Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 27 April 2020

Not as scarce as you think?

Lesser Whitethroat is one of my favourite warblers. I feel it always appears particularly smart. It’s a species I associate with Pagham Harbour and Europe. It’s not a bird I associate with Surrey, and certainly not my part of the county. This is because, on a local level to me, it’s peculiarly rare.

A south-west Surrey Lesser Whitethroat: a rare thing or poorly documented species locally?

And it’s not just an inability to locate this dapper sylvia or pick out its rattly song. In more than five years of covering my Thorncombe Street patch, almost daily between mid-2014 and the end of 2019, I’ve had just one – a frightfully elusive migrant on 4 August 2017. In other parts of Surrey, Lesser Whitethroat is, while never common, regular and easy to see. But it’s not just my patch that the species avoids – it’s most of south-west Surrey.

This hit home when preparing for the south-west Surrey bird race last May. I consulted a few very experienced locals about gen for certain species. With regard to Lesser Whitethroat, the same replies came back: “no idea”, “you’ll have to chance into one on the day”, “not sure, it’s a really hard bird locally” and so on. There seems to be no really reason for their scarcity – perhaps the dominance of heath, woodland and shooting estate as the predominant habitat is a case for this – and in recent years there have been just three regular sites.

I suspect the Painshill Farm Lesser White will be around all summer and is part of a small population in the Dunsfold area.

I say regular – they are sporadic in their summer visits to each and breeding is rarely proved at any. These three sites are Binscombe/Compton (a site occupied on and off for decades), Dunsfold (Barrihurst Farm) and Wrecclesham sand pit. At the former and latter males held territories last year; a pair was proved to have bred at Barrihurst.

For the bird race, we used the Binscombe site, where a male was on patrol from late April. He’s back there this year, too, as of Saturday. My eagerness to get Lesser Whitethroat on my south-west Surrey year list led to me dipping out at this site, though. In March, however, I’d found a small stretch of countryside north of Dunsfold and close to the Barrihurst site that looks promising – tall, thick hedges amid a nice space of farmland.

Last week I walked it early morning and was most pleased to hear that distinctive rattle coming from the main hedgerow. A male Lesser Whitethroat soon gave himself up. The backup cast was barely backup It was so good: a Nightingale pumping out song from the same scrubby patch, at least five Yellowhammers, eight Skylarks and a good selection of common warblers. A lovely spot and one I’ll check with frequency. It’s amazing how close it is to my patch too, given the mega status of Lesser White at Thorncombe Street.

The hard to pin down Unstead Water Meadows Lesser White ... 

I’d wager money on this wider area supporting a few pairs of Lesser Whitethroats – maybe this species isn’t as rare as thought in the south-west, and perhaps just highly localised? Well, maybe even this is questionable. Incredibly, in the week since, I’ve had two other singing males, both at sites far from any known ‘regular spot.

A mobile and vocal male Lesser Whitethroat at Unstead Water Meadows was a mega-gripper for stranded-in-Colombia Sam J – a site first! Surely a migrant, though, as none of the river regulars have seen it since. At the weekend yet another Lesser White was in voice, this time at Shackleford farmland. The habitat here looks OK, but again there is no past form and Peter O (who’s been watching the site for a while) has not had one before. Perhaps all three of my recent observations were migrants.

... and the similarly mobile Shackleford bird.

But I suspect, if one scratches beneath the surface, Lesser Whitethroat is, while remaining scarce and localised, rather more regular in south-west Surrey than thought. Whatever the case, a handy year tick and the only one of the week, bringing me to 132. A couple of proper bonuses are certainly required in the next few weeks before summer.

It’s been a crazy spring for Wheatears. I touched on the headwind theory last week – since my first on 20 March, I’ve had a minimum of 21. Most have been at Shackleford, which seems a real hot-spot for them, but others this past week have come at Imbhams Farm, Grayswood (a probable Greenland Wheatear), and Dunsfold Aerodrome. I’ll never get bored of them.

The now weekly Wheatear photo-fest. The bottom two pictures are of the boldly coloured, brownish backed and buffy leucorrhoa candidate.

Elsewhere it’s been business as usual. A few Low Weald raids have revealed Nightingales at sites I wasn’t sure had them – Dunsfold Aerodrome, Frillinghurst Wood and Sidney Wood. The former site also seems to have breeding Lapwings and, surprisingly, Woodlark. Frillinghurst Wood was OK, but the countryside to the south was far better – breeding Yellowhammers and a late pair of Teal highlighted. Sidney Wood held Cuckoo, Willow Warbler and a Grizzled Skipper.

Grizzled Skipper and Teal: two species you don't tend to see at the same time of year around here.

On my ‘other patches’, a couple more Reed Warblers are in at Unstead, along with Garden Warbler. My first Shackleford Cuckoos flew over this morning – a male and female. At the weekend I counted 25 Skylarks, many singing and others carrying food. I genuinely think this may be the densest population in Surrey. At Thursley, at least two male Curlews are now back, a good sign. Hopefully a female is knocking about too … Milford has been quiet, save three Common Sandpipers.

Assorted recent bits and bobs. The last photo is a Cuckoo (promise).

What else? Noc-mig Whimbrel the other night was pleasant, if expected. This goes on the ‘noc-mig-only’ additions for my year list, but it would be nice to see one. I need to up my wader game in the next fortnight or so. The weather forecast suggests I have chance. Little Ringed Plover is perhaps the most glaring year list omission at present.

A plan for mid-May on was to comb the Hindhead area for Wood Warbler, where I believe they persist, if only the odd singing male. A report of one on Saturday was great news; a tiring dip the following morning not so much. Given the weather on Saturday, and other records of Wood Warbler on passage in the south-east, it seems this bird was just stopping by after all. I’ll be back in May though.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Spring, glorious spring

Having whinged a little in my last post about a lack of bonus species accrued so far this spring for my south-west Surrey year list, it seems good old reverse psychology worked and the past week has borne witness to many a handy addition, as well as some super, sunny spring sights while pootling around locally on bike and foot.

With the warm, sunny days and strong headwinds, there have been autumn-like figures of Wheatears locally.

The weather hasn’t exactly been ideal for local migration, apart from excellent conditions on Friday afternoon and Saturday, but it has been changeable – sometimes that’s all you need. Most of the banker species (common summer migrants and such) have been added in the past seven days: Garden Warbler, Swift, Tree Pipit and Nightingale have all made it back to south-west Surrey for 2020, rather early too. I’ve also – at last – managed to connect with Crossbill this year, bumping into a pair (including a singing male) at Hindhead Common.

As well as these likely lads, a few ‘very gettable but will require work and time’ species have had the decency to show themselves, not least Common Sandpiper, which I’ve had at three sites during the past week. Add in Green Sandpiper and Whinchat – which I certainly had down as autumn jobs – then it’s good times.

They don't come much better than spring male Whinchat.

A seasonal surprise: Green Sand is uncommon locally at this time of year.

The icing on the cake, though, has been a trio of super bonus birds (for these parts at least): Little Gull, Arctic Tern and Shelduck. And on that icing atop the cake there has even been a few decorations, with some generally lovely local action, including some marked diurnal passerine migration.

Probably the best outing came on Friday. After days of sunny, clear skies and high pressure, the forecast had showers pencilled in for the afternoon – with continuing north-easterlies to boot. I chose to not take my exercise session that morning, waiting for the weather to arrive. It eventually came, and a very tiring cycle to Frensham truly delivered.

Little Gull (top) and Arctic Tern – bonuses in a big way at Frensham Great Pond.

As I scrambled down to one of the fishing swims on the east side, I could hear the calls of Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns. Upon seeing the water, it was clear hundreds of birds had been forced down by the rain – at least 30 terns and heaps of hirundines (all three species) were zipping over the pond. It didn’t take long to clap eyes on my main desire from this weather and lengthy journey: Little Gull. A dapper adult was cruising around in the torrential rain, which was getting heavier.

One of my favourite species ...

Some Common Tern action. The bottom bird bore a silver ring.

I didn’t want to linger too long and my optics were getting soaked, but it was clear there were a handful of Arctic Terns amid the Commons, with one close-range view of a vocal bird. It wasn’t easy in the conditions, though, and I left it at a very conservative two or more (a couple of other birders visited later and reported a similar number, as well as, rather gallingly, two Black Terns).

A Common Sandpiper on the boat club jetty completed a sweet reward for a lot of soggy effort. I have had further Common Sands at Thursley Common and Tuesley, the latter site also delivering the Green Sandpipers.

A return visit in similar conditions was far less rewarding, though I did connect with my first Swifts of the year (and earliest ever, to boot). As mentioned, a few other common migrants have been clocked up recently. Tree Pipit was scored at Thursley Common, with three birds performing their parachute display flights. Garden Warbler has been noted at three sites now, firstly New Barn, on patch, before others at Hindhead Common and Chiddingfold Forest.

Garden Warbler (top) and Swift have been seen in recent days, the latter my earliest ever in the UK.

The latter site was part of an excellent bike ride on Sunday afternoon. On the avian front, four singing Nightingales headlined – I got some nice recordings of one particularly vocal bird, including the ‘croak’ call. A female Cuckoo was decent, too, but best of all were three rather early Wood White butterflies. These fairy-like beasts were a real treasure to see.

Early Wood Whites at Chiddingfold.
A Roe Deer amid Bluebells.

Shackleford farmland is an area that has really captured my attention over the past 12 months, and has delivered decent birds. It is really coming into its own this spring, though, and seemingly every visit results in at least something of note. The crème de le crème came on Saturday morning, following an almighty shower – a pair of Shelduck, no less, sat rather incongruously on one of the large fields at the north end.

Clearly landing at the first available open space the rain allowed them, this pair were fairly content until the milkman’s van raced up the lane and flushed them. Of course, this species will breed far from water, but it was a truly bizarre record of a species that is rare in south-west Surrey. Bonus indeed.

I'll be surprised if I see Shelduck again in south-west Surrey this year.

As mentioned, Shackleford is on good form, not least for chats and wagtails. I guess the oft-strong headwinds, but nice conditions, have meant the passage of these delightful critters is more notable than usual. Whatever the case, a dapper male Whinchat, a single visit count of 10 Wheatears and Yellow Wagtail and White Wagtail – in a week – are autumn tallies. So, to see these birds in their spring plumage has been a rare treat. No apologies for the below photo-fest.

Wheatears galore.

Mr Whinchat ...

... Mr flavissima ...
... and Mr alba.

Aside from year list additions, super-local birding has been pretty fun, too. Along the river, the best record has been a flyover Redshank at Unstead SF, my first there for 16 years. A short excursion to Loseley Downs delivered an elusive female Redstart – it’s always nice to bump into this species on passage. They always feel ‘rare’.

An elusive female Redstart at Loseley Park.

Sedge Warblers are back along the River Wey now at a couple of sites.

In all a reminder – if ever it was needed – that local is great. I of course look forward to the lockdown lift, so proper birding sessions and much more time in the field is on the cards. But for now, despite these limitations, it’s time to appreciate spring – a time of year I love, but one that has often led me to frustration when solely birding Thorncombe Street in previous years. 131 is the current haul for the south-west Surrey year list, but with few easy additions left to add, things will get tougher from here.