Showing posts from March, 2018


I'm putting together an article on the current Hawfinch irruption in Surrey and thought you might be interested in the following numbers: 12,729 Total Hawfinch bird/days in Surrey since October 7th 6,094 My personal Hawfinch bird/day total since October 16th 600 Highest count - from Bramblehall Wood on March 13th 110 Number of locations in the county to have recorded the species And there's still April to come...


I've got an itch that I need to scratch. Something that is missing from my ornithological life. And that is getting involved with this 'nocturnal migration' malarkey. There are a band of brothers (and no doubt some sisters) who are sticking microphones out in their gardens overnight and recording the sounds of the night-time that would otherwise go undetected. It sounds like fun - it sounds like the sort of thing that I'd get involved in. I've investigated what is needed to get started, weighed up the pros and cons and... well, I haven't quite taken that final leap into the purchase of a recorder, a microphone, and the download of software - but we are getting near to that point. What's not to like, sifting through several hours worth of recording and separating the car alarms, aircraft and foxes from the calls of migrating waders, Coots and Common Scoters? I love nocturnal bird calls. I've spent an April night sitting on the moat at Dungeness and list

Returning thrushes

Canons Farm was the place of choice this morning, where I teamed-up with Geoff Barter for a long chat and a wide wander around the fields and hedgerows. On first arriving it was obvious that there were a few more thrushes about, with up to a dozen Blackbirds (above), 65 Fieldfares and six Redwings. Other species flocking to get our attention included 40 Stock Doves, 200 Starlings and 100  Linnets. It is pleasing to find that 'our' Yellowhammers are still being site faithful, with four birds (three males) being found. Try as we might there was no summer migrant to remind us of the coming season, but we are patient souls if nothing else.

The long goodbye

I arrived at Bramblehall Wood shortly after dawn and had to wait for a good 15 minutes before the first two Hawfinches arrived. It then went very quiet again and, whilst wondering whether or not the flock had finally broken up, a number of birds arrived high from the top of Ashurst Rough. All the subsequent morning's action - over the course of 90 minutes - took place at the northern end of the wood, where a 100m long bank of Yew trees were being favoured. As with previous visits, the birds helped me no end with obtaining an accurate count by slowly, bird by bird, small flock by small flock, fly from the Yews, across the field, and into the opposite woodland at the base of the footpath. 275 was the 'not to shabby' final total, but undoubtably down on my two previous counts here of 600 and 550 (on March 13th and 20th respectively). There was little in the way of additional bundles of Hawfinches flying in to join the main flock and calling was much subdued - it felt like w

Being weaned off

Maybe the Hawfinch bubble is starting to leak air, if not actually burst yet. This morning saw a check of sites west of the Mole Gap, and although I had many encounters with the 'big-bills', they were fewer in number, with the actual bird counts down as well. It is about time that the flocks should start to disperse, although the historical record does show that large flocks can be recorded well into April. My totals were: Dorking Wood (22), Chapelhill Wood (20), Bagden Wood (2), Freehold Wood (1), Polesden Lacey (1), Ranmore Common (6). I did pop onto the top of Box Hill for a crafty look but this could only muster two Hawfinches - again, down on recent days. This is nature's kind way of weaning me off of them...

In preparation for summer

The days are deniably drawing out, even if we have to share this daylight lengthening with bouts of 'Beasts from the East Parts 1, 2 and, apparently, 3'. To get us in the mood for those warm days, drowsy with the buzz of insects and perfumed via the waft of wild flowers, here's a selection of books - all highly recommended - that will only make us yearn all the more for their return. In Pursuit of Butterflies by Matthew Oates Matthew Oates has spent the past 50 years of his life in love with butterflies and has forged a career out of studying, counting and being enthralled by them. The book is autobiographical, but it is much, much more than a 'been there, saw that' memoirs. Each page is packed not only with anecdote, but also with information - information that is anything but dry. I have learnt so much about butterflies from reading this that when I now go out into the field I am looking at them in a very different way. No longer are they just colourful an

Flock foraying

It had been a week since I last visited Bramblehall Wood to count the Hawfinches, although visits had been made to outlying areas in the past few days that suggested good numbers would still be present. On arrival at 06.15hrs three Hawfinches flew over Whitehill car park and by the time I reached my viewpoint overlooking the wood quite a few were already perched up in the bare tree tops, favouring the northern end (taster video above - the BBC Natural History Film Unit has nothing to worry about). At least 270 were counted, and when these birds moved along the tree-line in a northerly direction I carried on southwards. More birds soon arrived, coming from the south and also off the top of Ashurst Rough, mainly heading to where the earlier birds had been - as in recent visits a steady passage helped me to obtain an accurate count. When I reached an additional total of 280, a mass of 300 birds came back along the woodland edge, swirling in front of me before bursting through the treet

Hellebores in the snow

The weather Gods decided to scatter a couple more centimetres of snow across the Banstead area last night, so this morning I left the car at home and went on a five mile circular walk (see how I, without thinking, used both metric and imperial measurements there? It's my age...) Up the hill and across the A217 onto Canons Farm, along Chipstead Bottom, skirting Banstead Woods, up onto Park Downs and through to Banstead Village and home. Birdwise generally quiet, with up to six Common Buzzard, 24 Fieldfare, a flock of 60 Linnet and three Yellowhammer. Hawfinches? I'm glad you asked! There were two in the woods directly above the Holly Lane car park. Park Downs is home to a few plants of Stinking Hellebore, which could not hide their lime-green loveliness in the snow. Two days ago they were bathed in warm sunshine.

Harbingers of warmer days

The snow has returned, the temperature has plummeted and yesterday's warm sunshine is but a dim and distant memory. But fear not, this cold snap is promised to be short-term and before we know it we will be able to enjoy once more those harbingers of warmer days, the butterflies. One of my pleasures is recording their first flight date, and especially those seen before the end of March - so far my earliest ever records are: Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni 03/02/07 Small White Pieris rapae 21/03/09 Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines 24/03/12 Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus 29/03/12 Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta 27/01/03 Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae 14/02/98 Peacock Inachis io 05/02/00 Comma Polygonia c-album 11/03/95 Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria 24/03/12 I'll be keeping them peeled when the sun and mild weather returns...

Box Hill stake-out

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

The return of Juniper Bottom

The forecast of a very wet dawn had postponed my planned visit to Bramblehall Wood, but the rain had abated by 08.00hrs so the decision was made to check on Juniper Bottom. This was mainly due to my having seen at least 115 birds there two days ago and the suspicion that the enormous flock from Bramblehall Wood, (once it has headed up the slope and onto Ashurst Rough and Juniper Top) was then spreading out into Juniper Bottom (and beyond). And so it proved. By 08.45hrs I had taken up my position allowing clear views of the banks of Yew, and the bare deciduous tree-tops, on the eastern flank. Hawfinches were already on show. For the next hour flocks were largely spilling over into the valley from the high ground to the south-east (Juniper Top). They were making their way either northwards along the eastern ridge, or flying across the valley and up onto the western ridge (Box Hill and Lodge Hill). In between frequent showers I was able to witness a number of sizeable flocks on the mo

Always a crowd pleaser

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


Where to begin? Yesterday evening might be a good place. I was delighted to see that two Sussex stalwarts - Chris Janman and Dick Senior - had recorded 400+ Hawfinches at Kingley Vale that very morning, one of the few areas in the country that can out-Yew Mickleham and Box Hill. I was already planning on visiting Bramblehall Wood the following morning (today) and their success got me wondering as to whether or not flocks were starting to join forces, or that I would find the Surrey woodland to be a lot quieter as the birds had all moved to Sussex! I was in the Whitehill Carpark by 06.15hrs and within ten minutes found myself staring across the field and into the tree tops of Bramblehall Wood. I was frankly surprised to see, at this early hour, at least 200 Hawfinches already on show (part of the flock pictured above). They were quite motionless and, I think it safe to assume, had just emerged from a very close roosting site. Over the following hour more birds arrived (mainly fro

Moths, for a change

I have been really slow out of the starter's blocks on the moth front this year - so far there has been just one outing for the MV and that was back in January. Now that the snow and low temperatures have gone (at least for the moment) it was time to switch on the bulb! The garden MV has never been that productive in late winter or early spring, so I was expecting no more than what I actually caught this morning: a handful of Common Quakers (top), Hebrew Characters and March Moths (bottom two). Persistence at this time of year can pay off and I still harbour an outside hope for a Sloe Carpet, a species that is sparingly found on the nearby chalk downs. If I'm not 'in it' then I won't 'win it'. Or something along those lines...

No apology

A late morning walk along the 'valley' between Ranmore and Polesden Lacey (above), with plenty of side ventures up into the woodland. These were made, of course, with the aim of locating Hawfinches. There may be some regular visitors to this blog who are mightily fed up with my posts being Hawfinch-heavy since the irruption began. I make no apologies. This is a once in a lifetime event and I just happen to live close to the area where the largest numbers seem to be - plus, I am lucky enough to have the time to go out, locate and count them. Soon enough they will be gone and I will once more bore you with moths and orchids. Back to today. The bare numbers of ' the species whose name must not be mentioned ' were: Dorking Wood (30), Chapelhill Wood (7), Freehold Wood (2), Ranmore Common (37). My visit being later in the morning than normal, there were no post-roost gatherings. A few feeding flocks were found (and heard) and a fair bit of chasing between pairs was obse

Breaking up?

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

Green stuff

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

The sound of Hawfinches

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

A Canons Top Ten

There's a good bird at the end of that rainbow! The Top Ten. Either the lazy fall-back option for an uninspired blogger, or a chance to celebrate the good times.  Or both... When I first stumbled across Canons Farm back in 2002 I had no idea that the place would provide me (and others) with so many happy hours of good birding. On the surface it is an unremarkable area of open farmland (with no open water), where crops are intensively grown so that arable weeds (and the resultant seeds) are largely missing. It does retain hedgerows and copses and is positioned at a high elevation which helps to attract migrants and is always worth a check. My personal Top Ten highlights are, in chronological order: January 2008 An enormous finch flock gathered on Broad Field to take advantage of a flattened and un-harvested Flax crop. They comprised largely Chaffinches and Bramblings and over the course of the month these numbers attracted quite a few birders to the farm. Through

Scratching about

The first three hours of daylight revealed that there was little flying over the frozen wastes of Canons Farm. A few thrushes were scratching around along the hedgerows with attendant Robins and Dunnocks, but it was generally an eerily quiet scene. The granular snow had been blown off the top of several fields, forming shallow drifts at their edges. Ornamental berry-bearing bushes in nearby gardens harboured a few Fieldfares (above) and the partially frozen pond at Burgh Heath was being staked out by a single Grey Heron (below). News is coming through of enormous numbers of thrushes being recorded in Somerset and Devon this morning, all fleeing westwards from the snow and ice. I just hope that there are still parts of Cornwall that can safely host these desperate birds. Looking east from Canons Farm into Chipstead Bottom