Friday, 30 August 2019

A decision

First two weeks of September. Dungeness bound. Done deal.

Er, no.

For several reasons I’ve decided to change tack and reevaluate what I’m going to do over those 14 days - still birding, but with a difference. Go to places that I rarely visit or haven’t visited at all. Maybe chucking away the chance of rarity, of spectacle, but birding ‘off-piste’, trying something different, keeping things fresh. Plants and butterflies will be involved.

It could all go tits up. It could be a great success. Who knows.

I will keep you posted.

Monday, 26 August 2019

More Langley Vale magic

A few day's ago Peter Wakeham, that most diligent of local botanists, found a small clump of Field Woundwort (above) in Penn Field, Langley Vale. As far as I know this was a new record for the area, and as any reader of this blog will know, I am very keen to see anything that decides to pop up and flower in these local fields. This morning, armed with directions, I found the plant(s) with little effort - and for my troubles was rewarded by bumping into a fine Night-flowering Catchfly (below) on the way across the field. What else lurks within it? It is a large field and looks ripe for a good going over. I will be back.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Hornet Robberfly

Britain's largest fly - the Hornet Robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis) - is a scarce and declining species but can be found across Surrey at a number of sites. Yesterday, on White Downs, Gordon and I found two individuals, one of them characteristically perching on Belted Galloway dung.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Silver spots en masse

Gordon Hay and myself spent the morning and early afternoon combing the chalky slopes of White Downs and Denbigh's Hillside, collectively known to botanists, birders and butterfly people as Ranmore. We also spent a bit of time on the footpath at the base of this hill range, where there is plenty of Broad-leaved Everlasting-pea, in the forlorn hope of coming across a migrant Long-tailed Blue - there has been an influx of this butterfly into the south-east recently and this plant is a magnet to them. We drew a blank.

What we did not draw a blank on were Silver-spotted Skippers. We had never seen such numbers. The grassy banks and short-sward areas alike were being utilised, with a total of 335+ being reached, 300 of which were on White Downs and the rest on Denbigh's Hillside. We were coming across individuals in strange places - woodland edge, small glades, edges of fields - and it seemed as if we were witnessing a bit of an emergence and dispersal. Most of those we came across were in very good condition.

We had other highlights. 125+ Chalkhill Blue, 12 Adonis Blue, 7 Silver-washed Fritillary, a single Lace Border (localised moth) and single Tree Pipit and Spotted Flycatcher.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

It doesn't have to be rare...

Most birders will have a place that they regularly visit, a place that will usually be fairly local to where they live, and, quite often, there may be several of them. They are fondly referred to as 'patches'. After visiting these places over a few years, the birder will become familiar with what the patch offers and will enter into a contract of benign and pleasurable birding - surprises do not come along that often, so when they do they are highly valued.

This morning at Canons Farm was one big surprise. No rarity was involved, but as is so often the case when birding a patch, species that are common elsewhere can, on the site, take on a much more hallowed status. There is also the question of where birds appear on a patch. Certain species (particularly passage migrants) have a habit of turning up along the same hedgerow, in the same copse or along the same fence line. This morning's experience were of birds cropping up away from such expected sites.

I arrived at the farm by 06.45hrs. There were a few calling warblers in the hedgerows and a brief flyby Hobby, but after an hour all seemed perfectly normal for this particular patch - it was going to be hard work! I then found myself standing here:

Nothing special. A stand alone Oak tree alongside a mature Holly, joined together by a low hedgerow of mixed species, mainly hazel. The field in front (known as Tart's Field) is unharvested Broad Bean with plenty of Fathen and Redshank. I was aware of a few birds flitting from the trees and hedge into the field, mostly tits but with the odd warbler - I could hear both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler calling. Worth investigating. Within a few minutes it was obvious that there were more birds present than I had assumed. I stood still for maybe an hour and was treated to a wonderful sixty minutes of birding, with birds constantly on the move in front of me, seemingly staying in this small area to feed. Maybe 75+ individuals were involved, but there could have been many more.

There were three species involved that do not often appear in the Canons Farm birder's notebook: first up was a smart Sedge Warbler (top) that was seen throughout the hour, often perched up in the Holly. This is the fifth CF record. Rarer still was the Reed Warbler that appeared in the Holly just the once (only the fourth record for the farm). The fact that I didn't see it again (and neither the single Garden Warbler) suggests that there was quite a turnover of birds, so my total counts are most probably under-cooked. Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers all flicked, tacked, hooeeted and hovered in front of me, being barged out of the way by the tits, Dunnocks, Chaffinches, Wrens and Robins. It really was quite enjoyable.

And then the buntings turned up. The local Yellowhammers were flying about, calling regularly and alighting in the Oak before dropping into the field. At least six were present and would often perch up in the Holly. When one did so I would take a look. After a dozen such incidents I was therefore surprised when my binoculars focused on a Reed Bunting - just about annual on the farm. I watched it drop down into the Fathen were it was promptly joined by two more! What with the two species of acrocephalus warbler, this was turning into a strange and unexpected morning.

I covered the rest of the farm quickly, which suggested that it was quiet away from the 'oak and holly' hot spot. There were highlights - a flock of four Yellow Wagtails heading south and a group of 10 Common Swifts hawking over the fields. I returned to try and seek out the large feeding flock but, by 11.00hrs, there was no sign. They had moved on, or broken up.

That's patch birding for you. Quiet contemplation that can be interrupted by moments of pleasure. It's all about playing the patience game and accepting it for what it is. Birding in its simplest form, but, if I may be so bold to suggest, its most rewarding.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Surrey v Northumberland catch-up

By the end of May, the Surrey v Northumberland birding patch challenge seemed to be going in just the one direction - and that was northbound! My spring campaign was heavy on effort but light on reward. And then Stewart's early summer was lit up by some truly memorable birding. It all seemed like a foregone conclusion that, regardless of my best intentions, I was going to get walloped.

But then Beddington (above) came to the rescue.

The sewage farm has always been a part of the 'uber-patch' but in recent times I have not been able to gain independent access to the site. That all changed in early July. The net result? A great big burst of wader additions to the list - Wood Sandpiper, Greenshank, Dunlin, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Turnstone - the latter two good species for the inland birder. A Red-crested Pochard and a Spotted Flycatcher (sadly a scarce passage migrant in my area nowadays) have also been gains this week.

So, that means:

Uber patch 2019 total is 128 species (60.09% of personal historic total).

My focus will now be on a few missing passage migrants such as Tree Pipit and Common Redstart, before I head off down to Dungeness for a few days.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Langley Vale Red Hemp-nettles

It was only four years ago that Red Hemp-nettle was discovered at Langley Vale by Caroline Bateman. This is a species that I have a great fondness for, a plant that I normally associate with the shingle beaches of Dungeness and Rye Harbour (where I had seen it before) - so when this population was discovered in Surrey, it was a must to visit. Annual trips along to this 'weedy' strip of north downs farmland are a pleasure, and the plant appears to be doing well. I counted 36 robust flowering specimens yesterday evening, all - bar one - in a small compact area.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Beddington Turnstone

I doubt that Turnstones are annual at Beddington, I've certainly seen very few over the years, so when a juvenile turned up there yesterday I was more than keen to pay the farm a visit today - my journey was hurried up by a Curlew Sandpiper dropping in during this morning's rain.

To cut a long story short, when I arrived, the Turnstone (and a Dunlin) promptly flew off westwards and there was no sign of the Curlew Sandpiper - ho hum...

After a couple of big beefy showers, which sent me scurrying for shelter, subsequent checks away from the North Lake revealed 6 Green Sandpiper, 3 Common Sandpiper and, on the new 'restored grassland' flood, the Turnstone, that fed just feet away from me, totally unconcerned by my presence.

Also recorded were an eclipse male Red-crested Pochard (above), 2 Little Egrets, 6 Common Swift, a handful of Swallows, House and Sand Martins during the rain and plenty of warblers in with the tit flocks, mostly Blackcaps, Whitethroats and Chiffchaffs.

Friday, 9 August 2019

8 foot x 7 foot...

... and covered in prickles and white hairs. This magnificent Cotton Thistle is dwarfing all around it in a Banstead farm field. A Triffid if ever there was one.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Proper wild Starfruit

When I first started to take an interest in wild flowers, there was a mythical species that was nationally rare but known from nearby Headley Heath - it was called Starfruit. I knew it grew on the muddy margin of ponds, so whenever I visited the heath (as I did frequently for birding) I would seek out those ponds that I knew of on site and take a look. I never found it. And then it became common knowledge that the plant had seemingly died out at its favoured pond, due to scrub encroachment and the dumping of cut vegetation from a nearby house. I only found out a few years ago that I had never checked the actual pond where the plant grew. In fact, it was a pond slightly away from the heath itself.

Five years ago I went to Inholme Clay Pits, near Holmwood to pay my respects to the introduced Starfruit plants that were putting on a fine show. As much as I enjoyed finally seeing them, they were not wild. I still longed for a truly wild plant, and not only that, a truly wild SURREY plant.

Well, today that longing is finally over, as clearance of the original site at Headley has come up trumps, with up to eight plants being present this year. My visit this afternoon was more of a pilgrimage. This really is a nationally rare plant and even where the species can still be found it might not appear from year to year. Thankfully its seed can lie dormant and still be viable years after it last set seed. A true botanical gem.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Kernow round-up

A last dip into my recent stay in Cornwall, via the medium of photography...

Beautiful Demoiselle - the name says it all
Little Egret - the Ganel Estuary played host to several
Ravens were present in good numbers along the clifftops between Porth and Mawgan Porth
Corn Buntings were breeding in the fields at Whipsiderry
There is something of the 'art installation' about this group of Wild Carrot plants

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Patience required

A morning visit to Beddington was not quite up to expectations. Apart from fair numbers of Green (10) and Common Sandpipers (4, including the one above) it was all quiet on the wader front, with the listless groups of duck and gulls on the waterbodies not yielding much of note, despite a full and heavy grilling. Patience required...

Monday, 5 August 2019

Langmaid's Yellow Underwing

This species of moth (Noctua janthina) was first described as recently as 1991, having been separated from the exceedingly similar Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (Noctua janthe). The first British record came shortly afterwards, with more quickly following, mainly along the south and south-east coasts. It has slowly spread further, with a few Surrey records having been made, but up until this morning I had failed to detect it at Banstead.

Any early janthe (especially a dark one) is worth checking for janthina, so when I spied a candidate in the MV this morning I gave it a thorough examination. It ticked all the boxes - an isolated yellow blob on the upper hindwing (above) and the underside of the forewing exhibiting no pale finger-like projections into the dark base colour (below). I was grateful that Sean Clancy and Nigel Jarman were able to confirm my suspicions. So welcome to Banstead janthina!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The moths that came to stay

An update on the garden moth colonisers. All were nothing but 'wishful thinking' or a 'gardener's nightmare' just a few years ago.

Oak Processionary (above)
Banstead was a bit late to the party for this 'pest' with my first (quickly followed by two more) in July 2018. This summer it has increased in number, with a current peak of six on August 1st.

Small Ranunculus
This species used to be a resident in the south-east of England until the early part of the 20th century, when it suddenly disappeared. It was then rediscovered along the Thames Estuary in the 1990s, slowly spreading eastwards and reaching the garden on August 5 2004. It is almost annual here now, but no more than 2-3 are recorded in a single year.

Toadflax Brocade
I used to see this species at Dungeness when it was considered to be a coastal species of southern and south-east England. But it started to appear inland, particularly in London and the Home Counties. I discovered a larvae in the garden feeding on Purple Toadflax on August 16 2009, with the first adult being recorded on May 23 2010. Since then it has been annual, but in small (2-5) numbers.

Jersey Tiger
I travelled to Devon to see my first one in the early 1990s, and would have scarcely believed back then that it was destined to become a firm fixture of London and northern Surrey gardens. How it arrived here is open to conjecture, although it has also spread eastwards along the south coast. After singles on August 17 2012 and August 1 2013, it has became a regular visitor to the MV, peaking at 30 on August 7 2018.

Once considered an immigrant, this is another species that seems to have made the south-east its home. After the first on September 4 2013 I can expect to see several each year, with three together on June 20 2014 having yet to be bettered.

Cypress Carpet
From a first UK record in 1984, this moth has become established in southern counties of England. I had to play a waiting game to get the garden's first, as it was popping up all around me, but on June 25 2015 it finally put in an appearance, and has since been recorded annually in small numbers.

Gypsy Moth
My first, on an oppressively muggy night in August 2012, was the start of a slow colonisation of the surrounding area, with my first multiple arrival in 2017. Three is the highest count for a single night.

Box Moth
This dreaded stripper of box plants first surfaced in the MV during June 2017 and has since become an all to familiar species in the MV, peaking at 31 on August 7 2018.

Tree-lichen Beauty (bottom)
The moth colonised the south-east during the early 2000s and then started to move beyond. My first was on August 2 2011, with a handful the following year, then annually recorded in increasing numbers (with four on August 10 2013 and 10 on July 26 2014). Since then, in July and August, it is now of daily occurrence, with a peak count of 21 on August 1 2019. And no two are the same...

Friday, 2 August 2019


This non-native, invasive plant is one of those attractive undesirables. Found in its native range from Canada all the way down to Argentina, it crops up in lakes and ponds across the UK. This clump is to be found outside of one of the bird hides at Porth Reservoir in Cornwall. Regardless of its bad press, it cheered my day up.