Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Saturday 23 May 2020

Racing around

It’s been a busy and up and down time birding time since my last post. Spring is racing to a close and there have been days in the field recently which have felt like summer downtime, especially when it’s been warm. In terms of the south-west Surrey year list, I’ve managed two ticks, which I’ll take for just over a week in May – one more and I’ll hit my target of desired May additions. Today, I competed in the Mole Valley Bird Race (with a twist), which was great fun.

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
9 Robin Peper Harrow
10 Canada Goose Milford Common
11 Mallard Milford Common
12 Woodpigeon Milford Common
13 Stock Dove Milford Common
14 Cuckoo Milford Common
15 Woodcock Milford Common
16 Buzzard Milford Common
17 Jay Milford Common
18 Magpie Milford Common
19 Jackdaw Milford Common
20 Rook 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
26 Chiffchaff Milford Common
27 Blackcap Milford Common
28 Garden Warbler Milford Common
29 Treecreeper Milford Common
30 Spotted Flycatcher Milford Common
31 Nightingale Milford Common
32 Stonechat Milford Common
33 Chaffinch Milford Common
34 Bullfinch Milford Common
35 Goldfinch Milford Common
36 Collared Dove Milford
37 House Sparrow Milford
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
46 Coot Tuesley Farm
47 Swallow Tuesley Farm
48 Greenfinch Tuesley Farm
49 Green Woodpecker Tuesley Farm
50 Yellowhammer Feathercombe Farm, Hambledon
51 Goldcrest Hydon's Ball
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
56 Firecrest Hydon's Ball
57 Siskin Busbridge Woods
58 Greylag Goose Winkworth Arboretum
59 Grey Wagtail Winkworth Arboretum
60 Dunnock 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
66 Mandarin Unstead SF
67 Cormorant Unstead SF
68 Sparrowhawk Unstead SF
69 Kingfisher Unstead SF
70 Sedge Warbler Unstead SF
71 Reed Warbler Unstead SF
72 Reed Bunting Unstead SF
73 Starling Unstead SF
74 Feral Pigeon Unstead Water Meadows
75 Cetti's Warbler ***
76 Great Crested Grebe Broadwater Lake
77 Lesser Whitethroat Binscombe
78 Swift Farncombe
79 Peregrine ***
80 Red-crested Pochard Snowdenham Mill Pond
81 Red Kite Thorncombe Street
82 Woodlark Thorncombe Street
83 Linnet Thorncombe Street
84 Hobby ***
85 Herring Gull Tuesley Farm
86 Egyptian Goose Loseley
87 Raven Loseley
88 Kestrel Loseley

Thursday 14 May 2020

Little secrets

South-west Surrey is full of little secrets. Without doubt it’s the same in south-central Surrey, south-east Surrey, north Sussex and so on – great swathes of inland countryside in south-east England is poorly birded. The last week has provided several surprises locally, all of which only spur one on to dig deeper for even more hidden delights.

A displaying Turtle Dove easily makes for one of the moments of the year.

I’ve long held the suspicion that the outer reaches of Surrey retain Turtle Doves. A handful of patch flyovers during the last four years are one reason why. They certainly persist in north Sussex and there are some slivers of suitable habitat remaining in my part of the world.

What I didn’t quite suspect, however, is that an apparent small population remains. In easily one of my most memorable moments of the year, I heard and observed at least two displaying male Turtle Doves in a very quiet and remote spot. Further visits have confirmed there are as many as four birds present – how fantastic, in this day of constant, all-knowing news and information, that such a hidden treasure could remain largely a mystery. I shall keep a close eye on them this summer, and have a long list of other suitable sites to look for Turtle Dove, too.

Hopefully this species can hang on in relative peace and quiet in Surrey.

That it should be a most handy south-west Surrey year tick is largely an irrelevance. But, that it was, and was one of four accrued this past week. The first – number 135 – was a species I was sure I’d missed the boat for: Little Ringed Plover. The day after my Greenshank success I visited Frensham Great Pond very early, before the outdoors swimmers could get to the beach. A Common Sandpiper was a nice reward – a Little Ringed Plover stood beside it was even better.

These beach boys made for an unexpected double act at Frensham.

The date (6 May) seemed rather late for this classic early spring migrant – could a pair be breeding nearby? Whatever the case, it was a lovely surprise, but still wasn’t as unexpected as the scenes the following day. Having heard late news of an Oystercatcher (of all things!) on the Lammas Lands at Catteshall Meadow, I headed down there, despite being aware that this would-be year tick had flown off hours ago (late news isn’t ideal when doing a local year list …).

Indeed, no Oyc, but there was another male Little Ringed Plover. In the middle of a very warm and busy afternoon by the river, it seemed most odd, but I didn’t really tussle with it – presumably there was a late push of LRPs going on. A few folk connected with it that evening … and then, on Sunday night, Sam J had a male LRP in the same spot.

I didn't expect to see LRP a couple of roads away from where I live.

This was too much of a coincidence and it didn’t take long to work out that there must be a female nearby. The habitat on the Lammas Lands isn’t suitable, but we’ve identified a couple of nearby sites that look fine. They shall be explored in due course now that lockdown has been partially lifted …

I finally got Hobby on my year list this past week, with the pair on my patch present and correct in the usual spot. I’ve since had singles at Shackleford and Unstead SF. Spotted Flycatcher was the last entry of the week – number 138 – when I noted one at Winkworth Arboretum yesterday morning, a site I hadn’t visited for many weeks.

A couple of Thorncombe Street classics ...

A greater surprise came this morning, with a singing male and (presumed) female knocking about together at The Hurtwood. I think Spotfly must be one of the most under-recorded breeding species in Surrey. The Hurtwood is a classic example of outer Surrey no-mans-land (not to be confused with Hurtwood, near Cranleigh). It has no ornithological history or records to its name, yet this morning in an hour-long walk I recorded the Spotted Flycatchers, two Crossbills (only my second of the year in south-west Surrey), eight or more Siskins (including a singing male), Tree Pipit, Woodlark, two Willow Warblers and two Cuckoos.

Some record shots from The Hurtwood, one of Surrey's murkiest backwaters.

There will be other, unloved and unchecked sites like this, too. That list of species includes some rather noteworthy records for May (chiefly Siskin, which is surely another under-recorded but regular breeder in the High Weald). It looks good for Nightjar as well, which is next on my hit list.

To wrap up the under-the-radar breeders theme, on Sunday I had arguably the most bizarre record of the lot – two Hawfinches at Thursley Common. The pair were flying fairly low north-west and calling … where on earth had they come from and where were they going? This unobtrusive finch is another that surely breeds most years in outer Surrey. Like Crossbill, it was only my second record of the year, and was part of my best ever species haul for a Thursley visit: 53.

Other bits this week have been fairly standard. Milford has gone quiet, with a couple of Common Sands prior to this grim run of cold northerlies. I think spring wader passage has probably packed up here, but I won’t give up yet. The Shackleford Wheatear conveyor belt continued to push out individuals until 9th – surely my last of spring. This site too has gone rather quiet, as we slip closer to summer.

Some Shackleford action ...

... and some Unstead SF action, with a cryptic Lapwing to boot ...
Unstead SF has been a slog. A late Yellow Wagtail was nice, as was the first Sand Martin and Peregrine of the year 10th. Sam and I did a casual warbler census here on 12th (him the afternoon at the north end, me the morning at the south) with the scores on the doors 16 Blackcaps, 13 Whitethroats, 6 Chiffchaffs, 5 Garden Warblers, 4 Reed Warblers and 1 Sedge Warbler. I also managed a Cuckoo (my first of the year at Unstead), but Sam returned the serve and won the point with a Grizzled Skipper. A Cuckoo heard from my flat on 8th was of note too …

... before finishing with some Thursley record shot spectaculars (Tree Pipit and Little Egrets) as well as some spring loveliness from Frensham (Mallard family).

Also on 8th, two Little Egrets over Thursley was a site tick. I’ve concentrated my passage goodie efforts here but it looks like a blank in terms of something decent. Indeed, as we exit the magic last week of April and first fortnight of May, it looks like spring will depart without a biggy in south-west Surrey, with the Hoopoe and Black Kite influx apparently passing this part of the county by. There’s still time, though, and when this blocking northerly shifts over the weekend I anticipate one last throw of the spring dice.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Stop! Wader time

As April rolls all too quickly into May, the business end of spring passage peaks, certainly on a local level. The final week of April and first fortnight of May is generally deemed the best time for rare and scarce to turn up in inland counties – and a look at recent Surrey records, including a Black Kite and two Hoopoes, reaffirms this. For myself, chasing the magic 150 in south-west Surrey, it’s time to stop worrying about when I’ll get Hobby on my year list and focus on bonuses; if I don’t get them now, there will be scant other opportunities. Thankfully, we’re hitting peak inland wader passage, and it is this department that has brought my two year ticks this past week, taking me to 134.

A close encounter with a sum-plum Greenshank – a spring highlight for sure.

The first of these long-legged bonus beasts came last Wednesday. Following a day of showers and north-east wind, it was perhaps inevitable some waders would be on the deck the next day and a private site near Milford delivered, with two Whimbrels at first light. I’ve actually managed to see this species in south-west Surrey (all at Thorncombe Street) in each of the previous three years, as well as in 2015, and it is a relatively expected inland wader on passage.

Still, to enjoy these two birds in the deck (albeit briefly) was quite special, and only the third site record. Soon they started vocalising frequently and decided to continue north, probably to Iceland. The wonder of long-distance migration will never cease to amaze me.

Two Whimbrels stop off briefly during a colossal journey to northern breeding grounds.

The site was otherwise quiet this week, save two Common Sandpipers, before delivering in style last night during promising conditions for waders – a Greenshank in super-spangled summer dress. This is a far harder wader to connect with around here than Whimbrel and, at least as a daytime bird, averages between one to four records a year in south-west Surrey, normally flyovers.

It was an unexpectedly relaxed Greenshank, despite getting grief from the raucous gulls.

Three Common Sands looked like they were mentally preparing for another gruelling leg of a journey ...

To boot, it was a super tame beast, happily resting on the shore and clearly gearing up for a night flight to northern climes. Three Common Sands were doing the same. Despite the odd bit of grief from the local Black-headed Gulls, after which it would fly up high and land again, it was quite happily settled in a locale not befitting its elegant appearance. Always a joy to see … hopefully there will be one final wader bonus this spring.

As we’re in bonus season, I’ve tried to focus on sites that either feel rare or have historic form … this has led to most daily outings taking place at Thursley or Shackleford. The former site has yet to deliver, but the local cast renders it a genuine pleasure to walk the site on any spring morning. I finally hit 50 species on a visit for the first time one morning (51 in all), with highlights including a Wheatear at Pudmore and a late (or breeding) Siskin.  Nothing special, but the list of good birds found here in springs gone by will always tempt me back. A selection of recent Thursley moments below …

As eye-catching as a Surrey summer visitor comes.

Garden Warbler giving it welly near Parish Field.

A nice Greenland Wheatear from the boardwalk ...

Some Cuckoo action, including two games of 'where's Colin?'

Shackleford is slowly winding down for summer, you feel, and I get the sense this is a site that is at its best during passage. That said, last Wednesday I had what was probably the ‘peak’ spring day, following dawn showers: a male Whinchat, a Tree Pipit flushed from the alfalfa field (my first there), two Wheatears and a steady passage of hirundines.

Other good bits at the ‘Love Shack’ this past week have included Firecrest, Garden Warbler, Peregrine and more Cuckoos, as well as my first Mandarin at the site, as many as three more Wheatears (25+ here this spring!) and a very late Meadow Pipit. Shackleford photos below ...

It's been a Wheatear-fest at Shackleford this spring ...

... three Whinchat records isn't bad either.

Pleased with this heard first, seen second and just about photographed third Tree Pipit.

A Swallow taking a rest from the insect bounty.

The final of my regular patches away from patch, Unstead SF, has been very quiet. A few Garden Warblers, Swifts and an odd record of a Lapwing on the Lagoon have been the only birds of note. The river has been a little better, and yesterday no fewer than six Garden Warblers sang between Eashing and Milton Wood, a wonderful spot that looks fine for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher and indeed had Marsh Tit (one). Closer to Godalming, a flyover Cuckoo and Tufted Duck were of note.

As noted by many, it really has been a great spring for sylvias, especially Garden Warbler around here. Four at New Barn, on my sole visit to the patch, was a good count. Other notable sightings this past week include a Yellowhammer over Crooksbury Common (a good record per Jeremy G) and a pleasant haul at the central section of Chiddingfold Forest, namely eight Nightingales, two Cuckoos, Marsh Tit, four Willow Warblers and Yellowhammer. Noc-mig continues to be quiet, though another Oystercatcher was notable.

It's been a good spring for Common Sandpiper (top) and Garden Warbler.

 I still await my first Hobby and Spotted Flycatcher – Sam J, back in the area for a few weeks managed both within 24 hours of returning! His return to the area will doubtless result in good birds found. And hopefully there will be a few more, to compliment the pleasing spring so far in south-west Surrey.