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?