Showing posts from October, 2017

The Headley Hawfinches

Yes, I know it's pants.... Seeing that there are so many Hawfinches zapping about all over the place, I thought that I would try and find some locally that were not just moving through, but using 'my' fair part of Surrey to feed and roost. The place of choice was the steep wooded valleys to be found on the western side of Headley Heath. This area has plenty of 'Hawfinch pedigree', where I have, in the past, seen this species shortly after dawn and considered it a possible roost site. Back in the 1970s and 1980s I would regularly visit the Bedgebury Pinetum Hawfinch roost in Kent, and remembered that they often came in early, sometimes a good hour and a half before sunset. So, armed with a thermos flask and plenty of hope, I took up my position (at 12.30hrs) on a grassy hill between the two westernmost valleys, with good visibility up to the tree-line on the neighbouring hills. The first hour was slow, save for the odd flock of Redwings that swept on through. T

Rare moths at Dungeness, sandwiched by the sun

Another beautiful Dungeness sunrise Spoladea recurvalis - this rare pyralid came to a Greatstone MV on October 26th Last moth out of the observatory moth trap on October 26th was this Red-headed Chestnut The rarest of the lot, a Sword-grass, the first area record since the early 1960s (October 27th) We started with the sun rising, so let's finish with it setting


6,000 Starlings in a flock is small beer when watching certain roosts. Yes, they may sweep and wheel, coalesce and break apart, seemingly playing around as much as choosing exactly where to roost and share in the day's news via their chortling - but a flock of 6,000 Starlings coming in off the sea is a different proposition all together. They are direct. They have urgency. They are arrows. They have dispensed with grace to act upon a primal urge to move on, move forward, survive. We picked them up maybe a mile offshore, a shifting smoke, shape-shifting until we could start to appreciate what we had before us. A leading mass that seemingly sped up as they closed in on us, then revealed a tail of birds that went on and on. They breached the beach and gained height, the tail of the flock panicked into catching up. More followed, and within half-an-hour we had counted 15,000 birds - early morning in France, breakfast in Blighty. The Starlings took the feathered plaudits but moths s

Egrets, I've had a few (reprised)

As the sun started to dip below the horizon I got into position, up against a large sallow bush overlooking the egret roosting site. After several days of buffeting wind it had finally abated, and in the stillness each group of bushes had a swirl of gnats above, as if they were quietly smouldering. Noise levels abated and I waited, careful not to move or breathe too heavily. Not dissimilar to taking a seat in an auditorium waiting for the show to begin, expectant, impatient, senses heightened. The warm-up act was a band of Starlings that entered stage right, put on a few aerial manoevers before being joined by others, each pass made with a 'whoosh' of wings before they ditched down into vegetation, finally silent, seemingly anticipating the main act. The house lights had dimmed and the curtain was about to be raised. The first to arrive was a Little Egret, which, after circling the roost decided not to enter alone and settled on a small island. It stood motionless waiting for

West is not necessarily best

We are now several days into a period of westerly airflow, not one that usually brings birds to Dungeness, and so it is proving. Grounded migrants are thin on the ground and the overhead migration has reduced to a trickle, but we merry band of shingle bashers plod on and the birds are there if patience is maintained. ARC pit is still enticing a few waders to drop in and linger, including late Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper, plus a long-staying Red-necked Grebe that goes AWOL every now and again but deigned to show itself to me last Sunday. On Monday there was a brief pulse of Goldfinches (700) and Meadow Pipits (150) flying south, along with small numbers of Redpoll, Tree Sparrow and Siskin. A couple of 'continental' Coal Tits and three Ring Ouzels dropped in, and a first-winter Caspian Gull was found on the beach, colour-ringed at a German breeding colony. Today didn't seem promising - low cloud, drizzle and a steady WSW wind - but the sea (against expectations)

The life of Brian

Storm Brian.  Doesn't sound all that menacing, does it? The Met Office (or whoever gets the job to name these storms) could have come up with far better names beginning with B. Like Storm Beelzebub. Or Storm Badass. Not Brian... However, Brian it was that knocked on Dungeness's door today, and kicked off the morning with a SWf6 and at times reached an 8, but never really hit the strengths that had been suggested a few days ago. However, some vicious squalls set in, and if you were unlucky to get caught in one then a change of clothing was definitely in order. I rode out most of them by cowering behind hides or containers. The high tide at 13.00hrs unleashed some water incursion through the shingle bank, a lot of spray and a wild seascape by Dungeness standards. The birds largely kept away. No unusual, or interesting sea passage was observed. Brian failed to deliver.


I could just write that over a two-and-a-half hour period we counted 6,175 Goldfinches moving E to SE, but the drama and spectacle of the event would be truly lost. Bare facts are not enough. They started moving by 07.30hrs, a steady procession of modest sized flocks, keeping low and flying into the SE wind. Their progression over the shingle was uncomplicated, across the open beach and either out over the sea or a continued coasting. A thousand had been counted through when Mark H suggested meeting him on the very point of the peninsula itself. As the wind was light and the weather dry, the open nature of this new place of observation was not an impediment on our ability to observe and count accurately. The birds were still coming, and with our 360 degree view they were coming in greater numbers. There was a sudden shift in volume - the flock sizes increased and they were arriving on a broader front. There were times when we had groups join together in front of us, at one point 300

Just another day...

They started shortly after dawn, jostling flocks, compact, noisy with chiming calls like bubbling cowbells. Low, morphing in shape and urgent in nature. By mid-morning they had fizzled out and our morning count of Goldfinches had reached 1265, the vast majority heading into the easterly wind. They were joined by smaller numbers of Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Siskins, Linnets and Redpolls. Nearby a male Dartford Warbler was accompanied by a Wren (giving the Stonechats a day off), a late Willow Warbler pitched down into the lighthouse garden where three Firecrest entertained all comers. Whereas the Goldfinches had largely packed it in for the day, the Chaffinches had just started. Flocks of spaced out sedateness flowing overhead - again eastwards - with groups strung out in parallel or linear order. They defied easy counting, being lost against an opaque pearly-white sky. When visual contact was made it soon became obvious that others were higher, or lower, or further away. After two

Invasion of the coccothraustes under a very odd sky

And still they come, delighting those lucky enough to be standing underneath them - Hawfinches that is. This autumn's 'invasion' continues on a broad front that is giving observers the opportunity to see this species in places where they normally do not occur - like my garden for instance. I took up my position for a spot of viz-migging at about 07.30hrs and stuck at it for almost four hours. Although much quieter than yesterday, the main target did arrive, with a flock of four Hawfinch over low, heading east, at 07.50hrs, and then a single five minutes later that circled a couple of times before it too departed eastwards. Calls were heard on both occasions, a suprisingly thin sound from such a beefy bird. I was more than a little pleased. Since I first looked at a bird book over forty years ago, the Hawfinch has always intrigued me, from its striking appearance down to its secretive nature. Even when you know that they are present in a wood they can be difficult to pi

More Hawfinch

With Hawfinches turning up all over the shop (there must be several thousand across the southern half of England) a three-hour back garden vigil was in order this morning. A steady trickle of Redwing, Song Thrush, Chaffinch and Starling was obvious - together with a lone Brambling - but nothing exhibiting a brutish bill and wing bars deigned to put in an appearance. A change of scene was called for. A return to Juniper Bottom was made, mainly due to its Hawfinch pedigree and also because I could skywatch across the Mickleham valley all the way down to the Mole Gap (as viewed above). After only 15 minutes a flock of six flew across me and then veered NW. A further hour's worth of eye and ear strain could only add 100+ Redwing. The past couple of night's may have been mild, but the MV haul has been poor. Last night did at least produce a couple of Silver Y (above). The season seems to be running out of steam.

Bithynian Vetch

Right, let's get back to posts that are positive and largely harmless... This morning I visited a site close to home where there is a (single?) plant of Bythinian Vetch, a species that I have only seen in Cornwall. This is hardly likely to be anything other than a planted/escaped individual, but regardless of that they possess smart looking bi-coloured flowers. The two images illustrate the colour variation on this particular plant. Nearby was quite a bit of Basil Thyme (below), still in flower and brightening up what was otherwise a grey morning.

Digital coma

OK, one last post about social media and the effect that it has on us (or, more accurately, some of us)... I was recently pleased to see that a user of Twitter had called to task two separate tweets that described Dusky Warblers as 'stunning'. They are not. They make Dunnocks look positively exotic. A rainbow is stunning. The Northern Lights are stunning. The Milky Way is stunning. Dusky Warblers are not. It got me thinking as to why the composers of said 'Dusky Warbler' tweets felt compelled to use the word 'stunning'. I blame peer pressure and, of course, social media. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (keep up Grandad) are all based on the notion that short, sharp messages/images can be sent out into the world so that others can read/see what you are doing. For a certain demographic this means looking good, being seen to be having fun and, most crucially 'having a better time than you'. So when you see an image of a meal, a group shot of friends out

Hunting Hawfinch

That most magnificent of finches, the Hawfinch, has been appearing in small numbers across the UK, from small northern islands to southern headlands and even in our very own county of Surrey (particularly in the Capel area, largely down to that most diligent of observers, Wes Attridge). With the chances of this species being at large, and it being one of my favourites, I thought I ought to check out a couple of places nearby that have a bit of 'Hawfinch form'... First up was Juniper Bottom, where in March 2013 a large flock delighted birders from far and wide. My slow walk along the valley, with frequent stops and spells of intent listening, could only drum up a fair number of crests and tits (including Marsh). Carrying through and up onto Juniper Top, the tree-line and canopy scanning did not supply the target species, but I was entertained by a Peregrine and seven Common Buzzards. Next on my travels was Headley Heath, and a walk out to the western most valleys, all wel

More botanical gems at Langley Vale

This morning I met up with local botanist Peter Wakeham to partake in what amounted to a spot of plant 'twitching'. The farmland at Langley Vale had once again come up trumps, with two species of local (and national) rarity having recently been found by the eagle-eyes of Dennis Skinner. Before we made our way to these newly discovered gems, Peter showed me a couple of Night-flowering Catchfly plants that he had come across last week, in a field corner where they had not been seen before. They included one highly robust, fully-flowered specimen, that had a mixture of open and closed flowers. Both are pictured above. These flowers were also strongly pink, the Langley plants being normally coloured white. Our first target was nearby - a single statuesque Jersey Cudweed (below). Although a coloniser of 'nearby' London streets, how this individual made it to a chalky field on the Surrey downs is anybody's guess. Ground-pine (below) is becoming exceedingly

A rant and a film review

I haven't posted for almost a week, which is a long time for me. I've been going through a period where I have become anti social media. Such spells normally start when something annoys me, which in turn makes me dislike myself for becoming annoyed at such trivial matters - such as the profusion of pictures of the latest rarity; tweets proclaiming the tweeters latest 'find' as if they are birding deities; moronic congratulations to birders for having travelled to see birds that others have found; words like 'BOOM!' and 'rares'; selfies (especially groups of middle-aged men trying to look like gunslingers when, in fact, they are birdwatchers); Facebook group dissing of posters because they are 'beginners'; tweeting out the presence of a bird even though that news has been broadcast a hundred times already; trying to pass birds off as if you have found them yourself when you haven't; 'scoring', 'connecting' and 'nailing'