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 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.

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