Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Guest Blog: Red Letter Day at Langstone and Farlington, Simon Rocksborough-Smith

At the indoor meeting of Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society, members shared their best birding moments in written form or screen presentation. Thinking it was about time I did a bird post - having recently  covered everything from glow worms to fish, I asked Simon if he would mind being my guest-blogger, as his writing was so evocative, I was transported straight to the coast, almost watching the same birds. 

I used to go to Langstone with my late uncle - we were both members of the Hampshire Ornithological Society- who were lucky to have Chris Packham as their President. Chris is doing a 'Walk for Wildlife' 22.9.18 look out for the publicity, I hope you will all go.

I like Simon's writing because he delights in everything from geese to gulls, not just the rarer species; he has the same conversations with himself as we had, when trying to identify waders. If you like his account then read J.A Bakers account of the Peregrine; see what you think.

'High pressure had returned and the sun shone through the trees on the way past Liphook and Liss. On the narrow path from Bedhampton station a robin-sized bird flew into the top of a bush or small tree behind me. It had a pretty light to medium-brown rather autumnal-coloured breast, not streaked, a darker head and a particularly large eye for it's size. From its perch it was constantly looking about, so that its head was never still-a spotted flycatcher, which then flew off out of sight.

On the pond by the old Mill House were some gadwall and coots and a heron which soon left, while a little grebe dived on a smaller piece of water the other side. Coming to the mouth of Hermitage creek, I could see a line of oyster catchers and plenty of gulls, herring and black-headed. Beyond in the open water eight Brent geese swam past. It was two hours after high tide.

Birds were beginning to gather on the shoreline as I walked along the sea wall and I decided to stop at the seat overlooking the shore for lunch. Oyster catchers, and redshanks were the most numerous. Flocks kept coming and soon there was a contingent of dunlins and a crowd of curlews and a small group of grey plovers. Eventually I spotted some godwits , but they exhibited sighs of both varieties (and may have been both) and I couldn't make up my mind. 

After lunch I went out to the point at New Milton. The sun shone over Portsmouth from a largely clear sky, but the clouds were gathering to the east all afternoon. A kestrel started hovering over Farlington Marshes and almost immediately made a fast dive and came back up with its prey. There was a pair of stonechats in the bushes along the edge and shovelers and teal on the pools, with a single shelduck not yet in full plumage. On the point several curlews were feeding and calling on the broad mud banks. The tide appeared to be fully out.

The walk back was a birdwatcher's dream, just one thing after another. A swallow came past flying north and then another until by the time one passed in front of me low over the path I had decided that it was the same one circling over the marsh.The kestrel reappeared and a flurry down towards the water - or where it would have been - drew my attention to three meadow pipits clinging to the side of the wall and then dropping onto some sea weed. one bird left the group and flew to the right, with an obvious white rump below a pattern of some kind - a wheatear.

secret moorhen
I passed the stonechats again , and further along the same line of bushes was a flock of goldfinches, shining brilliantly in the lowish sunlight. Finally  the thick bushes along the cycle track was a flock of long-tailed tits. By the time I reached Broadmarsh  the tide seemed to be coming in again, and the birds were along the shoreline as before. The godwits were still there and I sat down to study them. Some of the flew to different positions and I could see no wing bar - suggesting bar-tailed- but try as I might I could see  no white diamond either.

little egrets
Eventually there was a view of just one on the other side of the creek mouth. No wing or black markings were visible but the length of the bill and the legs made for a definite black - tailed species. I made for the 17.37 train back and it soon grew cold and dark.'

Monday, 16 July 2018

Fishing the Hogsmill

It is interesting to see the river from a different perspective: the Hogsmill is popular with anglers at this time of year; although it is unusual to see someone fly- fishing as seen this afternoon. A chub has just been caught on bread and it looks a good size. Trout are sometimes seen in the Hogsmill and can sit in the weir notch by the school. Our own Richard Jefferies in his book 'Nature Near London'  remarked on the Hogsmill trout as far up as Tolworth Hall Bridge (now the A240).

This fish was carefully unhooked and orientated in the swim where it soon finds it way - probably to the next father and son - sitting further upstream. These anglers have caught the 'ghost' koi within the last two weeks and appear to be the second successful pair to catch the pond-escapee in the last few days. Ghost koi are a British invention. They were produced by accident in the early 80’s when a farmer allowed a mirror carp and a koi to spawn together. The offspring included some fish with metallic highlights on their head and fins.

ghost koi
Today it was at the bridge between Grange Road and Watersplash Close; another couple were pursuing it using sweetcorn. I didn't meet anyone who had caught it last year, just a lot of 'near misses'. Is this due to the water levels remaining close to 15-20cm for the last four weeks and less food arriving downstream? And what of the impacts of the invading mink on our fish populations? Hopefully  the four kits recently seen in a local garden are saving sufficient for the kingfishers.

garden mink

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Glow worms at the north Surrey border

Glow worms can be found at least two locations in north Surrey including Epsom Common and Princes Coverts. We found GW's at the Covers (as Richard Jefferies referred to the site in Nature Near London) several years ago when listening for night jars after the great western hemlock compartments were clear felled to be replanted with wildlife-friendlier broad leaved woodland trees.
Our understanding of the best way to manage a GW site is surprisingly poor. Just as we think we
know what they like, they turn up in some seemingly quite unsuitable location, shunning what we would think is a much better habitat. In general, however, we aim for a mosaic of weedy areas where the larvae can find snails, and open areas where they can display as adults and the males can fly to find them. They may also like a fairly loose soil, or at least places where they can get down into the undergrowth during the day and find a cool, moist spot to lay their eggs. Sometimes they may even turn up on driveways or patios where there are deep cracks, for example, and railway line ballast is also a favourite.

Absence of light is good, though sites are known where they persist despite distant amounts of  road lighting etc. Nevertheless the application for an installation for storing electricity on a green field site  by Saxon Energy along Fairoak Lane is worrying, as it will be lit throughout the night next to our only known local GW site. Renewable Energy Systems Limited (RES)  has prepared a Statement  in support of their planning application for an energy storage facility submitted last October to Kingston Council.
Here is a video of mating glow worms taken at Princes Coverts 23.6.18 on my You Tube channel lets hope the developers ecologists spend some time watching it.

Saturday, 23 June 2018


Large skipper
burnet companion
Now onwards is the best time to go out butterfly watching: Kingston Cemetery is one of the top local sites  for sheer diversity of species with lots of browns; including good numbers of ringlets, which have made a come back locally  as well as meadow browns (although they won't like the hot dry weather to come next week). Large and small skippers are showing well, now that the grass has been left to grow long.

pupating caterpillar
Burnet companions are a dayflying moth - a confusion species for dingy skippers - especially when they are found on their food plant (birds-foot trefoil).

A migratory painted lady butterfly was a random sighting in the old part of the cemetery last weekend. It was seen whilst admiring a caterpillar pupating on the branch of an elm, only  recently planted by members of the Cemetery Wildlife Group (see earlier post). Unfortunately, it is not thought to be a white-letter hairstreak where London wide the count is less than 10 sightings, due to the loss of elms to disease.

marbled white
There are good numbers of marbled whites this year and fresh specimens were found at the cemetery last week. They can be found at sites with unimproved rough grassland such  as Tolworth Court Farm and  the Moated Manor site. They have also been recorded flying around  St. John's, Worcester Park, due to the  conservation management of the grassland in the churchyard. Another grassland butterfly- preferring finer grasses in well drained grasslands - is the small heath. There are about 200 records with a south-west London bias these days - with Cranford Park the nearest; I found one at Kings Field recreation ground Hampton Wick last week, seen whilst waiting for my guitar to be restrung.

Silver-washed fritillery
For something very special - try Princes Coverts for the woodland queens; the silver - washed fritilleries nectaring on blackberry flowers. The males fly down from the tree tops and add colour to the woodland glades, especially in the western quadrant. London records total about 30 in any given year with Chapel Bank the best site. An aberration is the Glanville Fritillery; there has been a random introduction of this species at a Surrey site. ~100 have been recorded  at a London site where it may have introduced itself. The laval foodplant is ribwort plantain. see previous post on Lady Elizabeth de Glanville. I haven't seen any but I am looking.

Two shade tolerant, white admirals were also on the wing this weekend, although there was not much evidence of the laval food plant, the honeysuckle. I am not aware of any London records for this species except occasional sightings at Ruislip Woods.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Seething Wells: they've done it again

The last day of May, I went to see if I could find the black redstart that had been widely reported, no luck but it will turn up again on one of the old buildings. The lush vegetation was looking beautiful between the Filter Beds at Seething Wells. I made a note of the breeding birds: goldfinches twinkling away, blue tits gathering food, sand martins flying over the FB's (only two this year unfortunately) moorhens and some scruffy little coot chicks entangled in the algal blooms.

Proud parents were showing off their four Canada chicks; they can cover a lot of ground in a short space of time they were soon feeding on water pepper and bistort gleaned from  the ziggerat-sided basins. A song thrush sang from the wharf alongside greenfinches as well as the seasonal chiff chaff; although this year all numbers are down, reflecting not only the topsy-turvy Spring but also the continued tumble in insect numbers (even seed eating birds are dependent on insects to feed their young).

A female house sparrow was foraging in a corner of FB4 with a clutch of small worms in her beak ready to take to an nearby nest. A wren scuttled in the corner of FB7 around the stand of phragmites unperturbed by a cormorant who had been successfully fishing in FB5; now  playing statues. 

Grey wagtails had a strong presence on the site and there were probably two territories. Sadly only one little grebe has been able to nest this year- in the greatly reduced water levels- after the January draining (see January post). Nevertheless it was productive and the female was sitting on a nest while the male patrolled up and down FB7; and now...

It is all Fucked.  Ground, chipped, slashed and brush cut - vegetation gone in the peak bird breeding season and on a SITE OF IMPORTANCE FOR NATURE CONSERVATION. Even the reed bed has been strimmed. If any birds survived they would have been easy reach for the resident foxes and the mink which are on the increase with daily sightings along the Hogsmill.

Chicks gone, sparrows gone, reedbed gone, lush grass gone, scrub gone. Piles of bark chips; well of course- you have guessed- there are plenty.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Drones and motorcycles on nature areas: threat, harm and risk

Jet ant
Threat, harm, and risk, three words echoing through my mind since Sunday's outing to Tolworth Court Farm. It was a splendid day, and eventually, I found the ancient oak tree with its processing jet ants. However, I felt exhausted after three hours of engine noise from the direction of  Great Hollands field -the one closest to Jubilee Way car park- made worse by the fact that I was in Great Meadow field -its polar opposite. Eventually the noise found me, as young motorcyclists - looking more like they should be on a beach- began tearing up and down the newly mown pathways, outstripping the noise of the drones being flown.

Attilla is allowed
Drones are not allowed
 No-one has landowner permission to fly drones on Tolworth Court Farm. I know this, as I checked with a council officer who said, 'no-one has permission to fly drones on Tolworth Court Farm'.  In fact, despite being named Atilla, the only vehicles allowed on TCF are the grasscutters.

Motorcycles not allowed
 After three hours of noise and 25 degrees of sun, it was becoming difficult to ignore the fracas and so I rang 101. The police robot said, 'we are experiencing high call volumes due to a number of emergencies. If your calling about anti-social behaviour please hold the line, otherwise go to our website.' So I hung up and decided to engage myself with the four endearing young men who warned me to mind my own business or I could be facing a Crocodile Dundee situation.

As I left the nature reserve, there could have been a knight in shining armour moment, with the timely arrival of the Surrey Police  at the County boundary. I thought the police had arrived due to an earlier call-out from three young men attempting a rescue of two badly injured cockerels abandoned earlier; probably, it was thought, after being used for cockfighting. But it wasn't to be, as the anti-social behaviour that I was attempting to report to the navel of the police officer, turned out to be  just fine, as it hadn't put me at Threat, Harm or Risk. In addition, there was no CCTV (as the video on my phone didn't count) and the independent witness who had joined our delightful  debate, wasn't on my side anyway, as it is much more fun to be five onto one.

So, even though nature is everything, it gives us all we need (food, water, air, soil) it is the basis of our economy (food, commodities, minerals etc.) keeps us sane (beauty and healing space) we cannot report its abuse, unless we have been under threat, harm or risk. Furthermore there can be no investigation, unless there is independent CCTV footage and the corroborative evidence of a witness.

The council will be erecting sign boards stating that motorcycles are not allowed on TCF. In the meantime you are a very naughty boy x 4.
There are two sets of regulations which apply to the use of drones in the UK, whether they are being used for commercial or recreational purposes:
The UK’s aviation regulations which are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
The UK’s data protection regulations are enforced by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

You can find details about the requirements to fly a drone commercially from the CAA at

For more information about drone and data protection, visit the ICO’s website at

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Ham Lands: buttercups

Ham Lands is a mass of yellow buttercups as well as white hawthorn and cow parsley; with three species of buttercup in the first meadow north of the  Thames Young Mariners. Buttercup identification features  are in a handy guide produced by the BSBI on Twitter below. During my walk I heard sedge warbler in the burnt out reed bed, many dunnocks and blackcaps and > 15 song thrush territories over the two sides of the Mariners; this fell short of the usual standard walk but was sufficient to confirm that this is still one of London's top sites for song thrush. A common tern was flying over the lagoon despite the water sports and a brief kestrel appearance over the grassland. Sadly only a few whitethroat and no hirundines were seen at the moment.