Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Sunday 31 December 2017

28th-31st December

I've managed to get out a bit during the last couple of days, including the Isle of Sheppey yesterday with Matt P and Robin S, where we amassed 81 species. Among the birds we saw was a very teasing Common Buzzard (for me), which attracted and held our attention for quite some time, as we tussled with the idea of a juvenile Rough-legged. Closer to home, I've managed a few, brief, patch visits. An area that's been catching my eye during this past, rainy week is the River Wey water meadows west of Unstead Sewage Farm - the water levels are very high, and birds have moved in.
The bird in question...seems to lack a dark belly, but is
that because of pale feathered tarsi? It seems unlikely. Pale
lateral crown & uppercheeks look good, as does the dark patch
around the eye. However, the structure's off, and where are the
 pale/defined upperwing coverts? Also, is that a chest band?

30th - Isle of Sheppey

Always windy, but some good birds. We spent most of the daylight hours birding and managed to see 3 Lapland Buntings, 3 ringtail Hen Harriers, a Pale-bellied Brent Goose and a Hooded Crow, as well as bits like Bearded Tits, Greater White-fronted Geese, Corn Buntings and a ridiculous amount of Marsh Harriers.

At the raptor viewpoint I picked out a Buteo species sitting on a fence. It had a striking white head, and given that this was on Sheppey in January I mentioned to the others to get on the bird. Gradually, what seemed to be features that pointed towards Rough-legged Buzzard revealed themselves, to us and another chap who'd seen the juvenile bird which was present earlier in the month. First the obvious white head, then the striking white tail with black terminal band, followed by (when it eventually flew), apparent thick, wrist-like carpal patches and pale upper primary patches.

During the 20-25 minutes we had on the bird it was frustratingly distant, and I couldn't personally clearly make out a dark belly. The bird hovered a bit, but when it completed a second, longer flight circuit I mentioned my revised thoughts on the white upper primaries, which didn't look as good this time. The bird dropped into a field, and wasn't seen again.

Now everyone's seen pale or plain weird Common Buzzards before, but this bird certainly was striking in that it seemed to tick plenty of Rough-legged boxes. Before we'd all had time to sit and critically assess what we'd seen people on Twitter were denouncing Matt's report and record shots (which I'm sure he won't mind me using), all without offering any educational or informed ID feedback.

Close, but no cigar?
Personally, whilst it looked good in the field, the lack of really striking upper primary patches and, more pressingly, a lack of pale/defined upperwing coverts leave me on the Buteo buteo side of the fence. Furthermore, the structure doesn't look great in the photo, and the dark belly (which wasn't overly apparent to me in the field) can't be seen. It could be argued that the pale, feathered tarsi is what's blurring this, but it's impossible to say from the photo.

All very educational, and I've been at Choseley Farm in Norfolk before and watched people tick Common Buzzards as Rough-legged. Unless seen well, and ideally in flight, they remain hard to ID, and certainly had me thumbing through Forsman for a few hours. Interestingly, a/the juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard was reported today from the same site (this after the last report came in early December...).

28th-29th and 31st - patch and Unstead water meadows

Not heaps to report with brief visits. I had single Hawfinches on the 28th (over Allden's Hill) and today, at Mill Pond. I expect to get Hawfinch on my 2018 year list! I also had the 6th Little Egret of 2017 on Mill Pond this morning, marking the best year for this species here. Otherwise, the usual fare, before everything is reset tomorrow. What a year it's been here - 123 species the total. My yearly review will be published next week.

Lapwings & Black-headed Gulls, Unstead water meadows,
The water meadows that flank the River Wey, west of Unstead sewage farm, have taken a large amount of rain in recent weeks and water levels are now the highest they've been for several years. What it's created is similar to a mini Pulborough Brooks, and during the last week up to 100 Canada Geese, and smaller numbers of Mallards and Teals have moved in.

Today, I counted a whopping 74 Pied Wagtails in the main flooded field. Also present were singles of Little Egret and Grey Heron, with a pleasingly high number of Lapwings (48) and 11 Greylag Geese. With a wet week forecast the levels should remain high, and a cold snap at the weekend could bring in something smart, such as a Pintail or Golden Plover. In the 1950's and 60's when these meadows flooded, Whooper and Bewick's Swans were almost regular...

Wednesday 27 December 2017

19th-27th December

The always-busy Christmas period has left little time for the patch during the past week or so, as 2017 winds down to an end. Over the weekend of the 23rd/24th I managed a couple of visits and whilst there was nothing too startling to report, the continued presence of the Hawfinch flock around the New Barn area was pleasing.

Brent Geese, Felpham, 25/12/2017
The past few days have been spent at my parents in Felpham, West Sussex, which allowed for some decent birding. Seawatching from their house was productive, particularly on Christmas Day. I also undertook my yearly visit to the Bewick's Swan herd in the Arun Valley, and it seems, tragically, time could be running out for them.

25th-27th December

I spent Christmas with my family down in West Sussex, where my parents happen to have a house that has a decent vista over the sea, between Felpham and Middleton-on-Sea. As a result, despite the coastline being tucked in (in comparison to nearby Selsey Bill), some very respectable seawatching can be done, from either the balcony or even the living room!

I was up for dawn each morning, but only Christmas Day really delivered, when a strong south-westerly seemed to push plenty of bits into the relative shelter of this stretch of coastline. There were also a few things moving, and I recorded 1 each of Velvet Scoter, Great Northern Diver (both offshore) and Guillemot (west). At least 40 Gannets moved past, along with 6 Common Scoters, 2 Red-throated Divers and 20+ Brent Geese. 2 Slavonian Grebes drifted east, and a couple of juvenile Shags close in made for an excellent day.

The following morning, after a stormy night, was bright and calm, and so it wasn't too surprising that bird numbers were down. Still, 27 Curlews flew east, and a Kittiwake, 19 Red-breasted Mergansers, 2 Red-throated Divers and 10 Brent Geese were some of the better birds/counts going west. This morning brought snow and a northerly wind, and thus next to no birds - sadly, an oiled Razorbill was close in.

2 Bewick's Swans, Arun Valley, 26/12/2017
Despite being tucked in unfavourably there can be no doubt that seawatching has potential here - there is, naturally, one obvious species that would be both epic and realistic (just) to get on the 'lounge list' - Pomarine Skua. Surely, a watch here on a Pom day in early May would deliver the goods.

With the sun out my girlfriend and I decided to do a mini-tour of this part of Sussex, starting with a quick drive to Bognor Regis for a recent Snow Bunting, which wasn't around (and seems to have gone). It was then up to the Arun Valley, and the village of Burpham, for an annual catch up with the wintering herd of Bewick's Swans.

When I first saw this flock, as a kid in 2001, I counted no less than 48. On Boxing Day, I saw just 5. The most worrying element is that they were all adults - clearly no young made it this year. This species is in decline (see BB, Rees and Beekman), with the reasons not totally clear. Persecution on migration routes is thought to be a big problem, though weather and habitat changes are also likely factors, and certainly seem a good reason for the lack of youngsters this year.

A look in the 1979 published Birds of Sussex makes for even more depressing reading, with the herd totalling 92 in 1976. Hopefully this isolated wintering population can pull it back - it'd be a terrible shame to lose them here, not least becasue they're one of my favourite species of bird. Also present were the usual dabbling ducks, a single Raven and a couple of Chiffchaffs.

We ended the day with some gulling in a very windy Hillfield Road car park in Selsey, though not much was coming to bread, with a single Mediterranean Gull and 4 Great Black-backs the best I could manage.

Allden's Hill, 27/12/2017
19th-24th December

The week before Christmas was a write off, with sunrise now not until 8ish, but over the weekend I managed to spend a bit of time both on the Ridge and at New Barn. On the 23rd, I headed up to the former not long after dawn, armed with two bags of sunflower and nyger seeds. I put it down on the southern game-cover crop, and have little doubt it's been warmly received during the past few days by the finch/bunting flock (though I've yet to go back and check).

Having completed the feed, I counted what was about - at least 50 Linnets, 5+ Reed Buntings (though probably many more deep in cover), 12 Chaffinches, 19 Goldfinches and an impressive 30+ Lesser Redpolls. As mentioned in my last post, this species is having a bumper winter, and I'm dead keen to find a Mealy (or Arctic!) with them.

Overhead a few Herring and Common Gulls drifted south, along with an unseasonal Meadow Pipit. Plenty of raptors were up, including a notable count of 15 Buzzards, and at least 5 Red KitesRavens are obvious at this time of year, and 2 were cronking over the Ridge at various times.

I also had two Hawfinches fly over, and their continued presence on patch was confirmed by birds still present at New Barn - I had 3 fly east, and heard at least 1 other. On the 24th, David K had 5 in the same spot, and also managed an impressive 250+ Siskins near Phillimore - remarkably, in a poor winter for the species, a site record!

Monday 18 December 2017

12th-18th December

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. 

Tuesday 12 December 2017

8th-11th December - Fuerteventura

With a few days of holiday to use up, and the arrival of a Dwarf Bittern in Fuerteventura, I decided to take a long weekend on the island in order to connect with this Western Palearctic mega. Ultimately crippling views were obtained, and I also managed two further WP lifers in the shape of Fuerteventura Chat and Houbara Bustard. Despite Jet2 postponing our flight for nearly 24 hours, the break was a success and well worth going ahead with.
Dwarf Bittern, Barranco del Rio Cabras, 9/12/2017

Friday 8th

I met Josh J at Stansted at 09:00, and several hours later we’d arrived at a pleasantly warm and sunny Fuerteventura. The Bittern site wasn’t far from the airport, and Plain Swift and Egyptian Vulture were seen on the way there. The site in question was a larger than expected barranco, and it turned out to hold a nice variety of species. One of the first ones we saw was the Dwarf Bittern, as it stalked the waterside from a rocky shoreline.

We scrambled down, and eventually took in wonderful views when it crept out of a tamarisk and began to hunt. The bird, which was the fifth Western Palearctic record, allowed close proximity and thus a careful examination of it’s rather bold plumage. A slightly washed out royal blue ran into streaks on a creamy breast and underparts, and the bird’s bright yellow legs and bill, and dull red eye stood out. It was very much in the zone as it took insect and fry prey from the shallow stream, occasionally scuttling on to another position. It was seemingly more bothered by noise than movement, and was seen to fly to a different part of the barranco a couple times if spooked.

Whilst taking this in, a handful of Fuerteventura Chats, ultramarinus African Blue Tits, Chiffchaffs and Berthelot’s Pipits provided a decent supporting cast of birds. Other species noted on this particular visit included Ravens, Ruddy Shelducks, Black-winged Stilts, a Green Sandpiper and a Southern Grey Shrike. With 2 of the targets secured in the first few hours of the trip, we headed to our apartment and enjoyed some tapas and cervesas before getting an early night.
Fuerteventura Chat, Brranco del Rio Cabras, 9/12/2017

Saturday 9th 

With one target remaining, we hit up Tindaya Plain pre-dawn in order to stake out some Houbara Bustards. This we managed relatively easily, and in total 5 different birds were seen, though whilst some of the birds weren’t too distant the views weren’t fantastic, and the closer ones seemed wary and privy to our presence. Once the sun was firmly up they became more active, picking at the rather tasteless looking scrubs dotted throughout the vast, arid plain.

Birds, naturally, were thin on the ground here, though we managed 5+ Black-bellied Sandgrouse, singles of Trumpeter Finch, Spectacled Warbler and Cream-coloured Courser and a flock of 15+ Lesser Short-toed Larks. With the Bustards not looking like they’d show any better, we decided to head to Puerto del Rosario in an attempt to locate some gulls. Surprisingly there wasn’t one to be found in the harbour (just a couple of Sandwich Terns), and so we collected Rich B from the airport and took him to the Dwarf Bittern site.

Again, it took little time to find the bird, and once more a little patience was rewarded with excellent views as the bird worked its way down the barranco. We also enjoyed much better views of the Chats, and a couple of White Storks joined the Egyptian Vultures, Buzzards and Ravens soaring overhead. We also made a third and final visit not long before dusk, and despite having only brief flight views of the Dwarf Bittern we did see our only Laughing Dove of the trip.

Between the two Bittern sessions we visited Los Molinos reservoir, where a staggering number (150+) of Ruddy Shelducks were present. Also about were 5 Spoonbills, a handful of Little Egrets, a Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, 12+ Black-bellied Sandgrouse, some Spanish Sparrows and a Tufted Duck.

Sunday 10th and Monday 11th 

Houbara Bustard, Tindaya Plain, 10/12/2017
We could have gone home on Saturday afternoon, quite happily, but had booked to depart on Sunday afternoon. In the morning before our flight we went back for the Houbara Bustards, and this time managed simply fantastic views of one bird, as well as more distant ones of at least 2 others. After that we tried to find some gulls at various sites, with no joy, and so set off to the airport.

With a little snowfall in the UK Stansted was unsurprisingly in meltdown, and our flight went from seriously delayed to postponed. I won’t bore you with the details, but we all had to miss a day of work, and were shuttled off to a hotel for the night which Jet2 paid for. Eventually, nearly 24 hours later than planned, we made it back home. Pretty frustrating, and as mentioned the trip could have been happily concluded by Saturday afternoon, but 3 ticks (with great views of each one) and good company made it worthwhile.

Thursday 7 December 2017

27th November-7th December

male Parrot Crossill, WIshmoor Bottom, 3/12/2017
Midweek patching is effectively over for a few months, and as a result my visits have become much less frequent. Adding in a badly sprained ankle (picked up after a touch too much red wine in France) means I have little to report from the past 10 days. Saying that, Saturday morning was notably productive for the time of year, with two Woodcocks and a Lapwing (scarcities here) recorded. I also, eventually, managed to connect with the Parrot Crossbills that have been on the Berkshire/Surrey border for nearly a fortnight.

27th November-1st December

Just three, very brief checks of Mill Pond in the morning. Wildfowl numbers are at a decent level, and a couple more cold spells should help bring those figures up. A female Red-crested Pochard was with Mallards on the 28th.

2nd December

Wishmoor Bottom

I chose to start at the Wishmoor Bottom, near Camberley, with the aim of seeing the flock of up to 16 Parrot Crossbills. Sadly there was no sign all morning, and my couple of hours of hobbling around were spent taking in 2 Dartford Warblers, a Red Kite, 2 Reed Buntings and several flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares moving in a north-westerly direction.

Fieldfare, Ridge, 3/12/2017

Why twitch when you have a patch as good as mine? I was already asking myself that question whilst watching 12 drake Teals displaying on Mill Pond, with a Hawfinch flying overhead. I thought I’d try and find my own Parrot Crossbills in the only coniferous area here, at Juniper Hill and Leg-of-Mutton Copse, but failed to do so despite laying eyes on a very distant Crossbill looking bird on top of a spruce for a few seconds.

I did manage two Woodcocks, both flushed at fairly close range from Leg-of-Mutton Copse. I bet there’s a few wintering here – the habitat is perfect – but a bit of luck and off-piste walking would be required to see them. This record was just the fourth of 2017, and the first of the second winter period. With my ankle not feeling great, I quickly swung by Bonhurst Farm, and was delighted to see a Lapwing overhead. These birds are declining locally, and winter sightings are rare (this was only the sixth year record). A flyover Egyptian Goose rounded off an uplifting session.

3rd December


The weather was grim, though for some reason I decided to hit the Ridge and try and find a Twite or Lapland Bunting. None this time, though 3 Hawfinches, 2 Cormorants and a Herring Gull flew over. The disturbing sound of relentless gunfire was coming from within Thorncombe Park, but thankfully I saw no avian casualties.

Female Parrot Crossbill, Wishmoor Bottom, 3/12/2017
Wishmoor Bottom

Having seen news that the Parrot Crossbills had resurfaced, I wolfed down breakfast and headed back for round two. With Rich S kindly keeping me frequently updated, I was delighted to finally connect with these impressive and intriguing birds. They showed well, and could be heard quietly sub-calling from time-to-time.

There was only 6-8 Parrots as far as I could see, and certainly at least one Common Crossbill in the group, with a much less slopped upper mandible, and thinner neck. Side-by-side comparison was educational. Hopefully there are some to be found even closer to home as the winter rolls on.

4th-7th December

It’s hardly light before I need to leave for work now, and consequently there were no major patch sightings this week. The water meadows to the west of Unstead Sewage Farm are becoming more attractive for wintering Little Egrets (6th on 23rd November), and I had one this morning – it can’t be long before a Cattle or (another) Great is pulled in here.

Monday 27 November 2017

24th-26th November - southern France

I decided to take a long weekend in southern France, with the main aim of connecting with two of western Europe’s most graceful and hard-to-see residents – Eagle Owl and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. I’ve dipped both species before, and ultimately and frustratingly the same happened on this trip. Indeed, the birding was more steady than spectacular, but I still saw some decent stuff among the 95 species recorded. This post is part-blog, part-reference material for anyone visiting the below sites, most of which feature on a southern French itinerary. As such, it’s not a report format, but should still contain relevant information.
Greater Flamingoes, Camargue, 25/11/2017

Based in Saint-Martin-de-Crau, situated nicely between the Provence ‘big-three’ of the Camargue, La Crau and Les Alpilles, I was well placed to try for the aforementioned target species. To fit with work and getting to/from Nice airport, I had from Friday night until Sunday afternoon for birding. A morning on the east side of the Camargue was also pencilled in, as I’d never been before, and I kept the Category C Indian Silverbills of Nice in mind, though I ran out of time for them in the end.

A quick word on the available literature – for such a popular destination, there's very little available. Crozier is nearly two decades old now, and whilst in-depth, isn’t ideal for specificities or firm directions. For the first time, Gosney disappointed. It just seemed a little rushed, and the information was only based on one trip he made in mid-summer (an odd time of year to base such a book on), and trip reports from the internet.

Below is a breakdown of the main sites I visited.

La Crau

This area, one I’ve wanted to visit for many years, was sadly a touch disappointing. Given the time of year I had low expectations, but it was slow going, and the clear encroachment of man was in fact rather depressing. Whether it was plumes of factory smoke on the horizon, new farms and plantations being erected or hunters shooting passerines, it was all a bit grim.

La Crau at dawn, 26/11/2017
As for the flocks of Little Bustards (apparently 1000+ winter here) and Sandgrouse, there wasn’t even a sniff, despite two hefty dawn sessions and various other spells of scanning. The east side, with entry south of Entressen, was certainly more productive than the Peau de Meau on the west. Here, I at least enjoyed Richard’s Pipits and Crested Larks on both days, as well as large flocks of Buntings that included Cirl and Rock.

Otherwise it was pretty bleak – in an hour around the Peau de Meau trails I recorded just 6 species, though one of them was a male Hen Harrier. The plains to the north (to the south and west of the Eyguières aerodrome) are said to be the best bet for Little Bustards - one of my favourite species - but I found none here either. I’m sure it’s a different experience altogether in the spring, and I’m well aware how elusive these species can be, so I took it on the chin.

Les Alpilles

This large natural park of prominent Mediterranean limestone cliffs is well-known as one of the best, or certainly easiest, sites in Europe to see Eagle Owl. There seem to be two regular sites birders and tours use, only around 12km from one another, both of which require an arrival not long before dusk and plenty of cliff scanning. Based on various reports I found, the site with the famous red gas hydrant just beyond the Hotel Mas de l’Oulivie (south of Les Baux-des-Provence), seemed the best bet.

female/1st-winter male Black Redstart, Nice, 24/11/2017
The first night was overcast and windy, and following a day of rain I wasn’t too surprised that I drew a blank. More Rock and Cirl Buntings were here, as well as some Hawfinches. On the second night, with much better conditions, there was again no site or sound. A big disappointment – the Sandgrouse I wasn’t banking on, but I was hoping to connect with the Owl at these apparent regular areas. Perhaps I should have spread my bets, and visited the site near Les Destet. Sadly, with limited time, I couldn’t have a third stab, and I’ve now dipped Eagle Owl on 3 trips!

On the final day, on the way back to the airport, I checked out a Bonelli’s Eagle site just south of Orgon. Here I enjoyed my most prolonged views of this species, as an adult tracked a ridge in the fine conditions, at times mobbed by two Ravens.

The site best accessed from the car park of the Hôtel/Restaurant Le Relais Des Fumades, on the D7N. Parking at 43.776114, 5.053178, we scanned the large cliff faces of the ridge opposite, and it wasn’t long before a Bonelli’s Eagle appeared. Another option would be to walk a few feet west, up the bank, and position yourself somewhere along the footpath that runs along the canal. Many thanks to Sean F for the gen here.

adult Slender-billed Gull, Camargue, 25/11/2017

The Camargue (east side)

I really don’t want to sound like a misery – again, I know the time of year was far from the best, and indeed the east is known as the less productive side - but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Camargue! Of course, you can’t judge it on one bleak and wet November morning, especially when you only visit a few sites. Furthermore, it’s clearly been (another) dry year in southern Europe, and so much of the area was bone dry and, thus, birdless.

The saltpans from Le Sambuc down to the sea were desperately low on water, and numbers of Greater Flamingoes and herons and egrets weren't high. Meadow Pipits and Yellow-legged Gulls were the most prominent species, and a couple of Black-necked Grebes were noteworthy. Plage de Piemanson and the lagoon adjacent to it are known as the best places for Slender-billed Gulls in the Camargue, but I found none. The saltwater pools did however hold the only Sanderlings, Kentish, Grey and Ringed Plovers of the trip. The much-vaunted areas west of Salin de Giraud were also desperately dry, and low on bird numbers.

However, further north, the Etang de Vaccares was full, and it was here where I managed some great birding. Pick of the bunch was 30+ Slender-billed Gulls, my first for years, and they showed very nicely next to the road. Also present were 11 Curlews, 231 Shelducks, 3 Red-breasted Mergansers, the 3 egret species (mostly Great), a female/juvenile Marsh Harrier, 2 Fan-tailed Warblers, 200+ Flamingoes and a Common Sandpiper, among others. Numbers and diversity – finally, a glimpse into the Camargue at its finest!
Etang du Vaccares, Camargue, 25/11/2017


Given the trip was based on two targets, both of which were dipped, there’s no denying an element of disappointment. The consolation cast was OK (Bonelli’s Eagle standout), but probably not enough to mask the dips entirely. I definitely need to visit the Camargue properly, in spring, and indeed the Crau should be given another go. However, on this occasion things didn't work out - maybe I should've stayed in Nice the whole time and picked up Indian Silverbill!

Wednesday 22 November 2017

15th-22nd November

In theory, things should be winding down now, so I was hugely (and pleasantly) surprised to enjoy one of the best vis-mig sessions of the season on Saturday morning. It seems the frequent unfavourable migration conditions this autumn has resulted in a bit of a back-log, and as a result an unanticipated mix of species was recorded moving through. The pick of the bunch was a Woodlark – a bird only once previously recorded here - and the year that keeps on giving has now produced no less than 122 species.
male Yellowhammer, Tilsey Farm, 19/11/2017

Saturday 18th


With the Wintershall Estate kindly granting me permission to set up a feeding station on their side of the Ridge, my plan was to get up there early doors and sift through the mixed finch and bunting flock, and work out where a good place to install one would be. However, it soon became apparent that the skies were alive with birds on the move. A few drips of rain had fallen pre-dawn, and with the slightest northerly element to the gentle wind that was coming from the west, it seemed a floodgate opened a little.

Woodpigeons were the lead species, with 2,323 an impressive final total, and the second highest count of the autumn. Thrushes, numbers of which have been much lower than normal this year, were piling through. Fieldfares in particular were heading powerfully north, including a remarkable single flock of around 100. The final tally of 184 was in fact a new site record.

Other bits included 3 Hawfinches west, 1 Brambling north-east, a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull south and 183 Redwings north. Not bad at all – and with several Yellowhammers and at least a couple of Bramblings with the more numerous Reed Buntings, Goldfinches and Linnets on the Ridge, it made for the most enjoyable 90 minutes watch.
Woodpigeons, Ridge, 18/11/2017

Despite all the above, the best moment came at 08:25, when I heard an out of place “huu-weo” above my head. By now I was in Junction Field, and the call was uttered again, as what turned out to be a Woodlark continued north-east. It's surprising that it’s just the second record here, and even more so that it’s the first autumn one, especially given that Blackheath and Winterfold aren’t far away at all. Perhaps this bird was a local mover.

The Burgh

After the session on patch I met up with Matt in his new home county of West Sussex (a long overdue getting together), and despite the gloomy weather we headed up to the Burgh. This wonderful patchwork of farmland (mainly arable) is a truly fantastic example of nature-friendly estate management, with un-managed margins, big hedgerows and retained winter stubbles.

As a result, species that are devastatingly short on supply elsewhere thrive, in particular Grey Partridges, Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers. The Norfolk Estate, who on the land, must take credit, and it’s a shame so many other landowners don’t take a leaf out of their books. I could draw certain comparisons with my patch, not least the numerous impressive vistas, but also the hilly terrain, and lack of human influence.
ringtail Hen Harrier, the Burgh, 18/11/2017

However, the key difference is trees. The Burgh has a couple of small copses dotted around it, whereas my patch is heavily wooded, and this is reflected in some of the species present. What Thorncombe Street has in Bramblings, Hawfinches, Woodcocks and Marsh Tits, the Burgh has in Corn Buntings, Grey Partridges and Skylarks.

Also, the extensive openness/lack of trees and plentiful prey means species like Hen Harriers, Merlins and Short-eared Owls congregate here in the winter, something that’s unheard of on my bit. However, some of the habitat management at the Burgh can definitely be applied to the estates up this way, and I hope to get this message across in our December meeting.

In terms of what we managed to find, the weather made things fairly tough going. However, Matt picked up a quartering Hen Harrier in a crop field he had one a few weeks ago (possibly the same), and we enjoyed pretty close-range views. A few Buzzards and Red Kites were about, a covey of around 5 Grey Partridges were flushed and a female Goshawk flashed along a hedgerow. Not bad – farmland birds and birding is a favourite of mine, and I’ve no doubt where my patch would be if I lived in Sussex.

Afterwards we had a brief look at Waltham Brooks, but the more impressive location was Matt's garden! Here there's an expansive view over the north brooks of Pulborough, and during our short watch we had Snipe, Wigeon and a flock of Fieldfare. He's sure to build a fine garden list and, particularly when the water levels rise, he should be in for some excellent birding here.

Hawfinch, New Barn, 19/11/2017

Largely a non-birding day, though I got out briefly in the morning (finally managing to photograph some Hawfinches, part of a group of at least 5 around New Barn) and again during the afternoon. The latter session was done in glorious wintry sunshine, and I spent some quality time with at least 3 Yellowhammers around Tilsey Farm. This species looks set for another good winter here, which is pleasing – I struggle to think of more than 3 or 4 sites in Surrey where they still breed.

16th-17th and 20th-22nd

I managed a brief vis-mig on Allden’s Hill on the 17th, with 2 Hawfinches standing out among an impressive 82 Redwing and 23 Redpoll. There were 2 Red-crested Pochards on Mill Pond on the 16th, and 1 on the 21st, the latter on the way back from a long trip to Cornwall to connect with American Golden Plover. I’ve barely stuck my head in this week, though another Little Egret at the south end of Mill Pond this morning was a bit of a treat.

The week ahead

I keep stressing that things should be done and dusted, but 2017 continues to suprise, so who knows what’s to come? I’m looking forward to monitoring the Finch/Bunting flock on the Ridge as the weeks go on. Another, similarly sized flock has also taken up residence on the crops on Allden’s Hill, and will be a little harder to study.

Excitingly, Wintershall have given permission for ringing to take place in an area of scrub near the crops on the Ridge, and I’m hoping to commence this with Sam in December. Maybe we’ll conjure up some Twite* or Lapland Bunting-like icing for the 2017 cake!

I drafted this blog on Tuesady - ironically, since then, a Twite was found at Beddington, by David C (of course)!

Tuesday 14 November 2017

8th-14th November

Well, after speculation about it in a couple of previous blog posts, the annual Ring-necked Parakeet early winter dispersal reached Thorncombe Street for another year, with a single bird continuously calling from within Eastwaters on Saturday. It becomes the 121st species recorded here this year, a figure I’m extremely proud of, and despite the fruitfulness of 2017 so far I’ll be astonished if I reach 122 or beyond.

Greylag Geese, Thorncombe Park, 11/11/2017
The weekend

Ring-necked Parakeets remains extremely rare in this part of the county, with the Woking area seemingly their southern breeding limit in Surrey. However, in November and December birds seem to move about a bit, and are often recorded in places they aren’t normally found. Perhaps they’re on the hunt for well-stocked bird tables and gardens, as their regular food sources closer to London diminish? Whatever the case, in the past week birds have been seen in Farnham, Farnborough and, just a short walk to the north of my patch, Wonersh.

There was no doubting the raucous call of this bird on Saturday, as it remained out of sight in the Eastwaters part of Thorncombe Park estate. I’ve only had 2 previous records here, and in total the historic number must be something like 6 or 7. This individual was part of a fine half hour of birding at Mill Pond, which is becoming busier by the day.

An obscured Little Egret, Mill Pond, 11/11/2017
Also present in the drizzle on Saturday afternoon was a preening Little Egret, remaining remarkably hidden in the vegetation at the southern end. Still rare here (this being the 4th of 2017), this species is even more unusual actually on the deck, though the presence of secluded, vegetated ponds and a large heronry in the area may draw more in as the winter sets in. Certainly, this species is back on the River Wey water meadows locally, and I’d seen birds at both the Godalming Lammas Lands and Unstead earlier in the day.

Also of note were two Hawfinches north, and a late Chiffchaff. On Sunday I was restricted to a fairly brief visit in the morning, and checked out New Barn, which has become increasingly quiet as autumn movement ceases. However, I still managed a single Hawfinch – there’s definitely a small flock hanging out there. Later in the day I got some decent gulling in at Selsey, an educational outing which merited its own post.

8th-10th & 13th-14th

I acheived my Water Rail goal last week, with a single bird squealing in Phillimore on the 8th. Hopefully more will move in during the coming weeks. Aside from this pleasing record, Winkworth remains as disappointing as ever, and even the Hawfinches seem to have no interest in the site. The biggest total I managed last week was a group of 4 at New Barn, though a prolonged search there would surely yield many more.

Allden's Hill, 13/11/2017
As usual at this time of year, wildfowl numbers have been increasing on Mill Pond, and the cold temperatures, winds from the north and clear skies over Sunday and Monday seemed to have resulted in a spike. As a result, I’ve spent a good amount of time sifting through the birds here, and the female Red-crested Pochard was seen both today and yesterday. Of the commoner species, Teal is the most notable arrival, with the roost flock now around 16-strong. Interestingly, 2 new Mute Swans were present today, joining the long-staying female (and seemingly seeing off the juvenile).

A surprising result of spending more time at Mill Pond is the regularity of Hawfinches overhead. I’ve had flyover birds each time I’ve been there, and this morning no less than 6 went over. It’s easy to forget how remarkable this influx has been – they are literally everywhere on the patch, and I really hope they hang around and breed next year.

The week ahead 
As mentioned earlier, there's truly nothing else that could semi-predictably add to the year list. Anything new will either be utterly random, or a rarer duck species. Hopefully, with temperatures dropping, the latter could turn up, and with a lot more of a northerly origin in the wind forecast for the next few days then these chances are enhanced.

Mute Swans, Mill Pond, 11/11/2017
Interestingly, one of the hybrid Red-crested Pochard x Mallards was seen in Guildford yesterday – an example of where the roosting Mill Pond ducks spend the day. I’ll certainly be keeping a firm eye on Mill Pond until the year end.

It would be nice to get a couple more Woodcock and Water Rail records for the year, and the Ridge still needs thorough examination as various finches and buntings move in for the winter. However, otherwise there really is a feeling of a successful job done, and I can choose where I bird on the patch based on preference, as oppose to the hope/plan of finding something particular.

Sunday 12 November 2017

12th November

Visiting my parents today, I stopped in at the Hillfield Road car park in Selsey afterwards in order to enjoy some gulling in the fine weather. Not much significant, until a strikingly pale 1st-winter bird caught my eye, resting on the beach. I managed one photo, before it flew off, though fortunately I re-found it further up the shore.
possible Caspian x Herring Gull hybrid, Selsey, 12/11/2017

The paleness of the bird led my mind to Caspian from the off, but a few things left me confident it wasn't one, namely the head/bill structure, the posture of the bird and lack of grey in the mantle and scapulars. 

note the pale underwing and tail pattern
For some time I explored the idea of it being a Yellow-legged Gull, but again, something didn't fit. The scapulars looked promising for this, but again the head structure (and lack of mask) threw more confusion on from the outlet, as well as the general shape of the bird. Ultimately I veered away from Yellow-legged - a lack of wear in the tertials, and moult in the coverts reaffirmed this.

The poor case for Yellow-legged seemed to be emphasised when the gull took off, and the tail band particularly suggested something more Caspian than Yellow-legged. Furthermore, the bird showed very pale underwings, a large inner primary window and even, at times, a seemingly grey-ish mantle!

the pale underwing shows obviously here
I was truly stumped, and it was time to contact some gull gurus. By this point I'd tried to make the bird a very pale Herring, and suggested as much, but opinions varied, most favouring Caspian. However, ultimately the opinion offered by Josh J is what I feel is most likely, and indeed an option I hadn't thought of - a Herring, crossed with some Caspian genes.

This bird was just not full Casp, but had enough features to suggest there was some cachinnans genes in there for sure. It could even be an extreme variant of argentatus Herring, but I personally feel it's a bit of a cross. Whatever the case, a very educational session indeed. Thanks to all who offered opinions, and I'd be extremely grateful to hear from anyone who can offer any more thoughts!
almost grey appearing mantle, and wide primary window

pale head and breast, and dark tertials with thin white 
Most of the large gulls were Herring, though there were a few 1st-winter Lesser Black-backs, as well as a sole 2nd-winter Great Black-backed. A good amount of Black-headed Gulls were also around, as well as a sole, foot-less Mediterranean Gull, that seemed to be suffering no side effects as a result of its unfortunate situation. 

Other birds of note included an extremely confiding flock of Turnstones, several Cormorants offshore, and a single Sanderling.

and a legless Med Gull to finish

Tuesday 7 November 2017

30th October-7th November

The last week of October/first week of November is always the best time to find a Ring Ouzel here. October 31st had produced this species in both 2015 and 2016, and it duly delivered again this year, with a typically elusive male showing a couple of times in a big mixed thrush flock on the edge of Holly Field. It becomes the 120th patch species of 2017 – an ambitious goal I stated at the start of the year – but I was made to sweat a little after this normally reliable autumn visitor seemed to be passing through the county in much lower numbers than usual, no doubt due to the distinct lack of easterlies.

Some of the 2281 Woodpigeons over New Barn on Sunday

The early part of the week saw significant thrush numbers move through the site (200+ Redwing and 100+ Fieldfare on Monday), after what’s been a very poor autumn for them, and I was subsequently delighted to catch up with a Ring Ouzel. The male was glimpsed best in flight, when its pale crescent, and chrome white underwings were seen well. I then managed just a couple of poor views of it deep in the holly bushes that flank the west side of aptly-named Holly Field. Reaching 120 felt like a real milestone - I'll almost certainly not manage that figure again!

As it happened, I surely had another at Slade’s Farm the following day, but despite hearing and (very) briefly seeing a female candidate, I couldn’t be sure. Furthermore, I may have seen the/another male again at Holly Field on the 1st. Aside from the early week thrush numbers midweek was otherwise quiet, though a Hawfinch flew east over the Ridge on the 30th.

Adult Meditterannean Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 4/1/2017
Saturday 4th

As ever these days the weekend brought prolonged opportunities to get out in the field, and I must confess that reaching my goal of 120 had resulted in a little taking of my feet off the gas. With the local forecast wet and grey too, I decided to go north, and catch up with David and the gulls at Beddington.

The trip was well worth it – a thoroughly enjoyable morning was spent sifting through the huge, mainly Herring, gull flock on the North Lake, and we managed to dig out a mighty fine 1st-winter Caspian Gull, which sadly stayed for a lot less longer than we’d have liked. Also present was a single adult Mediterranean Gull, a 1st-winter Yellow Legged Gull and a handful of Great and Lesser Black-backs. Other birds of note included Cetti’s Warbler, Water Rail, Chiffchaff and Snipe.

I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by gulls during the past few months. I still find some ages/species extremely challenging, and have booked a long weekend on the Irish west coast to practice, which offers the enhanced hope of finding something unusual. In patch terms gulls are scarce, certainly on the deck – only the wintering flock of Common Gulls can be considered regular, and they have begun to return in dribs and drabs as winter approaches.

Saturday night was spent watching the various local fireworks from a high point on the patch. At least 8 Tawny Owls were calling, a few Redwing flew over and, most surprisingly, a Mandarin was heard overhead. Migrating, or spooked from a roost site nearby by the cacophony of noise?

Sunday 5th
Red-legged Partridges (not making their lives any easier)
Thorncombe Street, 1/11/2017

I spent Sunday morning vis-migging at New Barn, but aside from an impressive, early spurt of 2,281 Woodpigeons, there wasn’t much else to shout about. Autumn movement is clearly winding down, though a Brambling and Skylark were good value, and of course the Hawfinch-fest will never cease to please – at least 6 feeding in the area around New Barn and Juniper Hill, and another was seen later over Wintershall.

The week ahead

The weather looks uninspiring, and it seems autumn will go out without a bang. Saying that, October has been very good to me here, and I’ll be lucky to add anything new to the year list. A flyover Parakeet remains a possibility at any time really, but otherwise any addition will likely be random.

After the big passage counts of September/October, wildfowl numbers should steadily climb again on Mill Pond as birds wintering here settle in for the months ahead. However, numbers are currently very low, and the mild temperatures and continued westerlies will likely keep figures down for the moment. There is, however, the very outside chance of a more northern breeding species (Goosander, Goldeneye etc) stopping by on one of the water bodies on its way elsewhere from now until early December.

Slade's Farm and beyond, 30/11/217
Common Gull numbers will increase on a daily basis – maybe after the winds this autumn it’ll finally be the winter I find a Ring-billed Gull among them! Woodcocks should be returning, and it’s now worth keeping an eye out for them, particularly on clear, pre-dawn drives through the west and south sections of site.

I’ll have two main objectives in the coming week though. Firstly, to try and confirm Water Rails as back at Winkworth – this species is seemingly declining as a winter visitor here (just 4 records this year), no doubt due to the continued negligence of the only habitat they use (Phillimore). The other task will be to sift through the growing finch/bunting flock on the Ridge, for something special.

Sunday 29 October 2017

24th-29th October

Another thoroughly enjoyable weekend on patch, with the doubtless highlight a flock of 25 (at least) Brent Geese flying south-west pre-dawn this morning. With the winds finally coming from a more northerly direction, migration has probably peaked here over the last few days, with huge numbers of commoner species recorded on the move. Given the addition of some tidy birds on the deck, and the continued Hawfinch free-for-all, this weekend goes down as one of the best of 2017 so far.
Redwing, Slade's Farm, 29/10/2017

Sunday 29th

I was in position at New Barn before sunrise, and what was nearly the first scan of the skies revealed a flock of geese flying about mid-distance between myself and Winterfold at 06:38. The birds weren't travelling at a great height, and their diminutive size, stocky shape and all-black appearance suggested Brent Geese.

As they moved south-west, part of the group moved into a V-shape, and as the sun peeked through the extensive cloud the white back-ends of the flock showed nicely. They continued at quite a rate, lost after around 3 minutes, and it certainly seemed like they'd gone straight through the 'gap' between my patch and Winterfold and beyond. Quite a sight, and the second record of Brent Goose here, after 3 flew south in February 2015.

After this explosive start, the rest of the watch was slightly underwhelming, though still mixed and enjoyable. The next best birds were probably 3 Hawfinches that went over, followed by a 1st-winter Great Black-backed Gull that flew south. Redpoll (32) and thrush (200+ from 4 spp.) numbers were notable, and over 1000 Woodpigeons went south or east.

Woodpigeons, Ridge, 28/10/2017
Elsewhere, a rummage around the paddock at Slade's Farm revealed plenty more thrushes (many being spooked by a male Sparrowhawk), 2 more Hawfinches over Raggetts and, slightly further down the road, at flock of at least 17 Greenfinches on Sunflower Strip.

Saturday 28th

A day that will go down in the patch history books for Woodpigeon numbers. Throughout the day, a whopping 7,641 went over, including an astonishing 5,365 in an hour (!) over Juniper Hill and 1,863 over the Ridge in 80 minutes. A true spectacle, and a comfortable record count for here - the Juniper Hill hour was simply captivating at times.

A very foggy start delayed my arrival at the Ridge, and I instead took in (with ears only) 2 Hawfinches at Winkworth. When I did ascend, I found the crops on the top packed with birds, mainly finches, including half a dozen Redpoll, 10+ Reed Buntings, at least 4 Brambling and a few Yellowhammer.

Greenfinches, Sunflower Strip, 29/10/2017
Despite the fog, birds were on the move, and forced down as a result. The consequence was parties of Starlings going through at shoulder height, and a pronounced north-west movement of this species ended with 415 tallied in 80 minutes. My personal best here, but far off the 1,000+ at Winkworth in 1994.

My first Fieldfares of the autumn finally came through, and 4 more Hawfinches went over, but neither were the best Ridge birds of the morning. That award is probably best shared between a delightfully showy female Stonechat, that was feeding along the crop and hedgerow edges, and a single flock of 12 Yellowhammers going north-west. The former are rare here - just 5 records in the past 4 years, and the latter moving in a group that size not something I'd seen before.

Other notable birds recorded were 7 other Hawfinches (1 at Slade's, 2 at Leg-of-Mutton Copse and 4 over Juniper Hill), a Kingfisher at Mill Pond and late Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs.


Restricted to fairly brief, pre-work vis-mig watches from Allden's Hill. 7 Hawfinches were recorded over 4 days, a late House Martin went east on the 23rd, and there were 2 flyover records of both Brambling and Skylark. A high-flying Great Spotted Woodpecker on the 27th was also of note.
Female Stonechat, Ridge, 28/10/2017

Week ahead

Autumn will slowly wind down here, though an extra hour of light in the morning is most welcome for me, and the mixed winds forecast could prove interesting. We're definitely into optimum Ring Ouzel time now, despite the lack of easterlies this autumn - in the previous 2 years the period of October 31st to November 5th has produced 5 bird days, and I'll be disappointed if I don't connect with this species in 2017.

Interestingly, early November seems to be a decent time for Rose-ringed Parakeet movements in/into this part of Surrey, where they are absolutely still rare. Indeed, any unusual flyover (Woodlark, Snipe etc) could still be attainable.