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.



Tuesday, 17 October 2017

HEADLEY HEATH HAWFINCH

Irrupting bird species is a bit of a thing. It happens most years when one species or another decides it is going to migrate en masse across the country and birders en masse get very excited.

In recent years we've had irrupting Waxwing during the winter of 2010-11, then last year it was Yellow-browed Warblers. This past week it has been Hawfinch.

One of the most popular species of finch, the stunning Hawfinch is both alluring and elusive. And it can behave in mysterious ways. In March 2013 Steve Gale found an amazing flock of more than 100 Hawfinch in Juniper Bottom near Box Hill – the stuff of legend. They were like a freak of nature, there were so many of them and they arrived completely out of the blue. No-one could have predicted their arrival.

This current irruption began last week and as the days have progressed it has gathered momentum.

I went up to Headley Heath on Sunday morning and saw very little, whereas six were seen just down the road to the west of me at Juniper Bottom. At the same time to the east, on my local patch at Holmethorpe, Gordon Hay and Ian Kehl saw one fly over the Water Colour complex – it was only the second site record.

Steve Gale got his first sighting on Headley Heath last week and followed up with five on his garden list as he vis-migged yesterday morning. 

Local birders were seeing Hawfinch all over the place. The only local birder who had yet to see one was predictably me.

Storm Orphelia sky at Foreness Point
Rock Pipit
Wheatear
The following morning I was in Margate to take my mum to a hospital appointment and managed to have a quick walk early in the morning along Foreness Point under the Sahara dust-laden Storm Ophelia sky, where I saw a Rock Pipit, a Wheatear and a couple of Stonechat. But no Hawfinch flew overhead.
Three of the six Hawfinch on Headley Heath this afternoon
Then this afternoon Annie and I returned to Headley Heath again for a stroll and all was very quiet. We were walking back to the car when I saw three birds land on top of an oak to my right. They looked quite big but I couldn't make out what they were – until I got my bins on them. HAWFINCH!

I called out to Annie and managed to get a decent view of them for about a minute before they flew off west, along with three others that must have been obscured on the other side of the tree. I reckon they may have been the six originally seen at Juniper Bottom on Sunday.

Wherever they came from it was still an unexpected surprise. It certainly made my day.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

GIVE 'EM ENOUGH PHALAROPE

One of the prevalent species this autumn has been that delightful little bird, the Phalarope. There have been plenty of sightings of Grey Phalarope around the country during the past couple of months, as well as decent numbers of Red-necked Phalarope.

Add to the list a showy Wilson's Phalarope at Oare Marshes, that is still present as I write this, and you may have easily have had the full set.

The first two were on my radar last month, when a Phalarope sp. turned up at Staines Reservoir on September 11.

The south basin at Staines Reservoir
The south basin at Staines Reservoir had been drained of water in the preceding weeks and had certainly delivered the goods on the wader front once the water levels had dropped. It made you aware of how many birds must fly over the area but decide to continue their journey rather than dropping in to a not-so-enticing habitat.

But now the environment was intoxicating, both for birds and birders.

The Phalarope appeared on the south basin, where it joined a Pectoral Sandpiper, 4 juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, 4 Knot, 3 Black-tailed Godwit, a Sanderling, a Ruff, plus plentiful numbers of Dunlin and Ringed Plover.

But swimming happily at the far end of the basin, at the time of its arrival it was unclear which of the two, Grey or Red-necked, it was. The consensus was perhaps a Red-necked. That was certainly my hope. It was be a lifer if it was.

And that uncertainty was still the case when I arrived along the causeway the next day, for the first time since the three white-winged Black Tern earlier in the year at "The Res".

It was great to see a familiar pair of faces as I arrived, "Captain" Bob Warden and Dave Carlsson were there that morning, and Bob immediately put me on to the Phalarope, happily bobbing away in the distance.

Ruff at Staines Reservoir
The south basin was full of waders. No Pectoral Sandpiper, and the pair of Knot went missing too, but there were numerous Dunlin and Ringed Plover, a couple of Greenshank, at least five Ruff, and the same number of Curlew Sandpiper. A great sight.

Dunlin and Curlew Sandpipers at Staines Reservoir
Bob had a Merlin fly through about half an hour earlier, and as more birders arrived, the debate got more prolonged as to to the id of this Phalarope. It meandered both ways and in the end the consensus was it was a Grey – which, while nice to see, was a tad disappointing from my viewpoint!

To cut a long debate short, however, the bird gradually migrated closer to the causeway over the next couple of days, and its id was confirmed to be a Red-necked Phalarope. Celebrations all round!
 A few days later a Grey Phalarope actually did turn up on the north basin.

Fast-forward more than three weeks to October 3 and the long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher at Oare Marshes was joined by another rare American vagrant – a Wilson's Phalarope. I had only seen one before, and that was at Vange Marshes and was very distant, so last Sunday was a welcome opportunity for a closer view.

Long-billed Dowitcher with Lapwing on the East Flood
I have been to Oare and Dungeness more than any other site this year – I really like both places. Oare is nice and easy to get to, it's compact, viewing is excellent and there is always something to see. Like this Wilson's Phalarope.

The Wilson's Phalarope at Oare Marshes
 It didn't let me down either. It performed very well, including its trademark spinning while feeding. The Long-billed Dowitcher also showed well, as did a couple of Little Stint.

Little Stint on the East Flood
All the birds went up into the air when a Peregrine paid a visit for a hopeful meal, which was an opportune moment to head back home for a decent Sunday roast.

Golden Plover in flight



Thursday, 21 September 2017

WE ALL LOVE A WRYNECK

Not long after clocking the Baird's Sandpiper, I visited Dungeness a week later for an enjoyable morning's birding. Dungeness has been one of my favourite haunts this year and when a Wryneck was seen in the Desert area near the observatory I couldn't resist giving it a go.

It was beautiful morning, and was able to take a leisurely walk over the shingle to the patch of gorse scrub where the Wryneck had been seen before I arrived.

On the walk there I saw three Whinchat, always good to see, before scrambling across the shingle towards the gorse where another local birder was peering into the vegetation from a distance with his camera and big lens.

Whinchat on the gorse near the observatory
The Wryneck was skulking around deep in the undergrowth, but after about 45 minutes once a group including Martin Casemore had venture elsewhere,another local birder and myself hung around long enough for it to appear again. I spotted the Wryneck briefly on a branch before it dropped back into the fauna.

The Wryneck at first appeared fleetingly for one photo

While we waited an Osprey that had stuck around the reserve for a few days could be seen in flying around in the distance before it dived down out of view, probably with a fish in its sights.

The Wryneck stayed hidden for another 20 minutes before it eventually came out to feed behind some twigs for a few minutes. Such a fabulous bird, one of my absolute favourites, although clear views were at a premium.

The Wryneck liked to play hard to get
Once it decided to fly back deeper into the scrub I opted to head back to the car and drive over to the reserve. Once there I caught up with four Great White Egret while over at the Denge Marsh hide I had another fleeting view of the Osprey. Also there were a couple of Ruff and a Spoonbill, but I dipped a pair of Cattle Egret.

Three of the four Great White Egret
A Great Crested Grebe gets a close-up view of a Spoonbill coming in to land
The Spoonbill at Denge Marsh – and not asleep
Soon after midday the weather turned, the wind picked up and the rain began to fall, so it was time the head back home. Overall, however, a decent morning

Thursday, 14 September 2017

BAIRD'S BRINGS UP NUMBER 300

It has taken my a while to get to this landmark, but having crept towards it for some months I finally got there with the Baird's Sandpiper at Cuckmere Haven two weeks ago.

It was a nice bird to get to the magic number, and was easy to see, with only a short walk. It was also made enjoyable by the company – birding mate Matt Phelps arrived at the same time as me and so it was good to catch up with him, as it was with Paul Cox, someone I'd not seen since the Red-backed Shrike at Hayes in 2012!

Baird's Sandpiper at Cuckmere Haven
And if there is one thing about birding I enjoy as much as the bird watching itself is having banter with a few mates while doing it. I don't get out as much these days, so it was a welcome distraction from everyday life.

A much better photo of the Baird's Sandpiper digiscoped by Matt Phelps
So the Baird's Sandpiper wandered about a bit, fed a bit, rested a bit. It was a tad distant for decent photos but not to worry.

So, looking back at the 300 bird species seen over the years I was daydreaming earlier today and thought I'd list my favourite birds in that list.

Completely off the top of my head, they would be:
Bee-eater, Nightingale, Pallid Harrier, Pomarine Skua, Red-backed Shrike, Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Roller, Short-eared Owl, Wryneck.

The birds that were the biggest pain in the arse to see were:
Baillion's Crake at Rainham, Hudsonian Whimbrel at Church Norton (may not even be relevant now either), Marsh Warbler at Rainham Marshes.

The most fleeting and therefore least satisfying birds to see were:
Ortolan Bunting at Beachy Head
Purple Heron at Lodmoor

Next comes the birds still missing from the list I should have seen by now. No excuses. Anyway, here's my list of shame:
Cirl Bunting, Honey-buzzard, Pink-footed Goose, Puffin, Purple Sandpiper, Storm Petrel, Willow Tit, Yellow-browed Warbler. Plus all the Scottish birds (not traveled there since 1972). There you go, I've said it now!

Monday, 4 September 2017

THE FROG AND THE HONEY BUZZARD

Annie and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary last Tuesday and because it was a landmark day and not being the big party-types I arranged for us to stay at La Grenouillere, near Montreuil-sur-Mer, about 10 miles inland from Le Touquet.


La Grenouilerre is something out of the ordinary. For one thing the decor has a particular theme – frogs. There's frogs on frescos in the anti-room, plus a prominent scultpure in the garden. There is an obvious reason – if you speak French at least – as a grenouillere is a swamp where frogs live (or something like that).

The pathway from the restaurant to our accomodation
View from the cabin

It has two Michelin stars and is run by one of France's best and most innovative chefs, Alexandre Gauthier. Gauthier is renowned for focusing on nature, his menu features imaginative ingredients from the surrounding countryside. And he loves pepper. Pepper is often a feature – including in ice.

Set in the Canche river valley below the walled town of Montreuil, there are a number of guest rooms and cabins on site, one of which we booked for two nights. These cabins are set deep into the unspoilt grounds, and you feel genuinely at one with nature in amongst the shrubbery. It is peaceful, tranquil and the perfect environment to relax.

The kitchen of Alexandre Gauthier

It also helped that we timed our two-night visit for the two hottest days of August. Perfect.

La Grenoulliere features two striking metallic marquees that extend out into the garden from the century-old main buildings, and were designed by architect Patrick Bouchain. This radical juxtaposition of old and new is in keeping with the cuisine.


The restaurant
Sea Bream - one of the tasting highlights
The restaurant, from which you can watch Gauthier and his team prepare the dishes, serves a radical cuisine in a minimalist, spacious environment with just a few tables. It a very relaxed place to eat. Nothing here is austere – feel free to wear jeans if you want – this is a place to enjoy excellent food.


The dessert wine is served
We went for the eight-course tasting menu with accompanying wines (decent sized glasses they were too! The honey-based dessert wine came in a huge glass bowl and the wine was siphoned into a large pipette before being served). The food was amazing. It including melon and langoustine, sea bream, a river fish (a poisonous one), courgette prepared in a way that is remarkable, crab, chicken with verveine, we also had additional mushrooms picked that day in the surrounding woodland, plus honeycomb, strawberries and rhubarb like I've never tasted before.

And in between we tasted all manner of interesting delicate sensory delights including samphire, a flower that tasted of truffle, quail eggs, apricot mousse in a casing that dissolved in the mouth, all subtle but fascinating. The courses were small but even I was full by the end of the meal.

So we ate well and drank fabulous wine. 

And I saw a Honey-buzzard.

Honey-buzzard!
On the first day, as we chilled out in the late afternoon sun outside the cabin, I noticed a large bird being mobbed by Swallows and House Martins. At first glance, as it flew behind a tree, I thought it was a heron as it had large wings. I managed to get my bins on to it and immediately could see it was a buzzard. It looked different, and when it called it didn't sound like a Common Buzzard.

Having been to this area a couple of months earlier and drawn a blank with Honey-buzzard, I was really hoping this would be one, as despite being birding for some years now I have never seen one.

Looking at it closely I felt 80 per cent confident, but I've made mistakes before. I managed a few record shots, but only after I was forced to switch off the autofocus which had frustratingly decided not to work.

As it drifted off I looked at the images on the camera – I was still not 100 per cent sure, and it was only after getting home and blowing up the images that I become more confident. The two bands on the tail and the general jizz pretty much nailed it for me, but to be certain I sent the images to David Campbell to check for me. And thankfully, he immediately replied and confirmed that it was, indeed, a Honey-buzzard

The perfect end to a fabulous couple of days!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

THE FINE ART OF MISIDENTIFYING BIRDS

Well, I've had another couple of birding sojourns this month, both at Oare Marshes. But before discussing the sightings there, I'd like to refer back to the previous post.

I joyfully described viewing a first Wood Sandpiper on the local patch, when in fact it was a juvenile Green Sandpiper. This bird had been spotted the day before by Gordon Hay and I'd been sent a voicemail message to explain where the bird was. What I didn't listen to was another message about an hour later from Gordon to say this wader was misidentified.

Predictably, I went along and found the juvenile bird and convinced myself this was, in fact, something else. This is a trait I'm sure (or hope, at least) the majority of birders fall into from time to time.

I've always accepted birding requires a high level of skill, particularly with identifying species, and I have to admit, while enjoying the pastime, bird id – which is quite fundamental to the hobby – isn't one of my strengths. And if you don't go birding that often, like with anything in life that requires skill – no matter how good or bad you are – you will only improve with practice.

As result, I cock up now and again. It has happened before. Last year I convinced myself I was watching an Arctic Tern feeding over Spynes Mere, when in fact it was a Common. This, I suppose, is forgivable to an extent, but I've mistook all manner of birds over the years, some of which I have no enthusiasm to relive here.

Anyway, we move on, tail between legs. Or actually not. As the rest of this post will explain.

I like Oare Marshes, mainly because these days I'm a lazy birder and can't be arsed to walk far. And at Oare, if you feel that way inclined, you don't have to walk at all. Which was exactly my state of mind on the 7th (my birthday). I only intended to stay for the morning before heading back home, but ended up extending the visit for an extra couple of hours.

I parked the car on the lane alongside the East Flood, and that is where I stayed for the next four and half hours.

Busy at Oare Marshes
So what did I see? Plenty of waders, including the usual suspects, as well a Spotted Redshank, a Little Stint and a Curlew Sandpiper. I also saw a Turtle Dove as soon as I arrived. This added to the pair I enjoyed at the end of May, photos of which I have added below.

Two Turtle Dove at Oare Marshes in May
What I didn't see, however, was the Bonaparte's Gull. Hard as I tried, I just couldn't find it – but then nor did anyone else who was visiting at the same time as me. I also didn't see a Roseate Tern that a few surrounding me had convinced themselves they were looking at and walked away happy with their find. I was desperately hoping it was one, but in the end it was a juvenile Common Tern – as was the adult bird close by, and not an Arctic as some suggested.

Also some thought the Little Stint was a Dunlin, but having seen quite a few I knew what this was. Birding is a bloody obstacle course. It certainly was on that day.

Long-billed Dowitcher at Oare
Sixteen Whimbrel
Then last Monday, on the way back from taking my mum for a hospital appointment in Margate, I dropped in at Oare again on the way home. Another Bonaparte's dip took place, but at least I got decent look of the Long-billed Dowitcher, 16 Whimbrel, as well as some really nice views of a Yellow Wagtail. Misidentifying one of those really would be a skill.

Yellow Wagtail. Probably

Friday, 4 August 2017

A BIT OF RADAR LOVE CHASING A MARSH SANDPIPER

The month's seem to be flying by this year. It's August already and as far as birding is concerned I've done very little since my last post in June.

Gavin Haig of the excellent Not Quite Scilly blog recently wrote an post concerning 'phasing'. This is a state of mind where birding doesn't hold the same appeal as it once had. It's someone birders drift in and out of and is someone I can definitely relate to. I'd say my interest in birding is always there in some form or other, but I have to be honest and say I have fluctuated into this phasing state on many occasions this year. There have been numerous times I simply haven't been arsed with it all.

The local patch has been shelved for a couple of months and when I have had the time to go birding I've chosen to go on a twitch more than do patch work. Of late, I've gone over to Cliffe Pools a couple of times to try and locate the juvenile Marsh Sandpiper that has been present for some weeks now.

The first attempt was a couple of weeks ago, prior to a visit to my mum's in Margate. I managed to get to Cliffe about 15 minutes before a Peregrine had flown over the area and had sent all the waders and gulls up into the air. It meant the Marsh Sandpiper, having been in a spot where views were good on Radar Pool, had cleared off and completely disappeared. It wasn't seen again all that day.

A juvenile Black-winged Stilt at Cliffe Pools
I did get see to see the successfully breeding Black-winged Stilts and their young, with the help of a lift from Dominic Mitchell, who I happened across on my walk, and also a couple of Spoonbill.

I gave the site another go last Saturday, prior to a trip up north to Lincolnshire for work. I bumped into two pals I hadn't seen for a while, Mark Elsoffer and Steve Minhinnick (the infamous Smutty Birders from Tices Meadow), and while the banter was good, a successful twitch was looking decidedly suspect.

The Smutty Birders on tour
The Marsh Sandpiper again was playing hard to get. But luckily, another group of birders from Ashford turned up and as we viewed from the mound at the south west area of Radar Pool, namesake Neil briefly spotted the wader in the distance. At the same time another birder closer to the location flagged up the sighting on his pager, so we knew we were at last on to a winner.

After another walk alongside Radar Pool down to a closer position we eventually were on to it. A smashing little wader, the Marsh Sandpiper had obviously given up sleeping and was feeding alongside some Greenshank. The two Spoonbill were also in attendance.

Distant – but it's there. The Marsh Sandpiper on Radar Pool
So after that lifer, a more local first coaxed me into patch action yesterday lunchtime. Gordon Hay had rung the day before to say a Wood Sandpiper was on the Moors with a couple of Green Sandpiper. This bird had first been seen by Ray Baker a couple of days earlier, so it was good to discover that it was still in the area.

The weather had been atrocious all day on Wednesday and unseasonably windy yesterday, so I was fairly confident the Wood Sandpiper would still be about. And fortunately it was, sleeping with the two Green Sandpiper on the southern Moors pools next to the railway line.

A patch lifer – a Wood Sandpiper on the Moors at Holmethorpe

It eventually woke up to preen so I got to see it properly next to its green cousins. A really nice bird for the patch.

So now my birding juices have begun to flow again, although my predominant urge, with the weather as it is, is to go on a seawatch. Unfortunately, the best place for that currently is in Cornwall at Porthgwarra. What a great place that must be. Another year perhaps...