|Only one site within a 5 km radius of my home has Woodlarks, but it delivered the goods during a bird race.|
However, the last week or so started with frustration on Friday 15th. I had not long been on a ludicrously cold (1 celsius, frost) Witley Common (on the Amphibian and Reptile Reserve), where a unseasonal Lesser Redpoll and a pair of Siskins had caught my attention. A phone call from Jeremy G revealed news of a Hoopoe not far away at The Sands, where it had flown over his head!
This was the south-west Surrey year tick bonus I was waiting for – and a SWS lifer to boot – so I raced over. The bird had flown low north towards Farnham Golf Course, the perfect locale for a probing critter like this. However, long story short, a lengthy search of here and other nearby spots yielded nothing, and I rued both the fact I’d failed to relocate it and that it hadn’t been my head it had flown over …
That’s birding though, and I sought solace in the fact that my searching had led me to a smart looking piece of farmland near Seale. I spent the afternoon at Unstead SF, finally checking ‘The Dump’ for the first time, but the best bird was in fact a butterfly – it seems a small Grizzled Skipper colony resides here.
|A Surrey Siskin nest.|
That Siskin duo had me intrigued, so I was back at the ARC reserve at Witley on Saturday. After a bit of a hunt, I was absolutely chuffed to locate the nest, high up in a Scot’s Pine – my first Siskin nest find! Jeremy was on the scene not long later and confirmed that four well-developed young were in the nest. Good stuff, and further proof that this species is seriously underappreciated as a Surrey breeding bird – I’ve had them at seven sites in SWS this month.
A look at Witley Common proper somehow delivered the expected heathland species, but lord knows how, as the habitat management here is so poor with birch and pine invading the heath. The curious population of Yellowhammers remains, too, with four males on territory. The weekend was otherwise moderate, save a nice count of five Yellowhammers at Loxhill farmland, confirmation of four fledged Ravens at a nest in the High Weald, a Common Sandpiper near Milford and nailing down four male Turtle Doves across two sites.
|It's been a good spring for Common Sandpiper. Always a joy to chance upon one.|
I was supposed to be in Finland and north Norway this week, but circumstances meant I was working on Monday morning, after exploring Buss’s and Hambledon Commons for curiosities sake early on (Marsh Tit, Cuckoo and Willow Warbler the only birds of note, but admirable work has gone on to create some OK looking heather and gorse areas). I was sat on my laptop when a BirdGuides alert informed me of a Red-footed Falcon at Thursley … !
Despite its mega status in Surrey, this is a bird I have not just seen in the county before, but in south-west Surrey (the lingering first-summer male at Frensham Common in 2017). In any other year I wouldn’t think twice about racing to an inevitably busy Thursley. But, I figured, if I’m serious about hitting 150, I had to go for this beast.
What followed in the next three hours was a woeful dip, which gradually got worse as the state of the discovery was revealed. It turned out the falcon had been showing like a dream over Pudmore for an hour and a half before news got out! The people who located it first didn’t know what it was, or weren’t certain, and simply watched it until a birder walked past, IDed it and submitted it to BirdGuides.
|One of four falcon species seen at Thursley on Monday and Tuesday.|
So, I (and Dave B, the top Thursley gent) could have been and seen it by the time news went out. As we sat on Shrike Hill with Joe H and Sam J, I couldn’t help but wonder why, after all my hours in the field this spring, I couldn’t have been the one to bump into such a momentous Surrey bird. But, again, that’s birding … and ultimately the great company atop Shrike Hill and Thursley ticks of Peregrine, Common Tern and Mandarin (!) made for a bearable dip. We also had distant views of what, in hindsight shared by us all, was surely the Redfoot.
As well as this, a Nightjar decided to start churring at about 7 pm – my first of the year and number 139 for 2020. I was back on the common the next morning, with a hot day forecast. Again, I largely teamed up with the other three but, during a seven-hour vigil, only two of us got on the Red-footed Falcon at any time. I was mightily relieved, though it was a bit gutting for Dave and Sam.
Several other birders connected that day before it went AWOL until Thursday – clearly this bird is feeding high up most of the time in the perfect conditions and is probably roaming around the adjacent heaths too. Despite our lengthy watch we didn’t have much else, save at least eight Hobbies and another daytime churring Nightjar.
|I didn't take many photos this week, and zero good ones.|
So, 140 up, and I got my spring bonus. But having not found it and it not being a SWS lifer, it was a bit underwhelming. Anyway, one more May bird will leave me on 141 and, I believe, in with a shout of hitting 150 by the end of the year. There’s no denying it gets a lot harder from here, though.
Until today, other outings have involved raptor watches from various lookouts, the odd Common Sand at Milford, a failed look for Wood Warbler in the Hindhead area and a combined Nightjar survey with Sam at Hankley Common (he did the north end, I did the south, and in total we had 19 birds including at least 17 males – listen here).
It was gutting to see the huge alfalfa crop at Shackleford mown down, in the middle of breeding season. Despite this area of farmland being superbly managed, and the farmer passionate about wildlife, business is business and wrecking loads of Skylark nests considered necessary – on Thursday I had 2 Skylarks; on 26 April I had 25+ and wrote in my notes: ‘25 at least. Really are phenomenal numbers here ... plenty of birds taking food into the alfalfa field.’ Grim stuff.
|You know autumn's coming when the first non-breeding scarcer wildfowl return to Mill Pond ...|
On patch, Snowdenham Mill Pond has returned to a bit of form with recent appearances from Gadwall and Red-crested Pochard ...
Today was supposed to be Mole Valley Bird Race Day. I would have been in Finland normally, but with everything going on David S devised a crafty alternative: teams could compete as per usual, but only within a 5 km radius of their own homes. They’d then combine their efforts to produce a team total score, as well as have their own, ‘singles’ tallies. The birding had to be green, too – on foot or bike. Also, it would finish at 12 pm, not the usual 8 pm.
Having fully embraced my wider local area and explored many news spots during the last year or two, I relished the idea. However, 5 km was limiting for me – if it was 5 miles, I could have included the mighty Thursley Common (plus a couple of other superb commons), a couple of handy High Weald hills, all of my patch and a large part of my favoured Low Weald farmland and woodland sites.
|My 5 km area.|
That said, the 5 km limit meant I had to think outside the box a little and, with some planning the night before, I figured 80 species would be a very pleasing target. So, in reaching 88, I was delighted. Easily the most satisfactory thing (which probably will be the colossal distance racked up, though it doesn’t feel great as I write this!) was being able to put my relatively good knowledge of the local area to 'use’.
It meant I had a long site list, as oppose to a site with a long list – I needed to go to site A for species, X, site B for species Y etc. I actually have no proper heaths in my 5 km radius, but Milford Common was an ample pre-dawn starting place, with Cuckoo, Nightingale, Woodcock and Spotted Flycatcher all my only records of these species during the race. Prior to this I’d dipped Barn Owl but scored Little.
|Buntings are one of my favourite families of bird. This Reed Bunt was cheering me on during the bird race.|
Next up was Tuesley where, with great fortune, a Common Sandpiper was present. The usual waterbirds found here boosted the list, as did a ‘Brucey Bonus’ flyover Lesser Black-backed Gull. My only Yellowhammer site then delivered near Hydestile, before Hydon’s Ball underwhelmed a bit, despite providing a daylight singing Tawny Owl and my only Willow Warbler. Siskin was picked up while cycling through Busbridge Woods – I’d have missed it if I was in a car.
Winkworth then conjured up Marsh Tit and Grey Wagtail, before two Gadwall were thankfully still lingering at Snowdenham Mill Pond. Weirdly, my only Nuthatches and Grey Heron of the day came at Bramley Park Lake. Unstead really delivered – the two acros, Reed Bunting, Sparrowhawk and Kingfisher all logged, the latter at a previously located nest (it can be a hard race bird).
|The view from Hydon's Ball. My last visit, in March 2019, yielded Crossbills but there were none today.|
Unstead Water Meadows, Broadwater Lake and Binscombe were all treated to flying visits, and each one delivered their required species (another Kingfisher was at the former site). This was a relief as, with the wind picking up it was important to get the key passerines in the bag. The last couple of hours were tiring, and spent mainly on patch where Woodlark, Hobby, Red Kite, Linnet and, best of all, Red-crested Pochard, all fell.
With my last heaves of energy, a second check of Tuesley delivered Herring Gull – I’ve never been so pleased to see one. I then collapsed in a heap at Loseley for the final half hour, but it proved wise, with Egyptian Goose, Kestrel and Raven all being added in the final minutes.
|A precious late score in the race.|
All good fun and, if it happens again in this format, I’m sure a better time of year, better weather and an earlier start could see 90 reached for my little area. In total our team scored 115 – pretty good going, but helped significantly by Matt having Pulborough Brooks in his back garden! Below is my complete list, for the sake of posterity (and also for reference if I ever do this again).
|1||Skylark||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|2||Mistle Thrush||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|3||Wren||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|4||Blackbird||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|5||Song Thrush||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|6||Whitethroat||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|7||Pheasant||Lydling Farm, Shackleford|
|8||Little Owl||Peper Harrow|
|10||Canada Goose||Milford Common|
|13||Stock Dove||Milford Common|
|21||Carrion Crow||Milford Common|
|22||Coal Tit||Milford Common|
|23||Blue Tit||Milford Common|
|24||Great Tit||Milford Common|
|25||Long-tailed Tit||Milford Common|
|28||Garden Warbler||Milford Common|
|30||Spotted Flycatcher||Milford Common|
|38||Tufted Duck||Tuesley Farm|
|39||Mute Swan||Tuesley Farm|
|40||Black-headed Gull||Tuesley Farm|
|41||Pied Wagtail||Tuesley Farm|
|42||Common Tern||Tuesley Farm|
|43||Common Sandpiper||Tuesley Farm|
|44||Lesser Black-backed Gull||Tuesley Farm|
|45||Little Grebe||Tuesley Farm|
|49||Green Woodpecker||Tuesley Farm|
|50||Yellowhammer||Feathercombe Farm, Hambledon|
|52||Willow Warbler||Hydon's Ball|
|53||House Martin||Hydon's Ball|
|54||Tawny Owl||Hydon's Ball|
|55||Great Spotted Woodpecker||Hydon's Ball|
|58||Greylag Goose||Winkworth Arboretum|
|59||Grey Wagtail||Winkworth Arboretum|
|61||Marsh Tit||Winkworth Arboretum|
|62||Gadwall||Snowdenham Mill Pond|
|63||Moorhen||Snowdenham Mill Pond|
|64||Grey Heron||Bramley Park Lake|
|65||Nuthatch||Bramley Park Lake|
|70||Sedge Warbler||Unstead SF|
|71||Reed Warbler||Unstead SF|
|72||Reed Bunting||Unstead SF|
|74||Feral Pigeon||Unstead Water Meadows|
|76||Great Crested Grebe||Broadwater Lake|
|80||Red-crested Pochard||Snowdenham Mill Pond|
|81||Red Kite||Thorncombe Street|
|85||Herring Gull||Tuesley Farm|