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 28 April 2014


It's amazing how taking a step back can be rejuvenating. I've taken it pretty easy this past week. Not leaping in the car to go find a Ring Ouzel has had its benefits.

I've wandered over to the patch now and again, not expecting much but managed to pop out for half an hour to see an early male Whinchat at Mercer's Farm, found by Gordon Hay on Wednesday morning. It was flitting around, perching perched on a fence near to where the Little Owl resides in an oak by the old horse paddocks, which are now overgrown.

Male Whinchat at Mercer's Farm
It was only the third spring sighting of a Whinchat seen on the site so it was another good find on the Holmethorpe patch. A short walk up the cycle path was a Garden Warbler merrily singing its head off, so a nice distraction  before heading off to London an hour later.

After that my next morning out was on Sunday. after plenty of rain overnight and showers continuing through the morning I set off for Staines Reservoir. I got there quite late, just after 10am, and discovered I'd just missed a Bar-tailed Godwit that had been asleep and then had been preening itself on the west bank of the north basin before flying off north. That's the second Barwit in a row I've missed, but I'm not bothered by it. Really.

I met local birder Chris Hazell from Bucks and two other birders, one of whom was in particular very knowledgeable and pointed out an adult Little Gull on the south basin. What was interesting was to compare the size of the Little Gull to that of a Black-headed Gull close by. They really are very small gulls.

A poor quality photo but decent enough to show the comparison
in size between a Little Gull (left) and a Black-headed Gull
The knowledgeable bloke turned out to be Tim Stowe, Director of International Operations for the RSPB. Nice chap, who also spotted 15 Common Swift flying across the north basin before he left.

There were plenty of Common Tern feeding on the north basin with at least 10 Arctic Tern with them. The Black Tern was still present, as was the Great Northern Diver, who was a distant spot at the south-eastern end of the south basin.
A Black Tern over the north basin at Staines Reservoir
Chris and I walked up to the east end of the causeway to get a better view of the Terns. While there a House Martin flew over as did a pair of Yellow Wagtail. On the south basin a Black-necked Grebe was showing well in summer plumage.

It was all very laid back. A nice morning birding.

And then it happened.

While I was scanning the Terns in the hope of spotting a Little or Sandwich Tern when Chris attracted my attention. A largish duck was trying to land on the south basin but a flurry of activity saw it fly up, chased by four Pochards.

A duck being mobbed by ducks? What's that about?

A look through the bins as these five ducks wisted and turned above the south basin revealed a large black and white duck. My first thought was some hybrid or other but as it hurtled off north it was clear what it was.

Well, blow me, if it wasn't an Eider – it was one of those situations when you think to yourself "am I really seeing this?" It was an immature male and a county first for me.

It is strange how things like this happen out of nowhere. If we'd been both studying the Terns we wouldn't have noticed it, as the event took all of half a minute from start to finish.

It was midday and time to think about heading home. I wasn't going to top that sighting even if I stayed all afternoon. On the walk back, Chris, who had left just before me was watching something on the south basin.

The Great Northern Diver was right up close to the edge of the causeway. It was really striking to see close up as it develops its summer plumage, although it didn't appear for long before it dived out of sight and then re-appeared about 100 yards away further up the causeway.

The Great Northern Diver is not far off its full summer plumage
An excellent way to end a very rewarding two hours.

Thursday 24 April 2014


Bluebells at Parkgate
There are few better sights in the world than a carpet of bluebells in spring – a perfect antidote to twitching mania. These were seen at Parkgate, near Newdigate, this afternoon, where Annie and I also heard three Nightingales further along the footpath and Cuckoo.

Yesterday the local patch came up with the goods yet again when Gordon Hay discovered a male Whinchat on Mercers Farm in the old paddocks next to the oak trees where one of our Little Owls resides.

Male Whinchat at Mercers Farm in the old paddock area.
I didn't have to leave for work until 10.30am, so was able to pop over to Mercers Farm to take a look. This was only the third spring sighting of Whinchat on the patch so a great find by Gordon. Also in the area, further up the cycle path towards Spynes Mere, a Garden Warbler was happily singing in the bushes.

It was a lovely morning, I just wish I could have stayed a bit longer.

After our walk this afternoon, I had a quick look around the Water Colour Lagoons and the Moors on the patch, where I saw three Little Ringed Plover and a pair of Shelduck. No Reed Warblers as yet, these tend to arrive a bit later, as the reeds are still underdeveloped around the site.

Tonight, as a forfeit, I'm working until late to make up for skiving off. There's always a down side.

Tuesday 22 April 2014


A recent blog post by Jonathan Lethbridge struck home this past week. Jonno has been rather tied up with work of late and only has a short period after sunrise to go out birding on his local patch. Last week he had to leave for London when a few minutes later an Osprey flew over the patch. His birding pals were happy to let him know he had been gripped off yet again.

He expressed his dismay and frustration on his blog, and similarly I went through similar emotions yesterday morning and expressed it on Twitter.

Using social media to express a temper tantrum isn't really that good a move. Just plain immature really.

The story goes that birding is a relaxing pastime, when you use the time you can spare to forget about all the troubles and stresses in life. I wish I bought into that. Fifty per cent of the time that is true, I can lose myself in the moment, but for me at any rate, the remaining 50 per cent has recently caused me more stress and angst than work often does.

Easter Sunday was another one of those last-straw moments. But after a long chat about it with my very understanding wife Annie, I've finally worked out what the problem is.

This I will explain to anyone remotely interested a bit later on.

In the meantime, here's a brief update on what has been occupying my time recently.

On the way down to Margate two weeks ago we took a slight diversion off the M20 to go and see the long-staying Hoopoe at Snodland.

The wintering Hoopoe at Snodland in Kent..
Access to view this surprising wintering bird wasn't easy. You had to climb up a steep bank and hold on to a fence as you tried to balance your scope and grab a view of the Hoopoe feeding in the private garden at the end of Sandy Lane. With only really a vantage point for one person at a time, there was a bit of a queue.
..and the queue waiting to see it
Nice bird. Next.

Work was all-consuming this past week, and the news that a male Ring Ouzel had been discovered on Staines Moor by Kev Duncan early on Friday didn't feel me with the glee it should have.

I was working at the Star when I saw the news, and knowing I wouldn't get the chance to go and see it until Sunday at the earliest, I spent the next 24 hours scanning Twitter for updates to make sure it was still around.

To add to the stress, a Grasshopper Warbler had also revealed itself on the Moor, but I had more confidence I would find that than the Ring Ouzel.

What didn't help was this Ouzel was mobile. But that was more down to the fact so many people were chasing after it around the Moor. Ring Ouzels are extremely shy birds who don't take kindly to the company of human beings, or birders with cameras for that matter, and it doesn't take much to force them to fly off. 

Which is exactly what this one did presumably on Saturday night. It must have held the view this Staines Moor place was unsafe and it was time to head off.

So, on a miserable, cold and breezy Sunday morning I found neither Gropper or Ring Ouzel, and utterly soul-destroying it was too. Five singing Lesser Whitethroat had been the highlight.

I was extremely pissed off and left in a huff. I'd only had about four hours sleep when I'd dragged my carcass out of bed at 5.30am and following the trudge to the Moor, not to find either bird was more than I could take.

My listing this year has been very hit and miss. I just can't seem to buy any luck, apart from, obviously, one absolute stonker a couple of weeks ago when the male Pied Flycatcher paid my local patch a visit.

That bird has kept me going ever since. What the Pied Fly also brought home to me was how so many decent birds will go unnoticed if there aren't birding feet on the ground looking for them. If Graham James hadn't been out that morning and hadn't gone looking round the Mercer's Country Park car park, that Pied Fly would have remained anonymous.  

Back at Staines Moor, I very nearly just got in the car and drove home. Instead, I headed to Staines Reservoir, which was hard going in the wind and intermittent rain.

Two Oystercatchers on the north basin
I locked on two Oystercatchers almost immediately on the north basin, and then the Great Northern Diver showed quite close in on the south basin, with its breeding plumage starting to appear.
The Great Northern Diver is developing its breeding plumage
A Whimbrel stood on the edge on the north basin by the causeway, while at least two Arctic Tern were feeding along with many Common Terns also on the north basin. After a half-hour interlude back at the car while lightning fired off nearby (the causeway is not a good place to be at such times) I stayed until midday before heading home in the pouring rain.

While I'd seen a few birds, I can't say I'd had fun.

Black Tern feeding on the south basin
Yesterday I went to Staines Reservoir again in the morning, where a Black Tern was feeding on the south basin, which was a still as a millpond. As I left I got a good view of this smashing bird perched on the gantry over the KGVI reservoir.

The Black Tern resting on the gantry over the KGVI reservoir
A Little Tern had been seen by one observer very early on, and two Bar-tailed Godwits flew off a few minutes before I arrived – so very typical.

A Whimbrel flew over the causeway later in the morning. I spent some time talking to birding mates Dave Baker and Kev Duncan before heading home. I was due to visit my dad in hospital in Margate in the afternoon.

My wife says when I have a poor morning's birding, it affects the rest of our day at home. I wasn't really aware it was that bad, but I knew this attitude couldn't go on.

This is when we sat down to discuss what to do about it. It was cathartic, which seemed appropriate on this particular day.

The problem is this: Surrey listing and my competitive nature dictate how I go birding. Why? Because I have to admit to having an addictive personality. Whatever I've taken an interest in during my life, it has always threatened to take me over, whether it's birding, horse racing, stock car racing, Formula 1, Saxon history. I don't do anything by halves.

This year the Surrey Birders website species league table is more competitive than ever, and while in previous years I've always been in the running and finish in the top three – I could have done even better had I not had to take two months away from birding at the end of last year – this year I have been like Manchester United and David Moyes. Just not at the races at all. And stupidly this has really begun to get to me.

This is not birding, this is just listing to prove a point. And every time I was going out I could feel the stress building – literally knots in the stomach and panic – when it became apparent I wasn't going to see the bird I had come out to see. A failed twitch had become all-consuming. A horrible feeling.

So, add in the mix my opportunities being infrequent, I tend to twitch with urgency rather than take a trip out somewhere, like Steve Gales does, and enjoy the moment for what it is. If I can learn to do that more, I will enjoy it more. Steve certainly does, and as a result he sees more good birds than I ever do.

So that is the plan. Extract my head out of the Surrey listing game and take things as they come. I really hope I manage it.

I started this plan off before going to visit my dad. Desperate for some sea air before sitting in a stuffy hospital ward for a few hours, Annie and I walked along the beach at Foreland Point and Botany Bay at Cliftonville, which is a stone's throw away from my parent's house. It is such a beautiful spot. A happy place.

The sun was out, and it was a lovely walk – really peaceful. I took my scope just in case I saw something interesting, and low and behold, I did.

Male Eider in eclipse off Botany Bay shoreline
Out on the sea dozing among a few gulls close in to the beach, was a male Eider in eclipse – something I'd never seen before.

Further out four Gannet flew by, plus on the horizon what looked like a Sandwich Tern. Above us a number of Fulmar swept by as up in the chalk cliffs breeding pairs bickered.

Tree Pipit at Foreness Point, Cliftonville
Back at the car a Pipit flew up, and parachuted back down into the undergrowth. It was Tree Pipit, presumably it had arrived that morning having made landfall.

In the space of 45 minutes I'd seen quite a bit and can honestly say I enjoyed it more than any other part of my birding weekend. I hope I have learned something.

A quick update on my dad, who is actually improving compared to more than a week ago.

It has been decided he isn't going to have surgery to remove his subdural haematoma. The specialists at Kings basically said that from the scans they've seen, the haematoma is not causing the confusion or hallunications and that we should look elsewhere for an answer. At this stage they didn't think surgery was necessary.

Good news, I guess, though I'm not absolutely sure. At one stage we were concerned that it could be dementia, but now – to my mind at least – it looks more like the bladder infection symptons are continuing to cause the problem.

It's now a case of wait and see. But the next task is to find somewhere for him next week to recuperate before eventually, and hopefully, he goes home.

Thursday 10 April 2014


For those who follow the blog on and off, it won't have gone unnoticed that I have been at my wits end trying to juggle my dad's illness, my mum's social services requirements, and a shed-load of freelance work that can't wait until the next day.

To make matters worse, my dad's situation is actually more serious than originally thought. In the last post I explained how confused he has been due to the urine infection, but didn't mention the fall he had on one of his many visits to A&E to sort him out.

He'd been at the Queen Mother Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Margate for seven hours one evening two weeks ago while he had blood tests done. Once he'd been allowed to go home after having another catheter inserted, he took a bad fall in the hospital car park, banging his head. He had to go straight back in to have stitches, and once that was done he left, with my mum in tow, at 6am in the morning.

What the A&E department failed to do, however, was to give him a CT scan to check his head. Two weeks later the hospital were certain two days ago he was physically fit to go home, but I insisted he still wasn't right. He was still hallucinating and also hadn't recognised me when I arrived to see him.

His bloods and all the tests were telling them he was on the mend, but just to check they gave him a CT scan. It was then they discovered the problem. He has a subdural haematoma – a blood clot between his skull and his brain. This was clearly as a result of the fall he had two weeks earlier and the reason why he is still confused.

It is, so my doctor brother-in-law Alan says, unfortunately quite common with the elderly and he was surprised the hospital hadn't scanned his head sooner.

So, he is now waiting for a bed to be free at Kings College Hospital, where he will be sent to have an operation to remove the clot. This will be done under local anaesthetic using a drill. Not something to look forward to and for an 87-year-old, this won't be a walk in the park by any means. All fingers are crossed. He's in good spirits considering and has had loads of visitors every day this week, which is great.

It's hard to concentrate on work at times like this, but needs must. And also, although I feel guilty about it, I also need to take some time away from it all to recharge and to have a bit of relaxation, even for just a couple of hours. I'll need to be on the ball in the coming weeks, that's for sure.

The opportunity for a distraction turned up out of the blue this morning. I got up a bit later than usual and had a quick look at Twitter to see if any migrating birds were making the local headlines.

What I didn't expect was to read the following tweet by Dave Harris: Holmethorpe SPs: male Pied Fly in Mercer's CP car park early morning (BGs).


Not only a Pied Flycatcher, but a male Pied Flycatcher on my local patch, just a five-minute drive from my house. All other work plans went out of the window and within 20 minutes I was parking the car.

It transpired it was local patch guru Graham James, still at the scene, who has found this brilliant patch sighting at 7.30 this morning. At the time he had only 12 pence-worth of phone time left, just enough to text Gordon Hay, who then put out the news.

Graham hadn't seen the bird for a good hour which wasn't good news, but we scoured the area. We were joined by John Benham a bit later, but still no sign. We split up to cover more ground and it was just after 9.30am that I relocated the Pied Flycatcher high up amongst the cherry tree blossom. Bloody marvellous.

A handsome male Pied Fly. The first male recorded on the patch and only the third patch Pied Fly ever. The last one was seen on the 1990s, so this was a true patch mega. It was also the first Pied Flycatcher I'd seen in Surrey.

The Pied Flycatcher flew over the road during the morning
It was mobile and we kept losing sight it, but Gordon Hay joined us before 10.30 and found it again. Probably because so many birders were chasing after it, it eventually flew over the road into some trees by the verge where it stayed as we left.

I'd only got a poor photo of it and thought that would be it for the day.

It was when I went over to Water Colour Lagoons in the evening, where I saw about 15 Sand Martin and a couple of Swallows feeding above the lagoons, plus a Little Ringed Plover that I came across a couple of Crawley birders who had just been to the Mercers car park and seen the Flycatcher again.

The Pied Flycatcher kept still long enough in the evening for some decent views
I couldn't resist another go and at 6.45pm I found the Pied Flycatcher again in amongst the blossom. It was one of the best moments of the year for me so far as I managed to get decent digiscope photos of a fantastic bird as it was perched on a branch for more than five minutes.

What a bizarre old business birding can be. I'd pretty much written off much of the spring and within 24 hours I was watching one of the best birds I'm likely to see on the local patch this year. All very strange.

Tuesday 8 April 2014


The spring migration will, I think, passed me by this year. I have a feeling birding will have to take a backseat for the time being. I haven't seen or heard a Swallow or a Willow Warbler as yet. But that is fine. I've more important things to worry about.

My mum and dad have been married for 63 years and most of the time things has trotted along happily enough. Two years ago my mum was diagnosed with cancer, but she responded well to chemotherapy and, while not out of the woods by any means, she is in reasonable health for an 86-year-old.

Her main problem is her eyesight. Glaucoma and macular degeneration have over time caused her to become partially sighted. Added to which she has never driven a car, and has been dependent on my dad for most day-to-day necessities. Shopping, days out, cooking, paying bills. These are things my dad deals with everyday. Until now.

A month ago he developed a urinary infection, and the life my parents had together, without much fuss or problem, has been sent into a tailspin.

Older people are prone to these infections, and they can cause all manner of strange symptoms, particularly in the brain. Hallucinations and personality changes are common, and my dad is having these on a regular basis. He currently has the personality of a grown-up toddler on acid and has caused chaos at home.

It has taken a fair number of hours for me to get most of the relevant organisations to sit up and take notice and become involved and aware of the devastation this infection is creating. After managing to get his doctor and social services involved, my dad has ended up back in hospital where he is being treated for the infection, but that only happened after a nurse went to the house on my insistence and she took one look at him and rang for an ambulance. Added to which, he has still yet to have a urinary consultant deal with his case a month after he was first diagnosed by his doctor. The NHS in a nutshell. You have to travel the extra mile to get anything done, and even then there is confusion and a lack of communication. Perfect it ain't.

In the meantime, my mum is at home, where she struggles to use a microwave or cooker. Meals on wheels have been useful, but not cheap and the variety of food is limited. And all the while, there is the issue of what happens when the hospital want to send him on his way. I'm hoping to get him in a rehab centre, a very good one in the local area, but if that doesn't happen, I can see I will be travelling down to Margate regularly to deal with the next drama.

Oh, and there's my uncle's will, for which I'm an acting executor, and having to deal with non-communicative solicitors (not been impressed so far) and arranging to put his a flat up for sale.

So, not much birding then. I've managed to squeeze in a couple of hours here and there and the digiphotos below show what I've been looking at.

The Brent Goose, five Wheatear and three Water Pipit on Staines Moor, plus the pair of female Common Scoter and the Great Northern Diver on Staines Reservoir, where I also saw 10 Common Tern feeding on the north basin late on.

I also went out on Sunday morning in the rain and fog, and failed to find a male Ring Ouzel on Betchworth Quarry. It transpired I was looking in the wrong place. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.

The Brent Goose was still on Staines Moor two weeks ago
Poor shot of Water Pipit in summer plumage
Five Wheatear brightened up the afternoon at Staines Moor on March 22
A pair of female Common Scoter on Staines Reservoir on April 3