Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Saturday, 19 August 2017

13th-20th August

It looks like Saturday was the big August warbler day of 2017. At around this time of the month, for the past few years, there's been a day when a big, fat fall of Phylloscopus warblers seems to take place. In 2016 it was on the 18th, bringing a Wood Warbler to Allden's Hill, and on the 19th of this year, remarkably, the same species was recorded. Pretty outrageous numbers of Chiffchaffs - no less than 45 - were oozing out of seemingly every bit of vegetation, and at least 5 Willow Warblers were also noted.
Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 13/8/2017

A really busy week at work has left the patch slightly neglected, so it felt good to be checking out New Barn properly for the first time in several days on Saturday morning. The mini storm on Friday afternoon seemed to have dumped plenty of Chiffs, with the warm temperatures on the following day even enticing some into song. The stretch from the gate to New Barn held at least 35 birds, probably more, and as I approached the pond I heard a distinctive call in the hazel to my left.

Fleeting glimpses of a bird moving through the leaves weren't satisfactory, but when I moved off the path to the sunny side of the row of trees, a Wood Warbler showed itself nicely, albeit briefly, several times. Clearly this is where the insects were, and the roving group of about 15 Chiffchaffs and 2 Willow Warblers weren't wasting any time making their way north. 

The individual was heavier than the Chiffchaffs close-by, and the strong eye-stripe, and pale legs and bill showed nicely in the morning sun. As I was viewing from beneath it, the (almost entirely) white underparts stood out more than normal. Indeed, the initial, heavily pale feel to the bird recalled a Bonelli's Warbler species at first (!).

Little Owl, Bonhurst Farm, 16/8/2017
The group moved along quickly, and several attempts to re-find it in Chiffchaff flocks further up the path sadly amounted to nothing. I've long thought New Barn has held potential for certain passerines, particularly warblers, and this year it's turned up both Lesser Whitethroat and Wood Warbler. An Icterine next would be nice...

Elsewhere yesterday a Teal at Mill Pond was the first one of the autumn, and is unsurprisingly the earliest recorded returning bird. Also present, after a two month absence, was the female Red-crested Pochard, along with 2 Gadwall. An afternoon visit also produced a flyover Kingfisher.

Midweek was rather quiet, though it was pleasing to confirm the breeding success of the Bonhurst Farm Little Owls, making it the first time two pairs have bred in the recording area. Several Red-legged Partridge families were seen, typical of this time of year, and not long before the big estate releases. On the 13th, a Yellow Wagtail flew south over Junction Field, a relatively early autumn record, and only the second of 2017.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Summer Sabine's in Surrey - the sad story of a sewage farm severance

Wednesday was unseasonably wet and gloomy. I was working from home, and given the weather, birds were off the agenda. However, a news flash, couple of fast-paced conversations with David and Koje and 50 minute drive to the north-east of the county later, and I found myself looking at a stunning adult, summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull at Beddington.
Sabine's Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 9/8/2017

I got soaked for my troubles, but the rain dripping down my face was a mere afterthought as I gazed at this rarely seen inland gull, from just several feet. It really was the entire package – forked tail, striking wing pattern, yellow tip to the bill – the full works. Wet through, I got Magnus on the bird, said my goodbyes and returned to a day of work.

Remarkably, Beddington had an adult Sabine’s over last October, not bad going given that before these last 2, there’d been just 11 Surrey records (and 10 of them came after the great gale of 1987!). So, this striking individual represented the 12th vice-county bird. Or did it?

A strange quirk of moving out last year is that I now live just a road down from Brian Milton. Brian is an individual, and one that perhaps divides opinion. He is known in the Surrey birding world for a few things, among them his intense dedication to his patch at Unstead (he did just under 5,000 consecutive daily visits once). For me, and I know my friend Sam at least, he was an almost mentor-like figure when we were kids, a provider of epic local patch tales, and a finder of simply wondrous birds. Birds that, for the most part, the records of which will upsettingly be lost for good. And it all started with a Sabine’s Gull.
Sabine's Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 9/8/2017

It’s 07:35 on July 3rd 1999. Birding downtime at Unstead. The site was enjoying a good year so far – a flock of 50+ Kittiwakes, Willow Tit and Merlin the standouts, but with avian activity experiencing its summer lull neither Brian nor Jonathan Winder (an ex-Unstead stalwart who now resides in Sussex), could have imagined what they were about to see. An adult, summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull, which drifted south over their heads and away (no doubt straight over the Ridge, sadly 8-year old me wasn’t there to see it).

Before this day, both Brian and Jonathan had more than respectable lists of finds at the sewage farm. Indeed, less than 12 months before, Brian found Surrey’s 3rd Red-necked Phalarope, a bird that was enjoyed by over 120 people. They enjoyed good, 'scope views of this gull, a bird that’s relatively easy to identify in its summer attire. The previous night, thunderstorms had swept across the south-east, and a Great Skua appeared at not so far away Eversley gravel pits on the same day as the Sabine’s, with a noted movement of Black-headed Gulls taking place at Unstead.

Red-rumped Swallow, Unstead, 8/7/2011. Picture
thanks to Neil Randon.
This record was deemed unproven by the Surrey Bird Club rarities committee, and in my mind it marked the beginning of the end of Unstead. At that point the Unstead Bird and Wildlife Group (UBWG), who’d spent years successfully campaigning Thames Water to create a reserve (including a hide, tern rafts etc), became disillusioned with the rarity submission process, and decided to stop putting in any further records.

In time, a myriad of other problems, not least the breaking up of the UBWG, have culminated in Unstead being little more than an overgrown mess now. The hide is in disrepair, the North Meadow, formerly an open marsh teeming with life, is a willow swamp, and the lagoons are essentially weed fields. This site, rich in history and fantastic birds (Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Purple Heron, Spotted Crakes among the accepted ones), surely has no return ticket to its halcyon days. Even Brian, who has had an incredible 193 birds at Unstead, spends increasingly less time there.

North Meadow, Unstead, in 2008. This area is now
covered in Willows, and the hide is falling apart.
The Sabine’s tale is one Brian has relayed to me time and time again. When I bumped into him a couple of days ago, I knew what I was in for when I told him about my recent trip to Beddington. He certainly remains hurt by that decision, and I’ve no doubt he regrets how his serious stubbornness has left him refusing to submit anything else. Most of his rarities have been single observer flyovers, sightings that, wherever in the world, can prove contentious.

Interestingly, birds he’s found (post-Sab's) that have stuck, and thus been enjoyed by others, all seem to have found their way into the Surrey Bird Club records - Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted Crake and Red-rumped Swallow are 3 such examples. The last two came in this decade, and presumably, other observers submitted these.

A delve into the old Surrey Birders Yahoo group reveals scepticism among some in regard to Brian and his records. Given his proven track record, and thoroughness, it’s both surprising and sad to read. I remember vividly his anger at not being able to nail what was either a Short or Long-eared Owl, neither of which had been recorded at Unstead at the time, as well as his 3 probable Gannets that flew over the same day 3 passed over Beddington. He is thorough, and would never claim anything if he wasn’t certain. And most of all, given his lack of desire for credit, why would he claim fraudulent birds? He’d be mugging only himself off.

Spotted Crake, Unstead, September 2010. This bird
was present for 11 days, but news only got out
(inadvertently) after the first week, with Brian
controversially having no intention of making it
public. Picture thanks to Kevin Guest.
I sympathise with him. I’ve had records not accepted, and it’s frustrating at least, discouraging and disillusioning at worst. There’s a huge argument for why not submitting any records just because you’ve had one not proven is the wrong attitude to take, and that the UBWG/Brian perhaps threw their toys out the pram. 

I for one am simply sad there was never any solution that could have resolved the tricky situation. Brian’s told me that he was informed a re-submission, with a couple of tweaks, would have passed, but a man like him was having none of it – he couldn’t lie about what features he did or didn’t see. It left the permanent detachment of one of the county’s finest birders, but more importantly a gaping hole in the Surrey history books.

Below is a list of, as far as I can see, all the rarities that'll never see the light of day because of this sorry story (not to mention the breeding data and declining species records). One day I’ll dedicate much more to the history of Unstead, and what a magical site it once was. Sadly, the way things are going, it’ll probably be an obituary.

1999 – Sabine's GullLittle Gull, Iceland Gull and Wryneck.
2000 – Black Kite and Icterine Warbler.
2005 – Purple Heron and Grey Phalarope.
2006 – Spoonbill and Long-tailed Skua.
2008 – Common Crane.
2009 – Rough-legged Buzzard.
2010 – Honey-buzzard and Guillemot.
2012 – Montagu’s Harrier and Iceland Gull.
2013 – Honey-buzzard and Little Gull.
2014 – Short-toed Eagle.
2015 - Great White Egret.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

7th-12th August

Spotted Flycatcher, 10/8/2017
At the start of 2017 I definitely didn't target the end of July and beginning of August to be a time to rack up year ticks, and so 4 in 3 weeks have been most unexpected. Tree Pipit became my 112th bird of the year on Friday when an individual flew east over Junction Field, calling several times. Rather shockingly, this somewhat early individual is only my second record here, and the third known bird.

Counts of 275 and 180 Tree Piptis over Fife were made last weekend, with the Scandinavian population beginning it's journey south. The weather wasn't bad for movement on Friday, with a gentle westerly and next to no cloud cover. A trickle of Swallows south-east, and an early Reed Bunting south, were the other highlights of a 2 and 3/4 hour vis-mig session (full log of movers below).
 
There was an increase of migrants on the deck, too, with 5 Willow Warblers continuing their good run here of late, and a rather tired looking Spotted Flycatcher on Allden's Hill the previous evening. This species is abundant at present - almost any wooded area has a bird or two, and it's hard to know if these are moving or just the local families dispersing. The bird on the 10th was acting very much like a migrant, though, silent and preening between the odd fly-catch. I've linked some video of it here.

Little Owl youngster, 10/8/2017
Elsewhere the usual fare, with the Linnet/Goldfinch flock on the Ridge increasing slightly, and larger numbers of Chiffchaffs in seemingly every bush. Plenty of Woodpigeon family groups have been seen moving across the landscape in search of food. On Friday I counted a minimum of 52 during the vis-mig, often in flocks of 5 or more.

On the subject of families, the Thorncombe Park Little Owls have been successful, and the first fledged youngster to be seen was being particularly on Thursday evening, with dad in close attendance. It remains to be seen if the Bonhurst pair raised young, with the Gatestreet Farm birds having already lost their brood.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

4th-6th August

The recent early migration hot streak has continued, with my second patch tick in just over a week coming on the 4th. Added up, I'd hate to think how many hours I've spent looking for Lesser Whitethroat, but the work finally paid off when I found a bird along the New Barn track on Friday morning. This bird is a real local rarity, not just on the patch but in the wider Godalming area. The last record here came in the 1990's, and in May Witley Common enjoyed their first Sylvia curruca since 1999!
Juvenile Willow Warbler, New Barn, 6/8/2017

Typically skulking, I didn't exactly enjoy crippling views, but the contrasting head colours and pale plumage were there to see. The individual also called, and performed a couple of short flights, during which the long tail was noted. After a few minutes, it bounced into some dense bracken and wasn't seen again.

The bird was part of a fine cast of 55 species that morning, including 4 other types of Warbler, confirmation of successfully breeding Skylarks, a juvenile Herring Gull and just the 3rd Sand Martin of the year, in with a big moving group of mixed hirundines. The previous day had been much more quiet, bar a couple of Willow Warblers at Winkworth, and a Kingfisher over Rowe's Flashe.

The latter is generally rather scarce here, but after 5 records all year I've now had 3 in the last 6 days. I'm not too sure why this would be - perhaps the recent appearance of fry/smaller fish for them to eat can be correlated with their increase? A bird was seemingly feeding happily at Mill Pond this morning, and 2 juvenile Shoveler here were quite possibly returning winter birds, given that they're the first dabbling ducks to return in the autumn.

Today was pretty quiet though, and ultimately ended in frustrating fashion. The clear skies and light winds had me on the Ridge at dawn, but just 4 Swallows east could be considered migrating during the vis-mig. A large flock of Linnets kept me entertained, though, with a seemingly endless stream of birds arriving from the south-west to feed on the chicory crop throughout the morning. In total, I counted over 60 birds. There was also a notable fall of warblers at New Barn, including at least 4 Willows.

Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 4/7/2017
The frustration came during my second visit in the afternoon. A quiet sky-watch from Junction Field peaked just as I was set to go, with a Cormorant and adult Herring Gull moving in a westerly direction, before I picked up a juvenile gull to the east. The bird wasn't particularly high, and began to circle several times, allowing me to note the largely dark upper primaries and lack of primary window, thus ruling out Herring.

It was a hefty individual, with a clean face, and a striking and neat tail pattern, and I was thinking more Yellow-legged than Lesser Black-backed. However, I just couldn't get good enough views of the mirror (or lack of), and ultimately the bird sailed off north-east with 5 Black-headed Gulls. Definitely a fine candidate for what would have been a first Yellow-legged for the patch, but it goes down as another bird that got away...

Thursday, 3 August 2017

31st July-3rd August

After the remarkable flock of Black-tailed Godwits last week, the last thing I expected just 5 days later was another migrating wader party, but this is exactly what happened on Tuesday. My early morning routine consisted largely of hedge bashing, but after 10 Cormorants, 48 Starlings and a single Common Tern had moved south-west over Winkworth, I realised I'd been a bit dumb to choose passerine searching over a sky-watch, particularly ahead of the rain that was forecast for 9.

20 Whimbrel WSW over Goose Green, 2/8/2017
It was too late to bother heading up the Ridge, and so it was a routine whizz through the patch before work. I decided to check a small meadow at Goose Green, just off the footpath, with its rather dense line of blackthorn and brambles perhaps holding my long sought-after Lesser Whitethroat. I'd hardly walked a few steps from the car before a large flock of somethings appeared low over the A281 treeline to my east. I went into super-rush mode, but the identification process was aided when at least 2 birds in the group called - Whimbrel!

I took in some binocular views to be sure, and after failing to get pictures of the Godwits I raced to bag some shots of these guys. Fortunately, they deviated from their westward flight, turning south before heading off south-west in the direction of Tilsey Farm. This allowed for a prolonged chance with the camera, and I managed a couple of pictures that were OK - this also helped me confirm the flock as 20 strong. I've always wanted a picture of something ridiculous flying over the woods/fields of my patch, but sadly my effort at this was out of focus. I've used the picture in this post anyway.

When I picked the group up they were in an unorganised mess of a flock, but turned into a V, and left that way. I later learnt that, when migrating long distances overland, Whimbrel will fly in a V-formation, and these guys must have been on one hell of a trip, and no doubt cut the corner at the Wash or Thames estuary. Aside from the call, the shorter bill was noted, quicker wingbeats, and also the 'head and crop up' flight which can be seen in the photos.
Blurry Whimbrel over Goose Green

Happy days, another example of chance, and also further reiteration of my Shalford Split theory, which I really do think has legs. I reckon they tracked they Wey then Wey-Arun canal, and lowered ahead of the rain (which came 20 minutes after I saw them), perhaps interested in Scrubbin's Pond. I wonder where they did eventually pitch down?

The fact I'd had a (super-rare locally) Mediterranean Gull south over my flat in Godalming at 5:45 that morning should have been an indicator that stuff was moving down the river/wider area, and a prolonged sky-watch could have turned up more waders. I'm not complaining though - this is just the 2nd record of Whimbrel here, and brings my year list to 110.

Full of optimism and expectation, this morning flattered to deceive, with just a couple of Willow Warblers new in at Winkworth, and a Swift over, of migration note. A Kingfisher at Rowe's Flashe was the second in 3 days, not bad for this local scarcity, with the bird on the 1st coming at Mill Pond.

In focus Whimbrel over Goose Green
A far better sighting that day was one of Robin S, who I hadn't seen for far too long. We had a few hours together in the morning, and he added 7 birds to his Thorncombe Street list. We spoke of plans for a coordinated vis-mig session later in the season, and I will need all the help I can get having (foolishly) decided to go head-to-head with Steve G in a migration challenge. All the details are on his excellent blog here. I'm intrigued to see what the final number of birds will be.