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, 28 January 2014

BIRDING DURING A PERFECT STORM

What a day. Saturday started off well enough – discussing the RSPB Big Garden Watch on local radio first thing – but it went downhill soon after that.

A pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker had turned up at Beddington during the morning. They were in oak trees to the north of Bikers Field. Bikers Field is named thus because it is used by local lads to ride their trials bikes.

Bikers Field is also right at the far end of the site, so after parking the car in a residential area the walk up the path takes about half an hour. It's probably less, but it feels longer. It's a bit of a drag, to be honest. 

Once I got to the woods, I sort of knew it was going to be a waste of time. The bikes had started up and were haring around the field. To make matters worse, a couple of them decided to tear around the woods while I was there. Any hopes of seeing a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker ended right there.

So, after a quick walk around mud-laden 100 acre, where I saw very little, I trudged back. All the gulls were round the back of the landfill with virtually none on the main lake. I left.

I then made the mistake of going to Banstead Golf Course again to try and find the pesky pair of Firecrests. I failed, obviously. So I set off home, where I picked up Annie and turned round and headed for Thursley Common, in the vain hope of finding the Great Grey Shrike and maybe a Dartford Warbler or two.

The weather at this point was pleasant enough. The sun was out, hardly any wind, and it was very mild.

I knew the weather was supposed to turn later in the day, but when we arrived at Thursley, at about 3pm, it was as though someone had flicked a switch to a different day. The wind had picked up, it was colder, and the clouds were closing in.

As we trudged along the boardwalks, the weather did slightly brighten, so instead of giving it up as a bad job we set off toward the tumulus, which I thought was the best place to look for the Shrike. On the way four Crossbill flew over. These, as it turned out, would be the highlight of the day.

At the tumulus I spotted a bird high up on a dead tree. It looked like a bird of prey, but I couldn't make it out. A Merlin perhaps? I chose to walk nearer to get a better view, but by then it had flown off. The Shrike was nowhere to be seen, if it had been there at all.

So, we turned round and headed back to the car...

It was when we had got to Pine Island that the weather took a turn for the worse. It suddenly went very dark, the wind turned gale force and in seconds we were in a ferocious hailstorm – and I mean ferocious, to the point of being alarming.

I didn't think it was a good idea to stay where we were, as the wind was so strong bits of branch could possibly fly off and end up hitting you.

So we walked on, like lambs to the slaughter.

As we gingerly made our way down the wet and slippery boardwalk to the car park, the wind got even stronger. We were so exposed. I felt as though I might even get swept off into the bog. Annie was quite scared by now, virtually hugging one of the pine trees along the walk to stop herself from being blown over. It was like being in a horror movie where a hapless couple are swallowed up by a storm and disappear forever into a swamp.

I was now more angry than anything else. There was no chance of seeing a Dartford Warbler in this!

Fortunately, the trees along this part of the reserve are pretty sturdy, although I didn't want to hang around for too long to find out otherwise. By the time we got back on to terra firma the wind had dropped.

Back in the car, we were soaked but relieved. And then the skies cleared and all was quiet again.

It was almost as if someone had done it deliberately.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

SCRAMBLING FOR BRAMBLING

The one good thing about winter is that birding starts later than during the summer. I'm not renowned for being an early riser – I'm more of a night bird, happy to stay up late and then struggle to get out of bed in the morning. 

Obviously, as far as birding is concerned, that's not the right way round. I should go to bed early and get up early. My work patterns tend to mean that if I'm at work in London at Racing Post or the Daily Star I get home by about 9pm and by the time I've eaten and begun to relax for the evening it's already gone 11pm.

So invariably I'll be in bed by 1am, or later. On Sunday night, for example, I watched the NFC Conference final between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Fransisco 49ers game, hoping for a 49ers victory. It was a brilliant game of blood, sweat and tears, but it was the Seahawks to went through to the Super Bowl in a fortnight to take on the Denver Broncos. The game didn't finish until gone 2.30am. The morning arrived too quickly.

In the summer, if I'm to have any hope of getting out early, bedtime has to be pre-midnight. It is usually worth it though. There are few more uplifting sights than watching the sun rise on a beautiful, warm, summer's day.

4am starts. I'm glad I don't do that every day. It's tiring being a birder sometimes – and that doesn't include all the bloody walking you can end up doing.

This week walking hasn't entered the equation, thank goodness. I visited Beddington yesterday afternoon after a tweet notified me of a Glaucous Gull on the main lake at around midday. It's a simple stroll. I was the only one on site once I got there at around 1.30pm.

Not being a brilliant gull id expert it was always going to be hard going panning through all the birds on the lake and the bank to the side of the landfill. I thought I'd found the Glauc just before I had to leave, but I think what I saw was the Iceland Gull before it took off again with about three million other gulls. I've added a couple of very poor digiscope shots, but I don't think it helps that much.

Iceland Gull?
So, not much to see in the end, so I opted for an early start this morning and went back. I woke to a blanket of fog, but luckily it lifted by the time I arrived at Beddington just before 8am.

Dodge and Frank were at the hide – Dodge was more interested in looking at the early morning sun through the mist, inspecting it for sunspots, of which a few were found.

Sun spots over Beddington
Most of the gulls were either on one of the flooded beds behind the main lake or on the landfill, out of sight to us. Once again the Glaucous Gull proved elusive. Frank found an adult Mediterranean Gull on the lake, and three Pintail flew in. A pair of Wigeon, a Shelduck and a probable second Great crested Grebe for the year (a Beddington mega) were the other highlights.

Drake Pintail on the main lake
Adult Mediterranean Gull
With the weather quiet for the past two days – no rain or wind for once – it was too much of a temptation not to go out again later in the afternoon. With the sun low on the horizon, the only real option was to go to Crooksbury Common to watch the large flock of Brambling fly in to roost.

It was a bit of a scramble, but Annie and I just got there in time.

More than 100 Brambling have been roosting
at Crooksbury Common this winter
Crooksbury Common is probably the best and most reliable site for seeing Brambling in Surrey. Large flocks of Brambling and Chaffinch roost in the bushes alongside the walkway each winter. This year it appears to be mainly Brambling – more than 100 – with only a few Chaffinch for company. A great sight.

For those who haven't been to the Common, it appears to be a difficult place to find for some. The easiest directions I can give is to head through Elstead from the A3, continue through the village and over the bridge. After the bridge, take the second right turn, signposted for Seale, and continue along this lane for a mile or so until the wooded area on the left clears. There is a rough track that heads towards a very small parking area.

If you end up at a crossroads with signs to Cutt Mill to your right, you've driving too far. once you've parked up, head up the path for 150 yards and the Brambling roost in the trees on your right.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

IN SEARCH OF THE BEDDINGTON ICELAND GULL

Birding in January around Surrey is often one of the better months for decent birds. It's also when everyone is full of hope and optimism and begin their year lists once again. The Glossy Ibis at Frensham last week was a great start to the year.

My first visit to Staines Reservoir for quite a few months on Sunday gave me the chance to meet up with Captain Bob and Adrian Luscombe, who I hadn't seen for sometime, but Simon Edward, who I'd been hoping to catch up with, had been to the Res the day before.

Plenty of birders about, including a Surrey Bird Club trip, led by Kev Duncan, and plenty of decent birds to see, although most were quite distant. The headliner was a Slavonian Grebe on the far western edge of the north basin, keeping company with some Tufted Ducks. The other highlights were a Scaup, Pintail and three Black-necked Grebe, although I only saw one of these.

A pleasant trip but as I left the weather began to close in and the wind had picked up.

A couple of days earlier a former Racing Post mate, Francis Kelly, had relocated what must be a long-staying Great Grey Shrike at Papercourt Meadows, having first been found in October by Matt Phelps.

It was a long shot but I thought I'd give it a go, wading through the mud and soggy ground, but predictably not a thing. Not too much around apart from three Stonechat and an excitable flock of Siskin perched up in the trees near the car park close by Newark Mill Bridge.

Today was another sunny start and Beddington was the venue. Beddington in winter is a prime site for gulls. I've seen Glaucous Gulls for the past two years in a row there, and Iceland Gulls are regular visitors, and it was an Iceland Gull that had been present on and off for a number of weeks I had come to see.

The problem is I'm rubbish at gull id and with thousands of gulls to sift through on the landfill, and a bird that looks very similar to plenty of other juvenile gulls, it was going to be tough.

Fortunately I arrived just at the same time local Beddington birder, Frank Prater, was planning to walk along the footpath to get a better view. If anyone can find a gull-type needle in a haystack, it is Frank.



Iceland Gull
He didn't disappoint. It took a bit of time but Frank found the Iceland Gull as it stood for a few minutes preening itself in among the carpet of gulls. Looking at it you could tell the difference quite distinctly but simply by scanning the area it easily merged in with the rest. I had been fortunate. As for locating a Caspian Gull, forget it.

A walk around 100 Acre and the silt beds didn't produce as much as I'd hoped. A couple of Shelduck and two Water Pipit, which I heard as they took flight but couldn't see through the glare of the sun.

Male Tree Sparrow
Back at the hide I waited successfully to see a couple of Tree Sparrow. These Sparrows are less in number than previous years which is a bit of a worry.

Despite obvious historic reservations, I drove home via Banstead Golf Course, where I predictably dipped the Firecrests again...  tiresome. I've come to the conclusion that years of watching loud motorsport has affected my hearing so that high-pitched sounds are inaudible to me. Didn't hear a thing.

So what next? I reckon the Two-barred Crossbill at Leith Hill is still about somewhere. Just need a few hours to try and find it. At least I can hear that.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

GREY PHALAROPE WINS CUTE AWARD

A strange setting for a rare bird. Swimming around without a care in the world – in a children's paddling pool by the seaside.


Hove was the place, a Grey Phalarope was the rare bird, and they don't come much cuter than this dainty little wader. Yet another bird that doesn't regard human beings as predators. As a consequence it was possible to get as close as a couple of feet away while it eagerly swam around the shallow pool.


A small group of birders turned up this morning, including a few eager photographers. Apparently, some prime Phalarope feed had been dropped into the water once it was clear it was happy to swim around the paddling pool rather than one of the two lagoons nearby.

My original concern was that it would be disturbed by families and dog-walkers, but the pool is gated off so it wasn't disturbed at all, apart from by birders.


A number of passers-by stopped to ask what the cute little bird was and what was it doing swimming around in a children's playground, and most cooed once they knew it was likely to have lost its way, blown off course by the storms, to be in Hove.



A bird worth seeing, if only to see a delicate little wader close up, before it moves on.

On the way home I dropped in at Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest, in the hope of catching up with the nine Parrot Crossbills seen there during the past week, but during the 90-minute visit the sum total was one female Reed Bunting. Annoying.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A THERAPEUTIC GLOSSY IBIS

I'd never arranged a funeral before so it was with a sense of relief that my Uncle Derek's final journey yesterday went as smoothly as it did.

He died at the end of November having only been diagnosed a few weeks earlier with leukaemia. As it turned out, that was treatable and he was put on tablets which would have kept him going for the rest of his life had it not then been discovered he had the advanced stages of lung cancer.

I won't dwell on what happened during that time, but suffice to say the quality of care he received before we managed to get him into a local hospice five days before he died was lamentable.

It was a palliative medical procedure to help free his airways that accelerated his death, as his body couldn't cope with the intervention. The end was swift, which was, in some ways, a blessing.

Whenever someone dies after a medical procedure, a post-mortem is required. This can take a few days, or if there is the need for an inquiry, a few weeks. So the funeral had to wait, and was compounded by Christmas, as the Thanet Crematorium was closed until January 2nd.

It also meant a lot of time to think about the music, hymns, speeches, order of service, words spoken by the lay preacher, timings, the wake. It was quite stressful, and I had a few weeks with it hanging over my head. It was important it went off without a hitch. I even started worrying that I'd got the date mixed up and that everyone would turn up on the day but coffin wouldn't.

I needn't have worried. It went pretty well. We were lucky in that Derek's funeral was the last of the day so there were less time constraints and so it didn't matter if we overran (which we did).  It was, hopefully, a fitting send off. The music reflected his love of music (he used to sing with a local concert party). 

So what has this got to do with a Glossy Ibis? Not a lot, but seeing this great Surrey tick on Sunday morning at Frensham in the flooded area next to the church was a good distraction. It took my mind of things for a few hours.

It had been seen briefly at first light, but I didn't arrive until after 9am. It then took an hour to find it, as the Glossy Ibis had taken to the air and disappeared for a while, but it was relocated by the church and excellent views were had, including in flight, as it took off again and circled the area before landing a bit further away. What a fine bird to have in Surrey. Sightings of Glossy Ibis in the county tend to be fleeting but this one has stayed for a few days.

Glossy Ibis at Frensham
To my mind, January is one of the best months of the year for Surrey birds. Something interesting invariably turns up. At Beddington there has been an Iceland Gull and Caspian Gull, the Great Grey Shrike is still on Thursley Common, while at Staines Reservoir there is a Scaup, the usual Black-necked Grebes and also a Slavonian Grebe. At Thorpe Park a Shag has stayed for a few days, while at Holmethorpe Sand Pits, three wintering Smew – a regular feature on the local patch at this time of year – were on Mercer's Lake.

All good stuff. After leaving Frensham I popped over to Cutt Mill Ponds with Captain Bob Warden and his gang where we saw 12 Goosander, including five handsome drakes on the water, plus three drake Mandarin. And then on the way home I caught up with the three redhead Smew at Holmethorpe.

I'm still uncertain what form my birding is going to take this year. Surrey year listing is less of a draw than it was. Once you start it's hard to stop and I don't need a straight jacket and the added pressure of chasing round the county just so I can tick off birds for a bloody list.

It can make you feel miserable if things don't go well. It just doesn't appeal as much. Birding is supposed to be fun. With that in mind, that Grey Phalarope down at Hove looks worth a trip out, and maybe those Parrot Crossbills at Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest...

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

THE 2013 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS AWARDS

As seems to be the norm, my Surrey birding in 2013 started off at a gallop, with some great sightings early on, but faded by the middle of the year until by November onwards it ground to a halt. It had the usual highs and lows – Merlin, Stone-curlew, Red-rumped Swallow, Ring Ouzel, and Two-barred Crossbill being the highs, but I missed many Surrey birds during a personal quest to reach 170.

The omissions were mainly due to less birding (I missed a total of three months) than at any other time during the past five years. The missed list includes some really annoying ones – Caspian Gull, Iceland Gull, Black Tern, Little Tern, Sandwich Tern, Greenshank, Red-legged Partridge, Wood Warbler, Dartford Warbler – birds I should have picked up but didn't.

Despite these horrible misses, I only came up short by eight. Unless I can give up work, however, I'm destined never to succeed in reaching higher in future. With a new regular work commitment set up for the new year and for the foreseeable future, this is just the way it has to be.

While I didn't go birding as often as before, my overall British year list was my best ever, totalling 215. Pathetic I know, and considering the number of fantastic rarities that turned up in Britain in 2013, it could and should have been much higher.

Once again I ventured further away from home on twitches (these didn't include Shetland or the Scilly Isles, obviously) the majority of which thankfully involved few failures. Some trips will live long in the memory. I even managed a three-day visit to Spurn in September, which I really enjoyed, plus a great trip with the Tice's Meadow gang in June to Lakenheath and Cley.

I have more fond birding memories in 2013 than disappointments, which has to be a bonus, although I wish I could've ventured out more.


THE 2013 AWARDS
2013 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS
SURREY PATCH BIRDER OF THE YEAR
In alphabetical order, the nominees are:
David Campbell – Canons Farm
Lee Dingain – Staines Moor
 Gordon Hay – Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Rich Horton – Tice's Meadow
Ian Kehl – Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Bob Warden – Staines Reservoir

The winner is:
Rich Horton


Congratulations to the Tice's Meadow 'Patch Commander' Rich Horton, winner of the Patch Birder of the Year. There could only be one winner this year as Rich stood head-and-shoulders above anyone else. Considering his patch is inland and in Surrey to boot, to manage a total of 145 for the year is quite remarkable. Among the birds Rich has seen on the Tice's Meadow patch have been Bewick's Swan, Slavonian Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Roseate Tern, Temminck's Stint, Little Stint, Merlin, Osprey, Short-eared Owl, Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Snow Bunting. I'm bound to have missed out a few. Top bloke. Fantastic list.  

2012 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS 
SURREY PATCH OF THE YEAR
The nominations are:
Beddington Sewage Farm
Canons Farm
Holmethorpe Sand Pits
Staines Moor
Staines Reservoir
Tice's Meadow

The winner is:
Tice's Meadow

Congratulations to Tice's Meadow on a remarkable year. It doesn't cover a huge area, and the urban sprawls of Farnham and Aldershot are close by, as are major trunk roads, but despite all of that Tice's Meadow produced more interesting birds than any other site in Surrey in 2013, ahead of Beddington, Staines Reservoir and Canon's Farm. A glance at Rich Horton's list above proves the variety of species to have visited the site these past 12 months.

Its status as Surrey's number one birding area is helped by a dedicated group of patch watchers, with very few days of the year missed out.

With Beddington's group diminishing each year, David Campbell at university in Brighton rather than patrolling his Canon's Farm patch on a regular basis, Holmethorpe also not having enough people on site, it's hard to see Tice's being knocked off its perch for some time to come.


2013 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS 
SURREY BIRD OF THE YEAR
The nominations are:
Hawfinch (Bookham Common, Mickleham)
Great Grey Shrike (Thursley Common)
Ring Ouzel (Clandon Park) 
Red-rumped Swallow (Beddington Sewage Farm) 
Short-eared Owl (Staines Moor)
Temminck's Stint (Tice's Meadow)
Two-barred Crossbill (Leith Hill)
Whinchat (numerous sites)

The winner is:
Two-barred Crossbill

I have a good relationship with Two-barred Crossbills. I saw two at Broomhead Reservoir in Yorkshire, as well as one male at Hemstead Common male in Kent but it was the Leith Hill female that was the biggest thrill. This bird first appeared in July, and remained in the area until December at least (although it hasn't been reported for a while). It has been elusive, but the morning I, along with a number of other birders, enjoyed great views of this smashing little bird sticks in the memory. Also succeeding in getting a photo of it (only Dave Harris, Kevin 'Kojak' Guest and myself appear to have one) was a memorable moment.


OTHER AWARDS
2013 Randon's Ramblings Personal Dip of the Year
The nominations are:
Wryneck (Cissbury Ring, Sussex)
Yellow-browed Warbler (Holmethorpe Sand Pits)
Long-billed Dowitcher (Keyhaven, Hampshire)
Dips were actually few and far between this year, so there was only one that truly grated and that was the Long-billed Dowitcher. It was my second dip of this species, but the long trip down to Keyhaven in Hampshire was made worse when my Peugeot 206 (one worthless piece of cheap French tin) broke down on the way home. A truly miserable dip.

2013 Randon's Ramblings top ten birding moments

1 Three-day visit to Spurn
Great place, great company, and a trip that still gives me a warm glow when I think about it. For one thing, I was able to spend three days birding. That just doesn't happen to me. A memorable mixture of seawatching, vis-migging and searching for birds.


2 Roller at Broxhead Common
Such a stunning bird and one I didn't think I'd get an opportunity to see once, let alone twice. I managed to get to the Common before sunset on the Saturday evening and then went back and had great views before it flew overhead and out of sight on the Sunday morning – unfortunately before many people were able to see it.


3 Two-barred Crossbill at Leith Hill
A clear blue sky, great excitement and a Surrey lifer.


4 January visit to Beddington
A dramatic visit during a cold snap. A Glaucous Gull and a Merlin pursuing a Meadow Pipit were the highlights.


5 Trip to Lakenheath and Cley
I set off with Rich Sergeant, Rich Horton, Matt Phelps and Dave Baker overnight to Lakenheath and Cley in June. Just a great day out from dawn to dusk with birding pals. Hard to beat a day like that.


6 Black Kite/Bee-eater in Kent
Watching a Black Kite soaring in the wind near Faversham followed by a Bee-eater at Pegwell Bay was a great Sunday afternoon jaunt.


7 Suffolk and Norfolk in September
I love Shrikes, and this one in Suffolk near Sizewell in September was a corker. A great day in East Anglia that also included a close up Arctic Skua and a Rose-coloured Starling.
 

8 Ring Ouzel at Clandon Park
The Ring Ouzel is one of my favourite birds and locating this handsome male at Clandon Park was satisfying. Few people actually saw this bird.


9 Parrot and Two-barred Crossbill at Hemstead Common
Crossbills are such entertaining birds, and to see three species – Two-barred, Parrot and Common – all in one hit is something you don't forget.


10 BrĂ¼nnich's Guillemot at Portland Harbour
The BrĂ¼nnich's Guillemot was a first mega for me of the year and seen during the last week of 2013.

2013 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS
BIRDING BLOGGER OF THE YEAR
Steve Gale (North Downs and Beyond)

For me, this award is the most deserving of the lot (apart maybe from the Patch Commander's). I don't know what he's been drinking this year but Steve has been a prolific writer (223 posts), and the most thought-provoking.

What I like most about Steve's writing is that he is succinct, topical and fair. I also agree with most of his more contentious views. What I also liked about Steve's blog this year is that he wrote less about bits of twig and mothy things. This, I'm sure, will not last.

But in the meantime, read this, this and this to get a flavour of Steve Gale, currently Britain's best birding blog writer.


2013 RANDON'S RAMBLINGS
BIRDING PHOTO OF THE YEAR
Drama above the City by Alex Berryman

Alex took this fantastic photograph of a Herring Gull snatching a Common Tern chick, pursued by the youngster's parents. Not a beautiful photograph, but it tells a story, which many bird photographs don't. There are plenty of photographers who can take pin-sharp, beautifully exposed images of static, singular birds doing nothing much in particular, but give me a dramatic, story-telling image every time.

This image is not pretty but it depicts a real-life struggle. It's horrific, poignant, memorable. And it wins every time.

.......................................

So, what about 2014? I've no idea, to be honest. Probably the same pattern as previous years.

In the meantime, a happy New Year and enjoy your birding!