Showing posts from 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 en

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

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. HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO BE CROWNED 2014 CHAMPION? 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 d

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 be

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 m

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 (P

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,


"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 addi

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.

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.

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

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...

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 o

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.

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

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

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.

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...

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 standi

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.

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 r

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

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 previou

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 cer