Showing posts from 2023

End of. Beginning of.

Even here in the normally sedate south-east of England the weather is kicking off. An unusually blustery west to south-westerly wind is making itself felt and, looking at the weather forecast for the next few days, will continue to be a nuisance. What it must be like to the north and west of us I can only imagine and sympathise with. Roof tiles, fence panels, tree boughs, garden furniture and moth-traps all going on unscheduled journeys into the air...  Now Christmas is over (in my book that is when Boxing Day finishes) I normally start to tidy up in readiness for the new year and look back at the past 12-months. 2023 has been a bit of a roller-coaster for me, some great highs and some nasty lows. As I'm fond of saying, if you experience the privilege of reaching an 'older' age then you need to accept that things will not always run smoothly - unless you are very lucky indeed. It goes with the territory. Enough said. I didn't travel far this year. Most of my birding was

Time to reflect

I normally come up with the title for a post after I have written it. If I'm feeling creative it will be some sort of play on words, or if I'm not then an all-encompassing word or two will do. As for this particular post, and with a few things to discuss, I've written the title first, inspired by having just read a feature about musicians who have used the title of an album as the starting point for their creative exercise. Here goes... Firstly, blogs - yes, this very medium that I am writing in and you are reading from. - what content they derive, the reason that the content exists and what the writer should (or should not) expect from any reader that visits the blog. This was brought into sharp focus by a series of posts to be found here, at Jono Lethbridge's excellent 'Wansted Birder'.   His blogging output has recently included detailed and entertaining reports on his recent overseas trips which have received a bit of flak from certain quarters. None of us b

To tell it like it is, or not...

I am grateful to Gavin Haig (Not Quite Scilly) who drew my attention to an opinion piece, penned by Matt Phelps, which appeared in the November issue of 'Birdwatch' magazine, entitled 'Positive Approach', which I have now read. In it, he suggests that there is too much negativity being posted on social media regarding the state of our birding world, which is then acting as a deterrent towards a younger generation in adopting conservation and wildlife study. He also suggests that a lot of this negativity is being generated by older birders, and that these old timers keep banging on about the 'good old days' which isn't helpful in encouraging the youth to pick up a pair of binoculars and get out into the field. Does he have a point? Now, I am undeniably an older birder, and I am also guilty of having posted, blogged, written and spoken about the slump in bird and invertebrate numbers. I also like nothing better than to revisit my notebooks and share in the hi

Birding. Why and what does it mean?

It might seem a simple question to answer. We tend to start off with a desire to identify what birds are in our presence and to record what we find by making a list. As time goes on we begin to make several lists, that of species seen within differing borders, at varying times of year and of many parameters. We identify and we collect. But, with advancing age - and experience - this does not cut the mustard. Our outlooks mellow, out age bestows upon us a certain sagacity (whether that is earned or not). We want more from what we have done, unquestioned as it might have been for many years. To 'just do' can become nothing more than a means to an end, something to fill in the time, to keep us amused, to act as a deterrent to stop us from wasting time that might otherwise be spent doing less meaningful things. Too much over thinking? Maybe, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a worthwhile exercise. I'm just about to hit 65 and have recently lost a few birding role mode

Mike Netherwood

I first met Mike Netherwood at Beddington Sewage Farm in early 1975, me being an ultra-keen and ultra-green 16-year old birder, he some 20 years my senior. Mike, together with Ken Parsley, were the remnants of a once much larger ringing group which carried out the trapping and ringing of birds across the open expanse of the sewage farm. Whenever I bumped into them, which I often did, they would both tolerate my many questions about what they had seen and trapped and listen to me waxing lyrical about my own observations. Over the coming months they showed me how they caught the birds, allowed me to witness the ringing and measuring of them and, if I were very lucky, allow me to help them out by holding mist-net poles, carrying bird bags or writing down (scribing) the data that they were collecting into notebooks. By the summer of 1976 I had joined them, proudly in possession of my trainee ringer's permit. For the next three years (until I 'defected' to Dungeness) I spent man

The dying of the year

By the time that the calendar creeps towards mid-November, there is a part of me that accepts that the year is on the way out. Even though there are still at least six weeks to go until that becomes a reality, something buried deep within me has always felt that way. From a schoolboy kicking through deep drifts of leaves to an adult scanning the skies for some late migrant thrush action, mid-November says decay, whispers 'end', suggests a last act before it creeps off 'stage right'. As morose and macabre as that sounds, these feelings are not those of death but more like a readying for a coming birth - that of a new year and a not-to-distant spring  - the pagan in me is alive and kicking! I've spent a lot of time skywatching from Epsom Downs over the past few weeks. And Colley Hill. And Box Hill. Even the back garden has had a look-in (although has not lived up to its previous successes). It has all been a little bit... meh (as the kids say). Apart from a couple of


This autumn has, so far, been underwhelming on the birding front. Sky-watching has failed to produce any notable movements, with thrush and finch numbers very low. My combing of the local fields and hedgerows has uncovered a lack - even a silence - of avian presence. It is, it must be said, depressing. What exacerbates this dearth of birdlife is that social media reveals that, elsewhere in the country, there are birders filling their boots with large numbers, variety and rarity. At times like this I am reminded that 'comparison is the thief of joy', so it is best to try not evaluate your own, albeit small successes, against what is going on elsewhere - there lies disillusionment, disappointment and madness. It is also a truism that such successes elsewhere are often localised, and increasingly only happening when weather conditions are ideal, which does not happen all that often. So, my local birding experience is not going to be anything other than a regular diet of mediocrity

Wonder of the day (and night)

Merveille du Jour is an uncommon enough species of moth which enables it to retain a certain aura. Not quite annual here in Banstead, anytime I record it is a joyful thing. No further words needed, just enjoy this mint green humbug of a moth...

Moth people

With so little to blog about as far as birds are concerned, and with my botanical hat seemingly put away for the rest of the year, it falls upon the lepidoptera to once more provide the subject matter for this latest post. Last time up it was all about my early mothing memories, but what I neglected to mention was the part that people played in nurturing and encouraging my interest. This will put that right. First up is Sean Clancy. As my last post mentioned, it was his actinic trap set up in the moat at Dungeness that was the spark that set alight my early interest in moths. Sean was a little younger than me, and was somebody that I had first met birdwatching at Beddington SF (when he was just 13 years old) in the company of a school-teacher of his, one Barry Banson (of more later). Sean's regular appearances at Dungeness often coincided with mine, and we soon became good friends, taking birding trips together. I knew of his interest in moths, and although I had had my own moments

In the beginning (moths)

The first moth that I have any recollection of appeared as if a short, stubby, pink cigar, hanging onto a pile of freshly laundered clothing that was spilling over the top of a washing basket. At first I wasn't sure what this 'thing' was - a medley of pink bubblegum and mossy green - was it really a living thing and not some toy misplaced by a younger sibling? But on closer examination it was real enough. It moved. And it had wings. Even then, without any known education or experience, I somehow knew that this was no butterfly but a moth. It was the summer of 1973 and I had no real interest in natural history, but that was about to change... As if priming me for what was about to unfold, a second moth came to me that summer. A big thing, all chocolate brown discs on a white background, with splurges of orange. Two moths and two absolute belters. I needed to know more. And so, like so many schoolchildren before me, I sought enlightenment via one of the ubiquitous Observer Bo

Downs and rare crambids

Four consecutive mornings have seen me setting up shop on Epsom Downs to do a bit of skywatching - or vis-migging to be more precise - the dark art of counting migrating birds as they pass overhead. I find this form of birding most relaxing and full of surprises. It is a bit like an inland form of seawtaching as you just keep still and let the conveyor belt of birds come to you. Even on the quietest of days it is rewarding. Mid-to-late autumn is the busiest time of the year to engage, so I have been full of hope that rewards (however modest) would come my way. And they have. The position that I take up (as can be seen in the photo above) looks northwards towards the race course buildings, and gives me uninterrupted views all round, including sight-lines into the dips that can otherwise hide low-flying birds. So far it has confirmed that hirundines and pipits move across the area on a broad-front, with any obvious concentrated streams of birds easy to pick out. I believe that when the t

The rise and now the fall

The last post - looking at the successful colonising moth species to my Banstead garden - generated a comment from Dorset birder (and avid moth convert) Gavin Haig as to whether or not I would be up to creating a post that looked at those species that are declining here in my corner of Surrey. Good idea Gav! What follows is all a little bit cobbled together, using some hard data with a large dollop of gut instinct. As background, we moved into our current home in 1987, set in a suburban area nestled between Banstead and Epsom Downs. The garden is about 100ft in length and well established (which goes for most of those close by). I have recorded the moths here since day one: an actinic from August 1987 until December 1989; then an MV from January 1990 onwards. Effort has been largely constant, although there were a couple of lapses that lasted just a few months. I used to count (and identify) each and every individual macro moth, but stopped doing that in 1993 due to time constraints. W

Our ever-changing moths

This morning saw the capture of a Clancy's Rustic (above) at the MV - the first to be recorded here in Banstead and my 652nd species (of which 413 are macros) for the garden. This species was unknown in the UK until my friend Sean Clancy caught and identified one in New Romney, Kent in 2002. As much as it is a moth that has only been reliably recorded in the country for 21 years, it is no longer a rare migrant but has now become a colonising resident. It's appearance in Banstead was not unexpected, in fact was overdue, having colonised southern coastal counties and is now making inroads into Surrey and the London area. Our moth fauna is in a state of flux - of course, no group of creatures stays still, but the range of many moths have exhibited great changes in recent years, particularly migrants colonising the south-east of England. Others, pure residents, have suddenly increased in numbers so that they now appear in areas that they shunned not that long ago. I thought it migh

A reckoning

It goes with the territory. If you are an advocate and an exponent of 'low-carbon' birding, of being green and of leaving the car in the driveway and walking (or taking public transport) to your places of birding, then it is prudent to 'walk-the-walk' and not just 'talk-the-talk'. It helps if you live by the coast, or at least close to a large water-body - your doorstep experience will be so much more rewarding than if you live, let's just say, on the edge of dry Surrey chalk downland. It is a fault of mine to embrace a cause and then become a cheerleader for it, rather than quietly support it. Thus, I bang on about the delights to be found in birdwatching my immediate area - and, believe me, there can be delights. But, in 2023, I am finding these delights to be hard to come by. It can appear - and it is -  a 'first-world' problem: that of bleating on about how poor the local birding is. When compared to what could be wrong in life it is of little co

It is what it is

The 14-day local uberpatch blitz continued. It must be said that the birding has been awfully quiet. It isn't just the passage migrants that are missing - the same could be said for any song-bird passerine. Actually thinking about it, the same could be said for ANYTHING. Even the ubiquitous corvids, pigeons and parakeets have suddenly gone AWOL, and gulls seem to have done a runner as well. Something tells me that they aren't elsewhere, that the numbers are low because the populations have plummeted. I have to keep reminding myself that birding is not a chore, I'm able to walk miles across beautiful scenery and that I have a choice not to do so. However, as worthy as that approach is, there is no denying that things are seriously wrong, not only with our bird numbers but also with our insects. It is easy for the general birder to put all this to one side and celebrate the fact that there are thousands of rare, misplaced seabirds on our western shores, putting on spectacular

Brown Hairstreaked off

The 14-day Uberpatch birding bonanza has started, although my use of the word 'bonanza' is definitely overkill and there are moments when the appearance of the word 'birding' is highly questionable. It's been that sort of start... DAY 1 September 1st. Calm, overcast, rain during middle of day. Warm. Local chalk downland was the order of the day, although I found myself walking much further than I intended, more in the desire to actually find some migrants rather than for the purposes of exercise. I clocked up 22.1km in the search - it really was a day of casting my eye across superb looking habitat and wondering why on earth there were no birds (mostly passerines) to look at. It was dire. Even though I was out in the field all day I only managed to find 28 warblers (which included a single Garden Warbler and two Lesser Whitethroats) and no chats. Hirundines were also hard to come by, with a couple of 20+ Swallow flocks hawking above horse paddocks. I visited Little

Calendar turn

Today marks the end of meteorological summer, with August handing over the baton to September. Some may claim that we are now entering into proper autumn, although the birder in me still thinks that the early returning non-breeding waders of late May and early June are the first signs of that. However you think (or don't think) of August 31st, to me it has always been one tinged with melancholy, and for not sad reasons, just wistful ones. In my early birding days, August was always holiday time. No school (or art college) to attend meant that the summer was mine. July would be spent at Beddington SF (with the odd journey further afield) but once August came along my plans would be elevated and what I considered proper field trips organised. 1975 found me on a train to Perthshire for my fist 'foreign' trip (well it felt like one to me!). You can read a bit more about that here.  The hot summer of 1976 saw the last two weeks of August spent blissfully in Suffolk. Again, if yo

14 days at home revisited

Colley Hill on the North Downs. Always looks good, rarely produces. Maybe this autumn? Back in the late spring I embarked upon a '14-days at home' project which saw me spend a fortnight criss-crossing the uberpatch (May 26th - June 8th) recording all that I saw. The final totals comprised 88 species of bird, 419 species of plant, 19 species of butterfly and a distance of 245.5km walked. The birding was slow, with many species in woeful numbers. However, as a project - a green, low-carbon project - it was enjoyable. At the time I suggested that I might do it again in the autumn. Well, the autumn is here... I may start tomorrow, or maybe at the end of the week, I'm not sure yet. I will, as far as possible, remain on foot. I will concentrate just on the birds this time. I'm not expecting too much as, locally at any rate, this autumn has been painful for extracting passage migrants. Chats are thin on the ground. Hirundines largely missing in action. It's a bit early for

Birding health check-up

Birding is, without doubt, a physical activity - admittedly more so for some than others. But even if you are a 'drive to chosen destination and sit in a hide' advocate you will use your body in several different ways. And all of these 'ways' are at the mercy to deterioration with age. It is about time that I visited my ornithological doctor and have a health check... Dr. Bird: "Come in Mr. Gale, take a seat. I will ask you a series of questions and ask you to be as honest as you possibly can. The last birder that I saw claimed to have walked from Cley coastguards to Blakeney Point in 45 minutes. Needless to say I dismissed the rest of his answers as nonsense. Now, according to my records you are 64 years old, a non-smoker and can see from looking at you that although not worryingly overweight you could do with losing a few pounds. A fair assessment I think you'd agree. Now, to start with, please tell me about your eyesight." Me: "I've just had

They think it's all over...

Back in April 2022, on a warm evening at Gander Green Lane, I was watching Sutton United play Crawley Town in the company of Sussex birder Jake Everitt. Even though the match before us was a pretty decent one, as birders will we started to talk about our birding experiences, particularly what species we had observed while watching football matches. It was at this point that we devised a competition - football spectator meeting birding fanatic - a challenge to find out who could see the most species, while watching football matches - during the upcoming 2022-23 season. The rules were outlined here.  Apart from updates on the Twitter/X platform my results have not been revealed - until now! During the 2022-23 season I attended 47 matches, involving 59 clubs across 14 different grounds. Apart from a random visit to Suffolk-based Leiston Town, they were all played in south-London and Surrey, the majority being at League Two Sutton United where I held a season ticket. I saw 129 goals, the m

Priest Hill - an overview

There are places that I regularly post about which, to the casual reader, will not illicit any response - there will be no idea of what it looks like, its understanding of its history, and no recognition of its place in human history. This is the first of a series of posts that hope to fill a few gaps. First up is Priest Hill. Priest Hill. I've no idea as to the derivation of its name, but I can tell you that it isn't a hill. It may be on high ground in as much as you get an elevated view across west Surrey and out towards the Buckinghamshire Chiltern Hills (via the Wembley Stadium arch and Windsor Castle), but the land all around is relatively flat. Until the Second World War it was farmland, a mix of arable (wheat, barley, oats and potatoes) with a small herd of Jersey cows that were used for milking. A demand for the payment of death duties meant that the owners were forced to sell, which in 1942 brought in the tidy sum of £100,000 from Surrey and London County Councils. The