Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

18th-25th April

Since Bank Holiday Monday, arguably the best spring day so far this year, things have been really slow on the patch. The continued north wind hasn't helped - today was particularly chilly, and there were next to no signs of migration. It's also been astonishingly dry, making it even harder for a fall of passerines or the lowering of migrating Waders, Terns etc to occur. Despite this, 70 species have been recorded in the last week, the most pleasing being the first Wheatear of the year that was briefly present on the Ridge yesterday. The bird, a male, flew from the north facing crop into a tree (watching it perched up there a rather odd sight) not long after dawn, before disappearing. Later in the day a singing Whitethroat, rather late this year, became the 100th Thorncombe Street bird of 2017, and my 99th.
The Wheatear yesterday

Also notable yesterday was a small movement of Gulls, just ahead of some seriously dark cloud that looked certain to produce rain, but didn't. An adult Great Black-backed was the 4th of the year, and 5 Herrings and a single Lesser Black-backed also moved through. 3 of the latter drifted over the Tilsey Farm area on the 19th, and a couple of Yellowhammers were heard, pleasing given the time of year. It seems this species if breeding just beyond the southern boundary of the recording area. A farm worker also told me of a couple of Barn Owl records from January, likely one of the Smithbrook/Whipley birds. The area looks good for Barn Owls, and I had a couple of failed attempts at seeing them here in the winter. The valley Cuckoo is now singing daily, from various locations, and the local Swallows and Willow Warblers are back on territory.

Away from the patch, I managed a morning catch up with David Campbell at Canons Farm on Wednesday, and on the 23rd enjoyed Tree Pipits, Reed Warblers, Woodlarks and Common Terns at Frensham. Hopefully, the weather will change, though the short-term forecast isn't fantastic, potentially delaying the arrival of the later migrants (Hobby, Spotted Flycatcher etc). I will be spending the next few days in north-east Poland, and hope to return to warm southerlies and Mediterranean overshoots!

Monday, 17 April 2017

17th April

A fantastic, 10.5 hour spring session on the patch today. The migrants finally came (and in numbers), and a sensational flock of about 70  unconfirmed wader species flew over, as the 'Hascombe Gap' delivered in style this afternoon. I could write a long post about today, but I will try and keep it short.

Sam Jones and I planned a big day on the patch, and as soon as I got out the car just before dawn the welcome sound of a Cuckoo greeted me, as what was presumably the returning valley bird sang from Allden's Hill. Remarkably, we had 3 more birds before we called it a day at 16:00. A lengthy vis-mig from the Ridge was largely a catch up, as we exchanged stories about our recent trips to Morocco, but 4 House Martins north represented year tick number two of the morning. A Willow Warbler sang from Furze Field, and we went on to hear 6 more, quite an increase on recent days. A couple of 3rd-year Lesser Black-backed Gulls drifted north, and a Tufted Duck pair west was a Ridge tick.

We weaved through the patch, picking up Garden Warbler, Meadow Pipits and more Hirundines. A Blackcap at New Barn, uttering a remarkable and varied mimicry selection, threw us for a while. We then set up shop for a sky-watch inside the Hascombe Gap, and we were to be rewarded, as low cloud sent a nice selection of migrants through. Matt Phelps joined us at 12:15, by which point we'd racked up 5 raptor species, and it wasn't long after his arrival when I picked up a distant, very big flock of birds flying north-east. What seemed like a skein of Geese were travelling at some height, and as the others got on them we were stumped as to their ID. We began to veer away from Geese, as Matt noted the lack of elongated necks in his scope, and then the group of around 70 individuals 'whiffled' down, and it seemed apparent these were large waders.

Unfortuantely, we lost them in the cloud. Upon reflection, and a long look at different plates and photos, I reckon they were Godwits, and very likely Bar-tailed. We will never be certain, but a flock of that size is a colossal Surrey record, whether they were Black or Bar-tailed. Slightly frustrating, but the spectacle of a group that big, clearly migrating over a load of fields and woods on my patch, was simply fantastic. Not long before we set off, a single Sand Martin came through with some more House Martins, part of a steady northerly Hirundine movement during the watch. These are not easy patch birds, and it took me to 97 for the year. Unusually for mid-April here, Gulls too were moving, with numbers of Herring and Lesser Black-backed's, as well as a sole Black-headed, going the same direction as the Godwits. As we headed back to the car, another Cuckoo flew over Nore Hanger, and we had 2 more near Mill Pond. 

A fantastic day on the patch. Spring has sprung, and I really believe that there are more surprises to be had in 2017. Bring it on!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

11th- 15th April: The Hascombe Gap and the Shalford Split

Following the excitement of last Sunday, things have gone back to a more gentle pace, with spring still fairly slow to arrive. On the 11th, no fewer than 3 Garden Warblers across the site represented a year tick, coming a day later than the first of 2016. A singing Willow Warbler (2 more today, at New Barn) was part of 61 species that day, but as I write this I still haven't seen either Martins, Wheatear, Cuckoo or Whitethroat. All of these I expect to record in the coming days and weeks, but a flyover Yellow Wagtail this morning was quite a surprise. Normally just 1 or 2 records a year, and almost exclusively in autumn, an early vis-mig session was rewarded today as an individual flew NNE over the Ridge, calling, at 06:48. In fact, despite the continued northerly wind, the first 40 minutes or so were decent, with 5 Swallows, 2 Linnets and a single Meadow Pipit heading north, and 5 Cormorants and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull east.

2 more Gull species (Black-headed and Herring) were noted elsewhere throughout the morning, the first for a while. It was a Great Black-backed Gull on Thursday that got me thinking, and prompted me to get my maps out, resulting in this post. An adult (the 3rd record of the year) drifted over Scotsland Brook, quite out of place, at around 16:35. It soon struck me - within about a half kilometre from here to the west, I had seen Kittiwake, Great Black-backed Gull and 2 Cattle Egrets, all flying north, in the last 3 weeks. There surely had to be some reason behind this remarkable run, and below is a possible theory I have come up with.

The Hascombe Gap


Hascombe Gap map
The River Arun joins the English Channel at Littlehampton, and if one follows it north, it passes through such birding hotspots as Arundel WWT, Pulborough Brooks (where the river splits) and Climping Gap. At Loxwood, it splits. The Arun continues east, towards Horsham, and the Wey & Arun Canal goes north and west towards Surrey. Near Dunsfold, there is another, smaller split. The Wey & Arun Canal continues north and east, skirting the east of my patch near Cranleigh, eventually joining with the Wey at Shalford. To the north and west, a series of unnamed tributaries run for a short distance before they all stop around Loxhill, just before Hascombe.

The gap just beyond this collective stop, between Loxhill and Hascombe, is where the aforementioned sightings have come from. It seems possible that any birds following the Arun from the coast (should they not deviate at Pulborough/Loxwood) will find themselves here, at the end of the thinning streams, and will perhaps drop down to reorientate. It takes some favourable decision making, and maybe is a little ambitious, but it's just about possible. On a larger level, the gap extends from Loxhill in the west to Smithbrook/Rowly in the east, where the Wey & Arun canal is found continuing north, so this whole area could turn up something. Given the gap is most likely to effect birds moving up, spring is likely the best season for wayward bits and pieces.

It would seem any bird that has ended up here, should it wish to carry on following water, would have little choice but to continue north, through and just past the top of the patch, where the Wey & Arun meets the Wey at Shalford. The Thorncombe valley provides a natural funnel for this short journey, and would go someway to explaining the occurrence of species like White-fronted & Brent Goose, (presumed) Bewick's Swan, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and a plethora of Raptors and Passerines all heading north/south over the last few years.

On the contrary, birds turn up at any place, and at any time, and maybe it's all just freak fortune!

The Shalford Split


Shalford Split map
This flyway theory was raised many years ago by Unstead Sewage Farm regulars. The river splits at Shalford, with the Wey & Arun Canal going south and west, and the Wey east. Unstead sits directly to the south of this split, with my patch a little further down. In theory this is two flyways meeting, and there is much evidence of birds using them and switching between the two in the last few decades.

Long-tailed Skua, a host of Gulls (including Sabine's and a flock of c.60 Kittiwakes), and a myriad of Waders/Raptors/Herons etc have all been recorded at Unstead. I am likely to miss any birds that are successfully following either river, perhaps being a bit far south of the split, but anything reorientating could/has passed over.

This, also, could be pie in the sky. Some theories suggest flyways don't really exist. Perhaps this is all overthought. Personally, I think there could be some logic behind it, and I will certainly be keeping it all in mind during the coming weeks.

Monday, 10 April 2017

10th April

Since my return from a trip to Spain and Morocco (which was packed full of birds, including some really special Western Palearctic stuff) it's been quiet on the patch. In the 10 days since I've been back, the only passerine year ticks I've managed are Swallow on the 4th (pretty much daily since, with 34 through on the 6th) and Willow Warbler, with a tired sounding bird heard on the Ridge on the 8th. Whenever I come back from a trip the low density of birds compared to where I've been hits me. Surrey is relatively poor even within a national context, so compared to somewhere like Spain it can seem pretty bleak. And thus, during a spell of glorious weather, on Saturday I tweeted about yet another quiet shift on patch, with the fine conditions seemingly too good for migrants to pitch down. This lull would be turned on its head, however.
Red Kite over the Ridge on Sunday (DC)

It is remarkable how a number of tiny decisions and moments can culminate in being somewhere at a certain time. It was Sunday morning. Relatively hungover, the girlfriend and I were up early, and I wasn't too sure if I'd check the patch before work, particularly given the recent quiet spell. With the sun shining I figured it'd be rude not to, so off we set, stopping first at Mill Pond where I spent slightly longer than normal to enjoy a singing Reed Bunting, a first here, and the drake Gadwall that's trying to pair up with a Mallard. A quick check of Slade's didn't produce the hoped for Wheatear, and on the way back I bumped into Dave Carlsson, who was aiming to get some decent pictures up on the Ridge. As you can see, he got some amazing shots, and we chatted for a bit before I set off through Thorncombe Street, in the direction of Bonhurst. As we approached the Scotsland lay-by I, for some reason, thought it wise to stop. For the first time this year it was dry enough to park, and I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to walk Great Brook or Leg-of-Mutton Copse. The latter site I don't visit often - my last session here was March 16th, but she fancied it, in the hope of some Bluebell photography.

There wasn't a great deal of birdsong, and as we weaved through the deciduous part of the wood I pondered the chance of a Pied Flycatcher here later in the spring. We came to the felled area at the south of Juniper Hill, which looks out south towards Hascombe, and my attention was immediately drawn to 2 gleaming white birds flying high north. It didn't take long to figure there were Egrets, and the slightly jerky flight and dumpy appearance strongly suggested Cattle. Panic ensued, and as I got the bins on them the shorter legs and wings were noted, and the dumpy and rounded appearance was made clearer - it was quite apparent these were two Cattle Egrets! Given the many times I've seen this species, the ID was perhaps easier that one might imagine, and happy with what I saw I raced to get a shot before they disappeared over the canopy. I managed one poor effort (they were seriously high), and only after they'd left did I register that Cattle Egret is still very much a mega in Surrey. There are only 2 previous records, one of them coming only last December, via Steve Gale.
A crap record shot of the 2 Cattle Egrets moving
N over Leg-of-Mutton Copse on Sunday 9th April

I put the news out as soon as I had signal. Sadly Dave didn't have them over the Ridge (they would have gone that way surely), and Brian Milton didn't at Unstead. These birds were clearly on the move, no doubt using the southerly airflow to migrate. I was reminded of a snippet from Peter Alfrey's wonderful Non-stop Birding blog which he'd posted the day before in one of his weather forecast pieces - "Spring overshoot weather today and tomorrow- a southerly airflow drawing from Southern Europe which could bring southern scarcities such as Black-winged Stilts, Southern Herons, Quail etc.". As bonkers as it was, as completely unexpected as it seemed and in a place I would never have guessed, it was Cattle Egret that became the 145th Thorncombe Street area bird, and my 130th! Surely in a decade or two this species will become as regular as Little. After breeding success, colonisation was delayed following some severe winters around 2009, but this year saw record numbers in the UK, and I presume my 2 were movers from the wintering population. I expect another Surrey record before 2018.

So, with Spring slow to get going, and after some very quiet sessions, patience and perseverance was rewarded in style. My adoration for my patch was reaffirmed, and perhaps these two Egrets were a close to a chapter here. My working life is set to change hugely in the coming weeks, and with it my time birding will inevitably be cut down. Whatever the future holds though, April 9th 2017 will always remind me that you can never lose faith with the patch.