Thursday, 29 January 2015

Walking in the footsteps of others

Walton Downs - possibly an old sheep drove.

We walk on hallowed ground. Crossing downland, farmland or woodland by foot we are largely following in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. Worn paths in the chalk, muddy strips along field edges, canopied byways through strips of copse that all tell of the gentle human history that has created them. In my part of northern Surrey, particularly along the North Downs ridge, we walk along in the ghostly footsteps of pilgrims, we shadow the movements of shepherds, farmhands and others just like us, those who wanted to commune with nature. We largely see what they saw, even in this crowded part of Britain. Some of the trees that look down on us looked down on them. Old collapsed flint walls and abandoned foundations tell of past rural lives, lives now gone, maybe of simpler times. Did they stand in these doorways looking out on Partridges, Barn Owls and Red-backed Shrikes? Did they sharpen their scythes while dreaming of a foaming ale at the inn later in the day? Or was life hard, a tired slog of scant rewards?

No, I cannot walk along a footpath without these thoughts crowding my mind. And that's before all of the natural history crowds it even further...

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

What do you see?

This is Walton Downs, looking south-westward towards Headley. It is a mixture of copse and farmland on chalk. As a birder, looking across this shallow valley, what do you see? I bet that, like me, you are weighing up the chance of seeing a good raptor, maybe a Short-eared Owl or even a Great Grey Shrike. I have walked the footpaths that cross this area many times and can only claim a handful of commoner migrants over the years, but each time I make the journey I still think that I'm going to get rewarded with a notable sighting - it just feels like a place that will harbour something of note. And this approach sums up the lot of a birder working any patch of habitat, wherever that habitat may be. Regardless of our experience telling us that we will fill our notebook with counts of commoner species, there is a big part of us that still maintains that something good will come along, and it might just be on our current visit. It's what drives us on and keeps us focused. It's no bad thing. This morning, from the vantage point above, I didn't see a good raptor, a Short-eared Owl or a shrike, but made do with  2 Common Buzzard, 20 Skylark and 85 Fieldfare. The sun was out, it was fairly mild and that was good enough for me. I was happy. And, as we all know, I was one visit closer to the next quality bird. The more we look, the luckier we get...

And who wouldn't be cheered by the sight above - a bank full of flowering Winter Heliotrope, adding a splash of colour (and fragrance) to the winter scene. One of my favourites.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Benign winter birding

Winter. What, as birders, do we want from this particular season?

If it is a hard one, with snow and freezing temperatures on the continent, together with biting easterlies sweeping across the North Sea, we can hope for an influx of wildfowl, thrushes and who know's what else. But as exciting as such times are, the birds will undoubtably suffer. Do we really want that to happen? The flip side is for there to be benign, unremarkable weather - a bit like what we are 'enjoying' in 2014-15. Not too cold, not too wet and not too windy. But with the 'ease' that such weather brings, the birding is largely predictable. Locally it seems as if nothing much has changed since late November. There are few flocks out on the fields but they are unremarkable in number and composition. The finch and thrush numbers are poor - just where are the Redpolls, Siskins and Bramblings? But we carry on looking, we still scan the flocks, and we still skywatch just in case...

I spent a good five hours wandering across Canons Farm and Banstead Woods today which only underlined the 'same old, same old' nature of the current birding scene. 40 Skylark, 100 Fieldfare and 20 Yellowhammer were the stand outs of a meagre return although a single Lesser Redpoll found its way onto the 2015 Challenge list - species number 64, which is 71.1% of my target. The day was rescued by my bumping into Ian Ward, who helped while away the time with a bout of skywatching and, as the way of birders the world over, making increasingly bizarre predictions as to what goodies we might expect to come our way in the not too distant future - plus plenty of butterfly nostalgia!

We don't cut back the lavender in the garden until March as the Goldfinches will come and feed on the seeds throughout the winter - a good subject for trying out the 'new' bridge camera.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hogsmill Little Egret

The River Hogsmill meanders its way through Ewell Village and is a most enjoyable place to spend a bit of time birding. You can usually bank on seeing Kingfisher and, increasingly, Little Egret. This morning one (of the two reportedly present) was perched in a tree just beyond the Lower Mill. It seemed unconcerned by my attempts at photography as it sunned itself alongside a Grey Heron. It wasn't until a Labrador came bounding up to me that they finally took flight.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Bonus Mandarin

One of the pleasures of undertaking a local study, especially one in which there is a hint of competition involved, is that an observation that would ordinarily not mean that much can be elevated to the status of noteworthy. One bird this morning illustrated this very well indeed.

I had need to go into Epsom, and from where the car was parked involved a walk through Rosebery Park - right on the very edge of my arbitrary recording area. There is a pond, and half of the water was ice free. Among the Mallards and Canada Geese was a splendid drake Mandarin. I have seen this species here before, and can only assume that the odd one flies in from the ponds on Epsom Common (which is outside of my 2015 recording area). This is not a species that I could have safely predicted for this years study - a nice little bonus. I'm not being greedy, but I am now eager for something a little more exciting - a fly-over Short-eared Owl for example?

Evening update: a late afternoon visit to SWT's Priest Hill reserve produced a female Stonechat. Only a ten minute stroll from my front door and the 63rd species in this years challenge...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Daphne in the mist

I spent four hours this morning on Reigate and Colley Hills, seemingly cut off from civilisation courtesy of a low drizzly mist that enveloped the hills in a milky light that not only softened all that I saw but muffled any sound. There wasn't an awful lot to see or hear to be honest, although a couple of Treecreepers decided that this was the time to engage in a bit of singing. - not a lot else joined in. it wasn't until I started to scan the fields just off the ridge (towards Mogador) that there was a bit of activity, with a loose flock of 500 Redwing leapfrogging their way across the earth as they fed. I was heartened to see that, in several places, the fields here had flooded, although any hoped for displaced wader was aiming far too high - apart from a lethargic flock of gulls nothing else had been tempted down. A quick nip into the closest bit of Walton Heath woodland provided the hoped for Marsh Tit (2015 patch list now on 61 species).

Daphne laureola - that's Spurge Laurel to you and me - was most obvious at the top of the hills, in particular around the Napoleonic fort. At least 80 plants were counted and there must be plenty more in the general area. Some were out in flower. There is also plenty of wild Box here, a very local species in England. I am guilty of taking it for granted, but know that I shouldn't.

Spurge Laurel, close up of flower (left) and a healthy specimen (right) maybe a metre tall.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Downland Peregrine

A brisk circular walk around the open slopes of Epsom Downs this afternoon was largely devoid of birds. Up to 100 Common Gulls were feeding over the grassland, this species being the commonest species of gull here throughout the winter months. No amount of scanning of the neighbouring fields could winkle out anything of note, and it was not until I was almost back at the car that any reward came my way - in the form of a male Peregrine, that flew in from the north and carried on southwards towards Walton-on-the-Hill - certainly not the barrel-chested female that had been spending the late autumn/early winter at Canons Farm. The 2015 local patch challenge now creeps up to 59 species.