Thursday, 27 July 2017

Back to Priest Hill

The UK autumn may really have started several weeks ago (with failed or non-breeding adult waders moving through), but in ND&B land we have only just declared the season open! To be honest, once I start to see Harebells, Clustered Bellflowers and Common Toadflax flowering, and Copper Underwings and Flounced Rustics in the MV, then I know that the summer is starting to think about ushering in the autumn. In all reality, this seasonal thing is not straightforward, as they overlap, merge and share many aspects. Serves our right for trying to label and pigeon-hole everything.

Anyway, my sudden acceptance of all things 'autumn' has mainly been driven by my return to Priest Hill SWT Reserve. You may remember that I adopted it as a patch at the end of last autumn, and my time there has been gratefully rewarded, with such highlights as Cattle Egret, Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, many Red Kites, Peregrine, a good passage of Wheatear, Stonechat and Common Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler and a wintering flock of Reed Bunting. I stopped regular observation there in mid-May, and started up again two days ago (25th) with three Willow Warblers being a good start. This morning was about a westerly passage of Swifts (150+), a handful of warblers (possibly all local breeders unlike the Willows), and a noisy feeding flock of 90 Goldfinches. A family party of Meadow Pipits were good to see, two of which are pictured above. A tidy start.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Long hot summer

Part 12 - April - July 1976

On returning to Beddington SF, the spring passage was well underway. On April 18th the scratchy, agitated song of a Sedge Warbler greeted me, along with a pair of displaying Redshank, vying for attention with several pairs of tumbling Lapwings – these birds dominated the soundtrack to my sewage farm days during this period. Two days later, both a Little Ringed Plover and a Corn Bunting were newly arrived. Three visits were made to Pagham Harbour, the lure of the coast and its avian promise too much to resist. Garganey, Spotted Redshank, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Common Redstart were all seen, but it was a single Little Tern that stole the show. Up to twenty were present, flying like clockwork toys along the beach, this being accentuated by their ‘cartoon-like’ chattering, but one tern in particular had taken a liking to a ditch parallel to the shoreline at Church Norton. It patrolled this thin ribbon of water as I sat on an earth bank, just feet away and level with the bird. A couple of times it stopped and hovered right in front of me before collapsing and dropping into the water. I needed no optics. It was the first time that I experienced one of those intimate and all-encompassing moments with a bird – we were both present within a bubble, where time and place were secondary considerations, and nothing else existed. I did not yet know that such moments were not only transitory but of rare occurrence. They could last a second or a minute. They would become precious gifts that no amount of longing would create.

I was starting to have the confidence to tackle and try and identify the more ‘difficult’ warblers, those plainer birds whose songs I was not yet familiar with. Mike Netherwood informed me about a Lesser Whitethroat by the rifle range at Beddington SF on May 9th. When I voiced my doubts as to whether or not I would know the species if I did indeed see it, he talked me through the species appearance and song. Within moments of entering the Lesser Whitethroat’s favoured area of scrub, the bird started to sing – a rattle just as Mike had described – and it was then in view allowing me to take in all of the salient identification features. I left the farm that morning a more confident birder. A Reed Warbler at Pagham Harbour on May 22nd and a Garden Warbler at Hartfield, in Sussex, on June 12th quickly followed, with my first sighting of a Wood Warbler sandwiched in between them - a bright bird that delivered its silvery cadence at Epsom Common on May 23rd. This was one warbler that hadn’t proved too bothersome to identify.

I returned to Hertfordshire once more to stay with Barry Reed. An evening visit to Broxbourne Woods provided us with Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and, as dusk fell, a singing Nightingale and a churring Nightjar. Our attention wasn’t all reserved for the birds however, as we found a number of glow-worms on the grassy banks. The following day, with Barry’s Mother behind the wheel of the car, we travelled to Breckland. At East Wretham Heath the reserve warden provided us with a conducted tour, full of Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipits, Redpolls and Garden Warblers, but it was a Sparrowhawk – still recovering from a slump in numbers due to pesticide poisoning – that stole the show. He also kindly told us of Red-backed Shrikes and Woodlarks at Santon Downham - we needed no other excuse to go and try our luck there - although we could find neither and had to be content with a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Our final stop, in heavy drizzle, was at Weeting Heath. I had been particularly looking forward to this part of our itinerary, as the reserve was the summer home for a number of pairs of Stone Curlew. This sizable, large-eyed, crepuscular wader had mesmerised me from the illustrations in my field guides. After drawing a blank from the first two hides that we had entered, reward came from the third, as a single bird was furtively making its way across the broken, open ground. A further two birds were seen, one of which was in flight and carrying food. A pleasant hour or two was spent watching them, along with the other birds using the field to feed and breed in, including Grey Partridge, Red-legged Partridge and Wheatear. A lone, bare and stunted tree was being utilised as a perch by two Hobbys, both launching brief hunting forays, to the accompaniment of Stone Curlews uttering their mournful calls. We left satiated. Weeting Heath had not disappointed. My last day with Barry was spent trawling his local sites. Easneye Woods, apart from Spotted Flycatchers, was memorable due to the grisly sight of a gamekeeper’s gallows, a dark place populated by the corpses of stoats, weasels, squirrels and corvids. Amwell was an altogether brighter experience, with a pair of Little Ringed Plover on show; Rye Meads provided Common Terns; and our final stop, Post Wood, was most generous with Wood Warbler, Marsh and Willow Tit.

As the month of June wore on, it became drier and hotter. Temperatures started to regularly creep into the nineties and there was talk of drought. July carried on in the same vein. As soon as Epsom Art College broke up for the summer holidays, I would head, as often as I could, to Beddington Sewage Farm. The temperatures were not the only thing at high levels, as the vegetation on the farm was luxuriant to say the least.

Back then, this vegetation was just all 'green stuff that got in the way' to me, but in later years I realised that it was mainly Hemlock, Goose-grass and Stinging Nettle. The smell, especially on a hot day, was pungent - a mixture of sewage effluent (not as bad as you might think) and rank vegetation. Hemlock, en masse, does have a distinctive, earthy whiff. Even though it was so hot, I would wear Wellington Boots on the farm. These served as protection against a multitude of evils: stinging nettle rash, insect bites, goose-grass seeds infestation, burdock burr attack and a soaking from either the damp vegetation (which was sopping wet in the morning) or the liquid and mud in the settling beds. Some of these beds were filled with water, and at this time of year were not what we birdwatchers sought. We would winkle out those beds that were drying out. Too dry and they were worse for birds than the very wet ones, but to get one that had wet mud, watery channels and even an island or two of vegetation, then bingo! There was a distinct possibility of waders!

Waders were a virtual ornithological currency at Beddington, sought after above all other bird families. From mid-July I had come to learn that the first Common and Green Sandpipers would start to appear, and by the month's end they would be joined by Greenshank, Ruff, Common Snipe and, if we were lucky a Wood Sandpiper. The individual numbers would also build, so that double-figure counts of some species (particularly Green and Common Sandpipers) could be made.

100 acre seemed to always have the best beds. You reached this area by jumping across a concrete culvert by a fallen willow (the border between the two being the evocatively named Cuckoo Lane). I would get so excited as I ducked under the willow and crossed onto 100 acre. A steep bank of no more than six foot in height was directly ahead - I would crawl up this, risking stings, to peer over the top onto what seemed to always be the best bed. What would be there? How many? If I had succeeded in my stealthy approach, there would be waders feeding without a care in the world. I would settle down and count, always aware that others could be lurking behind an island, or keeping still in vegetation. But to approach noisily, or to break the skyline would send a yelping flock into the air, to circle in protest before settling down on further beds - in which case I would have another chance to see them.

You could visit three times in a day, and the wader composition would have changed. As time went on, certain good beds would dry out and become less desirable to the waders, but these were replaced by some of the wetter beds that had started to form small islands. It was always annoying to turn up at a series of 'good' beds to find that they had been flooded with effluent and were thus virtually useless for our purposes.

As the month came to an end the wader passage strengthened further. There were still other birds apart from waders to look at, with many young birds about the farm, a few Yellow Wagtail families and a covey of Grey Partridges the most notable. Most characteristic of this particular summer were the number of Swifts that fed over the farm. Hundreds would be encountered, flying low across the settling beds and the banks, picking off the plague of insects that had been attracted by the effluent and rank vegetation. I would stand still and experience the exhilaration of these black shadows swoop past, masters of the air, missing me by inches. What did they see in me? Did I even register with them? When they were intent on feeding, it was a silent swarm, but at times, when the mood was elevated, and groups would chase each other, their screams piercing the muggy air.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Sunshine on a cloudy day

It has hardly got light here in Banstead today, a stygian gloom more reminiscent of mid-winter. But, after an almost full day spent decorating (well 'full' as far as I'm concerned), I hot-footed it up onto Langley Vale Farm for a spot of botanising. I chose to check the fields at the base of the slope close to Nohome Farm. It was all quite pleasant.

The Wild Carrot was wonderful, as the two images above show. This field has been chosen by the Woodland Trust as a 'wildflower' meadow, and what pops up here is a mixture of species that were here before and those courtesy of seeding. I'm sure the Wild Carrot is a mixture of both sources. Although cloudy, it was muggy, so a few butterflies were on the wing. Highlight - by a country mile - was a single Clouded Yellow (top image), my first this year.

I was also pleased to find a robust Round-leaved Fluellen (above and below), a brute of a plant, nothing like the weedy stems I usually find.

Last but not least, (and exhibiting its attraction to bees), was a stand of Blue Globe-thistle on Epsom Downs. I've known this species from here for almost 20 years. I always drop by to pay my respects.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Red, gold and green...

Last night Katrina and I joined a few thousand other souls up on Epsom Downs racecourse to (a) watch a few horse races and (b) attend a Culture Club concert (I don't like using the word 'gig' - we never called them that 'back in the day'). In fact, come to think of it, I don't like using the term 'back in the day'...

I must admit to two things. Firstly, I don't like horse racing. And secondly, I've never been a big fan of Culture Club. But when an opportunity comes along it seems churlish to turn it down just because you're not that keen on it! I could have stayed at home and cleaned the moth trap, or daydreamed about what rare birds I am going to miss this autumn, but no, Mrs ND&B has a soft spot for Boy George, so off we went.

We only caught the last couple of races. Neither of us bet, so we just both chose a horse from each race and stood to gain nothing but bragging rights if either of them won. My two horses were chosen on name alone and not by form, such a novice am I in all things equine. I lost 1-0.

At 21.10hrs the band came on stage, and they were excellent. For the next hour and a half we were treated to all of the hits plus a few cover versions. Boy George was in fine voice, the band played very well indeed. I was pleasantly surprised. We were raised above the stage and also the majority of the audience, looking out across the race course and onto Langley Vale Farm. Of course I bird watched while all of this was going on - it seemed the right thing to do being in the open air! I couldn't do better than a Swallow, that swept past the band mid-way through 'I'll Tumble for You". I did allow my gaze to linger on the fields over on the farm, particularly those rising up to the south, where I named to myself the rare arable plants to be found in each and every one. I don't think I said these out loud, but if I did my mumbling would have been thankfully lost in the music.

Maybe I could start a gig - sorry, concert - list.

They'll have to be outdoors though.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Big hoverflies

We were in the garden a couple of days ago when Katrina suddenly backed away from me (I cannot blame her) and exclaimed "I don't like the look of that!" She had just seen this...

I was able to immediately put her at rest by telling her that it didn't sting, although it was very big and looked like a hornet - it was, in fact a hoverfly - Volucella zonaria, a hornet mimic. They are magnificent insects and illustrate how varied the hoverflies are, with some in comparison being tiny wisps of things. I've recorded two other Volucella in the garden, both large, arresting and most probably responsible for many a sudden panic in back gardens up and down the country..

Volucella pellucens
Volucella inanis

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Both the Not Quite Scilly and Wanstead Birder blogs have touched on this subject recently, and I'm not one to pass over the opportunity to nick a good idea...

Phasing -  the lessening (or even dropping) of time spent bird watching. Most long-time birders have gone through spells of it. I certainly have. In fact, because of my other natural history interests, birding has sometimes taken a back seat for months on end. I don't quite accept that as phasing however, as I'm still out in the field, still looking at and identifying living things, but instead of birds they are plants, butterflies, moths or dragonflies. No, to phase is to completely close down. I've certainly lessened birding time in the past, but have I ever 'retired' from it? I'm not so sure.

Whenever I go on a long birding trip (a fortnight on Scilly, a month at Dungeness) I cannot bird at full throttle throughout. I slow down, I need a change, my mind demands it. That can mean just pottering around, drinking tea, chatting (not about birds!) and reading (not about birds!!). It is a version of recharging my batteries, pushing a reset button. I have found that if I bird, full-on, for several days, I start to get 'call blindness' - I lose the ability to pick out calls clearly. You would think the opposite would be true. I will, after hours (or days) in the field, start to lose focus and engage in bouts of day-dreaming. That's no way to nail a Blyth's Pipit.

I'll admit to not being a manic birder. I used to think I was, but no, that title is for others. I know a few. Some of them are out, for days on end, but for different reasons. To some, they just love birding so much that they can think of nothing more pleasurable to do. For others, it's a reason to not be at home. To some, they worry that their place in the birding world might be compromised if they are not seen to be putting the time in. For such a sedate and passive pastime there are layers of reason (and angst) to be identified.

I can lose interest. I will adopt patches, bird them avidly and then drop them just as quickly. Sometimes I'll return to them but others abandon for good. This is my way of staving off phasing. When I have pursued a project for too long I can get close to that 'point of no return' when complete abstinence is a distinct possibility.

I have been told that I think too much about the why's and wherefore's of all this birding lark. Maybe so, but it's what comes naturally to me.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Holmethorpe damselflies

It may only be eight miles from home (and they may have been there for a few years), but I had yet to pay my respects to the Holmethorpe colony of Willow Emerald Damselfly, a recent colonist of our shores. Too laid back? Not keen enough? Whatever the reason, my visit this morning coincided with warm and sunny weather. It took a good couple of hours to find one, and after a quick look at the ridge dewpond (see below), an early afternoon return found a further four individuals. None of them were anything other than flighty, with most taking themselves up into the top of the mature vegetation that flanks the perimeter path of Spynes Mere (above).

The dewpond (above) that I referred to is most probably too grand a term for this small water body, a depression on old landfill that holds seasonal water. It was alive with odonata this morning, including a minimum of 20+ Small Red-eyed Damselfly (below).