IT’S A MILD and bright November day, with sunshine spangling the leaves of the trees on Mariners Hill. It’s also unusually still for the time of year.
The hill is on the North Downs, the chalk ridge that runs from Farnham in Surrey all the way to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent, and this part of the woodland is owned and managed by the National Trust.
It’s quiet because it’s a weekday morning. In the hour or so I’m on the hill, I see only one man walking his dog, three elderly women hiking and a man dressed in a spacesuit. Actually, he’s a gardener spraying invasive rhododendrons on a private estate that borders the National Trust’s land. He stops and we chat for a while.
But, for once, I’m not really interested in the people. There are birds in the trees and bushes and my task today is to identify and count them.
It isn’t easy. Autumn may have turned the leaves to copper and gold, but the mild weather has kept them on the trees - and wild birds like to hide from people. It’s one of the things they do best. In addition, the elderly hikers were incredibly noisy, innocently hollering their conversation along the track, and it takes a while after they disappear before wild life is resumed.
Right now there is a flock of something or other in a holly bush on the edge of the escarpment, 200 metres above the Weald. They’re quiet, but active, flitting about in small groups on the far side of the holly. Through my binoculars, I can see them moving, but the light is against me and I can’t work out what they are and the dense woodland prevents me getting any closer.
I rest my back against a huge beech tree, partly because it’s comfortable and partly to blur my outline in the absence of a hide. They’re after the berries, of course. I run a mental check on what they might be: thrushes, blackbirds … and then I get a good sighting. It’s a redwing, a winter migrant visiting Kent, probably from Scandinavia.
They’re lovely little thrushes, redwings - about the same size as robins and smaller than their cousin the song thrush. The other birds in the tree could be a mix - redwings quite often form loose flocks with blackbirds, starlings and other thrushes at this time of year - but my guess is that it’s a raid of redwings.
Actually, I made up that word raid - since they were raiding the holly bush. The only collective noun for redwings I could find was 'crowd', and I think raid is better. A curiosity is that there are at least ten collective nouns for robins (from a bobbin to a ruby of them) and eight for crows (including horde, mob and murder).
Having identified the redwing, I make a note and carry on through the woodland back to Chartwell - the former home of Sir Winston Churchill.
Above the parkland on the estate, three buzzards wheel and soar on thermals, calling to each other pi-yaaa. It’s one of my favourite sounds, explosive if you are very close. And then in bushes just behind the lake I get another good sighting.
At first, I think it’s a moth it’s so small, but it stops flitting for a split second and even without binoculars I can see that it’s a goldcrest - Britain’s smallest bird at 8.5 cm long, including its tail. It’s only a few feet away and it is a new addition to the Chartwell species list, which is great.
Fraser Williamson, the long and lean countryside ranger at Chartwell, had been concerned that the estate was ‘species poor’ - woodland birds are in decline generally in the UK - and he put out a call on the Kent Ornithological Society website for help with a species count.
A birder all of my life (albeit a pretty average one), I dropped him a line suggesting morning and evening counts at different times of the year to establish a species list that could then be compared with lists of birds on well-monitored RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust sites nearby. He replied with words to the effect of: “When can you start?”
And that’s how I got be an assistant ranger at Chartwell with special responsibility for creating a bird species list.
Since birding is often a solitary pursuit (people forget that it’s akin to hunting), I have by default become The Lone Ranger - something I longed for as a boy of eight. (You have to be of a certain age to even know what that means.)
So far we have identified 47 species and a couple of hot spots where avian activity is a little brisker, and we’re beginning to think about nest boxes, feeding stations and even what are now known as bug ‘hotels’. There is a record-breaking bug hotel at the KWT’s Sevenoaks reserve a few miles to the east of Chartwell.
None of this is straightforward though and there is much research to be done, which is what I’m doing on wet and windy days.
And so, Chartwell has become my ‘patch’. I’ve even been challenged to get a photograph of the kingfisher that flashed like a jewel down the east side of the lake just after I saw the goldcrest - if I do, and it’s a very big if, I’ll be sure to post it here.