Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Sunday, 31 March 2019


One of those tremendously rare, utterly unexpected and thrilling birding moments happened on Tuesday when a Gannet flew northeast up the River Wey by Unstead Sewage Farm. It was an occasion after which I was left shaking my head for some time, and also demonstrated the extreme luck involved with birding, especially in Surrey – you can spend hours/days/years hammering certain areas with little joy, but sometimes it all boils down to entire chance and freakishly fortunate right-place-right-time.

Gannet, River Wey at Unstead, 26/3/2019.

The weather was totally not what you’d expect for an inland seabird: warm, a gentle northerly breeze and hardly a cloud in the sky. It’d be fun to build up the moment and identification process but, if I’m honest, an adult Gannet can’t be much else (bar a particularly slender Snow Goose!). Having raised my bins to a female Kestrel, I noticed a high-flying bird beyond Trunley Heath Road and the Flooded Field at roughly 14:35. It was really high and very distant towards Peasmarsh, but the unmistakable shape and pointed wings with black tips had me instantly in a state of shock and upon getting my bins on the bird that heart-pounding feeling of looking at something exciting hit – Gannet!

I was viewing from the main footpath at Unstead after completing a loop, having walked Hydon’s Ball earlier, and it was flying northeast, so across my view to an extent, but always away. Thankfully, I was able to get a few record shots with the lens on full whack as it cruised fairly leisurely up the river. The light was on my side too. I lost the bird about two/three minutes after picking it up. I immediately alerted Matt, Kit B and Steve in case they could get on it at Clandon, Shalford or Stoke respectively, before contacting a couple of other Surrey heads. As far as I’m aware, however, it wasn’t seen again (though Steve was unfortunately in B&Q when – had it done so – it would’ve gone over Stoke!).

Gannet, River Wey at Unstead, 26/3/2019.

Presumably this bird chose to migrate overland in the good conditions and was tracking up the River Wey, with a view to cut across and reach the North Sea. I would love to know if it followed the Wey all the way up to the Thames, or deviated – intriguingly, Matt had two adults over Clandon in June last year, which is approximately four miles to the northeast of where this one flew over. Looking at the below map, it’s quite possible that the Unstead bird (and perhaps many others) that have followed the Wey cut the unnecessary corner at Guildford, perhaps flying over Merrow/Pewley/Clandon Down, before re-joining near Ripley/Wisley.  This would help explain the remarkable selection of flyover records from Unstead, which sits right next to the Wey by this would-be junction. It doesn’t, however, account for various flyover records at Stoke, so maybe things like rain and wind come into effect.

Unstead SF marked with a red X. Perhaps Pewley Down would be a
decent vis-mig spot?

Of course, this is a decent bird for Surrey, but records in the county have increased in recent years (three in 2018, for example), hand-in-hand with the species’ population upsurge. I can’t say I’ve gone to bed dreaming of discovering a Gannet, but it was still a class moment. In South-West Surrey it’s a bit of a mega, with just six (listed below) prior to this bird, though one did fly over Stoke on 8 May 2004, Dave B had one over Loseley in the early 2000s that I sadly don't think ever got formally submitted and I recall Brian telling me about three possibles he had high over Unstead the day three flew over Beddington in September 2010. Anyway, a memorable encounter, and a vindication of my recent broadening of site coverage.

South-West Surrey Gannet records

1840 – An exhausted bird found near Frensham Ponds (SALEC).

1844 – One in a field near Haslemere killed by a boy with a stick (Bucknill).

17 February 1906 – One at the River Wey near Godalming (Dalgliesh).

27 August 1963 – A sick female taken to London Zoo sadly died of haemorrhagic enteritis (SBC).

15 October 1999 – An adult southwest over Wrecclesham Floods at 11:45 (J Gates).

10 November 2007 - A juvenile over Thursley Common (R Warden).

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The arrival of spring

It’s been a busy and exciting past week, with quite a lot to talk about. The undoubted personal highlight was that nowadays rarest of things – a patch tick. On Friday, having done the dawn rounds, I was working at home when I got a message from Steve: “Do you know about this Goldeneye on Mill Pond?”. No was the short answer, and thankfully within about 40 minutes I was able to get down and add the bird to my Thorncombe Street list.

Goldeneye, Mill Pond, 22/3/2019.

Despite the absolute paucity of bird documentation on my patch prior to me regularly watching it in 2014, there are a small handful of mythical species that had been recorded in the area before, often many years ago. Goldeneye is one of them, with a bird at Winkworth on 26 January 1957 and a pair shot at ‘Thorncombe Street’ (probably Winkworth) pre-1884. So, while always on the verge of possibility in terms of another record occurring, this was a real mega and a huge hats off/thanks to Steve for finding it – there may not be any more for another 62 years!

The bird in question was a female, and presumably came in over night and was still roosting in the surrounding vegetation when I did my dawn check. Steve and I watched her merrily swimming around, though not diving, occasionally coming close to the north end, before scurrying off as soon as she saw us. A few other folks visited before sundown, with Abel the last to see her at around 18:15. There has been no further sign. A smart patch tick after my driest spell without one – number 140.

Goldeneye, Mill Pond, 22/3/2019.

Cormorant, Winkworth Arboretum, 24/3/2019.

The reason Steve was down was because he was after the Grey Partridge I’d heard earlier on. Following a tip off from the Wintershall gamekeeper, regarding as many as four on private land during the winter, I’d staked out the impossible to access spot a few times with no joy. However, on Friday morning one bird was singing from the ‘usual’ spot. Whatever the status of the apparent population here – which I first discovered in 2016 – they are really hard to pin down and the weekend ploughing of the main crop on which these birds were hanging about has almost certainly displaced them.

On Thursday, before the London bus year ticks were fully underway, I’d managed my first March addition of 2019 with a couple of Blackcaps in voice at Juniper Hill and Coldbourne Copse, following a fall of Chiffchaffs during drizzly south-westerlies. The weekend was quiet, save a few Brambling and Crossbills, a Great Black-backed Gull and the continuing Woodlarks at Brookwell. On Sunday, I met up with Janet, Russell and Sam and undertook some habitat management along the River Wey, noting a few Teal and a Water Rail in the process.

Brambling (below) and Chaffinch, New Barn, 25/3/2019.
Siskin, New Barn, 25/3/2019.

A fourth year tick in five days came yesterday morning when two Lapwings flew south over New Barn, a nice demonstration of the familiarity and rhythm watching a patch can bring: 25 March is the peak day for this species here. New Barn, as always neglected during winter, was actually on good form with two Bramblings, a few Lesser Redpolls and some singing Siskins also logged.

In the afternoon I was able to go for one of my absolute favourite species: Garganey. I love ducks as it is and – along with Smew – I struggle to think of a bird I prefer. I hadn’t seen a drake in the UK since Matt’s nice find in 2016, and seeing reports that a drake near Fleet, at Edenbrook CP, was showing well, I went along for a look. I wasn’t to be disappointed, with the bird allowing unbelievably close approach on a series of small pools. With a bit of patience, I was rewarded with crippling views as it swam past.

Garganey, Edenbrook CP, 25/3/2019.

To round off a thoroughly entertaining few days, a quick drop in at Unstead on the way back delivered an unexpected prize – a Little Ringed Plover on the Flooded Field! This was once a flagship species at this now derelict site, and it absolutely wasn’t on the radar. It seemed pretty knackered, but eventually started feeding.

Little Ringed Plover, Unstead SF, 25/3/2019.

However, after about 40 minutes, it was spooked by some Mallards and took off calling, departing west after a few loops. March never fails to deliver locally, going back years, and while it took a bit of time to get going it’s safe to say it’s worked it’s magic once again.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Over Allden's

Two exciting events have occurred during the last week, both involving species migrating over Allden’s Hill, as the wheels of spring begin to turn. On Sunday I was treated to a notable movement of my favourite vis-mig species: Meadow Pipit. This was somewhat eclipsed, however, by the first decent noc-mig session of the year on Monday night that delivered not one, not two, but three Common Scoter flocks!

Meadow Pipit, Allden's Hill, 17/3/2019.

I’ll start with the Mipits. In very windy conditions on Saturday there was a marked arrival of the species in-off the Channel, all along the south coast. I figured many would then hunker down, before moving when the winds dropped (significantly) in the evening and overnight. This turned out to be the case and several of those wonderful squeaks could be heard as soon as I opened the car door atop Allden’s about quarter of an hour before sunrise.

In one hour I logged 165, with the largest single flock some 18. If I was better prepared I’d have stationed myself on Broomy Down where I would have picked up more with the wider field of view. All birds were pretty low, all north/north-west, and movement had virtually ground to a halt about half an hour after sunrise. I’ve harped on about it a few times before but Mipit migration, particularly in late March, is my absolute favourite when it comes to vis-mig. At Thorncombe Street at least, it’s the first real sign that spring is here. 165 is my second-best spring count and came about a week or two earlier than usual. Perhaps I’ll be treated to another push later in the month.

With the battering westerlies of the past few weeks preventing any nocturnal sound recording, I wasn’t the only one pleased when they finally stopped at the end of the weekend. On Monday night, a gentle south-westerly with low cloud (and even some brief and light rain) felt ideal. It turned out to be a relatively busy night, highlighted by three separate flocks of Common Scoter: at least two at 20:59, at least six at 23:36 and another two or more at 04:35.

Common Scoter sonogram, from 18/3/2019.

The concept that this species hasn’t just passed over here/inland once or twice, but indeed does so fairly consistently and on a broad level, still blows my mind (also bear in mind females don't call, and all drakes over two years old produce audible wingbeats, so what we're hearing is an absolute fraction of the birds moving). The spaced-out timings of these three flocks suggest the departure was on a very broad level that evening, probably throughout the English Channel and right the way down the French Atlantic coast. If Common Scoter fly 92 km per hour (Berman & Donner, 1964), and if the ones over Thorncombe Street followed the Arun north (which is quite easily not the case), then the first group would have left the Channel about an hour after sundown. On that basis, the latter flocks would have departed from further down the French coast.

This is all highly speculative, though, and Matt having a flock over Pulborough at 21:50 doesn’t add much proof to the Arun theory. Perhaps the flocks don’t follow any topography and simply plan to fly so high that it doesn’t matter, with cloud/precipitation forcing them low? This is quite possibly the case, and with such ideal conditions after such a windy period I bet loads of seabirds and ducks chose to move that night; I'm sure there would have been an inland 'fall' of bits had there been any morning fog. Over the next few years it’ll be fascinating to find out if Common Scoter isn’t a rare Surrey bird, but indeed a regular, annual spring migrant at night. Mid-March to mid-April is doubtless the best time, with associated weather needed, but I would even suggest they are twitchable … something I might consider, especially as the first group moved over at a perfectly reasonable hour.

Mute Swan, Bonhurst Farm (mega extralimital record!), 18/3/2019.

It was a fairly busy night, with three Moorhens, nine Redwings and singles of Coot and Mandarin logged. There was also a huge flock of Canada Geese and a presumably disturbed local Carrion Crow, along with three owl species. A great way to kick off the year. A clip of the first scoter flock can be heard here. A review of my first year of noc-mig will feature in the upcoming 2018 Thorncombe Street Area Report, along with a focus on Common Scoter and Ortolan Bunting.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Hammer time

The quiet start to March continued during the last few, mainly wet and blustery, days. Ringing on Thursday was almost a complete damp squid until a beautiful male Yellowhammer appeared; incredibly, this was one of just two birds processed! The weekend was hindered by the weather and on Sunday, with winds reaching force seven, birding became a write-off by mid-morning.

Male Yellowhammer, Broomy Down, 7/3/2019.

Prior to that, a drizzly and unrewarding working of the patch water bodies yielded the female Red-crested Pochard (on Bramley Park Lake) as the sole standout bird, though a Kingfisher there and an Egyptian Goose pair at Winkworth were of note. Indeed, until Friday, the latter species hadn’t actually been recorded on the deck at the arboretum since 13/12/2015. On Saturday, a comprehensive walk through the central and east section of the patch was underwhelming; just 44 species, though a Yellowhammer pair – complete with singing male – was a surprise on The Ridge.

This year I’ve spent a lot more time birding other local areas. Many of these sessions have been focused on Lesser Spotted and Long-eared things with, at best, mixed results. That said, I was very excited to find a new site for the former on Saturday morning with fleeting calls and views of a male. The area wasn’t a million miles from a known territory, but likely to be entirely different birds and the habitat is ideal. Hopefully a return visit next weekend won’t be so breezy.

Rook, Bonhurst Farm, 10/3/2019.

One area I’ve given attention to is Unstead SF. On Sunday, I walked the water meadows from the sewage farm down to Broadwater Bridge and back and scored some local scarce courtesy of a ludicrously high-flying first-winter Mediterranean Gull. I was really hoping for a Kittiwake – I visited hoping there may be some gulls following the River Wey, and with a couple of inland Kittiwakes already having been logged nearby the Med, 106 Black-headed and three other gull species being blown northeast had me constantly looking up in hope.

Mediterranean Gull, Unstead Water Meadows, 10/3/2019.

Common Gull, Unstead Sewage Farm, 10/3/2019.

I’ve now had two Med Gulls along the water meadows in the last couple of months, but, after Golden Plover and Goosander fell last year, this species is probably the most obvious omission from the Thorncombe Street list. I don’t get huge numbers of gulls, but certainly enough Black-headed and Common to half-expect to have had one fly over down the years. Now is a peak time for this species moving around, demonstrated by multiple birds at other inland sites nearby (Beddington and Pulborough), so perhaps one will drift over soon.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Counting common

It was a quiet week around Thorncombe Street and most of the weekend was spent doing non-birding stuff. The highlight was the continued presence of the Woodlark pair at Brookwell, with the birds seemingly settled, often preening and resting on wires and only occasionally singing. Hopefully they stick. The weather during the last few days has largely been wet and windy so I spent a bit of quality time with some of the more drab and neglected species found on patch.

Dunnock, Winkworth Arboretum, 2/3/2019.

House Sparrow is somewhat localised here, concentrated around the various colonies and never found away from them. Perhaps the most thriving is at Tilsey Farm (a farm that gives the feel little has changed in decades) and I counted a minimum of 45 birds on Saturday. Doubtless many more were around the buildings I can’t get to – I’ll try and do a more thorough count soon. Also on Saturday, some 20 Wrens were singing at Winkworth (a count that impressed me) and a good number of Dunnocks were in voice too.

House Sparrow, Tilsey Farm, 2/3/2019.

Woodlark, Brookwell, 2/3/2019.

On Thursday I had a bit of time to work the north section of the patch, an area that gets very poor coverage. Here I enjoyed watching the Daneshill rookery for a while; 26 nests in total, with 10 seemingly occupied. On the subject of corvids, during the warm weather last week I observed the Loseley Park Jackdaw roost a couple of times after a tip off from Sam. I tallied c.7,000 on 26th – quite a spectacle, though I suspect a bigger haul could be managed with more eyes and at a better time of year. My final crow action of the week was connecting with the Church Norton Hooded Crow on Thursday, while down in Sussex visiting my parents.

Whimbrel, Church Norton, 28/2/2019.

The first pre-work session of the year yesterday was brief but a lovely taster of the longer days. It turned out to be fairly decent with a Brambling over Allden’s Hill and two Pochard and a Kingfisher at Mill Pond. March normally has a good bird up its sleeve and I’d be grateful for one – bar the flyover Waxwings there’s been nothing out the ordinary here for a few months.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

South Florida: day three

Day three saw us move out of the southern Everglades and Florida City, heading north and west across the state to Fort Myers. The weather was notably chiller with a bit of a brisk breeze, but once the sun was up for a couple of hours conditions were pleasant. The first site of the day was the Loop Road trail, just west of Miccosukee in the northern Everglades.

Limpkin, Loop Road,  28/1/2019.

This 26-mile route took us through typical Everglades habitat with a nice selection of roadside birds to boot. Brown-headed Nuthatch, Little Blue Heron, Kildeer and Pine and Prairie Warbler were all added to the trip list here, with superb views of Limpkin a highlight.

Little Blue Heron, Loop Road, 28/1/2019.

Kildeer, Loop Road, 28/1/2019.

American Alligator, Loop Road, 28/1/2019.

Upon exiting the Everglades, it was the suburban sprawl of San Marco Island that was next in the sat-nav. This area is home to the relatively iconic Burrowing Owl, which prefers the short turf of front gardens and kerb-sides that were abundant here. The species had undergone a real decline locally – hand-in hand with increased development – but locals in this area cordon off suspected nest sites to give them a boost. We swiftly found a pair but, not wanting to disturb them, we let them win the staring contest …

Burrowing Owls, San Marco Island, 28/1/2019.

I'd been looking forward to visiting Tigertail Beach long before we’d arrived, with a suite of new waders on offer. As it happened, despite a lengthy walk, it was a touch disappointing – doubtless the time of day and number of people impeded our visit. That said, we had great views of Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers, as well as Least Sandpipers and Ring-billed Gulls.

Wilson's Plover, Tigertail Beach, 28/1/2019.

Ring-billed Gull, Tigertail Beach, 28/1/2019.

Least Sandpiper, Tigertail Beach, 28/1/2019.

We were doing well for time so decided to head inland and visit the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Immokalee. An Armadillo, Bald Eagle and flock of Common Ground Doves in the car park was a promising start and, as it happened, this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable sites and walks of the entire trip.

Armadillo, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Bald Eagle, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Black-and-white Warbler, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

The 2.5 mile boardwalk took us through pine flatwoods, cypress swamp, small lakes and wet prairie and it was heaving with birds, many of which were tame. Wood warblers and vireos were prominent, and we also managed four species of woodpecker. Indeed, trip ticks included Blue-headed Vireo, Downy Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, as well as Pied-billed Grebe and Short-shinned Hawk.

White-eyed Vireo, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Pied-billed Grebe, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Downy Woodpecker, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Blue-headed Vireo, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

We also managed satisfactory views of both Carolina and Marsh Wren, which are never easy to see. On the way out of the mightily impressive visitor centre we enjoyed better views of Brown-headed Nuthatch too, as well as Yellow-throated Warbler. Just beyond the car park, a flock of Wild Turkeys alongside a party of Sandhill Cranes was a somewhat surreal experience.

Yellow-throated Warbler, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Wild Turkey, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Corkscrew Swamp, 28/1/2019.

It was then back to the coast for the evening, though before we clocked off for the birding day there was time for a quick look at Fort Myers Beach. This proved a tactful move as I managed to see a few of the waders I’d missed out on at Tigertail: Short-billed Dowitcher, Snowy Plover (stunner!) and Willet.

Snowy Plover, Fort Myers Beach, 28/1/2019.

Willet, Fort Myers Beach, 28/1/2019.

Snowy Plover, Fort Myers Beach, 28/1/2019.

Another thoroughly entertaining day and plenty of reasons to enjoy some good food and a few drinks in Fort Myers that night. The following morning we were after Piping Plover and Reddish Egret on Sanibel Island, before heading inland for a few specialities and the first (and hopefully only) serious target-birding of the trip.

South Florida: day one and two

South Florida: day four