Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The year of the pipit ends with pipits

Apart from a jaunt to West Sussex, the last few days of 2019 have been somewhat quiet, despite a nice haul of species acquired on said day out and a few local treats still knocking about. It is ironic that, after a year in which pipits have featured prominently, most of the highlights have involved various pipits.

Green-ringed littoralis Rock Pipit, Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

On 26th I was at my parents in West Sussex. I’d been looking forward to some birding but the weather was absolutely foul all day – I was restricted to a seawatch (with Great Northern Diver highlighting) and a brief, successful scan for the Dell Quay Long-tailed Duck, before failing to locate any Brent Geese flocks.

There was no birding time on 27th or 28th, though in the evening of the latter two male Tawny Owls were calling from Allden’s Hill. On 29th, however, the day was clear and it started on the Lammas Lands, where I could only locate one Water Pipit in a half-hour stomp around. I suspect the three (or more?) are still out there and the next couple of months and following winters will answer the question of whether or not this is indeed a ‘secret’ site for the species.

Turnstone, Selsey Bill, 26 December 2019.

Having discovered the Water Pipits on 24th, Sam J produced another quality local find the following day when he had a Cetti’s Warbler by Perry Bridge on Unstead Water Meadows. This really is a good bird in south-west Surrey so I stopped in after the Lammas Lands. No sign, sadly, but at least four noisy Water Rails, a Stonechat and no fewer than nine singing passerine species were most welcome.

It was then down the coast. Fishbourne Creek, west of Chichester, has had a good run this autumn and we decided to walk to Birdham and back. Of 66 species logged, 10 were waders – usual fare aside from a Jack Snipe flushed by the rising tide. Of seven gull species, there was one each of 1st-winter Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gull, while wildfowl included four Goldeneye and two Red-breasted Mergansers.

Little Egret, Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

Gull flock (mainly Common), Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

The sewage works near Fishbourne look absolutely mega, stuffed with scrub, reeds and hedges. So many interesting insectivores must get in there … sadly all I could manage was a handful of Chiffchaffs and a couple of Cetti’s Warblers. Surely a good place to have a poke around in autumn.

Wigeon, Redshank, Goldeneye and Kingfisher, Fishbourne Creek,
29 December 2019.

The highlight of the walk was a small, loose flock of pipits on the saltmarsh at the north end of the creek. A Water Pipit had been knocking about here for a while a couple of weeks back – what was surely the same bird was seen in flight twice and briefly on the deck. Best of all, however, was a green-ringed Rock Pipit.

Water Pipit, Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

Rock Pipits, Fishbourne Creek, 29 December 2019.

It turned out this was a littoralis bird and had been ringed by Sunnmøre ringing group at Maletangen Observatory on the west coast of Norway, some 1,407 kilometres away. Sadly, I couldn’t get close enough to read the exact number so it’s age and sex will never be known – as the pictures testify, I was hard enough to get any photo. Migrant littoralis must be seriously under recorded inland …

Afterwards, we visited Amberley Wild Brooks to connect with the paltry Arun Valley Bewick’s Swan ‘herd’. This sad tale of decline encouraged me to write this piece the other week; I’m particularly fond of these birds and visit them every winter. As if by Christmas miracle, this trio arrived on Christmas Day (by far the latest ever arrival date) and have been favouring the vast floodplain at Amberley since.

Bewick's Swans, Amberley Wild Brooks, 29 December 2019.

Having enjoyed decent enough views of the swans, we headed up to the viewpoint at Rackham. The scene was breathtaking and I regret not taking photos. It looked like Biebrza or Madre de las Marismas: literally thousands of wildfowl and Lapwings, with an associated cast of raptors (five species). It was quite special watching flocks come and go, to the sound of whistling Wigeon, ringing Teal and bopping Pintail, while a Marsh Harrier cruised over.

We made an effort to walk Rackham Wood prior to reaching the viewpoint. This awesome woodland – managed by the RSPB – was stuffed with seemingly multiple parties of tits, Treecreepers, Nuthatches and woodpeckers. I was quite amazed when a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker appeared briefly in front of me, though surely the species breeds here or nearby. Four Marsh Tits were also tallied.

Treecreeper, Rackham Wood, 29 December 2019.

I had a quick look at Unstead SF yesterday. Plenty of Goldcrests were knocking about, along with a few Chiffchaffs, including one curious individual. Strikingly pale underneath, it was drab/beige above but in some light appeared quite a bit more olive/green.

It also had next to no supercilium and the legs and feet didn’t look great for tristis – probably a candidate for abietinus (Scandinavian). On warm days up to eight chiffs can be seen from the path. But given the best habitat extends far from said path, there are likely tens of them wintering on the site.

Possible abietinus Chiffchaff, Unstead SF, 30 December 2019.

Today I had a quick look at patch in the morning. It’s a good job I’m not going hard for the patch year list in 2020 as it’s truly quiet, especially on Snowdenham Mill Pond. Anyway, 144 Common Gulls at Lower Combe Farm was the first notable count of the winter. Who knows what 2020 will bring? In the short term it looks like fog, with a gentle south-easterly rolling in tonight. Reviews of 2019 on patch and in wider Surrey will be up soon.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Who said midwinter was quiet?

It’s been a busy week or so since my last post. Local birding always seems to be productive during midwinter and some quality birds have been unearthed in south-west Surrey of late, meaning I’ve been all over the place in the past few days. As well as this, I managed to add a new bird to my Western Palearctic list.

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 19 December 2019.

On 17th, the date of my last post, great news came via the at the death arrival of a Great Grey Shrike to Thursley Common. It looked like being another blank winter – and perhaps the end of an area for the species in this part of the world – so I was not alone in being delighted when news broke.

I was on the common early doors the following day, in glorious conditions. A Water Rail squealed from Pudmore, several Dartford Warblers chased one another around in the sun – it was as perfect as this place can get in winter. A hike up a high tumulus delivered the target, as I glimpsed the Great Grey Shrike in flight a couple of times.

Thursley Common, 18 December 2019.

The bird proved hard to see throughout the rest of the day and on 19th, before seemingly disappearing. As it happened, Shaun P relocated presumably the same individual at Frensham Common from 20th to 21st – it seems like this bird will be particularly mobile this winter.

Later in the day on 18th Abel and I checked some local spots, the best bird being a Marsh Tit on his Loseley and Binscombe patch.

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 19 December 2019.

On 19th, David, Sam and I headed to Bedfordshire for the gaudy male Black-throated Thrush that was found at Whipsnade Zoo mid-month. It was the ideal twitch: free entry to the zoo, on the bird not long after arrival, cracking views and good company. It’s a seriously impressive beast and I recommend visiting.

We had superb views as it feasted on berries and worms, in loose association with Redwings and Blackbirds. I’m not exactly deeply passionate about national vagrants but I really do have a thing for Siberian/Asian thrushes – whether on a remote Shetland isle or on patch, I’m not sure one could propose a rare I’d rather find than one of those thrushes.

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 19 December 2019.

While at the zoo, a Kestrel and some Siskins were logged. Better came on the journey to and from Bedfordshire though, with David and I scoring Peregrine over the Hog’s Back and a Lapwing flock near London Colney.

Heavy rainfall over the last week or so turned the water meadows from Godalming to Unstead into veritable lakes – I’ve not seen them that high since the famous 2013/14 floods. Anyway, birds have moved in and so I have had a few casual looks. Nothing major, save a goose increase, some displaced Snipe (at Unstead Water Meadows) and Lapwings and a high count of six Little Egrets.

Black-headed and Common Gulls on Unstead Water Meadows, 22 December 2019.

Unstead SF has been treated to some rain too (much needed), but the best birds continue to be passerines at this ever-drying site. A Firecrest on 21st was nice, but better came on 23rd, when Abel and I relocated the Siberian Chiffchaff. In glorious conditions we had at least seven collybita, including a couple bursting into song! I guess the tristis could winter on site, but will presumably be best sought on mild and bright days …

On 22nd, seeking better views of the shrike, I walked Frensham Common. Sadly I dipped (and there’s been no news since), but I did log a singing Marsh Tit, two Egyptian Geese and six Dartford Warblers.

Reed Bunting, Unstead SF, 23 December 2019.

Red Kite, Unstead SF, 23 December 2019.

Patch has been badly neglected this month, but a couple of enjoyable visits recently have reminded me why I love it so much. On 23rd, Abel and I visited Bonhurst Farm and, in little of 20 minutes, scored Sparrowhawk, 100+ Redwings and Fieldfares and a most dapper Grey Wagtail (which seems to be wintering on the farm and even burst into song).

A visit to Winkworth Arboretum the following day was really uplifting, with the sun out and no fewer than five species in song, including this Coal Tit you can listen to here. A Woodcock flushed from the disabled car park was my first at the arboretum since 1 January 2017. Egyptian Goose, two Lesser Redpolls, Marsh Tit and a Reed Bunting were other highlights.

Grey Wagtail, Bonhurst Farm, 23 December 2019.

Sparrowhawk, Bonhurst Farm, 23 December 2019.

Later in the day, Sam messaged with the quite amazing news he’d located two Water Pipits on the Lammas Lands at Godalming. This will probably constitute its own post in time, but on the face of it it could be a huge discovery – could it be a regular wintering site for a species long associated with the Wey Valley?

Of course, a great autumn for the species combined with the flooding could be a more probable explanation, though these water meadows are desperately under watched. I visited on a glorious Christmas morning and, to my delight, had at least three Water Pipits in classic short grass/wet channel and pool habitat.

Water Pipit sonogram.

Lammas Lands.

They were mobile (only seen in flight, doing the classic Water Pipit flush up high before dropping down not far away), but also vocal, thus I managed sound recordings but failed to get any images. You can listen to a sound recording here.

Stonechat, Lammas Lands, 25 December 2019.

Raven, Lammas Lands, 25 December 2019.

Views were OK – the contrasty pale underparts and long tail stood out. In a fun session, I also logged Raven, Reed Bunting, a pair of Stonechats, four Snipe and two Teal.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Easy like a Sunday in Norfolk

After a very long and busy week at work, it was nice to get up to Norfolk for the first time in years for some classic winter birding on Sunday. What was initially a trip to The Netherlands with Sam, plans eventually morphed into a big day in Alan Partridge country. Abel, Arjun and Matt joined and, for the former pair, it was their first proper trip to Norfolk. Subsequently many lifers were on the cards, which added to the planning and fun greatly. In all it was an excellent day, during which we tallied up some 109 species.

Pink-footed Geese and Wigeon, Holkham Marsh, 15 December 2019.

An offensively early start saw us pull up at Titchwell car park several minutes before sunrise, having scored a couple of Woodcock from the car near Sandringham on the way up. We’d timed our visit here to coincide with high tide, as pretty much any seabird was a lifer for Arjun. While this meant waders were somewhat thin on the ground, this famous RSPB reserve served as a wonderful intro for the two Norfolk debutants.

On the walk to the beach, a Barn Owl and Merlin were logged, along with 30 or so Marsh Harriers leaving roost. The usual assortment of wildfowl were on the pools, the iconic constant streams of Pink-footed Geese overhead and some nifty day list passerines, including Chiffchaff and Kingfisher, were bagged.

Red-throated Diver, Holkham Gap, 15 December 2019.

Dave S, of Mole Valley fame who’s recently moved to Norfolk, was waiting for us on the beach. Here a couple of Goldeneye and a distant alcid species kicked things off, before two Long-tailed Duck appeared on the sea in front of us – target number one. Four more flew past later on.

Also here was two 1st-winter Velvet Scoter, a female Eider (both other targets), several distant Red-throated Divers (also a target), many Red-breasted Mergansers, Fulmar and Great Crested Grebe. The stroll back to the car park produced two Water Pipits, though only one was seen. In all, we tallied 71 species at Titchwell – not bad!

We had a fairly fixed plan for the day, but allowed time to have a quick search of the farmland south of Burnham Market, where the Lesser White-fronted Goose had resurfaced yesterday. Unfortunately, we had zero geese of any description, but did add Fieldfare, Redwing, Stock Dove and Yellowhammer to the day list, as well as a few Hares.

Pink-footed Geese (including 'XFA'), Holkham Marsh, 15 December 2019.

Next up was a quick lay-by stop overlooking Burnham Overy marshes, with Short-eared Owl on the hit-list (no joy). Most stuff was distant, but we made out several huge Golden Plover flocks and a single Great Egret. After this were more lay-bys, this time to the west of Holkham Marshes. We were supposed to be looking for target number four – White-fronted Goose – but were heavily distracted by the beautiful sight of no fewer than 19 Egyptian Geese.

The number of birds out on the marshes was typically impressive. Thousands of Pink-feet included two collar-ringed birds (awaiting details on them), while five Barnacle Geese flew over. There were thousands each of Wigeon and Teal. The best moment, however, came in the space of a few seconds: a Peregrine took out a Redshank mid-air, before a Marsh Harrier robbed it of it’s lunch, all while a Short-eared Owl drifted past in the foreground.

Common Scoter, Holkham Gap, 15 December 2019.

SEO was looking unlikely so this fly-by was a bit of a bonus. Next up was Holkham Gap, where Snow Bunting and Shore Lark were hoped for. A long loop for four of us (while a somewhat hungover and sleep-deprived Sam disguised a rest in the café as ‘hanging back and scanning the geese’) yielded none of the targets, though a close Common Scoter and Great Northern Diver (the latter a lifer for Arjun) were bonuses on the sea, where several Red-throated Divers and many more Common Scoter were seen.

Thankfully, Sam had recovered in time to make it to the roped off section, where he called with news of both Snow Buntings and Shore Larks. We headed over, before spending half an hour or so admiring these most pleasant of species. I’ve seen a few Snow Buntings before (and recently, too), but Shore Lark I have only seen in Britain once before, so it was wonderful to soak up relatively good views as they fed in the saltmarsh. They even called a few times too.

Snow Buntings, Holkham Gap, 15 December 2019.

A better call was that of a Lapland Bunting, which flew over our heads as we watched our quarry. This was very much a bonus, and it was heard again a few minutes later. We suspected it may have been in a small Meadow Pipit flock nearby. The sun was out in force here (we were very lucky with the weather) but, with time of the essence, we moved on.

Shore Larks, Holkham Gap, 15 December 2019.

Wells-next-the-Sea was the next port of call. A juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard has been present just to the west of the village for a few weeks now, and it couldn’t have cooperated with our plans better as it sat under a bush upon arrival. We were keen to see it fly and, thankfully, after a while it did, albeit at distance. It also put in a novel hover, before disappearing to the north. We also scored Red Kite here.

Once we had our fill, we decided to gamble on the White-fronts one last time, having been recommended a lay-by with a higher vantage. Here we connected, with at least 20 birds out on the marshes. We had a few swigs of coffee, a bite to eat then commenced inland, towards the Yare Valley on the other side of Norwich, with Taiga Bean Geese set in our sights.

Rough-legged Buzzard, Wells-next-the-Sea, 15 December 2019.

An extremely convenient pull-over site for Little Owl, five minutes up the road from Buckenham Marshes, did the business – a lifer for Arjun. We then parked up at Buckenham and traipsed towards the river bank, from which these notoriously distant and elusive geese can be seen. En route we noted several Chinese Water Deer and Muntjac.

From the river bank, it was easy picking out White-fronted Geese, Barnacle Geese and a few Ruff, but the Taigas were not playing ball. A couple of very distant candidates soon slipped out of view among the thousands of Pink-feet – ultimately time was against us. To be honest, views of this recent split would have been rather unsatisfactory here. It’s mad to think more than 100 wintered at this site just a few years ago; this winter the best count has been eight ...

Anyway, realising sundown was upon us sooner than we thought, Abel broke several land speed records to get to Stubb Mill, Hickling Broad, for sundown. We walked with urgency to the view point, noting Water Pipit and Barn Owl as we went. When we arrived, light was already fading and the couple of folk already there had told us the Cranes had already disappeared.

Lapwings, Shackleford farmland, 14 December 2019.

However, it wasn’t long before another Crane flew past – phew. Tens of Marsh Harriers were whirling into roost too. Eventually we were the only people left. From around 4 pm, for half an hour or so, we were treated to a truly atmospheric end to the day. 25 more Cranes flew in, including a group right over our heads, calling as they went (see Matt’s video here) – a proper goose bump moment.

The amount of birds that flew over in near complete darkness was amazing – four Whooper Swans, a Bittern, hundreds of Pink-feet and ducks, a couple of Woodcock and a Sparrowhawk. As well as this, we had two Tawny Owls and another Barn Owl. Superb stuff and a perfect end to the day.

After such a fun day, it seems moot whether any comment on my other birding over the weekend is worthy. However, for what it’s worth, on Saturday, Winkworth held two Mute Swans, but otherwise patch was quiet.

Little Egrets, Unstead SF, 14 December 2019.

Unstead produced two Little Egrets, but not much else. The water meadows there are extremely flooded at the moment, and thus holding more birds than normal. A look at Shackleford produced no Hen Harrier (which has presumably moved on), though 20 Lapwings flew over and a Chiffchaff was in a tit flock.