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.

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.