Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds

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.