Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Local delights

Despite the generally miserable time of the year, and the fact the patch has decided to clock early from 2019, my forays into the field over the past few days have generally been productive and fun. In fact, at times they’ve been excellent.

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.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Leith Hill, last light and a lifer

After essentially a week of no birding, it’s been nice to get back in the field over the past few days. Despite the time of year, things have been (largely) quite lively, but I’ll try and squeeze everything in this post.

Hen Harrier, Shackleford farmland, 19 November 2019.

Saturday came and it was time to head east, to Leith Hill tower. Mole Valley stalwart David S is, sadly, heading to far better birding climes with a permanent move to Norfolk. As a result, almost all the tower aficionados gathered in a cold north-east wind, ready for an epic send-off.

As it happened the birds had other ideas, during what gets filed in the ‘connoisseurs watch’ folder. Despite being up there for nearly four hours, the best birds were heard-only Crossbills, a high-flying Yellowhammer and a ‘scoped covey of absolutely wild Red-legged Partridges. It’s safe to say the trip to the pub for lunch that followed was more entertaining.

After a meek and mild Allden’s Hill skywatch on Sunday (save a westward bound Mute Swan), the temptation of a Yank lifer less than 90 minutes from home (and the fact I was at my parents on the south coast that evening anyway) was too much to resist. So, I made my first-ever visit to Keyhaven Marshes in the far west of Hampshire, with Semipalmated Sandpiper on my mind.

Carrion Crow, Leith Hill, 16 November 2019.

The bird has caused a bit of furore on Saturday, with an orangey-looking bar on the scapulars hinting at the far rarer Western Sandpiper. I was more than happy with it being SemiP, however, with this probably one of four obvious tart’s ticks still evading my Western Palearctic list (my location within Britain being highlighted by the fact the others are Snowy Owl, Snow Goose and White-billed Diver!).

Annoyingly, in a bit of a rush I forgot to put my camera battery in when we left the car, so you’ll need to use your imagination a bit. Anyway, at a wonderful if cold site, 57 species were logged in an hour-and-a-half, including said Semipalmated Sandpiper, a Spotted Redshank and hundreds of dabbling ducks including many Pintail.

With the job done with a bit of time to spare, we headed back east and called in at The Burgh, for another hearty stroll before dinner. It was fairly quiet, certainly on the raptor front (zero harriers), but a late Ring Ouzel, a Firecrest and several coveys of Grey Partridges – totalling at least 30 birds – were good value.

Grey Partridges, The Burgh, 17 November 2019.

On Monday it was back to patch, though a walk through Winkworth was steady to put it positively. Two each of Marsh Tit and Firecrest highlighted. I decided to do my first proper stomp around Unstead for several weeks afterwards, thinking that perhaps a Snipe could be on the cards.

There was no Snipe, but some decent bits included a Little Egret in Flooded Field, a Water Rail squealing from towards the North Meadow, eight Reed Buntings, two Chiffchaffs and a flyover Mute Swan. Next time I’ll wade a little further – there must be a few Snipe (and maybe even Jack Snipe) knocking about with the water levels at a good height at present.

Mute Swan, Unstead SF, 18 November 2019.

Meadow Pipits, Unstead SF, 18 November 2019.

With the sun out, we decided to walk the Shackleford farmland at dusk. This place is fast becoming my second patch, overtaking Unstead. The Monday night walk was perhaps the best yet. After a few Ring-necked Parakeets were clocked both in the village and over Hook Lane, and a drake Teal on Lydling Farm pond, we parked up by the model airfield.

The sound of a Lapwing led me to scan the fields towards Hurlands – I soon picked up one, then a small flock, and then another. A full sweep of the field in fact revealed many ‘peewit’ heads and I was amazed to tally no fewer than 86 – a seriously good count for this part of the world and my largest flock locally since Unstead in the halcyon days of the early 2000s!

Lapwings, Shackleford farmland, 18 November 2019.

There were plenty of finches and Skylarks feeding in the same field, while Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting flew over. Up the track towards the road, a pair of charming Stonechats performed nicely beneath the setting sun.

Stonechat, Shackleford farmland, 18 November 2019.

It had already been a relaxing and rewarding visit, but while we walked the loop up to the hay barn, the frequency of Pied Wagtails overhead caught my attention. A couple of pairs and trios had gone over north-west, but suddenly a single flock of 32 birds whizzed in the same direction.

Soon after another 29, then another 20, before a final large flock of 20 was followed by further dribs and drabs. It was quite amazing and clearly there was a roost nearby. Surely if I got there earlier the following night, I could beat my tally of 114?

Pied Wagtails, Shackleford farmland, 18 November 2019.

So, the following night, it was straight to the hay barn for half an hour before sundown. There was no sign of any Lapwings, though plenty more Redwings and Fieldfares were knocking about. It didn’t take long before the first two Pied Wagtails flew over. The area looks great for owls and I was constantly scanning west over the fields too.

I picked up a distant silhouette of a raptor which I presumed would be a Buzzard. As it banked, I noticed a long-looking tail … I dallied, telling myself it was a Common Buzzard, but I couldn’t shake the long tail and eventually a white rump shimmered in the low light – ringtail harrier!

Hen Harrier, Shackleford farmland, 19 November 2019.

Annoyingly my lax attitude meant I hadn’t papped it and it had now disappeared. A few minutes passed – Pied Wags now fully neglected – before it thankfully reappeared to the north over the airfield, being escorted south by a Carrion Crow. In wonderful light, the bird, a Hen Harrier, drifted south.

All manner of passerines flew up in alarm, including at least 22 Skylarks. The harrier eventually lowered itself into a winter cover crop where it presumably roosted. You can’t beat unexpected moments of local birding like that.

Hen Harrier, Shackleford farmland, 19 October 2019.

Back home, I excitedly reported the news to our local birders email group. I was most surprised when I saw Peter O’s reply saying he had presumably the same bird earlier that day! Despite probably being en route to a wintering site on the south coast somewhere, the harrier was still there today. Abel enjoyed grippingly close views, and Kit and Steve, among others, have scored.

What a dream it’d be if it spent the winter there. Whatever the case, Shackleford farmland is going to be checked that bit extra moving forward – I’ve had Marsh and Hen Harrier there in the last four months (not to mention the Monty’s nearby last week, making it the second year out of four I’ve seen all three British breeding harrier species in Surrey!).

Indeed, a scratch under the surface shows this little area of farmland actually has some pretty decent records to its name down the years. How many of these small patches of the Surrey countryside are secret birding hot-spots? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The title of my last post was a bad choice

Last week I foolishly suggested autumn was over locally. Many a wise Surrey head have told me that November often delivers a big one in our fine part of the world – this has certainly been the case over the last few of days.

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

Red Kite, Allden's Hill, 9 November 2019.

Bullfinch, Allden's Hill, 9 November 2019.

Maybe this bird had already reached traditional wintering grounds which were in a state, and just  I really dislike this time of year, when it seems constantly dark, wet and gloomy. I struggled to motivate myself to put in much of a patch shift on Saturday morning, and was already home when I saw pictures of the harrier. Indeed, patch has been very quiet. The highlight from the past few days has been a new site record count of Greylag Geese (a post-roost flock of 116 on Snowdenham Mill Pond on 7th), which says it all.

Red Kite, Allden's Hill, 8 November 2019.

Indeed, a Sunday skywatch on Allden’s Hill was so quiet I resorted to studying the local Red Kites, which were up in numbers. The age of one bird (the above photo) confused me – while showing almost entirely adult features, it also had white edges to the greater coverts on the underwing (very clear in the picture) and a thin black terminal band at the end of the tail (though the tail feathers are being replaced, from the middle out) – perhaps it’s a second-winter/sub-adult? Any comments are most welcome and this is not the first time the age of a Red Kite has confused me.

The sun came out later, and with that I decided to walk the Shackleford farmland, a site I’ve harped on about before this year but one that’s really become a favourite of mine. In glorious, wintry conditions there were birds everywhere on this nature-friendly patchwork of arable farms – there were flocks of thrushes, Skylarks and Starlings, four raptors species (with set aside that looks ripe for a Short-eared Owl or Hen Harrier) along with notable single counts of Ring-necked Parakeet, Snipe and Yellowhammer.

Mixed gull flock (mainly Black-headed), Shackleford farmland, 8/11/2019.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Shackleford farmland, 8 November 2019.

It’s a great, quiet spot and I thoroughly recommend a visit. It’d make a great patch too. The gull flock was most impressive, with some 400 (mainly Black-headed) feeding nervously in the fields. Two 2nd-winter Lesser Black-backed Gulls were good value, a species rare on the deck locally. Another notebook entry recently was the flock of 28 Greenfinches in Farncombe on 8th.

Sadly, the brief Richard’s Pipit at Staines Reservoir on Sunday didn’t decide to relocate in the vice-county. However, as it happened a Surrey tick was indeed in the offing, when a phone call from Jeremy G notified me of a drake Ferruginous Duck at Papercourt GPs, where he found one previously back in January 2002.

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

Unfortunately, I was in the office in London and, to make matters worse, it’s press week. I was particularly anxious about this bird, though, as I missed the Frensham Great Pond female in September 2015 which was, like every other Surrey Fudge Duck in my lifetime, a one-day only bird.

Thankfully my most understanding boss suggested I go for it, and I was able to get to the sailing lake not long before sundown. The bird, a smart drake, was showing quite nicely in the middle of the pit among a mixed Aythya flock (including a Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid). Unfortunately, the light wasn’t great but I got some record shots.

Crucially, this bird had no rings, which tends to be the case almost always with Fudge Ducks these days (the Hedgecourt Lake bird last winter was ringed). A German reintroduction scheme has blurred the status of this attractive duck, which longer term has declined in western Europe and is thus back on the BBRC list of assessed species. Indeed, it’s thought there are more Pochard x Fudge hybrids in western Europe than pure Ferruginous …

Ferruginous Duck, Papercourt GPs, 11 November 2019.

So, November is indeed good in Surrey, lest I forget again. A scan through my notes shows a pattern of classy waterbird additions to my Surrey list, including Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck and Shag. Two-barred Crossbill isn’t a bad passerine entry from the November archives either. I’ll be sure to not write the month off again.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The end of autumn?

Since the excitement of reaching a new patch year list record, things have quietened down. Indeed, the highlight of the past week – a male Black Redstart joining the female at Bonhurst Farm for a day last Wednesday – was missed by myself. In fact, with vis-mig really slowing down and days ever shortening, there’s a feeling autumn is reaching an end.

Black Redstart, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Despite promising conditions on Thursday (full and low cloud cover with a gentle easterly), a skywatch from Tilsey Farm was quiet. 137 Fieldfare west was an autumn high (I do poorly for big counts here), while a Hawfinch flew over the entrance track.

The previous day, Kit – one of many who came to see the lingering female Black Redstart – found a male. This was the first time a male had been recorded here so I was a bit gutted it had gone by the following day, despite Gillian S reporting that the pair had been interacting quite a lot when she visited on Wednesday afternoon.

Kestrel, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Black Redstart, Tilsey Farm, 30 October 2019 (photo courtesy Gillian Stokes).

Still, you can’t sniff at a female Black Red and, post-disappointing vis-mig, I soon tracked her down along the fence line of the main horse field. A Marsh Tit in the copse towards Daneshill was a good record for the immediate farm area.

I had visions of the pair lingering for a while, but that was the last I or anyone saw of her. By Saturday, in terribly wet and windy conditions, there was no sign during a brief look. Indeed, a day of sport meant there was little time for patch (which worked out OK, given the storm that blew through), though a Firecrest at Winkworth was decent. Flying visits to Unstead SF and the Loseley farmland produced nothing of note.

Meadow Pipit, Tilsey Farm, 31 October 2019.

Sunday was far nicer, with blue skies and no wind. After I checked an empty Tuesley Farm for any storm-blown skuas, a Kingfisher at Winkworth got things off to a good start, before a pleasant stroll through the south section. Clear highlight was a Woodlark that flew east-north-east over Tilsey Farm, uttering its tuneful flight call as it went.

While this species bred in the east section this year this was a first record for the south, and this bird probably came from The Hurtwood, or perhaps even further afield. I’ve only had one vis-mig Woodlark before, so the sighting was most welcome.

Woodlark, Tilsey Farm, 3 November 2019.

Three Hawfinches dropped into Nore Hanger later on, further proof that a few of these hefty finches are lurking in the wider area at present. Otherwise, in keeping with the rest of the week, it was fairly uneventful.

Later in the day I walked the Shackleford farmland but saw little, missing out on the noteworthy Stonechat, Teal and Ring-necked Parakeet Peter O had there earlier. A quick look at Cutt Mill afterwards produced no early Goosander.

Vis-mig was so good in Surrey during October, with some excellent counts and watches, and one does wonder if there’s much left to pass through. November normally delivers a decent session or two, though, so here’s hoping there’s some late movement. One thing that certainly seems to have not arrived yet is wildfowl – maybe a surprise or two from that department will be in store in the coming weeks.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

South Florida: day seven and eight

A wet and windy November afternoon, fondly recalling warmer times, seems a fitting time to wrap the posts of my trip to south Florida, back in January …

Mangrove Cuckoo.

Having had a hugely successfully trip, the last couple of days were relaxed and we chose to return to the Everglades proper in the far south of the state, as we’d enjoyed our time here previously so much. Birding was mainly looking for a couple of remaining targets, exploring new spots and revisiting productive ones.

Local birders had informed me that a Mangrove Cuckoo was at Black Point Park and Marina. This Neotropical cuckoo is infamously hard to see in the Everglades, the only place the species is found in the US. However, a wintering bird had been located in the mangroves at the marina and was pleasing visiting birders daily.

Mangrove Cuckoo.

An early morning visit paid off, with the bird eventually showing well after a long game of cat and mouse. It even offered some of its famous vocalisations to boot. A really smart bird and one that wasn’t expected ahead of the trip.

A visit to Biscayne NP wasn’t for birding, but a few Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing and American Herring Gulls and American Royal Terns were good value.

American Royal Terns, Double-crested Cormorant and American Herring Gull.

American Royal Tern.

Brown Pelican.

Dump Marsh Preserve, to the north, held loads of iguanas – an escaped pest in Florida – as well as several species of turtle. Also there were trip ticks in the form of Green-winged Teal and Greater Yellowlegs.

Green Iguanas.

Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

While driving around the farmland south-west of Homestead, I noticed a kingbird perched on a wire, which I initially took to be Western Kingbird – a new species for me and a fairly common winter visitor to Florida.

However, some features didn’t seem right. The bill was far heavier than I’d have expected and the bird was very bright, almost like a giant Grey Wagtail. A thumb through Sibley soon showed that this was in fact a Tropical Kingbird.

Tropical Kingbird.

This species is a vagrant to Florida, though increasing, with only 40 records prior to 2005 (and around 20 since). Thus, it was a most welcome surprise. I took a few shots before it flew off over a field, not to be seen again.

Tropical Kingbird.

Later on, back at Luck Hammock, I was delighted to bump into a small flock of Blue Grosbeaks, a fairly unusual wintering species here. A few Cedar Waxwings flew overhead and, back at the Gumbo Limbo Trail afterwards, Brown Thrasher finally made it onto the trip list.

Blue Grosbeak.

Northern Mockingbird.

Great Crested Flycatcher.

Cedar Waxwing.

The final day saw little birding, but a final homage to Lucky Hammock yielded a real treat and one that had eluded me prior – male Painted Buntings. This species isn’t reported due their demand on the illegal cage bird trade, so it’s not easy to pin them down and so far I’d only seen a female.

As a result I was chuffed to watch a small flock for half an hour or so, as they quietly fed in tall grass and crops. Absolute stunners. Another final gift from Lucky Hammock was another lifer – a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which was gone almost as soon as I’d identified it.

Painted Buntings.

Lincoln's Sparrow.

On the way the way up to the airport we stopped at ‘Cortadito Cowbirds’, a Cuban restaurant in Miami famous for its population of Bronzed Cowbird. Several of these hulky passerines incongruously loitered around the car park for an easy lifer.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Miami, where interesting birds were few, save a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds that glided overhead.

Bronzed Cowbird.

In all, it was an excellent trip. 152 species was a brilliant haul and some truly iconic species were included in that figure. However, it was the nature of the birding which made the trip so memorable – incredible ecosystems and habitats, huge numbers of birds and so many super tame and confiding ones too.

American Kestrel.

These longer trips are well worth it, especially as I’ve been really trying to cut down my carbon footprint. Recently, I’ve been flying several times a year which just isn’t justifiable. This year I’ve only flown thrice, and one of those was for work. Hopefully my planned trips next year (two so far!) are equally fun.

South Florida: day five and sixhttp://godalmingareabirds.blogspot.com/2019/06/south-florida-day-five-and-six.html