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 Doñana 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.|
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 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.