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.

Monday 28 September 2015


I'd been back from Spurn since Tuesday – getting home at around 1pm after a traffic-riddled journey along the southern end of the M1 and on the M25. I was straight back into work mode the following morning and had been going flat out to catch up with numerous jobs through to the weekend.

I felt completely exhausted on Sunday morning, but I needed some compensation for missing out on a festival of birding rarities at Spurn that was developing during the weekend in my absense.

And so weariness didn't stop me heading for Essex and a first visit to the RSPB reserve of Vange Marsh for the Wilson's Phalarope.

I really hadn't expected it to stay put for as long as it had, having first appeared on September 21, but stick it did and so on a bright, sunny morning I set off on a leisurely hour drive to Vange.
In many ways the site is similar in its location to Holmethorpe Sand Pits, as it is set next to a built-up area with a railway line running alongside. Also nearby is the Pitsea landfill, which is very good for gulls.

The wetland at Vange is particularly tempting for waders as the water doesn't look as if it creeps too high. The surrounding area is flat and there is plenty of juicy scrub and reed habitat for other birds. 

There is only access half the lake and invariably the birds are likely to be quite distant to view – as was the case of the Wilson's Phalarope, which was feeding at the far end of the lake.

The Wilson's Phalarope gave clear but distant views
Despite the distance, this rare Phalarope was quite easy to pick up in the scope and gave reasonable views.

At one point the waders took flight, as a Marsh Harrier circled the area and landed nearby. Marsh Harriers, like Whinchat, are birds I never fail to see almost anywhere I go at the moment!

The other highlight was a Little Stint feeding relatively close by.

A distant Little Stint
So that was basically that. I'd had a pleasant Sunday morning trip out. Elsewhere, Staines birding mate Dominic Pia was having one of those days at Spurn I've yet to experience.

Dom is currently spending a few days up on the East Yorkshire coast, taking over where I left off the week before. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with one of the quieter periods during the autumn at Spurn. If I'd planned it for a week later I would have been enjoying some incredible birding.

He is camping at the Driftwood campsite where an Arctic Warbler was discovered in bushes next to his tent. The list of rare and scarce birds at Spurn has rising ever since, including a Blyth's Reed Warbler today, along with the numerous Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatchers and Barred Warblers. Add the the list a Long-tailed Skua, Ring Ouzel, Hen Harrier and Pied Flycatcher and you've got yourself one healthy list.

I guess this is what I should regard as character building in a birding sense. Hopefully, one day in the future, I'll enjoy a birding experience like that. One day...

Sunday 27 September 2015


It had been two years since my last visit to Spurn and I'd been counting down the days to my three days there last weekend. But more of that shortly.

Prior to traveling to this remarkable birding area I spent Saturday night watching the Brisca F1 World Stock Car Final, my annual pilgrimage to this fantastic event, hosted this year at Kings Lynn.

It turned out to be a strange and very late evening. The meeting began OK and was running to plan until the World Final race itself – the fourth of the night on the 11-race programme – which started at 7.45pm. It was a 25-lap race around the quarter-mile shale oval, which would normally take about 10-15 minutes – but it didn't end until nearly 10.30pm...

The race had to be completely restarted after two laps, which took half an hour, but the race had to be stopped with ten laps to go due to a serious injury to one of the drivers. The throttle stuck open in his car and hit other stranded cars that had spun in front of him at full chat. The force of the impact caused a dislocated knee, and his knee-cap split in two. Horrible.

The result of this was a 90-minute delay as ambulances and a fire engine were brought on to the circuit. Later during the meeting another ambulance was needed for an injury to a marshal on the centre green and in the final race of the night, a tractor on the centre green was hit by a car after the driver was knocked unconscious. What could go wrong, went wrong on Saturday night.

The meeting finished just before midnight. A good two hours later than is normal, and I didn't get to the Travelodge I was staying at in Peterborough until 1.30am. In bed just after 2.00am, there was no chance of getting up early that morning to head for Spurn, another two and a half hours up the road. I was completely knackered.

I didn't get going in the morning until about 9.00am, and I lived to regret the late start.

An hour out of Spurn, a message popped up on the Rare Bird Alert website that a Golden Oriole had been seen at the Driftwood Caravan site just after 11.00am. Fantastic!

It relocated to a tree at Westmere Farm, which was next door to the Westmere Farm Bed and Breakfast I was staying at for two nights, but by the time I got there, staring at the tree with a number of other birders, the Oriole had disappeared from view, never to be seen again...

It was not a good start, but it was sure to pick up.

I love this place. Spurn is geared up for birding. Kilnsea is the local village and birds are the main tourist attraction. The Westmere B&B is a great place to stay with excellent breakfasts and the owners cater predominantly for visiting birders. Great value, anyone who plans to stay in the area should make a b-line for Sue and Andrew Wells' excellent hospitality. Visit http://www.westmerefarm.co.uk for more details. A word of advise, though – book well in advance.

Spurn is a compact site (apart from the walk to Spurn Point and back, which is about eight miles) with all manner of habitats for migrating birds to drop into. Only the day before the earliest-recorded Spurn Bewick's Swan flew in to the Kilnsea Wetlands Nature Reserve and stayed for the duration of my visit.

Mediterranean Gull at Kilnsea Wetlands
On my first day, I had a good look round the area but didn't really come up with much, apart from the Bewick's Swan at the Wetlands, and also a few Mediterranean Gull, plus a Wheatear and a Whinchat near the seawatching hide. On a walk towards the Point where the tidal surge in December of 2103 caused the Point to be breached, I bumped into a couple of birders who had seen the Golden Oriole. One of the guys wasn't that experience and he got the best views of it, although at the time he didn't know what it was! He told me another birder they had spoken to had been to 'Sammy's Point' – further east along the Humber Estuary – and had seen a Long-eared Owl close up. It appeared I'd missed quite a lot on this first day...

Later in the afternoon I got talking to a family from Leeds looking out to sea near the Bluebell Cafe and discovered that the grandparent of the group was staying at the same B&B as me for a few days. He had enjoyed great views of a pair of Merlin causing havoc among the waders on the Estuary and also a pair of Bonxies flying upstream. All I'd managed was a Hobby that had flown in off the sea chasing Mipits. John Ward would be my birding companion for the next two days.

The Humber Estaury
At the end of day one the sun dropped down over the Humber Estuary and I headed for the Crown and Anchor pub for a pint or two of Timothy Taylor Landlord and fresh, locally-caught battered haddock and chips.

It was at the pub where I bumped into John, the two birders I saw near the breach and also top local birder Steve Exley, who was on a night out with his wife and friends. Steve remembered me from my trip two years ago and I got chatting about what to expect over the next couple of days. He didn't think we'd see anything rare (he was, unfortunately, proved right), but it would be worth some autumnal vis-migging from 'Numpties', an area next to the seawatch hide close to the Spurn Bird Observatory.

At Spurn anything can happen at any time.

Steve described one year when 120,000 exhausted Goldcrest made landfall at Spurn during one memorable day. "They were strewn like a carpet all over the road," he said. "You could pick them up. One bloke, Chris Newson, he's really tall, was walking up the path and birds were flying in off the sea and trying to get into the pockets of his trenchcoat. It was incredible."

Spurn has many stories like that. Migration doesn't come any better than the best-recorded birding area in the country.

I couldn't wait for the next morning.

The weather forecast wasn't good. Heavy rain from 10.00am onwards. I headed for the seawatch hide at 6.45am where Ian Whitehouse, from Dudley, who I met on my last trip to Spurn and one of the mainstays of the Spurn birding group, and Steve were already counting Meadow Pipits and other migrants coming in off the sea.

Steve Exley in action
John Ward was already looking out to sea for potential birding highlights but treats were few and far between. Apart from Red-throated Diver, Razorbill, Common Scoter, Teal and Wigeon, there was little else to get the pulses racing. A Marsh Harrier flew out to sea, which was a nice distraction but not one Skua or Shearwater appeared during the morning before the rain duly arrived. By then the visibility wasn't great, so after breakfast we headed for the Wetlands.

Here the Bewick's Swan showed well, plus a few Mediterranean Gull, a Black-tailed Godwit, and a couple of Knot. The rain kept tumbling down for the next hour or so, so then we opted to go back to the seawatch hide. It wasn't worth going for a walk in the rain.

Bewick's Swan at Kilnsea Wetlands
Back at the hide we met up with Ian and Leeds-based Rob Hopson, another Spurn regular. Rob is one of those Yorkshiremen who's humour is as dry as dust. He comes across as a miserable sod (because he is, but he's all the more funny because of it!) but I enjoyed his company. The seawatching was dire. John and I saw a group of three Skuas but they were far out and hard to id. John thought they were Poms, but I wasn't so sure. Highlight was a Brent Goose and a couple of Whinchat. As before there were plenty of Red-throated Divers.

One of numerous Red-throated Diver seen from the seawatching hide
A Whinchat near the seawatch hide
Rob and Ian headed off for an early tea at about 4.00pm when suddenly Ian banged on the side of the hide."Ringed-tailed Hen Harrier!" he shouted. I thought he was winding me up but sure enough, gliding low in the rough grass close to the hide was a magnificent ringed-tailed Hen Harrier.

The rich-coloured female effortlessly cruised around the area before heading off north-west. What a bird! Spurn had delivered just in time.

Rob Hopson and John Ward at the seawatch hide on Monday evening
We met up again later as the sun came out creating a brilliant sunset.

Sunset over Spurn
We discussed what may happen the following day. Ian suggested if the winds changed to northerlies, it could create classic seawatching conditions for Sooty Shearwaters and Skuas.

"So we could have classic conditions?' I suggested.

"Well, maybe not classic, but quite good," Ian replied.

"OK, I'll settle for that," I said.

"You'll get what you're given!" Rob said bluntly.

He was right, of course. And we got bugger all.

The following morning was glorious. A beautiful sunrise over the North Sea.

Sunrise over the North Sea
As the day progressed the wind did indeed turned to northerlies, but there was very little happening out at sea.

It was a very quiet and disappointing day. It was great to be out in the sunshine by the sea but there was little movement. Over at the seawatch hide, the Pipits kept on coming as did a few Lesser Redpoll, a couple of Yellow Wagtail. Tree Sparrows chirped happily as they feasted from the nearby feeders.

There was little banter as a couple of Sparrowhawk quietly hawked the area where the birding nets were. One swooped into the bushes. Rob broke the ice. "Something is about to die," he said cheerily.

I opted to go to Sammy's Point to see if the Long-eared Owl was still about. A longshot. It was very quiet, apart from a Peregrine hunting over the fields. I found out later that John had seen a Short-eared Owl flying down the Estuary. I hadn't seen it. Another decent bird missed.

Sammy's Point
It was basically very quiet, but I enjoyed the walk.

Later in the day I put in a stint of seawatching but it was just the usual fare. Ian went for a walk around the Triangle and discovered four Bearded Tit, but as the wind picked up they went to ground and were not seen again. Another dip.

Further south, in Norfolk, a Desert Wheatear showed up, but better still, Britain's first Arcadian Flycatcher made an appearance at Dungeness. We could only imagine the excitement!

After that it was really time to draw stumps on the day and the visit. A last pint of Landlord and a home-made Lasagne with John and then I was then heading home, arriving back in Redhill five and a half hours later.

From what I've just written, you could say it wasn't the most satisfying of trips, but in reality I met some great people and while the birding wasn't as good as it could have been, the banter and comeraderie was first-class.

Spurn is a unique place that will draw me back again next year without a doubt.

Predictably, the rare migrants turned up after I had left. It is now the following Sunday and 19 Yellow-browed Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher, a Barred Warbler and, to top the lot, an Arctic Warbler were all seen during the day.

As I mentioned earlier, anything can happen at anytime at Spurn.

Monday 7 September 2015


Having failed to connect with the Barred Warbler at Staines Moor on Saturday evening I felt certain this eastern European migrant – a first for west London and certainly a first for Staines Moor and a well-deserved discovery by Lee Dingain – would have departed overnight with clear skies and light winds.

But no, it was still doing its thing, feeding among the bushes on the north side of the River Colne this morning. Fortunately, I'd managed to get a job finished by late morning at home and had time to belt up the M25 to Staines to go for a second attempt this lunchtime.

The Barred Warbler showed pretty well on and off for half an hour
I met a couple of birders, including a chap called Jonathan Cook from north London. While we waited a small group of Siskin flew by, a Sparrowhawk drifted overhead, and also a Hobby and pair Kestrel patrolled the area. Nearby a couple of Whinchat darted from perch to perch.

The warbler had been seen three times during the previous couple of hours but it had been 20 minutes since it had last appeared. Jonathan walked around the other side of the large bush so we had two pairs of eyes looking out for it and, luck would have it, he soon relocated it.

This Barred Warbler is only my second ever – the first being seen in hand at Portland Bill four years ago after it had been caught in nets overnight. It was a relief to find it far more co-operative compared to the no-show on Saturday. And it didn't seem to mind the many cows and horses grazing close to its favourite spot. A really nice bird.

The Barred Warbler is a first for west London
It was a good twitch and also an opportunity to catch up with Dominic Pia, who I hadn't seen for a good few months. After a bit of a catch-up I headed back home.

I had opted to park to the south of the Moor and walk along the river, rather than down from the Hithermoor Road end, basically because I thought it would make a change. I'm glad I did.

While walking back I happened to look skywards, just on the off-chance of seeing a decent raptor. Earlier that morning the guys at Beddington had seen a Honey Buzzard drift south, followed by a Marsh Harrier flying west.

I discovered later an Osprey was seen over Homethorpe by Ray Baker at 12.30, just half an hour before I was due to leave for Staines. Just a couple of minutes away by car! Then later another Osprey flew over Chobham Common.

With favourable light winds, a raptor watch was on the cards.

Immediately two large birds caught my eye, circling above. One was definitely a Buzzard, but which sort? The other was more interesting as its silhouette immediately struck me as that a harrier. It was very dark, slightly smaller than the Buzzard (which I was hoping would turn out to be a Honey Buzzard, but I couldn't transform it), which it occasionally mobbed.

As the harrier circled it became apparent it was almost certainly a Marsh Harrier! I watched it for a while, as it eventually circled and drifted off to the north. I tried to take a photo but the camera I have is utterly useless and the image below is the best I could come up with (and is heavily cropped).

A Marsh Harrier was a surprise sighting at Staines Moor
– and a first for me in Surrey
Fantastic! Marsh Harriers are a rarity in Surrey, so to see this one out of the blue was a real thrill. It eventually drifted north.

I was mindful Dom was still in the area but I don't have his phone number. I'd hoped he'd seen it, but after sending him a tweet he confirmed he'd focused more on looking at the bushes for passerines rather than looking upwards.

Before leaving the Moor I finally saw at least 100 Goldfinch flying around the area as a flock – quite a sight. An enjoyable couple of hours!

The next few days look really promising with easterly winds liable to coax some really interesting migrant birds to our shores. If I can force myself out of bed early tomorrow morning I might head off to see what's out there.

Saturday 5 September 2015


Well, that was the summer then. Not much to write home about, was it? What made it even worse was that most of Europe has been basking in glorious sunshine with temperatures in the high 80s (old money). This side of the Channel we've struggled to coax the thermometer into the low 70s, while at the same time being washed away by the constant rain.

As we enter September, however, and the evenings noticeably draw in and it's dark at 5.30 in the morning, there is still plenty to look forward to.

Actually, this is my favourite time of the year as two major events on my calendar take place. On the non-birding side I'm looking forward to the Brisca F1 Stock Car World Final at King's Lynn in less than a fortnight – always a spectacular night's racing.

But on the birding side it is the autumn migration I'm champing at the bit to get stuck into.

It already kicked off a couple of weeks ago, with plenty of migrants heading south. Swallows and Sand Martins gather in large numbers on the coast, feeding up ready for the journey south and the Swifts have all but gone now – I saw one lone bird yesterday afternoon at Seaford.

It is the time of year to see migrating Ospreys, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Redstarts, Whinchats and, of course, Wheatears.

Locally, the major bird-watching sites have all come into their own. Beddington, Tice's Meadow, Leith Hill, Staines Reservoir and Moor, have all had a busy time with decent amounts of migrant bird sightings. On Wednesday Lee Dingain discovered a Barred Warbler on Staines Moor and was it still present today.

At Beddington, in particular, there have seen some decent waders including a Pectoral Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank, while there have been plenty of passerine movement with Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher and Redstart. The highlight, however, was a Quail found by Roy 'Bulldog' Dennis on August 25.

Around the coast the rare birds are starting to congregate. It is a great time to catch up with  Wrynecks and Red-backed Shrikes. I saw the stunning male Red-backed Shrike at Cuckmere Haven a couple of weeks ago but until yesterday I hadn't connected with a Wryneck.

Not that I haven't tried. It has been a frustrating time, mainly due to the weather. Whenever I've had a few hours spare to go visit the Sussex coast, the weather has been horrible. Rain, rain, and more rain. A visit to Shooters Bottom, near Beachy Head, last week ended in dismal failure and even worse was a ridiculously optimistic trip to Church Norton on Bank Holiday Monday. A total washout. The highlight during both visits were two Whinchat and a pair of Common Redstart.

No Wryneck in the rain at Church Norton – but a smart female Redstart
Prior to that I spent a couple of hours at Oare Marshes on the way down to Margate (plenty of Wheatear there on the Bethesda Medical Clinic lawn) to visit my mum. The highlight here were two Little Stint, one in summer plumage, the other in winter garb.

One of two Little Stint at Oare Marshes
A juvenile Black Tern entertained at Earlswood Lakes – also in the rain
Then ten days ago a juvenile Black Tern arrived at Earlswood Lakes, just south of Redhill – a really smart bird – that I went over to see feeding in the rain prior to work.

My luck searching for a Wryneck changed on Tuesday. An individual without a tail, found by Matt Eade a couple of days earlier at Hope Gap, was still present, along with plenty of other migrants. The weather looked OK so mid-afternoon, I also headed south.

A huge rainstorm had just passed through the area but the clouds soon dispersed and the sun poked through. Hope Gap on a still, sunny day is a fabulous place to visit. The view is always memorable across to the Seven Sisters.

I met up with another birder and we trolled the area at the bottom of the Gap for an hour, but it transpired we were looking in the wrong area.

Matt's dad Bob arrived soon after and while I was searching around further up the hill, the Wryneck was found up on the hillside in a favoured spot to the right as you walk towards Seaford Head.

The Seaford Wryneck – minus a tail
He showed pretty well for about 45 minutes, while mobile at times. He wasn't exactly the smartest Wryneck you will ever see – he looked a bit strange with a stumpy rear end – and he was a bit worn. This Wryneck had obviously had a hard summer and presumably must have narrowly escaped the clutches of a predator, hence the missing tail.

The Wryneck basked in the rare glimpse of the sun
Keeping the Wryneck company were at least six smart Whinchat and numerous Wheatear.

The tail-less Wryneck was mobile but showed well for decent periods
After probably leaving it too long I dashed up to Staines Moor this evening in an attempt to connect with the Barred Warbler. It has proved frustrating for many, while giving good views to others. I wasn't one of the lucky ones. More Whinchat and Wheatear kept me company though.

More trips out are planned in the coming days but the one I'm most looking forward to is a three-day visit to Spurn in a couple of weeks. If the winds turn easterly while I'm there I will be more than happy.