Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Winter beech woodland

My latest painting is well underway, a graphic interpretation of a beech woodland floor in the depths of winter. I've yet to tackle the trees and sky with any real conviction, but the floor is coming along nicely. I'll post an image of the finished article on completion.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Misidentified water

With a few Parrot Crossbills turning up in the country (including a flock just outside of Surrey), I thought it worthwhile searching my nearest sizeable coniferous woodland. When I say nearest I really mean the most obvious and convenient - Reigate Heath. The pines start at the car park and pepper the  surrounding heathland, which is largely golf course. A couple of hours worth of wandering did not provide the hoped for 'chups' come calling from the tree tops. In fact the area was deathly quiet, save for the odd Redwing and Wren.

There was an amusing interlude. I carried on walking south-west beyond the heath where a collection of small streams meander through the sandy soil. Through a stand of trees I spied water - a lot of it! Where on earth was this? My mind went into overdrive, hopes were high that this was a newly created wetland that would repay watching. Surely such a large waterbody would not have eluded a birder's detection! I phoned local birder Gordon Hay, as if there was anybody who would know anything about it, he would. I described where I was and he too was non-plussed as to where this water was. Access seemed a problem though. I could see the water in the distance, but thick copse and, typical of outer-Surrey, fences, were blocking my path. Undetered I skirted wide around these obstacles, coming at the water from the opposite side. I found a pleasant country lane that started to run parallel to the water, hidden from my view by a sandy bank (and accompanying fence). And then everything started to look familiar. That sandy bank... that cottage... oh yes, I'd been here before. It was Buckland Sandpits, where I'd seen an Eider several years before. I had only ever approached it from a totally different direction and did not realise that I was so close to it at the edge of Reigate Heath - my inner compass was way out. I sheepishly phoned Gordon back, who in the interim had come to the conclusion that my water body may well have been Buckland. What chance of my identifying a Parrot Crossbill when I couldn't name a large water body?

So, no crossbills and no new birding hot spot. There was only one thing for it. Time for lunch.

Monday, 27 November 2017


It has become one of my favourite images of the year. A tight gaggle of birders on the causeway of Staines Reservoir, hoping to see the Horned Lark. It is a grey day. Few of them are looking through their optics. Most of them are of advancing years. They appear morose to a man (they are all men). They are hemmed in by two high fences. They look caged. My first thought was to poke fun at the scene. But then I thought better of it...

As I have been actively birdwatching since 1974 it has been my pleasure to meet and befriend many people, some of whom I have known for almost all of the intervening 43 years. They have mostly stuck at it, birding through the years in a variety of ways - working patches, twitching, birding the world, ringing, taking part in census work, sea watching - the variation of studies are almost as numerous as the people who have carried them out. All of these hundreds of people: the creators of notebooks, the originators of observations, the discoverers of rarities and the pioneers of patches. Each one of them authors of their own little histories, some of these histories more well-known than others but all equally worthy of celebration.

We may all start with nothing greater than a curiosity about birds, but the deeper that this curiosity goes the more we become involved in the many facets of ornithological study. There is no such thing as a meaningless observation, or a poor day in the field. With each look through a lens we gain experience and knowledge. And all of this - these many hours spent birding - when combined with those of others, form a mountain of priceless information. Information that is used to understand migration, identification, habitat requirement and behaviour. On such foundations can we begin to help protect species from the remorseless march of man's activities.

Not everyone will make their data available. But as much as that might deprive the public record of more useful information, there is no obligation to do so. It is enough that a person should grow spiritually through watching birds, maybe pass on their interest to others and possibly support ornithological causes. We are all part of the ornithological family, whether we just feed the birds in the garden, jump on a plane for the latest far-flung rarity or study the birds of a small defined area. We can concentrate on just one species or try and see every last one of them. There really is little difference. We are all watchers of birds.

Our reasons for being birdwatchers, or birders, or twitchers, or ringers, or ornithologists differ. But whatever they are, we are all part of the same family. We might not totally get why some of us have taken a differing path, but we should all accept that we have done so and celebrate our shared wonder of the natural world. Those Staines 'prisoners' may have looked miserable, but a frozen moment in time can be misleading. A couple of seconds later they could all have been laughing. The angle of the camera or a change of lens could have opened up the space around them. Perception changes. It can turn a scene of 'misery' into one of 'joy'. No doubt most, if not all of them, left the reservoir with a warm feeling of having caught up with the lark. Job done. More histories written. More lives to celebrate in the fullness of time.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Paper. Pens. Remember them?

My latter-day natural history notes and lists are largely objects that don't largely physically exist beyond being pixels on a screen that disappear as soon as a computer is switched off. As much as the information on which they are built has been compiled by my physical and, at times, emotional endeavour, they lack a character - it is but cold data. However, that same 'information' that has, in the past, been written by my fair hand onto paper.... well, this is something that has spirit, it is a combination of personal touch and a gift from the natural world via a tree. I can hold it, smell it, fold it (but maybe not a hard-backed notebook!). It can also be browsed through, organic reminders of what I've seen, where I've been and what I thought. The computer screen does not allow such emotions to come so easily flooding back on a personal level. My old notebooks are great reminders of who I was at the time, from the state of my handwriting to the use of phrase - I do tend to be more descriptive with pen in the hand, And some of you out there regularly embellish these three-dimensional celebrations with line drawings, illustrations and artistic flourishes - they become things of beauty.

Where is this all going? Well, next year I am keen to immerse myself more fully into the wild flowers of my ├╝ber patch, and largely down to my semi-imposed computer break will record the whole adventure on paper, long-hand, a written account that will be as much a celebration of the ability to write and paint as it will be of the botanical wonders that I see along the way. We may well have replaced our broken computer by the start of 2018, but I will still carry on with this project via the medium of ink, paint and paper regardless. There will be times when the keyboard will be put to use, no more so than when I am boring you with tales of tracking down the rarities, counting the orchids or being overwhelmed by a mass flowering of the common place. And there will still be photographs to share. It is a great opportunity to learn (and relearn) the identification of the many plant species that I am lucky enough to have within a 10-mile radius of home. And next year this will include the rushes, sedges and grasses. I'm already excited by such a simple undertaking.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Of computers and Lapwings

We still haven't replaced our computer. The truth is, we are not really missing it. Phones and tablets do most of the donkey-work and the only times that I could do with the computer is when I wish to manipulate images or write a chunk of copy - these are doable on the smaller platforms but not as easy to do so. There is also the question of storing files - I know that stuff can be stored in the 'cloud' but I still like to see files on a desktop that I can move around and store in places of my choice.

One side-effect of all this is that my blogging has lessened in frequency (some of you might think that's a good thing!) I'm sure that we will get our act together and buy one soon. I can then bore you with pictures of moss, moths, dead leaves, fungi and maybe a Hawfinch or two...

Speaking of Big Bills, I had one flying over Canons Farm at 08.00hrs this morning, heading south. This was followed by a Lapwing that flew out of Horse Pasture before drifting off west. Lapwing is a good bird for here. It was only 12 years ago that the site held a wintering flock of 70+ birds. Little did I know then that such a sight was destined to be nothing but a faded memory on the farm.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Cat-like owl

It looked like a big fat Tom cat, small ears pricked up on a broad face, dazzling eyes lazering in on anyone and anything. Its head was just proud of the severely cut field crop, swivelling from side to side, at times rotating full circle to ensure that nothing was about to disturb its roost site.

This Short-eared Owl had been picked up by David Campbell in one of Canons Farm's larger fields. His diligent scanning had detected a large clod of earth that surprisingly moved and through a scope revealed itself as the owl. He kindly sent a text message out to the Canons Farm faithful, which saw me change direction from Epsom Downs and up onto the high farmland. I didn't expect it to still be there when I rolled up some twenty minutes later, but it was, and stayed hunkered down and unmolested by the local corvids for the two hours that I was present.

A small gathering of local birders in the warm sunshine made for a most enjoyable morning - plenty of chatter, a few birds passing overhead and, maybe a hundred meters away, the cat-like owl that we had all come to pay our respects to.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A lack of Marsh Tits

This morning I spent at least three hours roaming the woodland that is draped across Gatton Park, Reigate Hill and Colley Hill. It was exceedingly quiet, save for a flock of 75 Redwings. There were times when I could stand still and fail to see or hear a single bird. Most worrying was the lack of Marsh Tits. It is close on five years since I have recorded one in this general area. Come to think of it, my last few visits to nearby Walton Heath has failed to turn up this tit either. Maybe its local range is contracting - seemingly lost from Banstead Woods, possibly going that way in the Reigate area, hard to come by at Walton Heath... but it's not all doom and gloom. The small populations in Great Hurst and Little Hurst Wood are hanging on (albeit becoming quite isolated) and it remains quite common at Headley Heath, Mickleham and Box Hill.

I have to remind myself that when I first started birding in these places back in the mid 1970s, Willow Tits were quite easy to come by. It would be quite upsetting if the Marsh Tit went the same way.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Field work

Yet another visit was made to Headley Heath yesterday afternoon. I have been checking elsewhere for 'you know what' but have so far come up with blanks - Juniper Top, Juniper Bottom, Box Hill, Mickleham Downs and Norbury Park, but in the process have been able to reacquaint myself with some beautiful parts of northern Surrey. Whereas there might not have been any H*******, there were plenty of Marsh Tits, Bullfinches and Redwings, so it was time ornithologically well spent.

Back to yesterday afternoon. The 'big bills' we're still present, but not as numerous as they have been. 15 was my estimate, with a largest flock of five. No birders seen, funny how the lure of such events does quickly wear off, but that's fine by me, as I wandered the quiet valleys and had a couple of close encounters, both dull females. I also flushed a Woodcock. As the light started to fade I couldn't help wonder how much longer these testosterone-fuelled finches will remain, whether they will fade away in the coming month or decide to hang around for the winter. Whatever happens, it's been a tremendous influx to observe.

Friday, 10 November 2017

No show beech

The 'no big computer' trial period has claimed its first blog post no-show. Yesterday was spent walking through some of the finest beech woodland along 'my' part of the North Downs. The forest floor was carpeted with a virtually unbroken run of rich orange leaves, the sparseness of the under storey giving far reaching views, with a soft light being allowed in through the diminishing canopy. I managed to obtain some half decent photographs and started to compose a piece on the true wildness of such places - the slope of this part of the downs has never been cleared and farmed, so has most probably been clothed in beech, yew, box, ash and holly since the Ice-age. But... I do not have an SD card adapter for an iPad, and without the images such a post would be sadly lacking (although I seem to have done half a job above).

A replacement computer cannot be far away, and with Black Friday happening in under two weeks time, it might be financially prudent to wait. By the way, Black Friday, like Halloween, is another unwelcome piece of American consumerism that I could do without. But then again here am I about to partake in its greed. Go figure.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Trial period

Our big 'grown up' computer has finally died - it was one of those shiny silver Apple towers that was state-of-the-art when it came out in 2008. The fact that it has lasted NINE years is testament to its robustness. But now that the dreaded time has come we find ourselves looking at the corner of the room where the tower and monitor used to be and not being in any hurry to get a replacement. The reason being is that we can do just about everything on our iPad and iPhone (apologies to any anti-Mac or PC officianados out there).

Sending and receiving Emails, browsing the Internet, and being able to send items to print are all catered for. I have not got access to any of my creative software packages (Photoshop, InDesign) but haven't had the need to yet. I can download images from an SD card onto an iPad and do some rudimentary photo manipulation if I want. So, apart from a bigger screen, do we really need another big computer?

We are living a trial period at the moment to see how we get on without one. If we do decide we need a replacement then we will plump for an i-Mac and not a laptop, and we will then need to wrestle with the choice of monitor size and type of hard drive. I'm not 100% sure how all of this will go, but wouldn't mind betting that any lengthy copy writing will be a pain without a keyboard (yes I know the i-Pad Pros have one as an option) and I may start to wish for a big screen to properly edit my images on. The fact that this post is sans a picture is highly relevant...

There is a big part of me that would be happy to never switch on a computer/tablet/phone again - rediscover the joys of talking to people face to face, of writing letters, sitting down and researching stuff in a library, not knowing the football scores until the classified check on the radio, walking around all day without knowing the answer to a question, having to find a call box (and a fistful of change) when out.... no, maybe not....

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Moths in winter

I used to pack away the MV for the winter after giving it a good clean and checking that my supply of bulbs and egg boxes were topped up in readiness for the spring. But now, the moth trapping season never closes, migrants from the south can turn up in the depths of December and you need to have your wits about you (or belong to the excellent Migrant Lepidoptera Facebook group that will give you prompts) so as not to miss these winter windows of migration opportunity.

But it's not all about migrants - there are some hardy species that turn up on milder winter nights, and now, in late autumn, there are still Feathered Thorns, Blair's Shoulder-knots, Mottled Umbers and Green-brindled Crescents (above) to keep you going. I might not bother too much until next February, unless we get a plume of southern Mediterranean air come our way - my Banstead mid-winter fare does tend to be largely comprised of Light Brown Apple Moths and Chestnuts, neither species of which gets the pulse racing.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Birder on non-birder action

This afternoon I took myself off to Juniper Bottom, looking for H*********. I positioned myself on a cleared slope above the footpath, which gave a fine view across to the far canopy. Sound travels along this valley with ease - you can hear a Goldcrest sneeze at several hundred yards. I could certainly hear the three young hikers who were noisily making their way towards me. As they got closer they started to look at me, obviously unsure as to why I would possibly sitting on a log staring at trees. Then, as they drew level, one of them lowered his voice and said "Must be a bird watcher. Fucking weirdo".

It reminded me of a couple of birder/non-birder encounters that I have had over the years. The first took place at 03.30hrs one May morning when I was taking part in a Holmethorpe Sand Pits 24-hour bird race. I had parked up in a lay-by to listen out for Tawny Owl when a police car drew up alongside.
"Morning sir, can we be of assistance?"
"No thank you, everything's OK"
"Can I ask why you are parked here?"
"Well, as funny as it might sound, I'm birdwatching"
(Officer looks up into pitch black sky)
"Not going to be seeing much at the moment, are we now"
"I'm listening for owls"
(Officer turns to his colleague, shakes his head, looks back at me, shrugs)
"Each to their own sir, each to their own..."

My most memorable was when standing on Amberley Brooks one glorious winter afternoon, scope on tripod, scanning for the reported Short-eared and Barn Owls. A middle-aged couple came up to me and the woman asked:
"What are you waiting for?"
She physically started, her eyes widened, her mouth broke out into a beaming smile, her bottom lip was quivering. She looked at her husband with unbridled excitement, then back at me.
"ELVES! There are elves here??!!!"
When I explained that, no, I had said "Owls" and not "Elves" her expression crumpled into one of mass disappointment. I have rarely felt such a heel.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The H word


Some of you might be getting sick and tired of reading about them. Especially those of you who have been forlornly chasing them. But, as a man once said, "If you're tired of Hawfinches, you're tired of birding." Or something like that.

Anyhow, I went back to Headley Heath this afternoon for another dose of the 'H' word, where I was joined by Ian Jones and later by a handful of other birder's that included David Stubbs. Unlike yesterday, the birds were not lining up like good little girls and boys to be counted easily, and by the afternoon's end the final tally was a bit of a guess, with a minimum of 26 but possibly as many as 35. The largest flock was of seven. If you are after closer and more prolonged views, then it is best to  position yourself to the east of the two valleys I mentioned yesterday, looking westwards towards High Ashurst. Most of the action took place in the adjacent canopy, with small flocks zipping about and frequently alighting to keep the scopes in use. There was still a bit of valley hopping going on earlier, which Ian and I witnessed from 13.45 hrs, resulting in 18 birds seemingly leaving the immediate area. Our last sighting was at 16.05hrs.

Where else are they lurking? That's my birding project chosen for the rest of the year then...