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, 27 February 2013

NEITHER RAINHAM NOR SHINE

Having looked at the list of posts I've created on this blog I notice the frequency has dropped considerably year on year. Two years ago I wrote 17 posts during the first two months of the year, 13 last year, and this is the tenth for 2013.

Pretty poor effort. It also reflects the depressing fact that I get out less month on month. The way things are going I'll eventually have plenty of free time but be too old to take advantage of it.

Some of the reason is work and some is guilt.

Having plenty of work when you are a freelance is fine – good news even – and when I work up in London now and again it makes me appreciate how lucky I am to have variety. Only occasionally do I have to take part in the dreadful London commute. I really wonder how people keep their sanity travelling up to town and back each day in a crowded train and similarly packed-out tube. It's also knackering doing that every day.

For the past 12 years I have worked most of the time from home and sometimes in London. Working from home means you aren't tied to a desk all day unless deadlines are looming. But it also means you can end up working all night if you have to – but that I really don't mind because I don't have to travel anywhere once I've finished.

The downside is temptation. To peer out of the window and see the sun is shining and there's a couple of Black Redstart and a male Hen Harrier at Rainham Marshes with your name on them and you can't find a reasonable enough excuse to drop everything and grab the scope and belt round the M25 to sate your birding needs. That sort of temptation.

I've even opted to work in a room with the windows blacked out. Seriously. What was the dining room is now an area where Annie does her voice-over work, so the windows have sound-proofing foam over them. Therefore, I am oblivious to the weather. It could be sheeting down with rain for all I know. Temptation dampened.

But I knew the sun had appeared today and I really wanted to go to Rainham, but I blew it the day before.

I went to Rainham yesterday instead, and what a complete and utter disaster that was.

I blame the Met Office. Is it me or is weather forecasting these days worse at predicting the weather than 20 years ago? Even Michael Fish didn't get it wrong as often as they do now. Last night the forecast said it would be cloudy all day, similar to yesterday, with the chance of drizzle. What happened? The thick cloud thinned, the sun broke through and the end of the day resulted in blue skies.

I went to Rainham yesterday because I thought the weather would be as bad for some time. But yesterday really was one of the gloomiest days on record. Cold, damp, grey, dark. Horrible.

The thing is I hadn't be out for a proper birding sortie for two and a half weeks. An eternity. I'd managed to convince Annie that our walk late on Saturday afternoon should include Papercourt Meadows so we were able to see three Barn Owls in action hunting late on – the most Barns Owls I've ever seen in one place.

Then prior to setting off to Rainham I had another go at that Firecrest at Banstead Golf Course. Such a glutton for punishment, but amazingly, after two hours I did eventually see it – although observers of the Higgs boson probably had longer views than I had of this incredibly elusive little basta.., I mean, bird.

The drive to Rainham wasn't good. The traffic through Dartford Tunnel had built up considerably, and to make matters worse I wasn't sure of the best place to stop once I got to Fleet Lane. By now it was getting late.

In the end, as it transpires, I had parked in the correct place, but hadn't walk far enough along the path from the barges on the river. A couple of Water Pipit, plenty of Redshank, but no Black Redstarts. Idiot.

The weather was dire, and the view later through the mist over the Marsh was very poor. No sign of the Hen Harrier. So, in a mood, I left for home knowing I'd wasted an opportunity. It was the wrong day to take a chance.

The drive back was even worse as it was 4.30pm and the congestion over Dartford Bridge meant it took forever just to pay the two quid for the pleasure of driving over it. I got home at about 6pm, knowing that politically (if you know what I mean) any other expeditions would probably now have to wait until next week. That knowledge in itself is depressing.

I looked online and low and behold:


Now, I'm not a religious person in any shape of form, but I'm beginning to wonder whether there is some pattern emerging. I choose a day when I should stay at home, the weather is rubbish, I spend too long driving rather than birding and I miss what I want to see. The following day the weather is great and the Black Redstarts, Hen Harrier and 45 Waxwings all come out to enjoy the sunshine. If I go to work at the Post on a Saturday the weather is always lovely, and the following day? It's crap again. A conspiracy, I say.

I know it could be far, far worse (before anyone points that out). The guys who travelled to Shetland this week and dipped the Pine Grosbeak – now that is torture in extremis. The joys of long-distance twitching. I really felt for those guys.

One bit of good news (really! There is some). It was such a nice afternoon, some fresh air was too irresistible, so we went for a walk at Denbies Vineyard near Dorking. It was late so nothing too arduous was planned.

Along the walk at the western end of the vineyard (the Ranmore Common end) I got brilliant views of a Raven, my first for Surrey this year, perched in a tree just 20 metres away. It then flew low down in the valley and circled the treeline.

Some of the best moments are often those that are unplanned.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

BIRDING BLOGS AND A BOLD BONAPARTE'S GULL ON THE SUSSEX COAST

Birding blogs. These were the topic of local birder and pan-species specialist Steve Gale on his well-crafted latest posting. He brings up an interesting discussion point about the modern-day birding experience.

In the past, before the internet and pagers, birding was a voyage into the unknown, laced with anticipation and a fair amount of uncertainty.

Nowadays, almost everyone knows exactly where the majority of rare birds are within minutes of their discovery via pagers and Twitter, and in most cases very detailed directions to lead you by the nose to the exact place to see them from dawn until dusk on any day of the week.

To Steve this has taken much of the mystique, magic and excitement out of birding. Birding in the 21st century now takes little or no skill for the average birder to see very rare or unusual birds anywhere in Britain. 

I can appreciate how this can be thought of as a sad state of affairs for those who have earned their spurs by garnering a wealth of knowledge through years of experience. The spiritual aspect of birdwatching is under threat.

In effect, an idiot who doesn’t know what a Coot is can see hundreds of unusual birds each year just by turning up at the right place at the right time having read about it on their pager.

But is this such a bad thing? Probably not.

It means birding is accessible to all, not just a relatively small group of enthusiasts. Modern technology has certainly helped me enjoy many a trip to see a lifer. I’ve also dipped quite a few…

The other discussion point on Steve’s post described how this lack of spirituality has migrated into a lack of originality in birding blogs – many just report on the birds seen on any given day and don’t add anything interesting to read along with it (I'm a culprit). 

I, like Steve, crave originality. That’s why I enjoy reading Jonathan Lethbridge’s blog, because, apart from publishing stunning photographs, he has the ability to make you laugh, even with a caption for a photo. Writing witty prose is very hard to do well unless the writer has a natural affinity for it. Jonathan writes it with ease.

My other favourite blog, and probably the one I looked forward to reading the most, was Tom McKinney’s. Brutally funny, but alas, after posting his brilliant birding novella called The Greatest Lie Ever Told, he stopped writing.

There are other birding blogs I read because they give useful information, but on the whole there is a dearth of high-quality entertaining birding blogs.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that this blog is original, funny or informative. It is none of those things, but if readers get something out of it then all well and good. I’m doing it for free after all (as my wife often reminds me). 

Now on to predictable birding tales and a return to being self-obsessed. 

Thursday. Bonaparte’s Gull day.

What made this gull appealing was that it was reported to be easy to view. Like many rare birds I've seen lately, this American vagrant appeared to be indifferent to close human observation. It has been seen regularly during the past few weeks on a small lake in Princes Park in Eastbourne a recreational park with gardens and a play area for kids in the town itself, just 50 yards from the beach.


The gull often joins in with the Black-headed and Herring Gulls on the lake when people throw bits of bread for the ducks and Mute Swans. It had a habit of going missing for hours but had recently been a regular visitor to the lake. The sun was out and although it had yet to be seen that morning I headed off to Eastbourne.

The Bonaparte's Gull was comfortable venturing close to onlookers
The Bonaparte's Gull is distinctly smaller than its Black-headed relative
I was aware of a few birders in the park when I arrived and it took just a few seconds after walking along the lake edge (having been nipped by a swan as I walked past it) to spot the Bonaparte’s Gull.

The only half-decent image comparing the Bonaparte's Gull (rear) with a Black-headed Gull
It swam to within a few feet and was easy to distinguish from a Black-headed Gull. It was smaller, paler and its beak was finer and black. When it flew, it was clearly paler and had a finer black leading edge on the underside of its wings. When it landed on the water’s edge, it had pink legs compared to the Black-headed Gull’s red legs (I noticed on Wikipedia that the description for the Bonaparte’s Gull had its legs as red in colour, so I changed it).

I stayed for a good hour, managed a few decent digiscope photos and headed home. All very straightforward and satisfying.

Yesterday was wet and cold and was all about catching up with local winter birds. At Staines Reservoir I met up with a few people, including Ken Purdey and Frank Clarke, and while there caught up with a male Scaup, Black-necked Grebe, Green Sandpiper, Dunlin and, after having a chat with the guys who walk the basins, a Mediterranean Gull on the far edge of the north basin, perched on a rooftop.

After a fruitless trip to Tilford (where the woodland habitat has been decimated by enthusiastic felling) searching for a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker, I ended up at Thursley Common. Here I was hoping for a few Dartford Warbler, but alas, I couldn’t find one, but I did have distant views of the Great Grey Shrike, as well as a couple of Woodlark. The Woodlark brought me up to 100 birds for Surrey for the year.


On the way home I dropped in at Onslow village, near Guildford, where 17 Waxwings were still feeding on apples in a residential garden in Ellis Avenue. One can never tire of seeing Waxwings.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

BLACK-BELLIED DIPPER DELIGHT

Blame Jonathan Lethbridge. His blog convinced me it was worth the trip to see the Black-bellied Dipper at Thetford. Like Jono, I had found all sorts of reasons not to go to see the Black-bellied Dipper. For one thing it was a bit far for me as twitches go, but then it wasn't one full of risks. Norfolk is a couple of hours from Surrey on a good run and there are plenty of interesting birds currently to see closer by, including the Bonaparte's Gull in Eastbourne.

But having read Jono's blog and knowing full well this bird has been showing really well for weeks, I didn't want to end up missing out and regret not going. So I went earlier this week and was glad to have made the effort. I just knew the trip would be worthwhile.

It was easy to find. Park up by the Three Nuns Bridges on the River Thet, walk over the bridge and head straight on over another small wooden bridge, turn left around the edge of a muddy field and there on a small, fast-flowing stream perched on some dead wood and singing was the Black-bellied Dipper.




Poor photos considering what a perfect poser the Black-bellied Dipper was
What a fascinating and handsome little bird. Full of personality, it would perch, bobbing up and down and blinking with its distinctive white feathered eyelid. It would dip its head in the water looking out for food, and would swim and then dive under as it caught its next meal. Never far away from view - just 40 feet away at worst – it was one of those birds you could sit and watch for hours.

video

video

I took a few digiscope photos but they were massively disappointing as the light was low and none of the pictures came out very sharply. It didn't really matter though. It was yet another confiding rare bird to enjoy.

Next stop – the Eastbourne Bonaparte's Gull. More on that to follow.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

GREAT NORTHERN DIVER AND BEARDED TIT TRIP

It was one of those days when I wasn't sure where to go. I didn't have a plan. If there had been snow and sub-zero temperatures, I would have headed to the local patch at Holmethorpe, followed by Beddington. But it was a breezy, occasionally sunny day with few places nearby that appealled.

In the end I went to Staines Reservoir to catch up with the Great Northern Diver, a regular visitor to the reservoir, seen yesterday for the first time at Staines this year. The icy cold wind blowing from the north was particularly unpleasant, but I met up with Bob Warden and Adrian Luscombe, both of whom I hadn't seen for quite a while, and they pointed out the Diver in the distance out on the south basin. It was difficult to see looking into the sun.

The Scaup were too far away on the north basin to pick out, and there was no sign of the Black-necked Grebe either.

The Diver disappeared from view pretty much as soon as I located it and after a while Bob headed off to Homewood Park, near Chertsey, to look for a pair of Wood Duck Franco Mareovic had seen a few days before, while Adrian had to head home soon after.

I headed off up the causeway to see if I could relocate the Diver and soon enough I found it much closer to the causeway. Normally it is hard to see Divers for very long as they spend so much time underwater searching for fish. You can be scanning the water and not see a thing even you are looking in the right place.



Great Northern Diver on Staines Reservoir
On this occasion the Great Northern Diver was having a break, preening itself and generally just cruising around doing very little. It was nearby so I had really good views of it. So with that and a closer look at more than 30 Goldeneye I headed off to Chertsey to see if I could find the Wood Duck – which I couldn't.

I saw my first Treecreeper of the year, 15 Siskins and Kevin Duncan, who was having a quick walk around the area.

I contemplated going over to the quarry close to the Queen Mother Reservoir to see if the Buff-bellied Pipits were still there, but that was likely to prove fruitless, and I even thought about going to Eastbourne in the vain hope of seeing the Bonaparte's Gull – a regular feature at Princes Park this past week or so – but it hadn't been seen for a couple of days.

So, in the end I went to Hyde Park to see the two juvenile Bearded Tit. At least I could guarantee seeing these lovely birds close up. I went back to Redhill via dipping the Firecrest at Banstead Golf Course for the umpteenth time and caught the train to Victoria.

At the other end the Tube was a nightmare – like an extremely busy Monday morning rush hour – as the Circle and District line was closed. Everyone had to travel via the Victoria line if they wanted to head west.

Juvenile Bearded Tit feeding on the Diana Memorial reeds on the Serpentine
No matter. I got to Knightsbridge by 2pm and it wasn't long before I was enjoying watching the two Bearded Tit feeding in the Diana Memorial reed bed on the Serpentine. The area was very busy with plenty of tourists and people going for an afternoon walk. The two juvenile birds seemed totally unaware of anything going on around them, including plenty of birders taking photographs and onlookers asking questions. A worthwhile visit.

In the meantime, the Bonaparte's Gull reappeared in Eastbourne and a Buff-bellied Pipit turned up again at the Kingsmead Quarry. Maybe next week.