Eyes to the downland skies

Epsom Downs (plus the adjoining Walton Downs) has an ornithological history that has been documented -  in fits and starts - over the years, from the Victorian bird-catchers up to the (very few) 21st-century observers of which I am one of that number. My own time 'up on the downs' has been rather sporadic, but has rewarded me, with Arctic Skua, Quail, Honey Buzzard and Osprey the headliners. There have also been times when good numbers of birds revealed themselves to me while on the move, most strikingly the amazing Stonechat passage of early-October 2022 that peaked at 65+ on 6th with up to three Dartford Warblers in tow. Days of notable swift, pipit and hirundine visible migration have also been enjoyed. 

Last autumn I dedicated a few days to staking out the skies above these downs which, although lacking in ideal weather conditions, still provided numbers that suggested that a more concerted effort would be rewarding - a few sessions with southerly passage of Meadow Pipits (100-300 counts), over 1,000 House Martins south-east on 24th September, Stock Dove dawn foraging flights that peaked at 1,742 on 27th September, a maximum of 10,375 Woodpigeon south on 6th November which also coincided with a very direct and intriguing southerly passage of 905 Black-headed Gulls. Also in the mix were modest movements of Skylarks, thrushes and finches. What was also of interest was identifying the flight lines that the birds took up, sometimes these 'lines' being used by different species at the same time, and after a number of days of observation becoming quite clear-cut as to the direction taken and the species that seemed to favour them. Where best to stand to watch these movements was a moveable feast and still needs to be investigated.

Flight line A was favoured by Woodpigeons, Swifts and hirundines; flight line B, with a kink from SW to S was quite often taken by hirundines and finches; flight line C was a favourite with larks and pipits; flight line D seemed to be the only one used by thrushes, and, to a lesser extent, finches. Flight lines B and D follow obvious, albeit shallow valleys.

I am aiming to spend most of my birding time up on these downs this autumn, if for no other reason than to try and suss-out the true nature of the fly-lines and to see just what a bit of effort will reveal. I'm hoping for heavy pipit passage as last autumn, in less than ideal conditions, they moved in number. Grounded birds will not be ignored and the area has the potential to provide plenty of interest. It's now just a matter of following my instinct and seeing if there is, indeed, an ornithological pay-off!


Gibster said…
I used to love vis-migging from the Highest Point on Epsom Common; gull and Jackdaw roost lines in the winter, hirundines and Skylarks in the autumn. My first returning Redwing one year flying amongst a gaggle of House Martins(!) I think that was my first multiple Hobby day for the site too. The excitement of realising that parakeets were flying over my patch. Ha, if only I'd known back then what a pest they'd soon become. I'm looking forward to seeing what you discover, Steve.

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