Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The day of the Hawfinch

Warning: if you have had enough of these big-billed finches, do not continue reading...

After yesterday's delights I was up for some more Hawfinch action, and arrived at Juniper Top just after 08.00hrs. The birding started well, with two Hawfinches flying up from Juniper Bottom and alighting in the area of woodland that was so productive 24 hours earlier. After waiting for twenty minutes (to see if any more birds came up from the valley) I entered the woods and headed a short way in to where most of yesterday's birds had performed so well. Although there was little calling, a tight group of 60 birds were located sitting passively at the top of several beech trees. They slowly started to drop down into neighbouring Yews, then proceeded to move away. By now they were calling frequently and were easy to follow. Some 100m further on a stand of Larches had attracted the flock, and now it became obvious that the original 60 had joined others. The calling became incessant, a white-noise of 'ticks' and 'sips' - it could be described at times as a frenzy. I stood underneath the tall conifers and watched as the birds moved further into the woods. By now I was convinced that there were 'three figures' involved, but needed to be able to get a better viewpoint to make a meaningful count.

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

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

So, how many? There could not have been any fewer than 200 and there were most probably more. I am aware that such a count seems ridiculously high. 'Birds in England' (Brown and Grice) give just one count of 200, at Epping Forest, in Essex on 28 Feb 1942. 'The Birds of Surrey' (Wheatley) refers to 'hundreds' being present at Leatherhead on 20th February 1927. There have certainly been a number of three-figure counts made during this current invasion. But my count is an honest and, I believe, accurate one.

By 11.30hrs the birds became harder to find, and there were spells when I wasn't able to locate any. Some birders arrived and left empty handed. About mid-day a flock of 40-50 were being faithful to the north-western edge of the wood. I left the site at 13.30hrs having not seen or heard a bird for an hour. Just like the Juniper Bottom flock of 2013, maybe these birds have an early morning habit.

Visiting: park in Whitehill Carpark (Headley Road) TQ175529. Walk south-east up the open slope until reaching the summit, Juniper Top, and go through the only gate. Now you will be at the woodland edge. Turn right along footpath and after 100-200m start to check trees on the slope to your right. Back at the gate, turn left and take minor path that wiggles along the top of a slope. This path, for maybe half-a-mile has been excellent for the past two mornings. The large flock was lost to the woods at this furthest point and they extend much further - beyond them is a patchwork of similar habitat in which a Hawfinch flock could easily hide. Good luck!

Monday, 29 January 2018

An unforgettable hour

Surrey Hawfinch real estate
I was pleased to learn that c50 Hawfinch had been seen at Juniper Top yesterday. It is a place that I regularly visit, and one that during this current Hawfinch invasion I have been checking in the hope of finding them - up until this morning my rewards had been of just two birds.

I arrived just after 09.00hrs and walked up to the top via the Juniper Bottom path (scene of the 2013 large Hawfinch flock). I took it slowly, scanning the top of the valley, stopping and listening, but without success. Once I reached the top I then turned left and travelled along the flat path to the open and grassy heights at Juniper Top. Just before I reached the gate that takes you onto the chalk downland I heard a Hawfinch. I stopped and waited. Nothing. A few steps on I heard it again - no, maybe more than one - but deeper into the woods. I wandered into the undergrowth for maybe 25m and was aware that the vocals were getting stronger and more numerous. The odd shape was moving across the tree tops and, through my binoculars, confirmed them as being Hawfinches. But how many?

Leaning up against an enormous beech I took stock. The calls were now all around me and directly above. They were continual, and for such a weak call, quite loud - there were many birds calling at the same time. Both 'tick' and 'sip' calls were being made. In front of me were a number of mature bare Beech trees, with maybe half a dozen Yews in between them. It became apparent that quite a few of the Hawfinches were regularly visiting the Yews, and the comings and goings of the birds from Yew to Beech tops and back was constant. Any scan of the tree tops provided Hawfinches, although accurate counting was hampered by the denseness of the canopies, but I was reaching 10-20 birds on most scans, at the same time as many more birds were calling all around.

Birds were on view all the time. Most were high, partially hidden by branches, and those that came closer would pass quickly by. I didn't bother trying to get any pictures. The flock didn't once join en masse, rather small congregations would form,  take to the air, circle round and land nearby, then make their way to the Yews. The largest grouping reached 45, at a time when I had seen a different flock of 20+ enter the Yews, while additional birds were calling in the area. A minimum of 70 birds were very much that - a minimum. These birds took little notice, allowing me to wander in amongst them.

I stayed with them for an hour. What a special, unforgettable hour it was.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

The heatwave breaks

Some of you with a good memory may remember that last year I began a series of posts looking back at my earliest birding experiences. I got up to the late summer of 1976. 

Part 13: August – September 1976
I had returned from a fortnight’s birding in Suffolk with enough ornithological memories to last an age, but all they did was to make me want to create more of them – and that meant more time birding! The day after unpacking my rucksack and filling my parents washing machine with dirty clothing, I was being picked up by Dave Eland to visit Pagham Harbour, in the company of Mike Netherwood and Nick Gardner. On the journey to the coast I bored them rigid with my tales from Suffolk, which they kindly listened to and made all the right noises in all the right places.

There were plenty of migrants on the Sussex coast that day, even though the hot, sunny and calm weather of the past few weeks had continued. The churchyard at Church Norton was brimming with Spotted Flycatchers, sallying forth from branches and headstones, with vantage points being at such a premium that a small flock had gathered on the church roof. In amongst them were two Pied Flycatchers that took up most of our attention. The number of Wheatears and Whinchats that we found in the nearby hedgerows and farm fields were also impressive, with double-figure counts of both, our scanning also revealing a good number of Yellow Wagtails, whose calls were a welcome backdrop to the afternoon. Our highlight was my second Wryneck in a week, a most showy bird that haunted the gorse-clad area between the church and Sidlesham Ferry. At times it took to the nearby fence posts, sat up and on view to a growing band of admirers. Willow Warblers and Whitethroats were breaking cover from every bush that we passed and a single Tree Pipit was a bonus. It wasn’t all about passerine migrants though – a fair sized wader roost had formed on the fields, a mixture of Golden Plover, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Curlew. The ferry was, as usual, productive, with Little Stints and a Curlew Sandpiper. The birding was good and ever so easy.

A number of visits to Beddington Sewage Farm were made over the following week, including an afternoon in which over 500 House Martins were feeding above the settling beds, but I had one eye on my upcoming ‘holiday’ to Dungeness. Having enjoyed our visit in April, Mark and Neil Greenway had agreed to join me once again on the shingle. We arrived at the bird observatory during the afternoon of September 5th, to be informed about a couple of ‘unproven’ rarities that had just been claimed – a Bonelli’s Warbler and a Dusky Thrush – neither of which were seen again or were subsequently accepted as genuine. We stayed for four nights. During this time the weather started to break down, and although we enjoyed lengthy sunny and warm periods the cloud began to build up and rain finally came. The heat wave of 1976 was in its death-throes. The water levels were so low that the southern long pit was almost dry. What water did remain lay listless around several large silty islands, on which a single Curlew Sandpiper was feeding. It ignored anybody that sat on the bank to watch it, walking past within a few feet of the observers.

It was a visit blessed with plenty of migrants. A scattering of Common Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers were a feature, with larger numbers of Lesser Whitethroat (100 on 7th), Spotted Flycatcher, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Wheatear and Whinchat (25 on 8th). My third Wryneck of the autumn popped up in front of me at the Long Pits, and I was able to sit on the shingle and enjoy it all to myself. This species, that had been on my wish-list since my early days of birding, had now become a reality three-times over. But I still yearned for more of them.

One particular afternoon the three of us returned to the observatory from a walk around the recording area to be greeted by a fellow resident: “There’s a Woodchat Shrike opposite Boulderwall Farm!” Seeing our immediate state of agitation (we had no transport) he continued: “Don’t worry lads, I’ll drive us round.” That was kind of him, but he had just started to cook himself lunch, so while he casually prepared his bacon and eggs we sat nearby stewing. It would have taken the best part of an hour to reach Boulderwall on foot, so we had little choice. After he had finished (and washed up) we all piled into his car and sped round. The shrike had gone.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Bird that make you 'fizz'

I was speaking to my very good friend Mark Hollingworth the other day, he who haunts the Dungeness beach in his quest to seawatch as much as possible. That very afternoon he had observed an unseasonal Sooty Shearwater and was absolutely buzzing - 'fizzing' he actually described it as. Even though he has seen tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters across the world, each and every time he claps eyes on one, it makes him 'fizz'. Why that particular species? We thought about this and started to look at other species that made him (and me) 'fizz'? We came to the conclusion that it has to be a species that you see relatively frequently so that it isn't the rarity of it that triggers your emotional response to it. These are the birds that sprang to my mind (in no particular order):

I think it's the suddenness of flushing a bird from the woodland leaf litter, an explosion of sound and cryptic browns that quickens the blood and leaves you wanting more as it disappears as quickly as it appeared. It's also the migrant arriving in off the sea, a brown incongruous bundle of feathers at odds with the waves and the gulls around it, keenly watched as it pitches onto the beach having just made it over the top of the spume in doing so. It's very much the dusk encounter on a summer heathland, the croaks and squeaks of its roding as it passes overhead oh so briefly before it merges into the gloom.

Barn Owl
A giant white moth of a bird, patrolling a distant grassy bank, silent and intent on its prey. A daytime treat when breeding is underway or when the winter weather is being harsh. Most encounters are at the day's end, a time of reflection and when the wind often drops. This bird is a reminder of the departed, it is other worldly and brings on a contemplative state of being.

Any scan of hedgerow, seaside scrub or woodland ride is made complete if one (or several) of these shining jewels comes into view. Great views are tempered by the brevity of most of them. They leave you wanting more and you will stand there waiting for a repeat performance, however long that may take.

The bird that got me into all of this natural history malarkey. My first ever view was like the proverbial thunderbolt - I just couldn't believe my eyes that there was something so wonderful to be seen in my suburban garden. Each one (of many thousands) seen since is connected to that very first one, which has never been forgotten. I still marvel at them, white rump, cinnamon-pink and shocking blue!

My first trawl through a field guide alerted me to the existence of such a beast - massive bill, bull neck, pleasing plumage. But they were wary, shy, uncommon. When I did see one it was fleeting and never fully scratched that Hawfinch-sized itch. I went in deliberate search of them. Many times this ended in failure, but when they did show, well, what a feeling. I have been lucky enough to discover breeding birds, found large flocks and have filled my boots with them during the current invasion. But I still go out to pay my respects to them, to pay homage and marvel at their apparent aloofness. There are never enough encounters, even on a day when there have been many.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Butcher's Broom

After the dark deluge of yesterday it was a welcome return to dry and sunny weather. Where better to spend the morning than on Mickleham Downs. In the image above you are looking at the steep south/south-eastern slope, covered largely in beech, box, holly and yew. It is the haunt of Bird's-nest Orchid, Wild Candytuft, Stinking Hellebore, Marsh Tit and - now and again - Hawfinch. Above the trees, and out of your view, is an open flat hill top of short grassland, beloved of chalk downland flowers. Although there is hardly a trace now, this hilltop (known today as 'The Gallops',) has a history of settlement, from the Bronze Age through to farms that were created at the time of the Roman invasion.

From roughly where I took the top photograph was a big clump of Butcher's Broom (pictured above). This is a strange plant, as what appear to be the leaves are in fact flattened stems (the true leaves being but papery scales that can be seen in the first picture). The bottom image shows the tiny flowers in the middle of the flattened stems. The whole shrub is of a stiff and rigid build, and back in the mists of time the branches were cut and bundled together to create crude brooms (and not just used by butchers I'd guess).

Bird-wise, very quiet save for a few Marsh Tits and several vocal Common Buzzards. As for the 'H' bird, not a sniff...

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A day in Eilat

In 1986 I spent two weeks driving around Israel with my good friend Sean McMinn. We spent most of the time in the very south of the country at Eilat. On such a winter's evening - dark and damp if not chilly - it is a boost to look back on warmer and bird-filled times...

March 25th 1986 
The heavy rain that fell in the early hours had stopped by dawn. Thankfully the tent had proven its claim to be waterproof. We awoke to a cloudy and cool dawn with a northerly breeze. After a brief and modest breakfast, Sean and I drove out towards the fabled km32.

Km32 literally referred to a kilometre distance marker that was to be found along the roadside that led northwards out of Eilat. There was, no doubt, also a km31 and a km33 post in existence, but for some reason lost in time, birders kept driving the 15 minutes from Eilat to km32 and km32 only, parking their cars and walking out into the desert towards the Jordanian border. It was consistently good for desert species. Nearby places had been tried but didn’t seem to produce similar results. On the surface it didn’t look any different from nearby habitat, being a flat stony desert with isolated clumps of low vegetation. It could have been that a chance stop at this spot by birders a few years previously had turned up a good selection of birds, and that, because of this success, others returned hoping to emulate them. Once it was established that you were guaranteed to see a list of desirable desert species, then the need to go elsewhere was missing.

On getting out of the car, two things immediately struck us. The first was that the air was filled with the song and striking flight displays of Hoopoe Larks. These birds performed immaculately, always in view and visually striking, flashing black and white wings and tail as they collapsed back to earth from their aerial manoeuvres. At least nine were present. Secondly was the virtual opaqueness of the light, caused by the low pearly-grey cloud which merged into the pale mono-colour of the desert, causing near ‘snow-blindness’ – maybe better termed ‘desert-blindness’. The light still maintained a luminescence that lit the birds we were watching in an ethereal light and added a certain reverence to the proceedings.

After flushing a Stone Curlew we then came across the first of seven Bar-tailed Desert Larks. These birds appeared almost finch-like rather than lark-like, having finer proportions compared to a Desert Lark. The upper parts were a warm sandy-orange and the tail exhibited a prominent and well demarcated outer band. We heard several sing – a discordant, simple sound, like an un-oiled hinge. Desert Larks were the commonest species present. At least 75 birds littered the area, a combination of small flocks and the odd single displaying bird. We were witnessing a select group of species. They were all desert specialists, and, even if it comes across as being complacent towards many species that we has so far seen in Israel, there were no ‘filler’ species in between those that were very much targets – each and every one observed a sought after bird.

An unfamiliar call overhead had us both frantically looking into the flat greyness of the sky, at first unable to see what was making the noise. Sean then picked up two Temminck’s Horned Lark’s that all too quickly flew passed us and across the road without stopping. I was quite keen to see this species much more closely, but it was all we would be allowed to see of this particular lark. We wandered further into the desert and were pleasantly surprised to find a most confiding female Spectacled Warbler perched on top of a low bush. Whilst watching it, a movement in the shade under a nearby bush revealed itself to be a Desert Warbler, the first of four. All had sandy-buff upper parts that contrasted with rusty red tails. Our last ‘new’ species for the morning was a female Desert Wheatear that flew in, paused briefly, then hurried on northwards. After a male and female Black-eared Wheatear put in an appearance we slowly strolled back to the car, drinking in the atmosphere provided by the displaying larks and the desert habitat. At this point we could have carried north a short distance to try and see a Lappet-faced Vulture, a traditional stakeout being situated in an area of mature acacia close to the road. However, it hadn’t been seen during the past week, so we assumed that would obviously mean that neither would we. How bloody defeatist.

We drove back to Eilat buoyed by a marvellous couple of hours birding and headed straight for the northern fields and the ringers tent. We had timed it just right as we were immediately shown both a Baillon’s Crake and a Spotted Crake in the hand. The bright chestnut upper parts of the former made the latter appear dowdy, but then the Spotted was still a smart, and much larger bird.

It was quite clear that there had been a fall as every bush leapt with warblers and the fields once again played host to feeding migrants. The most obvious component of the arrival were Lesser Whitethroats, with at least 100 being recorded. For the next couple of hours we were able to add Turtle Dove (11), Tree Pipit (18), Red-throated Pipit (70), Flava Wagtail (200), Sedge Warbler (30), Reed Warbler (10), Olivaceous Warbler (5), Orphean Warbler (3), Blackcap (6), Whitethroat (5), Ruppell’s Warbler (8), Willow Warbler (2), Chiffchaff (25), Bonelli’s Warbler (17), Wheatear (40), Black-eared Wheatear (4), Redstart (1) and Nightingale (1).

It was not just a case of keeping our eyes peeled to the ground as a steady raptor passage was underway. Steppe Buzzards numbered over 100, our Black Kite total reached 38 and single Steppe Eagle and Booted Eagle kept us guessing as to what was to come next. What came next was an immature eagle that flew low northwards that defied identification. We were, at the time, standing next to one of Europe’s foremost raptor experts (Dick Forsman), and even he shook his head as the bird disappeared. If he couldn’t nail it, what chance did we have? A melanistic Marsh Harrier then added interest, before the ringers trapped a Barbary Falcon, which on release was chased by a Lanner Falcon.

Hirundines were gathering over the alfalfa and for the first time since we had been in Israel we were seeing House Martins in some number, although the 16 recorded compared unfavourably with the numbers of Sand Martin (60), Swallow (200) and Red-rumped Swallow (40) also present. All of this activity was going on to the overhead calls of Bee-eaters, enjoying another day of passage, our total reaching 60, almost entirely made up of ones and twos apart from a single flock of 12.

After lunch we positioned ourselves along the reed fringed sewage canal that ran alongside the saltpans. The overhead passage was easily observed from here and we were surrounded by excellent habitat. We completed a hat-trick of crakes when a Little Crake was found feeding in the ditch, soon to be joined by another two, all three feeding unconcernedly as we sat and watched. How many more crakes had been brought down by the rain and remained unseen? A Penduline Tit then decided that this was a good moment to start giving its Reed Bunting-like call from the reeds directly in front of us. After a brief game of hide-and-seek it gave itself up, a splendid male, before a female also revealed herself nearby. From where we were standing the salt-pans were directly behind us, so we kept an eye out for what was happening there. Not a lot really if truth be told. Little Stint numbers had increased to 29 and our long-staying Collared Pratincole had been joined by five others. The 38 Slender-billed Gulls were just loafing around, slightly listless, a bit like us.

An afternoon traipse around the date palms produced the expected haul of that triumvirate of plantation dwellers: Wryneck, Bluethroat and Hoopoe. As we emerged from the trees four Cattle Egrets flew north. We then went on a brief tour of the parks of Eilat town, each oasis holding the odd warbler (normally a Lesser Whitethroat), but generally little of note until we visited a green space that also boasted a reed-fringed pool. Here we heard a further Penduline Tit that managed to elude our binoculars.

We ended the day by looking out to sea. A couple of Cormorants were offshore, sat in front of the dwindling duck raft, which numbered only 150 Garganey and 10 Shoveler. On the beach, a first-winter Great Black-headed Gull was good value and kept us amused until three Sandwich Terns and a winter-plumaged Caspian Tern came close inshore. By the end of the day we had seen 96 species, a terrific total for a small area.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The lost tern colony at Dungeness

Windy, rainy, sleety then snowy, all delivered with a dollop of cold. Not a day for venturing outside - something that I would have done once upon a time, all wrapped up but still getting wet, with my optics steaming-up all in the quest for my birding fix. Today that birding fix will come via the medium of nostalgia - when I say nostalgia, it isn't my nostalgia but that of other people's memories, committed to paper in the early 20th century (yes kids, even before I was born!)

Looking east from beneath the beach ridge
Taken some way inland, looking towards the sea
The two images above show the 'west beach' at Dungeness, which today shares part of its great expanse with a nuclear power station. You can still walk along the top of the beach from the peninsula's point to Dengemarsh Gully, which is a crude indicator of the extent of the 'west beach'. This area of shingle also runs inland for a good mile or so and was once a wilderness - apart from fishermen, coastguards and the odd birdwatcher is was barely explored. And it was here that a vast seabird colony could once be found...

Apart from the power station compound, I have wandered all over this area and have been captured by its wildness and 'other-worldly' feeling. It is a place of big skies. Although the seabird colony disappeared long before I was born, I can mourn its loss and imagine what once was here. Ticehurst reported that large numbers of Common Terns bred on the beach in the late 19th century but had 'declined to 200 pairs by 1907'. By the 1930s the population had risen once more, concentrated in a single colony that stretched for 1500m and to a depth of 200m - this was estimated to hold 1500 pairs - a remarkable sight. Military disturbance during 1939-45 moved the birds on, not to return in such numbers to the open shingle.

Jack Tart, a local fisherman and part-time RSPB watcher, kept an eye on the terns during their heyday, and reported back the number of birds present in the colony for 1933: Common Gull (5 pairs), Lesser Black-backed Gull (5 pairs), Little Tern (40 pairs), Common Tern (1000 pairs), Arctic Tern (40 pairs - although there has been doubt cast on this count in recent years), Black-headed Gull (500 pairs) and Herring Gull (400 pairs). If this lot tried to nest here in 2018 the eggs and chicks would be decimated by the number of Carrion Crows, foxes and badgers in the area. If you consider that he also reported 16-18 pairs of Stone Curlew and four pairs of Kentish Plover, you get some idea of what a wonderful place the west beach was.

In more recent times the gravel pits further inland became the place of choice for nesting terns, but not in the high numbers of the 1930s, although Sandwich Tern, that was scarce back then, became much commoner. Roseate Terns have never been anything other than erratic and scarce breeders over the years, and they too swapped the beach for the gravel pits, although they have not bred at Dungeness for a considerable time. Today, high water levels and an increase in predators have seen low numbers attempting to breed, with very poor results. Island re-profiling that was carried out on the pits in 2017 will hopefully rectify this situation. Little Terns hung on for longer, with 100 pairs being recorded in 1943 and 1950 before the building of the power station and the increased human footprint became too much for them. They last bred in 1976.

So the next time you venture down to Dungeness and look out towards the power station, cast your eyes over that empty, largely bird-less shingle - then imagine the blizzard of wings and the cacophony of sound that once used to hold domain over that very same beach. I certainly do.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Headley in the winter sun

Yesterday saw one of those afternoons when the sky just wouldn't settle down. One moment it was dark, then there were sharp showers, soon followed by the sun peeking through a thin veil of cloud, finally a full sun that was so bright that it lit up the winter panorama in a burning amber light. The photograph above (taken at Headley Heath) sums it up pretty well. And yes, I did see a H**finch, but just the one. They seem to have largely moved on from here.

What hadn't moved on, mainly because they possesses neither wings nor legs, are the clumps of Spurge-laurel (above and below), to be found on the westerly border of the site. Headley is a strange place, with acid heathland rubbing shoulders with chalk downland. It leads to a right old mix of flowering plants which makes any botanical walk there interesting to say the least.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Part 2: Winners and Losers - passerines

And now for the passerines - as per yesterday's post, all my own data...

House Martin LOSER
Declining summer visitor, passage migrant
This species is greatly reduced as a breeding bird. In the 1970s it was easy to find nests on houses in Sutton and flocks above suburbia in the height of the summer were to be expected. This is not the case now. Extreme dates: 3 April 2010 (Holmethorpe) - 22 October 1978 (Beddington SF). Spring passage can be small and brief (peak count of 350 at Holmethorpe on 3 May 2010), while that of autumn heavier and more protracted, as evidenced by 6,710 south on 21 September 2017 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 2,185 south-west on 9 October 1999 at Holmethorpe; 1,900 south-west on 25 September 2014 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 600 on 12 September 1976 at Beddington SF; 500 on 31 August 1976 at Beddington SF and 20 September 2017 at Holmethorpe.

Tree Pipit LOSER
Summer visitor, passage migrant and former breeder.
Up until the early 1980s it was easy to find this species singing and holding territory on the southern heaths and commons of the study area, first recorded at Headley Heath and Epsom Common (1977), Box Hill (1978) and Banstead Downs (1985). During this time up to six birds could be found holding territory at Headley Heath (3 May 1977 and 27 April 1980). A general fall in numbers, plus the scrubbing over of some sites has lead to its local demise. Since then it is found as a scarce passage migrant, with records from Beddington SF, Holmethorpe, Nork, Banstead , Canons Farm and Priest Hill. Extreme dates: 12 April 1993 (Holmethorpe) - 3 October 1993 (Beddington SF)

Yellow Wagtail LOSER
Former summer breeder; scarce passage migrant
First recorded at Beddington SF (1975), Searrs Park, Cheam (1983), Holmethorpe (1991), Canons Farm, Banstead; Nork, Banstead (2001), Colley Hill, Reigate (2013) and Epsom Downs (2014). Breeding birds were present at Beddington SF until the early 1980s (but at only one-two pairs per year). Extreme dates: 4 April 1985 (Beddington SF)  - 24 October 1976 (Beddington SF). A single also attempted to winter at Beddington SF, last being seen on 4 December 1984. This site has always held the highest numbers in the area, with counts of 10 - 15 regularly made, peaking at 22 on 6 September 1986 and 20 on 12 September 1976. Away from there, peak counts of seven were made at Holmethorpe on 27 April 1997 and Canons Farm, Banstead on a murky 20 April 2008.  When conducting the 1983 Searrs Park, Cheam project, a small but regular passage of overhead migrants was recorded between 18 July -21 September which included three birds on 19 September. Birds of the blue-headed race have been recorded at both Beddington SF and Holmethorpe.

Grasshopper Warbler LOSER
Former breeding summer visitor
Before it scrubbed over, it was fairly straight-forward to find this species ‘reeling’ on Epsom Common. Between 1975 and 1980, I recorded up to three territories, extreme dates for this site being 21 April 1978 – 10 July 1975. My only four records away from there are singles on 25 April 1982 at Beddington SF, 19 April 1998 at Holmethorpe, 15 April 2011 at Canons Farm, Banstead and 17 April 2017 at Priest Hill, Ewell.

Common Whitethroat WINNER
Breeding summer visitor
Extreme dates: 10 April 2011 (Headley Heath) - 26 September 2017 (Canons Farm, Banstead). Peak counts: 40 singing birds during the summer of 1994 at Beddington SF; 32 on 1 May 2017 at Priest Hill, Ewell. A steady climb in the breeding population has been witnessed, climaxing in the mid-1990s. Since then numbers across the area have either stabilised or fallen slightly, with the Beddington SF population much reduced due to landfill activity. However, a number of semi-urban scrubby habitats have been colonised over the past five years, suggesting that a healthy population is now over-spilling.

Blackcap WINNER
Summer and winter visitor, passage migrant
Wintering birds have been recorded at Nork, Banstead in most winters since 1989, sometimes up to seven birds being present. Breeding birds are found commonly in woodland predominantly away from the north of the study area. Peak count: 14 on 30 April 2005 at Holmethorpe. As each year passes by there seems to be more of these smart birds throughout the year 

Willow Warbler LOSER
Declining summer visitor, passage migrant
There has been a recent dip in the fortunes of this warbler, although a small recovery is now underway. The heaths hold the highest breeding populations. Extreme dates: 25 March 2000 and 2005 (Holmethorpe) - 30 September 1979 (Beddington SF) and 30 September 1995 (Holmethorpe). Peak counts: 43 on 28 April 1984 at Ashtead and Epsom Common; 25 on 21 April 1978 at Epsom Common; 25 on 27 April 1980 at Headley Heath; 25 on 23 May 1982 at Headley Heath; 25 on 9 May 1987 at Ashtead Common. Note how old the peak counts are.

Firecrest WINNER
Rare breeding resident, passage migrant and winter visitor
First recorded at Nork, Banstead (2005); Banstead Downs (2008); Beddington SF (2011); Juniper Bottom and Nonsuch Park (2014); Chipstead Bottom (2015); Box Hill and Ranmore Common (2016). An expected component of a North Downs birding experience if you keep your ears open, where as once it would have been the day's (or month's) highlight. 

Spotted Flycatcher LOSER
Declining summer visitor and passage migrantAs the years have progressed, this species has gone from being a bird that you expect to see each summer at a variety of sites to a scarce passage migrant. First recorded: Headley Heath, Beddington SF and Nork Park, Banstead (1977), Epsom Common and Cheam Village (1979), Nonsuch Park (1982), Seears Park, Cheam (1983), Banstead Woods (1984), Holmethorpe (2005), Epsom Downs (2006), Canons Farm, Banstead (2014), Mogador (2016). Peak counts: four on 6 September 1986 at Beddington SF; three on 23 Aug 1983 at Seears Park, Cheam. Extreme dates: 14 May 2011 (Beddington SF) - 25 September 2017 (Canons Farm, Banstead).

Marsh Tit LOSER
Declining breeding resident
This species is still found with relative ease on the slopes and top of the North Downs within the area. However, it seems to be becoming scarcer away from here, such as at Banstead Woods. It is most probably worth noting all sites that I have seen this tit and the years in which it has been present: Banstead Woods (1977 – 2006); Walton Heath (1977 – 2015); Westhumble (1982); Epsom Common (1984 – 1989); Betchworth (1997); Box Hill (1998-2018); Mickleham Downs (1999 – 2018); Gatton Park (1999 - 2008); Juniper Bottom (2000-2017); Margery Wood (2002); Reigate Hill (2004 - 2009); Norbury Park (2008 - 2018); Ranmore Common (2008 - 2017); Colley Hill (2008 - 2009); Headley Heath (2009 -2018); Polesden Lacey (2009 - 2012); Little Hurst Wood, Walton Downs (2015-16); Great Hurst Wood, Walton Downs (2015). Peak counts: 11 at Juniper Top/Bottom on 10 January 2014 and 14 December 2016; eight at Ranmore Common on 28 January 2012; seven at Juniper Top/Bottom on 9 March 2013 and 16 November 2013; six on 16 January 1982 at Westhumble; five on 10 January 2017 at Headley Heath; four on 12 February 1977 at Banstead Woods and 17 August 2008 at Ranmore.

Willow Tit LOSER
Extinct breeding resident
Sadly, this species now seems to be lost. Epsom Common was always the place that would guarantee this tit without too much effort, with a peak count of four on 24 February 1978, the last record being in 1989. In most years one or two pairs were present between the stew ponds and Stamford Green. Other records were of a casual nature; Walton Heath, two on 20 February 1977; Headley Heath, singles on 12 July 1978 and 27 April 1980;  Beddington SF, singles on 12 September 1978 and 17 June 1979 (the latter trapped); Nonsuch Park, Cheam, one on 25 September 1983; Ashtead Common, one on 25 July 1987. 

Jackdaw WINNER
Increasing breeding resident
Over the study period, in line with most corvid species, a growth in numbers has been experienced. This species was once a scarce visitor to Beddington SF, but since the advent of landfill it has become very common there indeed. A roost fly-line used to be observed in the winter months during the early 1990s over Nork, Banstead that comprised 100-200 birds. At the time these counts were considered to be high. Since then the largest gatherings are of 2,000 on 1 January 2011 at Beddington SF; 1,500 on 12 January 2013  at Holmethorpe; 1,400 on 14 November 2010 at Beddington SF; 1,200 on 6 January 2013 at Beddington SF; 900 on 6 November 2010 at Beddington SF; 850 on 23 January 2005 at Holmethorpe; 600 on 11 October 2009 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 575 on 17 October 2010 at Beddington SF; 500 on both 20 February 1993 and 1 February 2009 at Holmethorpe and 28 January 2012 at Ranmore Common. As a breeding species still rather local and more southerly in distribution.

Rare resident
A slow and modest colonising of the North Downs has been an unexpected and welcome event in the early years of the 21st Century. My first record was of a single bird on 9 March 2013 at Juniper Top, nr Box Hill, which was followed by a single on 6 October 2013 at Ranmore Common. Away from the downs I have recorded birds at Canons Farm, Banstead (2014) and Holmethorpe (2017). Peak count: three on 27 September 2014 at Canons Farm, Banstead.

Starling LOSER
Breeding resident, passage migrant and winter visitor
After a period in the doldrums, this species is showing signs of a partial comeback, with wintering flocks, (although not quite the wheeling spectacles of the 1970s and early 1980s), starting to show up in the skies once more. Peak counts: 10,000 leaving a roost on 13 July 1997 at Holmethorpe; 3,000 on 29 January 1983 at Seears Park, Cheam and 20 October 2012 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 2,500 on 19 August 1983 at Seears Park, Cheam and 23 January 2011 at Beddington SF; 2,000 on 9 March 1979 at Cheam Village and 30 July 2011 at Beddington SF.

House Sparrow LOSER
Decreasing breeding resident
This species has shown a decrease over the years, although the area in which I live (Nork, Banstead) has continued to support a healthy population. Peak counts: 400 on 11 July 1980 at Beddington SF; 200 on 7 September 1975 at Beddington SF; 200 on 6 November 1983 at Seears Park, Cheam; 150 on 2 August and 27 September 1980 at Beddington SF. It is perhaps worth noting that these peak counts are all over 30 years old. In recent years the largest count has been one of 80 at Canons Farm, Banstead on 23 August 2014 and 8 September 2016.

Tree Sparrow LOSER
Decreasing breeding resident and rare winter visitor
First recorded at Beddington SF and River Mole, Leatherhead (1975), Seears Park, Cheam (1983), Holmethorpe (1991). The breeding colony at Beddington SF is (or was) well-known, and counts could be high throughout the year, with a peak of 200 recorded on 25 February, 22 March and 26 November 1978. However, by the end of 2012, counts were much lower, sometimes only 20+ being made and by 2014 reports were that numbers had plummeted. At Holmethorpe, between 1991 – 1997, this species was not unexpected, but not quite annual, with a peak count of 25 on 25 January 1997. Since the latter date there has been only one further record, a single on 9 April 2005.

Greenfinch LOSER
Breeding resident, passage migrant and winter visitor. Maybe in decline
During the late 1970s, conditions at Beddington SF were to the liking of this species. Peak counts were: 1,000 on 2 October 1977; 380 on 30 September 1979; 300 on 23 September 1978, 24 August and 5 October 1980. All peak counts elsewhere refer to roosts, with 100 on 27 January 1983 at Seears Park, Cheam and 100 on 31 January 1999 at Nork Park, Banstead. At the start of the 21st century, numbers of this finch were in decline, with flocks very hard to come by and appearances in my garden became worryingly erratic. From 2015 it appeared as if some recovery was underway.

Goldfinch WINNER
Breeding resident, passage migrant and winter visitor
In suburban areas numbers appear to be on the increase. Peak counts: 200 on 24 August 1980 at Beddington SF; 110 on 25 November 2004 at Holmethorpe; 100 on 28 July 1976 at Beddington SF; 100 on 23 January 2005 at Holmethorpe; 100 on 12 August 2017 at Priest Hill, Ewell: 90 on 27 July 2017 at Priest Hill, Ewell: 80 on 10 Dec 2010 at Canons Farm, Banstead and 80 coming to roost at High Beeches, Banstead during February and March 2010. When the local Greenfinches suffered a population crash in the early 2000s, it seemed as if this species benefited, and filled the resultant gap. This was reflected elsewhere in the country.

Bullfinch LOSER
Decreasing breeding resident, especially in the north of the area
My back garden in Nork, Banstead illustrates quite clearly the precarious nature of this species residency in suburbia. From 1987 until 2000 I could expect to see Bullfinches in the garden on a daily basis. In the latter year building started on neighbouring ‘wild’ land and overnight they ceased to be seen. It was not until 26 June 2009 that I saw another, and this proved to be the first of very few sightings. Epsom Downs continues to hold good numbers, as can be seen from counts of 20 on 20 January 2001 and 16 on 7 January 2001. Since then such counts have not been attained, although they are still present. Most sites away from built up areas do still support them, although parks that formerly held them in the northern part of the area seem to do so no longer. Peak counts:  21 on 1 January 2016 at Banstead Woods; 15 on 10 January 2017 at Headley Heath. During the autumn of 2017 a small influx was recorded across the south-east of England and was mirrored locally.

Yellowhammer LOSER
Scarce and decreasing breeding resident and passage migrant
This species has slowly, but surely, decreased in range, particularly in the north of the area. It can still be found with certainty at Holmethorpe and, surprisingly given its northerly locality, Canons Farm, Banstead.  First recorded at Bury Hill Lake, Beddington SF, Canadian Bridge, Leatherhead and Epsom Common (1975), Nonsuch Park (1976), Headley Heath and Chipstead Bottom (1977), Seears Park, Cheam (1983), Banstead Downs (1984), Buckland SP (1985), Epsom Downs (1988), Holmethorpe and Nork, Banstead (1991), Canons Farm, Banstead (2002), Denbies Hillside (2009). Breeding is recorded at Holmethorpe (one-three pairs, with a peak of eight pairs in 1998) and Canons Farm, Banstead (one-three pairs). Peak counts:  55 on 25 November 2015 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 50 on 1 January 1993 at Holmethorpe; 50 on 28 January 2006 at Canons Farm, Banstead; 45 on 5 February 2006 at Canons Farm, Banstead.

Corn Bunting LOSER
Rare passage migrant and winter visitor
This species has become extinct as a breeding bird in Surrey during the period of study. Until 1987 it was encountered on a relatively frequent basis at Beddington SF, the earliest autumn record being 24 October 1976 and the latest in spring on 25 April 1976. There is a single summer record on 19 June 1994. Peak counts: 22 on 27 and 28 February 1982 (when many in the flock were in song); 12 on 14 December 1975; 11 on 7 March 1987. Elsewhere, two birds were at Holmethorpe on 4 and 25 January 1997. (Pictured, above, not locally)