Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Patch update

Another circuit of the large meadow at Priest Hill was indulged in this afternoon. The Belted Galloway cattle were feasting away, but I was unable to locate a Cattle Egret among them. After last Friday's fly-by I have been wondering whether or not it might have been tempted to come back and spend some time with them...

I really must have a proper look at this SWT reserve, as this afternoon's hour 'glance' produced a Skylark, 2 Meadow Pipit, a Redwing, a female Stonechat, 25+ Linnet, a Lesser Redpoll and 2 Reed Bunting. I keep saying it, but this place has bucket loads of potential.

Those of you with a good memory may recall that I have taken on Northumberland's Stewart Sexton in a repeat of our 2015 Patch Challenge (which he easily won). My target for 2016 was set at 95 species (last years total). So far this year I have recorded 103 species, which is 108.42% of my target. Will that be enough to topple Mr. Sexton? Time will tell.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Nests, nettles and lips

2016 botanical highlights
I adopted a rather laid-back approach to looking for plants this year. There were no target species named and no worthy aims, just a case of observing whatever I came across. There are downsides to this casual approach - unless I am keeping a list for a site I tend not to identify 'hard-to-do' species, so a whole raft of crucifers, grasses, roses and willows (to name but a few) were left well alone. Last year saw a great local flowering of several species, particularly orchids. This was not repeated in 2016. However, there were some breathtaking botanically induced scenes, and these will be dealt with in a future post. So, what were the stand-out moments? I've chosen three...

Literary Bird's-nests
At the end of 2015 I was contacted by Jon Dunn, Shetland-based 'virtual-friend', author and blogger. He had been commissioned to write a book about the UK's orchids and was wondering if I would like to assist him in his search for a decent colony of Bird's-nests - I didn't need to be asked twice! So it came to pass that in late May we met up at the bottom of Box Hill and spent most of the day wandering the 'Surrey Alps', visiting at least four sites where this species is present. The timing was perfect, as they were just about at their best, none had gone over and plenty were yet to come - we could practically smell the freshness. Several hundred spikes were found, including 250+ on White Downs, where one group were rather special, but I'll let Jon tell you why in his book when it is published.

Many clumps of Bird's-nests were found on White Downs
Jon gets down and dirty with the orchids...
It wasn't just Bird's-nests that filled our day. 125+ Man Orchids were on the lower Box Hill slopes (being joined by an Adonis Blue in a brief sunny interlude) and 250+ White Helleborines were in flower across several sites. It was a pleasure to meet Jon and play a small part towards the completion of the project. His book cannot come soon enough.

Another Walton Downs arable rarity
I have posted regularly about the joys to be had in the tracking down and finding of rare arable plants to be found in the Walton Downs/Langley Vale area. The list is long and I celebrate each and every one of them - Night-flowering Catchfly, Venus's-looking Glass and Field Gromwell to name but three. However, there was one missing from my list that I had searched for unsuccessfully last autumn, and that was Red Hemp-nettle. I had previously seen this rare and declining plant at Dungeness and Rye Harbour and the thought of seeing one in Surrey was something that excited me. And it came to pass that this August, while wandering across the farm one morning, I bumped into Dennis Skinner, who passed some good news - there were several flowering Red Hemp-nettle plants to be had! Within half-an-hour I was feasting my eyes on them. And in Surrey!

Narrow-lips at last
Narrow-lipped Helleborine is a species of orchid that, as far as I was concerned, was a mythical thing. There were never many found, they often did not reach flowering and were slightly shrouded in secrecy. I knew that they were present at Sheepleas in Surrey, but that they could be a devil to find. I had looked for them in the past, had failed and to be honest I'd given up on seeing any. But this August, word started to filter out that it was a good year for them, especially at Sheepleas. I just had to go and look - and was rewarded with 24 spikes. I spent a good couple of hours with them, lying on the woodland floor with my DSLR and macro lens in an attempt to capture this event while the chance remained. Possibly my botanical highlight of the year.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

FA Cup egret

Venue: Gander Green Lane, Sutton

Event: FA Cup second round, Sutton United v Cheltenham Town

I was standing with fellow birder Frankie Prater and his son James. As normal, if the three of us are watching Sutton play, our conversation is a mixture of football (when James gets involved), or birding (when James glazes over). This afternoon was no different. Yesterday's Cattle Egret was a conversation piece, as was my observation of a Lapwing flying over last Saturday's Sutton v Aldershot match. We joked that if the football was boring we could always revert to sky watching for birds. "Maybe even a Cattle Egret" quipped Frankie.

Twenty minutes later we were watching a Little Egret sail over, low and to the west... Frankie wasn't far wrong with his prediction!

The score? 2-1 to Sutton, the winner scored deep into injury time. Not a bad afternoon all round.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Cattle Egret - second for Surrey

Fate plays such a role in our birding endeavours - and today was such an example. I wasn't actually going anywhere with my bins this morning, as domestic chores beckoned. However, a last minute reprieve saw me with a couple of hours to spare, so I ran out the door and decided to just walk the ten minutes or so to Priest Hill SWT reserve on the Ewell/Banstead border. That was lucky break number one...

Last Friday when visiting the site I had come across a small flock of Reed Buntings, and was keen to relocate them. My plan was to make one slow circuit of the largest meadow before heading back home. When half-way round I bumped into an old work-colleague who was walking her dog, so then found myself continuing on the loop, deep in conversation and not really birding at all. When I reached the end of the circuit (and my work-colleague had left for home) I decided to retrace my steps as I hadn't really given the area a good grilling. That was lucky break number two...

On my second circuit I relocated the Reed Buntings (now five birds including a male) plus a female Stonechat. That was good enough for me to consign the brief trip a success. With thoughts of lunch my mind went into neutral, but after a few minutes of aimless wander a glance up into the sky quickly shook me awake - a small, all-white egret was flying steadily westwards, at a moderately low elevation. Bins were raised, and my first look had me incredulous. This was not the expected Little Egret, but a Cattle!

The dumpy, wrap-necked, jowly bird then turned northwards and cut diagonally across me, giving superb views. The trailing legs were shorter than a Little, and with the large feet were a uniform mid-grey. The bill, shorter and proportionately thicker than a Little, was orangey-yellow in colour. The flight comprised shallow wing beats which were a more hurried than a Little. I was transported back to Majorca where I watched this species regularly over ten days during this summer - not to forget a confiding bird at Dungeness last month. This is apparently the second record for Surrey, following a single bird at the London Wetland Centre in 2001.

After the bird had gone, and the news 'tweeted' out, I realised that I had not even thought about getting a record shot with the camera (that was in the rucksack). I'm pleased that I didn't as it would have disrupted and spoilt what was a totally unexpected and special few moments of birding. I have always thought that the open skies, relative height and excellent vision here at Priest Hill would provide the odd good flyover, although Cattle Egret would not have been high up on my predictive list.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A mid-1970s winter morning

A ringing alarm clock pierced the dark and woke me into a cold, still world. A glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was a heavy frost. The world looked pretty - from the twinkling stars down to the twinkling pavements - a winter wonderland that was soon to see me off to Beddington Sewage Farm. With a packed rucksack I ventured out of the back door to retrieve my bike from the garage, freezing to touch, not really all that inviting a prospect. The cold was chilling, but a four mile ride would soon warm me up. There was little traffic to detract me from watching my breath form into a grey vapour before my eyes. Apart from a fox dashing across the road in front of me my journey was uneventful, my eastward procession lit by the barely emerging sun. It all seemed portentous this dawning of the new day, full of hope and pregnant with possibility.

Cycling over Hackbridge bridge and onto Mile Road opened up the farm on either side of me, the fields shockingly white with a severe frost and clouds of steam rising wherever there was a fast running water culvert. In such weather these water courses were the haunt of waders that had fled the frozen settling beds. It was now light enough to bird, but the iron cold was suppressing much happening, save for the odd wail of a Lapwing and 'chack' of a Fieldfare. Above me a small flock of Redwings called, plaintive and lonely, but oh so wild. After locking my bike away and pulling on a pair of frozen Wellington boots, I strode across one of the fields, my progress traced by a dark line drawn into the silver vegetation by my meandering journey. As soon as I came across a free-flowing dyke I was met by an explosion of muttering Snipe, sounding like grumpy old men that had been unwillingly disturbed. A bit further along rose a Green Sandpiper, yodelling up into the crystal air, the bright light making the clear-cut black and white plumage hurt the eyes. A good start.

My toes were cold, my fingers numb. After an hours wandering I dug out the thermos flask from my rucksack and gratefully gulped down a cup of warming coffee. Where the sun had hit the vegetation the thick rime of frost had been removed, revealing the dead winter colours below. A few Tree Sparrows and Greenfinches were poking amongst the burnt caramel blades of grass, squabbling and flitting, unaffected by the cold. A flock of Teal flew overhead towards who knew where - all of the open water here was still frozen.

After a while I started to peel off layers of clothing - first the hat, then the gloves - and began to luxuriate in such a day. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. It even began to feel warm. The grass I now walked through was sopping wet, my welly boots slicked with water resembling a couple of seals. That early newness, of freshly-made frost and ice, was but a fading memory. But, if the weather forecast was to be believed, it would all be back again tomorrow morning. Are there better mornings to be out, to feel blessed and alive?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A very tame buzzard

A morning spent at Canons Farm in the company of Geoff Barter - plus the confiding Common Buzzard (above), that has taken to hanging around Reeds Rest Cottages. The buzzard appears to be well and can fly without difficulty, so why it is being so unadventurous and 'tame' I do not know. Whatever its reasons, it sits on top of roofs, chimneys, barns and posts with little care for the passing birder. The image above has not been cropped and was taken with a bridge camera.

A calmer, more sunnier day would be hard to find in the early winter, and although I couldn't claim that it was warm, the need for hat, gloves and scarf was redundant. There weren't many birds on show, so Geoff and I had to make do with a slow wander and plenty of waffle between the two of us. A flock of 60+ Skylark and a low count of four Yellowhammer (below) was made. Although I don't particularly want any, a dose of hard weather is needed to stir the ornithological pot up.

Monday, 28 November 2016

For whom the poll swells

Redpolls can be troublesome - troublesome, that is, if you start trying to identify every single individual that you come across. The problem is that they vary so much. At its simplest, we have three species: Lesser (Carduelis cabaret), Mealy or Common (Carduelis flammea) and Arctic (Carduelis hornemanni), although different authorities split these still further, while others lump them. It's confusing to say the least. Even when you have them in the hand it is not always a straightforward matter of clinching the identification, but sometimes it is. Take these two Mealies (Commons) that were trapped at Dungeness in early November, along with several accompanying Lessers. They were clearly larger, were heavier and the colouration was at once different. The top two images are of the same bird, whereas the bottom picture is of the second individual.

I came across these images whilst having a look through the several hundred pictures that I took during my recent stay at Dungeness. I thought that one or two of you out there might be interested in them - highly instructive at best, blog filler at worst...