2017 was the fourth year I’ve been seriously watching my beloved Thorncombe Street patch. Previous years have been excellent, and I’ve managed some fine birds, but 2017 excelled beyond all anticipation. I set an ambitious target of 120 species at the start of the year (the previous record was 116 in 2015), so to reach a total of 123 has left be beyond satisfied. The magic of 2017 isn’t simply that figure, however, but in the remarkable different layers and types of birds within it.
|Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 7/3/2017 (M Elsoffer)|
As a result of this, incredible moments with species that have only been recorded once or twice here before (male Hen Harrier, flock of 20 Whimbrel, Water Pipit etc) somehow aren’t the crowning moments of a year, and spectacular happenings such as the Hawfinch invasion are too finding themselves vying for the limelight.
And, as if these wonderful encounters needed any foundations, the status of local and breeding birds was extremely pleasing in 2017. Species on the decline elsewhere (Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher etc) were successful, along with a host of raptors, as well as a plentiful amount of typical woodland and open country birds.
|Whimbrel flock over Goose Green, 2/8/2017|
Sticking with last year’s theme, below is a brief summary of the year on a month-by-month basis, from a personal perspective. The 2017 Thorncombe Street area bird report is nearly written up, and should be available by February (at the latest).
Winter bird of 2017
Whilst a Waxwing in January was a site first, it just doesn’t eclipse the final year tick of 2017, a male Hen Harrier on 16th December. The bird flew fairly low and slowly west-north-west over the Ridge, allowing me to take in incredible views of this majestic predator. There’s only been one previous record – a ringtail (also over the Ridge) on 17th October 2015 – but never a male. It was a perfectly thrilling and fitting end to the year.
Spring bird of 2017
Now this really is a hard choice. Spring, as it often proves to be here, was almost as productive as autumn on patch. I’ve longed for flyover seabird and on 23rd March a Kittiwake finally fulfilled this desire. The discovery of rare breeding birds, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, were also spring findings, and later in the season I added Reed Warbler to my patch list.
However, on 9th April two Cattle Egrets flew high north-west over Leg-of-Mutton Copse (of all places) – a county mega to take the spring crown. Also, a mention must go to the 60+ strong flock of unidentified waders (probably Barwits!) that flew very high east over Tilsey Farm on the 17th April.
Summer bird of 2017
Whilst being quiet in terms of moving birds, the eclectic mix of breeding species (for a dry, inland site!) means an enjoyable session can be had throughout the season. The definition of summer and autumn was a tongue-in-cheek bone of contention among Surrey birders on social media this year, and I’ll ride that wave of contention for this entry – a bird in a summer month (July) that was clearly on autumn migration.
35 Black-tailed Godwits low east over the Ridge on the 27th was a truly epic moment – previously a mega blocker, with the only previous record coming exactly 2 years to the day previously, it also avenged my blank wader spell. I could hear the wingbeats of the flock as they whizzed past – sadly I didn’t manage a photo, but my girlfriend beautifully recreated the moment via a painting.
Another tough one. September was dire, but the months flanking it both produced excellent birds. In August, a flock of 20 Whimbrels flew over Goose Green (only the second site record), I finally patch-ticked Lesser Whitethroat, and both Yellow-legged Gull and Greenshank were unexpected Thorncombe Street firsts. October delivered the goods too, with a flock of 25+ Brent Geese over New Barn, a Water Pipit present for a morning in Hive Field and the influx of Hawfinches throughout.
However, purely for the nature of the encounter, first place goes to the male Honey-buzzard that drifted lazily south over Allden’s Hill on 26th August – my best ever views of this species in the UK. Late August is prime raptor migration time here, and this bird was clearly on its way to the coast during a day of notable Honey-buzzard records elsewhere.
Best migration day of 2017
It’s impossible to pick a single, best migration day for 2017, so I’ve summed up the best, and finished with a single top migration moment. I upped my vis-mig game this year, and Thorncombe Street watches now go onto Trektellen. Spring was, naturally, a lot slower than the autumn, though April 17th did produce the first Cuckoos, House and Sand Martins of the year, as well as a fall of Willow Warblers and 60+ waders east.
|Woodpigeons over New Barn, 28/10/2017|
All very tasty (and this is ignoring the many other sessions that were productive), but 2 pure migration spectacles take silver and gold this year. In second place, 28th October. A classic, late autumn watch stood out for one species, Woodpigeons, which moved through in record numbers. In one hour I had 5,365 north/east – that’s 89 a minute, and 1.4 a second! The day total was 7,228.
Despite all the above, there was one, standout moment. It came just after dawn on 7th March, very much a sub-optimum time of year. Standing on Allden’s Hill, what appeared to be a moving dark cloud, almost like a Starling murmuration, came into view from the south-west. Upon inspection, they were Redwings, and at the very least 4,000 of them. In a single flock. It was a moment I’ve never experienced, and probably won’t again – a simply colossal group moving together. My guess is they roosted nearby, and me being in the right place at the right time means I’ll have a migration memory of a lifetime.
Really, there were very few disappointing moments in 2017. September was frustrating - I spent so many hours in the field, but was rewarded with no rarities, and few decent vis-mig sessions. I also (again) failed to find Purple Emperor in the summer despite extensive searches - maybe next year. However, probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of Turtle Doves, for the first time since I started watching here.
Bird of 2017
Despite it being such a fruitful year, there’s no doubt as to the bird of 2017. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve had a moment on my patch that’s left such an impression before. The weird thing is, the bird in question isn’t definitive – it’s not on my list, and wasn’t one of the 123 species recorded this year. On 8th October I was vis-migging at New Barn. It was relatively mild, and a gentle wind from the north-west meant a few species were moving, most notably Meadow Pipits, with 56 tallied in the 2 and ½ hour watch.
At 07:53, whilst on the way to my watchpoint, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a very unusual Pipit call. It was clearly not a Mipit, or Tree Pipit, and was a sound that didn’t instantly connect with anything in my mind. The bird called maybe 3 or 4 times, and was going fairly low over our heads – my girlfriend got on it before I did.
The full details of my thought process, call analysis and so on is described in this blog post but, to cut a long story short, I am as good as certain that the bird was a Red-throated Pipit. If I had better experience of the species, I’d be 100% sure. As mentioned, I’ve left it off my list, and of course won’t be submitting it – a flyover record of such magnitude wouldn’t stand a chance in this county.
The experience though, left me marvelling. I’ve even booked a January Western Palearctic trip solely to visit a site where Red-throated Pipits winter. Preceding this encounter was my biggest hours in the field to lack of birds ratio since I started covering here, and it provided me with motivation that will last a very long time. The fact the record lacks certainty, for me, strengthens its magic. In an age of instantly accessible knowledge, the unknowable has a pristine beauty, and wonder with no end. And for these reasons, mystery Pipit species is the patch bird of 2017.