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.

Tuesday 26 May 2015


I thought I'd add to my current dipping run and try for the Greater Yellowlegs on Saturday. I had work to do at home but thought I'd zip down to the coast in the early morning before heading back in time for a decent day in front of the computer. I should have known better.

The Greater Yellowlegs had been showing well most of the afternoon on Friday and seeing as the weather was OK and there wasn't much happening elsewhere locally, I was soon heading down the A3 towards Tichfield Haven.

The Greater Yellowlegs first appeared at Titchfield Haven in January. It would then disappear for days on end but now into its fifth month in Britain it has become a bit more settled and the risk of dipping has lessened.

Having said that, Paul Grennard travelled down from Liverpool recently and drew a blank, but took the decision to travel down again on Friday and got good views of it. He also managed to see the female Red-footed Falcon at Wareham the next morning.

Titchfield Haven – minus a Greater Yellowlegs
While Paul was enjoying watching the falcon I was standing by the edge of the road on the coast waiting for the Yellowlegs to appear. There was very little activity. Ten Black-tailed Godwit dropped in, which lifted the spirits of all present, but there was really not much else about.

My only solace was enjoying the company of Rich Sergeant and Rich Horton, who had both come down to see this American wader that the same morning.

They left around midday with pressing engagements at home, but I stayed on. The best bird seen during the morning was a Black Swan. Thought I'd have a look just in case the species gets accepted sooner of later.

The highlight on Saturday was this Black Swan
I got talking to a chap from Burton-on-Trent and we figured it might be a better option to drive up to Tichfield and walk down the footpath alongside the River Meon where the fields are flooded at Posbrook Flood. The Yellowlegs had often been seen there if it wasn't near the nature reserve hides.

Plenty of Black-tailed Godwit at Posbrook Flood but no Yellowlegged waders
It looked promising enough when we arrived, as there were plenty of Godwits feeding on the Flood, but no matter how hard we looked the Greater Yellowlegs was nowhere to be seen. By 2.30pm I was forced to call it a day. All very disheartening. Twitching can be such hard work and soul-destroying. Far better to visit an area and see what you come up with.

The bird wasn't seen all day.

When it comes to birds that have a habit of going awol for prolonged periods, the process of staring at a patch of water for hours holds little appeal after a time.

The annoying thing was I had debated whether to go to Wareham for the Red-footed Falcon, but decided not to because it was just a bit too far to drive to and get back home by mid-afternoon. In the event I could have gone to Dorset in the morning and popped in at Titchfield later. It maybe hindsight, but it would have been the obvious thing to do.

To add salt to the wounds, at around 10pm, someone submitted the news a Blyth's Reed Warbler had been seen near Forest Row at around midday. I can never figure out why it takes ten hours to get the news out, especially as these Warblers don't tend to stay put for very long. Predictably, it had gone by the next morning. Not much was made of it, which makes you wonder if it was there at all.

I was busy on Sunday so I was heading down the A3 again on Bank Holiday Monday. This time I went straight to Posbrook Flood. Twitching success does depend a lot on understanding the habits of the bird in question. as a rule of thumb, when the tide is in the Yellowlegs will not be seen down by the coastal road. It is always more likely to migrate to the Flood. When the tide goes out it flies back south.

What a difference a day makes. A birder walking back up the footpath gave me the good news the bird was still around. That was a good start. I bumped into a couple of guys along the path watching the bird and one of them let me have a look through his scope. So within a few minutes of my arrival I was watching the Greater Yellowlegs.

The Greater Yellowlegs
Having been the day before I knew of a better vantage point and led the way to the path. The Greater Yellowlegs showed well. What a relief. I also had plenty of good banter with Jonathan Nasir from Hackney, who writes an excellent blog called Random Birder.

Jonathan left before me, and about 15 minutes later the Yellowlegs, which was now calling, flew to a spot closer to the path.

Great views of the Greater Yellowlegs – minus its yellow legs
A few more people arrived just as the Greater Yellowlegs took to the air again and flew overhead, calling on its way back down to the coastal area. Job done.

I put the news out on RBA that it had flown south as I headed back to the car.

I really felt sorry for one old boy, however, who just saw the bird fly overhead as he arrived. He was obviously hindered by either hip or knee problems as he was using two crutches to get about. He'd come all the way from Plymouth to see it. As he had a car, I waited for him to get back to the car park and suggested he follow me so I could show him the lane that to led to the coast.

The Yellowlegs showed well for the rest of the day so I hope he managed to see the bird properly in the end.

Wednesday 20 May 2015


Well, I studied weather charts and birding sights for the past ten days in the the vain hope of working out the best day to go for one last try for a Pomarine Skua flying east along the English Channel at Splash Point at Seaford.

It was always going to be a tall order. The weather has meant all the sexy Skuas were determined to fly up the west coast. Hardly any bothers to  head the other way. 

Huge numbers of Poms passed the Outer Hebrides and up beyond Orkney, having joined forces with a staggering number of Long-tailed Skuas, including one day when 1,307 flew by.

It has all been a bit disheartening – not if you are a Scottish islander obviously – but time for us southerners, as I've mentioned before, was rapidly running out.

Add to this issue is the fact so many decent birds had been spotted around the coast, including above average numbers of Golden Oriole, including at nearby Beachy Head. How I would love to see one of those this spring.

In the meantime, I managed a brief visit to Farthing Downs on May 12 having dropped Annie off for an appointment in Coulsdon. I only stayed for about 45 minutes but came across two Whinchat in the breezy conditions.

A distant view of a Whinchat on Farthing Downs near Coulsdon
Then on May 14, the winds changed direction and we had easterlies on the menu. They weren't exactly strong winds but they were coming from the east and that was all that mattered.

So yet again early in the morning, I trundled down to Splash Point.

Let's cut a long story short. It was rubbish. Not one Skua of any type was seen during four hours staring at the sea. The best I could come up with was a male Eider on the beach, which was interesting in itself (although the bird may not have been 100 per cent fit), a Hobby in off the sea pursuing another bird – but I couldn't work out what that was – a handful of Sandwich Tern, the local Peregrine, an auk, which I think looked like a Razorbill, and 11 Brent Goose with a clutch of Sanderling and one larger unidentified wader flying ahead of them.

While I was staring at the sea an elderly chap came over for a brief chat. I explained not much was happening, but that someone had been fortunate the day before to have a Golden Oriole in their garden up on Beachy Head. It turned out to be him! Roger Charlwood lives up on Beachy Head and the Golden Oriole flew into his garden where it stayed for half an hour, singing on occasion. One of those moments that would stay in the memory for many along day.

Brent Geese flying eastwards - unlike any Pomarine Skuas
A male Eider on the beach
Another disappointing morning for me, however. But that paled into genuine insignificance compared to what happened later in the day...

The weather began to close in as I left Seaford. I travelled back home before setting off to London Bridge for work at the Daily Star. I left home at about 11-ish, and had contemplated going over to the patch to see if anything had dropped in as the rain set in, but as time was pressing, and I wasn't feeling particularly upbeat following my morning's entertainment, I headed off for the station instead.

There are always a few periods during the day I can scan the websites to see if much has been happening around the country, and Rare Bird Alert is always my site of choice.

Annie always suggests to me I shouldn't scan RBA when I'm busy doing other stuff as all it will do is create stress and misery I can't drop everything and go and see an interesting bird.

But I always look – I can't help it.

Then it happened. That moment when your jaw drops to the floor.

In recent weeks I had been predicting a Red-rumped Swallow would grace the Holmethorpe patch. To me it was only a question of time, particularly as the Water Colour lagoons act like a magnet for hirundines, particularly when the weather closes in.

And so it proved that afternoon.

Gordon Hay went out for a brief look at about 5.15pm, and he immediately found it. A Red-rumped Swallow. A first for Holmethorpe, and only one of two sightings around Britain that day. The lagoons were a carpet of hirundine activity, with this one little beauty in amongst them

I saw the news on RBA, and was immediately in a panic. The earliest I could get out of the office was 6.30pm and because it was so overcast with low clouds full of rain, it would mean a race against time to get to the patch before it was too dark.

I set off at 6.40pm – I ran to the station, dodgy knee and all. I had to change at East Croydon but got to the lagoons by 8pm. There were hardly any hirundines to be seen. I rang Gordon and he told me the bad news. A Peregrine had swooped through the flock about an hour previously and had scattered them all.

One of the Holmethorpe crew, Matt Farmer, turned up and I told him the news. We knew pretty much that it was hopeless. There were a few Swallow around but we couldn't locate the Red-rumped.

The following morning I was on the patch by 5.15am. I met Gordon and we scanned the skies. Plenty of hirundines arrived, including at least 70 Swallow but no matter how hard we looked, the Red-rumped Swallow was nowhere to be seen.

I stayed until 10.30am. The Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins developed into a large flock, often perching in the bushes on Water Colour lagoon 2. It was quite a sight – a shimmering curtain of birds in the undergrowth.

At one point a Hobby scythed its way through the feeding flock, creating panic for a while, and a Lesser Whitethroat sang in the bushes. But that was it. The Red-rumped Swallow had clearly gone.

Feeling crestfallen doesn't really describe my emotions over that 24-hour period. Resignation, certainly. Some sadness, too. But I had to accept, and do accept as a birder you have good days and bad days.

A few days later Gordon struck lucky again and had an Osprey fly low south-west towards Earlswood Lakes. He's going through a good run at the moment and it's fantastic we have a very keen group of birders patrolling a patch that is on a roll, even if I'm not.

It's been a great spring for Holmethorpe and long may it continue.

Sunday 10 May 2015


I've not been on a seawatch since last year and this is the time of year when the charismatic Pomarine Skuas potentially migrate in large numbers.

These charismatic birds have been a bit late this spring compared to last. In 2014 vast swathes of Poms were seen all across the south-east and while I was late on the scene I still picked up three at Portland Bill in late May.

Without any three-day trips planned in the near future the closest place for me to seawatch is Splash Point at Seaford. It's an hour and ten minutes down the road, parking is straightforward and the views are pretty good. I don't why I haven't been more often.

Seaford Head
I had a bit of time to spare a week last Sunday (May 3), and while the weather was wet and windy I was hopeful it could produce some decent birds. I was able to park the car facing the sea and used my drivers' side door as a windbreak while the rain was still coming down.

The weather was persistent, to say the least, and while no Pomarines flew by I got close-up views of three Arctic Skua close to the shore plus one chasing a Sandwich Tern. I also had decent views of Great Skua heading east.

Great Skuas heading east
During the morning I saw one Whimbrel fly over, numerous Gannet, Common Scoter, Sandwich Tern, Little Tern, Common Tern and a couple of Black Tern. Also on my list were 15 Brent Goose and a pair of Shelduck., as well as the numerous Kittiwake on the chalk cliffs.

No Poms then, but still a good session. As things turned out Sunday, May 3 was the highlight of the next week...

I couldn't resist going down the next day – Bank Holiday Monday. The weather was in complete contrast to Sunday. Hardly breath of wind, and the sea was calm. It was hard going. During the day very little went through while I was there apart from three Whimbrel, one Arctic Skua, one Great Skua, one Red-throated Diver, one Little Tern and a handful of Sandwich Tern.

In between seawatching I went over to Eastbourne hoping to connect with the Red-rumped Swallow at West Rise Marsh that had been putting on a show early in the morning morning. In fact another Red-rumped Swallow had also seen there by Mick Davis but, alas, both had headed north and were never seen again.

So overall Monday was a bit of a washout. The only compensation was meeting up with a few birders I'd not met before, including Alastair Gray, who found the Alpine Swift in Crawley.

Work intervened for the next couple of days. In the meantime, stormy south-westerly winds forced up to 50 Pomarine Skua to head along the South Wales coastline with many travelling up the Severn Estuary rather than migrating further south and east towards Sussex.

On Thursday, I returned to Splash Point for another go. The weather was calm again, but with more movement of Poms during the past couple of days I was again hopeful I might at least see one or two heading east during the morning.

I was there to put together another live radio report with Annie, this time focusing on seabirds and the Kittiwakes breeding on the cliffs. I also wanted to capture the atmosphere of seawatching, explaining how the Skuas were heading to their breeding grounds in the Arctic with the sound of the sea in the background.

It worked well.

Seaford Head on Thursday
Lee Evans holds the fort while Simon Linington takes some brief shut-eye
What didn't work so well was finding a Pomarine Skua. I had the company of some of birdings most experienced birders on Thursday – Lee Evans, Simon Linington and Geoff Gowlett to name but three – but despite their best efforts they couldn't conjure up one, even though 28 had passed through Portland Bill during the morning.

Lee, in particular, couldn't quite comprehend why not a single Pom had passed by Seaford. Somehow they all missed us. Maybe they travelled via the southern tip of the Isle of Wight and were further out to sea or they flew high up (as many had been reported) and flew over land, cutting out the eastern end of the south-east altogether. Whatever the reason, they weren't coming our way.

A Black Redstart lifted the spirits
A huge disappointment then. The best birds found were birds I didn't see – a couple of Arctic Skua – although we had the bonus of a young male Black Redstart flitting about the sewage works behind the car park. I managed to see a couple of Sandwich Tern, a Whimbrel and a Peregrine over the cliffs – but very little else. It was desperately quiet.

In the meantime the Pomarines are still tending to fly west up passed Wales and on towards the Western Isles of Scotland. There is still a chance for a few to fly east, but time is running out.