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 23 September 2013


Since my trip to Spurn there's not been much time for any other trips out. I haven't checked out the local patch either, although from reports sent to me during the past few weeks it has been relatively quiet apart from one Whinchat and the odd Yellow Wagtail.

A week earlier I had been down to Margate to meet up with my parents and on the way back dropped in at Oare Marshes just after sunset to see the smart Spotted Crake feeding close by the East Hide.

Spotted Crake at Oare Marshes at dusk (hence the rubbish photo)
At the weekend, however, I had another opportunity to spend a day out in the field. I was going to the Brisca F1 World Stock Car final on Saturday evening (I've been a stock car fan since I was kid and wrote a book on the subject about 15 years ago, but due to other commitments such as birding, I don't go as much as I used to), so travelled to King's Lynn via the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts.

It was a bit of a long day as it turned out. I left the house at 6.30am and arrived back the following morning at 3.30am, but it ended up being worth it.

I'd seen earlier in the week that the Lesser Grey Shrike was still present in horse paddocks between Leiston and Sizewell in Suffolk. There didn't seem much chance this rarity would stick around by the weekend, but I thought I'd set off in that direction just in case – thankfully, a sighting was confirmed at 8.25am.

I turned up about an hour later, and it wasn't long before I was watching the Lesser Grey Shrike perched on a fence post. For the less observant birders, like myself, it looked remarkably like a Great Grey Shrike, and if I'd been on my own I would have presumed that was what it was. I was met with stony silence when I suggested this to those around me.

After close study as it flew around the area feeding, I noted it was smaller than its cousin and had no white on the wing coverts and a greyer head and back. A handsome specimen whatever the description.

The handsome Lesser Grey Shrike near Sizewell
So a good start to the morning. I spent an hour with the Shrike before heading off for Sizewell Beach to see the remarkably confiding Arctic Skua that had become a fixture on the beach next to the nuclear power station.

The Arctic Skua at Sizewell Beach allowed observers to approach to within 15 metres
Right on cue the Arctic Skua was there standing on the beach. You could approach to within at least 15 metres and it wouldn't flinch. It would occasionally fly off to pester a few gulls around a platform about 200 metres out at sea but would soon fly back to its favoured spot on the beach. Some people are suggesting the bird is partially oiled up so that's why it stays put for so long, but it doesn't look particularly hindered when flying around and appears to be quite agile. Let's hope it's fine, anyway.

Sizewell Beach is a popular birding spot. There were at least ten Little Gull bobbing about on the water and a pair of Black Redstart were flitting around the perimeter wall surrounding the power station where a Peregrine was perched high up.

With time getting on I skipped a visit to Minsmere just up the road and headed off instead for Castier-on-Sea, just to the north of Great Yarmouth.

After a really pleasant drive around the edge of the Norfolk Broads I arrived at Castier by about 2pm. The target bird here was a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling. There were a couple of birders in the car park scanning the rooftops where a large flock of about 200 Starling were perched. It was going to be a needle-in-a-haystack job but the Rose-coloured Starling was soon picked up. Not exactly rose-coloured like an adult male, it was still another life tick for me.

Rose-coloured Starling at Castier-on-sea
After another hour watching the flock of Starlings I set off for King's Lynn, where 8,000 stock car fans had migrated for the highlight of the 2013 Brisca F1 stock car season.

A large crowd flocked to see the Brisca F1 Stock Car World Final meeting at King's Lynn
In complete contrast to the gentle, relaxing afternoon, the evening was loud, brash and brutal. The cars – single-seater, purpose-built, Chevy V8-engined, 700 brake horse-powered monsters – were loud, colourful and spectacular as always, and the action incredibly fast and frantic.

I caught up with a few mates I hadn't seen for sometime including some of the drivers, notably former world champion Rob Speak. He finished seventh in the big one behind Tom Harris, who was in a league of his own on the night. To my mind there is no other motorsport that can compare to Brisca F1 stock car racing for drama and excitement.

The evening ended with great sadness, however. After the racing a Dutch fan was killed when hit by a minibus outside the stadium when crossing the road. She was only 32 and had a young child. A stark and tragic reminder of how delicate life can be and how much we must cherish every minute of every day.

Wednesday 18 September 2013


Sunrise over the North Sea
The third and final day of my visit to Spurn arrived in a flash. A complete contrast to the previous two days – not a breath of wind and at some points during the morning it was gloriously sunny and warm.

Another visit to the Seawatch hide, this time for a spot of vis-migging. The light winds were perfect for it and I met up with Ian Whitehouse who was logging the numbers as they flew over during the morning.

Ian Whitehouse keeps a log of the morning's vis-mig
Predominantly Meadow Pipits, more than 1,500, were logged during the first hour and a half with a total of 2,900 by the end of the morning. Mipits were packing the scrub and bushes by the observatory, plus there were plenty of Yellow Wagtails coming over, Grey Wagtails and the odd Whinchat. Highlight of the morning migration was a Merlin that flew over the observatory at about 7.15am.

Out at sea the most interesting sight was of an Arctic Skua pursuing a gull close in to the shoreline as it tried to force the gull to regurgitate its meal.

The Seawatch hide at Spurn – a fantastic setting
I went back to the Crown and Anchor for breakfast and then took a walk around the triangle. There was a lot more activity with the improved weather, nothing mind-blowingly rare poked its head out of the bushes, but it was still pleasant with Meadow Pipits everywhere, plus Reed Bunting, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff.

Shelduck over the Humber Estuary
The tide had come in so the waders had dispersed, but there were at least 30 Shelduck on the Humber. The Red-backed Shrike was busy chasing insects over at Southfield Farm, where a couple of Corn Bunting had been seen in the willows – I couldn't locate them – while further up Easington Road a Spotted Flycatcher was perched on a telephone wire.

The juvenile Red-backed Shrike was a regular feature during the three days
A Spotted Flycatcher on the overhead wires along Easington Road
After the walk I headed off for Kilnsea Wetlands in the hope of seeing the three Little Stint that had been there on and off for a few days. Unfortunately I timed my visit while a Sparrowhawk was in the area and they had flown off. Plenty of waders were on the scrape, including a few Greenshank and also one of six Curlew Sandpiper had stuck around, as had a Ruff, to more than make up for the Stints' disappearance. On the way back to the car, having bumped into Matt, Sean and Steve, we spotted a Tree Sparrow up on the wires.

The Spurn Point trek at the halfway point
Time was getting on so I grasped the nettle and decided to walk down to Spurn Point and back. A trudge of about five miles all told. It wasn't too arduous as it turned out, but it was still disappointingly quiet on the migrant front. A huge number of waders were on the mudflats, including Golden and Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Redshank and Knot.

There were huge numbers of waders feeding on the Humber mud as the tide went out
Sanderling feeding with Redshank
Another Wheatear skipped down the track in front of me, but unlike a couple of weeks ago, there were no Wrynecks, Greenish Warbler or Subalpine Warbler, but I did see a large Warbler, which I hoped would turn out to be a Barred Warbler, in some scrub but before I could get my scope focused, it flew off across the spit and into another bush, never to be seen again.

A lone Wheatear along the track towards Spurn Point
The Spurn Point lighthouse
On the way back from the lighthouse I saw four Whinchat, but further north Matt, Sean and Steve had located a Pied Flycatcher at the observatory. This was unbeknown to me as my mobile had run out of battery so I hadn't picked up the message – which was maybe just as well as I was still a good 30 minutes away.
One of four Whinchat near Spurn Point
When I eventually got back to the Obs I met up with the three guys and apart from Sean who had originally located it, they hadn't really been able to get a decent view of what was a very mobile Pied Fly. Reports had also come in that there had been another one seen with a Common Redstart further up the road along the footpath at the end of Beacon Lane in a hedge.

While the lads stuck around hunting for the Pied Fly at the Obs I headed off for Beacon Lane, where I soon picked up the female Common Redstart. I texted Matt and soon after the four of us were looking for a Flycatcher. The Redstart had disappeared into a hedge just as Sean approached.

Matt Phelps, Steve Penn and Sean Foote on the lookout for a Pied Flycatcher
There was little to see for a good 20 minutes, and locating the Pied Fly was also hindered by the fact that the bird had dropped down into the grounds of a house. Using binoculars while peering down the driveway was a bit awkward as the residence could clearly see us through their living room patio doors, so Sean and I thought it prudent to stop looking there as it was a bit of an intrusion. But then Matt suddenly saw a prime candidate appear briefly out of the hedge before diving back into the undergrowth again.

Steve then locked on to what he thought was a Chaffinch with its back to us high up on an overhead wire. A quick scan revealed it to be a female Pied Flycatcher! Absolutely brilliant. This has been a bogey bird of mine for some time so to actually get a decent view of one at the end of my last day at Spurn was fantastic.

Sean Foote relocates the Pied Flycatcher along Beacon Lane
It soon flew down into the trees and we lost sight of it. Sean then went off to look along the hedges next to the caravan park and his perserverance paid off as he managed to relocate it. The Pied Fly was very mobile and didn't keep still for long and after a few minutes it flew up the lane and out of sight again.

With that we went back to the Obs for what would be a final session of seawatching over a calm sea. Taking a well-earned rest in a chair by the hide we lazily gazed out to sea before I made plans to head back south to Surrey.

It proved worthwhile. While the usual Common Scoter, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Razorbill and Red-throated Divers drifted by Sean locked on to a Skua lazily flying north. After careful study he announced it to be a juvenile Pomarine Skua! What a result at the end of the day and a great seabird lifer for me. We also saw three probable Poms flying south before we finished.

And so ended my visit to a magnificent birdwatching site. I couldn't have wished for more, really. OK, no megas like the Great Snipe that turned up two days later along Beacon Lane to get the pulses racing, but still a great variety of birdlife and a wonderful birding experience. I met some great people and enjoyed excellent company during three days. I can't wait to go back.

Highlights during the three days:
Pale-bellied Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter
Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Red-necked Grebe
Curlew Sandpiper
Pomarine Skua
Arctic Skua
Possible Long-tailed Skua
Great Skua
Little Gull
Red-backed Shrike
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Common Redstart
Tree Sparrow
Tree Pipit
Plus Two-barred Crossbill (Broomhead Reservoir)

Dips during the three days:
Sabine's Gull
Little Stint
Purple Sandpiper
Corn Bunting

Monday 16 September 2013


The alarm went off at 5.30am and I woke up not having a clue at first where I was. I thought for a moment or two I was at home and had to go into London, but then the sleep haze cleared and I was in Kilnsea, East Yorkshire. Brilliant.

Peering out of the window it was still blowing a gale and raining, but that was OK. A seawatch beckoned.

I was at the Seawatch hide by 6.30am and there were already a couple of guys in there, scopes at the ready. One was top Yorkshire patch lister Steve Exley. Steve lives up the road from the Crown and Anchor pub and holds the record for a year's patch listing in Britain with a remarkable 254 birds at Spurn. His Yorkshire list is 388*, with many birds turning up in his garden. Having Common Rosefinches on your feeders, Wrynecks wandering around the garden, Great Grey Shrikes popping in, Dotterel flying over, as well as Montagu's Harrier cruising overhead makes up for a garden list one can only dream of.

Top Yorkshire birder Steve Exley in the Seawatch hide
Spurn seawatch regulars
Anyway, he's great company on a seawatch, as is his mate Ian Whitehouse, who actually lives in Dudley, but uses a caravan up the road as a base when the winds look promising. Like Steve he's retired, but sadly he lost his wife – who also loved her birding – three years ago to cancer. Nowadays he admits he has a completely different perspective on life and he spends much of his time of his hobby both at Spurn and abroad – he was planning a trip to Brazil this week.

By 7am the hide was pretty much full, and included a post-graduate from York University, Tim, who was one of a group of young lads who were volunteers at the Spurn Observatory. He was perched at the southern end of the hide and pretty much gave everyone the heads-up when birds flew past on the sea from the south. He had experienced eyes for someone so young. Another birder with sharp eyes is former Tice's Meadow patch watcher (he's now based on Portland Bill) Sean Foote, who was also present along with Tice's Meadow watcher Matt Phelps and Steven Penn, so very few birds were missed.

It is important at this juncture to give a word of advice to anyone who reads this blog and who is, similar to me, not an experienced birder but wishes to go on a seawatch.

Seawatching is hard-core birding – exhilarating but hard work and it's difficult to make accurate ids. It is imperative to spend the seawatch among experienced birders, otherwise you will see very little, and any birds you do see you'll have little or no clue what they are. Spend a day with people who know what they are doing, however, and you will get so much more out of it.

I've not been on many seawatches, but this one was brilliant. While the day before was all about Skuas, mainly Arctics, this day, again with a northerly wind but not as strong, was all about Shearwaters – Manx and Sooty Shearwaters. I saw around 25 of the 52 Sooty Shearwater that flew by, mostly heading north, plus many of the 132 Manx Shearwater.

Distant Sooty Shearwater flying north up the Spurn coast
It was a morning with plenty of variety. Skuas included 46 Arctic and 13 Bonxies, plus huge numbers of Common Scoter, more than 400, including one large flock of about 250. A highlight was a Velvet Scoter that flew north, plus a Red-necked Grebe (I couldn't get on to another closer individual). There were plenty of Gannet, Fulmar, Red-throated Diver, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Sandwich and Common Terns, plus a few Guillemot, Snipe, Wigeon and Teal. Plenty of Meadow Pipits flew in off the sea.

Annoyingly, I couldn't get on to a Storm-petrel or a Purple Sandpiper that were called out, and there was debate over a small Skua that flew north that some observers noted as an Arctic Skua while Steve Exley was adamant it was a Long-tailed Skua. Whichever it was will have to go done as an sp.

Interestingly, Steve mentioned how some birds can be easily misidentified. On one occasion recently a Skua flew low and close in and landed on the sea. Everyone in the hide was convinced it was a Long-tailed, but only after looking at photographs taken was it discovered that the bird was actually small Arctic.

Despite a couple of missed opportunities, it had been an exceptional morning. Later during the afternoon I popped back in time to see four Pale-bellied Brent Geese fly north – the first of the autumn.

After the morning seawatch I took a walk around the triangle north of the Obs in the hope of catching up with a few migrants. The wind had dropped by now and first up was an almost resident juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Southfield Farm, just up the road from the observatory. This youngster had been present for nearly three weeks and he didn't disappoint, showing very well feeding on bees and other insects and perched close up on occasions. A Kingfisher, apparently rare for the area, also showed briefly from the farm pond.

Long-staying Juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Southfield Farm
The rest of the walk didn't produce any unusual birds but four Whinchat in Clubley's Field were nice to see.

After lunch I joined Sean, Matt and Steve for a walk down towards Spurn Point. The road was closed due to some storm damage and it was relatively quiet on the bird front. There were plenty of waders on the mudflats, Golden Plover were plentiful along the edges, along with Redshank, plus the odd Knot, Greenshank, a couple of Whimbrel and a small flock of five Bar-tailed Godwit. An odd sighting along the spit was of a Roe Deer near the Chalk Bank hide but the highlights during the walk were three Wheatear and a Tree Pipit grounded on the beach.

Golden Plover with a Redshank on the Humber Estuary
Day two had flashed by. Only one day left.

*It is now probably 389 after the Great Snipe appeared two days after I left

Saturday 14 September 2013


Spurn. It is one of those places you here about all the time if you're into birding. It's a place where, given the right winds and time of year, rare birds just fall out of the sky and into your lap. Surrey it ain't.

For those who don't know the area, Spurn is a narrow sand spit on the East Yorkshire coast that curls round out into the North Sea and makes up the north bank of the mouth of the Humber Estuary. Due to its geographical prominence on the north-east coastline of Britain, it's hardly a surprise Spurn is famous for the fantastic array of birds that drop in there. It has got everything you could possibly want for a perfect birdwatching region.

Take August 25, 2013. Two weeks ago. Easterlies with high pressure over Scandanavia. Perfect conditions for a massive migration drop. God (not that he exists, but he does for this analogy) decided to tip out all his migrating birds over Spurn that day. It was verging on the ridiculous.

They landed all over the pace. Best of the lot was a Subalpine Warbler, but it was the numbers of other rare birds that made the jaw drop. Apart from a Barred Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, three Red-backed Shrikes, two Common Rosefinches and 27, yes 27, Wrynecks – some of them very showy – littered the area.

Spurn, therefore, is a place to visit.

Time off work was arranged and three days at Spurn organised, including two nights at the Crown and Anchor in Kilnsea from Tuesday.

Coincidently, birding mates Matt Phelps, Sean Foote and Steven Penn had planned five days at Spurn at the same time I was going, so we arranged to meet up.

I set off on Tuesday morning at 4.30am, but before travelling on to Spurn I took a diversion at Sheffield and headed east towards Broomhead Reservoir, just south of Stackbridge.

In the forest to the south west of the reservoir a number of Two-barred Crossbill had been present for more than a week with a large flock of Common Crossbills. It was worth a try.

As soon as I arrived at 8am the 'jip-jip-jip' sound of Crossbills filled the air. I walked up with a local birder to a clearing where most people gather in the hope of spotting one of these rare Crossbills and waited.

The Crossbill flock was mobile and split up into groups. There were plenty of Siskin in amongst them and it was clearly going to be a needle in a haystack job, but at least I wasn't in any rush.

That, as it turned out, was just as well. Three hours into the vigil a flock of Crossbills flew overhead and landed in a dead tree 100 yards ahead of us. Unbelievably, perched at the very top was a male Two-barred Crossbill, with a juvenile perched just below it. A-bloody-mazing. Sheer luck, but I'll take it.

Two Two-barred Crossbills – but not at Spurn
The flock stayed put for a couple of minutes before flying off.

The Crown and Anchor at Kilnsea
On to Spurn. Two hours later at 1pm I walked into the Seawatch Hide, where Matt, Sean and Steve were already perched. The weather forecast had been very poor – gale-force winds and rain – good for seawatching. I sat next to an older bloke who obviously knew his stuff. His name was Steve Exley. Outside, sheltering from the wind and rain, were two more experienced birders. They turned out to be Ian Whitehouse and Steve Webb. More on Steve Exley and Ian Whitehouse during the next posts.

I have very little seawatching experience and would have been totally out of my depth if I had been on my own. In a group I was safe as houses. The wind, north to north-westerly, was fierce and pounding the hide while the angry sea was heaving and swelling ahead of us.

Four Arctic Skuas scything across the waves
Ian Whitehouse and Steve Webb seawatching
Steve Webb, an extremely unassuming and modest man is Britain's leading twitcher. No-one has seen more birds in Britain than this man – 555 in total (I hope that's right). I asked him what bird would feature high on his British wish list, and Little Shearwater was among them.

He was at Spurn, not to twitch, but simply to enjoy his birding. As Steve Exley told me a couple of days later, no matter how many rare birds Webb has on his list, and no matter that he might already had seen 20 or more Red-backed Shrikes, for example, he would always go out of his way to see another one.

The seawatch was amazing. Fortunately, out on the horizon were points of reference. Wind turbines are being built out in the North Sea a few of miles off-shore and the platforms were helpful as landmarks to pick up birds flying up and down the coast.

Someone would call out "Arctic Skua heading south past the first platform" and so you were able to pick up the Skua as you pointed your scope at the first platform.

My visits to the coast are infrequent to say the least, and before this day I had only ever seen one Arctic Skua. After this particular afternoon session I saw at least 60 out of 162 Arctic Skua seen during the day cutting through the waves, plus 10 Great Skua, 50 Fulmar, 20 Gannet, three Common Scoter and one Red-throated Diver.

The big dip of the day was a Sabine's Gull, seen close up to the shore, but somehow I simply couldn't get on it. It happens to everyone, apparently.

As a starter to the main course, however, the first day had been a good one. A meal and a couple of pints of excellent Timothy Taylor Landlord at the Crown and Anchor with Matt, Sean and Steve ended a long day. Then it was off to bed. I reckon I was out for the count within a few minutes.

Tuesday 3 September 2013


September is the month when the autumn migration normally kicks off, but this year it started early.

A huge drop of birds on the east coast occurred during the August bank holiday weekend. Low pressure below the south east and high pressure over Scandavania produced a band of rain over eastern England and prominent north-easterly winds from the Baltic.

This combination brought a huge skip-full of migrants to the eastern coastal regions, with plenty of Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts and Whinchats, plus Greenish Warblers and a huge influx of Wrynecks.

Seeing any of these would have been great, but I couldn't get out until Bank Holiday Monday, when I set off for Seaford Head in the hope of a Pied Flycatcher or a Wryneck or two. To cut a boring story short, I didn't see either – three nice Whinchats, but little else.

Equally boring is the story of my car, a Peugeot 206 diesel that has cost me a small fortune to maintain and has tested my patience more than I care to remember. It did the same here, grinding to a halt as I entered Seaford on the way home. After about an hour I managed to get it started. It has a fuel-feed problem, has been in the garage more than once and, before you ask, is going in again this week.

Birding in late August wasn't a very successful pastime for me. Prior to dipping the Wryneck at Seaford, I missed out on the Long-billed Dowitcher at Pennington Marshes a couple of days earlier. The day was still a pleasant one with a pub lunch and walk around the New Forest – that despite the car breaking down again on the way home which meant any thoughts of going to look for the Hoopoe in the area were wiped out.

The other hiccup this past few weeks occurred on Twitter. Twitter is a fun social media tool, but if you don't pay attention, it can bite you. It can even get you sued if you don't understand libel laws. A comment which may have seemed harmless or perhaps a bit boisterous could easily be misconstrued as insulting or worse, defamatory, to the people receiving it.

I misunderstood a tweet sent via Jonathan Lethbridge regarding the Red-billed Tropicbird and the finder of the bird who sold his photo to Birdguides recently. Jono felt it was a error selling the image to a website where only subscribers could view it. The reason for this was because apart from this one person with the photo of the bird, all the other 40-plus birders who were at Pendeen that day missed it. He wasn't having a go at Birdguides but the bloke who owned the photo.

But I totally got my wires crossed and thought it was the fault of Birdguides, which was utterly stupid and so my fawning moral outrage at Birdguides buying the image was nonsensical – and Dominic Mitchell, whom I have the greatest respect for, was rightly irritated and faintly bewildered by my reaction. I still cringe when I think about it now as I can't really explain what I was thinking.

But at least that only got the one response and not the tirade of anger that befell one well-known and controversial birder for a reply he sent to Stephen Fry regarding his atheism. Not wanting to labour the point too much, suffice to say the comment made (he wondered whether not believing in God was the reason he got depressed a lot), which I'm certain wasn't intended to be insulting because I'm sure the sender is a big fan of the actor and QI host, was jaw-dropping. It was no surprise many people responded angrily, vehemently even, and you could almost sense how shocked he was by it. Dangerous stuff, tweeting.

Thankfully, after all the angst, disappointments and stress of recent weeks, it all came good yesterday morning with an obliging juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Rottingdean, which I successfully twitched. I had actually seen my first scarce bird in nearly a month, and what satisfying one it was too.

Juvenile Red-backed Shrike near Rottingdean
Feeding on insects and perching on a fence alongside Bazehill Road, I had my best views of a Red-backed Shrike. A pair of Dotterel had been seen on farm lane over the hill but I had Annie with me and didn't have time to spend looking for them.

Our next stop after lunch was Cissbury Ring, where I again failed dismally to connect with a Wryneck. I couldn't even found the right area where one had been seen in the early morning. It didn't matter too much. It had been a good walk, with a Raven being hassled by a pair of Kestrel being the highlight.

Another remarkable sighting happened driving home on the M23. A Hobby was chasing what looked like a Starling with the result both ended up flying down the motorway swerving in amongst the cars in front of us as the prey did its utmost to escape the raptor. Not something you see too often.