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.