Recent events have reawakened the birder in me and has led to a certain amount of looking back through my local ornithological record, now grandly christened the 'NDB uber archive' - yes, I know, the stuff of children, but us blokes never really grow up, do we? It is surprising what constitutes a birding highlight. Rarity or being self-found need not necessarily add weight to a species right to become a cherished memory. Time and place can have such an effect however.
In chronological order I would like to present my 'Top 10 North Downs and Beyond Uber patch' highlights.
May 1974 Jay, Sutton
The bird that started it all. I could only identify the improbably coloured bird on the back garden lawn because a fellow pupil at school had recently painted a picture of one in art class. At the time I asked him if it was a parrot. His answer that I could see this bird in my back garden was met with much scoffing. I can still clearly see this particular Jay, 39 years later, I can still feel the sensation of incredulity as I realised that I knew what it was. I started birding immediately.
May 1975 Woodcock, Epsom Common
Cup Final Day, West Ham versus Fulham (2-0 to The Hammers, both goals scored by Alan Taylor, if you're interested). After the game I rushed off to join a local RSPB group at Epsom Common, a place that I had been watching regularly since 'The Jay'. There was promise of roding Woodcock. My bird guide showed me several species that caught my imagination and this cryptically marked wader was one of them. As the light started to fade, our leader took us to a clearing in the woods. With the fly-by timing of a Red Arrow jet, our Woodcock came into view, all long-bill and dumpy body, grunting and 'tchicking'as it went. After several repeat performances I left the common in the gloom, but with a beaming smile on my face.
October 1976 Bluethroat, Beddington SF
I was a trainee ringer at the time, under the tutelage of Ken Parsley and Mike Netherwood.That autumn we were mostly mist-netting finches in an area of Fathen. This particular Sunday was no different. We had been ringing Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Linnets at a steady but unremarkable pace. Ken and Mike went off to check the nets leaving me to sit back and finish off my flask of coffee. When Mike returned, he was clutching a bird bag with a big grin on his face. "I bet you can't tell me what's in this bag" he said. To this day I do not know why, but without thinking I blurted out "Bluethroat?" And it was. I sat at home that evening, still not quite believing that I had seen such a rare species so close to home.
April 1991 Garganey, Holmethorpe SP
A pre-work, very early morning visit, due as much to our new-born daughter having woken me up as it was a desire to go birding. When a spanking drake Garganey swam out from a small clump of reeds in the half-light I could have cheered. No one was about, it was dead calm, quite warm, and all was alright with the world.
June 1996 Little Bittern, Epsom Common
This one came out of the blue. I had helped create the large Stew Pond on Epsom Common back at the end of the 1970s (a small amount of volunteer work, clearing scrub, etc), so it was fitting that a stunning male Little Bittern chose this very place to spend three days. I didn't see it until the end of its stay as I had been on Jersey. The time between arriving home from Gatwick Airport and leaving for Epsom Common was measured in seconds rather than minutes. The bird climbed up onto the top of low willow scrub and was out on show like a primma donna, before flying off and diving into cover. It wasn't seen again.
September 2000 Honey-buzzard, Banstead
I had been tracking the number of Honey Buzzard sightings that had been coming into the bird information web sites over the course of the afternoon and it was unprecedented. I arrived home and, over a cup of tea in the kitchen, was telling my wife about this amazing event when I looked out of the window. You couldn't make it up, as low down and coming towards us was a juvenile Honey-buzzard. Binoculars were at hand so we were able to go outside and watch this impressive bird as it passed overhead, seemingly within touching distance.
October 2005 Hawfinch, Headley Heath
The far westerly valleys are steep sloped and wooded, with grassy, open tops. I was in place in the gloom of an early autumn morning and surrounded by Hawfinches (eight of them to be exact). They had flown over from a far wall of trees to feed in the scrub around me, with fleeting but close views obtained to the accompaniment of lisping metalic ticks. And then they were gone - melted away without warning. It was a highly personal showing that I felt privileged to be in attendance to.
January 2008 Chaffinches and Bramblings, Canons Farm
The 'Big' Field was, for a few weeks, a feeding station to a mixed flock of c3,000 finches. They were mostly Chaffinches (peak of 1650) and, most impressively, Brambling (peak of 1200), taking advantage of flattened flax. I spent many hours watching the wheeling mass of birds, at times close enough to appreciate individually, but most of the time they were several hundred metres away but at distance even more of an avian spectacle.
November 2010 Hen Harrier, Canons Farm
When I took an excited phone call from David Campbell late one afternoon as he was watching a male Hen Harrier I was extremely pleased for him and highly gripped off by it in equal measure. The fact that the bird had seemingly settled in a field close to Canons Farmhouse as the light went gave me some hope that it might have roosted. The following morning I was in place when it was still pitch dark, and, after being joined by Neil Randon and Mike Spicer, an unmistakeable pale grey blob became visible in the middle of the field as it started to get lighter. As the light increased the bird took to the air and headed due west without ceremony. The show had been brief but I have rarely been so taken by a bird.
May 2012 Dotterel, Canons Farm
The facts are these: 15 Dotterel spent almost 9 hours in a field at Canons Farm on May 4th 2012. They were the first Surrey record since Queen Victoria was a young woman, a major London listing unblocker and a good sized flock for anywhere in the UK. The whole event was surreal, with a procession of 'names' turning up to pay homage. The birds shone out of the mud and overcast skies, and all seemed unreal. As I watched them it just didn't seem right that these birds were here at 'our' humble farm. Of all of the birds that I have seen locally, this species seems to be the least likely to put in a repeat performance.