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.

Wednesday 27 March 2013


The sun actually came out for a few hours on and off today and since I will be focusing on work, Annie's birthday and the Easter break for the next week, it was the last chance to venture out for a few days.

The central low group of bushes is TQ035517 – this is the area where the Ring Ouzel is often seen, as well as in a horse paddock behind it
Another opportunity to see the male Ring Ouzel half an hour up the road at Clandon Park was too tempting to ignore so, with plenty of sheep for company, I walked up to the same spot at TQ035517 to see if it was still around.

Company on the walk
It took even longer to find than yesterday, but being a bit dim I didn't think to look over the fence behind the small row of trees and bushes into the horse paddock behind, where I found the Ring Ouzel feeding with a couple of Blackbirds and a Redwing. Within a few seconds it flew off into the bushes. I think this Ouzel recognised me from the day before as it was giving me the 'chack, chack, chack' alarm call constantly from there on in.

The male Ring Ouzel kept a close eye on me
For the next 40 minutes or so the Ring Ouzel was quite mobile – it was clearly wary of me. It flew high up into a tree before flying way off on to the top of a pine before a raptor put all the corvids up into the air and it flew north into another copse.

The Ring Ouzel on look-out
There was little point on terrorising the little blighter any further so I left for Surrey's patch of the moment – Tice's Meadow.

Tice's Meadow
I hadn't visited this remarkable patch for about two years. The wetland area has had a amazing few weeks. Nowhere else in Surrey has a better record than this relatively small landlocked area. It has had Bewick's Swan, Gannet, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Black-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Little Ringed Plover and Wheatear to name but a few. A remarkable oasis in the middle of the home counties.

Two Black-tailed Godwit at Tice's Meadow
A pair of Pintail at Tice's Meadow
I met up with Rich Horton – Tice's MD – and he kindly pointed out two Black-tailed Godwit happily feeding. He also found one of two pairs of Pintail for me. It was a really brief visit, I had other duties to attend to, but I will be back – as someone once said.

Tuesday 26 March 2013


What a shock to the system. I feel for those people in the northern reaches Britain under a ton of snow. It's is unbelievable how cold and miserable it is. It gets into your bones – it even puts me off going out when I get the chance to find some early (or delayed) migrants.

You have to feel for the birds too. Boy, have they been in for a surprise. Many have visibly delayed the crossing, waiting for it to warm up a bit, but their migrating instinct is strong and many have arrived only to be confronted by terrible conditions when in desperate need of nourishment.

The story of the Puffins on the north-east coast dying in their hundreds, probably from starvation, is tragic, and there must be many other species struggling to survive. It has been noticeable how quiet it is as you walk around the countryside at the moment. Deathly quiet. The birds are too intent on clenching their bills in the cold than trying to sing.

Dodgy record shot of the male Wheatear at Canons Farm last week
There have been many noticeable absentees on the local patch. Not one Sand Martin yet, for example, when we should have seen plenty by now. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are mute (I haven't seen either as yet) but there has been a male Wheatear up the road at Canons Farm I went to see last week, along with the resident Barn Owl.

The highlight of the spring for me so far, however, has been the sight of an early male Ring Ouzel at Clandon Park, near Guildford today. Local Guildford birder Steve Castell found it yesterday and with the help of Matt Phelps (@SurreyBirdNews) – who announced it on Twitter and then found out its exact location for me – I went to Merrow Common and walked along the footpath towards Clandon Park for an attempted twitch this afternoon.

I didn't hold out much hope when I found the right spot. The area is quite open and I couldn't see any sign of the Ouzel. The thick hedgerow and small trees along the fence line looked the most likely place to see it but I only found a small flock of Fieldfares at first.

After about 45 minutes walking up and down the path I was about to give up when a flock of Starlings flew out of a small tree, followed by the flock of Fieldfares and a handful of Redwings. Still in the tree, however, was one Redwing and another slightly larger black bird. And there it was – the male Ring Ouzel.

First view of the male Ring Ouzel - lucky to spot it!
I kept a discreet distance as Ring Ouzels are nervous birds at the best of times, and this one had already clocked me. It had the Redwing for company for a while before it moved down the fence line. It was a chatty individual, breaking out into its distinctive 'chack', 'chack', 'chack' call on occasions – probably for my benefit – and I was able to watch it for a good 45 minutes before leaving.

The male Ring Ouzel with Redwing
It was really good to have seen one this soon – I usually have to wait until David Campbell announces the first sightings of one or two at Canons Farm in early April.

Wednesday 20 March 2013


I stole the mother ship line from Steve Gale's blog. It's such a great description of the flock of Hawfinch at Juniper Bottom near Mickleham I had to use it (apologies Steve for the plagiarism)!

While spring has struggled to splutter into life and having watched more than 50 Hawfinch two weeks ago along the bridle way near Box Hill, I couldn't resist going back a couple of times last week. The Hawfinch were very mobile, as always, and split up into small groups, but Steve's mother ship flock were always close by.

The most I managed to roughly count was about 80 birds on Saturday at around 1pm. Opinions vary on their origin. A keen Hawfinch observer from Essex I met on Saturday (I've forgotten his name though) reckoned they came over from the continent. Others think it possible they have been here all winter. Wherever they are from, these Hawfinch are enigmatic to the last.

They follow a certain pattern of behaviour. They settle in the trees early before flying off for about an hour then return in small groups, followed soon after by the Steve Gale mother ship flock. On Thursday, for example, some later perched high in a beech tree while most disappeared to ground, most likely to feed. A few popped back up into view and they could be clearly seen wiping their bills clean on the branches.

Hawfinch on Thursday morning
Two of around 50 Hawfinch along Juniper Bottom on Thursday morning
Two of around 80 Hawfinch along Juniper Bottom on Saturday morning
On Saturday the flock stuck around until 1.15pm before heading off somewhere, never to be seen for the rest of the afternoon. I've been lucky to have seen these mysterious finches three times now. A wonderful sight.

Marsh Tit at Juniper Bottom
Distant view of the Red-throated Diver on the north basin at Staines Reservoir
Marsh Tit was added to my year list here – Juniper Bottom is an ideal spot for them – and then yesterday evening I travelled to Staines Reservoir where I met up with local birder Adrian Luscombe, who kindly helped me locate the Red-throated Diver, seen close by the Great Northern Diver on the north basin, a pair of Common Scoter on the south basin and also two Little Ringed Plover feeding on the west bank edge of the south basin.

Spring officially arrives this weekend, and hopefully so will a few Wheatear. Canons Farm has had one handsome male drop in during the past week. Shouldn't be too long either before a few Ring Ouzel turn up along with the usual migrant suspects.

Monday 11 March 2013


I was on mother-in-law and work duties all weekend so no chance to go out gathering birds for the year list. As is the norm, the moment I am otherwise occupied the birds come flooding in all over the place.

As counties go, Surrey is hard work for unusual sightings, but now and again something unusual will crop up.

And so it was this weekend. The story starts with Sutton-based naturalist Steve Gale, out on a walk through one of his regular patches along Juniper Bottom – near Mickleham, just north of Box Hill – looking for plants, when a flock of 12 Hawfinch flew over at about 10.30am.

That in itself is a remarkable number for the area, because Bookham Common, the best-known site in Surrey for Hawfinch, has had only one regular visitor this winter.

So 12 was a head-turning figure. David Campbell then took up the running on Sunday morning with a couple of friends.

What they saw was remarkable. Two flocks of at least 60 and 40 birds respectively, and possibly as many as 130 Hawfinch in all. 130! And more than 50 were viewable, perched up in trees along the path.

As figures go, 130 is the largest number of these elusive finches seen within the London recording area for 70 years. Truly amazing. The general view is these birds have probably wintered here, but because so few people patrol the Juniper Bottom area for birds they have been overlooked. One of Surrey birding's lost worlds.

Needless to say, birders arrived in droves today, although when I got there at 8.30 this morning in a blizzard, only Sean Foote from Tices Meadow was present on the search. He had 60 fly out of a bank of Yew trees about an hour earlier, and he'd seen a few in the trees but it was mostly birds calling he could detect rather than any decent views of them perched.

It was quiet for a good 40 minutes as the wind blew and the snow swirled around the trees before a few Hawfinch started flying back to our vantage point. They were spread out in groups of a dozen to just a handful, and they were heading north, south, east and west.

Three of the 40-odd Hawfinch along Juniper Bottom this morning
A small group landed high up in the firs but most were in flight or very hard to see through the woods. I saw about 40 in all, but it was hard to say exactly how many. It could have been more.

After about 20 minutes it all went quiet again. More people arrived as I left. The car park normally only has Steve Gale's car parked in it, but it was now completely congested. I don't think latecomers had any luck seeing the birds as they seem to disappear for the afternoon, no doubt to a popular feeding site.

The best to time to witness this phenomenon is early in the morning. Park at Whitehill car park along Headley Lane, and walk up along the bridle path for a good 500 yards until you come to some tall conifers just before a clearing of chopped-down ash trees. Just listen out for them calling and keep your eyes peeled.

I'm going back first thing tomorrow.

Thursday 7 March 2013


Winter just won't quite leave, will it? Its death throws are like those of a bad actor.

If this was an astrology blog, which thankfully it isn't, I would be describing this time of year as on the cusp. It's neither one thing or the other. We've had one glorious day this week, but rain is forecast and the cold snap is due to return next week. Tiresome.

Tuesday was an exception to that particular rule. So I spent the morning making the most of it.

Birding currently is like the weather. It's also neither one thing or the other. The winter migrants are on the verge of flying to their breeding grounds, while our spring visitors are contemplating arriving here. But not quite yet.

It's a time to catch up with some species missing off the Surrey year list – predictably I've ended up doing one when I originally stated I wouldn't. As lists go, however, this one won't be mind-blowing, nor will I be hell-bent in keeping up with previous years. If that were the case I would have already chased over to Tices Meadow for a Black-tailed Godwit, Water Rail and Jack Snipe and to Barnes for a Bearded Tit and Pintail. I really can't be bothered to do that. I'd like to go to Tices at some point but I should really concentrate on my two patches over on this side of Surrey, neither of which I have paid enough attention to in recent weeks.

I have a British year list, but that is only 15 ahead of my Surrey year list. I look at other people's lists and wonder how they have enough time to see all these birds. Lee Evans, for example, is already on 215 British birds for the year, which is 95 ahead of me. But I'm happy with what I have seen so far.

Cutt Mill Ponds is one of the best places in Surrey for Mandarin
Prior to visiting Thursley Common on Tuesday morning I popped in at Cutt Mill Ponds, where I saw five Mandarin, plus a handsome Kingfisher fly on to a branch by the side of the road as I was about to drive past. No Goosander, but a nice opener nonetheless.

At Crooksbury Common, where 11 Crossbill had been seen a few days earlier, none were present while I was there, just a few Woodlark. Last year a lone Dartford Warbler was a constant presence, but it either perished due to the cold snap or got bored waiting for a mate to arrive and travelled the short distance to Thursley Common where plenty of potential partners have taken residence.

Early morning at Thursley Common
At Thursley itself, the Great Grey Shrike was happily hunting for food in the sunshine in one of its usual spots – where it's hardest to walk to – at the far eastern end on Ockley Common. I've been lucky with the Shrike this winter. With each visit – four in all – I've located the Shrike every time, which is in stark contrast to my first attempts a few years ago. Whether it means I've actually developed a touch of birding craft during these past few years, who knows.

The Great Grey Shrike was busy hunting in the warm sunshine
Thursley was a really pleasant place to visit on Tuesday morning. There were plenty of Woodlark and Skylark singing, plus the distinctive call of a Curlew, one of the pair that regularly breed here during the spring announcing its return to the site. I'd hoped to see a Dartford Warbler – there are a few dotted around the Common – but I didn't even hear one call, which was a surprise given how warm it was.

Skylark song was a feature around the Common
Thursley Common's Curlews are back
Of the birds I should have seen by now in Surrey this year there are a handful of omissions. The most glaring one is Lesser Redpoll. I'm not sure why that is. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is due soon, hopefully at Canons Farm, while Crossbill have been few and far between anywhere – just two sightings reported so far, at Crooksbury and Chobham Commons this week.

I've sort of given up on Jack Snipe for now. At least we've got another winter spell (whoopee-do!) at the end of the year for me to have another go.

Another bird I've yet to see is a Water Rail. Last year I had a reliable place on my local patch at Holmethorpe I could regular see one or two, but due to the heavy rain this winter, the Redhill Brook opposite Mercer's Lake has been flowing too fast for these secretive crakes. I ought to give the area a proper walk – something I have neglected to do for quite a few weeks.

Of the early spring arrivals, none yet has appeared in the county but the odd Sand Martin and Wheatear have been seen elsewhere.

In a couple of weeks from now, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers will be singing,  Wheatear will be the buzz word, as will Sand Martin, Little Ringed Plover, Little Gull (at Staines Reservoir) and maybe if we're looking up at the sky at the right time, an early flyover Osprey. That'd be good.

For me the bird I look forward to seeing most in about a month's time is a Ring Ouzel. That's when I know spring really is in full swing.

Monday 4 March 2013


Twitching. A guilty pleasure. I did plenty of it on Saturday and for once all targets proved to be successful. I've come to the conclusion twitching relies little on skill. I saw plenty of good birds on Saturday but skill never entered the equation.

Skillful birders can find birds they aren't necessarily looking for. Gordon Hay at Holmethorpe is a good example of that. He finds fantastic birds just by peering through his bins for them. The Beddington crew are equally good. They look up into the sky at the right time, a bird flies past, and they know instantly what it is.

Twitching is all about driving for miles, pointing the scope in the right direction, then waiting, seeing or dipping. That's it in a nutshell. When it comes off it's great, but when it doesn't it is utterly crap. Truly miserable. Twitching is an emotional response to birding. The quick fix or the crashing low. Take your pick.

It also relies heavily on knowledge of a site. If you know the area a bird has been seen, it's usually relatively easy to find the right place to view. If you don't, you might spend hours wandering around without a hope in hell of locating the bird. I do this a lot. On a twitch I rely heavily on locating birders before I see a bird.

On Saturday I had three targets, in no particular order.

A couple of weeks ago I had wanted to see the Penduline Tit at Stodmarsh Nature Reserve, near Canterbury in Kent, but all hopes of escaping weekend domestic chores came to nothing. It meant the opportunity to see this rare reed mace-ripper would be apparently futile, as predictably the bird went missing soon after, presumed to have flown off to pastures new. But on Friday someone had seen it again. Target one.

A week ago Dominic Mitchell took a group on a Gull ID event at Rainham Marshes with gull expert Klaus Malling Olsen, when at the end of the session he spotted a male Hen Harrier flying over the silt lagoons at the end of Coldharbour Lane. It has been seen regularly since. Target two.

Next door to the reserve at Rainham on the river – happily skipping over the rocks and feeding within the detritus swept up on to the edges of the sea wall – three Black Redstarts, one male and two females, have stayed put for more than a week. Target three.

I went over to the area on Tuesday but had no luck with the Redstarts or the Hen Harrier but not having a clear idea where to look somewhat hindered any hope of seeing either.

So on Saturday I planned to make amends. Setting off at sunrise I knew where to look for the Black Redstarts and had a decent idea of where to expect the Hen Harrier. On a cloudy day, I parked up along Ferry Lane, walked up to the sea wall where I met up with local birder Marco, and looked out on to the rocky coastline, where I immediately spotted the male Black Redstart. A really handsome individual, the Black Redstart was a great start to the morning. I couldn't find the two females, but a Grey Wagtail kept the Redstart company, as did a Brown Rat. Also on the edge of the river at low tide were plenty of Redshank, Shelduck, a couple of Oystercatcher, five Black-tailed Godwit and a Grey Plover.

The male Black Redstart at Rainham
A smart Grey Wagtail kept the Black Redstart company
I ventured over to the Serin Mound at Rainham to check out the reserve for Harriers. I saw one Marsh Harrier cruising the area but no Hen Harrier. There wasn't much else about apart from a couple of Ruff keeping a flock of Lapwing company in a flooded field in the centre of the reserve.

I met another East London birder, Mike Messenger – great name and extremely talkative, so quite apt. Despite the non-stop chatter he was a good old boy and very knowledgeable. However, after an hour without a sighting of the Hen Harrier (we did see three Golden Plover) I thought it best to make tracks to my next destination, Stodmarsh Nature Reserve. I'd head back to Rainham later when the Hen Harrier was more likely to appear.

The Penduline Tit had been seen during the morning, which was good news, but I'd never been to Stodmarsh before, so I intended to rely on the some birding regulars steering me in the right direction.

It didn't take that long to get to the reserve, just over an hour, but it took a while to find my bearings. I heard two and saw one Cetti's Warbler on my walk to the new boardwalk where, luckily for me, three birders were staring out into the reeds.

The Penduline Tit was busy decimating the reed mace. At some points it was completely covered in the seed residue. I had great views of this smashing little bird for about ten minutes before it flew off into some bushes where it called out before going quiet.

The Penduline Tit at Stodmarsh
All very straightforward but I had been very lucky. If I had arrived a few minutes later I would have missed it – and that's assuming I would have known where to look, because as soon as it flew off the three other guys headed back to the car park.

By now it was heading towards 3pm, so I headed back to Rainham.

An hour and 20 minutes later I was back up to the Serin Mound to join a group of birders, including Mike Messenger again (who was still chatting to anyone who would listen). We had to wait about 45 minutes before a Short-eared Owl came into view, typically mobbed by Crows. At one point it soared high up with its corvid companion before swooping down to continue hunting for food. Not long after a Barn Owl accompanied it along the silt lagoons.

Then 15 minutes after that the male Hen Harrier arrived on the scene. Magnificent. It joined the two Owls on the food shopping spree and so a thoroughly enjoyable ten minutes was spent watching these great birds at work. You can't beat the sight of owls and raptors hunting, especially all together.

Once they disappeared from view I hopped in the car and drove over to the river on the way home, where I caught up with one of the female Black Redstart and also a Common Sandpiper along the shoreline.

All in all, a very good day. Thanks goodness for that.

Female Black Redstart at Rainham

Friday 1 March 2013


Enough of the moaning and on with some more constructive comment. After Tuesday's indifferent day I met up with an old work colleague and friend of mine, Jeremy Early, at his house in Reigate on Wednesday morning for further discussion about the book I'm designing for him. It's a natural history book he is self-publishing called My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden.

Jeremy is a journalist by profession, and is a passionate environmentalist and wildlife photographer. He has put a brilliant book together on all aspects of wildlife in his garden, from mammals such as roe deer to invertebrates like wasps, bees and flies.

Osmia caerulescens with leaves – apparently
The foreword is being written by David Bellamy, and it should be ready by mid-April/beginning of May.

It was a welcome visit for me because his garden is a joy. I'm no gardener, in fact I loath gardening, but what was so magical about this garden was the amount of wildlife activity going on in it. Jeremy has bird feeders strategically placed for the best viewing from the living room window, plus others on a tree on the lawn. Masses of Blue, Great and Coal Tits fly in to feed, plus plenty of Nuthatches. A pair of Dunnock performed just in front of the window – a male clearly trying to attract a female.

It was a welcome moment of relaxation from the stress of twitching some bird or other that may or may not appear. And it made me appreciate a Dunnock for what it is, a sentient being with as much value as a Pallas's Warbler.

Yep, he had a Wryneck in the garden some years ago - as you do
Jeremy self-published another book called Hidden Jewels and also has a website called Nature Conservation Imaging. It is well worth a look at – www.natureconservationimaging.com.

I'm off back to Rainham tomorrow morning in the hope of connecting with the male Hen Harrier seen hunting over the marshes these past few days, plus the two Black Redstarts by the river. Would certainly make up for earlier in the week.