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.

Sunday 29 June 2014


Ashdown Forest – Short-toed Eagle country
For the past four weeks a Short-toed Eagle, the third to be seen in Britain, has been enjoyed by birders in the south-east. It first appeared at Morden Bog in Dorset on May 31, then relocated to the New Forest on June 8, before its first visit to Ashdown Forest in Sussex on June 10.

Since then it has been seen in Cambridgeshire, Essex and back at the New Forest a couple of times. Its favourite spot, however, is Ashdown Forest and the area between Long and Gills Lap car parks near Wych Cross, where it has stayed between June 15 and today.

After all the dramas at home recently and predictable work commitments I only managed to get down for the first time on Monday, June 16 in the afternoon, where I stood from 2pm, along with many others waiting for the Eagle to make an appearance having flown into some woods, not far from the Long car park at around 1pm. While plenty of banter kept spirits up during a three-hour vigil, out of sight is where it stayed for the remainder of the day.

So, my first attempt drew a blank. I did see a Tree Pipit, Hobby and a migrating Marsh Harrier, but rare Eagles kept a low profile.

That was it until Wednesday morning, when I dashed down before work to Gills Lap. The Short-toed Eagle was last seen in that area the night before.

It is only with experience you learn how to twitch a bird like this. I got to Gills Lap a tad too early, 6.30am. What I should have done was stay in bed for another hour and a half just like a snake-eating raptor would do.

What a Short-toed Eagle is unlikely to do is needlessly expend energy hunting for prey, such as slow-worms, at first light on a cold June morning.

Obvious really. Cold-bloodied reptiles remain inactive until the day warms up when they are able to sun themselves to thaw out. It is only then a Short-toed Eagle will set its alarm and then peer down from a great height, waiting for movement and a chance for a decent breakfast.

This one is a dab hand at it, too. Slow-worms aren't exactly common and they are even less so now this Eagle has devoured most of Ashdown Forest's population during the last three weeks. Even so, there is still plenty of food about it seems.

A Turtle Dove was a welcome sighting while waiting to see the Eagle
On Wednesday, after it dawned on me that I'd have a bit of a wait, I went for a stroll. It turned out to be a good one too as, apart from a couple of Tree Pipit and Redstart in amongst the Stonechat, I saw my first Turtle Dove of the year, purring away perched on a dead pine tree.

The Short-toed Eagle likes to dangle its legs while hovering
Then at 8.45am, my first sighting of the Short-toed Eagle. It flew low across the ridge to the south-east before landing in a pine. There it stayed before taking a tour of the area, soaring and then gliding and hovering looking for food. It has been mistaken for a Common Buzzard by some as it is about the same size, maybe marginally bigger, but when it lands the distinctive head shape gives it away, as does its tendency to dangle its legs when hovering.

What a great bird. I'd like to have seen it catch something but food was thin on the ground and eventually it headed to the south west. I made a scramble to the car and also headed that way, stopping about a mile down the road, south of Old Lodge, to view the surrounding area. It was only when looking up that I saw it drift east directly above my head. It circled back towards Gills Lap and out of view. By 10am it was time to head back home to get a train to London.

Plenty of birders came to see the Short-toed Eagle on Wednesday morning
I had another window this morning and Annie decided to come with me. I wasn't sure whether to go to Long or Gills Lap, choosing Gills Lap because it was easier. Being a Sunday there were plenty of Eagle spotters around, with one bloke and his wife having driven overnight from Barnsley, arriving at dawn.

He saw a couple of Nightjar in the car park in the gloom, as well as four Turtle Dove perched in the trees. Another Turtle Dove – maybe the same one I saw during the week - was perched in the same dead pine, which kept everyone occupied while we waited for news on a cool morning.

Gills Lap car park – the Glastonbury of birding this weekend
I'd made the wrong decision for close-up views. As the air warmed up as the morning progressed, the Eagle was reported seen near Long car park and was giving great views before it drifted south east  towards us. After a long wait there was much excitement as the Short-toed Eagle cruised over the car park and went through its morning routine.

Eventually it drifted off south west. Having had luck keeping up with it following in the car, I did the same thing and managed to relocate the Eagle again circling an area further south before losing sight of it at about 12.15pm.

It hasn't been seen at the time of writing since then but hopefully it will stay for a little longer, but that may depend on how many snakes are left in the area.

Wednesday 18 June 2014


Annie and I have been together for 22 years and our little family was just us and Billie and Cato, our two cherished Burmese cats. 

Billie and Cato were inseparable
We had Cato for 17 years before he passed away three years ago and yesterday having had 20 wonderful years with her we lost our beautiful little one, Billie. 

Billie and Cato were inseparable during there 17 years together and when he died it took her at least a year to get over it. She was a spirited little cat and eventually she settled down into her old age. 

As she progressed into her 20th year, a bit stiff from arthritic limbs, she was set in her ways, sleeping on her favourite chair in the spare bedroom (her room) as well as in a tent made out of the end of a duvet at the bottom of the spare bed (her bed). She'd even complain if it hadn't been made for her after she'd eaten her breakfast.

She always enjoyed life
What made yesterday all the more hard to bear was how abrupt it was. It was a shock as she had been fine up until the weekend, a happy little thing, but her diminishing eyesight took a dramatic turn for the worse on Monday.

It's hard to take in we had been giving her a reassuring cuddle yesterday morning and then an hour later after the vet told us the news we didn't want to hear, she was gone. Our original little family of four had then been just the three of us for the past three years.

But now the house, for the first time in 20 years, seems empty. While we would not change those 20 years for anything, our little family is no more. We feel lost and utterly heartbroken.

Billie in her 20th year on Christmas Day
Bless our little Billie Boo, we love you and will miss you always. xxx

Tuesday 17 June 2014


It doesn't happen often but Saturday was a welcome day to indulge in two of my favourite pastimes. Birding and motorsport.

The plan was one of complete contrasts.

First up was a long drive to the quiet but beautiful Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe to see the long-staying Spectacled Warbler, followed by an ambitious drive across country to watch explosive high-speed motorsport action for the BriSCA F1 Stock Car British Championship at the very urban Birmingham Wheels raceway.

But then on Friday night an additional detour had to be organised as a female Red-backed Shrike had been found late on in the day at Thursley Common. My 200th Surrey bird looked like being a good one, having missed out with the Bonaparte's Gull a couple of weeks ago.

A Curlew at Thursley Common
In the event, I didn't get to Thursley until 8.30am and needless to say it was another dip. The Shrike had gone. I had good views of a few Redstart, a Tree Pipit, Woodlark and the breeding Curlews, but that was it. The highlight here, however, was bumping into the Tice's Meadow Patch Commander, Rich Horton and his loyal pal, Duke the dog.

After a quick chat I hurriedly set off for Norfolk. It was all a bit mental as plans go, as the drive was going to take three-and-a-half hours, but no matter.

While 150 miles isn't far, much of the last third of the journey is on twisty A and B roads with plenty of tractors in the way. Parking up by the footpath half a mile east of Burnham Overy Staithe there was another mile-and-a-half walk to actually get to the dunes where the Warbler has been making its home these past couple of weeks.

Burnham Overy Dunes
It was a long trek with a horseshoe-shaped last half a mile. I could see birders across the marshy area in the distance on the dunes and none of them looked as if they were focused looking at anything in particlular. They were scattered around the area, obviously on a search. This wasn't good to see.

As I got to the dunes and walked off the boardwalk to start the last part of the walk down to the area where the bird had made its home I notice a few birders walking towards me looking as if they had located it. Then a small bird flew over my head and landed in scrub next to me and started singing. It was the Spectacled Warbler hid in the undergrowth.

However, I'd struck lucky. It transpired it hadn't been seen for more than an hour and a half but someone had heard its scratchy Whitethroat-like song and so headed towards where I was walking from. It was then it flew up.

It took a while but eventually it made an appearance. It was quite mobile but at one point it perched up on a bush and started singing. Relief all round. It then flew off into some heather before popping up briefly and then flew back down to its nesting site further along the dunes to the west.

 The Spectacled Warbler has made its home in the Norfolk dunes
When a group of us eventually caught up with it the Spectacled Warbler was singing heartily and showing well on the edge of some spindly scrub. This little fella had set up home on the north Norfolk dunes and was desperately keen to show it off to a potential mate.

Unfortunately, the chances of a female Spectacled Warbler turning up at the same spot are nigh-on impossible. You have to feel for him.

The Spectacled Warbler sings its head off waiting for someone to call back

After a few minutes he flew back down the track and so I left him to his lonely task. I had to make tracks to get to Birmingham.

I got to the circuit late and missed a few races, but enjoyed the evening spectacle, despite unexpected heavy rain late on. I caught up with a few drivers I hadn't spoken to for a while including Paul Harrison, who won the Brisca F1 British Championship final.

It had been a good day, and even England's 2-1 defeat by Italy couldn't spoil it.

Two days later I was on Ashdown Forest in the afternoon waiting for the Short-toed Eagle to make an appearance after it had flown into a favoured spot in a wood to digest a meal. It never showed after a three-hour wait and another dip.

It never takes long for normal service to be resumed.

Monday 9 June 2014


Anyone interested in reading about birding, I'm afraid this post is not for you. There are few birds mentioned in this post... apart from the Bonaparte's Gull at Staines Reservoir I dipped a week ago on Sunday.

If I had been single with no responsibilities and few potential repercussions for changing plans/missing dinner at the last minute on a Friday night after work I would have seen it without a problem. A tap in. But unfortunately for me, real life got in the way and waiting until 8am two days later wasn't the perfect recipe for twitching success.

It's not that I haven't seen a Bonaparte's before. The Eastbourne bird was amazingly good value last year, but seeing one on Staines Reservoir would have been great and it would have been my 200th all-time Surrey bird species – a brilliant way to mark the event. But, it didn't happen.

From a birding perspective 2014 has been very, very disappointing apart from a handful of highlights. My birding has been sporadic and, on the whole, unproductive. I've pretty much lost any enthusiasm to venture out. Even an evening visit to Crooksbury Common to see a Nightjar or two feels more like a chore at the moment. I really can't be bothered to make the effort. My mojo has evaporated.

For that I blame the NHS.

One thing I've discovered recently is that, from my tainted outlook of the future, the NHS is irreversibly flawed. You only understand this properly when someone really close to you is in trouble and needs the NHS to come to the rescue, and pretty much let's them down.

The other very scary discovery is how inadequately prepared we are as a nation to deal with a growing elderly population. It is alarmingly scary.

My dad is 87 years old. Incredibly fit and active for his age, he worked on the land as a farm worker as a young lad of 14 until in his 50s when it finally dawned on him he wasn't going to make any money working on a farm. So he changed tack and over a ten-year period worked flat out with a market stall selling greetings cards. It wasn't long before he owned his own shop in Redhill, and bought his own house.

Retiring to Cliftonville near Margate, life sauntered along pretty seamlessly until three months ago when he caught a bladder infection. From then on his life, and the life of my mum, who is partially-sighted, has fallen apart.

It was not as if he had cancer or suffered a heart attack. He just suddenly was unable to pass water, and over a period of weeks ended up in A&E, had a catheter inserted, had a fall, banged his head, ended up in hospital delirious with a urinary tract infection, had a subdural haematoma discovered (due to the fall) after a scan and spent a month in hospital before being moved to a care home in Sandwich.

There he was doing well until another infection turned his brain to mush, and he became paranoid and convinced he had been kidnapped. The care home couldn't cope as he was becoming aggressive and was sent to hospital where they looked at him and tried to deliver him back to the home the same evening, but the care home didn't want to let him in.

There was a stand-off at the door but in the end my dad stayed at the home overnight before I was able to get him re-admitted into hospital, where he has been ever since. At the hospital he was still agitated and aggressive and attacked a nurse on his first night there. Security got involved. A nightmare. Thankfully, having had antibiotics, he's calmed right down since then and the nursing staff have been great with him.

In between times he had been taken to hospital for a urology appointment.

It was here that the NHS and any sensible decision-making went AWOL. He'd been to Urology before, where all that happened was he had a test to witness whether he could pass water, but because he was dehydrated the results were inconclusive.

For this second appointment, he was delivered by the care home to the hospital, still delirious, and a urology nurse whipped out the catheter, tested whether he could pass water, and when he couldn't he was sent on his way back to the home. He told my mum afterwards it had been 'the worst day of his life'. No-one went in with him from the home at the appointment.

It was only last week – three weeks after the urology appointment – and after I had driven 70 miles to the hospital to try and collar a doctor (I'd failed three times in three days to speak to ANYONE involved with his care prior to this) that one junior, new to my dad's case, eventually showed me my dad's notes and together we discovered vital information.

The urology nurse had asked my dad during the appointment whether he would be willing to have an operation on his prostate. Delirious and confused, he had said no. She simply wrote his answer down.

A urology nurse. One would think someone who works in that department would have some modicum of knowledge regarding infections of the bladder and how they can affect the mind. This one clearly didn't or was just indifferent.

Worse still this information was relayed to the hospital via a letter, but not questioned by doctors or even mentioned to a family member. It was just accepted as if the answer had came from a man with all his mental faculties in place. They only had to take one look at him to know that wasn't the case.

During all this time – two months – no doctor has said a prostate operation would probably sort out his urinary problems. And during this two-month period he has never been referred to a urology consultant, even though I have pointed this out umpteen times.

So it was then this junior doctor confirmed a prostate operation would be in his best interests. No shit, Sherlock. The longer my dad wears a catheter the more risk of infection and the more impaired his mental faculties are going to become.

So we had wasted three weeks. In the meantime social services are currently under pressure from the hospital to find somewhere for my dad to stay as they want the bed back, even though it transpires it is due to their ineptness he is still there.

The hospital say he is physically fit enough to leave. He is a liability to them. What is frustrating is if it hadn't been for our perseverance we would have been unaware of the letter concerning his prostate. If the doctors had informed us we could have made a decision sooner.

Aware of pressure from social services and the hospital Annie and I have been to visit care homes to find one that would suit his needs. These are NHS dementia homes as, even though he doesn't suffer from the illness, but they are more appropriate for he needs... apparently.

Dear God. There are some horrors out there. Most smell of piss, many of the staff are well-meaning but not very bright, and the environment is utterly depressing. One step away from the incinerator.

These are the places you do not want to end up in later in life, unless you are so far gone you don't care what happens to you. Truly awful. We saw three homes with at least 100 patients in care. This was one small pocket of homes in one small seaside town. There are too many people queuing to get in to too many crap homes. And the number is growing by the day.

The government can't deal with the numbers or refuse to acknowledge them. The elderly take up much of A&E time. As Annie says, there should be two A&E departments set up, one for elderly people and the other for the rest of us.

Back to the care home situation, we found one good one, but after a team from the home had been to assess my dad, they said it would be inappropriate for him to stay there.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. We have decided to go down the private route. As a family we can just about afford it. My dad needs an operation but to get to see a consultant and then wait for an operation on the NHS it will take months, and by that stage he could have had another two or three infections due to the catheter, his kidneys could deteriorate further and we wouldn't get him back in any decent mental shape.

The bottom line is if you are want anything done quickly in Britain you simply have to pay for it. The NHS has its uses but if you are old and your mind's on the blink, forget it.

Needless to say, after one phone call today my dad now has an appointment to see a urology consultant before the end of the week. It's going to cost money but at least progress has the potential to be made. If it's agreed he should have an operation on his prostate it will probably be done within a fortnight. Just as it should be.

There is a caveat, however. I'm currently in a fight with the hospital who want him turfed out. Fortunately at this time no-one wants to take him on. I want him to stay in because the private clinic he has the appointment with on Thursday happens to be joined directly to the main hospital. It's only a matter of walking him a few minutes down a few corridors rather than dragging a confused old man from a home and taking him back again afterwards.

All this time spent on one old man. There are thousands out there just like my dad – just as deserving of proper care. Tragically for us, this country hasn't a half-decent system in place to deal with them all.