Tuesday, 31 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. Then at 13.30hrs the first Hawfinch showed - calling in the canopy on the western flank. It sat there for 20 minutes before flying off southwards along the valley towards Box Hill. There then began a sustained arrival of birds from the east (where the open space of Headley Heath is found), many of which alighted in the distant tree tops on the eastern hill. They would spend between 5-10 minutes here before flying across the two valleys (and over my observation point) before melting into the canopy or flying up the valley south towards Box Hill. At no time did any bird cross back eastwards. My notebook reveals the number of observations and how many Hawfinches were involved: 1, 2, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 1 - a total of 32 birds. A small number did not cross the valleys but headed along the ridge northwards, towards Headley Warren. The last bird appeared at 15.40 hrs with the majority being seen between 14.00 - 14.45hrs. There was little calling, good flight views and distant perched views. There behaviour did not suggested overhead migration, but preparation for a more distant roost. Maybe the scenes experienced at Juniper Bottom in 2013 are going to be repeated.

It was a magical afternoon. There was scarcely a breeze, the air temperature was mild and these valleys are far enough away from the car parks to discourage all but the most earnest of walkers. If you want to have a look yourself, park in the NT car park opposite the cricket pitch and head SW until reaching the steep valleys (adjacent to High Ashurst on an OS map). Anywhere with a clear view across the valleys will do. You won't regret it. Oh, and take a scope...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

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

Thursday, 26 October 2017


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 stole the natural history headlines. Spoladea recurvalis, Cosmopolitan and Red-headed Chestnut made for a truly good day as regards migrant Lepidoptera. Never a dull moment at Dungeness.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

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 direction. A second soon came and pitched alongside, also too nervous to roost solo. The first Great White had no qualms about being alone and flew straight in. This was quickly followed by the 'star' performer, a Cattle Egret, that had the decency to arrive while the light was still good and without the confusion of Littles alongside. Within 15 minutes the cast had mostly appeared (largest flocks of six Little and five Great), the light quickly fading so that it became difficult to pick birds up, even though they are big and white.

The show was soon over, no curtain calls, just the memory of this special gathering, the final tally being 21 Little, 15 Great and a single Cattle. 15 years ago you would have rightly questioned the sanity of anybody that would have suggested that such a gathering was possible in the UK. In the years to come these numbers might be considered to have been paltry. My money is on the 30 Great White Egret barrier being broken by the end of the winter. The current record of 20 will surely be broken.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

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) produced a number of highlights that rewarded the 5-6 hours of sea watching, which included an extremely close Manx Shearwater, a Pomarine Skua and several Little Gulls, including a first-winter that fed along the beach allowing the boys with the big lenses to obtain exceptional images.

The westerly airflow looks set to stay for the foreseeable future. Not ideal, but with a promised lessening of the wind we may yet see more movement over the land, but as for the hoped for thrushes and crests, we may have to wait a bit longer. And those coveted Asiatic rarities may be beyond our reach this Autumn.

But birding rarely sticks to the script...

Saturday, 21 October 2017

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.

Thursday, 19 October 2017


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 birds massed and flew directly over and around us in one jangling blizzard. The noise was amplified as we were cocooned in Goldfinches. As the wind strengthened a notch, and veered southerly, the birds did not want to move on directly over the sea as they had done. We were then treated to a sky littered with confused flocks that coalesced, broke up and joined once more, wheeling around, a fidgety mass. A mass that reached 500+. We needed to be on our guard so as not to double count. We were joined by Martin C and his other pair of eyes helped us to confirm whether the flocks had moved through or not.

And still they came. Low over the beach. Cascading above us. All the time tinkling away. With them were other species, but in far fewer numbers - Linnets, Siskins, Redpolls, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a single Hawfinch that stood out thuggishly against the accompanying Goldfinches before it peeled off and headed north. By 10.00hrs the movement had virtually stopped.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

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 hours the tap was turned off and over 3,000 had been counted. The odd Brambling was involved, including flocks of 10 and 6. The afternoon was further enlivened by the arrival of three continental Coal Tits, all bright individuals that gathered admirers as if they were of rarer fare.

The day ended under a gloomy sky with Martin C, at a viewpoint overlooking the egret roost. As the light bled from the day they started to arrive - urgent Littles and leisurely Greats, with a bonus Cattle. It was a record breaking count. 26 Little Egrets and 20 Great White Egrets were record counts for the site. A Merlin sped through and 2 Marsh Harriers disturbed the early roosters.

Just another day at Dungeness...

Monday, 16 October 2017

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 pin down. The 100+ flock at Juniper Bottom in early 2013 had a habit of just materialising in front of you and just as suddenly melting away. We did not know where they spent the afternoons or where they roosted. You've got to admire such aloofness!

If you are into such things as keeping a back garden/patch list, and Coccothraustes coccothraustes is not yet on it, this might just be your best opportunity to add it for the foreseeable future.

At lunchtime the wind picked up and the sunlight took on a distinct vagueness, as if the rays were being filtered through dust - which indeed they were! There are two suggested sources - you can take your pick between Saharan Dust or smoke from the wild fires on the Iberian peninsula. It then all turned a bit Bladerunner, the sun turned dull blood-orange, the sky become an approximation of yellow-grey sludgy soup and the light dimmed to the point where car headlights were needed to be turned on. All very surreal.

14.00hrs - who's fiddling with the dimmer switch?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

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.

Friday, 13 October 2017

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.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

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 for a drink, or the view from a hotel balcony, they have to be aspirational - the food needs to look delicious, the people have to be all smiling, and the weather conditions on the balcony hot and sunny. And as for the selfies, well, posing has become an art form, with the need for the ability to catch the right angle, know what is your best side and maybe - just maybe - how to use a photo filter to get the best out of your image.

What has that got to do with middle-aged birders? Well, quite a lot actually. As much as most stick to Twitter and Facebook, the same rules that the youth follow seem to apply. A Dusky Warbler is not enough just by being rare. It has to be stunning. Stunning suggests an event. It suggests an emotional happening. It suggests that 'you really should have been here'. People don't do 'ordinary' or even 'interesting'. They want to be seen to be doing 'stunning'.

And it's not just the kids that overdose on selfies. There are several birders out there that are forever plastering pictures of their faces all over the place for us all to see. Posing on a headland. Gurning at a Birdfair. Reclining in a hide. In a car on the way to a twitch. Having dipped. Having 'scored'. I have alluded to the 'group shot' of birding 'crews' already, lined up aspiring to be ornithological gunslingers or pretending to be following in the footsteps of Shackleton or Scott, rather than just about to go birding. Narcissistic? Just being sociable? Does it really matter? No, not really, but it's fair to comment on such a social phenomena. Maybe I'm just jealous that I'm not with them, having fun, being a trailblazer, part of a scene. And deep down that's exactly what their purpose is, to make you feel envious. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

The last aspect I'll touch on is the need for some birders to let us all know that they have 'found' a bird, as in 'I have just found a Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness'. I know plenty of birders who regularly find good birds and who never feel the need to do anything other than report the presence of said rarity, such as 'Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness, present on grass by Old Lighthouse'. Do we need to know that you have found it? Isn't this just another symptom of social media that reduces us to become mini marketing machines, pumping out information to promote ourselves?

Did I say that was my last point? Sorry, thought of something else. Social media, buy dint of the need for brevity, is slowly turning us all into lazy practitioners in the use of our language. Hence the overuse of words like 'awesome', 'stunning' and 'cracking'. They have become a lazy shorthand. Thought is going out of the window.

And before anybody accuses me of being on a high horse, I can be just as guilty as others. This subject fascinates me as much as it infuriates me. We are (mostly) sleepwalking into a digital coma. We need to be aware before it's too late.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

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 well wooded and largely undisturbed (one of them - the shallowest - is pictured above). I have been successful here before, and this strike rate was improved upon when a single Hawfinch flew into a fairly close tree top, allowing tantalising views before melting into the leaf cover. Although I waited an hour, the bird did not show again, and must have slipped out the other side. After a good wander between the valleys, and having being entertained by a Raven and three Marsh Tits, I called it quits. I would have happily settled on just the one before I set out this morning, and cannot help but think that there are more out there to be discovered.

Monday, 9 October 2017

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 rare in England, and although Surrey is historically a stronghold, the county sites are being lost. A saving grace is that the buried seed can remain viable for years, and when exposed can flower - this is what may have happened at Langley Vale. It is a species on the area's historical list, so when Dennis found a single plant last week it was like welcoming back a 'lost' gem. Peter quickly found a second. Both were still there this morning.

Other highlights from the morning included Thorn-apple (in fruit and seed) and Long-stalked Crane's-bill, both species which are shown below. It was also a pleasure to bump into not only Dennis, but also Rosy Jones. Langley Vale is a place of botanical wonder - there is still much to discover here. Our hope is that the Woodland Trust will be true to its promise of acting sympathetically and protectively towards the rare arable plants that are to be found on the land.

Friday, 6 October 2017

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' birds when they have simply been 'observed'; posing for pictures with a moth, or other type of insect, on your nose.... I could go on.

Yes, I'm a miserable git who needs to lighten up, fair do's, but I do wonder at the vapidity of some people out there, pretending to be heroes as they approach natural history merely as a product to be consumed and then used as a prop to try and weave some sort of mythology around themselves. The upshot is that I have stopped looking at Facebook, culled those that I follow on Twitter and haven't posted on this blog for a while.

Normal service will be resumed after I've calmed down.

PS: I took myself off to see Bladerunner 2049 yesterday. As a big fan of the original I was desperate for it to be a worthy follow-up. It exceeded expectations, in the storyline, beautiful imagery, haunting soundtrack and the acting. Conclusion? It was better than the original.