Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 29 October 2019

A new year list record

October has continued its excellent form here at Thorncombe Street during the last week. Indeed, it’s been one superb month during a really fun, successful and positive year on patch. So good, in fact, that two year ticks during the last few days mean a new year list record has been achieved, something that never really seemed realistic after a combination of free time and good birds in 2017 saw a very high bar of 123 set – some five better than any other annual haul.

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

Promising vis-mig conditions on Wednesday were a let-down, with the forecast north-easterly switching to a barely noticeable east-south-east wind by sunrise. Save 1,295 Woodpigeons, 251 Redwings and a Brambling, there wasn’t much to report.

Snowdenham Mill Pond has been consistent in its wildfowl array over the last few weeks, with numbers of every species down apart from Shoveler, which at times has been the commonest duck on the pond.

Shoveler, Snowdenham Mill Pond, 23 October 2019.

Greylag Geese, New Barn, 23 October 2019.

Said gentle easterly airflow produced a phenomenal fall of Black Redstarts in south-east England, with 50 at Dungeness an example of the extraordinary numbers involved. If you’ve kept tabs on Twitter or the bird news services during the last week, you’ll be aware that Surrey has cashed in, with at least 10 sites hosting birds.

Enthused by this, I headed to Bonhurst Farm on Wednesday afternoon looking to repeat the discovery of one after the long-staying female last year. I even ventured up to the Thorncombe Street Area northern outpost of Hurst Hill Farm in my failed attempt to find any.

Common Gull, Hurst Hill Farm, 23 October 2019.

Steve came down for ringing at Bonhurst Farm on Thursday, with the wet forecast thankfully holding off for a few hours longer than expected. Despite the gloomy conditions we enjoyed a profitable session, trapping 24 new birds and three retraps of six species. Best of all was a first Treecreeper for the nets here, as well as a very worn Goldcrest, suggesting that the little sprite had perhaps made a sea crossing (or at least a lengthy journey) not long ago.

Treecreeper, Bonhurst Farm, 24 October 2019.

Goldcrest, Bonhurst Farm, 24 October 2019.

A few bits flew over in the dank conditions, including three Skylarks and a few winter thrushes. Best of all, however, came at 10:01 while Steve was processing a Goldcrest – a Snipe. It was first heard calling in the gloom before we picked it up, as it rocketed south.

A fairly common bird in Surrey, sure, and one of the most under recorded species here without a doubt. It was still, though, my first on patch since 18 March 2015! As a result, a most welcome year tick, and one that equalled my previous best of 123 …

Woodpigeons, Tilsey Farm, 23 October 2019.

Saturday was thankfully wet and windy, as there was a lot of sport on television. A very brief patch visit proved quiet. A thicker head than usual on Sunday morning made it both hard to get up early and bear the freezing cold north-westerly wind for a vis-mig.

Again, it was quiet, though three Hawfinches north-west at dawn continued a good run for the species here, shades of autumn 2017 when the crazy invasion took place. Of the Hawfinches I’ve had in the last week or two, I’m not sure any are moving that far (indeed some have dropped in) – perhaps we’re going to have another good autumn/winter for the species.

The other highlight was a Mute Swan that lumbered south, only my third on vis-mig here. Picked up at a great distance as it arrived over Blackheath from the north-east, the huge frame and outstretched neck initially had all sorts of alarm bells ringing.

Hawfinch, Junction Field, 28 October 2019.

Woodpigeons, Junction Field, 29 October 2019.

Feeling fresher and with a little time on Monday morning, I spent a few hours vis-migging from Junction Field for a change. The fine conditions meant Woodpigeons were very much on the move – I tallied up 5,226, including some huge flocks flying south-west over the Wey-Arun Plain, which was shrouded in fog and looking like a giant motorway. Robin’s ‘Isles of Surrey’ perception was very much in effect. This will likely be my biggest autumn count of the species this year.

Another Hawfinch flew south-east, an impressive 25 Yellowhammers were ticking to and from Broomy Down and three Lesser Redpolls buzzed south. It was a fine autumn morning, but the big result took place at Bonhurst Farm.

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

Almost inevitably, given the influx, a Black Redstart popped up on wires near Upper Bonhurst. It performed admirably in the sunshine, though typically never in great light for photos.

It eventually worked down to the main farm buildings, where the female last year spent so much time. I left it be, but a steady stream of visiting birders came during the day and it was still present until late afternoon. It lingered until today and John R got some nice footage (see here).

Black Redstart, Bonhurst Farm, 28 October 2019.

And that marked bird number 124 for me at Thorncombe Street this year. Ironically, it’s happened in the year I’ve actively chosen to take my foot of the year listing and be more thorough with coverage of different sites. The quirks of birding. Despite winter fast approaching, maybe 2019 has another surprise or two to offer yet.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Flight shots

It’s that time of year where most patching, whether intentionally or not, turns into vis-mig, leading to an array of flight shots. At present, most mornings will deliver some movement of note and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to get in the field a lot during the last week.

Sparrowhawk, The Ridge, 16/10/2019.

Wednesday was very much the calm after the storm that was Tuesday. I took the rare opportunity to visit in the middle of the day, with raptors on my mind. They were also on the menu – Peregrine (scarce here), Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Buzzard and Red Kite all logged – but alas the harrier or Merlin wasn’t to be. It was otherwise quiet, save a patch record count of some 61 Feral Pigeons at Bonhurst Farm, a technicoloured feast for the eyes.

After a dawn shower, Thursday was rather fine and sunny. As a result, there wasn’t much action in the skies, but after venturing to Sorbus Hill, in the dark depths of the southern end of Winkworth Arboretum, I was rewarded with a chacking Ring Ouzel among a post-roost gathering of thrushes (mainly Redwings).

Buzzard, The Ridge, 16 October 2019.

Kestrel, Bonhurst Farm, 16 October 2019.

Peregrine, The Ridge, 16 October 2019.

Surprisingly, this is a first for the arboretum, though given coverage it’s not such a shock. I really must explore the extremes of the site more and not just stick to the water bodies, which get the bulk of my attention when visiting and indeed a Kingfisher over Rowe’s Flashe on this morning was noteworthy.

On Friday I was pleased to be joined by Abel. The forecast had been mixed so it was satisfying to step out into a gentle south-westerly and some cloud cover. We chose to vis-mig from New Barn and it turned out to be a really fun watch.

Stock Doves, New Barn, 18 October 2019.

A steady southward movement of Stock Doves was entertaining, totalling 54 birds, the second highest vis-mig count here. However, two species stole the show. First up was two Hawfinches, bundling low north at 07:51, with the squeaky flight call shades of autumn 2017. This was the second record of the year.

To most Surrey birders the fact a Ring-necked Parakeet should offer higher rarity value than Hawfinch is ludicrous, but such is the case here with this just about annual Psittacula always tricky to connect with. Bizarrely, two flew high north-east during the watch, at 08:10 and 09:10 respectively.

Ring-necked Parakeet, New Barn, 18 October 2019.

Hawfinches, New Barn, 18 October 2019.

Why this species hasn’t colonised south-west Surrey remains a total mystery (Thursley Common had its first record a few weeks ago) – while fairly common just north of Guildford and regular in the south-east of the county, they are totally absent south of Guildford and west of Cranleigh.

Where these riotous birds were headed or had come from is anyone’s guess – they breed in Crawley and Aldershot, but the flight path of these beasts didn’t fit for those places. The nearest sizeable population to the south-west is Southampton ...

Woodpigeons, Tilsey Farm, 20 October 2019.

As a result of the parakeets, Abel happily cashed in a Thorncombe Street lifer and myself a year tick – I’ve had the same number of Ring-necked Parakeet days here in 2019 as Red-throated Pipit! Two Ravens on the deck was another good observation during an enjoyable couple of hours.

Saturday was quieter, as I completed a four-mile circuit of the central section early doors before the various shooting parties assembled across the area. Clear highlight was three Woodlarks at Brookwell, where the species bred this year.

I haven’t seen any since June, but would bet these birds are either the breeders, their offspring or both. It will be fantastic if this species nests again next year and becomes part of the Thorncombe Street furniture, even if only until the Christmas tree plantation grows up.

Hawfinches, Tilsey Farm, 20 October 2019.

Other bits included a Firecrest at Slades Farm, my first Lesser Redpolls of the season over Junction Field and what will surely be– despite all hirundines departing late this year – my final Swallow of 2019, at Bonhurst Farm.

I didn’t really have high hopes for Sunday, with a fairly strong and bitterly cold northerly forecast. However, this drastic change in wind direction clearly prodded plenty of birds to move and I ended up having a thoroughly entertaining and varied watch.

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tilsey Farm, 20 October 2019.

Bullfinch, Tilsey Farm, 20 October 2019.

It was foggy early on but that cleared about an hour after sunrise. Finches were the main movers, with no fewer than eight species logged, though none in startling numbers. Five more Hawfinches may well have been local and it makes you wonder how many have lurked in the un-visited woodlands of south Surrey since the 2017 invasion …

Good counts included: 137 Starlings north-west, 12 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (site record count) south-west, five Yellowhammers east and some 1,782 Woodpigeons west once the sun came out. Highlight species were Great Black-backed Gull – only my fifth of the year and first of the season – and, best of all, Golden Plover.

The latter has been recorded on noc-mig a couple of times in 2019 but was a year tick for me, as it plaintively announced itself heading south-west. It’s been an excellent year for me in terms of species diversity – Golden Plover was number 122 of the year, a fine haul for here, and I’m now one bird away from matching my all-time record of 123.

Jackdaws, Tilsey Farm, 20 October 2019.

However, the standout event of the watch was a curious westward movement of Jackdaw flocks, with several 40+ groups of birds silently moving over at quite a height. I’ve not seen (presumed) movement like it before. I counted 202 in total. Perhaps they were of Scandinavian origin, or just from further north?

Anyway, after a fun week it’s back to the office for now and, of course, today has seen en immense thrush movement in the south-east on the back of a nice north-easterly airflow from the Continent. At the time and writing, both Steve G and Wes were racking up thousands of Redwings. Thankfully, there’s plenty more time for good vis-mig before winter strikes, and I certainly can’t complain with my returns so far!

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

15 October 2019

15 October 2019. A day I expect I’ll never forget …

Most birders are good at remembering dates. I like to think I am. I also remember moments. I certainly have a handful of vivid memories that remain as clear in my mind as the day I was experiencing them – my first trip to Pagham Harbour aged nine, stepping into Coto DoƱana for the first time in 2016 and looking through Brian Milton’s telescope at my first ever Gadwall in 2000 are some such memories. 15 October 2019 will surely enter this pantheon of recollections.

The Trektellen totals from 15 October 2019.

The plan on Tuesday was to get a little bit of vis-mig in before a day working from home. For over a week the weather had been strictly wet and westerly, so there was much excitement both among friends and on Twittersphere when the winds dropped and the rain ceased on Monday night. Dutch radars immediately picked up a strong westward movement of birds at sundown. The wind was a gentle south-easterly; showers not long before dawn would break up a switch to south-west winds – absolutely ideal for vis-mig in Surrey.

It was raining lightly when I awoke, with a light fog hanging in the air. Wes was already en route to Leith Hill tower and keeping me updated of the weather there. I grabbed the recorder that had been left out for noc-mig and got to New Barn for 7.15 am. Visibility was poor and it was raining – slightly worrying, but the murmuring of thrushes could be heard from every bush and tree. It felt rare. I spooked a mixed flock from the willow scrub by New Barn Pond and at least one Ring Ouzel chacked out and away, into the fog.

Redwings, Tilsey Farm, 15 October 2019.

It was dank and gloomy for the first hour of the watch. Surprisingly, the recorder had some battery left, so I propped it up next to me and let it run. While Wes was stranded in fog, only hearing the many finches and thrushes, I was seeing them – a remarkable valley of visibility hadn’t taken long to appear. To my right, Winterfold and Leith Hill were covered in fog; likewise immediately to my left at Hascombe Hill and Juniper Hill.

The Wey-Arun Plain migration theory is better explained here, but this shaped up to be the perfect storm for vis-mig at Thorncombe Street – the weather was perfect, both at dusk, during the night and now. The ‘double gap’ was fog-free – from where the Wey cuts through the North Downs down to where I was stood, in the wide gap in the Greensand Ridge, was the only lane open for anything on the move from the north; the base of Hascombe Hill (the Greensand Ridge) and Juniper Hill were also clear, and seemingly the only places so looking west.

There were hardly any thrushes logged in that first hour, but two species – Chaffinch and Meadow Pipit – were striking by their numbers. Finches were simply piling through from east to west, often fairly low. During the entire watch, some 750 finches went unassigned to species level. 555 Chaffinches, 121 Siskins and 49 Linnets were all record counts, regardless of the unidentified birds. Two Bramblings were the first of the season.

On top of all the above, alba and Grey Wagtails, Yellowhammers, Skylarks, Bullfinches and Goldfinches were all moving through, in varying numbers. Both House Martins and Swallows were recorded, though more towards the end of the watch. Two Mute Swans – mega away from Snowdenham Mill Pond – lumped north, along with six riotous Egyptian Geese. Gulls dallied south. A male Stonechat appeared out of the sky, stopped for two minutes then took off south.

Yellowhammer, New Barn, 15 October 2019.

I missed so many birds – it was simply impossible to deal with large flocks of multiple species moving over at the same time. Honestly, from roughly 7.45 am to 9.45 am, it was absolute carnage! I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve not had any serious Meadow Pipit counts in October, but these guys were on the move and from early on, too. However, unlike the finches and thrushes (but like the wagtails and hirundines) they were all coming from the north – presumably they’d followed the River Wey and then taken the clear Wey-Arun Gap. A single flock of 36 was impressive, but constant dribs and drabs were squeaking through, often feet above my head.

It was fairly early on in this colossal vis-mig, at 8.18 am, that a moment of utter magic took place. That thunderbolt of excitement all birders have experienced – everything seems to freeze and you get goose bumps on your skin (even as I write this!) ... it was yet another pipit call to the north, but no Meadow Pipit. That first call sent me into a state of delirium – I knew there and then that it was Red-throated Pipit!

It was flying detached from a group of about eight Mipits, to my right and low, and thus easy to pick out in my bins. The light was poor, but I couldn’t see any red and I presume it was a first-year bird. It called again, and once more – that last time right overhead. The instinctive urge to just blitz it with the camera had kicked in as soon as I heard it. Sadly, despite my efforts (which you can hear), I couldn’t pick out the bird in the gloomy conditions.

Red-throated Pipit sonogram.

There was a fourth, more distant call, before, like many other birds that morning, it disappeared south. It had all happened in a moment. I don’t really care how cheesy it sounds, but a few seconds after I last heard it, I got a bit emotional!

I quickly looked through the images. Absolutely nothing. Then I looked and saw it and remembered – the recorder! The damn pipit was recorded! A second wave of emotion and celebration rushed through.

Still in a state of shock, I messaged a couple of friends, tried to call a signal-less Wes and then put the news out on BirdGuides. My mind was still rushed, and unsurprisingly I’d forgotten all about the skywatch I was doing. David soon messaged and I spoke to him on the phone for a few minutes, utterly buzzing. The desire to listen back and confirm the recorder had picked up what I heard was strong, but the ‘what’s next?’ thrill and general busy nature of the session kept me put.

I missed plenty during the 10-15 minute whirlwind of the pipit (listening to the recording later, it seems a Siskin or two flew over at the same time – I certainly missed them!). For the next hour or so, post-pipit, finches dominated. However, by 9.30 am, Redwings had well and truly taken over and flocks were soon racing west across my field of view.

Redwings, Tilsey Farm, 15 October 2019.

I dropped down to Tilsey Farm as they were moving slightly lower. Between 9.15 am and 10.30 am I had more than 1,000 Redwings. The final total was 1,237. Another Ring Ouzel was logged, along with a Fieldfare and 18 Song Thrushes. Starlings too had started moving and most of the 148 tallied up came in this thrush hour.

It was simply immense. Despite having literally the most understanding boss, I knew I had to tear myself away at some point and that I did at 10.40 am. Redwings were still moving through at this point, along with a few Chaffinches, but it had seemingly calmed, as the fog began to lift over the hills flanking me. I still needed to make sure the recorder had picked up the pipit before I could celebrate that moment fully …

I knew I needed that hard proof, so was thrilled when I listened through and heard it. There it was, all in a timeless, stardust sprinkled WAV file, just how I heard it – a Red-throated Pipit (plus my camera rattling off shots!). The third round of Jurgen Klopp-esque fist pumps commenced. The recording can be listened to here.

The moment, and indeed the session, is still soaking in. As I said earlier, I don’t really know how to convey the personal side of it, and to be honest I suspect most people don’t really care. All I’ll say is a bird of that magnitude – a BB rarity – on my patch, is beyond my wildest dreams. Anyone who knows me or has read this blog a while knows what it means to me. I’ve hammered that place most days of the week for just over five years. In fact, Trektellen can tell me that it took some 422 hours and 17 minutes just of vis-mig to reach this moment … of course, though, the biggest factor is luck: right place, right time.

A sweet and bizarre irony is that, two Octobers ago, I had a ‘pipit sp.’ fly over the very same hill. I didn’t have the presence of mind to nail it at the time but was always confident it must have been Red-throated. It was a horrid one that got away, much like the ticking bunting Matt and I had in October 2015 (which grows ever more painful as the years pass!) and several other examples. This bird went someway to avenge that moment.

Mute Swans, New Barn, 15 October 2019.

I suppose, despite being upgraded to rarity in 2006, it shouldn’t be so unexpected. Of all the standard vis-mig fare in southern England, Meadow Pipits are arguably one of the most likely carrier species for something unusual. Perhaps this bird has been on our shores for a while, arriving on the Northern Isles (where there have been three or four this autumn), slowly teaming up with Mipits and following them south. Interestingly, a probable Red-throated Pipit was heard over Walthamstow, Greater London, a couple of hours after mine and several were logged at vis-mig stations in The Netherlands that morning.

I think it’s safe to say migrating rarities are under recorded inland. After all, ultimately few birders vis-mig inland – how many get missed? Red-throated Pipit has been picked up on noc-mig this year and a similar case to mine – one sound recorded during the day in October – occurred in 2018 in the unlikely location of western Lancashire.

Vis-mig offer such an enthralling form of birding. I’m lucky that, in Surrey, there is a small but enthusiastic community that partakes in it. A look in the history books and the fact many county records have been set in the last few years show that it’s only a recent element of birding in Surrey. Steve G, the godfather of modern vis-mig in Surrey, has accrued many of the finest hauls. The Leith Hill tower gang, which started around five years ago, have been fundamental in setting consistent patterns along with the discovery of many rarities and surprises.

Fog hanging over Hascombe Hill (as looking east from Tilsey Farm,
in the Wey-Arun Plain which was below the fog)

Wes is a real inspiration when it comes to watching the skies and I have tried to take on much of his wisdom. After being in usual vis-mig communication all morning, I was very pleased the fog eventually cleared for him and he was able to score Great Egret (a tower first, that obviously flew south-west, straight towards my patch) and a Surrey record count of moving Chaffinches at Leith Hill. It’s slightly terrifying to think what would’ve been logged up there if the tower was above the fog …

Ultimately, I think certain gaps, junctions and rises in the Surrey Hills and North Downs offer genuine opportunity to record and enjoy real migration in our bird-starved county, along with the chance of something rare. Purely as a result of folk watching the skies, Leith Hill and the Thorncombe Street Area – birding wildernesses even in a county sense until recently – have, in a mere five years, scored Great Skuas, Golden Oriole, Cattle Egrets, Common Scoter, Rough-legged Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, Little Gull, Gannet, Red-throated Pipit, Kittiwake and White-fronted Geese, along with multiple (in some cases tens or hundreds) of Ring Ouzels, Brent Geese, waders, Hawfinches, Honey Buzzards, Ospreys and so on (note that some of those aren’t officially accepted records!).

And all of that is before one considers the plethora of flyover records, stretching back years, people like Steve G and Wes, and also Brian Milton at Unstead and David at Canons Farm, have achieved, just by looking up. The only theme is effort and sites that are on some form of vague flyway/corridor. Hopefully many more years of migration data can be achieved by a seemingly increasing number of interested birders.

In short, probably my best ever morning of birding on patch and also in Surrey. As for the Red-throated Pipit, I await formal acceptance from the BBRC, but for now I will keep the fat grin on my face and look forward to celebrating properly at the weekend. You can go far and wide for birds, but surely the best, purest moments come close to home, when lady luck decides it’s finally time for your little bit of local to have its day.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Wet and windy

Not much to shout about this weekend. Unfortunately, after a long week at work, the last few days have delivered much rain and breezy conditions. That said, I managed to visit each patch section, racking up 64 species between Saturday and Monday and on Sunday some decent vis-mig took place between the rain.

Cormorants, Bramley Park Lake, 14 October 2019.

Saturday was very damp indeed, with few highlights. A couple of Marsh Tits and five southbound House Martins over Winkworth were jotted down during an early stroll through the arboretum. The weather really closed in during the afternoon, when I met with the Hutley family for a highly productive conversation, during which they acknowledged the surrounding ‘ecological green desert’.

We discussed plans for wildflower meadows, a proper wetland site and hedgerow planting. Putatively, exciting times ahead … a single Swallow powered south as we sat in the hide at the White Stork enclosure; surely my last of the year and rather a late bird for here.

Sunday was slightly drier, but far breezier, with a strong southerly keeping things mild. From dawn, it was clear Redwings were on the move and flocks of around 40-50 moved steadily west during the morning – I hit a final tally of 805. House Martins too were moving west and I also scored a high-flying Yellowhammer over New Barn.

Limited opportunity to use the camera this weekend ... 

A Common Gull over Bramley was my first of the season, while the Red-crested Pochard was again on Snowdenham Mill Pond. When I put the recorder out an hour after dark, a Tawny Owl was calling on Allden’s Hill. The resultant nocturnal migration was a bit disappointing given the dramatic drop in wind, which had swung to south-east: 31 Redwings (thus probably many more) wasn’t too bad, though.

Abel and I had plans to work the patch this morning but heavy rain made us rethink. In the end, we checked out a few local waterbodies including Snowdenham Mill Pond, Tuesley Farm and Frensham Great Pond. We found little – a female Shoveler at the latter site and a few Grey Wagtails at Tuesley were questionable highlights, though four Little Egrets at the Lammas Lands, at Hell Ditch, was a decent count.

Later on, I snuck out again to the patch, logging Firecrest at Bramley Park Lake and one of the Little Owls at Bonhurst Farm. On the way back, I scanned the farmland at Loseley, counting 107 Black-headed Gulls (with a single Herring Gull), but little else. Thankfully tomorrow looks dry and calm!

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Thrush hour: 2019

After several days of much walking and travelling it was nice to have a bit of time on patch this weekend, before a busy week at work. With vis-mig dragging its feet somewhat during September, it typically kicked off while I was away, with Matt having a totally gripping mega mipit day at West Clandon on 30th and Wes and Mark enjoying a vintage Leith Hill tower watch on 3rd.

Ring Ouzels, New Barn, 6 October 2019.

The first Surrey Redwings of the autumn were logged on 2nd, with many more recorded the following day. This was one of the first species I clocked on my first visit to Thorncombe Street in 12 days on Saturday, with three early Fieldfares seen later on as well – Leith Hill and Canons Farm also enjoyed first Surrey returnees of this species. It eclipses my previous Fieldfare early arrival date of 17 October 2015 significantly.

A single flock of eight Grey Herons, picked up earlier at Leith Hill and tracking the North Downs, was perhaps of continental origin. Later, on Snowdenham Mill Pond, the female Red-crested Pochard was present for the first time since 18 August.

Redwings, Tilsey Farm, 6 October 2019.

The forecast for Sunday had been heavy showers with a breezy south-west wind for quite a while. As a result, having awoken to the sound of rain lashing down, I was pleasantly surprised to see the forecast now suggesting it’d be dry. Consequently, the brisk south-westerly became ideal for vis-mig.

This turned out to be the case, and not long after dawn flocks of Redwings were bundling south-west/west. I scrambled to New Barn, where I planned to split my time between here and Tilsey Farm. Chaffinches and Song Thrushes were notable by their abundance on the deck, while the Jay invasion was clearly continuing – I counted 27 across the site on Sunday.

Siskins, Winkworth Arboretum, 6 October 2019.

In the skies, the Redwings were the main movers (586 a new autumn high count here), though a few mipits, plenty of Chaffinches (67 in total) and both Swallows and House Martins were passing over too. Any October hirundine is nice to see, especially when they overlap with winter thrushes. Four Yellowhammers clicking south was a nice bonus.

The highlight, however, came shortly after 08:00. At the end of a Redwing flock was a dark thrush, which binoculars unveiled as a Ring Ouzel. If the Surrey Hills had speciality species, this may be one of them – they are guaranteed annually at certain sites, including here. Leith Hill is the epicentre usually, with a mighty 28 on 19 October 2014 as good as a county record.

Ring Ouzels, New Barn, 6 September 2019.

More often then not, I have Rouzels on the deck at Thorncombe Street, so this flyover was novel. It was bettered, however, by a flock of six some 10 minutes later – a truly exciting sight to behold. They remained silent, so I wasn't able to add a smart vis-mig recording to the list.

A record count for me and also an earliest autumn date for a species I didn’t really have on the radar at that point. After the wretched autumn of 2018 (thrush action peaked here in mid-November!), they seem to be returning at a more normal time this year.

Ring Ouzels, New Barn, 6 October 2019.

It had been an excellent watch in pleasant conditions – surely, it’s hard to beat migration like this on your doorstep? It certainly gives a different thrill to the many I experienced on North Ronaldsay, though pinpointing why isn’t straightforward. Whatever the case, hopefully it’s the start of an entertaining few weeks of local birding.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

North Ronaldsay and the Orkney mainland

I’ve spent the last week visiting Orkney for the first time, mainly on the famed birding isle of North Ronaldsay, though a delayed outbound ferry meant an unscheduled day on the Orcadian mainland. The trip was good fun. I saw some exciting birds, the highlight of which was a super smart Rustic Bunting – a lifer to boot – with a decent selection of scarcities as well.

Rustic Bunting, Ancumtoun, 28 September 2019.

The weather was a bit hit and miss, with the classic ‘when it’s good it’s good and when it’s poor it’s poor’ wind direction and bird simpatico relationship very much in play. Days one and two, for example, produced gentle easterly winds, and subsequently were good fun. The middle three days of the trip were dominated by gale force north-westerlies – absolutely not ideal and hindering passerine searching.

In terms of finds, I left a fraction disappointed. Richard’s Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Barred Warbler were my best personal discoveries. Nice scarce, but I’ve found or co-found each species before, and would’ve swapped all three for a rarity.

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Toab (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

Short-eared Owl, Deerness (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

When compared to previous autumn trips to Shetland and Lewis, it was a little in between. While the former was crammed with birders (and birds) in the magic easterly autumn of 2016, Lewis last year was a struggle with little to show for and working most sites solo. There were a good number of birders on North Ron – roughly eight or more each day – but, despite its size, it truly is a hard island to work, thanks to its unusual shape and spread out areas of minimal cover, massive iris beds and exposed position.

Snow Bunting, Bewan, 30 September 2019.

The island probably needs 20+ birders to unveil the true goodies it holds in favourable conditions, yet I’d rather have an island or site a little more to myself than I did. That said, North Ronaldsay has a captivating atmosphere and you’re constantly feeling that something huge could turn up almost anywhere, with the whole island feeling really rare, even during dire weather.

As mentioned, day one and two were blessed with favourable conditions. Day one was supposed to be on North Ron, but with the ferry delayed by 24 hours I was stuck on the Orkney mainland. The whole archipelago is shockingly under watched, certainly when compared with Shetland, and during my entire day scouring the east mainland (mainly around Deerness), I saw merely one birder.

Redstart, Deerness (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

Wheatear, Deerness (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Deerness (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

I ended up having a pretty enjoyable traipse around. There are loads of great looking spots on Deerness and a morning there produced six Yellow-browed Warblers, Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, five Mealy Redpolls and Lesser Whitethroat, along with my first Redwings of the autumn. Plus, of course (as was the case on North Ron), non-Surrey exotica such as waders, Short-eared Owls and seabirds.

Short-eared Owl, Deerness (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

After completing a few touristy bits I visited Toab, between Kirkwall and Deerness, following a road that skirted a large plantation north. There were a few more redpolls and Redwings here, with a Yellow-browed Warbler amid large numbers of Goldcrests in said plantation. A Redstart was nearby, but best of all was a Red-breasted Flycatcher near the community centre, which eventually showed at distance having played cat and mouse for half an hour or so.

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Toab (Orkney Mainland), 27 September 2019.

The ferry to North Ronaldsay the following morning was very quiet. Once on the island, it was time to explore, and suss out the lay of the land. A Lapland Bunting, two Ruff and a Yellow-browed Warbler from the garden of our accommodation was a pleasant start but was bettered by a mobile Richard’s Pipit in the next meadow along on a first proper walk. Little did I know at that point that it would be the best find of the trip!

Other bits included a few Snow Buntings and a sprinkling of Whinchats, Redstarts and Wheatears. I’d spoken to Dante, who’s volunteering at the observatory this season, before the trip and he’d given me some helpful gen. I wasn’t expecting him to be so helpful that, a few hours after arriving, he’d phone with news of a Rustic Bunting up the road.

Rustic Bunting, Ancumtoun, 28 September 2019.

After a bit of a stomp around the bird eventually showed, and at times we enjoyed wonderful views as it sat up on fences or fed on the short turf around Ancumtoun. An awesome way to see a species for the first time and a smart find by Dante. A second Yellow-browed Warbler in the garden on the way back rounded off a superb – and ultimately the best – day of the trip.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Verracott, 28 September 2019.

Day two was slower, as the wind swung from south-east to north-east. It was weirdly calm the evening before, prompting me to stick my recorder out – no fewer than 86 Redwings were logged. I walked around the middle of the island early morning, with the commoner migrants – including one remaining Yellow-browed – still on show.

Redstart, Ancumtoun, 28 September 2019.

From late morning until to the evening Dante and I put in a lot of effort in the south and south-east of the island, walking miles as we combed crops, iris beds and gardens. We didn’t have much to show for our work, however: a blythi Lesser Whitethroat, WhinchatGarden Warbler, two Redstarts and two Jack Snipe were all we could manage.

Jack Snipe, Holland, 29 September 2019.

Whinchat, Ancumtoun, 29 September 2019.

Day three brought a strong north-west wind, which delivered a brief Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll at the observatory, though I never really got in gear and subsequently missed it. I’m never overly keen to twitch on these types of trips, plus I’ve seen Coues’s before, but it would have been a smart bird to see. I was at the other end of the island at the time, around the lighthouse, where a showy flock of Snow Buntings were the highlight.

The bright and extensive white outer tail feathers on this Lesser
Whitethroat suggests a safe blythi ID, Bridesness, 29 September 2019.

A long walk around the middle and south of the island again produced little: a Barred Warbler in Holland House gardens was nice, and I also caught up with one of the long-staying juvenile Red-backed Shrikes near Phisligar. Other bits that made the notebook included eight more Snow Buntings, two Tree Pipits, Whinchat, Redstart and my first Fieldfare of the autumn.

Grey Seal, Holland, 29 September 2019.

Red-backed Shrike, Phisligar, 30 September 2019.

Tree Pipits, Holland, 30 September 2019.

Unfortunately, days four and five were extremely windy, and birding was tough. Passerines were basically non-existent, though I fluked into the lingering Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll near the harbour on the Tuesday. A most eye-catching bird – you wouldn’t miss that among a flock of Lessers. Another blythi Lesser Whitethroat was nearby.

A seawatch on Wednesday yielded two Sooty Shearwaters, Orcadian ticks in the form of Arctic Tern and Arctic Skua, along with a curious apparent south-east passage of some 155 Shags in two hours. Later in the day, a few flagged Sanderlings were traced back to the underwhelming ringing location of the Orkney mainland.

Snow Bunting, Bewan, 30 September 2019.

Fieldfare, Bridesness, 30 September 2019.

Thursday was far calmer. A dawn seawatch with Dante, George and Paul delivered 25 Sooty Shearwaters and a few Manxies and Puffins, but nothing spectacular. A lot more stomping around delivered little, for anyone.

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Holland, 1 October 2019.

Sanderling, Gravity, 3 October 2019.

Sooty Shearwater, Bewan, 3 October 2019.

Friday morning seemed far better, with a relatively gentle easterly, but after a brief couple of hours seeing merely a Yellow-browed Warbler, it was time to pack up and head back home.

Purple Sandpiper, Bewan, 3 October 2019.

So, in all, a fun trip with a decent smattering of beasts from the east, if a little front heavy in terms of quality. I’ll definitely be back to Orkney – I can’t help but feel many of the under watched islands in the archipelago could produce excellent autumn birding.