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.

Friday, 9 April 2021

We're going on a Wheatear hunt!

I like Wheatears. They're the best. So when the fair county of Surrey has a day when these delightful 'white-arses' are being widely observed in decent numbers I need little encouragement to get out in the field and count them. But, like all good things, they will not just appear in front of you on demand. A certain amount of toil is needed to be rewarded. I have three Wheatear hotspots close to home, but not all of them played ball.

Canons Farm - no Wheatear.

Priest Hill - no Wheatear.

Epsom Downs - eight Wheatear! All but one on the race course itself. Seven males and a female.

Mockingbird? No, as much as I can understand why many birders wanted to go and see one, give me a Wheatear any day of the week. In fact, give me several...

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Mockingbirds to the left of me, eagles to the right, here I am...

It must say something about my state of birding mind that, as I was quietly checking some farmland close to Holmwood (on a spur of the Greensand ridge), and news started to get out about a Mockingbird (only 18 miles to the south) and a White-tailed Eagle (13 miles to the north), I calmly carried on without any thought of abandonment. Mad? Sane? Bereft of enthusiasm? Maybe. Maybe all three...

I was checking an area of land centred on Swires Farm. Local birders have had some success here, and after I paid it a visit back in the winter was keen to return. It was certainly worthwhile, with a Hobby, a Green Sandpiper, 4 Wheatear and 18 Yellowhammer the highlights. A fair sprinkling of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps were present, with plenty of Cuckoo-flower to brighten up the walk.

When finished, I pondered on the two rarities either side of me, gave it brief thought, and decided to return home. I’m either the world’s most social anti-social birder, or the most anti-social social birder... neither camp quite fits.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Vis-mig and an Ouzel


With lockdown partially eased, I felt confident enough to visit Box Hill for my first 'visible-migration' watch of the year. I took up position at my normal spot, below and to the west of the public viewpoint. This allows clear sight of birds arriving along the scarp, and also those a that are coming out of, or going into, the Mole Gap. The image above is what can be seen if you look straight ahead from my 'vis-mig' spot - the town of Dorking, with the Greensand Ridge in the far background. A small knoll, 'The Nower', is on the left-hand side (in the middle-ground), with the Mole Gap on the far right, in front of the rising hills that go up to Denbies and Ranmore. It was not a seismic migration session, as can be seen. For those of you not familiar with the migration site Trektellen, an asterisk against a species name denotes a differing direction of travel other than that which is specified. Most of my birds were, in fact, going north up the Mole Gap.


Afterwards I went and familiarised myself with the area of farmland between Denbies Hillside and Westcott. During the winter a few locals had quite a bit of success here. Today was quiet, save for 50+ Linnet. My birding rewards came as I was driving over Epsom Downs, and almost home - a male Ring Ouzel flew directly in front of me and appeared to settle in some golf course scrub. I couldn't stop. There was another thrush with it, but wasn't able to identify it with certainty, but I do have my suspicions...

Friday, 2 April 2021

Time for a rethink

Canons Farm in quieter times

For quite a while now I have been an advocate and champion of local birding. For me, this did go a step further, with my all but giving up of Beddington and Holmethorpe as places to visit - instead of which I focused my attention on sites within walking distance from home. So, for the past few years, this has meant Canons Farm, Priest Hill and Epsom Downs have taken up 80% of my birding time. There have been some good days and good birds, but an awful lot of time spent trying to convince myself of the worthiness of such an enterprise, what with the low number of birds present. And now, particularly with the advent of lockdown and the rise in the number of people who are going 'out for exercise' I find these places virtually swamped with others. They have as much right as me to be there - whether that be with additional dog/horse/friend - but where I once had a modicum of solitude and uninterrupted birding, that certainly is not the case now.

So, time for a rethink.

A rethink certainly means going further afield. Back to Beddington and Holmethorpe (and I am under no illusion that these places are not busy also, but at least they have guaranteed birds!). Finding more out of the way places (I do have some quiet areas of Surrey farmland in mind). And, when safe to do so, back to the south coast and downs. I will still visit Canons Farm, Priest Hill and Epsom Downs now and again, but they can no longer give me what I need in the long run. It is a shame, but you can only convince yourself for so long that you are getting something out of a project when, in fact, you are getting very little indeed.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Summer lovin'...

...happened so fast. After a few hours stomping around Epsom Downs, a male Wheatear appeared close to the grandstand, that made for a good end to the birding session. More to come in the next few days hopefully.


Friday, 26 March 2021

Birding without Borders

Fancy spending a whole year travelling the world to see how many species of bird that you can rack up in twelve months? Well, if you do, don't try and then write a book about the experience, because that will be a harder proposition than the 365-day birding jaunt was... I have just finished Noah Strycker's account of his 2015 odyssey, titled 'Birding without Borders - (BWB)'. I was looking forward to reading this, having read nothing but positive reviews. I had already read Alan Davies and Ruth Miller's account of their 2008 world record attempt (The Biggest Twitch - (TBT)) and it was interesting to compare the two books.

BWB comes in at 326 pages, with a large and airy font. This means that the book is not particularly word heavy. The author was out in the field every day, no breaks, and (spoiler alert) recorded 6,042 species. It is reasonable to understand that this means that there are more days spent in the field than there are pages in the book, and that if the species were all to get a mention in the narrative then there would need to be an average of 18.5 species per page. What the author has decided to do is use 51 pages as a complete list appendix, a blow-by-blow account of what, where and when. On first seeing this I felt a bit cheated that one sixth of the book was taken up in this way, but when reading the narrative it quickly becomes apparent that, because of the editorial choices, it was the only way that a reader could have a firm handle of what happened.

There are some bizarre choices made. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia are covered - altogether - in just one paragraph! The whole lot!! That's 397 species swept under the carpet. Madagascar and Kenya are dismissed in a sentence!!! At the same time he spends three pages describing a stopover in Germany when he went and saw a feral population of Egyptian Geese. There are several other imbalances, but some of these are touching interludes or frank confessions as to why he is doing what he is doing. These gave an emotional edge to the book, a connection with the author beyond him being a robotic birder. The book really needed to be twice as long. Had it been, it could have been a classic.

TBT (300 pages) is far more of a 'went there, saw that' account, denser in narrative but maybe missing the more cerebral aspects of such an enterprise (if, indeed, the authors believed there was one). For a birding adventure, this book wins in my opinion, even if it - possibly - lacks Strycker's depth. They are both worth your while, and both underlined to me that, even though I would dearly love to have travelled more during my life, I would be useless on such an escapade. I would be fretting and worrying at every turn about logistics, safety, the weather, etc, etc. You cannot possibly commit such an adventure to a smallish book. Both have tried in differing ways to get across what happened and what was seen. As to which is the more successful depends on what you want from such a book - why they did it, or what they saw. To cover both aspects needs more pages - many more pages.

Friday, 19 March 2021

24 year grip-back

On January 1st 1997 I had spent a memorable morning at Holmethorpe Sand Pits in the company of Gordon Hay. We had found an Iceland Gull, at first light on Mercer's Lake; a Peregrine had blasted through above our heads (it was still a notable species then); recent cold weather had left a whole suite of wildfowl to pick through, that included Scaup, Pintail and Smew; unfrozen ditches had given up Water Rail, Jack Snipe and Woodcock - it was a splendid few hours of local birding. I had to return home for an afternoon family get-together, so left Gordon on his own shortly before mid-day. And just after mid-day he was treated to the sight of six Whooper Swans fly in, circle the lake, and fly out again. To say that I was disappointed to have missed them is not to be down-played. In fact, only yesterday I was thinking about them, and still managed to give out a huff. 

News broke this morning that five Whooper Swans had been found yesterday (18th) on Earlswood Lakes, just outside of Redhill, and this morning a single bird was still present. Before I could go and pay my respects to it, this too then left - only to be relocated at the scene of my 1997 miss! My chance for redemption, revenge, call it what you will, was there for the taking.

The bird, thankfully, was still present, sat in the middle of Mercer's Lake. It may not have been as close as it would have been at the much smaller Earlswood Lakes, but second-bites are all the sweeter. This is not only a species that I had not seen before at Holmethorpe, it is an Uber-patch tick. Double bubble! To add more pleasure to the morning, I walked across to the Watercolours pits and watched the female Ring-necked Duck at close quarters. This is the same bird that Gordon had found at Priory Park, in Reigate, and I had seen back in December and January. Getting a decent photograph was thwarted by a stand of reeds between us, so I had to make do with some clearer views at a distance. As always, a big thank you to the finders and disseminaters of bird news - it is great to share in these events, and all within seven miles from home.

Monday, 15 March 2021

The ND&B migrant index

For a bit of fun, and to spice up what could be a long and difficult spring's birding (lockdown, sticking to dry inland patches, etc), I've devised a scoring system for the more notable migrants. It is loosely based on my perceived status of each species at a local level (hence why acrocephalus warblers have a higher score than might otherwise be expected). Being basically dry (only one modest ‘village’ pond) almost all wildfowl and waders will be flyovers and of few species. Each individual bird scores, thus a flock of 5 Yellow Wagtails would score 15 points. I will also score birds as bird/days, so a Black Redstart that stays on site, and which I observe over four different days, will score 28 points in total. All meaningless but a bit of fun - it will, at the very least, amuse me.

The patches that will be covered are all within two miles of home: Priest and Howell Hill; Canons Farm; Epsom and Walton Downs. Plus the garden and anywhere in-between.

1pt Wheatear, Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Brambling, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin

3pt Yellow Wagtail, Common Redstart, Whinchat

5pt Hobby, Tree Pipit, Ring Ouzel, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Crossbill

7pt Cuckoo, Woodlark, Black Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher

10pt Little Egret, any geese (except for Canada, Greylag and Egyptian), any ducks (except for Mallard and Tufted), Mediterranean Gull, Short-eared Owl, Nightingale, Grasshopper Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher

15pt Merlin, Water Rail, any wader (except for Lapwing), any tern

20pt Honey-buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Osprey, Turtle Dove, Corn Bunting

30pt Great White Egret, Common Crane, Quail, Long-eared Owl, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Great Grey Shrike

50pt Species such as Black Kite, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater

There might be the need for me to assign any big surprises to a relevant category (such as an overflying skua or a Bluethroat), but if such an event comes along I’ll happily wrestle with the problem!

It all kicks off today (March 15th) and will carry on until June 21st, taking me up to (hopefully) the easing of all Covid restrictions and allow those late overshoots to bump up my score. There is method in this madness, as on June 1st 2020, at Howell Hill, I had a Bee-eater sail over my head calling...

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Time. Experience. Drive. Luck

How can you get the best out of your birding, particularly if, by getting the best, you actually mean finding good birds? You could do a lot worse than viewing the YouTube video in which Niels Goulem interviews Belgian birder Johan Buckens, about the methods behind his tremendous track record of finding rarities. You can view it here

Johan comes across as a modest, laid back and pragmatic birder. There are no major revelations to his success, but for it all to be neatly packaged is most helpful. He does start by emphasising that if you bird inland, you are at a major disadvantage (at this point I could only nod incessantly in agreement). He is also quick to point out that even if you live by the coast, specific locality can still be a game changer. He had four main areas of attack - Time (the amount of time you spend), Experience (the ability to know when you are on to something and where those ‘somethings’ might hide), Drive (the willingness to keep on at it) and Luck. He was disarmingly honest about the chances of finding rarity, of the peaks and troughs that even the best of birders go through in finding them. However, there are some birders - we all know one or two - who just pull these rarities out of a proverbial hat on such a regular basis that you know that there is more than luck at play. I know other birders - just as good as these super-finders - who do not have such a hit rate. It isn't an exact science after all, but we can all do things to help ourselves out. So, after watching this video, did it leave me, the inland-patch birder, crestfallen? Did it make me sorry for my ornithological lot? On the contrary, I have been inspired.

Rarity is relative. To Johan in Belgium, or my mates at Dungeness, rarity is at a national level. To me here in Surrey, rarity starts somewhere around the level of a Pied Flycatcher and might - just might - hit the dizzying heights of a Red-backed Shrike or Wryneck. I do not help myself in the quest for rarity by ignoring the better sites close to me, (Beddington and Holmethorpe, both within a few miles from home) and deciding to ply my birding trade on the dry downland. But this is exactly what floats my boat, taking on largely ignored patches and discovering for myself what passes through them. It has paid off in the past, but does require a giant leap of faith and the setting of low expectations.

Johan is no social misfit, no loner who just blasts his way through life behind his optics. He is a teacher and has a family. He paces himself, by just birding each spring and autumn, using the rest of the year to be a 'normal person'. He will go out on at least 5-6 days a week, and if it is poor he will only spend an hour in the field, but if the day shows promise he will put in an all-dayer or return again in the afternoon. This is birding with a plan, with no preconception and allowing for flexibility. And all things that my own birding sadly lacks at the moment.

Maybe I should try it out this Spring. Just visit my three (on foot) patches. Get out on most days, regardless of the weather and cut my losses early if things just are not happening, but - if they are or there is a weather change - put in that extra time.

Time. Experience. Drive. Luck.

I have the first two. I can work on the third. As for the fourth one, I can try and make my own...

Friday, 12 March 2021

Waiting for that eureka moment

At the moment my birding time is not, in my opinion, being fairly rewarded, beyond that of being able to see the totally expected. In an ideal world that wouldn't matter, as it should be enough just to be out in the open and accept whatever comes along. However, currently that doesn't work for the ‘spoilt brat’ within me, and I am starting to think that the birding Gods are not on my side. So I plod on, waiting for that eureka moment that is surely getting closer! 

Almost an all-dayer today, split between Epsom Downs and Canons Farm, both sites unrewarding. With a few Mediterranean Gulls being picked up across the county I was on high alert, but few 'smaller' gulls were on show. Apart from a group of Herring Gulls on the race course, most were high and overhead. It is always worth checking anything on the deck here, but nothing warranted a second look. The picture above has, in the foreground, one of the hummocky-strips that contours the race course on the southern flank. These are always worth walking along, often acting as cover for larks, pipits and chats.

As is the way on a slow bird day, attention meandered to other things, in this instance the distant city...

The Shard, Sky-garden, Walkie-talkie, et al. 15.2 miles as the bird flies.

What is normally referred to as 'Canary Wharf'. 16.7 miles as the bird flies.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Thursday Dunnock, and some cakes!

...a Dunnock whose photo was taken some time last week and certainly not on a Thursday. This is was happens when it is blowing a hoolie outside, it is pouring with rain, and when I open up a blog post and my mind blanks. Today's big news is that Welsh Owen has been roundly beaten by English Lee in the making of Welsh Cakes, a kind of retro 'Dungeness Bake Off' if you will. I will now post images of some of my recent baking efforts in an attempt to join in and fill some space. Expect Kentish Jacques to join in the fun very soon...

Apple and Apricot Cake

Dorset Apple Cake

Lime, Ginger and Coconut Cake

Monday, 8 March 2021

Meandering memories

Some time ago I posted about my formative years in Tring, Hertfordshire (1962-70). You can, if you so desire, read that by clicking here. I had reason to reminisce earlier today and a whole tranche of additional 'Tring' memories came flooding back, which I feel the need to commit to 'virtual paper'. Here they are.

We lived in Fantail Lane, a new build cul-de-sac on the edge of this quaint market town, with fields and hedgerows within sight. These early-60s houses had been built on fields, and were overlooked by an old disused windmill, called Goldfield Mill. It was the shape of a stout pepper pot with its sails (and fantail) removed (left). I accepted its presence as much as I did the kerbstones and pavement, but there cannot be many homes that had a sentinel windmill surveying all that we did. It was called Goldfield, which also happened to be the name of the brand new infants school that I went to. Prior to this I attended a red-brick Victorian building that was then demolished, both of which I still have quite clear and fond memories. I liked to think that the new school was so called because the fields on which it was built had once been home to millions of buttercups. With our road being new, most of the incoming owners had young families, so there was a ready made gang of boys to befriend, in our case a gang that amounted to six urchins. We rode bikes along the country lanes, played football, re-enacted 'The Man from Uncle' and Adam West era 'Batman' episodes and, for a brief period of time, took up the dark art of shoplifting (mainly sweets and collectable cards), encouraged by having watched Lionel Bart's 'Oliver' at the cinema. We never got caught and didn't feel any remorse about doing so. So, apart from being a band of Artful Dodger wannabes, we roamed town dressed up as caped crusaders, getting stared at whilst wearing curtains around our necks, balaclavas with ‘ears’ sewn on and having swimming trunks worn over our trousers. Really...

One of our gang had a back garden that adjoined the windmill. The owners of the house attached to the windmill had a large and noisy dog. Anytime we kicked a football over the fence and into the dog's kingdom, one of us needed to hop over and retrieve it. This became a right of passage, and many was the time when the dog almost got to us before we clambered back to safety. Curiosity got the better of us one lazy summer afternoon, and we went round to knock on the door of the house by the windmill, asking if we could look around it. The owner kindly showed us what he could, and his dog, the very same one that we had painted as a man-eater, turned out to be very soft indeed.

Close to the town church was a terrace of old abandoned Victorian houses. It was rumoured to have once been home to several old women who had been burnt at the stake as witches, although the age of the properties and the time of the hunting down of witches did not coincide. That small detail did not deter us from our black magic fantasies at all, and we dared each other to walk up this alleyway at night. You got double-kudos if you actually entered these houses. If the witch’s ghosts wouldn't get you, then, it stood to reason, a murderous tramp would. Close by was another empty building that had once been some kind of office. We often went inside, with the cellar being knee-deep in paper. Mythology had it that giant rats were to be found, although I never saw one.

There was a brewery in the town, Rodwell's, and to us kids we were not so much interested in the beer that they brewed as much as the lemonade they produced. This was delivered to our houses by van, my Mother ordering single bottles of lemonade and cherryade, with, in the summer months, the addition of cream soda. To this was added a brick of vanilla ice cream, one of the few indulgences that I can remember and one of the few times that I ever felt sophisticated as a child. Sunday teas were always tinned salmon and cucumber slices in vinegar, accompanied by the radio blaring out ‘Sing Something Simple’ on the Light Programme. I haven’t heard that song for years, but if I did I would be hurtled back to those drowsy evenings, with a bath full of Matey and the promise of school the following morning.  Away from the town, close to our house, were two shops, built at the same time as the estate we lived on. One was an off-licence, the other a newsagent, where, in 1969 I queued up unsuccessfully to buy a copy of the new football magazine 'Shoot', with its free league table ladders. The newsagent had only ordered one copy, leaving a host of disappointed lads. It still hurts to this day.

I joined the church choir, egged on by a school-teacher who said that I looked angelic and the promise that I would be paid for doing so. We received 6d a service (both Sunday morning and evening) and the princely sum of 2/6d a wedding. I had never felt richer. The church choir had a number of lads of a similar age, and we would muck around in the graveyard before Friday evening choir practice, staring at the witch’s houses and getting told off by the choir master. Inside the church was a statue of a Georgian town worthy, lying propped up on an elbow along a plinth, bewigged head, with a hand pointed to the Gods. It was missing the finger. I would wonder where it had gone.

We indulged in massive games of ‘It’, or tag. The whole town was our arena. Count to 100 and we came, ready or not. Boys are like rodents, they use the same paths, so we were found easily. I was quite quick so had an advantage. This came in useful for playing in the school football team on the right wing. Our school kit was ancient, too big for boys of 8-10 years old and was full of holes. We were laughed at when we played schools from Berkhamstead, looking like refugees. I was banned from playing once because I had slipped out from school to watch an Apollo rocket launch at a fellow pupils house. We didn’t even get 10 yards before we were spotted. So much for our ‘Man from Uncle’ training. This was still the era of free school milk and the ringing of a big brass bell to sound the commencement of play time. I witnessed a young boy get his head split open when a teacher rang the bell into his skull. There was blood in the corridor that day, rather than a pile of vomit covered in wood shavings, which seemed to be a regular occurrence back then.

There was a cinema in Tring which had closed down before we moved there. It was still standing, empty like the witch’s houses. We used to go to the Rex in Berkhamsted, by bus, for our films. I can remember the usual Disney animations, plus Emile and the Detectives, Blackbeard’s Ghost and 2001, which if I’m being honest left our gang slightly bemused as to what we had just watched.

One last memory. There was an electrical shop that had, in its window, the first colour television that any of us had seen. Every time we passed it we would stop and gawp. It was usually showing the test card, but if we were lucky one of the specially made test films would be on. This was the sort of stuff ‘The Jetsons’ had promised us - maybe not flying cars, but a gogglebox with colour pictures. Flying cars would have to wait until 1980...

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Buzzing with Kites

We are now getting to the time of year when, here in Banstead, we see a marked increase in raptor movement, primarily Common Buzzards (with a few Red Kites thrown in for good measure). For a number of years now the Buzzards have been a feature of spring, with the local breeders sharing the skies with their congeners that are passing through. Last year saw plenty of time to keep an eye on the local sky thanks to lockdown, so I was in a good position to monitor this phenomenon. 

Between March 21st - May 9th, 145 Common Buzzards and 45 Red Kites passed over the garden, mostly moving through in an easterly direction. The Buzzards tended to slowly drift through the air-space, with the Kites far more direct. I was careful not to count the local birds. I can see two resident pairs from the garden, or at least can see them when they indulge in a bit of extra-limital displaying. Any benign day in late-March to early May will provide a bit of movement, with the highest number of birds in one group being eight. Last spring the largest day counts were 20 (May 2nd), 18 (April 7th and 11th) and 14 (March 14th). The best day for Red Kite was 6 (May 9th). I suspect that the Kite numbers would carry on well into June, as a large band of young birds wander between Kent and Cornwall into the late Spring/early Summer.

Today has turned into a bright and calm day. An hour out in the garden produced not one Buzzard or Kite. Maybe it is still a bit early, but in previous years they have been on the go by mid-March. As we are fond of saying, "Eyes to the skies!"

Friday, 5 March 2021

What of 2101?


I've got a little project on the go that has meant that I am trawling through back copies of the London Bird Report (LBR). In the past few days I have gone from 1941 up to 1980, which has been a labour of love. The London Bird Report has been published on an almost annual basis since 1936 and is highly regarded, having had a long-list of ornithological 'names' as its editor down the years.

I’m looking at the report from 1941. Observer’s initials personify the published sightings from all of eighty years ago, like ghosts waving at us from down the years. These observers are all now long dead, but here I am, in 2021, sharing with Howard Bentham, through the medium of ink on paper, his description of a pair of Mealy Redpolls that he saw at Tadworth on April 6th; or reading about L I Carrington’s prowess in finding London’s only breeding Cirl Buntings, on the rim of Surrey. Will somebody be reading of my records, 80 years hence, in the LBR of 2101? Almost certainly not from a printed copy I’ll wager, and certainly not coupled with ‘SWG’, what with the recent demoting of observer’s initials to all but the rarest of species, which is something that I think an unwise move - part of my early joy from birding came from the chest-puffing thrill of seeing my initials against my observations in bird reports, and the chances of seeing them increased by being able to appear against early and late dates, high counts and notable observations. What a wonderfully simple way of encouraging birders to submit their data! I was more than peeved to see that my enormous Hawfinch counts of 2018, the highest ever recorded in our country, let alone the London recording area, did not even merit my initials appearing. Then again, that probably says more about my fragile ego than those of the rights and wrongs of publishing them.

However, back to the 1940s. I carry on trawling through the sightings of these years. Whenever I see mention of my ‘local’ patch - Banstead, Epsom Downs, Walton Heath, Banstead Downs, Chipstead - I am stabbed by loss. Of Red-backed Shrikes, Wrynecks and Cirl Buntings, all of their breeding pairs being reported with the ease of reporting Goldcrests and Meadow Pipits. Wood Warblers and Willow Tits being a ‘given’, part of the ornithological furniture. Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers common enough not to warrant any specific sighting. This is, in turn, fascinating and infuriating. How many? Where and when? But, back in these war-torn years, this was of little consequence. They were not to know that 70-80 years later we would hardly see them. Maybe the birders of 2101 will feel the same way about our treatment of Bullfinches and Yellowhammers.

I must come back to this viewing of the ‘local patch’ through the eyes of those from 80 years ago. It makes me realise that we are merely borrowing these lands, acting as ornithological tenants and being granted the privilege of recording them until we move on or pass away. The printed initials of those recorders, writ large in the reports, are what makes me think this way. They once wandered where we today wander. HB and LIC thought themselves invincible, destined to carry on looking through binoculars and recording the birds that inhabited THEIR plot of Surrey. No thought of there being no more shrikes and no more Wrynecks. No conception of Collared Doves and Ring-necked Parakeets. Would have laughed in my face at the suggestion of Common Buzzards, Red Kites and Ravens.

I’ll say it again - what of 2101?

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Missing - km3

There are plenty of species missing from my latest lockdown list that, quite frankly, should have been recorded within the 3km circle by now. Cormorant, Red-legged Partridge, Great Black-backed Gull, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Brambling and Siskin immediately spring to mind - all should be recorded in the coming month. March should also see the first incoming 'summer' migrants along with a wider cast of passage migrants. If last year is anything to go by, the odd night-time surprise - calling wildfowl and waders - will be possible and readily accepted. These will otherwise be hard to record across this largely dry recording area.

I am also hoping that the 100th species to be recorded from the garden will appear - it's been stuck on 99 since last April. My prediction would be Mediterranean Gull, although Little Egret, Common Snipe or a night-calling Dunlin would not be hugely surprising. The way birding goes it will probably fall to a left field species that was not on my radar, something like a Great White Egret or Common Crane. We need to dream...

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Dartford dry - km3 audit

I am now 38 days into this current birding lockdown project. As we are almost at the month’s end, it seems like a good time to look at what it has provided - and, for an area that is half suburbia, half open land, I’d say that it has provided quite a lot. My home is on the south-western fringe of Banstead, happily surrounded by downland, horse-paddocks, farm and wood, but with plenty of residential area, particularly to the north. It is also dry, save for a couple of town/village ponds and one short section of a modest river.

74 species have been recorded, with the highlights (loose definition) being Red Kite, Peregrine, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Woodcock, Mediterranean Gull, Barn Owl, Little Owl, Kingfisher, Woodlark, Stonechat, Dartford Warbler (above), Firecrest, Marsh Tit, Raven, Hawfinch, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting.

On reading that list back, that isn't bad for an area just outside of a London Borough, with no appreciable water - a dry hinterland, if you will. The Dartford Warbler deserves expanding upon - found yesterday by local birder Emma Barker, it resulted in the gathering of three other local birders - myself, Steve Thomas and Shaun Ferguson. After giving us the run-around yesterday, it was re-found by Emma this morning, which resulted in a reconvening of the gang, that this time allowed us good views of the warbler as it hung around with a Stonechat flock. During the day a number of other birders payed it a visit, including Cheech and Hannah from Langley Vale. With social distancing to the fore, it was warming to see so many birders working the local area, not known for its birds but still able to reward those that want to put in the time and effort. I know it isn't everybody's idea of top birding, but believe me, when such birding pays off it doesn't get much better. 

And, by the way, it was all done on foot...

Friday, 26 February 2021

Beating the bounds

The past week has been mostly a case of beating the bounds of the '3km from home' circle. It has had its moments, with a Woodlark that circled the western-most fields at Canons Farm for a couple of minutes (on Monday) and an oh-so brief first-winter Mediterranean Gull on the football pitches at Priest Hill (today). In between these bursts of action it has been largely quiet, with Linnets (above) and Skylarks still present in fair numbers in the general area, plus signs of the early-Spring Stonechat passage getting underway, with five at Priest Hill this morning (where I spent some time unsuccessfully searching for a Dartford Warbler).

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Late-winter colour

One of those lazy days spent in the garden, tidying up and getting ready for the coming season. Even though it was mild, and the odd sunny spell was enjoyed, no butterflies were seen. A few bees were on the wing (Buff-tailed and Honey) and the MV produced a March Moth. There is some colour in the garden, and over the past few days have taken a few pictures to capture it. Here's a selection.

Daphne odora, same family as Spurge-laurel and Mezereon

Iris 'Blue Note' Free-form jazz from the iris world. Nice...

Iris 'Katharine's Gold' 

Sarcococca confusa - or Christmas Box. Gives the winter air a punchy whiff

The 'Daddy' of our Stinking Hellebores arrived here unaided. It grows wild nearby.

Viburnum bodnantense - waxy blooms

Saturday, 20 February 2021

One laid back Harrier

Mid-morning, Katrina suggested that, to break-up our lockdown fever, we go and visit one of our favourite garden centres which is nestled at the bottom of the north downs at Buckland. I'm not adverse to mooching around such establishments, so armed with face masks and hand-gel we undertook the short journey and were soon looking at our prospective plant purchases out in the open air.

Now, this garden centre is placed in quite a good position to observe birds that might be making their way along the scarp slope. I have seen Hawfinch from here, plus observed decent Common Buzzard and hirundine passage in the past (whilst, of course, nodding sagely as my wife points out the plants to me).

This morning was no different, and I had one eye on the sky as we were examining a quite delightful flowering witch-hazel. I couldn't help but notice a low raptor just in front of us. I had no optics, but this bird was so low and the light so good that I didn't need them - a dark, immature female Marsh Harrier was idly making its way east, but then turned north and flew directly towards the scarp at Pebble Hill. I lost it behind trees and awaited it to reappear, but that was the last I saw of it. It was mid-day precisely.

I tweeted out the news in the hope that somebody might be able to pick it up elsewhere. Almost immediately I received a voice-mail from Ed Stubbs, who had picked up a Marsh Harrier 50 minutes previously, south of Thorncombe Street, making its way east along the High Weald Ridge (HWR). Our birds were both dark females and were, without doubt, the same bird. It too was making its way with a 'lazy flight'.

The tracking of this bird did not stop there. Alerted by my tweet, Wes Attridge made a concerted effort to see if the bird had stayed in the area, and at 12.35hrs saw the same bird as it tracked below the eastern ridge of Leith Hill - not particularly high and in a leisurely manner. This was one laid back Marsh Harrier in no hurry!

This gives you some idea of where the bird travelled. Thorncombe Street to Buckland is 14.6 miles as the Harrier flies and, if the bird made the journey directly, would have been following the High Weald Ridge. From Buckland to Capel is 6.8 miles. Whether or not our bird, on reaching the end of the HWR, and taking one look at the North Downs decided to re-orientate, we don't know, but the part that the hills seemed to have played in its journey across Surrey is interesting. There was something about this bird, and the mild weather, that made it feel as if we can almost claim to have left Winter behind.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Mr Holmethorpe's significant birthday

Our great friend Gordon Hay reaches a significant age tomorrow, so to mark that occasion the pencils came out and he was, this evening, presented with the artwork above. It is of the Holmethorpe Black-throated Diver that, back in February 2019, provided him with his 200th species of bird at those very same sand pits. Happy Birthday Gordon!

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Thrush thaw - km3 (Days 21-24)

It is still cold outside, but the wind has shifted to the south-west and we are promised milder temperatures as from this evening. My Lapwing count has refused to budge over the past couple of days, and even though passage over Surrey has eased up, they are still being seen - I'll just have to chalk this down to bad luck, not being in the right place at the right time and the like. Locally there have been some sluggish thrushes moping about, too tame for their own good. Let's just hope that not too many have succumbed and the thaw will come to their rescue.

I had my Covid jab on Saturday, at a major hub that has been set up at the Epsom Downs Racecourse. I walked (only 40 minutes on foot from home) but confused all of the volunteers because I didn't arrive by car. There was no pedestrian access so had to duck under tape and push aside crash barriers to enter and exit. Not all that low-carbon friendly! Arm aches, feel a bit flu-like, but those are small side-effects to have to experience when compared with the protection it will give. Another by-product of my on-foot journey was hearing a Golden Plover call only 100m from our house. Win, win!

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Bolt holes and balm

Tring - a market town in Hertfordshire - was mentioned recently. My ears pricked up and, on hearing that town’s name, deep within me a warm glow of happiness was released. It was a reaction not unlike the salivation of Pavlov's dog to the sound of a bell, or Proust's relationship with the taste of a Madeleine biscuit. It was a physical and mental reaction in response to an unexpected trigger. Such reactions can come via a sound, a taste or, in my case, a word. And my word was Tring. It was my childhood home, the place where, between the ages of three and 12, I lived, a stone's-throw from open farmland and the Chiltern Beech woods. We moved away from Tring in 1970 - now 51 years ago - and my memories of those years are now becoming hazy. I can recall such things as the layout of our house, the garden, the roads close to home, my school and my friends. But they are largely snap shots, images that don't move, with no sound and no accompanying narrative. They are stills that play like a slide-show in my mind - the old churchyard; an abandoned cinema; our local shop; an apple orchard; a disused windmill; those faces of neighbours and fellow pupils have now worn away to the point that I cannot recall what they really looked like, and only vague approximations appear. So why do these deteriorating memories still have power? If we experienced a happy (or at least non-traumatic) childhood, is this a default setting, this release of nostalgia? And if that childhood was not happy, is the reverse true?

For me, it appears to go deeper than that. My paternal great-grandparents both moved to London from Wiltshire in the late 19th century. Some family remained there, living across a number of small villages in the Vale of Pewsey (All Cannings, Stanton St.Bernard, Alton Barnes, Alton Priors). During the Second World War, when children were being evacuated from London, my father was among them. He was sent to stay with an aunt who still lived in All Cannings. His time with her was amongst the happiest of his life, so much so that in retirement, he settled there. It was only then that I was introduced to the area. I got to know the villages, the people, the inns and, most importantly, the farmland and downland that surrounds them. I could look at my ancestor's gravestones, walk into the churches where they were christened, were married and were laid to rest. From the top of the Pewsey Downs (above) I could look down on, and survey, their worlds, reduced to model villages on a green canvass that stretched all the way to the northern edge of Salisbury Plain. I wandered the surrounding area, rewarded with orchids, Barn Owls, Corn Buntings and an undeniable connection to the land, a belonging. And, don't ask me why, but I knew - not felt - I knew that I belonged. Fanciful? Most probably, but when I walked where they had walked, it was if I had already done so.

My own birthplace is Balham in South London, at the Weir Maternity Hospital. I had assumed that, because the hospital no longer existed, that it must have been demolished. When our eldest daughter moved to Balham four years ago, curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to find out what now stood on the place where I was born. It didn’t take long to find out, via a ‘lost hospitals’ website, that when the hospital was closed, the building remained intact, and was converted into apartments. A photograph I found on the website showed a not unattractive brick building. Armed with this I went in search of it one afternoon. I found the building with little difficulty as little had changed. Standing there, staring up at each window (wondering whether or not that might be the room in which I came into the world), I was aware of a calmness, an acceptance, a belonging, as if these streets were a part of me. That does, I admit, sound fanciful. Maybe it is the product of an overactive imagination, or a need to feel such belonging. The cynic might suggest that they are the result of insecurity. The romantic could put forward the case that these connections are real, spiritual in nature, and proof of the power of our natural connectivity to place, regardless of time - or, indeed, of our need to have actually been there (in body at least) before.

Tring: happy childhood. All Cannings: roots. Balham: birth. They all have something in common. They are of a time when I either was yet to be, had only just become, or was learning how to be. Unformed. Evolving. Innocent. Do we, particularly in later years, have a need to revisit the distant past as a sedative  for an unsure present? Is it nothing more than an attempt to root ourselves somewhere - anywhere - as a way to give us some definition and a firm base on which to make sense of what we have done with our lives and what we have become? Or simpler still, is it a desperate attempt to try and convince ourselves that our innocence and youth is still within, that we continue to be a blank canvas and that our choices of which brush strokes to put upon it can still yet be made? 

So, we have allowed a name, a sound, a taste or a smell to transport us back to a time when life was less complicated, choices were simple and, if our memories are to be trusted, the sun was always shining. Bolt holes for the mind, balm for the fretting.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Traces - km3 (Day 20)


Another morning that was spent in the snow at Canons Farm. I was on the edge of a cloud bank for much of the time, being in either bright sunshine or snow-bearing greyness - at times this line was clearly delineated and made for a surreal and spectacular sight - my left half bathed in a golden ‘warmth’, my right chilled and spattered with ice. Headline news (of sorts) was that I got in on the cold-weather movement that has been recorded over the past couple of days, with a modest return of 25 Lapwing west and a couple of Golden Plover north. The passerine flock that has been faithful to the site for several weeks now had reduced by 50% overnight, now numbering 100 birds (50 Skylark and 50 Linnet). They fed in the open, between bare strips dividing the rows of stubble, with the larks leaving some tell-tale traces behind in the snow (below). A bit of video of some of these birds feeding is also provided. A morning for living in the moment and appreciating what was set out before me.



Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Missing out - km3 (Days 13-19)

You wait three years for another 'Beast from the East' to turn up, and when it comes it has very little of the beast in it - better for the birds, not so good for the birder seeking a thrill. As far as the 3km area is concerned, the snow sort of came on Sunday and dribbled its way onto the ground throughout both Monday and today, in fits and starts. The easterly wind is cold, but is not getting above force 2-3, and does not carry that rapier like edge that the Beast did. Standing water has hardly frozen, and it was surprising to be walking along muddy paths this morning that were soft.

However, some have been treated to a bit of overhead wader movement in response to the cold weather - to the north, south, east and west of me, Lapwings, Golden Plover and Common Snipe have enlivened many a skywatch, but even though I have diligently been out in the field for the past three days, not a single Lapwing has passed over me. I cannot complain, my home area has provided me with many memorable visible migration/movement moments in the past - it may still deliver the goods tomorrow.

This morning at Canons Farm (sans Lapwing) it was still a decent session, with Red Kite, Peregrine and Raven (all beyond the realms of possibility not that many years ago, and reminiscent of a trip to mid-wales back in the 1970s). The Skylark and Linnet flock have come together, and number 110/100 respectively (a short video clip below of part of the flock).

Thursday, 4 February 2021

If not a White-cheeked Tern, then what?

It is raining outside, Covid lockdown still has its grip upon us, so, as a refuge, let us travel back in time and revisit a bird that caused many eyebrows to be raised and a rarities committee to pronounce it as 'not proven'. I give you one White-cheeked Tern, at Dungeness, Kent on 13th May 1989. These are my notes that were submitted to the BBRC at the time.

——————————————————————————————————————————

At approximately 10.00hrs, P Boxall, JP Siddle and RE Turley and myself were sitting in the common room at Dungeness Bird Observatory when two birdwatchers came into the room and, whilst chatting to us, casually mentioned that they had been watching a tern feeding over the 'patch'. They described it as being "a Black Tern with with white cheeks which was as large as a Common Tern".

All four of us left our hot drinks and drove to the area of beach opposite the 'patch' - an area of sea disturbed by the power station outflow some 100m offshore. When we scanned the patch, the bird that had been described was still on view. The bird confounded us as to an immediate identity. As we continued to watch the bird from the beach, D Walker came out of the seawtaching hide overlooking the patch, where, together with A Hughes, he had been watching the tern. They had first seen the tern from 300m further east and had come closer to investigate further. We all then went into the hide together, and all six of us started to slowly, and carefully, observe the bird. We discussed all aspects of the bird, gathering a thorough description. We still did not have a firm identification, although we knew it was a 'Sterna' tern which could quite possibly be a White-cheeked - but wasn't that just wishful thinking?

A Hughes then returned to the observatory and fetched a copy of Harrison's 'Seabirds'. This was not helpful in us being able to confidently identify the tern, and led to some confusion. D Walker and RE Turley then returned to the observatory to get further reference. Before they returned, the tern left the patch and flew eastwards and out of view. It was not to be seen again at Dungeness. At this point I had been watching the bird for 30 minutes. On D Walkers and RE Turleys return, with the aid in particular of 'Birds of the Middle East and North Africa' by Hollom, Porter, Christensen and Willis; plus BWP Volume 4, we were able to identify the tern, with confidence, as a White-cheeked.

The first impressions of the tern was that it was the same size and shape as the 100+ Common terns also present. This tern was obviously darker than them of both upper and underparts, with the most striking feature being a white cheek patch on both sides of the face.

Medium-sized tern, being the same size and shape as the accompanying Common Terns except that the bill looked slightly longer and more drooping. The tail, although noticeably forked, lacked long outer tail streamers.

Forehead, crown and nape black, forming a dark crown, which extended down to above the lores and apparently below the level of the eye. This suffused out onto hind-neck, neck sides and lower ear-coverts.

Mantle, rump and tail a uniform dusky silver-grey, much darker than Common Tern but not as dark as to be expected of a Black Tern, although approaching the latter species.

Wings dusky silver-grey as upper body, except for very obvious silver primaries, more obvious on the inner-primaries, which 'flashed' in the light at certain angles. The outermost primaries, and their tips, were dusky silver-grey. The trailing edge of the secondaries were distinctly edged off-white. Underwing smoky grey, with a whitish band appearing along the underwing greater coverts, rather reminiscent of Sooty Shearwater.

Underparts a darker grey than upper parts, rather uniform in colouration, extending from lower throat, breast, belly, flanks to the under-tail coverts. This colouration met up with the black neck-sides and lower ear coverts.

This left the white 'cheek' patches, which were rectangular in shape and slightly rounded at the edges towards the back of the ear coverts/ hind neck. These white patches extended from the region of the lores and bill base and onto the upper ear coverts. The shape of this white area was striking and stood out well against its dark surround.

Bill dark.

When flying with Common Terns over the patch it appeared no different in jizz from them (but see note on bill shape) and fed in the same manner, by dropping down to just above the disturbed sea and picking at prey items on the surface. When flying eastwards, flight as Common Tern.

We were sure in ruling out the tern being an oiled or melanistic bird because (i) all non-dark areas of the bird, such as the cheeks, trailing whitish edge to the secondaries and pale bar on underwing coverts were symmetrical and of the same shape; (ii) all of the dark colouration was not blotchy or erratic.

——————————————————————————————————————————

We took all of these notes, as a group, before we had access to any literature, so that at the time we had no knowledge as to what field characteristics to look for. When we were able to read up about White-cheeked Terns we were astonished to find that we had clearly noted some important features. As was typical of most birders in 1989, none of us had a camera, so no image was ever taken of the bird.

Several descriptions were sent to the BBRC, together with a painting created by RE Turley (that was also published in ‘Birding World’). This would have been a British first had it been accepted, but the BBRC rejected it. I had been told that the submission made by the original finder (by his own admission an inexperienced birder) was contradictory to those submitted by the rest of us. Rumour had it that it received  a rocky ride from a Middle-east based birder who was called upon for his expertise. Whether either of these facts are true, I do not know.

So, 32 years after the event, what do I think about it all? I rarely think back to the bird, but when I do I feel that it was what we claimed - an adult White-cheeked Tern. Checking the plethora of literature at our disposal now, and a more robust knowledge of the species, we did nail a number of identification features.

Pro: In Olsen and Larsson’s ‘Terns’ (Helm) they state that ‘underwing diagnostic: dark secondaries show good contrast with whitish median and greater coverts’ - we got that.

Pro: Mantle, rump and tail concolorous, lacking the contrast shown in Common and Arctic Tern.

Pro: Flashing silver primaries, mentioned in many references as notable. I was told back at the time of our sighting that sterna terns flying out to sea in the Middle East were often picked out as being White-cheeked because of this feature.

Cons: White-cheeked (length 32-34cm, wingspan 78-83cm) is considered to be smaller than Common Tern (length 31-35cm, wingspan 77-98cm). Bill colour stated as red with black tip, and we called it as an all dark bill. EDIT: I have been sent an image of an adult White-cheeked Tern that shows an almost wholly dark bill, and, on seeing Ray’s painting once again, he has painted the bill with a black outer half that merges into a dusky red along the rest of its length. Also of interest, in Nils Van Duivendijk’s ‘Advanced Bird ID Guide’ he states that W-c Tern exhibits a long, evenly slender bill USUALLY WITH A SLIGHTLY DROOPED TIP!

I reckon that if our bird had been a second, or third for Britain at the time, it would have sailed through. And shall I let you in on a secret? Regardless of what the BBRC, and 99% of birders might think, it’s on my list...

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Golden moments - km3 (Day 12)

I’ve been avoiding Epsom Downs because most of the good people of north Surrey seem to empty themselves onto the open grassland there, accompanied by dogs, bikes, bubble buddies, non bubble buddies, Lycra, kites, balls, scooters, horses, rucksacks, thermos flasks and those odd walking poles. Today I decided to (sort of) join them with my binoculars. It is a large enough area to be able to get away from the throng, and I spent a pleasant enough couple of hours on the southern flank. Undoubted highlight was a group of c20 Golden Plovers that moved through northwards, surprising in as much as such a sighting here would normally go hand-in-glove with hard weather. Able back-up came in the guise of a Peregrine. Apart from these birds however it really is very quiet. This lockdown 3km is hard work, but it isn’t as though there is anywhere else for me to go.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Crests and cocks - 3km (Days 10-11)

Woodcock real estate at Banstead Wood - two birds came out of this tangle

A new month and, let's be frank, who isn't glad to see the back of January? A doubling of effort was called for this morning, with a dusting down of enthusiasm and a big kick to send moroseness into touch. Did they work? Well, sort of...

I had two bird targets this afternoon, both in Banstead Wood and both species that had so far eluded me this year. First up was Firecrest. Local birder Ian Ward had located a pair over the weekend, and he had kindly mentioned the area that he had found them in. It was an area of semi-open woodland with a profusion of mature Holly. It only took five minutes to find one - then possibly two - although no song was heard. Next up was Woodcock. During the winter this wader can be flushed from the woodland floor, but it is rather hit or miss as to whether you will come across them. Luck (and patience) plays a big part, and for me both were present, as I flushed two in quick succession from an area of dead bracken and bramble. I still get a great thrill from this noisy bundle of deep brown feathers as it takes off from its hiding place.

I walked homewards across Canons Farm, which was a grey and chill journey, the silence at times quite unnerving. Apart from three discrete flocks (160 Redwing, 40 Fieldfare and 30 Linnet) all I could muster up was a female Stonechat. With cold hands, ears and nose it was a no-brainer to cut my losses and retire early for a warming cup of tea. It had been a quiet birding session punctuated by moments of pleasure. And for those I have to be grateful.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Moths, at least - 3km (Days 8-9)


The birding may have been mundane, but the moths have started to show, with the past two nights resulting in four Spring Usher (above) and a single Agonopterix heracliana.



Over at Priest Hill are several clumps of Mistletoe, low down enough to be able to almost touch. Illustrated above are the profusion of berries, plus some soon to open flower-buds. With February coming up on Monday, and the daylight stretching out into the evening, there is definitely a feel of Spring. For me, it will be welcome like no other.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

A wobble - 3km (Days 5-7)

The continuing lockdown, and the reduction of my birding footprint, got to me yesterday. I stayed indoors and chose to feel sorry for myself, watching films on the TV in preference to getting out to go birding. As pathetic as this sounds, I can be prone to a low mood at times, and, without going into detail, do have valid reasons for being like it from time to time. And, at times like these, it is best to cut myself some slack and not punish myself for feeling like it.

So, what of the birding that I have done? Well, on Tuesday I ventured to the only bit of water that is likely to supply a few birds, that of Bourne Hall Lake and the adjacent River Hogsmill. Let me temper any visualisation that you may have of these water bodies - the lake is a modest pond and the river a stream. But, they are wet enough for me to have added Mute Swan, Greylag and Canada Goose, Tufted Duck, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail to the list. Just over the 3km border, so close but so far, is a section of the river where I can usually find Little Egret, Common Snipe and Water Rail.... oh well.

Today saw me trudge up to Canons Farm where the continuing presence of two Barn Owls have resulted in a number of birders positioning themselves across the fields each evening, many with large lenses. They have, of course, as much right as me to be here, but I cannot pretend to like it. I mooched about, counting pipits and thrushes, heard a couple of Little Owls, then left. I’m not anti-social, but in these difficult times do not feel right hanging about hedgerows along with other lurkers.

60 species so far within the 3km. Plenty more to find.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Comeback tit - 3km (Day 4)

The two inches of snow that fell in the Banstead area yesterday was still in place, with sub-zero temperatures overnight giving it all a hard crust, the roads and pavements being slippery as a further result. After the big influx of Skylarks at Canons Farm as a result of the weather, I returned to monitor their number - still 120 present, but down from yesterday’s 200. They were feeding on a couple of the western-most fields along with 150+ Linnets. When they all took to flight, the flurry of clean whites and buffs in such dazzling light, under lit by the reflecting snow, was dazzling.

Adjacent to the farm, on the eastern flank, is Banstead Woods. I spent an hour trying to kick up a Woodcock (in which I failed), but a great success was locating a single Marsh Tit, my first here for several years. When I used to visit these woods from the late-70s this species was ‘a given’, 2-3 individuals easily picked up within just a few minutes. Alas, over the last 10-15 years it has been a difficult bird to find here,  and in the past five years has even been considered as having possibly gone.

Also seen were 3 Red Kites, 3 Common Buzzards, a Barn Owl and 8 Lesser Redpoll.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Snow - 3km (Day 3)

For those of us who live on the edges of London, snow is almost as unusual as finding as BBRC rarity - not quite annual and worth talking about when it does happen. The 'white stuff' started to fall by mid-morning and deposited a good couple of inches before stopping by lunch time. My knee-jerk reaction to snow is to stare up into the skies just in case a few birds have been made to move, but it takes more than a bit of localised winter to stir things up. Never the less, I did visit Canons Farm this afternoon and the snow had in fact played its part in providing a bit more to look at, as at least 200 Skylarks had gathered on InFront George East (that is the name of a field by the way), along with 75 Linnets. The Barn Owl put on a further show, short video attached. I will continue to stare up, hoping for a wayward Golden Plover or Snipe to add to the growing 3km lockdown list.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Discovery - 3km (Day 2)

Three kilometres from home is not a big distance. And when you have lived in the same house for over 30 years, you would expect to know all of those three kilometres intimately, in whatever direction that you choose to take from your front door. And you would be wrong. If lockdown has any silver lining it is that our enforced retreat into the home area opens up the possibility of discovery.

When I look at an OS map of my home area, I am familiar with what lies due south (and to a certain extent north) of me - but not so much to the west and certainly hardly anything to the north-east. I have walked thousands of miles from home, quite literally, but for some reason my inner-compass has taken me away from the north-east. Today I went in search of this 'empty quarter'.

I started with a visit to Priest Hill (north-west and 15+ Greenfinch), then Banstead Downs (north and 40+ Redwing), then veered of into the mysterious north-east. Here I hit the edge of my 3km square, hard up against the perimeter fence of the Banstead prisons (ex-asylums). To the south of these is a large area of paddocks and small holdings, crossed by footpaths and little birded. I cannot claim to any great ornithological victory there this afternoon (save for 100+ Redwings), but I felt as if I had stumbled across a hidden gem. I can clearly see that this area has potential. A footpath then travels south-east across Hengest Farm (new ground for me) to join up with the more familiar Park Downs, and then onto Canons Farm. I ended up with a flock of 57 Fieldfare and a Barn Owl at the latter site. My search for Firecrests and Woodcocks this afternoon may have failed, but I ended the day full of hope.

To have been birding, non-stop, for 47 years, and yet be energised and excited by a few fields, hedgerows and copses on my doorstep, is worth celebrating. And all because the wider world is out-of-bounds. Sometimes you need to be forced into seeing what really is of value in our shallow world.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Owls - 3km (Day 1)

A post-midnight Tawny Owl, heard calling from the gardens in front of the house, kicked off this latest lockdown sideshow. Two brief birding forays were made - this morning to Priest Hill (very quiet, scratching around for the odd Redwing or Meadow Pipit) - and this afternoon to Canons Farm, where a Barn Owl put on a hunting performance between 14.30 - 45hrs, before being seen to re-enter its roosting site having caught nothing. A very modest video can be endured, above. A flock of 50+ Skylarks and a group of 8 Meadow Pipit helped rescue a rather quiet time. And so the first day (of who knows how many) is underway - bringing with it the chance to discover all sorts of wonderful natural history on my doorstep, or, if not, a step closer to madness.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Biting the bullet

The 3km circle based on the shape of a square. All is explained...

They're all at it, all of my blogging chums - Seth, Jono, Stewart, Gavin, Dylan - you can see their blogs over on the right hand side of the screen under the 'Worthy Blogs' tab. And what have they all been up to? Adopting lockdown recording areas, close to home and in the spirit of community welfare, that's what. And all credit to them for doing so. Some of them have decided to record in an area within a five kilometre circumference from home - others have plumped to go imperial and swap kilometres for miles. As for me, I’ve dithered about somewhat. At the end of last year I’d decided to keep within my Uber patch, but that is an area where the extremities need a car journey. After the early-January lockdown I switched to my mini-Uber patch, the furthest point being maybe two-hours on foot from home. But, in light of the way that this pandemic is evolving, there was no way that I now feel comfortable in exploring even the mini-Uber edges, so it was time for a rethink.

Looking at the OS maps, the five km and/or mile options were explored. To put it simply, the five km/miles to the north of me is largely built-up, where as those to the west, south and east are not. I also tend not to wander too far west or east of me, with most of my interest laying to the south. The more I looked at these circles on the maps, the more I realised that I needed to address the elephants in the room - the waste of some of the space within them and the lack of 'real' birding sites anywhere. Beddington lay another two miles further on, Holmethorpe even a little bit further. In some ways, this acceptance of the best birding being just too far away was a relief - the need to push the elasticity of the circle was not necessary. It almost made more sense to withdraw the boundary even more and to concentrate on a smaller area which would give these modest birding areas better coverage. Any water that I could hope to watch over would come courtesy of a handful of small ponds. Most of my most attractive habitat would be patches of farmland, downland and copse. It's what fate has decreed to be my local patches over the coming weeks (or even months). 

I looked at the OS again, selected my closest ‘patches’ that I believe can provided some ornithological relief, and tied them all together in a package - a square package. My home just happens to sit on the boundary of a square, both on the vertical baseline and start of the horizontal axis (the easting and northing). So, I will venture 3 single km squares in each direction, my home ‘sitting’ in the middle of a 6km x 6km square (vaguely equivalent to a 3km circle from home). And why didn’t I just draw a circle like everybody else? No reason, although I do have 36 equal-sized 1km recording units at my disposal.

I did start with the idea of listing all of the plants and moths that I come across, but now I'm not so sure. I'll see how it all goes. Recording plants along suburban roads is a rewarding pastime, but I don't think that stopping and starting, kneeling down and examining a specimen through a hand-lens is the way to behave at the moment. Such behaviour is fine out in the open, but 60% of my area will not be open.

Perverse as ever, I'll start tomorrow. It's a small area, perfectly coverable but large enough to keep me on my toes. I know that there is a decent Ring-necked Parakeet roost somewhere. How many Blackcaps are wintering in my 3km 'circle'? What, exactly, is out there? Let's find out...

Sunday, 17 January 2021

We will remember them


When the Woodland Trust purchased Langley Bottom Farm several years ago, it most probably saved this corner of the Surrey downs from becoming yet another golf course or, worse still, a housing estate. The farmland of the north downs has always struggled to provide well, with the dry chalky soil riddled with flints and it does not carry much value. Langley Bottom Farm had been cared for sympathetically, with a good arable flora and set-aside strips and game cover present that catered for a small shoot. Lapwings still bred on three fields and a good population of Skylarks were present all year round. Small copses had been left alone, and much of the hedgerow was deep and ancient.

Needless to say, when the Woodland Trust revealed their plans for the farm, and of their intention to plant it with trees to create a commemorative wood, the local naturalists were concerned. After several meetings with interested parties a compromise was agreed. Open fields would be left for the Lapwings, and areas identified as botanically rich would be maintained. After five years these measures have allowed for a relatively successful outcome for both waders and plants. As for the WT planting, that has more or less been completed. The wood is one of several around the country that commemorates the centenary of the end of the Great War in 1918. Today I spent some time at the highest point of the farm where 12 stone statues have been erected, marking General Kitchener’s visit to the army encampment that was situated here during the conflict. He visited in January 1915, and the statues represent the civilian and military personnel who were paraded that day.

The woodland is still in its sapling and plastic guard phase, lines of trees marked out in rows, falling away across the undulating land, echoing the lines of war graves that lie silent across the English Channel. I had spent a while looking at the respectful work that has been carried out, admiring the stones, decorated benches and sculptures that dot the hills. My disappointment of a poor morning’s birding was put firmly in perspective. I sat in the weak winter sun and thought of the hundreds of thousands of poor souls that had been wrenched from their quiet, normal lives to be sent to an early death. And here was I, having been blessed with a full life, morose because there weren’t many birds to count. I told myself off. 

My mind was snapped back into 2021 when I walked along one of my favourite ‘weedy strips’ that contour the grassy, southern side of Epsom Downs racecourse. These strips are slightly raised and boast a handful of small trees as well. Any walk along their considerable length will kick up a lark, pipit or chat. This morning two new Stonechats were present, a pair, both un-ringed. The male was a confiding bird, and as any regular visitor to this blog will know, I cannot resist photographing a Stonechat! The ringed male was also seen, lurking along the fence-line by the sheep.