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.
Saturday, 30 January 2021
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.
Thursday, 28 January 2021
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
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
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
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
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
|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
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.
Saturday, 16 January 2021
|Not the hedgerow mentioned in the text, but one of many to check across the site|
Seeing that most of us are adhering to lockdown rules, our birding footprint has become a much smaller one, modestly centred around our homes. I have become slightly obsessed with what I can hope to find on Epsom and Walton Downs, especially as I can easily walk there in 20 minutes, and the furthest point is only a further 30 minutes on from there. Canons Farm is a similar distance, and a place where I have had far more birding success, but it is the former site that is interesting me at the moment - and I do tend to think of it - Epsom and Walton Downs - as one site, even though cartographers may argue otherwise. The farm fields and copses flow across the boundary lines, as do the Skylarks, thrushes and chats.
Historically E&W Downs have thrown up good birds and good counts. During the 1960s and 70s they were actively covered and the Surrey Bird Reports of the time make interesting reading. My own modest, and erratic, efforts have only produced a few surprises - Woodlark, Golden Plover, Barn Owl, Black Redstart - plus a decent passage of chats and thrushes.
On my wander yesterday I came across a section of Walton Downs that I had not had the chance to explore. Most of the farmland here has been purchased by the Woodland Trust, and has been opened up to the public and planted with trees. These new footpaths are many and largely deserted. The old OS footpaths that I used to walk along enabled me to stare longingly at small copses and hedgerows that were tantalisingly out of reach. Now, these same areas are open to explore. This 'new' area was a field edge that runs southwards along a shallow valley, with a narrow hedgerow along its base. It looks ideal as a corridor of movement. I can imagine birds making their way along it during spring and autumn, with the obligatory stop-off of starts and chats in the autumn - and, if I've been a good boy, maybe even a shrike. But to temper any wishful thinking, there are miles of hedgerows like this, running away across open fields and ripe for exploring. The more I look here, the more I am discovering. It took several years for the Canons Farm 'hot-spots' to be identified, so I cannot expect those on E&W Downs to give themselves up immediately.
Friday, 15 January 2021
Another lockdown walk from home saw me scouring the fields, copses and downland across Epsom and Walton. Yet again it was underwhelming. Very few birds seem to be wintering here, certainly not the expected numbers of finches and thrushes during the winter months. Even the Skylarks, which numbered 125+ only last week, have dwindled away. So, thank goodness for Stonechats! One of my favourite species at any time of the year, but when you have them performing on a grey and dreary morning, when there appears to be little else on offer, they become even more special.
Last Sunday I had found a pair, lurking with the sheep, down in a fold in the hills on the border of Epsom and Walton Downs. Two days ago they had enticed another male to join them. This morning, all three were still present and correct. Or were they? On looking closely at the female, I could see that it was ringed - the female that I had watched earlier in the week had not been. So, either this is a new bird (and the other has moved on or was lurking out of sight), or in the past couple of days somebody had trapped the bird for the purpose of ringing. The fact that one of the males is already ringed possibly points to local trapping, although this is pure conjecture. I'm now itching to find out the story behind these ringed birds.
Wednesday, 13 January 2021
For a number of years, I have trawled across the footpaths of the Uberpatch and come across these white posts. And for a number of years I have dismissed them, assuming that they are boundary markers of a parish council or administrative border. Recently curiosity has got the better of me...
They are coal tax boundary markers.Coal imported into the City of London had been taxed since medieval times and, as it was originally all brought by sea to riverside wharfs, the collection of the duties was relatively easy. By the 19th century however, there was increasing trade by canal and rail, and various Acts of Parliament extended the catchment area to include these new modes of transport. In 1845 the boundary was set at a radius of 20 miles from the General Post Office, London. In 1851 an Act permitted the erection of boundary markers to indicate where this boundary lay; and about fifty markers were erected. In 1861 a further Act was passed, reducing the area to that of the Metropolitan Police District plus the City of London. New marker posts (about 280) were erected to show the boundary within which the duty was payable. The purpose of the posts was to give notice of where the boundary ran so that no-one could claim ignorance of liability to pay the duties.
The photograph above was taken on Walton Heath, one of the 1861 alumni. These markers of the past resonate with me, just as much as an ancient tree, a well-established footpath or old farm building. Where we walk, so have many before us. These posts are now standing proud - and maintained - in odd places. I can find them in the middle of a copse or alongside the edge of a minor footpath. Like the Second World War pill-boxes, that are strewn across the scarp slope of the North Downs, their positioning at the time made sense - but today, not so much. Time moves on, the vegetation matures, our need of a particular footpath wanes. But the solid post or pill-box remains rooted to the ground, ignorant of the passing of time.
Tuesday, 12 January 2021
Sunday, 10 January 2021
A hard frost with a large helping of fog greeted me at dawn this morning. A route-march up onto Epsom Downs soon had me warm, and a quick circuit across the race-course and the fields of Walton Downs provided the following highlights: 8 Red-legged Partridge, 70+ Skylark and a pair of Stonechats. The male of the latter was ringed - I cannot get anything on the inscription, but it looks like a newish BTO-type band. I'd like to think that it was ringed by those kind people at Dungeness Bird Observatory, and it has quite rightly decided to pay this corner of Surrey a visit...
The vegetation remained resolutely iced, frosted, hoary and rimed. Rather invigorating.
Saturday, 9 January 2021
The latest Government suggestion is that we behave as if we ‘have the virus’, which would mean that none of us leave home for any reason at all - no shopping, no going to work, no exercise. The GOV.UK website is, however, suggesting that we can still exercise, once a day and locally. There is no definition of ‘local’ nor of any time constraint. And does exercise mean that we can birdwatch during said exercise? From a personal point of view, seeing that the government have announced that fishing and rough shooting can be considered as exercise, I’m taking that as a green light to carry my binoculars without guilt. As for the vague definition of what is local, I’ve decided to only birdwatch from home, on foot. In effect this has confined my birding radius to Canons Farm, Epsom and Walton Downs, Epsom Common and the watery Ewell sites (plus the dry Priest Hill). Of course we may get further directives which are more detailed, and these may alter my take on it, but for the time being this is my birding world. I will not loiter within proximity to any other persons exercising and will keep clear of any place that is popular with the same. Scope and tripod have been mothballed. These are small prices to pay.
Such restrictions can be seen to have a diminishing effect on the birding experience. That would be a fair comment, and even in a local context, as I have removed Beddington and Holmethorpe from my birding map. But even when we are having to pull in the birding horns, our immediate areas, wherever you may be, will provide much interest. There might not be much rarity - as far as such a definition applies on a national (or even county) level - but as for local rarity, well that definition has an altogether looser meaning.
Within three miles from home I have recorded Cattle Egret, Spoonbill, Brent Goose, Ring-necked Duck, Common Scoter, Honey Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Merlin, Quail, Dotterel, Jack Snipe, Iceland Gull, Short-eared Owl, Bee-eater, Woodlark, Black Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler, Dartford Warbler, Waxwing and Hawfinch. All these birds were seen in what can be described as non-birdy places, which defies the logic of ever giving any place such a description. This same area sees a considerable passage of migrants each spring and autumn, in particular chats, thrushes and finches. Some of my more notable counts have been notable even on a national scale, such as four-figure flocks of winter Brambling and Chaffinch, 600+ Linnet, visible migrations of 6k House Martin, 4k Swallow and 7k Redwing, and some of these have been viewable from the garden - a modest garden at that.
So, as can be seen, staying local needn’t mean that you are not doing ‘proper’ birding, or that your birding is going to be ‘birding-lite’ compared to other places. Of course it is more limiting. My lack of substantial water bodies close to home means a paucity of wildfowl and waders entering the notebook. But you cut your ornithological cloth to what you have set out before you. The birds are out there. Lockdown might at first appear to be a tying up of freedom, but it can also become a key to the opening up of local knowledge with some very gratifying and surprising results.
Friday, 8 January 2021
A morning walk from home, to Ewell and back, via Priest Hill. The birds were largely forgettable, save for a show-off Kingfisher (close to the mill along the River Hogsmill). Priest Hill provided a most unusual gathering - three birders! I have seen Steve Thomas there on several occasions (along with his better-half Alison), but this morning we were joined by Shaun Ferguson, who has just moved into the area. We chatted for a few minutes at a safe distance and tried to bouy each other up with confident declarations of the good birding yet to be had on our doorsteps. Enthusiasm or delusion? We will see.
My plans to spend more time this year at both Beddington and Holmethorpe are now having to be put on the back burner, as both are a good 7-9 miles from home and beyond a comfortable walk. Canons Farm, Epsom Downs and the Ewell sites are going to have to take over the role as the places to bird - all easily reached on foot and all with a modest, but at times noteworthy, birding pedigree. I will also start to skywatch the first hour of the day from the garden. By the time we get to March then the Common Buzzard and Red Kite passage will be starting, and as last year's first lockdown proved, this raptor phenomenon is of a daily occurrence, as long as the weather is not dire. There will also be a bit of thrush and finch movement, plus who can forget those wonderful nights filled with wildfowl and wader calls! Same again please. I have a feeling in my bones that we will be confined to barracks until at least the end of that month. If so, as can be seen, all is not lost.
Thursday, 7 January 2021
Birding lockdown walk (number one) was a circular affair from home, looping across Epsom and Walton Downs, then onto Walton Heath. Very quiet, with the birds coming in sudden bursts - 125 Skylarks across two fields, 30 Meadow Pipits in a flock, a pair of Stonechats, plus maybe 60 Fieldfares and 150 Redwing (above). Botanical highlight was my annual visit to the (expanding) patch of Green Hellebore in a copse on Walton Downs (below). Not much of it was in flower. If I had have found a Little Bunting, or Great Grey Shrike, or Black-throated Thrush, I wouldn't really have been able to announce it, what with all the restrictions currently in place. So when I do, you won't know. If I have already, I couldn't say...
Monday, 4 January 2021
... of birds and men, often go awry.
There was I, back in December, spouting on about my plans and targets for the uberpatch - but, if I'm being honest, in the back of my mind I knew that another Lockdown was a strong possibility. And tonight, that lockdown has been nationally declared.
There are positives for those of us that have so far escaped the negatives. The two vaccines that are being rolled out and delivered to arms will, God willing, start to suppress the virus. There was suggestion that, everybody who fell within the government's definition of the most urgent cases for the jab, would receive their first of two by mid-February. As somebody that is considered to be 'clinically vulnerable' this is positive stuff. Another positive is that there is recognition of the need to get out into the fresh air for exercise. I've just been on the governments website which states:exercise with your household (or support bubble) or one other person, this should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area.
|Canons Farm - sometimes Bog Field floods, and has attracted Green Sandpiper|
Sunday, 3 January 2021
Dank early starts seem to be a theme so far this year in Banstead, this mornings rain doing little to help brighten up an already stygian sky. By the time I'd made the short journey to Canons Farm, a developing brightness in the sky soon gave way to a couple of wintry showers. Undaunted, I donned the wellington boots and braved the muddy interior...
The farm was quiet. As any seasoned Canons birder will tell you though, even if the first 19 fields you check are empty, the 20th might just hold the prize. My prize(s) were not of the rare, or even of the scarce, but of several flocks that were, if nothing else, notebook fodder. Highlights of 40 Skylark, 40 Fieldfare, 80 Redwing, 200 Starling, 210 Chaffinch, 170 Linnet and 3 Yellowhammer can hardly be called shabby though. A tame Dunnock (top) and Blackbird (below) posed for the camera.
Saturday, 2 January 2021
New Year's Day dawned grey, foggy and eerily quiet in Banstead. The silence was finally broken by a singing Robin, once again this species claiming the coveted 'first bird of the year' award. My birding endeavours were modest, partly in response to the COVID situation and my not wanting to share space with others, so no coast, no hides and no rarity. With this in mind I had devised a circular rambling walk along some of the lesser-known footpaths to be found in the Reigate - Betchworth area. There was some method involved, as the walk took in the sites of two species that are not a staple diet of Uber-patch birding.
Priory Park, Reigate boasts a small lake that, later on in the day, would be the scene of family gatherings, with toddlers riding Christmas bikes and scooters, prams and push-chairs being pushed, dogs yapping and frazzled parents parenting. One of my targets, the 'wintering' Ring-necked Duck, was still present on New Year's Eve, and was delighted to find it still present. I needed this to be a quick in-out job. The light was abysmal. The duck, however, was not, and had decided to attend a small Tufted Duck gathering just feet away from me as I watched from the bank. The bridge camera, as good as it can be in certain situations, does not perform well in low light - the focussing ability is compromised, as my resulting image above testifies. I did not want to stay long, and exited by the footpath along a stream that takes you through to Reigate Heath, then, via open farmland, to Betchworth.
Target species number two were the White-fronted Geese that have now been present for a month, feeding on the open flood plain fields by the River Mole. I had the place to myself, so set up the scope and watched them for an hour. 48 were counted several times, an increase of three on recent counts. What with a calling Little Owl as accompaniment the day was going along quite well. Crossing the A25 and entering the footpaths that run parallel with the North Downs scarp, things became very muddy indeed, my wearing of Wellington boots being the wisest choice that I'd made so far in 2021. The birdlife was poor, and apart from 300+ Redwings there was little to get excited about. Throughout my walk I did not see, or hear, a single lark, pipit, bunting or Linnet. This part of Surrey is very hit and miss. You plough on ahead because it can produce the goods, it's just that it normally does not. A dusk stop at Holmethorpe provided highlights of Barn Owl, Green Sandpiper and Gordon Hay.
So, here we are. Another year. Let's hope that it isn't as dystopian as the last.