After the chilly first half of February, the second period couldn’t have felt more different. For the most part it’s been mild and bright – especially the past week or so – and these embryonic days of spring are some of my favourites; after the slog of a grey British winter, those first moments of light and life are truly magical. Plenty of species are in song now, reports of the first summer migrants on the south coast have filtered through and it’s the optimum period to look for some of the more elusive local residents. Good times ...
|Local Goshawks have been enjoying the warm and sunny weather.|
A dramatic change in weather – mild and, by the afternoon, bright. The garden Blackcap was clearly delighted with this and sang at many intervals during the day.
I biked along the river to Peasmarsh and back, focusing birding efforts along the cycle path up by Stone Bridge. For the second day it was really quite mild, though the south-westerly was noticeable and rain fell lightly. Along the track, the marsh to the south held a pair of Shoveler and four Teal, while a Reed Bunting sang and a Water Rail called. A Chiffchaff showed well and a few Siskins bombed over as well. Not bad at all – this spot is easy to check, too, and although it seems very dependent on recent rainfall, it’s reasonable to think the habitat here could support a passage Garganey in a month or so.
|Chiffchaff at Peasmarsh.|
Later in the day, while at home, the Blackcap sang with gusto at various points. A little after 10:30, while daydreaming out the window, a tight flock of waders heading north-west had me leaping out of my chair. I was just able to get bins on them as they became smaller and smaller: Golden Plovers, perhaps not a great surprise after all the recent weather, but still a lovely record.
The Blackcap was again in fine voice in the garden throughout the day.
A quick cycle along the river with a break at the Flooded Field gate at Unstead SF, where six Little Egrets were among the increased number of cows, along with a few Pied Wagtails. Two Egyptian Geese flew north.
|Little Egrets at Unstead. Numbers of this species seem ever so slightly down this winter.|
Highlights from occasionally glances out the kitchen window included a female Kestrel flying east and the male Blackcap flitting about in the hedgerow.
Despite the strong south-easterly wind, it was mild and relatively bright as I headed out along the river first thing. A slow-paced stroll to Unstead and back ended up being of those sessions you get at this time of year when it really doesn’t matter if you see nothing ‘of note’: lots of different species were singing, there were plenty of signs of the upcoming breeding season and that hopeful feeling of spring was in the air – bliss!
The best of these seasonal indicators was a Robin pair engaged in a courtship ritual on the path to Bunkers Hill Farm. They were oblivious to my presence as they cocked their tails and mirrored each other’s moves, before disappearing into the bramble thicket. In total at Unstead Water Meadows, some 11 species (including two Reed Buntings) were singing, two Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming, three Mandarin drakes displayed their sails to an uninterested female and a Stock Dove pair furtively examined a nest hole. Other notable bits included Little Egret, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk.
|Unstead Water Meadows action.|
A further two Little Egrets were on the Flooded Field at Unstead SF, along with a Coot. Up at North Meadow a Blue Tit pair carried nesting material into a new box and three Teal burst out of Pond Wood, while an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull flew north-west. Plenty on insects were on the wing in the mild conditions and this meant Chiffchaffs – no fewer than five were knocking about the Works Field, including two singers.
Here, I was surprised to bump into the Siberian Chiffchaff, which was typically elusive in the sallows. This bird – presuming it’s the same – hasn’t been reported since December and seems to like hanging out at the far and difficult to access south end. The Cetti’s Warbler occasionally burst into song in the Lagoon, too. In all, a pleasant morning, with 56 species notched up by the time I’d finished at Unstead.
|The Unstead SF tristis.|
A very long walk took me to the Greensand (High Weald) Ridge between Hambledon and Thorncombe Street. Here, a remarkable stroke of fortune came my way a little after 11:00. I picked up what seemed to be two gulls tracking the ridge east, having arrived from high west. It soon became apparent that the leading bird was an adult Great Black-backed Gull – result! This is a hard bird locally and high-flying individuals on migration in February and March, presumably cutting overland en route to northerly breeding grounds, offer the best chance to connect with the species.
Attention soon turned to the trailing bird, which was flying rather more slowly and lower. It soon became apparent it was no gull, and as it came closer it took on an increasing Marsh Harrier-like jizz. Eventually, it passed directly in front of me and I was able to pick out a cream cap, confirming it as a female-type Marsh Harrier. An even greater result! It was a notably dark bird and it cruised out of site. Amazingly, some 45 minutes later, what was surely the same individual was seen further along the Greensand Ridge near Buckland by Steve G. Wes then had it over Capel shortly after. Incredible stuff … perhaps a young bird from the Arun Valley prompted by the spring conditions to go on a bit of a wander?
Another lengthy Weald walk and despite a continued spring-like atmosphere I didn’t see much of note, save the odd Marsh Tit and a particularly thunderous Great Spotted Woodpecker, which seemed to be channelling its inner Black Woodpecker. The quiet feeling changed right at the end of the walk, near Hambledon, when two Hawfinches were heard uttering their ‘tic’ call from atop a tree before flying in typically undulating fashion low over a copse. This is one of south-west Surrey’s residents I least understand – my records for 2020 were all rather disparate and few in number. I’m sure they breed in the Low Weald, but who knows where …
The Green Sandpiper was again in roost at Tuesley – perhaps it’s been here all winter and wasn’t cold weather related after all. A Greylag Goose flew over and a Buzzard observed goings on from a polytunnel, but it was generally quiet. Garden highlights later in the day included Blackcap and Bullfinch.
My first Thursley visit in just over a week, and much change. Again, it was mild and bright, and a really strong southerly gained momentum during the morning. While in recent visits Stonechat has only just made it onto checklists, today was different – at least 10 birds, including males back on their territories and in song, as well as pairs feeding frenetically and presumably passing through. The recent run of spring conditions has clearly prompted this early mover to get its skates on. During the rest of the year at Thursley, it’s just a Stonechat, but today their presence meant more.
|Stonechat action at Thursley.|
Another new arrival was Skylark. Absent in the depths of winter, at least three birds were in song and two chased each other around Ockley Common. Woodlarks too were prominent with up to five in voice. Singing Reed Buntings were dotted around the site, while a flock of some 50 Starlings headed high north-east, perhaps on the move. A couple of Crossbills flew over as well. I bumped into Dave near South Bog. Like me, he was scouring through the Lesser Redpolls, following Doug and Penny’s report of a candidate Mealy at the weekend. Lessers show great variation at this time of year and we saw quite the range, including Twite-like buffy individuals and bright, white worn ones.
|Woodlark on Shrike Hill.|
However, one bird, which we observed at close range for a few minutes as it perched in a burned bush, was surely Doug and Penny’s Mealy Redpoll: white underparts and flanks with no buffy or brown tones whatsoever, a big white rump and broad white wing bar, cold plumage tones and a generally plump size. Annoyingly, it dropped out of view before I got my camera out. Dave managed some poor-quality shots, but we were happy with it being a Mealy and indeed there has been a small influx into south and east England since the cold snap.
Another spring-like day, though with the strong southerly wind still in place. An hour on the Lammas Lands was pleasant, if a bit quiet. I counted 16 Snipe (no Jack), along with only my second Water Rail here and a female Kestrel. Four Reed Buntings included two males back on territory and in full song. There was more Stonechat action – six birds were made up of three pairs and, while at least one pair breeds here, it seems likely that some of these were on passage. The best record, however, was a high-flying Skylark – my first at the Lammas Lands since 2015 (and I’m unaware of any since!). The garden Blackcap was in voice later in the day.
|Stonechat on the Lammas Lands.|
A much greyer day than of late, though it was still mild. A short walk around Thorncombe Street was very quiet, save a couple of singing Red-legged Partridges, a Siskin and the Gatestreet Farm rookery noisily going about their early spring business. Some eight Mandarin on Snowdenham Mill Pond included displaying drakes, the dark Red-crested Pochard x Mallard hybrid was present and Grey Wagtail and Greenfinch were among the singers.
Following the mild run of southerlies, it switched to north-west wind overnight and coupled with clear skies meant a light frost was on the ground. I got to Thursley early. Here, I hoped to record the Rustic Bunting singing but it only gave a few spurts of song, generally keeping quiet. No doubt the cold weather was putting him off. The two Little Buntings were about too, as well as a couple of Pheasants enticed by the copious amounts of seed, but I didn’t hang around especially long.
|Buntings, Greylag and Pheasant at Thursley.|
A male Crossbill was singing and a handful of others were seen. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t relocate the Mealy Redpoll for a photo. Indeed, only a handful of Lesser Redpolls were observed. Other bits included Water Rails at Pudmore and Birchy Pond, a Grey Wagtail and three flyover Lesser Black-backed Gulls – a triumvirate of Thursley year ticks.
I took the scenic route home, and a male Yellowhammer singing in the sunshine forced me to stop and admire it for a while. By the time I was back, coffee in hand, I’d seen no fewer than 70 species – not bad for a February morning in the local area. I missed Collared Dove and House Sparrow too!
|Male 'yammer' soaking up the rays.|
The full moon cast a glowing brightness over my frosty route from home towards the River Wey. Today, I headed west instead of east, walking to Eashing and back. I don't visit this stretch very often but it holds a wonderful and undisturbed (thus, however, inaccessible) bit of alder woodland. I notched up 45 species by the time I was home. A decent amount of birds were in song but really it felt like a fine winter's morning, as opposed to early spring.
|The 'snow moon' over Godalming.|
Notable bits included a Water Rail, out in the open near the weir before flying to cover, two Mandarin, Reed Bunting, five Grey Wagails, two Bullfinches and a Chiffchaff. Three Red-legged Partridges were more of a surprise and included one on a cottage roof in Eashing. Perhaps the best bird was Marsh Tit and at least two were singing in the alder carr. This is now the only site within a 3 km radius of Godalming town centre that holds this species ...
The switch to a north-easterly overnight meant a heavy fog rolled in. Perhaps, then, no surprise that two Little Grebes and a few Moorhens were sound recorded over my house in the small hours. Furthermore, a fresh pair of the former species were on Snowdenham Mill Pond first thing, and my first of the year at Unstead SF were on the Dry Lagoon shortly after.
In total, I recorded 45 species during a usual circuit of Unstead. The most impressive were the Redwings – a bare minimum of 250 roosting all along Trunley Heath Road, mainly in ivy-clad trees, with a few individuals singing, which you can hear in the low quality recording below. There are not many weeks left before these guys are long gone ...
Other bits included the Cetti's Warbler and three Chiffchaffs around Dry Lagoon, where a new Coot pair had joined the grebes, singles of Teal, Little Egret, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Siskin and Reed Bunting. Blue Tit and Jackdaw were seen carrying nesting material and a Kestrel flew over Flooded Field, the latter bettered by a second-year Peregrine that shot powerfully north over South Meadow.
Hawks and 'peckers
As mentioned earlier, late February through early April is the ideal time to look for some of the more elusive residents of south-west Surrey. Lockdown has hindered these efforts to an extent, but I’ve still been able to get out and monitor some sites.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker activity has been relatively promising, albeit rather hit and miss. A couple of recent haunts have been vacant so far, though new ones have been discovered too. It’s still early days, however, and March is generally better for this unobtrusive species.
|Tiny 'peckers ...|
Goshawk action has been a little more reliable, especially during the last week or so when the sun has been out and there’s been a fair breeze. I’ve been lucky enough to see some display, but generally birds have still been rather restrained. Like the 'peckers, action should pick up in March. Wherever you live in Surrey, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for these species in the coming weeks – I’m sure there are more out there than is generally thought.
|... and big hawks.|