Monday, 7 August 2017

Farewell to Chilworth: the end of a garden list.

I must start by acknowledging Ed's blog post about leaving behind his family home as inspiration in part for the following.

Moving house is always a wrench. So many emotions rolled into one. Not least, for a birder, the feeling of finality about the garden list. A slowly accumulating total that seemed like it would go on for ever must sadly come to an end. It's the ultimate in patch watching really, isn't it? There's something particularly wonderful about seeing birds in, from and above your own little patch of land, and even more so when something wholly unexpected makes an appearance.

After almost three years enjoying the pretty wonderful view from our garden on Sample Oak Lane in Chilworth, my girlfriend Kate and I have now left the Surrey Hills behind us. In fact we've left the county altogether, heading south to Pulborough in West Sussex where our new garden backs directly onto the wildbrooks. To say I'm looking forward to our future there and the birds we'll add to the garden list is something of an understatement (already on 75 species after just over a month!) but, as we have now come to the end of our tenancy and returned the keys, I thought I'd just pay homage to that which we have left behind and the very respectable list of 92 bird species I recorded in, over or from our Chilworth garden in our 34 and a bit months there.

(Unfortunately I've only realised since I started writing this that I didn't take a great deal of photos of the birds in and over the garden so some imagination will be required...)
Looking south-west from the house
The garden list got off to a pretty good start, with a Red Kite circling overhead on the day we first viewed the house in July 2014. At that time this species was already becoming a pretty common sight locally, but still a good omen for what was to come. The second raptor on the list was added on moving day a few weeks later and was certainly not the species I would have expected. As we finished lugging in the last of the boxes and with little more than Blue Tit and Robin added to the garden total, Kate drew my attention to a bird of prey getting mobbed by Crows over the fields to the south-west. 'Probably just a Buzzard', I said. No sooner had those words left my mouth though, than the bird turned to reveal its gleaming white underparts and long kinked wings. I sprinted upstairs to my scope (which of course I had already set up in the spare room) and just managed to get enough on the bird to realise it was obviously an Osprey before it flew off over the trees to the south. I needn't have rushed, as the bird was clearly lingering in the area and I saw it several times again over the course of the next few days before eventually watching it fly off high south one morning. This was a species I went on to record on a further two occasions over the garden but never quite so memorably as that first time.
Osprey over Chilworth, 30th August 2014
Over the coming weeks our first autumn in the house produced flyover Yellow Wagtail, a slightly late Swift (we moved over the August Bank Holiday so I assumed I'd have to wait until the following spring for this one), Hobby and regular Tawny Owl and Little Owl. The latter species seemed to become a less frequent occurrence over time, sadly, and by this year it was one I only heard very occasionally calling rather distantly to the north. Interesting viewpoint from Steve Chastell on this was the suggestion that Little Owls are becoming increasingly secretive as Buzzards and the like become more common, which seems logical to me. I certainly seemed to hear them a lot more often than I saw them on my Shalford patch as well. Barn Owl was only recorded once, with one hunting over the fields on the other side of the road from us on 31st August 2015. Ravens were recorded on occasion, peaking at three over together on 3rd April this year, although I perhaps didn't see them quite as often as I expected given their increase as a local breeder. Still, along with Red Kite, a sign of the changing times in the fates of various bird species in this part of the country. Another sign of this was the fact that I only recorded Yellowhammer maybe two or three times flying over the garden where once upon a time I'm told they were singing from every other hedgerow between Guildford and Albury.
Raven over the garden

Despite my best efforts the garden itself had relatively little in the way of vegetation to hold many birds beyond the common Tits, Robins and Dunnocks but the trees and hedges nearby attracted warblers in the form of regular Chiffchaff, Willow Warber, Blackcap and once a Whitethroat. Marsh Tit was recorded just once passing through the roadside hedge, sneezing as it went. One species I was surprised never to record from the garden was Firecrest, especially given how common they are becoming in the local area - I often saw and heard them just a little way up the road.

As has been well documented the whole Tillingbourne stretch through Albury and Chilworth towards Shalford is a popular wintering spot for Little Egrets so it wasn't surprising to see this species flying over the garden in the winter months, or occasionally in the fields beyond our garden. What was less expected though was the Great White Egret which flew over at dusk on 30th October 2016 - a Surrey lifer for me, from the comfort of my patio no less! Magic.

With there being a large private water body (labelled 'Fish Pond' on the OS map) just a few hundred yards to the west of the garden it was no surprise to see Mallards and Mandarins regularly flying over, along with Canada Geese, Cormorants, Grey Herons, etc. More unusual flyovers came in the form of Tufted Duck, Shoveler and Gadwall. Waders were unsurprisingly particularly hard to come by around these parts, so a flyover Green Sandpiper on 24th July 2016 and two Curlew over on 1st June this year were both very welcome additions indeed (the latter in fact turned out to be the final new species on the garden list).

The most astounding and memorable moment though was surely the pair of Common Cranes which flew south on the morning of 2nd May this year. To this day I still almost can't believe it actually happened. You can read my full account of that morning here if you'd like to and haven't already done so.

It wasn't just the nearby water producing some decent garden ticks though. Having Blackheath just a little way to the south-east at the top of the road was clearly also very helpful with Cuckoo a reasonably regular sound in the early summer months and one even flying north over the garden on 22nd April 2016. Siskin were a regular feature throughout the year particularly in the winter when they flocked together with the Goldfinches in the Alders across the fields towards Fish Pond. Other heathland wanderers included occasional Crossbills, and a Woodlark which flew north-west on 21st September last year. Best of all though was the Nightjar that was heard churring somewhere to the south of the garden on the night of 21st May this year.

Only time would have told whether a few more years there would have seen my garden list emulate fellow Chilworth birder Ernest Garcia's list of 108 species (which by the way includes Whimbrel, Wryneck, Willow Tit and Goosander!) but regardless I will still always remember fondly the birding memories I made in this little corner of the Surrey Hills. 
In the garden soon after moving in - in summer plumage!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Shalford patch diary, June 2017

It's been a while but here we are again, and I'm sad to say this will be the last one of these patch reviews I'll do for Shalford Water Meadows. Not too sad though as a new patch and county list beckons with my southward migration to Pulborough in West Sussex this week.

As is typical for midsummer it's all been a little bit quiet on the bird front lately and it's at this time of year that one's attentions are drawn to keeping tabs on the rather more scarce resident and migrant breeding species on the patch rather than the unpredictable excitement of passage birds in spring and autumn.

As of the middle of June I'm pleased to report there were at least three active nest holes in the Sand Martin colony on St Catherine's Hill, with the adults busy feeding youngsters. When I revisited on the 29th it had all gone rather quiet, but I'm hoping that just means they're between broods. Perhaps someone with more experience of this species' breeding habits can enlighten me? Either way it really is wonderful to see this species breeding so close to Guildford.
I was getting a little anxious about the Stonechats at St Catherine's Lock as the young seemed to be taking forever to fledge but I'm pleased to report that both adults were seen with two juveniles in tow on 20th June, this increasing to three juveniles by the 29th. Great to see and another nice one to confirm as breeding here after last year's mystery juvenile at the lock in mid-June aroused suspicions that this species was more than just a winter visitor here.
Juvenile Stonechat
Juv Stonechat
The Spotted Flycatcher pair were also still present in the trees on the western edge of Shalford Park as of this past weekend (via Kit Britten) following on from my delight at discovering a week or two ago that they are indeed nesting in this area. Surely one of the closest remaining breeding pairs of this declining species to Guildford town centre now?
Spotted Flycatcher on nest
From a species that is dwindling as a breeder in Surrey to one that is very much on the increase: it's been great to confirm the presence of at least one breeding pair of Firecrest on the patch this year (I obviously won't say exactly where), as this species continues to spread ever closer to urbanity in this part of the world.

Firecrest - photo by Kit Britten
Away from the scarcer stuff there's so many juvenile birds around now, including a regular gang of Mistle Thrushes at Shalford Park, all the common Tits, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Blackbirds and Grey Wagtails plus the first young Swallows and House Martins at St Catherine's Lock the other day.
Mistle Thrushes - photo by Richard Waters
Mistle Thrush - photo by Richard Waters
Green Woodpeckers have been notable by their absence in recent weeks - as Kit pointed out on our walk around the patch ten days or so ago - so it was good to see an adult and a juvenile together just west of the railway line near the Park and Ride on the 29th.
Green Woodpecker (juvenile)
Reed Buntings, Song Thrushes and Whitethroats have all been seen carrying food and until recently there were still at least three or four Garden Warblers singing around the area; a large increase on last year if they all breed successfully. Reed Warblers have gone quiet, if indeed there are any on territory at all (last year it seemed only one pair bred) but there's still at least one pair of Sedge Warblers near St Catherine's Lock; one was singing by St Catherine's Pool on the 25th while another was seen carrying food into Broom Meadow on the same day. As I mentioned in my previous patch diary postWater Rail regularly alarm calling in Mill Mead Meadow towards the end of May would suggest breeding success as I'm told they often call in such a way when they have young around.
Whitethroat - photo by Dave Carlsson
It's been such an enjoyable eighteen months or so patch watching Shalford, getting to know its birds and other wildlife. Patch birding is always full of surprises but I don't think I ever would have imagined a year and a half ago I would find Garganey, Brent Goose, Med Gull, Curlew, Lesser Whitethroat, Crossbill, Cuckoo, Nightingale and many more locally scarce species just a stone's throw from Guildford town centre, not to mention breeding Stonechat, Sand Martin, Spot Fly and Firecrest. It just goes to show the value of putting in that bit of extra effort to find birds on your own doorstep. I can't wait to get out and about in the Pulborough area and start all over again!

Monday, 5 June 2017

Wood you believe it? A rare Surrey twitch.

After finishing my shift on the Surrey Bird Club Woking Peregrine Project stand on Saturday afternoon I couldn't resist popping over to the Ash Ranges to catch up with the singing male Wood Warbler found by John Clark that morning.

Aside from a silent bird I stumbled across on a wooded coastal hillside in Sardinia last month my last singing male Wood Warbler was at Tice's Meadow in April 2013. I generally don't go out of my way much for birds unless they're lifers but knowing it could be at least another four years before I caught up with another local one, the appeal of this bird pretty much on my way home was just too tempting.
Thanks to John's very specific grid reference I had no problem connecting with the bird on arrival, especially as I could hear it singing from c.100m away! I was then treated to close views for the best part of an hour, with nobody else around for the whole time I was there, the bird calling and singing almost constantly throughout. Let's hope his effort is worth it and he sticks around and finds a female!

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Shalford patch diary, mid to late May

Well, what with my week away and various other bits and bobs it's been over three weeks since my last patch diary post.

Typically for the time of year things have now quietened down somewhat with the resident and migrant breeders all largely getting on with the task at hand. Aside from the usual common Tits and Mallards it's been good to confirm plenty of other species as breeding at Shalford, some more common than others. The first Mandarin ducklings were found by Kit Britten on the 13th while family groups or juveniles of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Goldfinch, Goldcrest and Mistle Thrush have all been seen recently. The regular Stonechat pair, meanwhile, are apparently still feeding nestlings at St Catherine's Lock. Surely they should be fledging any day now.

Best of all though has been confirming Sand Martins breeding in the railway cutting on the east side of St Catherine's Hill, with three birds regularly seen going into a hole here recently. Like so many places in Surrey this was once a regular breeding site for this declining species but had apparently been abandoned for many years so it's great to see them back. I suspect the tree and scrub clearance carried out on the embankment has opened the area up enough to encourage them back.
Sand Martin
The only patch year tick since my last round-up came on the 27th when I stumbled across a pair of Spotted Flycatchers in the wet woodland on the west side of Shalford Park. This is a part of the patch I've not explored much previously and I went to investigate it on this day with this exact species in mind. Only my third patch record of this species following on from singles in spring and autumn last year, and particularly encouraging to see a pair. I do hope they stick around and breed. Spotted Flycatcher is the 103rd species recorded at Shalford this year and my 101st.
Onto warblers and there are now at least four Garden Warblers and two Sedge Warblers holding territory on the patch, one of the latter near St Catherine's Lock proving particularly showy on recent visits (see video below!). Reed Warblers have been rather scarce this spring with just singles on the 20th and 31st the only ones recorded since my previous patch round-up. The first juvenile Chiffchaffs of the year were seen in the Broadford area on the evening of the 30th.
Swift numbers have been really increasing in the last couple of weeks, with a conservative count of thirty noted on the 29th, at least some of these presumably local birds but others still clearly moving through. At least a couple of pairs have been dashing around over Shalford village with the House Martins recently; the latter were busy working on their nests on the 21st, I noticed, when a Hobby appeared low over the rooftops and sent them all into a panic! A regular sight over the village recently via Kit which is good news as I only had a handful of patch records of this species in 2016.
House Martins
A Kingfisher carrying a fish through Broadford on the 29th was, remarkably, only my second patch record of the year while a Water Rail alarm calling in Mill Mead Meadow early on the 31st was only my third record this year and my first ever breeding season record here. This species famously bred, or possibly still does breed, at Unstead SF and Sam Jones has recorded breeding at Firs Bridge down towards Godalming but this would seemingly be the closest breeding site to Guildford town centre on the south side at least.

The only other bits of note recently have all been flyovers with three Lapwings south-west on the 16th, a 3cy Great Black-backed Gull east and two Mute Swans south, both on the 25th. Also on the 25th a Skylark flew west over St Catherine's Lock, singing, while one flew east over the same area on the 29th. I would guess these are birds either breeding at Loseley and commuting to the arable fields south of the Chantries or vice versa.
Mute Swans
One last little nugget I thought I'd share: I mentioned in my previous patch diary about a Bullfinch plucking seedheads off Dandelions along the Railway Line Walk, well I saw another one doing the same on the edge of Shalford Park the other day. Presumably just feeding on the seeds but not behaviour I've seen before this year anyway.
Away from the patch it was great to notch up my hoped for 90th species on my Chilworth garden list, with a Nightjar churring somewhere to the south towards Blackheath on the evening of the 21st. This was followed closely by two Curlews which flew east/north-east this morning. I'm working on a garden list special blog post which I'll post when we eventually move!

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sardinia, 9th-13th May 2017

Aside from two trips to South Africa I've done very little birding abroad, so when my girlfriend and I decided to book a few days in Sardinia to use some of the air miles we'd accrued from our SA trips I was excited to see what new birds we might encounter.

We flew into Cagliari at lunchtime on Tuesday and headed to Hotel Chentu Lunas in Poetto where our wonderfully friendly host Graziella had arranged for hire bicycles to be dropped off. We hopped on and headed along the beachfront to the Parco di Molentargius; a Ramsar protected site and one of several large wetlands on the outskirts of the island's capital city. En route we saw and heard the ubiquitous Hooded Crows, Serins, Spanish Sparrows, Tree Sparrows and Spotless Starlings in the beachfront gardens.
Tree Sparrow on a lamppost! A common sight in Poetto
We had seen Greater Flamingoes from the plane as we came into land so it was no surprise to see lots of them as we entered the park. I knew Sardinia has a healthy population of this species but was still amazed to see so many: every body of water was covered in them, interspersed with smaller numbers of Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Shelduck and Pochard. There were several Terns flying about, including singles of Gull-billed Tern and Little Tern plus a few Common Terns, while among the numerous Yellow-legged Gulls it was nice to pick out a couple of Slender-billed Gulls.
Greater Flamingo
Slender-billed Gull
Gull-billed Tern
In the vegetation around the park Reed Warblers and Cetti's Warblers were very vocal, while the scrubbier fields and hedges held Collared Doves, Spotless Starlings, Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers. At one point we flushed a Cattle Egret as we cycled past and later a Purple Heron which flew off into one of the massive reedbeds. As we headed back past the biggest pool near the main entrance a Squacco Heron gave a nice flypast. Overhead there were large numbers of both Common Swift and Pallid Swift plus Barn Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins; so numerous their combined calls provided a constant soundtrack to our time here. As we parked up our bikes to check out one of the tower hides a familiar call alerted me to two Bee-eaters amongst the hirundine flock above us. Around the same time Kate pointed out a Crimson Speckled moth on the ground which unfortunately proved too flighty to allow good views or a photo. Molentargius is up there with West Coast National Park in South Africa as one of the best nature reserves I've visited; I wish we could have stayed for longer.
Cattle Egret
Spotless Starling - strangely the only photo I got of this common species
Sardinian Warbler - this male was busy collecting food and taking it back to a nest
The next morning (Kate's birthday) we woke to the sound of singing Serins and Greenfinches and a quick scan from the balcony produced a Peregrine flying in front of the mountain and scores of House Martins and Swifts over the water and buildings behind the hotel. After breakfast at one of the beachfront cafes we hit the road for the three hour drive up to Dorgali in the mountains up the east coast. The drive was incredible and slightly terrifying at times as we wound our way along mountain passes in an unfamiliar car on the other side of the road! There was plenty of bird interest along the way including several Turtle Doves and two Monk Parakeets flying across the road and perched on wires, a Bee-eater hawking near the road, Crag Martins nesting under a road bridge and the first of several high altitude raptors which at the time suggested Honey Buzzard but was later identified from my photos by others as a Marsh Harrier.
By mid-afternoon we'd made it to Agriturismo Canales - a charming traditional farmhouse set on a hill by the edge of Lake Cedrino and with great views across into Gennargentu National Park - our home for the next two nights. The first thing that struck us here was the overwhelming quietness of the setting, interrupted only occasionally by goat and sheep bells and bleats, and bursts of song from Turtle Doves and Cirl Buntings. We also found our first Spotted Flycatcher of the holiday squeaking away near our chalet here. It's a clichĂ© to say it but it really is striking how these scarcer species still seem to be thriving further south in Europe, presumably due in no small part to the more sensitive way in which the land is managed; for the time being at least, intensive agriculture with its flailed hedges and monocrops sprayed within an inch of their life are nowhere to be found on Sardinia, or not that we saw anyway. It's a sobering glimpse of a landscape that is becoming such a distant memory in much of Britain.
Cirl Bunting
Turtle Doves

As night began to fall the valley below our chalet really came to life as the first Robins, Wrens and Blackcaps we'd heard during the trip, amongst others, burst into song. After dinner we returned to our balcony to the distinctive sound of Scops Owls duetting and a curious call which I soon discovered to be Barbary Partridge. I regularly heard them calling quite close to our chalet during our stay here and spent a good couple of hours or more in total trying to track them down but sadly they remained frustratingly elusive!
After a hearty breakfast on Thursday morning we drove down to Baunei as Kate had suggested we try the walk from the Golgo Plateau down to Cala GoloritzĂ© – a picturesque beach only accessible by boat or by hike, and reputedly a good site for Eleonora's Falcon. No sooner had we got out of the car at the Golgo Plateau than one drifted overhead; a good start! The hike down took us through deeper and deeper vegetation, soundtracked almost constantly by Firecrests and occasional Sardinian Warblers. At one point I heard a Dartford Warbler calling as well.
A little clearing halfway down dotted with Holm Oaks produced at least two Spotted Flycatchers, a Pied Flycatcher and a Wood Warbler while our second Eleonora's Falcon powered overhead. Nearer the beach we saw Crag Martins and Alpine Swifts flying around the cliffs while down at the beach itself a couple of Ravens and another Peregrine flew over along with another high altitude broad-winged raptor which I judged to be a Honey Buzzard from its shape and 'whole wing' wingbeats.
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher - sadly the only picture I got as it wouldn't stop moving!
The hike back up proved challenging and during one of several hard-earned rest stops we were rewarded with a little group of Corsican Finches flitting about in the bushes quite near the path in the aforementioned area which I nicknamed 'Flycatcher Corner'.
Corsican Finch
Overhead a couple of soaring Common Buzzards were joined by another Marsh Harrier which drifted east, as did another Eleonora's Falcon. On the way back to the main road we were drawn to stop by a gathering of pigs and donkeys on the dirt track ahead and it was here we heard our only Cuckoo of the holiday.
Back at Canales we had dinner on the balcony again to the sound of Scops Owls and Barbary Partridge plus a brief burst of churring from a Nightjar.
Our fourth day in Sardinia saw us again on the road for a long drive down to the south-west - Portovesme to be precise - from where we caught a ferry over to Isola di San Pietro. Though this holiday was primarily about having a few days away for Kate's birthday I made a special request that we go and see the Eleonora's Falcon colony on the island. I wasn't sure they'd be back on territory yet but having seen three the previous day my confidence was bolstered. The ferry over to the island proved productive with two Scopoli's Shearwaters flying past, one very close, plus two flyover Little Egrets, several Shags and two Black-headed Gulls: the only time we saw this species during the whole trip.

After making shore and indulging in a bit of tapas we headed over to the west side of the island and the LIPU reserve at Faro di Cala Sandalo, the most westerly point of Italy and home to the Eleonora's Falcon colony. As soon as we'd got out of the car I spotted a couple of them sailing about over the cliffs. A friendly chap showed us a mouthwatering photo of one of the birds he'd seen earlier perched on a crag and pointed us in the right direction. Within a few minutes we were sat on the cliff edge watching in awe as at least four of these magnificent birds - both pale and dark morphs - put on an incredible display right in front of us, sometimes cruising about amongst the gulls and Alpine Swifts, at other times dashing and diving at breakneck speed towards the ocean before veering back up, almost looping back over on themselves, calling excitedly as they did so. Breathtaking. Sometimes in life and in birding you sense that a moment will live with you forever. To top it all off Kate spotted a dark morph individual that had just alighted on the cliff less than 50 metres below us. Magical.

I could have stayed there for hours but unfortunately we were rather short of time as we had to catch the ferry back to the mainland and check in to our B&B in Portoscuso. A quick check of one of the stagni (saltwater lagoons) near Carloforte on the way back produced more Greater FlamingoesAvocets and Black-winged Stilts, lots of Little Egrets, a single Grey Heron (our only one of the trip!), a couple of Slender-billed Gulls and Common Terns and a very vocal Zitting Cisticola carrying food.
Black-winged Stilt
Saturday was our final morning in Sardinia so I couldn't resist a little seawatch from our hotel window before we packed up our bags, hoping I'd be able to pick out a distant seabird or two. I was pleasantly surprised to find not just one but at least four Scopoli's Shearwaters almost straight away, feeding quite close in to the shore. After watching them for a while a smaller and more strongly contrasting black and white bird darted across my scope view: a Yelkouan Shearwater! One of two seen during this session and a very nice way to end our time here in Portoscuso.
Soon we were on our way back to the airport but the birding fun wasn't quite over as a couple of rest breaks and a petrol stop added Corn Bunting and Skylark to the holiday list, singing in the fields near the road, while birding from the car* produced another Bee-eater and two Black Kites over one of the recently cut hay meadows. If we ever come back here I'd definitely like to spend a bit more time exploring the more agricultural areas of the island as I suspect there were many avian treats hiding there. The very last bird of the holiday was a Marsh Harrier quartering over the reeds that separated the airport tarmac from the Stagno di Cagliari beyond.

It wasn't all about the birds of course. We saw a great many butterflies during our trip, particularly Clouded Yellows, but also Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Brimstone, Cleopatra, various Whites and a Small Copper. Most were too flighty to photograph, sadly, but I did manage to capture a shot of one on the walk back from Cala GoloritzĂ© which I didn't recognise. Looking in my Collins guide when we got home I realised this was a Corsican Wall Brown which is endemic to this part of the world.
Corsican Wall Brown
Everywhere we went, particularly in the Gennargentu area and on Isola di San Pietro we saw lizards, most of which I think were Tyrrhenian Wall Lizard, like the one pictured below which scuttled across our balcony at Canales.
All in all a great few days in a wonderful part of the world. There's really far too much to see in four days though - I hope to return one day and it's certainly inspired me to do more European birding!

* If you're looking to hire a car while in Sardinia, I must just implore you not to go anywhere near Avis, they are absolute crooks who swindled us out of £300 for the tiniest of chips on the rear spoiler which any respectable hire company would have overlooked as general wear and tear. Worst customer service I've ever experienced in years of hiring cars. Avoid!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Shalford patch diary and local round-up, 29th April-8th May

29th April

Just a brief Shalford visit this afternoon after a few hours at the Tice's Meadow BioBlitz earlier in the day. Highlights were two Sand Martins at St Catherine's Lock, three House Martins and the first juvenile Blackbird of the year near Dagley Lane allotments.
Blackbird (juvenile)

30th April

Two visits today produced a total of 55 species and two year ticks. The morning produced three Garden Warblers, five Swallows, three Sand Martins and at least four House Martins, plus one of the usual Stonechat pair at St Catherine's and the two Red-legged Partridges in Horse Field. Also of note were a Bullfinch collecting Dandelion seedheads - I'm not sure whether for food or nesting material or both? - and a female Mandarin investigating tree holes in Broom Meadow. Overhead there was a clear movement of Lesser Black-backed Gulls going on, also noted by Wes Attridge in Capel. I had a total of 33 over during my morning visit, mostly going north-east.
Stonechat (female) - Kit Britten
In the afternoon I did a little circuit of Broadford Marsh before setting up for a skywatch from the Horse Field which produced the first patch Swifts of the year, with three going south, hotly pursued by the first Hobby of the year.

1st May

The day started with a tower watch up Leith Hill. There didn't seem to be anything much at all on the move - or not that we could see anyway through the low cloud - but a last gasp Hawfinch flying past picked up by David Campbell was nice to see, although I got on it very late. Interesting time of year for one there, perhaps they are breeding locally?

Anyway, as the rain set in at around 9 I decided to head to Shalford to see what might be grounded. The rain had abated as I arrived but there were plenty of threatening black clouds around so I decided to set up camp at the edge of Broadford Marsh in the hope of a wader dropping in. A Little Egret dropped in very briefly before flying off. Another was seen later and after receiving a message from Kit Britten telling me he'd seen a pair together, the two then flew straight over Broadford heading south.
Little Egrets - Kit Britten
Just before noon the blackest cloud of the day unleashed a proper downpour. I hunkered down in the bushes, keeping my eyes on the window of sky I could see above the marsh. Suddenly I noticed two birds flying in low and purposefully from the south. I initially thought they were small gulls or terns through bins but then quickly realised from their flight action these were large waders. The general greyish colour, lack of trailing legs or wing bars pointed me to the ever tricky combo of Whimbrel/Bar-tailed Godwit, and with the birds rapidly disappearing over the trees, rain spattered bins and no scope, I knew I wasn't going to be able to clinch the ID. Frustrating, but so exciting to see the rain deliver so fast!

Within minutes another bird appeared in the same window of sky: a Hobby powering its way north through the rain. I messaged Kit who'd just left the patch to fill him in and, as I struggled to write something coherent on my rain-drenched phone screen a familiar call alerted me to a very handsome male Yellow Wagtail which had just dropped down on the marsh right in front of me. After a few minutes the rain stopped and the bird took flight again, although I thought I'd heard at least one other bird call overhead just before it did so. Kit arrived on patch just in time to connect with two other Yellow Wags - possibly the ones I'd heard - flying north along the river. Yellow Wagtail is the 100th species recorded at Shalford this year and my 98th.

A day to get the pulse racing and a reminder that the right conditions can deliver the goods.

2nd May

Just a brief visit to Broadford after work, following on from the Crane excitement earlier in the day, proved very quiet despite the showery conditions. Aside from the usual bits and bobs around and about a single Herring Gull east seemed to be the only mover.

3rd May

A pre-work visit today produced 47 species including two each of Garden Warbler and Sedge Warbler, at least nine Whitethroats and two Mandarins. Overhead movement including three Swifts (seemingly local), two Swallows north, four Herring Gulls east, one Black-headed Gull north-east and a single Lapwing east. Greylag Goose is the least frequently seen of the common geese species here so it was notable to see four flying west, one going south and a sixth bird which flew up from Broadford. Breeding evidence today included the first juvenile Robin of the year, Blackbirds carrying food and a vocal pair of Sparrowhawks.

Robin (juvenile)

4th May

John Austin visited this morning and reported a Little Egret and a singing Lesser Whitethroat near St Catherine's Lock - I species I'd hoped to get on patch this spring after only autumn records last year.

I paid a quick visit to part of the Broadford area after work (had I known earlier about the Lesser Whitethroat I would have headed further north!) and had a flyover Red Kite, two Swifts, a Garden Warbler, two drake Mandarins and a rather unseasonal lone female Teal.

5th May

Another early visit before work and from fairly early on it was clear that Swifts were moving through in good numbers; unsurprising after the big arrivals on the south coast the previous day. The first two groups were of six and seven followed by smaller numbers, all powering through quite low. Pretty much the first bird I saw/heard was a Yellow Wagtail flying north low over Mill Mead Meadow. Garden Warblers and Sedge Warblers were again vocal with at least four and two of each singing, respectively. The usual Stonechat pair were at St Catherine's Lock while there was a single Little Egret on St Catherine's Pool. Other than the Swifts, overhead action included two Sand Martins north and seven Lesser Black-backed Gulls south.
6th May

52 species in 3.5 hours this morning included confirmed breeding of Long-tailed Tit and Mistle Thrush with both species seen feeding newly-fledged young. Of note on the migrant front were four singing Garden Warblers, 20+ Swifts, 15+ Swallows and a couple of House Martins. Sedge Warbler numbers continue to increase with at least four singing today. There'd also clearly been a mini arrival of Reed Warblers with two singing - one up near the waterworks and one near the Riff Raff weir. It was good also to find a probable Sparrowhawk nest in an area of the patch where I'd suspected they'd bred last year. The usual Stonechat pair were at St Catherine's Lock while there was a single Little Egret on Broadford Marsh.
Suspected Sparrowhawk nest

7th May

Another day away from the patch for me as I'd been asked to again lead the NT dawn chorus walk at Leith Hill. A crowd of 20 people turned out and we were treated to the best the site has to offer: 3 Garden Warblers, 3 Cuckoo (2 male/1 female) plus my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year characteristically flitting about in a tree halfway up the footpath from the Rhododendron Wood. After a much needed breakfast at the tower I decided to check out Duke's Warren, not fancying a tower watch in the drizzle and blasting north-easterly. On the path down to the heath I ran into Paul Stevenson and we had a good stroll around connecting with first a Woodcock which flew up from the vegetation just by the path, then on the heath itself we found two Tree Pipits, a Woodlark and three Redstarts. A brief tower watch to end the morning proved unproductive aside from a male Cuckoo which flew up from near the tower then powered its way south until it was no longer visible - perhaps it had had enough of this weather too?!

Kit Britten put in a session at Shalford this morning and reported 50 species including confirmed Grey Wagtails breeding and the first Mandarin ducklings of the year near the Riff Raff weir. As I drove through Shalford village en route to Godalming later in the day it was good to see the local Swifts back and screaming low over the village green.
Grey Wagtail

8th May

A very enjoyable three hours on the patch this morning in blustery conditions. The Swifts didn't mind though, with at least 20 through during my visit, plus a couple of Sand Martins and Swallows. Seven species of Warbler were singing including my first Lesser Whitethroat rattling away in the Broadford/Horse Field area, at one point in the same Blackthorn bush as a Common Whitethroat, a Blackcap and a Reed Warbler. The latter were particularly in evidence today with at least four singing around the patch. There were also at least four Sedge Warblers and five Garden Warblers singing, the latter my highest count of this species this year so clearly there are still new birds coming in.

The Lesser Whitethroat took my patch year list to 99. No sooner had I begun to ponder whether I'd hit 100 today and what species would bring up the century I picked up a Common Tern flying north along the river - strangely the very same species that took me to a hundred in 2016 as well! The total Shalford year list now stands at 102.

Also of note this morning were Kestrel and Hobby hunting over Broadford Marsh, 11 Mallard ducklings, three Lesser Black-backed Gulls north and a pair of Grey Wagtails at St Catherine's.

After a non-birding trip down into West Sussex in the afternoon the lure of the Turtle Dove found by Rich Ford in Haslemere proved too tempting and I made a little diversion on the way home to see it. It was wonderful to find it in a tree in the garden of Imbhams Farm, and hear it singing occasionally. Of note here were also a Spotted Flycatcher and a Garden Warbler. Turtle Dove and Spotted Flycatcher in the same field of view in Surrey - not something you see every day! Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me though so you'll just have to use your imagination...

No more Surrey birding for me for a few days now as I'm off to Sardinia in the morning with my girlfriend. Expect lots of photos and a blog about that trip soon!