Something old, something new

It can be disquieting returning to a place that you have strong ties to after many years of absence. This morning, 64-year-old me retrod ground that I haven't walked since 1976, when, as a 17-year old I birded Ashtead and Epsom Commons. Back then I used to catch a bus from Sutton and get off just before Ashtead village, and, via a railway crossing, emerge out onto a lovely area of open ground, with scrub at knee- and waist-height. This was the haunt of guaranteed Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits, plus, in the summer, several pairs of reeling Grasshopper Warblers. Since those halcyon days my visits to the common have been by entry from the other side, concentrating around the stew ponds. It was with some nervousness that I found the railway crossing and went through the gates. Would it all be scrubbed up now? This is what I found... In some aspects I was heartened that I could still recognise the area. Admittedly, the trees are taller (and after 47-years it would be surpri

1980 Part 8: Of committees

After returning home on November 2nd I was back on the shingle a week later, just a quick morning visit that provided two Wheatears, three Black Redstarts and a Firecrest in the moat. It was then on to Elmley, on the Isle of Sheppey, where a wealth of wildfowl included a single White-fronted Goose and three Bewick’s Swans. Wader numbers were high, with 1,000 Dunlins and good numbers of Grey Plovers and Knots, along with two Avocets, two Greenshanks and a Spotted Redshank. In a cold, blue, late-afternoon sky, bathed in sunlight, we sat and watched a minimum of six Short-eared Owls, that hunted over the honey-coloured panorama before us. Back at Beddington, Mike Netherwood had found a Spotted Crake, that was being faithful to one of the large settling beds on 100acre. After a three day wait I saw the bird on November 15th, joining a few other birders sitting on the banking that surrounded the muddy rectangle of vegetated sludge. The crake was oblivious to its admirers, feeding out in the

Starting over

2023 has now greeted us, hopefully to be full of birding promise, my 49th year when clutching a pair of binoculars and a notebook. If I'm being honest, my blind adoption of ornithological positivity on the first day of the year went walk-about several years ago, but I still wander out with a whiff of 'a fresh start' in the air and the misguided assumption that this is the year when it will all come together - the falls of migrants will be spectacular, the finding of rarities effortless and the enjoyment in the field unquestioned. Well, at least the latter will come to pass, even if the other two don't... I do like to have some sort of structure to my natural history year, so I have set myself some self-imposed targets for the next 12 months, hoping to reach the following totals across the Uberpatch: Birds 140 species; Plants 700sp; Moths 500sp; Butterflies 38sp and Dragonflies 18sp. The journey towards trying to attain these totals is the important thing, not the reachi


On Tuesday evening, at 20.05hrs, I was taking out the rubbish, when I heard a call from south-west of the house. I froze, knowing what it was at once, but scarcely believing it. I had listened to this call on Xeno-Canto many times, getting ready for such a moment but not really considering it something that I would hear over the back garden. After 15 seconds the call came again from the blackness, now directly over head. Yes, there was no mistaking it! Another 20 seconds it called a third time - now further away to the north-east... "Kwowww" A lazy drawl, part bark, part yelp. A Bittern. Nocturnal flight-call. I went back inside and played the call on Xeno Canto just to make sure that I had remembered everything correctly. I had. Bloody hell, a Bittern over suburban Banstead! And only a week after an Arctic Skua had blessed me just a mile or so away. Sometimes the birding Gods do smile on you. To some birders these two species are just small fry, mere starters to the main cou

Skua saves the inland autumn

Mid-November saw me finally accept that this mid-to-late autumn had not been a classic. True, I had not ventured far from home, adhering to an almost perverse sense of 'keeping local', but previous years had seen decent visible migration sessions overhead and I saw no reason for that to not be repeated - but, by and large, it didn't. I had just the two days of thrush movement, much smaller than hoped for, and virtually no finches. A number of guaranteed roost sites had also failed to materialise. Ho-hum! But just to prove that it isn't over until 'the  fat  slightly larger than normal lady sings', when scanning the skies from an elevated part of Epsom Downs, this happened... I was hyped up enough about the sighting afterwards to get stuck into some old-school field notes. I'm no fine artist, certainly not when it comes to natural history, but we can all attempt to convey a bit of the magic that birding brings, regardless of whether or not we are classified a

Stones and Darts

The last 10 days has seen me become obsessed in scouring the local patches for large, open, weedy fields and scanning them for Stonechats - the reason? - we are experiencing ridiculously high numbers of these charismatic chats at the moment. Prior to this, my highest local day total for a single site was 10. And as will be shortly revealed, that day total has been smashed, several times over. The first inkling that something unusual was happening occurred on 30th September when I was skywatching from the base of the scarp slope just east of Box Hill. I was aware of three, maybe four Stonechats in front of me, but was more interested in the small number of birds passing overhead. Now and again I would take a break from looking up and scan the fence lines close by. And that was when I was confronted by a loose flock of 17 Stonechats, 10 of which I managed to capture in the image above (one of them is hidden on the bottom wire). Now this was unusual! I returned three days later to find th

A few recent back garden invertebrates

First up is the smart looking tortrix moth Agapeta zoegana . It is relatively common, the larvae feeding on knapweed, and is met with annually in the garden MV. However, it comes in two forms. The one usually encountered is a real looker, a concoction of banana-yellow and milk chocolate. The other, known as ferrugana replaces the yellow with a frothy cappuccino brown (above, right). I hadn't knowingly seen this form until last week, both handily coming to the MV on the morning of August 9th. 'The Smaller Moths of Surrey', published in 2012, suggests that ferrugana "occurs occasionally in the county at a low density." My checking of the MV during this hot weather has not really produced the hoped for 'good' migrant or wanderer, but this disappointment was suspended on the morning of August 5th when this bizarre moth was trapped - a gynandromorph Gypsy Moth, half female, half male. The male half in the above images is exhibited on the left hand side of the