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 19 June 2015


The Hudsonian Whimbrel. Flippin' 'eck! Even the name wears you out. Cutting to the chase, I did actually see this American wader, but only for about 30 seconds, and I spent probably 12 hours of my time and nearly 250 miles of driving to get that fleeting view. That's nearly a whole working day of my life for 30 seconds. Bloody ridiculous.

But it was entirely my own fault. Twitching, you see? No good can come from it. I went down on Thursday morning in the insane belief I could get a filthy tick-and-run before promising to spend the afternoon with Annie on a warm summer's day. And I had to pick her up after work. If I was late she would have to wait, and she doesn't like to do that for too long if I have been twitching...

A Whimbrel – but not the Whimbrel
What happened? I saw two Whimbrel, then within 30 minutes I had to leave. Apparently some bloke turned up only slightly earlier and had a wedding to get to in Guildford which left him with only a handful of minutes to spare to get back to Surrey. That news marginally made me feel better. If he got stuck in a traffic jam on the way back, it was game over, he was sleeping in the car.

As it was, I had lots of stress attempting to drive like Lewis Hamilton on my way back home, and having not achieved my goal prior to the attempt it was a miserable experience. Thankfully, the rest of the day was great. Sun, food, banter, alcohol, sleep. As it should be.

What the hell was I thinking driving all that way for a few minutes?  But that was the issue. I wasn't thinking at all.

And I didn't think much on Sunday. A Black-eared Wheatear sprouted at Acre Down  in the New Forest on Saturday and I thought I'd give it a go on Sunday morning. I got up later than hoped but set off, with a stop for breakfast at Cobham on the M25.

The Wheatear, predictably, had gone but it meant I could divert attention to the Yank Whimbrel. Surely this would be straightfoward. But no.

I got down to Church Norton by 9.30 and soon met up with a pair of birders I hope to meet up with again in the future. Actually, the highlight of the day was meeting some great people. Simon and Neil Payne for Northamptonshire (Rushden, to be precise) were great company as were Simon Hudson (we named the Hudsonian Whimbrel 'Simon' in his honour) and his mate Terry (sorry mate, I may have got you name wrong but you are in the photo below if you could put me right), as well as another guy for Holland Haven who's name may have been Adrian Goring, but my memory is rubbish.

The Hudsonian Whimbrel twitching gang
The banter during the morning/afternoon was the best bit of the day as the birding was dire. Highlights during the first five hours  were a Cuckoo flying low across the harbour, a Little Tern darting around feeding, numerous Curlew and Whimbrel, of which one was definitely the Hudsonian, but it was too far away to really id it.

Arriving at 9.30 was the wrong time of day for sure, as the tide was coming in and high tide arrived at 10.15. The Hudsonian Whimbrel was seen flying towards North Wall, where a number of birders had migrated to and were lucky enough to see it. For the majority of us over at the Church Norton end of the reserve all we could do was watch the birders on the North Wall through our scopes enjoying views we couldn't have.

Eventually the tide began to go out further and the flock of Whimbrel and Curlew (with the Hudsonian Whimbrel amongst them) flew back towards us but on to the grass island that had emerged about 300 yards away. Whatever interest there was in this course of events diminished immediately when it dawned on everyone these birds were feeding in deep vegetation and so only fleeting views of heads and beaks were seen.

An arrow clearly showing where the Hudsonian Whimbrel was
A few Whimbrel stepped out on the mud after that, but not the American vagrant as I was entering the sixth hour of my vigil. And with patience and time running out (I had a Sunday roast to cook and the shops were due to close at four!), it got to the point where I had to lick my wounds and set off back to the car park. Really not fun.

And then there was a sound of an engine buzzing in the distance...

A Micro-Lite was heading our way. I jockingly started waving at it to come over, and it duly did! Still quite high though, but it would be the best chance to flush these birds to get things moving.

Suddenly, birds were taking to the air and eventually the Hudsonian Whimbrel was spotted circling back towards the island and it duly turned to show its rump and the lack of white confirmed it to be the bird in question. I saw all this through my bins.

It then landed back in the undergrowth. I had to leave as it was getting horribly late. At least I got to see the damn thing, but hardly worth the wait.

Predictably, an hour later it marched out on to the mud for everyone present to have great views. It is still showing well each day as I write this but I don't think I'll make the effort to go down again.

Where to next time? Well, unless something unbelievably good appears within an hour's drive away, it would be nice to enjoy local birding and Thursley Common looks a great place to visit at the moment. Obliging Hobbys, Redstarts, Dartford Warblers, Tree Pipits and Woodlarks.

Sounds like a proper day's birding.

Thursday 4 June 2015


I've been on a lucky role of the dice twitching this past few weeks and yesterday I went for what Steve Gale would refer to as another attempt to role a six. The difference between twitching the Greater Yellowlegs and the Red-footed Falcon compared to the White-winged Black Tern at Wareham in Dorset, however, were two-fold.

The first was the distance to travel, which in the White-winged Tern's case was twice the travelling time – more than two hours. The second difference and perhaps more troubling was that with the Yellowlegs and Falcon I was pretty certain each bird would still be there when I arrived (the Yellowlegs was elusive but has stayed in the area since January). The trip to see the White-winged Black Tern was based more on pure optimism rather than certainty.

Twitching is a troubling side to birding – well, it is for me at any rate. For one thing it can only be a satisfying experience if you see the bird in question, and even then the first emotion is more a sense of relief. If you fail to connect with the target the sense of disappointment can prove utterly soul-destroying. A form of mental torture. I had that feeling when I first arrived at Swineham Gravel Pits, but more of that later.

As time has gone by I have come to learn that twitching for me is a necessary evil. I want to see new birds and the only way to guarantee that is to twitch, particularly as to my location in Surrey is probably Britain's worst county for rare bird sightings. 

Another issue with twitching is its tendency to become addictive. I've spoken to many birders who have continual battle of wills with respective partners because of their birding 'habit'. Birding, and particularly twitching, is a breaker of relationships. There is nothing a partner resents most than for the birder to continually put his needs before theirs. It generally doesn't work without clear boundaries. 

The other areas of birding do have there limitations, unfortunately. While patch birding has its wonderful moments, once the migration season had come to an end there is not a great deal new to see. It can become very dull for long periods, interspersed with short bursts of high eleation.

I've concluded that my ideal birding experience is to stay for a few days in one particular area renowned for good birds and see what I can come up with. A virtual world of discovery. With that in mind I intend to spend a few days away around September 20 (my late dad's birthday). I'm not sure where yet but I will be influenced by the weather.

Back to Wareham, I was lucky with the weather yesterday as it was truly a lovely morning when I got out of the house at 5.45am.

The journey down to Dorset was relatively straightforward with breakfast on the way and apart from quite heavy traffic I arrived just before 9am. I knew the Tern was still present as someone had put the news out about an hour earlier.

Another birder was just walking down the footpath, heading towards the lake and I gathered my stuff and followed. Another chap was walking back and confirmed the bird was showing well and also gave me directions. A Cuckoo sang – my first of the spring. A Hobby flew south. So far so good.

I got to the viewing point just as the birder who arrived just before me was putting up his scope. He had just been watching the tern flying up and down the water for about a minute before I arrived. But it had just disappeared. 

Minutes passed and still nothing, and then another birder approached from the east side of the lake and asked if we had seen the tern. My companion said he had. "That's good," said the other birder, "did you see it fly off?"

"Fly off?" I interrupted.

"Yes, it has just flown off in the direction of Poole Harbour."

"You're kidding me. Does it tend to fly back?"

"Yes, but I couldn't say when. Probably later this afternoon – or this evening."

Oh, for fuc...  The White-winged Black Tern had departed literally as I had arrived. It had taken me, with a stop, more than three hours to get there and the bird decided to fly off LITERALLY as I stopped to look over the lake. You couldn't make it up.

Except you could. This sort of thing happens a lot with twitching. Many a birder has a torrid tale to tell of a failed twitch. It's a nasty old business, as I was experiencing at 9.10am yesterday morning.

I had to get back home for the afternoon so this was truly awful news. I tried my best to contain my anxiety and stress. I like to compare it to the stress Lewis Hamilton must have felt when he exited the pitlane at Monaco to discover his Mercedes team had made a huge cock-up and what was going to be an easy victory after a faultless weekend had turned into a nightmare and a derisory third place (tongue-in-cheek this, obviously. This was much worse). 

Hamilton was able to get over that, and so I could do the same here. 

After gathering my senses into some sort of rational and philosophical perspective I followed my two birding companions around to the eastern edge of the site to look across at the reeds and a female Marsh Harrier flying low to the south. Very nice, but I really couldn't give a toss at that moment.

As we were watching this I looked across at some gulls flying about to the north. I thought I noticed something darker flying west. Probably a pigeon.

And then another group of birders below our original vantage point beckoned us. The tern was back!

What a blessed relief!

What a stunner!
A brisk walk back to our vantage point and a quick look through the bins and there it was.
The White-winged Black Tern was once again flying up and down the lake feeding as it went.

The stress immediately ebbed away. 

What a striking bird it was. In full summer plumage this stunner stood out like a beacon against the backdrop of green leaves and blue sky with its mix of jet black, grey and white.

The stunning White-winged Black Tern stood out
against the backdrop of the lake
Black Terns are a joy to watch but this bird... well, you simply couldn't take you eyes off it.

I spent the next hour watching this graceful and agile Tern swoop and dive for food. A sight you could never tire of watching.

The White-winged Black Tern spent more than an hour
flying upwind on the lake
I had struck lucky once again. The last two lifers have been birds so enthralling to see and to watch in action.

Birding is always about being in the right place at the right time. That afternoon back in Surrey, a few miles from where I live, two Bee-eaters were seen at Betchworth Quarry. They may have flown over Holmethorpe earlier, who knows?

But I wasn't complaining. The White-winged Black Tern wasn't seen today.

Tuesday 2 June 2015


June is perceived to be one of the low points of the year for birding, although I'm not sure why. The spring migration may be over but it's a month when rare birds can pop up anywhere, especially if there is some unseasonal weather to add to the mix.

Having successfully located the Greater Yellowlegs a couple of weekends ago I've been grounded by work commitments ever since. June is always a busy month for me, especially at the Daily Star.
Not only do I have to put together a 16-page Epsom Derby pull-out (this Friday as it happens), but in two weeks time I'll be organising eight-page pull-outs for each day of Royal Ascot.

Added to which I've another racing magazine to design by the end of the month and the Racehorse Owners Association AGM and lunch event to create branding and literature for, as well as designing an Annual Report (which I've just finished today). Busy times, so birding once again goes on the back burner for much of the time.

When I went for the Yellowlegs, I contemplated travelling to Dorset for the female Red-footed Falcon at Wareham. I didn't go in the end – it was just too far in the circumstances –  and surmised I'd would eventually get to see one closer to home, either somewhere in Sussex or Kent.

For once, my decision was the right one, as a Red-footed Falcon appeared near Barcombe Mill near Lewes over the weekend.

It was still there yesterday, so I orchestrated some time to go down in the afternoon.

So glad I did. What a fantastic bird – my highlight of the year so far.

The Red-footed Falcon at Barcombe Mill – what a bird!
Two stunning Hobby perched close by
The directions were a tad misleading (you had to walk over a second wooden bridge alongside the river to the fields where the Falcon was performing) but it wasn't long before I was watching this stunning female Red-footed Falcon hunting, along with a couple of Hobby.

With care you could get relatively close
She was flying low across the adjacent field and would often swoop close by, at one point hovering momentarily just ten feet above my head. Beautiful summer plumage, with orange head and underparts, white head with black eye strip and slate grey wings, the Red-footed Falcon would perch close by, which gave me a chance to study her at length.

I enjoyed close-up views of this stunning falcon
The two Hobby were great value too, also perching just a few yards away. I actually managed some half-decent digiscope shots of them.

I stayed for about an hour enjoying the display before heading back to the car. I bumped into David Campbell on the way – haven't seen him in a long time so it was good to stop for a chat.

My bird of the year so far
The weather today is stormy to say the least – gale force winds and rain – ideal weather, in fact, to blow in a few headline birds somewhere in the south-east. The next few days could be interesting.