Saturday, 24 October 2020

Wonder of the day

The Merveille du Jour is a striking species of moth, as the photograph of the individual above, that came this morning to the Banstead MV, attests. The direct translation of its French common name is 'wonder of the day' - most apt. The first one that I laid eyes on was at Spurn Bird Observatory in October 1985, when birding legend John Cudworth walked into the common room with one perched on the end of a finger. A 'wow' moment if ever there was one, as he was crowded by a mob of appreciative birders. For some it would have been the first time that they had ever taken notice of a moth. Here in Banstead they are not quite annual, so when one comes along they are rightly treated with reverence.

As we get to the back end of the autumn the number of moths, both individuals and species, drops off. But the lepidopterist cannot pack up the MV yet! It is a good time to jam in on a migrant or two, especially if a plume of warm air comes up from the south of Europe. There are also a number of new colonists that are on the wing now, species that I am more than keen to record here - Oak Rustic and Black-spotted Chestnut to name but two. And as we experience milder winters, there is never really a time when moths are NOT on the wing. It would take a big freeze and a couple of feet of snow to deter the most keen from switching on the trap.

One of the rarer migrants that I have recorded in Surrey arrived one late October, just under 30 years ago  - this Blair's Mocha. Apart from a single at Dungeness it is the only one that I have seen. But tonight the MV is staying indoors, as a strong SW and heavy rain is dictating events.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Natural history books of the year

The following three natural history books were published during the year and deserve as much publicity and praise as they can get. If you haven't read them then I can whole-heartedly recommend each and every one. Greenery by Tim Dee is part travelogue, using the season of Spring as a framework on which to hang a series of essays covering much more than the awakening of the natural world. It is a thought-provoking book that ends with the author pondering his own life's journey, the fall into autumn being mirrored by his own bodies frailties. Powerful stuff and, as always from Mr Dee, superbly written. 

His Imperial Majesty by Matthew Oates is the author's love letter to the Purple Emperor butterfly. For a book that is dense with intrinsic information it is nothing but a joyful read. The insect’s life cycle, distribution, abundance and a site gazetteer is amalgamated into the story of all those obsessives who spend each summer in HIM's presence. 

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght follows the author's studies of the rare Blakiston's Fish Owl in Far Eastern Russia. You can feel the biting cold, share in the triumphs (and the failures) of the fieldwork and join him and his team in the field as they slowly build up knowledge of this enigmatic owl, with months of relentless searching of the riverine habitats. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A Stonechat. Discuss.

Yesterday afternoon, in dull light and rain, I came across a strikingly pale Stonechat in a grassy paddock at Little Woodcote in Surrey. It had something of the Whinchat about it, all creamy peaches and obvious supercillium, but it was distant and flighty. My schoolboy error was in not having my scope with me, and seeing that I needed to get home, the bridge camera came out and I took a couple of dodgy shots. These were enough to elicit interest from a few birders, one of which, Peter Alfrey, met me shortly after first light this morning to try and see if the bird was (a) still present and (b) a wanderer from further east.

Thankfully the bird had stayed overnight and had remained in the meadow, and not only that, it was an awfully lot closer than yesterday. A ‘typical’ female Stonechat was keeping it company, highlighting the striking paleness of ‘our’ birds underparts, lacking the orange-russet tones of its typical hibernans companion. Again, the supercillium was marked and obvious. Peter fired off a number of shots with his camera while I obtained some video. Our initial observations revealed chestnut upper-tail coverts that exhibited some dark streaking, but maybe not in a neat regular pattern. Underwing coverts were not easy to see, although they did not appear to be black, which suggested that if our bird had indeed wandered from the east it would be a female.

Those upper-tail coverts, with the streaking, initially sent the ‘eastern trail’ into a dead-end, as we expected both eastern species, Siberian (maurus) and Stejneger’s (stejnegeri) to exhibit unmarked upper-tail coverts. We had still yet to scrutinise the photographic evidence of the state of the rump. I did remember something about Stejneger’s Stonechat sometimes exhibiting upper-tail covert streaking, and dug out a paper that appeared in British Birds (November 2014). In it, the authors state that out of c200 stejnegeri Stonechats handled, 60% showed some dark streaking on the upper-tail coverts (these being birds that had already moulted the all-white juvenile upper-tail coverts). Were we right in assuming that our bird must be from the west of Europe after all?

Here are three video extracts from this morning. The bird appeared paler in some angles, any change in lighting exaggerating or lessening the effect.

When Peter got to look at his photographic efforts, he was able to answer our questions about the underwing and upper-tail coverts/rump.

The underwing coverts and axillaries are light grey, certainly not any black to be seen. What should be expected of female maura/stejnegeri? Does this conclusively rule them out?

A chestnut rump and upper-tail coverts blessed with plenty of darker streaking, certainly not maura and maybe the streaking is too evenly spaced for stejnegeri? 

We have both come to the conclusion that, as striking and interesting as this bird is, it will not win any prizes as an Eastern Stonechat tribute act. So what is it? Pale hibernans? A rubicola? Whatever its true identity, we now both know an awful lot more about Stonechat identification.

My thanks to Peter for his use of images and superior input.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

2021. Too early?

I love having natural history projects on the go, future plans and aims in which to get motivated and add a level of order to my wanderings. 2020 has, so far, been a year of being diverted, largely governed by COVID restrictions and moral choice. Three holidays/trips were cancelled and my searches for new species of micro-moths were severely restricted. However, this forced me into spending far more time in my immediate area and this had many positive results - the end of year round-up will heavily feature these. Is mid-to-late October too early to start planning for next year? I don't think so - in fact I've already started. So here are my initial thoughts on what 'ND&B 2021' might look like. And yes, things beyond our control might just alter them at short notice...

I'm blessed that I can still get so much out of the wildlife on my doorstep. It does help that I live on the edge of suburbia that then quickly becomes chalk downland, farmland, heath and woodland. It is wonderful for plants and insects (if not so much for birds) and, being in the SE of England, is regularly at the forefront of colonisation by species from the continent that are making their way north and north-westwards. So, the large part of my time will be spent on the Uberpatch with the following targets:

Birds (140 species); Plants (700 species); Moths (500 species); Butterflies (38 species) and Dragonflies (18 species). None of these are anything other than a bit of fun and a means with which to motivate me to keep on trying to identify those tricky micro-moths and difficult plant groups. And, as a frivolous aside, I will keep a record of how many steps I take in the search of them all - the aim is of completing 1,000,000 of them. That should be a doddle.

I had identified a number of plant species within the SE of England that I was going to target this year, but restrictions meant that it was not advisable to travel and try and see them. Hopefully, this can be resurrected next year.

My dabbling in certain orders of insect (shieldbugs is one) will continue. I'm far removed from being competent with them, so a bit more reading and fieldwork may take me from 'absolute beginner' to the heady heights of mere 'beginner'.

And finally I will try and get in the odd break so that I do not go stir crazy locally. Katrina and I have booked time in Scotland next summer (close to the Perthshire botanical wonders) and I will visit the Sussex South Downs and Kent shingle again. They supply what I need to reinvigorate a jaded soul should that scenario become reality.

Monday, 19 October 2020


The past couple of days has seen me mooching about the place locally, counting thrushes, hunting chats and just being content with my lot. I did nip over to Beddington SF this afternoon to pay my respects to White Stork GB35, a Knepp release. I cannot get too excited about this project and I really don't know why it was started in the first place - my loss. The bird was loafing on the 'wet grassland', more mud and water than vegetation, but hopefully the area will develop into something special. Also present was a Great White Egret, not unexpected these days, even up here on the edge of London.

Yesterday (and today) I finally got around to visiting Little Woodcote, an area of horse paddocks, small holdings, nurseries, hedges, copses and rough grassland. It has an ornithological history and is currently being checked regularly by a number of birders, including Peter Alfrey, Ian Jones and Arjun Dutta. Considering that it is only three miles from my home, and I like to think of myself as a birder of local places, this has been remiss of me. It was a delight to wander around, the area bisected by two paved tracks giving plenty of opportunity to scour the mosaic of habitats. I hit it lucky first time, with a female/imm Ring Ouzel (Ian Jones later photographed it, shown here, with thanks to him for permission to use it). Also present were three Stonechats - and if a site has chats it gets my vote - all females. Today there were still three in the same grassy paddock, but one was a male. Turnover then, but how many? This afternoon I also walked the countryside due south of here, not as birdy but one or two interesting corners were committed to the memory banks for further investigation. Even on my doorstep, and having lived in the area for over 30 years, there is still much to discover.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

A strange place

Mark Davis's evocative shot of Box Hill being photobombed by London

I do find myself in a 'strange' place. 'Strange' because I have, after 46 years of birding, finally come to a place of contentment. 'Happy with my lot' kind of contentment. This after years of 'stop-start' twitching, adopting patches that were over 90-miles away from home, taking on limiting projects with grandiose ideas of what they would yield - I could go on...

This year of COVID-19 did force us (well, most of us) to stay closer to home, limit travel and take on-board the 'new ornithological normal' of walking into a garden or looking out of a window and actually birding - proper birding - as opposed to the pre-COVID19 habit of half-heartedly looking up into the sky as we walked to the car to travel elsewhere. The results were truly unexpected. 'Hidden in plain sight' passages of birds, nocturnal waders and wildfowl and all-day raptor streams that made us get up in the morning (or sit out in the gathering evening gloom) full of anticipation and excitement. When lock-down eased, the return to what we once did ornithologically had subtly shifted.

I can clearly remember the sense of adventure in the summer when I returned to local patches that I had not visited since March. These were places that, if not summarily dismissed beforehand, had been taken somewhat for granted. In this 'new normal' I was seeing them through a clearer, brighter lens. They promised much.

My first birding foray out of the county post-lockdown was to the West Sussex South Downs in early September. I spent two days exploring the hills either side of Washington and had a brilliant time, full of Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Warblers. And then, last week, I had a whole week in the Dungeness area, a place that holds a special place for me, and once again provided some memorable birding. But strangely, when I returned home from these excursions, rather than get depressed about my inferior local birding opportunities compared to where I had just been plying my optics, it did the opposite. My efforts closer to home were energised - I'd undergone the ornithological equivalent of a blood transfusion! 

This week I have witnessed some brilliant thrush migration from the garden. Thousands of Redwings and Fieldfares have streamed westwards with the odd Crossbill and Hawfinch thrown in. Had I still been at Dungeness I would have been able to spend time with a Red-flanked Bluetail, but I would have missed the thrushes. Now, as much as I would have liked to have seen the Bluetail, I will share something with you that you may not believe. I wouldn't swap the thrush experience for the Bluetail. Why not? The thrushes were mine. Nobody else saw them. They were of national numerical relevance. They meant something to me. The Bluetail did not.

I have spent most of the day looking at images of the Norfolk Rufous Bush-chat and the Kent Masked Shrike. I've read accounts of birders tripping over Dusky and Pallas's Warblers. I have not had one pang of envy. I am happy for the finders, and, even though I do not understand why grown men need to drive long-distances to see a bird somebody else has found, I respect their freedom to do so. What do I get from keeping up with this glut of rarities gumming up my media timeline? Hope. Hope that I might be lucky enough to be tossed just a crumb from the birding Gods. As much as my local birding is not about rarity (and how could it?) I am not impervious to the excitement of the chances of it happening, even if those chances are very slim indeed.

After many years of optic abuse, and having dined (maybe just briefly) at the top table, it is a blessing to be able to get so much out of birding in places of modest means, close to home. There is a perverse sense of 'trailblazing' and trying to prove a point that 'local and dry' can be rewarding. When it comes right - and it often does - it is exhilarating. 

This week, as I have stepped out of the back door to wait for dawn to break and the thrushes to start passing overhead, I have chuckled to myself. How lucky am I that this, the simplest and purest form of birding, can still float my boat after so long. I don't need a Bush-chat or a Bluetail. If I start to get a bit ornithologically leggy I just need a quick trip down to the Sussex downs or the Kent shingle to recharge the batteries, and then it's back to my modest scrap of Surrey. Even on the edge of London, there is much to see. And who knows, there might be a chat with a blue tail waiting for me...

Tuesday, 13 October 2020


The past three Octobers has seen my birding effort dedicated to finding decent visible migration spots in Surrey. My search has been deliberately confined to within ten miles from home. So far, and largely with good return, I have tried Box Hill, Colley Hill, Denbies Hillside, Epsom Downs, Canons Farm, Priest Hill and last, but not least, my back garden in Banstead. It is the latter that I will expand upon for this post.

I am on (for Surrey) fairly high ground, a northerly spur of the North Downs. The garden is of moderate size and is north-westerly facing, looking up and along a slope. Neighbouring roof tops and a mature Ash tree cuts down visibility somewhat, but I can position myself to be able to see most of the sky, with the southwards views quite good and, looking across to a slightly higher ridge some 600m away, far-reaching in places.

Back-garden vis-migging was born out of convenience, but it soon became apparent that it would repay my efforts. Big hirundine and thrush movements were forthcoming, with the odd unexpected highlight thrown in (such as Woodlark, Hawfinch and several Crossbills). Yesterday found me outside at dawn, and it turned out to be a memorable session, with a west to north-westerly passage of 7,724 Redwings, 419 Chaffinches, 30 Fieldfare and a Brambling. 

Over the past three years I have come to the conclusion that thrushes have a particular liking for ‘my’ area - there does seem to be a clear flight-line that runs east-west, being visible above - and to the south - of my house. Passage to the north is not as heavy, although it must be admitted that my views are a little compromised in this direction. This flight-line can move further to the south, so that the birds are closer to the higher ridge. I have often wondered whether or not I’d be better off on this ridge, where Nork Park is situated, which handily affords far-reaching views.

Today I was, once more, in the back garden and was delighted to find that the thrushes were again on the move. Redwings did not reach the heady-heights of yesterday, with 3,203 being recorded, but Fieldfares came to the fore, a magnificent 1,558 passing overhead. One dramatic flock of 300 birds contained both species. As the morning wore on the thrush flight-line moved further south, but was still in view and countable. But when I started to pick out distant dots by the ridge I made my move - all of 800m - and spent the last hour of the session on the open slopes of Nork Park. I was at once vindicated as several large flocks moved directly over me, facilitating accurate counting of birds, particularly those of mixed species (some including a few Chaffinches).

This got me into some unhealthy thinking. What if I had stood here yesterday? How many more Redwings would I have recorded? Without doubt, the distant birds of yesterday would have been closer here, and surely the stream would also have covered the top of the ridge. If that was the case, they would not have been viewable from home. These additional birds would have, no doubt, been countered by a number of birds that would not have been visible from the park, ie those which had passed directly over (or to the north) of my house. So where best to stand? Stick or twist? Tomorrow may have the answer, although the thrushes may decide not to turn up...

It is incredible to be able to witness such migration at home. It can be seen above any dwelling in the country. It’s free and spectacular. If you haven’t already, give it a go!