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 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.