Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday 24 August 2020

West isn’t best

My last post hyped up an exciting week of easterly-led weather, with classic awesome local August birding to boot. It’s safe to say that, during this past week, the brakes have slowly been applied – and the forecast for the rest of the month looks rather disappointing. West simply isn’t best inland at this time of year and the persistent blowy and often wet conditions have slowed down the pace a little.

The excellent year for local Whinchat passage continued this week.

It’s still been OK locally, but the more worrying thing is the forecast for the next two weeks (at least) – constant westerlies, often strong, and a grim looking northerly blow over the Bank Holiday weekend, a period in the calendar any inland patcher looks forward to eagerly. A bit more on that later.

Monday 18th

A quick check of Tuesley first thing yielded the two Common Sandpipers, before it was off to Thursley. With main man Dave away for the week my plan was to pick up the baton a bit, but it was a fairly quiet three-mile stroll. A juvenile Cuckoo highlighted – always nice to bag one in any year, and probably the last one I’ll see until 2021, if we all make it that far!

A Kingfisher zipping over Pudmore was novel and a count of 24 Pied Wagtails there notable, but most of the birds were in and around Parish Field and Will Reeds: a Spotted Flycatcher, male Redstart, two Willow Warblers, Tree Pipit and a nice flock of 10 Woodlarks feeding several feet away from me.

A juvenile Woodlark at Thursley.

Stopping on the way to Thorncombe Street, a circuit of Weyburn Meadows produced two each of Kingfisher and Whitethroat. Once on the patch, a short loop of New Barn proved worthwhile – not long down the track a Pied Flycatcher alighted in the first big oak. It was gone within seconds, as is often the case with this species when on passage inland. 

I waited five years for a patch Pied Fly but have now enjoyed three within a year, all following influxes on the back of easterly winds. There really must have been thousands at large in the English countryside during the peak of this invasion. Four Spotted Flycatchers and a Siskin were also logged.

Tuesday 19th

Wet, gloomy and miserable – a quick check of the res produced the two Common Sands and a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Wednesday 20th

A similar line-up at Tuesley first thing, before a pleasant hour and a half at The Hurtwood. Crossbills were immediately apparent and there were two small groups roving about – I got some recording here. A lovely surprise was a flyover Hawfinch, calling as it bundled north. There’s no doubt this species breeds in the Low Weald, but this was only my third record of the year and they’re always a delight to encounter.

Chiffchaff (top) and Willow Warbler at The Hurtwood.

It didn’t take too long to find a big mixed flock and it had variety – Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Garden Warbler and five Willow Warblers – but it lacked the deeply desired Wood Warbler. A Marsh Tit was about, a Tree Pipit flew over and a family party of Stonechats were nattering to themselves as they went about their morning business. Of the 26 Chiffchaffs, one called close enough for this recording – for me, a sound heavily associated with this time of year. Several Siskins were noted.

One of the juvenile Siskins at The Hurtwood.

There were similarly good Phylloscopus warbler numbers at Unstead SF later on, including a couple of Willow Warblers, but nothing scarcer.

Friday 21st

A very windy day and again just a brief, and unrewarding, check of Tuesley.

Saturday 22nd

Probably the best session of the week, with the wind ceasing (in the morning at least) and sun coming out. Teaming up with Sam, a dawn start at Thursley was good fun. A Green Sandpiper was on the scrapes at Pudmore but flushed as soon as we saw it, dropping back in at the south end before careering off south. A couple of Tree Pipits flew over and a Redstart in Pine Island was one of two noted throughout.

Adult Green Sandpipers never seem to tolerate human presence for long.

Shrike Hill hosted most of the action – the second Redstart, plus a nice Wheatear foraging on the burned hill, only my second at the site this year. An adult Hobby graced us with a close fly-by and, on coming back past on the return loop, a low Yellow Wagtail announced itself as it bombed south-east. Other bits on the common included a Siskin, two Willow Warblers, a pair of Bullfinches and 18 Stonechats, including nine feeding together in Parish Field.

Wheatear amid the regenerating heather on Shrike Hill.

Next up was Shackleford, with a Raven flushed from the Lone Barn track one of the first birds logged. A circuit produced two Whinchats – a first-winter at the north end and adult male on the east side. Of the three Red Kites, four Buzzards and one Kestrel seen, all were juveniles. Four Swifts flew over and a Blackcap subsang from a hedge.

A few more Swifts were at Tuesley afterwards, but a flyover Tree Pipit took the gold medal here – a site tick for us both. The two Common Sandpipers were present, along with four Lesser Black-backed Gulls and two distant, teasing flocks of racing pigeons. With a nice mix of inland waders appearing on the BirdGuides news page that afternoon, I tried my luck again in the evening, but was only rewarded with 8 Sand Martins and a high count of 58 Black-headed Gulls.

A selection from Shackleford.

Sunday 23rd

A six-mile walk from the Thorncombe Street south section to Dunsfold farmland and back was rather grey and windy. Limited bird action was no surprise – a mixed flock on the east side of Hascombe Hill held two Marsh Tits, a Willow Warbler and three Spotted Flycatchers and six Crossbills flew over Hive Field, but that was it really. A Yellowhammer at Painshill Farm was nice; some 40 odd Red-legged Partridges and a triple-figure count of Pheasants slightly less so, and a reminder the shooting season isn’t far away.

Things were a bit livelier at Shackleford, where a flock of three vis-migging Yellow Wagtails caught our eye (our ears actually) first. We soon located the two Whinchats, before a group of five Yellow Wags bombed over in the same south-westerly direction. I wonder how many had flown over prior to our late morning arrival? A Hobby flew over, hundreds of corvids included at least 400 Jackdaws and seven Red-legged Partridges was my highest count here.

Any local session is made if a few vis-migging Yellow Wagtails (top three) or perching Whinchats are seen.

A visit to Unstead SF afterwards prompted the usual August ‘you can just imagine a Greenish Warbler popping out here’ dreaming versus the handful of Chiffchaffs and a Willow Warbler or two reality. Indeed, the best birds was a group of four Lapwings that dropped into Flooded Field.

Monday 24th

A few steins with the football on Sunday night made for a late start, though it was nice to wake to the sound of a singing Willow Warbler a couple of gardens down. Later in the morning, a brief check of Shackleford produced the first-winter Whinchat and three Yellow Wags – part of an apparently notable Surrey passage this morning. 102 Canada Geese were tallied. You don’t need me to tell you that Tuesley was quiet – not even a Com-solation Sandpiper to claim. While working at home later on, a brief scan out the window unveiled three Swifts heading south.

Another shot of the young Shackleford Whinchat.

As I mentioned earlier, August Bank Holiday is normally superb around here. In 2016, I enjoyed a patch Marsh Harrier, 2017 delivered Honey Buzzard, Greenshank and Yellow-legged Gull, 2018 produced Black Redstart and, last year, Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher were scored. 

Sadly, with the miserable forecast, it looks like it’ll be a slog from now until September, at least, save perhaps one or two calm days. Thankfully I’ve secured the minimum one August year tick I needed. Two would have been nice, but I won’t complain. And who knows, maybe the next week or so won’t be so bad after all.

Monday 17 August 2020

August – it never lets you down

The past week has seen the autumn shake into life, with a wonderful mixed bag of weather – led by prolonged, gentle easterlies from the continent – meaning there has been action-packed birding the length and breadth of Britain. My little corner of Surrey got in on the act too. Sessions in the field these past seven days have been decent at worst and superb at best. To top things off, I managed to get that sought-after August south-west Surrey year tick: number 146. This month will always deliver around here, it seems …

It's been a week of Whinchats, with at least seven birds at three sites locally.

Tuesday 11th

At dawn at Tuesley, a small and pale wader, distantly on the furthest away shore from me, got the heart rate going. Closer inspection unveiled a juvenile Little Ringed Plover – not quite the score I hoped, but a nice treat. A whole week later, and it hasn’t left … Things were warming up by the time I got to the south section of Thorncombe Street, though only in the temperature sense and a quiet session around New Barn yielded two Spotted Flycatchers and a Marsh Tit.

I wonder how far away this juvenile Little Ringed Plover was born?

Unstead SF was a bit livelier afterwards, though three Willow Warblers were the best I could rustle up. That evening, a walk around Thursley produced a family party of Spotted Flycatchers – my first on the common this year – near The Moat (which was full of blow-up boats, swimmers and bemused Mallards).

Wednesday 12th

The LRP was still at the res, along with two rather flighty and vocal Common Sandpipers (listen here). Having spent the last three days trying and failing to capitalise on the English influx of Pied Flycatchers at my regular patches, I opted to work a suitable site a bit further afield, eventually settling on Chiddingfold Forest. It proved a wise decision and, indeed, one of my moments of the year came in a spellbinding 30 or so minute period.

Slowly working the Oaken Wood clearing, it was clear plenty of passerines were feeding in the warm early morning sun. About half an hour after arriving, I chose to take a quiet, overgrown path I’d not walked before. Straightaway, two Spotted Flycatchers flew over, while a juvenile Willow Warbler burst into song. The chipping of Crossbills could be heard to the west before, out of nowhere, an adult Lesser Spotted Woodpecker bounded over my head.

One of the adult Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

Incredibly, this bird joined was by another adult, before a juvenile appeared – most unexpected! I had a drumming male not a million miles away in February and it seems possible the male in this group was the same. They all hung around for 20 minutes or so before vanishing into the forest.

Behind February and March, August is the best month to bump into lesser 'peckers.

Before they disappeared, what seemed to be a giant House Martin caught my eye high above the clearing. Getting my bins on the bird in question, it turned out to be a Green Sandpiper – a totally bizarre record for a large forest, far from any waterbodies. It silently bombed east and, with the woodpeckers still busying themselves around me, it felt like I was in Białowieża!

A flyover Green Sandpiper – not what you expect deep in a Low Weald forest.

This magical birding dimension I’d seemingly entered had more to give – a Tree Pipit announced itself as it flew over, while more Crossbills buzzed overhead. That would have made a morning, but the crowning glory then came back towards the path as I caught a glimpse of a Pied Flycatcher. It vanished for a little while, before reappearing in an oak, much to my delight – a hard bird in Surrey and an excellent addition to my local year list.

The cracking Pied Flycatcher had been one of my most pleasing local finds of the year.

It was extremely mobile, moving from oak to evergreen to silver birch. I must have been watching it for about 10 minutes before melted away into the woodland, not to be seen again. This enchanting forest has produced many memorable moments this year, but I think this crazy period of excellent birds tops them all. Later on, afternoon showers prompted Kit and I to check the res, but there was nothing new in.

Thursday 13th

Another day, another failed check of Pudmore for Wood Sandpiper. That said, an eclipse drake Shoveler was a real surprise and a site tick for me – Dave was later able to add it to his Thursley year list, something he’s determined to break the record for this year. A third Common Sandpiper was in at Tuesley, but Unstead SF was quiet. A Spotted Flycatcher and Cetti’s Warbler made the cycle ride back through Unstead Water Meadows worth it.

Shoveler at Thursley (top) and Little Ringed Plover at Tuesley.

A Swift flew over while I was working from home later that morning. In the evening, Tuesley hosted the same line up of waders, including the Little Ringed Plover, while 88 Canada and one Greylag Goose were counted flying from Shackleford feeding grounds to the Pudmore roost site at dusk.

Friday 14th

In murky conditions, with the hot spell finally breaking down, Tuesley with Sam felt rare but very much wasn’t. Neither was Frensham Great Pond – a high count of 75 Coot and some 40 or so Sand Martins (including some vocal ones, listen here) were arguable highlights. A few large gulls passed over Shackleford on the way back.

Sand Martins gathering in the gloom at Frensham Great Pond.

Later on, with Jeremy finding a Pied Fly at Crooksbury Common and with Sam needed it for his local life list, I accompanied him on a lunch break twitch. The bird proved really quite difficult to find, with fleeting glimpses all we managed. However, a wonderful roving flock kept us entertained – no fewer than 10 Spotted Flycatchers, two Redstarts and four Willow Warblers among heaps of common stuff. Two Tree Pipits, two Crossbills and notable 60 Siskins were also seen.

Back home and working, I was galled to see news of a Wood Warbler at Crooksbury, in the very same flock! There have been so few opportunities to twitch stuff for my south-west Surrey year list, so I feel I have to go for anything that pops up and this was no exception, especially given its less than annual presence locally.

This adult Spotted Flycatcher was feeding a very recently fledged chick at Crooksbury Common.

Sadly, though, despite nearly two hours (making the total time watching this flock more than four hours), there was no sign, even though it was last seen not long before I got there. Plenty more Willow Warblers were in (10 in total) and much better views of the Pied Flycatcher were had. Still time to find my own Wood Warbler and I’m certainly not grumbling given my recent Pied Fly score, but this is the second Wood Warbler I’ve dipped this year.

Any disappointment was soon swept away following a cursory check of Shackleford on the way back – two cracking Whinchats near the model airfield.

Whinchats at Shackleford.

Saturday 15th

The usual dawn scores – no Wood Sand at Pudmore (though the Shoveler was still about) and the same cast of waders at Tuesley, where a lengthy stakeout in seemingly superb conditions disappointed. That said, a Barnacle Goose flew over with Canada Geese – a lovely bit of category C action and only my second locally this year (probably the same bird).

A later visited produced two Little Ringed Plovers – perhaps there had been two all long? In the week since the first was noted, often I’ve flushed one from the track around the reservoir. So it’s easy for one or both to have gone undetected for a while.

Photos from a drizzly Saturday morning at the res.

A mid-afternoon walk of Shackleford proved most enjoyable, providing further evidence that this is a previously unappreciated chat hot-spot. At least five, but possibly seven, Whinchats were in evidence – easily my highest Surrey count. At one point, four perched together in an elder while, near the airfield, a first-year bird showed especially well.

Whinchats and Wheatears at Shackleford, including four of the former
species together in the second photo and both species in the final one.

As well as this, four Wheatears were present, including three together by the hay barn. Add in a new family of Stonechats, some 300 Starlings, hundreds of Woodpigeons and the goose flock and it felt much more like mid-September than mid-August.

Whitethroat (top), very young Stonehcat (middle) and Starling
 flock at Shackleford.

Sunday 16th

It was a familiar story at Thursley and Tuesley first thing, but things picked up considerably at the Thorncombe Street south section, with the emerging sun sparking birds into life. In total, Sam and I noted 42 species, with highlights ranging from my first patch Redstart of the year (an adult male), two Spotted Flycatchers, Garden Warbler, Marsh Tit, Firecrest and two Willow Warblers.

Plenty of roving flocks were keeping the excitement levels high. While we were walking down the New Barn track, we were both stopped in our tracks by a totally unfamiliar (at least in a Surrey sense) and striking lump of warbler, that we had a one or two second view of in flight deep within some brambles. It was one of those moments. I won’t fan the scarce flames too much, or even mention the species this clearly brutish bird looked rather obviously like – a really long tail, dull grey upperparts and, what stood out most to me, very pale underparts. Two hours of patient searching, a later visit and another look the following morning yielded no further sign … damn.

On the drive back through Thorncombe Street, any frustration was wiped away when Sam picked up a Whinchat, rather strangely perched upon a holly busy. Not the most usual setting, and while we pulled over and watched a Spotted Flycatcher alighted on a nearby fence – classic August inland birding. We hoped for more chat action at Bonhurst Farm, but two Green Woodpeckers were the best birds.

Green Woodpeckers acting goofy.

In the early afternoon, I took a walk around an area near Dunsfold I only discovered earlier this year but believe has good potential. Breeding Nightingales, Yellowhammer and Lesser Whitethroat suggest this could be a nice local spot, and on this occasion a Whinchat was discovered up on the open fields. You can never tire of bumping into these guys.

Yet another Whinchat ...

Monday 17th

The usual fare at Tuesley with Abel, though a few gulls included an adult and juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull. A Gadwall was at Snowdenham Mill Pond. The New Barn area at Thorncombe Street didn’t produce the one that got away, nor heaps of other stuff, though a Spotted Flycatcher, 10 Crossbills and two Firecrests all made it into the notebook.

A smart juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull.

The week ahead looks rather uninspiring in terms of the weather, with increasingly strong south-westerlies and rain dominating. No good for passerine action, but perhaps OK for waders. Tuesley has gone off the boil quite a bit but I still hope for a bonus long-legged customer there. And perhaps a Wood Sand will turn up on Pudmore. They often do in August, but normally in the first half of the month and I suspect that, with the windows of easterlies shut for now, it will be one that doesn’t make it onto my south-west Surrey year list.