Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A camera called Lazarus

The Panasonic DMC-TZ7 came into my possession in April 2010 - it was during the time that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull was sending ash up into the atmosphere and cancelling flights across the UK. That has absolutely no relevance to my purchase, but gives you, the reader, a flavour of what was happening at the time (ash flavour, as it goes). In those seven years it has performed admirably, and has the best macro facility on any compact camera that I have seen. Its small size means that it can comfortably fit into a pocket and be carried effortlessly around chalk downland, up hills, through woods and across shingle. But it has tried to leave me three times now...

ONE I was sea watching alone one early May morning at Dungeness, stood outside of the first hide. It was quiet, so I walked up to the patch hide (some 300m along the beach) to spend a bit of time looking through the gulls and terns that were feeding at the power station's water outfall. After an hour I decided to head back to the observatory, but half way along the beach realised that I didn't have my rucksack with me - inside of which resided both my compact and bridge cameras. I trotted back to the patch hide but on arrival (there were no other birders there) it was obvious that there was also no rucksack. My frantic search along the beach for a fleeing thief drew a blank. It then dawned on me that I might have left it, over an hour ago, outside of the first hide. My walk back was not full of hope, as the beach was swarming with fishermen and it was inconceivable that the hide had remained unvisited. But on arrival, there was the rucksack, and inside were the cameras.

TWO After a days snapping at plants, a check on the images were disappointing indeed. There were numerous marks and blemishes on each and every one, and I cursed myself for not having cleaned the lens. But a check on the lens showed it to be squeaky clean - the dust was inside the camera. So I obtained a few quotes to have it cleaned, and £150 seemed to be the going rate - no way! I went online and found a site that took me through, step-by-step, how to dismantle, remove the dust, and reassemble the DMC-TZ7. I had nothing to lose and possessed a set of tiny screwdrivers. Within ten minutes it was job done and the camera was back to producing images to be pleased with once again.

THREE Yesterday, I told the sorry tale of a day's worth of photography being out of focus and my conclusion that the camera's days were over. I almost threw it away last night. But this morning I thought that I'd give it a last run-out, just check that it really was knackered. There was some Jelly-ear Fungus growing on dead branches in the back garden, so I rather half-heartedly pointed the camera at it and snapped away without any consideration to the light or composition.

Neither images are award-winners, but the camera is back! What happened yesterday I do not know. Maybe a setting was knocked out. It might have been down to the low-light and drizzle. It was most probably user error. But whatever it was, welcome back DMC-TZ7. A pocket full of convenience and budget excellence!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Mickleham winter flora

I normally go and pay my respects to the 'winter' flora in the Mickleham area each January, and seeing that it is February on Wednesday I only had two days in which to keep up my record.

A grey, drizzly morning kept the light low and gave everything the feeling of being in two dimensions - flat was the word. I started at the White Hill car park and was soon checking the old wall that runs alongside the isolated cottage. It is here that you can usually find Rustyback, and I was pleased to come across two plants, mixed in with the more numerous Wall-rue. Then onto the slopes of Mickleham Downs, home to a great south-eastern rarity, truly wild Wild Candytuft. Several hundred plants are present, although I went no further than the first flowering plant that I came across. This species is in flower all year round here, although the books don't refer to it as having a constant flowering season. Nearby was plenty of Stinking Hellebore, in various sizes and age. Both these species find the areas of bare mud and crumbling chalk to their liking.

A walk along the road into Mickleham Village produced Butcher's Broom, Mistletoe and Winter Heliotrope, with Hart's-tongue and Snowdrop also being seen by the time the church was reached.

A few Juniper bushes at the top of Box Hill, and several woody Spurge-laurel plants back at the bottom of Juniper Top were further notables. No images I'm afraid. My trusty Panasonic compact camera seems to be finally packing up - all the pictures were strangely out of focus, but it is quite old. The bridge camera will now be pressed into macro service.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Fake news and alternative facts

(If Donald Trump did birding...)

This morning I saw some great birds. Truly great. Better than anything seen by other birders. Period. There was a large raft of Tufted Ducks. All 374 of them. I counted each one. I really did. They were spectacular. Truly spectacular. And even though there are some people out there who are trying to make these Tufted Ducks out to be of no consequence at all, they are lying. They say that Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaups are rarer - they are not. Not at all. Never.

I have also just realised that I did, in fact, see the 1962 Westleton Houbara Bustard. In Suffolk. I truly did. It marched down that Suffolk lane as if it hadn't a care in the world. I can also now recall seeing the 1963 Skegness Rufous Bushchat and also the 1966 Durlston Brown Thrasher. I really can. As clear as day. No doubt. No doubt at all. They were remarkable birds. My life list is without doubt the largest life list in the UK. Truly. 654 species and counting. But there are birders out there that say I haven't. They are lying. Lies from jealous people. Unbelievable. My alternative facts are being called fake news. I wonder why.

All these Pine Buntings. All these people running around, standing in the cold, trying to see them. They don't realise that they are all escapes. Every one of them. Out of cages. Not one is tickable. I should know, because I saw the Dagenham Chase bird in 1992. I was the only person to see it. Nobody else. Lots claimed they did, but more fake news.

As from today, it will be illegal for any birder to claim to have seen a species that I have not. And all bird lists will be sent to the White House for vetting. And also as from today, no migrant bird will be accepted into American airspace. None at all. American airspace is for American birds. Not migrants. America first!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

A bit of spring in winter

It was Bourne Hall, Ewell once again, plus a wander along the River Hogsmill all the way to Ewell Court. It was very quiet, with only a single (and tame) Little Egret, a flushed Common Snipe, but no sign of any Kingfishers. I reckon that the wintering Water Rail may have moved on. It was an iron cold day, the chill in the south-easterly breeze enough to make it uncomfortable, and the drizzle that fell in the early afternoon turned into the finest snow that I've ever seen. Amid all of this mid-winteryness was a sight to stir the soul - a fine display of Winter Heliotrope (above and below), together with a smattering of Ramularia purpurascens across some of the leaves (thanks Seth!)

Now, I know I keep on posting photographs of Stonechats, Reed Buntings and Little Egrets, but when these birds just pose for you, why not? I never tire of them.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Tame egrets

Over the past couple of weeks, the Little Egrets frequenting the River Hogsmill (and surrounds) at Ewell Village have been very approachable. There are certainly two - and maybe three - present, and are most reliably found in the watery channels close to the Mill, and also the stretch of river beyond the tunnel, at the start of the Hogsmill Open Space reserve. They are pretty skittish when feeding in the water, but if you come across one perched in a tree (as I did this morning) then your luck could be in. So far this month there has been a Water Rail, 4+ Kingfisher, 2 Common Snipe, a Firecrest and 4 Waxwing in this small area. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A symptom of our warped times

We are, without doubt, living in unsettled and intolerant times. It is normally the case that birding (or birdwatching if you prefer) allows escape from such feelings, a comfy place in which to lose those negative thoughts and feelings. But intolerance seems to be even stalking these safe havens...

Social media - be it Twitter or Facebook - has seen an increase in what can only be described as attacks on fellow birders. Their crimes? To be considered as being less proficient in the field. These 'weaklings' can be identified by their inability to identify the quarry. By their need to ask others as to what they are looking at. By not carrying a field guide. They are also chastised for having the temerity to carry with them expensive optics - you see, the attackers feel that only those worthy of such optics should possess them, and by worthy they mean experienced people, those accepted by the herd and somehow worthy. PEOPLE LIKE THEM. I have seen such posts to openly suggest that these people are shunned, even discouraged from turning up to look at birds at all.

This show of entitlement to some 'higher moral ground' sickens me. It is elitist. It is bullying. It is a symptom of our warped times. There have always been arrogant birders, anti-social birders and frankly strange birders. But not in such number. They now have a platform, a place from which their opinionated bile can be spewed and their frustrations in life taken out on others - largely anonymously. They wouldn't do it face-to-face, as they are largely cowards. It is one of the evils of social media platforms.

At a time when nature is being harassed by loss of habitat, political indifference and global warming, it needs all the help it can get. Each and every person that takes an interest in looking at birds should be welcomed with open arms and warmly encouraged - not driven away with a dismissive snarl by some pompous oaf.

We now live in a world where it's OK to lie, freedom of speech makes it alright to be aggressive (because to question such behaviour is perceived as attacking a human right) and the keyboard at a computer is an entry point for intolerant individuals to identify and attack their targets. It may be just a few birders having a pop at some others, but that's not the point. It is symptomatic of a wider disturbance in our society.

All quiet on the birding front

Canons Farm tested the resolve of two seasoned campaigners this morning, as Geoff and myself plodded across the arable wastes with scarcely a bird to look at. Something is amiss here. In previous winters, at the very least, the fields would hold decent numbers of pigeons, corvids, finches and thrushes. Have they been sprayed with something so foul that there is nothing left alive for the birds to feed upon? Our 'tame' Common Buzzard (above) seemed unconcerned about it all, but most probably has no food worries thanks to a supply of the bodies of birders who have keeled over with boredom. Our one flash of inspiration came in the form of a Woodcock, targeted and flushed at the edge of Banstead Woods - Geoff's 100th patch species, a good total for a waterless, inland site.

We parted ways in the bowels of Chipstead Bottom (nice imagery to juggle with there) where I then wandered along and up onto Park Downs (below).

If I were targeting birds here then I would have been sorely disappointed - I would have seen more if I'd stayed at home and sat in the cupboard-under-the-stairs blindfolded. Luckily for me I was looking for Stinking Hellebore, of which 60+ plants were found, in three separate (but close) locations. None were yet in full flower. By now (12.45hrs) the sun had real warmth to it, so my mind started to wander to wild flower meadows and butterflies, both of which this wonderful reserve possesses in abundance. Further clearance of scrub was underway which will help species recovery even further.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Modest turnover

Although this mornings circuit of the Priest Hill fields seemed to be a case of the same few birds being present, there is evidence of turn-over. A male Stonechat (the first since early December) joined a single female this morning, and the count of 13 Reed Buntings (the third time this peak has been reached) included a male which was almost in full summer plumage - I've not seen him before. Little flying over, but expectation is still high. Where are those geese, Lapwings, larks, swans..?

Up to a dozen Goldfinch across the site - the Linnets seem to have moved on
Sorry - another Reed Bunting - cannot help myself at times.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Some you win, some you lose

All you bird listers out there! Feeling lucky today? Well some of you will be, especially if you maintain your list using the British Ornithologists Union's criteria as your guideline, and you have seen any of the following: Isabelline (Daurian) and Red-tailed (Turkestan) Shrike, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose, Thayer's Gull, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Least Tern, Two-barred Greenish Warbler and Stejneger's Stonechat. They will now be considered as full species, no longer just closely-related or sub-species. As many of you will know, there are several bodies that maintain global bird lists and each differs slightly as to what is considered a full-species or not. You can read about the rationale behind the BBRC and the BOU's decision to adopt the IOC version by clicking here.

But where there are winners, there will be losers, so, get your rubbers and Tippex out if you have seen both Lesser and Common Redpoll and Whimbrel and Hudsonian Whimbrel, as each pairing are once again lumped. Oh, and by the way, don't ammend anything right now, as these changes do not come into force until January 1st 2018. And will then be reviewed again after five years... you could be unravelling, or bundling up your list again.

I have a simple rule with all this listing malarkey. If you get involved in it then it needs to be understood that it is just a game. If you do so competitively, then you have to accept the laying down of some ground rules to ensure a level playing field. But even if we do not list, these announcements do have relevance to each and every one of us. Such changes are important for all who send ornithological data into county recorders or enter data into BirdTrack. We should take all steps necessary to ensure that we leave behind an accurate account of our bird life for future generations to refer to, whatever the birding gurus of the time decree that our bird life does, in fact, consist of.

Today's sub-species may be tomorrow's species, and vice-versa. They are still all equally worthy of our attention.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Priest Hill social

One of 'my' Reed Buntings
A slow circuit of the Priest Hill meadows was made this morning, in a glorious, blinding sunlight. As anyone who has visited this blog over the past few weeks knows, I am ridiculously paternal towards the wintering Reed Buntings here. I rather pompously think of them as 'mine' and have taken on the role of their guardian. Needless to say, the locating of two flocks (8 and 5) had me happy all over... it doesn't take much for some people, does it...

And talking of people, it was my pleasure to bump into Belmont-based birder John Sewell. We had quite a natter about the local birding scene and he also had some kind words to say about this blog. Thanks John! I also spoke to one of the Surrey Wildlife Trust employees, who I cheekily asked about the proposed redundancies. Apparently the 14 rangers are having to apply for one of 10 restructured jobs - these being more specialised than their current 'jack-of-all-trades' roles. Hopefully those who want to stay will be able to find employment within the Trust, but these situations are never pleasant. The Trust has apparently suffered withering cuts in its funding.

Highlights from the visit included 2 Little Owl (heard calling from the line of fir trees between NESCOT farm and playing fields), 6 Meadow Pipit, 5 Fieldfare, 5 Redwing, 2 Stonechat, 5 Greenfinch and a minimum of 13 Reed Buntings. The thrush and finch numbers are still very low, but, in lieu of proper cold weather, I'd expect things to pick up next month when passage gets underway.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Kent Pond Heron and Flycatcher shock!!!!

In light of the recent Stonechat DNA debacle - that is being referred to as 'Shitchat' in some circles - retesting has been carried out on a number of 'contentious' species. Listers, particularly in Kent, are going to be affected...

Case 1: The Hythe Pond Heron
There was a virtual national holiday declared by twitchers in 2014 when the white-coated lab-boys pronounced this bird as a pukka Chinese Pond Heron. However, a retest that was carried out earlier this week has found that the bird was, in fact, an Aylesbury Duck. Contamination of the source material (body feathers) was the cause, most probably from a foil dish that contained a take-away Crispy Duck and Hoisin sauce. Rumours that the other Stejneger's Stonechats from last autumn were mistakenly called as such because of a segment of Terry's Chocolate Orange that had been left on the laboratory table, is being investigated.

Case 2: The Dungeness Acadian Flycatcher
September 2015 was a good time to be a Dungeness gull-fondler, as Martin Casemore found out. His discovery of an Empidonax flycatcher by the fishing boats lead to a two-hour search for the American bird's droppings, that were finally tracked down resting on top of a fisherman's friend. The original findings of the DNA testing revealed the bird to be an Acadian Flycatcher, but this weeks retest has blown this pronouncement out of the water. DBO warden, Dave Walker, told ND&B: "I'm speechless - the new analysis has found that the bird was indeed an Acadian Flycatcher - but it is also an Alder, Yellow-bellied, Willow and Least! That's four additional species for the obs, and Martin becomes the first birder to add four species to the British list with a single look through a pair of bins! I'm going out to buy a chemistry set - the DBO list will be on 700 before the end of the year!"

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Birds 0 Plants 1

The grey, wet murk of the past few days had finally sodded off and ND&B-land found itself basking in a low, blinding sun. Out came the bins, on went the ruck-sack and I hot-footed it up to Epsom and Walton Downs for a mornings aimless wander. I needn't have taken the bins as the birding was dire. However, as befitting a winter's morning playing at being spring, I sought out a patch of Green Hellebore that is present in a small wood on the lower slopes of Walton Downs. Only a couple of flowers were open (above) with most of the small population a little way off from flowering (below).

The Woodland Trust seem to have upped the ante in the creation of their Millennium Woodland on parts of the downland farm fields (click here to find out more about this project). Piles of posts and plastic tubing were lying in strategic positions, but the dead give-away were a number of posters along the public footpaths, inviting volunteers to come along for tree-planting sessions later in the month. The fields that hold the rare arable plants are going to need a helping hand if they are going to survive. When the land was farmed, a shooting syndicate had permission to shoot over the area - this meant that the farmer left wide margins around the field edges, didn't overdose on chemicals and planted strips of sacrificial crop (to produce seed for the Pheasants, Red-legged Partridges and Wood Pigeons to feed on). The by-products of this were that the rare arable plants thrived - as grasses could not get a toe-hold to compete - and in winter flocks of finches fed on the readily accessible seed. No longer. And the 1-3 pairs of Lapwing that used to breed here failed to appear in 2016. I fear that this gem of an area is going to lose more than a few notable species.

Monday, 16 January 2017

What happens to your list when you die?

Chris Janman posed this question when commenting on a recent post. It got me thinking...

I have long advocated the setting up of a system where we can barter our spare species, such as me being able to put up my second Wallcreeper for bids from interested birders. I'd reckon on being offered a right old fistful of rarities in a straight swap for that one, (maybe a Thick-billed Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo, White-throated Needletail and a whole load of spare Fair Isle semi-rare dross). But what happens to our hard-earned lists when we die? Do they have to stay in a notebook or spread-sheet, hidden from view and gathering dust (real or virtual). Why can't we pass on the value of our lists to those that we have left behind?

In my case I reckon my wife and daughters could encourage avid listers to pay at least £1000 for each Wallcreeper. Maybe someone would buy up both of them to stop another lister from getting them, or use the spare to swap at a later date? And how much is my Varied Thrush worth? Maybe more. Golden-winged Warbler? Got to be at least £750. Maybe a bidding war could be started. And they could be stored, like stocks and shares, to grow in value. This sounds like fun!

And national rarity would not be the end of cashing in on my life list. Surrey listers who have just got into the game in the last 25-30 years would pay top dollar for my (many) Surrey-seen Cirl Buntings and Willow Tits. The Beddington boys would be sniffing around my Beddington-seen Grey Partridges. And my Dungeness list might raise a few bob, especially the two Wilson's Phalaropes that are the only record and were seen by just three observers.

Sounds daft? No dafter than driving 300 miles to look at a grey Common Stonechat :-)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The pros and cons of birding

Birdwatching. Birding. Looking at birds. Call it what you will. That such a simple task can spawn a hundred and one ways in which to do it is no mean feat. That, I suppose, is a typical human construct, for as much as we are free thinkers, we are wedded to the herd - so it is expected that we will gravitate towards a grouping of mindsets. These are but a few that can be found in our little world:

The patch worker
This grouping (of which I am one) walk around with an air of superiority about them. They don't travel far from home (because they cannot be bothered), they find their own birds (because there's nobody else looking) and contribute to the understanding of population levels, migration routes and bird behaviour (because they can make up sightings and numbers as there's nobody else counting). Some times a patch is heavily subscribed with other patch birders, in which case they can gather together and glare at the non-regulars whilst urinating up fenceposts to mark their territory. Pros: rewarding and terribly worthy. Cons: you might not actually see much.

The birding tourist
This grouping will not know where they are going to go birding until the night before. They are not twitchers per se, but will be guided by what 'good' birds are on offer within striking distance of their homes. Dungeness is full of them, and at the moment they can be seen going from Long-eared Owl, to Ring-necked Duck, to Caspian Gull, to... you get the picture. If a flock of Waxwings turn up in Hythe (as they did) they will be there shortly afterwards. This grouping are hedging their bets and ensuring that the birding year will be full of birds. They will also see the same faces at each and every bird.  Pros: easy good birding. Cons: constantly with the crowds and liable to be rounded up by a shepherd with his dog.

The twitcher
They will not know where they are going to go 'birding' until the last second, but the stakes are high as are the costs involved and the distances travelled. As much as this form of birding is poison to me now, I did once partake, and through doing so have seen some amazing birds and visited a number of stunning places that I wouldn't have otherwise. However, the birding time can be broken down to 75% travel, 20% waiting and 5% birding. I would argue that this form of birding is neither restful nor productive and as we, the birder, are supposed to be 'green' members of society, it is not very good for a healthy carbon footprint. Pros: big life list. Cons: stress and more stress. Your children will not recognise you. You will most probably be near pensionable age, so mind the stress (see start of list).

The extreme lister
You can start small, with a gentle 24-hour blitz to see how many species you can record in a day. If you enjoyed that, why not up the ante and try for an impressive UK year list. Or you could kick the walls down and go mad: why not partake in the American Big Year (John Weigel smashed the record in 2016 with 780 species) or even crazier, attempt a World year list, but you'll have to go far to beat Dutch-birder Arjan Dwarshuis's record total of 6,834 species which was amassed last year. Another group of extreme-birders are undertaking a big Western-Palearctic year list for 2017. Mad? Dangerous? Free spirits? Yeah, just mad. Pros: memories to last a lifetime. Cons: stress, loss of money, partner, wild hair, personal hygiene shot, mad eyes.

You might be wondering what relevance the photograph of the Woodpigeon has with this post. None at all. I took it the other day when the snow fell, and I don't think I've ever seen a bird look so dejected...

Saturday, 14 January 2017

A bit of this, a bit of that

A bit of a 'mash-up' this post - that's youth-speak for 'mish-mash', or I could liken it to the contents of a jamboree bag, being a bit of an old duffer. And if you are unaware of what a jamboree bag is, then ask your parents, or if they are still too young to know, ask Google (there are other search engines available).

Item one - the Dungeness Stonechat (you know, the grey, odd, putative Stejneger's) has been retested owing to too many birder's saying that they just didn't believe it was a rare one. The results are in, and it is... a COMMON Stonechat! I did have a little chuckle about that. Apparently the poo sample got muddled up with some from a Spurn Stejneger's. Simple mistake. Maybe, in this age of the blame culture, Dr Collinson will now receive compensation claims from angry birder's for fuel costs, stress, food, etc. Glad I didn't go.

Item two - the Surrey Wildlife Trust is apparently making all of its rangers redundant. Cost cutting due to austerity and Brexit are being blamed. I reckon that they will adopt the National Trust model, that successfully removed most of their Rangers and filled the void with volunteers. My eyes were opened when I saw the size of the NT work parties for Box Hill and Headley - 50+ turned up, all overseen by - wait for it - unpaid interns, in turn overseen by the one full time member of local Ranger staff (there had been four I believe). Whether this will work for the SWT, if that's what they intend to do, I do not know. Will our wildlife benefit from such actions - well, what do you think...

Item three - now that Waxwings are starting to filter inland to berry-bearing bushes in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, I walked the streets of Banstead checking likely trees and shrubs. Highlight was a male Blackcap. More lurking in suburbia will follow.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Snowy(ish) Egret

The snow arrived, just as the Met Office predicted, at 17.00hrs yesterday evening, and fell steadily until 19.30hrs. Only and inch or so settled, but this was enough to cause mayhem on the roads and entice the 'blitz spirit' to resurface across the south-east of England. Elsewhere in Britain people looked out the window, shrugged, and put on a jumper...

Snow means hard weather movements doesn't it? Geese, larks, Lapwings and Golden Plovers fleeing from the icy grip... of course not, at least not yet. It takes an awful lot more to stir things up, but I still head out hoping for just a crumb of bird movement. As expected, not today. I walked through Priest Hill (the wintering cast were still present) and onto the River Hogsmill at Ewell. Little Egrets were in view almost constantly, with two, maybe three present. One bird in particular that was feeding in a side-stream paid little attention to me, so I snapped away. 4+ Kingfisher, 2 Common Snipe and a Chiffchaff were a fine back-up.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Home Country

ND&B's first book recommendation of the year is Home Country by Richard Mabey. I have to confess to being a fan of the author, with his Nature Cure being one of those books that I am forever re-reading.

Home Country is, simply put, an autobiography of his early years. He grew up on the edge of the Chilterns, in Berhamstead, Hertfordshire. A sensitive and, maybe, precocious child, he grew up exploring the natural world around him, and experienced one of those idyllic childhoods that seemed to automatically be bestowed on those born into relative comfort in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. One of the reasons that this work resonates with me is because I grew up, in similar circumstances, just down the road in Tring.

Climbing trees, making camps, forming gangs, walking for miles (and all day) across and through woods, commons, streams... it is the sort of life that our youngsters today are largely removed from. Even when the author became a young adult, he still followed this 'Famous Five' way of life, by spending increasing amounts of time on the Norfolk coast, either on a boat or in an old warehouse at Blakeney. He got to know that denizen of the east bank at Cley, Richard Richardson, and we are also regaled with some birdy tales from that time. The inspirations for his breakthrough book (Food for Free) came from the time he and his Norfolk friends spent in the persuit of wild foraging, and even the need to relocate to an office on the western fringes of London did not dim his enquiring mind, the result being The Unofficial Countryside. Turning freelance followed, and the last section of the book concerns his return to the Chilterns, and the purchasing of a small wood. The joys and problems of such action are laid out before us.

Little Toller are the publishers, and as with all of their books is a thing of care and beauty. Long may their reprinting and repackaging of considered nature writing continue. I'll leave you with just a brief passage, describing the Grey Herons that gathered in the valley close to his Hertfordshire home during a drought one summer - the book is full of such gems.

"They are skulking in trees and picking their way through what is left of the grass. I watch one through binoculars as it changes one sullen roost for another. It flies up heavily to the top of an ash tree, crumples like a parachute, then shifts it weight onto one leg and freezes. The other birds are scattered about the meadows in similar poses - necks craned forward, waiting. They look awkward and misplaced, fish-eaters out of water. Suddenly they are up and flying together, like a tattered sail over the stubble".

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Klimt at Headley

Headley Heath is a special place for me - some of my earliest birding took place here, with warm summer evenings in the company of churring Nightjars and roding Woodcocks. In recent years I have twice come across Hawfinch flocks, but my efforts to do so again have been unsuccessful. I went back again this morning for another try.

The western side of Headley Heath is divided by several steep-sided, shallow valleys. The ground here is wet and the eroded sides spew forth flints. Most of the ground is heavily vegetated, with the scrub becoming wood, most of the mature trees being at the top of the ridge on the western most boundary. And it is here where I have seen those near-mythical Hawfinches before. But not today. I did, however, record 15+ Bullfinch and 5 Marsh Tit, amongst few other birds - it was very quiet.

Away from the valleys, Silver Birch is the predominant tree. There are a few places where they dominate an area, young trees packed tight and growing with thin, straight trunks, the branches weedy little things up top. I am always reminded of Gustav Klimt's paintings of a Birch forest when I see a sight like that above.

It was good to see that the National Trust are scraping away bracken and top soil to try and encourage the specialist heathland flora to return, via the exposed seed bank. The eastern and northern parts of the heath are more like what you'd expect heathland to be - sandy soils, gorse and heather. There are a few ponds (that once held Starfruit). It will be interesting to see just what pops up in the areas that they have cleared.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

I've changed my mind

At the end of last year I made the rash decision that I'd keep a 2017 UK bird year list. I thought it would be a bit of fun. Once upon a time I used to keep one every single year - it was just what I did, no questions asked. I stopped when it ceased to be fun. On January 1st 1987 I wrote this:

It’s New Years day and the lessons of last year were not taken in. We are sheltering from the rain in a car parked alongside the road that bisects ARC and the RSPB staring southwards over the reserve. Our damp clothes are starting to steam as a combination of body heat and a virtually ineffective car heater finally starts to take effect. We stare through misted optics at the same species that I saw here barely hours ago. It’s another day of reliving what I did last week, even if last week was last year. The difference between the Smew that we are watching now and several days ago is that this one means that I’ve now seen one in 1987. The need to rush around today for the year list has so far been done with little humour, each new species being scrawled into a damp notebook to be consigned to the status of ‘Not needing to be seen again during the next 12 months’. Why do I continue to do this? We start the engine in our hide-on-wheels and drive around to Brett’s Marina. On the way, a covey of Grey Partridges huddle in the middle of a vast open field. We stop to take a look (another pointless year tick) and I cannot help but see myself in them – miserable in the rain, waiting for something better.

And believe it or not, I still continued to keep the list up until the mid-1990s. My misery from 1987 obviously wasn't enough to kick the habit, but instead of making a concerted effort to do so, the need to keep one slowly withered away.

Fast forward to Jan 1st 2017. A brand new year and the resolution to keep a low-key year list, most probably based around the ND&B patches, Dungeness and various sites in the south of England. No great ambition, maybe 250-270 species if I kept at it. Perfectly doable. Dungeness already had a raft of good year ticks waiting for me, including a drake Ring-necked Duck, Stejneger's Stonechat (apparently), Long-eared Owl, various geese and grebes, a tidy little return. I knew the first two days of the year would be busy with birders (mostly year listing), so I planned to wait a few days longer before visiting. Eight days into the year and the influx of birder's just has not abated. Talking to the locals (and reading various social media postings) has acted like garlic to a vampire - I'm not about to go anywhere near the shingle. There has been a procession of birders going from good bird to good bird, like ornithological tourists gobbling up all on offer. Up to 50 cars parked along the road to the Stonechat; cars causing traffic problems on the causeway at ARC; the RSPB car park full. No thank you.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to Dungeness to see all that is on offer at the moment - my inability to do so is down to me and my take on what constitutes enjoyable birding. Treating the birds as objects to be consumed, before quickly moving on to the next feathered morsel (and following in the tracks of several hundred others), is not for me. My problem, my choice. There's no criticism of those that are doing so, it's my loss. This has all made me reconsider the idea of keeping that year list. It's reminded me of why I stopped, the futility of it all. Games for the boys, nothing more - all harmless fun, agreed, but I now look for a bit more meaning to my birding, through a connection to place, the birding of new areas or ornithological discoveries at a local level. Maybe, if I'm being pompous, such birding is more worthy... yes, that is being pompous, that is me being an arse, but we are all searching for something via the time that we spend in the field, and that just happens to be the direction that my search is going in. And if your direction is to follow the crowd from bird to bird, then good luck to you. Neither is right and neither is wrong.

Now please excuse me, I need to rest my righteous head on a very soft pillow...

Friday, 6 January 2017

Two owls and a piece of cake

A far more agreeable visit to Holmethorpe today, with my whinges of four days ago largely gone - the ground was drier, there were not nearly as many human beings getting in the way, I managed to find several extra viewpoints that opened up the larger water bodies to my scope and even the noise appeared to have lessened - results all round!

The calm, dry and mainly sunny weather bathed everything in a positive light and it was then only up to the birds to play their part in the proceedings, which they largely did. Two Ravens that flew over the farmland and up onto Nutfield Ridge were a long overdue site tick for me, with other notable counts/sightings being: Little Egret (1), Wigeon (13), Gadwall (63), Teal (52), Shoveler (11), Tufted Duck (219), Common Buzzard (3), Coot (210), Snipe (6), Black-headed Gull (2000), Common Gull (100), Lesser Black-backed Gull (75), Herring Gull (2250), Great Black-backed Gull (5), Little Owl (1, above), Kingfisher (2), Grey Wagtail (1), Fieldfare (30), Redwing (30), Yellowhammer (1), Reed Bunting (7).

A late afternoon visit to Canons Farm coincided with an early, but brief, fly-around the barns from the wintering Barn Owl. I'm glad it decided to show when it did, as the rain soon set in, so it was time to head home for a cup of tea and a piece of Christmas cake. Alas, the cake is almost gone...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

A shard of light

I am keeping a birding year-list for the first time this century. A low-key list admittedly, not driven by trying to reach a huge total, more a case of adding a side-show to my endeavours during 2017. I know I'm not taking it too seriously because:

1) I considered going to Crawley to see the long-staying Rose-coloured Starling (a drive of maybe 40 minutes), bit remembered that the bird appears on rooftops on a housing estate. Not for me that little scenario...

2) There is a Stejneger's Stonechat at Dungeness. It has been present since early November. It has had its faeces analysed by men in white coats who have declared it to really be one. And since New Year's Day several hundred sheep year-listers have trudged along to year-tick it. Not for me either, I'll wait until all the fuss has died down - which runs the risk of it disappearing before I make the effort.

If I were being serious about all of this - chasing my largely south-east English 2017 bird list - I would have hoovered up both by now and been onto the next big thing. But no, gently does it. So where did I go this afternoon? That hot bed of ornithological riches, Priest Hill! You can tell my efforts are idiosyncratic...

Undoubted highlight was a Woodcock, flushed from a scrubbed up meadow. There were three female Stonechats but I could only find two Reed Buntings. To distract me from all of this birding malarkey, a shaft of silver in the distance resolved itself into the UK's tallest building, The Shard (above). To its left I could also make out The Gherkin, The Walkie-talkie and The Cheese-grater. All these are nicknames given to the buildings by us ever-so-clever and say-what-you-see Londoners. The postman delivers the mail to far more prosaic addresses. Priest Hill is about ten miles from them, thus the camera is lying by suggesting that they are all just round the corner.

In other news: That kind Mr Randon has bestowed upon this blog a fourth consecutive accolade. You can read all about it, and the other winners, by clicking here. Thanks Neil!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Modest in the mud

The ND&B birding year began a day late, with yesterday being a pleasing mix of family strolls and the fact that my resolution survived 24 hours without the need for alcohol or any 'naughty' food. I don't expect the willpower to last...

The birding kicked-off with a trip to Holmethorpe Sand Pits, a site that I have visited with some intent in the past. It is the nearest 'proper' waterbody to my home, and over the years I have seen Black-throated and Great Northern Diver, Slavonian, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebe, Bewick's Swan, Ferruginous Duck, Common Scoter and Red-breasted Merganser there (plus plenty more that I cannot recall at the moment). It has sizeable water bodies, plenty of scrub, several small reed and bulrush beds, a stream, and is flanked by the North Downs and Nutfield Ridge. It also boasts farmland, which in places looks like this...

... large fields bordered in places by mature tree-lines and small copses. Twenty years ago the wintering Lapwing flock would peak at 3,500, with modest numbers of Golden Plover joining them. Good sized Skylark and finch flocks were a feature, along with up to 50 Yellowhammers. But since my last visit (in February), permission has been granted for the removal of sand, and the work has already started. A bund has been constructed, a tarmac road laid and the top soil removed. And that looks like this...

...which actually appears to have the potential for birds. I'm already imagining spring waders alighting on the wet flashes, but that is assuming that us birders are going to get near enough to be able to see any if they do turn up. My main concern is that a sizeable population of Corn Marigold has been lost (or at the least has been ravaged) - it is a scarce arable species. I will hope to find that some of it has survived outside of the bund.

Above is Mercer's Lake. When I first visited the site in the mid-80s you could walk around the steep bank above the water and have clear views across to the other side. Today a thick woodland stands in the way. There also used to be a fisherman's path that hugged the water's edge. When the trees became too dense to see through, (and if you risked the wrath of the bailiff), you could get down onto this path and clearly see the water. But... the water table has been very problematic of late, and this path is now deeply submerged. If you want to bird Mercer's Lake, you need to do so from the Water Sports Centre, as I was this morning (view above).

I have at times wondered why I abandoned Holmethorpe, but I was reminded this morning. Firstly, the poor access and viewing of practically all of the water bodies. Secondly the gloopy, sopping wet ground that turns walking into a game of keeping upright in the sucking mud. Thirdly the number of cyclists, walkers and dogs that use the area (yes, I know they have every right to do so) and fourthly the noise (M23, railway line). BUT... it has bags of birding potential and I do want to give it a bit of a go this year. I just need to suck up the negativity and get on with turning it all into positives. Today was quiet - mild winters here tend to be, with no sawbills or large wildfowl congregations. My highlights were 4 Egyptian Geese, a Water Rail and a singing Siskin. A modest start.