Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Chat central

Priest Hill seems to be a favourite stopping off point for chats. This January/February saw up to 6 Stonechats spend a few weeks in the paddocks, and I suspect that different birds were involved over the period. During this current month, Northern Wheatears have stopped off with some regularity (with a peak of 8 on the 13th and 5 today), a female Redstart (honorary chat) was present on the morning of the 18th and a pair of Whinchats (including this stunning male) rounded it all off today. This family is one of my favourites, not just because of their beautiful colouring but also down to their habit of perching out in the open - on wire fences, hillocks, tops of bushes - making our encounters with them a thing of ease and one that seems to be mutually entered into. They're just - anthropomorphic warning - so inquisitive and friendly.

And talking of chats, the NDB Wheatear trophy is to be awarded tomorrow at midnight... one last chance for all you white-arse lovers out there to pop up a few more images.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Feeding off crumbs

I didn't think that this 'stay local' birding during 2015 would be an easy option. After all, north Surrey is not known for its ornithological riches, particularly in an area bereft of open water - that is, apart from the odd park pond. If I had chosen to include Beddington (a bit further north) or Holmethorpe (a bit further south) then my chances of success would have been substantially greater. But neither are walkable from my home, and that was always an important part of my plans for this year.

Last week added Lesser Whitethroat (species 89) to the list and I had my second female/immature Black Redstart of the spring at Langley Vale, always a difficult species to come across locally. But, for many hours of toil, these are scant rewards.

This morning saw me up at dawn and leaving the house at 05.30hrs to walk up to Canons Farm in a constant drizzle. I had visions of at least a Grasshopper Warbler, maybe a Cuckoo, even a fly-by tern or wader. Apart from getting very wet, nothing of note appeared before me. It was disappointing to say the least. What made it even worse was a phone call from a very excited Gordon Hay, who was feasting upon Wood Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Ringed Plover at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. His perseverance deserves it, and I couldn't claim that I wasn't aware that an open body of water at this time of year on such a murky morning would have the potential to be good - I just stuck to my principles of staying local. This tactic has the potential to infuriate far more than delight...

To combat all of this I will be going to Dungeness very soon for a week of 'ornithological blood transfusions'. I need them, if only to reacquaint myself with a whole raft of species that I will not see around here. But there is a big benefit coming up! My local area is very good indeed botanically and boasts a wealth of notable butterflies and moths. From now (until the autumn) they will take centre stage. It would be typical that when I'm not trying, a decent bird might decide to show itself to me. I can but hope.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Pale Tussock

This ones for Stewart Sexton, a relative bright spot in an otherwise dire spring for moths.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Crushing a childhood memory

Between 1962 and 1970 (aged 3-11) I lived in Tring, Hertfordshire. Part of my growing up there involved frequent visits to the local museum, exclusively dealing with natural history, founded by Lord Rothschild and housed in a stately Victorian mansion. I spent hours wandering the high-ceilinged rooms that were full of glass cases and walnut cabinets, staring at the assembled stuffed and mounted exhibits. My early obsessions were sweets, football and dinosaurs and very soon these were joined by living wildlife.

When I eventually ended up in Sutton, Surrey (1971) a trip to the natural history museum at South Kensington was on the cards - Tring's big brother in more ways than one. I couldn't but be impressed, not just with the exhibits inside but with Waterhouse's immaculate architecture. I went back a few times, but, until this month, hadn't visited since 1984.

It seemed like a good idea. Go back to the South Kensington museum to reacquaint myself with the fantastic array of exhibits, and spend a few hours poring over the birds and insects in particular. I was really looking forward to it, and, together with my eldest daughter, strode into the hallowed entrance full of hope and...

It started to go downhill immediately. There were thousands of school kids. Literally. Most of them were screeching with excitement or crying with boredom. All of the teachers and helpers that were looking after them were running around trying to keep the little darlings together, regimented in same-colour jumper crocodile lines. I know the museum should be used as an educational tool, but there were just too many of them.

As we negotiated this child assault course and got further into the bowels of the museum, it became increasingly obvious that what I could remember as a museum had long gone. Every 'section' had been dumbed-down and resembled a theme park ride. It is no longer possible to look at a collection of exhibits without some whacky graphics, interactive gimmick or video screen hitting you over the head telling you why 'Caterpillars are Cool!' in 'Creepy Crawly World' - I'm not making this up.

The bird room was being refurbished. I could have cried. What was still left, which was quite surprising considering that the 'marketing police' had cleansed the building, was a display case full of hundreds of hummingbirds. It was terribly out of place.

There were a few mammals on show, but all of them were tatty. There is a policy not to renew them as the modern world is not one that involves taking wild creatures for display. Fair do's. I was overjoyed to see Guy the Gorilla (yes, actually him!) a staple of any kid growing up in the 1960s. My daughter (born 1991) had never heard of him. Oh well... We didn't go anywhere near anything to do with dinosaurs, as 99.9% of the visitors to the museum were already gathered there, fighting amongst themselves to get closer to a T Rex jawbone or the tibia of a Brontosaurus. It also seemed as if 80% of the museum's floorspace had been handed over to catering and merchandise.

Then we came across the Geological section. A big room, full of glass cabinets, no gimmicks, just rocks. Thousands of them. The room was empty. And it was tedious and boring. We left soon afterwards, me vowing never to go back again. Never to ascend up the escalator that takes you into the Earth Galleries as if in a poor facsimile of a Jules Verne novel; never to stand in a room that tries to recreate an earth quake in a Japanese shop but just leaves you with a sense that the bloke standing next to you just had a wobble; never to look over the heads of 25 seven-year olds at a faded, moth-eaten big cat, whose identity is beyond even an expert's ability. When we finally got outside the polluted air of London town has never smelt sweeter.

The positives? A very good bookshop, full of proper natural history books, not just the normal dumbed-down shite. Charles Darwin's statue looks across and down at us all from the stairs above the entrance hall - that imposter, Richard Owen, has been moved away. And, of course, the architecture. If you find yourself in the building and cannot stand another minute of it, just look up at the windows and the ceilings. They, at least, are no disappointment.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Enough to make you weep

I saw a picture on Twitter today of a hunter standing proudly behind his latest haul - about 50 Turtle Doves and a Golden Oriole. I don't know what part of North Africa or the Mediterranean that the picture was taken (and am assuming that it was taken this Spring). Don't assume that this post is now going to take off into a rant against the evils of hunting 'our' birds - I don't agree with the killing of them, but then again I haven't been born into a culture where such practices are part of the way of life. It's also rich that 'we' can preach to so called 'backward' people about their environmental disgraces when we have clear-felled our forests, over-fished our seas, more or less wiped out our farmland birds, poisoned our pollinating insects and are having to re-introduce raptors because we murdered the bloody things in the first place...

Seeing those lifeless doves drove small nails into my heart because it becomes less likely that I will hear one of the finest sounds in nature this coming summer - the soporific purr of the Turtle Dove - redolent of balmy days, verdant hedgerows and lazy torpid air.

In just one birder's lifetime we have gone from this species being a staple of the countryside to becoming a bit of a rarity. I can scarcely believe that at Walberswick, in 1976, I saw a flock of over 150. I doubt that I'll see that many in the UK again, even if I live to be 100.

I don't mourn the missing of a rarity, but do the absence of such a charismatic bird. I'd swap every last decent species on my worthless life list to return them to their former glory. Purr on, my little beauties, purr on...

Friday, 17 April 2015

Mid-April round-up

Locally, the past few days has seen a great improvement on the bird-front. I have been putting in the miles, walking across farm, heath, wood and hill with no great reward as far as rarity goes, but happy enough to come across good numbers of Northern Wheatears - with counts of between 6-8 at three sites, plus a fine male Whinchat at Mogador and a bonus Black Redstart at Canons Farm. The local patch challenge list rises to 88.

My efforts with the MV in the garden have not been whole-hearted. Last Tuesday night it did pick up a bit, with the first real assortment of moths to look through, including Early Thorn (pictured), Brindled Beauty and Scalloped Hazel. I also had a single Zelleria hepariella, a smart micro that I have previously overlooked.

Botanically things are a little behind. The chalk slope at Buckland Hills normally has, by now, Milkwort in flower in good number, but on Wednesday I could find none. The local exotic, Koch's Gentian, was also behind, with only one flower fully out. I did come across this Summer Snowflake at Canons Farm, the first time that I've recorded this alien here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Battle of the Wheatears!!

And I thought that the North Downs and beyond Wheatear trophy had already been decided.

I totted up the white-arses from my worthy blogs this evening to find that there has been a mid-month surge from a certain Surrey blogger...

Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge) Essex   17
Non-stop Birding (Peter Alfrey) Surrey   16
Cowboy Birder (Tony Brown) Essex   7

Peter has cunningly used the 'multiple Wheatears in one image' rule to bump up his score. I now expect a certain lensman from Wanstead to hit back big time. Even the Kent boys have awoken from their slumber, but are still not bothering the leaderboard. It all comes to an end at midnight on April 30th.

It's shaping up to be a classic encounter.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Meet a hypocritical blogger...

Sorry, couldn't resist it, even though the image wouldn't get an E+ in a photographic exam.

Canons Farm was a 'warm slog' this morning, in the company of David Campbell and Geoff Barter. Migrant wise a little livelier, with a female Common Redstart at The Slangs, a flyover Yellow Wagtail, six Swallows, a House Martin, 4 Northern Wheatears and a Willow Warbler. The odd Chiffchaff and Blackcap were in the wooded areas. As if to warn us that winter hasn't quite finished with us yet, there was a single Brambling in the Canons Farmhouse area.

Patch challenge total now reaches 86 (86%). Already running out of likely additions...

Monday, 13 April 2015

Red Kite interlude

Locally, there seems to be a bit more avian action, although I have only managed to add House and Sand Martin to the year list, both birds accompanying 2 Swallows as they moved rapidly northwards across fields at Mogador - a neatly packaged collection of hirundines. My only other observation of note was a Red Kite at Colley Hill. It alighted on the steep slope and picked up a dark object which, at first, I could not identify. Then the kite gained height before dropping said object and then catching it, repeating this process several times. What was it? A tied plastic bag that I would guess was full of dog mess...

STOP PRESS: an evening visit to Priest Hill, Ewell revealed eight Northern Wheatear together in the largest paddock, plus a my first Common Whitethroat of the year close by (no. 84)

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Powdered Quaker

Unsung, modest, always the bridesmaid... that just about sums up a Powdered Quaker. When the moth PR machine goes into overdrive at this time of year it is always the Pine Beauties, Oak Beauties and Yellow-horneds that get all of the accolades. But there is an understated class about Powdered Quakers - subtle, with the look of artisan dusted blond wood. It is annual here in Banstead, but not in great number. The pleasure was all mine when this individual popped up in the MV this morning.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Back on track

After yesterday's post that careered madly into self-analysis and self-absorption*, I got up this morning, dusted myself down and just got on with it - a birding trip to Canons Farm!

The Met Office predicted a warm day of hazy sunshine, but by early afternoon cloud cover had largely won the battle and a f2-3 south-easterly had a little bit of a nip to it. The air certainly betrayed the presence of continental pollution, with the mid-distance appearing hazy and the horizon line murky indeed. But what about the birding? At long last a Northern Wheatear appeared before me, a smart male on one of those ideal looking fields. A single Swallow headed east without stopping and the edges of Banstead Woods was enlivened with the song of Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. My prediction that the Linnet flock was about to disperse was incorrect - it has now increased to 250 birds.

As far as the Surrey v Northumberland patch challenge goes, the list is now up to 81 species (81% of target).

* My wife read this over my shoulder and said, "this blogging is like therapy for you, isn't it". I cannot argue with that.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

A birding template

The older I get the more I cannot see the point in running around after other people's birds. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-twitching or even suggesting that birders should not chase target birds, but for me to do so lacks - how should I put it - a certain amount of art. Time, money and a sat nav can set anybody up as a competent lister - just check the news feeds and burn rubber as soon as something takes your fancy...

I used to do just that, many moons ago now. National twitches, obsessive county listing, manic site list compiler, but in reality I couldn't compete with the most rabid exponents of the 'art' and found that I was a ball of stress waiting to get to a bird and not much better after connecting with it. It had been relegated to a tick on a list, one that was no longer needed, a product that had just been consumed. There, I said it, the bird was just an object to be collected, collated, chewed up and spat out. Well, maybe that's going a bit far, but you get the picture.

I reference this little bit of wisdom from Eckhart Tolle:

'The ego identifies with having, but its identification in having is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of  "not enough". 

Want some more?

Having - the concept of ownership - is a fiction created by the ego to give itself solidity and permanency and make itself stand out, make itself special. Since you cannot find yourself through having, however, there is another more powerful drive underneath it that pertains to the structure of the ego: the need for more, which we could also call "wanting". No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting. This is the psychological need for more, that is to say, more things to identify with. It is an addictive need, not and authentic one."

Some of you reading this might be more mentally well-balanced than me, but I got to the point where the act of getting ready to strike out on a birding mission (i.e. to twitch or list) became an unhappy experience. I was already getting myself ready for the inevitable dip in my emotional state (and maybe a dip on the bird itself). To counter this I retreated into moths, plants and butterflies for a while, before trying to reinvent myself as a local birder, one not driven by the need to collect. I do still keep lists, but I don't chase them. I maintain them. There is a big difference. This has meant a big fall in my ornithological expectations, I don't see as many species as I used to and I certainly don't find as much (not that I was a prolific finder anyway). My prowess in the field has also taken a dive as I am not honing my skills on a regular basis at the coast - north Surrey does limit my ability to watch and listen to 'difficult' species.

Now my birding is more about the purity of the act, trying to understand the field craft, the reading of the weather, immersion in the habitat and trying to put myself into the mind set of a bird (pretentious, or what!)  Maybe we all evolve into this benign birding state. We start by wanting to just watch birds, anywhere and anytime. Then we want these birds to be rare, special and exciting. And then, when this wears thin, it's the manner of the birding that counts, where it takes on a philosophical and spiritual edge. And with this the joy returns.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it. As usual...

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A morning at Canons Farm

I was on site at 06.00hrs - not a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. Chiffchaffs were already proclaiming their place at the edges of the woodland, with at least eight birds present. Quite a few of them were moving through, singing briefly from a tree top before flitting on and repeating the process. I wouldn't mind betting that most of them are nowhere near Canons Farm this evening. A couple of Redpolls passed overhead, but little else was moving this early.

It was not until 10.00hrs that things picked up. I bumped into David Campbell and we took up position at the watchpoint close to Canons Farmhouse barns. Almost immediately two Common Buzzards flew purposely through northwards, followed by a Red Kite, then possibly another, although we couldn't rule out that it was our original bird. 15 minutes later an undoubted second bird appeared from the east and headed westwards. A trickle of Meadow Pipits overhead went undetected save for the odd call and the flock of 200 Linnets that have taken to the neighbouring fields spent much of the time in agitation, splitting up, reforming and causing quite a commotion - no doubt in readiness of breaking up for good.

Summer migrants were missing - no Wheatears on the perfectly adequate fields and no early Willow Warbler or Whitethroat breaking cover - that is until a single Swallow moved through northwards, followed by two more birds an hour later. The warmth of the morning had transferred to the resident butterflies, as we were able to watch Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Brimstones from our viewpoint, in a constant show of summer.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Marsh and Willow Tits in northern Surrey

This morning's visit to Juniper Top/Bottom revealed a minimum of four Marsh Tits, two of which were in full song. Whenever I come across this species I cannot help but think back to my formative birding years and the presence in north Surrey of their close relative, the Willow Tit.

It was not difficult to find Willow Tits back in the mid 1970s. I used to go to Epsom Common and be guaranteed of coming across several birds, mostly between Stamford Green and the smaller Stew Pond (the larger pond had not been flooded back then). If you continued onto Ashtead Common you would also find them. The Surrey Bird Reports of the time mention birds being recorded from 20+ sites and reveal that a study in the Oxshott area produced 24 breeding pairs in 1978. I was also able to find them during the summer months on Walton Heath and Headley Heath. Because the local population was relatively healthy, wandering birds could be found from time to time, with my recording of singles at Beddington SF on 12 September 1978 and 17 June 1979 (this bird being trapped), plus one at Nonsuch Park on 25 September 1983. Little did I know that my sightings on Epsom Common in 1989 were to be my last in Surrey - at least it seems likely that this will be the case, unless there remains an undetected bird somewhere off the beaten track.

So, the Willow Tit is consigned to a Surrey birding memory, along with the likes of Grey Partridges, Turtle Doves, Tree Sparrows, Corn Buntings and Cirl Buntings - all species that I could go out and see in the county without too much effort in my teenage years. It's enough to make we weep...

Marsh Tits are still doing well. On the North Downs, between Gatton and Ranmore, they are easy to find. I can get double-figure counts in the Juniper Top/Bottom area. There are outposts further north, but these are showing signs of losing their birds. Banstead Woods used to be a regular haunt but it has recently proved hard to find them there. This year I have found them increasingly difficult to record on Walton Heath, although with a little effort one has given itself up - but just the one! The long term prospect for this species at these sites is not good, particularly from Banstead. But this morning, surrounded by their song and calls, it was easy to assume that, unlike the Willow Tit, the Marsh Tit is here to stay. I do hope so.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Hard work

My continued belief that constant local birding will bring forth rewards was sorely tested today. The low cloud, dull light and damp chill all conspired to make it feel as if I were birding inside a grey, soulless and birdless bauble. Places from where I can usually gain some compensation from the views on offer didn't even deliver, mainly down to the flat light and misty horizon. Passerines were lacking and the optics had to largely make do with a diet of corvids and pigeons - even the gulls have largely gone.

The pair of Lapwings on Walton Downs are still around - one bird was standing alert in a large field that slopes away westwards, hiding at least a third of the ground from view. There have been up to five pairs here in previous years and the fact that two birds have been present over the past three weeks bodes well for a species that is locally a rare breeder.

Canons Farm was largely a migrant free zone - no Wheatears (even though the fields look good for them), no warblers and no hirundines. A flock of 200 Linnets using Quail/Skylark/Tart's Fields were good value. It was not until early afternoon that the day gave me some reward when a smart male Brambling called from the front gardens of Reeds Rest Cottages - species number 78 in the 2015 patch challenge. This is my first local record since last autumn.

One can only hope that the winds and weather pattern will soon change, that the migrants will start to flow and we can, at long last, put away the hat and gloves.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Wheatear Trophy update

There are just 28 days to go until the prizes are handed out at the annual North Downs and Beyond Wheatearfest! My attempts to secure the services of a celebrity to present the trophies has hit a snag, as Jeremy Clarkson has had to withdraw due to unforeseen and ongoing matters. Being a birder meant that he was prepared to carry out the Master of Ceremonies role very cheaply indeed - my budget might just about stretch to Rolf Harris (if we can secure his day release from prison, that is).

At the moment there are three front runners for the big prize - of most images posted on a single blog. They are:

Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge) 14
Cowboy Birder (Tony Brown) - 8
Non-stop Birding (Peter Alfrey) - 7

The current holder of the title, Martin Casemore (Plodding Birder), has not been defending his title with anything but a great big dollop of apathy, as just two Wheatear images adorn his blog (although there are 564 images of the Dungeness Cattle Egrets to compensate). If I were a betting man I'd suggest that this year the trophy will be heading towards Essex... but there's still time to put in a challenge. If you don't know what the hell this is all about then you can read the rules by clicking here.