Monday, 17 April 2017

Shalford patch diary, April so far

After a frustrating medically enforced absence from the patch at the beginning of the month it's been good to get back into the swing of things in recent days and see spring starting to get into gear in this little corner of Surrey, although the persistent north/north-westerly winds are clearly holding a lot of stuff back as I've only added three species to the patch list since my previous round-up post.

The Garganey pair appear to have departed now after staying for at least two weeks - the last confirmed sighting via John Austin on 3rd April. Wildfowl numbers in general have tailed off now, as one would expect for the time of year, with the winter ducks all absent this week and just the local Mallard and Mandarins remaining. Eleven Mallard ducklings on St Catherine's Pool on the 12th were my first here this year.
Garganey - Richard Waters

Garganey - Richard Waters

Following Kit Britten's Swallow on 28th March I finally caught up with this species on patch on the 14th of this month with one flying north followed by four the next day. Kit also had the first patch Sand Martins of the year with two on the 30th. On the 15th there were four of them whizzing around over St Catherine's Hill, occasionally ducking down towards the railway cutting; the highlights of an otherwise pretty uneventful two hour skywatch. I had suspected local breeding last year and have since discovered from Steve Chastell that they've bred in this area in the past, so perhaps they're looking to do so again this year. Fingers crossed.
Sand Martin over St Catherine's
The full set of hirundines was at last completed this morning with four House Martins back on territory over the rooftops by Shalford station - a full two weeks later than in 2016. My 89th patch species of the year; I'm now slightly behind my total for this time last year but still missing a number of relatively easy bits, most notably Green Sandpiper, Great Crested Grebe and Ring-necked Parakeet. I'm aiming to reach at least a hundred before we move house.

Warbler numbers have been increasing steadily, with at least 15 each of Chiffchaff and Blackcap present on the 14th, several of the former already nest building and the latter pairing up. Willow Warbler numbers have been at a consistent three for a few days now, although I've not covered the whole of the patch in a single session for a while so no doubt there have been several I've missed. The first Whitethroat was singing in the scrub just south of the Railway Triangle on the morning of the 12th - the exact spot I had my first one last year. By this morning there were at least six singing around the mid-patch (St Catherine's/Broadford).
Sunrise over Broom Meadow
Gull numbers are dropping now, with Lesser Black-backed the most numerous in recent visits and generally all moving north (7 north on the 14th, 4 north today), with just occasional appearances from Black-headed, Herring and Great Black-backed. The Stonechat pair are still kicking about, usually in or around St Catherine's Meadow, although this morning there was a male in the Railway Triangle. The two Red-legged Partridges, meanwhile, are still to be found most days in the Horse Field which, as yet, has failed to deliver any migrant passerines. Last year I had Redstart and Yellow Wag here in late April so I'm hopeful the next two weeks will produce the goods - just need the wind to change!
Red-legged Partridges
Roe Deer


Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Further adventures in micro-patching

Having always been a keen patch-watcher, I must admit to quite enjoying this spell of medically-enforced micro-patching - i.e. my garden and its immediate surroundings. On the eve of leaving Chilworth and the Surrey Hills behind, I feel like it's making me take time to appreciate my surroundings and look harder for things I may have missed. Indeed, since returning from hospital on Saturday afternoon I've notched up 56 bird species in, around or over the garden, although still yet to achieve the hoped-for 50 in a single day.
Yesterday's highlights included singles of Sand Martin and Swallow over, one Skylark east (the first garden record for a while), an adult Great Black-backed Gull east and ten Redpoll high north-west. It was also entertaining watching four Great Spotted Woodpeckers chasing each other from tree to tree on and off all morning. Butterfly numbers were lower than Sunday, as to be expected as the day was rather cooler and breezier, with just Comma and Holly Blue making an appearance. It's worth mentioning here that our back garden is a very open space and backs directly onto farmland. It can often be very breezy here when other places locally are calm - I've often equated it to being rather more like being by the coast than the Surrey Hills! Anyway, I've no doubt a dweller of a more sheltered garden would have done rather better for butterflies but, as it stands, my garden butterfly year list now stands at seven species.
Carder Bee
This morning started drizzly but mild and with relatively light winds. Normally the kind of morning I'd be scurrying off to the patch but not today. I'd barely finished my breakfast before I heard the sweetly drunken notes of a Willow Warbler singing through the open window; the first one from the garden this year. Not a bad start.
Willow Warbler - too mobile for a good photo!
I got my bins and camera out and before setting up for some more sedentary garden birding headed out for a gentle stroll up our road. I had half thought I might make it up to Blackheath but didn't get that far in the end. Anyway I hadn't walked far before I caught up with the Willow Warbler again, working its way through the roadside hedgerow, occasionally darting to the top of a taller tree when a car passed by. It was nice to spend some time watching it. Maybe I'm usually in too much of a rush to find something else.

A little further on I stumbled across a pair of Buzzards mating in a tree right on the edge of Blackheath, and my first Red Kite of the day drifted over. Down at ground level it was nice to see my first flowering Cow Parsley and Garlic Mustard of the year; some of the Hawthorns don't look like they'll be much longer either.
Garlic Mustard
Cow Parsley
Forget-me-not species - probably garden escape
 Back home and into my sky watching position from where I could still hear occasional bursts of song from the Willow Warbler, plus at least one each of Chiffchaff and Blackcap behind the farm. A pair of Jackdaws foraged about nearby gathering nest material. Looking up I caught sight of three Ravens powering north together, sadly disappearing over the tree line before I could get a photo. Later on two Skylarks flew north-east. The hoped for low cloud and occasional drizzle sadly didn't bring down a Little Gull or any terns but single Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew south and south-west. As the day brightened a little mid-afternoon, raptors really got going with at least four Red Kites and nine Buzzards in the sky together at one point, seven of the latter kettling together and drifting north-east. Despite my best efforts I've not yet found any grounded passerines in the fields that back onto our garden but I'm certainly enjoying trying! The garden list remains on 88.


Cormorant - lots of these over the garden this week

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Recuperation. Lazy birding at its best!

After being rushed to hospital on Friday evening to have my appendix removed I was told by the doctors to take a week to rest, but me being me I thought I'd turn my inability to get out birding on the patch or elsewhere into a little challenge and try for a few 'big days' from a comfy chair in the garden. Today was a particularly good day to do so, weather-wise, and I notched up a respectable 46 bird species.

The day got off to a good start as, no sooner had I got outside and set up my chair, the first garden Swallow for the year flew east, singing as it went.

A short while later an unmistakeable call alerted me to a Raven approaching from the direction of Blackheath. It then proceeded to soar over the garden for a couple of minutes along with the first Red Kite of the day before the two birds parted company and the Raven flew off high north. Only about my fifth garden record of this species.

Raven and Red Kite
The Red Kites kept coming throughout the day, with at least four birds involved, and two together chasing each other around low over the trees just after midday. Buzzards were up and about in good numbers too with a conservative count of six individuals seen during the day, including this strikingly pale bird.
Red Kite
Singles of Kestrel and Sparrowhawk completed the raptor tally for the day - sadly there wasn't to be another Osprey after the one which flew west yesterday afternoon!

Aside from a few Redpolls and Meadow Pipits over, things went rather quiet on the skywatching front in the middle of the day - not least because we were enjoying the company of some visiting family members - but my first garden Blackcap of the year was nice to hear. We were also treated to an unexpected flypast from two Apache gunships and a Chinook!

Pied Wagtail
As the sun began to go down a hot air balloon appeared from the west, causing much panic amongst the water birds on the large private lake across the fields from our house. Mandarin and Coot were heard and at least four Shoveler were flushed up and circled for several minutes. Tick! Number 88 on the garden bird list since August 2014. We'll likely be moving house before the summer is over but I'm still hopeful of reaching 90 at this rate before we leave.

Shoveler (honest!)
There was plenty of non-bird excitement too, with my first Holly Blue and Orange-tip for the year of particular note amongst regular flypasts of Brimstone, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral. A Bee-fly made a brief appearance in the herb border at one point as did Common Carder Bee and Tree Bumblebee.

All in all, not a bad day considering I spent most of it sitting in one spot and, as the saying goes, tomorrow is another day!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Shalford patch diary, late March

Well, what a few days it's been on the patch. The pair of Garganey stayed longer than expected and were enjoyed by at least 50 people. I met and chatted to visiting birders from West Sussex, London and all over Surrey, clearly enticed by some of the fantastic photos of the birds, a few of which I've included below.
Photo: Richard Waters
Photo: Dave Carlsson
Photo: Stevie Minhinnick

Photo: Richard Waters

Photo: Richard Waters

Photo: Richard Waters
Away from the main action on St Catherine's Pool, the first Blackcap (82) of the year was singing near the Dagley Lane allotments early on the 21st, before a more noticeable fall on the 30th when at least five singing males and a female were noted. Early on the 29th the first Willow Warbler of the year was singing by St Catherine's Pool. Chiffchaff numbers are steadily increasing, peaking at an impressive 17 males noted during a patch 'big day' on the 24th - but more on that later.
Chiffchaff - Richard Waters
Wildfowl numbers remain fairly decent with 27 Teal recorded on the 24th and two pairs of Gadwall on the 26th. There were also still two pairs of Shoveler present as of the 28th. There were three Egyptian Geese present in the Broadford area on the 24th, along with the usual numbers of Canada Geese and a single Greylag.
Teal - Richard Waters
Lingering winter visitors include singles of Redpoll over on the 24th, 25th and 27th and just a scattering of Redwing (4 on the 22nd, 3 on the 30th). Two Fieldfare flew west over the Horse Field on the 24th. Meadow Pipit passage is beginning to pick up now with several noted flying north on recent patch visits.

Back to the epic eight hour patch day on the 24th now which saw me notch up a patch record day list of 69 species, including my first Kingfisher (83) of the year, heard calling by the bridge where the Railway Line Walk crosses the river. Other highlights from the day included two Little Egrets flying north and a Firecrest in Mill Mead Meadow while an extended lunchtime skywatch from St Catherine's Hill produced 3 Red Kites, a male Crossbill flying east, an adult Great Black-backed Gull north and a Raven soaring high overhead before doing a couple of barrel rolls and flying west.
Buzzard - Richard Waters
The Little Owl in St Catherine's Meadow has been noticeably more vocal, giving its yelping call from one of the Oaks here both morning and evening on my recent visits.

After finding my first ever patch Red-legged Partridge on the 12th I've seen two together in the Horse Field/Broadford area a couple of times recently. The regular pair of Stonechat are still hanging around near St Catherine's Lock, while on the morning of the 30th a 'new' male was singing by Broadford Bridge.

The first patch Skylark of the year was heard singing to the west of Horse Field early on the 28th, while the first patch hirundine of the year was a Swallow seen by Kit Britten later the same day - exactly the same date as the first one in 2016.

The last week or so has seen a good emergence of the overwintering butterfly species, with Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Red Admiral noted in good numbers, plus a Small or Green-veined White seen briefly on the 26th in Mill Mead Meadow.
Small Tortoiseshell
As a final note on this post, thank you to Shaun Ferguson for producing this new map of the patch which you'll be able to find in 'The local patch' section of the blog, for reference.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Shalford patch diary, 20th March: Spring arrives with a bang!

After a couple of days' absence from the patch I headed down at first light this morning in less than inviting conditions: drizzle and a brisk south-westerly wind. 'Surely this should drop some migrants though', I thought as I did my usual pre-work circuit of the Broadford/St Catherine's area. There were clearly more Chiffchaffs around, with at least 7 singing despite the inclement weather. Reed Buntings too were in fine voice, and it was good to see the pair of Stonechats again hopping around on the fence near St Catherine's Lock. A scan of the Horse Field produced two Red-legged Partridges; only my second patch record after the single bird I had on the 12th. Heading on down to St Catherine's the drizzle got rather heavier and I scanned the sky every few seconds, expecting to see a hirundine appear at any moment - no luck.

Last stop on my circuit was the usual scan of St Catherine's Pool which produced at least 7 Teal, 3 Gadwall and a couple of Little Grebes. Just as I was about to head off I noticed something else lurking, huddled up in the vegetation at the back: a small duck, and although the light was poor and the angle odd surely that was a head stripe I could see?
As I crept forward slightly to get a better view, the bird(s) in question swam out into open water where I was left in no doubt: an absolutely stonking pair of Garganey! Suffice to say a patch first for me and the first Wey Valley record for 15 years. Certainly a species I'd dreamt of finding on patch but still a magical find. I fired off a couple of record shots before contacting a few people and putting the news on Twitter. At work during the morning I received various reports from local birders including Steve Chastell, Richard Waters (who got some excellent photos) and fellow Albury SP surveyor John Austin who'd been and connected and, heading back myself this evening, I was pleased to see so many familiar and new faces. Sadly by the time I got back to the pool the birds had gone back into hiding in the vegetation and a few visiting birders left without seeing them. I'll be back to check first thing in the morning but with a clear night ahead I suspect they may move on. Still, a fantastic bird to find locally and what a way to ring up my 80th* patch species of the year!
Photo: Richard Waters

Photo: Richard Waters

* Whoops, actually my 81st - completely forgot to add Redpoll after my skywatch on the 17th!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Shalford patch diary and local round-up, mid-March

7th March

Fairly standard fare from this evening's patch visit, though most notable was the presence of a vocal pair of Stonechats in St Catherine's Meadow, the male even uttering a few phrases of song at dusk; not something I've heard on patch before. My discovery last June of a very young juvenile had led Steve Chastell to suggest they may have bred very locally - perhaps they are looking to do so again.

9th March

Another after work patch visit at the end of one of the first truly warm days of the year so far (top temperature 19c) and arrived to find the meadows still ringing with bird song. A flock of c.200 Common Gulls flew north together in a tight flock; one of my largest counts of this species here. A Carrion Crow was carrying nesting material to one of the 'Little Owl Oaks' in St Catherine's Meadow. On St Catherine's Pool there were the usual pair of Gadwall, 3 Little Grebes and 4 Coots. 50+ Linnets flew into roost in Broom Meadow; a record count for this species here.  

11th March

A late afternoon visit with my girlfriend produced the first singing Chiffchaff of the year in Mill Meadow Meadow, along with a pair of Gadwall in the same area. St Catherine's Pool held a pair of Gadwall, 2 Grey Herons, 4 Teal and 3 Little Grebes.

12th March

WeBS day and first stop was Winkworth Arboretum with Ed Stubbs. Rowe's Flashe Lake held 11 Tufted Ducks (highest count so far here this year), 2 Little Grebes, 3 Mandarin Ducks and a Bar-headed Goose (!) while a Water Rail squealed as we crossed the Phillimore Wetland boardwalk. At least 3 Chiffchaffs were singing while near the boathouse we heard a Firecrest.

Next it was on to Shalford for my most thorough exploration of the patch for a couple of weeks which produced a year tick and a patch lifer for me.

After finding little on the outflow stream from Broadford Marsh I headed past Horse Field along the Railway Line Walk. There were the usual scattering of Pheasants in the field but one instantly jumped out as being different -  a Red-legged Partridge! My first ever on the patch and only the third documented record here (previous records in 2004 and 2007). Hardly a surprise given the amount of shooting estates around here but a nice addition to the year list nonetheless. Typically for this species it sprinted off and disappeared into the bushes before I could even reach for my camera.

Moving down the river to the St Catherine's area I found my second year tick of the morning: a drake Tufted Duck (79) on St Catherine's Pool. Not a particularly regular sight here given the rather unsuitable habitat. Just the previous day the Leith Hill guys and I had been chatting about this species' migratory habits and, as I mentioned earlier, Ed and I had noted a clear increase in numbers at Winkworth earlier in the day. Clearly some movement of this species had occurred overnight.

Away from the water birds the highlights of this morning's visit were two singing Chiffchaffs and at least six singing Reed Buntings.
Tufted Duck


14th March

The first pre-work sky watch of the year from St Catherine's Hill and the first one I've done in co-ordination with Ed who was positioned  a few miles south on his Allden's Hill watchpoint.

As we exchanged texts throughout the session it initially seemed like there was little correlation between what we were both seeing - '22 Black-headed Gulls south'.... '0 BHGs!' - but gradually things started to fall into place as I picked up the trickle of Meadow Pipits Ed had reported heading my way, followed by a heard-only Redpoll (Ed had five north a little while earlier) and most notably a full adult monster of a Great Black-backed Gull which cruised over my watchpoint around 14 minutes after Ed saw it flying north over Thorncombe Park.

Full totals as follows (in order of appearance):

Little Egret - 1 north but likely only local movement
Chiffchaff - 2 singing by watch point
Canada Goose - 9 east
Herring Gull - c60 north/2 south
Pied Wagtail - 1 south
Black-headed Gull - 88 south/4 north
Starling - 20 high north-east/6 east
Grey Heron - 1 north
Cormorant - 1 south
Greylag Goose - 1 south/2 west
Common Gull - 4 south
Egyptian Goose - 1 south-west
Meadow Pipit - 1 south/6 north
Redwing - 3 north-west
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 2 north
Gadwall - 1 drake flew past low with Mallards
Great Black-backed Gull - 1 north
Redpoll - heard going north
Mute Swan - 1 immature north

Greylag Goose

Lesser Black-backed Gulls

Herring Gulls

Grey Heron

16th March

Ed and I had planned another co-ordinated sky watch this morning but, after waking up to pretty thick fog, I decided instead to just do a little pre-work circuit of the mid-patch (Broadford-St Catherine's). There were now at least half a dozen Chiffchaffs singing and a similar number of Reed Buntings. The winter species are still hanging on though with at least a dozen each of Teal and Redwing still around this morning. A pair of Cormorants on the navigation at St Catherine's Lock was quite an unusual sight, this species usually seen either perched in trees or flying over in this area, while the regular pair of Gadwall were still on St Catherine's Pool.

In other local birding news, I saw my first Sand Martins of the year today, with four flying west along the Tillingbourne seen from the hill behind my house in Chilworth. The fields in this area were still holding a scattering of Redwings as of this morning also. I'm seeing Red Kites all over the place at the moment, with at least three over the Clandon Downs this afternoon then four together low over the rooftops of Chilworth. Marsh Tits and Skylarks were singing on the Downs despite the brisk westerly wind.

Fingers crossed migrants will really start arriving in numbers in the next couple of weeks, although looking at the forecast for this coming week doesn't exactly fill me with optimism!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Leith Hill, 11th March

After finding Surrey's first Wheatear of 2017 at my work in West Clandon yesterday and with a dry day with a light south-easterly forecast I was optimistic for my second tower watch of the season this morning.
Unfortunately the weather had other ideas and I and the assembled team of David Campbell, Stuart Cossey, Paul Stevenson, David Stubbs, Robin Stride and Phil Wallace were enshrouded in the familiar Leith Hill blanket of fog for much of the morning after our dawn start. Still, the conversation was flowing well and spirits remained high - occasional Redpoll, Meadow Pipit and Crossbill calls in the murk reassuring us that there were at least some birds out there somewhere!
"Guys, I think I can see a bird!" - David Stubbs scans the foggy scene
By the time the fog did eventually begin to clear late morning the occasional Mipit calls had increased to a rather more steady trickle, with a total of at least 30 birds over (some heard only so may have been more than singles) - mostly heading north - the first pronounced movement of this species here this spring. As the sun warmed both the birders and birds the local Buzzards took to the air, with at least 20 thermalling within our field of view at their peak, joined at one point by a Sparrowhawk. A Kestrel gave a fly-by, as did an eleventh hour Red Kite as we began our descent of the hill. Gulls were on the move, with a high altitude V-formation flock of 26 Black-headed Gulls going north the most notable - not a terribly common sight from the tower. A Woodlark was seen distantly over Duke's Warren while some of the guys got on a probable Hawfinch flying over this area before promptly vanishing into the trees.
The scores on the doors
A little influx of Sand Martins and Garganey inspired me to check out my Shalford patch late afternoon which unfortunately produced neither of the aforementioned, although it was good to hear the first singing Chiffchaff in Mill Mead Meadow and to see the pair of Gadwall still present on St Catherine's Pool along with three Little Grebe and four Teal.