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 30 June 2012


For the past week I've been chasing shadows, or rather I would have been if the sun ever came out. One shadow was a White-winged Black Tern that appeared briefly at Grove Ferry in Kent on Monday morning before flying off but was then seen very late in the day – just after 9pm – at Staines Reservoir. It was still feeding when Rob Innes, who discovered the bird, left at 9.30pm.

There was nothing for it but to aim to get to Staines the following morning at first light and hope it had stuck after roosting for an hour or so. That would be enough time to see this splendid bird and get back home before rush hour and catch a train to Canary Wharf.

It meant a very early start. I arrived at 5.30am, just at the same time as Bob Warden. Dave Baker and one other birder had already arrived.

As Bob and I walked up the causeway, we knew the Tern had already left. Neither of the guys ahead of us were looking intently at anything in particular. Poor Dave had been at the reservoir since 4.30am and had to leave for work. "Gutted," he said as he left.

It's odd but I wasn't too disappointed. If it had gone just before I had arrived, that would have been different, but the White-winged Black Tern must have flown off a long time before anyone turned up in the morning.

I stayed for about an hour, during which time I mustered two Surrey year ticks. Perched up on the gantry on the King George VI Reservoir were four Yellow-legged Gulls (149), and a flock of seven Black-tailed Godwits (150) flew over the causeway heading south west. A welcome surprise. A Hobby also flew low from the north basin and landed on a fence post on the south basin for a while.

Yellow-legged Gull on the King George VI Reservoir gantry
So, some compensation for the White-winged Black Tern, which turned up again in Wiltshire and was been seen yesterday in Somerset over Shapwick Heath. Hopefully, it will turn round and come back to the south east this week.

The other shadows were three White Storks. Originally four birds, until one was electrocuted by overhead cables, they have been a feature flying around Britain for the past month. Having been seen in South Wales for a few days they reappeared in West Sussex on June 20, not far from Bognor Regis at Sack Lane, Lydsey by birder Hannah Seabrook, who was on a train. They then moved to Hoe Farm, Flansham and I was hoping they would stay long enough for me to see them on Wednesday, as I planned to take the afternoon off, but alas they had flown eastwards that morning.

They had been seen circling over Pulborough Brooks on Thursday, followed by Pagham Harbour yesterday so I hope they haven't gone far, although they could have made their way over the Channel by now.

I took the morning off yesterday because of the weather forecast. It was due to be stormy with strong south-westerly winds. Having enjoyed the seawatch at Selsey Bill last week, and with it being so quiet locally, I headed for the coast again.

I arrived at the Bill at 7.30am, and while it was blowy it wasn't too bad. No-one else was around so I set to work, in the knowledge I would find things that I wouldn't recognise. As it transpired, it wasn't the most challenging morning out at sea although a flock of five somethings did fly west at one point and I didn't have a clue what they were.

Seawatching is something of an acquired taste. It's true hardcore birding, especially when the wind is full-on in your face (as it was yesterday when the winds became southerlies). But once you get your eye in it can be really satisfying. Also it means you don't have to walk anywhere, which can be a bonus. Selsey Bill is just perfect in that regard. You drive up, park and sit on a bench protected from the wind (just about) and just wait and watch. Brilliant. As you can tell, I'm quite into it at the moment.

Seawatching is a challenge because the majority of birds are either far out and silhouettes on the horizon or travelling fast with the wind behind them. Understanding and taking in what you're looking at it is difficult at first, but you just have to accept you are not going to clock everything you see, especially if you are a novice at it (like me).

Gannets were the feature bird species of the morning
Three Gannets fly into a stiff headwind as a Cormorant looks on
It's a tough life
I stayed for four hours and was joined for one of them at 10.00am by Owen Mitchell. During my visit I saw numerous Gannets, more than 40 in all, a couple of Fulmars, groups of Common Scoter, totalling 25, predominantly flying west to east but one group later did go the other way, a couple of Sandwich Terns, one Little Tern, four Common Terns, an Oystercatcher and best of all five Manx Shearwaters, scything low across the waves with the wind behind them. Oh, and a few Cormorants (see picture above).

OK, I didn't see any Storm Petrels (apparently it doesn't have to be windy to see one - they can even turn up in dead calm) or a Balearic Shearwater or a Pomarine Skua, but if the majority of the above list appeared in Surrey at any one time most local birders would be going nuts.

I'll be heading down to the Bill again soon. I can't wait.

Thursday 21 June 2012


While the birding world was relatively quiet and the sun was out for once I went to Seaford Head and Ardingley Reservoir on Tuesday in the late afternoon – just for some sea air and the sheer hell of it really.

I also went to see the Kittiwakes with their chicks on the cliffs and to hopefully catch up with the Ospreys at Ardingley – they were at Weir Wood, however...

I stood where the bloke is to take the last two photos – an excellent view

Monday 18 June 2012


I had a day off on Saturday. I mean a proper day off which meant I could focus on birding for quite a few hours.

I know it's June, but I wasn't going to refuse a gift horse. The winds were expected to be high and being June, when there's not much activity inland, a seawatch was the order of the day. The last time I had a seawatch was more than a year ago and, to be honest, it wasn't one of my favourite birding experiences. I was at Oare Marshes and the winds and rain just battered me into submission. I saw a few decent birds through watering eyes and a shaky scope but it was bloody hard work.

This time around I was more up for the job. I opted to go to Selsey Bill. I'd not been there before so looking at the map I headed for Grafton Road. I didn't know what I would find once I got there but fortunately I was in luck.

Selsey Bill
The end of Grafton Road is a dead-end where you can park and look straight out to sea. On the right-hand side is a wall that acts perfectly as a windbreak and below it is a park bench – where two birders were sat.

This was obviously the right place.

I set up my stuff behind the pair sitting down at about 8.00am and introduced myself and round turned Staines Reservoir birding buddy Bob Warden. Bob had had the same idea as me. The combination of high winds and nothing much happening back home meant Selsey Bill was a good choice.

The sea was very rough and the winds were gale force six or seven. We were hoping for a Storm Petrel or two, but as the morning progressed none appeared. There were plenty of Gannets flying up wind, plus many Common Terns and the occasional Little Tern fighting its way into the headwind trying to feed. Another bird of note was an Eider bobbing about on the water, not far offshore.

A distant Gannet
Not exactly the weather to be in a boat
After about an hour someone joined us on the bench – it was top British and south-east England birder Owen Mitchell. For a novice birder, let alone a novice sea watcher, having Owen sitting next to you is a blessing. Owen soon had me locked on to a couple of distant Manx Shearwater scything across the horizon – for me a great find and one I wouldn't have spotted without his help. He also noted many Common Swifts heading out to sea, clearly heading back the way they had arrived earlier than usual (it confirms the weather this summer so far really has been that bad) and a couple of Fulmars.

Owen only stayed for about an hour as he had to open the visitor's centre at the Pagham Harbour RSPB reserve, but he recommended I come back in the autumn if I wanted to see some decent sea birds at this same spot.

Earlier in the week I had been tempted to travel to Rickmansworth to see a female Little Bittern that had been found and showing well on the River Colne by Stocker's Lake before it flew downstream. I couldn't really spare the time, and in the end I didn't go. There had been no sign of it the following morning. That was Thursday and there had been no sign since.

While we were watching a relatively empty sea I scanned the Rare Bird Alert website on my mobile for the latest news just before 9.00am. The Little Bittern had been rediscovered at Stocker's Lake. I gave Bob the news. He groaned. He would have normally been at Staines Reservoir in the morning and therefore only 20 minutes away from Rickmansworth. I knew how he felt. It had obviously still been around but hard to find. It was now showing well all throughout the morning.

Sandwich Terns with Black-headed Gulls at Church Norton
After three hours staring at the sea it was a good time to head off to twitch the Little Bittern. On the way I went to Church Norton to see the Sandwich Terns and Little Terns that nest there. It is a really good spot and a definite site for me to return to in the autumn, as many migrants drop in here.

I then took a left turn and headed to Farlington Marshes in the hope of seeing the Glossy Ibis. In the end I had to abort the idea. It was now midday, I had struggled to find the right place to park, and when I did the wind was so strong and the walk was quite long I lost the will to make the effort!

A Glossy Ibis is a rare bird but more are likely to appear in the south-east than a Little Bittern so the Rickmansworth bird took priority.

I parked up at the Rickmansworth Aquadrome Nature Reserve at 2.30pm and made the walk, via the Yacht Club, to the river. On the way a Red Kite drifted west just north of the river. There were plenty of birders on the footpath peering across to the opposite side of the river through their bins and scopes. The first person I spotted was Tim Dackus. I manage to bump into Tim quite a lot. Just a couple of weeks ago we spent an enjoyable evening watching the Marsh Warbler at Rainham.

Tim pointed me in the right direction me and it wasn't long before I was looking at my first Little Bittern. As the name suggests this heron is very small, about a third of the size of a Greater Bittern, and when in amongst the reeds is easy to miss – especially so if it sits lock-stock still, as it was prone to do, waiting to grab an insect to eat. It is rumoured that this rare migrant has been on the River Colne for at least a week, having been seen by people fishing on and off during that time, and maybe even a month. Being so hard to see at times that could well be the case.

The Little Bittern is easy to miss in the reeds
It was also easy to miss because a couple of birders decided to stand on a small jetty right in front of the rest of us and therefore blocking the view. Being a typically English gathering, everyone was too polite to say anything, but as the bird moved out into the open I had to ask them to at least squat down so the rest of us could have a look.

I love photography, and especially fantastic photos of birds, but it shouldn't be at the expense of other people's enjoyment. A similar thing happened at Rainham. Rather than standing at a discreet distance to watch what was admittedly a very difficult bird to see through the undergrowth, a number of birders had clearly walked into the vegetation to get a better view. In the end, the reserve warden chose to put up some plastic fencing to act as a deterrent.

Typical pose
Back at the River Colne, after about 45 minutes the Little Bittern became less camera-shy and appeared out in front of the reeds and for the next five minutes or so showed really well as it homed in on insects and the occasional fish.

An expert at fishing
Little Bitterns breed in Africa, central and southern Europe as well as in southern and western parts of Asia and is very rare to see in northern Europe – it was certainly a rare treat in Rickmansworth.

It then returned to the cover of the reedbed and so it was a good time to head back home. I gave Tim a lift via Staines Reservoir, where it was blowing a gale. Not much there apart from more than 1,000 Common Swift and a few Swallows, House Martins and Common Terns.

By now it was around 5pm and time to call it a day – it had been a good one.

Friday 15 June 2012


We are in the grips of June, the barren month of the year when spring migration is a distant memory and the hope of a rare visitor popping up only happens hundreds of miles away on the coast where we don't live anywhere near to. Birds that have bred in Britain are now feverishly feeding their young, who are themselves instinctively preparing to fledge and start their journey south to the warmer climate (it couldn't get much colder where they were born if it tried).

On that subject, the jet stream has a lot to answer for. For at least the past three years it has done its best to screw up our summer and the way things are progressing this year's summer finished at the end of May when we had almost two weeks (wow!) of hot, balmy days.

I focus much of my birding in Surrey, but because it is June and I've giving up Surrey year listing for this year, it has given me a broader range to search for some really interesting birds that are less than an hour away by car.

Last week's Marsh Warbler was an enjoyable twitch in the long run, no matter how long it took to actually see the bird and my quest for great birds continued last Saturday with a brief visit to Arlington Reservoir in East Sussex in the hope of seeing an Osprey.

Ospreys are birds I grew up thinking I would be very lucky ever to see. I remember when I was young reading a feature on Ospreys at Loch Garten in Scotland and a striking photo on the opening spread of a newspaper supplement of a lone tree that looked as if it was in the middle of a war zone.

My recollection was of a lone pine tree surrounded by not much apart from barbed wire wrapped around the trunk. It was part of Operation Osprey, a mission to resurrect the Osprey population from zero birds breeding to just a handful. A pair began breeding successfully in 1959 for the first time since 1916 at Loch Garten and this pair were watched round the clock to protect them from egg collectors hell-bent on stealing the eggs (I really don't get that - why would they want to wreck the chance of these magnificent birds from successfully breeding in Britain? Unimaginably selfish).

The long and the short of it is they bred successfully, and now there are around 250-300 pairs breeding in Britain. Amazing.

We don't know where many of them are, or if we do, we're not telling because we don't want the egg thieves getting their way.

What we do know is that a few Ospreys spend the summer in south-east England – they have been seen at Weir Wood Reservoir and particularly at Arlington Reservoir, where two have been seen regularly. 

It's only 50 minutes away but I've never been to there before. It was a warmish afternoon but very breezy – the water on the reservoir was a bit choppy. There was nothing much about when I first arrived apart from a few Great Crested Grebes, an assortment of gulls and Mallards.

The after about 30 minutes a large raptor flew slowly into the wind across the reservoir from the north. It was an Osprey. Fantastic.

An Osprey at Arlington Reservoir
Ospreys enjoy fishing at Arlington, presumably because there is plenty of trout to feed on. This one drifted over the water about 200 metres way from me and carried on over to the south end of the reservoir before making its way back over the water and eventually out of sight.

Bloody brilliant, though. It is still hard to accept that Ospreys hang out in the south-east all summer, but clearly they do and if you go to Arlington, at some point during the day you will see one.

Thursday 7 June 2012


I had to get back to Rainham Marshes yesterday if I was going to have any hope of seeing the Marsh Warbler. The weather forecast for the next few days is truly terrible – heavy rain and strong winds, so the Marsh Warbler was likely to keep its head down for a while. Isn't this supposed to be June, for goodness sake?

I don't think many birds could be harder to see than this one – the two words 'although elusive' are a bit of an understatement. It has taken three attempts and more than nine hours but at least I managed to see the Marsh Warbler yesterday evening, and compared to most people I'd say I saw it pretty well.

With each visit I made progress. From hearing it singing constantly on Saturday but not showing, to the slightest of views – literally less than half a second, really just a slight movement in the bushes – on Monday night, to decent views on Wednesday evening.

After Saturday's marathon, I dropped in on Monday evening for an hour after working at Racing Post. It was a still and sunny evening – I heard the Warbler go through its repertoire and got a glimpse that was so brief I couldn't say I knew it was a bird apart from the fact it sang in the same place moments later but out of sight.

The only other bird of note during that time was a Hobby perched on the fencing next to Coldharbour Lane.

A Hobby perched on the fence next to Coldharbour Lane
So after a busy day yesterday I managed to slip out at 4.30pm and trawled around the M25 to the Serin Mound in just over an hour. Not bad for rush-hour traffic. There was only one other birder there, Tim – a guy I know from watching the Hawfinches at Bookham Common. He had come over from Hammersmith by train – he doesn't drive, so he has to do the leg work.

Tim had heard the Warbler soon after arriving, just 15 minutes before me and it wasn't long before it started up again. The weather was closing in and after watching a Marsh Harrier hunting out on the marshes, suddenly it started to chuck it down.

Pretty typical really. It was sunny to the north and dark as death to the south. It was hard to imagine it would clear, but after 15 minutes or so, it did. And the sun came out. This meteorological event seemed to have a positive effect on the local birdlife.

A Grasshopper Warbler started reeling to our right. Tim went off to investigate while I stood, eyes peeled, watching the hemlock for some movement. He came back for his camera as he'd found it and so I went for a look, too. There are some gorse bushes by the side of the footpath just 50 yards from the Serin Mound and that was where the Gropper was favouring to perch.

A Grasshopper Warbler in the gorse at Rainham Marshes
It was surprisingly mobile, flying low across the reeds and into another bush to start reeling again before flying back to its favourite spot, just ten feet away from us.

This was a great find, and was added to moments later by a Short-eared Owl out on the marshes. There are apparently two Short-eareds here and with the area home to the UK's largest concentration of Water Voles, there is plenty of food for the owls to feed on.

A Short-eared Owl on Rainham Marshes
So, even without the Marsh Warbler, it had been a good evening already. We listened out for the Warbler and then I saw it perch up on a stem of a tall hemlock plant. After two seconds it dropped down lower. So from nothing, to a tenth of a second to two seconds. This was getting good!

The mimicry of this bird was remarkable. It copied a Swallow, followed by a House Sparrow and then a Blackbird, plus a number of other birds I didn't recognise. The accuracy of the song was uncanny and may be part of the reason it is so hard to spot apart from the obvious geographical and botanical constraints.

The Blackbird impersonation, in particular, was so authentic I had originally ignored it as the real thing but when Wren, Skylark, House Sparrow and Swallow song all appeared in the exact same place, you knew it was the Marsh Warbler.

Dave Smith, who is a volunteer at the Reserve and a train driver – had been up to record the bird at 1.30am a few nights ago after his shift. At the latest count there have been 21 different species of bird song coming from this master of mimicry. Amazing.

Eventually I saw it low down on a stem of a dead hemlock, and Tim and I watched it as it sang happily for a good five minutes (yes, I watched it for that long), preening itself occasionally. It had a distinctive white neck and orangey underparts. It was only just visible through the weeds and undergrowth, and the camera just wouldn't focus on it. I couldn't use the scope either because it was just a few inches too low for me to see anything through it, so I had to make do with watching it through my bins. If I had been a couple of inches shorter I would have seen nothing.

But after all the effort I was very happy with that. An excellent evening.

Sunday 3 June 2012


"We choose go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

So said President John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1962.

And to the Moon they went seven years later. Amazing when you think about that. Three men headed for the Moon and two landed on it – in a tin can compared with what we can build now.

But I digress wildly.

The reason I thought of that quote was because it reminded me of difficult twitches. Yep, we do them because sometimes they are hard, but they are a challenge worth accepting -– or so you think at the time – so long as they are successful.

One such challenge occurred on Saturday at Rainham Marshes. A Marsh Warbler had been found on Friday morning, close to the path near the Wennington Mound/Serin Mound. The Wennington or Serin Mound is at the furthest end of the marshes – a good 25-minute walk from the Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve car park – and within five minutes of a car park at Aveley Bay.

If I had known there was a car park at Aveley Bay I would have parked there. But no-one tells you there is car park within a five-minute walk of the viewing point. When directions are given on the Internet people assume you know but I don't have any knowledge of the area, so I need all the help I can get.

So, after 25 minutes I set up shop. The next six hours really tested my resolve. I arrived at the Reserve at 9.15am, and returned back to the car park at 4.30pm. During that time I stood in basically the same place and heard the varied and fluid song of this Marsh Warbler at least ten times, but during that whole period of my life I didn't see it once – not even the slightest movement in the undergrowth.

If someone insisted you to stand in the same place staring at weeds for six hours, the first reaction would be to tell them to bog off. You'd do it for a bet, or if you were insane. Staring at the same area of weeds for that amount of time would be staggeringly boring.

But I can honestly say the time flew by. I can't say I was having fun exactly, but I was motivated by hope. Delusional with hindsight, but hope it was. At some point I would actually see this flipping bird.

The short version of this story is I failed. But there was little I could do about it. Some people got brief glimpses, but it was luck more than judgement. And I was so close to this Warbler, too. I felt I could almost walk up to it and touch it. The song was so clear but the increasing wind and dull weather forced it to stay low. The sun did come out late on, but it still refused to show itself. It did, obviously, two hours after I left, but there is only so long one can grind out these sort of twitches.

I hung on longer than most. Many of London's leading birders were present, including Dominic Mitchell, David Campbell, Ian Jones and Hawky, but they all knew it was going to be a long and fruitless day so they left by lunchtime. I should have gone too, but once you've made the sacrifice, it is hard to cry enough. Having invested so much time already, the thought of leaving just before it bloody shows is enough to root you to the spot.

But leave empty-handed I did. I did see the following:

A Corn Bunting at Rainham Marshes
One Corn Bunting
One Cuckoo
One Hobby
One Marsh Harrier
One Peregrine
One Reed Warbler
Many Reed Bunting
Many Shelduck
Not much else of note.

On a happy note the Common Scoter stayed for an extra day on Wednesday at Water Colour Lagoons at Holmethorpe and I got nice digiscope photos of it.

The first-summer drake Common Scoter showed well at Holmethorpe Water Colour Lagoons
Have a good week. It's the Queen's Jubilee weekend, apparently. Unfortunately, some of us have to work.