|Golden Plovers, Shackleford farmland, 21 November 2019.|
I’ve been visiting a few different, local sites over the past few weeks, not least because Thorncombe Street has been terribly quiet. This time of year is never really spectacular here but it seems, after a truly superb 2019, the patch has run out of gas.
At this time of year, the water bodies and patchwork of winter crops on The Ridge are the only places truly worth looking for anything exciting. However, both are in sub-optimum nick right now. I’ve never seen Snowdenham Mill Pond – the wildfowl hot-spot – as quiet at this time of year as it currently is. Indeed, yesterday it offered merely a few Mallards, a couple of Moorhens and a Coot!
Either duck numbers are still to arrive locally, stuff is more thinly distributed in the wider area because of the amount of excess wet areas or it’s a lack of food – wildfowling normally takes places during the season here, but last winter they paused operations and put no supplementary food down. It seems the same has happened this winter.
On The Ridge, the corn crop looks to have largely failed and there are zero Reed Buntings (a winter staple here), and only a handful of Linnets. Again, a far cry from the large, mixed finch/bunting flocks of recent winters … anyway, all recent visits have been dead quiet, the best bird being a Chiffchaff at Snowdenham Mill Pond on 21st.
|Hen Harrier, Shackleford farmland, 20 November 2019 (A Barker).|
It’s all good though, as there are plenty of other good sites away from the patch, along with new places to discover. Shackleford has held a lot of my attention of late, culminating in the Hen Harrier last week. I was in the office on Wednesday, the last properly nice day and one when the harrier performed superbly for Abel, who got some nice shots.
A few others connected with the bird, which I make out to be a juvenile male, the sex based on the seemingly small size and pale iris I think I can make out in one of Abel’s photos. I suppose it still could be in the area, but it's probably moved on by now.
I went for a look the following day but, in most un-raptor-like weather, there was no sign. However, a flock of 17 typically nervous Golden Plovers was a most welcome sight. They circled for around 10 minutes, calling, before disappearing to the east.
|Golden Plovers, Shackleford farmland, 20 November 2019.|
I was half expecting them to drop in, not least because 70 odd Lapwings were already contently in the fields. GPs are always good value in south-west Surrey, these being only my second in the area this year following a patch bird in October.
I decided to visit Unstead for the last hour or so of light, perhaps with a chance of scoring an owl. It proved a good decision. Within about five minutes of getting there, a dumpy passerine bombing south over the South Meadow had me a little miffed until it called – Woodlark! Always a good record here and my first for Unstead.
I must confess my ignorance to the mighty Jackdaw roost here. While not on the scale of Loseley or Stoke, the compactness and easy viewing of it is goose bump-generating. I counted a conservative 1,700, which gathered in pre-roost groups in Poplar Avenue during the last moments of light. The noise was incredible.
|Jackdaw pre-roost, Unstead SF, 21 November 2019.|
However, far more dramatic was the united transfer to the North Meadow for roost – a swirling, raucous mass of Jackdaws simultaneously twisting in the sky. My crappy pictures don’t do it justice, but I’ll be back.
|Jackdaws, Unstead SF, 21 November 2019.|
Some 137 Pied Wagtails flew north-west to roost, too, but all of the above was perhaps eclipsed by a male Merlin that dashed low east across the South Meadow and lagoons at 15:38. Of course, as soon as I’d clapped eyes on the steely-blue falcon it was gone, and didn’t reappear during the following hour.
That means I’ve seen 12 raptor species in Surrey this year, quite astonishing given I’ve seen 13 in the county ever (and only one Merlin before)! After talking to Brian and Ray, they worked out there have been seven Unstead records of Merlin, the last of which (also a male) was on 23 February 2005.
Given the wild and undisturbed state of the site now, I’m sure a few more surprises are possible here, especially after Marsh Harrier and Gannet this year. There are few places in Surrey I visit that give me such a strong feeling that something decent could be found (albeit usually requiring some serious off-roading!). I went back the following morning in the hope the Merlin would still be about, but there was no joy. A minimum pf three Water Rails was good going, though, including this close bird that I was able to sound record.
|Water Rail sonogram.|
The weather continued to be a bit rubbish on Friday, but Abel and I still undertook a whistle-stop tour of a few sites. Shackleford was checked for the harrier (again no sign), though 76 Lapwings was a good count. Cutt Mill Ponds were up next, where a single drake Goosander and 15 Great Crested Grebes highlighted.
|Goosander, Cutt Mill Ponds, 22 November 2019.|
We then called in at Abel’s new patch, the Loseley/Binscombe/Compton area. Another Lapwing flock was found, this one containing an impressive 87 individuals. It’s most pleasing that this charming plover can still be found in the countryside around here, even if I only located two breeding pairs back in the spring.
The weekend was taken up by non-birding stuff, but yesterday I popped to Tice’s Meadow during my lunch break. The new hide completely changes the game at this site – there’s no doubt a lot more wildfowl, waders and other water birds will be found as a result of the proximity to the optimum habitat.
|Gadwall, Tice's Meadow, 25 November 2019.|
It was the usual fare among 46 species in the notebook until a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull dropped in. Despite the rain and general gloom, the thin white edges to the tertials, three-coloured appearance, advanced scapular moult, dark eye mask, pale head and chest and heavy, hooked bill could all be seen.
|Yellow-legged Gull, Tice's Meadow, 25 November 2019.|
Finally, after forever wishing I was around when the Seale landfill site, Wrecclesham tip and Shackleford pig farms existed, it seems like I have a local site where I can properly do some gulling.