Lodge Hill had a flock of five. And Juniper Bottom (scene of the famous 2013 flock) held at least 115, although these may well have been birds that had earlier been at Bramblehall - but then again, they might not have been. While I was here I started to watch a high spiralling Sparrowhawk, and, just within the range of being able to identify them, a high flock of 8 Hawfinches flew through my field of view, heading northwards. They, at least, seemed to be finally on the move.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Moths, for a change

I have been really slow out of the starter's blocks on the moth front this year - so far there has been just one outing for the MV and that was back in January. Now that the snow and low temperatures have gone (at least for the moment) it was time to switch on the bulb!

The garden MV has never been that productive in late winter or early spring, so I was expecting no more than what I actually caught this morning: a handful of Common Quakers (top), Hebrew Characters and March Moths (bottom two). Persistence at this time of year can pay off and I still harbour an outside hope for a Sloe Carpet, a species that is sparingly found on the nearby chalk downs. If I'm not 'in it' then I won't 'win it'. Or something along those lines...