Monday, 31 October 2016

High summer on October 31

We used to have four seasons. When I was a lad, September meant chill mornings, the first ground frost, wind and rain. October was all about fallen leaves, bare trees, mud and the smell of garden bonfires - and a lot more wind and rain. November - well, that was proper winter.

Now it seems that we have just the one season, a largely benign, mild twelve-monther that has the odd hot day (which will be 30C +), the odd windy day (force 9-10) and the odd wet day (a month's worth in 24 hours) - so a procession of bang ordinary weather interrupted by a few extremes. It can be as warm in December as in June, with more rain in July than in February. It's all over the place.

Even though it is November 1st tomorrow I've been walking around in a shirt, could have worn shorts, got sunburnt, swatted away loads of flies and have seen plenty of butterflies and dragonflies.

There were few clues to the actual season from the birds, with no 'summer' or 'winter' migrants, just the same tired residents. Two Dartford Warblers broke the silence mid-afternoon and struck up a friendship with a small flock of Stonechats, as they frequently do. With these we had to make do, as Spurn reeled in yet another big rarity. They must be fed up with all the rarity description writing. If they want to take a rest, and let Dungeness take over, that's fine by us.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Stale bread + Popcorn + Fish guts = Caspo!

More fun on the beach with Mick S, Richard S, Dave W and Martin C, all very knowledgable gull-fondlers and exponents in the dark art of larid identification. I stood by and watched the growing throng of gulls coming into the bait of bread, popcorn and fish guts. Star draw was an obvious (even for me) adult Caspian Gull that Richard claimed to be the best adult he had seen at Dungeness. The Canon bridge camera once again proved its worth, but my four companions with their big lenses will have obtained far superior images. This made up for a flat morning - why spoil a sunny and mild morning by seeing anything of note?

Images of this bird have been already been posted by Martin at:
http://ploddingbirder.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/caspian-gull.html

Others will soon appear from the Daves and Richard at:
http://www.dungenessbirdobs.org.uk
http://birdingthedayaway.blogspot.co.uk/
http://mybirdwatchingdaysout.blogspot.co.uk/

Take a look and learn!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Well, where did they all come from?

A benign afternoon - mild, sunny and a gentle westerly wind - is not the stuff that is usually the catalyst for the rewriting of Dungeness sea watching records. It began with Owen L reporting that there were 40 Mediterranean Gulls on the sea off of the fishing boats. Dave W then went to take a look to be stunned with ten times as many - some quite far out, others sitting in flocks on the sea. During his period of observation many of them started to drift off into Lade Bay, with Dave himself following in their wake. These events in turn encouraged Martin C and Tony G to sea watch from the boats and myself to take up position between there and the lifeboat. In one and a half hours I recorded 313 Mediterranean Gulls moving west, along with 310 Kittiwakes. Most of these were fairly close, although, thanks to the good light conditions, birds could be picked up further out. They came past in groups, the largest being a loose flock of 46, although my favourite were the 23 that hugged the water in a tight Kittiwakesque group. Most were adults, with more first-winters than second-winters. Martin and Tony, who began their watch an hour before mine, logged a staggering 668W. The previous DBO day record count was 200+. It is now 900+.

Where did they come from? High numbers are seen in the Folkestone area, so it could be tempting to assume that they had all embarked on a short journey south. But the accompanying Kittiwakes would suggest that they came from further afield. You can never write a day off, no matter how slow and uninspiring it had been. Birds have a habit of surprising you, making you question what you know - or, more accurately, what you thought you knew.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The birding gift of giving

Yesterday's appeal for birds to be sent to the impoverished DUNGENESS BIRDERS was a great success. Many thanks to those of you that gave generously to this worthy cause. In particular, we must mention:

TONY BROWN (The Cowboy Birder) who generously donated a PALLAS'S WARBLER from Essex. Seeing that this species would have been a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence on his own patch says an awful lot about the kindness of the birders from that much-maligned county. Almost all of those present today were able to watch this BOOM!RARE!CRACKINGSPRITE! Thanks Tony!

ASHDOWN FOREST RSPB GROUP who, by holding a coffee morning, raised enough to send a DARTFORD WARBLER to the shingle. Although this bird was only seen by two birders, it gave the day hope before Tony's PALLAS'S arrived.

We had been told that a special delivery was on its way from FAIR ISLE, and that SPURN was considering handing over one of its spare BLUETAILS. The BOU have apparently scheduled a meeting for April 2019 to discuss if it will respond to the appeal.

Just because today gave hope to the forlorn denizens of the Dungeness shingle does not mean that they do not need further donations. Suggested gifts include:

ISABELLINE SHRIKE, PIED WHEATEAR and PINE BUNTING

Thank you for your continuing support!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Urgent appeal

Please put down your binoculars for just a couple of minutes. Today we are asking you to spare a thought for a deprived section of our society which is going through hard times. They are in constant envy, born of checking their Twitter feed every few minutes to read what others have had.

We are talking about the DUNGENESS BIRDER.

These people are forced to roam across shingle and stare into empty bushes for hours on end. The skies above them are quiet. The seas are bereft of life. They have not seen rain and the accompanying falls for weeks. Constant exposure to such conditions is leading to an increase in neurosis, depression and a questioning of their ability in the field.

BUT YOU CAN HELP!

We are calling on the birding community to dig deep and help the DUNGENESS BIRDER by donating birds to them. It costs little and can turn their sad existences around.

For just a YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER you can give them hope that something better just might be around the corner.

For the gift of a PALLAS'S WARBLER you can give them the comfort of a good sighting at the end of a difficult day.

The donation of a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL will put a wide smile on their miserable faces and restore their faith in the notion of birding.

The generous bequeath of a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR will give them a lifetime of memories and something to tell the next wave of NGB's when the species reverts to becoming mythical once again.

REMEMBER - next year, the lot of the DUNGENESS BIRDER might just become yours! So please, find it in your heart to give up a bird for this downtrodden set of people. They are trying very hard to make their ornithological way, and are in dire need of all the help that they can get. They really are becoming desperate.

Thank you.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Modest

East-south-easterly wind? Check
Cloud cover? Check
Calm by mid-morning? Check
Loads of birds? In all honesty, no...

The conditions should have seen an interesting day here, but we had to accept a modest - and I mean modest - arrival of crests and thrushes. Numbers that in any other year would not even raise a hyperactive eyebrow. It is churlish to consider Ring Ouzels, Black Redstarts and Firecrests as not worthy of appreciation, but late October at Dungeness should be better than this. Still we plod on, still I put on a brave face, still I think that I should not be so dismissive of the birding. This is what happens when you try to be positive about a situation that is clearly not positive. Sometimes you need to admit that positivity is severely overrated. Why not admit to the birding being poor? There is no shame in doing so, although, to some people, it seems to be a sin to do so. On the flip side, I stood by the lighthouse garden for an hour this afternoon and awaited a tame Firecrest. It was on a feeding circuit and briefly appeared just feet in front of me on three occasions. I managed a few pictures with the bridge camera, but could obtain better. That hour flew by. It was enjoyable birding. As the Americans say, "Go figure..."

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Deportivo Wankas

Two weeks into my Dungeness stay and it is all getting a little bit desperate. There can be no disguising it, it has been disappointing. No real arrivals, a few brief bursts of visible migration and just a Yellow-browed Warbler to be placed in the 'unusual species' column. A poor return for all of the effort put in. This afternoon I ran out of steam, and for the first time in 14 days put the binoculars down and retreated to the observatory common room with a good book and a bottomless mug of tea. My batteries need recharching and tomorrow morning will hopefully see my mojo reset. I've brought with me a bottle of single malt to open when 'the goody' appears. Sod that, it's being opened this evening!

When I stayed here last autumn there was an abundance of late flowering, so much so that I started to make a list of the species still in bloom from Nov 1st - I think I got to 130+ by the time I went home. Alas, this year's show is meagre indeed, so I haven't even got that as a distracting sideshow. Instead, a few of us have awakened the school-boy within us to try and assemble a football team made up of genuine professional players with rude names. I know, how puerile... but at the same time, great fun. I won't list all of them here (we have a squad of 44!) To give you just a taste, they include David Seaman, Lars Bender, Julian Dicks, Stefan Kuntz, Igor Shitov, Juankar, Anil Koc, Wayne Wanklyn, Andre Muff, Bernt Haas, Waldo Ponce, Brian Pinas, Milan Fukal, Fabian Assman, Rod Fanni, Ralf Minge, Quim, Francisco Arce, Rafael Scheidt, Argelico Fucks, Cha Bum-Kun, Michael Gash and Lopez Ufarte. All 100% genuine. Google them if you don't believe me, but then again you'd better not, I cannot vouch for any of the websites you might be directed to. We even have a genuine team name for them to play with - Deportivo Wankas (from Peru), and of course they will play at the Wankdorf Stadium. This has been the highlight of my stay so far...

Saturday, 22 October 2016

A burst of visual warmth

Lepidoptera to the rescue! The birding was ordinary (putting a spin on it) or disappointing (to be perfectly honest). However, one of the many joys of Dungeness is that it is not just about the birds. Barry B arrived mid-morning with a Radford's Flame Shoulder, a five-star rarity of a moth that is having something of an exceptional Autumn, so those five stars may well be downgraded to four. Also, there was an helice form Clouded Yellow butterfly, found along the front of the power station, visiting flowers in an increasingly warm sunshine. The intense yellow underwing, complete with burning white orb, was a reminder of the fast fading season, a late burst of visual warmth before the Autumn fades into early winter. Sad and happy at the same time. Bittersweet butterfly watching.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Starlings

They came in off the sea on a broad front, some flocks in tight balls, others strung out like stretched elastic and even more in small congregations, seemingly detached from the masses. They flew directly, with purpose and urgency. The larger flocks could be seen even at distance, dark smudges against a light grey sky, thickening and thinning as parts of the flock overtook others, an ornithological Etch-a-Sketch. They started to arrive shortly after first light, peaked between 08.00 - 10.00hrs and carried on in ever decreasing numbers until mid-afternoon. How many? At least 10,000, all heading NW to N, and now roosting many miles away, many of them for the first time in this country. Welcome!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Expectation

Today felt as if it were pregnant with expectation. The birth did not happen, and it is long overdue, so like expectant fathers we pace the waiting room, awaiting news. Grey skies and northerly winds made for a winter feel, which was matched by discrete groups of thrushes tumbling out of the sky to hurriedly find shelter in the nearest vegetation. They were mainly Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, but Fieldfares, Redwings and Ring Ouzels were also represented. A few early morning Redpolls were on the move and were joined by Chaffinches mid-morning. As the day faded, and the wind dropped, a dusk enclosed flock of 12 Song Thrushes fell into the moat, with little time to sort out a roost before dark. It left me wanting more. I have a feeling tomorrow might be quite good.

Oh, and another word to be banned from birding social media...
Nailed...

Plus one more...
Scored

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cracked birders

When the whole world and his wife are knee-deep in birds, be they Autumn migrants or eastern vagrants (with a few also coming from the west) it is easy for birders based in places that are not so blessed to get a little peeved. This is especially true if every effort has been made during daylight hours to cover your patch - and particularly if there are few birds to sift through anyway.

Such scenarios break birders' spirits and, after a prolonged bout of little return, can force them elsewhere. This has happened this very week to those gathered at Dungeness. Monday saw a car load leave Kent for that most blessed of bird observatories, Spurn. Maybe it really is in God's chosen county after all. They saw 'the bird', several other 'the birds' and hundreds of viewable migrants to boot. On return to the shingle it was as much as any of them could do to muster up any enthusiasm at all, having been gorging on the ornithological feast that East Yorkshire had dished up.

Today was my turn, as I fled to Cap Gris Nez on the cliff tops of northern France, lured by the promise of NW winds and plenty of bird action. There were four other shingle-crunchers present as well, the second incidence of a mass Dungeness bunking-off in three days. These are indeed desperate times. As it happened, the wind was WNW so delivered a fraction of what we hoped, although this did involve Arctic, Pom and Great Skuas, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters, several hundred Med and Little Gulls, plus 1600 Chaffinches and 100 Skylarks coasting, so hardly an epic fail. But as far as grounded birds went, it was similar to Dungeness, windswept copses, hedges and bushes with barely a crest or warbler to bother the optics.

So tomorrow sees the resumption of flogging the peninsula. I did catch up with a Yellow-browed Warbler yesterday (which also saw 800 Linnets and 160 Alba Wagtails heading NW) so it is not a total dark hole of despair down here. We carry on.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Harry's bench and big skies

I've posted about big skies before. I once read somewhere that big skies are hot-wired into our psyche as they allow us to clearly see what's coming - but now that sabre-toothed Tigers and Wooly Mammoths no longer roam Surrey and Kent, it's the weather that 21st century man can keep an eye on. Here at Dungeness, the open and frankly inspiring big skies are never bettered. There is nothing high to the south until you reach the coast of France, nothing east til the Urals (exaggeration) and to the west and north you've got to be talking about 10-15 miles before you meet an incline of any description. You can see rain several miles off and some of the most fantastic cloud formations regularly come along and say hello. These skies make you feel very small and insignificant indeed.

On a slow day like today, I will take myself off to Harry's bench. This wooden seat looks eastward from the outer bank of the moat, and is in memory of Harry Cawkell, who was the honorary secretary of the bird observatory committee for 47 years, a position he held until he passed away in 1999. From here you can, on a clear day, see France and the white cliffs of Dover. I've also seen a Bee-eater amongst other things... Apart from being a good place to bird from, it is a place of contemplation, made all the more restful by being under these ever-changing big skies. Rest awhile here and you can put your worries to rest. It can even soothe the pain of reading about the latest crop of rarities to be dumped on Spurn.

Come on Spurn! Give the rest of us a chance. Buddy, can you spare a Bluetail?

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Hard work

Blimey, some days you can bird your backside off and come away with very little indeed - today was one of those days. A blustery SE to SW wind, with scattered squalls made observations all the more difficult. I kept to the sheltered belts of sallow (very quiet) and then moved on to the open shingle and  worked my way through the low broom, blackthorn and gorse (even quieter). The day's nadir was yet to come, as an afternoon spent on the shingle between the road and the beach produced just a single Wren! I would normally expect a few crests, pipits and the odd chat to check at this time of year.

But of course there were some birds. A 40-minute spurt on the sea provided 3 Arctic Skua, 2 Pomarine Skua, a Bonxie and a Sooty Shearwater. And of the four remaining Ring Ouzels, a smart male spent all day in the moat, allowing close approach and profitable use of the bridge camera.

Tomorrow sees an evacuation of the Dungeness great and good to Spurn. They have cracked. Am I going? Of course not....boom my arse.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Prince (or Princess) Caspian

One of those days that limped along in between bursts of excitement. Almost the first birds that I saw as I walked out of the observatory back door were a skein of 10 White-fronted Geese, that appeared to head straight out to sea. With a handful of Ring Ouzels being the only thing that kept the morning from stagnating, a cup of tea with Mark H on the moat seemed to be the best option. This cued up the next burst of excitement. Between sips of tea, we observed two grey geese heading our way, which soon showed themselves to be Bean Geese (also seen by David W, Gill H and Owen L). Not a common bird over observatory airspace! A calling Greenshank shortly afterwards was just as unexpected. The next quiet interlude was burst when, walking through an area of low broom, I flushed three roosting Short-eared Owls from the open shingle. All quickly settled and were left in peace.

A phone call from Martin C alerted me to the fact that the gull boys, Mick S and Richard S, had lured a first-winter Caspian Gull to the beach through the medium of bread, popcorn and fish offal. This bird performed admirably, settling but yards away as we all acted like hungry paparazzi - my bridge camera modestly performing amongst the assembled big lenses. The results are more than acceptable! I'll post them when I return home. This individual sported a red plastic ring (911P) which, according to the gathered larid-strokers, originates from Poland. To see excellent frame-filling images of this gull, visit their web-sites and blogs.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Ouzels of fun

The first hour of daylight was quiet. But the ornithological Gods saw fit to turn on the bird tap at about 08.00hrs, when a steady and gentle stream of finches started to pass overhead, on a SE to E bearing. For the next three hours it was 'eyes to the skies' as we counted the flocks - mostly single species and low enough to identify, which was a great help as many did not call. There were thrushes involved as well, most notably Ring Ouzels. They were zipping about all over the place, including one flock of 11 birds that circled above the trapping area in the company of four Fieldfare, before all headed off high and eastwards. My own personal totals included 1200 Goldfinch, 500 Linnet, 150 Chaffinch, 50 Meadow Pipit, 30 Ring Ouzel, 25 Pied Wagtail, 20 Reed Bunting, 17 Swallow, 15 Tree Sparrow, 8 Fieldfare and 2 Siskin. My other highlights from around the shingle were an evening Sooty Shearwater, 11 Great Egrets and 4 Merlin.

I've seen the pictures of birders queueing at Spurn today. Not my idea of birding, but understandable in an attempt to control the mass bunking-off work of middle-aged men. Before anybody accuse me of being 'holier than thou', I have queued for a bird before - on St Agnes in October 1979. We thought we were entering the small garden to see a Blyth's Reed Warbler (before it became as common as Chiffchaffs), but it was later trapped and proven to be a Marsh.

More 'birding' words to be banned from social media, courtesy of some other miserable sods:

Connected

Crew

Feels rare

Sorted

Legend

Hands down pants

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Get up, open the door, start again

Social media has got a lot to answer for. I could bore you senseless about what I feel on the subject (and it's not all negative!) One aspect where I think it is detrimental is that, from a comparative birding point of view, you know exactly what has turned up elsewhere. Immediately. It can make you feel ornithologically impotent - a kind of observational erection dysfunction. You've most probably seen the photo of the latest find. You know who found it. And every Tom, Dick and Harry who then saw it afterwards. And who is on their way. And who is thinking about going... on, and on, and on. And yes, I know I don't need to look thank you very much.

It can have a debilitating affect. Take the past few days here on the shingle. A group of us (not a crew, not a posse) have been out all day, every day, birding hard. It has been enjoyable, no arguments. But when put into the national perspective of what is being seen at the other notable hotspots, we are failing on the scarce migrant front, let alone with true rarities. Let's face it, one reason that we are all here NOW, is that this is the plum time to find and see those special birds. So when bleepers bleep and Twitter 'twitters' about the swathe of latest goodies that are turning up anywhere but here, we are reminded of our failures. No Siberian Accentor here. Nor a Bluetail. Our comparing of results is a painful process, especially when we have no sea watching, no falls and no viz-mig going on to mask our disappointments.

But we are at Dungeness because we choose to be here. We don't want to be elsewhere. We are not heading to Spurn tomorrow. We are not contemplating Shetland for next autumn. Tomorrow we get up, open the door, and start all over again with genuine hope.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Playing catch-up

There were two species that had been present in the Dungeness area since I arrived two days ago and which I was keen to see. The first, a ring-tailed Hen Harrier, gave itself up fairly quickly, hunting over the adjacent field to the Sunflower crop at Dengemarsh. It fell on prey and remained out of view, allowing close approach before taking flight and performing in front of  Mark H and I. Our views were more than satisfactory. The second species was another large raptor, an Osprey, found by Paul T at Lade Pits and seemingly happy to stay and take advantage of the easy fishing to be had. It was relocated, perched on a post and remained in place for at least a couple of hours, enough time for several of us to scope it from the road. My first non-flying Osprey at Dungeness.

This afternoon, one of those simple, but oh so glorious moments of birding occurred. It was mid-afternoon, all seemed quiet, and I was making my way from the observatory to the sea watch hide. A single 'chak' alerted me to a Fieldfare in the sky above me, and looking up I could see the lone thrush, circling. Then from above it a tight flock of 30 more fell out of the sky, swirling in a calling frenzy, before levelling out and continuing on their way westwards. Nothing else seemed to be moving, which made this cameo all the more personal. Birding in its purest state.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

High flying birds

A grey dawn, flat calm, with a red gash on the horizon where the sun was largely hidden. Apart from the odd Brambling, Siskin and Song Thrush, little was on the move. The bushes were similarly quiet, with just a smattering of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests, spiced up by the odd Blackcap and Firecrest. But in truth, it was all going on - going on way above our heads. You needed to look directly up and use binoculars, but when doing so, secrets were revealed, like the focusing of a microscope to see the hidden detail. A steady trickle of passerines was underway, silently heading to as yet decided destinations - some were identified to family - finches, pipits, wagtails, thrushes - yet others were too high to be able to do even that. To look beyond these birds was to reveal a further flyway and to accept that we were not meant to be privy to what was happening above us. Sound would not reach us from up there, so our viewing was of a colourless silent movie. Fortunately for us two Woodlark, short of tail and broad of wing, came low enough to be identified as they moved NW, they too were mute.

In moth news, I was pleased to see a Bloxworth Snout, courtesy of Barry B's Greatstone garden trap.

Monday, 10 October 2016

And so it begins...

...my latest stay on the hallowed Dungeness shingle. If all is well I won't return home until early November (if Mrs ND&B will have me back that is). There is talk here of trapping and face-painting a Dunnock, taking a few 'soft-focus' images, and claiming it as the UK's second Siberian Accentor. It would save us an awful lot of time in the field.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Words that should be banned...

...from ornithological social media:

BOOM!

Rares

PG Tips (unless describing a brand of tea)

Grotfinch

Pink Stink

Dick's Pipit

Yay!

Mega

Posse

Sprite

Awesome

Cracking

Epic

Self-found

My thanks are due to several other miserable sods who have highlighted language abuse in our midst.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Belonging


We should each have a place where we feel that we belong - a place that is home, that feels safe, and is invested in warm and happy memories. Ordinarily these are the places of our childhood, where we did our growing, via a meandering route that was made joyful with carefree times. Although I was born in (and lived in) South London for the first three years of my life, the Hertfordshire market town of Tring was where I conciously grew up - I wrote about that period of my life here. They were good times.

But at the age of 12 we moved, first to Hitchin, then a year later to Sutton in Surrey. Almost immediately my parents went through a nasty, messy divorce, so I could be forgiven for not being too enamoured with the place, or the new county that I found myself unhappily living in. But something saved that period, and it was the open spaces. One afternoon my Father took us out in the car and we spent an age driving around Surrey's southern countryside. My father (who grew up in Kennington and had a passion for Surrey County Cricket Club) was uncharacteristically gushing about the beauty around us. He felt as if this was his county, no doubt in lieu of having lived in its choked northern extremities. So, like Father, like Son, I decided that, this too, must be my county. I soon discovered birds, and this presented me with an independent route, and an excuse, into exploring the world on my doorstep.

But belonging is a moveable feast. I soon started to visit Dungeness and found the shingle beach and the characters that populated it, intoxicating. I was happy there and I was accepted. I wrote about my relationship with it here. I also got to know the Wiltshire downs in the All Cannings area, the place that the Gale family originated from, moving up to London in the late 19th century. I could walk around the same village streets that my ancestors did; enter the same churches in which they were christened, married and buried; drink in the same inns; and wander the very fields in which they largely worked. Sitting on top of the nearby hills, looking down across the fertile valley below, it was hard not to feel a connection - my father certainly did, as not only was he was evacuated there during the Second World War, but retired to the village and stayed for over 20 years. Yes, a part of me felt that I belonged here too, even if that was a spiritual link to unknown and long dead relatives. They still had a reach, or at least the rolling hills and verdant fields did. It also helped that I saw a fine cross-section of bird species on my rambles and the chalk downland there is some of the best botanically in the UK. And then, through my wife's childhood memories, I've come to know the largely unspoilt West Sussex coast between Rustington and Ferring. I feel at home there, peaceful and content.

But Tring is of the distant past; Dungeness an on-off affair separated by 90 miles; All Cannings a fanciful connection; Ferring not really mine to claim. None of them are 'home'. I'm prompted when I read such literature as 'Cider with Rosie' or 'Old Ways', books that celebrate the human connection with place. Where is my place? Is it in Surrey? Are the north downs, especially those between Reigate and Abinger, what I'm looking for? And what of the spurs of high land that head off north from there - Walton Heath, Walton Downs, Epsom Downs, Chipstead Bottom, Canons Farm? I spend an increasing amount of time wandering these elevated lands and slowly, very slowly, they are starting to wriggle their way into me. What once were visits to purely bird or botanise, have morphed into excursions of spiritual enrichment - it could be a dead tree, a cloud formation, a leaning gatepost, an old sign - things that grab my attention and give depth to the relatively shallow pastime of looking for plants and birds. Why these random objects should appear so, I do not know.

This morning saw me back up onto Epsom and Walton Downs for the third consecutive day. A scouring easterly wind and blinding low sunlight made observations difficult, but it seemed obvious that most of the Chiffchaffs had cleared out and the Stonechat count was down to one. But I was most content to walk the field edges without the need for ornithological reward - what I was doing was reward enough. And then a butterfly came barreling across the open field, making light of the strong gusts. It landed just in front of me, as if it had made the flight especially do so. A Painted Lady. In one of the places where I belong.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

If you don't like Stonechats, look away now...


I had just an hour on Epsom Downs this morning, and was pleased to find that yesterday's Stonechats (two males and a female) were still there, being faithful to an open track in the south-eastern corner. The female in particular was confiding, and I was able to get some decent images with the bridge camera. I am thinking about renaming this blog 'Stonechats and beyond', seeing that they seem to appear in every other post at the moment. I cannot get enough of them. Having said that, all chats are welcome...


Monday, 3 October 2016

Not quite Shetland


While hordes of middle-aged men are in Shetland, wading through beds of Yellow Iris and allowing rare locustella warblers to crawl all over them, some of us are still working at the rock-face of cutting edge field ornithology (mixed metaphors there!). We are plying our ornithological trade by grilling nondescript inland sites, mostly without water - and neither with a track record for rarities - and are trying to defy the law of averages (and our common sense that is screaming at us to "go north old man!") We may be self-deluded, or simple, or happy with our lot (or even all three!!) but the nation can breathe a sigh of relief that we are counting our Dunnocks, Chaffinches and Blackbirds while those who have scarpered off northwards dedicate their time to the so-called 'rares'... they used to be 'rarities' in my time. Just don't say BOOM!...

Epsom and Walton Downs seem to be my places of choice at the moment. Under-watched, with potential, and pleasant places to boot. This morning revealed just a little, but the weather was glorious and it was no hardship having to walk field edges, hedgerows and copses. Bottom line were: 31 Canada Goose, 9 Greyalg Goose, 3 Common Buzzard, 1 Sparrowhawk, 1 Kestrel, 175 Stock Dove, 7 Skylark, 6 Meadow Pipit, 2 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 3 Stonechat, 1 Wheatear, 2 Redwing, 24 Chiffchaff.

A few butterflies were on the wing, including Small White, Comma, Red Admiral and Small Copper.


Saturday, 1 October 2016

Remembering Starlings


It started with a short film-clip that was shot sometime the 1950s. Trafalgar Square. Looking up at the statue of Nelson, motionless on top of his column, surveying all before him, in grainy black and white. Atmospheric and redolent of faded Empire, rationing, post-war gloom.... and Starlings. Thousands of Starlings. Swirling around our fabled Admiral, clouds of chattering, screeching birds, getting ready to roost in one of London's most famous squares. In 1950 over 100,000 Starlings were recorded roosting there. And it got me thinking of the roosts of my youth and how we all took this most humble of birds for granted, even dismissed it from our list of what were considered to be birds 'worth bothering about'. It got lumped in with House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons. Not worth looking at. This was, of course, before their numbers plummeted.

During the 1970s I grew accustomed to seeing the pre-roost gatherings of Starlings over Sutton. Black vortexes that morphed in shape as others joined in, impossible cones, funnels and clouds that should surely collide and break the individual bodies into a mess of blood and feather. But they didn't, seemingly flying for the sheer joy of doing so, showing off their aerial mastery to whoever was witnessing it far below. 5-10,000 was commonplace. In November 1981 I was at Walberswick in Suffolk, standing by the Lodge and birding over the reedbed below. The numbers of Starlings were truly staggering. To put a number to the gathering roost was foolhardy, but, being foolhardy, I did - 400,000. Not enough. Could have been double that - no, triple that. It was mesmerising. Even though we were hundreds of yards away, each convulsion in the flock was accompanied by a spine-tingling "whoooosh!" This was nature at its most awe-inspiring. Every late-autumn visit to Dungeness would involve clouds of them coming in off the sea, ragged clots of black making landfall and heading inland. Sometimes they would follow the coastline, a conveyor belt of messiness that never broke down. Again in their tens of thousands.

And then the gatherings seemed to stop. The number of migrants drained away. Those that did remain were in much reduced numbers. Shadows of what had gone before. Relegated to being remembered via grainy black and white film. Big Starling roosts do still exist, but they are things that need to be tracked down, not everyday events over everyday skies. Somerset levels, Brighton sea-front, both will provide a show if you want one. When I now look out of my window and see a group of 50 Starlings gathering on neighbouring chimneys and aerials, I get excited. 50 is a good count. Maybe they are coming back. And, at the same time, maybe just a part of me is transported back to my youth, when it was all taken for granted.