Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


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.