Thursday, 31 May 2018

The elephant in the trap... a small one. Small Elephant Hawk-moth is a regular here at Banstead, and in most years it is the commonest hawk-moth that I record. The rarest? Of the resident species that I've had it would be Privet, although I should give honourable mention to the single migrant Striped!

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The loneliness of the long-distance birder

Living 90-miles from my beloved Dungeness means that I cannot really treat it as 'my patch'. True, I could get up at cuckoo's fart each morning and arrive for a dawn start, but that is not a realistic option on many levels. The drive to Dungeness can be painful due to heavy traffic on the M25, 26, 20 and increasingly at the point itself. I struggle to recall the days when a bank holiday weekend meant no more than an extra ten minutes on the journey and a couple more people staring at the lighthouses. Today you might as well resign yourself to forging a close relationship with the flora of the motorway central reservations and hard shoulders as you crawl along to the fumes of trucks heading to (and from) Dover. And, according to the sensible people, Brexit will only make this scenario worse.

Where else to get my 'proper' birding fix? Rye Harbour is a great reserve, a pleasant drive (via the A21 and Hawkhurst) but is still a 90-minute drive if all of the traffic and roads are behaving themselves. Pagham Harbour? An old stomping ground of mine but increasingly blighted by traffic hold ups near Chichester and down to Selsey, and further in miles and time than Rye. Closer to home is Pulborough Brooks, the closest to an inland sea you will get away from the man-made concrete monstrosity of Staines Reservoir - and don't even suggest that I ought to throw in my lot with that place! Admittedly I have seen some good birds there, but it is like birding at a flooded multi-storey car park. No, not for me, and no, it's not in f***ing Surrey. Pulborough is more of an option but, in reality is 'coastal-lite', decaffinated birding with the sugar and salt removed. But still full-fat compared to where I do end up.

So I plough a (virtually) lonely furrow here on the North Downs scarp. It has its moments, but not as many as I'd like. What would be great is to walk out with a realistic chance of bumping into a Rose-coloured Starling. Or finding a singing Marsh Warbler. Not scraping by on a diet of Wheatears, Whinchats and the outside chance of a Spotted Flycatcher. So I check Twitter, reading about the exploits of those I follow primarily in Kent and Sussex. Through gritted teeth I feel pleased for them as Great Reed Warblers, Pallid Harriers and memorable sea watches are relayed to me via 140 or 280 characters. It can galvanise me into getting out in an attempt to join in with the party. At other times it is nothing but crushing. It could be worse, but I'm starting to struggle to think of a more disadvantaged part of the country to bird in.

Answers on a postcard...

Monday, 28 May 2018

Alder Kitten

Only the second Alder Kitten to be recorded from the garden. Considering the warmth of the night the total catch was a bit disappointing, although a virtual full moon in clear skies didn't help. With migrants being recorded on the coast, it's a case of keeping on high alert!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

2,000 Bird's-nests plus Hawfinch withdrawals

On the steep, southern slopes of Mickleham Downs you will find predominantly beech woodland, mixed with stands of yew, box and, in places, larch. Here be Bird's-nest Orchids. There are known discreet colonies to seek out and, no doubt, many undiscovered groups are also present on the difficult to access sections. For the best experience head to Cockshott Wood - just above the small car park there is a large colony which is loosely scattered over an area the size of a football pitch. I spent some time last Wednesday afternoon trying to come up with a meaningful count and reached the conclusion that there were no fewer than 2,000 spikes present. They are some sight.

From here you can look south and see the elevated woodland at Juniper Top, Ashurst Rough and - most importantly - Bramblehall Wood. Only a few weeks ago they were home to the largest flock of Hawfinches to be recorded in Britain. I did feel a pang of regret that they are no longer around having spent many happy hours watching them over the winter, the memories of which will long live with me. I listened intently for any tell-tale signs of a few still being present, but no - I do believe that they have all gone. I doubt that I will see such sights again.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Dungeness mid-May birds

A bit late, but here is a brief account of my recent week at Dungeness (May 15th - 23rd).

Passerine migrants were really hard to come by. Most species numbers were lower than to be expected, especially hirundines and Sedge Warbler. Frequent searches of the scrub were largely disappointing. A modest, but varied passage of waders was experienced, with Whimbrel, Knot, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Avocet all enjoyable components, along with the star billing, a Kentish Plover (below). This bird was the first to be recorded at Dungeness for 13 years - I would see KPs on an annual basis here back in the 1970s and 1980s. My resolve not to twitch was tested on May 19th when a Terek Sandpiper turned up at Rye - I cracked. It was more than agreeable (above)!

Sea watching was surprisingly good for so late in the season, with 'Commic' terns on the move in their thousands (both Common and Arctic seen), and with them were good numbers of Black. I even managed to jam into a latish Pomarine Skua, while the DBO unprecedented run on Manx Shearwaters continued. Little Gulls were also present throughout, although most were to be found on the RSPB reserve (below).

A brief flighty Hoopoe (18th), a close encounter with a Bee-eater (19th) and a slow-moving Honey-buzzard (23rd) were the cherries on the top of another fascinating late-spring stay.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Dungeness Flora

Although any stay at Dungeness will be primarily focused on birds, it would be foolhardy not to pay attention to the splendid flora on offer - here are a few tasters...

Clustered Clover - a new species for me, and 're-discovered' close to the observatory
Bird's-foot - there was a fine show on the sand at Littlestone
Sand Catchfly - happy to flower in the hundreds close to beach huts and holidaymakers
Annual Knawel - underwhelming, un-showy, yet a firm favourite of mine, at Littlestone
Burrowing Clover - if you are at Dungeness, look down - it is all over the peninsula
Sheep's Sorrel - literally millions of plants turn the grassland red
Thrift - on the western side of the point can be found extensive drifts

Monday, 21 May 2018

I must go down to the sea again

I really should do more sea watching, but when you spend most of your birding time in land-locked Surrey then there is a major flaw in that plan...

Anyhow, the day started cloudy with just the merest hint of precipitation. First bird after stepping out of the observatory back door was a Hobby, quickly followed by a Grey Plover - birds were moving and the day seemed to possess promise. Fast forward seven hours and I had spent a largely fruitless morning on the point and reserve. Dave W had had some sea watching success however, so from 13.30 hrs I took myself off to the beach for what turned out to be a splendid four hours.

At first there was little to suggest that much was going to happen, but then the terns started to move, mostly Commics, and a steady eastward passage was underway. There then appeared to be a logjam in this onward movement, as a mass of birds gathered to the west of the patch and started feeding. Scope views revealed further birds way out. I estimated at least 800. The release of these birds was just as sudden as their gathering, as flocks started to break off and carry on eastwards, coming closer in the process and revealing Black Terns to be in their number (81 passed east), along with two Little Terns and a few Arctics. It was tremendous birding, with the Commic Tern total reaching 1700. To add icing to this ornithological cake was a single, splendid, light-phase Pomarine Skua which showed off its spoons as it magestically headed east. Marvellous stuff.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Good birds

Part of the allure of spending mid-to-late May at Dungeness is the possibility of unusual birds. As already laid out in a recent post, the last four years has been kind to me at this time of year here. On Friday the first success came via a flighty Hoopoe at Galloways, courtesy of the ever-searching Martin C. The bird did not stay long, bounding away deeper into the Army ranges, although it was later relocated on the Dengemarsh Road to the relief of the many observers who had not been as quick off the marks (or as close) as Mark H and I had.

Saturday was starting to resemble a day of unfulfilled promise until news broke of a Terek Sandpiper just over the county boundary at the superb Rye Harbour reserve. I weighed up the options - stay put scanning an almost empty sky - or indulge in the uncharacteristic behaviour of a filthy twitch. The latter won hands down. After picking up Martin C we arrived on site to be greeted by distant and heat hazed views of the bird, although we were able to take up a much better vantage point further along the Salt Pool's edge and, in good light, the Terek played ball and walked right up to us, giving scintillating views and enabling all present to happily click away on a variety of photographic products. It had turned into a Dungeness away day, with most of the regulars present, and it was good to see Mike B and Matt P there too. Back at Dungeness, the Hoopoe was allowing all comers a chance to watch it again and a Bee-eater that had been seen briefly earlier in the day was relocated, and decided to perch up on bushes close to the Hanson Hide, much to the delight of a local gathering of birders in the evening light. Some of us - alright Mark H and myself - missed out, due to having already got stuck into an evening of FA Cup Final / food and alcohol. Our resolve would have been sorely tested had it been a Blue-cheeked...

And then this morning, in overcast conditions, I found myself walking along the sandy track to the Water Tower when my daydreaming was rudely interrupted by the liquid 'prrrp' of a Bee-eater. The bird circled above me before heading out eastwards over ARC and being lost to view. Another birder had independently picked this bird up from the screen hide and he too lost the bird in the distance. Before there was time to reflect on my 'rainbow interloper' I was made aware of a Kentish Plover (found by Liz H) on Burrowes. Now, back in my youth this would not have warranted such a frenzied response, but this was, unbelievably, the first Dungeness record since 2005! Cue a procession of birders who were able to watch this dainty plover that remained faithful to a small shingle island.

So, three days and four birds (albeit one away from Dungeness). Is it being greedy to hope for a bit more?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Two more

Clovers, that is.

After yesterday's blank on Clustered, the observatory assistant Jacques went out to check an historic site close to the observatory, and came up trumps with several hundred flowering heads on show. Images at a later date. Clearly with the bit between his teeth, he then tracked down several plants of Suffocated, a species that I have not seen for several years. This trip is turning into a bit of a 'clover fest'.

The birds remain quiet, although a dribble of waders continue to pass over the point (Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, etc). I'm still holding out hope for something unusual to come sailing on by...

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In clover

With a nagging, cool northerly wind the birding was never going to creep above mundane, and it didn't. The beauty of Dungeness is that if the birds are a no-show then you can fall back on plants and insects - we chose the former.

The sand dunes of Littlestone beckoned, with public land on the seaward side of the golf course chosen to explore. This area is well known botanically, and we were delighted to find a good number of notable species. The main target was Clustered Clover, a plant that I have failed to find here a number of times. Despite clear directions, and knowing that we were in the right place, it took an hour's searching before we had to admit defeat. Our sixty minutes of crawling around on all fours had paid off however, as some of the other clovers present were not so difficult, with Burrowing, Knotted, Birdsfoot, Rough, and Haresfoot also being recorded. There was masses of Bird's-foot (not the clover), Annual Knawel and plenty of Smooth Cat's-ear to feast our eyes on. A few naturalised plants added a splash of colour, including Duke of Argyll's Teaplant and Portugeuse Squill. Flowers, not for the first time, had saved the day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

From volcanic rock to shingle

After a four-day family break in Edinburgh - where ancient volcanic rock outcrops loom over the city - I soon found myself back on the shingle ridges of Dungeness. It may well be quiet on the bird front here, but mid-May with blue skies and NE to SE winds (as forecast and lessening in strength) is usually an indicator of a good bird or two. Over the past five years, staying at the bird observatory at this time of year has been very profitable indeed, with my notebook having been populated by Great Reed Warbler, Bonaparte's Gull, Rose-coloured Starling, four Black-winged Stilts, three Bee-eaters, Serin, two Montagu's Harriers, two White-winged Black Terns, Black Kite, Honey Buzzard... all good stuff!

I arrived in a gentle easterly breeze, sunny and warm, the air perfumed with the profuse flowering of plants on the shingle. The ground is stained rusty red by millions of Sheep-sorrel; Gorse and Broom add splashes of yellow, whilst white is supplied by Snow-in-Summer and Sea Campion. It is an understated spectacle, but a spectacle never the less. It is one of the reasons that I keep on coming back.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

'Sky watching' - the inland birder's 'sea watching'

I was going to start this post by mentioning that us birders in land-locked Surrey cannot obviously indulge in the ornithological pastime of sea watching, but then remembered that this is not strictly true - I took the photograph above from the top of Leith Hill a few years ago that clearly shows the sea, believed to be at Shoreham. It would, however, take a fantastic telescope, plenty of imagination and an awful lot of fabrication to come up with any meaningful observations...

Instead, us inlanders can use the sky. As a surrogate sea this is quite a good compromise. The same rules apply - find a clear view, take up position and wait. The birds come to you. There is the need for good flight identification (like the sea), it can be weather dependent (again, like the sea) and can throw up the unexpected. In addition - and unlike the sea - bird calls are an important component of the birder's armoury.

Sky watching has the advantage of being able to be participated in from almost anywhere (although I've always found the cupboard-under-the-stairs to be pretty useless). There are hot spots (hill tops, gaps in hills, river valleys) with my closest site to home being at Canons Farm, which has big skies and relative height. We also believe that the nearby A217 acts as a navigational aid to birds, as we have seen flocks of birds (including patch-scarce waders and ducks) flying along its line. You can relive a couple of my memorable sky watches from the Farm here and here.

This morning it was quiet, but the Farm (and sky watching) always has something to offer, with six Red Kites, all singles, heading between south and west.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Getting going

Well, the hot weather has certainly kick-started the moths once more, as the MV has had a good selection of species over the past couple of mornings, even if the overall numbers are still depressed. The year's first hawk-moth (a Poplar, above) and a good number of Scalloped Hazels were the highlights, along with plenty of other species that were new for the year.

Scalloped Hazel - up to six in the trap
Iron Prominent
Nut-tree Tussock
Pale Tussock

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Picking up a bit

The moth trap haul was still very much on the low side, but did include a Waved Umber (above), plus two new species for the year, Muslin Moth (below) and the underrated Light Brocade (bottom).

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Scorched Carpet

I don't know what's going on with the moths at the moment - the day's are warm enough but the clear (and slightly chilly) nights are surely not that bad to bring about the woeful catches that are being experienced. Single figure macro totals for early May is not what we expect - I've had higher counts in December and January as I have had over the past three nights! As some form of compensation was this beautiful Scorched Carpet, annual here at Banstead but erratic in appearance.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Who owns the data?

This is going to be a stream of me 'thinking out loud' with a large dollop of playing devil's advocate...

Suppose that tomorrow morning I go out and find a singing male Sardinian Warbler on a bird reserve.  I tweet it out. Within a matter of minutes it is picked up by the information services and the news is disseminated by them. On the back of this a bird tour picks up on the news and they all come and have a look.

Now, both the information services and tour company have used my information - without permission - to make money from it (by charging others to access it or by charging clients to be shown my bird via my information). Is that morally acceptable? Is it stealing information, without permission, for financial gain, or have I relinquished all control over my information by placing it in the public domain? And because I was on a bird reserve, albeit with permission, was it my place to tweet the information at all? Should I not have alerted the staff and allowed them to deal with the information themselves? It's not straightforward, is it...

And on that final point comes the subject of etiquette. If you are birding on a reserve, at an observatory or anywhere that you could be considered to be a guest, then maybe the tweeting out of news should be deferred to those local birders or employees on site. In simplest terms it's just being polite. Oh, and don't pass off others sightings as your own - if you want to pass on the data for others to share then re-tweet it - that does the job nicely and also gives credit to where it's due - the original observer(s). Otherwise it looks as if you have stolen the data and are trying to pass it off as your own.

Having said all that, I find myself wondering as to my own recent actions. Having written up a paper on the recent Hawfinch irruption into Surrey, I plundered social media and websites to obtain the data to do so. No permissions were attained. Should I have done that? Were the observations and counts available for me to do with them as I pleased? Admittedly, I was not getting payment to write it, but would it have made any difference if I had?

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Eight Greenlands and some small saddles

Canons Farm on a still, clear morning. Little was passing overhead and if truth be told the four hours that I spent meandering across the fields and along the hedgerows were hard work - however, I really couldn't complain as there were Wheatears! Eight of them, all big, bold and brassy Greenland-types, and all bar one were males. Two of them spent a bit of time in the bizarrely named In Front George West Field whilst the rest remained faithful to Poultry Field, although all of them were wary and were never close enough to obtain anything other than purely 'record' shots. Apart from a single Grey Wagtail everything else was highly expected and I did leave a little disappointed, although whenever Wheatears are on show you cannot be totally so.

A felled tree trunk that can be found alongside Lunch Wood is home to one of our most impressive species of fungi, Dryad's Saddle. At least three fruiting bodies are showing themselves (top and below) and when it reaches full-size it is something to behold (although they generally get smashed up by bored passers-by at this location).