Friday, 31 August 2018

A question of Common Buzzards

Common Buzzard used to be a screaming rarity in the south-east of England. Some time in the late 1980s they started to appear with more frequency, although it was still a good day if you saw one. My first in Surrey and Kent was not recorded until 1995. By the turn of the millennium numbers were definitely on the rise, to the point that it was no longer a surprise when one flew into sight, but they were normally encounters with single birds. Then came the multiple encounters, and the rest, as they say, is history.

At Dungeness, the Common Buzzard story is a similar one of gradual infiltration as a regularly encountered species. It is now a few years since a scan of the horizon - especially from the RSPB reserve towards Lydd - almost guaranteed seeing Common Buzzard. In recent times there has been a new dimension to sky watching here - that of 'raptor days' - primarily on sunny and calm days in April/May and August/September, and the Common Buzzard is a major component of them.

Today saw a rewriting of the record books. There was little sign of any movement until c14.00hrs, but while birding at Galloways, Mark H and I were aware of six Common Buzzards drifting above the shingle in an easterly direction. We soon moved to Springfield Bridge for a better vantage point, to be joined by Sean C. For the next hour a further 31 Common Buzzards moved through, arriving from the NW to N and drifting off between E and SW, after gaining height. We felt that the movement had ended by 15.45hrs. We were wrong. At approx 17.30 Martin C, scanning from his Lydd garden, was able to count 14 in the air together. We also learnt that Barry W, birding at Caldicot Lane during the mid-afternoon, recorded 27 moving through - some of these were almost certainly the same as ours.

These numbers are unprecedented at Dungeness. They leave in their wake a number of questions. Where are they going? What makes them move? Are they 'local' youngsters just exploring? Do some cross the channel or do they head back inland? This is what makes birding fascinating - nothing stays the same and we are always learning, always questioning.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Counting cattle

How can a flock of big white birds be so difficult to count? When Colin T located eight Cattle Egrets in a field close to Boulderwall Farm, the quickly gathering clans, scopes at the ready, attempted to match his count. The egrets chose a roughly vegetated field with plenty of dips and folds which, together with the cattle, provided plenty of hiding places. Eight became nine, soon ten, then finally eleven. Were there any more lurking unseen? Martin C's evening egret roost count numbered six Great and eleven Cattle, so some vindication was had for our final daytime total. 'Our' flock may be 40 short of the recent Devon 'mega count', but it was impressive all the same.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

During (and after) the rain

A steady rainfall from 08.00 - 14.00hrs saw plenty of tea and coffee drinking before us birders scattered to all four corners of Dungeness to see what the precipitation had brought us. I chose a very dry corner courtesy of the RSPB hides. The open water on both Burrowes and ARC were covered with hawking Sand Martins, some 2,000 of them. However, as arresting a sight this undoubtably was, the lack of grounded waders was disappointing.

After the rain came sun, and, back at the observatory came the flycatchers with it. Figures that 30 years ago would have barely raised an eyebrow are now notable - 10+ Pied and 4 Spotted. I spent several hours watching them, along with the ever expanding chat flock in the desert, that comprised 13 Stonechat, 5 Whinchat and a Wheatear.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

A strange day, with soporific spells interrupted by sudden bursts of 'happening'.

The first occurred at 06.15hrs when a tight flock of  c400 Sand Martins appeared low over the point, slaloming through the bushes as if water flowing around a boulder. They were silent, which matched the calm cotton wool weather.

The second was a mass emergence of flying insects (sorry, I cannot be more specific) that shook up hundreds of gulls into a spot of aerial snacking, to be joined by 1,000+ Starlings, doing their best to mimic feeding hirundines.

And last, but not least, when the sun burned away the stubborn cloud in the early afternoon up to 200 Migrant Hawkers took to the wing, filling the lower trapping area air space with their erratic patrolling.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Feasting on the leftovers

After a three month absence, I'm back on the Dungeness shingle for a stay. For how long? A piece of string comes to mind...

My itinerary on arrival was one that was target specific - RSPB for American Black Tern and observatory fridge for Beautiful Marbled. Both successful. Both worthy in their differing ways. The purist will salivate at the subtle tern and deride the Lepidoptera in the pot. However, my purity is sullied.

What was unadulterated was the splendid loose flock of chats that I spent over an hour with in the desert, with up to eight Stonechat, two Whinchat and a Wheatear. They tolerated me as they moved around a small area of gorse and broom, in the process picking up 3-4 Whitethroats and two Great Tits that adhered themselves to the mobile chats.

As dark fell we wandered out to take in the Mediterranean vibe of the singing Tree Crickets. It's good to be back.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Arable awakening?

Pipit Meadow* is the rather twee name that has been given to a field in the 'greater' Canons Farm area, just north of Ruffett Wood and south of the housing in Holly Lane West. When I first knew of the area some twenty years ago it was a grassy field which was, shortly afterwards, ploughed and planted with crops. And then, maybe two years ago, the field was left alone and allowed to revert back to 'the wild', whatever that means in reality. As can be seen from the picture above, it has a patchy look to it, with bare areas offset by carpets of returning wildflower. Today I took a closer look.

I cannot claim that my 'look' was a thorough one. I spent an hour criss-crossing the field, which is at its highest in the south and drops before flattening out along the northern boundary. The northern half seems to be better for plants, and here the most obvious species is Scarlet Pimpernel, great carpets that must number in millions of flowers. Dotted amongst this are a number of 'arable' species that gives hope that the seed bank is well - Round-leaved Fluellen (below), masses of Black-bindweed, Dwarf Spurge, Sun Spurge, Field Pansy and a few plants of Cornfield Knotgrass. This latter species is not a common plant in my limited experience, but I've seen it already this year nearby at Langley Vale. Also recorded today were Redshank and Tomato. I'm hoping that local expert-botanist John Peacock may have some insight as to the flora that used to be recorded here. I will certainly be returning for another look in the hope that more hidden treasures will decide to pop up.

* A much better name would be Woodlark Meadow, as it was here that I found a flock of three feeding one October afternoon several years ago.

Thursday, 23 August 2018


This afternoon's visit to Canons Farm was made with birds firmly in mind. We are now into late August, the time for chats, warblers and hirundines to build in numbers as they pass through on their way southwards. Southern coastal watch-points are doing OK as it goes, and as much as the inland birder does not set their sights as high as 'our friends by the sea', it is fair enough for us to hope for a few ornithological crumbs to come our way.

After a couple of hours of tramping around the patch, I was deflated. The hedgerows and copses were empty. No calling warblers and no proudly perched chats. To save the day I needed to take off my ornithological hat and replace it with my botanical one. The new destination was the steep field to the east of Fames Rough, where a rather fine colony of Devil's-bit Scabious can be found. Was it having a good year? Oh yes! Tens of thousands of flowerhead were blooming - and this is a scarce plant locally. Take a look for yourself:

I walked back across Canons Farm buoyed by such a sight - I do like a mass flower! And seeing that in my beatific state the lack of passage migrants was all but forgotten, of course one decided to pop up, a lone Whinchat in Poultry Field (top). It kept its distance but was savoured all the same.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The sativa set

To complete the photographic record of the three sub-species of Medicago sativa, I returned to Epsom Downs to take pictures of Lucerne (M sativa ssp sativa). The mauve to purple flowers are an indicator, but the twisted fruits (2-3 spirals) are a giveaway. I'd better find a new subject to post about - these flowers are becoming the new Hawfinch!!

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

An instructive clump of Medicago

Yesterday afternoon's visit to the clump of Sickle Medick on Epsom Downs started an interesting online debate. I had posted photographs of the plant(s) on the Surrey Botanical Society Facebook group which elicited responses from several botanists, including Ian Kitching who suggested that the plants could be, in fact, yellow-flowered Sand Lucerne. He then added that there might well be Sickle Medick also present, having had a look through my images of the flowers and fruits. The simple truth is that I had not been a thorough enough botanist, and checking the photographs again it was obvious that a larger plant, with a much different jizz, was present. I needed to go back... and did so this morning, delighted to find both Brian and Linda Pitkin already present. They too had been inspired to get to the bottom of this Medicago conundrum.

The bottom line is that there ARE two sub-species present - both Sickle Medick (M sativa ssp falcata) with yellow flowers and fruits that are nearly straight to curved in an arc - and Sand Lucerne (M sativa ssp varia) with flowers that can appear multi-coloured and fruits that can curve and spiral with 0.5 to 1.5 turns. As Brian mentioned to me, there can be some overlap, although the Epsom Downs plants were straightforward once you got your eye in. The varia was a larger, more straggly plant, with the falcata more ground-hugging, although whether this is a reliable feature I do not know. The images above clearly show that the same plant can exhibit different coloured flowers, with deep purple, yellow and green petals all on show. Yesterday's post showed this species (varia) old, dried fruits, and below are some fresher examples. And yesterday's images of the fresh fruits of falcata can now be joined by drier, older examples (bottom)

It has been an interesting exercise. I now feel a lot more confident with being able to differentiate between these sub-species, and it is pleasing to know that all three - the other being Lucerne (M sativa ssp sativa) -  can be found on Epsom Downs.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Sickle Medick? er, maybe not... but then again...

Sickle Medick (Medicago sativa ssp falcata) is a sub-species of the sativa family (the other two being Lucerne and Sand Medick). It is supposedly a native of East Anglia and can sparingly be found in a naturalised state in the south-east of England. This afternoon, after learning about a clump on nearby Epsom Downs, I went and took a look. As you can see from the image above, it is very close to the main grandstands - and, from the image below, also very close to the road!

The colour of the flowers help to differentiate this species from Lucerne (which are purple). Sand Lucerne also can exhibit yellow flowers, but can also show a bewildering palette, including a dense blue that is almost black! It is then that you need to check the fruits: on Sickle Medick they are curved (below) rather than spiralled. I have since been informed by a far more experienced and knowledgable botanist than I that this is, in fact, Sand Lucerne (varia). And now the suggestion is that Sickle Medick (falcata) is present too.

There is quite a bit of Lucerne elsewhere on Epsom Downs, but this is the first time that I have seen Sand Lucerne and Sickle Medick in Surrey. I have passed the site many times and have obviously overlooked it. The area has a recent history of soil disturbance, so no doubt the plant came in via a works vehicle while tarmac was being laid or fencing erected.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

It's all about the hunt

I was recently watching the comedian Stewart Lee on TV. He talked about his love of music and how, when touring the country, he used to visit the local record shops in the hope of tracking down the albums that populated his 'most wanted' list. After twenty years of this devotional persuit he still had many gaps on that list, and each time he unearthed one it was a delicious victory. He left the shop clutching the newly possessed vinyl with a sense of pride and achievement. Then along came the Internet and within 24 hours he had bought all of his 'missing' albums. Their ownership was hollow. The joy of the hunt had gone.

I can identify with that. As much as instant gratification is bestowed upon you the anticipation and, at times, lengthy wait to possess whatever it is that you have been persuing, is missing. Our hunter gatherer urges have once again been cauterised. Take this object of desire:

I have been scouring all the second-hand book shops that I come across, and have done so over the past six months, from Edinburgh to London to Brighton. I know that it is rare and that my chances of finding one are slender, but the hunt is half the fun. I could go online tonight and buy one (£100-200 for a good conditioned original) or order a modern reprint for £65. But where would the fun be in that? No, instead I will enter each and every ramshackle, dusty and musty book dealers that I come across, seek out the natural history section and - while holding my breath - find the New Naturalist shelf. There usually is one. When the day comes and a copy is there - well, it will be an itch that has finally been scratched. I might even get it for a good price as well.

I could draw an analogy here to patch-watching and twitching, but that would be too predictable, wouldn't it...

Friday, 17 August 2018

More arable plant porn

This afternoon's visit to Langley Bottom/Vale Farm was enlivened by a fine show of arable flora, including a profusion of blue-flowered Scarlet Pimpernel, masses of Small Toadflax and both Sharp-leaved and Round-leaved Fluellen, up to a dozen Ground Pine plants and some 'well over' Common Cudweed (first image). Marvellous stuff!

Ground Pine - up to a dozen plants are huddled in a corner of a field at Langley Bottom Farm this year. This species is doing really badly elsewhere.

Scarlet Pimpernel of the blue-flowered form. There are fewer plants that stir the blood so much. The third photograph shows some Small Toadflax on the right hand side.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Maiden's 'Blotch'

This morning's garden MV haul was small and one of little variety, but every catch is different and something of note is usually involved - such as this well-marked Maiden's Blush (above) with extensive dark blotching along the outer edge of the fore-wing. A 'normal' individual is shown below.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Not just honey on my toast

A lazy, yawning start to the day, with a large mug of tea and toast with honey. About two hours later than planned I arrived on Epsom Downs, took up an elevated position overlooking the southern woods and farmland, and started scanning. After half an hour it was obvious that there wasn't much doing, with a band of c10 Swallows hawking up and down the valley and just the odd Chiffchaff and Blackcap breaking cover or calling from the nearby scrub. Then at 10.00hrs a large raptor came into view and was at once identifiable as a Honey-buzzard. The light was against me so I could not attempt to age it even though it was relatively close and low. It slowly carried on southwards and out of view. A fine cameo performance. Afterwards there were 6 Common Buzzards, a Kestrel and a Hobby putting on an air show, but nothing to usurp our earlier guest. I have been fortunate in recording Honey-buzzards several times within the uber patch, not the result of great birding but testament to the fact that if you spend a lot of time outdoors and looking up such birds will surely come your way. Here they all are - those in the autumn of 2000 were part of the unprecedented national influx:

2000   Nork, Banstead
             An immature south on 22 September
             Epsom Downs
             Four, circling on 30 September
2008   Nork, Banstead
             A single moving WSW on 19 September
2012   Canons Farm, Banstead
             An adult low then circling SE on 25 August
2016   Nork, Banstead
             A juvenile low then SE on 22 August
2018   Epsom Downs
             A single low S on 15 August

Monday, 13 August 2018

Getting better

Since my return from Cornwall I've been a lost soul. The Surrey downs are just not hacking it for birding (they only ever do in short, sharp shocks). My time spent at Canons Farm and Priest Hill has been time wasted, so this afternoon I took myself off to Epsom and Walton Downs and - hey presto - things seem an awful lot better.

The birding wasn't exactly a match for Spurn and Fair Isle, but there was enough (at a local level) to feel vindicated, with a Hobby, 2 Red Kite, a covey of eight Red-legged Partridge and a handful of Chiffchaffs. This area has potential, but there again I say that about almost everywhere.

Non avian highlights were a robust, healthy plant of Red Hemp-nettle on Langley Bottom Farm (above), a Hornet dwarfing a bog-standard wasp on a fallen apple (below) and the magnificent stand of Blue Globe-thistle that was full of butterflies, including a few Holly Blue (bottom).

Friday, 10 August 2018

Gone but not forgotten

If you thought that I would have ceased to bang on about Hawfinches (now that the irruption is but a dim and distant memory), think again. I miss them. I miss them a lot. As any regular visitor to this blog will know, I wrote quite a bit about them. They became, for a number of weeks, my focus. So, as a way of reliving the event I've collated those posts together, edited them and can offer, to those of you who are not already sick and tired of Hawfinches, a PDF to download. Join me once again and immerse yourself in those wonderful days when they were the commonest species on 'my' North Downs slopes.

Just click here!

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Coming to a fence near you

This morning I was cutting back a Laurel bush in the back garden and kept disturbing Jersey Tiger moths, no doubt roosting up after having been summoned by the MV moth trap last night. A few settled on a nearby fence. After singles on August 17 2012 and August 1 2013, it has became a regular visitor to the MV, peaking at six on August 13 2015 and then, this year, it has all gone 'gangbusters'. The past three nights have yielded totals of 27, 27 and 30. If you don't get them yet, you soon will! 

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Final heatwave offerings?

The garden MV is always interesting during hot weather. In such times moths that are not resident in the area will often turn up in the garden, and last night's representative offering was the wetland-haunting Gold Spot. A smart species (above).

Cydia amplana (above) may not be as showy, but I was very pleased to find one in the MV alongside the Gold Spot. It is a migrant (and maybe breeding in England now) but regardless of status was my first anywhere. With the heatwave about to break the hope of further wanderers will, in all likelihood, be reduced.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Postcards from Cornwall

Common Starling, basking in the predominant weather of our Cornish holiday - hot, dry and sunny
Wall  - still extremely scarce in Surrey but easy enough to find north of Bude
I was pleased to stumble across several plants of the declining 'arable weed' Field Woundwort
Olearia solandri (Coastal daisy-bush), established in the sand dunes at Bude
Never need an excuse to take a picture of a Wheatear - they presumably breed on the clifftops close to Bude
It was good to see Bude birder Harvey Kendall (here on the right), who on this particular occasion joined me to watch a juvenile Marsh Harrier that was hunting over the lake and farmland behind the bungalow in which we were staying. I first met Harvey (and his son Ian) back in 1979 at Dungeness. We were able to reminisce and catch up over several cups of tea throughout our stay. The harrier was a Maer Lake tick for him, and one gripped back on his son!

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Back again

To not post for over a fortnight is something of a rare event here at ND&B, but it doesn't hurt to take a break now and again. That time has been spent on the rugged north Cornwall coast, so the next few posts will be a look back at some of the highlights in what was a family holiday that was liberally sprinkled with natural history diversions. On return home last night it was ridiculously warm - still 23.5C here in Banstead at 23.00hrs and didn't drop below 20C all night. The MV sprung into action and produced, amongst others, a total of 27 Jersey Tiger, 11 Tree-lichen Beauty, 2 Gypsy Moth and an Oak Processionary. Ten years ago that lot what have been the stuff of fantasists.