Wednesday, 25 November 2015

How to bird a modest patch

We cannot all live at Dungeness, or Spurn, or even back onto a reservoir or sewage farm, so for most of us living at (or very close to) a top birding spot is going to remain the stuff of dreams - although living next door to Staines Reservoir would be the stuff of nightmares for me!

So what do we do? The most obvious course of action would be to get into the car and drive somewhere. When I used to regularly visit Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SPs, they both involved a 25 minute car journey, even though they were a handful of miles away, thanks to the traffic-choked roads of suburbia. I have always wanted to have somewhere properly local, and by that I mean walkable from my front door. To be quite honest, I didn't need to look at an OS map to know that there wasn't a proper 'birdy' place that fitted that bill. Or was there?

It takes me 20-25 minutes to walk to Canons Farm (above) and Banstead Woods. Maybe 20 minutes to stroll up to Epsom and Walton Downs. Neither exactly on my doorstep but then again neither necessitating a car journey (and my green credentials get a boost as a consequence!) To describe Canons Farm as 'non-birdy' is a bit harsh, as I have personally seen such delights as Dotterel, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Honey Buzzard and Quail there. Epsom and Walton Downs don't have such pedigree, although there are records of Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes from there, it's just that the best that I have managed is a Peregrine and a Barn Owl.

After plenty of birding over the years, around the hot-spots of the UK, plus several recent long stays at Dungeness, the trick is to be able to turn off the mindset of such birding and switch onto a different way of thinking when walking to these modest patches. I now have some rules...

Manage expectations
It is no good going out with the whiff of rarity and glory in your nostrils. It just isn't going to happen - or at least, it is highly unlikely. It's hard enough to find the goodies when you are at one of the proven hot spots. So accept that, on a good day, you might come across a Ring Ouzel, and if you do, treat it like a Bluetail. Everything is a bonus.

The chances are that you will visit such patches on a regular basis (or at least irregularly with regular bursts!), so build up an intimate knowledge of what is present and the best way of doing that is by counting. Count everything. It gives you something to do on dull days (there will be plenty of those) and it can make an ordinary day seem special. If I get my highest Carrion Crow count for the site I celebrate it like I would a good migrant. It also gives form to what you are doing.

Vary visiting times
Always birding the same place at the same hours will ensure that you will miss some aspect of the patch. Never going late in the day can result in not knowing about roosts. Some visible-migration movements can be over in the first two hours of daylight. Some great hirundine movements don't start until early afternoon. I've had chats arrive mid-morning (and mid-afternoon). So mix it up.

Just looking at birds means that you miss out on wondrous things. Not everything else is difficult to identify! Butterflies and flowers are serviced by excellent field guides - there are not many species of butterfly to confuse you and flowers stay still! Embracing other orders can take you as deep as you want to go, and will enliven quiet days, especially during mid-summer

If you find the patch getting a bit stale, that your heart isn't quite into it, then take a break. Go somewhere else, even if that does mean getting into the car. You will come back to it refreshed and appreciative of it. I know that for a fact.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Return to Langley Vale Farm

It was a novelty to be treading on soft mud and looking up into trees after a few weeks on the shingle. I returned to Langley Vale Farm this morning mainly to undertake a bird survey, although I was heartened to see some of the field edges had been 'ploughed' (above). Whether this has been done for the benefit of the 'arable weeds' I do not know.

Today's big news (on a local level) was the presence of a Marsh Tit in Little Hurst Wood, one of several small woods to be found on the farm. I watched (and heard) it for maybe ten minutes and can honestly say that I derived as much pleasure from this bird as I did from kicking up a Dusky Warbler on the beach at Dungeness last month.

Other highlights included 150+ Fieldfare, 50+ Redwing, 3 Little Owl, 20+ Skylark, 5 Pheasant, 2 Sparrowhawk and 2 Common Buzzard. I have come across good flocks of finches here in previous winters, so hope that regular observation will pay off.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The tardy few

Please spare a thought for those summer migrants that just cannot make up their their minds whether to leave our shores or not, even though they really should do. Whether it's down to laziness, incompetence or a lack of physical ability, a rough time awaits them if they leave it too late, or try to winter. Here is a list of my current, latest ever dates. I've even put the place of observation alongside them... you lucky people.

Garganey - wintering (Holmethorpe SP, Surrey 2011-12)
Honey Buzzard - 10 October 1981 (Dungeness, Kent)
Osprey - 4 December 1979 (Gatton Park, Surrey)
Hobby - 31 October 1988 (Dungeness, Kent)
Quail - 31 October 1987 (Dungeness, Kent)
Little Ringed Plover - 24 September 1983 (Pagham Harbour, West Sussex)
Common Sandpiper - wintering (several places)
Sandwich Tern - 7 November 2015 (Dungeness, Kent)
Common Tern - 6 November 2015 (Dungeness, Kent)
Arctic Tern - 30 October 1988 (Dungeness, Kent)
Little Tern - 6 October 1985 (Dungeness, Kent)
Black Tern - 28 October 1984 (Dungeness, Kent)
Turtle Dove - 30 October 1982 (Dungeness, Kent)
Cuckoo - 16 September 1984 (Beddington SF, Surrey)
Nightjar - 31 August 1996 (Thursday Common, Surrey)
Swift - 28 November 1997 (Sutton, Surrey)
Sand Martin - 4 November 1978 (Dungeness, Kent)
Swallow - 16 November 1986 (Dungeness, Kent)
House Martin - 26 November 1977 (Pagham Harbour, West Sussex)
Tree Pipit - 26 October 2015 (Dungeness, Kent)
Yellow Wagtail - 8 December 1984 (Beddington SF, Surrey)
Nightingale - 31 August 1985 (Dungeness, Kent)
Common Redstart - 31 October 1987 (Dungeness, Kent)
Whinchat - 31 October 1976 (Beddington SF, Surrey)
Wheatear - 9 November 1980 (Dungeness, Kent)
Ring Ouzel - wintering (New Forest 1983-84)
Grasshopper Warbler - 24 September 1989 (Dungeness, Kent)
Sedge Warbler - 10 October 1976 (Beddington SF, Surrey)
Reed Warbler - 31 October 1976 (Beddington SF, Surrey)
Lesser Whitethroat - 29 October 1983 (Dungeness, Kent)
Common Whitethroat - 4 November 2015 (Dungeness, Kent)
Garden Warbler - 3 November 1979 (Dungeness, Kent)
Wood Warbler - 14 October 1979 (St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly)
Willow Warbler - 29 October 1980 and 1984 (both Dungeness, Kent)
Spotted Flycatcher - 29 October 1984 (Dungeness, Kent)
Pied Flycatcher - 30 October 1987 (Dungeness, Kent)

So there you go, if you keep notes then you to can produce meaningless lists, just like this!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Caspian See?

Am I one of the gull people? No, not really. I do look at them. Sometimes even actively seek them out. But to truly belong to that specialist group of birders you need to study them. And then study them again. Over. And over. And over. It isn't so much a passion, or an obsession, but more a disease. Gullitis? Larusgytis? There isn't really a name for it yet.

Just to prove that I do dip my toe into this rarified world I present a few bridge camera images from Dungeness this autumn. The top three pictures are of a first-winter Caspian Gull and the bottom of an adult Caspian Gull, all on the beach. Even I can 'do' these individuals, but there are other birds that even the aficionados will screw their faces up at and proclaim that "there might be a bit of Herring Gull" in them.

If you want professional quality images of gulls (especially Caspian) the net is swamped with them, but I can recommend Dungeness Bird Observatory, Ploddingbirder, Richard Smith and Birding the day away. All excellent sites, compiled by bonkers gull obsessives.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The rise of the gull people

There was a time when gulls were largely ignored. They were regarded as pure ornithological filler, something to be tolerated in-between 'proper' birds coming along. Admittedly, a Sabine's, Glaucous or Iceland Gull might have raised an eyebrow, and something like a Ross's would have caused a stampede, but otherwise it was a case of stifling a yawn and looking the other way. Oh how times have changed...

Early pioneers of advanced gull identification (such as Peter Grant) really were breaking new ground. Up until the 1970s most birders baulked at the idea of trying to identify any large immature gull. It was a challenge enough to be able to separate Common and Ring-billed Gulls. Some people still struggled with immature Kittiwakes and Little Gulls. But when it was pointed out that, with a bit of patience and a keen eye, even the most uninspiring of gulls could not only be identified to a species but accurately aged as well, a few birders sat up and took notice - but when I saw 'a few' I really do mean a few. Most of them (alright, I'll be honest, most of us) still pretended that gulls didn't really exist. Unless they were easy to do, that is. And rare.

But those early adopters got stuck in. Across Europe a small but dedicated band of observers started to slowly unravel the complexities of gull identification. But the deeper they delved, they found that more questions and conundrums were thrown back at them. They found racial differences (which sometimes became new species). There were a bewildering number of hybrids. Some gulls, even when looked at forensically by experts, defied identification. Pandora's box had been opened, but these observers didn't want to put the lid back on it, they wanted to climb inside.

Somewhere along the line, gulls became sexy. They were the domain of the hardened birder -the serious birder. If you were into gulls then you had passed through to a higher plane. A moral high ground had been attained. But many still struggle with them. Too much like hard work. Not fun.

If you go along to any well known gull spot today, you will come across birders looking at them - no, not looking at them, studying them. Grilling them to within an inch of their identification and ageing. Dungeness is one such place and each weekend there must be up to a dozen such souls armed with fish offal and bread to entice the gulls in. Close views to obtain detailed photographs. Detailed photographs to pore over plumage detail and accurately read any rings on legs. Caspian Gulls have now taken on the status as the guller's icon. They are currency. Kudos. Status. During my recent stay at Dungeness there must have been 15+ of these gulls, including seven on one day. Two were Polish ringed and one came from East Germany. They were only outnumbered by those men tossing guts and crumbs into the air, big lenses swinging by their sides, eyes wild with anticipation and devotion.

The gullers are starting to take over the ornithological asylum.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

I'm back and he's back

Farewell to the shingle - I'll be back soon...

I can confirm that, after being away for three and a half weeks, Banstead and Surrey still exist, minus a lot of leaves. I left trees full of 'em and now they mostly stand skeletal in the wind and rain.

It is always exciting when a great band reforms or a favourite TV series returns and the same can be said of a good blog. Always a favourite of mine, Not Quite Scilly disappeared two years ago when its author, Gavin Haig, pulled the plug. But now he's back! Click here to see how this blogging lark should really be done. 

Finally, an apology for the lack of images accompanying my posts over the last few weeks, but I was having trouble with uploading them to Blogger via an iPad. Now back home there shouldn't be a problem. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

An audience with a Blackcap

Mid-afternoon at the fishing boats, wandering between the containers and detritus left by fisherfolk of yore. Apart from the desicated remains of Sea Kale and a few clumps of Red Valerian, there is little vegetation to afford cover for birds. However, it is a place that can provide great surprises, none more so than a certain flycatcher that was found by Martin C this September. My aims are not so lofty.

The westerly wind has increased in strength throughout the day and a vicious squall has barrelled through, leaving a weak autumnal sun to pour lemon light across the peninsula. A movement catches my eye as a small passerine breaks cover from behind a large coil of rope. The bird hovers above an upturned crate and alights not ten feet from me - a female Blackcap. The small black eye takes me in, the head moving in jerky movement as she surveys all around her. The nervousness of the bird is palpable, and she is soon off, swooping down to disappear behind an old engine that has been unceremoniously dumped on the beach.

I walk forward a few paces and spy her perched on a metal bar of a large rusty red container. Still she fidgets. For a bird such as this to be out in this wilderness in mid-November can surely mean but one thing. She is going on a journey. There is no food for her here. Where was she yesterday? Gorging on blackberries in a Sussex hedgerow? Feasting on apples in a Kent orchard? Maybe 20 grammes of bone, feather and muscle is here before me, restless with a migratory urge that cannot be controlled. I am ignored as she leaves the shelter of the container and launches into the wind. That such a small bundle can manoeuvre in this buffeting airflow is truly impressive. But now she impresses me further as, with one bound, heads out across the open beach towards the sea. I cannot see the moment when land is swapped for sea beneath her, but it has happened. Tonight France, tomorrow Spain? North Africa? I realise that this has become one of those special moments, a private showing of what makes migration so wonderous. Birds will go further - a lot further - but this Blackcap - my Blackcap - has shown me how it is done.

No doubt some of you are beside yourself with anticipation to find out how the 'November plants in flower list' has gone today. There have been additions, namely fairy flax, thyme-leaved speedwell. Dodder, common Orache and dwarf mallow (135). Plus, on the bird front, my first Woodcock of the stay.