Sunday, 14 September 2014

Championship Red Kite

Yesterday afternoon saw me (as a neutral spectator) at the Reading v Fulham game at the Madejski Stadium - a fine, modern ground where watching the game is a real pleasure, with comfortable seating, clean facilities, clear views of all the pitch and Red Kites! Yes, even though I was wrapped up in the Royals demolition of the 10-man Cottagers, there was still time for birding. Half way through the first 45 minutes a Red Kite appeared above the 18,000 spectators, wheeled around a bit, then carried on (possibly to Swindon Town). This is by far the best species that I have seen during a professional football match.

White Hart Lane still holds the record for number of species of butterfly (2) observed during a match...

Friday, 12 September 2014

The best months to go birding

I was chatting to The Bard of Littlestone recently and he professed a fondness for the month of September to go birding in. In fact, he went as far as to suggest it might indeed be his favourite month for birding. That got me thinking...

Here is my order of birding preference - but if I were to factor in other forms of natural history, then it would read very differently indeed.

Sibe or Yank? Big fall or heavy viz-mig? The choice can be all four if you are very lucky. Embrace the unexpected. Expect to be enthralled. Don't go home early or leave the house late. Now is the time to strike it lucky! Whether you are on Scilly, Fair Isle, Dungeness or Canons Farm, there WILL be action...

Like October but with fewer birders chancing their arm and (at times) with even rarer birds! Murky, still mornings in this month smell of rarity. Think like a lurking Oriental Turtle Dove, imagine that you are a Dusky Warbler and try and predict where the Pallid Swift will be flying. If all else fails count the waves of thrushes, finches and crests as they make landfall.

Most of the migrants are in, and with them will be a rash of rarity. If the weather is fine you're just as well to head inland to see what has arrived. But if you are on the coast don't worry if there appears to only be a Spotted Flycatcher and a Reed Warbler in - the chances are that there will be a Bee-eater on the next bush.

The common fodder of August is now joined by proper birder's birds - Wrynecks, Barred Warblers, decent pipits and tricky buntings. Not for the feint-hearted and more than just a warm-up for October.

A procession of warblers, wagtails and chats head south. Quantity rules quality but diligence is rewarded. The first smell of autumn is in the air, from hirundine flocks to 'hoo-eeting' Willow Warblers, from the flash of a Redstart's tail to the flick of a flycatcher.

More migrants than March but not as much rarity as May. Sea passage will be good enough to waste several days staring out over the waves. As the month wears on the migrants build. When you start seeing Swifts then thoughts can turn to summer.

Spring may be over, but those Mediterranean overshoots are still at it! A month that can provide massive rarity. Plus most of the breeders are in full song, in display and are more observable than the rest of the year. Stand by a reed bed and see what I mean.

The first day of the year is one of the busiest days for birding, with feverish year listing taking place, even if the bird we are all getting excited about is the very same one that we were yawning at yesterday. After a week of year listing we soon get bored with the whole sorry process and start dreaming of summer migrants.

The first flush of hirundines and Wheatears are one of the great ornithological moments of the year - but this soon dies down and is replaced by - February again!

Apart from a few returning waders (failed breeders, the plain ugly), most birds are feeding young, are moulting or have turned mute. Leaves are everywhere, hiding the most colourful of birds from the view of the keenest binocular-toting birder. Hard work, especially in the heat and haze of mid-summer.

The hype and excitement of the new year has buggered off; the spring migrants are still a while away; the darkness and cold are just not funny any more.

The year is coming to an end. We're all fed up with the short days. The New Year (with all of its alluring promise) is just around the corner. The birds seem to pick up on this apathy and don't do much. What was there in November is still hanging about so not much moves around - subsequently 'same old same old'. Conserve your energy and interest for next year...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

What does a Surrey migrant trap look like?


OK, it might not be The Moat at Dungeness, or the Sluice Bushes at Minsmere, but at Canons Farm we have a number of places that seem to attract - and hold - migrant birds on a regular basis. The image above is of the scrub that surrounds the barns behind Canons Farmhouse. If you find yourself here, rest awhile. Keep looking at the Elders and Sycamores. Don't ignore the rank grass and willowherb. Here be migrants! I might be over egging the pudding a bit, but you will most probably see at least Chiffchaff and Blackcap, and recent days has seen a Spotted Flycatcher. And last weekend, in scrub not 200m away (again surrounding old barns) the sites third Sedge Warbler was lurking. Modest fare I know, but acceptable all the same.

There are certain species that seem to appear in the same places each year - Common Redstarts favour the hedgerows along the footpath known as 'Slangs' and most of our Ring Ouzels cannot keep away from the hedgerows and fields to the north of Legal & General. Are they elsewhere on site? Undoubtably, but the incidence of observation at these places would suggest a preference for them.

I have yet to find, at Canons Farm, the favoured area for Wrynecks...

Monday, 8 September 2014

The manner of the birding

I've quoted Luke Jennings before, from his excellent book 'Blood Knots', but it's worth doing so again:

"The late Bernard Venables, author of the classic Mr Crabtree fishing books, used to say that there are three stages to the angler's evolution. To begin with, as a child, you just want to catch fish - any fish. Then you move to the stage where you want to catch big fish. And finally, with nothing left to prove, you reach a place where it's the manner of the catch that counts, the rigour and challenge of it, at which point the whole thing takes on an intellectual and perhaps even a philosophical cast."

With apologies to Bernard Venables, I think we could amend this quote to the following:
"There are three stages to the birder's evolution. To begin with, as a child, you just want to watch birds - any birds. Then you move to the stage where you want to see rare birds. And finally, with nothing left to prove, you reach a place where it's the manner of the birding that counts, the rigour and challenge of it, at which point the whole thing takes on an intellectual and perhaps even a philosophical cast."

Does that ring true with any of you lot out there? It does with me...

Sunday, 7 September 2014


An inland patch - especially one without water - can be a trying thing. It goes without saying that, at times, the birding will be hard work. Falls will be rare. Rarities will be even rarer. But then again, rarity becomes relative!

A flyby Grey Wagtail and a skulking Sedge Warbler would hardly bother the hardened coastal watcher to raise their binoculars, but this morning, for me at Canons Farm, they were patch gold! Species number 99 and 100 no less! And not long afterwards number 101 came along, but this was something altogether better - Canons Farm's first Merlin, that flew 'bat-out-of-hell' like across the fields and disappeared south. When you factor in a Wheatear, a Spotted Flycatcher and a handful of Chiffchaffs, it was a pleasing visit.

If you would like to find out more about Canons Farm then you can visit the website by clicking here. It will give you a flavour of the highs (and more numerous lows) of trudging around Surrey farmland and woodland. But for those that look and look again, the rewards can be surprising. 135 species of bird have been recorded there, which isn't bad for a site that has a tiny woodland pond as its sole water feature.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Dark Spectacle

Long overdue as a garden tick this morning was Dark Spectacle (above). I've only ever seen this species down at Dungeness, so I don't come across it very often. The garden macro list now stands at 397 species (since 1987). Of these I have recorded 37 species just the once. Why I thought that fact might be of interest to you, I don't know...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A perfectly useless afternoon

"If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live."
Lin Yutang (1895 - 1976)

Well, I certainly succeeded in that. I spent the afternoon on Epsom and Walton Downs, an afternoon that was blessed with sunshine, warmth and the lightest of breezes. My main aim was to hunt down the bird migrants that were bound to be present, but as the afternoon wore on it was more than apparent that they were either (a) very good at hiding or (b) not present at all. I could suggest a further reason, that of (c) observer incompetence.

All was not lost however, as I finally stumbled across the Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) and a small patch of Haresfoot Clover (left).  Butterflies were on the wing, the best of the bunch being an immaculate Red Admiral along with several Brown Argus.

The afternoon was slipping by, but in my new found sate of 'being in the now' was able to enjoy the experience of being out in the benign elements, wandering across downland and not having too much to concern those parts of my mind that like nothing better than having something to worry about. And then, as I crossed a horse paddock and started scanning the fence line, a smart Whinchat popped into view. Only a Whinchat maybe, but I felt as if I was being rewarded for my perseverance. All thoughts of Wrynecks and Shrikes were relegated and I spent a happy ten minutes watching this particular chat dancing around the equine habitat.

Back on the open downs I lay down on the grass, used my rucksack as a pillow and closed my eyes, feeling the warm breeze and listening to the twittering of a high Swallow. Who needs Wrynecks? Altogether now, "Ohhhmmmmm..."