Saturday, 31 January 2015

End of January report

Green Woodpecker at Priest Hill this morning, just before three Stonechats started leaping about in front of me just as the camera battery died... schoolboy error!

Well that's already one twelfth of 2015 gone and one month into my 'inner uber patch challenge' against Northumberland's very own Stewart Sexton. The bare facts are that I have recorded 65 species that equates to 72.2% of my target. The latest addition was a female Blackcap that came to fat balls in the garden this afternoon. But numbers do not tell the story in any satisfactory way.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this 'very local' birding. I have forced myself (not too much of a chore) to cover areas that I have previously considered to be bird less and not worthy of effort. I have gone back to check on other areas that has seen me visit them more often in the past month than I had in the previous twelve. Even after over forty years of birding it is a joy to discover that I can still get excited by such modest rewards - but never the less, rewards are most definitely there!

Highlights so far have been Little Egret, Mandarin, Water Rail, Common Snipe, Peregrine and Firecrest, not forgetting a flock of three Stonechats (up from a singleton) at Priest Hill this morning. What's missing? Well, Siskin and Brambling are the two obvious species and it's only a matter of time before a Great Black-backed Gull lumbers over or a Tawny Owl calls out in the night. Am I bored? No way, although I will be disappearing to the hallowed shingle of Dungeness for a few days in February...

I have added another two blogs to my worthy list.  Firstly that of Derek Faulkner's 'Letters from Sheppey'. It is a magical place to spend some time reading about the wildlife and the ways of the countryside in his part of north Kent. I'm already looking forward to his next post. Also the prolific Warren Baker's Pittswood Birds - an almost daily update on his local study area together with some rather fine photography.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Wait

Not wanting to wish time away, but I'm getting a bit fed up with the cold, the dark and the impoverished wildlife that we currently have to search through. So, as an appetiser for those months that deliver with bounteous variety, here's an image that I took at Marden in Kent several summers ago - Green-winged Orchids in their thousands! Hidden amongst them were a few Adder's-tongues, plus a pond full of Water Violets. If we could have sound then we would be serenaded by the buzz of the meadow. Cannot wait...

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Walking in the footsteps of others

Walton Downs - possibly an old sheep drove.

We walk on hallowed ground. Crossing downland, farmland or woodland by foot we are largely following in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. Worn paths in the chalk, muddy strips along field edges, canopied byways through strips of copse that all tell of the gentle human history that has created them. In my part of northern Surrey, particularly along the North Downs ridge, we walk along in the ghostly footsteps of pilgrims, we shadow the movements of shepherds, farmhands and others just like us, those who wanted to commune with nature. We largely see what they saw, even in this crowded part of Britain. Some of the trees that look down on us looked down on them. Old collapsed flint walls and abandoned foundations tell of past rural lives, lives now gone, maybe of simpler times. Did they stand in these doorways looking out on Partridges, Barn Owls and Red-backed Shrikes? Did they sharpen their scythes while dreaming of a foaming ale at the inn later in the day? Or was life hard, a tired slog of scant rewards?

No, I cannot walk along a footpath without these thoughts crowding my mind. And that's before all of the natural history crowds it even further...

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

What do you see?

This is Walton Downs, looking south-westward towards Headley. It is a mixture of copse and farmland on chalk. As a birder, looking across this shallow valley, what do you see? I bet that, like me, you are weighing up the chance of seeing a good raptor, maybe a Short-eared Owl or even a Great Grey Shrike. I have walked the footpaths that cross this area many times and can only claim a handful of commoner migrants over the years, but each time I make the journey I still think that I'm going to get rewarded with a notable sighting - it just feels like a place that will harbour something of note. And this approach sums up the lot of a birder working any patch of habitat, wherever that habitat may be. Regardless of our experience telling us that we will fill our notebook with counts of commoner species, there is a big part of us that still maintains that something good will come along, and it might just be on our current visit. It's what drives us on and keeps us focused. It's no bad thing. This morning, from the vantage point above, I didn't see a good raptor, a Short-eared Owl or a shrike, but made do with  2 Common Buzzard, 20 Skylark and 85 Fieldfare. The sun was out, it was fairly mild and that was good enough for me. I was happy. And, as we all know, I was one visit closer to the next quality bird. The more we look, the luckier we get...

And who wouldn't be cheered by the sight above - a bank full of flowering Winter Heliotrope, adding a splash of colour (and fragrance) to the winter scene. One of my favourites.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Benign winter birding

Winter. What, as birders, do we want from this particular season?

If it is a hard one, with snow and freezing temperatures on the continent, together with biting easterlies sweeping across the North Sea, we can hope for an influx of wildfowl, thrushes and who know's what else. But as exciting as such times are, the birds will undoubtably suffer. Do we really want that to happen? The flip side is for there to be benign, unremarkable weather - a bit like what we are 'enjoying' in 2014-15. Not too cold, not too wet and not too windy. But with the 'ease' that such weather brings, the birding is largely predictable. Locally it seems as if nothing much has changed since late November. There are few flocks out on the fields but they are unremarkable in number and composition. The finch and thrush numbers are poor - just where are the Redpolls, Siskins and Bramblings? But we carry on looking, we still scan the flocks, and we still skywatch just in case...

I spent a good five hours wandering across Canons Farm and Banstead Woods today which only underlined the 'same old, same old' nature of the current birding scene. 40 Skylark, 100 Fieldfare and 20 Yellowhammer were the stand outs of a meagre return although a single Lesser Redpoll found its way onto the 2015 Challenge list - species number 64, which is 71.1% of my target. The day was rescued by my bumping into Ian Ward, who helped while away the time with a bout of skywatching and, as the way of birders the world over, making increasingly bizarre predictions as to what goodies we might expect to come our way in the not too distant future - plus plenty of butterfly nostalgia!

We don't cut back the lavender in the garden until March as the Goldfinches will come and feed on the seeds throughout the winter - a good subject for trying out the 'new' bridge camera.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hogsmill Little Egret

The River Hogsmill meanders its way through Ewell Village and is a most enjoyable place to spend a bit of time birding. You can usually bank on seeing Kingfisher and, increasingly, Little Egret. This morning one (of the two reportedly present) was perched in a tree just beyond the Lower Mill. It seemed unconcerned by my attempts at photography as it sunned itself alongside a Grey Heron. It wasn't until a Labrador came bounding up to me that they finally took flight.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Bonus Mandarin

One of the pleasures of undertaking a local study, especially one in which there is a hint of competition involved, is that an observation that would ordinarily not mean that much can be elevated to the status of noteworthy. One bird this morning illustrated this very well indeed.

I had need to go into Epsom, and from where the car was parked involved a walk through Rosebery Park - right on the very edge of my arbitrary recording area. There is a pond, and half of the water was ice free. Among the Mallards and Canada Geese was a splendid drake Mandarin. I have seen this species here before, and can only assume that the odd one flies in from the ponds on Epsom Common (which is outside of my 2015 recording area). This is not a species that I could have safely predicted for this years study - a nice little bonus. I'm not being greedy, but I am now eager for something a little more exciting - a fly-over Short-eared Owl for example?

Evening update: a late afternoon visit to SWT's Priest Hill reserve produced a female Stonechat. Only a ten minute stroll from my front door and the 63rd species in this years challenge...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Daphne in the mist

I spent four hours this morning on Reigate and Colley Hills, seemingly cut off from civilisation courtesy of a low drizzly mist that enveloped the hills in a milky light that not only softened all that I saw but muffled any sound. There wasn't an awful lot to see or hear to be honest, although a couple of Treecreepers decided that this was the time to engage in a bit of singing. - not a lot else joined in. it wasn't until I started to scan the fields just off the ridge (towards Mogador) that there was a bit of activity, with a loose flock of 500 Redwing leapfrogging their way across the earth as they fed. I was heartened to see that, in several places, the fields here had flooded, although any hoped for displaced wader was aiming far too high - apart from a lethargic flock of gulls nothing else had been tempted down. A quick nip into the closest bit of Walton Heath woodland provided the hoped for Marsh Tit (2015 patch list now on 61 species).

Daphne laureola - that's Spurge Laurel to you and me - was most obvious at the top of the hills, in particular around the Napoleonic fort. At least 80 plants were counted and there must be plenty more in the general area. Some were out in flower. There is also plenty of wild Box here, a very local species in England. I am guilty of taking it for granted, but know that I shouldn't.

Spurge Laurel, close up of flower (left) and a healthy specimen (right) maybe a metre tall.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Downland Peregrine

A brisk circular walk around the open slopes of Epsom Downs this afternoon was largely devoid of birds. Up to 100 Common Gulls were feeding over the grassland, this species being the commonest species of gull here throughout the winter months. No amount of scanning of the neighbouring fields could winkle out anything of note, and it was not until I was almost back at the car that any reward came my way - in the form of a male Peregrine, that flew in from the north and carried on southwards towards Walton-on-the-Hill - certainly not the barrel-chested female that had been spending the late autumn/early winter at Canons Farm. The 2015 local patch challenge now creeps up to 59 species.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Back in the field

After two weeks of being housebound, the antibiotics and antivirals seem to have done the trick and I once more ventured into the great outdoors! An easy wander seemed the most sensible thing to embark upon, so I kept myself to this winding lane that meanders through Canons Farm:

You can scan most of the farm from this road, with several vantage points that give the observer a good 360 degree panorama. I stood with scope on tripod for a couple of hours but it was very hard work, although 16 Skylarks, 100 Fieldfares and 20 Yellowhammers kept me company.

I then went back (for the third time this year) to try and see the wintering Firecrests on Banstead Downs. They are but a couple of hundred metres from where you can park a car, so once again I wasn't overdoing it. On their chosen footpath all was ominously quiet, but seeing that the sun was shining and there was scarcely a breeze I ventured out onto the eastern (open) side of a substantial stand of holly and was soon watching one of the Firecrests hovering feet from my face, bathed in sunshine and looking in rude health. I could have gone on but thought it best to get back home and not push myself too far - my God I sound old...

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Fly Trap

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg (Particular Books)

This is a gem of a book.

The author lived on, and studied, the hoverflies that occurred on the Swedish island of Runmaro. Although the theme of the book deals with his obsessional entomological studies, it is but a small part of what is a most engrossing and surprising read.

Written 10 years ago, the book has only just been translated into English. His precise writing style, superb turn of phrase and restrained dry humour make it a delight from beginning to end. You are lead away from the core subject on almost every page - from a potted history of the great Swedish naturalist/explorers (particularly Rene Malaise), the nature of collecting, the speed (or lack of it) of life, how to tackle the public, why we form imaginary islands in pursuit of our goals, the reading of the landscape - plus the small little subject of life itself. It is a book of many facets, all that I found entrancing. On more than one occasion I found myself identifying heavily with his observations on why 'we' do such things, like standing alone in a meadow for hours on end whilst 'normal' people zip around on the periphery getting on with 'real' life. I have now been inspired into getting my hoverfly books off of the shelf with an aim to look more closely at these creatures this coming season. In fact, a bit of mild weather will see a very few on the wing right now.

There is a review on the back cover from one Tomas Transtromer that reads: "I often return to The Fly Trap, it remains close to my heart. The minute observations from nature that reveal sudden insights into one's life. Sometimes I almost think that he wrote it for me." I couldn't put it any better than that...

I must thank Pete Burness for alerting me to this book. Great call Pete!

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

No Ardea

Birders were once again left in confusion after yet another 'dubious' heron was found close to Hythe, Kent. Over the past few years, within the small confines of this sleepy seaside town, birders have come across Chinese Pond Heron, Green Heron and several Night Herons, not forgetting assorted white egrets that have largely been ignored because they are so common. The incidence of these rare herons has led one well-known national twitcher to label the sightings as "flawed" and another to suggest that foul-play is behind their appearances.

Fingers have been pointed at 'No Ardea', the Lympne bird park owned by Ken Sprockett, a 59-year old retied policeman. His collection is largely kept away from the public eye, but is known to contain up to 80% of the heron species of the world. Upkeep of the park has proved difficult for Mr. Sprockett, who recently lost a lot of money in a Little Bustard breeding programme and the escape of his entire stock, thought to number 15 birds. The fencing surrounding the entire site has fallen into disrepair, with locals used to an evening fly-by of up to 30 Yellow-crowned Night Herons, that circle above the town before settling back down in their enclosure. "I've taken Little Bitterns back to Ken on several occasions", says Irene Burke, a neighbour. "They land by my patio doors and come up and peck at the glass'.

There are also unsubstantiated reports that Sprockett's Great Egret breeding programme has been so successful that he has been releasing birds from the boot of his car at night in the Dungeness area.

As Hythe readies itself for another invasion of birders, Irene had this to say: "I just couldn't understand why so many of them spent so many hours on top of that hill standing by a busy road, just to get a glimpse of Henry - that's what they called him in the bird park. They could have paid £9.50 and seen some of Ken's collection without the need of telescopes. Or just gone to Birdworld or London Zoo"

The BOU have reportedly dusted down their copy of the 'Hastings Rarities Report'...

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Mark Cocker and Jack Hargreaves

What was to be a straightforward review of Claxton by Mark Cocker turned into an appreciation of that bespectacled, bearded countryman of my childhood, Jack Hargreaves...

CLAXTON by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape)
I have an extremely loose and tenuous connection to Mark Cocker - he attended the University of East Anglia with my birding chum Nick Gardener, so I was aware of, and met the pre-fame version of his being some time in the late seventies/early eighties. As I suggested, tenuous...
Cocker has gathered a selection of his observational writings (as a columnist for various newspapers and magazines) and placed them in monthly (then chronological) sequence. The title comes from the Norfolk village of Claxton which Cocker calls home and from where the majority of the observations made in the book were made. He is mostly known as an ornithologist but the breadth of subjects tackled between these covers ventures heavily into the world of the all-round naturalist - for every bird you will read about a spider, a dragonfly, a moth and a plant - and for that I'm extremely grateful. What unfolds are bite-sized (roughly a page an entry) dips into a year in the life of the wildlife surrounding a Norfolk village, full of the acute observational skills that the author is known for. Economy of word is a fine skill to have and it is apparent here for all to read - quite often this avoids sentimental mawkishness that lesser writers fail to avoid. Not Cocker. I read the book in order, cover to cover, best to build up the waxing and waning of the natural cycle, although random dipping will reward you all the same. There are sentences that just wanted me to stand up and applaud. It is warming that there appears to be a current vogue for staying close to home to get ones natural history fix, and people like Cocker demonstrate how rich such a venture can be. One other aspect of the book is his knowledge of the folklore and ways of the countryman - and here is where I was reminded of one Jack Hargreaves...

Mr Hargreaves was always on the telly when I was a lad (1960s and 70s, when we had strikes, free love, financial instability, flares, parkas, violent footballers etc). He was a man of an indeterminate age (I always thought he was ancient but, like most middle-aged men back then, looked 20 years older than he really was). Spectacled, white-haired and bearded, always with a pipe in his mouth, he moved and talked with an economy of effort. Most of the time he was based in a country location, or a studio made up to look like a workshop, where he would be whittling sticks, sewing flies, laying hedges or making a gypsy caravan out of wattle-and-daub. Even then there was a certain amount of nostalgia about what he broadcast, which just goes to show that the 'Old Ways' were well on the way out back then. The programme that I remember most vividly in which Jack ruled the cathode rays was 'Out of Town'. Each programme was like what 'Countryfile' tries to be (but without the pandering to farmers and big business). In one half-hour episode we might be shown owl pellets, how a shepherd makes a crook, ageing a hedgerow, pub inn signs, country pub games, making sloe gin and we would then join him as he strolled along a canal tow-path as he puffed away on his pipe, placed Pheasant feathers in his hat and pointed out the hogweed, the Moorhens and the countryfolk plying their ancient trades, who would be ready to share their ancient ways with us townies. I wasn't the least bit interested in such things back then but watched anyway. It must of been a combination of Jack's laid back style, the soporific tone of the programme or maybe it was the first stirrings of my love for the countryside that had been awoken. There were two theme tunes (for the two versions of the programme) - one was a chirpy little number called, funnily enough, 'Out of Town', sung by Max Bygraves, and the other a delightful acoustic guitar number that reminded me of 'Tales of the Riverbank". If I hear either of them they catapult me back to those times, full of Spangles, Jimmy Greaves and glam rock.

And all this from Mark Cocker...

Monday, 12 January 2015

NDB Northern Wheatear trophy 2015

With more time on my hands than is healthy, with one working leg and half a brain that is functioning, I have had the time to consider the rules for the third North Downs and beyond Northern Wheatear trophy. The previous holders of this prestigious award are:

2013 Gavin Haig, Devon

2014 Martin Casemore, Kent

There are several changes this year culminating in three separate awards:

Earliest posting
Whoever posts the earliest image of a 2015 UK Northern Wheatear wins this one.

Numbers champion
Whoever posts the most images of Northern Wheatears between now and the end of April 2015. A photograph of five birds together will count as 5 images! Get snapping!!!

Best photograph
I might as well hand this accolade over to Jono right now, but you never know, Mr Casemore may give him a run for his money. The best image of a UK Northern Wheatear in 2015 (up until the end of April), to be judged by as yet unannounced members of the BBC's Countryfile team (likely to change) will be the winner. And might be used on the 2016 Countryfile calendar, Might.

So, to recap: Northern Wheatear only. UK only. 2015 only.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The best laid plans

I get all wound up and excited about the 2015 local patch challenge, put in three hefty shifts... and then get hit with the double whammy of Shingles and a secondary infection - down the entire length of my right leg no less. I won't be turning out for the mighty Spurs this weekend, let alone birding. That's me out of action for a while, but I feel so shite that a male Siberian Thrush at Canons Farm couldn't entice me out... but then again...

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Reality check

We are well on our way into 2015, and with it that 'shiny newness' that greeted the beginning of the new year has started to wear off. Whether it's a deep-seated melancholy that I carry around with me or not, by about January 4th/5th my enthusiasm usually takes a check. I don't think it is just me - it is well known that the first working Monday of a new year brings with it the realisation that we have all eaten too much, drunk too much, have bills to pay and it is still dark and cold most of the time. Welcome to the human condition!

Birding is no different. The hope and expectations of the 'Big January 1st Bash' have been met and used up, and unless we are in the middle of something unusual like a cold-weather movement then everything seems remarkably like it did pre-Christmas (at least it does around my part of Surrey). I walked a section of the patch yesterday (no car so far this year) and was reminded how patience will be the name of the game - there was no gull roost at Priest Hill; no Firecrest(s) at Banstead Downs and, apart from a glorious flock of 500 Fieldfare at Canons Farm, no decent flocks to be seen anywhere. The patch year list did, however, creep along to 57. As if to check my expectations further, the overnight moth-trapping session in the garden yielded not a single moth.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


At the end of last year I drew up a list of my 2015 patch targets - 77 species that are considered to be absolute nailed-on certainties, with a further 40 species that are deemed to be a lot trickier to record. Those 40 are:

Little Grebe                                                                                               
Little Egret                                                                                                         
Greylag Goose                                         
Red Kite
Marsh Harrier
Red-legged Partridge                              
Water Rail                                
Golden Plover
Common Snipe
Common Sandpiper                               
Mediterranean Gull                                
Yellow-legged Gull                                   
Barn Owl                                                   
Short-eared Owl                                      
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker                
Tree Pipit                                                   
Yellow Wagtail                                          
Black Redstart                                          
Common Redstart                                  
Ring Ouzel                                                        
Grasshopper Warbler                            
Sedge Warbler                                          
Reed Warbler                                                   
Dartford Warbler                                    
Wood Warbler                                                                                         
Spotted Flycatcher                                          
Marsh Tit                                                                          
Common Redpoll                                    
Common Crossbill                                                          
Reed Bunting

Species such as Sedge and Reed Warbler appearing on this list might be surprising, but they are both scarce passage migrants through this largely dry area. I will certainly not record all of these and will just as likely record others that do not appear on this list. Such is the nature of birding, and as a local birding celebrity was once fond of saying, "each year is different".  Three of these - Little Egret, Water Rail and Common Snipe are already bagged. This simple form of birding is strangely liberating!

More of the extended patch - this pond on Walton Heath has a couple of rare plants, a handful of dragonflies but does well to pull in a Moorhen. A few metres away, the recently constructed golf course reservoir (about the size of a football pitch) has little water in it at the moment, with the result that the patches only Little Grebes have deserted. Let's hope the golf club committee decide to fill it up soon!

Friday, 2 January 2015

Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey

I once worked for a magazine editor who used this phrase on a regular basis - it comes from the days of British colonialism in the far east, and has been attributed to the 'pidgin English' spoken by the natives who taught the British soldiers how to catch monkeys (for pets) by the use of patience and stealth. I have a feeling that I am going to have to adopt such tactics for my birding this year... a four hour walk from Colley Hill back to my home in Banstead was notable for the dearth of birds on show. Up to 8 Common Buzzards, 110 Fieldfare and 10 Bullfinches were the highlights in an otherwise deserted stretch of downland, heath and wood. The usual flocks of larks, pipits and finches had gone elsewhere and my 'nailed-on' Marsh Tits were anything but. To use a well-worn cliche, this years study is a marathon and not a sprint, and if I am to compete with a certain Mr. S Sexton of Northumbria then I need to heed such old sayings about how to catch monkeys.

Colley Hill, looking west. I look forward to the stream of storks, cranes and large raptors this coming spring

Same hill, but seen from further east. The Roller will be sitting on the top of those pines this June. Or July. I don't mind which...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Here we go again!

January 1st means one thing in the birding calendar - year listing! Even if you don't keep lists, this is the one day that is the exception to the rule, and even then this particular list may only last for 24 hours. Think about it, we get up with more than the usual amount of enthusiasm and are fully aware of what the first species of the year will be - in my case a Robin.

I have metaphorically painted myself into a corner for 2015 by announcing to blogland that this is the year that I stay local. Very local. Walkable local. So this morning I left the house without car keys and walked to Ewell village, then along the watery LNR via Bourne Hall lake. And I quickly struck patch gold, (please remember that for me, 2015 patch gold will not necessarily contain many carrats)! First up was the semi-resident Little Egret, followed in quick succession by a showy Water Rail (I didn't even think that I'd see this species this year) and a bonus Common Snipe. All three were along this stretch of the River Hogsmill:

After adding Kingfisher to the list it all went a bit downhill. My attempt for the wintering Firecrest(s) on Banstead Downs drew a blank and Canons Farm was blustery, dull and virtually bird less. However, I had a good workout, possibly covering 10 miles on foot. I also stumbled across a few points of local interest - a daytime roost of 1,000 plus gulls on Priest Hill playing fields (this could be good for a future highlight or two) and a flock of 4 Bullfinches in the local park (I thought that they had vacated Nork several years ago). You see, this 'year of birding locally' is already producing results! Let's just hope that I don't fall into a birding malaise some time in February when it all goes as flat as a pancake.

At Priest Hill I came across several large clumps of Mistletoe. It was only when taking a photograph of the plants that I became aware of this Mistle Thrush on guard. It's how they got their name...

Whether you went twitching Bustards, year listing at Dungeness, or, like me, kept close to home, I hope that you had an enjoyable and successful day.