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.

Saturday 22 March 2014


It's been a bit slow on the spring migration front - so far I've only seen a few Chiffchaff - but it's that time of year when some birds are planning to head south or east after a winter holiday and others are heading this way towards their summer breeding grounds.

There have been a few Wheatear sightings plus a handful of Sand Martin locally but not when I've been out and about. This weekend will hopefully be more successful.

It's also the time of year to look upwards at the sky in the hope of spotting an Osprey flying over. It's never happened to me in Surrey, but I live in hope. One has been seen at Frensham Ponds this past week - it appears to have roosted there - but it has probably moved on now.

While seeing birds on migration is high on the agenda, the chance to see a bird not normally associated with an inland county is always worth a trip out.

The morning after my Saturday visit to Staines Moor, a Brent Goose was seen on the flooded area in the south-west corner of the Moor. It was still there on Wednesday evening, so I took the opportunity of seeing a Surrey lifer at first light on Thursday morning.

A quick dash up the M25 and sure enough, the Brent Goose was still there. A smart bird, the Brent Goose. It's probably still around this weekend.

A handsome Brent Goose enjoying its stay inland on Staines Moor
Also on the Moor on Thursday, the Water Pipits are now developing their summer plumage and a couple of Cetti's Warbler, one by the boardwalk and the other in the north-west corner of Stanwell Moor, broke the quiet morning with a burst of song. Not a Wheatear in sight though.

At the time of writing, more Wheatears have arrived. It's the beauty of Twitter that other birders post up-to-the-minute sightings every hour of every day. Saves a lot of leg work.

What would be really nice to find this weekend though is a Ring Ouzel. One dropped in at Canons Farm this time last year, so look out for sightings at Canons Farm, Leith Hill, Beddington, Staines Moor, Clandon Park or Nore Hill near Woldingham.

Saturday 15 March 2014


There's been much debate recently about a probable Two-barred Crossbill seen at Farnham Heath RSPB Nature Reserve this week.

The bird appeared for the first time on Monday but wasn't signed off as an bona fide Two-barred in some quarters. Notably, Dave Harris, of Surrey Bird Club, was reluctant to announce it was the real deal, suggesting it might be a winged-barred Crossbill - a Common Crossbill with bars on its wings.

Having looked at the few photos that had been banded around, it looked like the real thing to me, but who am I to judge?

The Tices Meadow gang went for a look-see on Wednesday and they firmly believed it to be a Two-barred. The clincher would have been to hear it calling, as the Two-barred Crossbill has a distinctively plaintive, more feeble call than the metallic sound of its more common relative. Unfortunately, no-one had actually heard it.

I decided to go for a look myself on Thursday afternoon – basically I was skiving off. It had been a busy week – I'd put together a 12-page Cheltenham Festival pull-out the day before at the Daily Star, which was good fun, as opposed to the 12-page Irish point-to-point pull-out at the Racing Post the day before, which was bloody hard going.

It must have been one of the warmest days of the year on Thursday – a tad hazy, but hardly a breath of wind. Perfect.

I'd never been to Farnham Heath before, and I'm not really sure why it hadn't been on my radar until now as it is a very good spot.

It's a compact reserve, in the same way Crooksbury Common is, but flatter. There were plenty of Woodlark around, a pair of Stonechat and, pleasingly, a male Dartford Warbler, that flew over my head and landed on a nearby bush singing its heart out.

Seeing a handsome Dartford Warbler was a bonus
At this stage I'd seen a couple of Common Crossbill, but no Two-barred. It wasn't looking good. One birder had been at Farnham since 10.00am and had yet to see it.

With the sun in the west I opted to walk away from the small group of pine trees where the bird had mostly been seen and walked along the path towards the car park to the west of the reserve where I'd spotted a couple of Crossbill had flown towards and had settle in some pines.

It was then I spotted a lone silent Crossbill flying back across the reserve towards the popular area for sightings. It landed high up on a pine, clearly visible. A quick look through the scope... and there it was, the Two-barred Crossbill, showing fantastically well in the sun. And then it dropped down out of sight.

I couldn't locate it again for a good 30 minutes but noticed a few birders had gathered some distance away looking up into the pines near where I was standing. I saw movement and then picked up the bird again, perched high up in the trees.

There it stayed for a good ten minutes or more, preening itself in the warm sunshine. You couldn't really ask for more than that - and the white wingbars were cleary on show.

Most birders now believe it to be a 1st-winter male Two-barred Crossbill and another fantastic bird for Surrey this year.

The Farnham Heath 1st-winter male Two-barred Crossbill
Walking back to the car park I'd left my binoculars on the heath and had to go back for them. On the way I was startled by a Woodcock I had accidently flushed - another unexpected find.

After an unsatisfactory and unenjoyable past few weeks on the birding front - I was even considering taking some time away from it and focus on something else, like a second F1 stock car book I'm intending to write - it was uplifting to have some positive news for once. I don't imagine it will last but I'll take it when it happens.

Monday 10 March 2014


We're into that transitional period when the spring migrants are just starting to drift over in dribs and drabs from the continent. Maybe that's why I'm finding birding a hard grind at the moment.

Since my last trip out I've ventured up to Beddington to see the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the woods just to the north of Biker's Field. A male and a female had been displaying well for the past couple of days and I thought it would simply be a case of turning up and viewing with ease.

I tried on Thursday afternoon, spending three hours traipsing around the woods and also along the footpath that runs alongside the golf course to the north of 100 acre. Nothing. I think I saw the pair flying above me for a split second before they disappeared, but I couldn't be certain.

It was demotivating, that's for sure. With little time to spare, I find I'm spending more time trying to go for an easy twitch than taking a casual walk somewhere with few expectations.

With no time left to go anywhere else, I went back at first light the next morning. This time I was lucky and within a minute of arrival I heard the distinctive drumming and calling, and moments later I found the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on the trunk of a small oak.

Thank Christ for that! It soon flew across the wood and I relocated it sharing another tree with a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which was an opportunity to compare the size difference.

I moved round for a better look and it disappeared. And that was the last time I saw it, hence no digiscope images.

A sense of relief, more actually than satisfaction. That's got to be wrong, but that was how I felt, which is a shame.

On Saturday, after another radio slot on Annie's Saturday morning breakfast show on Redstone FM (local to Surrey, south London and north Sussex, online and DAB), when I discussed the spring migration and what I hoped to see during the weekend, I went off to Leith Hill, where I met up with Paul Stevenson.

With the dry period we're having at the moment I was hoping (always a longshot) that the Two-barred Crossbill may make an appearance near the Coldharbour cricket pitch, to drink from the pool there.

A singing Woodlark on Leith Hill was the highlight of the day
Six Crossbills flew over during the afternoon, but sadly the Two-barred stayed away. Not much was happening in the stiff breeze, apart from a singing Woodlark, which was nice to see.

On the way to Banstead to the shops (I had errands to attend to) I popped in at Mickleham to try and find some Marsh Tit, but drew a blank. With time running out, I paid a quick visit to Banstead Golf Course to dip the Firecrest and then on to Sutton where I located the pair of Peregrine high up on Quadrant House.

The male Peregrine perched high up on Quadrant House in Sutton
With the light fading, a quick walk round the local patch produced little of interest apart from the resident Little Owl in the oak on Mercers Farm close to the footpath.

I was out all day yesterday when the news came through of a pair of summer-plumage Black-necked Grebe had turned up on Mercer's Lake, found by the Surrey Bird Club group on their planned visit. A local patch mega.

No sign of them this morning. Tedious and people reading this blog must think the same thing as I'm conscious the blog is currently an uninspired read. Compared to other blogs, I need to do much better and not just churn out dull and repetitive tales of woe (like this one).

It also occurred to me that I'm frantically chasing a Surrey list again, when I told myself I wouldn't. There just isn't much point in me doing one this year because the amount of time I can spend is minimal compared to others. And all that happens is I repeat the process year in, year out and pretty much in the same order.

I haven't really enjoyed any of it. I need a rethink.

Monday 3 March 2014


Leith Hill
I managed a couple of half-day trips out during the week, both of which began on Leith Hill in search of the female Two-barred Crossbill.

Weather dictates whether this rare Crossbill makes an appearance or not. Wet weather means it goes missing, but during a dry spell there's half a chance it will appear up in the pines close to Coldhardbour cricket pitch.

It's been wet most of the winter, so sightings had ground to a halt for a number of weeks until a fortnight ago. Sam Bayley had a brief view of it with a flock of about 20 Common Crossbills on February 16 (he also saw a Rough-legged Buzzard) and another on February 26. These sightings were after a few days without rain.

What's the significance? When it's dry, the one guaranteed spot where the Crossbills fly to for a drink is a pool behind the cricket pitch. When it rains, large puddles of water can appear anywhere over the large expanse of the Hill, so the Two-barred is less likely to turn up.

I went up on Thursday afternoon – the sun was out – but it had rained overnight and storm clouds were gathering. A group of six Crossbill eventually flew into the trees close by on the heathland, but that was it.

I do enjoy it up on Leith Hill, though. It's a great spot for Siskin – there were plenty flying to the feeders set up by the wardens. A flock of about 20 Lesser Redpoll also flew in at one point, before flying off again when a Kestrel appeared. Three Buzzard drifted over, followed a short while later by a Red Kite, while a Tawny Owl called out from the woods.

I went back on Saturday lunchtime, but once again the Two-barred kept away. A quiet afternoon, apart from a Raven calling in the distance. I met up with David Campbell and Ian Jones and after an hour or so Ian and I set off for Thursley Common.

The hope here was to see a Hen Harrier on the Common. A male had been seen in the late afternoon during the week. It was always going to be a longshot, as you have to be in the right place at the right time – which, in my case, has yet to happen!

We walked over to the area where it might appear, at the same time listening out for Dartford Warbler, but we didn't even hear, let alone see, one in all the time we were there.

One of the breeding Curlew flew over, and we saw plenty of Stonechat, but no Harrier or Dartford Warbler.

Great Grey Shrike on Shrike Hill
A bit disheartening. Having already spotted the Great Grey Shrike in the distance perched up on a dead birch on Shrike Hill when we first arrived, we decided to go for a closer look on our walk back to the car park. It didn't disappoint. As the sun dipped lower in the sky and light began to fade, we found the Shrike sitting quietly, preening itself high up on a dead pine tree.


Great Grey Shrike – always good value
It was settled and stayed put for a good ten minutes before a Crow forced it to fly further onto the hill. Seeing the Shrike made up for what had been a bit of a disappointing afternoon.