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.



Thursday, 30 April 2015

HOLMETHORPE PATCH ON A HIGH

While there are migrant birds dropping in all over the country at the moment with Hudsonian Godwits, Pied-billed Grebes and Great Blue Herons creating a mass migration of birders heading west these past few days, I'm sticking closer to home on my local patch.

Locally, there has been a few interesting birds to be tempted by like a Wood Warbler on Headley Heath yesterday morning, but it's Holmethorpe Sand Pits I'm drawn to at the moment whenever I get the chance to go out for a wander..

It's been great in recent weeks. I haven't seen all the birds that have come through lately but my patch list, both yearly and all-time, is growing day by day.

After the splendid male Ring Ouzel last week, which joined a female that went missing then reappeared a couple of days later, last Sunday turned out to be an awesome day for Holmethorpe. Unfortunately, I was heading east to Margate to visit my mum for the day (best I could come up with at Foreness Ooint was a female Red-breasted Merganser on the sea and plenty of Fulmar) so I completely missed out on one of the best days the patch has had in recent months, maybe even years.

I'm not sure why, but it didn't affect me as much is it would have done in years gone by – I'm just happy that after a quiet period Holmethorpe has suddenly re-emerged as a site worth watching. It has helped considerably we have more feet on the ground walking the area than we've had in a long while.

We had to bid bon voyage to Graham James, a Holmethorpe legend, who has moved to deepest Wales, where he has Dipper as a patch tick. Now that Graham has left, his old sparring partner, Gordon Hay, has kept the patch moving with his current sidekick Ian Kehl and together they keep me updated on sightings for the Holmethorpe blog each week.

We also have Ray Baker on board. Ray used to walk the patch some years ago and has now moved house and lives within the Water Colour complex and so can visit the patch regularly virtually every day. There are plenty of other very good birders who send me sightings too, with Matt Farmer, Neil Hadden, Richard Perry, who lives in Oxford but visits the area every week, as well as Jerry Blumire and the other patch legend Des Ball, who doesn't send in sightings but updates us when we meet up on occasion – he has a fantastic eye for spotting stuff.

Back to last weekend, the weather closed in overnight and, boy, did it reap dividends on Sunday morning. Gordon and Ian enjoyed eight species of wader, with Snipe, Dunlin, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, a probable Golden Plover over plus – rare for Holmethorpe – a Whimbrel fly over and, best of all, a Wood Sandpiper on the Water Colour Lagoon 2 island first thing.

They also had plenty of Warblers – Sedge, Reed, Garden and Lesser Whitethroat – plus Yellow Wagtail fly over and a Whinchat on the Moors. It was one of those days.

I was able to catch up with the Common Sandpiper later in the day, and the Whinchat, seen on the Moors from the Water Colour mound, and my first couple of Swift of the spring. The Wood Sand had long gone unfortunately.

Independently, Ray had a Wheatear earlier and Des had seen a Harrier, probably an Hen Harrier, heading north near the M23 at about 4pm. He was debating whether it was a Montague's...

This influx has set the tone this week, with Hobby on the list and on Monday morning a Tree Pipit, another rarity for Holmethorpe, seen and heard flying over by Gordon. Ray also saw a White Wagtail on the Water Colour Lagoon2 island and a pair of Common Tern on the pontoons on Mercer's Lake. I saw these fly off heading south later in the morning.

The male Garganey on the first day. Photo courtesy of Gordon Hay
Ray found a couple of Wheatear on Nutfield Ridge on Tuesday morning and another cracking find on Moors Pools – a male Garganey.

The Garganey in typical pose – with its handsome head stuck in the water feeding...
These striking dabbling ducks are a bit of a patch bogey bird for me – I had never seen one at Holmethorpe. The last sighting was of a pair a few weeks back and I was working in London that day, and they disappeared the following morning. Similarly, I was in London all day yesterday when this drake was discovered by Ray.

A slightly better view
Fortunately, I was able to get back just before it was too dark and connected with the Garganey on the Moors Pools by 8pm. It looked settled, happily feeding alongside a Coot, and I went for another visit in the rain this morning.

Holmethorpe is on a roll, and anyone planning a visit at the moment will enjoy a wide variety of species.

One of the rare occasions the Garganey didn't have its head submerged
In the wind and rain yesterday morning there were at least 100 Sand Martin, with a handful of Swallow and House Martin feeding over the lagoons – a splendid sight – along with the Garganey. It was still there this morning, this time with the sun shining, and together with the waders, hirundines and warblers, there's something for everyone at Holmethorpe Sand Pits.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

NIGHTINGALES AND LIVE RADIO

I basically skived off and worked at the same time on Thursday morning. I went birding but was part of a live outside broadcast for Annie's morning radio programme on RedstoneFM.
I have a regular slot on her show (no surprise there) and cover birding in Surrey and the south-east.

Normally I will talk from home about what to look out for during the coming week, but we thought it would be good for me to go out in the field and report live and try to record some  bird song live on the show.

As a first go yesterday, the obvious bird to go for was a Nightingale. Nothing sounds quite like the operatic birdsong of a Nightingale at full tilt, and I knew a good place to look for one. And it isn't Bookham Common.

And so it was a bright, sunny morning I parked opposite the Surrey Oaks pub in Parkgate – the village in between Leigh and Newdigate – and took the footpath north to a small area of scrubland I discovered via friends a couple of years ago, and it is an excellent spot for these brilliant songsters.

The idea was to text Annie when I heard one and hopefully time it so that she could call me from the studio when it didn't coincide with one of her hourly news bulletins or travel updates.

We spoke live ten minutes into her Surrey Talks show, which gave me the chance to introduce the plan. I explained what I was looking for and also what other birds were likely to sound good on the radio. There were plenty of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs to rely on as backup if Nightingales were a no-show.

A walk around a favoured spot didn't appear promising at first, the air was filled with  birdsong but not from any Nightingales. But about 15 minutes later a Nightingale began to sing, and was followed by a second.

I texted Annie to say we'd hit the jackpot, and that it would be good to go live as soon as she could. Both birds were singing their heads off, giving it the full Pavarotti, but no message from Annie.

For ten minutes I stood and listened to the full repertoir from this pair of Nightingales. Annie  eventually found a slot and we were ready to go live – 3, 2, 1...

And both birds stopped singing.

Would you believe it. These Nightingales were clearly media shy. I waffled on for a bit and then I heard one in the distance. I walked over to the area, it wasn't quite as good a spot as before, but at least I was able to point the phone in the general direction and we had Nightingale song live on the radio. Our own tweet of the day.

It turned out really quite well, and will be repeated in due course with hopefully song from a Grasshopper Warbler or another distinctive bird in the coming weeks.

This Parkgate spot is worth a look. My morning list ended up as a decent haul: two Nightingale, two Lapwing, one Raven, one Kestrel, five Swallow, two Lesser Whitethroat, one Common Whitethroat, numerous Blackcap and Chiffchaff, plus one Bullfinch.

After this success I headed for Staines Reservoir, where 13 Little Tern had been seen earlier. I didn't expect to see any by the time I arrived at midday – I've never managed to coincide a visit to the Res with these energetic terns.

And it turned out to be the case. They had long gone but it turned out to be a decent visit nonetheless, and was helped by the fact I was more observant than usual. There were three gorgeous Yellow Wagtail on the causeway, plus a White Wagtail among the Pieds. When the Yellow Wags flew up, the contrast of their bright yellow plumage with the cobalt blue sky was quite remarkable.

A stunning Yellow Wagtail on the Staines Reservoir causeway
On the virtually waterless north basin, there were up to ten Common Tern, a Whimbrel, one Avocet and a Dunlin, while on the south basin I located a solitary Little Gull – always a joy to see, even if distant.
A distant Whimbrel on the north basin
A lone Little Gull on the south basin
The spring is well and truly in full swing now. Ring Ouzels are still plentiful around the country – one can never get fed up of Ring Ouzels – but we are also starting to see some other very tasty species drifting in.

I have a wish list for the next couple of weeks – and one of those wishes is to find the time to go and see any of the following:

White-winged Black Tern, Wryneck, Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Bee-eater, Wood Warbler... to name a few. Any of these on my local patch would make my spring.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

RING OUZELS ON THE DOORSTEP

It had to happen, I guess. After all the chasing around to see Ring Ouzels recently it was totally predictable a couple would appear just down the road on my local patch.

My Ring Ouzel sightings have got increasingly closer to home each week. After the Bedfordshire visit a couple of weeks ago and Woldingham last week, five more arrived in the Woldingham area last Friday, just off Beech Farm Road.

Two male Ring Ouzel off Beech Farm Road near Woldingham
I managed to get up to see a couple of remaining male Ring Ouzel the following afternoon and then this morning one of my local patch reporters, Ray Baker, discovered a female – followed by a male ten minutes later – up on Nutfield Ridge, close to Glebe Pond at 9am. A patch lifer!

The male Ring Ouzel was a patch lifer for me
I was working from home today and had just about finished putting a magazine to bed so was able to make the five-minute dash up the road to have a look. A short walk along the footpath close to Glebe Pond and there feeding near some gorse bushes was a male Ring Ouzel. Ray had reported a female earlier, but I couldn't locate it, though I thought I heard a second one.


It has been a great spring for seeing Ring Ouzel and this sighting caps the lot. I had a dream the other night I discovered a Golden Oriole on the patch and was disappointed it wasn't real when I woke up. This Ring Ouzel was great compensation.

Friday, 17 April 2015

SPRING MIGRATION FEVER

As March moved into April the spring migration really started to kick in. And I have to admit I've really enjoyed it, or some of it at least.

It all really began for me on Easter Saturday, having missed a pair of Garganey at Holmethorpe swimming around on the Moors pools the day before. There had been a bit of a country-wide influx of these smart ducks but by the following morning these ones were nowhere to be seen.

As time has gone on I've become far more philosophical about missing out on birds, whether local or long-distance. I have accepted the fact I will lose out because of work or simply bad timing or bad luck. 

The bottom line is there is nothing anyone can do about a dip. Birders will always dip, whether they have 40 years birding experience or they are complete novices. A dip cares not one jot for a reputation. A dip is unavoidable. But there will be other occasions when a great bird will simply pop up in full view out of the blue and it will be thrilling when that happens.

This actually hasn't happened to me yet – well, not in this country at any rate.

But I digress. I'm not sure why but I'm getting more interested in my local patch. And about time I hear you think. At this time of year the local patch is the place to be as there will be good chance a decent bird will turn up.

On Easter Saturday at last knockings I had great views of 15 Sand Martin, seven Swallow and a couple of House Martin. A walk around the southern end of Spynes Mere also produced a Peregrine perched in a dead tree. A patch lifer.

A Peregrine Falcon on the local patch
What I like about this time of year is the anticipation. Early April is when the Osprey start arriving and soon after that it's everyone's favourite thrush, the Ring Ouzel.

Easter Monday was the day spring migration hit fever pitch. Suddenly all around the country Osprey were being spotted flying over. One flew over Leith Hill during the late morning while I was out walking the patch. Then about two hours later at 2pm I thought I had one fly north, but it was very high up and even with the assistance of bins I couldn't really id it with confidence. I couldn't find it in the scope before it disappeared out of sight. Frustrating.

Never mind, it had been a good five hours walking around. I saw my second patch lifer in the afternoon, when a Red Kite flew north over Mercers Lake. Then walking back to the car via the Water Colour lagoons a female Wheatear suddenly appeared on the island on Water Colour lagoon 2. It disappeared before I could get a photo but it was a good way to end the visit.

No Ring Ouzels were reported in Surrey until Thursday April 9, when a male appeared at Staines Moor. I'd been in Oxford with Annie for a hospital appointment that morning and was driving back down the M25 when I rea the news. I dropped Annie off home and at 5.30pm decided to head back up to Staines.

What a nightmare that turned out to be and another lesson learned. The traffic was truly terrible. Gridlock everywhere. By the time I got out of the car, it was getting dark and it was obvious the journey was going to be fruitless. And so it proved. I met up with Mark Elsoffer and Stevie Minhinnick, who hadn't seen it but a walk around the moor produced a flushed bird which may have been the Ring Ouzel. I only got a brief glimpse in the tree it flew up into in the half-light and to my mind wasn't enough to confirm what it was.

I went home angry with myself for giving in to the temptation. It didn't feel right making the effort from the start. When in doubt, don't.

The issue now was I had got a taste for a Ring Ouzel and most of the best sightings were happening not-so-locally in Berks, Bucks and Beds.

Another walk around the patch on Sunday morning wasn't producing very much. I was still even to see or hear a Willow Warbler (where were they?) – I simply hadn't set eyes on one.

As time was pressing on there was nothing for it but to head off along the M25.

The day before there had been more than 250 Ring Ouzel sightings around Britain, with flocks of more than 20 flying over various sites. The Pegsdon Hills near Luton still had nine males on the hillside near Deacon Hill so that's where I headed off to.

One of six male Ring Ouzel seen near Deacon Hill
It was a sunny but windy day and the walk up Deacon Hill was hard going in the stiff breeze. The birds had moved further east to a sheltered hillside where I joined Gwyn Williams and Tim Stow, an extremely knowledgeable birder I'd met a couple of years ago at Staines Reservoir. Both were watching the birds.


Just as I arrived, a group of walkers – who reminded me of a sketch from the Fast Show – were striding along the bottom of the hillside, headlong towards the Ring Ouzels. Right of queue, they flushed them. Most flew out of sight down the hillside, but fortunately a couple stayed put.

I could now relax and enjoy a Ring Ouzel or two. As it turned out most of the flushed birds returned to the hillside with six confirmed males on view. Great stuff. Also hovering around the area was a Red Kite.


Two handsome male Ring Ouzel on the hillside
I stayed for more than an hour watching these striking birds before heading back home. I had Sunday lunch to cook.

The following afternoon I headed over to Betchworth Quarry in the hope of finding my own Ring Ouzel. It is an area where Ring Ouzel had been seen last autumn, but I drew a blank. Then it flashed up on my mobile that three Ring Ouzels were present at Woldingham, by 'Grassy Bank'.

The location was sketchy at best but I headed off that way anyway, and after help from Mike Sell, who had managed to extract a bit more info, I parked at the entrance of Cheverral Farm, along the Croydon Road, between Warlingham and Titsey Hill.

I then proceeded to walk in completely the wrong direction. It was getting late and I really had no idea where to look so decided to head home. I drove down the road and turned round and went past the entrance to the farm again, where I saw Ian Jones standing by the gate on the opposite side of the road.

I stopped, and discovered that the birds were down the bottom of the field out of view from the road. There was no footpath, and when Mike Sell turned up a few minutes later, we decided to give it a go.

We could see the finder of the Rouzels with his camera in the valley sitting by a thin line of hedge. It transpired a young lad, Jack Barnes, had discovered the birds, and these were the first Ring Ouzels he had ever seen. I met Jack on the Isle of Wight last August when I went to see the breeding Bee-eaters. A very small world.

A distant view of a male Ring Ouzel at Woldingham near Nore Hill
Ian and I walked further down the bank and were able to get distant views of three Ring Ouzel as the sun went down. Ubiquitous Red Kite were also present – two very close by.

The rush of birds seen around Britain is something to behold at the moment. Masses of Ring Ouzel are still flying in, and notably Hoopoe – a large influx this Spring. I'm half expecting to see one locally in the next few days.

While at work on Wednesday I was kept entertained by following the Tice's Meadow gang on Twitter. In the afternoon, Rich Sergeant flushed a Wryneck from out of the bushes close to the viewing mound. From then on this smashing find did its best to keep out of view before showing itself.

In the meantime Stevie Minhinnick was leaving Staines Moor and was heading down the motorway towards Bagshot Lea. The only problem was the M3 was completely at a standstill because of a vehicle fire just at the junction he was to come off at.

It took him hours to do the normally 30-minute journey and by the time he got there it was late in the day and the bird had disappeared. I really felt for him. But unfortunately, that is the nature of twitching. It can be a joyless experience even getting to a destination, let alone dipping when you eventually do arrive.

My final destination during this fine spell of weather was Hindhead and the Devil's Punchbowl. Annie and I went there on Thursday in the late afternoon. It is a fabulous place, and likely to produce plenty of good birds this spring. While there were actually few to see during our visit, there were two Tree Pipit, singing and parachuting into the trees.

Monday, 13 April 2015

VENICE

I'll keep this blog post relatively brief as it was more a three-night trip for my wife Annie's 50th birthday rather than anything related to birding, but as it turned out I did see a few.

View from the Rialto Bridge looking south down the Grand Canal
View of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge looking east
towards the Santa Maria della Salute
View of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge looking west
If you read the previous post you'll know Annie wasn't feeling too well leading up to the trip. We did go however, but with hindsight it was asking a lot for her to suddenly wake up the following morning and feel great.

Annie in Piazza San Marco with the Campanile di San Marco behind
Anyway, we arrived at out hotel, the Hotel al Codega, just before 10pm. It was ideally positioned between the Rialto bridge and St Mark's Square. It had been a long day already but at least we were there and the hotel was a good one. As the visit progressed the staff could not be more helpful.

Venice is nothing but popular as a destination
The view towards Santa Maria della Salute from the Grand Canal
San Marco Campanile and Doge's Palace from the Grand Canal
Over the next three days we took water buses and walked around the popular sights and some of the quieter areas. Venice is a deceptively compact place, and is easy to get round. With  tourism the biggest industry, English is spoken everywhere and the atmosphere is relaxed.

A typical side street in the quieter Dorsoduro district
 We also ate at a couple of really fantastic restaurants – the Osteria di Santa Marina (not far from the Rialto Bridge) and the Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti.

The Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti in the Dorsoduro District: one of
the finest restaurants in Venice
The former has a fabulous tasting menu and an extensive wine list (go with their recommendation) while the latter (pictured) has just four tables, a window bench and a couple of tables outside. The food is fabulous.
Soft-shelled Crabs were a highlight of the meal
As was the dessert...
The family-run restaurant prides itself in not having a freezer and the menu for the day is influenced by the catch of the day – in our case soft-shelled crabs, John Dory, Sardines and Sea Bream. A wonderful place to spend a lunchtime.

The view across the Grand Canal towards Campanile di San Marco from Dorsoduro

Venice isn't noted for bird-watching but there were plenty of Mediterranean Gull and I also saw a couple of Hooded Crow.

One of many Mediterranean Gulls seen on the water in Venice
On the last morning we took a water taxi back to the airport, organised by the hotel and just a short walk to the meeting point. This was such a great experience – just the two of us on the boat, sauntering through the canals alongside the gondolas before we reached the lagoon and then the
boat stretched its legs on the half-hour journey to Marco Polo. We felt like we were in a James Bond movie.
A sedate water taxi ride through the canals on the way to the airport
The canals began to widen as we left the centre of the city

The water taxi opened up once it left the city and entered
the lagoon towards the airport
The exhilarating ride lifted Annie's spirits

Friday, 3 April 2015

A SWIFT UPDATE FROM CRAWLEY

It had been a manic couple of weeks prior to last weekend. Work had been flat-to-the-boards – both during and after the Cheltenham Festival – and, more importantly, there was my wife Annie's surprise 50th birthday trip for three nights to Venice to organise. More on that trip in the next blog post.

As a result it had been more than a fortnight since any lengthy birding visits. I'd only had time for one quick visit to Staines Reservoir and to the local patch, where I discovered the first Little Ringed Plover of the year on the Water Colour island, as well as my first two Sand Martin feeding on Water Colour lagoon 2.
A Little Ringed Plover on WC2 at Holmethorpe
A walk around the Moors didn't produce much apart from a couple of Little Egret and a tame drake Wigeon, which has been present for some weeks.
The drake Wigeon has found Holmethorpe to be its natural home
An hour at Staines Reservoir allowed me to catch up with some of the old gang, including Bob Warden, as well as the Tice's boys, Rich Sergeant and Rich Horton, who had arrived shortly after me.

I was lucky enough to pick up a Scandavian Rock Pipit, as well as distant views of a Ruff on the empty north basin. The littoralis was a nice bird, but I couldn't locate any Water Pipit. Now developing their summer plumage I need to get a move on and find one or two before they return to their breeding grounds.


A littoralis Rock Pipit on the shore of the south basin at Staines Reservoir
Since Staines, I spent the following week producing a magazine and rushing around for last-minute stuff for the Venice trip, in the hope Annie, who had been ill with kidney stones ten days earlier, would recover in time to fly out last Sunday. She did, but only just, and she wasn't 100 per cent while out there.

The day before we left, I spent most of the afternoon in Redhill shopping – such a delight. The local council has invested plenty of money into regenerating the town centre, including converting the one-way system into a two-way system, which appears to have created more traffic problems than there were originally.

The recreation park has now a tea room, similar to the idea at Priory Park in Reigate and the Santander offices are being demolished to make way for a bigger Sainsbury's and cinema complex. 

But will that turn Redhill into a vibrant town people want to visit? Probably not. The place is a crap hole and that's all there is to it.

Shopping, my idea of hell wherever it takes place, is even worse, therefore, in my local town centre.

I deliberately ignored Rare Bird Alert while dodging young mothers pushing prams and the ever-present, and increasingly annoying, charity arm-twisters as I didn't want to be distracted. But by 6.30pm I relented and had a quick glance to see what had been happening around the country, not expecting too much.

But my jaw hit the floor. An Alpine Swift in Crawley. In Crawley!

It had been present all day and was now roosting on the Virgin Atlantic building off Fleming Way at the Manor Royal business district. Bugger.

I could have easily have gone – it would have only taken 20 minutes. It would have been a British lifer. I saw two of these striking Swifts in the Spanish mountains last year but never one over here. And amazingly, out of the blue, one was just a short drive down the road in the most unlikeliest of habitats.

Frustration doesn't describe the emotion. It was a typical birding stroke of misfortune.

I didn't expect it to stay another day. I checked at first light to see if there was any news, but no-one had seen it. It must have gone.

I still had a few bits to get in town before we took a cab to Gatwick for 1.30pm. While in town more news flashed up. The Alpine Swift was still present at the Virgin Atlantic building at 10.38am.

I only had a small window but I just had to go. Luckily, my bins were in the car, but I only had my iPhone with me for taking photos.

The weather was horrible. Windy, cold and drizzly and at first I wasted a good 30 minutes parked at the wrong Virgin building along Fleming Way. It was only when John Benham walked passed and mentioned the bird was further up the road that I realised why it was so quiet with few birders where I was standing.

A quick drive a minute up the road revealed plenty of parked cars and a decent number of birders with binoculars and cameras. I immediately met up with Ian Jones from Canon's Farm, who I hadn't seen for ages, and within about a minute I was watching the spectacular Alpine Swift scything across the sky giving great views.

A cracking bird and hard to miss, as it was the only Swift anywhere in Britain at that moment. It then disappeared around the side of the Virgin Atlantic building where it perched high up on a wall, just under the roof of the building.

I messed up getting images of the Alpine Swift - these are the
best(!) I came up with, copied from a ridiculously brief video below
video


The little smudge on the top of the bricks just left of
centre is the Alpine Swift resting
It was evident this Alpine Swift was struggling to find food at such uncharacteristic habitat. The weather was dire with very few insects about. The bird had perched up quite a lot during the past 24 hours so, considering Alpine Swifts can stay in the air for more than six months at a time, it must have been very tired and hungry.

You had to feel concern for its well-being.

With time pressing, I had to leave – feeling fortunate to have seen it but with a sense of sadness that it might not survive. It stayed for an extra day before moving on.