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 29 December 2011


The past year has gone by as fast as a Peregrine pursuing a Lapwing and before you know where you are it’s time for the Randon’s Ramblings Awards for 2011.

Once again I would like to thank everyone I have met on my travels during these past 12 months. My birding this year has been a mixture of some truly memorable moments and some downright disappointing ones. The more I get involved with this recreational pastime, the more I realise that birding involves plenty of psychological fortitude as it does actual bird-watching.

You have to be strong mentally to keep sane. I would like to give special mention to a number of people who have helped me in that department. Graham James, as always, for all his help and encouragement, Johnny Allan, for the same reason, and David Campbell for his determination that I wouldn’t dip every bird I wanted to see.

My 2011 Surrey list (which includes Spelthorne - apologies to the traditionalists) has ended on 167 bird species. It would have been more – probably more than 170 – but for the past six weeks or so birding has had to take a backseat. There are far more important things to focus on in life sometimes.

As Johnny often says, every year is different. And so 2011 proved. Unlike in 2010, this year I managed to connect with a Bittern, Hoopoe, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Mediterranean Gull, Slavonian Grebe, Velver Scoter, Wryneck, to name but a few, but unlike last year I didn’t see a Yellow-legged Gull (I didn’t actually look very hard), Firecrest, Hen Harrier, Garganey, Mealy Redpoll or Raven. The gull would have been easy if I had gone to Beddington, but as I have said before, I find it hard to get excited about gulls, so I didn’t bother.

Targets for 2012? We’ll take it as it comes. I’ve realised more than ever that I have an interest in some birds more than others, so I could end up studying Harriers and Owls, two of my favourite bird species. Or perhaps I could have a bash at sea-watching – something I haven’t done this year at all, or ever, really.

Now for the awards. This year I have introduced an additional award for Bird Photograph of the Year – and there were some real crackers to choose from.

In alphabetical order, the nominees are:

Johnny Allan – Beddington Sewage Farm
David Campbell – Canons Farm
Kevin Duncan – Tice’s Meadow
Rich Horton – Tice's Meadow
John Hunt – Tice's Meadow
Graham James – Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Brian Milton – Unstead SF
Bob Warden – Staines Reservoir

The winner is:
David Campbell

Congratulations to David, who has seen 108 different bird species at Canons Farm this year. Doesn’t sound like a lot but no-one has been as dedicated to his local patch than David in 2011. He was able to keep a remarkable log of the birds he has seen, and he has seen some excellent ones, including the one Wood Warbler probably seen in the whole of Surrey this year, breeding pairs of Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Quail, Grasshopper Warbler and Black Redstart. David also hosts two excellent blogs – Devil Birder and Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Birds (see links). He also produces the annual Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Bird report – a finely detailed and relevant full-colour report on his findings every year. Still only in his teens, David a remarkably knowledgeable birder, but he should also concentrate as much on his education – the birds will always be there, but the brain cells or future working career won’t be.

The nominations are:
Beddington Sewage Farm
Canons Farm
Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Staines Reservoir
Tice's Meadow

The winner is:
Beddington Sewage Farm

Congratulations to the Beddington team on winning the award for the second consecutive year. Beddington never ceases to amaze with the quality of birds it has visiting or flying over year in, year out. This year, of the 156 birds seen at the site, the highlights have included a Black Kite, Short-eared Owl, Snow Bunting, Pectoral Sandpiper, Iceland Gull, Caspian Gull, Glaucious Gull, Spotted Crake, Common Crane, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Ring Ouzel. As I have said before, a great deal of work goes into making Beddington such a bird haven, notably from Peter Alfrey, Johnny Allan, Mike Spicer and Roger Browne and plenty of other birding headcases who have spent more hours at the farm than they do at home.

The nominations are:
Black Kite (Beddington SF)
Great Grey Shrike (Thursley Common and Chobham Common)
Hoopoe (Farthing Downs, Coulsdon)
Red-rumped Swallow (Unstead SF)
Shorelark (Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir)
Short-eared Owl (Papercourt Water Meadows)
Waxwing (everywhere)
Wheatear (ditto)
Wryneck (Ranmore Common)

The winner is:
Short-eared Owl

A very close call between the winner and the Farthing Downs Hoopoe, but in the end the Short-eared Owl wins the best bird in Surrey award for 2011. This bird may not be as rare as the Red-rumped Swallow seen at Unstead in the late summer, or as unusual as the Shorelark seen at the QEII Reservoir last month, but there are few birds so enthralling to watch. I had some great views of them recently. Having been in the area for a few weeks now at Papercourt Water Meadows, near Woking, you will be able to watch at least four, and possibly as many as six Short-eared Owls quartering the region searching for food as the light begins to fade in the afternoons.

The nominations are:
Johnny Allan
David Campbell
Kevin Duncan
Dave Harris
Gordon Hay
Rich Horton
John Hunt
Graham James
Brian Milton
Rich Seargent
Bob Warden

The winner is:
Johnny Allan

A great list of birders but there could only be one winner and that is Surrey’s record-breaker. Johnny saw 198 species in Surrey this year – an all-time Surrey record. For a land-locked county where he only includes the old vice-county borders, that is a magnificent achievement and he achieved it with weeks to spare. Johnny just fell short of the magic 200 mark but in 2011 he couldn’t really have done any better. He also managed to travel to the far reaches of Britain for a few lifers along the way.


2011 Randon's Ramblings Personal Dip of the Year

The nominations are:
Grasshopper Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler
(There are many others but it's these that still cause my blood pressure to rise)

This year has been another bad year of dipping. Where do I start? The Grasshopper Warblers at Canons Farm were a nightmare. I spent hours watching various bushes only for the little buggers to appear after I left. This happened on more than a few times. Worse was the Yellow-browed Warbler at Newdigate. I never saw it or heard it in five visits to the site. Rubbish. But undoubtedly the dip of the year for me has been the Firecrest. I dipped this little critter so many times I stopped counting after I got to ten. I went searching at various sites around the county. Banstead Golf Course, Effingham Forest and my local patch Holmethorpe were the most frustrating. I’ve stopped looking now. If I bump into one, that’s fine, but I’ve now made a pact with myself that I will not go out of my way to look for a Firecrest. Not now, not ever.

2011 Randon's Ramblings ten most memorable moments

1. Burpham Pallid Harrier 
Quite simply the best bird I have seen all year bar none. Spectacular and beautiful. 
I went back three times and savoured every minute.

2. Papercourt Short-eared Owls 
I had been trying for a while to see a Short-eared Owl in Surrey and Papercourt Water Meadows didn’t disappoint. I regularly saw four owls at a time quartering the flats there.

3. Farthing Downs Hoopoe 
Just 15 minutes up the road, a lovely bird to watch, and it stayed for more than a week.

4. Frenches Road Waxwings
After running around trying to connect with these intriguing birds, 60 of them ended up locating in the road next to my house – feeding on rotting apples – I could even watch them from my living room window.

5. Beddington Pectoral Sandpiper 
After missing out so disastrously last year, it was a relief and satisfying to eventually see one at Beddington. I got to within 10 feet of this one, too.

6. Thursley Common and Chobham Common Great Grey Shrikes 
I became a regular visitor to both Commons and enjoyed some great views of these brilliant Shrikes.

7. Basingstoke White-tailed Sea Eagle 
When it eventually took to the air it was like watching a Vulcan bomber in flight. Absolutely dwarfed the Common Buzzards that tried to mob it.

8. Canons Farm and Staines Moor Ring Ouzels 
Fabulous birds, often tricky to see, but these two sightings were very enjoyable.

9. Canons Farm Lesser-spotted Woodpecker 
After more than two years without seeing one, these were one of the gems of Canons Farm. Showed really well, too.

10. Staines Reservoir Black Terns 
Seeing more than 20 at one time flying up and down the north basin as the sun went down was a great sight.


The winner is: 
Tom McKinney
Boy, are his writings in complete contrast to his day job as an award-winning musician. Tom’s musings are not for the faint-hearted, but they are acerbically hilarious. His use of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon terminology may offend some and he isn’t as prolific a writer as that other excellent blogger, Jonathan Lethbridge, but to my mind McKinney is the most gifted writer in the birding world. He is to writing what George Best was to football (and I don’t mean he likes a drink). Pure genius. If you haven’t read him before take a look at this: http://birdingblogs.com/2011/tommckinney/are-you-a-real-birder

I have always loved photography – it is part of my job to look for good images as a magazine designer. One photographer I approached didn’t want his photo included in these awards – he probably felt it was beneath him – but fortunately there are so many brilliant birding photographers out there I have been able to put together a remarkable short-list. These five have captured some amazing birding moments, and I just had to show you them. 

Here are the nominations:

Pallid Harrier by Richard Ford

I love this serene image of the Burpham Pallid Harrier. Richard has taken a striking photo, beautifully lit, and shows the Harrier concentrating, transfixed on the ground below as it quarters up the game strip in one of the fields on the Duke of Norfolk’s farmland. I was also there on that very day the photo was taken. To see more of Richard's photographs visit http://birdinghampshire.blogspot.com/

Kingfisher by Noel Marry

A remarkable photo, although this one was taken last year – but I still felt I had to include it. Noel set up a tank bated with minnows and after gradually raising the tank over time he was able to get this image taken remotely from a nearby hide. The culmination of a year’s hard work. To see more of Noel's photographs visit www.noelmarrywildlifephotography.net/

Swift by David Moreton

If there is one bird that must be difficult to get a decent photo of, it is a Swift in flight, let alone one that is feeding on the water. What makes this photo so brilliant is the symmetry and the detail. David has captured the moment when the Swift’s beak is just touching the water. The reflection is fantastic, too. To see more of David's photographs visit http://dmoreton.co.uk/

Starlings by Jackie Moreton

Starling flocks are one of the wonders of the bird world, and Jackie has caught a beautiful moment just as this flock rises up at sunset in Blackpool. The composition is majestic, as are the colours. To see more of Jackie's photographs visit http://dmoreton.co.uk/

Hawfinch by John Robinson

Such a beautiful image of a Hawfinch drinking by a pool. It looks like a painting. Hawfinches are notoriously difficult to see at the best of times, but John has taken a photo that is quite sublime. To see more of John's photographs of Hawfinches visit http://www.birdingtoday.co.uk/hawfinches_wyre_forest_92.html

The winner is:
by David Moreton
Simple, difficult to take, perfect.

by John Robinson

So that’s it for another year. Thank you for reading my streams of consciousness during the past 12 months and we’ll reconvene on January 1, 2012.

Tuesday 27 December 2011


It's been three weeks since I last posted anything. I haven't felt like it, to be honest.

Annie and I have been married for 19 years, and for more than 17 of them we have had two Burmese cats, Billie and Cato. These two have been part of the very fabric of our life together.

Cato came first. He was a handsome blue Burmese boy kitten, so full of personality, you could be mistaken for believing he was a small person in a catsuit. As an adult he was full of energy and had a fun for life. He was handsome, athletic and strong, such a comedian, and very loving. We've never known an animal with such a sweet, generous nature. Everyone who came into contact with him loved him. We loved him, too.

Billie, a blue Burmese girl, arrived six months later. For a cat, she is very bright. They call Burmese cats the dog cat, because some of their behaviour is similar. If you throw them a ball of paper, they will retrieve like a dog.

Billie is a feline hoover. Loves food. Obsessed with food. Aloof as a youngster - you couldn't pick her up for wriggling, trying to escape. Now though, as she has got older, she is adorable. We love her to bits.

In May, Cato went for his annual booster jab and check-up. The vet, Andy Trevan, who owns the Gayton Veterinary Group, was full of admiration of his overall condition. For a 17-year-old cat he was in fantastic nick - and given a clean bill of health.

But then about three months ago we noticed he had started to lose his appetite. Only gradually, he was still as vocal and and as active as ever, but he began to lose weight. Then two months ago we decided to take him to the vets to find out what the problem was.

After a barrage of tests, nothing could be found wrong - maybe a virus, they said. Then he got worse. Eventually, it was discovered that he had a separated jaw at the chin end - being clumsy he must have bashed it. It was the repeat of something he managed to do some three years previously, which meant it was painful for him to eat.

Back then he had it wired up, only for the vet to discover he had a swollen kidney, and he needed to be operated on immediately. It was a worrying time, but he was a tough lad and got through it. He batted that off, no problem.

And so, two months ago he went through the same process with the jaw again. We thought that was the end of our concerns. Problem solved. But no.

He still lost weight and wasn't eating like he should. Into the vets again, and this time he had x-rays done on his chest - the vet didn't like the sound of his breathing. It was bad news. Cato had fluid on his lungs and once that was drained, it was discovered he had a mass on his chest. The biopsy came back. He had a malignant cancer and it was inoperable.

Since then Cato had been on chemotherapy - a treatment which has had positive results with oriental cats. For a time he rallied and started eating well again. He was still losing weight and getting very tired but for all of that, his spirits were good. If they hadn't been we would have taken the difficult decision and eased his suffering.

On Friday, Cato was the happiest he had been for some time. He was talking to us like he hadn't done in a while, purring and was like his old self.

Then on Christmas Eve he went downhill fast. By the evening he was very weak. After a nice massage and fussing session with Annie and I in the evening, he climbed on to our bed - his favourite place to rest, and feel asleep. He woke momentarily and looked at Annie. She soothed him and made him rest his head back down on the duvet. He then drifted off to sleep again. Billie - his companion for 17 years, Annie and I were with him.

He didn't wake up again.

At 11.45pm of Christmas Eve, Cato - our beautiful Burmese boy - passed away. We will never have another animal quite like him. He was very special and we will miss him terribly.

RIP Cato. We love you. X

Sunday 27 November 2011


The Short-eared Owl is probably the bird of the moment. As has been said many times before, it looks like a particularly good year for them. Down at Papercourt Meadows near Woking, two Short-eared Owls have been seen regularly for the past couple of weeks. With luck they may stick round for a while. The habitat at Papercourt is ideal for them.

I've paid a couple of visits during the past week. Last Sunday's trip was a bit of a disappointment. Leaving the house in bright sunshine, I was hopeful I'd get some good late afternoon views, but ten miles down the road past the Leatherhead junction of the M25, the weather changed dramatically. A thick fog descended - it was a real pea-souper. By the time I'd arrived at Papercourt, visibility was down to 50 yards. I did see a Short-eared Owl appear out of the gloom - it landed on a fence post before setting off across the Meadows but I couldn't get my camera to focus on to the bird because it was too misty.

I opted to visit the area again this afternoon. I have been tempted to try and find a Firecrest that has been seen regularly at Mercer's Lake car park during the past few days - just a mile up the road - and failing a sighting there a trip to Banstead Golf Course, where David Campbell had recently relocated a regular Firecrest visitor. But I don't have a good relationship with Firecrests. My success rate this year has been nil - and I've tried umpteen times to see one. I'm not sure why it is, but part of me thinks it's to do with my hearing, which after many years of being subjected to very loud motorsport, has probably suffered irreparable damage and so I probably can't detect high-pitched sounds - like those made by a Firecrest. They are also extremely fidgety little birds, so getting a nice view of one is hard work.

So, wanting a relaxing late afternoon after a very busy week, I decided Firecrests can wait. Down at Papercourt there were, thankfully, few people about apart from a number of birders and a couple of horse riders. While I waited I saw a Kestrel and a pair of Stonechats. By 3.30pm the first Short-eared Owl appeared. A bit distant but it quartered the usual area to the north-west of Papercourt Lock for a good 15 minutes. At one point it was hassled by a crow before it managed to shake it off to continue its hunt.

Eventually, it flew off heading north west. About 20 minutes later a second one appeared from the east and carried on where the first had left off. By this stage the Barn Owl was going through its evening routine. There had earlier been a couple of large birds in the distance being mobbed by crows, one might have been the Barn Owl, but it was getting dark and hard to make out what they were.

On the Surrey Birders website Steve Chastell posted he had seen three Short-eared Owls at Papercourt this evening and possibly a fourth. Here's hoping so.

Friday 18 November 2011


As you may have gathered from previous posts this majestic bird has become a quest of Holy Grail proportions for me. I've lost count of the hours I've spent waiting, or rather hoping, to see a Short-eared Owl this past week.

It appears to be a good year for them. Short-eared Owls have been seen all over the south-east, particularly on the Sussex and Kent coasts, and also inland in many areas of Surrey. Beddington, Holmethorpe, Canons Farm, Thursley Common, Papercourt Meadows, Staines Reservoir. These and more have had Short-eared Owl sightings during the past few weeks. Yet, I hadn't seen one at all. I tried Canons Farm a few times, but apart from a nice photo of the sun going down, I only saw a couple of Little Owls.

On a number of visits to Thursley Common I had no luck (I was hoping more for Hen Harriers there, but came away empty handed). Then on Sunday, I noted on the Surrey Birders website that a friend of mine, and former Racing Post colleague, Francis Kelly, had seen two at Papercourt Meadows. Then the following day, another was seen at the same place.

I contacted Francis for more info, and he agreed to meet up on Wednesday late in the afternoon. He took me to a spot at the Meadows north of the River Wey, where there was plenty of good habitat. He also showed me the resident Barn Owl nesting box high up in a tree – a mass of pellets at the base of the tree trunk was a tell-tale sign of Barn Owl activity.

As it turned out, we didn't see a Short-eared, but the Barn Owl stood out as the light faded, quartering over the fields just north of Papercourt Lock. A number of Little Owls began calling each other across the flood plain. We also saw some incredibly large toadstools. Don't know what they were though.

So, still no Short-eared. The next day, Tice's Meadow birder and new Surrey Bird Club Field Meetings Officer, Kevin Duncan, also saw one at Papercourt. It was becoming a bit of an issue. The only shred of good news I could garner out of all this was that, if I went enough times, it was likely I would find one at some point. At least I wasn't the only only having little good fortune. Rich Sergeant, one of the Tice's Meadow crew, had also drawn a blank a few times.

So it was I went back to Papercourt late this afternoon. I went along the same route as Wednesday. It was getting late and I'd seen nothing. Rich sent a text - he was also at Papercourt. He was on the south side of the river, while I was on the north. There was little activity as the light faded. It wasn't looking promising.

But then he rang to to say he'd fleetingly just seen one near the pylons that run down the middle of the Meadows. It was heading my way - apparently - but I could see bugger all. To my left I could see the Barn Owl - quartering the same field as it had two days earlier. He rang back to say the owl was sitting on a fence post close to some cows, the herd of which I could see, but the bushes and trees by the riverbank obscured any view I had.

As I scurried across to the river bank, Rich shouted over and pointed to the edge of the field. And, at last, there it was. A Short-eared Owl (166) was hunting in the field. It ghosted up and down the edge of the field before turning and heading north. I lost sight of it as Rich left to beat the traffic, but I managed to relocate it a short while later.

By this time it was getting very dark, so I had to set off back to the car. On my walk back I thought I saw another Short-eared Owl fly overhead, but couldn't be certain, but I did see a Tawny Owl (167) and heard a number of Little Owls again.

Papercourt is a remarkable site for owls. I can't recommend it highly enough. Four different species in one afternoon is a good haul anywhere, let alone Surrey. I'll be back to try and get some better views, perhaps at first light at some point this weekend.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 167
This time last year: 157

Tuesday 15 November 2011


The current drought continues, and it's driving me crazy. It's making me wonder why on earth I do this. Especially at the moment, when I just haven't really got the time to focus on a hobby that doesn't pay the bills. Yellow-browed Warbler was first, then Hen Harrier and now Short-eared Owl.

During the past month I've missed them all. The Yellow-browed Warbler is now history for this year - I'm glad to see the imaginary back of it to be perfectly honest - and a Hen Harrier is not easy to find in Surrey, but Short-eared Owls have been popping up all over the place. The were two sightings over my local patch at Holmethorpe recently, another at Farthing Downs, near Coulsdon, a couple of days ago, plus two sightings at Canons Farm over the weekend. Scroll down the lists of sightings on Rare Bird Alert, and Short-eared Owl comes up more than most.

I paid Canons Farm a visit on Monday night in the fog and drizzle but predictably drew a blank, and tonight, accompanied by top patch watcher David Campbell and John Blenham, one failed to turn up again.

I know I'm trying too hard, I should just go with the flow, but time is running out for the year. Next plan is to go to Papercourt, near Ripley, and try the meadows there. A friend of mine and former colleague at Racing Post, Francis Kelly, saw two being hassled by crows on Sunday evening, while there was a further sighting tonight of one hunting over the meadows. Everyone else is having the fun and I could do with something to smile about soon. An early morning start it is then...

Friday 11 November 2011


OK, so it's not about birding but we could all do with cheering up when days are as grey as today has been.

If you are free and want a thoroughly good evening out this Sunday, come down to Reigate Ex-Servicemen's Club and enjoy a great night of comedy. Topping the bill is none other than ITV's Show Me The Funny winner, Patrick Monahan.

I've seen Patrick a few times now and have got to know him quite well. He's a top bloke, and there's no better comedian on the tour at the moment. If you've seen him on TV you'll know how his impro is second-to-none, particularly how he can create a hilarious comic routine based on his interaction with the audience. He really is not to be missed. And all for tenner.

Show starts: 8pm
Doors open: 7pm
Tickets: £10

Venue: Reigate Ex Service and social club
1 Chartfield Rd, Reigate RH2 7JZ


On the birding front, I have very little to report, only that I've been out on a few late afternoon sojourns and manage to see very little. I can't find a Hen Harrier at Thursley Common to save my life, but got some nice photos of the sun coming down and the moon rising up over the Common.

I wanted to get to Staines Reservoir very early this morning to try to locate a Short-eared Owl. Bob Warden had gone up to the reservoir very early yesterday morning - it was still dark - on the off-chance he might see a decent Gull roosting as it got lighter. He didn't manage that but he did see the Short-eared Owl quartering up and down the banking along the causeway at about 6.10am. One had also been seen the morning before at about 8.30am.

As it was, I stayed in bed. Probably for the best, work is manic at the moment so I can't afford to slope off.

Thursday 3 November 2011


With only a couple of months left of the year there are a few birds I would like for my Surrey list before December 31.

Some will be more difficult than others.

In no particular order, these are: Hen Harrier, Yellow-browed Warbler, Merlin, Tawny Owl, Short-eared Owl, Grey Partridge, Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Iceland Gull, Golden Plover, Firecrest, Raven, Mealy Redpoll and Brambling, plus anything really unusual.

The way things have been going recently I doubt I'll see any of these. For four consecutive trips I have failed to hear, let alone see, the diminutive, fidgety Yellow-browed Warbler at Newdigate. I have spent hours staring at a tree that could have been totally devoid of bird life. Who could tell? I'm convinced it's a big scam just to wind me up - it doesn't really exist.

Well, for me it doesn't, so I'm in dilemma worthy of Schrödinger's cat, or in this case Schrödinger's Yellow-browed Warbler. This thought experiment, originally designed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, explains the true nature and behaviour of birds this small.

Imagine the scene. The Yellow-browed Warbler has been glued to a branch in an oak tree with a taser gun on a timing mechanism pointed at it. This taser is set to go off at some point in an attempt to make it sing. We can't see any of this.

Schrödinger stipulates that the Yellow-browed Warbler is both dead and alive. This is called a superposition of states or observer's paradox. We can only know if the warbler has been frazzled or not once it's observed. And there's fat chance of me doing that.

The same problem is haunting me at Thursley Common with the Hen Harrier that has been roosting there - except for those evenings when I turn up. It has been seen at various times of the day, and I've been to Thursley in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. I've seen nothing.

I've basically given up on both of these. The Harrier is the one that hurts a bit though, because I so enjoy watching Harriers. I'll just have to make another trip down to Burpham and get my kicks that way. I'll hopefully see a few Short-eared Owls, too.

All the above angst is the result of Surrey listing. A totally pointless exercise, but once you start, it is hard to stop. You get so far into it during the year, you might as well carry on for another eight weeks. After that the commitment will be over and you can pretend you won't do it all again the next year.

I'm pretty certain listing is the main culprit for make birding uncool. It is the obsession with lists that drives people to congregate down a country lane and stare into a hedge 20-deep as the photo below, taken by Tom McKinney on the Isles of Scilly for the Scarlet Tanager, illustrates.

Doesn't look great, does it? Hardly makes for an enjoyable day out. But I know, if I ever find my way on to these tiny islands at some point in the future, I could end up in the middle of the ruck.

I hope not, because if I'm completely honest, I prefer birding in solitude. The whole point for me is to escape from the trap of staring at a computer screen all day trying to make a living. I like twitching when most people have gone - I want to avoid the manic behaviour of the throng. A bit of calm will do me fine.

Sunday 30 October 2011


To view some of my previous illustrations click on the link below

Wednesday 26 October 2011


When the sighting of a Shorelark was first announced on Twitter by Johnny Allan yesterday, I didn't think I would get an opportunity to go to the Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir near Walton-On-Thames, but the bird was still there this morning and I managed to slip out this afternoon.

It had originally been seen along the north bank of the reservoir, which is close by the main entrance. What I hadn't realised as I arrived, however, was the bird hadn't been seen since 10.00am. I saw a number of birders walking along the path at the top heading west, so I followed. It was evident the Shorelark was not in the same place as before.

The guys ahead were about 300 yards ahead of me and they just kept on walking. And walking. And then the rain started to come down. Great. Either the bird had moved to the opposite end of the reservoir or no-one knew where it was.

Eventually, I met a birder walking towards me. The good news was he had relocated the Shorelark, which had moved to the far western end of the reservoir - it couldn't have been further away from the entrance if it tried.

After walking for more than a mile, I joined the other birders who had, at last, stopped walking and were peering through scopes.

The Shorelark (165) was feeding in a mossy area to the upper side of the concrete banking, with a few Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits for company. Very smart it was too, happily feeding for all it was worth.

I was told by Bob Warden, who was also present, that Franko Mareovic believes this to be the first sighting of a Shorelark in Britain this autumn. Finding an inland Shorelark is unusual in itself, but what makes this bird all the more of a major find is that it is the first to be seen in Surrey since 1985.

I stayed as long as was prudent before heading home to continue the daily grind, so I didn't have time to take a detour to Newdigate to try and locate the Yellow-browed Warbler that has been seen each day since Saturday.

These warblers are notoriously difficult to see - very small and very active. They are constantly on the move. This one is mixed in with a flock of Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests, and there is also the extra obstacle of a stiff wind and heavy showers to contend with. All these factors were going to make viewing even more difficult. It was going to be hard work, and I've got enough of that to keep me up at night as it is.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 165
This time last year: 155

Friday 21 October 2011


It was high time I got back to writing a proper birding post, about actually seeing some birds rather than my jaundiced views on mortality and why living in an area not surrounded by water is bad for you if you want to see Yellow-browed Warblers. So I had another early start again yesterday morning and another visit to Thursley Common.

It was a cold, crisp start to the day as the sun rose above the trees and broke through the early morning mist. The Common at sunrise after the first frosts of the autumn was a glorious sight. It was enough to distract from my numb fingers as I headed off for Shrike Hill.

The Great Grey Shrike - a regular visitor during the winter months here - wasn't my number one priority. The Crossbill was the bird I had come to find. It took a couple of hours, but eventually I heard the distinctive call, and two Crossbills (163) flew into the top of a pine just off the boardwalk on the edge of Shrike Hill. Very distinctive, the fidgety Crossbill likes to perch high up and flick its tail as it calls. Once you locate one, they are easy to find after that.

During the morning I found at least five Crossbills at various places on the Common. After struggling to connect on Sunday and Tuesday, I now couldn't help but bump into them.

I was struggling to find the Shrike, though. After a couple of hours of walking round, I couldn't find it anywhere - just a couple of Stonechats, and a Thursley speciality - four Wood Larks - to show for my efforts.

I was joined by local birder, Gerry Hinchon (hope I've remembered your surname correctly Gerry!) and he rightly pointed out that the Shrike was unlikely to be seen early in the morning. With the mercury down below zero, any hope of finding insects or cold-bloodied reptiles to eat was minimal. The bird would more likely wait for the temperature to rise in the late morning and hunt for beetles then.

Positioned on the summit of Shrike Hill, we had a panoramic view of the Common, but the Shrike was nowhere to be seen. We were just deciding to go for a walk towards the tumulus to the east when I spotted it flying low across the hill and perch up on a dead tree. Bingo. My first Great Grey Shrike of the autumn.

It was a little stunner. It then took off and flew down the hill towards the boggy area where it showed beautifully. It was an immaculate individual, and Gerry pointed out it was a first-winter bird. He also mentioned how many people think that the same birds return to the area every year, but that isn't the case. All the sightings seen in recent years have apparently all been first-winter examples.

After dropping down to grab a beetle, it gradually made its way further into the bog area. After 20 minutes of great views I had to leave as I was running late for work (no change there, then). As I walked back to the car park, another Crossbill flew over. It is never anything else with me - either feast or famine.

In the afternoon, I received an email from Graham James about a drake Pintail (164) on Mercer's West lake over at the Holmethorpe Sand Pits patch. It was still there late on and was a nice edition to the Surrey list.

My bang on the head from the previous weekend had obviously been cured of its dipping symptoms. Living for the day worked!

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 164
This time last year: 154

Wednesday 19 October 2011


My good mate Graham James always does his best to raise my spirits when I've had yet another dip. I really shouldn't let dips get in the way of the enjoyment I get out of birding, and it's not as though I'm really a twitcher. I'm not a patch watcher, either. I'm a pitcher, I guess.

But, seeing as I haven't been at this hobby for that long - although my wife would probably disagree - there are so many birds I would like to see. And it is frustrating when spending valuable hours staring at an empty bush or walking miles for nothing.

That is the way with birding. It's not like other pursuits, like following your favourite football team or going to the theatre. You might be disappointed at the result of the match, but at least you wouldn't have gone all the way to, say, Newcastle, only to end up waiting outside while the game was going on, or travelling to Sunderland by mistake. Or finding out the game had happened the day before (unless you really are an idiot, of course... I once drove all the way to Sheffield for a stock car meeting only to find it had been cancelled the day before - so I even dipped that).

At this juncture, Graham will be thinking that I should be more philosophical. He would say a bird missed today is one to see tomorrow or in the future. He is absolutely right, of course, but an incident at the weekend has made me think otherwise.

We were visiting a friend, who's husband is away on tour of duty. She was getting some help from a neighbour repairing a fence in her field. He was a bit older than me, and was puffing a bit as he used a fence post driver to ram in some wooden fence posts.

It was made of solid iron and weighed a ton - really it was a job for two people. I offered to take over to give him a rest. It started off OK, but it wasn't long before disaster struck - or to be accurate the fence post driver hit me on the head. I'm not sure how I managed it (I am accident prone), but I hit my head hard. A bit too hard.

And immediately, I feared the worst. It didn't help that blood began to pour out of the wound at such a rate it was going into my eyes and down my arm. "I think I need an ambulance..." I said, as I dropped the driver, held my head and sat on the ground. I could tell from the faltering tone in both Annie and our friend's voice that it didn't look good. There were a few tears.

I was convinced I had fractured my skull at the very least. Annie said she felt the blood pumping out while she pressed down on my head with a cloth and loads of tissues. I just sat as still as I could as we waited for the ambulance to arrive - being in the middle of nowhere, this took 20 minutes.

During the wait, I had time to contemplate. What the bloody hell had I done? How long would I take to recover? Would I recover? Is the wound bad? How will I get that work the next day finished? How will I earn any money? Will I be able to go birding tomorrow? Would my life get back to normal?

It was an alarming moment in time, when you wished you could turn the clock back a few minutes, but knew it was too late for that.

The paramedic's ambulance arrived in the field, but before I could get treated, the paramedic tripped over the fence and gashed his leg. Great, I thought. My survival is at the mercy of an idiot.

Actually, he was a good bloke. He checked the wound, and luckily it wasn't as bad as it had looked. An inch-and-a-half gash in the top of my head was all it turned out to be. I immediately relaxed. I wasn't concussed and was already preparing for the future after A&E.

I got glued up and was back on my feet within a couple of hours. But if the fence driver had hit me at a different angle or around my eye, or a fraction harder, it could have been disastrous.

I know I got away with it. But it made me realise what a fine line it is from being OK to being badly hurt. And it only takes a second for your life to be turned upside down. So, that is why I am currently of the opinion that waiting for a future opportunity to see a bird is not for me. I want to see it now.

One consequence of the bang on the head, however, is that I appear to be dipping even more than usual...

Tuesday 18 October 2011


This blog has focused more on debate in the past couple of weeks rather than reports on birds. There is a reason for this - I haven't seen that many interesting ones during that time. And much of the reason for that is because of where I live.

Surrey is high on the list of counties with the least reports of scarce/rare birds in Britain each year because it is landlocked. We're very good for Great Grey Shrikes, the odd Pec Sandpiper, Common Cranes, Hoopoes and Lapland Buntings, and in recent years we've had a Ferruginous Duck, a Red-rumped Swallow and a Black Kite. But compared with other southern counties like Kent, Sussex, Essex and Hampshire, we don't get a lot.

Those counties, of course, are blessed with a coastline, and boy, does that help some. If you take a look at the RBA map from last week, the east coast was positively heaving with rare birds, but none were migrating towards the green belt of Surrey.

The bottom line is there is nothing to be done about it, apart from move.

So, today I thought I'd travel to where the birds are. I didn't go too far - work constraints put paid to that, as per usual - so I visited Cliff Pools, in the hope of connecting with the Isabelline Shrike that had been seen there for the past couple of days.

I set off ridiculously early (for me) and when I got there at 6.45am it was still dark. I wasn't the first to arrive, however. Andy White, who had come down from Luton, had arrived about 15 minutes earlier - he had the same idea about beating the M25 rush-hour traffic as I had.

We walked off in the direction of the fields where the bird had been last seen yesterday and almost immediately the signs weren't that good. The wind was bitingly cold and relentless. My eyes were streaming constantly, and the snot from my nose was whipped away as soon as it was exposed to the air.

The Shrike, if it was still in the area, would probably opt to find cover. In the end, however, both Andy and I were resigned to the inevitable conclusion. It had most likely buggered off.

I was so cold, I didn't feel like walking round the area to see what else was about and I had to leave at about 9.30am anyway. The one notable bird we did see at first light was a Merlin, sitting on what looked like a mole hill, before it flew off.

So 9.30am arrived and I left. Very. Disappointing.

Later in the afternoon, it was if I had been taken over by the Star Trek Voyager arch enemy, the Borg - whose chilling catchphrase - 'Resistance is futile' - couldn't have been more apt. I set off for Thursley Common. I couldn't help it. Annie and I had visited the nature reserve on Sunday in the hope of finding some Crossbills, a Hen Harrier that had been seen a couple of days earlier and perhaps the first sighting of a Great Grey Shrike - it was the right time for one to appear.

Needless to say, I found none of the above, although I heard a couple of Crossbills but couldn't locate where the sound was coming from. We came away empty handed - the highlight was a Sparrowhawk, a couple of Woodlark and some Siskins.

I needed a lift after this morning's let-down - a Great Grey Shrike had been discovered yesterday - but I didn't get it. To make matters worse, a couple of birders I bumped into happily told me they had seen the Shrike and plenty of Crossbills. I spent a couple of hours walking around the reserve and found nothing. So ended a very crap day.

Friday 14 October 2011


While the last week has been all work and no play, I have had the time think about stuff - some bird-related, some not. Apart from staring enviously at the Rare Bird Alert map every day at all the tasty pickings along the east coast I haven't a prayer of going to see, plenty of birding issues have been whirring around in my head. One that kept gnawing away at me was the issue of birding being a cool hobby. Which it isn't, obviously.

This in itself shouldn't really bother me, but outside of areas where there are safety in numbers - like at a nature reserve - it does. I don't like being stared at like I'm some nutter who has been let out on day release. The general public regard bird-watching as a hobby for sad people with no lives. The BBC twitching documentary only reaffirmed that view.

The more obsessed birders among us don't give a stuff about this because they are so blinkered to anything that is going on around them, including in their own homes where they may still tenuously have a wife and children.

I know this subject has been brought up on numerous occasions on many blogs, but the stigma attached to our hobby just won't go away.

The perennial question is how do we make birding cool? Or maybe the question should be, do we need to make birding cool?

I for one think it would be no bad thing. There are a few cool birders out there, I know one or two who I regard as acceptable human beings who you could drop into a crowd of people and they would still blend in OK.

But I have figured out that that would not be the case if you dropped someone into a crowd of people if they were staring through a scope. A pair of binoculars is unobtrusive, so isn't so bad, and someone using a camera with a bloody great big lens attached to it actually looks very good. In fact, I reckon a number of birders have opted for the camera rather than the scope, not only so they can take great photographs, but also because they want to enjoy their birding without looking or feeling like a prize berk*.

Now, it's very unlikely every birder who is worried about these things will now go out a spend a few grand on a decent camera and telephoto lens just so he won't feel so self-conscious, but there must be a way to turn this stigma around.

Celebrity birders could be the figureheads for our hobby. There are a few out there. Bill Bailey is a well-known one - everyone likes him. Then there's Dermot O'Leary, who hosts the X Factor. I discovered recently he's loves birding (he doesn't shout it from the rooftops though does he?). Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow - he's another one - although I didn't hear him shout out to the crowd at Glastonbury, in the middle of the chorus of One Day Like This, "let's hear some bird calls!".

Maybe we should turn the subject on its head. Let's make the bird cool. Shouldn't be too difficult. If birds became hip, then everyone would want to be a part of it. That's why such places as the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Gloucestershire are such good value. We went there a few times about ten years ago and loved it - the displays by the Lanner and Saker Falcons were absolutely amazing. We even did a course on falconry and went out hunting with a pair of Harris Hawks, one of which I had perched on my arm for long periods. Now, that was cool.

But you can't do that every day. No, the bird has to have a good PR and marketing strategy to raise its profile. It needs an actual bird to represent the rest. The RSPB has an Avocet as part of its branding - but to be honest, it doesn't float my boat.

Can't be a Quail - be utterly useless as no-one would see it. Or a Grasshopper Warbler, for the same reason. It has to be something dramatic, like a raptor - nothing else fits the bill. But which one?

The Pallid Harrier would be perfect but they are too rarified. We need something everyone has the chance to see and yet still turns heads... Kestrel? Buzzard? No.

I nominate the Red Kite. It is striking to look at, and you can see them all over the place, even as you drive along a motorway. If anyone has a better idea, I'd be happy to consider it.

We have a figurehead, all we now need a plan of action. I'm open to suggestions.

The photo is by kind permission of Dodge (even though he won't know until he has read this!) .

* Something I didn't know was that the word berk was shortened from Berkeley, or Berkshire Hunt - which is rhyming slang for...well, never mind. I'm sure you get the idea.

Friday 7 October 2011


Most of us would love to go through life doing exactly what we want to do. In the birder's case, that is to go birding every minute of the day. But life isn't that simple, particularly when the opportunity to go out is taken away and you find yourself behaving abnormally (massive sulks, irritability, lack of concentration, selfishness, unable to focus on any day-to-day tasks like work, food shopping, DIY around the house, visiting relations). It is this realisation - that you really need to grow up a bit - that should encourage you to seek help.

The bottom line is you will have to admit to yourself you are a birding addict, and therefore it may be time to look at the 12-Step Birding Recovery Programme. As far as I know, this doesn’t actually exist, but maybe it should.

It's time to give it a go.

It does mean, however, that from this day forward, birding is a thing of the past. That Spotted Crake you desperately wanted to see at Beddington this afternoon - but you had too much work to do, and you also had to do the weekly shop at Sainsbury's, and by the time you'd finished it was too bloody late to go because it would be dark by the time you got there – that will all be a distant memory. You'll be able to shrug it off as an irrelevance. You'll treat it with total indifference.

There will be no stress apart from the usual drudgery of every day life. All that gardening, wallpapering, skirting board sanding you meant to get on with years ago - now you will be able to spend all your hard-earned spare time applying yourself to it.

The idea is to concentrate on the source of the addiction and to follow the 12 principles of recovery. This will enable you to severe your birding addiction completely. It also means no more birding for the rest of your life – nothing - not even reading the Collins Bird Guide, or any blogs on the subject. It will also require you to turn the TV over when Autumnwatch is on (see, it doesn’t sound so bad now, does it).

If you really want to commit yourself to a normal life – and you will feel so much better for it - the following steps are the way forward, but because the 12-Step Birding Recovery Programme is based on an American model, you have my blessing to ignore all the God bits.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over birding and that our lives had become unmanageable.
Pretty much says what it means on the tin. Once you have accepted this, the rest will become a bit easier (apart from the God bits, which you can ignore anyway).

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
It doesn’t take long for a hint of God to come into this programme, but you can replace Him with a real person if you wish. I wouldn’t suggest your wife/husband/partner, though. They may be a Power greater than ourselves, but it is a step too far to suggest they can restore our sanity. It also doesn’t mean that Power can be bird-related - Swarovski, Birdguides, Lee Evans, etc.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
While the Power is not made clear in Step 2, Step 3 assumes this Power to be God. Assume otherwise.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
This tells us to think long and hard about who we are and to admit our faults. Write these down – it will probably be a long list. These shouldn’t include such faults as stringing, dipping, failure to identify "what that bloody Gull was", or the inability to properly read an Ordnance Survey map.

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Admitting this to ourselves is fine, but the slight problem here is, will anyone else really care? In fact, they don’t really need to know, do they? I might tell God though, he’ll listen.

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
There you go.

Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Sounds like a step for those who aren’t quite committed to the cause. “Yeah, it was no problem. All those dips I had? God removed them all for me”. If only it were that easy.

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
An important step, this one. For, if we are to continue our lives birding free, one of the things we must do is say sorry to everyone – well, just the wife, actually. No-one else I know could give a toss. All those trips to Scotland and the Scilly Isles at the drop of a hat - oh, how she laughed (what are you like, she said... she did say what I was like, but it's not repeatable here). And just a note to tell her not to wait up. A jolly, she said? It’s hardly a jolly driving for 11 hours up to the tip of Scotland and then travel by small boat to the Orkneys, I can tell you.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
The only ones liable to be injured are dog-walkers.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Refer to Step 4. You’ve already done this one. See, it's pretty straightforward.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Move swiftly on to Step 12.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to birders, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In other words, exactly what I have just done – apart from practice the principles in all my affairs, obviously.

So, there you have it. Twelve easy steps towards a fulfilling and happy life. I just hope that Sandhill Crane doesn't turn up at Holmethorpe tomorrow morning to test my resolve...

Friday 30 September 2011


After a decent run, I've only had one proper birding trip out since last Friday. In between times, the summer has returned (better late than never, I guess) and with it raptors are playing a prominent role.

Prior to the heatwave Annie and I visited Winterfold on Sunday, where there were more than 30 Lesser Redpolls buzzing around, just to remind us that the end of the year is rapidly approaching. But then the sun broke out on Tuesday afternoon and since then it has been blazing sunshine all the way.

On Tuesday morning I saw a Tweet from Johnny Allan that a Marsh Harrier had flown south from Beddington. That usually means, so long as it doesn't deviate off course, that it will end up at Holmethorpe. I saw the message about ten minutes too late. I dashed over to the patch on an overcast lunchtime and set up on the Water Colour mound with a good view of the North Downs.

I did see a big raptor in the distance that didn't look like a Buzzard, it may have been a Red Kite, but who knows. A Sparrowhawk soared overhead, flapping its wings occasionally. But no Marsh Harrier. When I got back home, I discovered Graham James had seen the Harrier flying over Mercer's Lake five minutes before I had got there. Damn it! I usually look at Twitter frequently when working on the Mac, but this time I hadn't.

While work projects are obviously important to focus on, Annie and I felt we had to take advantage of the decent weather while we could each day this week. For a couple of late afternoon outings we went to Newland's Corner near Guildford. Plenty of raptors about there Including a Sparrowhawk, a Kestrel and a few Common Buzzards. The highlight was a Red Kite that flew south over our heads, circled for a while with a Buzzard before disappearing into the distance.

Yesterday morning I headed for Weir Wood reservoir at first light in the hope of seeing the Osprey that had been there for the past four days. I had to abort the mission, however, because one of the symptoms of the autumn heatwave is thick early morning mist and the fog at the reservoir was reluctant to clear.

I had to be back home by lunchtime, so rather than waiting at Weir Wood, I left for Burpham for, you guessed it, another sighting of the Pallid Harrier.

I opted to go to the northern end of Peppering Lane first, where a handful of birders were already set up at about 8.30am. The Harrier had apparently been seen to the north, but all was pretty quiet at this time, with only a couple of Common Buzzards and a Raven heading north to keep us occupied.

I went back down the hill to the field where most of the best photos of the Harrier have been taken and waited there for a while, but nothing. A couple of Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk were added to the morning list.

Another trip back up the hill and this time the Pallid Harrier had made an appearance, albiet about half a mile away. It was quartering the fields to the north before drifting south near to some farm buildings where it was joined by a female Hen Harrier. The pair circled and climbed high into the sky, interacting playfully together, before we lost sight of the Ring-tail.

The Pallid Harrier then headed north again and was lost from view. Most of the 15 or so birders that had gathered focused on looking north to wait for it to reappear, but I knew from previous experience that this bird had a habit of moving to another area without anyone being aware. It would normally appear after about 30 minutes, seemingly from out of nowhere, in the field at the bottom of the hill and quarter the game strip before flying above the trees and into the next valley.

I mentioned this to anyone who would listen, but they resolutely stuck to their guns and stayed put.

I went back down the hill and set up shop along Coombe Lane. And sure enough, right on queue at 11.00am, the magnificent Pallid Harrier appeared again, and quartered up and down the field for a few minutes in front of me, before flying off over the ridge as usual.

There were only two of us who saw it for the duration of its visit - another couple arrived just in time to see it briefly before it flew off.

I went back up the road to inform everyone there, and a number followed me back down the hill. I explained it was likely to return an hour or so later. One guy had been down on Saturday, and had stood in the same spot for 11 hours and not seen it. I had to leave, so I hope they got to see it in the end.

Credit should be given to the Duke of Norfolk estate for a fantastic environment they have created for birds, particularly raptors. The Duke's appreciation of conservation has been crucial.

He set up a 'Partridge restoration project', for example, which has been a huge success. The Grey Partridge was virtually extinct from the area back in 2003, but with the increase in biodiversity during the past eight years the Grey Partridge count has gone through the roof. Other birds to have benefited are the Corn Bunting and the Skylark, of which I saw plenty of during my three visits.

Sussex now has a surplus of Grey Partridge for shooting, which reinforces - in the Duke's words - "the link between game shooting and conservation".

While the estate has created a game shoot heaven, it has also meant raptors migrate to the area. Short-eared Owls are also commonplace in the winter.

The much-twitched juvenile White-tailed Eagle spent some time on the estate when it first appeared this spring, being helpfully left dead foxes to eat by the gamekeeper, and in the Pallid Harrier, the new rare addition to the impressive list of birds of prey seen in the area, the estate has had a bird that will live long in the memory.