Thursday, 28 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 no sprint, but an ornithological marathon. I've more or less mopped up the 'expected' species (bar the summer migrants) so I really will have to put in the extra hours to jam in on the unexpected.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

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, on Viburnum tinus) would be remarkable.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

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 to say, this is all most irregular.

STOP PRESS: Kew Gardens today recorded 21.2C - 70F - which is now the highest February (and Winter) temperature ever recorded in the UK.

Monday, 25 February 2019

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 me at all. Twitching is largely a selfish pastime (it is just your list that you care about) and if you have spent a lot of time, effort and money to try and see the intended quarry then you will most probably not be thinking rationally when faced with potential failure. It was quite telling that a number of those present at the time of the spotlighting had words with the spotlighter(s) AFTER they themselves had taken a photograph of the spotlit owl. Double standards my friends...

Now, as much as I agree that such actions might disturb the bird (and lessen the chances of other birders seeing the owl) isn't spotlighting nocturnal birds a part and parcel of many foreign birding holidays which is, as far as I am aware, accepted as standard procedure? More double standards?

And while I'm on this subject, the tweets of congratulations to those that went north and conquered were in plenty. Well done for what exactly? Having spent money to travel and see a bird that somebody else had found and identified? You might just as well congratulate me for having made my breakfast this morning (tea, toast and honey by the way).

Sunday, 24 February 2019

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?

Saturday, 23 February 2019

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 winter has entered its 'end game' and an inner warmth that comes from the thought that Spring is on its way.

February 14th if you were wondering. My first Brimstone of 2019 that is...

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

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 or mate's shoulder, so as to steady the thing to have enough chance of looking through it with any confidence of it being worth the while doing so. Nobody owned tripods. The image was not bright. The image was also not that sharp. They fogged up and seized up in the rain and cold. And still we thought we were the bee's-knee's in owning them.

Another hardship that was endured was having to - if there were no walls, fences or mates nearby - lie down on the grass/in the mud, and try to balance said scope on a folded knee. This induced arthritis, the onset of piles and resulted in getting your clothing wet and dirty. Crusty old sea watchers were known to have taken this position and never get up again. The ensuing shake and wobble was enough to render the exercise pointless. At x15 the light was just about workable. At 60x it was akin to looking through a milk bottle that had been held over a naked flame for an hour.

My friend Dave had purchased a cheaper telescope from a local camera shop. It was enormous, one of the budget astronomy scopes. We christened it 'The Cormorant' as it approached that species in size, shape and colour. In all honesty it was as good as the Nickel. His wife made him a carrying case from the leg of an old pair of denim jeans.

Yes kids, this is how we used to bird and look in the late 1970s.

There's more of this stuff to come...

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

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 breeze it was not enough to sedate the warmth of the sun. At one point I had to strip off a couple of layers of clothing, although walking up and down the steep slopes of Juniper Top/Bottom and Ranmore Common would create enough body warmth to necessitate doing so even on a cold winter's day.

Highlights were two Hawfinch flocks (two and six at Juniper Top/Bottom) and a Goshawk at a site in the 'greater' Ranmore area.

Monday, 18 February 2019

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?...

Sunday, 17 February 2019

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.

Friday, 15 February 2019

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...

Thursday, 14 February 2019

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.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019


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 (above) out in flower across Car Park Field (Walton Downs).

Sunday, 10 February 2019

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 digress.

I have always had 'cause' to climb the odd fence - and robustly constructed fencing at that, the type where the top strand of barbed wire cannot just be pushed down and straddled over - and then climbing necessitates a certain amount of planning, a surveying of the fence to identify traps and points of possible accident. The main decision to be made is where to place your first foot hold. This is not as straightforward as you may think. How high is the fence? Is the second foot movement to be on the top of the fence or not? Is barbed wire involved? Is the fence rickety and will it easily take your full weight? There is, of course the desire not to damage it, for fear of irate land owners and doing the decent thing.

Once the fence has been summited there is the question of descent. Do you leap fully onto the ground beyond? Do you need to swing a foot round and climb down the fence the other side? And while you assess such things there is the real concern that you might snag clothing on the spiteful barbed wire, so all this needs to be factored in. A ripped jacket is not required. Punctured wellington boots a no-no.

Years past would have seen me leap, gazelle like, across such obstacles, landing like a gymnast on the other side. Now? A nervy ascent, a wobbling summit and an elephantine decent, followed by a rubbing of stiff knees and a knowledge that one or two muscles have been stretched a bit too much for their own good. It is when, having made a slightly scary crossing on a particularly nasty fence, that the horror hits you - that you will need to go through it all again when making the return journey.

All such physical activity and danger to skin, bone and clothing can be negated by surveying the wider scene before making your move - I have more than once got to the 'other side' of a fence to see a gate just a few metres further along. And on one occasion, having fallen heavily and muddied up my optics, found myself looking straight at a style.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

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!

Monday, 4 February 2019

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, Yellow-browed Warbler, Eider, Bean Goose, Velvet Scoter and White Stork to name but a few. There have been fallow times when lesser souls would have packed it in and gone elsewhere, but not Gordon. The perseverance has paid off. Yesterday, with the arrival of a Black-throated Diver on Mercer's Lake, he was able to chalk up his landmark 200th species for Holmethorpe. And that, for an inland site, is some achievement.

I have had the pleasure of calling Gordon a friend for many years, and our children grew up together. My wife Katrina likes Gordon very much, although there was a particular morning when he blotted his copy book. One May morning, at 05.00hrs, our house phone started to ring (this was pre-mobiles). We were both woken up and as I fumbled to answer the handset, I wondered just what disaster we were about to be told about. It was Gordon, deliriously happy because he had just found a summer-plumaged Knot. Katrina was not amused...

Back to the Black-throated Diver. I popped over this morning and was able to watch it, between dives, on Mercer's Lake. Although it was a site tick for Gordon, this was, in fact, my second here, having seen the only previous bird, back in January 1983. It was also the only Holmethorpe species that I had 'up' on Gordon. Not any more. The accompanying photographs reflect the dull, wet weather experienced this morning. A great bonus species for the 'Uber patch challenge'.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

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 replicated across the uber patch and has been for a number of weeks now. Other birders are reporting the same. A great void where birds used to be. The expected flocks of thrushes and finches gone awol; the roving gangs of woodland birds reduced to a sorry trickle. It is not open for debate that many of our passerines are in decline, that we have fewer birds to record than we did just several years ago. But I've not known such a slump as this. Up until last week the winter has been mild, so hard weather cannot be blamed on culling the population. Is this how it's going to be from now on?

As much as it is easy to look back at the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as a 'golden period' for bird numbers, the truth is that these years were, in reality, times of reduced numbers when compared to the population levels of the 1920s and 1930s. And no doubt the 20s and 30s would not compare favourably to a century before that. We are dealing with ever diminishing returns (unless you like gulls, pigeons and corvids).

To be a naturalist in the UK in 2019 is to be looking at a bleak picture. Invertebrate numbers in free fall. The number of plant species that are in trouble too many to list. Our bird populations shrinking. The tipping point has been reached and passed. We are now reaping the rewards of our negligence. The craving for cheap food and profit for big business comes at a price, and one that those at the top don't even consider worthy of, well, consideration. So we carry on sleepwalking into a world that becomes more impoverished by the day - spiritually, morally and in its diversity.

Friday, 1 February 2019

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.