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.

Thursday 30 September 2010


The alarm went off at 4.30am. Normally, I know where I intend to head off to but having looked at the map and the potentially good places for migrants, I was a bit stuck. I couldn't go too far because I had to be back by lunchtime.

Decisions, decisions... In the end I played safe and aimed for Oare Marshes again - the weather was expected to be fine, so I was sure to have a better day than Sunday. I had thought of Chichester Harbour and even Dungeness but I didn't want to spend ages getting my bearings at places I didn't know well.

Time had to be spent wisely - which is why I ended up at Reculver instead. It was still dark as I approached the turn-off for Oare, so I thought I'd drive on for another 20 miles. It wasn't a good move. A spectacular setting perhaps, but not knowing the best places to walk I ended up meandering around seeing very little.

Having looked at the Kent Ornithological Society website later I realised that Shuart, where they ring birds, is a good place to go. Maybe another time.

So, Reculver proved to be a time-wasting exercise and a costly one, too. By the time I got to Oare I had missed an Osprey flying over. It would have been a lifer for me but I know in time I'll see one, just maybe not this year.

On Sunday I failed to see the White-rumped Sandpiper that had been at the Marshes for a couple of weeks, so today the rare little wader was high on my tick list. The sun was fully up by now, and with a light breeze the morning was perfect for me - no battles against the wind and rain today.

So, what did I see? Well, first off I had a Groundhog Day moment as I got out of the car. Right on cue, a Cetti's Warbler blurted out its song - just like on Sunday. I heard three during the morning. The next bit of good news was, having missed out on my two previous visits to Oare, seeing more than 20 Bearded Tit 'pinging' over the reeds. A good start to the visit.

Eight Buzzards circled overhead, along with a couple of Kestrels. Two Hobby also hung around for most of the morning.

Apparently, a Lapland Bunting flew over calling at one point, but I never saw or heard it - no change there then. The Sandpiper was nowhere to be seen at this stage, with two other birders on the lookout for it. The tide was out, allowing a few Curlew, Dunlin, Little Egret and plenty of Redshank to feed. More than 400 Golden Plover were also on the East Flood.

I wondered if it was going to be another dip day as far as the wader was concerned but fortunately it was relocated at the western end of the Flood. The WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER seemed to like hanging out with the Golden Plovers (and one Turnstone), occasionally attempting to get some kip before being shuffled out of the way.

Luckily, it gradually made its way over to the lane end of the Flood. When a Curlew Sandpiper dropped in, the White-rumped perked up a bit and joined its new mate to feed.

Initially, when I heard one of these migrant waders had dropped in at Oare, I wasn't that fussed. It looked, from the photos I had seen, a bit like a Dunlin - and who gets excited at looking at a Dunlin?

But I got quite attached to this cute little chap, watching him close up. It was really good to have such good views of a rare bird. Eventually, the surrounding Lapwings got cheesed off and shooed it away. It took flight and after a wide circle came down further away on the Flood. A good end to the morning.

I'm aware that I haven't spent much time recently discussing Surrey birding - which, after all, is supposed to be what this blog is about. Normal service will be resumed in the coming days, as I go on the hunt for local Grey Partridge. Oh, what excitement...

Sunday 26 September 2010


The past week has been frustrating. Friday was spent at Seaford Head, Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven and while the walk was spectacular, the birdlife was scant apart from three Wheatears, about 15 Little Egrets, five Oystercatcher, a couple of Rock Pipits and seven Curlews flying over.

One of the Wheatear posed obligingly on a gate post. This was good because I plan to complete some bird illustrations before the year is out and the Wheatear is a nice bird to draw.

Saturday was spent in Wales with friends. It was a gloriously sunny day, if a bit on the chilly side, and also one where I discovered a vocal flock of Raven near Monmouth. They put on an impressive aerial display, but as they were on private farmland I was reticent to try and get closer to them. Before the year is out, however, I'm determined to get better views of these magnificent birds. Another potential illustration.

What a difference a day makes. Sunday was utterly miserable. I made the wrong choice of location, deciding to go to Oare Marshes for sunrise. The better option would have been to stay in bed.

As I got out of the car I immediately heard a Cetti's Warbler announcing its presence, which was a promising start, but as I began my walk it was clear that the wind, which was relentless, was going to make birdwatching very difficult.

It started off badly. The wind was so strong, and my eyes were watering constantly, I could hardly see through the scope, which was being buffeted by the very strong north westerlies. I made the mistake of standing the scope on the footpath as I grappled with my bins for a second, and the scope just took off on a gust, crashing to the ground. BLOODY HELL!

Luckily, it wasn't badly damaged apart from a few scratches, unlike my binoculars which crashed against a metal gate, causing me to see double of everything when I looked through them.

It was hopeless. I walked the area as best I could, but it was clear the birds were bracing themselves against the wind and were locking up shop waiting for the gales and showers to subside - which they didn't.

So what birds did I see? A few Ruff, about 100 Redshank, 40-plus Avocet, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Lapwings, Dunlin and Curlew, plus I heard another Cetti's Warbler. What I didn't see was the Spoonbill that had been present the day before, or the White-rumped Sandpiper. Both reappeared the next day.

I was going to go home, but I was aware that most birders were heading to the Sea Wall Hide at the eastern end of the site to look out over the creek for seabirds. A perfect day for it, although most of the birds were well out of decent viewing range. Both the inside and outside of the hide was packed, so there was no chance of getting a break from the wind.

The best sight was of juvenile Gannets flying up the Swale Estuary - I saw at least 20 of them. Next up were six Great Skuas with a single Arctic Skua, high up and flying inland (I wouldn't have known what they were but a chap next to me pointed them out). Apparently, there was also a Long-tailed Skua and a Pomarine Skua going over while I was there, but I'm blowed if I could see them.

By midday, I'd had enough and left the hardy seabirders to there allegedly enjoyable day. I hadn't enjoyed it that much, it has to be said, and it was compounded by texts from Kojak announcing a Little Stint and Jack Snipe at Beddington - both of which I haven't seen this year.

I just have to admit I'm a fair-weather birder.

Tuesday 21 September 2010


The in-laws' Golden Wedding celebrations at the weekend came and went. The full day working in High Holborn on Monday came and went. The Pectoral Sandpiper at Beddington Farm, however, came and stayed.

Kojak, one of the Beddington crew, sent me a text at about 8.00am to say the bird was still there. So off I went to the Farm to try and get this elusive wader. Well, elusive to me, at any rate. Everyone who has gone to Beddington so far to see the Pec had come away happy birders. Wanstead birder and top blogger Jonathan Lethbridge saw it over the weekend, and Rich Sergeant from Tice's Meadow also had a successful visit yesterday.

I met up with Kojak just after 9.00am and we went to where the bird had last been seen. A tractor had since been positioned by the side of the bed and was pumping out water, making quite a racket. It was no real surprise, therefore, to discover that the bird had taken a hike.

Within half an hour I was starting to have one of those Groundhog Day moments. We trekked around every bed we could find more than once, and the Pectoral Sandpiper refused to reveal itself. It wasn't for the lack of trying. A total of four hours during the two visits had come up with a big fat zero - it was hard not to take the double dip personally. This bird clearly had it in for me. We even bumped into Marcus, the on-site ecologist, who had use of a four-wheel drive vehicle and we all got in and went to the farthest end of the site to see if the wader had gone elsewhere. But no.

We had to give it up. The consolation was a Knot (150) on one of the lagoons. It was a fair distance away so the photo here is not that good, but never mind. The trip had been worthwhile, and Kojak, to his credit, couldn't have tried harder to find the Pec for me. I left the gang (Johnny Allan, 'Posh' Spicer and Kojak) at the hide and went home.

What a difference a few hours can make. It was mid-afternoon that I noticed on the Rare Bird Alert map that a Spotted Crake had been seen at Unstead Sewage Farm near Godalming. I then got a text from Kojak saying he was on his way over there to find it.

There was a potentially sticky problem for me, though, as Annie had been stuck at home all day and, seeing as it was a gorgeous afternoon for once, she wanted to go for a walk. We decided on Denbies Vineyard near Dorking. It was then that Kojak sent another text explaining he had good views of the Crake and gave directions on how to find it, which added to directions I had already found and printed off.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and I wasn't sure whether I could get Annie back to Redhill and then travel over to Godalming before it got too dark. Generously, she agreed to go with me - so I added a spot of dinner at a pub on the way back as a way of saying thank you.

We got to Unstead at 6.30pm and walked up to the hide. Brian, who looks after the keys to the hide and is the resident birder, was there plus another birder called Donald. Amazing. Within 30 seconds I got my first view of a Spotted Crake (151). Happily feeding on the water, the Crake couldn't have been easier to see.

Then a little further back near some reeds, I got my first sighting of a Water Rail (152). A totally unexpected tick, but extremely welcome.

Normally very shy birds, these two were in no rush to hide in the undergrowth and we stayed for 15-20 minutes watching them before it was time to lock up the hide and call it a day. Surprisingly, the Spotted Crake had been at Unstead for the past ten days, but had only been announced this afternoon. Issues with certain members of the birding community meant Brian now felt reticent to reveal the discoveries on his patch, which have been plentiful.

It's a strange old business, birding. There are occasional clashes of personality that can get blown out of proportion and develop into feuds that can last a lifetime. One thing I intend never to do is to let this hobby take me over to that extent.

If I become a bitter and twisted old git in a few years time, you have my permission to tell me where to go.

Friday 17 September 2010


After yesterday's disappointments I stayed at home this morning to do something a bit more constructive - like earn a living - for a change. Gazing out of the window the sun was shining. I knew I had to go somewhere later in the afternoon otherwise I would be brooding about my lack of a good sighting the day before for the whole weekend, which was going to be spent at Annie's parents to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary. Not a good mixture.

So I sent Johnny Allan at Beddington a text. Having missed both of Beddington's two great Surrey ticks this week I had to know if they were still there. "Any sign of the Pec Sandpiper and Lap Bunts today," I asked, "or have they both left the Beddington nest?". A few minutes later I got a reply. "Both still here".

Great! I texted him back to say I would be at the site in about an hour, and he very kindly arranged to meet me. The journey took nearer two hours as I had to first drop Annie off at Kingston before travelling back to Hackbridge.

Traffic was terrible, but eventually I was walking up the path and met up with Johnny. He thought it best to look for the Pectoral Sandpiper first as it was easier to find. That was the theory, at any rate. But it was nowhere to be seen. It had been moving in between two of the many sludge beds and had been seen well earlier in the day. But not now. We walked around pretty much the whole of the north end of the site a couple of times, but nothing doing.

I had to shrug it off. It happens. I did have good views of a Ringed Plover and a couple of Greenshank, but the Pec had flown or was hiding somewhere. Johnny did say he had seen a Hobby very close by earlier, as well as a Sparrowhawk, and either of these could have forced the juvenile wader to move elsewhere. As it was, a couple of hours after I left, Johnny sent me another text to tell me the bird had been seen back on its favourite spot again. Such is life...

So, on next to the other side of the big landfill to the south eastern end of the 100-acre site. It took a bit of walking, and it was evident that Mr Allan, although a few years older than me, was a darn sight fitter. By the time we got to the area where the birds had been seen for the past two days I was knackered.

Anyway, the bins went out, the scope went up, and we looked to see if the little migrants were around. Nothing. Johnny suggested we wait ten minutes and if they didn't appear, he would walk the field and flush them out. He seemed confident.

So, after ten minutes Johnny walked the field. He was just coming to the area where the birds had been spotted when up they went, a pair of Lapland Buntings (149) flew up and did a few circuits of the field together before coming back down to land. Fortunately, they came down in an area where we could see them well. I think we were both relieved. A smashing little bird.

After a while we headed back and set off home. Johnny had been at the site for nine hours (11 hours yesterday) and I was eternally grateful to him for sparing two of those to show me round.

I certainly owe him one. Hopefully, Holmethorpe will come up with a good bird for me to return the favour.

Thursday 16 September 2010


Another early start this morning, full of hope and expectation. By 6.30am I was pulling up into the Birling Gap car park as the sun tried to force its way through the cloud. It was cold and breezy, but a great place to be first thing in the morning.

I try not to imagine the birds I'm going to find on a trip like this, but my mind won't have it - Wrynecks, Ortolan Buntings, Lapland Buntings, Pied Flycatchers, a Honey Buzzard and an Osprey flying overhead, all these and more are waiting for me at the coast.

The reality very rarely lives up to the self-imposed hype. This morning was a good example. I walked across the hill and down to where the Ortolan Bunting was found on Sunday, and then onwards and up to the lighthouse at Belle Tout and down again and back to Birling Gap. Nothing, except plenty of Stonechats, a couple of Wheatears, two Whitethroats and hundreds of Meadow Pipits. It was colder than Sunday and windier, so that might explain the derth of migrants on view. No raptors either. Not one.

So, after a couple of hours I drove round to Cuckmere Haven, a place I had only visited once before on a geography field trip at school. It looked more promising. It was sheltered for one thing, and the first sight was of a Black-Tailed Godwit, then a few Wheatears. A walk along the river revealed a total of six Little Egret, a Knot and a first for me this year, a Bar-Tailed Godwit that was disturbed by walkers and flew off out of sight. Oh, and did I mention the hundreds of Meadow Pipits that flew over.

Once at the shoreline there were more Wheatears on the pebbles, gazing longingly out to sea, a Reed Bunting and plenty of Stonechats. There were also loads of Meadow Pipits.

But that was it. Bugger all. The long walk back to the car flushed out a couple of Little Egret and yet more bloody Meadow Pipits, but nothing else of note. Thank goodness for the Bar-Tailed Godwit and the photogenic Wheatears.

I shouldn't be surprised. Everyone suffers the same deflation now and again. I've read Birdwatch editor-in-chief Dominic Mitchell's blog recently about chasing round the London region missing three Osprey sightings in one day, and that would've have been enough to send some people - those who really are obsessed by their pastime - over the edge.

On the walk back to the car, Johnny Allan sent a text. The day before he sent one about a couple of Lapland Buntings at Beddington, but I was working so couldn't get out. Today it was a Pectoral Sandpiper that had landed at the Farm, but I was in Sussex and needed to get back home to do some work.

Once back at base, I put myself through more masochism by going to the Rare Bird Alert website to see what I could have been looking at, and right on queue, at Cuckmere Haven, a Lapland Bunting and - as icing on the cake - a White Stork dropped in just as I was driving away.

There was one ray of light. Annie sent me a text that made me laugh for the first time during the day. "So, did you see the greater-spotted put-washing-in-the-washing-machine catcher or the lesser spotted hoover," she asked. "Or maybe the seldom-spotted bathroom cleaner?"

So, what do I do now? Do I get up early again tomorrow and head for Beddington in the hope of seeing the Pec Sandpiper, or do I drag my carcass back down to Cuckmere in the hope of seeing the Stork? Or should I do neither and do a bit of hoovering, clean the bath and just wait to see what happens?

Sunday 12 September 2010


I took the metaphorical plunge at 5.30am this morning and headed off for the Sussex coast and Beachy Head. I was anticipating a number of new sightings, one of which had been highlighted in the area the day before. It all started out well as I belted down the M23 under beautiful blue skies as the sun appeared - not necessarily good for birding, but certainly good for the soul.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a trip like this, particularly as I only had a morning to cover a vast area that I'd never been to before specifically to search for birds. I had all manner of exciting migrants visualised in my head that I might come across.

In just over an hour (I didn't hang about) I was parked up at the Beachy Head Countryside Centre, having already seen five Wheatears, plus a Whinchat on the fence by the roadside.

It was windy, as expected, and confusing. Why? Too much wind, for a start - my eyes were watering. And there was just so much activity, it was hard to take any of it in. There were more Wheatears here, for example, than I've ever seen in one place before - already there were about 15-20 in the grass by the cliff footpath. Dozens of Meadow Pipits skipped overhead, a couple of Redstart settled in a bush.

But it was the warblers, loads of them, that had me in a daze. I just couldn't get a handle of them. They just wouldn't KEEP BLOODY STILL. Everywhere I looked was frenetic, like Heathrow airport on a bank holiday, save for one species of bird, the Spotted Flycatcher. I often come across these great little birds - they keep still for one thing, which means they are always obliging when it comes to photos. So it was today.

Eventually, after spending too long in one place, I drove down the hill a short way to the Cliff Edge car park. This was more like it. Sheltered from the wind, and fantastic views. Calmer. Also more Spotted Flycatcher, one here living up to its name and catching a fly.

It was here a bloke parked up on his motor bike and came over and had a chat about how brilliant this place was, and had I seen much. He was friendly and polite, but in my mind all I thought was "will you bugger off!"

I was obviously distracted and eventually he did wander back to his machine, but not before mentioning that he had seen a number of birders congregated down the road. I knew what they were looking for.

So, a few minutes later I had parked at the Horseshoe Plantation car park. Ignoring a couple of birders staring at a bush, I walked up the path heading east and came across a young chap and his mate. I asked if he'd seen much, including the Bunting everyone would be looking for, and he said, yep, he'd seen it (you should have been here half an hour ago...) but the bird had flown off into the adjacent field.

After watching what looked like a cloud of House Martins swarming round the lighthouse at the top of the hill, a Raven mobbed by some crows, a few Stonechats, Whinchats, yet more Wheatears and more than 100 Meadow Pipits, I bumped into Dave Cooper, the man who had discovered the exciting sighting the day before. I followed him back towards the two birders gazing at the bush, to discover they had lost sight of it. After waiting for about 30 minutes it was clear the bird wasn't going to show, so I decided to go back up the hill and see what I could find there.

After watching more Spotted Flycatcher - I saw six in all during the morning - and a Sparrowhawk swoop into the shrub to a background of anxious chirping - I made one last trip back down the hill to the gathering of birders. Within minutes of my arrival the ORTOLAN BUNTING flew out from behind the bushes and back down into the field on the other side of the road and out of sight.

Everyone got a bit excited and scopes were perched on the side of the road in a vain attempt to see through a mass of vegetation - to no avail. In the end it took a flushing out exercise, not something I agree with really - if it intends to fly up it will of its own accord at some point, and if it doesn't that's just the way it is - which caused the bird to fly back round the side of the bushes again.

As time was running out, after another 30 minutes or so, I decided it was time to leave. I'd seen the bird, not brilliantly - it hadn't been very co-operative while I was there, but it was enough. Sometimes the twitch is a good one, other times it isn't. This was one of those when you don't go away clicking your heels...

For all of that, the morning had been a really enjoyable one - I'll definitely be going back there before the end of the month. I was intending to try and fit in Arlington Reservoir and Cuckmere Haven, but time had beaten me.

So, as per usual, once back at home I took another look at the Rare Bird Alert and Sussex Ornithological Society websites to discover more pain. The Bunting showed well in the afternoon, a Honey Buzzard flew over, as did some Lapland Buntings, and a Wryneck appeared on the footpath at the bottom of the hill. Added to which a Icterine Warbler made an appearance at Birling Gap.

Mind you, warblers are a nightmare - one looks very much like another. How on earth someone managed to confirm a sighting of this rare one halfway up a tree is beyond me.

Friday 10 September 2010


I travelled over to Palm Bay, Cliftonville in Kent yesterday to take my parents out for lunch. Their birthdays are on the 14th and 20th of this month, and as I'm anticipating a busy work schedule coming up, a pre-birthday slap-up meal seemed a good option.

Still getting over the after-effects of her kidney stone, Annie thought it wise to stay at home, so I travelled on my own. As I had read good reviews - including from the hard-to-please Jay Rayner, the Observer food critic - I'd booked a table at Eddie Gilbert's Restaurant in Ramsgate.

We weren't to be disappointed. The restaurant is upstairs from the fishmongers/fish and chip takeaway, and the food was excellent. The menu was varied, from top-end Monkfish dishes down to fish and chips. I went for a potted shrimp starter, followed by battered haddock (cooked in beef dripping), chips and minted mushy peas. My dad had six oysters to start with (he'd never had them before so he thought he would give them a go) followed by grilled cod, new potatoes and veg, while my mum had cod and salmon fish cakes with new potatoes and mushy peas.

It all went down really well with a glass of nicely chilled Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, and not too expensive either. We'll definitely go there again.

As birders will know, this coastline - especially at this time of year - is a potential gold-mine for unusual migrants and visitors. So, after our food had settled, we drove a short distance to the Sandwich and Pegwell Bay nature reserve.

I'd looked online at the Rare Bird Alert website map, and migration had started to really hot up in the past few days. Hundreds of Lapland Buntings had been sighted around the country, plus scores of Wryneck, Barred Warblers and an array of other rarities.

The visit was only relatively brief as my mum can't walk far, so she stayed in the car looking out over the bay. The tide was out and there were an abundance of waders feeding on the shoreline, including Oystercatcher, Black-Tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Redshank, Dunlin, a few Turnstone, Ruff and Knot and up to six Little Egret. There were more birds, including gulls further out, but I couldn't say what they were.

Within minutes, I had spotted a bird I had wanted to see in a while. A Spoonbill was feeding on the shoreline close by a Little Egret. Typical, really. I went to Oare last month hoping to find Spoonbill, but didn't come across one all day, and then here, without expectation, I find one almost straight away.

Great stuff. A further walk round came up with plenty of Whinchat, eight in all, plus Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and another warbler in the bushes I couldn't identify. The walk was interrupted by a rainstorm that past through, and the deluge meant bird-watching was over for the afternoon.

Back at Palm Bay, I showed my dad the Rare Bird Alert website and map, explaining how you can find birds that are recorded during the day, and to my horror, right smack-bang where we had just been was a red star. A red star means a mega has appeared.

This mega, recorded just after 1.30pm (we had been at the site at 4pm), was a Fan-Tailed Warbler. Also recorded were five Glossy Ibises and a Lapland Bunting, plus the Spoonbill I had seen.

Bit of a shocker, this. Galling beyond belief to be at a site oblivious to rare birds probably around the next corner! As it transpired the Warbler had only been heard briefly. I would have liked to have seen the Glossy Ibis, though.

Sunday 5 September 2010


You'll have to put up with one more post where most of the subject matter has nothing to do with birding, but stick with it.

It's been a hectic weekend, and not all for the best of reasons. Saturday was a very good day, in as much as I spent most of it travelling to Coventry to watch the BriSCA F1 Stock Car World Championship final.

I've been involved in the sport on and off for many years. I was editor of Motorsport News ten years ago, and while on the paper I did my utmost to give it as much publicity as I could because, as far as I was concerned, F1 stock car racing was, and still is, one of the most exciting sporting spectacles you'll see anywhere. I also wrote and self-published a book on the subject back in 2000 called The Sound and the Fury.

If you've been watching Gears and Tears on BBC1 on Monday nights (the last part of the series is on tomorrow evening at 10.35pm), you'll be aware of the rivalry between two families - the Smiths and the Wainmans. I know both families really well and I caught up with them on Saturday night. As for the race, it was Andy Smith who came through to win his third World title in a row.

I have also got to know the producer of Gears and Tears quite well, and I have an idea for another fly-on-the-wall series which I intend to put to him at some point, this time about birding. I'm not going to say much about it yet (I don't want anyone pinching my idea) but I'm putting some feelers out to see whether it has legs (or should I say wings).

So that was Saturday. I came down to earth with a bump today, however. Out of the blue, Annie was in terrible pain from a kidney stone and spent most of the day in A&E at East Surrey hospital. There are few more painful experiences than suffering from a kidney stone, apart from perhaps missing a rare bird drop down on your local patch.

Joking aside, I felt really sorry for her, particularly because she's had them before. She's back home now, and a darn sight more comfortable than earlier.

Did that mean I decided not to go out for a spot of birding? Shamefully, I have to say no, it didn't. My birding mate Graham texted me again recently about an owl that has been seen at dusk just south of Spynes Mere, near Mercer's Farm.

I went up there tonight, but thought it was probably too dark to see anything. As it turned out I spotted Graham and Gordon over by the corner of the cornfield next to the horse paddocks at the farm. They had been positioned there for quite a while and hadn't seen anything. Usually, I'm the Dipmeister General in these situations, but luckily, within about ten minutes Gordon spotted the Barn Owl (148) flying south low over the field and out over a hedgerow.

It was the only sighting we got, but it was enough for the time being. I'll be back to get a better view during the week.

Thursday 2 September 2010


Alex Higgins: The People's Champion was aired on BBC2 last night, an hour-long documentary on the mercurial snooker player and his extraordinary life and eventual downfall.

As a player he was capable of genius, a crowd-pleaser with a huge following that included me. The same year he won the World Snooker Championship for a second time in 1982, he also released a pop single based on the number 147 - the maximum break in snooker.

I was more into Joy Division at the time, so 147: That's My Idea Of Heaven didn't get played on my record player very often even though I had a pile of them given to me by Alex himself.

I had left art college a year before and had spent much of the next ten months putting together a portfolio of illustrations in the hope of finding some work. One of the paintings was of Alex Higgins, in typical pose, dashing around a snooker table. I had a number of large prints made up and was keen for Alex to have one. I took a print with me when I went with some friends to watch him play Eddie Charlton at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon.

I luckily bumped into his manager at the front of the auditorium and, because he liked the print, he suggested I give it to Alex personally.

So, I went backstage as the great man was preparing for the match. He was really pleased with the picture and it was then he gave me some copies of the single. We spoke for a while and then 15 minutes later Alex Higgins was playing electrifying snooker in front of an appreciative crowd.

So, what has that got to do with birds? Well nothing at all really, apart from the fact that after Holmethorpe birder Graham James texted me this afternoon, I went to Spynes Mere on my local patch and a Ruff was feeding close by some Lapwings. It also took me up to 147 for my Surrey list this year.

I was going to put a copy of the picture on this post, but after a rummage through my files I still haven't found one. Once I do, I'll put it up on the blog. In the meantime, here's another, albeit irrelevant, illustration completed during that period. I'm considering taking it up again and putting together a few bird drawings.

Wednesday 1 September 2010


Another sunny day and another morning on the birding trail. After being stuck in traffic on the M25 I got to Staines Reservoir at 8.30am, having listened to a discussion on Tony Blair's autobiography on Radio 4. Seeing as he's made plenty of money out of his time as PM, I'll probably wait until the tome arrives at Redhill library before reading it, rather than buying a copy to add to his already bulging coffers. Sounds compelling, though.

Using Staines as a Surrey listing site causes some conjecture. Ace Beddington and Surrey birder Johnny Allan, for one, doesn't count this area as part of Surrey for his list. He uses VC 17, which is based on the Surrey border before Spelthorne became part of the county in 2000. For me personally, so long as the Surrey boundary as it currently stands includes Staines, I'll include it for listing purposes. I suppose it is down to personal preference.

It was a good morning. My first spot was a Peregrine Falcon sitting at the top of a pylon between the Staines and King George VI reservoirs. It was clearly not in a hurry to go anywhere, so I got good views of it. A couple of other birders were on the causeway, and they saw a Kingfisher and a flock of Dunlin pass through. I just missed those, but I did get two Ringed Plover (146), which flew in and landed on the south basin.

What a relief. These birds aren't difficult to find, but I hadn't had them yet, so to find two here certainly made the trip worthwhile. The reservoir was relatively quiet apart from the usual suspects (Comorants, various ducks and Crested Grebe), but there were at least 10 Sand Martins feeding, plus a Common Tern and a few Yellow Wagtail on the east bank of the KGVI reservoir that were flitting around some grazing sheep.

I always end up migrating to Staines Moor. It's a place where something good usually turns up. The first sighting was of a Wheatear, plus a couple of Kestrel, one of which was causing havoc with the local bird community in its attempt to catch a prey.

The main aim of going to the Moor was to find Yellow Wagtail. Although I have one already for my Surrey list this year, it was only a single bird flying overhead one evening, and I couldn't honestly say I would have known it was a Yellow 'Wag' unless top Holmethorpe birder, Gordon Hay, had pointed it out to me at the time. I saw plenty at Oare Marshes last month, but that was in Kent and I just wanted a confirmation of a Surrey sighting close up for my own peace of mind.

After a couple of Little Egret flew off and I past about 30 Swallows feeding by the river's edge, the first of eight Yellow Wagtails came into view in amongst some horses and cattle on the opposite bank. I managed to get good views of them, so job done.