Showing posts from October, 2015

Remember, remember

I like November. It is an underrated month for observatory birding, what with a combination of late but noteworthy movements and the chance of screaming rarity. The tardy summer migrant is still on offer and although it can all have the feeling of clearing away the empties at closing time, there is also a hint of winter offerings. Tomorrow sees the start of that very month - if all is well then I have another fortnight here at Dungeness. My anticipation couldn't be any higher. Another arrival of crests today, with 60+ in the southern part of the recording area. The Dusky Warbler was still showing now and again, but I kept well clear.

Eastern (and Southern) promise

Several months ago, whilst I was daydreaming about spending the late autumn at Dungeness, one of the subjects that I kept returning to was the weather. Would the winds be favourable for the odd good bird, conducive to arrivals and not too bad for sea watching? If I could have put in an order it would have been for light winds between E and S, a puff of warmth and largely dry weather. I must have done something right in a previous life, because so far there has been several days with such conditions and the Met Office are promising even more of the same well into next week! Thoughts are now turning to Pallid Swifts, Desert Wheatears, Bluetails and at the very least flocks of Pallas's Warblers chasing Richard's Pipits. Most of today was spent sea watching with the gang and a leisurely drive around the pits with Mark H, Chris P and Ellie the telescope (don't ask...)

I must go down to the sea again...

Two bouts of sea watching, in the company of Martin C, Tony G and Paul T were lively affairs, dominated by Kittiwakes (over a thousand heading west), Gannets and auks, but also boasting a trickle of Mediterranean Gulls, 2 Pomarine Skuas and a Black-throated Diver. Rarest bird of the day was seen on the RSPB reserve with Mark H. A couple of weeks ago, while at Hookers, he saw a leucistic Bittern fly over the reed bed. This morning I was fortunate enough to see this milky coffee coloured apparition. The Met Office are suggesting a period of SSE to E winds well into next week. There are no complaints from me on that forecast!


The day dawned wet, so I donned waterproofs and welly boots and strode out into the very dull dawn. It was obvious that there were new birds about, with crests seemingly coming off of the beach and taking cover in the low broom and gorse. I watched a dozen move through the lighthouse garden and head inland. An area of vegetation on the beach came up trumps - the chacking call immediately alerted me to the presence of a Dusky Warbler, and unlike the bird of two days ago, this one was quite showy, particularly for the first ten minutes of observation. No identification problems here... Very soon the great and the good of Dungeness had gathered and were able to get their fill. But, like buses another warbler came along, this time a Yellow-browed that had been found by Sean O in the lighthouse garden. Typically restless, this bird played hard to get, but patience was rewarded. Both were still present at dusk. Good photos of the bird can be seen on both the Dungeness Bird Observatory we

In praise of Black Redstarts

"When a man is tired of Black Redstarts, he is tired of birding." So said Samuel Johnson (or at least something like that...) Another day of mild south-easterlies although the birds were thinner on the ground. There were at least 20 Black Redstarts around the point and it was a joy to sit in the sun and watch them - normally in groups of 3-5 birds - as they flitted between patches of broom, garden outbuildings and fence posts. I could do this all day and not get bored. I have come to the conclusion that chats are my favourite birds. Especially if we include Wheatears in with them. What's not to like about Common and Black Redstarts, Stonechats and Whinchats? They are colourful and confiding, mostly migrants so have that extra special dollop of wonder, can turn up unexpectedly even in the most hostile of places and sometimes arrive en masse as a part of unforgettable happenings. If there is nothing else to look at tomorrow, bar one of these red-tailed flicking beauti

A classic observatory day

A south-easterly breeze saw me at the point by dawn, looking out to sea. Passage was light, save for a drake Red-breasted Merganser and a Short-eared Owl. The walk back to the observatory was enlivened by a brief flurry of finches overhead (which included a flock of 13 Crossbills), plus the first signs of grounded migrants in the exposed broom (mainly Goldcrests but including 2 Black Redstarts). There was no sign of these birds on my earlier walk down. By 08.30 the crests started to arrive in earnest, together with more Black Redstarts. It was turning into one of those special observatory days! A 'tacking' phylloscopus warbler was finally nailed as a Dusky, this bird showing briefly on a few occasions between the power station fence and the sanctuary. Most of the crests quickly moved through and the Black Redstarts began to drift northwards. Final day totals were 100 and 50 respectively. It was a delight to watch the chats, at times 8 on a bungalow roof at once, including som


A sunny and mild day that at times put on hold the notion of the end of summer. A brief but welcome Dartford Warbler livened up a sluggish day at DBO, this female/immature playing hide-and-seek in the large stand of gorse out in the desert. Highlight was left until the fag-end of the afternoon, when I joined Dave W, Martin and Richard on the beach to observe the regular baiting for gulls that is carried out by Mick S and Richard S. A most showy first-winter Caspian Gull was a delight (even I could manage this individual) this bird spending quite a bit of time in our company, allowing close flight views and settling on the beach well within range of our assortment of cameras. See 'Ploddingbirder' and the Dungeness Bird Observatory blog/website for the images - mine will have to wait until I return home. A single Red Admiral and Hummingbird Hawk-moth were also recorded.

Shrike stroll

A day of seasonal contrasts. Summer was represented by a rather surprising suite of plants that are still in flower - and not just the odd one or two! Nottingham Catchfly, Sheep's-bit, Moth Mullein, Thrift, Ragged Robin and Sea Campion are all to be readily found in bloom. To be crunching across the shingle in late October with so much colour at your feet is surely unusual. Winter came courtesy of female Goldeneye and Goosander on the RSPB's Burrowes pit. The cold fingers of winter have started to take a hold... This afternoon saw me take an unusual route to Hooker's Pit, by walking from the observatory, via the public footpath that runs between Burrowes and New Diggings. After almost 40 years of visiting here, this is the first time that I have walked this path across the pits. The reason for doing so? A fine Great Grey Shrike, that played hard to get but finally gave itself up on top of the bushes at the back of Hooker's. It happily fed on dragonflies and looked q

A pulse of crests

With the morning starting grey, mild and eerily calm, there was hope that the birding would pick up somewhat. Initial observations seemed to suggest otherwise. However, from about 09.00hrs crests started to pop up across the point - not in enormous numbers, but obvious enough to be noticeable. The observatory staff had erected mist nets in both the trapping area and the moat, with the former location being far more productive at first, but then the latter taking over with the higher numbers by midday. The crests were not hanging around: very few birds were being retrapped, and we watched a flock of four Goldcrests take to the air and gain height and then disappear out of view. Maybe 100+ Goldcrests, and 2 Firecrests, were involved. Lunchtime saw cups of tea and sandwiches being abandoned as a Barred Warbler was trapped, the first-year bird being found in one of the trapping area mist nets. This was only the third to be recorded at Dungeness in the past 20 years - it really is a sca

Alas, poor Linnet

The Scotney Rough-legged Buzzard gave itself up without a fight this morning, and proceeded to hover and hunt in front of us for over half an hour. It even decided to visit both East Sussex and Kent - this is a species that I had not seen in the area before. After a fortifying cup of coffee at the Plodland Bistro, I walked back to the observatory via Dengemarsh Gully and the beach. This isn't everyone's idea of a good walk, but for me it combines 'big skies' and solitude, plus decent birding. This afternoon, as the light was fading, a Merlin put on a great show as it hunted down a Linnet that had become disconnected from its flock. The finch tried all it could to shake the raptor off, both birds stalling, rolling and catapulting in a frenzy of the hunter and the hunted. What finished it for the Linnet was the sudden appearance of a second Merlin. Without ceremony and with none of the effort of the chase so far, it effortlessly plucked the bird out of the air. All wa

A wet arrival

Arrived at Dungeness in the rain at 08.00hrs and within the hour had 'ticked' Messers Walker, Hollingworth, Casemore and Greenland. These fine fellows will be my companions over the next few weeks. It is good to be surrounded by so much competence. The recent run of easterlies/northerlies have morphed into westerlies. Although not a normally hoped for wind direction, they are not strong, and there are so many rarities dotted around the country that there will be a great deal of wandering going on amongst them (not to mention those that are yet to be discovered). Hopes are quite high down here... Despite the wet, three Short-eared Owls, a late Hobby, Merlin and Peregrine were all logged. I missed the Rough-legged Buzzard, but this is day three of its stay - maybe it likes the area and will settle down for longer. It should be dry tomorrow. The birding should be easier. Bring it on!

Memories of Hazel

I first met Hazel in 1981 - together with Dave Eland (and Mike McDonnell), we spent the weekend at Portland Bill in Dorset. It was obvious why she was the ideal partner for Dave, with both of them being warm individuals with a wicked sense of humour. Those two days were a fog of laughter, food and alcohol, a recipe that was to be repeated on many occasions. We all teamed-up again that very autumn, renting a flat in St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly, for a fortnight. Despite her slight build and modest height, it was a delight to watch her take on Mike each evening as he attempted to hog all of the hot water (he needed his bath!) and wriggle out of helping to cook the evening meal. As family friends they were a big part of our lives throughout the 1980s. One particular holiday to Majorca was non-stop laughter for two weeks, and on one boat trip I was royally gripped off by Hazel as she saw some flying fish. Her skill in the kitchen was legendary, especially her famous curry, which had

Where is Surrey?

A Twitter discussion has erupted this evening regarding the agreed boundaries for the ornithological recording area of Surrey. Some of you may wonder what the fuss is about, as, compared to our coastal neighbour's, it is hardly a county to set the birding world alight - however, as I'm only too keen to point out, it has a number of species up on our 'big brother' Kent, namely American Robin, Common Nighthawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pine Bunting, Killdeer and Glaucous-winged Gull - not bad for a runt county... Anyhow, back to the recording area discussion. In the 19th century (1852 to be exact) a geographical division of the United Kingdom was devised that resulted in clear divisions of the vice-counties, also called the Watsonian vice-counties. These were adopted by biological recorders as easily identified units in which to collate and publish natural history records, which included the Surrey Bird Club (formed in 1957). I quote directly from Wikipedia: The London

4 February 1287

Five thousand years ago, in an area of sea that is today Rye Bay, we would have found offshore barrier beaches that were constantly shifting with the insistence of the sea. Over several thousand years this shingle was moved and deposited in stages eastwards and started to accumulate on tidal sands. Each mini era of activity formed shingle ridges, mimicking the waves they had been sculpted by, and within each peak and swell was laid bare the genesis of the place that would later be called Dungeness. As much as this process was a gradual one, at times, during the dark ages, great storms quickened proceedings, not only reconstructing the shoreline with brutal immediacy but also altering the flow of the nearby rivers. The area inland from all of this activity was a volatile place as well, what with the rising of the landmass, formation of marshland and periodic inundation of the sea. Man also played his part in altering the landscape to serve his needs, draining to create fertile farmland


Last night we lost Amber, our beloved Cocker Spaniel. The vet could do nothing to help her, so we had to say goodbye. She was 11 years old and she had been with us from the age of six weeks. Amber's birding highlight was flushing a Golden Plover as we walked across the grassy expanse of Epsom Downs - she never did find a woodcock, much to her breeds disappointment. She had a big part to play in the first Surrey record (for 25 years) of Field Gromwell. We were on Epsom Downs (one of her favourite walks) when she decided to take me off the usual route. I followed. We then came to a chalky field corner, which I thought looked interesting, and so it proved, with not just Venus's Looking-glass but the aforementioned Gromwells. Had it not been on her insistence, then the chances are that they would have remained undiscovered. People that are not pet owners will most probably not understand that the loss of a close pet is shattering. We are all at loss here at the moment. The

Bearded Twitchers after 'tit'

The following appeared on the website 'Welcome to Dungeness UK' on a post called 'Rare Bird and Bearded Twitchers'. I wasn't there so cannot comment on the behaviour of the gathered masses, but author dungieMike says the following: So the Arcadian (sic) Flycatcher hitched a lift from the States to Dungeness – and then evidently died. Relentlessly pursued by hundreds of bearded twichers it is little wonder it took the easy way out. These so called bird lovers (the Twitchers) seem to disregard normal behaviour patterns when chasing their quarry, with total disregard for private property. One poor lass threw open her bedroom curtains only to be confronted by four of these ‘persons’ leaning over the garden fence with binoculars trained on her very person. Me thinks they were after a different type of tit. I often wonder, when observing these rambling masses, what their reaction would be if we went to their home, tromped across their gardens with spyglass and camera i

Keep Calm and Carry On Birding

If all things go to plan, I will descending upon Dungeness next weekend. For a month. Yes, I know, that's terribly indulgent, but why not. As the Specials sang, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think..." After my bold proclamation that I wasn't bothered about not seeing the Acadian Flycatcher (see here) , I now find myself very restless indeed, scouring the twitter feed for news on what is being seen along the Kent coast. A conveyor belt of easterlies has dumped a load of scarce and rare species from Shetland to Scilly, including a Pallas's Warbler at Dungeness. Today there are a few thrushes making landfall on the shingle and no doubt by the day's end one or two other goodies will have been winkled out. It feels good - it is sounding good. And my birding paranoia has returned - mildly, but it is definitely there. This isn't about rarity, it's about migration. It's about spectacle. My angst is down to the belief that it'll all happe

Rainbow Dust

Peter Marren is one of my favourite authors of wildlife publications. His 'Poyser' on Britain's Rare Flowers and British Wildlife Publishing's Mushrooms are both delights which I re-read with as much enjoyment as their first sitting. Rainbow Dust explores the relationship between us dowdy people and the brilliance that are butterflies. It begins with the author laying down his own beginnings with lepidoptera and then takes us to meet those who first described them, who named them, collected them, painted them, studied them and conserved them. This gallery of 'movers and shakers' is full of characters, from the plebs to the aristocracy, and shows us how they all contributed to our appreciation of butterflies in varying, but similarly major ways. How these insects have coloured our culture, haunted our folklore and entered our psyche is laid out before us. I will never look at a Red Admiral in the same way again - the depiction of this species in the pain


I have just re-watched Shane Meadows excellent documentary 'Made of Stone', a film about the history, and reformation, of the rock band The Stone Roses. He is a massive fan of the band and the project was (obviously) a labour of love. There was a scene in which the band announced a free gig, in which the first 1,000 people to arrive at the box office (with an item of band memorabilia) were issued with wristbands to gain entry. All of this was filmed. Within minutes, people arrived at the box office, running, sweating, in a panic. Many were interviewed. They couldn't believe it. They were beside themselves. Their favourite band - no, not their favourite band, one of the reasons that life was worth living - were playing at this venue after a gap of 20 years! Forget about the second coming, this was up there and beyond it! Such devotion was obvious, but such oneness - a collective understanding about the relevance of this event - was even more palpable. They entered the gig as

Big skies

Why is it that we are drawn to open vistas, panoramic views and big skies? I've read somewhere that it may be that it is hardwired in us, a throwback to our ancestral savannah home, and our need to see into the distance to prepare for possible danger. Such reasons are largely null and void in 2015, but my need for the 'big sky' is a strong one. I'm drawn to such places, be they Dungeness (above), the North Downs (middle) or humble Canons Farm (bottom). They all supply me with peace. Thinking time. They strip away the immense detail of our daily lives, the media tittle-tattle, subdue the human bustle and act as a balm to the stresses of today (and if you don't think you have any, the way that we live in the so-called civilised world, we are surrounded and bombarded by them). Human traces are reduced in such situations, so distant towns become islands of lego, roads thin grey snakes wriggling through the green and pylons just silver insects marching across t

Autumn at Langley Vale Farm

The fields of Langley Vale Farm called me back again today. I seem to be making a weekly visit at the moment, and although the place is not totally devoid of birdlife (or potential), I once again left without too much use of the notebook. However, on such a fine autumnal day, with warm sun, blue skies and drowsy butterflies, it would be churlish to demand more. This farm was recently purchased by the Woodland Trust, who intend to turn it into woodland to commemorate the centenary of the Great War (now 101 years since its start, so the centenary tag might be a little out of date when the project finally comes to fruition). As already remarked upon here , this move has been met with mixed feelings, as the area has been farmed sympathetically for decades and boasts an incredible arable plant assemblage. Another endearing aspect of the farm is that it retains ancient hedgerows, copses and woods, home to many species of tree, shrub, flower and, no doubt, an interesting invertebrate com

Hidden resources

In a recent tri-blogger's discourse between Stewart Sexton , Dylan Wrathall and myself, we have been exploring the lessening of blogging, the reasons behind it and why, indeed, people bother blogging at all. In the past 24 hours I was twice reminded of why it is worth carrying on with it and how a humble post can do good even years later. Firstly, Karen Woolley (of the excellent Wild Wings and Wanderings ) got in touch. She is hankering after going to see the rare and frankly bizarre looking Starfish Fungus (Aseroe rubra) that can be found in a Surrey woodland at Oxshott. She either remembered a post of mine from 2013 or Googled the fungus and was sent to my site. Either way, knowing that I had been there and that Oxshott Woods is quite big, she emailed me to see if I would 'point her in the right direction'. I was only too pleased to oblige. Then last night I received an email from David Gowing, Professor of Botany, (Environment, Earth and Ecosystems) at the Open U