Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Useless directions

You are out birding with a small group of friends. Each of you are scanning the sky, looking out to sea or grilling the nearby vegetation. And then the moment comes when one of you has got something! Something good!! But now there is the need to get everybody else onto it - there is the need to give directions. The following are genuine, and totally useless...

For a petrel flying across a stormy sea
"Over that wave!"

For the reason that two distant stints keep being lost from view
"One is behind the other"

For a high raptor on a totally clear day
"In the blue sky"

For a Pied Flycatcher on the edge of a wood
"In front of that tree"

For a putative Caspian Gull in amongst a flock of hundreds of juvenile gulls
"Near the immature gull"

For a fly-through early hirundine
"Over there"

Giving directions can become an art form, a place for showing off ones natural history knowledge and a chance to let everybody know what a clever dick you are...
"Can you see that Cladonia encrusted Blackthorn bush? Next to the stand of Sweet Vernal Grass? Well directly behind that are the remains of a wire fence that used to surround the coastguard's cottage that was built in 1896. If you come towards us by thirty degrees and bear NNE away from the neolithic burial mound - you will see a lone Greater Mullein spike. Behind that. By the patch of brown-tail moth infested Goat Willow."

Monday, 26 September 2016

A stubble field in north Surrey

It started when I reached the most western (and highest) part of Walton Downs. I was on the edge of one of the Langley Vale Farm copses when I heard a number of Greylag Geese calling - (not to be sniffed at locally) - estimating that maybe half a dozen might be involved. I scanned the sky, picked up two geese coming towards me and was puzzled by the fact that there were only the two of them and that they were both Canada. Nothing else came along, and it all went quiet.

Only a minute later I came in view of a small part of a large stubble field. And not 100m away were 13 of these:

Now, 13 Greylag Geese may not mean much to you, but away from Holmethorpe and Beddington, this is a ND&B moment of joy! The geese were restless and started to walk away, down the hill and out of view. I followed them, creeping along the edge of a copse until it stopped, revealing to me a panoramic view of the whole field - which looked like this!!

Bloody hell, had I been transported to Slimbridge? This was but a part of the goose-strewn scene set before me. My water-free downland patches (Canons Farm, Epsom and Walton Downs) receive a handful of feral goose records a year, mostly fly-overs. Double-figure counts are very unusual. And now I was being confronted by 188 Canada and 151 Greylag! Even my highest counts from Holmethorpe and Beddington seldom reached such heights. In all honesty, there was more likelihood of me finding a Yellow-browed Warbler out here this morning than coming across such numbers of geese. They tolerated me for 15 minutes before flying off westwards, keeping low and possibly pitching down nearby. Not to be overshadowed, 750+ Stock Doves were feeding over several of the neighbouring stubble fields. My highest count for this species anywhere. In fact, it appears to be the highest count ever made in the county. Who says inland, water-free patch birding is dull? It is anything but...

The geese have gone, the Stock Doves departed - the famous Walton Downs stubble field

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

American whimsy

I haven't had a moan for a while, so here goes...

I've noticed a certain word cropping up on natural history Facebook groups and in plenty of tweets. It is a word used to describe an insect - normally a small insect, and usually one that has not been identified. And that word is CRITTER.

FFS - critter. A word that has come from the folksy, whimsical world of Americana. You can imagine a good ole boy on his rocking chair, sitting out on the verandah in Texas, or Georgia, or Alabama (you pick), swatting those 'pesky critters' as he chews tobacco and screams "Yee-ha!" I've most probably broken several rules on racial stereotyping there, but you get my drift.

What next? Spiders referred to as "Lil' fellas"?

Wasps as "stripy dudes"?

To quote one Jim Royle, "Critters my arse..."

Monday, 19 September 2016

These are a few of my favourite things...

Chats! I love 'em! Whinchats, Stonechats, Wheatears, Common Redstarts, Black Redstarts - I could go on. They are colourful, perform out in the open, are largely tolerant of us birders and, at the risk of being accused of anthropomorphism, full of charm. And when I came across a tight knit group of a Whinchat and three Stonechats at Canons Farm this afternoon, I was a happy lad. All four were faithful to a short run of hedgerow, fence and stubble at Reeds Rest Bottom for at least two hours. I left them as the rain set in and would have stayed but for the schoolboy error of not taking a jacket out with me.

The bridge camera managed to get a few reasonable shots, one a 'mood' setter of both species on a fence, plus a bonus image of one of the male Stonechats with an orthopteran snack in its bill (above), which I didn't notice until I checked the images on the computer. Enjoy!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Where have all the moths gone?

Last night was muggy and overcast. At 23.00hrs I was still able to sit out in the garden, dressed in t-shirt and shorts. In the mid-distance I could see light from the garden MV trap illuminating the lawn and nearby bushes. I sat and stared towards this lit area for maybe ten minutes, but there was barely a movement in the light. I had to sadly admit to myself that the moths were not going to be gathering tonight...

The fall in moth numbers has been gathering pace over a fair few years now and at a national level. From missing the 'moth snowstorm' in the car headlights, to the memories of gatherings at lit house windows, it is becoming a painful realisation that population levels of all our insects are in free-fall.

In August 1975 I attended a wedding reception at a village hall in Tring, in Hertfordshire. It was a warm evening and as it became dark the lit windows started to attract hundreds of moths. My interest in such things was known, and I was soon joined by several young children who helped to catch the larger and more striking of what had appeared. I didn't know what any of them were called, but they were coming in all sizes, shapes and colours. There were too many to keep up with, but it was an eyeopener as to how many different species there were. That evening was most probably the moment when a part of me became a moth-er.

Ten years later, I was living in a flat in suburban Sutton. I had no trap, so used to open the windows and switch on all of the lights in my living room, sit back, and await what ever decided to visit. And visit they did. I was kept busy potting up incomers or trying to reach those that had settled on the glass outside. The numbers weren't up to the levels enjoyed on that evening at Tring, but the moths were coming and going all the time. There was never a dull moment. When a pristine Large Emerald came one evening I was in moth nirvana! That's it pictured above, not the very same individual though.

By 1987 we had moved to our current home. At first I ran an actinic tube trap, an unobtrusive pale blue light that did not illuminate the ground around it, but even so I could look up the garden and see moths flitting around it on a constant basis. Our next-door neighbour had a cat, and it would come into our garden when the trap was switched on - there were enough moths to make it worth its while to spend time chasing after shapes in the darkness. When, by 1990 I had purchased an MV, any mild night from March to October would result in a constant flurry of moths around the trap. I would lie on the grass in the garden and look up into the trees or down along the edges of the bushes and watch the constant comings and goings of moths illuminated by the bulb - many of which would not even stop to investigate the MV below. My catches in the morning were a given - any night that was not blighted by cold, strong wind or constant rain would yield hundreds of macros. And now, this is a thing of the past.

The past few years have been dire. I could quote figures, but somehow that strips away the emotion of the slump. Numbers of moths (and numbers of species) are much smaller. Much smaller. The same muggy nights that used to create my own 'moth snowstorms' back in the 1980s and 90s are now ones of low attendance. Very low. Species that used to appear in plague proportions (a slight exaggeration, but all things are relative) are now represented by a mere handful. And some species seem to have gone altogether. One example is the beautiful Golden Plusia. It used to be an annual visitor, in small numbers, to the garden MV. I doubt that I have seen one in the past 20 years. Just one sad example of what is now coming to pass as the 'new normal' for our wildlife. Fewer. Less. And still falling.

It makes me want to weep.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Low-maintenance Whinchats

Heat haze. Against the light. At distance. No excuses, this is a very poor record shot being used as 'visual filler'.
I've not posted for at least five days - that is some sort of modern record. I bumped into Geoff Barter down at Canons Farm this morning, who commented on my lack of blogging. He thought that I must have hoofed it off to Dungeness or something. When I explained that I hadn't really seen much, he replied:

"Well that doesn't usually stop you!"

To borrow one of Geoff's own sayings, nuff said...

Back to this morning's Canons Farm vigil. It was hard going. Empty stubble fields. Quiet hedgerows. Silent copses. And just six miles away (as the Sabine's Gull flies), Beddington was having a stormer. So Geoff and I waited for any of their crumbs to come our way. Our wait was long, and hot, and largely barren. All was saved by a group of five Whinchats that haunted the bean crop in Skylark Field (one of them appears above). Up to 100 Swallows, six Meadow Pipits, five Chiffchaffs and 50+ Linnets were supporting cast.

But, regardless of our relative failure, we still go out and we continue to look. Inland (and water-free) patch birding is a question of the adoption of blind faith. Of accepting that the rough far outweighs the smooth. It is the hiding place of many a long-in-the-tooth birder, who has retired from the crowds, doesn't want to follow the sheep and maybe, in their own dozy way, wants to establish a purer form of birding. It is low-maintenance and it is highly rewarding. Those Whinchats this morning may only be Whinchats, but they were OUR Whinchats. Nobody would have known about them had we not looked, and there is undeniably something more meaningful and intimate about that.

Or am I just trying to convince myself?

Thursday, 8 September 2016


It's been a good few days for the London and Surrey birding fraternity - an Ortolan here, an Osprey there - all decent stuff for the inland patcher. With a slightly delayed start, and tweets coming in reporting a bit of viz-mig in southern Surrey, I entered Canons Farm in a state of anticipation.

After half an hour it seemed as if the birds had decided to bypass me. But then a few hirundines started to show, then a Yellow Wagtail called, a Lapwing rose up from Harrier Field and left westwards and everything became a lot more promising. The four hour session resulted in: 7 Cormorant (a messy flock north), 6 Common Buzzard, 2 Sparrowhawk, 1 Peregrine (an immature bird trying its luck with Woodpigeons at Tattenham Meadow, maybe one of this years Sutton birds), 1 Lapwing (grounded in Harrier Field then left westwards), 2 Common Swift, 420 Swallow (mostly heading SSW), 80 House Martin (likewise), 6 Yellow Wagtail (all singles flying S or SW), 1 Whitethroat, 6 Chiffchaff and 3 Yellowhammer. Grounded migrants (bird in general really) were sparse.

The sun had plenty of warmth, and despite a stiff breeze there were many butterflies on the wing, including Red Admirals, a Painted Lady and a Clouded Yellow (the latter at Circle Field). Most numerous were Comma (below) and Speckled Wood (bottom).

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Dark Spectacle

Here is one of the two Dark Spectacles that came to the garden MV last night. After singles in 2014 and 2015, these are the 3rd and 4th records, so it appears to be colonising locally. I didn't see this moth until 2012, when a single at Greatstone in Kent made me realise that I wasn't overlooking this species, and it was just missing back home in Banstead. It isn't that uncommon nearby in Surrey, so why they were shy of my small plot of land I'll never know - they seem to like it now.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Lady's on the downs

A grass verge, almost opposite the race course grandstands on Epsom Downs, is now playing host to several hundred Autumn Lady's Tresses, that small autumn orchid that loves a short, chalky sward. On September 8th last year I counted 2,000 spikes, but there were fewer this morning.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The garden chronicles

It's one of those lists that all birders keep, even if they do not consider themselves to be listers - I would go as far to say that if any of them say that they do not keep this particular list, then they are fibbing. I'm talking about the 'garden list'. There is one great big crumb of comfort in keeping one, and that is, unless you live with another birder, you cannot be gripped off. Whether you live on a coastal headland or in a city centre, there are many hours of enjoyment to be had in its collation.

I have lived at my current address since August 1987. That means I have spent many thousands of hours looking out over the 90ft back garden and 25ft front. There is a mature ash tree, there was a Lawson's Cypress (felled in 2014) and the planting is a mixture of wildlife friendly and easy to maintain species. A small pond has been a fixture over the years. The area is mature residential with a recent trend for developers to buy up larger gardens and build on them. 85 species. That's my current total. This is not a figure derived from any systematic observation, but a product of casual birding, just as and when I'm sitting in the garden with a cup of tea, gardening with one eye on the skies above, or lying in bed with the window open (nocturnal calls are a rich vein of ornithological gold to mine!) I count all birds seen or heard from the garden. Here's a bit of detail...

The unusual
Two Spoonbills cruising over one June afternoon doesn't get more surprising. I've seen more of them than Mute Swans (just the one) which I was alerted to on hearing its wingbeats as I was hanging out the washing one morning. A flock of Wigeon were heard calling after dark on an early March evening (while I was, ahem, sitting on the loo!) I have now seen three separate Honey-buzzards (all August or September, the most recent last week). Red Kites are now increasing in the area, so I will expect my three records to be built upon. Just the one Peregrine, but they do breed but five miles away. A calling Pheasant was a surprise one calm morning, possibly from the smallholdings fairly near by. Nocturnal Moorhen calls number six, with Ringed Plover calling after dark twice (both while checking the moth trap). Each late April/May is the peak time for Bar-tailed Godwit passage, and this is reflected inland - I have heard them, after dark, on at least five occasions. Both Whimbrel records were during daylight hours, likewise the single Curlew and Common Sandpiper.  My Cuckoo count is now up to three, all calling spring birds, including one displaying above me as I washed the car - domestic chores are sometimes rewarded! One of the few times I actually sat out in the garden for a prolonged skywatch was rewarded with a Short-eared Owl cruising northwards one early May evening. Both Tree Pipit and Yellow Wagtail are less than annual visible migrants. A splendid male Black Redstart spent over a week in the vicinity one March (see picture above) which was one of the most enjoyable garden episodes. Rattling Lesser Whitethroats are not annual and a decreasing event. An October Firecrest was seen from the living room window in a neighbour's tree - my dash for binoculars set a Banstead all-comers record! Crossbill is not unexpected, if not quite annual, in a good year there will be multiples. Yellowhammer is confined to just the one calling visible migrant.

When we moved in, Bullfinches were a daily sight. They bred in the large neighbouring gardens and could always be heard as we went about our lives. A glance out of the window would often be rewarded by one (or several). In 2000 a new cul-de-sac was constructed on a swathe of mature gardens and almost overnight the finches left. Since then I have recorded the species just twice. Lapwings were a regular sight, especially in late summer/early autumn or when there was a cold snap, with flocks on the move. Not any more. Kestrel, Swift, House Martin, Willow Warbler, Starling, Greenfinch and Redpoll are other losers.

My first garden Common Buzzard was recorded in 2000 (13 years after living here). Now they are expected each and every day, with displaying birds a feature in spring. Ring-necked Parakeets have gone from exotic surprise to an noisy irritant (with evening roost gatherings into three figures). From May through to late June I would barely see a gull, but these summer months are now blessed (?) with them, mainly Herring. Green Woodpecker, Blackcap, Long-tailed Tit, Jackdaw and Goldfinch are all winners. A special mention must go to the humble House Sparrow. Luckily they have not undergone any slump locally, and flocks of them are still a feature.

What next?
I have long expected a winter skein of geese, Golden Plover, a tern, it's surprising that at least one Waxwing has not flown over calling, still no Spotted Flycatcher (although with each passing year it seems more unlikely), but my big money bet is on Raven.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Late summer on the farm

What better way to celebrate the arrival of September than to head out for a day's birding at a top location. Dungeness? Portland? Spurn? No, Canons Farm...

I shouldn't be so harsh on the place, as it has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Unrewarded hard graft and frustrating days may outweigh the good birds and notable migration, but, as one wise old birder once said to me, "you remember your good days because of your poor ones." Today was an inbetweeny one.

I was joined throughout by Geoff Barter, another birder of a certain age that can happily choose to wander the birding wastelands of northern Surrey on the back of a lifetimes worth of 'birding good times' from elsewhere - maybe Canons Farm is like a retirement home for the satiated ornithologist. According to Geoff's phone app, we walked five miles across, up and over the farm today. We did give it a good bash, and not without reward: a Red Kite, 10 Common Buzzard, 2 Hobby, 4 Sparrowhawk, 2 Little Owl, 200 Swallow (many gathering on overhead wires), 12 House Martin, 1 Yellow Wagtail, 1 immature male Common Redstart, 3 Common Whitethroat, 3 Blackcap, 15 Chiffchaff, a Willow Warbler, 50 Linnet and 3 Yellowhammer.

As the afternoon wore on, I ventured into Banstead Woods and came across a patch of buddlejia bathed in sunshine. Summer was putting on a late show. There on one of the blooms was a single Silver-washed Fritillary, tatty of wing but still full of spirit. Like the dying season, it was showing its age but was still a thing of beauty.