Thursday, 22 March 2018

Being weaned off

Maybe the Hawfinch bubble is starting to leak air, if not actually burst yet. This morning saw a check of sites west of the Mole Gap, and although I had many encounters with the 'big-bills', they were fewer in number, with the actual bird counts down as well. It is about time that the flocks should start to disperse, although the historical record does show that large flocks can be recorded well into April. My totals were: Dorking Wood (22), Chapelhill Wood (20), Bagden Wood (2), Freehold Wood (1), Polesden Lacey (1), Ranmore Common (6). I did pop onto the top of Box Hill for a crafty look but this could only muster two Hawfinches - again, down on recent days. This is nature's kind way of weaning me off of them...

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

In preparation for summer

The days are deniably drawing out, even if we have to share this daylight lengthening with bouts of 'Beasts from the East Parts 1, 2 and, apparently, 3'. To get us in the mood for those warm days, drowsy with the buzz of insects and perfumed via the waft of wild flowers, here's a selection of books - all highly recommended - that will only make us yearn all the more for their return.

In Pursuit of Butterflies by Matthew Oates
Matthew Oates has spent the past 50 years of his life in love with butterflies and has forged a career out of studying, counting and being enthralled by them.

The book is autobiographical, but it is much, much more than a 'been there, saw that' memoirs. Each page is packed not only with anecdote, but also with information - information that is anything but dry. I have learnt so much about butterflies from reading this that when I now go out into the field I am looking at them in a very different way. No longer are they just colourful and fleetingly glimpsed insects to be identified and committed to the notebook - thanks to Mr Oates I have a flicker of understanding about what they are up to and why.

In his 50 years study his research has unlocked secrets of their life-cycles that had remained unknown. He certainly has his favourites, none more so than the Purple Emperor, and his quest to see the all black aberration (iole) had me gripped. I now want to see a 'Black Admiral' and also the valenzia form of the Silver-washed Fritillary. Before picking up this book I was aware of neither. He has turned me from a part-time butterfly lover into something more.

The author has wandered through the years with not just butterflies as his companion - poetry and cricket are obviously great refuges from the 'modern-day systems' that he so clearly despises. We get to meet other butterfly champions, are shown around the butterfly hot-spots and share in his incredible highs and lows. Whether he is forgetting about having taken his two young daughters onto a mountainside, regularly coming across fornicating couples on downland in the dead of night, or rescuing an adult Brimstone from under several inches of snow, just like each butterfly season no page is the same. After reading this, you too will go out butterflying with a new pair of eyes.

By the way, he marked that snow-bound Brimstone on the wing with indelible ink and saw it again, three months later, a kilometre away.

Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren
Peter Marren is one of my favourite authors of wildlife publications. His 'Poyser' on Britain's Rare Flowers and British Wildlife Publishing's Mushrooms are both delights which I re-read with as much enjoyment as their first sitting. 

Rainbow Dust explores the relationship between us dowdy people and the brilliance that are butterflies. It begins with the author laying down his own beginnings with lepidoptera and then takes us to meet those who first described them, who named them, collected them, painted them, studied them and conserved them. This gallery of 'movers and shakers' is full of characters, from the plebs to the aristocracy, and shows us how they all contributed to our appreciation of butterflies in varying, but similarly major ways. How these insects have coloured our culture, haunted our folklore and entered our psyche is laid out before us.

I will never look at a Red Admiral in the same way again - the depiction of this species in the paintings from the 16th-17th century was as a metaphor for death; children from the middle-ages (and possibly before) used to tie thread to butterflies bodies and then attach them to their hats, so that they walked along accompanied by fluttering friends; the sources of many of the binomial names are revealed, a mixture of the classical, macabre and mischievous. There are pages and pages of this sort of stuff.

Marren does not do dry - his writing style is as if you were having a pint in the pub with him, so effortless and inclusive is his prose. Full of anecdote, aside and entertainment, he never the less gets to the nitty-gritty of any subject. Published by Square Peg, it is a beautifully produced book, with yet another stunning cover by Carrie Ackroyd.

The Butterfly Years by Patrick Barkham
It is a book that informs, entertains and makes you think about why we take such an interest in the natural world around us. I’m a sucker for any well-written natural history literature and this is definitely one that comes into that category.

It's got me all wistful for butterflies again. I can normally expect to see one by the end of February, usually an individual flushed out of hibernation by a spot of shed tidying or a shaft of warming sunlight. In most years the honour will go to a Red Admiral, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Peacock or a Brimstone. On one mild mid-February day several years ago, I recorded both Small Tortoiseshell and a Brimstone – a double flutterby start to the year!

The book has also made me realise that there are species, within easy travelling distance, that I should go and see before its too late. I haven’t seen Glanville Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper or Heath Fritillary. I really ought to get myself into gear and put that right this coming summer.

Get the book and you wont be disappointed. A word of warning though – you may find yourself adding a few trips to your list this summer.

Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn
This is no 'went there, saw that' account made in a strictly chronological order - to have been so would not only been generic but also turgid for the reader. What Jon has done is to use the premise of his quest to cleverly - seamlessly - weave into the story multiple rich threads dealing with the personalities involved in discovering orchids, naming them, protecting them and studying them; the orchid folklore, the rich history that they possess and their astonishing mechanisms for obtaining their food and their reproduction methods. There is no 'cut-and-paste' methodology going on here! He has also handed over extra time to the species that warrant our fuller attention, those that have a more 'interesting' tale to tell. This works wonderfully well.

This is a book that does not only entertain and inform, but, something rarely experienced, also inspires. Because you are there with the author as he kneels down before his quarry and experience with him his emotions (whether they be of success or failure) it makes you want to seek out your own audience with the orchids as soon as possible. As his quest evolves, so does his relationship with the orchids themselves. In places this is heart on the sleeve stuff, a natural history confessional.

Jon is a master of communicating factual information. In less skilful hands this can come across as dry, but he is able to irrigate and hydrate them into memorable passages of text. His brilliant descriptive prose appears throughout the book, with turns of phrase that, with a few skilfully chosen words, places you alongside him experiencing the plants and habitats first hand. If you thought you knew all there was to know about our orchids, then reading this book will make you realise that you didn't - and if you know very little about them then you couldn't find a better place to start to get to know them better. I will be looking at them with fresh eyes this coming summer and I am impatient to start. I yearn to seek out their variations; to really take in their structures; to try and observe some of their pollination methods at work - only a week ago none of these were even considered as things that I wanted - needed  - to do. For a start, the local Bee Orchids will be grilled in the hope for a var. chlorantha.

If you thought orchid hunting was all summer days and flowery meadows in the company of gentle souls think again! You will get drenched and cross swollen streams with him on Rum, get covered in mud in Herefordshire woodlands, be rounded on by irate golfers and menaced by beer-swilling Cumbrian red-necks. And, unusual for a natural history book, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions - for plants that have been linked to testicles and libido for centuries a bit of 21st century bawdiness in not out of place!  References beyond the world of orchids are many and do nothing but add richness to the experience - and most of them land back firmly in the world of the orchid - Adolf Hitler is even referenced twice!

This is a book written, designed and published by people who care. From the charming 'arts and crafts' book jacket illustration to the font and paper choice; from the inclusion of a ribbon book mark to the aching desire from the author that we all embrace our wildlife and cherish it - this is a work of love. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Chasing The Ghost by Peter Marren
I've only just got hold of this book, hot off the press, but have included it as nothing that has been written by Peter Marren is anything other than a resounding success. I cannot wait to get stuck in as the author takes us on a personal odyssey to track down all of the wild flowers to be found in Britain.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Flock foraying

It had been a week since I last visited Bramblehall Wood to count the Hawfinches, although visits had been made to outlying areas in the past few days that suggested good numbers would still be present. On arrival at 06.15hrs three Hawfinches flew over Whitehill car park and by the time I reached my viewpoint overlooking the wood quite a few were already perched up in the bare tree tops, favouring the northern end (taster video above - the BBC Natural History Film Unit has nothing to worry about). At least 270 were counted, and when these birds moved along the tree-line in a northerly direction I carried on southwards. More birds soon arrived, coming from the south and also off the top of Ashurst Rough, mainly heading to where the earlier birds had been - as in recent visits a steady passage helped me to obtain an accurate count. When I reached an additional total of 280, a mass of 300 birds came back along the woodland edge, swirling in front of me before bursting through the treetops with many burying themselves deep into the Yews. At this point there was no choice but to abandon the count with a minimum of 550 being present, although plenty of birds were now calling from the Ashurst Rough slope. Were they new? Possibly. On my walk out it was obvious that several hundred had gathered at the point where the footpath returns to the car park, which I have not witnessed before. They were extremely noisy and would go on large flock forays, out over the open fields towards Mickleham Downs before returning to the wood once more (flock sizes of 50-80 on several occasions). There were times when I was standing directly beneath them, the noise an incessant electronic babble, but I could barely see a perched bird - then they would take off, a whoosh of wings and finally revealing themselves and their true number.

The rest of the morning was spent walking from site to site, checking for these delightful birds. In short I was able to locate the following: Mickleham Downs (80, much flock foraying here as well), Juniper Bottom (50), Lodge Hill (5), Box Hill (16), Middlehill Wood (85, north-east of Bramblehall), Ashcombe Wood (4, east of Dorking Wood) and Norbury Park (5). I returned to the car through Juniper Top and back along Juniper Bottom - by then it was 12.30hrs and very few birds were seen.

At one point (c08.30hrs) I stood at the gateway in Whitehill car park looking eastwards. Over the fields were two flocks circling (60 and 85), there were birds calling all around me, and further (small) numbers were viewable with each and every scan of viewable tree lines. They were everywhere. Today's combined total is of 795 birds. I cannot possibly have seen or found them all - I wouldn't mind betting that the general area is holding 1,000+.

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..