Showing posts from February, 2019

Round two

We come to the end of February, two months into the 2019 Surrey v Northumberland patch challenge. Although hard work, the month has seen some rewarding birding, with the following species new for the year: Black-throated Diver (Holmethorpe), Jack Snipe (Holmethorpe), Treecreeper, Hawfinch (Headley Heath, Juniper Top, Juniper Bottom), Peregrine, Lesser Redpoll, Goshawk (undisclosed), Common Crossbill (Ranmore Common), Firecrest (Ranmore Common). The Black-throated Diver (above) was the biggest surprise, only my second record for the Uber-patch. From a personal point of view it was fantastic to once again see Hawfinches in the same areas over which they swarmed last winter. So, the scores-on-the-doors are: Uber patch Jan-Feb total:  101 species ( 47.41%  of personal historic total) Mini ├╝ber patch Jan-Feb total:  72 species ( 55.38%  of personal historic total) I'm sure that my virtual friend Stewart will respond with a fine selection of his own from the month. This is

Soporific calm

When I visited Ranmore Common at the start of the month there was four inches of snow laying on the ground and barely a bird stirred in the woodland. Today could not have contrasted more. This abnormal spell of weather continues, bestowing upon the morning unbroken sunshine and dream-like warmth. A soporific calm coated the woodland, barely a twig, bud or catkin quivered and all around, joining in with the celebration of tranquility, was birdsong. In amongst the songs of the expected tits and Nuthatches were some welcome additions - Crossbills, Firecrests and Siskins. The western valley slope at Bagden Wood was most productive, with one very noisy Crossbill singing almost non-stop for a good 10 minutes, whilst the Holly undergrowth back towards the top road was best for Firecrest. An early afternoon patrol at the bottom of Denbigh's Hillside did not produce as many butterflies as I had hoped, but in a normal February a count of 9 Brimstone, 2 Peacock and a Red Admiral (above,

This isn't normal

It is worth reminding ourselves that today's date is February 26th. The temperature in west Wales (Porthmadog) has been recorded at 20.8C (that's 69.4F in old money) - a new UK February record high. Closer to home it has been 20.7C in Teddington. In such warm temperatures and under clear blue skies and unbroken sunshine I have been wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. Comfortably. Because the number of Brimstone butterflies flying through and hanging about in our Banstead garden had been high, I thought I'd take a slow walk around the neighbouring streets - a vaguely circular walk of 90 minutes with no repetition of the route. I just strolled and counted butterflies. The results, for today's date, are staggering. FIVE species (I've seen two on the same date in February before, but never more). 38 individuals! They were: Brimstone (32), Comma (2), Small Tortoiseshell (2, one on winter flowering heather, above), Red Admiral (1) and Peacock (1). Needless t

Of fallen yews and spotlit owls

This Yew has been teetering on the edge of collapse for some time now, the soil beneath its roots having been eroded by the River Mole. Sometime over the past few weeks it went beyond the tipping point, and now it lies across the water, ripped and bloodied. I always think there is something sad, but noble, when an old tree bows out. For those of you that don't follow the 'birding scene', an ultra-rare Tengmalm's Owl has been found on Shetland. This has unleashed the normal rum cast of twitchers to bunk off work take a hasty holiday and (largely) head north. The owl has been roosting in the conifers of a private garden. The owl has also, at times, been playing hide-and-seek. But there has been some kerfuffle. What has got the goat of many commentators on Twitter is that, in desperation, some people have been venturing inside the small plantation and have even been attempting (at times successfully) to spotlight the owl when it got dark. This doesn't surprise

Fool's Spring

I've seen quite a few references to our current mild - nay, warm - and sunny weather being nothing more than an anomaly and that we will soon be back in the real world (cloud, chill, sleet, ice). Maybe that is so. But in the meantime let's just enjoy the 'false spring' while it is with us. Lap up the insects and enjoy the bird song. The Yellowhammer at Canons Farm (above) was certainly getting in the mood. This time last year the 'Beast from the East' was about to sweep across us - has a year really passed since then?

Joy bringer

We are all guilty of it. Each Spring - or in the case of 2019, this February - we go bananas over the appearance of our first Brimstone butterfly. There is a shared nationwide convulsion formed of tweets, posts and photographs, all singing the praises or showing off the butter yellow of Gonepteryx rhamni . It clearly has a deep-seated meaning, not dissimilar to the arrival of the Northern Wheatear, that pin-up bird of the summer migrants. Both species are colourful and charismatic. Both will snuggle up close to us humans, seemingly at peace with our close attention. The importance of their appearance in the 21st century has most probably been watered down somewhat. To people who were eaking out their food stores and living in harsher conditions, these harbingers of warmer days were almost literally lifesavers. That it doesn't mean so much to most of us, in the mollycoddled modern day, is unsurprising, although for some it is still an event that elicits joy. Joy that another wint

In faint praise of the Nickel Supra telescope

My first telescope was a Nickel Supra. It was draw-pull, had a zoom magnification between 15-60x and came in a tube-shaped leather carrying case. In 1977, when I handed over my £100 to the sales assistant at Vic Oddens (London Bridge) and was handed the optic, I couldn't have been prouder. It was shit. That might be a bit unfair, as all scopes back then suffer in comparison to what we are spoilt with today. When I purchased the Nickel Supra it seemed to be a choice between that and a Hertel and Reuss. Both were of a similar standard and same price bracket, but the Nickel Supra just shaded it for me as it looked sleeker and sounded modern. Scope ownership amongst the majority of birders boiled down to either possessing a Nickel/Hertel or an older, more ancient brass draw-pull, as likely to have been a relic from the 1939-45 war. All of these scopes necessitated having to pull out the tubes (normally a collapsable set of three) and rest the unwieldy contraption on a wall, fence

Wooden butterflies and some Hawfinches

On the edge of Ranmore Common, at the very bottom of Denbigh's Hillside, you will find this charming wooden carving. It depicts the life cycle of the rare Adonis Blue butterfly, a species that can be readily found on the chalky slopes above. It was created by local artist Iain Hamilton Crafer, from a two tonne piece of felled oak. Below is a detail from the sculpture of an ant tending a caterpillar. On chalk downland it is usually the Red Ant that 'looks after' the caterpillar, offering it protection from predators in return for a fix of honeydew that is secreted by the larvae. If you would like to see the butterfly for real - and not just a giant wooden facsimile - go along on a warm day in May when the first brood should be on the wing. The food plant of the caterpillar is Horseshoe Vetch, so you will often see the adult butterflies flying around this flower which is easily found across the open grassland. It was a good day to be out. Despite a bit of a breez

A savage, uneducated child

"Savage nations, uneducated people and children have a great predilection for vivid colours" Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, 1810 That quote appears in Kassia St.Clair's wonderful book 'The Secret of Colour'. What does that therefore say about me and my artwork?...

Too close?

There was a good tweet posted on Twitter yesterday, basically suggesting that photographs of birds placed in their habitat are far more pleasing than a close-up shot of the species. I couldn't agree more! Now, it could be that I agree with this sentiment because it is easier for me to obtain decent 'bird/habitat' images with a bridge camera (as with the migrant Whinchat shown above) than it is to get feather-by-feather detail  - however, there is something undeniably satisfying with a picture where the bird is just a part of the composition. It somehow breathes. By the way, have you noticed how quite a few people are now referring to the taking of a photograph as a 'capture' and using it in verb form too? Not to keen on that myself.

Hidden webs revealed

This glorious weather unearths hidden wonders - some the fields of Canons Farm are covered with spider's webs, only appreciable when viewed against the strong, low sunlight. I have absolutely no idea which species produces such a web. Want another Stonechat image? I thought so...

Warming the soul

The signs were all present and correct to suggest that Spring is on the way - the first day of 2019 bestowed with genuine warmth; at least 4 Brimstones on the wing close to home by mid-morning; that earliest of passage migrants, the Stonechat, appearing locally; very high Common Buzzards passing straight through the air space; and a suite of insects busily nectaring on hellebores, Christmas Box and early flowering heathers. Days like these warm the soul.


A strange day. I was out birding for most of it and for the majority of the time struggled to see very much at all - few thrushes, paltry numbers of finches, same old, same old. The woodland did have more song than of late, in particular Great and Marsh Tits, but it was hardly a cacophony. But having said that, there were some great moments... Best of all was a happy reconnection with my favourite bird, the Hawfinch. A flock of eight were being faithful to the treetops that run along the road between Headley Heath and High Ashurst. I last saw them moving towards Box Hill; a noisy Raven was hanging around the fields close to Nohome Farm on Walton Downs; and last but by no means least, two Barn Owls were hunting together over the fields of Canons Farm. One even landed on a fence post just 25m away from me. My fumbled attempt to take a photograph would have made the final cut of any Laurel and Hardy film. Botanical infusion came courtesy of a fair amount of Grey Field Speedwell (ab

Fence climbing for the elderly

It's a given that, when advancing in years, your eyesight and hearing will reduce in its effectiveness. I can certainly vouch for both - the increasing difficulty in following a small bird in flight as it travels over (or through) vegetation - or the ability to pick up certain bird calls, in my case Tree Pipits. I am just grateful that crest calls and Grasshopper Warblers still register in my hearing range. What I have had to accept recently is that I am not the sprightly chap that I once was. Let's take climbing fences for example... OK, maybe climbing a fence shouldn't be something that a birder does anyway, as the said fence has been erected to keep them out, down to maintaining the land owner's privacy or to keep livestock in place (and so there is likely to be animals on other side of the fence). But sometimes these fences are there because 'they're just there'. It seems to be a modern disease this erection of fencing all over the place. But I digre

Second helpings

It would have been rude not to pay my further respects to the Holmethorpe Black-throated Diver, which is now in its third day of residence on Mercer's Lake. It stayed close to the south-western corner this afternoon and spent quite a bit of time quietly floating just off-shore. Other highlights included a Kingfisher, one Jack Snipe, 16 Common Snipe and the mixed gull roost that, although numbering c2000 gulls (almost half and half Herring and Black-headed) did not include the second-winter Glaucous. It was also great to catch up with long-time Holmethorpe stalwart Dennis Moore - long time no see!

Mr Holmethorpe

Gordon Hay started birding at Holmethorpe Sand Pits back at the end of the 1980s. It was a different place to what it is today - the only appreciable waterbodies were to be found at Mercer's and Glebe Lakes, sand was still being commercially extracted (from where Spynes Mere and Mercer's West are today), and access across the Moors was unrestricted. It is fair to say that the site had just come off of the back of a 'golden period', when extensive workings had created a mosaic of pools which provided rich pickings for the small band of birders. Mercer's had then been subsequently flooded and the sand extraction reduced. Gordon found an area where the birding was on the wane. Although never the sole birder, for much of his 30+ years covering the site, he has been the only ever-present and the most frequent - and the most frequent by some way - in fact almost daily, and at times several times a day. He has had great successes, finding Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Y

Silent winter

Ranmore Common yesterday morning. Four inches of snow had fallen overnight. A Christmas Card cliche of snow and crystal-clear light, the ice crystals sending sparks of brilliance into the air. The stillness was eerie, the only sound being the pattering of the melting snow as it fell from the trees and onto the white cushion below. And that was the only sound. No birds. No birds at all. I walked for miles along the woodland rides, through dense forest and across clearings. Silence. I stopped and scanned tree tops, across wooded valleys, looking for the tell-tale signs of birds on the move, of feeding flocks. Nothing. In three hours, within the wood, I recorded a handful (c20) of mixed tits, two Nuthatches, four Goldfinches and seven Siskins. And a few Robins - we need them in the snow to keep up the Christmas theme, don't we... It wasn't much better overhead, with just a single Red Kite, a Common Buzzard and a few Wood Pigeons and corvids. This lack of birds is replicat

False hope

Here in Surrey, as promised, the snow arrived overnight, with only about an inch covering the higher ground in the Banstead area. I foolishly arrived at Canons Farm before dawn in the hope that the weather would have stirred up a few birds, but after three hours I conceded defeat - there was absolutely nothing on the move. The wintering Barn Owl was out hunting until 07.40hrs before it safely went to roost, and up to 40 Fieldfare were loafing around gardens on the edge of the farm. A check on Burgh Heath pond (frozen) could only muster up a Grey Heron. I regularly check this small waterbody in the hope of a Water Rail, but it is usually down to a handful of Moorhens and the odd Coot to give me my rail fix.