Thursday, 27 September 2018

Above the fog

On arrival at Denbigh's Hillside at 06.30hrs I was confronted by a most arresting sight. The lower valleys were all fog bound, giving off the illusion of a vast inland sea. The video above, and the images below, really do not do it justice.

Birding wise a pleasant morning and early afternoon, with a Goshawk, three Red Kites, 12+ Common Buzzards, three Stonechats, 20+ Chiffchaffs and four Ravens. To the sound of cranking Ravens and mewing Buzzards and Kites I was delighted to watch at least 10 Clouded Yellows patrolling the slopes, with the odd butterfly stopping to nectar (below).

And last, but not least, a weedy strip in one of the fields beneath the hills held Broad-leaved Spurge, with the fruits exhibiting the tell-tale warts (below). My luck was in as I checked just the one plant!

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

When Summer meets Winter

As I needed to be close to home today I embarked on a day-long 'on-off' sky watch. On the whole it was disappointing, with very few birds passing overhead, hirundines at barely a trickle, with the odd Chaffinch and Meadow Pipit thrown in to punctuate the quiet. However, the coming of winter was encapsulated by two Redwing (the autumn's first) that flew west early on and a further four landed in a neighbouring garden early in the evening. These are quite early, my 'firsts' are normally not until early October. It was interesting to see that there was a sprinkle of sightings of this fine thrush across the county today. Another intriguing aspect of today was a steady passage of Stock Doves, with at least 100 heading south. These are likely to be local birds moving between feeding sites rather than migrants, although the odd flock was quite high and purposeful. Over the past five years this species has become much commoner in 'my' part of Surrey, with Canons Farm, Priest Hill and Epsom and Walton Downs playing host to flocks of hundreds.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

A dribble south

One of those 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts' mornings.

Canons Farm was calm and cold when I arrived at 07.00hrs, with frost in selected hollows. I will admit to wearing a thin pair of gloves, but soon felt wimpish as a group of dog walkers strode past me in t-shirts and shorts - however, they were on the move, where as I was about to embark on a spell of standing still to vismig...

Honking geese were soon all around me, as a loose group of 50 birds flew in and settled on Doric Field, all Canada save for a single Greylag and three who's parentage probably involved a Bar-headed. As soon as they settled down a new sound was above me - two noisy Golden Plover that flew through southwards. A small dribble of passerines were following in their wake, so I settled down to count and identify them. Commonest were Meadow Pipits, just ones and twos but a couple of flocks numbered c20. A total of 100 was reached. Skylarks were also on the move, and although up to 20 stayed firmly on the farm a further 44 passed south. Hirundines were in smaller numbers still, but did include four late Sand Martins. Also moving was a single Grey Wagtail and 13 Jays, that purposefully headed south in flocks of 4, 4, 3, 1, 1.

By now the sun was injecting a bit of warmth into the day, and along with Geoff B we searched the farm along Reeds Rest Lane which yielded five Stonechats and a Tree Pipit on the fence line at RR Bottom, up to 10 Common Buzzards, a Red Kite, 400 Stock Doves, 4 Chiffchaffs and 8 Yellowhammers.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Modest but productive

Another visit to the 'Mole Gap' this morning, concentrating on Box Hill. Very poor return as far as vismig was concerned, with just 60 Swallows and 15 each of House Martins and Meadow Pipits (all dribbling south). A Wheatear was on the lower slope very early on, and additional back-up was provided by a Little Egret, a Red Kite, 3 Common Buzzards, 2 Sparrowhawks, a Blackcap, 3 Chiffchaffs, a Marsh Tit and 3 Ravens.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Warning! Very poor Spoonbill shot

The North Lake at Beddington SF (above), on a chilly, wet September morning - I'm here out of the kindness of Roger Browne (info) and Steve Thomas (lift) - and the presence of a (as yet) unspecified number of Spoonbills. When Roger first arrived this morning he was amazed to see at least eight Spoonbills at the far side of the lake, partially hidden by the vegetation on an island. When Steve and I arrived he had been joined by Peter Alfrey, and the flock size (still obscured by island vegetation) had now risen to 11. My first scope view suggested 12, possibly 13. And when the rain started to abate, they took off as one, 19 birds in all. They arced round and left the area purposefully southwards. My bridge camera is not the best for birds in flight at the best of times, but I let off a couple of blind shots (no zoom, an exercise in pointing and hoping) and then stopped to watch them fly over us - I was not going to miss the moment hidden behind a viewfinder. The results from the camera were dismal, but enough to record at least 17 of the flock, even being able to make out the odd juvenile amongst them. 19 is most probably the largest ever count in London and Surrey. Beddington strikes again!

I told you it was bad!!

Friday, 21 September 2018

House Martins

The Mole Gap at Mickleham can often throw up a good morning's birding and today was no exception, as at least 800 House Martins were hawking over the river-side fields. The video above captures just a small portion of the flock. I have a feeling that I will be replaying this during the dark, cold, winter months...

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The land of the dinosaurs

The image above was taken from a hill to the west of Charmouth, looking eastwards along the Dorset coast. The highest point is Golden Cap, with the distant cliffs beyond that being east of West Bay. You can walk this stretch of coastline on a footpath that, give and take the odd cliff slump, allows you to tip-toe along the edge of hair-raising precipices and stunning scenery. For the birder it is an overload of senses. On the one hand you marvel at the habitat set before you - miles and miles of hedgerows, cliff top scrub, meadows untouched by fertilisers, small pools and streams - but on the other hand there is so much of it (and it extends way inland) that coverage cannot be anything other than poor. A team of a thousand birders working together would just scratch the surface, so the handful of locals that are present have a hard task of it. My short stay was exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure, there being so much promise which is made hard by a testing landscape. There is, to be frank, too much habitat!

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Sort of sea-watching

Charmouth could not be any more tucked into Lyme Bay. It's not the sort of place that anybody would pick as a place to sea watch from - you can see Portland Bill to your left and a number of Devon headlands off to your right. Maybe the best time to scan seawards is during stormy weather, when the odd bird may seek shelter. It was debatable as to if today could claim to be 'stormy', more like 'windy', but the optimist in me thought it was worth a go. The result was so-so, with 98 Gannet and 3 Fulmar west. On the beach, a first-winter Common Tern and two Mediterranean Gull (adult and 2nd winter) brightened up what was fast becoming a dreary day. This afternoon I wandered Stonebarrow Hill and the slopes barely seeing a bird. I saw nor heard a warbler all day...

A low moth trap total did include this Clancy's Rustic, named after my old mate Sean.

Monday, 17 September 2018

A wild egret chase

Even in the sleepy backwater that is Charmouth it is still possible to be gripped off. I was watching a Dipper (above) in nearby Lyme Regis when Richard Phillips kindly texted me (while on his way to Tresco) to inform me that there was a Cattle Egret in Charmouth. I may have only been down here for two days but now (ridiculously) think of myself as a local - I was gripped off! I had walked to Lyme so faced a lengthy journey back along the not easy to traverse beach. To cut a long story short I duly arrived at the Egrets last reported site (a field with cattle as to be expected) but of the bird there was no sign, although three Yellow Wagtails dodging the hooves were some compensation

But fear not! My new found local knowledge had me walking up Old Lyme Hill to gain a panoramic view across the surrounding farmland, and BINGO, there it was, strutting its stuff some half-mile further east. I wonder if it will gather some mates?

The garden MV supplied me with a Box Moth (they really are spreading) and two L-album Wainscot (above)

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Getting to know you

Part of the joy of getting to know an unfamiliar patch is stumbling across areas that look promising. This evening I found myself wandering across a farmland footpath that took me up to the top of the under cliff to the east of the golf course. The rough grassy area had it all - isolated trees, low hedgerow, patches of scrub - with the added bonus of elevation and almost 360 degree views. A place to return to. I also found a number of spots to the east of Charmouth, at the top of the under cliff, where hedge lines and streams meet before seeping over the edge. In each place were birds, with a small pool acting as a bathing place. Again, places to return to.

It wasn't heaving today, but persistence payed off to a point, with Sparrowhawk, Hobby, Peregrine, Swallow (50), House Martin (30), Stonechat (5), Whitethroat (2), Blackcap (2), Chiffchaff (13), Raven (3). A grassy cliff top held at least 50 Autumn Lady's Tresses (pictured).

It is hard to complain about the lack of birds when walking amongst such an arresting landscape. The birds are there, it's just a case of looking. For me, it beats following the crowds to the latest rarity or proven hot-spot.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

And now for something completely different

Charmouth, in west Dorset, is most probably best known as a site for geology - cliff slumps, fossils and part of the World Heritage Jurrasic Coast. It is not, however, considered to be a birding hotspot, although local birder's, such as Richard Phillips, have found such goodies as Pallid Harrier, Glossy Ibis, White Stork and Yellow-browed Warbler in the past couple of years. I have been an infrequent visitor here during family holidays, and have always longed after spending a bit of 'proper' birding time on the cliff-tops, river valley and coastal scrub - well now I am.

A brief wander during the middle of the day revealed a few migrants, such as a Spotted Flycatcher, 10 Blackcap and 2 Chiffchaff. A Cetti's Warbler was most probably a resident. A modest start, but why use up all your luck on day one? Mad gamble or inspired choice? The next week (or two) will tell.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Of Fuz-clackers and Willy Wickets

Looking through Bucknill's 'The Birds of Surrey' you are obviously transported back in time - the book is now 118 years old. What is most striking comparing it to a modern day county avifauna is that the Victorians just didn't count the birds that they came across - no flock sizes, no estimation of visible migration, just vague statements - 'large numbers', 'many', 'an increase' - all a bit frustrating, and little to be able to compare with today's data.

At the back of the book is a charming table called 'Glossary of local names' which lists at least 150 alternative names given to birds by the folk of southern England back in Victorian times, and these are a few of my favourites...

Blue-felt (Fieldfare)
Chattermag (Magpie)
Cherry-chopper (Garden Warbler)
Clod-bunting (Corn Bunting)
Cricket-chirper (Grasshopper Warbler)
Cuckoo's Mate (Wryneck)
Deviling (Barn Owl)
Ditchwatcher (Pied Wagtail)
Emmett (Wryneck)
Fallow-chat (Wheatear)
Fern-owl (Nightjar)
Fire-eyed Chat (Dartford Warbler)
French Pie (Great Spotted Woodpecker)
Fuz-clacker (Stonechat)
Heather-bleater (Common Snipe)
Hedge-poker (Dunnock)
Juggler (Garden Warbler)
Mudstopper (Nuthatch)
Nettle-creeper (Whitethroat)
Shufflewing (Dunnock)
Spink (Chaffinch)
Willey Wicket (Common Sandpiper)
Woodhacker (Nuthatch)
Yaffle (Green Woodpecker)

Some of these are terribly descriptive and sum up the character of the species in one or two words. The 'country folk' back then really observed the birds around them. And what is obvious is that, because of how common some of these birds must have been, alternative names came into being - indeed, in the case of the Red-backed Shrike it was so much apart of the 'summer scene' that it garnered several - Butcher-bird, Butcher-boy, Common Flusher, Flusher-shrike, Horse-match and Jack-baker. The same is true of the Wryneck. Imagine being so familiar with a bird, and so much in touch with nature, that a species could gather so many alternative names. And now? Most people couldn't tell you a Wren from a Rook. And they certainly wouldn't be able to walk down the lane and see a Butcher-bird in the hedgerow...

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

45 minutes

My failed attempt at the 'Nonsuch Park' Barn Owl was not just a question on timing - I had taken up position in the wrong place! Armed with new, and correct, information (thanks Jack), I spent a wonderful 45 minutes this evening with a suite of notable birds as the light slowly died. At 19.45hrs the first Barn Owl appeared, hunting over rank grassland, oblivious to the remaining joggers. It was soon joined by another, 100m further north, that patrolled a wide swathe of oatmeal-coloured grass. After 20 minutes they joined forces but soon disappeared into the hinterland of this large park. They were accompanied throughout by the calling of at least four Tawny Owls.

When I first arrived a low-flying Hobby was hunting, but unlike my previous visit the number of insects on the wing were low, no doubt due to the chillier air. I was surprised to see a Little Egret in the dusk, heading purposefully southwards. A magical evening's birding.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Five minutes

The light is fading and the warmth of the day is still with us. I'm in Nonsuch Park at the south-western edge of what is Greater London, a park that once housed King Henry VIII's palace, built in honour of Anne Boleyn. Like the nearby green oases of Richmond and Bushy Park, it is a large area of wild grassland, copses and standard trees. For the birder, a little bit of time spent on site is rewarding - which is why, as dusk is gathering, I am stood scanning the not unattractive scene before me for a Barn Owl, which has been delighting local birders. I feel self-conscious, a lone man lurking at the shadowy edges of a copse as the late dog-walkers and joggers pass me by.

A Hobby flies into view, close enough to take in all its colours even though colour has largely bled from the day. It is still hunting, and I watch spell bound as it catches moths, some quite sizeable individuals, devouring them on the wing. At 19.50hrs, in almost dark, it decides to head off to roost. And at 20.10hrs, owl-less, so do I.

This morning I received a tweet from Jack Barnes. He too saw the Hobby. And also the Barn Owl, which appeared at 20.15hrs...

Sunday, 9 September 2018

"Should I give up birding"

A young birder, who I do not know, recently sent out a short tweet along the lines of "Should I give up birding?" The reasons for this distress signal are not known, so it would not be wise to judge it without knowing those reasons. There were several responding tweets, ranging from the "No, don't do it!" brigade down to the "Well, if you are suggesting doing it, then why not do it" camp. I was stuck somewhere in the middle, pointing out that birding does not need to have an 'on' and 'off' switch and that it was perfectly OK to pause for a while. It got me thinking...

There does seem to be an assumption, among many active birders, that to stop birding - whether it be for five minutes, five hours or even five years is a bad thing. An act of treason even. Birding, they say, is an internal state of being for the serious birder and anybody that phases out, even for a short time, is not the real deal. There can be peer pressure to remain birding as much as somebody might be experiencing peer pressure to stop. Most 'phasing' birders who then return into the arena will often bemoan the rarities that they did not see during their exile. So it wasn't the birding that they missed so much as the missing rarities, and a blind adherence to the list.

But why phase in the first place?

Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Getting married. A career. Lack of spare time. A genuine loss of enthusiasm for the subject. And on the latter, who hasn't trudged around seeing very little only to be cheesed off by the ornithological haul attained elsewhere - it is sometimes enough to question why you do it. But then that question isn't so much about birding rather than rarity or number. Birding is as much about a back garden Dunnock as it is a Wryneck on top of a coastal gorse bush.

I have never phased, although there have been many times when I've gone out primarily to botanise, or look for butterflies and moths. Birding has taken a back seat. When I have stayed at bird observatories or gone on birding holidays abroad I will take a day out  - I'll read, sleep, have a drink, just generally chill out and reset the ornithological button. I couldn't watch football or listen to music for a solid week so why should birding be any different. To some, that is anathema. Bird, bird, bird until you drop is their mantra. Well, in my book, that exposes a dull individual.

So, back to the original question. "Should I give up birding?" Maybe the most sensible answer is yes. Do something else. Buy a metal detector. Follow a football team for a season. Read the entire works of Charles Dickens. Learn French. Get on a bike and cycle across the countryside. Bake cakes. Visit art galleries and museums. Get pissed. And then, in a few months time, take a check - do you miss birding? If you do, you may well want to start up again, but do not let yourself get back into a rut or find yourself taking notice of the naysayers. And if you find that you're not missing it at all, then you made the right choice, didn't you?

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Yet another Hawfinch update

Thanks to some additional information courtesy of fellow Hawfinch enthusiast Hugh Price, I have updated the Surrey Hawfinch Irruption PDF that can be viewed by clicking here.

Also, if you have nothing better to do, why not take a look at my collective blog posts which give the same irruption a personal slant. You can view that by clicking here.

You cannot get enough 'Hawfinch' in my opinion...

Shingle birds

This Great White Egret was taking exception to a small group of Common Terns that were chasing each other and squabbling just above it. Strange to think that not that many years ago this individual would have been the subject of a nationwide twitch.

And talking of 'colonisers' here's another, albeit an earlier adopter of the UK as home. Cetti's Warbler really started its northwards spread back in the 1970s, and, apart from the odd cold-weather set-back, has been expanding further north into the UK ever since. At Dungeness it is now a relatively common and widespread breeding species.

The bird in the middle of this photo is the American sub-species of Black Tern. The dusky flanks and underwing do make it easy to pick out in the company of its European counterparts. This bird was present for over a week on the RSPB reserve.

A modest passage of waders was enjoyed during my weeks stay, with Curlew Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Avocet, Spotted Redshank and Ruff being the stand-outs, although had I seen the brief staying Terek Sandpiper then that would have undoubtably been the highlight. Several Common Sandpipers (above) came close enough to be 'snapped'.

But it is the chats that are my favourites, and none sum up the Dungeness experience better than a Wheatear, here resplendent in the morning light against a backdrop of honeyed shingle.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

A few notable moths

One of the attractions of Dungeness is the chance of coming across uncommon - even rare - migrant and resident moths. If the observatory MV's don't catch them, then one of the outlying traps might well do, and the widely scattered team of moth enthusiasts will kindly advertise such captures. I jammed into a few on my recent stay...

Beautiful Marbled. A screaming rarity until recently, but now recorded annually in the country. During 2018 up to seven have been trapped in the Greater Dungeness area alone, with a cluster of others in Suffolk. James Lowen referred to this individual as "a rose petal, pot pourri." Well put Sir! Stunning.

Orache Moth. Established on the Channel Islands, this striking noctuid still has the ability to create a sharp intake of breath when seen. This specimen came from Barry Banson's Greatstone garden.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Big. Striking. A crowd pleaser. Seen from several of the traps placed across the peninsula. Almost to be expected down here in early autumn.

Marsh Mallow Moth. This highly localised resident had eluded me, until Martin Casemore found one in his Lydd garden. Maybe not a looker, more of a purist's moth.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Slender Hare's-ear

After a week at Dungeness I have returned home, with plenty of images and snippets to bore you with. For a starter here is Slender Hare's-ear, a species of coastal salt marsh and grassland. I had long wanted to see it, and although I knew of several locations just hadn't got around to doing so - until this morning. Thanks to the Dungeness boys I was able to stop on the way home, close to the Kent/Sussex border. The directions were so good that I just strolled up to it!