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.

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.

Saturday 2 October 2010


The Grey Partridge search was aborted this morning - mainly due to a phobia of being shot by a 12-bore shotgun. I had a brief recce earlier in the week and found the right farm near South Nutfield, and having spoken to a slightly bewildered old codger who worked at the farm, I gathered that both 'English' and 'French' Partridge (his description, not mine) were here. "They'll be scattered all over the place," he helpfully explained. The farm rear the birds and then once they are plump and old enough they are used as sport.

Now, I not sure whether a bird that is reared and then let to roam the countryside only to be blasted out of the sky actually counts as a Surrey tick (presuming I actually see one) but Gordon Hay - who gave me the directions to the area - didn't put me off looking for the birds, so it must do.

Anyway, I did see loads of the 'French' version (the Red-legged Partridge), but no Grey ones. Like I mentioned I didn't go looking this morning because Saturday tends to be the day the farm is opened up for a shoot. So the idea of skulking around the local fields only to flush out a Partridge in target range of a number of gun barrels didn't appeal.

So instead I went to Staines (again). After yesterday's wretched weather, the thought was the southerly winds might have blown a few waders and other interesting birds inland.

As per usual, this theory didn't work out exactly as planned. I didn't see a solitary wader during the morning, but at Staines Moor I did see a couple of Whinchat and the ubiquitous Wheatear - three in total. Photo opportunities were slim today, but, as always, the Wheatear stood around long enough for a few snaps.

On the walk back north to the car I also heard a Cetti's Warbler in the shrubs by the footpath.

Next up was the reservoir. I had a feeling all was quiet when I parked up, as there were no other cars around. Never a good sign. And indeed, the reservoir was quiet apart from two interesting visitors. A juvenile Black Tern was feeding on the water, dipping down as it flew in typical Black Tern style, so that was nice. Couldn't get a photo though with the scope, though. I tried umpteen times but failed miserably.

The other good bird was a 1st winter Little Gull, that eventually dropped down at the north end of the north basin with a few Black-Headed Gulls. The photo is not great but I had to get something to record the sighting.