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.



Wednesday, 25 January 2012

BOOKHAM HAWFINCH REVISITED

Having seen the news on the Surrey Bird Club last week, it was good to know that Hawfinches have returned to Bookham Common again this winter. Bookham is a regular haunt for this handsome, but elusive, finch but as the years have gone by their numbers have dwindled - last winter there were a no more than six seen.

As of today there are only two in 2012, although on both occasions I have been to Bookham this week I have only seen one each time. On Monday I only got a couple of fleeting glimpses but this morning I had excellent views within 15 minutes of arriving.





A bonus on Monday was a Marsh Tit that landed noisily in a bush close by. It didn't stay long so I couldn't get a photo.

Closer to home, a couple of Smew have stuck around over at Holmethorpe, but on a brief walk round this afternoon, I only saw one on Mercer's Lake. There wasn't much else of note - I had a long look at hundreds of gulls that currently swarm the area but nothing remotely Icelandic came to my attention - apart from a couple of Shelducks (regulars at Holmethorpe), and more than 100 Lapwings, 80 Fieldfare and 40 Linnets.

My Surrey list is on 89. It's funny how each year is different. Last year I hadn't seen a Marsh Tit or Dartford Warbler until well into the spring and I didn't see a Raven all year. Added to which I have still yet to see a number of common species such as a Song Thrush, Yellowhammer, Skylark or Siskin.

Friday, 20 January 2012

SHIP-ASSISTED BIRDS AND THE ANTHROPOCENE EPOCH

I've been reading Tom McKinney’s brilliant blog novel thriller online called The Greatest Lie Ever Told. The story is based on a secret organisation called the Bristow Chapter dedicated to conning twitchers into believing that vagrant birds are genuine when in fact many of the Arctic and Northern vagrants are being shipped over and set free on the British mainland. When this large scale ornithological fraud is about to be exposed, a number of people are murdered to cover it up.

It’s a great read - particularly if you like extreme violence and plenty of swearing - and, as is always the case with Tom’s writings, it is extremely funny.

What the novel has also done, apart from make me laugh, is get me thinking about my visit to Hampshire on Monday and rare birds like the Dark-eyed Junco and the Spanish Sparrow and whether we should care if birds have arrived in Britain partly by artificial means – by which I mean they didn’t fly all the way here.

What the novel has also made me wonder is whether the fraud in the story should be classified as a fraud at all.

It’s a well-known fact that many long-range migrant or vagrant birds inadvertently or otherwise take a breather on their journey to Britain. To the east, birds will perch up on a North Sea oil rig for a rest, and some will land on a ship that is heading this way. To the west, long-range vagrants such as American and Mediterranean/Asian Sparrows will end up perched on a boat, and then fly off once land has been sighted or when the boat docks into port.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that many rare birds are discovered near ports or coastal areas close to shipping straits such as the English Channel.

A Dark-eyed Junco or a Spanish Sparrow is unlikely feel the natural urge to travel thousands of miles away from their breeding or wintering grounds to Britain in normal circumstances. The main reason they end up here is because they have been blown off course by a storm and need to take a rest to recover from the ordeal. Dark-eyed Juncos, for example, can be found right across the United States, many are permanent residents, while the remainder migrate from the States to breed in Canada for the summer.




Both the Hampshire Dark-eyed Junco and the Spanish Sparrow are likely to have arrived in Britain via a ship that docked into Southampton or Portsmouth. That in itself is not a problem from a listing point of view, and according to the BOURC (British Ornithologist's Union's Records Committee) 'ship-assisted vagrants may qualify for Category A* provided that they are not fed, watered or receive any other direct human intervention during their journey.'

The question then is how can you prove a bird that has arrived in Britain has done so without the direct intervention of a human being? The answer is, you can’t.

One of the BOURC’s main tasks ‘is to assess the likelihood of a species occurring naturally in Britain.’ They do this by studying where the bird has been seen, at what time, what the weather was like when it was first sighted, patterns of migration with the species and its vagrancy potential.

Ship assistance ‘is not necessarily a bar to inclusion on the British List, provided the bird was not confined, sheltered or provisioned during its journey.’ They also consider whether the bird could reach Britain without hitching a ride. But I wonder if any of this is actually relevant.

The inescapable truth is the human race and its activities has had a hugely significant impact on the environment. We change the environment faster and more dramatically than any other natural factor.

The 4.5-billion year history of the planet is divided up into major eras, which are split up into periods, and then divided up into epochs. These, for the past 4.5 billions years, have all been time zones based on geological or paleontological events. Humans have altered Earth so dramatically during the past 200 years, however, many scientists now believe a new epoch in the planet's geologic history has already begun.

It is called the Anthropocene epoch. It is our epoch - Anthropo- (human) -cene (new). We started it.

Since it began 200 years ago this man-made epoch has caused rapid changes in sediment erosion, global temperatures, the carbon cycle (the natural production of carbon bi-products such as oil and coal, which are generated over many hundred millions of years, and are now being exhausted by human beings in a matter of decades), the acidification of the sea and changes to migrant patterns. We’ve done it all. And incredibly quickly. Whereas before it took millions of years to change the landscape and the environment, now it takes decades. A click of the fingers in geological terms.

Take my local area of Redhill as an example. Where once there was a hillside, made from Lower Greensand sandstone from the Lower Cretaceous age that took more than 60 million years to create, Fuller's Earth was mined for more than 130 years until 2000 and the hillside had disappeared. Now, just 12 years later it is being recreated again with landfill.

So, taking this information to its logical conclusion, any bird in Britain is influenced in some way by human beings. Whether it is because it has landed on a boat or, as in The Greatest Lie Ever Told, because it has been stuffed in a cage by an Icelandic criminal and set free as soon as the person in question has stepped foot on British soil, or because it has been part of a re-introduction programme like the Red Kite or White-tailed Eagle, or decimated by intensive farming techniques, or fed seed on a bird table - most birds are where they are because of us. We are part of the natural cycle of events.

With that in mind, go out there and enjoy watching your birds with a clear conscience wherever - or however - they turn up.


(On other matters closer to home, I saw the Smew at Mercer's Lake this afternoon, to take my Surrey list to 86.)


Species recorded in an apparently natural state at least once since 1 January 1950

Monday, 16 January 2012

DARK-EYED JUNCO AND SPANISH SPARROW TWITCHING DAY

Today was the only guaranteed sunny day this week, and having had to abort Saturday's trip I took a chance and went down to Beaulieu and Calshot this morning.

I don't normally do twitching trips and it didn't start off that well. I got up later than I wanted to (we had had a bit of a late night) so didn't get out of the house until 6.50am. The traffic was horrendous. It took 45 minutes just to get on the M25, and then another hour to get on the M3. Terrible. Then there was an accident on the M3, so I didn't really get going for another ten miles. It was like wading uphill through treacle.


It meant I didn't get to the New Forest until 10.30am - more than three and a half hours after I had left the house - by which time I decided it was best to go to the Hawkhill inclosure to see the Dark-eyed Junco first, and then travel over to Calshot for the Sparrow which, I was led to believe, shows well at the front of the house on Calshot Close along a hedge from between 8.00-9.00am. After that it goes walkabout for a while before returning to the back garden later in the morning.



The Junco setting was great. I haven't been to the New Forest for some years and I had forgotten how beautiful a region of Britain it is. It wasn't long before the Black-eyed Junco appeared. A beautiful and striking bird, it liked to socialise with a flock of Chaffinches and Reed Buntings. It flew into the trees, fed on the ground, hopped onto tree stumps and a fallen pine tree. While watching it a group of six Crossbills were in conversation in the trees including a couple of handsome bright red males.



Eventually I had fantastic views of the Junco feeding on a tree stump just a few metres away. I couldn't have asked for more. It made a long journey worthwhile.

Because of the delays I could only stay for about 45 minutes before I left to head to Calshot. Only about 15 minutes down the road, I was soon walking to the house, where there seemed little activity. There was a bucket for donations to the local children's hospice, which I bunged a few quid into, and then I peered inside.

In an earlier post, I ranted on about how I wouldn't be seen dead queuing up outside someone's house to see a bird, but here I was, mindful to take off my shoes (the first time I have ever done that at a twitch), walking into someone's house to see a Sparrow.


There were only a few people inside including the man who found the Sparrow and put the news out. Bruce Green, I discovered, is a very generous and knowledgeable birder who lives with his girlfriend in her house on the Close, and couldn't have been more helpful.


When I arrived the bird had just flown off, and to cut a long story short, I kept missing it. I was with Bruce down at the end of the row of houses watching another feeder when it reappeared in the back garden, but when I got back, a cat came in and it flew off again. It would be seen at one site when I would be at the other one. Highlight in the garden at this point was a female Reed Bunting feeding on the ground.

It was getting to the point where I thought I was going to dip it. Time was getting on and I was waiting during a period when the Sparrow tends to lie low for a few hours - between 11.30am and 2.00pm. It had all gone quiet. Bruce even suggested - to save some time - I should get my car, which was parked down at the seafront car park, while he'd stand outside if the bird reappeared.


In the end, it all worked out fine, as after a wait of nearly two hours, I picked up the Spanish Sparrow as it flew into a honeysuckle plant at the back of the garden. It then dropped down onto the deck and fed close by for some time before flying back up into the bushes again. What a relief!

A smashing little bird that will probably hang around for some time, maybe even months or years, while it breeds with the local House Sparrows, producing plenty of hybrids. A satisfying end to a good day.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

WEEK TWO: DARTFORD WARBLER STEALS THE SHOW AT CROOKSBURY

Day 7 – January 7
ABSENT FOR AN ICELAND GULL
Saturday’s aren’t always a good day of the week for me as it’s often an opportunity for Annie and I to go out for day trips, and this usually means visiting an area that's not renowned for birds. While we were touring around the Cotswolds I missed an Iceland Gull on Mercer’s Lake. It was seen in the late afternoon by Gordon Hay and Graham James. Graham also found the Garganey again yesterday morning where I failed. I’m now of the opinion I may have seen the bird previously, when it was asleep, it just looked a bit like a female Teal. I’m not good with brown ducks.

I wasn't sure what to plan for Sunday. Crossbills at Crooksbury Common was an option, as was Thursley Common, in a search for the Great Grey Shrike and even maybe, possibly, hopefully, with finger’s crossed, a Ring-tail Hen Harrier – a bird I dipped at Thursley a few times last year.

Day 8 – January 8
STUTTERING TWITCHING DASH ACROSS THE COUNTY
It was an early-ish start – I felt pretty knackered – but I was at Crooksbury Common by 8.30am. Finding Crossbills turned out to be an easy task – they were everywhere. Calling constantly, they were in the pines and flying across the Common. I couldn’t fail to see them. As it turned out this was to be the highlight of the day. I thought I heard a Dartford Warbler but couldn’t locate it, and there was no cronking call of a Raven heard anywhere in the area.


Next stop was Thursley Common, where I bumped into Danny and Penny Boyd, two excellent birders who regularly patrol this patch. Their efforts reap rewards on a regular basis. On Friday they saw a Ring-tail Hen Harrier, it was a feature for most of the day, a Peregrine perched in a tree nearby for nearly half an hour and a Great Grey Shrike revealed itself for the first time in a while.

Alas, no luck for me on a relatively flying visit. A couple of Woodlarks, and yet more Crossbills flying around the Common were the best I could come up with. Predictably the Boyds saw two Shrikes by 12.15pm. I left at 11.30am – it is proof that to find decent birds you must do the groundwork and put in the hours, something I rarely have the luxury of doing.

It also reflects the relationship I have with Thursley Common – it’s definitely a love-hate thing with me. I have had regular sightings of Great Grey Shrike there, but I have also seen nothing on many occasions. In all the visits I have made to Thursley Common during the past four years I have never seen a Hen Harrier. Not one. And does it grate.

Just to add to the grating feeling I discovered a Snow Bunting had been seen at Holmethorpe – albeit briefly – and also the Iceland Gull was still in the area while I was away.

I popped over to Cutt Mill Ponds on the way home in the hope of finding a Goosander. Again I only stopped for a few minutes and didn’t look everywhere – a bit of a meaningless visit - so it was no surprise to me that I didn’t see one. Four Mandarin ducks were added to my list.

Back home, Annie and I went for a walk around the Godstone Church area (I was hoping to find a Grey Wagtail on our travels but again no luck) and then in the afternoon I went on a hunt for the Iceland Gull and the Garganey – and yet again came up with a blank. After that, I cooked the Sunday roast – a welcome distraction.

So, a lot of walking but I came up short on the target birds of the day bar one. A bit disheartening but I’ve only got myself to blame in trying to squeeze in too much in a short space of time – as always. My year list is now on 72.

Work tomorrow. Whoopee…

Day 9 – January 9
SCHEMING
I didn’t venture as far as the front door all day. I saw a Carrion Crow from the living room window at lunchtime. Annie planned to visit her parents in Hitchin in the following day and stay overnight. I have work to do, but have already convinced myself I can put the hours in later in the day.

Part of me is tempted to travel down to the New Forest to see the Dark-eyed Junco, but it will take up too much of the day when I have other listing tasks to be getting on with. With that in mind, I have already worked out a tour of Surrey, starting with Staines Reservoir for the Smew and Water Pipit mid-morning, followed by the Queen Mary Reservoir for a Red-breasted Merganser and maybe a Firecrest, although I’m not sure where to look for that. The Queen Mary is a big reservoir and viewing is difficult. I don’t have high hopes of seeing much there.

Crooksbury Common was next on the list for a Dartford Warbler followed by Cutt Mill Ponds for a Goosander and then on to Thursley Common for another try at the Great Grey Shrike. That should take me on to dusk when I hope a Hen Harrier will arrive to roost.

The next day I thought I'd try my own patch for the Garganey (will I ever see this bloody duck!) and then a stroll round to tick off a few patch birds, such as Treecreeper, Little Owl and Yellowhammer. After a Dominos pizza for lunch (a treat while Annie is away) it would be back to Papercourt Water Meadows in the afternoon for my Short-eared Owl fix and the hope the Barn Owl fancied stretching its wings.

That was the plan. Again, I’d prepared myself for a huge fall as I knew I would be taking on too much. Would the plan come off?

Day 10 – January 10
INDIFFERENT AFTERNOON
As it turned out my Surrey tour didn’t get started until 12.30pm, as Annie didn’t leave until much later than I thought she would. The late start meant the tour had to be cut back. Just Staines Reservoir and Thursley Common, and no, the objectives I had set myself didn’t come off.

Surprised? Nor was I.

At Staines I couldn’t find a Smew or a Water Pipit, but the Great Northern Diver was still there, this time on the north basin. Oh, and the Shag.

I got to Thursley for 2.30pm, but a walk round didn’t reveal a Great Grey Shrike. This bird was proving difficult to pin down. I saw ten more Crossbills flitting from treetop to treetop, a couple of Lesser Redpolls, a Reed Bunting, and best of all a Peregrine, which flew across Shrike Hill to the trees just past the tumulus at the Ockley end of the Common and then it flew north-east and out of sight.

That was it. With the addition of a Ruddy Duck at an undisclosed site so as not to get Defra excited, my Surrey list was now up to 176. I went for a Pappa John's pizza instead of a Domino's in the evening and it was crap.

Every birder in Britain is very excited about the Spanish Sparrow in Hampshire. The Sparrow has apparently been resident in a private garden since at least the beginning of December. The owner of the house realised there was something unusual about this Sparrow so he took a photo and showed it to some birders who were watching the Junco. Imagine their surprise...

As it turns out the Sparrow also likes a hedge by the side of a road, so it doesn’t mean I'm forced to queue up outside someone’s house to see it, which I hate the idea of doing. There’s going to be a massive crowd of birders along this road waiting to see this little bird, but they could easily wait a few days, weeks or months and have a nice relaxing time avoiding hundreds of other mentalists. I’m back to my ‘make birding cool’ debate again. Queueing outside someone's house for hours or lining up 100-strong up a side road in a residential area ain’t it.

Anyway, enough of that. The remainder of the week will be focused on this county of mine.

Day 11 – January 11
SHRIKE BACK
Well, having seen footage of both birds on YouTube, I ended up thinking that the Dark-eyed Junco would be a nice bird to see, and seeing as the Spanish Sparrow was only just down the road, I thought I might as well have a look at that, too. But not today. I wish. Both will have to wait.

The plan was another trip to Thursley Common for the Shrike, followed by Crooksbury Common to see Bramblings going to roost. Then back home, ready to pick Annie up at about 6pm.

As plans go this one actually worked reasonably well for once. I got to Thursley for 11.30am, but by 1.00pm I still hadn’t seen anything by the time I arrived at the tumulus looking over towards Ockley Common. At this point I was joined by local birding guru Gerry Hinchon and he immediately pointed out a Great Grey Shrike just at the same time I picked it up.


Thanks goodness for that. It was a long way off over towards Ockley Common, but after Gerry bade me farewell – he had been watching this Shrike for most of the morning around the Common - I decided to venture over to see if I could get a better look. It didn’t come very close but I did get some half decent views of it. It looked like the same bird I saw in October, a really smart individual.

Earlier I had picked up ten Crossbills that were flying around and as I approach the car park on the way back, I got nice views of a couple of Bullfinch. Seeing the Shrike now means I can happily avoid Thursley Common for the time being - unless a Harrier appears.

It was now gone 2pm and so I headed for Cutt Mill Ponds, where I found two handsome Goosander and eight Mandarin duck. After that I finished off the afternoon at Crooksbury Common, where I heard two Dartford Warblers, but couldn’t see them.

Hearing these two Warblers was good news, though. Crooksbury is such a compact Common, it means I can go back in the Spring and hopefully get some good views of these fantastic Warblers preparing for there first broods.

I met up with the Tice’s Meadow gang of Rich Sergeant and Rich Horton, along with Andy Bray and we went over to the area where the Chaffinch and Bramblings roost in the evenings. While we waited six Crossbills flew over. The Bramblings were difficult to lock on to but I did briefly get on to one while looking through Rich H’s scope. This is a great spot for them, so after Rich explained a better way to see them in future I’ll be coming back in the next few weeks for a look.

So overall, not a bad afternoon. The Surrey list had now reached 80. 

Day 12 – January 12
DAY OFF
I had been debating whether to go to the coast to see the Spanish Sparrow and the Junco at the weekend and Saturday looked the best bet for me. Midweek traffic is terrible and I would always struggle to get back before midday and that’s no good for my work, whereas Saturday the pressure is off, although the crowds will undoubtedly be bigger.

Day 13 – January 13
PIPIT TICK
I couldn’t face fighting through the rush-hour traffic, so waited to go out until mid-morning. Back up at Staines Reservoir I located a Water Pipit straight away as it flew over my head before dropping down on to the edge of the north basin, where it stayed, flitting along the edge of the water along the causeway and occasionally the west bank.



Walking up the causeway, I came across a chap who told me the Great Northern Diver and Black-necked Grebe were on the south basin. I recognised him from watching Sky News during both the Iraq Wars. It was Francis Tusa, the military defense expert.

He’s a keen birder, and visits Staines frequently – a place to relax away from work. Nice chap, with an infectious enthusiasm for birds.

The Diver was indeed still on the south basin – it will probably stay for some weeks, as no doubt will the Grebe and the Shag on the north basin. 

I stayed for an hour or so, trying to get a decent photo of the Water Pipit (and failing).

On the way home, I came across two Egyptian Geese on Rocky Lane, near Redhill. The fields along the lane are popular with Greylag, Canada and Egyptian Geese. My Surrey list is now up to 82.

I was intending to get up early the next morning and head for Calshot to see the Spanish Sparrow followed by the Dark-eyed Junco. It would have been interesting, but our cat Billie then left mysterious blood splatter marks on the carpet in the evening and we didn’t know how.

So instead of Southampton, it’s off to the vets for 9.30am. Life doesn’t change much, nor does the vet bill, which is getting bigger by the week.

Day 14 – January 14
DARTFORD DELIGHT
It was one of those days that makes you proud to be British - a crisp, beautiful blue-sky day with a dusting of frost on the ground and on the trees and grass just to add to the atmosphere – wonderful.

I didn’t have time to go to Hampshire after the trip to the vets (Billie is fine for all those who might be interested) so opted for Crooksbury Common instead.


Within seconds of getting out of the car I heard a Raven. By the time I had walked up the hill to the spot where the Dartford Warblers were on Friday, I heard and then saw the Raven fly across the Common. Brilliant. This was the first Raven I had seen in Surrey for 18 months.



Within minutes of the Raven I heard the Dartford Warbler calling and it wasn’t long before I was looking at it through the scope. A great start to the session and the highlight of the week. A Stonechat was keeping it company but I didn’t see anything else of note for the next hour.

So, with a little bit of time still to go before I had to take Annie to a business meeting, and in the hope my good run during the morning would follow me, I headed for Thursley Common for an outside chance of a Hen Harrier.



Who was I kidding - and the Shrikes were also nowhere to be seen. Not to worry, I also saw a couple of Coal Tits and Stonechats. My Surrey list is now on 84, and I still haven't added Greenfinch, Song Thrush, Treecreeper or Siskin - to name but a few - to the list yet.

Not sure when the next trip out will be, but I hope I get an opportunity to go down to Hampshire at some point next week.

Friday, 6 January 2012

A GREAT FINISH AFTER A FALSE START TO WEEK ONE

Day 1 – January 1, 2012
NEW YEAR WASH OUT
Those who read my post about Cato will probably guess that Christmas and New Year were more of a test of endurance than a joyful festive occasion.

I thought I’d distract myself with an afternoon’s birding on New Year’s Day. The first day of any new year is one of the most important and exciting days for birders. It’s when the birding plans start all over again, usually revolving around lists - whether it’s a British year list, county year list or a local patch year list. Year lists are what motivate many birders to get up early in the mornings to go bird-watching. It means counting all those birds you’ve seen countless times in previous years all over again, starting, in my case, with a dozen House Sparrows in Alpine Road, Redhill, and hopefully all manner of rarities throughout the rest of the year.

The more birds you see in any given year somehow in your head equates to how good a birder you are. Which isn’t true, obviously. To see as many birds as possible in any given year, or lifetime, doesn’t always require any form of innate skill – unless you are a top-notch birder like Johnny Allan. I’m heavily reliant on other more dedicated birders to put in the groundwork on their local patches to inform me of any unusual birds in the Surrey area. It is very rare for me to discover anything on my own. I can count the fingers of one hand – and that doesn’t include my thumb, index or little finger. One was a Black-tailed Godwit on Spynes Mere in 2010 and the other was a Black Tern on the patch last summer - and even then I was the only person who saw it.

If I have a defence it is that work commitments don’t allow me to cover as much ground as some birders. In fact, I only had two full days birding – from dawn till dusk – in the whole of 2011. The rest of my outings were either mornings or evenings, most of the time just a couple of hours snatched at the last minute in between jobs. I always end up continuously checking the time as guilt and stress start to set in. The one saving grace is that I work from home so if an unusual sighting does appear and it isn’t too far away – within 45 minutes by car – I should be able to have a look (unless it is in November, always my busiest time of the year).

Listing is one of the things I have a habit of doing, although by the time I get to December I’m pretty sick and tired of traipsing off to find birds I should have seen by that time of year and I end up simply watching birds I enjoy in December, whether it’s a flock of Waxwings feeding in a tree just 100 yards away from my house in Frenches Road, Redhill as was the case in December 2010, or watching Short-eared Owls quartering the Papercourt Water Meadows at dusk, as was the case last month.

Listing is very much a personal exercise. The bottom line is no-one else really cares that much about your list, so why do we bother doing one? If someone announces they have seen their 300th bird in Britain, we all say well done but inwardly we either think that’s a long way from 400, the landmark number all serious and experienced twitchers have already got to, or in my case, it’s a reminder of how far I have to go to get anywhere close to that number. I’m way off that mark.

So starting a new list was the intention on New Year’s Day. In the end I didn’t have time to go far and a very grey day got gloomier by the minute as it started to rain as soon as I got on to the motorway. I opted to go to Papercourt in the vain hope the owls wouldn’t mind a bit of rain.

But the rain got heavier. It was relentless. I found myself standing in the middle of a field for two and a half hours getting drenched and seeing nothing apart from a couple of bedraggled Kestrels and three Cormorants.

Owls aren’t as stupid as me. When it rains all afternoon, it’s best to keep a low profile.

Day 2 – January 2
GLORIOUS ABSENCE
A beautiful day – brilliant blue sky, not a breath of wind. A good opportunity for a spot of birding. Only it would have been if it wasn’t for the fact we had already arranged a trip out to see friends in Wales. While we were away everyone else locally was making hay, and totting up a few good birds for their year lists. Bastards. I’m on 19 at the moment whereas most others are on about 60, but there’s plenty of time. While driving the 150 miles to South Wales I noted 13 Red Kites between junctions 6 and 14 on the M4. Not one Common Buzzard or Kestrel. Not sure why.

Day 3 – January 3
A PUNISHING WIND
First day back at work. Fortunately for me, work means being at home. No need for commuting, thank goodness. When I first started working from home, I wondered whether it would suit me. I thought I’d feel lonely, a spare part, itching to be in the thick of the action. I have spent most of my working life working in big open-planned newspaper or magazine offices, full of noise – TV monitors on everywhere, phones ringing, people talking, shouting, laughing. A constant buzz of adrenaline, stress and deadlines.

Working from home makes you realise there is more to life than high blood pressure. Nowadays I only have to commute to London once or twice a month, and even then I hate it. The train journey up to Victoria or London Bridge isn’t so bad, but the rush-hour fight to get on the tube is a nightmare and utterly depressing. And then you have to do it again in reverse, to get home. And do that every day? I really rather not.

Today a storm swept across the country, with strong winds and torrential rain. Lovely. It really wasn’t a day to go outside. I thought I might venture out to see if the 1st winter male Garganey was still on The Moors if it stopped raining. This dabbling duck has been on my local patch at Holmethorpe for a month and I must be the only local birder who hasn’t seen it yet. It stopped raining. The sun came out so I went to Papercourt.

I don’t ever learn. Really, I don’t ever learn. There are two types of weather owls aren’t keen on. One is pissing rain, as on Sunday, and the other is a howling gale as with this afternoon. Although there was a short period when the wind dropped, the wind was as relentless today as the rain was on Sunday. Even after I shouted at it to stop, it just never abated for a moment. I stood out in the middle of the Water Meadows being buffeted by this wretched element knowing full well I was wasting my time and getting cold. I wasn’t going to see squat.

I did come up with five Surrey year ticks – two Stonechats, a Green Woodpecker, eight Meadow Pipits, two Pied Wagtails and about 20 Lapwings, to bring my total up to 24 (my UK total is now 26 after seeing the Red Kites and a Buzzard on our trip to Wales). Really pathetic. There were also at least four Kestrels braving the wind.

Day 4 – January 4
BOOKHAM COMMON STROLL
Annie wanted to go for a walk so we went to Bookham Common. Last winter the highlight at Bookham was the Hawfinch, but no sign of any this afternoon. The weather closed in (again) and became blowy and threatened to rain. All was pretty quiet, although I did see a few Bullfinches and a Sparrowhawk. Loads of Redwing about, at least 40. My Surrey total has now climbed to 33.

After our walk we ate at CafĂ© Rouge in Reigate and then went to the vets to pick up Cato’s ashes, which was poignant to say the least. The good thing is he’s back home now and he will stay in our bedroom from now on. Still miss him terribly.

Day 5 – January 5
PATCH DIPPING
The sun was out this morning but the wind was still gale force at times. I thought I’d pay my local patch, Holmethorpe Sand Pits, a first visit for 2012 late this morning to see if I could locate the wintering Garganey that has been loitering for the past month or so.

Alas, my current strike rate being as poor as it is, predictably I didn’t. Loads of Teal, a few Gadwall, a lone Shoveler and a Common Snipe, but no Garganey. Highlight was a Little Egret that flew over The Moors. I stayed for about an hour, but the duck remained elusive, probably sleeping on a bank with its mates out of sight of peering eyes such as mine.

The Surrey list is now on 40, with my patch list on 16. To be honest, the thought of trying to find another 128 different bird species in Surrey this year to beat my 2011 total (which wasn’t that great anyway) doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement at the moment. I want my birding to be enjoyable, not an endurance test where dipping constantly dominates my thoughts. I’ll no doubt feel differently when I see a few rarities in the coming weeks.

Day 6 – January 6
A FINE DAY
It was a beautiful morning, no wind and the first time in a while I’d actually managed to get out of bed early (despite a crap night’s sleep) and headed off somewhere to do a spot of birding.

I hadn’t been to Staines Reservoir for at least three months so it was good to set off in that direction before the sun was up. After a slight hold-up due of traffic I was on the causeway by 8.30am. I met up with Bob Warden and after he had pointed me in the right direction of a Black-necked Grebe, I got down to spotting a few other decent birds. First off was a Great Northern Diver on the south basin, a regular visitor to the reservoir, doing what it does best which meant it spent a far bit of time underwater. It did stay on the surface long enough at one point to get a proper view while it preened itself, so that was good.



Next up was the juvenile Shag, which hadn’t appeared to have moved from one of the rafts on the north basin since the last time I saw it back in September. I walked up to the eastern end of the reservoir to get a better view of at least 20 Goldeneye on the south basin. These striking ducks were focused on their courtship routines.


Back down the causeway and Bob had found the male Scaup, asleep right at the far end of the north basin, while the female was keeping a Wigeon company closer to the causeway. I stayed for a couple of hours, having looked for and failing to find any Water Pipit or Smew (seen later in the day). I headed home, and went for yet another look on the Moors to see if I could find the Garganey, but again drew a blank. Three Snipe were the best I could come up with.

I went out again in the afternoon, heading for Papercourt Water Meadows. The weather conditions were perfect, and as soon as I arrived just after 2.30pm and walked over the bridge and on to the Meadows I caught sight of my first Short-eared Owl of the afternoon. 



Having been forced to sit it out for a few days because of high winds and rain, it was no surprise to see these magnificent birds out hunting in the mid-afternoon. During my two-hour stay, I saw six Short-eared Owls quartering the area. Three were to the east, and the other three to the west. They put on a truly awesome display – the best yet. If you have any time to spare and the weather is good (no wind and rain) get down to the Meadows and watch these brilliant birds at work. There are few better birding sights currently in Surrey.


The Barn Owl didn’t show itself this time, but a Tawny Owl hooted from a tree by the river, just to add to the atmosphere. My Surrey list at the end of week one (we're out all day tomorrow) is now on 57. A great day’s birding that certainly made up for the rubbish start to the week.