Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A mid-1970s winter morning

A ringing alarm clock pierced the dark and woke me into a cold, still world. A glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was a heavy frost. The world looked pretty - from the twinkling stars down to the twinkling pavements - a winter wonderland that was soon to see me off to Beddington Sewage Farm. With a packed rucksack I ventured out of the back door to retrieve my bike from the garage, freezing to touch, not really all that inviting a prospect. The cold was chilling, but a four mile ride would soon warm me up. There was little traffic to detract me from watching my breath form into a grey vapour before my eyes. Apart from a fox dashing across the road in front of me my journey was uneventful, my eastward procession lit by the barely emerging sun. It all seemed portentous this dawning of the new day, full of hope and pregnant with possibility.

Cycling over Hackbridge bridge and onto Mile Road opened up the farm on either side of me, the fields shockingly white with a severe frost and clouds of steam rising wherever there was a fast running water culvert. In such weather these water courses were the haunt of waders that had fled the frozen settling beds. It was now light enough to bird, but the iron cold was suppressing much happening, save for the odd wail of a Lapwing and 'chack' of a Fieldfare. Above me a small flock of Redwings called, plaintive and lonely, but oh so wild. After locking my bike away and pulling on a pair of frozen Wellington boots, I strode across one of the fields, my progress traced by a dark line drawn into the silver vegetation by my meandering journey. As soon as I came across a free-flowing dyke I was met by an explosion of muttering Snipe, sounding like grumpy old men that had been unwillingly disturbed. A bit further along rose a Green Sandpiper, yodelling up into the crystal air, the bright light making the clear-cut black and white plumage hurt the eyes. A good start.

My toes were cold, my fingers numb. After an hours wandering I dug out the thermos flask from my rucksack and gratefully gulped down a cup of warming coffee. Where the sun had hit the vegetation the thick rime of frost had been removed, revealing the dead winter colours below. A few Tree Sparrows and Greenfinches were poking amongst the burnt caramel blades of grass, squabbling and flitting, unaffected by the cold. A flock of Teal flew overhead towards who knew where - all of the open water here was still frozen.

After a while I started to peel off layers of clothing - first the hat, then the gloves - and began to luxuriate in such a day. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. It even began to feel warm. The grass I now walked through was sopping wet, my welly boots slicked with water resembling a couple of seals. That early newness, of freshly-made frost and ice, was but a fading memory. But, if the weather forecast was to be believed, it would all be back again tomorrow morning. Are there better mornings to be out, to feel blessed and alive?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A very tame buzzard

A morning spent at Canons Farm in the company of Geoff Barter - plus the confiding Common Buzzard (above), that has taken to hanging around Reeds Rest Cottages. The buzzard appears to be well and can fly without difficulty, so why it is being so unadventurous and 'tame' I do not know. Whatever its reasons, it sits on top of roofs, chimneys, barns and posts with little care for the passing birder. The image above has not been cropped and was taken with a bridge camera.

A calmer, more sunnier day would be hard to find in the early winter, and although I couldn't claim that it was warm, the need for hat, gloves and scarf was redundant. There weren't many birds on show, so Geoff and I had to make do with a slow wander and plenty of waffle between the two of us. A flock of 60+ Skylark and a low count of four Yellowhammer (below) was made. Although I don't particularly want any, a dose of hard weather is needed to stir the ornithological pot up.

Monday, 28 November 2016

For whom the poll swells

Redpolls can be troublesome - troublesome, that is, if you start trying to identify every single individual that you come across. The problem is that they vary so much. At its simplest, we have three species: Lesser (Carduelis cabaret), Mealy or Common (Carduelis flammea) and Arctic (Carduelis hornemanni), although different authorities split these still further, while others lump them. It's confusing to say the least. Even when you have them in the hand it is not always a straightforward matter of clinching the identification, but sometimes it is. Take these two Mealies (Commons) that were trapped at Dungeness in early November, along with several accompanying Lessers. They were clearly larger, were heavier and the colouration was at once different. The top two images are of the same bird, whereas the bottom picture is of the second individual.

I came across these images whilst having a look through the several hundred pictures that I took during my recent stay at Dungeness. I thought that one or two of you out there might be interested in them - highly instructive at best, blog filler at worst...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Take note

Is the field notebook becoming a threatened species? I ask, because I rarely see anybody using one nowadays. It was a staple of the birder's weaponery 'back in the day', as much a part of the ornithological arsenal as your bins, scope and ex-army jacket. Don't get this confused with the posh log book back at home, where the field notes were written up all neat of hand and full of additional flourish - I'm referring to the small, pocket-sized notebook where the day's counts and descriptions would be jotted down whilst in the field. These could get dirty, spattered in mud, wet with rain, crinkled at the edge and have pages torn from its innards - it was a tool of the field and if I ever left home without one I felt bereft. And if I did forget it then I have been known to then use any scrap of paper, inside of a field guide or back of a hand to scribble down all of that important info. Well, I say important meaning that it was to me. I did take it all a little to seriously to be honest.

I look around today and see few taking notes. Very few. Do these people just not bother at all? Do they write it all down when they get home, trusting their memories? I would put money on the former being correct. I have seen (or more accurately heard) birder's dictating their observations into small recorders, but could never bring myself to adopt this method. It had to be an A6 hard backed notebook, with narrow feint ruling, preferably a ribbon for marking the page that was being written upon and for the cover to be either black or dark blue. No fuss there then...

I recently have been using a black hard-backed notebook from Ryman's, spiral-ring bound which even sports an embossed feather on the cover. For the past 5-6 years this 'model' has accompanied me across hill and dale, up mountain and down to the coast. Thoroughly field tested. Totally the dog's do-dahs. They have just discontinued it. The new version is inferior in several ways, so I will be on the look out for the next new favourite.

As for the big, serious, important and grand log book that follows on in the note taking process - that deserves a post all of its own.

Friday, 25 November 2016

All's Ewell that ends Ewell

A brisk 15 minute walk from the front door sees me stepping onto Surrey Wildlife Trust's Priest Hill Reserve - all ex-farmland, then municipal playing fields, now reverting to scrubby grassland. It is quite high (for Surrey) and although not an obvious ornithological hot-spot, it does turn up a fair selection of passerine passage migrants. Today's surprise was a flock of four Reed Buntings (all females, one above). Locally, this is pretty amazing stuff. Nearby were a male and two female Stonechats, a species which is a regular passage migrant and winter visitor to this reserve. I always check them for an accompanying Dartford Warbler, but no luck again today.

A further twenty minutes on finds me at the River Hogsmill in Ewell Village, a small watercourse that I could just about jump over (given a long run-up and my legs and lungs of 40 years ago). The three species that are almost a given at this time of year were present and correct - Little Egret, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail (below). I may not have the coast nearby, but there is plenty to look at given a bit of effort.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Spike Milligan summed up the human need for nostalgia quite succinctly, and it went something like - "With the present so troubling, and the future so uncertain, the past is a warm place that holds no fears at all". Looking back in time and turning over the leaves of the past is something that I am quite comfortable in doing.  I do know some who shun such activities, that want to live in the present and not 'project' themselves back (or forward) in their minds.

To unearth events that have happened to us can stir many emotions - feelings of loss, a reminder of lessons learnt, a warm glow of joy, sadness that we are no longer the young carefree individual - but as we possess a memory it is strange to me that we don't all embrace it. Speaking for myself I am selective in what I revisit and am more than aware that those moments that I select are heavily lit by a rosy glow. They are worth more to me than any physical possession. I don't just embrace them, I celebrate them!

As for my memories via the world of nature, they come out to play on a regular basis. They are partly why I still go out into the field as I want to collect more of them. The need for rarity is massively lessened. When I cobbled together my 10 most cherished moments with nature, only one of them involved rarity. Such moments just happen. It doesn't need to be on top of a mountain or when stood before a raging seascape - you might be looking out of a window or washing the car.

And, going back to Spike's observation, because there is an element of the past being a known quantity, so the memories are of a time that we successfully negotiated and survived. They are shot through with comfort (and even the sadder ones can with the passing of time). We also think that there were more birds, more hedges, less uncertainty and, if the memories are old enough, of days when our cares were not clouded by 'grown-up' stuff.

I did have to laugh (ruefully) at a recent cartoon in Private Eye. An old woman is standing at a train station ticket office and says: "I'd like a return to simpler times please". In the current storm of Brexit, Trump and disappearing ice caps, I might just join her.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The fruits of late autumn

The hedgerows on Walton Downs were splendid this morning - plenty of leaf still intact and of various colour - plus an abundance of fruit, in particular Spindle, Rosehips, Buckthorn, Black Bryony, Wild Privet and Hawthorn. I don't think that I've seen such a show so late in the year.

Spindle - an abundance of this gaudy pink fruit...
... which when split reveals an orange seed - colour co-ordination gone AWOL!!
Plenty of Hawthorn still decked with haws and only a few thrushes taking advantage
There were moderate numbers of thrushes around, with 50+ Redwing, 25 Blackbird, 15 Fieldfare and a smattering of Song Thrush. The fields harboured 50+ Skylark. I was pleased to find a couple of Marsh Tits still being faithful to Little Hurst Wood. Very poor picture follows...

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Stealth birding

A Common Buzzard catches some dying rays
I don't like a quick 'in-out' birding session, it just doesn't do it for me, but sometimes needs must. Most of the day was spent on domestic duties while nursing a sore throat and head cold (proper man flu I'll have you know). By 15.00hrs the weather had perked up a bit, and it seemed right to head for Canons Farm to try and see one of the two Barn Owls that have been present over the last few days.

At 16.08hrs one of them duly performed, quartering across Harrier Field before going missing, only to return some ten minutes later. A flock of 60+ Skylarks were also noteworthy. A fifty minute visit that was more than satisfactory. Then back to my sick bed hoping for undeserved sympathy.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Box Hill Hike

There is an eight mile circular hike that starts and finishes at the Box Hill cafe and shop. Back in the summer we walked this trail, which boasts more than a few steep ascents and descents. An additional mile was added on, as we parked at Headley Heath and walked in to join the well-marked route. This morning, with Katrina, Rebecca and Jessica all willing and able, we tackled it once more. The weather was cold, sunny and calm. Ideal walking conditions...

Headley Heath - a high plateau of gorse and heather with plenty of light woodland
Autumn colours to the fore
Once off of the high ground a series of wooded valleys lead to the eastern slopes of Box Hill
As you head west along the slopes of Box Hill, you come across deep drove-ways, in places flanked by Juniper bushes
Looking back west
You are never far from a beech tree, these youthful examples rubbing shoulders with those much older
We made steady time to Box Hill itself, and after a fortifying flapjack then made our way to Mickleham, where lunch was taken in the King William IV pub. We stayed here a little too long, as we still had to climb back up to Mickleham Downs, walk its length and then descend a steep and slippery track to Headley Road. By the time we got there the light was fading fast. The final push up and down the Headley Heath valleys was done in darkness.

It was quiet birdwise, but we did see 2 Common Buzzards, a Peregrine, 30+ Fieldfare and 2 Ravens.

The female section of 'Team Gale'

Friday, 18 November 2016

Before the flood

If you haven't seen this film yet then maybe now is the time to do so. You can find it online, free to view, and a more sobering watch you will be hard pressed to find. The man behind it, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, has put together a documentary that looks at climate change, where we currently stand and what we can do to deal with it. Tipping points are too close for comfort (in fact we have already got to a point where in the short term we cannot rectify the situation in our lifetimes even if we stopped doing all that is wrong right now). We all contribute to its existence and big business certainly doesn't want us to change our ways - the oil companies and beef producers don't want to give up a cent, pound or euro of profit, even if it does mean that large swathes of the globe will become deserts and many coastal settlements plunged underwater. Economic migration will become biblical, wars will be fought over water, the planet's weather will turn wild. Life as we know it will change, and if nothing is done, change forever.

There are people and companies out there working hard to find real solutions - Tesla, for example. China and Sweden are apparently getting their acts together. But there are others - big business, India, a climate-change denying President-elect of the USA  - that are looking the other way.

Greenland's snow is disappearing. Within a few years you will be able to sail directly over the North Pole. Islands in the Pacific Ocean will become 21st century versions of Atlantis. Rain forest clearance (to produce palm oil and create open land for cattle) is screwing up our atmosphere and condemning thousands of species to extinction. The frozen north is becoming slush and will release vast quantities of methane into an already compromised atmosphere.

But we still eat beef. Still buy products with palm oil in them. Still drive cars. Still fly across the globe. Still elect governments that play lip-service to the situation. We are a self-destructive and nasty species.

We can all start to make a difference. Start to question what we do and how we do it. Elect people that will take on the challenge. Too little, too late? Maybe. But at least we can try. The big decisions, the real game-changers are in the hands of those at the cutting edge of technology, trying to find reliable and clean energy alternatives. We can wean ourselves off of processed foods. We don't need to have three or four cars out on a driveway. And do we really need to fly half-way across the world to indulge in a rich man's holiday?

Or we can do nothing. That would be criminal.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The last Dungeness round-up... for now!

Great White Egrets are a daily given between August - April

My peak count for the stay was of 15 birds, most numerous on Burrowes Pit and New Diggings

It was a good autumn at Dungeness for Ring Ouzels...

...including this male that spent a couple of days in the moat feeding avidly on sloes

Another young male that was trapped, ringed and released - possibly in North Africa now

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A showy youngster

During the afternoon of October 15th, the 'North Kent popcorn twins', Mick and Richard, enticed this first winter Caspian Gull down onto Dungeness beach. It was bearing a red Polish ring. For an hour it paraded in front of us, allowing close examination. Why not share in our good fortune and take a look - it's quite a striking bird.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Chats - what's not to like?

You can never have too many chats. The past month at Dungeness did not see particularly good numbers unfortunately, and it was a case of appreciating them all the more when they did appear.

Black Redstart on the power station boulders. I have seen an arrival of 100+ in the early 1980s
Northern Wheatear - very few around, and none of the hoped for rarer species
A male Stonechat, outside West Beach on my last morning

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Pretentious? Moi?

The seas and skies at Dungeness are never anything short of inspirational. All of the following images have not been digitally enhanced at all. This is what it actually looked like. I have given them names because I am deeply pretentious.

Burnished Brass
Torn ribbon
Spun gold
Here comes the calm

Monday, 7 November 2016

Dungeness: adult Caspian Gull

Now that I am back from my stay on the shingle (the locks hadn't been changed, my wife still recognised me, all of my books and albums had not been sold) I can now fill out a few posts with some of the images obtained with the trusty bridge and compact cameras. First up is this rather fetching adult Caspian Gull which graced the beach during the afternoon of October 30th. It had been lured in by the 'chumming' activity of Mick Southcott and Richard Smith, who, together with Dave Walker and Martin Casemore, papped the life out of it with their big lenses. Each one of their blogs are present on my 'worthy blogs' list which can be found on the right - do take a look. Although I'm pleased with these images they are blown out of the water by theirs!

I do realise that gulls are like Marmite and some visitors to this blog have already switched off, but if you do like them then I can promise you another post featuring a most showy first-winter Caspian. I bet you can't wait...

Saturday, 5 November 2016

People and place

Almost time to go home. It is all too easy to compare what we've had here at Dungeness with what they've had at Spurn, or Shetland, or Portland - but that is missing the point. Being at Dungeness is more about people and the place. My time on the shingle is cherished regardless of what is seen. When I take into account that I've recorded 149 species of bird in four weeks, then to suggest that it has been poor can be seen as crass. Admittedly, passerine numbers have been dire, but highlights have included: Great Northern Diver (5), Black-necked Grebe (1), Sooty Shearwater (3), Manx Shearwater (1), Bittern, Great White Egret (peak of 15), Cattle Egret (1), Tundra Bean Goose (5), White-fronted Goose (several), Scaup (2), Hen Harrier (1), Goshawk (1), Osprey (1), a good cross section of waders, Pomarine Skua, Mediterranean Gull (a fine afternoon movement), Caspian Gull (2), Little Auk (3), Short-eared Owl (several), Woodlark (2), Ring Ouzel (in good number), Dartford Warbler (2), Pallas's Warbler (1), Yellow-browned Warbler (1), Firecrest (several) and Common Redpoll (2). No grounds to grumble. Add to that a Bloxworth Snout, Radford's Flame Shoulder and Oak Rustic, then the moth itch was definitely scratched.

My thanks must go to all of the kind people who made my stay all the more enjoyable: Mark H for the constant driving, jokes and companionship; Dave W for the evenings of shared entertainment helped along by the odd snifter; Martin C who joined me on much plodding across the shingle; Owen L for unbridled enthusiasm; Gill H for conversation and food; Tony G, Chris P, Pete B, Pam S, David C, Colin T, Barry B, Barry C; the RSPB staff and Ray O'R for being there - and if I've missed anybody off then sincere apologies!

God willing, I head back to Surrey tomorrow with another treasure trove of memories. I leave with more enthusiasm than with which I arrived, and seeing that it was such a poor Autumn at Dungeness says much about the people and the place...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Bits and pieces...

...or a 'Dave Clark Five' kind of day, according to Mark H. If you don't understand the link, then ask your grandparents, or Google it...

The day began with yet another beautiful sunrise, which got many of us snapping away with our cameras, although not to the same manic level as Owen L, who seems to be suffering with Tourette's of the aperture when it comes to cataloging the changing skies at Dungeness.

No arrival, no proper viz-mig, but an interesting day on the sea. Across the peninsula, highlights included Great Northern Diver, a handful of Little Auks, a few Sooty Shearwaters, two very smart Common Redpolls (both trapped), a Cattle Egret and an adult female Goshawk, which made it a right old mix of species. I didn't see it all, but did see the latter with my personal chauffeur Mark H, as we drove along the track at Dengemarsh. Maybe typical of November, a virtual avian pick-and-mix!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Scaup mini-twitch

The Dungeness point maintained its silence this morning, and that resulted in practically every birder defecting to the RSPB reserve. Here at least there are birds - in fact, it is nothing short of a tremendous place to visit at any time of year. In late Autumn you can guarantee Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Bearded Tits, Cetti's Warblers, Water Rails, Tree Sparrows and Marsh Harriers; there will also be Merlin, Bittern and Raven if you stay long enough. Wildfowl numbers will have swollen and the Lapwing flock harbours ever increasing numbers of Golden Plovers. And all that is just for starters and plenty of other notable species will be lurking.

One such species 'lurking' this morning was Scaup, with two immature females found by Mark H on Dengemarsh. These birds were the first at Dungeness for over two-and-a-half years, and prompted a mini-twitch. It didn't used to be this way. Back in the mid-1970s to the late 80s they were found easily on Scotney, Lade Pit and in St.Mary's Bay (the latter site holding 100-250 birds in hard winters). Rye Bay, just across the border into Sussex, was another regular site. Maybe our Western European winters are too mild now, and the ducks do not need to move as far. Maybe they are suffering on their breeding grounds. This fall in numbers is echoed by plenty of other species that use our shores to winter upon.