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.

Friday 30 May 2014


As is often the case when I've returned from a trip, the birds come flooding in where I've just left. While at Portland, I saw virtually nothing on the land migrant front, but a week later – the week I really wanted to take off but work forced the issue – the predicted Bee-eater appeared at the Portland Bird Observatory, four in total, plus a Serin, a Common Rosefinch and a Red-footed Falcon.

The last three would have been lifers, but that's simply how it goes. Last year I went to Spurn in September the week after the influx of Greenish Warbler and Wryneck and left two days too soon to see a Great Snipe.

I really need to take a couple of weeks away somewhere abroad to really get a fix of decent birds. Stuart Winter at the Express told me about a trip he'd recently made to Morocco which sounded utterly fantastic, and Sean Foote has recently written a number of posts about his amazing trip to Provence.

It makes you wonder why we bust a gut to see some of the birds that drop in here, birds that are really two-a-penny on the continent. But maybe this dearth helps keep us on the level and appreciate any half-decent scarcity when it turns up. I live in East Surrey so I should know this better than most.

I've had a couple of trips to Hindhead and the Devil's Punch Bowl recently. One prior to Portland and one yesterday afternoon. Prior to Portland I saw a Spotted Flycatcher, which was nice, and today a Cuckoo perched on some wires and a pair of Redstart.

The Devil's Punch Bowl
Beech trees in the ancient woodland down in the valley
A very small butterfly on our route. No idea what it is
While there were no Wood Warbler anywhere to be heard or seen, it is always an enjoyable place to visit. A beautiful spot and such a variety of habitat.

On Sunday I had time to venture out and chose to visit Cliffe Pools in Kent. I went to see the Black-winged Stilt, although prior to the visit I didn't know exactly where they were supposed to be.

Having walked around the site for about two hours without any luck, although I'd seen numerous Avocet, heard plenty of Nightingale and seen a couple of Cuckoo – I was about to give up when I had a stroke of luck. Walking up one of the paths alongside the lagoons I noticed an RSPB 4x4 parked by the edge of the water and a scope pointing out to one of the islands ahead. Lucia, a volunteer, was sitting in the drivers' seat reading a book. I asked if the Stilts were visible and she pointed out the female Black-winged Stilt sitting on the nest. As they were clearly trying to breed, the RSPB had set up a 24-hour watch of the Stilts just in case unwanted egg collectors came poking their noses around the area.
The male Black-winged Stilt takes over duties from his partner
Every 45 minutes or so, the pair of Stilts would swap over to allow the other to go off and feed. The male was late, arriving back a good 30 minutes behind schedule, the female had been getting more agitated as the timed ticked by, and it wasn't long before she flew off over the water towards her favoured feeding spot.

What a result!

Lucia asked me not to put the word out and Rare Bird Alert confirmed they were issuing a news blackout. But then on Wednesday the website announced the RSPB 24-hour watch at Cliffe and also Birdwatch featured a news item about the breeding attempts by the Sussex pair online.

Historically results have not been great for breeding Black-winged Stilts – only two successes, in 1945 and 1987. The other pair of Stilts currently sitting on a nest, at the Medmerry RSPB reserve at Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex, are attempting to breed in a rather precarious spot, very close to the waters edge where there is a risk of flooding. The Cliffe Pools pair, however, are in a much more secure and less risky position, and one can only hope they are successful. We'll see in due course.

Thursday 22 May 2014


I've just got back from a three-day trip to Portland Bill – well, two and a half days really. I had to leave earlier than planned.

As trips go it wasn't as eventful as Spurn last September. In fact, on the migrant front there was a distinct lack of land birds during the three days. I've never known it to be so quiet. All the action was happening elsewhere. Black Kites and Bee-eaters were popping up all over the place, apart from at Portland. Even Surrey came up with a Black Kite, with one flying through at Thursley Common on Sunday evening.

But no matter. It was still enjoyable, if only to have the time to talk birds with people who know more about the subject than me.

I met Paul Grennard on my first morning and spent the next day and a half in his company at both the Bill and Lodmoor Nature Reserve.

The spectacular Portland cliffs
Paul had been scanning the water at the Bill when I arrived on Sunday morning. He'd been at Portland for a week but had only conjured up one Arctic Skua, two Black Redstart, one Redstart and a Whinchat in that time. He was also rueing the fact a birding mate had chosen to go to Cornwall for the week rather than Dorset and while scanning the skies found two Black Kite in amongst a mass of Red ones.

Sunday wasn't to add to his total – a blisteringly hot day and clear blue skies didn't help.

Sunday was a scorcher and not great for bird watching
It didn't help me either. The sea was fairly calm and pretty uneventful, apart from the numerous Guillemot and a few Razorbill coming and going from the cliff tops nearby where a colony were nesting. A couple of Whimbrel also flew by but it was not really a day for watching the sea.

Raven are comfortable around the general public at the Bill
After a fruitless walk around the top fields for migrants, I travelled down to Weymouth and Lodmoor Nature Reserve where Paul had also migrated. It was pretty quiet again. Here, we only came up with a resident Marsh Harrier and nine Sanderling. I missed some Greenshank that dropped in earlier and a recently resident Arctic Tern failed to make an appearance.

Day one was basically only good for the tan.

Day two. Back down to the Bill, it was just me and Paul scanning the sea. It looked more promising. The wind was up and during the morning we had 50 Common Scoter, 10 Arctic Tern and 70 Manx Shearwater go through. The bird we were really hoping for was a Pom. Pomarine Skua was the target bird on Paul's list on this his last day. He'd drawn a blank up until now. Then at 8.15am a bird flew low over the water heading east. "SKUA!" he shouted. Immediately I scambled to catch sight of it but couldn't find it. "It's a Pom!" he shouted again. Now I was in a slight panic, but after what seemed to be an eternity I was on it.

The Pomarine Skua flew languidly below the horizon, all barrel-chested and spoon-tailed. It was heading eastwards along the English Channel having turned right after flying up from the west coast of Africa and the Bay of Biscay and was set to head north up the the North Sea and onwards to its Arctic breeding grounds – a brilliant sight. My birding colleague was ecstatic, and relieved. I was also delighted to have seen one this close.

The beauty of seawatching at Portland Bill is the birds tend to pass by a lot closer than many other coastal sites. As it turned out we were the only ones to see this one, as the group at the Portland Bill Observatory missed it from their more distant vantage point.

Seven Sanderling on the rocks at the Bill
We also saw another Whimbrel plus seven Sanderling that landed on the rocks below us. I had earlier spotted a flighty Wheatear which i couldn't relocate – more holidaymakers had arrived at the Bill by this time, so any migrant birds dotted around the quarry area weren't going to stay long. Never mind, it had been a good morning.

After reporting our sightings at the Obs, we walked around the top fields where a Turtle Dove had been seen flying inland. we couldn't find it.

The Portland Bill observatory
The gardens at the Obs. Plenty of Goldfinch but little else
I went back to Lodmoor via the cafe near Ferrybridge at Chesil Beach, where I stopped for a good, if expensive, lunch and saw one Bar-tailed Godwit, a Whimbrel, more Sanderling, as well as groups of Dunlin and Ringed Plover and breeding Little Tern flitting around the area.

An Arctic Tern seemed happy to hang around at Lodmoor with
its Common relatives, rather than heading north
Down at Lodmoor I met up with Paul again and we watched an Arctic Tern that has made the reserve its residency for the moment. It appeared desperate to befriend its Common relatives, but they were having none of it. It favoured a post in front of us to perch on, which gave us the opportunity to study it in detail. Very useful for id purposes in the future.

It was unusual to get such close-up views of an Arctic Tern
A small flock of Ringed Plover flew through, and nine Sanderling returned, as did the Marsh Harrier.

While we waited for paint to dry, Paul told me the story of the Pacific Diver he discovered with Graham Rees at Llys-y-fran in 2007, only the second ever Western Palearctic Pacific Diver, and how satisfying it is to discover your own birds rather than twitching other people's discoveries. He's found many rare birds in his time and it convinced me that this was the most rewarding form of birding.

If only I could find my own scarce or rare bird, I'd be very happy.

Paul Rennard in action at Lodmore
As time drifted by it was time for Paul to leave. His visit to Dorset was done. A fine chap and good company.

After he had left, the Marsh Harrier flew over the shelter and a Little Tern joined the Arctic in its discussions with the other Terns.

 Martin Cade spends an evening seawatching at Chesil Beach
On the way back to the very fine Sea-View bed and breakfast at Weston I stopped off again at Chesil Beach, where I met up with Martin Cade, warden of Portland Bird Observatory. As the light faded and storm clouds began to build, we watched flocks of 'Commic' Terns and distant Common Scoter fly by, including one large flock of more than 70 Commics that turned above us and drifted back off into the sea mist.

A storm was rumbling over the sea, which boded well for the next morning if it continued to rain overnight.

Day three and I was up at 4.45am, but the rain had failed to materialise. The third day had arrived too quickly and I was determined to make the most of it, setting up my scope at the Bill at 5.30am. No-one else was around, so I had the Bill to myself. It was cold and windy and the sea was fairly choppy.

Tuesday seawatch at Portland Bill
Within minutes the first Gannets were flying past and a few Manx Shearwater – I counted 26 in total during the morning. Then at 6am my first Skua flew into view. It was an Arctic Skua – a promising start.

Common Scoters were few a far between, I only counted six all morning and it went quiet for a bit. Then at 8.15am I had a massive result.

I noticed a Gannet fly low in the mid-distance and behind it a silhouette. It was another Skua. I quickly locked on to it through the scope and there it was, my first self-found Pomarine Skua, followed alongside by a second one. What a thrill! I watched them for a good while to soak up the experience and then managed to grab a distant digiscope shot for prosterity.

Absolutely fantastic!
Worth the trip – one of two Pomarine Skua heading east on Tuesday morning
I really couldn't believe my luck and the highlight of the trip to see one of the sea's most majestic and charismatic birds.

That was also pretty much the conclusion of my trip. A really enjoyable five hours staring at the waves. I went back to the Obs to tell the group there, where I discovered I'd missed four Great Northern Divers flying through, but nothing much else. They'd only seen one of the two Poms.

It was evident nothing else was going to turn up during the day so I decided it was time to head back home via a twitch of a Black-winged Stilt in West Sussex. Except I never made it there and ended up simply driving home.

Firstly, the plastic skid cover under the engine of my Golf collapsed, forcing a bodged repair, and secondly Annie texted me to say my dad had had a fall and was being checked out by a doctor.
With little battery left on the mobile, getting home to catch up with events was vital.

I was back into the real world within three hours.

Wednesday 14 May 2014


Nothing much to report apart from a couple of visits to Staines Reservoir. The first one was on Thursday, May 8, which was a bitterly cold day with plenty of rain.

The plus side was meeting up with 'Captain' Bob Warden and Ken Purdey, two birders I have a huge amount of respect for.
Ken Purdey and Captain Bob
Mother Mallard keeps an eye on her youngsters just a few feet away from us
The birding was slow but included 11 Dunlin plus a return of the Great Northern Diver, which I spotted flying across the south basin, circling and then flying over the causeway in front of us. We were able to see its fantastic summer plumage as it passed by, before it landed some distance away on the north basin. T'was a mighty fine sight.

After a few hours, even Bob had had enough of the autumnal weather and we all went home.

I went up again on Monday evening, where once again I met up with Ken, but the birding was hard going, just one Dunlin to show for it among the many Common Terns and Swifts. A Whimbrel apparently had gone over earlier, but I missed that. Once again the heavens opened, and it wasn't long before I was heading back in a monsoon.

A rainbow over the reservoir. The dots in the picture
aren't any of the many Swifts but the midges that take over the place
when the wind drops
The rain's coming...
So, that has been the past week to ten days. Pretty uneventful, considering this is supposed to be the height of the spring migration. Having said that, Ken had seen an Arctic Skua the day before over the reservoir, so anything can appear at any time.

What next? Well, I've planned three days off and will be going to Portland Bill from Sunday to next Tuesday, so hopefully there will be plenty to write about on my return. Whatever happens, I'm really looking forward to the break.

Thursday 1 May 2014


A complete digression from birding, but important to me. It is the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, who was killed at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994.

Ayrton Senna in the pits during British Grand Prix tyre testing
It seems amazing to me that it happened so long a go, as it really doesn't feel half that time. I remember the day well, I was working at Racing Post, having written a preview for the race the day before. I still find it hard to believe he didn't step out of the car.

I was massively into Formula One at the time, and used to travel to a few races representing Racing Post as their F1 correspondent from 1988 to 1997, after which I left the newspaper and went to work for Haymarket Publishing at the weekly newspaper Motoring News, which was renamed Motorsport News in 2000 during my time as editor.

From the mid-80s through to the early 2000s F1 played an important role in my working life. I'd loved it growing up – Jim Clark was my childhood hero, followed in my late teens and early 20s by Gilles Villeneuve and then Senna after that.

It may be coincidence, but each one of these incredible drivers past away at the wheel of a racing car. But it was Senna's passing I found the most difficult to comprehend. He seemed untouchable.

Ayrton Senna leading the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington
I think it hit me hardest because I had rubbed shoulders with the great man on a number of occasions, and seen many of his famous victories, including possibly his greatest, at the rainswept 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington, when he passed four cars ahead of him on the opening lap in his McLaren, including Damon Hill and Alain Prost who were in what were supposed to be unbeatable Williams cars, to take the lead. He won the race emphatically, lapping everyone up to Hill in second place.

He was euphoric afterwards and also in the press conference, an arena where he always excelled and was always captivating. He had made a huge statement by crushing his main rival and nemesis Prost, who he had lapped during the race. It was well known that Senna had wished to move to Williams that year because he was aware the car was superior to what McLaren could produce, but a deal couldn't be reached as Prost had already signed for the team.

I still have video footage of that press conference at Donington. Prost was downcast, and complained about his car. He bemoaned how, along with the tyres, the Williams FW15C wasn't good in the conditions, and Senna immediately leaned over and said "You can swap cars with me if you want". The comment was accompanied by laughter from everyone in the room, who understood exactly what he meant. The only one who wasn't laughing was Prost, who sat stoney-faced, humiliated.

It was a memorable moment. But for me there were many others. And some of the photos I took along the way I have included here.

1986 British Grand Prix tyre testing in the Lotus 98T
In the lotus 98T through Casino Square during 1986 Monaco Grand Prix qualifying
Giving it the beans during 1986 British Grand Prix qualifying exiting Westfield at Brands Hatch
During the 1986 British Grand Prix warm-up
Ayrton Senna was the greatest Formula One driver of the modern era. Charismatic, enigmatic, a genius. Maybe a flawed one, but a genius nonetheless.

It was a privilege to have walked in his shadow.

On a qualifying lap at the 1989 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa
Leading the 1989 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa
On the way to the starting grid for the 1990 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa
Leading the opening laps of the 1990 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa
ahead of Gerhard Berger and Alain Prost passing through the Bus Stop chicane
An adoring crowd after the 1990 Belgium Grand Prix
Waiting for the moment to go out during qualifying
at the 1991 British Grand Prix at Silverstone