Showing posts from 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

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...

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

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'

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 goo

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.

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'

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 Spu

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.

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

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

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 numbe

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 w

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 C

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...

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 n


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                                          Mandarin                                                   Red Kite Marsh Harrier Osprey Peregrine Red-legged Partridge                               Water Rail                                   Golden Plover Lapwing Common Snipe Curlew                                                        Common Sandpiper                                Mediterranean Gull                                 Yellow-legged Gull                                    Cuckoo  

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 Hil

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