Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 10 May 2021

Migration at last

Although May started off how April ended, with frosty mornings and a northerly wind, it's picked up markedly during the last few days and it feels like migration proper has finally reached south-west Surrey. I find May can be a fickle month for the patchbirder, though there’s no denying it’s one of the most dynamic periods of the year – and it's safe to say the first 10 days have been decent.

Bound for the High Arctic, this tundrae Ringed Plover stopped off briefly in my little corner of Surrey.

Saturday 1st

I met Dave at Thursley early on, where May welcomed us with a hard frost and the temperature behind zero. Both with time to spare this morning, we decided to try and hit 60 species; if you leave Thursley with 50 it’s generally a very good effort. My personal best is 62 and the big day record – achieved by Dave, Doug and others in the 1990s – is 66. It started well at Pudmore, where a Green Sandpiper was flushed and a Yellow Wagtail went over. The Lapwings were still about and one of the Curlew sang distantly.

We went across Ockley next, picking up Snipe, Tree Pipit and Lesser Redpoll (the latter a bit of a bonus in May). The Birchy Pond area held a couple of Garden Warblers and a Treecreeper pair were attending a nest nearby. We knew we’d need some bonuses at Forked Pond and this proved the case, with Common Tern and Mandarin both unexpected. By now we were in the 50s and it was clear 60 would be easily achieved, so we agreed to try and break the record. Swift and Siskin fell as we hiked across the heath and up to the village.

There, where we had to be on the north side of the road to be in the recording area, we managed a suite of species otherwise hard to connect with at Thursley, including House Sparrow, Starling, Rook and Greenfinch. Mistle Thrush, Firecrest and Pied Wagtail were also added, taking us to 66. We then winded back down to Silkmill Pond where we set a new record with Great Crested Grebe. Raven and Bullfinch were also about, taking us to 69.

The record breaking species ...

We decided to walk Ockley again and were rewarded with Buzzard, Hobby, a late Meadow Pipit and Sand Martin, the latter a good Thursley bird. Elstead Common pools delivered Water Rail, which we’d missed earlier, while six Hobbies circled over Pudmore. A Grey Wagtail at the Moat made it 75 before, finally, a distant Red Kite completed the morning. All good fun and achieved by 11:30, too, with some 18 km covered in the process.

Hobby action.

In the early evening I walked Shackleford again and finally scored my first Whinchat of the year – a showy male at the north end. A Wheatear pair were about too, along with a couple of Red-legged Partridges.

Whinchat and Wheatears.

Sunday 2nd

I headed out along the river early morning, concentrating on Unstead Water Meadows. Although any signs of migration were limited (and warbler numbers still very low) it was a pleasant stroll. A brief singing Cetti’s Warbler was probably one of the Lammas Lands birds and a Little Egret low south was notable for the time of year. A Kingfisher flew upriver and a Buzzard pair seemed to be getting ready to nest in a big oak. Best of all was a singing Cuckoo – my first along this stretch of the Wey.

I headed to Shackleford next where there was no sign of the Whinchat, though a female Wheatear was knocking about. To my surprise, a (the?) Grey Partridge pair were seen again, on the west side by a bramble bush. Two of their Red-legged congeners were also around. A Cuckoo was in voice too, distantly towards Puttenham, and four Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew north. By the farm ponds, a Greylag Goose pair walked four goslings around.

Grey Partridge pair.

A quick look at Cutt Mill Ponds revealed a drake Gadwall and a Great Crested Grebe sitting on a nest, both on the House Pond. I was home for breakfast with a pleasing 54 species noted during this local circuit.

I met up with Sam later in the day. We were short of ideas so chose to do a circuit of some Low Weald backwaters, which turned out to be quite fun. A stop at Snowdenham Mill Pond first revealed drakes of Mandarin and Gadwall, as well as the sitting female Mute Swan. We headed to Painshill Farm next, where a Garden Warbler was one of the first birds heard, along with two Nightingales.

Other usual fare, such as Skylark, Red-legged Partridge, Bullfinch and Yellowhammer, were detected, before a light shower turned into a rather heavy one. Before our eyes, a male Whinchat appeared and flicked around the brambles and rapeseed fields before disappearing. Shortly after we heard a Tree Pipit, and eventually picked it up as it circled a few times before continuing on. A flyover Yellow Wagtail completed a nice trio of migrants forced down by the rain.

Whinchat and Tree Pipit dropping out the sky at Dunsfold.

A few hirundines were moving through too, including at least six Sand Martins. Eight Lesser Black-backed Gulls cruised overhead, a Raven was knocking about, a female Sparrowhawk flew east and two Cuckoos were singing. 

We moved on, checking a couple of Yellowhammer territories near Chiddingfold before exploring around Bowlhead Green. To our great surprise we picked up a Woodcock feeding on a roadside verge in broad daylight. It soon flew to nearby understory and fed in the open before eventually flushing north – amazing to see in the middle of the day. A short look at Halnaker Copse produced two Yellowhammers, Garden Warbler and Raven, before we called it a day.

Monday 3rd

I headed to Tuesley first thing in pleasantly cool conditions. Upon arrival, I espied a couple of Charadrius plovers on the far shore – LRPs, I presumed. However, a closer look revealed them to be a very dapper pair of tundrae Ringed Plovers, and they were quite relaxed as they fed on the rubber tideline. Although my third record of the species here they are rare at Tuesley, with this being something like the eighth record. A Common Tern was also about and a Grey Heron flew south.

Ringo action.

I walked Chiddingfold Forest next, where Nightingale numbers were poor – I noted only three in voice. Singles of Marsh Tit and Willow Warblers were singing, as were four Garden Warblers, and at least five Bullfinches were roving around. Two different Mistle Thrush pairs were carrying food, too. A circuit of Shackleford afterwards was quiet in the increasing wind, with the almost obligatory Wheatear (one) and Red-legged Partridge (two) of note.

Tuesday 4th

It was windy at Frensham Great Pond, where a mass of hirundines – typical in such weather – had gathered over the water with a few Swifts. Unsurprisingly, a Hobby was lurking nearby. Two Common Sandpipers were flying around the west end and briefly settled near the hotel and a male Sparrowhawk went over.

Wednesday 5th

At least three Swifts were back in the Farncombe colony, observed at different points of the day from the kitchen window.

Thursday 6th

A Little Egret flew south over the garden early morning – the second time I’ve had a flyby seemingly tracking the river in the last four days. It was cold and misty at Tuesley, where two flyover Yellow Wagtails highlighted an otherwise quiet visit.

Friday 7th

A quick look at Snowdenham Mill Pond delivered two drake Gadwall.

Saturday 8th

Mild temperatures, strong south-easterlies and heavy rain falling just before dawn on an early May morning – perfect for inland waders. I headed to Tuesley first thing and an initial scan only produced a Common Sandpiper. The second sweep, however, struck gold, with a lump of a Grey Plover sat on the north shore. 

Grey Plover in the gloom.

The bird was nervous and vocal, and immediately started flying around. Indeed, after five minutes it took off to the south, despite the foul conditions. A real treat this – a south-west Surrey lifer for me, only my second ever in the county and the second record for Tuesley (the previous coming in August 2013, which was a flyover). The light was awful and the weather really poor so the photos are shocking, but what a cracking bird (even if it wasn’t a spanking male; perhaps this was a moulting female?). 

More ropey GP shots.

A patient stakeout in the grim conditions didn’t produce anything else, save four hardy Swallows heading north, and I headed home soaked – but very satisfied. After a shower and a coffee it was back out and heading to the South-West. I am a rubbish British lister, in that I don’t go for stuff that I’ve seen in the Western Palearctic (for which I keenly keep a list). This means there are plenty of bits I just won’t travel for, unless it’s local, and so there are some obvious gaps in my national list. With WP plans written off for the second year in a row, I decided I may as well pay a bit of attention to my British list and so at the start of the year set myself a goal of 400 by the end of the year. 

And this is why I was to be spending the afternoon in Dorset. First up was Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury, where a long wait for very underwhelming views of Whiskered Tern were achieved. A low-quality encounter of a species I’ve seen lots of abroad reminded me why I don’t seriously British list! Still, it was nice to see, and singles of Little and Sandwich, and hundreds of Common Terns, meant it was a fun stakeout. A Whimbrel was about, a Wheatear knocked about on the beach.

The next stop at Cogden Beach, 10 minutes up the road, was very different – stunning, untouched Jurassic Coast, with wonderful, sloping fields down to a reedy border that held a flora-adorned pebbly beach beyond it, as big waves crashed against the shore. Lovely stuff. And the Tawny Pipit here was far more obliging, although a bit distant, as it foraged among the vegetation. The dark loral stripe was especially notable in this bird, as was the buttery yellow wash to the face and breast. Dorset is a very scenic county and, coupled with some good birds, made for a welcome away day.

Tawny Pipit at Cogden Beach.

Sunday 9th

A circuit of Shackleford in mild conditions was quiet, with a single female Wheatear in the ploughed field and a Raven passing east overhead. Four Red-legged Partridges were around, too. A quick look at Tuesley produced two Common Sandpipers, three Swifts and, most impressively, a flock of some 130 non-breeding Herring Gulls – quite a sight for this gull-less part of Surrey.

Later in the day I headed to Beddington, after news of a Temminck’s Stint broke. Upon arrival it showed really nicely on the fantastic looking 'Wet Grassland' – perhaps my best-ever views of this species in Britain. The green-yellow legs, eye-ring and dark centres to upperpart feathers were all noted as it moved slowly around islands, occasionally flushed by a Mallard or Coot, but generally settled. A lovely way to add this excellent species to my vice-county list (number 224; hopefully 225 is something special!).

Temminck's Stint at Beddington.

A few other bits were about, not least a first-summer Caspian Gull that flew in and landed in front of me. This bird has been around all winter though apparently it's been AWOL recently. It’s rather a dark bird but is structurally classic, especially the head and bill. A Yellow-legged Gull of the same age was also present, along with singles of Little Ringed Plover, Common Tern and Yellow Wagtail. A Kestrel flew over and both Cetti’s and Reed Warblers were in voice, too.

Casp and LRP.

The area the stint was on is essentially a massive scrape at present. Given the revival in the site’s birding scene, with daily, multi-observer coverage, I’m sure this grand old vice-county locale will produce a few more goodies this year. And the 'Wet Grassland' looks like the place it’ll happen – I can easily see an autumn White-rumped Sandpiper or Lesser Yellowlegs here.

Monday 10th

Swift numbers over Farncombe were up to six today.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Still cold, but better

The title says it all really, with the final week of April similar to the rest of the month: unseasonally cold, with little rain making for a poorly nourished countryside. Migrants are still being held up but, given it's now so late in the season, some stuff has had to move through and at times the last week has been great fun, making for a pretty decent end to a frustrating April. Hopefully May will be more like spring ...

A local singing Wood Warbler: a definite highlight of spring 2021.

Saturday 24th

Another cold start at Tuesley. A Common Sandpiper was new in and the Green Sandpiper was still present, but there was nothing scarcer. I headed to the Lammas Lands next and tried my luck on the new scrape on Overgone Meadow. A late Snipe flushed out, but it was otherwise quiet, save five Whitethroats, three Reed Buntings and, a little further upriver, one of the Cetti’s Warblers.

I then tried out Painshill Farm, near Dunsfold, where I had Lesser Whitethroat breeding last year. No joy, but a brief pleasant moment came when Cuckoo, Nightingale and Yellowhammer all sang simultaneously (one of each, of course, we are in England after all … ). There was in fact another Nightingale which appeared to be a silent male, due to the vocal bird chasing it around while alarm calling.

Other bits included Skylark, two Red-legged Partridges and Bullfinch, a Linnet pair prospecting a bramble bush and a few Whitethroats. I then went to Shackleford but an hour-long circuit was low on quality, with only 26 species detected. This included the continuing Greenland Wheatear but it was otherwise very quiet indeed.

Sunday 25th

It was a bit better at Tuesley this morning, with two new Green Sandpipers joining the wintering bird, though they didn’t hang around long. A Common Sandpiper was a bit less flighty. A Cuckoo sang distantly but it was cold and I cut short the session.

Common Sand in flight.

Later on, Sam called with news of a Wood Warbler at Puttenham Common. I headed over and was soon enjoying this cracking Phylloscopus in an area of open woodland, even though it was a bit mobile and had stopped singing. I missed this species in south-west Surrey last year so was pleased to connect – one or two records are about annual around here these days and they can be slippery customers.

Wood Warbler in the spring sunshine.

It felt like the first properly good patch bird of the spring and, despite the relentless wind, it was nice to sit and watch it go about its business. Kudos to Sam – Puttenham is very poorly birded but has heaps of potential – and I think the encounter gave me an encouraging shot in the arm in regard to spring migration, which has been especially underwhelming so far …

I also scored my first Garden Warbler of the season at Puttenham, singing in some scrub, and a Cuckoo was also in voice. In the evening, a Swift flew over Farncombe – probably an early returning bird to the colony here.

Monday 26th

‘It only takes one bird’ is what I’ve been telling myself a lot recently – this morning at Tuesley I had a few, in what was vintage hour or so that will live long in the memory. The first bird I clapped my eyes on was a Brent Goose, sat incongruously on the water. I presumed this would be the bird that wintered at Tice’s Meadow and had recently been at Stoke Lake, but it was in fact an adult and thus a new bird – my first south-west Surrey Brent for nearly four years and a mega here.

Brent Goose action.

A couple of Common Sandpipers and the Green Sandpiper were flying around when a brick red lump in the far shore caught my eye: Bar-tailed Godwit! This has long been my most wanted wader here and I couldn’t quite believe it, as it sat motionless, presumably having arrived overnight.

First views of the Barwit ...

The bird, a male, hadn’t detected me so I hastily called Dave and Eric who were soon on site. We made our way a little closer but by now the bird had become alert and agitated, with the cacophony of Black-headed Gulls not helping. Eventually it flew, high north towards Arctic breeding grounds, but what a magical encounter it had been.

More Barwit action.

Barwit has long been my most obvious Surrey lifer and so it was nice to find my own on patch, and helped erase memories of when Matt, Sam and I had a flock of 50 or more probables over Thorncombe Street a few years ago. This is obviously a very rare south-west Surrey bird (borderline mega) and constitutes the 12th record (only the sixth on the deck!), with the last on 1 May 2006 at Frensham Great Pond. It was also my 223rd Surrey vice-county bird …

The excitement didn’t end there. A Yellow Wagtail had flown over and a Cuckoo was singing distantly just as we were wrapping it up. As we headed back, I predicted that Greenshank could appear in the coming days and, to our astonishment, a few seconds later the chew chew chew of one could be heard!

Greenshank and Yellow Wagtail flyovers.

We picked the bird up and it circled the reservoir once but continued on north. A really amazing morning at a site that is punishing more often than not, but all the cold and empty watches were rendered worthwhile. It’s just a shame the site is strictly private and such birds can’t be widely shared.

After a coffee break I headed over to Puttenham to see if the cold northerly had held up the Wood Warbler’s migration. As soon as I got near the area of open woodland I could hear it singing lots and I soon spotted it, favouring the birches again. It’s unlikely this is a prospective breeder but the habitat looks good and I suppose you never know ... whatever the case, it’s an absolute belter and a bird I could have spent all day with.

Willow and Garden Warblers were also in voice, a Cuckoo sang and a Lesser Redpoll and two Siskins flew over. I did a quick check of Shackleford next, where the wind had really picked up. A Raven flew over, a female Kestrel watched from a perch and three Red-legged Partridges were in the alfalfa. A showy female Wheatear concluded an exceptional morning of local birding, all within 5 km of my front door. 

A particularly tame Wheatear.

I caught up with Nick H in the afternoon at Thorncombe Street, where there are three nests at the White Stork reintroduction site, one of which is thought to contain an egg. In the warm and breezy conditions not much else was about, save two singing male Firecrests and a pair of Red-legged Partridges.

White Stork on the nest.

Tuesday 27th

It was a very early start for some consultancy work in Birmingham city centre, where a three-hour survey revealed very little of note, even if singles of Blackcap and Buzzard were a bit of a surprise in such an urban setting.

I walked along the river in the evening, notching up 41 species. The best bits came on the Lammas Lands, namely one each of Cetti’s Warbler, Stonechat and Reed Bunting, as well as two late Snipe which were flushed from the scrape. At Unstead Water Meadows a male Grey Wagtail was taking food to noisy chicks hidden in some ivy and a Kestrel was knocking about.

Wednesday 28th

It was noticeably milder at Thursley first thing but, with the wind still in the north-east, dawn chorus was subdued. Pudmore held three displaying Lapwings and a singing Snipe – the latter should breed now. A Curlew was heard (Doug and Penny have had the female back, so they too should nest soon) and a male Wheatear was on Shrike Hill. A Lesser Redpoll flew over and a few Crossbills were about as well. With rain forecast later in the day I headed home early to do some work.

When the rain did come – for, it must be said, the first time in weeks – it was light to moderate and never felt overly promising, despite a big inland movement of Arctic Terns in the Midlands. I staked out Frensham Great Pond for about an hour and impressive hirundine numbers were about – 400 or more of all three species – plus some 90 Swifts. Cuckoo, Firecrest and Reed Warbler sang despite the weather, but the only tern I scored was Common (three).

I tried Enton next and there were decent hirundine numbers over Johnson’s, though only one Swift. A Mandarin pair were on the water, two Common Terns were overhead and a Wren was carrying faecal sacs out of a nest. My final stop on what had become a very soggy and cold circuit was Tuesley, and my efforts were rewarded when I espied a Little Ringed Plover on the far shore – my first of the year. A nice male to boot, it had clearly ditched down in the now rather heavy rain.

A smart LRP.

Thursday 29th

I met Abel and Dave at Thursley first thing. It was bright and still, but still rather cold, though not enough to deter the two Lapwing pairs from displaying. A Snipe was singing towards West Bog and even performed a brief spurt of drumming, while the unpaired male Curlew sang in the distance. There was a bit of activity between Redstart Corner and Spur Wood, not least two flyover Yellow Wagtails – always good here in the spring. A male Wheatear was on Shrike Hill, too.


A few Redstarts were in voice and included two territorial males chasing each other around over a female. A Woodlark was carrying food nearby and, intriguingly, a Meadow Pipit dived into a heather clump before emerging a few minutes later. This species was lost as a breeding bird in south-west Surrey several years ago, so such behaviour was interesting. A Crossbill family party included two juveniles being fed by adults – a nice way to confirm breeding this year.

Redstart and Crossbill action.

Abel and I checked out Puttenham Common afterwards as he’d yet to catch up with the Wood Warbler. It was easy to locate, in its favoured spot, singing away at close range. What a beauty – and there’s a real possibility it could hold fort here for a while, with the habitat much like their usual breeding grounds further north and west. The Cuckoo was singing, a decent three Garden Warblers were nearby – this remains the only site where I’ve seen the species this year! – Woodlark was heard and a Yellowhammer flew over, the latter recently extirpated from this site and thus of note.

I walked Shackleford afterwards, but it was rather quiet in the increasing wind. A few Swallows zipped low over the alfalfa, which contained four Red-legged Partridges, and a female Wheatear was at the south end. 

Swallow and Wheatear.

Friday 30th

Another rather chilly morning but much cloudier than of late. I opted to visit The Hurtwood for the first time this spring, and spent an hour circuiting the area. The specialities were all present – singles of Dartford Warbler, Tree Pipit (a flushed bird) and Woodlark, as well as two male Cuckoos. Siskin and Bullfinch were heard-only, a Willow Warbler sang and there were at least two male Garden Warblers in voice, one of which performed nicely for my recorder.

A check of Snowdenham Mill Pond produced four drake Gadwall, four Tufted Duck and a territorial male Mute Swan – perhaps a female is sitting nearby. I walked Shackleford after, where the cloud was keeping migrants fairly low, meaning I was able to detect flyover Tree Pipit (my first at the site this year) and Yellow Wagtail. A pair of Greenland Wheatears were at the south end but it was otherwise rather quiet.

Some light early evening showers tempted me back to Shackleford but there was not much doing, although the female Wheatear was still about. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls cruised over but the highlight was a Little Owl perched on a dead tree.

Little Owl to end the month.