Saturday, 28 November 2020

Niger

On my River Hogsmill walk yesterday I came across an unfamiliar plant growing alongside one of the ponds at Bourne Hall. It was in rude health and next to a similarly robust specimen of Green Amaranth. It was vaguely sow-thistle like, a bit Rudbeckia-ish, but fitted neither. When home, I uploaded the four images reproduced here in the hope that one of my Twitter-chums could furnish me with an identification, and, as hoped, three responded in quick time to let me know that my mystery plant was Niger (Guizotia abbysinica). I've seen plenty of Niger seed in my time at bird feeding stations, but this is the first time that I have seen the plant.



Friday, 27 November 2020

Then and now

Another expedition along the River Hogsmill towards Old Malden, where I once again paid homage to the Millais painting 'Ophelia'. There is a commemorative plaque on a wall close to the spot where he based the painting (pictured), accompanied here by my picture of what that spot looks like today. The Kingfisher that I saw may have been seen by the great artist as he produced his preliminary sketches, but I doubt that a Little Egret bothered his eye-line as it did mine.



Thursday, 26 November 2020

Mistle on mistle

Reigate Heath was the starting point this morning, where the birding quiet was broken by this Mistle Thrush that kept guard over a clump of Mistletoe, feeding on the berries in between bouts of sitting out proud. After meeting up with Brother-in-law Bill, we took a circular walk that included much of Buckland, highlights being 18 Red-legged Partridge, a Little Owl and 150+ Redwing. Further clumps of Mistletoe were seen, including some heavy with fruit.


Sunday, 22 November 2020

In the murk at Mogador

Colley Hill Car Park was a seething mass of metalwork by 11.30hrs - no room to park plus at least another 50 vehicles tucked along the minor road that leads up to it. Fortunately I was leaving the area at the time, having spent the morning birding the farmland at nearby Mogador. Lockdown plays havoc with the human footfall at any of these 'edge of town' beauty spots. With the shops, cinemas, swimming pools and gymnasiums closed, who can blame people for heading out into the countryside. It will be quiet again once the shops and cafes re-open.

Mogador is a relatively small area of mixed arable farmland and pasture, on the edge of Banstead Heath, blessed with big skies and a fair amount of scrub and hedgerow. I have an increasing fondness of the place. Positioned just north of the North Downs scarp at Colley Hill, I have managed to establish a rapport with its birdlife, enjoying spring and autumn migrant action plus a small but select wintering population of thrushes, finches and buntings. It will not be long before something of note appears.

It was a pleasure to come across a flock of 30 Yellowhammers (top) this morning, an increasingly scarce bird this far north in the county, although both Holmethorpe and Canons Farm are nearby sites that still maintain decent numbers of this bunting. A single Reed Bunting was with them. Also recorded were 3 Red-legged Partridges, 14 Skylarks, 2 Stonechats, 150 Redwings, 90 Fieldfares and 130 Linnets. It was one of those still, grey and murky mornings that felt as if I were birding indoors.

The farmland here floods most winters, sizeable pools more than flashes, and despite thorough checking I've yet to record a wader on them, although I have flushed Common Snipe from the field edges on several occasions and have had Golden Plover fly over.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Another world revealed

The first time that I knowingly took an interest in moths was during the evening of Saturday August 2nd 1975. I can be that precise as the day had been spent at Lords Cricket Ground, as a spectator watching 'our' boys take on the Aussies in the Ashes test. That Australian team were full of greats - Ian and Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and Geoff Thomson to name but five. On that particular day though the plaudits went to England batsman John Edrich, who completed a century. But I digress.

That evening I attended a family wedding reception in Tring, Hertfordshire. I had only been birding for a matter of months, and my interests in other aspects of natural history were in their infancy to say the least. But as darkness fell, something happened at the bare windows of the village hall that caught my attention. The black panes of glass were alive with fluttering forms attempting to get inside with us. They were moths. 

Moving over to the window it was clear that these moths came in differing sizes, shapes and colours. I stood mesmerised as they came and went, each minute that passed revealing more wonders materialising out of the darkness. A small group of children had seen me looking, and came over, eager to get involved. They, too, were taken aback by the nocturnal show - we all wanted to see more. There then started an early form of citizen science, as we commandeered a number of small glasses from the bar, opened one of the windows, and started to trap the moths within the glass receptacles by using beer mats to usher them in. We couldn’t name them, but that didn’t matter - in fact I think it fair to say that none of us knew that moths had names, beside that of ‘moth’. Each capture was passed around, particularly if it had some sort of wow factor about it. The plain, the brown and the small were quickly released. There was one in particular that captured my imagination. It was fairly large and at first appeared to be dark brown all over, but when disturbed, or in flight, revealed an intense yellow underwing. It appeared to be quite common. After 30 minutes of hunting moths my attendant young gatherers had had enough and moved on to something else. I stayed by the window, ignoring the celebrations alongside me. Another world had been revealed.

The following week I got hold of a copy of the Observer’s Book of Moths. A there, on a plate, was my moth at the window. A Large Yellow Underwing. A species that I would get to see, sometimes in their hundreds, even thousands, over the coming years.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Released from an obligation

Confession time. After 46 years of sending my natural history records into various societies and organisations, I'm getting fed up with it. Bored. Cannot be arsed.

Sounds bad doesn't it? You would think that after playing the game for all of these years and doing the right thing that I would still be up for making sure that my valuable data would be sent to a safe place so that it can be added to the historical record and be used in years to come for research purposes or just entertainment value. I used to religiously send off my paper records to various recorders, and, when the records became computerised, started to visit BirdTrack to upload data, safe in the knowledge that it would get to the right person in good time.

But recently there has been a change. A change in me. I am moving further away from my time in the field being somehow all tied up with harvesting data. It's now more personal to me than that. It isn't about number, or identification for that matter, although it really is - confused? How do you think I feel?

My enjoyment in birding, or looking at plants, moths, butterflies or anything else living for that matter has not waned. It is as strong as ever. It's just that I'm going through a phase of not wanting to analyse it. My notebook still comes out with me but it might not get opened. The pen remains in my pocket. How many Redwings did I see this evening? I could give you a rough estimate, but I was watching the few swirling flocks coming into roost with a happy detachment - not of the birds, I was watching them intently - but a detachment from some perverse duty to record them. Last week I avidly counted the thrushes and submitted them to the notebook. Today? Nah, I just watched and was entranced. Took in the dying of the light. Listened to the Tawny Owl. Felt free. Released from an obligation that I took on board as a teenager back in 1974.

Will I come back to normality - whatever normality is? Why am I bothering committing these thoughts to this post? As I've written before, and will no doubt do so again in the future, blogging is a very cheap form of therapy...

Monday, 16 November 2020

Something of the night

There is definitely 'something of the night' about me - not in a vampiric reference such as that famously made about Michael Howard by Ann Widdecombe a few years ago. As twilight starts to assert its authority over the daylight I do get a certain boost - sound and vision is heightened, smells and touch are turned up a notch. It isn't unlike the turning down of the house lights in a theatre or cinema, a prelude to something special.

This afternoon saw me walk up onto Epsom Downs, timing my journey so that, as I strolled down Chalk Lane - which for about a mile travels through horse paddocks and copses - I would reach the bottom of the hill in darkness. The paddocks are large and stretch back a fair way. I used to hear Little Owls here with some regularity, but they have gone from this side of the downs, to be replaced by those raucous buggers, Ring-necked Parakeets. Hardly seems a fair swap to me. This evening all that could be heard was a singing Song Thrush and a calling Robin, but these sounds came to me with a crystal clarity that is just missing during daylight hours. A few Carrion Crows were sitting, silhouetted, on the roof of a large barn, their outline's razor-sharp. The smell of leaf-mould, earth and the fruity mucking-out from the stables added fragrance to the cooling, but still mild, November air. Talk about being in the moment. When visibility is reduced, the senses come alive.

This time of day also acts as a reset button, what with the light having passed, and what has 'gone before' has done just that - gone. But I do not tend to look back, rather find myself being readied for tomorrow. The sense of anticipation comes to the fore, as if what had been dished up today was merely a prelude to what might be served tomorrow.

And another thing. I took this walk without my binoculars. Or camera. I found the whole thing restful, without expectation. No clutter. Just me and a jacket. No pressure. Of course, had a swift flown over in the gloom, or a wheatear jump out in front of me as I crossed the downs I would have been kicking myself for such foolhardy action.

Or would I have?

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Sloe, sloe, milk, milk, sloe

The local footpaths between Woodmansterne and Banstead were searched this morning, but the birds were only notable by their absence, save for a single Reed Bunting that flew low over the meadows behind the Evergreen nursery. The local harvest of sloes has never looked better, the Blackthorn bushes around Banstead are heavy with the mealy purple-blue fruit. In the sunshine this morning, the downs positively throbbed with its colour. The botanical highlight came courtesy of a single Milk Thistle, found in a gateway close to the outskirts of Banstead village. For a quiet, benign and docile November morning it was strangely invigorating.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

They're back!

I make no secret of the fact that I love Hawfinches. It pleases me to have these lovely birds as a fairly regular species within the local area, but, typical of that species, they can sometimes go missing for months on end. It is with great pleasure that, over the past week, I have been able to watch them once again, with a minimum of 11 birds (possibly as many as 16) having been seen over the past week in the western valleys of Headley Heath, and up on the adjoining wooded slope at High Ashurst. 

I position myself overlooking the valleys on their eastern flank, which gives me good views across the tree lines. Both my sessions here have been from 13.30hrs until dusk. The earliest that a Hawfinch has appeared is 14.00hrs, and the latest 15.42hrs. The busiest time seems to be around 15.00hrs. Views are usually of birds flying along the distant tree line, or circling the valleys. A couple of times birds have alighted and given reasonable scope views. Twice a flock of five has been recorded. A total of six hours has been spent sitting in the same spot waiting for them - it is not a game that is regularly rewarded. Today I had but six separate observations, but when they deign to show it is all worthwhile.

There are side-shows to compensate the non-Hawfinch moments. The thrush roost was back to four-figures this evening (1,075 Redwing) plus up to 70 Redpolls were buzzing about. There is always something flying across the ravines, be they assorted finches, Stock Dove and Woodpigeon flocks, Common Buzzards or Red Kites. In truth, there is never a dull moment.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Satellite of hope

A mild spell of weather during the 'dark' months of November, December and January will alert most keen students of moths to switch on the MV/actinic trap. Apart from the small selection of species that are still on the wing during the winter there is the chance of picking up a few migrants, especially if the mild weather is due to the airflow coming up from North Africa and Iberia - and that is the case right now.

There have been migrants coming to the Banstead MV over the past couple of nights, but so far have been confined to just the expected - a few Silver Y and Udea ferrugalis. However, hope is high, as there are plenty of high value moths being recorded along the south coast and in SE England. Last night's haul here was fair, with a cast of late-autumn regulars that included this Satellite. The trap is on once more. My walk out to inspect it in the morning will be one filled with more hope than usual.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Just what did this place do to deserve this?

I think it most when I am stationary, maybe sitting in a car at traffic lights, or pausing while walking a footpath that runs alongside a light industrial unit. 

“What on earth has this place done to deserve this?”

Looking at the acres of concrete, prefabricated buildings, sodium lights and metal gantries, I’m compelled to look beyond this man-made horror and imagine what lies beneath. What was once here? A field? A wood? I can now imagine someone walking across this very spot, flat cap, roll-up stuck in the corner of his mouth, on the way home after a day’s work. There is the row of cottages of which one he calls home. A mile from town, but still well served by a couple of pubs and several homesteads that sell fresh produce. The earth roads this way see little traffic, they’re more like tracks and see just a few horses each day, and certainly no wandering stranger. Our ‘ghost’ was born in the very same house that he is now walking to, he was christened in the church that we can still see on the nearby hill, was married there twenty years later and buried yards from where he walked out with his bride - close to the ancient yew - a further forty years on from then. 

When he was lowered into the ground the church yard was surrounded by meadows and hedges. The tallest buildings nearby were the three church spires that dominated all around. If, by some miracle, we could awaken him now and bring him to the surface, what would he make of it all? He would recognise the Yew, that has hardly changed in the 150 years that he has been ‘at rest’, but as for the rest... the noise, so much glass, shiny metal, great walls of dull cladding, and what on earth are these strange contraptions that dash by with people in them? Where are the fields that he looked over from his front door? Where, indeed IS his front door? Gone. Demolished to make way for houses that were needed to home the town overspill and they, in turn, demolished to make way for warehousing and factories. The hedges grubbed up. The lone trees felled. The fields levelled. The pubs shut. The people moved on.

So I look down at the concrete, the fencing, the litter, the bright lights and the ugly simplicity of kit-form construction and think of the Grey Partridges that once formed coveys here, the Yellowhammers that sang from the Hawthorn, the speedwell and pimpernel flowering along the field edge, and ‘our’ man, who couldn’t have imagined what was to become of his little world.

Just what did this place do to deserve this?

Saturday, 7 November 2020

The turning of time's circle

Early November has become special to me. It may well be autumn past its birding best, but there are plenty of opportunities to seek and find, plus experiences to be had that mix the ornithological with the spiritual - something that other times of the year just cannot replicate.

Yesterday afternoon found me sitting on the top of a valley at Headley Heath. My views were directly westward, looking straight at the setting sun, a yellow ball ladling out a watery golden light, its weak warmth just winning over the still chillness of a calm day. As I peeled off a couple of layers and luxuriated  - even bathed - in this November ‘heat', I couldn’t help but feel very pleased with things. For the next few hours, all things Covid, Brexit and Trump were banished, and my quest to count birds coming into roost was in the ascendency. 

My vantage point allowed me to see across two steep-sided valleys, lightly wooded on their sides but clear at both their bases and tops. Anything that flew over, or along, these valleys were observable. I have been coming to this very spot for a number of years now, always ensuring that an early-to-mid November visit, as the daylight fades, is made. For it is here that thrushes and finches come to roost. It is never the same and never, ever, dull. It has become a sanctuary, a place to reflect on things and one where the sheer joy of being outside, surveying a scene of beauty before me, can be celebrated.

This is a bittersweet time of the year. If we are enjoying a benign, sunny day then those of us with the time to ‘stand and stare’ will recognise a feeling of sedation, as if the year is being placed in a comforting state of slumber. November recognises that it is not October, but will not give up to December without a struggle. The leaf colour is still vibrant, the weather can still be clement and this can fool the natural world (that includes us) into believing that winter is still a lifetime away. With this slow descent into a life of dull mornings and dark afternoons comes the gift of reflection, if not full-on nostalgia. Are we starting to mourn the loss of summer? Are we lamenting the arrival of the cold? Does this sapping of vibrancy in all its guises cause us to look at ourselves - yet another year older - and start to come to terms with that fact?

Spring looks forward and, as its polar opposite, autumn looks back. It looks back as one might view a town from a departing railway carriage, or of waving relatives in the rear-view mirror of a car. You hope that you will see them again, that the parting is one that will turn full-circle and become a return visit or greeting. I’m shaken out of my thoughts by voices across the valley, a group of walkers whose every word I can hear although they are hundreds of metres away. The air is still, the pale blue sky brittle and the plaintive calls of birds overhead add to the feeling of a season in its death-throes. Strangely, such feelings are energising, as if in readiness for winter, as that season, too, has its own special powers. On the slope directly opposite me a Silver Birch tree is harnessing the sunlight and radiating it back out in an ethereal glory via the medium of leaf colour. It positively glows and flames, on fire with defiance of the leaf-fall that will soon inevitably occur. It is mesmerising. The haze dissipates the colour, blurs the edges and creates the supernatural. From such sights myths were created.

As I continue to watch the skies the number of small passerines that are travelling across the valleys is considerable. Most are too high for specific identification or for their calls to reach me, but any that venture to a lower altitude appear to be Chaffinch, Linnet, Greenfinch and Goldfinch, with very few Redpoll also involved. One brute of a finch comes into view, and even before it alights onto a treetop I’m celebrating the arrival of a Hawfinch. It stays there, several hundred meters away, for 10-15 minutes before dropping down and out of sight, but is soon replaced by a flock of seven, which land away from my sight-line. These eight become 10 with two birds that put on a show as they circle the valleys before deciding to head off northwards.

A roost of thrushes has formed here over the past few autumns, and, after the end of October and through to November’s end, can number four figures. Redwings start to arrive this afternoon just as the sun dips beneath the far ridge, and ghost in with small flocks over the following hour. As the light bleeds from the day it gets harder to pick them out against the blanket of vegetation, and so I revert to looking above me and into the glorious sky, now having swapped the daytime blue for a confection of apricot, tobacco and gold. When these colours fade to violets and purples I know it is time to leave, as my eyes are hard-pressed to observe any birds in this most evocative of skies.

One last look though across the valley. Now quiet. Darkness has more or less descended. A few calls make their way across to me - a scolding blackbird, a late-to-bed Redwing. And I can still make out the dying embers of that Silver Birch. An analogy, maybe for the dying season. As I leave the heath my thoughts are not so much about the enjoyable birding, but more involved in our deep-seated relationship with the changing season, of leaving behind the fruits of autumn and swapping them for the austerity of winter. Yet there is no foreboding involved, but rather a pleasure in being able to appreciate the turning of time's circle. All has been well for these past few hours.

Friday, 6 November 2020

You’re so tame

This Grey Heron just didn't want to budge from its riverside perch this morning. I was walking along the River Hogsmill (more a stream really) between Ewell Village and Tolworth, not seeing much (bar a Little Egret and Kingfisher) and meeting lots of lockdown joggers, strollers and dog-walkers. This afternoon provided a far more pleasing experience - and that account will feature in a forthcoming post. I can promise you Hawfinches!

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Books

My natural history library sprawls across several rooms, my families acceptance of it much appreciated. I have, in the past, had mini-culls, normally of books that had served their purpose and become redundant, superceded by more up-to-date publications, although some of these 'retired' tomes will forever be held onto - there is too much history between us.

One section of this collection is dedicated to that of 'nature writing', populated by the likes of Macfarlane, Mabey, Dee, Cocker, Deakin, Oates, Dunn, Goulson and Marren. These are books not to be used as reference but to be read for pleasure and nourishment, not that you do not learn an awful lot from them as well.

The most fluid part of the library is that of subscription journals and bird reports. It has had to, over the years, suffer major culling due to shortage of space. - and, if I'm being honest, because they largely go on the shelf after their initial read never to be taken down again. My Surrey, Kent and Sussex bird reports have all left the building, along with my British Birds and Birding Worlds. Same is true of British Wildlife, BSBI and Wild Flower Society magazines. What I will always hold onto is my complete collection of Dungeness Bird Observatory annual reports (1957 - 1968; 1989 - present). I re-read these regularly. I have a complete set of London Bird Reports from 1974 which do get looked at, but what does take up room on the shelves is every issue of Atropos (first published in 1995). I cannot say that I refer to them at all, although I look forward to its arrival throughout the year. I might, in the future, be tempted to pass them onto a young entomologist.

Books have a character. They can remind you of the times in which you obtained them. Some become best friends. Some actually define you, even though you neither wrote or published them. Many talk to you - and you alone, telling you things that are exciting, or confirming what you always thought. They inspire. They are objects of desire.

That well known bibliophile, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once said:

"A room without books is like a body without a soul"

Cannot argue with that.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Who made honey long ago...

Sometimes I like to pretend that I have a thin vein of culture running through my body, and so I sometimes immerse myself into reading some classical prose. Today's 'offering came courtesy of Edward Thomas's 'South Country', written in 1909. It is his love letter to the southern counties east of Devon and south of London. Thomas is highly revered amongst the literati, and is often quoted and name-checked. There was a particular passage that struck me...

"...sees the house behind them. The wayfarer knows nothing of those who built them and those who live therein, of those who planted the trees just so and not otherwise, of the causes that shaped the green, any more than of those who reaped and threshed the barley, and picked and dried and packed the hops that made the ale at the 'White Hart'"

It struck me because this is exactly how I react to seeing an old abandoned house, a wooden barn, a lone tree in a field. The questions flow and my imagination is fired-up. How old? Who built it? What was the weather like when the roof tiles were being laid? Hot and sunny or did they have to shelter from rain? Who lived there? What animals took refuge in the barn? Who sat under the leafy boughs to eat a simple lunch? How many storms has this tree seen off and which birds have nested in it?

Such mental wonderings and daydreams have been with me for as long as I can remember. The first time that I was aware that others had committed such thoughts to paper was when I was reading 'Tess of the d'Urbevilles' by Thomas Hardy. He describes Tess observing a brick wall and wondering who had laid a particular brick that she is studying. That really hit home.

There is another literary nod towards such thoughts in one of my favourite poems, 'Forefathers' by Edmund Blunden:

Here they went with smock and crook,
Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade,
Here they mudded out the brook
And here their hatchet cleared the glade:
Harvest-supper woke their wit,
Huntsmen's moon their wooings lit.

From this church they led their brides,
From this church themselves were led
Shoulder-high; on these waysides
Sat to take their beer and bread.
Names are gone - what men they were
These their cottages declare.

Names are vanished, save the few
In the old brown Bible scrawled;
These were men of pith and thew,
Whom the city never called;
Scarce could read or hold a quill,
Built the barn, the forge, the mill.

On the green they watched their sons
Playing till too dark to see,
As their fathers watched them once,
As my father once watched me;
While the bat and beetle flew
On the warm air webbed with dew.

Unrecorded, unrenowned,
Men from whom my ways begin,
Here I know you by your ground
But I know you not within -
There is silence, there survives
Not a moment of your lives.

Like the bee that now is blown
Honey-heavy on my hand,
From his toppling tansy-throne
In the green tempestuous land -
I'm in clover now, nor know
Who made honey long ago.

I cannot read that without a shiver going through my body, his recognition of lives having been lived and then departed, the modest marks of which are there if you care to look, but as to the identity of these people, well, they may never be known to the inquisitive passer-by.

They were all written within thirty years of each other (1891-1920), and as to whether the timing has anything to do with such sentiment I do not know. We all play out our lives - some brief, some long - and that we leave clues behind when we are gone, clues to where we have been, and what we have done, is comforting. There is no such thing as a modest life - just look around you and see the tell tale signs of the millions that have gone before us - just as we will leave the same for those yet to come.