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 24 January 2017


A belated happy New Year to one and all. It's nearly February already – and that can only mean spring is around the corner.

January has flown by, with just the odd smatterings of birding along the way. I actually spent two days walking the patch, which was very pleasant if uneventful.

All had been quiet on the Holmethorpe front this month, until Gordon Hay struck gold at the weekend with his first Bittern on the patch, only the second in more than 30 years, which he saw circling Mercers West before it flew towards Mercers Lake.

Gordon managed to get a record photo of it for good measure, but predictably it was not seen again, presumably continuing on its journey south.

But what a great patch tick to start the year! I've not had such good luck on my two visits, but it just goes to show you simply have to be out there to discover great birds. You're not going to find anything staring at a computer screen all day as I often have to do.

Luck plays such a big part in birding. It is dictated by being in the right place at the right time. It doesn't happen that often, but when a good bird appears out of the blue, it makes all the predictable days worthwhile.

Highlight of my birding month came on the 3rd, after taking my mum to a hospital appointment in Whitstable. On our way back to Margate I stopped off at the local Tescos in Cliftonville to pick up a few essentials for her, when I heard a familiar high-pitched flutey call.

Waxwings! Sure, enough feeding on berries in a tree in the car park were five Waxwing. What a result! They flew to another tree, and stayed just long enough for me to get some video footage on my iPhone. As is normal at times like this, I didn't have my camera with me.

Still, this was a major bonus. They stayed for a couple of minutes before flying off. If I'd arrived a couple of minutes later I would have missed them. Such is birding. My luck was definitely in and I wasn't even on a planned birding trip.

Apart from that I've not really been anywhere, apart from the NEC in Birmingham for four days for Autosport International, the motorsport show, where it was great to catch up with former colleagues and familiar faces.

Back at home I managed to pop out last Saturday to see the wintering juvenile Rose-coloured Starling again in Crawley. An easy bird to spot when it perches in its favourite tree, this is an interesting bird as it is gradually changing from juvenile into adult plumage. It would be nice if it hung around long enough to complete the metamorphosis.

The Rose-coloured Starling is going through its grunge teenage years
In other news, the Stejneger's Stonechat at Dungeness I went to see transformed back into a common Stonechat, while the Blue Rock Thrush I didn't see is still either a genuine wild bird or a plastic one – it's anyone guess. I still haven't made the effort, and it is likely to disappear come the day I change my mind (which I don't think I will).

What I hope to see at Holmethorpe in the next few weeks is one of those Waxwings. They are being seen regularly now all over the place – I just need that little bit of luck again when I next go for a visit to our local Tescos near the patch.

Monday 2 January 2017


Welcome to the 2016 Randon's Rambling Awards!

They are two days later than they should have been announced, but as is often the case, real life tends to get in the way.

But never mind – it's time for the Surrey birding alternative to the Oscars, Emmys, Baftas, Brits, Turner Prize and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. The Ramblers have become, I hope, a bit of an end of year (or beginning of the next) tradition.

And as is also tradition, I'll give a quick summary of my birding year before we get on to the awards themselves.

As years go it hasn't been bad. Once again it petered out dramatically during the last quarter, to the point where I didn't go birding for more than the equivalent of a whole day for eight weeks between the end of October until last Thursday! I managed to get the day off before the year was over and used it to visit Dungeness and the surrounding area. The weather was perfect, too, despite the  forecast suggesting there might be a blanket of fog covering the south east. It was nice to be back.

I find winter a good time to go birding if the weather is good. There always seems to be a few surprises in store. None more so than the Blue Rock Thrush that made national newspaper headlines at Stow-on-the-Wold last week.

I haven't, however, chosen to go and see it. The mass of people migrating there put me off and I've seen one anyway in Mallorca in its natural habitat. Once the excitement has died down and if it stays around long enough I may reconsider but it would have to include some birding elsewhere that day. I can't think of anything worse than spending most of the time in a car and then hanging around waiting for a bird to appear. I used to do this more in the past, but I'm less enthusiastic as the years pass by.

The Stejneger's Stonechat stayed still long enough for a record shot or two
The highlights on Thursday included the Stejneger's Stonechat – which was quite flighty, due mainly to the increased presence of birders chasing it around the area, the very smart Ring-necked Duck at Boulderwall Farm – on the lake near the entrance to the reserve – plus a redhead Smew, a number of Pintail and Goldeneye on the Burrows Pit.

Ring-necked Duck at Dungeness
Bewick's Swans at Horse Bones Farm, north of Lydd
North of Lydd, watching 29 Bewick's Swan basking in the sun in a field next to Horse Bones Farm was a pleasant sight, together with a large flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover. Then while heading through the lanes I stopped to look at a couple of swans in a field, wound the car window down and heard and immediately found a flock of Tree Sparrow in a tree opposite. Having not seen any on the feeders at Boulderwall Farm, or anywhere else this past year, this was an added bonus.

Part of a flock of Tree Sparrow north of Lydd

Looking back, Autumn 2016 was an amazing period for birds across the country after a long stretch of easterly winds, particularly along the east coast, but predictably it past me by yet again. One day...

If I was to give a British Bird of the Year award it would undoubtedly go to the Siberian Accentor – with the first ever sighting appearing on Shetland in October, followed by a remarkable 11 more records from Shetland to Yorkshire.

I am now probably one of only a handful of birders not to have seen one in Britain – I simply couldn't justify the time or expense to head off to Easington on a whim. While the Siberian Accentor won't be the last mega rarity I'll fail to see in the coming years, despite my absence during an extraordinary September and October, there were still a few fantastic high points for me during the year.

Some of the Eleonora's Falcon feeding above the villa
The highest of these happened abroad on a memorable holiday to Mallorca, where I saw 11 lifers, the highlight being 16 Eleonora's Falcon feeding above the fantastic villa we were staying at in the foothills of the Tramuntana Mountains. The falcons stayed for more than an hour – an amazing sight.

The White Stork at Holmethorpe
The male Bearded Tit on the Water Colour Lagoons reeds
Locally, I had my best-ever year on the local patch at Holmethorpe Sand Pits, where I focused much of my time during 2016. The highlights were the White Stork that dropped in for a Sunday morning visit during its long vacation at Beddington and a pair of Bearded Tit in March that stayed for a few days. The Beardies looked as though they might intend to breed until Storm Katie came through and smashed down the reeds, forcing these lovely birds to move on.

Some of the 60-odd Arctic Tern that dropped in at Staines Reservoir in April
In Surrey, my highlight was the 60 Arctic Tern that appeared out of nowhere to feed at Staines Reservoir in April, when I was twitching the Grey Phalarope – what a majestic sight that was.

Elsewhere I enjoyed seeing the Pomarine Skuas passing through Dungeness in May during a three-day visit, the Great Spotted Cuckoo at Portland Bill, and also a trip to Sheppey earlier in the year, when seeing Shorelark, Hooded Crow, Richard's Pipit, White-fronted Goose and Short-eared Owl during a very enjoyable day's birding. The most confiding bird has to be the juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Newhaven Tide Mills.

The worst moment was when heading for Margate where I failed to get a glimpse of one of numerous Yellow-browed Warbler sightings in that area, only to have one turn up the same day on the patch... I've still yet to see one, despite record numbers visiting Britain this year.

Elsewhere, the local birding community have been highly active, so much so I considered a joint winner for two of the Awards. But that will not do. There can only be one winner for each category, of which there is a new addition, but it has been fascinating to work out who is worthy of an Rambler in 2016.

Despite my lack of birding during the last three months, I have kept a close eye on what has been happening around the local area and across the country, which means the Ramblers are as competitive as always.

As with every 12 months, bloggers, twitchers and patch workers come and go, but it is those who have made 2016 memorable who are worthy of a Rambler – the birding Oscar for those who mostly bird in Surrey (the Surrey that includes Spelthorne) or maybe just the Vice County of Surrey, or... anywhere really...

Below is the list of nominees and winners.

In alphabetical order, the nominees are:
Ray Baker – Holmethorpe Sand Pits
The Beddington Crew – Beddington Farmlands
Lee Dingain – Staines Moor
Mark Elsoffer – Tice's Meadow
Dave Harris – Island Barn Reservoir
 Gordon Hay – Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Rich Horton – Tice's Meadow
Matt Phelps – Shalford
Dominic Pia – Staines Moor/Reservoir
Rich Sergeant – Tice's Meadow

The winner is:
Gordon Hay


Congratulations to Gordon Hay, who wins Patch Birder of the Year for the first time.

Gordon is one of those unsung heroes of birding. He's not one for Twitter or Facebook, rarely twitches and has been dedicated to the Holmethorpe patch for more than 30 years. As with all patches – especially those inland – finding different species is a hard grind, but Gordon rarely gets despondent. He enjoys all bird life, no matter whether it is a Robin or a Wryneck. He genuinely cares about the birds on the patch.

This year has been one of the best for the site, with 143 species equalling the site record. He saw 132 of these species this year with the personal highlights being the first Merlin ever recorded at Holmethorpe on March 24, the pair of Bearded Tits on March 22 (the first at Holmethorpe since 1972) and a Little Tern on Spynes Mere on April 30.

There were a few misses, a single Avocet that landed on Water Colour Lagoon 2 island, seen by Ray Baker and myself, that flew off half an hour later, and he didn't see either of Ray's best birds of the year, the Yellow-browed Warbler or the Great White Egret.

Back in the day, it was Gordon, among others, who decided on the boundaries for the recording area, using roads as the limits, enclosing all the old sand and Fuller’s Earth workings at that time and encompassing a comfortable walk through varied habitats.

  As for his favourite Holmethorpe bird of all time, Gordon goes for a male Velvet Scoter, seen on November 2, 1993, which gave him excellent prolonged views on flat water, and enabled him to even see its red feet and legs. A rare sight. A close second was a Hoopoe on September 26 1990, followed by a Red-rumped Swallow last year (which I missed, predictably).

"It has been an excellent year," reflects Gordon, "and the habitat is probably only going to improve, despite the loss of farm land."
His selfless contribution to the local patch, which also includes records of dragonflies and butterflies, and leading organised walks, make him a worthy winner this year.

The nominations are:
(Caspian Gull, Garganey, Hoopoe, Iberian Chiffchaff, Little Bittern, Ring-billed Gull)

(Bewick's Swan, Garganey, Glaucous Gull, Great White Egret, Honey-Buzzard, Iceland Gull, Lapland Bunting, Long-eared Owl, White Stork, Yellow-browed Warbler)

(Bearded Tit, Garganey, Great White Egret, Little Tern, Merlin, White Stork, Yellow-browed Warbler

(Barnacle Goose, Black-winged Stilt, Garganey, Kittiwake, Iceland Gull)

(Black-necked Grebe, Grey Phalarope, Iceland Gull, Short-eared Owl, Whooper Swan)

(Bearded Tit, Black-necked Grebe, Common Crane, Dartford Warbler, Garganey, Goshawk, Great White Egret, Honey-buzzard, Nightjar, Pectoral Sandpiper, Pied Flycatcher, Ruff, Spoonbill, Whooper Swan, Yellow-browed Warbler)

The winner is:
Tice's Meadow

Tice's Meadow's Patch Commander Rich Horton's 70th birthday celebration
Rich Horton and fellow Tice's Meadow birder Rich Sergeant
This was one of the easiest categories to give an award to. Congratulations to Tice's Meadow, winner of the Patch of the Year award for the second time.

In the end it was a choice between two sites – Tice's Meadow, second on the overall Surrey list for species seen in a year with 152 species, and perennial winner of that category, Beddington Farmlands, with 158.

Tice's Meadow had the edge for a couple of reasons. Firstly, access. While Beddington's list of birds will always head the Surrey list each year, getting to see the majority of them is only available to a very chosen few, due to the ownership of the site. It is no-one's fault, the Beddington group do their best to allow people in – notably for the White Stork – also for organised walks, but birding from outside the perimeter fence is very limited.

Tice's Meadow, however, is a far more open affair and has become possibly the most popular birding site in Surrey. This is down to a dedicated team headed by 'Patch Commander' Rich Horton, as well as a number of regular birders, including Rich Sergeant, Mark Elsoffer, Steve Minichick and John Hunt. They also arranged a popular three-day Spring Bioblitz at the end of April, an event that is open to the public to encourage more people to birding and wildlife in general.

This year 'Patch Commander' Rich Horton celebrated his 70th birthday, and to mark the occasion was given a surprise birding party at the Tice's Meadow on November 5. It says much for Rich's popularity that people came from as far as Somerset to be there. It was a great morning, I was privileged to be invited, and it also included a spot of birding. Peregrine, Green Sandpiper and notably Raven were among the birds seen that day.

Birds seen this year at the site included Honey-buzzard, Nightjar, Pectoral Sandpiper, Whooper Swan and Yellow-browed Warbler

To be fair to Beddington, their team of patch workers are a dedicated bunch, with some remarkable birds seen there this year, notably a Sabine's Gull, clocked by Roger Browne in June. They even clocked a new species on the penultimate day of the year with a Glaucous Gull.

Tice's Meadow was also winner of the inaugural Horton Hay Cup – the annual yearly Surrey bird list challenge between the patch and Holmethorpe Sand Pits. Without question Tice's Meadow is the worthy Surrey Patch winner this year.

The nominations are:
Glaucous Gull (Beddington Farmlands) 
Great Grey Shrike (numerous sites)
Great White Egret (Beddington Farmlands, Holmethorpe, Tice's Meadow) 
Iceland Gull (Beddington Sewage Farm, Island Barn Reservoir, Staines Reservoir
Long-tailed Duck (Frensham Ponds)
Grey Phalarope (Staines Reservoir)
Sabine's Gull (Beddington Farmlands)
Short-eared Owl (numerous sites)
Yellow-browed Warbler (Beddington Farmlands, Holmethorpe, Tice's Meadow) 
White Stork (Beddington Farmlands, Holmethorpe)

The winner is:
White Stork


It was a close run thing between the Long-tailed Duck, White Stork and Yellow-browed Warbler, but the White Stork just seals it for being a) the most rare out of the three, and b) being seen at more than one site. Yellow-browed Warblers were recorded in many places during their massive influx in the autumn, but none stayed long enough for most people to enjoy – particularly me. The Long-tailed Duck is still present – I guess I should go over to see it at some point.

The nominations are:
STEVE GALE (North Downs and Beyond)
GAVIN HAIG (Not Quite Scilly)
STEVE WAITE (Axe Birding)

The winner is:
 Steve Gale (North Downs and Beyond)

There is no stopping Steve Gale. For the fourth consecutive year, Steve takes the Rambler for Birding Blog of the Year. In truth, Steve won the title in a canter.

 His main rival, as with most years, was Jonathan Lethbridge, who for the third year running has finished runner-up. Jono is a master of wit and the creative use of the English language, and a brilliant photographer to boot. Some of his posts have been sublime, and in some cases quite moving, but no-one on the blogosphere is as prolific and original as Steve.

Since reintroducing his blog in 2010 Steve has written 1,236 posts – and he is rarely, if ever, repetitious with his content. Always beautifully crafted, his subject matter is invariably thought-provoking, topical, or just downright interesting – the post featured above was a case in point. Well worth a read – just click on the image. 
I don't know how (or why!) Steve does it, I'm just glad he does.

Gavin Haig is another great writer but simply hasn't written enough this year, only kick-starting his posts from October onwards. If he writes more often next year the award could see a closer contest, while Steve Waite's blog is one of the very best pure birding blogs out there and a worthy new short-list entry.

So Steve Gale marches on. Can he continue to push the boundaries? We will have to wait and see. I wouldn't bet against it.

The nominations are:
STEVE GALE (North Downs and Beyond)
A moving moment of reflection on those places where we feel contentment. 

 GAVIN HAIG (Not Quite Scilly)
Going through the pain barrier for the sake of our pastime.

Fear and loathing in las Americas
Coming to terms with the result of the Presidential Election. 

STEVE WAITE (Axe Birding)
Birding Blunders

We've all done it. But we don't always admit it. Misidentifying birds.

The winner is:
 Jonathan Lethbridge (Wanstead Birder) 


This year's winner of the Randon's Ramblings Blog Post of the Year goes to Jonathan Lethbridge for 'Fear and loathing in las Americas'.

 Perhaps a controversial winner due to the post having nothing to do with birding, but birding blogs are as much about the people who write them as they are about the principle subject matter.

Unlike the majority of his posts, which leave you with something to smile about, this one does the opposite.

It doesn't really matter if you disagree with his views on the election result (although I find it hard to believe anyone will) because in Jono's case, he writes about his connection with the USA with great dignity.

And finally a new award, for the Twitter users out there who are able to, in as few as 140 characters, make comments that stick in the memory.
The nominations are:
MARK ELSOFFER (@Mark_Elsoffer – 396 followers)
SHAUN FERGUSON (@sferguk – 295 followers)
IAN JONES (@ianeagle67 – 277 followers
KEITH KERR (@akkwildlife – 1,839 followers)
STEVE MINHINNICK (stevie69000 – 324 followers)
RICH SERGEANT (@TicesBirder – 1,933 followers)
The winner is:
 Mark Elsoffer (@Mark_Elsoffer)


Congratulations go to Mark Elsoffer to winning the inaugural Surrey Birding Twitter User of the Year (I think I'm going to have to change the title for next year).

In the end I decided the award should go to those who make Twitter entertaining rather than just a tool for sending out birding information.

Mark hosts the Tice's Meadow blog and also creates the site's annual Report. He is also co-founder of Smutty Bird Tours – an irreverent (and perhaps a tad non-pc) birding group consisting of two members.

Never someone to go a day without Tweeting, he has the ability to be informative, funny and creative.

Some of his Retweets are quick off the mark too, none more so than the massive faux pas sent recently by Sarah Michelle Geller on the day George Michael died. Nothing to do with birding but a real toe-curler...

Mark also sent one of my favourite Tweets of the year when the White Stork first appeared at Beddington and the gates were unlocked to allow a closer view of the bird. The image he created was a classic.

So well done to Mark and to all the nominees in each of the categories – every one was worthy of a nomination as each contributed to making 2016 all the more enjoyable.


So, that's 2016 out of the way. Let's hope 2017 is a year to make us smile.

All that's left is to wish everyone a Happy New Year and enjoy your birding!