Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Thursday, 26 January 2017

26th January

I have enjoyed some good individual records on my patch during the last few years, but there does seem to be a 'London Bus' day every now and again, when more than one good species occurs. October 24th 2015, May 7th and September 8th 2016 spring to mind, and it seems January 26th 2017 became one today. When I last blogged, I spoke of the spring-like feel to the air, with the sun shining and the birds singing. Today was very different - it was cold, really cold, with a biting south-easterly making it feel several more degrees below zero than it actually was. Few birds were singing, and the sun certainly wasn't out.
Absolute scenes at Mill Pond - LBB Gull and
 female Wigeon in the same frame!

I started the day with half an eye on the Pine Bunting that had recently been found in Kent, but thought I would check Mill Pond not long after dawn. Despite the recent cold spell conditions this small body of water remained unfrozen, though the amount that wasn't had become small. Teal and Mandarin numbers have shot up in correlation with the temperatures, but the larger dabblers remained in low numbers. This morning was different. Shovelers had clearly moved in, with the final count 10, and a drake Gadwall (likely the bird seen on the 13th) was also present. A few Tufted Ducks were about, but it was the increased Mallard numbers that caught my attention. Whenever 2016's Red-crested Pochard's were seen, there were good numbers of Mallards present, and they often associated with them. To my delight, she was back today, after a month and two days absence. A great year tick. I would love to know where these guys all go when they aren't on Mill Pond.

I decided to head up to the Ridge, but it was simply desolate up there. Not a single Reed Bunting was in the crops, and Red-legged Partridges were only encountered on the walk back - it seemed only Corvids were braving the temperatures. The wind up here was bitter, and after sheltering in Furze Field for a bit, I decided to head back. Whilst scanning the Corvid flock (which included two Ravens) a familiar trill came from not far above my head. I looked up, to the Starling-like silhouette of a Waxwing! Amazing! Sure, there has been one hell of an influx of these gems this winter, but until today it was a species off the Thorncombe Street list, and Waxwing thus becomes the 143rd bird recorded here, and my 128th. I followed it through my bins as it flew over Thorncombe Park and away. I guess it wasn't such a surprise, given the number around, but my patch is almost too rural for them, and there are few rowan berries and such.

The idea of staking out a rarity in Kent had massively lost it's appeal by now, and I thought I'd try and continue my fortune on the patch. Arriving at Bonhurst Farm, another surprise awaited me - 5 Lapwings in the sheep fields. This, a sure sign of cold recent weather movement, is only my third record of them on the deck here, with the second only coming last weekend. Would I find another first for the area via a Golden Plover? No, but 93 Common Gulls was a big number (140+ throughout, not far off the record count), and there were plentiful winter thrushes too. In all, a fantastic morning, enough to make a winter here. With the day ahead free, I chose to indulge in my favourite species. With a fantastic 10 Smew seen at Wraysbury yesterday I headed that way, finding only 7, but the 2 males were stunning, and I have never seen so many of this bird.

4 of the 5 Lapwings at Bonhurst today
The day surely couldn't have got better, but, it did. Figuring it'd be rude not to stop in at Mill Pond on the way home, I was amazed to find an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull on the ice with the Commons. I have never seen one on the deck here! I have always retained the hope that the big wintering Common flock will bring something down from the reservoirs with them (Ring-billed!), but as of yet, they haven't. This Lesser Black-backed is a good sign. Anyway, whilst I was 'scoping this bird, my jaw dropped further as I saw a duck with rich chestnut tones floating in the background. I adjusted my lens, and there was a female Wigeon! Absolutely incredible. This is another super rare here, with 4 previous records. It was truly bonkers - on this small water body, largely frozen, were 8 species of duck. I marvelled through my 'scope, watching the Gull and the Wigeon in the same view for a few minutes, before the latter disappeared into the vegetation.

All this madness leaves me on 79 for the year, a figure for the last 3 years that I haven't reached until mid-March. My goal of 120 for the year is ambitious, but it's birds like Waxwing and Wigeon that will make the difference. Looking at my chart, I still need Peregrine, Kingfisher, Brambling and Pochard for the less-difficult remaining year ticks, though none of these are easy. Best get birding...

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

18th January

Today was a sunny, crisp winter's day, and I aimed to head out on the patch for the first lengthy session in a while. Such conditions did leave the slightest taste of Spring in the mouth - some Thrushes were singing, Great Spotted Woodpecker's were drumming and, for the first time in months, notable numbers of raptors were on the wing.

A Nuthatch at Winkworth this morning
Birds of prey do well on my patch. There are vast swathes of suitable breeding habitat for the 5 species that do so, and mixed too, with decent sized tracts of woodland and sheltered copses sitting next to more open hills and valleys. In my time I have seen no less than 11 species of raptor here, with 12 the historical figure (not sure I'll ever get White-tailed Eagle back!). There is a lack of suitable hunting habitat for things like Harriers and Falcons, with very few big, open and overgrown areas. Anyway, with the sun shining today decent numbers of the residents were seen, including a rather high tally of 5 Red Kites from my new-found vantage at New Barn Point.

This included a displaying pair, and they weren't the only species getting in the mood. A rather overdue year tick was Sparrowhawk, and I had a pair from the Ridge, displaying high over St Catherine's Hill. Another male later whizzed over the north facing crop, which was host to at least 1 Yellowhammer among the 20+ strong Reed Bunting flock. A Crossbill was a surprise flyover here, and there were good numbers of Red-legged Partridges around, with around 18 the final total.

Before climbing up the Ridge I'd checked out both Mill Pond and Winkworth, the former in the seemingly more and more fruitless hope of relocating the Red-crested Pochards, last seen on Christmas Eve. Most of the water was frozen, but the large party of Canada Geese were still present, with their tag-along Greylag, as well as the female Mute Swan and one of her young. Duck numbers were good - at least 65 Teal and 40 Mandarin, but there was only 1 Shoveler, and no other species bar the typical Mallards. At Winkworth, 2 Marsh Tits and a squealing Water Rail were of note.

One of the Little Owls today
Post-Ridge, I decided upon visiting Bonhurst as oppose to a full circuit of the patch, and it proved a good decision as I enjoyed 3 more Yellowhammers. Also notable was the apparent rise in Thrush numbers - plenty of Fieldfares and Redwings were actively feeding, and I located the Little Owl pair near the Res. As I headed back through Junction Field, a large and very pale Buzzard caught my eye. The thing was miles up, and travelling north. I stupidly tried to photograph it before actually taking in any ID features, and all I could make out as it got further and further away was a very pale head, breast and tail, and dark carpal patches. Surely a pale-phase Common Buzzard (I have seen one here a few times before) as oppose to a young Rough-legged! An interesting bird, and an interesting conversation with Dave Harris that followed.

After a couple of hours on the Ridge hoping this bird would reappear, I headed to New Barn Point, where movement was minor, though plenty of raptors were enjoying the thermals, including the aforementioned Red Kites. Another Marsh Tit called from near the pond, but not much else was about. One last check of Mill Pond revealed some loafing Gulls, all Black-headed and Common.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

2016 patch review

2016 was another interesting year on my Thorncombe Street patch. 2015 was the first time I'd thoroughly recorded every species I saw, and it culminated in the creation of a report, with much help from Matt Phelps, who co-produced it with me. It was always going to be hard to follow up such a productive 12 months, but it produced just one off the 2015 total for my year list, with 115, far greater than my 105 total in 2014. There were less new birds for the recording area than in 2015 (namely Grey Partridge, Montagu's Harrier, Woodlark and Tree Pipit), but 2016 will be remembered by me as the year of the catch up. I managed to see a fantastic 6 species of birds that had been historically recorded, but never by me, including some real patch rares, such as Wood Warbler, Osprey and Nightingale. In all, 2016 left my life total at 127.
Late summer over Slade's Farm

With Matt leaving his job at Winkworth in the spring, records from the arboretum naturally fell. I'm sure I missed some decent birds that he would have found. Aside from myself, coverage was minimal. Thorncombe Street is still largely not visited by Surrey birders, and pretty much all the records come from myself. The county's land-locked geography perhaps produces a lack of local coverage cycle. Less rarities turn up than at the coast, for example, and this in itself encourages Surrey birders to twitch as oppose to patch or local bird, thus meaning less rares are found. However, I like the peace and quiet, and development in the patch is very slow paced. Only one new house went up in the entire 10km+² recording area, and bar a couple of trees being hacked down no habitat change occurred. The vast estate land, and lack of people around, no doubt helps the list of elusive Surrey breeders that were successful in 2016, among them Raven, Red Kite, Hobby and both Grey and Red-legged Partridge.

Red-legged Partridges bred successfully
I thought a monthly summary would be fun, but perhaps that would be a bit much, and so I have decided to go with a seasonal theme. Watching the changes in the natural world throughout the year will always give me happiness, so it seems apt to go along those lines here.

Winter bird of 2016

This bird is perhaps still present, having last been seen on 24th December - Red-crested Pochard. On 13th November I was amazed to find a female on Bramley Park Lake, the first in the recording area since 1999. The surprise continued as the bird stuck about, frequenting Mill Pond, and was enjoyed by a number of visiting birders. Remarkably, 2 females were seen on December 4th and on the 23rd. As I mentioned, this/these birds could well still be about. They are elusive, enjoying the seclusion of the waterside vegetation, and can be tricky to pick out. I have no idea where they have come from, but hope to get the species on my 2017 year list
2 Red-crested Pochards on Mill Pond on 4th December

Spring bird of 2016

Really, the spring bird of 2016 features later as bird of the year, but there was some quality contenders. It's a straight shootout between 2 of my favourite songsters, Woodlark and Nightingale, and I will choose the latter. This bird not only hung around for the best part of a week in early May, it also both sang and showed well, from the unusual location of Clock House Lane. Credit for this find lies at the feet of Nigel Matthias, who tweeted about the birds presence, and I have to say it was fun to twitch a bird on my patch! A much sought after 'catch up', with the last recorded birds in the 1980's.

Summer bird of 2016

The May Nightingale on Clock House Lane
In the spring I did several recce's of the local area, in a failed attempt to locate a bird that has severely declined in Britain. I persisted on the patch, constantly thinking patches of habitat were still OK for this bird, but had no joy. So, I was both surprised and utterly delighted on 18th July to hear a purring Turtle Dove from Allden's Hill. It was a sweltering day, hitting 30 degrees, and the bird was clearly somewhere to the NW, in the Munstead direction. 10 days later I got even more lucky, as, from Allden's Hill, I witnessed one fly SE down the valley in the late morning. Whilst overjoyed to get this bird on my patch list, I was frustrated at never being able to pin one down. I invested so many hours trying, from late April to August, but ultimately the species eluded me. However, it gave me no doubt that Turtle Doves do indeed hang on in the south-west Surrey countryside, somewhere (I'd love to know where!).

Autumn bird of 2016

A few contenders for this one. Both Wood and Sedge Warbler were brilliant 'catch up' birds, and another Marsh Harrer was fantastic, but they were all topped by an Osprey, which glided slowly south over Thorncombe Park on 8th September, before disappearing back north. The bird was mobbed by a local Buzzard in it's 10/15 minute saunter over the area, on what was a fantastic day in general on the patch. Yet another bird that had been seen before, but not by me, I had been expecting to add Osprey to my Thorncombe Street life list for a while before seeing this one. I am hopeful of seeing more in the future - one hung around for nearly a week in 2013.
The view from Allden's Hill

Best bird of 2016

Without a shadow of a doubt, not only my best patch moment ever but also one of my best birding ones so far, was the sheer elation of a flyover male Montagu's Harrier on 7th May. I will remember that day for a very long time. The previous night I had checked the weather and it looked perfect for movement, and indeed for raptors, and when Lee Evans tweeted something along the lines of "eyes up tomorrow, expect the spectacular (Griffon!)", I knew exactly where I would be sitting for a few hours. In glorious sunshine, with a Cuckoo and Garden Warblers singing around me, I enjoyed 5 other raptor species (including 31 Buzzards). Clear stuff was coming through, with my first Swifts and Hobby of the year flying north, but all was overshadowed by that distant, drifting silhouette of a Harrier, that became clear as it flew out of the light at 11:39. Absolute magic, for me what birding is all about.

A little mention must go to the Grey Partridges that amazingly bred on the patch. They were first seen in March, but stuck around, being exceptionally elusive. I have not seen them for some months now, and can only hope they are avoiding the seemingly daily blast of the guns.

Juvenile Marsh Harrier over Allden's Hill on 30th August
Disappointment of 2016

Not too many, thankfully, but there was a dearth of waders for sure. In 2015 Snipe, Common & Green Sandpiper, Curlew, Lapwing, Woodcock, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel were all recorded. Granted, I didn't see all of them, and that is a frankly ridiculous haul for an inland, largely dry site, but in 2016 I had just Lapwing and Woodcock! Hopefully this year will change - the Godwit and both Sandpipers remain off my life list, so I shall be trying extra hard for them.

Another disappointment was the rejection by the Surrey Bird Club Rarities Committee of Matt and I's Little Bunting, on 24th October 2015. Upon reflection, I can understand the decision. A fleeting view of a calling species neither of us had experience with is pretty much impossible to pass through, especially given it's status in the county. However, we both are certain it was a Little Bunting - there is nothing else it could have been. Anyway, it must go down as one that got away, on a county level at least. I have submitted a batch of newer records (many of them joint, with Matt), including the Montagu's, and await their outcome with particular interest.

Ravens - another successful breeder
Best migration day of 2016

8th September - Osprey, Tree Pipit (patch first), 7 Yellow Wagtails, 5 other raptor species and hundreds of Hirundines from the Ridge in the space of a few hours - beautiful stuff. A special mention to 30th March (first Swallows and Willow Warbler, Great & Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a site record count of 103 Meadow Pipits north) and also 7th May (Monty's, first Swifts and Hobby). Vis-mig, and watching the birds come and go, is the underlying and continual enjoyment I get from birding. Here's to 2017.

Monday, 2 January 2017

2nd January

A New Year, and a new patch list to begin. In 2015 and 2016, for the first time, I kept county, British and Western Palearctic (WP) year lists, but I won't be doing that in 2017. For me at least, year listing takes away some of the pleasure of simply watching and enjoying birds. I will keep a patch list, as ever, and that's all. With several WP adventures planned for the year ahead I have 2 main goals - to submit all my local records to Birdtrack, and to try my hardest to nail the patch. Last year I did well, matching my 2015 total of 116 different species. So, for 2017, I have ambitiously set the target of 120. This will be a tough ask, and shall require a number of rarities, but with 2 days of the year gone I sit on a very satisfying 66, a figure I didn't reach in 2016 until January 28th.
A male Reed Bunting on the Ridge
Yesterday, I was delighted in particular with 2 species that aren't easy to get in the Thorncombe Street area. At dawn, 2 Little Egrets flew over Mill Pond, seemingly having taken off from over the fence in Snowdenham House. Luke, the Thorncombe Park gamekeeper, stopped to say Happy New Year as I was scanning the water, and told me how he had seen a few Egrets within the estate recently. They are rare here, and in 2016 I had just 2 all year, so to have that same number within a few minutes of sunrise in 2017 was fantastic. As it happened, I had another one flying south over Winkworth later on.

The other highlight from the 1st was not a species that is neccessarily rare here, but one that is extremely hard to see - Woodcock. In 2015 I didn't see any until November, and last year December, so when I flushed 2 from Phillimore, in Winkworth, I was particularly pleased. There are doubtless many out there, but they are so well hidden and have plenty of habitat to skulk in. A fine start to 2017 was rounded off nicely at Bonhurst Farm, with a calling Little Owl and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, that flew over west with a group of vocal Herring Gulls.

2 Red Kites near Middle Copse
Today started at Mill Pond, where again I failed to find the female Red-crested Pochard, that was last seen on Christmas Eve. I say the female - there have been 2 knocking about, occasionally together. I hope the temperatures drop a bit, as many more ducks, including the Pochards, frequent the pond when it's cold. The single male Mute Swan was still present, but with little else about it was onto Slade's Farm, where my girlfriend and I were to begin a mammoth walk of the patch. The plan was up over the Ridge all the way through to Leg-of-Mutton Copse/Juniper Hill, before going back via New Barn, Tilsey Farm and Selhurst Common.

By the time we'd reached the Ridge the 'big three' of patch specialities had all been seen - Red Kite, Raven and Red-legged Partridge. The latter, a group of 6 birds, were the first I'd recorded since December 9th - this species becomes harder to see in mid-winter, as they either try to avoid or don't avoid the shooters. Apart from a few gulls and many Woodpigeons, not much was moving in the skies, and the Bunting/Finch flock on the sacrificial crops was small, and mainly consisted of Reed Buntings. A sole Fieldfare chakked away here, one of just two seen all day (Redwing numbers weren't exactly high either). We moved on, via Junction Field and Gatestreet Farm, and passed through Wintershall where a sole Egyptian Goose was hanging around with an individual Canada Goose and two monstrous looking hybrid Geese.
The female Crossbill at Juniper Hill

We stopped for coffee and a sit down in Middle Copse Field, enjoying decent perched views of 2 Kites. This species was seen in numbers today - at least 8, no doubt the sunshine helping get a few birds up in the air. I hoped for Marsh Tit in Great Brook, but heard none, and Leg-of-Mutton Copse was also fairly quiet. Deciding to go a little off-piste, and through Juniper Hill, I was quickly stopped in my tracks by the sound of calling Crossbills. A picked out a pair, male and female, high up in the conifers, interacting and feeding loudly. Much to my surprise, the male uttered a few notes of song, something I have not heard on the patch before. We enjoyed decent views and left them to it. I was very happy to get Crossbill so early in the year. They turn up rarely, randomly and pretty much anywhere, and I had just 3 records last year. One of those sightings was from Leg-of-Mutton Copse in late November, so perhaps these birds have been about for a bit.

New Barn Point - a new name, and possible new
sky-watching site
Having chanced upon, and subsequently taken in, a cracking view over the east of the patch, we walked through New Barn, hearing my first Marsh Tit of the year. Reaching Tilsey Farm a flyover Yellowhammer was a nice sight, particularly given the lack of this species presence on the Ridge this winter. A large group of about 30 Meadow Pipits were in the scrubby main meadow at Tilsey, which really does look good for Owls. Heading back through Selhurst Common another Marsh Tit was heard in a mixed Tit flock, as was a Firecrest, which showed briefly. The latter species isn't too numerous in the winter.

So, Crossbill joins Woodcock and Little Egret on the extremely-pleased-to-have-already-got list for 2017. 66 is a decent start, and I still have Little Grebe, Greylag Goose, Lesser Redpoll, Sparrowhawk and a few other fairly common species to see. A return of the Red-crested Pochard would be nice, and with a couple of very cold mornings forecast for this week Mill Pond will be worth checking