Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


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!

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