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Wildlife in (and around) Kingston

Monday 01 December 2014

One of things that appeals to me most about birding is the way it combines predictability - and its polar opposite.  What is attractive about predictability?  When you’re  thoroughly familiar with your particular  area (or, as a birder would probably say, your  “patch”), there’s immense satisfaction to be had from knowing not only which birds you’re likely to see on any given day at a particular time of year, but even – approximately at least, but often with some precision – where they will be found.  At the same time, however, you’re also always attuned to expect the unexpected and it’s because you know so well what should be where, that anything out of the ordinary stands out so quickly and appears (as someone said this evening on a radio programme) “as unobtrusive as a fried egg on a bible”!


So it was a few years ago when a snow bunting decided to stop off at the top of Kingston Hill. This was the first and almost certainly the last time I would see such a thing there. It was the same with the two dotterel that turned up there in 1995.  They came, they stayed a day or so and then they vanished and if I ever saw a dotterel around here again it would be a bigger surprise than the sight of Jeremy Clarkson riding a bike up Ashcombe Lane.


So it was also on 4 November when, with an old friend (a non-birder – please note!)  I wandered down the muddy track from the National Trust car park in Rodmell towards the Ouse, a walk I’ve done scores of times over the last 20 years. I was expecting – and duly saw or heard – stonechats, reed buntings and flocks of skylarks and starlings. I had hopes of a kingfisher, though unrealised – as it turned out on this occasion. What I could never have imagined, but despite my amazement was actually there, was a small bird with a grey back, brick-red underparts and a long, cocked tail – a Dartford warbler.


My friendship with my companion (see above) dates back to 1978 but almost came to an abrupt end there and then when, having seen the bird, he rushed forward to get a better view and – of course – scared it off.  My sighting was therefore confined to a fleeting moment.  “How could you be so idiotic” was (as Rumpole may well have said) what I thought, but did not actually voice aloud.  I fumed inwardly instead. Still, I had seen the bird – a rarity in Sussex and an even greater rarity in this sort of habitat since it is heavily dependent on gorsy heaths, although after a successful breeding season juvenile birds disperse and may turn up in some unlikely places.  I would, though, never see it again in Rodmell – or so I reasonably thought.


I was wrong.  Two days later, I made the same trip, this time on my own and this time knowing exactly where the bird was likely to be. I approached quietly!  I was lucky.  Not only was it still there, but it perched in full view for at least a few seconds before disappearing.  My friend’s impetuosity had been of no consequence after all.


The British population of Dartford warblers had long been confined to the extreme southern counties until a run of mild winters allowed some birds to colonise parts of southern Wales and East Anglia.  As a wholly insectivorous species, it has always been very vulnerable to spells of cold weather and was almost made extinct here during the long and bitter winter of 1962/3 when snow was on the ground from 26 December until mid-March.  Currently, the population is expanding again and if – as now seems very likely – prolonged periods of really harsh weather do become a thing of the past, then it will almost certainly extend its range still further north.


Why “Dartford”?  Apparently because when two birds were shot on a common near Dartford in 1773, this fact was communicated to Thomas Pennant, the author of British Zoology and someone fascinated by all aspects of natural history.  The name that Pennant coined on this flimsy basis has stuck ever since. Much of the far more famous Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne – still in print after 225 years and still a wonderful read – consists of letters to Thomas Pennant.



The late, late, warm weather evidently persuaded some of our migrants to hang around a little longer than usual and Cliff Parrott saw three house martins over Church Lane as late as 3 November.  Many butterflies were also out and about until early November including the migrants clouded yellow and red admiral.


Do keep letting me know what you see, Dartford warblers or otherwise!