Thursday, 27 February 2020

Freeze frame

We inland birders, especially those that toil on dry sites, get very excited about a bit of water. Not for us the wide expanse of an estuary, or the horizon-filling sea, and not even an ugly grey reservoir - no, we deal in small streams, village ponds and...

...sheets of rain water!

Believe it or not, I started to salivate when I saw how much water had collected on the aptly named Bog Field at Canons Farm. When this field gets extra wet, it has history, with at least two Green Sandpipers having been falsely lured in. My frantic scanning for diving duck, phalaropes and waders produced... a bathing Carrion Crow. Well, the excitement lasted all of 30 seconds.

A quiet afternoon followed, save for the wintering finch flock, that seem to be keeping to Tart's, Ballard's and Bog Fields. Chaffinch numbers are keeping at a steady 150-200, but the Linnet flock is slowly building. On arrival I counted 275, but a couple of hours later this had increased to 400. I took a brief video of the flock (not all of it) and on my return home counted birds from frozen frames. There are at least 500 present. Here's a flavour of the action (the BBC Natural History Film Unit will not have sleepless nights if they view this). If you view full-frame you will get a better idea of numbers, and just before the closer birds fly in front of the tree you can see another sizeable flock behind them (and higher up).

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Holly and the Firecrest

What with the wind reducing to a manageable force 3-4, and the rain promising to keep away, I thought it was time to go and check the high ground between Dorking and Abinger. I say high ground, but those of you used to more northern latitudes it’s not very high at all - we are talking 734 feet (or 224m in new money) at the most.

I spent the majority of my time zig-zagging up and down across Ranmore Common. It was quiet. This time two years ago I was knee-deep in Hawfinches on these footpaths, and only last February it was easy to locate singing (breeding?) Crossbills. Today I had to make do with c10 Marsh Tits, none of them yet in song which was surprising given the clement weather. The lack of finches this winter is most noticeable, with just a handful of Goldfinch, Chaffinch and even fewer Siskin. A Redpoll or Brambling would be treated like a star prize at the moment.

After a while I came across some decent stands of mature Holly, just like this:

On this part of the downs, Holly understory like this means one thing to me - Firecrests! It only took a minute before one, then two, came into view, foraging in the canopy before dropping down to feed just above the dead bracken. They never let me down here.

I did venture a little further on to check on a known Goshawk site, and my visit was successful, a single bird being briefly seen and heard calling on a number of occasions.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Loss and legacy

Most generations will claim their time and legacy as something of a golden era, particularly when looking back on their formative years. This is particularly true of any group of enthusiasts, whose collective memory will be bathed in sunshine and a shared nostalgia that brings back incidents and events with an almost overbearing clarity - there is happiness in the reconnection but a sadness that it has long gone and cannot be relived.

The twitching fraternity of the late 1970s to early 1980s have a genuine claim to be a’golden generation’. The possibilities of what rarity could make it to our shores were being re-written with every passing year; the number of birders that chased rarities was increasing; more rarities were being found and the prowess in bird identification kept increasing. But maybe more relevant was the demographic of the twitching crowd - it was largely made up of young birders, mostly men, in their mid-teens to early thirties.

Society was quite different back then. Car ownership was lower, mobile phones did not exist, expendable income was at a premium, rarity information was largely through word-of-mouth (a network of birders joined by hard won telephone numbers) and, for the hard-core, the way to travel from rarity to rarity was often by the law of thumb - hitch-hiking. This ‘band of brothers’ had no spare money to use on accommodation if the need arose, so dossing in bus shelters and out-buildings was the given choice. Given the ‘Kerouac-flavoured’ feel to the scene, the ‘drop everything at once’ response to the news of a rare bird and the camaraderie that such life choices created, it is no wonder that a sub-culture was formed and that legends were forged. Birders who went for everything, undertook tortuous cross-country hitches, underwent epic fails, got covered in farmer’s slurry or drank 12 pints in an evening in the George became known, forming a part of the birding myth. Many had nicknames, and these were whispered with a certain reverence by us ‘bit-part players’ when their owners turned up at a bird, or in the pub.

A couple of days ago, one of this crew, this birding tribe, left the arena. His name was Keith Lyon and he owned one of the most recognisable nick-names of all - Dipper. I met him regularly during my twitching time, but couldn’t claim to have known him. I have been reading his friends tweets in response to his passing, and it has been touching to do so. He was obviously a popular person, a bit of a character and a touchstone for their shared time. Photographs have been posted of young lads larking about, draw-pull telescopes being waved around, faded colour memories of long hair, army surplus, flared jeans and a lost innocence. Even to an onlooker such as myself you can feel the warmth and sadness. As this generation ages there will be other losses, and with it comes reflection - reflection on what they/we had and what they’ve/we’ve lost. There will be many of Dipper’s friends looking back on those days right now, reliving a bird, a journey, an incident. His memory lives on, wrapped up in birding. What a charming legacy to leave.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

What is rarity?

To round up this mini-thread on rarity, it might be prudent to ask this simple question - what is rarity? To most birders it is a declaration that the bird in question is of national rarity, and in the majority of the words use, that is exactly what is trying to be conveyed. But it isn’t always the case...

There are three records of Audouin’s Gull from Dungeness, but only two records of Nuthatch. Therefore Nuthatch is genuinely rarer there than Audouin’s Gull. It is also no less rarer than Dark-eyed Junco and Red-eyed Vireo on the shingle. They can all - Nuthatch included - be regarded as rare.

If I am birding in Surrey and see a Gannet sail overhead, I will have found something rarer than a Red-flanked Bluetail on the east coast. These inland seabirds, as numerous as they are on our shores, are so unusual in my home county that I stand a better chance of finding a eastern vagrant on our countries eastern seaboard.

The numbers don’t lie. Rarity is relative. Rarity also changes. My early birding days in north Surrey included regular and unremarkable encounters with Willow Tits. They have now gone. To see one today would be big news, and treated as a rare bird. The flip side to this would be me finding a Little Egret at Beddington in 1975 (I didn't!) That would have caused a big twitch. Today? A birder wouldn’t bother to cross the road to see it.

Those of us who watch inland sites can get our rarity kick in a different way to those who bird the coast. Rarity really is relative. And as much as we don’t bird for rarities sake, it is always the cherry on the cake when we do. We just need to be realistic in our definition of what constitutes ‘rare’.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

A minute closer

The last post saw me expose myself as a serial underachiever at finding rare birds. No big deal, and as I am fond of saying, finding rarities does not define us - or do I protest too much?

So, if I don’t find them, who does? You may assume that the answer to that question is obvious. It must be the good birders who do, those that are highly knowledgable about identification. No, it’s not as simple as that. I will not name names, but I know of a number of excellent birders who are obsessional field workers but do not find many rarities. I know others who I do not rate as highly, who bird less, but find more. Some people just have it. What ‘it’ is is the magic ingredient - an indefinable ability to know where, and when, to look.

When I was a regular at Dungeness it became apparent that most rarities were not found by us regulars, but the casual day trippers. We would be up at dawn and have been burning up the habitat for hours. They would turn up late, amble away from their car, and stroll straight into a rarity. It was often the case that these birds were also found in random places, not necessarily the traditional hot spots. Were we trying to hard? Were we doing things ‘by number’? Did we need to change the way we approached things?

You do, of course, increase your chances of finding rarity if you bird a good spot where few birders tread. Spurn might be a hot spot, but good luck with competing with the several hundred birders present over who will find the rarity. What you need is a Scottish Island or a lonely headland where distance or inaccessibility puts others off from attending and your chances of being the one who will come across the rarity increases.

There are times when just being good does makes the difference. These are the people who turn up and announce that the Subalpine is, in fact, a Spectacled; that the Richard’s Pipit is really a Blyth’s; know when to invest the time to investigate an ‘interesting’ call or a half-seen shape; can read the weather conditions to increase the chance of finding that rare seabird. They do walk amongst us!

When all is said and done, if you systematically work a coastal patch, visit it almost daily and have done your identification homework, you will increase your chances of finding rarity many times over.

But whether or not we have that magic dust within us, we all have our moments. If you are undergoing a dry spell, just remember that every minute that you spend in the field is a minute closer to finding your next rarity. It will happen. Be patient and keep looking. But remember this: rare birds are just that - rare. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how well prepared you are, they will not be there to find.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Not finding

Dreadful record shot of the last rare bird I found - Bonaparte's Gull at Dungeness almost FIVE years ago.
I'll admit it. I'm pretty crap at finding rare birds. In my first flush of birding youth I went through a bit of a golden period, then it all dried up, with the odd success of recent years not being able to disguise the fact that the number of rare birds that I have found is not a true reflection of the amount of time that I have spent out in the field. You could be charitable and point out that wandering dry inland downland is never going to give me a leg-up in the rarity finding stakes, and I'd thank you for it - but there has been plenty of time spent on the coast, but maybe not enough.

People have been banging on about their 'UK self-found lists' for an age, but I have not sat down and worked mine out. Until now. 287. That is, species identified by me without knowing that the species was present. Some of them have to go down as joint finds, but all of them had input from myself in their identification. If I went and lived on a Shetland croft for a couple of years I could most probably bump this up by 50 species, so the total is relative. It is still a poor total. By admitting to it I have most probably black-balled myself from several birding gangs.

My rarer finds do, however, include: Ring-necked Duck, Surf Scoter, White Stork, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black Kite (2), Red-footed Falcon, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Bonaparte's Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Bee-eater (several), Red-throated Pipit, Siberian Stonechat, Aquatic Warbler, Booted Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Two-barred Crossbill and Rustic Bunting. Had I been desperate I could have added things like Richard's and Tawny Pipits, Bluethroat, Marsh, Barred, Melodious, Icterine and Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatchers, Serins and Ortolans  - dammit, I am desperate, so let's add them as well! Looking back at that list, it isn't too shabby, but doesn't include a real stonker and is scant reward for 46 years worth of birding. That lot would be a couple of year's worth of finds for some of the big boys.

Finding a rarity is not the 'be all and end all' but it gives you a great big thrill when you do so. Part of me wants to get those thrills again, on a regular basis. But to give myself a fighting chance of doing so will mean some changes in where I go and how I bird.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Blindfold and ear-muffs

After a rainy and blustery morning I'd had enough of the indoors, so, donning wet-weather gear, ventured forth and walked from home to Park Downs and back - 12,000+ steps apparently. I got soaked, with one particular downpour that may have only lasted for just ten minutes, but felt as if it had deposited a month's worth of rain in that time. And we've got Storm Dennis to look forward to! I, for one, cannot wait until Spring...

If I had been hoping for a bit of birding relief then I would have been most disappointed, but I knew it would be poor, and it was. Barely a bird stirred. No flocks, little calling, I would have seen just as much had I been blindfolded and wearing ear-muffs. Still, I knew of a patch of Stinking Hellebores, and paid homage to the 120+ plants present on the chalk downland.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Pink Stink? No bloody way...

Gavin over at the excellent ‘Not Quite Scilly’ has just posted about the use of bird names. I would have ordinarily commented about this on his blog, but I have a reoccurring problem with Blogger in not being able to leave comments, so thought that I would reply with a post of my own. And expand a bit...

Gav has used, as his main example of alternative bird names, that of Thrush Nightingale and Sprosser, both out there as identifiers of Luscinia luscinia, He uses several more examples, primarily of abbreviation, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker becoming Lesser Spot. Although he finds most of these acceptable to use he quite rightly observes that to some birders they are anathema. He’s not wrong there! Where do I stand on this? I’m glad he (sort of) asked.

Spot Fly, LRP, Pom Skua - all these abbreviations are good for me. The ornithological equivalents of ‘don’t’, ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘thanks’, particularly when writing them down in a notebook. But when the bastardisation of bird names becomes more than that, it gets my goat. Want some examples?

Pink Stink. Grotfinch. Dick’s Pipit.

No, no and no again. Yes, I know it takes longer to write down, or say, Rose-coloured Starling, Common Rosefinch and Richard’s Pipit, but those shortened names confer a matey familiarity and knowing intimacy that just makes my skin crawl. I don’t know why, it just does. Is it that I detect a lack of respect in their use or the reducing of a bird’s name into a mundane sound bite? Maybe. I’m quite calm with the use of the quaint ‘Rosy Pastor’ for Rose-coloured Starling, but you can go and do one if you want to tell me about the ‘Pink Stink’ that you’ve just seen.

Doe’s it really matter? Of course not. But the evolution of our language, it’s nuances and the adoption of new names and descriptions are certainly worth discussing. And that has been going on for centuries!

Just thought of another. PG Tips, for Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler. I even know the birder who first came up with the (admittedly) clever nickname, based on the white tail tips. I’ve heard birders spout on about ‘PG Tips’ with the familiarity of an old friend, and most of them haven’t even seen one before.

I’m going out for a walk to calm down now.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Storm 'something or other'

Well, how was Storm Ciara for you?

The scores on the doors here at Banstead was of two wrecked fence panels, two loosened fence posts and water incursion along a side-alcove. It could have been worse - have you seen the footage of a side of an hotel collapsing into a river in Yorkshire? Or the many homes and businesses that have been flooded for the second, third, even fourth time in the past few years? Who's idea was it to build on flood plains?

Anyway, when weather events such as these come along, us birders think not of dislodged roof tiles and smashed fence panels but of storm driven rarities, mass seabird spectaculars and exhausted auks sheltering on inland duck ponds. And, of course, such avian hopes hardly ever materialise. Those that did seawatch yesterday report of nothing happening and us inland birders got excited if we saw a bird - any bird - out and about braving the winds. The time of year doesn't help either, had it been September or October then we could have all expected at least a Black-and-white Warbler in our back gardens. So, in lieu of nothing happening in the here and now, let me take you back to the 'storm-of-storms' when they weren't given a name and we didn't obsess about them...

15th October 1987. I was at home watching the late evening news on the television. I was aware of it being quite breezy outside. When the weather forecast came on, fronted by the institution that was Michael Fish, he explained that the rumour of a hurricane, set to arrive that very night, was wide of the mark. The weather chart that he stood in front of did, however, show some tightly packed isobars - it looked quite menacing to me. I went to bed about midnight, aware that the wind had got up and was getting stronger. My sleep was constantly broken by the howling maelstrom outside and by noises coming from our loft space. In the end I got up and opened the loft hatch to see bits of debris being blown about as some of the loft lining had been torn. Back to bed, there was work in the morning.

When I looked out of the window at first light it was as if there had been a bombing raid overnight. Almost every garden had fencing strewn across it, walls had collapsed, roof tiles were scattered up and down driveways. Our tree-lined road was now exhibiting a few gaps where mature cherry trees had fallen across pavements, roads and, in a few unfortunate cases, onto cars. There was no way of driving safely into work, and the trains weren't running, so I walked the five miles. It was surreal, with main roads that would normally be traffic choked being virtually empty. As I walked through Belmont, a row of five fully mature oak trees were lying across the road, one after the other, fallen giants still clothed in leaf.

I didn't give the birding much thought. I spent the day in the office and then walked home. It was only then that news started to filter out. I took a call from Gary Messenbird who excitedly told me about the day that he'd spent at Beddington SF. I listened in silence, partly out of incredulity and partly kicking myself for not having the foresight to bunk off work. He had recorded an unprecedented 15 Little Gulls and, more sensationally, an adult Sabine's Gull. Somebody had also seen a Bonxie flying over nearby Croydon. I had dutifully walked into work and spent the day looking at a number of empty desks, where my colleagues had failed to get in. Bollocks...

16th October 1987 has gone down in meteorological history for many reasons. The damage it wrought across the south-east of England, particularly the number of trees felled, was almost biblical. The number of Sabine's Gulls dumped across London was, and still is, unprecedented. I was there. I just didn't see any of it.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Winter Warbler Wonderland

The River Wandle is a short and narrow watercourse that flows through north Surrey/south London and ends up joining the Thames at Wandsworth. The river's natural history has happily been recorded over many years, with the water in largely in rude health, meaning that any visit is likely to produce observations of note. It is not a place that I often frequent, but news of a rather special gathering of warblers had me hot-footing it over there this morning.

Within the boundary of Poulter's Park, on the Mitcham border, the riverside footpath passes an area of light industry. This has resulted in an undisturbed bank-side, a micro-climate heated by the industrial units and a copious number of small insects readily available for any insectivorous bird that fancies a feast. It is in this area that a loose flock of warblers has assembled. Star of the show is a Yellow-browed Warbler (left), now having been present for several days, which played a game of hide-and-seek throughout my three hour visit. My bridge camera was never going capture its magnificence, and so it proved - 'record shot my arse' springs to mind. When the bird decided to show itself it would go on a circuit that took in various heights, from low brambles to the top of a bare oak tree, never playing ball with the small audience of birders, always keeping us on our toes. Far more obliging were the two Siberian (tristis) Chiffchaffs (bottom) that, at times, sat up motionless in view (albeit on the other side of the river). There is something not unlike a Spotted Flycatcher in their colouration. With them were a minimum of 10 collybita Chiffchaffs, always on view, flicking in and out, on hand to compare with their rarer brethren. There were a further five along the trail, with at least three birds breaking into song. To complete this warbler-fest were single Cetti's Warbler and Blackcap.

The river was also playing host to a Little Grebe, four Teal, three Gadwall and two Grey Wagtail. I wandered along as far as The Watermeads. I hadn't been here for over forty years. The clear water was, in places, covered with the alien Floating Pennywort (below). This is no doubt raked out on a regular basis.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Out for the count

I love counting birds. And plants. And moths. Not forgetting butterflies of course. Always have done, ever since my early birding days, a discipline that was eagerly embraced, primarily as a means to gather data, but, increasingly, as means to an end. It is soothing, therapeutic and calming. Numbers themselves are mantras to be uttered - either out loud or in the head - and is very much a way of being in the now. Ommm...

Pseuds Corner over, and now onto the meat of this post... how do you count, or more precisely, how do you accurately count? 15 Rooks clearly on view in a field holds no barrier to a precise count being made, but what of a flock of several hundred finches that are feeding in the stubble, or thousands of waders scattered across an estuary -all moving, many rotating in and out of view?

There is no doubt that experience does play a part in compiling meaningful, accurate counts in such circumstances. Practice banishes the traps that can be fallen into, such as ‘double-counting'. A knowledge of an area will alert you to ‘hidden’ channels, dips in fields and favoured bolt-holes that will reward diligent observation and reveal their out-of-sight birds. Also, the understanding of the need to shift your viewpoint, in order to facilitate an accurate outcome, is crucial. And a count can go on all day, it doesn’t, and possibly shouldn't, be attempted immediately.

If a flock of pipits are flushed as you walk across a field you will subconsciously estimate how many there are. At this point the estimation will be just that, maybe ‘20-25’. If they obligingly fly around in an arc before landing, you might be given the chance to count them individually.’20-25’ then becomes a precise ‘24’. Over time, your flock estimates will be honed to a point where ‘250’ or ‘175’ will be close enough to be considered valid counts. Most people round-up (or down) in units of 5 or 10. After all, an estimate of 234 seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? There’s invalid precision involved there! My estimates are happily always on the low side. Subsequent accurate counts, when allowable, have always shown that I underestimate. I think most birders do. This was born out time and again when I was chasing the Hawfinch flocks a couple of winters ago, when sensible and accurate assessments were paramount with such historical numbers.

I posted about counting gulls at Beddington SF a while back, and how we reached our final numbers:

“On arrival it was obvious that the landfill site was operational, as thousands of gulls were present. After settling down, having had an hour or more scanning and also having walked across to the enclosed lagoons, the time came to estimate those numbers present. My gut reaction was to plump for a total larid mass of, lets say, seven or eight thousand individuals, based on nothing more than educated guesswork. However, when I tried to add a little bit of common sense to the process, it only helped to prove that my initial estimate was woefully short. I was quite happy to claim a fairly positive count of 375 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. So I used this as a starting point - a number not estimated but actually counted out, one gull at a time. I reckoned that there were at least double the number of Common Gulls present, so I arrived at a total of 750 for them. Pete, Johnny and Frank now joined in. For every Common Gull we had seen there were at least 15, maybe even 20 Black-headed present. Taking the lower figure of 15 and multiplying this by the number of Common Gulls we reached a total of 11,250 Black-headed. Herring Gulls were plentiful, but not as numerous as Black-heads, so we settled on a total of 4,500. Other gull species present were: Great Black-backed (15), Yellow-legged (2), Mediterranean (1) plus a rather fine first-winter Iceland. So, the gull grand total was in fact 16,894, rather more than my initial hunch”.

The incident above was replicated somewhat at Pulborough Brooks a couple of days ago. My first scan across the South Brooks from Hail’s View showed hundreds of ducks on view, and these birds were easily counted, sitting out in clear view on the water, no mere estimates were needed. But it was a different matter when looking out over the North Brooks, as thousands of duck were on show, near and far, scattered over islands, open water, dykes and frequently in flight. I had time on my hands, so spent a while just getting to grips with any flocks that were leaving the area - these were identified and counted. I then divided up the panorama before me into manageable sections, using dyke lines and islands as marker points, and counting within them. Working from left to right I had to keep half an eye on any birds, having been counted, that then moved into my uncounted area (so that they wouldn’t be double-counted), but also aware of any uncounted birds that were flying off and away -  these were then tackled before returning to the core count. It was the ornithological equivalent of keeping plates spinning in the air.

Only after an hour of this could I hope to have some idea of the numbers present. Being stood at one spot for so long meant that some hidden rafts of duck were not missed as they eventually swam into view, and using the gull example above, was able to assess my counts against a ‘known’ quantity - in this case, Pintail. This species was more easily countable, being not nearly as mobile as the Teal and Wigeon flocks, and because they are largish, elegant birds, they stood out. The count of 580 Pintail therefore was used as a marker. I could assess that for every Pintail there were at least four Wigeon. Simple maths took that up to 2,320, which tallied up remarkably well with my Wigeon estimate. And with that figure in mind, and my observation that there were 25% more Teal then Wigeon, my Teal estimate of 3,000 wasn’t that wide of the mark. This may not be scientific, but it certainly gives an honest and useable count. I was also happy in the knowledge that there would be many duck that I would have missed, hidden behind island, deep in channels and way in the distance. - now and again I would get tantalising glimpses of them, but little more. So my final counts were, without doubt, bare minimums of what were actually present.

Large flocks in flight can be awkward to count. If they are in the air for sometime, then you will get several attempts, but if all else fails count 50, or 100, then assess what percentage of the flock you have counted. Then multiply. When stress-testing this method it has always held true.

There may be no way of ever hitting a true, 100% accurate count of a large flock. 10,000 Starlings at a roost might genuinely be 9,979 or 10,032. It could be quite a bit lower or higher. But to record a number within meaningful parameters is way better than just recording the gathering as being 'many' or 'high'. What on earth do those phrases convey?

Monday, 3 February 2020

Quackers in Sussex

The RSPB's Pulborough Brooks reserve is just over an hour's drive from me in Banstead, it is always packed with birds and also delivers highly during the summer months with plants and inverts - so why do I visit so infrequently? There is also the small matter of a rather good cafe which always has a fine selection of cakes... so this morning I left the comfort blanket of Surrey and set foot in that most welcoming of counties, Sussex.

I was too keen really, arriving at 06.20hrs. Still dark. But as I waited for the light to do its stuff and banish the darkness I was serenaded by a Robin and a couple of Tawny Owls. 07.00hrs found me at Hail's View, overlooking the southern brooks where a good number of duck and Lapwing were putting on a dawn aerial manoeuvre. Do they do this to get their muscles into fine working order after a night of inactivity? Anyhow, a scan of the distant Canada Geese revealed the couple of wintering White-fronts - first 'target' achieved.

The second of my targets performed soon afterwards, when a Woodlark flew up from the arable field close to the Visitor Centre and circled above me, calling. Another decided to give a couple of brief snatches of song five minutes later. And that, from the Woodlarks, was that, even though I stood by this field for at least a further three hours during my stay.

The hides at West Mead, Winpenny and Nettley were only briefly visited - I much prefer to bird from the magnificent viewpoints at Hanger and Jupp's. Looking out over the floods, particularly at the North Brooks, revealed many duck. But they were not all neatly gathered together to make counting easy, oh no, they were scattered across the panorama like duck confetti, thousands of them! There was nothing for it, eye to scope and away we go - one, two, three...

To cut a long story short, here are the highlights: Little Egret (4), White-fronted Goose (2), Egyptian Goose (3), Shelduck (8), Teal (3,000), Wigeon (2,300, pictured above), Pintail (580, female pictured below), Shoveler (300), Lapwing (1,400), Black-tailed Godwit (700), Dunlin (1), Snipe (pictured bottom), Ruff (6), Red Kite (1), Merlin (1), Barn Owl (1), Woodlark (2), Stonechat (4), Raven (1). As for the duck numbers, these were a bare minimum - there were so many that were partially hidden from view, behind islands, deep in channels - I couldn't keep up. Flocks would fly in and melt away before I had a chance. Others briefly showed themselves, suggesting another raft to count, before tactically withdrawing. Mind tied in knots, fingers and thumbs all used up, I had to admit partial defeat.

Sunday, 2 February 2020


Walking is an integral part of my time spent searching for that next natural history high. To sit in hides is not my thing really - granted, they do have their uses and can provide close views of birds that would have flown away had I not had the wooden walls to screen me from view. Yet the sky is hidden and the sun does not warm you, nor the wind ruffle or the drizzle caress. No, to immerse oneself in the here and now you need to be out there, mobile and bathed in the elements.

Walking is also a great balm on the mind. As much as you might be searching the path ahead of you, or the sky above for birds, the process of putting one foot in front of the other allows a certain rhythm to also enter the thought process. Troubles can be thought through, ideas hatched, a running commentary produced. At times the mind may empty in contemplation of a stunning view or a modest encounter with a flower. We let go when we walk.

I was fortunate in my working life to live within four miles of my place of work. Most days I walked there, and back. I had several routes that varied in time between 50 minutes and an hour-and-a-half. The longer journey took me on a meandering route across Banstead Downs. Apart from the physical exercise it was a good way to prepare for the day ahead or a way of resetting after hours at a computer. I also saw a few things as a by-product, best of all being Osprey, Firecrest and Crossbill. A late-November Swift was the most surprising, and try as I might to call it a Pallid it was still only a Common.

I continue to walk for walking’s sake. I’ll leave home and wander the streets, maybe take in a few footpaths, as likely to observe the architecture, a garden or a fellow walker as much as the wildlife. And I don’t take the ability to be able to walk - long and hard - for granted. I know too many people who are unable to do so. If you can, stride forth. It is physically and mentally stimulating, even if you are not carrying your bins and scope.