Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 24 February 2020

Flying through February

A month has passed since my last, non-Israel blog post. February has flown by and March, spring and the first Swallows aren’t far away. Although the relentless wet and windy weather of late has made such days seem quite distant. Since Israel, I’ve been busy in the field and, despite the weather, it’s been a fun few weeks.

Woodlark at Frensham Common (taken on the new Nikon COOLPIX P950,
which I'm reviewing for work). It's been a good month for this species; I've
logged them at four sites.

Having taken my foot off the patch gas last year (which bizarrely resulted in a best-ever Thorncombe Street year!), 2020 has seen me spend even less time down ‘Quality Street’. In a way, south-west Surrey has become my new patch – various circumstances mean I simply don’t have the time or energy to go full-throttle at one site (which is required, if one is seeking 'rare' birding results and stimulation). 

This is fine, though, and south-west Surrey is full of other places I hold dear and enjoy birding. With a patch year list off the cards, my two ‘goals’ for 2020 were to hit 600 for the Western Palearctic and dedicate time to rare/secretive breeders in south-west Surrey. However, helped by Israel delivering beyond my greatest expectations, I in fact hit 600 several months before I’d planned on doing so.

So, to give me a loose target on top of general birding, I’m casually keeping a south-west Surrey year list. This has actually proved really fun so far. Having retrospectively worked it out, I saw 141 species in the area (as defined by the Surrey Bird Club) last year. It was a super year, with 124 of those at Thorncombe Street alone. My goal for 2020 is to record 150 species in the area – this means noc-mig records count as part of my tally too (though I’d quite like to hit 150 excluding noc-mig, if I'm honest, but I don't want it to become too serious). Last year, the combined total was 147, so it’s achievable.

Unstead Sewage Farm looking mighty fine on a rare sunny day ...

A big factor in this goal is that it’ll encourage me to visit many under-watched sites, and also look for different species than I perhaps wouldn't (or even couldn't) at Thorncombe Street. I suspect there will be little twitching – only Frensham is properly patched by anyone – but a bit here and there will be fun.

So, instead of rambling on about every birding excursion this past month, I’ll run through the south-west Surrey year ticks since Israel. There have been nine, leaving me on a very satisfactory total of 100. I’ll keep this update going throughout blog posts this year. Obviously certain species won’t be mentioned, so don’t think I’m slyly trying to bump my numbers up – I just won’t state every bird seen!

A rare bit of video footage for the blog, taken at Lowicks Pond, Frensham 
Common, on 18th (again thanks to the COOLPIX P950).

Also, apologies for the lack of photos in this piece. A rather frustrating smash of my camera LCD screen in Tel-Aviv airport means I’ve been without it for the past three weeks … so note the low-quality shots (either taken on my old camera or one I'm reviewing) are only temporary!

92: Peregrine

Generally not easy in south-west Surrey, Peregrine is even scarcer in winter. The game crops at Thorncombe Street tend to lure in the odd ranging bird at this time of year, though, and I jammed one in flight on 3 February as it moved from The Ridge to Allden’s Hill. Always going to make the year list, but nice to score early and on patch.

93: Barn Owl

Another hard bird locally and another Thorncombe Street delivery, with one ghosting over the road at Selhurst Common on 5 February. I spent that particularly mild night checking a variety of woodlands in the area for different owl species, but had an underwhelming session.

94: Great Black-backed Gull

It’s always a sight to see one of these beasts cruising over rural Surrey – they’re simply rare out here!
In 2019 I saw a grand total of five, all at Thorncombe Street. March passage annually produces a few, but I (and Abel) were still chuffed to have one heave its way over Loxhill on 7th, skirting The Hurtwood as it went. Weirdly enough, Sam and I had two at the same site on 21st – the Hascombe Gap doing its thing.

96: Blackcap

I generally don’t see Blackcap in winter locally, so it was a joy to hear one from my house in Farncombe as it briefly burst into song several times from the scrub along the railway line on 14th.

97: Wigeon

A bit of a bonus to be honest, as this species isn’t annual in south-west Surrey. The extreme rain around Christmas had delivered a few onto Wrecclesham floods, but they’d all gone by 1 January. However, after a more recent deluge, Jeremy reported them again on 14th, so I undertook a pleasant local twitch the following day, when I counted an impressive 116.

98: Great Grey Shrike

Very pleased to get this in the bag at Frensham Common, albeit at the third attempt. After the blank winter of 2018-19, there was much joy when one turned up at Thursley Common in mid-December. This proved short-lived, though, as two days later it had gone. Shaun P then had it (presumably the same bird anyway) at Frensham Common before Christmas, but only for one day.

The Frensham Common Great Grey Shrike (J Snell).

Amazingly he had it again on 15 February, and I went on the next pleasant morning (Tuesday 18th). After a fair bit of stomping around Churst and Frensham Common I eventually saw it in flight. It then went AWOL again, before reappearing on 21st and performing well on 22nd (see Josephine’s picture, which confirm it as a first-winter).

Then, yet again, it vanished, and hasn’t been seen since. Great Grey Shrikes of course have huge winter territories and for me the explanation is simple – it’s likely been moving around the ever more disturbed Churt, Frensham, Hankley and Thursley Commons, where sadly fewer birders visit in the winter these days. I suspect the Hen Harrier, which moved from Shackleford to Thursley, has gone similarly under the radar. Anyway, a very nifty one to get on the list, even if it’d be nice to get better views (I’ll go back for more if it settles somewhere soon).

100: Hawfinch

Another Loxhill bonus, Sam and I had been chatting about this very species not long before one flew east at 12:28 on 21st. I’m pretty sure this is a localised and low-level resident in the Low Weald of Surrey – before the great Hawfinch invasion of 2017 I was getting the odd bird at Thorncombe Street, and last autumn when I was seeing them regularly they were often moving from tree to tree (as oppose to migrating through).

In all, good fun, and I look forward to seeing how spring goes. I’ve connected with pretty much all the wintering specialities as well as some trickier residents. It’s been a wretched 10 months or so for Crossbill, and that’s one I still need. Other bits I had last year that I haven’t seen so far include Green Sandpiper and Red-crested Pochard. After all this rain I should probably have a stomp around for some Water Pipits in the Lammas Lands, but most of my free time recently has been spent on certain species.

An early Little Grebe nest at Tilsey Farm on 14 February.

Exploring south-west Surrey has revealed promising signs regarding
future additions to the south-west Surrey year list!

Otherwise, things have been ticking along regularly. The Cetti’s Warbler was in song again at Unstead on 14th. Pleasingly, my patch Woodlarks were in voice on 8th and it looks like they’ll breed again – I also found a completely new site for this species, where a male was singing, near Peartree Green. It looks similar to the young forestry plantation on my patch so hopes are high. A Little Grebe on two eggs at Tilsey Farm on 14th was a very early date.

Chuck in getting Yellow-browed Warbler on my Surrey list (shameful I know) and Abyssinian Roller on my WP tally (to take it to 600), then it’s been a good few weeks. I look forward to the return of my camera and spring.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Israel: day six and seven

This is the final Israel photo diary (see part one and two via the links). On day six we returned to the north-west Negev to eke out a previously missed target, before heading north then east to the wonderful Beit She'an Valley, where we'd spend our last day and a half enjoying some general birding and going for a couple of final targets.

Having driven 39 km around the Urim farmland two days previously in a failed attempt to see Sociable Lapwing, we were determined to connect with this species, which was highly desired by both of us. Thankfully, we only needed to drive 10 km this time – we eventually spotted a group of five in a ploughed field.

This Critically Endangered lapwing has declined markedly as a winter visitor to the north-west Negev, where Urim has traditionally been the hot-spot. Apart from the odd vagrant in western Europe, it is a very localised wintering species in the WP. We took our time enjoying good views before we explored the area a little more.

As on our previous visit to Urim, there were 1,000 or more Common Cranes spread out on the greener fields, along with heaps of doves and pigeons, corvids and larks (including a small group of Calandra Larks).

Such a bounty attracts prey, naturally, and during our two trips to Urim we scored no fewer than nine raptor species. The Saker Falcon from two days prior highlighted then – this time it was an imposing adult Eastern Imperial Eagle. A true beast, it sat ominously on a powerline surveying the area, allowing us to soak up the classic adult imperial eagle golden sheen to the neck and head, white patch on the shoulder and – when it flew – dark underwing coverts.

More than contented, we headed north. Our aim was to get to the Beit She'an Valley by the afternoon, but we decided to stop off in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv on the way in an effort to connect with Striated Heron. We dipped at Rosh Tzippor in Yarkon Park, before exploring the main parts of the park incuding the Yarkon River.

Both Common and White-breasted Kingfishers showed well beside the various small ponds and sheltered stretches of the river.

Sam is generally repulsed by anything category C, so I'd kept the presence of the above species at Yarkon Park quiet: Vinous-breasted Starling. Certainly for the more dedicated WP lister, this introduced South-East Asian native is self-sustaining in Tel-Aviv, though not increasing much and is pretty localised. Thus, a useful WP tick. There was a bit of a category C theme to the park to be honest, with Monk and Ring-necked Parakeets and many Common Mynas also seen.

In the same area of scrub was a somewhat more iconic WP species – this second-year Masked Shrike. Not on the radar at all, it seems it was wintering and was in fact a lifer for me. However, the setting, naff views (into the light) and general great difference from an adult male somewhat tempered the moment. We dipped Striated Heron, but not particularly bothered by this we ploughed on to our final destination.

The drive into the Beit She'an Valley was pretty awesome. Sights we hadn't seen all week soon greeted us – masses of cormorants, pelicans, herons, egrets, gulls and raptors amid a seas of green. We stopped off at Nir David Fishponds, where we'd have a couple of hours of birding before dusk. This superb sub-adult Spotted Eagle greeted us at the entrance gate. Ever since clapping eyes on the beautiful drawing of one perched in a marsh in Collins Bird Guide, this species has caught my imagination and was a big factor behind my 2017 trip to Poland. We were treated to no fewer than eight over Nir David Fishponds. I could watch them for days ...

What a beast. Pygmy Cormorants were swirling overhead, too, along with Black Kites, Marsh Harriers, gulls and much more.

I don't think any gull, certainly in the WP, beats these absolute brutes. Thankfully, most of the adult Pallas's Gulls were in full summer attire and looked totally awesome. Another real favourite species of mine and a lifer for Sam. The commonest gull was Armenian, with two adult Baltic Gulls logged too. The fishponds were great, with hundreds of herons, egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills and Glossy Ibises, along with more than 1,000 Swallows.

The final day dawned with a Black-winged Kite hovering in front of the Jordanian mountains. We had one main target today, along with a couple of minor ones, but mainly we wanted to enjoy the superb birding on offer.

Dead Sea Sparrow proved fairly easy to find in the Beit She'an Valley, often tucked in with House and Spanish Sparrows.

There was a constant procession of things like Eurasian Spoonbill and Great Egret overhead.

Some hard work around an area of renowned alfalfa fields near Kfar Ruppin eventually produced our quarry, a much desired WP species. The above Oriental Skylark, albeit briefly, provided us with the full works: its striking call (usually the key ID feature), the buffy (not gleaming white, as in Eurasian Skylark) edges to the outer tail feathers (which can be seen nicely in the third shot) and even the stretched neck move, as showing in image two. Despite not being with Eurasians, it was clearly slighter and you can see why it has another name of Small Skylark. Only wintering in a few sites in Israel and Kuwait, I was pleased to get this in the bag.

Kfar Ruppin Fishponds is one of the most famous sites in Israel, with a wonderful cast of wintering birds to its name and a good track record for regional megas (including the only WP occurence of Ethiopian Swallow). Black Storks were common ...

... And so to were Pygmy Cormorants, even if they had to sometimes share their rafts with the odd Coot or Pied Kingfisher. We slowly ambled around the patchwork of water bodies, farmland and scrub, drawing up a wonderful list of species. Clamorous Reed Warbler was my last lifer of the trip, and other highlights included Booted Eagle, a flock of Desert Finches and several Quails.

Great White Pelicans cruised overhead, along with huge feeding flocks of Black-headed Gulls.

Some 40% or so of the Swallows we logged had a striking copper/golden colour to their underwing coverts, breast and undertail coverts, suggestive of the transitiva ('Levant') form.

Both Black-winged Kite and Cattle Egret were common, the latter coming to inspect our parked car as we watched an atricapillus Jay.

A family of Egyptian Mongoose were seen briefly. Golden Jackals were common.

Having doggedly checked every European Stonechat during the trip, we were pleased to finally spot this striking Siberian Stonechat near the aforementioned alfalfa fields.

A visit to Tirat Zvi Fishponds allowed me to get my fix of gulling. Armenian Gull was by far the commonest large gull species, though most groups held a few Pallas’s Gulls too.

Eventually a couple of first-winter Baltic Gulls were found in one group ...

... Which also held three Caspian Gulls, an adult and two first-winters (one of which is above).

There were three adult-type Baltics too, this one seemingly contemplating its terribly long journey back to southern Sweden.

Passerines in the area included coutellii Water Pipits and more Dead Sea Sparrows.

There were tonnes of herons and egrets throughout, with the top picture reflective of most fishponds in the Beit She'an Valley.

Finally, not long before we had to head for the airport, potentially the find of the trip ... this very striking kite wafted overhead and we both suggested Black-eared Kite at the time. Our knowledge of this form in the WP was limited to say the least. As it happens, hybrids of the nominate migrans and lineatus (Black-eared) are scarce but regular in east Israel. This bird, however, may prove to be pure (very rare in Israel, though common in winter in Kuwait). The contrast between the belly and vent isn't ideal, but I remain in conversation with Yoav Perlman and Dick Forsman about this beast, though I can't imagine anything conclusive will be achieved from my shots.

An educational end to a trip full of learning. Bar Striated Heron and some species that weren't available (i.e. Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse), we cleaned up on our targets amid some first-class birding. Israel in winter is highly recommended.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Israel: day three, four and five

Just another photo diary from my recent Israel trip (see here, plus photos from day one and two and a link to a formal trip report with species gen). On day three, having cleaned up around Eilat, we slowly worked north through the Southern Arava. We then passed Hameishar Plain, before spending the afternoon trying for one of the key species of the trip. Day four started in the north-west Negev, before we returned to try again for said target. On day five, were back in the Northern Arava, then the Dead Sea area, before a nocturnal search for another key target.

We started day three targeting Namaqua Dove. This species is harder to see than the average visitor may expect; the above pair were two of three at Yotvata kibbutz that constituted the only birds seen all week. They weren't easy, either – three small birds among more than 1,000 Collared, Feral Rock and Laughing Doves!

Next up was Yotvata fields again. The main quarry was Asian Buff-bellied Pipit and Oriental Skylark, as well as upgrade views of Desert Finch. We scored the pipit, with one individual making itself known among 25+ Caucasian (coutellii) Water Pipits (above photo) and a handful of Red-throated Pipits. We also had our only Snipe of the trip, our first Corn Buntings, a Bluethroat and a flock of some 20 Desert Finches, but only Eurasian Skylark.

Unfortunately, Hameishar Plains is a military area and only open at weekends, so we couldn't go for the wintering Thick-billed Larks that Sam was keen to see. We did however have distant views of 50+ Spotted Sandgrouse (above) along with the usual desert fare, including this curiously sounding Desert Lark. The afternoon and dusk was spent dipping Syrian Serin at three sites, including the most reliable (Ben Gurion Memorial Park) and a roost area ... frustrating times.

Day four started at the famous Nitzana to Ezuz Road, where Macqueen's Bustard is an easy pick-up, often from the old railway carriage. We soon clocked two males from here that, while distant, were pleasingly performing their comical display. A Quail sang briefly, before a stop at Nitzana pools yielded no sandgrouse.

It was then back to Sde Boker fields for another stab (and dip) for Syrian Serin. A fairly close flock of 21 Desert Finches more than made up for it, though. Better still, some helpful birders shared our details with Meidad Goren, who would very kindly show us a serin roost area that evening (and in general was really helpful and friendly for the rest of our trip).

A family of Arabian Babblers were also at Sde Boker fields, hanging around a reservoir that held a Marsh Sandpiper on our visit the previous day.

We spent late morning until mid-afternoon driving the vast Urim farmland area. This huge site offers winter replacement habitat for steppe species, with our main target Sociable Lapwing. Despite covering some 39 km along farm tracks of varying quality, we couldn't find them, and indeed only scored six Northern Lapwings! However, a fearsome juvenile Saker Falcon (above) was superb, as were some 1,000 Common Cranes and six other raptor species.

Syrian Serin is one of the most desired Israeli species, with this poorly-known species' entire global range restricted to Israel, Lebanon and Syria (and presumably Jordan). In the summer, they breed on Mount Hermon, but in the winter descend to the desert regions of southern Israel. Oddly, between March and May, they vanish – it is still not known where they go at this time. Thanks to Meidad, we were able to witness a simply incredible sight of some 57 roosting birds, at close-range and alone. 

The birds were vocalising, too, including some males singing. My recordings on Xeno-Canto are the first of this species to be uploaded to the site. An awesome experience and a trip highlight.

Day five began in the tranquil Sheizaf reserve in the Northern Arava, better known as the famous KM 152 site for Arabian Warbler, which was another key trip target. We slowly worked the site from dawn, with plenty of Palestine Sunbirds (above) for company ...

It didn't take long to find our hefty sylvia target, with this male on territory and occasionally bursting into song as the sun rose, allowing for both sound recordings and a generally pleasant time.

A smart bird. Aside from the warbler the wadi was a little quiet, with Hoopoe, Streaked Scrub Warblers and a Great Grey Shrike seen. It was then on to Idan drinking pools which, personally, represented a third and final chance for would-be lifer Crowned Sandgrouse.

On the way, we bumped into yet another flock of Desert Finches, these ones feeding by the road on the outskirts of Idan kibbutz. We'd stopped because we'd finally spied our first Sand Partridges of the trip, which soon scuttled off.

At the pools we missed out on any Crowned, but 19 Spotted Sandgrouse flying around and briefly landing was great. With sandgrouse only coming to drink at a certain time here, we soon hit the road again, heading north-west to Mount Amassa.

This beautiful spot quickly gave up its key target for us: Long-billed Pipit. This large pipit has a distinctive song, and this is what first got us onto this male. It generally pottered about its territory in the hour plus that we were there.

At least five Finsch's Wheatear were also knocking about, with all bar one of them splendid males. We also had four Chukar.

Having done superbly well for targets, we decided to give the Dead Sea a couple of hours of birding. Striolated Bunting was the main target here, with the species a lifer for me. We had OK views of a flyover at Wadi Mishmar, but otherwise the birding here was good, with four Sand Partridges (above) and two Fan-tailed Ravens among the usual fare.

Much to our surprise at Wadi Mishmar, we also found another day-roosting owl. Furthermore, it was a rather unexpected Eurasian Scops Owl. We took in super views of before leaving it be ...

Having scored African Swamphen at Ashalim Reservoir on the way back south, the evening was spent being taken to the saltmarshes south of the Dead Sea, where Nubian Nightjars are found. In trying conditions (and a poor time of year) we had as many as three males which were vocalising, along with a flyover Pharaoh Eagle Owl (lifer for Sam) and – perhaps best of all and easily a trip highlight – spotlight views of a Striped Hyena.