Friday, 22 June 2018

Langley Vale on a sunny Friday afternoon

It was too nice an afternoon to stay indoors and watch Brazil v Costa Rica, so I popped up to the farmland at Langley Vale, home to a wonderful arable flora. I didn't stay all that long and mostly checked the edge of the field where Field Gromwell (below) grows. It is still doing well, with maybe 100+ plants along the 100m section that I checked.

It is aways worth checking the fields by Nohome Farm, where a profusion of flower is almost a certainty. Today's display was dominated by Ox-eye Daisy (top).

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Down by the river, up on the chalk

I have a list of 'target' plants, mostly of species that occur in the south-east of England and which I have yet to see. So far this year I have been able to seek a few of them out, the most pleasing of which have been Clustered Clover and Wild Liquorice. Yesterday another one of them became reality, with White Horehound (above) at Arundel Park. Only two plants were found, both at the top of a steep chalky slope where the ground had been disturbed by rabbits.

The area around Arundel offers plenty of varied habitat, including wetland. Along the River Arun, and the adjacent wetlands, a fine cross-section of plants were found, including Arrowhead, Marsh Woundwort, Brooklime, Brookweed, Blue-water Speedwell and Amphibious Bistort. Also of note were a few spikes of Annual Beard Grass.

Annual Beard Grass - an rare relatively easy grass to identify
Marsh Woundwort - a magnificent flower

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

To blog or not to blog

Stewart, over at the excellent Stewchat/Boulmer Birder/From the Notebook blog, has used the medium of Twitter to canvass opinion:

Many of you are Natural History . I am wondering how Twitter and Facebook has affected your blog output? Im wondering if my blog has had its day, its been going 12 yrs with 750,000 views... Comments please.

Now, what is becoming obvious to me is that many of the blogs that I really enjoy - those that are a mixture of natural history observation that is laced with humour and entertainment - are withering on the vine. The bloggers concerned are either phasing, getting fed up or cannot find the time to craft posts. It can be a bit of a chore at times to pump this stuff out, and that is exactly what we shouldn't do - pump it out.

First up, why did we start blogging in the beginning? A few possibilities - the novelty of being able to contact like-minded folks across the globe; a platform to share thoughts and sightings; a vent for our frustrations; a chance to show off our writing, artwork, photography, 'brilliant' thought processes etc, etc. Let's face it, we love an audience, crave feedback and feed off the 'virtual profile' that we create. Sounds pompous doesn't it, but it's a truth.

So why stop, or at least think about stopping? Maybe the blogger isn't getting feedback. Fewer visitors. Cannot find the oomph to post. Might have said it all and finds themselves repeating the same old stuff. I know, I've been there - here's a picture of a Bee Orchid, it must be June...

But... sometimes you are reminded as to why you carry on. When you realise that you have a network of fellow bloggers and natural history friends that you've never actually met but feel as if you really know; when somebody meets you in the field and thanks you for the blog (yes, that has happened a few times); when you can disseminate information with ease (such as the Hawfinch paper); to share information on where to go and what to see; to try and inspire others to take up the natural history baton.

Blogs are still relevant. I like Twitter, but it cannot always say what I want it to say. Sometimes I need to expand. It's a bit like comparing 'news headlines' to a 'magazine feature' - if you just want the gist, then Twitter is fine, but blogging gives depth. Facebook is OK to expand on a theme, but you will end up arguing the toss with a number of keyboard warriors regardless of whether your posting was considerate or not.

So, to Dyl, Gavin, Jono, Stewart, Lee, Derek and all of the other bloggers out there - keep it up. If you need a break, fine, but come back refreshed and with the certainty that your voice, through the medium of the post, is welcomed across the globe, and in many more homes than you would believe.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Scopolamine and hyoscyamine...

...are apparently just two of the toxins to be found in Deadly Nightshade, the North Downs very own package of poison. Although the roots carry the most potent doses, the whole plant is pretty noxious and you would be a fool to pick, chew, lick or digest any of it. And if you do, while you're at it, why not find a gang of adders to cosy up to just to increase the risk of hospitalisation.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Wild Liquorice

This is a plant that had eluded me - I'd searched the well-known Surrey site at Brockham Quarry several times, but had failed - that is until this morning. Thanks to a combination of scrub clearance and some kind and helpful directions, I was able to pay my respects to a sizeable clump (several square metres) just off of the footpath above Brockham Quarry, with a further plant some 10m away. It was a larger and more robust species than I expected and has become a firm favourite. There must be more to find...

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

If you go into the bracken today...

.. you could be in for a nasty surprise. And the same could be said if you mooch around in long grass. For, my friends, we are in the 'tick season', those tiny ectoparasite arachnids that feed on the blood of mammals - and, by mammals, that does include us! They will crawl up your legs, find a dark and warm place (thighs, waist and, er, other regions) and then start to take a slow, long drink.

It could be hours later (or even days) that the feasting tick will be noticed, as before they become engorged with your blood they can be but the size of a poppy seed, but after a few days will swell to the size of a small pea. And if you do find one, do not panic - they can be removed, with a special tick device or pointed tweezers. Apparently square-ended tweezers are not recommended (as you do not necessarily get all of the tick out with them) although I've never had any problem with them in doing the job, and I've just removed 22 of the little bastards from my body over the past 24 hours! Yes, that's right 22. I may not be finished with them yet! All the size of poppy seeds, all around my midriff, thighs and one that decided to get even more intimately acquainted with me - I just hope the swelling remains...

I had been botanising and moth-ing over the previous couple of days in bracken (Headley Heath) and boggy grassland (Thundry Meadows). I believe that I picked them up at Thundry Meadows, a place bedevilled with all sorts of large, biting flies. I've only come off worse in the Scottish Highlands with GBH due to assault by midges.

Most tick bites are harmless and will cause no further problems beyond giving some people the he-bee-gee-bees realising that they have been walking around with a vampire attached to them for a few hours. But some ticks can carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection which, if left untreated, can lead to a life of debilitating illness.

The image above was taken in 2012, and is a tick that I found in my navel. It is engorged with my blood and, after a few days, a red ring appeared around the site. This is an early sign of Lyme disease. I went off to the doctors and was given a course of antibiotics. Six years later and I have had no suggestion of any symptoms. I was unlucky to have developed LD but fortunate to have known the signs in doing so.

So, if you are 'ticked', quickly remove the WHOLE tick. Bathe and clean the area. Look for any sign of activity (ie red ring, feeling 'flu-like') and if you do, seek immediate medical attention. If you act promptly then everything will be fine.

I will now endeavour to wear long-trousers when out in such habitats, tuck them into my socks and refrain from lying out across the ground. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to carry on with my body search. I bet there's at least another little sod lurking somewhere!

STOP PRESS: Two more found - I reckon some are so small that I'm not being able to see them until they have fed for a while and subsequently increased in size.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Thundry Meadows

Close to Elstead, on the banks of the River Wey, is situated a gem of a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve. Thundry Meadows is largely comprised of water meadows and Alder carr, habitats that I rarely spend time in. My visit today was largely to try and find White-barred Clearwing, which has been recorded here in the past. Despite good weather, the lures remained un-visited.

It was good to get down with the plants, with much head-scratching involved at an assemblage that I do not immerse myself into very often. Highlights included plenty of Marsh Cinquefoil (above), Common Valerian, Fen Bedstraw, Fine-leaved Water-dropwort and Bogbean. I need to come back and spend time trying to come to terms with the sedges, rushes and grasses - groups that I have shamefully neglected.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Great Oak Beauty and pheromone success

A first for the garden last night in the form of a Great Oak Beauty (above) that absolutely dwarfed the Willow Beauties around it. The rest of the catch was also interesting, with a Brindled White-spot only the second garden record, plus other 'nice to see species' such as Peach Blossom, Figure of Eighty (below) and Varied Coronet.

This afternoon I took my pheromone lures off to Headley Heath in a search for both White-barred Clearwing (failed) and Large Red-belted Clearwing (success, to CUL lure, in an area of birch tree stumps).

Friday, 8 June 2018

A bit of a failure

The photograph above was taken this morning from the Thames tow-path at Ham in Surrey. It is looking north towards Richmond Hill, a place that my wife would like to move to. The one big flaw in her plan is our lack of the £3-5 million needed to secure even the most modest of houses looking down on the river...

My visit was botanically-themed, and I was keen to take myself out of my comfort zone and try to identify what I could on the river's edge, footpaths and nearby meadows. It had its moments, mostly courtesy of a few naturalised species. I was, however, disappointed with the time spent on Ham Lands, a sizeable grassy reserve to which I had access to a species list whose highlights I largely failed to find. It didn't help that I stumbled into a 'gay meeting place' and quickly left what looked like a promising (for plants!) area. I'm not in the least bit homophobic but do find these areas unnerving to be in, especially when 'loitering with intent' in the study of natural history.  I need to return after having done a bit more homework.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Bedstraw double!

Bedstraws are not the most showy of plants. In fact, they are pretty nondescript members of the botanical world, easily overlooked and not straightforward to identify. I was made aware of a couple of rare bedstraws close by to me here in Surrey, so with a morning to spare I went to take a look.

First up was Slender Bedstraw (Gallium pumilum) on Colley Hill. This species is becoming very rare indeed, but a few hundred plants are currently on show. I was able to find some Hedge Bedstraw nearby to get my eye in, with the pumilum being much slenderer, longer and narrower leaved (above), with some of the leaves exhibiting the characteristic backward-curved prickles, a hand-lens being essential to see them. The flowers were difficult to photograph in the breeze (below). I also fancy I saw some long-leaved Hedge Bedstraw (ssp erectum?)

It wasn't all small-white-jobs, with the Meadow Clary, caged and at its only Surrey station,  in fine flower, plus a single healthy looking Ground-pine.

Being on a 'bedstraw-roll' I went and visited a small piece of open ground in Merstham where Wall Bedstraw (Gallium parisiense) is known. This species is even slighter than the Slender, with tiny flowers and forward-prickled leaves. The thin stem is also rough to touch. It is a difficult plant to photograph but hopefully the picture below conveys some of its character.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

County plant lists

I don't know why it has taken me until now, but I have never before assembled personal county plant lists. 90% of time spent botanising has been in my home county of Surrey, with most of the remaining 10% being in Kent and Sussex (with Dorset and Hampshire deserving an honourable mention). I have just completed the Surrey list (below), which has had the affect of inspiring me to seek out a few of the many glaring omissions! I still need to add precise data for the first date of recording to some species, but that can wait. It is also enjoyable going through old notebooks to check such mundane things as to whether or not I have seen Lesser Swine-cress in Dorset. I have hours more fun ahead of me to get the other county lists under way. Above is another one of those naturalised species - Californian Poppy at Priest Hill - used here as an excuse to pretty up an otherwise monochrome post and act as a red rag to those who believe such species to be a blight on our landscape. Me? I love 'em!

A species personally seen in the county it is highlighted in yellow. Other species that I've seen in the UK appear in both their common and binomial forms, all the rest are future challenges. The indication of an R, RR or RRR follows Stace's rarity categorisation.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Naturalised plants

I like nothing better than a patch of waste ground full of naturalised (or escaped) plants. They are generally bright and colourful and add a splash of vibrancy to what can be pretty forlorn places. Whether they appeared thanks to dumped soil, fly tipped waste or just bloody-minded opportunism, all are welcome. There is a patch of hard-standing at Canons Farm in front of Lunch Wood, where over the years mounds of concrete, tarmac and earth have been placed to deter squatters entering and setting up camp. This morning there was a fine show of plants amongst the undulating ground, with multi-coloured Foxgloves, Columbines of various shades, a blowsy and vibrant dark-blue geranium, Love-in-a-mist (above) and Fox-and-cubs (below). They beat Hogweed and Stinging Nettles!

Apart from a Hobby and two singing Yellowhammers (below) it was quiet bird-wise, plus a rather stunning Alabonia geoffrella (bottom). I doubt if there is a better looking micro moth out there.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Man alive!

I like counting things - birds, plants, moths, butterflies, it doesn't matter. I'll even count my books, CDs, fingers and toes if there is nothing else on offer. So when confronted with a fine show of Man Orchids on one of the lower slopes of Box Hill this morning, I started counting... a minimum of 350 spikes was the not to shabby total. I was also pleased to find my earliest ever Meadow Brown.

Afterwards a quick visit was made to the eastern-end of Denbigh's Hillside where I was able to count more stuff - Adonis Blues - with at least 45 being present, but only a small part of the slope was searched. Quite a few were resting on bare ground, but a stiff breeze made photography a little challenging. Only a couple of Bee Orchids (bottom) were found.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The elephant in the trap... a small one. Small Elephant Hawk-moth is a regular here at Banstead, and in most years it is the commonest hawk-moth that I record. The rarest? Of the resident species that I've had it would be Privet, although I should give honourable mention to the single migrant Striped!

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The loneliness of the long-distance birder

Living 90-miles from my beloved Dungeness means that I cannot really treat it as 'my patch'. True, I could get up at cuckoo's fart each morning and arrive for a dawn start, but that is not a realistic option on many levels. The drive to Dungeness can be painful due to heavy traffic on the M25, 26, 20 and increasingly at the point itself. I struggle to recall the days when a bank holiday weekend meant no more than an extra ten minutes on the journey and a couple more people staring at the lighthouses. Today you might as well resign yourself to forging a close relationship with the flora of the motorway central reservations and hard shoulders as you crawl along to the fumes of trucks heading to (and from) Dover. And, according to the sensible people, Brexit will only make this scenario worse.

Where else to get my 'proper' birding fix? Rye Harbour is a great reserve, a pleasant drive (via the A21 and Hawkhurst) but is still a 90-minute drive if all of the traffic and roads are behaving themselves. Pagham Harbour? An old stomping ground of mine but increasingly blighted by traffic hold ups near Chichester and down to Selsey, and further in miles and time than Rye. Closer to home is Pulborough Brooks, the closest to an inland sea you will get away from the man-made concrete monstrosity of Staines Reservoir - and don't even suggest that I ought to throw in my lot with that place! Admittedly I have seen some good birds there, but it is like birding at a flooded multi-storey car park. No, not for me, and no, it's not in f***ing Surrey. Pulborough is more of an option but, in reality is 'coastal-lite', decaffinated birding with the sugar and salt removed. But still full-fat compared to where I do end up.

So I plough a (virtually) lonely furrow here on the North Downs scarp. It has its moments, but not as many as I'd like. What would be great is to walk out with a realistic chance of bumping into a Rose-coloured Starling. Or finding a singing Marsh Warbler. Not scraping by on a diet of Wheatears, Whinchats and the outside chance of a Spotted Flycatcher. So I check Twitter, reading about the exploits of those I follow primarily in Kent and Sussex. Through gritted teeth I feel pleased for them as Great Reed Warblers, Pallid Harriers and memorable sea watches are relayed to me via 140 or 280 characters. It can galvanise me into getting out in an attempt to join in with the party. At other times it is nothing but crushing. It could be worse, but I'm starting to struggle to think of a more disadvantaged part of the country to bird in.

Answers on a postcard...

Monday, 28 May 2018

Alder Kitten

Only the second Alder Kitten to be recorded from the garden. Considering the warmth of the night the total catch was a bit disappointing, although a virtual full moon in clear skies didn't help. With migrants being recorded on the coast, it's a case of keeping on high alert!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

2,000 Bird's-nests plus Hawfinch withdrawals

On the steep, southern slopes of Mickleham Downs you will find predominantly beech woodland, mixed with stands of yew, box and, in places, larch. Here be Bird's-nest Orchids. There are known discreet colonies to seek out and, no doubt, many undiscovered groups are also present on the difficult to access sections. For the best experience head to Cockshott Wood - just above the small car park there is a large colony which is loosely scattered over an area the size of a football pitch. I spent some time last Wednesday afternoon trying to come up with a meaningful count and reached the conclusion that there were no fewer than 2,000 spikes present. They are some sight.

From here you can look south and see the elevated woodland at Juniper Top, Ashurst Rough and - most importantly - Bramblehall Wood. Only a few weeks ago they were home to the largest flock of Hawfinches to be recorded in Britain. I did feel a pang of regret that they are no longer around having spent many happy hours watching them over the winter, the memories of which will long live with me. I listened intently for any tell-tale signs of a few still being present, but no - I do believe that they have all gone. I doubt that I will see such sights again.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Dungeness mid-May birds

A bit late, but here is a brief account of my recent week at Dungeness (May 15th - 23rd).

Passerine migrants were really hard to come by. Most species numbers were lower than to be expected, especially hirundines and Sedge Warbler. Frequent searches of the scrub were largely disappointing. A modest, but varied passage of waders was experienced, with Whimbrel, Knot, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Avocet all enjoyable components, along with the star billing, a Kentish Plover (below). This bird was the first to be recorded at Dungeness for 13 years - I would see KPs on an annual basis here back in the 1970s and 1980s. My resolve not to twitch was tested on May 19th when a Terek Sandpiper turned up at Rye - I cracked. It was more than agreeable (above)!

Sea watching was surprisingly good for so late in the season, with 'Commic' terns on the move in their thousands (both Common and Arctic seen), and with them were good numbers of Black. I even managed to jam into a latish Pomarine Skua, while the DBO unprecedented run on Manx Shearwaters continued. Little Gulls were also present throughout, although most were to be found on the RSPB reserve (below).

A brief flighty Hoopoe (18th), a close encounter with a Bee-eater (19th) and a slow-moving Honey-buzzard (23rd) were the cherries on the top of another fascinating late-spring stay.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Dungeness Flora

Although any stay at Dungeness will be primarily focused on birds, it would be foolhardy not to pay attention to the splendid flora on offer - here are a few tasters...

Clustered Clover - a new species for me, and 're-discovered' close to the observatory
Bird's-foot - there was a fine show on the sand at Littlestone
Sand Catchfly - happy to flower in the hundreds close to beach huts and holidaymakers
Annual Knawel - underwhelming, un-showy, yet a firm favourite of mine, at Littlestone
Burrowing Clover - if you are at Dungeness, look down - it is all over the peninsula
Sheep's Sorrel - literally millions of plants turn the grassland red
Thrift - on the western side of the point can be found extensive drifts

Monday, 21 May 2018

I must go down to the sea again

I really should do more sea watching, but when you spend most of your birding time in land-locked Surrey then there is a major flaw in that plan...

Anyhow, the day started cloudy with just the merest hint of precipitation. First bird after stepping out of the observatory back door was a Hobby, quickly followed by a Grey Plover - birds were moving and the day seemed to possess promise. Fast forward seven hours and I had spent a largely fruitless morning on the point and reserve. Dave W had had some sea watching success however, so from 13.30 hrs I took myself off to the beach for what turned out to be a splendid four hours.

At first there was little to suggest that much was going to happen, but then the terns started to move, mostly Commics, and a steady eastward passage was underway. There then appeared to be a logjam in this onward movement, as a mass of birds gathered to the west of the patch and started feeding. Scope views revealed further birds way out. I estimated at least 800. The release of these birds was just as sudden as their gathering, as flocks started to break off and carry on eastwards, coming closer in the process and revealing Black Terns to be in their number (81 passed east), along with two Little Terns and a few Arctics. It was tremendous birding, with the Commic Tern total reaching 1700. To add icing to this ornithological cake was a single, splendid, light-phase Pomarine Skua which showed off its spoons as it magestically headed east. Marvellous stuff.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Good birds

Part of the allure of spending mid-to-late May at Dungeness is the possibility of unusual birds. As already laid out in a recent post, the last four years has been kind to me at this time of year here. On Friday the first success came via a flighty Hoopoe at Galloways, courtesy of the ever-searching Martin C. The bird did not stay long, bounding away deeper into the Army ranges, although it was later relocated on the Dengemarsh Road to the relief of the many observers who had not been as quick off the marks (or as close) as Mark H and I had.

Saturday was starting to resemble a day of unfulfilled promise until news broke of a Terek Sandpiper just over the county boundary at the superb Rye Harbour reserve. I weighed up the options - stay put scanning an almost empty sky - or indulge in the uncharacteristic behaviour of a filthy twitch. The latter won hands down. After picking up Martin C we arrived on site to be greeted by distant and heat hazed views of the bird, although we were able to take up a much better vantage point further along the Salt Pool's edge and, in good light, the Terek played ball and walked right up to us, giving scintillating views and enabling all present to happily click away on a variety of photographic products. It had turned into a Dungeness away day, with most of the regulars present, and it was good to see Mike B and Matt P there too. Back at Dungeness, the Hoopoe was allowing all comers a chance to watch it again and a Bee-eater that had been seen briefly earlier in the day was relocated, and decided to perch up on bushes close to the Hanson Hide, much to the delight of a local gathering of birders in the evening light. Some of us - alright Mark H and myself - missed out, due to having already got stuck into an evening of FA Cup Final / food and alcohol. Our resolve would have been sorely tested had it been a Blue-cheeked...

And then this morning, in overcast conditions, I found myself walking along the sandy track to the Water Tower when my daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the liquid 'prrrp' of a Bee-eater. The bird circled above me before heading out eastwards over ARC and being lost to view. Another birder had independently picked this bird up from the screen hide and he too lost the bird in the distance. Before there was time to reflect on my 'rainbow interloper' I was made aware of a Kentish Plover (found by Liz H) on Burrowes. Now, back in my youth this would not have warranted such a frenzied response, but this was, unbelievably, the first Dungeness record since 2005! Cue a procession of birders who were able to watch this dainty plover that remained faithful to a small shingle island.

So, three days and four birds (albeit one away from Dungeness). Is it being greedy to hope for a bit more?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Two more

Clovers, that is.

After yesterday's blank on Clustered, the observatory assistant Jacques went out to check an historic site close to the observatory, and came up trumps with several hundred flowering heads on show. Images at a later date. Clearly with the bit between his teeth, he then tracked down several plants of Suffocated, a species that I have not seen for several years. This trip is turning into a bit of a 'clover fest'.

The birds remain quiet, although a dribble of waders continue to pass over the point (Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, etc). I'm still holding out hope for something unusual to come sailing on by...

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In clover

With a nagging, cool northerly wind the birding was never going to creep above mundane, and it didn't. The beauty of Dungeness is that if the birds are a no-show then you can fall back on plants and insects - we chose the former.

The sand dunes of Littlestone beckoned, with public land on the seaward side of the golf course chosen to explore. This area is well known botanically, and we were delighted to find a good number of notable species. The main target was Clustered Clover, a plant that I have failed to find here a number of times. Despite clear directions, and knowing that we were in the right place, it took an hour's searching before we had to admit defeat. Our sixty minutes of crawling around on all fours had paid off however, as some of the other clovers present were not so difficult, with Burrowing, Knotted, Birdsfoot, Rough, and Haresfoot also being recorded. There was masses of Bird's-foot (not the clover), Annual Knawel and plenty of Smooth Cat's-ear to feast our eyes on. A few naturalised plants added a splash of colour, including Duke of Argyll's Teaplant and Portugeuse Squill. Flowers, not for the first time, had saved the day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

From volcanic rock to shingle

After a four-day family break in Edinburgh - where ancient volcanic rock outcrops loom over the city - I soon found myself back on the shingle ridges of Dungeness. It may well be quiet on the bird front here, but mid-May with blue skies and NE to SE winds (as forecast and lessening in strength) is usually an indicator of a good bird or two. Over the past five years, staying at the bird observatory at this time of year has been very profitable indeed, with my notebook having been populated by Great Reed Warbler, Bonaparte's Gull, Rose-coloured Starling, four Black-winged Stilts, three Bee-eaters, Serin, two Montagu's Harriers, two White-winged Black Terns, Black Kite, Honey Buzzard... all good stuff!

I arrived in a gentle easterly breeze, sunny and warm, the air perfumed with the profuse flowering of plants on the shingle. The ground is stained rusty red by millions of Sheep-sorrel; Gorse and Broom add splashes of yellow, whilst white is supplied by Snow-in-Summer and Sea Campion. It is an understated spectacle, but a spectacle never the less. It is one of the reasons that I keep on coming back.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

'Sky watching' - the inland birder's 'sea watching'

I was going to start this post by mentioning that us birders in land-locked Surrey cannot obviously indulge in the ornithological pastime of sea watching, but then remembered that this is not strictly true - I took the photograph above from the top of Leith Hill a few years ago that clearly shows the sea, believed to be at Shoreham. It would, however, take a fantastic telescope, plenty of imagination and an awful lot of fabrication to come up with any meaningful observations...

Instead, us inlanders can use the sky. As a surrogate sea this is quite a good compromise. The same rules apply - find a clear view, take up position and wait. The birds come to you. There is the need for good flight identification (like the sea), it can be weather dependent (again, like the sea) and can throw up the unexpected. In addition - and unlike the sea - bird calls are an important component of the birder's armoury.

Sky watching has the advantage of being able to be participated in from almost anywhere (although I've always found the cupboard-under-the-stairs to be pretty useless). There are hot spots (hill tops, gaps in hills, river valleys) with my closest site to home being at Canons Farm, which has big skies and relative height. We also believe that the nearby A217 acts as a navigational aid to birds, as we have seen flocks of birds (including patch-scarce waders and ducks) flying along its line. You can relive a couple of my memorable sky watches from the Farm here and here.

This morning it was quiet, but the Farm (and sky watching) always has something to offer, with six Red Kites, all singles, heading between south and west.