Showing posts from January, 2019

Round one

So, that's the first month of the year already over - went quick, didn't it! It was also the first month of the great year-long Surrey v Northumberland patch challenge, in which I have taken on Stewart Sexton to see who can attain the highest percentage figure of our personal historic totals. It's all a bit of fun, but it really does act as a spur to get you out there and looking. I do have a distinct advantage in being retired (I still cannot get used to saying that) but then he can boast coastline and slightly younger eyes which will surely make up for my extra hours in the field... As I have moaned about elsewhere, the number of birds present locally has been very poor indeed. Passerines in particular have gone missing in action, with the star flock being the 110+ Skylarks that are being faithful to Walton Downs. Although the weather has turned colder during the past few days, it has been largely unremarkable and the lack of movement unsurprising. Down to th

The cold finally snaps

In glorious sunshine a six-mile circular walk taking in Ranmore Common and Polesden Lacey was made with eldest daughter Rebecca. There were plenty of snow pockets to walk through and the trees on the higher ground were coated in icy granules that had started to melt in the warm sun. The birding was disappointing, although at least six Marsh Tits were recorded, including two in fine song. It would seem that the finch numbers are to be found further west along the ridge - out of uber patch range! A late afternoon visit to Canons Farm suggested that the cold weather may be having some affect on the birds, with an influx of Fieldfare (70) and an increase in Yellowhammer numbers, with 42 gathering to roost. A Barn Owl was hunting across the fields and along the edge of the wood up by Perrotts Farmhouse and a Little Owl was spied huddled up in an oak tree on the edge of Broad Field. From the top: male Kestrel; Little Owl, Yellowhammers, Meadow Pipit


Canons Farm isn't exactly a place that is synonymous with large gatherings of birds, but it has its moments. In any normal winter we have come to expect a certain suite of wintering flocks - several hundred mixed thrushes, three figure Linnet counts, clouds of Stock Doves and Woodpigeons sharing the soil with plenty of Starlings, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Yellowhammers, plus a swathe of corvids, which all means that even on a quiet day there are plenty of birds to look through. This winter things are different. There are barely any birds on show. All the above are present in disturbingly reduced numbers. To scan across the open fields is an exercise in desperately trying to find something to look at. I have ducked into the neighbouring Banstead Wood for some ornithological respite, but the hoped for roving flocks of tits and crests are also missing in action. Other sites reflect this morose situation. Priest Hill, Epsom Common, Mickleham, Box Hill, Epsom Downs, Walton Downs,

On Silbury Hill and belonging

I have just finished reading Adam Thorpe's excellent book 'On Silbury Hill'. It is much more than an introduction to Europe's largest man-made prehistoric mound - covering the theories as to how and why it was built; accounts of the archeological digs that tried to discover what (and if) anything lay within; and the personal relationship that the author (and others) has had with it. The book is also part autobiography, part gazetteer of the Wiltshire ancient sites, a quick dip into paganism/druidism, and a lament on what we have lost in our uptake of all things technological. Although I've never visited Silbury Hill, the Wiltshire downland of much of the book's setting is my ancestral home. The Gale family left the open hills and farms for London at the end of the 19th century. My father returned twice - as an evacuee and retiree - and during his latter years I visited on many occasions, getting to know the countryside surrounding All Cannings, Pewsey and

Banstead Downs

The Banstead Downs Conservators have obviously been busy recently, judging by the large area of scrub at the southern end of the site that has been cleared. Home to large colonies of both Small and Chalkhill Blue butterflies, this site management should do wonders for the spread of the butterflies food plants (Kidney and Horseshoe Vetch). When I first set foot on these downs in the mid-1970s it was an open area with light scrub, and still supported breeding Grasshopper Warbler and Tree Pipit. Both were gone by the 1990s, due to the scrubbing up on site and other factors away from the locality. Stirling efforts by work parties over recent years has opened up much of the area once again. I've always struggled to see much of ornithological interest here, but that has not been the case for all birders -  on 21st May 1956, W.P. Izzard had the good fortune to come across a Lesser Grey Shrike, and in addition, a Pratincole sp was observed by an unnamed observer flying over the downs


The early birder certainly does catch the worm Glaucous Gull. The second-winter beast that has been feeding/loafing during the day at the Beddington Landfill Cafe has decided to take up overnight lodgings on Mercer's Lake at Holmethorpe. It was reported coming into roost yesterday afternoon so I knew that an early arrival should secure the bird - it was, after all, a species that I had not seen before at Holmethorpe. I arrived in darkness, but still set up the scope and scanned the blackness - there were gulls already flying overhead and much calling from the water - and even in what could at best be described as pre-light, the gulls were shining out as they bobbed about on the lake surface. One bird shone out far more than the others - the Glaucous Gull (pictured above). I'm sure you can all tell which bird it is... The gull roost was quite spectacular, with 2,500 Herring and 1,500 Black-headed making up 99% of the larids on show. The birds were leaving very quickly, w

Make the time to stand and stare

It was dusk, and as I walked along the edge of the copse looked up into the top of the trees. The branches and twigs were etched out in a pitch black, a stark relief against an ice-blue sky that was tinted with rose petal pinks and moody violet. It was enough to halt my journey to take in this simple, common -  but beautiful - composition. My first thought was to take a picture of it - then, secondly, to use the resulting image for the basis of a painting. But I carried no camera. So I stood stock still and took it all in. And while I did so, had a little think... Why is it that, for some of us at least, when confronted with an arresting scene/plant/bird/insect our first thought is to reach out for the camera. Is it part of an ancestral need to own or shackle nature? To lock it down so that it cannot escape and becomes our possession? The written word is another tool that can be used to obtain the same result - do we feel the need to annotate, describe and commit the subject to a n


The Woodland Trust purchased Langley Bottom Farm to create the 'Centenary Woodland', in commemoration of those who fell during The Great War. Yesterday afternoon I spent some time at the highest point on the site, at Downs Field. The tree planting here has, as far as I can tell, been completed, the lines of saplings running along the contours of the landscape and into the distance. For the first time the scene before me showed more than a passing resemblance to the war graves in France and Belgium - quite apt really, although this visual link will soon disappear as the trees randomly die off or take root, creating a messier panorama. As a beside, a Common Snipe, 11 Red-legged Partridges and 120+ Skylarks were recorded.

All our yesterdays

You will have to be a person of a certain age to understand where the headline above has its derivation, but then I grew up listening to the dulcet tones of Brian Inglis on the TV. Today saw one of my rare forays onto Epsom Common, a visit made in dull, drizzly weather and characterised by an almost total absence of birds. The Stew Pond (above) held but four Cormorants, a Grey Heron and two Mallards: the woodland and open areas fared little better with very few tit flocks present and those that did appear were in low numbers. So far, so poor. But of interest were the 'then and now' comparisons that I make when visiting Epsom Common - you see, back in 1975-76 this was very much one of my cherished birding patches. Looking back is enough to make me weep, as we were privy to breeding Grasshopper Warblers, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits, with large areas of open heathy scrub that held Yellowhammers, Tree Pipits and plenty of Willow Warblers. Today? All gone. The

Where once were many Tree Sparrows

This morning saw me teaming up with Beddington-birder Steve Thomas - a key-holder to the magic kingdom of the farmlands! After Tuesday's panic to see the Glaucous Gull today was a far more leisurely affair. The gull was once again present (on the tip and north lake). The morning's main quest was to hunt down a Tree Sparrow, something that could be done with little effort just a few years ago at Beddington. But times change, and the sewage farm population has fallen, and with it the number of over-wintering birds. We saw just the one, feeding on red millet at a bird feeding station (photo above taken a few years ago). Below is a summary of my personal records for the Uber-patch to add some context. First recorded at  Beddington SF  and  River Mole, Leatherhead  (1975),  Seears Park, Cheam  (1983),  Holmethorpe  (1991). The breeding colony at  Beddington SF  is (or was) well-known, and counts could be high throughout the year, with a peak of 200 recorded on 25 February, 22

The return of the ND&B Wheatear Trophy!

Jono Lethbridge's award winning white-arse from 2015 IT'S BACK! After a two year break the ND&B Wheatear Trophy has been taken out of the attic, given a firm dust and loving polish, and is ready to be presented to the person who loves all things 'white-arse' above everything else. The previous winners of the trophy are: 2013 Gavin Haig 2014 Martin Casemore 2015 Jono Lethbridge 2016 Lucy@ A Natural Interlude The categories and rules are as follows: Earliest posting Whoever posts the earliest image of a 2019 UK Northern Wheatear wins this one. Blog posting only. Numbers champion (the big one!) Whoever posts the most images of Northern Wheatears between now and the end of April 2019. A photograph of five birds together will count as 5 images! Get snapping!!! No repeat images, and that means you, Peter Alfrey!! Blog posting only. Best photograph The best image of a UK Northern Wheatear in 2019 (up until the end of April), to be judged by as yet un

Glaucous Gull

This morning I took a trip to one of my old stamping grounds, Beddington Sewage Farm. If I'm being honest, due to the presence of a Glaucous Gull I panicked and went early, as I have a visit already lined up to the farm this coming Thursday. I had yet to record this species at Beddington - and, as a big bonus, it was also a Uber patch tick! For some reason Glaucous Gulls have eluded me locally, whereas Icelands have been easier to come by: 1994      Mercer’s Farm, Holmethorpe              An adult roosting on the fields on 2 January  1997      Mercer’s Lake, Holmethorpe              An adult at first light on 1 January, apparently having roosted overnight with several thousand other gulls 2010      Beddington SF              A first-winter on the north lake on 27 December 2012      Beddington SF              Three birds, (a first-w Kumlien’s and two second-winters) on 18 February; a first-summer on 28 April and 5 May 2016      Canons Farm, Banstead           

Then and now

This morning, a fellow blogger posted his delight at observing a flock of Greenfinches in Norfolk - the first time that he had seen this species gathered together in any number. Old hands like myself are lucky enough to remember the days before Trichomonosis decimated the UK population of this finch - my highest flock counts are below: 1977    Beddington SF, Surrey         2 October, 1,000+ 1982    Dungeness, Kent         27 October and 27 November, 1,300  The Beddington flock was feeding across several settling beds that were packed full of seed-bearing wild flowers, mainly Fat-hen. They remained on site for just a few weeks. As for the Dungeness flock, that was faithful to the beach just east of the power station, and just like the Beddington birds were taking advantage of copious amounts of seed. Greenfinches were found annually in good numbers here from early autumn right through the winter months. Needless to say, such counts as these are a thing of the past. To

Record shot my arse

There is a Twitter account named 'Record shot my arse'. It features photographs tweeted from birders across the country that bemoan the quality of the images that they have shared, even though the said pictures are very good indeed. False modesty, fishing for compliments or bloody-minded perfectionists - you decide. The image that I share with you today is, without a doubt, a genuine 'record shot', that is a photograph that has little quality beyond being proof that I did indeed see what was before me. Taken through a small opening in a barn door, in the dark and at distance, the image never really had a chance of being anything other than poor. This Barn Owl has been roosting in this same barn for several weeks and seems to be settled. The barn door is by a footpath and the owl is quite happy to have the odd birder peeking through at it. Whilst I was watching it, a pack of dogs ran past barking, which made the owl shuffle along the strut and hide in the barn's

In praise of a humble sign

Forget about the metal post and fixings - I'm sure that they were once wooden - just look at the sign. Look at how alive it is. Breathable wood. Flaking paint. Showing the passage of time and weather. Hand-painted lettering. The care taken to produce it. Upper Caps. Lower Caps. Tiny Caps. Somebody thought about this. Crafted, although the simplicity can hide such a thought. How long has it been there? Burnt by the summer sun. Drowned in heavy rain. Encased in snow and ice. Rocked by the wind. What has perched on it? Flown over it? Who has looked up at it and, being helped on their way, grunted in thanks as they headed off to Walton-on-the-Hill, thinking about that welcoming pint or slice of cake when they got there? Apart from falling in love with this sign (on Walton Downs,) I still found time to record a Woodcock, two Common Snipe (flushed from open fields), 120 Skylark, 240 Redwing and just the two Fieldfare. I also caught up with local birder Paul, who I hadn't seen fo


This path does not qualify as a 'holloway' - it would need to possess higher and steeped banks to do so - but the impression of a tunnelled-out thoroughfare, worn by years of animals being herded and carts being driven along the narrow confines, is present. It speaks of age and tradition. This is the sort of thing that I find comfort and inspiration in. (Image taken yesterday at Juniper Bottom, near Mickleham.)

River dance

Seeing that there seems to be so little about at the moment I thought that I would 'ring the changes' and do something completely different - but still within the uber patch. Hmmm, hardly different, is it Steve?... Parking up in Mickleham Village, and crossing the A24, found me on the banks of River Mole, at this point a narrow affair. I then walked northwards, carrying on through to Common Meadow, Leatherhead, no more than a couple of miles in length but longer when you add on the meandering. It was a walk that I had not completed as a whole, having dived in-and-out over the years at various points of entry, and mainly during the summer months as the area is quite good botanically. Highlight was a red-head Goosander (above), that fed happily in the water at Common Meadow (below) with the bird deciding, after ten minutes, that it had had enough of me, and flew on. At least two Little Egrets were seen (Mickleham and Common Meadow) plus 5 Little Grebe, a Cormorant, 8

Carpets of migrants

It's early January, Christmas is but an overweight memory that has left an after-taste of chocolate and the birding (at least locally) is hard work. The light has hardly brightened all day and I'm missing those spring migrants, even though it will be a good three months before they will really start to arrive in earnest. So, let's dust down the notebooks and go to Eilat in Israel for the day - a day chosen at random... 22 nd March 1986  We were up early and left the camp site at first light. By the time we reached the northern fields the light was good and it was apparent that the number of migrants had increased. Hirundines were swarming over the area, the number being swollen as the morning went by. At least 600 Swallows, 200 Sand Martins and 50 Red-rumped Swallows were involved, but no House Martins at all – in fact we had so far only seen six in Israel. The alfalfa was also leaping with birds. The fact that we actually saw 40 Quail suggests that hundreds must have

Community-led wildlife

Not 400m from my house is a modest-sized allotment that has the good fortune to be looked after by a number of wildlife friendly gardeners. A small team (led by one particular keen and amiable enthusiast) have dedicated part of the land towards the benefit of the local flora and fauna. Wild flower planting, nesting boxes, bee-hives, bird feeders, insect houses and a pond are just a few of the actions put in place. Happily I have been granted a key and will attempt to visit this Banstead allotment at least once a week to monitor what appears throughout 2019. A brief recce this morning provided a small list of 'wild' plants (mostly what could be termed as garden weeds), a modest number of birds (which did include the much-reduced Greenfinch) and one mammal - a Grey Squirrel. It is heartening to see such a community-led project that has already reaped great rewards. More throughout the year...

Benign birding

These mild undramatic winters might be good for our birds welfare (and the heating bills,) but they play havoc with the inland birder. No hard weather = very little to see, or at least that is the case in my part of Surrey. Few thrushes, fewer finches, empty hedgerows, abandoned fields, quiet woodland - you get the picture. Today I visited an old stomping ground of mine, Holmethorpe Sand Pits. The respectable-sized waterbodies were largely undisturbed by wildfowl, (with, needless to say, no bonus sawbills) and my quest to winkle out a Jack Snipe or Green Sandpiper proved futile. I returned home (via a similarly quiet Mogador) somewhat crestfallen. Until the iron grip of Winter falls across continental Europe then there will be no birds fleeing westwards into our welcoming arms.

A kind of mourning

Polesden Lacey was visited this afternoon, and Katrina and I strolled along the 'upper' woodland path that snaked eastwards, coming back along the valley bottom via one of the tracks that meanders through the sheep pasture. It was eerily quiet, save for the odd barking dog or shout from a child making the most of the last days of the Christmas school holidays. Bird wise it was almost a no-show, save for the 50+ Chaffinches that were spooked by a couple of walkers as they marched through a carpet of beech mast. And I was looking, believe me, I was looking. Up along the tree tops. Across the floor of the beech woodland. Scanning the empty skies. And listening intently for any tell tale 'siip' or 'tick'. I was, to be truthful, chasing ghosts. Remembering what was here a year ago. Wanting to desperately relive those heady days, although I knew at the time that such events were once in a lifetime occurrences. We are, of course, talking Hawfinch. It might soun

Modesty forbids me...

... but all will be revealed here. And by the way, I always go out birding in a suit and tie...

Groundhog blogging

There are certain things that appear on this blog with regularity - you could, in fact, almost set your calendar to them. One of these repeat performers is Green Hellebore (above and below). Every January I pay a visit to the clump that haunt a copse on Walton Downs, take a few pictures and post them on here. That is where I went this morning. Job done. This will be followed by Spurge Laurel and Wild Candytuft in the coming weeks. Bird wise a strange morning. Long spells of deadly quiet punctuated by skies full of birds. Highlights were Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, 60 Stock Dove, 100+ Skylark, 250+ Redwing, only 3 Fieldfare, 2 Stonechat, a Marsh Tit, a Raven and 120 Goldfinch. Talking about repeat performers, Stonechat photos will most probably pop up on ND&B several times this year. Here's the first offering, the female of a pair seen this morning...

Starter's orders

The 'starter's orders' have been issued and we are OFF! The birth of 2019 has seen a flurry of activity across the country, from the swivel-eyed day listers to the sedate birder who, after a lie-in and leisurely breakfast, ambled out into the field to casually look through binoculars to see what was on offer. I was up and out pre first light and visited the River Hogsmill at Ewell (more of a stream), walking along the meandering banks between Bourne Hall and Ewell Court. It was, as ever, rewarding, with singles of Little Egret, Water Rail, Kingfisher, Red Kite and two Grey Wagtails. I was back home by 10.30hrs as the girls and I had decided to have a New Year Day walk along the beach at East Preston in West Sussex. It was remarkably mild. I did take my optics along, but there seemed to be little on show. 2019 eh? And now there are 364 days left. Is it too early to do a 'round-up of the year'?...