Sunday, 29 September 2019

Getting spanked

The 2019 Surrey v Northumberland patch competition has taken a distinct northern upturn over the past couple of months, with Stewart Sexton having had a tremendous September, adding 12 species to his total, bringing his 'percentage total of personal patch list' up to 75.24% - most impressive. On the other hand, down here in Uber-patch Surrey, my two September additions - Honey Buzzard and Pintail, have limped my comparable score up to 62.44%. The words 'arsed' and 'spanked' spring to mind. I'm not throwing in the towel just yet. Three months to go, and I hope that my luck will change. Rather than chase everything on offer (there have been chances to add to my score) I have taken the route of 'self-finding' as a more enjoyable way of reaching the destination. I hope that the final three months will see some additions, even if they do not bring about an overhauling of Stewart's score.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Two pulses

A mad half-hour in the skies above the back garden here in Surrey. At 11.45hrs I happened to glance out of a window and saw a handful of hirundines in view. I grabbed the binoculars and walked out to the stirring sight of an enormous flock of House Martins, slowly making their way south-eastwards. They were widely scattered and numbered at least 700 birds. The morning had been very wet, with pulses of heavy rain driven by a blustery south-westerly wind, and this flock was passing through on such a pulse. I kept my eyes to the skies and was rewarded half-an-hour later by another 250 House Martins, heading on a more south-westerly bearing - this was also during another burst of heavy rain. Over the following three hours, and with a gradual improvement in the weather, the hirundine stream didn’t stop, but certainly was not as spectacular. A total of 1175 was the final total.

There does seem to be a clear line of movement across my immediate local area. Between our house and Nork Park, maybe half a mile away to the south, is an east-west dip. This dip acted as a flight line with many of the hirundines today, and certainly has done in the past with autumn thrushes and finches. It is a flight-line that I successfully watched last October/November and intend to do so again  in the coming weeks.

My only regret is that I wasn’t looking out of the window earlier, although I was outside between 08.00 - 08.30hrs and nothing appeared to be moving then.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Stonechat time

We are in the full swing of Stonechat passage that is enjoyed during each 'mid-autumn' period. This year seems to be a good one for this most charismatic of chats, with multiple counts and obvious turnover at several sites. Over the past few days I have observed:

Canons Farm: one (a female) on 15th; three (all males) on 16th; three (two males, one female) on 17th; six (two males and four females) on 19th.
Mogador: six (two males and four females) on 17th
Priest Hill: five (all females) on 18th; six (two males, four females) on 19th.
Epsom Downs: seven (two males, five females) on 20th.

As can be seen, by keeping a note on the sexual composition of the flocks, there is some turnover going on, that sometimes the numbers can only hint at. Just because five birds become six birds the following day does not necessarily mean that just a single new bird has arrived - they could all be different!

Although the species does breed in the county (mostly on the western heaths) many vacate their breeding areas, with some British birds wintering as far away as North Africa and Iberia. There are Surrey ringed birds that have been recovered in Algeria, Morocco and Spain.

Any open ground can hold them. Go and have a look...

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

What is Mogador?

A local day's birding that didn't promise much but ended up being one of great interest. Throughout the day, cloudless blue skies meant that if anything was moving through the area it was high - I picked up a number of passerines too far up to specifically identify, all heading south, and I suspect that they were mostly pipits. This was slightly born out by the number of Meadow Pipits found in the fields at Canons Farm (40) and Mogador (70). The other 'species of the day' were Stonechats, with three at Canons Farm (different from yesterday) and six at Mogador (two males). The latter site also held a male Common Redstart, with Colley Hill also chipping in with a female type plus a Whinchat.

Mogador is not a site that crops up regularly on the birding map. It occupies high ground just inland from the scarp slope of the North Downs (at Colley Hill.) It is open farmland (arable and cattle) with thin ribbons of low vegetation with small groups of bushes for good measure. I like it - always good for passage chats, pipits and thrushes, plus it can hold good winter flocks of passerines in the fields. It has potential. The pictures hopefully give you a flavour of what it is like. Big skies!

Friday, 13 September 2019

"I've got binoculars, on top of Box Hill"*

* hat doffed to one J. Lydon Esq, Flowers of Romance, PiL

And that is exactly how I found myself at 06.20hrs this morning, ready for a morning of scintillating visible migration watching. By 08.20hrs I came to the belated conclusion that the birds had not read the script.

A force two westerly wind, with 7/8 cloud cover, was never going to be the recipe for a memorable movement, and this was not helped by a 0/8 sky just to the north. Four House Martins heading south and two Swallows west was it as far as 'true' movement went, a pitiful return. And here are the views that were on offer from my vantage point, a third of the way down from the peak, just west of the viewpoint.

Looking east, along the line of the North Downs. Gatwick Airport is out on that flat bit somewhere.
Looking due south across Dorking (cue guffaws from our American friends). The River Mole is just before the closest housing. The Greensand ridge is in the distance - and here be dragons the Leith Hill Tower.
Looking left, across the Mole Gap and towards the continuation of the North Downs at Denbigh's.
I made a run for it to Canons Farm, where there was some semblance of migration, the highlights being a Swift, 50 Swallow, a Yellow Wagtail, three Whinchat, three Wheatear, 10 Chiffchaff and a Reed Bunting.

Ed Stubbs, of Thornecombe Street fame, has just made a valiant stab at trying to explain the why's, wherefore's, maybe's and speculation surrounding why and how birds move through Surrey. Well worth a read here.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019


This morning, while waiting for a big hirundine/pipit day, and daydreaming about big thrush days to come, I spent some time on the shores of the northern lake at Beddington SF, watching a group of four Whinchat, a Stonechat and a female Common Redstart. Another Whinchat was found on the Beddington park border. Not a lot was passing overhead although five Sand Martin and two Common Swift were noteworthy.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Looking down, looking up

Denbigh's Hillside on a warm and sunny morning is a delightful place to be. It has the lot - scenery, plants, butterflies and birds. The main purpose of my visit was to monitor the butterflies that were still on the wing. We are coming to the end of many of their flight times, and, for some species, today may well have been my last chance to observe them in 2019. Numbers were quite low considering how good the weather conditions were, with the commonest 'blue' being Adonis (although they still didn't reach double figures and were by and large tatty) but in contrast the only two Silver-spotted Skippers seen were still very fresh.

It was a good morning for raptors. At least 15 Common Buzzards were in the area, and among them, for a good 10-15 minutes, was a female Goshawk, loafing around before coming in directly over my head and off towards Ranmore Common. This was 'top-trumped' by a Honey-buzzard that appeared with a Common, but then peeled away and purposefully headed westwards (at 12.45hrs). A Common Redstart (below) and a couple of Ravens were also seen.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

More riparian wandering

The Mole Gap is situated in the Box Hill - Mickleham - Leatherhead area, where the North Downs were worn down by a once mighty river, which today is a mere trickle in comparison. My morning was spent meandering along the river banks, across the footpaths and through the copses between Westhumble and Mickleham. This area does have its days of birding numbers, but today was not one of them. 20+ Chiffchaff, a Willow Warbler, four Blackcap, a Common Snipe and a handful of hirundines was about it migrant wise, although the 'residents' livened proceedings up with a Little Egret, two Kingfishers and four Grey Wagtails.

The accolade of 'morning's highlight' went to Apple-of-Peru (below, top two pictures), a species that I rarely come across, with two specimens being found along a fields edge, together with a few Amaranth plants (bottom) that I am confidently identifying as Green. Or Common. Or neither...

Despite the blanket of cloud, it was still warm enough to entice a few butterflies and dragonflies on the wing, including this Banded Demoiselle.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Digital detox

Just binned Facebook.

Cut back on Twitter.

Put phone and iPad to one side (or left them switched off) for longer spells than usual.

I'm afraid I'm one of those weak-willed compulsive sorts. It's all or nothing for me, so when there is fresh information coming up on the feeds then I will look. And look again. Keep checking. It's an illness. The recent Brown Booby overkill has finally made my mind up. If people want to go then it's up to them, if they want to tweet out their success then again, it's their call. But after hundreds - literally - of tweets and retweets it gets repetitive and stale. My own fault, I don't need to look. Same with Brexit. Same with Driven Grouse Shooting. It isn't that I don't care or have an opinion (I do) but I now know how a goose feels being force fed foie gras. What should be a tasty mouthful, full of interest and learning, becomes vomitus. It also steals time, time that could be put to better, more productive tasks.

However, you will be pleased (or dismayed) to learn that my adherence to this blog will stay the same. After all, this stuff isn't forced onto anybody's timeline or pops up unannounced on your screens. You elect to visit. And for that I remain truly grateful.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Penn Field catchfly

Another trip to Langley Vale, this time to have a good nose around Penn Field, where back in August I was able to see Peter Wakeham's Field Woundwort. I spent a couple of hours criss-crossing the site and was delighted to find a minimum of 56 Night-flowering Catchfly plants, the most that I've seen together - there was a loose group of 32 along a 20m strip, the rest scattered across the field in ones, twos and threes.

Most of the plants were in good condition, many in flower and, once my eye was in, easy to pick out even from distance. They really are a different beast to White Campion (of which there was quite a bit).

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Underwings and darvic rings

The month of September is only four days old, but the weather has turned characteristically autumnal - breezy and showery with a touch of mugginess. Few butterflies were on the wing, although those hardy Vanessids still manage to take strong and meaningful flight. This Painted Lady landed for long enough to show off its delicate and intricate underwing pattern. On of the best in my opinion.

Details of the colour ringed Mediterranean Gull that I saw yesterday on the River Arun at Ford has come back speedily from Hungary. They are:

Ringed as a nestling on 17 June 2016 at Bugyi, Pest, Hungary.
Subsequently seen as follows:
9 July 2016 Rudmannser Tech, Austria
22 April 2018 Antwerp, Belgium
13 January 2019 Vila Nova de Milfontes, Portugal
18 January 2019, Icklesham, GB
27 March - 17 April 2019 Hayling Island, GB

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Messing about by the river

This morning I embarked on a six hour walk along the western bank of the River Arun, starting at the Black Rabbit Pub, Arundel, stopping at the A259 road-bridge, then retracing my steps. Apart from a brief stretch through Arundel, this is a walk in the open, with the billiard-table flat flood-plain open to the big skies and intensively farmed, although there are many reed-fringed dykes, small copses, hedgerows and rank grassy fields dispersed across the agriculture. Whereas the river banks are reed-fringed north of Arundel, the river to the south looks altogether more estuarine, with open muddy slopes contrasting with concrete banking.

My birding highlight was a flock of 40 Yellow Wagtails (two of which above), that were found in a field south of the railway bridge. Another five were recorded back towards Arundel. Migrant passerines were thin on the ground, with a handful of commoner warblers being joined by a single Common Redstart and small numbers of Swallow and House Martins milling around.

A section of the river bank, some mile inland, held a roost of c500 gulls, of which 28 were Mediterranean (above), including a Hungarian ringed bird (red on right leg, H2Y9). Nearby a loafing group of eight Little Egrets were part of a total count of 14.

Other highlights included a Curlew, 7 Common Sandpiper, a female Peregrine, 3 Common Buzzard, 3 Kingfisher, 100 Goldfinch and 2 Reed Bunting. It was my first time 'south' of Arundel. The area looks as though it would be good in the winter, with the possibility of large passerine flocks, waders when it floods, with attendant owls and raptors. Well worth another look.

I'll leave you with this grand Arundel house entrance, with wildlife-themed front door. Bet it puts a few thousand on the properties value...

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Sussex downland

I do like my chalk downland, and today, for a change, swapped my North Downs for the South Downs and spent a long day wandering across some of West Sussex's finest. I parked at the base of Chanctonbury Ring at 06.30hrs and spent a largely unfruitful hour-and-a-half in the area - maybe it was still too early, but a Whinchat and a handful of commoner warblers was not all that inspiring. I decided to return later in the day. My plan had always been to walk across to Cissbury Ring (above) via the network of bridlepaths, and no sooner had I started to do so than the birds started to appear, with Willow Warbler (3), Garden Warbler and Common Redstart (below) added to the day list.

As well as being intensively farmed, the land between the two hilltops is also used to raise Pheasants, the tell-tale grain bins a common feature. This has resulted in there being plenty of game cover strips, lovely weedy areas that our wild birds also find to their liking. One particular area, that bordered stubble and Kale, held 200 Linnet, 150 Goldfinch and 14 Corn Bunting.

On arrival at Cissbury it was soon obvious that there were plenty of migrants on show, including two 'bird waves' comprising c30+ warblers apiece, with attendant flycatchers and Redstarts. My totals were: 2 Tree Pipit, 2 Whinchat, 3 Wheatear, 16 Common Redstart, 15 Spotted Flycatcher, 9 Lesser Whitethroat, 9 Common Whitethroat, 55 Blackcap, 50 Chiffchaff, 7 Willow Warbler and 4 Yellowhammer. In bright, warm sunshine, the four hours spent here was a delight.

Back across the bridlepath to Chanctonbury I found that the birds had woken up, not in the same number as Cissbury, but including two Wheatear, a Pied Flycatcher, a Tree Pipit and a further four Spotted Flycatcher (below). Most of these were haunting an area of felled (and dead) trees at the top of the hill. Today's combined total of the latter species most probably more birds that I have seen over the past five years.

One sad note was the state of the ash trees at Chanctonbury - Ash Dieback really is taking a hold (below).