Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

15th-22nd November

In theory, things should be winding down now, so I was hugely (and pleasantly) surprised to enjoy one of the best vis-mig sessions of the season on Saturday morning. It seems the frequent unfavourable migration conditions this autumn has resulted in a bit of a back-log, and as a result an unanticipated mix of species was recorded moving through. The pick of the bunch was a Woodlark – a bird only once previously recorded here - and the year that keeps on giving has now produced no less than 122 species.
male Yellowhammer, Tilsey Farm, 19/11/2017

Saturday 18th


With the Wintershall Estate kindly granting me permission to set up a feeding station on their side of the Ridge, my plan was to get up there early doors and sift through the mixed finch and bunting flock, and work out where a good place to install one would be. However, it soon became apparent that the skies were alive with birds on the move. A few drips of rain had fallen pre-dawn, and with the slightest northerly element to the gentle wind that was coming from the west, it seemed a floodgate opened a little.

Woodpigeons were the lead species, with 2,323 an impressive final total, and the second highest count of the autumn. Thrushes, numbers of which have been much lower than normal this year, were piling through. Fieldfares in particular were heading powerfully north, including a remarkable single flock of around 100. The final tally of 184 was in fact a new site record.

Other bits included 3 Hawfinches west, 1 Brambling north-east, a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull south and 183 Redwings north. Not bad at all – and with several Yellowhammers and at least a couple of Bramblings with the more numerous Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and Linnets on the Ridge, it made for the most enjoyable 90 minutes watch.
Woodpigeons, Ridge, 18/11/2017

Despite all the above, the best moment came at 08:25, when I heard an out of place “huu-weo” above my head. By now I was in Junction Field, and the call was uttered again, as what turned out to be a Woodlark continued north-east. It's surprising that it’s just the second record here, and even more so that it’s the first autumn one, especially given that Blackheath and Winterfold aren’t far away at all. Perhaps this bird was a local mover.

The Burgh

After the session on patch I met up with Matt in his new home county of West Sussex (a long overdue getting together), and despite the gloomy weather we headed up to the Burgh. This wonderful patchwork of farmland (mainly arable) is a truly fantastic example of nature-friendly estate management, with un-managed margins, big hedgerows and retained winter stubbles.

As a result, species that are devastatingly short on supply elsewhere thrive, in particular Grey Partridges, Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers. The Norfolk Estate, who on the land, must take credit, and it’s a shame so many other landowners don’t take a leaf out of their books. I could draw certain comparisons with my patch, not least the numerous impressive vistas, but also the hilly terrain, and lack of human influence.
ringtail Hen Harrier, the Burgh, 18/11/2017

However, the key difference is trees. The Burgh has a couple of small copses dotted around it, whereas my patch is heavily wooded, and this is reflected in some of the species present. What Thorncombe Street has in Bramblings, Hawfinches, Woodcocks and Marsh Tits, the Burgh has in Corn Buntings, Grey Partridges and Skylarks.

Also, the extensive openness/lack of trees and plentiful prey means species like Hen Harriers, Merlins and Short-eared Owls congregate here in the winter, something that’s unheard of on my bit. However, some of the habitat management at the Burgh can definitely be applied to the estates up this way, and I hope to get this message across in our December meeting.

In terms of what we managed to find, the weather made things fairly tough going. However, Matt picked up a quartering Hen Harrier in a crop field he had one a few weeks ago (possibly the same), and we enjoyed pretty close-range views. A few Buzzards and Red Kites were about, a covey of around 5 Grey Partridges were flushed and a female Goshawk flashed along a hedgerow. Not bad – farmland birds and birding is a favourite of mine, and I’ve no doubt where my patch would be if I lived in Sussex.

Afterwards we had a brief look at Waltham Brooks, but the more impressive location was Matt's garden! Here there's an expansive view over the north brooks of Pulborough, and during our short watch we had Snipe, Wigeon and a flock of Fieldfare. He's sure to build a fine garden list and, particularly when the water levels rise, he should be in for some excellent birding here.

Hawfinch, New Barn, 19/11/2017

Largely a non-birding day, though I got out briefly in the morning (finally managing to photograph some Hawfinches, part of a group of at least 5 around New Barn) and again during the afternoon. The latter session was done in glorious wintry sunshine, and I spent some quality time with at least 3 Yellowhammers around Tilsey Farm. This species looks set for another good winter here, which is pleasing – I struggle to think of more than 3 or 4 sites in Surrey where they still breed.

16th-17th and 20th-22nd

I managed a brief vis-mig on Allden’s Hill on the 17th, with 2 Hawfinches standing out among an impressive 82 Redwing and 23 Redpoll. There were 2 Red-crested Pochards on Mill Pond on the 16th, and 1 on the 21st. I’ve barely stuck my head in this week, though another Little Egret at the south end of Mill Pond this morning was a bit of a treat.

The week ahead

I keep stressing that things should be done and dusted, but 2017 continues to suprise, so who knows what’s to come? I’m looking forward to monitoring the Finch/Bunting flock on the Ridge as the weeks go on. Another, similarly sized flock has also taken up residence on the crops on Allden’s Hill, and will be a little harder to study.

Excitingly, Wintershall have given permission for ringing to take place in an area of scrub near the crops on the Ridge, and I’m hoping to commence this with Sam in December. Maybe we’ll conjure up some Twite* or Lapland Bunting-like icing for the 2017 cake!

I drafted this blog on Tuesady - ironically, since then, a Twite was found at Beddington, by David C (of course)!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

8th-14th November

Well, after speculation about it in a couple of previous blog posts, the annual Ring-necked Parakeet early winter dispersal reached Thorncombe Street for another year, with a single bird continuously calling from within Eastwaters on Saturday. It becomes the 121st species recorded here this year, a figure I’m extremely proud of, and despite the fruitfulness of 2017 so far I’ll be astonished if I reach 122 or beyond.

Greylag Geese, Thorncombe Park, 11/11/2017
The weekend

Ring-necked Parakeets remains extremely rare in this part of the county, with the Woking area seemingly their southern breeding limit in Surrey. However, in November and December birds seem to move about a bit, and are often recorded in places they aren’t normally found. Perhaps they’re on the hunt for well-stocked bird tables and gardens, as their regular food sources closer to London diminish? Whatever the case, in the past week birds have been seen in Farnham, Farnborough and, just a short walk to the north of my patch, Wonersh.

There was no doubting the raucous call of this bird on Saturday, as it remained out of sight in the Eastwaters part of Thorncombe Park estate. I’ve only had 2 previous records here, and in total the historic number must be something like 6 or 7. This individual was part of a fine half hour of birding at Mill Pond, which is becoming busier by the day.

An obscured Little Egret, Mill Pond, 11/11/2017
Also present in the drizzle on Saturday afternoon was a preening Little Egret, remaining remarkably hidden in the vegetation at the southern end. Still rare here (this being the 4th of 2017), this species is even more unusual actually on the deck, though the presence of secluded, vegetated ponds and a large heronry in the area may draw more in as the winter sets in. Certainly, this species is back on the River Wey water meadows locally, and I’d seen birds at both the Godalming Lammas Lands and Unstead earlier in the day.

Also of note were two Hawfinches north, and a late Chiffchaff. On Sunday I was restricted to a fairly brief visit in the morning, and checked out New Barn, which has become increasingly quiet as autumn movement ceases. However, I still managed a single Hawfinch – there’s definitely a small flock hanging out there. Later in the day I got some decent gulling in at Selsey, an educational outing which merited its own post.

8th-10th & 13th-14th

I acheived my Water Rail goal last week, with a single bird squealing in Phillimore on the 8th. Hopefully more will move in during the coming weeks. Aside from this pleasing record, Winkworth remains as disappointing as ever, and even the Hawfinches seem to have no interest in the site. The biggest total I managed last week was a group of 4 at New Barn, though a prolonged search there would surely yield many more.

Allden's Hill, 13/11/2017
As usual at this time of year, wildfowl numbers have been increasing on Mill Pond, and the cold temperatures, winds from the north and clear skies over Sunday and Monday seemed to have resulted in a spike. As a result, I’ve spent a good amount of time sifting through the birds here, and the female Red-crested Pochard was seen both today and yesterday. Of the commoner species, Teal is the most notable arrival, with the roost flock now around 16-strong. Interestingly, 2 new Mute Swans were present today, joining the long-staying female (and seemingly seeing off the juvenile).

A surprising result of spending more time at Mill Pond is the regularity of Hawfinches overhead. I’ve had flyover birds each time I’ve been there, and this morning no less than 6 went over. It’s easy to forget how remarkable this influx has been – they are literally everywhere on the patch, and I really hope they hang around and breed next year.

The week ahead 
As mentioned earlier, there's truly nothing else that could semi-predictably add to the year list. Anything new will either be utterly random, or a rarer duck species. Hopefully, with temperatures dropping, the latter could turn up, and with a lot more of a northerly origin in the wind forecast for the next few days then these chances are enhanced.

Mute Swans, Mill Pond, 11/11/2017
Interestingly, one of the hybrid Red-crested Pochard x Mallards was seen in Guildford yesterday – an example of where the roosting Mill Pond ducks spend the day. I’ll certainly be keeping a firm eye on Mill Pond until the year end.

It would be nice to get a couple more Woodcock and Water Rail records for the year, and the Ridge still needs thorough examination as various finches and buntings move in for the winter. However, otherwise there really is a feeling of a successful job done, and I can choose where I bird on the patch based on preference, as oppose to the hope/plan of finding something particular.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

12th November

Visiting my parents today, I stopped in at the Hillfield Road car park in Selsey afterwards in order to enjoy some gulling in the fine weather. Not much significant, until a strikingly pale 1st-winter bird caught my eye, resting on the beach. I managed one photo, before it flew off, though fortunately I re-found it further up the shore.
possible Caspian x Herring Gull hybrid, Selsey, 12/11/2017

The paleness of the bird led my mind to Caspian from the off, but a few things left me confident it wasn't one, namely the head/bill structure, the posture of the bird and lack of grey in the mantle and scapulars. 

note the pale underwing and tail pattern
For some time I explored the idea of it being a Yellow-legged Gull, but again, something didn't fit. The scapulars looked promising for this, but again the head structure (and lack of mask) threw more confusion on from the outlet, as well as the general shape of the bird. Ultimately I veered away from Yellow-legged - a lack of wear in the tertials, and moult in the coverts reaffirmed this.

The poor case for Yellow-legged seemed to be emphasised when the gull took off, and the tail band particularly suggested something more Caspian than Yellow-legged. Furthermore, the bird showed very pale underwings, a large inner primary window and even, at times, a seemingly grey-ish mantle!

the pale underwing shows obviously here
I was truly stumped, and it was time to contact some gull gurus. By this point I'd tried to make the bird a very pale Herring, and suggested as much, but opinions varied, most favouring Caspian. However, ultimately the opinion offered by Josh J is what I feel is most likely, and indeed an option I hadn't thought of - a Herring, crossed with some Caspian genes.

This bird was just not full Casp, but had enough features to suggest there was some cachinnans genes in there for sure. It could even be an extreme variant of argentatus Herring, but I personally feel it's a bit of a cross. Whatever the case, a very educational session indeed. Thanks to all who offered opinions, and I'd be extremely grateful to hear from anyone who can offer any more thoughts!
almost grey appearing mantle, and wide primary window

pale head and breast, and dark tertials with thin white 
Most of the large gulls were Herring, though there were a few 1st-winter Lesser Black-backs, as well as a sole 2nd-winter Great Black-backed. A good amount of Black-headed Gulls were also around, as well as a sole, foot-less Mediterranean Gull, that seemed to be suffering no side effects as a result of its unfortunate situation. 

Other birds of note included an extremely confiding flock of Turnstones, several Cormorants offshore, and a single Sanderling.

and a legless Med Gull to finish

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

30th October-7th November

The last week of October/first week of November is always the best time to find a Ring Ouzel here. October 31st had produced this species in both 2015 and 2016, and it duly delivered again this year, with a typically elusive male showing a couple of times in a big mixed thrush flock on the edge of Holly Field. It becomes the 120th patch species of 2017 – an ambitious goal I stated at the start of the year – but I was made to sweat a little after this normally reliable autumn visitor seemed to be passing through the county in much lower numbers than usual, no doubt due to the distinct lack of easterlies.

Some of the 2281 Woodpigeons over New Barn on Sunday

The early part of the week saw significant thrush numbers move through the site (200+ Redwing and 100+ Fieldfare on Monday), after what’s been a very poor autumn for them, and I was subsequently delighted to catch up with a Ring Ouzel. The male was glimpsed best in flight, when its pale crescent, and chrome white underwings were seen well. I then managed just a couple of poor views of it deep in the holly bushes that flank the west side of aptly-named Holly Field. Reaching 120 felt like a real milestone - I'll almost certainly not manage that figure again!

As it happened, I surely had another at Slade’s Farm the following day, but despite hearing and (very) briefly seeing a female candidate, I couldn’t be sure. Furthermore, I may have seen the/another male again at Holly Field on the 1st. Aside from the early week thrush numbers midweek was otherwise quiet, though a Hawfinch flew east over the Ridge on the 30th.

Adult Meditterannean Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 4/1/2017
Saturday 4th

As ever these days the weekend brought prolonged opportunities to get out in the field, and I must confess that reaching my goal of 120 had resulted in a little taking of my feet off the gas. With the local forecast wet and grey too, I decided to go north, and catch up with David and the gulls at Beddington.

The trip was well worth it – a thoroughly enjoyable morning was spent sifting through the huge, mainly Herring, gull flock on the North Lake, and we managed to dig out a mighty fine 1st-winter Caspian Gull, which sadly stayed for a lot less longer than we’d have liked. Also present was a single adult Mediterranean Gull, a 1st-winter Yellow Legged Gull and a handful of Great and Lesser Black-backs. Other birds of note included Cetti’s Warbler, Water Rail, Chiffchaff and Snipe.

I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by gulls during the past few months. I still find some ages/species extremely challenging, and have booked a long weekend on the Irish west coast to practice, which offers the enhanced hope of finding something unusual. In patch terms gulls are scarce, certainly on the deck – only the wintering flock of Common Gulls can be considered regular, and they have begun to return in dribs and drabs as winter approaches.

Saturday night was spent watching the various local fireworks from a high point on the patch. At least 8 Tawny Owls were calling, a few Redwing flew over and, most surprisingly, a Mandarin was heard overhead. Migrating, or spooked from a roost site nearby by the cacophony of noise?

Sunday 5th
Red-legged Partridges (not making their lives any easier)
Thorncombe Street, 1/11/2017

I spent Sunday morning vis-migging at New Barn, but aside from an impressive, early spurt of 2,281 Woodpigeons, there wasn’t much else to shout about. Autumn movement is clearly winding down, though a Brambling and Skylark were good value, and of course the Hawfinch-fest will never cease to please – at least 6 feeding in the area around New Barn and Juniper Hill, and another was seen later over Wintershall.

The week ahead

The weather looks uninspiring, and it seems autumn will go out without a bang. Saying that, October has been very good to me here, and I’ll be lucky to add anything new to the year list. A flyover Parakeet remains a possibility at any time really, but otherwise any addition will likely be random.

After the big passage counts of September/October, wildfowl numbers should steadily climb again on Mill Pond as birds wintering here settle in for the months ahead. However, numbers are currently very low, and the mild temperatures and continued westerlies will likely keep figures down for the moment. There is, however, the very outside chance of a more northern breeding species (Goosander, Goldeneye etc) stopping by on one of the water bodies on its way elsewhere from now until early December.

Slade's Farm and beyond, 30/11/217
Common Gull numbers will increase on a daily basis – maybe after the winds this autumn it’ll finally be the winter I find a Ring-billed Gull among them! Woodcocks should be returning, and it’s now worth keeping an eye out for them, particularly on clear, pre-dawn drives through the west and south sections of site.

I’ll have two main objectives in the coming week though. Firstly, to try and confirm Water Rails as back at Winkworth – this species is seemingly declining as a winter visitor here (just 4 records this year), no doubt due to the continued negligence of the only habitat they use (Phillimore). The other task will be to sift through the growing finch/bunting flock on the Ridge, for something special.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

24th-29th October

Another thoroughly enjoyable weekend on patch, with the doubtless highlight a flock of 25 (at least) Brent Geese flying south-west pre-dawn this morning. With the winds finally coming from a more northerly direction, migration has probably peaked here over the last few days, with huge numbers of commoner species recorded on the move. Given the addition of some tidy birds on the deck, and the continued Hawfinch free-for-all, this weekend goes down as one of the best of 2017 so far.
Redwing, Slade's Farm, 29/10/2017

Sunday 29th

I was in position at New Barn before sunrise, and what was nearly the first scan of the skies revealed a flock of geese flying about mid-distance between myself and Winterfold at 06:38. The birds weren't travelling at a great height, and their diminutive size, stocky shape and all-black appearance suggested Brent Geese.

As they moved south-west, part of the group moved into a V-shape, and as the sun peeked through the extensive cloud the white back-ends of the flock showed nicely. They continued at quite a rate, lost after around 3 minutes, and it certainly seemed like they'd gone straight through the 'gap' between my patch and Winterfold and beyond. Quite a sight, and the second record of Brent Goose here, after 3 flew south in February 2015.

After this explosive start, the rest of the watch was slightly underwhelming, though still mixed and enjoyable. The next best birds were probably 3 Hawfinches that went over, followed by a 1st-winter Great Black-backed Gull that flew south. Redpoll (32) and thrush (200+ from 4 spp.) numbers were notable, and over 1000 Woodpigeons went south or east.

Woodpigeons, Ridge, 28/10/2017
Elsewhere, a rummage around the paddock at Slade's Farm revealed plenty more thrushes (many being spooked by a male Sparrowhawk), 2 more Hawfinches over Raggetts and, slightly further down the road, at flock of at least 17 Greenfinches on Sunflower Strip.

Saturday 28th

A day that will go down in the patch history books for Woodpigeon numbers. Throughout the day, a whopping 7,641 went over, including an astonishing 5,365 in an hour (!) over Juniper Hill and 1,863 over the Ridge in 80 minutes. A true spectacle, and a comfortable record count for here - the Juniper Hill hour was simply captivating at times.

A very foggy start delayed my arrival at the Ridge, and I instead took in (with ears only) 2 Hawfinches at Winkworth. When I did ascend, I found the crops on the top packed with birds, mainly finches, including half a dozen Redpoll, 10+ Reed Buntings, at least 4 Brambling and a few Yellowhammer.

Greenfinches, Sunflower Strip, 29/10/2017
Despite the fog, birds were on the move, and forced down as a result. The consequence was parties of Starlings going through at shoulder height, and a pronounced north-west movement of this species ended with 415 tallied in 80 minutes. My personal best here, but far off the 1,000+ at Winkworth in 1994.

My first Fieldfares of the autumn finally came through, and 4 more Hawfinches went over, but neither were the best Ridge birds of the morning. That award is probably best shared between a delightfully showy female Stonechat, that was feeding along the crop and hedgerow edges, and a single flock of 12 Yellowhammers going north-west. The former are rare here - just 5 records in the past 4 years, and the latter moving in a group that size not something I'd seen before.

Other notable birds recorded were 7 other Hawfinches (1 at Slade's, 2 at Leg-of-Mutton Copse and 4 over Juniper Hill), a Kingfisher at Mill Pond and late Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs.


Restricted to fairly brief, pre-work vis-mig watches from Allden's Hill. 7 Hawfinches were recorded over 4 days, a late House Martin went east on the 23rd, and there were 2 flyover records of both Brambling and Skylark. A high-flying Great Spotted Woodpecker on the 27th was also of note.
Female Stonechat, Ridge, 28/10/2017

Week ahead

Autumn will slowly wind down here, though an extra hour of light in the morning is most welcome for me, and the mixed winds forecast could prove interesting. We're definitely into optimum Ring Ouzel time now, despite the lack of easterlies this autumn - in the previous 2 years the period of October 31st to November 5th has produced 5 bird days, and I'll be disappointed if I don't connect with this species in 2017.

Interestingly, early November seems to be a decent time for Rose-ringed Parakeet movements in/into this part of Surrey, where they are absolutely still rare. Indeed, any unusual flyover (Woodlark, Snipe etc) could still be attainable.

Monday, 23 October 2017

17th-23rd October

I wasn’t too sure what Storm Brian (or Brianstorm to those who have a great taste in bands) would mean for the patch. Ultimately it didn’t really change the anticipated flow of vis-mig species, though there was definitely some gull movement as a result – 36 Common were the first of the season (and an exceptional number to actually move through here), and a 1st-winter Great Black-backed was just the fifth of 2017.

Woodpigeons over New Barn, 22/10/2017
Despite the WSW gusts reaching up to 15mph passerines seemed not bothered, with many firing through south or east. Remarkably, some moved into the wind – it’s always incredible to watch such tiny things do so. Finches were the order of both days, with Hawfinches continuing to pass through. Saturday yielded just one, but on Sunday 6 (including a single flock of 5) went over, and later on there was another over going west Allden’s Hill.

Redpoll numbers were notable with 26 over on Sunday, and single Bramblings were recorded on both days. A remarkably late Swallow moved south yesterday, along with 3 House Martins, and there was a steady flow of the 2 common Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. 5 Skylarks over Allden’s Hill was a good count for here.

Standout singular birds included a Peregrine south over Allden’s Hill on Sunday (4th of 2017), and on Saturday a Lapwing north-west (5th of 2017) and Feral Pigeon high south (rare here, even more so on vis-mig!). The first prolonged Woodpigeon roving of the season took place about 45 minutes into Sundays watch, with 464 the final total. With the westerly winds that have dominated this autumn, Thrush numbers remain low – still no Fieldfare, and less than 200 Redwing over both watches.

A view from New Barn - Leith Hill is on the horizon
Despite the activity in the skies, the best bird came on the deck, on Saturday. Having already watched 12 Mipits go over, my attention was drawn to a group of about 20 birds that were flushed up by a game-keepers buggy from Hive Field. They seemed to settle somewhere near New Barn, but slowly headed back a few minutes later, in dribs and drabs.

At around 08:30, I heard a different Pipit call, being uttered singularly, and I watched one bird drop back into Hive. It sounded wet and squeaky, not as sharp as Mipit and heavier, and it immediately began to recall Water. I headed down for a look, and as soon as I walked (more waded) into Hive I put up about 10 Mipits. They settled a few feet away, and this cat and mouse continued for about 5 minutes, when I flushed up a much larger group of at least 20 birds.

This time it was easy to pick the odd one out - a clearly paler individual, with what seemed bright white underparts. Several times the flock would go up, and what I now was sure was a Water Pipit would call and fly first, always landing out of view. I eventually managed to track its flight until landing, and enjoyed confirmatory views of the pale, less densely streaked, and even Song Thrush recalling bird, with an obvious supercilium.

Pipit sp., Hive Field, 21/10/2017
Inevitably the birds took off when I approached again, but I seemed to pick up the Water Pipit, facing me. In the scramble to take photos, the light emphasising the white breast and prominent super, I was led believe I was looking at the Wipit. However, upon studying the photos (which were all crap), I'm now not sure I got pictures of it - the streaking (particularly on the flanks) in the photo to the right look somewhat Mipit-esque. The strong supercilium is clear, and the bird does look pale (particularly in contrast to the olive glow of the numerous Mipits in the morning sun) and less streaked on top, but ultimately I'm not convinced I photographed the right bird. Opinions are very welcome.

Anyway, there was definitely a Water Pipit in the flock, which were enjoying the extremely damp and boggy condition Hive Field is now in (even looks appealing for Snipe). This lot were clearly on the move - the next morning, there were zero Pipits in Hive at all. All in all though it was a very pleasing find - just the second Wipit here, after one on March 30th 2015. I wonder if autumn has anything else up it's sleeve?

Monday, 16 October 2017

10th-16th October

Surrey is rarely in the national birding limelight but the recent irruption of Hawfinches into the UK has, perhaps unsurprisingly, thrust the most heavily wooded county in Britain onto centre-stage. Sensationally, 65 individuals from 9 different sites were recorded in the vice-county yesterday, including 23 over Capel and 15 over St Catherine’s Hill.

Hawfinch, taken in Białowieża, Poland, earlier this year
These types of irruptions are now doubt in some measure cyclical, but I can’t personally recall one in my time birding. Either the species had an unusually good breeding season, or there’s been a problem with their autumn/winter food supply – likely the latter, and these are probably birds from the east (i.e Poland, where they were one of the most numerous passerines when I visited in April), being pushed west as they move around seeking food.

Either way, to end up slightly disappointed at ‘only’ having 3 yesterday (all over New Barn, my new favourite vis-mig site) is demonstrative of the crazy numbers occurring that morning (40 over Hampstead Heath!), as well as the wondrous experience I’d enjoyed with the species the day before.

Arriving at Winkworth at first light on Saturday, there’d been little of note, until I heard two Hawfinches fly over the footpath that runs adjacent to Rowe’s Flashe. That was enough to make the day, so when I headed to Badger’s Bowl I wasn’t even contemplating any more. However, quickly another bird flew over, offering its typical flight-call (like a high-pitch sneeze), and then another, this time low before dropping into the trees in the upper arboretum.

Then, best of all, a flock of 6 irrupted out of one of the acers, followed shortly after by another. During the next 20 minutes or so at least 4 Hawfinches flew over in various directions. It was hard to know which birds were different, but there were definitely at least 13 individuals in the arboretum. Realistically, there were many more, and I assume these were on the move (possibly roosting in the acer overnight), and stocking up on the various berries and seeds around Winkworth. I had 2 more over New Barn later on.

Tenebrosus type Pheasant at New Barn, 15/10. A small
population of these variations resides here.
Both weekend mornings offered some tidy vis-mig, including increased Thrush numbers, notable alba and Grey Wagtails south as well as likely the last House Martins of the year. Most prominent though were finches – it’s entering peak time, and both Chaffinches and Goldfinches were passing over on both mornings in numbers. This morning, on Allden’s Hill, I enjoyed my first Bramblings of both the autumn and the year, as two individuals buzzed south. As well as being the earliest ever record here, they also brought my year list to 118, breaking the previous record of 117 in the process! Happy days.

The patch offers a dynamic habitat for Finches. There are plenty of unmanaged hedgerows and copses – perfect for Bullfinches, which are notably common, and I feel like I see more here than anywhere else in the county. The farmland element is, albeit patchy, prominent – scrubby meadows, numerous sacrificial crops and even some gorse mean Goldfinch and Linnets are probably the 2nd and 3rd commonest species respectively. Add in plenty of damp wood for winter Siskins and Redpolls, and even tracts of coniferous woodland for Crossbills, then you have a very decent mosaic. 

Brambling and Hawfinch are annually recorded (the former even locally common in some years) and, thus, 10 finch species are regular here in a year, with 11 having been seen in total in 2017 (including Common Rosefinch!). Indeed, in a good winter, you can stand on the Ridge and clock up 8 finch species easily. I wonder if, in 20 years’ time, Serin will have moved in?

Monday, 9 October 2017

5th-9th October

After a painfully quiet few weeks the patch returned to form in style this weekend, with a long overdue year tick and an excellent, varied autumnal vis-mig session making for a memorable couple of days. The year tick – number 117 for 2017 – came on Saturday when a Hawfinch flew west over the New Barn footpath.

Meadow Pipit, Bonhurst Farm, 5/10/2017. A nice,
easy Pipit.
The individual was calling, and seemed to land somewhere on Juniper Hill, so I guess it wasn’t a total surprise to hear another/the same bird over Nore Hanger the following morning. Nationally there were a few recorded over the weekend, and interestingly Wes has had 2 in 3 days at Capel – maybe there’s a slight Scandinavian influx this winter. Alternatively, the habitat here and indeed in this part of Surrey is good for Hawfinch, so there’s little reason why these wouldn’t be local birds.

Hawfinches are rare visitors here, and on Sunday morning it was clear plenty of birds were moving (largely) south-east. I finally got my first Redwings of the autumn (10 in total), as well the Hawfinch, and an enjoyable mix of other species. My main watch was at New Barn, and the totals in an hour and a half were 5 Lesser Redpolls, 28 Siskins, 3 Grey Wagtails, 3 House Martins, 2 Yellowhammers, 56 Meadow Pipits, 16 Herring Gulls, 44 Woodpigeons, 48 Chaffinches and 2 Pied Wagtails.

Despite all the above, the standout moment of the weekend was something else. In fact, I’ve struggled to get it out of my head since it happened. At 07:53 on the Sunday, whilst walking the New Barn path to my watchpoint, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a very unusual Pipit call. It was clearly not a Mipit, and was a sound that didn’t instantly connect with anything in my mind, causing slight panic mode.

I struggle with separating the less common Pipit calls, but Meadow and Tree I easily pick out. This call simply didn’t come close to matching anything I could think of, including Water/Rock (I find these 2, and Meadow, very similar) and Richard’s, as well as the regular 2 species over here. It was drawn out, clean sounding and, most notably at the time, very unfamiliar.

Allden's Hill at dawn, 08/10/2017
The bird called maybe 3 or 4 times, and was going fairly low over our heads – my girlfriend got on it before I did. For whatever reason (probably because there was lots of action going on), I didn’t even register that it could be something rarer, and began to try and make it a somewhat late Tree Pipit. When I heard it, I didn’t think Tree at all, but as the minutes went by after the event I was calmly telling myself it must have been one. However, surely I would have instantly said Tree if it was one?

I called the boys up the Tower, and had a chat with Wes who, based on my description, suggested Red-throated. However, I still tried to dismiss a rarer option, convincing myself it was Tree. I hadn’t had one over for about a month, maybe I was just out of tune? I played Tree on my phone, and at that point became very uncertain. However, because of the activity in the skies, I put the bird somewhat to the back of my mind.

Back home and over breakfast, I went through a few Pipit calls, and I nearly spluttered my coffee out when I played Red-throated. That, surely was what we heard! My girlfriend remains adamant that Red-throated is the call she heard and, in her words, the sound was “longer, clearer, less buzzy and a little piercing”. As time has gone on, and I’ve recalled the moment and listened to calls countless times, I’m honestly left feeling that it was probably a Red-throated Pipit, and I’ve tried to summarise why below:

- The call was something totally unfamiliar to me - I like to think I'm good with flyover bird calls, and this instantly threw me.

- If it was Tree, which I tried to make it, then there'd have been no confusion and I'd have called it from the off.

- Red-throated don't sound like Tree Pipit's really, certainly to the trained ear, and what I heard didn't really sound like a Tree Pipit.

- Having listened to lots of calls, what we heard fits Red-throated nicely, and was very similar to this.

My only frustration is that I didn’t play Red-throated at the time, or even after Wes suggested it. If I had, with the sound I heard fresher in my mind, I may have been able to make more of a connection. It might seem crazy, but for me that bird was a possible/probable Red-throated.

Topographic map of south-east England
Anyway, one that got away, but a glorious, mystical and totally uplifting one. The fact a Red-throated Pipit even maybe flew over shows not just the reason to keep on patching during the slog spells, but also the immense flyway potential of my patch – I would love for more birders to give it a go here.

I’ll blog in more detail about this soon (though it’s essentially a deeper examination of the Hascombe Gap theory), but look at the picture to above and to the right. The High Weald ridge stretches from south-central Hampshire (near Waterlooville) to the north Kent coast (near Gillingham). There’s one obvious gap, marked by the black mark (the River Mole at Mickleham is also a notable gap, though not as expansive). Prominent avian access/departure points Climping, Beachy Head and Dungeness are marked red.
Topographic map of Surrey

Now examine this closer, clearer topographic map. The prominent gap in the vast High Weald is again (roughly) shown by the black mark. This gap, with the Arun flowing up to just beneath it, and the Wey flowing to just above it, is surely very appealing to migratory birds. That black mark? My patch!