Welcome to my blog. If you live in Surrey and birding is your obsession (to get out of bed at some ridiculously early time of the morning, no matter what the weather, to go and look at birds isn't normal behaviour, believe me) and you're still a bit of a novice (like me) then, hopefully, this blog is for you.

Wednesday 29 December 2010


The waiting is finally over.

It's time to find out who took the honours this year. Before I start, I would just like to thank everyone I have met on my travels during this past 12 months. It has been memorable on so many fronts and everyone has contributed into making 2010 the best year for me as a bone fide birder. Special thanks go to Graham James, for all his help and encouragement when I've needed it, and also to Johnny Allan, without whose assistance I wouldn't have seen half the unusual birds in Surrey that I eventually did.

My 2010 Surrey list (which includes Spelthorne, but maybe won't in future years) has ended on 164 bird species. Not bad, I guess, for a first effort. It could have been a lot more but events out of my control have meant I am unable to get to the London Wetland Centre at Barnes this week to see one or two Bittern, or to Beddington in the hope of catching sight of an Iceland or Caspian Gull. I also managed to miss many other birds this year - particularly recently - including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Brambling, Velver Scoter and Mediterranean Gull.

I'm not sure what my targets will be in 2011. Perhaps I'll stick more to my local patch, but then I could go full-steam ahead for another Surrey, or South East England, year list. It probably depends on how January and February pan out.

So, without further waffle, here are the awards.

In alphabetical order, the nominees are:
Johnny Allan - Beddington Sewage Farm
David Campbell - Canons Farm
Gordon Hay - Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Rich Horton - Tice's Meadow
Graham James - Holmethorpe Sand Pits

The winner is:
Graham James
Congratulations to Graham, who has seen 123 different bird species at Holmethorpe this year. While his mate and fellow Holmethorpe lister Gordon Hay saw ten more than him, no-one is more dedicated to his local patch than Graham, who also runs the excellent Holmethorpe blog which is so useful for anyone interested in visiting the site.

The nominations are:
Barnes WWT
Beddington Sewage Farm
Canons Farm
Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Tice's Meadow

The winner is:
Beddington Sewage Farm
Congratulations to Beddington and all the team there. It's a remarkable site, so close to the concrete urban mass that is Croydon. Never a place to go for a holiday, unless you like landfill sites and plenty of mud when it rains, but the birds love it. A great deal of work goes into making Beddington such a bird haven, notably from Peter Alfrey, Johnny Allan, Mark Spicer, Kevin Guest, Roger Browne and plenty of other birding nutcases who have spent more hours than I care to count staring out across the scrapes and gazing endlessly at the sky looking out for unusual birds. Some of the birds this year include Pacific Golden Plover, Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting, Common Crane, Pectoral Sandpiper and Short-eared Owl. Oh, and about a trillion Gulls (the lads actually counted them all).

The nominations are:
Common Crane
Ferruginous Duck
Lapland Bunting
Pacific Golden Plover
Red-backed Shrike
Spotted Crake

The the winner is:
Couldn't be anything else really. Never has a bird been written about so often or its arrival anticipated with so much excitement as the Waxwings of 2010. The numbers to have crossed the North Sea have been huge this year, so much so that Rare Bird Alert demoted them for scarce to uncommon from December 13 for the rest of the winter. And although it took them a while to migrate down from the north and east into Surrey, they certainly made themselves noticed. Such a beautiful bird, with plenty of character - everyone loves a Waxwing, even if it personally took me more than ten attempts to see one. After that, of course, I saw them all the time - even from my living room window. We can't predict when the next Waxwing invasion will be, so it's a case of making the most of their visit now.

The nominations are:
Johnny Allan
David Campbell
Kevin Guest
Gordon Hay
Rich Horton
Graham James
Rich Seargent

The winner is:
David Campbell
Congratulations to David, a well-deserved winner. This young lad, also known as Devil Birder, is still at school doing his 'A' levels. David has had a great year (mainly skiving off from his studies, from what I can deduce) and by dedicating so much time and effort into his local patch, he has put Canons Farm well and truly on the birding map. He has seen so many great birds at the Farm, including the only Quail seen in Surrey in 2010, a male Hen Harrier, Waxwing, Short-eared Owl, Black Redstart and Corn Bunting - only the second sighting of this Bunt in the county this year. While his patch list is relatively small (99), his is still a remarkable list of birds.

The winner is:
Johnny Allan
Johnny has merited this award on two fronts. Firstly, by breaking his Surrey listing record this year with a remarkable 193 birds, and secondly because he always takes the time to welcome new birders, such as myself, into the fold. A credit to birding.


2010 Randon's Ramblings Birding Blog of the Year
Winner: Wanstead Birder by Jonathan Lethbridge
Being new to this business, I only came across this blog earlier this year by accident and now I can't miss Jonathan's musings every week. He also has a column in Birdwatch magazine on alternate months. Apart from being the most entertaining and amusing read on bird-watching by a country mile - his daily reports from his visit to Shetland was a brilliant read - his photographs are top-notch, too. He makes it appear all too easy. Annoyingly multi-talented.

2010 Randon's Ramblings Personal Dip of the Year
It could have been Waxwing, but thankfully it wasn't in the end. The Great Grey Shrike took five attempts before I got a sighting. I missed both the Hoopoe at Chertsey and both Red-backed Shrikes at Woodmansterne and Richmond Park, but nope, the dip of the year for me was undoubtedly the Pectoral Sandpiper at Beddington. Everyone I know who went to see this bird got on to it almost immediately. I went twice, and was met the first time by Johnny and we couldn't find it after two hours, and then by Kevin 'Kojak' Guest on the second occasion and failed again after another two-hour search.

2010 Randon's Ramblings five most memorable moments
1. Eventually seeing a Waxwing
2. Watching the Nightjars calling and circling in the half-light on Chobham Common
3. Going to see my only mega rarity of the Year - the Marmora's Warbler in South Wales
4. Listening to the Nightingales on Little Bookham Common
5. Eventually seeing a Waxwing

So, that's it. The Awards for 2010. All there's left to say before Big Ben chimes at midnight on Friday is to wish everyone a very Happy New Year. Let's hope 2011 proves to be as good a birding year as 2010!

Thursday 23 December 2010


As you may have noticed I haven't been very active for the past couple of weeks. Nothing to report due to work, Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, loads of snow and meeting up with friends and family.

I also found time to think up something totally indulgent on the run up to the new year.

That's right, the Randon's Ramblings Awards. No prizes, just prestige. The categories include my Surrey Birder of the Year, Surrey Birding Site of the Year and Surrey Bird of the Year. There's a few others too, so something not to miss next week - surely...

On a personal note, I'm on a quest before January 1, 2011 to find six new birds for my Surrey list. A tall order, but hey, it's worth having a go.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas!

Saturday 11 December 2010


As soon as you see one, you can't stop seeing them all the time. Waxwings. Waxwings everywhere. After chasing around the county hunting for these exotic little birds, I've got a flock of more than 30 just over the road in the Holmethorpe Industrial Estate by the railway line.

I went down to watch them yesterday and today and a fantastic sight they make, too.

In fact, it's getting to the point where I don't even have to open the front door to see them. Just a glance out of the living room window, and there they are perched in a tree in Alpine Road. They also like flying over my house and also perching in trees 50 yards away on Frenches Road.

It will be interesting to see how long they stay for - there's certainly plenty of hawthorn berries to consume on the railway embankment. My only task now is to get some decent photos - the constant flow of trains going by forces them to take to the air every five minutes - so perhaps tomorrow being Sunday, it might be better.

There's plenty going on at Holmethorpe at the moment. What with Waxwings, we've got a Kingfisher or two, Little Egret, Cetti's Warbler, Smew (becoming a regular visitor), Snipe, two or three Water Rail (although we might be minus one after Graham James thinks he saw a Kestrel fly off with one in its talons yesterday) and Brambling, which I need for a Surrey year tick. Definitely well worth a good trek around the area, I would say.

Wednesday 8 December 2010


Maybe it's a sign...

Let's hope it's a good one.

Well, after ten previous dips (including first thing this morning) I have now laid my bogey bird to rest.

It started off badly. The message had gone out the previous evening about 19 Waxwings in the trees by the railway line at Holmethorpe Water Colour Lagoons. I arrived at the right spot just after 8.30am, where Holmethorpe birding guru Graham James and his mate Paul Kerry were already present.

All was quiet apart from loads of Fieldfares, Redwings, Goldfinches and Chaffinches. Graham had been at the site before sunrise. We waited for an hour but nothing materialised.

We were all a bit sceptical, partly because there was no record of who had actually seen the birds. Graham had contacted Birdguides, but they didn't have a name. Normally, a regular birder at Holmethorpe Sand Pits would contact Graham, and he would put the record on his website.

Having advertised my Waxwing woe on this blog for a number of weeks, I was also beginning to be concerned that someone had claimed to see the birds just as a wind up, and a means to poke a bit of fun at me. Not that missing Waxwings was getting to me or anything...

Anyway, we gave it up as a bad job. I had joked at around dip number six with Johnny Allan that I was aiming to get into double figures. Dip number 10 was now complete.

Annie was off to the gym this afternoon, so I dropped her off in Redhill, and went for a brief drive round, just in the hope I might find them.

I ended up back at the Water Colour complex, and parked up next to another birder, who was about to leave. It transpired he was the guy who had seen the 19 birds yesterday afternoon. His name is Richard Perry, and he had come up originally to find the Smew that were previously on Mercer's Lake.

They had gone, but while walking round the area he discovered the Waxwings. Another regular Holmethorpe birder, Des Ball, was also present. The birds arrived around lunchtime and stayed for about an hour and a half. He'd come back to have another look, but had drawn a blank.

I gave it a go and met up with Des, who was already in position. Within five minutes I was looking at the unmistakable silhouette of ten Waxwings (164) perched high in a Silver Birch by the railway line. They took to the air as soon as a train rushed by, but they always returned to the same tree, before dropping down into some berry-laden Hawthorn bushes below.

Having been an impromptu visit, I hadn't brought my scope, so I rushed back home to get it and was back in ten minutes. The birds had flown off, spooked again by the trains going by, but after about half an hour as Graham arrived, five made a return visit.

There was quite a gathering of local birders watching by now, including Gordon Hay, with the Waxwings perched in the same tree again. They were a bit hard to get a clear view of (consequently the photos are rubbish), but it was fantastic to see these extraordinary birds at long last.

How amazing, that after all the previous disappointments, I get to see these Waxwings on my own patch, less than 400 yards from where I live.

Tuesday 7 December 2010


Having been seen regularly for the past week, I opted for a quick visit to Little Bookham Common yesterday to find Hawfinch. I had a vague idea of the exact location but wasn't sure, and arrived near the site at the same time as Birdwatch magazine editor Dominic Mitchell. After a brief detour - Dominic's navigational skills aren't quite World Rally co-driver standard - we both parked up at the right spot and made our way to a group of bushes where another birder called Tim had set up shop.

After an hour's search we came up with very little apart from a stack of Redwings and a Snipe that flew past us. I was on the usual tight schedule and reluctantly had to make my way back to the car, where I bumped into Mike 'Posh' Spicer, who had just arrived. After we had a laugh at my Waxwing dipping prowess (actually, it's not that funny anymore), I was about to get into my car when I heard a shout. Looking up at frantic arm waving in the distance, it was clear both Tim and Dominic had struck gold. As Posh and I scurried over to the spot, Dominic shouted out 'to your right!' as the birds flew off. Scanning manically at the skyline, I saw nothing.

After a brief look in the trees, it was apparent I had dipped again.

Curiously, I wasn't too upset. I immediately planned to go back this morning, arriving just after 9.00am. I waited. Nothing. I had a good look around the area - in the bushes and tops of trees - still nothing.

Panic started to set in.

I couldn't bear the thought I might draw another blank. Everyone I know in birding is currently branding me as a dipping professor, and the nickname 'Dipper', rather than 'Factor', was becoming an alarmingly realistic prospect.

I scanned the tall trees behind the car park and saw what looked at first glance like a Chaffinch. I had a look through the scope and, lo and behold! A Hawfinch (162) at last! What a blessed relief.

Such a striking and attractive bird - big and bulky, but strangely beautiful. If it were a World War Two fighter plane, I'd compare this thick-set finch to a Thunderbolt.

It didn't stay long before flying off in the opposite direction to where I was standing, but not to worry. I'll be back to get a better view over the coming weeks. Hopefully, these birds will stick around before the year is out.

Next stop was Papercourt, near Ripley. I was on a tick mission and dutifully succeeded without mishap. Actually, it was a soulless, cheap and nasty tick. I parked the car, walked across the road to the side of the lake, pointed the scope in the general direction of some wildfowl swimming in the thawed out area of the water, saw three Goosander (163), took a photo to record the moment, and left.

No time to try for Waxwings in Guildford, so I went home to catch up on work. As the sun went down and thoughts drifted towards making Cottage Pie and crashing out in front of the telly, I had a look on Rare Bird Alert (fatal mistake) to see what had been going on around the country today.

Another blue triangle appeared right smack-bang in the middle of the south-east of England. 19 Waxwings. OK, probably the Teddington lot again. I zoomed in... Redhill. Holmethorpe... Water Colour Lagoons in trees next to the railway... Only a five minute walk from my house...

This is becoming pathological. I have possibly 19 Waxwings roosting less than half a mile from me as I write this, on my patch (which I have disgracefully ignored for most of the past four months), and will have to wait until first light to see whether they are still there.

Maybe it's a sign...

Let's hope it's a good one.

Sunday 5 December 2010


I should have been in Northumberland this weekend with Annie visiting my brother-in-law Alan and family near Hexham.

Despite the snow and road conditions, we got to Gatwick in good time for our flight to Newcastle on Friday, which was due to take off at 4.20pm - except it had been cancelled by the time we got there. We were re-booked on to a later flight at 8.05pm, but by 10.30pm we were still in the departure lounge, none the wiser as to whether this Flybe flight was ever going to get off the ground.

Having been stuck in the airport for eight hours with no information available on the boards - it was a complete shambles - we decided to abort our trip and go home, eventually walking back through the door around midnight. The flight did get to Newcastle eventually that night - at 2.00am.

The following morning I went back to Gatwick to pick up our suitcase, but not before dipping Waxwings for the ninth time at Teddington, where 19 had been seen at lunchtime near the police station.

Now we were back home, I had hoped to go to Bookham Common to find the two Hawfinches that are there at the moment, and had loosely arranged to meet up with Rich Sergeant and Rich Horton first thing on this morning.

Our friends who live in the next road, who were looking after our two Burmese cats while we were supposed to be away, invited us round for dinner yesterday evening, and we happily accepted.

A few bottles of Pinot Grigio and Gruner Veltliner later, I wasn't going anywhere by the time the sun rose this morning. My hangover and mood were lifted, however, by a text from Johnny Allan. A unringed juvenile Common Crane had landed on the lake at Beddington at about 11 o'clock.

Two hours later I was looking at my first Common Crane (161) amongst a throng of Surrey and London's birding glitterati.

It was the second Crane to be seen at Beddington this year, but the first to actually land. It looked as if it was going to stay for a while, although the Gulls at the landfill tomorrow might force it to move on. A cracking bird, and totally unexpected.

Later, Kojak texted me to let me know of two Waxwings on the Surrey University Campus at Guildford. I might head off there first thing.

Saturday 27 November 2010


It has been a pretty grim week. Too much work and scant chance to get out of the house to get even the remotest glimpse of even a feather, let alone a whole bird. Having said that, I did manage to dip the Epsom Waxwings a further three times, to make a total of eight dips.

For this second innings, the worst miss was on Monday afternoon, when Johnny Allan sent a text to say the same 11 birds were in their favoured tree. I set off as soon as I got the message. He sent another text to say he was about to leave and they were still there. I arrived five minutes later - and they were gone...

I texted Johnny back to tell him the news and he actually rang back. He couldn't believe it. So much so, he is tempted to change my nickname from Factor to Dipper. I was gutted. Cut to the quick. I knew this just wasn't going to happen. And so it proved. I tried twice more before giving up. These 11 bloody birds had managed to break me. I was so cheesed off, it felt very personal. Why had these poxy (beautiful) birds done this? There was no rhyme or reason to it, really. They were oblivious to my needs. So that was that. The rest of the week was spent remorseful at not seeing these magnificent birds and staring stressfully at a computer screen.

The same day I missed the Waxwings by five minutes, I also got a text from Johnny and Kojak regarding a huge flock of Lesser Redpolls at Headley Heath, originally discovered by Steve Gale. They counted as many as 400 birds.

After dipping the Waxwings for the eighth and final time I went over to Headley this morning to check out the Redpoll flock. Amazing. Discovering a few Redpolls is good, but to watch more than 200 in the trees on a brutally cold morning (-3C) was a joy.

They were flighty. As soon as a dog walker or horse rider went by, they were off. I watched them through the scope for more than two hours, and eventually I found a couple of Mealy Redpolls (160).

The thing with scrolling through so many birds is, how can you really claim to have seen a Mealy Redpoll amongst so many Lesser Redpolls? The Mealy (from what I have read) is slightly bigger and paler. The two birds I saw were definitely bigger from the deeper hued and smaller Lesser Redpolls. But you'll just have to take my word for it.

If you have the time, go and have a look at this flock - it's a spectacular sight. I just wonder why they decided Headley Heath was the in place to have an early winter rave?

Sunday 21 November 2010


After yesterday's crashing disappointment, I went for more punishment at first light this morning, staking out the Waxwings' favourite tree in Shawley Crescent near Epsom Downs.

I hung on until about 8.30am, but due to time constraints, I needed to head off to Cutt Mill Pond near Elstead. End result - Waxwing dip no. 4.

I could (but I'm not going to) claim a tick from yesterday's first visit. The birds were there when I arrived - but within a nanosecond (it could have been less) having looked down to pick up my bins, camera and scope, they had gone. It just wouldn't seem right to add them to my list - that's my feeling and I'm sticking to it.

Cutt Mill Pond was a different story altogether. As soon as I arrived I saw three Kingfisher skimming over the lake at break-neck speed. On the walk round the lake I came across a Grey Wagtail, and within 15 minutes I was looking at a Red-necked Grebe (158).

The Grebe was very obliging, hanging around close by, so I got great views of it. I watched the Grebe dive for food for a while, then made an impromptu decision to head off for Tice's Meadow.

I've never been to this plum site before, but I found it without a problem. It was only to be a fleeting visit, as time was really getting on. I had to be back home to meet with the Drain man, who was due at midday to do the job no-one else wants to do.

Anyone who knows of its record in recent years will testify that Tice's Meadow is one of the best places to see birds, particularly waders, in Surrey.

At first glance, it's like a mini-Beddington. There were a couple of birders up ahead and I introduced myself. One was John Hunt, and the other was Rich Horton... the same RT Horton who heads the species list on the Surrey Birders website. The same RT Horton who keeps pulling new birds out of the hat just when I think I've caught up. It was like Stanley meeting Livingston for the first time.

The Tice's Meadow crew is headed by Rich Horton, Rich Sergeant - who I've still yet to meet although we are in text and email contact - John Hunt and Kevin Duncan, who actually lives in Buckinghamshire.

They are rightly very proud of their patch which, with further development planned, will only get better. It's just a pity it's at the farthest end of Surrey to where I live.

I was at the site just for one bird. While I hadn't seen one in Surrey all year, in front of me were more than 400 Golden Plover (159). They made for quite a spectacle, frequently taking to the sky - a cloud of birds - before landing in a group again on the scrape.

John took me over to the edge of the scrape for a better view, while Rich headed off home.

After about 15 minutes watching the Plovers, numerous Lapwings and a couple of Dunlin, I had to leave and head home, but not before going back to dip the Waxwings for a fifth time. I discovered that they had dropped in for a ten-minute visit to the tree at about 9.00am. I should have hung on for another 30 minutes.

So, that may well be it as far as the Waxwings are concerned. I'm in London for most of the day tomorrow, and it would be my luck that they move on by Tuesday morning. We will see...

Saturday 20 November 2010


It's been a testing few days. Apart from working flat out to get various magazines, awards programmes and Powerpoint displays ready for next week, the house I live and work in is falling apart around my feet.

In the space of a few days, the boiler has gone on the blink (the boiler thermostat doesn't kick in, so the hot water just keeps on heating up until it virtually boils over) and the telly has packed up. While we were having the boiler fixed, we also had a couple of radiator valves replaced. That meant draining the rads. No problem. We ran the pipe from the kitchen radiator outside when I discovered it was more than apparent that our drains out the back of the house were completely blocked. We were literally up shit creek.

The back of the house is now not a place to venture out into until I get a man out to unblock the mess. At least it happened on the approach to winter - if it had been the summer, it doesn't bear thinking about...

If all that wasn't enough, I got a text from both Johnny Allan and Kojak yesterday afternoon saying there were five Waxwings showing well in a suburban road near Epsom. I couldn't really take the time to go and have a look, but I off I went.

I saw nothing. These birds had flown from a favoured tree in the area (with a shopping trolley at its base as a landmark) to who-knows-where. Wherever their destination, they decided to stay there. I figured they might be back the next morning.

Next morning (today), and after giving Annie a lift to Purley to get a train to London (engineering works near Redhill), I had to get back home to wait for Dom the boiler and radiator man to arrive at 9am. In between times, I had another text from Johnny. This time there were 11 Waxwings at the same spot, this time seen by Devil Birder (aka David Campbell).

I was stuck, though. I couldn't get out of the house until Dom had finished, and that was going to take four hours, by which time Annie would be heading on her way back home. And I also had to tell her the good news about the drains. Oh, how she was going to laugh...

I couldn't resist it, though. The boiler man was staying until about midday, so I left him to it and popped up to Burgh Heath. As I parked up 20 minutes later, I could see a large throng of birders looking at the favourite tree. A quick glance revealed a flock of birds in it.

I got out of the car, grabbed my scope, looked up, and they were gone.

Having been in this particular tree for more than an hour and a half, the very moment I appeared (within a few seconds) they flew off. A Sparrowhawk arrived in the area at the same time I did, and that was the likely reason they took flight. I met up with Mark Stanley (he was the chap whose name escaped me from my previous post), who had been watching the Waxwings for more than an hour and no doubt got some great photos. I wasn't inclined to have a look.

If I had turned up even just a minute earlier I would had seen them in all their glory. I knew then that this was going to be one of those days...

Eventually, the throng evaporated, happily sated with wonderful views of Waxwings, and I was left on my own, staring at an empty tree.

Predictably, they didn't return while I was there and I had to get back to pay the boiler man and also to pick up Annie from the station.

So, I went home again. I paid the boiler man, picked up Annie from the station, we had a laugh about the blocked drains and my dipping prowess and then had some lunch. In the afternoon, I managed to coax Annie that I really needed to go back to Burgh Heath. I drew another blank.

So that's three dips so far and I'll be back for more punishment tomorrow morning.

Thursday 18 November 2010


It's been more than a week since my last blog, so I thought I'd just rattle on about things for a bit. After the excitement of seeing the male Hen Harrier ten days ago, I went back to Canons Farm a couple of evenings later in the hope of seeing the Short-eared Owl David Campbell had seen the night before.

Whereas the preceding evening was beautifully clear and still, the following day erupted with a howling gale. It was still incredibly windy by 4pm but I went up to the Farm anyway. David and another guy (sorry, can't remember his name) were also on the lookout, but it was clear as the sun disappeared and time went on that the Owl was either sitting tight waiting for the wind to subside, or it had already cleared off. Whatever the reason, there wasn't going to be any repeat performance.

Not to worry, there's still plenty of time to find one before the year ends. Plenty of time, but my outings are currently extremely limited because of a heavy workload. I haven't really ventured out of the house since Sunday, but hopefully that won't stop me seeing birds I still need for my Surrey list before midnight on December 31st.

What might stop me, however, is not possessing a permit to some of Surrey's reservoirs.

I had been at a friend's wedding all day last Saturday. It seemed to act as a catalyst for a number of unusual birds to drop into the local region. A Velvet Scoter, a Red-breasted Merganser, a Red-necked Grebe, a Spotted Redshank and a Snow Bunting were all seen in Surrey on Saturday - all bar the latter Bunting were
on the Island Barn Reservoir at West Molesey. They may as well have been on Mars, as the only way anyone could get to see these birds was via a permit.

What a nightmare. The next morning, as the fog lifted, I went up to the only reservoir I can visit, at Staines, in the vain hope that perhaps something might decide to drop in there. Already at the reservoir were Bob Warden, North London birder Neville Smith and John Gates, the man who first discovered the Brown Shrike last year at Staines Moor.

The reservoir was about as interesting as watching Audley Harrison pretending to be a boxer against David Haye. Just a few Tufties, Coots and Cormorants to keep us entertained. To add salt to the wounds, three other birders were on the King George VI Reservoir next door, clearly enjoying excellent views of another Velvet Scoter.

I left after a brief chat and paid Ash Ranges a visit. I hadn't been there before, but another Great Grey Shrike had been spotted there the day before and was apparently on view first thing. I met up with a couple from Farnborough who led the way to the area another Shrike was seen last winter. Nothing doing. It was cold and rain was starting to become an irritant, so after an hour I gave the day up as a bad job.

Never mind. I'm gaining more experience now and I'm gradually taking disappointments like this in my stride. Such is the plight of those who give in to the temptation to list. After a week to clear the head, I'm almost ready to get back out there again.

Tuesday 9 November 2010


It was 4.45pm yesterday evening and I was in the Belfrey shopping centre in Redhill being dragged around the M&S womenswear department with Annie when a text came through from Johnny Allan. 'Male Hen Harrier Canons Farm. In field now. Thank you Devilbirder,' it said. It must have been very nearly dark, I thought. Is he still there? I texted back asking if it was worth going up to the Farm to have a look in the morning. He said it would, but to get there for first light as the bird was roosting there. He also said others would be there to see it, too.

Canons Farm birder David Campbell (aka Devilbirder) spotted the bird mid-afternoon and informed Johnny. He needed it for his Surrey list, and though my list pales into insignificance compared to the Surrey record holder, I needed it for mine, too.

The Farm is becoming a real jewel in the Surrey crown, and it's all down to David and the dedication he gives to his local patch. It just goes to prove that if you put the work in, you'll get your reward. He has had Corn Bunting and Black Redstart (almost a regular feature at the moment) recently and a Quail back in August.

I was due to have a meeting in London at 11.00am, so I made a point of getting up early this morning and was on the road heading for Banstead by 6.15am. The weather was cold and wet, but that didn't matter, so long as I didn't end up empty handed.

I arrived at the Farm about 20 minutes later, and after flaffing about for about ten minutes I walked over to where I thought the bird had been seen. I couldn't see anything in the gloom but I noticed two figures with binoculars about 50 yards away peering over a hedgerow. This was a stroke of luck for me. If I hadn't spotted Beddington birder Mike 'Posh' Spicer and fellow graphic designer Steve Gale I doubt I would have found the bird.

They had it in their sights at the far end of the field. I was struggling to see anything when suddenly the magnificent male Hen Harrier (157) took to the air. Fantastic. It circled the end of the field and looked like it was going to head towards us when it turned and then flew off low over into an adjacent field before flying off east.

OK, so we hadn't seen it for very long, but it was tremendous to see it in flight. There was no chance of getting a photo, it was still too dark. At 6.56am, when the Harrier left its roost, sunrise was still ten minutes away.

Having missed the bird by about five minutes the evening before, Posh left a happy man to go and get some breakfast, while Steve went on a walk to see what else was around before heading off to work, and I did the same.

I was hoping to find Brambling, as I've yet to see one this year, and Steve suggested I go to the field where the Harrier flew into, before it headed off out of sight, because a couple were seen with a flock of Chaffinches yesterday. I found a flock of about 50 Chaffs feeding in the field, but couldn't distinguish any Brambling amongst them.

It was more a morning for birds of prey, with four Buzzards and a Kestrel on view. I also came across a few Siskins and Yellowhammers. I'll be back at some point soon to have another search for Brambling and perhaps even the elusive Corn Bunting.

Before heading back home, I texted Johnny to thank him for his help. He texted back. 'Nice one. He who dares...ticks.'

Saturday 6 November 2010


Everything is in a bit of a rush at the moment. Work is manic (16 hours days) so I have been glued to the computer all week. It's been relentless, but at least I escaped today. I didn't get out until gone 9.30am, but sleep got the better of me.

I've been lucky really. Nothing much has happened in Surrey for the past week, mostly due to south-westerly winds, which possibly have prevented such scarcities as Waxwings touching down in the county (apart from one bunch that landed near Guildford). Waxwings have been carpeting Britain in their thousands, but most of the action is occuring north of Watford. Maybe this week, with the winds changing direction, we might get a few popping in for a while in the local neighbourhood.

Perhaps the only interesting moment of the week was the twitching documentary on BBC. A brief glance at the birding forums gave a general impression of how the birding community perceived the value of this one-hour special - not too well, on the whole.

I don't know what anyone expected, really. Birding, as a pastime, is a bit eccentric, whether we like to admit it or not. And any fly-on-the-wall documentary hoping to lure a large captive audience is always going to focus on the extremes. It certainly did that alright, but rather than shaking my head in dismay, I thought the programme captured the essence of what twitching is about - basically, obsessional behaviour that can turn some people a bit bonkers.

Driving for more than 11 hours non-stop to get to John O'Groats, then boarding a boat to Orkney just to get a life tick is madness. And consider the families back at home who generally never see the twitcher for days on end, and who always come second-best to a hobby. Not good.

This morning I found myself migrating to a bird I wanted to see again. I ended up at Frensham Little Pond and Frensham Common, just because another Great Grey Shrike had taken up residence there.

The area is currently a surreal place to visit. The Common had a huge fire in July, which burnt a vast area south of Frensham Little Pond. The charred landscape will recover in time, but the vista looks like a nuclear device has been detonated over the area.

After trudging round for a bit, I noticed a group of birders on the ridge opposite Great Pond, looking down into the valley. They'd obviously sighted the Shrike.

It was some way off (as usual), so some of us walked over to get a closer look. Luckily it was perched in a dead Silver Birch tree some 200 yards away and then it flew straight towards us and landed in another tree just 50 yards ahead. Typically, we were facing into the sun and so moved round to get a better view.

At this juncture, while the two guys I was with fired off frames from their cameras - one of whom, a wildlife photgrapher called Graham Carey, got a great shot which has been used on the Surrey Bird Club website - I was just setting up. The sun was behind us. Excellent. However, the other bloke with a camera got greedy and, rather than staying put to enjoy watching a brilliant bird, decided to get a bit closer - too close - and the inevitable happened. It flew off. Great. Thanks, mate.

So, for the next hour we ended up chasing the Shrike all round the Common and never got close to it again. In the end we lost track of it completely.

It had been a good outing, though. I hung around with Graham, and also met up with local patch guru Shaun Peters and Jan Wilczur, who is a bird illustrator - and had some top birding banter.

Next stop was Hindhead, for a brief visit. Nothing much there, apart from a Bullfinch feeding in a tree and some Goldcrests.

After that, I went home. Annie was off to London in the late afternoon, so at about 3pm I took a decision to go on a smash-and-grab mission to the London Wetland Centre at Barnes.

Earlier in the day, Jan had mentioned that Bearded Tit had been seen at the Centre first thing, so with that in mind, plus a chance to see a Bittern and a Jack Snipe, I set off for Barnes. I was contemplating taking a visit, via the Tube, on Tuesday as I am up in town for a meeting, but travelling by car, with hindsight, proved to be the better option. The AA route finder suggested it would take just under an hour to get there, but I arrived in 45 minutes (I didn't hang about).

The sun was hovering over the horizon but the light was fading fast. After paying the lady at the counter nearly a tenner to get in ("you do realise the Centre closes in an hour") I set off looking for the three potential Surrey year ticks. The problem for me was I didn't know where to go as this was my first visit.

After an aimless ramble I asked a guy with a scope. He pointed me in the right direction but only after explaining that the Bearded Tits and the Bittern were both seen early in the morning and hadn't been seen since. Eventually I found myself in the Peacock Tower at the far end of the site, and after a bit of a scramble and the help from another birder, I saw my first Jack Snipe (156) bobbing up and down feeding on the scrape.

The Bittern will have to wait, as work will be flat out again next week and only subsides at the end of the month.

Sunday 24 October 2010


It took five visits over a 12-day period and more than 12 hours of walking before I could say I had seen a Great Grey Shrike (155).

I think I earned it. Apart from the Pectoral Sandpiper at Beddington that eluded me completely despite four hours of searching, no other bird has had me on the ropes as much as this one.

While numerous other people managed to see the Shrike at the first attempt, my experience had been like a baseball player. On the first three visits I had three strikes and was sent packing (didn't see it three times in a row), the fourth time I got a base hit (I saw it, but only really a glimpse), and then at the fifth attempt I got a home run (had a good view).

Overall, I saw it four times. The first time was soon after arriving at the Common yesterday, when it flew out of a pine tree close to the boardwalk that leads to Pine Island. It flew off pursued by a flock of Meadow Pipits hell-bent on making its life a misery by mobbing it for all they were worth. It eventually flew into another pine tree on the walkway between the entrance of the Common and the island, but I lost sight of it.

It didn't help that I managed to slip over in the mud and had to spend a good ten minutes cleaning my scope. Luck was on hand, however, in the shape of Danny and Penny Boyd, who were the first people to see the Shrike all those days ago, and had seen it regularly ever since. My only hope was my presence hadn't put a curse on them after my poor recent record.

While they headed for Shrike Hill, I walked further east to see if I could find it. Drawing a blank, I headed back towards Shrike Hill through the island and on to the boardwalk. I could see the Boyds and their friends obviously viewing it through their bins, but I couldn't track where they were looking. Nothing for it, but to go and join them. The Shrike had been sitting on a wire not far from me, and if I had stayed where I was I would have had good views of it. Inevitably, it flew off just as I arrived to join the group, but it then perched on a small pine some 400 yards away.

At last, I got my first proper view of a Great Grey Shrike perched on a branch, preening itself, albeit a long way off, on neighbouring Ockley Common. I could just make out its black Zorro-like mask, but at a distance it looked more like a big grey marshmallow stuck on a branch. After a couple of minutes or so, it flew off again and that was that. This Shrike is elusive and active and uses the whole of Thursley and Ockley Commons as its patch.

It also appears to use Witley Common, on the other side of the A3, to roost, as the Boyds also saw a Great Grey Shrike there on Friday in the late afternoon - it was probably the same one.

So, now at least I could relax. I'd seen it so I had a new tick for my Surrey list. I still wanted a decent view of it, and as the day was bright and sunny, I dragged my sorry carcass over to Thursley again this morning.

These journeys were becoming a bit tedious, if I'm honest. I had thought about heading south instead to go and see the Rose-coloured Starling at Newhaven, plus the Pectoral Sandpiper at Arlington Reservoir and the Shorelark at Cuckmere Haven. I reckoned I could guarantee seeing at least one of them, whereas with the Shrike there was no such certainty. In the end, my restless urge to see the Shrike got the better of me.

This time round, I first saw the Shrike over at Ockley Common having a brief altercation with a crow before disappearing again. I then hesitated - what to do. In the end I made the right choice and headed over to Ockley. That was where I had last seen it, so chances were it would still be there. To confirm my hunch, I noticed in the distance the two-pronged Great Grey Shrike homing device that is Danny and Penny Boyd clearly looking at it through their binoculars. They are an uncanny couple - they never fail to find it.

My main fear was arriving too late. After a 15-minute walk through very boggy ground I at last came across the Shrike perched high on a dead tree. It stayed for a few minutes before flying off, heading south west towards Shrike Hill, occasionally hovering like a Kestrel, before swooping down and away into the distance.

Job done. I can now focus on other birds I need to see, including some hopefully more straightforward species like Brambling.

Thursday 21 October 2010


It was Monday when a Lapland Bunting was first spotted at the eastern end of Staines Reservoir. It had then been hanging out with some Linnets on both Tuesday and Wednesday - and was showing well.

I really like Lapland Buntings. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but they have personality. They're tough, too. Breeding in the Arctic tundra takes some doing, never mind spending a few days at Staines Reservoir, which is pretty bleak a place, even during the height of summer.

I was keen to see this one. I've already seen two this year at Beddington a few weeks ago, and although I got good views of them, I didn't get a great photo (journalistic license being used here) for posterity. Also, most sightings of Lap Bunts tend to be fly-overs, just brief silhouettes of a bird flashing across the sky. Hardly satisfying.

So knowing this one was on the deck and was discovered at one of my favourite haunts, I was champing at the bit to get up there. Trouble for me, of course, was work. I just couldn't ignore it. I was working solidly from home on Monday, in London all day Tuesday, out all day Wednesday... There didn't seem a hope in hell that it would stick around for my benefit on Thursday - but, much to my relief, it did.

I managed to get up to Staines for 3pm, and after a trek up the causeway - I decided to walk from the western end, just so I wasn't in danger of disturbing it for other people - I found three other birders watching it. It was sitting on the fence at the end of the north basin, before skipping over to the causeway itself, where it stayed for more than 40 minutes. Absolutey brilliant. It was certainly a hungry little chap, and seem to like the causeway for grub (perhaps someone left some seeds for it there).

Eventually another birder, who reluctantly had to leave, had to walk past it to get to his car. It was reluctant to be flushed, but eventually it was, flying off back to the fence area.

That was OK, though. It had been an enjoyable hour's birding.

Sunday 17 October 2010


Don't get too excited. The headline is a clunky attempt to compare what happens in baseball when you miss hitting the ball three times, and what happens when you miss seeing a Great Grey Shrike on three occasions.

My life at the moment has layers of stress levels. On the one hand, I am so up to my neck in work I'm only getting about fours hours sleep a day. I have a magazine to get ready for print and all the deadlines have just about been missed due to late copy (happens the world over). On top of that, there are a number of advertorials to finish by tomorrow, a feature to write and a coffee table-sized diary which needs to be ready by the end of the week - and I haven't even looked at that yet.

So my birding activity has been stripped down to a minimum. Every second counts - a bit like speed chess. Actually, not like speed chess at all. For one thing, speed birding is not nearly so rewarding. In fact, birding on a tight schedule can be pretty pointless, but unfortunately I have no choice, apart from staying at home. The way the week has gone, that might have been a better idea.

It started to go wrong on Tuesday. A blue triangle, designating a scarce bird, popped up on the Rare Bird Alert map right over Surrey, at Thursley Common. What made the triangle even more enticing was that the bird in question was a Great Grey Shrike.

My record with Shrikes is lamentable. The only one I have seen (only!) was the Brown Shrike at Staines Moor last year. OK, so that was an exceptional bird, but I haven't seen any others. I missed out on both the Red-Backed Shrikes this spring at Banstead and Richmond Park, so I was keen to make up for those with this Great Grey.

The weather on Tuesday was glorious, but I only found out about the Shrike late on, so it would have been touch and go to get down to Thursley before the sun set. So I made the decision to go very early the following morning in time for sunrise. That way I could get back in good time to settle down to another full day's slog at work.

Bad move. The weather the next morning was like watching a black and white movie - no colour at all, a totally dull, grey morning. I went anyway, and needless to say, I saw nothing of the Shrike, not even a grey feather. I did see a Ring Ouzel, a Woodlark and a couple of Lesser Redpolls, but they didn't make up for the disappointment. I bumped into Penny Boyd who, with her husband (forgotten his name) discovered the bird the day before. It had been showing well. Bugger.

The next day I was too busy, and the Shrike was seen again in the afternoon. I went back first at light on Friday, which was an even greyer day than Wednesday. Again, I couldn't find it. As I was walking round I could feel the panic setting it as time was running out.

Another couple arrived just as I was leaving, and they told me the bird was probably to the south of Shrike Hill, and the Boyds were on the case. I would have gone with them, but I just couldn't give in to my indulgence. So annoying. If I had known beforehand, I only had to walk about another 200 yards and I would have come across it. My mood was as black as the sky. Just to rub it in, the bird was found where the couple said it would be, and plenty of other birders found it.

I was crestfallen, as I knew I had probably missed my chance. The dips in this hobby can knock the stuffing out of you at times, but that is my fault. I need to strike a balance and get things into perspective. I can't expect to go birding to see everything without some effort.

So, I had another go this morning, Beautiful blue skies, a crisp morning. Again, though, I drew a blank. I think this time it wasn't there anyway.

So there you have it, a week with too much work and not enough sleep, with no reward at the end of it. The problem now is my workload is to continue unabated for the next month at least, so I'll have to miss out on the Bluethroats, Pallas's Warblers, Hoopoes, Great Grey Shrikes, Rose-Coloured Starlings and all the other splendid sights happening out there in the south-east of Britain. Roll on next spring...

Footnote: Great Grey Shrike seen in pines near boardwalk at 3pm today (Rare Bird Alert)

Sunday 10 October 2010


After grey start to the morning, it ended up as a glorious day. I originally had little to report, after drawing a blank at Staines Reservoir at first light, then doing the same at Staines Moor - apart from hearing a Cetti's Warbler in the bushes on the walk down from parking my car. Rob Innes noted a couple of Lapland Buntings flying over while I was there, but needless to say I didn't spot them. That's two lots of Lap Bunt I have missed in a row. It didn't bother me too much as I got great views of them at Beddington a few weeks ago.

It was looking like one of those mornings which I start off in hopeful mood and then end up baffled as to why I didn't see anything.

Luck was on my side, however, as I took the decision to drive past the reservoir on my way home. I'd met up with Bob Warden first thing, and I surmised that if his beat-up old Golf was still parked at the side of the road there must be something worth seeing.

His car was still there so I went for another look. Sure enough, he had spotted a good bird, one that he had yet to see on the reservoir before. A Common Scoter (154) was on the south basin. I just managed to get a look through Bob's scope when it flew off over to the KGVI Reservoir. We thought that was going to be it, but fortunately about 30 minutes later it came back, and this time it stayed long enough to get good views.

Later I went over to South Nutfield to see if I could find a Corn Bunting, but no luck, just Red-legged Partridge (probably less than were there first thing, as plenty of gunfire was going off in the surrounding fields), a Yellowhammer, a couple of Buzzards, a Sparrowhawk and a Kestrel.

Friday 8 October 2010


I took a chance and went to Reculver this morning, followed by Oare Marshes. It was misty, but the sun was doing its best to poke through. I was unsure as I started my walk what, if anything, I would discover. I parked at the Country Park car park and then headed south east behind the Oyster Farm towards the railway line and Chamber's Wall, then up to the sea wall and back to the car.

To cut a long story short, Oare was average (usual waders, plenty of Bearded Tit) while Reculver was reluctant to reveal many exciting birds. I got good close ups of four Goldcrests, I heard two Cetti's Warblers (I saw one of them), a Reed Bunting, a Stonechat, seven Oystercatcher, at least ten Little Egret and a couple of Redshank. I spoke to a couple of other birders (I think their names are Matt and Anne) who had also seen a Ring Ouzel near the railway line.

As I approached the end of the walk three Wheatears appeared on the sea wall near the rocks. I was resigned to having a good walk but no cigar, when one of the other birders (Matt) called out to me: "Excuse me! Short-eared Owl out at sea!"

I turned round and sure enough, circling like a Buzzard out at sea and coming towards us was a Short-eared Owl. What a bird - a magnificent sight. It looked like it was going to head inland but at the last minute it decided to head off over the sea again, pursued for a while by a couple of gulls. I was so entranced I only got one pathetic photo.

Never mind, the Short-eared Owl saved my day. I'll always be in its debt.

Thursday 7 October 2010


The sun is shining and we are building up to an Indian Summer weekend, with temperatures into the mid 70s (I prefer fahrenheit as a temperature reference rather than this euro-friendly centrigrade business).

I won't be seeing much of it today, sadly, as work has me grounded. Having said that, I did think about going to Reculver early this morning, but decided against it. I often have a crisis during mornings where I have it mind to travel further afield to look for unusual birds. I worry that with time limited I'll go to the wrong place, but then how are you suppose to judge the best option?

This morning was a case in point. I stayed at home but a Honey Buzzard was seen over Reculver first thing, and if I had gone I would have seen it. Then again, if I had set off, I know I would have had a change of mind and gone to Oare instead. Which, as it turns out would have been a good choice because Hen Harrier and Little Stint were in the area. I have yet to see any of the birds mentioned, or an Osprey, or a Merlin, or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper this year, and there have been plenty of sightings all over the place.

Peter Alfrey at Beddington doesn't even have to venture out of his house to get good views of some great birds. So far, he has seen both a Common Crane and a Short-eared Owl just by gazing out of his bedroom window - what he refers to as the Beddington Farmlands Observatory - at the right time. All I see from my house is a neighbour's dog barking its head off, or numerous local yobs walking with a swagger up and down the road as if they own the place.

I went out late yesterday to Nore Hill in the vain hope of spotting a Ring Ouzel (I saw three there in the spring) but it was always going to be a tall order. I did see a Peregrine Falcon, two Buzzards and a Kestrel, though. Later still I went in search for the Corn Bunting that had been seen the previous afternoon by Kojak in the fields where the Grey Partridge were, but it was getting too dark. Coincidentally, in the gloom I spotted Kojak standing in the corner of a field. He was on the lookout for Barn Owl.

We had a chat about the Corn Bunting - he hadn't relocated it - and the Partridge situation, and the discussion going on at the moment as to whether these Grey Partridge - some reared, some perhaps breeding - count as a tick or not. I'm a bit like the bloke on the Fast Show, who ends up changing his mind each time someone has a different point of view. At first I was happy when Graham James suggested that they counted, then I changed my mind again when Johnny Allan left it open to question. But now, I back to thinking they count again. I can't agree with everybody, so I'm going to stick with the thumbs up.

So, Corn Bunting. Kojak was convinced there must be a few around what is a vast area with great potential Bunting habitat. It just needs someone to walk around this new territory for a few hours to try and spot them, but they are very rare in Surrey.

I'll probably give it a go at some point, but what it takes is time and patience, and I don't have enough of either. I know if I trawl around the local fields tomorrow morning I might end up seeing nothing, whereas if I go to Reculver and Oare, the chances are I will see at least one or two of the birds I'm searching for.

Then again, it is no doubt more rewarding to discover an unusual bird after a search that has taken hours, days and weeks based on a hunch and a bit of research, rather than just turning up, pointing the scope in the right general direction, ticking the bird off and leaving. Do you want to twitch or do you need more than that?

It's all about taking decisions that make you happy. I'm just not sure what decision is the right one for me yet.

Sunday 3 October 2010


It was worth it just to write the headline.

With a window of opportunity late in the afternoon as the wind and rain abated for once, and after a brief search a few days ago, I took a different route across the farmland to search for game.

Parking at Bransland Wood, south of Bletchingley, I walked the public footpaths across the fields towards an area where the Red-legged Patridges were last time. I counted at least 15 during the search. Plenty of Pheasants and a Wheatear too, but not the prize.

As the light started to fade, I could hear birds calling in an adjacent field. They had taken some finding, but eight or more Grey Partridge (153) scrurried nervously (not suprisingly) at the top of the field towards a pen. Most game birds seem to have a nervous disposition - are they psychic?

It was satisfying to find these birds at long last. I sent Johnny Allan a text to give him the good news - hence the headline. Johnny needs them for his list and he'd apparently tried and failed once before (he went to the wrong farm). It would be rewarding to repay him for the help he has given in recent weeks.