Friday, 17 November 2017

Cat-like owl

It looked like a big fat Tom cat, small ears pricked up on a broad face, dazzling eyes lazering in on anyone and anything. Its head was just proud of the severely cut field crop, swivelling from side to side, at times rotating full circle to ensure that nothing was about to disturb its roost site.

This Short-eared Owl had been picked up by David Campbell in one of Canons Farm's larger fields. His diligent scanning had detected a large clod of earth that surprisingly moved and through a scope revealed itself as the owl. He kindly sent a text message out to the Canons Farm faithful, which saw me change direction from Epsom Downs and up onto the high farmland. I didn't expect it to still be there when I rolled up some twenty minutes later, but it was, and stayed hunkered down and unmolested by the local corvids for the two hours that I was present.

A small gathering of local birders in the warm sunshine made for a most enjoyable morning - plenty of chatter, a few birds passing overhead and, maybe a hundred meters away, the cat-like owl that we had all come to pay our respects to.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A lack of Marsh Tits

This morning I spent at least three hours roaming the woodland that is draped across Gatton Park, Reigate Hill and Colley Hill. It was exceedingly quiet, save for a flock of 75 Redwings. There were times when I could stand still and fail to see or hear a single bird. Most worrying was the lack of Marsh Tits. It is close on five years since I have recorded one in this general area. Come to think of it, my last few visits to nearby Walton Heath has failed to turn up this tit either. Maybe its local range is contracting - seemingly lost from Banstead Woods, possibly going that way in the Reigate area, hard to come by at Walton Heath... but it's not all doom and gloom. The small populations in Great Hurst and Little Hurst Wood are hanging on (albeit becoming quite isolated) and it remains quite common at Headley Heath, Mickleham and Box Hill.

I have to remind myself that when I first started birding in these places back in the mid 1970s, Willow Tits were quite easy to come by. It would be quite upsetting if the Marsh Tit went the same way.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Field work

Yet another visit was made to Headley Heath yesterday afternoon. I have been checking elsewhere for 'you know what' but have so far come up with blanks - Juniper Top, Juniper Bottom, Box Hill, Mickleham Downs and Norbury Park, but in the process have been able to reacquaint myself with some beautiful parts of northern Surrey. Whereas there might not have been any H*******, there were plenty of Marsh Tits, Bullfinches and Redwings, so it was time ornithologically well spent.

Back to yesterday afternoon. The 'big bills' we're still present, but not as numerous as they have been. 15 was my estimate, with a largest flock of five. No birders seen, funny how the lure of such events does quickly wear off, but that's fine by me, as I wandered the quiet valleys and had a couple of close encounters, both dull females. I also flushed a Woodcock. As the light started to fade I couldn't help wonder how much longer these testosterone-fuelled finches will remain, whether they will fade away in the coming month or decide to hang around for the winter. Whatever happens, it's been a tremendous influx to observe.

Friday, 10 November 2017

No show beech

The 'no big computer' trial period has claimed its first blog post no-show. Yesterday was spent walking through some of the finest beech woodland along 'my' part of the North Downs. The forest floor was carpeted with a virtually unbroken run of rich orange leaves, the sparseness of the under storey giving far reaching views, with a soft light being allowed in through the diminishing canopy. I managed to obtain some half decent photographs and started to compose a piece on the true wildness of such places - the slope of this part of the downs has never been cleared and farmed, so has most probably been clothed in beech, yew, box, ash and holly since the Ice-age. But... I do not have an SD card adapter for an iPad, and without the images such a post would be sadly lacking (although I seem to have done half a job above).

A replacement computer cannot be far away, and with Black Friday happening in under two weeks time, it might be financially prudent to wait. By the way, Black Friday, like Halloween, is another unwelcome piece of American consumerism that I could do without. But then again here am I about to partake in its greed. Go figure.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Trial period

Our big 'grown up' computer has finally died - it was one of those shiny silver Apple towers that was state-of-the-art when it came out in 2008. The fact that it has lasted NINE years is testament to its robustness. But now that the dreaded time has come we find ourselves looking at the corner of the room where the tower and monitor used to be and not being in any hurry to get a replacement. The reason being is that we can do just about everything on our iPad and iPhone (apologies to any anti-Mac or PC officianados out there).

Sending and receiving Emails, browsing the Internet, and being able to send items to print are all catered for. I have not got access to any of my creative software packages (Photoshop, InDesign) but haven't had the need to yet. I can download images from an SD card onto an iPad and do some rudimentary photo manipulation if I want. So, apart from a bigger screen, do we really need another big computer?

We are living a trial period at the moment to see how we get on without one. If we do decide we need a replacement then we will plump for an i-Mac and not a laptop, and we will then need to wrestle with the choice of monitor size and type of hard drive. I'm not 100% sure how all of this will go, but wouldn't mind betting that any lengthy copy writing will be a pain without a keyboard (yes I know the i-Pad Pros have one as an option) and I may start to wish for a big screen to properly edit my images on. The fact that this post is sans a picture is highly relevant...

There is a big part of me that would be happy to never switch on a computer/tablet/phone again - rediscover the joys of talking to people face to face, of writing letters, sitting down and researching stuff in a library, not knowing the football scores until the classified check on the radio, walking around all day without knowing the answer to a question, having to find a call box (and a fistful of change) when out.... no, maybe not....

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Moths in winter

I used to pack away the MV for the winter after giving it a good clean and checking that my supply of bulbs and egg boxes were topped up in readiness for the spring. But now, the moth trapping season never closes, migrants from the south can turn up in the depths of December and you need to have your wits about you (or belong to the excellent Migrant Lepidoptera Facebook group that will give you prompts) so as not to miss these winter windows of migration opportunity.

But it's not all about migrants - there are some hardy species that turn up on milder winter nights, and now, in late autumn, there are still Feathered Thorns, Blair's Shoulder-knots, Mottled Umbers and Green-brindled Crescents (above) to keep you going. I might not bother too much until next February, unless we get a plume of southern Mediterranean air come our way - my Banstead mid-winter fare does tend to be largely comprised of Light Brown Apple Moths and Chestnuts, neither species of which gets the pulse racing.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Birder on non-birder action

This afternoon I took myself off to Juniper Bottom, looking for H*********. I positioned myself on a cleared slope above the footpath, which gave a fine view across to the far canopy. Sound travels along this valley with ease - you can hear a Goldcrest sneeze at several hundred yards. I could certainly hear the three young hikers who were noisily making their way towards me. As they got closer they started to look at me, obviously unsure as to why I would possibly sitting on a log staring at trees. Then, as they drew level, one of them lowered his voice and said "Must be a bird watcher. Fucking weirdo".

It reminded me of a couple of birder/non-birder encounters that I have had over the years. The first took place at 03.30hrs one May morning when I was taking part in a Holmethorpe Sand Pits 24-hour bird race. I had parked up in a lay-by to listen out for Tawny Owl when a police car drew up alongside.
"Morning sir, can we be of assistance?"
"No thank you, everything's OK"
"Can I ask why you are parked here?"
"Well, as funny as it might sound, I'm birdwatching"
(Officer looks up into pitch black sky)
"Not going to be seeing much at the moment, are we now"
"I'm listening for owls"
(Officer turns to his colleague, shakes his head, looks back at me, shrugs)
"Each to their own sir, each to their own..."

My most memorable was when standing on Amberley Brooks one glorious winter afternoon, scope on tripod, scanning for the reported Short-eared and Barn Owls. A middle-aged couple came up to me and the woman asked:
"What are you waiting for?"
She physically started, her eyes widened, her mouth broke out into a beaming smile, her bottom lip was quivering. She looked at her husband with unbridled excitement, then back at me.
"ELVES! There are elves here??!!!"
When I explained that, no, I had said "Owls" and not "Elves" her expression crumpled into one of mass disappointment. I have rarely felt such a heel.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The H word


Some of you might be getting sick and tired of reading about them. Especially those of you who have been forlornly chasing them. But, as a man once said, "If you're tired of Hawfinches, you're tired of birding." Or something like that.

Anyhow, I went back to Headley Heath this afternoon for another dose of the 'H' word, where I was joined by Ian Jones and later by a handful of other birder's that included David Stubbs. Unlike yesterday, the birds were not lining up like good little girls and boys to be counted easily, and by the afternoon's end the final tally was a bit of a guess, with a minimum of 26 but possibly as many as 35. The largest flock was of seven. If you are after closer and more prolonged views, then it is best to  position yourself to the east of the two valleys I mentioned yesterday, looking westwards towards High Ashurst. Most of the action took place in the adjacent canopy, with small flocks zipping about and frequently alighting to keep the scopes in use. There was still a bit of valley hopping going on earlier, which Ian and I witnessed from 13.45 hrs, resulting in 18 birds seemingly leaving the immediate area. Our last sighting was at 16.05hrs.

Where else are they lurking? That's my birding project chosen for the rest of the year then...

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Headley Hawfinches

Yes, I know it's pants....
Seeing that there are so many Hawfinches zapping about all over the place, I thought that I would try and find some locally that were not just moving through, but using 'my' fair part of Surrey to feed and roost. The place of choice was the steep wooded valleys to be found on the western side of Headley Heath. This area has plenty of 'Hawfinch pedigree', where I have, in the past, seen this species shortly after dawn and considered it a possible roost site.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s I would regularly visit the Bedgebury Pinetum Hawfinch roost in Kent, and remembered that they often came in early, sometimes a good hour and a half before sunset. So, armed with a thermos flask and plenty of hope, I took up my position (at 12.30hrs) on a grassy hill between the two westernmost valleys, with good visibility up to the tree-line on the neighbouring hills. The first hour was slow, save for the odd flock of Redwings that swept on through. Then at 13.30hrs the first Hawfinch showed - calling in the canopy on the western flank. It sat there for 20 minutes before flying off southwards along the valley towards Box Hill. There then began a sustained arrival of birds from the east (where the open space of Headley Heath is found), many of which alighted in the distant tree tops on the eastern hill. They would spend between 5-10 minutes here before flying across the two valleys (and over my observation point) before melting into the canopy or flying up the valley south towards Box Hill. At no time did any bird cross back eastwards. My notebook reveals the number of observations and how many Hawfinches were involved: 1, 2, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 1 - a total of 32 birds. A small number did not cross the valleys but headed along the ridge northwards, towards Headley Warren. The last bird appeared at 15.40 hrs with the majority being seen between 14.00 - 14.45hrs. There was little calling, good flight views and distant perched views. There behaviour did not suggested overhead migration, but preparation for a more distant roost. Maybe the scenes experienced at Juniper Bottom in 2013 are going to be repeated.

It was a magical afternoon. There was scarcely a breeze, the air temperature was mild and these valleys are far enough away from the car parks to discourage all but the most earnest of walkers. If you want to have a look yourself, park in the NT car park opposite the cricket pitch and head SW until reaching the steep valleys (adjacent to High Ashurst on an OS map). Anywhere with a clear view across the valleys will do. You won't regret it. Oh, and take a scope...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Rare moths at Dungeness, sandwiched by the sun

Another beautiful Dungeness sunrise
Spoladea recurvalis - this rare pyralid came to a Greatstone MV on October 26th
Last moth out of the observatory moth trap on October 26th was this Red-headed Chestnut
The rarest of the lot, a Sword-grass, the first area record since the early 1960s (October 27th)
We started with the sun rising, so let's finish with it setting

Thursday, 26 October 2017


6,000 Starlings in a flock is small beer when watching certain roosts. Yes, they may sweep and wheel, coalesce and break apart, seemingly playing around as much as choosing exactly where to roost and share in the day's news via their chortling - but a flock of 6,000 Starlings coming in off the sea is a different proposition all together.

They are direct. They have urgency. They are arrows. They have dispensed with grace to act upon a primal urge to move on, move forward, survive. We picked them up maybe a mile offshore, a shifting smoke, shape-shifting until we could start to appreciate what we had before us. A leading mass that seemingly sped up as they closed in on us, then revealed a tail of birds that went on and on. They breached the beach and gained height, the tail of the flock panicked into catching up. More followed, and within half-an-hour we had counted 15,000 birds - early morning in France, breakfast in Blighty.

The Starlings took the feathered plaudits but moths stole the natural history headlines. Spoladea recurvalis, Cosmopolitan and Red-headed Chestnut made for a truly good day as regards migrant Lepidoptera. Never a dull moment at Dungeness.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Egrets, I've had a few (reprised)

As the sun started to dip below the horizon I got into position, up against a large sallow bush overlooking the egret roosting site. After several days of buffeting wind it had finally abated, and in the stillness each group of bushes had a swirl of gnats above, as if they were quietly smouldering. Noise levels abated and I waited, careful not to move or breathe too heavily. Not dissimilar to taking a seat in an auditorium waiting for the show to begin, expectant, impatient, senses heightened. The warm-up act was a band of Starlings that entered stage right, put on a few aerial manoevers before being joined by others, each pass made with a 'whoosh' of wings before they ditched down into vegetation, finally silent, seemingly anticipating the main act. The house lights had dimmed and the curtain was about to be raised.

The first to arrive was a Little Egret, which, after circling the roost decided not to enter alone and settled on a small island. It stood motionless waiting for direction. A second soon came and pitched alongside, also too nervous to roost solo. The first Great White had no qualms about being alone and flew straight in. This was quickly followed by the 'star' performer, a Cattle Egret, that had the decency to arrive while the light was still good and without the confusion of Littles alongside. Within 15 minutes the cast had mostly appeared (largest flocks of six Little and five Great), the light quickly fading so that it became difficult to pick birds up, even though they are big and white.

The show was soon over, no curtain calls, just the memory of this special gathering, the final tally being 21 Little, 15 Great and a single Cattle. 15 years ago you would have rightly questioned the sanity of anybody that would have suggested that such a gathering was possible in the UK. In the years to come these numbers might be considered to have been paltry. My money is on the 30 Great White Egret barrier being broken by the end of the winter. The current record of 20 will surely be broken.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

West is not necessarily best

We are now several days into a period of westerly airflow, not one that usually brings birds to Dungeness, and so it is proving. Grounded migrants are thin on the ground and the overhead migration has reduced to a trickle, but we merry band of shingle bashers plod on and the birds are there if patience is maintained.

ARC pit is still enticing a few waders to drop in and linger, including late Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper, plus a long-staying Red-necked Grebe that goes AWOL every now and again but deigned to show itself to me last Sunday. On Monday there was a brief pulse of Goldfinches (700) and Meadow Pipits (150) flying south, along with small numbers of Redpoll, Tree Sparrow and Siskin. A couple of 'continental' Coal Tits and three Ring Ouzels dropped in, and a first-winter Caspian Gull was found on the beach, colour-ringed at a German breeding colony.

Today didn't seem promising - low cloud, drizzle and a steady WSW wind - but the sea (against expectations) produced a number of highlights that rewarded the 5-6 hours of sea watching, which included an extremely close Manx Shearwater, a Pomarine Skua and several Little Gulls, including a first-winter that fed along the beach allowing the boys with the big lenses to obtain exceptional images.

The westerly airflow looks set to stay for the foreseeable future. Not ideal, but with a promised lessening of the wind we may yet see more movement over the land, but as for the hoped for thrushes and crests, we may have to wait a bit longer. And those coveted Asiatic rarities may be beyond our reach this Autumn.

But birding rarely sticks to the script...

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The life of Brian

Storm Brian. 

Doesn't sound all that menacing, does it? The Met Office (or whoever gets the job to name these storms) could have come up with far better names beginning with B. Like Storm Beelzebub. Or Storm Badass. Not Brian...

However, Brian it was that knocked on Dungeness's door today, and kicked off the morning with a SWf6 and at times reached an 8, but never really hit the strengths that had been suggested a few days ago. However, some vicious squalls set in, and if you were unlucky to get caught in one then a change of clothing was definitely in order. I rode out most of them by cowering behind hides or containers.

The high tide at 13.00hrs unleashed some water incursion through the shingle bank, a lot of spray and a wild seascape by Dungeness standards. The birds largely kept away. No unusual, or interesting sea passage was observed. Brian failed to deliver.

Thursday, 19 October 2017


I could just write that over a two-and-a-half hour period we counted 6,175 Goldfinches moving E to SE, but the drama and spectacle of the event would be truly lost. Bare facts are not enough.

They started moving by 07.30hrs, a steady procession of modest sized flocks, keeping low and flying into the SE wind. Their progression over the shingle was uncomplicated, across the open beach and either out over the sea or a continued coasting. A thousand had been counted through when Mark H suggested meeting him on the very point of the peninsula itself. As the wind was light and the weather dry, the open nature of this new place of observation was not an impediment on our ability to observe and count accurately. The birds were still coming, and with our 360 degree view they were coming in greater numbers. There was a sudden shift in volume - the flock sizes increased and they were arriving on a broader front. There were times when we had groups join together in front of us, at one point 300 birds massed and flew directly over and around us in one jangling blizzard. The noise was amplified as we were cocooned in Goldfinches. As the wind strengthened a notch, and veered southerly, the birds did not want to move on directly over the sea as they had done. We were then treated to a sky littered with confused flocks that coalesced, broke up and joined once more, wheeling around, a fidgety mass. A mass that reached 500+. We needed to be on our guard so as not to double count. We were joined by Martin C and his other pair of eyes helped us to confirm whether the flocks had moved through or not.

And still they came. Low over the beach. Cascading above us. All the time tinkling away. With them were other species, but in far fewer numbers - Linnets, Siskins, Redpolls, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a single Hawfinch that stood out thuggishly against the accompanying Goldfinches before it peeled off and headed north. By 10.00hrs the movement had virtually stopped.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Just another day...

They started shortly after dawn, jostling flocks, compact, noisy with chiming calls like bubbling cowbells. Low, morphing in shape and urgent in nature. By mid-morning they had fizzled out and our morning count of Goldfinches had reached 1265, the vast majority heading into the easterly wind. They were joined by smaller numbers of Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Siskins, Linnets and Redpolls. Nearby a male Dartford Warbler was accompanied by a Wren (giving the Stonechats a day off), a late Willow Warbler pitched down into the lighthouse garden where three Firecrest entertained all comers.

Whereas the Goldfinches had largely packed it in for the day, the Chaffinches had just started. Flocks of spaced out sedateness flowing overhead - again eastwards - with groups strung out in parallel or linear order. They defied easy counting, being lost against an opaque pearly-white sky. When visual contact was made it soon became obvious that others were higher, or lower, or further away. After two hours the tap was turned off and over 3,000 had been counted. The odd Brambling was involved, including flocks of 10 and 6. The afternoon was further enlivened by the arrival of three continental Coal Tits, all bright individuals that gathered admirers as if they were of rarer fare.

The day ended under a gloomy sky with Martin C, at a viewpoint overlooking the egret roost. As the light bled from the day they started to arrive - urgent Littles and leisurely Greats, with a bonus Cattle. It was a record breaking count. 26 Little Egrets and 20 Great White Egrets were record counts for the site. A Merlin sped through and 2 Marsh Harriers disturbed the early roosters.

Just another day at Dungeness...

Monday, 16 October 2017

Invasion of the coccothraustes under a very odd sky

And still they come, delighting those lucky enough to be standing underneath them - Hawfinches that is. This autumn's 'invasion' continues on a broad front that is giving observers the opportunity to see this species in places where they normally do not occur - like my garden for instance. I took up my position for a spot of viz-migging at about 07.30hrs and stuck at it for almost four hours. Although much quieter than yesterday, the main target did arrive, with a flock of four Hawfinch over low, heading east, at 07.50hrs, and then a single five minutes later that circled a couple of times before it too departed eastwards. Calls were heard on both occasions, a suprisingly thin sound from such a beefy bird. I was more than a little pleased.

Since I first looked at a bird book over forty years ago, the Hawfinch has always intrigued me, from its striking appearance down to its secretive nature. Even when you know that they are present in a wood they can be difficult to pin down. The 100+ flock at Juniper Bottom in early 2013 had a habit of just materialising in front of you and just as suddenly melting away. We did not know where they spent the afternoons or where they roosted. You've got to admire such aloofness!

If you are into such things as keeping a back garden/patch list, and Coccothraustes coccothraustes is not yet on it, this might just be your best opportunity to add it for the foreseeable future.

At lunchtime the wind picked up and the sunlight took on a distinct vagueness, as if the rays were being filtered through dust - which indeed they were! There are two suggested sources - you can take your pick between Saharan Dust or smoke from the wild fires on the Iberian peninsula. It then all turned a bit Bladerunner, the sun turned dull blood-orange, the sky become an approximation of yellow-grey sludgy soup and the light dimmed to the point where car headlights were needed to be turned on. All very surreal.

14.00hrs - who's fiddling with the dimmer switch?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

More Hawfinch

With Hawfinches turning up all over the shop (there must be several thousand across the southern half of England) a three-hour back garden vigil was in order this morning. A steady trickle of Redwing, Song Thrush, Chaffinch and Starling was obvious - together with a lone Brambling - but nothing exhibiting a brutish bill and wing bars deigned to put in an appearance. A change of scene was called for.

A return to Juniper Bottom was made, mainly due to its Hawfinch pedigree and also because I could skywatch across the Mickleham valley all the way down to the Mole Gap (as viewed above). After only 15 minutes a flock of six flew across me and then veered NW. A further hour's worth of eye and ear strain could only add 100+ Redwing.

The past couple of night's may have been mild, but the MV haul has been poor. Last night did at least produce a couple of Silver Y (above). The season seems to be running out of steam.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Bithynian Vetch

Right, let's get back to posts that are positive and largely harmless...

This morning I visited a site close to home where there is a (single?) plant of Bythinian Vetch, a species that I have only seen in Cornwall. This is hardly likely to be anything other than a planted/escaped individual, but regardless of that they possess smart looking bi-coloured flowers. The two images illustrate the colour variation on this particular plant. Nearby was quite a bit of Basil Thyme (below), still in flower and brightening up what was otherwise a grey morning.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Digital coma

OK, one last post about social media and the effect that it has on us (or, more accurately, some of us)...

I was recently pleased to see that a user of Twitter had called to task two separate tweets that described Dusky Warblers as 'stunning'. They are not. They make Dunnocks look positively exotic. A rainbow is stunning. The Northern Lights are stunning. The Milky Way is stunning. Dusky Warblers are not. It got me thinking as to why the composers of said 'Dusky Warbler' tweets felt compelled to use the word 'stunning'. I blame peer pressure and, of course, social media.

Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (keep up Grandad) are all based on the notion that short, sharp messages/images can be sent out into the world so that others can read/see what you are doing. For a certain demographic this means looking good, being seen to be having fun and, most crucially 'having a better time than you'. So when you see an image of a meal, a group shot of friends out for a drink, or the view from a hotel balcony, they have to be aspirational - the food needs to look delicious, the people have to be all smiling, and the weather conditions on the balcony hot and sunny. And as for the selfies, well, posing has become an art form, with the need for the ability to catch the right angle, know what is your best side and maybe - just maybe - how to use a photo filter to get the best out of your image.

What has that got to do with middle-aged birders? Well, quite a lot actually. As much as most stick to Twitter and Facebook, the same rules that the youth follow seem to apply. A Dusky Warbler is not enough just by being rare. It has to be stunning. Stunning suggests an event. It suggests an emotional happening. It suggests that 'you really should have been here'. People don't do 'ordinary' or even 'interesting'. They want to be seen to be doing 'stunning'.

And it's not just the kids that overdose on selfies. There are several birders out there that are forever plastering pictures of their faces all over the place for us all to see. Posing on a headland. Gurning at a Birdfair. Reclining in a hide. In a car on the way to a twitch. Having dipped. Having 'scored'. I have alluded to the 'group shot' of birding 'crews' already, lined up aspiring to be ornithological gunslingers or pretending to be following in the footsteps of Shackleton or Scott, rather than just about to go birding. Narcissistic? Just being sociable? Does it really matter? No, not really, but it's fair to comment on such a social phenomena. Maybe I'm just jealous that I'm not with them, having fun, being a trailblazer, part of a scene. And deep down that's exactly what their purpose is, to make you feel envious. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

The last aspect I'll touch on is the need for some birders to let us all know that they have 'found' a bird, as in 'I have just found a Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness'. I know plenty of birders who regularly find good birds and who never feel the need to do anything other than report the presence of said rarity, such as 'Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness, present on grass by Old Lighthouse'. Do we need to know that you have found it? Isn't this just another symptom of social media that reduces us to become mini marketing machines, pumping out information to promote ourselves?

Did I say that was my last point? Sorry, thought of something else. Social media, buy dint of the need for brevity, is slowly turning us all into lazy practitioners in the use of our language. Hence the overuse of words like 'awesome', 'stunning' and 'cracking'. They have become a lazy shorthand. Thought is going out of the window.

And before anybody accuses me of being on a high horse, I can be just as guilty as others. This subject fascinates me as much as it infuriates me. We are (mostly) sleepwalking into a digital coma. We need to be aware before it's too late.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Hunting Hawfinch

That most magnificent of finches, the Hawfinch, has been appearing in small numbers across the UK, from small northern islands to southern headlands and even in our very own county of Surrey (particularly in the Capel area, largely down to that most diligent of observers, Wes Attridge). With the chances of this species being at large, and it being one of my favourites, I thought I ought to check out a couple of places nearby that have a bit of 'Hawfinch form'...

First up was Juniper Bottom, where in March 2013 a large flock delighted birders from far and wide. My slow walk along the valley, with frequent stops and spells of intent listening, could only drum up a fair number of crests and tits (including Marsh). Carrying through and up onto Juniper Top, the tree-line and canopy scanning did not supply the target species, but I was entertained by a Peregrine and seven Common Buzzards.

Next on my travels was Headley Heath, and a walk out to the western most valleys, all well wooded and largely undisturbed (one of them - the shallowest - is pictured above). I have been successful here before, and this strike rate was improved upon when a single Hawfinch flew into a fairly close tree top, allowing tantalising views before melting into the leaf cover. Although I waited an hour, the bird did not show again, and must have slipped out the other side. After a good wander between the valleys, and having being entertained by a Raven and three Marsh Tits, I called it quits. I would have happily settled on just the one before I set out this morning, and cannot help but think that there are more out there to be discovered.

Monday, 9 October 2017

More botanical gems at Langley Vale

This morning I met up with local botanist Peter Wakeham to partake in what amounted to a spot of plant 'twitching'. The farmland at Langley Vale had once again come up trumps, with two species of local (and national) rarity having recently been found by the eagle-eyes of Dennis Skinner.

Before we made our way to these newly discovered gems, Peter showed me a couple of Night-flowering Catchfly plants that he had come across last week, in a field corner where they had not been seen before. They included one highly robust, fully-flowered specimen, that had a mixture of open and closed flowers. Both are pictured above. These flowers were also strongly pink, the Langley plants being normally coloured white. Our first target was nearby - a single statuesque Jersey Cudweed (below). Although a coloniser of 'nearby' London streets, how this individual made it to a chalky field on the Surrey downs is anybody's guess.

Ground-pine (below) is becoming exceedingly rare in England, and although Surrey is historically a stronghold, the county sites are being lost. A saving grace is that the buried seed can remain viable for years, and when exposed can flower - this is what may have happened at Langley Vale. It is a species on the area's historical list, so when Dennis found a single plant last week it was like welcoming back a 'lost' gem. Peter quickly found a second. Both were still there this morning.

Other highlights from the morning included Thorn-apple (in fruit and seed) and Long-stalked Crane's-bill, both species which are shown below. It was also a pleasure to bump into not only Dennis, but also Rosy Jones. Langley Vale is a place of botanical wonder - there is still much to discover here. Our hope is that the Woodland Trust will be true to its promise of acting sympathetically and protectively towards the rare arable plants that are to be found on the land.

Friday, 6 October 2017

A rant and a film review

I haven't posted for almost a week, which is a long time for me. I've been going through a period where I have become anti social media. Such spells normally start when something annoys me, which in turn makes me dislike myself for becoming annoyed at such trivial matters - such as the profusion of pictures of the latest rarity; tweets proclaiming the tweeters latest 'find' as if they are birding deities; moronic congratulations to birders for having travelled to see birds that others have found; words like 'BOOM!' and 'rares'; selfies (especially groups of middle-aged men trying to look like gunslingers when, in fact, they are birdwatchers); Facebook group dissing of posters because they are 'beginners'; tweeting out the presence of a bird even though that news has been broadcast a hundred times already; trying to pass birds off as if you have found them yourself when you haven't; 'scoring', 'connecting' and 'nailing' birds when they have simply been 'observed'; posing for pictures with a moth, or other type of insect, on your nose.... I could go on.

Yes, I'm a miserable git who needs to lighten up, fair do's, but I do wonder at the vapidity of some people out there, pretending to be heroes as they approach natural history merely as a product to be consumed and then used as a prop to try and weave some sort of mythology around themselves. The upshot is that I have stopped looking at Facebook, culled those that I follow on Twitter and haven't posted on this blog for a while.

Normal service will be resumed after I've calmed down.

PS: I took myself off to see Bladerunner 2049 yesterday. As a big fan of the original I was desperate for it to be a worthy follow-up. It exceeded expectations, in the storyline, beautiful imagery, haunting soundtrack and the acting. Conclusion? It was better than the original.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Shetland, Day One

Arrived on What'ssay at 12.00 with the top crew - Big Dick, Pipit Shagger and Captain Wank. We immediately scored with a selfie that got 14 likes - top posting! Within an hour we had found our digs and had a top result with 25 Twitter messages of congratulations! Top liking all round. After checking our feeds we got changed into combat gear and staked out a phone box, where in 1982 Dick Trilby famously took the call that resulted in a major Little Egret twitch. No incoming calls to grill today, but our crew selfie taken in the phone box resulted in 12 likes - top posting!! It was turning into a rare day!!!

Mid afternoon saw a birder yelling at us that he had a PG Tips. Seeing that Captain Wank had just made us all a brew we ignored him, especially as the yelling birder was in an iris bed at the time. Never heard of a cafe in such a place. Moron... undetered we took a selfie, top gurning from the crew, but we only got two likes. Poor. It started to smell 'rare', but that could have just been Big Dick's socks.

We started to flag by late afternoon. We had been on our phones all afternoon and had liked over thirty posts - thirsty work! Pipit Shagger thought that he might have seen a back of camera shot of one of our selfies, and Big Dick tweeted that he had self-found a stone wall that looked promising. Tomorrow we might even get our binoculars and telescopes out!!!

Last year the crew scored with 67 likes, 34 retweets and 17 comments. Can we better it this year? What we really hope though is that the Scillies are really shit this week...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Black box

The Box-tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) comes in two colour forms, 'light' and 'dark', with the former being much the commoner. One of the latter turned up in the garden MV this morning (above), until now all five of my records have been of the former (below).

This pest of box is starting to get a worrying toe-hold in parts of SW London and northern Surrey, with one observer recording it in three figure numbers! In a vain attempt to protect the population of wild Box that exists only a few miles from me, I killed the first one that I trapped - it's too late for that now I fear...

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

400 (no, not birds) and some chats

Chats... you just can't get enough of them, can you - at least I can't. I spent a good hour standing by a field edge at Canons Farm watching a party of 4 Stonechat and a Whinchat as they flitted and sallied around the hedgerows, fences and vegetation in the field. A couple of them came close enough for a few decent images to be obtained.

Back at home, the garden MV came up trumps with a Delicate, a migrant moth that has been turning up on the south coast in good numbers. It also happens to be the 400th species of macro that I've recorded here.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Green on a grey morning

The cloud was low this morning, the light suppressed and the whole vibe was one of birding under a heavy blanket of dirty cotton wool. An early visit to Canons Farm was worthwhile, with a Barn Owl, Spotted Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail (scarce here), two Whinchats and four Stonechats being most notable. Afterwards an underwhelming brief sortie around Priest Hill was rescued by a solitary Whinchat.

The garden MV was fairly lively, with Centre-barred Sallow, Orange Sallow and Large Ranunculus being typical of late September. I also trapped the greenest Red-green Carpet that I have ever seen (below).

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Autumnal moths

The contents of a moth trap by late September is a wonderful collection of autumnal colours - russets and chestnuts, browns and blacks, oranges and yellows - with subtlety taking over from the garishness of summer. A few moths from this morning included (clockwise from top left) Black Rustic, Autumnal Rustic, Beaded Chestnut and Lunar Underwing. Normally by now I would have recorded a good cross-section of the 'sallow' moths, but they have been strangely missing.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Hirundine swarm!

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs, practically the first birds that I saw were a small group of Swallows heading south - my hope that yesterday's movement would continue looked good! I settled down at a vantage point that gave me far-reaching all-round views and waited. It was soon obvious that it was all systems go...

After half-an-hour 1200 Swallows and 70 House Martins had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. It was then that House Martins came to the fore, as in the next 30 minutes they numbered a further 730 birds with Swallows mustering 600. The passage then abruptly stopped. I was more than happy with what I had seen, and took myself on a wander around the farm, with one eye on the sky in case the hirundines started up again, which they did at 11.00hrs. There then followed an incredible couple of hours. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes then a massive pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds.

Geoff Barter showed up, and I was delighted that he did, not only to share in this experience but also to confirm the crazy numbers on show. He timed it well. An enormous swarm had arrived. We stood transfixed as we were surrounded by 2000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summer's day. All seemed to be House Martins. They started to feed in a frenzy over nearby fields, then quickly moved off south, being replaced by others that had continued to arrive from the north. There were a few Swallows with them, and as the passage lessened they became more numerous once again. By 12.45 it had quietened down and had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs.

The final totals were a staggering 6710 House Martins (possibly a county record) and 4000 Swallows. This passage seems not to have been replicated elsewhere in the county, another reason why it was good to have Geoff as a witness. What a day.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Arrows of desire

They were arriving high above me, too high to be seen with the naked eye, and had I not been scanning with binoculars I would have missed them. They were spaced out and came in pulses, the largest group being 50 strong. A few of the birds dropped lower and resolved themselves to be mostly House Martins with a few Swallows as company. Being at elevation, standing on the mound that overlooks The Watercolours pits at Holmethorpe, I had a good 360 degree view. The hirundines continued to arrive and head off east, but they still mostly kept high. Had I not known they were up there they would have carried on with their remarkable journeys unobserved by human eye. A journey that many of them would be making for the first time, born of instinct and need. After only 45 minutes the procession dried up, leaving me wanting more, but my notebook told me that 700 House Martins and 300 Swallow had moved through.

I stepped out into the garden at 18.05hrs to have three Swallows zip inches over my head, slaloming between walls and trees, manoevering with an ease that defied any need of effort on their part. Above them were more, much lower than this morning, many within touching distance. Silently they sped through, arrows of desire, the pull of African savannahs too strong to ignore. They appeared out of nowhere, to the left of me, the right of me and above me. Surrounded by blue and peach, streamers and points, grace and power. I stood still and within ten minutes 250 (all of them Swallows) had moved on westward. Awesome is a word that is overused by birders, normally given to something because it is rare - but it is the correct word to describe such primal and raw migration.

Throughout the south-east hirundines have been recorded in good numbers, no more so than Sandwich Bay where 120,000 House Martins were logged. Given the choice between seeing the American Redstart or that spectacular movement, the hirundines would win every time. I was lucky enough to witness a movement of 90,000 at Dungeness some 28 Septembers ago. It lives long in my memory. In fact, I would go as far to claim that such movements are the purest expression of avian migration that we can count ourselves lucky enough to witness.

I just hope that it will continue tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

About to crack

There's only so much worthiness you can feel and servitude you can bestow towards a dry inland birding patch. Bloody-mindedness, obstinacy and a big dollop of wishful thinking are prerequisites to be able to maintain a regular presence, but, believe me, they can all come to a shuddering halt, and the way things are that might just happen soon.

A dawn start at Priest Hill in a murky calm smelt of birds, and on entering the reserve there were plenty of calling Robins and the odd 'cheeping' Chiffchaff, but three hours later that was about it - 35+ Robins and 10 Chiffchaffs. The autumn here so far has been a hard slog for little reward. An early lunch and a check on what was going on elsewhere (the best being Yellow-browed Warbler at Elephant and Castle and a Blyth's Reed Warbler at Sandwich Bay) set me up for an afternoon at Canons Farm. Better than this morning, but it was still hard work. As is often the way with this site, just as I was about to give up there was a pulse of birds overhead - a flock of 60 House Martin wheeling about with a Peregrine and eight Common Buzzards. A further hour's skywatching added little else of note. A couple of female Stonechats tried to seduce me as I left the farm, but there's no doubt that I need a booster injection of avian surprise. It isn't happening locally, so I may need to wander further afield...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fallen Jay

The autumn is really starting to feel like autumn now - chillier temperatures, the leaves starting to fall (particularly the Horse Chestnuts) and rapidly darkening evenings. Priest Hill this morning added to the season's hold, with the first large arrival/movement of Woodpigeons - at least 800 were present, including a single flock of 750. Although Meadow Pipits were not actively passing overhead, a flock of 60 had gathered on the meadows. Single Goldcrest, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were other highlights. One sad event was the demise of this Jay (above), found on the roadside adjacent to the reserve entrance. This species holds a special place in my birding world, which you can read about here if you so wish.

Friday, 15 September 2017

News on the Polish Med Gull

Last week I mentioned an adult Mediterranean Gull that I saw on Charmouth beach, sporting a red plastic ring (PER3). Through the excellent Colour Ring Birding website, I reported the details and received the following information from the Polish scheme behind the ringing of this particular bird:

Ringed on 13/05/2007 as a 3rd calendar year female, nesting at Polder Bukow, Krzyzanowice, Slaskie, POLAND, by Jakub Szymczak

So the bird was two years old when ringed, which makes it 12 years old. This colour ring reading can become addictive!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A question

Another morning spent at Priest Hill, leaning up against a gate and counting migrating Meadow Pipits. I didn't arrive until 09.45hrs and they were already dribbling over, but by 12.00hrs the trickle had dried up, resulting in a total of 186 S/SW. Just like two days ago, little else was moving with them. A question I find asking myself is why overhead passerine diurnal migration seems to stop (or run out of steam) by lunchtime. I've seen hirundines carry on well into the afternoon, but as for pipits, wagtails, buntings and finches (which normally make up the bulk of such movements) they seem to find afternoon movement not to their liking. Do they actually land and stop? Do they fly higher so that they are out of sight and sound?

Meadow Pipit one: "I'm getting a bit of wing-strain here, how long we been flying?
Meadow Pipit two: "Must be six hours by now"
Meadow Pipit one: "Well sod this for a lark, let's pitch down in that nice looking meadow"
Meadow Pipit two: "Er, we're pipits, not larks..."
Meadow Pipit three: "We could always fly a bit higher and glide to Spain!"

Questions, questions...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Simple pleasures

My first visit to Priest Hill in almost a fortnight. Grounded migrants were largely absent, but from just after 10.00hrs a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits started up, all heading S to SW. I stood rooted to the spot for almost two hours and ended up with a total of 122 - mostly small groups of one to three but including flocks of 19, 11 and 10. I can honestly say it was some of the purest, most enjoyable birding that I've had this year. To watch actively migrating birds is always a privilege and a pleasure. The fact that these modest looking birds are possibly on their way to the Iberian peninsula adds so much to the experience. Not much else was moving with them, with no wagtails and very few hirundines, but that didn't matter.

Monday, 11 September 2017

A Pole in Dorset and a moan

Just back from a short break in Dorset, and although the optics and camera came along, they played second fiddle to everything else... highlights were up to three Mediterranean Gulls on Charmouth beach, including this adult (above) sporting a red plastic ring (PER3) which suggests that it was ringed as part of a Polish study. Also seen were at least two Dippers (at Lyme Regis (below) and Charmouth).

There has been a bit on social media recently about some people's dislike of the shortening of bird's names into an attempt at creating a 'cool birding patois'. I couldn't agree more - you can stick your Spot Shank, Pink Stink, Grot Finch, Yank Start and Spot Flit up your...

People also still seem to be congratulating each other on having the ability to spend lots of money, drive hundreds of miles and look at other birder's finds; they still refer to seeing said bird as 'scoring', 'bagging' and 'nailing'; also continue to take selfies with insects (mainly moths) placed on their nose; you could say it's harmless and that I'm just a miserable old git, in which case you may have a point. It could also be argued that it's just not cool or clever and I could possibly point out that moths are not toys. Here endeth my holier than thou moan.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Seven go mad in Suffolk

Part 14 - August 1976 The sun had not just put his hat on, but also his sunglasses and slapped on plenty of ‘factor 20’ for good measure, as the ‘heat-wave’ that had started in June and rolled on through July was showing no signs of breaking up by August. Grass crisped to a caramel brown, rivers and ponds dried up, any exposed ground cracked and ice cream salesmen were running out of stock. It was against this backdrop that I arrived at a small campsite, hidden behind a garage, at Theberton in Suffolk. My companions were Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler, Ian and Barry Reed and Tim Andrews. We had chosen the site due to its close proximity to the Suffolk coast, in particular the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere. We had been lured by scarce breeding birds such as Bittern, Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier, the latter species teetering on the edge of extinction in the UK. Once we had hurriedly pitched our tents we hot-footed it along country lanes to East Bridge and then took a dyke-side footpath down on to the beach at Minsmere. Our walk was enlivened by the reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. 

Our first afternoon was a resounding success. A pair of Marsh Harriers greeted us soon after we started to scan the skies over the reserve, both of them circling above the extensive reed beds. To be able to look onto the fabled ‘scrape’ – a man-made clearance constructed to entice breeding birds and passage waders – we needed to carry onto the beach and walk a short way north, to then enter the public hide. The beach was sandy, with a thin ribbon of dunes that were home to large concrete blocks, these having been part of the Second World War sea defences, now abandoned to break up and list alarmingly. From the hide we could see that the exposed mud of the ‘scrape’ was lively with feeding birds, including Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Greenshank and the emblematic Avocet. A Little Gull was also present. On our walk back along the dyke, a Bittern kindly got up and flew across the reed tops. This was quickly followed by several Bearded Tits, which announced themselves by ‘pinging’ away as they acrobatically climbed up nearby reed stems.

The light was fading by the time we returned to our tents. A motley collection of burners, Billy Cans and utensils were soon put into action, and a variety of modest meals were prepared. We were the only campers present – it was a simple campsite with few amenities, just a single toilet and sink, and a rubbish pit (some four feet deep and seven feet wide). We got into the habit of jumping across this refuse ditch as a dare, but Tim refused, which made the rest of us jump it all the more, egging him on to do so.

We were up early the next morning, eager to get back to the beach. On our way we stopped by the Public Hide where both Knot and Little Tern were newly in, before entering the inner-sanctum of the reserve from the beach. It felt to me like walking into a cathedral, with us the disciples about to pray before the birding altar that was Minsmere. We arrived at a large hut that acted as a reception area and shop, and a clearing that was used as a car park. After the formalities of checking in were done, we were free to roam the inner sanctum of this fabled reserve! In the closest scrub were the hoped for Red-backed Shrikes, two female types, a species that was still hanging on and breeding here. We headed off to the Island Mere hide first, mainly due to impatience in wanting to see the Spoonbills, which had been present for a few weeks. Five of them were on show, and in the time we spent with them they fed, preened but mostly slept. The Tree Hide and West Hide were our other bases on this day, and we got to meet an elderly volunteer whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to alert people to the presence of Marsh Harriers. He was an elderly man, smartly turned out and sporting a pencil-thin moustache – we were later told that his name was Mister Denny. He would be largely silent, but as soon as a harrier showed would leap into action, shouting out directions so that all in the hide could share his obsession – no other species got a mention.

Minsmere reserve was visited on a daily basis, but being young, fit and keen we roamed widely. Dunwich Heath, Walberswick and even the Blyth Estuary (that resulted in a 28 mile hike) were on our radar, differing habitats that helped to build up an impressive list of birds and create memories to last a lifetime: a Barn Owl flushed from a dead tree close to Westwood Lodge; a self-found Aquatic Warbler on the RSPB reserve edge that was subsequently accepted by the BBRC; an immature White-winged Black Tern that spent the afternoon feeding over the scrape, appreciated by many and entering my life list five minutes before a Black Tern did; both male and female Red-backed Shrikes enlivening any visit when we bothered to check on them; a Nightjar, silhouetted in the dusking sky, flying around and settling on the old windmill; our first Temminck’s Stint helpfully alongside a Little; my ambition bird, a Wryneck, feeding along the dune line at Minsmere, together with a Pied Flycatcher; a flock of 150 Turtle Doves that we pushed out of a Walberswick hedgerow as we walked alongside; and two Icterine Warblers that arrived at the Sluice bushes and introduced me to the phenomena of witnessing a ‘twitch’; the recording of 100 species of bird in just one day; and watching Barry dive headfirst into a ditch to rescue his notebook, emerging triumphant but covered in slime.

As we packed to go home, Tim stood up and ran at the rubbish pit, clearing it easily. Our cheers summed up our fortnight, with over 150 species recorded and on which not a drop of rain had fallen. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. Which species of wader would be on the scrape? What would be lurking in the Sluice bushes? Could it possibly get even better? The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. We were a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds who didn't have a care in the world. Life was good.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Whinchats (and a Pied Flycatcher) in the rain

An afternoon visit to Canons Farm was accompanied by a steady heavy drizzle. There seemed to have been a clear out of the migrants that have been on show over the past couple of days, but these had been replaced by a flock of five Whinchats, which popped up in the Reeds Rest Cottage barns area, and, even better, a vocal Pied Flycatcher that flitted around the Ash and Oak canopy in Lunch Wood. After just a minute the bird stopped calling, faded into the vegetation and was not seen again.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

And another...

It was a clear and chilly night here in Banstead, but the MV still went out and although this mornings catch was suppressed, it did include the fourth Scarce Bordered Straw of the 'autumn', following on from singles on August 21st, 23rd and 29th. Considering that these were the first in the garden since 2006, it's a crime that I'm starting to get a little bit complacent about them...

Friday, 1 September 2017

The magical fallen tree

Another brief foray to Canons Farm, mainly to visit a fallen tree in Owl Meadow that was acting as an ornithological magnet - my first scan with the binoculars revealed single Common Redstart, Whinchat (below) and Spotted Flycatcher (above) - good going for a dry inland site. There was a smattering of migrants nearby, including 3 Wheatear, 2 Willow Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat.

After several days of feeling under the weather I seem to have turned a corner - maybe, with my powers restored, that lurking rarity is about to be unearthed...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

After a few of days of feeling 'under the weather' I needed to get out for some fresh air, so took the easy option of parking the car at Canons Farmhouse so that I could walk along the lane to Lunch Wood and back. When getting as far as the wood, I turned to walk back only to be faced with a solid wall of black cloud - there was no option but to huddle under a beech tree and wait for twenty minutes while it poured with rain. Compensation came in the form of a double rainbow as the weather headed east (above).

Reeds Rest Cottages were the centre of the action, with a mobile flock of 130 Swallows that alternated between the overhead wires and Broad Field, all scattering when a patrolling Hobby cruised through. Two Wheatears were together on the recently trimmed hedgerow, close to the RRC barns (above), and a Peregrine was sat on one of the dead trees on Stoney Nob, looking quite cheesed off with life as the black clouds gathered (below). Warblers were thin on the ground, with just 2 Whitethroats and single Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. A tidy return for just over an hour's birding.

The moth trap did not go out last night, but the morning before saw the third Scarce Bordered Straw of the month recorded in the garden (below). They are appearing widely across the country and the way things are going I would expect to see more of them here before the autumn is over.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

New micro, quiet birding

The garden MV continues to get put out and switched on. Those moths whose flight times are more 'September' than 'July' are starting to show, and each night the composition of species recorded is subtly changing. It's "goodbye" to some for another year and "hello" to others. There are also plenty of migrants out there, so it is risky not lighting up, as you never know what you might miss if you don't! I continue to dabble with the micros, by no means critically examining each and every one, but looking at some which catch my eye, like the Scythropia crataegella (above), not just a new moth for the garden, but one I haven't seen before. Common as muck by the way.

Bird wise, quiet. My last two visits to Priest Hill have been almost pointless (barring the thought that at least I have proven that no fall or movement had taken place). This morning I revisited my old stomping ground at Canons Farm, where a Whinchat and Hobby were the star pupils. We're being promised a subtle wind change and rain for tomorrow, so let's hope Priest Hill gets showered with few more migrants. I live in hope.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Ringing in Summer

Part 13:  June-July 1976

Since my earliest visits to Beddington I had frequently met up with Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood, who were the sole surviving members of the farm’s ringing group, which had been formed during the 1950s. Under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the group collected data by trapping birds. This was done mainly through their capture in a fine meshed net, strung out between two secured poles. On calm days the net would be hard to see, and birds would fly into it, finding themselves cushioned in a pocket, quietly awaiting extraction by a ringer. Once in the hand, the bird would be identified, sexed and aged; a set of measurements would be taken, such as wing length and weight; and a light metal ring placed on a leg. On this ring would be embossed a unique serial number and an address to send details of the bird in case of recovery. This latter stage helped build up a clear idea of where birds moved to, how fast they could travel and their longevity. The commonest way of a bird being ‘re-found’ after having been released was by being caught by another ringer, or being discovered dead by a member of the public. After many years, and with hundreds - if not thousands - of recoveries, the BTO were able to build up a database that was used to identify the migration routes of birds, where they bred, wintered and fed. It was also an opportunity to critically examine the plumage of a bird whilst it was in the hand, so that the identification and ageing of each species was better understood. The whole process required sensitivity – apart from the obvious wish to treat the bird with the utmost care, any subsequent data would be useless unless the bird could carry on its life unfettered and unimpeded after release.

To take part required a period of training before a ringing licence would be granted – without it you were not permitted to participate. I had increasingly spent time with Mike and Ken, watching them process the birds and at times helping them by holding poles or bird bags. It was a privilege to see birds so close up and an education to examine the plumage to clearly be able to identify, sex and age an individual. My admittance to become a member of the ringing group was granted in June. I was licenced as a trainee under Ken, but both he and Mike helped me attain proficiency in the ways of bird ringing - from the correct erection of the nets, their care and upkeep, subsequent extraction and handling of the birds, gathering biometrics and awareness of what was going on around you, they started to teach me the art of this ornithological science.

There was one reference guide that was indispensible to the ringer, known simply by the surname of its author – ‘Svennson’s’. This softback book, based on years of examination of birds in the field and also from museum cases, laid bare the dark art of being able to read such subtleties as feather tracts, moult and wing emarginations to correctly identify and age what you were holding. It only covered the passerines, but that covered 95% of what we were trapping. On first opening a copy, I was bamboozled by the definitions (which were in turn shortened to code) and a plethora of line drawings of wings and tails. Slowly, this became understood.

We would invariably set up to four nets, which could be as long as 60 feet and as tall as four panels (each panel being approximately two feet deep). The siting of them could be dependent on having a backdrop of vegetation (to disguise the net), along a line of bushes that were acting as a corridor for moving birds, or be down to the presence of a feeding flock (such as Linnets and Goldfinches in a stand of seeding vegetation). In the latter scenario we would employ short, single panel nets that were most effective in trapping the birds.

Midsummer frequently meant trying to catch Swifts. For such a fast-flying (and generally high-flying) species, trying to trap them was not an easy task. It took cunning and guile, plus a bit of muggy or cloudy weather to bring the birds down low, when they would feed only inches above the ground. Because Beddington was one big insect attractant (rank vegetation, sewage settlement) it was also a virtual cafe for insectivorous birds. If the Swifts did come low, then there would hundreds, possibly thousands.

A free standing net however would not fool a Swift. You needed to be a bit smarter than that. So, the art of 'flicking' was devised. This meant that two of you held the poles (at either end of the net) horizontally, low against the ground, until a Swift flew towards you. Teamwork was needed at this point, as one of you would call out, and in unison the net would be brought up into a vertical plane. Hopefully the Swift would be intercepted in flight. This worked remarkably well, and some afternoons (it seemed to be an afternoon past-time) we could trap up to 50 individual Swifts.

There are two things that most birders do not know about Swifts. Firstly, they have very sharp claws. After a Swift ringing session your fingers would be covered in scratches. Secondly, most of them play host to flat-flies, quite large creatures that crawled over the Swifts body underneath the feathering. These quite unsavoury things would often jump off and onto the ringer and, being the size of a flattened baked bean, could cause panic. The ringing recovery rate of Swifts would have been low but for the efforts of ringing teams up and down the country flicking these scythe-winged beauties. I enjoyed these timeless afternoons, always on warm days, with the smell of rank vegetation, a subtle whiff of effluent and the torpor of the thick air cut through by the scream of Apus apus.