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.



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...

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.