Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

At long, long last

The past week has been pretty good. Compared to last year and spring, it’s been fantastic. In the last few days a range of migrants – both familiar and less so – have made their way into my notebook. Quite a lot to spill onto this post in fact, but I had to rewrite the title and reshuffle the order of things when I finally clapped eyes on the ultimate patch blocker this morning.

Common Sandpiper, Winkworth Arboretum, 24/4/2019.

Common Sandpipers are always nice to see, but probably don’t mean much to many birders. For me, however, it has long been the number one species on the Thorncombe Street Area list that has eluded me. To make matters worse, birding friends – some who’ve only visited a handful of times – had even seen the species here: Jeremy in the late 1980s with the first site record at Winkworth, then Sam at Bramley Park Lake in 2005 before Matt had two records involving no fewer than five birds in late April 2015.

So, between mid-April and mid-May (and again in autumn) ever since, I’ve paid many, many visits to the few appropriate water bodies in vain. None more so, however, than Winkworth. This morning the alarm went ever so early. Knowing I was out for the football later, I was close to hitting snooze, but I yanked myself out of bed and was at the arboretum not long later. Upon approaching the east shore I heard a familiar chattery whistle – Common Sandpiper!

Common Sandpiper, Winkworth Arboretum, 24/4/2019.

The little wader fluttered over to the west side and alighted on a tree stump, before bobbing away. I watched it for 20 minutes or so as it quietly surveyed its temporary place of rest on its journey to some flowing stream somewhere north of here. The local Coots seemed to take a disliking to it and it eventually headed to the buoys at the south end. I left it in peace. All those hundreds of visits to Rowes Flashe – which has delivered no better than Pochard before – were vindicated in one little sandy-brown spring bundle.

The Bank Holiday weekend had started well on Thursday, when a trio of new arrivals were logged on the regular loop from Great Brook, through New Barn to Tilsey Farm. First up was Whitethroat at New Barn, followed by a Cuckoo towards Curry Field. The icing on the cake was a Garden Warbler at Coldbourne Copse.

Garden Warbler, New Barn, 21/4/2019.

Spring has been good so far, with most species arriving at a usual time. My widening of coverage has doubtless helped (for my sanity if nothing else); a smart male Wheatear at Unstead later in the day on 18th a real delight to chance upon with Janet. Normally I’d be pulling my hair out at having not found one at Thorncombe Street … other spring arrivals at Unstead over the weekend included Reed Warbler (19th, bit of a surprise given the habitat), Sedge and Willow Warbler (22nd) and Whitethroat (18th).

Wheatear, Unstead SF, 18/4/2019.

Sedge Warbler, Unstead SF, 18/4/2019.

Friday 19th was warm and sunny. It wasn’t looking great for migrants, but with a breezy northerly increasing as the day went on migrating hirundines became a possibility. I positioned myself on Broomy Down and a small passage took place, including my first patch House Martins of the year as well as three Sand Martins – less than annual in spring here.

Red Kite, Broomy Down, 19/4/2019.

Given the weather, I was amazed to find a flock of 19 Fieldfare at Tilsey Farm that evening. There have been a few stragglers this year; Mark D had a few at Chadhurst Farm near Dorking the same day, and today Steve G had a few at Canons Farm, Banstead. At dusk I twitched Kit’s Gropper at Shalford (more of them to come).

Sand Martin, Broomy Down, 19/4/2019.

Fieldfares, Tilsey Farm, 19/4/2019.

Saturday was taken up by football, but I did see a Barn Owl quartering the Lammas Lands at Godalming at dawn. On 21st I paid a visit to Pagham Harbour before visiting my parents, completing a five-mile loop from the North Wall to Sidlesham and back. The farmland and scrub in this area looks absolutely prime for rare and, regardless of any of that stuff, the usual species here and general ambience of the place makes it one of my favourites.

Notable was a count of eight Lesser Whitethroats, but best of all was a reeling Grasshopper Warbler near Beggars Lane. Unaware of the species’ status on the Selsey peninsula/Pagham Harbour at the time I posted a message in the local WhatsApp group, soon to be inundated with messages and calls from locals – it turned out this was only the third record of Gropper in the last seven years. Not quite the Subalpine discovery I had in my mind but pleasing to chance upon nonetheless, and one of 10 warbler species logged.

Lesser Whitethroat, Pagham Harbour, 21/4/2019.

Black-tailed Godwits and Teal, Pagham Harbour, 21/4/2019.

Back late that night, while putting the microphone up on Allden’s Hill, a flock of Teal called as they passed overhead. Sunday was relatively quiet in the continued fine weather, though some real excitement came at Tilsey Farm. A male Yellowhammer had been singing there for a few weeks, but the species doesn’t breed on patch (it does so not far away). So, I was absolutely chuffed when I saw him with a female inspecting a suitable looking hedge for nesting this morning. Fingers and toes crossed that they stick about. Towards sundown, a poke about The Hurtwood was somewhat productive, in that Cuckoo, Firecrest and Garden Warbler were all seen.

Yellowhammers, Tilsey Farm, 22/4/2019.

Mallards, Winkworth Arboretum, 19/4/2019.

Jackdaw, Bonhurst Farm, 22/4/2019.

There’s been no real rarities in April, but a more than satisfactory migration period and the odd local scarce and patch mega thrown in for good measure. Hopefully the good form can continue through the last week of the month and into May, a month when the real once-in-a-lifetime prizes can be found.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Juxtaposition weekend

Prior to today (which I'll feature in my next post) it's been a quiet spell. Indeed, save two Willow Warblers singing at New Barn on Saturday patch has been very quiet. Sunday was veritably cold in fact; with a frost and chilly northeasterly at dawn. Perhaps it was no surprise I logged my latest ever Redwing, though having stumbled across my earliest Nightingale just over the Surrey border in Sussex the previous day, it made for quite the juxtaposition.

Firecrest, 13/4/2019.

I'd ventured into Good Old Sussex to check out a strikingly large body of water that has long caught my eye while cruising Google Maps or an OS: The Lake (great name), in Shillinglee Park. There are next to no records from this impressive waterbody – similar in size to Frensham Little Pond – though the helpful folk at Sussex Ornithological Club helped; a September Black Tern was the standout and demonstrates the potential of the site. As well as the Nightingale, which was at nearby Mitchell Park Farm, I had eight each of Great Crested Grebe and Egyptian Goose.

Great Crested Grebe, The Lake, 13/4/2019.

I gave Shalford Water Meadows a bash with Kit on Wednesday night, hoping to locate his superb Spotted Crake find from earlier that morning. In an hour or so of carefully patrolling St. Catherine’s Pool at dusk we had no sniff, though five Snipe and a few Teal were decent value. The habitat here looks fantastic and, on this smallish pool alone during the last few years, Garganey, Green Sandpiper and now the crake have been discovered.

Shalford Water Meadows, 10/4/2019.

Presumably Spotted Crake (and all crakes/rallids) are the most under recorded birds in Britain. Despite a relatively small area of flooded marsh and sedge tussocks to hide in, the bird only showed thrice to Kit earlier and was exceptionally elusive – Steve gave it a few hours with no joy earlier in the day. I wonder how many pass by undetected? Loads I suspect.

Greenfinch (top) and Linnet, Gatestreet Farm, 14/4/2019.

Aside from this dip and the aforementioned weekend bits it was quiet, though the forecast for the Bank Holiday weekend looks promising and spring migration should really begin to peak in the coming days.

Monday, 15 April 2019

South Florida: day four

Day four dawned in Fort Myers, with the plan to start on the coast before working inland, chasing four species I’d had my eye on for several weeks: Crested Caracara, Mottled Duck, Reddish Egret and Florida Scrub Jay. All required a bit of work and specific sites, but should be easy …

Blue-winged Teal, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 29/1/2019.

First up was Sanibel Island, and the renowned J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Of course, being the US, this was drive-through, and on a gorgeous morning the first few pools included trip ticks Glossy Ibis, Knot and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as tonnes of other waders, herons, egrets and ducks. Prominent though were Pied-billed Grebes and the rafts of Blue-winged Teal – surely one of the finest looking ducks around.

Blue-winged Teal, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 29/1/2019.

Ducks vie with raptors for the position as my favourite bird families, and the main prize at Ding Darling was Mottled Duck. This species is restricted to localised parts of North and Central America, and the Florida population is the nominate subspecies. ‘Florida Duck’ only occurs in the southern half of the state and is threatened by hybridisation with Mallards … anyway, after distant views on one of the first pools, far better ones of four individuals were achieved a little later. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron ran over the road too – the final of only two seen all trip.

Mottled Duck, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, 29/1/2019.

After, it was back to the east end of the island, to Sanibel Lighthouse Park and Point Ybel. An idyllic beach felt full-Florida with Brown Pelicans and American Royal Terns cruising overhead, and an Osprey pair nesting on the lighthouse. It didn’t take long before the target was found – Reddish Egret.

Reddish Egret, Sanibel Lighthouse, 29/1/2019.

Brown Pelican, Sanibel Lighthouse, 29/1/2019.

American Royal Tern, Sanibel Lighthouse, 29/1/2019.

Two were hunting in the shallows at the far end of the point, totally unperturbed by shell collectors, fisherman and my enthusiastic self. Unfortunately the sun was fully up now and the light was pretty sharp, so the photos weren’t what they could’ve been … still, a real stunner of a species with the beautiful rusty maroon head and neck working nicely with the grey-blue body – for me the most striking Ardeidae in this part of the world. No wonder they were nearly hunted to extinction for their feathers.

Reddish Egret, Sanibel Lighthouse, 29/1/2019.

The final coastal stop of the morning was San Carlos Bay, back over the bridge near Fort Myers. A nice selection of waders included Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin, with a few Piping Plovers among the throngs. One ringed bird (there are many schemes for this heavily monitored species) showed well. Hooded Mergansers and Great Northern Divers were offshore.

Piping Plover, San Carlos Bay, 29/1/2019.

From there, it was back inland, heading into rural Florida for the other two main targets. I’d stocked up on eBird gen for Crested Caracara and Florida Scrub Jay, but the first two sites failing to deliver either (or much at all) was a sign of things to come … that said, the third stop – Harms Marsh – was a real gem.

Sandhill Crane, Harms Marsh, 29/1/2019.

Despite the heat of the middle of the day, the shallow end of the lake held loads of birds –  Blue-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, all the usual herons and egrets, American Coot, Common Gallinule, Double-crested Cormorants and Anhingas, with both vultures overhead, tonnes of Red-winged Blackbirds in the reeds and a few American Robins in the trees. American Bittern wasn’t a species I was expecting to see – at least well – so when one crept along the edge of a reedbed for several minutes I was delighted.

American Bittern, Harms Marsh, 29/1/2019.

A party of Sandhill Cranes were very confiding along the bank, and some Grey-headed Swamphens (a category C special here) were crashing around in the wet vegetation. Sadly, here too was devoid of caracaras and jays, but on the walk back a sparrow was booted up inadvertently. I got nothing on it, other than a Little Bunting-esque embarrassed red-cheeked expression and obvious eye ring. I managed one out of focus photo but am happy with Grasshopper Sparrow as the ID.

Sandhill Crane, Harms Marsh, 29/1/2019.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Harms Marsh, 29/1/2019.

A couple more rural stops for Crested Caracara proved fruitless, and a look for scrub jays at Archbold Biological Station drew a blank. With a huge stroke of fortune, however, we chanced upon a Crested Caracara while driving near Basinger – a big slice of luck and sadly no time for photos, but an impressive site as it pursued a Wood Stork.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park, 29/1/2019.

Not ideal for a species I really wanted to see well, but you can’t have it all, and this was the only (really minor) blip in terms of birds on the whole trip. With the day closing, we headed to Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park, for a final look for Florida Scrub Jay. Brown-headed Cowbird and Red-headed Woodpecker were new here, with Peregrine and Slavonian Grebe unexpected. There was no sign of any scrub jays but, at the end of the most frustrating day of the trip, the moment of the holiday occurred, just as we were driving off to find a hotel.

Bobcats, Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park, 29/1/2019.
As we pulled out the car park, two Bobcats stopped in their tracks along the road, before watching us for a couple of minutes. It was a spine-tingling moment and a magical encounter. I was able to get the window down and fire off a few shots before they slunk off into the scrub, never to be seen again … amazing! To top things off, as we cruised east with the sun setting, another Crested Caracara was seen from the car, perched on a jump at a ranch.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Osprey and the Gropper

Aside from two highly notable standout moments*, the last week or so has been quiet. On Saturday, en route to the second patch shift of the day, I was stopped in my tracks by a low-flying Osprey over the south end of Bramley village. Prior to that – on Thursday – an arguably even more surprising record involved a reeling Grasshoppper Warbler at Unstead, perhaps the second earliest date for the county.

Lesser Redpolls and Goldfinch, New Barn, 6/4/2019. 

Although Osprey records have steadily increased in Surrey in recent years, they are brilliant birds to encounter and I’d only seen three in the county prior to Saturday. One of those was on patch (8 September 2016). The scenes were somewhat akin to my recent trip to Florida, where Ospreys are a familiar suburban bird. In the car heading to Bonhurst Farm, a bent-winged, low-flying beast of a raptor immediately triggered a shout of: “Osprey!”. Thankfully an emergency stop on the bus stop was pulled off and we watched the bird lumbering north into the northeast wind, being mobbed by a pair of Jackdaws. Further south, a cloud of a couple of Buzzards and Red Kite were circling, presumably having been roused by the appearance of this visitor. The views were probably the best I’ve had in Surrey, though sadly I didn’t have a chance to get my bins or camera out.

On Thursday, I wasn’t expecting much from a quick trip to Unstead before work. However, upon nearing the lagoons I heard a familiar buzzing sound that recalled Gropper. However, it seemed very strange and an early date – I was sure it was a weird noise coming from the works – but it persisted on and off for several minutes from the east end of the South Meadow. On approach, it could clearly be heard as a reeling Grasshopper Warbler. Having looked into it, it wasn’t actually that// early, with a couple already recorded in Britain and several appearing at inland locations that day and the following. There’s been no further sign, but the jungle of scrub that Unstead currently is could definitely deliver another.

Lesser Redpoll. New Barn, 6/4/2019.

Aside from these two mighty-fine moments, there wasn’t much else going on. On Saturday morning, a big flock of Lesser Redpolls (c.44) at New Barn was a bit of an odd record given the time of year. Heavy scrutiny revealed no interesting ones. Later in the day I surveyed a large area of private land in the north of the patch, which Surrey Wildlife Trust have recently moved into. There wasn’t too much, save a couple of Ravens and a Swallow through. Promising conditions on Sunday disappointed, though three House Martins at Unstead were firsts of the year, and a flock of late Fieldfare and territorial Yellowhammer at Tilsey Farm were good to see.

*By the time of posting this, such measly sightings paled into insignificance, following two finds on Wednesday morning. Firstly, Wes (who’s probably the best birder I’ve spent much time with in the field) had a flyover Black Kite over Capel (his second record there!). Almost at the same time Kit dug out a Spotted Crake at Shalford; a South-West Surrey mega and the icing on his Osprey-Pied Fly cake of the past year or so. A 50/50 split of gripping and inspiring!