Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday 23 September 2019

And still they come

They last two days have seen a remarkable southward migration of hirundines, mainly House Martins, over much of south-east England. I was lucky enough to cash in at Thorncombe Street, though I was certainly left feeling I could have logged many more if further eyes and time were available.

58 hirundines (mainly House Martins) moving south
over Hascombe Hill, 22 September 2019.

In recent years there has tended to be a large hirundine push in this part of the world between roughly 20 and 24 September. For me, it began after the south-east wind broke down early on Sunday morning, with 408 House Martins and 81 Swallows powering south over Tilsey Farm in between showers. Some of the flocks were big (80+) and at least 300 birds had to go down as ‘hirundine sp’.

A Yellow Wagtail and the highest Meadow Pipit count of the season (a pitiful 109) were the other highlights. Contented with a respectable haul, I headed home. It was only then that messages from friends in the local area told of big pushes elsewhere, with numbers rising into the early afternoon. Unfortunately I had other things to be doing, but later on, after looking outside and seeing a steady stream of hirundines bombing south down the River Wey, I knew I had to return to patch.

Hirundines over Hascombe Hill, 22 September 2019.

There, on Allden’s Hill, I experienced possibly the most enthralling migration spectacle I’ve had the privilege to witness locally. It wasn’t a huge count per say, but from 2 pm to 4.30 pm there was a constant stream of hirundines, piling south down the valley. 943 House Martins and 188 Swallows were the final figures – by no means whopper counts, but it was the relentless flow of birds that was truly astounding.

This morning I only had a couple of hours, and while 102 House Martins buzzed south over The Ridge, things were only picking up towards the end of the watch. I’m sure, if I had the whole day today or indeed yesterday, some serious figures would’ve been managed. There must have been tens of thousands passing south over Surrey.

Red Kite while looking north from The Ridge towards
the North Downs, 23 September 2019.

My total for Sunday was 1,361 House Martins and 269 Swallows. The former is a site record count, but pales in comparison to the monstrous figure of 3,175 south over Tweseldown Hill, near Farnham, this morning (1,700 in 20 minutes!). Other impressive counts included 800+ over Shalford this morning (per Kit), 600+ over Capel yesterday (Wes) and 1000+ over Dorking yesterday (Mark D).

All these, including the Tweseldown haul, tie in pleasingly to my thoughts on hirundines and pipits following the river valley gaps in the North Downs north-south – the big numbers were over said gaps (Tweseldown wasn’t mentioned in my big post as it’s not in Surrey), while other locations in Surrey seemed to record far fewer birds. I suspect if someone was standing at Shalford/Thorncombe Street or Leith Hill/Ranmore/Box Hill yesterday or today, a new Surrey record may have been achieved.

Chiffchaff, The Ridge, 23 September 2019. The cover crops were
teeming with this species this morning.

It seems weather is more important than geographic landmarks, though – all these pushes came with a breezy headwind (south/south-west) and in between showers. Making sense of Surrey migration and the weather is best saved for another day, though!

Such a migration spectacle was most welcome after a slow month for vis-mig, with the long spell of high pressure meaning decent watches have been few and far between this September. As mentioned, it’s been poor for mipits, with wagtail numbers also somewhat low. Still, there’s a long way to go until autumn is done.

Chiffchaff, The Ridge, 23 September 2019.

There has been a few other bits of note over the last few days. On Thursday, Steve and I enjoyed a ringing session at Bonhurst dominated by first-year birds (two of 25 processed were adults), with plenty going on around the farm: a couple of Hobbies were overhead, two Skylarks thought about dropping into the large meadow and, oddly, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew over one of the nets.

A brief male Stonechat in the orchard was a year first and coincided with large numbers being logged in the London area of Surrey – presumably these are birds from further north in Britain slowly filtering south.

Male Stonechat, Tilsey Farm, 21 September 2019.

Another male Stonechat was at Tilsey Farm on Saturday morning. Perhaps surprisingly, this species is hard to come by here (more difficult than Wheatear, Yellow Wagtail and, this year, Whinchat), but mid to late September seems to be the best time to bump into one.

Male Stonechat, Tilsey Farm, 21 September 2019.

Some 101 Canada Geese roosting on Snowdenham Mill Pond on Saturday may be a site record (once I’ve consulted historic WeBS data), while 19 Jays was a high count and reflective of a small influx into eastern Britain at present, for reasons unknown. Indeed, I seemed to bump into this species everywhere over the weekend.

At Winkworth, another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was in The Bowl on Saturday, offering further evidence this species is drastically under recorded locally. A small flock of Siskins were roving around Rowes Flashe – there for the winter no doubt. Wildfowl numbers are building up on Snowdenham Mill Pond too. It won’t be long before the first Redwings appear, and there may not be many more hirundines.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

A weekend of two halves

It was a strange weekend of birding, with largely unfavourable conditions making for a mixed bag of sessions. Saturday was superb – a classic mid-September session on patch – but Sunday and Monday were far quieter.

Whinchat, Bonhurst Farm, 14 September 2019.

Now is the time for vis-mig to really kick off but the high pressure sitting over Britain means any decent session looks off the cards for the next week or so. Over the weekend there was minimal cloud cover, so it was a surprise that Saturday delivered some fairly decent vis-migging (both in the sky and on the deck), presumably aided by the gentle easterly.

After a slow start, hirundine and Meadow Pipit action picked up, culminating in a respectable count of 384 House Martins heading south-west. Some 72 mipits were heading the same way – sadly it seems the fine weather will rule out any big days of these, one of my favourite species, here this autumn.

Yellow Wagtails, Bonhurst Farm, 14 September 2019.

Hobby, Bonhurst Farm, 14 September 2019.

Singles of Skylark and Reed Bunting south added a bit of variety and hinted at October, but birds on the deck – especially at Bonhurst Farm – were more of a nod to August. Two splendid Yellow Wagtails dropped into the cow field briefly before continuing south; these were my first on the deck for 2019 in what’s been a below average year for them.

On the other hand, it’s been a superb year for Whinchats, which seem to be loving the changes at Bonhurst. Three, in the large meadow, was a record site count and the third appearance of the year for this species – the best tally to date.

Whinchats, Bonhurst Farm, 14 September 2019.

Also at Bonhurst, one each of the local Little Owls and Hobbies put in a showing, a Willow Warbler sang and a Whitethroat may be the last of the year. Save the main push of hirundines and mipits, Tilsey Farm and New Barn were quieter, though three Spotted Flycatchers represented a latest ever Thorncombe Street record.

Red Kite, Tilsey Farm, 14 September 2019.

Skylark, Tilsey Farm, 14 September 2019.

Spotted Flycatcher, Coldbourne Copse, 14 September 2019.

After a long week at work during which time I wasn’t able to get out on patch, such an eventful session was most welcome. Back home I was contentedly watching Liverpool against Newcastle when the mega alert went off, with news of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. I rarely twitch outside the county these days, especially when it involves a species already on my Western Palearctic list (as Eastern Olly is).

However, quite to my surprise, the bird in question was at Farlington Marshes – some 30 minutes down the A3! It was a wonderful record for the south coast and, with the sun shining and time on my hands, I thought why not. Abel was similarly keen and in a flash we were parked up and looking at the bird, as it merrily hunted insects among the rose hips and hawthorns in a patch of scrub, occasionally stopping for a preen

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Farlington Marshes, 14 September 2019.

The views were OK – enough to see a few tail-dips, with the pale tones and whacking bill standout features. Weirdly, this is the second iduna I’ve seen on the south coast, after a ridiculously elusive Booted Warbler some 22 miles east at Climping in 2013.

The crowd size grew considerably while we were there, so we decided to walk the rest of the site. We didn’t see the Wryneck which was present near Crater Pond, but a Whinchat, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Bearded Tits and a decent selection of waders made for a good supporting cast. I’ve always preferred visiting West Sussex coastal sites over ones in Hants, but Farlington seems a superb spot, and one I’ve only visited a handful of times.

Grey Heron, Tilsey Farm, 14 September 2019.

On Sunday it was back to patch. The forecast dawn cloud didn’t materialise, meaning vis-mig was quiet, despite a record count of seven Grey Wagtails bombing south-west over Tilsey Farm. Also here was an apparently knackered male Wheatear, a Yellowhammer, a singing Willow Warbler and a few squadrons of geese overhead.

Canada Geese, Tilsey Farm, 15 September 2019.

Grey Wagtail, Tilsey Farm, 15 September 2019.

Winkworth was very quiet, with a small party of Siskins aside Rowes Flashe feeling rather wintry, as did the loafing group of Black-headed Gulls on Snowdenham Mill Pond. At the latter site, wildfowl numbers are climbing, and I counted 15 Gadwall.

After the fine weekend weather, Monday saw a switch to overcast with a westerly wind – ideal for vis-mig. However, it very much flattered to deceive, and 84 Swallows south-west was a poor return and the best of a quiet watch.

Wheatear, Tilsey Farm, 15 September 2019.

The week ahead looks uninspiring with mainly fine, warm conditions tied with north winds – perfect for southbound migrants. A spell of south-easterlies over Friday and Saturday could produce excellent birding, but with the associated fine conditions it could well be a non-event, certainly in Surrey.

Friday 13 September 2019

2018 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report

The 2018 Thorncombe Street Area Bird Report is now available. The 66-page, A5 wiro-banded publication contains:
  • A full systematic list of the birds recorded in 2018, with photos.
  • Finders reports for site firsts.
  • A summary of 2018 noc-mig studies
  • A summary of 2018 ringing efforts.
  • A summary of 2018 vis-mig.
  • A full butterfly and mammal summary.
Plus much more.

Copies cost £8, including postage. To buy a copy, please email godalmingareabirds@gmail.com or get in touch on Twitter, where you can send a direct message to @Godalming_birds.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Trying to make sense of Surrey migration

A look at the possible migration routes, landmarks and corridors in Surrey can be read here.

Monday 9 September 2019

September sundries

I haven’t got a great recent relationship with September on the patch. Despite being perhaps the most dynamic birding month of the year, certainly on a national level, I’ve always found it frustrating. More often than not, after a blinding August, I’ve gone flying into the month with great expectations, only to be met by mediocrity. Conscious not to fall into the same trap this year, after a superb August, I mixed things up over the weekend.

Osprey, Leith Hill, 7/9/2019.

Typically, one doesn’t have to wait long from 1 September for the first Meadow Pipit of the season – this came on Friday 6th, when one flew over Allden’s Hill. The forecast for the weekend – after the joys of late August south-easterlies – was average at best, with blowy north-westerlies dominating. Not, perhaps, the best conditions for a Leith Hill tower watch, but having not done one for far too long, I couldn’t resist the hellish, pre-sunrise climb from Windy Gap …

In the excellent company of Matt, Robin, Mark D and David S, it was hard to get too enthused with the unexpectedly gusty and cold wind. Indeed, I called it early and said something along the lines of: “this will be an all or nothing watch – raptor or seabird or bust”. That said, a trickle of Mipits propelled overhead and a few distant hirundines seemed to drift south, while mixed flocks around the tower contained Firecrest, Willow Warbler and Marsh Tit.

Osprey and Kestrel, Leith Hill, 7/9/2019.

A distant Little Egret triggered an ‘orange Club biscuit’ moment (my first), but we’d clearly forgotten Wes was within a few miles of the tower with his eyes open, thus the heads up of something far more noteworthy was inevitable. Indeed, the call came that he had an Osprey over Dorking, drifting our way … after a few minutes it appeared, initially at distance.

Much to our delight the bird came towards us, clearly tracking the High Weald Ridge west, having flown down the Dorking Gap. As far as I can tell it was an adult, presumably in suspended moult for migration. It never came super close but the views were good, and we eventually lost it towards Winterfold, heading straight towards my patch. Interestingly, one was seen near Shalford that evening – I’d put money on it being the same bird.

Osprey, Leith Hill, 7/9/2019.

The importance of the High Weald Ridge as an aid for migrating birds is something I am sure is significant. Indeed, it merits an entire blog post, so watch this space … The rest of the watch reverted to pre-Osprey levels: average at best. However, the passing raptor was enough to render the visit a success.

I was back on patch on Sunday morning in far brighter, but no less windy, conditions. Thus, my own vis-mig session was somewhat hampered, though a Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipit south were surprisingly high quality. A few Willow Warblers sang in the sunshine too (listen here for audio of one).

Snipe, south-west Surrey, 8/9/2019.

Common Sandpiper, south-west Surrey, 8/9/2019.

Otherwise, it was quiet, so I checked out a private site not far away. I was rewarded with a Common Sandpiper and an incongruous looking Snipe, seemingly knackered and hardly able to move, so I gave it a wide berth (having ruled out Great Snipe first!).

It turns out there was a bit of local Snipe action that morning and the previous night, presumably to do with a broad southerly movement of birds associated with the north-west winds – Wes had one over his garden and Isaiah recorded an impressive five over his garden that same morning.

Grey Wagtail, south-west Surrey, 8/9/2019.

And that was that, for another weekend. A brief forage for blackberries (inspired by Matt ‘Paul Hollywood’ Phelps and his tasty sounding crumble recipe) on Sunday afternoon produced a gathering mass of hirundines and a Raven over Slades Farm, but little else. The forecast for next weekend looks exciting at present – here’s hoping.

Monday 2 September 2019

The good run continues

Every patch year is different. For me, 2018 was marred by erratic and unusual weather. Spring was short and frustrating, autumn exasperating. This year has been so much better. It may be the more regular weather, or it could be a revised approach to working the patch. It’s perhaps a bit of both, plus other factors, the biggest of which is always good fortune.

Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 28/8/2019.

Whatever the case, the good run continued over this past weekend. After the wonderful Bank Holiday weekend, midweek was slightly more usual. On Wednesday, a brief skywatch from The Ridge was curtailed by rain, though a large flock of hirundines that contained two Sand Martins – only my second of the year – was noteworthy.

At Bonhurst Farm shortly after, a Wheatear was kicking about on one of the fences, perhaps deposited here following said rain. It was still present the following day too, on the same bit of fence line. Otherwise, though, Thursday was quiet, with a Spotted Flycatcher at Tilsey Farm and a few swirling masses of hirundines the best from several hours of stomping around the west and south sections. That said, it was pleasing to prove Little Grebe breeding in the latter section, with an adult and a well-developed youngster on Nobody’s Pond.

Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 29/8/2019.

With the day off, I decided to mix it up in the afternoon, and visited the farmland east of Shackleford, an area that I’ve become particularly fond of. It looks great for migrant chats here so it was no surprise that two Wheatears were knocking about around the airfield.

In each of my few visits here there’s always been plenty of raptors. Presumably, the well managed fields offer plenty of food, and the proximity to Puttenham Common and the North Downs probably helps. A strikingly pale Buzzard, present for the second visit of late, was sat on a hay bale, but it was a different, airborne individual of the same species that drew my attention to a more distant raptor.

Marsh Harrier, Shackleford, 29/8/2019.

It wasn’t a third Buzzard, but a female/juvenile Marsh Harrier – an excellent surprise. It scrapped with the buzzard for a little while before lifting lazily east and towards the A3. I presumed it’d disappear that way, so was caught off guard when it reappeared again towards the end of my walk at pretty much the same spot just north of Chalk Lane. Presumably with said downs to the east and Puttenham Common to the west, it fancied loitering a while.

It was a misty start on Saturday and it felt rare, but it was in fact quiet on patch. However, an otherwise dull walk of New Barn was illuminated by a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – totally unexpected at this time of year (and in this location). It was initially in the same willow as the Wood Warbler from last weekend, but it soon moved about a bit. An odd but welcome record.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, New Barn, 31/8/2019.
There must be loads of these little guys shifting around the Surrey countryside, undetected outside the February/Marsh drumming season. Conversely, in fact, there has been a curious run of extralimital LSW records this past week or two, including birds at Unstead (a great record by Ray), Priest Hill, Godstone and Thursley Common. In case of interest, my write-up of The Woodpecker Network 2019 LSW results is here.

The woodpecker was my 88th species logged on patch in August, with 94 recorded in total during the month (including noc-mig stuff). It’s easily the most diverse and productive month to be on the site – arguably that applies to all inland spots too.

House Martin, Tilsey Farm, 29/8/2019.

As a result, I was sure September would get off to a slow start. However, it turned out to be the best session of the week, ensuring the month began with a bang. When collecting the recorder from Allden's Hill, a Yellow Wagtail flew south, which was a good start, though the real action was at Winkworth Arboretum. My first visit to Winkworth was as a very young kid in 1999 – my old bird diary tells me as much. On Sunday, some 20 years later, I enjoyed probably my most fruitful visit to this perennially underachieving site.

It began when I spotted an acrocephalus in the small Rowes Flashe reed bed. It was playing extremely hard to get (I hadn’t even deciphered if it had streaks or not) when a Peregrine dashed over the lake. This species is scarce or even rare here (indeed it is in South-West Surrey) and the bird – seemingly born this year – performed a couple of low circuits as it clutched onto some form of feathered prey, part of which was in its beak.

Peregrine, Winkworth Arboretum, 1/9/2019.

Reed Warbler, Winkworth Arboretum, 1/9/2019.

This was a big distraction, as I tried to convince this warbler to show itself, but a ‘wit’-ing Pied Flycatcher in the small trees on the east of Rowes Flashe was more so! After picking up my first patch Pied Fly last weekend, the recent influx has triggered a London bus effect, including another on noc-mig. The bird, like the one last weekend, soon disappeared, into the upper arboretum with a roving mixed flock.

That allowed me to concentrate on my acro. Finally, it crept out of the base of the reeds – a Reed Warbler no less, only my second on the patch and the third ever (all have been at Winkworth). I watched it for a bit and then it scampered back into cover, before sub-singing for a few minutes.

Wheatear, Tilsey Farm, 1/9/2019.

I hoped for similar greatness at New Barn but it was quieter there, despite huge numbers of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, with only Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Spotted Flycatcher to be dug out. Tilsey Farm didn’t offer much, save a Wheatear that may have been flushed from somewhere nearby before departing north.

Whinchat, Bonhurst Farm, 1/9/2019.

I wondered if it’d drop in at Bonhurst Farm but it didn’t, though a particularly confiding Whinchat did, on the exact same fence line the two last weekend had favoured. Good times. In all, it was a fantastic start to September, a month that has struggled for memorable moments at Thorncombe Street since I started patching it. Maybe this year will be different.