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 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. 

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