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 ...
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.