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.

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.


  1. An excellent post Neil. Glad you caught up with the Rouzel at Canons, great birds, one of my favs too.

  2. Johnny Allan is a guy who has spent a lifetime making claims to great strength, true grit and an unbreakable iron will , to my knowledge he has provided no evidence to possessing any of these.

    By packing in his patching after an unfavourable result, he only shows that he is willing to afford himself a mercy from the harsher side of birding, the mercy he never offered to his own children, who essentially, had to live the harsh side of birding through his selfish and absent style of parenting.
    He has awarded himself the easiest path in life for him and his twitching whilst simultaneously handed his own kids the hardest path.

    If you can't stand the heat of the thoroughly absurd experience of a "big dip" then you shouldn't have set foot in that kitchen in the first place.

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