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.



Tuesday, 29 May 2012

RODING WOODCOCKS, CHURRING NIGHTJARS, SCOTERS AND THE BUZZARD DEBATE

With birds and Buzzards in particular being in the news recently I was thinking about writing a piece on the Buzzard/gamekeeper/Defra horror story but having read much better posts than I can muster on the subject I thought it best to steer readers to these instead. For one of the best read Alan Tilmouth's excellent blog and http://dustybins.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/state-sponsored-persecution-of-buzzards.html or this excellent piece on the Independent website by Michael McCarthy entitled 'Richard Benyon: The bird-brained minister' http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/richard-benyon-the-birdbrained-minister-7794159.html

Suffice to say it is very hard not to despair at the Government's logic. Like so many of his colleagues the government minister responsible for wildlife protection at Defra is a multi-millionaire landowner with a 20,000-acre estate in Berkshire and a champion of the shooting lobby. How on earth anyone would think taxpayers are going to support a £375,000 trial on Buzzard control clearly has an extremely blinkered outlook on the real world.

To believe the idea of nest destruction of a protected species is a realistic approach is breathtakingly ignorant at best. Anyone with a brain cell can work out the outcome of this. Buzzards will be blown out of the sky via their nests without a moments thought. No-one will be able to police the activity and no-one will be able to prove that the culling – as that is what it will be – has been deliberate or a genuine error ("I didn't think there was a bird in the nest at the time, mate. Honest.")

Do read the articles via the links, they are well worth it.

Back to my personal birding experiences, after my recent trials and tribulations it has been a week of relative calm on the birding front but a storm on the work front.

Since taking the decision to return to Racing Post on a freelance basis each month, my regular workload elsewhere has racked up a notch. Typically, work for me is either feast or famine – either too much or too little, and at the moment I have too much.

While the extra cash is welcome, the downside means opportunities to go birding fly out of the window. Since seeing the Melodious Warbler in Leyton I have had just two trips out, on Thursday and Friday evening. On Thursday I went to Crooksbury Common, where I met up with Rich Horton, 'Duke' the dog and John Hunt to watch the Nightjars. We all turned up with the same idea as it was such a warm and still night.

Crooksbury Common is one of the best sites for Nightjars in Surrey, probably the best because the Common is small and compact and therefore covers a much smaller area than both Chobham and Thursley Commons. It's easy to walk round and the Nightjars are more accessible to see. We heard at least four Nightjars (146) and saw a couple. With the entire summer ahead, a trip to Crooksbury in June will be high on the agenda for more Nightjar viewing.

We also saw a couple of Woodcock (147) roding above the trees. One flew right over our heads, whistling and squeaking as it went. Roding Woodcock was my target bird for my next trip out the following evening at Thundry Meadows.

Prior to visiting Thundry I went to Thursley Common. On the walk round on a windy evening I saw a couple of Hobby, a Raven mobbed by a mass of Carrion Crows (I keep seeing Raven all over the place in Surrey at the moment), plenty of Woodlark, and the breeding pair of Curlew, a regular sight each year at Thursley, which I managed to get quite close to.

Curlew on Thursley Common
Then off to Thundry Meadows, the best place for watching roding Woodcock I know. From 8.30pm until 9.15pm I saw ten Woodcock – although it may have been the same bird ten times, who knows.


Woodcock roding over Thundry Meadows
A pleasant couple of evenings and all went to plan – for a change.

That was it until Sunday morning when just before going off to work at Racing Post I got a text from Ian Kehl.

John Benham had located a male Common Scoter on Water Colour Lagoons. A brilliant find. Where this bird had come from, God only knows, but it was clear I had to get down there to see it before catching the train to London. I only had a ten-minute window at the most.

Adding to my anxiety was another opportunity missed earlier that morning. I had thought about getting up early and travelling to Weir Wood Reservoir in the hope of seeing an Osprey. After a long day and night I stayed in bed instead, and therefore really did miss out on seeing an Osprey and... two Bee Eaters. A Bee Eater would be high on anyone's list, let alone mine, and two were seen, albeit briefly, perched up on a wire at the dam end of the reservoir at about 10am. I was somewhat reassured by the fact I would have been gone by then, having to leave at about 9.45am to get back home – and that would have been far worse than not going at all.

On a scorcher of a morning, I popped down to the Water Colour complex just behind local birder Tom Cahalane. Also present were the two Sell brothers, Paul and Keith. We couldn't see the Scoter anywhere, but luckily Tom, who is very observant, noticed water bubbles on the surface of the water at the back edge of Water Colour 1 and the Common Scoter (148) re-emerged from its dive underwater.

The Common Scoter on Water Colour Lagoon 1
Thank goodness for that. A spot of luck! I had missed out on seeing the pair of Common Scoters a few weeks back, and never imagined another one would turn up at this time of year. It just goes to prove how unpredictable birds can be.

I went back to see it again yesterday morning after Graham James had rung to say it was still on the Lagoon. This time I got much better views, and watched as a Coot chase it away in mid dive. A top-notch bird in a suburban environment – just a few hundred yards away from a modern housing estate.



The male Common Scoter composes itself after being chased away by an aggressive Coot
For the rest of the week I'm working from home, so if something good turns up again I will hopefully be ready for it.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

UNCHAINED MELODY

A tenuous headline, but what the heck. While all was relatively quiet on the Surrey birding front after an enjoyable Sunday session, all the local activity focused on the arrival of a Melodious Warbler at Leyton in East London.

It first appeared Wednesday morning, when local birder Stewart Fisher picked it up. There have been few sightings of this Warbler in the London area – this was only the eighth record – the last one being 12 years ago. There was, naturally, a lot of excitement about it.

Normally an interesting East London sighting doesn't venture on my radar but all that has changed since returning to freelance work at Racing Post.

The Post is based at Canary Wharf at 1 Canada Square and because I don't start work there until 12.30pm anything worth twitching is just about possible to get to in the morning.

When I discovered the Melodious Warbler was not that far away from the Leyton tube station - just 20 minutes away - my interest was confirmed. It was, however, another of those frustrating afternoons when I checked on Twitter and found that numerous birders, including Dominic Mitchell, Adrian Luscombe, David Campbell and even Lee Evans had all made the trip to go and see it. Adrian was in a similar position to me in that he was working in Central London when the news broke and didn't have any birding kit with him and would have to rely on the generosity of other birders for him to see it through their bins or scope.

If I had any intentions of going to see the Warbler it would have to be after work. The problem was I don't finish until 8pm most days, so if I travelled to Leyton via the Jubilee and Central lines I wouldn't get there until about 8.30pm. The sun sets about 15 minutes later so an evening visit was a long shot.

As the day progressed various tweets mentioned how well the bird was showing and Adrian described how it had been worth going for a look, even without visual aids.

So in the end, I decided to go for it and hoped the light would hold, other birders would be there and would kindly let me look through a scope, and the bird would show. I got there bang on 8.30pm.

The spot where the Melodious Warbler was found was unusual in as much it was a small area of scrubland backing on to a row of houses, next to a fairly busy road and opposite an artificial turf playing field. Just down the road is Leyton Orient football ground. It is very much an urban environment.

The light did hold, other birders (two) were there, but the bird didn't show - or sing.

Very annoying. I'd arrived at Lyttelton Road just too late. If I had got there 30 minutes earlier I may have been lucky.

I didn't get home until gone 10.00pm so it wasn't a great end to a long day. I kept a close eye on various websites the next morning to see if it had stuck, and luckily it had. I left earlier for the Post on Thursday morning with a pair of bins and a camera. I didn't leave much room for manoeuvre as I worked out I only had a 30-minute window to see the bird, and that was if I made all the connections in good time and there were no delays.

Fortunately the journey went like clockwork and I got to Lyttelton Road by 11.45am. Thirty minutes isn't long but it proved to be long enough.

Birders, Oliver Road, Leyton
Ideal scrub for a Melodious Warbler in East London
There were six other birders peering at the vegetation and as soon as I arrived I could hear the Melodious Warbler singing. A good start, but it didn't want to come out of the hawthorn to reveal itself. All that could be seen was some movement in the undergrowth.

video

Then after about 15 minutes it appeared, perched on a hawthorn branch. The Melodious Warbler was a strong-looking, handsome bird with yellow underparts. Contact. It was also mobile and within 20 seconds flew over to a favoured holly tree by the side of Oliver Road, where it started singing again.

It's in there somewhere!
There it stayed for a few minutes, scuttling around high up searching for insects. It came out of the dense foliage for a few seconds before flying lower down and out of sight.

And that was it. My time was up. I had to leave and go to work. At least I got to see it and to also hear it sing, which was a bonus.

It stayed for the rest of the day and was seen briefly very early yesterday morning but there was no sign of it after that.

It is remarkable where rare birds turn up. It just goes to show there must be numerous places around the country that are unwatched and have jewels in amongst the bushes.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

THE SINGING RINGING TREES

One of my lasting memories growing up in the 1960s, apart from England winning the World Cup, listening to the Beatles and generally not having a care in the world, was watching TV just before teatime. BBC often showed foreign-made children's feature films made into three-part mini-series. I remember one, made in Czechoslovakia called Adventure in Golden Bay (Dobrodruzstvi na Zlaté zátoce) about a misunderstood orpan who decided to try and catch a predatory pike that was threatening the rest of the wildlife, in particular a carp that he had trained to feed from his hand. It was captivating at the time.

But there was one film in particular that, rather than being something to enjoy before mealtime in the early evening, instead gave me nightmares.

It was called the Singing Ringing Tree. A surreal fairytale, made in communist East Germany, about a prince who tries to win the heart of an arrogant, spoilt princess by bringing her a singing, ringing tree. The prince's quest isn't helped when he discovers the tree belongs to an evil dwarf, who lets the prince have the tree on the proviso the tree must sing before sundown to prove the princess loves him. If it doesn't he would be turned into a bear. Great.

Needless to say, he gets turned into a bear and the rest of the story is about the dwarf doing his best to stop the bear winning over the princess and therefore returning him back to being a prince. Sounds like a decent story for kids, but it was anything but for me as a seven-year-old who was subjected to plenty of evil laughter, fire and brimstone, waterfalls turning to ice, stricken giant fish and horses being turned to stone.

No such worries for me today, however, and like the film, I had a happy ending.

The sun was bright and the skies were clear for the first time this month. I set a personal challenge this morning, which meant if I failed to see an intended bird I wouldn't immediately turn into a Grizzly for the rest of the day (I can get the sulks for a bit). An open mind is integral to my new approach to birding. I'd used the policy a few days earlier at Staines Reservoir where I hoped to see a Roseate Tern. No Tern, but I saw a Whimbrel (141) for the first time this year on the south basin.

A Whimbrel with a Mallard at Staines Reservoir
I had a decent amount of time available this morning so I set off at 6.30am for Thursley village in search of a Wood Warbler.

Graham Osbourne had discovered one near the village along a bridle path that leads to Thursley Common on Friday. It was still present yesterday, so there was a chance it might hang around today. Wood Warblers are extremely scarce in Surrey now. Up until a few years ago they used to be seen regularly at the Devil's Punchbowl, near Hindhead, but last year, the only sighting recorded was one at Canons Farm. That one only stayed for a day and I, naturally, dipped it.

I went to Thursley village with an open mind for once and I was rewarded for it. It didn't take too long to find the Wood Warbler (142) once I had worked out the Ordnance Survey co-ordinates. I heard it first at about 7.30am, the call ringing repeatedly around the woods. The song is often referred to as sounding like a coin spinning to a halt on a plate. This very smart warbler of the woodland stood out well.

video

It sang its heart out, flying from tree-to-tree and branch-to-branch – never keeping still for too long, hence the rubbish photo. That is the disadvantage of digiscoping without a jig on the scope.

The striking Wood Warbler at Thursley
Top Tice's Meadow birder, John Hunt, joined me after about half an hour and we watched this brilliant bird for another 45 minutes or so before John mentioned he was going to pop over to Frensham Little Pond to see if any Spotted Flycatchers were there.

I followed him over to the Pond. A Garden Warbler (143) sang in an oak tree, a couple of Tree Pipit flew by, a handsome male Common Redstart (144) landed on a branch directly in front of us before flying off and a Grey Wagtail dropped in on the path. A few minutes later John picked up a Spotted Flycatcher (145) near the warden's lodge. It was soon followed by another.


Spotted Flycatchers at Frensham Little Pond
An excellent morning so far, with four new birds for the year. I asked John if he knew where to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker down the road at Tilford, and he very obligingly took me there. It was only a few minutes away – West Surrey has some really good birding sites in close proximity to one another compared to East Surrey.

There was also a possibility to see a Firecrest (remember them), but nothing showed while I was there, and neither did a Lesser Pecker down by the river. Great habitat for them, though. I did see two more Spotted Flycatchers – one of which flew into a tree directly above my head.

An alternative view of a Spotted Flycatcher
From Tilford I headed home via Bookham Common. Here I saw a couple of Nightingales, one was perched high up on a bush but dropped back down into the dense scrub before I could get a photo. I recorded one of them and its remarkable repertoire deep in the trees. Fantastic.

video

After that it was to the local farm shop in Nutfield for Sunday provisions and then driving towards Redhill, the seemingly resident Raven flew across the M25 at Nutfield Ridge.

In the afternoon, Annie and I went for a walk at Denbies Vineyard near Dorking and I saw another Raven – my third in Surrey so far this year (probably based on Leith Hill) – in the trees at the western end of the Vineyard, followed soon after by a Hobby that flew south high across the vines.

As Johnny Allan says, every year is different. As is every day. Today was an excellent one.

Monday, 7 May 2012

THE BIRDING GODS HAVE THE LAST LAUGH

It was only a few days ago that I was talking with David Campbell at Canons Farm and we looked across the stubble fields and wondered what would drop by in the coming days.

Canons Farm is becoming a bit of a phenomenon in Surrey. It never fails to produce the goods on a yearly basis. So far this spring they have had six Ring Ouzels and a Pied Flycatcher, plus Black Redstarts, Common Redstarts, and numerous fly-overs, including Whimbrel. Last year they had the only record of a Wood Warbler in Surrey, breeding pairs of Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, more Ring Ouzels, umpteen Grasshopper Warblers and a Quail.

We spoke about dream birds we'd like to see and Dotterel was the first bird mentioned. We didn't know when the last sighting of one was seen in Surrey. Then low and behold, on Friday afternoon, the dream came true. The birding gods had smiled on Canons Farm, and in spectacular fashion. Not one Dotterel, but 15 dropped into one of the fields and they stayed all day.

I got the text while I was working at Racing Post, and could only hope they would stick for a while longer, as I wouldn't be leaving 1 Canada Square until at least 7.30pm. In the meantime, all the great and the good of birding migrated to the farm during the afternoon. This was a very special twitch, one that only happens once in a lifetime in Surrey. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it. But there was still hope.

Eventually, 7.30pm came and went and I hurried for the Jubilee Line. I got to London Bridge, platform 5, just as the train I really needed to catch was leaving. Another would arrive in 12 minutes, so I could still change at East Croydon and get to Redhill for about 8.30pm. The sun would have set then but there would still be just enough light to get to the farm, 15 minutes up the road, to see these Dotterels.

But the birding gods weren't smiling on me, in fact they were playing a little ruse. Within seconds of missing the train an announcement echoed around the station. Due to a fatality at Waterloo East, there would now be severe delays to all services out of London Bridge. It beggared belief.

Thirty minutes later, the trains were running again, but too late. I arrived at Redhill at 9pm. The birding gods had one last trick up their sleeve. Once it was obvious there was no point in making the journey to the farm – it would be too dark at 9.15pm – at the very same moment the birding gods decided that it was time for these Dotterel to leave. It was reported by Roy Weller, who had first seen the birds, that a fox had wandered close by where they were standing, and in a moment they had taken to the air, and could be heard calling. No-one on site knew where they had gone. There was a chance they had simply taken a short hop into a neighbouring field.

And so to Saturday. On a very cold May morning I got up very early – 5.15am – and was at the farm 45 minutes later, not really believing these 15 birds were still on site. No sign of the Dotterel. I met David who had already been looking around the area and had drawn a blank. It was obvious they were no longer there.

It is very hard to describe how missing seeing a bird that was last seen in Surrey in 1884 feels like. This was a 'for one night only' job. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I felt numb.

So I left crestfallen. I wasn't sure what to do next. I was in a bit of a daze. A daze of disillusionment. I went to Staines Reservoir, more for something to do than anything else, and met up with Bob Warden, who had gone to Canons Farm and seen the Dotterel, and Adrian Luscombe, who had been at work in London all day. It was clear from the look on their respective faces who had seen a Surrey Dotterel and who hadn't.

I went to Staines hoping to find Whinchat on the Moor, and perhaps a Little Tern or a fly-over Whimbrel on the reservoir. The reservoir was quiet in the early morning, apart from large numbers of Yellow Wagtail – I saw at least 50 during the day. There were plenty of Common Terns, plus a couple of Arctic Terns, and the Shag was also present. There were also quite a few Wheatears around, and more than 1,000 Common Swift.

One of at least 1,000 Common Swift for a Hobby to choose from
There were more than 50 Yellow Wagtails at the reservoir
I went over to Staines Moor at about 9am. Five Sedge Warblers (138) were singing on the walk down the footpath to the Moor, and once there I found more than 20 Wheatears and four Whinchats (139), two pairs.

A male Wheatear – ill-prepared for the cold snap
A handsome male Whinchat at Staines Moor
Back to the reservoir by late morning a couple of Grey Plovers dropped in on the west bank of the south basin, more Yellow Wagtails, plus four Little Ringed Plovers and another Whinchat, a male, followed by a female. A Hobby flew low across the bank on the causeway on the south basin, with a Common Swift dangling from its talons, and later two more Hobby were scorching through the air trying to catch some more Hirundines.

A Grey Plover on the west bank of the south basin
Another Yellow Wagtail
A female Whinchat at Staines Reservoir
That was the day in a nutshell. Good, but with very much an 'after the Lord Mayor's show' ring about it.

OK, I hear you say, get over it. Don't be so pathetic. No-one died. No-one is suffering from life-changing trauma of any sort. In the general scheme of things, dipping a Dotterel (or 15) it isn't that big a deal.

And you would be right. But that is what this hobby does to you when it grabs you. And I'm more than a bit concerned by this. I don't want it to consume me to the extent it takes away my focus from the more important things that I have going on in my life.

The bottom line is this. To be a dedicated birder is fine. It is a great hobby, full of great moments and equally disappointing ones (probably more of those, in my case). But to get the most out of it you have to be either retired, very rich or work in birding for a living.

I'm simply not enjoying my birding at the moment most of the time apart from the odd days here and there – as can be garnered from posts on this blog in recent weeks. Even I'm getting bored of whining all the time.

So I've made the decision that I'm not going to Surrey list for the rest of the year. There's no point. I've missed too many migrants, particularly on the local patch, and have too few days to spend on it. I want to enjoy birding and to go home afterwards feeling good rather than dejected. Listing is basically twitching, and twitching will send you half mad. 

It will mean that birding in Surrey will not be the be all and end all. If there is the chance of seeing birds I enjoy somewhere else, I'll go there rather than waiting for hours for a Grasshopper Warbler to poke its head out of the bushes for a split second. 

I'll continue to go to Staines Reservoir, however, for some seabird watching because I enjoy it (and I can catch up with Bob et al for some good old banter), Holmethorpe because I ought to, Beddington and Canons Farm on the odd occasion, Crooksbury Common later this month to see the Nightjars, Bookham Common for some more Nightingale song.

With the mornings getting lighter earlier it means I can travel further afield and get back in good time without compromising myself. Elmley Marshes, Oare Marshes, Pulborough Brooks (never been!), Burpham (raptor heaven), Pagham Harbour, good old Beachy Head and Cuckmere Haven. 

That's the plan. Now for the difficult part. Trying to work out a way to implement it...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

EXTREME WEATHER, EXTREME BIRDING

Let me tell you about Sunday – as if you can't remember. It was wet, really wet. It was windy, and I mean really windy. And it was cold – really cold for the time of year.

It was also the first day in about three months I had entirely to myself. I could go birding all day. I was really looking forward to it. And then I drew back the curtains...

It was expected, true. But I didn't imagine it was going to be as horrendous as it turned out to be. The forecast predicted the bad weather would pass by lunchtime, but it hung around for most of the day – until about 4pm, anyway.

The idea was to take part in the Holmethorpe Bird Race, a dawn-till-dusk challenge to see as many bird species as possible. But the weather put paid to that idea. A number of honourable birders did venture out on the patch. In the end only one made it through the whole day – Gordon Hay.

I'll be honest and say I couldn't imagine walking around the fields and lakes to see very little. But I wanted to see something. So I took the slightly mad step to go sea watching... but inland.

I thought the best place to see birds in the terrible weather was going to be Staines Reservoir. I was hoping for a Little Tern, as three had been seen the evening before. I sort of knew what I was letting myself in for. Even at the best of times the reservoir climate can be severe. It is nearly always windy up there.

I arrived just after 7.30am, at the same time as one other birder, Dave Darrel-Lambert. The walk up the causeway was like walking into Dante's Inferno. The water on the reservoir was like the English Channel on a stormy day. Massive waves, and a wind that did its best to lift you off you feet. The rain just blasted you like a high-pressure hose, so it wasn't long before I was soaked.

To actually watch the birds was equally difficult. The scope wanted to fly off, and viewing through it was nigh impossible as it kept shaking violently in the wind. Holding a pair of bins was a challenge just to keep them steady.

Despite the problems I did get to see a few good birds in the morning. The resident Shag flew low across the south basin, plus there were many Common Terns and a few Little Gulls feeding, flying headlong into the wind. Dave put me on to a Black Tern (133), doing its best in the gales on the north basin, plus one Arctic Tern.


Little Gulls and a Common Tern battling against the wind at Staines Reservoir
By that time I was battered and bruised by the gale force north-easterly winds and stare-rod rain. It was weather for the hardy, dedicated birder with SAS survival training. But even some of those were beginning to lose the will to live.

Bob Warden, the 68-year-old legendary Staines Reservoir watcher, arrived after me – having been on Staines Moor looking for a Great White Egret that appeared to drop down there the evening before (he didn't find it) – and we scanned the basins for some more unusual sightings. We found an Oystercatcher (134) on the west bank of the north basin, and a young chap called Samuel joined us and pointed out a Yellow Wagtail grappling through the wind before dropping down on to the bank next to the causeway on the south basin, where it joined a White Wagtail. A Little Ringed Plover soon followed and then later, although I didn't see it, a Dunlin. Numbers of Common Swift, Swallow and House Martin were beginning to build as the morning progressed.

Bob Warden – Staines Reservoir legend 
After a few hours enjoying watching the determined Little Gulls and Terns repeatedly flying into the gales to feed before swooping back and starting the whole process again, I was struggling to keep warm. Even Bob, who puts up with most weather the reservoir chucks at him, was beginning to get fed up. By 2pm, we both thought we'd seen enough and decided to leave.

As I walked back to the car, the clouds broke and, unbelievably, the sun came out. I was speechless – mainly because my face was still too frozen to speak. 

I headed to Bookham Common in search of Nightingale (135). It was a good choice as it turned out, as I found one within minutes of arriving, singing loudly and with intense clarity in the bushes. I managed to see it briefly before it saw me and flew further away.

I was about to go looking for it again when I saw on Twitter that Adrian Luscombe, local Staines birder, who had avoided the wind and rain earlier, had just arrived at Staines Reservoir and was watching a Little Tern, plus eight Whimbrel and a Bar-tailed Godwit circling the area.

Just typical! I'd spent more than six hours there braving the elements, and within an hour of leaving the target bird, plus two added bonuses, put in an appearance. I drove back, knowing full well I would draw a blank – and predictably I did.

The Little Tern had gone missing, and the Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit, that had been flying around for about 20 minutes, had also flown off.

There were plenty more birders around now the weather had improved. I met up with Adrian, and later Franko Maroevic and Ken Purdey plus others whose names I didn't know.

Franko is one of Britain's most well-known birders. He's a character, that's for sure, extremely enthusiastic and always – to me at any rate – very helpful.

It is watching birds with the likes of Bob, Franko and Ken that novices such as myself learn how to become better birders.

For one thing, they don't tend to list, and for another, they are patient (although that doesn't always reflect Franko's reputation at times so I'm led to believe! Hence, Johnny Allan's nickname for him, 'The Fury').

I always enjoy hanging out with these guys. They just spot things that you can't and they can identify birds such as Arctic Terns straight away, which is always a great help.

With the wind still blowing and the threat of rain still lurking, most birders headed for the one strip of vegetation which acted as cover halfway up the causeway. This is where I spent the next hour and where the highlight of the day occurred.

While watching the north basin, Franko anticipated seeing a Short-eared Owl that had last been seen heading east into the wind from the Queen Mother Reservoir half an hour earlier. And it wasn't long until he was on to it. It was distant, but the Short-eared Owl was doing its best to fly through the gale, passing low across the motorway near Heathrow fifth terminal.

And then commotion. By now the number of hirundines on the reservoir had reached more than 2,000. They were darting about everywhere. The majority, more than a 1,000, were Common Swifts. The remainder were made up of Swallows and House Martins

A few moments later, the number of hirundines had dropped by one.

The wind speed had stepped up a couple more notches, if that were possible, and the wind direction had changed to a very stiff southerly.

The southerly wind at Staines Reservoir could be seen as ripples on the water
Fingers pointed out in front of us, and then Franko shouted out that there was a Hobby (136) heading straight for us, low across the water. By the time I picked it up it was getting close and at a fantastic speed – especially considering it was flying into the wind. Only a few feet above the waves, the Hobby cut through the wind like an arrow.

In a flash, it was over our heads and into the south basin. Franko took up the commentary "It's caught a Swift! It's in the water! There it is, above us now! Look!"

Dramatic stuff. The Hobby clearly had Swift on the menu. The Swift it caught tried to take evasive action but the Hobby followed it literally into the water before, saturated, it rose up, hovering in the wind as it gathered up its prey and turned to head back out across the north basin. Then it was gone.

Moments like that are hard to beat – nature at work in an extreme environment.

And then the heavens opened with gusto. This weather was ridiculous. All day I had been battling against it, but it still had more to throw at us.

The heavens open over the north basin
Taking cover under the one wind break along the causeway
Amazingly, despite the onslaught, one birder resolutely continued to scan the reservoir and he was out in the elements while he did so. Ken Purdey, another Staines legend, was further down the causeway, fully togged up in wet-weather gear plus a huge umbrella, was calmly scanning the north basin.

An island of calm surrounded by a tumult of weather. Ken is calmness personified and a great birder. Nothing fazes him. Respect.

Ken Purdey – a dedicated birder at work
I spoke to Ken for a while, and he reassured me that missing a Little Tern was par for the course. He'd missed plenty during the past couple of years before seeing the three the day before. I thought I'd found it late on, but it was a young Common Tern – apparently it is easy to misidentify a Little Tern for one. Sod's Law.

Eventually the storms cleared and by 7pm I thought it was time to go. I'd been at the reservoir for nearly 12 hours on and off. On the walk back to the car I saw another birder, who told me of a Turnstone on the bank of the causeway. Taking my eye off the ball, I'd walked straight past it.

I went back, and there it was. The Turnstone (137) was feeding on the edge of the water on the north basin. Finally, on the south basin,  I saw a further four Little Ringed Plover on the west bank.

A Turnstone feeding on the north basin
I ventured over to Holmethorpe late on just in case I saw a Whimbrel on the Spynes sandpit, but all was quiet. By the time I got home I was utterly exhausted.

So ended a long, epic and remarkable day.