Saturday, 24 January 2015

Benign winter birding

Winter. What, as birders, do we want from this particular season?

If it is a hard one, with snow and freezing temperatures on the continent, together with biting easterlies sweeping across the North Sea, we can hope for an influx of wildfowl, thrushes and who know's what else. But as exciting as such times are, the birds will undoubtably suffer. Do we really want that to happen? The flip side is for there to be benign, unremarkable weather - a bit like what we are 'enjoying' in 2014-15. Not too cold, not too wet and not too windy. But with the 'ease' that such weather brings, the birding is largely predictable. Locally it seems as if nothing much has changed since late November. There are few flocks out on the fields but they are unremarkable in number and composition. The finch and thrush numbers are poor - just where are the Redpolls, Siskins and Bramblings? But we carry on looking, we still scan the flocks, and we still skywatch just in case...

I spent a good five hours wandering across Canons Farm and Banstead Woods today which only underlined the 'same old, same old' nature of the current birding scene. 40 Skylark, 100 Fieldfare and 20 Yellowhammer were the stand outs of a meagre return although a single Lesser Redpoll found its way onto the 2015 Challenge list - species number 64, which is 71.1% of my target. The day was rescued by my bumping into Ian Ward, who helped while away the time with a bout of skywatching and, as the way of birders the world over, making increasingly bizarre predictions as to what goodies we might expect to come our way in the not too distant future - plus plenty of butterfly nostalgia!

We don't cut back the lavender in the garden until March as the Goldfinches will come and feed on the seeds throughout the winter - a good subject for trying out the 'new' bridge camera.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Hogsmill Little Egret

The River Hogsmill meanders its way through Ewell Village and is a most enjoyable place to spend a bit of time birding. You can usually bank on seeing Kingfisher and, increasingly, Little Egret. This morning one (of the two reportedly present) was perched in a tree just beyond the Lower Mill. It seemed unconcerned by my attempts at photography as it sunned itself alongside a Grey Heron. It wasn't until a Labrador came bounding up to me that they finally took flight.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Bonus Mandarin

One of the pleasures of undertaking a local study, especially one in which there is a hint of competition involved, is that an observation that would ordinarily not mean that much can be elevated to the status of noteworthy. One bird this morning illustrated this very well indeed.

I had need to go into Epsom, and from where the car was parked involved a walk through Rosebery Park - right on the very edge of my arbitrary recording area. There is a pond, and half of the water was ice free. Among the Mallards and Canada Geese was a splendid drake Mandarin. I have seen this species here before, and can only assume that the odd one flies in from the ponds on Epsom Common (which is outside of my 2015 recording area). This is not a species that I could have safely predicted for this years study - a nice little bonus. I'm not being greedy, but I am now eager for something a little more exciting - a fly-over Short-eared Owl for example?

Evening update: a late afternoon visit to SWT's Priest Hill reserve produced a female Stonechat. Only a ten minute stroll from my front door and the 63rd species in this years challenge...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Daphne in the mist

I spent four hours this morning on Reigate and Colley Hills, seemingly cut off from civilisation courtesy of a low drizzly mist that enveloped the hills in a milky light that not only softened all that I saw but muffled any sound. There wasn't an awful lot to see or hear to be honest, although a couple of Treecreepers decided that this was the time to engage in a bit of singing. - not a lot else joined in. it wasn't until I started to scan the fields just off the ridge (towards Mogador) that there was a bit of activity, with a loose flock of 500 Redwing leapfrogging their way across the earth as they fed. I was heartened to see that, in several places, the fields here had flooded, although any hoped for displaced wader was aiming far too high - apart from a lethargic flock of gulls nothing else had been tempted down. A quick nip into the closest bit of Walton Heath woodland provided the hoped for Marsh Tit (2015 patch list now on 61 species).

Daphne laureola - that's Spurge Laurel to you and me - was most obvious at the top of the hills, in particular around the Napoleonic fort. At least 80 plants were counted and there must be plenty more in the general area. Some were out in flower. There is also plenty of wild Box here, a very local species in England. I am guilty of taking it for granted, but know that I shouldn't.

Spurge Laurel, close up of flower (left) and a healthy specimen (right) maybe a metre tall.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Downland Peregrine

A brisk circular walk around the open slopes of Epsom Downs this afternoon was largely devoid of birds. Up to 100 Common Gulls were feeding over the grassland, this species being the commonest species of gull here throughout the winter months. No amount of scanning of the neighbouring fields could winkle out anything of note, and it was not until I was almost back at the car that any reward came my way - in the form of a male Peregrine, that flew in from the north and carried on southwards towards Walton-on-the-Hill - certainly not the barrel-chested female that had been spending the late autumn/early winter at Canons Farm. The 2015 local patch challenge now creeps up to 59 species.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Back in the field

After two weeks of being housebound, the antibiotics and antivirals seem to have done the trick and I once more ventured into the great outdoors! An easy wander seemed the most sensible thing to embark upon, so I kept myself to this winding lane that meanders through Canons Farm:

You can scan most of the farm from this road, with several vantage points that give the observer a good 360 degree panorama. I stood with scope on tripod for a couple of hours but it was very hard work, although 16 Skylarks, 100 Fieldfares and 20 Yellowhammers kept me company.

I then went back (for the third time this year) to try and see the wintering Firecrests on Banstead Downs. They are but a couple of hundred metres from where you can park a car, so once again I wasn't overdoing it. On their chosen footpath all was ominously quiet, but seeing that the sun was shining and there was scarcely a breeze I ventured out onto the eastern (open) side of a substantial stand of holly and was soon watching one of the Firecrests hovering feet from my face, bathed in sunshine and looking in rude health. I could have gone on but thought it best to get back home and not push myself too far - my God I sound old...

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Fly Trap

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg (Particular Books)

This is a gem of a book.

The author lived on, and studied, the hoverflies that occurred on the Swedish island of Runmaro. Although the theme of the book deals with his obsessional entomological studies, it is but a small part of what is a most engrossing and surprising read.

Written 10 years ago, the book has only just been translated into English. His precise writing style, superb turn of phrase and restrained dry humour make it a delight from beginning to end. You are lead away from the core subject on almost every page - from a potted history of the great Swedish naturalist/explorers (particularly Rene Malaise), the nature of collecting, the speed (or lack of it) of life, how to tackle the public, why we form imaginary islands in pursuit of our goals, the reading of the landscape - plus the small little subject of life itself. It is a book of many facets, all that I found entrancing. On more than one occasion I found myself identifying heavily with his observations on why 'we' do such things, like standing alone in a meadow for hours on end whilst 'normal' people zip around on the periphery getting on with 'real' life. I have now been inspired into getting my hoverfly books off of the shelf with an aim to look more closely at these creatures this coming season. In fact, a bit of mild weather will see a very few on the wing right now.

There is a review on the back cover from one Tomas Transtromer that reads: "I often return to The Fly Trap, it remains close to my heart. The minute observations from nature that reveal sudden insights into one's life. Sometimes I almost think that he wrote it for me." I couldn't put it any better than that...

I must thank Pete Burness for alerting me to this book. Great call Pete!