Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Sunday 24 September 2017

18th-25th September

We're in the depths of September. For the birding community, the narratives are firmly about rarities, weather fronts and migration. Winds from the east, and Siberian jewels are on the menu. Gales from the west, and lost Americans are there to be found. Back-of-camera shots with expletives and exclamation marks fill up the timeline more than ever, and it's very easy to grab your board and jump on the wave of anticipation.

No decent bird pictures this week, so atmospheric
landscapes will have to do!
During these times, I've been guilty of forgetting I'm an inland birder (and a dry inland one at that), and that my chances of finding something rare really are quite slim. Every morning bushes are stalked, skies squinted into, in the anticipation that some lost waif is waiting to be found. The sad realty is that, in leafy Surrey, it's as much luck as judgement.

For the past few weeks I've hit the patch daily, sometimes twice, and while holding down a pretty busy full-time job, as well as other commitments, it can sometimes feel ever so slightly like a strain. The first problem one encounters when trying to unearth something special is the geographic location of Surrey - it's landlocked. This obviously is the main restrictive factor. However, I believe Surrey suffers from an additional geographical problem, particularly in the autumn.

When species are moving south, it's going to take a lot for rarity to end up in Surrey. Regardless of where they've come from, the north, east or west coast is always likely to be the first destination. Surrey is not going to be a place an east or west originating bird is likely to pitch up, and surely not many grounded birds, waiting for blocking winds to pass, will wait here. It's interesting to note that most (possibly all?) autumn Red-breasted Flycatcher records in Surrey have come in November - fairly late in the season - and perhaps because it takes longer for lost passerines to penetrate inland.

I've mentioned before to birding friends that I actually feel like spring and early summer is a better time to find something interesting in Surrey. Given it's southerly location within the UK, it's not as much of an unlikeliness for overshooting birds to find themselves here. Indeed, if they're pushed or carried just a little inland from the south coast, Surrey is a reasonable destination. I guess I'm basing a lot of this on my own experience on patch - autumns are generally less interesting than spring.
Junction Field, not long after dawn, 21/9/2017

Going on my hours put in so far, September hasn't provided too much. August was fantastic, and September always had big boots to fill in that sense, but I'm a little disappointed with just 1 year tick so far this month. Thankfully though, if finding unusual birds is what gets me going most, then it's closely followed by (or maybe even on a par with) watching migration in action. In this respect September has certainly delivered.

After the Meadow Pipit madness last weekend, numbers dropped off, though small groups have still been flying through each day. The past week was really all about the colossal hirundine migration in the south-east - at Sandwich Bay 110,000 (!) House Martins and 47,000 Swallows flew through on the 20th - and the following day Surrey had its share. Over 10,000 of both species were recorded at Canons Farm, and I managed 829 Swallows and 355 House Martins in an hour or so before work.

Also on the 20th, the first Yellowhammer of the season flew over New Barn, and some commoner species began to increase. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, certainly, have arrived in recently, and it won't be long until the first Redwing flies over. During the back half of the week, Goldcrests numbers rose, along with those of Robins and, overhead, Woodpigeons and Stock Doves.

On the Ridge, the first few Reed Buntings are back on the crops, somewhat early, and I've already enjoyed sifting through them for something special. At Mill Pond and Winkworth there seemed to be an increase in Mallards, many of them very nervous - maybe these have come from Russia for the winter.

Thankfully, these regular species and their movements, in sync with the shifting of the seasons, will always give me joy and encouragement when out on the patch. Noticing these subtle changes help fuel the hope that something special is yet to come, and keep me going when there again is no Wryneck in that scrubby meadow, still no Red-backed Shrike on that blackthorn, and no Yellow-browed Warbler to be found in that sycamore.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

The One That Got Away, volume 3 - no.3

3. 1st October 2015, 11:10

It’s factors outside the patch that place this entry in 3rd. I’ve been lucky enough to savour 5 Harrier sightings, from 3 different species, over the area during the past few years. As a result an unidentified one, whilst frustrating, shouldn’t annoy for too long, as I'm lucky enough to have previous encounters. With this bird however, it’s not the case.

The juvenile Pallid Harrier that spent time at the Burgh,
West Sussex, in autumn 2015 (Surfbirds).
Matt P and I were ending a fairly lively vis-mig session on a crisp autumn morning, and had seen 4 bird of prey species, including a late Hobby. A handful of hirundines and Meadow Pipts had flown through. On our descent from the Ridge we picked up a raptor, clearly a rather slender Harrier, moving low and slowly south. Both getting bins on the bird we ruled out Marsh, and given the time of year Montagu’s could also be considered fairly unlikely an option, with the flight not fitting this species either. However, looking straight into the sun, we managed to get no details on it, and could only watch a Harrier silhouette drift out of view.

The record came at a time when a juvenile Pallid Harrier was present for several weeks at the Burgh, an area of farmland in Sussex no less than 20 miles (as the Crow, or Harrier, flies) in straight line to the south of Thorncombe Street. During its stay that Pallid Harrier became famously hard to see, often taking hours to be found. Perhaps on this sunny October day, it wandered north up the Arun, and took a liking to here, as many raptors have done before, dropping down for a nose around. What a record that would have been. 

Of course, it could well have been a Hen Harrier, and indeed I saw a ringtail over the Ridge just over 2 weeks later. That record itself came the same day Robin S had one over Winterfold, though it's thought the birds were separate individuals. In a funny turn of events, Matt and I had another unidentified harrier over the Ridge on the 24th.

As things stand, 2017 will be the first Harrier-less year at Thorncombe Street since 2014.

Monday 18 September 2017

11th-18th September

The last few days have produced an enjoyable variety of birds, as autumn begins to move into first gear. After Storm Aileen during the week, the weekend weather switched to what are traditionally optimum vis-mig conditions here, and indeed a gentle north-west with clear skies on Saturday generated big numbers of movers.
Allden's Hill, 16/9/2017

It started on Allden's Hill with Meadow Pipits obviously moving overhead as I pitched up at 07:10. It turned out to be a remarkable day for this species - by the end of it I tallied 378, a huge figure for here, and over triple my previous record of 115. Interestingly, lots of the groups were moving high north-west, into the wind, though at least 30-40% were travelling high south. The Allden's Hill vigil lasted until 09:00, during which time 174 were counted.

Later in the day a flock of at least 50 dropped into the long grass at Hive Field, during a spell of showers that also saw more than 150 hirundines (primarily House Martins) fly south over Tilsey Farm. Until that point Swallows had been the main hirundine movers, with 124 going south during the earlier Allden's Hill watch. The final tally of Swallows for the day was 213, and House Martins 143.

The other large Meadow Pipit flock that were on the deck was at Bonhurst Farm. This group was well over 60 strong, and feeding in the livestock fields and adjacent grass meadows, but by my second visit in the afternoon they'd all gone. Presumably, these birds had dropped down on their way south for a short-while, or perhaps they'd pitched up here the previous evening and fed up before departing.

Whinchat, Bonhurst Farm, 16/9/2017
Whatever the case, they weren't the only ones to use Bonhurst as a pit-stop, with 3 Yellow Wagtails, 1 Whinchat and plenty of Hirundines also present. I've never seen this farm so lively and attractive to migrants before - the Surrey Wildlife Trust have already made improvements to the site, and it bodes well for the future. Elsewhere, a couple of Siskins and a Hobby moved through, and there seemed to be a slight increase in Blackbirds and Song Thrushes - probably a sign of things to come.

The winds on Sunday were the same, but conditions very different, with mist and drizzle throughout. Good for grounded bits I thought, but in practice little to see, though a Barn Owl flushed from the willow scrub opposite New Barn Pond was a very welcome illumination on this gloomy morning.

As I was visiting my parents in the afternoon I figured it’d be rude to not stop by Pagham Harbour, and it was well worthwhile, with 16 wader species, including Spotted Redshanks and a Curlew Sandpiper, and a juvenile Turtle Dove among the highlights. This area is probably my favourite place to bird after the patch, bringing back memories of childhood, as well as the perennial belief you could find something nice, no matter what time of year.

Grey Phalarope, Hayling Island, 17/9/2017
On the way back, we briefly visited Hayling Island, and enjoyed good views of the Grey Phalarope which had been present on the flood adjacent to the oyster beds since Storm Aileen. I somewhat ambitiously searched all the patch ponds for a lost seabird following Aileen's visit last week, and even scoured the wider area, including the reservoir at my old stomping ground Tuelsey Farm. Alas, nothing to be found, though the latter site did produce a Common Sandpiper and Kingfisher.

Weather-wise, there’s more to come, and it seems the weekend and beyond hold a great amount of potential. With a hurricane to the west and easterlies, originating over Siberia and converging on Britain, occurring in tandem, I doubt I’m the only birder licking their lips in anticipation. A beast from the east this autumn would be the perfect icing on a remarkable 2017 cake - indeed, a trip to Norfolk today yielded a mighty one, in the shape of Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, just six days after I scored yank gold with a Least Sandpiper at Lodmoor, Dorset.

Sunday 10 September 2017

4th-10th September

Early September always tends to be productive here and this year has been no exception, with migrant action in full swing over the weekend. Yesterday, a dawn vis-mig session on the Ridge didn't yield massive numbers, but 3 Yellow Wagtails, the first couple of Meadow Pipits of the autumn and a trickle of House Martins flew over.
Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 6/9/2017

House Martins were seen moving through different parts of the site during the morning, with 102 the final total. On the ground things remained fairly quiet, but I returned for a quick check after the heavy showers that took place during the afternoon, and was rewarded with a Spotted Flycatcher near the disabled car park at Winkworth, and a Garden Warbler in the paddock at Slade's Farm. The latter is a new latest record for the species.

Despite the deluge yesterday, last night was relatively clear, and with a few hours of sunshine and gentle wind in the morning it seemed a good window for birds to get on the move. This proved to be the case, and as I got in the car this morning 2 Yellow Wagtails flew over my flat, a good sign. I didn't actually manage any of these (which are probably my favourite vis-mig species to encounter) on the patch, but I was still treated to big numbers and a great variety.

On the deck it seemed a fall of warblers had occurred, particularly so Blackcaps, with 25+ noted. A thorough bash of the bushes and gardens around Slade's/Raggett's didn't produce the hoped for Redstart, but a Spotted Flycatcher was good compensation. A singing Willow Warbler in the chicory crop on the Ridge was a bit of a surprise, and the second Reed Bunting of the autumn was also here, with the big Linnet and Goldfinch flock.

A steady southbound movement of Meadow Pipits was in evidence, and this was noted throughout the rest of the area. Most groups were around 6 or 7, and the final total for the day was 108 - an excellent count for here, and just 7 off the previous record, which came in March 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the Mipit numbers a Tree Pipit also flew through, with a heard-only individual moving south over New Barn at 09:23, the third record of the year.
Common Buzzard, Ridge, 9/9/2017

All pretty good going, but none of the above was the most notable activity today, with the House Martin passage at times spectacular. Getting ahead of the forecast rain and wind huge feeding masses were present, most notably at New Barn where at least 120 were hawking, all slowly disappearing south. The final total was 366, though there was probably more than that. 72 Swallows were also recorded moving through the area.

Other odds and sods heading south included a couple of Siskins, and a 2nd-winter Great Black-backed Gull, which flew fairly low through New Barn. I have never vis-migged here but I probably should - the number of Pipits and Hirundines here today were very impressive, and this funnel like area, directly above my speculated Hascombe Gap, has produced Kittiwake and Cattle Egret previously. An afternoon visit here produced 3 1st-winter Herring Gulls, all going north.

Midweek was fairly quiet. I checked the paddock at Slade's daily, with little reward. However, a Wheatear showed nicely at Bonhurst Farm on the 6th (the third of the year, and first of the autumn), Firecrests were recorded on a couple of days, and a site record 11 Gadwall were present at Mill Pond on the 9th. Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants are more conspicuous than ever following recent releases. Today, one flock of 150+ of the former were on Allden's Hill, helping make up a ridiculous record day total of 180.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Surrey White Stork Reintroduction Project

It certainly came as a surprise when I heard the news a few months ago, but the Wintershall Estate, on my patch in the Thorncombe Street area, are becoming part of a White Stork reintroduction scheme. The birds are due by the end of this month, following the release of Storks at the Knepp Estate in Sussex in the summer, with approximately 20 set to arrive.
White Stork at Bialowieza, Poland, earlier this year
The movement to bring back this charismatic species, perhaps unsurprisingly, hasn’t gained large-scale acclaim. Like most birders, when I first heard the news I was sceptical. I had no relations with Wintershall, which takes up a lot of my recording area, and is predominately a shooting estate, with small-scale farming and a wedding venue also in operation.
It seems the biggest question is, when there are so many other, native species in decline, why is reintroducing a bird that’s common on the continent a priority? Surely this species could and may colonise naturally in time, anyway? Is it just a big, engaging species, that can draw the public in? These were some of the questions I had when the Hutley family, who own Wintershall, reached out to me for discussions about the Storks.
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t sure about the motives the estate had for this project, but I’m delighted to say that it’s absolutely no publicity stunt, or commercial gimmick, and in fact stems from a deep-rooted desire to reconnect with nature. I’ve now had several meetings with Nick Hutley, and he won’t mind me saying that, initially, they were unsure about the best way to approach the situation. I explained the negative view birders had about this scheme, and it soon became apparent he wasn’t just wanting to dump a load of Storks in a field, but manage areas of his land for natures benefit.
In time, I drew up a list of priority species, and various ways to either keep or attract them. The Storks enclosure is being created currently, and has multiple species in mind – it’s hoped they will be part of a small wetland habitat, in effect a mini nature reserve, a move that alone shows a commitment to the wider wildlife. A reedbed, scrapes and wet meadow are hoped to be included.
White Stork at Knepp Estate, Sussex
(Martin's Sussex Birding Blog)
We’ve also earmarked several pockets of land which are hoped to be turned into ‘wild’ areas, with species like Turtle Dove and Nightingale hoped to be the beneficiaries. Furthermore, the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that live on Wintershall land are going to be given as much help as possible. Nick has also given the greenlight for ringers to set up nets on his land, which is something I hope begins this autumn.
The Storks arriving hail from Poland, and similar schemes in the Netherlands, France and Belgium have been undertaken in recent years. Young White Storks are usually faithful to their natal site, and depend on an established colony for successful breeding, so these programmes use captive birds to seed initial colonies. Thus, the Wintershall birds will be protected by electric fencing, and will have their wings clipped.
The Stork enclosure is not going to be open to the public. The site is pretty secluded, and visits will be possible on request. Details on this will become clearer in time. It’s hoped that the wetland will attract other species, but this remains to be seen. It is of course, an experiment. The long-term goal is a patchwork of habitats dedicated to nature, with free-winged Storks breeding naturally in the surrounding area. The short-term goal is to provide a comfortable home for the Storks, in an area created and dedicated to other wetland wildlife, in particular birds.
White Stork reintroduction shouldn’t be a priority for conservationists. There are plenty of more pressing matters and species. However, in this day in age, particularly on a shooting estate, if the landowner wants to give parts of their land to nature, and try to reconnect with wildlife, then I personally can only see it as a positive thing.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

The One That Got Away, Volume 2 - no.4

4. 30th August 2016, 08:30

This entry at number 4 came at a similar time of year to now, on a warm, early autumn day. My first port of call was Slade’s Farm, before heading up to the Ridge, and as ever I planned on checking the paddock first for any migrants.

As I approached the gate, a Thrush-sized, brown bird took off from the long grass just a couple of feet in front of me. I watched it’s undulating flight, fairly low over the paddock, before it dived into the bottom of the hedgerow. The colour, size, flight and behaviour all pointed to one species – a Wryneck!
The sighting caught me off guard somewhat, and I saw no features of the bird. I could only stick it out, and hope the individual reappeared. After about an hour of no-show, with things to do, I had no choice but to give up, and of course I didn’t see the bird again. It could have been a Song Thrush, perhaps, but I remain pretty confident it was a Wryneck.
That day, an unusually high number of Wrynecks were reported across the country, many of them on the south coast, including some in Sussex. This further added to my frustration, and after work I checked the paddock once more, and again found nothing.

There was immediate compensation that day though – a female Wheatear in the next field along from the paddock was pleasing, but it was a juvenile Marsh Harrier over Allden’s Hill that really made it easier to forget the probable Wryneck.

Monday 4 September 2017

March 2017 Morocco Trip Report

A trip report for my brief, rather last minute trip to Morocco (south of Marrakech), is now up on Cloudbirders. It can be found directly here, or via my Western Palearctic trip reports page here.

Hoopoe-lark, Tagdilt Track, 31/3/2017
Given the short nature of the trip, and the fact I plan on visiting Morocco several times in the future, we focused our time on the Atlas Mountains, Tagdilt Track and on connecting with a long-staying Pied Crow in Mhamid.

The trip was excellent, and in this beautiful country a load of fine birds (as well as the crow) were seen - African Crimson-winged Finch, Hoopoe-lark, Pharoah Eagle Owl, Fulvous Babbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Maghreb Wheatear, Seebohm’s Wheatear, Maghreb Lark and Moussier’s Redstart being just some examples!

Sunday 3 September 2017

29th August - 3rd September

Another week with limited time on the patch, though a post-work trip on Friday really proved to be a good decision, as I found 2 Whinchats on the fences at Slade's Farm. This species is weirdly scarce here, and these birds were only my second on patch, the last coming on 3rd September 2015.
Hobbies, Ridge, 2/9/2017

This put me in a mood of anticipation ahead of the weekend, and with clear skies and a light north-westerly I was on the Ridge at dawn on Saturday in hope of a decent vis-mig session. It didn't work out that way, alas, though a single Tree Pipit south-east at 06:58 made the early start worthwhile. It seemed the weather was almost too good, with many hirundines clearly passing very high overhead.

The rest of the day was quiet, with passerine numbers remaining low. A few Alba Wagtails going over was of note (perhaps some were White?), and 2 Spotted Flycatchers at Phillimore Cottage may be the last of the year. Today was also uneventful, bar a few pushes of hirundines. The rain in the afternoon may have dropped some bits down (a Pied Flycatcher turned up at Canons Farm not long after the wet stuff arrived), but I'll have to wait until tomorrow to see if I've anything of note here.

My afternoon today instead was spent at Cuckmere Haven, in East Sussex, where I connected with a very neat and tidy juvenile Baird's Sandpiper. This American wader showed pretty well on the muddy shore of the Cuckmere River, allowing a good study of its plumage, which really stood out as a 'three-piece'. The face and breast were very buff, more so than on a juvenile Dunlin, and the scaly back and clean white underparts contrasted well with this.
Juvenile Baird's Sandpiper, Cuckmere Haven, 3/9/2017

The pale spot just aboves the lores could be seen, though I wa susprised at the extent of the supercilium on this particular individual. It wasn't bothered by regular canoes going past, and a fair sized crowed was present. Also here was a Whinchat, a few Yellow Wagtails, 4 Little Egrets and a Wheatear.