Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Wednesday, 31 March 2021

T-Shirt weather

Spring has arrived with a bang in the past week, with near-record March temperatures, prolonged southerlies and bucket loads of common migrants arriving in England (and indeed Surrey). This has given a late burst of life to an otherwise average month locally and, coupled with our new-found freedom (sort of!), it’s been a fun few days.

The Wheatears have arrived ...

Friday 26th

A day of April-like showers had seen the first proper fall of Wheatears in the county – and indeed South-East England – and I headed out to Shackleford after work to try my luck. It’s not often such plans come off but today it did, with a rather soggy and tired looking female Wheatear perched in the set aside. To think that, just a few weeks ago, this bird may have been dodging the feet of elephants on a central African savanna – and could be on a Highland mountain by mid-April – is a concept that will never cease to captivate me. I watched her for a while as she became more alert, zipping around the mounds of earth looking for food while the sun began to set. And at this flick of a white-rumped switch, spring migration was officially underway …

The first of the year at Shackleford.

Saturday 27th

It was rather cold and breezy this morning, but stunningly bright and I headed to Tuesley first thing. The Green Sandpiper was again in roost – I’d love to know where it spends the daytime. Things were otherwise rather quiet, until a dapper male Wheatear flicked up from the bank and onto a fence. I observed him for a while as the sun gradually rose, unveiling the wonderful pastel shades of his plumage. What a stunner. A female Kestrel was hunting the wider area too.

Tuesley highlights.

Shackleford was up next, and I circuited the main fields. The wind had picked up a bit but heaps of Skylarks were in voice, with some birds fighting over territories on the alfalfa. The flock of Fieldfares was still about, a male Sparrowhawk received grief from two Carrion Crows and a couple of Red-legged Partridges included one in cumbersome flight over Cuckoo Corner. 

Fieldfares and Skylark at Shackleford.

When things had warmed up a little the female Wheatear popped up and looked much more sprightly compared with yesterday, as she busily zipped around the set aside, feeding up before the next leg of her journey.

More Wheatear action ...

With spring most certainly in my step, I went on to Thursley and worked my way around High Ground, avoiding the inevitable big crowd at Bunting Bushes. There wasn’t heaps to shout about, though a Greenfinch over Will Reeds was very notable and there were at least eight Chiffchaffs in voice, suggesting a recent arrival. A female Sparrowhawk soared over Shrike Hill and a male Crossbills sang from Pine Avenue.

Later in the day, having looked at a couple of houses with my partner in the Arun Valley, we decided to take a pitstop at the parking area by the ‘Triangle’ at The Burgh before heading home. We got out the car to lean on the gate when one of those freaky moments of fortune struck, as an immature White-tailed Eagle cruised overhead, being mobbed by Buzzards and Red Kites

White-tailed Eagle at The Burgh.

Up to two of the Isle of Wight reintroduction birds have been frequenting the valley for about a fortnight (though none had been seen for four days) but this was extreme fluke – I’d been there for literally four minutes when it went over. I didn’t have my bins with me, but thankfully the camera was in the car and I was able to get some record shorts. It lazily headed off to the north-east. A truly jammy and unexpected spectacle over the Sussex countryside.

Sunday 28th

A rather lazy day, with a very strong south-westerly for the most part. At Frensham Great Pond mid-morning 22 or more Sand Martins were swirling over the water in the breeze, joined briefly by a Swallow – my first of the year and the second earliest I’ve ever seen the species in Britain. There was no hoped for Sandwich Tern or Osprey, with four Pochard, 42 Tufted Duck, a singing Firecrest, three Chiffchaffs and a Little Egret making up the numbers.

There was a big push of Swallows through the county and it was no surprise to see two over Unstead SF later that afternoon, where I quickly popped my head in during a casual walk along the river. Other highlights from the outing included a Little Egret on the Lammas Lands and pleasant numbers of singing Chiffchaffs.

Monday 29th

A glorious day out west. I’m not a fan of twitches in residential areas but this was required at sunrise in Exmouth, where Britain’s third – and the Western Palearctic’s third – Northern Mockingbird had been present for a couple of months. This is a common bird in the US but it was rather novel watching this individual emerge from it’s holly bush roost, before disappearing onto a garden lawn. It was a bit of a tick and run job, as a few more folks appeared and it seemed right to move on …

Mockingbird at first light.

The next destination was the picturesque harbour of Newlyn, in western Cornwall, for the main target of the day. Here a cracking first-winter American Herring Gull had been in situ for a little while and it performed insanely well on the pebbly harbour, showing down to a couple of feet as it feasted on tinned tuna and bread. At times, it was too close for the camera. 

Showy smithsonianus.

Such views allowed for close examination of the densely barred upper tail and under tail coverts, the dark band on greater coverts, a very dark tail, the velvety brown plumage and a long, Glaucous-like bill. What a cracker, and the first properly twitchable individual in England for 12 years … other bits noted in and around the harbour included two Shags, a Rock Pipit and a small flock of Turnstones.

More AHG action.

With both prizes in the bag the pressure was off, allowing for a splendidly relaxed and enjoyable rest of the day in the West Country. I decided to pop my head in a St Gothian Sands and a female White Wagtail was one of the first birds noted, pottering around on the grass. On the pool, an adult Iceland Gull was rather unexpected, especially as an adult Glaucous Gull has been here for weeks (though I later found out than this Iceland has been a sporadic visitor here recently). Two Shelduck and a singing Skylark were also present.

Bonus Iceland Gull ...

The scenic route home was taken, winding through the picturesque country lanes of Dartmoor. The day of luck continued when prospecting a suitable bridge with a fast-flowing stream underneath: a Dipper bobbing away, splitting its time between singing and snorkelling under the water. 

... and Dipper.

Peregrine, a Yellowhammer pair and a male Stonechat were nice observations from the car in the general area, concluding a wonderfully successful and enjoyable outing. It doesn’t feel like twitching when it’s like this – more a memorable day out, going for a suite of birds at a range of sites, while birding at a relatively relaxed place. Hopefully there will be a few more outings like this during what looks set to be a year-long ‘staycation’.

Tuesday 30th

It was misty and still at Tuesley first thing. The wintering Green Sandpiper was on the far shore but there was little else doing, so I headed to Thursley, where visibility was poor. Despite that, plenty of birds were in song and it felt mild – perfect for an early Willow Warbler I thought, and to my delight I soon heard one singing its lazy song near Will Reeds. A March ‘wilwa’ is always good value … another was singing at Francis Copse later on, too.

Pudmore held at least two Water Rails and a Snipe, as well as some 16 Black-headed Gulls – if the boardwalks remain down then there's no reason why the latter couldn't attempt to breed here, given the suitable small islands. Pleasingly, the male Curlew seems to have been joined by a female – two birds were seen briefly in flight over Ockley and the other bird looked good for a female, but I couldn’t be sure. A late Redwing hissed overhead, a few Crossbills sang and excellent numbers of Woodlark (12) and Skylark (10) were notched up.

Crossbill and Black-headed Gulls.

Dartford Warbler numbers, however, remained very poor, with only four noted. A couple of Blackcaps were new for the Thursley year list but I failed to score my first ever March Redstart or Tree Pipit, despite both being reported on other south-west Surrey heaths later in the day!

Wednesday 31st

It felt pretty good at Shackleford first thing, with rather hazy conditions in the gentle south-easterly. A male Wheatear flicked out and over the ploughed field early on and I thought my luck could be in for something like a Ring Ouzel or Black Red. As it happened, the Wheatear was as good as it got, though two flyover Ravens and a Cormorant (notable here) weren’t bad.

Wheatear, Raven and Cormorant.

Other bits included three Red-legged Partridges, singing Chiffchaffs (two) and Blackcap, a northbound Lesser Black-backed Gull and a late, lone Fieldfare. Later on, in the almost May-like muggy and mild conditions, I checked out Tuesley. It felt birdy and indeed three Swallows and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls hinted at movement.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Three Mandarin flew west and some 56 Black-headed Gulls included a copulating pair, while a Linnet was singing near the mobile homes. At home later on, I heard a Grey Wagtail from the kitchen window.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Second gear

Spring is slow arriving this year and local birding has been quiet this past week, as indeed it has for most of March. Save the early Sand Martins, migration has been at a premium locally, with a bit of Meadow Pipit movement and not much else to report. So, this week I took my foot off the gas a little bit (at least in terms of the usual effort I make), trying to refresh ahead of 'spring proper'.

A Surrey Whooper Swan.

Friday 19th

I had the day off and ended up enjoying an excellent day in the field. It started rather inauspiciously at Thursley – a prolonged band of drizzle and a strong north-easterly greeted me following my pre-dawn hike out to Pudmore. It was all worth it, though, when a male Curlew began display flighting. The soundscape and setting made me feel like I was very far from Surrey indeed – rather nice after this mighty long lockdown.

Following the concern about the late return of the Curlews this year it’s good that one male is back on territory. He performed several flights, always returning to the same patch of sedges on Ockley Common. The weather cleared, too, and the list of notable other species included one each of Little and Rustic Buntings, 45 Lesser Redpolls, four Crossbills and Water Rail.

I headed to Crooksbury Common afterwards, hoping again for the crossbill sp., but didn’t see much during my hour-and-a-half on site. I managed flyover Herring Gull and Grey Heron, as well as 30 'normal' Crossbills. While at Crooksbury, news of a Whooper Swan at Earlswood Lakes broke. This came amid a mass departure of the species from British and western European breeding grounds back to Iceland; the bird in question had been part of a group of six that presumably wintered somewhere like northern France.

Anyway, after months of being well behaved I decided I’d go for it – and how worth it that decision was. In beautiful sunshine, the one remaining adult Whooper Swan gave crippling views on the upper lake of this site that was new for me. It even called a bit, and was getting some grief off one of the many local Mute Swans. After some 15 minutes of observation it decided it’d had enough, and it flew west (it was relocated later at Mercers CP). 

A really quality encounter, much like how you see them in Iceland. Presumably this group ditched down the previous evening in the grim weather, attracted by the many Mutes (I counted 28). Why this one didn’t go with its fellow Whoopers I’m not sure … whatever the case, a welcome Surrey lifer, making up a little for the Smew I didn’t twitch earlier in lockdown. Other bits of note here included three Pochard and a Treecreeper

Later that night, I enjoyed an encounter with a local Barn Owl. It didn’t appear until long after sunset, hence the very grainy image (taken on a super high ISO!). No fewer than six Tawny Owls vocalising in the surrounding woodland made for an evocative night. On the way home, I stuck the microphone out at Shackleford as a bit of an experiment. It picked up nothing major, but the level of Little Owl activity was surprising with at least two birds vocalising often throughout the night. The recording below sounded as if it was very close to the mic indeed.

Saturday 20th

Birding is different every day and, after the excitement of yesterday, today proved underwhelming and indeed a little frustrating – this despite the slightly rare feeling conditions. I circuited Tuesley Farm first thing but, aside from the roosting Green Sandpiper, there was little else doing in the mist. Shortly after I left Dave had a Great Egret over Enton, which I surely would have picked up at Tuesley had I been there a little later.

Green Sand action.

Snowdenham Mill Pond held four Gadwall and a territorial male Mute Swan. I then headed to Chiddingfold Forest but it was very quiet indeed – singing Firecrest, Chiffchaff and Yellowhammer (the latter along Plaistow Road) headlined, along with Marsh Tit, a Bullfinch pair and a small flock of Fieldfares.

I decided to visit Tice’s Meadow afterwards, where I knew I’d at least be guaranteed some birds. This included the first-winter Brent Goose that has curiously been wintering here with the Canada Geese. It was asleep the whole time I was there. The Black-necked Grebe, present a month, showed nicely on The Workings, close enough to make out its red eye and moulting nape and head feathers. Other bits included a handful of Wigeon, a single Shoveler, four Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a Chiffchaff.

Tice's Meadow headliners.

Later on, I spent a miserable time not seeing a Black Redstart that had been reported at Shackleford – a species I’ve wanted to see or find at this site for a while. I’ve missed two in the last few months. A Little Grebe on the polo pitch reservoir and a vocalising Little Owl (the latter perhaps not such a surprise given the noc-mig results) were as much consolation as the first parts of their respective names.

Sunday 21st 

A bit of a lie in this morning but I eventually headed to the water meadows around Burpham – I’d wanted to visit here for a while to understand why it gets so many more wildfowl than 'my' stretch of river between Shalford and Unstead. If you took the best elements of such sites as Shalford, Lammas Lands and Unstead Water Meadows, you’d get something a bit like Burpham – it has pools and ditches aplenty and no public access, meaning it gets wildfowl numbers the south-west Surrey birder could only dream of.

I counted some 90 Wigeon as they grazed peacefully on the meadows. This bird is a genuine scarcity in south-west Surrey, yet merely 4km away it’s a distant story … I also tallied up 21 Teal, a Lesser Redpoll, singing Treecreeper and Chiffchaff and a heard-only Ring-necked Parakeet (another species that’s hard to see in south-west Surrey). My main quarry eluded me, until I scanned a large pool along the towpath south of Willow Lodge – four Pintail, two pairs complete with handsome drakes, feeding away merrily. 

At least one Pintail has been in this area since 9 March and it seems up to eight are on site. Again, in south-west Surrey, this has become a very rare bird indeed (it’s always been scarce in outer Surrey) and six is a fine modern-day count. Unfortunately, while there is the odd pool, scrape and undisturbed stretch of water meadow around my way, there is no area that has the ‘perfect storm’ combination of all these factors. And that’s probably why I haven’t seen a Pintail in south-west Surrey away from Frensham Great Pond since 2015 … 

Monday 22nd

A Sparrowhawk flew over the garden at lunchtime.

Tuesday 23rd

A Blackcap, presumably the wintering male, was singing in the garden over the road at the end of the day.

Wednesday 24th

A circuit of Tuesley in misty conditions felt ripe for something good, but produced nothing of note, save a small party of Fieldfares and a singing Chiffchaff.

Thursday 25th

Despite the sunshine that graced the first hour or two of the morning, it felt wintry, with a light frost slowly turning into mist. I was at Thursley early doors and headed out to Pudmore. The usual species included Water Rail, Snipe, Lesser Redpoll and Crossbill, while two Chiffchaffs were in song. The male Curlew performed a couple of lazy display flights, and also landed on Pudmore briefly, but even he wasn’t feeling the spring love this morning. 

The male Curlew patiently waiting for spring and the return of his mate.

I circuited Shackleford next, where it really did feel like winter – a flock of 60 Fieldfares and a Raven were the best birds, along with two Red-legged Partridges and a Lesser Black-backed Gull

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Northerlies and westerlies

The past week could be summed up in similar fashion to my last post – a wintry feel, but with some hints of spring. That said, it’s probably felt even less spring-like of late, with either chilly northerlies or strong westerlies predominating. Things have been steady thus, but with the odd bone of migration being chucked my way I’m not complaining, and the longer-term forecast suggests a welcome switch to southerlies. Bring on the migrants!

Peregrine action from this past week.

Thursday 11th

A blustery and showery day. Window observations from home revealed a steady east / north-east passage of gulls, including more than 50 Common Gulls and four Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

LBBG cruising over.

Friday 12th

Another very windy day with some heavy showers forecast. I figured I’d try and twitch the weather and opted for Frensham Great Pond. As I arrived, rain began to fall and it soon turned into a deluge. Scanning from the south side I noticed a swirling flock of gulls – about 60, which seemed a decent number for here for the time of year. There were mainly Black-headed Gulls, but I soon picked up an adult Mediterranean Gull – result!

A fine looking gull ...

I fired up my camera but upon getting back on the flock it was clear there were many more than one. In fact, there were no fewer than 16, after a lot of counting and checking in rather trying conditions. It was quite an encounter and made all the more evocative by the fact many of the birds were calling. Eight of them didn’t linger, powering away north with most of the Black-headed Gulls, but 11 dropped onto the water to rest, which was a novel sight. Med Gull is a tricky bird locally but this was quite a spectacle.

In this photo there are 13 of the Meds (plus two BHGs).

A rather recent phenomenon in the South-East has been the overland migration of Med Gulls in March and April. This is probably due to a burgeoning winter population in the south and west (Cornwall, Dorset, southern Ireland, Wales etc) which is swelled by birds from the continent (many British ringing recoveries are from the Low Countries and Poland).

Presumably, come the spring, many migrate back east over southern Britain and their broody feelings means they're especially vocal, rendering them detectable as they pass over at height. Last year several flocks were recorded over Surrey in April (including counts of 30 and 20) and presumably this trend will continue in the years to come. Black-headed Gulls move back to the continent at this time of year and indeed 45 or more were at Frensham.

Club Med at Frensham.

Four Pochard, two Chiffchaffs and a Common Gull made up the supporting cast. A quick check at Tuesley on the way back yielded no Meds, but 32 Black-headed Gulls had perhaps been pushed down by the same shower.

Pochard oblivious to the ongoing Med madness ...

Saturday 13th

A really windy morning, with gusts of up to 22 miles-per-hour, complete with a mix of squally, heavy showers and sunshine. Such weather isn’t much good for any form of birding around here so I decided to walk a couple of sites that I hadn’t yet visited this year. First up was Winkworth Arboretum, where a familiar line-up of species was encountered. This included two Grey Wagtails (singing males), a Kingfisher pair, five Mandarin and four Little Grebes, all of which brought a splash of colour to proceedings. I also noted a Red Kite and a juvenile female Sparrowhawk.

It was really breezy by the time I reached Painshill Farm, near Dunsfold. The usual fare here included Skylark, five Red-legged Partridges and two Bullfinches, plus a male Yellowhammer, which was presumably the bird that held territory in the exact same hedgerow last year. I always feel compelled to raise my camera to the latter species, which is a true favourite of mine. Flyover Crossbill and Lesser Redpoll were rather more unexpected, a Buzzard was carrying nesting material, a female Kestrel was around the farm buildings and a noisy Raven headed north-east, too.

Male Yellowhammer.

Bird of the walk, however, was an adult Peregrine that shot low east over the lane, spooking a big flock of Woodpigeons. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but the spate of Peg records in the Low Weald this winter is really notable – it’s normally a great scarcity here and, indeed, there are only two known nest sites in south-west Surrey (both at the north of the region). I’m unsure what’s going on – these could all just be wintering birds to be fair – but I have a feeling a pair has set up shop somewhere in the wider landscape. Where is anyone’s guess. A tree perhaps? Or maybe a building at the inaccessible Dunsfold Aerodrome? The below map accounts for my records in the Low Weald this winter …

Low Weald Peregrine sightings during December to March from 2020-2021 (top) & 2010-2019 (bottom).

I stuck my head in at Tuesley before heading home. This produced a fly through Sand Martin, which was very nice to see, along with a few Meadow Pipits, five Herring Gulls and a Chiffchaff. The morning concluded with 58 species seen, which wasn’t too bad given the conditions.

Mipit during a break in the weather.

A late afternoon circuit of Bonhurst Farm was quiet, though a male Little Owl sang to the north, a small flock of Fieldfares and Redwings were around the orchard and a male Kestrel hunted over Birtley Brook. 

Sunday 14th

A smart, summer-plumaged Little Egret was a surprise beside the entrance track to the Mellersh Farm shop at Compton. At Shackleford, my first Meadow Pipit push of the season was noted. This passage, which peaks in late March and early April, is a real favourite of mine and one of the first signs of 'spring proper' locally. I only tallied 22, all in ones or twos heading low north, but it was still nice to see.

Showy Little Egret.

I circuited the main fields in bright and cool conditions, with the westerly having abated a little overnight. A large flock of Fieldfares – 100 or more – were stocking up in the alfalfa, while a group of Linnets worked their way around the site, perhaps as many as 80. Two Red-legged Partridges seemed paired up, a Great Tit did a fine impression of a Nuthatch and a second-year male Peregrine shot low over the fields, spooking pretty much everything in its wake.

Peregrine, Fieldfares and Linnets.

Monday 15th

I was at Thursley first thing and headed out to Pudmore, where there was still no Curlew to be seen or heard. There has been increasing anxiety among the locals in recent days – this species has historically returned in mid-February but, for the last decade, it’s been early to mid-March. Last year the first male was back on 12th; three adults were present with a pair presumed to have nested. Hopefully one will be back soon ... Two Tufted Duck and a Snipe were on Pylon Pool but it was quiet in this area. Given the recent drop in numbers some five Dartford Warblers was an OK return. This included two singing males. 

The weirdest encounter came at the end of the session, right by Truxford Corner near Thursley Road – a ticking Little Bunting flying overhead. Of course, this will have been one of the wintering duo roving around, but I certainly haven’t seen either of them so far from Ockley (Truxford being a little under a mile away). I then relocated it in some gorse before it shot off north-east … I’m not sure what it was doing or why it was alone, but it was the duller bird – the one I found back in mid-October last year – and the entire encounter was similar to that day. Which was quite nice.

Tuesday 16th

Noc-mig during the small hours was quiet, save a light passage of Redwings.

Wednesday 17th

A splendid early spring session at Shackleford. In total I logged 50 species – a new personal best for me at this site. The moderate north-west wind, coupled with clear conditions overnight, had me anticipating Meadow Pipit movement and it was soon apparent this was the case, with small groups of threes and fours bombing over at sunrise. During the first hour I clocked 195 heading high north-west, with groups reaching up to eight and nine in size. It tailed off quite dramatically after that and I ended on 205. A silent, high-flying alba wagtail with one of the mipit groups was probably a White Wagtail. Lovely stuff.

High-flying mipit.

Mipits weren’t the only things moving. A few small flocks of Redwings, Fieldfares and Starlings headed high north-east, along with a scattering of Chaffinches and a Lesser Redpoll. Nine Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the same direction were undoubtedly on a long journey as well. A poke around the cover crops proved productive as the decent Chaffinch flock was still in situ and had reeled in at least one female Brambling – it’s been a very poor winter for the latter species around here and this was my first since 28 November. A Yellowhammer was also flying around this area, a Chiffchaff called by the wildfowling pond and a Redwing sang nearby.

Other bits included a Lapwing, which was initially on the set aside but clearly wasn’t settled, and eventually relocated to the alfalfa. This species could breed here but I fear the number of corvids means any prospective pair would be reluctant to try. Three Ring-necked Parakeets flew around to the north, four Red-legged Partridges were knocking about, a Kestrel pair noisily bonded with each other and two Teal were on the reedy pond.

Red-legged Partridge, Coot and Lapwing.

Thursday 18th

I decided to head to Crooksbury Common, following the interesting crossbill species that Jeremy trapped and ringed the previous day. Despite four-and-a-half hours of searching and staking out, joined intermittently by Kit and Gerry, I couldn’t locate it, even though at least 30 (and possibly as many as 70) Crossbills were loitering in the area. Interestingly, these included a striking wing-barred male; shades of the controversial Farnham Heath ‘Two-barred’ from 2014, complete with whopping white tertial crescents.

A 'two-barred' Crossbill at Crooksbury.

There are a lot of differing opinions about Jeremy’s bird. I have little experience with Two-barred Crossbill, having seen the species on just two occasions (and not since 2013), and many more folks have greater knowledge on crossbills than I. But I do find it curious that, in a winter that’s been awful for Two-barreds in Britain (none since early September, which was on Shetland!), one would turn up in Surrey at a site that evidently has some wing-barred Commons … that said, the individual from yesterday had some really striking features – not least the ideal-looking tertials, passable wing-bar size and short uppertail coverts with dark pattern – and to be honest I wouldn’t be surprised if the BBRC accept it, should it be submitted.

Crooksbury is a neat, compact little site and there was enough sideshow entertainment during the Crossbill stakeout. Dartford Warbler seemed to have done OK here compared to other local sites and I had at least five, along with four Woodlarks and three Stonechats. Finches were well represented with seven species, including a male and female Brambling. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls and 25 Meadow Pipits went over, a Sparrowhawk pair engaged in full, stooping display, a male Kestrel flew through and a Magpie was knocking about (apparently a rare Crooksbury bird per Jeremy!).

Female Brambling.

Hawks and 'peckers

Barely anything to report here, with the largely wintry conditions. No Goshawks, and only one Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which pleasingly was a female at a site where only a male has been present so far in 2020 …