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.
It had been a week since a disastrous trip to Thursley Common, where for the second visit in a row I got caught out by storm-force winds and torrential rain while stuck in the middle of nowhere. My protection from the elements was a lone pine tree behind which I spent two-thirds of my afternoon trying in vain not to get soaked down to the skin.
I made a third attempt on Saturday, and at finally it paid off. The Great Grey Shrike had been lying low for the past couple of weeks, probably due to the weather, but it had made an appearance on Friday and was seen again during Saturday morning.
With a similar bird at Papercourt Meadows also proving to be elusive, I was beginning to think seeing a Great Grey Shrike in Surrey this winter may not happen.
But as it turned out I locked on to it very quickly, admittedly with the help of a nice couple called Phil and Sherry Penteck from Kingston, who were watching it from the footpath at the northern end of Shrike Hill.
Phil, I discovered, is originally for Keighley in Yorkshire, and he proved how small a world it is. I found myself talking to a birder I had just met on Thursley Common about Frankie Wainman, a man I know well. He's a stock car driver who lives up the road from Keighley in Silsden. I'm a big stock car fan, and I discovered that both Phil and I used to watch him in action during the 70s and 80s at tracks like Belle Vue and Bradford's Odsal stadium.
This bombshell was of no consequence to the Great Grey Shrike, who was showing well on and off for some time, although extremely mobile, feeding while the weather was good.
There are differing views as to whether this Shrike is the same bird returning to Thursley each year or first winter birds who find Thursley perfect habitat for their feeding needs. Personally, the former theory fits better. We have other wintering species returning each year to similar spots – the Firecrests at Banstead Golf Course being a case in point, but I'm more than likely to be wrong. It would be fascinating to track a Shrike to see where it goes each winter.
The Thursley Common Great Grey Shrike on Shrike Hill
I was relieved it had turned out to be a successful visit, which also included a Woodlark and a pair of Crossbill feeding in the pines to the south of Shrike Hill.
A Common Crossbill perched in pines at the southern end of Shrike Hill
On the way home I popped in at a very boggy Papercourt Meadows as the sun was going down, to see a Barn Owl hunting in the half light. Considering how crap the weather has been in recent weeks – and how little time I get out in the field – it had been a decent afternoon.
I currently do a couple of days a week at Express Newspapers – actually, it's for the Express' sister paper, the Daily Star.
I work in the sport department on the horseracing desk. On Wednesdays I run the show on my own and on Fridays I work with a small team who put together ten pages of Saturday cards and editorial.
It helps to pay the bills, and actually it's good fun. Newspapers have been a significant part of my working life for more than 25 years – Racing Post, Motorsport News, the Independent and now the Daily Star.
All of them have been different in their approach to producing a finished product. At Racing Post the atmosphere is vibrant, almost bedlam on occasions, while at the Daily Star it's much quieter and more measured.
A bit of a surprise, you may think, but there's a reason behind that. At the Post everyone is working on the same topic, horseracing, while at the Daily Star, it's split into smaller pockets – one group work on features, another on news, another on sport. None of them mix that much so the paper is the sum of its parts, whereas at the Racing Post its all hands to the pumps.
The Express and Daily Star sports teams work alongside each other, unlike the rest of the sections. There's plenty of banter on the latest issues, whether it's Kevin Pietersen's dismissal from the England cricket team (most believe he had to go) or José Mourinho's master-class dismantling of Manchester City by his Chelsea team (everyone was in agreement Mourinho is a genius, even if they weren't a Chelsea fan).
One of the other occasional side issues is about the Daily Express front page story. More often than not the Express will lead on the weather – KILLER STORM ON ITS WAY, WORST STORM THAN '87, etc. They run these often, and occasionally, by the law of averages, they will be right.
No other paper does this. But maybe they are missing a trick. The Express management wouldn't run these repetitive headlines unless they thought their readers wanted to read them – and the bottom line is their readers do want to read these type of stories.
I'm not sure of the psychology behind it but I imagine it has something to do with readers having some perverse satisfaction out of reading about impending doom close to home. No different perhaps to rubber-necking on a motorway to gawp at a multiple-car accident on the opposite carriageway.
Whatever the reason, there's no getting away from the fact the weather is a major topic of conversation. It is unavoidable. Never in living memory has Britain been so bombarded with low-pressure weather fronts of this magnitude. Floods are now a way of life rather than a one-off occurrence.
Today, obviously, was no different.
I was up early – 5am – as I was dropping Annie off at her new radio show on Redstone FM, a local digital and online radio station that covers Surrey and South London. She's only been doing it for the past three weeks, but I will say (and I would, wouldn't I) she is doing a brilliant job on her Saturday breakfast show between 7am and 10am, considering she has such little experience at running a gig like this.
She's worked hard to create a theme for her programmes each week. Last week it was holidays, including talking to a top lawyer on what to do if your holiday goes wrong, while this week it was insomnia, with pre-recorded interviews with sleep experts, including one from Guy's Hospital. Fascinating and surprising stuff.
Next week it's all about London Fashion Week, with a brilliant interview with the media director of the London College of Fashion.
In among all this highbrow stuff, I do a five-minute slot on local birding each week (in the last hour) before setting off somewhere to actually do a bit of birding, and then report on it the following week.
The weather took up some time on today's slot, as I had deliberated about travelling to Papercourt Meadows to locate a Great Grey Shrike that has been there since last November at least.
The weather was so bad, with gales and storms predicted, instead I went on a 120-mile twitch.
I just couldn't resist the chance of seeing a Red-flanked Bluetail, particularly one that has been showing so well this past week or so.
The weather on the way to Marshfield on the Gloucestershire/Wiltshire border was pretty grim – hailstorms, strong gusts, spray, rain, bright sunshine – just about everything apart from snow.
I wasn't totally convinced it was going to be the best idea I had ever come up with, as by the time I parked the car the wind was very strong – not the sort of weather condusive for viewing a pretty Bluetail.
But I needn't have worried. The Red-flanked Bluetail was showing very well, considering the conditions. What this amazing little bird was doing at the bottom of a picturesque valley near Marshfield in Gloucestershire in February is hard to fathom, but it proved that if you look hard enough something amazing is likely to turn up literally anywhere at any time.
The Red-flanked Bluetail at Marshfield – an amazing little bird
In February this possible first-winter male should be wintering in south-east Asia, India, the Himalayas or Indochina and then breeding in Siberia or eastern Scandanavia in a couple of months time, rather than feeding off mealworms deliberately sprinkled below a hawthorn bush during a gale and stare-rod rain in the middle of the western English countryside...
I'm not complaining though. What a fabulous little bird.
On Twitter it's simply known as #TheRes. This is not necessarily a term of affection, as this is a place that it imposes its will on all who step foot there.
Birding at Staines Reservoir is always hardcore. It's the inland version of a seawatch. Exposed as visitors are to the elements along the causeway, the weather is always that little bit more intense than anywhere else in the area.
As a vista it ain't pretty. Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport is the view to the north, the banks of the King George VI reservoir to the west.
In summer, it's the flies you have to contend with – millions of them. So many, you almost involuntarily inhale them. And on a hot day, it's always just that little bit hotter at The Res. The place then is like walking into a kiln.
But it is during a cold snap in winter when the wind's blowing, that birding at The Res is at its toughest.
And on Saturday the winds did blow. By Christ, they did up at The Res. It was soul-sapping. The wind never abated, just tore into you face like an ice-cold Dyson hand-dryer switched on permanently.
And it is in this environment you try to watch birds peering through a scope. Virtually impossible.
A Great Northern Diver, a Staines Reservoir speciality, was present on the south basin, but with the Diver's propensity for spending more time under water than above it, it was very difficult to locate.
I had been there an hour and hadn't seen it when the Tice's Meadow gang arrived. They had been to Barnes Wetland Centre hoping for a Bittern, but left with a Pintail. At The Res, the Great Northern Diver was the objective, but it never showed up. I'd had just a two second view prior to the gang arriving. And it was another hour after they left before I got a decent one.
Birding is frustrating. I'd spent all this time with little to show for it, when an old codger arrives and picks it up within a couple of minutes. This, obviously I was thankful for. The Great Northern Diver was preening for a few minutes before another dive for food.
The Great Northern Diver makes an appearance
It then emerged, like a World War Two U-boat, bursting out of the water having captured a fish. A great sight.
A handsome drake Scaup
The Scaup (centre) in among a number of Tufties
I also saw a Scaup and another Staines speciality, a Black-necked Grebe, before travelling over to Staines Moor.
Staines Moor, not to be mistaken for the Everglades
A Water Pipit at Staines Moor
The target at The Moor was a Short-eared Owl. It was a bit of a longshot as the wind was probably too strong at that time for one to choose an evening hunt. After a long trudge wading through water, I saw two Water Pipit, a Cetti's Warbler by the boardwalk and three Little Egret.
A Short-eared Owl made an appearance on Sunday, so I ventured back to The Moor late yesterday afternoon, where I met up with top local birder Dominic Pia.
Dom couldn't stay long so missed out on the Short-eared Owl when it made an appearance at 4.40pm. It was hunting to the north end of the Moor, so being in the southern end, views were quite distant, but it was good to connect with one of these fabulous birds before a persistent Carrion Crow forced it to move.
The Moor is going through a purple patch at the moment. I saw seven Water Pipit during my visit. There were definitely seven as that many took to the air at one point. I also saw six Little Egret, although ten were seen during the afternoon – a site record. Another great spot had been a female Merlin successfully catching a Meadow Pipit. I wish I'd seen that.
So in the space of a mile you can see a Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Scaup, Short-eared Owl, Water Pipit, Merlin, Little Egret and Cetti's Warbler. Not bad for an inland county region.