Saturday, 26 January 2013

Stirring under the snow

Colley Hill this morning, looking westwards towards where I would have been standing when I took the photograph shown in the previous post. Don't be fooled into thinking that there must be Mountain Hares, Ptarmigans and rare saxifrages nearby, because this is only at the heady height of 220m. Granted, a virtual mountain range for an East Anglian, but a poor excuse for upland to our more northern friends.

It was quiet. Three individual Skylarks moving east was just about it as far as viz mig went, and the only surprise was flushing four Red-legged Partridges on the southern scarp. Most gratifying was the melting snow revealing the leaves of thousands of violets, plus some flowering Dog's Mercury. There was even enough warmth in the sun to unleash a few hardy flies.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Wanted: another birding believer

This is Colley Hill, west of Reigate and east of the Mole Gap. It's a south facing scarp of the North Downs and a place that I reckon should - should - be good for observing bird migration. My efforts so far to establish this site as such has so far resulted in a big fat blank.

My search for a local site that is a migration hot spot is ongoing and, to be quite frank, one of unfinished business. Apart from Colley Hill, I reckon that the mouth of the Mole Gap (at Dorking) and the scrub to the northern side of Epsom Downs are worthy of extended observation. All these, I am sure, would reap reward from concerted effort.

I do have one success, although most of this has been deflected to others. I first came across Canons Farm in 2002/3 and partially birded it in 2005-2008, this time of which was borne out of a certainty that the area had birding potential. My lone study did reveal a turnover of interesting birds (such as Woodlark, Goshawk, Golden Plover, Crossbill and a magnificent winter bird assemblage). It did take one young birding whirlwind to prove beyond doubt that this area was good - and he was enticed there by my modest findings. Therefore I'm convinced that these other places could be just as good.

So - what I need is redundancy, early retirement or a mass breakout of bunking off work to put my theories into practice... but I'm convinced that they would, over time, prove true. So, who out there wants to team up and try to put another northern Surrey site on the ornithological map?


Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie was a Christmas present. I’d suggested it as a gift from one of my daughters after coming across a copy in a bookshop and liking what I saw as I flicked through it. What I’d read was enough to convince me that this was worth a read. I’ve now done so and can thoroughly recommend it.

If you are the sort that shies away from prose and creative writing then be warned. As much as Jamie’s writing is accurate natural history reporting it is undeniably descriptive, but her skills are in conveying not only her feelings towards a subject but also being able to transport the reader to the places that she is telling us about.

Each chapter is a separate essay, most of the action taking place in northern climes (Scotland, Norway, Greenland). They are varied in subject matter, from a whale museum in Bergen; a pathology lab putting cancers under the microscope; watching Killer Whales from a seabird colony; observing a lunar eclipse; through to glaciers and icebergs from the deck of a cruise ship. 

Most of my enjoyment came from feeling that I’d actually been present with her and had experienced the sights set before us. I really do feel as if I have visited that museum in Bergen and was standing with her by an open upstairs window watching the moon morph. She also has a way of conveying a child-like wonder in an adult’s world, which is not as easy as it seems. If you liked Tim Dee's The Running Sky (and who didn't?) then this will be worth your while.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

How to spend a bit of time

A bit of spare time + a computer + notebooks full of records = creating meaningless reports. That's what I've been doing, on and off, for the past few months. My highly personal and ludicrous uber patch has inspired me to collate all of my records from that area and produce three reports - one each for birds, moths and plants. At the core of each is a systematic list with such information as highest counts, early and late dates, details of rarities and a list of sites. It is work in progress, with only the bird report remotely completed. Who's it for? Just me, although any interested party will be welcome to a pdf when they are finished. Being electronic means, of course, they never will be finished. I update them after every trip out into the field...

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Twitter ye not

After tweeting since September on a regular basis (after having had an account for quite a long time) I've closed it. I found myself checking on others tweets far too regularly, was tweeting for the sake of it and decided that too much of my time was being spent with it. My original aim was sharing of information - well, texting, emailing, phone calling and - get this for an idea - face-to-face conversation - will suffice. I'm not a luddite, I've decided it isn't for me.

Any regular visitor to this blog will at once identify such action as typical of me. Never settling on anything, always questioning what I do and how I do it. Common sense or measured reasoning are sometimes lacking in such judgements, but this just feels right.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

More crows and gulls

After dismissing crows and gulls in my last post I found myself at Holmethorpe Sand Pits this afternoon watching mostly... crows and gulls - I can't keep away from them. Or is it just that they form the largest components of bird biomass in my area?

Anyhow, a good 3,000 gulls were loafing around the landfill and water bodies with at least 2,000 being Herring Gulls. I reckon the gull above is a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull, present on the Water Colour lagoons, but if any of you larophiles out there think I've made a schoolboy error then please let me know.

The crow part of the day was by courtesy of 1,500 Jackdaws gathering to roost. This many Jackdaws cackling away at once is an inspiring experience when you are in the middle of them.

This year has already lost it's lustre - that's not to say that I'm disenchanted, just that the newness has rubbed off, the resolutions are in tatters and reality has set in. 2013 is well and truly here - let the games begin.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Woe is Beddington

Beddington Sewage Farm has played a big part in the history of ornithological recording in the London area. It could be argued that its influence has been even more widely felt as such illustrious names as Peter Grant, Bob Scott and Simon Aspinall all honed their birding skills there.

I was first aware of the place when I read about it in John Gooder’s ‘Where to Watch Birds’. On the basis of the promise of good birding  I obtained a permit as a fifteen-year-old in 1974 .I then became an avid Beddington patch watcher in 1975, visiting at least weekly. Back then it didn’t take much to make my day memorable, and I can still recall the thrill of my first ever Wheatear; the sheer stomach-churning excitement as I approached the wader-friendly sludge beds on 100 acre during the summers of 1975-76; spending soporific summer days mist netting Swifts with Ken and Mike when time stretched ahead of me in a seemingly endless run; the golden haze above the top of the rank vegetation that turned out to be tens of thousands of skipper butterflies; the feeling of being in the middle of the countryside with hedgerows full of foaming hawthorn.... 

The Beddington of today is a different place. It has always been a place of industry, but that industry used to be of a gentle nature. Now it is one of violent rape. Vast areas are opened up, lined with old tyres and filled with the rotting waste from South London. Refuse is allowed to be blown across the area which is characterised by plastic bags choking water-bodies. Metal sheers out of the ground to spike the unwary. Mud now oozes over the farm in rivers like congealed arteries. The characteristic birds of the area are gulls and crows, brutish and callous.

I find it hard to enjoy my time there. After regular observations up until the spring of last year I have been back just twice, the last time on Sunday. I enjoyed meeting up with the regular birders but came away feeling unclean, as if the stench and detritus of the place had entered my soul.

Nostalgia always paints a rosy picture of what went before. In this case I don’t think that it is a picture that has been made to appear better because of youth and time. Beddington is blighted, pure and simple. Can the nature survive beyond making record counts of the scavenging gulls and crows? Will big business commit to replacing the habitats they have destroyed with properly thought out and sustainable other habitats? Will the Tree Sparrow population still be there when all the landfill space has been exhausted and tidied up?  I’m not so sure...

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Mud and pheremones

Saturday found me wandering along a muddy footpath in woodland close to Polesden Lacey, which produced a couple of Marsh Tits. The tea and flapjacks afterwards ran them a close second. Mud was the overriding theme on Sunday, as I paid a visit to Beddington SF. This site is squelchy at the best of times, but after one of the wettest Decembers of recent years it was worse than normal. Bird wise it was fairly quiet, although a Water Pipit and several Tree Sparrows were just two of the highlights.

The moth trap has been decidedly poor. Mild nights have not resulted in moths caught. The current clement spell is about to end, so I would imagine this window of opportunity is about to be closed. Planning for the summer, I have just ordered a bumper pack of pheromone lures from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies which I hope will help me to record several species of clearwing in the summer.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Moths are go!

Anyone with an interest in moths will have noticed that the past couple of nights have been overcast, calm and mild - conditions that, even in the depths of winter, promise moths. Those trap-fulls during the summer may be a bit of a winter's dream, but I would still expect a few moths on such nights as these.

January 2nd provided a Light Brown Apple Moth and two tortrixes that were so plain that any attempt on my part to identify them was just a non-starter. Last night I trapped just the one, but it was a new species for me - Acleris schalleriana (left). This is a common enough micro which has so far eluded my detection (mainly due to my lax recording of non-macro moths). My efforts during 2012 to do a bit better in this department need to step up a gear this year.

As always, if any of the more knowledgable visitors to this blog disagree with any of my micro identification (or can suggest critical congeners that I may have overlooked), then do please let me know.

The mild weather continues, so the MV will stay out. I've yet to pick up a macro, and there are other traps in southern England that are already doing quite nicely.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The storm before the calm

Firstly a rant.

I was watching something or other on ITV (featuring people I had to keep asking my daughter as to who they were), when the programme went to an advertisement break. I then heard the following voice over:

"Morrisons - proud sponsors of Christmas on ITV"

Just take that in a moment. Morrisons the supermarket, believe that they have ownership of the religious festival known as Christmas. Apparently it is their's to embrace in a tacky yuletide cuddle. Whatever next, 'Fresh Air - exclusively yours through the kindness of Nike" or "All the worlds sea water by kind permission of Starbuck's!"

It makes me mad...

I did see some birds today by the way - one of the Banstead Downs Firecrests couldn't play hide-and-seek terribly well and one of the Sutton peregrines showed up at Quadrant House in the late afternoon gloom.

A deep breath - hold it - and now exhale - OHMMMMMMM

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Have I got Smews for you

Dodgy pun headlines and poor digi-scoped images - not much has changed this year at 'North Downs and Beyond', I can tell you...

My 2013 campaign (yes, we birders like to harden up our image with military analogies) kicked-off (and sporting ones) with a visit to Holmethorpe Sand Pits. I chose this site as there had been a drake Smew present for the past couple of days, and also a chance to catch up with my good friends Gordon and Graham. All three were year-ticked without any problems at all.

The flooded Moors region revealed a minimum of 8 Jack Snipe - and considering that you cannot access the vast majority of this area (it is behind fencing to stop birder's enjoying themselves), heaven knows how many are actually out there. Two Little Egrets were close by.

A Goldeneye, 8 Egyptian Geese and 200 Ring-necked Parakeets were other highlights.

This photograph is of Mercer's Farm, looking east towards the North Downs. It used to be home to a wintering Lapwing flock of 3,500 during the 1990s, but changes in farming practice soon saw to that spectacle. Today we struggled to find a Skylark. There is a strong chance that this view will soon disappear as there are plans afoot to extract sand. Good news for Smew but not the resident Yellowhammers.

My aim this year is to cover the 'Uber patch' with nothing more than choosing a site because I fancy doing it. The choice may be down to targeting a specific species, due to checking on the current status of a plant, or just because I fancy a walk along a particularly beautiful stretch of the downs. I will keep a running total of all birds, plants and lepidoptera if only to ensure that I try to get involved in some critical identification - some of it may stick. It will be a meandering journey that will take me wherever I end up going. Free-form natural history, if you like.

Whatever you are doing in 2013, above all else, enjoy what you do!