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, 31 December 2013

A LAST-GASP BRÜNNICH'S GUILLEMOT TRIP

At last! After two months of virtually no birding I finally had a window of opportunity on Saturday for a trip out.

Prior to the weekend, my prime target was the Ivory Gull in East Yorkshire – a very long round trip for me but this bird was so charismatic I really wanted to go for it. Typically, however, it just didn't stick around long enough for me to make the journey. Hopefully there will be others to see in the not too distant future.

So, in the end I chose a bird I doubted I would ever see again, let alone in the near future – the Brünnich's Guillemot at Portland Harbour, Dorset. This first-time visitor to the south coast from the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions on the North Atlantic is very rarely seen alive south of Shetland when it is discovered, as most sightings unfortunately tend to be of birds washed up on the shore dead.

I hadn't been to Dorset this year so it seemed a good excuse to go. Having said that, a Christmas social visit at 4pm back home meant it was going to be a bit of a dash, and any hope of a saunter down to the Dorset coast was scuppered when I slept through my 4.30am alarm. The added bonus of a White-billed Diver at Brixham was, therefore, out of the question.

I didn't leave the house until 7.45am, and er, I didn't exactly spare the horses for the two-and-a-half-hour journey. The roads were busier than I had hoped but I still managed to park up at the harbour under bright sunshine by 10.30am.

I shouldn't have been surprised but I didn't expect quite such a huge crowd of birders to be there when I arrived. There must have been 200 of them crowded around the marina area of the harbour hoping to see this very rare auk. I've been on a few twitches but to witness this amount of people staring into the harbour did look a bit strange – but then again I was one of them.

As it transpired, the Brunnich's Guillemot wasn't difficult to see, although it spent more time under water than bobbing around on top of it. A handsome individual, it would dive lazily with its characteristic arch-winged posture and reappear a few minutes later somewhere completely different. It was virtually impossible to digiscope but, for all of that, it was an enjoyable bird to watch.

The Brünnich's Guillemot drew a large gathering of birders on Saturday morning
Now you see it...
...now you don't
While the Guillemot made a circuit of the harbour I focused on a few other bird species on the water, of which there were plenty. Umpteen Red-breasted Mergansers swam around the area, as well as a two Great Northern Divers, a couple of Black-throated Divers, a Black Guillemot (which a few people mistook for a Long-tailed Duck) and a couple of Razorbill close by. 

Black Guillemot
Black-throated Diver
Great Northern Diver and Red-breasted Merganser
A pair of Razorbills
Drake Red-breasted Merganser
Around midday a storm blew across from the Channel making everyone dive for cover and during this 15-minute deluge the Brünnich's Guillemot disappeared, but was then rediscovered about half an hour later to the west of the marina. It eventually made its way back to its usual feeding area, but by 12.45pm it was really time for me to head home.

Glossy Ibis
Fortunately, the trip back happened to coincide with Radipole Park Drive in Weymouth where a Glossy Ibis was feeding in a flooded football pitch. It couldn't have been easier to see. Having watched this striking bird feed for a few minutes I made my way back to Surrey.

A worthwhile trip to a fantastic county for bird life, no matter what time of year.

Next up, the Randon's Rambling Awards.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

DUSKY THRUSH AFTERMATH

After a lull of seven weeks (could be more, I've lost count) without writing a single word on the blog, the Randon’s Ramblings Birding Awards are almost upon us (next week).

I haven't written much recently or been birding, mainly due to other commitments, some good (plenty of work), some bad (death in the family).

On a personal level life could have been a lot better. The death of my father-in-law in July, a great man who succumbed to a ten-year battle with dementia, had a big impact on our family and was followed a few weeks ago by the death of one of my uncles.

I wasn't that close to my uncle but it was when I became aware of his situation and then personally involved in trying to help him prior to his passing that affected me greatly. I experienced what can only be described as gross ineptitude by those who should have known better and acted sooner.  

The Dusky Thrush saga
It's when you are dealing with real life that you realise pastimes such as birding should be enjoyed for what they are rather than used to pontificate over whether it is the right of all birders to see a rare bird, especially when it appears in someone's garden.

While glued to a computer for most of the past month and a half I'd been engrossed by the Devon Dusky Thrush saga. It was fascinating and ridiculous in equal measure. The finder, the recorder, the photographer and the artist all played their parts commendably (the artist's illustration of the bird was quite brilliant, I have to say). The problem the finder made for himself was naively waiting for the bird to disappear before announcing he had invited a handful of mates to come and see the bird.

That in itself wouldn't be much of a big deal in every day life, but having a rare bird in your garden unfortunately exposes you potentially to the extreme end of the pastime – the obsessive, compulsive birder. The hard-core twitcher.

For a hard-core twitcher nothing will get in the way of seeing a rare bird, no matter where it may be, whether it affects family, friends, work, finance, sanity, whatever. The only thing that will stop a twitcher seeing a rare bird is if he doesn't know it exists. So it was inevitable there would be a reaction once it was known the finder of the Dusky Thrush had suppressed the information, whether it was his intention or not.

There is no clear answer to this argument, no right or wrong. It was just the way it happened. But perhaps the most disappointing element of the saga from my point of view was the decision by Gavin Haig to close his excellent blog Not Quite Scilly.

Coming from a media background I have had my moments when I've written something, or orchestrated something to be written, I knew was likely to create a reaction. In my days at Motorsport News, I had run-ins with the likes of the Jaguar F1 press office, David Coulthard (via his manager), Ross Brawn and Tom Walkinshaw (who threatened legal action).

None of these instances actually came to anything, as the usual 'clarification' printed somewhere discreetly as a means to settle a disagreement usually solved the problem with the minimum of fuss. And frankly, all these people were/are big and ugly enough to deal with it if a clarification wasn't justified. Also, and more importantly at the time, I was paid to deal with these situations.

If a blogger gets inundated with responses he doesn't want, however, there's no financial gain at the end of the day to make up for it.

A blogger has no comfort blanket. Nail your colours to the mast and write a piece that is likely to be inflammatory, be prepared to take the flak.

Unfortunately, Gavin couldn't. It was disappointing because his blog was so good and the piece he wrote – at the time he even stated he might regret writing it – was from the heart and was something he believed in.

Whenever someone writes afterwards 'I didn't mean to cause upset', you have to ask the question: If that is the case, why write something that has the potential to upset someone? Unless you are willing to stick to your principles when you write something publicly, then frankly, it's not worth bothering.

We have to remember a blog is simply an indulgence. None of us get paid for writing what we do. We're on a hiding to nothing. Maybe that's why Gavin ditched it. A great shame, as I miss it.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

WHERE IS POTTERS BAR?

While the twitchers of this nation have been skiving off to Shetland, the Scilly Isles and other such rarity-filled corners of Britain, I can only look on with pangs of envy as I can't venture anywhere further than the bottom of my road.

While work has neutered any hopes of a decent day out birding this past week, I've been entertained following events on Twitter, which has been a welcome distraction from a pile of design jobs I can't avoid doing.

One tweet I read was from Staines birder Dominic Pia, who eventually succeeded in seeing the Hermit Thrush in Cornwall yesterday afternoon. He also commented on the fact that a juvenile Gannet at Staines Reservoir, his local patch, would mean many Surrey listers would be heading there to tick the bird. I hoped to be one of them but simply couldn't spare the time in the end. It doesn't help that the clocks went back last weekend, meaning mornings are much better than the short afternoons for any trips out.

Enter Steve Gale, who writes the excellent blog North Downs and beyond. He replied to Dom's tweet thus: Hate to be pedantic Dom but Staines res will NEVER be considered as a part of Surrey!!!

Steve then wrote a blog post yesterday headed 'Where is Staines Reservoir?' to reaffirm his position on the subject. Steve's blog is invariably thought-provoking and occasionally compels the reader to respond, as this one has done by me.

The basis for Steve's piece is that in a birding context the only birds that can count as being Surrey birds are, or should be,  those recorded using the Watsonian vice-county system, as set up by English botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson in 1852 as a method of recording plant distribution.

The system has been used ever since for recording birds in Surrey. The argument goes that historical and modern data can be more easily compared. Fine. It therefore also means both Staines Reservoir and Staines Moor, situated outside the vice-county recording area in the now non-existent county of Middlesex, cannot be used to include Surrey birds.

Geography, both human and physical, evolves over time. Borders around the world change frequently, such as those in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. And so do county borders. Why can't bird recording areas also reflect this evolution?

Neighbouring counties to Surrey actually do. Take Berkshire and Hertfordshire, the two other counties most affected by the deletion of Middlesex from the map. Neither have continued to use their vice-county borders to record data.

Potters Bar, for example, was in Middlesex but is now in Hertfordshire and the county's natural history records reflect that change. 

The Berkshire Ornithological Club database only records with the current county boundary. The first edition of the Berkshire Atlas (surveys 1987-1989) worked with the former boundary but the new atlas uses the current one.

Does that change the accuracy of the information? Not in the least, as far as I can tell, so long as it is known what boundaries are being adhered to. If the borders change again in future, then so will the data.

Staines-upon-Thames, in the borough of Spelthorne, has been in Surrey since 1965. Previously it was in Middlesex, but Middlesex now doesn't exist. That a cricket club and a university are still named after the former county is incidental.

As it turns out, there is little consistency anywhere around the south-east on this subject. Take the London recording area, which stretches 20 miles out from St Paul's Cathedral. It means within its circumference areas in deepest Surrey such as Bookham Common, Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Colley Hill and even Tilburstow Hill, south of Godstone are counted as part of London, which is frankly, a bit daft.

All this is obviously just good debating fodder, but there is a down side to using the current borders for those who support Staines as part of Surrey. It would mean places like Beddington, Richmond, London Wetland Centre and Sutton (sorry Steve) would no longer count for listing purposes.

That would also mean I would have to remove Red-rumped Swallow, Glaucous Gull, Bittern, Merlin, Garganey and Tree Sparrow from my Surrey year list. Disaster.

Depending on which Surrey county boundary is used either
the Great Northern Diver at Staines Reservoir or...
... the Glaucous Gull at Beddington would have to go
But then if I stick with the vice-county of Surrey it would mean removing Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Yellow-legged Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Short-eared Owl, Grasshopper Warbler, Rock Pipit, Water Pipit, Whinchat... need I go on? I'm just glad I've seen a Two-barred Crossbill this year on Leith Hill – at least I know that definitely counts whichever system I use.

Obviously none of this is satisfactory, but fortunately as a compromise, Surrey Bird Club includes current and vice-county boundaries and I think, as a gesture of goodwill, all us Surrey listers should do the same...

In the end, it's only a list of bird sightings and lists don't have to conform to a set of rules.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A TWO-BARRED, PARROT AND COMMON CROSSBILL HAT-TRICK

Parrot Crossbills have been making the birding news of late. Lee Evans predicted an influx of them this autumn and in the south-east he has been proved right. A group of four appeared in Essex a week and a half ago near Southend at Gunners Park, Shoebury. They showed ridiculously well by all accounts, and then another four (who knows, maybe part of the same group), appeared with a flock of Common Crossbills at Hemsted Forest near Cranbrook in Kent, along with a male Two-barred Crossbill.

These particular Crossbills have been on show regularly and predictably for the past week, and having not yet seen a Parrot Crossbill, I was keen to go for a visit when I could.

This was proving difficult, as this is annually my busiest time of the year work-wise, but last Saturday I managed to get out by 2.30pm and head off. This was at the same time a Semipalmated Plover appeared on Hayling Island, but this American mega didn't really interest me that much. A small wader that pokes around in the silt didn't really appeal. Crossbills are far more entertaining. They are noisy, active and constantly on the move when not feeding – a bit more of a challenge to find the rarity in amongst them.

The excursion proved to be an unmitigated disaster and totally fruitless barring hearing the Two-barred fly overhead while on a two-mile trek through the woods, having parked at the wrong location, due mainly to the vague directions I could get via the Rare Bird Alert site. If I'd parked in the right place the walk would have only been about 300 yards.

Having eventually and accidently found the right spot – I turned my head and saw a bank on scopes pointed at me as I walked up into the clearing – it was too dark and too late to see anything.

I waited until yesterday morning for another stab. The weather forecast promised clear skies and little or no wind.

I parked in the right place, walked up to the right area, and within a minute I was looking at a Parrot Crossbill, perched up in the pines with some Common Crossbill alongside for a comparison. Much heavier built from the neck up, its powerful bill showed up well as a silhouette against the sun, before it eventually perched closer for a better view with the sun behind.

A Parrot Crossbill showing off its exaggerated features
It stayed put for a good five minutes or so before flying further away and eventually out of sight with its Common counterparts.

After an hour wait, another flock arrived and dropped in to a lone oak tree about 100 yards away. Another (or the same) Parrot Crossbill was spotted in amongst the flock of about 20 birds.

The flock flew off and then all was quiet. Crossbill flocks came and went during the next hour – as did a lone Yellowhammer, three Brambling and a five or six Bullfinch – but most flew straight on and didn't land.

Happy twitchers having seen three species of Crossbill
I was just about to head back home when yet another flock of around 15 birds landed in some silver birch in the mid-distance. Shouts of Two-barred Croossbill echoed around the forest as the flock flew up into some pines. And there, perched high on its own was the male Two-barred Crossbill!


A male Two-barred Crossbill at Hemsted Forest
Amazingly, my fourth from three locations in just over a month. I'm not sure how or why I have such luck with this rarity, but for some reason I rarely dip this bird! So a hat-trick of Crossbill species in one visit. Can't asked for better than that.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

TWO-BARRED CROSSBILL AT LEITH HILL

Birdwatching in Surrey is hardcore. By that I mean it's harder work finding decent birds to view compared to many other parts of the country. The Shetland Isles, Scilly Isles, Cornwall, East Yorkshire coast, Norfolk coast, Kent coast and Sussex coast – to name but a few regions – all have an abundance of rare birds to see during the year.

In Surrey, the rarest bird sightings this year has been a fleeting Roller (see by one observer after the bird had dropped into Thursley Common on its way out of Hampshire one morning), a couple of Red-rumped Swallow and a fly-over Red-footed Falcon.

Scarcities include one Red-backed Shrike, Great Grey Shrike, Wryneck, Great White Egret, Yellow-browed Warbler, Temminck's Stint, a few fly-over Spoonbill, a possible Pectoral Sandpiper and a couple of Common Crane. Great birds and sounds like a reasonable list, but only four were realistically twitchable – the Red-rumped Swallow, Red-backed Shrike, Temminck's Stint and Great Great Grey Shrike. In short, meagre pickings for the year so far.

In this land-locked county I live in we get very excited by birds seen regularly on the coast – a wayward Great, Arctic, or far better better, Long-tailed Skua. A Gannet, Kittiwake, Sandwich or Little Tern will get us running to the local patch. A Rock Pipit I saw at Staines Reservoir last week made my day.

So rare treats are hard to come by, and as a result Surrey birders are probably less blasé about even fairly common species than some other county birders.

I say this having read a blog the other day in which a fine Sussex coast blogger who, commenting on the fact a Yellow-browed Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher that morning had only showed very briefly to observers present, questioned why it was worth bothering with this pastime on such days!

I can't recall when the last Red-breasted Flycatcher appeared in Surrey but it must be some years ago, and Yellow-broweds only appear a couple of times a year at the very most, so even a tiny glimpse would be gold dust to us! He really should come over the border for a few days birding here to see how the other half live...

The sighting this morning of a female Two-barred Crossbill – perched high on a dead branch of an oak tree on Leith Hill – was, therefore, diamond-studded.

At the end of July, when Two-barred Crossbills were appearing in Yorkshire and Norfolk, a female was seen with a flock of about 150 Crossbills near Redlands Farm, just south of Dorking, on the slopes of Leith Hill in Redlands Forest. I'm not sure who found it, but it wasn't seen again until this week.

This time the Two-barred Crossbill was higher up on Leith Hill next to the Coldharbour Cricket Club pitch. For those who haven't been to the area before and are planning a visit, it's a remarkable spot.

The Two-barred Crossbill favours a pair of oak trees just behind the cricket club pavilion
Coldharbour Cricket Club – high up on Leith Hill
When you drive into the village, it's hard to imagine there being a cricket pitch anywhere amongst the dense woodland and steep slopes. But just past the Plough Inn, forking right off the lane is a track that runs up the hill for 300 yards on to a plateau, where the cricket pitch sits nearly 900ft up, surrounded by National Trust woodland, with a great view across the Weald towards the Sussex coast. It is here, just behind the pavilion, where there is a small pool the Crossbills come to drink at most mornings. The birds fly over in small groups and land in the trees nearby, favouring a couple of oak trees and an adjacent pine, before dropping down to the pool.

The Leith Hill twitchers: (from left to right)
Gerry Hinchon, Sam Bayley, Bob Warden, Dave Harris and Graham Osborne
After a brief recce yesterday afternoon, I arrived at sunrise this morning, and met local warden Sam Bayley. Not long after Dave Harris arrived, as well as 'Captain' Bob Warden, Gerry Hinchon and Graham Osborne. The wind had picked up and it was bitingly cold.


There have been Crossbills present in the area for many months
We set up scopes and binoculars for what was basically a birding stake-out. A case of waiting, watching and hoping. Plenty of Crossbills came and went in groups of six to ten, as did the odd Siskin. A few Redwing flew over, as did a Sparrowhawk.

It took two hours, with fingers numb from the cold, before a promising group of more than 20 Crossbills arrived from the south-east and flew into one of the oak trees, conveniently the one with dead branches poking out the top of it.

Gerry was the first to spot it – having watched a potential candidate for a couple of minutes – as it perched higher up on a dead branch. Bingo! The female Two-barred Crossbill showed really well for about a minute before flying off east with the flock.




The female Two-barred Crossbill perched up high to show well
This was a Surrey first for each of us present, a proper rarity to enjoy, and after much back-slapping and hand-shaking we suddenly forgot how cold we were.

The Leith Hill area is underwatched, probably because it covers a vast area, but its potential is obvious. During the past couple of days up to five Ring Ouzel fed on Rowan berries nearby (none today) and a Grasshopper Warbler was trapped.

Wood Warbler have bred here in the past (unfortunately not this year) as do Woodlark. During the winter numerous Mealy Redpoll get caught in the nets, as are Brambling. 

The Two-barred Crossbill, meanwhile, has been present in the area since the end of July. Hopefully, it will stay long enough for more people to enjoy during the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

BOOTING IT IN THE HOPE OF A BOOTED WARBLER

I'd been debating whether to go to Cliffe Pools to see the Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday (looked like a tricky twitch) when a Booted Warbler popped up on Rare Bird Alert in the morning. It was seen at Hope Gap near Seaford and while it was a working week it was still just about possible to twitch after my wife Annie's 4pm hospital appointment in Guildford.

Let me digress for a moment. Having developed asthma virtually from nowhere about 18 months ago, Annie has been wading through what is the NHS behemoth in the hope to finding a medication or treatment to control it. This is particularly important considering some of her work is as a voice-over and this condition has changed her voice. Not good.

While the concept behind the NHS is wonderful, in practice it can be an utter nightmare. To say it can run at a snail's pace at times is an understatement, particularly with an ailment or condition that, while not life-threatening, can cause a great deal of discomfort and make you feel downright miserable.

Cancelled appointments have been commonplace, with gaps in between of more than a couple of months. These have been due to secretaries on holiday, consultants away or on vacation, or moving from one placement to another hospital. While you're at it add a few cock-ups in between. There has, therefore, been little continuity.

The one area that has been very good has been the speech therapy department which has helped Annie change the way she breathes. The asthma had caused her to breath higher up her airways but now she has developed a method of breathing that uses her diaphragm more. All interesting stuff, and it has helped, but in truth 18 months on she is no closer to a treatment to make her more comfortable.

So when I suggested we should drive for an hour and a half to Seaford, she was surprisingly up for it, the incentive being some sea air.

It was going to be tight though. By the time we got through the rush-hour traffic, learner drivers and tractors the light was starting to fade. Hope Gap is a fabulous spot on the Sussex coastline. It dips into a U-shape valley where there are numerous bushes and shrubs ideal for migrants on the move to feed and to rest. There is also a car park at the end of Chyngton Lane at South Hill Barn just to the north which takes the effort out of walking along the cliffs to get to it.

We parked up just after 6pm and walked down the pathway where we could see a group of birders peering into bushes. One of them, predictably, was David Campbell, aka Devilbirder, twitching the Booted Warbler after his first day at Brighton University.

We were lucky because the bird had disappeared from view for a few hours during the afternoon but was ready for an early evening feeding session and had become active again. Within a few minutes the Booted Warbler appeared on some brambles in front of us. It was quite close, easy to see even with the naked eye, and very active. A smart individual, it would perch up clearly visible and showing well for a few seconds before dropping out of sight again. It flew around the area for the next 20 minutes as the light dropped appreciably. My photos were hopeless in the low light so David generously allowed me to use a couple of his from the evening.


Fortunately the Booted Warbler showed well during the early evening (Photos: David Campbell)
When it then few low across the bushes and dived into the undergrowth it was clear that was going to be it for the evening but we had seen this rarity for a good few minutes.

We had an enjoyable walk back to the car with David, catching up with news and general birding gossip before setting off back home via an excellent fish and chip shop in Seaford.

I was planning to pay Hope Gap another visit today if the Warbler had stayed for another 12 hours but, as was always likely, it had gone by morning.

Instead I spent the afternoon in Surrey and travelled to Staines Reservoir for the first time in at least a couple of months. Target bird here was a Rock Pipit, first found by Bob Warden a couple of days earlier, but not seen today. Rock Pipits have been on the move in numbers this past week and seeing as this is a coastal bird, an inland sighting is as good as a rarity.

There were plenty of Wigeon on the north basin and Pied Wagtail on the causeway. A few Meadow Pipit flew overhead but there was one Pipit that caught my eye. Luck struck again as I caught sight of the Rock Pipit. Much darker than the Meadow Pipits it preferred to hang around the banking of the causeway on the north basin and stopped at one point for a wash. A great Surrey tick! In some ways I was more pleased to have found this relatively common bird than twitching the Booted Warbler, mostly because I'd found it my own.


Rock Pipit at Staines Reservoir
From Staines I set off for Tice's Meadow to twitch a Little Stint that had been present since the weekend. Tice's top birder Dave Baker tweeted me to confirm it was still on the patch. I arrived at 5pm and met up with Dave, who had just arrived, and he promptly relocated the Little Stint. The light was too low, the bird too small and distant to be worth taking a digiphoto of it but it was an excellent second Surrey rarity of the afternoon. A Dunlin was another decent wader sighting.

We were soon joined by patch lieutenant Rich Horton and Rich Sergeant, who'd dipped it yesterday, and after plenty of birding banter I headed off home.

Monday, 23 September 2013

PEACEFUL LESSER GREY AND ROSE-COLOURED AFTERNOON, FOLLOWED BY THUNDEROUS MOTORSPORT EVENING

Since my trip to Spurn there's not been much time for any other trips out. I haven't checked out the local patch either, although from reports sent to me during the past few weeks it has been relatively quiet apart from one Whinchat and the odd Yellow Wagtail.

A week earlier I had been down to Margate to meet up with my parents and on the way back dropped in at Oare Marshes just after sunset to see the smart Spotted Crake feeding close by the East Hide.

Spotted Crake at Oare Marshes at dusk (hence the rubbish photo)
At the weekend, however, I had another opportunity to spend a day out in the field. I was going to the Brisca F1 World Stock Car final on Saturday evening (I've been a stock car fan since I was kid and wrote a book on the subject about 15 years ago, but due to other commitments such as birding, I don't go as much as I used to), so travelled to King's Lynn via the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts.

It was a bit of a long day as it turned out. I left the house at 6.30am and arrived back the following morning at 3.30am, but it ended up being worth it.

I'd seen earlier in the week that the Lesser Grey Shrike was still present in horse paddocks between Leiston and Sizewell in Suffolk. There didn't seem much chance this rarity would stick around by the weekend, but I thought I'd set off in that direction just in case – thankfully, a sighting was confirmed at 8.25am.

I turned up about an hour later, and it wasn't long before I was watching the Lesser Grey Shrike perched on a fence post. For the less observant birders, like myself, it looked remarkably like a Great Grey Shrike, and if I'd been on my own I would have presumed that was what it was. I was met with stony silence when I suggested this to those around me.

After close study as it flew around the area feeding, I noted it was smaller than its cousin and had no white on the wing coverts and a greyer head and back. A handsome specimen whatever the description.






The handsome Lesser Grey Shrike near Sizewell
So a good start to the morning. I spent an hour with the Shrike before heading off for Sizewell Beach to see the remarkably confiding Arctic Skua that had become a fixture on the beach next to the nuclear power station.




The Arctic Skua at Sizewell Beach allowed observers to approach to within 15 metres
Right on cue the Arctic Skua was there standing on the beach. You could approach to within at least 15 metres and it wouldn't flinch. It would occasionally fly off to pester a few gulls around a platform about 200 metres out at sea but would soon fly back to its favoured spot on the beach. Some people are suggesting the bird is partially oiled up so that's why it stays put for so long, but it doesn't look particularly hindered when flying around and appears to be quite agile. Let's hope it's fine, anyway.

Sizewell Beach is a popular birding spot. There were at least ten Little Gull bobbing about on the water and a pair of Black Redstart were flitting around the perimeter wall surrounding the power station where a Peregrine was perched high up.

With time getting on I skipped a visit to Minsmere just up the road and headed off instead for Castier-on-Sea, just to the north of Great Yarmouth.

After a really pleasant drive around the edge of the Norfolk Broads I arrived at Castier by about 2pm. The target bird here was a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling. There were a couple of birders in the car park scanning the rooftops where a large flock of about 200 Starling were perched. It was going to be a needle-in-a-haystack job but the Rose-coloured Starling was soon picked up. Not exactly rose-coloured like an adult male, it was still another life tick for me.


Rose-coloured Starling at Castier-on-sea
After another hour watching the flock of Starlings I set off for King's Lynn, where 8,000 stock car fans had migrated for the highlight of the 2013 Brisca F1 stock car season.


A large crowd flocked to see the Brisca F1 Stock Car World Final meeting at King's Lynn
In complete contrast to the gentle, relaxing afternoon, the evening was loud, brash and brutal. The cars – single-seater, purpose-built, Chevy V8-engined, 700 brake horse-powered monsters – were loud, colourful and spectacular as always, and the action incredibly fast and frantic.

I caught up with a few mates I hadn't seen for sometime including some of the drivers, notably former world champion Rob Speak. He finished seventh in the big one behind Tom Harris, who was in a league of his own on the night. To my mind there is no other motorsport that can compare to Brisca F1 stock car racing for drama and excitement.

video

The evening ended with great sadness, however. After the racing a Dutch fan was killed when hit by a minibus outside the stadium when crossing the road. She was only 32 and had a young child. A stark and tragic reminder of how delicate life can be and how much we must cherish every minute of every day.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

SPURN TRIP DAY THREE – VIS-MIG

Sunrise over the North Sea
The third and final day of my visit to Spurn arrived in a flash. A complete contrast to the previous two days – not a breath of wind and at some points during the morning it was gloriously sunny and warm.

Another visit to the Seawatch hide, this time for a spot of vis-migging. The light winds were perfect for it and I met up with Ian Whitehouse who was logging the numbers as they flew over during the morning.

Ian Whitehouse keeps a log of the morning's vis-mig
Predominantly Meadow Pipits, more than 1,500, were logged during the first hour and a half with a total of 2,900 by the end of the morning. Mipits were packing the scrub and bushes by the observatory, plus there were plenty of Yellow Wagtails coming over, Grey Wagtails and the odd Whinchat. Highlight of the morning migration was a Merlin that flew over the observatory at about 7.15am.

Out at sea the most interesting sight was of an Arctic Skua pursuing a gull close in to the shoreline as it tried to force the gull to regurgitate its meal.

The Seawatch hide at Spurn – a fantastic setting
I went back to the Crown and Anchor for breakfast and then took a walk around the triangle. There was a lot more activity with the improved weather, nothing mind-blowingly rare poked its head out of the bushes, but it was still pleasant with Meadow Pipits everywhere, plus Reed Bunting, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaff.

Shelduck over the Humber Estuary
The tide had come in so the waders had dispersed, but there were at least 30 Shelduck on the Humber. The Red-backed Shrike was busy chasing insects over at Southfield Farm, where a couple of Corn Bunting had been seen in the willows – I couldn't locate them – while further up Easington Road a Spotted Flycatcher was perched on a telephone wire.

The juvenile Red-backed Shrike was a regular feature during the three days
A Spotted Flycatcher on the overhead wires along Easington Road
After the walk I headed off for Kilnsea Wetlands in the hope of seeing the three Little Stint that had been there on and off for a few days. Unfortunately I timed my visit while a Sparrowhawk was in the area and they had flown off. Plenty of waders were on the scrape, including a few Greenshank and also one of six Curlew Sandpiper had stuck around, as had a Ruff, to more than make up for the Stints' disappearance. On the way back to the car, having bumped into Matt, Sean and Steve, we spotted a Tree Sparrow up on the wires.

The Spurn Point trek at the halfway point
Time was getting on so I grasped the nettle and decided to walk down to Spurn Point and back. A trudge of about five miles all told. It wasn't too arduous as it turned out, but it was still disappointingly quiet on the migrant front. A huge number of waders were on the mudflats, including Golden and Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Redshank and Knot.

There were huge numbers of waders feeding on the Humber mud as the tide went out
Sanderling feeding with Redshank
Another Wheatear skipped down the track in front of me, but unlike a couple of weeks ago, there were no Wrynecks, Greenish Warbler or Subalpine Warbler, but I did see a large Warbler, which I hoped would turn out to be a Barred Warbler, in some scrub but before I could get my scope focused, it flew off across the spit and into another bush, never to be seen again.

A lone Wheatear along the track towards Spurn Point
The Spurn Point lighthouse
On the way back from the lighthouse I saw four Whinchat, but further north Matt, Sean and Steve had located a Pied Flycatcher at the observatory. This was unbeknown to me as my mobile had run out of battery so I hadn't picked up the message – which was maybe just as well as I was still a good 30 minutes away.
One of four Whinchat near Spurn Point
When I eventually got back to the Obs I met up with the three guys and apart from Sean who had originally located it, they hadn't really been able to get a decent view of what was a very mobile Pied Fly. Reports had also come in that there had been another one seen with a Common Redstart further up the road along the footpath at the end of Beacon Lane in a hedge.

While the lads stuck around hunting for the Pied Fly at the Obs I headed off for Beacon Lane, where I soon picked up the female Common Redstart. I texted Matt and soon after the four of us were looking for a Flycatcher. The Redstart had disappeared into a hedge just as Sean approached.

Matt Phelps, Steve Penn and Sean Foote on the lookout for a Pied Flycatcher
There was little to see for a good 20 minutes, and locating the Pied Fly was also hindered by the fact that the bird had dropped down into the grounds of a house. Using binoculars while peering down the driveway was a bit awkward as the residence could clearly see us through their living room patio doors, so Sean and I thought it prudent to stop looking there as it was a bit of an intrusion. But then Matt suddenly saw a prime candidate appear briefly out of the hedge before diving back into the undergrowth again.

Steve then locked on to what he thought was a Chaffinch with its back to us high up on an overhead wire. A quick scan revealed it to be a female Pied Flycatcher! Absolutely brilliant. This has been a bogey bird of mine for some time so to actually get a decent view of one at the end of my last day at Spurn was fantastic.

Sean Foote relocates the Pied Flycatcher along Beacon Lane
It soon flew down into the trees and we lost sight of it. Sean then went off to look along the hedges next to the caravan park and his perserverance paid off as he managed to relocate it. The Pied Fly was very mobile and didn't keep still for long and after a few minutes it flew up the lane and out of sight again.

With that we went back to the Obs for what would be a final session of seawatching over a calm sea. Taking a well-earned rest in a chair by the hide we lazily gazed out to sea before I made plans to head back south to Surrey.

It proved worthwhile. While the usual Common Scoter, Little Gull, Kittiwake, Razorbill and Red-throated Divers drifted by Sean locked on to a Skua lazily flying north. After careful study he announced it to be a juvenile Pomarine Skua! What a result at the end of the day and a great seabird lifer for me. We also saw three probable Poms flying south before we finished.

And so ended my visit to a magnificent birdwatching site. I couldn't have wished for more, really. OK, no megas like the Great Snipe that turned up two days later along Beacon Lane to get the pulses racing, but still a great variety of birdlife and a wonderful birding experience. I met some great people and enjoyed excellent company during three days. I can't wait to go back.

Highlights during the three days:
Pale-bellied Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter
Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Red-necked Grebe
Merlin
Curlew Sandpiper
Pomarine Skua
Arctic Skua
Possible Long-tailed Skua
Great Skua
Little Gull
Red-backed Shrike
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Common Redstart
Whinchat
Wheatear
Tree Sparrow
Tree Pipit
Plus Two-barred Crossbill (Broomhead Reservoir)

Dips during the three days:
Storm-petrel
Sabine's Gull
Little Stint
Purple Sandpiper
Corn Bunting