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.

Friday 30 March 2012


It's been a long week. Lots of stress and little joy. Annie's dad has been very ill and we travelled up to Welwyn this week to see him in hospital, where he has been for the past couple of weeks. Fingers crossed he gains enough strength to get back home soon, where he will feel happier and more likely to make progress back to health.

Work has been a bit sporadic so I've made a decision, a la Jonathan Lethbridge – of Wanstead Birder fame – to make a return to Canary Wharf. I'll be freelancing at Racing Post for a while. I worked at the Post full-time for ten years between 1987 and 1997 when it was owned by Sheikh Mohammed and was based at Raynes Park, before I moved on to Haymarket Publishing and Motoring News, later to be renamed Motorsport News

About six weeks after I left the Post it was dramatically sold to Trinity Mirror and relocated to 1 Canada Square. I went back to the Post in 2005 to work as a freelance on and off for a few years and will probably start working there next month.

With the work I do for the Racehorse Owners' Association and for Anderson & Co – who published a couple of quarterly racing publications – I'm not going to get much time off. It will mean any birding forays will have to be organised for earlier mornings – and I don't do early starts very well (I always stay up too late).

The timing obviously isn't that great with the spring migration about to go into full swing, but needs must.

It had been a bit quiet at Holmethorpe, apart from the drake Scaup making a return to the site, plus a few Sand Martins, a Med Gull and a couple of Little Ringed Plover – none of which I have seen. Still no Wheatears, but one or two should turn up soon, maybe next week when the weather turns.

Then on Tuesday I got a text from 'Devilbirder' David Campbell at Canons Farm –  a male Black Redstart had been seen near the farmhouse in the late afternoon by Kevin Hazelgrove. He found it himself shortly after 4pm and I ventured over for about 5pm.

I'd been over at the Farm on Monday looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and hadn't really seen very much apart from a jogger and trotted past in the sunshine. This in itself wouldn't have been worth commenting on if it wasn't for the fact this old chap, resplendent with ginger beard, was running around in the countryside in nothing more than a pair of underpants, normal socks and a pair of tatty old trainers.

Not something you see every day. I sent out a Tweet and David Campbell soon responded: "LOL!!! That's pantsman! Haven't seen him for a while. That's made my day".

As it transpired, Pantsman was the only Lesser Pecker I saw while I was there...

Back to Tuesday and I met up with David just as the Black Redstart, that had recently been perched on a fence post, had flown off. He had to leave so I stayed on, and on. And on. Nothing. Not a thing.

By 7pm, it was time to leave. By this stage, John Benham had arrived, and just as I was about to go to my car he called out that he was on to it – perched on the footpath sign. I saw the bird briefly but couldn't get the scope back up and pointed at it before a dog walker appeared and it disappeared. It wasn't enough to confirm what it was. By now it was getting dark, like my mood, so I left.

This little bird was clearly elusive and a bit of a challenge. A female Black Redstart was seen yesterday when I was visiting my father-in-law (the same day a Bittern appeared out of nowhere at Beddington, and three Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and a Red Kite were seen at Canons Farm) and fortunately it stuck around yesterday.

I went back up to the farm just before midday, and within a few seconds of turning the corner towards the viewpoint to the west side of the farm buildings, I saw the female Black Redstart (111), perched on a metal post. It saw me too and opted to fly further down the fence, but stayed long enough for me to get a record shot of it.

Female Back Redstart at Canons Farm - it didn't stay put for long
It's Annie's birthday today, so I won't be out on the patch or anywhere else for a couple of days. Hopefully, with the weather about to cool and the wind direction about to change, it will mean a few decent migrants will arrive at Holmethorpe and elsewhere nearby. A Wheatear or a Ring Ouzel perhaps?

Friday 23 March 2012


The good weather arrived yesterday - gloriously sunny for the most part and warm. It was fantastic as far as personal comfort was concerned but good weather doesn't mean good news for seeing spring migrants – and Wheatears in particular.

I've yet to see one so far this year. My local patch at Holmethorpe has been Wheatear-less, but Beddington – naturally – had loads a few days ago. Canons Farm has also had one.

Fine weather means migrants that are heading further north, such as Wheatears, are less likely to stop off somewhere en route to refuel. Bad weather means the birds have to work harder to get to their destination, so a rest break is more likely.

The weather is looking good for the sun tan for the next few days, so finding a Wheatear is going to be harder.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm not prepared to look. But first things first.

After a quick scan of the Surrey Birders website on Tuesday evening I discovered Kev Duncan, who patrols Thorpe, Chobham Common and Tice's Meadow, had seen the Tundra Bean Goose again in a small field on the west side of Manor Lake.

I dipped this goose twice when it was first seen at the beginning of February and after an initial flurry of news it all went quiet – until Tuesday. So, the next morning I kept a close eye on the online reports and the good news was the Tundra Bean Goose was still viewable in the area reported the evening before.

It seemed rude not to have a third attempt to see this bird, so I set off mid-morning for Coldharbour Lane, near Thorpe. I was pleased to see that the Greylag Geese were still mulling around on the bank of the lake when I got there. Geoff Barter arrived shortly after me, and after a quick scan of the 20-odd geese we found the Tundra Bean Goose (108).

What a relief. I didn't expect to see this bird after the previous two tries so it was great to find it more than a month later.

Tundra Bean Goose
With that fine tick in the bag, there was plenty of time to find a few more. With Wheatears thin on the ground at home I headed for Staines.

The Reservoir was a bit of a let down. The Shag was in residence, there were plenty of Goldeneye swimming about, a couple of Redshank (109) to add to the year list but not much else – not what I could see at any rate. No Wheatears, for one thing. The reservoir is having a spring clean at the moment, with all the banking being cleared of vegetation – which is a shame as it has altered the habitat and probably means the Wheatears will go elsewhere.

Next stop Staines Moor – I haven't been here for quite a few months so it was worth a look. If a Wheatear was going to crop up anywhere it would be on the Moor. But no.

Loads of Skylark, Reed Bunting and Mipits but no Wheatears. There were a couple of Redshank I got up quite close to, and best of all a really nice Water Pipit feeding on the edge of the river. 

Water Pipit
It was on the walk back towards the boardwalk that I got a text from Johnny Allan telling me that Gordon Hay had just seen a Rough-legged Buzzard over Mercer's West and Spynes Mere!

This was the first ever Rough-legged to be seen at Holmethorpe and it flew low right across the patch, heading south east, while I was trudging round the Moor. All very typical, but I wasn't that disappointed. It would have been worse if I had been on the patch but in an area like The Moors where I wouldn't have been able to see it – then I would have had a different reaction entirely.

So, one that got away and one rediscovered. All in all, a typical birding day.

The sun was even brighter and the air warmer today. And the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Beddington had made an appearance mid-morning. With a quiet few hours on the work front expected, I took the opportunity to pay the Farm a visit.

The Lesser Pecker favours some trees right in the west corner of the South Lake, along a strip of trees on the patch which is called Parkside (it's by the side of Beddington Park, funnily enough). I went over to the spot with another birder and peered through the trees and waited an age for a Lesser Spotted to appear. Nothing. Lesser spotted by name, it was certainly lesser spotted by nature. I was forced to give up so I walked back along the path and made my way to the exit.

Before I did so, I decided to scan the mound behind the South Lake to see if any Wheatears were around but there wasn't a white-rumped critter in sight. So I scanned the trees just in case I saw the silhouette of the Lesser Pecker. And there it was. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (110) was perched on the trunk of one of trees.

It was about a quarter-of-a-mile away so the views weren't that brilliant but I could see it through the scope. I went for my camera to take a record shot, then looked up to see it had gone. I trotted back to the strip of trees in case I could get a closer look, but it was nowhere to be seen.

Two Peregrines circled overhead – good reason to keep a low profile, perhaps – and it didn't show again. Still, there's time yet before the leaves return to the trees with a flourish in the next couple of months to get a better view of this special little bird.

2012 Surrey list (including Spelthorne): 110
This time last year: 105

Wednesday 21 March 2012


I've not spent a lot of time birding recently, but the time I have spent hasn't added to my Surrey list, which was coming along well, but has now totally dried up these past couple of weeks.

It didn't help missing out on two Avocets that appeared on the Holmethorpe patch yesterday morning. First seen by Graham James at around 6.00am, they were swimming around in the Water Colour Lagoons before relocating on Spynes Mere. Graham sent me the news via a text just after 6.30am, but I didn't see it until I got up a couple of hours later.

Now, in the past I would have dropped everything, put on some clothes and dashed out to Spynes to see them. But not today. No, I thought about it and knowing my wife would look at me with utter disdain at my ridiculous haste, I decided not to rush. In fact, I took my time in the shower, made a second cup of tea and read a few emails before eventually setting off just before 10.30am.

Unbeknown to me, the birds decided they had stayed long enough and took off, heading eastwards at 10.22am, never to be seen again. I missed them by about eight minutes - about the same time it takes to make and then drink a cup of tea.

It will be no surprise to learn I was mightily pissed off. I went back home, and tried to put it to the back of my mind with the rest of 'the dips that really pissed me off' memories stored away there.

Annie could see how disappointed I was in missing out on these two Avocets, so she suggested we go for a late afternoon walk around Thursley Common. The hope was I would connect with a Hen Harrier. A ringtail had been seen for the last two days there.

In all the trips I have ever made to Thursley – and they are many – I have never, ever seen a Hen Harrier there. And guess what? I didn't see one on this occasion either. One was seen between 11.00am and midday, but not from 4pm until 5.45pm, when we were there.

For once, I wasn't looking for a Shrike, but that's when you tend to bump into them. And that is what happened here. The Great Grey Shrike was the same one I saw back in October and then in January – a very smart individual that favours the Ockley Common area of Thursley. We got great views of it as we walked along the tumulus area of the Common, and we followed it around Ockley Common on a loop back towards the car park. The Shrike turned the day around for me.

I doubt whether I will ever get to see a Hen Harrier quartering this site - it would mean having to spend literally a whole day here, with no guarantee of a positive result. Can't see me doing that...

Friday 16 March 2012


Well, I went for it and after two hours of standing around in a deceptively chilly breeze, I eventually saw the Paddyfield Warbler at Pagham Harbour on Wednesday.

So, was it worth it?

Actually, yes it was. But that's probably because I was successful in getting good views this skulking, tricky-to-see Warbler on and off for about half an hour.

If I hadn’t seen it, it would have meant spending three hours in the car, plus another four hours standing in front of a reedbed – desperately searching for some movement in the reeds – for nothing.

Inevitably, in a twitching sense, the stakes were always going to be high. There are only ever two possible outcomes to a twitch – you see the bird, you don’t see the bird.

I saw the bird, and it was hard-earned. When I arrived just after midday, there had been no sighting of the Paddyfield since early morning. That was good news in a way, because I knew the sun was due to burn off the gloomy, foggy skies in the afternoon and the Paddyfield was more likely to pop its head over the reeds if the sun came out.

Walking along the North Wall, I heard three Cetti’s Warblers (seeing one) as a noisy cloud of about 250 Dark-bellied Brent Geese flew overhead. I joined the few birders prepared to brave the chill wind to stare at an area between two wooden benches where the Paddyfield Warbler had been regularly seen during the past few weeks.

The sun had broken through en route, but it had been reluctant to show itself on the coast, and a ‘light’ breeze (that’s how the BBC Weather site forecast described it) was giving me constant reminders that I wasn’t wearing appropriate attire to be standing around for too long.

After about 45 minutes I went for an absent-minded wander while on the phone to Annie, when the three remaining birders whistled at me and were waving their arms about. The Warbler had appeared. Needless to say, by the time I had scuttled back it disappeared again. It was another hour-and-a-quarter before I noticed movement low in the reeds in front of me and the Paddyfield Warbler poked its head up enough for me to see it.

It was on the move, quickly flitting along almost at water level, before climbing up higher to pose for a moment.  

It then disappeared before rising up and taking briefly to the air and then dropping down into the reeds again. It did this often for the next 30 minutes or so, giving a good demonstration of its feeding habits.

Being such an active bird it was impossible to get a photo of it, which is always a pity, but hopefully I will pay Pagham another visit in the coming weeks just to get a record shot of it.

I left at about 4pm, so my plan to travel back via Burpham for the Rough-legged Buzzard and Worthing High Street for the Yellow-browed Warbler had to be aborted.

If I hadn’t seen the bird, of course, I would have travelled home disconsolate, announcing I wouldn’t bother coming back. Twitching would have been off the menu for some time. But I'd seen this rare and interesting migrant, so I left happy. Added to which I arrived back in time to see my first spring migrant on the patch - two Chiffchaffs (107) next to the path north of Mercers West. 

A twitch can always sting closer to home. Graham James sent me a text yesterday to tell me of a Firecrest on the local patch next to the footpath close to the Moors by the railway line. My bogey bird. The bird I’m destined never to see again.

I was already on my way to Canterbury to join my mum for a hospital appointment in the morning so I didn’t get to try for this wretched thing until 5pm. 

Low and behold, I couldn’t find it. I keep telling myself and those who read this blog that I'm not going to go out of my way to see a Firecrest – but this one was only about 500 yards away from my front door, so I had to go for it. 

It doesn't matter, however, whether it's 500 yards or 500 miles. A dip hurts just the same.

Still, the southerly winds are bringing the migrants in. Sand Martins and Wheatears have been seen around the county, including three Sand Martins on the patch. The pace is likely to be turned up a notch during the next week.

Tuesday 13 March 2012


I noted that a Short-toed Treecreeper paid a fleeting visit to the Kent cost a couple of days ago. As you probably would have guessed, I didn't travel down to Samphire Hoe to see it. I haven't travelled very far to view any unusual birds recently, although I'm planning a trip to Pagham to see the Paddyfield Warbler - maybe on Saturday. Not sure yet.

At least the Paddyfield has been showing well recently and I'm likely to see plenty of other interesting birds while down at this part of the south coast. It is a visit that appeals to me because I can drop in at Burpham on the way home to hopefully see the Rough-legged Buzzard, and then a few miles further along the A27, in Worthing, I can call in for a quick turn-up-and-twitch for the Yellow-browed Warbler.

After that it's a 40 minute drive back home, and with luck I'll be sated after a successful day out twitching a wide range of rare birds. Sounds great – in theory.

The Short-toed Treecreeper, however, was never on the cards. I'm not a fan. I know for certain, if I had no knowledge of it being a Short-toed mega, I would have undoubtedly passed it off for its common cousin. I think I'm on safe ground in assuming most people would do the same thing.

It's must be a brave birder who can claim to have seen a Short-toed anything, especially one that is half obscured by a fence, as this 'creeper was. But then I'm still learning the basics. The top birders seem to spot all the subtle differences without fail. I don't know how they do this.

But how straightforward is it?

The Short-toed Treecreeper is a bird that looks so damn close to its near relative as to make it almost impossible to say for certain what it is unless you are able to pick it up and inspect it.

As far as I can make out the Short-toed Treecreeper and the common Treecreeper are identical apart from one has a short toe. Any variation is so minute as to make it nigh on impossible to detect out in the field. You can’t even guarantee you’ll get it right by listening to its song, as they are known to copy one another.

To make matters worse, there are apparently five sub-species of Short-toed. Now that is just plain silly.

It must be the hardest bird to look at in the field and confirm its identity. There may be hundreds of them around the country for all we know, its just that no-one can tell the difference.

The same goes for the Long-toed Stint that was seen at Weir Wood Reservoir last year. The Long-toed is one for the real experts. I wouldn’t have had a clue, like most onlookers, as to its true identity. 

I have seen photos of the Parrot Crossbill at Black Down recently and it looked just like a Common Crossbill, but a bit stockier – maybe. But then it had been chilly and birds do fluff up a bit in the cold. Some say it had a deeper call – but that may be what they wanted to hear. Ifs and buts.

People tell me that is the beauty of bird watching - that it is a challenging hobby full of discussion and interesting debate. I could do without it, personally. I don’t like uncertainty, especially in a hobby. I need definitive answers!

Not to worry. There are hundreds of birds I have yet to see that I can spend the next 20 years (hopefully)  traipsing around the countryside enjoying, not to have to worry whether any of their toes are a bit on the short side.

Crooksbury Common in the sunshine
On the personal birding front Annie and I went for a walk on Crooksbury Common yesterday afternoon. The weather was fantastic, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

It was a good visit. Darting around the area with a couple of Stonechats, was a very active Dartford Warbler, so mobile in fact, I couldn't get a digiscope photo of it. We also saw a couple of Woodlark, three Siskin, and also a Common Crossbill flew over. Then at about 5pm as the sun was going down, a flock of Chaffinch came in to roost along with at least ten Brambling - there were undoubtedly more. 

Male Brambling
Crooksbury is a great place to see Brambling. Tice's Meadow birder, Rich Horton, was the first to point out to me where to watch them roost back in January, so it was great to get a decent view of them at long last

I've focused on the local patch recently - the drake Scaup is still popping up on different lakes (it always seems to be asleep when I see it), plus there have been at least four Little Egret on the site. The Water Rail at the Fordbridge is a regular feature – there are one or two others on the patch – plus I've seen a couple of unusually vocal Kingfishers flying around Mercer's Lake.

While I haven't seen one yet, the first Chiffchaff has been heard calling near Mercer's West, and a Common Whitethroat arrived up the road at Canons Farm. 

Spring is on its way.

*Footnote: saw my first butterfly of the year at Crooksbury - a Comma

Tuesday 6 March 2012


I could have gone for a predictable innuendo-style headline – QUICK VISIT TO HOLMETHORPE FOR A SHAG or FANCY A SHAG but, to be honest, I couldn't think of anything that was actually genuinely funny.

I used to write plenty of headlines when I worked at Racing Post and freelanced at The Independent. A great headline is one of life's pleasures when working for a newspaper. The good ones are remembered for many years. 

When The Sun, under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, went with 'GOTCHA', after Maggie gave the order to sink the Belgrano during the Falklands conflict – whether it was actually the right thing to do or not, considering more than 300 Argentinians lost their lifes on that boat – it did much to boost morale in Britain at the time. 

Similarly, the same newspaper wrote 'Will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights' on the eve of the 1992 General Election when it looked as if Labour, under Neil Kinnock, was going to win. This headline had the desired effect of lowering morale across the country and quite possibly trashed Kinnock's hopes of becoming Prime Minister.

There are others, of course, that just make you laugh. My favourite, again from The Sun, was when Elton John married his partner, David Furnish. Above a photo of the pair posing for photographers before they tied the knot, the headline read 'ELTON TAKES DAVID UP THE AISLE'.

Outrageous, tongue-in-cheek, call it what you want – it was memorable, to say the least.

So, my Shag headline isn't the work of genius, but then it doesn't involved wars, politicians or Elton John. This Shag is just a sea bird that has dropped in at my local patch. It is the first one we've had for a while – more than two years, in fact – but it is a welcome edition to the Holmethorpe species list, which is up to 94 for the year now. Pretty good going, in my view.

When word got out – I saw the news first via a Johnny Allan tweet – it was parked up on the raft in the middle of Mercers Lake. By the time I got there, the Shag was happily swimming around on the water. An adult, by the looks of it, the black plumage had a greenish tinge to it. Hopefully, it will stay a few more days to allow other people to come and see it .

Thursday 1 March 2012


The sun was out today. It was warm, the light was noticeably brighter, the days are getting longer.

It’s the time when thoughts of spring migrants flocking to our shores fill us with hope and expectation.

By now, most of the interesting winter migrants have been seen and logged, apart from, in my case, one or two I haven’t gone out of my way to look for, like a Bittern, Jack Snipe or Mealy Redpoll.

I could have gone to Barnes this afternoon to see a Bittern (and maybe a Jack Snipe), and perhaps wandered around Leith Hill in the hope of finding a Mealy, but the truth is I couldn't muster the enthusiasm.

Instead, I went over to my local patch to see a Mediterranean Gull that was happily swimming around with some Black-headed Gulls close to the sand spit on Spynes Mere lake. It was only a relatively brief visit, but one Med Gull, a couple of Shelducks and a Goldeneye were enough to keep my happy, and I could get on with the rest of my day contented and relaxed. As birding outings go, it was better for my spirit than a long-haul twitch to see a bird for the first time.

But I nearly ruined it all. I made a vow at the end of last year that I would never make a specific journey to see a Firecrest. A beautiful little bird, I admit, but a nemesis to me. It’s been two years since I saw the last one – on Banstead Gold Course – and I’ve been many times since to try and see another one. I’ve failed every time – not even heard one, let alone see one of the little blighters.

So, seeing as it was a lovely day and I’d already seen the Med Gull, in a fit of pique I went to Banstead once again to see if I could find a Firecrest. One had been reported earlier in the day, so I thought I could, at long last, break this bad run. But no. Didn’t see one, didn’t even hear one.

I’ve now made yet another vow. This time I’m not going to go to that bloody golf course again. I have developed a genuine distaste for it and the footpath that runs alongside it (sorry, David). A Firecrest will have to come to me in future. I can live without one. It will remain off my year list for the foreseeable future.

I always seem to end up Surrey listing but even then I’m not pathological about it. No, really! If a really interesting bird – one I haven’t seen before – turns up locally the chances are I’ll find a good reason to get in the car with my scope, binoculars and camera and set off in search of it. Otherwise, I’m more likely to stay where I am or go somewhere to see birds I prefer to watch instead, like Short-eared Owls, and amazingly (a quite recent fascination) gulls.

The Parrot Crossbill, just over the border in Sussex, is one such bird I ought to go and see, but for some reason I haven’t. The same goes for the Paddyfield Warbler on the coast. Both aren’t that far away, and yet I haven’t gone to tick them off my life list.

Originally, I was put off the Crossbill because of the doubts about whether it was a Parrot or not, but I have spoken to many experienced birders since and they all say categorically that it is one. The Warbler was apparently elusive at first (another excuse not to travel down to Pagham), but is now showing well.

So, what is it with me?

I think I’m still trying to find my position in the birding scheme of things. Some people are twitchers, some are patch birders, some are neither. I am neither at the moment, although my patch is increasingly becoming more important by the day.

I like going on the odd twitch, like I did in January for the Dark-eyed Junco and Spanish Sparrow, but it has to be a bird that, for whatever reason, captures my imagination. Both the Paddyfield Warbler and the Parrot Crossbill tick that box, so why not go for both?

I think it is the threat of disappointment twitching can brings as baggage. I hate the idea of going somewhere on a specific journey, to see a bird that doesn’t show. People keep telling me that is what makes birding so fascinating, but I can’t think of anything worse than turning up somewhere not to achieve the purpose of a visit.

If you love football, and Chelsea in particular (I’m not a fan, by the way – this is just an example for geographical purposes) you don’t invest time and money to go to an away game – say to Sunderland – only to arrive to find they won’t let you in. If you went to many such away games and the same thing kept happening, you’d soon become despondent and eventually opt to stay at home and watch the game on the telly.

After a few experiences like this, negativity inevitably seeps through. When the chance to travel to Milan for an away leg of a Champions League semi-final is on the cards, for example, what would you do (if you were me)? You'd find a reason not to go, wouldn't you? Well, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

What I should have done, when the Parrot Crossbill was first announced, was to hop in the car and get the twitch over and done with - whether I saw it or not. Having deliberated endlessly about whether to go, there was always the risk the experience wouldn’t be enjoyable whatever the outcome. I delayed going for the Tundra Bean Goose at Thorpe Park recently, and by the time I decided to go for it, it was too late. The Goose had gone.

I don’t know how some twitchers keep their sanity. The birder Tom McKinney calls the Kerry Katona of twitching and one of the birders featured on the BBC documentary 'Twitching – A Very British Obsession', Garry Bagnell, has seen more than 500 birds in Britain and Ireland. He has managed this feat in a relatively short space of time, just ten years or so. He even had to give up plane spotting to achieve this. Imagine that! He must have dipped at least a third of these birds during that time. I couldn't cope with that.

A remarkable feat then, but what happens now? After a frenzy of twitching, Garry now has just a handful of birds he can see each year that he can honestly say he has never seen before. Presumably, he now has to create a new list category simply to wet his twitching juices. From reading his blog, he has managed that.

It's all about finding a balance and getting things in perspective. I’m actually quite happy to bide my time. I’m going for the long haul for the next 20 years. If it is convenient to go for the Slender-billed Curlew on any given day, well, I might consider it. It depends…