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 28 July 2011


No sooner had I moaned about the lack of interesting birds in the area during the past couple of months when one decided to drop in.

Work was quiet, so seeing as it was a pleasant day I took Annie out for lunch at the Gomshall Mill. The Mill is one of only a handful pubs we go to these days where the food is actually worth eating. Too often at other places we've ended up having a crap meal, feeling decidedly ripped off.

The other pub we really like is The Sportsman, near Tadworth. The Sportsman is, in my view, probably the best pub for both food and beer within a five-mile radius of where we live. Both are excellent and reasonably priced. Worth a visit, and after lunch you can walk on Banstead Common, which is right next to the pub.

After the Mill, we went to Holmbury Hill for a brief walk and a chance to take in some sunshine. It was here I caught up with Twitter on my mobile and noticed that David Campbell had a female Whinchat and juvenile Stonechat at Canons Farm. I haven't seen a Whinchat since last autumn, so when we got home later I got my kit and went for a look. As far as David was concerned neither looked like they were going anywhere, so I was reasonably confident they would still be there when I arrived.

And so it proved. I got to the Farm at about 7pm, and within about ten seconds of setting up alongside the northern end of Horse Pastures field, there they were - the female Whinchat (149) and juvenile Stonechat - perched next to each other in a hedgerow and showing well.

Two really nice birds, both busying themselves flying up to catch insects before settling down on a branch again. It was an enjoyable sight. The sun was warm and low on the horizon, the wheat fields smelt of summer - all was well with the world.

After a while I left and went over to Holmethorpe, where three Common Sandpipers and a Green Sandpiper had been seen on Spynes Mere and Mercer's West lake. I caught up with the Green Sandpiper but couldn't see any sign of the Common Sands. Not to worry, it had been a good evening and it does appear - from my perspective, at least - as if the world of Surrey birding has woken up from its summer slumber and it's now full steam ahead for the autumn migration.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 149
This time last year: 143

Wednesday 27 July 2011


The above headline says it all. It's been a nearly three weeks since my last post and if it wasn't for an urge just to write something, it would probably have been another week or more before I bothered to tap away on the keyboard.

So, what's been happening? A lot of thinking but no birding, that's what. After the satisfaction of catching the Red-rumped Swallow at Unstead at the beginning of the month, there have been scant reasons to step outside the door ever since. For one thing the weather has been ordinary, to put it mildly. Despite torrential rain on occasions, plus a typically brisk wind every day and low temperatures - a typical British summer's day - there have been few good birds dropping in anywhere to warrant me dropping everything to go and see them. The majority of good/interesting sightings have opted to stick to the coast.

It's the predictable problem of living in a land-locked county. We in Surrey get excited by birds other county watchers wouldn't even bother raising their bins to. Black-tailed Godwits, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones, Sanderlings. I've seen all of these in Kent this year - they're standard fare anywhere along the coastline of south-east England. You don't have to look hard to see one. Gold dust, however, in Surrey - wader and Surrey is an unusual juxtaposition in the general scheme of birding things. They aren't rare birds per se, but unless they drop in at Holmethorpe, I find it hard to raise the enthusiasm to traipse off to another Surrey site just to say I've seen one.

There have been a few five-star birds at other sites, notably the Black Kite over Beddington found by Johnny Allan a couple of weeks back - what a fantastic bird to discover cruising over your patch! Alas, no such luck at Holmethorpe. It has been a rather barren eight to ten weeks or so. Despite this bleak summer outlook, there have been more bird species seen at Holmethorpe so far this year than in 2010. And we know, by the law of averages, a real stonker could turn up at anytime.

We know that to be true, but it all takes time and effort. Holmethorpe has a number of dedicated patch watchers doing the rounds, but even they have been absent on a number of days this past couple of months. There's only so much repetition and disappointment a human being can take in one go! What's happened to all the birds - have the Maltese shot them all?

I did see a Red Kite on Walton Heath golf course last week, but it was a golfer called Tom Kite, wearing a red shirt. That's as close as I got to seeing a decent birdie in Surrey recently (terrible puns, but I couldn't resist it). Red Kite was kept company by the Greater-breasted Course Official. An impressive defiance of the laws of gravity by anyone's standards...

My main task in the coming weeks, apart from catching up with the above birds I haven't seen in Surrey this year, which also include a number of other elusive species - Spotted Flycatcher, Firecrest, Tree Sparrow (a Beddington gimmee), Yellow-legged Gull (another a Beddington gimmee) and Wood Sandpiper - is to put pencil to paper for the first time in more than a year. I intend to put together a few drawings and perhaps a painting for the Birdwatch magazine art competition. I've got about six weeks to get my act together and execute the images I've worked out in my head. If they work out OK, I'll enter them. If they aren't what I think are good enough, they'll be kept under lock and key. I'll keep you posted.

Friday 8 July 2011


It has been a fascinating week, but not on the birding front. After the shocking revelations about phone-hacking by the red-topped Sunday rag, the News of the World, the story exploded on all media fronts, particularly on the internet. Once the thorn in the side of celebrities and politicians for its 'caught-with-their-trousers-down' exclusives, it was now the newspaper itself that was the centre of controversy.

After a remarkable three days, the paper was axed by News international, the British newspaper publishing arm of Rupert Murdoch's business empire, News Corporation, fronted by Murdoch's son, James. The two aspects of the story that angered the majority of observers, including myself, was that the newspaper was folded so abruptly that more than 200 journalists and newspaper workers lost their jobs at a stroke because of the reckless acts of the previous employees at the newspaper more than five years ago, and secondly, that the flame-haired CEO of News International, and the editor of the paper at the time of the revelations, Rebekah Brooks, was still in a job despite calls on all sides for her to resign.

The revelation I personally discovered was the power of Twitter as a forum for up-to-the-minute news feed. Almost every minute new information was coming through via the News of the World offices - until their internet access was blocked by their employer - and a vast number of updates and comments were feeding through from political journalists, politicians, celebrities, the general public.

It was captivating stuff until a message came through on my phone from Johnny Allan at 5.51pm - 'Red-rumped Swallow Unstead SF now'. A Red-rumped Swallow? The bad weather must have blown it our way. This I couldn't miss. My bad back was on the mend, so I was soon belting down the A25, heading for Godalming. I've never seen a Red-rumped Swallow before, let alone one in Surrey. Apparently later, I discovered from Johnny that it was only the fourth-ever record of one in the county (make that the fifth ever - see comments below).

I got to Unstead in 40 minutes, and Johnny was already in position, alongside Brian Milton, the guy who discovered the bird. It was a major coup for Brian, who is nearing a remarkable landmark. He is fast approaching 3,500 days of continuous Unstead patch watching - that's nearly 10 years without a day off! It takes all sorts.

The Swallow had just flown close by as I arrived, in amongst a large flock of feeding House Martins and the odd Swift. It took an age to lock on to the bird but eventually I got my first glimpse of the Red-rumped Swallow (148).

A number of other birders soon arrived including 'Devil Birder' David Campbell and Ian 'Eagle' Jones, then later others, including Bob Warden and Franko Maroevic. The Swallow favoured an area close to a clump of trees next to the sewage works, so we moved further along a footpath to get a better view. It wasn't too long before the Red-rumped Swallow was flying close by, even over our heads - it was showing really well.

It had been more than two weeks without a trip out for a spot of birding, so this extremely rare Surrey bird was a fantastic way to get back into it.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 148
This time last year: 141

Monday 4 July 2011


More than ten days have past and I haven't so much as picked up the bins - by that I mean both binoculars or bin bags. Truth be known, I haven't lifted so much as a finger. It was about ten days ago I was clambering over a metal gate when I lost my footing - both feet slipped off the bottom rung of the gate and I managed to do a full 360 over it. Annie was with me at the time - her first thought was that I was showing off an athletitism that had hitherto escaped me for the past 19 years.

It apparently looked like I was trying to emulate a gymnast executing a dismount after a performance on the parallel bars. It was only when I fell in a heap at the end of it, rather than proudly standing upright with arms outstretched, that Annie twigged that maybe I hadn't meant it. Embarrassed, I brushed myself down and put it to the back of my mind, as you do. A couple of days later we had a good laugh about it (at my expense, obviously) over a glass of wine or two. Then a couple of days later, on Sunday morning, I couldn't get out of bed.

To cut this particular story short, the doctor diagnosed I'd pulled some muscles in my lower back - and sometimes the symptoms can take a few days to manifest themselves. It's now a week later and I'm becoming mightily cheesed off with it. I can get in and out of the car - eventually - and I can shuffle about in Sainsbury's for a bit - but that's my lot.

It also means no birding. Nothing for the past 11 days.

As a result, I've spent more time in front of the computer, looking at birding websites and forums to see if I'm missing anything. My Holmethorpe birding mate Graham gave me info on a pair of Spotted Flycatchers not too far away that I'd like to go and see, but frustratingly, they'll have to wait until I can carry a scope. And I'm not sure when that will be.

No matter. I've been able to find things to take my mind off it. I've enjoyed watching the tennis, but that pales into insignificance compared with a thread I've been following on Bird Forum that has kept me entertained these past few days. Unquestionably, the thread 'Uk400club 'list Of Lists' Etc Etc' will go down in birding history as one of the most extraordinary discussions ever to grace a birding forum - or any forum for that matter. It is the most surreal discussion I've have ever read. Salvador Dali, eat your heart out...

It started on June 23, and it's only just winding down as I write this...

Its roots began on an innocent thread about the mega White-winged Scoter seen off the coast of Aberdeenshire ('WHITE-WINGED SCOTER in Aberdeens - Breaking news from RBA (1.20pm 12 Jun)'.

Enter Lee Evans, the most well-known and - he would openly admit himself - controversial birder on these shores during the past three decades, who runs the British Birding Association and UK 400 Club, a club for birders interested in rare birds and twitching. His club publishes its own all-time lists for the leading 900 UK, 500 Western Palearctic and 1,000 World listing birders, based on its own taxonomy. Twitching and lists go hand-in-hand and official lists of the top twitchers have a certain kudos attached to them... apparently.

The problem here is, not all of the leading birders in Britain acknowledge the UKClub400 listings. The reasons are wide and varied, and include personal as well as technical motives.

Responding to a post about his lists from Phil Woollen, Evans confirmed that his UK400 Club website is subscription only. After a request from Woollen, Evans posts a link to his top UK and Ireland list so it is available for everyone to read. It is then that all hell lets loose...

Enter Johnny Allan. Top Surrey Beddington-based birder. He enters the forum to catch up with news on the Scoter when he discovers he can now can view the UK400Club list - and finds that he's on it, without his consent.

He asks to have his list removed, having never given permission and also comments that it is inaccurate. Within minutes, a number of other leading birders join the discussion and also request to have their lists removed from the UK400Club 'list of lists'.

The thread was then closed because it had gone way far off topic (the White-winged Scoter, remember?). Johnny Allan then opens up another thread, and repeats his original request to have his list removed from the UK400Club listings. This is the thread that was still going at it hammer and tongs with no end in sight.

The argument is very simple. A number of birders don't want their lists on the UKClub400 website because they never sent them to the UK400Club website in the first place. These birders lists have been worked out by Evans himself on what he believes the listers in question have seen, based on twitches he's been on or had reported back about. The objectors say Evans has contravened the Data Protection Act 1998 (and having looked at it, it does appear he may well have done) but if the lists are deleted they'll leave it at that. End of. The impression is, however, that Evans has no intention of doing that.

It's a very strange situation. On one side, a group of birders requesting, as is their right, to have their data removed from this list, while on the other, no offer to comply but instead a request to these birders to send their latest lists so they can be corrected and updated for the website!

From my perspective it is clear why Evans is ignoring the requests of these birders. Listing is an important part of his life and a key facet of the UK400Club. If he removes the names requested he will have a list that is irrelevant, and it is likely he cannot abide that thought. Also, after all the pages of discussion, it would make him appear to lose face. Far better to carry on, ask for updates, add compromises like asterisks and red type to depict an inaccurate list, than to remove it from his website.

At some points, I really couldn't believe what I was reading. There were suggestions that Evans could end up in court - and a few people got sucked in by this statement - but after careful reading, it was only Evans himself who surmised that was where this saga would end up. Add to which, in amongst all the real debate, a number of personal insults and probable defammatory comments made on both sides, and you end up with a spiralling, hysterical (in the true sense of the word) row that develops as quickly as a forest fire.

To continue the court theme, later on in the thread, Evans claims that if he is taken to court, he expects to lose and therefore has a potential threat of bankruptcy looming over him. A dramatic statement - but that is all it is. In the first instance, he can avoid any proceedings with a few clicks of a computer mouse. And in the second, the chance of something as utterly trivial as a birding list would ever see its day in court is, frankly, laughable.

At worst, the Information Commissioner may enforce Evans to comply with the Act because he has contravened sections of it, but even if, in the unlikely event he was imposed a monetary penalty, there's no way on this Earth he would be put in a position of undue financial hardship.

It has become a battle of wills, and Evans has proved in the past he has a guile and determination to deflect huge amounts of flak. Far better, from his point of view - despite the vitriol and unpleasantness the whole row has created - to carry on regardless. And, really, that is the most likely outcome.