Day 7 – January 7
ABSENT FOR AN ICELAND GULL
Saturday’s aren’t always a good day of the week for me as it’s often an opportunity for Annie and I to go out for day trips, and this usually means visiting an area that's not renowned for birds. While we were touring around the Cotswolds I missed an Iceland Gull on Mercer’s Lake. It was seen in the late afternoon by Gordon Hay and Graham James. Graham also found the Garganey again yesterday morning where I failed. I’m now of the opinion I may have seen the bird previously, when it was asleep, it just looked a bit like a female Teal. I’m not good with brown ducks.
I wasn't sure what to plan for Sunday. Crossbills at Crooksbury Common was an option, as was Thursley Common, in a search for the Great Grey Shrike and even maybe, possibly, hopefully, with finger’s crossed, a Ring-tail Hen Harrier – a bird I dipped at Thursley a few times last year.
STUTTERING TWITCHING DASH ACROSS THE COUNTY
It was an early-ish start – I felt pretty knackered – but I was at Crooksbury Common by 8.30am. Finding Crossbills
turned out to be an easy task – they were everywhere. Calling constantly, they were in the pines and flying across the Common. I couldn’t fail to see them. As it turned out this was to be the highlight of the day. I thought I heard a Dartford Warbler but couldn’t locate it, and there was no cronking call of a Raven heard anywhere in the area.
Next stop was Thursley Common, where I bumped into Danny and Penny Boyd, two excellent birders who regularly patrol this patch. Their efforts reap rewards on a regular basis. On Friday they saw a Ring-tail Hen Harrier, it was a feature for most of the day, a Peregrine perched in a tree nearby for nearly half an hour and a Great Grey Shrike revealed itself for the first time in a while.
Alas, no luck for me on a relatively flying visit. A couple of Woodlarks
, and yet more Crossbills
flying around the Common were the best I could come up with. Predictably the Boyds saw two Shrikes by 12.15pm. I left at 11.30am – it is proof that to find decent birds you must do the groundwork and put in the hours, something I rarely have the luxury of doing.
It also reflects the relationship I have with Thursley Common – it’s definitely a love-hate thing with me. I have had regular sightings of Great Grey Shrike there, but I have also seen nothing on many occasions. In all the visits I have made to Thursley Common during the past four years I have never seen a Hen Harrier. Not one. And does it grate.
Just to add to the grating feeling I discovered a Snow Bunting had been seen at Holmethorpe – albeit briefly – and also the Iceland Gull was still in the area while I was away.
I popped over to Cutt Mill Ponds on the way home in the hope of finding a Goosander. Again I only stopped for a few minutes and didn’t look everywhere – a bit of a meaningless visit - so it was no surprise to me that I didn’t see one. Four Mandarin
ducks were added to my list.
Back home, Annie and I went for a walk around the Godstone Church area (I was hoping to find a Grey Wagtail on our travels but again no luck) and then in the afternoon I went on a hunt for the Iceland Gull and the Garganey – and yet again came up with a blank. After that, I cooked the Sunday roast – a welcome distraction.
So, a lot of walking but I came up short on the target birds of the day bar one. A bit disheartening but I’ve only got myself to blame in trying to squeeze in too much in a short space of time – as always. My year list is now on 72.
I didn’t venture as far as the front door all day. I saw a Carrion Crow from the living room window at lunchtime. Annie planned to visit her parents in Hitchin in the following day and stay overnight. I have work to do, but have already convinced myself I can put the hours in later in the day.
Part of me is tempted to travel down to the New Forest to see the Dark-eyed Junco, but it will take up too much of the day when I have other listing tasks to be getting on with. With that in mind, I have already worked out a tour of Surrey, starting with Staines Reservoir for the Smew and Water Pipit mid-morning, followed by the Queen Mary Reservoir for a Red-breasted Merganser and maybe a Firecrest, although I’m not sure where to look for that. The Queen Mary is a big reservoir and viewing is difficult. I don’t have high hopes of seeing much there.
Crooksbury Common was next on the list for a Dartford Warbler followed by Cutt Mill Ponds for a Goosander and then on to Thursley Common for another try at the Great Grey Shrike. That should take me on to dusk when I hope a Hen Harrier will arrive to roost.
The next day I thought I'd try my own patch for the Garganey (will I ever see this bloody duck!) and then a stroll round to tick off a few patch birds, such as Treecreeper, Little Owl and Yellowhammer. After a Dominos pizza for lunch (a treat while Annie is away) it would be back to Papercourt Water Meadows in the afternoon for my Short-eared Owl fix and the hope the Barn Owl fancied stretching its wings.
That was the plan. Again, I’d prepared myself for a huge fall as I knew I would be taking on too much. Would the plan come off?
As it turned out my Surrey tour didn’t get started until 12.30pm, as Annie didn’t leave until much later than I thought she would. The late start meant the tour had to be cut back. Just Staines Reservoir and Thursley Common, and no, the objectives I had set myself didn’t come off.
At Staines I couldn’t find a Smew or a Water Pipit, but the Great Northern Diver
was still there, this time on the north basin. Oh, and the Shag
I got to Thursley for 2.30pm, but a walk round didn’t reveal a Great Grey Shrike. This bird was proving difficult to pin down. I saw ten more Crossbills
flitting from treetop to treetop, a couple of Lesser Redpolls
, a Reed Bunting
, and best of all a Peregrine
, which flew across Shrike Hill to the trees just past the tumulus at the Ockley end of the Common and then it flew north-east and out of sight.
That was it. With the addition of a Ruddy Duck
at an undisclosed site so as not to get Defra excited, my Surrey list was now up to 176. I went for a Pappa John's pizza instead of a Domino's in the evening and it was crap.
Every birder in Britain is very excited about the Spanish Sparrow in Hampshire. The Sparrow has apparently been resident in a private garden since at least the beginning of December. The owner of the house realised there was something unusual about this Sparrow so he took a photo and showed it to some birders who were watching the Junco. Imagine their surprise...
As it turns out the Sparrow also likes a hedge by the side of a road, so it doesn’t mean I'm forced to queue up outside someone’s house to see it, which I hate the idea of doing. There’s going to be a massive crowd of birders along this road waiting to see this little bird, but they could easily wait a few days, weeks or months and have a nice relaxing time avoiding hundreds of other mentalists. I’m back to my ‘make birding cool’ debate again. Queueing outside someone's house for hours or lining up 100-strong up a side road in a residential area ain’t it.
Anyway, enough of that. The remainder of the week will be focused on this county of mine.
Well, having seen footage of both birds on YouTube, I ended up thinking that the Dark-eyed Junco would be a nice bird to see, and seeing as the Spanish Sparrow was only just down the road, I thought I might as well have a look at that, too. But not today. I wish. Both will have to wait.
The plan was another trip to Thursley Common for the Shrike, followed by Crooksbury Common to see Bramblings going to roost. Then back home, ready to pick Annie up at about 6pm.
As plans go this one actually worked reasonably well for once. I got to Thursley for 11.30am, but by 1.00pm I still hadn’t seen anything by the time I arrived at the tumulus looking over towards Ockley Common. At this point I was joined by local birding guru Gerry Hinchon and he immediately pointed out a Great Grey Shrike
just at the same time I picked it up.
Thanks goodness for that. It was a long way off over towards Ockley Common, but after Gerry bade me farewell – he had been watching this Shrike for most of the morning around the Common - I decided to venture over to see if I could get a better look. It didn’t come very close but I did get some half decent views of it. It looked like the same bird I saw in October, a really smart individual.
Earlier I had picked up ten Crossbills
that were flying around and as I approach the car park on the way back, I got nice views of a couple of Bullfinch
. Seeing the Shrike now means I can happily avoid Thursley Common for the time being - unless a Harrier appears.
It was now gone 2pm and so I headed for Cutt Mill Ponds, where I found two handsome Goosander
and eight Mandarin
duck. After that I finished off the afternoon at Crooksbury Common, where I heard two Dartford Warbler
s, but couldn’t see them.
Hearing these two Warblers was good news, though. Crooksbury is such a compact Common, it means I can go back in the Spring and hopefully get some good views of these fantastic Warblers preparing for there first broods.
I met up with the Tice’s Meadow gang of Rich Sergeant and Rich Horton, along with Andy Bray and we went over to the area where the Chaffinch and Bramblings roost in the evenings. While we waited six Crossbills
flew over. The Bramblings
were difficult to lock on to but I did briefly get on to one while looking through Rich H’s scope. This is a great spot for them, so after Rich explained a better way to see them in future I’ll be coming back in the next few weeks for a look.
So overall, not a bad afternoon. The Surrey list had now reached 80.
I had been debating whether to go to the coast to see the Spanish Sparrow and the Junco at the weekend and Saturday looked the best bet for me. Midweek traffic is terrible and I would always struggle to get back before midday and that’s no good for my work, whereas Saturday the pressure is off, although the crowds will undoubtedly be bigger.
I couldn’t face fighting through the rush-hour traffic, so waited to go out until mid-morning. Back up at Staines Reservoir I located a Water Pipit
straight away as it flew over my head before dropping down on to the edge of the north basin, where it stayed, flitting along the edge of the water along the causeway and occasionally the west bank.
Walking up the causeway, I came across a chap who told me the Great Northern Diver
and Black-necked Grebe
were on the south basin. I recognised him from watching Sky News during both the Iraq Wars. It was Francis Tusa, the military defense expert.
He’s a keen birder, and visits Staines frequently – a place to relax away from work. Nice chap, with an infectious enthusiasm for birds.
The Diver was indeed still on the south basin – it will probably stay for some weeks, as no doubt will the Grebe and the Shag on the north basin.
I stayed for an hour or so, trying to get a decent photo of the Water Pipit (and failing).
On the way home, I came across two Egyptian Geese
on Rocky Lane, near Redhill. The fields along the lane are popular with Greylag, Canada and Egyptian Geese. My Surrey list is now up to 82.
I was intending to get up early the next morning and head for Calshot to see the Spanish Sparrow followed by the Dark-eyed Junco. It would have been interesting, but our cat Billie then left mysterious blood splatter marks on the carpet in the evening and we didn’t know how.
So instead of Southampton, it’s off to the vets for 9.30am. Life doesn’t change much, nor does the vet bill, which is getting bigger by the week.
It was one of those days that makes you proud to be British - a crisp, beautiful blue-sky day with a dusting of frost on the ground and on the trees and grass just to add to the atmosphere – wonderful.
I didn’t have time to go to Hampshire after the trip to the vets (Billie is fine for all those who might be interested) so opted for Crooksbury Common instead.
Within seconds of getting out of the car I heard a Raven
. By the time I had walked up the hill to the spot where the Dartford Warblers were on Friday, I heard and then saw the Raven
fly across the Common. Brilliant. This was the first Raven I had seen in Surrey for 18 months.
Within minutes of the Raven I heard the Dartford Warbler
calling and it wasn’t long before I was looking at it through the scope. A great start to the session and the highlight of the week. A Stonechat
was keeping it company but I didn’t see anything else of note for the next hour.
So, with a little bit of time still to go before I had to take Annie to a business meeting, and in the hope my good run during the morning would follow me, I headed for Thursley Common for an outside chance of a Hen Harrier.
Who was I kidding - and the Shrikes were also nowhere to be seen. Not to worry, I also saw a couple of Coal Tits
. My Surrey list is now on 84, and I still haven't added Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Treecreeper or Siskin - to name but a few - to the list yet.
Not sure when the next trip out will be, but I hope I get an opportunity to go down to Hampshire at some point next week.