Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Monday, 24 July 2017

18th-24th July

Things continue to be pretty quiet on patch, though the sometimes notable northerly winds, rain and heavy cloud of late have created an autumnal feel, and with that should come some bird movement. This morning, certainly, this was evident via a mixed feeding flock of hirundines over Mill Pond, including at least 4 Sand Martins. This species is very hard to catch up with here - it's only the second sighting of 2017, and 2 is roughly the annual average for records of these birds.
Sand Martin (above) & Swallow, Mill Pond, 24/7/2017

Attempts to get a decent photo proved impossible (as you can see here), but nevertheless, they were by far my most prolonged and enjoyable views of Sand Martin on the patch. After work, a circuit of lower Winkworth continued the autumn vibe. My first proper mixed Tit/Warbler flock of the season was roving through the scrub in Furze Field, and at least 2 vocal Willow Warblers were among the Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and 3 species of Tits.

Another sign of autumn is the post-breeding gatherings of corvids around Thorncombe Park, and during the last week some exceptional counts have been made. The numbers peaked on the 20th, when a site record 250+ Jackdaws were feeding on churned up ground within the estate. With them were at least 100 Rooks, 3 Ravens and an impressive 60+ Carrion Crows.

The warm weather during the early part of last week saw plenty of butterfly action, with Small Coppers and Common Blues notable by their numbers, and the first Painted Ladies of 2017 were observed. The best record came on the 19th, when a Clouded Yellow was seen over Rowe's Flashe Meadow, at Winkworth. It's highly likely this species has been present on the patch before, but it's the first documented sighting.

Keeping away from birds, an intriguing mammalian record came via Matt P on the 18th, from just outside the recording area. A dead Polecat/Ferret was on the A281 just south of Palmer's Cross, and should it have been the former, it would keep in trend with the southern expansion of this species. There is certainly suitable habitat on the patch, and an eye will be firmly kept out in the future.

Elsewhere, I couldn't fight the urge to put one of my remaining 'tarts ticks' to bed yesterday afternoon, when news of a Great Shearwater sitting on the sea at Portland Bill broke. The bird was reported as showing well for a few hours, and despite the 5 hour round trip I couldn't resist, particularly given the fact this species is effectively impossible to twitch in the UK. Alas, I missed it by about 40 minutes, a brutal dip on a Sunday evening.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Weymouth, 23/7/2017
However, solace came via a supermarket in Weymouth, which provided not only a winning scratchcard but also 3 beautiful juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls in its car park. The individual in the photo took kindly to my offerings of bread, allowing a good look at the dark 'mask' on the white head, the heavy dark bill and straight (ish) pale edges to the tertial tips. In this bird the wear to the scapulars can be seen, and indeed there is a new lower scapular growing.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A new bird for Thorncombe Street

2017 has so far seen 4 new species added to the historic bird list for Thorncombe Street, and this week a 5th joined, in unusual circumstances. Most birders love a list, and I've spent much time scouring through old books and reports, making sure I haven't missed any records of birds in my recording area. My research has been pretty thorough, but there are several species which have had a cloud of uncertainty over their heads.
Just like 1944 - a Great Grey Shrike on wires

For example, old, Victorian records of some birds (Night-heron, Ferruginous Duck etc) are simply described as being shot at 'Bramley', which could or could not be in my area. There are a few ponds in the village north of my patch boundary, and so these birds simply can't be added. 

As time and record-keeping moved forward, locations got more specific, but there are a batch of records from the mid 1940's from 'Bramley' that are of two species that seem very suited to my area, or at least what my area would have been like back then. The species in question are Grasshopper Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, and having worked out their references in Jeff Wheatley's Birds of Surrey, it seemed I needed to get my hands on the old South Eastern Bird Reports, which ran before the Surrey Bird Club came into existence.

Another record has long intrigued. A Great Grey Shrike was reported from Palmer's Green, in 1944. Wheatley could never find anywhere in Surrey that bore that name, and concluded that the record probably referred to Palmer's Cross/Goose Green, which are two areas next to each other on my patch. The observer was behind the Bramley records at the time, and the name confusion was likely just a typo or mistake. However, the lack of 100% certainty meant it just couldn't be confirmed.

I've long wanted to read through these South Eastern Bird Reports, and this week, with the great help of Haslemere Musuem, I finally did. Sadly, I couldn't get any further with Red-backed Shrike or Grasshopper Warbler. The former came close though, with the note from the 1944 report stating 'this species was prevalent in the Bramley area'. It's almost certain they were around, but as there's no 100% confirmation, the species remains off the list.

Collared versus Turtle, 1944
Great Grey Shrike, though, was a different story. The 1944 South Eastern Bird report had the erroneous 'Palmer's Green' as the location for the record, which came in October. However, I managed to get my hands on a dusty pamphlet from 1953, The Birds, Butterflies and Flowers of the Godalming Area, which I had no idea existed, and there I found the jackpot. 

Under the Great Grey Shrike section, the words I'd been hoping to find were there - "One on wires at Palmer's Cross in October 1944". Finally, confirmation that this bird was indeed within my recording area. The Shrike brings the historic tally up to 148, and becomes another uber-blocker for me.

These old documents make fascinating reading, and are a great way to appreciate/scowl at the changes the countryside has gone through in less than 80 years. Just take a look at the picture to the right, and note the difference in Turtle and Collared Dove records compared to nowadays...

Monday, 17 July 2017

13th-17th July

It remains quiet on the patch, or at least during the early morning sessions I've been managing of late. A spring largely devoid of heavy rainfall has left parts of the area seeming somewhat arid and bird-less, and on fine days it can be very quiet. However, to me there's always something to make a visit here worthwhile, whether it be on a freezing January day or a scorching July one.

Spotted Flycatcher, Selhurst Common, Sandra Palme
Perhaps one of the more popular summer crowd-pullers (by crowd I mean more than 1 person coming to look) are the relatively abundant Spotted Flycatchers. They can be found in at least 5 locations in the south of the recording area, and the showy birds at Selhurst Common were captured nicely by visiting birder Sandra Palme recently. I've put her pictures of the Flycatchers, and also of the Thorncombe Park Little Owls, in the photos section - I'll get round to updating this page properly soon.

There's been a couple of discreet heads up towards the autumn - today a Willow Warbler was calling in the upper arboretum at Winkworth, and on the 14th a couple of Siskin flew over. A feeding mass of over 100 House Martins on the same day, one which I was able to spend a few hours of on the site, was a notable count for here. My hopes of securing an autumn wader were raised when Matt P reported a Whimbrel over his work, which is about 10 miles to the north-east of here, but unfortunately I didn't connect. Earlier in the day a 2nd-year male Kestrel, seemingly in an odd moult pattern, had me racking my brains for a while. This species looks to have declined here in the last few years, despite no obvious change to the habitat.
Mind-blowing photo of the Cliffe Marsh Sandpiper

Across the dates on Mill Pond, a second Tufted Duck pair have fledged young, and the Gadwall pair have been present on a couple of occasions. One of the Little Grebe juveniles has moulted quickly into winter plumage, and looks quite odd among the summer-dressed adults. However, my main waterbird action of late came on the evening of the 13th, when an after work twitch took me to Cliffe Pools in north Kent.

The target, which was seen at great distance, was a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper. I didn't connect with this species in Poland earlier in the year so was pleased to add it to my Western Palearctic list. Clearly from an early brood and very lost, the delicate and pale individual was sadly always very far away, as my rubbish phone-scoped effort shows. I was surprised, however, that the difference between this species and Greenshank could be told from such distance.

Also at this excellent site in the mouth of the Thames, a family party of Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and Redshanks were the other waders noted. Both Sedge and Reed Warblers were in voice, a Barn Owl quartered the marsh and a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull was kicking about.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

6th-12th July

Work has dictated time on patch recently, though this week I've got into a routine of an early sky-watch each morning. It's creeping towards the time of year when the thought of flyover waders justifies a 5 am alarm, but it's probably still too early (and definitely so for any other vis-mig), and this has been reflected in the results so far this week. Monday and Tuesday particularly were dead - today was much better, with the northerly wind certainly making it's presence felt after an afternoon and night of heavy rain.
Kingfisher at Mill Pond yesterday

After the pleasant weather of late, this inclement spell had the Swift and Hirundine feeding groups on the move. In an hour I had 78 Swifts and 14 House Martins all north-west, as well as 3 Herring and 1 Black-headed Gull in the same direction. It won't be too long until the Swifts are moving south in big numbers, and hopefully Gull numbers will continue to rise in the next few weeks. A Siskin over completed an enjoyable session, and pointed nicely towards autumn migration.

As mentioned, this is the time of year when Gulls begin to appear again on the patch, and the last week has seen both the aforementioned species, as well as a single Lesser Black-backed, over. At home the morning and evening commute of Gulls to and from the south London reservoirs has started up again, and it won't be long at all until the first juveniles are seen among the travelling birds.

Back on the patch, the best bird of the last 7 days was no doubt a Kingfisher that was present briefly at Mill Pond yesterday morning. Kingfishers are hard to pin down here, and this was only the 5th record of the year. Elsewhere, a further 2 Spotted Flycatcher territories have been found, bringing the number of sites up to 5.

Amur Falcon last Friday
Last Friday I managed to twitch the stunning Amur Falcon in Polgigga, Cornwall, with David C and Magnus A. The bird was found late the evening before, and we travelled down on no sleep in order to connect not long after dawn. Our decision turned out to be the right one - the bird departed at 11 that morning, and hasn't been seen since. The 1st-summer female, representing the first twitchable British bird and only the 15th Western Palearctic record, looked absolutely knackered while she slowly awoke to a crowd of at least 100 people.

I have wondered, what chance the bird is still about, keeping a low profile in a remote Cornish valley? She'd already managed to elude the earliest arriving twitchers, sitting under their noses for an hour before discovery...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Operation Patch Wader

Having heard a Curlew fly over my flat at an ungodly hour earlier in the week, I began to think - my patch wader list is pathetic, even for an inland site with little water such as mine. During the past 3 years, of solid coverage I might add, I've managed just 5 species. Also, 2 of those 5 (Woodcock and Lapwing), whilst patch rares, are pretty regular locally.

Curlew over Allden's Hill in February this year
When Matt P worked and patched here in 2015 he managed more than 5 wader species in one year alone, including a terrible trio of grippage in the form of Common and Green Sandpipers, and Black-tailed Godwit (huge blocker!). I've had none of those birds, and they are the 3 waders on the historical list that remain off mine (not including the unidentified flock earlier this year). To put it into context Canons Farm, which is a lot smaller than my patch and totally devoid of water, has an astounding list of 13 waders, including such mouth-watering names as Dotterel, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover.

I upped my game this spring, giving Rowe's Flashe more attention than it deserved during the right times, but in truth none of the water bodies are actually attractive for wading birds, with a dearth of shorelines of any sort. I drew a spring wader blank until May 21st, when a rather late Curlew caught me by surprise, flying over Hive Field. However, despite this bird, and another in February, that's been it this year, aside from the Lapwings and Woodcocks of course.

So, I've set myself a goal, from now until the end of wader passage. With long-legged migration already on the go across the country, my aim is to find at least one wader on the patch before the winter is here. Any appropriate water will be checked thoroughly, along with the weather forecasts - flyovers are perhaps my best bet. That certainly seems to be the case at Canons, and my finest wader hour here came after light showers and a north-east wind in late July 2015 lowered 9 Whimbrel just enough to be seen from the Ridge. I'd be over the moon if something similar was to happen again.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

30th June-2nd July, Somerset and Devon

A family holiday in Exmouth allowed for some sporadic time in the field, particularly on the trip down, when a stop off at Collard Hill produced a butterfly lifer in the form of two Large Blues. The following day, on Dartmoor, butterflies were again the main focus. For the time of year the Exe Estuary had some OK birds, but more joy came from a couple of sea-watching sessions off Orcombe Point, with a change in wind direction on the Sunday afternoon proving the most productive.

Large Blue, Collard Hill, 30/6/2017

With most of the day free, we left early with a view to stop at a couple of sites in Somerset. First off was Collard Hill, near Glastonbury, famous for its reintroduced Large Blue butterflies. It was pretty cloudy, but we managed to see two individuals, and enjoyed wonderful views. 8 other species were noted, including my first Gatekeeper of the year. On the bird front, a Hobby and Raven passed overhead.

Next up was RSPB Ham Wall, a site I've long wanted to visit. Situated in the Somerset Levels, this excellent reserve was reminiscent of continental wetland habitat, with far reaching vistas and expansive reeds and channels. No less than 6 Heron/Egret/Bittern species breed, and we managed 5 of them, including flyover Cattle Egret and Bittern, as well as plenty of Great White Egrets. In total, a very impressive 57 species was clocked in a couple of hours. Notable was a rather late singing Cuckoo.

We stuck our heads in at Topsham, on the Exe estuary before, we arrived at the house, and watched a few Black-tailed Godwits among little else on the low tide.


An hour's sea-watch from the cliffs at Orcombe Point was quiet, with a few Gannets, a Fulmar and 2 Shags of note. Largely, however, I dreamed about the Red-footed Booby on the other side of the water in France.

Distant Slavonian Grebe, Cockwood, 1/7/2017
With the forecast warm and sunny, the destination was Aish Tor, Dartmoor, where butterflies were the target. The hoped for High Brown Fritillary wasn't conclusively pinned down - most species, in particular Fritillaries, were extremely active and the diagnostic underwing on a few candidate individuals wasn't observed. However, plenty of Dark Green Fritillaries were seen, as well as smaller numbers of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. 10 species were clocked up in total, and other good bits included Green Hairstreaks and Graylings.

A dapper summer plumage Slavonian Grebe was the highlight of a brief visit to Cockwood, on the west side of the Exe estuary, with a few Little Egrets also here.


Another early sea-watch yielded little, with the winds unfavourable, but with them swinging around to a south-westerly, it was back to Orcombe at 14:45. The first hour was quiet, but not long after the wind speed picked up, and a group of at least 5 Manx Shearwaters flew east. 6 minutes later, 2 dusky brown Balearic Shearwaters moved west slightly further out, and with that my patience was rewarded. This species, one of my favourites, can be found in the English Channel and bay of Biscay from July for several weeks onwards, as post-breeding feeding parties move around. At 16:19 two more Manxies flew east, with things tailing off thereafter.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

24th-28th June

Still relatively quiet on patch over the weekend and into this week, though a standout moment came late on Saturday (and again on the 26th), and a very pleasing number of Butterflies were recorded on Monday. The weather has been pretty mixed, with some recent heavy showers and windy spells, contrasting with the largely fine and sunny conditions on Monday.

White Admiral, Winkworth, 26th June
Saturday 24th

I awoke to news of a Red-backed Shrike at Thursley Common, and dragged my hungover self there at around 10:00, about an hour after it had been reported. Whilst having seen this species several times before, and not being a county lister, the idea of a short trip to watch my first Surrey Red-backed Shrike appealed. I teamed up with Rich S and Rich H, who'd arrived at a similar time, but it soon became apparent this bird wasn't going to be easy. 

Indeed, over the course of the next hour or so, we and several others managed to locate the finder, but not the bird. In fact, it wasn't seen again after the initial sighting, but classic Thursley specials like Dartford Warblers, Tree Pipits, Woodlark and a Hobby kept things interesting.

A flash through the patch afterwards revealed little, but an after-dark drive later on proved very productive. Several Tawny Owls were heard (including begging juveniles at 2 different sites), but the pièce de résistance was a beautiful Barn Owl, which flew over the road just south of Nadia's Hill. As I mentioned recently, there's been speculation from one of the gamekeepers that a pair has taken up residence at Combe Farm, not that far north from where this bird occurred. 

It's impossible to say if this was one of the alleged pair, and it's definitely true that Barn Owls are grossly unrecorded here. Whilst there isn't masses of good habitat, my return of 3 birds in the last 3 years (including this one) is dismal at best, and I will try and pin down this rumoured pair. At Selhurst Common, a striking female Common Glow-worm capped off a very enjoyable trip.

Sunday 25th

Very little of note during a quick patch visit. 30+ Mandarin on Mill Pond continue the recent large numbers here, and a Kestrel next to the A281 is significant for being one of so few seen this summer - this species has certainly declined here.

Marbled White, New Barn, 26th June
Monday 26th

This was a patch Butterfly day, and a good tally of 16 species were recorded in the sunshine. Highlights included White Admirals, Purple Hairstreaks and Silver-washed Fritillaries at Winkworth, and both Large, Essex and Small Skippers, Small Tortoiseshells and a good number of Marbled Whites at Hive Field/New Barn. Meadow Browns were everywhere, and Commas, Red Admirals, Speckled Woods, Small CoppersRinglets and Large, Small and Green-veined Whites completed the days list.

Later in the day, a brief visit to the Hambledon farmland yielded a male Yellowhammer seemingly taking food to a nest in a hedgerow, and still lots of Woodpigeons.

An evening Owl search on patch proved successful - 3 different species were recorded, including a couple of new sites with calling juvenile Tawny's and, best of all, another Barn Owl over the road. This second sighting in 3 days was not far from the Saturday bird, further south on the road towards Scotsland Farm. It now does seem likely a pair is established somewhere locally.

Tuesday 27th

A brief early morning drive through produced nothing of note.

Wednesday 28th

Another early and quick trip, with a similar list of birds. 15 Tufted Ducks on Mill Pond was a notable count, and the female and her brood of 9 were present. Interestingly it seems a female Mallard, who recently lost her only 2 ducklings, has taken it upon herself to assist the mothering of the Tufted Duck youngsters.

Friday, 23 June 2017

23rd June

There was quite a spectacle across the patch today with at least 500 Swifts filling the skies, a total that smashed the previous record of 100, which came at Winkworth on 27th July 2015. One feeding flock alone at New Barn consisted of 250+ individuals, and birds were seen pretty much everywhere throughout the rest of the site.

Swifts aren't actually very numerous here - there's no suitable breeding habitat, so normally the only big counts are made at passage times (e.g 100+ S on 27/7/2015, 33 NE on 5/5/2017). The birds today didn't seem to be moving. There was perhaps a slight westerly leaning, but I actually feel these were mass feeding flocks. I'm not sure why today was reason for such behaviour (weather wasn't that bad), but adults will travel big distances to collect food for their young when needs must, and given the Godalming/Farncombe/Bramley suburbia seem to have become Swift ghost towns today, my conclusion is thus.

Saying this, 2,000 moved south through Spurn yesterday, and 50 flew over Clandon today, so perhaps it was failed breeders linking up and slowly making an early exit from the UK? Who knows, but either way, it was quite a spectacle, and I wonder if I'll ever get such a count again here.

The Swift numbers were probably the highlight for David C and I today, as a 5+ hour session yielded little else of note, among 53 species. One of the Selhurst Common Spotted Flycatcher pairs showed well, but both the Little Owls and Ravens got stage fright the day the ultimate patch mega, another birder, was present.

Before he arrived I'd clocked a Common Tern at Bramley Park Lake, and 3 Gadwall and a Shoveler on Mill Pond, but unfortunately David only connected with the latter. Another pleasing sighting was that of a Skylark landing in suitable nesting habitat at Tilsey Farm. This species hasn't been proven to breed here since 2007, so fingers are crossed.

Generally though, it was quiet. Birdsong is dropping off, raptors and partridges are laying low, and Butterflies are often the more interesting things to look at. Oh what I'd do to have a marsh of some sort here...