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.

Sunday 28 October 2012


Twitches. Don't you just love them. Prior to the event they are, on the whole, enveloped with anticipation, but more often than not the prevalent emotion is anxiety, particularly if the bird you are planning to see involves a long journey.

Most twitches take time and effort and there is the risk you will come away empty handed and, in an era where time is increasingly more valuable, so much of it will be wasted. It's an dreadful feeling knowing the bird in question, had you seen it, would have made all those important but dull jobs you had been avoiding for weeks seem just that little bit easier to contemplate.

But then there are those rare twitches where you come away with a smile on your face, having had an experience that was quite magical. Those occasions are as rare as the bird you wish to see, but for me and my wife Annie, who came along with me on a rare birding trip on Friday, it actually happened for once.

The bird in question was a Desert Wheatear. I like Wheatears, most birders do, and this one is a rarity that breeds in North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, and winters in North Africa, the Arabian peninsular and western India.

On its travels it also will turn up in Britain, and on this rare occasion it appeared on Worthing's seafront, to the east of the pier.

It was first spotted on Wednesday evening, being confirmed the following morning, and was still present first thing on Friday. It was described as very confiding – probably the wrong adjective to describe a bird – but from what I had read it was more than comfortable in the company of human beings staring at it.

So, on Friday lunchtime we set off for Worthing. The weather en route was terrible, loads of rain, but it stopped just before we arrived at Splash Point, just to the east of Worthing Pier.

We parked up, and soon as we walked up to the beach and the group of birders that were in position there I knew this was going to be good. There was none of this walking-for-half-an-hour-to-a-hide-and-wait-for-five-hours-to-see-nothing malarkey. In front of this throng of cameras and scopes I could see a bird literally posing as if on a red carpet at a film premiere. It was the Desert Wheatear. He was insisting on an audience.

What an amazing little fella this was. It was if he enjoyed human companionship. He clearly hadn't seen many human beings in the Sahara during in his life, because as far as this Desert Wheatear was concerned, humans – as a species – were not recognisable predators.

So, for the next 45 minutes we were able to sit and enjoy watching a bird full of personality, who perched on a rock, a post or anything nearby, then dropped down within three feet of our feet to feed in amongst the drying seaweed, and then fly back up to a nearby vantage point and look back at us.

He could have flown off anywhere along the beach, but instead this remarkable little bird chose to stay close by us.

It made you fear for him a little bit. He was so trusting, you just hoped the residents of Worthing continued to respect the fact they had a very special guest on their patch.

And no disrespect to those who haven't been down to enjoy this smashing little bird, but I hope he decides to head off home during the night.

It's getting cold and he's been a delight. We wish him well.

Monday 22 October 2012


I had another free day on Saturday but I was torn between two events. On the one side I wanted to go to Portland Bill to see what turned up during the remnants of the autumn migration and on the other, having enjoyed the athletic excellence of the Olympics and Paralympics immensely and with a background in the sport, I wanted to go to Ascot on British Champions Day to see the ultimate equine athlete, Frankel, in action for the very last time.

For those who don't know who Frankel is, he is a racehorse the like of which we haven't seen for many years, if ever. Leading up to Ascot he was unbeaten in 13 races, and had won the majority of them by huge margins beating other top-class horses as though they were donkey derby level. He has been for the past two years the best racehorse in the world.

It was the manner in which he has won his races that has captured the racing public's imagination, that and the fact he is trained by one of racing's most popular and respected trainers, Sir Henry Cecil, who is also battling with stomach cancer.

I had yet to see Frankel in the flesh, and while I was very keen to see him run, there was a doubt about his participation in the Champion Stakes because of the state of the ground on the course, which after persistent rain was very soft, and verging on heavy.

For a horse best known as a miler, and with a preference for good ground, travelling for an extra quarter of a mile in testing conditions against a major rival, the French gelding Cirrus Des Aigles, who would revel in the conditions, may have been too stamina-sapping for him. An announcement would be made on Saturday morning.

I was in a dilemma. If I waited on the announcement and found out Frankel wouldn't be running, it would be too late to travel to Dorset, and if I went to Dorset and Frankel was going to run, getting back in time would be an issue.

I had a ticket left for me at the racecourse by the ROA (and a big thank you to Sadie Evans for sorting that out for me) and I figured I could spend enough time at the Bill and with the Champion Stakes not due off until 4.05pm, be able to get to Ascot in time if I headed back by midday.

So I set off for Dorset at the ridiculously early time of 4.45am. I got to Portland at just after seven and the sun still hadn't risen.

During my last post I mentioned how birding can be hard work. Birding at Portland Bill is hard work, especially if you are inexperienced, as I am. My plan, for what it was worth, was to just suck it and see, even though it was a long way to go just to do that.

I figured that Dorset was the best option to see a few decent birds, seeing as a long-staying Barred Warbler reappeared the day before, having been caught in the mist nets set up in the shubbery at Culverwell, and also a Subalpine Warbler had been seen a few days earlier, plus there were a couple of early Little Auks and a few Balearic Shearwaters out at sea, and good birds such as Ring Ouzel and Short-eared Owl inland.

If things didn't go well, I planned to drop down to Weymouth and Radipole Lake nature reserve to see the Purple Heron, then on the way back home drop in at Bickerley Meadows, near Ringwood for the Great White Egret and Weatherhill Firs on Salisbury Plain for the showy Red-backed Shrike. It sounded like a good day if any of the birds listed made a show.

Things didn't go too well early on. I set up on the rocks and pointed the scope out to sea, and apart from a load of gulls, Cormorants and a few Gannets, I couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary. nothing scything low across the horizon (I doubt I could say with confidence I would know what I was looking at even if there were). Two small black and white birds (mainly black above with white on the head and white below) flew off from the water with rapid wingbeats low above the waves and eventually out of sight. I couldn't tell what they were. I had hoped they were Little Auks, but now realise they were too big and long. I'm pretty sure they were Guillemots, but I needed someone alongside to confirm that.

I then decided to go for a walk along the coastal path. A smattering of Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails and a lone Wheatear were on the rocks, plus one Stonechat on a fencepost inland. Above my head the notable sighting was of at least 200 Stock Dove flying out to sea, plus a few Swallow still flying around feeding before setting off for Africa.

But they weren't the reason I came here. I walked over to the Portland Bill Observatory and no-one there had seen much either, but one chap mentioned that the Barred Warbler should still be in its usual spot at Culverwell and that Dave was up there looking at the mist nets that had been set up overnight.

He also mentioned that the warbler was difficult to see, being a skulking bird in the dense undergrowth, and that I would need a few hours to hopefully get a brief glimpse. Undeterred I walked up the road and set up with a few other optimists in the faint hope I would see the Barred Warbler.

Dave could be heard fighting his way through the thicket and it wasn't long before he came out with four bags. In them included a Firecrest and two Goldcrests. This was the first time I had seen someone handle mist nest-caught birds, and Dave was an expert. He logged each bird, measured and weighed them.

A Firecrest at Culverwell. It looks like it has attitude and this one did – a feisty little bird
The weighing process is remarkable in as much the birds don't seem to complain. The birds are put head first into a black plastic cylinder, at which point they remain perfectly still. Even when the bird is back in the hand they remain quiet (most of the time – the Firecrest wasn't backwards in having a nip). What is equally remarkable is how small a Firecrest or Goldcrest actually is. In the hand they look so much smaller than when flitting from branch to branch.

Dave went back to trimming the undergrowth on his route back into where the nets were, and I misunderstood what he was doing. It looked as though he was simply doing a bit of clearing near the nets, so I thought I may as well leave at that point.

As I walked down the road towards the Observatory, I heard, then saw, two Raven flying low across the rocks by the sea. A few birders were walking back up the road and as they passed one happened to ask whether I had seen the Barred Warbler. I replied I hadn't. "Well, Dave has got it in the nets," he said. "He says we have five minutes before he lets it go."

Bloody hell! I walked briskly, then ran back up the road. What an idiot. I'm just too impatient. I should have waited.

Fortunately, I had plenty of time. A couple of Goldcrests were measured, weighed and set free before Dave took the Barred Warbler out of the bag for the second time in two days.

The Barred Warbler had been caught in the mist nets for the second successive day
A bigger than average warbler, noticeably when in flight, this Barred Warbler had no bars of note and so was probably a first winter bird. It was fantastic to see it close up.

The Barred Warbler (he calmed very quickly) showing in the hand. Note the heavy bill and lack of bar markings
Since then it has been difficult to see – not that surprising considering it has been in the nets two days in a row.

With Frankel looking likely to run I took the decision to head back via Radipole Lake to see the Purple Heron. When I arrived a chap with a camera was taking photos pointing his camera out of the car park. It transpired the large bird I could see flying off into the distance was the Purple Heron.

Typical. So that was it for the day on the birding front. Frankel was a definite runner at Ascot, and seeing as it was 12 noon and the drive back would take more than two hours, it was time to head north. I had to change into the suit I had brought with me just in case, travel to Bracknell, find the station, catch a train to Ascot (there was no point in driving straight to the course – there would be nowhere to park by then) and at the other end walk up to the course, find the ticket office before entering a racecourse I hadn't been to since its revamp in 2006.

I got to the course in good time, arriving in time to see the preceding two races to the Champion Stakes. The race prior to the big one, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, was won in impressive fashion by Excelebration, a horse Frankel had beaten five times in previous meetings, the last of which at Royal Ascot was by a staggering 11 lengths.

Excelebration wins the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in style
Excelebration being led in after the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes
And so to Frankel. I've been to many race meetings in the past but nothing quite like this. I saw the best horse prior to Frankel, Dancing Brave, win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris back in 1986 and that was a remarkable day – a massive British contingent roared him home that day and the reception he got as he came back passed the stands made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Back in 1986 the great Dancing Brave wins the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
Dancing Brave canters back with Pat Eddery after his victory
But this was different. This was a farewell party for the best horse most regard as the greatest example of the Thoroughbred there has ever been (although the American horse Secretariat back in the 1970s is a serious contender for that title) and one where people just wanted to be at Ascot to say they had witnessed him in action.
The crowds were ten deep in the pre-parade ring, full to the rafters in the paddock and the 32,000-plus crowd filled the grandstands sardine-tight.
Frankel is led to the paddock
Frankel goes to post in front of the grandstand
Taking it nice and steady
Wherever he went the crowd thronged and cheered, waved their Frankel flags – it was like the Jubilee celebrations – and he hadn't won the race yet. He would face two very good rivals, possiblyhis  toughest task yet – particularly with the conditions underfoot.

Cirrus Des Aigles had won both his starts in France this year very impressively, the most recent, the Prix Dollar, was on heavy ground. Many believe he would have won the Arc this year if he had been permitted to run (he is a gelding so not eligible). The other rival, Nathaniel, had won last season's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot and the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown in July.

In the end we needn't have worried. Entering the straight he cruised passed Nathaniel and then Cirrus Des Aigles to take up the lead and while he had to be kept up to his work the result was never in doubt. He won handily by a length and a half. The crowd went mad and the flags waved.

Frankel takes the lead
And receives a well-earned pat after win no.14
From then on it was celebration time. Tom Queally took Frankel down alongside the grandstand and paraded this magnificent horse for all to see. He wrapped his arms round the horse's neck as though he didn't want to let go of the moment.

Time to celebrate
Walking back to the winners enclosure, the flash bulbs went off, the crowd roared their approval. Through all of this, both before, during and after, Frankel didn't bat an eyelid – the coolest one at the course.

In the winners' enclosure three cheers rang out both for the horse and Sir Henry Cecil. Then the horse was walked around the paddock twice and everyone present, including other trainers and owners, gave him a round of applause. Then Coldplay boomed out of the PA accompanied by a video on the big screens of Frankel in action during his fantastic career. There was not a dry eye in the house.

What an afternoon! Once Frankel was walked back to the stables, it was all over and I could say I had been there on another extraordinary day of sport in 2012.

Back on the birding front (remember that!), I discovered that a Subalpine Warbler had been found on the Bill a couple of hours after I'd left – it was probably the same one that had been seen earlier in the week. Also the Red-backed Shrike near Salisbury was showing well as was the Great White Egret at Ringwood. 

You can't win them all. 

Friday 19 October 2012


I haven't watched it yet, but after a long search and failing via Blockbusters and the local library I have finally caught up with a film I have longed to see. Man On Wire is about Philippe Petit's illegal tight-rope walk across the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 1974. The film won an Oscar for best documentary film in 2008. I've downloaded it on iPlayer, having missed it on BBC recently. I can't wait.

A Man on Wire is an appropriate way to describe some men who are passionate birders. Birding is one of those pastimes that can become all-consuming. Depending on the personality of an individual, there is the potential for a passionate birder to become obsessive, to the point where reasonable behaviour will fly out of the window.

Birding can be a glorious, uplifting way to spend a day, but it can be incredibly taxing too. To my mind it is always hard work. Hard work rewards those that put the effort in, but that is never a guarantee.

It doesn't matter how experienced, knowledgeable or dedicated you are, the potential is always there to screw up. There is a dark side to birding. A side that can break people. And that is a place I don't want to visit.

Inevitably, some will visit that place, and they will struggle to come back from it.

I was at Staines Reservoir on September 24th and bumped into Ken Purdey (who is, thankfully, one of the most level-headed birders I know) on what was a very quiet afternoon. Nothing much was happening at all, so I asked him if there was one bird from his wish-list he would like to see fly over Staines Reservoir on any given day, what would it be? What bird would really make his birding year?

Without hesitation he said: "A Long-tailed Skua."

I have these sort of conversations with people all the time and invariably something coincidental will follow shortly afterwards. Earlier in the spring I was talking with David Campbell at Canons Farm about pretty much the same topic, and we both agreed a Dotterel would be amazing to see. A few days later, 15 dropped in on the Canons Farm patch. I was at work so I missed them – they were gone before the next morning – but plenty of people did see them, including David and many of the south-east's best known birders. One, Johnny Allan – one of the infamous Beddington crew and host of the excellent Dip or Glory blog – videoed the scene for prosterity.

As events have unfolded in recent weeks I can only surmise that a Long-tailed Skua was also on Johnny Allan's wish-list too, because unbelievably, the very next day after my chat with Ken a Long-tailed Skua was seen flying over Beddington Sewage Works. Peter 'Pinpoint' Alfrey saw it (predictably) and took photos from his 'Obs' (bedroom window). As the hundreds of gulls on the lake and the landfill took flight, he put the word out to Johnny, who was down in the hide by the main lake.

In all the commotion he couldn't see the Long-tailed Skua. It would have only been by seconds, but he missed it. Johnny is one of the best-known birders in Britain, totally dedicated to his patch and to Surrey birding – he would have been waiting a long time to see a skua like this.

He, like many passionate birders, lives on a birding tight-rope – and on this day in late September he lost his balance and fell.

Most of the information I have of what happened next is sketchy at best. But it appears that for Johnny this was a dip too far. He just upped and left and has cut himself off from the outside world and disappeared (probably to Norfolk, from what I've heard). He closed down his blog the same day, removed himself from Facebook and the Surrey Bird Club, didn't return calls and there is the prospect that he may never return. In time, hopefully, he will make contact his Beddington birding mates.

For me this was a warning sign. If you get too serious about this hobby, particularly if you are a twitcher or an ardent patch watcher, it will screw with your head. It isn't worth the anguish. Birds are unpredictable sentient beings with a mind of their own that you cannot control and once you accept that, you may find peace. It's a long-shot, though.

Talking of twitching, since my twitching day at the beginning of the month I've had two more dips. Both were at Rainham Marshes. The first was a Sabine's Gull a couple of weeks ago during mid-week stormy weather. I was there when it was seen fleetingly, but I was in the wrong place and the weather was such that focusing on birds flying up and down the River Thames was nigh-on impossible. A pretty miserable experience.

The second dip happened on Monday. This time a Glossy Ibis had dropped in during the morning, but had flown off by the time I'd got there. My twitching strike-rate has dropped further to around 35 per cent. Not good.

A Barn Owl flies from a half-dead Ash tree at Holmethorpe
A Little Owl perches on the same tree

The week wasn't all bad. Local birders Gordon Hay and Graham James had been told by a local about a Barn Owl that had been seen flying out of a half-dead Ash tree as the sun set and then seen flying over some corn fields just south of Mercers Farm. They staked out the tree and low and behold the owl flew out as the sun set and set to work hunting in the corn fields.

I went along last Tuesday and as it was getting dark I saw the Barn Owl quartering the wheat field. I went back on Friday and this time managed to see it come out of the tree trunk and fly off hunting again. A couple of Little Owls were also out and about.

A Ring Ouzel at Canons Farm – a welcome sight as the autumn migration draws to a close
This past week has also been notable for the huge movement of Ring Ouzels across the country. In Kent on Saturday, for example, more than 100 of them were seen at St Margaret's at Cliffe, South Foreland. Sure enough, at Canons Farm, near Banstead, where at least six dropped in during the spring, another four turned up on the return journey – a first autumn sighting for the farm.

Another two also made a pit stop at Staines Moor, where I saw a very handsome male earlier in the year. While work took priority, I just had to go to Canons Farm to see another one of my favourite birds before the migration season ends. Predictably, I bumped into David when I arrived late on Thursday afternoon, and he pointed out the area where I was likely to see the remaining male.

It didn't take long to find it, the Ring Ouzel was mobile and audible, and flying around the trees close to the playing fields next to the Legal & General offices, before flying over to the derelict barn to the north, where it apparently likes to roost. Ring Ouzels are such brilliant birds. They never let you down.

Monday 1 October 2012


I had a twitching day on Saturday and went further to see a bird than I've ever done before. OK, so it wasn't like going to the Orkneys by car in a day but for me it was a long way.

I set off early and decided to go for the Short-billed Dowitcher at Lodmoor. Not sure why really, probably only because it is very rare. Whatever the reason I got to the reserve in two and a half hours, having had to take a slight detour because the A31 was closed – or at least that's what the Sat-Nav told me.

I had forgotten what a pretty county Dorset is, especially as the sun comes up on a beautiful morning, although I didn't have much time to look at the scenery as I had, as always, a tight schedule.

Lodmoor is a very straight-forward reserve to negotiate and the Short-billed Dowitcher was an incredibly easy bird to find. Admittedly, a fellow birder was on hand to suggest the bird had flown to an area I was looking at, and sure enough within a couple of minutes it appeared. It was very close and happily feeding and preening away on its own just twenty metres away.

That is the nature of twitching. The Baillon's Crake took me 11 hours to see, whereas this Short-billed Dowitcher took less than five minutes.

First thing to point out is how small it is – about a third of the size of a Black-tailed Godwit, with a long, pronounced beak like a Snipe. Actually it's not too dissimilar to a Snipe, and in among the Godwits it was easy to pick out.

Nailing the id on some of these unusual waders is pretty difficult in my book. Some of the subtleties of plumage are nigh-on impossible at long distances. It makes me wonder (in awe actually) how anyone could detect that this is a Short-billed rather than its cousin the Long-billed. Very difficult to separate in the field, but there are some amazingly astute birders out there who know about this kind of thing. Way above my level, that is for sure.

The Short-billed Dowitcher made an early appearance...
...and enjoyed preening in the early morning sunshine
After a quick feed...
...the Short-billed Dowitcher went for a nap
After a few minutes, the Dowitcher stopped feeding and fell asleep. It seemed an opportune moment to head off for my next port of call.

Portland Bill was next up, and I wasn't sure what I was going to find when I got there. I hadn't been to the Bill since I was a kid – I watched the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes powerboat race from there when I was about 12, when on holiday with my parents.

It is a fabulous place. The view of the sea is panoramic and there were birds everywhere, mainly hundreds of Meadow Pipits and Linnets, but also plenty of Wheatears on the rocks, and Gannets out at sea (unfortunately I didn't spot any Shearwaters). Also three Ravens were noticeably vocal.

A Wheatear at Portland Bill
 I was hoping for something unusual – but nothing was forthcoming, so after an hour and a half I left. As I drove up the road, I noticed three birders walking towards me from a footpath. I stopped to ask if they had seen anything, and luckily, the Red-backed Shrike recorded the day before was still in the same place. I parked up, and walked along a hedgerow to join a couple of birders who were watching the Shrike down in the valley at Southwell.

A very distant female Red-backed Shrike at Portland Bill
It wasn't close by – easily 400 metres or more away – but it was clearly a female Red-backed Shrike, perched in bushes close to a row of houses and a white cat asleep on the grass.

A really good find, and one I wasn't expecting.

Another two-hour drive came up next. Slimbridge was the next destination in the hope of seeing the other version of the Dowitcher, the Long-billed, on the same day.

Slimbridge is similar to the London Wetland Centre in that it caters for everyone – from families looking for a day out with the kids to hard-nosed birders looking for a rarity or two. The place is always packed at weekends during the summer months, but from a birding point of view it is too Disneyworld for my taste. That's just an observation of what I prefer from a reserve. There is no doubting Slimbridge is brilliant for wildlife awareness and it is a fantastic PR success but I prefer a more natural reserve like Rainham, where all the birds are wild and there are fewer screaming kids. The one good thing about Slimbridge, however, is it doesn't take long to walk to the different hides. Which was just as well, as I couldn't stay long.

As well as the Dowitcher I was also hoping to see the the Red-necked Phalarope that had been at the Reserve for a few days. I drew a blank on both counts.

The Dowitcher had been seen on both the South Lake and in front of the Zeiss Hide during the morning, but a Buzzard came over and put everything up in the air, and from that point on the Dowitcher was out of sight. It hasn't been seen since.

I met a very helpful birder in the South Lake hide who showed me the way to the Holden Hide where the Phalarope had been seen on the Severn Estuary during the morning.

Birding is a remarkably small world. You bump into people you know in some of the most unlikely places.

I discovered that this helpful and knowledgeable birder, Trevor Jones, came from Birmingham and that his son had gone to see the Baillon's Crake on the same morning I went for it the first time on the Sunday. By sheer coincidence, I arrived at Rainham at the same time as his son Tim and his mates, and walked to the hide with them in the dark that morning.

As we walked into the Holden Hide, I instantly recognised three faces. The Tice's Meadow massive of Rich Horton, Rich Sergeant and Dave Brown had all gone to Slimbridge with the same idea as me and at the same time. WTF!

They had all seen the Dowitcher but dipped the Phalarope that had flown down river after the tide had gone out. The only highlight here was Whinchat on a fence.

Plenty of sleeping waders and wildfowl, plus one Spotted Redshank
Back at the Zeiss Hide, the highlight was a sleeping Spotted Redshank and a Knot.

And that was it for the afternoon at Slimbridge. As with the majority of long-distance twitches, it had been 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent satisfaction, which is why I'm reluctant to travel more than 50-60 miles to see a bird.

Later in the afternoon a message flashed up on Rare Bird Alert that two Wilson's Phalaropes had been seen again for the second time at Newport Wetlands. Seeing as I was in the area and while the sun was still up I decided to go for a look, rather than travel to Wiltshire for the Great White Egret, or Somerset for the Lesser Yellowlegs, as they were both a bit further away and there was the danger it would be dark by the time I found them.

The walk along the Salt Marshes and the sea wall at Newport to the hide was arduous after a long day. And there was no Wilson's Phalarope at the end of it. In fact, it was abundantly clear there never had been one, let alone two. An inexperienced birder must clearly have misidentified two Spotted Redshank for two Wilson's Phalaropes.

A distant Spotted Redshank doing its best to impersonate a Wilson's Phalarope
From a distance they could, at a push, be confused, but this is always a danger when chasing birds that sound too good to be true. I must learn from this.

Part of the lure of a twitch is the anticipation, follow by relief once you've seen the bird you have targeted. After that you can actually start to enjoy the experience, but that emotion is shorter than the previous two emotions combined. So, one has to decide whether it is worth the brief moment of satisfaction compared to the stress beforehand.

My success-dip percentage this year works out at 40 per cent success to 60 per cent dip. So I'm more likely not to have an enjoyable experience six times out of ten twitches. Doesn't sound like much fun, then does it?

Despite that, I will no doubt be tempted again to try for something unusual – because the chase is always intoxicating, even after a round-rip of more than 400 miles.