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.

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...