Monday, 15 January 2018

Too much of the 'H' word

You can refer to it as a case of 'pots calling kettles black' or it being a severe example of hypocritical behaviour, but I have come to the conclusion that social media is overdosing on Hawfinches. There, I've written in down, we are bloated on Hawfinches. Full up. Satiated.

It started so discretely last October, with modest but higher numbers than usual being recorded flying over the Home Counties, moving as if on visible migration. After a few days of this many birders decided to take a look for themselves and, who'd have thought it, loads more were found, including some sizeable flocks. After a while the flyovers became site faithful flocks and every man and his dog camera got to eat at the 'Hawfinch table'. Blog posts and tweets were full of them - hundreds and thousands of words and pictures describing just what was happening across the country. But, as we all know, such ornithological happenings do not possess a 'data full' level - and so still the photographs, posts and tweets came - from the pokey little dots on top of trees to feather perfect close ups; from brief reports of counts to expansive lyrical essays. It's the same if Waxwings turn up en masse or a long-staying rarity becomes twitcher friendly.

Even though we know that everyone has seen and read enough about 'those big-billed finches' we still tweet and post, suffering from a collective strain of coccothraustes Tourette's. It begs the question if the reason that we repeat this stuff ad nauseam is to remind others that we are a continuing part of this historic event, for that is exactly what this is - I doubt that there have ever been so many Hawfinches in the country at the same time. Of course, in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter that we are posting and tweeting and snapping away beyond the bounds of necessity. It is, after all, a celebration. But there is something about all this, (in mid-January and after three months) that is so old hat. Repetitive. Unoriginal. And this post is just another example of that...

So, until I get a decent picture of one, or find some in a different location, or just have nothing else to post about, I will not be mentioning that species name again.


Saturday, 13 January 2018

Norbury Park

The far side of the Uber-patch was visited this morning, as time was spent treading the steep eastern slopes of Norbury Park. This is a patchwork of habitats, with woodland, copse, meadow and farm being available for exploration - and at 1300 acres, there is plenty to explore. This eastern flank is characterised by beech, yew and box. Birdwise it was very quiet, and if I'm being honest my sole aim was attempting to locate Hawfinches, so my eyes were fixed up rather than down. The net result was a blank all round. However, in Blue Peter traditions, here is one that I prepared earlier (inset)...

It is hard to resist the allure of Hawfinches. I know I bang on about them, but they are like precious jewels when they come along, and the fact that we are feasting on them at the moment does not diminish this in any way. They will soon be gone and their status will once again revert to being that of a prized sighting. By 08.30hrs I was up on Mickleham Downs and quickly located at least 10 birds in the same area that I have seen them over the past week. They were very wary, this not being helped by the busy (and noisy) weekend traffic of dog walkers, cyclists, joggers and walkers. It seemed to me that I could hear them almost continually, a mixture of ticks and sips teasing me from just out of sight. One wonders just how many birds we have lurking in the county.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Back for seconds

To be honest, I'll most probably be back for thirds, fourths and fifths as I think it impossible to feel full of Hawfinch! My return to Mickleham Downs provided six birds, sat together in the same beech tree that they took a liking to yesterday morning. I will sorely miss them when they finally move on - it may be many years before such events occur again.

To head off any notion that winter botany is all about shades of brown and green, have a load of this - the shocking red berries of Stinking Iris - they shine out like beacons in the subdued winter palette.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Hawfinches in the gloom

It's already starting to get dark outside (12.30hrs) before the day has even had the chance to get properly light. My trawl around the slopes of Mickleham this morning was therefore conducted under a stygian gloom (I love the word stygian). The main aim of the excursion was too see a few more winter flowers, and in this I was successful, with Rustyback, Box, Stinking Hellebore, Wild Candytuft, Spurge-laurel and Butcher's-broom being the highlights. The image above shows the disturbed chalky soil that is so loved by Wild Candytuft and Stinking Hellebore (below) in particular.

At about 10.35hrs I was on the western slopes of Mickleham Downs (which overlooks the village of Mickleham) when a Hawfinch flew into the top of a beech tree that was just ahead of me. A scan revealed that there were already six birds there. Over a ten minute period they flitted in, out and over the same tree before melting away. Twenty minutes later I was looking out over the same ridge from further east when a flock of 11 Hawfinches flew north, at tree top height, before all entering the woodland. Shortly afterwards a further two were sitting on a bare tree top from where the flock had first appeared. I'm confident that these were all different birds. This is my fifth visit to this site since the Hawfinch invasion began (primarily to look for these wonderful birds) and my first success. There are historical records of large Hawfinch flocks from Mickleham Downs (40-50 in April 1938), which would be nice to replicate. I'll be back...

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Everything's gone green

This wall summed up all that is pleasurable about my current little project, that of recording all of the flora in the 'compartments' of the uber patch. Without it, I would have not checked this old wall in Church Street, Epsom, and would therefore not have recorded four species of fern - in the image above, from left to right, are Wall-rue, Hart's-tongue and Black Spleenwort. Just a few metres away was this Maidenhair Spleenwort (below) - no excuses for posting another image of this fine species.

This afternoon, to escape 'Brigit Jone's Baby' on the TV, I paid my respects to the Green Hellebores (below) on Walton Downs, which came with the bonus of a flushed Woodcock. I also visited nearby Juniper Hill where there is - surprise, surprise - a good number of mature Juniper bushes (bottom). By the way, I've been unhappy with the reproduction of my images on this blog for some time and have only just got around to trying to sort it out. With the help of this link it's been sorted - compare the Maidenhair Spleenwort above with that of two posts ago.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

An inconvenient truth

Yes, it's time to dig up that old chestnut once again, JUST WHERE IS SURREY?

For some of you it's just that sleepy county south of London where stockbrokers live, the National Trust has an exceedingly high level of membership and millions of cock-a-poos run freely alongside Labrador-doodles. All true, but it is also home to several hundred birders who have an identity crisis, and that is where on earth is the county boundary? From time to time social media reveals a spasm of collective confusion, roughly along the lines of why we should/shouldn't accept Staines Reservoir as part of birding Surrey.


Back in the depths of time Surrey was created, its lands running north to the southern bank of the Thames.

In 1852 a geographical division of the United Kingdom was devised that resulted in clear divisions of the vice-counties, also called the Watsonian vice-counties.

In 1889 the county of London was created and the boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark were removed from Surrey.

In 1965 parts of Surrey were lost in the creation of the following London Boroughs - Kingston, Merton, Richmond, Sutton and an expanded Croydon.

Also in 1965 Middlesex transferred Staines and Sunbury to the administrative county of Surrey, these two areas being grouped and named Spelthorne in 1974.


The 1852 Watsonian counties were adopted by biological recorders as easily identified units in which to collate and publish natural history records, including the Surrey Bird Club (formed in 1957). This recording unit was maintained even when local government started major surgery (amputation and grafting) in the 1960s. Most recorders sneered at the thought that places like Staines (NORTH of the River Thames for goodness sake) could possibly be in Surrey, even though local government said it was. Most birders looked the other way and considered it to be in Middlesex (which, to their credit, both the Surrey Bird Club and the LNHS do so to this very day.) This ensures that all data, however old or new, is comparable.


Recently there have been signs... the Surrey Bird Club website placing Spelthorne bird news on the recent sightings page... mumbling in the ranks that Staines Reservoir is unarguably in Surrey... a creeping acceptance from the younger and newer birders that this is wholly acceptable... a call for the uncertainty to be finally banished and Spelthorne to be embraced...


These same birders still want to keep the London Boroughs in their version of 'birding' Surrey. Whisper it, but that is mainly down to the presence of Beddington Sewage Farm in said London Boroughs and the (whisper it again) loss of valuable county ticks if it were removed. YES, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM HAS BEEN REVEALED, THIS IS ALL DOWN TO THEIR LISTS!!! I can see the attraction of Staines as a pukka, bona fide Surrey site - a publicly accessed big body of water that regularly attracts good (even rare) birds. It's something that the county largely lacks.

Now, I enjoy this little Surrey/Middlesex discussion on semantics alone. My county list has little value to me. I would like to keep the Watsonian recording area going for the sake of historical comparison. But those calling for a shake-up, a reassessment of the boundaries for recording purposes cannot have it both ways. Either:
(1) we keep it Watsonian, or
(2) We welcome Spelthorne but have to ditch the London Boroughs. After all, if you want proper Surrey, then these would be the rules.

The listing fall-out would be a spectator sport. I would pay to observe the undoubted drama. Watch this space!

Friday, 5 January 2018

In praise of old walls

Old walls.... built of red brick, constructed of yellow brick, it doesn't matter. The smaller the bricks the better and if there are embellishments involved in their construction, even better still. Apart from running my eye along them to take in the aesthetically pleasing lines and warm colours, such walls can also be home to plants. And so it came to pass that this afternoon, a Victorian railway bridge situated on Banstead Downs played host to both Wall-rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort (image above). The latter is also one of my favourite ferns and a species that I haven't seen on this particular wall before. My search for the Black Spleenwort that I can usually find here drew a blank. As for the mosses in the picture, over to you Seth...

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Cotoneaster hunt

There has been some mumbling in the ranks that this blog has, so far this year, neglected birds. So today's post will start off with ornithological news - after all, I aim to please.

A couple of hours spent at Howell Hill SWT reserve rustled up a flushed Woodcock (from roughly where the Knapweed Broomrapes will pop up later in the year) plus a feeding frenzy in the large open fields that comprised 1,000 Woodpigeons, 150 Stock Doves and 100 Jackdaws. Now, back to the plants...

My main aim at Howell Hill was to record some of the cotoneasters that are present. The reserve has quite a list of them and I am but a rank amateur when it comes to identifying them, but with the help of a number of reference books I'm fairly confident that I found Wall (horizontalis), Tree (frigidus) and Himalayan (simonisii), along with Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea). But it was the neighbouring fields that got me excited (image above). These appear to have been abandoned and even for early January held plenty of botanical life, including Common Field and Grey Field Speedwell, Turnip, Black Mustard, Hemlock, Field Pansy and Radish (all in flower). There were plenty of crucifers in vegetative form that I left well alone. It will be intriguing to see what appears here as the months progress.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

To Ewell and back

Another session spent winter botanising, and once again a plentiful supply of plants to identify - mostly actually in flower or bud - which proves that there really isn't a dead season to be had when searching for flowers. I walked from home, along the Reigate Road and stopped off at Priest Hill SWT Reserve. At first glance the open fields of lifeless grass didn't seem to suggest that there would be any joy here, but if you look hard enough...

Just like yesterday, most of the highlights were of alien/escaped species, but that is fine by me: Lesser Periwinkle, Sowbread, Asian Firethorn, Silver Lime, Balkan Spurge (Euphorbia tomentosa), Vibernum, Pampass-grass (Cortaderia selloana) and Mediterranean Spurge (E characias) were the pick of the bunch.

Asian Firethorn (Pyracantha rogersiana) Identified by the hairless leaf stalks.
Silver Lime (Tilia tomentosa) And before you think my skill levels on identifying obscure winter trees has improved, I was shown this tree in the summer by Peter Wakeham.
Vibernum tinus, a remnant from a long lost garden or municipal planting?
Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias) I was pleased to find that this plant had survived
Mistletoe. Some hefty clumps in trees near Ewell East Station. I could fit in these (if I curled myself up!)
I then headed towards the River Hogsmill at Ewell, where the plant listing carried on, alongside some prolonged views of  both a feeding Kingfisher and Little Egret - needless to say I had not taken the bridge camera with me, but maybe that was for the best, as I was removed from faffing about trying to get the perfect image (well at least as good as my bridge camera would allow). Winter Heliotrope was starting to flower in number; a single Cow Parsley thought it was May and was fully out; Water-cress looked vibrant as it choked the edges of the shallow river; a single Black Spleenwort was hanging onto an old brick wall; and that mascot of winter flowerers, the Snowdrop, put in an appearance.

Winter Heliotrope. My personal winter favourite.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Aliens on the streets

Dull, wet, blustery... 2018 isn't doing much to endear itself to us. From a personal point of view I've also been wrestling with a virus/bug that has forced me to miss a handful of family and friends get-togethers, plus any venturing out into the field. This morning I did feel up for a wander around the local streets and copses, so was able to start my 'uber patch' botanical search - a project for this year that will hopefully enable me to become far more proficient in the identification of critical groups (such as crucifers), grasses, sedges and rushes.

Without busting a gut I recorded 29 species, including a few exotics such as Trailing Bellflower, Snowberry (inset), Yellow Corydalis, Spotted Dead-nettle, Sowbread (Cyclamen hederifolium, main image), and Corsican Hellebore. The later species is present on a well vegetated central reservation on a busy road. I first came across it a number of years ago (when I braved the traffic to identify it) and it has flowered every year since. Today it is in bud. I did consider rushing across to get a photograph, but I didn't fancy causing a pile-up and spending the first weeks of 2018 in hospital. The usual suspects were also recorded and they enliven many a winter's day - so take a bow Yarrow, Daisy, Petty Spurge, Red and White Dead-nettles, Common Chickweed and Shepherd's-purse!

Some botanists baulk at 'escapes', 'aliens' and 'exotics' - call them what you will. But when you consider that much of our supposed natural flora has been introduced here by human agency (albeit several hundred years ago), to treat the modern equivalents in any different way seems unfair. As far as I'm concerned, a bank of dumped soil is like a botanical treasure chest. I can spend many happy hours wandering urban and suburban streets, checking alleyways, walls and grass verges for those opportunist plants.

Whatever your plans, hopes and aspirations are for 2018, good luck!