Saturday, 31 December 2011


To keep with tradition I'm producing this summary of the year in terms of my birding... I'm currently working hard on the 2011 edition of the Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Bird Report so check that out when it's published for a comprehensive illustrated review of the patch's birds this year.

First of all, did I succeed in my aims for this year? Here is what I set out to do, according to my blog post at this time last year, with comments on my successes in each department: 

  • get to 350 no, 329
  • tick off some more tart ticks yes, I guess: Twite was nice to finally get out of the way as well as some 'lesser tarts' like Common Rosefinch, Leach's Petrel, White-tailed Eagle, Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow etc etc
  • spend at least one full day birding in Kent or Norfolk in spring or autumn in ideal conditions and find a BB rarity no, best self found on a national scale was a Pec Sand at Dunge in August.
  • get to 230 nowhere near. Didn't even try
  • tick off some more tart ticks See above
  • start keeping a Surrey list again and get down to Holmethorpe I now know I'm somewhere vaguely around 180 for Surrey and I visited Holmethorpe two or three times
  • get to 120 Hah! Yeah right (108)
  • get 100 in 2011 Yes, very pleased: I managed 103. Would have liked 105 - if I counted Common Tern and Yellow-legged Gull which are 99% bang on then I'd be there
  • find a male Montagu's Harrier Did you hear about one at Canons?
  • find a Corncrake Not that I'm aware of
  • find at least one of the following: Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow Not that I recall, doesn't ring a bell, fraid not and no
  • find a Richard's Pipit No
  • add at least two wildfowl species to my list No
  • find a bird that will draw a constant crowd of at least fifty people No
  • find a Moorhen Ehhh.....sadly not...maybe next year
  • keep taking my SLR out and photograph and much as possible Yes!
  • make progress with my Canons Farm campaign If starting a functioning Bird Group with 25 members, regular meetings and a bird report counts, then I'd say yeah
I make that a 29% success rate... shame the ones I did hit on were generally the less exciting ones.


It is amazing that, once again, I had predicted that this would be the year where I saw a bit less than the previous year and it ended up surpassing all previous years by a large margin. Both on a local and national year it has been exceptional and I've been seeing the sort and doing the sort of things I never thought possible when  I was taking my first tentative steps onto the active birding scene as a boy of eleven or twelve, following an interest in birds since seven. I owe Johnny Allan and Franko Maroevic for giving and/or organising long distance twitches and Ian Jones, Phil Wallace, Rob Stokes, Peter Grady and Colin and Paul Manville, to name a few, for the transport and company they have provided to make this year so great. Gratitude to Neil Randon for helping out with the CFBW Bird Report and livening up several outings.

There's too many great times to recount here, and it would be pointless reciting many here because many can be found in the archives of this blog. So here's a basic breakdown:


There's some birds that simply rock your boat and it feels like you could watch them over and over again. The Northern Waterthrush on Scilly wins this prize for 2011. I first saw it on my two-day twitch to the islands in September and it made the expense and hassle worthwhile along with the Baltimore Oriole and Solitary Sandpiper. I was very pleased when it hung around for my October half-term visit and I saw it a few more times, in more relaxed conditions.

Another highly memorable bird is the Farthing Downs Hoopoe - an amazing bird to have within a few miles of home -


When the pager gave a mega alert for a Scarlet Tanager in Cornwall, just before I was due to head to Scilly for my half term break, I was really getting stressed out about how I'd go about seeing the bird without my holiday being disrupted. It was going to be impossible (unless the bird solved the problem by kindly leaving), I would either have to go to Scilly and live with constant pager messages about a national mega or go to Scilly, come back to Cornwall for a day then resume the break. I tried for the tanager before boarding the boat but only got a couple of minutes on site, after getting to St Levan much later than planned. Of course, I did not see the bird and it was never seen again.

 Some of the stars of the most exciting day of the year

I boarded the Scillonian as planned, fearing that the St Levan bird would bleep and I'd be obliged go through the ordeal of getting back myself back to Cornwall. Instead, the pager gave a mega alert half way across. It was a Scarlet Tanager...and it was on Scilly. OH MY GOD! I rushed there straight away and after a very tense half hour a flash of yellow and black graced the hedges in front of me. The jammiest thing that's ever happened to me. That afternoon I also enjoyed great views of Upland Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Olive-backed Pipits and the Northern Waterthrush. Could a day like that ever be beaten?


There were a few miserable days. Dipping the Greater Yellowlegs in Northumberland has got to be the winner, though. It was very expensive and very unsuccessful - hence highly disappointing and frustrating. Then the ruddy thing does a few hundred miles further north. This is all a few months after putting £30 in a ticket machine for a Greenshank. I just don't care any more.


I managed nine patch ticks this year: Peregrine, Ring Ouzel, Wood Warbler, Red-legged Partridge, Marsh Harrier, Cuckoo, Firecrest, Reed Warbler and Brent Goose. I also recorded another Quail, several Waxwings, a Black Redstart, a few Common Redstarts, an Osprey, a couple of Short-eared Owls, a few Golden Plovers and Common Snipe, a Curlew, a trio of Spotted Flycatchers, several Grasshopper Warblers, at least two or three Barn Owls, the odd Mealy Redpoll and a good few Crossbills, Tree Pipits, Whinchats etc.When I was in my earlier stages of birding I would never have dreamed that I'd be seeing birds like this in my local area, let alone finding most of them. I managed 103 species this year, which I'm quite happy with considering it's a dry inland site.


Seeing a Common or Arctic Tern too high in too poor light over the patch was very very very annoying, as was photographing a 99% Yellow-legged Gull there but the images not quite showing enough detail to be certain enough to constitute a first patch record. Arguably surpassing these, for I will never have much of a clue what they were, was the flock of smallish/medium rufous-ish waders that flew low past Ian and I. Had I looked at them properly we would have got perfect views of what would have undoubtedly been an exceptional patch record, but instead I dismissed them as racing pigeons in my split second glance. It was only when I took another look that I realised they were waders...and by the time I got on them properly they were flying away...


Well, what will I aim for in 2012? I'm not going to be as ambitious this year. I'll do as much birding as I can and see what comes out of the other end - I'm sure there will be many exciting moments with a great set of birds and birders. I'd like to find a shrike or Wryneck, Richard's Pipit, or something like that, at Canons and I'd like to get 115 for my patch list and 360 for Britain

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Owl regurgitation interval

I haven't had much to post about in a while, and am planning to do a 2011 review in keeping with tradition but I'm trying to juggle quite a lot at the moment, so, in the meantime, enjoy this Barn Owl pellet that I found today...

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Barn Owl shows up again

I could only have a relatively short trip to the patch today so decided to concentrate my efforts on Canons Farm rather than trying to buzz around Banstead Woods as well. There were a couple of Meadow Pipits around Tart's Field - it seems they're wintering this year (they don't always). As I passed Reads Rest Cottages I did the usual check of the barns and bingo there it was again sat there - that equisite and very healthy-looking Barn Owl. It was in about as good light as it could be in considering it was in a secure barn on a winter's day and was posing beautifully. I walked off to check Broadfield quickly and when I returned it wasn't there! I looked all over and could only see a load of noisy pigeons. Cliff Allan and Ian Magness turned up a bit later and rang to say they thought they could see it still tucked up in the far corner but they needed a scope to confirm - I returned and it was indeed still there, it had only moved a foot but was a lot harder to see. Richard Garrett and Kojak turned up later and enjoyed the bird. It's nice to have one that people can come to see.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

CFBW 2011 - the very best...

A short video I've just knocked together of the best birds at the patch this year that have been good enough to let themselves get photographed...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Barn Owl in the barn at last!

I've always had the odd peak in the large asbestos barn near Reads Rest Cottages since I heard from the local residents that Barn Owls used to be regular in there up until about five years ago.  These peaks have turned into almost daily checks since Ian and I saw two emerge from this barn in April. The best these checks have produced so far have been the odd Little Owl and plenty of feral Rock Doves. Today I looked in and saw a white bird in the far apex, I expected it to just be the usual white feral Rock Dove that has been teasing me for weeks now but it was a Barn Owl!!! I couldn't believe it. I never really thought that I actually would see a Barn Owl in there. I looked at it a couple more times and yes it was true - beautiful!!! I let locals know and it was quite a popular bird throughout the day with at least fifteen birders coming to admire it through the barn door.

Roy, CFBW #2 lister, came a bit later in the day and was very pleased to finally catch up with this tricky species. He has tried hard several evenings this year in the hope of seeing one but was never successful. We returned to stake out Harrier Field as darkness grew and, just as we were giving up, it appeared and showed well as it hunted over the field and perched at a hole in the wall of another barn, creating a charismatic silhouette. It flew again and I started making kissing noises to tempt it towards us, it turned as soon as it heard me and fluttered feet over our heads for a few seconds before realising it had been foxed. What an amazing experience!

Barn Owl is a tricky species at Canons Farm. There's only been two or three sightings this year prior to today, but Geoff Barter's discovery of a pellet (recently confirmed as having been coughed up by a Barn Owl) in the late summer/early autumn indicates that our failed efforts to find them throughout the year did not mean that they weren't around.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Heading east for a Western

Western Sandpiper
Ian picked me up this morning at 7.00am and we began our journey to Norfolk for a peep that has been the subject of one big headache until a couple of days ago when the identification seemed to have been clinched at the rarer of the two possiblities.

Western Sandpiper (left) with Dunlin

The journey was relatively smooth and we arrived at the Cley visitor centre shortly after 10.30am, got our permits and headed for the hides. Dauke's Hide was crammed and there were few small waders around. After an anxious wait, a flock of about twenty Dunlin flew in and the first-winter WESTERN SANDPIPER was soon picked out. It was a little way off at first but later moved closer and decent views were had. The long, relatively slender bill was of course obvious and at times it seemed a little leggy. I struggled to make out rufous tones on the scaps, to be honest, but it seems this feature is only readily visible on the closest views. I did note that the breast-side markings appeared rather fine and the white breast patches that people were citing as a feature. The head profile seemed quite Dunlin like. I'll trust the ID of those of who had better views and are more experienced in peep ID than me. I gather this ID is sound so it goes on my list unless the BBRC later decide not to have it.
Western Sandpiper

Water Pipit
We looked for the Green-winged Teal that Ian needed but didn't succeed. A flock of somewhere around a hundred and fifty White-fronted Geese and a Water Pipit were the best of the rest. I had a quick seawatch off Salthouse hoping for Little Auk, a bird I've been waiting friggin years for (while Ian looked for Twite) and a couple that I bumped into on the way back to the car tried to put me on to a couple on the sea but Ian wouldn't wait - I managed an inconclusive glimpse of one pop up in this time. This apart, the sea produced an adult Little Gull, a Red-throated Diver, a Common Scoter, a drake Goldeneye, two Kittiwakes, and a few Gannets.

Saturday, 3 December 2011


I've just got back from a gutting trip to Northumberland with Ian and Manchester-based Liam Langley whom I got to know on Scilly this year. I got no sleep last night (went out to see The Big Year then Ian picked me up early for the twitch) and the rest of the day was pretty demanding, we checked five likely sites for the Greater Yellowlegs each with no success, obviously. As we neared the first site we pulled up when we saw some birders eying a group of geese. They were mainly Greylags but there was a Tundra Bean Goose in with them and a couple of nice adult Eurasian White-fronted Geese. We saw several large skeins of Pink-footed Geese and Ian was desperate to nail some Whoopers before heading south so we were shining the headlights on a lake after sunset! We found a group of five in the end do he was happy with that. We were all extremely frustrated about dipping the Yellowlegs. It had been around for two or three weeks, had been flushed by a friggin dog an hour before we got to the first site and is bound to be reported again tomorrow. We did see a few nice birds but it is hard to appreciate these things when you're in pursuit of something much rarer that you may not be able to get another shot at for a while. When heading for York (Liam and I were catching trains home; Ian's stayimg the weekend in Yorkshire) it was difficult to face the long, expensive return journey without the desired tick in the bag. Following putting thirty pounds ino a ticket machine to find moments later the bird was a Greenshank (Northamptonshire earlier in the year), Greater Yellowlegs becomes a bird with one of the biggest scores to settle with me. Ian & Liam's company was enjoyed, nonetheless, and I thank Ian for his efforts in transporting us. Such a shame we didn't get the return this time... Now, that Western Sand...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Long-tailed Duck

In between two bouts of patching, Ian and I nipped over to Bromley for this female Long-tailed Duck. A London tick. A cute bird, it spent most of its time at the back of the small trout fishing lake but came closer to rest and preen. At one point it was spooked by a Little Grebe and did a circuit of the lake, almost crashing into us as it reached our side! Too quick to get the camera out for that bit, though.

We found a Firecrest along the track back to the car, too. This was followed by a good search for one in Banstead Woods (Ian still needs it for the patch) but we found little. Patch pickings are lean of late but blimey it is nearly December - didn't the autumn go quick?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Dip a dendroica, see a sharpie

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin
Ian and I set off for Royal Tunbridge Wells at some offensive hour this morning. We arrived well before sunrise but there were some equally stupid birders kicking about. When it started to lighten we got out and joined the others. Nothing, nothing...nothing...nothing. Now it's 9.00am. Decision time. A Sharp-tailed Sand and other bits have come through at Chew Valley. A long way away and we didn't like the place...but if we were gonna go it would have to be then so off we went.

Long-billed Dowitchers
There were lots of cars parked up at Herriott's Bridge. We instantly got onto the pair of LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS - a little distant but very nice. My first and last was five years ago at Oare Marshes. They were then flushed and it turned out they didn't come back while we were there. The sharpie wasn't on view so I crossed the road and saw my fourth SPOTTED SANDPIPER - a plumage tick, being a winter adult.

Spotted Sandpiper

I crossed back and it was pointed out to me that the SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER was with a flock of Dunlin and Lapwings about two hundred feet in the air. I could see that it was bigger but that was about it - not tickable. After a torturous wait it dropped down and its identity was confirmed. This has been one of my most-wanted waders for a while now - the diffusely marked but very warm-toned breast was the most striking feature but some streaking along the flanks, a prominent supercillium and a warm rufous-brown crown were also striking. It seemed dumpier and shorter billed than a Pec to me. Also in the flock was what we believed at the time to be a Little Stint, but has been retrospectively identified as a SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER. Nice. Other birds on offer included seven Bewick's Swans. A second-winter Common Gull was shouted by a surprising number of people as a Ring-billed... Ian enjoyed my bowl of chips at the very nice canteen around the corner before the day was up and we were on the return journey.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Runaway bunting

I have the first part of Friday mornings off college and this time I use to go to the patch. This morning I had a flock of twelve Crossbills fly low and loud south west over the Watchpoint. The number of Crossbills I have had there this year is getting ridiculous. I've had three sets in the last week or so; you simply do not get this number of Crossbills passing through this part of Surrey at this time of year so I can only conclude that there must be a flock somewhere in the vicinity that is the source of these sightings. Perhaps they involve the same birds as those at Wallington, where they have also been recorded on multiple occasions in the last week - Wallington is not far at all from Canons, especially for a Crossbill.

Towards the end of my visit I was on the lane, adjacent to the derelict barn, and there were a couple of  knocking about. I heard another bunting call, a very loud and 'heavy' metallic one coming from nearby. A bird popped up briefly and flew behind the barns. There was silence for a while then it started off again and flew over me; a large bunting indeed, bigger and heftier than a Yellowhammer. I watched it fly slowly west, praying that it would decide to drop on top of a tree or hedge, but it did not. Instead, it appeared to shoot down into the nightmare that is currently Quail Field - a large weedy stubble field popular with Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. I had only fifteen minutes or so before I had to make tracks for college so headed over there and waited in vain for it to do the right thing and confirm itself as a Corn Bunting. I decided to let people know that there may well be a Corn Bunt around and Johnny Allan came over to take over the search. He didn't have any luck with the bunting but he noted a Grey Plover heading NE - shite. A first for CFBW...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gull getback

My biology teacher was absent today so I got a surprise early finish - I headed straight for Canons Farm where I met John 'Blessed' Blenham and Neil 'Factor' Randon. They were both hoping for the Short-eared Owl and I wanted another view of it - we staked it out until after dusk but there was no sign of the owl. I went home happy, however, for I got a patch year tick: Great Black-backed Gull (an adult flying north with a group of Herring Gulls). Also, two Common Snipe (presumably the same pair as on Saturday night) and a flock of nine Canada Geese were site notables.

Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Year List 2011: 103 (94 at this point last year)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Good goose

Ian and I hit the patch again early morning. After half an hour or so we got onto a small, dark, compact 'goose' with large white forewing patches flying towards Burgh Heath pond - it quickly got far away and I was struggling to see over a tall hedge. Clearly an Egyptian-type thing but before I could study its head it was flying away from us, calling appropriately, however. Because I couldn't rule out the only other possibility, Ruddy Shelduck, and didn't know how similar a one's vocalisations are to an Egyptian's, I was overly cautious and didn't log it. Ian and I talked about it and he said how he got the dark-on-pale markings on the head; we looked up Ruddy Shelduck's calls which were very much different. Egyptian Goose it was then - RS would be very unlikely anyway. Patch year tick! Also at Canons today: Brambling, 2 Stonechats, fly-over Cormorant etc. What was very frustrating was when I was with Roy later in the day and he pointed out two large gulls flying north west. They were high and flying away but were adult black-backeds; they appeared big, bulky and solid dark on top but with no views of the wingtip pattern or Herring Gulls for size comparison so we wouldn't be filling in a CFBW Rarity Form if there were such a thing.

Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Year List 2011: 102 (94 at this point last year)

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Harrier Field produces again

Short-eared Owl
Ian picked me up early this morning and we got on the patch pre-dawn. Like yesterday, it was very foggy and it was a struggle to see further than one hundred metres. Once it started to lift slightly, we began to wander. An hour or so after arriving a Short-eared Owl was flushed from the dank ditch in Harrier Field - giving further evidence for my theory that this is a regular roost site at the farm. I have seen two at the patch before and they have both been over Harrier Field, the latest of those (this April) appeared to fly from this ditch and it looks ideal for them.

The owl flew into a nearby ivy bush but soon flew and was hounded by Magpies and Carrion Crows and disappeared into the mist. A few minutes later it re-appeared and seemed to be dropping down on the other side of the lane - reassuring us that the bird hadn't been forced off-site. The mist thickened again but we pressed on and the sun gradually came out and burned the worst of it off. We were pleased to see a large flock of Lesser Redpolls (no Mealies with them as far as we could see) and the newly-born 'Not Quite So Piddly Pond', the reincarnation of Piddly Pond. I might just keep calling it Piddly Pond... The council's notice told us that we were in for wader action (see attached snap).


I heard a Crossbill fly over but couldn't get on it, seeing as this follows five yesterday (which were high - probably why I couldn't get on this one) I'm wondering if there's a flock hanging around somewhere within five or so miles. It was a good day for Lapwings, with a total of 46 throughout the day. Although (Woodcock aside) it is the commonest wader at the patch, they are usually pretty tricky to come by (there were 22 records last year). The second-best birds of the day came in the form of two Common Snipe which called and flew over Roy and me shortly after dusk - unfortunately Ian had chosen to walk back to his car another way and missed a potential patch tick.

Piddly Pond mid make-over; will I get Moorhen before the year's end?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting
The reporting rate of Snow Buntings in London in the last few days has been above average and I've been hoping to find one at Canons Farm but of course I'm not nearly as free as I have been for much of the year and am stuck in a stuffy classroom for most of the day now so this makes finding one at my patch a bit tricky.

Yesterday was one of my early finished, with my last lesson ending at 12.30pm, so I was waiting for the 80 bus to get me back home to collect my gear and head for the farm when I received news of one at Beddington. I was glad for the opportunity of seeing one locally but cursed at how it meant a visit to Canons would be difficult with the limited light, I crossed the road to get the same bus in the opposite direction. I arrived and used my new lovely shiny key to get through the gate, made my way over the mound and found Johnny Allan and Ian Ellis watching the tailless but lovely male Snow Bunting feeding on a track - a top local bird. This bird marks Johnny's 196th species of 2011, thereby creating not just a personal but an overall Surrey Year List record!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Goose spectacular

I was very glad to get back onto the patch this morning and, seeing as many of Canons Farm's best records are from the first week or so of November, I was in great anticipation as to what I might find.

I checked the barns near Canons Farmhouse for Black Redstarts, and Broadfield for just about anything (it is perfect at the moment; plenty of exposed soil with lines of very short winter wheat, and, as always, it's very big). I was making my way for Lunch Wood when I bumped into Jim Hall. Jim is not a serious birder but he walks his two jack russels at Canons Farm most days, knows what he's looking at, carries binoculars and takes an active interest in the birds of the area. I'd just said goodbye after a quick chat when I glanced up at the sky and clapped eyes on a v-formation of large birds heading towards me. It took a few moments for it to sink in what they were, at first I thought they'd be just another flock of gulls then I thought possibly Cormorants for a few seconds, then I realised they were small geese!!!

Brent Geese - MORE HERE
I knew they would most likely be Brents, they were still quite a way off and heading directly towards me so I used this time window to call Jim back and prepare my camera. They were soon nearing and I started to rattle off some shots, I could tell through the viewfinder they were indeed Brent Geese and, as they passed almost directly over us, they started calling - magic!!! I switched from camera to scope as they flew away to the south west. Yes, yes, yes! Patch tick, London tick, Surrey tick and local area tick! Jim and I reckoned about forty birds and inspection of my images later confirmed the true number as thirty-nine.

Jim told me he'd already had a Lapwing, quite a scarce patch bird. I made my way towards the derelict barn area where I picked up a flock of a dozen Lapwings, they dropped down on Broadfield but when a dog walker passed they got up and flew to the south west.

Roy arrived and was pretty gripped off by the geese, he had planned to spend the morning at Canons but his son had wanted to go to a vintage car event so couldn't get there early enough for the geese. We spent twenty minutes skywatching before heading to Newdigate to look for the Yellow-browed Warbler. We spent at least two hours searching for the bird but there was no sight or sound in its favoured area or with the roaming tit flocks. We returned for another stake out at Canons but there wasn't too much else on offer, unfortunately.

Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Life List: 108
Canons Farm & Banstead Woods Year List 2011: 101 (91 at this point last year)

Biting off more than we can Chew

On Friday night, I was in two minds as to what to do on Saturday. Ian had invited me on a trip to see the Steppe Grey Shrike, early November is prime time for Canons Farm birding and I really wanted to spend a day there but I simply could not turn down a more or less guaranteed lifer.

So, on Saturday morning Ian picked me up then we collected Peter 'Polo' from Burgh Heath and headed for Telford. I fell asleep for much of it so it didn't seem as long as it really was. We arrived at about 8.30am, parked up and put our change in for the Royal British Legion. I don't normally take much notice when the pager says 'tho distant' because for many people seem to define a distant bird as one a few feet out of range for a frame-filling shot. In this instance, the bird wasn't described as distant but when I saw everyone's scopes pointed at the other end of a 800 metre wide field I realised we weren't in for a experience like this.

Steppe Grey Shrike

The STEPPE GREY SHRIKE was indeed a long way off and you could just about tell it was a grey shrike and at times you could get the idea it didn't have a dark bill or lores. Just when we were thinking of leaving, it came closer - still very distant but a significant improvement - and most of the identification features could be noted. It certainly appeared very pale, having large amounts of white in the wing and having light lores and bill. Being a race of Southern Grey Shrike, this represents my sixth shrike species.

We then set off for Chew Valley Lake. I needed Lesser Scaup and Ian and Peter needed some of the other things that had been around, so there was lots to mop up in a short period of time. I was expecting a site about the size of Abberton Reservoir but it wasn't as vast as I anticipated. There were ruddy lots of ducks though, all very distant. The pager hadn't given precise areas for the various birds and there was little daylight left so we felt utterly overwhelmed. I set to work scanning a 'raft' of aythyas and was surprised when I picked up a drake scaup quite quickly. When I took my eye off it or tried to get the others onto it I lost it into the flock and it was hard to pick up again. It soon became active, diving and swimming about a lot and I couldn't keep up with it. It appeared to be the same size as the neighbouring Tufted Ducks but a solid ID was impossible at that range. I began to hate Chew Valley Lake, and ducks.

We moved round to a hide that was closer to the birds but the sun was in front of us and, even though we were working with nearer birds, they were silhouettes. We gave up as gulls gathered to roost, a Raven flew past and the sun descended.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Scilly 2011

I came back at 2.00am this morning from what was probably the best week's birding of my life. I love Scilly like nowhere else, not just because of its great birds but because of the old and new friends that you meet and the upbeat and exciting atmosphere that I have found nowhere else on my travels. This is my fifth visit to the archipelago, following Teacher's Week trips in 2009 and 2010, a day trip in 2010 and a two day twitch this September.

Saturday 22nd

After staying the night in a cottage in St Austell (where my parents resided for the rest of the week) my parents took me to St Levan to have a look for the Scarlet Tanager before boarding the Scillonian. This bird was causing me a great deal of anxiety - it turned up at about the worst time possible for me. I was thinking about what would happen if I was unlucky enough to miss the bird that morning and everybody else see it later on; I was starting to play with thoughts of flying back for a day on Monday. Anyway, we left later than planned and after a few miles I realised that I had left my phone charger in the cottage so we had to return. This meant that I ended up having less than five minutes on site - this time I spent talking to Johnny Allan who had missed the bird the previous day and stayed the night in Cornwall.

My parents and I left and drove to Penzance where my luggage was loaded onto the boat and I boarded after saying goodbye to them. Here I met Rob Stokes, Michael & Dan Booker and Nick & Russell Gardner. All had done the same thing as I that morning. We had no idea how our dilemma would solve itself . . .

Little was going on and by half way point on the crossing only a Bonxie, a Storm-petrel and a few Common Dolphins had been seen. Michael does like to fool around and we didn't for one millisecond take him seriously when he told us there was a Scarlet Tanager on St Mary's, until he flashed the pager in our faces. OH SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!! The atmosphere on board was a strange mixture of extreme excitement and excruciating anxiety. With no sign of the Cornish bird we were in a better position than anyone (apart from those already on Scilly) to see a tanager, but would we see it? Would it be like the Cornish bird and not play ball?

I left my luggage to be delivered to the B&B and Dan, Michael and I managed to snatch a cab - the driver already knew about the bird and where it was - on getting dropped off, birders walking away calmly told us the bird was still showing. We ran to the crowd but there was no show. It was a pleasure to catch up with Jerry & Judy, and Harry Barnard whom I knew from previous years. Time went on but at a much slowed pace and after twenty minutes or so the others decided to go off to look for the Upland Sandpiper and Olive-backed Pipits and Borough Farm. I need these but common sense told me to stay with the mega so I staked it out.

It emerged that the bird had been mobile and it seemed increasingly likely that it had moved on from its last pittosporum hedge. I was thinking about leaving to search likely areas, via the Upland and Olive-backeds when a birder emerged from the adjacent pine belt and informed us that the bird was viewable from in there. We rushed in and yes, phew . . . the dazzling first-winter male SCARLET TANAGER was on view, flitting about in the back of the same pittosporum hedge. Nick and Russell turned up and saw the bird. I tried to call Rob to let them know but couldn't get through. The bird landed in a bare tree quite nearby and then flew over or into the pine belt. I was satisfied and went to find the others and try to mop up on the rest of the rarities on offer.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
I found Rob, Dan and Michael watching the obliging and bizarre UPLAND SANDPIPER and they went off to look for the tanager. It turned out that it was never seen again after it flew over the pines and I can only feel deep regret and sympathy for them missing out on it. The sandpiper was very active and moved between furrows in a daffodil field, occasionally walking very close to the birders allowing for some reasonable pics. Being a wader fan I spent a fair amount of time taking the bird before heading for Watermill Lane where I again found Nick and Russell. They kindly put me onto the pair of OLIVE-BACKED PIPITS - smart birds indeed and my first BB rare pipit species. They kept low and shuffled around and so were surprisingly hard to see and even more so to photograph.

Upland Sandpiper
Olive-backed Pipit

Time of day was beginning to deteriorate so I made tracks for Lower Moors. I found only two birders, including Viv Stratten, in the ISBG hide and I got a very pleasant surprise when they pointed out that the only snipe on view, only feet away, was the first-winter WILSON'S SNIPE! All snipe are attractive birds and it was fascinating to study the plumage differences between this bird and Common Snipe. Were it not nearly dusk, I would have got some very good photos. Another birder entered and told me a New World warbler friend of mine was showing a short walk away and so I enjoyed brilliant views, for the second time, of the long-staying first-winter NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH as it fed on Shooters' Pool to the annoyance of a nearby Robin. I ate with Rob and the team at the Bishop & Wolf before going to the log where I had the delight on talking to the colourful bunch that is James Bloor Griffiths, Harry Barnard, Jake Aley et al.

Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Snipe
Northern Waterthrush

Sunday 23rd

A walk around Penninis Head failed to add the Melodious Warbler to my list and produced only a Wheatear. I joined Micheal, Dan and Rob in having second helpings of the UPLAND SANDPIPER but the Olive-backed Pipits were nowhere to be seen. After sitting outside at a nice cafe, enjoying some sausage rolls and cakes the rain set in and this resulted in the destruction of my notebook which was extremely irritating. Little else was had other than about six Black Redstarts at Porthloo, an adult Mediterranean Gull near Toll Porth and a Greenshank which gave Scilly-standard stonking views at Lower Moors. After rumours of a nightjar-type bird at Penninis we stupidly staked it out in the evening in absurb weather before following the same routine as the previous night.

Upland Sandpiper
Black Redstart
Monday 24th

Rob and I started the day off by heading to The Garrison. Unfortunately, the previous day's weather was refusing to budge and we were looking like drowned rats within minutes. The best we managed was scoping a summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver in The Roads. We joined Dan & Micheal at Lower Moors, via Old Town Bay (Merlin, Kingfisher and Greenshank there) where the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH was feeding before heading to Porth Hellick Beach and successfully seeing Bob Flood's White-rumped Sandpiper - a great bird for the trip list and beautiful to watch.

White-rumped Sandpiper

I said my goodbyes to R, D & M who were having last looks at Lower Moors and the Upland Sandpiper before getting the Scillonian back to the mainland; cheers guys for the great company! I took a very slow and very disappointing walk through Holy Vale - the best I managed there was a low Peregrine whose wingbeats I could almost feel physically. I had another look at the UPLAND SANDPIPER until the rain set in and I checked Newford Duckpond, Content Farm, the golf course and Porthloo. Three Black Redstarts at Porthloo and a 1st-winter Mediterranean Gull in the same spot as the other day's adult was the best I could find.

The final call of the day was Lower Moors again. I found Pete Denyer, Jamie Wilkinson and Liam Langley here. They were hoping for a view of the Waterthrush but didn't succeed. We did see the WILSON'S SNIPE again, though, this time with Common Snipe for comparison. There was also a Willow Warbler at Shooter's.

This time I enjoyed a burger with Pete, Jamie, Liam, James, Harry etc at the Scillonian Club before the log and banter until we got kicked out at closing time. Fun times.

Tuesday 25th

A Little Bunting had beeped on the pager from Tresco the previous day and there was a nice selection of birds to be enjoyed so the new team of Pete, Liam, Jamie and I planned to get a boat over there in the morning. I walked The Garrison  after dipping a Dusky Warbler at Porthcressa, with a Firecrest and a few Siskins to show for my efforts.

Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Crake

I just about caught the Tresco boat. A first-winter Mediterranean Gull kicked things off over there and we located the juvenile LESSER YELLOWLEGS and the Spotted Crake without too much difficulty. These were two excellent birds to watch and were lifers for all of the team. A Pectoral Sandpiper was a further addition to the increasingly lovely-looking trip list, then the rain set in. For pitty's sake that's the third day of frequent rain! I braved the downpour to renew my supply of cocoa-solids and assorted junk food. Thankfully, blue skies dominated again for a while and we searched Borough Farm for the bunting to no avail. Time was running out so we headed to New Grimsby to get the boat back to Mary's. The others went to look for the waterthrush (failing again) and I had a final unsuccessful look for this nightjar thing before another fun evening. While browsing the web on my laptop I noticed a lot of Scilly messages on RBA that my pager had completely missed, these included a Radde's Warbler on St Agnes, an Osprey over St Mary's and updates on things like the Upland Sand. This obviously concerned me and I emailed RBA.

Pectoral Sandpiper
Wednesday 26th

Liam, Pete, Jamie & James (L->R)

At last a clear and pleasant day. I didn't have time for any birding before getting the boat to St Agnes for the warbler. Dick Filby from RBA rang me just as we were leaving the quay and offered a week's free full service on his new app as a substitute for my broken pager. He was very kind and helpful, I can thoroughly recommend RBA as a service that puts itself out to make sure you get the news as efficiently as possible. Anyway, James, Harry and I got to St Agnes and connected with the showy (by the species's standards) Radde's Warbler near Troy Town. I was delighted to finally nail one of these elusive blighters. They don't turn up in the south east that often but I have twitched a couple and failed miserably. Paul Gale and I found ourselves a bit lost on our way to see the Bluethroat, but this was good in the end because as we were walking along I heard the call of a Lapland Bunting which then showed well in a grassy field. I fell behind Paul after searching out a chat which turned out to be a Black Redstart and after a while found the spot for the star chat. As I was walking towards the gathering a bird plopped down on the grass in front of me - jeeze it was the Bluethroat! And, oh lovely, a good male too! I called everyone over and they got on it. It played hard to get, as it was mobile and elusive underneath a layer of burnt gorse. Liam, Jamie and Pete rocked up after arriving on a slightly later boat and connected with the bird - a lifer for them. I then took them to the Radde's spot and the bird was much more elusive. They all saw the bird but I don't think they were happy enough with their views to tick it. We also called in at Pereglis and had educational views of an educational Lesser Whitethroat which could well be minula.

Lapland Bunting

We got a late boat back to St Mary's and, seeing as the others hadn't picked up the NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH yet, we made our way to Higgo's Pool where it had been showing on recent evenings. A loud 'clink' call gave us a clue to its presence and it plonked itself on the little muddy pool to everyone's utter delight!

Northern Waterthrush

Thursday 27th

Pied Flycatcher

I didn't get to wander 'Aggy' as I had wished to so decided to get the boat there again in the morning. J, L & P also wanted to return there to have another go for the Radde's. I started with an ineffectual bash of Gugh - Black Redstart and little else.There was no sign of the Bluethroat or warbler unfortunately but Liam and I jammed in on a Richard's Pipit (which was sadly flushed by a photographer before I could get any pics myself) and got a good look at the Lapland Bunting again. A Pied Flycatcher in The Parsonage was almost as good. Five Black Redstarts and a Willow Warbler were the best I could find myself.  I got much better views of the eastern Lesser Whitethroat and some far better pics (Wednesday's were a pure blur). Pete and Jamie had already returned to Mary's and Liam and I got the 4.30pm boat again. It resolved that Jamie's decision was a good one for him, as just after Liam & I got back to Hugh Town he rang me and said 'Hi Dave there's a Red-eyed Vireo near Porth Hellick House, and guess who found it? Yours truly' I congratulated him and we pegged it over there. I tried to call a cab but couldn't get through. It was a pretty long treck at such a late point in the day but it turned out fine as we joined the crowd and ended up getting crystal clear views of Jamie's very own RED-EYED VIREO! He was chuffed to bits and filled out his form that evening at the log. He deserved his find; he kept saying he was sick of waiting around for birds already found and wanted to 'actually do some birding'. Well done Jamie, thanks for the tick - a valuable one as there's very very few records in Teacher's Week!

eastern Lesser Whitethroat
Red-eyed Vireo
Friday 28th

Golden Plover

I met Liam after breakfast and we went for a walk around the southern part of St Mary's. A Kingfisher whizzed by at Old Town and we got a shock when we kicked up a Short-eared Owl from heather by the airfield. Three Golden Plovers, a couple of Black Redstarts and a Clouded Yellow were very confiding in the same area and I finally got a view of a Yellow-browed Warbler at the Porth Hellick Loop where three Ravens flew over. A Firecrest showed well at Carreg Dhu gardens - to Liam's delight; he needed it! At last he will no longer turn up at a twitch and ask in excitement 'Did you say there was a Firecrest about!?!?' We were planning on heading possibly doing Content Farm then Lower Moors when Jamie rang to pass on news of a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Holy Vale. Liam jogged on and I just kept up a fast walk. It turned out it had only been seen relatively briefly, I gave it a little time before joining Adam Norgate and James for a search for the Richard's Pipit at Porth Hellick Down, which didn't result in any sight or sound of our quarry. We popped in at The Dairy Cafe to have a quick look at a Crimson Speckled moth and met later at the Scillonian Club for the last log of the Scilly Season 2011 and a few games of darts and pool, another brilliant evening.

moth grip-off - Crimson Speckled

Saturday 29th

the first shot I've ever managed of Common Dolphins

The morning started off slowly, after having breakfast and sorting out my luggage I had to do a couple of things in town before collecting the Essential Guide to the Birds of the Isles of Scilly from Nigel Hudson and dropping it off at the B&B. I dropped my scope a couple of times which didn't do my mood any good, then I went off to Lower Moors and put my foot right in a deceptively shallow/firm bit of mud. Goo and swampy water flooded into my boot which was stuck there and I started to lose my rag. I dipped the Dusky Warbler, again, but got a good look at a Yellow-browed Warbler and heard a Reed Bunting. The Red-breasted Fly had been seen once more at Holy Vale so I popped over there but got only fly over Raven and Siskins. With no more time for birding I returned to Hugh Town to pick up my rucksack from the B&B (finding a Whinchat on the way), had a rest at Porthcressa beach and got on the Scillonian III for its voyage back to the mainland. It was sad leaving but in all fairness I was utterly nackered after an intense week that seemed a lot longer than a week. No sea creatures of any note other than a pod of Common Dolphins kept us company on the return sailing.

some of the rarest birds were found in the islands' museum

I met my parents at Penzance and we drove home through the night without any trouble, getting back early this morning. I lay in until 11.00am and slowly headed out to Canons Farm where a Brambling or two was with large numbers of finches. I'm looking forward to the next week or so, early November is prime time for CFBW birding.

Thanks to my parents for this trip and to all the birders on the islands for all their excellent company. As I said it has been one of the best birding weeks of my life and I cannot think of a six hour period as productive and rarity-filled as that first afternoon when I got on St Mary's last Saturday. The birds were excellent, the evenings at the Scillonian Club were a hoot and the experience amazing as always. I'm looking forward to my next visit...!

To sum it up:


Scarlet Tanager
Upland Sandpiper
Olive-backed Pipit
Wilson's Snipe
Radde's Warbler
Red-eyed Vireo

Other great birds:

Northern Waterthrush
Lesser Yellowlegs
Bluethroat (male)
White-rumped Sandpiper
Spotted Crake
Richard's Pipit
Pectoral Sandpiper
Lapland Bunting
Yellow-browed Warbler
Pied Flycatcher
Eastern race Lesser Whitethroat

and more . . .

Britain Life List: 326