Showing posts from 2015

Going with the flow

One of my favourite views - looking eastwards from the moat, Dungeness Bird Observatory 2016. Not yet with us, but undeniably casting a shadow upon all that we do. Over the years I have found that the days between Christmas and the New Year to be irritants, hours that get in the way of reaching the 'brave new world' that is the coming new year. But it hasn't happened this year. I have been quite content to live in the present and not project myself into some unknown future. It's maybe because I really haven't committed myself to any great plans or aims for next year. I do have stuff that will bubble away in the background. A repeat of the Surrey v Northumberland patch birding competition has been agreed, with baseline figures in place (mine lowered from last year). There are a few species of plant and moth that I have yet to see that I quite fancy seeing, but these will happen (or not) in a laid back style. I have, for a while, annually visited the Pulborough

Off the pace

It's been happening for a while now. Slowly, at first, and now seemingly gathering pace on an almost daily basis. No doubt the Germans have a name for it, a bit like schadenfreude, a neat word that encapsulates a concept that us Brits just haven't got around to describing. For the time being, and for conveniences sake, I'll just say that I am suffering from 'being a yard or two off the pace'. Even that offering neatly sums up my predicament, for within my construct lies the word 'yard' an archaic unit of measurement about as up-to-date as 'rickets', 'penny farthings' and 'cinder toffee'. I'm losing touch with modern life. It manifests itself in many ways. I increasingly find the need to ask my daughters how to use my phone. Or do something on the computer. Or what I need to do in order to unlock the 'mute' facility of the TV remote. I read newspapers or watch the news only to realise that I have never heard of some of

Ho! Ho! Humbug!

Whether you encompass all things Christmas; by being meaningfully religious; praying at the altar of mass consumerism; or breaking out in a rash at its very mention - may I wish you all a happy and enjoyable holiday period. Some of you will continue to get out there and bird, others may slump in an armchair having over-indulged. Whatever you get up to, enjoy yourselves. I hope to get out with the family, post Christmas festivities, and take in the woods of the north Surrey hills (such as these at Juniper Bottom), which is sometimes home to Hawfinches. There is also the expectation of very good cake at the top!

Surrey 95% Northumberland 107%

Back in December of last year, fellow blogger Stewart Sexton, who resides on the Northumbrian coast, and myself, an inland downs stomper from Surrey, agreed to have a friendly 'local patch' competition throughout 2015 - that is, to see who could have the most successful birding year. Our way of handicapping the superior coastal site (which would obviously yield more species), was for each of us to nominate a species target, based on previous years and expectations. After a bit of tooing and froing, I nominated a species total of 100. Stewart suggested that he could reach 140. I had initially believed that 90 was my target, but after much deliberation, and taking into account my projected time in the field, added a further 10. Bad move... As we stand at the moment, I'm on 95 (95% of the target) and Stewart on 150 (107% of total). Regardless of me experiencing a massive change of fortune, the result is a forgone conclusion. It's like being 6-0 down in the FA Cup final

Winter solstice? Not necessarily!

Being mildly pagan, in an uninformed and romantic way, I've always welcomed the Winter solstice. Even in such a mild winter as this, it is still a time of year that lacks sunlight and day length (as I recently posted about). But when we get to December 21st things start to happen, as it is the day that has the shortest amount of daylight. So the following day - today! - the time we spend in daylight is longer... er, not necessarily so. Each year this can change. In most years the shortest day is indeed December 21st, but in some (as in this year) it can occur on December 22nd. In very rare cases it can happen on December 20th or 23rd. The last time the latter year played host to it was 1903, and the next will be 2303. Confused? The Daily Telegraph website explains: "The December solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. This year the solstice occurs on Tuesday December 22nd at 04:49 GMT (Universal time) with the sun rising over  Stonehenge

Bottling it

At the moment the UK is experiencing almost unprecedented December temperature, thanks to a plume of warm air that is coming to us from the Canary Islands. It is bringing with it a host of rare migrant moths, which would even be notable in number and composition in high summer. One species that is being recorded in record numbers is the tiny Syncopacma polychromella. And one of them deigned to grace the MV trap here in Banstead (left). This is possibly the second or third for Surrey.  Bottle number one: my images were awful. I don't know why, I can normally manage OK record shots, but these were very poor - plus the waif keeled over in the process. It left me feeling sour. Bottle number two: last night I posted a response to another bloggers item. He was purely venting frustration, built over many years. My rant was pompous and based on never having experienced his set of circumstances. He magnanimously replied to me, calmly explaining his stance. I went to bed feeling troubl

Green Hellebore

I'm quite lucky in having our two native Hellebores close to home. Stinking ( which I recently posted about here ) and Green (Helleborus viridus). The latter is not commonly found (at least where I go looking) and has a preference for shady situations on chalk and limestone. There are at least a couple of patches of it in one of the woods found on Langley Vale Farm. While I was admiring it and taking a few pictures this morning (above and below) I was buzzed by a very vocal Marsh Tit - another local site for this dwindling bird! Hellebores are quite showy things and are a garden favourite, particularly Lenten-rose (H orientalis).  They can easily hop over a garden fence and start to colonise 'wild' space. I have also found Corsican Hellebore (H. argutifolius) growing on a roadside verge in Banstead, which still persists 10 years after my initial discovery. Incidentally, this latter species was also found growing on the shingle at Dungeness earlier in the year by Dave W

The end and the beginning

Walton Downs, looking across Langley Vale Farm. What odds for Red Hemp-nettle or a Stone Curlew in 2016? So 2015 is starting to wind down. The hustle and bustle of Christmas might be upon us, but for the birder, mother and botanist (not to forget all those other naturalists looking at all sorts of other wildlife), it is time to get all those records sorted out, sent off and start planning for the new campaign that is, and will be called, 2016. A few years ago I would have been rummaging through my notebooks, retrieving those observations that seemed worthy enough to send to the recorder (of Surrey, London, Kent and, sometimes, Sussex). Nowadays it is much simpler process, at least for the bird records, via the BTO’s Birdtrack service. Some birders cannot get enough of it, and send in tens of thousands of records each year from across the UK. My own efforts are on a smaller, more parochial level. The only non-local record that I needed to do anything about was the Bonaparte’s G

A birding guide to Surrey (sort of)

Is Surrey the worst county to go birding in? It has no coastline. If we forget about the Middlesex reservoirs, it has little in the way of large bodies of water. Arguably its best birding site is behind high fences and a locked gate. Great swathes of the county are privately owned. As far as county bird totals go, it must be at the lower end of the league table, possibly struggling with the likes of Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire for relegation (if such a thing existed). Attempts at a big year list will not reach 200 species. One birder recently attempted to break this figure, over back-to-back years, having cleared his calendar by leaving employment. He had an excellent network of informants and he birded from dawn until dusk, seven days a week. He failed to reach 200 on both occasions. So, if you find yourself in the county, where would you go to get your birding fix? What sites offer you a modicum of hope?  Beddington Sewage Farm Unless you want to get

The birding journey

Why do we birdwatch? Not all of us were born into doing so, unthinkingly, responding to some primordial urge. There came a point in our lives when we decided to take notice of those flappy things that flew, to be able to name them, to watch them, to let them into our lives and, in many cases, take them over. My own journey has been touched on ad infinitum on this blog - infant school wonder at the flocks of birds passing silently overhead in v-formation; a Jay that appeared before me when I was 15, that I could name because a schoolmate had just depicted one in an art class; borrowing my dad’s cheap binoculars to walk around the local parks and golf courses full of wonder at the birds I found, including Nuthatch and Redwing. But why did I carry on? It wasn’t some sort of appreciation of birds in an aesthetic way. It was more to do with fulfilling a hard-wired hunter-gatherer urge. What could I find? What was out there? Could I name them? It was later that I could take in t

Stinking Hellebore

What better way to forget about all this 'winter' dullness than to go looking for a few plants! Yes, even in the harshest of winters (although this isn't one) some species do their thing throughout the season. One of my favourites just happens to have a few sites close to home. Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is a wild species, occurring on shallow calcareous soils in a snaking band running from the south-east of England, through central southern England and into mid-to-north Wales. It is found widely elsewhere, but most of these come from garden throw-outs and escapes. It is a fecund plant, setting seed and spreading with ease - I have it in my garden and find it springing up all over the place. Its appearance in the garden is a bit of a mystery - we had lived here for quite a few years and not seen it, until one popped up and spread. It is quite possible that this was a wild plant, as it is present only a mile away (on Epsom Downs). This afternoon I visite


I do sometimes wonder if I suffer from SAD - Seasonal affective disorder - a type of depression that is brought on by the shorter days of winter and a lack of sunlight. The latter may affect a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which suppresses its ability to produce melatonin and serotonin. A lack of these chemicals can cause sleepiness and affect your appetite, mood and sleep. The continuing dull weather, with darkness starting to nudge daylight as early as 2.30pm, is wearisome. The temperature may be mild, but give me frosty, cold and sunny days anytime. My mood has been on a downward swing since October, and I've never been a fan of January and February, so it could be an interesting few weeks. But these are minor things to quibble about. This afternoon saw a brief, but enjoyable visit to Priest Hill, a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve just a 12 minute stroll from my front door. I have posted about this place before. Historically it has been farmland and municipal pla

Birding in the slow lane

Any birding trip taken close to my home is not going to be one laden with expectation. The woods, heaths and downs are picturesque, brilliant for plants and invertebrates, but are lacking when it comes to birds. Breeding diversity is poor; spring and autumn passage is hit-or-miss (mostly miss); wintering flocks are either feast or famine (mostly famine). But working on the assumption that 'if you don't look you won't see' I soldier on. I can always nip down to the coast if I start to get ornithological stir-crazy. This morning I visited a completely new site, Great Hurst Wood (above). It is situated between Walton-on-the-Hill and Headley, and is bisected by that modern monstrosity, the M25. A section of the wood is elvated on a hill, the soil here being quite wet, and this is where I came across a small party of three Marsh Tits, whose calls were thankfully not drowned out by the thousands of vehicles only a few hundred metres away. There are quieter sections of th

A hitch in times...

Derek Faulkner recently posted (on his excellent Letters from Sheppey blog ) about his hitching days back in the mid-1960s. This is an attribute of 'folk culture' that has all but disappeared. In today's nervous climate, where every being that doesn't conform or fails to toe the acceptable line is consigned to the status of 'murderer' or 'terrorist', such activity as sticking a thumb out to solicit a lift from a passing vehicle is as rare as a Wallcreeper (couldn't resist yet another mention...). As Derek's post charmingly illustrates, it wasn't always this way. In my brief twitching days back in the late 70s, I was not unfamiliar with the odd hitch to a twitch and the accompanying sleeping rough. Being a bit of a wimp I preferred not to do it, but circumstance forced me to do so now and again. Not all ended successfully - a Friday night attempt to get to Illfracombe to catch a ferry to Lundy (June 1979, Ruppell's Warbler) found me stan

2015 review: October - November; Shingle-minded

A long stay at Dungeness Bird Observatory (above) straddled these two months. For years, when a full-time working man, I longed after spending an entire autumn at DBO. Now that my employment is of a much looser arrangement, the time was ripe to ‘live the dream’. A whole autumn was a bit excessive, so I settled on a four week stay. November is an underrated month and is often overshadowed by its neighbour, October - but the former can be just as exciting and there is something about the dying autumn that has its very own vibe - so I was keen to spend at least the opening fortnight. Although primarily a birding trip, there is much else to see at Dungeness. My stay did not coincide with any appreciable insect migration, and, apart from a handful of Red Admirals and Clouded Yellows, it was quiet. However, what was on show and grabbed a lot of attention was the late and profuse flowering of many plants. It wasn’t just a case of the odd bloom either. Species such as Sea Campion was ram


Do you dream about birding? And by that I don’t mean do you daydream about finding a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater as you go about your daily life. I mean those dreams that visit us when we are fast asleep. I don’t. I wish that I did. I have had dreams that involve being present in ‘birdy’ places - normally Dungeness, sometimes Portland - but they tend to involve me having left my binoculars at home or I’m packing up to leave the comforts of the observatory in the full knowledge that something good will turn up as soon as I’ve left. Birds themselves don’t figure. That seems strange considering the number of years that I’ve been birding. Strangely enough, moths have cropped up a few times, normally involving checking an MV trap that is full of the most stunning and colourful species, none that I can identify. Mainly because they don’t exist. I have had similar dreams involving exotic plants that crowd a grass verge, me standing alongside, a gibbering wreck, confused by the flowers on show.

Friends like these?

A number of my linked bloggers have been discussing the merits (or otherwise) of social media, plus whether or not ‘cyber’ friends can be considered ‘real' friends. Never one to miss an opportunity to sound off, or use the ideas of others, I will join in with the fun. Facebook Apparently now the domain of the middle-aged, as the youngsters of today have largely given up on it in favour of using Instagram and Snap Chat (and before you think I’m really well up on all of this, I’m not. I read it somewhere). My adoption on Facebook was very late indeed. I tend not to use my personal timeline much, and if you were to visit my ‘home page’ you would be hard pushed for find out anything about me at all. 99% of my activity on this platform is as a member of various natural history groups - I must be a member of 40+, all sorts of generalist and specialist subjects. These are useful for keeping up to date with what is being seen, identification tips, taxonomic changes, member’s opinions

2015 review: Aug - Sep: Nirvana

I began August in Dorset and ended it in Kent, two book-ends that sandwiched a frustrating time spent locally. The plants still enchanted, the odd moth came along that excited (including the back garden's second Small Mottled Willow), but the birding was dire. More great flowering was on show, but this time not in the Banstead area. I give you Thursley Common (above), looking more like a formal garden rather than the random flowering of Heather, Bell Heather and Dwarf Gorse; and West Bay (below), a stunning series of mats of Sea-heath, not a species that I've seen in such profusion before. The natural history highlight in Dorset was the finding of several Cliff Tiger Beetles on the crumbling undercliffs between Charmouth and Eype. This highly restricted species is quite easy to find in the few places it exists. It must be, if a failed coleopterist such as myself had little trouble in seeking them out. At the end of August I packed up my bags and headed for the shingle

2015 review: June-July (part two); local rarities

Sorry Dylan, more premature reminiscences and more flowers... In June I happened to bump into local botanist Peter Wakeham on Park Downs. He told me about the time that he had been spending at Langley Vale Farm, surveying the plants in light of the Woodland Trusts purchase. My ears pricked up at its mention, as I had spent some time birding the area (from public footpaths) and had botanised some of the field margins over the years (seeing such rarities as Night-flowering Catchfly). The WT had opened up access to a great deal of the farm and his offer of a guided tour was eagerly taken up. We met on a swelteringly hot July 1st, which was the start of my visiting the farm on a regular basis. On that initial visit, Peter showed me Narrow-fruited Cornsalad and Cat-mint, both new species for me. A couple of weeks later I found myself at a bare, chalky field edge on the north-western side of the farm. One of the first species that I spied was a sizeable Venus's Looking-glass

2015 review: June - July (part one); The great flowering

Sometimes the natural world decides to take you by surprise and bestow memorable moments when you least expect them. The setting doesn't have to be on the top of a Scottish mountain or at the mouth of a powerful estuary -  it could take place at a humble piece of chalk grassland only minutes from home... Park Downs is but a twenty minute brisk walk from my front door. Until this year I have spent little time there, but have been aware of its reputation as a reserve that holds a number of notable species. After visiting the place back in March to pay my respects to the present Stinking Hellebore, I made a mental note to return in the summer. I did so in late June. I came across two fields in particular that blew me away. They were packed with flower, including incredible numbers of orchids. A careful count suggested 6250 Pyramidal and 354 Bee (both below). But these were just a small part of the mass blossoming that had taken place. From a distance the fields looked as if an

2015 review: April and May; Success in the rain

Hard work. Those two words more than adequately summed up the local natural history scene - at least as far as this recorder was concerned. I spent a lot of time trudging between home and Mogador, via Canons Farm and Epsom and Walton Heaths. I also embarked on a breeding bird survey for the Surrey Wildlife Trust at their new Priest Hill reserve, with one bizarre record being a displaying Red-legged Partridge for over a week, in this largely suburban setting. The saving grace was a modest, but colourful, passage of chats, with double counts of Wheatears and a sprinkling of Whinchats - and who doesn't like a good spring Whinchat (left)? I also came across a couple of Black Redstarts (Canons Farm and Langley Vale Farm)  and Common Redstarts (Canons Farm). I recorded at least 5 Red Kites but remained empty handed when it came to such desirable raptors as Osprey and Marsh Harrier that others recorded locally.  It remained poor for moth and butterfly numbers, with the garden MV stubbor

Present at the birth

Last Thursday I attended a meeting held by the Woodland Trust in which they presented their vision of how they see the development of Langley Vale (Bottom) Farm. Their plans are subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment, which is to be carried out imminently. There was a cross-section of interested parties present, both from a local and national level, including the Surrey Botanical Society and the Surrey Bird Club. What was heartening was that there was clear recognition on the part of the WT that the area is nationally important for its arable flora and locally of significance for the nesting Lapwings. Initial impressions were that there is to be a plan in place to protect them. A balancing act needs to be mastered however as there is much to be done alongside 'conflicting' arenas: the creation of new woodland; the need to protect existing habitat for the rare plants and birds; the installation of car park, interpretation centre and footpaths; sympathetic management of

2015 review: January - March; Egret nation

Striking a pose - a River Hogsmill Little Egret The first three months of this year were all about thrashing the local patches. I'd set up this ridiculous notion of an 'Inner Uber patch', a scaled down version of my - well - larger Uber patch. Infantile, I know, but there you go, you can never fully remove the child from the man (or something like that). I had also gone into friendly competition with fellow-blogger Stewart Sexton, he who lives up North where they get things like Barred Warblers in the back garden. Rather than get into the car to cover these areas I largely walked. My fitness levels have rarely been better (although a mild dose of shingles in early January curtailed my efforts for a while). The most frequent sites visited were the River Hogsmill at Ewell (where a couple of showy Little Egrets and a Water Rail were wintering), Priest Hill, Ewell (which harboured up to six Stonechats), Canons Farm, Epsom and Walton Downs, Walton Heath, Colley Hill and Moga

How to bird a modest patch

We cannot all live at Dungeness, or Spurn, or even back onto a reservoir or sewage farm, so for most of us living at (or very close to) a top birding spot is going to remain the stuff of dreams - although living next door to Staines Reservoir would be the stuff of nightmares for me! So what do we do? The most obvious course of action would be to get into the car and drive somewhere. When I used to regularly visit Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SPs, they both involved a 25 minute car journey, even though they were a handful of miles away, thanks to the traffic-choked roads of suburbia. I have always wanted to have somewhere properly local, and by that I mean walkable from my front door. To be quite honest, I didn't need to look at an OS map to know that there wasn't a proper 'birdy' place that fitted that bill. Or was there? It takes me 20-25 minutes to walk to Canons Farm (above) and Banstead Woods. Maybe 20 minutes to stroll up to Epsom and Walton Downs. Neither

Return to Langley Vale Farm

It was a novelty to be treading on soft mud and looking up into trees after a few weeks on the shingle. I returned to Langley Vale Farm this morning mainly to undertake a bird survey, although I was heartened to see some of the field edges had been 'ploughed' (above). Whether this has been done for the benefit of the 'arable weeds' I do not know. Today's big news (on a local level) was the presence of a Marsh Tit in Little Hurst Wood, one of several small woods to be found on the farm. I watched (and heard) it for maybe ten minutes and can honestly say that I derived as much pleasure from this bird as I did from kicking up a Dusky Warbler on the beach at Dungeness last month. Other highlights included 150+ Fieldfare, 50+ Redwing, 3 Little Owl, 20+ Skylark, 5 Pheasant, 2 Sparrowhawk and 2 Common Buzzard. I have come across good flocks of finches here in previous winters, so hope that regular observation will pay off.

The tardy few

Please spare a thought for those summer migrants that just cannot make up their their minds whether to leave our shores or not, even though they really should do. Whether it's down to laziness, incompetence or a lack of physical ability, a rough time awaits them if they leave it too late, or try to winter. Here is a list of my current, latest ever dates. I've even put the place of observation alongside them... you lucky people. Garganey - wintering (Holmethorpe SP, Surrey 2011-12) Honey Buzzard - 10 October 1981 (Dungeness, Kent) Osprey - 4 December 1979 (Gatton Park, Surrey) Hobby - 31 October 1988 (Dungeness, Kent) Quail - 31 October 1987 (Dungeness, Kent) Little Ringed Plover - 24 September 1983 (Pagham Harbour, West Sussex) Common Sandpiper - wintering (several places) Sandwich Tern - 7 November 2015 (Dungeness, Kent) Common Tern - 6 November 2015 (Dungeness, Kent) Arctic Tern - 30 October 1988 (Dungeness, Kent) Little Tern - 6 October 1985 (Dungeness