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.

Monday 7 May 2012


It was only a few days ago that I was talking with David Campbell at Canons Farm and we looked across the stubble fields and wondered what would drop by in the coming days.

Canons Farm is becoming a bit of a phenomenon in Surrey. It never fails to produce the goods on a yearly basis. So far this spring they have had six Ring Ouzels and a Pied Flycatcher, plus Black Redstarts, Common Redstarts, and numerous fly-overs, including Whimbrel. Last year they had the only record of a Wood Warbler in Surrey, breeding pairs of Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, more Ring Ouzels, umpteen Grasshopper Warblers and a Quail.

We spoke about dream birds we'd like to see and Dotterel was the first bird mentioned. We didn't know when the last sighting of one was seen in Surrey. Then low and behold, on Friday afternoon, the dream came true. The birding gods had smiled on Canons Farm, and in spectacular fashion. Not one Dotterel, but 15 dropped into one of the fields and they stayed all day.

I got the text while I was working at Racing Post, and could only hope they would stick for a while longer, as I wouldn't be leaving 1 Canada Square until at least 7.30pm. In the meantime, all the great and the good of birding migrated to the farm during the afternoon. This was a very special twitch, one that only happens once in a lifetime in Surrey. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it. But there was still hope.

Eventually, 7.30pm came and went and I hurried for the Jubilee Line. I got to London Bridge, platform 5, just as the train I really needed to catch was leaving. Another would arrive in 12 minutes, so I could still change at East Croydon and get to Redhill for about 8.30pm. The sun would have set then but there would still be just enough light to get to the farm, 15 minutes up the road, to see these Dotterels.

But the birding gods weren't smiling on me, in fact they were playing a little ruse. Within seconds of missing the train an announcement echoed around the station. Due to a fatality at Waterloo East, there would now be severe delays to all services out of London Bridge. It beggared belief.

Thirty minutes later, the trains were running again, but too late. I arrived at Redhill at 9pm. The birding gods had one last trick up their sleeve. Once it was obvious there was no point in making the journey to the farm – it would be too dark at 9.15pm – at the very same moment the birding gods decided that it was time for these Dotterel to leave. It was reported by Roy Weller, who had first seen the birds, that a fox had wandered close by where they were standing, and in a moment they had taken to the air, and could be heard calling. No-one on site knew where they had gone. There was a chance they had simply taken a short hop into a neighbouring field.

And so to Saturday. On a very cold May morning I got up very early – 5.15am – and was at the farm 45 minutes later, not really believing these 15 birds were still on site. No sign of the Dotterel. I met David who had already been looking around the area and had drawn a blank. It was obvious they were no longer there.

It is very hard to describe how missing seeing a bird that was last seen in Surrey in 1884 feels like. This was a 'for one night only' job. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I felt numb.

So I left crestfallen. I wasn't sure what to do next. I was in a bit of a daze. A daze of disillusionment. I went to Staines Reservoir, more for something to do than anything else, and met up with Bob Warden, who had gone to Canons Farm and seen the Dotterel, and Adrian Luscombe, who had been at work in London all day. It was clear from the look on their respective faces who had seen a Surrey Dotterel and who hadn't.

I went to Staines hoping to find Whinchat on the Moor, and perhaps a Little Tern or a fly-over Whimbrel on the reservoir. The reservoir was quiet in the early morning, apart from large numbers of Yellow Wagtail – I saw at least 50 during the day. There were plenty of Common Terns, plus a couple of Arctic Terns, and the Shag was also present. There were also quite a few Wheatears around, and more than 1,000 Common Swift.

One of at least 1,000 Common Swift for a Hobby to choose from
There were more than 50 Yellow Wagtails at the reservoir
I went over to Staines Moor at about 9am. Five Sedge Warblers (138) were singing on the walk down the footpath to the Moor, and once there I found more than 20 Wheatears and four Whinchats (139), two pairs.

A male Wheatear – ill-prepared for the cold snap
A handsome male Whinchat at Staines Moor
Back to the reservoir by late morning a couple of Grey Plovers dropped in on the west bank of the south basin, more Yellow Wagtails, plus four Little Ringed Plovers and another Whinchat, a male, followed by a female. A Hobby flew low across the bank on the causeway on the south basin, with a Common Swift dangling from its talons, and later two more Hobby were scorching through the air trying to catch some more Hirundines.

A Grey Plover on the west bank of the south basin
Another Yellow Wagtail
A female Whinchat at Staines Reservoir
That was the day in a nutshell. Good, but with very much an 'after the Lord Mayor's show' ring about it.

OK, I hear you say, get over it. Don't be so pathetic. No-one died. No-one is suffering from life-changing trauma of any sort. In the general scheme of things, dipping a Dotterel (or 15) it isn't that big a deal.

And you would be right. But that is what this hobby does to you when it grabs you. And I'm more than a bit concerned by this. I don't want it to consume me to the extent it takes away my focus from the more important things that I have going on in my life.

The bottom line is this. To be a dedicated birder is fine. It is a great hobby, full of great moments and equally disappointing ones (probably more of those, in my case). But to get the most out of it you have to be either retired, very rich or work in birding for a living.

I'm simply not enjoying my birding at the moment most of the time apart from the odd days here and there – as can be garnered from posts on this blog in recent weeks. Even I'm getting bored of whining all the time.

So I've made the decision that I'm not going to Surrey list for the rest of the year. There's no point. I've missed too many migrants, particularly on the local patch, and have too few days to spend on it. I want to enjoy birding and to go home afterwards feeling good rather than dejected. Listing is basically twitching, and twitching will send you half mad. 

It will mean that birding in Surrey will not be the be all and end all. If there is the chance of seeing birds I enjoy somewhere else, I'll go there rather than waiting for hours for a Grasshopper Warbler to poke its head out of the bushes for a split second. 

I'll continue to go to Staines Reservoir, however, for some seabird watching because I enjoy it (and I can catch up with Bob et al for some good old banter), Holmethorpe because I ought to, Beddington and Canons Farm on the odd occasion, Crooksbury Common later this month to see the Nightjars, Bookham Common for some more Nightingale song.

With the mornings getting lighter earlier it means I can travel further afield and get back in good time without compromising myself. Elmley Marshes, Oare Marshes, Pulborough Brooks (never been!), Burpham (raptor heaven), Pagham Harbour, good old Beachy Head and Cuckmere Haven. 

That's the plan. Now for the difficult part. Trying to work out a way to implement it...


  1. As you know, I always feel downheartened when you miss a bird at Canons, Neil. I've always admired the way you manage to maintain an infectious cheeriness even when you're dipping, but I could tell you were gutted last Saturday. All I can say is I wish that fox wasn't around that night and, if genuine, that report of a single bird on Saturday was put out properly and quickly. So many more people would have been very happy then.

    It shouldn't be dismissed that Canons could be a reasonably regular stop off point perhaps? A bit of a long shot maybe, but possible. We'd be unbelievably lucky to find a trip like that after less than three years intense watching. If there were a birder who'd been going there for the last 50 years, I doubt those would have been his first there. So perhaps another chance in the not too distant future?

    In the last 3 years I've cut down the amount of listing I do. I now only get hysterical about British and CFBW Listing, CFBW Yearlisting being second to that followed by my Local Area list (which I'm rather fond of) and then counties, other sites etc being relativley unimportant. It's nice having less pressure.

    all the best


  2. Hi David

    It didn't take long to get over the disappointment. I had a really good few hours on Sunday and found the Wood Warbler at Thursley relatively easily. Don't worry, I'll be back at the farm soon enough, probably for the next Quail to drop by in the next week or so. Work commitments are limiting my visits at the moment - I'm writing this during a brief lull at Racing Post. Canons is a brilliant site and with your efforts, has definitely been put on the birding map. Anyone who knows birding knows Canons Farm. Next birds to see there? How about a Red-backed Shrike or Wryneck? See you soon, and keep sending me the texts!