Friday, 30 December 2016

New links and next year

The end of year blog tidy is underway. Some of my blog links seem to have been inactive for a length of time that suggests that they are no longer maintained, so they have been removed (and if they are awoken at a later date, please let me know). In their place I have added some fresh blood. Please welcome:

Madcap pan-lister Seth Gibson who has found himself living on a Scottish Island for the winter, and between this, and a possible return to the Isles of Scilly in the summer, will regale us with his search to identify every living thing that he comes across. He has no limits... he has no shame... expect a hairy ride.

I do have a soft spot for the south and south-west English coast, so am happy to welcome the following blogs into the ND&B fold: Birding Exmouth, Axe Birding, Sea & Sky

I will be adding a few more over the coming weeks.

I broke tradition in 2016 and had no firm targets or plans for my natural history time. 2017 will be different. For the first time in over 20 years I'm going to keep a UK year list - don't worry, I'm not going all Uncle Ronnie on you. It will be a sedate affair, mostly SE England based and unlikely to get much beyond 250 species. I am planning on visiting Holmethorpe Sand Pits on a regular basis, and will also make sure that Dungeness and Pulborough Brooks gets some attention. Scotland is botanically calling me, and so too are the downs of Wiltshire and Hampshire (where Wood Tiger, Narrow-bordered Bee-hawk and various Forester species are present). I might even resurrect my PSL effort. Oh, and a UK plant year list (just because). That'll keep me busy. Whatever your plans and hopes for the coming 12 months, may they come to fruition.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Uncle Ronnie

Mummy, why are all those people staring at our house?

They're birdwatching Johnny.

But why are they staring at our house?

Because the bird that they have come to see is in our garden.

Don't they have birds in their own gardens?

Well they do, but the bird they have come to look at is rare.

Why is it rare?

Well, as far as I know, these birdwatchers keep a list of all the different types of bird that they have seen, and if a bird that usually lives in another country comes to our country, then they all get in their cars and drive to see it.

Why?

That's a very good question Johnny.

Mummy?

Yes Johnny.

Why are they all men?

I don't really know, but I'd imagine that most women have got better things to do.

And why are they all like Uncle Ronnie?

What do you mean Johnny?

Well, they all look like him.

I've told you before, we've got to be kind to Uncle Ronnie, he has difficulties with people. And hygiene. He cannot help the way he looks. Or acts.

Why are they all wearing a uniform?

That isn't a uniform, they are just wearing similar clothing. It does look a bit strange, I must admit. They do look as if they are all copying each other.

Why's Daddy making sheep noises?

Ignore him, he's just fed up with the men blocking the driveway.

Oh look, they're all running! I didn't think old men could run! Uncle Ronnie can't!

The bird must have been seen further down the road.

What's the bird called Mummy?

A Blue Rock Thrush. It comes from another country.

Mummy. Can I be a bird watcher when I grow up?

No you bloody well can't. I don't want you ending up like Uncle Ronnie!

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The year of birding locally

'Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey...'

That was going to be my approach to birding locally during 2016. Once again I was going to ignore the birding hotspots of Beddington (helped by having given up my key) and Holmethorpe (which was getting good coverage) and concentrate on the places seldom visited. I had tried something similar in 2015, but there was a poor return and I most probably did too much in the spring which resulted in burn-out and disappointment. If I were going to survive the year and not end up all bitter and twisted about it, then I needed to reduce expectations, not try too hard, and just go with the flow. And as it turned out, it all went very well indeed...

The opening day of January saw me at Canons Farm, and over the following two months, most of my efforts were put here. All was quite sedate until 28th February, when a first-winter Iceland Gull (right) arrived on the freshly ploughed fields, allowing a handful of the locals to catch up with this 'Canons mega'. The gull-fest didn't stop there, as the following day two adult Mediterranean Gulls graced the same fields, including one that decided to indulge in display, its deep calls carrying widely across the ploughed earth. The 'purple patch' on the farm wasn't over yet, as a most confiding Dartford Warbler spent a few hours of the morning of March 9th feeding in the light scrub that bordered the track leading to Perott's Farmhouse.

It all settled down to a more usual fare, with the marked Stonechat (left) passage of late-February/March obvious at Canons Farm, Mogador and Epsom Downs. This species is a firm favourite of mine, and the privilege of watching them so close to home not taken for granted. Highlight for me though was the build up in Chaffinch numbers on the southern most fields, that grew over a period of a week and peaked at 1,100 birds. Diligence paid off as a small number of Brambling were hidden amongst them. These same fields attracted up to 175 Linnet and three figure gatherings of Fieldfare and Redwing, the latter two species becoming more restless as the month advanced. This period of time also witnessed the start of a marked raptor passage through the area, lead by Common Buzzard (peaking at 26 on April 5th) and Red Kite (recorded at several sites). Most of my birding time was still being spent at Canons Farm, where early Ring Ouzel (April 5th) and Common Redstart (below, April 8th) started what was a modest, but enjoyable passage for summer migrants. As the month continued so other notable records came along - Goshawk (Canons Farm, April 12th), Tree Pipit and Yellow Wagtail (Canons Farm, April 24th).


May, June and July quietened down, and the local birding time reduced, due to a combination of switching allegiances to plants, moths, butterflies and Dungeness! However, a few Firecrest were found singing on the north downs and a pair of Raven seemingly resident.

Things picked up again in August, with bonus Woodlark (Walton Downs, 12th) and Honey-buzzard (Banstead, 22nd). The latter had the good grace to fly over the house, initially picked up as I was eating my lunch. By now the return passage was underway, with warblers and chats to the fore. Yellow Wagtail peaked at six (Canons Farm, September 8th), and Whinchat at five (Canons Farm, September 13th) but migrant numbers were generally depressed, with none of the large hirundine gatherings that have been enjoyed over previous autumns.

A Spotted Flycatcher (right) at Mogador on 28th August was the only one of the year. One of the most unexpected happenings of the 12 months did not involve rarity, when a gathering of geese occurred on farmland at Walton Downs on the morning of September 26th - 188 Canada and 151 Greylag were exceptional for the area. Nearby, a gathering of 750 Stock Dove was one of the highest historically recorded in the county. I abandoned the local scene throughout October and into November for the shingle of Dungeness. On my return I had a number of target species missing from the year list. Some of these gave themselves up without a fight - Barn Owl (Canons Farm, November 22nd), Little Egret (Ewell, 25th November), Water Rail (below, left and Common Snipe (Ewell, 9th December) and Woodcock (Walton Downs, 19th December).

I started to spend more time at Priest Hill, a new Surrey Wildlife Reserve on ex-farmland and municipal playing fields between Banstead and Ewell. This was mainly out of convenience, as it is only a ten minute stroll from home, rather than by any perceived birding promise. However, the finding of a small wintering population of Reed Bunting made my 'local' winter, before the most unexpected happened during the morning of December 2nd, when a Cattle Egret flew low overhead, giving excellent views. This was only the second record for Surrey.

The year list currently stands at 106 species, not bad for a virtually dry section of a northern spur of the North Downs. The full list can be seen by clicking here. There were very few Redpolls and Siskins during the year. No Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Common Crossbill. And my success with passage migrants was largely muted (no Cuckoo, Black Redstart, or species acrocephalus warbler). But the unexpected certainly happened. What began as a project to not have to get into a car to go birding has blossomed into one that is driven (excuse the pun) by a wish to visit those largely un-birded areas that can, with a bit of effort, unearth birds. They ARE there. It has been a very enjoyable journey indeed.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A human conceit?

Human beings are blessed with intellect and an ability for critical thinking. It enables us to identify almost everything that we share the Earth with, from soil types, component elements, the fauna and the flora. We also attach unique names to each and every 'thing' that comes along. Everything. And here lies the conceit of doing so - we really do believe that we can differentiate between all the species.

Take birds. All 10,000-ish species. As the Victorians worked their way through the world, collecting and naming, they lay the foundation for the modern taxonomists. The 20th century natural historian then continued to add to this knowledge, with most of the world's species catalogued and checklists became fully formed. There was the odd new species discovered, but this was mostly put down to the exploring of remote corners of the world. Then the taxonomists took over...

Most of what we come across can be identified. Pictures and illustrations can still do it for us. But DNA analysis has thrown up an inconvenient truth to field ornithologists - that there are many more species out there, and quite a lot of them are very similar indeed. Some so similar that to be sure of what the bird before us is, we need the help of a laboratory and a piece of the bird in question.

Field work has come on, as has the clarity and detail possible with digital cameras. The Dungeness Empidonax flycatcher of September 2015 was more or less nailed without the need for laboratory analysis, but it was needed for a firm identification. But then something comes along that throws self-doubt over us all, like the Stonechat that turned up at Dungeness in early November (just after I had left for home). It was very grey. The initial finder, Owen Leyshon, called it as a Siberian. Observers gathered and a few doubts were raised. By the day's end it was widely considered to be just an aberrant Common Stonecat. It stayed for a month. And the story might have ended there, had someone not had the foresight to collect a faeces sample...

The results of the sample has just been announced. The bird was, indeed, a rare Stonechat - a Stejneger's no less. It also looked nothing like the few British Stejneger's that have so far been DNA'd. There are plenty of highly experienced birder's who saw the Dungeness Stonechat and were wrong-footed by it. And no wonder.

What does this episode tell us? That we have a lot still to learn? Yes. That maybe we, as a species, are exhibiting a conceit in trying to neatly compartmentalise everything on earth into neat little packages, consigned to the 'fully understood' file? Maybe.

The world is a more complex arena than we give it credit for - if we are still struggling with the 10,000 or so species of bird, and are realising that, even in heavily studied Europe, we have 'new' species under our noses (Western and Eastern Bonelli's Warblers, the Subalpine complex, Iberian Chiffchaff to name but a few), then what chance do with have with a Stonechat from the east where their taxonomy is now understood to be a complicated thing?

That we still have not 'mastered' an aspect of our obsession with ornithology is something to be pleased about. It opens up new areas of study. It puts us in our place. It is humbling. It makes us question - and that is exactly what got us to this point in the first place.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2016

A Christmas dozen

JANUARY A murmuration of Black-tailed Godwits over Pulborough Brooks
FEBRUARY The basis for a future painting - male Reed Bunting and buds at Holmethorpe
MARCH The early promise of the summer to come in the form of a Small Tortoiseshell at Canons Farm
APRIL Lilliputian flora at Dungeness - Early Forget-me-not
MAY Green Hairstreak warming up in the morning sun, Chipstead Bottom
JUNE A day at Box Hill with the DSLR camera capturing Sainfoin on the southern slopes
JULY The Boquer Valley spills into the Med, with Balearic Warblers and Eleonora's Falcons to ease the journey
AUGUST Perennial Sow-thistles at Langley Vale Farm - the commonplace becomes art form
SEPTEMBER An orthopteran snacking Stonechat, Canons Farm
OCTOBER Adult Caspian Gull at Dungeness
NOVEMBER Golden dawn at Dungeness
DECEMBER It's either a Robin or a clump of Mistletoe...

Thursday, 22 December 2016

More buntings

The Priest Hill Reed Bunting wintering population goes from strength to strength - there were at least 13 present today, scattered across the site, with the largest flocks being a six and a four. Only two of the birds are males. This is unprecedented for the site and the species is not to be expected away from Beddington and Holmethorpe. Overflying migrants (that usually wouldn't stop), are no doubt being enticed down by the calls of those wintering below. Long may it continue. Also present were two Stonechats, and as you know, I never miss an opportunity to upload another image. This female was particularly tame.


Afterwards I couldn't resist another check on the River Hogsmill at Ewell. The Water Rail was still being faithful to its favoured stretch, where two Common Snipe noisily exited as I peered over the vegetated bank. A couple of Kingfishers were also in the general area. No Little Egret this morning, although this young Grey Heron was most obliging.


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Birthday Box

58 today... bloody hell, is that possible? I still feel as if I am but a youngster, even if the mirror tells me otherwise. What better way to spend the morning than to drag the family up Box Hill to sample a fine cross-section of cakes at the top! The weather Gods obviously knew it was my birthday as the skies were blue, the sun at its winter best and the need for hats, scarves and gloves not necessary. We even sat outside to consume the calories. Bird-wise it was very quiet indeed, but with the stunning scenery of the Surrey Alps before us, that was a minor inconvenience.

At the base of the hill, (the river is to the right), the scarp cliff is commanding, smothered in Yew and Box
The River Mole by the stepping stones crossing, home to Kingfisher, Goosander and Mandarin
Looking across the 'zig-zag' valley towards Juniper Top. Home to a stunning chalk flora and notable insects

Monday, 19 December 2016

Woodcock in the murk



Another calm, mild, grey and murky day here in north Surrey. The birdlife across Walton Downs (above) was largely as anonymous as the weather, although I did flush a Woodcock from a strip of woodland - species number 106 for the 'mini-uber patch' year list (111.5% of the target). This may even be enough to give Mr. Sexton and his Northumbrian list a bit of a run for his money.

The Woodland Trust have been busy, planting up a further field with saplings for the Millennium Wood project, along with the erection of a bench that neatly conveys the reserves aim of commemorating all those who fell during World War One.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

My birds of the year

There is nothing for you here if you are hoping for tales of epic twitches - my days of such tomfoolery are long gone. And even if I didn't trot off to see a Siberian Accentor or a Dusky Thrush, I feel as if I did, so numerous were the tweets and posts that conveyed the joy of doing so (plus a plethora of near identical images). We certainly celebrate our natural history headlines in one convulsion of sameness! Of course they were stunning birds, near mythical species that have now been consumed by those that wanted to feast upon them, but rarity is relative - after all, fewer people have seen Blue Tit in my garden than have seen Siberian Accentor at Spurn - (insert winky emoji face here).

So, in my modest birding bubble, what species 'did it' for me in the UK in 2016? Away from Surrey, I spent a total of six weeks at Dungeness, a week in Dorset and made a handful of visits to Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex. Birding time was kind, although the shingle was hard work. However, locally it was uncharacteristically rewarding (more of that to follow in a later post). Three species have made it, appearing in chronological order, not necessarily the rarest, but those that gave me the biggest thrills.

Iceland Gull, Canons Farm, Surrey
28th February
Canons Farm is not known as a place for gulls. Admittedly, thousands fly over the site most of the year (mainly Herring), plus Black-headed and Common often alight on the fields in small numbers. But if your 'thing' is to sift through larid flocks for white-wingers and Caspians, then you'd best look elsewhere. Two things conspired at the end of February to deal Canons Farm a gull-themed Royal Flush - the refuse tip at Beddington was closed for a few days and the farmer decided to plough up the Canons fields - so the gulls that normally feasted on landfill decided to dine on the invertebrates exposed in freshly turned earth! Ian Magness found it - a first-winter Iceland Gull, flying over the fields opposite Reeds Rest Cottages. It soon settled and had me reacting quickly to the news. This is a very good local record. It stayed in Tart's Field for maybe an hour, before disappearing for good, maybe back to Beddington when normal service was resumed...


Montagu's Harrier, Dungeness, Kent
12th May
On the RSPB reserve is a viewing ramp that overlooks reed beds, pools and beyond, across to Dengemarsh and the farmland that marches inland towards Lydd and Walland Marsh. It is a magnificent panorama, and one that is always full of birds. It's a good place to see raptors, and on this particularly bright early afternoon I was being entertained by Marsh Harriers, Hobbies and the odd Common Buzzard. A ring-tailed Harrier took me by surprise - it just appeared, very close, then went behind a line of bushes, flying directly away and out of view. In the few seconds that I was on it I couldn't really declare what species it was, but put the news out anyway knowing that it would be picked up very quickly indeed. As it happened, it made a u-turn and flew back right over my head, giving excellent views and was at once obviously a Montagu's. For the next half-hour, firstly at close quarters, and then at increasing distance, it performed for up to 50 birders - a truly shared experience. Martin Casemore, who I had alerted earlier, was able to observe the bird from his front garden in Lydd and then watch it as it flew directly over his house! He has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his images below, taken against the sun. To see more of Martin's superb photography (and to be kept bang up to date on the birds at Dungeness), please visit his blog here.


Cattle Egret, Priest Hill, Ewell, Surrey
2nd December
Not so much for the rarity (although it was only the second county record) but more for the feeling that the ornithological Gods were rewarding me for the time spent combing the waterless, 'birdless' higher ground of north Surrey. Not so birdless after all... you can read more about the event here.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Settling down to winter


Another visit to Priest Hill, and, Cattle Egret apart, there seems to be a familiarity about the bird life present. With such a benign winter it is little wonder that there isn't much moving, and no surprise that what is present is staying put. I gave all of the meadows a good grilling, with the smallest of them pictured above. Simply put, the area is largely open grassland, liberally sprinkled with low bushes and shrubs. Small copses populate the edges which are further bordered by playing fields, horse paddocks and light residential. The sky, I'm pleased to say, is BIG.

The 'notable' wintering population numbers: Skylark (6), Meadow Pipit (10), Stonechat (2-3), Blackbird (30), Song Thrush (10), Fieldfare and Redwing (small numbers but even in a mild winter this varies from visit to visit), Linnet (40), Goldfinch (15), Greenfinch (6), Reed Bunting (3+). I still harbour hopes of a lurking Dartford Warbler with the chats - I haven't given up yet...

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Trooping of the funnel

I took myself off to Juniper Top and Bottom this morning, still nursing a sore throat and head cold, although it does finally seem to be on the wane (I'm not expecting any sympathy by the way). My walk was circular, taking in plenty of dark footpaths that were swaddled in yew, ivy, moss and fern. There were plenty of birds, mainly marauding flocks of tits (which did include 11 Marsh, spread out along the route) and thrushes (110+ Redwing were the most numerous). One particular Yew was huge, the photograph below does not do justice to its size, although to help I have added three green dots which mark the six foot point from the ground. Yes, it was big!


There was little in the way of fungi, although one smart fruiting body caught my attention, which if I'm not mistaken is a Trooping Funnel (below). I attach a caveat to all my fungi identification - it's a bloody minefield...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Those paths less travelled

I've come to realise that, as far as my birding is concerned, I am always trying to look beyond the next hedge, to search that distant wood, to check out the nearby hill top. The lure of 'what comes next'  is strong, but it is also a case of taking on ground that others do not check. My time spent birding is mostly a solitary thing - that isn't necessarily down to being anti-social, just a byproduct of wanting to bird 'unbirdy' places, where few others will gamble on wasting their time. But having said that, if I do see a birder checking out an area ahead of me I will turn the other way and look somewhere else - a mixture of spreading the effort and wanting to experience quiet. Solitude is all a part of the game in my book.

Any patch that I have adopted, for however short a time, will have an accompanying band of players, from the daily obsessives to those that pop in once every few weeks. And once an area is receiving moderate coverage from others, that is when I generally go searching for somewhere else. The fanciful take on this is to see myself as a trailblazer, out to unearth another parcel of land in which, if lucky, good birds will be present and correct, but not yet known about. Very few places are truly unknown, but there are plenty that do not have a binocular lifted in earnest on them from one week to the next. Of course, for a place on the edge of London to be 'un' or 'under' watched in 2016 is going to be mostly down to the fact that it possesses no obvious water. That immediately suggests hard work. Fortunately neither puts me off. This year has seen me shift from Canons Farm to Epsom and Walton Downs (that were both well watched in the 1970s) and Priest Hill (with a far more recent history). My stay at each could be for a year or two, maybe even more. I've already ear-marked hedges for shrikes, fields for quails and open skies for rare raptors. Time will now tell.

These traits of mine were even obvious when I spent most of October at Dungeness. Most of the time was spent with my birding friends in the obvious places, but this was balanced by my deliberately seeking out those 'paths less travelled'. Places that, apart from a handful of the regulars, are not checked. Even at such a heavily birded place as this you can still play at being the pioneer. The locals are still forensically examining why and where the migrants turn up, as it is a shifting phenomena due to big habitat changes. To tread the old well worn paths is to miss out.

And maybe therein lies the reason behind such behaviour - to try and bring a freshness to what I do. To attempt to coat the act of birding in purity. And without trying to sound too precious, even attach some spirituality to it. Is it an age thing? A rejection of conformity? The actions of a loner? Or just the workings of a mind that has a habit of overthinking?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Spectacular

When nature does 'big' there is little that can beat it. A large flock, a hillside smothered in flower, a spectacular sky, each of them can reduce us to an open-mouthed and humbled observer. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed several instances of this during 2016, two of which I share here. Both are botanically themed and both were close to home.

The UK is blessed with some of the largest populations of the Bluebell in the world. Locally we have several woods that are home to literally hundreds of thousands (if not a millions) of them. Each year we go along to see them, but to get the timing right, when most of the plants are in good flower, can be hit or miss. In an early year they can peak in late-April, in a late it will be mid-May. To get it wrong is to find plenty yet to open, or a show that is sullied by browning flowers that have gone over. This year however, we timed it to perfection, and it was a good year for them to boot. The following images are from Margery Wood - it was blue into the distance as we swept around in a 360 degree arc.



And then in June, a field on Walton Downs that was full of poppies last year was overflowing with Red Campion in this one. It was if the ground was bleeding. And if that wasn't enough, a few short weeks later, after the Campion had receded, Wild Carrot came to the fore, spaying the ground as far as could be seen with flattened pom-poms of white. You cannot buy such scenes. The orchid fields of Banstead and Chipstead may not have repeated the bounty of 2015, but other species in other places certainly did.



Sunday, 11 December 2016

Misty farmland hop


I arrived at Mogador in brilliant sunshine, but almost immediately a sudden fog descended, rendering the binoculars pointless. However, it was most atmospheric, with sound coming to the fore: the low roar of the M25 fancifully becoming the rumble of distant waves; church bells sending me back to the drowsy Sundays of childhood; lone Fieldfare and Meadow Pipit calling above the gloom, searching for those below the blanket of mist. The sun was trying very hard to burn the meteorological interloper off (above) and within twenty minutes had succeeded.

Mogador is an area of open farmland just north of the North Downs scarp at Colley Hill, sandwiched between Banstead Heath and the A217. It is (for Surrey) on high ground and characterised by large fields with scant hedges and tiny stunted copses. I have long considered it to be full of promise, but there again when did I ever look at a parcel of land and think otherwise? I can expect chats in the spring and autumn, and dream of better, rarer things.

A Common Buzzard, 12 Skylark, 2 Meadow Pipit (below), 6 Fieldfare, a Redwing, 2 Redpoll and 3 Yellowhammer were my accompanying comrades (anthropomorphic alert!). I was wrapped up in clothing beyond what was necessary on this very mild December day - a persistent throat infection and head cold just will not budge, even with the dosing of cough medicine, Strepsils, paracetamol and mugs of tea. It's getting to be a nuisance.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Two bees from 2016

Insects fascinate me, and by that I don't just mean the obvious butterflies and moths. If I had infinite time, patience and was able to possess all of the many keys available, then I might just attempt at having a proper go at identifying groups such as the beetles, wasps, ants, bees and flies (there are more... many more). It is still possible to appreciate them without the need to name them of course, and that is where I find myself most of the time - something pops up, takes my fancy and maybe, just maybe, gets identified.

There were two species that caught my attention in 2016, both quite showy and eminently identifiable. The first was a rare bee, found at only a handful of sites in southern England, one which just so happens to be the RSPB reserve at Dungeness. Please say hello to Andrena vaga, The Grey-backed Mining Bee:



I had looked for this bee in previous years, but always left it too late (April is the best time to look) or happened to coincide my searches with inclement weather. This April I timed a visit with a sunny and mild (if blustery) day. Several were on the wing and allowed close approach.

The second species was a corker - a very large, violet bee that demands your attention. I saw several of them in July on the island of Majorca - Violet Carpenter Bee:


Pollenca old town was a hot spot, with the steps leading up to the small church a happy hunting ground for me. One well-flowered garden had up to six of them visiting the blooms, allowing me to stand inches away, where I stayed for at least half-an-hour. A procession of tourists walked past, wondering what the strange man was doing lurking in the bushes. I have yet to see this species in the UK, but there again very few people have. It is certainly on my 'most wanted' list for this side of the channel.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Photographic Phriday

The local birding scene is being very good to me at the moment, with plenty of interest and the odd surprise ready to leap out and take me unawares. This morning had me visiting the River Hogsmill in Ewell, which was sandwiched between two brief stops at Priest Hill. With all things being relative, it was a case of time being well spent and rewarded.

The Hogsmill at Ewell is a narrow, winding watercourse that is shallow and well vegetated
With several Moorhens was this furtive, camera-shy Water Rail. A Common Snipe had just been flushed from a bed of Water-cress.
Grey Wagtails are commonplace along this stretch, sharing the area with Kingfishers and Little Egrets
Mistletoe at Priest Hill - well, it is almost Christmas!
Let it never be said that I ever pass up the opportunity to pap a Stonechat - this female at Priest Hill

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A dream come true

Butterflies in 2016 - a meeting with valezina
To be perfectly honest, it was only recently that I had started to harbour a desire to see a valezina form Silver-washed Fritillary. The fires were stoked by the tales of Matthew Oates in the excellent book 'In Pursuit of Butterflies' where his searches for the forms of Purple Emperors and Silver-washed Fritillaries became tales of wonder. About the same time, whilst reading up on the life of local entomologist and artist FW Frowhawk, I discovered that the valezina butterfly was such a favourite of his that he had named his daughter after it - and then, together with Jon Dunn, we made a pilgrimage to the great man's grave at Headley, in Surrey. The time seemed ripe to find one.

Apparently, this form is not common in Surrey. I see the species without trouble in the wooded areas of Banstead, Reigate and Box Hill, but never of the desired form. Further west, in the woods of Dorset and Hampshire, the proportion of valezina females in large colonies can number between 5-15% (it is only females that have this form).

On Friday August 5th I visited Sheepleas (in west Surrey) to search for Narrow-lipped Helleborines. It was a sunny and warm day, and as the morning progressed so emerged good numbers of butterflies, including several Silver-washed Fritillaries, all standard 'old-gold and black'. In one particular meadow the butterfly numbers were high, so I stood still to take in the comings and goings of Peacocks, Red Admirals, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and Silver-washed Fritillaries - until, out of the corner of my eye, an unfamiliar butterfly came into view - strange of colour, seemingly out of place - just what was it? Then it clicked... this was what I had hoped for, a dusky-burnished-greeny-brass apparition that taunted me by flying past, but not stopping. I ran after it, desperate for it to alight. Thankfully it did, on a Buddleia, and I was able to feast my eyes upon a pristine valezina form Silver-washed Fritillary. I even managed a couple of photographs (below) before it flew off. I felt blessed, that's the only way to describe it. Humbled even.

A subtle colour form...
Maybe one for the purist...
And a 'normal' coloured Silver-washed for comparison

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.