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.

Sunday 26 May 2013


What a couple of days. As I mentioned in the previous post, birds – particularly rare ones – have a habit of cropping up at weekends and at times when I'm involved in more important matters like earning money or visiting family in hospital.

Yesterday was another example of bad timing and to add some extra spice to the mix the bird in question really was one to drop everything for to go and see.

A Roller.

But I couldn't. I really couldn't. I'd fleetingly seen it mentioned on Twitter yesterday afternoon – it was showing well at Broxhead Common near Bordon just over the county border in Hampshire – but I was in no position to go and view it as I was in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, visiting my father-in-law in hospital. Before Annie and I arrived we had misgivings about how things were going to pan out for him even short-term, but as it transpired he was responding well to intravenous antibiotics and was to leave hospital the following day. Amazing news.

While at the hospital, the phone rang. It was Bob Warden.
"Hello Neil?"
"Hello Bob."
"I supposed you've heard the news about the Roller?"
"Yes Bob."
"I'm looking at it right now."
"That's great mate."
"Are you otherwise tied up?"
"Yes mate."

He knew from the tone of my voice that there wasn't much I could do about it.

We left the hospital at about 5pm and went back to Annie's mum's house along with Annie's brother Alan for a cup of tea before heading home. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everyone felt a sense of relief.

We left at 6.30pm and headed back to Redhill. The roads were really clear and we got back by 8pm. I sort of knew I was pushing it a bit but I mentioned the Roller to Annie and with still enough time to get to Broxhead Common before sunset I went for it.

The sun got lower and the light got darker but I got to the Common just before sunset and walked up the sandy path to a small group of birders. There on a dead tree stump to the south of the footpath, and only 100 metres away, was the Roller.

Before I could get my scope set up it flew off along the horizon and perched in a silver birch tree about 200 metres away where it stayed for a few minutes. Brilliant. A lifer for me, let along a British tick. It was a much larger bird in flight than I thought it would be and so striking to look at.

The Roller at dusk on Broxhead Common on Saturday evening
I had great views of this magnificent bird for a good 30 minutes before it was plenty dark enough to leave.

Before I set off back home, however, I spoke to the birder who found the Roller. Jim Smith actually saw it for the first time on Thursday evening but despite its bespoke appearance, doubt set in whether it really was a Roller.

So rather than announce his brilliant discovery only to feel foolhardy because he'd made a horrible mistake, he waited. A friend convinced him to take a chance and so he put the news out on Saturday morning.

Jim said he even kept a low-profile that morning while masses of birders arrived at the Common, feeling quite stressed so many people had turned up, but later felt a sense of relief when he spoke to someone who confirmed it was a Roller.

If I'd found a Roller on my local patch I would have made damn sure to sing it from the rooftops. I don't think the majority of people would've held back but Jim is an unassuming man and a reluctant hero.

I wasn't planning to be around the next morning but plans got shelved, so I set off early and returned to Broxhead Common. A bigger crowd had gathered and the Roller this time was sitting on a silver birch branch to the south of the path. It didn't stay long before flying across the Common and down into the valley.

The Roller at Broxhead Common this morning
After some pontificating and meandering up and down the valley, I met up with the Tice's Meadow gang and the bird was spotted in another dead tree on the horizon to the south.

It wasn't long before it was off again back down into the valley where it was found again. Here it stayed for a while in a Rowan tree in the sunshine, showing off it's incredible turquoise, orange and black plumage. It had been quite mobile during the morning, maybe feeling threatened by this crowd of potential predators (or birders) and its mood probably wasn't helped when one birder managed to flush it out of the tree we were viewing it in.

The Roller took refuge in a Rowan tree
Eventually, after moving from tree to tree it took to the air and flew high over our heads and continued heading north east. It didn't look like it was intending to return.

The Roller ten minutes before if flew off for good
That was it. I felt sorry for a number of birders who then arrived only to discover it had gone but obviously, from a selfish point of view, relief I'd arrived early enough to get good views of it.

Remarkably it was picked up by birder Andy Pickett, who, having discovered that the Roller had left the area, took a punt and parked up at Thursley Common where he relocated it before it set off again  heading north east. Where it has ended up, who knows, but for me this has been the bird of the year so far.

What next? Two Surrey Red-backed Shrikes – one male at London Wetland Centre and the other, a female, at Pewley Downs near Guildford would be good but both will have to wait until Tuesday at the earliest. It might be too much to ask for both to stick around until then though after the luck I've had during the past 72 hours.

Saturday 25 May 2013


My trusty old Fujifilm Finepix S7000, a camera I've had for nearly ten years has broken. OK, so not exactly the end of the world compared to other events going on at the moment but its demise last Saturday pretty much summed up how the past week has been and last weekend in particular.

A pattern as inevitable as the sun coming up meant that I was otherwise engaged last weekend when all manner of rare and unusual birds decided to arrive in the south east. The Dusky Thrush was the bombshell. Like most people, I didn't know about it until the following morning, but by then I was on the M4 heading in the other direction.

To make matters worse the bird, the first twitchable Dusky Thrush since 1959 (the year I was born),  turned up at Margate Cemetery, just ten minutes away from where my parents live. Everyone who is anyone (apart from Steve Gale) went for the Thrush. Even Lee Dingain diverted his attention from Staines Moor to go and see it.

Most people also took in the Montagu's Harrier at Reculver on the return journey (another lifer for me), while those nearer to home who chose not to make the trip were rewarded with a Black Tern, three Sanderlings and a Greenshank at Staines Reservoir and a Temminck's Stint at Tice's Meadow. On Sunday the third Avocet of the year popped up at Holmethorpe – the third in a row I have missed.

All these birds have the extraordinary ability to appear on weekends. Why is that? I know us humans live for the weekend, but I had no idea birds did too. They seem to move more on Friday nights/Saturday mornings. It is uncanny how often that happens.

My only hope was that some of these would stick until at least Monday, but predictably they didn't. What slim chance I had, evaporated. I tried to make the most of it during the week with the odd trip out, but it was a dead as a Dodo. Three Black-necked Grebes, one Dunlin, two Little Ringed Plovers and two Arctic Terns managed to keep me interested.

Two of the three Black-necked Grebe at Staines Reservoir
Until yesterday, that is. At last I was in a position, albeit late in the day, to twitch a rarity in Surrey. Dodge posted it on Twitter in the morning. A Red-rumped Swallow was feeding on the main lake at Beddington. It was their second Red-rumped in a month. Remarkable. It was also one of three Red-rumped Swallows in the south east seen during the day – the other two were at Weir Wood Reservoir near Forest Row and Dungeness.

Very poor record shot of the Red-rumped Swallow at Beddington
I had a stack of work during the morning and into the afternoon but I was able to sneak out before 4pm and head off to Beddington.

A number of people had been and gone during the afternoon but fortunately the Swallow was still there. Peter Alfrey was at the far end of the main lake and the Red-rumped Swallow flew up to about three metres in front of him as I approached.

The Red-rumped Swallow feeding over the main lake (photos courtesy of Peter Alfrey)
It was happily feeding with a group of Barn Swallows low over the lake and although the rain was coming down, it stood out well. It was noticeable that this bird had two white marks on its back – probably due to a moult.

My new, cheap camera isn't up to scratch taking photos of moving objects, so I have used a couple of Peter's excellent images from his blog (http://peteralfreybirdingnotebook.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/red-rumped-swallow.html). Also worth reading is his important post about the Beddington incinerator http://peteralfreybirdingnotebook.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/tell-boris.html

It's been a strange few weeks. This spring has been like no other. Some areas have had some really good birds show up whereas other sites, usually very good at this time of year, have drawn a blank. Canon's Farm, for example, has had few decent birds drop in since the Whimbrel last month. It is almost guaranteed to have a Black Redstart or two during the spring, as well as the odd Grasshopper Warbler, and it has had neither. Whereas Holmethorpe has had at least two Black Redstarts this spring, plus a Little Gull and Arctic Tern – two unusual birds for the site.

Strangley however, while the Red-rumped Swallows turn up at Beddington, not one has been seen at Holmethorpe despite the hundreds of hirundines it has feeding over the lakes every day. There's still time yet though.

Friday 17 May 2013


Good friends of ours, Charlie and Di, live in the next road to us and have, by chance, led me to a remarkable spot 20 minutes down the road from Redhill that matches Bookham Common for Nightingales.

When they are not creating things – Di is a brilliant scenic artist who has painted and created scenic work for theatre, ballet and opera, including for the Royal Opera House (visit her website to see examples of her work http://www.diarts.org.uk/), while Charlie can put his hand to anything practical on the house or car front and is a qualified electrician and a damned good one at that – they like to go out walking. Well, they like walking and also stopping off for a pint and spot of lunch. The pub features quite a bit on their walks.

They have the right idea. They don't get stressed out because they haven't added a Wood Warbler to their Surrey year list or moan because a Grasshopper Warbler wouldn't come out from the undergrowth to show itself.

The walk/pub thing sounds like a really good pastime to me, especially as on one walk recently along a footpath just north of the Surrey Oaks pub at Parkgate, near Newdigate, they heard some birdsong they didn't recognise. They couldn't see the bird in the deep scrub but Di recorded it and sent it to me by email.

X marks the spot
Immediately the song gave it away. A Nightingale.

What a great find! And quite close to home. So late yesterday afternoon, Annie and I set off for Parkgate and walked along the footpath to an area that was remarkably similar to Bookham Common. Top-notch and untouched thick vegetation, plus plenty of Hawthorn and other bushes.

Within minutes we could hear the first Nightingale singing in the bushes to our left – it was really close but predictably we couldn't see it until it flew across us and into another small tree close by, where it continued to sing. Fantastic.

Another bird began singing to the right of the path and as we headed further north, we could hear more Nightingale singing. At one point there were at least four competing to be heard. What a great place!

At Bookham there have been at least five birds reported this spring, but I think there maybe more than the six we heard (we saw two) at Parkgate, which makes this site of specific interest and an important one for Nightingale in Surrey.

Hammond's Copse
 After the Nightingales we walked through the woodland at Hammond's Copse – if you have never been I can recommend it. A stunningly beautiful place with plenty of bluebells on show.

Saturday 11 May 2013


Boy, what a week. I made three visits to Staines Reservoir with varying degrees of success. The first two were average at best – a Dunlin, Little Ringed Plover and two Little Gull were the best I could muster.

Thursday, in particular, was atrocious – the day of the 60mph winds and rain that blew through. Why I opted to spend a few hours on the causeway in that terrible weather is still a bit of a mystery to me. Adrian Luscombe and later, Ken Purdey, also braved the elements and we were rewarded with nothing apart from a lot of Common Terns. The hope had been for the odd skua or other displaced seabirds, but no. Nothing.

It has been a pretty disappointing month so far. The weather has promised much but has delivered little in recent days. It is quiet and with June approaching and the last vestiges of the spring migration coming to a close, we might have seen the best of it already.

However, June can be surprisingly good at times. Last year was a case in point with the Melodious Warbler at Leyton, the Marsh Warbler at Rainham and the Little Bittern at Rickmansworth. We also had a Common Scoter on my local patch at Holmethorpe.

Today was slightly better. Early doors I ventured over to Spynes Mere, where I had great views of a Lesser Whitethroat singing its head off out in the open and I also caught up with a Water Rail, my first of the year, skulking around the reedbed at the south-west end of Spynes Mere.

A Lesser Whitethroat singing heartily at Holmethorpe this morning
Off to Staines again, where I met up with Bob Warden, Adrian Luscombe and Simon 'Eddy' Edward amongst others. I had missed a Turnstone, which had flown off earlier, but then reappeared on the gantry on the King George VI reservoir when I went looking for it at the eastern end of the causeway.

A Turnstone on the KGVI Reservoir gantry
Three Whimbrel flew over the north basin at 10.20am
Fortunately, it turned up again on the gantry. What also turned up 20 minutes later were three Whimbrel flying low across the north basin from the east. They circled the area, seemingly looking for a place to land, but thought better of it and headed off west.

A Common Tern at Staines Reservoir
An Arctic Tern at Staines Reservoir
Also seen around then were five waders flying across the south basin – they looked almost certainly to be Dunlin, which made it six in total during the morning – and a smart Arctic Tern feeding on the north basin. Also on the south basin was a Common Sandpiper and three Black-necked Grebes.

A Pied Wagtail waiting patiently for some Bob Warden biscuits
So, as it turned out, the three hours spent eventually produced some decent sightings but unless you live on the coast somewhere, finding decent birds is currently hard going.

Monday 6 May 2013


It's been a busy few days but I still managed to find the time for a spot of birding. Early last week I caught up with the Grasshopper Warbler on Stanwell Moor – only intermittent views but better than nothing – but it was pretty quiet on the whole apart from one female Wheatear on Staines Moor and 20 Arctic Tern I missed on Staines Reservoir at first light.

Cuckoo at Thursley Common
Thursday afternoon was spent with Annie at Thursley Common, where we didn't see much apart from a couple of Cuckoo. Once again it was very quiet – the warm sunshine and clear skies overnight weren't going to bring in many surprises but the weather seemed ideal for a few showy Dartford Warblers. I've still to see one at Thursley this year but hopefully it will happen at some point.

I spent the morning on Friday with a friend, Nick Watts, from Racing Post at his family's farm near Oxford. The 300-acre City Farm, near Eynsham, is taking part in a government-backed Higher Level Stewardship environmental scheme funded by Natural England, which will see much of the acreage adapted and managed for the conservation of wildlife.

Nick wanted to know what bird species they had and whether the habitat, much of it untouched hedgerow and old and new woodland, had the potential to be a site of interest to birdwatchers.

The farm certainly has potential. It has a diversity of habitats with plenty of scrub and hawthorn, a wetland area, meadows with ponds and streams, fields and woodland.

During the walk of the farm in brilliant sunshine – which again reduced the likelihood of any unusual migrants dropping in – we still saw some pretty decent birds. Lesser Whitethroat was probably the best of the bunch, and there were numerous Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. A pair of Red Kite hunted around the area, as well as a number of Common Buzzards and a Kestrel. Lapwing look like they breed here, plus there were plenty of Yellowhammers dotted around the place, as well as a number of Reed Bunting. Corn Bunting have been seen here as well as a pair of Barn Owls, of which we saw evidence in a disused caravan at one end of a field which had plenty of owl pellets inside. A flock of Tree Sparrow were another highlight, using the feeders set up close to the farmhouse. Of the passage migrants, three Wheatear were on one of the fields. We also saw a Badger sett and a young Brown Hare on the walk.

A Red Kite at City Farm
It's great to see a farm such as this being developed with wildlife in mind and with a bit of promotion City Farm could become one of those sites like Canons Farm in Surrey to capture the public's imagination. Like any potential birding oasis, what it needs most is birders patrolling the area to see what arrives on a day-to-day basis.

After a fine brunch cooked by Mrs Watts, it was time to go. I was going to head straight back home but as I had time, I took a little diversion, to Haw Wall...

OK, it's not exactly around the corner but I'd yet to see the long-staying Pied-billed Grebe so this was the one chance to go for it.

It was only going to be a tick-and-run visit and knowing how elusive it can be I had an open mind as to whether this fleeting visit would be successful.

Ham Wall
If I'd visited the reserve a few days earlier I'd had caught up with a stack of unusual sightings including Whiskered Tern, and if I'd arrived that morning I would have seen a flock of Common Crane fly over as well as a Great White Egret and seven Whimbrel on the deck.

But never mind. I'll catch up with some Cranes next month on a trip out with the Tice's Meadow gang to Suffolk.

The RSPB reserve at Ham Wall is a fantastic place, with masses of wetland. If I had the time I'd have had a good look round. There were plenty of warblers singing, including Cetti's Warbler, and a few Bittern could be heard booming in the reeds.

It was a bit of a walk to the viewing platform where the Grebe was best seen from but when I got there it was clear the Grebe was out of sight. In fact, it hadn't been seen since early that morning. I had spoken to a photographer in the car park when I arrived who mentioned the grebe often migrated to the reeds further east and that the best option if that happened was to walk a bit further along the path, walk over a wooden bridge and head back towards the platform and look in the reeds there.

I could see three birders who'd obviously had that in mind, so I thought I'd join them. They had already given up and were heading back down the path when I met them. They hadn't seen anything, but I thought I'd give it a go anyway.

A scan of the water didn't revel much but walking on for about 50 yards I caught sight of some activity. It was just a Coot, but a smaller bird next to it with a flash of white somewhere on its head had just dived.

About a minute later I relocated the bird in the reeds. It was preening itself and one thing stood out. The bill, which was a distinctive white with a black band. It was the Pied-billed Grebe.

The Pied-billed Grebe – sleeping
Amazing. I'd only been looking for a few minutes and I'd found it. This doesn't happen to me very often. It wasn't easy to see, but in the reeds you could make out its bill and also a white-rimmed eye. Very distinctive.

The Pied-billed Grebe – sleeping some more...
After a prolonged preen it promptly feel asleep. It clearly wasn't going anywhere for a while.

...and some more
I ran along the bank and beckoned over at the guys on the platform that I'd found it. A few people came over, including 'Patch' from Worcester, who'd been looking for it for a few hours. I felt pretty good I was able to help out those who hadn't connected with it. It's usually the other way round.

The Pied-billed Grebe awakes!
The Pied-billed Grebe slept on and off for a good 45 minutes before it woke up and went on a feeding spree again. I lost sight of it in the reeds by then and so felt it was a good time to go.

Job done.