Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Tha knows

Limited birding time these days means most weekends are based around a studious look at the weather forecast, and a plan from there, but you just know there’ll be days when you get it wrong, or simply can’t be everywhere. I suppose Sunday was the latter. Having seen mouth-watering seawatch tallies come in on Saturday from the east coast all the way from Scotland to Suffolk, and with the wind switching from a strong northerly to northeast, it was obvious the Thanet should see some action.
Robin, Allden's Hill, 27/10/2018.
I have mixed feelings about seawatching and don’t always enjoy it, but the thought of some late autumn variety and good numbers moving into the Swale/Thames was enough to tempt me. So, having perused Google Maps and historic records, I found a seriously under-watched spot with potential – Herne Bay. Highlights were a Little Auk moving west (picked up at Tankerton minutes later) and two Leach’s Storm Petrels east; I’ve seen neither for years and the former was a nice self-found tick. I was kindly given a heads up for the petrels so can’t claim them.

I also tallied two Pomarine Skuas, four Arctic Skuas, 19 Little Gulls, four Bonxies, 263 Common Scoter, 418 Brent Geese and 66 Kittiwakes. Stuff was initially being blown west and into the estuary, though by late morning many birds were pushing back east. Four Goldcrests cannoned in at shoulder height early on, and a Fieldfare somehow managed to avoid a persistent Peregrine by pulling off an epic shearwater-esque getaway over the waves. Chaffinches and Starlings were arriving in-off, and it was clear passerines were taking advantage of the first northeasterlies for ages to make the crossing.

I’d never normally bunk the patch when a big migration day is on the cards, but I hold my hands up and admit I totally got it wrong on Sunday. I thought the wind (up to force four) would impede movement, and with cold squalls forecast I figured movement would be OK but limited. How wrong I was … Leith Hill had one of their best days with hundreds of finches and thrushes (including 100 Bramblings) in what sounded like a great session. Beddington just about outdid the tower with a whopping 1,300 Starlings, 429 Chaffinches and 263 Skylarks complimenting singles of Short-eared Owl, Brent Goose and Great Egret. Some old school Surrey counts at both sites, and I’ve no doubt Thorncombe Street would have been great.

Saturday was OK on patch to be fair, with an entertaining vismig in the morning. Six Crossbills highlighted along with 1,916 Woodpigeons moving west. Sadly, weather and time mean the big Woodpigeon day this year will likely allude. I was pleased to finally pin down the hard-to-find Grey Partridges in the afternoon, around Tellytubbyland Hill (between Cheyne Row cottages and Nadia’s Hill). Up to six have been seen so presumably they’ve been released locally somewhere, though they could be linked to the breeding birds from 2016.

Woodpigeons, Tilsey Farm, 27/10/2018.

The last couple of days have seen a nice spread of scarcities across the southeast (Pete Alfrey dug out a monstrous Surrey record in the shape of a Richard’s Pipit at Beddington on Monday) but unfortunately the forecast for the weekend looks wet with poor winds. Autumn will be on its last legs after the next few days, and it won’t be long until thoughts of gulls, foreign trips and that first Swallow begin.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Vis stim

The autumn has been poor, locally and nationally. Over the weekend I had some decent late October bits – an elusive Ring Ouzel (first of the year) at Raggetts, a couple of Hawfinches and the first steady movement of Woodpigeons over my new favourite vismig vantage at Tilsey Farm. Not bad but not particularly fulfilling either…then again, what more exactly can an inland birder anticipate at this time of year?

Fieldfare, Tilsey Farm, 21/10/2018.

The Hawfinches shouldn’t be sniffed at. Weirdly each individual was moving in different directions, leading me to ponder if they were local, and perhaps bred in some quiet, never-visited woodland somewhere in the birding backwaters of southwest Surrey. It’ll be interesting to see how many more are recorded over the coming weeks; there’s definitely been more Surrey records than normal during the last month. By the way, if you haven’t already, check out Steve Gale’s concise summary of that invasion in Surrey last year here.

The stimulant during these quiet times is vismig. I’ll never tire of counting migrating species as the sun rises, but even this has been pretty average so far. The utter dearth of easterly winds sucks but maybe (as speculated in my last post) we’ll have a late rush of easterlies in November? It happened last year. This coming weekend looks pretty cold and breezy with northerly winds forecast (the first for a while), but on Sunday it looks like they may be arriving a little more from the northeast with a Scandinavian origin; if this sticks I’ll expect a big charge of thrushes and finches. Inevitably for the full-time working birder, however, conditions seem much better on Monday and Tuesday.

During this easterly drought it’s no surprise that the British and Irish showstoppers have almost exclusively arrived from the west to the west. Cape Clear enjoyed a Veery-Scarlet Tanager-Swainson’s Thrush hat-trick, and the UK’s second Grey Catbird near Land’s End has proven particularly popular. Depending on how much time you spend on social media you’ve probably seen loads of photos of the bird, which I was fortunate enough to be able to twitch on Thursday.

Grey Catbird, Trevescan, 18/10/2018.

North American landbirds are not even close to the radar for Surrey birders, but that’s not to say they haven’t occurred. An American Robin in Peckham is the most recent one from memory, but there’s also been Yellow-billed Cuckoo and – perhaps standout – a Common Nighthawk at Barnes Common!

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Back to patch

Having returned from Lewis it was straight back to the grind, and as a result the patch has received little attention. When you visit an area as frequently as I do, a couple of weeks away can feel like a very long time, and it can take a while to generate the same levels of motivation for visiting. This time off from patch duties is the start of a gradual weaning process; various factors mean I simply can't cover Thorncombe Street like I have done these past few years anymore, and near-daily coverage and annual reports will be a thing of the past from next year.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Allden's Hill, 13/10/2018.

Despite this, it'll always be 'my' place, and a first choice for a bit of birding. Last weekend I was both surprised and pleased to pin down the female Black Redstart at Bonhurst Farm; she's now been present for two months, and the possibility of her wintering looks good. Duck numbers have clearly increased, with a new site record of 22 Gadwall on Mill Pond on Sunday. Later that day three Hawfinches flew over Allden's Hill (possibly local-ish?), and the first Redwings and Bramblings of the season have been jotted down. I look forward to some vismig sessions locally, if only the weather will ever allow it...

It's been a tough autumn for us inland birders, though it's not exactly been raining migrants elsewhere in the country. Easterlies have been at an absolute premium and Surrey – even by it’s own poor (lets be honest!) standards – has had a weak season so far. Walton has scored some decent stuff including Cattle Egret and Wryneck, and the Tice's Meadow crew also found a couple of the former species, which is still rare in the county (though probably not for long). However, aside from Beddington pulling a brief Camargue disguise, and a couple of sharp-eyed observers spotting seabirds, it's been slow-going. The apparent decline of active birders in the county probably doesn't help. Maybe it's just a late autumn though, as seems to be the case increasingly, and I remember last year enjoying a couple of excellent vismig sessions in mid-November. 

On a separate note, if you're reading this then maybe you'd like to read my summary of the Woodpecker Network Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 2018 report. Thorncombe Street is one of 2-4 known remaining breeding sites in Surrey. While the species is declining nationally, the trend is seemingly not as bad as anticipated, and I've no doubt that birds must go undetected in the vast swathes of suitable habitat in the county. So, next February and March, if you have some spare time on a still morning why not walk a stretch of quiet local woodland and try to find some?

Monday, 8 October 2018

A week on Lewis

I recently returned from a week on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Situated in the far north-west of Britain and in a prime location to receive (particularly) Nearctic vagrants and also eastern species, there’s no doubt that the island, with a resident birder population of less than five, is seriously under-watched. My visit was arranged with the intention to try and unearth some migrants, and despite trying conditions and limited results, it’s safe to say Lewis needs to start becoming seriously considered by autumn self-find crews.

Golden Eagles were seen on most days.

The Outer Hebrides of course have rich birding heritage, but the island of Lewis and Harris is weirdly off-grid. There is no literature whatsoever on the island from a birding perspective (not even a sentence in the expansive Where to Watch Birds in Britain). Even the internet yields little. A scan through the BBRC archives, and sightings data via BirdGuides is about as good as it gets. Given that, in the last four (yes four!) years, Lewis has recorded Chimney Swift, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-crowned Sparrow and both Wilson’s and Rüppell's Warbler, it’s pretty remarkable. Add in the recent rapid elevation in status Barra has enjoyed, and it makes it even more curious that Lewis remains largely un-visited.

Fortunately, I was put in touch with Tony Marr, finder of that Wilson’s Warbler, who was able to supply me with excellent gen and detailed information on the island. Dan Pointon also helped with sites, but otherwise it was down to Google Earth and an OS map to work out where looked good. Like many Northern Isles, almost anywhere can hold a migrant, and Lewis was no exception. In theory, most places along the west coast from the Butt of Lewis to Mangersta could be productive. The villages along this stretch of coast hold gardens, some with highly attractive cover. Then you have the acres of crofts, coastal crops, iris beds, small plantations, sandy beaches, coastal lochs, machair meadows and plentiful views out into the Atlantic. The extent of these different habitats varies, but it’s all there, and consequently relatively varied birding can be done, which is important in a place as wild as Lewis…

This Barred Warbler was found in a garden in Bragar.

The weather has to be considered. Of course, unsettled periods, a heavily westerly airflow and fast-moving transatlantic depressions from North America are ideal for Nearctic arrivals. In this ‘all-or-nothing’ weather standard eastern drift fare is likely to be limited, and Lewis’ westerly location furthers this probability – when it’s quiet, it’s super quiet. However, the selection of mouth-watering Yanks mentioned earlier suggests that Lewis should theoretically be one of the first to score in such favourable conditions. And, regardless, the aforementioned Rüppell's, and scarce stuff found as standard (myself included) shows that easterly conditions would still deliver good birds to be found.

On top of these fine factors, you have to contend with the harsh local weather. This was the sole frustration I found with Lewis. Sure, I knew it’d be wet, I knew it’d be windy, but the relentless nature of it was pretty frustrating. Based on my conversations with locals I was particularly unlucky. In total, I had a grand total of seven hours of suitable passerine-searching weather! Every day experienced rain, sometimes heavy, but it was the force 8/9 winds that were the killer, and they rolled through on five of the six full days I was there! Add in the particularly uninspiring wider weather patterns for migrants (reflected across the country this autumn), and I was already on the back foot, as well as working solo.

Flocks of Twite were commonly encountered.

Anyway, despite this, I had a pleasant week of birding. Based in Bragar, about thirty minutes along the coast from the Butt, I made myself a patch away from patch, which encompassed the village gardens, a couple of coastal lochs, crofts and a seawatching vantage. I was pleased with my haul of 79 species for this small area, the best of which were Barred Warbler, Common Rosefinch, two Lapland Buntings and two Yellow-browed Warblers. The former was found on the best day by far for migrant-finding – sunny and settled conditions after a storm the day before had resulted in a mini-fall in the village, which included four other warbler species. Indeed, that morning I saw more warblers than I did the whole trip. Three ‘Greenland’ Common Redpolls were good value, and a few Mealy’s were also seen around the village. However, I can’t help but feel that, if I had one or two more days of decent conditions for passerines, that dream Yank or eastern rare would've taken me out the scarce-zone.

Several Whooper Swan families were seen.

The Outer Hebrides have plenty of species that are nice for the southern, landlocked birder to encounter, and often this kept me going. Both Golden and White-tailed Eagles were seen daily, with Merlins often noted as they dashed past and Hen Harriers commonplace. Flocks of Twite were frequently encountered, and it was humbling to watch various species come in off the sea from Iceland and Greenland, including Whooper Swans, Barnacle Geese and Snipe. Seawatching was OK; conditions often seemed ripe for a Sabine’s or even just a Leach’s, but the best I managed was a couple of Pomarine Skuas and several Sooty Shearwaters.

Waders disappointed. This almost untapped western strip of coast surely holds many, many Nearctic waders that go undetected. I was a week or two late for prime time, and I understand it’s been a poor breeding season, but I was disappointed to not find at least a Pectoral Sandpiper, or an American Golden Plover (I must have looked at nearly 3,000 European Golden Plovers that week!). My main wader searching site was Loch Ordais, and the lack of anything unusual here was made up for somewhat by the presence of a pair of Eurasian Otters.

Eurasian Otters offered good views at Loch Ordais.

Where to bird

As mentioned, the west coast from the Butt to Mangersta is likely the best part of the island to search. I was based in between the two, at Bragar – in hindsight I may have been better off based at the Butt or around Mangersta. However, Bragar juts out a little, and the habitat around the village is diverse. Anyway, below is an attempted, loose summary of where should be productive:

Butt of Lewis area

The tip of the island, perhaps starting at South Dell and running up to Port of Ness, and taking in the Butt of Lewis down to Skigersta, is likely where many migrants end up. Tony Marr is based here, and all five of the megas mentioned earlier have been found in the area. A point well made by Dan is that the gardens along the road south from Lionel to Skigersta is probably where many migrants that think they’re heading inland end up – I checked these on two days, but the wind beat me both times. If I was to visit again, I’d stay in this area.

Meadow and Rock Pipits (above) were common.

Mangersta, Ardroil and Gallen Head

Exceptionally remote – people hardly visit these places, let alone bird them. The few gardens at Mangersta are surely magnets for migrants. The notably extensive gardens around Ardroil are probably a good place to start – I had a Pied Flycatcher here, and Dan a Common Rosefinch in mid-September. Very exposed though, particularly Gallen Head.

Kneep loop

A real favourite of mine and it’d be keen to stay here. It’s basically a ring road that starts near the church at Miavaig. The gardens adjacent to said church were packed full of birds, sadly all common, but surely a great place to look. Kneep also had tasty looking cover – I saw a flock of c.100 Lesser Redpolls here.

Much of the coastline is Rocky - good news if you're a Purple Sandpiper.

Bragar area

The gardens are particularly extensive at Bragar, with a good number of sycamores. Loch Ordais is the best wader site on the island in my opinion (more on Steinis later), and the crops, iris beds and crofts nearby held loads of common finches and buntings. This is where I found the Common Rosefinch. Seawatching can be done from the various vantages either side of the loch.

Carloway and Garenin

I didn’t spend much time here, but some good gardens in a good location are surely productive.

The marked undertail coverts, dumpy appearance, heavy bill and white outer tail feathers can be seen here.

Stornoway area

Two notable habitats here are the estuary at Steinis and the Lews Castle Grounds. I found the waders at Steinis to be always a bit distant (and relatively low in number). The Castle Grounds are unique in the Outer Hebrides – the only woodland, and they hold breeders such as Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Whitethroat, all unheard of elsewhere in the county. I had a Yellow-browed Warbler here, and in calm conditions a couple of days after a low, this could deliver.

This Lesser Whitethroat arrived with several other warblers.


  • So much potential, but so much land – this is an island that needs multiple crews if the full fruits are to be harvested. It’s not a small island, and the key sites aren’t close to one another.
  • Weather. It’s probably worth considering doing the island if some appealing conditions from the west are in play. Otherwise it can be a slog, and the size of the island means concentrations of birds are always going to be far lower than say Shetland. In essence, Lewis should perhaps be twitched in the event of that all-or-nothing Yank weather.
  • Earlier visit. A mid-September visit wouldn’t harm chances of finding that Red-eyed Vireo (or Connecticut Warbler!), and it’d also mean Nearctic waders should be easier to come by.
'Pure' Rock Doves were seen in large flocks.