Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 29 January 2018

24th-29th January

A mixed weekend on patch, with a couple of year ticks and decent birds for the site mixed in with a hugely frustrating encounter with a probable Merlin on Saturday. The year ticks came in the shape of Lesser Black-backed Gull and Crossbill, and the continued presence of Hawfinches throughout the site was pleasing.

female Reed Bunting, the Ridge, 27/1/2018
Saturday 27th 

Ridge 08:50-10:30 

1 Mealy Redpoll, 1 Falco sp. (south-west c.09:40), 4 Bramblings, 2 Yellowhammers, 2 Egyptian Geese (east), 30+ Lesser Redpolls, 40+ Linnets, 1 Sparrowhawk, 10+ Reed Buntings, 60+ Common Gulls, 3 Fieldfares (east), 10+ Redwings, 1 Red-legged Partridge, 2 Ravens, 6 Red Kites, 10 Greylag Geese (north) and 3 Buzzards.

A lengthy spell on the Ridge, with lots going on. On the walk up a Hawfinch sat up nicely in a tree in the garden of Raggetts. Once on the top, the finch/bunting flock was very much in evidence, and it didn’t take too long to pick up the Redpoll group, this time feeding in the north crop. After a little while a few flew into the hedgerow on the east side, and here the Mealy revealed itself, showing very well and at close range for an all too brief period of time.

Lesser Redpolls, the Ridge, 27/1/2018
It was seen twice more, both in flight, when it’s massive white rump could be seen. A little later about half the flock flew up into the trees on the edge of Furze Field, and a particularly weird looking Lesser had me head scratching for a bit, as I pondered if it was another Mealy. As can be seen from the photos (left-hand bird), it had next to no streaking on a very pale breast/underparts, a pale-ish rump and, most oddly, a striking white wing patch (that seemed more than extreme fade, perhaps more some form of melanism?).

Presumably this is just a very worn individual, and Wes A suggested it was a 1st-winter female type. At this time of year Redpolls begin to wear and become paler in some places, and the red develops around the head and breast. In all, this makes them even harder to ID!

A real moment of frustration came when I was watching the Mealy in flight. Having lost it, I turned around, and to the west, over the south crop, I saw the silhouette of a small and slender falcon disappear over the hedgerow and towards Slades, mobbed by a Carrion Crow as it went. The jizz screamed Merlin, and it probably was, but I just didn’t see it long enough.

I raced down to the top of Slades but couldn’t see the bird, and indeed it didn’t reappear in the next 45 minutes. Very annoying. Not quite classic Merlin habitat here, but with the Ridge teeming with birds as it currently is one could easily drop in, much like the Hen Harrier in December.

female Kestrel (bearing two metal rings), Unknown Farm,
Sunday 29th

Ridge 07:50-08:30

1+ Bramblings, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull (2nd-winter south 08:11), 5+ Reed Buntings, 30+ Linnets+, 25+ Lesser Redpolls, 11 Red Kites, 4 Buzzards, 11 Herring Gulls (south) and 33 Common Gulls.

Another attempt to connect with and ideally photograph the Mealy, but in blustery conditions and low light I soon gave up. A gentle southerly trail of gulls included the first Lesser Black-backed of the year, in with several Herrings, and this movement continued throughout the morning.

Scotsland Brook to Tilsey Farm 09:00-10:35

20 Hawfinch (18 south over Hive Field 09:05 and 2 west over Juniper Hill 10:25), 2+ Crossbills (south over Coldbourne Copse 09:17), 1 Firecrest (Scotsland Brook), 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (adult and 1st-winter south over Hive Field c.09:00), 5 Herring Gulls (south), 2 Meadow Pipits, 2 Kestrels, 1 Red-legged Partridge, 4 Buzzards and 6 Red Kites. 

Hawfinch, Raggetts, 27/1/2017
A nice stroll on a favoured circuit of mine, not done for a few weeks. A single flock of 18 Hawfinches was a surprise – it seems birds are flocking together locally, presumably as food sources diminish. If any hang around to breed on my patch, it’ll be in this area. A further 2 Lesser Black-backs moved south, with some more Herrings, and a Firecrest was singing at Scotsland Brook.

The birds of the day were the 2 Crossbills that were initially picked up on call, flying south over Coldboune Copse. There’s been no records since March, in what’s been a poor winter for them, but there’s possibly a few knocking about in Hascombe Hill. During the day a site record 18 Red Kites was tallied, surely indicative of a local roost.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Kiss From a Rose?

I figured the below should be out there, for clarification purposes for anyone interested.
On 1st June this year I found what I’m almost certain was a female-type Common Rosefinch. Many boxes were ticked – I heard the bird, and observed some key features through my telescope. However, the light was bad to appalling, with the sun right behind the bird in question. Furthermore, after only 10 minutes the individual flew off, and I failed to get a definitive photo.
The bird in question - at least the photo quality can
provide a laugh

At the time, having referenced guides in the field, and studiously gone over the perched bird, I was happy with my identification. I’ve seen this species before in places like Estonia and Poland, but here, in land-locked Surrey? Surely not. I called a couple of friends explaining that I was pretty certain I’d seen a Rosefinch, and set off on a fruitless 6-hour search to relocate it.
I’ve always associated that day with huge frustration. Whenever I think back on it, I recall the annoyance at not getting a clear photo, and the deflation of not re-finding it. Why? I’d been thorough with the ID, and was confident on what I’d seen.
As time went on, I began to feel like, deep down, there has been a tiny percentage of doubt. I remain almost certain it was a female-type Rosefinch, but the emphasis here is on almost. For a bird this rare in Surrey, with the imperfect views and lack of hard evidence brought away from it, I felt like I had to let it go.
Female Common Rosefinch (Wikipedia)
One of the key instigators in reversing my decision was the flyover Pipit I had on 8th October – even though I wasn’t sure that was Red-throated, the moment remains as electric and exciting as the Montagu’s Harrier, Cattle Egrets etc before because, whatever it was, it was definitely something special. The Rosefinch encounter lacked that clarity.

I don’t regret calling it at the time – I was 99% sure (and still am). Maybe I should have left it, and submitted the record. However, I don’t believe learning in birding (or at all) is static, and opinions, influences and just raw gut feeling can shift. For the time being, it remains my most frustrating birding experience.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

18th-23rd January

It was back to the patch after my recent spell in the eastern Med, and the grim weather over the weekend was a stark reminder of the season here. It was wet on both days, and on Sunday it even snowed for a bit (though it was predominately sleet), making for pretty tough field conditions. Nevertheless, I managed to get a couple of good sessions in, one of which resulted in the confirmed identification of the probable Mealy Redpoll, which has been on the Ridge with a large Lesser Redpoll flock for over a month now.

Mistle Thrush, Bonhurst Farm, 20/1/2018
Patch - 18th-23rd

After an unsuccessful search for Water Rail at Winkworth at dawn, I was up on the Ridge, and rain was just beginning to fall. It seemed the finch/bunting flock was largely on the north crop, and along the hedgerow that flanks the east of it. 45+ Linnets were easy to locate, as were at least 10 Reed Buntings, and it didn’t take long before I heard the first buzzy notes of a Brambling – there was at least 5 present, and it’s nice to have this species back here after a blank 2016/17 winter.

I couldn’t initially locate the Redpoll flock (just a couple in the hedgerow), but one of the beaters that was around flushed them from the small paddock between the north crop and Furze Field, and they flew up to the exposed trees on the west side of the latter woodland. As the group flew, again I noticed the obvious, large and pale individual, and it showed a really quite striking white rump in flight.

It, and the flock, sat up in the trees for around 10 minutes, and this individual was much more pallid than the Lessers it was with, and had less streaked underparts - the wingbar was bolder too. I’ve seen a few Mealy’s before, including birds in the hand, and I must say this one really does stand out amongst the Lessers it hangs around with (to the point Arctic ran through my mind, but it’s not that white, and the beak isn’t all squashed in!).

Little Egret, Eastwaters Pond, 19th January 2018
If anyone wants to try and see this bird, here is some information. For starters, the flock (at least 25 birds) is flighty and elusive, typically. Unlike the rest of the finches/buntings on the Ridge at present they rarely feed in the crops, and instead prefer a small strip of sunflowers and teasels in the aforementioned paddock (between the north crop and Furze Field at roughly TQ 00460 42264), which can’t be viewed very well from the footpath.

Here they feed on the ground and are basically impossible to see, but on occasion they will flush/fly out, and perch in the trees on the west side of Furze Field. Here they’re easily viewed from the path and approachable to the point you can stand right underneath them. The Mealy is fairly striking, and on Saturday it stood out as soon as the flock flew, due to the obvious rump.

I tried again on Sunday, in far worse conditions, and unsurprisingly few finches or buntings were showing their faces. It was a better situation elsewhere mind, with a Chiffchaff and Little Owl at Winkworth both year ticks, and a very pleasing tally of 152 Fieldfares at Bonhurst Farm. With the Fieldfares were 87 Redwings and 84 Starlings, and a Hawfinch flew over.

Also on Sunday, a new site record 99 Greylag Geese (including a single flock of 81 at Wintershall) were tallied throughout the site. A Little Egret was at Eastwaters Pond early on Friday, continuing the fine start to the year for this species.

Coward’s Marsh - 21st 

Stilt Sandpiper, Coward's Marsh, 20/1/2018.
With the weather as poor as it was on Saturday, further patching and football was scratched off the agenda, and so I decided to finally pay a visit to the wintering Stilt Sandpiper in Dorset. This individual has been moving about a bit, and even on the day of my trip down it relocated from Stanpit Marsh to Coward’s Marsh, a cute little area of flooded field north of Christchurch.

The 1st-winter bird was quickly picked up, but despite being pretty flighty it never came too close. Also of note here was a Spotted Redshank, a roosting Knot, 2 Oystercatchers and 150+ Lapwings. The sun occasionally shone too, and with snowdrops already out on the patch, and birdsong increasing, the faintest scent of spring can be detected.

*2017 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report* - a reminder to anyone who missed the news that this is now available, though a surprising number have already shifted and only a handful remain. Please check out thislink for details.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cyprus part two: gulls

One of the things I was most looking forward to ahead of my trip to Cyprus was spending time with the winter gull population. For starters, Armenian would have been a lifer, and Caspian are said to be numerous and approachable. On top of that there’s the chance of digging out something rare, such as Heuglin’s, or even Great Black-headed. All of the above is made much easier (for a novice like myself) by the lack of Herring and graellsii or intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gulls!

A: Adult Caspian Gull, Larnaca sewage farm, 17/1/2018.
The revered Lady’s Mile was where I planned to do my gulling, about half an hour from where we were staying and known for it’s large concentration of various species. I also checked beaches and harbours when I could.

Sadly, numbers were far lower than what I’d hoped, and the lack of gulls this winter was reaffirmed by local birders. Amazingly, I had no Caspians at Lady’s Mile, and never more than 15-20 Armenians there. I ended up venturing to Larnaca, where plenty of gulls were found.

Below is a species breakdown of what I saw, with some brief comment on the plumage and features I noted.

Caspian Gull

I only saw this species at Meneou Pools and Larnaca sewage farm/south pools, but here it was the commonest gull by far. There were probably at least 150 knocking around, though sadly none were very close – I’d hoped to have Casps come to bread at Lady’s Mile, so the lack of them there was a touch disappointing.

The jizz/structure of all ages easily separated them from the Armenians, even at range. For a species that generally has ‘classic’ features when picked up in the UK, I was amazed at the variation within the birds here. Some individuals were extreme – the bill length on the bird in the photo (A) is one such example.

Yellow-legged Gull
B: 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

I only saw a handful, and I think Yellow-legged Gulls are found more readily on the north side of the island. In my opinion I had two first-winters at Lady’s Mile, including the bird (poorly) photographed and shown here (B).

It stood out from the first-winter Armenians it was with for a number of reasons. For starters, it was a bit of a beast among them, notably larger and fiercer looking. The heavy bill was archetypal for Yellow-legged, and the pale eye was a key feature when ruling out Armenian. Furthermore, it was a darker bird with less bleaching, particularly on the coverts (which was notable among the Armenians). If I was in the UK, the tertials and eye mask would point towards 1st-winter Yellow-legged too.
C: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

There were also 2 or 3 adult Yellow-legged Gulls at Larnaca sewage farm, the pale eye and lack of a black band on the bill identifying them.

Armenian Gull

A very interesting species, particularly first-winters, with which I found a lot of variation. Typically they recalled 1st-winter Yellow-legged, but I encountered plenty that looked very much like 1st-winter Caspians.

D: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
Often, scapular and covert moult to second-summer had taken place (or was), with many 1st-winters having grey upperparts. This varied though, but is the case with the first Armenian pictured (C), which appeared particularly longer-billed than most. The second pictured (D) was about as ‘classic’ a 1st-winter as I could find – rather typical 1st-winter coverts, and a short bill, with the structure almost recalling Common Gull.

E: 1st-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
I had a bit of difficulty with a distant 1st-winter which was resting on the pools (E). At range, the bill and head looked OK for Caspian, but the mantle and scapulars not so much. When it flew, the white axillaries suggested Caspian, but the bill then appeared shorter, and there was no real shawl. I left it as an Armenian, and there were a few others that teased Casp features too.

2nd-winters were much easier, and you can see the almost Common Gull like appearance in the one pictured. I learnt that Armenians (and most eastern gulls) are prone to a lot more covert moult, and this is the case with the bird photographed (F) – it looks older than 2nd-winter.
F: 2nd-winter Armenian Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.

Adults, with their dark eye and bill band, were largely straightforward, even at range. Phew! Of course, there was the occasional oddity, such as a bird with a clear pale iris. The white spots in the primaries identified it as an adult (pale eyes are more frequent in third-year Armenians).

Heuglin’s Gull

Not one I expected to come across, so I was delighted to find two at Larnaca sewage farm, in with a large mixed flock. This relatively poorly-known gull is considered a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed, and breeds on Siberian tundra, wintering in the Middle East and southern Asia.

G: Adult Heuglin's Gull (right), Larnaca sewage farm,
First up was a beastly adult (G), larger than most of the Caspians nearby, and appearing very similar to a winter graellsii. It had a clean white head, but was too far for any observation of the late moult typical of this taxa. The upperparts were much darker than those of the adult Casps and Armenians nearby.

When I didn’t think it could get much better, what I reckon to be a third-year Heuglin’s appeared! This bird (H) had extremely dark upperparts, recalling intermedius or even fuscus, and this showed when the adult Heuglin’s drifted aside it. The other notable feature was the heavy streaking to the head and, in particular, the neck. 
H: 3rd-winter Heuglin's Gull (foreground, adult in
background), Larnaca sewage farm, 17/1/2018.

Some rather ropy footage of the 3rd-winter can be found here.

Baltic Gull (?)

One that will be left unidentified, not least because of the distance and poor light that hindered views, but a very interesting adult gull (I) on Meneou Pools with a huge Caspian/Armenian flock. It was distant, but the seemingly jet-black upperparts and structure strongly recalled Baltic Gull, with its small size possibly pointing towards a female.
I: possible adult Baltic Gull, Meneou Pools, 17/1/2018.

Fuscus is only a passage migrant to Cyprus, though a couple were reported on Lady’s Mile not long after I left the island. However, it’s worth remembering the size variation in Heuglin’s, which can sometimes appear small when next to Caspians.

Black-headed Gull

Hundreds at Lady’s Mile, some well on their way to summer plumage.

J: Adult Slender-billed Gull, Lady's Mile, 14/1/2018.
Slender-billed Gull

Just the one, an adult, in with the 300+ Black-headed Gulls at Lady’s Mile. It showed at close range (J).

Friday, 19 January 2018

2017 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report

The 2017 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report is now available for purchase.

For more details, including the price, please visit this page on the blog - http://godalmingareabirds.blogspot.co.uk/p/2016-thorncombe-area-bird-report.html.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

13th-17th January - Cyprus (part one)

I’m just back from 5 days in Cyprus, a relaxing trip with straightforward birding, good weather and great food. I managed to chalk up a few Western Palearctic ticks amid 79 species, and the general birding was decent – indeed, I was surprised at the densities of birds in a country much maligned for its hunting culture.
Male Cyprus Warbler, Pissouri, 17/1/2018

Instead of a full-blown trip report for an already well-documented birding country, I’ve summarised my experiences of key sites, generally based on 2-4 visits over the course of the holiday. We were based in the quaint village of Pissouri, so most birding took place in the south and west of the island, and consequently we visited the same sites multiple times.

I’ve gone into detail on sites for Cyprus Warbler and Cyprus Scops Owl, two endemic species that are fairly difficult to see, certainly in the winter. Finally, I’ll do a separate post on the gulling I got in, as this was particularly educational and enjoyable. That post will also cover Lady’s Mile and the wetland sites south of Larnaca to some extent.

Paphos sewage farm

We made 3 visits to this site, which had a nice mix of species, though views in the actual sewage plant were restricted. The best bird here was a Black Francolin on the 14th, a male initially flushed from the meadows west of the plant, and then seen briefly in a hedgerow. This bird and another distant one were singing at dawn.

Spur-winged Lapwing, Paphos Sewage Farm, 17/1/2018
Up to 25 resident Spur-winged Lapwings were present on each visit, though only outside the fenced plant on the 17th, which is when the best views were obtained. A couple of Cattle Egrets were here on the 14th, and a gorgeous adult Bonelli’s Eagle was perched roadside to the east of the site on the 15th, affording great views and actually audible as it was mobbed by Hooded Crows.

Passerine action was headlined by Red-throated Pipits – there were 2 on the 14th, and at least one on the 17th. Excellent birds, and after the mystery (or ex-mystery!) Pipit that flew over the patch in October, a lead instigator for this trip and real eureka moment.

Paphos headland

Just one visit here on the 14th, in order to connect with the Greater Sandplovers that winter on the rocky shore. 3 birds of the columbinus subspecies were seen at close range, appearing far slighter and more delicate than Collins depicts. 20+ Golden Plovers were with them.

Red-throated Pipit, Paphos Headland, 14/7/2018
The short grass from the car park to the headland was excellent for passerines. Best of all was a very showy 1st-winter Red-throated Pipit, allowing a thorough study of its plumage against the 25+ Meadow Pipits also about – a far creamier breast and underparts, and a fine yellow bill. A flock of Spanish Sparrows were knocking about, 1 Crested Lark was with 15 Skylarks and 2 Corn Buntings were in voice.

Anarita Park

The reliable Finsch’s Wheatear site, and it delivered on the 14th, despite some rather vague directions in Gosney. After finding the grassy plateau at 34.763630, 32.539137, which can be driven to, it didn’t take long to locate the wintering male on the rocky hillside to the north. Whilst always keeping distant good views could be had. There was no sign of the female.


A really nice stretch of coastal arable farmland between Pissouri and Paphos, which held a large mixed pipit/lark/wagtail flock. There were probably many more than the 24 Skylarks, 17 White Wagtails, 6 Crested Larks and 20 Meadow Pipits that were counted on the 14th, and not just 2 Red-throated Pipits, which were always heard before seen.
Bonelli's Eagle, Paphos sewage farm, 15/1/2018

On the 14th there was also a ringtail Hen Harrier, and 2 Chukars flew over the road. On the 15th the size of the aforementioned flock was similar, and 4 Yellow-legged Gulls moved offshore.

Pissouri area

The habitats surrounding our apartment was really good, with farmland similar to Mandria running down to Maquis scrub and eventually leading to Pissouri Bay. This whole area was very productive for Cyprus Warbler, and I imagine a search of any suitable scrubby habitat would reveal a bird here.

The best site was an area of cliff maquis west of Pissouri Bay. By taking the road south at 34.652637, 32.719449, to the Columbia Beach Resort, the road goes past the hotel and to an apparent overflow car park. At the west end of this car park, the scrub on the cliffs to the north-west held at least 2 pairs of Cyprus Warblers. The area of scrub at 34.648478, 32.718112 produced presumably the same pair on 2 mornings.

Other sites that held Cyprus Warblers included the maquis to the west of the lay-by at 34.654769, 32.718197, and the scrub at 34.657766, 32.717142. As mentioned, a search of any suitable looking habitat in this general area should produce.

Other birds in and around Pissouri included several Chukars and 4 Hawfinches (from the apartment balcony!).
Greater Sandplover, Paphos Headland, 14/1/2018

Lady’s Mile and Zakaki Marsh

Lady’s Mile was visited for the gulls, and whilst some close-range views of Armenians were had on the beach, numbers were disappointing. I’ll go into more detail in the second post, but aside from the Armenians and a sole Slender-billed Gull, there wasn’t loads of note.

Zakaki Marsh was visited on the morning on the 15th and was very productive, with 2 Moustached Warblers, a Bluethroat and 3+ Penduline Tits all seen. The former was a lifer – I’d only previously heard this species.


This mountain town is home to a few Cypriot sub-species, and it certainly made for a change to be birding in snow instead of 20 degree heat. 3 Crossbills were seen in flight, and 1 ‘Dorothy’s’ Short-toed Treecreeper was knocking about. The Cypriotes Coal Tits were numerous, and both looked and sounded very different to those encountered in the UK - possibly worthy of full-species elevation one day? A Hawfinch flew over.

Male Finsch's Wheatear, Anarita Park, 14/1/2018
Mavrokolympos reservoir

The track leading east towards the reservoir is mentioned by Gosney as a reliable Cyprus Scops Owl site, and it certainly delivered. Despite being warned that this species is hard to see, particularly in the winter, we heard one calling within minutes of pulling up at the recommended lay-by/track at 34.850312, 32.396198.

By patient scanning of the ridge on the south side of the road, 2 Cyprus Scops Owls were eventually seen, both in flight. They called surprisingly frequently, but the views weren’t amazing. A covey of 6 Chukars were also here.

Gulls up next.

Monday, 8 January 2018

1st-8th January

For the patch-watcher, a new year means a new list, and as a result the winter doldrums are lifted for a short period as everything is reset. 2017 was the year of the record list, and in 2018 my foot will very much be off the gas in this department. Still, it’s nice to acquire a varied mix of species each year, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely satisfied at having already seen Hawfinch, Little Egret, Firecrest, Woodcock, Yellowhammer and Brambling, as well as a probable Mealy Redpoll.

Red Kite, Slades Farm, 8/1/2018. Rich rufous plumage &
 jet-black streaking help identify this as an adult. Note
also the weird partial melanism on the breast.
The 1st saw the typical crossing-off of the regular species, of which few were left unseen by the close of play. Woodcock is always a very hard bird to see here, so I was delighted when I spooked one near the footpath on Juniper Hill. I’d managed Hawfinch at New Barn not long before that, and a Little Egret on Mill Pond and Firecrest at Bramley Park Lake later on made for a pleasing session. I tallied a high number of Bullfinches too – 14 throughout.

I couldn’t get out again until the weekend just gone, and Saturday was pretty quiet. Saying that, a Yellowhammer over New Barn was unexpected, and a few more Hawfinches were around (2 at New Barn, 2 at Nore Brook and 1 at Palmer’s Cross). Yet another Little Egret (or possibly the same individual) was present at Mill Pond at dusk.

The latter site, in terms of birds, is unrecognisable compared to its normal mid-winter state. January is traditionally peak wildfowl time (116 Teal in 2016 for example), but this winter it’s been like a ghost town. Teal numbers are drastically down (11 on Sunday, none on Saturday), there are a couple of Mandarin, a handful of Mallards and Gadwalls…and that’s it. Shoveler has been a fixed January 1st year tick since I started watching here, but I’ve seen none since mid-December.

The situation seems to be suffering from a bit of a double-edged sword. Firstly, wildfowl numbers across the board have been down this winter, demonstrated by recent visits to Pagham and Sheppey. Consequently, Thorncombe Park aren’t shooting Mill Pond, and thus no food has been put down for them. Until this weekend, gull numbers were down too, but this seems to have changed and indeed over 110 Common Gulls were present throughout the site on Sunday.
Probable Mealy Redoll (left), Ridge, 8/1/2018. The size
& paleness compared to the Lesser (right) is striking.

Numbers definitely aren’t down among the finch and bunting flock on the Ridge, which in fact seems to have increased, perhaps thanks in small part to my generous dumpings of nyger and sunflower seeds. On Sunday, a rare north-easterly and slight drop in temperature had me ambitiously watching the sky on the Ridge at dawn. Not much of note moving, bar a few Stock Doves, Woodpigeons and Starlings heading south.

Attention soon turned to the crops, where 50+ Linnets, 20+ Goldfinches, 10+ Chaffinches and 6+ Reed Buntings were feeding. I was delighted to pick up a Brambling, a species that’s been scarce on the deck this winter, and ended up totalling 3 birds. On the east side of the crops, on the edge of Furze Field, I found the wintering Lesser Redpoll flock.

Among the 40+ strong group, which have been on the Ridge for a couple of months now, I picked out a strikingly large, pale and white-rumped individual. The flock was flighty, and the light poor, so I didn’t get enough on it to be sure but it certainly looked an excellent candidate for Mealy Redpoll. I’ve had a couple of possible Mealy’s before, not least one on 16th December, which was likely the same individual. Given the variable nature of Lessers (and the fact Mealy is a questionable species), I’m not sure I could safely ID one in the field - someone with a super-lens, please feel free to check it out!
Fieldfare, Bonhurst Farm, 8/1/2017. Currently the only site
holding this species this winter.

I must take the time to mention Thorncombe Street’s appearance in the shortlist for the 2017 Randon’s Ramblings. These annual, online awards are run by Surrey birder Neil Randon (who I’ve yet to meet), and I was both surprised and delighted to see Thorncombe Street nominated for the ‘2017 Surrey Patch of the Year’ award. The locations with whom my little upstart of a patch was rubbing shoulders with made particularly enjoyable reading – Barnes WWT, Beddington, Frensham Ponds, Staines reservoir, Tice’s Meadow and Walton reservoirs. Very much a case of Cinderella at the ball, or Burnley in the top-7, depending which analogy you prefer!

The wider Surrey scene, and in particular the definition of its recording boundaries, has been subject to hefty Twitter debate these past few days. There are certainly cases that can be put forward for both opinions, and for the Surrey lister it’s definitely an area that’s lost some structure in recent years. I could go on, but it’s probably a post for another day. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017 patch review

2017 was the fourth year I’ve been seriously watching my beloved Thorncombe Street patch. Previous years have been excellent, and I’ve managed some fine birds, but 2017 excelled beyond all anticipation. I set an ambitious target of 120 species at the start of the year (the previous record was 116 in 2015), so to reach a total of 123 has left be beyond satisfied. The magic of 2017 isn’t simply that figure, however, but in the remarkable different layers and types of birds within it. 

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, 7/3/2017 (M Elsoffer)
For starters, 5 new species (Cattle Egret, Greenshank, Kittiwake, Yellow-legged Gull and Waxwing) joined the historical list, which now totals 150. Then, as well as the aforementioned quintet, I also managed to add a further 5 species personal list, a tally now sitting at 137. For a patch-worker anywhere these statistics are mouth-watering.

As a result of this, incredible moments with species that have only been recorded once or twice here before (male Hen Harrier, flock of 20 Whimbrel, Water Pipit etc) somehow aren’t the crowning moments of a year, and spectacular happenings such as the Hawfinch invasion are too finding themselves vying for the limelight.

And, as if these wonderful encounters needed any foundations, the status of local and breeding birds was extremely pleasing in 2017. Species on the decline elsewhere (Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher etc) were successful, along with a host of raptors, as well as a plentiful amount of typical woodland and open country birds.

Whimbrel flock over Goose Green, 2/8/2017
New species of mammal (Reeves’s Muntjac) and butterfly (Clouded Yellow) were also recorded, and with all three of the estates on the patch taking a new, vested interest in the wildlife on their land, it’s safe to say 2017 was a year that saw the Thorncombe Street area come of age. Long may it continue.

Sticking with last year’s theme, below is a brief summary of the year on a month-by-month basis, from a personal perspective. The 2017 Thorncombe Street area bird report is nearly written up, and should be available by February (at the latest).

Winter bird of 2017

Whilst a Waxwing in January was a site first, it just doesn’t eclipse the final year tick of 2017, a male Hen Harrier on 16th December. The bird flew fairly low and slowly west-north-west over the Ridge, allowing me to take in incredible views of this majestic predator. There’s only been one previous record – a ringtail (also over the Ridge) on 17th October 2015 – but never a male. It was a perfectly thrilling and fitting end to the year.

Spring bird of 2017

Now this really is a hard choice. Spring, as it often proves to be here, was almost as productive as autumn on patch. I’ve longed for flyover seabird and on 23rd March a Kittiwake finally fulfilled this desire. The discovery of rare breeding birds, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, were also spring findings, and later in the season I added Reed Warbler to my patch list.
Cattle Egrets over Leg-of-Mutton Copse, 9/4/2017

However, on 9th April two Cattle Egrets flew high north-west over Leg-of-Mutton Copse (of all places) – a county mega to take the spring crown. Also, a mention must go to the 60+ strong flock of unidentified waders (probably Barwits!) that flew very high east over Tilsey Farm on the 17th April.

Summer bird of 2017

Whilst being quiet in terms of moving birds, the eclectic mix of breeding species (for a dry, inland site!) means an enjoyable session can be had throughout the season. The definition of summer and autumn was a tongue-in-cheek bone of contention among Surrey birders on social media this year, and I’ll ride that wave of contention for this entry – a bird in a summer month (July) that was clearly on autumn migration.

35 Black-tailed Godwits low east over the Ridge on the 27th was a truly epic moment – previously a mega blocker, with the only previous record coming exactly 2 years to the day previously, it also avenged my blank wader spell. I could hear the wingbeats of the flock as they whizzed past – sadly I didn’t manage a photo, but my girlfriend beautifully recreated the moment via a painting.

Male Honey-buzzard, Allden's Hill, 26/8/2017
Autumn bird of 2017

Another tough one. September was dire, but the months flanking it both produced excellent birds. In August, a flock of 20 Whimbrels flew over Goose Green (only the second site record), I finally patch-ticked Lesser Whitethroat, and both Yellow-legged Gull and Greenshank were unexpected Thorncombe Street firsts. October delivered the goods too, with a flock of 25+ Brent Geese over New Barn, a Water Pipit present for a morning in Hive Field and the influx of Hawfinches throughout.

However, purely for the nature of the encounter, first place goes to the male Honey-buzzard that drifted lazily south over Allden’s Hill on 26th August – my best ever views of this species in the UK. Late August is prime raptor migration time here, and this bird was clearly on its way to the coast during a day of notable Honey-buzzard records elsewhere. 

Best migration day of 2017

It’s impossible to pick a single, best migration day for 2017, so I’ve summed up the best, and finished with a single top migration moment. I upped my vis-mig game this year, and Thorncombe Street watches now go onto Trektellen. Spring was, naturally, a lot slower than the autumn, though April 17th did produce the first Cuckoos, House and Sand Martins of the year, as well as a fall of Willow Warblers and 60+ waders east.

Woodpigeons over New Barn, 28/10/2017
Autumn typically delivered, and many sessions stand out, for example 16th September (site record 378 Meadow Pipits, 2 Yellow Wagtails and a Whinchat), the weekend of 21st-22nd October (Water Pipit, latest ever Swallow and a single flock of 5 Hawfinches) and 16th November (second site Woodlark and a record 184 Fieldfares).

All very tasty (and this is ignoring the many other sessions that were productive), but 2 pure migration spectacles take silver and gold this year. In second place, 28th October. A classic, late autumn watch stood out for one species, Woodpigeons, which moved through in record numbers. In one hour I had 5,365 north/east – that’s 89 a minute, and 1.4 a second! The day total was 7,228.

Despite all the above, there was one, standout moment. It came just after dawn on 7th March, very much a sub-optimum time of year. Standing on Allden’s Hill, what appeared to be a moving dark cloud, almost like a Starling murmuration, came into view from the south-west. Upon inspection, they were Redwings, and at the very least 4,000 of them. In a single flock. It was a moment I’ve never experienced, and probably won’t again – a simply colossal group moving together. My guess is they roosted nearby, and me being in the right place at the right time means I’ll have a migration memory of a lifetime.

Spotted Flycatcher, Selhurst Common, 28/6/2017 (D Carlsson)
Disappointment of 2017

Really, there were very few disappointing moments in 2017. September was frustrating - I spent so many hours in the field, but was rewarded with no rarities, and few decent vis-mig sessions. I also (again) failed to find Purple Emperor in the summer despite extensive searches - maybe next year. However, probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of Turtle Doves, for the first time since I started watching here.

Bird of 2017

Despite it being such a fruitful year, there’s no doubt as to the bird of 2017. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve had a moment on my patch that’s left such an impression before. The weird thing is, the bird in question isn’t definitive – it’s not on my list, and wasn’t one of the 123 species recorded this year. On 8th October I was vis-migging at New Barn. It was relatively mild, and a gentle wind from the north-west meant a few species were moving, most notably Meadow Pipits, with 56 tallied in the 2 and ½ hour watch.

At 07:53, whilst on the way to my watchpoint, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a very unusual Pipit call. It was clearly not a Mipit, or Tree Pipit, and was a sound that didn’t instantly connect with anything in my mind. The bird called maybe 3 or 4 times, and was going fairly low over our heads – my girlfriend got on it before I did.

Allden's Hill at dawn on 8th October - surely it was
 a Red-throated Pipit that flew over that day?
The full details of my thought process, call analysis and so on is described in this blog post but, to cut a long story short, I am as good as certain that the bird was a Red-throated Pipit. If I had better experience of the species, I’d be 100% sure. As mentioned, I’ve left it off my list, and of course won’t be submitting it – a flyover record of such magnitude wouldn’t stand a chance in this county.

The experience though, left me marvelling. I’ve even booked a January Western Palearctic trip solely to visit a site where Red-throated Pipits winter. Preceding this encounter was my biggest hours in the field to lack of birds ratio since I started covering here, and it provided me with motivation that will last a very long time. The fact the record lacks certainty, for me, strengthens its magic. In an age of instantly accessible knowledge, the unknowable has a pristine beauty, and wonder with no end. And for these reasons, mystery Pipit species is the patch bird of 2017.