Showing posts from August, 2020

Lose glasses, find iridis

It was a pleasure to once again meet up with Sussex-based freelance ecologist and all-round good bloke Graeme Lyons ( you can visit his highly instructive and entertaining blog here ). He has been conducting an invertebrate survey at Chipstead Bottom over the summer, and invited me to accompany him on his latest session yesterday. I jumped at the chance. Graeme's natural history knowledge is exceptional and his desire to encourage and inspire others to look at all the natural orders is infectious. We met at 09.00hrs. It had been over six years since we last met, but immediately struck up the easy going relationship that we had previously enjoyed, chatting non-stop during the following seven hours as I followed him around, watching the master at work. Graeme was armed with a sweep net, suction sampler and beating tray, utilising all this equipment (plus more) to entice the myriad of hiding invertebrates out into the open, ready to be catalogued and identified. There were five s


Whinchats. One of my favourite birds. Luckily for me they are a frequent passage migrant on the neighbouring downland. This afternoon a minimum of five were found at Priest Hill, with at least two of them being 'new' individuals. I would love to know the true numbers passing through. Counts from here of five (24th), three (27th) and five (today) could, purely on paper, be taken as five birds hanging around or 13 different individuals. Fortunately some of these birds have been quite striking - one exhibited a bright orange upper breast (only seen on 24th), while new in today was a grey-plumaged bird plus another that had a strongly spangled mantle. So, a minimum of seven.

Going local

Any regular visitor to this blog will know that I extoll the virtues of local birding, yet on the other hand moan about it in equal measure. This is a post of positivity. Yesterday saw me at Canons Farm, where a swarm of 220+ Swallows were feeding over the large bean field. They eventually headed off south-westward, with two Hobby, a Swift and a House Martin in tow. A juvenile male Peregrine was also present, trying its luck with some of the 850+ Wood Pigeon on site. This morning I met up with Steve Thomas, he of Ewell 'nog-mig' fame. Before we retired to the Wheatsheaf in Ewell for an afternoon snifter, we strolled around Priest Hill and uncovered a Wheatear, three Whinchat and three grounded Yellow Wagtails. A tidy return.

Whinchats in the rain

A day's birding (on and off) all on foot from home. Was it worth it? Well yes, it had its moments... First off was a couple of hours vis-migging from Nork Park. This was the first such session and will most probably be the last. Until you actually try these things for real, the problems are not always apparent. As a site it has a great view, but the best position is alongside a noisy A road. I have enough of a problem picking up the calls of distant Tree Pipits and Redwings as it is, so the backdrop of vehicle noise will not be helpful. The park is also home to hundreds of dog-walkers and their canine companions. I was met with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity and felt quite uncomfortable. If the park returned Spurn-like numbers of migrants I would roll with it, but this is obviously not the case. I returned home and sat in the garden, which was almost silent in comparison. My close-to-home skywatches will be a lot closer to home than I envisaged. This afternoon I dodged

Trial run

Last autumn I spent some time trying out various spots along the North Downs to test their suitability as sites from which to watch migrating birds. Colley Hill, Box Hill and Denbies Hillside were all given a go, along with a few places further north, on spurs of higher ground (Mogador, Banstead and Canons Farm included). All of them provided some good birding, with sessions at Colley Hill and Box Hill being particularly noteworthy. Those latter two sites are both a minimum of a 20-25 minute car journey. What I would really like is for a regular vis-mig spot to be within walking distance from home. There are two sites that have produced some memorable visible-migration within minutes from the front door. The first is my Banstead, Surrey  back garden , where I have, in the past, recorded such numbers as 4,145 Redwings flying west (8th October 2018), and 1,175 House Martins moving south-west (24th September 2019). Finch passage can be obvious, mainly Chaffinches, but they do include re

Wet but rewarded

Dawn at Box Hill was characterised by low, misty cloud. I descended through the murk, and walked the tree-lined banks of the River Mole, eastwards as far as the garden centre bridge. There were pockets of birds to work through, best being a mixed tit and Chiffchaff flock that also held a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. Two Crossbill moved eastwards and up to four Kingfishers were noisily obvious. By 08.00hrs it started to rain in earnest and by the time I returned to the hill top I was very wet indeed. Back home a check of the moth trap revealed two of the migrant pyralid Palpita vitrealis (pictured). My first for the site was only last week.

Treading water

Sometimes, birding locally can get to you. Today is such a day. It is a given that my bit of dry, northern Surrey is not going to measure up against Spurn or Dungeness (or Beddington or Holmethorpe for that matter), but when every other London park and Surrey heath is recording multiples of Pied Flycatcher - and I'm not - it starts to get personal. The last five days has seen me visit Canons Farm, working all the copses, hedge-lines and weedy field corners. The last five days has seen low numbers of migrants. A few passing Chiffchaffs, a flock of four (and a one) Whinchat, a Stonechat, a single Willow Warbler, that's about it. I strongly suspect that all of the Whitethroats and Blackcaps are locally-bred loafers. My effort has been full on, my patience freely given. But each day I've left the farm with a sense of knowing that, even if I had stayed out in the field for an extra hour or two, nothing would have happened. Sometimes it goes like that. After a barren three

Back up

These bridge cameras are remarkable bits of kit. They will never compete with the big lenses in getting those award winning photographs, but as a bit of visual back-up they are great. I was at a very dull and murky Canons Farm this afternoon and saw a blob at the top of a dead tree, lifted my binoculars and could see that it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. As a bit of an experiment, I took a picture of the scene with no magnification whatsoever, then a maximum x260 shot from the same spot, focused on the woodpecker. These are the results: Pink circle where the woodpecker was perched. Hand held on a dull old afternoon, digital x260. Not award winning, but if it had been a Middle Spot, then job done! Once you start taking images with digital zoom settings then you are getting a load of 'made-up' pixels into the bargain, but it is still helpful in clinching identifications, being able to age or sex a bird etc. Just don't hope to win any awards for the quality of s

The one that almost got away

These warm, oppressive nights might make sleeping difficult for us humans, but night-flying insects positively thrive in them - just check a moth trap the morning after one! The past two nights have seen obscene numbers of Jersey Tigers at the garden MV - 53, followed by 59 - which is small fry compared to some totals that have been posted. Last night's highlight was a new macro moth for the garden, a Dewick's Plusia. A former rare migrant, it is now slowly establishing itself (maybe just temporarily) in south-east England. Beddington Farmlands, some six miles to the north of me, is one such location and I had expected one to show up here eventually. This is the 627th species of moth here in Banstead, of which 407 are non-micros. As I went to pot it, it flew off. Had this been 30 years ago I would have been hyperventilating as it would have been a very rare migrant. As it was, a shrug of the shoulders accompanied my smile. The photograph above, in true Blue Peter style, wa

Job done?

This morning’s ‘gentle’ post managed to encourage a number of people to respond to my rambling thoughts, which were, after all, just a stream of consciousness that had emanated from a tired and hot mind. The bottom line is, if I were being blunt about it, natural historians do not like to believe that those among their number are capable of phasing or becoming indifferent to the rigours of recording in the field. There was a time when I would have been in that camp. But, as admitted today, not necessarily now. Let’s take myself as a case study. Started birding at 15 in 1974. Dead, dead keen, obsessional even, until 1983. Watershed moment? Choosing to go and see a Siouxsie and the Banshees gig in preference to a weekend Scilly twitch (I think it was Scarlet Tanager and/or Northern Waterthrush.) And I had seen the Banshees before. Started to dabble in plants and moths in a very loose way from 1979 onwards, finally making a real effort when purchasing a moth trap in 1987 and startin

No name

Yesterday, in the numbing heat, I stood on a bridge that straddled a section of the River Hogsmill, close to Ewell. The water running beneath, not 12 feet wide and but a few inches deep, was choked on either bank by majestic stands of Himalayan Balsam, in full flower. I leant on the rail, looking down onto the tops of the Balsam, which were being visited by bees. Many bees. They busied themselves, as bees do, by climbing inside the elongated throats of the blooms, and after finishing whatever they were doing, backing out before investigating another flower. There were several species before me, some fat, furry, good old-fashioned ‘bumbles’, many narrower bodied Honey Bee types, one with a hoary frosted body, another with a long and pointed abdomen - as to their specific identities, I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t feel the need to know. Watching them for maybe 15 minutes was relaxing. Not trying to photograph them, or net them, or pot them was an additional pleasure. My binoculars and camera

Ophelia 2020

For a change I explored the River Hogsmill between Ewell and Kingston, most of its winding length served by a good footpath. From a natural history point of view, it was very quiet, but I did come across this utterly charming mosaic. Completed last year, it has been placed underneath a railway bridge at Malden Manor. Apart from helping to brighten up a spot that had been the haunt of graffiti artists, it is also in honour of the John Everett Millais pre-Raphaelite masterpiece 'Ophelia', which was painted at the very spot. Community funded and completed by a team of artists and locals it is arresting to come across as you step out of the thistle, Himalayan Balsam and Hogweed choked footpath and into the cool underworld of the railway arches. It depicts a natural world transition from night to day, full of owls, flowers, butterflies, birds, snails and fungi. In a fitting aside, while I was admiring the work, I met a local White Witch. We fell into a long and easy con


The day is hot and the weather forecasters are suggesting that we are in for a very sticky night - in fact, until the middle of next week, they are forecasting that we are in for night time temperatures not dipping below 17-18C, combined with light breezes and a smidgin of cloud. Ideal moth weather! Add into the mix that this pulse of warm air has come in from the continent and that there are plenty of migrant moths being trapped (some being screaming rarities), then there is much for this inland moth recorder to be getting excited about. I'm not being greedy. Just a small slice of the action would be good. Hot weather spikes have been kind to me over the years, with wanderers turning up in the MV that should not be here - Scarlet Tiger, Royal Mantle and Gold Spot spring to mind, along with a fair scattering of 'commoner' scarce migrants. I've enjoyed the challenge of trying to identify all of the micros this summer, some straightforward, others with the help of


I’ve recently updated you on my diminishing hearing capabilities (with grasshoppers joining the list of disappearing sounds) and not too long ago I confessed that my sight is somewhat compromised in low light. But what about a sense that I possess which still seems to be functioning as it should? Step forward smell! In fact, my sense of smell is famous throughout the family for being hyper-sensitive. I can pick up on odours (good and bad) way before anybody else, and if you give me a glass of wine or a single-malt whisky I will be dismantling the bouquet into its constituent parts - plums, liquorice, tarmac, apricots, toffee - within seconds. Needless to say from that last sentence, my accompanying taste buds are more than up to scratch as well. One of life’s pleasures is to take the time to sniff the wildflowers. There are some top smells to be had, small free hits of olfactory wonder. Never walk past Fennel without taking in the aniseed; various labiates that will sooth you with