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.|
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
At least three Swifts were back in the Farncombe colony, observed at different points of the day from the kitchen window.
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.
A quick look at Snowdenham Mill Pond delivered two drake Gadwall.
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.|
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.
Swift numbers over Farncombe were up to six today.