Thursday, 31 August 2017

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

After a few of days of feeling 'under the weather' I needed to get out for some fresh air, so took the easy option of parking the car at Canons Farmhouse so that I could walk along the lane to Lunch Wood and back. When getting as far as the wood, I turned to walk back only to be faced with a solid wall of black cloud - there was no option but to huddle under a beech tree and wait for twenty minutes while it poured with rain. Compensation came in the form of a double rainbow as the weather headed east (above).

Reeds Rest Cottages were the centre of the action, with a mobile flock of 130 Swallows that alternated between the overhead wires and Broad Field, all scattering when a patrolling Hobby cruised through. Two Wheatears were together on the recently trimmed hedgerow, close to the RRC barns (above), and a Peregrine was sat on one of the dead trees on Stoney Nob, looking quite cheesed off with life as the black clouds gathered (below). Warblers were thin on the ground, with just 2 Whitethroats and single Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. A tidy return for just over an hour's birding.

The moth trap did not go out last night, but the morning before saw the third Scarce Bordered Straw of the month recorded in the garden (below). They are appearing widely across the country and the way things are going I would expect to see more of them here before the autumn is over.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

New micro, quiet birding

The garden MV continues to get put out and switched on. Those moths whose flight times are more 'September' than 'July' are starting to show, and each night the composition of species recorded is subtly changing. It's "goodbye" to some for another year and "hello" to others. There are also plenty of migrants out there, so it is risky not lighting up, as you never know what you might miss if you don't! I continue to dabble with the micros, by no means critically examining each and every one, but looking at some which catch my eye, like the Scythropia crataegella (above), not just a new moth for the garden, but one I haven't seen before. Common as muck by the way.

Bird wise, quiet. My last two visits to Priest Hill have been almost pointless (barring the thought that at least I have proven that no fall or movement had taken place). This morning I revisited my old stomping ground at Canons Farm, where a Whinchat and Hobby were the star pupils. We're being promised a subtle wind change and rain for tomorrow, so let's hope Priest Hill gets showered with few more migrants. I live in hope.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Ringing in Summer

Part 13:  June-July 1976

Since my earliest visits to Beddington I had frequently met up with Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood, who were the sole surviving members of the farm’s ringing group, which had been formed during the 1950s. Under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the group collected data by trapping birds. This was done mainly through their capture in a fine meshed net, strung out between two secured poles. On calm days the net would be hard to see, and birds would fly into it, finding themselves cushioned in a pocket, quietly awaiting extraction by a ringer. Once in the hand, the bird would be identified, sexed and aged; a set of measurements would be taken, such as wing length and weight; and a light metal ring placed on a leg. On this ring would be embossed a unique serial number and an address to send details of the bird in case of recovery. This latter stage helped build up a clear idea of where birds moved to, how fast they could travel and their longevity. The commonest way of a bird being ‘re-found’ after having been released was by being caught by another ringer, or being discovered dead by a member of the public. After many years, and with hundreds - if not thousands - of recoveries, the BTO were able to build up a database that was used to identify the migration routes of birds, where they bred, wintered and fed. It was also an opportunity to critically examine the plumage of a bird whilst it was in the hand, so that the identification and ageing of each species was better understood. The whole process required sensitivity – apart from the obvious wish to treat the bird with the utmost care, any subsequent data would be useless unless the bird could carry on its life unfettered and unimpeded after release.

To take part required a period of training before a ringing licence would be granted – without it you were not permitted to participate. I had increasingly spent time with Mike and Ken, watching them process the birds and at times helping them by holding poles or bird bags. It was a privilege to see birds so close up and an education to examine the plumage to clearly be able to identify, sex and age an individual. My admittance to become a member of the ringing group was granted in June. I was licenced as a trainee under Ken, but both he and Mike helped me attain proficiency in the ways of bird ringing - from the correct erection of the nets, their care and upkeep, subsequent extraction and handling of the birds, gathering biometrics and awareness of what was going on around you, they started to teach me the art of this ornithological science.

There was one reference guide that was indispensible to the ringer, known simply by the surname of its author – ‘Svennson’s’. This softback book, based on years of examination of birds in the field and also from museum cases, laid bare the dark art of being able to read such subtleties as feather tracts, moult and wing emarginations to correctly identify and age what you were holding. It only covered the passerines, but that covered 95% of what we were trapping. On first opening a copy, I was bamboozled by the definitions (which were in turn shortened to code) and a plethora of line drawings of wings and tails. Slowly, this became understood.

We would invariably set up to four nets, which could be as long as 60 feet and as tall as four panels (each panel being approximately two feet deep). The siting of them could be dependent on having a backdrop of vegetation (to disguise the net), along a line of bushes that were acting as a corridor for moving birds, or be down to the presence of a feeding flock (such as Linnets and Goldfinches in a stand of seeding vegetation). In the latter scenario we would employ short, single panel nets that were most effective in trapping the birds.

Midsummer frequently meant trying to catch Swifts. For such a fast-flying (and generally high-flying) species, trying to trap them was not an easy task. It took cunning and guile, plus a bit of muggy or cloudy weather to bring the birds down low, when they would feed only inches above the ground. Because Beddington was one big insect attractant (rank vegetation, sewage settlement) it was also a virtual cafe for insectivorous birds. If the Swifts did come low, then there would hundreds, possibly thousands.

A free standing net however would not fool a Swift. You needed to be a bit smarter than that. So, the art of 'flicking' was devised. This meant that two of you held the poles (at either end of the net) horizontally, low against the ground, until a Swift flew towards you. Teamwork was needed at this point, as one of you would call out, and in unison the net would be brought up into a vertical plane. Hopefully the Swift would be intercepted in flight. This worked remarkably well, and some afternoons (it seemed to be an afternoon past-time) we could trap up to 50 individual Swifts.

There are two things that most birders do not know about Swifts. Firstly, they have very sharp claws. After a Swift ringing session your fingers would be covered in scratches. Secondly, most of them play host to flat-flies, quite large creatures that crawled over the Swifts body underneath the feathering. These quite unsavoury things would often jump off and onto the ringer and, being the size of a flattened baked bean, could cause panic. The ringing recovery rate of Swifts would have been low but for the efforts of ringing teams up and down the country flicking these scythe-winged beauties. I enjoyed these timeless afternoons, always on warm days, with the smell of rank vegetation, a subtle whiff of effluent and the torpor of the thick air cut through by the scream of Apus apus.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Friday falcon

An early afternoon visit to Priest Hill which could have been sponsored by Sleepeezee Beds it was so soporific. None the less, it did include a Peregrine (that was almost the first bird I clapped eyes on) and this Kestrel that, like most of the Kestrels at Priest Hill, just love posing for the camera.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Big Blue

When I first became interested in moths I got hold of both volumes of South - it was an ancient publication, but they were the best books then available. I looked through the colour plates and started to draw up a list of fantasy species - those that I wondered if I would ever be lucky enough to see? Two stood out in particular. Death's-head Hawk-moth and the absurdly named Clifden Nonpareil. Both big. Both stunning. And both seemingly unobtainable...

However, Dungeness was the place that happily provided me with both. In September 1990 I happened to be staying at the Bird Observatory when Sean Clancy trapped the later species in his (then) garden at Delhi Cottage. My first glimpse of that powder-blue underwing stripe sandwiched between black, with a pearly grey and white frill was a moment that I will never forget. The Victorian lepidopterists sought this 'Blue Underwing' out with a fervour, and it was considered the ultimate prize. Although it has, from time to time colonised parts of Kent, Sussex and Norfolk , it is also migratory, so it has a habit of popping up in places unexpectedly.

This morning, underneath the last egg box in the MV, I found my second. Apart from having lost some scales on the thorax, it was a perfect specimen. Although I knew what it was immediately, I still wanted to see the shock of blue to make sure that I wasn't fooling myself. This evening, before release, I was able to share it with local naturalists Nick and Russell Gardener and Peter Alfrey. It put on a good show before flying off high, bat-like, and landing in an Ash Tree.

I also trapped the second Scarce Bordered Straw of the week. It might be drab compared to the beast above, but this blog is an equal opportunities employer. I proudly give it air time below!

A lesson. I went to Rye Harbour with Katrina today, not really a birding trip, but I took my binoculars and camera. We entered the hide by the Ternery Pool, where a birder was busily firing off a number of shots through a long lens. "Anything interesting?" I cheerily asked. "Just that" he pointed. I looked and saw a female sawbill that dived almost immediately as I put my bins on it. "Oh, a Merganser, that's a funny date" I replied. "No, it's a Goosander, I've been watching it for ages, it's been performing well" my new friend with the lens informed me. For twenty minutes the bird did not reappear, then did so behind a distant island, preened briefly, before disappearing again. I rattled off a couple of shots with the compact camera in my brief (and unsatisfactory) few seconds of observation.  I had seen it so briefly (and poorly) that I assumed 'long lens' must be right. I thought it might be of interest, so tweeted it out as a Goosander. On returning home I checked my images critically  - they are clearly of a Merganser. I then found out that a Red-breasted Merganser has been present at Rye for some time. Doh!!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

More Willow Emerald Damselflies

Earlier today, Katrina and I met our good friends Gordon and Mieko Hay for a pub lunch at the Inn on the Pond, Nutfield Marsh. This is just a stone's throw from Holmethorpe SPs, and - it just so happened - Gordon and I had taken our optics along for the outing... cue post lunch walk, which took in a loop around Spynes Mere. The still, muggy air was most conducive to a bit of odonata action, with the most numerous species present being the 15-20 Willow Emerald Damselflies. They were happy to perch for the camera, but as a subject were difficult to capture well with the bridge camera. The best of my effort is above. If you want to see good quality images, take a look at what Marc Heath produces here  -  just shows you what skill, patience and top notch equipment can result in, three elements in which I sadly lack.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Hard going and a good moth

Since I last posted, Priest Hill has been given a good grilling on several occasions. It has been quite hard work, with few migrants either passing overhead or having been grounded. Needless to say, mid-to-late August is rarely totally useless, so a single Tree Pipit (20th) and two Wheatears (this morning) did their best to rescue the situation. This is a project worth pursuing - even though the site may be 99.9% dry and in reality just a large area of playing fields (mostly abandoned) - as it possesses little ornithological record. And just as I felt with Canons Farm, it appears to have plenty of potential. I make no excuses for the overload of Wheatear images that accompany this post. As Tony the Tiger used to say (ask your parents), "THEY'RE GREAT!!"

After a quiet mothing week (save for a fly-by Hummingbird Hawk-moth on 18th) this morning's MV haul was rather good. Star capture was a Scarce Bordered Straw (below, the garden's 7th and first since 2006), with a splendid back up cast comprising Jersey Tiger (6), Toadflax Brocade, Gypsy Moth, Tree-lichen Beauty (3), White-point (2),  Small Ranunculus, Oak Nycteoline and Sallow Kitten (bottom). Most of those species wouldn't have been on my radar 12 years ago...

I must admit to thinking that this might be a Poplar Kitten at first...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Hog's Fennel

When Katrina suggested that we should embark on a day trip to Whitstable, I was more than keen. Neither of us had visited before, but had heard it was full of good pubs, restaurants, cafes and shops, that it boasted old architecture and possessed a charming harbour and sea-front.... I was also aware that a rare umbelifer - Hog's Fennel - was present just to the east of the town at Tankerton. And part of our most pleasant of days was spent amongst it...

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Close encounters of a Kestrel kind

Another morning visit to Priest Hill and another couple of hours spent in the idle hope that (at least) a Yellow Wagtail would fly over calling, or a Whinchat deign to alight on a nearby fencepost - such is the life of the inland patch worker. Single Cormorant, Sand Martin and Lesser Whitethroat are what passed for highlights around these parts...

However, life isn't measured in rarities (or common passage migrants), which is just as well at the moment. This Kestrel tried to inject some interest into the proceedings by resolutely refusing to leave its chosen perch. Both of these pictures are un-cropped. These bridge cameras are rather good!

Monday, 14 August 2017

A Langley Vale morning

Night-flowering Catchfly - hanging on in a field ear-marked for tree planting
Catmint - just the one plant where many appeared three years ago
Cut-leaved Dead-nettle, widely distributed across the farm
Quinoa - remnant of game cover, alongside plenty of Millet
Another alien, one that I'm calling Common Amaranth

Dwarf Mallow, understated and one of my favourites

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Leeds United v Brazil style birding

To be able to walk to a patch, and expect the odd surprise throughout the year, is a real pleasure. My continued bashing of Priest Hill has carried on over the weekend, but little is being grounded and the weather seems stuck in this coolish westerly airflow - my hopes of Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstarts (not to mention Wrynecks and Red-backed Shrikes) have been put on hold. The sole modest jewel in the ornithological crown was a single Lesser Whitethroat this afternoon, and that just about sums up how poor it has been.

Quality may be missing, but as far as my 'friendly' competition with Thorncombe Street goes, quantity is not. I am starting to feel a little bit embarrassed by the number of gulls that are passing over Priest Hill at the moment, as they just do not seem to do so at Thorncombe - another 500+ today, and, quite a rarity for PH, many rested for a while on the playing fields. My chance to string winkle out a Yellow-legged Gull was not taken though. My only consolation to Ed is that whilst I head up the league table like some dirty Don Revie-era Leeds United*, he is playing the game in the manner of the 1970 Brazil World Cup winning team. It's just a shame that each of his Black-tailed Godwits and Whimbrels are worth no more than any of my Herring Gulls - maybe this is an area in need of restructuring for any future competitions.

* it is worth remembering that the Revie Leeds United teams could play very good football as well!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Just enough to keep things ticking over

Bunting Meadow, Priest Hill, looking north-east
A three hour visit to Priest Hill this morning was a largely quiet affair, with few grounded migrants and an even emptier sky, although a Hobby did zip through southwards and two Little Egrets made their way south-westwards - so not really that empty after all! The totals of Willow Warblers passing through are very poor indeed, and it seems as if Chiffchaffs are outnumbering them, something that I wouldn't expect to happen until later in the month - however, there is still time for them to show, although we are fast approaching mid-month. The garden MV is hardly bustling either, with just the odd Dark Sword-grass and Jersey Tiger to keep me awake while I work my way through the trap (not that it takes that long to do so).

Another migrant Dark Sword-grass

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Twitching in the rain

There I was, minding my own business, checking the empty bushes at Priest Hill, when a series of tweets came out of Beddington Sewage Farm, announcing the presence of an adult Sabine's Gull. I looked up into the drizzly sky, glanced around at the bird-less vegetation and decided to do something that I just haven't done since September 2012 - go on a mini twitch! Funnily enough, that was also to Beddington, on that occasion for a Gannet - and I hadn't been back since.

By the time I arrived at the sewage farm the heavens had opened, but the bad weather had maybe helped to keep the gull in place, as it was still on show on the South Lake. Poor 'record' shots were obtained with the bridge camera. It was just as pleasing to be able to meet up once again with many of the Beddington crew, some of whom I hadn't seen since that Gannet almost five years ago. I left quite pleased with myself, as reliving the twitching experience was, in fact, quite pleasurable. Have I woken up that moribund Surrey list of mine?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Here to stay?

A strange night for the Banstead MV - very few moths, even though the temperature didn't dip under 15C, but the meagre pickings did include three Jersey Tigers, two Dark-sword Grass (below) and another Gypsy Moth (above), my third of the summer. Prior to this year I had recorded just a single of this species, on 18th August 2012. It seems as if it has finally colonised the area, having already conquered the area to the north of here. I still await my first Oak Processionary however...

We have a few Lavender plants in the garden, which are always good for a bit of insect action, and I was more than pleased to spy this bug  -  Corizus hyoscyami  -  scuttling along the stems and investigating the flowerheads. A lifer!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Written off?

New nature writing. Nature narrative. Call it what you will, but the past few years has seen a massive increase in the publication of books that define this genre. I first started to take to it via the works of such writers as Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey. Then along came the likes of Mark Cocker and Tim Dee to add to the mix. I saw - I bought - I read. Anything by Marren, Jaimie, Goulson and, of course, Macfarlane. There are some wonderful books to be had from that team of authors...

But recently I have started to withdraw from that sort of book. It might just be overload, too much gorging on rich fare. But I think there's another reason behind my retreat - I believe that the publishers know that there's a few bob to be made from such natural history works and so they are keen to keep pumping them out, with quality control slipping in the process. In quite a few instances, the authors are not up to scratch or the subject matters tired. I've started to read (and put down uncompleted) too many books over the past year to warrant my total devotion to all things 'nature narrative'. There is also a worrying trend to 'big up' flowery prose again, which induces the gag reflex in me. I thought we had moved on from eulogising Skylark's song and nodding daffodils, or at least could come up with a new way of expressing our feelings towards them.

You could say to me, "Alright then, do better yourself", but I can't. But the publishers can. Before we suffocate in the millions of pages filling up the bookshelves of Waterstones (and the very few independent bookstore still open,) can they not just step up on the quality control, seek out the original and not kill off the geese that are laying the golden eggs? I would hate for the new Deakins and Mabeys to be lost amongst a raft of lesser writers, not read because their worthy prose has been drowned out by too many ordinary sentences and paragraphs clogging up the shelves.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

What took you so long?

It is at least 20 years since I have recorded Garden Tiger (above) in the back garden MV. So to find a single lurking there this morning was quite notable. The other main highlight(s) were the 2nd and 3rd garden records of Gypsy Moth (below), alas not a rare migrant here but a coloniser via accidental introduction.

Friday, 4 August 2017

No two the same

The Priest Hill v Thorncombe Street challenge is already throwing up some interesting 'compare and contrast' dynamics. Take gulls for instance. They are a numerous and regular feature of the skies above the greater Banstead area, almost throughout the year. At nearby Canons Farm, the day total for Herring Gulls hot-winging it between landfill and reservoir runs easily into the high hundreds (aside from the mid-summer months). I suspect that the Priest Hill day total will not reach these heights, but will still be a large component of the avian biomass (I recorded 170 today). Contrast this with Thorncombe Street, where Ed's grand total this morning was one single bird - he says that he doesn't get decent large gull numbers till mid-winter. Maybe my (relative) proximity to the London Reservoir roost sites and the feeding stations at landfill sites is the reason behind this difference. And I may need this gull advantage, as his patch seems to get much larger Woodpigeon and thrush numbers than we do up here.

We don't need to travel that far away from a patch to see big differences to the bird composition. Canons Farm, Epsom Downs, Walton Downs and Priest Hill are all within two-three miles of each other, yet there are species present at each that do not occur at the others. All are dry, high-elevation sites (for Surrey), blessed with open grassland, hedges, copses and big skies, but that is where the similarities end. And it is because of these differences that we go out, optics at the ready, to see just what is about. No two days are the same at one site, so how can they possibly be similar on two patches that are miles apart? Bring it on...

The spectacular image above is of the 'enemy' territory at Thorncombe Street. I assume that Ed took it, and hope that he doesn't mind me using it. Click on this link to read more about this fascinating area and the details behind his days out in the field.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Priest Hill v Thorncombe Street

Priest Hill - the eastern end of Bunting Field
There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in patch watching across the county of Surrey, with several birders (and sites) being added to the mix over the past couple of years, and the awakening of other patches that have been lying dormant. It all makes for a healthy, vibrant scene. Not all of these places are particularly birdy, with 'dry' sites increasingly being worked, these normally occurring on 'higher ground'. What they lack in water (and the attendant wildfowl and waders) they compensate for in many other ways. One site that is on a bit of a roll is Thorncombe Street, being heavily (and successfully) covered by Ed Stubbs. Click on the link to find out more. He has, so far in 2017, recorded two Cattle Egrets, a Common Rosefinch and sizeable flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel - plus a lot more besides. Putting the rest of us to shame, he is...

Ed and I are both fascinated by the migration that we witness over and across our patches. My time being spent at Priest Hill is still in its infancy, and I have no idea what normally occurs there. This Spring was encouraging in what did turn up, and I am hopeful for the coming autumn. We have both entered into a little challenge - to see who can record the most individual migrants. Only those birds passing over, or through, will count. It's a bit of fun, and one that will keep us incentivised during the quiet spells that are bound to occur. So a single Cattle Egret will be worth the same as a Meadow Pipit. I wouldn't mind betting that it will be a big Woodpigeon or Redwing day that will be the difference between who wins, and who loses. But we will both be winners - the next few months is bound to throw up plenty of surprises, and studying bird migration is one of life's pleasures.

There is a page (underneath blog title) dedicated to this challenge, showing a breakdown of the dates covered, plus the species and numbers involved.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Call myself a birder?

I thought I knew a bit about the birds in my immediate area - let's say within a three mile radius of home. There wouldn't be much that would get past me, at least as far as big obvious birds like Barn Owls were concerned. WRONG! I have just become aware that a pair of Barn Owls have successfully bred not 500m from my front door - not just this year but last year as well. My fraudulent claim to be some sort of 'local expert' has been shown up for the sham that it is. Let me give you a bit more detail...

Katrina was speaking to a couple of her friends two days ago. Both of their husbands have plots on a local allotment, and the conversation turned to the nature present at the site, specifically the owls that breed there. Knowing that I'd be interested, Katrina asked what species of owl was present. When she later told me that, apparently, they were Barn Owls, I was terribly dismissive. "Oh no, they won't be Barn Owls, they wouldn't breed on a small allotment surrounded by housing." To give you an idea of the allotment's position in relation to buildings, here's an aerial image with the allotment marked by the yellow spot.

They'd be Tawny Owls, I confidently claimed, or possibly Little Owls at a push. However, my wife's friends seemed adamant that they knew their owls, had seen them well and often sat and watched them, especially now that there were three young birds that sat in trees close to the nest box and called - a hissing - waiting for the parents to return with food. Hmmm... they hissed... sounded like Barn Owls, but surely not.

Last night we went and looked.

At 21.30hrs we arrived at the allotments in the company of Flip and Gill, settled down and waited. Within a minute an adult Barn Owl flew from the area where the nest box is situated and was lost from view. Within five minutes the hoarse hissing started, and carried on for most of the hour that we were present. At least three 'hissers' were involved. We had a number of fleeting glimpses of the birds moving between the trees, with another fly-by by an adult. I was stunned.

The choice of the allotments as a nest site baffles me. The closest open ground is a school playing field, next to the allotments, but the nearest sizeable open areas are 300-400m to the north-west. Any hunting forays necessitates a fair flight through or over fairly dense housing. The area is blessed with plenty of grass verges, sizeable gardens, trees and 'wild corners', so do the owls hunt along the streets and through the gardens as well as the larger, more typical habitats nearby? Obviously, I've not seen them doing so.

The natural world is full of surprises. We never know it all - at least I don't.

The nest box this morning.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

High summer butterflies

An 'up and down' wander along the open slopes of Denbigh's Hillside and White Down was the order of today. The sun couldn't decide whether to come out or stay in, and a persistent westerly wind didn't make for ideal conditions to watch butterflies in, but it remained warm and there was plenty to observe. The Denbigh's sward shimmered with the milky blue of at least 400 Chalkhill Blues (above), with a couple of pristine male Adonis and 80+ Common thrown in for good measure.

White Down was where the Silver-spotted Skipper action was taking place (above), at least 20 being found. They did not want to settle, and I was lead on a merry dance several times trying to follow them in flight, which I find difficult to do - they often seem to disappear into thin air!

There were Red Kites on view throughout my four hours on site, including a group of three that gave close views, including one bird that, obviously curious as to what I was, circled around me several times.

Word to be banned from birding part 56
The Grand Canyon is. The Milky Way is. Your Wilson's Petrel isn't...