Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday 22 January 2019

Dusk delivers

The last week or so conjured up a mixed bag of weather – largely cold – though the really hard conditions forecast for some time never quite materialised. As a result, patch has been a steady affair, though some nice records have occurred with three new species for the 2019 Thorncombe Street list, as well as some notable counts. Moment of the weekend, however, came away from patch on Sunday evening …

Little Owl, Bonhurst Farm, 17/1/2019.

I was able to get a morning session in on Thursday. In glorious sunshine there wasn’t masses of action, though concluding the visit with a Little Egret at Bramley Park Lake was pleasing. Far more satisfactory, however, was confirming the continued presence of one of the Little Owl pairs, with a bird catching the rays at Bonhurst Farm. That is came not long after I suggested they’d be hard to locate this year is apparently a nice piece of reverse psychology. So, I’m never going to see Rough-legged Buzzard here …

Two species having a good winter are Gadwall and Meadow Pipit. Some notable flocks of the latter have been notched up during the last few days including two separate groups of more than 30. Gadwall are ever-increasing and 22 on Saturday was a joint highest site count. Despite the drop in temperature no other ducks have increased and Sunday WeBS survey was quiet, though a few Shoveler have appeared on Mill Pond for the first time this year.

Meadow Pipits, Lea Farm, 17/1/2019.
Linnet, Bonhurst Farm, 17/1/2019.

Saturday was damp and gloomy so little birding took place. I did however enjoy quality time with some Marsh Tits. I mentioned increased numbers in a recent post and, from a new hide (sadly private) on one of the estates, I was thoroughly entertained by two individuals for an hour or so. It’s well known that this species has the greatest memory of all tits and these guys were constantly flying to and from the feeders, stashing away nyger seed and peanuts.

Marsh Tit, Ridings Pools, 19/1/2019.

In terms of weather Sunday was a complete opposite, with sunshine and clear skies. This prompted two year firsts: a skywatch and displaying raptors. I spent two hours on The Ridge gazing at the sky, hoping for a nice harrier or Merlin to dash through. Alas, none materialised, and the displaying birds of prey were just the commoner locals, but it was still nice to be out and feeling hopeful, even if two Crossbills was the best I could manage. Away from here, I did bag another Little Egret, at Eastwaters Pond.

Little Egret, Eastwaters Pond, 20/1/2019.
Sparrowhawk, Bonhurst Farm, 17/1/2019.

It was also quite a treat to be on the patch with birders – at least four others were out and about in the Thorncombe Street area during the day and while Abel is a bit of a fixture now, ‘guests’ are still very rare! He managed at least seven Crossbills at Nore Hanger (it’s a good winter for them) and Gillian was delighted to catch up with one of the Little Owls and the wintering Firecrest at Bramley Park Lake.

Reed Bunting, The Ridge, 20/1/2019.

Common Gulls, The Ridge, 20/1/2019.

Despite a relatively quiet day the fine weather felt perfect for a smart owl or raptor, and I was tempted out one final time towards sundown. Last week I stated my intentions to give Unstead Sewage Farm a bit of a check when I can and, having exhausted efforts on patch, I figured I’d have a late afternoon stomp around there, in case I could locate a Barn Owl or Woodcock. Wandering a little off-piste I flushed a Snipe, with a Water Rail calling nearby and the Green Sandpiper was still bobbing about. Birds were ditching into various roosts and with the temperature and amount of light dropping, I decided to call it a day.

Literally as soon as I turned to head back, I found myself looking at the silhouette of a Marsh Harrier – not what I was expecting at all! The bird calmly continued fairly low north over the meadows, seemingly looking for somewhere to spend the night. To be honest, I expected it to drop in, but I lost it as it made its way towards Broadford. Surely, it must’ve roosted at Shalford Water Meadows … The dim light and unexpected appearance account for the poor images (Photoshop tried its best).

A definite weekend highlight, though I admit a tinge of annoyance I hadn’t seen it over the patch. I strongly suspect it cruised up the Arun and then Wey on the raptor-friendly conditions, though a mid-January record is unusual for a bird that peaks in Surrey in March/April and August/September. Matt later told me that numbers in the Arundel Marsh Harrier roost have dropped off recently – perhaps this individual got a bit restless and decided to have a nose north? Either way, a splendid encounter and my first in Surrey (where it remains a rare bird – perhaps 4-5 a year) since a patch individual in 2016.

Ravens, The Ridge, 20/1/2019.

Things were rounded off yesterday with another Ridge vigil, this time fuelled by the optimistic thought that some hard weather movement may take place. It didn’t, in short, though several flocks of Starlings moved keenly southwest, suggestive of birds on the run. I’d have taken two Goosander flying over, which Wes scored atop Leith Hill tower, but in the end it was a watch that goes down as valuable hours of not much seen in the bank – in the inland patch game they all count as currency to eventually exchange for a rare!

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Green Sandpiper showing well down memory lane

The last week or so on patch has been somewhat slow for myself, with the uninspiring weather not exactly helping to liven things up. That said I haven’t put in a huge number of hours and indeed have endured that rarest of things, patch grippage! Abel enjoyed Little Egret and Peregrine on Saturday, both year firsts, and species that are not easy to connect with here. On Sunday I had a day birding in Sussex, with a mixed bag of results.

Gadwall, Mill Pond, 12/1/2019.

My humbler patch offerings on Saturday included Brambling, continued Marsh Tit abundance and – best of all – Chiffchaff. The latter was a mild vindication of my new efforts to check neglected areas, with the individual in question in a nondescript copse at Goose Green. Chiffchaff are rare here in winter, or at least hard to come by. Certainly, three birds (including a frustratingly silent Siberian candidate), in Furze Field with Matt in January 2015, stands out as an odd record.

On the subject of Chiffchaffs, I’ve been popping into Unstead Sewage Farm a fair bit recently. I pass it on my way to and from patch and have been giving the wintering birds around the works and lagoons a going through, in case there’s something hidden among them. Nothing of note so far, though a crafty look at the old lagoons on Saturday did yield a Green Sandpiper, along with several Snipe.

Green Sandpiper, Unstead Sewage Farm, 12/1/2019.

Pleasant, but ultimately sad, as any time spent here is these days – had things run differently, or if my visit was on a Saturday a decade or two ago, the site would have been packed with both eager patchers, visitors and – ultimately – birds. The main man Brian doesn't even visit anymore and it really is like a ghost town. Some of my first and richest birding memories came at Unstead and looking at the last remaining speck of suitable habitat gives a feel of stepping back in time. I’ll continue to visit – it’d be fitting for the site to sign off with one last county rarity, like the Red-necked Phalarope, Purple Heron and so many others before …

Purple Sandpiper, Newhaven, 13/1/2019.

For a while David and I have planned to take young Surrey birder Arjun out for a day in the field. We eventually managed to nail a date and on Sunday clocked up more than nine hours traipsing around Sussex. Offshore action let us down a bit and the short winter day meant we ran out of time a little, but we still managed 92 species, eight of which were lifers for Arjun.

Highlights included a previously suppressed, super elusive and very mobile Hume’s Warbler at Newhaven, an in-off flock of Barnacle Geese at Church Norton, a Black Redstart at Medmerry and two distant Pink-footed Geese at Rodmell Brooks. However, for me, nothing could beat the atmospheric pre-dawn start at Arundel – Woodcocks flying around our heads, quartering Barn and calling Little and Tawny Owls and Bewick’s Swans and Marsh Harriers departing from roost, all as the sun comes up … magic.

Black Redstart, Medmerry, 13/1/2019.

Hume's Warbler, Newhaven, 13/1/2019.

Numbers of wildfowl and waders seemed low at Church Norton (we didn’t see any Avocet, godwits, Knot, Pintail or Shoveler). With cold weather set to kick in for a week or two from Thursday, perhaps things will liven up everywhere, including on patch. Certainly, the lack of wildfowl is striking and the seedeater flocks on The Ridge remain small.

Friday 11 January 2019

Patch maps and an empty space

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve broken my Thorncombe Street patch into five sections. The hoped outcome is a more balanced study of a big recording area and increasingly thorough examination of slightly neglected areas. When I say it’s a big area, I mean big – its size was actually defined via the (now defunct) Surrey Birders website, for which the patch challenge size was a generous 5 km2. However, it allowed me to cast a wide net, incorporating areas of remote Surrey countryside that would otherwise not be birded at all.

On that subject (without deviating too much), take a look at the below maps I took from Birdtrack – first, a roughly 22 x 11 km area of essentially un-watched Surrey countryside, comprising diverse, rich and mature woodland, mixed farming including remaining arable sections and various hills, rivers, ponds, and scrub. I think it’s safe to say this far south part of Surrey has the smallest population of birders in the county. Anyway, this goes a little way to explaining why I study such a big space. If I could do it all, I would!

Of the six blue boxes on the top map, one is from the southern extremity of my patch and two from Thursley Common. Compare with the other map of the same size from north Surrey/south London. Sure, there’s significantly more people (and thus birders) living in the second area, but still …

Back to the main point: five sections. To outline these areas some smart maps have been drawn up. A huge thanks goes to Shaun who took the time to create these useful visuals. All can be found on the maps page here. I appreciate my patch doesn’t have clearly defined routes or parking, and there’s an element of having to ‘know’ the area. Hopefully these maps will be of use to the tentatively increasing number of visiting birders.

I’ll describe the area each map shows over the next few weeks, starting with the northern section.

North section

The Thorncombe Street Wetland Centre! This area is all about the ponds – species such as Mute Swan, Shoveler and Gadwall would be unheard of at TS if it wasn’t for Mill Pond, easily the most important water body. Aside from the noc-mig Common Scoter last year, every duck species on the TS list has been seen here, from Victorian-era Ferruginous Duck to the first site Goosander last year. Herons and egrets are always a possibility here, though there's no suitable shoreline for waders, alas.

There’s big imbalance in the north as I only really work the ponds. Hurst Hill Farm and Nurscombe Farm are terribly neglected – there’s no reason why the long-staying Black Redstart hasn’t been hiding at the former, a site I’ve not visited in months. There’s little doubt the odd Wheatear passes through too. Lonely Field is exactly that and is arguably the least watched place in the entire site. And I’m foolish to neglect: my first patch Nightingale (and the first since the 1970s) was found by a local at Clock House Lane, a tiny, scrubby area I’d otherwise never have visited …

The showy and vocal Nightingale from 2016 ... good times!

This is the most built up part of the patch, with the entirety of Bramley on the west side of the A281 included. Aside from the highest concentration of breeding Collared Doves and Starlings there’s not much to shout about, though perhaps that flock of Waxwings or garden-feeding Rosy Starling will be found one day?

On the far right of the map, outside the patch boundary, you can just about make out Bramley Sewage Farm. A mouth-watering list of species used to winter here until roughly the 1970s: Jack Snipe, hundreds of Common Snipe, Water Pipits and so on were regular, and there are records of Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier. Nowadays the working farm is very small, attracting just a few Pied Wagtails, and the surrounding fields are paddocks.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Off and underway

2019 has begun. I’ve managed to get in four full sessions on patch and this has yielded a most pleasing haul of 73 species, including some winter specialities and particularly elusive birds: Brambling, Crossbill, Firecrest, Water Rail and Woodcock are all safely on the year list, which began a little before sunrise on 1st with a thumping headache and Pheasant as the first name in the notebook.

Robin, Bonhurst Farm, 1/1/2019.

I’m slightly restructuring my patch approach this year, including the breaking down of the site to five sections (north, east, south, west and central – maps to appear soon). This should lead to more balanced study of what’s a big recording area, with hopefully more thorough looks for certain species in different sections. I’m also going to keep month lists for the first time. I’m not sure exactly what this will bring to the table, but again it should instigate more thorough examination of slightly neglected areas and help encourage levels of effort throughout the year.

As it happened, 2019 actually got off to a fairly inauspicious start – the female Pochard present at Winkworth on 31 December was of course gone by 1st and I failed to boot up any Woodcock in my traditional New Year’s Day stomp of Juniper Hill. The morning was saved by an adult Great Black-backed Gull over Brookwell, only the second-known January sighting of a species that tallies just six or seven records a year here. A late afternoon return saw better quality, with one of the Phillimore Water Rails enticed into squealing and a Kingfisher at Mill Pond.

Yellowhammers, Bonhurst Farm, 4/1/2019.

On 4th I had a few hours free in the morning and with a cold blast from the north overnight I felt optimistic. It was actually milder than predicted, though clearly a few seedeaters were forced to move about and I recorded Brambling, Lesser Redpoll and a flock of six Yellowhammers. This weekend was fairly quiet, though I did eventually get my Woodock at Furze Field (plentiful bramble scratches to go with it), as well as three Crossbills at New Barn and Firecrest at Great Brook.

Crossbill, New Barn, 5/1/2019.

I wonder who the winners and losers of 2019 will be? At this very early stage, two species are notable for their prominence. One is Egyptian Goose. Three or four years ago these were teetering between rare and scarce here, but after the first breeding record in 2017 they’ve increased, and are now being seen on the deck a lot more. A count of six yesterday seemed to involve three pairs.

Egyptian Geese, Lea Pond, 1/1/2019.

Egyptian Geese, Ridings Pools, 6/1/2019.

The other species is Marsh Tit. Wes called it out the other day – there’s definitely more around at the moment. It’s a species that does well here anyway, in the various suitable areas of habitat, but during the last week or so the laser ‘pieuw-pieuw’ seems to be coming from every pocket of woodland. Presumably they had a good 2018. On 31st December I had a minimum of five, including singing birds, at Winkworth, and since then I’ve tallied at least 12 from six different sites.

Raven, Junction Field, 6/1/2019.

It’s hard to say who the losers will be. One likely candidate is Little Owl. As recently as 2017 this species felt almost a daily presence on wires at Thorncombe Park and two other pairs were reliable, but last year they all became very hard to see. The Thorncombe Park pair has moved around a bit before but I wonder if increased corvid and large raptor numbers have made these birds more elusive. The decline of Little Owls is common knowledge, but it seems an unusually sharp drop, particularly given the dearth of hole-nesting competitors here.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

2018 patch review

I like to think that, since I moved back to the area five years ago, my annual patch performances at Thorncombe Street have undergone gradual improvement in terms of data collection, learning, numbers and quality of species recorded and engagement with locals and landowners. With a fantastic 2017 in mind, then, it’s probably safe to say there was a bit of a plateau effect in 2018.

Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers bred again in 2018.

That said, a record-breaking 132 species were recorded, pretty impressive for an inland site devoid of any real wetland. Furthermore, 71 species bred, four of which did so for the first known time. Production of the 2018 report is well underway and will be stuffed with the full facts and figures, so this is just my annual summary from a personal level. I managed a year list of 118, my second-best haul, but it felt a little empty, with no standout finds. Noc-mig stole the rarity spotlight and indeed played a pivotal role in the record year count.

I managed three new additions to my Thorncombe Street list in 2018: Black Redstart, Golden Plover and Mealy Redpoll. This is a relatively paltry return compared with previous years, but I have to be realistic and accept that I simply have far less time on patch these days, the stern-faced reality of weekdays spent commuting to London. Despite being just years old, the chaotic enthusiasm of essentially full-time patching from 2015-2017 now seems somewhat nostalgic!

A fond memory from a poor year, this Black Redstart is probably the
most twitched bird in Thorncombe Street history!

In addition to the limited time, as I wrack up more years here there are inevitably less and less species available to add … I even managed to miss a patch first – Goosander – though that brings me nicely on to a positive of 2018. For the first time since Matt and I co-worked the area in 2015, Thorncombe Street benefited from visiting birders. This varied from photographers seeking fairly standard species to individuals prepared to put in a bit of patch graft, as well as regular ringing sessions on Broomy Down – all were most welcome, and between them they contributed wonderfully to the year list in various ways. I hope this theme continues in 2019.

Below is the usual summary of the year on a seasonal basis, from a personal perspective. As mentioned, the 2018 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report is in the pipeline and I’ll publish details of this soon.

Ringing with Steve on Broomy Down has been great so far, and I look
forward to starting again next month.

Winter bird of 2018

There wasn’t a great deal to pick from this year but the site’s first – and long overdue – Golden Plovers were a most-welcome addition to my patch list. The first birds were found by Abel, who had only just started visiting the area, and they arrived following a remarkable influx of Lapwings during the 'Beast from the East'. Having to twitch something on patch is an exceptionally rare event, though I was pleased to ‘find my own’ four days later (and then nine more in September).

Overdue and most welcome: the first patch Golden Plover.
I hoped Hawfinches would stay and breed, but most left before spring.

Spring bird of 2018

Spring is my favourite time of year – it always has been and always will be. However, slightly freakish weather meant it took ages to get going in 2018 and, when it eventually did, it all seemed to be over in a flash. I found it a very frustrating time. I was grilling the area from late March to June, but unearthed very little reward. A Whimbrel on 6 May was good, but my fondest memory was of two Turtle Doves that Abel and I had at Goose Green on 16 May (and surely the same birds that spent some time down the road at Alfold shortly after). Given their status and horrible decline it was a noteworthy moment, though I’m sure any older readers of this who remember them as common are shaking their heads at the thought that such a record would be a seasonal highlight.

This Whimbrel was good, but eclipsed in spring by two Turtle Doves.
It was a good year for Wheatear, including this spring pair.

Summer bird of 2018

If I’m honest my memory of summer 2018 is a sticky, sweltering blur of heatwaves, musical intake and an emotional, wholly-consuming rollercoaster of a World Cup. Birding didn’t so much take a back seat but was certainly on the passenger’s side for the most part. My first patch Purple Emperors were certainly a non-avian highlight, but the best memory for me was of watching a Barn Owl carrying food over Allden’s Hill on 1 July – the first sign of a breeding attempt here – less than an hour after the England-Croatia full-time whistle had blown.

Little Owls were one of three owl species to breed.

The abundance of Spotted Flycatchers is a summer highlight.

Autumn bird of 2018

Only one winner really – the female Black Redstart that pitched up at Bonhurst Farm for two months from 17 August. Only the second for the site, I was really chuffed when I chanced upon her, and plenty of people came for a look during a lengthy stay. August is reliably good on patch, and it really fired me up for a better second half of the year. This, sadly, didn’t materialise. Other honourable mentions go to a Nightingale on 29 August, and a couple of Ring Ouzels during October and November. All rather tame, but oh how different it could’ve been …

The Black Redstart stayed at Bonhurst Farm for two months.

This smart Ring Ouzel was an all-too-brief November visitor.

Best migration day of 2018

I don’t want to sound continually negative but vis-mig, normally the aspect of birding/patching I enjoy most, was sub-standard in 2018, with a bang average September and October. There were very few standout watches. Moments, seemingly aside from wider movement, stood out – a record 1,209 House Martins south in two hours on 8 September being one example. In terms of a migration experience, this would win hands down.

1,209 House Martins on 8 September was a new record.

Some combi-noc-mig/vis-mig days stood out. On 14/15 November a notable thrush arrival occurred, with 269 Redwings on noc-mig before hundreds more were seen on the move on the morning of 15th, including a smart male Ring Ouzel. 31 August/1 September was really good too – three Crossbills, 400 House Martins, Redstart, Sand Martin, Sedge Warbler, 300 Swallows, two Wheatears and Yellow Wagtail visually with Little Ringed Plover, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and another Yellow Wag on noc-mig.

None of those felt like proper migration sessions though, when you’re stood motionless for hours, constantly tallying up birds. 7,272 individuals of 24 species on 4 November was good, but lacked the X-factor. Post-Beast reorientation over Allden’s Hill on 4 March was really enjoyable: Water Pipit, two Golden Plovers, five gull species and a few Hawfinches making for an excellent session.

Autumn vis-mig flattered to deceive.

The winner, though, goes to 22 September, again on Allden’s Hill. A nice flock of nine Golden Plovers, a distant group of 18 unidentified godwit sp., three Yellow Wagtails and a steady trickle of southbound Swallows made for a nice summer/autumn handover. However, best of all, was a new record count of my favourite vis-mig species: Meadow Pipit. 564 in just over two hours was a total pleasure to watch, count and listen too. I eagerly await their late March return movements already.

Disappointment of 2018

I’ve touched on various niggles in 2018. There was also the probable Twite recently on The Ridge (though I still harbour hopes of pining this bird down). However, there is one killer moment, that hangs over the year as a fat, gloomy and miserable cloud. I don’t want to go into it really, and the more I think about it (which I try not to do), the more I’m sure what it must have been … 23 September 2018 will haunt me for a very long time.

Bird of 2018

That the above record isn’t in this column pains me, but that’s how it goes. 2018 didn’t deliver a star bird, as previous years have. Not for my eyes anyway. Ultimately, while they aren’t records that can go on my personal lists or qualify as finds, the totally awe-inspiring and unexpected results of sticking a microphone on Allden’s Hill remain the unrivalled highlight of the year: Brent Goose, WigeonCommon Scoter, Water RailOystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Whimbrel, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper, Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipit were some of 37 species picked up actively migrating by the recorder. Mind-blowing!

Water Rail was one species picked up on noc-mig.

Six of these species were new for the site, with many more either first or second records. Migration is the element of birding that grabs me most, and to learn of these species and their movements occurring in my little corner of leafy, seemingly birdless Surrey, was truly incredible. I strongly recommend Surrey birders to start recording – it can cost as little as £80 to get a decent set up, and it’s so interesting. 

Anyway, what of the bird of 2018 I hear you cry? Was it a Goldfinch, or a Linnet? No – it was this beauty, an Ortolan Bunting, calling loud and clear over Allden’s Hill at 03:28 on 23 August. If accepted, it's the 13th for the county, the first in outer Surrey and probably the best bird that’s passed over here since the famous (to me) White-tailed Eagle of 1858. A lot more detail on the record will be found in the 2018 report, and I’ll eventually get around to posting something about it on here.

The kinked sonogram of dreams!

After the highs of 2017 I told myself I'd go back to basics in patch 2018, but it's hard to slip down from manic, year-tick-chasing gear to studious cruise control overnight from 31 December to 1 January. As a result, patch 2018 felt a bit rushed, sometimes poorly planned and executed and, ultimately, the least enjoyable I've found it. Thankfully, the very quiet second half of the year has allowed me to take stock and work out how I can hopefully reclaim that feeling of fulfilment and excitement that patch birding can so wonderfully provide.

Spring sunrise on Broomy Down.