Misleading Green

Resolved to try and walk a new, to me, path and area of Surrey at least a couple of times a month. Had a couple of hours to fill last week and decided to explore an area of land bounded by the Wey navigation, Old Woking and a newish development at Westfield.

My wife and I frequently park near Trigg’s Lock and walk along the river to the New Inn at Send. Beautiful walk, decent beer and food, beautiful walk back. We never park at Trigg’s Lock and walk across the fields and it was to this end I set out.

Looks good?

Clear blue sky, distant woods and pretty good hedge, what’s not to like? Trouble is it just felt too quiet and lacking in life to begin with.

Look the other way and the view is sadly more……..industrial?

Horse paddocks

Well managed for horses? Certainly. Good for the countryside and wildlife? Depends on where you are standing I suppose.
Horse culture and modern beef cattle production both cause unintended consequences for both the appearance of the countryside and the wildlife that live in it. Little attention is given to maintaining hedgerows and wild flowers/weeds are given little chance to seed and provide food for farmland birds.

The irony in this instance was that feeding in the horse paddocks was the largest flock of Meadow Pipits, 40 odd, I’ve seen for quite a while!

Walking on the path crosses old flood meadows, largely improved grasslands but still with lots of wet scruffy bits.

A herd of Canada geese was happily minding its’ own business but I was amazed to find a dozen Teal hidden under some fallen willow.

Hiding Teal

Long time since I’ve seen these pretty little ducks locally.

Clear skies and wonderful open grown trees make interesting views.

Nearby Woking rises

Path skirts the old printing works, now rather lovely looking flats with some hidden gems to find.

Just as you reach Old Woking there is a small common open to all for a wander and for beady eyed wildlife.

Spot the Kestrel

Fortunately for me Yes moved lower!

Returning across the field and through a farmyard there was a notable absence of any finches and buntings which only a few years ago would have been common place.

Then whilst bemoaning about farmers obstructing paths and missing way markers (carry an OS map!) I stumbled on a tiny field where an old brassica crop had long gone to seed.

Scruffy corner?

Impossible to photograph but I estimate that there were a couple of hundred finches and buntings of half a dozen species crammed in to a small area. Not green or attractive in appearance but clearly really important as one of the few bits of the local environment that was supporting biodiversity.

Did I enjoy my walk and the birds? Absolutely yes but do I think green can sometimes be misleading? Sadly also yes.

The Love Hen


So, you all know about my favourite species of bird now and it’s true I have a tattoo of one on my arm! It needs a bit of work doing on it to be honest as it’s been there 23 years which shows you how long I have been a fan (obsessed) with these birds.

Now Steve has persuaded me to pass on some more information to you about this enigmatic little water bird I’ve had to cast my mind back to where this affair all started.

I’ve been looking at birds all of my life and when I think about Moorhens in my childhood and can vividly remember two places where I always saw Moorhens. The first place was the large lake, in the large park that was on the edge of the town where I grew up in Kent.  In one corner of the lake there was a carpark and area where the local boat club did things. On a Sunday afternoon it was common for the people of the local town to come and feed the ‘ducks. ‘ There were the usual hybrid Mallards, Canada Geese, a family of Mute Swans and lots of Coots. In the winter months there were often Tufted Ducks, Pochard and the resident Great Crested Grebe were also present here. When the people fed the birds, it would often be what I can only describe as anarchic with all these birds fighting to get to the food that the humans had brought with them. Being the smallest species present the Moorhen were lucky to get any of the food that had been thrown in the water or had dropped on the ground. I noticed despite their size they were pretty feisty and ready to defend themselves against the larger birds. I then realised that they were pretty smart as well when I observed them leaving the water and apart from the smash and grab style of feeding some individuals were walking, or should I say strutting around the parked cars and picking up the scraps around the cars that had been dropped by the humans eating their sandwiches. None of the other birds present were brave enough to try this method of feeding.


Family ties

The other childhood place where I learnt about them was in the stream in the nearby village. The stream had an open area called the Brooks where the stream broadened and slowed down and there was a path down the middle where people would walk and also feed the many fewer Mallards that were generally there. The Moorhens were always along the edge of the stream bordering the over grown field. They would take part in similar feeding methods and were often found in quieter moments to be found in the gardens and the pub garden on the other side of the stream. Here I first saw nesting Moorhens and remember how fiercely territorial they were with many a fight being seen in March when they were preparing to nest. Two to three pairs would nest here every year and there were normally 2 nests along the field edge, attached to vegetation that rooted on the field but had bent over the stream and supplied the Moorhens an anchor point on which to build their nest. There was another pair that build a nest ten feet out in the stream on a branch that had fallen from a riverside tree and, in the complete open. Moorhens nesting habits are particularly interesting and as I’ve tried to show how opportunistic they are as nest builders the rest of nesting story is equally interesting. The nest itself is generally woven from vegetation such as Reedmace but I have seen all sorts of material from small branches to plastic being used. The nesting season can start in late March and these days go on as late as October with a pair capable of producing 3 broods per breeding season

The eggs are an olive brown with dark spots of varying sizes and shades. They are incubated for 17 – 22 days by both parents. The early broods normally have more eggs than the later ones with up to 12 eggs being laid in early broods and 5 – 6 in the later ones.  The newly hatched chicks are super cute black woollen balls with long legs and are instantly mobile and actively feeding and swimming under their parent’s vigilante guidance.  A study of the Moorhens North American counterpart and considered to be the same species until 2011, the Common Gallinule has revealed that newly hatched chicks have barbs in their wing feathers that help them climb vegetation in order to feed, avoid predators and roost. Clever stuff and more interesting behaviour can be seen with our Common Moorhens later in the breeding season when the first brood juveniles will be left for short periods of time, by the adults to ‘ babysit ‘ the next younger broods. Perhaps this explains the different brood sizes that they lay. By the autumn, when the young have been reared, the adults will drive the youngsters off their territory.

Now when you look at Moorhens in flight they don’t look that impressive but don’t let it fool you because Common Moorhens breed almost continually from western Europe to Japan and many of the birds that breed in Russia have to migrate south great distances because of freezing winter conditions. Many of these birds will make it to Europe including Britain and Ireland. They migrate at night and several times over the years I have heard calling Moorhens at night over head. Moorhens make a whole variety of calls from the purring trill to the explosive alarm that has made me jump at night time. I find their calls really expressive and characterful.

I once visited Copeland Island, six miles into the Irish Sea, off the coast of County Down to look at the birds there. The Island’s bird observatory were catching migrant birds for ringing and one afternoon they caught a moorhen. There was not really any fresh water on the island and this bird was obviously a migrant. This bird was also pretty angry at being caught and managed to make one of the ringers bleed after he was lashed by one of it claws. Their ability to survive seems to be pretty hardcore and their omnivorous diet will help them further. I have seen them eating everything from new plant shoots to dead rabbits. Back in my childhood I remember looking in an orchard in the local valley where some apples had been left fallen and in amongst the feeding winter thrushes were 2 Moorhen.

To me they are a pretty amazing species and thankfully the population is remaining stable with declines in some areas and growth in others, they are spreading North probably helped by global warming but are also susceptible to land drainage and developments. The species will prevail I feel as I’ve seen them on ponds in the centre of London and little pools in the middle of woods. Where ever there is water with some vegetation there’s likely to be some Moorhens there so I urge you to have a closer look and see what they are up to. This time of the year they can gather in to fairly large numbers and will often fed in fields adjacent to the water.

The tough survivor

They are hardcore survival species with an interesting life story

Early Signs

New year always feels out of sync for me as nature never seems to recognise dates and the increasing variability in seasonal change throws up anomaly after anomaly.

New year violet!

We have commenced with the slash and burn in the garden, making sure that there are no hidden guests in the bonfires. Looking after hedges and ditches is one of those tasks which both landowners and local authorities seem to frequently ignore. Most hedges locally to our home are either overgrown or grazed out, usually by horses. Happily though, the “accidental” wilding of the fields and hedgerows immediately round our home is allowing the hedges to expand into the fields, creating a wonderful scrubby edge. Looks like Merrist College are also choosing to ignore the fly grazing horses on the site which is resulting an improvement in the sward. How do I know this? Well, the coarse grasses were becoming so long that predators were having problems and now the Barn owls are back!

It’s always a joy to see the feeders and surrounding trees crowded with birds but it might seem churlish to complain as for every smile there’s a frown as to where are the missing species?

A variety of tits is great….

My mums favourite! By Steve Duffy
The Boss tit. By Steve Duffy

But where are the Chaffinches, Green Finches, House Sparrows, Starlings? I get excited if I see just 1 or 2 of these species and even 4 or 5 Goldfinches seems ridiculous as there was a time where there were flocks of up to 500 consuming vast quantities of sunflower seeds in my back garden!

It’s sad that people often equate the increase in predatory species with the decline of small birds, its simply not true.

The other difficulty with the success of highly visible species like

Red Kite by Steve Duffy

and Buzzard or even Little Egret is that a casual observer thinks “everything is ok” and the conservationists are just some kind of extremist eco nutters.

With apple trees come Fieldfares, beautiful but incomparably aggressive!


This particular bird defended the last few apples on our trees against all comers, other thrushes, Jackdaws, Jays and even tried to scare off our deer! Aggression can be an effective survival tool for a bird and Fieldfares are truly expert. They nest in loose aggregations  and will cooperatively attack any predator with lots of noise, dive bombing and yes aerial pooing!

You just have a to love Fieldfares.