14 days 'at home'

The project came about when I was considering a day trip to Wiltshire to try and find some elusive day-flying moths. My intended targets included The Forester and Scarce Forester. I had already recorded Cistus Forester, but those other two species had defied several attempts to see them. They differ little in appearance and identification is down to minuscule size-differences and the tip of the antennae. The more I thought about it the more ridiculous it seemed to me that I was considering a 200-mile round trip to try and find almost identical moths to one that I had seen before. Admittedly, there would have been more to such a trip than Forester moths, but it got me thinking.

I do like a project, something to hang my observations on, to give my time in the field some sort of added meaning beyond just random enjoyment. In light of many things - climate change, low-carbon footprint, biodiversity collapse - I am increasingly questioning what I do and how I do it, particularly how I conduct my birding and wildlife recording. After years of posting 'casual' lists onto the BTO BirdTrack database I have started to try and upload 'full lists' as a way of reporting a complete picture as to just how our birdlife is faring in these difficult times. I have found that the want (even the need) to stay local has never been stronger and, I must admit, I have become mildly preachy about doing so. Pomposity then played a part, as I thought that, if I committed to a thrash of my local patches over a set time-scale (14 days), and reported on them, I might be able to convince or inspire others to adopt something similar. It would be a simple fortnight holiday without the need to book accomodation or drive. It would, I hoped, be a celebration of the wildlife on my doorstep.

To cut a long story short I started on Friday 26th May and finished on Thursday 8th June. 27 complete BTO BirdTrack lists were uploaded. I walked 245.5km. I recorded 88 species of bird, 419 species of plant, 19 species of butterfly and 8 species of dragonfly. The weather was dominated by a brisk NE wind, mornings were largely cloudy and cool, which broke to give sunny and warm afternoons. It was dry throughout.

I did enjoy it. The scenery along my part of the North Downs and the land that runs south from them is attractive, with some spectacular scarp slopes. But...

There is no dressing it up. This is a land that is in trouble when it comes to wildlife. Bird numbers are down and get worse each year. Invertebrate numbers have collapsed. I spent so many hours walking through farmland that comprised wild flower meadows and verdant established hedgerows, that looked spectacularly promising, yet yielded little. Silent woods. Hushed downland.

There were pockets of joy - an evening on Headley Heath with a long and loud evening chorus of birdsong. Yesterday morning on Banstead Heath and Mogador in accompaniment with 50+ singing Skylarks. But they were very much isolated experiences.

The cold and wet spring seems to have delayed the flowering of plants, as species that I had expected to see either were in small number or had yet to appear. Butterflies were in woefully small numbers. I didn't see a single Small Tortoiseshell. If you like Cow Parsley, Goosegrass, Stinging Nettle, Woodpigeons, corvids and Ring-necked Parakeets then north Surrey in 2023 is just your place. If you like a little bit more variety then you have to be patient or tolerant. We seem to have dominant species that have taken over the stage. But where, or where, are the insects? I hate to think what the answer is.

But not all was gloom. Some highlights: finding breeding Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails on the River Hogmill; discovering the first Man Orchid to be recorded on Epsom Downs; adding more suburban singing Firecrests to the map; 2,000 Bird's-nest Orchids under beech at Mickleham; enjoying one of the local rarities, Green Hound's-tongue, in unprecedented numbers; up close with Small (below) and Adonis Blues; late Yellow Wagtail and Greenshank (top) passing through.

Would I do it again? Not next week. But I might if you asked me this coming autumn...


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