Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

18th January

Today was a sunny, crisp winter's day, and I aimed to head out on the patch for the first lengthy session in a while. Such conditions did leave the slightest taste of Spring in the mouth - some Thrushes were singing, Great Spotted Woodpecker's were drumming and, for the first time in months, notable numbers of raptors were on the wing.

A Nuthatch at Winkworth this morning
Birds of prey do well on my patch. There are vast swathes of suitable breeding habitat for the 5 species that do so, and mixed too, with decent sized tracts of woodland and sheltered copses sitting next to more open hills and valleys. In my time I have seen no less than 11 species of raptor here, with 12 the historical figure (not sure I'll ever get White-tailed Eagle back!). There is a lack of suitable hunting habitat for things like Harriers and Falcons, with very few big, open and overgrown areas. Anyway, with the sun shining today decent numbers of the residents were seen, including a rather high tally of 5 Red Kites from my new-found vantage at New Barn Point.

This included a displaying pair, and they weren't the only species getting in the mood. A rather overdue year tick was Sparrowhawk, and I had a pair from the Ridge, displaying high over St Catherine's Hill. Another male later whizzed over the north facing crop, which was host to at least 1 Yellowhammer among the 20+ strong Reed Bunting flock. A Crossbill was a surprise flyover here, and there were good numbers of Red-legged Partridges around, with around 18 the final total.

Before climbing up the Ridge I'd checked out both Mill Pond and Winkworth, the former in the seemingly more and more fruitless hope of relocating the Red-crested Pochards, last seen on Christmas Eve. Most of the water was frozen, but the large party of Canada Geese were still present, with their tag-along Greylag, as well as the female Mute Swan and one of her young. Duck numbers were good - at least 65 Teal and 40 Mandarin, but there was only 1 Shoveler, and no other species bar the typical Mallards. At Winkworth, 2 Marsh Tits and a squealing Water Rail were of note.

One of the Little Owls today
Post-Ridge, I decided upon visiting Bonhurst as oppose to a full circuit of the patch, and it proved a good decision as I enjoyed 3 more Yellowhammers. Also notable was the apparent rise in Thrush numbers - plenty of Fieldfares and Redwings were actively feeding, and I located the Little Owl pair near the Res. As I headed back through Junction Field, a large and very pale Buzzard caught my eye. The thing was miles up, and travelling north. I stupidly tried to photograph it before actually taking in any ID features, and all I could make out as it got further and further away was a very pale head, breast and tail, and dark carpal patches. Surely a pale-phase Common Buzzard (I have seen one here a few times before) as oppose to a young Rough-legged! An interesting bird, and an interesting conversation with Dave Harris that followed.

After a couple of hours on the Ridge hoping this bird would reappear, I headed to New Barn Point, where movement was minor, though plenty of raptors were enjoying the thermals, including the aforementioned Red Kites. Another Marsh Tit called from near the pond, but not much else was about. One last check of Mill Pond revealed some loafing Gulls, all Black-headed and Common.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 patch review

2016 was another interesting year on my Thorncombe Street patch. 2015 was the first time I'd thoroughly recorded every species I saw, and it culminated in the creation of a report, with much help from Matt Phelps, who co-produced it with me. It was always going to be hard to follow up such a productive 12 months, but it produced just one off the 2015 total for my year list, with 115, far greater than my 105 total in 2014. There were less new birds for the recording area than in 2015 (namely Grey Partridge, Montagu's Harrier, Woodlark and Tree Pipit), but 2016 will be remembered by me as the year of the catch up. I managed to see a fantastic 6 species of birds that had been historically recorded, but never by me, including some real patch rares, such as Wood Warbler, Osprey and Nightingale. In all, 2016 left my life total at 127.
Late summer over Slade's Farm

With Matt leaving his job at Winkworth in the spring, records from the arboretum naturally fell. I'm sure I missed some decent birds that he would have found. Aside from myself, coverage was minimal. Thorncombe Street is still largely not visited by Surrey birders, and pretty much all the records come from myself. The county's land-locked geography perhaps produces a lack of local coverage cycle. Less rarities turn up than at the coast, for example, and this in itself encourages Surrey birders to twitch as oppose to patch or local bird, thus meaning less rares are found. However, I like the peace and quiet, and development in the patch is very slow paced. Only one new house went up in the entire 10km+² recording area, and bar a couple of trees being hacked down no habitat change occurred. The vast estate land, and lack of people around, no doubt helps the list of elusive Surrey breeders that were successful in 2016, among them Raven, Red Kite, Hobby and both Grey and Red-legged Partridge.

Red-legged Partridges bred successfully
I thought a monthly summary would be fun, but perhaps that would be a bit much, and so I have decided to go with a seasonal theme. Watching the changes in the natural world throughout the year will always give me happiness, so it seems apt to go along those lines here.

Winter bird of 2016

This bird is perhaps still present, having last been seen on 24th December - Red-crested Pochard. On 13th November I was amazed to find a female on Bramley Park Lake, the first in the recording area since 1999. The surprise continued as the bird stuck about, frequenting Mill Pond, and was enjoyed by a number of visiting birders. Remarkably, 2 females were seen on December 4th and on the 23rd. As I mentioned, this/these birds could well still be about. They are elusive, enjoying the seclusion of the waterside vegetation, and can be tricky to pick out. I have no idea where they have come from, but hope to get the species on my 2017 year list
2 Red-crested Pochards on Mill Pond on 4th December

Spring bird of 2016

Really, the spring bird of 2016 features later as bird of the year, but there was some quality contenders. It's a straight shootout between 2 of my favourite songsters, Woodlark and Nightingale, and I will choose the latter. This bird not only hung around for the best part of a week in early May, it also both sang and showed well, from the unusual location of Clock House Lane. Credit for this find lies at the feet of Nigel Matthias, who tweeted about the birds presence, and I have to say it was fun to twitch a bird on my patch! A much sought after 'catch up', with the last recorded birds in the 1980's.

Summer bird of 2016

The May Nightingale on Clock House Lane
In the spring I did several recce's of the local area, in a failed attempt to locate a bird that has severely declined in Britain. I persisted on the patch, constantly thinking patches of habitat were still OK for this bird, but had no joy. So, I was both surprised and utterly delighted on 18th July to hear a purring Turtle Dove from Allden's Hill. It was a sweltering day, hitting 30 degrees, and the bird was clearly somewhere to the NW, in the Munstead direction. 10 days later I got even more lucky, as, from Allden's Hill, I witnessed one fly SE down the valley in the late morning. Whilst overjoyed to get this bird on my patch list, I was frustrated at never being able to pin one down. I invested so many hours trying, from late April to August, but ultimately the species eluded me. However, it gave me no doubt that Turtle Doves do indeed hang on in the south-west Surrey countryside, somewhere (I'd love to know where!).

Autumn bird of 2016

A few contenders for this one. Both Wood and Sedge Warbler were brilliant 'catch up' birds, and another Marsh Harrer was fantastic, but they were all topped by an Osprey, which glided slowly south over Thorncombe Park on 8th September, before disappearing back north. The bird was mobbed by a local Buzzard in it's 10/15 minute saunter over the area, on what was a fantastic day in general on the patch. Yet another bird that had been seen before, but not by me, I had been expecting to add Osprey to my Thorncombe Street life list for a while before seeing this one. I am hopeful of seeing more in the future - one hung around for nearly a week in 2013.
The view from Allden's Hill

Best bird of 2016

Without a shadow of a doubt, not only my best patch moment ever but also one of my best birding ones so far, was the sheer elation of a flyover male Montagu's Harrier on 7th May. I will remember that day for a very long time. The previous night I had checked the weather and it looked perfect for movement, and indeed for raptors, and when Lee Evans tweeted something along the lines of "eyes up tomorrow, expect the spectacular (Griffon!)", I knew exactly where I would be sitting for a few hours. In glorious sunshine, with a Cuckoo and Garden Warblers singing around me, I enjoyed 5 other raptor species (including 31 Buzzards). Clear stuff was coming through, with my first Swifts and Hobby of the year flying north, but all was overshadowed by that distant, drifting silhouette of a Harrier, that became clear as it flew out of the light at 11:39. Absolute magic, for me what birding is all about.

A little mention must go to the Grey Partridges that amazingly bred on the patch. They were first seen in March, but stuck around, being exceptionally elusive. I have not seen them for some months now, and can only hope they are avoiding the seemingly daily blast of the guns.

Juvenile Marsh Harrier over Allden's Hill on 30th August
Disappointment of 2016

Not too many, thankfully, but there was a dearth of waders for sure. In 2015 Snipe, Common & Green Sandpiper, Curlew, Lapwing, Woodcock, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel were all recorded. Granted, I didn't see all of them, and that is a frankly ridiculous haul for an inland, largely dry site, but in 2016 I had just Lapwing and Woodcock! Hopefully this year will change - the Godwit and both Sandpipers remain off my life list, so I shall be trying extra hard for them.

Another disappointment was the rejection by the Surrey Bird Club Rarities Committee of Matt and I's Little Bunting, on 24th October 2015. Upon reflection, I can understand the decision. A fleeting view of a calling species neither of us had experience with is pretty much impossible to pass through, especially given it's status in the county. However, we both are certain it was a Little Bunting - there is nothing else it could have been. Anyway, it must go down as one that got away, on a county level at least. I have submitted a batch of newer records (many of them joint, with Matt), including the Montagu's, and await their outcome with particular interest.

Ravens - another successful breeder
Best migration day of 2016

8th September - Osprey, Tree Pipit (patch first), 7 Yellow Wagtails, 5 other raptor species and hundreds of Hirundines from the Ridge in the space of a few hours - beautiful stuff. A special mention to 30th March (first Swallows and Willow Warbler, Great & Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a site record count of 103 Meadow Pipits north) and also 7th May (Monty's, first Swifts and Hobby). Vis-mig, and watching the birds come and go, is the underlying and continual enjoyment I get from birding. Here's to 2017.

Monday, 2 January 2017

2nd January

A New Year, and a new patch list to begin. In 2015 and 2016, for the first time, I kept county, British and Western Palearctic (WP) year lists, but I won't be doing that in 2017. For me at least, year listing takes away some of the pleasure of simply watching and enjoying birds. I will keep a patch list, as ever, and that's all. With several WP adventures planned for the year ahead I have 2 main goals - to submit all my local records to Birdtrack, and to try my hardest to nail the patch. Last year I did well, matching my 2015 total of 116 different species. So, for 2017, I have ambitiously set the target of 120. This will be a tough ask, and shall require a number of rarities, but with 2 days of the year gone I sit on a very satisfying 66, a figure I didn't reach in 2016 until January 28th.
A male Reed Bunting on the Ridge
Yesterday, I was delighted in particular with 2 species that aren't easy to get in the Thorncombe Street area. At dawn, 2 Little Egrets flew over Mill Pond, seemingly having taken off from over the fence in Snowdenham House. Luke, the Thorncombe Park gamekeeper, stopped to say Happy New Year as I was scanning the water, and told me how he had seen a few Egrets within the estate recently. They are rare here, and in 2016 I had just 2 all year, so to have that same number within a few minutes of sunrise in 2017 was fantastic. As it happened, I had another one flying south over Winkworth later on.

The other highlight from the 1st was not a species that is neccessarily rare here, but one that is extremely hard to see - Woodcock. In 2015 I didn't see any until November, and last year December, so when I flushed 2 from Phillimore, in Winkworth, I was particularly pleased. There are doubtless many out there, but they are so well hidden and have plenty of habitat to skulk in. A fine start to 2017 was rounded off nicely at Bonhurst Farm, with a calling Little Owl and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, that flew over west with a group of vocal Herring Gulls.

2 Red Kites near Middle Copse
Today started at Mill Pond, where again I failed to find the female Red-crested Pochard, that was last seen on Christmas Eve. I say the female - there have been 2 knocking about, occasionally together. I hope the temperatures drop a bit, as many more ducks, including the Pochards, frequent the pond when it's cold. The single male Mute Swan was still present, but with little else about it was onto Slade's Farm, where my girlfriend and I were to begin a mammoth walk of the patch. The plan was up over the Ridge all the way through to Leg-of-Mutton Copse/Juniper Hill, before going back via New Barn, Tilsey Farm and Selhurst Common.

By the time we'd reached the Ridge the 'big three' of patch specialities had all been seen - Red Kite, Raven and Red-legged Partridge. The latter, a group of 6 birds, were the first I'd recorded since December 9th - this species becomes harder to see in mid-winter, as they either try to avoid or don't avoid the shooters. Apart from a few gulls and many Woodpigeons, not much was moving in the skies, and the Bunting/Finch flock on the sacrificial crops was small, and mainly consisted of Reed Buntings. A sole Fieldfare chakked away here, one of just two seen all day (Redwing numbers weren't exactly high either). We moved on, via Junction Field and Gatestreet Farm, and passed through Wintershall where a sole Egyptian Goose was hanging around with an individual Canada Goose and two monstrous looking hybrid Geese.
The female Crossbill at Juniper Hill

We stopped for coffee and a sit down in Middle Copse Field, enjoying decent perched views of 2 Kites. This species was seen in numbers today - at least 8, no doubt the sunshine helping get a few birds up in the air. I hoped for Marsh Tit in Great Brook, but heard none, and Leg-of-Mutton Copse was also fairly quiet. Deciding to go a little off-piste, and through Juniper Hill, I was quickly stopped in my tracks by the sound of calling Crossbills. A picked out a pair, male and female, high up in the conifers, interacting and feeding loudly. Much to my surprise, the male uttered a few notes of song, something I have not heard on the patch before. We enjoyed decent views and left them to it. I was very happy to get Crossbill so early in the year. They turn up rarely, randomly and pretty much anywhere, and I had just 3 records last year. One of those sightings was from Leg-of-Mutton Copse in late November, so perhaps these birds have been about for a bit.

New Barn Point - a new name, and possible new
sky-watching site
Having chanced upon, and subsequently taken in, a cracking view over the east of the patch, we walked through New Barn, hearing my first Marsh Tit of the year. Reaching Tilsey Farm a flyover Yellowhammer was a nice sight, particularly given the lack of this species presence on the Ridge this winter. A large group of about 30 Meadow Pipits were in the scrubby main meadow at Tilsey, which really does look good for Owls. Heading back through Selhurst Common another Marsh Tit was heard in a mixed Tit flock, as was a Firecrest, which showed briefly. The latter species isn't too numerous in the winter.

So, Crossbill joins Woodcock and Little Egret on the extremely-pleased-to-have-already-got list for 2017. 66 is a decent start, and I still have Little Grebe, Greylag Goose, Lesser Redpoll, Sparrowhawk and a few other fairly common species to see. A return of the Red-crested Pochard would be nice, and with a couple of very cold mornings forecast for this week Mill Pond will be worth checking

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

29th November

I awoke to a sharp frost this morning. Temperatures had hit minus 5 overnight but, like yesterday, the sky was blue and the wind calm. It felt like proper, midwinter, and the first stop was the patch, which was due a thorough check. Inspired by recent, local wildfowl records, I stopped to scan Mill Pond first. The northern end was frozen, but the rest of the water was rammed with Ducks and Geese, notably Canada Geese, of which 23 was the second highest count of the year. This species is infrequent on Mill Pond, and they were joined by 4 Greylags.

The female Red-crested Pochard on Mill Pond this morning
The number of Teal has been rising steadily these past few weeks, and today's count of (at least) 41 was the highest of this winter so far. A few drakes were displaying, and beyond them were several Shoveler, a largely sleeping flock of 15+ Tufted Ducks and probably over 60 Mallards. The number of ducks lead me to retrieve my telescope from the boot, and give the water a quick scan. As I did so, a pair of Gadwall revealed themselves before, much to my surprise, as did a female Red-crested Pochard. They are exceptionally rare here (my November 13th blog post goes into much more detail) and this bird was surely the same one that I found on Bramley Park Lake on the aforementioned date a couple of weeks ago. Presumably she has stayed local since the 13th, and her typically shy behaviour this morning demonstrated perhaps why I haven't noted her in my intervening visits.

The new path leading to the Ridge
She seemed to prefer the vegetated sides of the lake, and her journey from one to another across the open water was quick, before she was easily lost in the trees and roots. The habitat on Mill Pond actually looks decent for Red-crested Pochard, so perhaps she will stick. There are a handful of off-limits, private ponds between here and Bramley Park Lake, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's spent much of her time there. Continuing to Winkworth, in search of another rare duck, was fruitless - it was dead there, and so I decided to climb up the Ridge. A new footpath has been constructed along the Slade's/Rowe Barn Farm boundary, offering slightly obscured views of the former. It's somewhat of a shame, but I have to say the viewing isn't anywhere as limited as I was worried it was going to become. 

The light on the Ridge was brilliant, and a large party of Linnets chattered and wheezed on the southern facing crop. A few Reed Buntings and a single Brambling where also of note here, and 3 Common Gulls flew south. Numbers of these will rise as winter goes on. I still await a Woodcock on the patch this year - now is optimum time, and a search solely for this species in Leg-of-Mutton Copse on the 25th didn't produce the goods (a couple of Crossbill was a nice record though, only the 3rd of the year). As I headed back down, about 10 rather unseasonal Meadow Pipits dropped in, but in general it was rather quiet, so it was onto Frensham Great Pond where I had a target bird to try and locate.

The Frensham Long-tailed Duck
On Sunday remarkable news of an immature Long-tailed Duck, found by Frensham stalwart patch-watcher Shaun Peters, had emerged, and the bird proved popular that day. I had work preventing me from going, as well as a distinct lack of enthusiasm for county listing these days However, given the scarcity of this bird in Surrey, the closeness of it to home and the fact it's a duck, lead me to ambitiously try a pre-dawn trip before work on Monday. A dead Guillemot, even more of a surprise than the duck, had been seen by David Campbell the day before, but before the sun came up I had to settle for poor views of the Long-tailed from the hotel, as well as a drake Goosander, before heading off to work. It was there that I learnt about a redhead Smew at the same site - I was gutted I'd missed it, but with today off I was up for trying to relocate it, a decision not too tough to make given the species position as my favourite bird.
Wisely remaining hidden

Alas, I couldn't find the Smew today, nor the Goosander, but the Long-tailed Duck performed very well indeed, my girlfriend and I enjoying fairly close views and an opportunity to photograph the bird from the east shore. An Aythya hybrid, presumably a Pochard x Tufted, had me pondering for a while, and a Water Rail could be heard squealing from the reeds. It would be rude to not end the day without a final duck species (10 in total today) so we visited the lonely gentleman in the last photo before heading home! A dusk check on Mill Pond confirmed the Red-crested Pochard was still present.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Northern France & the Netherlands - day 3

Bar-headed Geese at Kade, Zevenhoven
This is the second of 3 blog posts covering my trip to northern France and the Netherlands from 16th-19th November 2016. A full trip report can be found here, on Cloud Birders.

Day 3 - Zuid-Holland & Amsterdam

Tundra Bean Geese, part of a group of 60
On the last day I had 3 targets left, for which I had sites for 2. We were heading to Amsterdam, where one of them was waiting, and I had received gen for Bar-headed Goose late the night before. Black Swan, I had written off. The Bar-heads had been reported in Zevenhoven, in the far north of Zuid-Holland. It was very much en route to Amsterdam, and so we could afford to have one last shot at this species. The Zevenhoven area, like Die Biesbosch yesterday, surprised me in it's attraction. A network of fields, lakes and marshes were home to some spectacular houses. There can't be many nicer places to live, and the number of birds were high. Loads of Geese and Ducks were seen (including, weirdly, a Wood Duck pair), and as we followed the GPS to a farm adjacent to the river Kromme Mijdrecht. Right in front of us, were 8 Bar-headed Geese, resting with 2 Mute Swans. Easy enough, and a relief after missing out yesterday.

The drake American Wigeon at Snel en Polanen
We moved on quickly, driving through this delightful area. A Marsh Harrier was the only one of the trip, and plenty of Great White Egrets were seen, before a colossal flock of Grey Geese caught my eye from a raised road we were on. We pulled over, and a scan made it clear most were White-fronts, with a good number of Greylags. However, the birds right at the front weren't, and it soon became clear about 60 Tundra Bean Geese were also present. They were a welcome surprise, and the 10th Goose species of the trip. We continued our journey to Amsterdam, passing 3 more Bar-headed Geese in Mijdrecht on the way.

2 Alexandrine Parakeets at Vondelpark
The first stop in Amsterdam was Oosterpark, one of 3 urban parks where my next quarry was supposedly easy to find. The squawking of several Ring-necked Parakeets raised my hopes, but ultimately I found nothing different here, as the rain began to fall heavily. It was then on to Vondelpark, a beautiful place, and straight away a large Parakeet caught my eye. It landed, and the bright, heavy beak stood out. I made out the pink shoulder patch, and clearly was looking at my first Alexandrine Parakeet. These birds breed in a few places in the Netherlands, and I saw several more in Vondelpark, their call and size the most obvious feature. With the second tick of the day in the bag, we enjoyed Amsterdam for several hours. 

The Black Swan at Nationaal Park Die Biesbosch
As we began our journey back down, news broke first of an American Wigeon, just 19 minutes off the motorway, and then, remarkably, of a Black Swan back at Die Biesbosch. We had time to try for both. The first port of call was Snel en Polanen, where the drake American Wigeon was sleeping quite close to the shore. I took in some nice views, as a small crowd assembled. Presumably this is quite a record for the Netherlands, but with time against us we had to make haste, and continue south, back to Die Biesbosch. 

Chilean and Greater Flamingoes at Batenoord
With another GPS courtesy of Waarneming, we pulled up at a flooded field, and there it was, a single Black Swan with 62 Mutes. Finally, all the trip targets were in the bag. 2 White-tailed Eagles had been reported here this morning too, and with my girlfriend keen to see them we stuck around, but couldn't wait too long before we continued heading back. The journey back to Calais included a few nice birds - a flock of Avocet, a weird, mixed Flamingo flock at Batenoord (including Greater and breeding Chilean), another Hen Harrier and a female Merlin near Haringvliet. The latter proved to be the 100th bird of what had been an excellent trip.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Northern France & the Netherlands - day 2

This is the second of 3 blog posts covering my trip to northern France and the Netherlands from 16th-19th November 2016. A full trip report can be found here, on Cloud Birders.

Day 2 - Netherlands: Zuid-Holland, Noord-Brabant & Utrecht provinces
Zuid-Holland in a bird - Barnacle Geese, in the 10's
of 1000's, these ones at Oudeland van Strijen

After a largely non-birding day on the Thursday, Friday 18th was when I'd scheduled to see most of my targets, including the main one, Lesser White-fronted Goose. Thus, we started not long after dawn at the site for this rare species, the captivating Oudeland van Strijen polder fields, a little more than 12 miles SW of Dordrecht, in Zuid Holland. Polders are areas of low-lying land, reclaimed from the sea or a river, and protected by artificial channels. They're characteristic of the Netherlands. Indeed, when we arrived, the typical Dutch winter birding scene was spread out in front of me, as far as the eye could see. Tens upon tens of thousands of wintering Geese, predominately Barnacle, fed in the patchwork of fields, their yelping calls filling the air. 

The other most populous Goose here was White-fronted, of which there were at least a few thousand. 3 other Geese speciess and many dabbling ducks were also viewable almost everywhere, with big numbers of Mute Swans, Grey Herons, Curlews, Lapwings and at least 10 Great White Egrets. Approaching from the village of Strijen, to the east of the polders, I didn't really know how to begin my needle-in-a-haystack search for the Lesser White-fronts. I decided to methodically work my way around the entire area, before cutting through a north-south track, Vlaamseweg, in the middle, checking each flock of Geese. The magic of the area was pushing me on, and the first hour flew by. The problem with the polders is the unevenness - the many dykes and ditches mean distant Geese can disappear easily, making targets even harder to pick out. 

The drake Bufflehead at Barendrecht
By about 10 o'clock it became clear this was not going to be an easy job. It was very hard to pull myself away, but I decided that it would make sense to move on, and try again later. With Geese still flying in from roost, I figured another thorough search in the afternoon was the best idea, and we headed north to Barendrecht, where the next target of the day was located. Remarkably, the drake Bufflehead on Gaatkens Plas, at Koedood, was back for his 13th winter, and had been reported fairly consistently in recent days. This smart duck has been accepted as wild by the Dutch authorities, and only a few minutes after pulling up we were looking at the Bufflehead, as it dived and displayed with a small flock of Tufted Ducks along the southern shore. This was the easiest bird of the trip, and after enjoying some fantastic views we had a bite to eat in the car, before heading back past Dordrecht, to the Zuid-Holland/Noord Brabant border, with the next target ready to be looked for.

Great White Egrets were common
- over 40 were seen on the 18th
The Nationaal Park De Biesbosch is a habitat like nothing I have seen before. Situated on the eastern side of the Hollands Diep river, it's one of the last extensive areas of freshwater tidal wetlands in Northwestern Europe. For miles and miles, flooded fields, small networks of rivers, partially sunken forests, wet grassland and reeds could be seen, with a simply huge amount of birds present. As with seemingly everywhere in the Netherlands, access is easy, and you could drive through this marvelous area, a simple car ride turning into a avian safari. The cast was similar to Strijen, though with many more ducks and a staggering amount of Mute Swans, with at least 150 present. However, my main target here was a category C bird, Black Swan, with a family party reported a couple of times in the past week. However, despite cruising through the entire area we had no joy, but this disappointment was completely wiped away by the stunning scenery and cast of birds. 2 ringtail Hen Harriers were a nice treat, with good views roadside, and nearby the only Water Pipits of the trip were feeding in the grass. It would have been nice to spend the day here, but I had other targets, and after 2 'dips' the pressure was on, as we made our way east to Culemborg.

One of the Ringtail Hen Harriers at De Biesbosch
Another category C bird was the target, this time Bar-headed Goose. In Josh Jones' 2015 report he mentioned a flock of 73 birds along the River Lek here, with the species said to be populous along this stretch of water. After a 50 minute drive we pulled up on a road that overlooked the river, but to my disappointment I could see no Bar-heads, just Barnacles and White-fronts. Naively, I was confident I would see this species here, and hadn't researched a back up site, much like I had with the Black Swans. I began to worry that I would perhaps miss out on 2 species, far from ideal, and it became clear the need to check Waarneming.nl for the most recent sightings would be crucial for landing the birds I needed, bar a stroke of luck. After a quick check further up the river valley we decided to head back to Oudeland van Strijen, where it was time to really hammer the Geese. As we were driving back, news came through of one of the wintering Red-breasted Geese there, and I was determined to pick that individual out too.

Oudeland van Strijen - flat, vast, and uneven habitat
makes hard birding
A couple of roadside White Storks were a nice surprise on the ride back, and we got to Oudeland van Strijen at about 14:15. I had only a couple of hours, maximum, to find the Lesser White-fronts, and I decided to try and find the Red-breasted Goose first of all. The bird had been reported to the west of the Vlaamseweg track, in a big, bumpy polder called Dwarsche Vaart. After a couple of pull ins and scans along the Vlaamseweg, at the third one I decided to get the scope out, and work my way through what must have been at least 300 each of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese. I could see nothing of note, but when I looked even further, beyond the flocks, the clear colours of a Red-breasted Goose filled by telescope view! The bird was far off, and feeding behind a metal gate with Barnacles, and I had just a couple of minutes with it before showing my girlfriend. The deceptive nature of the polder then came through, as the Goose vanished, seemingly into a dyke. It wasn't seen again, but I was now strongly motivated to find the main trip target.

We moved further up the track, and I scanned a big flock of White-fronts. As I moved the scope to the right, 5 Geese shot to my attention. Having tried to turn a few White-fronts into Lessers earlier in the day, these birds had me pretty sure from the off, with the extensive white blaze over the crown, the short stubby bill, slightly darker colour and size very clear. Any effects the biting wind had soon evaporated as the adrenaline kicked in. I wanted to nail the eye-ring, to be sure, and after finally managing to hold the scope steady I could see it clearly, certainly on the 3 right-hand birds. Finally, Lesser White-fronted Geese! Amazed, relieved, and delighted, I beckoned my girlfriend over, and she attempted a few phone-scope shots of the right hand birds. The 2 others had seemingly vanished, and after watching the 3 for a few minutes, suddenly, they took flight. They landed not far to the west, but after about 10 minutes of trying to relocate them, I gave in, still over the moon to have got a bird I had desired for a very long time. This was proper birding - picking a species out among thousands if similar ones, in a vast and testing habitat. 

A pointless picture, but of a birding
moment that will live long in the memory -
3 of the 5 Lesser White-fronted Geese
Remarkably, 22 we reported later in the day. This remains the highest figure reported all winter, and by some distance, so it certainly seems a little odd. These extremely rare birds are from the Swedish reintroduction programme, but with Dutch wintering numbers surpassing the amount of birds in Sweden, clearly others are coming from somewhere. I was chuffed to have seen them, and with little sunlight left we decided to head to the far south of the polders, where a Bar-headed Goose had been reported earlier in the week. We had no joy, but the thrill of getting the main target certainly outweighed any disappointment of missing the category C birds. When we got in, fortune seemed to shine down on me, as I learnt of a flock of 13 Bar-headed Geese on the way to Amsterdam, where we were headed tomorrow. I would have a final chance with these birds. Another target was waiting for me in the Dutch capital, but it seemed Black Swan was going to be very hard to get.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Northern France & the Netherlands - day 1

This is the first of 3 blog posts covering my trip to northern France and the Netherlands from 16th-19th November 2016. A full trip report can be found here, on Cloud Birders.

Day 1 - Foret d'Hesdin

The moon over Foret d'Hesdin
The first full day of the trip was to include little birding, with only an hour or so scheduled in the Foret d'Hesdin, in Nord Pas de Calais, from dawn. We awoke in the small town of Hesdin, about 64 miles south-east of Calais, and after wolfing down a couple of pastries from the local boulangerie were heading up into the west side of the forest. This 1014 hectare, predominantly Beech woodland habitat was home to my one and only target of the day, and my only one that wasn't to be found in the Netherlands - Reeve's Pheasant.

This spectacular Chinese introduction is on category C of the French list, and the species breeds in Foret d'Hesdin, though birds are released here too. With Josh Jones' specific directions at hand, we parked by the gate on the western entrance track, and climbed up into the forest. Dew was still on the undergrowth, which was expansive, and the mist was lifting off the trees. The sound of finches filled the autumn air - huge numbers of Chaffinches, Siskins and Bramblings could be heard in the tree tops, with many Thrushes and Woodpigeons also present.

5 of the 8 male Reeve's Pheasants seen 
Walking up the track produced not a single Pheasant, not even a Common, and so we decided to deviate off the main path and deeper into the woods. Still, we had not a whiff of a gamebird, though some distinctive ticking high in the Beech trees above me indicated a Hawfinch, which I managed to lock eyes on. A few more of these enigmatic finches were heard in the following hour. Frustratingly, we headed back to the main track, and I continued the path east. As I approached a bend, a rather upright Pheasant came into view, and it wasn't long before I had my binoculars on a female Reeve's Pheasant. She stood, partially obscured by leaves, partially by mist, and as I began to approach she took off into the trees, much unlike a Common Pheasant.

These birds were confiding - the skulky individuals
in the deeper forest were probably wild-bred
Encouraged, I continued east, and a young plantation on the south side of the track revealed 2 stunning male birds. I slowly followed them into the young trees, and found 4 females, all very wary and quick to skulk away. A calling Crested Tit was a nice sueprise here. Delighted with the success, we grabbed the car and drove up the track, beyond the plantation, clocking up 2 more birds (a male and female) before stopping at a crossroads. Remarkably, here we found 5 males in the southbound track, showing wonderfully and just a few feet from the car. I managed several photos before leaving them to it, as we left Hesdin and France, moving into Belgium where we would stay the night.

Category C Pheasants aren't for everyone. Personally, seeing a Golden Pheasant in Norfolk last year was a wonderful moment. Either way, the next day would see the start of some proper winter birding, as I began my quest to see one of Europe's rarest waterbirds.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

13th November

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the beauty of patch birding for me is the unpredictability of it. Of course, most days patching in Surrey are pretty much the same. Monthly high counts and local movement can often be the highlight of a session, and largely I head out in hope over any real expectation. Today was one of those days. Indeed, I wasn't really heading out, I just had the opportunity to quickly drive through the west side of the patch and check out Mill Pond before work.

Best of a bad batch of photos of the Red-crested Pochard,
which was skulky and hard to view
In my last post I mentioned my visit to Buckinghamshire for an inland Velvet Scoter, and after chatting to leading Surrey lister Dave Harris last night I learnt of a female Goosander present for it's 3rd day less than a mile north of my patch, in Wonersh. Thus, ducks were on my mind this morning, and I decided to check out Bramley Park Lake as well as Mill Pond for a change. I don't visit Bramley Park Lake enough. It's owned by the Godalming Angling Society, and whilst popular with Tufted Ducks and Little Grebes, has never held too much (bar a Common Sandpiper that Sam Jones had a few years ago). The limited viewing area and awkward parking further puts me off, but I had visions of a Goosander of my own this morning, and headed down the muddy track at about 07:50.

The lake was misty, and 7 Cormorants up in the surrounding trees immediately caught my eye - a large count for my patch. Through the mist, which was heavy, I could see a large, brown-ish duck towards the south side. I got my bins on it, and couldn't believe I was looking at a female Red-crested Pochard! She was acting much like the numerous wild ones I saw in southern Spain in April did, skulking in and out of the waterside vegetation at the south end. This behaviour, coupled with being beyond the middle islands, made it hard to get prolonged views of her, and I managed just a couple of awful pictures through the mist.

The last Red-crested record - my first-ever bird log book,
documenting the drake at Winkworth in 1999!
Red-crested Pochards have an interesting history in my patch. The last known record was in September 1999, by myself, at Winkworth Arboretum. A pair actually bred on Rowe's Flashe for a few years in the mid-90's, with the last known success in 1997 (a brood of 6 on 21st May). My 1999 bird was a drake, and I am sure birds hung on there into the 2000's, but I can't find any records. Whatever their fate, my bird today was a total surprise, and seemingly a short-stayer as she wasn't seen again today despite 2 further searches.

Matt Phelps had been doing his WeBS count at Winkworth this morning, managing the first Water Rail of this winter back in Phillimore, and he stopped by Bramley Park Lake at about 08:50 but couldn't find the Red-crested Pochard. After work I had another lookm but also failed to find her. A number of fishermen were present though, and she may well have been flushed. At this time of year, clearly these secluded and seldom checked water bodies are worth a look. I still hope for my Goosander, but today's bird was enough of a treat.