A long walk in the Surrey Hills

On May 3rd I put on my walking boots, opened the front door, and ventured out into the (almost) dawn. It was 03.45hrs and the start of a carefully planned circuitous birding walk. The aims were simple really, to see what could be found across a large swathe of the Uberpatch. I wasn't expecting much, as the 'properly' birdy areas of my extended patch (Beddington and Holmethorpe) were not being visited, as these areas are well covered by others, and I have perversely taken it upon myself to travel on 'those roads less birded'. It would be fair for others to question why any sane birder would remove themselves from such proven honeypots, and I'd largely agree, but we all get our ornithological kicks in different ways, and the older I get the more left-field they have become. Call it self-denial, self-harming or just plain stupid, but to me these 'forgotten' patches can - an do - spring surprises. Just not all that regularly.

To cut a long story short - a 34.9km long story, for that is how far I walked - the day was, as far as the birds were concerned, hugely disappointing...

No passage migrants.

A reduced and sparse dawn chorus.

'Summer' breeding species either yet to arrive or exhibiting a slump.

The River Mole appeared polluted.

I had walked through woodland, along river bank, across heathland, yo-yo'd downland and navigated footpaths that bisected farmland. Wherever I went it was the same. A lack of birds. The weather was conducive for unhindered observation, with sun, warmth and a light wind. The birds just hadn't read the script, or, to put it more accurately, were not around to do so. By mid-morning my hopes for the day had already faded, but I happily carried on (I had to in any case as I was on foot and miles from home). At times I found a viewpoint - on a downland slope or a clearing in woodland - and, removing any negative judgement from my mind, sat and observed. That didn't really hide the fact that there was oh so little to watch.

The next day, surprisingly refreshed, I was at it again, this time a 10.4km walk across farm tracks, hedgerows and footpaths between Reigate and Leigh. The theme of the previous day was repeated. The admittedly arresting views and chocolate-box rendering of what we have been taught to accept as an ideal imagery of countryside has had its wildlife largely removed. No Lapwings, abysmal numbers of Whitethroats, Skylarks and Yellowhammers, plus not a single Linnet.

Strangely enough, this lack of success, this festival of failure has made me all the more determined to get out there and look. I was accused of 'always moaning' about the state of our wildlife recently, and to a point that is true. But there is a way of being positive about this situation, and that is to carry on looking, counting and recording. My records will be uploaded onto databases that are passed on to county recorders, where the state of play of our birdlife is collated and published in annual reports (in my case Surrey, London and the British Trust for Ornithology's suite of data.)

If we all throw our hands in the air, give up, or just stick to those places that can still entice a decent selection of species to appear, then everywhere else is abandoned with a resultant lack of data - which will be needed if we are to be able to do something - anything - about the state of our birdlife.

There was nothing unusual to see over the two days, but sometimes the common can be just as arresting. Such as the Starling above.


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