Friday, 31 July 2020

From the downs


When this pyralid moth turned up in the MV yesterday morning I couldn't place it, so it was potted up, photographs taken and then analysed in the early evening. It seemed to me that I was looking at a Delplannqueia dilutella, but on trawling the internet the water got murkier, as I then found out that this moth had been found to comprise two species - along with D. inscriptella. Disection is required to separate them. The next course of action was to send an image to Bill Dykes, who has become my go-to moth man - serves him right for being so proficient and helpful! His reply was to suggest that the moth was, in fact, Moitrelia obductella, a rare inhabitant of chalk downland in Kent and Surrey. He hadn't experience of this species himself and suggested getting a second opinion, which came from both Nigel Jarman and Sean Clancy - both in agreement that it was obductella indeed! My thanks to all three of these expert lepidopterists, who make the life of those of us less-proficient moth-botherers all the easier...

Can you remember when I used to blog about birds?

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Millionaire

During this morning a single page view took the North Downs and Beyond 'page view' stat counter over the million mark. It's taken ten years, and 2006 posts to get here. I have no doubt that many of these page views have come courtesy of various bots, directing false traffic towards the site. However, for those that are genuine, thank you very much for taking the time to visit, and a few of you for going the extra mile and leaving a comment.

ND&B did exist for an 18-month spell between 2008-2010, but in a fit of pique I deleted it. My loyalty to the current version has been tested on a few occasions, but my resolve is to leave this blog alive even if I do decide to stop producing it.

This year has seen a big increase in visits, particularly after lockdown when the ND&B version of the #BWKM0 garden challenge was being 'curated'. During this spell between 1200 -1500 hits a day was the norm, and since then this has rarely dropped below the 1000 mark. Visitor numbers are just that - a statistic that really don't say that much - but they are visits that are pleasing to receive. I have forged many virtual friendships through this blog, and have even met up with a few in 'real life'. There have been chance meetings in the field, the introduction being along the lines of 'I read your blog'. It is humbling and heartening when that happens.

Another million? If that is to be achieved, it may be some time in the late 2020s. Will I still be blogging? Will I still even be here? That is up the the Gods of fate.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Enough

Now, what's this tree? An oak. Yes, but which oak? Sessile? Pendunculate? Red?? No, that's Sessile. Covered in leaf mines. Moth or fly? Better take a leaf to check back at home, see if the mine is tenanted. Oh, and there's a gall - I'll take a picture of that. And the leaves have rusts and smuts on them... they'll need identifying. And so will that fungus growing at the base of the trunk. And those flies on the nearby vegetation. And those spiders. What about the wasps. And....

And then my head explodes. I return home with a camera card full of images and the likelihood of several hours at the computer, trying to identify everything before me.

No, it's no use, I'll own up.

It isn't fun.

I can handle a day or two of this, full on, but after that it all becomes relentless. It becomes a game of numbers. Joyless. A chore. Homework.

Enough.

So. The Circle.

Just birds, plants, Lepidoptera and Odonata.

Honorable mention to anything else that gets my attention.

How these top Pan-listers keep sane and keep relationships going is beyond me...

Skev, 41st place is all yours mate.

Fly thing. Or is it a wasp? A bee? Someone out there WILL know...

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

A July Hen

Canons Farm is currently playing host to a ring-tail Hen Harrier, the fifth site record following hot on the heels of birds in 2010, 2011 and two in 2013. Needless to say, a July record is exceedingly rare in Surrey. My 'harrier ageing library' is not up to date, hence my inability to confidently call this a 'juvenile male', although there are several eminent birders who confidently are. The bird turned up on Friday and, apart from Saturday, has been seen on each subsequent evening, although today it has been on site, on-and-off, all day, but has gone 'missing' for hours at a time.

I spent the afternoon on the farm (sans harrier) but was more than happy with up to 200 Common Swifts, 45 Swallows and a House Martin drifting in the airspace, which they shared for a time with a Hobby. I went back this evening and was delighted to see the Hen Harrier on a number of occasions, quartering the fields widely across the farm. At least 20+ birders had also decided to descend on Canons, the most I've seen on site since the famous Dotterel trip of 2012.

Day One of the 'Circle' and already a rather unexpected bird is gracing the highlights package!

Monday, 27 July 2020

The circle


The central blue dot is home, and the white outer circle shows 5km distance. Within it lies a number of my regular haunts. The question is, how many species can I record here in a year, purely on foot - starting from tomorrow?

Another half-thought-out crackpot project, but something that I can do in-between other things. Why do it? Well, firstly, for my own entertainment. But also as an illustration as to what can be found close to home - any home. Granted, it isn't in the middle of a city, but one look at that map reveals an awful lot of building. What lurks between?

Most effort will be placed on birds, butterflies, moths and plants, although I will keep an eye out for other life-forms, if they grab my attention. I don't have a target in mind although I'd be disappointed if 1,000 species isn't reached. 1,500?

I doubt it, but let's find out.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Bears on Banstead Downs

Banstead Downs can be reached by foot within 10 minutes from home, yet it is a place that I strangely neglect. Ornithologically it doesn't have a lot going for it, although had I been there on May 21st 1956 I would have seen a Lesser Grey Shrike. However, botanically it has its highlights, and can boast a long and notable list of invertebrates. My three hours spent meandering across the area yesterday morning was most rewarding.

I pointed the camera at whatever took my fancy and then attempted to identify the subject matter on returning home. The big drawback to this method is that an awful lot will remain unidentified - this doesn't bother me too much, as it can be highly educational whittling a species down to just its family level.

Surprises abounded. A largish colony (1,000+ plants) of Betony. A clump of Bear's Breech a good mile or two away from the closest garden. Another Graphosoma italicum on the same stand of Hogweed as earlier in the week. The amount of Hemp Agrimony coming into flower is delightful and will surely be worth checking over the coming weeks. Here's just a taster.

Bear's Breech
Large stands of Hemp Agrimony are coming into flower... 
...as is Wild Parsnip
No hiding place for this Graphosoma italicum on Hogweed

Friday, 24 July 2020

Pulse

Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown has focused everyone’s minds on the very essence of what it is to be a functioning social being in the 21st century. Having to ‘think‘ before we ‘did’ added a novel layer of thought to our daily routine. For many who did not possess a connection to the natural world, this enforced ‘reckoning’ was a wake-up call. Almost overnight the ranks of gardeners, birdwatchers, astronomers and aesthetes were swollen. Never before had the blossoming of trees, the song of birds and the muffling of man-made noise been so keenly observed and appreciated. Those of us who already knew of such things started to settle down into a deeper contentment and realise that we hadn’t really known the world around us as well as we thought we had.

The birders amongst us largely withdrew into a much smaller ornithological domain - a garden, balcony or window became our realm, a place to watch from. Social media allowed us to share our observations, to voice our feelings in what we were doing and to try and make sense of this new world order. Those of us who remained in one place, and one place only, slowly became aware that in all of this awfulness there were crumbs of comfort - the ‘pulse’ of the natural world was one of them.

Pulse. A rhythmic throbbing of nature that, with mundane thoughts having been stripped away, we all were able to see and hear with a new-found clarity. The brick wall of normality had been toppled to reveal these natural pulses that had been hiding in clear sight. For me it was a revelation. Having lived in our house for over 30 years I believed that I had a very good grasp on what happened here bird-wise. I clearly didn’t.

PULSE ONE. The Chaffinches. Late March saw a daily passage for the first hour or two after dawn. On good days these numbers reached several hundred heading eastwards, in flocks of up to 60. That they moved over the garden in early spring wasn’t a surprise, but the numbers and length of the movement was.

PULSE TWO. Blackcaps. We do have a number that winter in the neighbouring gardens, but these had moved on by the start of lockdown. In the last week of March the first spring migrant arrived, a male that sang as it made its way through the neighbourhood. Over the next month a series of birds passed - no, pulsed - through, forming tiny, discrete and short-lived territories. Each could be identified clearly. Just the one remained after the pulse had stopped. These fleeting males could be timed as to their length of stay, the area of their short-term let, and the number of their brethren. It was passage migration played out for the human ear to listen to and understand.

PULSE THREE. Night migrants. In late March, across the country, people sat in their gardens as night fell, spellbound. A combination of a lack of aircraft noise, a reduction in car use and calm weather revealed a host of waterfowl and waders calling as they passed overhead. Here in Banstead I heard Common Scoter (twice), Brent Goose (twice), Teal, Gadwall, Moorhen (multiple), Coot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover. Others rejoiced with Water Rails, Wigeon, Dunlin, Oystercatchers, Redshanks.... and more besides. This happens every spring, but is usually difficult to hear and had not been on our radar. But, in 2020, listen we did, in our hundreds. The scales fell from our eyes and ears as this particular pulse played out.

Being in one spot, over several weeks, revealed another dimension to our birding. The unlikely and the unusual were, in fact, more likely and more usual than we gave them credit for. Hidden pulses of migrants were hiding in plain site - they were not really hidden at all. We were all sent a message, and that was that we don’t need to travel to get our ornithological highs. We live with them, if only we are prepared to invest our time and patience. But can this take the place of a contrived trip to see a vulture on northern moorland or a long car-journey to a Cornish headland in the hope of sea-birds?

Not everybody will buy into it, but slowly the tide is turning. Staying local is a real option. It can be hard work and it will, at times, be limiting. Maybe it is easier for those of us who have ‘played the game’ already and had our fill of long-distance travel and twitching. It is a difficult choice to turn away from birding hot-spots to plough some lonely furrow on dry farmland or downland. But when you hit it right the rewards are all the richer, all the more meaningful. I can look back on huge flocks of Hawfinches and Bramblings, large diurnal movements of hirundines and thrushes, plus the unexpected rarity to keep hope burning, such as Cattle Egret and Bee-eater. These can be anybody else’s as well. Had I not been doing what I was doing we would have no knowledge of them. That doesn’t make me anything special, it just goes to illustrate what is out there waiting to be discovered. Patience will bring the pulse. You just need to sit back, recognise when it is happening and observe it.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Grass seeds and arable gold


It was an absolute pleasure to welcome Paul and Bridget James to the arable plant fields of Langley Vale today. We walked far and wide across the area and managed to find most of the notable species that we had targeted, including Night-flowering Catchfly, Blue Pimpernel, Field Gromwell, Field Woundwort and Red Hemp-nettle. The dry spring and early summer has certainly taken its toll on many species, with some crisped and stunted, while others that we expected to be in full flower were already clearly over. However, a most enjoyable day was had and it now remains for us three intrepid botanists to start picking all of the grass seeds out of our socks and footwear...

Field Woundwort
Red Hemp-nettle
Round-headed Rampion
Scarlet Pimpernel (blue flowered)

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Milky-blue


Chalkhill Blues are, to me, redolent of sunny warm skies. We are lucky here on the Surrey chalk downs that in a good year the slopes can shimmer with milky-blue as thousands dance above the sward - but not this year. They seem to be in depressed numbers. The downland flora has been rather compromised this summer, with the dry and warm March, April and May ensuring that little flowered and left behind stunted and dried up blooms. The Chalkhill Blue food plant, Horseshoe Vetch, can carpet large areas of the slope at Denbies Hillside, but on my visits this summer it has been in short supply. This is where today's photograph was taken.

Talking of the weather, The Hairy Birder blog mentioned his dissatisfaction with the online weather forecasts, and how they vary. I have noticed this as well. I check three sources - Met Office (often wrong), BBC (correct more often than not) and XC Weather (not bad but always over-estimating wind strength). How three sources, using similar, expensive equipment, can be so different is beyond me. Perhaps the BBC hang more sea-weed out of the office windows...

Monday, 20 July 2020

More stripey shieldbug action


Banstead Downs is within a 10-15 minute stroll from home. My mission this morning was to try and track down the colourful shield-bug Graphosoma italicum, a species that is starting to appear in southern Britain. I had tried to find it earlier in the summer, when an individual was found close to the downs. Although I failed then, reward came courtesy of several Lixus iridis, a scarce weevil.

I was some way short of the italicum site when I checked a stand of Hogweed, and BINGO!, there it was, just the one, in all its glory. I could only stay a short while, so whether or not there are others present is good reason for me to return.


Sunday, 19 July 2020

A returning micro


I was chuffed to find this is the garden MV this morning, Lyonetia prunifoliella, which has an interesting history in the UK. Here's what the excellent UK Moths website says about it:

"Formerly locally resident in parts of southern and central England, this moth seemed to have died out as a British species, and had not been reliably encountered since around 1900. The first recent record appears to be in 2007, since when it has been encountered with increasing frequency in a number of counties including Dorset, Norfolk and on the Isle of Wight, Hampshire."

My photograph is not up to scratch, being taken under dark skies and a slight drizzle, and this moth is tiny. Still, it gets across the delicate markings that clinched the identification.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Moist ginger cake

I first realised that my eyesight was becoming in need of 'a little help' when assisting Barry Banson in checking his Greatstone moth trap. My moving of the egg-boxes back and forwards for my eyes to better focus had him imploring me to give in and buy a pair of reading glasses. That was in 2012 and I was 53 years old. The purchase swiftly followed.

For a number of years it was just the reading of small print and the observation of micro-moths that needed a pair of spectacles to be utilised, but over the past 12 months my close vision has been getting steadily worse. Unless the printed word is of a fairly robust size I will struggle with it. And as for micro-moths...

It has come to the point where I can see the micro-moth, but make very little detail out on it, bar a general ground colour or obvious mark. The modus operandi is to pot them without any attempt at identification and put them aside. Obviously there are familiar, or large micros that will not be potted, so on a good morning I will have 10-15 moths to check. Then the fun begins.  My very old Canon 400D is still in fine working order, and together with a 60mm macro lens, and a Raynox Super Macro Conversion Lens attached, even the smallest moth is now within working sight. What was just a vague pale bit of fluff now becomes a detailed moth! The moment when I look through the camera's viewfinder is one of suspense, because up until that point the wonders that are about to be revealed have been largely hidden from my retina. The indispensable second edition of Manley, the UK Moths website and a number of regional-based sites (Norfolk Moths in particular) are a great help in identification.

Each day a few photographs elude identification. These are placed in a computer desktop folder called 'Mystery' for later perusal. And when I find myself at a loose end, or in need of a bit of lepidopteran detective work, I open it up and try to piece together exactly what it is that is before me. I must admit to finding micros a challenge. For starters, their Latin names do not stick with me. There are many of them. And they vary in colour and markings even within species. It is a learning process, and one that I have started and stopped too many times to mention.

I've currently started again...

Below are two moths from this morning, both Pammene aurita, a beautiful Tortrix that reminds me of moist ginger cake. There is some variation between these individuals, but nothing compared to that shown by many species.


Thursday, 16 July 2020

Two steps forward, one step back

There I was yesterday, in a quietly modest way, considering that I'd had quite a good day with the micro-moths. I'd tweeted a few out, composed yesterday's blog post and all was well. This morning my identification frailties have been exposed. In a very polite message, Bill Dykes (who really knows his stuff) pointed out that my tristrigella was, in fact, an ohridella, and that the Gypsoma that I'd called a dealbana was an aceriana. These have now been rectified. However, I was able to get one positive confirmation from Bill as I had sent him a picture of a moth that I suspected was Recurvaria nanella. Thankfully he agreed.

It can be frustrating this moth business. Macros are normally - but not always! - forgiving, whereas micros are just a multitude of tiny scales that vary considerably even within a species. They call for a cool head, an analytical mind and patience. I've just placed an order for all three!

In the meantime, here is a smart micro that I am pretty sure I know the name of. Unless you know otherwise...

Aspilapteryx tringipenella - I hope...

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

600 in the garden

The garden MV has not been all that productive so far this summer, although last night did provide some interesting micros, a few of them featured below. Last night also saw the passing of 600 species of moth for the back garden - it sounds a lot, but I did start recording here in 1987. As always, if you think I've made a schoolboy error on any of the identifications, please let me know.

Catoptria pinella
Dichomeris marginella
Gypsoma aceriana
Parachronistis albiceps

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Nemophora metallica




This is Nemophora metallica, a local species found on chalk downland, that is partial to a spot of loafing on scabious - here they are 'hanging out' on Field Scabious. Most of yesterday morning was spent photographing invertebrates on flower-heads, followed by an afternoon scratching my head as I tried to identify them. Was it a success? For me, yes, as I was able to add seven species to my pan-species list. We just won't mention the many photographs from the session that currently reside in the 'mystery' folder on the computer desktop...

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Loss and partial gain

In all honesty it started three autumns ago. My fellow birders were picking up Tree Pipit calls and I was failing to do so. This was unusual, as I had quite a good ear and had never had any trouble picking Tree Pipits up before. I began to get a little concerned when, whilst standing next to somebody who picked up a couple of birds calling overhead in quick succession, I hadn’t heard a thing.

Last autumn I partook in a lot of vismigging and was surprised that the Redwing flocks were not calling as they passed through. I was even more surprised when they were not calling at night, even at times when others were reporting heavy nocturnal passage with much calling being heard. I wondered why the skies above my house remained silent, but deep down my suspicions were being aroused.

So far this year I have seen plenty of Swifts, enjoying their flocks racing overhead in numbers that have been up on recent years. Funny thing is, none of them have been calling...

This afternoon we visited our good friends Gordon and Mieko Hay. Whilst having a late lunch in their garden, Gordon leapt up as a flock off Swifts scythed overhead, 50+ strong and some sight in the blue sky. They were silent. I had to ask...

“Gordon, can you hear them?”

Needless to say, yes he could, quite clearly. So could Katrina and Mieko. For the next hour, every time a group of Swifts rushed through, I asked if they were audible. And every time that the answer was in the affirmative, I had to concede that I couldn’t hear a thing.

It was a sad afternoon. My fears had been realised. There are certain bird calls off of my register. I had been clinging to the hope that it wasn’t so. I could (and can) still hear a reeling Grasshopper Warbler, calling and singing crests plus Long-tailed Tits, so assumed that the Tree Pipits, Redwings and Swifts must still be in range. Obviously not.

There are worse things happening to many people right now, but it is hard not to feel despondent at not being able to hear these calls any longer - although I ought to temper that by admitting that if these birds are very close, I still can. A Tree Pipit last autumn ‘wheezed’ its way over, directly above me, at Ranmore; tree-flushed Redwings were audible in the garden this spring; and to round this afternoon off, a small group of Swifts, that chased each-other at roof-top height, were loud and clear to me. So, good news and bad news really. Most of these birds will be inaudible to my ear. When I can hear them, I need to appreciate them all the more. I cannot take them for granted any longer.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Awakening moribund listing

Although I'm not a competitive lister, I am a keeper and maintainer of them. I love lists, but just for my own amusement you understand...

A few years ago some bright spark (step forward Mr Telfer) had the idea of putting together a league table of naturalists who admitted to being pan-listers. What is a pan-lister and what do they do? Well, this is what their very own web-site says:

'A pan-species list is a list of all the animals, plants, fungi and protists you have seen in Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands. Whether a Daisy or a Death's-head Hawk-moth, a Killer Whale or a Killer Shrimp, all species count as equal on your pan-species list. Although this may seem like the trivialisation of natural history to the accumulation of a big list, it's what is behind the list - how you get there - that makes this approach to natural history so powerful.'

I was one of the early adopters of this idea, in as much as I submitted my list way before most of the other competitors. Thus, I was in the Top Ten for several weeks, feeling quite smug that I had climbed to such dizzy heights, but in all honesty was a sham amateur in amongst so many professional field workers. But truth will out, and since then I have experienced a steady decent, settling down into mid-40s obscurity.

It must be admitted that I am a bit of a part-timer in all of this. I don't tend to look at much beyond birds, plants, Lepidoptera and Odonata, but sometimes a colourful beetle or odd looking fungi will intrigue me enough to try and identify it. I know that I could most probably add 100+ species over a weekend if I just made the effort (and more if I invested in some insect keys). But I'm happy just bumbling along, adding the odd tick here and there.

But something has just changed...


I've just had a look at the league table on the website and seen this. I've been knocked back into 43rd place by my cyber-chum Mark Skevington (better known to all as Skev). I have been aware of him lurking behind me for a year or two now, but far away enough not to cause me any angst. But, like his beloved Leicester City, he has crept up on the blindside and overtaken me with some latin jiggery pokery (I'm not even sure what half the things are that he's just added - no, make that ALL of them.)

So, how to respond? Well, maybe us boys can use each other to act as a bit of a catalyst to drag our sorry backsides further up the table. I have a folder of images on my computer named 'Mystery', all photographs of yet to be identified species. I might just stand in front of Hogweed and Ragwort for the whole of the rest of July and photograph everything that comes in and lands.

Skev, consider your overtaking my wake-up call. I'm on the prowl!

Friday, 10 July 2020

Part Five - night and day at the reservoir

The latest round of 'The Good Old Days' harps back to 1975, and is dedicated to that hoary old Welsh English birding veteran of Selsey Bill, Owen Mervyn Jones.

Staines Reservoir had a reputation as one of London’s top bird watching sites. My dog-eared copy of ‘Where to Watch Birds’ by John Gooders was full of praise for it and generous in its suggestion as to what might be seen on any given visit. It was a place that boasted a list of rarities that was more befitting a coastal headland and appeared to have enticed generations of top bird watchers to partake in the ornithological offerings that would be, as far as I could tell, always available. I had successfully twisted the arm of a birdwatching friend to take me there. The drive through south-west London was a monotonous one, a flat and virtually treeless 1930’s suburbia, with the odd flyover and office block attempting to give a little height to the surroundings. We arrived at Ashford, where we parked up alongside an ominous grassy bank that rose steeply into a battleship grey sky. A high metal fence corralled us along a pathway to the start of a long narrow causeway, which ran away from us in a dead straight line, bisecting a vast body of water. I was aware of the ornithological folklore bestowed upon it. The ghosts of those who had been here before were present in my imagination, old boys dressed in sou’westers, with brass-pull telescopes and an eye for the unusual. To me, where I now stood was no different to Stonehenge, The Tower of London or St. Pauls Cathedral – a place that possessed an aura of wonder and a sense of history. That I was standing here to try and add my own modest stitch to its rich tapestry excited and humbled me in equal measure.

Our vision was hampered by more fencing on both sides of the path, hemming us in like cattle. We could see through it however, and those tall enough, and in possession of a telescope, could balance it on the fence’s cross bar and scan beyond to their heart’s content. The water was grey, the surface dulled by the morose sky above, and a stiff breeze whipped up shallow peaks, altogether uninviting. I looked around me, taking in the old ironwork, the lightly vegetated path, the London skies… and as can often be the case, when something has been built up, it is not unusual for it to not deliver. We looked out over the water, on both basins, in a desperate search for the rafts of duck that we believed would surely be here, but we had to concede that there were none - I wondered whether I had, in fact, read the correct script. We walked all the way to the far end of the causeway, where a smart brick water tower was in danger of becoming the day’s highlight. When we were almost back to the point of our entry, there, just the other side of the fence, was a male Snow Bunting, feeding in amongst the weeds strewn across the banking, not six feet away. I was mesmerised by this soft confection of browns, apricots and creamy whites, with a short, stout apricot bill working away to tease seeds from the desiccated vegetation. We left the bird with an appreciative audience that had slowly gathered.

I looked for birds wherever I was and regardless of whatever I was meant to be doing. I could be a passenger in a car, a student in a classroom or a shopper in a town centre, I would look out and up, beyond the confines of my mundane existence. During the late autumn, an afternoon ritual involved gulls. I stood at an Epsom town centre bus stop and counted them. As the light started to fade, they came over in silent, plodding lines, with no deviation or hesitancy. The counting was a means to an end, with me falling into their rhythm and entering a vaguely hypnotic state. My waiting for a bus coincided with the end-of-day gull procession, the birds journeying from the open Surrey fields to the west London reservoirs that offered them a safe, deep-water roost - one of their chosen resting places being Staines. My own journey home from art college was, for a brief few days, aligning itself with that of the gulls. I found comfort in their appearance, a sign that the day had progressed as it should, that all was well with the world. They were silhouetted, and specific identification was beyond me, although I could safely assume that the smaller birds – quicker wing beats, narrower wings – were Black-headed, and that the bow-winged beasts were Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed. My excitement rose if a great snaking line appeared above the clock tower, the central point of the line firm, with each end of the arm flailing in an attempt to keep together. Sometimes these lines joined, gathering and breaking, knotting and unknotting. They seemed to keep to similar heights, but those that ventured lower seemed messier in flock structure than those that stayed higher. There were certainly hundreds to be expected, thousands not unusual. As the light finally bled out of the sky they still carried on. I liked the thought that, even when I couldn’t see them, they were still up there, late for roost, skimming above the twinkling shop fronts and traffic below. What did they think, these wild birds? What did they make of us, crudely grounded, in need of brick, metal and electricity to survive these colder nights? I would later lie in bed, warm and still, and think of these very same birds, bobbing up and down in the pitch-black night, facing into the wind and repelling the cold reservoir water below. They would be up and away before I rose in the morning, and if the day went well, we would meet again, over Epsom town centre that very evening.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Swifts on the downs


Epsom Downs is less than a mile - south-west - from our house. I have spent more time here looking at the flora rather than the birds, although ornithologically it does come up with the odd highlight. Being at height, it commands rather fine views looking northwards, taking in the Chiltern Hills and, especially, London (see above). It looks ripe for being a worthwhile vismig spot. Much to my shame I have not really given it a fair go in this department, although I have experienced a few days of good hirundine and pipit passage while sitting in the 'lookout' car park, and during the Honey Buzzard autumn of 2000 saw a group of four birds pass overhead.

This morning, with Common Swifts having been recorded passing west of me, I decided to get myself up there and give it another go. Epsom Downs is a large site, but even so has remarkably few places that afford clear, unbroken views - the heavy undulations in the landscape are the reason for this. However, the 'lookout' car park allows unimpeded visual access to almost 180 degrees of sky between west and east, looking north-north-westwards from the parked car. It makes sense to stay with the car, not only for shelter in case the weather turns, but also because there is a golf course directly in front and behind of you, with a fairly busy road running alongside the carpark. This is not a site to depend on bird calls, due to the traffic, and I will only use it for Swift/hirundine movements.

Back to this morning. Between 07.30 - 10.15hrs a westerly passage of Common Swifts was enjoyed, with a final total of 449, a burst of 100 and then 90 within a twenty minute spell. Also joining in were 5 Swallows and a couple of Sand Martins. The Swifts did shift to a south-westerly passage briefly, just for ten minutes or so, before returning back west. The site has now been added to Trektellen. Epsom Downs is not a part of the North Downs ridge, more a chalky spur of high ground running off north from it.

The yellow star marks the observation point, the white arrows show the direction of this morning's Swifts.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Part Four - struck dumb

The next instalment of me raiding my old notebooks and adding a bit of embellishment... it is now 1975.

Epsom Common was a sedate place to go bird watching. I would catch a bus from Sutton and alight at the edge of the common on the Ashtead road. I had a set routine. Crossing the railway-line I would work my way through scrub (which often provided close views of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers) until reaching the edge of the woods. A wide ride then took me up through the mature trees – always stopping half way for lunch – until reaching its end that abutted the farmland at Maldon Rushett. A loop back to my starting point was made via a check on the stew pond. I always recorded Willow Tits and I saw my first Little Owl during one memorable late afternoon at the top of the ride. This encouraged a few of us to make, and erect, an owl nest box in the very same area. Whereas a visit to Beddington was one of heightened expectation, these Epsom Common trips were laid back affairs, the time being spent as much as in the company of the habitat as much as its bird life. But the common was about to show me a hidden side, one that I was unaware of and had been blindly wandering through for the past few months.

I was back on the common one early May evening. It was a competition as to whether or not my ears, or my eyes, were being put under the most strain. The light was fighting a losing a battle with the dark, the brightness being gently flushed from the sky, with the blues, exhausted by their daytime ascendency, slowly conceding to a palette of purples, golds and finally to the depths of indigo. There was not a breath of wind and the scene had been set. The house lights had dimmed, the audience had settled into silent expectation and the curtain then started to rise. We stared into a dense and dark undergrowth in a desperate attempt to locate the reported Nightingale. I had neither seen, nor heard, one before. The calling of other birds was a distraction, but in their amplified state the alarming Blackbird and the subsong Robin became part of the avian performance – more stage left and stage right rather than at its centre. And then our quarry started to sing.

I was struck dumb. There is no other way to describe my reaction. This unseen bird emptied its soul into that woodland glade as if its mission in life was to sing itself empty. Like musical mercury the notes flowed as if material form. A slow start, even hesitant, but the Nightingale was soon flooded with a confidence that produced an achingly beautiful series of whistles, warbles and chugging that had purity and depth of note, the reverberations of which coursed through my body. It sounded ethereal and so desperately lonely. The thoughtful song was delivered through a series of abridged phrases with a hint of melancholy. It was singing to me, and me alone. It shook me. Richness so solid that the notes stabbed me, grabbed my guts, flooded my mind. Nothing else existed. It stayed hidden from view but that did not matter. It did not matter at all.

It would have been easy to think that after this audience with such a bird the rest of the evening could only be an anti-climax, but that was not the case. We were able to hunt down several reeling Grasshopper Warblers, more insectivorous than bird-like in sound. And then, as the darkness finally laid its cloak upon us, a strange croaking sound came from above the tree line, interspersed with a thin, high whistle, and my first glimpse of a Woodcock was had, a dumpy woodland wader that patrolled above its domain as if driven by clockwork, a Hans Christian Andersen toy-makers folly. A layer of scales had fallen from my eyes with the realisation that, even in those places where I had birdwatched with some regularity, I knew very little about the birds that haunted them. They were there waiting for me and with more local knowledge and a bit more guile I should be able to find them. And I wanted to find them. Every single one.

A family weekend break, camping close to East Horsley in the west Surrey countryside, saw me creeping away from the tents on a calm, warm, late-May dawn. The fields held both displaying Red-legged and Grey Partridges; purring Turtle Doves gave themselves up in the hedgerows; a scratchy song from a bramble patch was tracked down to a Whitethroat; and after only having previously heard Cuckoos, I finally saw one, perched on top a bush, calling incessantly, an image never forgotten. I was systematically being exposed to wonderful birds, and my devotion to all things ornithological was unquestioned. Any other interests that I had were unceremoniously dumped. Bird watching was it. Nothing else mattered. I walked back to the tent a changed person. I felt as if I had somehow been baptised by the ornithological Gods, given a key to the avian kingdom. As overblown and pompous as that feeling seemed, I couldn’t describe it in any other way. That morning became one that I would regularly return to in the following years, warm memories to bathe in, a time to cherish, of purity. Birding had moved on from being functional to becoming spiritual.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Nature notes

Yesterday was taken up by wandering the Surrey Hills, mostly in the company of brother-in-law Bill. A cool dawn start at Box Hill saw a modest westerly passage of Common Swifts (59) with single Sand Martin and Swallow going in the same direction. The first sign of Woodpigeons flying purposefully south off of the scarp was also evident - there will be thousands doing the same thing by October and November.

An 11-mile hike across the landscape was then enjoyed, starting and finishing at Denbies Hillside, taking in Ranmore Common, Polesden Lacey, Leatherhead, the River Mole to Westhumble and finally back up the hill along the side of the vineyard.

A few highlights:

Greater Dodder - this rarity was found on two nettle patches, at Leatherhead and Westhumble
A family party of Swallows were being fed by their parents along the banks of the river
A brief spell of sun saw a patch of brambles come alive with butterflies, including this battered White Admiral

Sunday, 5 July 2020

The return of Naked Noc-mig

Way back in late March, at the very start of the Covid lockdown, a few of us joined forces and kept each other sane by linking our garden sightings under the #BWKM0 heading. One of the unexpected side-shows was the effort that many of us put in to listening out for the calling of overflying birds after nightfall. This was christened (by Gavin Haig I do believe) as Naked Noc-migging - a reference to the fact that we were not using recording devices to check on the bird calls, but just our very own ears. The results were not far short of revelatory. Many of us added Common Scoter to our inland garden lists, plus other wildfowl and waders such as Teal, Wigeon, Brent Goose, Moorhen, Coot, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit - I could go on. It was enough for some of us to order sound recorders and microphones to take the 'Naked' away from the 'noc-mig’. I have yet to fall under the spell of the machine, but intend to start up the naked noc-miggery again very soon. After all, waders are already on the move. I know from the spring that there will be hours of silence (or at least a lack of avian utterances) but when a bird does call, the hair's on the back of the neck stand up and it is suddenly all worth while. I'll report back...

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Can I still just go birding?

Time and again in recent weeks I’ve found myself watching old footage on the TV and becoming wistful for what were far simpler times. It isn’t just a case of these times being pre-Covid, although that certainly has a major impact on such feelings.

You could call them thoughts that are indicative of an ageing individual, looking back at times that are comforting through familiarity. But that would be too simplistic.

Can you remember when birding was about, well.... birding?

It has now become politicised.

There is now (at least within the realm of social media) a suggestion that we measure our activity against our carbon footprint. That we have to have an opinion on whether or not we are inclusive enough towards race, gender and sexual preference. That we know exactly where we stand on driven grouse shooting, owning cats, bird photography, twitching, patch birding, noc-migging, etc, etc, etc.

Of course, some of these subjects are important. But... sometimes the want to turn back the clock to a time when going birding, talking about birding and writing about birding was just ABOUT BIRDING. And nothing else. We did have a social conscience back then, but it was not tangled up with our leisure activities. Social media does, of course, play its part in the combining of these subjects. Opinions about ANYTHING - sport, food, travel, lifestyle, you name it - have become entwined with the social issues of the day. You are expected to know where you stand. You are called out on it. You are encouraged, even demanded, to nail your colours to a mast.

Where are the oases from the chatter of politics? Do we have to now accept that everything requires us to question what everything means? That we have our own clear policies and that they are clearly stated?

Or can I still just simply go birding?

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Meeting the butterfly people

They stood in small groups. Mostly men, and mostly of a 'certain' age. Cameras at the ready, a few carrying binoculars. They had their own areas to patrol, a few hundred metres of a path or a clearing in the woods. Quite a few knew each other and spoke of previous glories or looked up at the sky to discuss the weather. Some were earnest to the point of being lost in their own little world. Others looked around and sought communication with likeminded souls.

They were, quite simply, groupies of the Purple Emperor butterfly.

Last week this was all a bit of an eye-opener for me. It was my first time at Bookham Common and so never before had been exposed to this sort of adulation for an insect. On the first day I saw only the best of them, including a kindly gent who was full of local information and was keen for me to know exactly where to look and at what time I should be doing so. He knew all about the behaviour of HIM (His Imperial Majesty) and when I picked a male up above the canopy and was able to direct him to where it was perching in the open he was full of praise for my brilliant field work! He was of course being kind, it took no skill on my part to pick up such a large and stunning butterfly, but he made me feel a part of the gang. It felt good.

The following morning, back for more, I had the misfortune to meet his polar opposite. My attempt to regale 'this other gentleman' with my tale of having just seen a male Purple Emperor feeding on the ground was met by a dismissive wave of the hand and the curt words "I've seen hundreds." He carried on walking away as I was still talking. My 'polite' response, pointing out that his manner was not conducive to normal social behaviour, did at least get a rather flustered "...er, I'm in a hurry" from him. Twat.

Anyway....

These people are obsessives. They lurk. They know their quarry. And they made me feel many things. Welcomed. Surprised. Impressed. Confused. Annoyed. Afterwards I just had to go out and buy this book written by the chief 'Purple Botherer' Matthew Oates. And a fine read it is too.