Monday, 21 September 2020

MAH's top birding moments

It has been my pleasure to have known Mark Hollingworth (MAH) for over 40 years. During that time we have forged a great friendship and birded together on a regular basis, from the shingle of Dungeness all the way to rain-forests of Taman Negara. As much as we love sharing our time in the field we enjoy talking about the experience of doing so almost as much. Such discussions are bound to touch on our favourite birding moments. I have persuaded Mark to come up with a selection of his own. With his permission, here they are...

Spurn early September 1965 I was privileged to witness a stupendous arrival of passerines; brought about by a rain front crossing the southern North Sea from east to west! The harder it rained the more birds appeared. By lunch time, bedraggled and exhausted migrants were arriving, littering the bushes and spread out across the roads in their droves. A drive to the Point rewarded us with hundreds of Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts. By nightfall the rain was incessant. In the morning, the first drive of the Warren heligoland trap produced many birds. The last four bags were held back to reveal Wryneck, Icterine Warbler, Barred Warbler and Red-backed Shrike. Bluethroat was a subsequent lifer. Most birds left within a day. As we sat in the common room that evening it was almost too much to take in the numbers that were being collated - I recall a flock of five Wrynecks being called out! 

Spurn c 8-10 September 1969 A breezy northwest airflow produced a progressive buildup of juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, reaching over 100 in total in just under a week. The lagoons were next to the sea and a good location for waders. Arriving one afternoon for yet more helpings of our 'sandfest', we were disappointed to see only one wader - but what a wader! We sent for Barry Spence with a terse message -  "Yankee wader at the lagoons!" BRS identified and subsequently trapped the bird in question - a White-rumped Sandpiper, the first live record for Yorkshire! 

North Norfolk  October 1975 A massive anticyclone had built over Russia, giving light easterlies over the Norfolk coastline and the cognoscenti correctly read the runes for cripplers. An early morning Radde’s Warbler at Holkham was a lifer. We savoured this superb bird, whilst appreciating its status -  there were fewer than 20 UK records at that time. In the afternoon we heard news of a Dusky Warbler at Cley, of similar status to Radde’s. Nobody could have anticipated such a phylloscopus double on the same day! The mood in 'The Maltings' that evening was ecstatic, with about 30 birders quaffing beer and playing darts. These were two monster rarities and lifers for everyone. The next day I missed a Pallas’s Warbler, but not to worry, as I had seen one in 1965, which was, back then, an extreme rarity. To give further proof as to the weekend's potency, I had also missed both Rustic and Yellow-browed Bunting in Norfolk that very day. 

Spurn 8 November 1975 A lot of older bird watchers, the pipe-smoking brigade, used to think that migration ended on the last day of October, but attitudes changed in the 1960’s as a new generation of birder's came onto the scene. A dawn seawatch at the Narrows set the tone for numbers, variety and quality. Velvet Scoters, Sooty Shearwater, Little Auks (100+), Long and Short-eared Owls in off the sea, Great Grey Shrike and even room for the common-place to dazzle, with thousands of Starlings! Walking back to the observatory, I met Andy Butler and Tony Broome who had just had brief views of a large dark dove, which we inadvertently flushed when trying to relocate it. Fortunately it flew into the observatory garden. We took copious notes and established it as a Rufous Turtle Dove of the race meena. After an hour it flew strongly north, never to be seen again. I also missed a Pallas’ Warbler that afternoon as well... 

Spurn end-May 1976 Standing at the churchyard, I heard a trill. I knew this song from a few weeks previously in central France. It took ten minutes to find the source and verify my identification. I ran back to the observatory to receive a lukewarm reception of my claim of Bonelli’s Warbler. My hero, John Cudworth, opined that it was very difficult to identify. My response was “Not when it is singing!" On return, whilst we were watching the Bonelli's, an Icterine Warbler appeared in the same field of view. I have never seen so many happy Yorkshire smiles and I think I was forgiven for being a Southerner. At least for 24 hours... 

Spurn September 1976 An excellent week's seawatching. The highlight was a flock of nine shearwaters comprising 3 Sooty and 6 Cory’s. Nice! A supporting cast during the week included several hundred Sooty Shearwater and a few Long tailed Skuas. Laid back, stress-free birding.

Scillies October 1976 Arriving for a week’s birding, we had a mopping up session of a preceding arrival of American vagrants: Blackpoll, Grey-cheeked Thrush, American Robin, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Spotted Sandpiper plus a touch of Europe with Little Egret and Black-headed Bunting. A dream list, but relief rather than excitement took some of the joy out of seeing some impressive birds. 

Dungeness 8 April 1979 It was called the greatest sea-watch ever (but see later entry!) 27,000 Common Scoter up channel in the day. At one point a huge line of over one thousand birds stretched the full width of the horizon. A casual birder had just entered the hide as the ducks were being counted. “Where are they”?  he asked. “Between nine o’clock and three o’clock" came the droll reply. There were also thousands of Sandwich Terns passing through, which were accompanied by a tremendous selection of wildfowl and waders. With these large flocks of birds always on show, it was a relentless performance.

Dungeness 9/10 October 1987 Two day’s intensive sea-watching which left me absolutely drained. Starting on a Friday (mid morning), there was an incredible movement of seabirds, which nearly caught everyone by surprise. The wind was southwest which is generally unproductive. It turned to south. The warden arrived a couple of hours later and asked what we had seen. His assistant reeled off a wonderlist, including Leach's Petrel. "I think your Leach’s Petrel stinks”, he growled. “ In that case", his assistant replied "here’s another!" Storm and Leach’s Petrels, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, all four species of skua, Sabine’s Gull and Grey Phalarope were the stars. The assistant warden offered to get sandwiches and coffee and was duly dispatched. This proved for him to be a catastrophic decision. Cruising through, with the Manxies, came a Little Shearwater. It was called immediately and everyone got onto it. The sandwiches tasted all the better! The day tallies created several records, including that of 408 Sooty Shearwaters. Saturday was almost as good. I can recall counting 20+ Sooties in one sweep and not having the need to use optics to do so. The two day totals were : Sooty Shearwater 408 and 143, Manx Shearwater 241 and 67, Balearic Shearwater 0 and 1, Macarone (Little) Shearwater 1 and 0, Storm Petrel 1/0, Leach’s Petrels 2/11, Pomarine Skua 2/3, Great Skua 2/37,  Sabine’s Gull 2/0 and Little Gulls 0/406.

Dungeness 6 September 1992 A birder who shall remain anonymous bursts into the sea-watch hide to announce “There's been a fall! I have had 30 Willow Warblers at the top of the Long Pits.” My reply? “That's nice, but you might want to sit down and join us - we've had over ten thousand Black Terns, and they're still moving through!” Part of an unforgettable and unexpected sea-watch.

Dungeness 27 January 2016 A day of strong winds and frequent rain which produced massive totals of 38,000 Black-headed Gulls, seven Mediterranean Gulls, 9,000 Common Gulls, 3,500 Herring Gulls, two Yellow-legged Gulls and 3,816 Kittiwakes passing west. When asking Dave Walker whether or not the Black-headed Gull count was a DBO record he replied; "I don't know if anybody has been mad enough to count them before..."

Dungeness 29 May 2017 Standing on the RSPB reserve, skywatching with Steve Gale, we received communication from Martin Casemore from his home in Lydd - "There's a Red Kite coming your way." Got it! 10 minutes later we returned the favour - "And now there's a Black Kite heading to you!" A birder queried Martin about the kite mix-up. "No mix up," replied Martin, "both species!" 12 Common Buzzards, 7 Hobby, four Mediterranean Gulls and a lingering Iceland Gull also for company.

Dungeness 19 October 2017 A gentle south-easterly unleashed a heavy movement of finches across the point. Our positioning couldn't have been better as we stood at the centre of a Goldfinch maelstrom, flocks actually parting to fly around and even through us. Our total of 6,175 doesn't do justice the experience. We were left with ringing in the ears from the incessant jangly calls. Back up came from other species of finch, including a Hawfinch which I missed. My pleasure was greatly enhanced with the company of two aficionados - Martin Casemore and Steve Gale -  friends, companions and proper birders. 

Friday, 18 September 2020

Southbound Gos

A return to my first patch, Beddington Sewage Farm, turned out to be a fortuitous move. It was a lazy start to the day, not turning up until 09.00hrs, entering the site via Hackbridge. This meant I was abandoning the 'signing-in' process and sticking to the public footpath and hides. This has its pluses, as wandering across a working site, dodging large machinery and trying to avoid debris and holes in the ground does not make for laid-back birding. The public footpaths are pleasant to work, with a ribbon of easily workable vegetation between the railway line and water bodies, plus three hides that gives pretty good views over the lakes and newly created - or rather, in the making - wet grassland.

Highlight was undoubtably a juvenile Goshawk, my attention only being drawn to it by the calls of a couple of Carrion Crows. It was overhead and quite low, the muscle-bound, streaky-breasted raptor making the crows look weak and puny. This is where I made a mistake. I was roughly level with Peter Alfrey's home, and if he was in residence he would be able to get great views, so rather than grab the camera, I grabbed the phone instead. He didn't answer. By the time I had the bridge camera in hand the bird was steadily drifting off southwards, had gained height and was still being pursued by the crows. No image.

Invertebrates were finding the sheltered parts of the footpath to their liking, and among the Common Darters, Migrant Hawkers and Speckled Woods was this rather fine Brown Hairstreak (above), basking on bramble for a couple of minutes before heading off. 

The old place has still got it.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Looking in the mirror

This isn't a gripe, or a moan, or a 'woe is me' post. It's more of a coming to terms with things, those things being ornithological. By mid-September the autumn migration is well under way. My Twitter feed is full of sightings, mostly rare. The What'sApp groups are also lively, and the one that deals with visible migration is positively purring, full of big numbers of birds making their way from A to B. Even the locally-based ones are reporting good birds - Great White Egret at Beddington, Glossy Ibis at Tice's Meadow. Even birding chums are getting in on the act today, with Mark H smashing the Kent Cattle Egret record and Mike B finding an Arctic Warbler in Norfolk. It is very easy to feel left out of it.

However, there are a few things that you need to do to be able to join in with such observations and discoveries. Number one - get out into the field! My excuse today is that there were a number of pressing DIY projects that needed completion, although I did take a break and go for an hour's walk this afternoon (sans optics and certainly not anywhere birdy.) That leads on to number two - Location, location, location. As I have demonstrated over the past two weeks, birding the South Downs certainly beats birding the North Downs. Portland beats Beachy Head and Spurn beats Portland, but it all depends what you are after really. For me, I like to like where I'm birding as much as whether or not it is good for birds. When I go down to Dungeness I steer clear of the trapping area (too overgrown) and the southern-most tip of the peninsula (too busy with tourists) and instead luxuriate in the relative quietness of the desert and the fishing boats. I rarely find much but I gain a spiritual calm in doing so. And talking of finding stuff leads to number three - be prepared. Half a glimpse is all that a top field man/woman needs to know that they are onto something. Knowing where to look is an art that might seem obvious but one that few birders can successfully carry out. And what about number four, putting in the effort? The more time that is spent will ultimately reward you. No good giving somewhere an hour and deciding that there is 'nothing doing'.

Now let me be terrible hard on myself. Marks out of ten for each of those four categories:

Get out into the field - well I do get out most days, so that's got to be worth 8/10

Location, location, location - big let down here, just mooching around my dry local patches, with the odd excursion to Sussex or Kent (and then veering away from the 'tried and tested' places means 3/10

Be prepared - I'm not really. Whereas I used to read all of the identification papers that were published thirty years ago I'm hardly aware of any that might be coming along nowadays. I rarely peruse a field guide, and because of this am undoubtably field rusty (although I do still possess a better than average knowledge of bird calls). I am relying on old memory here. However, my reading of the lie of the land, where to seek out those hidden migrants and where best to position myself to ensure that I can pick up those that are moving overhead is still pretty good. This rescues a low score and bumps it up to a credible(ish) 6/10

Putting in the effort - a hard one to score this. When I get the bit between my teeth (such as the 'track and trace' Hawfinch exercises back in 2017-18) it would be high, but then again there have been too many despondent mornings where I've cut short the birding day by hours. Another 6/10.

I'm lucky. I have my plants, moths and butterflies to prop up any birding slumps, but... birds are number one. I still go out and, even after 46 years of birding, do so with excitement and anticipation. Any suggestion of overhead movement has me beside myself. A single chat on a fence post, a flash of Redstart tail along a hedgerow or a flick 'in-and-out' of a flycatcher captivates me. And, when lying in bed in the dead of night, a calling Tawny Owl still gives me goose-bumps. For all of that I'll give myself 10/10.

I'm aware that quite a few inland birders have recently shown their frustrations about missing out, not being in the right place and not being able to do much about it. I get it. I'm one of them at times. But we make our own rules. Within reason (in these strange times) they are our rules to break. Maybe I need to go further afield more regularly. Maybe I should tone down my expectations when birding locally - that longed for Wryneck or Red-backed Shrike is more likely to be a Redstart or Tree Pipit, and if it is then be pleased with that. And if it is all so quiet, so quiet that I am considering packing up, just stand still, push the reset button, and start working the patch again, with a new resolve and fresh eyes.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Compare and contrast

After committing adultery with the Sussex South Downs a couple of times recently, I thought it best to return to my first love, that of the Surrey North Downs. On Monday, as I stood looking northwards from Chantry Hill, I could clearly see the chalk scrape that runs down the side of Colley Hill, and saw it as a beckoning, a reminder to return home and bird. So this morning, instead of heading back down to check out Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings as I had planned, I stayed close to home, and was on the Colley Hill top at 06.15hrs.

An hour later it was clear that nothing was on the move, save for just a couple of Siskins, whose plaintive calls cried out unseen. Apart from a few Chiffchaffs there were few migrants to get excited about. It therefore came as a kick-in-the-teeth to read tweets from Wes and Matt, who had been enjoying a bit of movement at Leith Hill, only nine miles to the south-west. Still, I had several miles of scarp to walk and scrub to bash - there was still time to rescue the day!

Fast forward to 13.00hrs. I'm sitting with a cup of coffee, looking out over some of the most promising 'migrant' scrub it is possible to see at an inland site. It oozes shrike. It positively screams Wryneck. It is empty. The past seven hours has been a massive disappointment. I knew that this section of the North Downs could not compete ornithologically with those sections of the South Downs that I have visited recently. But to be so quiet, to not even create a moment or two of pleasure... well. Box Hill, Colley Hill, Denbies Hillside and those bits in-between have had, and will have, their moments. But days like today make me wonder why I persist with this perverse loyalty.

In other news, the MV produced another new species for the garden - not one, but two L-album Wainscots (both pictured), not a surprise as the species is spreading in the south-east. Also trapped was the second Duponchelia fovealis of the year.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Heathland wanderer


A pulse of hot air over the south of England often results in an unexpected visitor to the garden MV, usually a resident species that has wandered from specialist habitat. In the past these have normally been chalk downland - or wetland - specialists. This morning saw a wanderer from heathland, the aptly named Heath Rustic. The closest sites that host this species are a good 20 miles from Banstead, being the west Surrey heaths. Needless to say, a first for the garden.

Monday, 14 September 2020

South Downs and beyond

The eastern flank of Sullington Hill - full of warblers
Compared to the North Downs, the South Downs generally has steep slopes on both flanks (with a narrow summit) and largely lack woodland at their tops. This creates a dramatic, open and wild landscape. This morning I walked from Washington to Amberley (West Sussex) and back. This section runs roughly parallel with the English Channel, that can be clearly seen some six-and-a-half miles to the south.

First light was surprisingly muggy. Chiffchaffs were already calling and were joined by Skylarks, Yellowhammers and the rhythmic chugging of Red-legged Partridges. A largely uneventful walk to Sullington Hill was livened up by the scrub on the eastern flank being full of birds, mostly Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. The latter was going to be a feature of the day, birds observed moving eastwards at vegetation height along the South Downs Way, using the thin strip of hedgerow as a fly-line. At least 60 were recorded.

At Chantry Post it was a blizzard of birds. Up to 700 House Martins were loafing about, many moving a short distance to carry on feeding over Chantry Hill. Two stubble fields were playing host to an enormous flock of Linnets - 1800 out of a day total of 2000. Beyond them a female/imm Marsh Harrier was patrolling. Good numbers of Yellowhammers (below) and a few Corn Bunting (below) were present, with day totals of 50 and 14 respectively.



By the time I reached Kithurst Hill it was getting decidedly warm, and the summer migrants started to show themselves, one muck heap enticing a Wheatear and Whinchat, with nearby scrub holding Common Redstart (3) and Spotted Flycatcher (below), 11 out of a day total of 14 being found between here and Rackham Hill (plus one back towards the start of the walk). The only Yellow Wagtails of the day were two, with cattle, as I descended into Amberley.


The journey back was under bright blue skies and a hot temperature. The cronk of Raven and mew of Kite and Buzzard was ever present (20, 14 and 15 respectively). With them was a young Peregrine and three Hobby. A few Siskin were heard calling, but in the bright sky few could be seen. A count of 100+ Red-legged Partridge most probably points to a recent release.

The overriding memory of today was of the flycatchers. Most scans of the tops of the small dead Ash trees along the ridge would reveal at least one, the largest flock being four. Their calls and bill snapping accompanied me throughout the day, their slinky silhouettes as they sallied forth to feed was a frequent and painful reminder of what I used to take for granted back in my birding youth. I stood watching a group for some time, then looked northwards, realising that behind them were two of my Surrey 'patches', Box Hill and Colley Hill, 24 miles in the distance but easy to make out. The ornithological contrast between the two sets of downs is, unfortunately, stark.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

More thoughts on North Downs autumn vis-mig


The photograph above was taken from the eastern end of Colley Hill, from a place where I have conducted several migration watches. As much as this particular spot has proved to be good, it is limited in seeing birds that are incoming from the east (unless they are south of the scarp) and very poor looking northwards. Yesterday I stood on a knoll at the western-end end of the hill (marked above as 'Colley Hill watchpoint') and was pleased to find that all-round visibility is much better, including a much improved northerly view.

In the distance you can clearly see Ranmore/Denbies and beyond that the Greensand Ridge. Between Colley Hill and Ranmore/Denbies is the Mole Gap, a place where the modest River Mole breaks through the North Downs. It is here that Box Hill will be found, another site that I have 'vis-migged' from, with some success.

Some thoughts on Box Hill: it is tucked in from the leading edge of the downs - will this mean that a number of birds coasting along the scarp will cut across to Ranmore/Denbies or even the Greensand Ridge, missing it altogether? I have observed birds coming into the Mole Gap (and heading north) having seemingly come off of the 'hillocks' that are found east of Dorking, the town that lies at the base - south - of Box Hill. Have these birds come via Colley Hill and altered course when seeing the gap? There are also a number of deep valleys just north from Box Hill, clear pathways to the Mole Gap. I have stood on these ridges and seen birds moving west and north-westwards (mainly thrushes, finches and pipits), no doubt having missed Box Hill altogether (diagram below). Again, have they come via Colley Hill? One big problem with watching from Box Hill is a total lack of northward visibility, the hilltop being heavily wooded and the scarp steep.


Box Hill has proved its worth as a good place to observe thrush migration, but has yet to produce decent numbers of finches, pipits or hirundines. In comparison, Colley Hill appears to be better for finches. I have yet to be there on a thrush day.

In summing up, I'm getting to the point where I now believe that a lot of birds miss Box Hill - either heading further south to the Greensand Ridge (Leith Hill); by keeping on a line between Colley Hill and Ranmore/Denbies; or cutting in behind it. I am also wondering whether or not Colley Hill may well be better, although it will clearly lack any influence that the Mole Gap may have. There is much to learn on the North Downs here in Surrey. We really need a team of observers to be posted in several places throughout the autumn, making co-ordinated counts. You can always dream.