Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Wednesday 28 August 2019

Bank Holiday bonanza

The August Bank Holiday has a knack of delivering the goods at Thorncombe Street and 2019 was no different. Indeed, it was probably the best yet, with Monday perhaps the most enjoyable day of the year so far and arguably one of the more memorable days on patch full stop.

Wood Warbler, New Barn, 26/8/2019.

After a spell of westerly winds, things changed on Friday, with light easterlies from the continent bringing with them fine and hot weather, lasting until yesterday. On the face of it – easterlies in late August – it couldn’t have been more ideal. The Bank Holiday bonanza got off to a slow start, though.

On Friday I covered pretty much every inch of the patch but, despite a flyover Tree Pipit and three Spotted Flycatchers at New Barn, it was quiet, save my second earliest Reed Bunting on The Ridge. Noc-mig – finally back in play after a frustrating ten days of technical difficulties – didn’t produce much either. How that would change …

Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 23/8/2019.

Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 24/8/2019.

In the field, the quietness continued on Saturday. A dawn sky-watch on The Ridge produced a trickle of gulls heading south, but apart from the continued Spotted Flycatchers (a family party, with a couple of very young juveniles still being fed) and the first Shoveler of the season on Snowdenham Mill Pond, the notebook remained somewhat empty.

However, Saturday night and Sunday morning noc-mig turned out to be one of the busiest nights I’ve had. The headline, lo and behold, was an Ortolan Bunting, hot on the heels of the first that was recorded on 29 August last year and in similar conditions (easterly winds, late August and after 3 am). A recording can be heard here – a nice and clear ‘tew’-type call, with a neat kink in the middle of the sonogram.

Ortolan Bunting sonogram, 25/8/2019.

Shoveler, Snowdenham Mill Pond, 24/8/2019.

A small Curlew flock, several Robins and a Spot Fly flew over too, along with, bizarrely, a juvenile Common Tern, which seemed to be flying over the microphone for a few minutes! To put these figures into a little context, a recent combined thermal imaging and sound recording study in Dorset yielded 117 visual birds, but only two nocturnal flight calls. In short, noc-mig is only picking up a tiny fraction of the number of birds migrating at night.

If you apply that ratio to my night of recording on Saturday, when I logged 13 birds, then some 760 more flew over silently! Simply mind-blowing stuff. Perhaps, then, Ortolans fly particularly low, or are more vocal than many species?

Greylag Geese, New Barn, 24/8/2019.

Anyway, back in the daylight, the run of poor form continued on Sunday. By this point, despite decent birds being found elsewhere in the south-east, I was beginning to wonder if the weather was just too fine for migrants. I’d barely had any. A long stomp around the south section and outside the patch, to Hascombe Hill and back, was lining up to be the worst session of the weekend.

Then, metres from the car after being on foot for hours, a Redstart appeared briefly along the track at New Barn. Birding often throws up weird quirks – in 2018, on Bank Holiday Sunday, I was on patch later than usual due to a few drinks with mates the night before. I saw a Redstart along the track at New Barn. This year, I was again out the night before, started late and also saw a Redstart, pretty much in the same bush as 2018. Very strange, and reason enough to rename said track Redstart Ride.

White Stork, Wintershall, 23/8/2019.

The Redstart was a year tick, and after a night of noc-mig that would produce another Ortolan (leaving me verging on incredulity prior to a chat with others in the noc-mig group), it was time for round four on patch. Up first was a quiet Winkworth, before it was back to New Barn. There was no sign of the Redstart, or initially much else before, despite checking every passerine.

I reached New Barn Pond when a warbler flew silently from the willow scrub to one of the taller trees to the south. I lifted my bins to it with a feeling of ‘here we go again’, so was chuffed to notice that said warbler – a phylloscopus – had a particularly long primary projection. Once I clapped eyes on it there it was: a particularly smart Wood Warbler.

Wood Warbler, Hascombe, 26/8/2019.

These are always gems to bump into, especially given how rare they are in the south-east these days. Eventually it flitted down to the pond willows and bushes, allowing truly superb views as it quietly pottered about, occasionally giving its mournful call.

Wood Warbler, Hascombe, 26/8/2019.

I eventually tore myself away, and that proved wise. The family party of Spot Flys were still about, and so were another in Hive Field, at the bottom of Scotsland Brook. There must have been at least five, including two youngsters. However, much to my delight, a separate bird turned out to be a Pied Flycatcher – a patch tick, no less.

I had the bird in view for less than a minute before it vanished into the woodland, not to be seen again, despite its Spotted congeners happily feeding from the hedge on which I first spotted it. This bird was the fifth for the recording area and first since a dapper male at Winkworth in April 2012. Over the weekend there was a small influx of the species in the south and east, including several elsewhere in Surrey.

Whinchats, Bonhurst Farm, 26/8/2019.

That short spell of patch joy was enough to make a weekend, despite it all happening in a tiny percentage of the total amount of time spent on the site over the weekend. To round things off, a quick mid-afternoon drop in to Bonhurst Farm produced yet another year first, via the shape of two showy Whinchats along a fence line in one of the large meadows. This species is just – only just – annual at Thorncombe Street, so it’s always a privilege to bump into one, let alone two.

It was an excellent weekend. Nothing super rare (at least visually), merely the beauty of migration in action, as unfamiliar faces visit familiar landscapes, on a long journey from far away homes to distant wintering grounds. 

Thursday 22 August 2019

Patch tick

I was delighted to add to my Thorncombe Street area list on Monday. Probably the last species on my mind when I checked in on Bonhurst Farm was Shelduck, but bizarrely there one was, hurtling towards me over the orchard at 06:49. The bird was low – doubtless it’d have been picked up if I was on a Broomy Down or Ridge vigil – and despite the unmistakable structure and plumage it took me a few seconds to clock onto what I was looking at.

Raven, The Ridge, 18/8/2019.

It may have been completing the latter leg of a night flight, dropping down an hour or so after dawn in search of a suitable wet area. There was no sign at Birtley Pond, nor Snowdenham Mill Pond or Bramley Park Lake. I suppose it could have been at Winkworth before deciding to move – the one and only previous record was of a bird during autumn 1973 (!), last seen at the arboretum by Mike Lawn (who still watches Milford and Witley Commons today), on 11 November of that year.

It’s always galling not to get an image, but I was pleased enough – 142 for the patch list (114 for the year). August delivering, as it always does … Most of the weekend I was working at Birdfair (Osprey, Great Egret and a few Swifts spied) so it was good to return to the patch with a bang.

As it’s the Wheatear/chat/wagtail time of year, many of my efforts have been at Bonhurst, but it’s flattered to deceive a little this year. The temporary absence of the cow heard may be something to do with it. And, to be fair, competing with a 2018 roll call of Black Redstart, Whinchat, Stonechat and multiple Yellow Wags and Wheatears was always going to be hard …

Ravens, The Ridge, 18/8/2019.

I have had the first Yellow Wagtail of the year, mind, over the impressive looking Hurt Hill Meadows following a shower on Sunday. This area has been carefully managed by The Surrey Wildlife Trust during the last year or two and is now a lush meadow beneath a scrubby hill and aside a crop. I’ll certainly be checking it more and its former name of Lonely Field is consigned to history.

Other visits have been quiet. The Hobby young look set to fledge anytime soon. A nice surprise was a Raven family group, near a nest site that was thought to have been abandoned. It’s likely they nested deep into private land. Today I rang with Steve and we enjoyed a decent catch of 21 birds, but migrants were absent, as they were away from the nets too (save a silent pipit that flew over). After a week or so of techincal difficulties, noc-mig is now back in play: a Common Sandpiper and Tree Pipit were recorded on the night of 20th/21st.

The Bank Holiday weather could be too fine for migration, but the past two have delivered emphatically, and I’ll be out looking.

Thursday 15 August 2019

Spotflys, tripits and willwas

It’s that time of year. That time where two of the best patch sounds can be heard. The lazy, half-bothered sub-song of a Willow Warbler and the seemingly miles up shpeez of a Tree Pipit. August in a nutshell.

The last week or so has seen warbler numbers really ramp up, as they do every mid-August. The last couple of wanders down the New Barn track have yielded five species, including a good number of the aforementioned Willows, either said lazy singers or bright, lemon-yellow youngsters trying to fit in with a mixed flock. When ringing on Monday, at least five were about at Bonhurst Farm, though sadly none ended up in the nets.

Kestrel, Bonhurst Farm, 14/78/2019.

On Tuesday I had my first Tree Pipit of the year, at New Barn, which bolted over east, perhaps from neighbouring The Hurt Wood, or perhaps from Scotland, or beyond. During the last week or so I’ve been waiting for the first autumn Teal to arrive at Mill Pond – lo and behold, one was present on 10th. The Swift over Bonhurst on 8th will doubtless be the last patch bird of the year, though I’ve seen a few since, including a flock on the way up to Birdfair today.

I mentioned in a previous post that Spotted Flycatchers seemingly didn’t do well on patch this summer, but the typical mid-August appearance of the species pretty much everywhere challenges that initial opinion. The biggest group was of four, a family party, that have been hanging out at Bonhurst Farm, with the adults still feeding the youngsters.

Spotted Flycatchers, Bonhurst Farm, 14/8/2019.

I just love August. So much so that I wrote a longer piece on it, which you can read here.

Monday 5 August 2019

Squacco and stone

At the end of my last post, I nearly wrote of my anticipation for August. It’s a month that always delivers locally, despite being somewhat maligned by birders. This is probably because of the post-breeding dispersal factor that is far more noticeable inland than it would be at a wetland or coastal site. Anyway, in fear of jinxing it, I didn’t write about said anticipation – it seems that was wise, with the first few days already providing some excellent birding.

Swallows, Tilsey Farm, 3/8/2019.

Allden’s Hill has been the focal point. On Friday, I combined collecting the microphone with an hour or so of sky-watching. There were a few Woodpigeons and Stock Doves darting about at sunrise, in no real pattern. Then, at 05:41, I clocked a Turtle Dove heading towards me, as it flicked and dashed north-east. It was gone in a flash, but it goes without saying I was delighted to witness this rapidly declining gem grace my patch.

The species is just about annual here (one in 2015, two in 2016, 0 in 2017 and one in 2018) though they are almost always flyovers. Turtle Dove has never been common in Surrey during my lifetime. Nowadays they are practically extinct, save one site close to the West Sussex border (only a couple of miles from my patch as the dove flies) where a pair present last year was followed up by a singing male this year. Just over said border the population is far healthier, increasing slightly as one heads south and east to the modern-day hot-spot (best site in Britain?) of Knepp.

Red Kite, Tilsey Farm, 3/8/2019.

Painted Lady, New Barn, 4/8/2019.

This record would normally make a weekend, but it was eclipsed by a noc-mig whopper picked up in the small hours of Sunday morning. This Stone-curlew was most surprising and apparent reward for a largely poor year of nocturnal recording. The tones are pretty classic and distinctive, the sonogram looks good and the consensus from those I consulted was instantly Stone-curlew. However, it is a slightly atypical call – when I get the time I’ll do some thorough research before formally submitting it.

Stone-curlew sonogram.

Following a huge decline and range contraction in the late 1800s/early 1900s, Stone-curlew has increased since the turn of the millennium, reflected in the number of Surrey records. It is almost annual nowadays, though notoriously hard to twitch in the county. The nearest breeding birds are in Sussex, though a far healthier population persists in Wiltshire. There seems to be some sort of passage going on at present, with Dawlish Warren and Prawle Point logging extralimital birds over the weekend.

However, despite being easily the second rarest noc-mig record I’ve been lucky enough to log, it’s actually something that could conceivable turn up at Thorncombe Street one day. Indeed, I’ve daydreamed before about finding one stood in one of the sheep fields one early April morning. The species bred on the North Downs at Compton until the 1800s but, despite the increase in Surrey records in the modern-day, Stone-curlew remains a south-west Surrey mega – the last was at Thursley Common in 1995 (also in August), while the one before that was at Shalford Water Meadows during the Second World War.

Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 4/8/2019.

There were plenty of other signs of autumn on patch over the weekend. On Saturday, the first juvenile Willow Warbler of the season (appallingly only the third of 2019) was at Selhurst Common, while a typically charming female-type Wheatear was a notably early individual at Bonhurst Farm on Sunday. A flock of 73, mainly juvenile, Starlings at the same site whiffed of summers' close, as did a Siskin or two at Scotsland Brook (though this species seems to have bred at Hascombe Hill this year).

Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 4/8/2019.

The first Lesser Black-backed Gull of autumn was yet another hint of change, while the appearance of Spotted Flycatchers in random places befitted the season, even if it seems they had a difficult breeding campaign following random days of heavy rain during June and July. Away from patch, a distant Common Sandpiper at a private site was a final local flavour of the month.

Common Sandpiper, south-west Surrey, 4/8/2019.

Despite all the above, I still had time to dust off my twitching boots and head to good old Pagham for the finally reappearing (and staying put) Squacco Heron. A ninth for Sussex, it's the second for the Selsey peninsula, following one on 19 June 1995. This was my first twitch since the Grey Catbird in Cornwall last October, with the one before that over a year ago also at Pagham, for the American Royal Tern). My twitching game outside of Surrey is pretty shocking to be honest.

As many previous posts will have proclaimed, I love Pagham Harbour, and Saturday afternoon was one of those classic trips during which there was plenty to see. Aside from the somewhat frustratingly brief Squacco at Halsey’s Farm, I also saw a host of waders including Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank, along with two Cattle Egrets and a Yellow-legged Gull.

Squacco Heron, Halsey's Farm, Sidlesham, 3/8/2019.

In all, a memorable weekend of largely local August birding. Hopefully there’s plenty more to come in the weeks ahead.