Saturday 30 January 2021

Thirty years ago this month... January 1991

I have decided to delve back into my journals from 30 years ago and create a monthly recap of my birding exploits when I had not long passed my driving test and my list was as holey as a Curly Wurly.

1st January

New Years Day saw Roy Woodward and I patrolling the Lee Valley where we picked up 79 species to get the year list going which included Smew and Goosanders on the pits, and Black-necked Grebes, a pair of Long-tailed Ducks and the wintering Grey Phalarope on the Reservoirs.  As a throw away comment I casually mention in my notes about Tree sparrows on Walthamstow Marsh! How times change.

Grey Phalarope on the KGV reservoir

2nd January

The following day saw the Woodwards, James H and myself up in the Brecks for a three Crossbill species morning between Lynford Arboretum and Mayday Farm. Females of Parrot and Two-Barred were seen well amongst over 70 Commons along with Hawfinches and six Tit species at both sites. Willow Tit was not a problem species back then and to be honest I expected all six species at almost any site we would visit up there.  There were of course still to be found in Essex at the time although the decline was well under way by that stage.


Chunky Finches

3rd January

It is quite amazing how many ‘times have changed’ species that I saw in the first three days of the year for on the 3rd we headed to Maulden Wood in Bedfordshire which was one of the few non-trespassing sites we knew of for the hyper-elusive Lady Amhurst’s Pheasants. I had dipped more times than I had collected over the years. As usual we split up to watch the rides so as to keep disturbance down but had a female and male drop down from the trees in the gloom of pre-dawn and scurry away so perhaps we would get lucky. When we met back up Roy and Ian had seen six between them and me none but as we ambled back to the car a magnificent male strutted across the path and into the trees trailing his magnificent pied tail.

Lady A - my best and last in the UK


5th January

The Long-eared Owls were still in winter residence at Dagenham Chase at the time but like so many things, roosts of this species in the south east are certainly not at old traditional sites and if they are to be found at all then they are generally kept off the birding radar in this age of the quest for the perfect picture. Two were present around the Slack that morning with a fine Siberian Chiffchaff peeping away not far away.

6th January

A failed attempt for a long staying Long-billed Dowitcher at Dungeness but there was some recompense with great views of the Short-toed Treecreeper that I first saw on the 17th November 1990 grovelling around on the ground under the Elders near the Long Pits and eight sparkly Firecrests

Short-toed Treecreeper notes from my 1st visit in November

Ruddy Duck, Smew, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Diver, both wild Swans, nine Scaup, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes made for a good circuit of the RSPB reserve. No Great White or Cattle Egrets back in those days – in fact no Little Egrets either!

Red-necked Grebe

The evening was spent on the Lampen Wall at Stodmarsh where Pete Gurr and I waited in the cold for the ancient Glossy Ibis to come into roost which it duly did.  I first saw this bird on the 6th July 1987 at Capel Fleet on Sheppey which is where it summered and then on many a winter’s evening at Stodmarsh up to December 1992. A single Marsh Harrier was notable and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were in the alders by the car park.

10th January

A male Serin was seen briefly at RSPB Rye Meads in the Lee Valley and just into the Essex sector if I remember correctly!

12th January

A full day out in Essex with Pete which started at Abberton Reservoir with a Grey Phalarope, seven Ruddy Ducks (they had yet to explode in the county), five Russian White-fronts and two Long-tailed Ducks before heading onto Mersea where we found a flock of 53 Lapland Buntings at the end of Shop Lane. They were flushed by a Sparrowhawk and many actually landed in the top of row of dead elms which got me interrogated by the County Recorder (sorry John M!) as to the veracity of our sighting! My notes casually mention that there were quite a few Twite present. Dreambird for either of these wintering species mowadays. The evening was spent staring out over Langenhoe Marsh where the Rough-legged Buzzard gave itself up.  There were no roosting Marsh Harriers here thirty years ago but we did see three Ringtail and a male Hen Harriers.

The next few days were spent local with Lesser Spots at several sites, the Chase Long-eared Owls again and at least ten Hawfinches performing in Duckwood, Harold Hill. They are long gone from here now and the flock of 250 Greenfinches on the forest floor with them is probably something many newer birders have never seen. There was also a fruitless dash to Sandy in Bedfordshire on the basis of a tenuous report of a Blue-winged Warbler in a housing estate resembling that frequented by the Golden Winged in ’89.

19th January

The first proper twitch of the year was to Dumfries and Galloway to Auchenreoch Loch with Brendan, Lawrence and Graham to try and see the drake Lesser Scaup.  I think that this may have only been a third for Britain at the time and needless to say it drew a crowd. My journal comments on the surprisingly short four and a half hours it took to get there from north London! 

The loch was frozen and all the ducks were crammed into an opening in the ice. Thankfully it was still present along with my first female Ring-necked Duck.  The rest of the day was spent ‘goosing’ about the countryside locating flocks of Pinkies, Greenland White-fronts, Greylags and thousands of Barnacles before dropping back to Haweswater in the Lakes for a failed attempt at Golden Eagle.  We stayed the night in Shropshire (at Lawrence’s Mums’ I think) before seeing Snow Bunting, Great Northern Diver and Red-crested Pochard around Oxfordshire on the way home the next day.

The Lesser Scaup was UK tick #366...


27th January:

The day started off in the Brecks where a huge Redpoll flock in the Kings Forest was spooked before we could scan it but we did see a male Goshawk and some Crossbills and Bramblings before moving up to the Norfolk coast.  Another Redpoll flock was our quarry at Wells Wood and the bulk of this group of over a hundred were Mealies with a few dark Lessers and the hoped for glowing Arctics with four of the latter seen. I wonder just how many Arctics were in that Mealy flock given the progression in identification of the Redpoll complex?


Arctic Redpoll - David Rimes

Friary Mill near Burnham Market was the next stop and the Black-bellied Dipper was seen plunge diving from a low wall by the mill. I have always liked seeing out of place Dippers and my first in Sopwell, Hertfordshire (1988 I think) was on a babbling stream with almost no cover where it ran through a field while another was on a delightful Chalk stream one April in the middle of Dover.

Black-bellied Dipper with just a hint of chestnut before the white

The rest of the day was spent at RSPB Titchwell where the Twite flock and three dapper Shore Larks showed well at the end of trail and all three Divers, five Long-tailed Ducks and five Slavonian Grebes were off shore..


But the visit will be best remembered for the huge black triangular fin of a Killer Whale that surfaced just behind a Great Northern Diver I was watching through my scope. Even now, thirty years on I can still see it coming up, that white eye patch gleaming and sinking below the rough sea once more followed by me shouting ‘ORCA!’ to the assembled birders. It never came up again and I had to wait until the Shetlands 25 years later before seeing another.   

The day was rounded up with 20,000 Pinkfeet circling overhead and a blizzard of 70 Snow Buntings over the cliff top at Hunstanton.


Friday 29 January 2021

Green Urban Birding - The Ranscombe Loop - again - 29th January 2021

Although I may have escaped for a couple of round the block type walks since the exertions on mountainous Monday, I had not been out properly and was determined to do so today. The sun was peeking through and a check of the forecast suggested that they might just be a light lunchtime shower so up the road I went taking note of the ‘Chewing Gum Lichen’ - Aspicilia contorta adorning the pavement for which I now have a name for following Bob V’s most excellent Wren Group Lichen Zoom meeting last night!

Aspicilia contorta and young Buck's-horn Plantain in the crack

I squidged my way into Ranscombe and up the hill into the trees. My intention was to head out the other side and into Cobham village before cutting back down to the south and then wiggling...

Brachythecium rutabulum

Brachythecium rutabulum

Cladonia coniocraea - Bob, please tell me I can see Squamules?!

Cladonia coniocraea

The weather had other plans and it soon started to rain. A few spots, I thought but no, it soon turned very heavy and I scuttled (to maintain maximum contact with the ground!) to the Mausoleum and then down the slope to the hollowed out Chestnut that you can walk through.


I stayed put for forty minutes as the heavens continued to offload their burden and by then I had a stream running through the tree and around my feet.  There was something strangely contemplative about standing inside the burnt out and scarred body of an ancient but still living tree especially with nothing but the sounds of thrumming rain on ground and leaf, the foraging of a surprising number of birds and the resonating bellowing of the Highland Cattle as they ambled past with steaming breath.

My view from each way inside the tree...


Two videos from my room with a view - volume up!

I stood there in my charcoal smelling makeshift hide and watched a large Tit flock roving through the Oak next door while Goldfinches twittered away in the canopy and a Great Spotted Woodpecker was chiselling away at a dead bough. Treecreepers crept up the trunk before flying back down to the base of the next tree and I could hear a Nuthatch somewhere beyond.

The inside of the tree was in itself captivating and my eye imagined that it looked like Elephant skin and then I saw the Elephant herself watching me with a curious eye and the sweep of her trunk. I asked the tree’s permission to lightly encourage her to the fore with the tip of my finger and I am sure that the rain will soon fade her back into the tree. 

Elephant blending in...

I am sure someone will tell me off for this but I could have wiped it away with my hand. She will always be there in my head now.


I could see no break in the rain or cloud and so decided on my route home. Retracing my steps would have been the shortest and most logical route to take but I do like a loop.  I conceded that it should be as short and with as little ‘up’ as possible so I finished my coffee, said thank to the Elephant Tree for sheltering me and headed across to the Mausoleum and then into the woods.

The thing about Chestnut coppice is that the numerous trunks go straight up so there is no canopy of boughs in the winter which meant that it was no drier with the vertical rain still finding the back of my neck with some regularity. Quite how I did not go over on my route back towards the main Ranscombe car park I do not know. It was treacherous with rivers of water and mud cascading down all the paths and onto them from the surrounding woods. 

Slightly poorer view than Monday!

Cow Parsley

Lesser Celandine
Sun Spurge

Strangely enough I did not see much other than my feet and only stopped briefly to watch the Chaffinches, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks flitting around the old oilseed field near the farm. I had not noticed how amazing the Lichens were in Merrals Shaw until today and will be returning on a drier day for a closer look at the almost covered trunks and branches of the Chestnuts here. I have Bob to blame for the fact that I thought ‘look at those tiny sqamules!’

Lecanora chlarotera and elaeochroma - I think


Of course as I reached the main road the rain started to let up but I was cold and wet was still a mile and half from home and had had enough. Needless to say by the time I got home there was not a cloud in a beautiful blue sky!

Nevermind – at least I got out!


Monday 25 January 2021

Green Urban Birding - The Extended North Downs Loop - 25th January 2021

After a weekend spent festering indoors hoping for no existent snow to arrive, I decided to head out at a reasonably early hour.  It was a surprisingly blue start again with a sharp breeze that got up occasionally as I yomped up the road. 


Rather than sloshing up to the Eurostar bridge, I stayed this side where the path was still hard and frozen despite the attention of the off road bikes.  There were no birds but the icy puddles were fun.

I cut over the next bridge down (concrete, shiny metal, mosses and lichens...) and into a new piece of Ranscombe although I had an idea where I was and where it would come out and being greeted by two Llamas confirmed that!

 Grey-cushioned Grimmia - Grimmia pulvinata

Tortula muralis- with the capsules

The path took my through the edge of the riding school farm and Redwings moved off in front of me and I could hear but not see Redpolls and Siskin. I emerged at the lower north east gate into the Highland Cattle enclosure of Cobham Woods and had still not seen a soul. I stayed on the lower path and the open woodland was actually full of life.  Several Nuthatches and Treecreepers called and a pair of Marsh Tits sneezed next to me before bounding off. These were my first in this section of the park and my best views for ages.

Long-tailed Tit


A Great Spotted Woodpecker drummed and a Green yaffled while Stock Doves were doing display flights but without any singing which was a little odd.

female Green Woodpecker

The last section of the old wood before the golf course was alive with Redwings (much like in October) and if you unfocused on the floor you could see random hops and skips and short flights and a few tossed leaves. As I moved along they did likewise and it felt like several hundred were present. The other four thrushes were also present amongst them in ones and twos.

Cryptic Redwing

I cut across the golf course which was freezing and the slight breeze was cutting. I looked for the White Hart stag that had been seen by another couple but there were too many dog walkers in the distance in areas of the course that I did not think had public access.


I reached the farm and turned south down the lane from which I normally re-enter the woods but I stayed on the chalk path and followed it all the way down to Coldharbour Road. The views out over the hills were superb but I began to get an idea of the scale of the development of this valley to viniculture.  The vibrant plastic grape guards went as far as I could see.

First Snowdrops

The water was flowing down the chalk track but had frozen over in places creating some great bubble traps as the water tried its best to work a way down the slope.



I cut under the railway (bridge VIR124) before reaching the road and was pleased to find a selection of ferns growing out of the brickwork.  I recognised Wall-Rue and Hart’s Tongue and a new one – Black Spleenwort.  The Hart’s Tongue was far more mature than those I have seen elsewhere and I checked underneath for moth mine signs but I do not think that I found any!

Wall-Rue and Hart's Tongue Fern

Hart's Tongue Fern

Hart's Tongue Fern

Black Spleenwort

Black Spleenwort

I could hear a couple of Skylarks but there were no other small birds at all.  At the bottom I turned onto Luddesdon Road and was immediately slapped in the nose by a wall of Cannabis!  The smell is part of any daily walk from my front door but where was this coming from? Ah... the four dumped black sacks and piles of wilted cut plants just in the edge of the wood!

A non-native Weed...

I carried on up the narrow lane and then onto the even tinier Buckland Lane that took me through some of the Vine fields. They were devoid of life and I only saw a pair of Buzzard mewing overhead and four Linnets on his whole section.  The hedge had been cut down to chest height on one side and removed on the other and the thousands of supporting wires across the fields shimmered like gossamer threads on an October morning which may sound quite poetic but I do wonder if it puts birds off from foraging between the rows were weeds abounded or perhaps there are just no small farmland birds anymore.


As the road climbed I turned off onto a Bridleway that rose quite steeply and tracked south. 


There was meant to be a footpath off at the top but there was no sign of it so I continued out of my way alongside a huge grassy birdless meadow at the crown of the rise before taking what I thought was the footpath across the valley through the woods but after following a well worn path for a few hundred yards it disappeared beneath the forestry working and I had to get the map out and gps where I was so that I could re-orientate.  I remembered  from my walks here before that the official paths are tiny and almost unmarked but that the forestry and Pheasant trails are wide and out of bounds but I was out of choices and stuck to my newly found main path and quietly headed back north east. 

The mega meadow


The woods were silent until another pair of Marsh Tits drew my attention and a Nuthatch called a little further in. A tiny trail on my right looked vaguely familiar and actually crossed the main one I was one so I took it down the slope and quickly realised that I had chosen wisely as I recognised the two posts across the path a little way down.  A coffee and biscuit stop was required after a strenuous walk so far but I knew that once at the bottom of this path I would have to climb up even further and steeper the other side.

Marsh Tit

Escaping Pheasant

The path back down...

I was slightly relieved to get up to the top and back onto the North Downs Way. I may be fitter for all this walking but my lung capacity has never been great and everything was definitely getting a work out!


The path was a mess having endured an excessive amount of recent ‘traffic’ of all sorts but there was no one else up there and I could escape the worse of it be going off piste a little. 

A Peregrine was on one of the pylons dropping down into the Medway Valley but I could not see the Raven nest pylon which is on a different run although I suspect that they will already be tinkering with the structure. 

Medway Valley to the east beyond

Distant female Peregrine

I was in Horseholders Wood where I had the Hawfinches in the spring but other than the odd Coal Tit it was silent but I scored better in Wingate Wood where I picked a male up calling quietly in an Ash above the Yews. He even flew a little more into the open and posed nicely for me while a second bird was calling when if flew off with white wing bars flashing. 

Hawfinch through the canopy


This was at the point where the footpath drops back down into the valley to the west and I took this path down and back up into the next block of wood before appearing once again in the fledgling vineyards that I encountered in October. Again it was ornithologically quiet and a small flock of Fieldfares just before I reached the old cottages of Upper Bush were the only birds seen. 

Another down and up



The lichens on an old Chestnut fence briefly distracted me before reaching the Lower Bush Road and some Redwings briefly posed by the Alpaca centre before the accent back up the ridge and through the tunnel into Ranscombe and the slope of Brockles Field.  The bench at the top was most welcoming and more coffee was required while I caught my breath.

Part of 130 Jackdaws out grubbing


Alpaca and Llama in the same walk!
Looking down from Brockles - Vines galore!

I presume this is Pyramidal Orchid as these are the only ones I have seen at this spot. Lots of rosettes.

Onwards and down into the chalky-clay stickiness of Kitchen Field and then along the main flat ride east where I then took a new path by the Clary bench, back up through the trees to get to the long ride home.  

Growth on Beech

Off east towards Bluebell Hill

I was tired and muddy but it had been a glorious day to be out walking with just me and my head for company for most of the way and a few rewards thrown in along the way to keep me motivated.