Showing posts from January, 2016


When I was recently asked why I go birdwatching, my response was lengthier than I had expected. I gave a few reasons why I did, and then I added some more... The hunt Our 'hunter-gatherer' instincts are still buried deep within us. It will take more than a few thousand years to completely lose them, so it can come as no surprise that modern man invents situations and scenarios in which to still exercise them. Birding scratches this 'memory itch' very well indeed. Every foray into the field is a hunt, a test of our ability to track down what is there. The knowledge The ability to seek out and retain information is practiced every time we lift our binoculars. What is that species? What age and sex is it? Where best to go and look next? And what time of day is it best to do so? That we hone this ability into an immediate diagnosis in our minds - reflex reactions -  is the reward to be gained from putting in the time in the field and the hours spent poring over gu

Back again to Pulborough

I had so much fun at Pulborough Brooks last week that I went back and did it all over again... This time, armed with a bit of local knowledge (thanks Mr. Winder!), I started off at Hale's View about an hour after first light. Two birders were already in position, standing at a gate and looking out across at a most stirring sight indeed - thousands of Lapwings. They were quite restless and skittish, with much calling and taking to the air in broken flocks. An immature Marsh Harrier then decided to fly through the airspace, sending at least 2,500 Lapwings into a heaving panic. In amongst them were four Ruff. Apart from the waders the air was also full of duck, as they too decided that large raptors were not to be tolerated overhead. Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Pintail burst above like some wildfowl-themed firework. It was some spectacle. The birder standing alongside me casually mentioned that he had the wintering Great Grey Shrike in his scope. Did I want to take a look? Yes ple

Colley Hill in readiness for Spring

At this time of year, especially in dull and wet weather (like today), the top of Colley Hill is not a particularly inviting place. Although on chalk, this high ground above Reigate gets very wet and muddy after a lot of rain, which makes walking on the steep slope reminiscent of taking part in a particularly sadistic obstacle course. In a few weeks time this slope will be covered in violets, then milkwort, and beyond that home to various orchids, butterflies (including Silver-spotted Skippers) and who-knows what else. It might be uninviting at the moment, but it will come into its own very shortly. The images above show off the work that has been done (and still is being done) to reduce mature growth on the steep southern slope. Top left is 'the before' and top right 'the after' shot, both taken over previous summers. This work, which was begun by a team of humans with hand tools, has been carried on by a herd of Belted Galloway cattle. The main shot gives a prett

Birding from the car

Do you have a ‘birds seen from the car’ list? I haven’t, but, nudged by a birding chum of mine, I might just start one… His own list is most impressive, bolstered by (a) having discretionary vehicular access to prime Dungeness habitat where he can use the car as a hide, and (b) spending copious amounts of time in the pursuit of birds. Already this year he has added Penduline Tit to his said list. He welcomed Black Stork on to it last autumn… you get the picture. But, before any such list is started, a few rules need to be agreed. Is the list just for your own personal vehicle, or can it stretch to any vehicle that you happen to be in? Should the list be confined to birds seen by chance, or can ‘from the car twitching’ be countenanced? Nothing is straightforward. My own ‘seen from the car’ highlights that spring to mind include a White Stork circling over the ARC pit at Dungeness and a Black Kite that was drifting along the coast at St. Mary’s Bay. Both were seen from a movi

Dark desert highways

So we say a sad farewell to yet another rock star. Glenn Frey, of The Eagles, has checked out of the Hotel California. My birding soundtrack throughout the late seventies and early eighties was enriched by The Eagles. And I do have a specific birding link to the track ‘Hotel California’, if you will indulge me… In 1994 I was returning from a three-week birding trip to Malaysia, in the company of Mark and Janice Hollingworth. We were flying with Aeroflot to save several hundred pounds, which necessitated a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow, before catching a further flight to London. As we approached Moscow, an announcement was made (in Russian) over the tannoy which brought gasps from the passengers, but bewilderment from us. Everybody was busy fastening their seat-belts, the cabin crew were scurrying around, and, no word of a lie, a stewardess was in tears, being comforted by a colleague. What the hell was going on? Within a minute everybody was seated, belted-up and the plane we

A lesson in counting

Yesterday I awoke to a vision of proper winter - at least half an inch of snow had fallen in north Surrey, covering all surfaces and looking particularly pretty before it would no doubt get messed up by moving cars, excitable children and the promised gradual thaw. I decided to visit the RSPB reserve at Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex, an easy 45-minute drive which got greener the closer I got - the snow had more or less petered out by the time I reached Billingshurst. The reserve is a lovely mix of habitat, with wetland, farm, wood, scrub and heath. There is a most agreeable cafe and visitor centre at the top of a hill (with a shop that sells a good selection of natural history books and optics), with a gentle stroll down to four hides and several viewing platforms. Not surprisingly, with all of the recent rains, the brooks were heavily under water. I had started off in the West Mead hide, that coincided with a volley of gun-fire from further down the valley. This resulted in

Water Rail action!

A bit of an experiment here - the first time that I have uploaded a video, filmed using my trusty Coolpix P600 camera at Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve this afternoon. For a full account of today's trip, see tomorrow! If you want to re-watch the video (and why wouldn't you?), click on the 'Water Rail action!' heading to refresh the link.

Ivy Broomrape

Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche hederae) has a distinctly south-western distribution in the UK, although there are a few outposts in the south-east of England. These latter populations are thought to be introduced (due in some measure to the artificial habitats in which it is found) although there is the chance that some of them might be wild. I am lucky enough to have this species present in several places close to where I live, the most celebrated of which is at Devonshire Avenue Nature Area, in Sutton. In addition to these, I discovered a substantial population nearby, some 15 years ago, while walking along the western side of Brighton Road. At the Bonchurch Close junction is to be found a mature, deep and well planted bed that extends for maybe 75m alongside the pavement. It is populated with mature trees (including Yew and Cherry Laurel) and is copiously overrun with ivy, particularly at ground level. The raised bed (bounded by a stone wall) brings the 'ground level' up to a co

Star Man

I was first aware of David Bowie when watching an episode of Top of the Pops and seeing him, arm in arm with Mick Ronson, as they mimed to Starman . This being early 1972, an androgynous, orange-haired creature flouting sexual conformity was unusual to put it mildly. This was a time dominated by Benny Hill and Love thy Neighbour , neither paragons of acceptance of the rights of others to be, or express, who they were. My first purchase of his music was Aladdin Sane (on its release), but I cannot admit to having been an early adopter of all things Bowie. It was several years later that I quickly purchased his back catalogue and wondered how on earth I had existed without knowing the delights to be found there. He wan't just a musical genius, he was also a whirlwind of productivity. Compared to artists of recent times, his album output in the early 1970s was staggering: Hunky Dory (released 17 December 1971), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (released 16 June 1972), Ala

Sharing and supporting

Do we, as birders, have a right to claim the places that we birdwatch as ‘our own’. When we see a jogger, dog walker or cyclist coming along, as much as we might inwardly sigh and assume that disturbance is but a few footfalls away, are we responding to the situation without thinking? I am aware that there are places where disturbance is a major problem (and I do feel your pain Jono) and each and every site has its own suite of ‘challenges’. No two are the same. There are inconsiderate cyclists, aggressive dogs and rude joggers out there - but there are also ignorant and anti-social birders (I might easily tick one, if not both of these boxes at times). I had a Damascene moment a few years ago at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on the East Sussex coast. This marvellous shingle beach (yes, just like Dungeness!!) had recently undergone some major work. Additional marshland had been created out of farmland and a large circular footpath installed. This walkway was several miles in diameter,

2016 ND&B Northern Wheatear Trophy

Yes, it's that time again... The UK's premier award that celebrates all things white-arse... The 2016 North Downs and beyond Northern Wheatear Trophy Previous holders of the trophy can be seen above, from left to right: 2013 Gavin Haig (Devon); 2014 Martin Casemore (Kent); and the current holder, 2015 Jono Lethbridge (Essex). A new rule is that only bloggers linked to ND&B, or contributors, are eligible for entry. There will be three categories: Earliest posting Whoever posts the earliest image of a 2016 UK Northern Wheatear wins this one. Blog posting only. Numbers champion (the big one!) Whoever posts the most images of Northern Wheatears between now and the end of April 2016. A photograph of five birds together will count as 5 images! Get snapping!!! No repeat images, and that means you, Peter Alfrey!! Blog posting only. Best photograph The best image of a UK Northern Wheatear in 2016 (up until the end of April), to be judged by as yet unannounced member

Norfolk the first time

Number 3 in an occasional series that focuses on my first visits to well known birding locations continues with the North Norfolk Coast . You can read the previous two that dealt with Dungeness and Beddington Sewage Farm by clicking on the locations. Cley was something of a scary place to me as a teenage birder. It was where proper birders went, blokes who knew their stuff, found rare birds, and, in the common parlance of the mid 1970s, were shit hot. They travelled the world, lived on the roads across the breadth of the UK whilst embarking on heroic twitches and did not suffer fools gladly. Did I want to go there? Yes! Did the thought of doing so unnerve me? You bet it did. There was one figure that loomed over North Norfolk (and Cley in particular) that had cultivated his own folklore, and that was Richard Richardson (RAR). Apparently he could identify tricky birds with ease and at vast distances. Just a whiff of a feather brought forth his expert, and correct, opinion. As much a

Return to Hawfinch valley

It was here, in March 2013, that I stumbled across a large gathering of Hawfinches. At its peak the flock numbered between 110-130 birds. Birders travelled from far and wide to see them. Since then, apart from an isolated sighting, none have returned. This morning I can confirm that they still haven't... but, as always, it's a lovely place to while away some time. Across the valley, in several disturbed areas on the upper slopes of Mickleham Downs, the rare Wild Candytuft grows, at its only Surrey location. This morning I found quite a few plants in flower. In fact, even in the depths of a cold winter it is normal to find a few in bloom. Last years Bird's-nest Orchids were standing proud, if desiccated, on the slopes of Mickleham Downs under beech woodland. Up to 200 were easily found, all within 100m along the edge of a footpath. Previous forays into the wood away from the few paths on offer tends to throw this species up. There must be four figure counts on th

Blog header

The new blog header comes from my good friend Gordon Hay, who took this photograph during one of the few recent sunny evenings whilst on the top of Colley Hill. The view is looking SSW towards Mordor  Leith Hill. I really should get my act together and produce a few more headers, although I do like my usual one so much that it will appear again in the future.

On a roadside near you!

I would put money on the fact that, unless you live in the wilds of Scotland, there will be a patch of Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) not far from where you are currently sitting - and it will most probably be found on a roadside verge. It is one of the few true winter flowerers, as opposed to the many, many species that are currently in bloom due to the ridiculously mild winter temperatures that we are experiencing. It acts as a good source of nectar for those hardy insects that are currently on the wing and, although not exhibiting a particularly showy flower, it is a most welcome sight in the middle of winter. But not everybody agrees… It is considered an invasive pest in some quarters. The Guardian newspaper says it "has attractive, fragrant, mauve flowers early in the year, but later in spring turns into a large-leaved monster, forming colonies along waysides.” Blimey! The species was first recorded ‘in the wild’ in 1835, having no doubt escaped from some ga

6,042 reasons to get out of bed in the morning

An American by the name of Noah Strycker has just spent the whole of 2015 birding around the world. He started off on January 1st in Antarctica (with a Cape Petrel) and finished on December 31st in India (with a Silver-breasted Broadbill). He didn’t go home at all during the year, but kept on birding. The linear route he took seemed chosen to eliminate time spent travelling, visiting (in order) Antarctica, Falklands, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, Spain, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, UAE, India, Myanmar, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Borneo, Sulawesi, Bail, Australia, Papau New Guinea, New Britain, Australia (again), New Zealand, Australia (third visit), Singapore and finally India (once more). He did see Citril Finch in France and Egyptian Goose in Germany, both lone products of what I can only assume were non-birdy trans

A bird inventory

Today saw the annual animal inventory take place at London Zoo - the keepers get together and count all the creatures that are within their care. I know it's most probably an age thing, but when I think of a zoo keeper I just see an image of Johnny Morris in my mind, peaked cap, leaning on a broom and talking to an elephant that talks back to him in a funny voice. If you are under 50 years of age you won't have a clue what I'm on about. It passed for entertainment back in the day... Last year the final tally came to 17,480 of 756 species. I thought that I'd join in, so I took myself off to Langley Vale Farm and counted every bird that I saw in a three hour period. My (more) modest total was 1,277 of 38 species. Woodpigeon was by far the largest component (510). Highlights included 5 Red-legged Partridge and 3 Marsh Tit. Botanically I paid my respects to the patch of Green Hellebore (above) that had come on a treat since my last visit in December. Also of note was

Underwater birding

I know that the people of Cumbria and Yorkshire will shake their heads at my statement, but it really has rained in Surrey this morning. Cat's and Dog's. Stair-rods. Pissing down. Driving back home from Balham at lunchtime (after visiting our eldest daughter) it was like being on the log flume ride at Thorpe Park. The gutters were running streams, puddles joined puddles to form... even bigger puddles. Spray slouched up to drench pedestrians and blind drivers. It wasn't the weather to be out birding. But once upon a time, it was... I used to go out in such inclement conditions and not bat an eyelid. When I look back on it now it beggars belief that I could have been so keen and so stupid. But it often paid off. One very wet September afternoon in 1975, cabin fever forced me out and onto my pushbike to cycle the four miles to Beddington Sewage Farm. Drenched even after having just cycled to the bottom of my road, I strode across the settling beds of the sewage farm and was

And we start all over again...

The first sunrise of 2016 - highly-charged expectant airs or a laid back acceptance of 'what will be will be'? It's an odd state of affairs, this clamouring for the new year to start and the old one to be on its way. The concept of time and the naming of months is a purely human construct, so the fact that we all eagerly await and pin our hopes on December morphing into January, or even the idea that the new year begins when it does, is all rather random - we could, quite easily, start the year during the spring, or on June 21st, or even August 5th. After all, the Earth's revolution around the Sun, which is the yardstick by which all of our 'timings' are based, doesn't have a start and finish point. Every second of that journey could qualify as such. For a thorough look at why we have settled on what we have, I can recommend Nick Groom's book 'The Seasons'. For the first time in quite a while, I entered the year without any grand plans or

It's Rambler time!

At the beginning of each year, Neil Randon (Surrey-based birder / journalist / designer / blogger), sits down at his desk and casts an eye back over the previous twelve month's worth of birding and blogging. After much consideration (and refusing to be put off by cheap attempts at bribery) he announces the winners of his much vaunted, much desired and increasingly difficult to win 'Randon's Rambling Awards', affectionately known as 'Ramblers'. Click here to find out who (or where) won which category, including an exciting new one. I'm far too modest to mention who won the 'Birding Blogger of the Year' award for the third consecutive year, or who came runner-up in the inaugural 'Birding Blog Post of the Year'. I'm also far too aware that if (a) Gavin Haig actually carries on blogging; (b) Jono Lethbridge posts a bit more; and (c) Neil reads more posts from a certain Darryl Spittle, then my days of success are severely numbered. Than