Sunday, 26 March 2017

Flora exotica

Priest Hill used to be a dumping ground for all sorts of debris, including heaps of soil, garden waste and hardcore. It was unsightly, but after a while the seeds and bulbs that were within sprang forth. There is a Flowering Currant onsite that I believe to be the same one that I 'ticked' over 15 years ago. Today I came across this:

I believe that it's Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias), and, if I might be so bold, of the ssp veneta. There will, no doubt, be somebody out there ready to correct me if I'm wrong. Nearby in Ewell, close to Bourne Hall, the Creeping Comfrey (below) and Abraham-Isaac-Jacob (next two images) are at their best.

Even though a nagging easterly wind is present today, the butterflies have come out in numbers, particularly Brimstones. Also recorded were Comma (first image), Small Tortoiseshell (next) and Red Admiral.

The birds haven't been neglected - two Red Kites flew through Priest Hill (one north and the other east), a Common Buzzard passed high overhead northbound, and two Chiffchaffs were in full song in the copse area.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Pigeon for breakfast

This morning, when scanning the Priest Hill playing fields for a Wheatear, this came into my view - an enormous female Peregrine in the middle of a pigeon breakfast. I was far enough away not to bother it too much, although a nagging Carrion Crow moved it on, with the falcon still in possession of its prey. This is, in all likelihood, one half of the Sutton breeding pair. Also of note were a small arrival of Chiffchaff (5) and a singing Blackcap.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Diaries and sparrows

You could be forgiven for assuming that I have recently forsaken 'actual birding' to delve through old dusty diaries and notebooks - I have been doing both, it's just that the birding has been slow. My visits to Priest Hill have been ongoing, with most of the time spent scanning empty fields and bushes. However, a few Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits have passed through and both Tawny and Little Owls are on site. My hopes are high for a little bit of spring magic in the coming weeks.

Back home I was entertained by a gaggle of House Sparrows that were loafing around in a neighbour's pyracantha bush (no, I don't know which species). We are still blessed with good numbers around here, for which I am grateful. Now, back to those diaries...

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Any day soon...

Beddington in the 1970s (Beddington Farmlands)
Part 3: March - May 1975 When it came to grabbing my binoculars and rushing out of the front door to go bird watching, there was one place above all the others that became my favoured destination, and that was Beddington Sewage Farm. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the ornithological record for the site stretched back to the early years of the 20th century, and my modest observations were becoming a part of that impressive canon of work. My regularity at the farm had started to help forge friendships with other Beddington attendees – and apart from Mark and Neil (who often accompanied me) there was Nick Gardener (a highly confident lad of my age), Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood. The latter two were both involved in the capture and ringing of birds, an on-going scientific study of, among other things, movements and longevity. Other observers, such as Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Dalgleish and Bill Blake would often be bumped into, and it was always a tense, exciting affair to hear of their latest observations. Being exposed to other birdwatchers was an education. They were, by and large, more experienced than me, and would willingly pass on their identification skills, particularly how to differentiate the many, and varying, birdcalls and songs.

I became familiar with the place names scattered across the farm – Irrigation Bridge, Cuckoo Lane, One Hundred Acre, Parkside, Milne’s Hedge – a living, evolving folk lore. What people, what events were behind their naming? No visit was complete without a thorough search of the entire site, striding across each field, walking single-file along the miles of sludge lagoon banking, peering into culverts, checking the hedgerows and copses. Around every bend was an opportunity, behind each tree or bush a possibility. Within a short space of time the farm had taken me over. It owned me. Most visits ended when it became too dark to carry on. My bicycle would be un-padlocked and I would mentally replay the day’s events as I peddled home. If I were with Mark and Neil we would make the short journey to their Grandparents home, where tea and cake would be offered.

New birds came thick and fast – Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Brambling, Common Snipe, Jack Snipe and Redshank. These were species removed from the common and garden birds that I had cut my teeth on. They were specialists that could only be found by visiting specialist habitats, away from the gardens, parks and woods that I had been used to, and in Beddington I had adopted one of the best. Of these new species it was the Green Sandpiper that captured me most and became an icon of the sewage farm. As many as three of them haunted the fast-running shallow water that coursed through the concrete culverts, and they would not tolerate close approach, soon fleeing with a cheerful, shrill fruity whistle, their blackish upper parts contrasting with a shockingly white rump. I would follow them in flight until they dropped down into another watery hiding place, where the game of hide-and-seek could be played all over again.

There was one particular bird that I longed to see, and that was a Wheatear. The description in my field guide suggested that it was a bird of mountains and moorland, but Mike Netherwood gave me hope – “we get them moving through here on passage, they’ll be along any day soon”. They came here! And soon! My life then revolved around waiting for this apparition to turn up. The month of March ended without any show and we were then into April. Any day soon… that mantra was repeatedly recited… and then, on the morning of Sunday April 6th, four of these most exquisite of beauties arrived at once, proudly standing on hummocks and posts on the field up against the railway line, close to Irrigation Bridge. The following day, for a change of scenery, I visited Epsom Common, and there awaiting me was a Wheatear - I watched it with a nonchalance that it did not deserve. I was captivated by the urgent pulses of summer migrants that were now arriving – yet more Wheatears, joined by Yellow Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Blackcaps, Sedge Warblers – all vibrantly fresh of plumage, some full of tremendous song. Together with the bursting forth of blossom and leaves from the trees, my newly discovered world was like a carnival, celebrating the cycle of life.

I had contacted the Epsom RSPB group and arranged to join them for an early-May evening walk at Epsom Common. I thought that I knew the area from my previous visits, but in the company of those that really did know the place, I was shown another side to it – one of calling Cuckoos, singing Nightingales, reeling Grasshopper Warblers and, best of all, croaking, roding Woodcocks. I returned home, in the dark, reeling from this birding overload.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Windhover

The photograph above, of a hovering male Kestrel, was taken this morning at Priest Hill. It was only after I returned home that I became aware that today has been designated as 'World Poetry Day' and, being a surprisingly cultured oaf, immediately thought that this image would be apt for a post. The Windhover was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that clerical poet who celebrated the natural world in many of his writings. It was a poem that I came across at school, when studying for my English Literature O-level, where I was lucky enough to be taught by a fine teacher, one Mr McTiffin. He instilled in me a love for the written word that has remained to this very day. So, for an appreciation of the Kestrel, over to you Gerard...

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The birding hook

Part 2: Jan – February 1975 I was starting to move away from the local parks and woodland to get my bird watching fix, and was drawn to two locations in particular – Beddington Sewage Farm and Epsom Common. The former site had come to my attention via the pages of ‘Where to Watch Birds’ by John Gooders. This book listed some of the best places in Britain to go birding, and Beddington had received a glowing write-up from the author, accompanied by a species list and details of how to obtain a permit to visit. Apart from being but a twenty-minute cycle ride from home, the promise of a Short-eared Owl was all the encouragement that I needed. Within a week I had that permit in my hand, a flimsy white piece of paper that had been crudely typewritten – not the grand illuminated document that I had hoped for. But never the less, it was my golden ticket to a promised land, my entry to a place that was notable for its birds. My excitement was barely containable.

That first visit was made on a cool and overcast morning. My mind had been hijacked by visions of flocks of waders and hunting Short-eared Owls. I had no idea what a sewage farm would look like, but had envisaged something not unlike an agricultural farm. For this first trip I went along with a neighbour and his son, both who shared with me a burgeoning interest in birds. He drove us to the offices of the treatment works, which, being a Sunday, was largely deserted. I was immediately crestfallen. This was no open wilderness, but comprised small neat manicured lawns, office buildings and a series of small concrete squares filled with dark water. There were a handful of Starlings and Pied Wagtails strutting about, but certainly no waders or owls. As each minute passed by my enthusiasm was slowly being strangled by disappointment.  We quickly found a member of staff who was able to direct us away from this virtually bird-less zone and onto the fields and settling beds to be found on the other side of a high perimeter fence – to the promised land that John Gooders had written about.

Relieved, and once again buoyed, we wandered down the tarmacked Mile Road (in the shadow of the giant cooling towers) that bisected the open vista of the ‘true’ farm. A mosaic of small banked rectangles, some the size of a living room, others a municipal swimming pool, took up most of the land that we first came across. Many were filled with wet sludge, and could be circumnavigated along narrow ridges. In places this sludge had dried to allow colonising vegetation to establish, but mostly it was wet and pungent. Beyond these, open fields were largely grassed-over, being edged with sparse hedgerows and the odd mature willow or elm. Alongside, concrete culverts ran with fast flowing water, abandoned brick outhouses whispering of the old ways. It felt as if we had stepped back in time. The most obvious landmark was a giant banked reservoir, as tall as a house and as wide and as long as a couple of football pitches. We climbed the grassy bank to be confronted by a sea of effluence, a virtual inland estuary, tributaries of water snaking into the centre of the goo. And yes, there were waders! Maybe not the hoards promised by JG, but a flock of Lapwings, with a scruffy, lethargic Grey Heron close by. After an hour of scratching about, uncertain of where to go and what to do, my neighbour announced that it was time to go home.

My next visit was a far more successful affair. I had cycled alone and entered the western side of the farm at Hackbridge. The settling beds and culverts were much as I had seen on the eastern side, but here were large open fields, some flooded, that had enticed Lapwings, Fieldfares and Redwings onto the rough turf. This was more like it. Highlights came thick and fast, with a Stonechat perched on dead grass stems, two wintering Chiffchaffs which lurked within a series of vegetated earth mounds and – best of all – two magnificent Short-eared Owls, that hunted over the nearby settling beds and alighted on the banks, to stare back at me through cat-like masks, as I in turn stared at them through my binoculars. I couldn’t believe that such birds existed, let alone within striking distance of home. The birding hook was burying itself deep into my increasingly willing flesh.

Epsom Common was an altogether more sedate place to go bird watching. I would catch a bus from Sutton and alight at the edge of the common on the Ashtead road. My early visits were in the company of school friends Mark and Neil Greenway - it was Mark who had painted the picture of the Jay that had kick-started my interest in birds the previous year. We had a set routine. Crossing the railway line we would work our way through scrub (which often provided us with close views of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers) until we reached the edge of the woods. A wide ride then took us up through the mature trees – always stopping half way for lunch – until reaching its end that abutted the farmland at Maldon Rushett. A loop back to our starting point was made via a check on the stew pond. We always recorded Willow Tits on these trips and I saw my first Little Owl on one memorable late afternoon at the top of the ride. This encouraged us to make, and erect, an owl nest box in the area. Whereas a visit to Beddington was one of heightened expectation, these Epsom Common trips were laid back affairs, the time being spent as much as in the company of the habitat as much as its bird life.

At this time I had started to gather a macabre collection of bird remains, which were proudly kept in an old set of drawers that resided in a garden shed. These exhibits were gathered from corpses found whilst out on my wanderings. A penknife and supply of plastic bags became essential components of any field trip, and they were frequently brought into action – me hacking off the head and wings of the latest unfortunate bird that had been found lying in the gutter or floating on the surface of a pond. I would bury any severed head in the back garden at home, and exhume it several weeks later in the hope that a clean skull would be ready to add to the growing collection. To preserve the meatier parts of the body I would inject formaldehyde into the flesh, via a needle and syringe. All of this equipment was easily purchased over the counter from Boots the Chemist, with barely a question as to their use being asked. I was given a number of items by other birdwatchers, some of who shared in my ghoulish sideshow and others who were aware of my interest and kindly fed it. It got to the point where members of my family would show up with dead birds as presents – on one memorable occasion an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, that needed prompt treatment before putrefaction set in. I was particularly keen on wings, and was building up quite a collection, my proudest being those of Barn Owl and Jack Snipe. And then one morning I opened the drawers to inspect my ornithological prizes to find that something had been nibbling at the wings – most probably a mouse – and many were destroyed. I considered rescuing a few primary feathers, and keeping the unharmed skulls, but the collection was now, to my mind, sullied - it had been desecrated. I bagged the whole lot up and put them in a dustbin. Why had I kept them in the first place? There was certainly an element of feeling close to the birds, being able to examine the feathers, to appreciate their colouring and patterning. Maybe there was also an exercising of ownership taking place, another echo of our hunter/gatherer past.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

When it all started

Part One: April 1974. Sutton Manor High School, Greater London. That morning’s art lesson was to create a picture titled ‘Conflict’. We pupils, almost as a whole, interpreted this as an excuse to let our 14 and 15-year old minds loose and depict images of battle, blood and weaponry. The poster paint and charcoal in our hands was soon being used to manufacture imagined violence. But one pupil had expressed a different take on the subject matter, and one that was to have a lasting effect on me.

I stood over this ‘alternative’ painting – that of a cat, leaping into the air with paw outstretched, a claw-tipped swipe narrowly missing a fleeing bird. The latter appeared exotic, and my curiosity was aroused. “Is the bird a parrot?” I asked. My classmate slowly shook his head, accompanied by a chuckle that suggested I had made a foolish mistake. “No, it’s called a Jay. You’d see them in your garden.” This, I could not believe. I had never before observed a bird that was so colourful, at least not outside of a zoo or the inside of a glass case in a museum. I doubted him. In fact, I just didn’t believe him. My attention was soon taken away from the painting before me, and the Jay was given not a moment’s further thought.

Maybe a week later, I glanced out of my bedroom window. And there it was, on the garden lawn. A Jay. The very same bird depicted on that classroom painting, now come to three-dimensional life. I involuntarily held my breath, keeping completely still, so as not to spook the bird with sudden movement. Ignoring me, it hopped across the grass, but soon took flight and was away. Gone. I still did not move, my thoughts a mixture of surprise, of wonder and of pleasure. It had been a larger bird than I thought it would be (not that I had given any thought about the bird’s size until that very moment). The dusty pink body had been set against pied wings, but most stunning of all was a vivid blue section of feathering, of which I could not tell of where it belonged, that appeared to be on a different plane from the rest of the plumage - dancing out in front, hypnotic and other-worldly. Had I ever seen anything so dazzling? I ached to see the bird again, but it did not return. There were two overriding thoughts - firstly, I had been able to identify the bird and give it a name. This was a new experience. Secondly, I wanted – no, I needed – to know what other birds came to visit the garden, and not just be able to see them, but to name them just as I had done so with the Jay. This had been a revelation, a hidden world revealed. And although I was not suggesting to myself that the appearance of the Jay - so shortly after seeing the painting - was an omen, at the very least it was surely a sign. A sign of what, I did not know, but I was convinced that pure chance was not behind it.

The next couple of days found me looking out over the garden, waiting for birds to visit. Some that arrived I could give a vague name to – sparrow, tit, robin, thrush, pigeon - but I could not be any more specific than that. There were also several that I didn’t know at all. I wanted closer views, not only to be able to see the bird’s plumage well enough to identify it by, but to appreciate their colours and form, to be able to observe what they did and how they did it. It became obvious that this was not a simple case of me wanting to name the birds for naming’s sake - bird watching was starting to reveal unsuspected depths. My Father owned a pair of binoculars that I soon liberated – I had not ever seen them in use and had no idea why he possessed them. They had rested for years, in their case, on top of a sideboard. As happy as he was to my using them, he seemed bemused that I was taking part in such a passive activity as bird watching. Admittedly, it was a departure from my usual diet of football and cricket, and not one that he could easily understand.

It soon became obvious that I should get hold of a book that illustrated the birds that I was likely to see in the garden. Without it I would be unable to put a specific name to almost all that I would see. A visit to the WH Smith book department gave little choice, and I came away with a set of three inexpensive flimsy guides, written by Reginald Jones and published by Jarrold of Norfolk - ‘Birds in our Gardens’, ‘Birds of the Hedgerows and Commons’ and ‘Birds of Woodlands’. Each was a 32-page booklet, with colour photography throughout, that depicted the commoner species to be found in the habitat of the title. They met my modest needs. I soon returned home, stationed at a bedroom window overlooking the garden, with binoculars and newly purchased guides at the ready. House Sparrow, Wood Pigeon, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Blue Tit and Great Tit – all were quickly identified, each of which came with a level of confidence (and almost certainty) that was both novel and enjoyable. Several ‘garden sessions’ followed, each one eagerly anticipated. My eyes had well and truly been opened, and the photographic guides that I possessed teased me further, with images of other species ready to be discovered – but not necessarily at home  - if I would only make the effort and step a little further afield.

I didn’t have to travel far. The local parks and tree-lined streets were enough of a change from the back garden to be able to provide me with new species. Two birds stood out in particular amongst the others – a Goldfinch, that sat motionless on its nest in the lower branches of a pavement tree; and a Grey Wagtail, that regularly haunted a water-filled ditch on an allotment. Each were greeted with a joy that I could only liken to celebrating the scoring of a goal or the taking a wicket, although these ‘bird identification victories’ possessed a deeper level of fulfilment than they did. And, with each ‘victory’, another photograph from the guide ceased to exist purely as ink on paper, but now had reality as blood and feather.

I tagged along with my Father when he went fishing on the River Mole at Leatherhead, abandoning his bank-side station to prowl the nearby meadows; I cycled to Oaks Park, wandering through the open copses; and I took a bus to Nower Wood, losing myself in the trees. All provided me with new birds and further tests on my ability to name them. I was starting to consider bird watching as more than a passing fad. I spent my meagre savings to buy my own (cheap) pair of binoculars and upgraded my reference material to ‘The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Bertel Bruun. This was a major step up from the Jarrold booklets, as it depicted many more species in varying plumages, with the additional bonus of brief identification notes. These were most welcome, as I had started to ask more questions about the birds that were appearing in front of me.

The field guide’s colour plates had been illustrated by Arthur Singer. Unlike a photograph, the artist had been able to clearly depict salient features to enable bird watchers to successfully identify what they saw. The book was published almost entirely with this purpose in mind, rather than cater to an aesthetically minded audience. I avidly devoured it, spending hours looking at the plates, familiarising myself with what I might expect to see and dreaming about those that I most probably wouldn’t. The guide introduced me to many aspects of bird study for the first time – a systematic list; the existence of summer, winter and passage migrants; distribution maps; and the topography of a bird.

A family holiday to the New Forest was the first meaningful test for this publication, with my visiting of the totally new habitat (to me) of heathland; although I did not come back home with a long list of new identifications, it did help me to differentiate between a Stonechat and a Whinchat, it allowed me to attempt pipit identification, and gave me false confidence to begin the long, and at times, difficult process of taking on the warblers. By the end of the year I knew my way around the field guide and had allowed myself to claim being a proper bird watcher. I had started to note down what I was seeing. Whenever a new species came along, the details of the observation would be marked in pen underneath its description in the Hamlyn guide - the place and date of first observation - as neatly written as possible. I was consigning it to ‘having been seen’, and welcomed it into my ownership. Our hunter-gatherer relationship with birds was still being played out, via a mid-teenage boy, with a pair of binoculars rather than a bow and arrow.

As the year drew to a close, I went along to Sutton Library and borrowed a book that was to have an enormous influence on me – HG Alexander’s ‘Seventy Years of Bird-watching’. This was an ornithological autobiography and I was captured from the very first page, and read the whole book in one sitting. His recollections of bird watching during the early years of the 20th century, and how he kept note of his field observations, were of particular interest to me, and overnight I adopted many of his practices. Within days I had bought a ‘single page per day’ diary and a large hard-backed notebook in which to record my sightings. In them I would keep lists of site visits, I would count the numbers present of each and every species, and also make note of the earliest and latest dates of the migrants. I also decided to join a bird club, in an attempt to legitimise my efforts. The one organisation that I had heard about was The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), so I wrote to them enquiring as to membership. They wrote back, suggesting that as I had just turned 16, it would be more appropriate (and cheaper) for me to join their junior arm, The Young Ornithologists Club (YOC). This I did.

Within eight months I had gone from possessing an almost complete ignorance of bird watching to becoming a keen, but green, practitioner of its basics.