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Showing posts from 2018

2019 projects

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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

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. Ther

Sixty

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!!

Benign birding

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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.

Aug - Dec: photographic highlights

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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 sm

June-July: the sun has got its hat on

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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

May: in clover

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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

March - April: The irruption continues

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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 t

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 tho

ND&B 2018 January - February

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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

Frozen chalk

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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

Not quite yet

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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.

Stormy Charmouth

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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 provide

Fair-weather birder

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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 -

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

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 H

A late surge of thrushes

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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

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 thr

Earthstars and Apps

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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...

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

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 per

Pipit roost

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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

Belated evening discoveries

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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

So, how was the autumn for you?

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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

Birding round the edges

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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... Wednesday 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 bein

Weeds = seeds = birds

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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

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 recor

Another patch?

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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 vi

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

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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 stro

Vismig

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 h

Corn Buntings at Whipsiderry

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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.