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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, 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.

3 comments:

  1. Nice post Factor, glad it is all working out for david finally. As for johnny, that was a funny one wasn't it? He was very helpful to me away back when, keen to share, keen to encourage. I can scarcely comprehend that one could go from that level of intensity to giving it all up, but there you go.

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    1. In Johnny's case, when addiction had taken a strong hold on his life, there are, unfortunately, no half measures in dealing with it. You either stop or give in to it. For his own sanity he probably took the right course of action.

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  2. I'm glad we managed to meet up, Neil - it was great fun catching up. Indeed times do change. Birds are still a huge part of my life but how I fulfill that passion has been changing over the last couple of years. There's still a part of me that loves the twitching and driven patching lifestyle and I'll still seek the occasional taste of each but letting them dominate one's existence is all too easy to do, and not at all healthy.

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