Showing posts from 2022


On Tuesday evening, at 20.05hrs, I was taking out the rubbish, when I heard a call from south-west of the house. I froze, knowing what it was at once, but scarcely believing it. I had listened to this call on Xeno-Canto many times, getting ready for such a moment but not really considering it something that I would hear over the back garden. After 15 seconds the call came again from the blackness, now directly over head. Yes, there was no mistaking it! Another 20 seconds it called a third time - now further away to the north-east... "Kwowww" A lazy drawl, part bark, part yelp. A Bittern. Nocturnal flight-call. I went back inside and played the call on Xeno Canto just to make sure that I had remembered everything correctly. I had. Bloody hell, a Bittern over suburban Banstead! And only a week after an Arctic Skua had blessed me just a mile or so away. Sometimes the birding Gods do smile on you. To some birders these two species are just small fry, mere starters to the main cou

Skua saves the inland autumn

Mid-November saw me finally accept that this mid-to-late autumn had not been a classic. True, I had not ventured far from home, adhering to an almost perverse sense of 'keeping local', but previous years had seen decent visible migration sessions overhead and I saw no reason for that to not be repeated - but, by and large, it didn't. I had just the two days of thrush movement, much smaller than hoped for, and virtually no finches. A number of guaranteed roost sites had also failed to materialise. Ho-hum! But just to prove that it isn't over until 'the  fat  slightly larger than normal lady sings', when scanning the skies from an elevated part of Epsom Downs, this happened... I was hyped up enough about the sighting afterwards to get stuck into some old-school field notes. I'm no fine artist, certainly not when it comes to natural history, but we can all attempt to convey a bit of the magic that birding brings, regardless of whether or not we are classified a

Stones and Darts

The last 10 days has seen me become obsessed in scouring the local patches for large, open, weedy fields and scanning them for Stonechats - the reason? - we are experiencing ridiculously high numbers of these charismatic chats at the moment. Prior to this, my highest local day total for a single site was 10. And as will be shortly revealed, that day total has been smashed, several times over. The first inkling that something unusual was happening occurred on 30th September when I was skywatching from the base of the scarp slope just east of Box Hill. I was aware of three, maybe four Stonechats in front of me, but was more interested in the small number of birds passing overhead. Now and again I would take a break from looking up and scan the fence lines close by. And that was when I was confronted by a loose flock of 17 Stonechats, 10 of which I managed to capture in the image above (one of them is hidden on the bottom wire). Now this was unusual! I returned three days later to find th

A few recent back garden invertebrates

First up is the smart looking tortrix moth Agapeta zoegana . It is relatively common, the larvae feeding on knapweed, and is met with annually in the garden MV. However, it comes in two forms. The one usually encountered is a real looker, a concoction of banana-yellow and milk chocolate. The other, known as ferrugana replaces the yellow with a frothy cappuccino brown (above, right). I hadn't knowingly seen this form until last week, both handily coming to the MV on the morning of August 9th. 'The Smaller Moths of Surrey', published in 2012, suggests that ferrugana "occurs occasionally in the county at a low density." My checking of the MV during this hot weather has not really produced the hoped for 'good' migrant or wanderer, but this disappointment was suspended on the morning of August 5th when this bizarre moth was trapped - a gynandromorph Gypsy Moth, half female, half male. The male half in the above images is exhibited on the left hand side of the

Cattle Egrets and Marsh Mallows

In February 1981 a carload of birders made the journey from Surrey to Anglesey to twitch a rare species of southern heron. We arrived at Aber to watch a Cattle Egret, making its way through a herd of livestock in a roadside field. Many of our fellow observers that day joined us in ticking the said species, a good lifer, one not to be underestimated - after all, they didn't come along all that often... Fast forward 41 years, and I am standing on a footpath that runs alongside the River Arun in West Sussex. From where I am I can see across the Arundel Wildfowl Trust reserve, and, scanning the far tree-line, it is possible to make out a number of white shapes perched within them. I counted 20, maybe 22 - every single one a Cattle Egret. 22! What a number - but I am expecting more. This is a known roost, and the numbers reported joining it each evening are higher still. My reckoning was that if I arrived early enough in the morning I could count them leave and so gain an accurate, simi

When the birding and football worlds collide!

Red Kite - nowadays easily seen from football pitches across the nation Back in April I was watching the Sutton United v Crawley game in the company of Jake Everitt (Brighton and Hove Albion season ticket holder and a top Sussex birder) when we started to list birds that we had observed whilst watching a match - we swapped Little Egrets, Red Kites and Peregrines - and there and then we devised a challenge for the 2022-23 season. These are the rules: The winner be the person who has observed (or heard) the highest number of birds species during the 2022-23 season, from football ground premises whilst attending a match. Birds seen prior and post kick-off will count, but hanging around outside of the ground does not! Confined to games that involve at least one club from Steps 1-6 in England and Wales (Scottish equivalent permitted.) Friendlies, league, cup and play-offs allowed. No optics, just eyes and ears. There is no prize, just the ownership of bragging rights for the following seaso

Butterfly balm

Yesterday, on a gloriously sunny and hot afternoon, Gordon Hay and myself spent several hours wandering the rides and footpaths that criss-cross Bookham Common, an area of outstanding Surrey butterfly real-estate. Our aims were to see if there were any Purple Emperors on the wing and to luxuriate in amongst one of our favourite species, the White Admiral. On arrival I met one of the National Trust rangers who told me that the Emperor had first been seen on June 17th - it looked as though, with a fair wind, our luck might be in. We didn't have to wait long before we knew that our visit was going to be blessed. The well-known 'master' trees, on the higher ground at Hill Farm, were playing host to three Purple Emperors, with much sparring, circular flights and easily observed perching indulged in (above, from 12.30 - 14.30hrs).  We were also fortunate in coming across a further individual - at 16.23hrs, some way from the favoured area - that was grounded. This butterfly was fi

Low times and a Purple Heron

The past few months have been a bit of a struggle for me. It started last summer, when a very close family member became ill, and we had an unpleasant and uncertain spell when their treatment was being discussed and the possible outcomes were uncertain. You never want to see someone that is so close to you frightened and in danger. Fortunately, touch wood, we seem to be in a good place right now, thanks to the wonderful staff at the Royal Marsden Hospital. Our NHS is nothing short of wonderful when the chips are down. Throughout this whole episode I was able to keep it all together, to stay strong and positive - but it has come at a price. I'm now shot to pieces. My confidence has never been lower. My mojo has shrivelled up. Anxiety and worry rule my days. This has manifested itself in many ways, turning my ever-so-mild OCD into a fully blown case. After 63-years on this earth I am finally able to understand that those suffering from mental health are not in a good place at all. It

The paths less travelled

This is the first in an occasional series of posts that will visit some of the least travelled footpaths that are out there and waiting to be explored. Many of them will have no obvious merit to the naturalist, but, with a lit bit of time being spent along them, all will open up and reveal their treasure! So, as a starter, let us walk along Freedown Lane in Banstead... The Freedown is an area of Banstead Downs that was selected by a group of worthy late-Victorians to build, what they called, a lunatic asylum. Banstead Mental Hospital closed in the late 20th century, with the land being sold to the Home Office. Two high security prisons were then constructed on site - incarceration of a different kind. Freedown Lane (FL) is accessed from the B2218 that runs from Banstead to Belmont. FL is a narrow road that soon becomes an unmade track, the very few houses that are present sharing their space with horse paddocks. If arriving by car, it is best not to park along the lane, with the closes

The art and reason of blogging...

I was given a wake-up call yesterday, when visiting a pub (The Dolphin at Betchworth), whilst out on a long walk with my brother-in-law Bill. As we stood at the bar, I glanced through into the room beyond  and spied somebody who I used to work with (seemingly in a previous life). Beers purchased, I went to say hello to Sandy, who I hadn't seen for seven years. It was lovely to make contact again, and to meet her twin sister. She then introduced me to the other couple at their table - Alan and his wife (who I have shamefully not remembered her name). Alan stood up and shook my hand - he is an avid reader of this very blog. I was, of course, flattered. He then mentioned that some of my posts had alerted him to the presence of various footpaths, the large Brambling flocks near Reigate... it made me realise that blog posting sometimes has a positive end result, beyond my scratching of an ego. It also got me thinking of the audience that it might well reach. Sometimes it can be easy to

Surrey 5km bird race

Back in March, Ed Stubbs announced the launch of a Surrey-based bird race, to take part on May 7th. The rules were simple: between 00.00hrs - 18.00hrs observers were asked to record as many species as possible within a 5km radius of a nominated point. The use of 'green' transport - foot or bike - was encouraged. Solo birders or gathered teams were both welcome. I was, of course, in! So, where would my nominated point be? The most obvious starting place would be my home in Banstead. I would then be able to carry out the whole day 'on foot'. I started to look at a route, which would, by necessity, have to take in the very few limited water bodies within that area. There was a downside - there would be plenty of walking through areas that would not, in all honesty, hold much. There was also a wish to be spending the day in an area that might hold a few surprises, be they untrodden footpaths, unvisited tracts of land and stunning scenery - in the end I plumped for Colley Hi

Of local Ouzels

Ring Ouzels are one of those birds that can make a patchworker's day - they are unusual enough, and good-looking enough, to warrant giving you a feeling of satisfied pleasure - especially if the bird before you is a male. Here in northern Surrey I am lucky enough to be able call this thrush an almost annual passage migrant. If I don't see one locally during a calendar year it will be more because of my lack of effort rather than the birds not having been there. Within the uberpatch they are most likely to be found on scrubby downland, farmland or within horse paddocks, but they can pop up anywhere. The most unlikely location was a suburban back garden in Cheam one April afternoon. The map below illustrates where, across the uberpatch, I have recorded them, broken down into spring and autumn passage birds. I have not plotted every sighting, as both Beddington and Canons Farm have hosted multiple encounters, but the spring/autumn breakdown is reflected. My local extreme dates are

Cirl Buntings

I recently spent a few days in the small but perfectly formed town of Shaldon, in south Devon, nestled on the southern flank of the mouth of the Teign estuary, where the river discharges into the Atlantic Ocean. Although not a birding trip, the optics, of course, came along too. Two dawn starts were made (31st March and 2nd April) where I walked southwards along the South-West Coast path, leaving Shaldon via a number of steep slopes before arriving at Labrador Bay, an area of farmland, copse, gorse scrub and hedgerow, managed in part by the RSPB - whose presence is explained by residency of a very special bird indeed - the Cirl Bunting. Coming from Surrey, I have few opportunities to watch this species, although I am old enough to have seen this bunting in my home county (way back in the 1970s and early 80s, although even then the population was down to a single pair). My two visits to Labrador Bay were blessed with clear skies, sunshine and shelter from a nagging and cold northerly wi

Corn Buntings on the South Downs

The West Sussex South Downs seem a wilder place than 'my' Surrey North Downs - more open than the wooded north, with steep slopes either side of the narrow ridge which suggests higher ground, and thus the views are spectacular, whichever way you look. It is also full of birds. I'd intended to park at the the top of Kithurst Hill, but a road closure sent me on my way to Amberley. After parking the car and making my way up the hill, a Marsh Harrier appeared above my head, heading off towards the Wild Brooks - a good start to the day. The footpath took me up to Amberley Mount, where I followed the South Downs Way eastwards. The open grassy fields here were full of Common Gulls, in their hundreds, feeding on the turf along with Starlings. Any scan southwards would find more gulls, mostly drifting east, often dropping down or wheeling above the hidden valleys that are cut into the undulating farmland, the land resembling the swell of a vast grassy ocean. The path also undulated,

Balm for the soul

That period of the day between sunset and darkness is a bewitching one, particularly when the air is still and cold. A tobacco-stained sky and a faint whiff of vegetation in the nostrils almost painted the day in the colours of Spring, no doubt enhanced by the contrast between this brightest of days and the overriding gloom of most of the past few months. Gordon and I were scoping the roosting gulls at Holmethorpe, try as we might we could not locate any of the first-winter Caspian Gulls that have paid this site a visit recently. We made do with the 101-flavours of Herring Gull (no two the same in the 500 present) and over 1,000 Black-headed Gulls that were settling on the inky waters to spend the night. A cacophony of roosting Jackdaws and Ring-necked Parakeets was our accompanying soundtrack, but even these raucous birds started to quieten down as we trudged back to our cars in the darkness, the grass already frosting up in anticipation of another cold night. As we approached Mercer&

Brambling spectacular

Last week, the Surrey Bird Club sightings section on the website announced that 100+ Bramblings had been seen along Clifton's Lane, just off the A25, between Reigate Heath and the North Downs scarp slope - it is an area that I know well and bird a few times each year. There was no need for me to weigh up the pros and cons of paying a visit - it is a place I love to wander and a species that I particularly enjoy watching. Friday afternoon saw me saunter up the aforementioned lane, looking out for a 'field with crops' that the birds had been frequenting. The first that fitted that description, beyond the railway bridge, was a right old mixture of brassica, peas and arable 'weeds' (below). There were no birds within the field, but the trees that lined the western side were full of them, hundreds of finches perched on the bare tops. I was able to get a decent viewpoint and could count 400+, many of them Brambling! I could not fail to be aware that more birds were in the

Reigate Ring-necked Duck

On a modestly sized park pond in Reigate, Surrey (Priory Park), this female Ring-necked Duck has turned up to spend the winter for the second successive year. The pond does punch above its weight (more a small lake really) by enticing Shoveler, Teal, Gadwall and Wigeon to also spend some quality time there. My good friend Gordon Hay first found this bird back in December 2020, and located it again in December 2021. It can often be found at the far end of the water, often with a handful of Tufted Ducks, and allows close approach. Last year it switched to Holmethorpe Sand Pits before the season was out - it will be interesting to see whether it does so again.

On your marks...

2021 - pretty crap, wasn't it... So welcome then to 2022, which doesn't have to try too hard to be a better year than the last - I just hope that I haven't tempted fate or jinxed it by writing that! Plans. Every New Year has plans. I vary from creating a monstrous list of aims and ideas which, slowly during the first few months of the year, crash and burn. I am now a more circumspect 'planner'. I like to have something to hang my natural history observations on (a bit like the relationship a pair of trousers has with a clothes hanger), so do try and get a bit of process behind my sightings. At the very least this will include writing up my notes; making my observations available to the databases via BirdTrack and Trektellen; be a conscientious team-player by tweeting and WhatsApping my sightings; and keeping this very blog alive. Last year I posted fewer times than ever before, my mojo having gone missing. Hopefully it has been refound. 2022 seems to be the year tha