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 26 May 2016


With little happening on the patch (apart from missing out on a Spotted Flycatcher on Sunday while I was at the Heavy Horse and Country Show at East Bysshe Showground in Blindley Heath) I took Monday morning off and went on my second twitch in a couple of weeks.

Having said recently how I'm not particular keen on twitching at the moment, I will make exceptions at this time of year. For one thing there are plenty of very interesting birds dotted around the country that are well worth going to see, and secondly, when a patch goes a bit quiet, patch watching can become a bit soul-destroying.

An example of this came about when reading Lee Dingain's Almost Birding blog recently. Lee is one of the most dedicated patch watchers in Surrey and a multiple Rambler Award winner. But even he can be driven to distraction by his beloved Staines Moor at times.

Part of Lee's angst is due to the fact he only garners real birding pleasure when he discovers new species himself on the Moor. For example, it doesn't matter whether he ends up seeing a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits on the River Colne (as he did recently) if someone else saw them first.

It's a self-inflicted hindrance, so it is no wonder Lee has felt like throwing in the towel on occasions.

I love my local patch and would much prefer to discover the 131 species that have currently been seen at Holmethorpe this year, but I know I can only realistically expect to discover a handful. I'm more than happy with that, and I'm also happy to mix and match now and again.

If things get a bit repetitive, I'll travel somewhere different. I've been to Dungeness and Portland Bill in recent weeks, and both visits were really enjoyable.

So on Monday I headed to Little Paxton and the Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, home for more than a week to a Great Reed Warbler.

It was a bright sunny day, and after a 15 minute walk to the reedbed I could immediately hear the Great Reed Warbler and its slightly grating chatter, much deeper and louder than our regular Reed Warbler song.
The Great Reed Warbler showed on and off...
...and was vocal throughout the morning visit
Another birder was already peering through his scope at it and he gave me the opportunity to have my first view of the Great Reed Warbler before I had even set up my scope.

I stayed for a good hour and a half, with a handful of birders coming and going during that time – some local, some from further afield. I enjoyed the visit immensely, as while the Great Reed Warbler sang for almost for the entire hour and a half, it was interspersed with Nightingale song nearby and a vocal Cetti's Warbler.

Views were good when the rare migrant climbed higher up the reeds, though difficult to photograph (as can be seen from the rubbish images above).

View of one of the Heronry Lakes from the Hayden Hide at the excellent Paxton Pits Nature Reserve
Paxton Pits really is an excellent reserve. Well managed, with a varied habitat – not too dissimilar to Holmethorpe, but with plenty of Nightingale, one of which was extremely showy, dropping down to within 10 feet to feed on the ground, but I was unable to take a photo before it flew back into the bushes.

The Hayden Hide
A Cuckoo sang nearby, Common Tern were plentiful, as were the common migrants. The visitors centre was very good, with a cafe and decent loos. I would recommend a visit.
The Paxton Pits Nature Reserve Visitors' Centre
Next up was a visit on Tuesday to Margate to see my mum. Foreness Point is only about 400 yards from her bungalow, and while I only get to take an hour at best when I'm down, it often ends up worthwhile.

Predictably, down the road at Sandwich Bay, a Bee-eater was seen flying north earlier in the morning, as well as a Montagu's Harrier over Worth Marshes. As is often the case with bird sightings, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Luck features a lot.

A Fulmar passes overhead
There are always Fulmar flying around the cliffs, and other interesting birds often drop in. It was actually pretty quiet at the Point, both out at sea as well as on land, but as often happens, a bird turns up when you least expect it.

A Corn Bunting in full voice
I heard it's unmistakable song first of all. It was a Corn Bunting. I've never seen one here before, it was certainly out of place in Margate, but a welcome sight nonetheless.

A Corn Bunting at Foreness Point – a surprise sighting
A very showy Meadow Pipit

Tuesday 17 May 2016


There was nothing I could do about it. It was impossible to resist twitching the Great Spotted Cuckoo on Portland Bill this morning.

I'd been counting down the days from the moment it first appeared on the Rock on Friday morning. Only the third Dorset record and a first for the island, the Great Spotted Cuckoo arrived to much fanfare and rightfully so. Very rare and a real head-turner. What a fantastic bird!

Although the rediscovery of a Lammergeier on Dartmoor would be a very tempting distraction, Devon is outside my twitching boundary. Having to be back in Redhill by 2.30pm Dorset is as far as I feel happy to travel to and fro in a day and, in any case, there was less certainty over the vulture's whereabouts.

Having said all that, twitching, as I have said before can be a stressful pastime. Considering the length of its stay, there was certainly no certainty the Cuckoo would still be about. It was something I  considered carefully, but felt it was worth the punt.

On the road by 3.45am, after a stop for breakfast en route, I was on the Bill by 6.45am. The Twittersphere was quiet on the way down so it was still in the lap of the gods whether the Cuckoo had hung on for at least one more day. I was still preparing for disappointment when Portland Bill Observatory head honcho Martin Cade sent out a tweet confirming the Great Spotted Cuckoo was in a different location from its usual spots and was in the hedges along the Top Fields above Culverwell.

That was great news, but I still had to find it though. Heading down to the Obs, I spotted a birder up at the trapping area and asked whether he had seen it. It transpired it was he who had located it up in the Top Fields area.

Once at the top of the rise, it was a case of trying to work out where the Cuckoo could be. After going in the wrong direction I headed towards the MOD area and opted to walk through a gap in the hedges which opened up into a slightly overgrown paddock, one I remember walking around the last time I was here a couple of years ago.

I had exclusive views of the Great Spotted Cuckoo in the Top Fields
I scanned the hedges and looked up to my right, and there perched on a fence, silhouetted against the early morning light, was the Great Spotted Cuckoo.

What a relief! I took a wide line around the edge of the field. A couple of irritatingly yappy dogs were being walked on the other side of the fence, but luckily the Cuckoo remained unfazed.

I managed to edge as close as I dare along the fence line and set up shop. The Great Spotted Cuckoo kept a keen eye on me and also potential threats in the sky, but he stayed put for a good 15-20 minutes.

What made this moment very special was the fact there was not a soul about. It was just me and this magnificent bird.

Moments like these live on in the memory.

After about 20 minutes it looked like it was going the take flight and sure enough it did, flying over my head and into the bushes in the neighbouring horse paddock. And there it stayed until it flew up on to the MOD fence and then dropped down deeper into the scrub and out of sight.

It didn't come back out.

On the walk back I saw a couple of Peregrine and in the fields to the north of the Obs a Short-eared Owl showed well.

Martin, Keith Pritchard and the rest of the Portland gang heard the Cuckoo call just before I arrived back and expected it to fly to the Obs gardens at some point during the day, although I'm not sure it did. It was last seen back at its favourite hangout at Reaps Lane during the early afternoon.

The Cuckoo was clearly being elusive, so I felt quite privileged to be just one of two birders who had seen it during the morning.

I went down to the Bill itself for a brief seawatch, again it was quiet, with the usual Guillemot and Razorbill, plus a few Fulmar, and a Rock Pipit on the rocks basking in the sunshine.

So that was it for the day. I had to start heading back home by 11.30am, but no matter. It had, without doubt, been a morning to remember.

Friday 13 May 2016


Dungeness. May. Pomarine Skuas. Last Sunday I set off at first light for a two-day birding stint at the shingle peninsula.

The main aim was to see migrating Pomarine Skuas. These charismatic seabirds head north during early May and if the wind is in the right direction the chances are they will fly east down the English Channel. When they do Dungeness is probably the best place to see them.

Last year it didn't happen, the passage of skuas almost exclusively favoured the west coast, with hardly a trickle along the southern edge of Britain. That disappointment was in complete contrast to the previous year when on May 5, 2014 more than 100 flew past many of the southern watchpoints, many very close to the shoreline, including at Dungeness.

Last Friday I began to sweat a bit as a constant stream of Poms flew along the Channel. The count got higher and higher until at Dungeness it finished at 119 for the day. I was concerned the passage of Poms might run dry before I got there!

The Dungeness Pom watch
I turned up on Sunday later than intended at 7.30am. The day would turn out to be a blisteringly hot, but with an occasional easterly breeze. The Dungeness birding cognoscenti were already in place. Martin Casemore, Tony Greenland, Dungeness warden Dave Walker, assistant warden and birding mate David Campbell and plenty of other birders already scanning the sea. Three Pomarines had flown past from first light but since then it had been quiet.

Would I see any? I needn't have worried.

Three Pomarine Skua heading east by Dungeness
With Martin on skua patrol scanning the west it wasn't long before he called out "Pom!" The accompanying birders scanned the sea and there it was, my first Pomarine Skua on the year. It languidly flew low across the sea to the outside of the Dungeness buoy as it continued on its journey east.

Then 10 minutes later another shout of "Poms!" This time four birds, two with distinctive spoons, and at least one dark phase bird flew low across the pond straight out in front of us in the mid-distance. By 8.56 six Pomarine Skua had flown past, and by midday 19 of these wonderful birds had been seen though the scopes, 16 by me. Utterly brilliant.

Five Pomarine Skua heading east
Pomarine Skua passage tends to happen during the early morning and late afternoon/evening, so it was an ideal time to go for a spot of lunch with David Campbell at the Britannia Inn. While there, out of the blue, old Beddington birding pal Roger 'Dodge' Browne appeared, having come down for the afternoon with his wife for a spot of birding and sun-basking. I hadn't seen Dodge for more than a year so it was great to catch up for a bit a banter during the afternoon Pom seawatch.

Suitably attired, Dodge checks geiger readings off the Dungeness nuclear power station
Two Mediterranean Gull
Twenty Brent Geese heading east
A well-camoflauged Whimbrel comes in off the sea and lands on the beach
Two lone birders watch the sea and, er, look at other stuff
The late afternoon/evening session ended up being quite productive, this time I watched the sea alongside Stephen Message – who happens to be a fine wildlife illustrator – and another birder (who's name escapes me), and by 7.30pm we clocked five Pomarine Skua, one in particular being a fine specimen, Stephen exclaiming: "Look at the spoon on that!" Two Arctic Skua landed on the sea at one point and I was first one on to five Eider, including two males.

During a long but rewarding day I saw 25 Pomarine Skua and three Arctic Skua, plus 20 Brent Goose, five Eider, plenty of Common Scoter, four Red-breasted Merganser, four Black-throated Diver, numerous Gannet, one Hobby that came in off the sea then flew back out again, nine Whimbrel – one of which came in directly from the sea and landed on the beach, one Knot, three Sanderling, four Mediterranean Gull, four Kittiwake, as well as a stack of Sandwich Tern and Common Tern.

A very pleasing total. I wondered what the following day would bring. As it turned out, not a lot but definitely one that got away.

As a picture postcard sun rose above the Channel on Sunday morning I arrived at the same time as another birder, Charles Trollope, who had come down from near Tenterden.

In a remarkable coincidence it transpired Charles was born in Redhill and his first birding patch was Holmethorpe Sand Pits! In those days it was still a productive quarry and a complete contrast to the Surrey Wildlife reserve it is now.

He had come to Dungeness just for a few hours in the hope of seeing his first Pomarine Skua, but alas it was not to be. The sea was like a mill pond and seawatching proved taxing.

The best birds of the morning were three Black Tern, feeding on the area known as 'the Patch', just off the headland from the nuclear power station. When the power station is being used it draws more than 100 million gallons of sea water from the sea to cool the turbines.

The waste water is then pumped back out to sea via two pipes. The mixture of waste water and sewage attracts gulls and terns by the hundreds.

One of the three Black Tern feeding off residue from 'the Patch'
While Charles, Dave Walker, another birder and I watched very little, suddenly a tweet popped up – a Bee-eater had been found by Owen Leyshon in the trapping area in front of the observatory!

The 'obs' was only about 400 yards away so we all scurried to our cars and in a few minutes were scouring the area for the Bee-eater. Already on site was top local birder Paul Trodd, with his trusty companion, his terrier Barney.

Paul Trodd and Barney go in search of the Bee-eater
Unfortunately the Bee-eater could not be relocated – a great pity. At this point Charles had to set off back home, and not long after I bumped into Steve Gale of North Downs and Beyond blog fame, who had just arrived for a week's birding (and all that green stuff he likes to look at).

I spent most of the day viewing the sea and while it wasn't the best days birding by any means I still managed to gather what, by my standards, is a reasonable list of birds.

Oystercatchers on the move
They included two Mediterranean Gull, the three Black Tern, one Grey Plover, one Dunlin, nine Bar-tailed Godwhit, one Whimbrel and six Common Sandpiper that landed briefly on the beach.

The highlight of the day was late on when homing in on a flock of waders that flew past my field of vision. While I was attempting (and failing) to id them through the scope they overtook a Pomarine Skua I must have missed!

So ended what was a very enjoyable couple of days, meeting up with old birding friends and making plenty of new ones.

Thursday 5 May 2016


The Otford Western Rufous Turtle Dove has been nagging at me for a number of days. This Turtle Dove of Asian background has been popping up in the trees of a suburban garden near Sevenoaks in Kent since February but try as I might I have struggled to garner the enthusiasm to twitch it.

Much of the reluctance is due to a current personal aversion to twitching. It has dawned on me I've never really enjoyed it that much, despite a craving to see new birds. 

What I don't like is driving for hours, standing around for even more hours and possibly ending the day having seen stuff all. Apart from anything else, it is stressful and sends me home in a bad mood. Birding should be fun.

And my birding this year, on the whole, has been fun. I haven't seen many new species since the turn of the year – actually, I've only seen one, and that was the Hooded Crow at Swale on Sheppey in February – but patch birding has been a joy, especially these past few weeks.

What I like about it, particularly at this time of year, is that it doesn't matter if you don't see anything mega rare like an Oriental Turtle Dove, because what you do see can often be interesting.

A Wheatear at Mercers Farm at the end of April
In recent days I have seen a pair of Little Ringed Plover, a female Whinchat (late on Monday evening), the odd Wheatear, as well as plenty of common warblers, and hirundines.

A female Whinchat on the Moors
This morning, with the sun giving a first impression of summer, the lagoons at Water Colour were full of life, with at least five Reed Warbler chattering away in the reeds and a Lesser Whitethroat rattling its song in the distance. Swifts dipped their beaks in the water, and House Martins dropped on to the ever-emerging Water Colour2 island to collect mud.

What's not to like?

Anyway, back to the Oriental Turtle Dove. It is currently perched just half an hour down the road, just off the M25. I thought about going on Sunday, but the bank holiday traffic was horrendous – so, on whim, I went on Tuesday night.

Twitching in leafy suburbia
As twitches go it wasn't too bad. At least there was little walking involved and the bird appeared after about half an hour. The dove's current home is in a pleasant, affluent suburban avenue, although to get the best view on Tuesday evening you had to position yourself immediately in front of someone's house and peer over the roof towards their back garden.

I can't say I felt particularly comfortable doing that as, well, if someone did that outside my house I would find it a bit odd and a tad disquieting, especially if I happened to be someone who didn't appreciate the subject matter.

As it turns out, the people of Butts Lane in Otford are all very friendly, even if they find us birders a bit strange, and even have been known to make cups of tea for the gathering throngs.

Also yesterday it helped the birding company was good. It was great to catch up with Jonathan Nasir for the first time since the Greater Yellowlegs twitch at Titchfield last year. Also Paul Rowe was there and a few other birders I met for the first time.

A group of us were panning the trees at the southern end of the lane when one of the visiting birders beckoned us to the front of this house. The Western Rufous Turtle Dove was perched in an apple tree, with the sun dropping low behind it. A nice bird perched on a branch.

My rubbish photo of the Western Rufous Turtle Dove
My images were poor (see above) but Paul Rowe very kindly allowed me to use one of his excellent photos (see below).

Paul Rowe's excellent photo of the Western Rufous Turtle Dove
So that was that. Now back to the patch.

*Apologies for the desperately contrived heading. I was determined to work a pun on the name Rufus Wainwright. It didn't work but I chose to ignore it