Showing posts from 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

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,

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 the

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. M

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

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 al

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.

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 nam

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 hav

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

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 ‘do

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.


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 p