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 22 September 2012


Rainham Marshes has a habit of producing great finds but the two I have gone for this year have been incredibly hard work. The Marsh Warbler in June eventually gave itself up after days of trying to see it, but the juvenile Baillon's Crake that hit the birding headlines this past fortnight has been even more of a grind.

Winding back a couple of weeks this amazing discovery seen from the Butts Hide at Rainham Marshes, hit the internet on Friday, 7th September. There was a mad panic the following morning as many of the birding community's great and the good hit the M25 and were able to see this mega London rarity at first light. I would have tried to do the same but I was heading in the other direction on a day out with Annie.

It was clear early on in this prolonged twitch that it was a difficult bird to see. Adrian Luscombe, top tweeter and Staines birder, had to travel across London on that first Saturday by train rather than drive (his wife had the car), and by the time he got there after 8.00am the bird had already been seen, and while he stayed for a few hours it didn't show again. He had to leave empty-handed.

As I was to discover, leaving empty-handed may have been bad enough, but the Butts Hide is at the furthest point on the reserve and it is a soul-destroying walk back afterwards just to rub salt in the wounds.

The reserve was opened especially early during the weekend, and even though I got up early on the Sunday and got to Rainham for 5.30am the overflow car park was noticeably full.

The Butts Hide at 6.00am on Sunday morning
Entering the Butts Hide in the half-light the place was already crowded. It was misty and while some saw the Crake at one point through the mist and dawn light in the reedbed, I couldn't claim to have seen anything I could describe to be a bird, let alone a crake.

The Butts Hide is full to the rafters at weekends in the early morning
I stayed for three hours and saw nothing. After that I had to go to work. I did see three Hobby flying across the reserve all morning catching dragonflies, three Water Rail (which had me momentarily excited), two handsome Sedge Warblers, two Reed Warblers, nine Black-tailed Godwits, three Greenshank, plenty of Common Snipe and Little Egrets, a couple of Green Sandpiper and I heard three and saw one Cetti's Warbler.

My second attempt was on the following Wednesday. This time I arrived at the reserve at about 1.30pm. I had to park in the official car park and walk across the reserve via the visitors centre. An even longer walk with an even more disappointing end to it. I walked in to see birding pal Tim Dackus turn round to greet me – but then he said the immortal words: "You should have been here ten minutes ago. It was sitting out preening itself for some time." That was just after 2pm. I arrive at 2.10pm and didn't have a good feeling.

From that point on it was not seen all day. I was starting to think about giving up the twitch.

I gave it another go last Saturday. I wasn't so concerned if I didn't see it because I was only dropping in on the way to an annual sporting event I always go to – the BriSCA F1 Stock Car World Final, which was being held this year at Skegness Stadium three hours up the road later that day. I arrived at Rainham for 11.00am. I decided for a change to walk the other way round the reserve to the hide as if that would make any difference. It didn't.

I stayed until 1.30pm in the busy hide and saw nothing again. Just hours staring at the bank of reeds once more, although the occasional Hobby was a nice distraction, as was a Marsh Harrier.

So that was three days which had involved more than fours of driving, nearly three hours of walking, and ten hours of staring at reeds without even a brief view of a beak.

I knew I wasn't the only one. While some just had to turn up, wait for a couple of hours at the most, get their views and then leave, others suffered many hours of endeavour without a result.

And so to yesterday. I turned up this time at 1.50pm. Another long walk – it seemed to take forever. Tim was back for a seventh visit – and also Lee Evans was there.

Another long wait. No Hobby flying demonstrations this time to keep us occupied, but literally at the eleventh hour of my twitching escapade, Tim spotted it. It was directly ahead of me.

Rather than skulking around the island section of the pool where it often would appear, this time the Baillon's Crake was heading from right to left along the long edge of the reedbed heading away from the island.

It was very small – no bigger than a starling as Tim described it – but beautifully marked with shades of browns and blues and it was on a mission.

Like a clockwork toy that had just been let loose, it scuttled remarkably quickly across the reeds. Sometimes it would swim for a bit, and feed briefly as it did so. It would then stop for a quick preen, then jump up on top of the flattened reeds, where it showed well for a few seconds, then drop down again and scuttle on. It was a quite manic, edgy little bird. It then found a hole in the reeds that had been trodden down and disappeared.

That was the bird! A spectacular little flurry of activity and like a firework it was over.

At this point most people in the hide left. Previous form suggested it would stay out of sight for a few hours at a time and it being a Friday, beating the rush-hour traffic was at a premium, but I decided to stay on for another hour, as did Tim.

A lot of people had come and gone during my four-day visit. One of the talking points about this remarkable little crake was that it may have been born at Rainham. They are only putting the story out now, but it has been said that a Baillon's Crake had been heard calling during the spring/early summer as though looking for a mate. The fact that a young bird appeared a few months later is a striking coincidence. There is even talk that there maybe another one on site, but this seems unlikely.

Another hour went past and soon after 'Hawkeye' Tim was on it again, in the same place he'd seen it before, but this time the Baillon's Crake was sitting preening. A good chance to see it stock still for a change. It stayed put for a few minutes before it headed off right and eventually into the reeds and out of sight once again.

The juvenile Baillon's Crake as seen on Friday afternoon
The Baillon's Crake preening

So having not seen this rare bird in ten hours, I then had two great sightings in one day. A blessed relief.

London this year has produced quite a few great birds, but it will be hard-pressed to find a better one than this during the remainder of 2012.

On the walk back I saw four Greenshank, at least same number of Black-tailed Godwit, a couple of Redshank, four Ringed Plover, two Green Sandpiper, two Dunlin, a Grey Wagtail and umpteen Little Egret.

Credit where credit is due, the reserve management team couldn't have been more helpful this past couple of weeks, and the fact they have opened up early and closed late on some days shows they really appreciate how important it is for people to see this bird. Other reserves could learn a thing or two from these guys.

For those who still would like to go and see the Baillon's Crake this weekend, the reserve is opening up early again at 6.00am both today (22nd) and Sunday (23rd), although they will be closing at normal times.

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