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 28 April 2016


The Cup, as mentioned above, will be explained in due course.

So, what is the best birding site in Surrey?

If you listen to the birders at Tice's Meadow, they will tell you it is their patch at Bagshot Lea. Mark Elsoffer, one of the Tice's gang, staked the claim on Twitter recently, to which a number of Surrey birders responded – myself included.

So how does a patch qualify as the best birding site in the county? Firstly, the number of species of birds seen in a year would be the obvious number one criteria.

But number of bird species doesn't tell the whole story.

If it was simply a numbers game then Beddington would be number one each year. However, the big problem with the old sewage works is that only a handful of people are permitted into the inner sanctum. The birding is great but access is very limited. When a good bird drops in though, the lads there will do their best to give people the opportunity of viewing it.

So, accessibility is very important. There is little benefit in revealing to the world you have a Siberian Blue Robin on your patch if no-one has a hope in hell of seeing it.

Thirdly, news output. One of a patch watcher's responsibilities is to let other birders know this Siberian Blue Robin has appeared.

But, then, the enormity of the find can be more trouble than it's worth. There are times when revealing the sighting is simply not sensible at first – the Robin may be in a private garden and the owners of the house are more than reluctant to allow people access to view it. If it is a mega of this magnitude, the numbers of birders likely to turn up is bound to cause chaos.

Arguments and fighting may ensue – it has happened. Birders – well, some twitchers and some holding cameras with big lenses more to the point, can behave very badly at times.

I know if I was the one to discover the Robin, I would find the twitch very difficult to manage. There was a Dusky Thrush sighting in Devon that caused a rumpus a few years ago that left bad feeling on all sides and I felt for all those involved.

So, sighting management is important. What else?

A site needs to be pro-active.

For a patch to be successful it needs people visiting and recording what they have seen. The more people are aware your patch exists the more likely people will come and see it.

One of the best ways to get your patch on the map is to do what the Tice's Meadow team have arranged for this weekend.

From tomorrow through till Sunday, the gang have organised an event encouraged for the general public. It is called the Tice's Meadow Spring 2016 BioBlitz. Tomorrow they will be setting up camp, laying out mammal traps, birding all day and general socialising.

The following morning there will be a birdwatching walk around the site, with binoculars and scopes available, a bird-ringing demonstration, and later in the day a barbecue around the campfire. As, hopefully, the sun drops moth traps will be set up and the team will be listening out for bats and possibly owls during the night.

No doubt a few drinks will be had and there will be plenty of bonhomie.

The next morning, along with the hangover, the moth traps will be opened and the findings recorded and another bird-ringing demonstration will take place. It sounds like a really great event and credit has to go to all those involved.

So on that basis alone Tice's Meadow must have a great chance of winning an award of some sort this year, but we will have to wait and see. The Rambler for best patch tends to go to the site with the best bird sightings, but another Rambler Award may have to be introduced.

Watch this space.

Tice's Meadow

The Water Colour lagoons at Holmethorpe
Which leads me to the Horton-Hay Cup.

At the start of this post I mentioned Tice's Meadows' claim to be the best birding site in Surrey, so I put out a counterclaim that Holmethorpe must be in with a shout. Realistically, even if the new boundaries of Surrey or the old vice-county boundaries count, I doubt either will come up with the numbers required to top the list.

So, this new cup competition has been derived by using the surnames of the two patch's top men.  Rich Horton, the main man at Tice's and Gordon Hay at Holmethorpe. Think Oxford v Cambridge in the boat race, just in this case, it is West Surrey v East Surrey.
At the moment Holmethorpe has had 126 species seen on the patch, which compares favourably with Tices's. So, as a bit of fun, the Horton-Hay Cup will be awarded at the end of the year to whichever of the two rival Surrey sites wins the numbers game, with an additional award for the birder with the biggest list.

Every sighting counts. Will it be Tice's or Holmethorpe?

May the best patch win.

Sunday 24 April 2016


Birding is very much about being in the right place at the right time, and that is often purely down to luck.

Today was a case in point. It was miserable weather-wise early this morning, with Arctic winds creating biting cold air, more February than late April. A walk around the patch produced three Curlew at the back of Water Colour Lagoon 1, found by Gordon Hay, and plenty of hirundines – at least 30 House Martin to go with 20-plus Swallow and a few Sand Martin.

But there was little else to distract from the cold hands after a couple of hours, so feeling freezer chilled and wet I decided to venture elsewhere.

For some reason, only known to me, I thought a seawatch might prove worthwhile, so I headed for Seaford on the Sussex coast, hoping to see some skuas fly past. However, once I got there I realised I'd made a fundamental mistake. The Channel was calm, due to the land mass that is Britain acting as a wind-break to the northerly winds, and apart from around 15 Common Scoter on the water, all was quite.

What was I thinking? It was an obvious and complete waste of time! What I should have done was head to Staines Reservoir for a Grey Phalarope, found by local birder Dominic Pia first thing, and plenty of seabirds and spring migrants.

It was all happening up at the reservoir, a site I hadn't been to since summer of last year, so I was long overdue a visit. I only stayed at Seaford for about 20 minutes before setting off back past Redhill and on to the M25.

What an idiot. The morning hadn't been a great success, having spent more time in the bloody car than out looking at birds. One day I will learn...

But never mind. By timing my visit to Staines later in the morning my misfortune turned out to be my reward.

The water on the north basin, in particular, was rougher than the Channel had been earlier and there was plenty of activity. This was more like it!

The Grey Phalarope was distant but plumage could be seen clearly
(though not from this image!)
The Grey Phalarope was bobbing up and down at the far end of the south basin. A walk up to the far end of the causeway produced clearer, though distant views of the bird transforming from winter into summer plumage.

There were plenty of Common Tern and a few Arctic Tern, and a drake and female Scaup appeared on the north basin.

Our group were looking at these when someone shouted out "40 Arctic Tern have just flown in!".

I thought he was joking, but he wasn't.

56 of the 60+ Arctic Tern as they flew around the north basin
High above the far end of the basin was a large flock of Arctic Tern, circling above the water. Where had they come from! I have never seen so many Arctics. We eventually managed to count at least 60.
Arctic Tern feeding on the north basin
An Arctic Tern and a pair of Scaup (one probable female hybrid) on the north basin
What a sight they were. The large flock then dropped in en masse to feed. For me, it was one of the best birding moments of the year so far. Magical.

And they stayed the whole time I was there. Had I arrived earlier in the morning I would have seen a Greenshank, a Bar-tailed Godwit and a handful of Arctic Tern, but never anything like this. I wouldn't have swapped it for anything.

In among the Terns, a first-summer Little Gull joined in the feed. The visit to Staines turned out to be very satisfying, with two Whimbrel and at least five Yellow Wagtail and two White Wagtail to add to the list.
Two Yellow Wagtail on the north basin
Prior to watching today's seabird spectacle, I'd focused completely on the local patch, and list has been building up nicely this past week. The total for the site is now 126 and includes a late reported Whinchat on the Moors this afternoon, Whimbrel fly-over, a Category C Barnacle Goose, a Hobby, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat and a single Yellow Wagtail. My personal tally is 97, and with a few straightforward species still add I should get past 100 without much bother.

A Category C Barnacle Goose last Sunday was a bit of a surprise
The Reed Bunting at Water Colour Lagoons are particularly showy individuals
Of the other birds of note, our third male Redstart of the spring showed up in the horse paddocks at Mercers Farm on Tuesday, and the first Reed Warbler of the year has been chattering away in the reeds on Water Colour Lagoon 1 by the causeway.

Holmethorpe's third Redstart of the spring
A Mute Swan looks on as two of the three Curlew feed on the
flooded area at the back of Water Colour Lagoon 1
What we could do with now is one or two jaw-droppers during the next week. As hirundine numbers begin to build, I still believe we will get another Red-rumped Swallow. Of the less rare birds just one Arctic Tern would be nice, as would Little Gull and Little Tern. A Ring Ouzel is looking increasingly unlikely as the spring moves on, but we can live in hope!

Wednesday 13 April 2016


Spring migration is now well under way and locally it has been very rewarding. Holmethorpe Sand Pits has had a very respectable turnout of migrants as well as wintering birds travelling in the other direction.

Only yesterday a pair of Brambling were found in the Mercers Country Park car park by Gordon Hay first thing after the overnight heavy rain had drifted past. I managed to drag myself out of bed to venture over. I couldn't find them at first, but a distinctive wheezing call behind me attracted my attention, and there they were, my first-ever Brambling on the patch.

Female Brambling at Mercers Country Park
Later that morning I found our first Common Sandpiper at Mercers Lake, heard the first Sedge Warbler singing in the bushes along the Water Colour causeway, and much later saw a couple of Wheatear in the horse paddocks alongside Mercers Farm.

Common Sandpiper at Mercers Lake
A distant view of a Wheatear in the horse paddocks on Mercers Farm
On Saturday afternoon Des Ball found our second male Redstart of the spring at the entrance to the Moors and Water Colour Lagoons, then the following morning a Black-tailed Godwit was seen stood in the flooded area on Water Colour Lagoon1 that backs on to the Moors.

A Black-tailed Godwit on the flooded plain on Water Colour Lagoon1
The same morning an Oystercatcher (the third of the year) stood briefly in the shallow water that is the island on Lagoon 2 before it flew off. The drake Pintail made another appearance on Spynes Mere, while Ian Kehl and Gordon saw a Common Tern fly over Mercers Lake.

The drake Pintail made a welcome return to Spynes Mere
It goes to prove that by putting in the hours (and the miles) patch birding – even on an inland site in east Surrey – can produce decent birds. So far this year I have had three patch lifers – Bearded Tit, Redstart and Brambling. Long may the list continue throughout the year.
The overall sightings list for Holmethorpe in 2016 now stands at 116, with the rest of April and May to discover more patch gold. A Stone-curlew, Osprey, Wryneck or Ring Ouzel would top my personal wish-list during the next week. A shoe-in, surely!

Elsewhere, our neighbouring patch to the north at Canons Farm, with Steve Gale monitoring the site, has thrown up a number of great sightings, including a female Goshawk yesterday, as well as Ring Ouzel, Redstart, Wheatear and Hawfinch (a Steve Gale speciality).

Male Reed Bunting
Of the common migrants Willow Warbler are in abundance locally, which is a good sign, as are Blackcap and Chiffchaff. These regular visitors are the sound of spring. All we really need now is a Cuckoo to make that spring music complete.

Wednesday 6 April 2016


This is a bit of a sprawling post as I try to catch up with events of the past two weeks.

I've spent more time on the patch than anywhere else of late, so much so that I've not kept things up to date with the blog – focusing more on keeping the Holmethorpe sightings blog up to the minute.

Spring has really kicked in and, with a dedicated team of patch watchers covering the area more than ever, new sightings have been coming in virtually daily.

The pair of Bearded Tit had looked settled in the reedbed on the Water Colour lagoons, but Storm Katie swept through and everything changed.

The storm wreaked havoc on the patch during the morning of Easter Monday. Driving rain and strong winds basically trashed the reedbed. The water level rose considerably and many of the reeds were flattened. As a consequence that morning the Bearded Tit became agitated and flew high up above their ravaged new home and flew off, never to be seen again.

A great shame, as they had looked very happy there for a few days.

A Sand Martin feeding over Water Colour Lagoons
A brief stroll that day produced a handful of Sand Martin but not much else, so on a whim and with a bit of spare time on my hands I whipped over to Pyrford to try and grab a view of the long-staying Little Bunting. It was a needle in a haystack job, and predictably I failed to see the little perisher, but I got reasonable views of a number of Brambling.

Brambling at Pyrford
That brief sojourn had been the only time I've birded away from the patch recently, and it wasn't a great experience. Even though it was only 40 minutes away, it was time I could have spent doing something else more rewarding.

The hassle of driving there fighting through the bank holiday M25 traffic, then standing around in a field peering through a scope while my eyes were streaming due to the howling wind, just wasn't particularly fun.

Patch watching is such a different pastime to twitching. It is relaxed, you walk around with an open blank canvas, and as the walk progresses the canvas fills up with colour. It doesn't always end up as a masterpiece, but now and again the results can be very satisfying.

As a result of the Little Bunting twitch I didn't plan to go anywhere else other than just down the road for a while, but a phone call that night caused me to get up at the crack of dawn the following morning.

Having cooked a very late Easter Monday roast lunch, and as we were finishing feasting and drinking plenty of wine, the phone rang at about 7.30pm. I'd forgotten to put the answerphone on so it kept on ringing. It wasn't my mum, as she would have tried my mobile, so Annie and I chose to ignore it.

But after the fourth ring it was clear someone was trying to get hold of me. Having rung 1471 it was a mobile number I didn't recognise. I put the answerphone back on. It rang again.

The caller left a message. It was a very excited Des Ball.

Des is one of our small group of patch birders and he is mighty fine one at that. Like Gordon Hay, he has a remarkable knack of finding good birds. He is a man of mystery in a way, as none of us have his contact details and he doesn't send emails, so finding out what he has seen depends on bumping into him out on the patch.

Early that evening, walking through Redhill town centre on his way home to Meadvale, Des struck gold.

He noticed a large Swift flying around the Kingsgate building as the light began to fade at around 6.30pm. This Swift was big, and it had a white belly. Could it be?

Yes, it could. An Alpine Swift was looking for somewhere to roost in the eaves of the building. Des couldn't believe it, but it all made sense. The time of year (it coincided with the exact date the Crawley bird was seen last March), blown off course after a fierce storm, with the winds blowing up from the Channel.

I immediately picked up the phone. Des could hardly get the words out. Having found my number through directory of inquiries he had to let me know what he had seen. His regret was not having a camera to record it. But no matter. I put the word out on Twitter and Rare Bird Alert, then rang Gordon and we arranged to meet up in a car park in Redhill before first light.

We hung on for a couple of hours but, alas, there was no sign. It had either moved on during the night, or had possibly perished from exhaustion.

There was a third possibility. A Peregrine may have taken it.

While Gordon and I waited for a Swift to fly out from the building, a Peregrine swooped in and snatched a Ring-necked Parakeet. It then flew to the top of the building and for a number of minutes afterwards a shower of parakeet feathers floated down to the pavement below.

A Peregrine has a parakeet breakfast
With these efficient predators on patrol in the area it was quite possible the Alpine Swift had suffered a similar fate.

Back on the patch, while the next few days produced the first Wheatear, Willow Warbler and Blackcap of the spring, work commitments meant I had to wait until last Sunday before taking a proper walk around the area.

Holmethorpe is a big patch, at least five miles round on foot, and for the first time I took a detour from Chilmead Lane up to Nutfield Ridge. Being a hill and me being lazy, it isn't an area I visit very often, but on Sunday I was glad I did.

The view across Chilmead Farm from Nutfield Ridge
I went up looking for Ring Ouzel and Wheatear. Wheatear are sometimes found on this north-facing slope and the habitat looks good for Ring Ouzel. I didn't find either, but what I did find was my first ever Redstart on the patch.
The Ridge has habitat that looks tempting for a Ring Ouzel but
revealed a Redstart instead
A male, it was mobile, moving up and down the tree line as soon as I got even remotely close to it. Frustratingly, I couldn't get a photo. I let Gordon and Ian Kehl know, and they joined me half an hour later when I lost sight of it. Gordon relocated it further down the slope in a small copse but eventually it flew north and was lost for good.

Still, it was a very pleasing find, and apparently the earliest site record. I'll settle for that.

Later, I bumped into Jed Cheeter, an Oxfordshire birder who walks the site when he comes down to see his girlfriend who lives in Redhill, who directed me to some Wheatear in the fields at Mercers Farm. He had seen four, but I was happy enough with two females. It concluded a very successful few hours.
Female Wheatear at Mercers Farm
One of a pair of Little Owl south of Spynes Mere
On Monday before work I went out again. A quieter day but it still produced an Oystercatcher, the second of the year, which I heard calling over Mercers Lake before if dropped in on one of the platforms set out on the lake.

An Oystercatcher on Mercers Lake
Then yesterday, still no Ring Ouzel on Nutfield Ridge, but a more surprising discovery was a drake Pintail on Spynes Mere. Having rarely ever discovered decent birds on the patch it has been good to find three in three days.

The drake Pintail with two Canada Goose
Shelduck left, Pintail right
Ring Ouzels are to me what Wheatears are to Jonathan Lethbridge. I love 'em and with a male Ring Ouzel found by Steve Gale at Canons Farm yesterday afternoon, I felt compelled to go and look during the evening. Predictably I dipped.

Patch versus Twitch? At the moment the patch wins every time.

Monday 4 April 2016


A couple of weeks ago Holmethorpe birding guru Gordon Hay had been listening out for Tawny Owls from the edge of the patch up near the A25 when rather than a Tawny Owl calling, he heard a Long-eared Owl instead.

Long-eared Owl sightings are sometimes cloaked with censure to protect them from over-enthusiastic birders who may disturb the owl from its roosting site with torches and alike – as happened at Beddington last winter.

So, while this was indeed very exciting news, it was agreed that the actual location of the Long-eared Owl would be kept under wraps.

A few days later, having invited a couple of fellow patch watchers to come for a listen one evening, Gordon heard what he thought was another Long-eared calling.

It was too irresistible. In the middle of the night (3.30am!) Gordon decided to locate the roosting site. The owl called very close by so he was pretty sure he knew where it was. That morning on March 31, as it was getting light, Gordon went to see whether he could get a visual of the owl.

And he did.

Except it wasn't a Long-eared Owl at all.

It was a captive Eagle Owl!

Why someone would want to keep a large owl in a cage is anyone's guess, but it proves just how even the very best birders can be hoodwinked sometimes.

That same morning I was walking through Mercers Farm when I heard a bird that sounded like a raptor calling overhead. I had no idea what it was as it flew by, but it was smaller than a Kestrel. Could it be a Merlin? The problem was it didn't really fly like a small raptor, and looking at the distant photos I had managed to take, it didn't have the jizz of a raptor either.

I put the word out to Gordon, who rang back to tell me the bad news over the Long-eared Owl, and suggested the bird was more likely to be an escaped Cockateel that had been seen on occasions in the area. It all fitted into place.

As if birding wasn't hard enough at times, the birds themselves have a habit of making fools out of us.