Tuesday, 31 December 2019

"Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think..."


I don't know whether or not we are coming to the end of a decade or not - some say that at the finish of 2020 is when we reach the real end - but let us suppose that we are. Another 10 year chunk of time has passed us by, the big clock has been ticking at it hasn't stopped for no man, bird, plant, dragonfly, butterfly or moth. Back in 2010 could we really have conceived of three-figure flocks of Cattle Egrets, of winters as mild as a poor summer and passerine numbers disappearing into a black hole? What will we find when we await at the gates of 2030? To be honest, I shudder to think.

Anyhow, that's it for 2019. Not a marvellous year if I'm being honest, it had its moments but there was an awful lot of mediocrity to wade through. Normally I have plans in plenty for the upcoming year, but they seem to have gone missing. I'm going to busk it. I'm not sure where I will be tomorrow, it's that open. Maybe a bit more time down at Dungeness, a few more plant species targeted, another attempt to tame micro moths. Plenty of work in progress.

May you have a peaceful and healthy 2020. If the odd good bird or moth comes along, then all the better. As The Specials once sang, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think..."

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Listing continued

My last post, on the subject of listing, has certainly caused a bit of a stir - it has become one the most visited posts on ND&B of the year, and apart from the comments left on the blog itself has also drawn some private correspondence on Twitter and email. Thank you all for adding to the debate.

I had better come clean. A lot of the last post was written tongue-in-cheek with a large dollop of Devil’s advocate thrown in for good measure. I’m not suggesting that listing is futile. I do keep lists, and lots of them. But rather than chase them I just maintain them. They are not the reason why I go out into the field, I do not do so to seek out another tick, but if one comes along then it adds a bit of excitement to proceedings. My lists are just handy places to manage my observations, a tidying mechanism, aide memoirs, and a bit of fun.

I doubt that even the biggest supporter of listing would disagree that if you take listing to extremes it can cause problems. I know of relationships ending, jobs being lost and mental breakdowns being suffered, all because of unreasonable behaviour due to self-imposed pressures driven by the need to list and list again - you could say by becoming the victims of the ego.

Ego. We all have one, but some egos are bigger than others and demand feeding. Maybe those of us who list obsessively are suffering from a form of mental disturbance which could be likened to alcoholism or a gambling addiction. The ego’s need takes over and demands feeding. Self control is hijacked. This extreme behaviour is commoner than you think. Even I, ‘Mr. Sniffy Lister’, have feigned illness to get out of a previous engagement to be able to travel to see a bird. I have missed social engagements, let down friends and behaved anti-socially as well, all in the name of adding a bird to a list. I can read that back now and feel shame, but at the time of these indiscretions felt as if my behaviour was perfectly acceptable.

I stopped serious listing - and by that I suppose I really mean twitching - when I realised that I was gaining no pleasure from it at all. I would worry from the moment I heard about a bird until I arrived on site, and just feel a brief flutter of joy and relief if I did, in fact, see it, before returning to a state of agitation about where the ‘next one’ might turn up. And if I dipped, well, the sometimes lengthy journey home could take on the guise of a bereavement. But I would be disingenuous if I did not admit to looking back on some of my twitches with pride and pleasure. And I regularly milk some of them as being blockers, taking a perverse pride when I reel off such species as Wallcreeper (x2), Varied Thrush, Little Whimbrel, Golden-winged Warbler, Red-throated Thrush... and there are more. So even for a cured lister like me their is an echo of the listing past that still resonates in a positive form.

We are really talking about the problems that can be caused by extreme listing here, or rather the inabilities to deal with it. For most people it is a harmless vehicle used to collect objects or garner recognition and acceptance from like-minded souls. Listing could also be seen as a taming of the birds that are observed, bringing them into our ownership. Where we used to use arrows and slingshots to bring them down we now condemn them to pen and paper or spreadsheets.

So, is listing a harmless pastime, a cry for help, a wish to belong or a worthy pursuit? They can be all or none of these. And does it really matter? Whatever it is, the subject certainly fills up a blogpost...

Friday, 27 December 2019

Why listing is futile

There has been a bit of chat on Twitter over the past few days on the subject of listing. As a lapsed lister I have been able to sit back and chortle at the correspondence, safe in the knowledge that, having seen the light, I can enjoy the angst and pain of those who still find themselves with ‘listing fever’.

The lister will never  - NEVER - be happy, and will never feel content. A mad two-day excursion to successfully see a Steller’s Eider on the Western Isles will, no doubt, produce a moment or two of joy, but will be short-lived, as the lister’s attention is drawn to the next target. This is summed up beautifully by writer Eckhart Tolle:

'The ego identifies with having, but its identification in having is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of  "not enough". "I don't have enough yet", by which the ego really means, "I am not enough yet". As we have seen, having - the concept of ownership - is a fiction created by the ego to give itself solidity and permanency and make itself stand out, make itself special. Since you cannot find yourself through having, however, there is another more powerful drive underneath it that pertains to the structure of the ego: the need for more, which we could also call "wanting". No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting. This is the psychological need for more, that is to say, more things to identify with. It is an addictive need, not an authentic one."

So there we have it. Listing is a downward spiral, a journey with no happy ending, a quest that cannot give you a sense of fulfilment. You have been warned...

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Not Christmas birding

So another Christmas Day has slipped through the fingers of time, leaving a trail of torn wrapping paper, empty glasses and left-overs in the fridge. Did you go birding? No, me neither, although once-upon-a-time, pre-wife and children, I would have done...

It occurred to me yesterday that it was 40 years to the day since I found Dungeness’s first Ring-necked Duck, a smart drake, on ARC. I was staying at the bird observatory having escaped the (what I then considered to be) suffocating ritual of a family Christmas. I was not alone that Xmas Day in 1979 - the warden Nick Riddiford was in residence with his partner Elizabeth (who cooked us lunch), London-based birder Barry Banson (who had kindly given me a lift down) was there, as was Australian birder Dave Eades, who was on a world tour. We all did the Christmas thing with observant gravitas but it took second place to the birding. If I remember rightly we did a bit of ringing, a sea watch, conducted a census of the recording area and then all drove round to the ARC pit in the afternoon, where I had my Nearctic duck success. We were also happy to observe a small skein of White-fronted Geese fly over.

Two years later I was back at DBO, again with Barry, Nick and Liz (the latter two having returned from Fair Isle.) For our 1981 Christmas Dinner however, we had swapped the spartan bird observatory for the far more salubrious surroundings of near-neighbours and friends Martin and Jane Male. The evenings entertainment came courtesy of Nick’s slide-show, full of wonderful birds from his first season as Fair Isle warden. The birds had been excellent that Christmas Day at Dungeness as well, as hard winter weather had forced many onto the shingle from the frozen hinterland - hundreds of thrushes, finches and larks, Jack Snipe, Woodcock and a flock of three Woodlarks.

Apart from these Dungeness visits, the Christmas Day birding of my youth would have meant a few hours at Beddington SF, squeezed in between the present opening and lunch being served. These visits were usually a normal diet of Green Sandpipers, Water Pipits and Jack Snipe, but the day somehow had a golden edge to it, the light appeared brighter, my hope more buoyant. Maybe I had more Christmas Spirit in me than I realised.

I wouldn’t dream of spending Christmas Day birding now. Family comes first. Having said that, us birders are never ‘not birding’. If I glance out of the window I’m aware of what is going on. A Sparrowhawk ‘might’ have nipped through yesterday and I ‘might’ also have heard a Blachcap calling from the garden. But the binoculars and scope were kept well hidden. We do try and get a good walk in each Boxing Day, when ‘Steve the Birder’ comes out of hiding a little, but it isn’t until New Year’s Day that he is fully unleashed.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Mind the Gap

A return to the River Mole at Mickleham this morning revealed that the flooding had subsided, with just the odd field still holding large pools. The Little Egret numbers were still high - 16 - and they were mostly keeping to the same areas as on Saturday, although there were more to be found just north of Norbury Park Farm. Between here and Westhumble is to be found a tremendous run of riverside fields, mostly used for livestock but some utilised for arable planting. With generous footpath access they appear to hold great promise for the birder and I aim to spend more time here next year. Will the Mole Gap provide? We will soon find out.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Here comes the flood

The River Mole does not often burst it banks, but the relentless rain that we have had throughout December has finally taken its toll. These images were taken this morning between Mickleham and Westhumble. At least 20 Little Egrets were found, all together in a field at the half-way point.






Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Cherry Blossom gouache


The paint brushes have been busy here at ND&B as Mieko's birthday painting had a short deadline to meet! Japanese Cherry Blossom in honour of her homeland.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

A challenge is issued

With just over two weeks left of 2019 I can, without any chance of being called hasty, concede to Stewart Sexton in our Surrey v Northumberland patch competition. I currently languish on 137 species which is 64.31% of my historic uber-patch total. Stewart was already cruising along at 78.71% of his, and that isn’t taking into account at least four additions. Proper thumped I have been.

Now, I have, as Baldrick might say, a cunning plan...

My 2019 mini-Uber patch total of 100 species just happens to be 76.92 of its historic total. That is much closer to Stewart’s fine tally - might he be persuaded to take on my mini-Uber in 2020? He has had a record year, and myself a moderate one, so he would be gambling on losing his patch crown. I reckon he’ll pick up my proffered gauntlet and try to rub my southern snout into some good old-fashioned northern grit.

Over to you Mr Sexton.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

The first owl

A few posts ago I mentioned, once again, the time that I saw my first Jay, an observation that kick-started my 'birding life'. I wrote about it more fully here. But as to why it was that particular bird that captured my mind, and not any earlier avian encounter, I'm not sure. Maybe it was the brightness of its plumage, or the fact that I could identify what it was - purely down to the fact that I had taken part in a recent discussion about that very species. There had, however, been an earlier set of observations that could just as easily have acted as the spark that ignited my interest in birds, encounters that still are fresh in my mind...

Sutton, Surrey. It's July 1971. John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong have just won their respective tennis titles at Wimbledon, and both Pakistan and India are touring England playing test cricket. I'm 12-years old and sport mad. Being the school summer holidays, and with time to burn, I spend most of it at our local recreation park - known to all as 'The Rec' - playing football and cricket, or cycling miles in aimless direction, a juvenile Eddie Merckx. The summer is not a scorcher, but neither is it a wash-out.

As the evening starts to lose its light I've begun to sit out in the back-garden, on a swing, and take in the end of the day. Even us 12-year olds are partial to a bit of contemplation. As I sit on the narrow seat I kick at the strip of mud that has been worn into the lawn where my siblings feet have scuffed the grass as they swing back and forth. I idly pick at the paint that has started to flake away from the metal frame, tracing the pattern of rust that has been left. Smells of nearby grass cuttings and food that is wafting from a neighbour's open kitchen window reach me. It is calm and I await the owl’s arrival. Let me introduce you to the owl.

A few evenings previously I happened to be out in the garden when an owl appeared on top of a nearby fir tree. I froze out of both not wanting to frighten it and some buried fear or wariness. A creature of the night, a wizard’s familiar, a ghost and witch companion. It is my first. A hunched dwarf clothed in feathers. It stayed but briefly, falling from the tree top into a neighbouring garden. It was back the following evening, and after a week my vigil to welcome the owl was in place. It arrived at the same time, flying in - from where I had no idea - swooping to its perch in silence. No, it didn’t fly, it glided, it cut through the air with an ease that suggested it existed on another plane. Not of this world. Maybe not meant for my eyes.

And talking of eyes, it possessed big eyes, black deep pools that looked at me and sucked me in. It owned me. And then, with disdain, discarded me as it left, leaving just as silently as it had arrived. It was brown. I didn’t question as to what type of owl it was, that didn’t matter. In fact, the thought didn’t enter my head. But the bird had gripped me, made me spend a number of evenings sitting on a swing, summoning me to attend its majesty.

And yet, when it stopped visiting, so did my interest. After all, it wasn’t a Jay...

Friday, 13 December 2019

Breathe in... and out


Imagine that you are on top of a cliff, looking back along a majestic sweep of sandy beach which is being gently washed by Atlantic breakers. Feel the wind in your face. Breathe in the tang of salt with a hint of gorse and heather. Listen to the Skylark that has just started up its song as it circles the cliff-top fields.

Close your eyes. Breathe in......... and out.

Now repeat, washing away the negative thoughts and fears. We are not about to enter a real-life 'Hunger Games'. We have not woken up in Orwell's '1984'. We are still among friends who share our values.

Breathe in......... and out.

Double up your effort to be a positive force in society. A helping hand here, a smile there. Do not crumple or give in. You are better than that. And when it all gets a bit too much, pick up your binoculars and go outside. Embrace the chaos. Look into the future with determination.

Can you see it? There, at the far end of this dark tunnel. Light. A great big ball of light.

ND&B. Home of Psued's Corner since 2008.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Six stages



 




I took a number of photos as the latest painting was worked on. It doesn’t really convey the random nature of the composition, with colours and patterns either coming by chance, or being used to mask an error. Free-flow paint daubing is the best way to describe it. Hugely relaxing in the execution. An antidote to any troubling times or mind. Go on, give it a go.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

A Christmas birding carol

Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the fields of Sennen,
Where a pipit ran about,
Deep in mud and even,
Birders came throughout the night,
Though they couldn’t name it,
When one fellow came in sight
Gathering up the bird’s shit.

“Hither Doctor stand by me,
Analyse the faeces,
Yonder Pipit who is he,
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire he flew a good league hence,
And I can name his Daddy,
He didn’t hop a local fence,
Came from an eastern paddy.”

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Crossroads

What would we be doing with our time if we didn’t have an interest in the natural world around us?I’d not really given this a thought, but a recent Blogger exchange with Ric has changed that. What indeed...

Was there a moment in your life that switched you on - seriously switched you on - to becoming almost obsessional with wildlife? There was for me. I’ve blogged about it before. It was the moment a Jay hopped across our back garden lawn and ignited my 15 year old mind. There had been opportunities for this to happen before, times when I had acknowledged a bird, butterfly or mammal but had not felt inspired enough to delve further. Had that Jay not appeared in front of me, would another event have occurred in later years which would have had the same effect? That is hard to predict. I can only imagine that as you grow older, and your mind becomes less malleable, such events would lose their potency, and would be out-competed by any passion that would have been subsequently embraced.

So, no Jay, and no other ignition further down the line. Where would I now be spending my time?

Seeing that most of my mid-teen years was spent birding, I need to look at what ‘floated my boat’ just prior to that. I did have hobbies. I collected stamps and coins. I played football and cricket. I was in the schools athletics team. I went and watched football (Tottenham, Crystal Palace and Sutton United). I read avidly. I painted. Any of these could have become addictions. Maybe I would now be one of those Spurs supporters who go to every game, home and away, spending thousands of pounds each season on tickets and travel; or I would be an exhibiting artist having honed my artistic skills through years of fine tuning; all those history books I devoured might have found me wandering fields with a metal detector or volunteering with an archeological team; or maybe another thunderbolt from a completely different sphere would have struck me and carried me off.

Chance plays a big part it where we go and what we do with our lives. When we reach a crossroads we don’t always knowingly decide which road to take, as we have made our choice by instinct and might not even be aware that we have. It is not until much later that we can look back and see where our life-choices were made.

I’m so glad that the Jay did decide to hop across that lawn back in 1974. Without it I would have missed out on an awful lot.

Friday, 6 December 2019

The Summer footpath


Short days, crap weather, SAD - the winter months can be a right pain in the whatsit. If you're into grilling gulls and scoping through rafts of wildfowl then you're quids in, but if you hanker after butterflies and copious flower then I'm afraid it can all get a little bit difficult. As an antidote to cold fingers and commuting in the dark (although I've given that miserable aspect of travel up) please accept a bit of nostalgia from this summer, all the way from Crete and the Aegean Sea.

Back in June we visited Elounda and, together with brother-in-law Bill, discovered this wonderful footpath that ran from the shores of the Kalydon peninsula up onto the top of a hill range. Here we found an abandoned settlement that stretched for miles along the tops. We later found out that generations of Cretans had used these settlements during the summer months to seasonally tend to livestock and crops. It is an atmospheric place and we both fell in love with it.

We originally approached the hills from the eastern flank, picking our way through the dry scrub finding vague footpaths with which to navigate. But on our descent over the other side stumbled across a well-used path, flanked by low stone walls and accompanying wild flowers and shrubs. These were dripping with Painted Ladies, plus a selection of other species that included Cretan Small Heath. We were escorted by Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, Crested Larks and Sardinian Warblers. It was a virtual wildlife corridor that took us to, and from, a cultural museum. The photographs show what a charming and spellbinding path this was. Magical.

Now back to the Great British Winter.

Ho-hum...

Thursday, 5 December 2019

All quiet on the North Downs front

Banstead Heath goes all Countryfile calendar
At last we have been blessed by a spell of kind weather - sun, calm and frosts - after what seemed like weeks of wind and rain. This week, I've taken the opportunity to visit a number of local patches. I can, with confidence, say that it is very quiet out there.

At Canons Farm the largish finch flock were AWOL, and a couple of dusk vigils for any owls that may - or may not - have been in the vicinity, have drawn a blank. The Mogador farmland was deathly quiet, with not a single lark or pipit to disturb the distant rumble of the M25. Banstead Heath was even quieter, my notebook staying firmly in my pocket and the ink in the pen remaining unused.

Still, it was pleasant to be out, and there is always the hope that something - anything - will break cover and turn an ordinary day into one that becomes extraordinary.

The highlight at Mogador was a number of water-logged fields that lacked any passing waders

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Time and place

The need to get out into the field, to enter ‘green’ space, is something that most of us can identify with. The reason why we have such a need comes in many forms: a release from everyday mundanity; an antidote to modern life and technology; a connection with the natural world; an opportunity to observe wildlife; fresh air and exercise; a chance to contemplate and clear the mind. For some of us it is all of these things, and, no doubt, most of us can come up with many other reasons for why we do so.

One of the suggestions in the paragraph above is ‘a connection with the natural world’ but maybe that should rather read a re-connection. It wasn’t that many years ago - 300 or so - that the vast majority of our population started to leave the countryside and head towards towns and cities to seek regular employment with the hope of better housing. The countryside that they left behind was not necessarily the manicured and tamed panorama that we see today - the idealised vision of village greens, charming country lanes, roadside inns and singing Skylarks are really a modern construct. Our ancestors, from the time before the Industrial Revolution, had yet to suffer from the prohibitions brought on by the Enclosures Acts, but even though they could roam freely across the open land, to do so was not done out of pleasure. For one, leisure time was at a premium, plus there were few tracks in existence and those that were would have been heavily rutted, almost impassable during the winter and - away from their home village - a risky venture. Lawlessness was almost an acceptable response towards strangers. But even so, their relationship with the countryside around them was intimate. They used it as a free resource, they harvested food, gathered firewood, and as such would have had an understanding of the nature around them, which had been passed on down through the generations. This familiarity is more than born out by the many, many names that birds and flowers were given throughout our isles, and by the deep knowledge of which plants were edible and could be used medicinally. Can we have, in the course of a handful of generations, lost this relationship with the land? As much as our ‘fight or flight’ instinct still kicks in - even though we have, by and large, no need for it - it seems almost absurd to suggest that our closeness to the land has been wiped out or can be considered irrelevant.

So, do we really have an in-built ancestral desire to lose ourselves in our ‘wild’ environment? If our forbears had little time to do so, and were most probably wary of wandering far, is this hankering for time spent in a green space built upon more modern needs? Is our mental evolution speeding up? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and this has been further stirred up by recent on-line discussions about patch watching and the adoption of ‘special’ places as bolt holes. Why do I choose where I spend my natural history time? Why does anyone?

Can it be as simple as finding any old place to watch and study natural history? To be honest, most of us never switch off. Even a trip to central London will find me checking for Peregrines and taking note of the pavement ‘weeds’. If our reason for getting ‘out there’ is not strictly, 100%, down to the wildlife then why do we choose where we go? And here we all widely deviate. Coastal headland, reservoir, local park, gravel pit - all worthy of our time, but why are they chosen? The likelihood is that they are adopted because they have a proven record of supplying what we want to see - that they are good for birds, or plants, or insects, or all three. And here we find various stages in what can be construed as ‘good’. Canons Farm can be good, but it is not as good as Holmethorpe, which is not as good as Staines Reservoir, which in turn is not as good as Dungeness. So why do we not just all cut out the middle-patch and go to Dungeness? So maybe we do not use ‘good’ as a requisite for where we go.

Natural beauty? The idealised countryside that our First World War troops fought for, to protect and longed to return to, was one of rolling hills, wild flower meadows, thatched cottages, bustling hedgerows, swaying reedbeds and verdant woods. But with such places freely available to us, why then choose sewage farms, concrete reservoirs and industrial wasteland instead? Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but a pile of effluent or a stark wall of cold-grey reinforced cement is not examples that spring to mind.

The truth may well be that ‘why’ and ‘where’ we go is of a more cerebral and spiritual choice. A decision that is made to vacate what passes for normal life, even if that life is one that is pleasurable. Since the Industrial Revolution our lives have been largely governed by time and machines. We wake up to alarms; have to be at a certain place at a certain time; get to those places by car, train or bus; sit at a computer or operate machinery; have deadlines; shop and bank online; look at phones, tablets or computers to glean information; sit in front of televisions in between operating more machinery to cook, wash and clean for us. This life is incessant, sound-bite driven and rotting away our attention spans. We move on with a speed that borders on manic. Our information overload never stops, and with social media the voices in our heads are rarely switched off. Is it any wonder that we crave some peace and quiet?

I feel confident as to why I choose where I go to get my nature fix. It isn’t because a place is good. It is an amalgamation of natural beauty and escape. My downland sites can be considered visually striking. The woods, farms and heaths close by to them are pleasant on the eye. And they are all quiet. I will see people, but even at a popular beauty-spot like Box Hill, you do not have to wander far to find emptiness and tranquility. Yes, my choices are not of places that would get most birder’s pulses racing, but they all have their moments. But they are, botanically and lepidopterally, of national importance, which gives me great pride and pleasure.

So I walk these considered places largely alone, aware that I walk along footpaths worn by fellow travellers over the years. I can look across the flat lands towards the Greensand Ridge and even the South Downs beyond. I can look along the line of the North Downs. My mind is bathed in balm. Time stops. Thoughts are slowed. My soul is transported back to the time when my ancestors collected wood for the fire, mushrooms for the table and acorns for the pigs. Fanciful? Maybe, but to this birder, who sometimes finds the 21st-century a place of confusion, it is my very own safe place.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Number One


My top 10 natural history events of the last five years has reached its conclusion...

1. The Hawfinch irruption in Surrey, 2017-18
It had to be, didn't it - you do not get to witness many unprecedented ornithological events in a lifetime. The Hawfinch irruption of 2017-18 was truly remarkable. The first suggestion that 'something was going on' started in early October, when larger than usual numbers of this big-billed finch were being recorded across the (mainly) southern part of England. This in itself would have been enough to rewrite the perceived status of migrant Hawfinches, but it didn't stop there. Many stopped off to winter, and here I was very lucky indeed. Firstly, I had the time. Secondly, I had the bit between my teeth. And thirdly I lived right in the thick of it, as the largest Hawfinch gatherings ever recorded in Britain decided to haunt the yew-clad slopes of the North Downs in 'my' part of Surrey.


I spent a great deal of January, February and March 2018 hunting Hawfinch. It became an obsession and it paid off. I located birds at over 25 localities and recorded 6,327 bird days. On February 22nd my day total was of 705 individuals. On March 13th my morning was enlivened by a single flock of 600 birds. Within a three-mile radius of the Mole Gap I am confident that there were over a thousand present. Minimum.  Bramblehall Wood became a site of celebrity, hosting hundreds between early February until early April, and enticed many birders to traverse the undulating, muddy footpath to join in the Hawfinch-fest. Personal counts made during this unforgettable event were:

2017   Headley Heath
A single on 10 October, 32 on 31 October, 26-35 on 1 November, 20+ on 6 November, 15 on 13 November, 12 on 4 December, two on 22 December
          Juniper Bottom, nr Box Hill
          Six flew north-west on 15 October
          Nork, Banstead
          Five (a four and a one) flew east over the back garden on 16 October
          Canons Farm, Banstead
          A single flew south on 25 November
2018   Mickleham Downs
c20 on wooded slopes due east of village on 9 January; six on 10 January; 10 on 13 January, 16 on 6 February, 40+ on 8 February, 22 on 12 February; four on 16 February; seven on 17 February; 46 on 13 March; 80 on 20 March; 14 on 26 March; one on 1 April
          Juniper Top/Ashurst Rough
Two on 10 January, 70+ on 29 January, 200+ on 30 January, a single in song on 4 February, c50 on 12 February; 66 on 15 March; three on 27 October
          Headley Heath
          A single on 18 January
          Bramblehall Wood
c20 on 4 February, 47 on 6 February, 17 on 8 February, 170 on 10 February, 145 on 12 February, 260 on 14 February; 250 on 16 February; 300 on 17 February; 255+ on 19 February; five on 21 February; 420 on 22 February; 260 on 26 February; 325+ on 5 March; 600 on 13 March; 550 on 20 March; 275 on 26 March; 200 on 1 April; three on 9 April
          Dorking Woods
          27 on 6 Feb; 115+ on 18 Feb; 250+ on 22 Feb; four on 23 Feb; 30+ on 26 Feb; 90 on 7 March; 30 on 11; 22 on 22nd
          High Ashurst
          Four on 16 February
          Bagden Farm
          Two on 18 February
          Chapelhill Wood
          Three on 18 February; two on 7 March; seven on 11 March; 20 on 22 March
          Polesden Lacey
          14 on 18 February; 13 on 22 February; three on February 23; two on 7 March; one on 22 March
          Ranmore Common
          30+ on 18 February; four on 22 February; two on February 23; six on 7 March; 37 on 11 March; six on 22 March
          Freehold Wood
          18 on 18 February; two on 11 March; one on 22 March
          Betchworth Hills
          11 on 5 March
          Brockham Quarry
          Two on 5 March; four on 26 March
          Lodge Hill
          Five on 5 March; 24 on 15 March; five on 20 March; two on 26 March; 17 on 1 April
          Juniper Bottom
          123 on 13 March; 249 on 15 March; 50 on 20 March; eight on 1 April
          Box Hill
          35 on 15 March; c40 on 16 March; 16 on 20 March; two on 22 March; 12 on 26 March
          Banstead Wood
          Two on 18 March
          Middlehill Wood
          85 on 20 March
          Ashcombe Wood
          Four on 18 March
          Norbury Park
          Five on 18 March
          Bagden Wood
          Two on 22 March
          Betchworth Quarry
          Three on 26 March
          Canons Farm, Banstead
          Four flew east on 14 April

If you would like to read more, please go to the right-hand tab at the top of the blog (underneath the header) titled 'Hawfinch Corner' which contains a couple of papers that go into far more detail.

This image is courtesy of Peter Alfrey, taken at Bramblehall Wood

Sunday, 1 December 2019

A botanical time-capsule

Scarlet Pimpernel of the blue-flowered form
We've reached number two in the countdown of my 10 most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years.

2. Arable overload
Nationally rare plants within a couple of miles from home is not a prize that is bestowed upon too many naturalists, but when the site that they occur on is opened up for access - and then proves to be an even better site than first thought - it is the stuff of botanical dreams. For the past five years I have had the absolute pleasure of visiting such a place.

Langley Vale Farm occupied a large part of the chalk downland of Walton Downs. It was farmed sensitively and maintained a tremendous arable flora. For many years just a couple of footpaths crossed this land, with access onto the fields prohibited, but there were one of two spots where a wander along a field-edge could be made. And then, in 2014, the farm was put up for sale and purchased by The Woodland Trust (WT). The reaction to the buyer was mixed - on the one hand the farm had been saved from becoming a golf course or a housing estate, but on the other the purpose of the WT in purchasing land is to plant trees - and trees and arable flora do not mix!

A series of meetings took place between the WT and concerned bodies (including the Surrey Botanical Society) which went some way to alleviating concerns that the rare and vulnerable flora was doomed. Indeed, the WT has planted trees, but by and large they have been as good as their word and has spared the best areas for the arable plants - plus, they have invited Plantlife to advise on how best to keep the plants happy.

For the past five years it has been my pleasure and my privilege to be able to walk these fields and help record the nationally notable plants that are present. It really is a time-capsule of what much of our farmland used to be like before pesticides became King. The list of species that I have personally seen here would make even the most experienced of botanists salivate, and they include: Night-flowering Catchfly, Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Common Cudweed, Jersey Cudweed, Round-leaved Fluellen, Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Field Gromwell (just off-site), Ground-pine, Red Hemp-nettle, Cornfield Knot-grass, Blue-flowered Pimpernel, Prickly Poppy, Rough Poppy, Dwarf Spurge, Small Toadflax, Venus's-looking-glass, Weasel's-snout and Field Woundwort. That is some list for one site, and some of them appear in great number! There is also the sheer spectacle of whole fields awash with colour. Langley Vale always surprises and never disappoints. Whether or not the plants are safe in the long-term is open for debate, but right now it is something that I do not take for granted, and treat each summer as possibly the last in which they can be enjoyed. I leave you with a few of the headline species, all taken on site.

Night-flowering Catchfly
Red Hemp-nettle
Field Gromwell
Field Woundwort

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Dungeness at its best

We now get to the top three of my favourite 10 natural history moments from the past five years. Any of these three could have made the top spot, but choices need to be made on the flimsiest of reasons.

3. Why I love Dungeness
A late August - early September stay at Dungeness in 2015 showed the peninsula off in all its finery. I doubt that there have been many other weeks in its 'natural historical record' that have had so much going on (and some of that at a nationally notable level). As each day unfolded I was left with a sense of sheer gratitude that I was witnessing such things.


Butterflies
The only reason to start with the butterflies is ego - because this Long-tailed Blue was self-found and a lifer. On September 1st, after a hefty and prolonged rainstorm, it was flushed when walking across open shingle. It settled on an isolated gorse bush and stayed long enough for me to take but one photo, before it flitted off, not to be relocated despite much searching. I was under the impression that it was a female at the time, but looking at the image above, and seeing quite a bit of blue on the section of upper hindwing that is uncovered, maybe it is a male after all. Other migrants were thin on the ground, with single figure counts of Painted Lady, Red Admiral and two Clouded Yellow (both at ARC).


Moths
Undoubted highlight was the unprecedented numbers of Vestal that came to the MV traps each night and could be easily found resting on vegetation during the day. It was a surreal experience to be walking through grassland flushing them up, easily outnumbering the (to be expected) Yellow Belles. There were definitely high hundreds across the peninsula each day and almost certainly they were in their thousands. My best day tally was 58 on September 2nd. Vestals were not the only migrants - Scarce Bordered Straw (3), Bordered Straw (2), Convolvulus Hawk-moth (4, pictured above) and several Hummingbird Hawk-moths were all recorded. All we lacked was a true rarity, but that would have been just plain greedy.


Orthoptera
The real stars of the shingle were two species of exceedingly rare orthoptera, both discovered by the bird observatory warden, David Walker. Almost every evening the Tree Crickets (above) started to sing, and on the muggiest of them their sound was all surrounding, reminiscent of evenings spent on Greek Islands. They must be present in hundreds. Also in the same, quite small area, were Sickle-bearing Bush-crickets (two images below)



At least seven individuals had been found, and on one particular evening, in the company of the eagle-eyed Mr Walker we (well, in reality, he) found five. All of this amazing activity took place in a small area of lightly vegetated shingle on the edge of the sallow bushes. Singing normally commenced between 19.45 - 20.15hrs with dry and warm nights best. They did not seem to like it being wet or cool, although on the night of September 5th they were quite vocal even though it was cool and breezy. Careful daytime searching often provided both species.

Birds
It was a great week for birds as well. Early-September drift migrants were in strange numbers. A Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike and Icterine Warbler were all duly present but without the supporting cast of Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, which were in depressed numbers (I failed to see the Icterine Warbler despite some very close misses). However, I did latch onto 4 of the 8 Honey Buzzards that crossed the airspace, and also an Osprey which did a lap of the point before heading eastwards out to sea. Two juvenile White-winged Black Terns were present all week, switching their allegiance from the ARC pit to the power station 'patch' towards the end of my stay. Most mornings saw visible migration of Yellow Wagtails, Tree Pipits and Siskins. I could also mention a Cattle Egret, 4 Great White Egrets, 4 Black-necked Grebes, Hobby, Merlin, Raven, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank and Avocet.


Plants
They took a bit of a back-seat as I was mainly looking up! However, I was tipped off as to the presence of New Zealand Spinach on the beach (above). A new experience at Dungeness is the formation of a modest salt marsh, due to a combination of the cessation of shingle removal in this particular area and high tide flooding of a couple of 'dips' between the ridges. It is now possible to see glassworts, Sea Rocket, Annual Sea-blite, Sea Purslane and Frosted Orache, among others.

This still remains, after 43 years of doing so, my most memorable stay at Dungeness. There have been rarer species and larger numbers, but never such depth to the natural history experience.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Mistletoe


Someone is going to get an awful lot more than a peck on the cheek underneath this lot! Seen this morning along the eastern boundary of Norbury Park.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

A great flowering


The countdown continues of my 10 most memorable natural events of the past five years.

4. Banstead in bloom
In the summer of 2015, something special happened within a 15-30 minute walk of my home. The chalk downland to the north and west of Banstead erupted in flower. Millions upon millions - no, make that billions - of plants unfurled their glory, painting the meadows with broad washes of colour. The image above was taken in early August, at Park Downs. Most of the colour that you can see was due to the flowers of Marjoram, Common Ragwort and Wild Carrot.

A few weeks previously, this same field had hosted an orchid extravaganza, with 6,250 Pyramidal and 354 Bee (below) being counted on June 25th. Some of the Bee Orchids were enormous and exhibited many flower-heads. Five days later I carried on along the valley and entered Chipstead Bottom, estimating a further 3,500 Pyramidals - all this in the company of at least 2,270 Meadow Brown and 1,760 Marbled Whites. The latter species was on the wing - in three figures - as early as 07.15hrs. A truly memorable morning.


Local botanist John Peacock tipped me off about the plentiful flower on nearby Banstead Downs, so I just had to go and have a look. Never had I seen so much Dropworth and Kidney Vetch (below). It wasn't all about the species so far mentioned, as they were but a small part of this botanical banquet, with Cat's-ear, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Yellow-rattle, Common Rock Rose, Hairy St.John's-wort, Red Clover, White Clover, Wild Thyme and various trefoils running riot - not forgetting a number of local rarities (which can, for a change, take a back seat).


Over the course of late June - July - early August I spent hours wandering around these local sites. No two visits were the same, with species taking over as the main flowerer as others declined. Every summer I visit the same places in the hope that the show of 2015 will be repeated. So far that has not been equalled.



Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Of Foresters, orchids and shieldbugs


The countdown of my most enjoyable natural events of the past five years continues:

5. Pewsey chalk downland
Up until the late 19th-century, my family roots were firmly established in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire. The family tree that my father pulled together shows a line of simple folk - pot men, farm hands - all born, married and buried within the parishes of All Cannings and Alton Priors. At the end of the 1980s my Father returned, and it was then that I got a chance to reconnect with my forebears. I liked what I found. Fanciful or not, I found a connection. It also happens to be a wonderful place for the naturalist. Pewsey Downs (above) is a piece of prime chalk downland that boasts a great species assemblage. On Wednesday 14th June 2017 I spent a warm, but breezy day wandering the slopes.

I had several major targets - two species of moth (Wood Tiger and Cistus Forester) and the localised Down Shieldbug (Canthophorus impressus). But, targets or not, it is the chalk downland flora that always steals the show. There were literally hundreds of thousands of orchids throughout the site, mostly Common Spotted but I also recorded Lesser Butterfly, Bee, Chalk Fragrant, Pyramidal and Frog (below). I have seen Burnt here, but today was possibly too early as they tend to flower in July on Pewsey Downs.


The breeze started to pick up as the morning wore on, and this was keeping the butterflies mostly hidden (the site holds Marsh Fritillary and Adonis Blue). The search for my day-flying moth targets was not going according to plan either, but after three hours I came across a section of hillside that held several Cistus Forester (below). By the end of the afternoon I had seen a minimum of 20.


The presence of Down Shieldbug on site is because its food plant -  Bastard-toadflax - can be found quite easily here. I came across six 'mats' of the plant and found the shieldbug on two of them (below). As the afternoon wore on the hills started to fill with kite-surfers. The car-park was now jammed and the wind was now gusting force 5-6. Time to go. I had spent a magical day on the downs, the natural wonders on show had been in tandem with my perceived spiritual connection. I would need to return to hunt down the elusive Wood Tiger, not that I needed an excuse to do so.


As much as it had been a special day for me, it will be one that I think back on with sadness. I had left home, in darkness, so that I could arrive on the downs soon after first light. The radio in the car was relaying news about the dreadful, ongoing fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. As you drive over the race course at Epsom you get a bird's-eye view of the city, particularly out to the west. I looked over in that direction and could see, in the distance, the fiery glow coming from that fated tower block. It was a shocking and sobering sight.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Golden Gav

One of the joyful by-products of blogging is getting to know other bloggers and their wonderful blogs. As is the case in all walks of life, some bloggers are more comfortable at blogging than others - they write well, come up with fresh thoughts, and package it all in a most inclusive and accessible way. I could name several who fit this category, but forgive me if I ‘big’ up just the one at this moment in time.

Gavin Haig (Not Quite Scilly) has been a purveyor of fine blog posts for many a year, although he had become an infrequent blogger of late, with just six posts between January - September of this year. I don’t know what happened to him at the start of October, but whatever it was it has injected him with the manic fervour of a born-again blogger. He has posted 25 times in the past seven weeks, and not just any old filler but really well-crafted prose.

He has recently written a fine series of posts analysing the subject of ‘Dodgy Birders’. This thread has taken on a life of its own, culminating in a surprising and enlightening communication... you can read the denouement by clicking here but I strongly urge you to read Gav’s whole input.

It would be nice to think that the NQS blog is back with us on a regular basis, although if we are just witnessing a brief but wonderful blossoming of wordsmithery then will will just have to be grateful for that, and wait patiently for more. If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder to the rest of us bloggers to up our game...

Saturday, 23 November 2019

24 spikes and a butterfly


The countdown continues for my most enjoyable natural history events of the last five years:

6. Sheepleas in the light and dark
I have never been one of those naturalists who have fallen totally under the spell of orchids. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy looking at them and have spent some wonderful times in their company. But I cannot pretend to be in total awe of them like many others are. If they are there, then great, but my enthusiasm and energy is just as high for many other plant families. I guess that is why it took me so long to finally see Narrow-lipped Helleborine, even though one of the well known stations for this species is not all that far from my home.

In early August of 2016, news started to filter out that the Narrow-lipped Helleborines at Sheepleas, in Surrey, were having a rather good year. Over the years these plants have had a rather 'up-and-down' time of it, with poor flowering years; damage due to being nibbled by deer or slugs; and a slight veil of secrecy as to exactly where they had appeared. So this welcome information was an incentive to go and look. Luckily I knew one of the observers of the said orchids, and asked them if they would divulge a grid reference (or two) to help me in my search. They kindly agreed (and they still receive my thanks with each passing year).

On the morning of August 5th, and armed with a map to the treasure, I parked up at this charming Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve - one of chalk downland and woodland rides that are overflowing with botanical colour. The woodland is bisected by many trails, and it took me quite a while to find where I wanted to be. I spent a good three hours searching the target area and was rewarded with 24 spikes of Narrow-lipped Helleborine. Laying down across the bare woodland floor, head at the same height as their flowers, it was hard not to be won over by this modest plant (modest as far as orchids are concerned!) I took many photographs, which was a challenge in such a dark place, what with the orchids preferring to be under the closed woodland canopy. It isn't very often that my old SLR camera comes out to play, but this was an occasion that warranted it, and I was more than pleased with the results.


After being in the 'dark' for so long I then decided to wander the open and sunny woodland rides and chalk grassland for a couple of hours. It really was arresting, so much flower, so many butterflies. One particular meadow was proving to be highly attractive to butterflies, with several Buddleia bushes attracting scores of Peacocks, Red Admirals, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and Silver-washed Fritillaries. I stood still for a while, taking it all in. Out of the corner of my eye a large, dull butterfly came into view - something wasn't quite right. It flew behind a line of bushes and I went in pursuit. Luckily the insect had alighted on a close Buddleia flower-head and my suspicions were confirmed - it was a valezina form female Silver-washed Fritillary, something that I had longed to see. Although not that uncommon in the large colonies of this species to be found further west, it is harder to come by in Surrey.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Twilight

I'm fast turning into a twilight junky - not the teen literary phenomenon, but the hour of daylight before the night closes in. It's packed with bird action! Each autumn I spend a bit of time checking up on known thrush and corvid roosts (and trying to locate others). You really need to stay scanning in such situations until you can see no more - some birds will not enter a roost until it is pitch black. It is at this time that you get to know a patch really well. The fading light throws familiar ground into strange perspectives. Sound travels further. Your senses are heightened.

This evening was a case in point. I stood on the Epsom Downs gallops looking across and down onto Walton Downs. The most obvious sound was that of Jackdaws, with at least 775 gathering and going to roost, along with 300 Carrion Crows that somehow slunk off earlier and without fanfare. As the light bled from the day a few Redwing started to circle, then a tight flock of 40 fell out of the sky and swooped in front of me - hang on, these weren't thrushes, they were Skylarks - they stayed low to the ground, hugging the grass before disappearing into the gloaming. Another couple of passerines dropped in front of me, this time Meadow Pipits, and settled straight away in the long grass. These were followed by several more, birds that I watched coming in from a long distance, all of them going straight to the same spot. How did they know? Did they roost here every night? A few more thrushes circled overhead in the dying light. Why did they waste so much valuable energy? And just as I was about to leave, 38 Lapwing, butter-knifed winged silhouettes, circled the fields, not quite committing to land but not confident enough to fly off into the darkness for another berth.

And all this happened when most sensible birders would have called it a day. But it's never too late...

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Swarm!

My most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years continue:

7. Hirundines at Canons Farm
The evening of September 20th 2017 saw me standing in the back garden when a group of Swallows powered through at head height, followed by another group a few minutes later. Over the next hour several hundred had done likewise, and as the daylight faded I resolved to be out in the field the following morning to see if this was the start of a meaningful hirundine push.

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs I was pleased to see that there were already a few hirundines on the move. I settled down at my favourite observation point and waited. My wait was not a long one, as within half-an-hour 1200 Swallow and 70 House Martin had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. House Martins then 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 off for a wander round the farm, but with one eye to the skies in case the hirundines started up again. At 11.00hrs, they did. The next couple of hours proved to be memorable. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes and then a great pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds. Geoff Barter then joined me. He had timed it well.

Then an enormous swarm arrived from the north. We stood transfixed. We were surrounded by a minimum of 2,000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summers day. As far as we could tell they all seemed to be House Martins. Those that had been at height suddenly dropped down and the majority of the flock started to feed in a frenzy over the adjacent fields. It was manic. At this point you stop being a mere observer and become a participant - a grounded participant maybe, but one immersed in, and a part of, the action.

As soon as great knots of hirundines moved off south they were quickly replaced by fresh arrivals. A few more Swallows started to appear as the House Martin stream finally started to slow. By 12.45hrs it had quietened down and the spectacle had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs. The final totals were 6710 House Martin (a county record) and 4000 Swallow. And strangely enough, this passage was not replicated elsewhere locally.