A search of the scrub at the bottom of the North Downs scarp, at Denbies Hillside, could only reveal a handful of Whitethroats and none of the passage migrants I was hoping for. My effort this spring has not, on the whole, been rewarded - no doubt a sentiment shared by many birders up and down the country. Some consolation was had with the number of species of flower that are now coming into bloom, particularly the ground flora of the woodland. In amongst the Bluebells at the top of the hill it was a pleasure to revisit the Early Purple Orchid colony (below). Another month starts tomorrow, and my first appointment in the morning is my second COVID jab, at Epsom Downs racecourse. I might just take my binoculars along...
Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Today saw a 12-hour birding session at one of my former regular patches - Holmethorpe Sand Pits. It was a day orchestrated by a chill north-easterly breeze, dirty grey cloud and frequent light rain showers. It ended with me feeling damp, achy and underwhelmed. I was joined in this most worthy of ornithological quests by 'Mr. Holmethorpe' himself, Gordon Hay. We tried. Honestly, we tried...
The area is characterised by several waterbodies, farmland, copse and a barren ridge that was once landfill. Our list of today's 'highlights' will not overly impress - 1 Little Egret, 2 Teal, 3 Gadwall, a Little Ringed Plover, a Lapwing, a Common Snipe, a Greenshank (above), a Common Sandpiper, 15 Swift, a Kingfisher, 150+ Sand Martin, 50+ Swallow, 25+ House Martin, 5 Yellow Wagtail, 2 Cetti's Warbler, a Sedge Warbler, 5 Reed Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat, 8 Common Whitethroat, 30+ Blackcap, 4 Garden Warbler, 7 Chiffchaff, a Willow Warbler and 10+ Yellowhammer. Hardly a red-letter day. We kept at it, especially after the Beddington Boys (10 miles to the north) had two Arctic Skuas sail by. Such is birding. On another day, it could have been our glory - at least, that what we are telling ourselves.
Sunday, 25 April 2021
A chilly north-easterly wind, clear blue skies and a harsh sunlight all added up to provide an underwhelming morning's birding. Again, perversely, I chose to bird 'the road less travelled' which equated to a few hours of seeing very little, although this is what is to be expected when the places I visit are not all that 'birdy'. If I'm staying local it just seems a more adventurous option than to visit the crowded footpaths at Beddington or Holmethorpe. There are plenty of eyes already watching these north-Surrey hotspots - all I would do is add to that mass (although I plan to visit them both soon enough).
This morning's highlight was botanical, as down by the banks of the River Mole, close to Mickleham, one of spring's highlights was unfurling - the mass flowering of Ramsons (above). These bright white flowers zing out against the oh-so green leaves, the whole experience joined with the unmistakable smell of garlic. This show will look even better in a day or twos time when the flowers are fully opened. Today's bird interlude comes courtesy of a couple of buntings that posed for the camera on my South Downs walk last week: Corn Bunting (top) and Yellowhammer (bottom).
Friday, 23 April 2021
Thursday, 22 April 2021
Since I swore off birding locally I have been birding locally (apart from the escape to the South Downs on Tuesday). That is quite typical of me, full of declarations, plans and ideas that somehow go to pot within the blink of an eye. And how quiet these sessions have been! Scarcely a migrant to be had, even after hours of scouring the fields, hedges and copses of Epsom and Walton Downs, full of hope, topped up with patience and a resolve not to go home empty handed. And to a lesser degree it has been a success. Each session has ended with at least a handful of Wheatear, once a male Common Redstart and on three occasions a male Ring Ouzel (all different birds). This afternoon I was near the end of a sunny, breezy, and birdless session (not even a Wheatear), when this popped up in front of me...
I will never tire of Ring Ouzels. For us southerners they are just passage migrants, and you've had a good day when you are graced with their presence. So, the lesson is clear. Keep on ploughing that birding furrow, even on a day that promises nothing. Today, a Ring Ouzel - and tomorrow? Who knows...
Tuesday, 20 April 2021
I spent the day wandering along the South Downs footpaths between Chantry Post, Kithurst Hill and The Burgh. Beautiful weather, plenty to look at (including Grey Partridges and Corn Buntings, both missing in action from Surrey) with a scattering of Wheatears. But it was a raptor which stole the show. There have been two of the Isle of Wight White-tailed Eagles hanging around the area, so I was certainly on the look out, but the manner in which I bumped into one of them was unexpected. Coming across a picturesque scene, at the mouth of a rolling valley, I wandered along the bottom to get a better photographic composition when I was aware of a strange 'haystack' not 100m from me. I lifted the binoculars, thinking to myself that it would be good if it were an eagle, and this came into focus:
After watching it for several minutes the bird flapped lazily away and alighted on a nearby tree. I was able to take some video, through the heat haze. An hour later it was circling above the valley, only to alight in the middle of an open field.
Wednesday, 14 April 2021
Monday, 12 April 2021
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...|
|Little visibility and certainly no birds on the move|
|A Lapwing warning a Stone Curlew to hide, as I'm looking for it.|
Friday, 9 April 2021
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
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
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.
Friday, 2 April 2021
|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.