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

Missing


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


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

Smoking!


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

300

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

Numbers


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...

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Hunting Hawfinch

Taken from the Juniper Top lower footpath, looking across the field towards Bramblehall Wood. You can get much closer to it than this, particularly at the start and end of the path. Scan both bare tree tops and the crowns of Yew for the Hawfinches.
I cannot get enough of them. As soon as I see or hear a Hawfinch, I want to see another. This current invasion has been one of my ornithological highlights, anytime, anywhere. And the fact that this event is not only easy to see but is also on my doorstep has bestowed upon it a personal note. So, what better than go out looking for them and try to hunt down new birds in new locations?

Last Sunday I thought that it would be worth checking Bramblehall Wood. The site is private, but you can look at its steep western flank from the footpath that runs along the bottom of Juniper Top and Ashurst Rough. On the OS map this path has a thick purple line running along it. At intervals you are afforded views across a narrow grassy field onto the steep yew clad slope of the wood. My choice of this wood was not inspired, as there have been Hawfinches recorded to the north, south, east and west of it. I arrived at 13.30hrs and within a few minutes had found a few of these finches sat atop a bare tree, and once I had settled down and started scanning it was clear that there were also birds buried deep in the yews (of which there are many). A minimum of 20 Hawfinches were present. After checking the top of Juniper Top (where a single singing bird was heard) I returned to find that birds were still in the general area.

This morning I targeted a new spot, that of the woods of Ranmore Common. An hour in Ashcombe Wood drew a blank, but then Dorking Wood came up trumps. I heard them before I saw them, a very noisy flock that kept high in the oak, beech and larch. For ten minutes I was able to sit and watch them flitting through the trees before they finally left the area. At least 25 were present (TQ14809 51276). Some 800m further north I came across another two. Bagden Wood and the high ground of Ranmore Common did not provide any more, although 5 Marsh Tits, a displaying Raven and a single Common Crossbill was ample reward.

Back to Bramblehall Wood, and I'm pleased that I did. In roughly the same area as last Sunday (TQ186524) there was a flock waiting for me, spread out over several tree tops. As I started to count most of them took to the air, circled and then departed north - 31 birds in all. There were 16 left in the trees. Even I can add those two figures up - 47. Each scan of the slope would show up ones and twos, so this is very much a minimum count.

Walking back to the Whitehill car park gives you a good view of Mickleham Downs, in particular the very steep south-southeastern slope. I always give it a scan and was delighted to see three of my bull-necked friends perched up and on show - only to be eclipsed by a flock of 13 that flew between me and them. A total of 16.

So, a bit of cold searching this morning has yielded 90 Hawfinches, and all on the 'uber patch' to boot. There are plenty of other places to search, but we are now running out of time.  They are certainly moving around - the big flock that was on Juniper Top last week hasn't been seen again, and Wes Attridge over at Capel had a big influx last Sunday that lasted but a day. Where have they gone? They're out there somewhere!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The sea


Part of the reason that I have taken up painting again is for the 'mindfulness' that comes from spending time applying gouache to cartridge paper. It is relaxing, you lose yourself in the process and, at the end of it, you have a piece of original artwork - it really doesn't matter if it is any good or not.

Above is my latest effort. Having used trees as the subject matter for most of my previous paintings I decided to adopt the sea for this one. Colour and pattern took over, and the final result is a bit of a dog's dinner, but that's what happens when you allow your mind to wander off.

I don't know if this is actually finished yet. I may well return to it at a later date and tweak...

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Langley Vale update


Those of you who are regular visitors to this blog (and thank you if you are) will by now be familiar with Langley Vale Farm, an area on the Surrey downs that is blessed with a terrific arable flora. I do go on about it quite a lot...

To cut a long story short the farm has been purchased by the Woodland Trust (WT) who are managing the land and aiming to have 60% of it as woodland - currently this figure stands at 20%. There have been many meetings; environmental impact assessments made; working parties formed; correspondence sent and received. I have been heartened that these processes have alerted the WT to the presence of the rare flora and that it has been recognised by them as not only of national importance but also in need of protection. The WT, in consultation with Plantlife, have agreed to implement plans to ensure that it survives. I have been impressed by their willingness to do so, as the WT's existence is not to be the custodians of rare wild flowers. They could have easily looked the other way.

This morning I revisited. Since my last visit an awful lot of fencing has sprung up. Most of the fields that are 'good' for arable plants have been enclosed (as in the photo above, at the Red Hemp-nettle site), which at first alarmed me. My later enquiries suggested that this is in preparation for grazing stock to arrive. I met at the farmhouse with a group of interested parties that are looking at setting up a bird monitoring group. This was led by Kate Harvey (from the Woodland Trust) and Ken Smith (ex-RSPB). Ken spoke about Heartwood, a WT site in Hertfordshire that was once arable farmland and the monitoring that has been ongoing there. Kate expressed a hope that such an undertaking can be started here. That undertaking is already underway but without a formal base or a centralisation of effort. It's all a bit here and there at the moment, and that includes my own records, being sent to various natural history county recorders and the BTO's Birdtrack.

As for the Langley Vale Lapwings... the 4-6 pairs that graced the slopes will be history I fear. Their favoured fields are to be planted up and those that are left are not really suitable. Ken did make the valid point that they prospered here largely due to the presence of a shooting syndicate that kept predators under control. When the farm was sold the shoot was closed. I can understand this, but the planting up of the Lapwings favoured fields is hardly a helping hand. We may still see and hear the odd displaying bird each spring but it will be but a brief reminder of what went before. It's a crying shame - but again, the WT are not the RSPB and - whisper it - the arable flora is of far more importance in my humble opinion.