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.

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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.

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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.