Saturday, 30 December 2017

Father Time

Back in 1975 I purchased a medium sized hard-backed notebook, narrow feint of line and blue of colour. It became my 'book of lists'. One such list was my bird species total for each year. Across an open spread I drew columns, each a centimetre wide, and after allowing for a generous space in which to write the bird species name, there were 26 columns - the first being for that current year, 1975. I was 16 at the time, and all of those blank columns represented to me a vast period of time - they would take me up to the year 2000, which sounded back then like a construct of science fiction, and the year in which I would celebrate my 42nd birthday. It was so far away that it really didn't warrant any thought at all. They were just there.

The years slowly passed, and they then picked up speed as they do when you grow older. Life happened. I left college. I started a career. I got married. We had children. And shortly before those columns were due to be finally filled, I became seriously ill. And it came to pass that the final column, for the year 2000, was completed and I turned over the page to start drawing another set of 26 columns, but stopped. 26 columns.... they would represent 26 years. They would take me up to 2026 when, if I were still alive, I would see my 68th birthday. No, this didn't seem the right thing to be doing, so I put down my pen and ruler and shut the book. I was still ill (and it would be another four years of treatment before I could consider myself to be well again). Would I be tempting fate to draw those lines? Would my presumption be waving a red rag at fate?  Either way, those blank columns seemed to represent my life in a distilled and disturbing way. They never got drawn.

Now, that does seem a little bit bleak, doesn't it. But it's not meant to be. It's just that many of us natural historians are 'governed' by time and dates. We keep notes on earliest and latest dates, keep lists, compare years with other years. And, if we are honest with ourselves, with every passing year that we add to our data bank, it is one closer to when we will stop recording at all. That could be through Ill-health, incapacity or venturing off to that great big nature reserve in the sky.

So forget about time. Or the date. Dress appropriately for the weather and get out there and enjoy whatever might be on offer. One day at a time. And forget about drawing those blank columns.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Listing to one side

There will be a number of birding listers who are currently salivating with the expectation of New Years Day lifers. You see, they will be guaranteed British ticks on that date, regardless of whether they go out birding or not. Because it is then that the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) adopts the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) World bird list - and with that comes a handful of taxonomical splits that are not currently recognised here in Britain.

Isabelline (Lanius isabellinus) and Red-tailed Shrikes (L phoenicuruides) are to be considered separate species, as will Taiga Bean (Anser fablis) and Tundra Bean Goose (A rossicus). Fea's Petrel (Pterodroma feae) loses its umbilical chord to Desertas Petrel (P deserta) and Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri) is cut adrift from Iceland Gull (L glaucoides).

Want more? Well here you go then - Two-barred Warbler will no longer be lumped with Greenish; Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Stejneger's Stonechat will no longer be considered to be just sub-species dross; and the Rye Harbour Least Tern is finally tickable (much to the delight of a band of old timers).

There are reversals however. Our very own Lesser Redpoll no longer exists - it's just either Common or Arctic now. And if you rushed down to Pagham Harbour for that Hudsonian Whimbrel then you wasted your petrol money. Of course, the UK400 Club (the birding equivalent of the Tooting Popular Front) had already split most of this lot off years ago...

If you play the listing game then you need to abide by the rules (whatever set of rules you may adhere to - in some cases at least two sets!) Me? I'm a keeper of many lists, but I maintain them for my own entertainment and do not chase them. It's more relaxing that way. So I will gain a couple of species and lose one - if, indeed I decide to adopt the splits. I may even start my own UK300 club, where you can tick and split what you like, when you like. Any takers?

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


I used to be a serial joiner of natural history clubs and organisations plus a subscriber to natural history journals. At this time of year most of these memberships would lapse and need renewing - in those days a cheque would be written out and sent off to the membership secretary by post - these weren't quite the days before direct debits and standing orders but was certainly pre-internet.

If memory serves me correct, at its height I would be sorting out my subscriptions to: RSPB, BTO, National Trust, British Birds, Birding World, Surrey Bird Club, Kent Ornithological Society, Sussex Ornithological Society, London Natural History Society, British Wildlife, Fiends of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Botanical Society of the British Isles, Wildflower Society, Atropos, Surrey Wildlife Trust... that's what I can dredge up from the memory banks at the moment. That lot used to add up to a pretty penny in subscriptions, believe me. Over time my membership choices have waned, not through the need of financial management so much as the running out of space to store all of the paraphernalia that such memberships send to you.

I had shelves groaning under the weight of annual bird reports, journals and magazines. I took a long hard look at it all and decided that most of it could go. After all, the British Birds and Birding Worlds were largely ignored after their initial reading; the county bird reports were not complete; many of the newsletters and journals were of their time and had just curiosity value after a certain time. I had a big clear out. Certain publications were kept though - I still have every issue of Atropos, and a full run of London Bird Reports since 1974, plus every Dungeness Bird Report that has been published apart from the 1967 edition (and if you have a spare one of those, please let me know!) And now, almost everything else that comes through the letterbox is read and then disposed of.

I still support some of these clubs and societies, with the RSPB, National Trust, London Natural History Society, British Wildlife, Friends of Dungeness Bird Observatory, Wildflower Society and Atropos still getting my patronage. One or two I may welcome back into the fold.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Boxing Day Box Hill Hike

I was accompanied by our eldest daughter Rebecca on the eight-mile Box Hill Hike, a signposted route that takes in the peaks and troughs to be enjoyed in the Box Hill, Mickleham and Headley Heath area. Without pushing it, and minus the coffee and lunch stops, we completed it in a respectable three hours. Much of this was down to me not looking at everything, as I deliberately left my binoculars at home. Even so, 10 Common Buzzards, two Red Kites and a couple of Marsh Tits were recorded, but it was generally quiet. There were few serious walkers about, but hundreds of others in family groups, with tots wobbling along in Christmas jumpers, adults in Santa hats and dogs whose collars and coats were bedecked with tinsel. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood, no doubt enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, which was to be enjoyed with at least one eye on the weather - we are due a lengthy downpour this afternoon.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas Day birding

In the days before marriage and children, but after being a child myself, there was a brief window of life having few responsibilities - a time when I could please myself without guilt. During this time Christmas had largely lost its sparkle. I didn't particularly want to be at home, not because of any antagonism towards my parents and siblings, but because I wanted to be out birding. Those early birding years (1974 - 1978) this ornithological itch was scratched by spending the morning at Beddington Sewage Farm, ensuring that I was back home in time for the dinner! But in 1979 and 1981 I strayed further from home and actually stayed away from home, choosing Dungeness Bird Observatory as my destination. It had all I wanted at that particular time and on both occasions I was not alone, as other similar minded folk did the same - it wouldn't happen now I'd wager!

We cooked a communal turkey dinner, had plenty to drink (and made use of the nearby pub) and even exchanged simple gifts. Plus the birding was very good indeed. In 1979 I was fortunate to add Ring-necked Duck to the Dungeness list ( a Christmas Day drake on ARC) while in 1981 the cold weather threw up a right old mix of birds on the peninsula, with a flock of Woodlarks outside the observatory, Jack Snipes and Woodcocks on the flooded shingle, thousands of thrushes and hundreds of finches and larks strewn across the area that ordinarily would have exhibited a winter hush. It was some of the best birding that I have had at Dungeness.

Since then any Christmas Day birding has been a by-product of a pre or post dinner walk. The highlight might be a glimpsed Blackcap, a flock of winter thrushes, or several hundred parakeets as they noisily stream off to roost.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Sunflower heart feeders

The sunflower hearts are very popular in the garden at the moment - we have a regular flock of six-eight Goldfinches, a local gang of House Sparrows that are frequent snackers, a shy female Blackcap, Nuthatch, marauding Ring-necked Parakeets, a few Greenfinch plus the odd Robin and Dunnock that put on balancing acts at the feeders, as well as a host of Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons and Collared Doves (above) that hoover up the debris on the ground. Great Spotted Woodpecker has graced the scene just the once. I can spend hours watching the comings and goings. It is money well spent, not just for the help that it gives the birds throughout the winter but the sheer entertainment that the birds give in return.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Winter Solstice and apparent snow

Today, at 16.28hrs we will have reached the precise moment of mid-winter. Neither the time (or the date) is the same each year, but for 2017 that is the marker. Our ancestors used to mark this date with cheer and trepidation - the light was about to return, but the 'famine' months of deepest winter were about to get a grip. Cattle were slaughtered (for their meat and also to save on feed), drink was fermented and ready to sup, and the stones were aligned in the hope that the Gods would be kind. Today we just turn up the thermostat and ensure that we've got enough cranberry sauce in the cupboard...

White Christmases? Where did the wish for them and myth about them come from? I heard something about this on the radio the other day, which suggested that Dickens is to blame. Even back in the Victorian era they were sentimental for them, which just goes to show that it didn't always look like the North Pole here in December. This week will see my 60th Christmas Day (I know, I look at least 75...) and it got me thinking about how many 'White Christmases' I have enjoyed (no, not listening to Bing warble it out, that would be hundreds!). Having spent every one in southern England I needed to use the 'Met Office' definition of a 'White Christmas', that being a snow flake falling on the London Met Office roof during the 24 hours of Christmas Day. I guessed I had seen four. Then I Googled it. Apparently there have been nine! No, I can't remember them either...

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Who sends the visitors?

This blog is blessed with a good number of visitors per day - sometimes this can be boosted if a particular blog post has been mentioned elsewhere (Facebook, Twitter or even a link on Bird Forum) - but ordinarily a fair number of visitors will come here from a referring site, in other words another blog that has kindly linked North Downs and beyond to itself. I have a similar list of blogs to the right of this post, places that I like to spend time trawling through, full of words crafted by others that entertain and inform in equal measure - please visit them, you will not be disappointed. Some of those blogs do not link other blogs at all, which I never really understand. At a basic level you could call it mutual back-scratching but I prefer to think of it as attempting to spread the word about the wonders of the natural world and the joy it can bring... but I digress.

In the 'stats' area of this blog (that only I get to see) is a section that lets you know where your visitors come from. Most of these will be regulars who bookmark this blog or who search it out directly via a search engine. Others will be casual internet roamers who are directed here when they are looking for a particular subject. And then there are those who are prompted to visit while they are spending time on another blog, a blog that is linked to this one. Since ND&B started up again (in 2010) the following blogs have provided me with the most visitors. In order they are:

1. Wanstead Birder (Jono Lethbridge) 
2. Boulmer Birder (Stewart Sexton)
3. Peter Alfrey's Birding Notebook
4. Ploddingbirder (Martin Casemore)
5. Surrey Bird Club
6. Not Quite Scilly (Gavin Haig)

Thank you all! Your support is much appreciated. I can only hope that ND&B sends you back as many visitors in return. This blogging lark is a funny old thing. I've made many 'virtual friends' as a consequence, held conversations, argued, commiserated, laughed and almost shed a tear without having actually been within many miles of quite a few of them. I've met up with bloggers when I've been in their neck of the woods and have yet to meet one who wasn't thoroughly decent (whether that feeling has been reciprocated is not known!) Blogging is sometimes seen as 'old hat', lacking the immediacy of Twitter. To me it's still a fine platform on which to communicate. We all have our reasons for carrying on doing it. It's more personal, more thorough. A sound-bite is sometimes all that is needed, but the human being behind such declarations is missing. It's cathartic. It keeps the grey matter moving. It is a way of expressing yourself and trying to be creative with words. If you've not tried it before, do give it a go. We've all got something to say, we've all got observations to share. And if you do, let me know and I'll add your shiny new blog onto that list on the right hand side.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Flora Britannica in 2017

Frog Orchid, Pewsey Downs, Wiltshire, June
I recently said to a fellow naturalist that I hadn't really spent a lot of time looking at plants in 2017, but looking back through my notebooks I did have my moments! Admittedly I didn't wander far from Surrey, but when I did one or two special plants popped up, including my first ever observation of Hog's Fennel, a mass of the stuff on the Tankerton slopes (Kent) in August. Here are a few photographic highlights...

Marsh Cinquefoil, Dungeness, Kent, May
Sea Clover, Camber, East Sussex, June
Musk Orchid, Box Hill, Surrey, July
Broad-leaved Cudweed, Surrey, July

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Langley Vale in 2017

Common Poppy in profusion, Langley Bottom

Langley Bottom, Langley Vale, call it what you like - Walton Downs would do - the farmland that blankets much of this area has had a lot of coverage from me over the past few years. To recap: this farm was put up for sale and purchased by the Woodland Trust some three years ago. They plan to release the area into the public domain as a woodland reserve and intend to plant up a great deal of the open farmland, in so doing connecting existing copse and woodland together.

So far, so good you may think - after all, private farmland is going to become countryside for the public to access and enjoy. Yes and no. Langley Vale has been farmed sympathetically down the ages, with a tremendous arable flora present as a consequence. It is like a botanical time capsule. When the Woodland Trust released their plans there was a great deal of fuss created by the counties botanists - why plants common trees on top of rare flowers? Meetings were arranged, feelings and opinions were aired and common sense seems to have prevailed. Planting has taken place, but, as far as I am aware, none of the rare flowers have been compromised, and the WT have agreed to look after them by careful management - not planting up certain fields and catering for the needs of the plants within them.

2017 has been good here. Most of the notable species have had a successful year, with Red Hemp-nettle, Night-flowering Catchfly and Narrow-fruited Cornsalad appearing in good numbers; Catmint has spread; Ground-pine has been re-found; Jersey Cudweed has arrived. There was a fine show of the blue-coloured Scarlet Pimpernel. A host of sacrificial-crop aliens sprung up. It was a fine place to botanise!

Ground-pine: a welcome return
Jersey Cudweed: a county tick for me!
Night-flowering Catchfly: the first time that I've seen the flower fully open
Red Hemp-nettle: more plants this year.

Scarlet Pimpernel, blue flowered form. In good numbers.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Autumn birds 2017 - blink and you'll miss them!

Northern Wheatear, Priest Hill, August
What can I say about my birding autumn other than it was very hard work. The Priest Hill experiment carried on with almost daily visits between late July and the end of September, but then fizzled out owing to my enthusiasm being drained by the paucity of migrants - two fly over Little Egrets, two Tree Pipits, and single Wheatear and Whinchat were poor return for such effort. No Yellow Wagtails, few warblers, it really was a struggle. Mid-September saw me return to Canons Farm and be instantly rewarded with good numbers of chats, plus both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers. And then there was an unforgettable day in which 10,000 mixed hirundines streamed through - maybe the old place was trying to tell me something...

Spotted Flycatcher, Canons Farm, September
Whinchat, Canons Farm, September
I even partook in a most uncharacteristic ornithological act, that of twitching a bird at Beddington! There were mock faintings from the birders present when I wandered on site to take in the splendid adult Sabine's Gull, and much was made of the fact that the last time I visited was four years previously to twitch a Gannet. It was wonderful to not just see the bird, but the cast of characters that make up the regular birders who still diligently cover the sewage farm.

Adult Sabine's Gull, Beddington, August
And now we come to my late autumn stay at Dungeness Bird Observatory. In keeping with much of the eastern side of mainland Britain, it was poor. Few falls, few arrivals, few scarce birds, no rarities. Apart from a couple of days of heavy Goldfinch movement, not much was on the move. Highlights were thin on the ground but included single Hawfinch, Snow Bunting and Lapland Bunting. That's two poor autumn stays for me at DBO in succession.

But the autumn did have a saving grace - Hawfinches!! By mid-October it was fast becoming obvious that something strange was going on, with unusual numbers of these big-billed finches being recorded across the country, mostly in central and southern England with odd birds popping up on far-flung islands (including large numbers on the Isles of Scilly). Surrey was getting in on the act and I was able to find my own birds early on at Juniper Bottom, Banstead and Headley Heath. The latter site became a stop-over for many birders, as up to 35 birds could be found in the western most valleys, affording half-decent views to those who were patient. They are still present in mid-December. The Banstead birds were my highlight - I had spent a couple of mornings skywatching from the back garden in the hope that species would fly over, and on the third day they duly did so. A four hour session produced a flock of four and a single, all heading east and uttering the thin 'sip' call. It was entertaining to read all of the tweets, blogs and texts from the many birders who were able to take advantage of this invasion to add the species to their life list, patch list, county list - whatever list it may have been. For many it was the first time of being able to regularly observe Hawfinches, to study their behaviour and listen to their calls. I enjoyed walking out of the front door knowing that I would see them. Each birding year brings such unexpected highlights. When they happen you need to go out and experience them.

This has been my 44th year of birding. During that time my birdwatching focus has rarely stayed the same - a bit of twitching here, a bit of year-listing there, some UK wide wandering - but as each year passes I find myself far more interested in staying local. Part of it is not wanting to spend time sat in a car, but it is also a case of searching for that thrill to be had from finding your own birds on your doorstep. Admittedly they will rarely compare in number or notability with what I would find if I went down to the coast, but that largely misses the point.

What about 2018? As far as the birding goes, what ever comes along will come along. That's good enough for me.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The birds in Spring 2017

Common Redstart, Priest Hill, April
Well I did put a lot of effort in locally, honest! For a change and to 'bird off piste' I adopted an area of abandoned playing fields between Banstead and Ewell known as Priest Hill. It has recently been handed over to the Surrey Wildlife Trust to manage, although there is not an awful lot that can be done bird-wise, save fence off areas from the hordes of dog-walkers and their canine friends in an attempt to protect the handful of Skylarks that breed there.

Almost daily visits throughout the spring did produce a few passage migrants, most notably Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, Ring Ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler, several Common Redstarts, plenty of Wheatears and a very healthy population of Common Whitethroats were in song throughout mid-April and into the summer, with the odd Lesser Whitethroat for good measure.

I neglected Canons Farm, but did manage to bump into a Ring Ouzel on May Day.

Northern Wheatear, Priest Hill, May
Common Whitethroat, Canons Farm, May

My near annual late Spring fortnight at Dungeness coincided with a string of good birds, including a superb adult Rose-coloured Starling, two Black-winged Stilts, two Bee-eaters, a Serin, a Black Kite and a Honey-buzzard, plus plenty of other stuff to trawl through and point lenses at (some of which came out quite well for me and my bridge camera). When Dungeness decides to play ball, it is a glorious place to be (note to Dungeness - please pull your finger out for the autumn!)

Rose-coloured Starling, Dungeness, June (I'll let you guess which it is)
One of the two Black-winged Stilts at the Midrips, June
Two adult Mediterranean Gulls, Dungeness, May. You can never get enough of them...
Corn Bunting, Dungeness, June. A poser.
Reed Bunting, Dungeness, June. Another poser.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Uber plant challenge

I do like to have set aims at the start of each year - small projects if you like. They don't ever become all-consuming affairs, more like amusing side-shows. This year saw me adopt Priest Hill as a birding patch, which, at times, was rewarding. So what for 2018?

I first started to look at plants in earnest in 1998. I had dabbled before, mainly at Dungeness. The years that followed saw me get fully into all things botanical and culminated in far-flung trips to enjoy the best that Britain has to offer, from the mountain-tops of Scotland, to the Lizard peninsula coast, and the dry Breckland heaths. As much as I still regularly search for plants locally I have become lazy. My identification skills have lessened as I tend not to check difficult groups and have largely shied away from grasses, sedges and rushes. Well, that's where the 2018 project comes in.

My Uber patch (map above) will act as the defined area of my botanical year/challenge. I have broken this up into defined areas and will record the plant species recorded throughout the year in each one. This will make me critically examine groups several times over and restore my lost knowledge (and gain much more) - plus possibly add a few records to the Surrey Botanical Society data base. The checklists are primed, eye-lens cleaned, literature at the ready...

Friday, 8 December 2017

Moths - the best from elsewhere in 2017

Mothing away from the back garden was limited to my Dungeness excursions and one splendid day spent on the Wiltshire chalk downs. As much as 'lifers' are not the be-all-and-end-all of recording, they are undoubtably welcome, and all featured here (bar the Death's-head) were exactly that.

Death's-head Hawk-moth - Dungeness, Kent, May. Found resting on the wall of a beach dwelling
Purple Cloud - Dungeness, Kent, May. Trapped by Bob Arnfield at the Long Pits.
Cistus Forester - Pewsey Downs, Wiltshire, June. Quite a few on the wing
Red-headed Chestnut, Dungeness, Kent, October. In the same MV as a Cosmopolitan.
Spoladea recurvalis, Littlestone, Kent, October. A rather smart migrant pyralid.
Sword-grass, New Romney, Kent, October. The first Kent record since the 1960s

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Winter beech complete

My painting of the winter beech woodland is complete. It is getting on for A3 in size, so is quite large, and it needs a close viewing to capture the detail, which is partially lost in the image above. I'm now averaging about one painting a year - maybe I ought to try and up that output in 2018. Not only does creating artwork keep me usefully busy, it is also wonderfully restful. Go on, pick up a paintbrush and have a go!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The back garden moths of 2017

Yes, it's that time again, a look back at the natural history highlights of the past year - a Godsend to the frequent blogger who may just be running out of things to bore you all rigid with.

It has undoubtably been a good year for moths - at least for the back garden, which after 30 years of recording still manages to surprise and entertain. I continued to try and get to grips with the micros, with some success, including a couple of 'good for Surrey' species:

Phtheochroa sodaliana, feeds on Buckthorn, local on Surrey chalky soils
Blastobasis rebeli, an adventive species and the second Surrey record

New macro additions included these most welcome visitors:

Clifton Nonpareil, part of a nationwide surge in records
Scallop Shell, is there a more finely marked moth out there?
Scarlet Tiger - still very scarce in the county and a big surprise during a hot spell in mid-June
Yellow-legged Clearwing - along with Orange-tailed, enticed to a pheromone lure
Us inland recorders were also blessed with good numbers of scarce migrants, including a handful of Scarce Bordered Straw. I was also able to record my first Bordered Straw since 1996, a Hummingbird Hawk-moth and the garden's first Delicate (below). I was pleased to welcome back single Privet Hawk-moth and Garden Tiger, both absent for a number of years. The garden total now stands at 563 species (400 of which are macros).

Monday, 4 December 2017

Flying torpedo

With the continuing presence of Hawfinches, and there being no way of knowing when such numbers will grace us with such site fidelity again, I returned to Headley Heath for a spot of Coccothraustes worship. Again, no other birders were present, so I had the far valleys to myself. Arriving at 13.20hrs it was but twenty minutes before three flew in, and in the following two hours they were backed up by several other encounters, including a flock of four. The total of 12 suggests that the Headley birds are finally moving away. To sit in such glorious valleys and have these fat cigar / heavy torpedo shaped birds, triangular of wing and generous of wing bar, fly overhead and giving, at times, intimate views, are moments to remember. One bright male sat in a tree top for well over ten minutes, away from camera range but well within that of binoculars. He positively shone out in the afternoon gloom. It might be some time before we witness these numbers again...

Sunday, 3 December 2017

This the season to be grumpy

I'm not anti-Christmas. That is, I'm not anti-Christmas as in it being used as a public holiday and for family get-togethers. Having been a life-long atheist I do still feel a little uneasy about using a religious festival as an excuse to 'eat, drink and be merry' - I don't subscribe to the Dawkin's school of belittling believers. I respect one's right to adhere to a belief system of choice. How and when the marketing people turned the birth of Jesus into a reason to put on weight, get pissed and waste lots of money I'm not sure, but they've done a good job in brainwashing us to do so.

When our girls were little ones during the 1990s, we too fell into the consumer trap. We must have spent hours trying to hunt down the most wanted toys (this was pre-Internet) and joined in the obscene overspending on everything from gifts, food, drink, decorations, trees, crackers.... and making sure that we had those extra little things that you cannot do without at Christmas, which ironically still remained unopened and unused in the middle of January.

Back then I used to go out running (it was two stone ago) using the same 2-3 mile route around our hilly streets. In mid-December I would play a game with the girls - to guess the number of houses that would have their Christmas decorations up. We would all commit our estimates to paper and the closest would win a prize (50p... I have always been generous by nature...) This game would not start until mid-December because until then there would be few decorations on show. How times have changed.

Today is December 3rd. I have just walked around my old running route. Every third house is lit up like Santa's grotto. Banstead can be seen from space right tonight! And not only has the putting up of decorations moved forward by a fortnight (is this also down to global warming?) but the increase in the number and size of said decorations is dramatic. When I was a lad it was a big thing if somebody had a tree in their window - now houses are festooned in lights of many colours and flashing sequences. Vast inflatable Father Christmases, Reindeer and Snowmen wobble on lawns, and this year there seems to have been a run on giant candy walking sticks, plunged into lawns to light up the route of front garden paths, like a Willy Wonka wet dream. This year the earliest private dwelling to 'deck the halls' was November 24th. I have seen one as early as 20th. Not that I keep a note of such things...

We could start a whole discussion as to the morality of spending so much money - largely wasteful - when there is so much poverty around the world. Do we really need a dozen lighted candy sticks? But then I have to concede that 20 years ago I would probably have been in a queue to buy them along with everybody else. Needs must, even if we don't need and don't have to.

But now I just look around me and shake my head slowly and sorrowfully at the needless spending, brought on by our inability to turn away from the manipulative advertising of big business. Bah humbug!!

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Missing in action

The past two days have seen visits to Canons Farm and Priest Hill. Although neither habitats are 'birdy' by nature - they lack water for a start - the small number of birds seen at both sites was concerning. As seems to be the way of 21st century birding, the commonest species recorded were Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow and Herring Gull, but even these were in depressed numbers. The 'missing in action' list was long, with a lack of tits, finches and thrushes most alarming - there were representatives present from each family, but in worryingly low numbers. Where are they? Not here, that's for sure.

Away from the birding hot-spots our bird numbers are in free fall. Whereas sorting through and counting large finch flocks used to be a 'given', my pulse now quickens if I come across one, such is their perceived rarity. Any larks and pipits huddle together in modest clumps, not strewn across the hinterland so that you kick them up with every few steps. A walk along a hedgerow no longer pushes tens of thrushes ahead - that joyous sight when Blackbirds, Redwings, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares leave their hiding places in a rush of avian expletives - instead there might be an encounter with a small gathering in a field, or a handful on top of a tree. Hardly the same.

The birders reliance on cold weather at this time of year to get things moving used to be so that we could top up on geese, ducks and gorge on large numbers of Lapwings and thrushes. Now it is in the hope that we might just see birds in the same numbers that mild winters used to bring twenty years ago. I truly fear for the future.

I'm glad that I keep my notebooks and the old bird reports so that I can go back and relive the comparatively bird-filled 1970s and 1980s. I have one childish wish - to be able to travel back to a time when our farming methods were sympathetic to wildlife and we were not pollutants of our environment - say the pre-Industrial Revolution era. What bird numbers would I find? We will never know, because birds were not counted then, and very few people identified them beyond their use as food. My guess is that I would be stunned by just how many there would be and the number of species involved. But if I had been able to witness that, just how difficult would it be to return, and bird, in 2017? Very difficult indeed.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Winter beech woodland

My latest painting is well underway, a graphic interpretation of a beech woodland floor in the depths of winter. I've yet to tackle the trees and sky with any real conviction, but the floor is coming along nicely. I'll post an image of the finished article on completion.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Misidentified water

With a few Parrot Crossbills turning up in the country (including a flock just outside of Surrey), I thought it worthwhile searching my nearest sizeable coniferous woodland. When I say nearest I really mean the most obvious and convenient - Reigate Heath. The pines start at the car park and pepper the  surrounding heathland, which is largely golf course. A couple of hours worth of wandering did not provide the hoped for 'chups' come calling from the tree tops. In fact the area was deathly quiet, save for the odd Redwing and Wren.

There was an amusing interlude. I carried on walking south-west beyond the heath where a collection of small streams meander through the sandy soil. Through a stand of trees I spied water - a lot of it! Where on earth was this? My mind went into overdrive, hopes were high that this was a newly created wetland that would repay watching. Surely such a large waterbody would not have eluded a birder's detection! I phoned local birder Gordon Hay, as if there was anybody who would know anything about it, he would. I described where I was and he too was non-plussed as to where this water was. Access seemed a problem though. I could see the water in the distance, but thick copse and, typical of outer-Surrey, fences, were blocking my path. Undetered I skirted wide around these obstacles, coming at the water from the opposite side. I found a pleasant country lane that started to run parallel to the water, hidden from my view by a sandy bank (and accompanying fence). And then everything started to look familiar. That sandy bank... that cottage... oh yes, I'd been here before. It was Buckland Sandpits, where I'd seen an Eider several years before. I had only ever approached it from a totally different direction and did not realise that I was so close to it at the edge of Reigate Heath - my inner compass was way out. I sheepishly phoned Gordon back, who in the interim had come to the conclusion that my water body may well have been Buckland. What chance of my identifying a Parrot Crossbill when I couldn't name a large water body?

So, no crossbills and no new birding hot spot. There was only one thing for it. Time for lunch.

Monday, 27 November 2017


It has become one of my favourite images of the year. A tight gaggle of birders on the causeway of Staines Reservoir, hoping to see the Horned Lark. It is a grey day. Few of them are looking through their optics. Most of them are of advancing years. They appear morose to a man (they are all men). They are hemmed in by two high fences. They look caged. My first thought was to poke fun at the scene. But then I thought better of it...

As I have been actively birdwatching since 1974 it has been my pleasure to meet and befriend many people, some of whom I have known for almost all of the intervening 43 years. They have mostly stuck at it, birding through the years in a variety of ways - working patches, twitching, birding the world, ringing, taking part in census work, sea watching - the variation of studies are almost as numerous as the people who have carried them out. All of these hundreds of people: the creators of notebooks, the originators of observations, the discoverers of rarities and the pioneers of patches. Each one of them authors of their own little histories, some of these histories more well-known than others but all equally worthy of celebration.

We may all start with nothing greater than a curiosity about birds, but the deeper that this curiosity goes the more we become involved in the many facets of ornithological study. There is no such thing as a meaningless observation, or a poor day in the field. With each look through a lens we gain experience and knowledge. And all of this - these many hours spent birding - when combined with those of others, form a mountain of priceless information. Information that is used to understand migration, identification, habitat requirement and behaviour. On such foundations can we begin to help protect species from the remorseless march of man's activities.

Not everyone will make their data available. But as much as that might deprive the public record of more useful information, there is no obligation to do so. It is enough that a person should grow spiritually through watching birds, maybe pass on their interest to others and possibly support ornithological causes. We are all part of the ornithological family, whether we just feed the birds in the garden, jump on a plane for the latest far-flung rarity or study the birds of a small defined area. We can concentrate on just one species or try and see every last one of them. There really is little difference. We are all watchers of birds.

Our reasons for being birdwatchers, or birders, or twitchers, or ringers, or ornithologists differ. But whatever they are, we are all part of the same family. We might not totally get why some of us have taken a differing path, but we should all accept that we have done so and celebrate our shared wonder of the natural world. Those Staines 'prisoners' may have looked miserable, but a frozen moment in time can be misleading. A couple of seconds later they could all have been laughing. The angle of the camera or a change of lens could have opened up the space around them. Perception changes. It can turn a scene of 'misery' into one of 'joy'. No doubt most, if not all of them, left the reservoir with a warm feeling of having caught up with the lark. Job done. More histories written. More lives to celebrate in the fullness of time.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Paper. Pens. Remember them?

My latter-day natural history notes and lists are largely objects that don't largely physically exist beyond being pixels on a screen that disappear as soon as a computer is switched off. As much as the information on which they are built has been compiled by my physical and, at times, emotional endeavour, they lack a character - it is but cold data. However, that same 'information' that has, in the past, been written by my fair hand onto paper.... well, this is something that has spirit, it is a combination of personal touch and a gift from the natural world via a tree. I can hold it, smell it, fold it (but maybe not a hard-backed notebook!). It can also be browsed through, organic reminders of what I've seen, where I've been and what I thought. The computer screen does not allow such emotions to come so easily flooding back on a personal level. My old notebooks are great reminders of who I was at the time, from the state of my handwriting to the use of phrase - I do tend to be more descriptive with pen in the hand, And some of you out there regularly embellish these three-dimensional celebrations with line drawings, illustrations and artistic flourishes - they become things of beauty.

Where is this all going? Well, next year I am keen to immerse myself more fully into the wild flowers of my ├╝ber patch, and largely down to my semi-imposed computer break will record the whole adventure on paper, long-hand, a written account that will be as much a celebration of the ability to write and paint as it will be of the botanical wonders that I see along the way. We may well have replaced our broken computer by the start of 2018, but I will still carry on with this project via the medium of ink, paint and paper regardless. There will be times when the keyboard will be put to use, no more so than when I am boring you with tales of tracking down the rarities, counting the orchids or being overwhelmed by a mass flowering of the common place. And there will still be photographs to share. It is a great opportunity to learn (and relearn) the identification of the many plant species that I am lucky enough to have within a 10-mile radius of home. And next year this will include the rushes, sedges and grasses. I'm already excited by such a simple undertaking.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Of computers and Lapwings

We still haven't replaced our computer. The truth is, we are not really missing it. Phones and tablets do most of the donkey-work and the only times that I could do with the computer is when I wish to manipulate images or write a chunk of copy - these are doable on the smaller platforms but not as easy to do so. There is also the question of storing files - I know that stuff can be stored in the 'cloud' but I still like to see files on a desktop that I can move around and store in places of my choice.

One side-effect of all this is that my blogging has lessened in frequency (some of you might think that's a good thing!) I'm sure that we will get our act together and buy one soon. I can then bore you with pictures of moss, moths, dead leaves, fungi and maybe a Hawfinch or two...

Speaking of Big Bills, I had one flying over Canons Farm at 08.00hrs this morning, heading south. This was followed by a Lapwing that flew out of Horse Pasture before drifting off west. Lapwing is a good bird for here. It was only 12 years ago that the site held a wintering flock of 70+ birds. Little did I know then that such a sight was destined to be nothing but a faded memory on the farm.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Cat-like owl

It looked like a big fat Tom cat, small ears pricked up on a broad face, dazzling eyes lazering in on anyone and anything. Its head was just proud of the severely cut field crop, swivelling from side to side, at times rotating full circle to ensure that nothing was about to disturb its roost site.

This Short-eared Owl had been picked up by David Campbell in one of Canons Farm's larger fields. His diligent scanning had detected a large clod of earth that surprisingly moved and through a scope revealed itself as the owl. He kindly sent a text message out to the Canons Farm faithful, which saw me change direction from Epsom Downs and up onto the high farmland. I didn't expect it to still be there when I rolled up some twenty minutes later, but it was, and stayed hunkered down and unmolested by the local corvids for the two hours that I was present.

A small gathering of local birders in the warm sunshine made for a most enjoyable morning - plenty of chatter, a few birds passing overhead and, maybe a hundred meters away, the cat-like owl that we had all come to pay our respects to.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A lack of Marsh Tits

This morning I spent at least three hours roaming the woodland that is draped across Gatton Park, Reigate Hill and Colley Hill. It was exceedingly quiet, save for a flock of 75 Redwings. There were times when I could stand still and fail to see or hear a single bird. Most worrying was the lack of Marsh Tits. It is close on five years since I have recorded one in this general area. Come to think of it, my last few visits to nearby Walton Heath has failed to turn up this tit either. Maybe its local range is contracting - seemingly lost from Banstead Woods, possibly going that way in the Reigate area, hard to come by at Walton Heath... but it's not all doom and gloom. The small populations in Great Hurst and Little Hurst Wood are hanging on (albeit becoming quite isolated) and it remains quite common at Headley Heath, Mickleham and Box Hill.

I have to remind myself that when I first started birding in these places back in the mid 1970s, Willow Tits were quite easy to come by. It would be quite upsetting if the Marsh Tit went the same way.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Field work

Yet another visit was made to Headley Heath yesterday afternoon. I have been checking elsewhere for 'you know what' but have so far come up with blanks - Juniper Top, Juniper Bottom, Box Hill, Mickleham Downs and Norbury Park, but in the process have been able to reacquaint myself with some beautiful parts of northern Surrey. Whereas there might not have been any H*******, there were plenty of Marsh Tits, Bullfinches and Redwings, so it was time ornithologically well spent.

Back to yesterday afternoon. The 'big bills' we're still present, but not as numerous as they have been. 15 was my estimate, with a largest flock of five. No birders seen, funny how the lure of such events does quickly wear off, but that's fine by me, as I wandered the quiet valleys and had a couple of close encounters, both dull females. I also flushed a Woodcock. As the light started to fade I couldn't help wonder how much longer these testosterone-fuelled finches will remain, whether they will fade away in the coming month or decide to hang around for the winter. Whatever happens, it's been a tremendous influx to observe.

Friday, 10 November 2017

No show beech

The 'no big computer' trial period has claimed its first blog post no-show. Yesterday was spent walking through some of the finest beech woodland along 'my' part of the North Downs. The forest floor was carpeted with a virtually unbroken run of rich orange leaves, the sparseness of the under storey giving far reaching views, with a soft light being allowed in through the diminishing canopy. I managed to obtain some half decent photographs and started to compose a piece on the true wildness of such places - the slope of this part of the downs has never been cleared and farmed, so has most probably been clothed in beech, yew, box, ash and holly since the Ice-age. But... I do not have an SD card adapter for an iPad, and without the images such a post would be sadly lacking (although I seem to have done half a job above).

A replacement computer cannot be far away, and with Black Friday happening in under two weeks time, it might be financially prudent to wait. By the way, Black Friday, like Halloween, is another unwelcome piece of American consumerism that I could do without. But then again here am I about to partake in its greed. Go figure.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Trial period

Our big 'grown up' computer has finally died - it was one of those shiny silver Apple towers that was state-of-the-art when it came out in 2008. The fact that it has lasted NINE years is testament to its robustness. But now that the dreaded time has come we find ourselves looking at the corner of the room where the tower and monitor used to be and not being in any hurry to get a replacement. The reason being is that we can do just about everything on our iPad and iPhone (apologies to any anti-Mac or PC officianados out there).

Sending and receiving Emails, browsing the Internet, and being able to send items to print are all catered for. I have not got access to any of my creative software packages (Photoshop, InDesign) but haven't had the need to yet. I can download images from an SD card onto an iPad and do some rudimentary photo manipulation if I want. So, apart from a bigger screen, do we really need another big computer?

We are living a trial period at the moment to see how we get on without one. If we do decide we need a replacement then we will plump for an i-Mac and not a laptop, and we will then need to wrestle with the choice of monitor size and type of hard drive. I'm not 100% sure how all of this will go, but wouldn't mind betting that any lengthy copy writing will be a pain without a keyboard (yes I know the i-Pad Pros have one as an option) and I may start to wish for a big screen to properly edit my images on. The fact that this post is sans a picture is highly relevant...

There is a big part of me that would be happy to never switch on a computer/tablet/phone again - rediscover the joys of talking to people face to face, of writing letters, sitting down and researching stuff in a library, not knowing the football scores until the classified check on the radio, walking around all day without knowing the answer to a question, having to find a call box (and a fistful of change) when out.... no, maybe not....

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Moths in winter

I used to pack away the MV for the winter after giving it a good clean and checking that my supply of bulbs and egg boxes were topped up in readiness for the spring. But now, the moth trapping season never closes, migrants from the south can turn up in the depths of December and you need to have your wits about you (or belong to the excellent Migrant Lepidoptera Facebook group that will give you prompts) so as not to miss these winter windows of migration opportunity.

But it's not all about migrants - there are some hardy species that turn up on milder winter nights, and now, in late autumn, there are still Feathered Thorns, Blair's Shoulder-knots, Mottled Umbers and Green-brindled Crescents (above) to keep you going. I might not bother too much until next February, unless we get a plume of southern Mediterranean air come our way - my Banstead mid-winter fare does tend to be largely comprised of Light Brown Apple Moths and Chestnuts, neither species of which gets the pulse racing.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Birder on non-birder action

This afternoon I took myself off to Juniper Bottom, looking for H*********. I positioned myself on a cleared slope above the footpath, which gave a fine view across to the far canopy. Sound travels along this valley with ease - you can hear a Goldcrest sneeze at several hundred yards. I could certainly hear the three young hikers who were noisily making their way towards me. As they got closer they started to look at me, obviously unsure as to why I would possibly sitting on a log staring at trees. Then, as they drew level, one of them lowered his voice and said "Must be a bird watcher. Fucking weirdo".

It reminded me of a couple of birder/non-birder encounters that I have had over the years. The first took place at 03.30hrs one May morning when I was taking part in a Holmethorpe Sand Pits 24-hour bird race. I had parked up in a lay-by to listen out for Tawny Owl when a police car drew up alongside.
"Morning sir, can we be of assistance?"
"No thank you, everything's OK"
"Can I ask why you are parked here?"
"Well, as funny as it might sound, I'm birdwatching"
(Officer looks up into pitch black sky)
"Not going to be seeing much at the moment, are we now"
"I'm listening for owls"
(Officer turns to his colleague, shakes his head, looks back at me, shrugs)
"Each to their own sir, each to their own..."

My most memorable was when standing on Amberley Brooks one glorious winter afternoon, scope on tripod, scanning for the reported Short-eared and Barn Owls. A middle-aged couple came up to me and the woman asked:
"What are you waiting for?"
She physically started, her eyes widened, her mouth broke out into a beaming smile, her bottom lip was quivering. She looked at her husband with unbridled excitement, then back at me.
"ELVES! There are elves here??!!!"
When I explained that, no, I had said "Owls" and not "Elves" her expression crumpled into one of mass disappointment. I have rarely felt such a heel.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The H word


Some of you might be getting sick and tired of reading about them. Especially those of you who have been forlornly chasing them. But, as a man once said, "If you're tired of Hawfinches, you're tired of birding." Or something like that.

Anyhow, I went back to Headley Heath this afternoon for another dose of the 'H' word, where I was joined by Ian Jones and later by a handful of other birder's that included David Stubbs. Unlike yesterday, the birds were not lining up like good little girls and boys to be counted easily, and by the afternoon's end the final tally was a bit of a guess, with a minimum of 26 but possibly as many as 35. The largest flock was of seven. If you are after closer and more prolonged views, then it is best to  position yourself to the east of the two valleys I mentioned yesterday, looking westwards towards High Ashurst. Most of the action took place in the adjacent canopy, with small flocks zipping about and frequently alighting to keep the scopes in use. There was still a bit of valley hopping going on earlier, which Ian and I witnessed from 13.45 hrs, resulting in 18 birds seemingly leaving the immediate area. Our last sighting was at 16.05hrs.

Where else are they lurking? That's my birding project chosen for the rest of the year then...

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Headley Hawfinches

Yes, I know it's pants....
Seeing that there are so many Hawfinches zapping about all over the place, I thought that I would try and find some locally that were not just moving through, but using 'my' fair part of Surrey to feed and roost. The place of choice was the steep wooded valleys to be found on the western side of Headley Heath. This area has plenty of 'Hawfinch pedigree', where I have, in the past, seen this species shortly after dawn and considered it a possible roost site.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s I would regularly visit the Bedgebury Pinetum Hawfinch roost in Kent, and remembered that they often came in early, sometimes a good hour and a half before sunset. So, armed with a thermos flask and plenty of hope, I took up my position (at 12.30hrs) on a grassy hill between the two westernmost valleys, with good visibility up to the tree-line on the neighbouring hills. The first hour was slow, save for the odd flock of Redwings that swept on through. Then at 13.30hrs the first Hawfinch showed - calling in the canopy on the western flank. It sat there for 20 minutes before flying off southwards along the valley towards Box Hill. There then began a sustained arrival of birds from the east (where the open space of Headley Heath is found), many of which alighted in the distant tree tops on the eastern hill. They would spend between 5-10 minutes here before flying across the two valleys (and over my observation point) before melting into the canopy or flying up the valley south towards Box Hill. At no time did any bird cross back eastwards. My notebook reveals the number of observations and how many Hawfinches were involved: 1, 2, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 1 - a total of 32 birds. A small number did not cross the valleys but headed along the ridge northwards, towards Headley Warren. The last bird appeared at 15.40 hrs with the majority being seen between 14.00 - 14.45hrs. There was little calling, good flight views and distant perched views. There behaviour did not suggested overhead migration, but preparation for a more distant roost. Maybe the scenes experienced at Juniper Bottom in 2013 are going to be repeated.

It was a magical afternoon. There was scarcely a breeze, the air temperature was mild and these valleys are far enough away from the car parks to discourage all but the most earnest of walkers. If you want to have a look yourself, park in the NT car park opposite the cricket pitch and head SW until reaching the steep valleys (adjacent to High Ashurst on an OS map). Anywhere with a clear view across the valleys will do. You won't regret it. Oh, and take a scope...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Rare moths at Dungeness, sandwiched by the sun

Another beautiful Dungeness sunrise
Spoladea recurvalis - this rare pyralid came to a Greatstone MV on October 26th
Last moth out of the observatory moth trap on October 26th was this Red-headed Chestnut
The rarest of the lot, a Sword-grass, the first area record since the early 1960s (October 27th)
We started with the sun rising, so let's finish with it setting