Saturday, 30 January 2016

Why?



When I was recently asked why I go birdwatching, my response was lengthier than I had expected. I gave a few reasons why I did, and then I added some more...

The hunt
Our 'hunter-gatherer' instincts are still buried deep within us. It will take more than a few thousand years to completely lose them, so it can come as no surprise that modern man invents situations and scenarios in which to still exercise them. Birding scratches this 'memory itch' very well indeed. Every foray into the field is a hunt, a test of our ability to track down what is there.

The knowledge
The ability to seek out and retain information is practiced every time we lift our binoculars. What is that species? What age and sex is it? Where best to go and look next? And what time of day is it best to do so? That we hone this ability into an immediate diagnosis in our minds - reflex reactions -  is the reward to be gained from putting in the time in the field and the hours spent poring over guides.

The rarity
Go on, admit it. It might not be the 'be-all and end-all' of why we do it, but when rarity comes along (and that rarity might be subjective), we feel rewarded, blessed and happy.

The spectacle
A murmuration of Starlings, in their tens of thousands, wheeling and wrapping into ever more confusing and gyrating smoky shapes; low-flying hirundines, sweeping inches above the ground on frantic migration, arrowing, scything, feathered bullets of urgency; geese and waders coming into roost, jostling for position, restless for sleep, hungry for company. Go out and seek, and you shall find such things. Scenarios that are played out each and every day. And they are all free.

The unexpected
When you least expect it, the unexpected happens. It might be born of rarity but it could just as easily be the everyday that is seen from a different perspective.

The landscape
Unlike botanising, (when we walk head-down and with eyes just a few inches in front of our feet), birding invites us to look long - it demands it! So we take in all that is around us. The more open the panorama, the further we look. We see the estuary, we observe the seascape, we take in the sweep of downland, we lose ourselves in the canopy of woods. We become at one with the landscape, are consumed into it.

The weather
Our time in the field is entwined with the weather. It dictates not only what we do and where we go, but also what species will be present and how many of them there will be. But on a more basic level is our own experience of, and our reaction to, the conditions. Be it wrapped in waterproofs; liberated in t-shirt and shorts; protected from the cold by hat and gloves - our birding time is coloured by these conditions. We don't just physically feel the weather, we are visually stimulated by it as well. To be out in a wild and open vista and see an approaching storm is as invigorating as the birding itself.

The joy
Put all of the above together and you have got wonder. You have seen life-affirming sights. You will have found joy.

So ask me again. Why do I go birding?

Monday, 25 January 2016

Back again to Pulborough


I had so much fun at Pulborough Brooks last week that I went back and did it all over again...

This time, armed with a bit of local knowledge (thanks Mr. Winder!), I started off at Hale's View about an hour after first light. Two birders were already in position, standing at a gate and looking out across at a most stirring sight indeed - thousands of Lapwings. They were quite restless and skittish, with much calling and taking to the air in broken flocks. An immature Marsh Harrier then decided to fly through the airspace, sending at least 2,500 Lapwings into a heaving panic. In amongst them were four Ruff. Apart from the waders the air was also full of duck, as they too decided that large raptors were not to be tolerated overhead. Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Pintail burst above like some wildfowl-themed firework. It was some spectacle. The birder standing alongside me casually mentioned that he had the wintering Great Grey Shrike in his scope. Did I want to take a look? Yes please. Distant, but acceptable!

I did a sweep of all the reserve hides and viewpoints, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, finishing up where I had begun, at Hale's View. The Black-tailed Godwits stole the show once again. They were all peacefully roosting on the close islands just off from Jupp's View, so allowed relatively easy counting. I reached 1,110 before running out of birds to count. There would have been more tucked down and out of view on the far side of the island, but I could only count what I actually saw, as tempting as it was to 'bung on' an estimate.

Selected day totals were: Canada Goose (680), Shelduck (25), Wigeon (3,100), Teal (1,000), Shoveler (250), Pintail (150), Lapwing (4,000), Black-tailed Godwit (1,110), Ruff (6), Red Kite (2), Marsh Harrier (1 imm), Common Buzzard (5), Great Grey Shrike (1).

In the middle of the day I went off-site briefly to take a look at eight adult Bewick's Swans that had joined a few Mutes on flooded meadows close to Amberley Castle (above). This really is a splendid area.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Colley Hill in readiness for Spring


At this time of year, especially in dull and wet weather (like today), the top of Colley Hill is not a particularly inviting place. Although on chalk, this high ground above Reigate gets very wet and muddy after a lot of rain, which makes walking on the steep slope reminiscent of taking part in a particularly sadistic obstacle course. In a few weeks time this slope will be covered in violets, then milkwort, and beyond that home to various orchids, butterflies (including Silver-spotted Skippers) and who-knows what else. It might be uninviting at the moment, but it will come into its own very shortly.

The images above show off the work that has been done (and still is being done) to reduce mature growth on the steep southern slope. Top left is 'the before' and top right 'the after' shot, both taken over previous summers. This work, which was begun by a team of humans with hand tools, has been carried on by a herd of Belted Galloway cattle. The main shot gives a pretty good idea of what it looks like now. This will produce plenty of new habitat for specialised chalk downland plants and invertebrates, something which we need to recreate where it has been lost, and also to give a helping hand in keep existing downland in pristine condition.

Roll on the spring..

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Birding from the car

Do you have a ‘birds seen from the car’ list? I haven’t, but, nudged by a birding chum of mine, I might just start one…

His own list is most impressive, bolstered by (a) having discretionary vehicular access to prime Dungeness habitat where he can use the car as a hide, and (b) spending copious amounts of time in the pursuit of birds. Already this year he has added Penduline Tit to his said list. He welcomed Black Stork on to it last autumn… you get the picture.

But, before any such list is started, a few rules need to be agreed. Is the list just for your own personal vehicle, or can it stretch to any vehicle that you happen to be in? Should the list be confined to birds seen by chance, or can ‘from the car twitching’ be countenanced? Nothing is straightforward.

My own ‘seen from the car’ highlights that spring to mind include a White Stork circling over the ARC pit at Dungeness and a Black Kite that was drifting along the coast at St. Mary’s Bay. Both were seen from a moving car and hadn’t been seen before. The first mentioned sighting was a triumph for the invention of sun-roofs. The second involved a hard-braking manoeuvre that Starsky and Hutch would have been proud of (if you’re under 45, you might need to Google them).

Now I think of it, I’ve also seen Cattle Egret and Great White Egret from the car, but there again, in the Dungeness area, who hasn’t. Oh, and Caspian and Glaucous Gulls. Plus Yellow-browed Warbler. I could go on, but to do it properly I need to sit down with a checklist and start-up the memory banks. I’ve just remembered an Isabelline Shrike at Sandwich Bay! I’m enjoying this!!

See what you’ve started Mark!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Dark desert highways

So we say a sad farewell to yet another rock star. Glenn Frey, of The Eagles, has checked out of the Hotel California. My birding soundtrack throughout the late seventies and early eighties was enriched by The Eagles. And I do have a specific birding link to the track ‘Hotel California’, if you will indulge me…

In 1994 I was returning from a three-week birding trip to Malaysia, in the company of Mark and Janice Hollingworth. We were flying with Aeroflot to save several hundred pounds, which necessitated a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Moscow, before catching a further flight to London. As we approached Moscow, an announcement was made (in Russian) over the tannoy which brought gasps from the passengers, but bewilderment from us. Everybody was busy fastening their seat-belts, the cabin crew were scurrying around, and, no word of a lie, a stewardess was in tears, being comforted by a colleague. What the hell was going on? Within a minute everybody was seated, belted-up and the plane went into a very steep and sudden descent. All was quiet. I don’t like flying at the best of times, and this appeared to be one of those scenarios that I had nightmares about. However, regardless of the uncertainty about our impending doom, I found myself to be remarkably calm and collected. I simply sat - and waited.

The Airbus was landed quickly. Whatever the reason behind our sudden descent appeared to have not affected our ability to do so. We were alive! However, looking out of the window something was not quite right. This wasn’t an international airport, more like a landing strip in the middle of nowhere. Where on earth were we? All of the passengers on board had started to talk at once, then shout. Semi-scuffles were breaking out and the cabin crew were walking around, diffusing situations before moving on to the next flashpoint. Again, this was conducted in Russian, a language in which I know two words - ‘Niet’ and ‘Nostrovia’. An English-speaker was sitting close to us, and explained that there was absolutely no explanation being given as to why we had suddenly diverted to a small municipal airport. The passengers were mutinying! It was not long before two armed soldiers came aboard and several of the more vociferous passengers were spoken to. After half-an-hour it all calmed down a bit and we were told that we would be leaving for Moscow as soon as we were able. What did that mean?

To appease us, the television screens were lowered and entertainment provided. For the next FOUR hours we sat, without any idea as to when we would finally move. The screens played three items, over and over again. One was a short Russian film that could only be described as smutty slapstick (Benny Hillski?). The other two were music videos - ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons and, you’ve guessed it, ‘Hotel Califonia’ by The Eagles. I already knew the words, I already liked the track, but being constantly fed it became torture. I imagine that somebody sitting on this very same plane must have got the idea for 'interrogation methods through the use of repetitive music’ that were to be used at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre in the years to come. Every time the reel of programmes ended we begged for it to be turned off, but no, here it came again. For. The. Fifteenth. Time…

We tried to counter this by starting up a Russian bird list, that struggled to reach four species. Carrion Crow and Skylark were two of them, I cannot remember the others. To cut a long story short, we finally arrived at Moscow long after our flight to Heathrow had departed. We were then put on an old Tupolev jet to Helsinki (I swear I could hear the gears being changed on the flight) where we were then handed over, by now sobbing, to the kind people of British Airways, who finally took us home.

So when I now hear the first chords of Hotel California start up, I don’t think about “dark, desert highways” but of the inside of an Airbus, parked up in a field, somewhere in deepest Russia.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A lesson in counting


Yesterday I awoke to a vision of proper winter - at least half an inch of snow had fallen in north Surrey, covering all surfaces and looking particularly pretty before it would no doubt get messed up by moving cars, excitable children and the promised gradual thaw. I decided to visit the RSPB reserve at Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex, an easy 45-minute drive which got greener the closer I got - the snow had more or less petered out by the time I reached Billingshurst.

The reserve is a lovely mix of habitat, with wetland, farm, wood, scrub and heath. There is a most agreeable cafe and visitor centre at the top of a hill (with a shop that sells a good selection of natural history books and optics), with a gentle stroll down to four hides and several viewing platforms. Not surprisingly, with all of the recent rains, the brooks were heavily under water.

I had started off in the West Mead hide, that coincided with a volley of gun-fire from further down the valley. This resulted in a mass panic amongst the wildfowl present, including a noisy throng of Canada Geese that appeared from the direction of the guns. The duck wheeled around for a couple of minutes before settling down again on the northern floods, and this made getting an estimate of the numbers present a bit easier. I reckoned on there being 1750 Wigeon, 1000 Teal, 650 Canada Geese and 40 Pintail (with a handful of Shoveler also mixed in). How accurate were these counts? See later...

I carried on northwards along the edge of the flood, adding species to the notebook and happy in what I was doing. This really is a joyful place to bird. A Dunlin called in the distance, a Peregrine appeared high above, a Common Buzzard messily flapped low over the water, pushing up duck ahead. From the Hanger viewpoint a mass of waders took to the air over on the Pulborough side of the floods, all black, grey and white - Black-tailed Godwits. How many? I reckoned on at least 450, maybe 500. Some spectacle. Some under-estimate (see below). Ending up in Nettleys hide, I was entertained by a Water Rail that fed out in the open and was not spooked by any sudden noise that came from the hide, that included squeaky viewing flaps, banging doors and heavy footfalls.

Back at the visitor centre I bumped into Pulborough-stalwart Jon Winder, who I hadn't seen for a good couple of years. Jon is always a good source for local information and told me the best place (and time) to see the wintering Short-eared Owls. After lunch and coffee back at the car, I returned for an owl quest. I didn't have to wait long, as two birds were hunting along a grassy bank outside of Winpenny hide. A growing crowd of appreciative birders had me leaving for a quieter place, which turned out to be the Hanger viewpoint in the company, once more, of Jon. It was here that the Black-tailed Godwits took to the air again, and I took a few shots with the camera. This is one of them:


Again, Jon and I thought that there were 450-500 present. When checking the images on the computer yesterday evening, I thought that our estimate might be on the low side, so, with obviously too much time on my hands, I counted each and every one of them. I counted in batches of 100, marking each bird as I went along so not to duplicate, in two colours to be able to clearly see each 100:


As you can see, 8 distinct bands of 100 birds, plus another 28 white dots in the bottom right-hand corner. And this wasn't all of the flock. I think I can safely say that there were at least 900 Black-tailed Godwits present. I have always known that when I estimate flock sizes, and can then check that count more accurately (either because the flock lands, or from a photograph), I have always gone for a lower number than is actually there. So at least I know my counts will always err on the side of caution. The godwits finally settled on a number of islands off from Jupp's Viewpoint, where I then went and took the top photograph from.

I will be back!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Water Rail action!



A bit of an experiment here - the first time that I have uploaded a video, filmed using my trusty Coolpix P600 camera at Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve this afternoon. For a full account of today's trip, see tomorrow! If you want to re-watch the video (and why wouldn't you?), click on the 'Water Rail action!' heading to refresh the link.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Ivy Broomrape

Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche hederae) has a distinctly south-western distribution in the UK, although there are a few outposts in the south-east of England. These latter populations are thought to be introduced (due in some measure to the artificial habitats in which it is found) although there is the chance that some of them might be wild. I am lucky enough to have this species present in several places close to where I live, the most celebrated of which is at Devonshire Avenue Nature Area, in Sutton. In addition to these, I discovered a substantial population nearby, some 15 years ago, while walking along the western side of Brighton Road. At the Bonchurch Close junction is to be found a mature, deep and well planted bed that extends for maybe 75m alongside the pavement. It is populated with mature trees (including Yew and Cherry Laurel) and is copiously overrun with ivy, particularly at ground level. The raised bed (bounded by a stone wall) brings the 'ground level' up to a convenient height. It was here that I first saw a few spikes of Ivy Broomrape, and watched the 'colony' grow over the following years. The plants are well spread out along the bed's length and can number several hundred spikes. Some winters see the remnant spikes still showing well, while in others (such as this winter) few tend to show. Whether the old spikes are showing, or not, I can normally find fresh flowers at any month of the year. Last Wednesday I happened to be in the area, so took a look. There were three newly minted plants, the best being photographed (above left). The Sutton area is well blessed with broomrapes - I can find Common Broomrape in several places (even in town flower beds) and the local Knapweed Broomrape at Howell Hill NR (a Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve) where it haunts the chalk grassland in very small numbers.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Star Man

I was first aware of David Bowie when watching an episode of Top of the Pops and seeing him, arm in arm with Mick Ronson, as they mimed to Starman. This being early 1972, an androgynous, orange-haired creature flouting sexual conformity was unusual to put it mildly. This was a time dominated by Benny Hill and Love thy Neighbour, neither paragons of acceptance of the rights of others to be, or express, who they were. My first purchase of his music was Aladdin Sane (on its release), but I cannot admit to having been an early adopter of all things Bowie. It was several years later that I quickly purchased his back catalogue and wondered how on earth I had existed without knowing the delights to be found there.

He wan't just a musical genius, he was also a whirlwind of productivity. Compared to artists of recent times, his album output in the early 1970s was staggering: Hunky Dory (released 17 December 1971), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (released 16 June 1972), Aladdin Sane (released 13 April 1973), Pin Ups (released 19 October 1973) and Diamond Dogs (released 24 May 1974). Remember, apart from Pin Ups (a covers album), he wrote almost all of the songs, played and sang on every track and either produced, or joint produced them. During this spell he also co-produced Lou Reed's Transformer (another seminal album) and wrote and produced All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople. If all that wasn't enough, he toured from Jan 1972 until July 1973 playing a staggering 170 shows, taking in the UK, the USA and Japan. On some of these dates he played two shows. This doesn't take into account all of the TV and press commitments that he needed to do. Phenomenal. Just this select body of work, a mere three years in a 50+ year career, can stand alone as a towering monument to his ability. He had another burst of sublime creativity when he took himself off to Berlin and crafted three critically acclaimed albums. The terrific Low, Heroes and Lodger. The first two were released within nine months of each other.

Images released on his 69th birthday - just two days before his death - show a happy and vibrant man. And, considering all that was going on with him, looking undeniably cool. Maybe only Mr. David Jones of Brixton could pull off that particular feat. He certainly raged against the dying of the light...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Sharing and supporting

Do we, as birders, have a right to claim the places that we birdwatch as ‘our own’. When we see a jogger, dog walker or cyclist coming along, as much as we might inwardly sigh and assume that disturbance is but a few footfalls away, are we responding to the situation without thinking? I am aware that there are places where disturbance is a major problem (and I do feel your pain Jono) and each and every site has its own suite of ‘challenges’. No two are the same. There are inconsiderate cyclists, aggressive dogs and rude joggers out there - but there are also ignorant and anti-social birders (I might easily tick one, if not both of these boxes at times).

I had a Damascene moment a few years ago at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve on the East Sussex coast. This marvellous shingle beach (yes, just like Dungeness!!) had recently undergone some major work. Additional marshland had been created out of farmland and a large circular footpath installed. This walkway was several miles in diameter, made of compacted matter, quite wide and allowed easy viewing over the whole of the reserve. As I took in the stunning views and was being appreciative at the ease of birding that the footpath allowed, I was also aware that I was sharing it all with quite a few other people - and very few of them were birdwatchers. They were a mix of ramblers, cyclists, joggers and dog walkers. All had been welcomed with open arms onto the reserve and all appeared to be more than aware of the surrounding countryside. None of them got in ‘my’ way, nobody disturbed my birding. It struck me that, if anything were to threaten this corner of Sussex, then it would be these non-birdy people who would make up the bulk of any subsequent protest. The same could be said for any area of countryside or urban open space where people go, for whatever reason. There just aren’t enough of us birders out there to make a difference in any local ding-dong. All users of these areas need each other. And so, rather belatedly, the penny dropped and I realised that the only way forward in our crowded isles is to embrace everybody as potential guardians and custodians of what we hold dear.

Speaking as a (sometime) dog walker, as a (lapsed) cyclist/jogger and a regular walker, I seek (sought) out my places to carry out such leisure activities with care - and this is true for the vast majority of the people that get involved with them. People usually go out of their way to get to a particular wood, or stretch of downland, or patch of heathland because it adds another dimension to their activity. It might be because the area is ‘green’ or has stunning views or has traditional family ties. And as such, these people will be just as - or even more - vociferous about protecting them as us birders.

So the next time we huff at a dog-walker, sigh at yet another lycra-clad cyclist or despair at a gaggle of oncoming joggers, maybe we need to remember that, apart from having as much right to be there as ourselves, we might be grateful for their support of the habitat in the future.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

2016 ND&B Northern Wheatear Trophy


Yes, it's that time again...
The UK's premier award that celebrates all things white-arse...

The 2016 North Downs and beyond Northern Wheatear Trophy

Previous holders of the trophy can be seen above, from left to right: 2013 Gavin Haig (Devon); 2014 Martin Casemore (Kent); and the current holder, 2015 Jono Lethbridge (Essex). A new rule is that only bloggers linked to ND&B, or contributors, are eligible for entry. There will be three categories:

Earliest posting
Whoever posts the earliest image of a 2016 UK Northern Wheatear wins this one. Blog posting only.

Numbers champion (the big one!)
Whoever posts the most images of Northern Wheatears between now and the end of April 2016. A photograph of five birds together will count as 5 images! Get snapping!!! No repeat images, and that means you, Peter Alfrey!! Blog posting only.

Best photograph
The best image of a UK Northern Wheatear in 2016 (up until the end of April), to be judged by as yet unannounced members of the BBC's Countryfile team (likely to change) will be the winner. And might be used on the 2017 Countryfile calendar - might. Or as a nifty t-shirt design to be worn by Chris Packham during live transmission of BBCs Springwatch - possibly. And, as the other categories, blog posting only.

So, to recap: Northern Wheatear only. UK only. 2016 only.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Norfolk the first time

Number 3 in an occasional series that focuses on my first visits to well known birding locations continues with the North Norfolk Coast. You can read the previous two that dealt with Dungeness and Beddington Sewage Farm by clicking on the locations.

Cley was something of a scary place to me as a teenage birder. It was where proper birders went, blokes who knew their stuff, found rare birds, and, in the common parlance of the mid 1970s, were shit hot. They travelled the world, lived on the roads across the breadth of the UK whilst embarking on heroic twitches and did not suffer fools gladly. Did I want to go there? Yes! Did the thought of doing so unnerve me? You bet it did. There was one figure that loomed over North Norfolk (and Cley in particular) that had cultivated his own folklore, and that was Richard Richardson (RAR). Apparently he could identify tricky birds with ease and at vast distances. Just a whiff of a feather brought forth his expert, and correct, opinion. As much as the thought of standing next to him on the famous Cley East bank was exciting, the actually chance that I might just do so filled me with dread - I could easily make an identification faux pas in front of the great man and kill off my birding credentials before they had even started to develop.

It was not until late October 1977 that I got my chance. Local birding/twitching chums Tim Boultwood and Nick Gardner were going up to North Norfolk for a long weekend, and asked if I wanted to come along too. Did they really need to ask? However, a chance to meet the great RAR would not be possible, as he had died earlier that year. But Cley was still full of characters and places such as The George Pub and Nancy's Cafe. Our journey from south London through the evening of Friday October 28th was full of Nick and I grilling Tim (some 10 years older than us and a Norfolk veteran) about what we should expect and getting him to relive some of his past experiences there, which included seeing an Indian Tree Pipit* the previous year. I'd never even heard of one...

We arrived at Blakeney Church shortly before midnight, and did what came naturally to many birders back then - we dossed in the vestibule. Sleep didn't come easily, partly because of the cold stone floor but also because of my mounting excitement. We were up and away early, arriving at the fabled Cley as the dawn was breaking. What I then saw has long remained in my memory, as, in the half-light, birders were emerging from tents, cars and shelters. Bent double, coughing, lighting cigarettes and munching on left over snacks from the previous night, the ornithological army were pulling up the collars of their greatcoats and heading out into the field. The birding machine had awakened!

Tim knew many of the characters, I stood mutely to the side as 'name' after 'name' was revealed, no longer just an exotic (or weird) nickname to me, but now a recognisable face. Most of them were not the sort of person that I had thought would be attracted towards birdwatching, more to be found involved in petty crime, the frequenting of pubs or queueing up outside of dole offices.

The early morning scout around produced a Short-eared Owl coming in off the sea, plus an unforgettable flock of 250 Snow Buntings feeding on the shingle bank, that frequently transformed into a blizzard as they moved around. 10 Twite were hidden among them. Out on the marsh' 'vast' numbers of Wigeon were present, along with 400 Golden Plover.

A lunchtime visit was made to Nancy's Cafe. Walking into the back room, finding a free table and ordering my beans on toast and mug of tea, I felt as if I had truly arrived. Birder's were coming and going, swapping information, all looking and sounding earnest in their endeavour. The telephone kept on ringing and one particular birder (who seemed to be sitting by the phone with the sole purpose of answering it), seemed to be keeping to a script:

"Nancy's. (Pause). No, nothing so far. Any news from elsewhere? (pause). OK."

Within a few seconds the phone would ring again. Although the incoming call was invariably someone asking the standard question of "Anything about?", the hope was that the caller would be phoning from a call box just up the coast with news of a great find.

We then moved onto Salthouse, where more Snow Buntings were the only highlight. Weybourne was better, where I saw 'George' the Glaucous Gull, a bird that had been coming back to the area for so long that (he) had been given a name. Walsey Hills was quiet, save for a few hawking hirundines. Our final stop was Wells Wood, which was bereft of eastern phylloscopus warblers but did provide me with my first ever Crossbill. The day hadn't been a great success, with no anticipated rarity, but being in the area was enough for me. It was as if having gone through an ornithological baptism.

The initiation into North Norfolk was not yet complete. That evening we went to The George at Cley, the place where the birding fraternity gathered for beer and swapping of 'the gen'. I got to put more names to faces, hear yet another telephone ring itself off of the wall, and watch with envy and admiration as a group of wild looking men regaled us with tales of recent twitches, including a Spanish Sparrow on Bryher. The Scilly Isles! Now, what would they be like...

The following day saw us repeat our itinerary, with additional highlights of 4 Lapland Bunting and 6 Shorelark at Salthouse, plus 3 Long-tailed Duck and 4 Slavonian Grebe at Weybourne.

* Indian Tree Pipit, now commonly known as Olive-backed Pipit.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Return to Hawfinch valley

It was here, in March 2013, that I stumbled across a large gathering of Hawfinches. At its peak the flock numbered between 110-130 birds. Birders travelled from far and wide to see them. Since then, apart from an isolated sighting, none have returned. This morning I can confirm that they still haven't... but, as always, it's a lovely place to while away some time.

Across the valley, in several disturbed areas on the upper slopes of Mickleham Downs, the rare Wild Candytuft grows, at its only Surrey location. This morning I found quite a few plants in flower. In fact, even in the depths of a cold winter it is normal to find a few in bloom.

Last years Bird's-nest Orchids were standing proud, if desiccated, on the slopes of Mickleham Downs under beech woodland. Up to 200 were easily found, all within 100m along the edge of a footpath. Previous forays into the wood away from the few paths on offer tends to throw this species up. There must be four figure counts on this slope.

Hazel catkins were obvious and in plenty.

In the same general area as the Wild Candytuft it is easy to find Stinking Hellebore. Although I have seen greater numbers of fully-grown plants here before, there were plenty of young plants popping up, some in places were I haven't seen them before.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Blog header

The new blog header comes from my good friend Gordon Hay, who took this photograph during one of the few recent sunny evenings whilst on the top of Colley Hill. The view is looking SSW towards Mordor Leith Hill. I really should get my act together and produce a few more headers, although I do like my usual one so much that it will appear again in the future.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

On a roadside near you!



I would put money on the fact that, unless you live in the wilds of Scotland, there will be a patch of Winter Heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) not far from where you are currently sitting - and it will most probably be found on a roadside verge. It is one of the few true winter flowerers, as opposed to the many, many species that are currently in bloom due to the ridiculously mild winter temperatures that we are experiencing. It acts as a good source of nectar for those hardy insects that are currently on the wing and, although not exhibiting a particularly showy flower, it is a most welcome sight in the middle of winter. But not everybody agrees…

It is considered an invasive pest in some quarters. The Guardian newspaper says it "has attractive, fragrant, mauve flowers early in the year, but later in spring turns into a large-leaved monster, forming colonies along waysides.” Blimey! The species was first recorded ‘in the wild’ in 1835, having no doubt escaped from some garden close by, where they were originally planted as ornamental ground cover. Dumped soil, containing the heliotropes rhizomes, acts as its means of spreading. The female plant is unknown in the UK, so the onward march of this plant is aided primarily by municipal clearing of the grass verges that it so loves, the cutting up of the rhizomes, and their subsequent accidental redistribution. It is difficult to eradicate once established.

The first thing you will notice are the large, rounded heart-shaped leaves, being almost lime green in colour, fresh enough to jump out from the sad winter palette that surrounds it. It lifts my spirits whenever I come across it -and if you find any, take a moment out and have a sniff. It smells quite honeyed. The picture above was taken on Epsom Downs a couple of days ago. This patch has spread out from its original earth bank home and into the neighbouring woodland.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

6,042 reasons to get out of bed in the morning

An American by the name of Noah Strycker has just spent the whole of 2015 birding around the world. He started off on January 1st in Antarctica (with a Cape Petrel) and finished on December 31st in India (with a Silver-breasted Broadbill). He didn’t go home at all during the year, but kept on birding. The linear route he took seemed chosen to eliminate time spent travelling, visiting (in order) Antarctica, Falklands, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, Spain, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, UAE, India, Myanmar, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Borneo, Sulawesi, Bail, Australia, Papau New Guinea, New Britain, Australia (again), New Zealand, Australia (third visit), Singapore and finally India (once more). He did see Citril Finch in France and Egyptian Goose in Germany, both lone products of what I can only assume were non-birdy transits through the respective countries. If you want to see exactly what he saw, where and when, then visit his site by clicking here.

His final total? A staggering 6,042 species, seeing off the previous record of 4,341 that had been set by Brits Alan Davies and Ruth Miller. But time does not stand still, and a challenger has already come forward. Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis is, as I type this and you read it, following a similar itinerary to the one that Noah had undertaken. He will need to go some to overhaul it.

Part of me would love to do something like this. A very small part. It must be a logistical nightmare. The planning must be immense. All those contacts to cultivate. Ali the gen to gather and check. And check again. The flights to book. And then the flights to catch. Forget about the birding, everything else involved would finish me off. Just think of all the field guides you need to take with you! What happens if you drop your bins in the jungle? Lose your scope halfway up a mountain? Fall ill for a fortnight and miss a big chunk of your precious time in Peru? Or Tanzania? Phew, I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it…

As pointless as swimming the channel or walking the length of the Nile, but still the stuff of adventure and derring-do - life would be less interesting if it were not for the people who rise from their sofa and go off to test themselves. Me? I’ll just potter around Surrey for a bit...

Monday, 4 January 2016

A bird inventory


Today saw the annual animal inventory take place at London Zoo - the keepers get together and count all the creatures that are within their care. I know it's most probably an age thing, but when I think of a zoo keeper I just see an image of Johnny Morris in my mind, peaked cap, leaning on a broom and talking to an elephant that talks back to him in a funny voice. If you are under 50 years of age you won't have a clue what I'm on about. It passed for entertainment back in the day...

Last year the final tally came to 17,480 of 756 species. I thought that I'd join in, so I took myself off to Langley Vale Farm and counted every bird that I saw in a three hour period. My (more) modest total was 1,277 of 38 species. Woodpigeon was by far the largest component (510). Highlights included 5 Red-legged Partridge and 3 Marsh Tit.

Botanically I paid my respects to the patch of Green Hellebore (above) that had come on a treat since my last visit in December. Also of note was a robust clump of Butcher's-broom (below).


This defied close examination as there was a waist-high barbed-wire fence, deep ditch and crumbling bank between me and the clump in question. This is an odd plant, with the stiff, pointed leaves not being leaves at all, but flattened shoots. These bear the single, diminutive pale flower. You will have to imagine it, but the scene above was full of flower. The English name apparently comes, as implied, from butchers, who cut the mature stems and bundled them together, using the stiff, hardy 'leaves' to scour and clean chopping blocks.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Underwater birding

I know that the people of Cumbria and Yorkshire will shake their heads at my statement, but it really has rained in Surrey this morning. Cat's and Dog's. Stair-rods. Pissing down. Driving back home from Balham at lunchtime (after visiting our eldest daughter) it was like being on the log flume ride at Thorpe Park. The gutters were running streams, puddles joined puddles to form... even bigger puddles. Spray slouched up to drench pedestrians and blind drivers. It wasn't the weather to be out birding. But once upon a time, it was...

I used to go out in such inclement conditions and not bat an eyelid. When I look back on it now it beggars belief that I could have been so keen and so stupid. But it often paid off. One very wet September afternoon in 1975, cabin fever forced me out and onto my pushbike to cycle the four miles to Beddington Sewage Farm. Drenched even after having just cycled to the bottom of my road, I strode across the settling beds of the sewage farm and was greeted by a fine selection of waders, including my first ever Spotted Redshank, that flew around calling as I lifted my rain-streaked face into the sodden sky in appreciation. I squelched back home in a beatific state, oblivious to everything being wet, clammy and cold.

A teenage day trip to Pagham, which entailed a train and bus journey from Sutton, was accompanied by constant rain - not drizzle, more a steady and modest precipitation. This continual assault upon my cheap waterproofs just underlined that the word 'cheap' placed before the word 'waterproof' rendered the latter word redundant. I sat on the beach at Church Norton thoroughly soaked. But before me a raft of 15 Slavonian Grebes were diving away just yards offshore, and in such conditions I had the whole thing to myself. I felt quite smug and vindicated that I had not heeded the weatherman's warning of an inclement day ahead.

In 1981, a September weekend at Dungeness was notable for a fall of drift migrants and copious amounts of rain. A walk around the moat in a deluge was rewarded with a Barred Warbler, but my old Zeiss Jenoptem binoculars could not handle the conditions and misted up. They were still unusable the following morning, but help was at hand as Janet Turley kindly lent me her pair. Just as well she did, as it was a day which saw the tamest Tawny Pipit that I have ever had the pleasure to know stride around the ARC sand bowl.

In recent years I've wimped out of taking on the elements, but last October made an exception when a combination of SE wind and rain suggested that 'manning up' and getting out there would be a wise move. And it was - both Dusky Warbler and Yellow-browned Warblers were chalked up by mid-morning and a glorious arrival of Black Redstarts took place. It was a day that my waterproof over-trousers will never forget - a rare outing that ended with them tearing on what must be the only strand of barbed-wire on the peninsula. They suffered for my art.

But today, looking out on the deluge, a cup of tea and the football coverage is winning hands down. No doubt there are birders out there though, getting thoroughly wet but obtaining ornithological highs because they have made the effort. Good luck to them. Now, where's the biscuits...

Saturday, 2 January 2016

And we start all over again...

The first sunrise of 2016 - highly-charged expectant airs or a laid back acceptance of 'what will be will be'?

It's an odd state of affairs, this clamouring for the new year to start and the old one to be on its way. The concept of time and the naming of months is a purely human construct, so the fact that we all eagerly await and pin our hopes on December morphing into January, or even the idea that the new year begins when it does, is all rather random - we could, quite easily, start the year during the spring, or on June 21st, or even August 5th. After all, the Earth's revolution around the Sun, which is the yardstick by which all of our 'timings' are based, doesn't have a start and finish point. Every second of that journey could qualify as such. For a thorough look at why we have settled on what we have, I can recommend Nick Groom's book 'The Seasons'.

For the first time in quite a while, I entered the year without any grand plans or aims. Admittedly, I do have 'round two' of the Surrey v Northumberland Birding Patch Challenge on the back boiler, but this is being treated very much as a 'see what happens' enterprise. Similarly, I am aiming to keep a list of the plant species that I record in my larger uber patch, but no chasing of a target will be involved. With little to distract me from just the enjoyment of being outside, my new years day morning chugged along agreeably, if not spectacularly.

Canons Farm was my venue of choice, a site not currently known for being anything other than an ornithological disappointment. That can be a harsh summing up of a piece of nondescript farmland that just happens to have several blokes running a birding rule over it on a regular basis. This morning saw half a dozen deluded souls doing just that. But seek, and ye shall find... or something like that.

There were two noteworthy counts out in the fields, with 75+ Skylark in two flocks and a minimum of 32 Yellowhammer. Neither should be sniffed at. My own personal highlight occurred mid-morning, in an area of Banstead Woods known as The Scrub. I was aware of the odd Bullfinch calling ahead of me, but was totally unprepared for a tight flock of 14 of these chunky finches breaking from low cover. Most of them were males, and they alighted in nearby trees, spaced out on bare branches resembling gaudy baubles on a Christmas tree. And have you ever heard a mass of Bullfinches calling together, and with insistence? No, neither had I, and it gave a different dimension to the plaintive 'pieu' that is normally such a sad and lonely utterance. All told, there were 20 of them in the scrub, no doubt a feeding flock taking advantage of the copious ash keys on offer, a Bullfich staple food.

I was back home by lunchtime. The rain had just started and the descent into another dank, gloomy winter's evening had begun. The difference between today's, and yesterday's was that this one was newly minted. It was the first of 2016.

Friday, 1 January 2016

It's Rambler time!


At the beginning of each year, Neil Randon (Surrey-based birder / journalist / designer / blogger), sits down at his desk and casts an eye back over the previous twelve month's worth of birding and blogging. After much consideration (and refusing to be put off by cheap attempts at bribery) he announces the winners of his much vaunted, much desired and increasingly difficult to win 'Randon's Rambling Awards', affectionately known as 'Ramblers'. Click here to find out who (or where) won which category, including an exciting new one.

I'm far too modest to mention who won the 'Birding Blogger of the Year' award for the third consecutive year, or who came runner-up in the inaugural 'Birding Blog Post of the Year'. I'm also far too aware that if (a) Gavin Haig actually carries on blogging; (b) Jono Lethbridge posts a bit more; and (c) Neil reads more posts from a certain Darryl Spittle, then my days of success are severely numbered.

Thanks to Neil's good taste, immaculate perception and continued acceptance of my envelopes stuffed with tenners, the post that I was going to publish today is not yet needed, and is sitting smuggly in a folder, awaiting its release sometime tomorrow. But before it gets a public airing I will need to re-read it, polish it and possibly add to it - it is going to be very hard indeed to hang on to my Rambler!