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.

Tuesday 18 December 2012


I had the luxury of a day off today and took full advantage of it. The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll on the coast at Aldeburgh in Suffolk has been happily feeding away within a few feet of all who have gone to see it this past ten days of so, and because it is a very rare visitor to the British mainland – there would be few opportunities to see one in future – I took a chance and went for the twitch.

Shetland is a good stamping ground for them but I'm not likely to visit the islands in the near future, so there was nothing for it but to go on the relatively long journey.

I was a bit concerned that the clear skies overnight might encourage it to make tracks after such a long stay, and there was no information coming out during the morning to suggest it was still present, but I went for it anyway.

Two and a half hours later I was in Aldeburgh but not sure where to go. I started out to the north of the town but this was clearly not right. One bonus was seeing about 300 Barnacle Goose feeding in the wetland area inland from the beach but that wasn't why I was here.

Eventually, having asked someone I found the right place south of the town opposite a boat yard. There were about 20 birders up to the seafront and they were clearly watching the Redpoll. At least now I could relax.

The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was yet another confiding rare bird
The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was yet another rare bird indifferent to the company of humans. This was mightily convenient as it meant it could be viewed at leisure within a few feet.

Along this long strip of shingle beach this striking bird wasn't hard to miss. Considerably larger than a Lesser or Common Redpoll, and often described as a 'snowball', it was a plump, pale bird with a white rump and faint streaking. It was eagerly feeding on the vegetation just a few feet away from the footpath.

The Redpoll got up close and personal
While I was there a young woman turned up with a video camera and introduced herself as Laura Burns from Anglia TV. She was putting together a piece about the Redpoll for the local news that night. Garry Bagnell wasn't available so I stood in for him – it's a tough job but someone has to do it...

If you go to the Anglia TV website (http://www.itv.com/news/anglia/) you will see me being interviewed (brief footage of a tired-looking old sod, so don't get too excited. It's been a long few months and it had been an early start).

Shortly afterwards, the Hornemann's decided to fly off down the beach before turning round and heading off over the boat yard, where it dropped down out of site. I'd timed my visit well.

So that was the Hornemann's. Well worth the journey.

On the way back I went to Chenies in Buckinghamshire, where Lee Evans had posted that a Great White Egret had returned. While the viewing was in complete contrast to the Redpoll – it was about 400 yards away and behind trees for much of the time – I did at least get to see the Great White Egret wading along the river in the Chess Valley.

Great White Egret on the river in Chess valley

By this time it was 2.30pm and the light was already beginning to drop. With little time left I set off for Staines Moor, which was only a slight detour from the journey home. The plan here was to see the Short-eared Owls that Lee Dingain has featured on his blog and have been seen regularly on the Moor for the past few of weeks.

Lee mentioned they favoured the east side and as soon as I walked on to the Moor from the southern end I saw one quartering in the distance. As I walked closer two more Short-eared Owls flew up from the deck and I was treated to an excellent sky dance from them.

Unlike the Papercourt Short-eareds, these were less showy and disappeared for long periods but there were plenty of Crows around and one Owl that had caught a rodent was hassled for some time before it could concentrate on its meal.

Staines Moor Short-eared Owl
I was lucky as I walked back to find one perched up on a small tree, and so I had great views as it stared at me and I stared at him for a few minutes. Great stuff.

As the light faded I flushed a Water Pipit on the river bank that kept a discreet distance at all times from then on.

All in all, it was job done. A very good day.

Monday 17 December 2012


A couple of weeks have past since visiting Thursley Common and since then a couple of rarities have set the birding community's pulses racing. One is a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll – an extremely confiding individual and only the second British mainland sighting of this species (the first appeared in Norfolk a few weeks back) – that appeared on the coast at Aldeburgh in Suffolk on December 8. At the time of writing it is still present and if it sticks tomorrow (my first proper day off for a fortnight) I'm tempted to travel to see it.

The second exciting discovery occurred closer to home at the Queen Mother Reservoir in Berkshire this past week. An American Buff-bellied Pipit was discovered on Thursday feeding on the banks of the reservoir, and it wasn't long before every birder and his dog had been to see it – apart from me, that is. I couldn't go over to the reservoir on Thursday or Friday due to work commitments but despite working yesterday I found time first thing to travel up the M25 for the twitch.

I read there were strict orders to arrive after 9am to gain a permit – the one good thing about birding at this time of year is you don't have to get up early – as the reservoir is private property and on a normal day only the local yacht club and a select band of birders are permited to access the site.

Fortunately, due to the predicted interest in this very rare American vagrant, the Berkshire Ornithological Club set up access to the reservoir for eager birders, with permits given out for a £2 fee. They did a fine job.

The Buff-bellied Pipit attracted many admirers
It was all very straightforward. Once I confirmed via Rare Bird Alert that the Pipit was still present, I drove up the motorway for 40 minutes, queued up in the car park to sign the papers at the entrance, parked up by the yacht club and walked the 15 minutes along the east bank of the reservoir to the throng of birders staring at it.

The Buff-bellied Pipit came to within a few feet of its spectators
The American Buff-bellied Pipit was remarkably easy to view. It simply scuttled along the bank of the reservoir feeding as it went and skipped by to within a few feet. In the same way the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll has been reported and as Desert Wheatears tend to behave in general, this rare vagrant didn't regard humans as predators so would virtually walk up to you without hesitation. The only time the Pipit looked remotely concerned with this large congregation of birdwatchers was when someone coughed. It fluttered off the ground slightly for a split-second and then carried on feeding.

It wasn't quite as engaging as the Desert Wheatear at Worthing last month, but it still made a pleasant change from trudging for miles to see some speck in the distance that might fly off at any moment. I only had an hour and a half to spare before I had to head back to Redhill to get the train for work at Racing Post, so this was just as well.

I have to admit at this point if it wasn't for the fact I knew it was there and at least 100 other birders had migrated to the same place and it was so tame I could have fed it, it is entirely likely I could have passed it off as a Meadow or Rock Pipit in other circumstances.

It proves how good some birders are at observation and identifying bird species and also how I much I have to learn.

The Long-tailed Duck at the Queen Mother Reservoir
While the Pipit was entertaining the crowds, I also spent some time viewing the Long-tailed Duck that has been at the reservoir for some weeks now. The Red-necked Grebe was also present but at the furthest possible distance away to get a decent sighting.

So an easy twitch to start the weekend. Next stop is, all being well, Suffolk on Tuesday.

Footnote: Next week – the 2012 Randon's Ramblings Birding Awards

Monday 3 December 2012


November is always traditionally my busiest time of the year – a number of deadline-based jobs need to be completed at the same time during the month, so there's plenty of 16-hour days, but then at the end of it there's immense relief that all went OK. Hence, no birding for nearly four weeks.

When December arrives I've more time to venture out and so it was on Saturday. It was a crisp, inviting morning, but having not had much sleep lately I wasn't going to rush, so I hit the M25 at about 9.30am.

My destination was Thursley Common. I'd heard through Doug and Penny Boyd that Dartford Warblers had made a welcome return to the Common after the fire that ravaged the habitat in 2006. At least seven have been seen since August so it was a good time to see them for myself.

It was a good visit. The first good sightings were two Peregrine Falcons flying west, and later a ringtail Hen Harrier (155) flew west over the Common. After a bit of a search, I eventually caught up with three vocal and showy Dartford Warblers.

They are currently located in two areas of the Common, the majority are to the north-east near  Ockley Common, with the others by South Bog to the south of Shrike Hill. The hope is they survive the winter and flourish next year – it's been a good start.

The other motive for travelling to Thursley was to catch up with a Great Grey Shrike. A favourite species of mine, the Great Grey Shrike is a regular visitor to Thursley during the winter months and will often stay as late as April, at about the same time the Common Redstarts arrive for the summer.

The Thursley Common Great Grey Shrike strikes a pose
A handsome individual
Having walked a complete circuit of the Common and drawn a blank, a number of birders I bumped into had heard that, while mobile, it had been seen close to the tumulus to the east of the Common, where I had been about 40 minutes earlier. I headed back that way, and a local birder pointed out where it was. The Great Grey Shrike was being hassled by a Jay and flew to a half-dead birch where it stayed for at least 15 minutes giving excellent views.

A very smart individual, it is thought there may be two Shrikes in the area, similar to last winter.