Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Thursday, 23 March 2017

23rd March

Today represented a last opportunity to bag an early spring migrant, or finally nail Pochard this year, before I head off for a week's birthday holiday in Spain and Morocco. What was a rather quiet session ended with a massive surprise, in the shape of a Kittiwake, a new bird for the recording area and the fulfillment of my long-time dream of finding a seabird on patch (see here and here). An astonishing sight, as it journeyed north over the mixed woods at the extreme south of the area, the species becomes the 144th bird recorded here, my 129th, and number 89 for 2017, which is proving very fruitful thus far.

Kittiwake sighting map (click to enlarge)
I woke to rain, and the constant rather forceful north-easterly made for a morning more like Janaury than late March, but the skies began to brighten slightly as I, yet again, did a Winkworth check without any Pochard. I am now relying on chancing upon a bird later in the year, as the optimum time for this species will be gone by the time I am back. Numerous Chiffchaffs were one of few indicators of the season, though a surprising number of raptors were already up, and by the time I'd looped the patch Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite had already been noted. In the wind, Woodpecker activity was at a premium, and I expect it to continue to get harder to locate the Lesser Spotted pair. This was was the case today, despite a brief check by myself and an extensive one by Gerry Hinchon.

With numbers already looking good, and the possibility a northerly headwind sending something extra special over, I set up shop at one of my vantages in the south of the patch. On the way, two Lapwings flew south, only my third birds this year and the first flyovers. The regular Skylark was in occasional voice, despite the wind, and a few Marsh Tits were calling. Raptor numbers were steady, and I notched up a good tally of birds, but in truth little was happening, and there certainly seemed to be no passerine movement (0 Meadow Pipits compared to 31 on Tuesday). After just over an hour I decided to head home, and finish off a few pre-holiday chores.

Not long after I got back on the main footpath that runs from New Barn to Thorncombe Street, I noticed a small, slender gull heading fairly low north. As I was beneath it, I could only note the particularly buoyant and active flight as it made it's way between the footpath and Juniper Hill, always below the canopy. With my views obscured by the hedgerow, and as the flight and structure began to click, I sprinted up a raised bank on my right in order to get a view of this quickly moving individual. As I got back on the bird it had gained a bit of height (it was remarkably low when I first saw it, upon reflection), but it banked to the east, before circling a number of times, gaining height and continuing north. This change of direction offered me good views of the grey upperwings, that faded somewhat towards the typical jet-black primary tips of a Kittiwake! There were no mirrors on the primaries, though the flight style and structure already had me fairly assured. An exceptional moment, and the bird was lost heading north.

Red Kite on the 21st
It would have flown over Wintershall and Bonhurst, probably connecting with the Wey near Shalford. I messaged Gerry, who was on the patch, but unfortunately for him he was deep in a wood (2 Woodcocks flushed his consolation), and couldn't look at any sky. The bird was so out of context I was a little bit stunned at first, and tried to make it a Common Gull, but it clearly wasn't. This species is the most numerous winter Gull here, but their numbers have tailed off in recent weeks, and indeed I've seen none for over a 7 days. As the day went on, a Kittiwake was seen in London, and a conversation with Matt made me realise this was actually more likely than I thought, with the weather and time of year all perfect. Furthermore, Jeremy Gates had an adult go west over Crooksbury Common on Saturday. Right place, right time, and a bird I will be very lucky to see here again!

Brian Milton was among the other people I messaged, and despite Unstead being slightly to the west I desperately hoped he saw it, as it's one of the few species he is yet to see there that's on the historical list. Unfortunately, he hadn't, but when I stopped off briefly we enjoyed both of our first Sand Martins of the year over the works. Interestingly, he had not seen any Gulls all day. Later on at home, I noticed 2 Great Black-backed Gulls battling north. Clearly, there was some kind of seabird movement. I very much doubt I will have another day in Surrey when Great Black-backed and Kittiwake are the only Gulls I see in one day!

Since my last post, a Woodcock flushed in Furze Field on the 15th was only the third bird, and second record, of 2017 (until Gerry's pair today). I finally caught up with Kingfisher for the year on the 16th, with a bird calling in the fog at Winkworth. A second bird was then seen at the same place 3 days later. Also on the 16th were notable numbers of Fieldfare, Lesser Redpoll and Redwing, with a Crossbill present at Juniper Hill. A site record 14 Ravens were also tallied throughout the entire recording area.

I love this time of year, and it's hard to pull myself away from the any-time-soon arrival of Hirundines, the scouring of fields for Wheatears, and monitoring the state of the local breeders, new and old. The local area seems to be on a good run too, with Matt finding a fantastic pair of Garganey at Shalford on Monday, that are still present today. However, Morocco has long been top of my wishlist of places to bird, and this time next week I aim to be celebrating my birthday in the Sahara, hopefully surrounded by Desert Sparrows and Crowned Sandgrouse!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

8-14th March

It's been a mixed week since my last post, with a couple of year ticks and fantastic moments with certain species balanced out by a few frustrating moments. The 2017 additions came on the same day, the 11th, when I managed to chalk up Blackcap and Great Black-backed Gull, taking me to 87. The former was an early singing bird near Rowe Barn Farm, over 2 weeks before the first of 2016, which Sam Jones and I had on March 28th of last year. The Gulls came shortly after on the Ridge, with a 2nd-winter and an adult south and south-east at 16:41 and 16:52 respectively.
Drake Mandarin checking trees for possible nest sites

For the Gull, March passage is the best time to see them here, though there were only 2 records during the whole of 2016. This has already been more than doubled this year, with another 3 today, including 2 hefty adults north over Allden's Hill during a 06:40-08:00 vis-mig session that was coordinated with Matt Phelps, who was out on his Shalford patch. He managed to pick up one of the Gulls, but didn't seem to match the first high (ish) tally of Meadow Pipits of the year here - 18 the total by the end of the day, with 10 of those during the vis-mig. Further signs of spring include a marked increase in Chiffchaffs and Firecrests, as well as big numbers of raptors, including the second Peregrine of 2017 (W over Bonhurst today) and at least 30 Buzzards. I also managed a double-digit count of Ravens, including an unkindness of 6 at one point.

Winter Thrushes are vanishing, and since my astonishing count of Redwings last week I have had very few. At a failed Barn Owl recce last night, the aforementioned species and Fieldfares could be heard on their migration back north. Woodpeckers too are becoming harder to find, with a lot less drumming noted. The Lesser Spotted pair seem settled, and a few more Surrey birders were able to enjoy them this week, despite much more elusive behaviour from both the male and female. Skylarks also seem to be content, with singing still taking place in the south of the patch, leaving me hopeful of the first recorded breeding since 2007.

One of the many Ravens today
As I mentioned earlier, these positive moments have been tempered by some frustrating ones. The most strange omission is the lack of any Pochards this year. Whilst never present in big numbers, birds are regular at Winkworth from late February to early April, and often number a few individuals. Indeed, for the past 2 years, the peak yearly counts have taken place on this very date, but I am still yet to see one, despite checking Rowe's Flashe pretty much daily. I will persevere. Kingfisher still eludes me, but I am confident of eventually chancing upon one, and I shall save Brambling until the next winter period.

Another moment that will sit in my mind for a bit was a missed, possible patch mega, or indeed 3 of them, which flew high south over Rowe's Flashe as Matt and I did the WeBS count on Sunday. The birds were big, long-necked ducks, and looked very good for Shelduck. Unfortunately they were miles away, and soon lost to view, but we'd ruled out any Geese species and Mallard before they vanished. There is one record of Shelduck, a bird on Mill Pond in the 1970's or 80's (Bird of Surrey). A sighting reminiscent of our probable Bewick's Swan in 2015, but both encouragement and a reminder that anything is possible here!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

7th March

An excellent, early spring session on the patch today, with a mighty fine year tick, a spectacular migration movement and a good catch up with Robin Stride. I was on Allden's Hill at dawn (passing a Little Owl and 2 Egyptian Geese in Thorncombe Park en route), but passerine activity was pretty dead for the first hour or so, with 2 separate Meadow Pipits north the only movement. A few Herring Gulls and a sole Lesser Black-backed Gull, were moving south and west, but this average activity was dramatically overshadowed at about 07:30.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on the 2nd (M Elsoffer)

Looking almost over my shoulder to the south-west, I noted what initially had the feel of a big skein of Geese moving north-east. Raising bins to them, it became apparent they were Thrushes, in fact Redwings (with a sole Woodpigeon!), moving in a tight flock much like flushed waders or a Starling murmuration. Despite having never seen Thrushes in flocks like this, the most remarkable aspect was the number of birds - from above my head all the way to the horizon was a dark stream of Redwings, certainly a few thousand. It was simply incredible, and one of the most remarkable bird movements I have witnessed. At the time, I used the Steve Gale don't-be-too-conservative count theory, and guessed 5,000+. Upon reflection, the number may not have been that high, but with hindsight I would still say anything from 4,000-5500 birds were in this single flock. My conclusion was that these Redwings had been moving at night, pushing towards their breeding grounds in Northern Europe, and by some stroke of fortune I managed to catch them*.

I met up with Robin at about 8, and we headed to the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. Rob hadn't seen any in the county for many years, and so we were delighted to pin down the male, who showed moderately well. The female was heard, but not seen. I have shown a small group of birding friends this pair in the past week, and Mark Elsoffer and Steve Minhinnick enjoyed particularly good views on the 2nd. There wasn't loads else here, though a few Cormorants flew overhead, and by the end of today 16 were tallied (6 seen by Robin), surpassing the site record of 13.

The view from Allden's Hill this afternoon
From here, we checked out Bonhurst, before the increasingly pleasant weather lead us to do some sky-watching. This proved very productive, with raptors everywhere, as well as my first 2 singing Skylarks of 2017. At least 20 Buzzards were up and many displaying, with several Red Kites and a few Sparrowhawks also about. 4 Ravens were doing their thing too, but the highlight, and surprise (despite me calling it to Robin earlier in the day!) was a Goshawk at 10:10, that gave brief initial views, though it's range allowed both of us to be happy with ID. What was probably the same bird was seen again at 11:00. Many Redpoll were also about, and after waiting an hour or so for the Gos to reappear without joy, we parted company.

I stopped at Allden's Hill for an hour or so afterwards, enjoying the now glorious weather, before heading home. I returned late in the day in an attempt to get either Kingfisher or Pochard for the year at the water bodies, managing neither, though nice views of a Firecrest were obtained near Bramley Park Lake.

* Following this post, I had an interesting chat with the aforementioned Steve Gale. He thinks the birds could have just left a roost, which is something I hadn't thought of, and seems likely.