Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The title of my last post was a bad choice

Last week I foolishly suggested autumn was over locally. Many a wise Surrey head have told me that November often delivers a big one in our fine part of the world – this has certainly been the case over the last few of days, during which time no fewer than two Surrey megas have made an appearance.

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

Easily the most astonishing involved an adult Montagu’s Harrier on Saturday. This incredibly late and lost individual was photographed by Rich S as it caused mayhem over The Workings at Tice’s Meadow. I won’t go in to too much detail as hopefully an account from the man himself will be online soon.

Anyway, upon Rich telling me it flew straight through (arriving from the west) and departed east, over the Hog’s Back, it clicked that there was a chance this bird would track the North Downs, like many a raptor has been seen to do (including the Leith Hill Osprey in September). The nearest downs to me are at Loseley – only five miles directly east of Tice’s Meadow – so I raced there and set up camp on Stakescorner Road.

Amazingly (or perhaps not so, given the prediction of it), after 25 minutes of waiting and wondering what a silly idea this was, I picked up the ghostly silhouette of a grey harrier over Brickfields Farm at roughly 10.10, thanks entirely to the volume of Black-headed Gulls and Starlings (and a few Lapwings) that rose from the fields en masse. While distant, the classic small harrier structure of a Monty’s was clear to see. It passed through quickly, so I immediately phoned a selection of folk to the east, though all bar Wes were elsewhere.

Montagu's Harrier, Tice's Meadow, 8 November 2019 (R Seargent).

Wes sped up the tower but, unfortunately, he was above the sea of fog there, which blanketed the top of the downs at Loseley (the harrier flew below it). In an even more mad turn of events, Mark L reported a grey harrier at Chilworth (further east on the North Downs flight path) some 50 minutes after I had the Monty’s. To top the whole bizarre episode off, a local farmer I got chatting to suggested a grey harrier had been hanging around the Loseley/Artington area for a few days!

I’m still struggling to work out where this bird has come from. I’ve spoken to a few Finnish birders, who report very late records of the species over there. Perhaps this bird was a very late return migrant from eastern Scandinavia? In my opinion, I wonder if it is in fact of east European or even Asian origin – it’s well documented that Monty’s numbers are crashing further east (as indeed they are in Western Europe), with a few studies examining the destruction of suitable wintering habitat in India.

Red Kite, Allden's Hill, 9 November 2019.

Bullfinch, Allden's Hill, 9 November 2019.

Maybe this bird had already reached traditional wintering grounds which were in a state, and just wandered exceptionally far west. Incredibly, this wasn’t even the latest ever Surrey record (by some three days), though perhaps historical records need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

What's clearer is the use of the North Downs by migrating raptors/large birds. Many of us tower folk have seen it first hand. One element must be the topographic use (as discussed in my long Surrey migration post), but presumably they also use the ridges for some sort of thermal uplift (as the local raptors certainly do on my patch). Wes has watched White Stork, Marsh Harrier and Osprey all fly down the Mole Gap before using the downs to circle and rise up on a thermal, before departing along said downs.

Anyway, that incredibly moment lit up an otherwise quiet Saturday. I really dislike this time of year, when it seems constantly dark, wet and gloomy. I struggled to motivate myself to put in much of a patch shift on Saturday morning, and was already home when I saw pictures of the harrier. Indeed, patch has been very quiet. The highlight from the past few days has been a new site record count of Greylag Geese (a post-roost flock of 116 on Snowdenham Mill Pond on 7th), which says it all.

Red Kite, Allden's Hill, 8 November 2019.

Indeed, a Sunday skywatch on Allden’s Hill was so quiet I resorted to studying the local Red Kites, which were up in numbers. The age of one bird (the above photo) confused me – while showing almost entirely adult features, it also had white edges to the greater coverts on the underwing (very clear in the picture) and a thin black terminal band at the end of the tail (though the tail feathers are being replaced, from the middle out) – perhaps it’s a second-winter/sub-adult? Any comments are most welcome and this is not the first time the age of a Red Kite has confused me.

The sun came out later, and with that I decided to walk the Shackleford farmland, a site I’ve harped on about before this year but one that’s really become a favourite of mine. In glorious, wintry conditions there were birds everywhere on this nature-friendly patchwork of arable farms – there were flocks of thrushes, Skylarks and Starlings, four raptors species (with set aside that looks ripe for a Short-eared Owl or Hen Harrier) along with notable single counts of Ring-necked Parakeet, Snipe and Yellowhammer.

Mixed gull flock (mainly Black-headed), Shackleford farmland, 8/11/2019.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Shackleford farmland, 8 November 2019.

It’s a great, quiet spot and I thoroughly recommend a visit. It’d make a great patch too. The gull flock was most impressive, with some 400 (mainly Black-headed) feeding nervously in the fields. Two 2nd-winter Lesser Black-backed Gulls were good value, a species rare on the deck locally. Another notebook entry recently was the flock of 28 Greenfinches in Farncombe on 8th.

Sadly, the brief Richard’s Pipit at Staines Reservoir on Sunday didn’t decide to relocate in the vice-county. However, as it happened a Surrey tick was indeed in the offing, when a phone call from Jeremy G notified me of a drake Ferruginous Duck at Papercourt GPs, where he found one previously back in January 2002.

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

Unfortunately, I was in the office in London and, to make matters worse, it’s press week. I was particularly anxious about this bird, though, as I missed the Frensham Great Pond female in September 2015 which was, like every other Surrey Fudge Duck in my lifetime, a one-day only bird.

Thankfully my most understanding boss suggested I go for it, and I was able to get to the sailing lake not long before sundown. The bird, a smart drake, was showing quite nicely in the middle of the pit among a mixed Aythya flock (including a Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid). Unfortunately, the light wasn’t great but I got some record shots.

Crucially, this bird had no rings, which tends to be the case almost always with Fudge Ducks these days (the Hedgecourt Lake bird last winter was ringed). A German reintroduction scheme has blurred the status of this attractive duck, which longer term has declined in western Europe and is thus back on the BBRC list of assessed species. Indeed, it’s thought there are more Pochard x Fudge hybrids in western Europe than pure Ferruginous …

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

So, November is indeed good in Surrey, lest I forget again. A scan through my notes shows a pattern of classy waterbird additions to my Surrey list, including Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck and Shag. Two-barred Crossbill isn’t a bad passerine entry from the November archives either. I’ll be sure to not write the month off again.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The end of autumn?

Since the excitement of reaching a new patch year list record, things have quietened down. Indeed, the highlight of the past week – a male Black Redstart joining the female at Bonhurst Farm for a day last Wednesday – was missed by myself. In fact, with vis-mig really slowing down and days ever shortening, there’s a feeling autumn is reaching an end.

Black Redstart, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Despite promising conditions on Thursday (full and low cloud cover with a gentle easterly), a skywatch from Tilsey Farm was quiet. 137 Fieldfare west was an autumn high (I do poorly for big counts here), while a Hawfinch flew over the entrance track.

The previous day, Kit – one of many who came to see the lingering female Black Redstart – found a male. This was the first time a male had been recorded here so I was a bit gutted it had gone by the following day, despite Gillian S reporting that the pair had been interacting quite a lot when she visited on Wednesday afternoon.

Kestrel, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Black Redstart, Tilsey Farm, 30 October 2019 (photo courtesy Gillian Stokes).

Still, you can’t sniff at a female Black Red and, post-disappointing vis-mig, I soon tracked her down along the fence line of the main horse field. A Marsh Tit in the copse towards Daneshill was a good record for the immediate farm area.

I had visions of the pair lingering for a while, but that was the last I or anyone saw of her. By Saturday, in terribly wet and windy conditions, there was no sign during a brief look. Indeed, a day of sport meant there was little time for patch (which worked out OK, given the storm that blew through), though a Firecrest at Winkworth was decent. Flying visits to Unstead SF and the Loseley farmland produced nothing of note.

Meadow Pipit, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Sunday was far nicer, with blue skies and no wind. After I checked an empty Tuesley Farm for any storm-blown skuas, a Kingfisher at Winkworth got things off to a good start, before a pleasant stroll through the south section. Clear highlight was a Woodlark that flew east-north-east over Tilsey Farm, uttering its tuneful flight call as it went.

While this species bred in the east section this year this was a first record for the south, and this bird probably came from The Hurtwood, or perhaps even further afield. I’ve only had one vis-mig Woodlark before, so the sighting was most welcome.

Woodlark, Tilsey Farm, 3 November 2019.

Three Hawfinches dropped into Nore Hanger later on, further proof that a few of these hefty finches are lurking in the wider area at present. Otherwise, in keeping with the rest of the week, it was fairly uneventful.

Later in the day I walked the Shackleford farmland but saw little, missing out on the noteworthy Stonechat, Teal and Ring-necked Parakeet Peter O had there earlier. A quick look at Cutt Mill afterwards produced no early Goosander.

Vis-mig was so good in Surrey during October, with some excellent counts and watches, and one does wonder if there’s much left to pass through. November normally delivers a decent session or two, though, so here’s hoping there’s some late movement. One thing that certainly seems to have not arrived yet is wildfowl – maybe a surprise or two from that department will be in store in the coming weeks.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

South Florida: day seven and eight

A wet and windy November afternoon, fondly recalling warmer times, seems a fitting time to wrap the posts of my trip to south Florida, back in January …

Mangrove Cuckoo.

Having had a hugely successfully trip, the last couple of days were relaxed and we chose to return to the Everglades proper in the far south of the state, as we’d enjoyed our time here previously so much. Birding was mainly looking for a couple of remaining targets, exploring new spots and revisiting productive ones.

Local birders had informed me that a Mangrove Cuckoo was at Black Point Park and Marina. This Neotropical cuckoo is infamously hard to see in the Everglades, the only place the species is found in the US. However, a wintering bird had been located in the mangroves at the marina and was pleasing visiting birders daily.

Mangrove Cuckoo.

An early morning visit paid off, with the bird eventually showing well after a long game of cat and mouse. It even offered some of its famous vocalisations to boot. A really smart bird and one that wasn’t expected ahead of the trip.

A visit to Biscayne NP wasn’t for birding, but a few Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing and American Herring Gulls and American Royal Terns were good value.

American Royal Terns, Double-crested Cormorant and American Herring Gull.

American Royal Tern.

Brown Pelican.

Dump Marsh Preserve, to the north, held loads of iguanas – an escaped pest in Florida – as well as several species of turtle. Also there were trip ticks in the form of Green-winged Teal and Greater Yellowlegs.

Green Iguanas.

Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

While driving around the farmland south-west of Homestead, I noticed a kingbird perched on a wire, which I initially took to be Western Kingbird – a new species for me and a fairly common winter visitor to Florida.

However, some features didn’t seem right. The bill was far heavier than I’d have expected and the bird was very bright, almost like a giant Grey Wagtail. A thumb through Sibley soon showed that this was in fact a Tropical Kingbird.

Tropical Kingbird.

This species is a vagrant to Florida, though increasing, with only 40 records prior to 2005 (and around 20 since). Thus, it was a most welcome surprise. I took a few shots before it flew off over a field, not to be seen again.

Tropical Kingbird.

Later on, back at Luck Hammock, I was delighted to bump into a small flock of Blue Grosbeaks, a fairly unusual wintering species here. A few Cedar Waxwings flew overhead and, back at the Gumbo Limbo Trail afterwards, Brown Thrasher finally made it onto the trip list.

Blue Grosbeak.

Northern Mockingbird.

Great Crested Flycatcher.

Cedar Waxwing.

The final day saw little birding, but a final homage to Lucky Hammock yielded a real treat and one that had eluded me prior – male Painted Buntings. This species isn’t reported due their demand on the illegal cage bird trade, so it’s not easy to pin them down and so far I’d only seen a female.

As a result I was chuffed to watch a small flock for half an hour or so, as they quietly fed in tall grass and crops. Absolute stunners. Another final gift from Lucky Hammock was another lifer – a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which was gone almost as soon as I’d identified it.

Painted Buntings.

Lincoln's Sparrow.

On the way the way up to the airport we stopped at ‘Cortadito Cowbirds’, a Cuban restaurant in Miami famous for its population of Bronzed Cowbird. Several of these hulky passerines incongruously loitered around the car park for an easy lifer.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Miami, where interesting birds were few, save a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds that glided overhead.

Bronzed Cowbird.

In all, it was an excellent trip. 152 species was a brilliant haul and some truly iconic species were included in that figure. However, it was the nature of the birding which made the trip so memorable – incredible ecosystems and habitats, huge numbers of birds and so many super tame and confiding ones too.

American Kestrel.

These longer trips are well worth it, especially as I’ve been really trying to cut down my carbon footprint. Recently, I’ve been flying several times a year which just isn’t justifiable. This year I’ve only flown thrice, and one of those was for work. Hopefully my planned trips next year (two so far!) are equally fun.

South Florida: day five and sixhttp://godalmingareabirds.blogspot.com/2019/06/south-florida-day-five-and-six.html

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

A new year list record

October has continued its excellent form here at Thorncombe Street during the last week. Indeed, it’s been one superb month during a really fun, successful and positive year on patch. So good, in fact, that two year ticks during the last few days mean a new year list record has been achieved, something that never really seemed realistic after a combination of free time and good birds in 2017 saw a very high bar of 123 set – some five better than any other annual haul.

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

Promising vis-mig conditions on Wednesday were a let-down, with the forecast north-easterly switching to a barely noticeable east-south-east wind by sunrise. Save 1,295 Woodpigeons, 251 Redwings and a Brambling, there wasn’t much to report.

Snowdenham Mill Pond has been consistent in its wildfowl array over the last few weeks, with numbers of every species down apart from Shoveler, which at times has been the commonest duck on the pond.

Shoveler, Snowdenham Mill Pond, 23 October 2019.

Greylag Geese, New Barn, 23 October 2019.

Said gentle easterly airflow produced a phenomenal fall of Black Redstarts in south-east England, with 50 at Dungeness an example of the extraordinary numbers involved. If you’ve kept tabs on Twitter or the bird news services during the last week, you’ll be aware that Surrey has cashed in, with at least 10 sites hosting birds.

Enthused by this, I headed to Bonhurst Farm on Wednesday afternoon looking to repeat the discovery of one after the long-staying female last year. I even ventured up to the Thorncombe Street Area northern outpost of Hurst Hill Farm in my failed attempt to find any.

Common Gull, Hurst Hill Farm, 23 October 2019.

Steve came down for ringing at Bonhurst Farm on Thursday, with the wet forecast thankfully holding off for a few hours longer than expected. Despite the gloomy conditions we enjoyed a profitable session, trapping 24 new birds and three retraps of six species. Best of all was a first Treecreeper for the nets here, as well as a very worn Goldcrest, suggesting that the little sprite had perhaps made a sea crossing (or at least a lengthy journey) not long ago.

Treecreeper, Bonhurst Farm, 24 October 2019.

Goldcrest, Bonhurst Farm, 24 October 2019.

A few bits flew over in the dank conditions, including three Skylarks and a few winter thrushes. Best of all, however, came at 10:01 while Steve was processing a Goldcrest – a Snipe. It was first heard calling in the gloom before we picked it up, as it rocketed south.

A fairly common bird in Surrey, sure, and one of the most under recorded species here without a doubt. It was still, though, my first on patch since 18 March 2015! As a result, a most welcome year tick, and one that equalled my previous best of 123 …

Woodpigeons, Tilsey Farm, 23 October 2019.

Saturday was thankfully wet and windy, as there was a lot of sport on television. A very brief patch visit proved quiet. A thicker head than usual on Sunday morning made it both hard to get up early and bear the freezing cold north-westerly wind for a vis-mig.

Again, it was quiet, though three Hawfinches north-west at dawn continued a good run for the species here, shades of autumn 2017 when the crazy invasion took place. Of the Hawfinches I’ve had in the last week or two, I’m not sure any are moving that far (indeed some have dropped in) – perhaps we’re going to have another good autumn/winter for the species.

The other highlight was a Mute Swan that lumbered south, only my third on vis-mig here. Picked up at a great distance as it arrived over Blackheath from the north-east, the huge frame and outstretched neck initially had all sorts of alarm bells ringing.

Hawfinch, Junction Field, 28 October 2019.

Woodpigeons, Junction Field, 29 October 2019.

Feeling fresher and with a little time on Monday morning, I spent a few hours vis-migging from Junction Field for a change. The fine conditions meant Woodpigeons were very much on the move – I tallied up 5,226, including some huge flocks flying south-west over the Wey-Arun Plain, which was shrouded in fog and looking like a giant motorway. Robin’s ‘Isles of Surrey’ perception was very much in effect. This will likely be my biggest autumn count of the species this year.

Another Hawfinch flew south-east, an impressive 25 Yellowhammers were ticking to and from Broomy Down and three Lesser Redpolls buzzed south. It was a fine autumn morning, but the big result took place at Bonhurst Farm.

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

Almost inevitably, given the influx, a Black Redstart popped up on wires near Upper Bonhurst. It performed admirably in the sunshine, though typically never in great light for photos.

It eventually worked down to the main farm buildings, where the female last year spent so much time. I left it be, but a steady stream of visiting birders came during the day and it was still present until late afternoon. It lingered until today and John R got some nice footage (see here).

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

And that marked bird number 124 for me at Thorncombe Street this year. Ironically, it’s happened in the year I’ve actively chosen to take my foot of the year listing and be more thorough with coverage of different sites. The quirks of birding. Despite winter fast approaching, maybe 2019 has another surprise or two to offer yet.