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.

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.

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