Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The One That Got Away, volume 3 - no.3

3. 1st October 2015, 11:10

It’s factors outside the patch that place this entry in 3rd. I’ve been lucky enough to savour 5 Harrier sightings, from 3 different species, over the area during the past few years. As a result an unidentified one, whilst frustrating, shouldn’t annoy for too long, as I'm lucky enough to have previous encounters. With this bird however, it’s not the case.

The juvenile Pallid Harrier that spent time at the Burgh,
West Sussex, in autumn 2015 (Surfbirds).
Matt P and I were ending a fairly lively vis-mig session on a crisp autumn morning, and had seen 4 bird of prey species, including a late Hobby. A handful of hirundines and Meadow Pipts had flown through. On our descent from the Ridge we picked up a raptor, clearly a rather slender Harrier, moving low and slowly south. Both getting bins on the bird we ruled out Marsh, and given the time of year Montagu’s could also be considered fairly unlikely an option, with the flight not fitting this species either. However, looking straight into the sun, we managed to get no details on it, and could only watch a Harrier silhouette drift out of view.

The record came at a time when a juvenile Pallid Harrier was present for several weeks at the Burgh, an area of farmland in Sussex no less than 20 miles (as the Crow, or Harrier, flies) in straight line to the south of Thorncombe Street. During its stay that Pallid Harrier became famously hard to see, often taking hours to be found. Perhaps on this sunny October day, it wandered north up the Arun, and took a liking to here, as many raptors have done before, dropping down for a nose around. What a record that would have been. 

Of course, it could well have been a Hen Harrier, and indeed I saw a ringtail over the Ridge just over 2 weeks later. That record itself came the same day Robin S had one over Winterfold, though it's thought the birds were separate individuals. In a funny turn of events, Matt and I had another unidentified harrier over the Ridge on the 24th.

As things stand, 2017 will be the first Harrier-less year at Thorncombe Street since 2014.

Monday, 18 September 2017

11th-18th September

The last few days have produced an enjoyable variety of birds, as autumn begins to move into first gear. After Storm Aileen during the week, the weekend weather switched to what are traditionally optimum vis-mig conditions here, and indeed a gentle north-west with clear skies on Saturday generated big numbers of movers.
Allden's Hill, 16/9/2017

It started on Allden's Hill with Meadow Pipits obviously moving overhead as I pitched up at 07:10. It turned out to be a remarkable day for this species - by the end of it I tallied 378, a huge figure for here, and over triple my previous record of 115. Interestingly, lots of the groups were moving high north-west, into the wind, though at least 30-40% were travelling high south. The Allden's Hill vigil lasted until 09:00, during which time 174 were counted.

Later in the day a flock of at least 50 dropped into the long grass at Hive Field, during a spell of showers that also saw more than 150 hirundines (primarily House Martins) fly south over Tilsey Farm. Until that point Swallows had been the main hirundine movers, with 124 going south during the earlier Allden's Hill watch. The final tally of Swallows for the day was 213, and House Martins 143.

The other large Meadow Pipit flock that were on the deck was at Bonhurst Farm. This group was well over 60 strong, and feeding in the livestock fields and adjacent grass meadows, but by my second visit in the afternoon they'd all gone. Presumably, these birds had dropped down on their way south for a short-while, or perhaps they'd pitched up here the previous evening and fed up before departing.

Whinchat, Bonhurst Farm, 16/9/2017
Whatever the case, they weren't the only ones to use Bonhurst as a pit-stop, with 3 Yellow Wagtails, 1 Whinchat and plenty of Hirundines also present. I've never seen this farm so lively and attractive to migrants before - the Surrey Wildlife Trust have already made improvements to the site, and it bodes well for the future. Elsewhere, a couple of Siskins and a Hobby moved through, and there seemed to be a slight increase in Blackbirds and Song Thrushes - probably a sign of things to come.

The winds on Sunday were the same, but conditions very different, with mist and drizzle throughout. Good for grounded bits I thought, but in practice little to see, though a Barn Owl flushed from the willow scrub opposite New Barn Pond was a very welcome illumination on this gloomy morning.

As I was visiting my parents in the afternoon I figured it’d be rude to not stop by Pagham Harbour, and it was well worthwhile, with 16 wader species, including Spotted Redshanks and a Curlew Sandpiper, and a juvenile Turtle Dove among the highlights. This area is probably my favourite place to bird after the patch, bringing back memories of childhood, as well as the perennial belief you could find something nice, no matter what time of year.

Grey Phalarope, Hayling Island, 17/9/2017
On the way back, we briefly visited Hayling Island, and enjoyed good views of the Grey Phalarope which had been present on the flood adjacent to the oyster beds since Storm Aileen. I somewhat ambitiously searched all the patch ponds for a lost seabird following Aileen's visit last week, and even scoured the wider area, including the reservoir at my old stomping ground Tuelsey Farm. Alas, nothing to be found, though the latter site did produce a Common Sandpiper and Kingfisher.

Weather-wise, there’s more to come, and it seems the weekend and beyond hold a great amount of potential. With a hurricane to the west and easterlies, originating over Siberia and converging on Britain, occurring in tandem, I doubt I’m the only birder licking their lips in anticipation. A beast from the east this autumn would be the perfect icing on a remarkable 2017 cake.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

4th-10th September

Early September always tends to be productive here and this year has been no exception, with migrant action in full swing over the weekend. Yesterday, a dawn vis-mig session on the Ridge didn't yield massive numbers, but 3 Yellow Wagtails, the first couple of Meadow Pipits of the autumn and a trickle of House Martins flew over.
Wheatear, Bonhurst Farm, 6/9/2017

House Martins were seen moving through different parts of the site during the morning, with 102 the final total. On the ground things remained fairly quiet, but I returned for a quick check after the heavy showers that took place during the afternoon, and was rewarded with a Spotted Flycatcher near the disabled car park at Winkworth, and a Garden Warbler in the paddock at Slade's Farm. The latter is a new latest record for the species.

Despite the deluge yesterday, last night was relatively clear, and with a few hours of sunshine and gentle wind in the morning it seemed a good window for birds to get on the move. This proved to be the case, and as I got in the car this morning 2 Yellow Wagtails flew over my flat, a good sign. I didn't actually manage any of these (which are probably my favourite vis-mig species to encounter) on the patch, but I was still treated to big numbers and a great variety.

On the deck it seemed a fall of warblers had occurred, particularly so Blackcaps, with 25+ noted. A thorough bash of the bushes and gardens around Slade's/Raggett's didn't produce the hoped for Redstart, but a Spotted Flycatcher was good compensation. A singing Willow Warbler in the chicory crop on the Ridge was a bit of a surprise, and the second Reed Bunting of the autumn was also here, with the big Linnet and Goldfinch flock.

A steady southbound movement of Meadow Pipits was in evidence, and this was noted throughout the rest of the area. Most groups were around 6 or 7, and the final total for the day was 108 - an excellent count for here, and just 7 off the previous record, which came in March 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the Mipit numbers a Tree Pipit also flew through, with a heard-only individual moving south over New Barn at 09:23, the third record of the year.
Common Buzzard, Ridge, 9/9/2017

All pretty good going, but none of the above was the most notable activity today, with the House Martin passage at times spectacular. Getting ahead of the forecast rain and wind huge feeding masses were present, most notably at New Barn where at least 120 were hawking, all slowly disappearing south. The final total was 366, though there was probably more than that. 72 Swallows were also recorded moving through the area.

Other odds and sods heading south included a couple of Siskins, and a 2nd-winter Great Black-backed Gull, which flew fairly low through New Barn. I have never vis-migged here but I probably should - the number of Pipits and Hirundines here today were very impressive, and this funnel like area, directly above my speculated Hascombe Gap, has produced Kittiwake and Cattle Egret previously. An afternoon visit here produced 3 1st-winter Herring Gulls, all going north.

Midweek was fairly quiet. I checked the paddock at Slade's daily, with little reward. However, a Wheatear showed nicely at Bonhurst Farm on the 6th (the third of the year, and first of the autumn), Firecrests were recorded on a couple of days, and a site record 11 Gadwall were present at Mill Pond on the 9th. Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants are more conspicuous than ever following recent releases. Today, one flock of 150+ of the former were on Allden's Hill, helping make up a ridiculous record day total of 180.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Surrey White Stork Reintroduction Project

It certainly came as a surprise when I heard the news a few months ago, but the Wintershall Estate, on my patch in the Thorncombe Street area, are becoming part of a White Stork reintroduction scheme. The birds are due by the end of this month, following the release of Storks at the Knepp Estate in Sussex in the summer, with approximately 20 set to arrive.
White Stork at Bialowieza, Poland, earlier this year
The movement to bring back this charismatic species, perhaps unsurprisingly, hasn’t gained large-scale acclaim. Like most birders, when I first heard the news I was sceptical. I had no relations with Wintershall, which takes up a lot of my recording area, and is predominately a shooting estate, with small-scale farming and a wedding venue also in operation.
It seems the biggest question is, when there are so many other, native species in decline, why is reintroducing a bird that’s common on the continent a priority? Surely this species could and may colonise naturally in time, anyway? Is it just a big, engaging species, that can draw the public in? These were some of the questions I had when the Hutley family, who own Wintershall, reached out to me for discussions about the Storks.
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t sure about the motives the estate had for this project, but I’m delighted to say that it’s absolutely no publicity stunt, or commercial gimmick, and in fact stems from a deep-rooted desire to reconnect with nature. I’ve now had several meetings with Nick Hutley, and he won’t mind me saying that, initially, they were unsure about the best way to approach the situation. I explained the negative view birders had about this scheme, and it soon became apparent he wasn’t just wanting to dump a load of Storks in a field, but manage areas of his land for natures benefit.
In time, I drew up a list of priority species, and various ways to either keep or attract them. The Storks enclosure is being created currently, and has multiple species in mind – it’s hoped they will be part of a small wetland habitat, in effect a mini nature reserve, a move that alone shows a commitment to the wider wildlife. A reedbed, scrapes and wet meadow are hoped to be included.
White Stork at Knepp Estate, Sussex
(Martin's Sussex Birding Blog)
We’ve also earmarked several pockets of land which are hoped to be turned into ‘wild’ areas, with species like Turtle Dove and Nightingale hoped to be the beneficiaries. Furthermore, the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that live on Wintershall land are going to be given as much help as possible. Nick has also given the greenlight for ringers to set up nets on his land, which is something I hope begins this autumn.
The Storks arriving hail from Poland, and similar schemes in the Netherlands, France and Belgium have been undertaken in recent years. Young White Storks are usually faithful to their natal site, and depend on an established colony for successful breeding, so these programmes use captive birds to seed initial colonies. Thus, the Wintershall birds will be protected by electric fencing, and will have their wings clipped.
The Stork enclosure is not going to be open to the public. The site is pretty secluded, and visits will be possible on request. Details on this will become clearer in time. It’s hoped that the wetland will attract other species, but this remains to be seen. It is of course, an experiment. The long-term goal is a patchwork of habitats dedicated to nature, with free-winged Storks breeding naturally in the surrounding area. The short-term goal is to provide a comfortable home for the Storks, in an area created and dedicated to other wetland wildlife, in particular birds.
White Stork reintroduction shouldn’t be a priority for conservationists. There are plenty of more pressing matters and species. However, in this day in age, particularly on a shooting estate, if the landowner wants to give parts of their land to nature, and try to reconnect with wildlife, then I personally can only see it as a positive thing.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The One That Got Away, Volume 2 - no.4

4. 30th August 2016, 08:30

This entry at number 4 came at a similar time of year to now, on a warm, early autumn day. My first port of call was Slade’s Farm, before heading up to the Ridge, and as ever I planned on checking the paddock first for any migrants.

As I approached the gate, a Thrush-sized, brown bird took off from the long grass just a couple of feet in front of me. I watched it’s undulating flight, fairly low over the paddock, before it dived into the bottom of the hedgerow. The colour, size, flight and behaviour all pointed to one species – a Wryneck!
The sighting caught me off guard somewhat, and I saw no features of the bird. I could only stick it out, and hope the individual reappeared. After about an hour of no-show, with things to do, I had no choice but to give up, and of course I didn’t see the bird again. It could have been a Song Thrush, perhaps, but I remain pretty confident it was a Wryneck.
That day, an unusually high number of Wrynecks were reported across the country, many of them on the south coast, including some in Sussex. This further added to my frustration, and after work I checked the paddock once more, and again found nothing.

There was immediate compensation that day though – a female Wheatear in the next field along from the paddock was pleasing, but it was a juvenile Marsh Harrier over Allden’s Hill that really made it easier to forget the probable Wryneck.

Monday, 4 September 2017

March 2017 Morocco Trip Report

A trip report for my brief, rather last minute trip to Morocco (south of Marrakech), is now up on Cloudbirders. It can be found directly here, or via my Western Palearctic trip reports page here.

Hoopoe-lark, Tagdilt Track, 31/3/2017
Given the short nature of the trip, and the fact I plan on visiting Morocco several times in the future, we focused our time on the Atlas Mountains, Tagdilt Track and on connecting with a long-staying Pied Crow in Mhamid.

The trip was excellent, and in this beautiful country a load of fine birds (as well as the crow) were seen - African Crimson-winged Finch, Hoopoe-lark, Pharoah Eagle Owl, Fulvous Babbler, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Maghreb Wheatear, Seebohm’s Wheatear, Maghreb Lark and Moussier’s Redstart being just some examples!

Sunday, 3 September 2017

29th August - 3rd September

Another week with limited time on the patch, though a post-work trip on Friday really proved to be a good decision, as I found 2 Whinchats on the fences at Slade's Farm. This species is weirdly scarce here, and these birds were only my second on patch, the last coming on 3rd September 2015.
Hobbies, Ridge, 2/9/2017

This put me in a mood of anticipation ahead of the weekend, and with clear skies and a light north-westerly I was on the Ridge at dawn on Saturday in hope of a decent vis-mig session. It didn't work out that way, alas, though a single Tree Pipit south-east at 06:58 made the early start worthwhile. It seemed the weather was almost too good, with many hirundines clearly passing very high overhead.

The rest of the day was quiet, with passerine numbers remaining low. A few Alba Wagtails going over was of note (perhaps some were White?), and 2 Spotted Flycatchers at Phillimore Cottage may be the last of the year. Today was also uneventful, bar a few pushes of hirundines. The rain in the afternoon may have dropped some bits down (a Pied Flycatcher turned up at Canons Farm not long after the wet stuff arrived), but I'll have to wait until tomorrow to see if I've anything of note here.

My afternoon today instead was spent at Cuckmere Haven, in East Sussex, where I connected with a very neat and tidy juvenile Baird's Sandpiper. This American wader showed pretty well on the muddy shore of the Cuckmere River, allowing a good study of its plumage, which really stood out as a 'three-piece'. The face and breast were very buff, more so than on a juvenile Dunlin, and the scaly back and clean white underparts contrasted well with this.
Juvenile Baird's Sandpiper, Cuckmere Haven, 3/9/2017

The pale spot just aboves the lores could be seen, though I wa susprised at the extent of the supercilium on this particular individual. It wasn't bothered by regular canoes going past, and a fair sized crowed was present. Also here was a Whinchat, a few Yellow Wagtails, 4 Little Egrets and a Wheatear.



Tuesday, 29 August 2017

March 2017 North East Spain (Pyrenees and steppes) trip report

A trip report for my visit to North East Spain, which focused primarily on the Pyrenees and steppes of Aragon and Catalonia, is now up on Cloudbirders. The report can be found directly here, or via my Western Palearctic trip reports page on the blog here.

Short-toed Eagle, Hecho Valley, 26th March 2017
It was a trip of mixed fortunes, with several key targets not found, seemingly due to the inadvertent weather experienced. However, a good selection of birds were seen (including a few lifers), with species such as Dupont's Lark, Lammergeier, Alpine Accentor, Red-billed Leiothrix, Alpine Chough and Little Bustard among the highlights.

Monday, 28 August 2017

21st-28th August

August has been a hugely successful month so far, with a grand total of 7 year ticks, 2 of which came this weekend. Even more remarkably, both of these were new birds for the site, a real feat, but as the last Bank Holiday of the year comes to a close I have slightly mixed emotions about my weekend on patch.

Common Buzzard, Allden's Hill, 28/8/2017
I'll start with the positives, which, when all is considered, outweigh the negatives considerably. Having neglected Allden's Hill somewhat during the second half of the year, I decided to sky-watch from there on Saturday. It was warm, and the skies were cloud-free. Inevitably, lots of raptors were up, and I enjoyed 6 different species on the wing, including some really fantastic views.

However, movement of any sort was at a premium, despite a gentle northerly, and the whole day had been very quiet. As a result, it came as quite a surprise when I picked up two waders towards Hascombe at 14:08, flying fairly quickly north through the valley. Initially appearing like giant Pratincoles or, at times, even Terns, I got my telescope on them and managed to get an idea of the shape and size I was dealing with.

They were about the size of a Stock Dove, and during early views I could rule out both Godwits and Curlew/Whimbrel, all species I've seen over the patch in recent months. A prominent bill could be made out, as well as trailing legs, and they both appeared notably angular. However, the birds were moving fast and I was struggling to get any colour or plumage details. Based on the size these weren't Tringa Sandpipers, and it was evident I was looking at shanks of some description.

Above Thorncombe Park, their powerful flight suddenly turned into a semi chase, and they tumbled down several feet, before continuing north. At this point, I could clearly make out dark upperwings, with no white, effectively ruling out Redshank. About 3 minutes after I found them, I lost the birds to the north-west.

I spent several minutes going over my notes, and consulting a couple of friends - ultimately it came down to eliminating Spotted Redshank, which I did based on the fact the legs didn't trail as much as they do in that species, as well as the general jizz of these birds. So, I concluded that these were a pair of Greenshanks, a huge surprise, and not one I had on my radar for the patch!
The view from Allden's Hill, 28/8/2019

Upon reflection, it should have been clearer earlier that these were Greenshanks. They were the perfect size, and a powerful and direct flight on dark, plain wings, should have ruled Redshank out long before I actually did. The pair were not as compact as the latter species, either.

This, and the raptors, were massive standouts on a quiet day, and in a really weird turn of events the birding on Sunday took an a very similar format. A dawn start had produced very little - one of the negatives of the weekend was the complete dearth of passerine migrants. I'd spent a week in the office reading about peoples Whinchats, Redstarts etc, but there was just nothing in the bushes or on the fences all weekend.

Having walked from Slade's Farm to Bonhurst, I was heading back, when I picked up yet another wader, this time moving high south-east. The bird was stockier than the Greenshanks, and had a slower flight, but it was at a serious height and as essentially a silhouette. Sadly, that's pretty much all it will remain - a wader shape, maybe a Redshank, but certainly not something I could identify.

I didn't spend long deciding to let it go, and become another one that got way, a topic I blogged about last week. With that very blog post in my mind, a ridiculously ironic moment then occurred on the Ridge on my way back to the car. A large, juvenile Gull was flying low south, towards me, and something about it got my alarm bells ringing.

I raised my bins to it, and instantly was drawn to it's smudged, dark brown eye mask, on a bright white face. It was a big juvenile, and thankfully it slowed and began to circle, right in front of me. At this point, I could make out a pale gap in the middle of the inner primaries, as well as a crisp tail band. It was almost the perfect example of a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull!

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Ridge, 27/8/2017 - amazingly,
it's somehow not the worst photo I've ever taken.
I'm normally pretty hesitant with Gulls, particularly young ones, but having spent a fair amount of time learning about this species and age during the last few months, I was sure of the ID. The bird gained height as it circled, allowing for several checks of the inner primaries, and I only thought to try and get a photo as it was already on its way south, hence the (typically) rubbish image.

Yellow-legged Gull now has the honour of becoming the 150th bird species recorded here, my 137th, and the 115th of 2017. To put the latter figure into context, my entire total for 2016 was 115! A fantastic couple of days, with what was really a minor frustration of the mystery wader, became just that touch more tainted today when, freakishly, another wader flew over, escaping identification.

I was on Allden's Hill again, in unseasonally hot temperatures, when the bird flew east, and away from me, at 12:18. It was exceptionally similar to the wader yesterday, and I could make out a white rump, but that was it, and it disappeared towards Cranleigh. It was probably a Redshank - the size was good, as was the compact shape, slower flight and white rump - and I'm 95% sure it was this species. However, I can't be certain with the views I had, and so it's another to go on the one that got away pile - indeed, it can replace the entry for 5th I did last week!

In keeping with the rest of the weekend passerine activity was quiet, though during a 3 1/2 hour vigil I did manage 3 Yellow Wagtails, 23 House Martins and 71 Swallows south, as well as a Spotted Flycatcher briefly in the hedgerow, and another fine ensemble of raptors. To top off an eventful day, I was near-certain I'd found a Garganey on Mill Pond, which disappeared into the vegetation for 20 or so minutes. Wanting to be 100% sure, I waited until it came back out, discovering it was in fact a Teal! As Eartha Kitt once said, my tombstone will be my diploma...

So, two patch lifers, and new additions to the Thorncombe Street list, but tempered by two ones that got away. This wader influx really is unprecedented, but there are theories, provided by myself and others, which I'll go into in more detail soon (in short my patch is the only obvious gap from the perspective of a bird that's above the Middlesex reservoirs and looking south!).
New Barn pond, 28/8/2017

I need just 3 more year ticks to break the previous record of 117, but with time on patch during the week becoming less and less this won't be easily accomplished. However, August has given me a huge helping hand, and as we begin to enter the business end of the Autumn migration period, anything is possible...

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The One That Got Away, Volume 1

The one that got away. A notion applicable to all elements of life, including birding. As a keen patch-watcher, a one that got away represents a lost opportunity that may never rise again. That fleeting flyover, lost to view over the trees. That tease that allowed so many features to be pin-pointed, but just not enough to be sure. That distant shape, almost undeniable, but 100% certification can't be claimed.

The very nature of my patch means that, largely, my experiences with rare or interesting birds are flyovers. As a result, this has provided a good list of ones that got away, and ones I may not ever get on patch. A recent example of this led me to create this countdown of frustrating moments in the field, that doubtless all birders have experienced.

For the sake of clarity, I'll just explain that all the birds in this top 5 are ones that weren't conclusively identified. I thought about including the Little Bunting Matt P and I had in 2015 (deemed not proven by the SBC rarities committee), but given our stance on what we saw and heard, I can't lump it in the inconclusive pile. Fully accepting that the only evidence we could provide wasn't enough to pass for a county mega, we both still have it on our personal lists. For us, there was nothing else it could have been. I'd pay a good amount for a trip in a time machine back to that day...

Anyway, the top 5, starting with the moment that was the catalyst for this idea of posts.

5. 15:05, 6th August 2017, Gull sp.

I'd had little during a Junction Field sky-watch, but singles of Cormorant and Herring Gulls towards the end of the vigil should surely have been enough to keep me positioned for a bit more. Half-way down the hill, 'scope packed away, a juvenile gull appeared to the east.

The bird wasn't particularly high, and began to circle several times, allowing me to note the largely dark upper primaries and lack of primary window - it wasn't a Herring, leaving just two candidates. One, Yellow-legged, would be a first record for the site...

It was a hefty individual, with a clean face, and a striking and neat tail pattern, and I was certainly leaning towards the aforementioned species, ahead of Lesser Black-backed. However, I just couldn't get good enough views of the mirror (or lack of), and ultimately the bird sailed off north-east with 5 Black-headed Gulls, me left helpless, straining through my binoculars.

Yes, it would have been very tough to nail either species with a flight view. I still need time to split juvenile Lesser Black-backs and Yellow-legged up close, so maybe I shouldn't have been as frustrated as I was. However, sometimes you have that gut feeling, and this was certainly one of those times. Furthermore, I'm sure I would have stood a much greater chance of identification if I'd stayed scanning with the telescope a little longer...

Saturday, 19 August 2017

13th-20th August

It looks like Saturday was the big August warbler day of 2017. At around this time of the month, for the past few years, there's been a day when a big, fat fall of Phylloscopus warblers seems to take place. In 2016 it was on the 18th, bringing a Wood Warbler to Allden's Hill, and on the 19th of this year, remarkably, the same species was recorded. Pretty outrageous numbers of Chiffchaffs - no less than 45 - were oozing out of seemingly every bit of vegetation, and at least 5 Willow Warblers were also noted.
Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 13/8/2017

A really busy week at work has left the patch slightly neglected, so it felt good to be checking out New Barn properly for the first time in several days on Saturday morning. The mini storm on Friday afternoon seemed to have dumped plenty of Chiffs, with the warm temperatures on the following day even enticing some into song. The stretch from the gate to New Barn held at least 35 birds, probably more, and as I approached the pond I heard a distinctive call in the hazel to my left.

Fleeting glimpses of a bird moving through the leaves weren't satisfactory, but when I moved off the path to the sunny side of the row of trees, a Wood Warbler showed itself nicely, albeit briefly, several times. Clearly this is where the insects were, and the roving group of about 15 Chiffchaffs and 2 Willow Warblers weren't wasting any time making their way north. 

The individual was heavier than the Chiffchaffs close-by, and the strong eye-stripe, and pale legs and bill showed nicely in the morning sun. As I was viewing from beneath it, the (almost entirely) white underparts stood out more than normal. Indeed, the initial, heavily pale feel to the bird recalled a Bonelli's Warbler species at first (!).

Little Owl, Bonhurst Farm, 16/8/2017
The group moved along quickly, and several attempts to re-find it in Chiffchaff flocks further up the path sadly amounted to nothing. I've long thought New Barn has held potential for certain passerines, particularly warblers, and this year it's turned up both Lesser Whitethroat and Wood Warbler. An Icterine next would be nice...

Elsewhere yesterday a Teal at Mill Pond was the first one of the autumn, and is unsurprisingly the earliest recorded returning bird. Also present, after a two month absence, was the female Red-crested Pochard, along with 2 Gadwall. An afternoon visit also produced a flyover Kingfisher.

Midweek was rather quiet, though it was pleasing to confirm the breeding success of the Bonhurst Farm Little Owls, making it the first time two pairs have bred in the recording area. Several Red-legged Partridge families were seen, typical of this time of year, and not long before the big estate releases. On the 13th, a Yellow Wagtail flew south over Junction Field, a relatively early autumn record, and only the second of 2017.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Summer Sabine's in Surrey - the sad story of a sewage farm severance

Wednesday was unseasonably wet and gloomy. I was working from home, and given the weather, birds were off the agenda. However, a news flash, couple of fast-paced conversations with David and Koje and 50 minute drive to the north-east of the county later, and I found myself looking at a stunning adult, summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull at Beddington.
Sabine's Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 9/8/2017

I got soaked for my troubles, but the rain dripping down my face was a mere afterthought as I gazed at this rarely seen inland gull, from just several feet. It really was the entire package – forked tail, striking wing pattern, yellow tip to the bill – the full works. Wet through, I got Magnus on the bird, said my goodbyes and returned to a day of work.

Remarkably, Beddington had an adult Sabine’s over last October, not bad going given that before these last 2, there’d been just 11 Surrey records (and 10 of them came after the great gale of 1987!). So, this striking individual represented the 12th vice-county bird. Or did it?

A strange quirk of moving out last year is that I now live just a road down from Brian Milton. Brian is an individual, and one that perhaps divides opinion. He is known in the Surrey birding world for a few things, among them his intense dedication to his patch at Unstead (he did just under 5,000 consecutive daily visits once). For me, and I know my friend Sam at least, he was an almost mentor-like figure when we were kids, a provider of epic local patch tales, and a finder of simply wondrous birds. Birds that, for the most part, the records of which will upsettingly be lost for good. And it all started with a Sabine’s Gull.
Sabine's Gull, Beddington Farmlands, 9/8/2017

It’s 07:35 on July 3rd 1999. Birding downtime at Unstead. The site was enjoying a good year so far – a flock of 50+ Kittiwakes, Willow Tit and Merlin the standouts, but with avian activity experiencing its summer lull neither Brian nor Jonathan Winder (an ex-Unstead stalwart who now resides in Sussex), could have imagined what they were about to see. An adult, summer-plumaged Sabine’s Gull, which drifted south over their heads and away (no doubt straight over the Ridge, sadly 8-year old me wasn’t there to see it).

Before this day, both Brian and Jonathan had more than respectable lists of finds at the sewage farm. Indeed, less than 12 months before, Brian found Surrey’s 3rd Red-necked Phalarope, a bird that was enjoyed by over 120 people. They enjoyed good, 'scope views of this gull, a bird that’s relatively easy to identify in its summer attire. The previous night, thunderstorms had swept across the south-east, and a Great Skua appeared at not so far away Eversley gravel pits on the same day as the Sabine’s, with a noted movement of Black-headed Gulls taking place at Unstead.

Red-rumped Swallow, Unstead, 8/7/2011. Picture
thanks to Neil Randon.
This record was deemed unproven by the Surrey Bird Club rarities committee, and in my mind it marked the beginning of the end of Unstead. At that point the Unstead Bird and Wildlife Group (UBWG), who’d spent years successfully campaigning Thames Water to create a reserve (including a hide, tern rafts etc), became disillusioned with the rarity submission process, and decided to stop putting in any further records.

In time, a myriad of other problems, not least the breaking up of the UBWG, have culminated in Unstead being little more than an overgrown mess now. The hide is in disrepair, the North Meadow, formerly an open marsh teeming with life, is a willow swamp, and the lagoons are essentially weed fields. This site, rich in history and fantastic birds (Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Purple Heron, Spotted Crakes among the accepted ones), surely has no return ticket to its halcyon days. Even Brian, who has had an incredible 193 birds at Unstead, spends increasingly less time there.

North Meadow, Unstead, in 2008. This area is now
covered in Willows, and the hide is falling apart.
The Sabine’s tale is one Brian has relayed to me time and time again. When I bumped into him a couple of days ago, I knew what I was in for when I told him about my recent trip to Beddington. He certainly remains hurt by that decision, and I’ve no doubt he regrets how his serious stubbornness has left him refusing to submit anything else. Most of his rarities have been single observer flyovers, sightings that, wherever in the world, can prove contentious.

Interestingly, birds he’s found (post-Sab's) that have stuck, and thus been enjoyed by others, all seem to have found their way into the Surrey Bird Club records - Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted Crake and Red-rumped Swallow are 3 such examples. The last two came in this decade, and presumably, other observers submitted these.

A delve into the old Surrey Birders Yahoo group reveals scepticism among some in regard to Brian and his records. Given his proven track record, and thoroughness, it’s both surprising and sad to read. I remember vividly his anger at not being able to nail what was either a Short or Long-eared Owl, neither of which had been recorded at Unstead at the time, as well as his 3 probable Gannets that flew over the same day 3 passed over Beddington. He is thorough, and would never claim anything if he wasn’t certain. And most of all, given his lack of desire for credit, why would he claim fraudulent birds? He’d be mugging only himself off.

Spotted Crake, Unstead, September 2010. This bird
was present for 11 days, but news only got out
(inadvertently) after the first week, with Brian
controversially having no intention of making it
public. Picture thanks to Kevin Guest.
I sympathise with him. I’ve had records not accepted, and it’s frustrating at least, discouraging and disillusioning at worst. There’s a huge argument for why not submitting any records just because you’ve had one not proven is the wrong attitude to take, and that the UBWG/Brian perhaps threw their toys out the pram. 

I for one am simply sad there was never any solution that could have resolved the tricky situation. Brian’s told me that he was informed a re-submission, with a couple of tweaks, would have passed, but a man like him was having none of it – he couldn’t lie about what features he did or didn’t see. It left the permanent detachment of one of the county’s finest birders, but more importantly a gaping hole in the Surrey history books.

Below is a list of, as far as I can see, all the rarities that'll never see the light of day because of this sorry story (not to mention the breeding data and declining species records). One day I’ll dedicate much more to the history of Unstead, and what a magical site it once was. Sadly, the way things are going, it’ll probably be an obituary.

1999 – Sabine's GullLittle Gull, Iceland Gull and Wryneck.
2000 – Black Kite and Icterine Warbler.
2005 – Purple Heron and Grey Phalarope.
2006 – Spoonbill and Long-tailed Skua.
2008 – Common Crane.
2009 – Rough-legged Buzzard.
2010 – Honey-buzzard and Guillemot.
2012 – Montagu’s Harrier and Iceland Gull.
2013 – Honey-buzzard and Little Gull.
2014 – Short-toed Eagle.
2015 - Great White Egret.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

7th-12th August

Spotted Flycatcher, 10/8/2017
At the start of 2017 I definitely didn't target the end of July and beginning of August to be a time to rack up year ticks, and so 4 in 3 weeks have been most unexpected. Tree Pipit became my 112th bird of the year on Friday when an individual flew east over Junction Field, calling several times. Rather shockingly, this somewhat early individual is only my second record here, and the third known bird.

Counts of 275 and 180 Tree Piptis over Fife were made last weekend, with the Scandinavian population beginning it's journey south. The weather wasn't bad for movement on Friday, with a gentle westerly and next to no cloud cover. A trickle of Swallows south-east, and an early Reed Bunting south, were the other highlights of a 2 and 3/4 hour vis-mig session (full log of movers below).
 
There was an increase of migrants on the deck, too, with 5 Willow Warblers continuing their good run here of late, and a rather tired looking Spotted Flycatcher on Allden's Hill the previous evening. This species is abundant at present - almost any wooded area has a bird or two, and it's hard to know if these are moving or just the local families dispersing. The bird on the 10th was acting very much like a migrant, though, silent and preening between the odd fly-catch. I've linked some video of it here.

Little Owl youngster, 10/8/2017
Elsewhere the usual fare, with the Linnet/Goldfinch flock on the Ridge increasing slightly, and larger numbers of Chiffchaffs in seemingly every bush. Plenty of Woodpigeon family groups have been seen moving across the landscape in search of food. On Friday I counted a minimum of 52 during the vis-mig, often in flocks of 5 or more.

On the subject of families, the Thorncombe Park Little Owls have been successful, and the first fledged youngster to be seen was being particularly on Thursday evening, with dad in close attendance. It remains to be seen if the Bonhurst pair raised young, with the Gatestreet Farm birds having already lost their brood.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

4th-6th August

The recent early migration hot streak has continued, with my second patch tick in just over a week coming on the 4th. Added up, I'd hate to think how many hours I've spent looking for Lesser Whitethroat, but the work finally paid off when I found a bird along the New Barn track on Friday morning. This bird is a real local rarity, not just on the patch but in the wider Godalming area. The last record here came in the 1990's, and in May Witley Common enjoyed their first Sylvia curruca since 1999!
Juvenile Willow Warbler, New Barn, 6/8/2017

Typically skulking, I didn't exactly enjoy crippling views, but the contrasting head colours and pale plumage were there to see. The individual also called, and performed a couple of short flights, during which the long tail was noted. After a few minutes, it bounced into some dense bracken and wasn't seen again.

The bird was part of a fine cast of 55 species that morning, including 4 other types of Warbler, confirmation of successfully breeding Skylarks, a juvenile Herring Gull and just the 3rd Sand Martin of the year, in with a big moving group of mixed hirundines. The previous day had been much more quiet, bar a couple of Willow Warblers at Winkworth, and a Kingfisher over Rowe's Flashe.

The latter is generally rather scarce here, but after 5 records all year I've now had 3 in the last 6 days. I'm not too sure why this would be - perhaps the recent appearance of fry/smaller fish for them to eat can be correlated with their increase? A bird was seemingly feeding happily at Mill Pond this morning, and 2 juvenile Shoveler here were quite possibly returning winter birds, given that they're the first dabbling ducks to return in the autumn.

Today was pretty quiet though, and ultimately ended in frustrating fashion. The clear skies and light winds had me on the Ridge at dawn, but just 4 Swallows east could be considered migrating during the vis-mig. A large flock of Linnets kept me entertained, though, with a seemingly endless stream of birds arriving from the south-west to feed on the chicory crop throughout the morning. In total, I counted over 60 birds. There was also a notable fall of warblers at New Barn, including at least 4 Willows.

Spotted Flycatcher, New Barn, 4/7/2017
The frustration came during my second visit in the afternoon. A quiet sky-watch from Junction Field peaked just as I was set to go, with a Cormorant and adult Herring Gull moving in a westerly direction, before I picked up a juvenile gull to the east. The bird wasn't particularly high, and began to circle several times, allowing me to note the largely dark upper primaries and lack of primary window, thus ruling out Herring.

It was a hefty individual, with a clean face, and a striking and neat tail pattern, and I was thinking more Yellow-legged than Lesser Black-backed. However, I just couldn't get good enough views of the mirror (or lack of), and ultimately the bird sailed off north-east with 5 Black-headed Gulls. Definitely a fine candidate for what would have been a first Yellow-legged for the patch, but it goes down as another bird that got away...

Thursday, 3 August 2017

31st July-3rd August

After the remarkable flock of Black-tailed Godwits last week, the last thing I expected just 5 days later was another migrating wader party, but this is exactly what happened on Tuesday. My early morning routine consisted largely of hedge bashing, but after 10 Cormorants, 48 Starlings and a single Common Tern had moved south-west over Winkworth, I realised I'd been a bit dumb to choose passerine searching over a sky-watch, particularly ahead of the rain that was forecast for 9.

20 Whimbrel WSW over Goose Green, 2/8/2017
It was too late to bother heading up the Ridge, and so it was a routine whizz through the patch before work. I decided to check a small meadow at Goose Green, just off the footpath, with its rather dense line of blackthorn and brambles perhaps holding my long sought-after Lesser Whitethroat. I'd hardly walked a few steps from the car before a large flock of somethings appeared low over the A281 treeline to my east. I went into super-rush mode, but the identification process was aided when at least 2 birds in the group called - Whimbrel!

I took in some binocular views to be sure, and after failing to get pictures of the Godwits I raced to bag some shots of these guys. Fortunately, they deviated from their westward flight, turning south before heading off south-west in the direction of Tilsey Farm. This allowed for a prolonged chance with the camera, and I managed a couple of pictures that were OK - this also helped me confirm the flock as 20 strong. I've always wanted a picture of something ridiculous flying over the woods/fields of my patch, but sadly my effort at this was out of focus. I've used the picture in this post anyway.

When I picked the group up they were in an unorganised mess of a flock, but turned into a V, and left that way. I later learnt that, when migrating long distances overland, Whimbrel will fly in a V-formation, and these guys must have been on one hell of a trip, and no doubt cut the corner at the Wash or Thames estuary. Aside from the call, the shorter bill was noted, quicker wingbeats, and also the 'head and crop up' flight which can be seen in the photos.
Blurry Whimbrel over Goose Green

Happy days, another example of chance, and also further reiteration of my Shalford Split theory, which I really do think has legs. I reckon they tracked they Wey then Wey-Arun canal, and lowered ahead of the rain (which came 20 minutes after I saw them), perhaps interested in Scrubbin's Pond. I wonder where they did eventually pitch down?

The fact I'd had a (super-rare locally) Mediterranean Gull south over my flat in Godalming at 5:45 that morning should have been an indicator that stuff was moving down the river/wider area, and a prolonged sky-watch could have turned up more waders. I'm not complaining though - this is just the 2nd record of Whimbrel here, and brings my year list to 110.

Full of optimism and expectation, this morning flattered to deceive, with just a couple of Willow Warblers new in at Winkworth, and a Swift over, of migration note. A Kingfisher at Rowe's Flashe was the second in 3 days, not bad for this local scarcity, with the bird on the 1st coming at Mill Pond.

In focus Whimbrel over Goose Green
A far better sighting that day was one of Robin S, who I hadn't seen for far too long. We had a few hours together in the morning, and he added 7 birds to his Thorncombe Street list. We spoke of plans for a coordinated vis-mig session later in the season, and I will need all the help I can get having (foolishly) decided to go head-to-head with Steve G in a migration challenge. All the details are on his excellent blog here. I'm intrigued to see what the final number of birds will be.

Monday, 31 July 2017

29th-30th July

What was initially a night in Bristol seeing mates ended up being a trip to deepest Cornwall, and an unforgettable pelagic trip out of Penzance. With my bogey bird, Great Shearwater, being seen in unusually high numbers off the south-west the last few weeks, we initiated a plan when I saw that spaces on the Saturday evening trip were still available. A quick Airbnb booking, pelagic ticket confirmation from Mermaid Pleasure Trips, and we were sorted.
Great Shearwater, Penzance pelagic, 29/7/2017

As demonstrated by the lingering Portland Great Sherwater, and possible movement of the same individuals along the Cornwall and Devon headlands, it seems this species is not just passing, but actually lingering. Hand in hand with this is an influx of Wilson's Storm-petrels, a bird that's very hard to see in the UK, almost exclusively on pelagics off Scilly. The reasons for the increased numbers of both these birds this year is unknown at present (to me at least), but it's thought the sea temperature is down, which is favourable for southern hemisphere species.

Anyway, at 17:30 on Saturday, in heavy rain and a changeable wind, we set off for the open sea, 11 miles south-west of Penzance. Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and European Storm-petrels were present from the off, along with both Black-backed Gulls and Herrings. It wasn't until we were well into our chum, and stationary with a big group of Gulls feeding, when the special birds began to appear.

First up was a Great Shearwater, which performed some breathtaking circuits of the boat, allowing me a truly magical way to see this species for the first time. Seconds later a Sooty Shearwater passed through, and another Great not long after. During the hour or so spent largely in the same area, at least 5 Great Shearwaters graced us with their presence. Sadly, the rain and cloud meant my pictures weren't what they could have been, but it took nothing away from the experience of not only enjoying crippling views, but also hearing one bird call, and watching them boldly take on the Great Black-backs for food.
Wilson's Storm Petrel, Penzance pelagic, 29/7/2017.
Upperwing panel and trailing feet can be seen here.

A few Fulmars and Kittiwakes joined, and Storm-petrel numbers steadily increased, reaching a maximum of about 80 birds. It was among them that an even more special ocean wanderer was first picked out, a Wilson's Storm-petrel. This was a complete bonus, and by the end of the trip we'd counted at least 4 individuals. The pale upperwing band was actually fairly difficult to pick out in the light, but once I'd got my eye in just the size alone made them identifiable. The next key feature was the dangling legs, and then the flight style, which at times was Shearwater-esque.

Not bad at all, and I'm sure some wondrous photos will eventually emerge, given the size of the lenses on board. A Great Skua was a latecomer to the party, a distant Cory's Shearwater passed, and at least 1 juvenile Yellow-legged Gull was also around.

Despite getting soaked through, and getting back to the harbour pretty cold, it was an experience I won't forget for a while, and it's been a long time since I got two Western Palearctic ticks in the UK in such quick succession. The Sunday was largely non-birding, though a quick sticking in of the head at Hayle revealed 4 Greenshanks and 1 Whimbrel, as well as a couple of Black Swans.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull, Cornwall, 30/7/2017
I spent a bit of time with a Gull flock too, and was really struggling with the identification of the pictured juvenile bird. I was initially confident of Yellow-legged, and in particular the tertials convinced me it was this species. However, something wasn't quite right, with the head and bill shape bugging me, and also the scapulars, tail length and lack of 'whiteness' to the head/breast.

The bird wasn't as big as young Yellow-legged's are at this time of year, and furthermore, I didn't see a window in the inner primaries in flight. I ultimately settled on it being a young Lesser Black-backed, and many thanks go to Jamie P for his help with this bird too!

Thursday, 27 July 2017

25th-27th July

After some pretty unproductive weather of late, the forecast for today looked extremely appealing, and I'd planned to juggle work so I'd have it largely free. I was close to tweeting about July 27th this morning, as it remains somewhat legendary in patch terms. On this day in 2015 the only ever records of Whimbrel and Black-tailed Godwit came, in remarkably similar conditions to today. A blustery south-westerly, intermittent heavy, low cloud and light showers, added to the historical significance, meant it was surely a prime opportunity to go for Operation Patch Wader.

South side of the Ridge where the Godwits flew over
A dawn recce of Winkworth and the New Barn area got the day off to an interesting start. Both sites produced Spotted Flycatchers, away from any (known) nest sites, and it's likely they were migrant birds. A gorgeous, lemony Willow Warbler was also at New Barn, and 25+ Swifts made their way south under the clouds. It felt like a day for some magic to happen, and I even uttered these sentiments to my girlfriend.

I planned to get a good few hours of work in, but the BBC and their erratic weather forecasts had me racing back to the Ridge for 11:45, with the showers now expected at 12, not 3. Swift movement was evident - by the end of the sky-watch I'd tallied up 77 moving west. At this time of year I've found Swift action to be a good forbearance of other species passing through (normally just the odd Gull).

At around 12:10 the forecast cloud drifted in from the west, and with it just the slightest bit of rain. At 12:20 I picked up a tight flock of birds, initially thought to be racing pigeons, moving north-east-east over the southern facing side of the Ridge. Binoculars soon revealed striking wing bars, white rumps and long trailing legs - Black-tailed Godwits! A rough count estimated the group to be approximately 40-strong.
Comma, Winkworth, 25/7/2017

The flock weren't particularly high, and I actually lost them briefly behind an Oak tree. In that time I reached for my camera, but despite being on the birds for a good minute or two, failed to get any pictures. I switched back to bins as they climbed slightly, and did a quick recount before they disappeared over Junction Field.

There are a few reasons as to why this record was so thrilling, and remarkable. Firstly, it was a patch tick and mega 'un-blocker' for me, both of which are very rare things. Second of all, it was a stunning encapsulation of migration over the patch. Thirdly, it was an early completion of my wader operation, and absolutely not how I expected! Any wetland bird here is of note, let alone a large flock of waders. To top it all off, when I got home and did some research, it seems this is actually a record count of Black-tailed Godwits in Surrey - crazy stuff.

If it was the spring, Godwits moving east would make a little more sense, given the theory that birds 'cut the corner' on the south coast and come out at the Thames/Wash. Perhaps the wind and cloud threw them off a bit, and their reorientation had them heading to the north/east Kent coast. Or, perhaps, they were simply switching from the River Wey to the Wey-Arun Canal (a theory I've touched on previously), before continuing south.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Selsey, 25/7/2017
On the way home, a staggering 520+ Jackdaws were counted in the corvid flock at Thorncombe Park. Tuesday and Wednesday were quiet on the patch, bar a record count of 36 Canada Geese yesterday, and the confirmation (after worrying doubts) of breeding Kestrels on the 25th. An after work trip to the beach on Tuesday produced just the one juvenile Yellow-legged Gull among a flock at Selsey, but what a handsome, pale bird it was (picture attached).

Monday, 24 July 2017

18th-24th July

Things continue to be pretty quiet on patch, though the sometimes notable northerly winds, rain and heavy cloud of late have created an autumnal feel, and with that should come some bird movement. This morning, certainly, this was evident via a mixed feeding flock of hirundines over Mill Pond, including at least 4 Sand Martins. This species is very hard to catch up with here - it's only the second sighting of 2017, and 2 is roughly the annual average for records of these birds.
Sand Martin (above) & Swallow, Mill Pond, 24/7/2017

Attempts to get a decent photo proved impossible (as you can see here), but nevertheless, they were by far my most prolonged and enjoyable views of Sand Martin on the patch. After work, a circuit of lower Winkworth continued the autumn vibe. My first proper mixed Tit/Warbler flock of the season was roving through the scrub in Furze Field, and at least 2 vocal Willow Warblers were among the Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and 3 species of Tits.

Another sign of autumn is the post-breeding gatherings of corvids around Thorncombe Park, and during the last week some exceptional counts have been made. The numbers peaked on the 20th, when a site record 250+ Jackdaws were feeding on churned up ground within the estate. With them were at least 100 Rooks, 3 Ravens and an impressive 60+ Carrion Crows.

The warm weather during the early part of last week saw plenty of butterfly action, with Small Coppers and Common Blues notable by their numbers, and the first Painted Ladies of 2017 were observed. The best record came on the 19th, when a Clouded Yellow was seen over Rowe's Flashe Meadow, at Winkworth. It's highly likely this species has been present on the patch before, but it's the first documented sighting.

Keeping away from birds, an intriguing mammalian record came via Matt P on the 18th, from just outside the recording area. A dead Polecat/Ferret was on the A281 just south of Palmer's Cross, and should it have been the former, it would keep in trend with the southern expansion of this species. There is certainly suitable habitat on the patch, and an eye will be firmly kept out in the future.

Elsewhere, I couldn't fight the urge to put one of my remaining 'tarts ticks' to bed yesterday afternoon, when news of a Great Shearwater sitting on the sea at Portland Bill broke. The bird was reported as showing well for a few hours, and despite the 5 hour round trip I couldn't resist, particularly given the fact this species is effectively impossible to twitch in the UK. Alas, I missed it by about 40 minutes, a brutal dip on a Sunday evening.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, Weymouth, 23/7/2017
However, solace came via a supermarket in Weymouth, which provided not only a winning scratchcard but also 3 beautiful juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls in its car park. The individual in the photo took kindly to my offerings of bread, allowing a good look at the dark 'mask' on the white head, the heavy dark bill and straight (ish) pale edges to the tertial tips. In this bird the wear to the scapulars can be seen, and indeed there is a new lower scapular growing.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A new bird for Thorncombe Street

2017 has so far seen 4 new species added to the historic bird list for Thorncombe Street, and this week a 5th joined, in unusual circumstances. Most birders love a list, and I've spent much time scouring through old books and reports, making sure I haven't missed any records of birds in my recording area. My research has been pretty thorough, but there are several species which have had a cloud of uncertainty over their heads.
Just like 1944 - a Great Grey Shrike on wires

For example, old, Victorian records of some birds (Night-heron, Ferruginous Duck etc) are simply described as being shot at 'Bramley', which could or could not be in my area. There are a few ponds in the village north of my patch boundary, and so these birds simply can't be added. 

As time and record-keeping moved forward, locations got more specific, but there are a batch of records from the mid 1940's from 'Bramley' that are of two species that seem very suited to my area, or at least what my area would have been like back then. The species in question are Grasshopper Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, and having worked out their references in Jeff Wheatley's Birds of Surrey, it seemed I needed to get my hands on the old South Eastern Bird Reports, which ran before the Surrey Bird Club came into existence.

Another record has long intrigued. A Great Grey Shrike was reported from Palmer's Green, in 1944. Wheatley could never find anywhere in Surrey that bore that name, and concluded that the record probably referred to Palmer's Cross/Goose Green, which are two areas next to each other on my patch. The observer was behind the Bramley records at the time, and the name confusion was likely just a typo or mistake. However, the lack of 100% certainty meant it just couldn't be confirmed.

I've long wanted to read through these South Eastern Bird Reports, and this week, with the great help of Haslemere Musuem, I finally did. Sadly, I couldn't get any further with Red-backed Shrike or Grasshopper Warbler. The former came close though, with the note from the 1944 report stating 'this species was prevalent in the Bramley area'. It's almost certain they were around, but as there's no 100% confirmation, the species remains off the list.

Collared versus Turtle, 1944
Great Grey Shrike, though, was a different story. The 1944 South Eastern Bird report had the erroneous 'Palmer's Green' as the location for the record, which came in October. However, I managed to get my hands on a dusty pamphlet from 1953, The Birds, Butterflies and Flowers of the Godalming Area, which I had no idea existed, and there I found the jackpot. 

Under the Great Grey Shrike section, the words I'd been hoping to find were there - "One on wires at Palmer's Cross in October 1944". Finally, confirmation that this bird was indeed within my recording area. The Shrike brings the historic tally up to 148, and becomes another uber-blocker for me.

These old documents make fascinating reading, and are a great way to appreciate/scowl at the changes the countryside has gone through in less than 80 years. Just take a look at the picture to the right, and note the difference in Turtle and Collared Dove records compared to nowadays...