Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Birding off-piste


In recent years I've largely gone birding off-piste - looked for places where others tend not to go, not so much to get away from the crowds, but more a case of trying to find areas that have potential. There is, of course, very good reason why some places are free from birders, and that is because they are bird-poor, or hard work, or even both! However, sometimes such effort is rewarded. It happened with Canons Farm, which was not on the birding radar when I first came across it a few years ago. Over the course of four/five years - mostly on my own - and with the finding of such species as Goshawk, Woodlark and an enormous flock of Brambling, the jungle drums started to sound and a small band of observers built up. This has culminated in a website and annual bird report that are dedicated to the farm - and not a year goes by without further birding highlights being added to its growing avian history. From little acorns.

And now I think I might have stumbled across another. When I first visited Priest Hill it was a vast area of abandoned playing fields, overgrown and used as a dumping ground, part-time traveller's camp, dog-walkers paradise, illicit motor-bike scrambling track, haunt of smoking school-boys and one very occasional birdwatcher. There were breeding Skylarks and Meadow Pipits and I would sometimes come across the odd Stonechat. My visits were highly irregular. When the Surrey Wildlife Trust were presented with it over three years ago, the place was fenced off, tidied up and became an easier proposition to systematically watch. I offered to carry out a breeding bird survey for them and was handed a key, that gave access to some quite wonderful scrubby bits and a magnificent hedgerow. And it started to dawn on me that there was potential here - I was soon picking up chats on passage in both spring and autumn (and in good numbers), with the odd surprise (Red-legged Partridge, Common Redstart) and a bit of movement overhead, but my visits were still erratic. Last November I decided to give it a proper go...

Since then I have attempted to bird here at least once a week - some weeks have seen up to three visits and so far in March I've made the trip four out of the seven days. Most visits are quiet, it can be hard work, but it has started to pay dividends...

Highlights so far have been: a wintering flock of Reed Buntings (up to 13 with some turn-over); Stonechats throughout (with the spring passage so far peaking at 8); Woodcock (one flushed in January); Cattle Egret (an early-December second record for Surrey that flew low northwards); and then today, a Jack Snipe, flushed from long grass adjacent to a number of small ponds on the eastern boundary. In typical JS fashion it rose low and silently, pitching back down quickly. I let it be.

Now, I realise that the highlights mentioned above might be it - no more surprises. The next few months could be a hard slog for little return. But I reckon it's worth the gamble. I do intend to get over there as much as possible, an hour here, two hours there. If I can rustle up a Cattle Egret and a Jack Snipe in just a few short visits then what could a regular band of birders find?

No bird photographs from today's visit (I did take some more Stonechats, but you've surely had enough of them) so please accept two flowers - Cheery Plum (top) and Coltsfoot (below).


16 comments:

  1. Why find a lovely spot like that and then advertise it's highlights and potential and risk attracting all the usual glory hunting birders and long lensers in, keep it to yourself!

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    1. I'm OK with that Derek. If it gets busy I'd move on...

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  2. Well it IS a nature reserve open (in part at least) to the public, membership of Surrey Wildlife Trust not required. Plus it's not a part of the country that suffers from the hordes such as the North Norfolk coastline or Rye Harbour. Personally I'm loving hearing about a place I knew before SWT took it on. Especially the "Cheery Plum" ;)

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    1. I noticed the Cheery predictive text but left it in, as I thought it an improvement. Btw Seth, found another self-seeded Cornelian Cherry today!

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    2. Steve, I'll be heading daan sarf when Common Clubtails atart to emerge, there's a cracking site near Goring-on-Thames for them. Then I'll be buzzing into Sussex after Field Crickets before swinging back to the Hebrides. Should be late May-ish depending on the insects. Be great to meet up then, failing that I plan on heading back down in mid-July (Kent across to New Forest for more Odonata) and then again in mid-late September for Dungeness orthopteran shenanigans. So that's three opportunities for meeting the Cornelian Cheeries. That's assuming SWT haven't read your blog and decided to grub out them out by then.

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    3. I hate that you can't go back and edit out your typos in Blogger :(

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  3. Looking forward to pinching your bum again Seth...

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  4. Er Seth, you can edit typo's in Blogger...

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    1. Yes I know, but how do you edit a comment you make as a visitor? I can edit on my own blog but not on another's.

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  5. Hi Steve, I too know this site from ages back - I used to do school cross country across parts more years ago than I wish to remember so I am fascinated to see your blogs about it. I live in Yorkshire now so my visits are squeezed in round visiting relatives 2/3 times a year but I have always reckoned it has great potential, just as you are proving. I'm sure vis mig will be good and am looking forward to learning what else you can find. Keep exploring!

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    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for commenting. You're suspicions of its potential will hopefully be proved correct! Incidently, as a Sutton Manor pupil I too was subjected to cross country runs nearby - Howell Hill and Northey Avenue. Wouldn't want to do so now!

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    2. I too was at Sutton Manor!(1971-1978)I suspect we may have overlapped from occasional comments you have made in the past. I agree - my cross country days are long past....

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    3. I must have been in the year above you Stephen.

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  6. This is now the kind of birding I enjoy most. Every sighting is a positive as you are the only person seeing it, and you never know if you are missing something so don't have that nasty dipping feeling. Good luck with the birding.

    Are you keeping a list? Will you be publishing it on here?

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    1. There is a fledgling list DD which will appear here soon...

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