Saturday, 30 September 2017

Shetland, Day One

Arrived on What'ssay at 12.00 with the top crew - Big Dick, Pipit Shagger and Captain Wank. We immediately scored with a selfie that got 14 likes - top posting! Within an hour we had found our digs and had a top result with 25 Twitter messages of congratulations! Top liking all round. After checking our feeds we got changed into combat gear and staked out a phone box, where in 1982 Dick Trilby famously took the call that resulted in a major Little Egret twitch. No incoming calls to grill today, but our crew selfie taken in the phone box resulted in 12 likes - top posting!! It was turning into a rare day!!!

Mid afternoon saw a birder yelling at us that he had a PG Tips. Seeing that Captain Wank had just made us all a brew we ignored him, especially as the yelling birder was in an iris bed at the time. Never heard of a cafe in such a place. Moron... undetered we took a selfie, top gurning from the crew, but we only got two likes. Poor. It started to smell 'rare', but that could have just been Big Dick's socks.

We started to flag by late afternoon. We had been on our phones all afternoon and had liked over thirty posts - thirsty work! Pipit Shagger thought that he might have seen a back of camera shot of one of our selfies, and Big Dick tweeted that he had self-found a stone wall that looked promising. Tomorrow we might even get our binoculars and telescopes out!!!

Last year the crew scored with 67 likes, 34 retweets and 17 comments. Can we better it this year? What we really hope though is that the Scillies are really shit this week...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Black box

The Box-tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) comes in two colour forms, 'light' and 'dark', with the former being much the commoner. One of the latter turned up in the garden MV this morning (above), until now all five of my records have been of the former (below).

This pest of box is starting to get a worrying toe-hold in parts of SW London and northern Surrey, with one observer recording it in three figure numbers! In a vain attempt to protect the population of wild Box that exists only a few miles from me, I killed the first one that I trapped - it's too late for that now I fear...

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

400 (no, not birds) and some chats

Chats... you just can't get enough of them, can you - at least I can't. I spent a good hour standing by a field edge at Canons Farm watching a party of 4 Stonechat and a Whinchat as they flitted and sallied around the hedgerows, fences and vegetation in the field. A couple of them came close enough for a few decent images to be obtained.

Back at home, the garden MV came up trumps with a Delicate, a migrant moth that has been turning up on the south coast in good numbers. It also happens to be the 400th species of macro that I've recorded here.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Green on a grey morning

The cloud was low this morning, the light suppressed and the whole vibe was one of birding under a heavy blanket of dirty cotton wool. An early visit to Canons Farm was worthwhile, with a Barn Owl, Spotted Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail (scarce here), two Whinchats and four Stonechats being most notable. Afterwards an underwhelming brief sortie around Priest Hill was rescued by a solitary Whinchat.

The garden MV was fairly lively, with Centre-barred Sallow, Orange Sallow and Large Ranunculus being typical of late September. I also trapped the greenest Red-green Carpet that I have ever seen (below).

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Autumnal moths

The contents of a moth trap by late September is a wonderful collection of autumnal colours - russets and chestnuts, browns and blacks, oranges and yellows - with subtlety taking over from the garishness of summer. A few moths from this morning included (clockwise from top left) Black Rustic, Autumnal Rustic, Beaded Chestnut and Lunar Underwing. Normally by now I would have recorded a good cross-section of the 'sallow' moths, but they have been strangely missing.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Hirundine swarm!

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs, practically the first birds that I saw were a small group of Swallows heading south - my hope that yesterday's movement would continue looked good! I settled down at a vantage point that gave me far-reaching all-round views and waited. It was soon obvious that it was all systems go...

After half-an-hour 1200 Swallows and 70 House Martins had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. It was then that House Martins came to the fore, as in the next 30 minutes they numbered a further 730 birds with Swallows mustering 600. The passage then abruptly stopped. I was more than happy with what I had seen, and took myself on a wander around the farm, with one eye on the sky in case the hirundines started up again, which they did at 11.00hrs. There then followed an incredible couple of hours. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes then a massive pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds.

Geoff Barter showed up, and I was delighted that he did, not only to share in this experience but also to confirm the crazy numbers on show. He timed it well. An enormous swarm had arrived. We stood transfixed as we were surrounded by 2000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summer's day. All seemed to be House Martins. They started to feed in a frenzy over nearby fields, then quickly moved off south, being replaced by others that had continued to arrive from the north. There were a few Swallows with them, and as the passage lessened they became more numerous once again. By 12.45 it had quietened down and had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs.

The final totals were a staggering 6710 House Martins (possibly a county record) and 4000 Swallows. This passage seems not to have been replicated elsewhere in the county, another reason why it was good to have Geoff as a witness. What a day.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Arrows of desire

They were arriving high above me, too high to be seen with the naked eye, and had I not been scanning with binoculars I would have missed them. They were spaced out and came in pulses, the largest group being 50 strong. A few of the birds dropped lower and resolved themselves to be mostly House Martins with a few Swallows as company. Being at elevation, standing on the mound that overlooks The Watercolours pits at Holmethorpe, I had a good 360 degree view. The hirundines continued to arrive and head off east, but they still mostly kept high. Had I not known they were up there they would have carried on with their remarkable journeys unobserved by human eye. A journey that many of them would be making for the first time, born of instinct and need. After only 45 minutes the procession dried up, leaving me wanting more, but my notebook told me that 700 House Martins and 300 Swallow had moved through.

I stepped out into the garden at 18.05hrs to have three Swallows zip inches over my head, slaloming between walls and trees, manoevering with an ease that defied any need of effort on their part. Above them were more, much lower than this morning, many within touching distance. Silently they sped through, arrows of desire, the pull of African savannahs too strong to ignore. They appeared out of nowhere, to the left of me, the right of me and above me. Surrounded by blue and peach, streamers and points, grace and power. I stood still and within ten minutes 250 (all of them Swallows) had moved on westward. Awesome is a word that is overused by birders, normally given to something because it is rare - but it is the correct word to describe such primal and raw migration.

Throughout the south-east hirundines have been recorded in good numbers, no more so than Sandwich Bay where 120,000 House Martins were logged. Given the choice between seeing the American Redstart or that spectacular movement, the hirundines would win every time. I was lucky enough to witness a movement of 90,000 at Dungeness some 28 Septembers ago. It lives long in my memory. In fact, I would go as far to claim that such movements are the purest expression of avian migration that we can count ourselves lucky enough to witness.

I just hope that it will continue tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

About to crack

There's only so much worthiness you can feel and servitude you can bestow towards a dry inland birding patch. Bloody-mindedness, obstinacy and a big dollop of wishful thinking are prerequisites to be able to maintain a regular presence, but, believe me, they can all come to a shuddering halt, and the way things are that might just happen soon.

A dawn start at Priest Hill in a murky calm smelt of birds, and on entering the reserve there were plenty of calling Robins and the odd 'cheeping' Chiffchaff, but three hours later that was about it - 35+ Robins and 10 Chiffchaffs. The autumn here so far has been a hard slog for little reward. An early lunch and a check on what was going on elsewhere (the best being Yellow-browed Warbler at Elephant and Castle and a Blyth's Reed Warbler at Sandwich Bay) set me up for an afternoon at Canons Farm. Better than this morning, but it was still hard work. As is often the way with this site, just as I was about to give up there was a pulse of birds overhead - a flock of 60 House Martin wheeling about with a Peregrine and eight Common Buzzards. A further hour's skywatching added little else of note. A couple of female Stonechats tried to seduce me as I left the farm, but there's no doubt that I need a booster injection of avian surprise. It isn't happening locally, so I may need to wander further afield...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fallen Jay

The autumn is really starting to feel like autumn now - chillier temperatures, the leaves starting to fall (particularly the Horse Chestnuts) and rapidly darkening evenings. Priest Hill this morning added to the season's hold, with the first large arrival/movement of Woodpigeons - at least 800 were present, including a single flock of 750. Although Meadow Pipits were not actively passing overhead, a flock of 60 had gathered on the meadows. Single Goldcrest, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were other highlights. One sad event was the demise of this Jay (above), found on the roadside adjacent to the reserve entrance. This species holds a special place in my birding world, which you can read about here if you so wish.

Friday, 15 September 2017

News on the Polish Med Gull

Last week I mentioned an adult Mediterranean Gull that I saw on Charmouth beach, sporting a red plastic ring (PER3). Through the excellent Colour Ring Birding website, I reported the details and received the following information from the Polish scheme behind the ringing of this particular bird:

Ringed on 13/05/2007 as a 3rd calendar year female, nesting at Polder Bukow, Krzyzanowice, Slaskie, POLAND, by Jakub Szymczak

So the bird was two years old when ringed, which makes it 12 years old. This colour ring reading can become addictive!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A question

Another morning spent at Priest Hill, leaning up against a gate and counting migrating Meadow Pipits. I didn't arrive until 09.45hrs and they were already dribbling over, but by 12.00hrs the trickle had dried up, resulting in a total of 186 S/SW. Just like two days ago, little else was moving with them. A question I find asking myself is why overhead passerine diurnal migration seems to stop (or run out of steam) by lunchtime. I've seen hirundines carry on well into the afternoon, but as for pipits, wagtails, buntings and finches (which normally make up the bulk of such movements) they seem to find afternoon movement not to their liking. Do they actually land and stop? Do they fly higher so that they are out of sight and sound?

Meadow Pipit one: "I'm getting a bit of wing-strain here, how long we been flying?
Meadow Pipit two: "Must be six hours by now"
Meadow Pipit one: "Well sod this for a lark, let's pitch down in that nice looking meadow"
Meadow Pipit two: "Er, we're pipits, not larks..."
Meadow Pipit three: "We could always fly a bit higher and glide to Spain!"

Questions, questions...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Simple pleasures

My first visit to Priest Hill in almost a fortnight. Grounded migrants were largely absent, but from just after 10.00hrs a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits started up, all heading S to SW. I stood rooted to the spot for almost two hours and ended up with a total of 122 - mostly small groups of one to three but including flocks of 19, 11 and 10. I can honestly say it was some of the purest, most enjoyable birding that I've had this year. To watch actively migrating birds is always a privilege and a pleasure. The fact that these modest looking birds are possibly on their way to the Iberian peninsula adds so much to the experience. Not much else was moving with them, with no wagtails and very few hirundines, but that didn't matter.

Monday, 11 September 2017

A Pole in Dorset and a moan

Just back from a short break in Dorset, and although the optics and camera came along, they played second fiddle to everything else... highlights were up to three Mediterranean Gulls on Charmouth beach, including this adult (above) sporting a red plastic ring (PER3) which suggests that it was ringed as part of a Polish study. Also seen were at least two Dippers (at Lyme Regis (below) and Charmouth).

There has been a bit on social media recently about some people's dislike of the shortening of bird's names into an attempt at creating a 'cool birding patois'. I couldn't agree more - you can stick your Spot Shank, Pink Stink, Grot Finch, Yank Start and Spot Flit up your...

People also still seem to be congratulating each other on having the ability to spend lots of money, drive hundreds of miles and look at other birder's finds; they still refer to seeing said bird as 'scoring', 'bagging' and 'nailing'; also continue to take selfies with insects (mainly moths) placed on their nose; you could say it's harmless and that I'm just a miserable old git, in which case you may have a point. It could also be argued that it's just not cool or clever and I could possibly point out that moths are not toys. Here endeth my holier than thou moan.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Seven go mad in Suffolk

Part 14 - August 1976 The sun had not just put his hat on, but also his sunglasses and slapped on plenty of ‘factor 20’ for good measure, as the ‘heat-wave’ that had started in June and rolled on through July was showing no signs of breaking up by August. Grass crisped to a caramel brown, rivers and ponds dried up, any exposed ground cracked and ice cream salesmen were running out of stock. It was against this backdrop that I arrived at a small campsite, hidden behind a garage, at Theberton in Suffolk. My companions were Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler, Ian and Barry Reed and Tim Andrews. We had chosen the site due to its close proximity to the Suffolk coast, in particular the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere. We had been lured by scarce breeding birds such as Bittern, Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier, the latter species teetering on the edge of extinction in the UK. Once we had hurriedly pitched our tents we hot-footed it along country lanes to East Bridge and then took a dyke-side footpath down on to the beach at Minsmere. Our walk was enlivened by the reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. 

Our first afternoon was a resounding success. A pair of Marsh Harriers greeted us soon after we started to scan the skies over the reserve, both of them circling above the extensive reed beds. To be able to look onto the fabled ‘scrape’ – a man-made clearance constructed to entice breeding birds and passage waders – we needed to carry onto the beach and walk a short way north, to then enter the public hide. The beach was sandy, with a thin ribbon of dunes that were home to large concrete blocks, these having been part of the Second World War sea defences, now abandoned to break up and list alarmingly. From the hide we could see that the exposed mud of the ‘scrape’ was lively with feeding birds, including Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Greenshank and the emblematic Avocet. A Little Gull was also present. On our walk back along the dyke, a Bittern kindly got up and flew across the reed tops. This was quickly followed by several Bearded Tits, which announced themselves by ‘pinging’ away as they acrobatically climbed up nearby reed stems.

The light was fading by the time we returned to our tents. A motley collection of burners, Billy Cans and utensils were soon put into action, and a variety of modest meals were prepared. We were the only campers present – it was a simple campsite with few amenities, just a single toilet and sink, and a rubbish pit (some four feet deep and seven feet wide). We got into the habit of jumping across this refuse ditch as a dare, but Tim refused, which made the rest of us jump it all the more, egging him on to do so.

We were up early the next morning, eager to get back to the beach. On our way we stopped by the Public Hide where both Knot and Little Tern were newly in, before entering the inner-sanctum of the reserve from the beach. It felt to me like walking into a cathedral, with us the disciples about to pray before the birding altar that was Minsmere. We arrived at a large hut that acted as a reception area and shop, and a clearing that was used as a car park. After the formalities of checking in were done, we were free to roam the inner sanctum of this fabled reserve! In the closest scrub were the hoped for Red-backed Shrikes, two female types, a species that was still hanging on and breeding here. We headed off to the Island Mere hide first, mainly due to impatience in wanting to see the Spoonbills, which had been present for a few weeks. Five of them were on show, and in the time we spent with them they fed, preened but mostly slept. The Tree Hide and West Hide were our other bases on this day, and we got to meet an elderly volunteer whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to alert people to the presence of Marsh Harriers. He was an elderly man, smartly turned out and sporting a pencil-thin moustache – we were later told that his name was Mister Denny. He would be largely silent, but as soon as a harrier showed would leap into action, shouting out directions so that all in the hide could share his obsession – no other species got a mention.

Minsmere reserve was visited on a daily basis, but being young, fit and keen we roamed widely. Dunwich Heath, Walberswick and even the Blyth Estuary (that resulted in a 28 mile hike) were on our radar, differing habitats that helped to build up an impressive list of birds and create memories to last a lifetime: a Barn Owl flushed from a dead tree close to Westwood Lodge; a self-found Aquatic Warbler on the RSPB reserve edge that was subsequently accepted by the BBRC; an immature White-winged Black Tern that spent the afternoon feeding over the scrape, appreciated by many and entering my life list five minutes before a Black Tern did; both male and female Red-backed Shrikes enlivening any visit when we bothered to check on them; a Nightjar, silhouetted in the dusking sky, flying around and settling on the old windmill; our first Temminck’s Stint helpfully alongside a Little; my ambition bird, a Wryneck, feeding along the dune line at Minsmere, together with a Pied Flycatcher; a flock of 150 Turtle Doves that we pushed out of a Walberswick hedgerow as we walked alongside; and two Icterine Warblers that arrived at the Sluice bushes and introduced me to the phenomena of witnessing a ‘twitch’; the recording of 100 species of bird in just one day; and watching Barry dive headfirst into a ditch to rescue his notebook, emerging triumphant but covered in slime.

As we packed to go home, Tim stood up and ran at the rubbish pit, clearing it easily. Our cheers summed up our fortnight, with over 150 species recorded and on which not a drop of rain had fallen. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. Which species of wader would be on the scrape? What would be lurking in the Sluice bushes? Could it possibly get even better? The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. We were a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds who didn't have a care in the world. Life was good.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Whinchats (and a Pied Flycatcher) in the rain

An afternoon visit to Canons Farm was accompanied by a steady heavy drizzle. There seemed to have been a clear out of the migrants that have been on show over the past couple of days, but these had been replaced by a flock of five Whinchats, which popped up in the Reeds Rest Cottage barns area, and, even better, a vocal Pied Flycatcher that flitted around the Ash and Oak canopy in Lunch Wood. After just a minute the bird stopped calling, faded into the vegetation and was not seen again.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

And another...

It was a clear and chilly night here in Banstead, but the MV still went out and although this mornings catch was suppressed, it did include the fourth Scarce Bordered Straw of the 'autumn', following on from singles on August 21st, 23rd and 29th. Considering that these were the first in the garden since 2006, it's a crime that I'm starting to get a little bit complacent about them...

Friday, 1 September 2017

The magical fallen tree

Another brief foray to Canons Farm, mainly to visit a fallen tree in Owl Meadow that was acting as an ornithological magnet - my first scan with the binoculars revealed single Common Redstart, Whinchat (below) and Spotted Flycatcher (above) - good going for a dry inland site. There was a smattering of migrants nearby, including 3 Wheatear, 2 Willow Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat.

After several days of feeling under the weather I seem to have turned a corner - maybe, with my powers restored, that lurking rarity is about to be unearthed...