Showing posts from December, 2017

Father Time

Back in 1975 I purchased a medium sized hard-backed notebook, narrow feint of line and blue of colour. It became my 'book of lists'. One such list was my bird species total for each year. Across an open spread I drew columns, each a centimetre wide, and after allowing for a generous space in which to write the bird species name, there were 26 columns - the first being for that current year, 1975. I was 16 at the time, and all of those blank columns represented to me a vast period of time - they would take me up to the year 2000, which sounded back then like a construct of science fiction, and the year in which I would celebrate my 42nd birthday. It was so far away that it really didn't warrant any thought at all. They were just there. The years slowly passed, and they then picked up speed as they do when you grow older. Life happened. I left college. I started a career. I got married. We had children. And shortly before those columns were due to be finally filled, I becam

Listing to one side

There will be a number of birding listers who are currently salivating with the expectation of New Years Day lifers. You see, they will be guaranteed British ticks on that date, regardless of whether they go out birding or not. Because it is then that the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) adopts the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) World bird list - and with that comes a handful of taxonomical splits that are not currently recognised here in Britain. Isabelline (Lanius isabellinus) and Red-tailed Shrikes  (L phoenicuruides) are to be considered separate species, as will Taiga Bean (Anser fablis) and Tundra Bean Goose (A rossicus) . Fea's Petrel (Pterodroma feae) loses its umbilical chord to Desertas Petrel (P deserta) and Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri) is cut adrift from Iceland Gull (L glaucoides) . Want more? Well here you go then - Two-barred Warbler will no longer be lumped with Greenish; Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Stejneger's Stonechat will no


I used to be a serial joiner of natural history clubs and organisations plus a subscriber to natural history journals. At this time of year most of these memberships would lapse and need renewing - in those days a cheque would be written out and sent off to the membership secretary by post - these weren't quite the days before direct debits and standing orders but was certainly pre-internet. If memory serves me correct, at its height I would be sorting out my subscriptions to: RSPB, BTO, National Trust, British Birds, Birding World, Surrey Bird Club, Kent Ornithological Society, Sussex Ornithological Society, London Natural History Society, British Wildlife, Fiends of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Botanical Society of the British Isles, Wildflower Society, Atropos, Surrey Wildlife Trust... that's what I can dredge up from the memory banks at the moment. That lot used to add up to a pretty penny in subscriptions, believe me. Over time my membership choices have waned, not thr

Boxing Day Box Hill Hike

I was accompanied by our eldest daughter Rebecca on the eight-mile Box Hill Hike, a signposted route that takes in the peaks and troughs to be enjoyed in the Box Hill, Mickleham and Headley Heath area. Without pushing it, and minus the coffee and lunch stops, we completed it in a respectable three hours. Much of this was down to me not looking at everything, as I deliberately left my binoculars at home. Even so, 10 Common Buzzards, two Red Kites and a couple of Marsh Tits were recorded, but it was generally quiet. There were few serious walkers about, but hundreds of others in family groups, with tots wobbling along in Christmas jumpers, adults in Santa hats and dogs whose collars and coats were bedecked with tinsel. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood, no doubt enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, which was to be enjoyed with at least one eye on the weather - we are due a lengthy downpour this afternoon.

Christmas Day birding

In the days before marriage and children, but after being a child myself, there was a brief window of life having few responsibilities - a time when I could please myself without guilt. During this time Christmas had largely lost its sparkle. I didn't particularly want to be at home, not because of any antagonism towards my parents and siblings, but because I wanted to be out birding. Those early birding years (1974 - 1978) this ornithological itch was scratched by spending the morning at Beddington Sewage Farm, ensuring that I was back home in time for the dinner! But in 1979 and 1981 I strayed further from home and actually stayed away from home, choosing Dungeness Bird Observatory as my destination. It had all I wanted at that particular time and on both occasions I was not alone, as other similar minded folk did the same - it wouldn't happen now I'd wager! We cooked a communal turkey dinner, had plenty to drink (and made use of the nearby pub) and even exchanged simpl

Sunflower heart feeders

The sunflower hearts are very popular in the garden at the moment - we have a regular flock of six-eight Goldfinches, a local gang of House Sparrows that are frequent snackers, a shy female Blackcap, Nuthatch, marauding Ring-necked Parakeets, a few Greenfinch plus the odd Robin and Dunnock that put on balancing acts at the feeders, as well as a host of Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons and Collared Doves (above) that hoover up the debris on the ground. Great Spotted Woodpecker has graced the scene just the once. I can spend hours watching the comings and goings. It is money well spent, not just for the help that it gives the birds throughout the winter but the sheer entertainment that the birds give in return.

Winter Solstice and apparent snow

Today, at 16.28hrs we will have reached the precise moment of mid-winter. Neither the time (or the date) is the same each year, but for 2017 that is the marker. Our ancestors used to mark this date with cheer and trepidation - the light was about to return, but the 'famine' months of deepest winter were about to get a grip. Cattle were slaughtered (for their meat and also to save on feed), drink was fermented and ready to sup, and the stones were aligned in the hope that the Gods would be kind. Today we just turn up the thermostat and ensure that we've got enough cranberry sauce in the cupboard... White Christmases? Where did the wish for them and myth about them come from? I heard something about this on the radio the other day, which suggested that Dickens is to blame. Even back in the Victorian era they were sentimental for them, which just goes to show that it didn't always look like the North Pole here in December. This week will see my 60th Christmas Day (I know

Who sends the visitors?

This blog is blessed with a good number of visitors per day - sometimes this can be boosted if a particular blog post has been mentioned elsewhere (Facebook, Twitter or even a link on Bird Forum) - but ordinarily a fair number of visitors will come here from a referring site, in other words another blog that has kindly linked North Downs and beyond to itself. I have a similar list of blogs to the right of this post, places that I like to spend time trawling through, full of words crafted by others that entertain and inform in equal measure - please visit them, you will not be disappointed. Some of those blogs do not link other blogs at all, which I never really understand. At a basic level you could call it mutual back-scratching but I prefer to think of it as attempting to spread the word about the wonders of the natural world and the joy it can bring... but I digress. In the 'stats' area of this blog (that only I get to see) is a section that lets you know where your visit

Flora Britannica in 2017

Frog Orchid, Pewsey Downs, Wiltshire, June I recently said to a fellow naturalist that I hadn't really spent a lot of time looking at plants in 2017, but looking back through my notebooks I did have my moments! Admittedly I didn't wander far from Surrey, but when I did one or two special plants popped up, including my first ever observation of Hog's Fennel, a mass of the stuff on the Tankerton slopes (Kent) in August. Here are a few photographic highlights... Marsh Cinquefoil, Dungeness, Kent, May Sea Clover, Camber, East Sussex, June Musk Orchid, Box Hill, Surrey, July Broad-leaved Cudweed, Surrey, July

Langley Vale in 2017

Common Poppy in profusion, Langley Bottom Langley Bottom, Langley Vale, call it what you like - Walton Downs would do - the farmland that blankets much of this area has had a lot of coverage from me over the past few years. To recap: this farm was put up for sale and purchased by the Woodland Trust some three years ago. They plan to release the area into the public domain as a woodland reserve and intend to plant up a great deal of the open farmland, in so doing connecting existing copse and woodland together. So far, so good you may think - after all, private farmland is going to become countryside for the public to access and enjoy. Yes and no. Langley Vale has been farmed sympathetically down the ages, with a tremendous arable flora present as a consequence. It is like a botanical time capsule. When the Woodland Trust released their plans there was a great deal of fuss created by the counties botanists - why plants common trees on top of rare flowers? Meetings were arranged,

Autumn birds 2017 - blink and you'll miss them!

Northern Wheatear, Priest Hill, August What can I say about my birding autumn other than it was very hard work. The Priest Hill experiment carried on with almost daily visits between late July and the end of September, but then fizzled out owing to my enthusiasm being drained by the paucity of migrants - two fly over Little Egrets, two Tree Pipits, and single Wheatear and Whinchat were poor return for such effort. No Yellow Wagtails, few warblers, it really was a struggle. Mid-September saw me return to Canons Farm and be instantly rewarded with good numbers of chats, plus both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers. And then there was an unforgettable day in which 10,000 mixed hirundines streamed through - maybe the old place was trying to tell me something... Spotted Flycatcher, Canons Farm, September Whinchat, Canons Farm, September I even partook in a most uncharacteristic ornithological act, that of twitching a bird at Beddington! There were mock faintings from the birders pre

The birds in Spring 2017

Common Redstart, Priest Hill, April Well I did put a lot of effort in locally, honest! For a change and to 'bird off piste' I adopted an area of abandoned playing fields between Banstead and Ewell known as Priest Hill. It has recently been handed over to the Surrey Wildlife Trust to manage, although there is not an awful lot that can be done bird-wise, save fence off areas from the hordes of dog-walkers and their canine friends in an attempt to protect the handful of Skylarks that breed there. Almost daily visits throughout the spring did produce a few passage migrants, most notably Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler, several Common Redstarts, plenty of Wheatears and a very healthy population of Common Whitethroats were in song throughout mid-April and into the summer, with the odd Lesser Whitethroat for good measure. I neglected Canons Farm, but did manage to bump into a Ring Ouzel on May Day. Northern Wheatear, Priest Hill, May Common Wh

Uber plant challenge

I do like to have set aims at the start of each year - small projects if you like. They don't ever become all-consuming affairs, more like amusing side-shows. This year saw me adopt Priest Hill as a birding patch, which, at times, was rewarding. So what for 2018? I first started to look at plants in earnest in 1998. I had dabbled before, mainly at Dungeness. The years that followed saw me get fully into all things botanical and culminated in far-flung trips to enjoy the best that Britain has to offer, from the mountain-tops of Scotland, to the Lizard peninsula coast, and the dry Breckland heaths. As much as I still regularly search for plants locally I have become lazy. My identification skills have lessened as I tend not to check difficult groups and have largely shied away from grasses, sedges and rushes. Well, that's where the 2018 project comes in. My Uber patch (map above) will act as the defined area of my botanical year/challenge. I have broken this up into define

Moths - the best from elsewhere in 2017

Mothing away from the back garden was limited to my Dungeness excursions and one splendid day spent on the Wiltshire chalk downs. As much as 'lifers' are not the be-all-and-end-all of recording, they are undoubtably welcome, and all featured here (bar the Death's-head) were exactly that. Death's-head Hawk-moth - Dungeness, Kent, May. Found resting on the wall of a beach dwelling Purple Cloud - Dungeness, Kent, May. Trapped by Bob Arnfield at the Long Pits. Cistus Forester - Pewsey Downs, Wiltshire, June. Quite a few on the wing Red-headed Chestnut, Dungeness, Kent, October. In the same MV as a Cosmopolitan. Spoladea recurvalis, Littlestone, Kent, October. A rather smart migrant pyralid. Sword-grass, New Romney, Kent, October. The first Kent record since the 1960s

Winter beech complete

My painting of the winter beech woodland is complete. It is getting on for A3 in size, so is quite large, and it needs a close viewing to capture the detail, which is partially lost in the image above. I'm now averaging about one painting a year - maybe I ought to try and up that output in 2018. Not only does creating artwork keep me usefully busy, it is also wonderfully restful. Go on, pick up a paintbrush and have a go!

The back garden moths of 2017

Yes, it's that time again, a look back at the natural history highlights of the past year - a Godsend to the frequent blogger who may just be running out of things to bore you all rigid with. It has undoubtably been a good year for moths - at least for the back garden, which after 30 years of recording still manages to surprise and entertain. I continued to try and get to grips with the micros, with some success, including a couple of 'good for Surrey' species: Phtheochroa sodaliana, feeds on Buckthorn, local on Surrey chalky soils Blastobasis rebeli, an adventive species and the second Surrey record New macro additions included these most welcome visitors: Clifton Nonpareil, part of a nationwide surge in records Scallop Shell, is there a more finely marked moth out there? Scarlet Tiger - still very scarce in the county and a big surprise during a hot spell in mid-June Yellow-legged Clearwing - along with Orange-tailed, enticed to a pheromone lu

Flying torpedo

With the continuing presence of Hawfinches, and there being no way of knowing when such numbers will grace us with such site fidelity again, I returned to Headley Heath for a spot of Coccothraustes worship. Again, no other birders were present, so I had the far valleys to myself. Arriving at 13.20hrs it was but twenty minutes before three flew in, and in the following two hours they were backed up by several other encounters, including a flock of four. The total of 12 suggests that the Headley birds are finally moving away. To sit in such glorious valleys and have these fat cigar / heavy torpedo shaped birds, triangular of wing and generous of wing bar, fly overhead and giving, at times, intimate views, are moments to remember. One bright male sat in a tree top for well over ten minutes, away from camera range but well within that of binoculars. He positively shone out in the afternoon gloom. It might be some time before we witness these numbers again...

This the season to be grumpy

I'm not anti-Christmas. That is, I'm not anti-Christmas as in it being used as a public holiday and for family get-togethers. Having been a life-long atheist I do still feel a little uneasy about using a religious festival as an excuse to 'eat, drink and be merry' - I don't subscribe to the Dawkin's school of belittling believers. I respect one's right to adhere to a belief system of choice. How and when the marketing people turned the birth of Jesus into a reason to put on weight, get pissed and waste lots of money I'm not sure, but they've done a good job in brainwashing us to do so. When our girls were little ones during the 1990s, we too fell into the consumer trap. We must have spent hours trying to hunt down the most wanted toys (this was pre-Internet) and joined in the obscene overspending on everything from gifts, food, drink, decorations, trees, crackers.... and making sure that we had those extra little things that you cannot do without a

Missing in action

The past two days have seen visits to Canons Farm and Priest Hill. Although neither habitats are 'birdy' by nature - they lack water for a start - the small number of birds seen at both sites was concerning. As seems to be the way of 21st century birding, the commonest species recorded were Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow and Herring Gull, but even these were in depressed numbers. The 'missing in action' list was long, with a lack of tits, finches and thrushes most alarming - there were representatives present from each family, but in worryingly low numbers. Where are they? Not here, that's for sure. Away from the birding hot-spots our bird numbers are in free fall. Whereas sorting through and counting large finch flocks used to be a 'given', my pulse now quickens if I come across one, such is their perceived rarity. Any larks and pipits huddle together in modest clumps, not strewn across the hinterland so that you kick them up with every few steps. A walk along