Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 26 November 2018

Through the gloom

Limited birding this weekend, seemingly well-timed given the miserable gloom that hanged in the air on both days. Those types of days are the worst – poor visibility from dawn till dusk, damp and dull. I had time to briefly do the water bodies on Saturday (nada), before observing my first feeding Common Gull flock of the winter at Bonhurst Farm. Distant, but just about visible through the murk, was a single first-winter with ten adults, one of which seemed a touch bigger with darker upperparts and more extensive black in the wingtips. But no, I’m not going to try and dig out a (pretty much non-existent) key to the Heinei Pandora’s Box.

Common Gulls, Bonhurst Farm, 24/11/2018.

Patch time was again at a premium on Sunday. I visited The Ridge for the first time in a while: dreary weather, few birds and incessant gunfire had me descending faster than you can say Russian Common Gull. The female Red-crested Pochard (and hybrid offspring) were on Mill Pond but the day’s highlight was a notable count of Egyptian Geese throughout. Seven, to be precise, and clear evidence of a very quiet weekend.

In the afternoon – as we were passing – I stopped fleetingly at Tice’s Meadow. According to my notes it was my first visit since 8 September 2016. A lot has changed there and wading through the Blackwater before scrambling up the mound was no longer in order – a smart footbridge and path system, with an excellent shelter on Horton’s Mound, were all new to me. Much credit must go to the Tice’s crew for their persistent work; unfortunately, I dipped them all during my half-hour vigil.

I couldn’t pick out the Little Stint that’s been present since last week but a nice selection of gulls – including a brutish second-winter Yellow-legged – made up for that, as did a big flock of Lapwings and several whistling Wigeon. The view from Horton’s Mound looks over a seriously impressive wetland habitat. You get the feeling that, in a Surrey sense, a really big one is due there.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Thrush hour

Finally, with less than six weeks until Christmas, a lengthy run of proper easterlies arrived last Wednesday. It was no surprise that a large – and possibly final – push of thrushes would occur at the first opportunity, and I duly put the microphone out on the evening of Wednesday 14. An absolute minimum 269 Redwings flew over (333 calls) by sunrise, doubtless a tiny percentage of the total numbers that took the opportunity to head south or west that night. The following day saw the thrush action continue; a relatively showy Ring Ouzel was at Tilsey Farm while a new site record count of Fieldfares passed through.

Ring Ouzel, Tilsey Farm, 15/11/2018.

A rare chance to bird midweek fortuitously coincided with this window of opportunity for patiently waiting thrushes and, given once the rush was over that’d realistically be it for vis-mig for some time, I was at Tilsey Farm before dawn. It was far from spectacular and aside from the thrushes the watch probably fell into the quiet category, but 244 Redwings and 218 Fieldfares piling west – sometimes in large flocks – meant it was an entertaining session. The previous high count of Fieldfares interestingly comes from mid-November, last year – perhaps this delayed passage is a sign of our warming climate?

David C, on his way back down to West Sussex, joined me at about 09:00. He’s had a tough debut season at his new coastal patch of Goring and we chewed the fat on this and various other topics for an hour-and-a-half or so when, at about 10:15, he spotted a Ring Ouzel hopping about on the main track. While there was clearly a big movement of thrushes going on it was still a bit of a surprise, being just the second bird of 2018, and a somewhat late record.

Ring Ouzel, Tilsey Farm, 15/11/2018.

Ring Ouzel sketch.

We spent the next half hour or so watching it as it fed on bare ground opposite the barn, often in the company of one or two continental Blackbirds. Every so often it would be spooked by a farm worker, flying up into the small hedge by the car park, before returning again. Based on its strong black tones and well-marked appearance it was a male. We left it in peace, but somewhat surprisingly there was no further sign, despite a couple of birders turning up to twitch it.

After this relative excitement (for here!) the weekend was far quieter, with a real feel of winter in the air. Vis-mig was a non-starter – it’s safe to say that, barring any freak cold weather movement from the continent, that’s it for a few months. Six Crossbills over Tilsey on Sunday were likely local and with the gripping Goosander photo still fresh in my mind I spent more time checking the water bodies.

Long-tailed Tit, Winkworth Arboretum, 17/11/2018.

No joy in terms of anything unusual (the female Red-crested Pochard was present both weekend days) despite a veritable fall of waterbirds in Surrey on Saturday: Slavonian and Black-necked Grebes, Goldeneye and Goosander (!) all at Hedgecourt Lake, both the aforementioned grebe species at Frensham Great Pond and Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaups, black-necked Grebes and Brent Goose at Walton!

I spent a few hours around the Walton area on Saturday, mainly in an effort to locate Dave H’s long-staying Caspian Gull on the Thames and entice it in with some bread. I checked out Sunbury Lock and Hurst Park but there was no sign (despite Dave kindly booting it off Bessborough!) and only a handful of large gulls, though one of those was an adult Yellow-legged Gull that flew downriver. At Hurst Park there were plenty of Black-headed Gulls and a few Commons, including the below 2nd-winter bird, a plumage very rarely seen at Thorncombe Street despite the large winter flocks of this species.

Common Gull, Hurst Park, 17/11/2018.

Having completed a quiet couple of hours on patch on Sunday morning I found myself lured back to The Burgh. I really love this site. It’s peaceful, you feel like you have it to yourself at times and there are always birds to see. In a two-hour walk seven raptor species were noted, including one of the ringtail Hen Harriers that’s been around for a few weeks, a male Marsh Harrier and a Merlin that obligingly sat up in a hedgerow for a few minutes.

A few Grey Partridges were seen, but only one Corn Bunting made it into the notebook. Hopefully the wintering Bewick’s Swan herd will be back in the Arun valley soon, giving me another reason to head down. The weekend ended with Harry Kane diverting the ball home with five minutes remaining to send England to the Nations League finals next summer – happy days all-round.

Merlin, The Burgh, 18/11/2018.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Rails, redheads and rings

Water Rail is a species that’s become increasingly difficult to connect with at Thorncombe Street. As recently as the 1990s they bred at Winkworth Arboretum, in Phillimore, the only notable stretch of vegetated wetland in the entire area. Nowadays they are strictly a winter visitor, when one can normally be heard squealing from Phillimore at either side of the day. However, in 2017 numbers were well down, with only a handful of records, and this year was the first time I’d failed to connect with any during the first winter period.

Blurry Water Rail, Phillimore (Winkworth Arboretum), 10/11/2018.

Thankfully their continued winter presence was confirmed on Saturday with no less than three in the north end of Phillimore at dawn. Two were heard-only, but one actually showed itself – a very rare sight here – though sadly the camera focus failed me in the early morning gloom. After two noc-mig birds in spring, it was nice to know this habitat can still hold them. Indeed, with the National Trust planning to improve Phillimore in 2019, perhaps they can return as breeders one day

Aside from the rails, and a Hawfinch at Tilsey Farm later that morning, the weekend was quiet, though today Gillian S saw a Little Egret at Bramley Park Lake and a possible Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Winkworth. The unseasonable mild weather and strong southeast winds made it feel most unlike November, and there was little to write home about, leaving me to remain thoroughly gripped by a patch first midweek.

Little Egret, Bramley Park Lake, 13/11/2018 (G Stokes).

Visiting birder Steve Benton photographed two redhead Goosander at – quite surprisingly – Eastwaters Pond on Tuesday. This sawbill was probably number one on the list of likely next firsts for Thorncombe Street but nevertheless it’s a superb record and find. The secluded ponds in the north section look pretty suitable for the species, and there have been recent records on similar water bodies in Wonersh, just to the north, in recent years.

I searched in vain in atrocious conditions on Wednesday morning before work, and also at the weekend. Unfortunately it seems these birds have moved on, though they may be hiding on one of the private waters; either way I'll be keeping my eyes peeled while scanning the ducks. On that subject its worth mentioning the relative abundance of Shoveler at present, continuing their erratic status here after a poor 2016/17. Goosander is the 163rd species to be recorded in the Thorncombe Street area, and the 131st of 2018.

Goosanders, Eastwaters Pond, 6/11/2018 (S Benton).

Most of Saturday was non-birding, though during this I managed to get among the Littlehampton gulls. Aside from a somewhat shy 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull it was just Herrings and Black-heads, though a colour-ringed bird of the latter species was present. It turns out this individual was seven-years old, and in December 2016 was ringed at JakuĊĦevec dump in Zagreb, Croatia. I found it pretty fascinating to be honest; the fact that one winter it was in the Balkans, and another in West Sussex, demonstrates the oft-nomadic life of gulls.

Black-headed Gull (S8KC), Littlehampton, 10/11/2018.

Gulls will feature more and more on the weekend menu as we slip into winter although – in keeping with the last few autumns – it seems we’re going to have a late, great gold-rush of northeasterlies from Saturday on. They are forecast to originate in the Baltic states before moving up and west through southern Scandinavia, and given the dearth of winter thrushes and finches so far, vis-mig could be pretty decent, and it’s likely a surprise or two will turn up. Of course, any such surprise is more likely on the east coast than sleepy Surrey, but we can live in hope!

Monday, 5 November 2018

The spice of life

A nice weekend with a variety of sites, taking in some that I’d not visited for a long time, as well as an overdue high-quality vis-mig on patch. With several Great Grey Shrikes appearing at various locations throughout the country during the past week or so I thought I’d visit Thursley Common in an attempt to find one. Thursley is a traditional site for Great Grey Shrike, and has hosted wintering birds for decades. With big winter territories and mobile habits it can be hard enough to find one there even when you know one’s about and, alas, I couldn’t locate one on Saturday morning despite spending a few hours traipsing around.

Dartford Warbler, Thursley Common, 3/11/2018.
I did however manage a nice selection of species including – most surprisingly – a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which was with a tit and Goldcrest flock at the top of Elstead Common, on the edge of woodland to the south of Pot Common. A pair is thought to still breed near Witley Common but it was one of those brilliant moments when you chance upon a species you’re totally not expecting to see. I also had a flyover Hawfinch, a late House Martin zipping around on the southerly wind, a few Bramblings and nice views of Dartford Warblers.

I do have a fondness of Thursley. I visited lots when I was younger, and also spent some memorable days there in more recent years while reconnecting with the Surrey scene. I feel like a lot gets missed there (I’m unaware of anyone who patches it or even works it regularly), but I’ve always been put off by its popularity; it can be heaving with families and dog-walkers in nice weather, and during the spring and summer an offensive amount of people come to photograph a Cuckoo that’s been tamed by years of meal worm feeding …

Springhead Hill, 3/11/2018.
After a quick glance at Mill Pond it was off to Sussex. With the sun out, a gentle breeze from the south and an apparent influx of Rough-legged Buzzards into the country I decided to have a have a stab at finding one myself. The Burgh (or realistically the whole South Downs network from Arundel up to Amberley and east to Kithurst Hill) is one of my most favourite places. It’s beautiful, with endless far-reaching vistas, and carefully managed farmland habitat with the associated birdlife creates an almost nostalgic feeling when walking the area. I’ve mentioned how much I like the area before, and it’s somewhere that’d be a dream to patch.

Hen Harrier, Wepham Down (The Burgh), 3/11/2018.
The beloved and I looped round from Springhead Hill, down to the Burgh, then back up via Rackham Hill in glorious conditions. There were hardly any other people about, and despite not finding a Rough-legged Buzzard the list of birds was decent (indeed unimaginable if one was in Surrey): a ringtail Hen Harrier, with strikingly rufous underparts that suggested it was a young bird, two coveys of Grey Partridges and a couple of Corn Buntings highlighted, with plenty of Skylarks and Yellowhammers. I reckon I’ll visit again soon.

Sunday was patch day, with the slightest hint of east in a southerly wind enough to tempt me into a pre-dawn vismig start. I was rewarded with comfortably my best watch of the season – 24 species in total, including a seriously high-flying Little Egret moving northeast, 33 Bramblings (including a single flock of 28), 6,369 Woodpigeons, 519 Redwings, 80 Fieldfares, 86 Starlings, two each of Yellowhammer and Skylark and 69 Chaffinches.

Little Egret, Tilsey Farm, 4/11/2018.
It was nice to finally enjoy the type of vismig session I know the patch is capable of. I’ve been starved of sessions the last couple of months, mainly because of work, and it’s meant I’ve needed to reshape my birding quite a bit. As a result, it felt good to be reminded of how enjoyable standing in a field close to home can be. Last week, noc-mig delivered perhaps its final gift of an unbelievably successful first year of sound-recording here, picking up at least one Brent Goose as it purred its way over Allden’s Hill at 00:43 on 31st. This constitutes the third site record.

There is little to expect from the patch for the rest of the year, save the totally unexpected or perhaps an unusual duck. I thought I’d scored big in the latter department when I spotted a lone Eider on a private pond … unfortunately there was more than one, and indeed it transpired a rather extravagant collection is going on!

Pet Eiders (!), southwest Surrey, 4/11/2018.