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...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Hog's Fennel

When Katrina suggested that we should embark on a day trip to Whitstable, I was more than keen. Neither of us had visited before, but had heard it was full of good pubs, restaurants, cafes and shops, that it boasted old architecture and possessed a charming harbour and sea-front.... I was also aware that a rare umbelifer - Hog's Fennel - was present just to the east of the town at Tankerton. And part of our most pleasant of days was spent amongst it...

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Close encounters of a Kestrel kind

Another morning visit to Priest Hill and another couple of hours spent in the idle hope that (at least) a Yellow Wagtail would fly over calling, or a Whinchat deign to alight on a nearby fencepost - such is the life of the inland patch worker. Single Cormorant, Sand Martin and Lesser Whitethroat are what passed for highlights around these parts...

However, life isn't measured in rarities (or common passage migrants), which is just as well at the moment. This Kestrel tried to inject some interest into the proceedings by resolutely refusing to leave its chosen perch. Both of these pictures are un-cropped. These bridge cameras are rather good!

Monday, 14 August 2017

A Langley Vale morning

Night-flowering Catchfly - hanging on in a field ear-marked for tree planting
Catmint - just the one plant where many appeared three years ago
Cut-leaved Dead-nettle, widely distributed across the farm
Quinoa - remnant of game cover, alongside plenty of Millet
Another alien, one that I'm calling Common Amaranth

Dwarf Mallow, understated and one of my favourites

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Leeds United v Brazil style birding

To be able to walk to a patch, and expect the odd surprise throughout the year, is a real pleasure. My continued bashing of Priest Hill has carried on over the weekend, but little is being grounded and the weather seems stuck in this coolish westerly airflow - my hopes of Pied Flycatchers and Common Redstarts (not to mention Wrynecks and Red-backed Shrikes) have been put on hold. The sole modest jewel in the ornithological crown was a single Lesser Whitethroat this afternoon, and that just about sums up how poor it has been.

Quality may be missing, but as far as my 'friendly' competition with Thorncombe Street goes, quantity is not. I am starting to feel a little bit embarrassed by the number of gulls that are passing over Priest Hill at the moment, as they just do not seem to do so at Thorncombe - another 500+ today, and, quite a rarity for PH, many rested for a while on the playing fields. My chance to string winkle out a Yellow-legged Gull was not taken though. My only consolation to Ed is that whilst I head up the league table like some dirty Don Revie-era Leeds United*, he is playing the game in the manner of the 1970 Brazil World Cup winning team. It's just a shame that each of his Black-tailed Godwits and Whimbrels are worth no more than any of my Herring Gulls - maybe this is an area in need of restructuring for any future competitions.

* it is worth remembering that the Revie Leeds United teams could play very good football as well!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Just enough to keep things ticking over

Bunting Meadow, Priest Hill, looking north-east
A three hour visit to Priest Hill this morning was a largely quiet affair, with few grounded migrants and an even emptier sky, although a Hobby did zip through southwards and two Little Egrets made their way south-westwards - so not really that empty after all! The totals of Willow Warblers passing through are very poor indeed, and it seems as if Chiffchaffs are outnumbering them, something that I wouldn't expect to happen until later in the month - however, there is still time for them to show, although we are fast approaching mid-month. The garden MV is hardly bustling either, with just the odd Dark Sword-grass and Jersey Tiger to keep me awake while I work my way through the trap (not that it takes that long to do so).

Another migrant Dark Sword-grass

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Twitching in the rain

There I was, minding my own business, checking the empty bushes at Priest Hill, when a series of tweets came out of Beddington Sewage Farm, announcing the presence of an adult Sabine's Gull. I looked up into the drizzly sky, glanced around at the bird-less vegetation and decided to do something that I just haven't done since September 2012 - go on a mini twitch! Funnily enough, that was also to Beddington, on that occasion for a Gannet - and I hadn't been back since.

By the time I arrived at the sewage farm the heavens had opened, but the bad weather had maybe helped to keep the gull in place, as it was still on show on the South Lake. Poor 'record' shots were obtained with the bridge camera. It was just as pleasing to be able to meet up once again with many of the Beddington crew, some of whom I hadn't seen since that Gannet almost five years ago. I left quite pleased with myself, as reliving the twitching experience was, in fact, quite pleasurable. Have I woken up that moribund Surrey list of mine?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Here to stay?

A strange night for the Banstead MV - very few moths, even though the temperature didn't dip under 15C, but the meagre pickings did include three Jersey Tigers, two Dark-sword Grass (below) and another Gypsy Moth (above), my third of the summer. Prior to this year I had recorded just a single of this species, on 18th August 2012. It seems as if it has finally colonised the area, having already conquered the area to the north of here. I still await my first Oak Processionary however...

We have a few Lavender plants in the garden, which are always good for a bit of insect action, and I was more than pleased to spy this bug  -  Corizus hyoscyami  -  scuttling along the stems and investigating the flowerheads. A lifer!

Monday, 7 August 2017

Written off?

New nature writing. Nature narrative. Call it what you will, but the past few years has seen a massive increase in the publication of books that define this genre. I first started to take to it via the works of such writers as Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey. Then along came the likes of Mark Cocker and Tim Dee to add to the mix. I saw - I bought - I read. Anything by Marren, Jaimie, Goulson and, of course, Macfarlane. There are some wonderful books to be had from that team of authors...

But recently I have started to withdraw from that sort of book. It might just be overload, too much gorging on rich fare. But I think there's another reason behind my retreat - I believe that the publishers know that there's a few bob to be made from such natural history works and so they are keen to keep pumping them out, with quality control slipping in the process. In quite a few instances, the authors are not up to scratch or the subject matters tired. I've started to read (and put down uncompleted) too many books over the past year to warrant my total devotion to all things 'nature narrative'. There is also a worrying trend to 'big up' flowery prose again, which induces the gag reflex in me. I thought we had moved on from eulogising Skylark's song and nodding daffodils, or at least could come up with a new way of expressing our feelings towards them.

You could say to me, "Alright then, do better yourself", but I can't. But the publishers can. Before we suffocate in the millions of pages filling up the bookshelves of Waterstones (and the very few independent bookstore still open,) can they not just step up on the quality control, seek out the original and not kill off the geese that are laying the golden eggs? I would hate for the new Deakins and Mabeys to be lost amongst a raft of lesser writers, not read because their worthy prose has been drowned out by too many ordinary sentences and paragraphs clogging up the shelves.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

What took you so long?

It is at least 20 years since I have recorded Garden Tiger (above) in the back garden MV. So to find a single lurking there this morning was quite notable. The other main highlight(s) were the 2nd and 3rd garden records of Gypsy Moth (below), alas not a rare migrant here but a coloniser via accidental introduction.

Friday, 4 August 2017

No two the same

The Priest Hill v Thorncombe Street challenge is already throwing up some interesting 'compare and contrast' dynamics. Take gulls for instance. They are a numerous and regular feature of the skies above the greater Banstead area, almost throughout the year. At nearby Canons Farm, the day total for Herring Gulls hot-winging it between landfill and reservoir runs easily into the high hundreds (aside from the mid-summer months). I suspect that the Priest Hill day total will not reach these heights, but will still be a large component of the avian biomass (I recorded 170 today). Contrast this with Thorncombe Street, where Ed's grand total this morning was one single bird - he says that he doesn't get decent large gull numbers till mid-winter. Maybe my (relative) proximity to the London Reservoir roost sites and the feeding stations at landfill sites is the reason behind this difference. And I may need this gull advantage, as his patch seems to get much larger Woodpigeon and thrush numbers than we do up here.

We don't need to travel that far away from a patch to see big differences to the bird composition. Canons Farm, Epsom Downs, Walton Downs and Priest Hill are all within two-three miles of each other, yet there are species present at each that do not occur at the others. All are dry, high-elevation sites (for Surrey), blessed with open grassland, hedges, copses and big skies, but that is where the similarities end. And it is because of these differences that we go out, optics at the ready, to see just what is about. No two days are the same at one site, so how can they possibly be similar on two patches that are miles apart? Bring it on...

The spectacular image above is of the 'enemy' territory at Thorncombe Street. I assume that Ed took it, and hope that he doesn't mind me using it. Click on this link to read more about this fascinating area and the details behind his days out in the field.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Priest Hill v Thorncombe Street

Priest Hill - the eastern end of Bunting Field
There seems to be a bit of a renaissance in patch watching across the county of Surrey, with several birders (and sites) being added to the mix over the past couple of years, and the awakening of other patches that have been lying dormant. It all makes for a healthy, vibrant scene. Not all of these places are particularly birdy, with 'dry' sites increasingly being worked, these normally occurring on 'higher ground'. What they lack in water (and the attendant wildfowl and waders) they compensate for in many other ways. One site that is on a bit of a roll is Thorncombe Street, being heavily (and successfully) covered by Ed Stubbs. Click on the link to find out more. He has, so far in 2017, recorded two Cattle Egrets, a Common Rosefinch and sizeable flocks of Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel - plus a lot more besides. Putting the rest of us to shame, he is...

Ed and I are both fascinated by the migration that we witness over and across our patches. My time being spent at Priest Hill is still in its infancy, and I have no idea what normally occurs there. This Spring was encouraging in what did turn up, and I am hopeful for the coming autumn. We have both entered into a little challenge - to see who can record the most individual migrants. Only those birds passing over, or through, will count. It's a bit of fun, and one that will keep us incentivised during the quiet spells that are bound to occur. So a single Cattle Egret will be worth the same as a Meadow Pipit. I wouldn't mind betting that it will be a big Woodpigeon or Redwing day that will be the difference between who wins, and who loses. But we will both be winners - the next few months is bound to throw up plenty of surprises, and studying bird migration is one of life's pleasures.

There is a page (underneath blog title) dedicated to this challenge, showing a breakdown of the dates covered, plus the species and numbers involved.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Call myself a birder?

I thought I knew a bit about the birds in my immediate area - let's say within a three mile radius of home. There wouldn't be much that would get past me, at least as far as big obvious birds like Barn Owls were concerned. WRONG! I have just become aware that a pair of Barn Owls have successfully bred not 500m from my front door - not just this year but last year as well. My fraudulent claim to be some sort of 'local expert' has been shown up for the sham that it is. Let me give you a bit more detail...

Katrina was speaking to a couple of her friends two days ago. Both of their husbands have plots on a local allotment, and the conversation turned to the nature present at the site, specifically the owls that breed there. Knowing that I'd be interested, Katrina asked what species of owl was present. When she later told me that, apparently, they were Barn Owls, I was terribly dismissive. "Oh no, they won't be Barn Owls, they wouldn't breed on a small allotment surrounded by housing." To give you an idea of the allotment's position in relation to buildings, here's an aerial image with the allotment marked by the yellow spot.

They'd be Tawny Owls, I confidently claimed, or possibly Little Owls at a push. However, my wife's friends seemed adamant that they knew their owls, had seen them well and often sat and watched them, especially now that there were three young birds that sat in trees close to the nest box and called - a hissing - waiting for the parents to return with food. Hmmm... they hissed... sounded like Barn Owls, but surely not.

Last night we went and looked.

At 21.30hrs we arrived at the allotments in the company of Flip and Gill, settled down and waited. Within a minute an adult Barn Owl flew from the area where the nest box is situated and was lost from view. Within five minutes the hoarse hissing started, and carried on for most of the hour that we were present. At least three 'hissers' were involved. We had a number of fleeting glimpses of the birds moving between the trees, with another fly-by by an adult. I was stunned.

The choice of the allotments as a nest site baffles me. The closest open ground is a school playing field, next to the allotments, but the nearest sizeable open areas are 300-400m to the north-west. Any hunting forays necessitates a fair flight through or over fairly dense housing. The area is blessed with plenty of grass verges, sizeable gardens, trees and 'wild corners', so do the owls hunt along the streets and through the gardens as well as the larger, more typical habitats nearby? Obviously, I've not seen them doing so.

The natural world is full of surprises. We never know it all - at least I don't.

The nest box this morning.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

High summer butterflies

An 'up and down' wander along the open slopes of Denbigh's Hillside and White Down was the order of today. The sun couldn't decide whether to come out or stay in, and a persistent westerly wind didn't make for ideal conditions to watch butterflies in, but it remained warm and there was plenty to observe. The Denbigh's sward shimmered with the milky blue of at least 400 Chalkhill Blues (above), with a couple of pristine male Adonis and 80+ Common thrown in for good measure.

White Down was where the Silver-spotted Skipper action was taking place (above), at least 20 being found. They did not want to settle, and I was lead on a merry dance several times trying to follow them in flight, which I find difficult to do - they often seem to disappear into thin air!

There were Red Kites on view throughout my four hours on site, including a group of three that gave close views, including one bird that, obviously curious as to what I was, circled around me several times.

Word to be banned from birding part 56
The Grand Canyon is. The Milky Way is. Your Wilson's Petrel isn't...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Silver Lime

I'm feeling quite sorry for the hundreds of thousands of families currently on their British holidays. No doubt when they booked up their hotel/B&B/cottage/caravan/tent earlier in the year they imagined themselves splashing in the sea, eating ice cream and luxuriating under a blazing sun. The past couple of weeks have seen nothing but unsettled weather, punctuated by heavy rain and unseasonable strong westerly winds. Having had some of the holidays of my youth blighted by bad weather, I know how much it can affect what should be 'happy times', but there again, I do recall our flooded tent (at both Bude and the New Forest) with a certain amount of nostalgia...

My recent trips to Priest Hill have been a question of 'dodging the showers' and any passage migrants have been largely missing. Bird numbers are quite woeful, bar a roving flock of Starlings, that number between 150-250 strong. They spend much of their time feasting on blackberries (top) and wheeling around the sky in what can only be celebrations of being able to do so - they do keep me amused.

The tree above stands largely alone in what I have christened 'The Bunting Field'. I have walked past it, peered into it and sheltered under it, but have not been able to identify it. The other day I asked local botanist Peter Wakeham what it was, as he told me that it is quite unusual - it is a Silver Lime (Tilia tomentosa). I don't feel so bad about being unable to name it now.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Back to Priest Hill

The UK autumn may really have started several weeks ago (with failed or non-breeding adult waders moving through), but in ND&B land we have only just declared the season open! To be honest, once I start to see Harebells, Clustered Bellflowers and Common Toadflax flowering, and Copper Underwings and Flounced Rustics in the MV, then I know that the summer is starting to think about ushering in the autumn. In all reality, this seasonal thing is not straightforward, as they overlap, merge and share many aspects. Serves our right for trying to label and pigeon-hole everything.

Anyway, my sudden acceptance of all things 'autumn' has mainly been driven by my return to Priest Hill SWT Reserve. You may remember that I adopted it as a patch at the end of last autumn, and my time there has been gratefully rewarded, with such highlights as Cattle Egret, Woodcock, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, many Red Kites, Peregrine, a good passage of Wheatear, Stonechat and Common Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler and a wintering flock of Reed Bunting. I stopped regular observation there in mid-May, and started up again two days ago (25th) with three Willow Warblers being a good start. This morning was about a westerly passage of Swifts (150+), a handful of warblers (possibly all local breeders unlike the Willows), and a noisy feeding flock of 90 Goldfinches. A family party of Meadow Pipits were good to see, two of which are pictured above. A tidy start.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Long hot summer

Part 12 - April - July 1976

On returning to Beddington SF, the spring passage was well underway. On April 18th the scratchy, agitated song of a Sedge Warbler greeted me, along with a pair of displaying Redshank, vying for attention with several pairs of tumbling Lapwings – these birds dominated the soundtrack to my sewage farm days during this period. Two days later, both a Little Ringed Plover and a Corn Bunting were newly arrived. Three visits were made to Pagham Harbour, the lure of the coast and its avian promise too much to resist. Garganey, Spotted Redshank, Whimbrel, Greenshank and Common Redstart were all seen, but it was a single Little Tern that stole the show. Up to twenty were present, flying like clockwork toys along the beach, this being accentuated by their ‘cartoon-like’ chattering, but one tern in particular had taken a liking to a ditch parallel to the shoreline at Church Norton. It patrolled this thin ribbon of water as I sat on an earth bank, just feet away and level with the bird. A couple of times it stopped and hovered right in front of me before collapsing and dropping into the water. I needed no optics. It was the first time that I experienced one of those intimate and all-encompassing moments with a bird – we were both present within a bubble, where time and place were secondary considerations, and nothing else existed. I did not yet know that such moments were not only transitory but of rare occurrence. They could last a second or a minute. They would become precious gifts that no amount of longing would create.

I was starting to have the confidence to tackle and try and identify the more ‘difficult’ warblers, those plainer birds whose songs I was not yet familiar with. Mike Netherwood informed me about a Lesser Whitethroat by the rifle range at Beddington SF on May 9th. When I voiced my doubts as to whether or not I would know the species if I did indeed see it, he talked me through the species appearance and song. Within moments of entering the Lesser Whitethroat’s favoured area of scrub, the bird started to sing – a rattle just as Mike had described – and it was then in view allowing me to take in all of the salient identification features. I left the farm that morning a more confident birder. A Reed Warbler at Pagham Harbour on May 22nd and a Garden Warbler at Hartfield, in Sussex, on June 12th quickly followed, with my first sighting of a Wood Warbler sandwiched in between them - a bright bird that delivered its silvery cadence at Epsom Common on May 23rd. This was one warbler that hadn’t proved too bothersome to identify.

I returned to Hertfordshire once more to stay with Barry Reed. An evening visit to Broxbourne Woods provided us with Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and, as dusk fell, a singing Nightingale and a churring Nightjar. Our attention wasn’t all reserved for the birds however, as we found a number of glow-worms on the grassy banks. The following day, with Barry’s Mother behind the wheel of the car, we travelled to Breckland. At East Wretham Heath the reserve warden provided us with a conducted tour, full of Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipits, Redpolls and Garden Warblers, but it was a Sparrowhawk – still recovering from a slump in numbers due to pesticide poisoning – that stole the show. He also kindly told us of Red-backed Shrikes and Woodlarks at Santon Downham - we needed no other excuse to go and try our luck there - although we could find neither and had to be content with a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Our final stop, in heavy drizzle, was at Weeting Heath. I had been particularly looking forward to this part of our itinerary, as the reserve was the summer home for a number of pairs of Stone Curlew. This sizable, large-eyed, crepuscular wader had mesmerised me from the illustrations in my field guides. After drawing a blank from the first two hides that we had entered, reward came from the third, as a single bird was furtively making its way across the broken, open ground. A further two birds were seen, one of which was in flight and carrying food. A pleasant hour or two was spent watching them, along with the other birds using the field to feed and breed in, including Grey Partridge, Red-legged Partridge and Wheatear. A lone, bare and stunted tree was being utilised as a perch by two Hobbys, both launching brief hunting forays, to the accompaniment of Stone Curlews uttering their mournful calls. We left satiated. Weeting Heath had not disappointed. My last day with Barry was spent trawling his local sites. Easneye Woods, apart from Spotted Flycatchers, was memorable due to the grisly sight of a gamekeeper’s gallows, a dark place populated by the corpses of stoats, weasels, squirrels and corvids. Amwell was an altogether brighter experience, with a pair of Little Ringed Plover on show; Rye Meads provided Common Terns; and our final stop, Post Wood, was most generous with Wood Warbler, Marsh and Willow Tit.

As the month of June wore on, it became drier and hotter. Temperatures started to regularly creep into the nineties and there was talk of drought. July carried on in the same vein. As soon as Epsom Art College broke up for the summer holidays, I would head, as often as I could, to Beddington Sewage Farm. The temperatures were not the only thing at high levels, as the vegetation on the farm was luxuriant to say the least.

Back then, this vegetation was just all 'green stuff that got in the way' to me, but in later years I realised that it was mainly Hemlock, Goose-grass and Stinging Nettle. The smell, especially on a hot day, was pungent - a mixture of sewage effluent (not as bad as you might think) and rank vegetation. Hemlock, en masse, does have a distinctive, earthy whiff. Even though it was so hot, I would wear Wellington Boots on the farm. These served as protection against a multitude of evils: stinging nettle rash, insect bites, goose-grass seeds infestation, burdock burr attack and a soaking from either the damp vegetation (which was sopping wet in the morning) or the liquid and mud in the settling beds. Some of these beds were filled with water, and at this time of year were not what we birdwatchers sought. We would winkle out those beds that were drying out. Too dry and they were worse for birds than the very wet ones, but to get one that had wet mud, watery channels and even an island or two of vegetation, then bingo! There was a distinct possibility of waders!

Waders were a virtual ornithological currency at Beddington, sought after above all other bird families. From mid-July I had come to learn that the first Common and Green Sandpipers would start to appear, and by the month's end they would be joined by Greenshank, Ruff, Common Snipe and, if we were lucky a Wood Sandpiper. The individual numbers would also build, so that double-figure counts of some species (particularly Green and Common Sandpipers) could be made.

100 acre seemed to always have the best beds. You reached this area by jumping across a concrete culvert by a fallen willow (the border between the two being the evocatively named Cuckoo Lane). I would get so excited as I ducked under the willow and crossed onto 100 acre. A steep bank of no more than six foot in height was directly ahead - I would crawl up this, risking stings, to peer over the top onto what seemed to always be the best bed. What would be there? How many? If I had succeeded in my stealthy approach, there would be waders feeding without a care in the world. I would settle down and count, always aware that others could be lurking behind an island, or keeping still in vegetation. But to approach noisily, or to break the skyline would send a yelping flock into the air, to circle in protest before settling down on further beds - in which case I would have another chance to see them.

You could visit three times in a day, and the wader composition would have changed. As time went on, certain good beds would dry out and become less desirable to the waders, but these were replaced by some of the wetter beds that had started to form small islands. It was always annoying to turn up at a series of 'good' beds to find that they had been flooded with effluent and were thus virtually useless for our purposes.

As the month came to an end the wader passage strengthened further. There were still other birds apart from waders to look at, with many young birds about the farm, a few Yellow Wagtail families and a covey of Grey Partridges the most notable. Most characteristic of this particular summer were the number of Swifts that fed over the farm. Hundreds would be encountered, flying low across the settling beds and the banks, picking off the plague of insects that had been attracted by the effluent and rank vegetation. I would stand still and experience the exhilaration of these black shadows swoop past, masters of the air, missing me by inches. What did they see in me? Did I even register with them? When they were intent on feeding, it was a silent swarm, but at times, when the mood was elevated, and groups would chase each other, their screams piercing the muggy air.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Sunshine on a cloudy day

It has hardly got light here in Banstead today, a stygian gloom more reminiscent of mid-winter. But, after an almost full day spent decorating (well 'full' as far as I'm concerned), I hot-footed it up onto Langley Vale Farm for a spot of botanising. I chose to check the fields at the base of the slope close to Nohome Farm. It was all quite pleasant.

The Wild Carrot was wonderful, as the two images above show. This field has been chosen by the Woodland Trust as a 'wildflower' meadow, and what pops up here is a mixture of species that were here before and those courtesy of seeding. I'm sure the Wild Carrot is a mixture of both sources. Although cloudy, it was muggy, so a few butterflies were on the wing. Highlight - by a country mile - was a single Clouded Yellow (top image), my first this year.

I was also pleased to find a robust Round-leaved Fluellen (above and below), a brute of a plant, nothing like the weedy stems I usually find.

Last but not least, (and exhibiting its attraction to bees), was a stand of Blue Globe-thistle on Epsom Downs. I've known this species from here for almost 20 years. I always drop by to pay my respects.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Red, gold and green...

Last night Katrina and I joined a few thousand other souls up on Epsom Downs racecourse to (a) watch a few horse races and (b) attend a Culture Club concert (I don't like using the word 'gig' - we never called them that 'back in the day'). In fact, come to think of it, I don't like using the term 'back in the day'...

I must admit to two things. Firstly, I don't like horse racing. And secondly, I've never been a big fan of Culture Club. But when an opportunity comes along it seems churlish to turn it down just because you're not that keen on it! I could have stayed at home and cleaned the moth trap, or daydreamed about what rare birds I am going to miss this autumn, but no, Mrs ND&B has a soft spot for Boy George, so off we went.

We only caught the last couple of races. Neither of us bet, so we just both chose a horse from each race and stood to gain nothing but bragging rights if either of them won. My two horses were chosen on name alone and not by form, such a novice am I in all things equine. I lost 1-0.

At 21.10hrs the band came on stage, and they were excellent. For the next hour and a half we were treated to all of the hits plus a few cover versions. Boy George was in fine voice, the band played very well indeed. I was pleasantly surprised. We were raised above the stage and also the majority of the audience, looking out across the race course and onto Langley Vale Farm. Of course I bird watched while all of this was going on - it seemed the right thing to do being in the open air! I couldn't do better than a Swallow, that swept past the band mid-way through 'I'll Tumble for You". I did allow my gaze to linger on the fields over on the farm, particularly those rising up to the south, where I named to myself the rare arable plants to be found in each and every one. I don't think I said these out loud, but if I did my mumbling would have been thankfully lost in the music.

Maybe I could start a gig - sorry, concert - list.

They'll have to be outdoors though.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Big hoverflies

We were in the garden a couple of days ago when Katrina suddenly backed away from me (I cannot blame her) and exclaimed "I don't like the look of that!" She had just seen this...

I was able to immediately put her at rest by telling her that it didn't sting, although it was very big and looked like a hornet - it was, in fact a hoverfly - Volucella zonaria, a hornet mimic. They are magnificent insects and illustrate how varied the hoverflies are, with some in comparison being tiny wisps of things. I've recorded two other Volucella in the garden, both large, arresting and most probably responsible for many a sudden panic in back gardens up and down the country..

Volucella pellucens
Volucella inanis

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Both the Not Quite Scilly and Wanstead Birder blogs have touched on this subject recently, and I'm not one to pass over the opportunity to nick a good idea...

Phasing -  the lessening (or even dropping) of time spent bird watching. Most long-time birders have gone through spells of it. I certainly have. In fact, because of my other natural history interests, birding has sometimes taken a back seat for months on end. I don't quite accept that as phasing however, as I'm still out in the field, still looking at and identifying living things, but instead of birds they are plants, butterflies, moths or dragonflies. No, to phase is to completely close down. I've certainly lessened birding time in the past, but have I ever 'retired' from it? I'm not so sure.

Whenever I go on a long birding trip (a fortnight on Scilly, a month at Dungeness) I cannot bird at full throttle throughout. I slow down, I need a change, my mind demands it. That can mean just pottering around, drinking tea, chatting (not about birds!) and reading (not about birds!!). It is a version of recharging my batteries, pushing a reset button. I have found that if I bird, full-on, for several days, I start to get 'call blindness' - I lose the ability to pick out calls clearly. You would think the opposite would be true. I will, after hours (or days) in the field, start to lose focus and engage in bouts of day-dreaming. That's no way to nail a Blyth's Pipit.

I'll admit to not being a manic birder. I used to think I was, but no, that title is for others. I know a few. Some of them are out, for days on end, but for different reasons. To some, they just love birding so much that they can think of nothing more pleasurable to do. For others, it's a reason to not be at home. To some, they worry that their place in the birding world might be compromised if they are not seen to be putting the time in. For such a sedate and passive pastime there are layers of reason (and angst) to be identified.

I can lose interest. I will adopt patches, bird them avidly and then drop them just as quickly. Sometimes I'll return to them but others abandon for good. This is my way of staving off phasing. When I have pursued a project for too long I can get close to that 'point of no return' when complete abstinence is a distinct possibility.

I have been told that I think too much about the why's and wherefore's of all this birding lark. Maybe so, but it's what comes naturally to me.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Holmethorpe damselflies

It may only be eight miles from home (and they may have been there for a few years), but I had yet to pay my respects to the Holmethorpe colony of Willow Emerald Damselfly, a recent colonist of our shores. Too laid back? Not keen enough? Whatever the reason, my visit this morning coincided with warm and sunny weather. It took a good couple of hours to find one, and after a quick look at the ridge dewpond (see below), an early afternoon return found a further four individuals. None of them were anything other than flighty, with most taking themselves up into the top of the mature vegetation that flanks the perimeter path of Spynes Mere (above).

The dewpond (above) that I referred to is most probably too grand a term for this small water body, a depression on old landfill that holds seasonal water. It was alive with odonata this morning, including a minimum of 20+ Small Red-eyed Damselfly (below).