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, 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.

1 comment:

  1. I found the Pacific Diver with Juan Brown who was the warden on Skomer at the time. Nice one on the Poms mate. I hope we cross paths again one of these days.
    Paul G