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.



Friday, 23 June 2017

AN INELEGANT TWITCH

While I was knackered from a long day in France the day before, the Elegant Tern was still present at Church Norton and I had enough enthusiasm left to hurtle down the M23, A24 and A27 to go and see this mega rare visitor.

The Elegant Tern in flight
Nowadays, I don't tend to twitch that much. The uncertainty of what you have invested time and money on seeing is less appealing than it once was and this twitch certainly reaffirmed that view.

It was in there somewhere – Tern Island
Had I had time to relax my Elegant Tern twitch would have been OK, but inevitably time was not on my side. Luckily, I went the day after the masses had taken over the area and having managed to park without issue, I had a window of a couple of hours. Once that time had run out it would be some days before I would have the chance again.

I arrived at about 2pm, and with all the sightings that had been posted on Rare Bird Alert, I was hopeful I would at least gain a glimpse of this seabird in the time available.

I discovered the Tern had already flown out to sea to fish and returned to the Tern island sated and had settled in among the Sandwich and Little Terns, Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls. The island, though small, was full to the brim with birdlife but the Elegant Tern had decided to land at the back of the island out of view.

This is where it stayed for the next hour and 55 minutes.

It was nice to be able to study the Little Terns for a decent amount of time, as well as the stunning pure white plumaged Mediterranean Gulls – the most attractive of the gull family. But the bird at the top of the bill refused to make an appearance.

At last the Elegant Tern breaks cover and lands on the water for a quick wash

The birds on the island did all take to the air momentarily, spooked by something, but only one  birder had managed to spot the long bright orange bill for about two seconds.

It was getting to the point where I had to leave. Well, I had gone well passed that point, and I was on the verge of leaving when suddenly someone spotted the Elegant Tern flying over the island and heading towards the sea. It then dropped down on to the water near an inland breakwater for a quick wash and brush up.

It was then back over the island...
What a bloody relief! Which is exactly why twitches are so tortuous. There is more a sense of relief than excitement – and that isn't how it should be.

Anyhow, the Elegant Tern finished its afternoon wash and headed back to the island where it dropped back down to the same area as before and back out of view.

...heading back to its hideaway spot in among the other terns and Med Gulls
That was it. No time to hang on for another brief view. I grabbed my stuff and promptly left. The end.

Not good is it? In ideal circumstances I would have spent the whole day there, and included a walk around the harbour and come away far happier. But at least I had seen a very rare visitor, one that had come from France, the country I had been to the day before.

I'd recently had a chat with a fellow birder, who concurred a view I had about bird sighting information on the internet. Many sightings posted on Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert often appear more alluring than they actually are.

Birds that sound worth travelling miles to see can often involve long arduous walks, incredibly distant views, be frustratingly elusive, or had only been seen for a couple of seconds. As a result a twitch can be a miserable business.

A distant view but a decent one of the Red-footed Falcon at Frensham Ponds
But not always, obviously. The White-winged Terns at Staines Reservoir were very enjoyable to see.And, of course, the Elegant Tern did move on via Brownsea Island where it gave excellent sightings including some amazing views via Brownsea Lagoon webcam.

A couple of days later I was tempted out again on another twitch. This one, however, was much closer to home at Frensham Ponds for the first-summer Red-footed Falcon. Again I didn't have long, but at least this time I got to watch this smashing bird of prey for a good half an hour, even though all it did was preen itself while perched on a branch before flying off.

Dartford Warbler
What was pleasing about this twitch were the other birds on the Kings Ridge that gave fantastic views. A female Dartford Warbler, in particular, proved amazingly confiding. Singing constantly and as bold as a Robin in your garden, at one point she flew low passed me within a couple of feet.

Also here were Swifts aplenty, Woodlark, Linnet and a couple of Common Tern that flew in between the two Frensham ponds. The sun was shining. It was already warm at eight in the morning and the birds were singing. Happy days.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A DAY OUT IN NORTHERN FRANCE

I was in the Channel Tunnel heading for France for a day's birding when most other birders were queuing up to get into the car park at the Church Norton chapel near Selsey last Sunday.

My timing has always been impeccable and last Sunday was a case in point. I'd booked a space on the Eurotunnel at Folkestone the morning before, only to discover later in the day that the first Elegant Tern had turned up in Britain. Not only that but a Surrey tick Red-footed Falcon was flying around the heathland at Frensham Ponds.

I had planned the day trip across to Calais in the hope of finding some decent birds while everyone else was hoping June would pass by quickly and into autumn.

I'd heard so much about the quality rare birds you can find along the northern French coast, I had to go for a look myself. The one snag was I had never been birding in this part of the world before and had to rely on what proved to be an excellent and reliable site online, http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/france/calaise/calais.htm.

Having dissected the info at length I opted for the Somme region and three sites in particular – Sailly Bray, Crecy Forest and Marquentere.

It only took about an hour to drive to Sailly Bray, and while it is in the middle of nowhere, I actually found it quite easily. The target here was for Bluethroat, as this is apparently one of the best places to find them, Savi's Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Golden Oriole and Blue-headed Wagtail.

A marshland area with tall trees along the track leading off a picnic area and the road alongside the site, it was resplendent with bird song.

Marsh Warbler or Reed Warbler - not sure which
The predominant songster was Marsh Warbler, plenty of them popped up for a brief sighting, along with Sedge and Reed Warbler. Try as I might, however, I couldn't find a Bluethroat. A distinctive song that broke Marsh Warbler's mimicry was the lovely plaintive song of a Golden Oriole in the tall tree opposite to where I was standing, but frustratingly I couldn't see it!

High up in the blue sky, eight White Stork circled before heading off north, and a female Pied Flycatcher flew into the trees. Definitely an area to come back to with more time.

Crecy Forest
My next stop was Crecy Forest, a place I read a lot about. While it was a spectacular place to visit, knowledge was obviously essential in such a vast woodland, and I didn't have any. I drove around and parked up and went for the odd walk into the woods, but any hope of finding Honey Buzzard, Goshawk, Black Woodpecker, Golden Oriole, Short-toed Treecreeper, Melodious Warbler, etc was going to be a long-shot (well, for me it was anyway), so after a while I cut my losses and headed for Marquentere, which is where I spent the rest of a hot day.

Marquentere is a well put together reserve, with a visitor's centre, a cafeteria. The reserve itself has plenty of hides and varied habitat.

Spoonbill at Marquentere
Spoonbill, White Stork and Cattle Egret at Marquentere
Cattle Egret coming in to land
White Stork coming in to land
White Stork with young
It wasn't too busy when I arrived at lunchtime and the most obvious bird I sat eyes on as I walked through the pines and on to the reserve itself was White Stork. These fly low above your head as they drift in towards their nests and young. Their nests are strategically placed for visitors to get a closer look. Along with these plentiful White Stork were numerous Spoonbill (I lost count) and Cattle Egret perched restlessly high in the trees. I even saw a Night Heron flying around occasionally.

Black-winged Stilt

Also seen during the day were a few Crossbill, four Black-winged Stilt, a Common Crane, four Mediterranean Gull and a couple of unidentified waders.

Common Crane
The day trip maybe didn't reach the heights I had hoped for (due mainly to me being completely incompetent, I imagine) but it is such an easy place to travel to – from boarding the Eurotunnel train to arriving in Sailly Bray took just over two hours – I hope to visit the surrounding area again soon.

Friday, 26 May 2017

MAY BIRDING: WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERN DELIGHT AT STAINES RESERVOIR

Having had what can only be described as an indifferent spring this year, the month of May has certainly made up for my lack of birding during the first quarter of 2017.

There have been very few disappointments, if any, these past few weeks. I would normally have focused more on the local patch, but seeing as my patch list for the year doesn't even include Yellowhammer, it was important from a personal point of view to get out and see some good stuff to keep my flagging moral going.

Thankfully, May has been great personally and there's still a few days before it comes to an end. It's hard to pinpoint a highlight, but the three White-winged Black Tern at Staines Reservoir on Tuesday will take some beating.

One of two adult White-winged Black Tern at Staines Reservoir on Tuesday

I've only seen one before, and that was a couple of years ago at Wareham in Dorset, so when these beauties were flagged up on the Rare Bird Alert site, and seeing as I was working from home, I found time to head off to Staines in the late afternoon.

The 1st summer White-winged Black Tern on the south basin
The reservoir used to be one of my regular birding venues, but I hadn't been in more than a year. Why that is I'm not sure, only that perhaps birding local to home has become more of a priority for the past 18 months.


But it was good to be back at the old place, and also to catch up with birding friends I haven't seen for a while including Matt Phelps, who had had the same idea as me and took a detour after work to see these fantastic birds.

Adult (below) and 1st summer White-winged Black Tern
Later I bumped into another mate and the man who had discovered the terns, Dominic Pia. Staines Reservoir is his local patch and, while the spring had been a decent one at the "Res", it had dropped off dramatically in recent weeks. Inevitably, like all who trudge the same old patch day after day, Dom's enthusiasm was beginning to wane.


But, as so often happens when a birder begins to question their sanity, a cracking rarity suddenly makes all the pain go away.

And these three White-winged Black Terns, flying predominantly around the south basin, were an exceptional discovery.

The two adults feeding in among the Common terns and Black-backed Gulls on the north basin
It would have been good to find one, let alone what appeared to be a family group of three, including a very rare spring sighting of a 1st summer juvenile.

They all made for a great sight, as often they would fly low over the causeway towards the north basin and back, calling as they went. Views were great as they dived for fish and occasionally perched on a pipe that was jutting out of the water on the south basin.

Another unusual visitor to the reservoir was an Avocet on the west bank of the south basin, but on this occasion it hardly got much attention.

While many aficionados have decried May as not being the month it could have been, I've certainly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

MAY BIRDING LUCK = A DOTTEREL FLYING IN AT FRAMPTON MARSH

My wife Annie summed up birding perfectly. "It's seems to me you need patience and luck," she said.

I described how I went to Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve a couple of Sunday's ago on the way back from Skegness, where I had been reporting on a stock car event.

On the way to Lincolnshire I had a look to see if there had been much happening at Frampton, which is on the way to Skeggy, just outside Boston, and only a short detour.

I had been to this excellent reserve a couple of years ago and was looking forward to paying it another visit. A Broad-billed Sandpiper had been found in the morning, along with a Temminck's Stint. I had a quick look on the way up, but the the Sandpiper had gone missing for about an hour, and because there was no rush to get home later in the day I went back in the evening.

As I drove along the winding lane towards the reserve, a Barn Owl flew over the car – actually my first of the year! I drove up to the car park at the sea wall end of the reserve and met a chap called Craig Howett, who is from Oakham.

A Little Stint was a first for the year
Followed later by two Little Stint
He was another birder looking out for this Broad-billed Sandpiper, but he hadn't yet seen it. He was waiting for the tide to come in to force the birds back over the sea wall and on to the scrape we were viewing from.


Craig turned out to be a very knowledgeable birder, and he pointed out a couple of Little Stint as the waders began to fly in.

There were plenty of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Avocet, plus a nice Ruff but no Broad-billed Sandpiper. A couple of Bearded Tit pinged in the reeds in front of us, together with chattering Reed and Sedge Warbler. In the near distance there was the distinctive sound of a Grasshopper Warbler, while a Cuckoo called out somewhere in the far reaches of the reserve.

As the sun began to sink lower towards the horizon, we resigned ourselves to the fact we were unlikely to see this rare wader.

But all was not lost. Suddenly Craig became animated as another flock of Dunlin flew in. In among them was a bigger bird that split off from the group and landed on a grassy mound. He called it immediately. "It's got an orange breast, it's a Dotterel!"

The female Dotterel headed towards the sea before turning inland
 I couldn't find it immediately but my birding colleague had it in his scope, which he kindly allowed me to view it in. A fantastic female Dotterel.

What a result! And so unexpected too. But then within a minute or so she took off – looking as if to head back out to sea she turned and flew right over our heads towards the fields inland.

Our luck was well and truly in. Craig and I were the only ones to see this bird. About 15 minutes later the reserve's Visitor Experience Officer arrived to a bit of late-evening birding after work and missed this treat.

But that is birding in a nutshell – being in the right place at the right time.

Patience and luck. Luck was definitely on my side that evening.

Friday, 19 May 2017

MAY BIRDING: DUNGENESS POMARINE SKUA SEAWATCH

Two days after the Great Reed Warbler/Temminck's Stint twitch I set off for Dungeness on May 11 (a week ago today). The winds were favourable for a decent Pomarine Skua seawatch and I arrived shortly after 7.45am, having just missed four heading east, as well as a Cattle Egret.
I wasn't the only one to miss out – top local birder Martin Casemore, who has counted more than 200 Pomarine Skuas during the spring passage, arrived about half an hour after me.

From this point on I watched the sea until the weather closed in and the rain came at around 7.30pm. The list of birds was rewarding during a long day simply staring at the horizon – and I loved every minute of it.

I was met by a bitterly cold wind for the time of year, which thankfully was compensated by warm sunshine later in the day. Down on the broiling 'patch' five Black Tern were feeding and also the long-staying Iceland Gull could easily be picked out among the gulls. A Black Redstart sang from the power station – it sounded close by, but was actually some distance away on a roof.

After a quiet start the first Pomarine Skua flew by, followed soon after by three Black-throated Diver. And then about an hour later things began to pick up as group of six Pomarine Skua headed past the outside of the buoy – a great sight.

A Pomarine Skua flies past the Point at Dungeness
One of the joys of seawatching is the communication between seawatch sites further along the coast. Once a group of Poms flies past Portland Bill in Dorset, the birds will often be picked up by seawatchers at Titchfield Haven, Selsey Bill, Worthing and Splash Point at Seaford as the birds continue their journey eastwards.

By noting the time of the sighting, you can work out when they should pass by where you are – although that sometimes doesn't happen.
This Fox vixen is a regular and remarkably tame companion during a
seawatch at Dungeness
Herring Gull
Dungeness often clocks Pom Skua sightings other sites haven't seen, and vise versa. Last Thursday was a case in point, when a spring migrating Long-tailed Skua had been flagged up flying through the Solent at 9.17am. It was later spotted at Selsey Bill at 10.55am, followed by Splash Point at 1pm (although this wasn't highlighted until a few hours later).

It should have looked good for a 3pm viewing for the gathering throng of birders who had joined our small group, including Mark Collingworth (along with his terrible jokes!). But the bird never showed up.
Five Whimbrel flying east
Why this was will remain a mystery, but it could have flown further out into the Channel, when the visibility was poor due to glare from the strong sunlight, or it could even have taken a short cut across country, rejoining the route north of Kent. Who knows.

But despite that disappointment, and the occasional quiet period around lunchtime, the birding was good. One Pomarine Skua in particular came in quite close the the shore, flying past on the inside of the buoy. The sightings included decent views of a number of Arctic Skua, plus a Long-tailed Duck in amongst a flock of Common Scoter, more Black-throated Diver, plenty of Whimbrel and. late in the day, shortly before I left, three Great Northern Diver.

Three Great Northern Divers late in the day before the rain set in
From 8.00am-7.30pm"
1 Brent Goose
1 Long-tailed Duck
c300 Common Scoter
10 Black-throated Diver
3 Great Northern Diver
3 Fulmar
c20 Gannet
9 Great Crested Grebe
c15 Oystercatcher
1 Ringed Plover
10 Grey Plover
1 Knot
27 Sanderling
c20 Dunlin
8 Bar-tailed Godwit
21 Whimbrel
1 Turnstone
9 Pomarine Skua (1 at 08.52hrs, 6 at 09.50hrs, 1 at 11.17hrs (photo above), 1 at 17.50hrs)
7 Arctic Skua
c20 Kittiwake
1 Iceland Gull (on the Patch)
2 Little Tern
5 Black Tern (on the Patch)
c40 Sandwich Tern
c250 Common Tern (plus a few 'Commic')
5 Guillemot
c10 Auk sp
c20 Swallow
1 Black Redstart (on roof at power station)

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

MAY BIRDING: LANDGUARD, ABBERTON AND RAINHAM MARSHES

It has been an enjoyable week on the birding front – but unfortunately I haven't had time to write about it until now!

Last Tuesday (9th) I had the whole day to myself. I narrowed down the options to either a seawatch at Dungeness or a trip to a reserve I haven't been to before in Suffolk. After having breakfast at Clacket Lane services on the M25, it was either turn left for Essex or go straight on for the Kent shingle. I chose the former.

And for once, I made the right choice. I headed for Landguard Nature Reserve near Felixstowe, and a mighty fine spot it is too.

My decision was influenced by the weather – it didn't seem favourable for a Pomarine Skua watch – and also by the presence of a Great Reed Warbler at Landguard during the previous couple of days, plus the possibility of a male Ring Ouzel and a Wryneck. OK, so it was a twitch, but I did fancy a day out somewhere different.

It was a straightforward journey but I arrived a bit late at just before 10am. I should had got there sooner as I missed a Red-rumped Swallow fly by about 10 minutes earlier (always the way).

Great views were had of the Great Reed Warbler...
...before it flew off into the bushes
But never mind. There were a number of local and not so local birders lined up staying into the bushes along an area called Icky Ridge just down from the Landguard Fort car park, and it wasn't long before the Great Reed Warbler began it's loud throaty and scratchy song.

Standing around waiting for a bird to appear is often a frustrating way to go birding, but thankfully it wasn't long before we got a few fleeting views of the warbling beast. As I was intending to stay for at least a few hours I decided to go off to see what else was around this compact birding site.

A distant and rubbish photo of the male Ring Ouzel

While the Wryneck hadn't been seen for at least 24 hours, there was still plenty to see. The male Ring Ouzel was feeding out in the open, although a few photographers predictably moved too close and as a result, eventually it flew out of view.

Female Wheatear
There were a number of Wheatear flitting around – incredibly, they were my first for the year! Also breeding Little Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher.

I made my way back to the area where the Great Reed Warbler had been seen and it had moved further along the bank. It eventually popped up high in the scrub and showed well for a minute or so before flying off and diving into some hawthorn bushes. That had been as good as i could expect

After Landguard, my plan was to work my way back home via other sites along the route. In the afternoon I headed for Abberton Reservoir, as about an hour before I arrived a Temminck's Stint had been discovered on the south bank of the reservoir viewed from the Layer de la Haye Causeway.

Digiscope shot of the Temminck's Stint with a Greenshank for company
Once on the causeway, I was shown where the bird was by the finder, Stuart Read, and within seconds I was looking at my first Temminck's Stint. It was a smashing little wader, feeding on the edge of the water, along with a number of other waders – a Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank and a Redshank.

The Temminck's Stint with a Redshank
A size comparison of the Temminck's Stint and a Common Sandpiper
A Marsh Harrier flew over head, while there were also a couple of Whimbrel in the area, plus three Black Tern and a Little Gull on the opposite bank of the reservoir.

As time was getting on, my next target was Rainham Marshes, where a possible Franklin's or Laughing Gull had been seen around midday. I got there shortly after the reserve closed, and was greeted by a swarm of Swift feeding off the reserve. A Cuckoo sang in the distance, and there were numerous Shelduck on the banks of the Thames.

I made my way around to the Serin Mound area where I met Howard Vaughan, the Visitor Experience Officer at Rainham Marsh Nature Reserve, who was scanning the Thames. The gull had only been seen briefly and a tantalising photo was taken, which gave mixed messages as to its species.

The consensus was it was a Franklin's Gull, but later it was concluded that, in fact, it had been a Laughing Gull. Dominic Mitchell joined us, having been with a group searching for the bird on the landfill with no luck. Having scoured the Thames with no sightings of it, a few of us headed for Rainham West, where the river bends round towards Cross Ness.

With no luck there we drove round to the barges nearer to the reserve, but this gull was having the last laugh. Having drawn a blank it was time to head home. Despite the dip I'd enjoyed the banter and the thrill of the search – it had been a good day and as it transpired, there would be further decent birding a couple of days later.

Monday, 1 May 2017

MORE SKUAS AT SPLASH POINT

I headed back to Splash Point at Seaford early this morning after yesterday's memorable couple of hours seawatching.

The weather was not as favourable, but nonetheless in the morning at least, it developed into another decent day staring at the sea, with more Pomarine Skua sightings.

Arctic Skua
It is fascinating how two days are never the same. Yesterday, it was all about skuas, terns and waders. Of the 43 Pomarine Skua seen yesterday I saw 10, with the same number of Arctic Skua and just the one Great Skua.

There were large numbers of Little Tern passing through – I saw at least 25 – as well as Sandwich and 'Commic' – and more than 20 Whimbrel, 40 Bar-tailed Godwit and 15 Knot.

A group of 18 Eider passing by Splash Point
One of the highlights from today was seeing 18 Eider fly by as a group (24 in total), but it was all about Mediterranean Gull, of which 52 were seen between 7.40am-2.00pm. On the Pomarine Skua front, I saw 11 – a group of 10 plus one with an Arctic Skua (made for a good comparison). There were 8 Arctic Skua altogether including two quite close to the shore, and one Bonxie. The only wader species I saw were three Grey Plover. There were noticeably fewer terns, with no Little Tern sightings.

Mediterranean Gull
Species seen over both days:
Brent Goose, (Bar-headed Goose), Shelduck (Monday), Eider (Monday), Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser (Monday), Fulmar, Gannet (Monday), Little Egret (Monday), Great Crested Grebe (Monday), Peregrine (Monday), Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Turnstone, Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Kittiwake, Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Little Tern, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, Arctic Tern.