Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Thursday, 25 June 2020

Two from II and some poor list keeping

If it wasn’t for two blockbuster Surrey megas in the past 10 days this post wouldn’t be here – after all, it’s late June and birding is at its lowest ebb of the year, certainly inland. However, if ever there need for proof of the ‘expect the unexpected mantra’ then a county second and eighth in quick succession are just that …

A Surrey mega flies into the distance ... 

Last Tuesday, I’d been out on Thorncombe Street with Jeremy and Rob, ringing raptor nests. It was good fun and many thanks to Stephen Godwin-Austen for allowing us to go off-piste on his land. During the session, we also noted two Crossbills, a rather territorial Spotted Flycatcher and three each of Firecrest and Siskin

The ringing was productive, although the young inside the Red Kite nest we hoped to get to were too developed to try for without a great chance they’d fly. I was back home and working when I received an ominous ‘call me’ message from Dave H – as sure a sign as you’ll get that it’s time to power up the A3 to Walton-on-Thames! 

A young Red Kite sits upon its rubbish-lined home.

I got there in the nick of time. On site for little under 10 minutes, and having enjoyed decent ‘scope and bins views, the mega in question – a first-summer Bonaparte’s Gull – suddenly got flighty. It settled on the water, before getting up again and this time disappearing to the north-east.

It was all over in a flash. The bird seemed pretty settled, with its fine, black bill and bubblegum pink legs. It had come down in a mighty thunderstorm which, for me, simply adds to the awesomeness of the record. It was only my second ‘Boney’ this side of the Atlantic and my first young bird. I must say compared to the adult I’d previously seen, this individual seemed much daintier and more like a Little Gull.

There is one accepted Surrey record of Bonaparte’s Gull, also a young bird, at the then Barn Elms Reservoirs on 29 January 1983. This bird was present briefly and seen by a rather, lets say, notorious London birder. I wouldn’t be surprised if it one day gets recirculated by the BBRC and binned, rendering this 2020 individual a first for Surrey.

The first-summer Bonaparte's Gull, a bird that could go down
in Surrey folklore.

Only six days had passed when another text appeared from Dave, this time as I was completing a walk of Shackleford farmland – conveniently close to the A3. Within 30 minutes or so my second Surrey tick in a week (and fourth since 31 May!) was in view: Roseate Tern. This pale-plumaged and fully black-billed bird was in flight for just a couple of minutes before disappearing amid a sudden spookage of gulls. 

Thankfully though, later on, I was able to enjoy better views. Roseate Tern is a species I’ve only seen twice and on each occasion it was either distant or brief. Both were many years ago. So, while this bird wasn’t exactly a shower (and I annoyingly failed to get on the deck views like most others), it was still nice to enjoy and soak up all the features in flight, not least the aforementioned pale white plumage, and long tail and short wings (recalling Swallow or even Ring-necked Parakeet, I found!).

The eighth for Surrey, and there have only been four since the early 1970s – all from 2005 on and at the same site, found by the same observer. And on that note, a huge, huge thanks for Dave. I certainly won’t be able to repay the top Surrey lister back with an equal number of additions to his county list, but I remain hugely grateful.

Wind, distance and haze combined to limit me to very low-quality
 record shots of the Roseate Tern.

My list keeping has never been great. I love a day list, a session list and patch lists, but my world, UK and county life lists have been stored rather haphazardly in spreadsheets – only my WP list has received careful scrutiny. However, since I started using eBird last year I’ve slowly been uploading all my old notebooks, including my first, toddler-version one from 1999. 

This has allowed for a gradually filling in of gaps. While uploading data the other day, I noticed my Surrey and London lists didn’t align with my county spreadsheet list as I thought (eBird doesn’t use the vice-county boundary). Long and boring story short, I’d somehow neglected to add Grey Partridge to my spreadsheet list, despite seeing several in the county. So, this turned into a welcome (albeit rather silly) armchair tick and, with the QE11 double, I’m now on 216 for the vice-county.

Other birding this past week or so has been quiet, naturally, but amazingly another south-west Surrey year tick was accrued (144). This weirdly came while I was nursing a hangover at home on Saturday – an Oystercatcher shrieked overhead. A Starling, surely, I thought. It called again, closer, and again, even closer … I raced to the nearest window and there it was, hurtling south. Rather bizarre, but this species has already been ‘noc-migged’ twice over the flat this year, and I’ve heard them here before. June seems to be a curiously good month for them in Surrey, too. A later check of Tuesley Res didn’t reveal it, sadly.

Elsewhere, I was made up to encounter a juvenile Turtle Dove at one of the three sites I’ve had birds this summer. This individual had me puzzled for a bit as it sat on a telephone wire, but it soon clicked. This species has been written off as a Surrey bird for several years now, but clearly they hang on in the far reaches of our county. This year, I’ve had a bare minimum of seven birds (including one obvious male and female pair) and three sites. Good times.

Males of Silver-studded Blue (top) and Golden-ringed Dragonfly
at Thursley.

Last night, a walk at Thursley with Sam didn’t produce the desired Red-backed Shrike, nor much else to be honest. Indeed, the highlights were an emergence of Silver-studded Blue and a couple of Golden-ringed Dragonlies, as well as three vocalising Water Rails on Pudmore (where they have bred this year). The aftermath of the fire is still pretty grim, at least on Ockley Common, but much of the high-quality heathland habitat was unscathed.

The Shackleford Quail looks like it’s moved on, last heard on 22nd (and unsuccessfully looked for last night), staying just over a week. I can’t believe it’s stayed this long. While enjoying what would be my last time with the Quail, pre-Roseate twitch, I was treated to a classic weird late June Reed Warbler record. 

I get these just about annually (last year in my neighbour’s garden!) – I think it’s unpaired, young males that have failed to hold a territory, as oppose to late and lost arrivals. Anyway, this one was blasting out its sulking song from a hawthorn hedge, announcing itself as my 91st Shackleford bird since I started visiting the site last year.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Having a quail of a time

June is normally the quietest birding month for me, more often than not spent watching an international football tournament and not getting in the field much. However, 2020 has been different, and much to be surprise I've actually managed two additions to my south-west Surrey big year in the past few days.

The best of these two came yesterday morning at Shackleford, a site I’ve been telling everyone all spring looks good for Quail. After the big alfalfa field was cut in mid-May – to both my and the resident Skylarks horror – spells of rain since have meant it’s come roaring back. The larks are back breeding in the same numbers too. It’s a particularly favoured walk and run site for my partner, and she fancied doing a circuit before breakfast.

Inevitably no photos of the Quail, so here's a view of the alfalfa field at Shackleford.

As we pulled up on the track, I thought I heard a distant snatch of Quail from the car, something my girlfriend commented on too. I immediately opened the door and heard it loud and clear – a Quail singing from the alfalfa crop. Excellent stuff. We roughly located it and had a listen before I put the news out. It wasn’t long before Kit and Sam arrived and, by the end of the day, it seems there was a steady flow of visitors – perhaps unsurprising for what was apparently the first twitchable Quail in Surrey for nine years.

It seemed to favour the centre of the alfalfa. As masters of ventriloquism, often it would sound like multiple birds were singing from different spots, but the reality is the wind direction and speed combined with the biological design of the species’ song (which needs to carry long distances in big, wide landscapes) were behind this. Check out a poor quality (thanks to the wind) recording here and read a little more about this apparent 'Quail year' here.

To boot, it was a Surrey lifer – number 213 and hot on the heels of the Horley Rosy Starling. As many as 120 Common Starlings have been collecting at Shackleford recently and are one reason why I’ve persisted with visiting during the quiet summer period … nothing pink yet, though. So, Shackleford delivers yet again, this wonderful site less than 10 minutes from home coughing up its second county rarity in little more than a year of watching.

Raven family hanging out in the June sunshine.

The other big bonus from early June has been Grasshopper Warbler, a bird that has surprisingly revealed itself to be, apparently, an annual breeder locally. Having found a reeling male on Saturday I was rather astonished to locate a juvenile a few days later! The site was used last year but, with no sign all spring, it seemed there was no birds this year.

However, what seems the most plausible theory is that both the male and female returned at similar times in April and the male sang for perhaps a day or two only, before they got down to breeding. Presumably now, with the first brood fledged, the female is sitting on clutch number two. All rather exciting – it’s extraordinary how some birds can be present right under our noses without us knowing.

Yellowish underparts, light throat streaking and an obvious gape line indicate this bird is a first-year.

In terms of the year list, then, I now stand on 143, at pretty much the halfway point of the year. Ring Ouzel seems the only likely addition from hereon in, but there are a handful of other entirely possible species (Golden Plover, Dunlin etc) that could rock up. These two recent June bonuses could end up making all the difference …

Otherwise, things have been steady locally. A couple of walks around the Loxhill countryside recently have yielded proof of Nightingale breeding (rather curiously in a young conifer plantation) and the successful fledging of five juvenile Ravens. At Unstead SF, a third male Reed Warbler has turned up – sadly no Blyth’s Reed or Marsh for me, but not for lack of trying. The Stonechat pair are still in South Meadow too.

Avocet on Ferry Pool, Sidlesham.

On 6th I met up with David C at Pagham Harbour. We mainly caught up and birding was a bit of a sideshow in very breezy conditions. Nevertheless, it was nice to see breeding Little and Sandwich Terns for the year, as well as Little Ringed Plover and 22 Avocets among 64 species.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

A grand finale

To me, June always signals the end of the exciting spring birding season. This is inaccurate, really, as many overshoots can still appear right through the month. But the intensity of daily sessions in the field will soon fizzle away, for a few weeks at least, until the first returning and failed waders will begin to appear from July. It’s been a long old spring this year but if we are in the final throws, then there was a grand finale this week.

This Marsh Warbler was a most welcome surprise in Kent.

Perhaps the highlight came when – while social distancing of course – I ventured out of the county for the first time since March, teaming up with Sam J on the north Kent coast. A very early start paid off, with flight views of Cattle Egret and a seemingly migrant Turtle Dove, before the real reward was picked up not by eyes, but ears: a singing Marsh Warbler.

We enjoyed cracking views of this apparently fresh-in individual.

We’d essentially twitched the weather for this sort of discovery, with gentle north-east winds reaching from central Europe overnight, combined with dawn cloud. We were treated to superb views of this, perhaps the most intense and fascinating songster in Europe (and beyond?), picking out various mimicked species which varied from Goldfinch and Blackbird to Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Black-backed Puffback. Listen here for some song. I’ll upload more recordings to Xeno-Canto in time.

From the time we found the warbler we both knew we’d be unlikely to top a county rarity, but still had a most enjoyable day, with other notable species including late singles of Knot and Greenshank and breeding, non-Surrey delights such as Corn Bunting, Marsh Harrier and Yellow Wagtail. Very nice.

One of several breeding Yellow Wagtails ...

A shy Greenshank, much unlike my recent one at Tuesley.

 Singing Corn Bunting. A species I'd love in Surrey.

A Lapwing chick, one of several seen.

A dapper sum-plum Med Gull.

The rough-edged beauty of the North Kent Marshes.

Avocets were in good supply.

A non-reedbed Reed Warbler.

Sam was a lot more excited by this Hairy Dragonfly than I was.

This morning another warbler took the limelight, this time much closer to home – a hyper-territorial male Wood Warbler. This bird was singing and display flighting like crazy and, much to my surprise, ended up chasing a second bird around several times. I guess it may have been a non-vocalising male, but a female seems more likely (and more exciting, too).

The High Weald population of Wood Warbler is essentially extinguished, but males do turn up every year or so and sing, usually very late in the season. Have they failed elsewhere and, on the way south, dropped into the once apparently perfectly suitable habitat in this part of the world? It’s a mystery. But it’s also seemingly a species to keep on the June radar in the future. A recording is here.

This active male Wood Warbler was tricky to photograph as it flitted around under the canopy.

Unsurprisingly, given COVID-19, I haven’t managed any Surrey lifers this year. So, it was nice to finally get off the mark on Sunday when news broke that the Rosy Starling invasion had reached the county. The bird, which I make out to be an adult female, was frequenting feeders and water in a private garden near Horley, close to the Sussex border.

Having chatted to the homeowner (Christine) prior to setting off, it was agreed I could take a look, but when I arrived the bird had last been seen an hour and a half ago, when it flew east. My plan was for a quick look here and then to the surrounding area, so it was quite nice to locate the bird sat rather motionless in a bush in said garden on the first binoculars scan.

The shorter crest, duller plumage and brownish colouring on the back suggests the Horley Rosy Starling was a female.

A couple of intrepid Surrey birders had craftily worked out where the house was based on the initial tweet from Christine, but had been turned away. Once it was relocated, Christine very kindly allowed them to come and look and, for an hour or so, we were all treated to cracking views (albeit into the sun, hence the poor photos) of this Surrey mega – the 14th, in fact, and first since 2008. 

It initially looked rather unwell but eventually perked up, feeding away, before bolting off to the east, not to be seen again. Hopefully another one or two show up and become available to the masses. I’m now 212 up for the vice-county – what will be next? A big thanks to Christine too, for her understanding and general friendliness!

My 212th Surrey bird.

There hasn’t been heaps else to report, apart form the above. I’ll quickly whizz through some highlights, in chronological order … on 24th, a Lapwing pair at Painshill Farm, Dunsfold, teased at the idea of late breeders, but subsequent observations of singles at Shackleford (29th) and Unstead SF (30th) point to post- or failed breeding dispersal being underway, which does (sadly) tend to happen early in the season around here.

On 25th I was awoken by a Willow Warbler – not what one expects to be singing in Farncombe. Later that morning another fun trip to The Hurtwood yielded a surprise Nightingale, a Crossbill, food-carrying Tree Pipit and the Spotted Flycatcher pair. Another Spot fly was at Golden Valley the following day. And on that subject, if you want to see Spotted Flycatcher in Surrey, check out my brief article for Surrey Bird Club here. Another Crossbill was at Hindhead Golf Club on 27th and it’s safe to say this species is now back in business in the Surrey Hills, after a woeful winter. 

One species that has become a bit of a revelation during my travels this spring is Yellowhammer – a common bird in Low Weald farmland! While walking the Hambledon area on 30th I tallied no fewer than 14, a great total for late May. Nine of these were along a 0.8 km stretch of the Greensand Way between St Peter's Church and Vann Hill. Only two females were seen, both at Court Farm – one nest building and one taking grit from the path. But surely at least a few are sitting at the moment.

A showy Yellowhammer at Hambledon.

A visit to Unstead SF on 31st revealed the Stonechat pair that have been there and on Unstead Water Meadows during the past few months and they seem to be breeding. The female was busily collecting food, while the male mobbed nearby corvids. My guess is that the nest is somewhere in the South Meadow …

This male Stonechat seems to be part of pair which are the first to knowingly breed at Unstead SF.

Finally, it’d be wrong to not comment on the recent fire at Thursley Common, one of my ‘special’ places. The human pressure on the site is simply too much nowadays – even during the past five years, the clear increase in recreational visitors is alarming. It is now, at times, akin to a London park – dogs off leads, groups of joggers and cyclists yelling to each other, kids running off the paths, people having BBQs … I have had more than one heated conversation with arrogant dog owners (who are the minority, I might add) this spring.

Natural England have to act or the common (which is a flipping SSSI and RAMSAR site!) is in long-term trouble. Since lockdown was eased, the car park has often been full by 9 am. I’d say that eight or nine out of ten visitors come to simply ‘walk the boardwalk’. A full-time warden (at least during the summer) or halving the size of the car park seem like sensible ways to go. Some 25% of the common was lost in the blaze and it’ll take two or three years to recover. Who knows how popular the site will be by then. It might sound miserable, but I look forward to a leaden grey November morning when I can walk the common in peace!