Day 1 – January 1, 2012
NEW YEAR WASH OUT
Those who read my post about Cato will probably guess that Christmas and New Year were more of a test of endurance than a joyful festive occasion.
I thought I’d distract myself with an afternoon’s birding on New Year’s Day. The first day of any new year is one of the most important and exciting days for birders. It’s when the birding plans start all over again, usually revolving around lists - whether it’s a British year list, county year list or a local patch year list. Year lists are what motivate many birders to get up early in the mornings to go bird-watching. It means counting all those birds you’ve seen countless times in previous years all over again, starting, in my case, with a dozen House Sparrows in Alpine Road, Redhill, and hopefully all manner of rarities throughout the rest of the year.
The more birds you see in any given year somehow in your head equates to how good a birder you are. Which isn’t true, obviously. To see as many birds as possible in any given year, or lifetime, doesn’t always require any form of innate skill – unless you are a top-notch birder like Johnny Allan. I’m heavily reliant on other more dedicated birders to put in the groundwork on their local patches to inform me of any unusual birds in the Surrey area. It is very rare for me to discover anything on my own. I can count the fingers of one hand – and that doesn’t include my thumb, index or little finger. One was a Black-tailed Godwit on Spynes Mere in 2010 and the other was a Black Tern on the patch last summer - and even then I was the only person who saw it.
If I have a defence it is that work commitments don’t allow me to cover as much ground as some birders. In fact, I only had two full days birding – from dawn till dusk – in the whole of 2011. The rest of my outings were either mornings or evenings, most of the time just a couple of hours snatched at the last minute in between jobs. I always end up continuously checking the time as guilt and stress start to set in. The one saving grace is that I work from home so if an unusual sighting does appear and it isn’t too far away – within 45 minutes by car – I should be able to have a look (unless it is in November, always my busiest time of the year).
Listing is one of the things I have a habit of doing, although by the time I get to December I’m pretty sick and tired of traipsing off to find birds I should have seen by that time of year and I end up simply watching birds I enjoy in December, whether it’s a flock of Waxwings feeding in a tree just 100 yards away from my house in Frenches Road, Redhill as was the case in December 2010, or watching Short-eared Owls quartering the Papercourt Water Meadows at dusk, as was the case last month.
Listing is very much a personal exercise. The bottom line is no-one else really cares that much about your list, so why do we bother doing one? If someone announces they have seen their 300th bird in Britain, we all say well done but inwardly we either think that’s a long way from 400, the landmark number all serious and experienced twitchers have already got to, or in my case, it’s a reminder of how far I have to go to get anywhere close to that number. I’m way off that mark.
So starting a new list was the intention on New Year’s Day. In the end I didn’t have time to go far and a very grey day got gloomier by the minute as it started to rain as soon as I got on to the motorway. I opted to go to Papercourt in the vain hope the owls wouldn’t mind a bit of rain.
But the rain got heavier. It was relentless. I found myself standing in the middle of a field for two and a half hours getting drenched and seeing nothing apart from a couple of bedraggled Kestrels and three Cormorants.
Owls aren’t as stupid as me. When it rains all afternoon, it’s best to keep a low profile.
Day 2 – January 2
A beautiful day – brilliant blue sky, not a breath of wind. A good opportunity for a spot of birding. Only it would have been if it wasn’t for the fact we had already arranged a trip out to see friends in Wales. While we were away everyone else locally was making hay, and totting up a few good birds for their year lists. Bastards. I’m on 19 at the moment whereas most others are on about 60, but there’s plenty of time. While driving the 150 miles to South Wales I noted 13 Red Kites between junctions 6 and 14 on the M4. Not one Common Buzzard or Kestrel. Not sure why.
Day 3 – January 3
A PUNISHING WIND
First day back at work. Fortunately for me, work means being at home. No need for commuting, thank goodness. When I first started working from home, I wondered whether it would suit me. I thought I’d feel lonely, a spare part, itching to be in the thick of the action. I have spent most of my working life working in big open-planned newspaper or magazine offices, full of noise – TV monitors on everywhere, phones ringing, people talking, shouting, laughing. A constant buzz of adrenaline, stress and deadlines.
Working from home makes you realise there is more to life than high blood pressure. Nowadays I only have to commute to London once or twice a month, and even then I hate it. The train journey up to Victoria or London Bridge isn’t so bad, but the rush-hour fight to get on the tube is a nightmare and utterly depressing. And then you have to do it again in reverse, to get home. And do that every day? I really rather not.
Today a storm swept across the country, with strong winds and torrential rain. Lovely. It really wasn’t a day to go outside. I thought I might venture out to see if the 1st winter male Garganey was still on The Moors if it stopped raining. This dabbling duck has been on my local patch at Holmethorpe for a month and I must be the only local birder who hasn’t seen it yet. It stopped raining. The sun came out so I went to Papercourt.
I don’t ever learn. Really, I don’t ever learn. There are two types of weather owls aren’t keen on. One is pissing rain, as on Sunday, and the other is a howling gale as with this afternoon. Although there was a short period when the wind dropped, the wind was as relentless today as the rain was on Sunday. Even after I shouted at it to stop, it just never abated for a moment. I stood out in the middle of the Water Meadows being buffeted by this wretched element knowing full well I was wasting my time and getting cold. I wasn’t going to see squat.
I did come up with five Surrey year ticks – two Stonechats, a Green Woodpecker, eight Meadow Pipits, two Pied Wagtails and about 20 Lapwings, to bring my total up to 24 (my UK total is now 26 after seeing the Red Kites and a Buzzard on our trip to Wales). Really pathetic. There were also at least four Kestrels braving the wind.
Day 4 – January 4
BOOKHAM COMMON STROLL
Annie wanted to go for a walk so we went to Bookham Common. Last winter the highlight at Bookham was the Hawfinch, but no sign of any this afternoon. The weather closed in (again) and became blowy and threatened to rain. All was pretty quiet, although I did see a few Bullfinches and a Sparrowhawk. Loads of Redwing about, at least 40. My Surrey total has now climbed to 33.
After our walk we ate at Café Rouge in Reigate and then went to the vets to pick up Cato’s ashes, which was poignant to say the least. The good thing is he’s back home now and he will stay in our bedroom from now on. Still miss him terribly.
Day 5 – January 5
The sun was out this morning but the wind was still gale force at times. I thought I’d pay my local patch, Holmethorpe Sand Pits, a first visit for 2012 late this morning to see if I could locate the wintering Garganey that has been loitering for the past month or so.
Alas, my current strike rate being as poor as it is, predictably I didn’t. Loads of Teal, a few Gadwall, a lone Shoveler and a Common Snipe, but no Garganey. Highlight was a Little Egret that flew over The Moors. I stayed for about an hour, but the duck remained elusive, probably sleeping on a bank with its mates out of sight of peering eyes such as mine.
The Surrey list is now on 40, with my patch list on 16. To be honest, the thought of trying to find another 128 different bird species in Surrey this year to beat my 2011 total (which wasn’t that great anyway) doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement at the moment. I want my birding to be enjoyable, not an endurance test where dipping constantly dominates my thoughts. I’ll no doubt feel differently when I see a few rarities in the coming weeks.
Day 6 – January 6
A FINE DAY
It was a beautiful morning, no wind and the first time in a while I’d actually managed to get out of bed early (despite a crap night’s sleep) and headed off somewhere to do a spot of birding.
I hadn’t been to Staines Reservoir for at least three months so it was good to set off in that direction before the sun was up. After a slight hold-up due of traffic I was on the causeway by 8.30am. I met up with Bob Warden and after he had pointed me in the right direction of a Black-necked Grebe, I got down to spotting a few other decent birds. First off was a Great Northern Diver on the south basin, a regular visitor to the reservoir, doing what it does best which meant it spent a far bit of time underwater. It did stay on the surface long enough at one point to get a proper view while it preened itself, so that was good.
Next up was the juvenile Shag, which hadn’t appeared to have moved from one of the rafts on the north basin since the last time I saw it back in September. I walked up to the eastern end of the reservoir to get a better view of at least 20 Goldeneye on the south basin. These striking ducks were focused on their courtship routines.
Back down the causeway and Bob had found the male Scaup, asleep right at the far end of the north basin, while the female was keeping a Wigeon company closer to the causeway. I stayed for a couple of hours, having looked for and failing to find any Water Pipit or Smew (seen later in the day). I headed home, and went for yet another look on the Moors to see if I could find the Garganey, but again drew a blank. Three Snipe were the best I could come up with.
I went out again in the afternoon, heading for Papercourt Water Meadows. The weather conditions were perfect, and as soon as I arrived just after 2.30pm and walked over the bridge and on to the Meadows I caught sight of my first Short-eared Owl of the afternoon.
Having been forced to sit it out for a few days because of high winds and rain, it was no surprise to see these magnificent birds out hunting in the mid-afternoon. During my two-hour stay, I saw six Short-eared Owls quartering the area. Three were to the east, and the other three to the west. They put on a truly awesome display – the best yet. If you have any time to spare and the weather is good (no wind and rain) get down to the Meadows and watch these brilliant birds at work. There are few better birding sights currently in Surrey.
The Barn Owl didn’t show itself this time, but a Tawny Owl hooted from a tree by the river, just to add to the atmosphere. My Surrey list at the end of week one (we're out all day tomorrow) is now on 57. A great day’s birding that certainly made up for the rubbish start to the week.