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.


  1. Well put indeed Neil. There is no 'right and wrong'. We need to adopt what we think best and fend off such incursions by the likes of me with a firm sword!!

  2. Wise words as ever Neil. As I said, Its all just a bit of fun.

  3. Boundaries-schmoundaries.
    Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.

  4. Absolutely right Neil. If everyone adopted the Vice-county system, then Hampshire would be able to include bird records from Christchurch Harbour/Hengistbury Head. I'm not sure Dorset birders would be too happy!

  5. Food for thought Neil and well put. I feel like I've had my head in the sand because I live in Feltham, MIddx and must admit that I wasn't aware of the whole situation! (feels silly*)

  6. Many people that live there still found it hard to explain "where is potters bar" :D funny..