WELCOME

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, 18 February 2016

HOLMETHORPE PATCH 2016 WISH LIST

Boy, this winter has certainly dragged on. It has been endless.

We are slowly but surely creeping towards March and the spring. Finger's crossed the latest El Niño doesn't have a sting in the tail next month – we don't want an unexpected cold snap to break our resolve.

March is the time we all look to for the first signs of migration. The first Wheatears, Sand Martins, and in Holmethorpe's case, Little Ringed Plovers.

It got me thinking about the birds I'd love to see on the local patch and make a few predictions for the months ahead.

Last year I made a couple of predictions and amazingly they came true, with a Red-rumped Swallow and a Short-eared Owl appearing less than a week after I suggested one would turn up. A great result – apart from the fact I didn't see either.

While walking round the patch with David Campbell the other week we talked about what might appear at Holmethorpe this year. After all it is a site with an array of habitat – it has plenty of potential despite being inland.

David's prediction was Penduline Tit. We've plenty of reedbeds and bullrushes, so who knows? We maybe a bit too inland for one of these, but what a result if it happened!

The first rarity I saw at Holmethorpe was a few years back when a Ferruginous Duck drew birders to the pools next to the railway line down on the Moors in April 2010. It was my very first rarity, and only five minutes from my house.

We'd not had anything like that since until the Red-rumped Swallow turned up on an overcast afternoon last May, but there are reasons to believe we might strike lucky again this year.

On the plus side, Holmethorpe is going through a resurgence of late, mainly because of an enthusiastic group of birders who regularly cover the territory every week, notably Gordon Hay and Ray Baker. Both are great birders and both keen as mustard about the patch, as is Ian Kehl, who is a regular Holmethorpe birder at weekends. I post the patch sightings up on the Holmethorpe Sand Pits blog, and it is taking longer every week to compile them with so many sent in day after day.

On the down side, Holmethorpe is a large area to cover. Where sites such as Tice's Meadow, for example, are relatively easy to monitor because they are compact and birds are less likely to be overlooked, Holmethorpe is so much bigger and all manner of birds are bound to get missed.

But that is all part of the fun. I remember when I first started out I took part in a bird race on the patch and a Grasshopper Warbler just hopped out of the bushes onto a post just a few metres away. It tipped its head back and began to bellow out its unique song.

Within about 20 seconds it disappeared into the bushes again, never to be see again. I was the only person to see it. Being a newbie I wasn't 100 per cent certain what it was at the time – there was much discussion about the authenticity of the sighting – but I now am totally certain it was a Gropper. It helped that there was an influx Gropper sightings elsewhere in Surrey on that particular April day.

So that is the challenge – finding birds that may only be visible for a matter of minutes or seconds before they dissolve back into the countryside once again, or have flown by and into the distance.

So, here we go. The list that follows basically reflects some of the work I do during the year. I am, much to my own surprise, one of the Daily Star's tipsters for the Saturday pull-out I help put together. I focus on the Irish meetings, where Willie Mullins rules the roost during the winter months, and Aidan O'Brien usually cleans up during the summer.

I don't expect many of these birds to be realistic hopes, but anything can happen. If just one or two of these appear I will be more than happy. I've put a mark out of five alongside those birds I really fancy could turn up this year – 5 being the hottest tip, with 1 more of a long-shot.

Rare Bird Holmethorpe Patch Predictions 2016

Rarities
5 Red-rumped Swallow (lightning can strike twice – and would make up for last year)
4 Bee-eater (a pair flew over Betchworth Quarry last year)
3 Black Kite (flyover – more sightings each year)
1 Blyth's Reed Warbler (had to pick a warbler, and this one took my fancy)
1 Penduline Tit (David Campbell's prediction)

Scarcities
5 Great White Egret
5 Stone-curlew (plenty of Surrey sightings each year)
5 Iceland Gull (as above)
5 Caspian Gull (as above)
5 Glaucous Gull
5 Wryneck (a personal favourite)
5 Yellow-browed Warbler
4 Glossy Ibis
4 Honey-buzzard (flyover)
4 Red-backed Shrike
3 Spoonbill (flyover)
3 Spotted Crake
3 Marsh Warbler
2 Green-winged Teal
2 Montagu's Harrier (flyover)
2 White-winged Black Tern
1 Dotterel (so long as I don't miss out like the Canons Farm birds!)
1 Golden Oriole (but only because I had a dream about seeing one!)

Uncommon
5 Hen Harrier (flyover)
5 Osprey (flyover – a few previous sightings including last year)
4 Wood Warbler
3 Quail
3 Bittern (surely one day we will get one?)
2 Slavonian Grebe (we get plenty of grebes but very few rare ones)
2 Turtle Dove (previous sightings – but becoming less likely each year)
1 Corn Bunting
1 Long-eared Owl (there could be one out there now, just too well camouflaged to see)

It will be interesting to see if any of these make the Holmethorpe headlines... don't hold your breath!

In other news, I made a couple of visits to Thursley Common during the past couple of weeks, but these weren't too fruitful. The Great Grey Shrike has been hard to find – I failed on both visits.

Thursley is very quiet at the moment and an elusive Great Grey Shrike didn''t help!
It was deathly quiet there apart from a few Dartford Warbler just to the south of Shrike Hill – always a joy to see. The mild winter has certainly been welcome to these lovely warblers. They are doing pretty well at Thursley this winter.

 
A Dartford Warbler at Thursley Common – the mild winter has been bonus to them
I also popped over to Papercourt Meadows on the way home after the first visit where a Short-eared Owl made an appearance late on.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

SOCIAL BIRDING ON THE LOCAL PATCH

I hadn't caught up with David Campbell since bumping into him at the Red-footed Falcon twitch in Barcombe last June, so it was good to meet up last Thursday for an enjoyable morning birding on my local patch at Holmethorpe.

David, whose monicker is Devil Birder, made his name a few years ago as an ultra-enthusiastic teenage birder at his local patch Canons Farm. The name Canons Farm constantly flashed up on Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert during his teenage years with birds such as Hen Harrier, Whimbrel, Quail, Short-eared Owl, Grasshopper Warbler, Wood Warbler, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Ring Ouzel, Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and Black Redstart dropping in at this unremarkable plot of land. And then on one May morning in 2012 the farm was well and truly put on the birding map when 15 Dotterel chose to land in one of the farm's fields for the day.

That was a day I will not forget, more for the fact I was one of only a few local birders unable to see these ultra rare Surrey visitors – I was working at Racing Post in Canary Wharf that day and didn't get home until dark. They were nowhere to be seen the following morning...

Young David also became well-known for his twitching exploits. It literally did not matter where the rarities were, David would find a way of getting there. Often he would cadge a lift from Johnny Allan, in those days the most well-known birder in Surrey, who at the time was also attempting to tick 200 birds in vice-county Surrey within a year – Johnny got close twice but 198 was as good as he could manage.

Then as David got older, and was able to drive, journeys became longer and relentless – twitching became a test of endurance – as he tried to fulfill an insatiable quest to see rare birds. It took him to Shetland (more than once) for a Pine Grosbeak, the Outer Hebrides for a Harlequin Duck and a White-throated Needletail (one that famously died when it flew into a wind turbine – David went on BBC Scotland's Newsnight programme to talk about it) and the Isles of Scilly, where he once flew to see a Sora in 2013.

His remarkable exploits – they would have put some explorers to shame – caused much discussion on birding blogs, some with admiration, others with concern as to where all this twitching might lead a young lad who had a potentially bright future ahead of him. It caused David some bewilderment, as he didn't really understand what all the fuss was about.

In the end though, it all worked itself out, as these things often do. After an aborted stint at college, David currently works for Birdguides, where he creates well-written essays and covers the latest news for the website. He is also a LNHS Surrey Bird Recorder and, as of next month, he's off to Dungeness to be assistant warden until October.

Now 21 years old, he has discovered there are more important things to life than trudging around Canons Farm for days on end hoping for another local mega to appear – his girlfriend, Ingrid, for instance. Ingrid is still at Brighton University, studying Illustration, and is also a keen birdwatcher (he really is a lucky devil!).

Looking back at those heady days of long-haul twitching, and with the advantage of hindsight, I can't help but think I would have done similar had I the freedom at that age. As you get older, with more responsibilities, the opportunities decrease. I can only wonder what it is like to travel through the night to Aberdeen before hopping on a boat to Shetland, or on to the Scillonian III at the other end of the country, heading for the Scilly Isles.

Now I'm in my mid-50s, my hopes of travelling to these far-flung corners of Britain are as remote as the islands themselves.

Still, I shouldn't grumble. I have had experiences during my working life as a journalist that would send many green with envy – it's just I haven't had many similar experiences during my birding travels so far.
David Campbell adds another species to the morning's list
Back at Holmethorpe we managed to clock 65 species during our four hours of walking – a decent total, more in fact than David had managed on a recent visit to Dungeness. Among those species included two Little Egret, a regular sighting at Holmethorpe at this time of year, one drake Shelduck at Spynes Mere and one Green Sandpiper on Mercer's West.

Holmethorpe's drake Wigeon with his Mallard mates
Little Egret – a regular species for the patch
Other birds of interest were four Stonechat (a species that used to be uncommon at Holmethorpe but now are becoming a regular feature) and flock of eight Lesser Redpoll. Another regular feature is a particular drake Wigeon on the Moors, who is obsessed with a pair of Mallard. Wherever the Mallard are, you are sure to find this Wigeon (we ought to give him a name). There were also plenty of the common species about, including Greenfinch and Bullfinch.


Stonechats on Nutfield Marsh – now a regular species
We had a target of 70 species, but remarkably we missed some easy ones. Pochard, Pheasant, Mistle Thrush, Yellowhammer, as well as Water Rail, Rook, and Chiffchaff. It probably didn't help we were talking for much of the walk and not paying enough attention.

Talk was often related to birding or birders, and it included mention of Johnny Allan, a mentor of David's, who suddenly disappeared off of the birding map in 2013 – a case of birding becoming too much of an obsession and having to reset priorities.

We both agreed that the Surrey birding scene is all the poorer without him in it, that part of its soul has been forever lost. Johnny was always helpful when I was starting out, and I learned a hell of a lot from him.

You can tell David still misses him not being around, but birding and birders reflect life in general. Nothing ever stays the same for long. There was a time when a young teenager could never have imagined life without Canons Farm, or belting up the motorway hell-bent on twitching a Bridled Tern or a Rock Thrush – but in the blink of an eye all that has changed.