|South-west Surrey map (Surrey Bird Club).|
With the Mole Valley Bird Race (where 90 is a decent score) as a loose barometer and acknowledging that a couple more waterbirds were on offer in our region, we set a target of 95 species. Kit, of recent Shalford fame, joined us and honourably offered to drive. We pulled up in the Moat car park at Thursley Common not long after 4.30 am, having already dipped Little Owl at a Milford site en route – we’d long been aware that the weather was forecast to be poor, but it really was grim here; fog and a chilly northwest wind wasn’t classic May weather.
Cuckoo was picked up from the car park and it wasn’t long before we bumped into the first bonus species of the day – Lesser Redpoll. Curlew soon followed, before Thursley patch watcher Dave B met us on the boardwalk. We then spent a thoroughly pleasant hour or so walking the common, tucking such useful fare as Tree Pipit, Dartford and Garden Warbler and Redstart under our belts. We hadn’t managed Woodlark here, but with plenty of other sites for this species all was not lost. I was also reminded me of why I love this site so much, even if I've hardly paid it any attention in recent times.
|Redstart, Thursley Common, 11/5/2019.|
Next up was Frensham Little Pond. Here we had two main targets: Kingfisher and Water Rail. The former proved easy but we couldn’t prize out the latter, and had to abandon with time of the essence. However, it was an entirely positive visit with Spotted Flycatcher and Sand Martin a bonus, as well as finally getting Woodlark, along with bits like Common Tern and Reed Warbler. We also scored Bullfinch – one of many species we saw at multiple sites that Sam was adamant would be tough prior to the day! Frensham bird finding machine Shaun P called with news of a brief Little Egret but we couldn’t get on it, a moment that’d come back to haunt us later.
Next up was the briefest of pit stops at the Great Pond – Gadwall cooperated nicely and we picked up Swift also. It was then onto Tice’s, where we had a couple of hours pencilled in to secure the regular waterbirds and – hopefully – a bonus wader or too. The long-staying first-winter Brent Goose was most welcome, and it wasn’t long before a selection of waders (including Common Sandpiper and Lapwing), along with Pochard and three gull species were on the day list. Unfortunately, the Black-tailed Godwit that had been around for a few days had done a bunk overnight, though we also added Sedge Warbler, amid the typically friendly welcome from the Tice’s regulars.
|Brent Goose, Tice's Meadow, 11/5/2019.|
We left here at about 10.45 am, pit-stopping at a couple of sites before heading to Binscombe for that rarest of south-west Surrey species: Lesser Whitethroat! I was delighted to discover a territorial male last weekend and it performed on cue again, though didn’t show well. Bizarrely, there is only one or two other sites that may hold this species in south-west Surrey. Anyway, it was on to Thorncombe Street for a few open country birds and hopefully a raptor or two.
We sped up to Broomy Down and assumed position. Raven, Rook and Linnet were swiftly bagged, before Kit picked out a glorious Egyptian Goose tucked in with the White Storks – a near-perfect image. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t playing ball and indeed our visit to Broomy coincided with the worst weather of the day. A few weak showers had teased but suddenly the heavens opened not long after 1 pm. However, this unexpectedly delivered arguably bird of the day – a Whimbrel, powering north following the downpour.
Pleased with ourselves, we stocked up on coffee and food and headed to Allden’s Hill; the sun was back out and we wanted to give it a final go for raptors while enjoying our lattes. Sam managed to pick out a male Sparrowhawk – always a tricky big day bird – and so we moved on to a patch of farmland near Hambledon. For as long as I can remember, there’s a certain lay-by where you can pull in and see or hear Yellowhammer without barely setting foot outside the car. Despite the rain reappearing, the buntings delivered, and we logged three in total within minutes of getting there.
|Yellowhammer, Hambledon, 11/5/2019.|
With the afternoon getting long and the sun back out we knew we had to nail Hobby – we didn’t even need to reach the boardwalk at Thursley before we had a few of these charming falcons. We had a chat with a few Colin enthusiasts, papped a showy Redstart then sped to The Flashes, where we were after Siskin. None here, so on to Farnham Heath RSPB for Crossbill. It was my first time at this site and a flyover Siskin was most welcome, though we didn’t manage any Crossbills.
We still hadn’t had Nuthatch by this point, so we were relieved to chance upon a silent bird in some woodland near Waverley Abbey. We then drove past the water meadows at Wrecclesham looking for egrets – no joy. With a couple of hours of light left we were one species short of our target. We chose to give Tice’s another go, but unfortunately couldn’t pluck out any new birds. In a bit of a panic, we bolted back east to Thorncombe Street. After the Whimbrel gift earlier, could the old girl sort us out again?
|Tree Pipit, Farnham Heath RSPB, 11/5/2019.|
Of course she could. We pulled up at Snowdenham Mill Pond and were all elated to see the female Red-crested Pochard at the far end. This easy collection to the list meant we had a bit of time to go hunting for Marsh Tit. There are a few sites on patch that are reliable for this species, but Winkworth is generally the best – we soon had one in Furze Field. 96 was a great tally. We’d sacked off Nightjar hunting in the early hours due to the inclement weather overnight but, with the wind in our sails – while no-one dared mention it – we were all thinking of the holy grail hundred haul.
|Redstart, Thursley Common, 11/5/2019.|
We tried in vain for Barn and Little Owl at some sites near Dunsfold, before steaming back east, to Crooksbury Common. No Nightjars had been recorded back in Surrey yet so we were delighted to have a couple within minutes of getting out the car. A roding Woodcock took us to 98 … Tawny Owl would surely be a certainty at some point soon, meaning we only needed another owl species. Full of motivation, we ploughed onto a Little Owl site near Peper Harrow. None of us had been here for about a decade, so when a Little Owl appeared almost instantly we were over the moon.
With a couple of hours left we just needed to get Tawny Owl somewhere. We decided to try a couple of Barn Owl sites, hoping to pick up Tawny Owl in the background. We dipped at places like Shackleford and Littleton, before we realised that the clock was ticking. Tawny Owl suddenly became the priority and we tried at least five reliable sites – amazingly, we just couldn’t pick one up, and we surrendered at around 11.30 pm, some 19 or so hours after we’d started.
|Marsh Tit, Winkworth Arboretum, 11/5/2019.|
The disappointing finish took the edge of a superbly fun day, which had been matched by a wonderful final count of 99 species. In many ways it was comparable to Liverpool’s domestic season which concluded the following day – near-perfect, getting basically every point required and also enjoying a good deal of fortune, but somehow not making it over the line (although having passed 95 we technically did) at the end of the day. However, looking back now it was a great effort and, to be honest, we’ll do well to match it next year!
Finally, a word to the folk who helped us out – we wouldn’t have got close to that haul without fantastic gen from several birders. Jeremy provided some wonderful information, so a big thanks there. Dave at Thursley and Shaun at Frensham were invaluable both before and on the day, as were the Tice’s gang – chiefly Rich H, Rich S and Mark. Finally, thanks to Ray B for some local gen. Bring on next year.