Thursday, 27 December 2018

2019 projects

It's always good to have a few projects on the go. As much as aimless, unformed wandering around in the world of natural history is more than acceptable, I do like a framework to be in place. So, in no particular order, here are my projects for next year. Others may be added.

Surrey v Northumberland patch challenge in which I will take on Stewart Sexton in a straightforward birding competition, using our local areas to see who can reach the highest percentage of our personal historical totals. I will have two totals - Uber and mini-uber. The higher one will be submitted.

Sussex and Surrey plant hit list - a trawl through the literature and a leaning on local botanist's knowledge will be employed to set up a number of botanical targets within these two fair counties.

Local allotment bio blitz, just round the corner and a place where a few of the plot holders have set up an enviable local nature reserve. I have been granted a key and aim to visit throughout the year on a weekly basis to record some of the wildlife.

Wisley 'wild' plants - my sister has kindly gifted me a year's membership to the RHS. I already own Barry Phillip's guide to the wild and naturalised species to be found in the extensive Wisley grounds (a close RHS garden) so my entry to them  - to track down such desirable species as Purple Toothwort - will be free. Visits throughout the year.

Uber patch plants, keeping a list throughout the year, if for no other reason to make me keep practicing identifying critical groups. It is so easy to ignore crucifers and the like otherwise...

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Twitter moments of pleasure

Last Friday evening, as I was trawling through my Twitter feed, I was struck by the number of tweets that were looking back over the past year and picking out ornithological highlights - they were all of rare birds. Not one mentioned anything beyond rarity. In response I tweeted the following:

Why are so many birder’s highlights from 2018 purely of rarity? What of spectacle, intimate encounter and pure joy? Birding is more than the rare. Much more.

It was just a throwaway tweet, sent out there as much as a 'said-out-loud' thought to myself. The response to it has been remarkable - it has obviously struck a chord. As of noon today, 30 hours after it was sent, a total of 41,867 people have viewed it. There have been 1,459 total engagements. 809 Likes. 98 Retweets. And 91 Replies.

The replies have been fascinating. They have come from various parts of the world and have shared with me (and those linked to this particular thread) a multitude of thoughts and observations. There were only a few replies that suggested that my observation was flawed and that there was nothing wrong with choosing rarity as a highlight. In my defence I didn't say it was wrong, only that it seemed a shame to be the overriding criteria used in choosing them. The vast majority of those who replied did so not only to agree with me, but to also share their own moments of spectacle, intimacy and joy. Here are just a few chosen at random:

nothing beat the hawfinches in 2018.

Swifts nesting in our eaves - first time in 10 years here.

Every day's a highlight. And got another 10 of 'em to go before this year is out...

Local vismig for me, nothing ever rare but seeing birds streaming SW is definitely a highlight

The woodpecker pair that decided that our dead pear tree was perfect for their brood. They are welcome back 2019

I'm currently being tickled by the amount of Northern Cardinals in my parents yard in Ohio. There are SO MANY and I love them all.

Starlings on a new feeder in the garden for the first time. Pure joy.

It has been a delight to receive these replies and to share with the posters their moments of pleasure during 2018. Thank you all.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018


Assuming that I survive until 06.00hrs tomorrow morning I will reach 60 years of age. That's a proper age, although 70 sounds like real old age now that 60 has been reached. Maybe, if I do indeed make 70, then 'proper' old age will be considered as 80. Time will tell.

I'm very lucky to be here still. Chemotherapy was my saving grace, with 1997 - 2004 being characterised by frequent stays in hospital, drips, chemical infusions, operations, stem cell harvests, bone marrow plugs, intrathecal injections, hair loss (no weight loss though!), finger and toe nails dropping off, nausea, discomfort, a reliance on Countdown to get through afternoons of uncertainty... but, because of the expertise and dedication of the staff of the NHS, and my wife and daughters' support, all of those negative experiences were not in vain. The way this current shambles of a government treat our National Health Service (and much more besides) makes my blood boil.  Cherish it and protect it!!

What next for me? Memory loss? Weaker bladder? Having falls? Werther's Originals? Fur-lined slippers? Whatever comes my may I will try and combat it with more birding, mothing and planting. But, if it all runs out tomorrow then I cannot complain. I must have used up quite a few of my 'cat's lives' already...

ND&B will be taking a break until the New Year (unless something unexpected happens). I do hope that the holiday period is kind to you. Thanks for visiting and all the best for 2019.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Benign birding

Late afternoon yesterday on Banstead Downs was one for the aesthete, not necessarily the birder. A beautiful, still and golden end to the day was ample reward enough and covered up the lack of birds - a small number of thrushes coming into roost was about it. A number of Hazel trees (below) were seemingly sculptured with golden thread, resplendent with catkins and a few remaining nuts.

So, daydreams of owls, shrikes and other desirable finds were put on hold as I took in what was before me - a peaceful, if cold, wonderland.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Aug - Dec: photographic highlights

To end up this lazy blogger's review of the year I thought a few of the more arresting photographs would suffice. They are all taken with a bridge camera, so if you want to see 'big boy's' stuff, go and visit Jono (Wanstead Birder) or Martin (Ploddingbirder). You will find them both under the 'Worthy Blogs' panel to the right.

AUGUST: Dungeness
This Beautiful Marbled has been on my wish list ever since I first became aware of it back in 2004. Although still very rare, the number of moths being recorded seems to be on the increase. It didn't disappoint.
SEPTEMBER: Scotney, Kent
Only just Kent, as this Slender Hare's-ear was found growing by the roadside just a few metres from the county boundary sign. A more modest plant would be hard to find, but has bucket loads of charm when you really look.
AUGUST: Dungeness
This American Black Tern decided to make the RSPB Burrowe's Pit home for over a week. The dusky flanks, dusky underwing and smaller size did make the bird easy to pick out although took a great deal of  birding know-how from the finder, Stephen Message. This image is here just to prove that even at distance, the humble bridge camera can be useful.
SEPTEMBER: Charmouth, Dorset
I spent a few days getting to know the cliff tops, under cliffs and beaches of this under-watched part of the coast. The weather was not conducive to great birding, with a Cattle Egret being the highlight.  Stunning scenery though.
OCTOBER: Denbigh's, Surrey
I did quite a bit of vis-migging in the county, with two heavy thrush days which resulted in 2,000+ and 4,000+ movements of Redwings (at Juniper Bottom and Banstead respectively). On this particular morning the fog was laying in the low ground between the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge, making for an ethereal dawn. There was little vis-big to back it up, but with such an unforgettable vista that was soon forgiven.
OCTOBER: Whipsiderry, Cornwall
Maybe one of the better bird portraits that I have been able to produce. This Corn Bunting was very tame and kept still!!
NOVEMBER: The Brooks, Kent
A high tide, strong southerly wind and weak shingle bank conspired to produce this spectacular breach, with the sea poring into the hinterland. Luckily I was stood on higher ground - just!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

June-July: the sun has got its hat on

Summertime lived up to all of the hype and billing. The sun shone, the rain stayed away and the temperature soared. It was a good time to trawl the countryside for plants, butterflies and moths. Instead of remembering to pack the waterproofs it was sunscreen and water that you needed to make sure that you had onboard.

The garden MV is at its most productive at this time of year, and in line with previous summers a number of new species for the site appeared, most notable of which were Great Oak Beauty, Kent Black Arches, The Mocha (above) and Oak Processionary. Moth numbers, although not at levels that were enjoyed 20-30 years ago, seemed to be a bit higher than those of the past few years. Another lepidopteran highlight occurred at the end of July, when a single Silver-washed Fritillary alighted a back garden buddleia (below) - the first recorded here and indicative of a number of species that were wandering from their breeding sites in the hot weather. It was also a good summer to find Purple Emperors, my own meetings with this most charismatic of butterflies taking place in Banstead Wood and Juniper Bottom.

I was successful in seeing a couple of species of flower that had, so far in my botanical ramblings, eluded me. First up was Wild Liquorice, where a healthy number of plants were present on a bare chalky slope above Brockham Quarry (below). And then my search for White Horehound was successfully completed on the Sussex chalk at Arundel Park (bottom). I was also delighted to track down two local/rare species of Bedstraw close to home - Slender (on Colley Hill) and Wall (in a car park at Merstham).

Monday, 10 December 2018

May: in clover

May started modestly weather-wise, but then from the second week onwards set the tone for the rest of the summer, with largely warm (even hot) and sunny weather. The birding fix came largely from a mid-month stay at Dungeness. As in the previous few years, this time of year on the peninsula can almost guarantee the rare and the scarce, and 2018 was no different.

A flighty Hoopoe at Galloway's (18th), Bee-eater and Kentish Plover (20th) and Honey Buzzard (23rd) were slightly overshadowed by a Terek Sandpiper at Rye Harbour (19th, pictured above). The Kentish Plover incidentally was the first to be recorded at Dungeness since 2005 - this was a species that I expected to se annually 'back in the day'. However, as good as they were, none of these birds was my avian highlight. That accolade is bestowed to an afternoon off-shore movement (on 21st) of terns, with an easterly passage of 1700 'Commic' (the vast majority close in were Common with a few Arctic), 81 Black and 2 Little, with a bonus 'spooned' Pomarine Skua.

It was also a tremendous time for botanising. The number of clover species to be found in the greater Dungeness area was high, with Burrowing, Knotted, Suffocated, Bird's-foot, Rough and Haresfoot paving the way for, in my opinion, the best - my long-awaited first ever Clustered (below).

The peninsula was awash with colour - millions of tiny flowers on Sheep's Sorrel painted the shingle a rusty-red with pink floods of Thrift for contrast. The images below hardly do the spectacle justice.

Back in Surrey there was one place that I just had to visit, and that was the beech-clad slopes on Mickleham Downs just above the Cockshott car park. In the previous winter, whilst out Hawfinching, I had stumbled across a swathe of the dead stalks of Bird's-nest Orchid. I promised to return in the early summer to count how many were actually flowering. Zig-zagging up and down the steep ground provided an answer - a minimum of 2,000. There were further, smaller colonies further along the ridge and no doubt others to be discovered.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

March - April: The irruption continues

March carried on where February had left off with hundreds of Hawfinches. The epicentre of the Coccothraustes action was still the Bramblehall Wood - Ashurst Rough area, although birds were spilling out into Juniper Bottom, Mickleham Downs and Box Hill. The 'other' Hawfinch gathering, west of the Mole Gap and centred around Dorking Wood, continued to host high numbers also. Tuesday 13 March was to witness the high point in the irruption, during an early morning visit to Bramblehall Wood,

I was in the Whitehill Carpark by 06.15hrs and within ten minutes found myself staring across the field and into the tree tops of Bramblehall Wood. I was frankly surprised to see, at this early hour, at least 200 Hawfinches already on show (part of the flock pictured above). They were quite motionless and, I think it safe to assume, had just emerged from a very close roosting site. Over the following hour more birds arrived (mainly from the direction of Ashurst Rough) to join them. From time to time numbers left the tree tops to dive into the wall of Yew beneath, birds being observed moving amongst the foliage as they fed, barging through the vegetation. A flock of c100 then took to the air and headed purposefully northwards along the tree-line, appearing to disappear towards High Ashurst Outdoor Centre, not to be seen again. The rest of the birds then moved off southwards, then settled some 400m further along. At 07.15 things started to get very busy indeed. It began with a lose flock of 200 birds that came in over my head and circled the birds that were already present in front of me. Those in the trees then also took to the air - not the 100+ that I had assumed were present but at least 250 of them - and I was witness to a kaleidoscope of Hawfinches, a blizzard of wing-bars, tail-tips and excited calling. 450+ birds in all. Plus, there were 50+ birds behind me, up in the Yews. Together with the 100 that had left northwards earlier in the morning that made for a minimum of 600. Incredible. And do you know what happened to this mass of Hawfinches? They just melted away. Gone with barely a whimper, to be consumed by that dense wall of Yew trees. All became very quiet indeed.

The rest of the month continued to produce high counts (550 at Bramblehall on 20th), and as March ticked on by new satellite sites started to produce Hawfinches as well. There were several days when I wandered far and wide 'hoovering' up these birds - 60 here, 20 there - it was unforgettable birding. I honestly believe that within a three mile radius of the Mole Gap, centred on Mickleham, there were a minimum of 1,000 Hawfinches. A minimum. But it had to end. By the first week of April there had been a big clear-out (200 on 1st, dropping to just three on the 10th at Bramblehall), and then... silence. I must admit to feeling a sense of relief and much as one of loss. If you would like to read more about this incredible event I have produced two documents, both of which can be found in the tab called 'Hawfinch Corner', top right of this post.

The rest of April could have been excused if there was a sense of the anti-climatic about it, but a phone call from my Beddington chums on 15th had me dashing down to my old stomping ground to feast my eyes on the first BSF Hoopoe for close on fifty years (below). A short break at Dungeness mid-month had plenty of highlights, with an hour-and-a-half's skywatching on 19th producing a southerly movement of Common Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and Sparrowhawks together with a bonus Red Kite, Goshawk and three Hawfinches. With the number of moth species and flowering plants on the increase my birding eye was switching onto other things. I awaited the summer with anticipation.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Another's birding year

My very good friend Mark Hollingworth has joined in with the spirit of 'looking back over the year' to select his birding highlights from 2018. One of the great things about Mark is that, even after 60+ years of birding, his enthusiasm has not dimmed in the slightest, and I think it's fair to say that he gets even more out of his birding now than he ever has done. So, here they are, in chronological order (with a few extra bits of info from myself in brackets).

19 April Dungeness 3 Hawfinch, female Goshawk and 20 Manx Shearwater.
(I was lucky enough to be present for this lot, the first two species occurred during a notable 'skywatch' from the RSPB reserve and the Shearwaters were sitting on the sea off of the fishing boats  - the first time that either of us had seen this species doing so at Dungeness)

Late April Dungeness Mark's sister ticking Arctic Skua and 3 Manx Shearwater with close views.
(Other people's joy is infectious, and is shared by those present. Mark particularly enjoys this aspect of birding). 

2 May Dungeness 420 Manx Shearwater
(Part of a DBO record-day total of 472 that passed the point in 11 hours of sea-watching).

September Galicia, Spain 7 Nightjar on road on the way to a dawn sea-watch.
September Galicia, Spain 39,000 Manx Shearwater in an afternoon.
September Galicia, Spain 2 Balearic, 2 Manx and a Little Shearwater together. 
(Mark has spent the past five autumn's enjoying a few weeks sea-watching at Estaca de Bares. He was accompanied by the King of the Marsh, Chris Philpott. You can read more about this amazing headland by clicking here.)

20 October Dungeness 2050 Mediterranean Gulls.
(Another record day total, and one that came out of the blue, as the sea off of the peninsula was, unusually, adopted as home by this loose flock of Mediterranean Gulls over several days).

5 December Dungeness Big auk movement that included 7 Puffin, plus Grey Phalarope, wildfowl and divers.
(The sea-watcher at Dungeness can never rest, can never pack up the scope or sit back at home resting on their laurels. The weather conditions did not suggest that anything out of the ordinary would occur, with the Puffin a rare species at Dungeness, being barely annual).

Thursday, 6 December 2018

ND&B 2018 January - February

2018 was, quite simply, the year of the Hawfinch. After an unprecedented autumn passage of this big-billed finch, and the subsequent settling down of modest numbers to winter, I started the year by trawling the yew-filled slopes of the North Downs and along the northerly spurs of high ground. A small flock was soon located on the western side of Mickleham Downs (after several blank returns), with frequent visits revealing that a minimum of 18 birds to be present. In any other year this would have been Hawfinch Nirvana...

January 29th was the start of something special. An early morning wander around the woodland at Juniper Top was enlivened by at least 70 Hawfinches in the bare canopy. I suspected that there might be more, so returned the following day. After relocating the flock with ease,

"the calling became incessant, a white-noise of 'ticks' and 'sips' - it could be described at times as a frenzy. I stood underneath the tall conifers and watched as the birds moved further into the woods. By now I was convinced that there were 'three figures' involved, but needed to be able to get a better viewpoint to make a meaningful count. I lost the flock for maybe 10 minutes, but located it (thanks to the calling) some 200m further on. As I was facing into the sun (and wanted to get on the leading edge of the flock) I skirted round the birds and hid at the edge of a clearing that was lined with beech and yew. My timing was ideal as the leading birds started to appear in front of me, moving through the canopy not unlike a tit-flock (or rainforest bird wave!) This enabled me to get an accurate count - groups of 10-20, singles, one clot of 40 - my mind adding up, careful not to recount any bird that might double-back. After eighty had moved through I became a touch excited, then 90, the magic 100... but still they came. The birds were moving directly over me and to my left, heading deeper into the wood. It was now that a single flock of 35 announced themselves, having been hidden further down the eastern slope and attached themselves to this magnificent mother ship of Hawfinches. By now the noise was at its height. I was experiencing a 360 degree immersion. The flock slowly moved away, melting into the woodland and out of sight. My notebook read 135. I know that I couldn't possibly have seen every bird that went through, even though my viewpoint was quite good - there was too much vegetation in the way to see them all. So that count of 135 is really too low...

But I could still hear the odd bird calling, back where I had started, so quickly made my way there, where a further 30 birds were found. These were certainly not part of the flock. And finally, after leaving these birds happily diving in and out of yew trees, a further flock of 40-50 birds were on the edge of the wood at the very northern end of Juniper Top. These birds, just like the others, were finding Yews to their liking, frequently perching on top of nearby beech and oak allowing for easy observation. So, how many? There could not have been any fewer than 200"

This was the start of what was, quite frankly, some of the most amazing birding that I have had the pleasure to enjoy over the past 45 years. Further searches beyond the Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough - Box Hill area led me to Bramblehall Wood. I'd never heard of it and I doubt that many other birders had either, but that was soon to change. I first stared onto its yew-infested slopes on 4th February and quickly located 20 Hawfinch, with a visit two days later yielding 47 birds. At the same time I checked out a number of sites to the west of the Mole Gap (where I had success with the species several years before) and was delighted to find them present in fair numbers. If it had all stopped there and then I would have been satiated. But it was just the start.

Bramblehall Wood returned a count of 170 on 10th February and, in the company of Peter Alfrey and Kevin Guest on February 14th,

"the birds were flying above and alongside the wood, all fat avian missiles being propelled by white-barred wings, the finches almost collapsing with their front heavy load before another burst of wingbeats kept them in the air. Our counting quickly went beyond 140 and we started to believe that there may well be a couple of hundred before us. When they started to gather in the same area we were able to make a careful and accurate count. Our viewpoint was good. We counted together so as not to over- or under-cook the final total, which was 260."

These counts had started to entice plenty of other birders to visit these woods, and many returned home having feasted their eyes upon them. Timing was, however crucial, as by mid-morning they could largely disappear. On February 17th I broke the 300 barrier:

"I then had one of those spine-tingling moments. A sudden and loud 'whoosh' materialised above my head - not unlike the noise you hear when a Starling murmuration changes direction - and I was aware of a dark blur in front of me. It was a flock of c150 Hawfinch, spooked from the Yews around me. They flew back across to the wood, to be joined by c50 that were perched up there. All alighted out of view. Within five minutes more birds joined the hidden flock from the north. At least 100 flew in making a minimum of 300."

The following day saw another check, west of the Mole Gap, where 115 were at Dorking Wood with a further 50+ near by. February 22nd saw an upping of the ante - Bramblehall Wood (420), Dorking Wood (250), Freehold Wood (18), Polesden Lacey (13) and Ranmore Common (4) which meant that either side of the Mole Gap there were at least 700+ Hawfinches! I was as happy as a Hawfinch in a berry-laden Yew tree. These numbers remained present throughout the rest of the month - I could have been excused for thinking that these numbers must be at their peak - but I was to be proved wrong. You will have to wait for the March-April review to find out just how high the totals reached.

There was another ornithological event that occurred which took away my focus from the Hawfinches for just the one day, that being a hard weather movement in response to the bitter easterly winds courtesy of the weather system that was christened the 'Beast from the East'. I stood in a snowy field at Canons Farm throughout the morning of February 28th and watched a south to south-westerly movement of Lapwing (617) and Golden Plover (170). Sobering but enthralling.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Frozen chalk

Sometimes it is the simplest of things that can arrest you. A frosty morning had largely been burnt off by the warm sunshine, but there were one or two frost hollows on Epsom Downs that are just that touch colder than the surrounding land. Whilst walking across a mixed ploughed/stubbly field, a twinkling from the ground alerted me to the iced chunks of chalk on the surface, not unlike large un-cut diamonds. It was some sight, a veritable carpet of jewels laid out across the Surrey downland.

Bird wise it was a fair session, with a minimum of 135 Skylarks in the Epsom/Walton Downs area (including a flock of 70), plus a surprise flushed Common Snipe and seven Red-legged Partridges. Thrush numbers have fallen even further.

STOP PRESS I've just noticed that this is ND&B's 200th post of the year - where does all this drivel come from? Four out of the past five years have now hit the 200+ posts. I obviously have too much time on my hands, suffer from Tourette's of the keyboard and have quite clearly developed an unhealthy need to connect with the virtual world. Same again next year then...

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Not quite yet

What's at the end of that rainbow then? A Waxwing invasion? More Hawfinches? An Ivory Gull? Or, heaven forbid, a Wallcreeper? December is a strange month for me. I cannot help but take my foot off the pedal a bit. Fewer plants to find. There are moths on the wing still, but the garden MV is not at its most productive. And as for the birds, it can be a great time, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse, but I find myself starting to 'rest up' for the festive season and preparing for the start of the new (2019) campaign. Looking back at the year just gone becomes a pastime, one that most bloggers turn into the dreaded 'Review of the Year'. Yes, that is coming, but not quite yet.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Stormy Charmouth

Do you remember the days when a sober suited gentleman from the Met Office would casually say that we were in for a "bit of wet and windy weather"? It seems as if the 2018 version is to personify the approaching weather system (Storm Boris, Storm Satan) and give it an historical context (lowest low pressure system since Storm Vlad the Impaler back in March 2018!!).

Well, we recently enjoyed a bit of wet and wind, which coincided with Katrina and I spending a few days at Charmouth in Dorset. As compensation, yesterday was sunny and ridiculously mild, which meant that we were able to survey the aftermath - a dead adult Gannet (below), flocks of Rock (bottom) and Meadow Pipits feeding on the beach detritus and plenty of waves crashing into the soft cliffs adding to coastal erosion (above). There's no denying it, an angry sea is a spectacular sight (and, safely on land, a thing of joy).

Although not a birding trip I did manage to have a good look around that provided highlights of a Great Northern Diver heading east, a Kingfisher on the River Char and a tame Cormorant that allowed close approach (below). Shame it wasn't something more noteworthy, but just look at that bronze sheen and green eye! A single like this is better than the thousands at Dungeness that just give the place an untidy look, not to mention fishing the life out of the RSPB's Burrowes Pit.

Once again Charmouth gives a peek into what a rewarding place it is ornithologically. A small band of birders do watch over it and are handed regular rewards by the birding Gods. I wouldn't be surprised if a 'big one' appears there in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Fair-weather birder

I used to go out birding in all sorts of weather - pouring rain, heavy snow, gale-force winds and heatwave. As the saying goes, 'there is no such thing as poor weather, just inappropriate clothing'. But I now have to admit, even when wearing appropriate clothing there is poor weather that tips over into the 'not worth going out birding' category.

Take yesterday on Walton Downs. A foggy dawn. Looks pretty (see above) but cuts down visibility to the point that birds are reduced to soft shapes, although their calls are still present for the observer (or, more accurately, the hearer) to have a good idea to what is about. But anything at mid-distance is lost and avian activity is reduced. So, I thought, come back later.

But later (and not much later as it turned out) the fog lifted to be replaced by a cold, gusting, wet and dark suite of weather. I suppose because I can largely choose when to go birding that I have the luxury of turning round and going back indoors - had this been the one day in the week when I was able to set myself loose into the great outdoors, then maybe I would have bitten the bullet and strode onwards and got wet. But now I have to admit to it. I'm becoming a fair weather birder.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Where have they gone?

Three out of the last four evenings have been spent on the Epsom/Walton Downs border, with owls and roosts in mind. I've drawn a blank on owls, but the roost situation is a lot more interesting. On each visit 400-500 Jackdaws have left the woods to head northwards and appear to be roosting in the copse that is located alongside the race course. But it is the thrushes that have held the most interest - on Friday it was quite a spectacle, with flocks arriving from the west and pitching down in woodland around Juniper Hill. A minimum of 850 Redwing, 16 Fieldfare and 12 Blackbird came in, some of the flocks numbering 100-200. It was a joy to see them come down from high and swoop around the canopy before settling. I returned for seconds yesterday, but apart from c100 thrushes that was my lot. And this evening even fewer showed up. So, where have they gone? Were they birds moving through, stopping over briefly before heading on to wintering grounds elsewhere? Are they still around, but using a different, local roost?  Birding is never dull, even when it is walking distance from your front door.

Friday, 23 November 2018

The great Midrips boulder fall!

Back in 2011 I posted the following while discussing the injuries that I had befallen in the quest of birds...

Twice this winter I've fallen flat on my backside whilst walking the streets looking for Waxwings. Both times ice was the culprit. No doubt the combination of looking up and not down resulted in my not noticing a virtual ice-rink that was set before me.

My record at falling over when birding stretches back many years, and some of them were spectacular. In Malaysia I completed a full somersault on a treacherous jungle trail at Taman Negara. I lay on the muddy floor winded, optics yards away, convinced I had broken an arm. Fortunately I hadn't (which is just as well, as shortly afterwards a Hooded Pitta appeared). At Dungeness, I fell in a six-foot deep ditch while night-time wader ringing; ran into a metal post at thigh height ripping my jeans (but luckily not my scrotum); got tangled up with a wire hawser that spun me over to land on my neck. My falls at Pagham Harbour generally involved thick, gloopy mud that sucked my boots in and unbalanced me.

This brought a smile to my face as, since then, my most dramatic fall of all has occurred which I am yet to share with you.

In May of 2017 a pair of Black-winged Stilts were found by Martin C at The Midrips and Wicks in East Sussex (just shy of the Kent border). This area is often off limits as it is part of an army firing range, but on this particular day they were not lobbing shells into the shingle. The best way of access is by driving to the edge of Camber, parking in a large lay-by and climbing up onto a shingle and earth wall that acts as a sea defence and pathway. This wall leads you to the Midrips and Wicks pits, BUT, due to the presence of the military it is blocked off by a high gate, be-decked with copious amounts of barbed wire. However, as there is a public right of way at non-firing times, access is granted by taking a flight of wooden stairs down to the beach from where a short walk along the shingle can be made before climbing back up the earth wall and onto the footpath, circumnavigating the gate. When we arrived the tide was fully in - there was no beach to walk down on to - so we were faced with having to find another way around the high gate. On the seaward side had been placed a pile of large boulders that leant up against the gate and fell away into the sea, with a low barbed wire fence alongside. We chose to jump across this obstacle course... you can probably see where this is leading.

We all made it across (a merry band from Dungeness) and saw the stilts very well indeed. Our return was without incident until we reached the boulder field. I strapped my scope and tripod onto the back of my rucksack and started to tiptoe across them. The weight on my back shifted, and, as I took my next step, lost balance. I knew I was going to fall and for a sickening split second found myself surveying the ground on which I was about to meet - large uneven boulders with deep gaps between them.


I landed first on my bare knees (I was wearing shorts), then my elbows (I was holding my binoculars close to my chest to protect them), then felt a sharp pain in my right arm. I had half fallen into the barbed wire fence, with all of my weight on the skewered arm. The weight on my back stopped me from getting up so I was pinned as fast as an insect in a museum. I couldn't move despite frantic struggling and the barbs on the fencing were just getting deeper into my skin and tearing at it. As much as I tried to take the weight off of my trapped arm the way I had fallen meant that gravity was deciding otherwise. Yes, it hurt.

Fortunately my companions came to the rescue. Martin C was first by my side, taking my rucksack and scope off my back and extracting my arm from the fence. I was helped up and guided across the remaining boulders. Miraculously nothing was broken. My knees and arms were a collection of cuts and bruises which were treated by Owen L and Gill H when back at the cars. I was little shaken but thankful that my injuries were superficial - my leg could have gone into one of the gaps and any forward fall would have spelt a broken leg at best. My face and eyes were but inches from the barbed wire and were spared. My binoculars and scope unscathed.

That evening, back at home, I felt as if I'd gone a round with Anthony Joshua, but by the following morning I had only the impressive bruises and cuts to show for my ordeal. A tetanus jab later and all was over. Last week was the first time that I had returned to those boulders, and believe me, when I crossed them I virtually crawled...

Thursday, 22 November 2018

A late surge of thrushes

A dawn arrival at Juniper Bottom saw a keen frost and good visibility. I trudged up the open slope towards Juniper Top but found my passage halted several times by flocks of Redwing that were passing overhead in an easterly direction. Half way up I stopped to witness (and count) what was obviously a heavy thrush movement. And here I largely stood for the next four and a half hours.

All the birds were arriving from the west and following the line of the valley (running from Norbury Park to Headley) and leaving east to north-east. They were generally in good sized flocks (20-200). A few Fieldfares were with them, with some flocks being mixed. The only other species seemingly involved were Chaffinch (55) and Brambling (10).

After 09.30hrs the movement lessened but was still obvious. Visibility started to worsen, with a misty horizon and pockets of light fog. And then, as if an agreement had been reached by the thrushes, the flocks, instead of moving on and out of the area, started to drop out of the sky and settle on the wooded hillsides. Some of these birds undoubtably carried on after a feed or rest, but many remained in the general area up until the time I left for home. Any scan of the valley produced thrushes in the air. Final totals: Redwing (2,070 east, 500+ on deck); Fieldfare (192 east, 10 on deck).

Thanks to the newly formed Surrey Vismig WhatsApp group it was possible to appreciate the localised nature of this movement. NE to E movement of Redwings was detected at Thorncombe Street, Ockley and Pewley Down but not at Clandon or Beddington SF. The numbers at Juniper Bottom/Top were by far the largest. What an exhilarating morning to be out birding.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A quiet winter

Part 15 October - December 1976

Beddington SF continued to be my birding destination of choice. The hot summer had become nothing but a pleasant memory but the summer migrants were still hanging on, some of them very late indeed, with both Reed Warbler and Whinchat (October 31st) and two Ring Ouzel (November 7th). The changeable weather slowly morphed into that of a typical winter, with the dull and drizzly mornings coming out on top of a the few cold and crisp ones that came along. The birdlife at the farm took on a steady and familiar guise, with Green Sandpiper, Jack Snipe and Water Pipit ever present and helping to enliven the otherwise mundane visits. But regardless of the quietness of the ornithological landscape I still retrieved my bicycle from the shed before it got light and cycled to Beddington full of hope. Each visit was a dawn to dusk vigil, a mixture of cold hands, wet clothes, wellington boots, dead burdock heads sticking to jeans, the leaping of dykes, splashing through flooded fields, the emptying of thermos flasks and the companionship of others who chose to spend their time in a similar manner. There was a non-avian soundtrack to a Sunday visit, a mixture of church bells, shouting footballers, neighing horses and motor bikes - the latter courtesy of trespassing lads who practiced their Evil Knievel manoeuvres on the earth banks of the settling beds. On some days we also heard the sirens of the ambulances that came to retrieve them.

I was accepted as a trainee ringer, and joined Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood as a member of the BSF ringing group. We would normally set up single panel mist nets in the dried out sludge lagoons that were covered in dead vegetation, mainly Fat-hen. This is where most of the passerines were attracted to and we were able to trap Tree Sparrows, Greenfinches, Skylarks and Linnets with some success. Another area that we targeted was the screenings - a place where farm workers dumped the material that had been sieved from the pre-treated sewage. It was a ripe mixture of mainly undigested matter, a concoction that was not only highly sought after by the birds but also many Brown Rats. We would flush tens of them as we walked through the nearby vegetation, something that I found repulsive.

My 18th birthday fell on 20th December and I was delighted when my parents gave me a pair of Carl Zeiss Jena 10x50 binoculars as a gift. I have rarely felt so proud as when I took them to the sewage farm for their first outing. They also accompanied me for the last birding trip of the year, on New Year's Eve, to Amberley Wild Brooks (where I saw my first White-fronted Goose), Chichester Gravel Pits, Pagham Harbour and Selsey Bill. Through their lenses they helped me to observe Avocet, Water Rail, Red-breasted Merganser, Smew, and Slavonian Grebe. They were to help me see much, much more in the coming years.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Earthstars and Apps

Our neighbours asked me to look at some fungi that they had growing in a flower bed. There were several of them that I tentatively identified as a species of Earthstar and, after looking in a few field guides believe is most probably Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex). It is apparently the commonest Earthstar but I could be wrong.

Those of you that read yesterday's post may recall that I was pontificating on creating a WhatsApp group for Surrey birders who like a spot of visible migration. Well, the deed is done and we already have 20+ members. I need to acknowledge the help of younger daughter Jessica in showing me how to do so. My limitations with computers, software and Apps grows by the day...

Saturday, 17 November 2018

A modest wader passage

The morning was spent at Mogador, the hamlet of which, at 200m, is apparently one of the highest settlements in south-east England. I was scanning the skies just as it was getting light, and for the next two hours was able to watch a modest southerly passage, which included 365 Redwing, 91 Fieldfare, 6 Lapwing and a Common Snipe.

From keeping an eye on my Twitter feed, a number of other 'north downs' and associated higher ground sites also recorded waders on the move, albeit in modest numbers - Lapwing, Common Snipe, Golden Plover and Dunlin were the recorded species. What we lack in the county is a place where such observations can be seen, compared and studied. The only news gathering vehicle is a county page on the 'Going birding' website, which with all due respect is not being populated with much data. Maybe the vismiggers amongst us should set up a 'WhatsApp' group? Apart from an interest in what others are recording it would also act as an alert just in case one of our number might be missing out on a big movement.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Surrey v Northumberland Part 3

2018 still has a few weeks to run, but it isn't too early to cast one's eyes forward to next year and to plan for it. It's good to have projects in the pipeline and in some ways such things can add enjoyment and act as incentive to the time spent out in the field. And so, the first natural history project of 2019 can be revealed as...

Surrey v Northumberland (a tale of two patches.)

Stewart Sexton, (he of the most beautifully illustrated notebooks and a worthy blog) has agreed to a re-run of our two previous challenges - the results of which, I believe, is a score draw. Instead of straight forward annual totals, this time round we are going to compare the percentage that we record of our personal local patch lists. I'm going to enter two patches (if Stewart agrees). In reality one is just a smaller part of the other.

In the uber-patch (see explanation in box above) I have recorded 213 species since 1974. At times I have chased birds within it and, for long periods of time, have not. By my reckoning this can be broken down as such: 122 species that are almost guaranteed, 61 bonus species and 30 that I have only recorded 1-3 times. Within this patch are the two best local birding sites - Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SP.

The second is the mini-uber patch, created as a walk-from-home area. This is largely populated by ornithologically challenging habitat, although I have recorded 130 species within it. There is plenty of potential here.

Why enter the two patches? Well, part of me likes the idea of not clogging up the roads with the car and a desire to champion local birding as an antidote to the blind action of many birders who just follow the latest rarity. That type of birding is not for me, although I do understand why some pursue such activities as I have done so myself in the past. Although there is plenty to find and discover on our doorsteps for many birders this is just not enough - but for me the mini-uber patch delivers this. However, I will also collate my larger Uber-patch totals for 2019 as there are so many wonderful places within it that deserve coverage, such as the Hawfinch haunts of earlier in the year - but to get a competitive percentage figure from this I will need to visit Beddington and Holmethorpe (and be nice to my BFBG key-holder friends!)

Up in Northumberland, Stewart's Howick area list stands at 200 (since 2010) at an average of 143.2 species per year. He may have coast, but my compensation comes in birding across a larger area and possibly a more varied habitat mosaic.

I'm already looking forward to it...

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Pipit roost

After last night's 'roost watch' I decided to visit another one of the local patches, Priest Hill, to see what might - or might not - be roosting. On arrival there were just a few Meadow Pipits (above) and Fieldfares mooching about, and it was quite hard work as I zig-zagged my way across the rank-grass meadows. Some respite came in the form of a Common Snipe, flushed from the largest paddock, my second record here, a dry site save for a few tiny ponds.

As the light started to fade the bird activity stepped up. There was a marked dribble of corvids north and a veritable flood of gulls north-west, heading towards the west London reservoirs. At the same time up to 50+ Fieldfare departed into the murk and the first of at least 40 Meadow Pipits started to arrive, dropping down into the long grass to roost.

As I left the site there was a gash of blood red on the western horizon, enough to light up a small bat that flew in a straight line, not dropping a wing beat, across the open grassland.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Belated evening discoveries

One of the joys of watching an area regularly is that you get to build up a picture of what occurs when, and how many birds are involved. But while it is understandable to think that, after several years of paying a patch a visit, you would have a very firm handle on such data, sometimes doing it differently can turn up unexpected results.

Epsom and Walton Downs today was a case in point. I most probably bird here 20-30 times a year, almost exclusively during fully formed daylight. Dawn and dusk visits are rare - in fact, apart from 'twitching' a Barn Owl a couple of years back, an end of daylight visit has not been made at all. After a couple of hours this morning (70+ Skylark, a handful of Fieldfare - pictured above) I returned to some high ground as night fell to scan the surrounding area for Barn Owl. Although I was not successful in this, a couple of roosts were discovered that I was unaware of. Firstly a Ring-necked Parakeet fly-line has been established, although I was too late to get a meaningful count, with up to 200 birds heading south in small groups. And then there was a gradual gathering of at least 650 Jackdaws, that took off in a noisy cloud when it was almost dark, and headed into the highest wood, seemingly settling although it was too dark to be sure. I will be back to count both throughout the winter. I should practice what I preach, as I always bang on to others that you should vary the timing of visits.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

So, how was the autumn for you?

As we come towards the end of yet another autumn, there are plenty of birders 'out there' who are summing up their birding experience - 'dull', 'poor' and 'disappointing' seem to be three of the most regularly recurring words used. I'm normally quite quick to sum up my feelings about what has gone on over any given period, but have strangely refrained from doing so this time round. So I gave this past autumn a thought and can only say that I've found it liberating. Let me explain.

Most autumn birding campaigns will be largely planned around the promise of falls, arrivals, visible migrations and scarce - even rare - birds. I'm just as guilty as the next person in doing so, but not this autumn. I wanted to bring in the changes, go to places that I knew little about and which were low on the ornithological radar. Admittedly, I did a couple of quick Dungeness visits, but short birding holidays at Charmouth (Dorset) and Porth (Cornwall) were undertaken, with both trips eye-openers to the possibilities on offer to a diligent and enthusiastic observer. I may not have found much of note, but that wasn't the purpose/aim - I got to know the places and surrounding areas to a level that I otherwise wouldn't have, and on any subsequent returns will do so with a sense of familiarity and anticipation.

Although we have lived at our current address since 1987, and have carried out regular sky-watches over the years, this is the first autumn when I have systematically conducted dawn vismig watches. The results were encouraging. A spectacular 4,000+ Redwing movement, Woodlark, Golden Plover, Crossbill, plenty of Brambling, Fieldfares and Chaffinches were ample reward.

And now to the map above - the Uberpatch - all of my regular birding sites since 1974. The shaded area is the mini-Uberpatch, constructed to concentrate bird study into a more manageable and meaningful area. This autumn has seen me embrace the whole more whole-heartedly than of late, no doubt bolstered by the Hawfinch event of earlier in the year. A couple of successful Beddington twitches (Spoonbill and Richard's Pipit) were the highlights, together with the adoption of one or two underwatched sites (more about those another time). My resolve is to bird the hell out of it all in 2019. As a part of that, I have entered into a competition with my 'virtual friend' Stewart Sexton. More details to follow...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Birding round the edges

A brief three-day stay in the Dungeness area was courtesy of the Hollingworth Hotel (fine whiskies and good music a speciality!) Unusually for a birding visit to the area, little was actually done at the observatory, save for a brief sea-watch and a 'coffee and biscuit' morning with Jacques. Instead I was drawn to the outer limits of the shingle...

A strong southerly blow was whipping up a fierce sea, and as Chris P and I walked along the desolate 'green wall' between The Midrips and Galloways, our attention was largely drawn to the sea incursions along the shingle ridge. At times our resolve was tested, as one particular break in the beach at The Brooks was allowing the sea to stream through (see image above and video below). At times the waves rose above the top of the shingle and were many feet higher than us. Suddenly that wall of pebbles seemed insubstantial! We did keep an eye on the birds when we weren't marvelling at the sea, best of all being three Grey Partridges, a sad statement of how far this game bird's numbers have fallen.

The RSPB reserve was a veritable 'white heron fest', with 11 Great White Egrets, a Little Egret, 7 Cattle Egrets (below) and best of all - drumroll please - two Spoonbills roosting in front of the Makepeace Hide. This is a long-awaited Dungeness tick, a tart's-tick one could say. They had the decency to preen and fly around a bit as well.

The afternoon was spent in the company of Chris P, on his beloved Walland Marsh. Our afternoon would have been memorable without the birds, what with the sunny and mild conditions under that big, big, blue sky. We recorded Great White Egret, 1,000 Greylag Geese, 50 Egyptian Geese, 500 Wigeon, 5,000 Golden Plover, 1,500 Lapwing, 16 Marsh Harrier, a Barn Owl, 15,000 Starling and a number of passerine flocks that were feeding on the stubble, including Skylarks, Twite (a single), Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. At times the skies were filled with birds, which made for an unforgettable afternoon - birding at its best.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Weeds = seeds = birds

Langley Bottom Farm has appeared on this blog many times - mostly because of the fine arable flora that is present. Keen students of ND&B will remember that the Woodland Trust has bought the farm and are currently planting up large areas to create a Millennium Wood. Thankfully they are leaving plenty of the fields alone and the early signs are good that the rare arable flora will be looked after.

Last summer was the first in which no crops were grown. The fields were left to run wild, a tangle of grass and flower. Most of the fields have been cut back (above) and others left well alone (below). The upshot of this 'wildness' is that there is plenty of seed on the ground, and where there is seed, there are birds.

Any scan across the farm revealed good numbers of birds, moving along hedgerows, dodging between copses and wheeling over the open ground. My final counts are very much minima - Skylark (80), Fieldfare (145), Redwing (75), Goldfinch (100), Brambling (1) and Linnet (58). Gamebirds still survive here, remnants from the days of the shoot, with 11 Pheasant and 4 Red-legged Partridge.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Coming soon above a garden near you

There is something quite decadent about birding from your own garden. No need to get up at some ridiculously early hour. No need to get in the car and drive away to add to the traffic congestion and air pollution. Cups of tea whenever you want one. And toast - don't forget the toast...

This morning saw the latest in my concerted effort to sky watch the first one-two hours of the day from home. It has been going quite well, with even the quietest days providing at least Chaffinches and Redwings to look at. I love that half-light, especially on a still morning, when the lonely 'pink' of a Chaffinch, or 'siiip' of a Redwing sends shivers down my spine. It heralds the start of another ornithological lucky dip, another chance to scrutinise the conveyor belt of birds.

What of today? Best bird was a calling Woodlark, a garden first, heard twice as it flew west but remained unseen. Close behind was a single Lapwing, now an irregular sighting here in Banstead. Also recorded were 2 Brambling, 215 Starling, 135 Chaffinch, 111 Fieldfare and 45 Redwing. One particular flock of Fieldfare, 40 strong, flew through the garden at tree-top height. Magical.

There seems to be more adoptees of visible migration across London and Surrey. No doubt there are many, like me, who have done so in the past at coastal headlands but have decided to seek the thrills out closer to home - more personal and more fulfilling. The autumn migration might be coming to an end, but there are always opportunities to make winter skywatching worthwhile. I'm hoping that the numbers of Waxwings being reported on the eastern coast might suggest a good winter for them. A trilling Waxwing over the garden would go down very well indeed.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Another patch?

The bit is firmly between my teeth to find the 'best' place to conduct local visible migration watching. There are places that have proved themselves to be worthwhile in this department - the back garden, Epsom Downs, Canons Farm, Banstead Downs and Priest Hill to name a few - but I am yet to find one that comes up with the birds time and again. But whisper it, I may have found one...

I have birded at Mogador a number of times over the past few years and it is my sort of place, being neglected, forgotten and under-watched (if watched at all). In fact, just like Canons Farm used to be when I first set foot on it (with a respectful nod towards John Peacock who had been patrolling the fields in previous years). Magador has a bit of everything - big skies (image above), rough grassland, pasture, arable, scrub and fence lines. I have seen Whinchat, Wheatear, Stonechat, Spotted Flycatcher and Crossbill here, plus big flocks of winter thrushes and all this on only a handful of visits.

After spending the first hour of daylight at home in the garden, (which produced a tidy 239 Chaffinch, 2 Brambling and 43 Redwing west), I drove the 15 minutes to Mogador. It was at once obvious that there was movement going on, all birds moving west to south-west, with 300 Starling, 157 Fieldfare, 23 Redwing and 6 Skylark. Also milling around were 5 Common Buzzard, a Red Kite, 40 Meadow Pipit, 2 Raven and 2 Yellowhammer. The movement packed up by 09.30hrs which left me wondering what the first three hours of daylight might have delivered. This place is worth further investigation, something that I have thought for some time.

After a quick look on Banstead Heath (more thrushes, 2 Raven and a Redpoll) and a quiet look on Colley Hill (below) I left with thoughts about next year, and the consideration of putting in a concerted effort at Mogador.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A different kind of 'Richard's' at the sewage farm...

When news broke of Peter Alfrey having found a Richard's Pipit at Beddington yesterday I was unable to visit, but, via the kindness of Roger B, access was granted earlier this morning. After a rather poor 90 minutes skywatching from the northern lakeside we then scaled the slope of the mound (with Glenn and Christian) and walked onto the weedy top to search for the pipit. After 45 minutes of a no-show Glenn returned to the underwhelming sky-watch whilst Christian and I doubled-up our efforts and started all over again.

Within a couple of minutes a large, wagtail-like pipit leapt from the vegetation and flew in a tight circle around us, then hovered for a good 10 seconds before alighting once more into the vegetation. It couldn't have performed any better, with the clear supercillium, pale lores, stout bill and unmarked flanks at once obvious. The next time in flight it called three times, the classic raspy "shreee". We were then able to stalk the bird as it strode along a grassy trackway, even obtaining fair scope views. It is quite a pale bird, with the to-be-expected rangy demeanour.

On and off for the next couple of hours it was fairly easy to track down, with Roger, Derek and Frankie also joining in with second, third and fourth helpings. Another fantastic find by Peter and yet again Beddington proves that there is life in the old place yet. Many thanks to BFBG once more for their hospitality.

These two images were taken by Peter yesterday and are posted with his kind permission. Please click on the link in the first paragraph to read his excellent account and also to listen to the bird's call.

Monday, 29 October 2018


Visible migration is but one of the joys of birding. To be able to watch flocks of birds moving overhead, with intent and purpose, is exhilarating - it's as simple as that. And, to make things even better, you can take part in these observations anywhere you can see some sky. A balcony on a city-centre block of flats; a hilltop; a coastal headland or a suburban back garden, they will all do, admittedly some will produce more birds and a wider spread of species than others.

Our Banstead back garden would most probably come two-thirds of the way down a 'Visible migration' league table. It has clear sky, although mature trees and houses get in the way in certain directions; it is at elevation (in Surrey terms): it is close to open downland. Even though I've lived here for over 30 years, attempts at visible migration from the garden have been patchy, even though successes are sometimes forthcoming and some big movements have been witnessed. This autumn a bit more effort has been put in and it has been worthwhile, with three days that could be described as 'busy' with a few bonus species being in the mix, such as Golden Plover and Crossbill.

What is fascinating is comparing the results of others who are practicing this ornithological 'dark art' nearby. The numbers, and species composition, can wildly vary. Sometimes a movement can be underway a couple of miles away but not where you are stood, and vice vera. This birding conveyor belt in the sky is addictive. Even a poor day can throw up a surprise. If you haven't tried it yet, give it a go - you will not be disappointed.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Corn Buntings at Whipsiderry

I was very pleased with managing to capture these images of Corn Buntings in the set-aside fields at Whipsiderry near Porth, Cornwall. No enlargement needed, just a bit of sideways crop.