Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Saturday, 31 October 2020

A mixed end to October

October has been good locally, but the last nine days of the month have been mixed at best. I’ve picked up a south-west Surrey lifer, but missed one too, and the largely wet and windy weather hasn’t been fun. No complaints at how autumn 2020 has gone though, as it looks like things are slowly slipping into winter birding mode.

Great Egret at Frensham.

Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th

No time in the field. On the Friday, a Skylark flew over while I was working from home.

Sunday 25th

After a day of wet and windy south-westerlies, I gave Frensham Great Pond a go – and for a change came up trumps here! It was incredibly gloomy first thing, with little more than singles of Kingfisher, Crossbill, Chiffchaff and Firecrest and a few Lesser Redpolls initially of note. I eventually worked round to the south-east corner and saw nine Pochard – my first in south-west Surrey since April. All my records locally this year have been at Frensham, which is a bit worrying …

Pochard: not easy in south-west Surrey.

As I was watching them, I noticed an egret land in a reedy area to my right. I then noticed it had a big yellow bill: my first south-west Surrey Great Egret. While a regular fixture in many places now and becoming far less rare in Surrey (where it’s no longer a description species), Great Egret remain bizarrely mega in south-west Surrey. As far as I can see, this is only the seventh, six of which have come at Frensham. Presumably this will change in time but still nice, and number 155 for the local year list.

A south-west Surrey lifer ...

The weather was pretty naff for the rest of the day, but after lunch I decided to join Matt in the unlikely location of Crawley for a Dusky Warbler twitch. As mentioned in my Little Bunting post, there will be a lot of inland Sibes this autumn/winter – they just need to be found. And whoever dug this out, in a small copse on the edge of a recreation ground in a large town, deserves huge praise.

Initially very elusive, the bird – only my second in Britain – eventually popped out and showed OK three times, allowing for record shots (and recordings) only. Still, nice to see. If it had turned up a mile to the north, it would have been a Surrey first … other bits here included a calling Kingfisher and a few overhead Siskins.

Dusky Warbler at Crawley.

Monday 26th

A really nice session in the autumn sunshine at Thursley. Things got off to a great start in the half-light of pre-dawn along the boardwalk at Pudmore, first of all when I noted a Yellowhammer on the track. It was weirdly tame but eventually flew to a pine and then off towards Shrike Hill. Nowadays, it’s a real rarity at Thursley, with just 12 records between 2008 and 2019. It was indeed a site tick for me …

About 10 minutes later, much to my surprise, a Great Egret flew east. Talk about London buses – I only saw my first in south-west Surrey the day before! This was surely the same bird and, despite seeming to drop into Forked Pond, I couldn’t relocate it. Only the second site record, after one in 2002 …

Presumably the same Great Egret over Thursley Common.

The rest of the walk (mainly around Ockley and South Bog) was good fun. Woodpigeons were moving overhead in their hundreds and some 20 Crossbills were about. Kingfisher and Coot were at Forked Pond, along with a Chiffchaff. A mixed flock by Merlin Mound held a / the Yellowhammer, which showed a lot better than earlier. At South Bog, a group of Reed Buntings and Lesser Redpolls, totalling some 40 birds, received scrutiny but held nothing rarer.

Yellowhammer, Crossbills, Green Woodpecker and Woodpigeons at Thursley.

Tuesday 27th

At dusk, 20 or so Pied Wagtails were seen from my kitchen window presumably flying to a roost.

Wednesday 28th

I went for something a bit different today and decided to walk Royal, Bagmoor and Rodborough Commons in a loop – areas I have hardly ever visited before. Parts of Bagmoor and Rodborough looked quite good and there wasn’t many people around, so I'll visit again in the winter. It was fairly quiet, save an obvious presence of finches including a Brambling over a Christmas tree plantation east of Bagmoor and decent Lesser Redpoll numbers. Two Shoveler on the small pond on Royal Common were not expected.

A quick stop at Shackleford on the way back was lively, with a few mixed flocks congregating on the big north fields. Among them was a Yellowhammer – good here – and, to my surprise, a flock of Lesser Redpolls feeding on the field margins with Linnets and Reed Buntings. Not the kind of place I’d normally expect to find this species.

Thursday 29th

A Tawny Owl was heard from home after dark.

Friday 30th

A day off, but the weather was rubbish so I had a lazy start. A mid-morning visit to Unstead was steady, with singles of Little Egret and Lapwing and nine Teal the best. Nine Gadwall were on Snowdenham Mill Pond. Later on, news came through of a female Scaup or hybrid at Frensham Great Pond. I raced over but, alas, there was no sign there or on the Little Pond. Indeed, there were very few ducks at all. 

Great Crested Grebe at Cutt Mill.

Later on, images from the finder confirmed it was indeed a young female Scaup – a would-be south-west Surrey lifer and year tick, so pretty gripping stuff. A quick check of Cutt Mill on the way back just in case produced two Gadwall and a Kingfisher.

Saturday 31st

Having processed how rare Scaup is in south-west Surrey, I planned to be back at Frensham first thing. The local area in general is far from a wildfowl hot-spot and Scaup weighs in as a great rarity these days – this latest being only the third since the millennium and the first since 2006. Anyway, there was no sign on either pond, nor at Waverley Abbey Lake, Cutt Mill Ponds or Tuesley Farm. Indeed it was very quiet at each site.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The year that keeps on giving

It’s been another busy and fun autumn week or so, in the year that keeps on giving. With two days of leave last Thursday and Friday, I spent a bit of time in Kent and Sussex trying to capitalise on the superb run of easterlies that delivered a plethora of Sibes to the East Coast. Otherwise it’s largely been local stuff, mainly playing the weather, which has been a nice mixed bag of late.

A typical Sussex country scene ... with a Bearded Vulture in the background!

Thursday 15th

I’d pondered making the pilgrimage to see the famous Bearded Vulture when it first set up shop in the Peak District in the summer, and also when it was in Lincolnshire a few weeks back. The spectacle of a wild vulture in Britain, regardless of any origin question marks, can’t be authentically questioned be even the staunchest ‘anti-twitchers’ (see here for an excellent comment on this topic by Josh). I never did make it, though, but like many anticipated it would work its way south at some point …

So, with news that it had roosted not far from Beachy Head, East Sussex, on the night of 14th meant I was primed and in position at dawn. From the moment I clapped eyes on ‘Vigo’, I regretted taking so long to make the effort – what a bird! In rather miserable conditions she sat tight in a large oak on a farm near Litlington before, after a fair wait, she took off, to the delight of the onlookers.

It was a truly awe-inspiring British birding experience, as this colossal vulture lumbered over the Sussex countryside. I couldn’t care less if Bearded Vulture makes it onto my British list – this was a moment I’ll never forget. Later that day, she departed high over the English Channel from Beachy Head. Hopefully, she’s on the European mainland now.

Vigo in action at Litlington.

This mad encounter glossed over some excellent vis-mig that was going on over the South Downs as we watched. The highlight, as I sprinted up the track at Church Farm to get to the vulture lookout, was two Lapland Buntings that bundled fairly low north over the footpath. I picked them up on call and managed to enjoy binocular views as they sauntered on, calling as they went. Annoyingly, though, the rush meant my camera and sound recorder were packed away, meaning I failed to document the birds – I later found out Lapland Bunting is description in Sussex.

I suspect they may have come off a series of ploughed fields, where plenty of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were feeding, though there was a lot of easterly movement that morning including Bramblings, Crossbills, Lesser Redpolls and thrushes.

With the rest of the day spare, I headed to Hastings Country Park. This is a monster site – sitting out facing the Channel, with heaps of superb habitat. It gets very poor coverage (despite having Wallcreeper and Red-flanked Bluetail on its site list) though, to be fair, there is a truly daunting amount of cover.

Merlin at Hastings Country Park.

I didn’t really know where to begin, but only a few minutes out of the car and a Yellow-browed Warbler was picked up, calling towards the coastguard cottages. A nice start. The following four hours were not quite as exciting, unfortunately, but there was still a really nice passage of finches (with a Merlin in hot pursuit), two Ring Ouzels, two Firecrests and two Dartford Warblers. This site must get so much stuff, but finding it is presumably far from straightforward.

Friday 16th

I teamed up with Josh at Langdon Cliffs, by the Port of Dover, which he, Rich, Jamie and Dante have been pioneering for a couple of years now, with some great results. During a 10-mile and seven hour walk, from the National Trust car park to Fan Bay and back, we failed to get into the scarce zone (and were completely gripped by Pete finding a Dusky Warbler less than a mile from us) but it was a really fun session.

The highlight was probably a count of 17 Ring Ouzels, mainly in Langdon Hole, where at least 12 were present. What superb birds these are, whether you’re up a mountain, inland or on the coast. Also at Langdon Hole, a Short-eared Owl was flushed from some scrub and departed north. A Firecrest was found near the car park, but the only warblers were Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

Short-eared Owl and Ring Ouzel action from Langdon Cliffs.

Vis-mig was excellent, especially early on, with three Woodlarks very good value in this part of the world and probably fresh in from France (which you could see clearly across the Channel). Some 420 Goldfinches, 20 Crossbills, two Bramblings and 170 Lesser Redpolls were also moving. Two vis-migging Tree Sparrows were novel for me, as were local Corn Buntings. Check out the below Rock Pipit flight call recording for a nice comparison with Meadow Pipit (which calls about eight seconds in).

Corn Bunting at Fan Bay.

Saturday 17th

A pre-dawn stomp around the Lammas Lands didn’t produce any snipe of any species, though a Stonechat, two Reed Buntings and a Siskin were logged. It was much livelier at Shackleford, where the highlight was a Golden Plover. Initially heard, it was flying ahead of a few Lapwings and erratically headed very high north. 

Given it was first seen fairly low, and the Lapwings later landed in the big north field, I suspect all four birds were on the deck at the south end before being flushed by a dog. It was only my second local record of the year. Indeed, since the end of the Tuesley Farm maega-flock, this species is hard to pin down locally.

Other Shackleford bits included my first Brambling for the site, which also flew north, and a few Lesser Redpolls, all of which mean I’ve seen 100 species on this little farm this year. 60 odd Skylarks was a good count and two Swallows east will probably be my last of the year. Hopefully the alalfa grows back soon as the cover is needed for the bigger flocks of finches and buntings.

The final site of the morning was Unstead Sewage Farm, where a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was a delightful surprise, feeding silently along the main path. My first at the site since 1999, when I was little more than a toddler! Other highlights included three Lapwings on the Lagoon, along with 28 Teal and two Little Egrets.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Teal and Lapwing at Unstead SF.

Sunday 18th

News had emerged the previous night of that rarest of things – a south-west Surrey year tick that I might be able to twitch! There’s been a real lack of things for me to go for locally this year, so Keith Harris’s report of a Black Redstart, between Rushmoor and Frensham Little Pond, was welcome. Thankfully it was still present, though proved rather elusive as it flicked around some horse paddocks in the early morning gloom. My 153rd bird in south-west Surrey this year.

Easterly winds in October are a good recipe for local Black Redstarts.

A few Crossbills flew over before I headed off. A check of the Great Pond produced little, save 42 Tufted Duck, while the house pond at Cutt Mill held a drake Gadwall and 34 Mandarins. Later on, a walk through Chiddingfold Forest was quiet, bar two Marsh Tits and five Crossbills.

Monday 19th

Another crazy local day, with a Little Bunting being found at Thursley Common. I wrote a post specifically for this here.

Tuesday 20th

Grey and windy, with Tuesley Farm very quiet first thing. Snowdenham Mill Pond was a lot more vibrant, with four Shoveler, nine Gadwall and eight Teal highlighting. Perhaps it’ll be a good winter for wildfowl here, after two poor ones in a row

Wednesday 21st

No birding.

Thursday 22nd

A walk around Shackleford first thing was fairly quiet, although a couple of Crossbills and four Lesser Redpolls flew over and a late House Martin bombed south. At least 16 Red Kites were in the area.

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A quick check of the Cutt Mill house pond produced a Gadwall pair and a Kingfisher.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Little Bunting at Thursley Common

This is a little interlude away from my normal blog style, just to touch on another completely unexpected local record: Surrey’s eighth Little Bunting, which I had the good fortune of bumping into at Thursley Common earlier this morning.

Little Bunting at Thursley Common from today.

It had been a very quiet session, having arrived half an hour before dawn and walked around Pudmore and Ockley Common, with little more than a few Lesser Redpoll and Crossbill flocks of note. Having worked through Spur Wood and nearing Shrike Hill, a flock of Meadow Pipits feeding on some burned ground caught my eye and I started scanning through them at about 08:18. As I did, I suddenly heard a series of ‘ticks’ – from a ticking bunting!

Cue panic and mayhem, and swift removal of my bins from my eyes resulted in me seeing the bird in question dive into the clump of birches beside the short boardwalk at Spur Wood. A tense minute or two followed, and then three buntings suddenly flew out together and disappeared towards Pudmore, silently. I photographed each one, presuming one would be the Little / Rustic Bunting … but a look at my photos showed they were all Reed Bunting.

Clearly this bird was still about but it wasn’t showing, and I feared it had moved off through the back of the birches. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case, and at about 08:25 a Little Bunting appeared on a short pine! I couldn’t really believe it but there it was, giving monster views (although the light was all wrong so my images are low quality) and calling a lot to boot. It was pretty mobile even now, flying around to different perching places, but easy to follow due to its constant calling. I guess it had been feeding on the ground with the pipits before I inadvertently flushed it.

The eye-ring and 'embarrassed' red face can be seen here.

I called Dave B – the Thursley main man – first up and he was immediately on his way. I stuck it out on BirdGuides and other channels soon after. By now, the bird was becoming more and more mobile and I was getting anxious for Dave. I lost it for nearly 10 minutes prior to his arrival but, thankfully, we were able to relocate it on the other side of the boardwalk towards Ockley Common / Merlin Mound. 

Here, we enjoyed decent views as it perched in a conifer. At about 09:05, it suddenly took off and flew very strongly towards Ockley Common. As of this evening, there has been no further sign, though I suspect the search party isn’t huge given the 2016 bird.

To cap off an extraordinary little period, the final tree we’d seen the bunting in was soon occupied by a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which proceeded to give excellent views at close range. Classic Thursley birding – absolutely dead for ages and then everything happens at once!

Bonus Lesser Spotted Woodpecker ...

Little Bunting is in the mega category in Surrey with this just the eighth record (pending acceptance). A bird at Pyrford from 5-31 March 2016 was the first for more than two decades and proved an unblocking individual for many (bar me, who dipped it twice). Prior to that, the last birds consisted of a crazy spell in the 1990s, when four were recorded between 1991 and 1995. 

This quartet included south-west Surrey’s three records, all of which were on remarkably similar dates to each other: Milford, 13-27 April 1991 (E Garcia); Frensham Little Pond, 14-17 April 1992 (S Peters); Thursley Common, 15 April 1995 (N Murphy). So, a fourth for south-west Surrey, and a second for Thursley (so a huge score for Dave!).

A couple of footnotes to finish. Firstly, the bunting came exactly one month after the Short-toed Lark at Shackleford, which I find pretty crazy. I wonder what 19 November will bring … also, exactly four years and 360 days prior to today, Matt and I had a ticking bunting at Thorncombe Street which we are sure was Little, but couldn’t nail. It had haunted me ever since. So, given I missed the Pyrford bird, it wasn’t one I thought I’d have another shot of in Surrey. But that’s birding and it’s a very nice way to hit 220 for Surrey (and 178 for south-west Surrey, and 154 for south-west Surrey this year).

A couple more of the bunting.

I’m sure 2020 has a few more aces up its sleeve, in terms of Surrey / inland birding biggies. What seems likely is more ‘Sibes’ such as this will be found inland in the coming weeks. It’s been a phenomenal October for many eastern scarcities: 17 Dusky Warblers alone in the UK, much higher than usual numbers of Radde’s and Pallas’s Warblers, two inland Red-flanked Bluetails and plenty more. Filter down in action. Here’s hoping for one or two more surprises before 2021.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Peak autumn

It’s been a fun and busy week, as we dive into absolute peak autumn, meaning good birding is available both on your doorstep and further afield pretty much every day. This past week has seen a mixture of both, as I’ve taken in (or tried to!) some star birds in the South-East, while enjoying local sessions too, including a blockbuster vis-mig day on Monday.

A showy Wilson's Phalarope at Keyhaven Marshes.

Thursday 8th

No birding. A few southbound House Martins were observed from the window at home during the day.

Friday 9th

After the monumental news of a Common Nighthawk at Pagham the previous evening (see here for the finder’s account), which sadly came too late for me to get down for, there was no choice but to roll the dice this morning. So, I was at Church Norton an hour before dawn, and joined the hardy contingent on the spit scanning hopefully.

Ultimately, there was no further sign of the nighthawk, despite a two-hour vigil. Some decent vis-mig was underway, though, including a Crossbill, a few Lesser Redpolls and an in-off Merlin, which perched for a little while before heading north. Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches were seemingly heading west in numbers.

To compound matters, 10 minutes into the drive home news of a Grey Phalarope in the harbour broke. Then, to top things off, I successfully dipped the Burton Mill Purple Heron for a third time on the way back. It showed about half an hour after I left. The nighthawk was always an unlikely gamble, but the rest was sheer misfortune. On the way home I imagined how, in a parallel universe in which all four birds were nailed, what an epic day of birding it would have been!

Saturday 10th

Planned to trial Gibbet Hill as a vis-mig site, but with more people than migrating birds I abandoned my plan after a short while. A walk around the Devil’s Punch Bowl was much more productive, and even produced a Ring Ouzel, when one was flushed from a dense stand of holly in an unnamed valley at the north end. I bet this species is regular here in the autumn. Other bits included Dartford Warbler, four Redwings, 26 Crossbills, 22 Lesser Redpolls, Marsh Tit and Tawny Owl.

Sunday 11th

A grand day out on the south coast. The phalarope double-act at Keyhaven Marshes was too good to ignore and I was on site at dawn, and the first to make it down to Fishtail Lagoon. Much to my surprise, the first-winter Wilson’s Phalarope was on the path (!) but it soon scampered into the adjacent channel and proceeded to show outrageously well for the next couple of hours. Only my second in the UK but I doubt I’ll ever get better views …

More Wilson's Phalarope action.

A little further east on the same pool, a Grey Phalarope showed equally fantastically in the early morning sun. By the time I’d reached my second subject of the morning the site was getting a bit too busy, so I decided to call it a day before social distancing became impossible. 

A Grey Phalarope for good measure.

Other bits on a slow walk back to the car park included a nice selection of dabbling duck, including 30 Pintail, as well as three Ruff, a late Sedge Warbler, flyover Brambling and Lesser Redpolls and a showy Sand Martin.

Sand Martin, Pintail and Ruff from Keyhaven.

While heading back west, to Sussex, news broke of a Radde’s Warbler … in Sussex! I had long wanted to see this species which is only available in the Western Palearctic as a vagrant, having never managed to connect with one before. It’s been a great autumn for them, and finally one had turned up in the South-East.

I may have had limited luck on Friday, but today it seemed the opposite – as soon as I arrived at the area of scrub on Seaford Head I was clapping eyes on the Radde’s Warbler, which both prior to and following my two hours on site had proved very elusive. As it happened, I enjoyed good views (albeit briefly and sporadically).

Radde's Warbler at Seaford Head.

What I found most striking was how bright its olive-buff colouration was, especially the undertail coverts – very eye-catching indeed, along with bright legs, a strong supercilium and heavy bill. Two Ravens, three Wheatears, a Stonechat and two Lesser Redpolls were also seen, though the Radde’s was the only warbler species noted!

The final stop was Beachy Head, where my best ever views of Lapland Bunting were obtained near the trigpoint. Presumably a Greenland bird, this individual cared little for kids running over the top of it and the general busy nature of the site. A Wheatear and a small flock of Redwings were nearby.

Lapland Bunting at Beachy Head.

Monday 12th

Us South-East vis-miggers have been dealt a poor hand this autumn, but today delivered – and how! The forecast looked ripe for a while and in the end it produced a monster movement of Redwings across southern England, with Graham and John on nearby Tweseldown Hill (on the Surrey / Hants border, near Farnham) tallying no fewer than 14,000!

My humbler offering at Tilsey Farm was 5,460 – though I probably would have doubled that if it wasn’t for work. Still, easily my best ever count of the species here and an incredible spectacle as flocks of 100 or more powered north-west up the Wey-Arun Gap. A day to remember for a long time.

Big Redwing passage over the Surrey Hills.

They were the only real movers, at least in any numbers, though 19 Fieldfares were my first of the autumn. Other vis-mig bits included 56 Crossbills (including the below recording during which a male starts singing a couple of times while part of a moving flock!), Brambling, Woodlark, Swallow and OK numbers of Chaffinch and Siskin.

Crossbills on the move.

Redwing flocks moved west along the North Downs, as viewed from my kitchen window, throughout most of the rest of the day.

Tuesday 13th

A five-mile walk around Thursley was pleasant, with a trickle of thrushes still moving west during a brief skywatch from High Ground. Other bits included Brambling, 135 Lesser Redpolls including the big flock on Ockley Common, 32 Crossbills, 23 Red Kites out of their roost (which seems to now be at Pine Island) and a Firecrest near Foldsdown.

Wednesday 14th

I felt pretty uninspired this morning, and a half-hearted vis-mig only lasted an hour – easterlies never seem to do the trick here, let alone with clear skies. A Brambling and six Crossbills highlighted, as well as just about more than 500 Redwings heading north-west, though with so many thrushes on the deck it’s hard to know if these were true movers. At least 35 Song Thrushes were grounded too. A walk around the Dunsfold farmland afterwards was quiet, save plenty more thrushes.