Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Thursday 31 December 2020

Winter wonderland

A freezing end to 2020 has seen south-west Surrey decked out in shining frost most mornings. Despite the chill, the pack hasn’t been shuffled much in terms of birds – or at least not yet – and it’s been a case of as you were during the final week of this crazy old year. What will 2021 bring?

It's been a cold end to the year.

Friday 25th

Before visiting my parents for the day, I birded a few spots nearby on a cold but sunny morning. At Goring Gap, four Brent Geese included a juvenile on the fields, where a few Ringed Plovers and Dunlin pottered about. Widewater Lagoon held six Little Grebes, a Kingfisher and Sparrowhawk, while 110 Dunlin were roosting on the beach with good numbers of Turnstones and Ringed Plovers, as well as a single Sanderling

Juvenile Brent Goose at Goring.

Then, some 33 species were tallied up at Brooklands Park, with the highlight a Lapwing being harried by a Peregrine pair. Other bits included a drake Pochard, three Chiffchaffs, four Teal and singles of Kestrel, Green Woodpecker and Grey Wagtail. Late at night, a Tawny Owl was heard near Haslemere.

Saturday 26th

A surprising start to the day was an adult Grey Heron perched on next door’s roof, especially given the lack of ponds in the area. I got to Thorncombe Street mid-morning but an hour’s walk was quiet. The crops on The Ridge are very poor this winter and held just about double figures of Chaffinches, along with a handful of Linnets and Goldfinches. Three Bullfinches were heard at different spots and two Red-legged Partridges were seen fleeing the guns (I’d foolishly forgotten Boxing Day isn’t a great time to bird a shooting estate!). A calling Chiffchaff on The Ridge was unexpected.

Grey Heron in an unusual setting ...

Said chiff triggered me to check Unstead SF. At least two, but possibly four or more, Chiffchaffs were quietly zipping about. In the lagoon, I was pleased to see the Siberian Chiffchaff again, though unfortunately the encounter was brief. The Cetti’s Warbler sang and a Lesser Redpoll flew over, but receding water levels meant Flooded Field held only a Little Egret

Sunday 27th

The back end of Storm Bella was blowing through as I cycled up a muddy towpath to check Unstead Water Meadows – the conditions didn’t help, but only 20 Siskins and Grey Wagtail were of note. The flooded field opposite Unstead SF, however, was full of birds with the flash topped up again. The three White-fronted Geese were with Canadas today, grazing on the only dry spot, while singles of Gadwall, Lapwing and Little Egret were noted, along with 16 Teal. One of the local Red-crested Pochard x Mallard hybrids was also knocking about as well as a small flock of Redwings.

White-fronted Geese and Teal at Unstead SF.

The sun then came out and I decided to make the most of it with a long walk around Frillinghurst Wood and the adjacent farmland near Grayswood. The wood itself was quiet: Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Marsh Tit highlighted. An area of winter crops north of Imbhams Farm had a few small flocks of Linnets and Chaffinches feeding in the winter stubbles and, best of all, some seven Woodlarks which were flushed up by a dog before resettling. Three more Marsh Tits at Grayswood sewage works included two territorial males.

Marsh Tit near Grayswood.

Some farmland south of Thursley village held no seed-eaters, though a small flock of thrushes contently fed and included my only Fieldfares of the day. Later on when I was at home, not long before sunset, four Mute Swans flew south down the Wey.

Monday 28th

With news of a Short-eared Owl at Hankley Common the previous afternoon, I was on site half an hour before dawn in freezing conditions. Sadly, an hour’s walk around the area in which it was spotted didn’t deliver. Only 15 species were noted at this especially barren south-west Surrey site, including a single Crossbill and three Cormorants overhead.

Shackleford was livelier, despite the hard frost that hugged landscape. A Lapwing flew from the alfalfa, which held small groups of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Two each of Stonechat and Lesser Redpoll were in the set aside, a Lesser Black-backed Gull flew north and two Ring-necked Parakeets noisily bombed south. One Teal was on the reedy pond. At Tuesley Farm, an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull and seven Little Grebes were noted.

Tuesday 29th

Slightly milder this morning in the westerly with no proper frost, but still cold. The usual fare was encountered at Winkworth: two riotous Egyptian Geese, six Tufted Duck, 11 Mandarin, five each of Little Grebe and Siskin and a singing male Tawny Owl. At Snowdenham Mill Pond, there was no sign of the Shelduck – right on cue for 2021 listing efforts! – but five Gadwall and two Teal were noted.

I then walked along the river from Unstead to Catteshall. The three adult White-fronted Geese were north of Tilthams Corner Road with Greylags; with no rain forecast in the coming days I wonder if they will move on soon? 38 other species were tallied up in the following 45 minutes, including a Bullfinch, 20 Siskins, some 150 Black-headed Gulls and, best of all, a Peregrine that flew south-east.

Wednesday 30th

No birding, but while passing Tilthams Corner Road I espied the three adult White-fronted Geese, with a single Greylag congener, in the field to the north.

More Unstead white-front action.

Thursday 31st

Allden’s Hill looked glorious in the dawn frost but there wasn’t much about in a brief scan, though a Crossbill flew over. Snowdenham Mill Pond has unfortunately had a clear out since a recent shoot and two Mandarin were the only wildfowl of note. The White-fronted Geese were again passed on the water meadows en route to Shackleford, where a bitterly cold walk around the north fields produced 40 Skylarks, Bullfinch, two Reed Buntings, 45 Meadow Pipits, 60 Fieldfares, Red-legged Partridge, four Lesser Redpolls, 150 Starlings and a Grey Wagtail.

Later on, at home, I was pondering my 2021 birding plan: south-west Surrey year list again, a Surrey vice-county big year or a 5 km radius of the Godalming Pepperpot challenge. As I was thinking, Peter O text with news of a Dartford Warbler on the Lammas Lands: a first for the river. A little over five minutes later, and barely half a kilometre walked, I was watching the bird – a first-winter – zip around a thistle patch. A lovely way to end the year and food for thought as we move into 2021 ...

Doorstep Dartford: a nice way to end 2020.

Monday 28 December 2020

South-west Surrey big year: site reviews

This is the first of two or three reviews of the south-west Surrey big year I undertook in 2020. I’ll publish a breakdown of the final list and the status of species in another post, while a more chronological and reflective piece will be in the February edition of Birdwatch. This post examines some of the key sites, analysing their status as a birding locale both this year and pondering how they could perform into the future.

The Surrey Bird Club's south-west Surrey recording area, with the boundaries of the A31 and A281 and Hampshire and West Sussex borders.

Shackleford farmland

107 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 9/10

A gem of a site with a frankly ridiculous list of species for such a small area (a walk of the main footpaths is a little under 2 km): Short-toed Lark, Wryneck, Quail, Dunlin, Grey Partridge, Shelduck, Yellow-legged Gull (two) and Golden Plover (three) just some of the many highlights, before you even get to the marked passage of Whinchats (19 bird days), Wheatears (22) and Yellow Wagtails (16). The key is in the wildlife-friendly management of the farm which, sadly, highlights the barrenness of much of the rest of the Surrey countryside. 

Angus Stovold should take huge pride in his lack of insecticide, the dense, bushy hedgerows and plentiful margins. Birds will find habitat and that factor, combined with its position under the North Downs and in an unusually (for Surrey) flat landscape make this area a veritable oasis. Without any unusual species it’s a pleasure to walk too – even on the quietest of midsummer days, heaps of Skylarks and warblers sing, and on bleak winter mornings large flocks of larks and finches flit about the fields. The rumble of the nearby A3 make it less than ideal for vis-mig and that’s the only reason it doesn’t get 10 out of 10. 

Serene Shackleford; a quiet, wildlife-friendly patch of farmland some two miles from my front door that I didn't know existed until 2019. The crops, margins and hedgerows held many surprises this year.

Thursley Common

117 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 8/10

I’ve always loved Thursley and always will. It’s easy on the eye and the sense of loneliness you can feel on some remoter parts of the common is unique in a local sense. Obviously it’s great for birds – the heathland specialists make this a magical place to visit on a spring morning and that is well-known. But 2020 showed me that it’s ability to attract rarities is perhaps underappreciated. It’s not the heathland habitat that pulls stuff in, but the boggy land such as that on Ockley Common and Pudmore; I’m not sure there is any similar habitat anywhere in Surrey (there’s a reason Curlew still persists as a breeding bird so close to London). 

If you want to find something unusual in south-west Surrey, I think Thursley is your best shout. And the Little and Rustic Bunting duo demonstrated that in style this autumn, a time of year when one may never think to visit somewhere like Thursley. Raptors clearly love it too and my only local Merlin and Hen Harrier came here, along with the Red-footed Falcon in May. 117 species logged is my highest for a single site anywhere this year and that says a lot – Thursley is a diverse and dynamic site that can deliver at anytime. I am, however, a birder for whom the hobby offers a large slice of escapism and for that reason the common could never be my sole patch; it is just too popular, both with the general public and other birders (when something good is present!). I can only see it getting busier too, as more people and their associated dogs move to this part of Surrey. I hope, as a SSSI, it remains a semi-wilderness during these times.

Despite its increasing popularity, it's not hard to feel splendidly isolated on parts of Thursley Common. The north section feels like an eastern European bog, in contrast to the sandy heathland and patches of woodland. Its dynamism is the key to its superb bird list.

Low Weald woodland and farmland


This includes a few spots so there’s no species list (I have eBird to thank for the other site totals!). Even in south-east England there are new areas for birders to discover and discover things within – much of south Surrey, all the way from the Hampshire border to the Kent one, is ripe for exploration. It may not be spectacular in terms of rarities but, if you get lucky, then there are a few relative goodies to be unearthed year-round amid barely visited, tranquil and beautiful landscapes.

A small clearing in the Low Weald, surrounded by woodland and filled with luscious vegetation and mature grassland. There isn't much habitat like this in southern England and such areas can feel very far from modern-day Surrey. 

Tuesley Farm

92 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 7/10

Tuesley is weird one. Nowadays it’s an ugly, plastic-covered farm with little passerine life. But one small and sadly private reservoir is the south-west Surrey mecca for waders – and waders are huge currency in this part of the world. Indeed, nowhere else came close to the 10 species accrued here in 2020, including things like Ringed Plover, Greenshank and Whimbrel. It is very much a ‘quick check’ site; the rest of it isn’t worth birding. And when the res is dead, there is nothing to see – and it’s only lively for a few months of the year. But it has the power to bring in species barely imaginable at any other local site, and that feeling when you peek over the bank and see something good makes this a top-five south-west Surrey spot.

Tiny and off-limits to the public, this postage stamp of a reservoir near Milford has a long list of fine species to its name, despite being created less than a decade ago. It's a shame its situated in the middle of a relative habitat desert.

The River Wey

92 species (2 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 6/10

This too accounts for a few sites, from Tilford to Shalford, but really focuses on the area from Godalming to Unstead (for which the species total is for). It was pivotal during lockdown and was often my single outing of the day at this time. I had some good bits – White-fronted Geese, Water Pipit, Cetti’s Warbler, Little Ringed Plover, Jack Snipe and Lesser Whitethroat are all notable locally to varying degrees. I found nothing especially outstanding bar the geese, but that wasn’t really the point; the fact such a fun place to bird is situated two roads down from me really hit home in 2020. It gets pretty busy and much of the best habitat can't be accessed, but a visit on a quiet morning can be ace. 

The scenic part of the River Wey near Farncombe is the closest birding site I have to home. I'd barely given it attention until this year. It winds through floodplains, small copses, ditches and pools and in the summer is alive with plants and insects.

Frensham Common and Ponds

95 species (4 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 4/10

Four might be a bit harsh but the truth is I expected a lot more from Frensham this year, certainly in terms of unusual stuff. Indeed, a single and fairly brief visit during an April shower brought two of the four species that I saw here and nowhere else (Little Gull and Arctic Tern). Otherwise, more than 50 visits yielded just two ‘unique’ species: Mediterranean Gull and Pintail. For a site with such an illustrious historical list, this was disappointing. 

Both ponds are offensively busy – more so than I can ever remember – with outdoor swimmers crashing around the Great Pond at dawn and troops of people and dogs noisily marching by the Little Pond at dusk. There is little sense of peace here, even early in the morning. It was also the furthest site from home, which didn't sit great with my sense of a local big year. I dipped the first south-west Surrey Scaup for 14 years and missed Bittern despite copious targeted visits as well. The area seems to be suffering from perhaps its poorest coverage in decades – I hope the glory days of this once elite Surrey site are not over.

Frensham Little Pond at sunrise. Both of the Frensham ponds have a rich ornithological history but are suffering more than ever from disturbance and lessened coverage.

And that’s pretty much all the main sites. I should mention Unstead SF, which delivered a few niceties and, for a while at least, offers a quiet birding backwater. The discovery of The Hurtwood was another reminder that there are sites to be found out there – it also encouraged me to try harder along the Greensand Ridge, where Wes at Leith Hill and Dave at Black Down have been gaining results for years. I guess I should touch on my windows at home, too, for they offered an unorthodox outlet during strictest lockdown. 

And of course, Thorncombe Street, a bit forgotten and collecting dust this year. It remains the best local spot for vis-mig (for which 2020 was a very poor year) and Snowdenham Mill Pond is surprisingly one of the top water bodies in the area. I’m not sure where I’ll do most of my birding in 2021, but generally the time spent at the above sites was a pleasure and many memories were made at them. 

Luxury vis-mig facilities at Thorncombe Street. Will it be back to patch in 2021?

Thursday 24 December 2020

From Russia with love

The extraordinary influx of Russian White-fronted Geese to south-east England took a while to infiltrate south-west Surrey but did so dramatically this week, with at least five birds across four sites. Heavy rain has meant the river between Catteshall and Unstead has proven attractive to waterbirds – if south-west Surrey’s first Tundra Bean Goose for more than 75 years is to happen soon, I fancy it to be along the Wey in the coming weeks – and this area has taken up most of my recent attention. A dry spell until the end of the year may spoil the party a bit, but I’m sure things will get damp again at some point …

White-fronted Geese within a mile's walk from home.

Friday 18th

No birding.

Saturday 19th

I was heading to Snowdenham Mill Pond first thing but, while passing the water meadows at Unstead, I noticed more geese than normal on the flash opposite Unstead SF (known by locals as ‘Flooded Field’). A scan from the gate on Trunley Heath Road soon unveiled a prize I’ve been seeking all month: White-fronted Geese. Three, to be precise, and all cracking adults, tucked in with a huge flock of some 180 Canadas and a few Greylags.

White-fronts at Unstead SF.

I was dead happy to find my own local birds and, better still, it was a new bird for Unstead, a site that already has a very long list (a previous record in March wasn’t considered wild). They were a bit skittish and by the time Kit arrived on the scene they’d headed away from the road. Pleasing stuff all round: the 17th White-fronted Geese for south-west Surrey and the first record along the River Wey in this part of the world since 1851! Unfortunately, the dull and gloomy early morning light meant all my images were taken on a super high ISO …

More grainy white-front action.

The reason for the geese was recent rainfall. My suspicion is, when there’s a lot of rain, birds are flooded out of their main haunts around Burpham; there is a correlation between heavy rain (and thus flooded fields) and more numbers of things like Teal and geese. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the white-fronts were from the recent 22-strong group at Burpham. Indeed, 19 were seen near Woking the same day as these birds arrived; surely part of the same original flock ...

Some 15 Teal were on the main flash, along with two drake Gadwall, a species I haven’t seen in the Unstead SF recording area since 2015. Two each of Cormorant and Kestrel flew over, while Green Woodpecker and Treecreeper were heard-only. I didn't check the works, but Kit had the Cetti's Warbler again.

Temporary habitat Gadwall.

I did eventually get to Snowdenham Mill Pond, where four Teal, nine Gadwall, two Mute Swans and the now resident Shelduck all noted. After, at Loseley, three Kestrels were flying around the meadow and a male Sparrowhawk whizzed over. Cutt Mill was then checked, with two redhead Goosander, a Kingfisher, the first-year Mute Swan, two Gadwall and 13 Mandarin entering the notebook to conclude a productive morning.

Sunday 18th

I squelched around Overgone Meadow, on the Lammas Lands, first thing, failing to locate Water Pipits and only notching up two Snipe. A Firecrest in a scrubby bank beside the railway bridge was a nice surprise, as was my first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker of the season, further up the river at Unstead Water Meadows.

Here, Sam had relocated the white-fronts at the north end, which had flooded following the overnight rain. Indeed, it seems all of the geese that were opposite the sewage farm yesterday were now here, including 79 Greylags and some 175 Canadas. Initially the white-fronts were distant, as we viewed from the towpath, but upon walking round to the other side we were much better positioned and they ended up a lot closer than yesterday. What fantastic birds to have so close to home. 

The same white-fronts at Unstead Water Meadows ...

Recent flood defence work near Godalming seems to mean this area fills up a lot easier than before and it’s quite a spectacle when it does. As well as the geese, nine Little Egrets were dotted about, three gull species loafed, a Water Rail squealed and a Kingfisher flew upstream. A Skylark also flew high south – a species extirpated from this part of the river as a breeder and one I hadn’t seen along the Wey for five years. The scrubby path by Perry Bridge held a Chiffchaff and a neat flock of 60 or more Siskins.

More river action.

I then headed south to Chiddingfold Forest. A two-hour stroll in lovely conditions was relatively quiet, though no fewer than six Bullfinches was a good count and included a singing male. Two Marsh Tits were also noted, along with a Crossbill, a flyover Raven and a male Sparrowhawk.

Monday 21st

A very mild day for late December. In a brief outing, the Shelduck was still on Snowdenham Mill Pond late morning, along with my first Shoveler there for over a month, five Gadwall and a drake Teal. A walk along the towpath at Unstead Water Meadows was similar to yesterday, with the continuing three White-fronted Geese highlighting. Water Rail, Kestrel, Green Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail and four Little Egrets were also noted.

Tuesday 22nd

Another mild morning. Today, eight Snipe were on Overgone, including five flushed together. A couple of Reed Buntings were in the sedges and a Red Kite drifted over, while two Grey Wagtails flew along the river. At Shackleford, most birds were around the north fields and included Lesser Redpoll, Stonechat, 30 Meadow Pipits, 20 Skylarks (one of which sang briefly), 12 Linnets and seven Reed Buntings, all of which were kept on their toes by a bright male Sparrowhawk that was loitering. Two Red-legged Partridges were also present, while a female Kestrel and eight Teal were on and around the ponds near the farm entrance.

Pied Wagtail at Shackleford.

Wednesday 23rd

I visited the Frensham and Wrecclesham area for the first time this month in wet and dreary conditions before work. On the Great Pond, most of some 62 Tufted Duck were off the hotel, along with 14 Pochard – my joint-highest local count of the latter species this year. Two Little Grebes were in the south-east corner. While passing the Wey near Frensham Manor, three Little Egrets were noted. Wrecclesham Water Meadows had topped up a little and, like clockwork, held 40 or more Wigeon.

Thursday 24th

A much chiller morning with a breezy northerly wind making it feel like winter proper. The sun hadn’t quite broken through during a walk around Winkworth Arboretum, on which a Sparrowhawk, Bullfinch, three Siskins, two Reed Buntings and a Grey Wagtail highlighted. I checked Snowdenham Mill Pond on the way back – to my astonishment, two juvenile White-fronted Geese were at the far end with three Canadas!

A mill pond surprise ...

During the next 20-minutes or so the group swam a little closer, before they all flew north. It seems very likely that these are the same two that roosted at Thursley from roughly 12-20th; perhaps they have been roosting here since, as indeed they probably had done the previous night. They were truly extraordinary scenes for this humble waterbody – wild geese all the way from the remote Russian tundra, here on the little mill pond on my patch. In this extraordinary influx, birds along the river and even in the roost at Thursley had been somewhat anticipated, but this record was much more special and wholly unexpected. A first for the pond, but the second for the Thorncombe Street area ...

More of the Snowdenham white-fronts.

Other birds present this morning included singles of Shelduck and Red-crested Pochard (the female’s first appearance since September), along with a handful of Gadwall, Teal and Mandarin. Snowdenham Mill Pond routinely punches above its weight in a local context and, despite its small, size, is one of the best water bodies in south-west Surrey; I have seen more wildfowl species here this year than at both Frensham ponds. 

The Snowdenham Shelduck ...

I had time to quickly check if the white-fronts had dropped into Unstead Water Meadows but only the three adults were present, at the north end with some 70 Greylags. Six Little Egrets, a Kingfisher and a swirling flock of 90 or more Siskins were also seen.

Further river action ...

In the early afternoon, a walk around a very busy Hydon's Ball was quiet in sunny conditions, though away from the crowds a Firecrest called from a dense stand of holly.

Thursday 17 December 2020

Dreaming of a bright tristis

After a lull, a busy period has followed – a theme that seems to have repeated itself several times this year. So, after my last post mentioned quiet times and feet being taken off the gas, the last week or so has been far more entertaining with plenty to see in the local area. The first 'birdy' winter for a while seems to be upon us and that can only be a good thing as we enter the depths of this particular season.

An eye-catching Siberian Chiffchaff at Unstead SF.

Friday 11th

Dull and grey but much milder than of late, and a few species including Great Tit, Song Thrush and Collared Dove were in fine voice as I met Sam at the Lammas Lands for a brief pre-work walk. The highlight was an impressive three Jack Snipe, a new high count for the season. This species obviously winters here – not too surprising given the numbers of Common Snipe – but it’s nice to have such a reliable site for this tricky species right on my doorstep.

Jack Snipe action ...

In total we managed at least 16 Common Snipe, too, which wasn’t a bad count at all, especially given we didn't walk the full area. Other bits included two Reed Buntings, a small flock of Siskins and flyover Grey Wagtail and Egyptian Geese.

... and some Common Snipe, including a 'wisp' of three.

Saturday 12th

It was gloomy, drizzly and mild when I met Sam at Thursley a little before dawn. He needed the Great Grey Shrike (which had returned in recent days) for his local year list and it would make a nice, round 115 for my Thursley year list, so we worked the south and east part of the common with a plan to avoid the continuing bunting bonanza. One of the first birds we clocked was a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker as it flew over the bottom of South Bog. It landed in a pine by Truxford but wasn’t seen again. Presumably it was the wintering male that’s been on site since September … 

Shortly after, news broke of two White-fronted Geese on Pudmore. We sprinted there, but there was no sign, and it later transpired it was late news from a visiting birder and the geese had flown. Only the 16th south-west Surrey record, a would-be local year tick and a bit of a pain to miss. The LSW meant we weren’t too frustrated, though, and it wasn’t long until Sam located the Great Grey Shrike in the north-east corner of Ockley. Since it reappeared last week it’s clearly been very mobile and it didn’t hang around, flying over Merlin Mound and sitting atop a pine before bombing off again. There wasn’t much else to report save a handful of Crossbills and Lesser Redpolls and a singing Woodlark

Distant Great Grey Shrike at Thursley.

Afterwards, Cutt Mill yet again had no Goosander. Where are they this winter? It’s a bit of a mystery. Two Gadwall, a Kingfisher and the Mute Swan were present on the house pond. Promising goose fields held no white-fronts, and neither did the river meadows by Unstead, but the Shelduck was still at Snowdenham Mill Pond along with seven Gadwall and a Little Grebe.

Sunday 13th

Gambling on the white-fronts roosting at Pudmore again seemed a long shot and, indeed, despite being there long before dawn there was no sign – just the usual Canadas and Greylags. I made a swift exit from the wet and gloomy common, though picked up a handful of Crossbills and a Bullfinch before departing. I stopped by Tice’s Meadow next to connect with the long-staying Brent Goose. Typically, it wasn’t there, rounding off an increasingly soggy and goose-less morning. I did count 184 Coot, but wildfowl numbers were pretty poor despite seven duck species being present. Some 35 Lapwings were also about.

Cormorant at Tice's.

I then walked Cutt Mill, trying to solve the missing Goosander riddle. I figured the private ponds north of the two usual ones may hold them, but they didn’t. However, at least four Kingfishers were zipping about noisily – my highest ever single site count of the species in Surrey. The house pond was my final check and to my surprise seven Goosander were there. Five drakes included one still retaining patches of eclipse plumage. Hopefully they stick around now. In the afternoon, an impressive 18 Egyptian Geese were at Squire’s Garden Centre in Milford.

Goosander at Cutt Mill.

Monday 14th

The first of three days leave but instead of birding Kuwait I was birding Surrey. I decided to walk some areas of farmland in the Low Weald around Hambledon and Dunsfold in search of finches or buntings. Sadly, there was a depressing lack of seed eaters, with a small flock of Linnets at Court Farm and two Yellowhammers at Painshill Farm the best. Sometimes these spots have winter cover crops and stubble but not this year …

Court Farm was a bit lively, though, and plenty of birds were enjoying the thermals along the Greensand Ridge, including a Peregrine (always decent out in the sticks), two Ravens, three Sparrowhawks and a few Red Kites and Buzzards. A couple of Red-legged Patridge coveys were at Painshill. I checked Snowdenham Mill Pond on the way back and the Shelduck and three Gadwall were present.

Peregrine at Hambledon.

I couldn’t resist the lure of the coast and decided to visit Pagham later on. I met David at Sidlesham, where a Richard’s Pipit had been present for a few days at Marsh Farm. After a patient stakeout by David, his new dog Beni and I, we eventually located the bird in the south-east corner of its favoured field. Distant but decent ‘scope views were had as this big fella pottered about, often in the company of a Stonechat pair.

Richard's Pipit in a nondescript Sussex field. What odds on one currently in a similar Surrey locale?

A check of the adjacent milking parlour produced no fewer than 30 Cattle Egrets – my biggest count in the UK – and a Glossy Ibis that has been hanging around the area recently. As well as these Mediterranean offerings, a pleasing number of Yellowhammers were present around the fields, a Chiffchaff worked along a hedgerow and some 109 Black-tailed Godwits, 12 Golden Plovers and three Curlews were among the waders noted.

Cattle Egret, Glossy Ibis and Black-tailed Godwit action.

Tuesday 15th

A lovely, sunny day with a notable westerly not ruining things. I didn’t get in the field until midday – I had a quiet walk along the river to Unstead SF, where it was clear plenty of insect eaters were enjoying the conditions by the works. In total I had at least five Chiffchaffs but this could easily have been double that – the birds were really mobile. Given the winter of sibes we’re experiencing in southern England I wasn’t too surprised – though I was very pleased nonetheless – to pick out a bright Siberian Chiffchaff.

Despite not calling in the 45 minutes or so I was watching it this bird ticked all the boxes: very dark bare parts, a bold supercilium, beige tones to the plumage lacking any olive, a bright alula and bright white underparts. It really stood out and wasn’t dissimilar to the one I had at the site last winter. It frantically worked around, picking at insects, though did sit still for a preen at one point. What a cracker.

Some more shots of the tristis.

Other Unstead bits included the persisting Cetti’s Warbler, a Water Rail, three Little Egrets and a Reed Bunting. This winter seems the best yet for Surrey's first Dusky Warbler and why not here? Afterwards, a quick check of Snowdenham Mill Pond produced Shelduck and five Gadwall, while a Firecrest and Marsh Tit were of note in the south section of Thorncombe Street (Great Brook / Scotsland Brook).

I concluded my afternoon at Painshill Farm where I was eventually rewarded with a Barn Owl. This species occurs at a very low density in south-west Surrey and is most difficult to connect with, this being only my fourth sighting of the year. However, they do breed nearby and the landowner has reported roosting birds, so perhaps they are regular at dusk as this one was, flying over Dunsfold Road. A Tawny Owl, one Yellowhammer and plenty of Red-legged Partridges were also noted.

Wednesday 16th

Only time for a quick check of the goose roost at Thursley this morning but it paid off big time. Dave reckoned he had two White-fronted candidates the previous morning and our early stakeout delivered: a little after 07:30, two White-fronted Geese took off with a flock of Canadas and departed due north. We’ve had to wait patiently for our slice of the influx so it felt sweet to finally score what is a monster bird locally – only 15 previous south-west Surrey records (the last in 2015) and the sixth for Thursley (the last one coming in 2001). It also pushed me to 159 for my local year list …

We made a fairly swift departure as people began arriving for the buntings but still managed to note a Snipe, Dartford Warbler, Lesser Redpoll and a couple of Crossbills. Best of all came when driving through Thursley village – a group of House Sparrows calling from gardens along Dyehouse Road, just inside the Thursley Common recording area, and taking me to 117 for the year!

Thursday 17th

With the forecast of blue skies, a plan was hatched to meet Dave and Sam at Thursley for an attempt to get views of the white-fronts on the deck, following flight-only views yesterday. We met long before dawn and were treated to several nocturnal goodies as a result: at least three Snipe were flying around – including a bird which briefly drummed! – along with two vocal Green Sandpipers and a Water Rail. Despite limited viewing at Pudmore at the moment, it didn’t take long to pick out our quarry in the half-light …

Not what you'd expect to see amid the Canadas on Pudmore.

Both White-fronted Geese had again roosted, as they probably have since Saturday, and they bobbed around on the main pool with their new Canadian friends. Both were clearly juveniles, with small white ‘blazes’ beginning to form. They obviously got separated from their family somewhere along the line but have apparently settled in with the rowdy Thursley gaggle. Perhaps they’ll roost here a while? It seems likely these two are the same that have been hanging out at Tundry Pond near Fleet.

Grainy white-front action.

They departed at 08:00, meaning grainy shots had to suffice. We then decided to visit the bunting spot, which we’ve all avoided since the Rustic arrived. Here we had views of the Little Bunting, now approaching its third month of residence, but it seems the Rustic has abandoned this spot and may prove a slippery customer in the coming months. The rest of our walk produced two Ravens, 12 Crossbills and seven Woodlarks, a couple of which were singing. In all we managed 43 species – a fine total for a couple of winter hours on a common.

The Thursley pusilla.

At dusk, a short walk around the north fields at Shackleford delivered at least seven Grey Partridges (including a covey of five), a Kestrel, two Red-legged Partridges, a handful of Skylarks and 121 Fieldfares into roost.