Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Fair-weather birder

I used to go out birding in all sorts of weather - pouring rain, heavy snow, gale-force winds and heatwave. As the saying goes, 'there is no such thing as poor weather, just inappropriate clothing'. But I now have to admit, even when wearing appropriate clothing there is poor weather that tips over into the 'not worth going out birding' category.

Take yesterday on Walton Downs. A foggy dawn. Looks pretty (see above) but cuts down visibility to the point that birds are reduced to soft shapes, although their calls are still present for the observer (or, more accurately, the hearer) to have a good idea to what is about. But anything at mid-distance is lost and avian activity is reduced. So, I thought, come back later.

But later (and not much later as it turned out) the fog lifted to be replaced by a cold, gusting, wet and dark suite of weather. I suppose because I can largely choose when to go birding that I have the luxury of turning round and going back indoors - had this been the one day in the week when I was able to set myself loose into the great outdoors, then maybe I would have bitten the bullet and strode onwards and got wet. But now I have to admit to it. I'm becoming a fair weather birder.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Where have they gone?

Three out of the last four evenings have been spent on the Epsom/Walton Downs border, with owls and roosts in mind. I've drawn a blank on owls, but the roost situation is a lot more interesting. On each visit 400-500 Jackdaws have left the woods to head northwards and appear to be roosting in the copse that is located alongside the race course. But it is the thrushes that have held the most interest - on Friday it was quite a spectacle, with flocks arriving from the west and pitching down in woodland around Juniper Hill. A minimum of 850 Redwing, 16 Fieldfare and 12 Blackbird came in, some of the flocks numbering 100-200. It was a joy to see them come down from high and swoop around the canopy before settling. I returned for seconds yesterday, but apart from c100 thrushes that was my lot. And this evening even fewer showed up. So, where have they gone? Were they birds moving through, stopping over briefly before heading on to wintering grounds elsewhere? Are they still around, but using a different, local roost?  Birding is never dull, even when it is walking distance from your front door.

Friday, 23 November 2018

The great Midrips boulder fall!

Back in 2011 I posted the following while discussing the injuries that I had befallen in the quest of birds...

Twice this winter I've fallen flat on my backside whilst walking the streets looking for Waxwings. Both times ice was the culprit. No doubt the combination of looking up and not down resulted in my not noticing a virtual ice-rink that was set before me.

My record at falling over when birding stretches back many years, and some of them were spectacular. In Malaysia I completed a full somersault on a treacherous jungle trail at Taman Negara. I lay on the muddy floor winded, optics yards away, convinced I had broken an arm. Fortunately I hadn't (which is just as well, as shortly afterwards a Hooded Pitta appeared). At Dungeness, I fell in a six-foot deep ditch while night-time wader ringing; ran into a metal post at thigh height ripping my jeans (but luckily not my scrotum); got tangled up with a wire hawser that spun me over to land on my neck. My falls at Pagham Harbour generally involved thick, gloopy mud that sucked my boots in and unbalanced me.

This brought a smile to my face as, since then, my most dramatic fall of all has occurred which I am yet to share with you.

In May of 2017 a pair of Black-winged Stilts were found by Martin C at The Midrips and Wicks in East Sussex (just shy of the Kent border). This area is often off limits as it is part of an army firing range, but on this particular day they were not lobbing shells into the shingle. The best way of access is by driving to the edge of Camber, parking in a large lay-by and climbing up onto a shingle and earth wall that acts as a sea defence and pathway. This wall leads you to the Midrips and Wicks pits, BUT, due to the presence of the military it is blocked off by a high gate, be-decked with copious amounts of barbed wire. However, as there is a public right of way at non-firing times, access is granted by taking a flight of wooden stairs down to the beach from where a short walk along the shingle can be made before climbing back up the earth wall and onto the footpath, circumnavigating the gate. When we arrived the tide was fully in - there was no beach to walk down on to - so we were faced with having to find another way around the high gate. On the seaward side had been placed a pile of large boulders that leant up against the gate and fell away into the sea, with a low barbed wire fence alongside. We chose to jump across this obstacle course... you can probably see where this is leading.

We all made it across (a merry band from Dungeness) and saw the stilts very well indeed. Our return was without incident until we reached the boulder field. I strapped my scope and tripod onto the back of my rucksack and started to tiptoe across them. The weight on my back shifted, and, as I took my next step, lost balance. I knew I was going to fall and for a sickening split second found myself surveying the ground on which I was about to meet - large uneven boulders with deep gaps between them.


I landed first on my bare knees (I was wearing shorts), then my elbows (I was holding my binoculars close to my chest to protect them), then felt a sharp pain in my right arm. I had half fallen into the barbed wire fence, with all of my weight on the skewered arm. The weight on my back stopped me from getting up so I was pinned as fast as an insect in a museum. I couldn't move despite frantic struggling and the barbs on the fencing were just getting deeper into my skin and tearing at it. As much as I tried to take the weight off of my trapped arm the way I had fallen meant that gravity was deciding otherwise. Yes, it hurt.

Fortunately my companions came to the rescue. Martin C was first by my side, taking my rucksack and scope off my back and extracting my arm from the fence. I was helped up and guided across the remaining boulders. Miraculously nothing was broken. My knees and arms were a collection of cuts and bruises which were treated by Owen L and Gill H when back at the cars. I was little shaken but thankful that my injuries were superficial - my leg could have gone into one of the gaps and any forward fall would have spelt a broken leg at best. My face and eyes were but inches from the barbed wire and were spared. My binoculars and scope unscathed.

That evening, back at home, I felt as if I'd gone a round with Anthony Joshua, but by the following morning I had only the impressive bruises and cuts to show for my ordeal. A tetanus jab later and all was over. Last week was the first time that I had returned to those boulders, and believe me, when I crossed them I virtually crawled...

Thursday, 22 November 2018

A late surge of thrushes

A dawn arrival at Juniper Bottom saw a keen frost and good visibility. I trudged up the open slope towards Juniper Top but found my passage halted several times by flocks of Redwing that were passing overhead in an easterly direction. Half way up I stopped to witness (and count) what was obviously a heavy thrush movement. And here I largely stood for the next four and a half hours.

All the birds were arriving from the west and following the line of the valley (running from Norbury Park to Headley) and leaving east to north-east. They were generally in good sized flocks (20-200). A few Fieldfares were with them, with some flocks being mixed. The only other species seemingly involved were Chaffinch (55) and Brambling (10).

After 09.30hrs the movement lessened but was still obvious. Visibility started to worsen, with a misty horizon and pockets of light fog. And then, as if an agreement had been reached by the thrushes, the flocks, instead of moving on and out of the area, started to drop out of the sky and settle on the wooded hillsides. Some of these birds undoubtably carried on after a feed or rest, but many remained in the general area up until the time I left for home. Any scan of the valley produced thrushes in the air. Final totals: Redwing (2,070 east, 500+ on deck); Fieldfare (192 east, 10 on deck).

Thanks to the newly formed Surrey Vismig WhatsApp group it was possible to appreciate the localised nature of this movement. NE to E movement of Redwings was detected at Thorncombe Street, Ockley and Pewley Down but not at Clandon or Beddington SF. The numbers at Juniper Bottom/Top were by far the largest. What an exhilarating morning to be out birding.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

A quiet winter

Part 15 October - December 1976

Beddington SF continued to be my birding destination of choice. The hot summer had become nothing but a pleasant memory but the summer migrants were still hanging on, some of them very late indeed, with both Reed Warbler and Whinchat (October 31st) and two Ring Ouzel (November 7th). The changeable weather slowly morphed into that of a typical winter, with the dull and drizzly mornings coming out on top of a the few cold and crisp ones that came along. The birdlife at the farm took on a steady and familiar guise, with Green Sandpiper, Jack Snipe and Water Pipit ever present and helping to enliven the otherwise mundane visits. But regardless of the quietness of the ornithological landscape I still retrieved my bicycle from the shed before it got light and cycled to Beddington full of hope. Each visit was a dawn to dusk vigil, a mixture of cold hands, wet clothes, wellington boots, dead burdock heads sticking to jeans, the leaping of dykes, splashing through flooded fields, the emptying of thermos flasks and the companionship of others who chose to spend their time in a similar manner. There was a non-avian soundtrack to a Sunday visit, a mixture of church bells, shouting footballers, neighing horses and motor bikes - the latter courtesy of trespassing lads who practiced their Evil Knievel manoeuvres on the earth banks of the settling beds. On some days we also heard the sirens of the ambulances that came to retrieve them.

I was accepted as a trainee ringer, and joined Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood as a member of the BSF ringing group. We would normally set up single panel mist nets in the dried out sludge lagoons that were covered in dead vegetation, mainly Fat-hen. This is where most of the passerines were attracted to and we were able to trap Tree Sparrows, Greenfinches, Skylarks and Linnets with some success. Another area that we targeted was the screenings - a place where farm workers dumped the material that had been sieved from the pre-treated sewage. It was a ripe mixture of mainly undigested matter, a concoction that was not only highly sought after by the birds but also many Brown Rats. We would flush tens of them as we walked through the nearby vegetation, something that I found repulsive.

My 18th birthday fell on 20th December and I was delighted when my parents gave me a pair of Carl Zeiss Jena 10x50 binoculars as a gift. I have rarely felt so proud as when I took them to the sewage farm for their first outing. They also accompanied me for the last birding trip of the year, on New Year's Eve, to Amberley Wild Brooks (where I saw my first White-fronted Goose), Chichester Gravel Pits, Pagham Harbour and Selsey Bill. Through their lenses they helped me to observe Avocet, Water Rail, Red-breasted Merganser, Smew, and Slavonian Grebe. They were to help me see much, much more in the coming years.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Earthstars and Apps

Our neighbours asked me to look at some fungi that they had growing in a flower bed. There were several of them that I tentatively identified as a species of Earthstar and, after looking in a few field guides believe is most probably Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex). It is apparently the commonest Earthstar but I could be wrong.

Those of you that read yesterday's post may recall that I was pontificating on creating a WhatsApp group for Surrey birders who like a spot of visible migration. Well, the deed is done and we already have 20+ members. I need to acknowledge the help of younger daughter Jessica in showing me how to do so. My limitations with computers, software and Apps grows by the day...

Saturday, 17 November 2018

A modest wader passage

The morning was spent at Mogador, the hamlet of which, at 200m, is apparently one of the highest settlements in south-east England. I was scanning the skies just as it was getting light, and for the next two hours was able to watch a modest southerly passage, which included 365 Redwing, 91 Fieldfare, 6 Lapwing and a Common Snipe.

From keeping an eye on my Twitter feed, a number of other 'north downs' and associated higher ground sites also recorded waders on the move, albeit in modest numbers - Lapwing, Common Snipe, Golden Plover and Dunlin were the recorded species. What we lack in the county is a place where such observations can be seen, compared and studied. The only news gathering vehicle is a county page on the 'Going birding' website, which with all due respect is not being populated with much data. Maybe the vismiggers amongst us should set up a 'WhatsApp' group? Apart from an interest in what others are recording it would also act as an alert just in case one of our number might be missing out on a big movement.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Surrey v Northumberland Part 3

2018 still has a few weeks to run, but it isn't too early to cast one's eyes forward to next year and to plan for it. It's good to have projects in the pipeline and in some ways such things can add enjoyment and act as incentive to the time spent out in the field. And so, the first natural history project of 2019 can be revealed as...

Surrey v Northumberland (a tale of two patches.)

Stewart Sexton, (he of the most beautifully illustrated notebooks and a worthy blog) has agreed to a re-run of our two previous challenges - the results of which, I believe, is a score draw. Instead of straight forward annual totals, this time round we are going to compare the percentage that we record of our personal local patch lists. I'm going to enter two patches (if Stewart agrees). In reality one is just a smaller part of the other.

In the uber-patch (see explanation in box above) I have recorded 213 species since 1974. At times I have chased birds within it and, for long periods of time, have not. By my reckoning this can be broken down as such: 122 species that are almost guaranteed, 61 bonus species and 30 that I have only recorded 1-3 times. Within this patch are the two best local birding sites - Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SP.

The second is the mini-uber patch, created as a walk-from-home area. This is largely populated by ornithologically challenging habitat, although I have recorded 130 species within it. There is plenty of potential here.

Why enter the two patches? Well, part of me likes the idea of not clogging up the roads with the car and a desire to champion local birding as an antidote to the blind action of many birders who just follow the latest rarity. That type of birding is not for me, although I do understand why some pursue such activities as I have done so myself in the past. Although there is plenty to find and discover on our doorsteps for many birders this is just not enough - but for me the mini-uber patch delivers this. However, I will also collate my larger Uber-patch totals for 2019 as there are so many wonderful places within it that deserve coverage, such as the Hawfinch haunts of earlier in the year - but to get a competitive percentage figure from this I will need to visit Beddington and Holmethorpe (and be nice to my BFBG key-holder friends!)

Up in Northumberland, Stewart's Howick area list stands at 200 (since 2010) at an average of 143.2 species per year. He may have coast, but my compensation comes in birding across a larger area and possibly a more varied habitat mosaic.

I'm already looking forward to it...

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Pipit roost

After last night's 'roost watch' I decided to visit another one of the local patches, Priest Hill, to see what might - or might not - be roosting. On arrival there were just a few Meadow Pipits (above) and Fieldfares mooching about, and it was quite hard work as I zig-zagged my way across the rank-grass meadows. Some respite came in the form of a Common Snipe, flushed from the largest paddock, my second record here, a dry site save for a few tiny ponds.

As the light started to fade the bird activity stepped up. There was a marked dribble of corvids north and a veritable flood of gulls north-west, heading towards the west London reservoirs. At the same time up to 50+ Fieldfare departed into the murk and the first of at least 40 Meadow Pipits started to arrive, dropping down into the long grass to roost.

As I left the site there was a gash of blood red on the western horizon, enough to light up a small bat that flew in a straight line, not dropping a wing beat, across the open grassland.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Belated evening discoveries

One of the joys of watching an area regularly is that you get to build up a picture of what occurs when, and how many birds are involved. But while it is understandable to think that, after several years of paying a patch a visit, you would have a very firm handle on such data, sometimes doing it differently can turn up unexpected results.

Epsom and Walton Downs today was a case in point. I most probably bird here 20-30 times a year, almost exclusively during fully formed daylight. Dawn and dusk visits are rare - in fact, apart from 'twitching' a Barn Owl a couple of years back, an end of daylight visit has not been made at all. After a couple of hours this morning (70+ Skylark, a handful of Fieldfare - pictured above) I returned to some high ground as night fell to scan the surrounding area for Barn Owl. Although I was not successful in this, a couple of roosts were discovered that I was unaware of. Firstly a Ring-necked Parakeet fly-line has been established, although I was too late to get a meaningful count, with up to 200 birds heading south in small groups. And then there was a gradual gathering of at least 650 Jackdaws, that took off in a noisy cloud when it was almost dark, and headed into the highest wood, seemingly settling although it was too dark to be sure. I will be back to count both throughout the winter. I should practice what I preach, as I always bang on to others that you should vary the timing of visits.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

So, how was the autumn for you?

As we come towards the end of yet another autumn, there are plenty of birders 'out there' who are summing up their birding experience - 'dull', 'poor' and 'disappointing' seem to be three of the most regularly recurring words used. I'm normally quite quick to sum up my feelings about what has gone on over any given period, but have strangely refrained from doing so this time round. So I gave this past autumn a thought and can only say that I've found it liberating. Let me explain.

Most autumn birding campaigns will be largely planned around the promise of falls, arrivals, visible migrations and scarce - even rare - birds. I'm just as guilty as the next person in doing so, but not this autumn. I wanted to bring in the changes, go to places that I knew little about and which were low on the ornithological radar. Admittedly, I did a couple of quick Dungeness visits, but short birding holidays at Charmouth (Dorset) and Porth (Cornwall) were undertaken, with both trips eye-openers to the possibilities on offer to a diligent and enthusiastic observer. I may not have found much of note, but that wasn't the purpose/aim - I got to know the places and surrounding areas to a level that I otherwise wouldn't have, and on any subsequent returns will do so with a sense of familiarity and anticipation.

Although we have lived at our current address since 1987, and have carried out regular sky-watches over the years, this is the first autumn when I have systematically conducted dawn vismig watches. The results were encouraging. A spectacular 4,000+ Redwing movement, Woodlark, Golden Plover, Crossbill, plenty of Brambling, Fieldfares and Chaffinches were ample reward.

And now to the map above - the Uberpatch - all of my regular birding sites since 1974. The shaded area is the mini-Uberpatch, constructed to concentrate bird study into a more manageable and meaningful area. This autumn has seen me embrace the whole more whole-heartedly than of late, no doubt bolstered by the Hawfinch event of earlier in the year. A couple of successful Beddington twitches (Spoonbill and Richard's Pipit) were the highlights, together with the adoption of one or two underwatched sites (more about those another time). My resolve is to bird the hell out of it all in 2019. As a part of that, I have entered into a competition with my 'virtual friend' Stewart Sexton. More details to follow...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Birding round the edges

A brief three-day stay in the Dungeness area was courtesy of the Hollingworth Hotel (fine whiskies and good music a speciality!) Unusually for a birding visit to the area, little was actually done at the observatory, save for a brief sea-watch and a 'coffee and biscuit' morning with Jacques. Instead I was drawn to the outer limits of the shingle...

A strong southerly blow was whipping up a fierce sea, and as Chris P and I walked along the desolate 'green wall' between The Midrips and Galloways, our attention was largely drawn to the sea incursions along the shingle ridge. At times our resolve was tested, as one particular break in the beach at The Brooks was allowing the sea to stream through (see image above and video below). At times the waves rose above the top of the shingle and were many feet higher than us. Suddenly that wall of pebbles seemed insubstantial! We did keep an eye on the birds when we weren't marvelling at the sea, best of all being three Grey Partridges, a sad statement of how far this game bird's numbers have fallen.

The RSPB reserve was a veritable 'white heron fest', with 11 Great White Egrets, a Little Egret, 7 Cattle Egrets (below) and best of all - drumroll please - two Spoonbills roosting in front of the Makepeace Hide. This is a long-awaited Dungeness tick, a tart's-tick one could say. They had the decency to preen and fly around a bit as well.

The afternoon was spent in the company of Chris P, on his beloved Walland Marsh. Our afternoon would have been memorable without the birds, what with the sunny and mild conditions under that big, big, blue sky. We recorded Great White Egret, 1,000 Greylag Geese, 50 Egyptian Geese, 500 Wigeon, 5,000 Golden Plover, 1,500 Lapwing, 16 Marsh Harrier, a Barn Owl, 15,000 Starling and a number of passerine flocks that were feeding on the stubble, including Skylarks, Twite (a single), Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. At times the skies were filled with birds, which made for an unforgettable afternoon - birding at its best.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Weeds = seeds = birds

Langley Bottom Farm has appeared on this blog many times - mostly because of the fine arable flora that is present. Keen students of ND&B will remember that the Woodland Trust has bought the farm and are currently planting up large areas to create a Millennium Wood. Thankfully they are leaving plenty of the fields alone and the early signs are good that the rare arable flora will be looked after.

Last summer was the first in which no crops were grown. The fields were left to run wild, a tangle of grass and flower. Most of the fields have been cut back (above) and others left well alone (below). The upshot of this 'wildness' is that there is plenty of seed on the ground, and where there is seed, there are birds.

Any scan across the farm revealed good numbers of birds, moving along hedgerows, dodging between copses and wheeling over the open ground. My final counts are very much minima - Skylark (80), Fieldfare (145), Redwing (75), Goldfinch (100), Brambling (1) and Linnet (58). Gamebirds still survive here, remnants from the days of the shoot, with 11 Pheasant and 4 Red-legged Partridge.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Coming soon above a garden near you

There is something quite decadent about birding from your own garden. No need to get up at some ridiculously early hour. No need to get in the car and drive away to add to the traffic congestion and air pollution. Cups of tea whenever you want one. And toast - don't forget the toast...

This morning saw the latest in my concerted effort to sky watch the first one-two hours of the day from home. It has been going quite well, with even the quietest days providing at least Chaffinches and Redwings to look at. I love that half-light, especially on a still morning, when the lonely 'pink' of a Chaffinch, or 'siiip' of a Redwing sends shivers down my spine. It heralds the start of another ornithological lucky dip, another chance to scrutinise the conveyor belt of birds.

What of today? Best bird was a calling Woodlark, a garden first, heard twice as it flew west but remained unseen. Close behind was a single Lapwing, now an irregular sighting here in Banstead. Also recorded were 2 Brambling, 215 Starling, 135 Chaffinch, 111 Fieldfare and 45 Redwing. One particular flock of Fieldfare, 40 strong, flew through the garden at tree-top height. Magical.

There seems to be more adoptees of visible migration across London and Surrey. No doubt there are many, like me, who have done so in the past at coastal headlands but have decided to seek the thrills out closer to home - more personal and more fulfilling. The autumn migration might be coming to an end, but there are always opportunities to make winter skywatching worthwhile. I'm hoping that the numbers of Waxwings being reported on the eastern coast might suggest a good winter for them. A trilling Waxwing over the garden would go down very well indeed.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Another patch?

The bit is firmly between my teeth to find the 'best' place to conduct local visible migration watching. There are places that have proved themselves to be worthwhile in this department - the back garden, Epsom Downs, Canons Farm, Banstead Downs and Priest Hill to name a few - but I am yet to find one that comes up with the birds time and again. But whisper it, I may have found one...

I have birded at Mogador a number of times over the past few years and it is my sort of place, being neglected, forgotten and under-watched (if watched at all). In fact, just like Canons Farm used to be when I first set foot on it (with a respectful nod towards John Peacock who had been patrolling the fields in previous years). Magador has a bit of everything - big skies (image above), rough grassland, pasture, arable, scrub and fence lines. I have seen Whinchat, Wheatear, Stonechat, Spotted Flycatcher and Crossbill here, plus big flocks of winter thrushes and all this on only a handful of visits.

After spending the first hour of daylight at home in the garden, (which produced a tidy 239 Chaffinch, 2 Brambling and 43 Redwing west), I drove the 15 minutes to Mogador. It was at once obvious that there was movement going on, all birds moving west to south-west, with 300 Starling, 157 Fieldfare, 23 Redwing and 6 Skylark. Also milling around were 5 Common Buzzard, a Red Kite, 40 Meadow Pipit, 2 Raven and 2 Yellowhammer. The movement packed up by 09.30hrs which left me wondering what the first three hours of daylight might have delivered. This place is worth further investigation, something that I have thought for some time.

After a quick look on Banstead Heath (more thrushes, 2 Raven and a Redpoll) and a quiet look on Colley Hill (below) I left with thoughts about next year, and the consideration of putting in a concerted effort at Mogador.