Thursday, 27 December 2018

2019 projects

It's always good to have a few projects on the go. As much as aimless, unformed wandering around in the world of natural history is more than acceptable, I do like a framework to be in place. So, in no particular order, here are my projects for next year. Others may be added.

Surrey v Northumberland patch challenge in which I will take on Stewart Sexton in a straightforward birding competition, using our local areas to see who can reach the highest percentage of our personal historical totals. I will have two totals - Uber and mini-uber. The higher one will be submitted.

Sussex and Surrey plant hit list - a trawl through the literature and a leaning on local botanist's knowledge will be employed to set up a number of botanical targets within these two fair counties.

Local allotment bio blitz, just round the corner and a place where a few of the plot holders have set up an enviable local nature reserve. I have been granted a key and aim to visit throughout the year on a weekly basis to record some of the wildlife.

Wisley 'wild' plants - my sister has kindly gifted me a year's membership to the RHS. I already own Barry Phillip's guide to the wild and naturalised species to be found in the extensive Wisley grounds (a close RHS garden) so my entry to them  - to track down such desirable species as Purple Toothwort - will be free. Visits throughout the year.

Uber patch plants, keeping a list throughout the year, if for no other reason to make me keep practicing identifying critical groups. It is so easy to ignore crucifers and the like otherwise...

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Twitter moments of pleasure

Last Friday evening, as I was trawling through my Twitter feed, I was struck by the number of tweets that were looking back over the past year and picking out ornithological highlights - they were all of rare birds. Not one mentioned anything beyond rarity. In response I tweeted the following:

Why are so many birder’s highlights from 2018 purely of rarity? What of spectacle, intimate encounter and pure joy? Birding is more than the rare. Much more.

It was just a throwaway tweet, sent out there as much as a 'said-out-loud' thought to myself. The response to it has been remarkable - it has obviously struck a chord. As of noon today, 30 hours after it was sent, a total of 41,867 people have viewed it. There have been 1,459 total engagements. 809 Likes. 98 Retweets. And 91 Replies.

The replies have been fascinating. They have come from various parts of the world and have shared with me (and those linked to this particular thread) a multitude of thoughts and observations. There were only a few replies that suggested that my observation was flawed and that there was nothing wrong with choosing rarity as a highlight. In my defence I didn't say it was wrong, only that it seemed a shame to be the overriding criteria used in choosing them. The vast majority of those who replied did so not only to agree with me, but to also share their own moments of spectacle, intimacy and joy. Here are just a few chosen at random:

nothing beat the hawfinches in 2018.

Swifts nesting in our eaves - first time in 10 years here.

Every day's a highlight. And got another 10 of 'em to go before this year is out...

Local vismig for me, nothing ever rare but seeing birds streaming SW is definitely a highlight

The woodpecker pair that decided that our dead pear tree was perfect for their brood. They are welcome back 2019

I'm currently being tickled by the amount of Northern Cardinals in my parents yard in Ohio. There are SO MANY and I love them all.

Starlings on a new feeder in the garden for the first time. Pure joy.

It has been a delight to receive these replies and to share with the posters their moments of pleasure during 2018. Thank you all.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018


Assuming that I survive until 06.00hrs tomorrow morning I will reach 60 years of age. That's a proper age, although 70 sounds like real old age now that 60 has been reached. Maybe, if I do indeed make 70, then 'proper' old age will be considered as 80. Time will tell.

I'm very lucky to be here still. Chemotherapy was my saving grace, with 1997 - 2004 being characterised by frequent stays in hospital, drips, chemical infusions, operations, stem cell harvests, bone marrow plugs, intrathecal injections, hair loss (no weight loss though!), finger and toe nails dropping off, nausea, discomfort, a reliance on Countdown to get through afternoons of uncertainty... but, because of the expertise and dedication of the staff of the NHS, and my wife and daughters' support, all of those negative experiences were not in vain. The way this current shambles of a government treat our National Health Service (and much more besides) makes my blood boil.  Cherish it and protect it!!

What next for me? Memory loss? Weaker bladder? Having falls? Werther's Originals? Fur-lined slippers? Whatever comes my may I will try and combat it with more birding, mothing and planting. But, if it all runs out tomorrow then I cannot complain. I must have used up quite a few of my 'cat's lives' already...

ND&B will be taking a break until the New Year (unless something unexpected happens). I do hope that the holiday period is kind to you. Thanks for visiting and all the best for 2019.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Benign birding

Late afternoon yesterday on Banstead Downs was one for the aesthete, not necessarily the birder. A beautiful, still and golden end to the day was ample reward enough and covered up the lack of birds - a small number of thrushes coming into roost was about it. A number of Hazel trees (below) were seemingly sculptured with golden thread, resplendent with catkins and a few remaining nuts.

So, daydreams of owls, shrikes and other desirable finds were put on hold as I took in what was before me - a peaceful, if cold, wonderland.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Aug - Dec: photographic highlights

To end up this lazy blogger's review of the year I thought a few of the more arresting photographs would suffice. They are all taken with a bridge camera, so if you want to see 'big boy's' stuff, go and visit Jono (Wanstead Birder) or Martin (Ploddingbirder). You will find them both under the 'Worthy Blogs' panel to the right.

AUGUST: Dungeness
This Beautiful Marbled has been on my wish list ever since I first became aware of it back in 2004. Although still very rare, the number of moths being recorded seems to be on the increase. It didn't disappoint.
SEPTEMBER: Scotney, Kent
Only just Kent, as this Slender Hare's-ear was found growing by the roadside just a few metres from the county boundary sign. A more modest plant would be hard to find, but has bucket loads of charm when you really look.
AUGUST: Dungeness
This American Black Tern decided to make the RSPB Burrowe's Pit home for over a week. The dusky flanks, dusky underwing and smaller size did make the bird easy to pick out although took a great deal of  birding know-how from the finder, Stephen Message. This image is here just to prove that even at distance, the humble bridge camera can be useful.
SEPTEMBER: Charmouth, Dorset
I spent a few days getting to know the cliff tops, under cliffs and beaches of this under-watched part of the coast. The weather was not conducive to great birding, with a Cattle Egret being the highlight.  Stunning scenery though.
OCTOBER: Denbigh's, Surrey
I did quite a bit of vis-migging in the county, with two heavy thrush days which resulted in 2,000+ and 4,000+ movements of Redwings (at Juniper Bottom and Banstead respectively). On this particular morning the fog was laying in the low ground between the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge, making for an ethereal dawn. There was little vis-big to back it up, but with such an unforgettable vista that was soon forgiven.
OCTOBER: Whipsiderry, Cornwall
Maybe one of the better bird portraits that I have been able to produce. This Corn Bunting was very tame and kept still!!
NOVEMBER: The Brooks, Kent
A high tide, strong southerly wind and weak shingle bank conspired to produce this spectacular breach, with the sea poring into the hinterland. Luckily I was stood on higher ground - just!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

June-July: the sun has got its hat on

Summertime lived up to all of the hype and billing. The sun shone, the rain stayed away and the temperature soared. It was a good time to trawl the countryside for plants, butterflies and moths. Instead of remembering to pack the waterproofs it was sunscreen and water that you needed to make sure that you had onboard.

The garden MV is at its most productive at this time of year, and in line with previous summers a number of new species for the site appeared, most notable of which were Great Oak Beauty, Kent Black Arches, The Mocha (above) and Oak Processionary. Moth numbers, although not at levels that were enjoyed 20-30 years ago, seemed to be a bit higher than those of the past few years. Another lepidopteran highlight occurred at the end of July, when a single Silver-washed Fritillary alighted a back garden buddleia (below) - the first recorded here and indicative of a number of species that were wandering from their breeding sites in the hot weather. It was also a good summer to find Purple Emperors, my own meetings with this most charismatic of butterflies taking place in Banstead Wood and Juniper Bottom.

I was successful in seeing a couple of species of flower that had, so far in my botanical ramblings, eluded me. First up was Wild Liquorice, where a healthy number of plants were present on a bare chalky slope above Brockham Quarry (below). And then my search for White Horehound was successfully completed on the Sussex chalk at Arundel Park (bottom). I was also delighted to track down two local/rare species of Bedstraw close to home - Slender (on Colley Hill) and Wall (in a car park at Merstham).

Monday, 10 December 2018

May: in clover

May started modestly weather-wise, but then from the second week onwards set the tone for the rest of the summer, with largely warm (even hot) and sunny weather. The birding fix came largely from a mid-month stay at Dungeness. As in the previous few years, this time of year on the peninsula can almost guarantee the rare and the scarce, and 2018 was no different.

A flighty Hoopoe at Galloway's (18th), Bee-eater and Kentish Plover (20th) and Honey Buzzard (23rd) were slightly overshadowed by a Terek Sandpiper at Rye Harbour (19th, pictured above). The Kentish Plover incidentally was the first to be recorded at Dungeness since 2005 - this was a species that I expected to se annually 'back in the day'. However, as good as they were, none of these birds was my avian highlight. That accolade is bestowed to an afternoon off-shore movement (on 21st) of terns, with an easterly passage of 1700 'Commic' (the vast majority close in were Common with a few Arctic), 81 Black and 2 Little, with a bonus 'spooned' Pomarine Skua.

It was also a tremendous time for botanising. The number of clover species to be found in the greater Dungeness area was high, with Burrowing, Knotted, Suffocated, Bird's-foot, Rough and Haresfoot paving the way for, in my opinion, the best - my long-awaited first ever Clustered (below).

The peninsula was awash with colour - millions of tiny flowers on Sheep's Sorrel painted the shingle a rusty-red with pink floods of Thrift for contrast. The images below hardly do the spectacle justice.

Back in Surrey there was one place that I just had to visit, and that was the beech-clad slopes on Mickleham Downs just above the Cockshott car park. In the previous winter, whilst out Hawfinching, I had stumbled across a swathe of the dead stalks of Bird's-nest Orchid. I promised to return in the early summer to count how many were actually flowering. Zig-zagging up and down the steep ground provided an answer - a minimum of 2,000. There were further, smaller colonies further along the ridge and no doubt others to be discovered.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

March - April: The irruption continues

March carried on where February had left off with hundreds of Hawfinches. The epicentre of the Coccothraustes action was still the Bramblehall Wood - Ashurst Rough area, although birds were spilling out into Juniper Bottom, Mickleham Downs and Box Hill. The 'other' Hawfinch gathering, west of the Mole Gap and centred around Dorking Wood, continued to host high numbers also. Tuesday 13 March was to witness the high point in the irruption, during an early morning visit to Bramblehall Wood,

I was in the Whitehill Carpark by 06.15hrs and within ten minutes found myself staring across the field and into the tree tops of Bramblehall Wood. I was frankly surprised to see, at this early hour, at least 200 Hawfinches already on show (part of the flock pictured above). They were quite motionless and, I think it safe to assume, had just emerged from a very close roosting site. Over the following hour more birds arrived (mainly from the direction of Ashurst Rough) to join them. From time to time numbers left the tree tops to dive into the wall of Yew beneath, birds being observed moving amongst the foliage as they fed, barging through the vegetation. A flock of c100 then took to the air and headed purposefully northwards along the tree-line, appearing to disappear towards High Ashurst Outdoor Centre, not to be seen again. The rest of the birds then moved off southwards, then settled some 400m further along. At 07.15 things started to get very busy indeed. It began with a lose flock of 200 birds that came in over my head and circled the birds that were already present in front of me. Those in the trees then also took to the air - not the 100+ that I had assumed were present but at least 250 of them - and I was witness to a kaleidoscope of Hawfinches, a blizzard of wing-bars, tail-tips and excited calling. 450+ birds in all. Plus, there were 50+ birds behind me, up in the Yews. Together with the 100 that had left northwards earlier in the morning that made for a minimum of 600. Incredible. And do you know what happened to this mass of Hawfinches? They just melted away. Gone with barely a whimper, to be consumed by that dense wall of Yew trees. All became very quiet indeed.

The rest of the month continued to produce high counts (550 at Bramblehall on 20th), and as March ticked on by new satellite sites started to produce Hawfinches as well. There were several days when I wandered far and wide 'hoovering' up these birds - 60 here, 20 there - it was unforgettable birding. I honestly believe that within a three mile radius of the Mole Gap, centred on Mickleham, there were a minimum of 1,000 Hawfinches. A minimum. But it had to end. By the first week of April there had been a big clear-out (200 on 1st, dropping to just three on the 10th at Bramblehall), and then... silence. I must admit to feeling a sense of relief and much as one of loss. If you would like to read more about this incredible event I have produced two documents, both of which can be found in the tab called 'Hawfinch Corner', top right of this post.

The rest of April could have been excused if there was a sense of the anti-climatic about it, but a phone call from my Beddington chums on 15th had me dashing down to my old stomping ground to feast my eyes on the first BSF Hoopoe for close on fifty years (below). A short break at Dungeness mid-month had plenty of highlights, with an hour-and-a-half's skywatching on 19th producing a southerly movement of Common Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and Sparrowhawks together with a bonus Red Kite, Goshawk and three Hawfinches. With the number of moth species and flowering plants on the increase my birding eye was switching onto other things. I awaited the summer with anticipation.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Another's birding year

My very good friend Mark Hollingworth has joined in with the spirit of 'looking back over the year' to select his birding highlights from 2018. One of the great things about Mark is that, even after 60+ years of birding, his enthusiasm has not dimmed in the slightest, and I think it's fair to say that he gets even more out of his birding now than he ever has done. So, here they are, in chronological order (with a few extra bits of info from myself in brackets).

19 April Dungeness 3 Hawfinch, female Goshawk and 20 Manx Shearwater.
(I was lucky enough to be present for this lot, the first two species occurred during a notable 'skywatch' from the RSPB reserve and the Shearwaters were sitting on the sea off of the fishing boats  - the first time that either of us had seen this species doing so at Dungeness)

Late April Dungeness Mark's sister ticking Arctic Skua and 3 Manx Shearwater with close views.
(Other people's joy is infectious, and is shared by those present. Mark particularly enjoys this aspect of birding). 

2 May Dungeness 420 Manx Shearwater
(Part of a DBO record-day total of 472 that passed the point in 11 hours of sea-watching).

September Galicia, Spain 7 Nightjar on road on the way to a dawn sea-watch.
September Galicia, Spain 39,000 Manx Shearwater in an afternoon.
September Galicia, Spain 2 Balearic, 2 Manx and a Little Shearwater together. 
(Mark has spent the past five autumn's enjoying a few weeks sea-watching at Estaca de Bares. He was accompanied by the King of the Marsh, Chris Philpott. You can read more about this amazing headland by clicking here.)

20 October Dungeness 2050 Mediterranean Gulls.
(Another record day total, and one that came out of the blue, as the sea off of the peninsula was, unusually, adopted as home by this loose flock of Mediterranean Gulls over several days).

5 December Dungeness Big auk movement that included 7 Puffin, plus Grey Phalarope, wildfowl and divers.
(The sea-watcher at Dungeness can never rest, can never pack up the scope or sit back at home resting on their laurels. The weather conditions did not suggest that anything out of the ordinary would occur, with the Puffin a rare species at Dungeness, being barely annual).

Thursday, 6 December 2018

ND&B 2018 January - February

2018 was, quite simply, the year of the Hawfinch. After an unprecedented autumn passage of this big-billed finch, and the subsequent settling down of modest numbers to winter, I started the year by trawling the yew-filled slopes of the North Downs and along the northerly spurs of high ground. A small flock was soon located on the western side of Mickleham Downs (after several blank returns), with frequent visits revealing that a minimum of 18 birds to be present. In any other year this would have been Hawfinch Nirvana...

January 29th was the start of something special. An early morning wander around the woodland at Juniper Top was enlivened by at least 70 Hawfinches in the bare canopy. I suspected that there might be more, so returned the following day. After relocating the flock with ease,

"the calling became incessant, a white-noise of 'ticks' and 'sips' - it could be described at times as a frenzy. I stood underneath the tall conifers and watched as the birds moved further into the woods. By now I was convinced that there were 'three figures' involved, but needed to be able to get a better viewpoint to make a meaningful count. I lost the flock for maybe 10 minutes, but located it (thanks to the calling) some 200m further on. As I was facing into the sun (and wanted to get on the leading edge of the flock) I skirted round the birds and hid at the edge of a clearing that was lined with beech and yew. My timing was ideal as the leading birds started to appear in front of me, moving through the canopy not unlike a tit-flock (or rainforest bird wave!) This enabled me to get an accurate count - groups of 10-20, singles, one clot of 40 - my mind adding up, careful not to recount any bird that might double-back. After eighty had moved through I became a touch excited, then 90, the magic 100... but still they came. The birds were moving directly over me and to my left, heading deeper into the wood. It was now that a single flock of 35 announced themselves, having been hidden further down the eastern slope and attached themselves to this magnificent mother ship of Hawfinches. By now the noise was at its height. I was experiencing a 360 degree immersion. The flock slowly moved away, melting into the woodland and out of sight. My notebook read 135. I know that I couldn't possibly have seen every bird that went through, even though my viewpoint was quite good - there was too much vegetation in the way to see them all. So that count of 135 is really too low...

But I could still hear the odd bird calling, back where I had started, so quickly made my way there, where a further 30 birds were found. These were certainly not part of the flock. And finally, after leaving these birds happily diving in and out of yew trees, a further flock of 40-50 birds were on the edge of the wood at the very northern end of Juniper Top. These birds, just like the others, were finding Yews to their liking, frequently perching on top of nearby beech and oak allowing for easy observation. So, how many? There could not have been any fewer than 200"

This was the start of what was, quite frankly, some of the most amazing birding that I have had the pleasure to enjoy over the past 45 years. Further searches beyond the Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough - Box Hill area led me to Bramblehall Wood. I'd never heard of it and I doubt that many other birders had either, but that was soon to change. I first stared onto its yew-infested slopes on 4th February and quickly located 20 Hawfinch, with a visit two days later yielding 47 birds. At the same time I checked out a number of sites to the west of the Mole Gap (where I had success with the species several years before) and was delighted to find them present in fair numbers. If it had all stopped there and then I would have been satiated. But it was just the start.

Bramblehall Wood returned a count of 170 on 10th February and, in the company of Peter Alfrey and Kevin Guest on February 14th,

"the birds were flying above and alongside the wood, all fat avian missiles being propelled by white-barred wings, the finches almost collapsing with their front heavy load before another burst of wingbeats kept them in the air. Our counting quickly went beyond 140 and we started to believe that there may well be a couple of hundred before us. When they started to gather in the same area we were able to make a careful and accurate count. Our viewpoint was good. We counted together so as not to over- or under-cook the final total, which was 260."

These counts had started to entice plenty of other birders to visit these woods, and many returned home having feasted their eyes upon them. Timing was, however crucial, as by mid-morning they could largely disappear. On February 17th I broke the 300 barrier:

"I then had one of those spine-tingling moments. A sudden and loud 'whoosh' materialised above my head - not unlike the noise you hear when a Starling murmuration changes direction - and I was aware of a dark blur in front of me. It was a flock of c150 Hawfinch, spooked from the Yews around me. They flew back across to the wood, to be joined by c50 that were perched up there. All alighted out of view. Within five minutes more birds joined the hidden flock from the north. At least 100 flew in making a minimum of 300."

The following day saw another check, west of the Mole Gap, where 115 were at Dorking Wood with a further 50+ near by. February 22nd saw an upping of the ante - Bramblehall Wood (420), Dorking Wood (250), Freehold Wood (18), Polesden Lacey (13) and Ranmore Common (4) which meant that either side of the Mole Gap there were at least 700+ Hawfinches! I was as happy as a Hawfinch in a berry-laden Yew tree. These numbers remained present throughout the rest of the month - I could have been excused for thinking that these numbers must be at their peak - but I was to be proved wrong. You will have to wait for the March-April review to find out just how high the totals reached.

There was another ornithological event that occurred which took away my focus from the Hawfinches for just the one day, that being a hard weather movement in response to the bitter easterly winds courtesy of the weather system that was christened the 'Beast from the East'. I stood in a snowy field at Canons Farm throughout the morning of February 28th and watched a south to south-westerly movement of Lapwing (617) and Golden Plover (170). Sobering but enthralling.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Frozen chalk

Sometimes it is the simplest of things that can arrest you. A frosty morning had largely been burnt off by the warm sunshine, but there were one or two frost hollows on Epsom Downs that are just that touch colder than the surrounding land. Whilst walking across a mixed ploughed/stubbly field, a twinkling from the ground alerted me to the iced chunks of chalk on the surface, not unlike large un-cut diamonds. It was some sight, a veritable carpet of jewels laid out across the Surrey downland.

Bird wise it was a fair session, with a minimum of 135 Skylarks in the Epsom/Walton Downs area (including a flock of 70), plus a surprise flushed Common Snipe and seven Red-legged Partridges. Thrush numbers have fallen even further.

STOP PRESS I've just noticed that this is ND&B's 200th post of the year - where does all this drivel come from? Four out of the past five years have now hit the 200+ posts. I obviously have too much time on my hands, suffer from Tourette's of the keyboard and have quite clearly developed an unhealthy need to connect with the virtual world. Same again next year then...

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Not quite yet

What's at the end of that rainbow then? A Waxwing invasion? More Hawfinches? An Ivory Gull? Or, heaven forbid, a Wallcreeper? December is a strange month for me. I cannot help but take my foot off the pedal a bit. Fewer plants to find. There are moths on the wing still, but the garden MV is not at its most productive. And as for the birds, it can be a great time, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse, but I find myself starting to 'rest up' for the festive season and preparing for the start of the new (2019) campaign. Looking back at the year just gone becomes a pastime, one that most bloggers turn into the dreaded 'Review of the Year'. Yes, that is coming, but not quite yet.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Stormy Charmouth

Do you remember the days when a sober suited gentleman from the Met Office would casually say that we were in for a "bit of wet and windy weather"? It seems as if the 2018 version is to personify the approaching weather system (Storm Boris, Storm Satan) and give it an historical context (lowest low pressure system since Storm Vlad the Impaler back in March 2018!!).

Well, we recently enjoyed a bit of wet and wind, which coincided with Katrina and I spending a few days at Charmouth in Dorset. As compensation, yesterday was sunny and ridiculously mild, which meant that we were able to survey the aftermath - a dead adult Gannet (below), flocks of Rock (bottom) and Meadow Pipits feeding on the beach detritus and plenty of waves crashing into the soft cliffs adding to coastal erosion (above). There's no denying it, an angry sea is a spectacular sight (and, safely on land, a thing of joy).

Although not a birding trip I did manage to have a good look around that provided highlights of a Great Northern Diver heading east, a Kingfisher on the River Char and a tame Cormorant that allowed close approach (below). Shame it wasn't something more noteworthy, but just look at that bronze sheen and green eye! A single like this is better than the thousands at Dungeness that just give the place an untidy look, not to mention fishing the life out of the RSPB's Burrowes Pit.

Once again Charmouth gives a peek into what a rewarding place it is ornithologically. A small band of birders do watch over it and are handed regular rewards by the birding Gods. I wouldn't be surprised if a 'big one' appears there in the not too distant future.