Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Monday, 31 July 2017

29th-30th July

What was initially a night in Bristol seeing mates ended up being a trip to deepest Cornwall, and an unforgettable pelagic trip out of Penzance. With my bogey bird, Great Shearwater, being seen in unusually high numbers off the south-west the last few weeks, we initiated a plan when I saw that spaces on the Saturday evening trip were still available. A quick Airbnb booking, pelagic ticket confirmation from Mermaid Pleasure Trips, and we were sorted.
Great Shearwater, Penzance pelagic, 29/7/2017

As demonstrated by the lingering Portland Great Sherwater, and possible movement of the same individuals along the Cornwall and Devon headlands, it seems this species is not just passing, but actually lingering. Hand in hand with this is an influx of Wilson's Storm-petrels, a bird that's very hard to see in the UK, almost exclusively on pelagics off Scilly. The reasons for the increased numbers of both these birds this year is unknown at present (to me at least), but it's thought the sea temperature is down, which is favourable for southern hemisphere species.

Anyway, at 17:30 on Saturday, in heavy rain and a changeable wind, we set off for the open sea, 11 miles south-west of Penzance. Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and European Storm-petrels were present from the off, along with both Black-backed Gulls and Herrings. It wasn't until we were well into our chum, and stationary with a big group of Gulls feeding, when the special birds began to appear.

First up was a Great Shearwater, which performed some breathtaking circuits of the boat, allowing me a truly magical way to see this species for the first time. Seconds later a Sooty Shearwater passed through, and another Great not long after. During the hour or so spent largely in the same area, at least 5 Great Shearwaters graced us with their presence. Sadly, the rain and cloud meant my pictures weren't what they could have been, but it took nothing away from the experience of not only enjoying crippling views, but also hearing one bird call, and watching them boldly take on the Great Black-backs for food.
Wilson's Storm Petrel, Penzance pelagic, 29/7/2017.
Upperwing panel and trailing feet can be seen here.

A few Fulmars and Kittiwakes joined, and Storm-petrel numbers steadily increased, reaching a maximum of about 80 birds. It was among them that an even more special ocean wanderer was first picked out, a Wilson's Storm-petrel. This was a complete bonus, and by the end of the trip we'd counted at least 4 individuals. The pale upperwing band was actually fairly difficult to pick out in the light, but once I'd got my eye in just the size alone made them identifiable. The next key feature was the dangling legs, and then the flight style, which at times was Shearwater-esque.

Not bad at all, and I'm sure some wondrous photos will eventually emerge, given the size of the lenses on board. A Great Skua was a latecomer to the party, a distant Cory's Shearwater passed, and at least 1 juvenile Yellow-legged Gull was also around.

Despite getting soaked through, and getting back to the harbour pretty cold, it was an experience I won't forget for a while, and it's been a long time since I got two Western Palearctic ticks in the UK in such quick succession. The Sunday was largely non-birding, though a quick sticking in of the head at Hayle revealed 4 Greenshanks and 1 Whimbrel, as well as a couple of Black Swans.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull, Cornwall, 30/7/2017
I spent a bit of time with a Gull flock too, and was really struggling with the identification of the pictured juvenile bird. I was initially confident of Yellow-legged, and in particular the tertials convinced me it was this species. However, something wasn't quite right, with the head and bill shape bugging me, and also the scapulars, tail length and lack of 'whiteness' to the head/breast.

The bird wasn't as big as young Yellow-legged's are at this time of year, and furthermore, I didn't see a window in the inner primaries in flight. I ultimately settled on it being a young Lesser Black-backed, and many thanks go to Jamie P for his help with this bird too!

Thursday, 27 July 2017

25th-27th July

After some pretty unproductive weather of late, the forecast for today looked extremely appealing, and I'd planned to juggle work so I'd have it largely free. I was close to tweeting about July 27th this morning, as it remains somewhat legendary in patch terms. On this day in 2015 the only ever records of Whimbrel and Black-tailed Godwit came, in remarkably similar conditions to today. A blustery south-westerly, intermittent heavy, low cloud and light showers, added to the historical significance, meant it was surely a prime opportunity to go for Operation Patch Wader.

South side of the Ridge where the Godwits flew over
A dawn recce of Winkworth and the New Barn area got the day off to an interesting start. Both sites produced Spotted Flycatchers, away from any (known) nest sites, and it's likely they were migrant birds. A gorgeous, lemony Willow Warbler was also at New Barn, and 25+ Swifts made their way south under the clouds. It felt like a day for some magic to happen, and I even uttered these sentiments to my girlfriend.

I planned to get a good few hours of work in, but the BBC and their erratic weather forecasts had me racing back to the Ridge for 11:45, with the showers now expected at 12, not 3. Swift movement was evident - by the end of the sky-watch I'd tallied up 77 moving west. At this time of year I've found Swift action to be a good forbearance of other species passing through (normally just the odd Gull).

At around 12:10 the forecast cloud drifted in from the west, and with it just the slightest bit of rain. At 12:20 I picked up a tight flock of birds, initially thought to be racing pigeons, moving north-east-east over the southern facing side of the Ridge. Binoculars soon revealed striking wing bars, white rumps and long trailing legs - Black-tailed Godwits! A rough count estimated the group to be approximately 40-strong.
Comma, Winkworth, 25/7/2017

The flock weren't particularly high, and I actually lost them briefly behind an Oak tree. In that time I reached for my camera, but despite being on the birds for a good minute or two, failed to get any pictures. I switched back to bins as they climbed slightly, and did a quick recount before they disappeared over Junction Field.

There are a few reasons as to why this record was so thrilling, and remarkable. Firstly, it was a patch tick and mega 'un-blocker' for me, both of which are very rare things. Second of all, it was a stunning encapsulation of migration over the patch. Thirdly, it was an early completion of my wader operation, and absolutely not how I expected! Any wetland bird here is of note, let alone a large flock of waders. To top it all off, when I got home and did some research, it seems this is actually a record count of Black-tailed Godwits in Surrey - crazy stuff.

If it was the spring, Godwits moving east would make a little more sense, given the theory that birds 'cut the corner' on the south coast and come out at the Thames/Wash. Perhaps the wind and cloud threw them off a bit, and their reorientation had them heading to the north/east Kent coast. Or, perhaps, they were simply switching from the River Wey to the Wey-Arun Canal (a theory I've touched on previously), before continuing south.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 25/7/2017
On the way home, a staggering 520+ Jackdaws were counted in the corvid flock at Thorncombe Park. Tuesday and Wednesday were quiet on the patch, bar a record count of 36 Canada Geese yesterday, and the confirmation (after worrying doubts) of breeding Kestrels on the 25th. An after work trip to the beach on Tuesday produced just the one juvenile Yellow-legged Gull among a flock at Selsey, but what a handsome, pale bird it was (picture attached).

Monday, 24 July 2017

18th-24th July

Things continue to be pretty quiet on patch, though the sometimes notable northerly winds, rain and heavy cloud of late have created an autumnal feel, and with that should come some bird movement. This morning, certainly, this was evident via a mixed feeding flock of hirundines over Mill Pond, including at least 4 Sand Martins. This species is very hard to catch up with here - it's only the second sighting of 2017, and 2 is roughly the annual average for records of these birds.
Sand Martin (above) & Swallow, Mill Pond, 24/7/2017

Attempts to get a decent photo proved impossible (as you can see here), but nevertheless, they were by far my most prolonged and enjoyable views of Sand Martin on the patch. After work, a circuit of lower Winkworth continued the autumn vibe. My first proper mixed Tit/Warbler flock of the season was roving through the scrub in Furze Field, and at least 2 vocal Willow Warblers were among the Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and 3 species of Tits.

Another sign of autumn is the post-breeding gatherings of corvids around Thorncombe Park, and during the last week some exceptional counts have been made. The numbers peaked on the 20th, when a site record 250+ Jackdaws were feeding on churned up ground within the estate. With them were at least 100 Rooks, 3 Ravens and an impressive 60+ Carrion Crows.

The warm weather during the early part of last week saw plenty of butterfly action, with Small Coppers and Common Blues notable by their numbers, and the first Painted Ladies of 2017 were observed. The best record came on the 19th, when a Clouded Yellow was seen over Rowe's Flashe Meadow, at Winkworth. It's highly likely this species has been present on the patch before, but it's the first documented sighting.

Keeping away from birds, an intriguing mammalian record came via Matt P on the 18th, from just outside the recording area. A dead Polecat/Ferret was on the A281 just south of Palmer's Cross, and should it have been the former, it would keep in trend with the southern expansion of this species. There is certainly suitable habitat on the patch, and an eye will be firmly kept out in the future.

Elsewhere, I couldn't fight the urge to put one of my remaining 'tarts ticks' to bed yesterday afternoon, when news of a Great Shearwater sitting on the sea at Portland Bill broke. The bird was reported as showing well for a few hours, and despite the 5 hour round trip I couldn't resist, particularly given the fact this species is effectively impossible to twitch in the UK. Alas, I missed it by about 40 minutes, a brutal dip on a Sunday evening.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Weymouth, 23/7/2017
However, solace came via a supermarket in Weymouth, which provided not only a winning scratchcard but also 3 beautiful juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls in its car park. The individual in the photo took kindly to my offerings of bread, allowing a good look at the dark 'mask' on the white head, the heavy dark bill and straight (ish) pale edges to the tertial tips. In this bird the wear to the scapulars can be seen, and indeed there is a new lower scapular growing.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A new bird for Thorncombe Street

2017 has so far seen 4 new species added to the historic bird list for Thorncombe Street, and this week a 5th joined, in unusual circumstances. Most birders love a list, and I've spent much time scouring through old books and reports, making sure I haven't missed any records of birds in my recording area. My research has been pretty thorough, but there are several species which have had a cloud of uncertainty over their heads.
Just like 1944 - a Great Grey Shrike on wires

For example, old, Victorian records of some birds (Night-heron, Ferruginous Duck etc) are simply described as being shot at 'Bramley', which could or could not be in my area. There are a few ponds in the village north of my patch boundary, and so these birds simply can't be added. 

As time and record-keeping moved forward, locations got more specific, but there are a batch of records from the mid 1940's from 'Bramley' that are of two species that seem very suited to my area, or at least what my area would have been like back then. The species in question are Grasshopper Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, and having worked out their references in Jeff Wheatley's Birds of Surrey, it seemed I needed to get my hands on the old South Eastern Bird Reports, which ran before the Surrey Bird Club came into existence.

Another record has long intrigued. A Great Grey Shrike was reported from Palmer's Green, in 1944. Wheatley could never find anywhere in Surrey that bore that name, and concluded that the record probably referred to Palmer's Cross/Goose Green, which are two areas next to each other on my patch. The observer was behind the Bramley records at the time, and the name confusion was likely just a typo or mistake. However, the lack of 100% certainty meant it just couldn't be confirmed.

I've long wanted to read through these South Eastern Bird Reports, and this week, with the great help of Haslemere Musuem, I finally did. Sadly, I couldn't get any further with Red-backed Shrike or Grasshopper Warbler. The former came close though, with the note from the 1944 report stating 'this species was prevalent in the Bramley area'. It's almost certain they were around, but as there's no 100% confirmation, the species remains off the list.

Collared versus Turtle, 1944
Great Grey Shrike, though, was a different story. The 1944 South Eastern Bird report had the erroneous 'Palmer's Green' as the location for the record, which came in October. However, I managed to get my hands on a dusty pamphlet from 1953, The Birds, Butterflies and Flowers of the Godalming Area, which I had no idea existed, and there I found the jackpot. 

Under the Great Grey Shrike section, the words I'd been hoping to find were there - "One on wires at Palmer's Cross in October 1944". Finally, confirmation that this bird was indeed within my recording area. The Shrike brings the historic tally up to 148, and becomes another uber-blocker for me.

These old documents make fascinating reading, and are a great way to appreciate/scowl at the changes the countryside has gone through in less than 80 years. Just take a look at the picture to the right, and note the difference in Turtle and Collared Dove records compared to nowadays...

Monday, 17 July 2017

13th-17th July

It remains quiet on the patch, or at least during the early morning sessions I've been managing of late. A spring largely devoid of heavy rainfall has left parts of the area seeming somewhat arid and bird-less, and on fine days it can be very quiet. However, to me there's always something to make a visit here worthwhile, whether it be on a freezing January day or a scorching July one.

Spotted Flycatcher, Selhurst Common, Sandra Palme
Perhaps one of the more popular summer crowd-pullers (by crowd I mean more than 1 person coming to look) are the relatively abundant Spotted Flycatchers. They can be found in at least 5 locations in the south of the recording area, and the showy birds at Selhurst Common were captured nicely by visiting birder Sandra Palme recently. I've put her pictures of the Flycatchers, and also of the Thorncombe Park Little Owls, in the photos section - I'll get round to updating this page properly soon.

There's been a couple of discreet heads up towards the autumn - today a Willow Warbler was calling in the upper arboretum at Winkworth, and on the 14th a couple of Siskin flew over. A feeding mass of over 100 House Martins on the same day, one which I was able to spend a few hours of on the site, was a notable count for here. My hopes of securing an autumn wader were raised when Matt P reported a Whimbrel over his work, which is about 10 miles to the north-east of here, but unfortunately I didn't connect. Earlier in the day a 2nd-year male Kestrel, seemingly in an odd moult pattern, had me racking my brains for a while. This species looks to have declined here in the last few years, despite no obvious change to the habitat.
Mind-blowing photo of the Cliffe Marsh Sandpiper

Across the dates on Mill Pond, a second Tufted Duck pair have fledged young, and the Gadwall pair have been present on a couple of occasions. One of the Little Grebe juveniles has moulted quickly into winter plumage, and looks quite odd among the summer-dressed adults. However, my main waterbird action of late came on the evening of the 13th, when an after work twitch took me to Cliffe Pools in north Kent.

The target, which was seen at great distance, was a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper. I didn't connect with this species in Poland earlier in the year so was pleased to add it to my Western Palearctic list. Clearly from an early brood and very lost, the delicate and pale individual was sadly always very far away, as my rubbish phone-scoped effort shows. I was surprised, however, that the difference between this species and Greenshank could be told from such distance.

Also at this excellent site in the mouth of the Thames, a family party of Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin and Redshanks were the other waders noted. Both Sedge and Reed Warblers were in voice, a Barn Owl quartered the marsh and a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull was kicking about.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

6th-12th July

Work has dictated time on patch recently, though this week I've got into a routine of an early sky-watch each morning. It's creeping towards the time of year when the thought of flyover waders justifies a 5 am alarm, but it's probably still too early (and definitely so for any other vis-mig), and this has been reflected in the results so far this week. Monday and Tuesday particularly were dead - today was much better, with the northerly wind certainly making it's presence felt after an afternoon and night of heavy rain.
Kingfisher at Mill Pond yesterday

After the pleasant weather of late, this inclement spell had the Swift and Hirundine feeding groups on the move. In an hour I had 78 Swifts and 14 House Martins all north-west, as well as 3 Herring and 1 Black-headed Gull in the same direction. It won't be too long until the Swifts are moving south in big numbers, and hopefully Gull numbers will continue to rise in the next few weeks. A Siskin over completed an enjoyable session, and pointed nicely towards autumn migration.

As mentioned, this is the time of year when Gulls begin to appear again on the patch, and the last week has seen both the aforementioned species, as well as a single Lesser Black-backed, over. At home the morning and evening commute of Gulls to and from the south London reservoirs has started up again, and it won't be long at all until the first juveniles are seen among the travelling birds.

Back on the patch, the best bird of the last 7 days was no doubt a Kingfisher that was present briefly at Mill Pond yesterday morning. Kingfishers are hard to pin down here, and this was only the 5th record of the year. Elsewhere, a further 2 Spotted Flycatcher territories have been found, bringing the number of sites up to 5.

Amur Falcon last Friday
Last Friday I managed to twitch the stunning Amur Falcon in Polgigga, Cornwall, with David C and Magnus A. The bird was found late the evening before, and we travelled down on no sleep in order to connect not long after dawn. Our decision turned out to be the right one - the bird departed at 11 that morning, and hasn't been seen since. The 1st-summer female, representing the first twitchable British bird and only the 15th Western Palearctic record, looked absolutely knackered while she slowly awoke to a crowd of at least 100 people.

I have wondered, what chance the bird is still about, keeping a low profile in a remote Cornish valley? She'd already managed to elude the earliest arriving twitchers, sitting under their noses for an hour before discovery...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Operation Patch Wader

Having heard a Curlew fly over my flat at an ungodly hour earlier in the week, I began to think - my patch wader list is pathetic, even for an inland site with little water such as mine. During the past 3 years, of solid coverage I might add, I've managed just 5 species. Also, 2 of those 5 (Woodcock and Lapwing), whilst patch rares, are pretty regular locally.

Curlew over Allden's Hill in February this year
When Matt P worked and patched here in 2015 he managed more than 5 wader species in one year alone, including a terrible trio of grippage in the form of Common and Green Sandpipers, and Black-tailed Godwit (huge blocker!). I've had none of those birds, and they are the 3 waders on the historical list that remain off mine (not including the unidentified flock earlier this year). To put it into context Canons Farm, which is a lot smaller than my patch and totally devoid of water, has an astounding list of 13 waders, including such mouth-watering names as Dotterel, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover.

I upped my game this spring, giving Rowe's Flashe more attention than it deserved during the right times, but in truth none of the water bodies are actually attractive for wading birds, with a dearth of shorelines of any sort. I drew a spring wader blank until May 21st, when a rather late Curlew caught me by surprise, flying over Hive Field. However, despite this bird, and another in February, that's been it this year, aside from the Lapwings and Woodcocks of course.

So, I've set myself a goal, from now until the end of wader passage. With long-legged migration already on the go across the country, my aim is to find at least one wader on the patch before the winter is here. Any appropriate water will be checked thoroughly, along with the weather forecasts - flyovers are perhaps my best bet. That certainly seems to be the case at Canons, and my finest wader hour here came after light showers and a north-east wind in late July 2015 lowered 9 Whimbrel just enough to be seen from the Ridge. I'd be over the moon if something similar was to happen again.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

30th June-2nd July, Somerset and Devon

A family holiday in Exmouth allowed for some sporadic time in the field, particularly on the trip down, when a stop off at Collard Hill produced a butterfly lifer in the form of two Large Blues. The following day, on Dartmoor, butterflies were again the main focus. For the time of year the Exe Estuary had some OK birds, but more joy came from a couple of sea-watching sessions off Orcombe Point, with a change in wind direction on the Sunday afternoon proving the most productive.

30th
Large Blue, Collard Hill, 30/6/2017

With most of the day free, we left early with a view to stop at a couple of sites in Somerset. First off was Collard Hill, near Glastonbury, famous for its reintroduced Large Blue butterflies. It was pretty cloudy, but we managed to see two individuals, and enjoyed wonderful views. 8 other species were noted, including my first Gatekeeper of the year. On the bird front, a Hobby and Raven passed overhead.

Next up was RSPB Ham Wall, a site I've long wanted to visit. Situated in the Somerset Levels, this excellent reserve was reminiscent of continental wetland habitat, with far reaching vistas and expansive reeds and channels. No less than 6 Heron/Egret/Bittern species breed, and we managed 5 of them, including flyover Cattle Egret and Bittern, as well as plenty of Great White Egrets. In total, a very impressive 57 species was clocked in a couple of hours. Notable was a rather late singing Cuckoo.

We stuck our heads in at Topsham, on the Exe estuary before, we arrived at the house, and watched a few Black-tailed Godwits among little else on the low tide.

1st

An hour's sea-watch from the cliffs at Orcombe Point was quiet, with a few Gannets, a Fulmar and 2 Shags of note. Largely, however, I dreamed about the Red-footed Booby on the other side of the water in France.


Distant Slavonian Grebe, Cockwood, 1/7/2017
With the forecast warm and sunny, the destination was Aish Tor, Dartmoor, where butterflies were the target. The hoped for High Brown Fritillary wasn't conclusively pinned down - most species, in particular Fritillaries, were extremely active and the diagnostic underwing on a few candidate individuals wasn't observed. However, plenty of Dark Green Fritillaries were seen, as well as smaller numbers of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. 10 species were clocked up in total, and other good bits included Green Hairstreaks and Graylings.

A dapper summer plumage Slavonian Grebe was the highlight of a brief visit to Cockwood, on the west side of the Exe estuary, with a few Little Egrets also here.

2nd

Another early sea-watch yielded little, with the winds unfavourable, but with them swinging around to a south-westerly, it was back to Orcombe at 14:45. The first hour was quiet, but not long after the wind speed picked up, and a group of at least 5 Manx Shearwaters flew east. 6 minutes later, 2 dusky brown Balearic Shearwaters moved west slightly further out, and with that my patience was rewarded. This species, one of my favourites, can be found in the English Channel and bay of Biscay from July for several weeks onwards, as post-breeding feeding parties move around. At 16:19 two more Manxies flew east, with things tailing off thereafter.