Showing posts from February, 2016

It's all about timing

The past few days has seen some unusual behaviour from the ragged collection of birders who sometimes call Canons Farm 'home'. And that is the twitching of uncommon gulls - uncommon in the fact that the species that were involved were uncommon on site, but also uncommon in actually being grounded, and not just flying through, high above the fields as they normally do. A first-winter Mediterranean Gull kicked the whole thing off by appearing (for at least two hours) in the preposterously named Infront George Field - and Skylark Field, on Saturday afternoon. Then yesterday an immaculate first-winter Iceland Gull joined in the fun by spending an hour of two in the same fields, then moving onto, and settling down in, Tart's Field (all our fields have names!). A good excuse for another dodgy record shot? I reckon so: And this morning a couple of superb adult Mediterranean Gulls decided to crash the party, choosing Skylark Field and Broad Field to hang out, long enough f

Return to Holmethorpe and a gull twitch

It's been two years since I've lifted my bins at Holmethorpe Sand Pits. That's far too long - this is a very good place for a north Surrey birder to spend some time, and nobody has spent more time treading the sand than Gordon Hay, who has been finding stuff there for thirty years now. It was good to walk around the patch with him this morning. I have 'previous' at Holmethorpe. I have adopted it as my main local patch several times, particularly during the early to late 1990s and for a few years in the early 2000s. During these spells it delighted and infuriated me in equal measure, but after spending too much time plodding around the dry farms and heaths of Banstead, going back there is like returning to Minsmere! There is water!! There are wildfowl!!! Time has never stood still at Holmethorpe, and in the 25+ years that I have been visiting much has changed. Whole copses have been felled, abandoned farm buildings gentrified, fields mined for sand, large hole

Away with Watford

Back in the late 1970s I sometimes teamed up with Ian Brown, a birder from the Woking area, who had a passion for Watford Football Club. Back then they were a Fourth Division team (that's League Two in today's money), but they were on an upwards curve, being managed by a bright young man called Graham Taylor (who was to become England boss - "Do I not like that!") We went on many birding trips together (sometimes in the company of Charlie Daly and Ian McVeigh) which normally involved a weekend away, dossing in the car or staying in a Youth Hostel, to places as diverse as The New Forest, mid-Wales, the Suffolk Coast and Breckland. But, during the winter of 1978, Ian somehow managed to persuade us to add on the attendance of a Watford match to our birding itinerary... 7 January 1978 West Ham 1 Watford 0 (FA Cup third round) 36, 475 On arrival in the east end of London, we ensured that Ian's Watford car sticker was removed from the car windscreen and walked to


Katrina and I have just returned from a short break down in Cornwall. No binoculars, no social media (just as well as there was little wi-fi), although I did smuggle the compact camera with me, 'just in case'. Our trip was largely one of visiting relations, although we did manage one bracing walk across the sand dunes and cliff tops at Perranporth. There was one plant in particular that caught the eye across this most south-western county, and that was Alexanders (above). This umbellifer does not naturally occur in the UK, but was brought over as a pot herb and vegetable by the Romans, then cultivated in monastery gardens. I remember reading once that where the Romans went, this Mediterranean plant was left in their wake. Today it is largely coastal, but can be found well inland, commonly in the south-west. I have rarely seen it in Surrey, and when I have it has always been in small numbers. Because it is an early flowerer, the modest yellow-green flower heads shine out

Greater Snowdrop

There are quite a few species of snowdrop out in flower at the moment. None are truly wild, even the 'normal' one that can carpet our woodland floor ( Galanthus nivalis ). They are all very similar, but with a bit of practice the other interlopers can be picked out. But beware! They can hybridise. This morning I came upon a clump in Banstead (above), between the churchyard and car park in the High Street. The flowers were large, the leaves broad, and the inner tepals exhibited an extended area of green marking, particularly towards the base. I feel that I am on safe ground to suggest that this is Greater Snowdrop ( Galanthus elwesii ). I also came across naturalised crocuses (Early, Spring and Golden), Three-cornered Leek and Sweet Violet. They made a colourful procession to make the season seem even more advanced than it truly is.

Goldfinches and Lavender

We have three medium-sized Lavender bushes in our back garden. Throughout the summer the flowers (which last for several months) are a magnet for insects and give off a most restful aroma. As tempting as it is to cut the dead stems in the autumn, we always leave them, as we know that during the late winter we will get visitors to feed on the seed heads... This video was taken from the kitchen window this morning. We will normally see one or two birds over a few days, but have had up to 14 at once. We never tire of watching them. Lavender is a wonderful plant to have in the garden, with year round natural history benefits. So what are you waiting for? They are readily available at a garden centre close to you right now! There is an historic association with Lavender in this part of northern Surrey and south London. Lavender fields have been harvested for many years, with one particular field close to Woodmansterne being very popular with day trippers. A significant proportion o

The photographic record

I've never been one for 'having my picture taken'. It's not out of shyness, just an assumption that nobody would really want me in the way and spoiling their photograph. So, there are very few pictures of me in the field. I do know some people who do nothing but pose for the camera, and then post the images all over the place - each to their own, but not for me. I do, however, like taking photographs of wildlife. My family complain that I will happily snap away at a plant or a moth, but steadfastly ignore them. Guilty as charged... A rarity - a picture of me in the field! High Pines, Fraser's Hill, Malaysia, April 1994 It's not that I don't like people, it's just that somebody else always seems to be taking care of the photographic 'people' element in my life. My wife and daughter's have tens of thousands of images stored on the computer and backed-up elsewhere. We have a pile of photographic albums, full of old-fashioned prints. These

The New Wild

The New Wild by Fred Pearce (Icon Books) We are surrounded by species that, by rights, shouldn't be there - Japanese Knotweed, Pheasants, Little Owls, Horse Chestnuts, Rhododendron, Mink, Grey Squirrels... I could carry on. The knee-jerk reaction is to dig them all up, shoot them, remove them. We also spend a lot of time and money trying to keep certain habitats intact, be they reed beds, heathlands or salt marshes. It is as if we are trying to freeze time so as to preserve the fauna and flora present. Old, established ecosystems are the only way forward, and control of species that turn-up uninvited (or outstay their welcome) is obviously to be desired. Right? Well, according to Fred Pearce, wrong - very wrong! This book will have you questioning the way that you look at the world and examining a number of pre-conceptions that will have been with you for many years. The idea of a settled way of the world - an idealistic view of ecosystems and habitat - is shown up to be a f

The boys and summer of 76

It's another 'first time' post, this one concerning the RSPB's flagship reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. It was August 1976 and a disparate gang of 16 and 17-year old birders gathered for a fortnights birding extravaganza... Theberton is a small village a few miles inland and due west of Minsmere RSPB reserve. On the afternoon of August 10 1976, at a tiny campsite situated behind a small petrol station, seven keen home-counties birders were erecting their tents, eager to get the birding started, pumped up by the thought of a full fortnight with nothing else to do. From Surrey there was Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler and myself. From Hertfordshire was Barry and Ian Reed and Tim Andrews. Some of us had met up in Scotland the year before and had forged a birding friendship. Minsmere seemed an obvious place for us to reconvene. This reserve was by far and wide the most famous in the country. I had not visited Suffolk before and there were a number of iconic species

Too many books?

For the first time in my life I'm starting to question whether or not I need to buy any more natural history books. Or at least, if I do buy them, where are they going to go? We have two large alcoves fitted with bookshelves in our sitting room. There is floor to ceiling shelving along our upstairs landing. We have a book case in one of the bedrooms. Most of these are stuffed with natural history books. My books. There is no more room. Everybody else's books have to fight for space under beds, in boxes or stacked along window sills. I don't know how the natural history books took over, but they have. I'm a little ashamed... Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I keep lists. Needless to say, I have a list of my natural history books. It is even broken down into subjects. No, really. Would you like to see? Birds (151), Lepidoptera (51), Natural History Literature (26), Fungi (5), Botany (60), Insects (28), Mosses (6), Orthoptera (4), Dragonflies (7) and

Down the pan?

My pan species listing total has stalled somewhat over recent months. It currently stands on 3393 with the last addition being the migrant micro moth Syncopacma polychromella . And that was back in December. My embracing of the pan species concept hasn't loosened, but I have come to an acceptance that I am not one of those naturalists who has the inclination to name everything that they come across. I thought that I did, but I don't. In the past couple of years I seem to have wandered back into birding as my first port of call when it comes to spending time out in the field. Lengthy stays at Dungeness Bird Observatory have undoubtably fostered this, along with the sharing of quality time with the great and the good folks who haunt the shingle. This has lead to less time being spent birding locally (which was becoming trying anyway) and a rediscovery of going that bit further afield. My recent visits to Pulborough Brooks have been not only enjoyable, but have made me realis

Scilly the first time

Continuing with my reminiscences regarding the first time that I visited iconic birding sites, say hello to... the Isles of Scilly! Dateline Friday 13th - Monday 16th October 1978. "There's a Semi-palmated Plover on St. Agnes." "Don't you mean a Semi-palmated Sandpiper?" "No, plover, first for Europe. It's American." The species that Tim Boultwood had just mentioned I had never heard of. I didn't even own an American field guide. "I'm going down this weekend. Leave Friday night and drive back on Monday. Interested?" As a burgeoning twitcher, the fabled Isles of Scilly had yet to appear on my birding CV. That was something that I was desperate to rectify. Tim picked me up from outside West Croydon station Friday mid-evening. There were two other passengers - Nick Gardner and Steve Robinson. We settled down for a leisurely drive to Cornwall, taking in service stations, much birding banter, and all mixed with not a

Murmurating godwits

For the third time in a little over a fortnight I found myself at Pulborough Brooks*, unable to stay away from another helping of Black-tailed Godwits. Numbers today were a little down on last week, but there were still 800+ present, and they put on a spectacular show. There seems to be three default settings for the Pulborough godwits: 1) Roost. Do little, look bland. 2) Feed. All at the same time, eager and animated, much calling. 3) Fly! Turn from grey/buff humdrum into zebra-striped humbugs with a flick of the wing and a turn of the body, in glorious synchronicity. Today saw quite a lot of aerial activity, as a particularly stubborn Peregrine was hassling birds over the flood throughout the day. I didn't see it, but there is now one less godwit on site tonight, but also one satiated falcon! When spooked, the flock, (which had been feeding or roosting in close proximity), would split into three or four sections, wheel around for several minutes, and then join up again

The 2016 ND&B collection

I've been fiddling around with the blog header recently, and have settled on replacing them each month. So far has seen Goldfinch (January) and Kingfisher (February), but I thought that you might like to see what is coming up, in monthly order. The subjects are chosen to reflect the time of year. Can anyone out there identify the species depicted in all twelve headers? First prize is the admiration of all the cyber wildlife community...

Winter bees

Yesterday afternoon saw Katrina and I playing the part of a stereotypical middle-aged couple, National Trust membership cards in hand and ambling around the walled gardens of Polesden Lacey. The construction of the grounds date from the beginning of the 20th century, and are a mixture of formal garden, wild planting and vegetable plots. Whatever time of year that we visit there is always colour, even on this particular grey January afternoon. Admittedly there are sleeping earth beds and bare trees that are the expected fare, but there is also a 'winter' garden, constructed in the mid 1960s which was an oasis of flower. Hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconites, crocuses, viburnum, Christmas box (sarcococca) - they really cheered the soul. But what really stirred my blood were the bees. At least 15 of them were busily visiting the hellebores (plus the odd snowdrop) in defiance of the January gloom. It was mild, but even so they were like a message from the coming seasons - "We