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 25 February 2012


I kept toying with the idea of going to Black Down to see the Parrot Crossbill, but by the time I decided to go, reported sightings of the Crossbill became sporadic to non-existent. This could either be because not many birders are going over to find it - most people who are interested in viewing this bird have already seen it - or it has gone elsewhere.

Either way, it would be a clear and present danger that I would turn up and suffer another dip. And with everything going wrong that could go wrong recently, I couldn't stomach another disappointment.

To elaborate, luck has recently left me to it. First it was the boiler, which decided to pack up on the coldest night ever recorded in Surrey - it got down to -18C in Chipstead Valley, which is only up the road. We got that fixed for an extortionate amount of money, and then the car broke down. 

The Peugeot 206 diesel was making a good stab at sounding like a bag of spanners in a tumble dryer. The big end had gone. This, in short, means a replacement engine is required, and someone to take the old one out and put the new one in.

Fortunately, I have a spare car, a trusty old Ford Mondeo, which is built like a tank and is extremely durable - unlike the French Knitting-Needle-Shitbox.

Then, of course, there is work. Or the distinct lack of it in February. Don't get me wrong, I've been busy up to a point, but not nearly as much I would prefer.

Then there is the vet's bill. After our beloved Burmese cat Cato died at Christmas, our other Burmese cat, Billie - who has never known life without her partner for 17 years - has really suffered. She isn't really the same cat. Added to which she started sneezing blood - quite a lot of it. After various tests nothing could be found - but the bill was still eye-watering.

Then there is Annie. She's not right, either. A few years ago, she had to have two lots of neurosurgery to laser a benign tumour on her pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain). Neither surgery was totally successful but tablets seemed to do the trick over a long period.

Having come off these, things seemed fine, but now her levels have gone through the roof again, and after having an MRI in Oxford this last week, we are waiting for the results to see whether another intrusive surgery might be on the cards.

So, apart from that, life is good.

Which is why I pointed the Mondeo in the direction of Papercourt Water Meadows. I needed a dead cert to guarantee a pleasurable late afternoon of birding to help me briefly forget all my woes. 

Watching the Short-eared Owls at Papercourt is one of life's pleasures. The sun was out, it was warm for the time of year, and at least three of these majestic Short-eared Owls came out to hunt at about 4.15pm for an hour.

Thanks guys, you cheered me up no end.

Sunday 19 February 2012


While I didn't get to venture around the local patch for too long yesterday, a message from Graham James mid-afternoon let me know that Gordon Hay had discovered an Iceland Gull on Spynes Mere.

While the weather had taken a turn for the worse – the temperature had dropped and the rain had started – I went out for a look. I met up with Gordon as the wind picked up and the rain got heavier, and he pointed out the Iceland Gull on the sand spit.

New Whitey at Holmethorpe
Gordon was certain this was a different bird to the other two he'd seen at Holmethorpe this winter and it looked remarkably similar to the one I saw briefly at Mercers Lake on Wednesday.

I later sent the photo above to Johnny Allan to check whether it was a bird that regularly visits Beddington. And sure enough, Johnny rang to say it was 'New Whitey', a first-winter bird that I had seen at Beddington on Friday, that has the look of a second-winter bird but with a dark eye.

New Whitey at Beddington
The bird has flown around the local area quite a bit recently, apparently having been seen roosting at Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir the night before.

Saturday 18 February 2012


A tweet from Johnny Allan yesterday morning meant gulls were going to be the order of the day. 1w Glaucous Gull on main lake. With work on the quiet side, a first trip of the year to Beddington was well overdue.  

Beddington – part birding paradise, part refuse tip – is famous for its gulls, especially during the winter months. This winter has been exceptional, with up to five Iceland Gulls, plus a number of Mediterranean Gulls, a few Caspians and the odd Yellow-legged Gull regularly seen at this exceptional Surrey site. Then, to add to the list, on Wednesday a Glaucous Gull arrived.

I don't normally get that excited by gulls but my attitude has recently changed. This is part due because I found a Med Gull and an Iceland Gull (I now know it definitely was one) on my local patch at Holmethorpe this past week.

With so many gulls at Holmethorpe it seemed a bit daft not to search through them just in case something interesting grabbed my attention. The trouble with gulls is they go through so many stages of moult during their early years before they are recognisable as the species in question. Throw in the subtleties between the big gull species and you're in for a bit of a headache.

I had to get to Beddington before the end of the winter, just to garner more gull birding experience. With all the 'white-wingers' I wanted to see showing well on and off during the morning, I was hopeful it would be a good visit.

When I first arrived, I wasn't so confident. I could only stay for about an hour, and there must have been about 10,000 gulls on site – the place was teeming with them – so it was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. With the remarkable help of Johnny Allan and Frankie, however, I got to see what I came for.

The five Iceland Gulls that had been seen earlier in the morning were not apparent at first, but Frankie, amazingly, found the first winter Glaucous Gull (105) on the tip in amongst the throng of black, white and grey birds. I don't know how he did it – one gull in amongst a sea of gulls. I have to admit, though, that once I found it, it stood out a mile. It was a big brute of a bird, squarer and bulkier in shape and, at a distance, very pale grey in colour.

We then focused on the main lake and I managed to find one of the Iceland Gulls, a first-winter almost totally white gull, known by the Beddington group as 'New Whitey'. 

At the same time, the group of birders also on site found the Kumlien's Gull, to the left of the first-winter bird, with its back facing us. I viewed it through Johnny's scope and then soon after the birds all took off. 

The first-winter Iceland Gull was easy to see amongst this cloud of gulls and eventually most of the birds landed again. It was then Johnny spotted the handsome Glaucous Gull was on the water right in front of us. Fantastic. What a bruiser this fella was. An impressive bird to look at, we got great views of it as it toyed with a chicken leg, which it must have found on its recent visit to the tip.

I only had limited time, but with the feeder close by I also had excellent views of the Beddington Tree Sparrows (106) and about ten Reed Bunting that were migrating around the seed.

All in all, a cracking session at Beddington with a species of bird that, up until now, I hadn't really got to grips with. From now on, I'm ready to focus on the local patch to see what I can find.

Wednesday 15 February 2012


As of tomorrow morning I will be managing the Holmethorpe Sand Pits blog and keeping it updated. It was originally set up and hosted by Graham James, the Pits patch birder extraordinaire, who lives in Merstham. Graham is one of the vital group of birders in Britain who keep a very detailed record of the birds that are seen on his local patch, but due to a situation out of his control, he felt it was time to hand over the reins.

Without this dedication most birders wouldn't get to see half the species they do, particularly now with Twitter, pagers and the like keeping everyone updated by the minute.

So, it is a privilege to be given the responsibility to look after the blog (see side panel for link) – and to be part of the British birding scene at the coal face. Holmethorpe is developing into a cracking birding area. It has a bit of everything - waders, ducks, geese, raptors, rails, owls, finches. Oh, and plenty of gulls.

Currently, the patch is going through a purple patch with Smew, Scaup, Goldeneye and Curlew currently featuring, while on a brief visit to Mercers Lake this afternoon I'm 99.9 per cent certain I saw an Iceland Gull (104) with some Herring, Lesser black-backed and Black-headed Gulls. It stood out a mile amongst all the other gulls. It was all white and it had a black tip to its bill.

This was another situation where I was just about to take a photo, when a helicopter flew over instigating a mass take-off of all the birds on the lake. I follow the Iceland Gull for as long as I could, but lost sight of it and couldn't relocate it. Pretty sure it was one, though.

I'd gone to the lake to find the Scaup, which I did successfully. It was sleeping in amongst some Tufted Ducks. Also swimming around were four redhead Smew.

I'll be patch birding more often this year - it's more satisfying than dipping Tundra Bean Geese like I did at the weekend. Talking of the Goose, it looks as if it has moved on to another area not far from Thorpe. It was seen roosting at the Queen Mary Reservoir late this afternoon with some Greylags and White-fronted Geese. It will be interesting to see if it ventures further south.

We get a lot of geese down on the Pits, and also in the fields along Rocky Lane - a road that links the A23 with Gatton Bottom. I'll be keeping an eye on these flocks just in case the odd scarcity decides to hang out with them.

Friday 10 February 2012


Well, I went for the Tundra Bean Goose at Thorpe this afternoon. I fully expected to turn up, see the goose and leave. In short, and using Jonathan Lethbridge's words, a 'filthy' twitch.

It didn't cross my mind that it wouldn't be there, but as soon as I arrived along Mill Lane I knew it had left the scene. Four other birders were already loitering by the fence and none of them was looking intensely at a flock of Greylag and Canada Geese plus a solitary Tundra Bean Goose. They had all flown off sometime after 11.30pm. The geese returned later - at about 4.30pm - but I didn't have time to wait.

A flock of at least 40 Siskin were a distraction of sorts in the surrounding trees, but after about 20 minutes I headed home. I contemplated dropping in at Papercourt for a Short-eared Owl fix to make up for the disappointing dip, but a message flashed up on my phone from Johnny Allan. Eight Waxwings had been seen in trees by the Derby Arms car park on Epsom Downs.

I took a detour to Epsom. John Benham was there when I arrived, but we could find no sign of the Waxwings, just plenty of Redwings. Dip two of the day. One bonus, however, was a female Blackcap (102) close by, perched in some ivy. Another Surrey tick.

Earlier, I paid a brief visit to Holmethorpe. Looking along the brook by the Fordbridge, a flash of flourescent blue stood out against the snow. A Kingfisher (103) perched momentarily on a branch before flying low upstream. Tick two of the day.

On the other side of the road towards Mercers Lake I flushed two Water Rail that were close by the wooden bridge. One flew over the road to the brook on the Moors side - seeing one in flight, with its legs dangling, was a first for me. Over at the lake, I saw four redhead Smew.

I'm out all day tomorrow, so no doubt a whole host of patch megas will turn up at once. If they do, hopefully they will stay put for at least another 24 hours.

Thursday 9 February 2012


Having had a bit of a decent run going on the birding front, I thought I'd try to keep it going with a brief visit to both Holmethorpe and Canons Farm this afternoon. Over at Holmethorpe at long last I found the resident Little Owl in the oak by the footpath at Mercer's Farm. I also heard another one over at Spynes Mere.

Over at Mercers Lake I saw three redhead Smew, and then a couple of Bullfinches and notably four Siskin with some Goldfinches in the Mercer's Country Park car park. These brought my Surrey list up to 100. I didn't reach this landmark last year until the middle of March.

On the way back from a list of errands via Banstead I popped in at Canons Farm in the hope of seeing another owl there. Sure enough, the Barn Owl (101) was asleep in the large barn near Reads Rest Cottages.

On the way back to the car I saw another couple of Bullfinches, plus at least 50 Fieldfare flying over.

I have yet to visit Thorpe for the Tundra Bean Goose - I may go tomorrow if I have time. It all depends on the conditions in the morning - snow and ice are both forecast. With luck, the weather may bring with it some interesting visitors.

Wednesday 8 February 2012


I'm really enjoying my local patch at the moment. Maybe it's due to the weather and I therefore don't have the urge to travel too far to see something different, or maybe it's just that finding a bird on your own doorstep is somehow more gratifying.

Whatever it is, I'm on a decent run. My patch list isn't fantastic, it's only on 57 - I've still to see a Kingfisher, Siskin or Little Owl out of the regular birds at Holmethorpe this year - but every time I have been out for a walk on the patch recently I have managed to see something new. It certainly makes up for a dismal run during the summer and early winter when I didn't manage to see anything noteworthy - it was starting to really get me down. To cap it all I couldn't locate the Garganey or the Firecrest between late November and December - and the Garganey had stayed for about two months.

So 2012 has started off well locally. After locating the first Dunlin seen by anyone on the patch this year last Thursday, I added four more on Sunday. I also caught up with a Curlew, a number of Pintails, a Goldeneye and a number of redhead Smew. I was also happy to find a Water Rail by the Fordbridge brook. These are all great birds for the patch.

Then this afternoon, I struck lucky again with a brief visit to Mercer's Lake and the Water Colour Lagoons. There were a stack of gulls on Water Colour Lagoon 1, where the ice hadn't formed on the lake. I had a look to see if I could find anything unusual but no joy. I then took a short walk over to Mercer's Lake and it was while scoping across the lake looking for Smew - I saw four redheads - that I caught sight of an unusual gull. Its head was almost all black, and it had a noticeable red beak and eye ring. The wings were white. It was a Mediterranean Gull in amongst the Black-headed Gulls. I was in the process of taking a photo when it flew off in the direction of the Lagoons (where it was nowhere to be found). Med Gulls aren't that common at Holmethorpe but there have been plenty at neighbouring Beddington recently, so one was due to drop in at some point. My Surrey year total is now on 98.

Being relatively close geographically to Beddington, Holmethorpe can often share the same species of birds. An Iceland Gull seen on Mercer's Lake last month was a bird that often visits Beddington. Any number of birds flying over Beddington heading south can end up over Holmethorpe (not that I have ever seen any!). When they get Dunlin, we're pretty sure to get one or two. If Curlews are flying over, one might drop in at Holmethorpe - as it did over the weekend.

This isn't always the case, however. I think it's a seasonal thing. Holmethorpe tends, from what I've noticed, to have plenty of decent birds appearing during the winter, but come the summer sightings can dry up. Why, I'm not sure. It may be because Holmethorpe is a low-lying region with hills all around. Migratory birds might overlook Holmethorpe and target the higher ground before taking a rest - further up the road is Canons Farm, and they had Ring Ouzel, Whinchat, Black Redstarts, a number of Grasshopper Warblers and Quail. We had the first three either briefly or for a day or so.

In 2011 Beddington had more than is worth listing. Many were flying over - Beddington is certainly of the flight path for many migrants - but they also had Pectoral Sandpiper, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper to name but a few. They often get Lapland Bunting and Snow Bunting. Then again, Beddington has a whole army of patch watchers to keep an eye on the skies and the scrapes for pretty much seven days a week.

What we need down here, though, is another bird like the Ferruginous Duck a couple of years ago to get people to visit this excellent site. As local patch master Graham James often says, the more people who walk the area the more likely a really rare bird will be discovered. I'd better get out there and practise what I'm preaching...

Sunday 5 February 2012


The snow came down overnight so this morning was definitely a day for birding. I hadn’t been out much lately after seeing the Hawfinch at Bookham Common a couple of weeks ago, followed by four Short-eared Owls at Papercourt Water Meadows the following day (I still haven’t managed to get a half-decent photo of one of these owls. Digiscoping moving objects really doesn’t work for me).

There was plenty of blue sky and sunshine on Thursday afternoon for a stroll around Holmethorpe Sand Pits, but a biting wind - that threatened to burn your face off - took the edge of it somewhat. I haven't paid enough attention to my local patch in recent months and it was high time I made amends. 

Holmethorpe is a particularly good site for birds during the winter months, being a hot-spot for Smew, and the Sand Pits often gets other unusual visitors. While out for this brief visit, I saw a couple of Pintails, a Goldeneye and a Wigeon at Mercer's West, but at Mercer’s Lake I noticed a small wader drop down by the water’s edge near the Yacht Club. It was out of sight so I walked round by Mercer's Lake car park and got a better view just before it flew down very close to me. It was a Dunlin.

This was my first ‘patch first for the year’ since seeing a Black Tern during the summer. Dunlins had been at Beddington the day before so it was no surprise to find one – although its location was a bit unusual. We don’t normally see them on the edge of the boating lake. After a few minutes it flew off in the direction of the Water Colour Lagoons.

The well publicised snow arrived with a vengeance overnight last night. As a result, this morning turned out to be one of the best visits I've had on my local patch. I thoroughly enjoyed the three-and-a-half hours I spent walking round reserve. Snow and birding go well together. For one thing, you can spot the birds easier against the white background, and the bad weather often encourages some decent species to drop in or stay over.

Typically, I was out all day yesterday so missed seeing a Curlew and I hoped it would still be around. I got to Spynes Mere at 9.00am and immediately spotted four Dunlin on the frozen lake. They didn’t stay long, flying off west within about a minute of me seeing them.

A good start. I ventured round to Mercer’s West and soon found four Pintail – three drakes and a female, plus the Goldeneye that has been resident for the past few weeks. No sign of the Curlew, though.

I headed south in the direction of Mercer’s Farm, but had a look over at the north side of Mercer’s West first, and there was the Curlew, my first of the year, probing around in the snowy bank of the lake. Keeping it company amongst the Canada Geese, Lapwings and numerous gulls was a Common Snipe and a Green Sandpiper (another year tick).

This wintery session was going well. There was no sign of the resident Little Owl in the oak tree along the footpath to Mercer’s Farm, but seven Yellowhammer were feeding in the snow. Over at Mercer’s Lake nothing much was happening, a solitary Wigeon being the bird of note, so I ventured over to the car park area, where I saw a Skylark fly over, plus a Treecreeper.

I trudged back through the thick snow to the car and drove round to the Fordbridge next to the Water Colour housing complex. A quick look over at the western end of Mercer’s Lake revealed a red-head Smew. Down in the brook at the bridge I was pleased to find a Water Rail feeding in the water, plus two more Common Snipe. I was hoping for a Kingfisher but couldn’t find one.

The two Lagoons didn’t reveal much and neither did The Moors, apart from plenty of Canada Geese, a Grey Heron, some Shoveler ducks and Teal. As I walked back to the car, via Cormongers Lane, two Egyptian Geese flew over and a Kestrel was perched on a telegraph pole. It had been a good morning.