Friday, 31 January 2014

Social media - yet again

Before you assume that this post will be full of negativity towards 'social media', it isn't - at least not all of it.

I've had a bit of a whirlwind 24 hours with Facebook. I'm not a complete luddite when it comes to this particular brand. Like a lot of these social media options, I was an early adopter purely because I worked in media and we were encouraged to 'dip our toes in the water'. So Facebook and Twitter were duly embraced and quietly put down again soon afterwards.

I've stopped and started with Facebook several times. I've normally stopped due to social embarrassment - for example, be-friending a family friends 13-year old daughter seemed to be the correct thing to do, as she had requested to 'become my friend'. But when I was subsequently bombarded by information and 'do you know' alerts which all were emanating from up to 20-30 young teenage girls, I could sense the Operation Yew Tree police starting to rev up their engines in the distance. If I'd have known what to do I could have got around it, but deleting the account was the easiest way out.

Yesterday I happened to see on my blog stats that I was getting a lot of traffic from a Facebook page. Intrigued I reactivated my account and found that it was coming from the 'Pan-species lists' site, posted by Seth Gibson drawing attention to a Ramularia purpurascens post that I had made. I was aware that my fellow pan-listers had such a site, but hadn't looked at it for months. I then spent more minutes that were advisable looking through its content and applied to join this particular Facebook group. One thing lead to another, and before I could say "BOOM!" I had joined the following Facebook groups as well - Insects of Britain and Western Europe; British Facebook Birders; UK gulls; Birding London; Widerscope; Seasearch Identification; Birding UK and Ireland; and UK bird identification.

I'm not going to claim that every single contribution made to these groups is going to be faultless, but by scrolling down and sampling what is on offer, I can see that each of them will provide me with information, entertainment plus a platform for discussion with like-minded souls. What's not to like about that? There will no doubt be many more groups out there that I may wish to apply to join. I could even start one of my own, although there might not be much call for 'UK middle-aged misery birding'.

So, Facebook isn't just about posting pictures of kittens in washing machines, gangs of the drunken leering at a camera, or status's that are 'complicated'. But there again, most of you could have told me that, couldn't you.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

What makes a birding patch?

If you have been birding for any length of time you would have adopted at least one site as a 'patch'. The chances are that most of us have had several. What makes us choose them?

I have had several patches over the years, and chronologically they appear like this:

Beddington SF, Surrey
1974-1986; 1993-1995; 2010-2012

Dungeness, Kent
1976 - 1991

Holmethorpe SP, Surrey
1991 - 2010

Canons Farm, Banstead
2005 - 2012

The years shown are those that I could reasonably claim to be regularly birding at those places. I would (and have) continued to visit these sites out of these times, albeit on an irregular basis. But even in absence, there is something about these patches that attracts and continues to draw my attention - but what is it that causes this?

There are better places to bird than Holmethorpe and Canons Farm - Beddington, Staines and Barnes Wetland Centre are but a short journey away - so it isn't necessarily the quality of the birds alone. Nor, apart from Canons Farm, are any of my patches picturesque, what with motorway, railway line, landfill and a nuclear power station just some of the attractions to be found on them. Is it the people? To a point, a good bunch of mates having a crack whilst birding will help lift even the most dire of birding days, but in my experience for every 'good bloke' there will be several 'muppets'.

Your birding history will play a part in determining a patch. If you visited Staines Reservoir several times in your birding infancy and on each occasion saw a good bird, the feel-good factor about visiting there would make each trip an exciting event. You would be much more likely to carry on going on a regular basis, even after the good birds failed to appear each time, because you'd know it was a possibility. And what with regaling the other regulars about your 'early successes', your well on the way to becoming a patch legend!

And then there's the difficulty in ever giving a patch up. After investing so much time and effort (not to mention amassing a big list), you are not easily going to throw it all away and start up somewhere new. This is where having several patches can help. If one becomes a bit tiresome you can always move on to another for a while as you recharge your batteries. The downside is you will miss out on some good birds and good times 'with the boys' if you do so. You will never be the patch King...

So, what is it that makes you stick to a patch? I don't know. I've thought long and hard about it. To me, a patch is a place that I revisit because I enjoy birding there and feel comfortable doing so. You can't ask for much more from a site than that... apart from a few good birds.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

It's back!

Last year, North Downs and beyond launched the Wheatear Trophy. This was in recognition of the fact that birding bloggers just cannot help themselves, and post hundreds of images of the white-arsed bird. No, not hundreds - thousands. It's as if they are suffering from a collective Tourette's Syndrome of Wheatear photography. It's an illness...

Any how, my pleas for calmness and reasoning were ignored, and the images flooded cyberspace. I couldn't beat them, so the trophy was created as an ironic gesture. 2013's winner was Gavin Haig. Regular visitors to blogland may be aware that Gavin has since stopped blogging (most probably suffering an Oenanthe-induced illness). Therefore he won't be around to defend his title.


With a puff of southerly wind at the end of February or the beginning of March, Wheatears could be back - that's only four-five weeks away! So, clean your lenses, look out for the dancing white-rump and click away - you may be the proud new holder of this most sought-after accolade.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Birder's cup of tea code

As birders, we all like a nice cup of tea, don't we. Warming after a hard day's graft in the field, or a social imbibing in a cafe on a birding trip. But we all like our tea in differing ways, none more so than its strength or how much milk we take. This can be problematical and lead to disappointment.

My recent Dungeness visit introduced me to a foolproof way for birders to get the perfect cup of tea to suit themselves - especially if it is to be made by another birder. This was devised by Ray Turley and refined by Mark Hollingworth. Simply put, when asked how you would like your tea, you answer by selecting a warbler on the British list, whose upperpart plumage matches the colour of your perfect cuppa.

So, a weak milky tea will be knowns as 'A Desert Warbler', whilst a strong cuppa could be called a 'Cetti's'. I personally go for a 'Reed Warbler'.

It has been known for shit-hot birders to order a 'Syke's' only to send it back because the strength and colour was more 'Booted'.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Dungeness in mid-winter

I've just completed three days of solid birding in the Dungeness area - if I'm not careful people might mistake me for a birder! Mid-winter at Dungeness is a superb place (there again, it is at any time of year, but I am biased), just take a look at my personal highlights over the short break for confirmation of this:

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Great White Egret (2-3), Glossy Ibis, Black-throated Diver (2), Black-necked Grebe, Bittern, Little Egret (6), Bewick's Swan (52), Smew (4), Marsh Harrier (10+), Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Glaucous Gull (1 adult), Mediterranean Gull, Little Gull (4), Cetti's Warbler (6), Bearded Tit (5), Raven (2).

Plus, there were thousands of Wigeon and Lapwings on the hinterland, and a sea that held a feeding flock of 1600 Great Crested Grebes and c2000 Guillemots. A pure spectacle...

Great fun was had in the company of the local ornithological mafia, in particular the Bard of Littlestone, who put me up in his home and made me drink superior single malt whisky; and Hythe's very own Kenneth Branagh doppleganger, who similarly availed me of his hospitality. Thanks chaps!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

40 years a birder

The realisation came only this morning - I began birding in 1974, so this year marks my fortieth anniversary of being involved in this most absorbing of interests. Forty years? I still feel like I'm nineteen on the inside, even if on the outside I may look very much like a bloke who is 55...

Birding has taken me to places that I would most probably not have visited had it not been for the lure of the feathered beasts - off-shore British islands, Israeli deserts, Malaysian rain forests - and I have been fortunate to meet and befriend a right old cast of characters through this shared obsession. And obsession is the correct word for it. I may have reduced the amount of time that I spend purely birding (due to looking at other aspects of natural history), but birding is always there. I never switch off (just ask my wife when it is me who is driving).

Much has changed over the years. Here are just a few thoughts of the birding life in 1974:

We had but three decent field guides (Peterson, Hamlyn and Collins, the latter the first multi-purpose guide to depict middle-eastern birds).

You had to get British Birds - there wasn't anything else to read.

Bird news came via annual reports, bird society newsletters or, if you were in the know, word of mouth.

Rare bird news was gleaned via personal telephone communication (yes, you had to cultivate a network of like-minded souls and talk to fellow human beings!)

We went on twitches on spec - I have turned up on site to be told the bird had gone three days previously - that's just how it was.

We hitched and slept rough.

Nobody's life list was anywhere near the same. Those that put in the time at bird observatories generally had the most enviable lists. FACT: in 1979 an Alpine Swift hung around at Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire. Not only was it a tick for me, it was also a lifer for most of the big listers. It was an unblocker! Times have changed.

The celebrity birder market was collared by the likes of Robert Dougal and Tony Soper.

Nobody looked at gulls.

Only the most adventurous travelled abroad, with even a trip to the south of France being considered exotic.

Our optics were largely a shambles. My telescope was a draw-pull, it seized up in the wet and cold and was as proficient as looking through a milk bottle (it was a Nickel Supra). I thought I was the dog's bollox when I bought it, though.

Nobody had seen 400 species in the UK - yes, read that again, it's true. Toddlers have seen more now.

Scottish Crossbill did not exist (it still doesn't as far as I'm concerned).

Water Pipits, Hooded Crows and various Redpolls were just sub-species.

I could still see Willow Tits with ease in my area.

Birding has become, without doubt, more proficient with the increase in the quality of optics, instant information and numerous identification advances. It has lost a bit of its soul - or maybe that's just the expected response from someone who still remembers the excitement of getting up in the darkness of a winter's morning, catching two buses to Staines Reservoir and spending the day in the pouring rain -  and not knowing what was going to be there.

That was part of the thrill.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Ramularia purpurascens and should we care?

A couple of weeks ago I visited the River Hogsmill at Bourne Hall, Ewell. I posted an image of a flowering Winter Heliotrope which prompted the following comment from pan-list professional, Seth Gibson:

"I trust you saw the Ramularia purpurascens all over the Winter Heliotrope then?"

Er... pardon? Ram what? I had to Google it. Apparently it's an anamorphic fungus. Does that make it a mushroom, or some sort of shady version of one, like a rust or that white powdery stuff that appears in the superior fungi guides. They don't all look like Fly Agaric, do they...

Anyhow, I was back at Ewell briefly this morning, so I thought I'd better take a closer look at the Heliotropes (of which there was so much more in flower). And many leaves had obvious browny-mauve splodges on them, with paler centres. A bit of internet detective work suggests that I had, indeed, captured Ramularia purpurascens.

There are literally thousands of species out there, in our gardens, parks and woods, that are so unobtrusive (or just plain hidden), that we ignore them - well, obviously Seth doesn't. These are as much a species as anything else, even Wallcreeper, and as such deserve to be looked at and studied. It might not be showy, but is as much a deserving life form as you and I. If you see any Winter Heliotrope when you are next out, take a look at the leaves and prepare to bow before Ramularia purpurascens!

Saturday, 18 January 2014


"Don't forget your wellies"

That could be 2014's catchphrase and never more appropriate than at Holmethorpe. I did my zig-zagging wander over the whole recording area, testing the waterproof quality of my Muckboots and playing 'chicken' with the flooded footpaths, using my tripod to test the depth of the water ahead of me. Oh, and I did some birding.

It wasn't without a few highlights - Shelduck (2), Wigeon (1), Smew (2 redheads),  Jack Snipe (1, a fortuitous flush), Common Snipe (31), Green Sandpiper (2).

The picture above is of The Moors, part of the Holmethorpe empire. Normally you might be hard pushed to see a puddle standing in this spot. There is a serious problem with water levels across this region. All of the sandpits are close to bursting point, and the rise of water in Mercer's Lake is staggering - we are talking 15 - 20 feet or more over the past few years. The recent rains are not the cause of this situation but are obviously adding to it.

I also went to a waterbody within my uberpatch where a female Ruddy Duck has just turned up. The DEFRA hit-squad has missed this one - and just so that it might remain alive I won't publicise the site.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Round-leaved Wintergreen

I was taken, blindfolded, to a place on the North Downs that is handily within my uber patch boundaries. On the threat of binocular confiscation I was sworn to secrecy. The picture above is of Round-leaved Wintergreen, a very rare plant in Surrey and local elsewhere in the UK. A return in the summer to see it in flower is on the cards.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Have I ever mentioned my UK Wallcreepers?

Any regular visitor to this blog will know that every now an again I allude to the fact that I have seen not one, but two Wallcreepers in the UK. In lieu of 'owt else to waffle on about at the moment, I wanted to gloat about share in the glory of the first one...

April 9 1977 Dungeness, Kent
The day had begun with snow showers and a north-easterly wind. I was staying at the bird observatory and by midday, together with four other birders, was sitting in the patch sea-watch hide. Little was moving and after half an hour we had started to lose interest. The noise of somebody running across the shingle towards the hide caught our attention before the firm knocking on the hide door. It was local birder, Mick Sinden.

"I don't know how true this is, but there are rumours of a Wallcreeper on the cliffs at Ecclesbourne Glen". This was, apparently, close to the village of Fairlight (just over the border and into East Sussex), just before you reach the town of Hastings. That is all the information that we had - no times, exact location or names of observers. Welcome to the pre-digital, pre-phone line and pre-pager world of 1977. A mild panic ensued. We all returned to the observatory, where two of the Dungeness birding faces of the time, Keith Redshaw and Kenny Thomas, had also gathered on hearing the news. A road atlas was hastily opened and the exact whereabouts of Fairlight confirmed. Somebody had been there before, but warned that it was a wooded clifftop with no access to the beach below. Surely we would need to be able to scan the cliffs to stand any chance of seeing the bird. It was decided to drive to Hastings and then walk along the beach until we drew level with Fairlight, enabling us to clearly see all of the cliffs.

A convoy of four cars left the observatory, one of them reversing into another before we finally left. It was like a scene from the Keystone Kops (if you are under 50, google them. They are what used to pass as comedy in the olden days). After 45 minutes we arrived at Hastings and parked as close to the eastern cliffs as we could and walked to the beach. Our first major problem faced us - the tide was in and the sea was lapping up at the bottom of the cliff - there was no beach to walk on.

However, when you are young, foolish and there is the promise of a Wallcreeper, all sense goes out of the window and we started to clamber along the narrow ledges and loose rocks at the base of the cliff face. I wouldn't do it now. A few slips were experienced, the odd mini rock fall, but after clambering along maybe half a mile of cliff we met our second major problem - we didn't know where we were in relation to Fairlight Glen or exactly the details behind the bird. We had been in a straggly line, but then regrouped to discuss what best to do. Did we return to the cars and drive round to Fairlight itself to see if there were an advantage point from up high? But then something happened that decided it all for us.

We all saw it at the same time - a flash of iridescent crimson, coming towards us from higher up the cliff face. As one we froze. It came closer, a series of flutters and glides, rounded wings with white spots and that shining, flashing red. And finally it alighted, only yards from us, side-on like an illustration in a field guide. A Wallcreeper... summer plumage to boot, with sooty underparts. We sat on the rocks in a beatific trance and for the next twenty minutes were treated to this most splendid of birds feed in front of us, dancing up and down the cliff face like a giant exotic butterfly. By now the sun was out, the wind had dropped. I looked about me, taking in this most absurd vista - just a green sea, a honey-buff cliff face, a blue sky and the best bird that you could ever see.*

I won't bore you with my second UK Wallcreeper, suffice to say that it was the Cheddar Quarry bird and I saw it of March 5th 1978. This one was in winter plumage. When this species finally returns to these shores and is unblocked I will cry.

*Up until my trip to Malaysia in 1994 this remained my most stunning bird. It was then overtaken by Banded Pitta, then Blue Nuthatch and finally by Cutia. Ever seen a Cutia? F*** me...

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Can you count it?

Spotted Rock Rose - I've only seen it on Jersey, SO HANDS OFF!!!

There's been a bit of a Twitter discussion this evening, between a few of the Surrey/Middlesex based birders, on where it is permissible for you to count a bird tick, as regards your British/UK/GB list.

Simply put: 

The British Isles are England, Wales, Scotland, Eire, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands

The United Kingdom is England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland only. 

Great Britain is England Wales and Scotland only.

The correct answer is, of course, you can count what you want, where you want. A list based on political divisions is an area that has been carved up over the centuries and will always be in a state of flux - imagine having been a big Yugoslavian lister before the country shattered into many pieces. I bet they wept when they had to start again.

I have a bit of a mish-mash as to my wildlife recording areas:

My pathetic bird list is a UK one (although I've not been to Northern Ireland)

My better botanical list is a British Isles one. This is because the recording bodies (BSBI, Wild Flower Society) have always embraced Eire and the Channel Islands as part of their beat, so I have adopted it to. I have visited Jersey on a few occasions and have a healthy plant list from there. Don't try and take it away from me!

Pan-listing allows all records from the British Isles

For no other reason than gut instinct I've always found it rather strange that the Isle of Man has always been off-limits for UK bird listing - it's a lot bloody closer than the Isles of Scilly. And yes, the Channel Islands are as French as Eric Cantona, but hey, I don't make the rules up.

It does show up the absurdity of listing, but we all take part to some degree.

Please read this

If you click on this post you will be taken to George Monbiot's thoughts on funding and flooding. Please take a few moments to read it. Maybe Owen Paterson should do so...

Monday, 13 January 2014

Is UK birding really pants?

My beloved Dungeness - but is it as good as Cap Griz Nez?

This winter has seen a steady trickle of birders crossing the channel to take advantage of nailed-down Dutch owls, followed by a spot of wildfowl overkill. I know that the crusty old shingle-bashers of Dungeness regularly visit France for a fix of l'oiseau. A rare bird on the European mainland within striking distance of a ferry terminal has become fair game to an increasing number of birders. How many of us Brits went to look at that Wallcreeper that turned up on the north French coast a few years ago? This nipping over to the continent for a day isn't new, but it is certainly becoming more common place. Why? Is it because birding in the UK isn't nearly as good as that enjoyed just over the sea? I've got to say that the answer to my last question is probably yes.

Let's take Cap Gris Nez as an example. This headland in France is easily seen from the south Kent coast. I've been there on just a few occasions, but each time I've seen loads of birds. I've been there on days when the weather conditions were far from ideal and yet the birds still came. The same day that I watched 60,000 Chaffinch and 1,500 Brambling coast by the headland, Dungeness recorded totals of 200 and 5 respectively - and I could see Dungeness Power Station as I was watching this rush of finches!

I don't know northern France like the Dungeness boys do. They go over for the day and come back with a list that reads like a Mediterranean vagrant over-shoot wet dream. And there seems to be good birding habitat to burn. Holland is no different, with vast flocks of geese and waterfowl that make our spectacles in Norfolk seem like a park pond get together.

My only winter trip into mid-France (to visit the lakes south of Paris) was one of wonder - only five hours drive from Calais we were watching a large flock of Cranes, Hawfinches all over the place, Black and Middle-spotted Woodpeckers, plenty of raptors, rafts of wildfowl, wild boar and, had we been luckier, White-tailed Eagles. In summer the woods are full of Golden Orioles and Bonelli's Warblers. Beats Bough Beech...

Of course we do get ornithological spectacle over here, but you can't but help feel as if we are experiencing a form of 'birding-lite'. I know where I'd rather be birding, but it would involve crossing over (or under) the sea to get there.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Reality bites

A third of the way through January already. 2014 has, after just 12 days, lost the shiny feel of a 'brave new world' and I have settled down into a life that does not revolve around a year tick and how many pan-species I've seen so far during the month.

Yesterday saw a family outing to the coast, where in glorious weather we walked along the sandy beach at Ferring, with Sanderling scurrying ahead of us, snow white in the brightness. It was warm enough to keep one eye out for a butterfly. I failed, but others up and down the country succeeded - and just a week after the shittiest spell of weather that we've had to suffer for many a year.

It doesn't take long for the hype around a new year to die down. I'm glad when it does so. There's too much expectation to live up to.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Bits of twig and mothy things

When Neil Randon kindly awarded me a Rambler for my blogging last year, he did mention that one of the things that he particularly liked about North Downs and beyond in 2013 was a certain lack of 'bits of twig and mothy things'. Neil, look away now...

Up at Box Hill this afternoon I decided to check the leaves that are still left on the trees for mines. I'm no expert (pure novice), but I thought that I'd give it a go. First up was Holly, and, if I've got it right, there is only one species that mines a holly leaf, and that is the fly Phytomyza ilicis. There were plenty of mined holly leaves on show. Is it all this easy? Next up was this mine on a bramble:

Looking at the leafminer website (all interests are catered for on the web!!) I first plumped for this mine being made by Stigmella splendidissimella, but then decided upon Stigmella aurella. Looking at the Smaller Moths of Surrey book, maybe these two species are best left lumped on a mine alone. Any ideas out there?

Oh so much to learn and so little time to do it in.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A V-shaped hole in my moth world

The latest issue of Atropos has just arrived (click here to find out more about this wonderful journal). One of the articles inside looks at the 'Top Ten most endangered moths in Britain'. They are: New Forest Burnet, Betony Case-bearer, Syncopacma albipalpella, Scythris siccella, Sussex Emerald, V-Moth, Speckled Footman, Stout Dart, Marsh Moth and Reddish Buff. I have seen but one of these - Sussex Emerald. However, to me, one of these species has an air of sadness about it, a shadow from the past that still sends out messages. I'd better explain.

When I began to take moths seriously (1986), not only did I buy a moth trap and the newly published Skinner moth guide, I also obtained a report on the Butterflies and Moths of North-eastern Surrey, published by the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society. It was a collation of all records up until the early 1970s. I used this as a guide as to what I might expect to discover in my garden, (which was then in Cheam). One of the species that I considered a 'shoe-in' was the V-Moth. It appeared to be regularly recorded from the suburban gardens of the area, so therefore I anticipated welcoming it in the not too distant future. It didn't come in that first year of recording.

I moved to Banstead in 1987, an area of mature 1930s gardens. But still the V-moth didn't appear. I didn't fret - after all, this moth was surely in the area and one would fly my way all in good time. In 1997, The Larger Moths of Surrey was published by the Surrey Wildlife Trust. In it, Graham Collins described the V-Moth as 'a fairly widely distributed species that would appear to have declined in frequency in recent years, possibly as a result of pesticide spraying in gardens or the decline in popularity of its foodplants (currant)'. So, I had hard evidence that the species wasn't as numerous as it once was, but still I assumed that I would record it. After all, in the book the Surrey distribution map for this species showed that between 1976 - 1996 it had been recorded in thirty-five 2km square tetrads.

When the Provisional Atlas of the UK's Larger Moths appeared in 2011 was the time that my faith in ever trapping this species evaporated. The map for V-Moth shows a mass of 'open circles,' which represents pre-2000 records. The number of 'solid circles' - showing where post-2000 records have been made - are very few indeed, particularly for London and south-east England. It is slowly, but surely contracting its range.

This latest update from Atropos suggests that analysis of the Rothamsted light-trap network has highlighted a decline of 99% over a forty year period (1968 - 2007). The author (Mark Parsons), is at a loss to give hard reasons behind such a decline, although a reduction in the growing of Black Currants, Red Currants and Gooseberries in gardens and allotments, the grubbing out of older bushes and an increase in the use of pesticides are the most likely causes.

I'd like to illustrate this post with a photograph of a V-Moth, but I can't. You see, I'm still waiting for one...

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Culture at the Hogsmill

My venue of choice this morning was the River Hogsmill at Ewell, walking along its modest flow from Bourne Hall to the Open Space Park. Apparently, this particular stretch of the river was used by the artist John Everett Millais as inspiration and a backdrop to one of his most famous paintings - Ophelia. It depicts the grief stricken Ophelia drowning herself in a stream - but what a beautiful end! I've seen it in The Tate and it is one of my favourite works of art.

Wandering around sans gloves, it could have been spring! Mild and sunny, catkins hanging from Alder and Hazel, mating Coal Tits and plenty of Winter Heliotrope in flower (top, right image). A couple of Kingfishers were showing off and they were joined by a Grey Wagtail. Altogether most agreeable.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A crocodile in Banstead Woods!

A wander through Canons Farm and into Banstead Woods. The birds were thin on the ground, but such 'free' afternoons are something to embrace and enjoy, whether or not our avian friends decide to join in, or not. Having said that, a field full of winter thrushes are never a chore to look at.

If I thought the fields of the farm were quiet, then the woods were deathly. Hardly a twig stirred. It doesn't matter how empty winter woodland can feel, I always get the sensation that I am being watched - not by a person, but by the wood itself. It seems to mull you over, evaluate what you are doing and if you have the woodlands acceptance then you are free to carry on with whatever it is that you are doing.

I spotted this crocodile crouched at the ready, trying to hide in amongst the flattened brambles, dead leaves and bracken. Luckily I had my wits about me...

Monday, 6 January 2014

A windy end

By my reckoning, we are now 15 days into this most unsettled of spells. Can anybody remember such a widespread run of strong winds and rain? I can certainly recall many times when a handful of lows have scurried through, but not on this scale. If ever mans foolishness for building on flood plains has been exposed, then these past few days has seen to it. The idea of looking out of your window onto a picturesque riparian scene was something to aspire to - now it is one fraught with problems.

Being on chalky high ground we do not have to invest in sandbags and canoes, although the trees around here have taken a fearful battering. Our thirty-foot Lawson's Cypress has become a victim of the nagging south-south-westerly gusts. On Saturday morning I thought it looked a little odd and closer inspection revealed the soil around its base slumped, with the trunk leaning. I could see the ground moving with each gust of wind. After alerting the neighbours (this tree would kill anybody standing underneath it if it came down) I then tried to find a tree surgeon. I wasn't surprised that these people are terribly popular at the moment. I did manage to secure a 'surveying' site visit for yesterday and an appointment for felling today. It was a worrying two days, with every heavy burst of rain and gust of wind seemingly about to topple the tree - it started to lean further last night and I was convinced that I would hear its crashing demise during the night, taking with it a small summer-house, fencing and next doors garden furniture. But this morning dawned with the Cypress still upright (just) and it was with some relief that the team of tree surgeons arrived shortly after midday. They did a tremendous job, and if you need a job done in the Epsom area, then phone Bushes n Trees.

Although a Lawson's Cypress isn't the most attractive of trees, our garden is hardly large, so it is leaving a bit of a gap - we stare up the garden and are missing our pillar of evergreen. It is also a foodplant of one of my favourite moths - Blair's Shoulder-knot. I wonder if this will supress my catches of them this coming autumn?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Holmethorpe Smew

Even though I don't 'year list' I do still get caught up with the madness that inflicts birders during the first few days of the year - that being the rabid need to get out into the field and see as many species as possible.

And so I went to Holmethorpe SPs this morning, to pay my respects to the redhead Smew that are wintering on Mercer's Lake. The two birds present had become three overnight, and if you squint hard enough you may just about be able to see them in the amateur photographic offering above.

It was more pleasing to meet up once again with Gordon Hay and Ian Kehl, who, like the Ravens at the Tower of London, preside over their domain with a steadfast devotion which instils comfort for us visitors.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Tales of the Unexpected

On 2 January 2013, I went to check on the wintering Firecrest(s) on Banstead Downs. As I reached the footpath where they can usually be found, the binocular strap around my neck went suddenly limp and I was lucky to catch my binoculars before they fell to the floor - the strap had worked free. After re-threading the strap I continued with my birding, seeing a Firecrest soon afterwards. It was not until the evening that I realised that my Swarovski binocular eye-pieces guard was missing - it must have fallen off when the strap had worked lose. It was not for several weeks that I returned to the same area, so I was not surprised to not find the missing guard.

Yesterday (2 January) a year to the day since the incident described in the paragraph above, I returned to check on the wintering Firecrests once more. When I got to the footpath (the same spot that my strap had worked lose 12 months previously) I took my binoculars from my rucksack and close-focussed them on a nearby bush in readiness for my crest encounter. What came into sharp focus was a Swarovski binocular eye-guard. It was hanging from a twig, obviously impaled there by a kind soul who must have found it on the ground...

I was a little spooked by this. A year to the day. I could have focussed my binoculars on any spot and at any height. It was if the whole incident had been orchestrated. If the eyepiece was the same one that I had dropped, then a year spent out in the rain, ice and sun had proved the durability of it. I want to think that it is the same guard, now happily reunited with the binoculars.

This morning I took advantage of a dry and relatively calm couple of hours by visiting Canons Farm. There was plenty of evidence of the recent weather, with downed trees and flooded fields. The Linnet flock handily settled close to me on 'Skylark Field' to enable an accurate count - at least 600 being present. Nearby were 25 Skylark, 90 Fieldfare and 60 Redwing.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Floods and Firecrests

The picture above was taken from the top of Box Hill, looking down onto the River Mole at the Burford Bridge. The last time that the river burst its banks to such a dramatic extent was back in the late 1960s, so this is a rare sight indeed. The water had receded since this morning as the A24 (you can just about make out a few cars in the image) was apparently closed due to surface water. When we drove along it this afternoon, all was OK. Yesterday was a carbon copy of December 22nd/23rd, with high winds and a constant, heavy rain. More is promised in the next few days. I do feel for those who live in areas that are threatened by rising water - it puts our bit of water coming in through a side bay roof into perspective.

This morning I went to pay my respects to the wintering Firecrests on Banstead Downs. For the fifth winter running, between 1-3 birds have set up home west of the Banstead Downs Golf Club house, along a footpath with plenty of holly and ivy as cover. I saw two birds very easily, with much calling and hovering within a few feet from me. My attempts to record the event for posterity with my 'big boys camera' were poor - so poor that even I couldn't pretend that they were anything else but pants.

For some reason I've allowed myself to challenge Alan Tilmouth in a North v South 10k birding challenge (that being the distance from home that recording can take place in). His kingdom includes seashore. Mine certainly does not. he reckons on 180+ species. I reckon on 125. But, as all good losers say, it's the taking part that counts. I'll create a tab with my species tally at the end of the month.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Birding in 2014 - what is going to happen

I have had access to the North Downs and Beyond crystal ball, and can reveal the high (and low) lights coming up in 2014.

January: Year listing is postponed for the month owing to flooding, strong winds and a large dollop of apathy.

February: It is revealed that the Humberside Ivory Gull really was just a pigeon. Hornsea pigeon-fancier Seth Boycott said 'I wondered why Snowy came back to the loft each evening stinking of fish, and now I know why!"

March: Twitter has a record day on March 15th, when over 756,000 tweets are sent with the word 'Wheatear' appearing. Over 230,000 images of the same species are posted on Blogger the following week.

April: British Birds journal is relaunched, now to be called 'BOOM!'

May: The first auto-bird-recognition filter for Swarovski scopes is available, but is soon recalled after every Common Swift is registered as a Pallid. Some birders wonder whether the filter had already been put into production the previous autumn...

June: A team from the Edward Grey Institute, after a million pound investigation, announce that the sound of a Nightjar churring is not dissimilar to the noise of a fishing reel being turned. Owen Paterson congratulates the students, saying this is just the sort of thing that our environmental bodies should be spending their time and our money on.

July: Operation Yew Tree closes the Next Generation Birders after claims of the schoolboy membership being 'groomed' by older birders. Inspector Fiddler, the operation's spokesman said, "We've arrested a number of middle-aged men on suspicion of trying to corrupt young minds. We found notebooks full of obvious code words being used to try and cover up their nefarious activities - such as 'woodcock' and 'Dick's Pipit'. We are very keen on finding one particular man whose name crops up time and time again - one Portland Bill."

August: In a fit of pique, the BOU decide to lump everything that they can, to cut down on administrative work. We now have one species of gull (Sea Gull), one Redpoll (Simples Redpoll) and all wildfowl are to be removed from Category A-D and placed in a new category Z - or the 'Who Gives a Shit' category.

September: Hurricane Elspeth, the fifteenth 'record breaking' storm of the year, roars into Europe bringing record numbers of Yankee waders to Britain. A flock of 15 Buff-breasted Sandpipers are seen on a large puddle in Trafalgar Square and the Aston Villa versus Newcastle United game is abandoned when up to 750 Hudsonian Godwits circle the pitch causing the crowd to panic.

October: A state of emergency is declared on the Scottish Islands due to food shortages, caused by the arrival of hundreds of birding possees. Mass brawls break out over whose turn it is to walk the iris beds, vigilante gangs guard favoured gardens and there are several hospitalisations caused by arguments as to who 'self-found' what.

November: A Ural Owl is found in a Devon garden. The finder invites a few mates to see the bird under an oath of secrecy. After the owl departs, stunning photographs and sketches are released on the internet. Several birding blogs close.

December: The EU abolishes all regional bird listing, unifying all lists into one big EU life list. Birders up and down the country try to remember just what they saw on all of those 18-30 holidays they took back in the day.

A Rambler!

I was awoken this morning by my PA, her excitement obvious.

"You've only gone and bloody done it!" she told me. This could mean but one thing...

North Downs and Beyond has been awarded the Randon's Rambler, bird bloggings equivalent of an Oscar, BAFTA and Brit Award rolled into one. Previous winners have included the 'BBC News', 'Big Tits Mature' and 'When Redhill CCTV gets rude'.

The man behind the Rambler's is one Neil Randon. You might have seen him walking around Holmethorpe Sand Pits (sponsored by BetFred). He spends as much time reading The Sporting Life as he does Birdwatch magazine, and in a recent interview with Autumnwatch admitted that he'd rather be a Formula One pit stop monkey than a member of the UK400 club. He is also known as Factor, a name that he uses to stealthily flit between a variety of patches - Holmethorpe, Staines Reservoir and Tices Meadow.

The trophy will be handed over at a sumptuous awards ceremony that is to be held along the flooded footpath that crosses The Moors, Holmethorpe (as soon as the water level drops under five foot). Gordon Hay is rumoured to be lined-up as the Master of Ceremonies.

In other news: the first bird of the year was a Dunnock, calling from the back garden in a stygian gloom. And the 2014 moth list has already started, with a hardy little Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana) being found in the porch.