Last day of April. Cold. Dull. Wet. Very wet. What better antidote to all of this weather misery than to bathe in the memories of those warm, colourful days of summer with this offering of colour via the mass-flowering of plants, all mostly from a single species. They'll soon be here again...
The settling beds at Beddington Sewage Farm were in good condition to entice passage waders down to feed, the effluent being not too wet and not too dry, and when seen from above they mimicked small inland estuaries. The star birds were a Spotted Redshank, a Little Stint and a flock of Ruff that, over the course of a week, built up to 17 birds. House Martin numbers were also increasing, and it was not just passage migrants that were swelling the numbers, as those that had been locally fledged were also taking to the skies. Up to 600 were feeding above Beddington in mid-September and a faithful group of 100-200 birds remained above Sutton town centre well into October. There were still young in some of the nests, these muddy cups being a common enough sight under the eaves of houses in many suburban streets. Another species gathering in numbers was the House Sparrow, with gangs of 30+ being found with regularity in the neighbourhood front gardens, their chatter competing with passing cars, barking dogs and squealing children.
My birding education was continuing at a pace. I took myself off to Pagham Harbour on 25th September and was delighted to find – and to be able to immediately identify – a Great Skua, that had entered the harbour itself and was aimlessly loafing around. Not unlike the Reed Warbler that I had found at this very place back in the summer, it was encouraging to be able to confidently put a name to what was basically a ‘brown’ bird, albeit one with conspicuous white wing-flashes. Waders were building up in number, with a fine cross-section of species to scan through, including Whimbrel, Spotted Redshank and Little Stint. Tardy summer-migrants were still to be found at Church Norton, with Wheatear, Whinchat and up to 5 Spotted Flycatchers. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was found by the farmyard.
Both Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were present at Beddington SF when I visited on the following day, plus a fine array of departing migrants including a Turtle Dove, seven Yellow Wagtail, two Sedge Warbler, four Wheatear and four Whinchat. These reminders of the summer were lingering, and as we headed into October I desperately wanted them to stay with us. There is a deep-seated affiliation to these creatures of long-daylight, sun and warmth, one that may well have been forged millennia ago when the coming winter was a time of uncertainty and promised privations.
At the beginning of October two species of bird appeared before me that were to become long-standing avian highlights – events that were to be replayed in my mind over later years. The first occurred on 3rd October, a day when a group of Surrey-birders, all crammed into a white Transit van, went on a tour of the birding hot-spots of the Sussex/Kent border. Rye Harbour had been quiet save for two late Common Swifts, but on arrival at Dungeness we were alerted to the presence of a Red-breasted Flycatcher. In these early days of my birdwatching this was a truly rare bird, one that I barely heard of and certainly didn’t consider that I would ever see. It was not immediately on view, and much time was spent searching the vegetation close to the observatory and in the moat, a deep circular channel that had been gouged out of the shingle. It finally appeared, as if out of nowhere, bathing in a puddle that had formed on the road that crosses the moat. It was far, far better than I had hoped. More subtle than obvious, the clean browns and buffs, large eye and flashing white at the base of the tail had me in their spell. We were able to observe the flycatcher for several minutes before it flicked back into nearby bushes and disappeared.
As unexpected as the flycatcher was, the next species of note was even more so. 10th October dawned overcast, dry and calm and I was at Beddington SF helping Ken and Mike with the ringing. We had set up a number of single panel mist nets in an area of settling beds that had become overgrown with Fathen which was proving attractive to a mixed flock of finches. We had trapped a good number of birds by late morning – including a Grey Wagtail, five Meadow Pipits and a couple of Reed Buntings – so were already happy with the day’s work. Mike and Ken went off to check the nets, leaving me to guard our bags and ringing equipment. A few minutes later they returned, Mike proudly holding a bird bag in front of him, a great beaming smile on his face.
“Bet you can’t tell me what’s in here,” he asked.
And to this day I do not know why I instantly blurted out “Bluethroat?”
Because it was! The three of us processed the bird with ‘incredulity’ stamped firmly across our faces. The rusty-red tail patches, buffy supercilium and moustachial stripes plus a spattering of dark markings forming a necklace around the throat were all admired, the lack of any blue feathering instantly forgiven. That evening at home I basked in its memory, enthralled by its appearance, once again coming to terms with birding’s ability to surprise and delight.
I have just spent a quite marvellous hour listening to a podcast created by Charlie Moores at 'The Sound Approach' in which he chats to Portland Bill Bird Observatory's affable warden, Martin Cade. It is a delight. The chat - this is no formal interview - is full of anecdote and insight into the good work of PBO down the years, their current plans and what it is that makes this particular warden tick.
Portland Bill BO is one of those places that I have always enjoyed visiting but have not visited often enough. My first visit was in September 1977, when a Balearic Shearwater sailed onto my British list (there was also a sick Leach's Petrel in a cardboard box). This was followed by encounters with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (1979) and an Ivory Gull (1980). I didn't actually stay at the observatory until 1982, a late-April sojourn that was characterised by snow and a raging hangover. Since then it has been a place that I have largely neglected, mainly down to it being just far away enough to be a pain to get to and my own affiliation to Dungeness BO. However, two more residencies (2003 and 2009) rekindled an affection for the place - it is sobering and also remiss of me to have allowed nine years to elapse since I last stayed there. It is great for birds, moths, butterflies and plants. It has a forward thinking and inclusive bunch of enthusiasts taking care of its legacy. Why have I not visited more often?
This is a species that has increased greatly here in Banstead. The first for the year came to the MV early on Saturday evening, but a thunderstorm overnight tripped the electricity, so I came down to an emptyish trap (and attendant cold bulb) on Sunday morning...
I have been collating material for a paper on the Hawfinch irruption in Surrey for future publication in the Surrey Bird Report. As this is unlikely to see the light of day for a while, I thought it worthwhile making the first draft accessible, not only because it is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it, but also in the hope that there will be plenty more information forthcoming from observers who will hopefully read it. This is very much a first draft.
The past couple of nights has seen a welcome increase in the number of moths (and species) coming to the garden MV here in Surrey - nothing too unusual, but a Red Chestnut (above) is not annual here. Also pictured are Brindled Beauty (below) and Lunar Marbled Brown (bottom).
A splendid three days at Dungeness, staying at the exclusive 'Hotel Hollingworth', with fine whiskey and dodgy country music being the establishment's specialities...
The birding was wonderful. High pressure and hot sun are never going to be the ideal conditions for a fall/arrival, but is always good for a bit of skywatching, and the sea was better than expected.
An intense hour-and-a-half of birding with Mark H occurred yesterday (19th), with a marked movement of raptors, the birds seemingly arriving from the north and concentrating around the Water Tower/Boulderwall area before spiralling away high or carrying on southwards, across the reserve. The most numerous were Common Buzzard (14), Marsh Harrier (10, with a further four local birds), 4 Sparrowhawk, a Red Kite and most notable of all, a thuggish female Goshawk. Prior to this raptor-fest, a flock of three Hawfinches headed eastwards, possibly pitching down in bushes close to the RSPB visitor centre.
Sea watching was nothing but absorbing, with the onshore winds on 17th throwing up a number of welcome species, including Manx Shearwater, Velvet Scoter, Arctic Skua, Bonxie, Whimbrel and Arctic Tern. The following couple of days continued to provide a modest trickle past the the beach, with increasing numbers of Whimbrel (above), and - for Dungeness - the most unusual sight of a raft of 17 Manx Shearwaters feeding offshore.
Other highlights included a good number of Andrena vaga at the usual sandy bank on the RSPB reserve, and a Light Orange Underwing in the DBO trapping area.
Thanks to Roger Browne's kind phone-call I was able to 'filthy twitch' a Hoopoe at Beddington Sewage Farm this morning. It was keeping largely to the main island in front of the viewing ramp, with the occasional sortie out and onto the mound. At one point a Sparrowhawk swept through, with the Hoopoe adopting an upright posture, as can be seen in the photograph below, no doubt using the Canada Goose as a shield...
Also seen were three Common Buzzards, a Red Kite and a female Bufflehead that was sporting a silver ring and was not being taken seriously at all.
Anybody checking an MV trap will invariably also search nearby walls, vegetation and garden bric-a-brac for resting moths - here in Banstead I have found such delights as Rannoch Looper, Scallop Shell, Scarce Bordered Straw, Vestal and Gypsy Moth by doing so. Not quite in their league, but less than annual here, was this Streamer.
I haven't crunched the shingle since late October. It's about time I put that right. A visit next week seems to be on the cards....
My recent April visits have been a little disappointing, with very few migrants, chill winds and much frantic bush-bashing, although the flora is always there to admire and Andrena vega (below) should be on the wing.
...and that includes the Bramblehall Wood Hawfinch extravaganza. I last visited on April 1st, when there were still 200 present. I had toyed with the idea of not going again, to preserve the memory of the largest ever UK flock, but as the week wore on decided that seeing as I was present at the birth I ought to be around for the demise. So this morning, in chilly, drizzly and misty conditions, a (possibly) last Hawfinch-induced trudge along the muddy footpath was taken. I stood at the favoured viewing point for two hours and saw three birds. It had to end. In some ways it was a bit of a relief, as I've spent too much time here over the past 10 weeks, but it has been time well spent, observing a never-to-be repeated (at least not in my lifetime) ornithological happening. I'd like to thank each and every Hawfinch for the thrills, joy and wonder that they've brought, but that just sounds plain stupid.
I also checked the nearby woods and valleys that have, at times, been dripping with Hawfinches. Not one. Not even a single call. They really have moved on.
The garden's fifth Dotted Chestnut appeared in the trap this morning, and photographs prove it was different to yesterday's. Previous to these two, the other records from my Banstead garden are:
08/05/1998 17/03/2000 06/05/2000
I hadn't realised that it was a full 18 years since my last record - either time is flying by or my brain is slowly turning to mush...
Update from yesterday: a late afternoon wander around Canons Farm, in rather splendid warm hazy sunshine, provided my earliest ever Hobby, a bird that slowly drifted northwards whilst feeding on insects. Also two Swallows.
The first decent haul from the garden MV this year - not so much for numbers but for quality. Top billing went to the fourth garden record of Dotted Chestnut (above) although it was a flighty individual and escaped before I could get a decent photo. Also a garden record of four Oak Nycteoline (below), plus Red-green Carpet (common here now), Small Quaker, Common Quaker, Hebrew Character, Early Grey, Double-striped Pug, Clouded Drab (bottom), Diurnea fagella, Amblyptilia acanthadactyla and Emmelina monodactyla.
Moschatel (Adoxa moscahatellina) is an early spring flower of woodlands and copses, which will also grow happily alongside older hedgerows. It has an alternative name of Town Hall Clock, on account of the flower head resembling multi-faceted clock faces (bottom picture for detail, together with a great dollop of imagination). As you come across a patch there is a resemblance of the flower heads to those of Salad Burnet, small green pom-poms rising from the leafy ground. These particular flowers were found this morning along an isolated hedgerow at Canons Farm, not far from a few spikes of Toothwort. No doubt the hedgerow was once part of a wood.
My quest for migrants at the farm was largely unsuccessful - no Wheatear, no hirundine, but did include a lone Ring Ouzel that majestically made its way across Broad Field and continued southwards over the L&G building. A group of three Red Kites at 07.00hrs suggested that they had roosted nearby. It was all a bit breezy, still cool and didn't feel as if the migration dam had yet burst.
The garden MV went out even though the skies were clearing and the temperature was dropping. It was hardly a trap leaping with moths this morning, although a reasonable cross-section of early spring species were present, including Twin-spotted Quaker (top) and Small Quaker (above). I like Small Quakers - there is something about their modest looks and diminutive stature that I can sympathise with...
If I'm being totally honest I think that I'm running out of 'Hawfinch steam'. I'm considering not visiting Bramblehall Wood again, mainly because I cannot bare the thought of ultimately staring into an empty canopy where once the hordes were on show - my abiding memory will be of the spectacle, not of a slow demise - but of course, to bump into any by chance as I revert to random birding will be more than welcome. The write-up on the Surrey irruption is well under way, and that can give me my Coccothraustes fix. It's been a blast...
Talking of random birding, the well-trodden paths at Canons Farm were taken this morning. Four Red Kites (two singles and a pair heading between south and west), two singing Chiffchaffs, a couple of Bramblings (including a smart male on the edge of Lunch Wood), 80 Linnets and eight Yellowhammers were ample reward. It's about time that a Marsh Harrier or Osprey deigned to fly over me at the farm (or at least do so when I'm looking in their direction). Both are long overdue. Or a Stone Curlew - I'm not fussy. And seeing that I've just mentioned those three species, I've jinxed them. Not a hope in hell now...
A new month, so I was keen to visit Bramblehall Wood and get a Hawfinch count in. On site by 06.20hrs, it wasn't for another half-hour until the finches appeared in number, mostly arriving from Ashurst Rough. True to form, they spent most of their time loafing in the tree tops before diving into the wall of Yews below. At least 200 present.
The general area is still home to plenty of birds - counts from nearby were: Juniper Bottom (8), Mickleham Downs (1) and Lodge Hill (17).