Friday, 9 April 2021

We're going on a Wheatear hunt!

I like Wheatears. They're the best. So when the fair county of Surrey has a day when these delightful 'white-arses' are being widely observed in decent numbers I need little encouragement to get out in the field and count them. But, like all good things, they will not just appear in front of you on demand. A certain amount of toil is needed to be rewarded. I have three Wheatear hotspots close to home, but not all of them played ball.

Canons Farm - no Wheatear.

Priest Hill - no Wheatear.

Epsom Downs - eight Wheatear! All but one on the race course itself. Seven males and a female.

Mockingbird? No, as much as I can understand why many birders wanted to go and see one, give me a Wheatear any day of the week. In fact, give me several...

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Mockingbirds to the left of me, eagles to the right, here I am...

It must say something about my state of birding mind that, as I was quietly checking some farmland close to Holmwood (on a spur of the Greensand ridge), and news started to get out about a Mockingbird (only 18 miles to the south) and a White-tailed Eagle (13 miles to the north), I calmly carried on without any thought of abandonment. Mad? Sane? Bereft of enthusiasm? Maybe. Maybe all three...

I was checking an area of land centred on Swires Farm. Local birders have had some success here, and after I paid it a visit back in the winter was keen to return. It was certainly worthwhile, with a Hobby, a Green Sandpiper, 4 Wheatear and 18 Yellowhammer the highlights. A fair sprinkling of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps were present, with plenty of Cuckoo-flower to brighten up the walk.

When finished, I pondered on the two rarities either side of me, gave it brief thought, and decided to return home. I’m either the world’s most social anti-social birder, or the most anti-social social birder... neither camp quite fits.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Vis-mig and an Ouzel


With lockdown partially eased, I felt confident enough to visit Box Hill for my first 'visible-migration' watch of the year. I took up position at my normal spot, below and to the west of the public viewpoint. This allows clear sight of birds arriving along the scarp, and also those a that are coming out of, or going into, the Mole Gap. The image above is what can be seen if you look straight ahead from my 'vis-mig' spot - the town of Dorking, with the Greensand Ridge in the far background. A small knoll, 'The Nower', is on the left-hand side (in the middle-ground), with the Mole Gap on the far right, in front of the rising hills that go up to Denbies and Ranmore. It was not a seismic migration session, as can be seen. For those of you not familiar with the migration site Trektellen, an asterisk against a species name denotes a differing direction of travel other than that which is specified. Most of my birds were, in fact, going north up the Mole Gap.


Afterwards I went and familiarised myself with the area of farmland between Denbies Hillside and Westcott. During the winter a few locals had quite a bit of success here. Today was quiet, save for 50+ Linnet. My birding rewards came as I was driving over Epsom Downs, and almost home - a male Ring Ouzel flew directly in front of me and appeared to settle in some golf course scrub. I couldn't stop. There was another thrush with it, but wasn't able to identify it with certainty, but I do have my suspicions...

Friday, 2 April 2021

Time for a rethink

Canons Farm in quieter times

For quite a while now I have been an advocate and champion of local birding. For me, this did go a step further, with my all but giving up of Beddington and Holmethorpe as places to visit - instead of which I focused my attention on sites within walking distance from home. So, for the past few years, this has meant Canons Farm, Priest Hill and Epsom Downs have taken up 80% of my birding time. There have been some good days and good birds, but an awful lot of time spent trying to convince myself of the worthiness of such an enterprise, what with the low number of birds present. And now, particularly with the advent of lockdown and the rise in the number of people who are going 'out for exercise' I find these places virtually swamped with others. They have as much right as me to be there - whether that be with additional dog/horse/friend - but where I once had a modicum of solitude and uninterrupted birding, that certainly is not the case now.

So, time for a rethink.

A rethink certainly means going further afield. Back to Beddington and Holmethorpe (and I am under no illusion that these places are not busy also, but at least they have guaranteed birds!). Finding more out of the way places (I do have some quiet areas of Surrey farmland in mind). And, when safe to do so, back to the south coast and downs. I will still visit Canons Farm, Priest Hill and Epsom Downs now and again, but they can no longer give me what I need in the long run. It is a shame, but you can only convince yourself for so long that you are getting something out of a project when, in fact, you are getting very little indeed.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Summer lovin'...

...happened so fast. After a few hours stomping around Epsom Downs, a male Wheatear appeared close to the grandstand, that made for a good end to the birding session. More to come in the next few days hopefully.


Friday, 26 March 2021

Birding without Borders

Fancy spending a whole year travelling the world to see how many species of bird that you can rack up in twelve months? Well, if you do, don't try and then write a book about the experience, because that will be a harder proposition than the 365-day birding jaunt was... I have just finished Noah Strycker's account of his 2015 odyssey, titled 'Birding without Borders - (BWB)'. I was looking forward to reading this, having read nothing but positive reviews. I had already read Alan Davies and Ruth Miller's account of their 2008 world record attempt (The Biggest Twitch - (TBT)) and it was interesting to compare the two books.

BWB comes in at 326 pages, with a large and airy font. This means that the book is not particularly word heavy. The author was out in the field every day, no breaks, and (spoiler alert) recorded 6,042 species. It is reasonable to understand that this means that there are more days spent in the field than there are pages in the book, and that if the species were all to get a mention in the narrative then there would need to be an average of 18.5 species per page. What the author has decided to do is use 51 pages as a complete list appendix, a blow-by-blow account of what, where and when. On first seeing this I felt a bit cheated that one sixth of the book was taken up in this way, but when reading the narrative it quickly becomes apparent that, because of the editorial choices, it was the only way that a reader could have a firm handle of what happened.

There are some bizarre choices made. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia are covered - altogether - in just one paragraph! The whole lot!! That's 397 species swept under the carpet. Madagascar and Kenya are dismissed in a sentence!!! At the same time he spends three pages describing a stopover in Germany when he went and saw a feral population of Egyptian Geese. There are several other imbalances, but some of these are touching interludes or frank confessions as to why he is doing what he is doing. These gave an emotional edge to the book, a connection with the author beyond him being a robotic birder. The book really needed to be twice as long. Had it been, it could have been a classic.

TBT (300 pages) is far more of a 'went there, saw that' account, denser in narrative but maybe missing the more cerebral aspects of such an enterprise (if, indeed, the authors believed there was one). For a birding adventure, this book wins in my opinion, even if it - possibly - lacks Strycker's depth. They are both worth your while, and both underlined to me that, even though I would dearly love to have travelled more during my life, I would be useless on such an escapade. I would be fretting and worrying at every turn about logistics, safety, the weather, etc, etc. You cannot possibly commit such an adventure to a smallish book. Both have tried in differing ways to get across what happened and what was seen. As to which is the more successful depends on what you want from such a book - why they did it, or what they saw. To cover both aspects needs more pages - many more pages.

Friday, 19 March 2021

24 year grip-back

On January 1st 1997 I had spent a memorable morning at Holmethorpe Sand Pits in the company of Gordon Hay. We had found an Iceland Gull, at first light on Mercer's Lake; a Peregrine had blasted through above our heads (it was still a notable species then); recent cold weather had left a whole suite of wildfowl to pick through, that included Scaup, Pintail and Smew; unfrozen ditches had given up Water Rail, Jack Snipe and Woodcock - it was a splendid few hours of local birding. I had to return home for an afternoon family get-together, so left Gordon on his own shortly before mid-day. And just after mid-day he was treated to the sight of six Whooper Swans fly in, circle the lake, and fly out again. To say that I was disappointed to have missed them is not to be down-played. In fact, only yesterday I was thinking about them, and still managed to give out a huff. 

News broke this morning that five Whooper Swans had been found yesterday (18th) on Earlswood Lakes, just outside of Redhill, and this morning a single bird was still present. Before I could go and pay my respects to it, this too then left - only to be relocated at the scene of my 1997 miss! My chance for redemption, revenge, call it what you will, was there for the taking.

The bird, thankfully, was still present, sat in the middle of Mercer's Lake. It may not have been as close as it would have been at the much smaller Earlswood Lakes, but second-bites are all the sweeter. This is not only a species that I had not seen before at Holmethorpe, it is an Uber-patch tick. Double bubble! To add more pleasure to the morning, I walked across to the Watercolours pits and watched the female Ring-necked Duck at close quarters. This is the same bird that Gordon had found at Priory Park, in Reigate, and I had seen back in December and January. Getting a decent photograph was thwarted by a stand of reeds between us, so I had to make do with some clearer views at a distance. As always, a big thank you to the finders and disseminaters of bird news - it is great to share in these events, and all within seven miles from home.