Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Wednesday, 7 October 2020


Gripped is a pretty apt birding term to describe my avian times since my last post. I’ve had a decent amount of time in the field but it’s flattered to deceive and – as is the problem with constant news – I’ve been left wishing I was elsewhere for the most part. Whether its friends finding all and sundry on the Northern Isles or East Coast patch-watchers unearthing dreamy scarce, this recent spell of delectable easterlies has made for uncomfortable viewing for the birder in the wrong place. You can’t be everywhere at once, though and, given successful personal forays this year I’m definitely not grumbling.

Wryneck in Cornwall from last week.

Monday 28th

Abel, Matt, Sam and I were supposed to be well into our trip to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides by this point, but Scottish COVID-19 rules put pay to that a couple of weeks ago, which was a real shame given our long-term excitement about going. Scilly was mooted, but the Scillonian was soon booked up. West Ireland was touted, but none of us could wipe away the guilt of undertaking international travel during a global pandemic. So, we headed to western Cornwall, with visions of swatting away Red-eyed Vireos and tripping over Blackpoll Warblers in the famous valleys of the Lands’ End peninsula …

A very early departure from Surrey saw us at Godvrey Point, across the bay from St Ives, a little after 8.30 am. A leisurely wander around the beach and rocky outcrops in rather gloomy conditions eventually revealed our quarry: a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. Representing a lifer for everyone bar me, it was a pleasing start and we enjoyed good views as it dodged the surf and foraged on seaweed covered rocks south-west of the lighthouse.

Semipalmated Sandpiper probing away at Godvrey Point.

Arguably as entertaining were two Merlins which were hunting the many pipits in the area. One particular chase for a Rock Pipit saw the birds seemingly work in tandem as they chased their target, performing a wonderful aerial manoeuvres through narrow crags and low over our heads.

Other bits here included a Snipe, three Manx Shearwaters past offshore, a Kingfisher and a typical assortment of waders, including a flock of 14 Sanderlings.

Other bits from Godvrey Point.

A lunch stop at the Hayle produced a family party of seven Pink-footed Geese – a very good bird in the South-West (though increasingly regular) – a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull and singles of Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwit.

Our first valley of the trip was the one closest to our accommodation: Kenidjack Valley. Having a certain love for Scottish islands, I can’t say I was overly enthused by the endless cover, but we did enjoy our first two Chough of the trip and a Yellow-browed Warbler by the sewage works (which had been present a couple of days).

Yellow-browed Warbler checking out the pish.

Feeling lazy after a long and increasingly gloomy day, we concluded proceedings at Arden Sawah Farm, near Polgigga, where a deeply miserable looking Turtle Dove braved the conditions among large numbers of Collared Dove and House Sparrow.

A miserable photo of a miserable Turtle Dove.

Tuesday 29th

Conditions were much more pleasant today and we started at Cot Valley – a truly beautiful site. Three hours of working the western end of the site produced a Yellow-browed Warbler, at least five Firecrests and a juvenile Willow Warbler. A Barn Owl was flushed from a rocky roost, two Chough drifted over and a few parties of Siskins bombed around. A one-eyed vole was also of note.

Cot Valley action.

Nothing to write home about really, but it felt good here and, with a fast-moving low arriving from the US and hitting overnight, we knew where we’d be the following day …With the sun now firmly out, we visited Botallack, which was close to our house. A Wryneck had been seen here the previous day and the open farmland habitat with plentiful scrub seemed a good place to stroll. 

It didn’t take long to locate said Wryneck, but to our surprise we soon discovered a second bird. We enjoyed decent views as they hopped around on stone walls until they were in view together, which was pretty cool to see, especially with the Atlantic Ocean in the background.

The first time I've seen two Wrynecks together in Britain.

It felt good here, too, but despite a Crossbill going over (another good South-West bird), 35 Siskins, a Wheatear and no fewer than 150 Meadow Pipits, there was nothing rarer. After a couple of hours here we tried a small valley near Bojewyan, which looked good on Google Maps and seemed to have very few records. Despite some nice cover, it was a fairly exposed valley and no access to the best area made it clear why little news comes from there! Indeed, we saw nothing of note …

A lot of walking had us feeling tired, so we pit-stopped at Drift Reservoir, where a sleeping Bar-tailed Godwit was observed. We reenergised and headed to Kenidjack for a final big sesh of the day. A two-hour walk delivered limited results: a juvenile Hobby, Chough, a flushed Water Rail (which did at least provide brief excitement!) and a few common warblers. We ended the day at Pendeen, where a brief look at the sea and incoming front produced four Balearic Shearwaters, a Merlin, three Manxies and two Chough.

Wednesday 30th

The front had arrived overnight and it was properly grim in the morning. We braved a seawatch at Pendeen but it was totally dead. Having filled up on coffee back at home, we were ready for when the wind dropped and the sun came out at lunchtime – or would it be Yank time?

It was not, of course, and a huge effort at Cot Valley produced even less than before. Rarity hunting out west in westerlies (for Yanks, in short) is extreme all-or-nothing birding. Unlike when out east, there isn’t even the padder migrants to keep you going. But, if I’m to complete my lifetime goal of finding a North American landbird in Britain and Ireland, then the slog must be undertaken …

Firecrest in Cot Valley.

A tiring day was livened up in the final hour of light, as a much better seawatch at Pendeen resulted in two Sooty, 12 Balearic and 10 Manx Shearwaters past the lighthouse, as well as singles of Arctic and Great Skuas.

Thursday 1st

Our final day of an all too short period of time away, and we gave the Cot Valley another good thrashing in the morning, to no avail. 60-odd distant geese in-off were probably Pale-bellied Brents, two male Firecrests were sparring near the top of the valley and a Raven flew around carrying a hen’s egg.

Defeated, we slowly headed back home, stopping at the Hayle again (where we scored Goosander, Spotted Redshank and a curious pink-legged Lesser Black-backed Gull) and then Stithians Reservoir (where Great Egret, three Shoveler, four Dunlin and nine Snipe headlined). 

Weird Lesser Black-backed Gull and Greenshank from the Hayle.

The company made for a fun trip away, though the birding was in the slow lane, despite 102 species logged. I like Cornwall and have some great memories of megas (Amur Falcon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grey Catbird and Dalmatian Pelican to name a few), but it isn't my first choice for rarity hunting.

Great Egret from Stithians.

Typically, in the days after our departure, Red-throated Pipit and American Golden Plover were found within 10 minutes of our house! Anyway, here’s hoping we can get to the Hebs or Northern Isles next autumn …

Friday 2nd

A day of miserable weather and work was broken up by a quick afternoon check of Tuesley and Frensham, where nothing of note was seen.

Saturday 3rd

More grim weather this morning but it had cleared by the afternoon. I’ve been doing Thursley in the last hour or two of light recently; the site really comes alive at this time and it feels good for something unusual. The big roost build ups of Pied Wagtail and Meadow Pipit draw in birds too.

Mipits at Thursley.

On one of those very rare occasions where such thinking actually pays off, while walking along the south side of Ockley Common (past Merlin Mound no less!) I clocked a female/juvenile Merlin hunting Meadow Pipits, flicking north-west as it chased them. It soon reappeared, heading back from whence it came, and appeared to perch in a birch but I couldn’t pick it out. I last saw it about an hour after the first sighting, as it zipped low past Pudmore.

Merlins are hard birds around here – this is only my third in Surrey (!), with my first coming from the exact same spot in February 2015. It lit up a fairly dour few days of birding and, as a cherry on top, was a south-west Surrey year tick, taking me to 152 and gripping back the one I missed at Shackleford.

In a thoroughly entertaining walk prior to rain falling at dusk, I also logged a single flock of 12 Snipe, a Yellow Wagtail in with some 300 Pieds to roost on Pudmore, 180 Meadow Pipits, 45 Lesser Redpolls, Crossbill and 60 House Martins.

Sunday 4th

With the Northern Isles and East Coast grip-fest deepening, I felt I had to try and get vaguely among it (without wanting to resort to twitching). The Lammas Lands’ first Little Egret of the autumn was noted as I headed to the Hoo Peninsula, to Grain, a spot that is in the early stages of a project for me.

Sat in the Thames, the Hoo Peninsula is a bleak and ugly place. But it is really underwatched, especially the sites away from Cliffe Pools. Grain is at the north-east end of the peninsula and feels rare as hell. It is tucked well down the Thames but, as the most northerly part of the north Kent coast, when one looks east the next land is Europe. It’s not somewhere for a nice day out or a dynamic day of birding, but when the wind blows east it is the closest I think I can get to a slice of poor man's east coast, certainly, within an 80-minute drive from home.

Mega habitat on the Isle of Grain.

The previous two days would have been better, as by Sunday the winds had picked up and veered south-west. Still, a five-hour trudge around the fort and battery produced Yellow-browed Warbler, three Ring Ouzels, a really striking, big and pale acredula candidate Willow Warbler and a Hobby

Steady numbers of House Martins and Swallows moved south down the Medway too, along with a few Skylarks. Plenty of Robins and Song Thrushes presumably related to new arrivals. Mosco Pool held a Marsh Harrier and 63 Pochard.

Brent Geese and Swallow from Grain.

It was a promising session and has probably tipped the balance in terms of me giving it future effort. My last three visits to the peninsula have resulted in Lapland Bunting, Turtle Dove and Marsh and Yellow-browed Warbler finds, which are enough reason to persist.

At dusk, back home, a small flock of House Martins attempted to roost in our eaves during miserable weather.

Monday 5th

Conditions seemed OK for vis-mig at Thorncombe Street but I was disappointed in my hour and a half watch, with 28 Redwings west the only notable count. After work, I made the half-hour journey to Burton Mill Pond, near Petworth, to try and connect with the Purple Heron that’s been present a few days.

Despite an hour and a half stake out I dipped – and of course Matt, who I bumped into in the car park as he arrived, scored at dusk … I did manage two Hobbies, two Kingfishers, singles of Cetti’s and Reed Warbler, Marsh Tit and some 51 Cormorants into roost as consolation.

Birds from Burton Mill Pond that aren't Purple Herons.

Tuesday 6th

With the forecast not inspiring in the immediate local area, I tried again for the heron … and dipped again! Bumping into David was a nice surprise but he and a cast that included Yellow Wagtail, Water Rail, Tawny Owl and five each of Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll failed to claw back any of a total of three hours of my life spent at this pond. And, yes, the heron was seen again later on ...

Not long after I was home, I received a message from Amy which included photos of a very striking 'monochrome' Yellow Wagtail in Hampshire, and also a call. In short, it looked very good for Eastern Yellow Wagtail, but the sole recording wasn't quite good enough quality to be sure (even though it sounded promising). Being an hour away I headed down after work to check it out. The wagtail was favouring some ploughed fields and heaps of birds were present: Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, WheatearsSkylarks and gulls. 

In strong westerlies it wasn't easy, but eventually the bird in question was seen a couple of times, albeit rather more distantly than I'd anticipated. It loosely associated with Pieds and was heard a couple of times when flushed, though I couldn't get any suitable recordings in the wind. It was certainly a striking bird, with very pale yellow undertail coverts and a different head pattern to an outrageously confusing black and white Yellow Wagtail in the same field! The latter bird had some obvious yellow in the wing, though, and a different head pattern.

Annoyingly I couldn't get remotely good images of the Eastern Yellow Wagtail, but this monochrome Western Yellow Wagtail was far more cooperative and well worthy of study. A real pitfall for anyone who visits (as it was for me), this bird is only separable from the EYW via the faint yellow in the wings, the head pattern, a shorter hind-claw and the call.

As the South-East's first Eastern Yellow Wagtail it may prove popular, though there was no sign by the time I post this on Wednesday. It was also my first Eastern Yellow Wag, though surely is a species that will become more regularly found and I wouldn't bet against it being on the Surrey list by the end of the 2020s. Still, my first WP tick since Israel (!) and a little scratch of the recent gripfest scratch.

Wednesday 7th

A relaxed continual sound recording focused session (see my piece on this here) at Shackleford from dawn. A Crossbill over (and picked up by continual recording) was a highlight as it was my first for the site. Other bits of note included three Redwings, a Yellowhammer (also recorded) and 10 Ring-necked Parakeets, which is easily my biggest count in south-west Surrey. A look at Unstead SF afterwards produced five House Martins and six Teal.

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