I’ve been limited to brief visits to the patch during the last few weeks, so it was refreshing to be standing on the Ridge not long after dawn on Saturday with the morning free. The plan was to sift through the mixed finch and bunting flock which, after a couple of very cold spells, had seemingly increased significantly.
|Male Hen Harrier, Ridge, 16/12/2017|
A largely productive session was amplified tenfold when a spectacular male Hen Harrier flew through, at an almost astonishing closeness of range. This species is very much a rarity on both a local and county scale, and is the first record of a male here, following a ringtail in October 2015. It becomes the 123rd different bird, and 9th different raptor species, recorded on patch during this most incredible year.
Despite the temperature below zero degrees the sun was out first thing, making the Ridge just about bearable. There was plenty of birdlife, mostly classic winter stuff, with 1 each of Raven and Hawfinch, several Common Gulls, a couple of Red Kites and 2 Cormorants among the flyovers. Normally it’s the sky I climb up here for, but at this time of year the sacrificial crops that flank the footpath, as well as the nearby hedgerows and pheasant hoppers, are refuge to a notable seed-eating flock.
Numbers were up on my last visit at the start of the month, with 35+ Linnets, 10+ Goldfinches, 12 Reed Buntings, 18 Chaffinches and 2+ Yellowhammers making themselves known. However, the most notable species was Lesser Redpoll – at least 25 of them – commuting between the chicory crop and surrounding trees. This species has been rather thin on the ground in recent winters but this year much larger numbers have been observed. Interestingly, Siskins seem to be down, and indeed I had none on this visit.
|A view from the Ridge at dawn, 16/12/20717|
The Redpolls were typically hard to study for very long, but I did clap eyes on one seemingly paler and chunkier individual. Mealy? Maybe. I’ve had a couple of candidates down the years here but never been totally happy with one. A few Redwings and Woodpigeons were also knocking about, and there seemed to be more Stock Doves than normal moving around overhead.
At around 08:40, having given up on trying to relocate the possible Mealy, I was preparing to descend when a streamlined silhouette appeared fairly low over the east side, towards Junction Field. It was clearly a medium-sized raptor, and the angular profile immediately upped my heart rate. Getting bins on the bird revealed a Harrier, but it looked to be heading into the sun and out of my vision. Thankfully, however, it banked north, and flew towards my position on the path.
At this point the overcast-grey upperparts of a male Hen Harrier was revealed in all its glory, as it kept fairly low to the ground whilst turning back to the west. The individual wasn’t pale enough for Pallid (alas!), and the dark trailing edge to the inner primaries and chunky dark wingtips confirmed the species.
|Male Hen Harrier, Ridge, 16/12/2017|
The most impressive element of this simply enchanting encounter was the level of alarm caused among the local birds – literally everything went up, a spread of fear that only a true predator can create. Having clearly stooped down for a look at the crops, the bird continued west, across the valley, over Allden’s Hill (where it checked out the crop there) and away.
I imagine the bird roosted nearby (possibly Winterfold heath) before continuing its journey, wherever that may be to, with the small bits of appropriate habitat here enough to bring him in for a look, but not to stay. It was a moment to make a weekend’s birding, and given the views it probably goes down as one of my finer moments this year on patch.
There’s no doubt my patch is particularly appealing to raptors – as mentioned, I’ve had 9 species this year (12 ever), with 13 the historic total. I’d even go as far to say it’s the best site in Surrey for raptors – patchworks of dense woodland, rolling hills, crops, meadows and water bodies is enough to cater for a variety of species, and that’s before the hideous amount of game is brought into the equation. Merlin remains the most notable absentee from the Thorncombe Street raptor list.
|Little Egret, Eastwaters Pond, 16/12/2017|
It was always going to be hard to follow that up, though a Little Egret sitting in a tree next to Eastwaters Pond was great value, and only the 5th record of 2017. A Kingfisher was also here, and a little to the north at Mill Pond the usual Shoveler, Gadwall and Teal numbers were about, though perhaps not in the numbers I’d expect following the recent cold spells.