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, 30 September 2011

THE DUKE OF NORFOLK ESTATE RAPTOR FACTOR

After a decent run, I've only had one proper birding trip out since last Friday. In between times, the summer has returned (better late than never, I guess) and with it raptors are playing a prominent role.

Prior to the heatwave Annie and I visited Winterfold on Sunday, where there were more than 30 Lesser Redpolls buzzing around, just to remind us that the end of the year is rapidly approaching. But then the sun broke out on Tuesday afternoon and since then it has been blazing sunshine all the way.

On Tuesday morning I saw a Tweet from Johnny Allan that a Marsh Harrier had flown south from Beddington. That usually means, so long as it doesn't deviate off course, that it will end up at Holmethorpe. I saw the message about ten minutes too late. I dashed over to the patch on an overcast lunchtime and set up on the Water Colour mound with a good view of the North Downs.

I did see a big raptor in the distance that didn't look like a Buzzard, it may have been a Red Kite, but who knows. A Sparrowhawk soared overhead, flapping its wings occasionally. But no Marsh Harrier. When I got back home, I discovered Graham James had seen the Harrier flying over Mercer's Lake five minutes before I had got there. Damn it! I usually look at Twitter frequently when working on the Mac, but this time I hadn't.

While work projects are obviously important to focus on, Annie and I felt we had to take advantage of the decent weather while we could each day this week. For a couple of late afternoon outings we went to Newland's Corner near Guildford. Plenty of raptors about there Including a Sparrowhawk, a Kestrel and a few Common Buzzards. The highlight was a Red Kite that flew south over our heads, circled for a while with a Buzzard before disappearing into the distance.

Yesterday morning I headed for Weir Wood reservoir at first light in the hope of seeing the Osprey that had been there for the past four days. I had to abort the mission, however, because one of the symptoms of the autumn heatwave is thick early morning mist and the fog at the reservoir was reluctant to clear.

I had to be back home by lunchtime, so rather than waiting at Weir Wood, I left for Burpham for, you guessed it, another sighting of the Pallid Harrier.

I opted to go to the northern end of Peppering Lane first, where a handful of birders were already set up at about 8.30am. The Harrier had apparently been seen to the north, but all was pretty quiet at this time, with only a couple of Common Buzzards and a Raven heading north to keep us occupied.

I went back down the hill to the field where most of the best photos of the Harrier have been taken and waited there for a while, but nothing. A couple of Kestrels and a Sparrowhawk were added to the morning list.

Another trip back up the hill and this time the Pallid Harrier had made an appearance, albiet about half a mile away. It was quartering the fields to the north before drifting south near to some farm buildings where it was joined by a female Hen Harrier. The pair circled and climbed high into the sky, interacting playfully together, before we lost sight of the Ring-tail.

The Pallid Harrier then headed north again and was lost from view. Most of the 15 or so birders that had gathered focused on looking north to wait for it to reappear, but I knew from previous experience that this bird had a habit of moving to another area without anyone being aware. It would normally appear after about 30 minutes, seemingly from out of nowhere, in the field at the bottom of the hill and quarter the game strip before flying above the trees and into the next valley.

I mentioned this to anyone who would listen, but they resolutely stuck to their guns and stayed put.

I went back down the hill and set up shop along Coombe Lane. And sure enough, right on queue at 11.00am, the magnificent Pallid Harrier appeared again, and quartered up and down the field for a few minutes in front of me, before flying off over the ridge as usual.


There were only two of us who saw it for the duration of its visit - another couple arrived just in time to see it briefly before it flew off.

I went back up the road to inform everyone there, and a number followed me back down the hill. I explained it was likely to return an hour or so later. One guy had been down on Saturday, and had stood in the same spot for 11 hours and not seen it. I had to leave, so I hope they got to see it in the end.

Credit should be given to the Duke of Norfolk estate for a fantastic environment they have created for birds, particularly raptors. The Duke's appreciation of conservation has been crucial.

He set up a 'Partridge restoration project', for example, which has been a huge success. The Grey Partridge was virtually extinct from the area back in 2003, but with the increase in biodiversity during the past eight years the Grey Partridge count has gone through the roof. Other birds to have benefited are the Corn Bunting and the Skylark, of which I saw plenty of during my three visits.

Sussex now has a surplus of Grey Partridge for shooting, which reinforces - in the Duke's words - "the link between game shooting and conservation".

While the estate has created a game shoot heaven, it has also meant raptors migrate to the area. Short-eared Owls are also commonplace in the winter.

The much-twitched juvenile White-tailed Eagle spent some time on the estate when it first appeared this spring, being helpfully left dead foxes to eat by the gamekeeper, and in the Pallid Harrier, the new rare addition to the impressive list of birds of prey seen in the area, the estate has had a bird that will live long in the memory.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

PEERLESS PALLID HARRIER TOPS RAPTOR BILLING AT BURPHAM

I went to Burpham in West Sussex on Friday to satisfy my fascination with the juvenile Pallid Harrier. I arrived at 9.30am and made a point on setting up along Coombe Lane, which runs east along the bottom of Peppering Lane. The stubble field opposite is where the best views can be experienced.

This Harrier is a creature of habit, and tends to make the same circuitous route around the area, starting from the north near the region called The Burgh, before arriving at the bottom of the hill half-an-hour later in the field where rich pickings of rodents can be had. It was here where it drifted silently low across the middle of the field, above a game strip, twice during the morning.

I moved to a better vantage point on the corner of the road in the afternoon, where Beddington crew member Mark 'Posh' Spicer parked up and walked over to set up his scope just after noon. I explained (acting as the keeper of knowledge of this bird's habits to anyone who would listen) how the Harrier would arrive at this field every hour - it had already been through at 9.00am, 10.00am and shortly before 11.00am. He wouldn't have long to wait.

Two hours later and still no sign of the Harrier. Burpham is surrounded by arable fields and the raptors love it here - which is handy when you have time to kill. During the lull we had great views of a number of raptor species. Earlier in the morning a Hobby flew across the field and perched in the trees, close to where a Tawny Owl had hooted at about 10.30am. I had also seen plenty of Common Buzzards - at least 15 of them - plus a couple of Kestrels.

When the wait went into its third hour there was talk that perhaps the Harrier had chosen this moment to set off back over the Channel. As Mark suggested, it would have to leave at some point, and being a bird that migrates during the day, it could decide to leave at anytime.

While we continued our vigil, there were plenty of other raptors to look at. During the afternoon, circling in the valley ahead, three Red Kite were searching for food, and then a Sparrowhawk was seen circling high above us with a few Buzzards.

Burpham is an unusual village in as much the road that leads to it ends there. If you arrive at Burpham you need to turn back to go anywhere else. The locals, including the farmer who's land the Pallid Harrier had decided to hunt on, had been extremely hospitable and helpful. As long as the birders didn't intrude on private land they were free and welcome to walk anywhere they liked.

A couple of locals, however, didn't have such a generous outlook. Both coincidentally pulled lemon-sucking facial expressions. An older women (miserable old bag) and a gentleman (miserable old git - probably related) were both driving out of the village and were clearly upset that so many people had camped up in their back yard. Police involvement if cars weren't moved was threatened. A shout of "wankers" out of the open car window by the same happy chappy on his return journey went ignored. You can guarantee there will be a small minority of older people who live sufficiently unfulfilled, small-minded existences, whose sole purpose in life is aimed at upsetting a good atmosphere. It failed.

A couple of birders from Margate decided to walk up Peppering Lane, in the direction of The Burgh, to see whether the Harrier was hunting for rodents there. About an hour later they returned confirming the bird was seen quartering the area. I knew, from past experience, it should appear down in the valley where we were standing in about half-an-hour. Sure enough it did.

I picked it up as it flew in from the north and cruised over the edge of the field where it immediately spotted something and dived on a prey. The Harrier then flew to the edge of the field by some trees and tucked into its afternoon meal. While it ate, the sound of people chattering was noticeable, but it fell silent when the Pallid Harrier then flew up and drifted across the game strip once again.




In the film Billy Elliot, Billy's father - from a coal-mining village background - goes to London, without his son's knowledge, to watch him play the lead in Swan Lake. When the adult ballet dancer Billy makes his spectacular entrance, his father gasps in awe.

You could hear audible gasps when the Pallid Harrier made its appearance, drifting so slowly it almost came to a halt - without effort - across the field. It was pure art. I have never seen a bird before that could create such a stir.

It has poise. The strikingly marked head angled downwards - eyes transfixed on the ground below. It has colour. Orange, black, white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna (it is the one bird, in my view, where the juvenile plumage is superior to the final adult version) - all of these elements make this bird one of the most remarkable sights I have seen in years.

Amazing. But also frustratingly for me, I managed to mess up any chance of a good digiscope photo. Moving objects with my scope and the digital camera that I use without a jig to keep it still just don't work together. Also the anticipation after the long wait and the excitement just got to me. I would have been better off simply watching the bird than trying to aim it in the middle of the viewer through the scope.

Mark then left, satisfied with his views of the bird. I stayed for one more Harrier experience. Another hour went by - by this time it was 4.30pm. While we waited I picked up another raptor circling high above us with a Buzzard to the north - a male Hen Harrier. Another amazing bird - its light grey, black and white plumage standing out in the blue sky. Fantastic stuff.

Then another bird of prey, a Peregrine - the eighth raptor species of the day - flew across the ridge heading south.

The Pallid Harrier made its final appearance just before 5pm. This time it caught a rodent, only for a Buzzard to swoop down and steal it. It went back for another quartering session along the strip without success, and then flew over the treetops and out of sight. The final act of a memorable day.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

STAINES SHAG BAGGED

An early start on a bleak, grey and damp Wednesday morning. After the excitement of the Pallid Harrier the day before, I headed off to Staines Reservoir in the hope of spotting the juvenile Shag that had dropped in on Monday evening.

I arrived just after 7am and met up with Bob Warden, who was already set up at the eastern end of the causeway. On the way I had watched two Black Terns feeding on a north basin that was as still as a milk pond. Bob had been studying a grebe at the far end of the south basin for about 15 minutes trying to work out what it was. It was difficult because it didn’t stay in view for very long – it was busy diving. Bob concluded it was a Red-necked Grebe.

At this stage there was no sign of the Shag, so we focused on the water to see what was about. I picked up two Black-necked Grebes before they flew further away on the north basin, while Bob, after finding a Common Sandpiper, located another grebe, close to the banking at the eastern end of the south basin. At first I thought it was the same bird we had been looking at earlier, but it had a shorter neck and it wasn’t long before we deduced it was a Slavonian Grebe in between summer and winter plumage.


So with the Great-crested Grebes that are always present, that was four different species of grebe, including all three of the rarer ones, all on the same reservoir. While Burpham the day before is big on raptors, Staines Reservoir is one of the best inland sites in the south-east for grebes.

A walk back down the causeway brought up three Wheatears, which kept ahead of us all the way to the western end. We gave the north basin rafts another look, as a number of Cormorants had landed on them, and in the middle to the front of the raft, the juvenile Shag (162) had reappeared, sitting quietly for a while before falling asleep.


Noticeably smaller than a Cormorant it has the distinctive steep forehead. Easy to spot the difference.

The Wheatears hung around long enough for veteran birder Frank Cannon, who arrived at about 9am, just before I had to leave. On the walk back to the car, I spotted a couple of Yellow Wagtails on the path.


So, another good session, with a third new bird on successive days. There was no time to go to see the newly identified Long-toed Stint at Weir Wood reservoir near Forest Row, but I’ll give that a go later in the week. I might also go back to see the Pallid Harrier again – a bird just too hard to resist.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 162
This time last year: 152

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

LUCHA LIBRE! THE PALLID HARRIER AT BURPHAM


Not to be outdone by the mass of twitching successes birders have been enjoying around Britain these past few days I thought it was high time I joined in yesterday afternoon. I don't often twitch birds outside of Surrey but Burpham in West Sussex is not much further for me to travel than the far reaches of western Surrey. A Pallid Harrier was the bird on show - hopefully.

I was on the usual tight schedule, but the plan was to belt down the M23 and the A23 towards Brighton and then head west along the A27 past Worthing and Littlehampton before heading north again to the village of Burpham. I made it in record time (abiding to all the speed limits along the way, obviously) and, taking notice of the request on the Sussex Ornithological Society website, I diligently parked at the George and Dragon pub.

A lady dog-walker very kindly gave me directions to Peppering Lane - she had seen plenty of photographers on the top of the hill (aka birders), and I set off on the half-mile walk. A Haslemere birder generously stopped and gave me a lift part of the way, and it was abundantly clear that no-one had taken any notice of the parking request as they had all parked on the lane with a view across valley where the Harrier was often seen.

This particular site is apparently one of the best in the south-east for raptors - a proverbial 'Raptor Alley'. One birder was reported to have seen ten different species of raptor on Saturday alone. It wasn't difficult to work out why it is so popular with birds of prey. Plenty of rich arable farm land, rolling hillsides, untouched hedgerows.

There were plenty of birders gazing across the valley. Apparently the Harrier had been seen about ten minutes before I arrived (usual story). I spoke to top Sussex birder Bernie Forbes, who explained that the Pallid Harrier would often quarter along the fields in the valley and do a loop around the area.

We waited an age for something to happen. Plenty of Common Buzzards were hovering and gliding along the fields in the brisk wind, including a very pale morph juvenile that got everyone excited momentarily. While we waited for the star attraction to make an appearance I saw a Hobby chased by a couple of Jackdaws across the ridge, a Peregrine flying south, and a Kestrel.

After nearly two hours I was debating whether to return the next morning, when someone spotted the rare raptor. It took a while to locate, but the juvenile PALLID HARRIER was heading west, on the other side of Peppering High Barn - and then we lost sight of it.

As is often the case on twitches, so I've discovered, this was a cue for a number birders to scuttle off like lemmings in the direction of the farm. A number of us stayed put. There was little point, I thought, of chasing after the bird if it could end up flying back towards our original viewpoint.

It was evident the Harrier could turn up anywhere, and so it proved. After waiting for a further 30 minutes, a bloke arrived having walked up from the village end of Peppering Lane and told everyone within ear shot that the bird was in fact down in the valley to the south of us, perched in a tree in a field very close to the lane. We looked down and there it was, having taken to the air again. Somehow the Pallid Harrier had flown low through the valley without anyone seeing it and had given those birders who were down in that area brilliant views.

After another Hobby flew overhead, this time it was me who was scuttling off down the lane. Glad I did though, because when I got to the bottom of the hill I could see it was on the deck in the field eating a catch.


After a few minutes it was in the air again, being mobbed by a couple of crows. Once the corvids cleared off, however, we were treated to this fantastic Pallid Harrier quartering majestically in front of us - into the wind, up and down the edge of the field. What a beautiful bird. It's striking facial markings for some reason remind me of the masks worn by the lucha libre Mexican wrestlers.





Eventually, it drifted further to the east, climbing higher before spotting something further to eat. It then tucked its wings back and dropped towards the field, behind a hedgerow, and its prey. It was likely to spent a fair while tucking into its second meal of the afternoon, so that seemed a good time to head home.

This Pallid Harrier was a landmark bird for me, being the 200th British bird I have seen during the past three years I have been birding fairly seriously. It's not much of a list compared to other people, I admit - more than three-quarters of these are from Surrey, but as I mentioned earlier I'm not much of a twitcher outside of the county. There are stacks of relatively common birds I have yet to see - I won't mention what they are!

Suffice to say I have plenty of enjoyable discoveries, like the magnificent Pallid Harrier, to look forward to.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

ONE YEAR ON - THE BEDDINGTON PECTORAL SANDPIPER

The weekend always looked likely to be a good one as far as the autumn migration and interesting visitors were concerned. The recent gales - the aftermath of Hurricane Katia - hammered the western coastlines of Britain, and as a consequence brought with it some expected and unexpected guests.

The Scilly Isles were the place to be, with umpteen birds I'd love to see. One of these was a striking black and white-coloured American warbler known as... a Black-and-White Warbler! For something that looks so exotic, you'd think someone could have thought up a better name for it.

No matter, because I'm in no position to visit the islands - a trip for another day I can currently only dream about. While the megas have been crowding the far west, there have been plenty of other scarcities and rarities to keep even the most experienced and hard-nosed of birders happy.

Two species that have been showing up all over the southern coastline as well as inland have been the Sabine's Gull and the Grey Phalarope. The latter has appeared twice in the Surrey area, with one discovered by Shaun Peters at Frensham Great Pond on Thursday evening. Johnny Allan managed to get to see it before the sun went down, but I drew a big, fat blank the next morning. Both Bob Warden and I scoured the Pond and couldn't find it. It must have flown off during the night.

Disappointing, but not much of a surprise. It could have been there for a while but no-one had noticed it in amongst the reed beds. It's only a small bird, so it could easily have been overlooked.

A mixture of house jobs and visiting friends meant I was out of birding action all weekend - frustrating seeing as so much was happening all over Britain. Then I received a text from JA. A Pectoral Sandpiper had dropped in on the main lake at Beddington.

Beddington is probably the best site in Surrey for Pec Sands. These American waders can't resist the rich pickings on the scrapes and sludge beds around the Farm. One showy individual appeared for a few days last year - loads of birders came to see it - but I infamously managed to dip it on two occasions, once when walking round with Johnny for two hours, and the second time for another two hours with Kevin 'Kojak' Eason - the latter occasion the bird had probably just flown off just before I had got there.

For that reason I knew Johnny was anxious for me to get to Beddington to see this bird - but I had to wait at least another 24 hours before I could get there.

Work yesterday meant I couldn't travel over until the afternoon. The bird had moved to the northern end of the farm on 100-Acre lake. I arrive just after 2pm. As I walked along the path adjacent to the perimeter fence I bumped into a group of birders. "Are you Neil?" they asked. Yes, that's me, I said. "Johnny's waiting for you at the top of the path." Blimey, word gets round. Five minutes later I met another birder walking back down the path. "Are you Neil?" he asked. Yep, it's me alright, I replied. "Johnny's unlocked the gate for you. Shut it behind you and you'll see where to go." It was if the local birding community had joined together as one and were going to lead me to the Pec. All it needed were a few signposts dotted around with arrows telling me where to go!

I appreciated it though. Johnny is a good bloke, always keen for people to enjoy views of birds at his patch.

Eventually, I was in place. Johnny pointed to the juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper (160) on a small island on 100-Acre lake. At last! The view from the path was slightly obscured by nettles, so I move round to the end of the lake for a better view. Great stuff. it was a really neat little wader. Johnny wandered off to the gate waiting for a few more visitors. As he did so the Pectoral Sandpiper took flight. It didn't go far, just dropping down onto a sludge bed on the other side of the path.





We both looked for it but couldn't see anything. Then Johnny spotted it. It was right under our noses, less than ten yards away, feeding happily. And there it stayed for the next 45 minutes. It was more concerned looking up at the skies for roaming predators such as Sparrowhawks than humans. More people arrived and we all had fantastic views of this American migrant, that should have been heading towards South America, but had been blown 3,000 miles off course to Beddington. Makes you wonder what will happen to the little fella? There's no way he will be heading back the way he came, that's for sure.

Derek Coleman took over as host of the group, and we went over to have a look on 100-Acre at a Ruff (161). It was with a group of Lapwings, three Snipe and a sleeping Greenshank. It was a very nervous bird and took to the air frequently, hence the rubbish record photo.



So ended a top afternoon. Many thanks to JA for his persistence and eventual success in steering me inexorably towards the Pectoral Sandpiper after a year's pain!

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 161
This time last year: 149

Thursday, 15 September 2011

GREAT GREY SHRIKE DRAWING UNVEILED


Above is the drawing I entered for the SWLA Open exhibition. It depicts a Great Grey Shrike sizing up its prey, having already stored a mouse for future sustenance. It's an image of impending doom, but I thought the element of drama might catch the eye.

Sadly, it didn't make it passed the final selection process, but no matter. I'll perhaps enter something less graphic for next year, but in the meantime I'm going full steam ahead to produce plenty of illustrations and paintings for the future.

I've a number of ideas I want to get down on paper - most will be in pen and ink but some will be in acrylic. Whatever the medium they will take plenty of hours to produce. As soon as they are ready I will unveil them on the blog. I am interested to read honest views on this particular drawing, just to gauge what people think of it.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

ROPE-A-DOPE

When Twitter flashed up a tweet that there was a Grey Phalarope on the Queen Mary Reservoir this morning, it was only going to be a question of time when I decided to go for a look.

I'd already managed to dip a Dunlin that had been present on the Water Colour Lagoons for the past couple of days. A Dunlin isn't normally a bird I'd dive out to see, especially as I've already seen a couple this year on the patch, but this one was a bit different because it was showing fantastically well to less than ten feet away, very close to the footpath that splits the two Lagoons.

I went over twice but just couldn't find it anywhere. Bloody ridiculous. Dunlin blindness stuck me big time. Still, the prospect of seeing a Grey Phalarope was too tempting, although the fact the original sighting was mentioned as a Phalarope sp. didn't bode well.

I've not been to this reservoir before, and I knew as soon as I arrived just after 6pm I wouldn't vote this the most popular site in the world. The reservoir is massive, and while you can see quite a bit of it from both sides of the Yacht Club, you needed the Hubble Telescope to get a good view of the west or southern edges and even then it was going to be desperately hard to identify anything.

There were plenty of 'Commic' Terns around, but I had no hope of seeing a bird that was about 20 cms long about ten miles away.

So, I gave it up. The bird may well have been there, but I was foolhardy if I thought I would be successful.

I went via Staines Reservoir on the way home and met up with Franko Maroevic and Ken Purdey. Plenty of gulls around including a juvenile Little Gull on the north basin. Other birds of interest were a Common Sandpiper and a Wheatear on the west bank of the south basin.


I'm working in London all day tomorrow, so let's hope Friday brings something local, and not on a reservoir the size of Lake Superior, to shout about.

Monday, 12 September 2011

DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS YET?

It has been a hectic, but satisfying, few days. It was a race against time, but in the end I finished the drawing I wanted to enter for the SWLA (Society of Wildlife Artists) Open Exhibition on Thursday night. By the end of Friday afternoon it had been photographed for reproduction purposes at a studio in East Grinstead, and dropped off at Oyster PIcture Framing in Lingfield. Martin Scarland very kindly mounted and framed the work ready to be picked up the next morning.

Art works had to be delivered to the Mall Galleries headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, just off the Mall in London, by 5pm today. As it was blowing a gale this morning and I didn't want to risk losing the thing in the wind, or breaking the glass in the frame travelling up to London by train, I chose to drive there - and it proved to be the right decision.

A seamless route took Annie and I via the A217, A24, then the A3 at Tolworth, over Putney Bridge, New King's Road, Fulham Road, Knightsbridge, Green Park, St James's Street and Pall Mall before finding plenty of parking space at Waterloo Place just 100 yards from the gallery offices. We arrived at 1.45pm, relaxed.




My picture in number 414 on the list. I reckon there will be at least 500 paintings, drawings and sculptors for the panel to choose from when they make their selections tomorrow. Around 100 will make it into the exhibition itself. The final selection will be announced on the Mall Galleries website on Thursday.

So, what else. Well, I spent Saturday afternoon travelling to Northampton to watch the BriSCA F1 Stock Car World Championship Final (if you watched the BBC TV series Gears and Tears last year you will know what I'm talking about). On the way I took a quick diversion to Staines Reservoir and Staines Moor. While at the Reservoir I gained another Surrey tick for the year with two Turnstones (159) on the ramp on the North basin.


There were plenty of Common Terns around, plus a couple of juvenile Arctic Terns and a juvenile Little Gull. Over at the Moor, I caught up with more than 70 Meadow Pipits and six Wheatear.


F1 Stock Car racing has been in my blood since my early school days. I've always done my level best to promote a sport I believe has few equals as a spectacle. I still have a few copies of my book, The Sound and the Fury, still available if anyone is interested!

I don't go as often as I used to - only a handful a times a year - but the World Final is the one meeting I will not miss. There's nothing like watching 30-odd 700bhp V8-powered stock cars screaming round a short oval track hitting seven bells out of each other. Saturday turned out to be a truly great night's racing, and produced a worthy winner in Paul Harrison.

video

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 159
This time last year: 148

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

AFTERNOON STINT AT BEDDINGTON

Autumn arrived with a vengeance yesterday with gale-force south-westerly winds and torrential rain that fell pretty much all day. It was perfect weather for birds to drop out of the sky looking for welcome refuge.

I was busy trying to finish a drawing for the Birdwatch Art competition. The deadline is next Monday and it's still not finished - it's going to go down to the wire by the looks of things. The reason? I just couldn't get my arse into gear to get on with it. I used to be a prolific artist many years ago, but these days I struggle to sit down in front of a blank sheet of white paper and put pencil to it. I think it's because I know how long it takes to put a decent illustration together. It's not a case of just sitting down for a couple of hours and... hey presto! It takes hours, and plenty of concentration.

Add the fact I haven't produced any drawings/paintings for about ten years and I know I'm more than a bit rusty - which means it takes even longer. Also I keep using, as Annie puts it, 'avoidance tactics'. I'll do anything else to avoid getting on with it - like birding.

The bottom line is if I don't think it's good enough I won't enter it. The next two days are pivotal.

So what did I do yesterday? I couldn't help but pay Holmethorpe a visit in the rain. I had visions of waders of all shapes and sizes busy feeding on Spynes Mere or Mercers West. As it turned out the best I could come up with were three Common Sandpipers.

Meanwhile, what a contrast at Beddington. It was raining birds up there. During the day the Tweets from Johnny Allan and Dodge were coming thick and fast. The list included a Curlew Sandpiper, a couple of Little Stints, a Ruff, a Dunlin, three Green Sandpipers, two Common Sandpipers, about 15 Ringed Plover and a couple of Snipe. Wheatear were everywhere, plus they had their regular Peregrine and Hobby visits. That wasn't all. On the gull front, a juvenile Caspian Gull dropped in, and a couple of Yellow-legged Gull were seen.

Bloody Nora.

This morning I had a meeting at the Racehorse Owners Association offices at High Holborn, and was hopeful I could make a detour to Beddington on the way back. The Curlew Sandpiper and Stints were still there, which was good news.

I arrived at the farm at 2pm, and was met by Johnny, who walked me over to the enclosed lagoons where the waders were. En route we saw a Sedge Warbler and plenty of Wheatear on the mound. We also met up with Roy 'Bulldog' Dennis.

The lagoons on the eastern side of the farm were clearly proving a popular haunt for waders. It didn't take long to get great views of the very smart Curlew Sandpiper (156) feeding alongside the two Little Stint (157). Also on the scrape were six Ringed Plovers (158) and a Redshank.




The Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stints were first-ever Surrey ticks for me, which pleased me no end. The Curlew Sandpiper, in particular, was a striking individual. Very well put together, with clean lines and excellent markings. Seeing all these unusual Surrey visitors together in one place was an excellent sight.

After that, we left Roy to continue viewing and walked back across the mound - where we saw at least six Wheatear flitting around - and went back to the observation shed where we met up with Dodge. Roy joined us a bit later having seen a Whinchat on the mound.



The shed is the epicentre of the site, and a welcome respite from the elements. It also features the Beddington 'shrine' which includes a number of artifacts picked up at the farm over the years, including a fossilised shell that Johnny tells me is at least 20 million years old.

After a bit of birding banter (I don't get the chance to bore many people about birds when I'm at home) it was time to go. A couple of hours well spent. Now, I must get on with that drawing...

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 158
This time last year: 148

Saturday, 3 September 2011

SPOTTED FLYCATCHER IN THE EYE

I was dipping Grasshopper Warbler for the fifth time this week at Canons Farm this morning after DC had flushed out yet another one at about 7.30am. Me and Gropper just don't get along I'm afraid - although I imagine a lot of people have a similar relationship - these birds are very elusive.

By 10.00am I headed off for Barnes to the London Wetland Centre in the hope of finding a Ruff on the main scrape. I'd got as far as Wimbledon when the phone rang. David obviously had some news he thought I ought to hear. Two Spotted Flycatchers had been seen by the horse paddocks at the end of Wood Lane!

I decided to continue on to Barnes, but then changed my mind almost immediately and headed back to Canons. If I had turned up at the Wetland Centre, paid my £10.50 and seen nothing, I was in danger of also missing out on the Flycatcher and I hadn't connected with one all year.

I got back in good time to be met by David by the horse paddocks. The Spot Flys had gone missing and we couldn't see them anywhere. I was getting that sinking feeling again. After a walk round the back of Aberdour school and then through Circle Field, however, David saw them briefly flying off back towards the horse paddocks. At least they were still around. Again we couldn't re-locate them, so I walked back through Circle Field to see if they had returned to a favoured tree.


And indeed they had. I saw the first Spotted Flycatcher (155) perched in a Silver Birch tree, followed by another one. They were very active, and didn't keep still for more than a few seconds. We were joined by Ian Jones and were treated to excellent views of these attractive birds for the next 20 minutes, after which I headed off.


A little while later the two Spotted Flycatchers were joined by a third. Miraculously, the thoughts of dipping for most of the week ebbed away! It was a welcome boost to get a result after an unsuccessful week.

Next stop was Staines Reservoir, where I was hoping to find a Turnstone - no luck. The highlight here was a juvenile Black Tern.


A quick pitstop to Staines Moor was pretty good, with a Whinchat and about 20 Yellow Wagtails feeding alongside the horses that roam the Moor.




I also had good views of a Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk that was having an continuing argument with a Magpie.

And that was the day over. After spending hours writing a post about the dilemmas of dipping yesterday, less than 24 hours later a new bird arrives to lift the spirits. Graham James' comment on my last post is absolutely true. A bird missed today is one to see in the future. I must make a mental note to remember that piece of advice. Birding is all about having the right attitude and being grown up about it. It is, after all, just a hobby.

Surrey (including Spelthorne) 2011 list: 155
This time last year: 147

Friday, 2 September 2011

DEALING WITH DIPPING


I have had a pretty good run of late, having enjoyed twitching both Hoopoe and Wryneck during the past three weeks. The problem with birding, however, and twitching in particular, is invariably good runs come to an end. Eventually you will dip. There is no more appropriate a word than 'dipping' to describe the event of staring at an empty branch for hours on end when on a twitch.

If I have learnt anything from this hobby, it is dipping leaves you in an emotional state for longer than a successful twitch does. It creates a dip in your mood, that's for sure. It must be the reason some people become seriously and pathologically addicted to twitching. The highs when they happen are great, but the elation stays with you for less time than the despair when you dip, so you have to keep twitching to feed the depleted elation. A dip can stay with you until you nail the bloody bird you keep missing. It's a risky pastime if you wish to remain sane.

I think that's the reason I won't go twitching further than the south-east of England, or in an area I happen to be visiting anyway. The Marmora's Warbler last year was a case in point. A fabulously showy bird that compelled many people to travel miles to go and enjoy. As it turned out, one weekend we were visiting friends in Wales and I had an opportunity to go and see it. Perfect.

I couldn't have faced the prospect of travelling to Cornwall, as an example, to see the American Bittern last year, only to come away drawing a blank. It's just too high-risk for me to spend that much time travelling only to be disappointed. Although, actually there's no guarantee you will feel any better closer to home. In fact, many people say it's worse to dip on your own patch that to dip after a 600-mile round trip.

That's is the danger of twitching. It's a hobby that revolves around anticipation like no other pastime and that emotion builds the closer to the object you get. People who enjoy mothing don't have that problem. Whatever turns up in the traps turns up. There's no way of knowing what you will see.

So, if you are going to dip, dip close to home is my advice. And once you've dipped, steer clear of all the birding websites and blogs until the emotion has simmered down a few days later. What you don't know about, you won't miss.

Why say all this? Well, this week I missed a Grasshopper Warbler at Canon's Farm.

OK, it wasn't the same as dipping a Wryneck, but it was still a truly depressing dip. What made it worse is that this particular Gropper was showing well for long periods - David Campbell described it on Twitter as the most twitchable Grasshopper Warbler on his patch ever. Plenty of people came to see it and went away happy, apart from me.

I went to Canons four times for a total of four and a half hours to see this Gropper, and every time I missed out. Even David was getting stressed out that I hadn't seen it, as though it was his responsibility because it was on his patch. The first visit was just after 5.30pm on Tuesday evening. The bird had last been seen just after 4pm, and needless to say, it didn't emerge for the hour I was there before leaving as the light was deteriorating.

I had another go the next morning, getting up early and getting to the Farm before 6.30am. I stood by the spot it had been seen, in some scrub just at the back of the farm buildings. I waited, and then heard a strange sound - a bit like a cassette tape getting mangled when being played. It was clearly the Warbler, as David had described the day before how it made a strange strangulated sound - perhaps a juvenile that hadn't learnt how to sing properly yet.

I couldn't see it, though. And then it went quite for the next hour. David arrived and he confirmed the sound I heard was right for this youngster, and we waited another half-an-hour. By this time, I was sure it wasn't going to happen - it might sit tight for hours. So I left, with the intention of going to Barnes to see the Ruff and Garganey at the Wetland Centre. After ten minutes, the phone rang. David was watching the Gropper, having moved to a different spot, further back behind the barns.

I had basically been staring at the wrong bush for two hours, as it must have moved soon after it attempted to sing. So back I went, and tried in vain to get a glimpse - but nothing appeared for the next hour. I had to leave as work was pressing (why does it always get in the way!). An hour after I left, it reappeared again.

I went back at 4pm for another go, but again nothing. The following morning it was seen again, but by that time I had decided to give up on it. So that was the Gropper story. I have heard two Grasshopper Warblers this year, but no visual tick.

Since then I have been glued to my desk, so any hopes of venturing out to see a whole flock of birds I haven't seen this year has passed me by. It's been a bad week, but I will get over it. My wife just shakes her head with irritation. She, quite rightly, thinks it's a bit pathetic to get so wrapped up in all this. To dwell is, well, a bit childish really. It isn't life or death. There are far more important things to be getting on with, like trying to pay the mortgage, and building a nest-egg for the future (some hope).

The problem with that, quite justifiable, argument is, that so much other stuff is so incredibly dull. We all need a bit of escapism from the general run-of-the-mill daily routine, it's just that it would be far more satisfying if the wretched animal I want to see had an awareness that it would help my day no end if it just popped up on a branch for a few seconds - I don't think I'm asking that much, am I?