Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Sunday 27 September 2020

As you were

Things have been steady either side of the excitement of the Short-toed Lark last weekend. As has been a theme this autumn – indeed both passage seasons this year – the weather has been below average. I can remember few years in which there has been so little opportunity for good vis-mig by the end of September, for example. That said, I’ve managed a couple of entertaining watches and, in general, the local birding has been good during the past 10 days.

Lesser Redpolls at Thursley, part of big and unseasonal numbers on the common.

Thursday 17th

A day of non-birding until news broke of Surrey's seventh Glossy Ibis at Tice’s Meadow. With just enough time to get there and back before football, and having not seen the famous Frensham individual of 2014 due to university finals, I dashed over. 

The bird was in The Workings and allowed distant 'scope views before it flew off high north-east about half an hour after I arrived. Good stuff, and with the Short-toed Lark and acceptance by the Surrey Bird Club Records Committee of the Burpham Pink-footed Goose from February 2019, I’ve managed a sweet hat-trick of county ticks recently.

Glossy Ibis at Tice's. It foraged before flying to an island to have a preen prior to departure.

Also at Tice’s was a lonely Golden Plover in The Meadow, singles of Common Sandpiper, Wigeon and Yellow Wagtail, two Snipe and a Peregrine that performed nicely over Horton’s Mound having been sat in the same 'scope view as the ibis.

Peregrine and Golden Plover from Tice's.

Friday 18th

In Bristol for the day and evening but managed an hour at Pilning Wetland, where three Little Stints and a Garganey highlighted in a stiff north-east breeze. I failed to spot the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been there a while, but other bits included Curlew Sandpiper, Knot, four Yellow Wagtails, Wheatear and 200 Linnets.

One of the Little Stints at Pilning Wetland.

Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th

Short-toed Lark times at Shackleford – see here.

Monday 21st

Back to the Love Shack again, to try and score the female Merlin that was present the previous for my south-west Surrey year list. No joy for me – only a couple of male Sparrowhawks, despite others seeing the Merlin – but I did manage a late-ish Spotted Flycatcher, six Reed Buntings, 30 Siskins, two Lapwings and, best of all, a Woodlark in the big ploughed field, which was a new Shackleford bird for me.

Tuesday 22nd

A long-awaited change in wind direction meant it was a day for vis-mig – and it delivered. A really good three-hour watch at Thorncombe Street felt more like late October than late September, with two Hawfinches and my earliest ever Surrey Brambling highlighting. A male Ring Ouzel, that bombed in from great height to the east, was a south-west Surrey year tick – the last of my ‘expected ones’ – taking me to 151.

Some vis-mig action from 22nd: Meadow Pipits (top two photos); Swallow; Greylag Goose; Lesser Redpolls.

Decent Meadow Pipit action totalled 477 birds south, most flocks low and fast, and was my second highest vis-mig count of the species here. Some 225 Siskins moved south, along with three Yellowhammers, 15 Lesser Redpolls, 16 Crossbills and 292 House Martins. My vis-mig Grey Wagtail record count was broken too, with 10 going south-west.

On a recently ploughed field at Tilsey Farm, 40-odd gulls were mainly Herring and Black-headed, save two Lesser Black-backed. One of the latter was very eye-catching: small and very dark-backed. A possible intermedius candidate, probably an advanced second-summer / third winter ...

The eye-catching Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Wednesday 23rd

Steve and Kit joined for a Thorncombe Street watch and hopes were high with perfect conditions. Sadly, it was a bit of a let-down, even if 388 House Martins south included some big flocks. There appeared to be some Stock Dove movement, with 55 south, and 86 Siskins and 76 Meadow Pipits showed signs of action. The highlight, though, was a single Redwing that powered south-west – an early record.

Other bits included Tawny Owl (heard pre-dawn), two Ravens and a Blackcap. Steve trapped and ringed three Goldcrests and a dopey juvenile Woodpigeon. Later on, a vocal Raven flew over while working at home.

Thursday 24th

A misty and breezy start which didn’t look like being good for vis-mig. Four Gadwall were on Snowdenham Mill Pond before an intended cursory look from Allden’s Hill made it clear some House Martin action was underway. Some 855 south-west in the following two hours was a very decent count for here, but nothing close to the big totals John and Wes scored at Bricksbury Hill and Leith Hill. Aside from this push, there were no other signs of migration.

Friday 25th

No birding.

Saturday 26th

Despite the chilly north-west wind, a very enjoyable two-hour walk around Thursley was had from dawn. The clear highlight was the astonishing amount of Lesser Redpolls – 170+ to be precise – really crazy numbers, especially given it's only September. I’m unsure if I’ve ever seen so many in Surrey before.

Lesser Redpoll action at Thursley.

One mega flock of 120+ was by Pudmore at dawn (a group found by Dave the previous day), with a another gathering of 30+ nearby, groups of one to five in flight all over the common and another 30+ with Linnets and Meadow Pipits by the burnt area of Ockley. The true count was probably more like 200+ and indeed Dave reckons he had 250+ the following day.

Very nice to see, especially after two wretched winters for them around here. But where have they come from? I must say there seem to be many more finches around this autumn – perhaps they have had a good breeding season? Or maybe the unseasonal northerly weather that has been a theme since the August Bank Holiday just means they are here earlier than usual.

Other highlights included 18 Crossbills, including a singing male, six Red Kites out of roost together, Snipe, five singing Woodlarks, Raven and 120+ Pied Wagtails out of their Pudmore roost. A walk of Shackleford before dinner was exceptionally windy and I failed to tally more than 20 species, but surprisingly a late Whinchat was present with a group of Stonechats.

Red Kites heading out of their roost at Thursley.

Sunday 27th

A lazy start in increasingly strong and cold north-westerlies. At Tuesley Farm, 11 Little Grebes and nine Tufted Duck were present. Snowdenham Mill Pond hosted the female Red-crested Pochard – my first sighting of her since late May – and one of her hybrid offspring, as well as five Gadwall and a Siskin.

Sam and I teamed up to walk Thursley late afternoon. The Lesser Redpoll flock couldn't be found, but 13 Snipe flushed from Pudmore was a decent count. A few small groups of Crossbills were about and eight Swallows moved through.

Monday 21 September 2020

Short-toed Lark at Shackleford

This is an interlude from my usual diary style of blog, just to sum up the events on Saturday 19 September 2020 – a birding date I won’t forget for a long time. Having berated the weather in my last blog post, and with the conditions the same when I left the house that morning, I certainly wasn’t expecting things to pan out the way they did …

To be fair, the day started well, with a Golden Plover waking me up in the small hours as it flew over my home. This was a south-west Surrey year tick – number 149 – edging me to the verge of my goal of 150. Having fallen back to sleep, I pitched up at Shackleford a little after 7.20 am. A couple of days ago the farmer had ploughed the big northern field and I wondered if a may find a Golden Plover in there.

Short-toed Lark at Shackleford.

Upon arrival and a first scan, it was clear plenty of birds were feeding in the recently revealed bare earth. Within a few minutes, it became clear there were triple figures of birds, chiefly Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails, as well as a few Yellow Wagtails and Linnets. Fancying my chances of a good Skylark count – and maybe even a first Woodlark for the site – I commenced scanning from the track.

At about 7.35 am, I heard what my instinct told me was Short-toed Lark – a dry, hard, half House Martin and half House Sparrow kind of call. In my mind I was teleported to open Spanish farmland, where I have seen plenty of this species … but I was in Surrey! Alarm bells began to ring and, as the bird hadn’t sounded like it was flying over, I frantically began to scan.

It took a few minutes before, standing out like a sore thumb, was a Short-toed Lark. I nearly had a heart attack when I first saw it. The bird was dwarfed by the Skylarks and even the Meadow Pipits, with a bright, buffy breast with no streaking, pallid upperparts, a thick bill, bright pink legs and long tertials all showing nicely in the early morning sun. The bird was at good range and there wasn’t really any debate as to what it was, but I desperately tried to turn it into a juvenile Skylark or Woodlark, or even some sort of escaped cagebird!

Some more shots.

Often when stumbling across something like this, it can take a few minutes before one accepts that, yes, this really is something monster. But I was really struggling to comprehend it, even after 10 or so minutes. I fired off some record shots, sent them to Josh and immediately phoned him. “Tell me I’m going crazy,” I pleaded, but he – almost as amazed as I – told me in no uncertain terms that it was indeed a Short-toed Lark.

I looked back at the bird, which was still showing well, and accepted that it was indeed what I first thought. I wasn’t sure of the exact Surrey history of this bird but I knew it was a proper biggie. Having enjoyed many fine birds at Walton thanks to him, I phoned Dave Harris first and, despite having seen more than 270 birds in the county, Short-toed Lark wasn’t one of them. I then called (and woke up!) Robin, who went from half-asleep to highly alerted within seconds. Both were on their way immediately. I then put the news out, both locally and nationally, called another couple of birding friends and waited …

The wait was the most gruelling part. For half an hour I was alone, watching this lark as suddenly became more and more skittish. A real heart in mouth moment came when a Hobby whizzed through and flushed everything, including the Short-toed, which flew high north. It kept going, almost until I couldn’t see it anymore, before it banked and headed back. I frantically kept on it until it ditched down at the back of the field, much more distant and hard to keep on without a scope.

Rear end flight views of a Short-toed Lark in Surrey –a stressful sight if nobody else has got there yet!

Dave and Robin soon appeared – somewhat fittingly the top two Surrey listers arriving first! – and after a bit of a scramble, they both had it in their scopes. Phew. Others had seen it and the pressure was off now. Jeremy was next to arrive and, not long after he got there, the bird flew in much closer and was performing superbly again in the morning light. 

Things relaxed greatly from that point and, during the next four hours or so, more than 100 birders came and went, all enjoying very agreeable views of the bird. It was surreal seeing so many people at the ‘Love Shack’ and great to chat with many folks I haven’t seen for a long time. With football in the afternoon I melted away at around 12.30 pm. Plenty of celebratory beers were had that night ...

Happy twitchers.

Age and origin

Both juveniles and adults complete their moult in the summer and it’s widely accepted that you can’t age autumn birds. The breast streaking is mentioned in a couple of papers as a juvenile feature and the bird did seem a bit more buffy than most spring individual I’ve seen overseas (granted usually in spring), but with the light so variable on this bird it’s hard to say. It probably is a juvenile to be fair, but there’s no way it can be claimed as one, in my opinion.

In the early morning light, the crown on this bird appeared a little reddish – a pointer towards Spanish or North African origin (rubiginosa and the nominate form brachydactyla). However, having studied many photos of it in different levels of light, I actually think it’s quite a plain crown in terms of colouration, albeit rather bold and well-marked. It was a particularly pallid bird. This was striking even at range.

It was a particularly pale and buffy bird meaning that, at times, it
was easy to pick out at range with the naked eye.

Several subspecies are named but ID of any of these forms isn’t reliable. Generally, though, it’s thought birds from further east until Central Asia are more pale/pallid, especially longipennis (found from Ukraine and southern Russia to south-central Siberia and southern Mongolia). According to the tome of Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds: Passerines, the high contrast between the warm median covert fringes and colder lesser and greater coverts does seem to be a feature in longipennis.

I think the weather chart for 19 September 2020 is very interesting and ties into the above. The weather was more or less like that for four days prior, too. Two key things can be taken from the below chart. First, the strong north-easterlies that were hitting Britain reached all the way from Ukraine, via Poland and Germany. Secondly, the low pressure and lack of suitable winds over Central Europe, both of which aren’t ideal for a southern European overshoot/drifter. 

The weather chart for Saturday 19 September, showing big easterlies.

The same conditions delivered other birds of an eastern flavour into Britain (Brown Shrike, Great Snipe, a nice spread of Red-breasted Flycatchers etc) while not producing much of southern European origin. Perhaps this Short-toed Lark really came from some distance away … and maybe a longipennis-type bird ('Steppe Greater Short-toed Lark') is realistic.

Surrey and UK status

This will mark only the second vice-county record, with the only previous one on 24 April 1966 at Beddington Farmlands. Below are the BBRC notes for the species, which Dave dug out. Two further records come from Spelthorne (June 1960 and April 1985). So, very much a Surrey mega, however you look at it. It is the first for outer Surrey.

BBRC notes from the 1966 Surrey Short-toed.

Traditionally, Short-toed Lark has been considered an annual, regular scarcity, at a fairly decent spread of sites. This has changed quite a bit during recent times, though, and in the latest edition of British Birds the report on scarce migrant birds in Britain in 2018 confirmed that it had been the third worst year for the species since 1982 (12 records) and that a steady decline was underway. 

Size comparison with a Meadow Pipit.

Nowadays, Short-toed Lark is becoming something of a Shetland/Scilly specialist – this explaining its huge popularity over the weekend – and is certainly very rare in the South-East; Sussex last had one in 2008 and Kent in 2011, which is fairly extraordinary. I had never seen one in the UK before and most of my fellow millennial birding colleagues had seen one or none. This was the third inland record of Short-toed Lark in Britain and Ireland since 2000, with the others both spring birds (Staffordshire, 2012; Northumberland, 2017).


The bird was still present on Sunday and performing well, until a Merlin (which I haven’t seen and remain most gripped by!) flushed it into the recently cut alfalfa field. With the lack of cover the alfalfa brought, and the rise in raptors in the area since the large flock assembled last week, the entire group of birds has become skittish and mobile. On Sunday night it was seen motionless in the ploughed field for a few hours prior to dusk. I got there about an hour before dark and people were questioning its health … but it began to feed at about 7 pm, before roosting in a little divot. 

A final shot from Saturday.

I wondered at the time if it was resting ahead of a pre-dawn departure and, today (Monday 21 September), there has been no sign of it by mid-afternoon, despite plenty of folk looking. It could easily just be more mobile now and, by the time this post is up, could have reappeared. In all, it’s thought that more than 200 people visited over the weekend, which is crazy for Surrey.

An extraordinary record and a ridiculous way for me to reach my goal of 150 birds in south-west Surrey this year. Bizarrely enough I even called Short-toed Lark (and Tawny Pipit!) to appear at Shackleford to friends – dream big and aim low is my birding motto! It seems the Love Shack is a special place indeed. I didn’t even know it existed until about 18 months ago and it really does show, again, that we should all pay more attention closer to home. 

The lark roosting at last night on Sunday.

It’s true that the wildlife-friendly management of the farm plays a big role in attracting birds at Shackleford. But there is endless inland countryside in Surrey (and beyond) that isn’t visited by birders; I’d confidently say there are a few more 'Shacklefords' out there somewhere.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

September snoozing

I often find early and mid-September to be one of the dullest birding periods locally. A lot can hinge on the weather, as it so often does inland, and sustained high pressure with subsequent clear skies and warm temperatures never helps. Throw in a prevailing westerly with little oomph, and you have a recipe for the quietest of times in Surrey. With this largely the weather during the past nine days, it’s been a bit of a snooze-fest. Save a couple of sessions, most have been quiet and I’ve limited my time in the field, preferring to save it for more exciting times ahead …

An Osprey at Thursley: a highlight of a quiet week.

Thursday 8th

I spent a couple of hours skywatching from Broomy Down, with better than expected results (Trektellen checklist here). The highlight of the watch was the marked southward passage of Siskin – really unusual for early September and no doubt tied to the bumper autumn that looks on the cards for this species. The biggest single flock was of 24. Most birds went straight down the Wey-Arun Gap but a few tracked the Thorncombe Valley ridge.

Also of note was a Yellow Wagtail, an adult and juvenile Hobby (born nearby), 60 Linnets on the crop and three Tawny Owls in the pre-dawn gloom. Mute Swan – always rare at Thorncombe Street away from Snowdenham Mill Pond – was logged with five tracked down the Wey-Arun Gap. They were seen by Kit at Shalford, further proving the ‘Shalford Split’ flyway theory.

A released White Stork.

Wednesday 9th

Easily the best session of the week, at Thursley Common, which commenced in style when an Osprey lumbered itself from (presumably) a roost near The Moat and over Pudmore before perching in a tree between Pine Island and Shrike Hill. The bird, a juvenile, was mobbed by Red Kite, Kestrel and Hobby, as well as a few Carrion Crows, but decided to linger for 15 or so minutes before departing north-east. Always great to see locally and a Thursley first for me.

Some more shots of the juvenile Osprey.

I finally caught up with ‘Barry’ the Barnacle Goose on Pudmore, having been gripped off by Dave far too often in recent weeks. It was with an impressive 315 Canadas and 53 Greylags. Two Teal were also here. Three Wheatears were on Shrike Hill and 20 odd Siskins flew over, but the best bird came at Parish Field.

Barnacle Goose and Wheatear from Thursley ...

First heard calling, eventually a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker revealed itself. A smart male, it fed in oaks and birches, apparently alone, before vanishing. I wonder where it came from? This species is virtually unheard of at Thursley these days so it was very welcome indeed.

... and a surprise Lesser Spot in Parish Field.

Thursday 10th

A brief mid-morning circuit of Bonhurst Farm produced a male Stonechat (only my seventh at Thorncombe Street!) and a Little Owl.

Stonechats are always good value at Thorncombe Street.

Friday 11th

I walked Frensham Little Pond and Common in heavy mist, which meant most birds were noted on call. This included a Green Sandpiper, Kingfisher and Water Rail in the south-east corner of the Little Pond. Heaps of Siskins were about – triple figures at least – with a single flock of 60 roving around. 

A few grounded Meadow Pipits were on King’s Ridge along with a female-type Redstart. I was surprised (given the conditions and time of year) but very happy to hear three Woodlarks singing here and at Tilhill Nurseries. A Firecrest was in holly by the Great Pond, where a few Sand Martins were overhead.

I met up with Janet later that morning to talk Unstead SF, where four Lapwings flew over the South Meadow.

Saturday 12th

Another Broomy Down skywatch, this time a little quieter. Some 96 House Martins moved south-west/west (including a flock of 60), with 69 Swallows doing the same. Curiously, four Yellow Wagtails flew low north-west (to Bonhurst?) and another moved high south. Three Grey Wagtails also flew south, while a Wheatear and Stonechat were on The Ridge. Two Ravens and a Yellowhammer were kicking about too.

Migrating House Martins.

Before a long football watching binge, I jaunted down to Thorney Island to obtain sub-par views of my second British Pallid Harrier. The bird showed briefly in flight and then distantly on the deck in the haze as it preened. Species noted while staking the harrier out included 18 Yellow Wags, Pintail, Cetti’s Warbler, Greenshank, Water Rail and an extremely tame Dunnock.

Sunday 13th

A lazy start, with the continuing uninspiring weather leading me to the coast again. A fine two and a half hour stroll of Pagham Harbour and Church Norton delivered 71 species, the best of which were two super showy juvenile Curlew Sandpipers in Ferry Channel. Some 13 other wader species included Avocet, three Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, six Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, 70 Dunlin, 150+ Redshank, 18 Curlews, 12 Black-tailed Godwits, 60 Lapwings, eight Grey Plovers, 30 Ringed Plovers and 21 Oystercatchers.

Two very smart juvenile Curlew Sandpipers.

Passerine action was headlined by a 30+ Yellow Wagtails, 2 Whinchats, Wheatear, Siskin (decent here) and, oddly, a singing Sedge Warbler. I also noted singles of Yellow-legged Gull (first-year) and Cattle Egret

Dunlin on Ferry Pool.

An evening walk of Shackleford produced a Whinchat and little else.

Whinchat in the Shackleford alfalfa.

Monday 14th

A hour’s walk at Shackleford in the morning was better than the night before, with three Whinchats, Willow Warbler, Yellow Wagtail and Reed Bunting all clocked.

Grey Wagtail, Roe Deer and Whinchat at Shackleford.

Tuesday 15th

At Tuesley first thing, a winter-plumaged Common Tern was notable as none have been seen since 4th – presumably a bird from elsewhere. Some 13 Little Grebes was my highest count here.

A locally late Common Tern.

At Shackleford, it was a similar cast: two Whinchats, Yellow Wagtail and Reed Bunting, along with triple-figure finch flock counts (almost all Goldfinch and Linnet). Two Clouded Yellows were nice to see.

Some close-up Clouded Yellow action.

Wednesday 16th

As I ventured beyond south-west Surrey, a surprisingly productive two-hour Leith Hill tower watch with Matt and Wes delivered a decent rollcall of birds, far more in keeping with mid-October. These included a distant Ring Ouzel that dropped into Duke’s Warren, a Hawfinch moving south-west with Siskins (of which at least 110 were counted throughout), 38 Crossbills, six Lesser Redpolls and three Yellow Wagtails.

Grey Wagtail and Greenfinch were new tower birds for me. A Marsh Tit called from the woodland adjacent to the tower.

A couple of Crossbills at Leith Hill.

So, a quiet time really, but expected at this time of year. Hopefully the weather livens up as we head to the end of the month.