Showing posts from December, 2020

Kingbird Highway

Back in 1973, an American teenage birder by the name of Kenn Kaufman spent the year birding across North America, in an attempt to see more species of bird in a calendar year than anybody had recorded before. He wrote an account of those 12 months directly afterwards, but was so disappointed with the result that he hid the finished manuscript in a box. It was not until 1997 that it was dusted down and, with the help of professional editors and his own growth as a writer, it was published. I’m glad that it was. I was aware of this book, a modern birding classic, but had not read it. Over recent months, birder Mervyn Jones has implored me to do so, as it is a book that he holds in the highest regard. This Christmas I finally got hold of a copy and, over the past two days, have done so. What a fantastic read. The fact that the book has been written from the perspective of an older man looking back on his younger self give the words so much more gravitas and meaning. The skill in the writi


Just before Christmas I had a spring clean of my natural history memberships/subscriptions. Three of them bit the dust and for differing reasons. First up was the RSPB. I had been a member for over 40 years. My reasons for cancelling membership were down to a few episodes of shoddy treatment towards certain individuals I know who had worked, or volunteered for the organisation. I won’t mention names or places. These episodes make me feel as if the society that I first patronised back in the late-1970s had become an altogether different animal, one that puts money before people without a second’s thought. Maybe this is the way of the big charities today, but it saddens me. The next casualty is the periodical ‘British Wildlife’. I have subscribed (on and off) for maybe 15-20 years, but have increasingly found that I was only reading 50% of it. The third up is The Wildflower Society, a modest and charming collection of botanists but one which I am no longer an active part of. The £100 or

Much ado about Twitter

There are days when I decide that I am going to bin Twitter. These are the days when I spend far too long reading through the tweets and when I tweet something that becomes contentious. Days when... you get the picture. But when I think such thoughts I remember that this platform has become my primary source for latest bird information, world news alerts and social contacts. It is also a place that I can tweet out any old rubbish and then have a conversation. These are my tweets for today: As you can see, a right old mix of the banal and vaguely interesting. But they did elicit some response and a bit of banter. I also responded to tweets posted by other users and so became embroiled in conversations as diverse as the 1989 Kent Golden-winged Warbler, #BWKM0, and Kent birders. They say that television is the 'thief of time', but that could just as well apply to Twitter. Sometimes a tweet just takes off for no particular reason - this one garnered over 1200 likes. It also produce

On your marks...

Next year will see a laid-back attempt to hit the following targets across the uber-patch (above): Birds (140 species); Plants (700 species); Moths (500 species); Butterflies (38 species) and Dragonflies (18 species). I will also keep a record of how many footsteps I take in the search of them all - the aim is of completing 1,000,000, although seeing that my total so far this year is now over four million that shouldn't be a challenge. As much as failure in any category will elicit no more than a shrug from me, I will give each one a go and hope that in the effort to do so the local patches will carry on revealing something of themselves to me. Each and every year produces surprises, as no year is the same as any other. The bird total is going to be the biggest challenge, but it is always good to have an aim that will stretch oneself. As for the moths and plants, the need to attempt identifications across difficult groups and families can only be educational. I'm already ch

10.02 hrs, 21st December 2020

10.02hrs. 21st December 2020. The precise moment when the days start to lengthen, and no longer shorten. A time to look forward to birth, growth, regeneration. Maybe also a time to believe that we are also on the right path to a return to some form of normality. The pagan in me celebrates this moment. I will raise a cup of mead, look to the skies and hope that the coming spring can restore our collective wellbeing, both mentally and physically. Wherever you are and whatever you believe in, may you find comfort and peace.

Plum pudding

The last of my brief 2020 round-ups involves plants. Although I was out-and-about in the field a great deal I cannot recall a year when I seemed to see so little botanically. But there were three stand-out moments... Denbies Hillside, May. I came across this striking colour variation of Scarlet Pimpernel. I've seen red, orange, rose and blue, but never a plum-coloured flower. It was my botanical highlight of the year. Norbury Park, June. I was too late to see many of them in flower, but the number of Green Hound's-tongue plants was staggering - an estimated 10,000 covering sections of the eastern wooded slopes. Box Hill, June. Always keen to see Ground-pine at a new site, this particular plant appeared courtesy of a small scrape that had been created to encourage the growth of Kidney Vetch.

No Dyl, but cheers!

After what seems like several months of Christmas being force-fed to me, I am now happy to concede that this ‘season to be jolly’ is upon us. Not being religious means that this festival is, for me, one based on companionship, food, drink and relaxation - normally. This year will be different, whatever your take on Christmas. Reduced congregations or closed churches, smaller gatherings at home, suppressed jollity out of respect to those who have left us or continue to struggle with this virus... I sometimes think that, apart from the truly religious, anything else pertaining to Christmas this year has an air of triviality about it. I’m not going to debate the why’s-and-wherefore’s, the do’s-and-dont’s and the right’s-and-wrong’s - we will all conduct ourselves as we believe we should over the coming week or two. We can but hope that the vaccine roll-outs speed up, they work well, and that by the spring we might just be entering the start of normality, although I would question as to wh

Moth targets

At the end of each December, I look back on my 'moth year' and take stock of what happened. Was it a good year for migrants? How did my efforts at identifying micros go? And, what are my targets for the following year? The first two questions can be answered quite succinctly: "so-so" and "not too bad". I can expand on the third. As for the garden MV, there are still a few gettable macro species that have yet to appear here, such as Poplar Kitten, White Satin Moth, Red-necked Footman, Sprawler, Dusky-lemon Sallow, Pale-lemon Sallow (pictured left), Oak Rustic and Hedge Rustic, although the latter is on a downward spiral and is becoming harder to rely on each year. All those mentioned are moths that I've seen elsewhere, but there are others that could appear in the garden and would be totally new for me, such as Juniper Carpet, Maple Prominent, Four-spotted Footman, Dark Crimson Underwing, Black-spotted Chestnut  and Double-line. Some of those are pushing

Reigate Ring-neck

Yesterday morning, Gordon Hay found a female Ring-necked Duck on Priory Park Lake in Reigate. This record has echoes of the Ewell bird that spent two winters, 18 years ago, on a far more modest park pond. I paid my respects this morning, with the bird seemingly aware that there were birders present - when it came close it ensured that there was plenty of bank-side vegetation between it and the path that I was standing on. That made observation fleeting and difficult. After 15 minutes it then swam across the lake and decided to play hide-and-seek amongst some overhanging trees and submerged roots. This bit of dodgy video is the best that I could manage. Hopefully it is here for the winter. Gordon is now hoping that this North-American vagrant decides to pay his beloved Holmethorpe a visit - only three miles away as the duck flies.

Incoming inverts

Another one of those end of year round-ups, part celebration, part blog filler. Today’s post features four invertebrate highlights, all of them either new colonists or species making a comeback.  First up is Striped Shieldbug (Graphosoma italicum). In mid-June I’d been tipped off that a specimen had been found close to Banstead Downs, so armed with a grid reference I went in search. My first attempt drew a blank (although see below), but seeing that the site was close to home I went back again on 20th July  - managing to find a singleton before I even arrived at my destination, on Hogweed, on Banstead Downs itself. I was destined to see this species again, in the same general area, on two more occasions, with one being a nymph, (in the company of Graeme Lyons), on 31st August. This shieldbug, found in the Mediterranean region, has been sparingly recorded in the UK. This species appears to be spreading north from its core range. On my initial failed hunt for Striped Shieldbug I came acr

Go with the flow

Sometimes it is good to just let things go with the flow, whether that be birding, painting or life in general. I started out to paint a background for a Hawfinch-themed composition, but became lost in the swirls and patterns that just unfolded, almost on an automatic-pilot of brush strokes and dabs. The colour palette was open to abuse, so it got abused. Mindfulness in gouache. Those Hawfinches will just have to wait.

A birding year like no other

Looking back on 2020 was always going to be an exercise shrouded in the spectre of COVID. There is just no escaping from the fact that, at the very least, the virus inconvenienced and disrupted all of us - and for the unfortunate few, it impacted in a far more tragic way. Back in January the virus was nothing more than a vague whisper from a region of China that few of us had heard of before. Birding was a free and easy way to spend quality time, without the need to calculate bubble-sizes, lockdown quotas and the rights and wrongs of how to bird... times were easy. My own birding year began locally. Apart from a trip to Pulborough Brooks in January, and a brief Dungeness visit at the end of February, everything was done locally, and nothing unexpected came my way. At the start of March, at Canons Farm, I had a run of birds that hinted at a good spring to come, with Black Redstart (2nd), Wheatear (11th, very early) and Woodlark (16th). Then the virus arrived. Lockdown was announced. A h

There is always tomorrow

A Surrey North Downs winter woodland can be a quiet place. This afternoon, on Ranmore Common, a couple of hours were spent in slow motion, wandering the tracks that criss-cross this chalky ridge that is coated in a copious layer of mud. The paths ooze the brown stuff, with standing water barring passage and making the cleaning of the footwear an urgent need when returning home. But that can wait - there are birds to find here - good birds, birds such as Hawfinch, Crossbill, Firecrest, Marsh Tit and even, if you are lucky, Goshawk. Nothing doing so far, so just slow down, breathe easy, concentrate. But they still do not come. Hardly any tit flocks, few finches, the quiet has a chill but not unpleasant feeling, more one born of a message: "Not today Steve, try again next time." The light is fading, my rough passage through the undergrowth is made in the hope of a flushed Woodcock, but still the birding Gods are not interested. I look up into the skeleton canopy and fix my pleas

Thrush action

The Redwings around here have not been behaving themselves as expected. For a start, they have been in sub-song all late autumn and now in early winter. Yesterday there were 20+ all having a good old partial sing-song together, like a choir of carol singers warming up. I don’t normally hear this sort of performance until the very mild days of late-February. And there has been their high numbers - 100-200 birds have been marauding around the Banstead gardens feeding on the home-grown berries. It is unusual to see so many domestically unless the weather has been hard, and we are in the midst of mildness personified. So, what is happening? Food shortages on the downs? A sudden influx from the continent? All this is being carried out with the starting up of Song and Mistle Thrush song as accompaniment. Together with the conspicuous Blackbirds, it is brimming locally with thrush action.

Winter flower surprise

A winter wander into Epsom town centre (approximately two miles from home) was enlivened by my recording of every species of wild (or naturalised) plant that was still in flower -  I do love a bit of aimless note-taking. The plants were mainly found on roadside verges, cracks in the pavement and unkempt flower beds. I managed a creditable 43 species, mostly made up of the usual suspects, but there were a few surprises - a patch of Sweet Violet, a couple of Wood Avens (or Herb Bennet if you prefer), Pellitory-of-the-wall, Sunflower (Helianthus annus), but the best was saved up until the last. As I approached home, and seeing that I had still to record Slender Speedwell, I stopped on the driveway to have a close look at our front lawn. I didn't see any flowering speedwell, but was delighted to spy a small plant of Blue Fleabane that was exhibiting several flower-heads (above). It is a local plant in the area, but to be expected on the chalk nearby. This is the first garden record, an

Bird book of the year

I cannot claim to be a world lister. Apart from several birding jaunts around central and Southern Europe, I've only ventured further afield twice - to Israel and Malaysia. Although my enjoyment was immense, my fear of flying has got in the way. Even family holidays have had to take this into account, with my reluctance to board any plane being conquered only every 3-4 years or so - and even then alcohol and/or tranquillisers were a necessary part of the process. Not a good base then to even think about world listing. When Lynx Edicions announced the publication of their book, 'All the Birds of the World', I was not initially stirred. And then I saw some of the plates. Wow! I had to get it. It has been so popular that the first print run could not meet demand, so I had to wait five weeks for my copy to arrive, but it was so worth the wait. It's big. And thick. And heavy. Each page a delight of avian promise, with all of the taxonomic treatments from the four major world

Walk on...

I have an app on my phone that keeps a record of how far I walk each day. Sometimes, if I've been on a particularly lengthy stroll, I'll have a look as see how far my legs have taken me. Today I thought I'd see how far I've travelled on foot in this troublesome year of 2020. Daily average: 11,744 steps or 7.6km (4.72 miles) 1st Jan - 3 Dec: 3,899,008 steps or 2,523km (1,567 miles) This year has been very different from most years. My walking has been boosted by the imposition of the lockdowns, meaning that I've shunned the car in preference to using Shank's Pony. This is turn has awoken a desire to explore locally, at times taking me miles from home and on a regular basis. Out of despair can come joy. I'll leave the last words to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of

White-front surprise

Surrey is hardly renowned as being a hotspot for wintering geese, but this recent push of (Russian) White-fronted Geese into the south-east of England has even given the humble Uber-patch a piece of the action. The Mole valley flood plain, at Betchworth, is currently hosting up to 47 of them (45 were present this afternoon when I was there). The birds were keeping at distance for most of the hour on site, but then came closer just as we were about to leave. With them were 346 Canada, 302 Greylag, 36 Egyptian and a lone Barnacle. The scene, as viewed from a nearby hillock, was more reminiscent of Norfolk parkland.


Yesterday evening I had written a lengthy post on the subject of birding behaviour during the second lockdown, but then deleted it rather than publish it - this after a bit of soul-searching when I thought better of it, and decided that it might ruffle a few feathers That wasn't something that I wished to happen.  So I tweeted this instead: As can be seen, it has gathered a lot of interest, with over 58,000 views, 40 Retweets and getting on for 950 likes. But what about the 'not likes'? Even though I do put out the odd contentious tweet from time to time I am still a sensitive soul and do not like to think that anybody would be upset by what I post. I felt happy that the above post would be taken as a pat-on-the-back to those birders who have stuck to the government lockdown recommendations. Plenty haven't - or at least have played loose with the nitty-gritty of lockdown - and this has annoyed me somewhat. I could go into a bit more detail, but really don't want to.