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...