Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Love Letter to a Garden

(This was written in late May 2016, but only published today – when my parents finally moved).

This week, after 21 years, I will be saying goodbye to the garden I’ve known pretty much my entire life. I’m writing this as I sit in it – two Dunnock’s have just bombed into one of the bordering hedges, and a pair of Collared Doves are waiting nervously and patiently in the big oak at the back, no doubt ready to swoop down to the fallen seed when I move. Halfway through typing that sentence a Coal Tit alighted just a few feet away from me on the niger feeder. Having spent the first years of my life that I can remember in this house, all the way through my teens and into early adulthood, there is no doubt of the affinity I have for this small rectangle of land.

With my siblings and I having all graduated, my parents are climbing aboard a lifelong dream to relocate to the sea, Sussex in fact, where I can realistically hope for Divers, Terns and Skuas on that particular garden list. Lists are things you never think of finishing. A life, county or patch list lasts as long as you do, and only recently have I realised that my garden total will no longer be able to be extended, with 72 seemingly the grand total I’ve amassed, bar a very surprising visitor this week.
A juvenile Dunnock foraging on the day I wrote this post
With my mini ‘scope set up, the dining room was very much a hide in my early teens, and I familiarised myself with a number of common species during these formative years, as well as enjoying the thrills of candid moments with unusual birds (to a young kid), like Siskin and Marsh Tit. In my later teens as my interest waned, and birding became practically non-existent, my garden was always going to be the only place I’d notice anything feathered, forever a little time portal to my obsessive youth. And, here I am now, in the garden, rattling away a post for a blog that was triggered in part by my re-found love for birds over the last 6 or 7 years. 2 Woodpigeons have shooed off the Doves in the Oak, and a very bold Jay just grabbed a peanut and flew off.

It’s fair to say my garden triggered my hobby of birding, and the pleasing feel of identification. It must have been 1997 or 1998, and a bird with a red forehead was sat in the small Ash. My mum could ID the common birds, and I could too, having an interest for general wildlife (think Really Wild Show), but this bird was a mystery. We knew my late grandmother had an ancient bird book on her shelf, so we phoned her up to ask for her help. She told us what it was – a Redpoll, and I remembered watching in awe at something I didn’t even know existed, let alone having it in my garden.

From that point I was hooked, and in 1998 my parents gave me a nondescript blue book for Christmas. It was to be my bird record book, and I used it until 2004, jotting down the more unusual things I saw. I longed for this book in recent years as I knew it’d hold forgotten memories, but numerous trips to the attic proved fruitless. Typically, with the upcoming move, it was found deep in a box, and I’ve had great joy thumbing through it these past few weeks. It holds many garden records that I recall vividly – my first ever Fieldfares and Redwings up close on the Rowan berry bush outside my very window (cut down to my frustration around 2002!), a pair of Mandarin Ducks on the deck for a good half an hour one April tea-time, and a handful of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers on the feeders. A very unseasonal Siskin called above me as I was typing this paragraph, and the Dunnock pair are now scurrying about the lawn.

As the years went on I was able to ID rarer birds. The rarest bird on my garden list no doubt came in 2010, when a Nightjar flew north over the back. It was surreal – broad daylight, clearly identifiable with a very unique flight, it was gone almost as soon as I saw it. More recently I’ve had Firecrest, one I waited a while for, and in 2010-2012 a regular flock of Bramblings would turn up in the winter. My friend Sam Jones even came over to twitch these, and it was also how I met Kevin ‘Kojak’ Guest, one of the Beddington birders, who came down one February day to photograph them. We’ve remained friends since. All of these memories will live with me forever – the foundations of a hobby, and the creation of sights that remain crystal clear in my mind. The last bird on the list was a Ring-necked Parakeet, perhaps fitting, symbolic of the changing times and landscape. No doubt in another 21 years they will be a lot more regular here, and will give any cats the same jip mine just received for innocuously strolling through the garden.

And, as always with birding, there was the one that got away. This is another memory I can recall perfectly, and to this day I’ll never be sure. It was a hot, sunny day, 17th May 2001, and I was playing in the garden when I noticed something big, high up. It had come from the east, and was slowly circling. I had my binoculars by the swing, and I managed to grab them and connect with the huge, Heron-like bird. Its neck was outstretched, and to my shock it uttered several loud, honking calls. I watched it for a good 4-5 minutes before it spiralled over the house and away. Looking back now it seems incredible, but I am pretty sure it must have been a Common Crane. Perhaps the next people living here will have one fly over, to lay that ghost to rest. However, I’ll never know if the bird list for this garden will ever get added to. Forever 72. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

18th August

A brilliant, full day on site rewarded me with yet another patch tick, and a very decent local record these days, in the form of a WOOD WARBLER. The valley was dripping with Warblers, a clear arrival having taken place, and I ended the day with 6 species as well as a pretty decent support cast, particularly given it's mid-August.

The Silver Birch & Holly that hosted the Wood Warbler
I started at Rowe Barn Farm/Slade's Farm and Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps were seemingly in every hedge and tree. I scanned the Paddock hedge and picked up an extremely weird Warbler - plain grey, a clear white arse, head-stripe and tail flicking tendencies. It completely threw me, but I settled on it being an extremely pale Willow or Chiffchaff. The Ridge was fairly quiet, bar a few Sylvia's, so I headed to Allden's Hill for a sky-watch.

As I walked past the plantation on the left at about 11:00 my attention was drawn to a mournful like call from the trees flanking the path ahead of me, and I immediately knew it was something interesting. I dropped my bag and moved forward, the bird continuing to call as I glimpsed it twice among a big flock of Blue, Great, Coal and a single Marsh Tit (juvenile, nice!), with a few Goldcrests also present. I am not overly familiar with a Wood Warbler call, unlike the song, and I won't lie - I played both Icterine and Melodious calls on my app before Wood! Nothing wrong with ambition eh? However, as soon as I played Wood the bird instantly responded, and with a few pishes it dropped into view in a Silver Birch. The face was strikingly citrus, with pale underparts and a very light bill. Only a few feet from me, the bird was on the move constantly, and after a few minutes, with the rest of the flock, it disappeared south, calling as it went.

A young Chiffchaff, one of 30+ around today
The call was the clincher, and this is another fine Warbler record in the last week. I did always anticipate getting a Wood but always thought it'd be a singing spring male. Wood Warblers bred on my patch until the 1980's, and Jeremy Gates had a few most years on passage whilst working at Winkworth in the 1990's. All in all, a great bird for my 125th Thorncombe Street. The sky-watch was fairly quiet, though a south-flying Swift will surely be my last of the year, and alter than the last bird of 2015.

I went on to check out the New Barn area after that, for the hope of a new Warbler treble via a Lesser Whitethroat but it wasn't to be. There were however a few Garden Warblers here, making it 6 Warbler species for the day. What else is autumn going to bring? Final Warbler tally below -

Wood Warbler - 1 (c.11:02-11:07 in mixed Tit/Crest flock on Allden's Hill, calling)
Willow - 6
Chiffchaff - 30+
Blackcap - 18+
Garden - 3 (all New Barn area)
Whitethroat - 5 (1 adult male)

Monday, 15 August 2016

15th August

A gorgeous August day encouraged me to get on Allden's Hill after work for a few hours sky-watch, with my imaginiation stuffed with Osprey and Bee-eater filled skies. It was, however, the dark under-stories of trees on the north line of vegetation on the top of the Allden's Hill watch point that produced a big surprise and patch lifer - a Sedge Warbler!

A Red Kite over Allden's Hill today
As I approached from the west at roughly 16:08 I was stopped in my tracks by a fairly obvious Sedge, seemingly singing a few feet away from me. However, this was no where near water, it was mid-August and I was looking into a broad-leafed tree on top of a hill! I tried to convince myself it was something else mimicking, and the bird went silent for about 7 minutes before it sub-sang again. This time, it hopped into view straight after finishing its outburst, and the bold eye-stripe confirmed my suspicions. After brief and obscured views it seemed to drop down into the bushes further down the slope, and following about 10 minutes of nothing I went to take up my seat on the hill.

About quarter of an hour into my sky-watch, the bird piped up again, but that was it, and I didn't hear it again until my departure at about 18:15. I was chuffed though - I had my 106th patch bird of the year, and only my second tick in the last 2 1/2 months. Sedge Warblers are probably rare enough for a patch mega - it is my first one at Thorncombe Street, bringing my life list up to 124, 1 off a milestone 125. Matt Phelps had one pass through Winkworth in April last year, and I imagine if I spent more time there I would have perhaps had this species before. Still, it's unlikely discovery today emphasised the perennial element of surprise in birding, so often the most fulfilling part of patching.

The rest of the day was quiet. I had 5 raptor species, including big numbers of Red Kites and Buzzards, as well as a hunting Hobby. Selhurst Common is looking very interesting at the moment. I had a couple of Willow Warblers there again today, along with at least 10 Chiffchaffs and a Spotted Flycatcher. There, along with the Paddock, seem like my best places for Passerine migrants in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

11th August

Juvenile Buzzard today
Autumn is fast approaching. Gathering hirundines, trimmed hay and a distinct quietness thorughout the patch today highlighted this. The incessant chiff-chaffs have turned in huet's, seemingly today from every hedge or tree, as Warbler numbers build up as birds pass through or prepare to leave. Aside from the double-digit counts of Chiffchaffs, I however could only find 2 other species, with a handful of Blackcaps and at least 2 citrus coloured Willow Warblers around. It would be nice to find something a bit rarer in these coming weeks.

Yesterday an early male Wheatear was in the horse fields at Slade's Farm, just a day after one was at the other end of the county in Capel, with a family of Spotted Flycatcher's also nearby. Today was distinctly quiet, with the aforementioned Warblers accompanied by 4 Red-legged Partridges and a solo Hobby over the Ridge, presumably one of the pair. Juvenile raptors were very much in evidence, with at least 2 young Red Kites and many more Buzzards about, the latter species particularly vocal at this time of year.

Spotted Flycatcher near Selhurst Common on the 30th
A young Raven was also making itself heard, one of around 3 seen today. Junction Field was being cut down for hay, and a big flock of around 20 Stock Doves were feeding on it this afternoon. I scanned unsuccessfully for a Turtle Dove - it seems my time is running out for pinning one of those elusive birds down this summer. The last few weeks have largely been in keeping with today; quiet. A possibly Honey-buzzard flew very high SE over Allden's Hill on the 4th - it had a notably long tail, thin wings and was stripped underneath. Even pale wing patches were seemingly notable but the bird was too high, and with so many young Buzzards around at the moment it was impossible to get remotely close to confirmation.

Common Tern over the Ridge on the 29th
On the 29th 2 Common Terns flew W over the Ridge, separately, and both taking fish, presumably to young at Enton Lakes or Marsh Farm. Only my third record here, and all have come this year. Plenty of Spotted Flycatchers have been around this summer and I believe at least 3 pairs have bred. One have even taken up residence in the ivy-clad wall of a house near Selhurst Common, and I watched them taking insects to their young for several minutes on the 30th.

With autumn coming more migrants will be passing through, and it's now when I hope to catch something slightly rarer. Last autumn Whinchat, Redstart, Hen Harrier and Little Bunting were all added to the year list, and I am still due a Ring Ouzel in 2016.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

28th July

It's been nearly 2 months since my last post. This is due to a number of factors, mainly moving house, but also work, holidays, Euro 2016 and various other bits and bobs. Birding took a knock, but not much, and I've still managed plenty of patch visits. There have been a couple of highlights but nothing too spectacular, with trips afield offering more glamour birds.

A bird I want to snap on m patch - this Turtle Dove
was at Martin Down in June
With the breeding season peaking it's been fairly quiet. Mill Pond is currently a collection of eclipse Mandarin Ducks and Mallards, with at least 1 Tufted Duck pair succesfully raising young (7 ducklings on July 10th). The first juvenile Grey Herons are on the wing, and prominent from Mill Pond to Thorncombe Park.

Highlights from the breeding birds include, remarkably, Grey Partridges. These completely surprise additions to the site list in March have stuck around, and on June 24th I saw the pair with 3 young near Slade's Farm. They are exceptionally elusive - prior to that sighting I had seen the pair on the 4th June, and not since. Despite this, Matt Phelps had 2 across the road along Thorncombe Street, but no young were seen. Hopefully they were hiding from view.

Red-legged Partridges have also been successful, along with Ravens and Red Kites. At least 1 Spotted Flycatcher pair have bred, with birds often present in the wooded copse opposite Phillimore Cottage. It also seems the Hobby pair are proving successful again this year - today I saw 2 adults on the wing, hawking, hopefully collecting food for young on the nest.

I was left frustrated on Saturday when a streaky Warbler just wouldn't show itself in the thickets at the bottom of Allden's Hill. I think it was Grasshopper, but it wouldn't call, and after a hot hour or so I gave in. However, this disappointment has been more than made up for in the shape of 2 Turtle Dove records. A bird I blogged about before, now extremely scarce in Surrey, I was both delighted and amazed to hear one purring somewhere to the west of Allden's Hill on July 18th. The bird was extremely distant, somewhere in the Munstead direction, and only called a few times. I didn't even try to find it, but was delighted to add it to my Thorncombe Street life list.

Today was even better, as I actually saw a Turtle Dove, as it flew SE down the valley, viewed from Allden's Hill, at around 11:45. Where these/this bird is coming from I don't know, perhaps they are local, even hiding somewhere in my patch. Whatever the case, I don't have long to pin them down, and my aim during the next few weeks is to bag a photo of one. 15 Crossbills north later on was another decent record.

Bonaparte's Gull at Oare - a proud ID moment for me!
As I mentioned earlier, trips out and about have proved fruitful since my last post. A simply epic day with Matt in early June in Hampshire and Wiltshire yielded Honey-buzzard, Montagu's Harrier, Stone Curlew and Turtle Dove, with a recent break in France revealing Crested Tits, Black Kites, Black Redstarts and more. I also traveled up to Oare last week to finally get Bonaparte's Gull on my British list (ID-ed in flight!), and was delighted to add White Stork to that growing tally yesterday, as I got lucky with the Beddington bird, catching it minutes before it flew to roost. The latter is a fine Surrey bird, but that particular list is now very much bottom priority. I might go into it one day...

Thursday, 2 June 2016

2nd June

2 drake Pochards on Mill Pond today
With the patch slowing into high summer recently, the arrival of a Little Bittern at Barnes WWT on Sunday had me pondering a twitch ever since, with the bird seen every day following. It would be a monstrous Surrey tick (as well as a lifer for me), with only 9 previous records, the last of those exactly 20 years ago, and just 1 day off the arrival of this bird, with a male at Epsom Common Stew Ponds from 30th May-1st June 1996. May 2016 has been truly sensational for Surrey mega's - Black-winged Stilts, Montagu's Harrier, Iberian Chiffchaff, White Stork, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Marsh Warbler, Golden Oriole and now the Bittern!

Red Kite today
So, with the day off, I traveled up to Barnes for around 10:30, and joined the crowd of about 30-40 birders looking out over the reedy channel it had been seen (and photographed) well in yesterday, albeit very briefly. However, in a fairly biting wind from 10:40-13:40 there was no sign of the bird, and as I type this it still hasn't been seen today. Perhaps the wind kept it hunkered down, perhaps it's moved on, either way I don't think I'll have another chance of a Surrey Little Bittern for quite some time. Remarkably enough, one of the 9 records prior to this bird was of a female shot on my bit at Wintershall on March 25th 1855 - the ultimate patch blocker!

I left Mark Elsoffer and Rich Horton to try and get lucky with the bird, and headed back to the patch for a quick look around. Again, it was quiet, though 2 drake Pochards on Mill Pond were very nonseasonal. Typically, they were sleeping. The Ridge and down yielded little of note, though unusually high numbers of Mistle Thrush (5), House Martins (10+) and a big post-breeding flock of 50 or so Starlings were about.

Little Egret at Long Pond Field today
I went on from here to check some former Turtle Dove sites but, again, I found nothing. A Little Egret on Long Pond Field was a nice surprise though, and another slightly out of season record today. I pondered what a shock this would have been just a couple of decades ago. Indeed, when that last Surrey Little Bittern was on Epsom Common Stew Ponds, there had been more records of them in the county than there had Little Egrets.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

26th May

A Grey Heron at Mill Pond this morning
With few birds left to target on my patch, I've been branching out slightly during the last 10 days or so, looking for scarce and declining birds locally. My previous post mentioned Turtle Doves - I've still yet to find one, and more recently I've been searching for raptors and, last Thursday at least, Wood Warbler, having learnt they attempted to breed at a site I thought they'd long left, last year. I also took part in the Mole Valley Bird Race on Saturday, a shattering but rewarding effort in an area largely unknown to me. Our team came out on top with a fantastic 93 species, and I look forward to next years event.

The view from Allden's Hill
On the patch, I finally caught up with Spotted Flycatcher today, with a bird singing and feeding at Mill Pond in the morning, before another 2 were heard near Phillimore Cottage around lunch time. I suspect they bred at the latter site last year, and fingers crossed they do so again today. Elsewhere, there was little of note, on a largely quiet day. Raptor numbers are down somewhat, though I remain hopeful of something special (Honey Buzzard), after my Montagu's joy earlier in May. Generally it seems stuff is settling down to breed now, and I found a new Little Grebe nest today, which was a nice surprise.

Little Grebe
On Monday an nonseasonal pair of Gadwall were on Mill Pond, and unfortunately the Mute Swans, yet again, are off the nest. Despite much success in the years gone by they seem determined to have the nest attached to land, and I suspect a Fox has interfered, as was likely last year. Maybe they'll try again, but I'm not hopeful. Also on Monday, a Common Tern flew west over the Ridge. Only my second patch record, I suspect they are flying out to feed from Enton/Marsh Farm, and this individual as certainly going in that direction.

Monday, 16 May 2016

16th May

Red-legged Partridge on Allden's Hill
On 9th May 2011 I saw my last Turtle Dove in the UK. It was close to home too. I remember it fairly clearly - an individual flying north-west over Busbridge Woods (near Hydon's Ball), in the direction of Juniper Valley, which was a fairly decent site for them in previous years. Until that point I had seen a few in Surrey. Never loads, but my old record book tells me Court Farm in Hambledon, Chiddingfold and Hascombe held Turtle Doves in the summer during the late 1990's and early 2000's.

In 2016, their terrifyingly rapid decline renders them hard to see locally. Since my last bird in 2011 there have been a handful of regular birds in Surrey, but in the last couple of years less and less so, more often individuals passing through places than on territory. To my knowledge, there was one Surrey record in 2015, and that was through Beddington. This year has been slightly better, with at least 2 reported so far (West Horsley and little Bookham Common), and encouraged I decided to visit the haunts at which I've seen them before, today.

No Turtle Doves here...
I have held out hope of seeing one on my patch but in truth only small fragments of habitat are suitable, so my best bet is a flyover. Today it was very quiet - the Nightingale wasn't heard for a second consecutive day (maybe it's gone), a pair of Red-legged Partridges showed well whilst feeding but there was no flyover Lammergeier. So, the first stop was the scene of my last Turtle Dove, and Juniper Valley. A Firecrest was singing from the car park at Hydon's Ball, but a walk to and back from the southern end of Juniper Valley produced little.

It was then through Hydestile/Shad Well, where there were reports of birds in the late 2010's, but again nothing. Court Farm, where I have had them before, and where one was purring in 2010, but again, nothing, just Woodpigeons. The journey then continued into the far south of the county, where the farmland spreads out, itself such a rare sight in Surrey. Woods and streams meet arable fields and cottages, and the habitat really does look good, from Court Farm pretty much all the way down to Chiddingfold, on Vann Road.

...or here. The search continues
Ultimately, however, I didn't find a Turtle Dove today. A flock of 5 Collared Doves near Pockford Farm had me going for a minute, the birds flying from wires down into a garden to feed. Here looked perfect, and I was very pleased to hear Skylarks and Yellowhammers as I paced the road looking for my target. I will definitely be back here, and I'll also be checking out Tugley Wood soon. I'm determined to find a Surrey Turtle Dove in 2016, before it's too late.