Monday, 25 January 2021

Comeback tit - 3km (Day 4)

The two inches of snow that fell in the Banstead area yesterday was still in place, with sub-zero temperatures overnight giving it all a hard crust, the roads and pavements being slippery as a further result. After the big influx of Skylarks at Canons Farm as a result of the weather, I returned to monitor their number - still 120 present, but down from yesterday’s 200. They were feeding on a couple of the western-most fields along with 150+ Linnets. When they all took to flight, the flurry of clean whites and buffs in such dazzling light, under lit by the reflecting snow, was dazzling.

Adjacent to the farm, on the eastern flank, is Banstead Woods. I spent an hour trying to kick up a Woodcock (in which I failed), but a great success was locating a single Marsh Tit, my first here for several years. When I used to visit these woods from the late-70s this species was ‘a given’, 2-3 individuals easily picked up within just a few minutes. Alas, over the last 10-15 years it has been a difficult bird to find here,  and in the past five years has even been considered as having possibly gone.

Also seen were 3 Red Kites, 3 Common Buzzards, a Barn Owl and 8 Lesser Redpoll.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Snow - 3km (Day 3)

For those of us who live on the edges of London, snow is almost as unusual as finding as BBRC rarity - not quite annual and worth talking about when it does happen. The 'white stuff' started to fall by mid-morning and deposited a good couple of inches before stopping by lunch time. My knee-jerk reaction to snow is to stare up into the skies just in case a few birds have been made to move, but it takes more than a bit of localised winter to stir things up. Never the less, I did visit Canons Farm this afternoon and the snow had in fact played its part in providing a bit more to look at, as at least 200 Skylarks had gathered on InFront George East (that is the name of a field by the way), along with 75 Linnets. The Barn Owl put on a further show, short video attached. I will continue to stare up, hoping for a wayward Golden Plover or Snipe to add to the growing 3km lockdown list.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Discovery - 3km (Day 2)

Three kilometres from home is not a big distance. And when you have lived in the same house for over 30 years, you would expect to know all of those three kilometres intimately, in whatever direction that you choose to take from your front door. And you would be wrong. If lockdown has any silver lining it is that our enforced retreat into the home area opens up the possibility of discovery.

When I look at an OS map of my home area, I am familiar with what lies due south (and to a certain extent north) of me - but not so much to the west and certainly hardly anything to the north-east. I have walked thousands of miles from home, quite literally, but for some reason my inner-compass has taken me away from the north-east. Today I went in search of this 'empty quarter'.

I started with a visit to Priest Hill (north-west and 15+ Greenfinch), then Banstead Downs (north and 40+ Redwing), then veered of into the mysterious north-east. Here I hit the edge of my 3km square, hard up against the perimeter fence of the Banstead prisons (ex-asylums). To the south of these is a large area of paddocks and small holdings, crossed by footpaths and little birded. I cannot claim to any great ornithological victory there this afternoon (save for 100+ Redwings), but I felt as if I had stumbled across a hidden gem. I can clearly see that this area has potential. A footpath then travels south-east across Hengest Farm (new ground for me) to join up with the more familiar Park Downs, and then onto Canons Farm. I ended up with a flock of 57 Fieldfare and a Barn Owl at the latter site. My search for Firecrests and Woodcocks this afternoon may have failed, but I ended the day full of hope.

To have been birding, non-stop, for 47 years, and yet be energised and excited by a few fields, hedgerows and copses on my doorstep, is worth celebrating. And all because the wider world is out-of-bounds. Sometimes you need to be forced into seeing what really is of value in our shallow world.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Owls - 3km (Day 1)

A post-midnight Tawny Owl, heard calling from the gardens in front of the house, kicked off this latest lockdown sideshow. Two brief birding forays were made - this morning to Priest Hill (very quiet, scratching around for the odd Redwing or Meadow Pipit) - and this afternoon to Canons Farm, where a Barn Owl put on a hunting performance between 14.30 - 45hrs, before being seen to re-enter its roosting site having caught nothing. A very modest video can be endured, above. A flock of 50+ Skylarks and a group of 8 Meadow Pipit helped rescue a rather quiet time. And so the first day (of who knows how many) is underway - bringing with it the chance to discover all sorts of wonderful natural history on my doorstep, or, if not, a step closer to madness.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Biting the bullet

The 3km circle based on the shape of a square. All is explained...

They're all at it, all of my blogging chums - Seth, Jono, Stewart, Gavin, Dylan - you can see their blogs over on the right hand side of the screen under the 'Worthy Blogs' tab. And what have they all been up to? Adopting lockdown recording areas, close to home and in the spirit of community welfare, that's what. And all credit to them for doing so. Some of them have decided to record in an area within a five kilometre circumference from home - others have plumped to go imperial and swap kilometres for miles. As for me, I’ve dithered about somewhat. At the end of last year I’d decided to keep within my Uber patch, but that is an area where the extremities need a car journey. After the early-January lockdown I switched to my mini-Uber patch, the furthest point being maybe two-hours on foot from home. But, in light of the way that this pandemic is evolving, there was no way that I now feel comfortable in exploring even the mini-Uber edges, so it was time for a rethink.

Looking at the OS maps, the five km and/or mile options were explored. To put it simply, the five km/miles to the north of me is largely built-up, where as those to the west, south and east are not. I also tend not to wander too far west or east of me, with most of my interest laying to the south. The more I looked at these circles on the maps, the more I realised that I needed to address the elephants in the room - the waste of some of the space within them and the lack of 'real' birding sites anywhere. Beddington lay another two miles further on, Holmethorpe even a little bit further. In some ways, this acceptance of the best birding being just too far away was a relief - the need to push the elasticity of the circle was not necessary. It almost made more sense to withdraw the boundary even more and to concentrate on a smaller area which would give these modest birding areas better coverage. Any water that I could hope to watch over would come courtesy of a handful of small ponds. Most of my most attractive habitat would be patches of farmland, downland and copse. It's what fate has decreed to be my local patches over the coming weeks (or even months). 

I looked at the OS again, selected my closest ‘patches’ that I believe can provided some ornithological relief, and tied them all together in a package - a square package. My home just happens to sit on the boundary of a square, both on the vertical baseline and start of the horizontal axis (the easting and northing). So, I will venture 3 single km squares in each direction, my home ‘sitting’ in the middle of a 6km x 6km square (vaguely equivalent to a 3km circle from home). And why didn’t I just draw a circle like everybody else? No reason, although I do have 36 equal-sized 1km recording units at my disposal.

I did start with the idea of listing all of the plants and moths that I come across, but now I'm not so sure. I'll see how it all goes. Recording plants along suburban roads is a rewarding pastime, but I don't think that stopping and starting, kneeling down and examining a specimen through a hand-lens is the way to behave at the moment. Such behaviour is fine out in the open, but 60% of my area will not be open.

Perverse as ever, I'll start tomorrow. It's a small area, perfectly coverable but large enough to keep me on my toes. I know that there is a decent Ring-necked Parakeet roost somewhere. How many Blackcaps are wintering in my 3km 'circle'? What, exactly, is out there? Let's find out...

Sunday, 17 January 2021

We will remember them

When the Woodland Trust purchased Langley Bottom Farm several years ago, it most probably saved this corner of the Surrey downs from becoming yet another golf course or, worse still, a housing estate. The farmland of the north downs has always struggled to provide well, with the dry chalky soil riddled with flints and it does not carry much value. Langley Bottom Farm had been cared for sympathetically, with a good arable flora and set-aside strips and game cover present that catered for a small shoot. Lapwings still bred on three fields and a good population of Skylarks were present all year round. Small copses had been left alone, and much of the hedgerow was deep and ancient.

Needless to say, when the Woodland Trust revealed their plans for the farm, and of their intention to plant it with trees to create a commemorative wood, the local naturalists were concerned. After several meetings with interested parties a compromise was agreed. Open fields would be left for the Lapwings, and areas identified as botanically rich would be maintained. After five years these measures have allowed for a relatively successful outcome for both waders and plants. As for the WT planting, that has more or less been completed. The wood is one of several around the country that commemorates the centenary of the end of the Great War in 1918. Today I spent some time at the highest point of the farm where 12 stone statues have been erected, marking General Kitchener’s visit to the army encampment that was situated here during the conflict. He visited in January 1915, and the statues represent the civilian and military personnel who were paraded that day.

The woodland is still in its sapling and plastic guard phase, lines of trees marked out in rows, falling away across the undulating land, echoing the lines of war graves that lie silent across the English Channel. I had spent a while looking at the respectful work that has been carried out, admiring the stones, decorated benches and sculptures that dot the hills. My disappointment of a poor morning’s birding was put firmly in perspective. I sat in the weak winter sun and thought of the hundreds of thousands of poor souls that had been wrenched from their quiet, normal lives to be sent to an early death. And here was I, having been blessed with a full life, morose because there weren’t many birds to count. I told myself off. 

My mind was snapped back into 2021 when I walked along one of my favourite ‘weedy strips’ that contour the grassy, southern side of Epsom Downs racecourse. These strips are slightly raised and boast a handful of small trees as well. Any walk along their considerable length will kick up a lark, pipit or chat. This morning two new Stonechats were present, a pair, both un-ringed. The male was a confiding bird, and as any regular visitor to this blog will know, I cannot resist photographing a Stonechat! The ringed male was also seen, lurking along the fence-line by the sheep.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Getting to know you

Not the hedgerow mentioned in the text, but one of many to check across the site

Seeing that most of us are adhering to lockdown rules, our birding footprint has become a much smaller one, modestly centred around our homes. I have become slightly obsessed with what I can hope to find on Epsom and Walton Downs, especially as I can easily walk there in 20 minutes, and the furthest point is only a further 30 minutes on from there. Canons Farm is a similar distance, and a place where I have had far more birding success, but it is the former site that is interesting me at the moment - and I do tend to think of it  - Epsom and Walton Downs - as one site, even though cartographers may argue otherwise. The farm fields and copses flow across the boundary lines, as do the Skylarks, thrushes and chats.

Historically E&W Downs have thrown up good birds and good counts. During the 1960s and 70s they were actively covered and the Surrey Bird Reports of the time make interesting reading. My own modest, and erratic, efforts have only produced a few surprises - Woodlark, Golden Plover, Barn Owl, Black Redstart - plus a decent passage of chats and thrushes.

On my wander yesterday I came across a section of Walton Downs that I had not had the chance to explore. Most of the farmland here has been purchased by the Woodland Trust, and has been opened up to the public and planted with trees. These new footpaths are many and largely deserted. The old OS footpaths that I used to walk along enabled me to stare longingly at small copses and hedgerows that were tantalisingly out of reach. Now, these same areas are open to explore. This 'new' area was a field edge that runs southwards along a shallow valley, with a narrow hedgerow along its base. It looks ideal as a corridor of movement. I can imagine birds making their way along it during spring and autumn, with the obligatory stop-off of starts and chats in the autumn - and, if I've been a good boy, maybe even a shrike. But to temper any wishful thinking, there are miles of hedgerows like this, running away across open fields and ripe for exploring. The more I look here, the more I am discovering. It took several years for the Canons Farm 'hot-spots' to be identified, so I cannot expect those on E&W Downs to give themselves up immediately.