Showing posts from April, 2017

Pom's past the post

There are thirty birders in this photograph, (taken this morning at Dungeness by Owen Leyshon), and most probably a further 10 inside the hide. They are sea watching - or, to be more precise, they are hoping to see a Pomarine Skua. Dungeness is famous for its spring Pom passage, from late-April until mid-May, an avian spectacle that was first 'discovered' in the 1960s and has been avidly awaited in each subsequent year. No two years are the same - the weather dictates what will happen to a large extent, and the current state of the Pomarine Skua population is another aspect that needs to be factored in. There are consequently good years for numbers, and on the flip side, bad years. The passage may start early or late, and also peak early or late. But what has been a constant over the years is the increase in the number of birders who come along to sample it. If we go back to the mid-1970s and 1980s, when I was an avid Dungeness regular (and sea watching was a passion of mi

Early Purple Orchids

A visit to any north Surrey deciduous woodland at the moment will be rewarded with literally millions of Bluebells. They are having a good year, and are early - two weeks ago the show at Gatton was virtually at its peak. But in amongst the haze of blue, if you are lucky, you might be able to detect a clash of colour - a purple interloper. Thanks to a tip off from Gordon Hay, my wife and I visited Ranmore Common this morning, to pay homage to a colony of 1,000 spikes of Early Purple Orchid. They were easily found and we spent an enjoyable time in their presence. A fine cross-section of woodland ground flora was also on show. Catch it while you can!

The return of bits of twig and mothy things

I've been bad. I've neglected my moths - no MV out in the garden since mid-February. And I've largely ignored my flowers - barely glanced at them to be honest. Trouble is, if I don't keep looking at them and naming them, then I lose what little information I'd retained. It means a return to basics, a need to search once again for the commonest names and an uphill struggle to try and remember salient identification features. Does it matter? No, not really, but it does seem a shame to 'go back to square one' when you've put a lot of effort in over the years to try and get to the level of 'competent'. I was wandering around a very quiet Priest Hill this morning when I had a pang of regret over this situation. As much as I've enjoyed the many hours spent birding at this site over the past four months, it's a little like driving up a cul-de-sac - you do need to turn around at some point. So, the MV will be going out again soon and a trek onto

Floundering in Israel

Had enough of me banging on about Priest Hill and Wheatears? Thought so. Here's a taster from a trip to Israel that I made in 1986 with my good friend Sean McMinn. Hula Swamp is a small remnant of a once great wetland that was systematically drained for use as agricultural land. However, what is left is set in a green, verdant world that seemed out of place in my pre-conceived idea of what Israel would be like. In fact most of northern Israel is lushly vegetated and beautiful in the same way as English countryside can be. The reserve at Hula was not dissimilar to an RSPB reserve back home – car park, visitor centre, wooden hides. The difference here was that there wasn’t anyone around and we had the place to ourselves. Although the reserve was not open as such, we still had access to the hides. The view from the first hide we entered was simply stunning. A flock of 154 White Pelicans were sitting on the water against a backdrop of sunlit hills. They were restless and soon

Northern Wheatear and beyond

The 'dry inland patch' birder has to reduce anticipation and be thankful for what comes along. The blue-riband species are invariably those colourful, confiding chats - Stonechats, Whinchats, Common Redstarts and Wheatears. And if that same 'dry inland patch' birder does not own a 'big lens' but has a bridge camera, then these same species will be over represented in their photographic studies, mainly because they (a) perch in the open; are (b) fairly tame and most importantly are (c) colourful. Hence more of this: There were six together at Priest Hill this morning, four of them males. I love counting them - they do not reveal themselves all at once, and hide behind bushes, hummocks and long grass. A scan can start off with two birds, then you scan again and there are still two birds, but you realise that the first scan was of a male and a female and this latest scan is of two males - therefore three are present. And so you carry on, others appearing, but

Seasonal switch

Priest Hill had the feeling of early-summer this afternoon - the Whitethroats (above) and Linnets were busily singing and squabbling amongst themselves; the bare earth was parched and showing cracks; the water levels of the small ponds are receding by the day. There were some indications of spring passage however, with a Lesser Whitethroat that sang as it (quickly) made its way along a hedgerow and out of the recording area, plus two male Northern Wheatears in Big Field - and I resisted the temptation to take any more photos!

I make no apologies...

Another day and another showy male Northern Wheatear at Priest Hill. If only I'd kept the 'Wheatear Challenge' going...

More Wheatear

You cannot get enough Wheatear - doesn't matter which species, although here in north Surrey anything other than a Northern will not be believed. The smart chap above decided to give the Priest Hill hummocks a miss and perched on a tree instead. He was so happy with life that he even went into a brief burst of sub-song. I was able to stand and watch just a few metres away, and in the end left him alone, still perched on the branch. If I hadn't seen him fly onto it I might have checked that it wasn't limed... The other highlight from this morning was a Common Snipe, flushed from the middle of Big Field. Why this species would choose to alight on a bone dry field on a day of clear blue sky I do not know, but there lies one of the reasons that we carry on birding - we just do not know what the next bird is that we will see. And if it happens to be a Wheatear, then that's fine by me. Want another? Go on then...

Dawn reeler

I was at Priest Hill by 06.00hrs, in a fine drizzle. My hopes were up, and within the hour a Grasshopper Warbler had been located, reeling away from dense Blackthorn and Hawthorn scrub. It sang infrequently between 06.50 - 07.20hrs - I didn't even glimpse it. There had also been an obvious arrival of Common Redstarts (below), all in the scrub and hedgerow between Glyn Playing Field and Ranger's Field. A minimum of four were present, of which one was a male. They were quite flighty, but called a lot which aided observation. To complete the trio of highlights, a Northern Wheatear was present throughout the morning on Glyn Playing Field (above). Other counts: Canada Goose (5), Sparrowhawk (1), Swallow (7), Meadow Pipit (3), Whitethroat (5), Blackcap (5), Chiffchaff (7), Willow Warbler (2).

Stoking the birding fire

Part 8: November – December 1975  I had fallen into a comfortable birding routine, with Beddington Sewage Farm and Staines Reservoir being my venues of choice. A visit to the latter site required two bus journeys (Cheam – Kingston and Kingston – Ashford), with departure from Cheam pre-dawn, so as to maximise birding time. Since my first visit to the reservoir, the duck and wader numbers had thankfully increased, so that the scanning of the exposed mud and water had a meaningful end result. There was one session that did not end with success, as the flat west London basin was prone to fog, and on this particular morning visibility was down to 50m. Having made the effort to travel I stubbornly remained waiting for it to lift, a lone figure on the causeway making-do with the odd Dunlin (or Tufted Duck) that wandered (or floated) into visible range. However, on most visits my observation time was unimpeded, and the monochrome waters were usually home to rafts of diving duck, with the cold

Cloud birds

The Met Office suggested that a band of rain would slowly move across London and the Home Counties during the early hours of this morning, but when I walked out of the front door at 06.15hrs it was bone dry. However, a blanket of dark cloud felt 'birdy' and I carried on to Priest Hill for a four hour session. The cloud did seem to have done it's stuff, with a male Common Redstart, 2 Northern Wheatears (above), 2 Swallow, 7 Blackcap, 4 Common Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler and 7 Chiffchaff. A fly-through Greylag Goose was a surprise.

Afternoon delight!

I never turn my nose up at one of these - a male Common Redstart - and it enlivened an otherwise pedestrian post-lunch visit to Priest Hill.

The gull lines

Part 7: October 1975  As the light started to fade they came over in silent, plodding lines, with no deviation or hesitancy. I stood at an Epsom town centre bus stop and counted them. The counting was a means to an end, with me falling into their rhythm and entering a vaguely hypnotic state. My waiting for a bus coincided with the end-of-day gull procession, from the open Surrey fields to the west London reservoirs that offered them a safe, deep-water roost. My journey home from art college was, for a brief few days, aligning itself with that of the gulls. I found comfort in their appearance, a sign that the day had progressed as it should, that all was well with the world. They were silhouetted, and specific identification was beyond me, although I could safely assume that the smaller birds – quicker wing beats, narrower wings – were Black-headed, and that the bow-winged beasts were Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed. My excitement rose if a great snaking line appeared above the


Somewhere in deepest north Surrey is a chalky earth bank where Shepherd's-needle is just starting to flower. The site is not one where it naturally occurs, so anybody just about to twist my arm for the location can calm down. Such sowing of rare plants may be contentious, but when the seed is taken from British plants at sites that are under threat, then I believe such actions are sensible and worthy. The only place that I have seen this species in the wild is at Portland Bill in Dorset, back in 2000.

Two iconic sites

Part 6: September - October 1975  The Epsom RSPB Group held a number of field trips throughout the year, and after my successful Epsom Common excursion with them in May, I had booked myself on a further two, both to well-known sites that promised me more avian wonder. The first was in early October, to Pagham Harbour. I was picked up by car from Cheam Village, part of a convoy that made its collective way down to the West Sussex coast. The vehicles all reconvened at the Sidlesham Ferry Visitor Centre. This was just off from the harbour itself, close to a sizeable pool, viewable from a raised pavement that ran along its southern edge, butting onto the Selsey road. The water was dotted with muddy islands, with exposed mud just below were we stood. This was being criss-crossed by a number of feeding waders, at incredibly close range. I was able to examine the birds in feather-by-feather detail. My fellow-companions now showed me what experience can do, as they pointed out to me that,