Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Birding paused

Well, lockdown is upon us. For the next three weeks (at least), birding at home or on short foot- or bike-based excursions from the house will be the only chance to get in the ‘field’. One rolls their eyes at the ironic timing – spring has just sprung, days are getting longer (the clocks change at the weekend) and it’s generally one of the most pleasant times of the year to get outside. But all of that is so irrelevant. It’s integral people finally begin to stay at home and practice social distancing.

What a beauty ... and probably my last for a few weeks, or possibly until autumn.

My partner works for the NHS so we’ve been following such rules for a while now. The Prime Minister’s update yesterday evening doesn’t change much for me, save no more engaging in any level of local twitching and going anywhere by car. My previously outlined south-west Surrey big year is stopped in its tracks. Such a list seems beyond frivolous in these times – that, plus general birding, football, the gym, seeing mates and so on is paused for now …

The past week in the field – which has been good fun – will keep me motivated for when the lockdown eventually is lifted. On Wednesday 18th I spent my last social interaction with Abel, at Unstead SF in the afternoon. We undertook a little habitat/site maintenance, mainly clearing fallen trees and trimming bushes.

A family of Egyptian Geese at Unstead SF.

Bird observations were limited save an Egyptian Goose pair with seven young, a juvenile Mute Swan on Flooded Field and, best of all, a Kingfisher over the River Wey – my first at Unstead since 1 September 2000 (!), which is the first Kingfisher I ever remember seeing. A quick stop at Shackleford afterwards yielded no sign of the White Wagtails, but an impressive 158 Stock Doves on the plough was my biggest Surrey count.

Having kept an eye on the weather, Thursday 19th was all about one thing: finding a Common Scoter in south-west Surrey. The absolutely perfect combination of overnight drizzle and fog with a gentle north-east wind was ideal – and indeed many inland sites held scoters on 19th, including Holmethorpe SP and Walton Reservoirs in Surrey – but I failed to find any at Tuesley Farm or Frensham Great Pond. In fact it was disappointingly quiet at all sites and, with no scoters picked up on noc-mig, the bird of the day was probably the singing Blackcap that I woke up to at home …

Some Red Kite action from Winkworth.

It seems to be a great year for Greenfinches. I log them at most sites these days.

That night, news of a Short-eared Owl at Thursley on Wednesday emerged. This species is weirdly really quite rare in these parts. I’ve never seen one in south-west Surrey. With more, albeit not as good, scoter weather forecast I planned to check Thursley at dawn before moving on to Frensham.

As it happened, the weather was too clear for grounded seaduck. I also drew a blank on the owl at Thursley – not to surprising as they rarely stick there. The (so far single) male Curlew and a flushed Woodcock were best on the boardwalk, though notable northward tallies of 64 Meadow Pipits and 36 Siskins were noted.

Skylark at Lydling Farm, Shackleford.

It was obvious that conditions weren’t good at Frensham, so it was most pleasing to pick up my first hirundines of the year over the Great Pond …

104: Sand Martin.

No fewer than 18 were flittering over the north end of the pond. A welcome consolation prize for yet another failed trip to Frensham (five now, including the Bittern efforts). A quick check of Shackleford on the way back was in order. This site clearly gets a lot of Wheatears on passage. There is no data-based evidence of that, but the habitat is perhaps the best in south-west Surrey for migrant chats and the like.

A few more Meadow Pipits than usual were on the model airfield (including some remarkably buffy/reddish looking adult males). Then, there it was …

105: Wheatear.

And a superb male to boot. The first Wheatear of spring is always ace and this was in fact my earliest ever in Surrey. Good times, though they got even better as another was then picked up, before a third and then a fourth: no fewer than four (three males and a female) dotted about the model airfield. A wonderful early spring moment close to home.

A perfect late March discovery ...

Strong north-east winds over the weekend hinted at waders. There are so few sites locally for wading birds. Still, I have dutifully checked Tuesley Farm res this year (and in years gone by), though have never managed a notable reward. This changed at dawn on Saturday.

106: Redshank.

I popped my head over the bank, did the usual scan (which involves seeing nothing special, usually), before a pair of orange-red legs propped up on some black piping caught my attention. Redshank! I was chuffed – apart from Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, Woodcock and Common Sandpiper, any wader will be a real bonus this year, let alone one as scarce locally as Redshank. Ubiquitous on the coast, this has become harder to see in Surrey. Even the wintering population at Walton Reservoirs is no more.

One of the highlights of my south-west Surrey year so far.

I’ve only five (!) previous Surrey records of Redshank and this was my third in south-west Surrey, the last at Unstead SF 12 July 2004. And what a dapper bird it was too, dressed in summer finery. I bid it well for its journey (it looked knackered) and left it be …

I'll be surprised if I see another Redshank locally in 2020.

Passing through the patch, Allden’s Hill delivered a singing Blackcap (and a leucistic Linnet that briefly got the heart rate going), before I reached Unstead SF. It was a decent session, most notable for my second-ever Unstead Raven overhead and the continuing Cetti’s Warbler, among 41 species. The Flooded Field and flash further north by Trunley Heath Farm look great for waders at present, though the water levels are receding rapidly now. Ones to check out on the bike in the coming weeks, perhaps.

Snow Linnet on Allden's Hill.

Raven sightings on the up at present with hungry females on nests.

A pit-stop at Shackleford revealed three lingering Wheatears. I then returned to Unstead in the late afternoon, by which time many insects were on the wing. This delivered a/the female Stonechat in the South Meadow, but also a wonderful pair of White Wagtails with their Pied congeners around the horses – my first for Unstead and the second time I’ve bumped into White Wag locally this spring.

The male (top three images) and female White Wagtails that graced Unstead SF at the weekend.

Tuesley was much quieter the following morning, while patch delivered little bar a Raven over Bonhurst Farm. Unstead was better – a flushed Water Rail from the South Meadow, the Cetti’s, a/the Kingfisher again by the Wey and two pairs of Shoveler on the Lagoon. The latter was quite a surprise given how dry the site is these days – my first here since 10 January 2016.

This Shoveler quartet was a welcome surprise at Unstead. 
An Unstead mega ...

... and an Unstead mega when it comes to being photographed (Water Rail).

An afternoon walk at Shackleford produced my overdue first Peregrine for the site, as it bombed south, and a Ring-necked Parakeet over the village. Yesterday I rolled the Frensham dice again, but once more came up short. Tuesley and Shackleford were quiet too, while Unstead delivered two Ravens over (they must be nesting nearby) and a Lesser Black-backed Gull briefly on the deck …

Peregrine over Shackleford. Surely fairly regular there.

Lesser Black-backed Gull and Raven (bottom) at Unstead SF yesterday.

... then it was lockdown. Birding from the flat will take centre stage and I'll be taking part in Steve G's excellent BWKM0 group. I have no garden per say, but this is tempered by a rather good view over the North Downs and Wey Valley (an advantage of being on the top floor). See more on my flat birding here. Noc-mig will probably run nightly now. This past week Water Rail and, amazingly, Barn Owl have been heard over the flat.

And, until the inevitable total shutdown due to people not following the rules, I will probably utilise the ‘exercise once a day’ and take my bins on a walk or cycle. With use of the latter, the river valley, Unstead and Tuesley are realistic. With luck, there will be an ‘other side’ of all this sooner rather than later. We may even be able to enjoy part of spring as usual. But for now, birding is paused.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Spring hope in uncertain times

Despite the uncertain times we’re currently in, birding has continued chugging along, offering a welcome escape from constant COVID-19 updates. This time of year is generally one of my favourites and, despite the rather bleak outlook for the rest of spring and summer, there has been plenty of cheery moments in the field this past week or so.

Happy days ... at least one Curlew is back at Thursley Common.

After finishing the last magazine on Wednesday I left the office for what could well be the last time in months. After a busy week, I had a late start on Thursday and wandered the east section of Thorncombe Street, logging my first definitive migrant patch Chiffchaffs of 2020 and a female Sparrowhawk unsuccessfully take out a Feral Rock Dove at Bonhurst Farm.

A sunny and windy visit of Unstead SF afterwards was more productive and veritably spring-like: eight Chiffchaffs in voice, a Firecrest along the footpath and – best of all – a loud burst of confirmation that the Cetti’s Warbler is still present, in voice if nothing else. In poor conditions I managed some low-quality recordings of this south-west Surrey rarity.

A Chiffchaff at Unstead, pondering life.

The next morning I started at a traditional Lesser Spotted Woodpecker site, following up on a couple of recent reports of fleeting birds. On the way, two Red-legged Partridges flew over the road at Hurtmore. I didn’t see any little peckers, alas, though some of the habitat looks fantastic. Success – albeit heard-only – at a known site (where breeding was confirmed last year) was achieved afterwards.

Later on, it was nice to get in on some Stonechat movement with an impressive six at Shackleford farmland (a pair has been present all winter). I then teamed up with Abel to give Unstead a good stomp around. The Cetti’s Warbler performed again and I had my second Blackcap of the spring singing near the North Meadow (Abel’s first) – another welcome nod to the seasonal shift.

Stonechats have been on the move en mass across the countryside these past days and weeks.

In my last post I expressed concern about the non-return of the Thursley Curlews, so I was very pleased to hear from Peter O that he’d had one on Friday. Delighted with the news, I was on the boardwalk at dawn, though as the rain poured down and the wind whipped around my face I questioned my decision. Indeed, bar a Tufted Duck and squealing Water Rail there was no sign of any Curlew on Pudmore, despite several loops and scans.

Then, minutes after the rain stopped, that familiar call filled the air and within seconds I had my eyes on the bird …

103: Curlew

In the gloomy conditions I struggled to get any decent shots, but it was wonderful to see the individual – a male – performing his display flight and wheeling past quite close at times. As this was going on, a microcosm of Thursley birding happened when, turning around to put my camera back in my bag, I noticed the familiar shape of a ringtail Hen Harrier drift towards me.

The male Curlew at Thursley, hopefully soon to be joined by a mate.

It ghosted past, low south, and disappeared behind Pine Island, all while the Curlew was still flying around calling. Superb stuff. I was actually the last person to see a/the ringtail here, back on 20 January following a spate of sightings. It seems likely the individual on Saturday was the same (and also the bird from Shackleford farmland last autumn) and has just been overlooked, probably because it’s mainly using Thursley to roost.

Thursley in a nutshell – it can seem bleak and dead for long periods, but in a split-second anything can happen. The harrier has been seen twice since, and will hopefully hang about for a couple more weeks …

A classic Thursley Common winter image.

With a Little Gull at Tice’s Meadow (just north of the south-west Surrey boundary) that morning, and at nearby Edenbrook CP in Hampshire, I rolled the dice and did the Frensham Great Pond roost. There was no sign – just 211 Black-headed Gulls – before I hopped over to the Little Pond for Bittern attempt number three. Annoyingly it wasn’t third time lucky, and it seems this species will evade my south-west Surrey year list.

Sunday was wet and windy, with few birds of note. Tuesley Farm and Winkworth were quiet; an Allden’s Hill vis-mig produced a flock of seven Lesser Black-backed Gulls south, which is a decent count for the patch. There was a slight shuffle of the very poor winter Snowdenham Mill Pond pack: four Gadwall and two second-year Mute Swans were ‘new in’, as were a further two swans on Bramley Park Lake.

Unstead SF offered a better selection later on. Two Little Grebes were most noteworthy (the heavy rainfall of February to thank for that), but best of all was a pair of Stonechats in the South Meadow. Despite first visiting Unstead when I was in junior school, these were my first Stonechats for the site! It has certainly been a Stonechat year so far, and I’ve encountered birds at almost all of my regular sites. With no sign the following day, these we more birds on the move.

Amazingly, my first Unstead SF Stonechats.

Another real surprise was a Lesser Redpoll over the South Meadow – just my fourth record of this species this winter (not including vis-mig birds in October/early November). A later visit to Bonhurst Farm featured little bar stockpiling Fieldfares, which are lingering here in good numbers. With a marked finch passage recorded in the country that day, I decided to experiment with a new vis-mig site the following morning …

… and what a promising spot it turned out to be. Standing on the North Downs at Loseley/Onslow, next to the Hogs Back transmitter, one is blessed with a mighty view to the south, as far east as Leith Hill, through the ‘Wey-Arun Gap’ beside my patch, the continuation of the High Weald at Hascombe Hill and west beyond the A3 to Blackdown. Wes had a superb finch session on the tower at Leith Hill; Steve G and I altogether less exciting watches, probably due to the clear weather not pushing stuff low.

The view from the transmitter: top, Leith and Holmbury Hill and Winterfold; middle, the Wey-Arun Gap; bottom, Hascombe Hill and The Hurtwood.

That said, it was satisfying to witness birds a) clearing using the downs ridge as a guide and b) north/south movement at height. Notable observations included a tight group of 10 sinensis Cormorants high north-east, an adult Great Black-backed Gull south, a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits and Redwings (53 and 40 in total respectively) and a flock of 16 Starlings east.

In fact, it was a really fun and dynamic session, including birding the downs farmland, the copses in Loseley Park and the ponds – other highlights included two Yellowhammers (both Cirl and Corn Bunting used to breed here … ), a singing Blackcap by the transmitter, nesting Grey Herons, 10 Egyptian Geese and five Chiffchaffs. A top area that would make a quality patch.

Cormorants and Meadow Pipits on the move over Loseley downs ...

A flock of 106 large gulls at Sandy Farm was most notable and I have noticed some here before, with birds generally roosting on the fields or feeding in the horse-churned mud. With large gulls at a premium in south-west Surrey (especially on the deck) I have certainly bookmarked this spot for the future – perhaps  there’ll be a slight renaissance of gull sites along the North Downs in south-west Surrey, after the Ring-billed and Glaucous-producing Runfold, Wrecclesham and Seale pits and landfill sites closed down before my time …

On the deck large gulls and nesting Grey Herons were nice surprises around the Loseley/Compton area.

Today I did the patch first bells, failing to log any Lesser Spots, but counting 10 Greenfinches around Gatestreet Farm – a really super count after a few years of low numbers in the area. The rogue White Stork was knocking about in nearby cow fields too.

I then called in at Shackleford farmland where, to be delight, the main fields by the airfield had been ploughed. I was just waiting to pick out a Wheatear, but in fact did better – two totally spanking male White Wagtails probing about near a pool. What smart birds they are, and I rarely see them locally so was most pleased – they felt like my first true migrants of the year. Other bits included a few Linnets and Meadow Pipits, notably no Stonechats and also my first Mallard ducklings of the year at Lydling Farm.

White Wagtails at Shackleford, an area that's shown great promise over the past eight months.

No Wheatear, but that will come. Local birding remains firmly on the menu in the short-term, but it seems inevitable there will be a period of one to four weeks during which leaving the house is going to be very difficult. As this looks set to fall in the busy spring period, it’s all likely to be rather grim. But there’s no point dwelling on it.

Stock Doves were also enjoying the plough.

Indeed, I’ve decided to hammer noc-mig from my house this year. There was an awesome Redwing movement on 10th – I’d noted a crazy number of calls on my walk back from the pub, and the recorded picked up 245 vocalisations during the rest of the evening. A Barn Owl on 16th was even more remarkable. This virtual reality birding might be what keeps me sane in a few weeks!

Monday, 9 March 2020

Leaping into March

It’s been a mixed fortnight. A nasty bug (no, not that one) took me out of action for a few days at the end of February, but the past week or so has delivered both full health and spells of nice weather, which resulted in time in the field. I also finally got my camera back, which was almost like getting a new one. Two south-west Surrey year ticks and some pleasing discoveries on top of this have made for a good start to March.

The Great Grey Shrike at Frensham Common.

On 25 February, prior to being bed-ridden for a few days, I collected a couple of patch year ticks for my heavily neglected 2020 Thorncombe Street year list: Reed Bunting (incredibly absent from The Ridge this winter) and Chiffchaff. Later on, two Woodlarks were singing at an area of farmland nearby – noteworthy as no known site for this perfect songster is particularly nearby.

I was limited to observations from my window for the following few days, though they did include a Kingfisher on 26th and – best of all – a Great Black-backed Gull on 29th; only my second from the house and generally a good bird locally. That day I was feeling a little better, so ventured out to Frensham Common for a straightforward second helping of the Great Grey Shrike, which was showing consistently by this point (and still is as I write this).

A bit more shrike action ...

In the early spring sunshine, it felt great to get out the house. A few Dartford Warblers and Woodlarks were good value, but easily eclipsed by the first-winter shrike which was moving around and hunting successfully at an eyebrow-raising rate – who knew such a feast of insects could be harboured in the winter?

It was nice to enjoy this rather iconic south-west Surrey species, after fleeting flight views a couple of weeks prior and having not seen one on this part of the world since 2016. Afterwards, I enjoyed super views of some vocal Firecrests nearby.

Local Firecrests are getting back to breeding territories and singing frequently at present.

The following day [Sunday 1 March] I felt much better, and undertook an overdue maiden search for woodpeckers in new haunts. I’ve spent the winter identifying promising and un-watched areas with a view to search for Lesser Spot when the time is right. Despite the steady decline, this species is doing OK in pockets of Surrey, though the lack of site connectivity poses a real concern. The pair on my patch have been successful every year since 2017 (and are present and correct, albeit most elusive so far, this year). Birds have been logged at another known site too – all pointers there being more out there.

Anyway, the 10-mile walk in the Low Weald started off well with heaps of 'peckers loving the sunshine and overdue calm conditions. Some three hours later, though, the breeze had really picked up and second half of the walk was a bit of a slog. That said, most pleasingly two sites delivered the goods in absolutely classic habitat for the species – a really uplifting result. Unfortunately both were fleeting and, seemingly, alone. Plenty of Marsh Tits were logged too. I will be back …

There's plenty of suitable Lesser Spotted Woodpecker habitat in the far corners of Surrey, but not many of the woodpeckers themselves or birders to look for them.

With the breeze really making itself known but the sun still out, I undertook a raptor watch elsewhere afterwards – a perfect way to chill out after an arduous walk; the Low Weald clay is most strenuous after all this rain, squelching and hissing at your every step!

A foot-less Muntjac, one of several seen in the past couple of weeks.

The dry days have enticed plenty of raptors up into the air.

On Tuesday 3rd I checked out another couple of areas I’d earmarked for woodpeckers, but had no joy. I soon gave up, before sticking my head in at Cutt Mill Ponds and then Shackleford farmland – both were quiet, save three Goosander at the former site and good numbers of Skylarks at the latter.

I then wasn’t in the field until Friday. I opted for Thursley, hoping to add Curlew to my year list. According to current Thursley guru Dave B, the Thursley Common stalwart and legend Mick Pankhurst used to say you can expect the Curlews – Surrey’s only breeders – back anytime from Valentine’s Day. So it’s safe to say we’re in the ‘worrying zone’ for this iconic Thursley breeder, as none are back yet.

Goosander (top) and Great Crested Grebe are two species well-associated with Cutt Mill Ponds.

A Buzzard on watch at Shackleford.

My two hour, four-mile stroll around the common was most enjoyable and relaxing – a chorus of Woodlarks and Dartford Warblers (the latter seem to have had a very good past 12 months), as well as a flyover drake Goosander and squealing Water Rail on Pudmore highlighted. But no Curlews. And nor did Dave have any over the weekend. There is still time, of course (and one arrived at Tice’s late on Sunday afternoon), but the intense pressure from ever-increasing dogs off leads on the common will spell the end for this declining wader at some point in my lifetime, if not this year. Very sad indeed …

Dartford Warbler seems to be doing rather well at present.

After torrential rain on Thursday, the water meadows in the Wey Valley in my part of the world were at a similar level to when Sam found Water Pipits on the Lammas Lands at Godalming over Christmas. So, with this in mind, I made the Lammas Lands my first stop on Saturday morning. And, lo and behold …

101: Water Pipit

Amazingly it was one of the first birds I heard, as I stepped over the footbridge onto the soggy water meadow. Soon after another was heard – this time I managed a poor-quality sound recording and decent bins views as it flew off east. Given the time of day (dawn) and behaviour I wonder if these had actually been roosting in the sedges by the main pool.

Sunrise over the Lammas Lands.

It’s all rather interesting, this Water Pipits in the water meadows stuff, and I’m going to write a full blog post on the situation soon. What’s for sure if that their presence (at least in accessible areas) is very much tied to water level. Also noted were five Reed Buntings, all singing males – a good tally for here.

Next up was another 'pecker search, at a site I had a male last March. After walking more than five miles it’d had been nothing but Great Spots – 18 to be precise – before I heard a calling LSW twice. Sadly it soon vanished and I didn’t hear it again. This is a bit of a theme so far with ‘pecker searching in 2020, and I think the regular breezy westerlies have kept action to a premium. Hopefully some mild and still days will be on the cards soon.

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are entering peak time for territorial activity.

Otherwise, another hugely muddy walk was rather quiet, with a particular dearth of finches – another theme of winter 2020. I was chuffed to spy a displaying Lapwing over the A281 on the way back, though. A pair bred just over the south-west Surrey (and Thorncombe Street) border, at Rooks Hill Farm, last year and I guess this will be from the same pair. This is a species that just about hangs on as a breeding bird in the farmland fringing the A281 from Bramley down to the Sussex border.

That evening, I decided to undergo a vigil at Frensham Little Pond. For many years, wintering (or passage) Bitterns have performed dusk flights over the reedbeds here in early/mid-March, as they prepare to head back to the Continent. I remember a seriously atmospheric encounter with one, as it called, with Matt back in 2015.

A few Little Egrets are still to be found along the Wey Valley, but they'll soon depart.

Armed with all the gen I could need from Shaun P, the Frensham king, I got in position at sundown. The wind was too strong, though, and with cloud cover it never felt right – unsurprisingly I dipped, though several shrieking Water Rails and whinnying Little Grebes was a nice consolation.

Yesterday, I decided to give the patch some TLC. Winkworth was quiet, though another Water Rail here (in Phillimore) was a patch year tick, as was – rather shockingly – a flyover Lesser Redpoll. As
I’ve mentioned several times recently, it’s been a really poor winter for finches. But what a truly wretched one it’s been for Lesser Redpoll – this was only my third record anywhere this year, and my sixth since 1 December 2019.

Later, I walked a small area of farmland that had caught my eye before, between Dunsfold and my patch. It proved a lovely little walk, too, along a densely vegetated lane that held Marsh Tits, Chiffchaff and Bullfinches. Best of all, though, was no fewer than five Yellowhammers (including three singing males), a few Skylarks, nine ‘wild’ Red-legged Partridges (unlike the chickens on my patch) and a nest material-carrying Red Kite. Another bookmarked spot to revisit.

One of my favourite species, and a joy to stumble upon an apparent hot-spot for them near Dunsfold.

A session at Unstead was quiet. In the evening, Abel fancied trying for Bittern at the Little Pond that night, so we gave it ago in far better conditions – virtually no wind, a largely clear sky and a beaming full moon. Again, Water Rails performed, and a party of Teal departed to the north well after dark, along with two Shoveler. It seemed perfect for a Bittern to set off, but we didn't get the rub of the green.

We were heavily compensated, though, when – some 40 minutes after sundown – a most unexpected call over the pines behind us caught us off guard …

102: Mediterranean Gull

This bizarre moment could have passed off as a ‘surely not’ write-off, had it not called a further two times! Initially, weird, but it was heading towards the Great Pond, where a small gull species roost can hit 2,000 Black-heads. Given the amount of Meds moving north/inland at the moment, it perhaps wasn’t such a shock. Later, we heard a cacophony of Black-heads from the direction of the Great Pond, so presumably there were staying up late that night.

A nice Red-legged Partridge, but during the next couple of weeks I'll be trying to unearth their Grey congeners, of which a tiny handful go largely undetected in the far south of Surrey. 

Anyway, a seriously handy addition to the year list – Med Gull is still pretty rare in south-west Surrey – and consolation for a second Bittern dip. There is still time for Bittern, but the weather doesn’t look great over the next week and I fear any wintering bird may have left on Friday night, when conditions were decent.

It’d be nice to hit 105 before the first migrants arrive at the end of the month but, whatever the scores on the doors, this varied yet somewhat structured choice of birding in 2020 has so far proved most enjoyable.