Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Saturday, 18 August 2018


Shpeez. Shpeeeez.

The shpeez of a flyover Tree Pipit is probably my favourite migration call. For a vis-mig devotee, such a ranking is quite the decision. The tseep of a Redwing is good, and the sweeup of a Yellow Wagtail offers the closest challenge, but there's something about an early autumn Tree Pipit, boldly propelling over my slice of Surrey countryside, that does it for me.

It's not like they can't be found fairly close to Thorncombe Street either. Winterfold Heath and the south-west commons hold healthy populations. They're still in the rare category here though - I've never had one on the deck, and there are still less than 10 records. The latter figure won't last long though, with the ever revolutionary noc-mig turning up a third of all historical records over the last two evenings.

Regardless, the sharp sound of a migrant Tree Pipit, not long after dawn on crisp late August or early September morning, is one that puts a smile on my face. Maybe it's a symbol of the realisation that summer is really coming to an end? Maybe it's just one of the particularly special qualities of vis-mig? Whatever the case, I hope to hear a couple more during the summer twilight zone, as we claw and grasp onto the last remnants of noisy beer gardens, green-leafed and life-filled woodlands, and ajar bedroom windows as we sleep.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

August Amongst Us

In my last post I mentioned the productiveness of Augusts gone by, and two weeks in it’s safe to say it seems to be putting in another solid performance in 2018, with four year ticks, one of which was a new species for the site. I also suggested in my previous post that wader movement was far from over, and indeed the new addition to the Thorncombe Street area list was one, a Dunlin, which gloriously squealed its way over Allden’s Hill 12 days ago.

Stonechat, Bonhurst Farm, 11/8/2018.
Dunlins are encountered semi-regularly by other nocturnal sound recorders, but it was a first for me, and is a relatively straightforward ID in nocmig terms. It becomes a very welcome addition to the site list, which remarkably has seen nine nocmig-based site-firsts in 2018; an extraordinary figure. A Common Sandpiper this Friday was slightly more expected, but again is a maiden nocmig species here, and the first record since Matt P had a flock of four at Rowe’s Flashe, Winkworth, on 30th April 2015. Indeed, Common Sand still somehow evades my patch list, despite being seen by three other local birders here, Matt included!

A juvenile Stonechat at Bonhurst Farm yesterday was an early record of a species that’s surprisingly rare here, with only one or two records a year. The showy individual presumably started its life not so far away, with Blackheath and Winterfold possibilities. It was busy eating insects along the fences, and with a decent count of 12 Pied Wagtails there today, I have high (relatively, for here) hopes of bagging a Whinchat at the same site later in the month/into September.
Raven, Broomy Down, 10/8/2018/

The other new bird for the year was Tree Pipit, and there has in fact been two records in the last fortnight. Again, these are very early dates, and probably involve semi-local birds moving around. I must confess that the hoarse tzeep of an overflying Tree Pipit is one of my favourite sounds of the year here, not just of early autumn, and with only a couple of records annually it’s always a treat.

Aside from these headliners, the supporting cast has been fairly tidy too. Willow Warblers are naturally being picked up more and more now, and I counted at least four at New Barn yesterday, where I was unable blag a Pied among the five Spotted Flycatchers there. The latter seem to be everywhere on patch at this time of year, and I had two at Winkworth this morning also. A Crossbill sub-singing towards Nore Hanger was a decent notebook entry yesterday (there were also two flyovers past Broomy Down on 4th), as was a family party of Firecrests at Scotsland Brook and female Red-crested Pochard at Mill Pond on 5th.

Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 11/8/2018.
A Peregrine past Broomy Down and Junction Field on 4th was very welcome, with this falcon, that’s fairly regular in Surrey these days, remaining scarce at best here. Indeed, it was just the second record of 2018, quite staggering when compared with Whimbrel; yet another numenius phaeopus was recorded on nocmig on 7th, making it the fourth record this year. This is demonstrative of the shape-shifting and mind-blowing powers of nocmig. Formerly a real patch mega, presumably Whimbrels are in fact fairly regular – albeit in small numbers – passing overhead during both spring and autumn.

Abel B pinned down the suddenly-elusive Little Owl pair at Thorncombe Park on 2nd. These owls charmed myself and visiting birders with their showiness last year, but for some reason have become very hard to catch up with. Perhaps the increased nearby nesting of corvids and raptors is why. Tawny Owls however seem to have had a very good year, and most nocmig sessions are frequently punctuated with various calls of this species.

Anyway, August has started well, and the month of rare consistency for here seems to be on course to deliver again. What more? Well, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff numbers are set to peak next weekend of 18th and 19th, which are also the respective August dates of migrant Wood Warblers in both 2016 and 2017.

Willow Warbler (left) and Chiffchaff, New Barn, 11/8/2018.
Consequently one of them is high on the radar, and as the weeks go on the chance of the first Redstart since 2015 increases, and Pied Fly won’t leave the possibility pile just yet. A decent raptor is due this year that’s for sure – maybe a late August Osprey or Marsh Harrier. And of course, that magic something could be just round the corner. Indeed, mid-August through to late September is the optimum time for that magical, most highly-desired emberiza nocmig gold dust.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Autumn Approaching, Visualize

Late July and early August has become synonymous with waders here, with low cloud, showers and a bit of westerly in the wind always enough to coax me onto one of my vantages for a chance of the dry inland-patchers delight; the flyover shorebird. 27th July in particular is a special day in the Thorncombe Street calendar, with flocks of Whimbrels and Black-tailed Godwits having flown over on this date in recent times.
Mandarin duckling, Mill Pond, 30/7/2018.

The weather played its part again on the 27th this year, with the overbearing hot spell eventually breaking down with thunderstorms, gusty wind and showers of varying intensities. I was tied up for most of the day but managed to head out not long after the first rain fell at about 15:30, and I chose the tried and trusted Ridge for my shot at a passing wader flock.

Unfortunately, my 95-minute vigil didn’t deliver, though there was a notable columba movement taking place in between the rain, with 78 Woodpigeons and 48 Stock Doves tallied up flying north. A Willow Warbler also seemed to drop into the nearby copse after one heavy shower, but aside from that it was quiet.

A wet and windy night followed but hopes of any displaced overhead movers the following morning were unfulfilled, despite a very early start. I did however find a juvenile Cuckoo along the Paddock hedgerow at Slades Farm – always nice to see, and confirmation of local breeding again. Waders haven’t been absent by any stretch of the imagination, and indeed two new additions to the 2018 year list were added on the 21st thanks to nocmig (of course).

The headline grabber was a flock of at least 5 Black-tailed Godwits that passed over at 01:09, representing just the 3rd site record, and the 1st for nocmig. The numbers of islandica Black-tailed Godwits migrating through Surrey in the late summer and early autumn these days seems to correlate with their population increase, so perhaps the record is not as much of a surprise as it once would have been.
Small Heath, New Barn, 29/7/2018.

Indeed, Abel B (Farncombe) and Wes A (Capel) had probable flocks over their houses in the small hours of the 22nd and 24th, a large flock of waders (probably godwits) flew over Shalford water meadows on the 25th and there have been odd birds at Tice’s Meadow and Staines Reservoirs. Despite this, the sound of a flock of chattering godwits interrupting an otherwise quiet night of recording is quite an enchanting one.

The other shorebird addition was a Curlew, again on the 21st, but at 23:00 the following night. One of the more likely species to be recorded here, it’s still only the 4th site record.

Wader opportunity will continue to run for a couple of weeks, but Mill Pond is also becoming interesting, as returning ducks appear. After the earliest returning Teal on the 20th, the first Shoveler have arrived, and Gadwall numbers have increased. Surely the month ahead represents an outside chance of finding a Garganey here (as long as it isn't at the far end!).

In wider birding news, unfortunately, one of the Wintershall Estate White Storks has hopped the fence. This juvenile only arrived last Tuesday but has set up residence a little over 10 miles to the north, at Shalford water meadows, where it has proven quite popular. I have actually seen it from the train to work the last few days, but really this is a sad state of affairs, and I can only hope the poor thing will survive. The estate has expressed their disappointment at the escape, but there are no plans to retrieve the individual. Indeed, 3 more have escaped the enclosure, but they don’t seem to go far.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Pagham Harbour, 22/7/2018.
I also managed a trip to the West Sussex coast last weekend for my annual search for juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls, and I found a few, including birds at the North Wall (Pagham), Littlehampton and Bognor Regis. There was also a nice selection of waders to sift through, but attentions now will stay fixed on the patch, with August a fine month traditionally, and often a productive one for any inland birder.

Last year site firsts recorded in August included Greenshank and Yellow-legged Gull, with a glitzy supporting cast of Honey-buzzard, Wood Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and Whimbrel. Similar goodies this year would do just fine.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Enjoy The Silence

The post-World Cup lull hasn't been filled with much on the birding front - it's been super-quiet to be honest, though a smattering of eyebrow-raising breeding records, and a couple of subtle pointers to autumn have occurred over the past few days and weeks.
Female (left) and eclipse drake Teal, Mill Pond, 18/7/2018.

In terms of the latter, perhaps the biggest suggestion that summer is reaching its end was the arrival of 3 Teal on Mill Pond on the 18th. A common winter sight here, these were the earliest known returners by some 30 days. Hopefully a few more will pass through in the coming weeks, and with them perhaps a Garganey, a particular favourite of mine and a species I'd love to find on patch. 

During an enjoyable ringing session with Abel B and Steve C on Tuesday a notable northwesterly movement of 62 Swifts took place, with 3 species of gull (including 14 Black-headed) and 2 Sand Martins (patch rarity) also passing overhead - all suggestions that the seasons are shifting, and whilst a vocal male Yellowhammer is also a reminder of colder times here, this particular chap was probably breeding nearby.

Sadly this colourful Bunting doesn't quite breed in the recording area, but 2018 has blessed the site with plenty of positive news on this front involving other species. Earlier in the year Crossbills and Woodlarks were surprising breeders/attempted breeders, and in the past couple of weeks the long-awaited confirmation that Barn Owls were nesting occurred when an adult was seen carrying food over Allden's Hill (a site they've been recorded regularly this year). Estate workers have suspected a pair have taken up residence around here/the north end of Combe Farm, and hopefully I can check out the area soon to learn more.

On Wednesday a Kingfisher was seen carrying fish to and from Snowdenham House/Bramley Mill - yet another new breeding species since detailed recording began in 2014. Add in a bumper year for Spotted Flycatchers (first fledglings seen this week), the continued Lesser Spotted Woodpecker success and Mill Pond being akin to a creche at present, then perhaps it's not been such a silent few weeks after all.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Purple Haze

Late June isn’t exactly a time of year for the patch to be throwing out many surprises, but the past 10 days have really delivered with, incredibly, a couple of site firsts. The headline occurred over the weekend just gone, when 2 Purple Emperor butterflies were seen in the southern section of the area. During the week before the first nod to Autumn occurred when an Oystercatcher was sound-recorded flying over Allden’s Hill – another patch first. With a Ring-necked Parakeet (very rare here) the best among the rest of the avian highlights, it’s been a rewarding few days.

Spotted Flycatcher, Selhurst Common, 30/6/2018.
I’ve been pretty negligent with butterflies this year, but with this hot spell seemingly never ending I decided to catch up with the local high summer species over the weekend, with Purple Hairstreaks particularly abundant this year. It’s long been considered by myself and others that Purple Emperors must persist in the large tracts of suitable wooded habitat in the south of the recording area, though despite previous searches I’d not found one.

This changed on Saturday, when I was stopped in my tracks by a male Purple Emperor on horse poo on the path down from Great Brook to New Barn. Sadly it took off and flew into Scotsland Brook before I could get a photo, but it was a truly memorable moment, and as a result I gave a couple of hours on Sunday scouring the adjacent woods for more. I struck gold again with another male, this time in Leg-of-Mutton Copse. Purple Emperors look like they’ve had a good year nationally (300+at Knepp!), and it seems that a population does occur here, deep in these rarely visited woods.

Purple Hairstreak, Leg-of-Mutton Copse, 1/7/2018.
Another site first, and the 159th bird species now recorded here, was an Oystercatcher, which was recorded as it called rather distantly over Allden’s Hill in the early hours of the 26th. Of the possible waders to be recorded here I guess Oyc is fairly high up, given their abundance and preference to move at night. Presumably this individual was a failed breeder from further north, and heading back south for the winter (!). I’m hopeful the next month or so will turn up plenty more noc-mig waders, and I’m also planning on camping out a couple of nights so I can try and hear them ‘live’.

A raucous Ring-necked Parakeet at Eastwaters last Saturday morning was a slightly perturbing record given the time of year but nevertheless represents a 2018 first, and only the 7th record in the last 5 years. Other decent bird records include the 4th Red-crested Pochard record of the year, on Mill Pond on the 24th, a year high of 72 Mandarin at the same site the following day (a post/non-breeding flock peaks during mid-June every year here) and the confirmation of further Spotted Flycatcher nest sites, as well as successful Firecrest breeding.

I made a brief excursion to Thursley Common very early on Saturday morning, connecting with a smart (but distant) male Red-backed Shrike that had been present for a few days. I'd never seen a male in the UK before so thought I'd go for it, given how close to home it was. As of yesterday it seems he's moved on...

Red-crested Pochard, Mill Pond, 26/6/2018.
Finally, I must make reference to a report of 2 White Storks in Bramley last Wednesday. The news of 2 at St. Catherine’s School was both a bit weird and vague (I still went for a look after work!), though after getting in contact with the observer there’s a chance the sighting has legs. The birds were seen by a Ben W, and other parents at the school sports day, as they thermalled overhead before flying south over Snowdenham Lane (i.e. the patch!).

Of course, one wonders if Grey Heron can be ruled out here, but Ben assured me he sees White Storks annually in Europe, and is 100% certain of what he saw. For what it’s worth, the locally reintroduced Storks can’t fly, and all 21 were present and correct that day. I’ve asked him to submit it to the Surrey Bird Club, though to be honest I’ll be surprised if it joins the <20 previous county records of this species. Nevertheless, an exciting thought, and certainly one to ignite autumnal motivation…

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,

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,
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.