Sunday, 18 March 2018

Hellebores in the snow

The weather Gods decided to scatter a couple more centimetres of snow across the Banstead area last night, so this morning I left the car at home and went on a five mile circular walk (see how I, without thinking, used both metric and imperial measurements there? It's my age...) Up the hill and across the A217 onto Canons Farm, along Chipstead Bottom, skirting Banstead Woods, up onto Park Downs and through to Banstead Village and home. Birdwise generally quiet, with up to six Common Buzzard, 24 Fieldfare, a flock of 60 Linnet and three Yellowhammer. Hawfinches? I'm glad you asked! There were two in the woods directly above the Holly Lane car park.

Park Downs is home to a few plants of Stinking Hellebore, which could not hide their lime-green loveliness in the snow. Two days ago they were bathed in warm sunshine.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Harbingers of warmer days

The snow has returned, the temperature has plummeted and yesterday's warm sunshine is but a dim and distant memory. But fear not, this cold snap is promised to be short-term and before we know it we will be able to enjoy once more those harbingers of warmer days, the butterflies. One of my pleasures is recording their first flight date, and especially those seen before the end of March - so far my earliest ever records are:

Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni

Small White Pieris rapae

Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines

Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

Peacock Inachis io

Comma Polygonia c-album

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria

I'll be keeping them peeled when the sun and mild weather returns...

Friday, 16 March 2018

Box Hill stake-out

A brief but successful undercover 'tea-and-cake' outing to the Box Hill Visitor Centre. There was a side-show of course - that of the Hawfinches. Due west of the cafeteria the steep slopes are generously clothed in Yew, and a couple of flocks (28 and 9) were seen to emerge from the plateau woodland and spill down into their favoured trees. A nearby bench was used as a handy hide, as birds flew in and out, one group of five being seen to fly out high and depart westwards. Much calling and much fun was had by all. 300m to the north a pair were perched up on prominent beech trees with a further bird calling from stunted Yews nearby. According to one of the NT volunteers, birds are being seen throughout the day in the vicinity of the car parks. Over the past two days I have seen birds easily (between 10.45 - 15.15hrs). Seeing as this necessitates little walking, they are probably the easiest Hawfinches to see locally, with the timing of the visit not being much of a factor.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The return of Juniper Bottom

The forecast of a very wet dawn had postponed my planned visit to Bramblehall Wood, but the rain had abated by 08.00hrs so the decision was made to check on Juniper Bottom. This was mainly due to my having seen at least 115 birds there two days ago and the suspicion that the enormous flock from Bramblehall Wood, (once it has headed up the slope and onto Ashurst Rough and Juniper Top) was then spreading out into Juniper Bottom (and beyond). And so it proved.

By 08.45hrs I had taken up my position allowing clear views of the banks of Yew, and the bare deciduous tree-tops, on the eastern flank. Hawfinches were already on show. For the next hour flocks were largely spilling over into the valley from the high ground to the south-east (Juniper Top). They were making their way either northwards along the eastern ridge, or flying across the valley and up onto the western ridge (Box Hill and Lodge Hill). In between frequent showers I was able to witness a number of sizeable flocks on the move (37, 40, 31, 22, 39, 30 and 34 being the largest) with several alighting above me in mature Yews, bestowing upon me an audio Hawfinch accompaniment to the spectacle in front. My total for the visit was of 249 - the pedantic amongst you may prefer c250. I have checked the 'Bottom' several times over the winter, and in the hours after the Bramblehall flock goes largely missing, but with no reward, so these latest encounters seem to me to show a change in the birds behaviour. If you are planning on visiting Juniper Bottom, park in Whitehill Car Park and take the right hand footpath (which runs along the valley floor). After 600m you will reach a clearing on the western side with up to a dozen prominent Larch trees. Walk up this cleared slope to the treeline and then look back across at a wall of Yews and views up to Juniper Top. After 08.30hrs might be best if these are indeed birds from Bramblehall Wood.

Because birds were still dribbling down from Juniper Top I decided to go up and investigate. Even before the top was reached a tight flock of 45 were inadvertently flushed from a stand of Silver Birches and, once at the start of the woodland at the peak of the hill, a further 21 were milling about, so 66 in total. If you are planning on visiting Juniper Top, park in Whitehill Car Park and take the left hand footpath (through the gate). Walk directly up the open hill, scanning trees either side, until you reach the top, and the edge of the woodland. There will be further Hawfinches within the wood but will be harder to see. After 08.00hrs might be best if these are indeed birds from Bramblehall Wood.

Lodge Hill, west of Juniper Bottom, was given several scans and each time a number of Hawfinches were on show. 24 present.

Finally I drove round to Box Hill, driving up the zig-zag until I came to the car park situated half-way up. Walking back across the road I then took the steep path (steps cut out of the slope) directly opposite, walking up to level ground where I could then look back north and eastwards to even higher ground (in fact this is viewing the 'other' side of Lodge Hill). There appeared plenty of Hawfinches, flying across the valleys, with a minimum of 35 being present, including the beautiful brute of a male that I photographed in the rain as it sung from an open perch (above and below).

If you are planning on visiting Bramblehall Wood this weekend (400+ were seen yesterday by visiting birders Nick and Malcolm) do get there very early. After 08.00hrs can be too late! Walk along the footpath (directions in previous posts), maybe half way along the open field, until you come level to two horse jumps. Walk down to the fence line and secure a good view of the opposite tree line and the open sky above - it can be done. Then wait and listen. Good luck!

It has been good to see numbers at Juniper Bottom over the past few days, which was the scene of so much excitement exactly five years ago. Little did we know then that those 110-130 Hawfinches would be eclipsed in such style - eclipsed, but not forgotten..

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Always a crowd pleaser

It's always a pleasure to find an Oak Beauty in the MV. On a chilly morning there was just this, a Hebrew Character and an as yet to be determined micro.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Where to begin?

Yesterday evening might be a good place. I was delighted to see that two Sussex stalwarts - Chris Janman and Dick Senior - had recorded 400+ Hawfinches at Kingley Vale that very morning, one of the few areas in the country that can out-Yew Mickleham and Box Hill. I was already planning on visiting Bramblehall Wood the following morning (today) and their success got me wondering as to whether or not flocks were starting to join forces, or that I would find the Surrey woodland to be a lot quieter as the birds had all moved to Sussex!

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.

Back on the footpath I bumped into west-Surrey birder Malcolm Lawford, and together we retraced my steps, but by 08.00hrs could (only!) find 100+ birds. Again, the assumption was taken that these were birds that I had already counted. And this neatly demonstrates how skewed birding perspective can become, as these 100+ seemed like a let-down, small potatoes, a failure. 100!! In most years you would crawl over broken glass to see such a gathering.

Was this boost in number (from a previous high of 420 on 22 February) a genuine increase from birds that had recently come into the area? Or had such a number been here all the time but had just eluded observers? I take the recording of these large Hawfinch flocks seriously. There is a responsibility involved in obtaining accurate counts, for these numbers are of historical proportions. That count of 600 is a bare minimum. It assumes that every bird that appears in front of me from an area where I have already seen/counted a Hawfinch must be a repeat bird. Every time a flock of 50 birds flies to the left and 40 come back 10 minutes later, they must be some of the same. I need to take such a strict stance so that there can be no chance of an incorrect, higher total. But at the same time it is worth bearing in mind that they just might be different birds... at least some of the time.

I then went on a tour of the nearby sites. I can only describe the immediate area as dripping with Hawfinches. Almost every scan over distant treetops would yield perched birds, overflying flocks or unseen birds that would 'tick' and 'seep' from nearby cover. The southern slope of Mickleham Downs was given a half-hour scan which yielded at least 46 birds. Lodge Hill had a flock of five. And Juniper Bottom (scene of the famous 2013 flock) held at least 115, although these may well have been birds that had earlier been at Bramblehall - but then again, they might not have been. While I was here I started to watch a high spiralling Sparrowhawk, and, just within the range of being able to identify them, a high flock of 8 Hawfinches flew through my field of view, heading northwards. They, at least, seemed to be finally on the move.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Moths, for a change

I have been really slow out of the starter's blocks on the moth front this year - so far there has been just one outing for the MV and that was back in January. Now that the snow and low temperatures have gone (at least for the moment) it was time to switch on the bulb!

The garden MV has never been that productive in late winter or early spring, so I was expecting no more than what I actually caught this morning: a handful of Common Quakers (top), Hebrew Characters and March Moths (bottom two). Persistence at this time of year can pay off and I still harbour an outside hope for a Sloe Carpet, a species that is sparingly found on the nearby chalk downs. If I'm not 'in it' then I won't 'win it'. Or something along those lines...

Sunday, 11 March 2018

No apology

A late morning walk along the 'valley' between Ranmore and Polesden Lacey (above), with plenty of side ventures up into the woodland. These were made, of course, with the aim of locating Hawfinches. There may be some regular visitors to this blog who are mightily fed up with my posts being Hawfinch-heavy since the irruption began. I make no apologies. This is a once in a lifetime event and I just happen to live close to the area where the largest numbers seem to be - plus, I am lucky enough to have the time to go out, locate and count them. Soon enough they will be gone and I will once more bore you with moths and orchids.

Back to today. The bare numbers of 'the species whose name must not be mentioned' were: Dorking Wood (30), Chapelhill Wood (7), Freehold Wood (2), Ranmore Common (37). My visit being later in the morning than normal, there were no post-roost gatherings. A few feeding flocks were found (and heard) and a fair bit of chasing between pairs was observed. Soon the flocks with disperse and the search for breeding birds will start. I will be very surprised if we do not locate a few pairs.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Breaking up?

At Dorking Wood by 06.45hrs and in a steady rain until it stopped by 08.30hrs, leaving a brighter and drier rest of the morning. The Hawfinches at the northern edge of the wood were still present, numbering at least 90 birds, but their behaviour was very different indeed. There was no 'coming together' of the birds, with modest groups scattered in view. There also appeared to be several formed pairs, with much chasing through the canopy and wing-flicking. Many seemed agitated and would often take to the air and fly high, circling around before alighting, often back in the same tree. One or two small groups appeared to leave high and northward. A number of birds took up prominent perches where they stayed in place for minutes on end in lonely vigil. Maybe they are getting ready to pair, break the flock up and depart, although there is hope that some just might remain. Nearby there were two at Chapelhill Wood, one at Polesden Lacey and six at Ranmore Common.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Green stuff

Just to prove that I don't only have eyes for chunky finches, these plants grabbed my attention while I was out and about yesterday. Don't worry - normal Hawfinch service will be resumed very soon!
Hart's-tongue. A common enough fern, but to see it in such profusion is an arresting sight. This was just a small area that the species was blanketing on a dank slope above Betchworth Quarry. I also learnt that this is a different place to Brockham Quarry - until now I believed the whole complex to be under the former name.
Cornelian-cherry, an introduced tree that is found sparingly across northern Surrey. This specimen (at the base of Box Hill) is being choked by Ivy. Flower detail (below)

Monday, 5 March 2018

The sound of Hawfinches

Hopefully, if you click on the video link above, you will be able to hear the sound of several hundred Hawfinches (for the best result, turn the volume up high!) They were part of the 325+ present at Bramblehall Wood this morning. It was a very quick show from the birds today, with the first birds perched up by 06.50hrs and most of them heading up the slope and onto Ashurst Rough by 08.00hrs. The video was taken at the narrowest gap between Bramblehall and the footpath beneath the Rough. I was able to get ahead of the flock and count them as they crossed the field - much like counting Long-tailed Tits - as they moved in a sedate and unhurried passage. Subsequently visits were made to Betchworth Hills (another 11 Hawfinches) and Brockham Quarry (just the two).

Sunday, 4 March 2018

A Canons Top Ten

There's a good bird at the end of that rainbow!

The Top Ten. Either the lazy fall-back option for an uninspired blogger, or a chance to celebrate the good times. 

Or both...

When I first stumbled across Canons Farm back in 2002 I had no idea that the place would provide me (and others) with so many happy hours of good birding. On the surface it is an unremarkable area of open farmland (with no open water), where crops are intensively grown so that arable weeds (and the resultant seeds) are largely missing. It does retain hedgerows and copses and is positioned at a high elevation which helps to attract migrants and is always worth a check. My personal Top Ten highlights are, in chronological order:

January 2008
An enormous finch flock gathered on Broad Field to take advantage of a flattened and un-harvested Flax crop. They comprised largely Chaffinches and Bramblings and over the course of the month these numbers attracted quite a few birders to the farm. Throughout the month the volume of birds did fluctuate, and when they came together they made for a spectacular sight, a vast wheeling flock of c2500 finches. Chaffinches peaked at 1,650 on 5th and 1,600 on 24th. Brambling highest counts were 800 on 13th and 1,200 on 20th. If only we had fields full of seed each and every winter…

9th November 2010
The previous evening David C had watched a male Hen Harrier quartering the fields east of Canons Farmhouse at dusk and it appeared to go to roost. Along with two other birders I was on site before first light, hidden behind a hedgerow bordering the roost field. As light crept over the farmland a pale shape began to appear out in the coarse grassland, and soon morphed into our hoped-for prize. We had little time to take it in, as it soon took to the air and, like a bullet, left eastwards with little ceremony.

17th April 2011
It had been a Waxwing winter, and the farm had enjoyed a few brief fly-overs, but it was not until a flock of 50+ made the Ballard’s Green gardens home that they could be fully appreciated and enjoyed. Whenever birding in residential areas I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable, so I didn't stay with them for as long as I would have liked.

21st May 2011
A calling Quail had been picked up in the morning, frequenting Horse Pasture field. When I turned up mid-afternoon there were a number of frustrated birders who had spent hours staring into the rank grass with just the frequent calling to let them know that the bird was still present. I took myself off and walked down the lane at the southern boundary of the field in question. When the Quail started up again it was very close, so I inched towards the fence, peered into the grass and was confronted with a head-and-shoulders view of the bird, head back, bill open, throat shaking!

4th May 2012
When Roy W and David C watched open-mouthed as a flock of 15 Dotterel flew onto Heathside Field I was luckily at home - the explosion of tweets and texts soon had me on the move and together with a constant procession of admirers was able to feast my eyes over the exotic and colourful gathering.

6th October 2012
A drab afternoon saw me cut my loses and start for home earlier than I had planned. Cutting across Pipit Meadow my attention was drawn to a movement just a few yards ahead of me. A quick lift of the binoculars soon had me appreciating a flock of three Woodlarks that were working their way across the stubble. Alas, they stayed just a few minutes before taking off and departing. Even the deadliest dull day has the potential to turn itself around.

28/29 February 2016
The farm is not renowned as a place for gulls, so when the farmer ploughed up the fields - which fortuitously coincided with the Beddington landfill operation being closed - they uncharacteristically streamed in. A first-winter Iceland Gull spent a good few hours loafing about on the first date, followed by two adult Mediterranean Gulls the following day.

7th March 2016
A very quiet morning was suddenly awakened when Geoff B came across a smart Dartford Warbler that was being faithful to a straggly length of trackside vegetation close to Perrott’s Farmhouse. It stayed long enough for me to hot-foot it to the farm and share in the experience.

21st September 2017
An early morning start revealed that hirundines were already on the move southwards. I stood rooted to the spot for the next six hours as wave after wave of House Martins and Swallows passed by. They were constantly in view and from time to time huge pulses were observed – in one unforgettable moment a swarm of 2,000 birds surrounded us. As impressive as the final totals of 6,710 House Martins and 4,000 Swallows were, the numbers didn’t do it justice.

28th February 2018
The 'Beast from the East' caused a south-westward movement of birds over the farm, with record numbers of Lapwing (617) and Golden Plover (170) for the site - both species that are normally hard to come by.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Scratching about

The first three hours of daylight revealed that there was little flying over the frozen wastes of Canons Farm. A few thrushes were scratching around along the hedgerows with attendant Robins and Dunnocks, but it was generally an eerily quiet scene. The granular snow had been blown off the top of several fields, forming shallow drifts at their edges. Ornamental berry-bearing bushes in nearby gardens harboured a few Fieldfares (above) and the partially frozen pond at Burgh Heath was being staked out by a single Grey Heron (below).

News is coming through of enormous numbers of thrushes being recorded in Somerset and Devon this morning, all fleeing westwards from the snow and ice. I just hope that there are still parts of Cornwall that can safely host these desperate birds.

Looking east from Canons Farm into Chipstead Bottom

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The east wind doth blow...

... and we shall have snow (and Lapwings and Golden Plovers!!)

A bitterly cold four hour sky watch at Canons Farm (between 10.00 - 14.00hrs), was some of the best patch birding that I've had the pleasure to experience. The spectacle of birds on the move is always a winner with me, although counting birds fleeing the cold weather is not exactly a joyous occasion for those creatures involved.

Lapwings were already on the go when I arrived and kept steadily moving until well after 13.30hrs when they died off. My first Golden Plover flock didn't appear until quite late in the morning, but they then had a sudden burst, before dribbling on to the end. A bit of detail (all birds moving S to SW):

Lapwing: 617, comprised 42 groups, largest flock counts of 74, 51, 50, 40.
Golden Plover: 170, comprised 11 groups, sizes being 25, 30, 1, 2, 52, 5, 6, 22, 25, 1, 1
Fieldfare: 166
Skylark: 37
Redwing: 5
Meadow Pipit: 2

The wader counts are most probably modern-day records for the immediate area. Not all birds carried on over - a flock of 8 Lapwing landed in Broadfield East, with 6 Golden Plover doing likewise a couple of hours later, and a single Lapwing (above) briefly stopped in Infront George West (crazy field name!)

Although most of the birds made their way sedately through the air space, some spiralled up high (in particular one group of 25 Lapwings) and the largest flock of Golden Plovers circled the farm for a minute before carrying on with their journey.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018


There's a kind of hush all over our countryside. A disturbing quietness that is not just aural but also visual. Where once were Lapwings, finches and buntings there are... well, not a lot actually. A brief visit to Canons Farm this morning was soul destroying. In recent years it has come to be expected that the days of bird numbers at this site have long gone, but even so we do, from time to time, witness a build up of Linnets, Chaffinches and Skylarks, plus a few cherished Yellowhammers. The winter months are normally blessed with several hundred Redwings and Fieldfares. And if we are really struggling for something to look at then we have always been able to fall back on scanning through the hundreds of corvids, Wood Pigeons and Stock Doves. But not now. Not this winter. The place is barren.

And it isn't just Canons Farm that appears to be bereft locally. With all of the time that I'm spending in the woodlands looking for Hawfinches it has not gone unnoticed that - get this - Hawfinch is by far the most numerous species present. I have seen just a few Chaffinches, a single Siskin, no Redpolls and no Bramblings. Apart from the odd tit, Robin, Dunnock or Wren it is very hard work. The thrushes are mostly missing as well. I just hope that this is a local phenomena and not one that is being repeated elsewhere.

The current issue of British Wildlife has a sobering feature by Ian Newton on 'Seeds and seed-eating birds'. It is sub-titled 'casualties of agricultural change'. In it he explains how farming technology and methods since the Second World War have catastrophically reduced the wild flower seed supply and the incidence of spilt grain from crops. No wonder that the population change in some of our seed-eating passerines (between 1970- 2013) makes frightening reading: Greenfinch (-39%), Redpoll (-86%), Bullfinch (-40%), Yellowhammer (-55%), Reed Bunting (-32%), Corn Bunting (-90%), House Sparrow (-66%), Tree Sparrow (-90%), Skylark (-60%). All in the name of progress and so that we can buy cheaper food. I'd sooner pay more for my bread, cereal and vegetables and be able to see flocks of these wonderful birds. It makes me want to weep.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Snow stopped play

With the weather forecasters strongly suggesting that we could be in for a week of snow and ice, I felt duty-bound to get a Hawfinch count in before 'Snowmageddon' was let loose upon us. I arrived at Bramblehall Wood at 06.45hrs in a light snow shower which continued, more on than off, for the hour that I was present. The Hawfinches were quite lethargic this morning, with very little movement between the woods and those that were perched up in the tree tops seemed quite happy to stay put. The middle section of the wood was favoured. Of interest, a number of birds arrived high from the west - possibly indicating that they had come in directly from Juniper Top / Ashurst Rough rather than filtering down the slope - they usually arrive at a lower elevation. A total of 260 were present, although I did leave a little early, so more may well have come in after I had gone.

After 3-4 weeks of observing these birds I now feel confident that this early morning gathering is of birds from several roosts. They arrive in staggered groups from differing directions, possibly suggesting that the roosts vary in distance from this chosen meeting place. It is also true that no one particular direction is favoured over another and that no given point of the compass consistently produces higher numbers than any other - it really does vary from visit to visit. Maybe the Hawfinches are changing their roosts, or they are combining to form larger roosts before breaking up again. Where they go after mid-morning is still a mystery, a carbon copy of the 2013 Juniper Bottom flock. Maybe there's a Hawfinch black hole in the neighbourhood.

I had intended to take the rest of the morning wandering across Ranmore Common to try and ascertain just how many Hawfinches are present there, but when I arrived at Dorking Wood the snow became heavier and for the next two hours it just kept falling, making observation difficult. I finally gave up, but not before finding c30 at the edge of the latter locality.

65 (or is it 66) of the Bramblehall Wood birds from this morning

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Ronnie Raindrops

In 1953 the Americans started to name their storms with female names and then, in an act of equality (or because they were running out) they started to use male names as well. In 2015, as always eager to copy our 'friends' across the pond, we followed suit. Not for us Storms Chuck, Wilma and Buck, more a case of good old British names, although we have yet to witness a Storm Tyler or Jayden.

And now we also have to give weather events snappy monikers, such as the dose of cold air coming in from Russia being referred to as 'The beast from the east'. How far will this go?

BBC TV Weather Forecast, April 1st 2020
Philip Avery presenting.
"Good morning. If you have already looked out the window you will have noticed that it is a little bit Colin Cloudy which may well end up with a few Ronnie Raindrops. But don't worry, because Suzy Sun will most probably show her face this afternoon. But as darkness falls, watch out as it might get a bit Brian Breezy."

And if you think this is all Billy Bollocks, then watch this space...

Friday, 23 February 2018

Orchid Summer

On Christmas Eve 2015 I received an email from Jon Dunn, naturalist, photographer, author and tour guide. We had, in the past, corresponded via our blogs, so could best be described as 'virtual friends'. He wrote to confide in me that he was planning to seek out all of the orchid species to be found across the British Isles during 2016 - had secured a publishing deal for the resulting book that he would write on completion of the project - and was hoping that I might be able to help him out with locating Surrey's Bird's-nest Orchid colonies. I couldn't offer my services fast enough!

On May 19th we finally met for the first time and, as hoped, hit it off immediately. I was able to show Jon some of the best that the county had to offer, and after a day spent on the chalk bade him farewell as he motored off to another orchid date in what would be a hectic summer for the man from Shetland. I wish I could have gone with him, but consoled myself with the thought that I would be able to read all about it when the book finally saw publication. This week an advance copy, through Jon's generosity, arrived in my hands. It was worth the wait...

This is no 'went there, saw that' account made in a strictly chronological order - to have been so would not only been generic but also turgid for the reader. What Jon has done is to use the premise of his quest to cleverly - seamlessly - weave into the story multiple rich threads dealing with the personalities involved in discovering orchids, naming them, protecting them and studying them; the orchid folklore, the rich history that they possess and their astonishing mechanisms for obtaining their food and their reproduction methods. There is no 'cut-and-paste' methodology going on here! He has also handed over extra time to the species that warrant our fuller attention, those that have a more 'interesting' tale to tell. This works wonderfully well.

This is a book that does not only entertain and inform, but, something rarely experienced, also inspires. Because you are there with the author as he kneels down before his quarry and experience with him his emotions (whether they be of success or failure) it makes you want to seek out your own audience with the orchids as soon as possible. As his quest evolves, so does his relationship with the orchids themselves. In places this is heart on the sleeve stuff, a natural history confessional.

Jon is a master of communicating factual information. In less skilful hands this can come across as dry, but he is able to irrigate and hydrate them into memorable passages of text. His brilliant descriptive prose appears throughout the book, with turns of phrase that, with a few skilfully chosen words, places you alongside him experiencing the plants and habitats first hand. If you thought you knew all there was to know about our orchids, then reading this book will make you realise that you didn't - and if you know very little about them then you couldn't find a better place to start to get to know them better. I will be looking at them with fresh eyes this coming summer and I am impatient to start. I yearn to seek out their variations; to really take in their structures; to try and observe some of their pollination methods at work - only a week ago none of these were even considered as things that I wanted - needed  - to do. For a start, the local Bee Orchids will be grilled in the hope for a var. chlorantha.

If you thought orchid hunting was all summer days and flowery meadows in the company of gentle souls think again! You will get drenched and cross swollen streams with him on Rum, get covered in mud in Herefordshire woodlands, be rounded on by irate golfers and menaced by beer-swilling Cumbrian red-necks. And, unusual for a natural history book, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions - for plants that have been linked to testicles and libido for centuries a bit of 21st century bawdiness in not out of place!  References beyond the world of orchids are many and do nothing but add richness to the experience - and most of them land back firmly in the world of the orchid - Adolf Hitler is even referenced twice!

This is a book written, designed and published by people who care. From the charming 'arts and crafts' book jacket illustration to the font and paper choice; from the inclusion of a ribbon book mark to the aching desire from the author that we all embrace our wildlife and cherish it - this is a work of love. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Jon, praying at the alter of the Bird's-nest Orchid, Surrey, 2016

Thursday, 22 February 2018


Blessed. There is no other word for it. This Hawfinch invasion continues to ramp up in northern Surrey and I am lucky enough to have been in the middle of it...

Dawn at Bramblehall Wood. The lower footpath has never looked so used. Position taken up against the fence, looking out across the field at the southern section of the wood and - crucially - up and down the valley (above). By 07.30 only c80 birds had shown, listlessly perched up, little movement taking place until they dribble away. Beginning to wonder if they are finally moving on, but then look down the valley northwards. Bloody hell, look at that lot perched up at the very top of the tree line - there must be hundreds! Edge down to get a better vantage point and start to count at the same time as they slowly - ever so slowly - start to move along the woodland edge southwards. They are going at a steady rate, not too many at once to confuse the count, a veritable conveyer belt of Hawfinches. I start to get edgy as 300 approaches, mindful that there are still birds in the trees to come. At 400 I secretly let out a cheer and, when 420 has been counted, all hell breaks lose - a massive 'whoosh' of wings alerts me to an enormous flock of 300+ birds that have returned and are now breaking up above my head, scattering in all directions, many of them back to where they had just come. There is little option but to abandon the count now. I am, quite frankly, stunned.

Although it is still early (08.15-ish) there is no hanging about. I want to check all of the sites where I have recorded Hawfinches over the past week and the largest flock (away from Bramblehall) was seen before 09.30hrs. By 09.00hrs parked up at Denbigh's Hillside NT and walking towards Dorking Wood (via footpath opposite St. Barnabas Church). Once in the wood the familiar ticks and seeps start up and am soon watching c30 Hawfinches, but they are mobile and quickly move away. When exiting the wood on the Bagden Farm footpath a scan along the wood's edge reveals a good flock in the same trees as where they were last Sunday. A quick count makes 60, but then, just like at Bramblehall earlier, Hawfinch mayhem breaks out. Two large flocks fly in from opposite directions, swarming around the perched finches and then leave in one mass of 170, back into the woods. I watch them go and then check for any remaining perched birds - there are 80! A minimum of 250 Hawfinches present. And that's not taking into account the 30 earlier. This is all getting a bit silly.

To cut it short I then looked at Chapelhill Wood (none), Freehold Wood (18), Polesden Lacey (formal garden, 13) and Ranmore Common (4).

This morning's Hawfinch total was 705 birds.  Bloody ridiculous. Just like the Bramblehall birds, the Dorking Wood Hawfinches would appear to show best in the early morning. The other sites mentioned in the paragraph above adjoin the same valley as Dorking Wood. Frequent glances along its length produced the odd Hawfinch flying over or perched in view. They really are that easy here and no doubt there are still more to be found.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018


Walking westwards across the muddy, slippery slopes of Colley Hill I spied smoke rising above the distant bank of Yew trees - precisely where I was going in my quest to look for further Hawfinches. I briefly considered not carrying on, assuming that a spot of vegetation clearance was underway, but decided to continue on my journey. A knob of hillside pushes away from the main slope, allowing wonderful views towards the Mole Gap (below).

Brockham Quarry is the middle ground, Leith Hill in the distance
There was no sign of any smoke now, so I settled down and scanned the ridge of Yew trees for signs of my target - drawing a blank (as I had done at Gatton Park and Reigate Hill). From time to time the puffs of smoke returned and it was then I realised that this was in fact the Yew trees releasing pollen! I cannot recall seeing it being done so profusely (top image). That was reward enough for the morning, although it was small compensation for twice going 'arse-over-tit' on the slope, covering my rucksack, back and derriere in some of Colley Hill's finest gloopy mud. A bucket, sponge and washing machine were called into action on my return home.

Monday, 19 February 2018

A 'you know what' update

There might be some loyal readers who are not totally fed-up with these posts, and if so, then this is for you...

The weather was not brilliant this morning - misty, murky, steady rain and with the promise of it getting heavier - so I aborted any fresh Hawfinch searches and instead stood under a sheltering Yew tree looking across at Bramblehall Wood between 07.00 - 08.30hrs. It was a very quiet start, with the first 45 minutes producing just 27 Hawfinches, but then it all went according to form, with birds leaving the southern end of the wood and flying down the valley and crossing to the slopes of Ashurst Rough. This was the easiest count to do at the site so far, as very few birds came back, the flight line was constant and a steady trickle was not taxing on the maths. The biggest flock was of c90 and the final total reached 255. As always, there were probably a few more.

After this flow dried up and birds were not seen crossing back further down the valley, I went in search of them. The slopes were deathly quiet, so I carried on up to Juniper Top (where I heard just two calls) and then checked the massive banks of Yew at Juniper Bottom - zilch. I've no idea where they had gone, unless they slipped across to Bramblehall undetected.

Just to prove to you how anally retentive I am, my current number of 'Hawfinch bird days in Surrey' (since the invasion began back in October) is 2,232.

I don't know whether to feel pride or shame.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Six hours well spent

I had wanted to return to the woods and valleys in the west of the 'uber' patch to once again search for Hawfinches, but events at Bramblehall Wood had put that on hold - until today. The centre of the search were the wooded slopes of Ranmore Common and, to the north and across a narrow valley of pasture, Polesden Lacey. The whole trek took six hours, but it was six hours very well spent. It started in mist, was briefly bathed in sunshine and finished up overcast.

Starting at Denbighs Hillside carpark it is a gentle downhill walk through Dorking Wood (the footpath can be picked up opposite St. Barnabas Church). I had recorded Hawfinches here on February 6th. Only three were picked up but it was good to know that they were still present. Once through the wood you are treated to a pleasant view across farmland towards Freehold Wood and Chapelhill Wood. It is a beautiful area peppered with highly desirable property, way out of my reach unfortunately. However, my appreciation of the view was cut short by the calling of Hawfinches - there were 23 perched up in a small island copse on the farmland. These quickly flew up the slope, over my head and into Dorking Wood. As they moved westwards along the woodland edge they were joined by others that I had not previously seen. The flock now numbered 90 and were proudly on show through the mist. After only a couple of minutes they then took to the air and wheeled around, with the count increasing to 115. There are always hidden birds! Here are 59 of them - or are there 60?

They were followed to a clearing where half a dozen mature yews had been spared the forester's chainsaw. A good 15 minutes were spent watching up to 70 of them, quite happy to entertain my presence as long as I didn't lift up a camera - binoculars seemed fine though!

As tempting as it was to just stay with them, the urge to check the woods on the other side of the valley was strong. Walking through the farm buildings at Bagden Farm revealed two more in a small copse and a scan of the southern flank of Chapelhill Wood produced three. I did go into the wood but only heard some calls. Back down on the level and turning west you can walk along a disused driveway that takes you toward the grand house at Polesden Lacey. Regular scanning back across the valley would often show up the odd Hawfinch or two, perched or in flight. Arriving at the house I was delighted (but not surprised) to see a flock of 14 on conifers in the formal gardens.

Here a return south was made across the fields and back into the woods at the western end of Ranmore Common. Zig-zagging through the rides Hawfinches were heard continually but kept stubbornly out of view. A few shapes did deign to appear and I got the impression that they were of small number and widely scattered. This theory was quietly kicked into touch when 24 birds emerged from a Yew when I was expecting just a couple to appear. Back at Dorking Wood there were still c20 birds on show. The totals were:

Dorking Wood (115+)
Bagden Farm (2)
Chapelhill Wood (3)
Polesden Lacey (14)
Ranmore Common (30+)

I really cannot impress upon you how many birds are strewn across this valley and its slopes. Almost every look along a line of distant treetops would reveal a few birds. Idle scans across the pearly-grey sky were interrupted by the odd bird flitting from wood to copse. There is a lot of habitat suitable for Hawfinches along this section of the North Downs that has so far gone unchecked. Great banks of Yew that could yet hold birds and in numbers. How many are out there waiting to be discovered? Time is running out...

Saturday, 17 February 2018


Bored of Hawfinches yet? Thought so. Never mind, they'll soon be gone.

This morning I arrived on the footpath opposite Bramblehall Wood just as it was getting light. I walked all the way down to the southern end, seeing no Hawfinches at all until I got there. Maybe 20 were perched up high, and over the following few minutes I was able to watch birds join them, surprisingly from all directions of the compass, in singles and small flocks. Most of them arrived from the south. They quickly built up and peeled off, flying across the field and into a Yew that I was standing underneath - my positioning was not down to luck as I had observed their preference of this particular tree yesterday.

The calls above my head grew in volume - other birds must have been joining them from behind me. And the calls were not just confined to the normal 'ticks' and 'seeps' but also all kinds of 'squeaks', 'hisses' and 'warbles'. The birds across the field in Bramblehall Wood continued to syphon across, but new birds continued to arrive there.

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. So that made 300. Slowly but surely these birds dribbled out back across the field and flew into a bank of Yew trees, using the bare trees higher up the slope as a vantage point.

I was joined by the Sells as well as Richard, Jan and Steve, Kevin and Robin. They reported an unbroken string of birds calling along a 400m stretch of the footpath back northwards. Were these new? Were they part of the super flock that I had witnessed? We will never truly know. For the next hour, in glorious sunshine, we, and other birders were royally entertained. They all experienced a 'wing-whoosh' of Hawfinches, when a flock of c120 fled up the valley and appeared to head off south-east. Things quietened down quickly today, with the large numbers not experienced beyond 10.30hrs.

To see the big flocks well enough to count, you need to be there early, at the southern end of the wood, and standing at the fence beneath the footpath. Most birders present today for any length of time recorded at least 50-100 birds, with Team Sell seeing 200. I really do believe that the true numbers of Hawfinches in this area is between 400-500. I (and others) cannot possibly have seen every bird present. You scan up and down the valley and along the top of the treeline and there are birds constantly in view. Mainly ones and twos, but then a flock of 20-30 - this goes on all morning. But I do not count them towards the day's total if I have already recorded large mobile flocks - they could be birds that I saw earlier. The big flocks just concentrate what is around in that particular part of the valley. The finding of a giant roost to be able to test this number theory is destined to fail I fear. Birds were arriving from all directions as it got light this morning, suggesting a number of different roosting locations.

My quest to try and find other woods with other Hawfinches has been derailed by these astonishing events. Tomorrow I might just forsake the lower muddy paths of Juniper Top and Ashurst Rough and look elsewhere. I have, in all seriousness, been having dreams about Hawfinches. They have become a bit of an obsession. It cannot be totally healthy...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Hawfinch social

Bramblehall Wood was bathed in glorious sunshine, which no doubt helped swell the number of birders who joined me on the muddy footpaths to witness yet more Hawfinch action. It was a pleasure to watch these birds along with John, Lindy, Jan, Graham, Piers, Paul and Lee - it made the morning all the more memorable.

It was not so pleasurable to be told that two birders (even though they had been asked not to) entered the wood which is clearly private. This brings up three things - (a) they lack fieldcraft (b) they have no consideration for others (c) they are showing a lack of respect to the landowner. Once they have left the area and returned home it is us local birders who suffer any consequences. No wonder the suppression of birds is making a comeback...

Anyhow, back to the fun stuff. I recorded a minimum of 250 Hawfinches which were on show as early as 07.10hrs when I arrived on site. There were two episodes that I would like to share with you. The first occurred at the southern end of the wood at about 07.45hrs. Birds were perched up in an area of scrub and I managed to hide myself away directly opposite them. After five minutes they started to fly across the field towards me, alighting in a large Yew that was only 25m away. I couldn't see them once they had landed, but I could count them as they came in - ones, twos and threes, no large flocks - this quickly building up to 71 birds before something spooked them and they exploded into the air and scattered. Count abandoned!

The second was shared with several other birders. We came across a Yew, just off the path, that was full of Hawfinches, our estimate being 60-70 birds. Although wary, (some had flushed), we'd managed to creep up to them with some success as c20 were still left feeding. A good 15-20 minutes were spent watching them, surrounded by calls. There were several bright males involved which took most of our attention. We all just stood back and took it all in. Marvellous stuff.

I was not as successful elsewhere. Four were found at Higher Ashurst (just north-east of Bramblehall Wood) and another four were seen on the south-eastern slopes of Mickleham Downs. Another feature of the morning were the Marsh Tits, up to five belting out their song.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Bloody hell!

Images courtesy of Peter Alfrey

I do apologise. Another Hawfinch post on another day when I've been able to go galavanting about birding when some of you are having to work, but please bear with me.

Katrina was keen to see some of 'those birds' that I keep going on about and suggested taking a walk along the Hawfinch-haunted slopes of Juniper Top. This happily coincided with the presence of Peter Alfrey and Kevin Guest, as they had elected to take a birding away-day from Beddington. The observers were all present and correct, but would the birds play ball?

Kate and I took the lower footpath that runs parallel with Bramblehall Wood and soon started to pick up small numbers in the general area. We began to hear birds calling and, at times, the 'ticks' and 'squeaks' were as loud as I have heard them over the past few weeks. More birds were arriving into the treetops directly above us and started to move between here and the wood opposite. There was a lot of 'tooing-and-frowing' and it was obvious that we were witnessing at least 100 birds. I have been desperate for some other birders to get onto these very large numbers, as so far I had been the only observer to be putting out such counts. With this in mind we both went straight up the slippery and steep slope to meet Peter and Kevin on Juniper Top. With them in tow, and with little ceremony, we plunged back down the slope and started to scan the edge of Bramblehall Wood from the fence line beneath the footpath. We were in for an unforgettable hour's birding.

The birds were still there, 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.

That is two hundred and sixty Hawfinches. There could have been more. We all agreed on this final figure as an absolute minimum. We counted them all flying into a large clump of Yews over a period of 15 minutes. Sometimes a breakaway flock would leave cover, wheel around above us, and return. Birds had been constantly dribbling up the valley to join them. It was an overload of Hawfinch, always in sight, their calls our soundtrack, with a group of happy birders "oohing" and "ahhing" frequently, these being punctuated by expletives as the largest flocks took momentarily to the air, only to fall back down into the deep green yew trees. After a while the flock started to disperse, but not that far as the valley was still full of Hawfinches - every scan showed birds in the bare treetops, flocks of various sizes crossing the sky, calls coming from unseen birds tucked up in the canopy.

It was a pleasure to share this with my wife and my Beddington chums. It was a privilege to witness such a spectacle. And even after all of this, now sat at a keyboard, I want to get back out there and see some more. I truly believe that there could be 300-400 in the Mickleham-Juniper-Bramblehall area. Maybe that count of 260 birds could get higher...

Monday, 12 February 2018

The bird that just keeps giving

Juniper Top eastern slope - home to Hawfinches
The morning started well, as only a few minutes after leaving the car I looked up at the steep wooded slopes of White Hill to see a flock of 15 Hawfinches fly through and alight upon Silver Birches. A good omen! I took my usual route, picking up the lower Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough path, keeping a firm eye on the edge of Bramblehall Wood across the narrow field. It was quiet at first, but soon enough I started to hear Hawfinches, most of them on 'my' side of the field. Stealth was not necessary as the birds made their way towards me, and I was soon looking directly up into a dazzling blue sky through a crazy-paving pattern of twigs and branches. The birds were very difficult to see, but vague shapes then morphed into Hawfinches and small groups flew through the lower reaches of the canopy and dived deep into Yews. I was but yards from them, teased by the incessant calling and able to witness the Yew branches being bent and shaken by the birds within. Views were good, but fleeting. Walking up the slope brought me in line with some of the tree tops and the odd bird gave itself up at my level. At least 30 birds were strewn across the immediate area. I reached the top footpath and turned south.

This footpath, when it reaches Upper Farm Leisure Park, comes to a fork. I took the left hand (eastern) turn that took me down the slope and back onto the lower Ashurst Rough - Juniper Top track. After 100m the southern end of Bramblehall Wood is clearly in view, so I scanned along in perfect sunny light and immediately found at least 30 Hawfinches perched on tree tops. After edging down to the fence to get the clearest view possible and watching them for several minutes, these birds took off and started flying along the woodland edge towards me, and as they did so birds began to peel off from the nearby Yews and joined them. This swollen flock was augmented by further birds that had been out of view, and then a final burst as a flock of 60 strong came from behind them. A minimum of 140 Hawfinches were in the air together, directly in front of me and all in bright sunshine - a blizzard of white wing bars and tails, caramels buffs and greys. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in over 44 years of birding. They carried on heading southwards, the birds dispersing between 'The Birches' and the southern end of Ashurst Rough.

I walked back along the lower footpath in a beatific daze. Frequent scanning revealed a further five Hawfinches in Bramblehall Wood, remnants of a force that had departed (hopefully momentarily) southwards. The slope up to Juniper Top still held Hawfinches though. The 'ticks', 'sips' and 'squeaks' built up, and, just like earlier in the morning I found myself surrounded by a loose flock of c35 birds. There were a further c15 birds at the northern end of the wood at the start of the open hill top.

The last site to check, in a very lazy fashion, was Mickleham Downs, which I did from the footpath that runs between Juniper Bottom and Cockshot Cottage. Seven were found. What a morning...

I have now been fortunate in seeing big numbers on three occasions - 200 on Jan 30th (Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough), 170 on February 10th (Bramblehall Wood) and 140 today. This has taken many hours of slogging the footpaths. What seems to be happening is that the general area is holding at least 200 birds, which normally spread out across the Bramblehall - Ashurst - Juniper Top sites, and at times come together. The fact that I'm the lucky so-and-so who is seeing these amalgamations is just because I'm there a lot of the time. I reckon for the greatest chance of numerical success it's best to find a clear view across to Bramblehall Wood (maybe halfway along) and wait. It took me over two hours this morning to see the large numbers, and they were at the very south of the wood that I don't usually check.

These are exciting times.

Saturday, 10 February 2018


Another day, another dose of Hawfinches, but what a dose! With birds being faithful to Bramblehall Wood I returned this morning and immediately found up to 30 perched on top of bare trees, which quickly built up (with some birds flying across to Juniper Top). From my position on the 'Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough' lower footpath I became aware that I could hear Hawfinches calling above me. They were noisy and easy to track as they moved along the tree tops. It was a large flock, but numbers were difficult to assess due to having to look through a tangle of twigs and branches. However, the flock built and got an awful lot noisier - it soon became apparent that a minimum of 110 birds were involved. After ten minutes or so they moved up the slope towards Ashurst Rough.

Some of these birds may have doubled back, as a scan across the field towards Bramblehall Wood revealed a handful of perched birds on show. Slowly but surely, over a half-hour period, birds appeared out of nearby Yews and arrived from within the wood, and in time a clear 63 were perched out in the open. Before I could wipe the smile of of my face a single flock of 50 birds flew in and joined them! This was incredible. I scanned left and right along the woodland edge and was staggered to see more birds on top of trees... ones and twos breaking cover, other small flocks appearing from the wood, even more flitting over from Juniper Top. Wonderful. Again I had to ask myself how many were present? If I had to give a firm, 'no less than' figure, then 170 seemed fair - fair, but undercooked - there could be many more. I could only assume that the birds that had earlier made their way up towards Juniper Top had returned. The majority of the Hawfinches slowly melted back into Bramblehall Wood. I left the path with at least 50 still on show. Throughout my two and a half hours on site I did not see another birder.

This area is undoubtably favoured by Hawfinches. The map above gives an idea of where the 'Hawfinch hot-spots' are. Do those that I saw today include individuals from the 200 recorded on Juniper Top on January 30th - or is there a turnover of birds? As you can see, all of the sites are close to each other. Just how many birds there are in these wooded tops and valleys is anybody's guess. If I had to come up with a figure I reckon it would be close to 300 - but that would be but a total guess. At the moment Headley Heath seems to have fallen out of favour, the summit of Juniper Top is haunted by fewer birds, Mickleham Downs is still a reliable site and Bramblehall Woods is undoubtably the current hot-spot. There could be Hawfinches moving about from site to site, or just a lot of site-faithful birds popping up from their hiding places in front of a lucky birder. Below are my own personal observations since the invasion began.

2017  Headley Heath
A single on 10 October, 32 on 31 October, 26-35 on 1 November, 20+ on 6 November, 15 on 13 November, 12 on 4 December, two on 22 December
          Juniper Bottom, nr Box Hill
          Six flew north-west on 15 October
          Nork, Banstead
          Five (a four and a one) flew east over the back garden on 16 October
          Canons Farm, Banstead
          A single flew south on 25 November
2018  Mickleham Downs
c20 on wooded slopes due east of village on 9 January; six on 10 January; 10 on 13 January, 16 on 6 February, 40+ on 8 February
          Juniper Top/Ashurst Rough, nr Box Hill
Two on 10 January, 70+ on 29 January, 200+ on 30 January, a single in song on 4 February, 110 on 10 February (part of Bramblehall Wood flock, see below)
          Headley Heath
          A single on 18 January
          Bramblehall Wood
          c20 on 4 February, 47 on 6 February, 17 on 8 February, 170 on 10 February
          Ranmore Common
          27, on 6 February, in Dorking Woods

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Orchid Winter

I'm spending an unhealthy amount of time in the Box Hill - Mickleham area at the moment. It is a beautiful part of the world and it does have its fair share of natural history gems, so it is time well spent. This morning found me sliding down a steep slope on the south-eastern side of Mickleham Downs (to the east of White Hill). It was off the beaten track and away from any of the footpaths that I usually take. I was stopped in my slippery tracks by a number of Bird's-nest Orchids, or rather the dead husks, of last year's plants (above). They were scattered about beneath the beech trees, well hidden against the leaf layer. Looking around me I realised that they stretched way ahead of me - and either side of me - as far as my naked eye could see. Hundreds of them! As I carried on, so did the orchids. I had to reassess my count - there were low thousands of them. I've never seen so many. They carried on underneath a small conifer plantation and out the other side back into the beech woodland. I pay my respects each year to the few discrete colonies that I know of close-by, and come late May I will do so again, with the addition of visiting this enormous population.

It was a beautiful morning, with a low sun, little wind and a light of pure clarity. I quite happily wandered about, taking photographs of trees, frosty fields, distant hill tops...and Hawfinches. Oh yes, you didn't think that I had forgotten about them had you? A revisit to Bramblehall Wood revealed a minimum of 17 birds (most probably more). I spent a good couple of hours scanning the south-eastern slope of White Hill (part of Mickleham Downs). You can get good views of it from the footpath that runs parallel with Headley Lane and also from a little way up the Juniper Top slope. For the first hour there was scarcely a moment when I did not have a Hawfinch in view, either perched on tree tops or in flight. Small flocks of three-to-eight birds were commonplace, with one of 20 being the largest. My estimate of 40 is on the low side - there are most probably plenty more. They were seen from Juniper Hall all the way along to Cockshot Cottage. It's a large expanse of Beech, Oak, Yew and Box to hide in. Want to see some poor images? Thought so.

I'm really going to miss them when they've gone...