Welcome to my blog. If you live in Surrey and birding is your obsession (to get out of bed at some ridiculously early time of the morning, no matter what the weather, to go and look at birds isn't normal behaviour, believe me) and you're still a bit of a novice (like me) then, hopefully, this blog is for you.

Saturday 27 August 2011


It was going to be difficult to top the Hoopoe last week but the autumn migration has brought with it a few beauties for those who are looking in the right places. Seen cruising up the Thames yesterday were both White-winged Black and Whiskered Tern, while today four Arctic Skuas were seen circling high above Leith Hill before high-tailing it south. Temminck's Stint and Little Stint have dropped in at various points in the south-east.

But perhaps the most interesting visitor around the area for the past week or so has been the enigmatic Wryneck. It's the right time of year to see them, with quite a few sightings across the south-east, including at Alexandra Park, Dungeness and Pulborough Brooks. All relatively nearby, but none as yet had been found in Surrey - until this afternoon.

I had a thick head this morning - Annie and I had hosted a birthday dinner for a friend of ours, and predictably it went on into the early hours with plenty of wine consumed - but I had to get up early to get to Shipley Bridge to have one of my two car's MOT'd (one's a dependable old tank - an X-reg Mondeo).

I felt bloody awful, but there was still plenty to do during the rest of the day, including putting an antique brass bed we'd bought a few years back into storage at a friend's lock-up.

We had a late lunch at 4pm, which was when I saw Johnny Allan's Tweet about a Wryneck seen at Ranmore Common. I got there just after 5pm. A number of birders were already in place, including JA and Dodge, David Campbell, Paul Cox and the guy who discovered the bird in the first place, Sean Foote.

Sean had been on a butterfly trial on the Common when he flushed the bird off the grass path next to a row of houses that back on to the Common next to the car park.

We had been waiting for at least half-an-hour when we saw a small brown bird drop down from a hedgerow into one of the gardens. It didn't reappear, so Dodge and Tony Blair decided to get a better view by knocking on the front door of the house and asking the residents if they could have a look in their garden for the Wryneck.

The owners were evidently impressed by Dodge's charm offensive, as within a few minutes his head appeared on the other side of the hedge, and he was pointing animatedly to our left. The bird was in the next door's garden. We all scrambled over to the hedge to see it we could locate it, when the Wryneck (154) flew up into a small tree in front of us. Hey presto, a first for me and in Surrey to boot.

The Wryneck stayed in the tree for quite a few minutes before flying up into a Horse Chestnut tree, and then over to the gate next to the car park. It was then that Ian Jones arrived, and he caught sight of its rear end as it flew off into the trees.

That was the last I saw of it before I left Ian and Paul at 7pm to continue the stake-out. Hoopoe, then Wryneck. What will turn up next? Red-backed Shrike or, as Dodge was keen on seeing, a Barred Warbler perhaps?

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 154
This time last year: 145

Sunday 21 August 2011


Late on Saturday Annie and I went over to Farthing Downs. Annie just wanted a bit of late afternoon sun, while I wanting to go and pay the Hoopoe another visit. We arrived just after 6pm, and it was balmy evening with not a breath of wind. The Hoopoe had been seen earlier that afternoon - for the seventh day in a row - so I knew it was still about.

Annie went in search of a park bench with her book, while I trekked off in search for the latest birding star of Surrey. I bumped into a couple of birders soon after setting off. One hadn't seen the Hoopoe and was clearly in a bad mood. He turned up just as a Crow had mobbed it and it had flown off to the east, on the other side of Ditches Lane. The other guy had seen it close up, having flushed it off the footpath - it had only flown a short distance away. He seemed happy enough.

After a quick look on the eastern side of the lane, I headed over to the usual spot, the middle path. Sure enough a group of birders were peering through scopes and bins. One of them beckoned me over. It was Andy Pickett, who was watching the bird along with his girlfriend Nikki.

The Hoopoe was feeding contentedly on the side of the path in the longer grass, pecking frantically for insects. Occasionally, something would spook it slightly and it revealed its crest. It stayed in the same spot for a good half an hour, although it didn't emerge completely from the undergrowth until a group of walkers got close, and then it paused in the middle of the path before flying off into the trees just after 7pm.

As far as I know, that was the last time it was seen, as there were no reported sightings today. It has been a real treat while it lasted.

Friday 19 August 2011


It's a funny old business this birding lark. On any given day, you can spend hours and walk miles looking for a bird, and the following day the same bird will just appear right in front of you within minutes. Such is the tale of the past two days.

I drew the curtains back just before 6am this morning and it was how you would expect August to be - a cobalt blue sky, and not a breath of wind. A complete contrast to the November-style evening 12 hours earlier. I was planning another 15-minute drive up the road to Coulsdon to find the local Hoopoe again.

I must have spent at least four hours yomping round the Downs, on a wild Hoopoe chase, yesterday morning, so I didn't intend to go through that again. As it was flying around a lot yesterday, it seemed a better idea to walk along the top path close to the road and set up shop halfway along. I would have a panoramic view of the area, and if the Hoopoe appeared, I could see where it was heading.

I parked up at 6.20am as the sun broke through the early morning mist. I found the ideal spot and waited.

I didn't have to wait long. Within half-an-hour I saw the Hoopoe in the distance flying across the trees like a giant butterfly and then heading in my direction. At first I thought it was going to land on the path but instead it settled in a small tree just 20 yards away, and perched up nicely in the sunshine. Perfect.

And there it stayed, occasionally preening itself, blinking in the sunlight, in no hurry to go anywhere. I took a few dodgy digiscope photos to record the event and posted the sighting on Birdguides. A couple of other birders joined me and we had excellent views of this extremely scarce Surrey visitor for the next ten minutes or so, until a dog-walker forced it to fly back the way it came. It briefly settled on top of a large tree before dropping down out of view.

A few more birders arrived an hour later, but the Hoopoe didn't reappear, although while we hung about we got great views of a stunning pair of Lesser Whitethroat in a bush nearby. By 9am, with a fair bit of magazine work to be getting on with, I headed home happy.

If only more days were like this.

Thursday 18 August 2011


A Hoopoe was sighted at Farthing Downs, south of Coulsdon on August 14th, but was only announced the day after. So, like many other local birders, I didn't take much notice as it was most likely heading off across the Channel by the time anyone bothered to venture over to the area to take a look.

Then yesterday afternoon, Johnny Allan tweeted that the bird had been seen again. He made his way over with Dodge and David Campbell in tow and they all got on to the bird pretty soon after arriving. It was still visible at 5.20pm. I headed off as soon as work was over for the day, and was parking up just after 6pm.

That afternoon, I had a go at fixing my written-off scope. There wasn't much to lose in trying. I managed to unbend the focusing thread, and used some Bostick to stick down the prism and some tape to hold the body together. Amazingly, it worked.

I was hoping to find a throng of people all lined up looking through scopes at the Hoopoe, which would be posing perfectly a few metres away. No such luck. There were a few birders around, all wandering around the site with looks of resignation on their faces. Among them were Alex Bowes, Andy Pickett and Roy 'Bulldog' Dennis.

We joined forces and scoured the area, but found nothing, apart from umpteen Wood Pigeons. By 7.45pm I gave up for the evening and planned to come back in the morning.

I was back at the Downs at 6.00am. Andy Pickett was already there. For the next two hours I trudged around the area, looking along all the grass footpaths in the hope of seeing this bird. I found a Whinchat, which was nice, a Bullfinch and loads of Linnets and Goldfinch, but no Hoopoe. Andy left.

I then bumped into the guy who discovered the bird in the first place. He had been standing about 200 metres away from me when he found the Hoopoe on the footpath. A dog walker had inevitably flushed it and it flew off into the valley and behind some trees. I hadn't seen a thing, as I was looking the other way. At least it was still around.

Graham James and Paul Kerry then arrived, as did Roy Dennis. We went searching for another hour or so, and still couldn't find it. I was aware of the time and the knowledge that I had work to do, so I gave the area just one more look before heading home.

As I was heading for the car park, the phone rang. it was Roy. "Look to your left," he said. I looked and there he was with Graham and Paul, plus another birder, on an adjacent footpath, all looking intently through binoculars back down the path.

The Hoopoe had flown over Roy's head and landed in front of him on the path before moving into some longer grass, where it remained hidden. I scuttled over. A herd of cows eventually flushed it out, and for the first time in Britain, and Surrey in particular, I had my first view of a Hoopoe (153) in flight. It had taken a total of five-and-a-half hours, but it had been worth the wait.

The Hoopoe flew down into the valley and landed in a tree, where it showed well for a few minutes. The bird raised its crest as a walker came past, and it was in the air again, heading west. It went missing briefly, before it flew back and dropped down on to the lower footpath. As we approached it, it took flight again, and this time it disappeared over the other side of some trees.

Having seen it a last, it was time to head off. The only other Hoopoes I have ever seen were when on holiday in Tuscany many years ago, so it was great to find one so close to home.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 153
This time last year: 144

Friday 12 August 2011


After proudly announcing I had seen a Wood Sandpiper at Beddington a few days back, I now have to eat humble pie and admit that the bird I saw was probably a Greenshank. There, I've said it. It only goes to prove how easy it is for a relative novice like myself to become influenced by what I expect to see.

I knew a Wood Sandpiper was there, so I convinced myself that the bird I was looking at was one. After I had written my post and published it, the nagging doubts started to eat at me. No matter how often I looked at the terrible photos on the post, and kept looking at Collins and Google Images, I just couldn't convincingly morph the likely Greenshank into a Wood Sandpiper.

It was a schoolboy error. A Greenshank, of which I have seen many, is a larger and leggier bird than the Wood Sand. And then, just as I had decided just to run with it and go back and get another sighting just to confirm I'd seen one, David Campbell delivered the coup de grace. He left a message on the blog explaining that he felt the bird in the photo was a Greenshank. After a couple of email messages to and fro, I had to admit defeat.

So, I was back to square one. I needed to go back to Beddington at some point. After trashing my scope on the 7th, I dashed up the A217 late this afternoon to Kay Optical in Morden to see whether my Opticron was salvageable. Unfortunately, I was told it really wasn't worth fixing and the cost of the repair would be far better used to buy another one.

On the way back home I took a diversion over to Beddington. Earlier in the day Johnny Allan had posted on Twitter that three Wood Sandpipers were still present, plus a Garganey, a Black-Tailed Godwit and five Greenshank. I found one of the Greenshank on the south lake, plus the Black-Tailed Godwit (151). You see hundreds on the coast, they are two-a-penny, but seeing of one in Surrey is still a head turner.

I couldn't find a Wood Sand at first, but after a walk around the perimeter up to 100-acre lake, where I saw a couple of Green and a Common Sandpiper, and a Peregrine Falcon circling overhead, I ventured back via the feeding-frenzied Tree Sparrows for one last go on the south lake.

After catching sight of the Greenshank again I realised there was a smaller wader following closely behind - at last, I can genuinely confirm I can tick a bona fide Wood Sandpiper (152)! I moved along the fence to get a better view but I couldn't relocate it again.

I also couldn't find the Garganey - to be honest, it is hard to see much on the main lake with just a pair of old binoculars - so, it was time to go.

On the way home I dropped in at the local patch. Graham James had emailed me to let me know that a Spotted Flycatcher, seen a few days earlier, was still in the area, being spotted again along the pathway on the south side of Spynes Mere. The Spotted Flycatcher is developing into my bogey bird of the year. I just can't find one. I didn't see this one either.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 152
This time last year: 144

Sunday 7 August 2011


The alarm went off at 4.15am and I was parking at Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey by 5.40am. It was a beautiful morning as the sun broke into view above the horizon to announce the beginning of August 7, 2011.

I'm now officially 52 years old. It's going quickly this decade. It only seemed five minutes ago I was starting my first job after leaving art school. That was in 1982. Ten years later I was married. That was 19 years ago this month. Where are all the years going?

Annie told me to go off and spend the day how I wanted - which was a full day's birding, obviously. I would get home later to be rewarded with a feast and plenty of wine. Perfect.

I chose Elmley as my main stop as it has had a decent run of interesting birds recently, and it is only 50 minutes from Redhill. I didn't want to spend half the day in the car. There wasn't a soul about when I arrived - I basically had the whole place to myself.

On the walk down to the hides, which is about a mile and a half trek, I came across plenty of Yellow Wagtails but the was no sign of the juvenile Purple Heron that had been seen up to 11.30am the day before.

At the Reserve itself, all was fairly quiet. Most of the birds there were sleeping, including 17 Little Egrets on the rocks alongside the Swale Estuary. There were a few Avocets, as would be expected, but few waders around apart from some Common and Green Sandpipers. No sign of the Spoonbills that had been visiting regularly during the summer, but I spotted a male Garganey preening itself while it dozed.

The best sight was that of two female Marsh Harriers hunting over the marsh. They put on quite a performance in the stiff wind, causing quite a stir with the resident waders, who constantly flew up to intercept them. The two harriers were successful in finding some food, although I couldn't make out what they had caught.

During the day I saw at least five Marsh Harriers around the area, plus a Peregrine and a couple of Kestrels.

During the walk round I also came across five Wheatears. The autumn migration has well and truly got underway.

As there wasn't much going on at this point, I decided to head back to the car and set off for Oare Marshes, to see if anything interesting had turned up there.

I wish I had stayed put. No sooner had I got to Oare and began to walk along the lane, heading for the sea wall, when I stumbled in a pot hole and hit the deck. Camera, binoculars and scope all crashed to the ground. I ripped my jeans and grazed my leg. The camera and bins were OK, but the scope was damaged. The screws that hold part of it together had sheered and some of the internals had come loose. What an idiot. Of all the days for this to happen. I felt like going home.

I rang home and explained to Annie what had happened. Once I had gained my composure again, I decided to make the best of it and carry on just with my bins and camera. Still in a bit of a daze, Oare came and went without much to report, apart from a heavy storm that swept through. There were a few Yellow Wagtails dotted around and the usual waders on the flood (Black-tailed Godwits, Knot, Redshank, Greenshank, etc).

So, I set off back to Elmley. After waiting for another heavy shower to pass over, I headed off back down the path just after 1pm. The sun came out. It was then I noticed something moving out across the flats, alongside a ditch near where a herd of cattle were grazing. The tall bird walked along a fence and then flew up and perched on top of it. It was the juvenile PURPLE HERON. What a stroke of luck! It was annoying that I didn't have the scope to look at it, but after working my way across the grass I got a better view. It was the first time I had seen one - I'm not the seasoned birder - so this was a boost.

Within a matter of a few minutes it dropped back down again into the ditch and out of sight. I immediately reported it to Birdguides, and within half an hour it was up on Rare Bird Alert with a blue triangle on the map. As far as I know, I was the only person to see the bird all day - a perfect present and compensation for the events a couple of hours earlier.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful - the Spoonbills never materialised - but it had been enjoyable nonetheless. I was going to set off for Banstead late on to see if I could find a Firecrest - David Campbell had texted me to say he had seen one in Banstead Woods - but it was getting late, and to be honest, I was totally knackered by then. Excellent food and wine shared with Annie was a far more alluring proposition.

Thursday 4 August 2011


It's not been a good week. Not enough work and too many bills, numerous 180-mile round trips to Hitchin to visit the mother-in-law in hospital after her knee replacement (I'm sure it was something else that needed replacing, but I can't think what...).

We went up to Hertfordshire on Sunday afternoon but didn't get far. Driving up Gatton Bottom Road, the lane that runs parallel with the M25, heading for junction 8 of the motorway at Reigate Hill, we had an accident.

A car coming down the road was waiting to turn into a driveway on my side of the road, but for some reason decided to turn in just as I was about ten yards away from him. He then noticed I was there and stopped in the middle of the road. I was doing about 50mph. I could have just jammed on the brakes and t-boned his car - not a good option as his passenger would almost certainly have been hurt, so I locked up and tried to steer the car left, away from the stationary vehicle and towards the driveway. But he panicked and continued to turn in.

We inevitably made contact but it was only a glancing blow. Predictably, his car - well, his father's car - only had a scuff down the front grill and bumper, while mine had a stuffed front wing. He admitted it was his error. We were all a bit shaken. In the end we got away with it, because the car was still driveable. We carried on our way to Hitchin.

I was disappointed that I hadn't rescued the situation completely and that it had shaken me. Ten years ago, when I was editor at Motorsport News, I held a racing license and had raced at Brands Hatch and Lydden Hill in production cars, Legends Racing cars, Zip Formula single-seaters and the like. I had driven a NASCAR Winston Cup car around Rockingham Motorspeedway, near Corby. I had driven the British Championship-winning Hillclimb car of David Grace - which had a 750bhp Benetton Ford F1 engine stuck in the back of it.

I had also raced stock cars for a short time in the mid-nineties. I even had a two-seater F1 ride around the Misano racetrack in Italy with Fernando Alonso. Yep, that's right - the Fernando Alonso. So I was used high speed, and particularly with the stock car racing, to the knocks. But here I was, in a pokey Peugeot 206 diesel, having had the first shunt on the road since I passed my driving test in the early 1980s, sweating and a bit stunned by the whole thing.

I think it's down to preparation. In a racing car, you are hyped-up before you start and you know what to expect, whereas when an idiot turns in front of you for no apparent or logical reason, it is a bit of a shock.

So, that was Sunday. It is now Thursday. Nothing much to report on the bird front until this evening. The weather was sub-tropical for the first half of the week, but then had turned autumnal in the blink of an eye today. All week there have been some interesting birds dropping in at Beddington Farm, notably Wood Sandpipers and a number of Garganey. Last year, Holmethorpe had visits from both these species, but nothing this year up till now. I wanted to go to the Farm to catch up with the Wood Sandpipers at some point but couldn't find a window of opportunity.

Then, this evening I had need to go to the Waitrose in Banstead, so I took a detour. Roger 'Dodge' Browne kindly gave me the location of a Wood Sand that had dropped in at Beddington today. It was probably still there, so I went for a look. Remarkably, this is the first time I've been to Beddington all year. I don't know why that is, apart from the fact that I haven't been birding half as often as I would like in 2011.

Thankfully, the Wood Sandpiper (150) was still on the southern lake, sleeping most of the time, but it was good to catch up with one. While I was there I also went to see the Tree Sparrows (151). These birds are a Beddington speciality - the only site in Surrey where you can find them. There were more than 20 Sparrows on the feeders, but as soon as I turned up, they flew off into the trees. They were making quite a din until a Kestrel ghosted through and it all went very quiet. And that's how it stayed.

So, that was it for the evening. Another visit to Hitchin is on the cards for tomorrow (whoopeedoo), and then it's my birthday on Sunday. I'm planning a visit to Elmley Marshes or somewhere similar, expecting to see plenty of great birds - here's hoping...

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 151
This time last year: 143