Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 28 December 2020

South-west Surrey big year: site reviews

This is the first of two or three reviews of the south-west Surrey big year I undertook in 2020. I’ll publish a breakdown of the final list and the status of species in another post, while a more chronological and reflective piece will be in the February edition of Birdwatch. This post examines some of the key sites, analysing their status as a birding locale both this year and pondering how they could perform into the future.

The Surrey Bird Club's south-west Surrey recording area, with the boundaries of the A31 and A281 and Hampshire and West Sussex borders.

Shackleford farmland

107 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 9/10

A gem of a site with a frankly ridiculous list of species for such a small area (a walk of the main footpaths is a little under 2 km): Short-toed Lark, Wryneck, Quail, Dunlin, Grey Partridge, Shelduck, Yellow-legged Gull (two) and Golden Plover (three) just some of the many highlights, before you even get to the marked passage of Whinchats (19 bird days), Wheatears (22) and Yellow Wagtails (16). The key is in the wildlife-friendly management of the farm which, sadly, highlights the barrenness of much of the rest of the Surrey countryside. 

Angus Stovold should take huge pride in his lack of insecticide, the dense, bushy hedgerows and plentiful margins. Birds will find habitat and that factor, combined with its position under the North Downs and in an unusually (for Surrey) flat landscape make this area a veritable oasis. Without any unusual species it’s a pleasure to walk too – even on the quietest of midsummer days, heaps of Skylarks and warblers sing, and on bleak winter mornings large flocks of larks and finches flit about the fields. The rumble of the nearby A3 make it less than ideal for vis-mig and that’s the only reason it doesn’t get 10 out of 10. 

Serene Shackleford; a quiet, wildlife-friendly patch of farmland some two miles from my front door that I didn't know existed until 2019. The crops, margins and hedgerows held many surprises this year.

Thursley Common

117 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 8/10

I’ve always loved Thursley and always will. It’s easy on the eye and the sense of loneliness you can feel on some remoter parts of the common is unique in a local sense. Obviously it’s great for birds – the heathland specialists make this a magical place to visit on a spring morning and that is well-known. But 2020 showed me that it’s ability to attract rarities is perhaps underappreciated. It’s not the heathland habitat that pulls stuff in, but the boggy land such as that on Ockley Common and Pudmore; I’m not sure there is any similar habitat anywhere in Surrey (there’s a reason Curlew still persists as a breeding bird so close to London). 

If you want to find something unusual in south-west Surrey, I think Thursley is your best shout. And the Little and Rustic Bunting duo demonstrated that in style this autumn, a time of year when one may never think to visit somewhere like Thursley. Raptors clearly love it too and my only local Merlin and Hen Harrier came here, along with the Red-footed Falcon in May. 117 species logged is my highest for a single site anywhere this year and that says a lot – Thursley is a diverse and dynamic site that can deliver at anytime. I am, however, a birder for whom the hobby offers a large slice of escapism and for that reason the common could never be my sole patch; it is just too popular, both with the general public and other birders (when something good is present!). I can only see it getting busier too, as more people and their associated dogs move to this part of Surrey. I hope, as a SSSI, it remains a semi-wilderness during these times.

Despite its increasing popularity, it's not hard to feel splendidly isolated on parts of Thursley Common. The north section feels like an eastern European bog, in contrast to the sandy heathland and patches of woodland. Its dynamism is the key to its superb bird list.

Low Weald woodland and farmland


This includes a few spots so there’s no species list (I have eBird to thank for the other site totals!). Even in south-east England there are new areas for birders to discover and discover things within – much of south Surrey, all the way from the Hampshire border to the Kent one, is ripe for exploration. It may not be spectacular in terms of rarities but, if you get lucky, then there are a few relative goodies to be unearthed year-round amid barely visited, tranquil and beautiful landscapes.

A small clearing in the Low Weald, surrounded by woodland and filled with luscious vegetation and mature grassland. There isn't much habitat like this in southern England and such areas can feel very far from modern-day Surrey. 

Tuesley Farm

92 species (6 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 7/10

Tuesley is weird one. Nowadays it’s an ugly, plastic-covered farm with little passerine life. But one small and sadly private reservoir is the south-west Surrey mecca for waders – and waders are huge currency in this part of the world. Indeed, nowhere else came close to the 10 species accrued here in 2020, including things like Ringed Plover, Greenshank and Whimbrel. It is very much a ‘quick check’ site; the rest of it isn’t worth birding. And when the res is dead, there is nothing to see – and it’s only lively for a few months of the year. But it has the power to bring in species barely imaginable at any other local site, and that feeling when you peek over the bank and see something good makes this a top-five south-west Surrey spot.

Tiny and off-limits to the public, this postage stamp of a reservoir near Milford has a long list of fine species to its name, despite being created less than a decade ago. It's a shame its situated in the middle of a relative habitat desert.

The River Wey

92 species (2 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 6/10

This too accounts for a few sites, from Tilford to Shalford, but really focuses on the area from Godalming to Unstead (for which the species total is for). It was pivotal during lockdown and was often my single outing of the day at this time. I had some good bits – White-fronted Geese, Water Pipit, Cetti’s Warbler, Little Ringed Plover, Jack Snipe and Lesser Whitethroat are all notable locally to varying degrees. I found nothing especially outstanding bar the geese, but that wasn’t really the point; the fact such a fun place to bird is situated two roads down from me really hit home in 2020. It gets pretty busy and much of the best habitat can't be accessed, but a visit on a quiet morning can be ace. 

The scenic part of the River Wey near Farncombe is the closest birding site I have to home. I'd barely given it attention until this year. It winds through floodplains, small copses, ditches and pools and in the summer is alive with plants and insects.

Frensham Common and Ponds

95 species (4 seen nowhere else in SWS this year); 4/10

Four might be a bit harsh but the truth is I expected a lot more from Frensham this year, certainly in terms of unusual stuff. Indeed, a single and fairly brief visit during an April shower brought two of the four species that I saw here and nowhere else (Little Gull and Arctic Tern). Otherwise, more than 50 visits yielded just two ‘unique’ species: Mediterranean Gull and Pintail. For a site with such an illustrious historical list, this was disappointing. 

Both ponds are offensively busy – more so than I can ever remember – with outdoor swimmers crashing around the Great Pond at dawn and troops of people and dogs noisily marching by the Little Pond at dusk. There is little sense of peace here, even early in the morning. It was also the furthest site from home, which didn't sit great with my sense of a local big year. I dipped the first south-west Surrey Scaup for 14 years and missed Bittern despite copious targeted visits as well. The area seems to be suffering from perhaps its poorest coverage in decades – I hope the glory days of this once elite Surrey site are not over.

Frensham Little Pond at sunrise. Both of the Frensham ponds have a rich ornithological history but are suffering more than ever from disturbance and lessened coverage.

And that’s pretty much all the main sites. I should mention Unstead SF, which delivered a few niceties and, for a while at least, offers a quiet birding backwater. The discovery of The Hurtwood was another reminder that there are sites to be found out there – it also encouraged me to try harder along the Greensand Ridge, where Wes at Leith Hill and Dave at Black Down have been gaining results for years. I guess I should touch on my windows at home, too, for they offered an unorthodox outlet during strictest lockdown. 

And of course, Thorncombe Street, a bit forgotten and collecting dust this year. It remains the best local spot for vis-mig (for which 2020 was a very poor year) and Snowdenham Mill Pond is surprisingly one of the top water bodies in the area. I’m not sure where I’ll do most of my birding in 2021, but generally the time spent at the above sites was a pleasure and many memories were made at them. 

Luxury vis-mig facilities at Thorncombe Street. Will it be back to patch in 2021?

1 comment:

Steve Gale said...

Excellent round-up Ed, enjoyed that!