Something old, something new

It can be disquieting returning to a place that you have strong ties to after many years of absence. This morning, 64-year-old me retrod ground that I haven't walked since 1976, when, as a 17-year old I birded Ashtead and Epsom Commons. Back then I used to catch a bus from Sutton and get off just before Ashtead village, and, via a railway crossing, emerge out onto a lovely area of open ground, with scrub at knee- and waist-height. This was the haunt of guaranteed Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Willow Tits, plus, in the summer, several pairs of reeling Grasshopper Warblers. Since those halcyon days my visits to the common have been by entry from the other side, concentrating around the stew ponds. It was with some nervousness that I found the railway crossing and went through the gates. Would it all be scrubbed up now? This is what I found...

In some aspects I was heartened that I could still recognise the area. Admittedly, the trees are taller (and after 47-years it would be surprising if they weren't), although these taller silver birches are much younger than that. Most of the scrub has matured, but there is an undeniable open aspect still. That trackway was not present back in 1976 - we made do with a muddy path worn into the ground by a few ramblers and dog walkers. I did feel sad that those three species that I mentioned earlier have now gone, the Willow Tit forever it would seem. I carried on, easily finding an obvious woodland ride that slopes gently up towards Rushett Farm. This seemed unchanged, bar the work that the ranger's have done on firming up what was once very soft ground. As I reached the rise I prepared to meet another place that marks another key moment in my youthful birding history...

These trees are right on the edge of the common, with farmland just beyond. It was in these very trees, on February 18th 1975, that I saw my first Little Owl, crouched on a thick bough, staring down at me with the fiercest eyes that I had, until that point, ever seen. My friends and I erected an owl box on one of these trunks soon afterwards. I did look for the box this morning, not expecting that there would be any signs of it still. There wasn't. That famous F Scott Fitzgerald sentence from 'The Great Gatsby' always springs to mind when these nostalgic interludes take place, the one about us being like boats beating against a current, borne back into the past. We cannot help it. Some of us actively seek it.

As an antidote to all of this looking back, I ventured onto Rushett Farm, a place that, up until last week, I had not visited apart from staring across its fields from afar. At the moment it is a mixture of boggy ground, stubble, winter wheat and broad beans. Birds seem to like it, with my recording 27 Lapwing, 100 Stock Doves, 160 Skylarks, 65 Linnets and 100 House Sparrows last Friday afternoon (fewer birds seen today). There are a few straggly lines of scrub, small groups of mature trees and a small pond. It feels good. Five species of raptor were present this morning - Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk. There are a few birders who keep and eye on it, and do turn up the odd surprise - there was a Jack Snipe last week. Another place to wander to now and again in my ever expanding Uberpatch!


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