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.|
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).
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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 ...|
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.