Friday, 30 April 2021

EPO

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

Not through want of trying

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

Garlic buntings

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

Ouzel map

Yesterday's Ring Ouzel got me looking back at my past Uberpatch records for this charming thrush. First recorded at Beddington SF (1976), Seears Park, Cheam (1984), Holmethorpe (1991), Headley Heath (2005), Canons Farm, Banstead (2011), Priest Hill, Ewell (2017), Colley Hill (2018), Box Hill (2019), Little Woodcote (2020), Epsom Downs and Walton Downs (2021). Extreme dates: Spring passage; 29 March 2017 (Priest Hill, Ewell) – 1 May 2017 (Canons Farm, Banstead); Autumn passage; 13 October 2012 (Canons Farm, Banstead) - 7 November 1976 (Beddington SF). Highest counts: eight on 21 October 2019 at Box Hill; three on 13 October 2012 at Canons Farm, Banstead. And here are the sighting locations marked on the Uberpatch map (I didn't feel up to drawing a mini-Ouzel so a star will have to do.) I need to spend more time down in that south-westerly corner - there are no Ouzel stars there!

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Keep on keeping on

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

An audience with an eagle

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

Out of memory


Yesterday morning found me with my 'DIY' hat on, and that is not a type of headwear that sits comfortably on me. After reparing the garden shed and re-felting the roof (an easy job that even idiots like me can successfully complete) I rewarded myself with a trip up to Walton Downs. Blackcaps (above) and Chiffchaffs provided the accompanying soundtrack. Big highlight was a splendid male Ring Ouzel in the horse paddocks, which gave good, but distant views, hopping around the short sward in the company of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes. And why no photograph? Guess who took his camera out without a memory card inside it? Answers on a postcard...


This morning a dire skywatch at Box Hill was followed up by a shortish visit to Swire's Farm, which can still boast a healthy population of Yellowhammers (above), with much singing and courtship shenanigans being heard and observed. Apart from a Common Whitethroat not much to get the birding juices flowing.


Last stop of the morning was a return to Walton Downs. The Woodland Trust have certainly kept to their word and have created areas of non-woodland within the Centenary Wood complex that is being created on the site of Langley Vale Farm. These areas are to benefit the superb arable flora present (which I have extensively blogged about in the past) and also the historical population of Lapwings. These waders are celebrated rather than kept quiet, with signs attached to the fencing informing passing walkers of 'what lies within'. At least 10 birds were present yesterday, with three seen this morning. This field (above) is huge, a combination of earth, flint and chalk at the surface. Wheatears have taken a liking to it recently, with as many as 12 present (just four this morning). A check was made on the horse paddocks, in the hope that the Ouzel may have remained. Unfortunately not, but a male Common Redstart was some compensation.

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.