Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Ring Ouzel at Priest Hill

Yes I know that the image above is not quite in focus - that you are having to peer between branches of a bush - and look through a strand of barbed-wire fence - but at least you can share in my joy of this morning's male Ring Ouzel at Priest Hill. It even drew a crowd of admirers, as four birders made the trip once twitter 'twatted'. The bird stayed in Bunting Field for up to an hour, but was very wary and flighty, so I largely let it be.

As some form of compensation for the poor pic, have a male Kestrel from this morning...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A few Priest Hill facts

Priest Hill forms part of the dip slope of the North Downs as it makes its chalky way down to meet the clay of the Thames Basin. It used to be a place of agriculture, with cereal crops and dairy cows gracing the high, open ground. In the 1950s the land was transformed into an enormous area of playing fields, with schools from London being bussed out to use the amenities, but by the 1980s it mostly fell out of use, and nature started to reclaim it. Four years ago Surrey County Council sold a portion of the land off for development and gifted 33 hectares of it to the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

In all honesty, there is little to immediately suggest that this area is worthy of reserve status, although it does hold breeding Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, and has a good colony of Brown Hairsteak. It is largely botanically impoverished. However, management has already helped to encourage nearby wildlife to colonise. Large areas of tarmac and rubble have been cleared where tennis courts and changing rooms once stood, the ground here being scraped back to the bare chalk. Green hay from nearby Howell Hill has been spread out and such species as Kidney Vetch has appeared, along with the first Small Blue butterflies. The fencing of fields (and the accompanying grazing from Belted Galloway cattle) has produced an undisturbed and sympathetic grassland for the continued breeding of Skylarks.

Selective control (and in places removal) of scrub has provided 'wildlife corridors' of hedges and scrubby strips, with the open spaces punctuated by a few mature trees. A copse and a spinney, plus a few small ponds, add to the reserves charm, which in itself sits surrounded by more green space - paddocks, playing fields and a small college farm.

I first visited the site 20 years ago, when it was a rubbish-strewn wasteland, heavily scrubbed-up but full of strange plants that sprang up from the rubble and mounds of dumped earth. When the clearing up process began and the reserve was being created, I was invited to help out with the monitoring of the birds by the then ranger, Rachael Thornley and the first breeding bird survey was carried out in 2015. My visits have increased greatly since last November and the rewards have been pleasantly surprising. Apart from a couple of unexpected records (Cattle Egret in December and a Jack Snipe at the beginning of this month), wintering flocks of Reed Buntings were discovered, along with a constant presence of Stonechats. A Red Kite passage has been obvious this Spring (highest day count of four), Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits are moving through and Tawny and Little Owls are resident on site. Last weekend a Peregrine was on the Glyn playing field, feasting on a recently dispatched pigeon. The potential is high.

I've cobbled together a map (above), with the dark-green areas indicating the reserve, and the mid-green extensions showing my own Priest Hill recording area - after all, why neglect the paying fields? None of the place names are official, they are just what I use for my own reference. Although the south-eastern section of the reserve is largely private, the public can see most of it via a network of footpaths that allow the fields to be scanned with ease, with much of the scrub and hedgerow being accessible. I am convinced that regular observation will reveal more surprises - but, as is the case with all 'dry' inland sites, you will need to put in the hours to get the rewards!

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Flora exotica

Priest Hill used to be a dumping ground for all sorts of debris, including heaps of soil, garden waste and hardcore. It was unsightly, but after a while the seeds and bulbs that were within sprang forth. There is a Flowering Currant onsite that I believe to be the same one that I 'ticked' over 15 years ago. Today I came across this:

I believe that it's Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias), and, if I might be so bold, of the ssp veneta. There will, no doubt, be somebody out there ready to correct me if I'm wrong. Nearby in Ewell, close to Bourne Hall, the Creeping Comfrey (below) and Abraham-Isaac-Jacob (next two images) are at their best.

Even though a nagging easterly wind is present today, the butterflies have come out in numbers, particularly Brimstones. Also recorded were Comma (first image), Small Tortoiseshell (next) and Red Admiral.

The birds haven't been neglected - two Red Kites flew through Priest Hill (one north and the other east), a Common Buzzard passed high overhead northbound, and two Chiffchaffs were in full song in the copse area.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Pigeon for breakfast

This morning, when scanning the Priest Hill playing fields for a Wheatear, this came into my view - an enormous female Peregrine in the middle of a pigeon breakfast. I was far enough away not to bother it too much, although a nagging Carrion Crow moved it on, with the falcon still in possession of its prey. This is, in all likelihood, one half of the Sutton breeding pair. Also of note were a small arrival of Chiffchaff (5) and a singing Blackcap.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Diaries and sparrows

You could be forgiven for assuming that I have recently forsaken 'actual birding' to delve through old dusty diaries and notebooks - I have been doing both, it's just that the birding has been slow. My visits to Priest Hill have been ongoing, with most of the time spent scanning empty fields and bushes. However, a few Chiffchaffs and Meadow Pipits have passed through and both Tawny and Little Owls are on site. My hopes are high for a little bit of spring magic in the coming weeks.

Back home I was entertained by a gaggle of House Sparrows that were loafing around in a neighbour's pyracantha bush (no, I don't know which species). We are still blessed with good numbers around here, for which I am grateful. Now, back to those diaries...

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Any day soon...

Beddington in the 1970s (Beddington Farmlands)
Part 3: March - May 1975 When it came to grabbing my binoculars and rushing out of the front door to go bird watching, there was one place above all the others that became my favoured destination, and that was Beddington Sewage Farm. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the ornithological record for the site stretched back to the early years of the 20th century, and my modest observations were becoming a part of that impressive canon of work. My regularity at the farm had started to help forge friendships with other Beddington attendees – and apart from Mark and Neil (who often accompanied me) there was Nick Gardener (a highly confident lad of my age), Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood. The latter two were both involved in the capture and ringing of birds, an on-going scientific study of, among other things, movements and longevity. Other observers, such as Keith Mitchell, Martin King, John Dalgleish and Bill Blake would often be bumped into, and it was always a tense, exciting affair to hear of their latest observations. Being exposed to other birdwatchers was an education. They were, by and large, more experienced than me, and would willingly pass on their identification skills, particularly how to differentiate the many, and varying, birdcalls and songs.

I became familiar with the place names scattered across the farm – Irrigation Bridge, Cuckoo Lane, One Hundred Acre, Parkside, Milne’s Hedge – a living, evolving folk lore. What people, what events were behind their naming? No visit was complete without a thorough search of the entire site, striding across each field, walking single-file along the miles of sludge lagoon banking, peering into culverts, checking the hedgerows and copses. Around every bend was an opportunity, behind each tree or bush a possibility. Within a short space of time the farm had taken me over. It owned me. Most visits ended when it became too dark to carry on. My bicycle would be un-padlocked and I would mentally replay the day’s events as I peddled home. If I were with Mark and Neil we would make the short journey to their Grandparents home, where tea and cake would be offered.

New birds came thick and fast – Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Brambling, Common Snipe, Jack Snipe and Redshank. These were species removed from the common and garden birds that I had cut my teeth on. They were specialists that could only be found by visiting specialist habitats, away from the gardens, parks and woods that I had been used to, and in Beddington I had adopted one of the best. Of these new species it was the Green Sandpiper that captured me most and became an icon of the sewage farm. As many as three of them haunted the fast-running shallow water that coursed through the concrete culverts, and they would not tolerate close approach, soon fleeing with a cheerful, shrill fruity whistle, their blackish upper parts contrasting with a shockingly white rump. I would follow them in flight until they dropped down into another watery hiding place, where the game of hide-and-seek could be played all over again.

There was one particular bird that I longed to see, and that was a Wheatear. The description in my field guide suggested that it was a bird of mountains and moorland, but Mike Netherwood gave me hope – “we get them moving through here on passage, they’ll be along any day soon”. They came here! And soon! My life then revolved around waiting for this apparition to turn up. The month of March ended without any show and we were then into April. Any day soon… that mantra was repeatedly recited… and then, on the morning of Sunday April 6th, four of these most exquisite of beauties arrived at once, proudly standing on hummocks and posts on the field up against the railway line, close to Irrigation Bridge. The following day, for a change of scenery, I visited Epsom Common, and there awaiting me was a Wheatear - I watched it with a nonchalance that it did not deserve. I was captivated by the urgent pulses of summer migrants that were now arriving – yet more Wheatears, joined by Yellow Wagtails, Swallows, House Martins, Blackcaps, Sedge Warblers – all vibrantly fresh of plumage, some full of tremendous song. Together with the bursting forth of blossom and leaves from the trees, my newly discovered world was like a carnival, celebrating the cycle of life.

I had contacted the Epsom RSPB group and arranged to join them for an early-May evening walk at Epsom Common. I thought that I knew the area from my previous visits, but in the company of those that really did know the place, I was shown another side to it – one of calling Cuckoos, singing Nightingales, reeling Grasshopper Warblers and, best of all, croaking, roding Woodcocks. I returned home, in the dark, reeling from this birding overload.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Windhover

The photograph above, of a hovering male Kestrel, was taken this morning at Priest Hill. It was only after I returned home that I became aware that today has been designated as 'World Poetry Day' and, being a surprisingly cultured oaf, immediately thought that this image would be apt for a post. The Windhover was written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that clerical poet who celebrated the natural world in many of his writings. It was a poem that I came across at school, when studying for my English Literature O-level, where I was lucky enough to be taught by a fine teacher, one Mr McTiffin. He instilled in me a love for the written word that has remained to this very day. So, for an appreciation of the Kestrel, over to you Gerard...

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl
and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shèer plòd makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold vermilion.