Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


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.

Monday, 23 October 2017

17th-23rd October

I wasn’t too sure what Storm Brian (or Brianstorm to those who have a great taste in bands) would mean for the patch. Ultimately it didn’t really change the anticipated flow of vis-mig species, though there was definitely some gull movement as a result – 36 Common were the first of the season (and an exceptional number to actually move through here), and a 1st-winter Great Black-backed was just the fifth of 2017.

Woodpigeons over New Barn, 22/10/2017
Despite the WSW gusts reaching up to 15mph passerines seemed not bothered, with many firing through south or east. Remarkably, some moved into the wind – it’s always incredible to watch such tiny things do so. Finches were the order of both days, with Hawfinches continuing to pass through. Saturday yielded just one, but on Sunday 6 (including a single flock of 5) went over, and later on there was another over going west Allden’s Hill.

Redpoll numbers were notable with 26 over on Sunday, and single Bramblings were recorded on both days. A remarkably late Swallow moved south yesterday, along with 3 House Martins, and there was a steady flow of the 2 common Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. 5 Skylarks over Allden’s Hill was a good count for here.

Standout singular birds included a Peregrine south over Allden’s Hill on Sunday (4th of 2017), and on Saturday a Lapwing north-west (5th of 2017) and Feral Pigeon high south (rare here, even more so on vis-mig!). The first prolonged Woodpigeon roving of the season took place about 45 minutes into Sundays watch, with 464 the final total. With the westerly winds that have dominated this autumn, Thrush numbers remain low – still no Fieldfare, and less than 200 Redwing over both watches.

A view from New Barn - Leith Hill is on the horizon
Despite the activity in the skies, the best bird came on the deck, on Saturday. Having already watched 12 Mipits go over, my attention was drawn to a group of about 20 birds that were flushed up by a game-keepers buggy from Hive Field. They seemed to settle somewhere near New Barn, but slowly headed back a few minutes later, in dribs and drabs.

At around 08:30, I heard a different Pipit call, being uttered singularly, and I watched one bird drop back into Hive. It sounded wet and squeaky, not as sharp as Mipit and heavier, and it immediately began to recall Water. I headed down for a look, and as soon as I walked (more waded) into Hive I put up about 10 Mipits. They settled a few feet away, and this cat and mouse continued for about 5 minutes, when I flushed up a much larger group of at least 20 birds.

This time it was easy to pick the odd one out - a clearly paler individual, with what seemed bright white underparts. Several times the flock would go up, and what I now was sure was a Water Pipit would call and fly first, always landing out of view. I eventually managed to track its flight until landing, and enjoyed confirmatory views of the pale, less densely streaked, and even Song Thrush recalling bird, with an obvious supercilium.

Pipit sp., Hive Field, 21/10/2017
Inevitably the birds took off when I approached again, but I seemed to pick up the Water Pipit, facing me. In the scramble to take photos, the light emphasising the white breast and prominent super, I was led believe I was looking at the Wipit. However, upon studying the photos (which were all crap), I'm now not sure I got pictures of it - the streaking (particularly on the flanks) in the photo to the right look somewhat Mipit-esque. The strong supercilium is clear, and the bird does look pale (particularly in contrast to the olive glow of the numerous Mipits in the morning sun) and less streaked on top, but ultimately I'm not convinced I photographed the right bird. Opinions are very welcome.

Anyway, there was definitely a Water Pipit in the flock, which were enjoying the extremely damp and boggy condition Hive Field is now in (even looks appealing for Snipe). This lot were clearly on the move - the next morning, there were zero Pipits in Hive at all. All in all though it was a very pleasing find - just the second Wipit here, after one on March 30th 2015. I wonder if autumn has anything else up it's sleeve?

Away from patch, a midweek dash with Sam to Dorset delivered my second mega warbler there in as many months - a Two-barred Greenish Warbler at Winspit Valley.

Monday, 16 October 2017

10th-16th October

Surrey is rarely in the national birding limelight but the recent irruption of Hawfinches into the UK has, perhaps unsurprisingly, thrust the most heavily wooded county in Britain onto centre-stage. Sensationally, 65 individuals from 9 different sites were recorded in the vice-county yesterday, including 23 over Capel and 15 over St Catherine’s Hill.

Hawfinch, taken in Białowieża, Poland, earlier this year
These types of irruptions are now doubt in some measure cyclical, but I can’t personally recall one in my time birding. Either the species had an unusually good breeding season, or there’s been a problem with their autumn/winter food supply – likely the latter, and these are probably birds from the east (i.e Poland, where they were one of the most numerous passerines when I visited in April), being pushed west as they move around seeking food.

Either way, to end up slightly disappointed at ‘only’ having 3 yesterday (all over New Barn, my new favourite vis-mig site) is demonstrative of the crazy numbers occurring that morning (40 over Hampstead Heath!), as well as the wondrous experience I’d enjoyed with the species the day before.

Arriving at Winkworth at first light on Saturday, there’d been little of note, until I heard two Hawfinches fly over the footpath that runs adjacent to Rowe’s Flashe. That was enough to make the day, so when I headed to Badger’s Bowl I wasn’t even contemplating any more. However, quickly another bird flew over, offering its typical flight-call (like a high-pitch sneeze), and then another, this time low before dropping into the trees in the upper arboretum.

Then, best of all, a flock of 6 irrupted out of one of the acers, followed shortly after by another. During the next 20 minutes or so at least 4 Hawfinches flew over in various directions. It was hard to know which birds were different, but there were definitely at least 13 individuals in the arboretum. Realistically, there were many more, and I assume these were on the move (possibly roosting in the acer overnight), and stocking up on the various berries and seeds around Winkworth. I had 2 more over New Barn later on.

Tenebrosus type Pheasant at New Barn, 15/10. A small
population of these variations resides here.
Both weekend mornings offered some tidy vis-mig, including increased Thrush numbers, notable alba and Grey Wagtails south as well as likely the last House Martins of the year. Most prominent though were finches – it’s entering peak time, and both Chaffinches and Goldfinches were passing over on both mornings in numbers. This morning, on Allden’s Hill, I enjoyed my first Bramblings of both the autumn and the year, as two individuals buzzed south. As well as being the earliest ever record here, they also brought my year list to 118, breaking the previous record of 117 in the process! Happy days.

The patch offers a dynamic habitat for Finches. There are plenty of unmanaged hedgerows and copses – perfect for Bullfinches, which are notably common, and I feel like I see more here than anywhere else in the county. The farmland element is, albeit patchy, prominent – scrubby meadows, numerous sacrificial crops and even some gorse mean Goldfinch and Linnets are probably the 2nd and 3rd commonest species respectively. Add in plenty of damp wood for winter Siskins and Redpolls, and even tracts of coniferous woodland for Crossbills, then you have a very decent mosaic. 

Brambling and Hawfinch are annually recorded (the former even locally common in some years) and, thus, 10 finch species are regular here in a year, with 11 having been seen in total in 2017 (including Common Rosefinch!). Indeed, in a good winter, you can stand on the Ridge and clock up 8 finch species easily. I wonder if, in 20 years’ time, Serin will have moved in?

Finally, a trip to Oare Marshes - my first there of the year - added Wilson's Phalarope to my life list.

Monday, 9 October 2017

5th-9th October

After a painfully quiet few weeks the patch returned to form in style this weekend, with a long overdue year tick and an excellent, varied autumnal vis-mig session making for a memorable couple of days. The year tick – number 117 for 2017 – came on Saturday when a Hawfinch flew west over the New Barn footpath.

Meadow Pipit, Bonhurst Farm, 5/10/2017. A nice,
easy Pipit.
The individual was calling, and seemed to land somewhere on Juniper Hill, so I guess it wasn’t a total surprise to hear another/the same bird over Nore Hanger the following morning. Nationally there were a few recorded over the weekend, and interestingly Wes has had 2 in 3 days at Capel – maybe there’s a slight Scandinavian influx this winter. Alternatively, the habitat here and indeed in this part of Surrey is good for Hawfinch, so there’s little reason why these wouldn’t be local birds.

Hawfinches are rare visitors here, and on Sunday morning it was clear plenty of birds were moving (largely) south-east. I finally got my first Redwings of the autumn (10 in total), as well the Hawfinch, and an enjoyable mix of other species. My main watch was at New Barn, and the totals in an hour and a half were 5 Lesser Redpolls, 28 Siskins, 3 Grey Wagtails, 3 House Martins, 2 Yellowhammers, 56 Meadow Pipits, 16 Herring Gulls, 44 Woodpigeons, 48 Chaffinches and 2 Pied Wagtails.

Despite all the above, the standout moment of the weekend was something else. In fact, I’ve struggled to get it out of my head since it happened. At 07:53 on the Sunday, whilst walking the New Barn path to my watchpoint, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a very unusual Pipit call. It was clearly not a Mipit, and was a sound that didn’t instantly connect with anything in my mind, causing slight panic mode.

I struggle with separating the less common Pipit calls, but Meadow and Tree I easily pick out. This call simply didn’t come close to matching anything I could think of, including Water/Rock (I find these 2, and Meadow, very similar) and Richard’s, as well as the regular 2 species over here. It was drawn out, clean sounding and, most notably at the time, very unfamiliar.

Allden's Hill at dawn, 08/10/2017
The bird called maybe 3 or 4 times, and was going fairly low over our heads – my girlfriend got on it before I did. For whatever reason (probably because there was lots of action going on), I didn’t even register that it could be something rarer, and began to try and make it a somewhat late Tree Pipit. When I heard it, I didn’t think Tree at all, but as the minutes went by after the event I was calmly telling myself it must have been one. However, surely I would have instantly said Tree if it was one?

I called the boys up the Tower, and had a chat with Wes who, based on my description, suggested Red-throated. However, I still tried to dismiss a rarer option, convincing myself it was Tree. I hadn’t had one over for about a month, maybe I was just out of tune? I played Tree on my phone, and at that point became very uncertain. However, because of the activity in the skies, I put the bird somewhat to the back of my mind.

Back home and over breakfast, I went through a few Pipit calls, and I nearly spluttered my coffee out when I played Red-throated. That, surely was what we heard! My girlfriend remains adamant that Red-throated is the call she heard and, in her words, the sound was “longer, clearer, less buzzy and a little piercing”. As time has gone on, and I’ve recalled the moment and listened to calls countless times, I’m honestly left feeling that it was probably a Red-throated Pipit, and I’ve tried to summarise why below:

- The call was something totally unfamiliar to me - I like to think I'm good with flyover bird calls, and this instantly threw me.

- If it was Tree, which I tried to make it, then there'd have been no confusion and I'd have called it from the off.

- Red-throated don't sound like Tree Pipit's really, certainly to the trained ear, and what I heard didn't really sound like a Tree Pipit.

My only frustration is that I didn’t play Red-throated at the time, or even after Wes suggested it. If I had, with the sound I heard fresher in my mind, I may have been able to make more of a connection. It might seem crazy, but for me that bird was a possible/probable Red-throated.

Topographic map of south-east England
Anyway, one that got away, but a glorious, mystical and totally uplifting one. The fact a Red-throated Pipit even maybe flew over shows not just the reason to keep on patching during the slog spells, but also the immense flyway potential of my patch – I would love for more birders to give it a go here.

I’ll blog in more detail about this soon (though it’s essentially a deeper examination of the Hascombe Gap theory), but look at the picture to above and to the right. The High Weald ridge stretches from south-central Hampshire (near Waterlooville) to the north Kent coast (near Gillingham). There’s one obvious gap, marked by the black mark (the River Mole at Mickleham is also a notable gap, though not as expansive). Prominent avian access/departure points Climping, Beachy Head and Dungeness are marked red.
Topographic map of Surrey

Now examine this closer, clearer topographic map. The prominent gap in the vast High Weald is again (roughly) shown by the black mark. This gap, with the Arun flowing up to just beneath it, and the Wey flowing to just above it, is surely very appealing to migratory birds. That black mark? My patch!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

26th September - 4th October

A slight gap in blog posts, mainly because it’s been so quiet. Desperately quiet. It’s the peak of what’s considered the busiest time in the British birding calendar, and I’m currently on my longest gap without a year tick in 2017! It’s not about the lack of year ticks though - that isn't really frustrating. It’s about the grim pace of things, particularly the past fortnight. Next to no signs of visible migration, either in the skies or on the deck, and a discouraging number of birds.

Only this week, in response to this poor run, have I slightly taken my foot off the gas, but I’ve still been a couple of times. Clear skies and a gentle north-west wind on Tuesday morning seemed promising, but aside from a few Chaffinches on the deck, there was nothing new. Anyway, I’ll keep plugging away, despite the seemingly endless forecast of westerlies. The Thrushes will have to arrive at some point…

Green circle marks the spot - the private pond
where a Bittern was seen in 1996
Going back to August (oh productive August, with its 5 year ticks) I was delighted to add Yellow-legged Gull to the historical site list, and in a milestone capacity, with it seemingly becoming the 150th Thorncombe Street area bird. However, it turns out it was the 151st, after a golden nugget of information from Wes A confirmed that, rather astonishingly, a Bittern was recorded in 1996.

A relation of Wes’s was the Wintershall gamekeeper in the 1990’s, and as well as regular sightings of Grey Partridge (which is now extremely rare here), he also had a Bittern on one of the many private ponds within the estate, near Honeymead Barn. These particular ponds are almost impossible to view, with no footpaths running nearby, and I’ve only managed a couple of glances before.

There’s no doubt that this pond (which I’ve marked in the photo in this blog) and the others adjacent to it, particularly the largest one at Grafham Grange, has the potential for good birds. Sadly, though, I’m unlikely to ever know. Bittern becomes another bird that will be exceptionally difficult to get back here, and makes it 5 heron/egret species for the patch, pretty crazy given the general dearth of water bodies. It also offers a bit of inspiration during a time when it’s particularly lacking.