Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Friday, 30 April 2021

Still cold, but better

The title says it all really, with the final week of April similar to the rest of the month: unseasonally cold, with little rain making for a poorly nourished countryside. Migrants are still being held up but, given it's now so late in the season, some stuff has had to move through and at times the last week has been great fun, making for a pretty decent end to a frustrating April. Hopefully May will be more like spring ...

A local singing Wood Warbler: a definite highlight of spring 2021.

Saturday 24th

Another cold start at Tuesley. A Common Sandpiper was new in and the Green Sandpiper was still present, but there was nothing scarcer. I headed to the Lammas Lands next and tried my luck on the new scrape on Overgone Meadow. A late Snipe flushed out, but it was otherwise quiet, save five Whitethroats, three Reed Buntings and, a little further upriver, one of the Cetti’s Warblers.

I then tried out Painshill Farm, near Dunsfold, where I had Lesser Whitethroat breeding last year. No joy, but a brief pleasant moment came when Cuckoo, Nightingale and Yellowhammer all sang simultaneously (one of each, of course, we are in England after all … ). There was in fact another Nightingale which appeared to be a silent male, due to the vocal bird chasing it around while alarm calling.

Other bits included Skylark, two Red-legged Partridges and Bullfinch, a Linnet pair prospecting a bramble bush and a few Whitethroats. I then went to Shackleford but an hour-long circuit was low on quality, with only 26 species detected. This included the continuing Greenland Wheatear but it was otherwise very quiet indeed.

Sunday 25th

It was a bit better at Tuesley this morning, with two new Green Sandpipers joining the wintering bird, though they didn’t hang around long. A Common Sandpiper was a bit less flighty. A Cuckoo sang distantly but it was cold and I cut short the session.

Common Sand in flight.

Later on, Sam called with news of a Wood Warbler at Puttenham Common. I headed over and was soon enjoying this cracking Phylloscopus in an area of open woodland, even though it was a bit mobile and had stopped singing. I missed this species in south-west Surrey last year so was pleased to connect – one or two records are about annual around here these days and they can be slippery customers.

Wood Warbler in the spring sunshine.

It felt like the first properly good patch bird of the spring and, despite the relentless wind, it was nice to sit and watch it go about its business. Kudos to Sam – Puttenham is very poorly birded but has heaps of potential – and I think the encounter gave me an encouraging shot in the arm in regard to spring migration, which has been especially underwhelming so far …

I also scored my first Garden Warbler of the season at Puttenham, singing in some scrub, and a Cuckoo was also in voice. In the evening, a Swift flew over Farncombe – probably an early returning bird to the colony here.

Monday 26th

‘It only takes one bird’ is what I’ve been telling myself a lot recently – this morning at Tuesley I had a few, in what was vintage hour or so that will live long in the memory. The first bird I clapped my eyes on was a Brent Goose, sat incongruously on the water. I presumed this would be the bird that wintered at Tice’s Meadow and had recently been at Stoke Lake, but it was in fact an adult and thus a new bird – my first south-west Surrey Brent for nearly four years and a mega here.

Brent Goose action.

A couple of Common Sandpipers and the Green Sandpiper were flying around when a brick red lump in the far shore caught my eye: Bar-tailed Godwit! This has long been my most wanted wader here and I couldn’t quite believe it, as it sat motionless, presumably having arrived overnight.

First views of the Barwit ...

The bird, a male, hadn’t detected me so I hastily called Dave and Eric who were soon on site. We made our way a little closer but by now the bird had become alert and agitated, with the cacophony of Black-headed Gulls not helping. Eventually it flew, high north towards Arctic breeding grounds, but what a magical encounter it had been.

More Barwit action.

Barwit has long been my most obvious Surrey lifer and so it was nice to find my own on patch, and helped erase memories of when Matt, Sam and I had a flock of 50 or more probables over Thorncombe Street a few years ago. This is obviously a very rare south-west Surrey bird (borderline mega) and constitutes the 12th record (only the sixth on the deck!), with the last on 1 May 2006 at Frensham Great Pond. It was also my 223rd Surrey vice-county bird …

The excitement didn’t end there. A Yellow Wagtail had flown over and a Cuckoo was singing distantly just as we were wrapping it up. As we headed back, I predicted that Greenshank could appear in the coming days and, to our astonishment, a few seconds later the chew chew chew of one could be heard!

Greenshank and Yellow Wagtail flyovers.

We picked the bird up and it circled the reservoir once but continued on north. A really amazing morning at a site that is punishing more often than not, but all the cold and empty watches were rendered worthwhile. It’s just a shame the site is strictly private and such birds can’t be widely shared.

After a coffee break I headed over to Puttenham to see if the cold northerly had held up the Wood Warbler’s migration. As soon as I got near the area of open woodland I could hear it singing lots and I soon spotted it, favouring the birches again. It’s unlikely this is a prospective breeder but the habitat looks good and I suppose you never know ... whatever the case, it’s an absolute belter and a bird I could have spent all day with.

Willow and Garden Warblers were also in voice, a Cuckoo sang and a Lesser Redpoll and two Siskins flew over. I did a quick check of Shackleford next, where the wind had really picked up. A Raven flew over, a female Kestrel watched from a perch and three Red-legged Partridges were in the alfalfa. A showy female Wheatear concluded an exceptional morning of local birding, all within 5 km of my front door. 

A particularly tame Wheatear.

I caught up with Nick H in the afternoon at Thorncombe Street, where there are three nests at the White Stork reintroduction site, one of which is thought to contain an egg. In the warm and breezy conditions not much else was about, save two singing male Firecrests and a pair of Red-legged Partridges.

White Stork on the nest.

Tuesday 27th

It was a very early start for some consultancy work in Birmingham city centre, where a three-hour survey revealed very little of note, even if singles of Blackcap and Buzzard were a bit of a surprise in such an urban setting.

I walked along the river in the evening, notching up 41 species. The best bits came on the Lammas Lands, namely one each of Cetti’s Warbler, Stonechat and Reed Bunting, as well as two late Snipe which were flushed from the scrape. At Unstead Water Meadows a male Grey Wagtail was taking food to noisy chicks hidden in some ivy and a Kestrel was knocking about.

Wednesday 28th

It was noticeably milder at Thursley first thing but, with the wind still in the north-east, dawn chorus was subdued. Pudmore held three displaying Lapwings and a singing Snipe – the latter should breed now. A Curlew was heard (Doug and Penny have had the female back, so they too should nest soon) and a male Wheatear was on Shrike Hill. A Lesser Redpoll flew over and a few Crossbills were about as well. With rain forecast later in the day I headed home early to do some work.

When the rain did come – for, it must be said, the first time in weeks – it was light to moderate and never felt overly promising, despite a big inland movement of Arctic Terns in the Midlands. I staked out Frensham Great Pond for about an hour and impressive hirundine numbers were about – 400 or more of all three species – plus some 90 Swifts. Cuckoo, Firecrest and Reed Warbler sang despite the weather, but the only tern I scored was Common (three).

I tried Enton next and there were decent hirundine numbers over Johnson’s, though only one Swift. A Mandarin pair were on the water, two Common Terns were overhead and a Wren was carrying faecal sacs out of a nest. My final stop on what had become a very soggy and cold circuit was Tuesley, and my efforts were rewarded when I espied a Little Ringed Plover on the far shore – my first of the year. A nice male to boot, it had clearly ditched down in the now rather heavy rain.

A smart LRP.

Thursday 29th

I met Abel and Dave at Thursley first thing. It was bright and still, but still rather cold, though not enough to deter the two Lapwing pairs from displaying. A Snipe was singing towards West Bog and even performed a brief spurt of drumming, while the unpaired male Curlew sang in the distance. There was a bit of activity between Redstart Corner and Spur Wood, not least two flyover Yellow Wagtails – always good here in the spring. A male Wheatear was on Shrike Hill, too.


A few Redstarts were in voice and included two territorial males chasing each other around over a female. A Woodlark was carrying food nearby and, intriguingly, a Meadow Pipit dived into a heather clump before emerging a few minutes later. This species was lost as a breeding bird in south-west Surrey several years ago, so such behaviour was interesting. A Crossbill family party included two juveniles being fed by adults – a nice way to confirm breeding this year.

Redstart and Crossbill action.

Abel and I checked out Puttenham Common afterwards as he’d yet to catch up with the Wood Warbler. It was easy to locate, in its favoured spot, singing away at close range. What a beauty – and there’s a real possibility it could hold fort here for a while, with the habitat much like their usual breeding grounds further north and west. The Cuckoo was singing, a decent three Garden Warblers were nearby – this remains the only site where I’ve seen the species this year! – Woodlark was heard and a Yellowhammer flew over, the latter recently extirpated from this site and thus of note.

I walked Shackleford afterwards, but it was rather quiet in the increasing wind. A few Swallows zipped low over the alfalfa, which contained four Red-legged Partridges, and a female Wheatear was at the south end. 

Swallow and Wheatear.

Friday 30th

Another rather chilly morning but much cloudier than of late. I opted to visit The Hurtwood for the first time this spring, and spent an hour circuiting the area. The specialities were all present – singles of Dartford Warbler, Tree Pipit (a flushed bird) and Woodlark, as well as two male Cuckoos. Siskin and Bullfinch were heard-only, a Willow Warbler sang and there were at least two male Garden Warblers in voice, one of which performed nicely for my recorder.

A check of Snowdenham Mill Pond produced four drake Gadwall, four Tufted Duck and a territorial male Mute Swan – perhaps a female is sitting nearby. I walked Shackleford after, where the cloud was keeping migrants fairly low, meaning I was able to detect flyover Tree Pipit (my first at the site this year) and Yellow Wagtail. A pair of Greenland Wheatears were at the south end but it was otherwise rather quiet.

Some light early evening showers tempted me back to Shackleford but there was not much doing, although the female Wheatear was still about. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls cruised over but the highlight was a Little Owl perched on a dead tree.

Little Owl to end the month.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Average April

Average is a generous way to describe local birding this April. The striking theme of the past three weeks has been the lack of rain – not what one expects in April – but in the last eight days this has been taken over by the wintry feel, with frosts every morning and cold starts to the day. All I’m hearing from birding friends is the same – where are the migrants? Where is the rain? When will the mornings warm up? This is supposed to be one of (if not the) most dynamic month of the year for the patchwatcher, but entertainment has been scant so far.

To compound matters, common migrant numbers are way down, and late to boot. By the time I post this, I’ve seen just two Cuckoos, one each of Sedge and Reed Warbler, less than 10 House Martins, handfuls of Redstarts, Willow Warblers and Swallows, and so on. The cold starts have meant the dawn chorus is at about 50-60% of what it should be for this time of year, too ... Anyway, rant over – hopefully things pick up soon!

It's been an April to spend time appreciating the common species.

Thursday 15th

A freezing cold walk at Milford Common first thing didn’t deliver any early Nightingales, with Bullfinch and a few each of Siskin, Chiffchaff and Blackcap of note. I retreated home and headed out along the river later on when things had warmed up, even though the northerly wind kept things cool. A very late Redwing at Broadford and a Meadow Pipit at Unstead Water Meadows fitted the wintry bill, while migrants were thin on the ground – a handful each of Chiffchaff and Blackcap and singles of Swallow and Whitethroat.

Friday 16th

Ridiculously cold for the second half of April, with the temperature a few degrees below zero pre-dawn and a hard frost engulfing the landscape. A Tawny Owl flew over the road near Peper Harrow en route to Thursley, where it felt like mid-winter. The dawn chorus was subdued and I cut the session short after an hour because it was so grim. By that point I’d seen the two male Curlews, a Lapwing holding fort at Pudmore, two Redstarts, a Cuckoo, three Willow Warblers, 20 Lesser Redpolls and two Crossbills.

It was still very chilly at Chiddingfold Forest afterwards but at least the number of birds in voice was a little higher, including my first three Nightingales of the year, though none of them were especially eager. A Willow Warbler briefly piped up, while Marsh Tit, Firecrest, a Bullfinch pair and a hooting male Tawny Owl were also noted.

Saturday 17th

I couldn’t hack another local morning in the frost so headed west for the Walrus that’s pitched up at Tenby in Pembrokeshire. A pair of Shelduck over the Severn Bridge welcomed us into Wales and eventually we were at the attractive seaside town, and soon watching the hefty Arctic pinniped feeding in the bay. The main thing that struck me was its size – a truly massive beast which sadly I didn’t get to see out of water on the ramp, meaning the photos weren’t great. That took nothing away from the encounter, though. 

The Wales Walrus.

This species has been notoriously hard to twitch in Britain and at least 100 people were looking on, with shops selling Walrus merchandise and friendly locals stopping you in the streets to ask if you’d connected. Indeed, the whole twitch was most unlike a birding one – instead of almost exclusively middle-aged men and a state of tension, there were people young and old, families, beginners and experts alike, all enjoying this incredible spectacle in a relaxed manner and appreciating the other wildlife around. 

This included three Purple Sandpipers in with 14 Turnstones on the rocky shore, a Rock Pipit, two distant Chough, a Gannet, several Fulmars, a Swallow and, best of all, a male Blackbird catching Common Lizards and taking them to hungry chicks. All of which were observed with the mid-April sun beaming down …

Purple Sandpiper and predatory Blackbird ...

We decided to walk St Govans Head next, a seemingly poorly birded south-facing headland nearby. Bird activity was fairly low-key but included a flock of six Whimbrel heading west along the coast – presumably bound for Iceland – as well as six Chough, four Wheatears, five Swallows, two Ravens, eight Stonechats, a Rock Pipit and a Shag

Whimbrel flock, Chough pair and Rock Pipit.

Lunch was had at nearby Elegug Stacks where 10 Sand Martins flew in-off the sea, 50 Razorbills sat on the cliffs (curiously no Guillemots), a couple of Chough knocked about and a Kestrel hunted, while an Oystercatcher pair were on the beach. A Harbour Porpoise pod loafed offshore and two Grey Seals were bobbing around in the shallows, too. 

On the way back, a short diversion off the M4 allowed for a walk at Cwm Clydach RSPB. A Dipper flew upriver but it was otherwise quiet, save two each of Willow Warbler, Bullfinch and Siskin. In all, a fine day out.

Sunday 18th

Another frosty start and Tuesley was thus rather quiet, though the Green Sandpiper was still present. I was about to cut my losses when a Meadow Pipit called overhead, shortly followed by – to my great surprise – a Water Pipit. It threw me completely off guard; Water Pipit is very rare locally (or indeed anywhere in Surrey away from known sites), it’s a little on the late side and Tuesley is the last place you’d expect one.

I may well have fumbled it had I not had my my sound recorder running (see here), which picked up three of the flight calls. There has been a bit of movement of these species recently, including four at Pulborough Brooks on Friday, and presumably this bird was on active migration. A site first, as far as I know …

I was contemplating heading home when news broke of a Wood Warbler at Newlands Corner. This species is a true favourite of mine and, having dipped in the Welsh valleys yesterday, I took the opportunity to check out this bird. It proved rather elusive and mobile and wasn’t singing much, more often giving its distinctive, mournful call. This eventually allowed it to be pinned down and enjoyed – and what a beauty it was. A Willow Warbler, two Siskins and a Lesser Redpoll were also noted.

I decided to visit Island Barn Reservoir next, where a photography session with the tame, but sadly unwell, first-winter Kittiwake was on the cards. It showed well on the south side and to be fair was picking away at insects and even flew around a bit. Maybe it’ll make it north yet. This was only my second Surrey Kittiwake and certainly my best views. Other bits included a male Wheatear, two Swallows, a heard-only Mediterranean Gull, two Cetti’s Warblers and a Whitethroat.

Island Barn Kittiwake.

It was gloriously sunny and warm when I walked Shackleford mid-afternoon. The highlight was my first Yellow Wagtail of the year, calling as it flew low north – a sound that always puts a smile on the face. A male Wheatear was in the alfalfa and a silent Willow Warbler was working the hedgerow at Cuckoo Corner, while a Raven flew south. On the farm pond the Coot pair revealed two extra young they’d been hiding (meaning seven in total, which they’ve done very well to sustain) and a Swallow collected water.


Monday 19th

Another frosty start – it has not been an April for the early rising birder – and I was at Tuesley early on, where another decent flyover greeted me, this time a Yellow Wagtail bombing north. It was otherwise quiet, until two Common Terns noisily flew over – a late first of the year for me.

Frensham was a pea souper and I could only make out the silhouette of a Pochard, plus the call of a Common Tern, so I headed to Waverley Abbey for something a bit different. To my surprise it was decent, with 40 species logged in little more than half an hour. Best of all was three Lapwings, two of which were engaged in display flights. Jeremy has mentioned this stretch of the Wey holding summer birds before but it was still most unexpected and a delight to watch, as they tumbled and called in the mist. 

Lapwings in the mist.

A male Stonechat was nearby, a Crossbill flew over and a Whitethroat sang, while a female Egyptian Goose sheltered her three goslings from the cold. Another surprise was three Gadwall that flew over – two drakes chasing a female, perhaps suggestive of nearby breeding. Another Gadwall pair were at Cutt Mill during a pit-stop check en route to Shackleford, where two Wheatears and a flyover Yellow Wagtail highlighted.

After work I walked the river to Shalford and back. Apart from the same Cetti’s Warbler pair as on 14th it really was quiet, with barely any migrants around. A singing Reed Bunting at Unstead Water Meadows and a late Snipe at St Catherine’s Pool were the best bits.

Tuesday 20th

Despite the forecast predicting a warmer morning there was still a light frost first thing and it was very misty at Unstead SF, where Sedge Warbler scraped onto the year list with a male unenthusiastically singing on occasion from the Dry Lagoon reedbed. The Reed Warbler was similarly lethargic, but two Whitethroats were giving it a little more welly. The Gadwall pair were still present but it was otherwise quiet.

I did a big session at Shackleford next, notching a decent 46 species in the warming conditions. Still, it never felt too birdy, despite two flyover Yellow Wagtails and a Willow Warbler detected early on. A female Wheatear was also knocking about, but there were precious few signs of migrations, even if two distant Motacilla wagtails were probable White. Three Swallows flew over and four Whitethroats were in voice but the wintry undercurrent was demonstrated by at least five Meadow Pipits lingering in the alfalfa and a flyover Lesser Redpoll.

Other bits included two each of Red-legged Partridge and Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Raven and a male Kestrel. A Weasel scuttling across the track was my first for a long time, while a handful of Small Tortoiseshells were on the wing too.

More Shackleford action.

Later that morning, a singing Firecrest was heard while working at home with the windows open. I walked the Lammas Lands before dinner, with the usual fare detected including singing Reed Bunting, a Stonechat pair, a Kingfisher flying up the Wey and a Grey Wagtail.

Wednesday 21st

No frost for a change but it was another uninspiring morning. The Green Sandpiper and flyover Yellow Wagtail were the best at Tuesley and indeed the morning – another long Shackleford effort turned up very little. Indeed, my latest ever British Fieldfare and the continued presence of a handful of Meadow Pipits summed things up, with migrant tallies a paltry one each of Swallow, Chiffchaff and Blackcap, as well as two Whitethroats.

I met David late afternoon and we opted for a quick circuit of Shackleford. It was an improvement on the morning session and the definite highlight was a nervy pair of Grey Partridges – my first here since early February. Hopefully a sign of breeding to come, though monitoring them is likely to be impossible given how elusive they are … they also proved to be a Surrey tick for David!

Grey Partridge.

It was otherwise business as usual, though a cracking male Wheatear – a good candidate for leucorhoa – showed nicely near the airfield. A Raven and three Greylag Geese flew over, while two Red-legged Partridges were also seen.


Thursday 22nd

I decided on a long Thursley session today and, despite another frost, cold temperatures and low-level dawn chorus, it was decent. Some 56 species was a very solid haul and included three wader species – a late Snipe, three displaying Lapwings (which look set to try and breed for the first time in a decade here) and the two male Curlews

At least three Water Rails made their presence known on Pudmore, where eight Tufted Duck and a Little Grebe were knocking about. I covered 7 km of the common and only detected one Tree Pipit, though eight Redstarts, 12 Willow Warblers, two Cuckoos, a Firecrest and a Whitethroat were in song, among others, plus my first Woodlark family of the year were seen near The Slack. A few small groups of Lesser Redpoll and Crossbill were about too.


On Ockley Common, both Little Buntings were still present and in song, confirming them both as males. Surely they will move on soon – one has been here for more than six months! One bird is rather territorial and sings a lot, while the other is a lot more shy and less vocal. He also seems a shade duller – I think this is the first bird from October. 

Litle Bunting in song.

A walk around Frensham Great Pond afterwards was quiet, with the drake Pochard lingering and a couple of Reed Warblers in song. All three hirundines were over the lake, mainly Sand Martin, but at least one each of Swallow and House Martin too.

An early evening circuit of Shackleford was quiet, save the continuing male Greenland Wheatear, an adult Herring Gull overhead, three Red-legged Partridges and at least 10 Swallows – the most I’ve seen all spring – including two scrapping over nesting material.

Friday 23rd

As I got to Tuesley, Dave messaged with news of two Greenshank on Pudmore, but this was soon followed by another voice note saying they'd just flown! Not ideal, and 45 minutes at the res delivered no waders of note for me, with just the Green Sandpiper knocking about. Three Common Terns included a courting pair and a Cuckoo sang distantly, but otherwise it was a rather cold and frosty experience.

With the day off I headed to Sussex, with the hope I'd actually see some decent birds. And I did. I stuck my head in at Honer Reservoir first, connecting with the smart Ring-necked Duck that was first found on 20th. Two Gadwall and a Reed Warbler were nearby.

Ring-necked Duck.

I then did a few hours seawatching off Selsey Bill, hoping for a Pomarine Skua. This didn't happen but it was still a fun and relaxing session in the sun. Easily the highlight was watching a male Marsh Harrier battle low over the sea and head off north – just like being in Gibraltar!

Marsh Harrier and the Isle of Wight ...

Three dark morph Arctic Skuas went east, along with two each of Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, singles of Long-tailed Duck (unexpected), Red-breasted Merganser, Fulmar, Little TernRed-throated Diver and Great Skua, four Avocet, eight Common Scoter and 30 or more 'commic' terns. A Woodpigeon was building a nest nearby and a Sparrowhawk flew over the houses, too.

Arctic Skua, Little Tern, Red-breasted Merganser and Avocets.

On the way home, a Hobby over Billingshurst was a year first for me. I decided to give Frensham Great Pond a quick check en route, given the number of inland Little Gulls being reported. What I didn't expect – at all it must be said – was a drake Goldeneye! It was out in the centre of the pond, diving often. It seemed rather bizarre in the warm late April sunshine, with hirundines gliding overhead, but I suppose it's not an overly exceptional date. This is a really tough bird in south-west Surrey these days and is the first anywhere since autumn 2019.

A south-west Surrey rarity these days.

The drake Pochard was still about as well. Two Swifts soon joined the hirundines – another year first for me. In all, a good day, and finally some hints of excitement and movement locally. Maybe my next post will be a little more upbeat!