Saturday, 21 October 2017

The life of Brian

Storm Brian. 

Doesn't sound all that menacing, does it? The Met Office (or whoever gets the job to name these storms) could have come up with far better names beginning with B. Like Storm Beelzebub. Or Storm Badass. Not Brian...

However, Brian it was that knocked on Dungeness's door today, and kicked off the morning with a SWf6 and at times reached an 8, but never really hit the strengths that had been suggested a few days ago. However, some vicious squalls set in, and if you were unlucky to get caught in one then a change of clothing was definitely in order. I rode out most of them by cowering behind hides or containers.

The high tide at 13.00hrs unleashed some water incursion through the shingle bank, a lot of spray and a wild seascape by Dungeness standards. The birds largely kept away. No unusual, or interesting sea passage was observed. Brian failed to deliver.

Thursday, 19 October 2017


I could just write that over a two-and-a-half hour period we counted 6,175 Goldfinches moving E to SE, but the drama and spectacle of the event would be truly lost. Bare facts are not enough.

They started moving by 07.30hrs, a steady procession of modest sized flocks, keeping low and flying into the SE wind. Their progression over the shingle was uncomplicated, across the open beach and either out over the sea or a continued coasting. A thousand had been counted through when Mark H suggested meeting him on the very point of the peninsula itself. As the wind was light and the weather dry, the open nature of this new place of observation was not an impediment on our ability to observe and count accurately. The birds were still coming, and with our 360 degree view they were coming in greater numbers. There was a sudden shift in volume - the flock sizes increased and they were arriving on a broader front. There were times when we had groups join together in front of us, at one point 300 birds massed and flew directly over and around us in one jangling blizzard. The noise was amplified as we were cocooned in Goldfinches. As the wind strengthened a notch, and veered southerly, the birds did not want to move on directly over the sea as they had done. We were then treated to a sky littered with confused flocks that coalesced, broke up and joined once more, wheeling around, a fidgety mass. A mass that reached 500+. We needed to be on our guard so as not to double count. We were joined by Martin C and his other pair of eyes helped us to confirm whether the flocks had moved through or not.

And still they came. Low over the beach. Cascading above us. All the time tinkling away. With them were other species, but in far fewer numbers - Linnets, Siskins, Redpolls, Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a single Hawfinch that stood out thuggishly against the accompanying Goldfinches before it peeled off and headed north. By 10.00hrs the movement had virtually stopped.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Just another day...

They started shortly after dawn, jostling flocks, compact, noisy with chiming calls like bubbling cowbells. Low, morphing in shape and urgent in nature. By mid-morning they had fizzled out and our morning count of Goldfinches had reached 1265, the vast majority heading into the easterly wind. They were joined by smaller numbers of Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Siskins, Linnets and Redpolls. Nearby a male Dartford Warbler was accompanied by a Wren (giving the Stonechats a day off), a late Willow Warbler pitched down into the lighthouse garden where three Firecrest entertained all comers.

Whereas the Goldfinches had largely packed it in for the day, the Chaffinches had just started. Flocks of spaced out sedateness flowing overhead - again eastwards - with groups strung out in parallel or linear order. They defied easy counting, being lost against an opaque pearly-white sky. When visual contact was made it soon became obvious that others were higher, or lower, or further away. After two hours the tap was turned off and over 3,000 had been counted. The odd Brambling was involved, including flocks of 10 and 6. The afternoon was further enlivened by the arrival of three continental Coal Tits, all bright individuals that gathered admirers as if they were of rarer fare.

The day ended under a gloomy sky with Martin C, at a viewpoint overlooking the egret roost. As the light bled from the day they started to arrive - urgent Littles and leisurely Greats, with a bonus Cattle. It was a record breaking count. 26 Little Egrets and 20 Great White Egrets were record counts for the site. A Merlin sped through and 2 Marsh Harriers disturbed the early roosters.

Just another day at Dungeness...

Monday, 16 October 2017

Invasion of the coccothraustes under a very odd sky

And still they come, delighting those lucky enough to be standing underneath them - Hawfinches that is. This autumn's 'invasion' continues on a broad front that is giving observers the opportunity to see this species in places where they normally do not occur - like my garden for instance. I took up my position for a spot of viz-migging at about 07.30hrs and stuck at it for almost four hours. Although much quieter than yesterday, the main target did arrive, with a flock of four Hawfinch over low, heading east, at 07.50hrs, and then a single five minutes later that circled a couple of times before it too departed eastwards. Calls were heard on both occasions, a suprisingly thin sound from such a beefy bird. I was more than a little pleased.

Since I first looked at a bird book over forty years ago, the Hawfinch has always intrigued me, from its striking appearance down to its secretive nature. Even when you know that they are present in a wood they can be difficult to pin down. The 100+ flock at Juniper Bottom in early 2013 had a habit of just materialising in front of you and just as suddenly melting away. We did not know where they spent the afternoons or where they roosted. You've got to admire such aloofness!

If you are into such things as keeping a back garden/patch list, and Coccothraustes coccothraustes is not yet on it, this might just be your best opportunity to add it for the foreseeable future.

At lunchtime the wind picked up and the sunlight took on a distinct vagueness, as if the rays were being filtered through dust - which indeed they were! There are two suggested sources - you can take your pick between Saharan Dust or smoke from the wild fires on the Iberian peninsula. It then all turned a bit Bladerunner, the sun turned dull blood-orange, the sky become an approximation of yellow-grey sludgy soup and the light dimmed to the point where car headlights were needed to be turned on. All very surreal.

14.00hrs - who's fiddling with the dimmer switch?

Sunday, 15 October 2017

More Hawfinch

With Hawfinches turning up all over the shop (there must be several thousand across the southern half of England) a three-hour back garden vigil was in order this morning. A steady trickle of Redwing, Song Thrush, Chaffinch and Starling was obvious - together with a lone Brambling - but nothing exhibiting a brutish bill and wing bars deigned to put in an appearance. A change of scene was called for.

A return to Juniper Bottom was made, mainly due to its Hawfinch pedigree and also because I could skywatch across the Mickleham valley all the way down to the Mole Gap (as viewed above). After only 15 minutes a flock of six flew across me and then veered NW. A further hour's worth of eye and ear strain could only add 100+ Redwing.

The past couple of night's may have been mild, but the MV haul has been poor. Last night did at least produce a couple of Silver Y (above). The season seems to be running out of steam.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Bithynian Vetch

Right, let's get back to posts that are positive and largely harmless...

This morning I visited a site close to home where there is a (single?) plant of Bythinian Vetch, a species that I have only seen in Cornwall. This is hardly likely to be anything other than a planted/escaped individual, but regardless of that they possess smart looking bi-coloured flowers. The two images illustrate the colour variation on this particular plant. Nearby was quite a bit of Basil Thyme (below), still in flower and brightening up what was otherwise a grey morning.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Digital coma

OK, one last post about social media and the effect that it has on us (or, more accurately, some of us)...

I was recently pleased to see that a user of Twitter had called to task two separate tweets that described Dusky Warblers as 'stunning'. They are not. They make Dunnocks look positively exotic. A rainbow is stunning. The Northern Lights are stunning. The Milky Way is stunning. Dusky Warblers are not. It got me thinking as to why the composers of said 'Dusky Warbler' tweets felt compelled to use the word 'stunning'. I blame peer pressure and, of course, social media.

Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (keep up Grandad) are all based on the notion that short, sharp messages/images can be sent out into the world so that others can read/see what you are doing. For a certain demographic this means looking good, being seen to be having fun and, most crucially 'having a better time than you'. So when you see an image of a meal, a group shot of friends out for a drink, or the view from a hotel balcony, they have to be aspirational - the food needs to look delicious, the people have to be all smiling, and the weather conditions on the balcony hot and sunny. And as for the selfies, well, posing has become an art form, with the need for the ability to catch the right angle, know what is your best side and maybe - just maybe - how to use a photo filter to get the best out of your image.

What has that got to do with middle-aged birders? Well, quite a lot actually. As much as most stick to Twitter and Facebook, the same rules that the youth follow seem to apply. A Dusky Warbler is not enough just by being rare. It has to be stunning. Stunning suggests an event. It suggests an emotional happening. It suggests that 'you really should have been here'. People don't do 'ordinary' or even 'interesting'. They want to be seen to be doing 'stunning'.

And it's not just the kids that overdose on selfies. There are several birders out there that are forever plastering pictures of their faces all over the place for us all to see. Posing on a headland. Gurning at a Birdfair. Reclining in a hide. In a car on the way to a twitch. Having dipped. Having 'scored'. I have alluded to the 'group shot' of birding 'crews' already, lined up aspiring to be ornithological gunslingers or pretending to be following in the footsteps of Shackleton or Scott, rather than just about to go birding. Narcissistic? Just being sociable? Does it really matter? No, not really, but it's fair to comment on such a social phenomena. Maybe I'm just jealous that I'm not with them, having fun, being a trailblazer, part of a scene. And deep down that's exactly what their purpose is, to make you feel envious. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

The last aspect I'll touch on is the need for some birders to let us all know that they have 'found' a bird, as in 'I have just found a Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness'. I know plenty of birders who regularly find good birds and who never feel the need to do anything other than report the presence of said rarity, such as 'Hoopoe Lark at Dungeness, present on grass by Old Lighthouse'. Do we need to know that you have found it? Isn't this just another symptom of social media that reduces us to become mini marketing machines, pumping out information to promote ourselves?

Did I say that was my last point? Sorry, thought of something else. Social media, buy dint of the need for brevity, is slowly turning us all into lazy practitioners in the use of our language. Hence the overuse of words like 'awesome', 'stunning' and 'cracking'. They have become a lazy shorthand. Thought is going out of the window.

And before anybody accuses me of being on a high horse, I can be just as guilty as others. This subject fascinates me as much as it infuriates me. We are (mostly) sleepwalking into a digital coma. We need to be aware before it's too late.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Hunting Hawfinch

That most magnificent of finches, the Hawfinch, has been appearing in small numbers across the UK, from small northern islands to southern headlands and even in our very own county of Surrey (particularly in the Capel area, largely down to that most diligent of observers, Wes Attridge). With the chances of this species being at large, and it being one of my favourites, I thought I ought to check out a couple of places nearby that have a bit of 'Hawfinch form'...

First up was Juniper Bottom, where in March 2013 a large flock delighted birders from far and wide. My slow walk along the valley, with frequent stops and spells of intent listening, could only drum up a fair number of crests and tits (including Marsh). Carrying through and up onto Juniper Top, the tree-line and canopy scanning did not supply the target species, but I was entertained by a Peregrine and seven Common Buzzards.

Next on my travels was Headley Heath, and a walk out to the western most valleys, all well wooded and largely undisturbed (one of them - the shallowest - is pictured above). I have been successful here before, and this strike rate was improved upon when a single Hawfinch flew into a fairly close tree top, allowing tantalising views before melting into the leaf cover. Although I waited an hour, the bird did not show again, and must have slipped out the other side. After a good wander between the valleys, and having being entertained by a Raven and three Marsh Tits, I called it quits. I would have happily settled on just the one before I set out this morning, and cannot help but think that there are more out there to be discovered.

Monday, 9 October 2017

More botanical gems at Langley Vale

This morning I met up with local botanist Peter Wakeham to partake in what amounted to a spot of plant 'twitching'. The farmland at Langley Vale had once again come up trumps, with two species of local (and national) rarity having recently been found by the eagle-eyes of Dennis Skinner.

Before we made our way to these newly discovered gems, Peter showed me a couple of Night-flowering Catchfly plants that he had come across last week, in a field corner where they had not been seen before. They included one highly robust, fully-flowered specimen, that had a mixture of open and closed flowers. Both are pictured above. These flowers were also strongly pink, the Langley plants being normally coloured white. Our first target was nearby - a single statuesque Jersey Cudweed (below). Although a coloniser of 'nearby' London streets, how this individual made it to a chalky field on the Surrey downs is anybody's guess.

Ground-pine (below) is becoming exceedingly rare in England, and although Surrey is historically a stronghold, the county sites are being lost. A saving grace is that the buried seed can remain viable for years, and when exposed can flower - this is what may have happened at Langley Vale. It is a species on the area's historical list, so when Dennis found a single plant last week it was like welcoming back a 'lost' gem. Peter quickly found a second. Both were still there this morning.

Other highlights from the morning included Thorn-apple (in fruit and seed) and Long-stalked Crane's-bill, both species which are shown below. It was also a pleasure to bump into not only Dennis, but also Rosy Jones. Langley Vale is a place of botanical wonder - there is still much to discover here. Our hope is that the Woodland Trust will be true to its promise of acting sympathetically and protectively towards the rare arable plants that are to be found on the land.

Friday, 6 October 2017

A rant and a film review

I haven't posted for almost a week, which is a long time for me. I've been going through a period where I have become anti social media. Such spells normally start when something annoys me, which in turn makes me dislike myself for becoming annoyed at such trivial matters - such as the profusion of pictures of the latest rarity; tweets proclaiming the tweeters latest 'find' as if they are birding deities; moronic congratulations to birders for having travelled to see birds that others have found; words like 'BOOM!' and 'rares'; selfies (especially groups of middle-aged men trying to look like gunslingers when, in fact, they are birdwatchers); Facebook group dissing of posters because they are 'beginners'; tweeting out the presence of a bird even though that news has been broadcast a hundred times already; trying to pass birds off as if you have found them yourself when you haven't; 'scoring', 'connecting' and 'nailing' birds when they have simply been 'observed'; posing for pictures with a moth, or other type of insect, on your nose.... I could go on.

Yes, I'm a miserable git who needs to lighten up, fair do's, but I do wonder at the vapidity of some people out there, pretending to be heroes as they approach natural history merely as a product to be consumed and then used as a prop to try and weave some sort of mythology around themselves. The upshot is that I have stopped looking at Facebook, culled those that I follow on Twitter and haven't posted on this blog for a while.

Normal service will be resumed after I've calmed down.

PS: I took myself off to see Bladerunner 2049 yesterday. As a big fan of the original I was desperate for it to be a worthy follow-up. It exceeded expectations, in the storyline, beautiful imagery, haunting soundtrack and the acting. Conclusion? It was better than the original.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Shetland, Day One

Arrived on What'ssay at 12.00 with the top crew - Big Dick, Pipit Shagger and Captain Wank. We immediately scored with a selfie that got 14 likes - top posting! Within an hour we had found our digs and had a top result with 25 Twitter messages of congratulations! Top liking all round. After checking our feeds we got changed into combat gear and staked out a phone box, where in 1982 Dick Trilby famously took the call that resulted in a major Little Egret twitch. No incoming calls to grill today, but our crew selfie taken in the phone box resulted in 12 likes - top posting!! It was turning into a rare day!!!

Mid afternoon saw a birder yelling at us that he had a PG Tips. Seeing that Captain Wank had just made us all a brew we ignored him, especially as the yelling birder was in an iris bed at the time. Never heard of a cafe in such a place. Moron... undetered we took a selfie, top gurning from the crew, but we only got two likes. Poor. It started to smell 'rare', but that could have just been Big Dick's socks.

We started to flag by late afternoon. We had been on our phones all afternoon and had liked over thirty posts - thirsty work! Pipit Shagger thought that he might have seen a back of camera shot of one of our selfies, and Big Dick tweeted that he had self-found a stone wall that looked promising. Tomorrow we might even get our binoculars and telescopes out!!!

Last year the crew scored with 67 likes, 34 retweets and 17 comments. Can we better it this year? What we really hope though is that the Scillies are really shit this week...

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Black box

The Box-tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) comes in two colour forms, 'light' and 'dark', with the former being much the commoner. One of the latter turned up in the garden MV this morning (above), until now all five of my records have been of the former (below).

This pest of box is starting to get a worrying toe-hold in parts of SW London and northern Surrey, with one observer recording it in three figure numbers! In a vain attempt to protect the population of wild Box that exists only a few miles from me, I killed the first one that I trapped - it's too late for that now I fear...

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

400 (no, not birds) and some chats

Chats... you just can't get enough of them, can you - at least I can't. I spent a good hour standing by a field edge at Canons Farm watching a party of 4 Stonechat and a Whinchat as they flitted and sallied around the hedgerows, fences and vegetation in the field. A couple of them came close enough for a few decent images to be obtained.

Back at home, the garden MV came up trumps with a Delicate, a migrant moth that has been turning up on the south coast in good numbers. It also happens to be the 400th species of macro that I've recorded here.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Green on a grey morning

The cloud was low this morning, the light suppressed and the whole vibe was one of birding under a heavy blanket of dirty cotton wool. An early visit to Canons Farm was worthwhile, with a Barn Owl, Spotted Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail (scarce here), two Whinchats and four Stonechats being most notable. Afterwards an underwhelming brief sortie around Priest Hill was rescued by a solitary Whinchat.

The garden MV was fairly lively, with Centre-barred Sallow, Orange Sallow and Large Ranunculus being typical of late September. I also trapped the greenest Red-green Carpet that I have ever seen (below).

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Autumnal moths

The contents of a moth trap by late September is a wonderful collection of autumnal colours - russets and chestnuts, browns and blacks, oranges and yellows - with subtlety taking over from the garishness of summer. A few moths from this morning included (clockwise from top left) Black Rustic, Autumnal Rustic, Beaded Chestnut and Lunar Underwing. Normally by now I would have recorded a good cross-section of the 'sallow' moths, but they have been strangely missing.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Hirundine swarm!

Arriving at Canons Farm at 07.15hrs, practically the first birds that I saw were a small group of Swallows heading south - my hope that yesterday's movement would continue looked good! I settled down at a vantage point that gave me far-reaching all-round views and waited. It was soon obvious that it was all systems go...

After half-an-hour 1200 Swallows and 70 House Martins had moved through, at a modest elevation and seemingly taking two well defined routes. It was then that House Martins came to the fore, as in the next 30 minutes they numbered a further 730 birds with Swallows mustering 600. The passage then abruptly stopped. I was more than happy with what I had seen, and took myself on a wander around the farm, with one eye on the sky in case the hirundines started up again, which they did at 11.00hrs. There then followed an incredible couple of hours. House Martins started to barrel in, in wide open flocks, up to 700 in 15 minutes then a massive pulse of 1800 in just 10 minutes that included a group of 400 birds.

Geoff Barter showed up, and I was delighted that he did, not only to share in this experience but also to confirm the crazy numbers on show. He timed it well. An enormous swarm had arrived. We stood transfixed as we were surrounded by 2000 birds, in all directions, like gnats on a summer's day. All seemed to be House Martins. They started to feed in a frenzy over nearby fields, then quickly moved off south, being replaced by others that had continued to arrive from the north. There were a few Swallows with them, and as the passage lessened they became more numerous once again. By 12.45 it had quietened down and had virtually stopped by 13.15hrs.

The final totals were a staggering 6710 House Martins (possibly a county record) and 4000 Swallows. This passage seems not to have been replicated elsewhere in the county, another reason why it was good to have Geoff as a witness. What a day.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Arrows of desire

They were arriving high above me, too high to be seen with the naked eye, and had I not been scanning with binoculars I would have missed them. They were spaced out and came in pulses, the largest group being 50 strong. A few of the birds dropped lower and resolved themselves to be mostly House Martins with a few Swallows as company. Being at elevation, standing on the mound that overlooks The Watercolours pits at Holmethorpe, I had a good 360 degree view. The hirundines continued to arrive and head off east, but they still mostly kept high. Had I not known they were up there they would have carried on with their remarkable journeys unobserved by human eye. A journey that many of them would be making for the first time, born of instinct and need. After only 45 minutes the procession dried up, leaving me wanting more, but my notebook told me that 700 House Martins and 300 Swallow had moved through.

I stepped out into the garden at 18.05hrs to have three Swallows zip inches over my head, slaloming between walls and trees, manoevering with an ease that defied any need of effort on their part. Above them were more, much lower than this morning, many within touching distance. Silently they sped through, arrows of desire, the pull of African savannahs too strong to ignore. They appeared out of nowhere, to the left of me, the right of me and above me. Surrounded by blue and peach, streamers and points, grace and power. I stood still and within ten minutes 250 (all of them Swallows) had moved on westward. Awesome is a word that is overused by birders, normally given to something because it is rare - but it is the correct word to describe such primal and raw migration.

Throughout the south-east hirundines have been recorded in good numbers, no more so than Sandwich Bay where 120,000 House Martins were logged. Given the choice between seeing the American Redstart or that spectacular movement, the hirundines would win every time. I was lucky enough to witness a movement of 90,000 at Dungeness some 28 Septembers ago. It lives long in my memory. In fact, I would go as far to claim that such movements are the purest expression of avian migration that we can count ourselves lucky enough to witness.

I just hope that it will continue tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

About to crack

There's only so much worthiness you can feel and servitude you can bestow towards a dry inland birding patch. Bloody-mindedness, obstinacy and a big dollop of wishful thinking are prerequisites to be able to maintain a regular presence, but, believe me, they can all come to a shuddering halt, and the way things are that might just happen soon.

A dawn start at Priest Hill in a murky calm smelt of birds, and on entering the reserve there were plenty of calling Robins and the odd 'cheeping' Chiffchaff, but three hours later that was about it - 35+ Robins and 10 Chiffchaffs. The autumn here so far has been a hard slog for little reward. An early lunch and a check on what was going on elsewhere (the best being Yellow-browed Warbler at Elephant and Castle and a Blyth's Reed Warbler at Sandwich Bay) set me up for an afternoon at Canons Farm. Better than this morning, but it was still hard work. As is often the way with this site, just as I was about to give up there was a pulse of birds overhead - a flock of 60 House Martin wheeling about with a Peregrine and eight Common Buzzards. A further hour's skywatching added little else of note. A couple of female Stonechats tried to seduce me as I left the farm, but there's no doubt that I need a booster injection of avian surprise. It isn't happening locally, so I may need to wander further afield...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fallen Jay

The autumn is really starting to feel like autumn now - chillier temperatures, the leaves starting to fall (particularly the Horse Chestnuts) and rapidly darkening evenings. Priest Hill this morning added to the season's hold, with the first large arrival/movement of Woodpigeons - at least 800 were present, including a single flock of 750. Although Meadow Pipits were not actively passing overhead, a flock of 60 had gathered on the meadows. Single Goldcrest, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were other highlights. One sad event was the demise of this Jay (above), found on the roadside adjacent to the reserve entrance. This species holds a special place in my birding world, which you can read about here if you so wish.

Friday, 15 September 2017

News on the Polish Med Gull

Last week I mentioned an adult Mediterranean Gull that I saw on Charmouth beach, sporting a red plastic ring (PER3). Through the excellent Colour Ring Birding website, I reported the details and received the following information from the Polish scheme behind the ringing of this particular bird:

Ringed on 13/05/2007 as a 3rd calendar year female, nesting at Polder Bukow, Krzyzanowice, Slaskie, POLAND, by Jakub Szymczak

So the bird was two years old when ringed, which makes it 12 years old. This colour ring reading can become addictive!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A question

Another morning spent at Priest Hill, leaning up against a gate and counting migrating Meadow Pipits. I didn't arrive until 09.45hrs and they were already dribbling over, but by 12.00hrs the trickle had dried up, resulting in a total of 186 S/SW. Just like two days ago, little else was moving with them. A question I find asking myself is why overhead passerine diurnal migration seems to stop (or run out of steam) by lunchtime. I've seen hirundines carry on well into the afternoon, but as for pipits, wagtails, buntings and finches (which normally make up the bulk of such movements) they seem to find afternoon movement not to their liking. Do they actually land and stop? Do they fly higher so that they are out of sight and sound?

Meadow Pipit one: "I'm getting a bit of wing-strain here, how long we been flying?
Meadow Pipit two: "Must be six hours by now"
Meadow Pipit one: "Well sod this for a lark, let's pitch down in that nice looking meadow"
Meadow Pipit two: "Er, we're pipits, not larks..."
Meadow Pipit three: "We could always fly a bit higher and glide to Spain!"

Questions, questions...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Simple pleasures

My first visit to Priest Hill in almost a fortnight. Grounded migrants were largely absent, but from just after 10.00hrs a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits started up, all heading S to SW. I stood rooted to the spot for almost two hours and ended up with a total of 122 - mostly small groups of one to three but including flocks of 19, 11 and 10. I can honestly say it was some of the purest, most enjoyable birding that I've had this year. To watch actively migrating birds is always a privilege and a pleasure. The fact that these modest looking birds are possibly on their way to the Iberian peninsula adds so much to the experience. Not much else was moving with them, with no wagtails and very few hirundines, but that didn't matter.

Monday, 11 September 2017

A Pole in Dorset and a moan

Just back from a short break in Dorset, and although the optics and camera came along, they played second fiddle to everything else... highlights were up to three Mediterranean Gulls on Charmouth beach, including this adult (above) sporting a red plastic ring (PER3) which suggests that it was ringed as part of a Polish study. Also seen were at least two Dippers (at Lyme Regis (below) and Charmouth).

There has been a bit on social media recently about some people's dislike of the shortening of bird's names into an attempt at creating a 'cool birding patois'. I couldn't agree more - you can stick your Spot Shank, Pink Stink, Grot Finch, Yank Start and Spot Flit up your...

People also still seem to be congratulating each other on having the ability to spend lots of money, drive hundreds of miles and look at other birder's finds; they still refer to seeing said bird as 'scoring', 'bagging' and 'nailing'; also continue to take selfies with insects (mainly moths) placed on their nose; you could say it's harmless and that I'm just a miserable old git, in which case you may have a point. It could also be argued that it's just not cool or clever and I could possibly point out that moths are not toys. Here endeth my holier than thou moan.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Seven go mad in Suffolk

Part 14 - August 1976 The sun had not just put his hat on, but also his sunglasses and slapped on plenty of ‘factor 20’ for good measure, as the ‘heat-wave’ that had started in June and rolled on through July was showing no signs of breaking up by August. Grass crisped to a caramel brown, rivers and ponds dried up, any exposed ground cracked and ice cream salesmen were running out of stock. It was against this backdrop that I arrived at a small campsite, hidden behind a garage, at Theberton in Suffolk. My companions were Mark and Neil Greenway, Paul Butler, Ian and Barry Reed and Tim Andrews. We had chosen the site due to its close proximity to the Suffolk coast, in particular the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Minsmere. We had been lured by scarce breeding birds such as Bittern, Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier, the latter species teetering on the edge of extinction in the UK. Once we had hurriedly pitched our tents we hot-footed it along country lanes to East Bridge and then took a dyke-side footpath down on to the beach at Minsmere. Our walk was enlivened by the reed-fringed ditches, small pools, damp fields and a distant horizon that promised birds, birds and more birds. The nearer we got to the reserve the noisier the unseen avian circus became. 

Our first afternoon was a resounding success. A pair of Marsh Harriers greeted us soon after we started to scan the skies over the reserve, both of them circling above the extensive reed beds. To be able to look onto the fabled ‘scrape’ – a man-made clearance constructed to entice breeding birds and passage waders – we needed to carry onto the beach and walk a short way north, to then enter the public hide. The beach was sandy, with a thin ribbon of dunes that were home to large concrete blocks, these having been part of the Second World War sea defences, now abandoned to break up and list alarmingly. From the hide we could see that the exposed mud of the ‘scrape’ was lively with feeding birds, including Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Greenshank and the emblematic Avocet. A Little Gull was also present. On our walk back along the dyke, a Bittern kindly got up and flew across the reed tops. This was quickly followed by several Bearded Tits, which announced themselves by ‘pinging’ away as they acrobatically climbed up nearby reed stems.

The light was fading by the time we returned to our tents. A motley collection of burners, Billy Cans and utensils were soon put into action, and a variety of modest meals were prepared. We were the only campers present – it was a simple campsite with few amenities, just a single toilet and sink, and a rubbish pit (some four feet deep and seven feet wide). We got into the habit of jumping across this refuse ditch as a dare, but Tim refused, which made the rest of us jump it all the more, egging him on to do so.

We were up early the next morning, eager to get back to the beach. On our way we stopped by the Public Hide where both Knot and Little Tern were newly in, before entering the inner-sanctum of the reserve from the beach. It felt to me like walking into a cathedral, with us the disciples about to pray before the birding altar that was Minsmere. We arrived at a large hut that acted as a reception area and shop, and a clearing that was used as a car park. After the formalities of checking in were done, we were free to roam the inner sanctum of this fabled reserve! In the closest scrub were the hoped for Red-backed Shrikes, two female types, a species that was still hanging on and breeding here. We headed off to the Island Mere hide first, mainly due to impatience in wanting to see the Spoonbills, which had been present for a few weeks. Five of them were on show, and in the time we spent with them they fed, preened but mostly slept. The Tree Hide and West Hide were our other bases on this day, and we got to meet an elderly volunteer whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to alert people to the presence of Marsh Harriers. He was an elderly man, smartly turned out and sporting a pencil-thin moustache – we were later told that his name was Mister Denny. He would be largely silent, but as soon as a harrier showed would leap into action, shouting out directions so that all in the hide could share his obsession – no other species got a mention.

Minsmere reserve was visited on a daily basis, but being young, fit and keen we roamed widely. Dunwich Heath, Walberswick and even the Blyth Estuary (that resulted in a 28 mile hike) were on our radar, differing habitats that helped to build up an impressive list of birds and create memories to last a lifetime: a Barn Owl flushed from a dead tree close to Westwood Lodge; a self-found Aquatic Warbler on the RSPB reserve edge that was subsequently accepted by the BBRC; an immature White-winged Black Tern that spent the afternoon feeding over the scrape, appreciated by many and entering my life list five minutes before a Black Tern did; both male and female Red-backed Shrikes enlivening any visit when we bothered to check on them; a Nightjar, silhouetted in the dusking sky, flying around and settling on the old windmill; our first Temminck’s Stint helpfully alongside a Little; my ambition bird, a Wryneck, feeding along the dune line at Minsmere, together with a Pied Flycatcher; a flock of 150 Turtle Doves that we pushed out of a Walberswick hedgerow as we walked alongside; and two Icterine Warblers that arrived at the Sluice bushes and introduced me to the phenomena of witnessing a ‘twitch’; the recording of 100 species of bird in just one day; and watching Barry dive headfirst into a ditch to rescue his notebook, emerging triumphant but covered in slime.

As we packed to go home, Tim stood up and ran at the rubbish pit, clearing it easily. Our cheers summed up our fortnight, with over 150 species recorded and on which not a drop of rain had fallen. But as much as these highlights would live long in the memory, just being out in the stunning Suffolk countryside, tramping across heathland and along hedgerows, threading through woodland and over beaches, scanning the wetlands and the reedbeds, all under a glorious, burnished sun. Each night we stared up into a star spattered sky and watched shooting stars while chattering away below, reliving the day and planning the next. Which species of wader would be on the scrape? What would be lurking in the Sluice bushes? Could it possibly get even better? The summer was winding down into autumn. The grass was browning, the harvest was being gathered in the surrounding fields. We were a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds who didn't have a care in the world. Life was good.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Whinchats (and a Pied Flycatcher) in the rain

An afternoon visit to Canons Farm was accompanied by a steady heavy drizzle. There seemed to have been a clear out of the migrants that have been on show over the past couple of days, but these had been replaced by a flock of five Whinchats, which popped up in the Reeds Rest Cottage barns area, and, even better, a vocal Pied Flycatcher that flitted around the Ash and Oak canopy in Lunch Wood. After just a minute the bird stopped calling, faded into the vegetation and was not seen again.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

And another...

It was a clear and chilly night here in Banstead, but the MV still went out and although this mornings catch was suppressed, it did include the fourth Scarce Bordered Straw of the 'autumn', following on from singles on August 21st, 23rd and 29th. Considering that these were the first in the garden since 2006, it's a crime that I'm starting to get a little bit complacent about them...

Friday, 1 September 2017

The magical fallen tree

Another brief foray to Canons Farm, mainly to visit a fallen tree in Owl Meadow that was acting as an ornithological magnet - my first scan with the binoculars revealed single Common Redstart, Whinchat (below) and Spotted Flycatcher (above) - good going for a dry inland site. There was a smattering of migrants nearby, including 3 Wheatear, 2 Willow Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat.

After several days of feeling under the weather I seem to have turned a corner - maybe, with my powers restored, that lurking rarity is about to be unearthed...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

After a few of days of feeling 'under the weather' I needed to get out for some fresh air, so took the easy option of parking the car at Canons Farmhouse so that I could walk along the lane to Lunch Wood and back. When getting as far as the wood, I turned to walk back only to be faced with a solid wall of black cloud - there was no option but to huddle under a beech tree and wait for twenty minutes while it poured with rain. Compensation came in the form of a double rainbow as the weather headed east (above).

Reeds Rest Cottages were the centre of the action, with a mobile flock of 130 Swallows that alternated between the overhead wires and Broad Field, all scattering when a patrolling Hobby cruised through. Two Wheatears were together on the recently trimmed hedgerow, close to the RRC barns (above), and a Peregrine was sat on one of the dead trees on Stoney Nob, looking quite cheesed off with life as the black clouds gathered (below). Warblers were thin on the ground, with just 2 Whitethroats and single Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. A tidy return for just over an hour's birding.

The moth trap did not go out last night, but the morning before saw the third Scarce Bordered Straw of the month recorded in the garden (below). They are appearing widely across the country and the way things are going I would expect to see more of them here before the autumn is over.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

New micro, quiet birding

The garden MV continues to get put out and switched on. Those moths whose flight times are more 'September' than 'July' are starting to show, and each night the composition of species recorded is subtly changing. It's "goodbye" to some for another year and "hello" to others. There are also plenty of migrants out there, so it is risky not lighting up, as you never know what you might miss if you don't! I continue to dabble with the micros, by no means critically examining each and every one, but looking at some which catch my eye, like the Scythropia crataegella (above), not just a new moth for the garden, but one I haven't seen before. Common as muck by the way.

Bird wise, quiet. My last two visits to Priest Hill have been almost pointless (barring the thought that at least I have proven that no fall or movement had taken place). This morning I revisited my old stomping ground at Canons Farm, where a Whinchat and Hobby were the star pupils. We're being promised a subtle wind change and rain for tomorrow, so let's hope Priest Hill gets showered with few more migrants. I live in hope.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Ringing in Summer

Part 13:  June-July 1976

Since my earliest visits to Beddington I had frequently met up with Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood, who were the sole surviving members of the farm’s ringing group, which had been formed during the 1950s. Under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the group collected data by trapping birds. This was done mainly through their capture in a fine meshed net, strung out between two secured poles. On calm days the net would be hard to see, and birds would fly into it, finding themselves cushioned in a pocket, quietly awaiting extraction by a ringer. Once in the hand, the bird would be identified, sexed and aged; a set of measurements would be taken, such as wing length and weight; and a light metal ring placed on a leg. On this ring would be embossed a unique serial number and an address to send details of the bird in case of recovery. This latter stage helped build up a clear idea of where birds moved to, how fast they could travel and their longevity. The commonest way of a bird being ‘re-found’ after having been released was by being caught by another ringer, or being discovered dead by a member of the public. After many years, and with hundreds - if not thousands - of recoveries, the BTO were able to build up a database that was used to identify the migration routes of birds, where they bred, wintered and fed. It was also an opportunity to critically examine the plumage of a bird whilst it was in the hand, so that the identification and ageing of each species was better understood. The whole process required sensitivity – apart from the obvious wish to treat the bird with the utmost care, any subsequent data would be useless unless the bird could carry on its life unfettered and unimpeded after release.

To take part required a period of training before a ringing licence would be granted – without it you were not permitted to participate. I had increasingly spent time with Mike and Ken, watching them process the birds and at times helping them by holding poles or bird bags. It was a privilege to see birds so close up and an education to examine the plumage to clearly be able to identify, sex and age an individual. My admittance to become a member of the ringing group was granted in June. I was licenced as a trainee under Ken, but both he and Mike helped me attain proficiency in the ways of bird ringing - from the correct erection of the nets, their care and upkeep, subsequent extraction and handling of the birds, gathering biometrics and awareness of what was going on around you, they started to teach me the art of this ornithological science.

There was one reference guide that was indispensible to the ringer, known simply by the surname of its author – ‘Svennson’s’. This softback book, based on years of examination of birds in the field and also from museum cases, laid bare the dark art of being able to read such subtleties as feather tracts, moult and wing emarginations to correctly identify and age what you were holding. It only covered the passerines, but that covered 95% of what we were trapping. On first opening a copy, I was bamboozled by the definitions (which were in turn shortened to code) and a plethora of line drawings of wings and tails. Slowly, this became understood.

We would invariably set up to four nets, which could be as long as 60 feet and as tall as four panels (each panel being approximately two feet deep). The siting of them could be dependent on having a backdrop of vegetation (to disguise the net), along a line of bushes that were acting as a corridor for moving birds, or be down to the presence of a feeding flock (such as Linnets and Goldfinches in a stand of seeding vegetation). In the latter scenario we would employ short, single panel nets that were most effective in trapping the birds.

Midsummer frequently meant trying to catch Swifts. For such a fast-flying (and generally high-flying) species, trying to trap them was not an easy task. It took cunning and guile, plus a bit of muggy or cloudy weather to bring the birds down low, when they would feed only inches above the ground. Because Beddington was one big insect attractant (rank vegetation, sewage settlement) it was also a virtual cafe for insectivorous birds. If the Swifts did come low, then there would hundreds, possibly thousands.

A free standing net however would not fool a Swift. You needed to be a bit smarter than that. So, the art of 'flicking' was devised. This meant that two of you held the poles (at either end of the net) horizontally, low against the ground, until a Swift flew towards you. Teamwork was needed at this point, as one of you would call out, and in unison the net would be brought up into a vertical plane. Hopefully the Swift would be intercepted in flight. This worked remarkably well, and some afternoons (it seemed to be an afternoon past-time) we could trap up to 50 individual Swifts.

There are two things that most birders do not know about Swifts. Firstly, they have very sharp claws. After a Swift ringing session your fingers would be covered in scratches. Secondly, most of them play host to flat-flies, quite large creatures that crawled over the Swifts body underneath the feathering. These quite unsavoury things would often jump off and onto the ringer and, being the size of a flattened baked bean, could cause panic. The ringing recovery rate of Swifts would have been low but for the efforts of ringing teams up and down the country flicking these scythe-winged beauties. I enjoyed these timeless afternoons, always on warm days, with the smell of rank vegetation, a subtle whiff of effluent and the torpor of the thick air cut through by the scream of Apus apus.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Friday falcon

An early afternoon visit to Priest Hill which could have been sponsored by Sleepeezee Beds it was so soporific. None the less, it did include a Peregrine (that was almost the first bird I clapped eyes on) and this Kestrel that, like most of the Kestrels at Priest Hill, just love posing for the camera.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Big Blue

When I first became interested in moths I got hold of both volumes of South - it was an ancient publication, but they were the best books then available. I looked through the colour plates and started to draw up a list of fantasy species - those that I wondered if I would ever be lucky enough to see? Two stood out in particular. Death's-head Hawk-moth and the absurdly named Clifden Nonpareil. Both big. Both stunning. And both seemingly unobtainable...

However, Dungeness was the place that happily provided me with both. In September 1990 I happened to be staying at the Bird Observatory when Sean Clancy trapped the later species in his (then) garden at Delhi Cottage. My first glimpse of that powder-blue underwing stripe sandwiched between black, with a pearly grey and white frill was a moment that I will never forget. The Victorian lepidopterists sought this 'Blue Underwing' out with a fervour, and it was considered the ultimate prize. Although it has, from time to time colonised parts of Kent, Sussex and Norfolk , it is also migratory, so it has a habit of popping up in places unexpectedly.

This morning, underneath the last egg box in the MV, I found my second. Apart from having lost some scales on the thorax, it was a perfect specimen. Although I knew what it was immediately, I still wanted to see the shock of blue to make sure that I wasn't fooling myself. This evening, before release, I was able to share it with local naturalists Nick and Russell Gardener and Peter Alfrey. It put on a good show before flying off high, bat-like, and landing in an Ash Tree.

I also trapped the second Scarce Bordered Straw of the week. It might be drab compared to the beast above, but this blog is an equal opportunities employer. I proudly give it air time below!

A lesson. I went to Rye Harbour with Katrina today, not really a birding trip, but I took my binoculars and camera. We entered the hide by the Ternery Pool, where a birder was busily firing off a number of shots through a long lens. "Anything interesting?" I cheerily asked. "Just that" he pointed. I looked and saw a female sawbill that dived almost immediately as I put my bins on it. "Oh, a Merganser, that's a funny date" I replied. "No, it's a Goosander, I've been watching it for ages, it's been performing well" my new friend with the lens informed me. For twenty minutes the bird did not reappear, then did so behind a distant island, preened briefly, before disappearing again. I rattled off a couple of shots with the compact camera in my brief (and unsatisfactory) few seconds of observation.  I had seen it so briefly (and poorly) that I assumed 'long lens' must be right. I thought it might be of interest, so tweeted it out as a Goosander. On returning home I checked my images critically  - they are clearly of a Merganser. I then found out that a Red-breasted Merganser has been present at Rye for some time. Doh!!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

More Willow Emerald Damselflies

Earlier today, Katrina and I met our good friends Gordon and Mieko Hay for a pub lunch at the Inn on the Pond, Nutfield Marsh. This is just a stone's throw from Holmethorpe SPs, and - it just so happened - Gordon and I had taken our optics along for the outing... cue post lunch walk, which took in a loop around Spynes Mere. The still, muggy air was most conducive to a bit of odonata action, with the most numerous species present being the 15-20 Willow Emerald Damselflies. They were happy to perch for the camera, but as a subject were difficult to capture well with the bridge camera. The best of my effort is above. If you want to see good quality images, take a look at what Marc Heath produces here  -  just shows you what skill, patience and top notch equipment can result in, three elements in which I sadly lack.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Hard going and a good moth

Since I last posted, Priest Hill has been given a good grilling on several occasions. It has been quite hard work, with few migrants either passing overhead or having been grounded. Needless to say, mid-to-late August is rarely totally useless, so a single Tree Pipit (20th) and two Wheatears (this morning) did their best to rescue the situation. This is a project worth pursuing - even though the site may be 99.9% dry and in reality just a large area of playing fields (mostly abandoned) - as it possesses little ornithological record. And just as I felt with Canons Farm, it appears to have plenty of potential. I make no excuses for the overload of Wheatear images that accompany this post. As Tony the Tiger used to say (ask your parents), "THEY'RE GREAT!!"

After a quiet mothing week (save for a fly-by Hummingbird Hawk-moth on 18th) this morning's MV haul was rather good. Star capture was a Scarce Bordered Straw (below, the garden's 7th and first since 2006), with a splendid back up cast comprising Jersey Tiger (6), Toadflax Brocade, Gypsy Moth, Tree-lichen Beauty (3), White-point (2),  Small Ranunculus, Oak Nycteoline and Sallow Kitten (bottom). Most of those species wouldn't have been on my radar 12 years ago...

I must admit to thinking that this might be a Poplar Kitten at first...