Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Friday, 24 January 2020

January dreaming

As I write this, it’s at the end of a succession of particularly gloomy January days. I think most birders end up dreaming a lot during this month, whether it be of anticipation-filled spring days in the field, recalling exciting moments from the past or simply thinking of places far warmer and pleasant. I have certainly thought of all three. That said, one discovery and a couple of local wintering niceties have kept things ticking over.

Stonechat, Shackleford, 17 January 2020.

On 17th, a routine check of Unstead burst into life (literally, in a sonic sense) when a Cetti’s Warbler gave itself up from a thicket between The Lagoon and South Meadow. This wouldn’t generate much care in most of southern England, including north Surrey, but for some reason this remains a rarity in my part of the world. Despite birds wintering at Unstead on and off since the mid-2000s, I’ve never caught up with one so was most pleased to add it to my local list.

Of course, it didn’t show, and only sang twice more before going quiet. I came back the following day and was delighted to hear it again – I even managed some low-quality recording (listen here). Good times, but surely this species will be regular in the Wey Valley in time. It is indeed curious it isn’t already, though perhaps they are simply under recorded – Sam had one down the road from Unstead, at the water meadows near Broadwater, back in December. Maybe a small population winters in the Wey Valley (maybe they were the same bird).

Red Kite, Thorncombe Street, 20 January 2020.

Whatever the case, the cold snap that followed put a stop to any singing and I haven’t heard it since. Said cold snap naturally triggered excitement – for us millennials anything under zero and a bit of frost is exciting. Unsurprisingly but disappointingly, there was little bird action on the back of it.

One species that did seem to move about was Stonechat, with the hard weather presumably pushing birds off heaths. I encountered a pair at Loseley Park on 18th, which was a pretty curious record, though not as ludicrous as a Barnacle, two Barnacle x Canada and a Bar-headed Goose in with a big Canada and Greylag flock at the same site! Another was at Hambledon farmland the following morning, where to be fair I have had them before.

Male and female Stonechat and Greylag/Canada Goose flock, Loseley
Park, 18 January 2020.

What I haven’t had there is Woodlark, so a flyover – seemingly moving from Hydon’s Ball to The Hurtwood – was most welcome. A good number of winter thrushes (240+) was also logged, though not much else, especially finches – five Chaffinches and two Siskins a totally paltry haul for arable farmland. It was the same the previous afternoon, when I explored the farmland south and west of Loxhill for the first time – a shocking 13 finches.

Fox, Redwings and Buzzard, Hambledon Farmland, 19 January 2020.

Indeed, I’m not sure how much I’m in a race to go back to the Loxhill area. Technically there are owls (only the ‘common’ ones) in this part of the world, but a late afternoon walk delivered none. A Marsh Tit was best (in some OK looking LSW habitat) but otherwise the neat, trimmed countryside held very view birds.

Back to Stonechats, and the Shackleford pair have still been braving the airfield path. A few visits there have been quiet though, with no sign of the Hen Harrier, which is still popping up at Thursley Common most days. I saw it there on 20th, distantly – it’s seemingly roosting there but spending much of its time elsewhere, probably at Hankley, Churt Common and local farmland. Indeed, maybe I’ll catch up with it at Shackleford again at some point … aside from the harrier, Thursley was quiet, and I didn’t find my hoped-for shrike or Merlin.

After some heavy rain while I was in Scotland the water meadows were looking promising for a bit – seven Little Egrets in Hell Ditch on 17th was a good count. However, the frost then came, covering any open water. Thus it was clearly a better time to search for the Lammas Lands Jack Snipe Peter O found on New Year’s Eve.

Stonechat, Shackleford farmland, 19 January 2020.

Despite a few dog walkers when I visited on 18th there was a remarkable number of Snipe – at least 32 in an hour and a quarter. Also, the main prize was flushed just north of the old fishing pond. Perhaps a regular local spot for the species (and other waders during passage); shame about the disturbance it gets, though.

As you can tell, patch hasn’t been getting much attention … it’s always quietest in winter, when a few sites need to be clicking to make a visit worth it. Unfortunately, as mentioned in previous posts, none of them are. It’s been a really slow month – I will finish on 66 species; 15 fewer than January 2019! The lack of wildfowl is stark – still no Shoveler, and I only ticked Tufted Duck (a single drake, and the only one so far) on 19th. Grim times. The place will kick into life in March, though.

Sparrowhawk, Hambledon farmland, 19 January 2020

These mild winters will only mean winter birding in Britain gets worse. It’s quiet locally, in Surrey, in the south-east and in the entire country. No hard weather means fewer waterbirds, and thus fewer raptors and so on. Autumn seems to finish later and spring start sooner. I suppose weirder vagrants and more exciting summer visitors/breeders will be the exchange.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

A long weekend in Scotland

I’ve spent the last few days in Scotland, in the company of Abel, Matt and Sam. What was initially a solo raid north of the border for a couple of goose lifers, plus a look for Capercaille (a species I’m writing a feature on for work in a couple of editions time), grew into a group trip which would attempt to clean up on the resident Highland specialities, all or most of which were ticks for Abel and Matt.

There was heavy snow in Speyside on the final morning.

While it was a thoroughly pleasant break with friends, which included typically awesome scenery, the avian results were disappointing – we missed a few targets and scored rather underwhelmingly with others. Storm Brendan wreaked havoc on our one full day in the Highlands; the final morning saw several inches of snow fall. Anyway, all reasons to go back up some time soon …

I’ve visited Lewis, North Uist, Orkney and Shetland during the last four years, but haven’t birded the Scottish mainland (properly) since 2015, when I did the classic Cairngorms/Speyside circuit for the first time. As a result I was looking forward to this trip. We set off on Saturday afternoon, stopping off in Cumbria overnight before recommencing our journey north early doors on Sunday (picking up Barn Owl over the M6 near Tebay on the way).

We were in the Ayrshire outback of New Cumnock before dawn. Our quarry was an adult white morph Snow Goose, which has been in the area since October. In the upland habitat, a convenient vista at Auchincross Farm allowed for a big area to be scanned – it didn’t take long at all for the bird to be picked out, still roosting on a loch.

Snow Goose, New Cumnock, 12 January 2020.

It soon flew with 150 or so Greylags, before landing in a field and feeding. Distant, but a good start to our congested itinerary. We decided that a bird on the west coast of Scotland, with Icelandic Greylags, was good enough wild vagrant candidacy for us, though a nearby flock of Canada Geese wasn’t ideal.

While here, we were treated to three Hen Harriers (including an adult male) and at least one Merlin – at one point the diminutive falcon mobbed one of the harriers, above the goose flock, which was quite spectacular. Having enjoyed good views and used up less time than expected, we chose to continue north via Slamannan.

Hen Harrier, New Cumnock, 12 January 2020.

Upon arrival, a quick scan of Fannyside Loch yielded Goldeneye. We then headed north of the village, towards Jawcraig, where we couldn’t initially find any Taiga Bean Geese. The flock here is one of only two that winter in Britain and, with the depletion of the Yare Valley birds, is easily the biggest. Up to 150 have been recorded this winter, but things were initially looking bleak for us.

Taiga Bean Geese, Slamannan, 12 January 2020.

However, eventually three flew over, calling to boot. A further four were then picked up nearby, also in flight. Unfortunately, they landed out of view, so on the deck views weren’t possible, which was a bit annoying. Still, a lifer for Abel and Sam, which we took after initially thinking we’d run out of time to find them. A few Lapwings and two Pink-footed Geese were also logged.

Pink-footed Geese, Slamannan, 12 January 2020.

With the sun out, we pressed on, keen to give Ptarmigan a go in the calm weather. On the way north, we were pleased to jam into 10 or so roadside Tree Sparrows at West Tofts, north of Perth. This mild winter has resulted in little snow on the tops in Scotland, meaning Ptarmigan have had no need to drop down the slopes and thus make them far easier to see.

The classic site of Cairn Gorm car park – from where you can normally ‘scope birds – was a no go; a friend of mine had spent four hours the previous week walking the tops there and seen one bird! We gambled on Glenshee, in Deeside, some 665 m above sea level and where The Cairnwell – at 933 m above sea level – was a long-standing winter site for Ptarmigan.

However, much to our angst we arrived to a closed ski centre, a dusting of snow and absolutely loads of Red Grouse – not ideal. In hindsight we should have cut our losses and headed for another target, but we decided to climb The Cairnwell in the hope the birds were up there. In short, they weren’t – a frustrating four-mile hike produced zero Ptarmigan, about a hundred Red Grouse and two Peregrines, along with several Mountain Hares.

Red Grouse, Glenshee, 12 January 2020.

Mountain Hare, Glenshee, 12 January 2020.

The view from the top of The Cairnwell.

Abel and Matt both needed the species and were particularly keen to see them, so it was disappointing. To add insult to injury, my camera hood smashed. After we left, a solitary Dipper on the Cairnwell Burn seemed scant consolation. Several beers that evening washed away any sorrow.

The following morning we had eyes on only one prize: Capercaillie. This beastly grouse has become mythical in a British context, with much taboo over remaining sites and a rapidly declining and disjointed population making them very hard to see. It’s well known you could spend a week smashing the Speyside forests and not see any, but some exciting and recent gen meant hopes were high.

Storm Brendan had other ideas, though. The weather was beginning to threaten at a pre-dawn Black Grouse lek site, and by the time we’d entered the Caper wood it was really gusty. A Crested Tit and two Crossbill were heard-only, but we weren’t paying attention to passerines much, as we carefully paced the wood.

Fast-forward three hours and several miles walked, and enter a big, fat dip. It was totally gutting, given the nature of the gen, the effort, the amount of Capercaillie excrement seen and the fact all three of the others had never seen one before. Of course, this species is infinitely hard, but it didn’t take the edge off the failure (nor did the three Woodcock flushed). We tried another, nearby site, briefly, but didn’t score.

Capercaillie land ...

... and Capercaillie signs.

Determined not to let this dip bring the day down, we headed to Loch Garten so Abel and Matt could tick Crested Tit. By now the wind was really blowing and, despite one being heard and seen, what was essentially another dip came and went. Grim. We thought the coast would be a better shout and, as the drake King Eider had been seen from Nairn during the past few days, we angled for that.

We set up shop in some dunes east of Nairn Harbour, and began to scan. There was a great selection of birds here – a mighty raft of some 300 Scaup, Black-throated Diver, Slavonian Grebe, 50 Long-tailed Duck, 30 Common Scoter and 80 Eider. A couple of Hooded Crows were also about, as were some intergrades. However, perfectly fitting with the last 24 hours, we couldn’t pick out the King Eider among any of the Eider groups. Further frustration …

Apart from Snow, Cackling Goose was the other instigator of this trip, but the bird with Pink-feet near Inverness at the end of 2019 hadn’t been reported since. Still, an intermediate morph Snow Goose and two Grey-bellied Brant were in the area and would inevitably lift the spirits if found. Despite driving around a huge area, though, we found not one goose.

By now the extent of our miserable day had become comedic, so it was fitting we ended the day failing to see a regular Waxwing flock in an Inverness cemetery in driving rain and heavy wind … more beers were required that night!

We awoke on the final morning to a blanket of snow, far heavier than forecast. Sam had to head to Edinburgh for an interview, but the three of us had only one species on our minds. And, to huge relief, we finally scored. At the same site we’d thrashed yesterday, within minutes of taking a track a female Capercaillie crashed out of a pine and disappeared into the deep forest. Phew. Unsatisfactory views, but we had managed to connect.

A snowy final morning.

Fairly pumped and following Capercaillie footprints in the thick and fast falling snow, we were sure we’d bump into several more in a fashion we’d anticipated the previous morning. So, it was ultimately a bit disappointing that no more were seen, though perhaps unsurprising given the wind was still blowing strongly. If the female had been seen at the end of this walk, no doubts our feelings would have been a little different.

Two crossbills, with a heavier call, were of note – probably a candidate for ‘Scottish Crossbill’, whatever that actually is … Matt also had a probable Goshawk. After, we went to another caper site but, once more, had to settle for tantalising hints, this time in the form of extensive Capercaillie fencing.

With Abel and Matt wanting tickable views of Crested Tit, it was back to Loch Garten. This time we scored – one bird showed superbly, though briefly. Far better, though, was a magical experience with some 50+ Coal Tits. Loads of these birds were around the feeders here and, as soon as we put some seed in our hand, they eventually got up the courage to fly into our hands and pick out their favoured sunflower kernels.

Coal Tits, Loch Garten, 14 January 2020.

It was a brilliant experience, with as many as four landing in our palms at a time. They got so confident that they’d land on us even as we walked, and sometimes used our hands simply as perches. A nice way to end the trip. As we packed the car back at the house, we had a Brambling from the front drive. A long drive home brought the trip to a conclusion.

Good company saved the day to an extent, though you can’t sniff at some quality Scottish species, two or more lifers for everyone (bar me, but I was very happy with the one) and of course a Capercaillie. Weather and a lack of time ultimately combined to get the better of us, but we’ll be back – it’s a beautiful part of the world and, as has been the case personally for years, the lure of the caper remains strong.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Where the wildfowl and finches at?

A new year is upon us. Normally, that’d mean racing around Thorncombe Street trying to hoover up year ticks, but in 2020 the patch year list is taking a break. I’ll keep one, of course, but won’t chase it (2019 patch review here by the way). As a result things have started somewhat inauspiciously, not helped by a real dearth of wildfowl and seedeaters in this part of the county – something that was reinforced during the south-west Surrey winter bird race on Saturday.

Little Owl, Thorncombe Street, 4 January 2020.

As is tradition now, the new year started with a hangover at Snowdenham Mill Pond. A leisurely couple of walks on patch yielded little other than impressive numbers of Marsh Tits, but finches and ducks were notable by their absence – on patch, I’ve still not had Tufted Duck this year (wintering flocks of 20+ at two sites most years!) and only bagged Linnet and Siskin on Sunday.

The ducks are probably spoilt for choice, what with the recent flooding, but the lack of seedeaters surely links to the mild winter. The Ridge – always a safe bet for a hundred or more finches and buntings in winter – is devoid of birds. I did manage to locate a few on Broomy Down on Sunday, with access now back, with a nice flock of 14+ Yellowhammers (sound recording here). No Reed Buntings anywhere, though.

Yellowhammers, Broomy Down, 5 January 2020.

Pre-bird race on Saturday, a few visits to other local sites produced little. A Chiffchaff was the best from two walks at Shackleford, a Coot on the Lagoon at Unstead was my fist there since February 2015 and there was no sign of any Water Pipits on the Lammas Lands on 2nd or 3rd – presumably they were flood related after all …

Unlike most of these visits, the bird race did in fact feature birds. 85, to be precise, though Kit (my sole teammate after Sam fell ill) only got on 82. A pretty neat haul for midwinter round here. We started an hour and a half before dawn, at Thorncombe Street. Thankfully one of the Little Owl pairs showed (eventually), but it took a while – why has this species become so hard to see?

Tawny Owls were rife here, and at Shalford Water Meadows, which was the next site. Snipe was bagged, before we got Water Rail at Unstead SF (and the only Sparrowhawk of the day). We’d planned to do our first main, ‘common passerine collecting’ walk on a heath, and opted for Crooksbury Common. This meant going via Cutt Mill Ponds, where Goosander (six), Mandarin and Great Crested Grebe were notched up.

Pochard, Frensham Great Pond, 4 January 2020.

We got to Crooksbury before sunrise. It was rather quiet, but thankfully the main target – Dartford Warbler – showed early on. A Brambling flew over – one of 22 finches on the entire heath/woodland! We also got many common woodland species, plus Stonechat. A road closure took us the long way to Frensham Great Pond, but we added Collared Dove, House Sparrow and Starling on the way while driving through The Bourne.

We weren’t at the pond long, by the hotel, when the other team (comprising Steve, Martin and Peter) rocked up. They’d had a productive time here already, though it didn’t take long to prove fruitful for us. Bird of the day was a distant drake Pintail – a rare bird in south-west Surrey. We also bagged our only Shoveler of the day (two) amid a paltry haul of wildfowl; a few Pochard and larger numbers of Mallard and Tufted Duck.

Bonus species here included the only Kingfisher of the day, a showy Firecrest in the holly and a Marsh Tit. Next up was Wrecclesham Floods for a big south-west Surrey … on the way we drove past Frensham village and the ‘Glossy Ibis meadow’, adding Egyptian Goose, Lapwing and Little Egret (the latter duo flyovers).

Red Kite, Shackleford farmland, 4 January 2020.

Pulling up at Wrecclesham, shock-horror – the water had gone! There was one Little Egret, but no Wigeon, which was the big target here. We hastily headed back east, passing Seale, before parking up at Shackleford farmland.

This site was good to us – Red Kite and Buzzard took little time, before Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Linnet joined the list. One each of Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting (the former our only one of the day; the latter one of two) a real bonus.

Better still was two Ravens, which cronked in from the west before landing near Hurlands – the only ones either team had all day. To top it off, south-west Surrey’s only Ring-necked Parakeets announced themselves shortly after.

Ravens, Shackleford farmland, 4 January 2020.

Ring-necked Parakeets, Shackleford farmland, 4 January 2020.

Next up was Allden’s Hill for Red-legged Partridge, before Snowdenham Mill Pond yielded our only Mute Swans of the day (!), with a flyover Little Egret a very welcome patch bird for myself in between. Still needing Greenfinch and Grey Wagtail, we were most satisfied when both gave themselves up in the car park at Unstead SF. Our main quarry here – Chiffchaff – was just as straightforward by the works.

We didn’t score Teal, though, and the lack of wildfowl theme meant we hadn’t had any at any other sites, including Frensham, Snowdenham Mill Pond or Wrecclesham. So, to Shalford Water Meadows, where a bit of hard work eventually secured two. We had our second and final Greenfinch of the day here, as well as the second and final flock of Siskins … shocking stuff.

We had lunch at Thorncombe Street, adding Kestrel, before fretting about where to get Herring Gull – large gulls are hard around here! We dipped at south Guildford, before we chose to concentrate on Little Grebe, another species we hadn’t picked up yet but which was guaranteed at a couple of sites.

Indeed, we duly bagged the grebes at said site near Milford. However, much better was the presence of five large gulls among Commons and Black-heads: three Herrings and two Lesser Black-backed! Excellent stuff, with the latter never easy around here.

Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls, Milford, 4 January 2020.

At this point, we had little to chase, save a few finch species. Thus, with time to spare and with Sam and I eking out our only ‘flock’ of the species earlier winter, we headed to Chiddingfold Forest – to twitch Lesser Redpoll. On a winter bird race. In England’s most wooded county. Crazy, really.

Anyway, the small party of six or seven birds were pinned down, before our final tick of the day. And what a fluky one it was. I left the footpath in the forest, explaining to Kit to keep an eye out while I flushed up a Woodcock. Seconds after I said it, one burst out of the bracken beneath me and flew off! Amazing fortune on a bird race.

Woodcock (uncropped and cropped), Chiddingfold Forest, 4 January 2020.

And that was our 85th bird of the day. We met the other team at Thorncombe Street for a dusk vigil, where Tawny and – pleasingly – two Little Owls performed nicely (eventually). Neither team scored Gadwall or Crossbill, nor Woodlark or Barn Owl – the latter was also dipped on the summer race last year. In all a fun day of local birding. I look forward to further adventures in this part of the world during 2020.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

2019 review, part one: patch

If I could personally sculpt the most perfect year of patch birding, I don’t think it’d look too dissimilar to 2019. The last 12 months have had everything an inland patcher could wish for – seasonal familiarity, fun visible migration, new discoveries, rare and scarce finds, landowner engagement and largely positive breeding successes. On top of that, a new best-ever year list was achieved, both for me personally and the site as a whole: 124 (including five lifers) and 133 respectively.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was again confirmed as a breeding
 resident in 2019.

Given that this, my sixth year of working the Thorncombe Street Area, was the first one in which I took my foot off the gas and didn’t throw everything into the patch, it’s pretty ironic that I should have my most enjoyable 12 months here. 2018 was really frustrating at Thorncombe Street and, for my own sake, I knew I needed to take stock, step back and recede from the high intensity ‘gegenpressing’ style of patch birding that seems to have been particularly well mastered by Surrey birders down the years.

2019 saw arguably the most thorough coverage and recording the area has ever received. An increased emphasis on breeding data, combined with splitting the recording area into five sections and logging monthly species lists, are key factors behind this. Of the 133 species recorded, some 71 at least attempted to breed – a very good figure. This included continuing rare breeders, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Hobby, Spotted Flycatcher and Woodlark, increased numbers of some species (Skylark being one example) and others doing so for the first time in recent years, including Yellowhammer.

Ringing activities stepped up and took place at Bonhurst Farm for the first time. The farm, now managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, has become a focal point for habitat management and the increase in certain species is already notable. On the Wintershall Estate, further wildlife-friendly land management and changes to the farming policy hold hope for the future.

Firecrest continues to increase at Thorncombe Street and is found

Ringing efforts took place on Broomy Down (where this Yellowhammer
was processed) and, for the first time, at Bonhurst Farm.

Three species were recorded for the first time, bringing the historic site list to 166. Red-throated Pipit – the first British Birds Rarity Committee (BBRC) species recorded here in 159 years – was easily the rarest bird for the area in the modern era. On a personal level, it’s my most memorable find to date.

The other two additions – Wood Sandpiper and Stone-curlew – were courtesy of nocturnal sound recording (noc-mig), which continued to be deployed in 2019 with fascinating results. Incredibly, two more Ortolan Buntings were recorded in late August – are they regular nocturnal migrants in Surrey? Certainly, in specific weather, it seems so. In total, 722 hours of recording took place in 2019, with 34 species logged, including a Common Scoter flock, Pintail, Greenshank and Pied Flycatcher.

As mentioned earlier, splitting the recording area into five sections (North, West, Central, East and South) allowed for a more methodical approach to recording birds, especially breeding data. The lowest species total for the year for one section was 82 – interestingly in the North section, which contains the main waterbodies.

Spotted Flycatcher had a good breeding season, despite heavy rain in June.

Thanks to 11 noc-mig additions, the West section scored 104, though without them the South section would have finished highest, with a truly surprising 97 species tallied – not bad for a nondescript area of countryside with scarcely more than the odd garden pond! The Thorncombe Street sections can be seen here.

Monthly lists proved quite fun (though the results were predictable) and greatly added to increased study of areas and species. March and August were the most productive, with 91 and 95 species logged respectively (including noc-mig). June and December weighed in at the bottom with just 73 species.

Following the various disruptive weather systems of 2018, it was particularly pleasing that 2019 was ‘normal’. There was no delay to spring, no searing heatwave and, largely, the seasons played out as expected. This doubtless had an impact on the positivity of 2019 at Thorncombe Street.

Thorncombe Street continues to support a strong range of raptor
species, including breeding Red Kite.

It was pleasing to confirm that this Yellowhammer pair bred in the South
section, a species not recorded to have done so during the last five years.

My review of 2019 in the wider county will be up soon. There will also be another Thorncombe Street Area report for 2019 (2018 copies still available, drop me a message for a free one). For now, I’ll round up my personal highlights from the year at Thorncombe Street in the usual, season-based format.

Winter (January, February & December) bird of 2019

With a limited shortlist, there is only one winner – four Waxwings, which flew over Tilsey Farm during the coldest spell of the year on 24 January. Unfortunately I didn’t manage any shots of these pink punks as they noisily trilled their way south-east during a cold weather movement vis-mig. Only the second patch record, there was a bit of an influx of the species into southern England that day, with small parties reported later on in Petersfield and Crawley – the latter perhaps being the ones I saw.

Spring (March, April and May) bird of 2019

This is a seriously hard choice. My favourite time of year can be a bit hit-and-miss on patch, but in 2019 I was spoilt rotten with goodies: a female Goldeneye on Snowdenham Mill Pond on 22 March was an excellent patch tick (and the first since 1957!), a singing Grey Partridge the same day was pretty tidy and an Osprey causing mayhem as it migrated north, low over Bramley, on 6 April was not too shabby either.

In late March, the third Thorncombe Street Area Goldeneye – and the
 first for 62 years – heralded the start of a most enjoyable spring ...

... while this Honey-buzzard concluded it, when it flew over Allden's
Hill on 23 May.

May was excellent too. A Nightingale held territory for a few days, and I had wonderful views of a Honey Buzzard over Allden’s Hill on 23 May – doubtless the rarest bird of spring. The buzzard and Goldeneye are sure-fire silver medallists, but I didn’t find the latter (thanks Steve!) and the former I’ve had over the patch before.

So, perhaps surprisingly given the contenders, the spring bird of 2019 is the Common Sandpiper that was aside Rowe’s Flashe, Winkworth Arboretum, on a perfect spring morning on 24 April. There is absolutely no other species I have tried to find more on patch, but before that morning I had never succeeded. Even more ridiculously, Jeremy, Matt and Sam had all seen the species at Thorncombe Street (the latter has only visited about eight times!).

This most desired patch species, Common Sandpiper, finally gave
itself up in April when one stopped at Rowe's Flashe for a morning.

Not rare, not special to many, but reward for persistence, a scene I had imagined in my head many times and a bird to make my spring.

Summer (June, July and August) bird of 2019

Summer downtime is common for most patchers, especially those not yet fully enchanted by other taxa (me). That said, some memorable birds were seen, including a confiding juvenile Tawny Owl and another Grey Partridge sighting. Thankfully, however, I’m choosing what month qualifies as summer in this post and, while August is absolutely autumn in terms of birds in this part of the world, it constitutes the last summer month in this post.

The mystery of the south-west Surrey Grey Partridge population
continued, with sporadic sightings in 2019.

This juvenile Tawny Owl was a midsummer treat at Winkworth
Arboretum in June.

As I’ve droned on about before (see here), I love August. It’s probably the best month for a Surrey/inland birder to find something rare, in my opinion. This year had all the August classics – juvenile Willow Warblers galore, vis-migging Tree Pipits and Yellow Wagtails, fence-sitting Whinchats and Wheatears, hedge-hiding Redstarts and so on.

It started well on 2nd with a Turtle Dove over Allden’s Hill. A super bird locally these days, but not quite season-making material. I managed two patch ticks in August, too. A flyover Shelduck at Bonhurst Farm was vintage anything-can-happen patch birding on 19th – the first at Thorncombe Street since 1973 and only the second for the site.

August saw the usual chat and wheatear migration in better than
usual numbers.

The other tick was Pied Flycatcher, another long-desired patch discovery. Amazingly, I had two: one at Winkworth and one at Tilsey Farm. This was due to a remarkable influx of the species to south-east England (see here). And for this reason, it falls short of bird of the summer, purely because so many were found by other hard-working birders in Surrey. Normally, they are a thing of rarity in the county, but it got to the point I was almost expecting to find one, and thus the novelty was lessened.

Like spring, I have no doubt as to my summer bird of 2019. Just scraping in on 26 August, the utterly enchanting Wood Warbler at New Barn wins it. I love pounding the hedges and scrub at New Barn for warblers from August to September. I have had two Wood Warblers on patch before (both in August), but this was altogether a different experience.

This Wood Warbler gave crippling views at New Barn Pond on
26 August.

Instead of chasing it round a bush, getting poor views, this beauty sat out in the open and was highly interested in my pishing efforts. It even called a few times to boot. This is a desperately rare bird not just in Surrey, but the whole south-east, nowadays. I think there were fewer than four Surrey records in 2019. It’s now a description species in Sussex and, surely, will become so in Surrey soon. Thus, any encounter – especially one like this – must be rightly cherished.

Autumn (September, October and November) bird of 2019

My patch bird of the autumn is also my bird of the year, and decade, and probably life so far … more on that later. I had a solid roll call of other bits in 2019, too, and picking one isn’t easy. Two ‘contextual’ megas are up there – Reed Warbler and Snipe; only my second records of each!

Yellow Wagtails are always a welcome sight on patch, with these two
dropping into Bonhurst Farm briefly in September.

For the second year running, Bonhurst Farm hosted a Black Redstart,
though sadly I missed the male that visited for a day.

In any other year, the female-type Black Redstart that pitched up at Bonhurst Farm from 28-31 October would be a contender for bird of the year. Only the third site record, it came hot on the heels of last years long-staying female and also during an influx, when many were found elsewhere in Surrey. So, in a similar vein to Pied Fly, it loses its edge a bit.

It was a superb October for Ring Ouzel, with this duo part of a flock
of six that flew south over New Barn on 6th.

Add in the fact that I didn’t see the male that stopped by for one day on 30 October, then Black Redstart takes second place. It was an awesome October for Ring Ouzel, and the flock of six I had fly over New Barn together on 6th was my highest count here and a classic, thrilling example of migration in action on a local level. So, Ring Ouzel is autumn bird of 2019.

Best migration day of 2019

I spent more than 130 hours vis-migging in 2019. It was a pretty good year for it, too, even though a sensational early October seemed to usher everything out or in early, meaning the latter half of the month and the entirety of November were quiet.

Unsurprisingly there weren’t many notable spring sessions. However, 27 March will live long in the memory as a record spring count of Meadow Pipits (one of my favourite patch pastimes is spring Mipit migration, sad I know): 264 north in just over two hours in a blowy northerly with low cloud.

The big Woodpigeon day of 2019 came on 28 October.

Hawfinches were fairly regular on vis-mig in small numbers from
mid-October to early November.

A remarkable southward migration of House Martins took place in Surrey during late September, peaking on 22nd. I managed to grab a slice of the action in two separate sessions totalling five hours, during which I tallied a new record haul of 1,371. My only regret was missing the middle of the day and having to pull myself away – I have truly never seen anything like the scenes on Allden’s Hill that afternoon, when House Martins were bombing south in a literally constant stream. There must have been tens of thousands on the move locally.

October typically produced the real fun days. 6th, with the aforementioned Ring Ouzels, was great, while the big Woodpigeon day came on 28th: 5,226 the total. 20th was excellent with no fewer than 2,618 birds of 28 species logged, including 5 Hawfinches, Golden Plover, Great Black-backed Gull, 1,762 Woodpigeons, 5 Yellowhammers and a curious westward push of 202 Jackdaws.

However, hands down the best vis-mig session I’ve ever had locally took place on 15 October. A paragraph or two here won’t do it justice – here’s the post I dedicated to it at the time.

Disappointment of 2019

It’s safe to say there was genuinely nothing disappointing about 2019. If I had to be exceedingly fussy, noc-mig was a fraction disappointing at times. In short, it seems the striking lack of artificial light in the area means fewer birds move over at night than at other sites. This means, while I still get the unusual species, broad-front movements seem to not occur.

Two Ortolan Buntings (sonogram of one above) were recorded in late August,
suggesting that the disappointment of 2019 was a weak category this year!

Bird of 2019

That magical vis-mig session on 15 October delivered the patch bird of a lifetime: Red-throated Pipit. Much of the joy of that moment, as well as the actual circumstance, is in that previously linked post about that watch, so I won’t go on too long about it here.

Ultimately, a bird of that magnitude – a BBRC rarity – on my patch, here in birdless Surrey, was beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve hammered Thorncombe Street most days of the week since I moved back from university five years ago. In fact, Trektellen can tell me that it took some 422 hours and 17 minutes just of vis-mig to reach that particular moment, though, of course, the biggest factor is luck: right place, right time.

Red-throated Pipit (and camera) sonogram from 15 October.
A day I'll never forget.

I considered putting ‘not getting a photo of the Red-throated Pipit’ as my disappointment of 2019, as I take great care getting flight shots while vis-migging. That would’ve been ludicrous though. And, thanks to long-life of the battery of my Olympus LS-P4 (which had been noc-migging the night before), I have the moment captured forever in audio format here. It probably constitutes as my best-ever birding experience and memory, even though its still fresh.

There’s no denying the realisation I’ve had that it’s highly unlikely things will ever get better on patch, both in terms of finding a rarity or having as good a year. 2019 definitely delivered a sense of ‘complete’, or even ‘happily ever after, the end’. The couple of months since the pipit, my foot has been taken off the gas more than ever, as I explore wider south-west Surrey with much greater effort.

But is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. No birding location will ever mean as much to me as Thorncombe Street. It’ll still be my default place to go birding, noc-migging, ringing, vis-migging, and the rest. The last five years have been a journey of discovery, learning and thrills, along with mistakes and disappointments. And there’ll be more to come, no doubt.

A new notebook for a new year ...

I suppose there are two key takeaways from 2019, for me. One is the reiteration that watching the birding year develop and the seasons unfold on your doorstep, in familiar places that hold significance to you, is surely down my most enjoyable, rewarding and soothing form of birding. The other is that the birding moment of a lifetime can happen at any moment and in any place – even in the arse end of Surrey!