Saturday, 31 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:

Total Hawfinch bird/days in Surrey since October 7th

My personal Hawfinch bird/day total since October 16th

Highest count - from Bramblehall Wood on March 13th

Number of locations in the county to have recorded the species

And there's still April to come...

Wednesday, 28 March 2018


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 listened entranced to a stream of waders going overhead. My own inland garden here in Surrey has produced Bar-tailed Godwits, Ringed Plover, Moorhen and Common Sandpiper in the dark while checking the moth trap. There is potential...

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

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.

Monday, 26 March 2018

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 we are truly entering the final act in this winters amazing Hawfinch extravaganza...

I then embarked on a long circular walk to check up on nearby sites that have held them. First stop was Betchworth Quarry, where yesterday David Stubbs recorded 60+. I could only muster up three, even though I was on site for an hour and at the same time as he saw them 24 hours ago. Maybe they really are moving off. The adjacent quarry at Brockham (pictured above) held four birds, Box Hill 12, Lodge Hill two and Mickleham Downs 14. They were harder to come by than in recent weeks and incidences of hearing calling birds were much reduced.

The sun came out and, at times, it felt quite warm. A handful of Brimstone butterflies, two singing Chiffchaffs and up to 12 soaring Common Buzzards and two Red Kites made it most agreeable.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

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...

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

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 and fleetingly glimpsed insects to be identified and committed to the notebook - thanks to Mr Oates I have a flicker of understanding about what they are up to and why.

In his 50 years study his research has unlocked secrets of their life-cycles that had remained unknown. He certainly has his favourites, none more so than the Purple Emperor, and his quest to see the all black aberration (iole) had me gripped. I now want to see a 'Black Admiral' and also the valenzia form of the Silver-washed Fritillary. Before picking up this book I was aware of neither. He has turned me from a part-time butterfly lover into something more.

The author has wandered through the years with not just butterflies as his companion - poetry and cricket are obviously great refuges from the 'modern-day systems' that he so clearly despises. We get to meet other butterfly champions, are shown around the butterfly hot-spots and share in his incredible highs and lows. Whether he is forgetting about having taken his two young daughters onto a mountainside, regularly coming across fornicating couples on downland in the dead of night, or rescuing an adult Brimstone from under several inches of snow, just like each butterfly season no page is the same. After reading this, you too will go out butterflying with a new pair of eyes.

By the way, he marked that snow-bound Brimstone on the wing with indelible ink and saw it again, three months later, a kilometre away.

Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren
Peter Marren is one of my favourite authors of wildlife publications. His 'Poyser' on Britain's Rare Flowers and British Wildlife Publishing's Mushrooms are both delights which I re-read with as much enjoyment as their first sitting. 

Rainbow Dust explores the relationship between us dowdy people and the brilliance that are butterflies. It begins with the author laying down his own beginnings with lepidoptera and then takes us to meet those who first described them, who named them, collected them, painted them, studied them and conserved them. This gallery of 'movers and shakers' is full of characters, from the plebs to the aristocracy, and shows us how they all contributed to our appreciation of butterflies in varying, but similarly major ways. How these insects have coloured our culture, haunted our folklore and entered our psyche is laid out before us.

I will never look at a Red Admiral in the same way again - the depiction of this species in the paintings from the 16th-17th century was as a metaphor for death; children from the middle-ages (and possibly before) used to tie thread to butterflies bodies and then attach them to their hats, so that they walked along accompanied by fluttering friends; the sources of many of the binomial names are revealed, a mixture of the classical, macabre and mischievous. There are pages and pages of this sort of stuff.

Marren does not do dry - his writing style is as if you were having a pint in the pub with him, so effortless and inclusive is his prose. Full of anecdote, aside and entertainment, he never the less gets to the nitty-gritty of any subject. Published by Square Peg, it is a beautifully produced book, with yet another stunning cover by Carrie Ackroyd.

The Butterfly Years by Patrick Barkham
It is a book that informs, entertains and makes you think about why we take such an interest in the natural world around us. I’m a sucker for any well-written natural history literature and this is definitely one that comes into that category.

It's got me all wistful for butterflies again. I can normally expect to see one by the end of February, usually an individual flushed out of hibernation by a spot of shed tidying or a shaft of warming sunlight. In most years the honour will go to a Red Admiral, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Peacock or a Brimstone. On one mild mid-February day several years ago, I recorded both Small Tortoiseshell and a Brimstone – a double flutterby start to the year!

The book has also made me realise that there are species, within easy travelling distance, that I should go and see before its too late. I haven’t seen Glanville Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper or Heath Fritillary. I really ought to get myself into gear and put that right this coming summer.

Get the book and you wont be disappointed. A word of warning though – you may find yourself adding a few trips to your list this summer.

Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn
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.

Chasing The Ghost by Peter Marren
I've only just got hold of this book, hot off the press, but have included it as nothing that has been written by Peter Marren is anything other than a resounding success. I cannot wait to get stuck in as the author takes us on a personal odyssey to track down all of the wild flowers to be found in Britain.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

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 treetops with many burying themselves deep into the Yews. At this point there was no choice but to abandon the count with a minimum of 550 being present, although plenty of birds were now calling from the Ashurst Rough slope. Were they new? Possibly. On my walk out it was obvious that several hundred had gathered at the point where the footpath returns to the car park, which I have not witnessed before. They were extremely noisy and would go on large flock forays, out over the open fields towards Mickleham Downs before returning to the wood once more (flock sizes of 50-80 on several occasions). There were times when I was standing directly beneath them, the noise an incessant electronic babble, but I could barely see a perched bird - then they would take off, a whoosh of wings and finally revealing themselves and their true number.

The rest of the morning was spent walking from site to site, checking for these delightful birds. In short I was able to locate the following: Mickleham Downs (80, much flock foraying here as well), Juniper Bottom (50), Lodge Hill (5), Box Hill (16), Middlehill Wood (85, north-east of Bramblehall), Ashcombe Wood (4, east of Dorking Wood) and Norbury Park (5). I returned to the car through Juniper Top and back along Juniper Bottom - by then it was 12.30hrs and very few birds were seen.

At one point (c08.30hrs) I stood at the gateway in Whitehill car park looking eastwards. Over the fields were two flocks circling (60 and 85), there were birds calling all around me, and further (small) numbers were viewable with each and every scan of viewable tree lines. They were everywhere. Today's combined total is of 795 birds. I cannot possibly have seen or found them all - I wouldn't mind betting that the general area is holding 1,000+.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Hellebores in the snow

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

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

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Harbingers of warmer days

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

Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni

Small White Pieris rapae

Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines

Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta

Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

Peacock Inachis io

Comma Polygonia c-album

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria

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

Friday, 16 March 2018

Box Hill stake-out

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

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The return of Juniper Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Always a crowd pleaser

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

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Where to begin?

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

I was in the Whitehill Carpark by 06.15hrs and within ten minutes found myself staring across the field and into the tree tops of Bramblehall Wood. I was frankly surprised to see, at this early hour, at least 200 Hawfinches already on show (part of the flock pictured above). They were quite motionless and, I think it safe to assume, had just emerged from a very close roosting site. Over the following hour more birds arrived (mainly from the direction of Ashurst Rough) to join them. From time to time numbers left the tree tops to dive into the wall of Yew beneath, birds being observed moving amongst the foliage as they fed, barging through the vegetation. A flock of c100 then took to the air and headed purposefully northwards along the tree-line, appearing to disappear towards High Ashurst Outdoor Centre, not to be seen again. The rest of the birds then moved off southwards, then settled some 400m further along. At 07.15 things started to get very busy indeed. It began with a lose flock of 200 birds that came in over my head and circled the birds that were already present in front of me. Those in the trees then also took to the air - not the 100+ that I had assumed were present but at least 250 of them - and I was witness to a kaleidoscope of Hawfinches, a blizzard of wing-bars, tail-tips and excited calling. 450+ birds in all. Plus, there were 50+ birds behind me, up in the Yews. Together with the 100 that had left northwards earlier in the morning that made for a minimum of 600. Incredible. And do you know what happened to this mass of Hawfinches? They just melted away. Gone with barely a whimper, to be consumed by that dense wall of Yew trees. All became very quiet indeed.

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

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

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

Monday, 12 March 2018

Moths, for a change

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

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

Sunday, 11 March 2018

No apology

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

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

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Breaking up?

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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Green stuff

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

Monday, 5 March 2018

The sound of Hawfinches

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

Sunday, 4 March 2018

A Canons Top Ten

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

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

Or both...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 March 2018

Scratching about

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

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

Looking east from Canons Farm into Chipstead Bottom