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More Mogador

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Wikipedia succinctly states that "Mogador is a hamlet at the edge of Banstead Heath, about 1 km from the top of the north-facing dip-slope of the North Downs. At an elevation of about 200 metres it is one of the highest settlements in south-east England." As for the purposes of bird recording, the area that I consider to be Mogador begins much closer to the top of the dip-slope, starting with an area of horse paddocks and copses. No doubt the height (relative I know) of the ground must be of some asset to what turns up here. It is very good for chats, much better than the nearby North Downs scarp slope at Colley Hill, which is directly south of Mogador. Colley Hill looks as though it should be a great site to bird, but the hours that I have put in over the years have been scantily rewarded - I have had much more success at Mogador. Birds on the move appear to be more easily and regularly seen at Mogador than Colley Hill, and it has taken me some time to accept that the more d

Tidying up the loose ends

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This post is a bit of a round-up, covering the last few days - those images that didn't quite fit into previous posts, those snippets of information that fell through the cracks in the blogging floor... to begin with, I've been visiting the 'Station field' on an almost daily basis, which is a recently cut meadow that is but a ten minute stroll from my front door. The bales of hay have been left in place, which has meant that any chats present are easy to see as they perch up, sentinel like, surveying all before them. Whinchats have only been present on one visit, although Wheatears (below) have been seen on each occasion, peaking (so far) at four last Sunday. The freshly exposed stubble has enticed up the three Red Kites (above) and six Common Buzzards to search for food. As previously mentioned, this site looks very good for sky-watching, being on proven fly lines. I await a chance to test the theory. After 33 'blank' years, the migrant tortrix Cydia amplana tu

Mogador shines

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Two large chunks of the day were spent birding across the rank grassland and arable farmland of Mogador, the Surrey village that sounds like a place straight out of a Tolkien novel. For the first visit I was joined by local birder and Holmethorpe-legend, Gordon Hay. We were delighted to find that the first influx of autumn Meadow Pipits was apparent, with 50 birds in a loose flock that happily drifted around by our sides. At least five Wheatears and a couple of Stonechats entertained us, and the two Yellow Wagtails that came in from the north and alighted in the long grass were most welcome. It was not until the end of our visit that an immature male Common Redstart bestowed upon us a distant sighting. I was alone in the early afternoon, and it was at once apparent that there had been a further arrival of chats, the Stones having increased to three and a Whin newly in. All five of this mornings Wheatears had moved on, to be replaced by three fresh ones, clearly identifiable as new on p

1980 Part 7 - Cornwall and back

A mid-September Saturday saw me embark on the whistle-stop tour of Kent, starting at Shellness, on the Isle of Sheppey, where a marked passage of hirundines and pipits was most obvious, along with 100 grounded Meadow Pipits, eight Wheatears and eight Yellow Wagtails. Nearby Capel Fleet was playing host to an immature Marsh Harrier. We then dropped down and drove slowly across the flat greenlands of Walland Marsh, where 25 Yellow Wagtails, four Whinchats and a Common Redstart were seen from the car. Arriving at Dungeness it was all too apparent that little was happening, although the following morning was kind enough to bestow upon us an adult female Red-backed Shrike, along with a Turtle Dove and Whinchat. All were keeping low in the bushes thanks to a strengthening south-westerly wind. Along with Dave E, we were whisked down to Cornwall in the early hours of September 21st courtesy of Mike Mc’s Toyota Celica – speed trumped comfort as we lowered ourselves into the cramped interior. Fi

A 'new' location

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Yesterday I was walking back home from Epsom Town centre when I passed a gateway - a gateway that I have walked on by over the years - and noticed that the substantial field on the other side was being cut, the grass neatly piled and baled. My birding brain kicked in with "I bet there will be a Wheatear or two on top of those bales before the day is out" and I found myself back on site later that evening - no Wheatear, but at least six Common Buzzards were gathered, no doubt taking advantage of the recently cut grass to forage for food. I returned early this afternoon, and, joy of joys, two Wheatears were on show, along with seven Common Buzzards and a Red Kite. And there was more, for I went back two hours later and the Wheatears had been joined by three Whinchats! Now, this field is largely unbirdable, with private housing, a railway station and a mature Hawthorn hedgerow keeping observations down to the previously mentioned gateway - or so I thought. I have found a couple

1980 Part 6 - a few characters

I had been introduced to Mike McDonnell by Dave E, who had befriended him on the Isles of Scilly the previous autumn. Mike was a happy-go-lucky birder/photographer who lived in Dartford. I was to spend much time with him over the coming couple of years, regularly being driven to his house by Dave E, where we would invariably wait for Mike to gather his stuff, which would also involve his preparation of lunch for the day’s birding. Mike did not scrimp on his food – he would produce veritable feasts that would shame my simple sandwiches, often featuring an oversized thermos flask full of cuts of meat. It was never a dull moment with Mike, the time being passed with much laughter and the inevitable search for a decent pub at the day’s end. On this mid-August day, we had driven on to the north-Kent village of Cliffe, where a series of Thames-side pools could be found and had a reputation as being good for waders. Our haul included six Wood Sandpipers, 12 Ruffs and two Curlew Sandpipers, al

1980 Part 5 - mid-summer uncertainties

My time as an art student had come to an end. The social element of college life was something that I enjoyed, albeit on my own terms. I was known as someone that would join in when the collective hair was being let down (and our hair was still long for most of that period) but if a good bird was to suddenly appear, I would be missing. Birding came first. My frequent absences, because of last-minute decisions to go off to Dungeness, Norfolk, or the Isles of Scilly, were just accepted by my peers. In later years, one of my fellow students expressed his admiration for my self-confidence, and my willingness to please myself, not worrying about what others thought. It had come at a price however – whereas others had formed firm friendship groups, I was always on their edge, never one on the inside. I had turned and walked the other way whenever there was the hint of a relationship forming, so focussed was I on maintaining my birding connections. I believed that to show any drop in commitme

1980 Part 4 - The Dummer Scops Owl

Every five seconds a monotonous single call note was given – I didn’t know whether to describe it as a penetrating whistle or a hoot. Maybe a bit of both. We were straining to try and get a glimpse of the bird that was making it, but a mature tree in full leaf, in the middle of a field, and at dusk, were proving to be considerable stumbling blocks. After half an hour of standing on a road that ran alongside the field’s edge, the bird dropped out of the tree and made a short, direct flight into another, from where it started to call once more. We were lucky, as unlike most of the 150 birders present, we had been standing in the right place at the right time, able to watch the Scops Owl in flight. The views had not been great but were enough to make out a small grey owl, thinner and more drawn out in shape than a Little. And so, the sleepy Hampshire hamlet of Dummer found itself at the centre of the British birding universe, hosting the first twitchable Scop’s Owl of our lifetimes. Dave

Surrey-side up

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Dawn at Canons Farm was a misty old affair, with barely a breath of wind. I went straight to the grassy field behind the farm house, where yesterday the flock of Whinchats were hanging out. For a good 20 minutes there was nothing on show, then they appeared, at least seven still present. I caught a glimpse of a warbler low among them, and in the couple of seconds that my binoculars were trained on it thought that it was possibly a Grasshopper Warbler. I waited awhile, but nothing popped up, and I supposed that it would be a case of letting one slip through my fingers again. Being entertained by the Whinchats, my attention was elsewhere when the warbler popped up again, this time quite close - indeed, it was a Grasshopper. It stayed perched on a dead stem of Common Sorrel for a good minute, allowing me to obtain a few pictures with the camera (above and below). It was a memorable morning, as a flock of five Golden Plover, a Yellow Wagtail and a Grey Wagtail all flew through eastwards, a

Blues postponed

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Let's cut to the chase - locally, the birding has been poor. I'm not moaning - OK, I am a bit - but for all of the hours spent out in the field, the rewards have been slow and few. I've already alluded to a dearth of birds, with hardly any warbler, finch or tit flocks. There have been times when, after 10-15 minutes, I realise I haven't seen or heard a passerine. Really. Luchtime today found me at Canons Farm. I was getting into that all-to familiar state, of wondering where all the birds had gone, of starting to despair with how things were turning out - I was on the verge of writing my own blues song, something along the lines of 'The lonesome Canons Farm birding lament', when up popped a Whinchat. Ah, something, at least something. Then another. Now three. Five. I scanned back and forth across the field of long grass and dead hogweed. Each time another Whinchat was on show. They were mobile, all keeping to the same field, but frequently dropping down out of s

1980 Part 3 - spring

I was close to completing my final year at Art College. The Easter break of two weeks was upon us, and I had just one place in mind as to where I would spend it – Dungeness. Teaming up with Tim Collins, we travelled down via Otford Field Pits (four Green Sandpipers, two Redshanks and 80 Common Snipe) and Shirley Moor (a Little Owl), arriving at the bird observatory after dark. It was a fortnight of heavy birding, with our horizons stretched across the greater Dungeness area, walking many miles over the energy-sapping shingle, building up our calf muscles as some compensation for the birding being, at times, slow. But we did have some success. In the observatory recording area we experienced a steady, if unremarkable, passage of migrant passerines, with peaks of Wheatear (20 on March 29th, 26 on April 2nd), Willow Warbler (30 on April 11th), Chiffchaff (15 on April 11th), Firecrest (five on March 28th and April 2nd), Meadow Pipit (100 on March 29th) and Black Redstart (five on April 9th

1980 Part 2 - late winter rarities

The first twitch of 1980 also turned out to be the first dip. On the morning of January 26th, I stood on the narrow paths at Radipole Lake in Dorset along with several hundred other birders, forlornly searching every dyke and pool for the Pied-billed Grebe that had been found the previous day. The neighbouring reedbeds were quiet, a single singing Cetti’s Warbler and three Bearded Tits hardly enough to compensate for the lack of rarity. A skein of 24 White-fronted Geese that flew through were a surprise though, along with three Greenshanks. The grebe, however, was just toying with us, as we were back again the following weekend as it had resurfaced, this time allowing us to obtain close views almost as soon as we arrived. It sat close to a Little Grebe, dwarfing its European cousin, betraying a long, thick neck and anvil shaped head that seemed out of proportion to the small body. There was a hint of colour to the largely grey-brown plumage, with a black crown and russet cheeks. The bi

1980 revisited - Part One

I was sitting in the Britannia Inn at Dungeness as 1979 gave way to 1980. The cheering and embracing that greeted this passing of time’s baton was fuelled as much by alcohol as it was bonhomie. Keith and Fran Redshaw, Tim Collins and I stayed in the crowded public bar until 01.00hrs, when we purchased some ‘take-aways’ and then left to carry on our revelries back at the Redshaw’s house, conveniently situated next-door to the bird observatory. I made a mental note of the first piece of music that blasted out of Keith’s speakers in this brand-new decade – ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ by the Only Ones – and there followed a heady mix of music, alcohol, and conversation until the first glimmer of daylight started to lighten the curtainless windows. We then picked up our binoculars, put on our jackets and boots, and went out into the fresh air. New Year’s morning is a time to cherish as a birder. The previous year’s slate has been wiped clean, with the scores and numbers in notebooks and

I cannot really complain

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For the past two early-autumns I have visited a small section of the Sussex South Downs to get a birding fix. In a vague rectangle, between Burpham in the west, Steyning in the east, Chanctonbury in the north and Cissbury in the south, there is a delightful mix of chalk grassland, pasture, crop, copse and hedgerow, all with a good track record for birds in number and species of some repute. In my previous visits I have come to expect some big passerine flocks and migrant choked vegetation, but today was a bit of a disappointment. Passerine numbers were much depressed, especially warblers, and it was, at times, hard going. I did end up seeing a Marsh Harrier, a Hobby, four Yellow Wagtails, 13 Wheatears, five Whinchats, a Spotted Flycatcher, a Common Redstart, a Sedge Warbler and 50 Corn Buntings, so I cannot really complain. I will try and get back before September passes the baton to October, as this land is excellent for chats.

Straw chats

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It's been a quiet couple of weeks locally. Canons Farm, Walton and Epsom Downs, Priest Hill and Headley Heath have all been visited. Passage migrants were thin on the ground and the number of warblers much depressed - I do wonder if the breeding season has been poor, and this is why I am not seeing (or hearing) many locally-bred young birds. Bucking the trend, however, was a count of 60+ Chiffchaffs at Headley last Wednesday. This morning's wander across the farmland at Mogador was better - straw bales that had been left in a recently harvested field were acting as convenient perches for three Whinchats and two Wheatears. I stood and watched for awhile. I will never tire of chats.

Grey and dull again

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Another grey, dull morning. My check of the garden MV came up with a decent moth, as the migrant tortrix, Cydia amplana (above), was sitting on one of the first egg boxes checked. This is the second garden record, and although a good inland record it was not surprising, as they have been recorded in good numbers down on the coast over the past few days. I was at Canons Farm by 07.00hrs - bad mistake - it was birdless. I haven't known this site to be so poor in the twenty years that I have been running an ornithological ruler over it. Once upon a time I would have stuck at it, but instead I went over to Headley Heath, hoping to at least find a large tit flock in which I might be able to prize some migrants from. It worked, to a fashion. Within 10 minutes I was watching a mixed passerine flock of 120 birds, mostly Blue Tits, but, within it were four Willow Warblers and 12 Chiffchaffs. Over the next three hours the Chiffchaff count rose to 65, but migrants were largely absent. There w

The gift that keeps giving

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With several ‘local’ sites reporting their first autumn chats over the last couple of days, and being a self-confessed ‘chatophile’, I went on the hunt this afternoon. From home by foot, I first pitched up at Canons Farm, a bit of a gamble as the fields are still with crop and there would be little decent habitat for any chat, and so it proved. However, there was a plan B! Making my way through to the paddocks to the north of Banstead village, the very first one that was checked, adjacent to the cricket club, held a Wheatear. Even after 47 years of birding, and having seen thousands of them, this species still brings so much joy to me. I watched it as the bird made its way along the fence line, dropping down into the paddock every now and then. The chat hunt had been successful, and my afternoon was made. Simple, modest stuff, but that is one of the pleasures of being at ease with birding locally. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

Shifting baseline syndrome

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As part of a writing project, I have been trawling through my notebooks from the early 1980s, having just completed a similar exercise for the 1970s. It makes sobering reading. Back then, I was still able to go out locally (in northern Surrey and south-west London) and see Turtle Doves, Willow Tits, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Spotted Flycatchers with ease and certainly not need to comment on seeing them as anything other than normal. At Beddington, one July day in 1980, I recorded a flock of 400 House Sparrows, and saw 800 at Dungeness the following October. These are counts that seem incredible now. It is all too easy to think of such figures as remarkable - but, in reality these were massive decreases on what had gone before. Close to my home, on Banstead Downs, 18,000 were counted coming into roost in 1960, with over 10,000 at Dartford Marshes, in Kent, up until 1974. By 1984 the same roost could only boast a maximum of 2,000. It is easy to allow 'shifting baseline syndrome&

After the rain

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At last a bit of dry and sunny weather! I hot-footed it off to Colley Hill where the butterflies were on show, with 350 Meadow Browns, 175 Chalkhill Blues and 10 Silver-spotted Skippers the highlights from the steep chalk slopes. A couple of Hobbys spent a bit of time sparring with the local Kestrels. The afternoon was spent at Holmethorpe SP, with the vegetation between the M23 and Spynes Mere busy with Small Red-eyed Damselflies (at least 60) and two Willow Emerald Damselflies (both species pictured below.) A pristine Brown Hairstreak was in the same area, but didn’t settle to have its picture taken.

Where once were terns

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I don't know what has sparked it off, but a number of birders on social media have voiced their dissatisfaction about the way in which certain organisations are managing nature reserves. Along with my thoughts about the Surrey Wildlife Trust's custodianship of Holmethorpe (see last post), there have been missiles lobbed at the Kent Wildlife Trust (Oare Marshes) and the RSPB (Dungeness). I can add my two-pennies about the latter... The reserve at Dungeness has come on an awful long way since my first visit in 1976. There has been much beneficial habitat creation, with 'new' reed beds that now support Bitterns, Marsh Harriers and Bearded Tits, and a mosaic of water bodies that are excellent for wildlife beyond birds. The visitor centre, when it was opened, was a massive step up from the wooden hut that used to stand there. And where there was just the one hide, at least nine are now scattered across the reserve. So, what's not to like? If I were being uncharitable, th