Saturday, 3 December 2016

FA Cup egret

Venue: Gander Green Lane, Sutton

Event: FA Cup second round, Sutton United v Cheltenham Town

I was standing with fellow birder Frankie Prater and his son James. As normal, if the three of us are watching Sutton play, our conversation is a mixture of football (when James gets involved), or birding (when James glazes over). This afternoon was no different. Yesterday's Cattle Egret was a conversation piece, as was my observation of a Lapwing flying over last Saturday's Sutton v Aldershot match. We joked that if the football was boring we could always revert to sky watching for birds. "Maybe even a Cattle Egret" quipped Frankie.

Twenty minutes later we were watching a Little Egret sail over, low and to the west... Frankie wasn't far wrong with his prediction!

The score? 2-1 to Sutton, the winner scored deep into injury time. Not a bad afternoon all round.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Cattle Egret - second for Surrey

Fate plays such a role in our birding endeavours - and today was such an example. I wasn't actually going anywhere with my bins this morning, as domestic chores beckoned. However, a last minute reprieve saw me with a couple of hours to spare, so I ran out the door and decided to just walk the ten minutes or so to Priest Hill SWT reserve on the Ewell/Banstead border. That was lucky break number one...

Last Friday when visiting the site I had come across a small flock of Reed Buntings, and was keen to relocate them. My plan was to make one slow circuit of the largest meadow before heading back home. When half-way round I bumped into an old work-colleague who was walking her dog, so then found myself continuing on the loop, deep in conversation and not really birding at all. When I reached the end of the circuit (and my work-colleague had left for home) I decided to retrace my steps as I hadn't really given the area a good grilling. That was lucky break number two...

On my second circuit I relocated the Reed Buntings (now five birds including a male) plus a female Stonechat. That was good enough for me to consign the brief trip a success. With thoughts of lunch my mind went into neutral, but after a few minutes of aimless wander a glance up into the sky quickly shook me awake - a small, all-white egret was flying steadily westwards, at a moderately low elevation. Bins were raised, and my first look had me incredulous. This was not the expected Little Egret, but a Cattle!

The dumpy, wrap-necked, jowly bird then turned northwards and cut diagonally across me, giving superb views. The trailing legs were shorter than a Little, and with the large feet were a uniform mid-grey. The bill, shorter and proportionately thicker than a Little, was orangey-yellow in colour. The flight comprised shallow wing beats which were a more hurried than a Little. I was transported back to Majorca where I watched this species regularly over ten days during this summer - not to forget a confiding bird at Dungeness last month. This is apparently the second record for Surrey, following a single bird at the London Wetland Centre in 2001.

After the bird had gone, and the news 'tweeted' out, I realised that I had not even thought about getting a record shot with the camera (that was in the rucksack). I'm pleased that I didn't as it would have disrupted and spoilt what was a totally unexpected and special few moments of birding. I have always thought that the open skies, relative height and excellent vision here at Priest Hill would provide the odd good flyover, although Cattle Egret would not have been high up on my predictive list.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A mid-1970s winter morning

A ringing alarm clock pierced the dark and woke me into a cold, still world. A glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was a heavy frost. The world looked pretty - from the twinkling stars down to the twinkling pavements - a winter wonderland that was soon to see me off to Beddington Sewage Farm. With a packed rucksack I ventured out of the back door to retrieve my bike from the garage, freezing to touch, not really all that inviting a prospect. The cold was chilling, but a four mile ride would soon warm me up. There was little traffic to detract me from watching my breath form into a grey vapour before my eyes. Apart from a fox dashing across the road in front of me my journey was uneventful, my eastward procession lit by the barely emerging sun. It all seemed portentous this dawning of the new day, full of hope and pregnant with possibility.

Cycling over Hackbridge bridge and onto Mile Road opened up the farm on either side of me, the fields shockingly white with a severe frost and clouds of steam rising wherever there was a fast running water culvert. In such weather these water courses were the haunt of waders that had fled the frozen settling beds. It was now light enough to bird, but the iron cold was suppressing much happening, save for the odd wail of a Lapwing and 'chack' of a Fieldfare. Above me a small flock of Redwings called, plaintive and lonely, but oh so wild. After locking my bike away and pulling on a pair of frozen Wellington boots, I strode across one of the fields, my progress traced by a dark line drawn into the silver vegetation by my meandering journey. As soon as I came across a free-flowing dyke I was met by an explosion of muttering Snipe, sounding like grumpy old men that had been unwillingly disturbed. A bit further along rose a Green Sandpiper, yodelling up into the crystal air, the bright light making the clear-cut black and white plumage hurt the eyes. A good start.

My toes were cold, my fingers numb. After an hours wandering I dug out the thermos flask from my rucksack and gratefully gulped down a cup of warming coffee. Where the sun had hit the vegetation the thick rime of frost had been removed, revealing the dead winter colours below. A few Tree Sparrows and Greenfinches were poking amongst the burnt caramel blades of grass, squabbling and flitting, unaffected by the cold. A flock of Teal flew overhead towards who knew where - all of the open water here was still frozen.

After a while I started to peel off layers of clothing - first the hat, then the gloves - and began to luxuriate in such a day. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. It even began to feel warm. The grass I now walked through was sopping wet, my welly boots slicked with water resembling a couple of seals. That early newness, of freshly-made frost and ice, was but a fading memory. But, if the weather forecast was to be believed, it would all be back again tomorrow morning. Are there better mornings to be out, to feel blessed and alive?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A very tame buzzard

A morning spent at Canons Farm in the company of Geoff Barter - plus the confiding Common Buzzard (above), that has taken to hanging around Reeds Rest Cottages. The buzzard appears to be well and can fly without difficulty, so why it is being so unadventurous and 'tame' I do not know. Whatever its reasons, it sits on top of roofs, chimneys, barns and posts with little care for the passing birder. The image above has not been cropped and was taken with a bridge camera.

A calmer, more sunnier day would be hard to find in the early winter, and although I couldn't claim that it was warm, the need for hat, gloves and scarf was redundant. There weren't many birds on show, so Geoff and I had to make do with a slow wander and plenty of waffle between the two of us. A flock of 60+ Skylark and a low count of four Yellowhammer (below) was made. Although I don't particularly want any, a dose of hard weather is needed to stir the ornithological pot up.

Monday, 28 November 2016

For whom the poll swells

Redpolls can be troublesome - troublesome, that is, if you start trying to identify every single individual that you come across. The problem is that they vary so much. At its simplest, we have three species: Lesser (Carduelis cabaret), Mealy or Common (Carduelis flammea) and Arctic (Carduelis hornemanni), although different authorities split these still further, while others lump them. It's confusing to say the least. Even when you have them in the hand it is not always a straightforward matter of clinching the identification, but sometimes it is. Take these two Mealies (Commons) that were trapped at Dungeness in early November, along with several accompanying Lessers. They were clearly larger, were heavier and the colouration was at once different. The top two images are of the same bird, whereas the bottom picture is of the second individual.

I came across these images whilst having a look through the several hundred pictures that I took during my recent stay at Dungeness. I thought that one or two of you out there might be interested in them - highly instructive at best, blog filler at worst...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Take note

Is the field notebook becoming a threatened species? I ask, because I rarely see anybody using one nowadays. It was a staple of the birder's weaponery 'back in the day', as much a part of the ornithological arsenal as your bins, scope and ex-army jacket. Don't get this confused with the posh log book back at home, where the field notes were written up all neat of hand and full of additional flourish - I'm referring to the small, pocket-sized notebook where the day's counts and descriptions would be jotted down whilst in the field. These could get dirty, spattered in mud, wet with rain, crinkled at the edge and have pages torn from its innards - it was a tool of the field and if I ever left home without one I felt bereft. And if I did forget it then I have been known to then use any scrap of paper, inside of a field guide or back of a hand to scribble down all of that important info. Well, I say important meaning that it was to me. I did take it all a little to seriously to be honest.

I look around today and see few taking notes. Very few. Do these people just not bother at all? Do they write it all down when they get home, trusting their memories? I would put money on the former being correct. I have seen (or more accurately heard) birder's dictating their observations into small recorders, but could never bring myself to adopt this method. It had to be an A6 hard backed notebook, with narrow feint ruling, preferably a ribbon for marking the page that was being written upon and for the cover to be either black or dark blue. No fuss there then...

I recently have been using a black hard-backed notebook from Ryman's, spiral-ring bound which even sports an embossed feather on the cover. For the past 5-6 years this 'model' has accompanied me across hill and dale, up mountain and down to the coast. Thoroughly field tested. Totally the dog's do-dahs. They have just discontinued it. The new version is inferior in several ways, so I will be on the look out for the next new favourite.

As for the big, serious, important and grand log book that follows on in the note taking process - that deserves a post all of its own.

Friday, 25 November 2016

All's Ewell that ends Ewell

A brisk 15 minute walk from the front door sees me stepping onto Surrey Wildlife Trust's Priest Hill Reserve - all ex-farmland, then municipal playing fields, now reverting to scrubby grassland. It is quite high (for Surrey) and although not an obvious ornithological hot-spot, it does turn up a fair selection of passerine passage migrants. Today's surprise was a flock of four Reed Buntings (all females, one above). Locally, this is pretty amazing stuff. Nearby were a male and two female Stonechats, a species which is a regular passage migrant and winter visitor to this reserve. I always check them for an accompanying Dartford Warbler, but no luck again today.

A further twenty minutes on finds me at the River Hogsmill in Ewell Village, a small watercourse that I could just about jump over (given a long run-up and my legs and lungs of 40 years ago). The three species that are almost a given at this time of year were present and correct - Little Egret, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail (below). I may not have the coast nearby, but there is plenty to look at given a bit of effort.