Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Friday, 22 June 2018

Royal T

The high-summer/World Cup lull is in full swing, and I haven't even been out on patch since Sunday (when to be fair I covered over 6 miles during a 3 and a half hour scour). Thanks largely to my legendary boss I've yet to have missed a World Cup match, though a midweek regal arrival in Sussex had me close to bailing on Russia-Egypt.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Thorncombe Street area,
21/2/2018

I instead decided to try for the American Royal Tern at first light the morning after it had first been found in the tern colony at Church Norton, Pagham. Initially identified as last years Elegant Tern, the advanced non-breeding plumage and heavy bill quickly pointed towards it in fact being the ringed 2nd-summer American Royal Tern which has spent several months across the Channel on Guernsey.

Following genetic research American Royal Tern is likely to be split from West African by the IOC soon - consequently a firmed up American bird is of huge interest to UK or WP listers, and by 03:45 on Wednesday Abel B and I were racing down the A3. Sometimes you get lucky on twitches and this was absolutely the case here - we parked at 04:30, Josh J informed me of its presence at 04:34 and at 04:35 I was looking in his scope at the bird. At 04:37 it took off and flew out the harbour, not to be seen here again!

I felt sorry for the many people we passed who were turning up in the minutes following, though to be fair if you're getting up at silly o'clock for a bird it makes sense to make sure you're there for first light. The bird was picked up later on at Lodmoor in Dorset, some 74 miles away as the tern flies. It was seen near there at dawn on Thursday, but as far as I'm aware hasn't been seen since. A very nice addition to the Pally Tally during the summer down-time.

On patch since my last post there hasn't really been much to report, and my visits have mainly been to monitor the breeders. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are one such success story, with a bird seen carrying food and a fledgling heard at a site where up to 3 adults were present in the early spring. Regrettably known LSW pairs in the county can be counted on one hand, but they persist here.

Whitethroat, Broomy Down,
13/6/2018.
Spotted Flycatchers continue to thrive here too, and I had at least 7 different birds across the site on the 16th, including a pair taking food to a regular nest. These birds have gained a lot of attention among photographers, presumably because of their exposed perches, and I had to dish out some social media warnings after one of the Selhurst Common residents whom I regularly chat to on my walks around there complained about some particularly lingering visitors.

Indeed the same resident, who regularly walks her dog around the New Barn area, was adamant her pet had flushed a Quail from one of the grass meadows at Tilsey Farm. Upon hearing this I was quick to check out the area but couldn't locate any lip-wetters, and it's clear that Red-legged Partridge or even Skylark are probably more likely species. Indeed, Quail would have been a site first, but you never know...

Probably the main patch news has been the discovery of further, 1800's records, as well as some intriguing recollections and data from the Hutley family, who own the Wintershall Estate. Remarkably no less than 5 new species are to be added to the historical site list as a result, but I'll dedicate a separate post to all of that soon!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Bear With Me Patch, My Mind's Off To Russia

Red Kite, Surrey, 8/6/2018.
In case you didn’t know, spring ‘passage’ in 2018 is well and truly over, though it’s hard to claim it ever got going – it’s been by far my weakest first half of a year since patching at Thorncombe Street. I know I’ve moaned about it a lot but it’s been that bad, and whilst everyone seems to have noticed a lack of migrants, I really feel like I got the worst of it in a Surrey sense.

My frustrations can be demonstrated a little in my vis-mig results. I’ve logged 75.85 hours watching the skies this season, with zilch reward. The Leith Hill tower crew logged 37.8, and had 3 Bonxies! That’s how it goes sometimes, and to be fair my efforts have been more the past couple of weeks.

I’ve ambitiously undertook 3 Nightjar vigils at Selhurst Common, the latest of which came last night. The conifer plantation there is at optimum growth for any stray Nightjar to take a fancy to it, and indeed they bred here until the 1900’s at least, but I’ve had no luck. Only the 3rd Red-crested Pochard record of the year came on the 8th, and a pleasing amount and spread of Spotted Flycatchers has also been noted on most visits.

The weekend before last myself, Abel B, David C and Magnus A decided to take an overnight trip to the continent. My main motivation was to finally lay my uber-Eagle-owl-bogey-dippage to rest, and I finally did, in the far southwest of the Netherlands, near Maastricht. An adult was sitting out nicely on an old quarry cliff face, and after 4 attempts in 3 countries, I’ve finally seen one.
Eurasian Eagle-owl, Oehoe Vallei, 2/6/2018.

Other decent bits included 2 Icterine and loads of Marsh Warblers, Bluethroats, Turtle Doves and a displaying Honey-buzzard. We put in a very lazy, half-arsed searched for the long-staying Pygmy Cormorant in eastern Brussels, but dipped (of course it was seen the next day).

This past weekend I was down in Devon with my family. Really quiet on the bird front, though a visit to RSPB Labrador Bay meant I caught up with Cirl Buntings in the UK for only the 3rd time. 2 males were still singing, and there were several birds diving in and out of hedges. The habitat here is unremarkable, and it seems amazing that this species suffered such a dramatic fall from grace in Surrey (and everywhere else).

Aside from the adjacent sea the site is very similar to the Thorncombe Street area – due to the lack of actual farming on the estates there’s no autumn sowing of cereals (on albeit limited crop fields), and herbicides aren’t used. Indeed, the rolling hills, abundant Hawthorn and year-round seed actually seems pretty suitable for Cirl Buntings, which surely bred here before happily (though there are no documented records).
Cirl Bunting, RSPB Labrador Bay, 9/6/2018.

A successful introduction project took place in Cornwall in 2006, and as of 2015, the population there is now considered self-sustaining. Given the sedentary nature of Cirl Buntings, they will probably need a hand if they’re ever to reappear in Surrey…

Anyway, after the disappointing spring, the patch is now entering its summer lull. It's time for beer gardens, festivals and (best and engrossingly of all) the World Cup.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Acro Enigma and Surrey Turtle Doves

As we slip into high-summer things have been quiet locally, and my patch visits have dropped down a little as the possibility of the unusual diminishes to even smaller levels. As mentioned a few times this spring hasn’t been great, anywhere, so it was a bit of a surprise when news broke yesterday morning of a possible Blyth’s Reed Warbler down the road at Frensham Great Pond.
Warbler sp., Frensham Great Pond, 31/5/2018.

It was no shock that it was a Shaun P find – along with Dave H at Walton and Peter A at Beddington, he has possibly the finest list of patch finds for Surrey. A few heads (including Mark E and Rich H) tried in the day for the bird but had no luck. Despite this, and the biblical showers coming down, Robin S and I decided to give it a go – in my limited experience this species likes to sing in the evening/at night.

We met Matt P there, and Shaun, the latter of whom had relocated the bird in it’s favoured area of scrub just east of the beach. In the following 2+ hours it was a simple game of cat and mouse. It sang, always briefly (no more than 30-40 seconds, and normally more like 20), and showed ever so fleetingly, around 8-9 times.

In short, I desperately tried and failed to get a photo of the wings, managing only frustrating head and back shots. We got a few snippets of song on my Tascam too, the best of which can be found on my Soundcloud here (has a Great Tit-esque flourish). Below is a brief summary of some of the features that perhaps suggested it wasn’t an aberrantly singing Reed Warbler.
Warbler sp., Frensham Great Pond, 31/5/2018.
  • The song. Lots of mimicry, with the xylophone-like element of a BRW heard a few times. The majority consensus was that it sounded too sedate for Marsh Warbler, though I’ll touch on that later.
  • The bird had rather pallid/grey tones, particularly to the upperparts.
  • It had a long bill, darkening at the tip.
  • It had a flat appearing head.
  • The supercilium ran only between the bill and eye and (as can be seen in one of the photos), the white 'blob' effect could be seen.
  • The legs were dark brown/grey. Possibly a bit early in the year for a Reed Warblers legs to darken.
Ultimately, we aren’t going to get anything firm without shots of the wings, and a better/longer recording. Weirdly (though maybe not for Surrey) it was just us 4 searching for it – pretty poor for a possible county first. I’d hoped some big lenses (and optimistically parabolics!) would go down today but sadly there was no sign of the bird first bells.

I passed what evidence we had to a few experts, and the tentative consensus was Blyth’s Reed, but of course nothing firm. In my mind, I really don’t know. However, when I first heard it, I asked the others why it wasn’t Marsh, but all thought the song was too slow. Blyth’s Reed and Marsh can hybridise in northern Europe, and that's even crossed my mind with this bird. A really interesting opinion was that of Simon R – he’s on the Norwegian rarities committee, and has the 3 Acro’s in question on his patch. He said it sounded like a standard Marsh Warbler to him…
Yellowhammer, Broomy Down, 27/5/2018.

Indeed, it could even be a particularly funky Reed Warbler. It seems like a frustrating one that got away, but an inspiring find, and a wonderfully tricky and difficult ID.

On patch, it’s been quiet. An unseasonal Yellowhammer was on Broomy Down last weekend, offering hope of breeding nearby. Spotted Flycatchers are in (up to 3), and the Woodlarks are still at Selhurst Common.

4 miles beyond the patch, over the Bank Holiday, I enjoyed a very rare sight (for Surrey) of a displaying Turtle Dove. Chris S had found 2 birds just north of Pallinghurst Farm, near Alfold, and when I went to check it out a couple of days later I was delighted to find 1 still about. 2 birds were seen the following day, but Robin has tried twice without luck since then. It does seem however that there’s a chance this species hangs on in outer Surrey, and I’ll be sure to check the area again soon.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Southwest Iceland, 21st-23rd May

Harlequins, River Sog, 22/5/2018.
Back from a thoroughly enjoyable few days in southwest Iceland. I was there primarily for 3 Western Palearctic ticks, which were achieved, but also to soak up the ridiculously confiding selection of special species that breed on the island.

A more detailed, logistical report can be found here on Cloudbirders. This includes specific directions for connecting with Barrow’s Goldeneye in the southwest, for which there is just one site (they’re elusive too).

The first port of call, just minutes from the airport, was the bay at Keflavik where a drake American White-winged Scoter has taken partial residency on and off since 2010. Viewing from Ægisgata I didn’t manage to locate him, though Purple Sandpipers, Iceland Gulls and a Viking/Nelson’s Gull kept me entertained. A little further up, at Njardvik, I was surprised to find a drake Ring-necked Duck on some ponds in a industrial estate!

Iceland Gull, Keflavik, 21/5/2018.
Next up was a search of the River Sog, the only site in the Western Palearctic away from Lake Mývatn where Barrow’s Goldeneye are resident. Checking several spots, we had no luck, although there were plenty of other species, including this showy pair of Harlequins (lifer number 1). Other bits and bobs included Greater Scaups, Red-necked Phalaropes, Mealy Redpolls, Great Northern Divers and, somewhat surprisingly, Swallows!

Harlequins, River Sog, 21/5/2018.
Harlequins, River Sog, 21/5/2018.
Having given the river a good comb, it was the scenic drive to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This whole area had loads of good birds – most roadside pools had either Arctic Skuas, Red-necked Phalaropes or Red-throated Divers. Whooper Swans and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were also a common sight.
Whooper Swans, Mosfellsdalur, 21/5/2018.
One pool held all 4 of the above species. A pair of Red-necked Phalaropes were particularly confiding, and had no qualms with me settling right beside them. It was a truly magical experience, and allowed for some close-up photos.

Red-necked Phalarope, Snæfellsnesvegur, 21/5/2018.

Red-necked Phalaropes, Snæfellsnesvegur, 21/5/2018.

Further on my only Slavonian Grebe pair of the trip shared a reedy pool with a Black-headed Gull colony, and next door a noisy Red-throated Diver couple made themselves known. As with the whole trip, there were birds everywhere, and it was hard not to stop every few minutes to have a look.
Slavonian Grebe, Snæfellsnesvegur, 21/5/2018.

Red-throated Divers, Snæfellsnesvegur, 21/5/2018.
The most conspicuous birds of the trip were waders – they are literally everywhere, from drumming Snipe on the airport runway to Golden Plovers on the roof of our accommodation. Second to the waders in terms of density are gulls, and Arctic Terns. Indeed, on the way to Öndverðarnes lighthouse, we passed a large Glaucous Gull colony at Grundarfjörður, and a load of roadside Arctic Terns at Ólafsvík.
Arctic Terns, Ólafsvík, 21/5/2018.
We eventually reached the lighthouse, and it took little time to locate the target - Brünnich's Guillemot. At least 20 of this hefty appearing auk were dotted around the huge seabird colony here, which included loads of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars.
Brünnich's Guillemots, Öndverðarnes, 21/5/2018.
The rest of the day (of which there was lots, given the sun goes down after 23:00), was non-birding. On the second day we visited the world-famous geysers first of all, and then went for a second stab at the Barrow’s Goldeneye along the River Sog. This time we got lucky, with a distant pair near the dams (full details in the trip report).
Barrow's Goldeneyes, River Sog, 22/5/2018.
Indeed, at times they were in the same field of view as a pair of Harlequins – two special Western Palearctic ducks together.
Harlequins & Barrow's Goldeneyes, River Sog, 22/5/2018.
The weather closed in after that, with gale-force winds and heavy rain. We retreated home, and were surprised to witness a Ptarmigan pair take shelter outside our front door! This was unexpected, but not as much as seeing one on the outskirts of Reykjavik the following day.
Ptarmigan, Laerkjot, 22/5/2018.
Another check of the White-winged Scoter night before the flight back yielded no joy. This took no gloss off an excellent trip though, with the 3 targets all seen, and loads of intimate moments with other birds. I’ll definitely be back.
Black-tailed Godwit, Borjanes, 22/5/2018.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Thanks Guys

Common Buzzard, Broomy Down, 19/5/2018
This is a short post just to big up the local birds on my patch. Sure, it's frustrating and a bit of a grind when you don't find something unusual, or if a visit is quiet, but I'm lucky to have a decent cast of locals. Some visit in the winter months, others the summer, and a few are year-round residents.

So, to you the low-flying Red Kite, and you the loudly cronking Raven, thank you. You're normally hidden under the winter crop, but Brambling and Yellowhammer, I appreciate the frequency of your winter vacations on the Ridge. And yes you may be a little on the dull side, but Spotted Flycatcher, I really enjoy watching your forays to and from the wires of Selhurst Common.

Of course, those extra special species that can't even be mentioned here, thank you for choosing this quiet part of south-east England to reproduce. I appreciate you all, and indeed if it wasn't for a lot of you I'd probably have sacked off many a mind-numbingly dull session before. Do stick around, or return in a few months, or make the trip back again next spring.
Kentish Plover, Dungeness RSPB, 20/5/2018

Yes, post-Turtle Dove fiesta, it's been back to feeling like high summer. But that's OK. I mixed things up today with a planned Terek Sandpiper raid at Rye, but naturally the bird had moved on overnight (maybe I'll pick it up on noc-mig!). A deviation to Dungeness salvaged the day somewhat, with a smart male Kentish Plover, displaying Marsh Harriers, a brief Hoopoe and some other niceties providing a continental flavour.

Spring's probably done locally, bar odds and sods. Next stop, Iceland, and then over to you butterflies and breeders for the next month or two.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Refreshed

Time off the intense patch routine during the past week has worked wonders and, ironically, it’s delivered the best (non-nocmig) birds of the spring – two Turtle Doves, which flew over Goose Green this morning. The aforementioned patch break has included a successful Mole Valley Bird Race, and a day-trip to north-west France, but most importantly a birding refresh for myself.
Turtle Dove, Réserve Romelaëre, France 

The Mole Valley Bird Race was the 3rd I’ve taken part in, with Matt P, Stuart C, Wes A and I making up team Linnet To Win It. We managed 89 species, 4 down on 2017 but pretty good going given rain set in for the day from lunchtime. It turned out to be a winning total, with David S’s team coming in 2nd with 83 (another good haul).

Wes is an exceptional birder, and his local knowledge is both invaluable and the key reason we made it a third successive victory. Our best birds were probably Crossbill, Little Ringed Plover and Lesser Whitethroat, though David C had Hawfinch and a dodgy Barnacle Goose, and David S’s team managed a Goshawk. I look forward to next year.

The opportunity of a day’s birding in north-west France was too good to turn down, and so I joined David C, David DL and Magnus A for an early start to catch the Eurotunnel to Calais. Unfortunately, a gusty north wind and heavy cloud blighted the trip somewhat, but fun company and a sprinkling of nice birds made the excursion very worthwhile.

Marsh Warbler, Guines Marsh.
The best species was probably a Marsh Warbler, atypically singing at Guines Marsh and consequently proving a tricky ID until it showed. Other decent bits included singing Bluethroats, 9 Spoonbills, a group of 4 Black Terns, a smart drake Garganey and a male Hen Harrier. Turtle Doves were pleasingly noted at a few different sites. Sadly, I couldn’t tempt the boys to visit the beautiful, plastic-fantastic Reeves’s Pheasant population at Foret d’Hesdin.

My first patch visit after all that wasn’t until this morning, when I teamed up with Abel B. My motivation for strategic site visits has been much diminished over the past few weeks, so I left it to him to pick where we went – he chose well!

After connecting with a/the Woodlark at Selhurst Common (a patch tick for him, and surely evidence that breeding is being attempted), we parked up at Goose Green with a view to walk to Scrubbin’s Pond and back. Whilst halfway across the main field below the pond, I picked up two doves heading south.

The flicky, rapid flight style and evidently dark underwing (taught nicely by David DL in France) was enough to get us excited, and as the birds banked a little the rufous-brown scalloping on the upperparts could be seen, confirming them as Turtle Doves. After watching them for a minute or two they disappeared towards Dunsfold.

Greenfinch, Wintershall Estate, 13/5/2018.
As mentioned before, I think this particularly favourite species of mine hangs on somewhere in outer Surrey. A Turtle Dove was at Tugley Wood, Chiddingfold on Monday, and I’d be delighted to encounter some more locally this year. After 1 sighting in 2015 and 2 in 2016 here, there were none last year. Later on a pair of Collared Doves provided us with a very nice flight comparison.

A little bit of a salvage of this poor spring, and combined with the enjoyable away days, it’s been a recuperating week.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Montagu's or Capulets?

I recently found out the bitterly disappointing decision by the Surrey Bird Club Rarities Committee that my male Montagu’s Harrier, that cruised high over Allden’s Hill on May 7th two years ago, has been deemed non-proven. Aside from the deflation such a verdict causes, it also presents a mild dilemma as to the historic list of birds recorded here.

The Monty's over Allden's Hill, as depicted by my 
girlfriend for the 2016 report front cover.
After all my other submissions (Cattle Egrets, Honey-buzzard, White-fronted Geese etc) were accepted in the February meeting I decided that, after some long thought, I’d align the Thorncombe Street list with the birds that will officially go in the historical Surrey database. This meant a farewell to the putative Little Bunting Matt and I heard and saw on the Ridge in 2015, and of course left the Monty’s in the balance.

If I’m truthful, I was quietly confident of the Harrier being accepted. I thought the description was detailed and honest, and the clarity of what I saw remains a joyful playback in my mind whenever I choose to relive it (which is often!). It’s without a doubt my patch high. I now must choose whether I take it off the site list, but such an action seems both ridiculous and very hard to do, given the nature of the encounter.

As for future rarity submissions, we’ll see. There’s no doubt Surrey has had (and continues to have) birders who don’t submit all their descriptions due to what they perceive as questionable decision-making processes. I await the rationale of the Montagu’s decision with interest.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Out with a Whimper

3 patch Whimbrels in a week is a bit ridiculous, especially given there were only 3 historical records previously. However, this is the wonder of noc-mig, which captured 2 of these individuals as they called over Allden’s Hill at 23:13 on the 3rd and 02:39 on the 7th respectively.

Whimbrel, Broomy Down, 6/5/2018.
The other record was a silent bird over Broomy Down early on the 6th. Really staggering stuff, and it makes me wonder both how many I missed here, and how many have moved over the local area/county, during the past week. Clearly, it’s peak movement time for this particular species, and interestingly no other waders have been recorded.

Such a fascinating discovery has been in keeping with the spring so far. Indeed, the past week or so has largely continued the 2018 theme of nocmig offering excitement, with the daylight birding being substandard and at times frustrating. The weather this weekend was great for sunbathing, but it was just too nice and clear for birds, with any migrants out of sight. Indeed, at times it felt like high-summer...

Exasperation reached a pretty high level on Saturday 5th when, at 11:20, what was surely a Stork species glided northeast at a ridiculous height. An elongated neck, heavy, clearly fingered wings and general massive-ness against the couple of Buzzards it passed had me ditch the bins for the camera, and of course I lost the bird in the process.
Hobby, Broomy Down, 6/5/2018.

I’ve seen both species of European stork many times before, and have little doubt that this was indeed one, but there’s nothing I could do. To be fair, it was probably too high for a photo or conclusive ID anyway. Another one that got away, and incredibly, not the most painful moment of the weekend!

That came on Monday morning. In total over the Bank Holiday weekend I put in 13.5 hours sky-watching (and several extra working the deck), with little results bar the Whimbrel and a late-ish Yellow Wagtail. So, whilst immensely happy for the boys up the tower, it was gripping at the least when they had 4 (yes 4!) Great Skuas drift south past Leith Hill at around 08:30.

A phenomenal record, possibly the best birds ever to be recorded over the tower, and of course the stuff of dreams for any Surrey birder. Unfortunately, I stood no chance of getting on them, given the direction they flew in and the light. That’s how it goes sometimes, and I probably did myself no favours by relenting with the patch.
Stoat, Ridge, 3rd May 2018.

A break of some level may be needed. A Spotted Flycatcher yesterday in fact yielded, incredibly, the last summer migrant to arrive. It all happened in a couple of weeks. It's time to go back to just enjoying what is around, and avoiding patch overkill and burnout.

I’ve planned a trip away (Iceland), and will take my foot off the patch gas, maybe for a week or so, or maybe longer. The World Cup and new musical focuses will doubtless help restore a nice balance, and I’m sure the natural patch enjoyment will return soon.