Thursday, 15 November 2018

Surrey v Northumberland Part 3

2018 still has a few weeks to run, but it isn't too early to cast one's eyes forward to next year and to plan for it. It's good to have projects in the pipeline and in some ways such things can add enjoyment and act as incentive to the time spent out in the field. And so, the first natural history project of 2019 can be revealed as...

Surrey v Northumberland (a tale of two patches.)

Stewart Sexton, (he of the most beautifully illustrated notebooks and a worthy blog) has agreed to a re-run of our two previous challenges - the results of which, I believe, is a score draw. Instead of straight forward annual totals, this time round we are going to compare the percentage that we record of our personal local patch lists. I'm going to enter two patches (if Stewart agrees). In reality one is just a smaller part of the other.

In the uber-patch (see explanation in box above) I have recorded 213 species since 1974. At times I have chased birds within it and, for long periods of time, have not. By my reckoning this can be broken down as such: 122 species that are almost guaranteed, 61 bonus species and 30 that I have only recorded 1-3 times. Within this patch are the two best local birding sites - Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SP.

The second is the mini-uber patch, created as a walk-from-home area. This is largely populated by ornithologically challenging habitat, although I have recorded 130 species within it. There is plenty of potential here.

Why enter the two patches? Well, part of me likes the idea of not clogging up the roads with the car and a desire to champion local birding as an antidote to the blind action of many birders who just follow the latest rarity. That type of birding is not for me, although I do understand why some pursue such activities as I have done so myself in the past. Although there is plenty to find and discover on our doorsteps for many birders this is just not enough - but for me the mini-uber patch delivers this. However, I will also collate my larger Uber-patch totals for 2019 as there are so many wonderful places within it that deserve coverage, such as the Hawfinch haunts of earlier in the year - but to get a competitive percentage figure from this I will need to visit Beddington and Holmethorpe (and be nice to my BFBG key-holder friends!)

Up in Northumberland, Stewart's Howick area list stands at 200 (since 2010) at an average of 143.2 species per year. He may have coast, but my compensation comes in birding across a larger area and possibly a more varied habitat mosaic.

I'm already looking forward to it...

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Pipit roost


After last night's 'roost watch' I decided to visit another one of the local patches, Priest Hill, to see what might - or might not - be roosting. On arrival there were just a few Meadow Pipits (above) and Fieldfares mooching about, and it was quite hard work as I zig-zagged my way across the rank-grass meadows. Some respite came in the form of a Common Snipe, flushed from the largest paddock, my second record here, a dry site save for a few tiny ponds.

As the light started to fade the bird activity stepped up. There was a marked dribble of corvids north and a veritable flood of gulls north-west, heading towards the west London reservoirs. At the same time up to 50+ Fieldfare departed into the murk and the first of at least 40 Meadow Pipits started to arrive, dropping down into the long grass to roost.

As I left the site there was a gash of blood red on the western horizon, enough to light up a small bat that flew in a straight line, not dropping a wing beat, across the open grassland.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Belated evening discoveries


One of the joys of watching an area regularly is that you get to build up a picture of what occurs when, and how many birds are involved. But while it is understandable to think that, after several years of paying a patch a visit, you would have a very firm handle on such data, sometimes doing it differently can turn up unexpected results.

Epsom and Walton Downs today was a case in point. I most probably bird here 20-30 times a year, almost exclusively during fully formed daylight. Dawn and dusk visits are rare - in fact, apart from 'twitching' a Barn Owl a couple of years back, an end of daylight visit has not been made at all. After a couple of hours this morning (70+ Skylark, a handful of Fieldfare - pictured above) I returned to some high ground as night fell to scan the surrounding area for Barn Owl. Although I was not successful in this, a couple of roosts were discovered that I was unaware of. Firstly a Ring-necked Parakeet fly-line has been established, although I was too late to get a meaningful count, with up to 200 birds heading south in small groups. And then there was a gradual gathering of at least 650 Jackdaws, that took off in a noisy cloud when it was almost dark, and headed into the highest wood, seemingly settling although it was too dark to be sure. I will be back to count both throughout the winter. I should practice what I preach, as I always bang on to others that you should vary the timing of visits.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

So, how was the autumn for you?


As we come towards the end of yet another autumn, there are plenty of birders 'out there' who are summing up their birding experience - 'dull', 'poor' and 'disappointing' seem to be three of the most regularly recurring words used. I'm normally quite quick to sum up my feelings about what has gone on over any given period, but have strangely refrained from doing so this time round. So I gave this past autumn a thought and can only say that I've found it liberating. Let me explain.

Most autumn birding campaigns will be largely planned around the promise of falls, arrivals, visible migrations and scarce - even rare - birds. I'm just as guilty as the next person in doing so, but not this autumn. I wanted to bring in the changes, go to places that I knew little about and which were low on the ornithological radar. Admittedly, I did a couple of quick Dungeness visits, but short birding holidays at Charmouth (Dorset) and Porth (Cornwall) were undertaken, with both trips eye-openers to the possibilities on offer to a diligent and enthusiastic observer. I may not have found much of note, but that wasn't the purpose/aim - I got to know the places and surrounding areas to a level that I otherwise wouldn't have, and on any subsequent returns will do so with a sense of familiarity and anticipation.

Although we have lived at our current address since 1987, and have carried out regular sky-watches over the years, this is the first autumn when I have systematically conducted dawn vismig watches. The results were encouraging. A spectacular 4,000+ Redwing movement, Woodlark, Golden Plover, Crossbill, plenty of Brambling, Fieldfares and Chaffinches were ample reward.

And now to the map above - the Uberpatch - all of my regular birding sites since 1974. The shaded area is the mini-Uberpatch, constructed to concentrate bird study into a more manageable and meaningful area. This autumn has seen me embrace the whole more whole-heartedly than of late, no doubt bolstered by the Hawfinch event of earlier in the year. A couple of successful Beddington twitches (Spoonbill and Richard's Pipit) were the highlights, together with the adoption of one or two underwatched sites (more about those another time). My resolve is to bird the hell out of it all in 2019. As a part of that, I have entered into a competition with my 'virtual friend' Stewart Sexton. More details to follow...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Birding round the edges


A brief three-day stay in the Dungeness area was courtesy of the Hollingworth Hotel (fine whiskies and good music a speciality!) Unusually for a birding visit to the area, little was actually done at the observatory, save for a brief sea-watch and a 'coffee and biscuit' morning with Jacques. Instead I was drawn to the outer limits of the shingle...

Wednesday
A strong southerly blow was whipping up a fierce sea, and as Chris P and I walked along the desolate 'green wall' between The Midrips and Galloways, our attention was largely drawn to the sea incursions along the shingle ridge. At times our resolve was tested, as one particular break in the beach at The Brooks was allowing the sea to stream through (see image above and video below). At times the waves rose above the top of the shingle and were many feet higher than us. Suddenly that wall of pebbles seemed insubstantial! We did keep an eye on the birds when we weren't marvelling at the sea, best of all being three Grey Partridges, a sad statement of how far this game bird's numbers have fallen.


Thursday
The RSPB reserve was a veritable 'white heron fest', with 11 Great White Egrets, a Little Egret, 7 Cattle Egrets (below) and best of all - drumroll please - two Spoonbills roosting in front of the Makepeace Hide. This is a long-awaited Dungeness tick, a tart's-tick one could say. They had the decency to preen and fly around a bit as well.


The afternoon was spent in the company of Chris P, on his beloved Walland Marsh. Our afternoon would have been memorable without the birds, what with the sunny and mild conditions under that big, big, blue sky. We recorded Great White Egret, 1,000 Greylag Geese, 50 Egyptian Geese, 500 Wigeon, 5,000 Golden Plover, 1,500 Lapwing, 16 Marsh Harrier, a Barn Owl, 15,000 Starling and a number of passerine flocks that were feeding on the stubble, including Skylarks, Twite (a single), Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. At times the skies were filled with birds, which made for an unforgettable afternoon - birding at its best.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Weeds = seeds = birds


Langley Bottom Farm has appeared on this blog many times - mostly because of the fine arable flora that is present. Keen students of ND&B will remember that the Woodland Trust has bought the farm and are currently planting up large areas to create a Millennium Wood. Thankfully they are leaving plenty of the fields alone and the early signs are good that the rare arable flora will be looked after.

Last summer was the first in which no crops were grown. The fields were left to run wild, a tangle of grass and flower. Most of the fields have been cut back (above) and others left well alone (below). The upshot of this 'wildness' is that there is plenty of seed on the ground, and where there is seed, there are birds.


Any scan across the farm revealed good numbers of birds, moving along hedgerows, dodging between copses and wheeling over the open ground. My final counts are very much minima - Skylark (80), Fieldfare (145), Redwing (75), Goldfinch (100), Brambling (1) and Linnet (58). Gamebirds still survive here, remnants from the days of the shoot, with 11 Pheasant and 4 Red-legged Partridge.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Coming soon above a garden near you

There is something quite decadent about birding from your own garden. No need to get up at some ridiculously early hour. No need to get in the car and drive away to add to the traffic congestion and air pollution. Cups of tea whenever you want one. And toast - don't forget the toast...

This morning saw the latest in my concerted effort to sky watch the first one-two hours of the day from home. It has been going quite well, with even the quietest days providing at least Chaffinches and Redwings to look at. I love that half-light, especially on a still morning, when the lonely 'pink' of a Chaffinch, or 'siiip' of a Redwing sends shivers down my spine. It heralds the start of another ornithological lucky dip, another chance to scrutinise the conveyor belt of birds.

What of today? Best bird was a calling Woodlark, a garden first, heard twice as it flew west but remained unseen. Close behind was a single Lapwing, now an irregular sighting here in Banstead. Also recorded were 2 Brambling, 215 Starling, 135 Chaffinch, 111 Fieldfare and 45 Redwing. One particular flock of Fieldfare, 40 strong, flew through the garden at tree-top height. Magical.

There seems to be more adoptees of visible migration across London and Surrey. No doubt there are many, like me, who have done so in the past at coastal headlands but have decided to seek the thrills out closer to home - more personal and more fulfilling. The autumn migration might be coming to an end, but there are always opportunities to make winter skywatching worthwhile. I'm hoping that the numbers of Waxwings being reported on the eastern coast might suggest a good winter for them. A trilling Waxwing over the garden would go down very well indeed.