Thursday, 17 June 2021

Staying put

Two weeks ago I was in West Sussex, on a beautiful sunny day in which I met up with a couple of friendly faces from my birding past (you can read about it here). I took a detour on my way home, to Shoreham, to see plant that I have long lusted after, Starry Clover (pictured above). The drive was a lengthy one considering the short distance, and the traffic seemed to be back to pre-Covid levels, with plenty of queues, hold-ups and busy junctions. I crawled into Shoreham - the clover's home - and parked up by the fort, to be greeted by hundreds of people flopping about the beach, strolling the paths and enjoying ice-creams, drinks and the sun. My clover quest was a rushed affair, due to the species being by a busy footpath, with my self-conscious attempts to photograph the flowers drawing plenty of bemused attention. I then, rather reluctantly, walked some 500m to check on a site for Childing Pink, at a small cordoned off area of sandy ground, along the harbour's edge. It was heaving with people, bikes, dogs and balls. I couldn't wait to get away, and barely checked for the plant.

Driving home, along busy roads, I wondered as to whether or not my trip to Shoreham had been worthwhile. Admittedly, I had seen the clover, but it was not the enjoyable experience that I envisaged. What did that say about my apparent success in seeing my clover lifer? Surely having seen it was the reason, the purpose of the visit, so it would suggest that it must be classed as mission accomplished, job done, thumb's-up all round? Clearly not.

What was the fly in the ointment then?

People.

The older I get, the more my natural history experience needs to be one of solitude, 'quietness', spirituality and contemplation. These are reasons why I didn't go and visit the River Warbler in Somerset, drive up to Northumberland for the stint or even go down to the shingle Kingdom of Dungeness to watch the 'three pratincole' show. I don't know whether I am an 'anti-social, social' person, or a 'social, anti-social' member of society - whatever it is, they are the traits of somebody who feels happy in their own company up to a point. Losing myself in the landscape - be that a vast panorama with accompanying big sky, or a hogweed choked footpath brim full of insects - is my safety valve, my comfort blanket, my safe place. A time to switch off from normal life, divorcing yourself from the long list of negatives that blight our lives in 2021. 

I have a list of 'summer' targets - butterflies, moths, plants and other inverts - all written in a book, with timings, locations and other information just waiting to be accessed and acted upon. The Starry Clover entry has been dealt with, its presence on the list removed. But as for the others? I doubt that I’ll move on any of them in 2021…

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Look what’s popped up...


When I took the lawn mower out to tidy up the front lawn I was staggered to see this Pyramidal Orchid standing proud. It was a bit the worse for wear, having had the leaves nibbled - most probably slugs - but the flower head was present and just starting to flower. The garden is on chalk with just a shallow depth of earth. The closest Pyramidal Orchids are maybe 3/4 of a mile away. Our front lawn has a good natural flora, with species such as Blue Fleabane and Small Toadflax cropping up, plus common calcareous grassland plants. I mowed around the orchid and am proudly watching it open up.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

First moths origins

Since 1987 I have recorded 409 species of macro moth in the garden. I thought it would be interesting to see what new species I have recorded over the past 15 years and a breakdown of their possible origins.

2006 Striped Hawk-moth (01/09), Pinion-streaked Snout (22/09), Pine Carpet (14/10), Blair's Mocha (28/10)

2008 Buff Footman (01/06)

2009 Dingy Footman (02/06)

2010 Toadflax Brocade (23/05), Orange Footman (04/06), Hoary Footman (25/07)

2011 Rannoch Looper (03/06), Tree-lichen Beauty (02/08)

2012 Jersey Tiger (17/08), Gypsy Moth (18/08)

2013 Royal Mantle (16/07), White-point (04/09)

2014 Grass Rivulet (07/06), Dark Spectacle (03/09)

2015 Cypress Carpet (26/06)

2017 Yellow-legged Clearwing (13/06), Orange-tailed Clearwing (18/06), Scarlet Tiger (19/06), Scallop Shell (08/07), Clifton Nonpareil (23/08), Delicate (25/09)

2018 Great Oak Beauty (09/06), Kent Black Arches (06/07), The Mocha (07/07), Oak Processionary (19/07), Gold Spot (06/08)

2019 Langmaid's Yellow Underwing (04/08)

2020 Dewick's Plusia (10/08), Heath Rustic (14/09), L-album Wainscot (15/09)

Migrant   Expanding resident   Colonising adventive   Hot-weather wanderer

The colour coded key above may not be totally accurate - some might argue that the Jersey Tigers are not from expanding residents but from adventive stock - and that the Clifden Nonpareil appeared as a migrant in what was a tremendous year for them, regardless of whether or not they set up new colonies at the same time. The number of expanding residents is clear to see, particularly the four species of Footmen in a three year period, all of which are now regularly recorded. There are also a few species that, although resident in England, are not found close to Banstead and are moths of specialised habitat - they always seem to pop up during hot weather, hence the 'hot-weather wanderer' tag. Some of these new species, considering how infrequent they are, come in clusters, such events being driven by the weather conditions as much as by chance.

What next? If I was to put on a bet it would be for Oak Rustic, a species that has already colonised just north of me. I would also have a cheeky punt on Dark Crimson Underwing which has colonised Wimbledon Common, that is less than 10 miles away as the moth flies.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Moth bothering

The garden moth trap has started to produce decent numbers and species diversity, although that headline moth has still yet to appear. My highlights over the past week have been Alder Moth (above) and Figure of Eighty (below). A few migrants have also started to show, but limited to low numbers of Silver Y and the micro xylostella. My garden is at its 'mothing' best during the months of June and July, when wanderers infiltrate the catch - not just migrants but also habitat specific residents that go wandering. An exciting time of year here in Banstead.

Thursday, 3 June 2021

A few longhorn beetles

A few invertebrate images from yesterday afternoon's visit to Headley Heath. Once I start looking down rather than up, I know the summer is here...

Stenocorus meridianus, a big brute of a longhorn that just wouldn't keep still for me. Thanks to Martin Fowlie for correcting my identification.

Anaglyptus mysticus  - and very smart too

My favourite species from the Headley Heath session was this Rhagium mordax

If you fancy finding some longhorn beetles for yourself find a few recently felled tree trunks like this and just spend 15-20 minutes nosing around. Look under the peeling bark but try not to break it off.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Lesser Marshwort

On the edge of Headley Heath is a pond that was home to the exceedingly rare plant, Starfruit. It was a well-known site amongst botanists and saw a steady stream of them come to pay their respects over the years. The pond was not managed, it became overgrown and when a mass of cleared vegetation was dumped by its side the Starfruit had had enough. It disappeared.

Three years ago the pond was cleared. The surrounding vegetation was removed, and the Starfruit's seed bank was shocked back into life. You can read about my audience with this reawakening here. Sometime last year I was browsing online when my attention was drawn to this very same pond, with a reference being made to the presence of Lesser Marshwort - not a rare species, but certainly a local one. I had not seen it before, in all likelihood I had overlooked it over the years across several locations. This afternoon I went back...

The plant was found quickly, but there wasn't a lot of it and had I not known it was there could easily have missed it. It grows in the water, with thread like submerged leaves and palmate ones above the surface, together with tiny white flowers of five petals. It is one for the connoisseur, a delicate and unassuming thing. 

Location of most of the Marshwort, just a metre away from the pond edge

Submerged leaves, different from those upper leaves in the top picture.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

The Good Old Days

Back in the mid-1970s one of my regular haunts was Pagham Harbour (above), courtesy of a train and bus ride. I tried to visit once a month, sometimes twice, and can safely say that it became a special place for me. Over the years the visits became infrequent, and until today had last made the trip in 2010. Another was therefore long overdue. It was quite an emotional day. I arrived at 05.30hrs accompanied by a light that was ethereal. A clear azure sky turned water and wet mud into liquid mercury and silver, the stillness amplifying the cries of the nesting gulls and terns across the harbour. Throughout the visit I was serenaded by an urgent murmur coming from the colony, on two occasions being startled by the birds as they were spooked, a sudden roar, not unlike a jet aircraft, which died as quickly as it began. Mediterranean Gulls, Sandwich, Common and Little Terns patrolled the water between harbour and sea, sharing the skies with the ubiquitous Black-headed. A Peregrine hunted out on the saltings, but had little to pursue. Cattle and Little Egrets flew to and fro from the North Wall, an observation that I would have found hard to believe back in 1975. An Avocet and 13 Black-tailed Godwits were the pick of the waders.

My visit was prompted by an arranged meeting with two blasts from my Pagham and Selsey past - Chris Janman and Mervyn Jones. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s we had birded together on the peninsula, had great times on the Isles of Scilly and shared cars on the way to far flung twitches. Although Chris and Mervyn meet up regularly, my relationship with them has been purely one via the medium of social media over recent months. It was the first time that I had seen them for just shy of 40 years. It was a delightful get together, a steady potter around the Sidlesham end of the harbour, casually birding while reminiscing and putting the world to rights. When Merv bade us farewell, Chris took me to an area of chalk downland that I had not visited before - Levin Down (below)

North of Goodwood, it is managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. We zigzagged the slope, finding Dingy Skipper and Small Blue in a depressed number of butterflies on the wing. There was a small amount of Horseshoe Vetch present.

My last stop of the day was to Shoreham-by-sea, to visit an area of beach close to the fort carpark, where a decent amount of the alien Starry Clover (above) was on show. I would have stayed longer to take in the interesting flora, but the place was heaving with holiday makers. I am indebted to Paul James who gave me directions to find this striking plant.

And a big thank you to Merv and Chris, who kindly took the time to meet up, share their knowledge of this corner of Sussex and extend a hand of friendship from down the years. Until next time...

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

More invert action

Sometimes, just a nose about locally is all it takes to produce the goods. After a morning of gardening I took myself off to check Banstead Downs for Striped Shieldbug (above). I didn't find them where I have had success before, but did come across three individuals within 3m of each other at a new site (TQ2664260543) some 500m south of the original Freedown Lane colony. 

I also came across Lixus iridis (above) at four sites, all shown on the map below. Each of these areas are open in character with a heavy ground vegetation. The weevil seems to like Hogweed. Today, all three Striped Shieldbugs were on Bramble.

Apart from the Striped I also recorded Brassica, Dock, Hairy and, best of all, Woundwort Shieldbug (below), my favourite - just like delicate precious jewels. The chances are, if you are in the Banstead, Wallington, Chipstead, Coulsden or Croydon areas, a check of any stand of Hogweed might provide you with either of these colonising inverts. That's my summer sorted out then...

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Colley potter

Looking across the chalk pit to the scarp slope of Colley Hill

Colley potter - sounds like a BBC1 Sunday evening family drama, doesn’t it? However, it just describes my afternoon, spent climbing up and down the steep, south-facing scarp slope of Colley Hill, together with a side trip (on foot) to the cricket pitch on Reigate Heath. It was yet another cool and blustery day, although thankfully lacking the heavy rain showers of recent days. The footpaths have become muddy again and insect life was depressed, with barely a butterfly to look at. Botanically it seems as if many species are late in flowering, certainly the carpet of flowers that is to be expected on chalk down land is so far missing. I know it’s boring because I’ve banged on about it frequently this Spring, but the lot of the dry inland birder is, at the moment, one of few birds. My scanning of the skies from the hill top just underlined how little is out there, with very little bird song and very few migrants. Thankfully I can turn my attention to other life forms - both Annual Knawel (below) and Bird's-foot (middle) were on the short sward of Reigate Heath (bottom). The Bird's-foot was profuse.




At the bottom of the slope I came across a single plant of Green Hound's-tongue, a rare flower of limited range in England. Although I have seen colonies of several thousand in Surrey, this is the furthest east that I have seen one in the county.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Vegetated verges

Roadside verges can be a rich source for recording wild flowers. Here in Banstead we are lucky enough to be in an area where the housing planners of the 1930s considered that green spaces were advantageous to residents - thus we have many grassy strips that are allowed to grow (largely) unchecked - mainly due to council cutbacks that do not stretch to frequent mowing. A ten-minute walk from home provided me with 60 species of wild flower utilising these areas. Although this morning's list was not populated by anything surprising, I have found Common Broomrape, Small Toadflax, Pignut, Blue Fleabane, Pyramidal Orchid and Bee Orchid on these Banstead verges in the past. The underlying ground is chalk, so it is quite usual to find plants that would usually be associated with calcareous grassland on these suburban havens.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Past few days

My 'birding spring' seems to have already morphed into an 'insect summer'. I can't say I'm too bothered about it as the local birding has not been all that productive over the past few weeks (for me, anyway). Avian highlights this week have been a migrating Hobby along the scarp at Colley Hill (watched it arrive from a mile-away, dead straight line, east to west) and a singing Firecrest on Banstead Downs, where I have only seen wintering birds in the past.

The image above may not appear to have any wildlife merit, yet it is here that both Striped Shieldbug and the giant weevil Lixus iridis is to be found here. I have failed to locate the former so far in 2021, but the latter are easy to find, double-figure counts achievable without the need of sweeping or beating the vegetation. A good selection of inverts are also present, and really bolster this flagging birder's mind. A few highlights below. I have found in the past that when I switch off from the birds they often come and find me - last year, on June 1st, I had the pleasure of a Bee-eater calling overhead just a couple of miles from home. As much as I don't expect a repeat performance this year, I am quite happy to receive any similar luck if it's going...

Lixus iridis

Hairy Shieldbug

Rhopalus subrufus

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Invert interlude

A morning that started as a search of the many horse paddocks to the north of Banstead (which failed to yield the hoped for chats and wagtails) and ended up as a successful hunt for invertebrates, mainly due to my checking of the Lixus iridis Banstead Downs location. To the uninitiated, this is a rare, southern-European species of weevil, large in size and of indeterminate status in the UK. Whether it is here under its own steam is in question, but now that it maintains a foothold in northern Surrey, we may see it expand further (image above).

At least six were found in a small area of Hogweed with casual searching over 30 minutes (no sweeping or beating). This site is also 'home' to Striped Shieldbug, although none were forthcoming, and I also checked a further site where I had recorded this rare hemipterid last summer. No joy there either. There were good numbers of Dock Bugs, with smaller counts of Sloe, Brassica (below) and Pied (bottom) Shieldbugs. 


Friday, 30 April 2021

EPO

A search of the scrub at the bottom of the North Downs scarp, at Denbies Hillside, could only reveal a handful of Whitethroats and none of the passage migrants I was hoping for. My effort this spring has not, on the whole, been rewarded - no doubt a sentiment shared by many birders up and down the country. Some consolation was had with the number of species of flower that are now coming into bloom, particularly the ground flora of the woodland. In amongst the Bluebells at the top of the hill it was a pleasure to revisit the Early Purple Orchid colony (below). Another month starts tomorrow, and my first appointment in the morning is my second COVID jab, at Epsom Downs racecourse. I might just take my binoculars along...


Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Not through want of trying

Today saw a 12-hour birding session at one of my former regular patches - Holmethorpe Sand Pits. It was a day orchestrated by a chill north-easterly breeze, dirty grey cloud and frequent light rain showers. It ended with me feeling damp, achy and underwhelmed. I was joined in this most worthy of ornithological quests by 'Mr. Holmethorpe' himself, Gordon Hay. We tried. Honestly, we tried...

The area is characterised by several waterbodies, farmland, copse and a barren ridge that was once landfill. Our list of today's 'highlights' will not overly impress - 1 Little Egret, 2 Teal, 3 Gadwall, a Little Ringed Plover, a Lapwing, a Common Snipe, a Greenshank (above), a Common Sandpiper, 15 Swift, a Kingfisher, 150+ Sand Martin, 50+ Swallow, 25+ House Martin, 5 Yellow Wagtail, 2 Cetti's Warbler, a Sedge Warbler, 5 Reed Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat, 8 Common Whitethroat, 30+ Blackcap, 4 Garden Warbler, 7 Chiffchaff, a Willow Warbler and 10+ Yellowhammer. Hardly a red-letter day. We kept at it, especially after the Beddington Boys (10 miles to the north) had two Arctic Skuas sail by. Such is birding. On another day, it could have been our glory - at least, that what we are telling ourselves.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Garlic buntings

A chilly north-easterly wind, clear blue skies and a harsh sunlight all added up to provide an underwhelming morning's birding. Again, perversely, I chose to bird 'the road less travelled' which equated to a few hours of seeing very little, although this is what is to be expected when the places I visit are not all that 'birdy'. If I'm staying local it just seems a more adventurous option than to visit the crowded footpaths at Beddington or Holmethorpe. There are plenty of eyes already watching these north-Surrey hotspots - all I would do is add to that mass (although I plan to visit them both soon enough).

This morning's highlight was botanical, as down by the banks of the River Mole, close to Mickleham, one of spring's highlights was unfurling - the mass flowering of Ramsons (above). These bright white flowers zing out against the oh-so green leaves, the whole experience joined with the unmistakable smell of garlic. This show will look even better in a day or twos time when the flowers are fully opened. Today's bird interlude comes courtesy of a couple of buntings that posed for the camera on my South Downs walk last week: Corn Bunting (top) and Yellowhammer (bottom). 


Friday, 23 April 2021

Ouzel map

Yesterday's Ring Ouzel got me looking back at my past Uberpatch records for this charming thrush. First recorded at Beddington SF (1976), Seears Park, Cheam (1984), Holmethorpe (1991), Headley Heath (2005), Canons Farm, Banstead (2011), Priest Hill, Ewell (2017), Colley Hill (2018), Box Hill (2019), Little Woodcote (2020), Epsom Downs and Walton Downs (2021). Extreme dates: Spring passage; 29 March 2017 (Priest Hill, Ewell) – 1 May 2017 (Canons Farm, Banstead); Autumn passage; 13 October 2012 (Canons Farm, Banstead) - 7 November 1976 (Beddington SF). Highest counts: eight on 21 October 2019 at Box Hill; three on 13 October 2012 at Canons Farm, Banstead. And here are the sighting locations marked on the Uberpatch map (I didn't feel up to drawing a mini-Ouzel so a star will have to do.) I need to spend more time down in that south-westerly corner - there are no Ouzel stars there!

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Keep on keeping on

Since I swore off birding locally I have been birding locally (apart from the escape to the South Downs on Tuesday). That is quite typical of me, full of declarations, plans and ideas that somehow go to pot within the blink of an eye. And how quiet these sessions have been! Scarcely a migrant to be had, even after hours of scouring the fields, hedges and copses of Epsom and Walton Downs, full of hope, topped up with patience and a resolve not to go home empty handed. And to a lesser degree it has been a success. Each session has ended with at least a handful of Wheatear, once a male Common Redstart and on three occasions a male Ring Ouzel (all different birds). This afternoon I was near the end of a sunny, breezy, and birdless session (not even a Wheatear), when this popped up in front of me...

I will never tire of Ring Ouzels. For us southerners they are just passage migrants, and you've had a good day when you are graced with their presence. So, the lesson is clear. Keep on ploughing that birding furrow, even on a day that promises nothing. Today, a Ring Ouzel - and tomorrow? Who knows...

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

An audience with an eagle

I spent the day wandering along the South Downs footpaths between Chantry Post, Kithurst Hill and The Burgh. Beautiful weather, plenty to look at (including Grey Partridges and Corn Buntings, both missing in action from Surrey) with a scattering of Wheatears. But it was a raptor which stole the show. There have been two of the Isle of Wight White-tailed Eagles hanging around the area, so I was certainly on the look out, but the manner in which I bumped into one of them was unexpected. Coming across a picturesque scene, at the mouth of a rolling valley, I wandered along the bottom to get a better photographic composition when I was aware of a strange 'haystack' not 100m from me. I lifted the binoculars, thinking to myself that it would be good if it were an eagle, and this came into focus:

After watching it for several minutes the bird flapped lazily away and alighted on a nearby tree. I was able to take some video, through the heat haze. An hour later it was circling above the valley, only to alight in the middle of an open field.


Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Out of memory


Yesterday morning found me with my 'DIY' hat on, and that is not a type of headwear that sits comfortably on me. After reparing the garden shed and re-felting the roof (an easy job that even idiots like me can successfully complete) I rewarded myself with a trip up to Walton Downs. Blackcaps (above) and Chiffchaffs provided the accompanying soundtrack. Big highlight was a splendid male Ring Ouzel in the horse paddocks, which gave good, but distant views, hopping around the short sward in the company of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes. And why no photograph? Guess who took his camera out without a memory card inside it? Answers on a postcard...


This morning a dire skywatch at Box Hill was followed up by a shortish visit to Swire's Farm, which can still boast a healthy population of Yellowhammers (above), with much singing and courtship shenanigans being heard and observed. Apart from a Common Whitethroat not much to get the birding juices flowing.


Last stop of the morning was a return to Walton Downs. The Woodland Trust have certainly kept to their word and have created areas of non-woodland within the Centenary Wood complex that is being created on the site of Langley Vale Farm. These areas are to benefit the superb arable flora present (which I have extensively blogged about in the past) and also the historical population of Lapwings. These waders are celebrated rather than kept quiet, with signs attached to the fencing informing passing walkers of 'what lies within'. At least 10 birds were present yesterday, with three seen this morning. This field (above) is huge, a combination of earth, flint and chalk at the surface. Wheatears have taken a liking to it recently, with as many as 12 present (just four this morning). A check was made on the horse paddocks, in the hope that the Ouzel may have remained. Unfortunately not, but a male Common Redstart was some compensation.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Steve 0 Birding fail 3

I had the birding-bit between my teeth this morning and was standing on Box Hill shortly after dawn. The weather forecast from the previous evening had intimated that this part of Surrey might get clipped by the odd, short, wintery shower. The large bank of low cloud that I could see quickly arriving from the west suggested a bit more than just a few minutes of sleet, and so it proved...

A benign dawn, just about to give way to that bank of cloud arriving from the right...
Incoming!
Little visibility and certainly no birds on the move

I huddled underneath a Yew tree that was able to still afford me good panoramic views, but these views waxed and waned, as did the snow fall. I stuck it out for 90 minutes, but the sky to the west remained resolutely hidden behind a low, grey, snow-filled murk. Tail between my legs, I trudged back to the car. Steve 0 Birding fail 1.

The sun came out late morning, the snow did one, and even if the air temperature was still decidedly chilly, it felt spring-like once again. Even though I had promised myself not to get too hopeful about the local birding, I couldn't help myself - so up onto Epsom Downs I went, with a particular hedgerow in mind.


This hedge (on the left) snakes along a modest valley, between open ground on either side. It is very old, with a large suite of species, and it boasts a great depth. I first came across it during the winter, as it is in an area only recently opened up to the public (although I have yet to see anybody here). I took a very slow walk along its whole length - which must be close to half a mile - and found just ONE migrant. A Blackcap. In fact, I might as well spill the beans and admit to only seeing a handful of passerines in total (Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Dunnock). I was hoping for a Common Redstart at least. Steve 0 Birding fail 2.

I then checked a number of open, stony fields that look perfect for Wheatears (at the very least) and Stone Curlews (in my fevered dreams). I found neither. Steve 0 Birding fail 3. So, a day that promised much - at least in my mind - and delivered little. A trip to the coast cannot come soon enough.

A Lapwing warning a Stone Curlew to hide, as I'm looking for it.