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.

Thursday 31 October 2013


While the twitchers of this nation have been skiving off to Shetland, the Scilly Isles and other such rarity-filled corners of Britain, I can only look on with pangs of envy as I can't venture anywhere further than the bottom of my road.

While work has neutered any hopes of a decent day out birding this past week, I've been entertained following events on Twitter, which has been a welcome distraction from a pile of design jobs I can't avoid doing.

One tweet I read was from Staines birder Dominic Pia, who eventually succeeded in seeing the Hermit Thrush in Cornwall yesterday afternoon. He also commented on the fact that a juvenile Gannet at Staines Reservoir, his local patch, would mean many Surrey listers would be heading there to tick the bird. I hoped to be one of them but simply couldn't spare the time in the end. It doesn't help that the clocks went back last weekend, meaning mornings are much better than the short afternoons for any trips out.

Enter Steve Gale, who writes the excellent blog North Downs and beyond. He replied to Dom's tweet thus: Hate to be pedantic Dom but Staines res will NEVER be considered as a part of Surrey!!!

Steve then wrote a blog post yesterday headed 'Where is Staines Reservoir?' to reaffirm his position on the subject. Steve's blog is invariably thought-provoking and occasionally compels the reader to respond, as this one has done by me.

The basis for Steve's piece is that in a birding context the only birds that can count as being Surrey birds are, or should be,  those recorded using the Watsonian vice-county system, as set up by English botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson in 1852 as a method of recording plant distribution.

The system has been used ever since for recording birds in Surrey. The argument goes that historical and modern data can be more easily compared. Fine. It therefore also means both Staines Reservoir and Staines Moor, situated outside the vice-county recording area in the now non-existent county of Middlesex, cannot be used to include Surrey birds.

Geography, both human and physical, evolves over time. Borders around the world change frequently, such as those in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. And so do county borders. Why can't bird recording areas also reflect this evolution?

Neighbouring counties to Surrey actually do. Take Berkshire and Hertfordshire, the two other counties most affected by the deletion of Middlesex from the map. Neither have continued to use their vice-county borders to record data.

Potters Bar, for example, was in Middlesex but is now in Hertfordshire and the county's natural history records reflect that change. 

The Berkshire Ornithological Club database only records with the current county boundary. The first edition of the Berkshire Atlas (surveys 1987-1989) worked with the former boundary but the new atlas uses the current one.

Does that change the accuracy of the information? Not in the least, as far as I can tell, so long as it is known what boundaries are being adhered to. If the borders change again in future, then so will the data.

Staines-upon-Thames, in the borough of Spelthorne, has been in Surrey since 1965. Previously it was in Middlesex, but Middlesex now doesn't exist. That a cricket club and a university are still named after the former county is incidental.

As it turns out, there is little consistency anywhere around the south-east on this subject. Take the London recording area, which stretches 20 miles out from St Paul's Cathedral. It means within its circumference areas in deepest Surrey such as Bookham Common, Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Colley Hill and even Tilburstow Hill, south of Godstone are counted as part of London, which is frankly, a bit daft.

All this is obviously just good debating fodder, but there is a down side to using the current borders for those who support Staines as part of Surrey. It would mean places like Beddington, Richmond, London Wetland Centre and Sutton (sorry Steve) would no longer count for listing purposes.

That would also mean I would have to remove Red-rumped Swallow, Glaucous Gull, Bittern, Merlin, Garganey and Tree Sparrow from my Surrey year list. Disaster.

Depending on which Surrey county boundary is used either
the Great Northern Diver at Staines Reservoir or...
... the Glaucous Gull at Beddington would have to go
But then if I stick with the vice-county of Surrey it would mean removing Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Yellow-legged Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Short-eared Owl, Grasshopper Warbler, Rock Pipit, Water Pipit, Whinchat... need I go on? I'm just glad I've seen a Two-barred Crossbill this year on Leith Hill – at least I know that definitely counts whichever system I use.

Obviously none of this is satisfactory, but fortunately as a compromise, Surrey Bird Club includes current and vice-county boundaries and I think, as a gesture of goodwill, all us Surrey listers should do the same...

In the end, it's only a list of bird sightings and lists don't have to conform to a set of rules.

Friday 25 October 2013


Parrot Crossbills have been making the birding news of late. Lee Evans predicted an influx of them this autumn and in the south-east he has been proved right. A group of four appeared in Essex a week and a half ago near Southend at Gunners Park, Shoebury. They showed ridiculously well by all accounts, and then another four (who knows, maybe part of the same group), appeared with a flock of Common Crossbills at Hemsted Forest near Cranbrook in Kent, along with a male Two-barred Crossbill.

These particular Crossbills have been on show regularly and predictably for the past week, and having not yet seen a Parrot Crossbill, I was keen to go for a visit when I could.

This was proving difficult, as this is annually my busiest time of the year work-wise, but last Saturday I managed to get out by 2.30pm and head off. This was at the same time a Semipalmated Plover appeared on Hayling Island, but this American mega didn't really interest me that much. A small wader that pokes around in the silt didn't really appeal. Crossbills are far more entertaining. They are noisy, active and constantly on the move when not feeding – a bit more of a challenge to find the rarity in amongst them.

The excursion proved to be an unmitigated disaster and totally fruitless barring hearing the Two-barred fly overhead while on a two-mile trek through the woods, having parked at the wrong location, due mainly to the vague directions I could get via the Rare Bird Alert site. If I'd parked in the right place the walk would have only been about 300 yards.

Having eventually and accidently found the right spot – I turned my head and saw a bank on scopes pointed at me as I walked up into the clearing – it was too dark and too late to see anything.

I waited until yesterday morning for another stab. The weather forecast promised clear skies and little or no wind.

I parked in the right place, walked up to the right area, and within a minute I was looking at a Parrot Crossbill, perched up in the pines with some Common Crossbill alongside for a comparison. Much heavier built from the neck up, its powerful bill showed up well as a silhouette against the sun, before it eventually perched closer for a better view with the sun behind.

A Parrot Crossbill showing off its exaggerated features
It stayed put for a good five minutes or so before flying further away and eventually out of sight with its Common counterparts.

After an hour wait, another flock arrived and dropped in to a lone oak tree about 100 yards away. Another (or the same) Parrot Crossbill was spotted in amongst the flock of about 20 birds.

The flock flew off and then all was quiet. Crossbill flocks came and went during the next hour – as did a lone Yellowhammer, three Brambling and a five or six Bullfinch – but most flew straight on and didn't land.

Happy twitchers having seen three species of Crossbill
I was just about to head back home when yet another flock of around 15 birds landed in some silver birch in the mid-distance. Shouts of Two-barred Croossbill echoed around the forest as the flock flew up into some pines. And there, perched high on its own was the male Two-barred Crossbill!

A male Two-barred Crossbill at Hemsted Forest
Amazingly, my fourth from three locations in just over a month. I'm not sure how or why I have such luck with this rarity, but for some reason I rarely dip this bird! So a hat-trick of Crossbill species in one visit. Can't asked for better than that.

Thursday 10 October 2013


Birdwatching in Surrey is hardcore. By that I mean it's harder work finding decent birds to view compared to many other parts of the country. The Shetland Isles, Scilly Isles, Cornwall, East Yorkshire coast, Norfolk coast, Kent coast and Sussex coast – to name but a few regions – all have an abundance of rare birds to see during the year.

In Surrey, the rarest bird sightings this year has been a fleeting Roller (see by one observer after the bird had dropped into Thursley Common on its way out of Hampshire one morning), a couple of Red-rumped Swallow and a fly-over Red-footed Falcon.

Scarcities include one Red-backed Shrike, Great Grey Shrike, Wryneck, Great White Egret, Yellow-browed Warbler, Temminck's Stint, a few fly-over Spoonbill, a possible Pectoral Sandpiper and a couple of Common Crane. Great birds and sounds like a reasonable list, but only four were realistically twitchable – the Red-rumped Swallow, Red-backed Shrike, Temminck's Stint and Great Great Grey Shrike. In short, meagre pickings for the year so far.

In this land-locked county I live in we get very excited by birds seen regularly on the coast – a wayward Great, Arctic, or far better better, Long-tailed Skua. A Gannet, Kittiwake, Sandwich or Little Tern will get us running to the local patch. A Rock Pipit I saw at Staines Reservoir last week made my day.

So rare treats are hard to come by, and as a result Surrey birders are probably less blasé about even fairly common species than some other county birders.

I say this having read a blog the other day in which a fine Sussex coast blogger who, commenting on the fact a Yellow-browed Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher that morning had only showed very briefly to observers present, questioned why it was worth bothering with this pastime on such days!

I can't recall when the last Red-breasted Flycatcher appeared in Surrey but it must be some years ago, and Yellow-broweds only appear a couple of times a year at the very most, so even a tiny glimpse would be gold dust to us! He really should come over the border for a few days birding here to see how the other half live...

The sighting this morning of a female Two-barred Crossbill – perched high on a dead branch of an oak tree on Leith Hill – was, therefore, diamond-studded.

At the end of July, when Two-barred Crossbills were appearing in Yorkshire and Norfolk, a female was seen with a flock of about 150 Crossbills near Redlands Farm, just south of Dorking, on the slopes of Leith Hill in Redlands Forest. I'm not sure who found it, but it wasn't seen again until this week.

This time the Two-barred Crossbill was higher up on Leith Hill next to the Coldharbour Cricket Club pitch. For those who haven't been to the area before and are planning a visit, it's a remarkable spot.

The Two-barred Crossbill favours a pair of oak trees just behind the cricket club pavilion
Coldharbour Cricket Club – high up on Leith Hill
When you drive into the village, it's hard to imagine there being a cricket pitch anywhere amongst the dense woodland and steep slopes. But just past the Plough Inn, forking right off the lane is a track that runs up the hill for 300 yards on to a plateau, where the cricket pitch sits nearly 900ft up, surrounded by National Trust woodland, with a great view across the Weald towards the Sussex coast. It is here, just behind the pavilion, where there is a small pool the Crossbills come to drink at most mornings. The birds fly over in small groups and land in the trees nearby, favouring a couple of oak trees and an adjacent pine, before dropping down to the pool.

The Leith Hill twitchers: (from left to right)
Gerry Hinchon, Sam Bayley, Bob Warden, Dave Harris and Graham Osborne
After a brief recce yesterday afternoon, I arrived at sunrise this morning, and met local warden Sam Bayley. Not long after Dave Harris arrived, as well as 'Captain' Bob Warden, Gerry Hinchon and Graham Osborne. The wind had picked up and it was bitingly cold.

There have been Crossbills present in the area for many months
We set up scopes and binoculars for what was basically a birding stake-out. A case of waiting, watching and hoping. Plenty of Crossbills came and went in groups of six to ten, as did the odd Siskin. A few Redwing flew over, as did a Sparrowhawk.

It took two hours, with fingers numb from the cold, before a promising group of more than 20 Crossbills arrived from the south-east and flew into one of the oak trees, conveniently the one with dead branches poking out the top of it.

Gerry was the first to spot it – having watched a potential candidate for a couple of minutes – as it perched higher up on a dead branch. Bingo! The female Two-barred Crossbill showed really well for about a minute before flying off east with the flock.

The female Two-barred Crossbill perched up high to show well
This was a Surrey first for each of us present, a proper rarity to enjoy, and after much back-slapping and hand-shaking we suddenly forgot how cold we were.

The Leith Hill area is underwatched, probably because it covers a vast area, but its potential is obvious. During the past couple of days up to five Ring Ouzel fed on Rowan berries nearby (none today) and a Grasshopper Warbler was trapped.

Wood Warbler have bred here in the past (unfortunately not this year) as do Woodlark. During the winter numerous Mealy Redpoll get caught in the nets, as are Brambling. 

The Two-barred Crossbill, meanwhile, has been present in the area since the end of July. Hopefully, it will stay long enough for more people to enjoy during the coming weeks.

Tuesday 1 October 2013


I'd been debating whether to go to Cliffe Pools to see the Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday (looked like a tricky twitch) when a Booted Warbler popped up on Rare Bird Alert in the morning. It was seen at Hope Gap near Seaford and while it was a working week it was still just about possible to twitch after my wife Annie's 4pm hospital appointment in Guildford.

Let me digress for a moment. Having developed asthma virtually from nowhere about 18 months ago, Annie has been wading through what is the NHS behemoth in the hope to finding a medication or treatment to control it. This is particularly important considering some of her work is as a voice-over and this condition has changed her voice. Not good.

While the concept behind the NHS is wonderful, in practice it can be an utter nightmare. To say it can run at a snail's pace at times is an understatement, particularly with an ailment or condition that, while not life-threatening, can cause a great deal of discomfort and make you feel downright miserable.

Cancelled appointments have been commonplace, with gaps in between of more than a couple of months. These have been due to secretaries on holiday, consultants away or on vacation, or moving from one placement to another hospital. While you're at it add a few cock-ups in between. There has, therefore, been little continuity.

The one area that has been very good has been the speech therapy department which has helped Annie change the way she breathes. The asthma had caused her to breath higher up her airways but now she has developed a method of breathing that uses her diaphragm more. All interesting stuff, and it has helped, but in truth 18 months on she is no closer to a treatment to make her more comfortable.

So when I suggested we should drive for an hour and a half to Seaford, she was surprisingly up for it, the incentive being some sea air.

It was going to be tight though. By the time we got through the rush-hour traffic, learner drivers and tractors the light was starting to fade. Hope Gap is a fabulous spot on the Sussex coastline. It dips into a U-shape valley where there are numerous bushes and shrubs ideal for migrants on the move to feed and to rest. There is also a car park at the end of Chyngton Lane at South Hill Barn just to the north which takes the effort out of walking along the cliffs to get to it.

We parked up just after 6pm and walked down the pathway where we could see a group of birders peering into bushes. One of them, predictably, was David Campbell, aka Devilbirder, twitching the Booted Warbler after his first day at Brighton University.

We were lucky because the bird had disappeared from view for a few hours during the afternoon but was ready for an early evening feeding session and had become active again. Within a few minutes the Booted Warbler appeared on some brambles in front of us. It was quite close, easy to see even with the naked eye, and very active. A smart individual, it would perch up clearly visible and showing well for a few seconds before dropping out of sight again. It flew around the area for the next 20 minutes as the light dropped appreciably. My photos were hopeless in the low light so David generously allowed me to use a couple of his from the evening.

Fortunately the Booted Warbler showed well during the early evening (Photos: David Campbell)
When it then few low across the bushes and dived into the undergrowth it was clear that was going to be it for the evening but we had seen this rarity for a good few minutes.

We had an enjoyable walk back to the car with David, catching up with news and general birding gossip before setting off back home via an excellent fish and chip shop in Seaford.

I was planning to pay Hope Gap another visit today if the Warbler had stayed for another 12 hours but, as was always likely, it had gone by morning.

Instead I spent the afternoon in Surrey and travelled to Staines Reservoir for the first time in at least a couple of months. Target bird here was a Rock Pipit, first found by Bob Warden a couple of days earlier, but not seen today. Rock Pipits have been on the move in numbers this past week and seeing as this is a coastal bird, an inland sighting is as good as a rarity.

There were plenty of Wigeon on the north basin and Pied Wagtail on the causeway. A few Meadow Pipit flew overhead but there was one Pipit that caught my eye. Luck struck again as I caught sight of the Rock Pipit. Much darker than the Meadow Pipits it preferred to hang around the banking of the causeway on the north basin and stopped at one point for a wash. A great Surrey tick! In some ways I was more pleased to have found this relatively common bird than twitching the Booted Warbler, mostly because I'd found it my own.

Rock Pipit at Staines Reservoir
From Staines I set off for Tice's Meadow to twitch a Little Stint that had been present since the weekend. Tice's top birder Dave Baker tweeted me to confirm it was still on the patch. I arrived at 5pm and met up with Dave, who had just arrived, and he promptly relocated the Little Stint. The light was too low, the bird too small and distant to be worth taking a digiphoto of it but it was an excellent second Surrey rarity of the afternoon. A Dunlin was another decent wader sighting.

We were soon joined by patch lieutenant Rich Horton and Rich Sergeant, who'd dipped it yesterday, and after plenty of birding banter I headed off home.