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, 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.

1 comment:

  1. Just popped in. Please continue to write as the uninformed for the uninformed even if, it's clear to me, you know so much already. I'm not a twitcher but I'm interested in looking at and photographing birds. Great blog. Have you heard of Blipfoto.com? It's just as obsessive and let's you post daily pics. Find me at Donkin Life if you're just a tad interested.