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.

Monday 28 February 2011


Having missed out on the Great Northern Diver at Staines Reservoir yesterday, I had another go at lunchtime today. What a difference a day makes - both with timing and with the weather.

The weather was shockingly bad - even more miserable than some of the other days we've had in recent weeks. Whereas yesterday morning was a day when you felt glad to be alive, today was one when it was an uphill struggle to stay that way. Bitterly cold, driving rain, a biting wind, charcoal-grey skies. And Staines Reservoir isn't one of those places you'd choose to visit if it wasn't for the birds on view. Thankfully, work commitments meant I couldn't stay long anyway.

Timing is everything with viewing birds. Some stay in the same place for days or weeks, while others move around a bit - the Diver was one of the latter. There had been two birds on the south basin earlier in the morning but at least I could see one Great Northern Diver on view, although it had moved further away to the south and was only just visible due to the rain and chattering teeth. Being a Diver, it disappeared underwater for long periods, and then it decided to move on, so I got great views of the bird in flight. It flew closer but then banked and set off over to the KGVI Reservoir, where it landed. My hands were just too numb from the cold to pick up my camera to get a record shot. Maybe another time.

The unexpected bonus was a Red-necked Grebe, also on the south basin, which was close enough for me to get a picture.

Back at Holmethorpe, a Curlew dropped in on Mercers West this morning, but it had gone by the time I went for a look at about 4pm.

Sunday 27 February 2011


I had a few options this morning. I could try and add to my Surrey list by visiting as many places as possible in a five-hour stretch; I could ignore my list and just go to one Surrey spot where I could enjoy a relaxing time looking for some of my favourite birds; or I could drive over to Basingstoke to view the White-tailed Sea Eagle.

Having successfully seen a Peregrine Falcon in Sutton a couple of days earlier (they can often be seen perched high up on the Reed Building in the town centre) I chose the first option.

I can't work out why I took that decision, but it is what I invariably end up doing. I must think again in future, as this behaviour is not conducive to a totally satisfying day. I should have gone for either of the other two, but I had it in my head that it would be a good idea to go and see the Great Northern Diver at Staines Reservoir at about 8.00am, tick off the Diver and then head off somewhere else - probably Thursley Common - followed by Cutts Mill Pond, Bookham Common, Headley Heath and then home. I worked out I could add at least ten birds to my year list if all went to plan.

As plans go, it was ridiculously ambitious, but I had convinced myself it was possible. I found the Scaup easily enough at Staines but there was no sign of the Diver. Having chatted to John 'Brown Shrike' Gates for a while, I left at around 9.45am.

That was my first mistake of the day. Trying to cram in too many places to visit into too short a timeframe always leaves you compromised. I noticed quite a lot of activity on the KGVI Reservoir as I left, and later I discovered that the Diver dropped in on the Staines south basin at 9.50am - if I had waited for just another ten minutes I would have seen it. All fairly typical. The thing is I knew if I waited for a bit longer it would probably turn up, but the clock was ticking.

So, off to Thursley Common. A good visit, but I spent an age searching for the Great Grey Shrike - as were numerous other people - so it compromised what I was going to do next. I did see one of my target birds - a male Stonechat - an encouraging sign, plus at least six Woodlark. Then soon after that I heard the unmistakable sound of a Curlew carrying across the Common. Curlews breed here regularly every year and their arrival is a sign that spring is drawing ever closer. I saw two birds, they had apparently arrived a week earlier.

I was just thinking of leaving, when I picked up the Great Grey Shrike on Shrike Hill. I waved at as many people as I could attract to let them know, but the bird didn't stay put for very long (hence the rubbish photo) and soon flew off in the direction of Ockley Common.

As time was getting on I missed out Cutts Mill and headed off for Bookham Common, in the hope of seeing the Hawfinches and, hopefully, Marsh Tit and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Not a particularly good idea as it turned out. I only had about 30 minutes to look around, but I eventually saw a couple of Hawfinch (plus a couple of Bullfinch) but they were difficult to see properly and were very mobile. Also it was starting to rain and really I should have been at home cooking the Sunday roast by the time I left. There was not enough time to look for the other two birds - so there was little point of going there in the first place.

As Jonathan Lethbridge said in his Birdwatch column this month, if panic sets in when looking for birds, it is time to re-evaluate. He is spot on.

Wednesday 23 February 2011


Yet another dreary, grey day - February and winter's reluctance to end is becoming increasingly tiresome - but it is amazing what can cheer you up.

I received an e-mail from Graham James at lunchtime yesterday telling me Gordon Hay had seen a Dunlin on the sand spit on Spynes Mere. OK, so you will trip over Dunlin on the coastal estuaries of Britain, but Holmethorpe Sand Pits isn't anywhere near the coast, and consequently, in a similar vein to the Oystercatcher on Saturday, the sight of this little wader would lift the spirits.

I had work to do, but it's worth popping out for an hour for a local patch tick.

The only snag was it had gone by the time I got there. A fox was mooching about on the spit, and its arrival must have forced the Dunlin to fly off. Funny, but I was really disappointed. Don't know why really, because the chances are I would see another one in the area before too long, as these birds appear at the Pits now and again, particularly early in the year.

I trudged back home.

Today, and another e-mail from Graham. Kevin 'Kojak' Guest was at Spynes Mere and the Dunlin was back. So off I went again. I arrived to see Kojak standing in full wet-weather garb with his scope. He took one look at me and brought his hands to his face. Not a good sign. "It's flown off!" he said.

"You're joking!" I replied (or words to that effect).

Nope, it had gone alright. Something spooked it as I arrived and it had flown over towards the M23. Kojak was convinced it would return before too long.

And so it proved. I gave the area another look and there it was. The Dunlin was fervently prodding the sand with its beak searching for grub. Good stuff. Kev was genuinely pleased I'd seen it, and it was a landmark bird for him - his 100th all-time Holmethorpe sighting. He celebrated by tucking into a sandwich.

We chatted for a while about the prospect of a mega turning up here eventually. It's something Graham is convinced will happen before too long. Holmethorpe had 143 species either land or fly over the area last year - 206 all-time - and more birds are dropping in all the time.

There's plenty still to see in Surrey before this winter is out, Firecrest for one. Beddington looks a good spot for those currently, plus Tree Sparrows and Caspian Gull. I just need a window of opportunity to get up there.

Monday 21 February 2011


I'm currently reading Dominic Mitchell's blog on his trip to Thailand. Boy, I don't think I'll ever get excited about a bird in this country again! The Gurning Nan Bread is one hellava bird! Sorry, I mean the Gurney's Pitta...

Seriously, though, when you take a deep, searching look at what the world has on offer on the birding front, it does make you wonder why you bother. I'd love to go to Thailand just for a couple of weeks on the beach (have you been outside the front door in Britain today? Hasn't it been just the greyest day on record?) let alone a trip to see some of the world's most seriously exotic birdlife. To witness some of these birds must be breathtaking, but then... look what happened yesterday.

I was on the way to the shops to pick up some provisions for the weekend (Annie was at home nursing a hand with a broken Scaphoid bone) when I deviated towards my local patch at Holmethorpe (with her permission I might add, before you start thinking I have been negligent). I didn't bring my scope as the afternoon didn't appear promising. It was yet another horribly grey day and after about an hour of seeing virtually nothing of any note I turned round to head home. As I did so, I was confronted by a figure dressed in camouflage green, jogging - actually, struggling to jog - towards me. It was Kojak. He's had a knee op, so he's not that fit at the moment - that much was obvious. I knew something must be afoot if he was running with all his gear wrap around his neck. I ask what is it was, and he eventually wheezed that it was an Oystercatcher.

If we had been by the sea, we wouldn't have bothered running to see an Oystercatcher - someone on the same day had counted more than 250 on the Kent coast. These are not rare. But in land-locked Surrey? They most definitely are.

We arrived to join Gordon Hay, who found the bird, and Graham James, who kindly left me a message on my mobile to tell me about it (I only picked up the message as Kojak headed towards me). Shortly afterwards, we were joined by Johnny Allan, who was adding to his remarkable Surrey list, and Ian Kehl.

And there you have it, just for one day only. Today, it had gone. Such is the magic of birding in Surrey. One day you see nothing, the next you see a single bird that hasn't been seen in the area for some time. So far this year, I have seen Waxwing, Great Grey Shrike, Water Rail, Slavonian Grebe, Bittern, Water Pipit, Scaup and an Oystercatcher in Surrey, but I haven't yet seen a Yellowhammer or a Treecreeper. It's a strange old pastime.

Photo courtesy of Graham James

Saturday 19 February 2011


I've not been anywhere of late for two reasons - work (as usual) and car gremlins (knackered rear axle bearing). But then, even if I had been out enjoying watching the Great Grey Shrikes at Thursley Common (there are now two of them - perhaps one is the Ash Ranges/Crooksbury Common/Frensham Common bird?) the one place I wouldn't have been tempted to visit is Oxfordshire to view the Rufous Turtle Dove that has found itself the centre of attention in someone's back garden. Unless it decides to park itself in my back yard I can't muster so much as a vague interest in this mega rarity.

It's probably a smashing bird to look at, and I'm pleased for those who have made the effort to irritate/puzzle the local community to see this bird but it's not for me. I have recently been reading Steve Gale and Jonathan Lethbridge's excelllent blogs (see links) on this subject and their views are the same as mine.

Many of those who have paid a visit to Oxford this past week are decent blokes (and they are mostly blokes) who enjoy looking at unusually rare birds in Britain. A small number are the sort of guys you would be happy to share a pint and a good laugh with down the local boozer. But the bottom line is, if you find yourself queuing up for hours down a street in a Cotswold town with your binoculars and scope, with a load of other middle-aged blokes, to look at a pigeon in someone's back garden - you will come across as a bit strange. You look odd - and people stare at odd people, and I don't enjoy it when I see ridicule focused on others, let alone me.

It's frustrating but we have to accept it. Unless Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or Barack Obama come out and express their passion for twitching, birdwatching isn't going to be regarded as cool, in the same way trainspotting isn't. And I don't know what we can do about it, apart from give in to it and try not to feel too self-conscious.

In the meantime, I will try and find a way of going back to Thursley Common to see the Great Grey Shrikes, and hopefully a Raven and a Red Kite - both of which have been seen recently in the area. Currently I have had a low-key start to the year - I'm only on 83 Surrey species so far, but there is no rush. I want to enjoy my birding, not suffer from it.

Tuesday 15 February 2011


A Mandarin, a Wood Duck, several Red-crested Pochard and a Pintail often appear on my local pond on Frenches Road.

They mingle with the resident Mallards and Ferruginous-type hybrids and join in with the daily melee for bread fed to them by local residents. They are not permanent fixtures at Frenches Pond, however. And here lies the dilemma.

The Mandarin, a couple of the Pochards and the Pintail originally had their wings clipped, but since then the management of the birds on the pond has come to an end due to lack of funds. Added to which, neither the local water board or council have a clue as to who is responsible for the upkeep of the wildlife on the pond.

Needless to say, these birds have since had a moult and grown their wing feathers back and are now able to fly freely.

By all accounts, the two original Red-crested Pochards were joined later by the other Red-cresteds, so now there are five males and one female. Whether it is right to call all these birds escapees is debatable, and therefore the right for them to be ticked by the bird-watching community. It also doesn’t help that these birds can now turn up anywhere, and therefore birders would be unaware that they were originally captive birds.

In the end, though, does it really matter what their origins are? We happily tick Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge, most of which are reared on farms and released. When I was growing up on Tilburstow Hill Farm, my dad had some Bantam Chickens, one of which we had sitting on Pheasant eggs on behalf of the local gamekeeper. The chicken didn’t know what had hit her when they hatched, as they were a complete handful as they grew older. One eventually escaped and flew off.

So, what to do? Can I tick any of these birds or should I wait for them to fly somewhere else and tick them there?

The other debate recently was concerning the Scaup at Staines Reservoir, which I saw last Friday (although I went to the reservoir in the hope of seeing the Red and Black-necked Grebes, but they had gone). Some people I spoke to thought it was a hybrid, but then most of the time it was asleep and didn’t show its head, which would have helped with its ID. I did get some glimpses and to my mind the head shape was that of a Scaup, as was the bird’s general plumage.

I'm looking forward to seeing my first Treecreeper of the year - at least I won't walk away scratching my head as to whether it was an escaped hybrid or not.

Wednesday 9 February 2011


I grabbed a window of opportunity for a spot of decent birding this afternoon - no time limits - so I headed straight for Thursley Common, in the hope of seeing the wintering Great Grey Shrike.

I went without high expectations, mainly because Thursley is a large area to be pursuing what has proved to be a highly active bird - it took Surrey record-breaker Johnny Allan at least five visits recently before he actually saw it. I'd already had three attempts this year without success.

When I arrived I noticed a car I recognised in the car park. Kevin 'Kojak' Guest was in the area so I texted him. He'd arrived a few hours earlier looking for Raven - a couple had been seen in the area during the past couple days - but as luck would have it he texted me back to say he had come across the Shrike instead, despite not really going out of his way to find it.

I walked over to Shrike Hill, and before long I was looking at the Great Grey Shrike perched on top of a tall Silver Birch. I met up with Kojak and we walked round to the south side of the hill and then walked up to the summit, where we located the Shrike again.

It was typically busy flying from tree to tree and then dropping down to the ground as it searched for lunch. We had been lucky, as it hung around for more than 20 minutes before it moved on, heading towards the Ockley end of the Common.

I'd had an unproductive week before today - dipping the Firecrests at Banstead Golf Course three times, then travelling over to Island Barn Reservoir to see the Great Northern Diver, only to discover the place was locked and deserted, apart from one birder who didn't bother his arse to let me in - so the Shrike definitely made up for it.

Also present was a Woodlark, its song breaking the silence of the Common, which can be a pretty grim old place at this time of year. Alas, no Raven, no Hen Harrier or Red Kite, any of which would have been a real treat. All have been seen here in recent weeks, however, so it is just a simple case of being at the right place at the right time. Trouble is time is not always on my side.

I left Kojak to his Raven search and went to Cutt Mill Ponds in the hope of seeing the Firecrest and Yellow-legged Gull that were seen there the day before. No joy, but I did see my first Coal Tit of the year.

A sprint over to Compton came next, but I couldn't find any Grey Partridge. As the light began to fade on the way home, I took a quick detour to Wisley Airfield, just to work out where the best spots are to visit in future.

Earlier in the day I saw a Ruddy Duck at an undisclosed site. These beleagured birds are now quite rare in Surrey. A cull was agreed by the Government in the 1990s because these ducks, originally imported from America in the late 1940s, established themselves too successfully after escaping from Sir Peter Scott's sanctuary at Slimbridge. They spread quickly to other European countries, including Spain, where (unfortunately for the Ruddy Duck) it began breeding with the endangered White-headed Duck. To stop the demise of the Spanish bird, it was decided to wipe out the Ruddy Duck population.

Some still survive, like the one I saw. But for how long?

Tuesday 1 February 2011


I took a quick trip to my local patch this evening to pick up some missing patch listings. I went over to Spynes Mere at Holmethorpe where I noted a couple of Shelduck among the gulls, but not much else. Over on Mercers West, the three female Smew were still present, along with a Goldeneye.

On the way to the local Tesco store on the Water Colour housing development I parked by the Fordbridge, where the Redhill Brook flows under the road between Mercers Lake and the two Water Colour Lagoons. I have regularly seen a Kingfisher perched on an overhanging branch or flying low along the brook, but today I saw a Water Rail for the first time this year. It was only fleeting, as it was soon heading for cover. It never reappeared, but nevertheless, it was mission accomplished.

It's good news that the Smew and Goldeneye have stayed put at Holmethorpe for a large part of the winter, having arrived at a similar time the year before. It establishes Holmethorpe as a plum site in Surrey for these species, in the same way well-known reserves such as Thursley Common are renowned for Great Grey Shrike in the winter.

It's worth making a note of the best places to see particular birds, as it makes finding them a darn site easier for relative novices such as myself. While I will happily venture to new and unchartered territories to see what may turn up now and again, I do need the odd tap-in sighting to keep my spirits up during those numerous days when I see next to nothing.

The concept of patch listing is starting to grow on me. There is nothing more satisfying than finding unusual birds in your back yard. Waxwings in Redhill, Bittern in Godstone. It means you spend more time in the field rather than - as has happened on too many occasions recently - spending most of my time driving around the countryside seeing bugger all.

It's like supporting your local football team. There will be good days and bad days, but once in a while the most unlikely event will take place. Who would have thought Crawley Town would end up playing Manchester United at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup?

The thing is, if you wait long enough, something amazing will happen on your local patch. And when it does, it will stay with you forever.


Water was the theme yesterday morning - lakes to be exact. I had a window of opportunity for some local twitching and headed off for Newdigate first thing.

I've never been to Newdigate Brick Works before. It's not dissimilar to the Water Colour Lagoons at Holmethorpe, in as much it is an area that has been created specifically as a Nature Reserve and has a new housing development right on its doorstep. If you are a birder and decided to move here, you'd be pretty happy when you opened your curtains every morning.

Plenty of birdlife - noisy Canada Geese, Goldfinch aplenty, Greater Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, and although I didn't see one, I would think there would be a Kingfisher or two here.

The reason for the visit was for the 20 Goosanders that were still present. Two drakes and 18 females were happily cruising round the lake and after watching them for a while I decided to head for my other morning destination at Hedgecourt Lake near Felbridge.

While another Bittern has been seen stationed in the reeds, I didn't see it, but I did see the female Red-crested Pochard. Unlike the regular Red-crested visitors on Frenches Pond in Redhill, this bird is not an escapee. As Johnny Allan noted the day before, it kept to itself most of the time, away from the bread-feeding shoreline nearest the road and was busy diving for food out near the reeds.

That was my lot until later in the week. There's still plenty out there I've yet to set eyes on before the clocks go forward in about six weeks time.