Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Wednesday 31 July 2019

Blitzing into autumn

After the intensity of the heatwave, last weekend felt like autumn arrived in theatrical fashion. Saturday was wet and breezy – the worst conditions for a bioblitz. However, a bit of rain didn’t prevent Steve and I taking part on the Surrey Wildlife Trust’s (SWT) second annual bioblitz at Bonhurst Farm, in the east section of my Thorncombe Street area patch.

Bonhurst Farm ringing, 27/7/2019.

SWT moved in about 18 months ago after the Snowdenham Estate – which runs from south Bramley (next to Bramley Park Lake) down to the southern edge of Bonhurst Farm – leased the entire site at a cheap rate. The landowner wishes to reengage with wildlife on his land, with the primary focus to build Bonhurst Farm into an example of profitable farming that simultaneously benefits wildlife.

There are plenty of positive plans in the pipeline which, should they go ahead, will boost the bird population significantly. It’s been a relatively slow start, but several meadows have been created with suitable margins, and there are short-term plans to plant new hedges. Longer-term visions include a wildlife pond, scrapes and the creation of a ringing site.

Adult male Blackcap (showing intensive primary moult, ahead of
migration), Bonhurst Farm, 27/7/2019.

Steve and I had done a test session in Birtley Brook earlier in the month, which yielded a reasonable number of Chiffchaffs. On Saturday, despite the rain, we still managed six birds of five species in four hours, of which an adult Robin typically proved most popular with visitors. In my bird survey I logged 51 species in the miserable conditions, which was a solid figure all things considered.

A Herring Gull (the first of the season), Firecrest (near Lonely Field) and one of the Hobby pair were highlights – suitably low-key headliners for this rather washout of a wildlife festival. I suspect I’ll be spending plenty more time at Bonhurst during the coming weeks, especially as it’s the best spot for migrant chats and wagtails, as we enter that stage of the season.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 28/7/2019.

On Sunday, it was a different kind of blitz – a Yellow-legged Gull one in western West Sussex. I logged 24+ at three different sites: Chidham (11 adults, three juveniles and two 1st-summers), Ivy Lake (three juveniles and a 3rd-summer) and Selsey (two juveniles and an adult).

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, Chidham, 28/7/2019.

Four adult/sub-adult and a 1st-summer (third from right) Yellow-legged
Gulls (also 3rd-summer Herring Gull far right), Chidham, 28/7/2019.

Chidham was awesome; thanks to Andy W on the Selsey Whatsapp for the gen. At low tide, curiously it was the commonest large gull, with a nice range of plumages to boot. They must breed nearby. I’ll be back to check it out again soon. No apologies for the photo-fest above and below ...

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 28/7/2019: a lovely, fresh individual,
 weak pale fringes to dark-centred juvenile scapulars. The eye mask,
head and bill shape and pale belly stand out, along with the largely dark
tertials with thin white fringing.

Sadly the angle of the bird is a bit flat in this shot, but the classic thin and
tapering black band against a gleaming white tail, pale webs to the inner
primaries and dark eye mask can be seen.

There seems to be minimal scapular moult underway. That combined with
the size and behaviour of this individual led me to believe it fledged very recently.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 28/7/2019. 

After a disappointingly poor spring of noc-mig, with no notable records since March, I was pleased to enjoy a bit of wader action on the night of 25th/26th. Best of all was a Greenshank (you can listen here) – only the second site record and noc-mig first, but a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits and two Whimbrels were good value too. Fingers crossed there’ll be a few more shorebirds picked up as they migrate over this patch of the Surrey Hills in the coming days and weeks. A marked Wood Sandpiper influx renders this species an exciting possibility.

Thursday 25 July 2019

The flat list

The bedroom windows are wide open all day and night at present, during this particularly roasting heatwave. Early this morning, I was most surprised to be woken up by the sharp, penetrative whistle of a Kingfisher. In my bleary-eyed semi-consciousness, I would have normally let it go as a Dunnock, but it kept calling and indeed sounded like there was more than one bird. Unsurprisingly a flat tick – number 70 – though with the River Wey some 600 metres away, maybe not so illogical …

Everyone keeps a house/garden (or in my case flat) list. They’re great fun, especially if you have a garden, particularly one with decent habitat and a bit of sky. I know I miss my old one (here’s a homage to it from a few years ago) – the shared slither of green at my current place is pleasant, but I look forward hugely to having one that’s ‘mine’.

The view looking north to Guildford and beyond.

That said, nestled close to the River Wey, in leafy suburbia between Godalming and Farncombe, it’s on the fringes of actual countryside and thus enjoys a decent blend of standard garden fare and slightly more interesting bits. For example, the scrub along the nearby railway holds breeding Blackcaps and migrant Willow Warblers. The healthy Farncombe colony of Swifts include a pair breeding in my roof – doubtless one of the avian highlights here.

Easily the best asset the flat offers, though, is a splendid vista north over Farncombe all the way to the North Downs a Compton east to Merrow. With the Wey running north to south also in this view, it’d doubtless make a mighty vis-mig spot – unfortunately the window layouts prevent easy scanning, though I’ve still neglected it over the three years I’ve been here.

When I sit and lay out all the species I’ve logged here, however, it’s actually quite impressive. Most house/garden sightings often don’t feel like proper birding memories – nine times out of ten said moment was achieved inadvertently. Birds heard through the window, normally at night or early morning (such as the Kingfisher), are one such example. Indeed, it’d probably be a more productive noc-mig site than Thorncombe Street, due to the river lure and far greater artificial lighting. I’ve had two Oystercatchers (including one last Friday), as well as singles of Curlew, Greenshank and Moorhen.

Peregrine, Farncombe, 23/7/2019.

In August 2017, I was awoken by a Mediterranean Gull drifting south. This is not so surprising, given the daily gull commute that follows the Wey to and from the north Surrey/London reservoirs, as well as the many that use the playing fields locally. The river serves as a navigator for all of them. I’ve had the five common species, plus the Med, with Black-headed and Herring nearly resident nowadays (quite amazingly, the latter species looked like breeding nearby this year).

The closeness to water (bearing in mind Broadwater Lake is nearby) accounts for the handful of records each of Little Egret and Common Tern. The kitchen vista is great for raptors. Impressively, on Tuesday, I managed no fewer than six different species, including Hobby and Peregrine. This was only the second Peregrine record, with the first just a few weeks ago.

This year several new birds have made the list – the aforementioned Moorhen and Kingfisher, as well as Sand Martin, Brambling, Linnet and Reed Warbler. The latter sits as one of the best birds here, singing from dense vegetation in a neighbouring garden on 26 May. Indeed, waiting for David C at the time, his imminent pulling up constitutes the first flat twitch …

Other flat list megas not previously mentioned included the famous Ring-necked Parakeet of November 2016, a memorable flock of Hawfinches during the autumn 2017 invasion and two Yellow Wagtails that flew over on 10 September 2017. What’s missing? Well, Jay and Green Woodpecker are the obvious absentees from the list. I haven’t managed to pick up a distant Stock Dove yet, either. I’m sure whenever number 71 comes, it’ll be most unexpected.

Monday 22 July 2019

Midsummer downtime

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, and I haven’t got out in the field much. Indeed, the weekend just gone I didn’t once lift my bins … Visits to the patch have been quiet, though on 13th the first gull of the season flew over Winkworth – a Black-headed. It was followed shortly after by three Common Terns, my highest count here, though none stuck around for long over Rowe's Flashe, a lake that seems simply not attractive to waders, wildfowl or gulls/terns.

Common Tern, Winkworth Arboretum, 13/7/2019.

These sightings shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise, for both are breeding locally these days. In fact, they’re just up the road, at Tuesley Farm, on the private reservoir there. Per legendary local birder Eric S, this year two pairs of Common Terns raised five young on the original tern raft while a third pair raised two young on one end of the new raft. On top of that, a pair of Black-headed Gulls raised two young at the other end – away from Tice’s Meadow, perhaps the first gull breeding record in outer Surrey?

I must admit I’m a little gripped by Eric and his private reservoir. Though small, it’s lured in a wonderful selection of birds in less than a decade since it was built, including Arctic Skua, Black-necked Grebe and Sanderling. He gets regular waders and it’s just the kind of undisturbed, perfect water body that is so badly lacking locally, and one that’d make ideal patching for someone like myself who simply can’t get out in the field as much as before (which is essential for results at dry sites like Thorncombe Street).

Black-tailed Godwit, Sidlesham Ferry, 14/7/2019.

If only Unstead SF was still decent … of course it’s not, though I’ve been pleased to see Brian out and about with his bins a bit recently. Anyway, to get a waterbird fix there’s always the coast, and Pagham Harbour is one of my favourite spots. Last weekend I walked from the North Wall to Church Norton and back. A long stroll, with an impressive (for mid-July) 81 species logged, though Spotted Redshank, juvenile Cuckoo and the emergence of some 300 Gatekeepers was the best of the action.

Gatekeeper, Pagham Harbour, 14/7/2019.

I did actually enjoy a bit of local wader action over the weekend, with an Oystercatcher yelping as it flew south over the garden on Friday, in classic breezy westerlies and showers. I also had a noc-mig Whimbrel over Thorncombe Street in the small hours of 15th. On 11th, I finally added Great Egret to my Surrey list (!), with a bird at Tice’s Meadow (still there as of yesterday) taking me to 208.

Sadly, the long-term future of this wonderful site seems up in the air (see here). Great Egret was one of my remaining tart’s ticks in Surrey – others include Bar-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Smew, Rock Pipit and, perhaps most embarrassingly, Black Tern.

Monday 8 July 2019

Youth club

Having picked up a knee injury at football I haven’t been too mobile these past couple of weeks, though things have been far better during the last seven days in terms of getting about. During what’s classically the quietest time of the year, most of the highlights have involved young birds, both on patch and further afield.

Tawny Owl, Winkworth Arboretum, 4/7/2019.

On 4th, a fairly standard early morning visit to Winkworth was lit up by a wonderful encounter with a female and two fledgling Tawny Owls. Of course, this isn’t a species one sees often, let alone in the day, so it was a welcome surprise when the unmissable begging call of one of the youngsters could be heard from the trees around Azalea Steps. The mum stayed largely hidden, though one of the juveniles performed slightly better, occasionally coming out into the open. They soon slunk off into the deeper part of the woods.

Sticking with owls, a late night drive through the site on 5th delivered all three species that can be found on the Thorncombe Street list, with two other family parties of Tawnys along with singles of Barn and Little. On 3rd, the annual Mandarin post-breeding flock on Mill Pond seemingly peaked, with 83 logged, higher than the biggest count last year but still a fair bit off the record of 96 on 18 June 2017.

Pied Wagtail, Bonhurst Farm, 2/7/2019.

Three broods of Tufted Duck have made it this year at the same site, a great effort, especially given there’s never been more than one pair breed in recent years. On 6th, a hunting pair of Kingfishers was a bit of a surprise – the species had gone missing for more than three months but, presumably, these two have hungry young to feed. A similar situation took place last year though it’s hard to envisage a nest site in the actual recording area and it’s more likely they’re somewhere on the river at Wonersh.

Chiffchaff, Bonhurst Farm, 2/7/2019.

Other patch bits include the continued presence of Yellowhammer at Tilsey Farm and a fourth Spotted Flycatcher territory of the summer, logged in the south section on 4th. On 2nd, Steve and I tried out a new ringing site near Bonhurst Farm. It was a fairly decent start, with six (mainly juvenile) Chiffchaffs processed. Noc-mig, on the other hand, has been very poor of late with hardly anything of note picked up since early May, despite frequent nights of recording recently.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 4/7/2019. A classic individual, with a dark
eye mask, heavy, hooked bill and thin, marginal white fringing in the tertials.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 4/7/2019.

On the evening of 4th, encouraged by the first few juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls of the year being recorded on the south coast, I headed to the Hillfield Road car park at Selsey. A short wait and a few slices chucked was all that was required – a really smart, crisp bird flew in. It ended up being particularly confiding and impressively heftier than the non-breeding Herring Gulls that were about. I enjoyed a good hour or so with the bird in excellent weather and, despite failing to nail a decent flight shot, was pleased with this 100% start to the gulling season.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 4/7/2019.

It looks like this was the joint fourth juvenile Yellow-legged Gull to be logged in Britain and Ireland this summer, and was certainly the earliest I've ever had. The first was at Eastbourne on 1st, before individuals at Dungeness and Goring-by-Sea on 3rd (it's entirely possibly the one I had was the same as at the latter site). On the same day as the Selsey bird, another was at Weymouth.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 4/7/2019. I struggled for a flight shot,
but in this final image you can see t
he contrast between the clean white
upper tail/rump with the neat, black tail band, which tapers towards the
outer tail feathers. You can also see the pale window in the inner primaries.

On 7th, with a view to give my knee a lengthy but gradient free run out, Thorney Island was identified as the ideal place for an early morning walk. Despite constant drizzle and murk it was a pleasant enough seven-mile loop, with a flyover Cattle Egret highlighting (though almost expected given the recent news of Hampshire’s first breeding birds scarcely a mile away to the west). Other bits included a couple each of Whimbrel and Cetti’s Warbler.

It definitely feels rare along most of the south and west of the ‘island’, though there’s the possibility it’s too tucked into Chichester Harbour. It doesn’t have a fantastic roll call of rarities down the years but is very under watched, and worthy of further investigation, especially given there has been enough decent bits (Red-breasted Goose, Aquatic Warbler etc) despite said limited coverage.