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

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.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Shalford patch diary and local round-up, early March

2nd and 3rd March

A couple of reasonably productive after work visits, making use of the lengthening daylight hours. St Catherine's Pool was notably busy on the 2nd with an unusually high count of four very vocal Little Grebes, the now regular pair of Egyptian Geese, three each of Coot and Moorhen plus a drake Gadwall with at least twenty Mallards - this only my second patch Gadwall record of this year.
The evening of the 3rd, meanwhile, at last delivered my first patch Tawny Owl (76) of the year with both male and female calls coming from the 'Pine Island' area east of Broom Meadow (see map). Also of note were a Little Egret north and a record count of at least thirty-six Magpies into roost.

4th March

A dawn start for a ninety minute skywatch from St Catherine's Hill produced a proliferation of gulls: 225 Black-headed, 32 Common and a new patch high count of 271 Herring Gulls, all south, plus a single adult Lesser Black-backed north. This isn't the first time I've noticed LBBGs following a different track to the main flow of gulls. Also of note were 27 Pied Wagtails south, two Kestrels (one high east and another local bird displaying), three Greylags south - one very high - and two Peregrines. There was the usual loud chatter from the Siskin flock in the Alders below the hill but it was very difficult to get a good estimate of numbers.
Herring Gulls over St Catherine's Hill
From St Catherine's I headed straight to Albury Sandpit where I met up with John A and Dave G for our regular fortnightly survey of this site. The highlights here were at least four Skylarks (two singing), four Kestrels getting territorial, two Red-legged Partridges, a flyover Redpoll and circa thirty Meadow Pipits.
Back home I had a Red Kite and nine Redpoll over my Chilworth garden - one of the highest numbers of the latter species I've seen in what seems to have been a pretty poor winter for them, in this part of the world at least.

5th March

The planned Leith Hill tower watch was sadly postponed due to the inclement weather (although Wes A put in a Spartan hour up there on his own in the pouring rain!) so I headed to the patch late morning and was pleased to see more standing water around after the rain. In Mill Mead Meadow I was watching a few Teal when a familiar 'huweet' drew my attention to a very fresh-looking Chiffchaff working its way through the riverside Alders. Hard to say if this is a rather early arrival or a wintering individual moving through but it was a very welcome taste of spring all the same and takes my Shalford year list to 77, so I'm now level pegging with my total for the same time last year.

There was still one Little Grebe pair on St Catherine's Pool but otherwise not much in this area so I headed down towards Broadford Marsh which was also very quiet apart from a singing Reed Bunting. After sheltering from a heavy downpour in this area I twice could've sworn I heard a Sand Martin call but unfortunately didn't see any to confirm it wasn't just wishful thinking - won't be long now anyway!

Also of note from today's visit were two Red Kites east together, four Buzzards (making use of the sunshine between the showers), at least fifteen Redwing, a similar number of Teal and a single drake Shoveler.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Shalford patch diary, 2017 so far

I've got a bit out of the habit of doing my regular patch diary blog posts so am going to attempt to summarise the first seven or so weeks of 2017 in this one with as little waffle as possible! As I write this the patch year list stands on 75, just one behind this time last year and with several 'easy' species still missing, most notably Tawny Owl! One of the best things about patch watching though is it makes otherwise common species more rewarding when they do make an appearance, and it's been interesting to note several species that have been recorded earlier this year than last, and others that have been notable by their absence.

Greylag Goose is the third most commonly seen goose species on the patch and only ever seen in smallish numbers in 2016, so it was quite surprising to see approximately 70 flying NNE from Loseley direction towards Guildford on 28th January. Canada Geese are just as common as ever, with reasonable numbers (20-30) flying in to roost on St Catherine's Pool on all my evening visits recently. As was the case last year Egyptian Goose seems to be largely a flyover species here, so it was a bit of a surprise to see a pair in the dead tree in Broadford Meadows on 5th February, seemingly vying with a gang of Jackdaws over a nest box. Then this weekend a pair seem to have taken a liking to the St Catherine's Pool/Broom Meadow area, having been seen either on the water or in one of the Oaks here the past couple of days.
Egyptian Goose
Moving on to ducks, it took me until the end of March last year to record Wigeon on patch, with the 31st March birds remaining my only Shalford record until 7th January this year when I heard that familiar whistling call somewhere over Broom Meadow at first light, this then followed by two drakes on St Catherine's Pool during my WeBS count on 12th February. Shoveler, on the other hand, have been rather more elusive this winter than last, with the first ones not seen until 30th January. They've since been a fairly regular feature, peaking at 11+ on 12th February.
Wigeon and Shoveler flying off from St Catherine's Pool - great photo, I know

Another duck species that took me until spring last year to add to the patch list was Gadwall so it was nice to find a pair on Broadford Marsh on 12th February, again during my WeBS count. As was the case last winter, Teal is rivalled only by Mallard as the commonest duck on the patch. They tend to be quite scattered around the area though so it's hard to get an accurate count, but numbers of between 15 and 25 are regular, with a high count of 30+ on 15th January. Mandarin Ducks have been around in small numbers, peaking at at least 6 on 19th and 25th February - 4 flew from roost below St Catherine's Hill early on the latter date.

There's been at least one Little Grebe kicking about since the middle of January, mostly on the navigation downstream of St Catherine's Lock although more recently I've had one on St Catherine's Pool on a couple of occasions, where they bred last year. It was particularly unusual seeing one swimming amongst the trees in Mill Mead Meadow after the river burst its banks a few weeks back!
Little Grebe

On to gulls, and it's been the usual palette of Herring, Common and Black-headeds flying over recently, peaking at either end of the day, some of the latter occasionally coming down to check out the river or flying low over Dagley Lane towards the village green. Lesser Black-backeds are rather less common and I've had just one record of Great Black-backed Gull so far: one adult flying high south-west on 21st January.
Three species of wader have made it onto the year list so far, with Lapwing perhaps the most notable. In 2016 I only had a handful of records of this species, mostly in small numbers aside from a flock of 26 over in October. Again it was good to get them on the year list early this year with a flock of c.35 wheeling around towards Loseley on 21st January followed by around 30 flying over the same area on 5th February, then half a dozen north-east on 26th February. Keeping with the theme of record breaking counts, there were at least 18 Snipe towards the northern end of Broom Meadow near St Catherine's Lock on 7th January - by far my highest count here! Still waiting to find that Jack though... I did quite well for Woodcock on the patch last year, with several records in January/February. I was glad then to finally add the species to the 2017 year list when two flew up from Broadford Marsh and right over my head at dusk on 15th February.
Lapwings (you'll have to take my word for it!)

Little Egrets are a frequent sight in this part of the county in winter now and Shalford is no exception, with several records of this species on the patch already in 2017, most recently one which flew up from near St Catherine's Hill on 25th February.
Little Egret
Up until this week Barn Owl was the only Owl species I'd recorded on the patch in 2017 with up to two present at times. Hopefully this species will breed here this year after no proven breeding records in 2016. On the 21st of this month though Barn was joined on the year list by at least one Little Owl calling at dusk - first at the southern end of St Catherine's Meadow (their favoured area last year) then closer to the lock, seemingly in a tree right by the navigation, though it was too dark to see. Whether this was one bird or two I'm not sure but I'll be monitoring them closely as this is my first record of the species here since last June.
Red Kite
Moving onto raptors now and the first patch Red Kite of the year was recorded on 21st January followed by singles on the 4th, 5th, 25th and 26th February. As with Buzzards in this area it's becoming increasingly hard to separate the locals from the movers but it's certainly good to see both these species becoming such a regular sight. Talking of Buzzards, there seems to be a pair hanging around in the same area that they bred last year which is good news. Last year I also suspected Sparrowhawks to have bred in the Broadford area and I've already seen birds displaying around here again on warmer days recently. Last week a male was loitering around in the trees in the same area.

Kestrel remains the most regularly seen raptor on the patch with at least one or two present on all visits. This morning (26th) it was good to see a pair hanging around near one of the nest boxes towards the southern end of the patch. My only Peregrine record of the year so far was one that flew south-west over St Catherine's Lock on 28th January.
Fieldfare have been in rather short supply so far this year but there's a fairly decent Redwing flock kicking around, usually scattered about in the wetter areas of Mill Mead Meadow and Broom Meadow. Stonechats have been a fairly consistent sight so far this year with up to three present on the 7th and 14th January. I hadn't seen one for a week or two until yesterday though when a female was near Broadford Bridge. I'm finding Firecrest rather harder to find this winter than last with my only record so far one in the bank of Holly along the Railway Line Walk on 5th February.
My first skywatch from St Catherine's Hill of the year on 25th February produced the first Raven record of 2017 with two flying west not long after 7am, seemingly coming up from roost in the trees on the north-east side of the hill. This is exciting as all my previous records of this species involved high-flying birds simply passing over the patch.
A very obliging Greenfinch in Broom Meadow
Siskins are an ever present species at this time of year with good numbers around, particularly in the Alders at the top of Broom Meadow, but not quite so many as last winter - c.120 on 15th January my highest count so far, and not a sniff of a Redpoll! Compared to last winter, there are lots more Linnets around and I've noticed they are roosting in the bushes in Broom Meadow -  at least 30 coming into roost on 22nd January.
The same skywatch on 25th February that delivered Raven also yielded the first Crossbill of the year, with one flying in from the direction of the Chantries before turning and flying south. Another species that has made it onto the patch year list earlier that in 2016 - considerably earlier in fact, as it took until October to record one last year. Given the amount of records of possible breeding in the county this year this is not exactly surprising but a very welcome addition nonetheless.
Reed Buntings are now back on the patch in reasonable numbers with at least half a dozen around since early February, and a pair already looking to be checking out nest sites in St Catherine's and Broom Meadows.
Reed Bunting

Monday, 13 February 2017

Shalford historic list

With the year list getting off to a rather leisurely start so far (70 at the time of writing - Gadwall the most recent addition) and all my species accounts completed for the latest Surrey Bird Report, I thought I'd have a go at putting together a historic list for my Shalford patch as a way of passing the dark evenings. Besides, as it's now very likely I won't be watching the area by the end of the year I thought it'd be good for posterity, in case any future local birders want to add to it! No doubt there are many species missing here, but I'm only including those that I've recorded myself or those for which there are documented or anecdotal records.
Watercolour of St Catherine's Hill circa mid-1800s by Francis Oliver Finch

1. Mute Swan
2. Bewick's Swan - Records from 1956 and 1966. There were 12 present on 17th March 1963, towards the end of the famously severe winter that year.
3. Whooper Swan - Coinciding with the aforementioned Bewick's record, up to 12 were present from the 8th to the 23rd March 1963
4. Greylag Goose
5. Canada Goose
6. Barnacle Goose - Almost certainly of feral origin, single birds were recorded in 2001 (E Stubbs) then on 7th and 9th September 2007 at Broadford Bridge.
7. Brent Goose - One was on Broadford Marsh on 29th May 2016 (M Phelps)
8. Egyptian Goose
9. Ruddy Shelduck - One, presumably an escape, was present on 23rd March 2009
10. Mandarin Duck
11. Wigeon
12. Gadwall
13. Teal
14. Mallard
15. Pintail - One record from 1963, no further details
16. Garganey - One record referenced in Birds of Surrey (Wheatley) on an unspecified date between 1955 and 2007(!)
17. Shoveler
18. Tufted Duck
19. Goldeneye - One record, a female, at St Catherine's Lock circa January 1988 (R Stride)
20. Goosander - 4 were present on 19th January 2014 (C Gray)
21. Red-legged Partridge - Only two documented records, in 2004 and 2007
22. Grey Partridge - One was at St Catherine's Lock on 24th June 2006
23. Pheasant
24. Cormorant
25. Bittern - One record in 1979, no further details. Lengthsman Rob Craig has reported more recent sightings, but dates not specified.
26. Little Egret
27. Grey Heron
28. Little Grebe
29. Great Crested Grebe
30. Red Kite
31. Harrier sp. - One high over on 30th September 2015 ('Birding Vicar' on Twitter)
32. Sparrowhawk
33. Buzzard
34. Osprey
35. Kestrel
36. Hobby
37. Peregrine
38. Water Rail
39. Moorhen
40. Coot
41. Stone-curlew - One was on Broadford Marsh in July 1944 (Birds of Surrey, Wheatley)
42. Golden Plover
43. Lapwing
44. Little Ringed Plover
45. Whimbrel - One record from 1993 is referenced in Birds of Surrey (Wheatley), no further details.
46. Curlew - Two flyover records in 2016
47. Ruff
48. Common Sandpiper
49. Green Sandpiper
50. Wood Sandpiper - Two in 1967 (Birds of Surrey, Wheatley), no further details
51. Jack Snipe
52. Woodcock
53. Snipe
54. Black Tern - One record from November 1895 (Bucknill)
55. Common Tern
56. Black-headed Gull
57. Mediterranean Gull - My flyover adult on 7th March 2016 is the only documented record
58. Common Gull
59. Lesser Black-backed Gull
60. Herring Gull
61. Great Black-backed Gull
62. Feral Rock Dove
63. Stock Dove
64. Woodpigeon
65. Collared Dove
66. Turtle Dove - Anecdotal records from John Austin but no precise details. Another species that was, presumably, reasonably common in the area once upon a time.
67. Ring-necked Parakeet
68. Cuckoo
69. Barn Owl
70. Little Owl
71. Tawny Owl
72. Swift
73. Kingfisher
74. Wryneck - One was recorded at Shalford Common (just to the east of the Water Meadows and not officially in my patch) on 31st March 1923, a notably early arrival date for this species which presumably bred locally at one stage.
75. Green Woodpecker
76. Great Spotted Woodpecker
77. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - Once a relatively common sight along the river, as was the case in many places. There was a record of 5 together in 2007.
78. Chough - Bucknill refers to one shot at St Catherine's Hill on an unspecified date in the 1800s. The origin of the bird in question was never determined although most other records from this time involved escaped birds.

79. Magpie
80. Jay
81. Jackdaw
82. Rook
83. Carrion Crow
84. Raven
85. Goldcrest
86. Firecrest
87. Blue Tit
88. Great Tit
89. Coal Tit
90. Skylark
91. Sand Martin
92. Swallow
93. House Martin
94. Cetti's Warbler - One was at 'Shalford Weir' on 27th April 2010
95. Long-tailed Tit
96. Chiffchaff
97. Willow Warbler
98. Blackcap
99. Garden Warbler
100. Lesser Whitethroat
101. Whitethroat
102. Dartford Warbler - One near St Catherine's Lock on 10th December 2015 (J Gates)
103. Grasshopper Warbler
104. Sedge Warbler
105. Reed Warbler
106. Waxwing
107. Nuthatch
108. Treecreeper
109. Wren
110. Starling
111. Siberian Thrush - An intriguing one this as it remains the only Surrey record - just a shame it's never been proven! Bucknill dedicates two pages of his Birds of Surrey to the record of a female of this species apparently shot by a Mr Drewitt at St Catherine's Hill in February 1855, during an exceptionally bad winter. There are some discrepancies in the account though and the record has never been formally accepted.
Was the only Surrey Siberian Thrush really shot on my patch? Sadly, we'll never know!
112. Blackbird
113. Fieldfare
114. Song Thrush
115. Redwing
116. Mistle Thrush
117. Spotted Flycatcher
118. Robin
119. Pied Flycatcher - One record from 1983, no further details
120. Redstart - My two records in spring 2016 appear to be the only documented records of this species on the patch.
121. Stonechat
122. Dunnock
123. House Sparrow
124. Tree Sparrow - As with many species this once numerous breeder has now virtually disappeared from Surrey. In 1965 there were 30 pairs recorded at Shalford alone!
125. Yellow Wagtail - It seems that Shalford remained a breeding stronghold for this species until at least the 1920s but now is only recorded as a passage migrant.
126. Grey Wagtail
127. Pied Wagtail
128. Meadow Pipit
129. Chaffinch
130. Brambling
131. Greenfinch
132. Goldfinch
133. Siskin
134. Linnet
135. Lesser Redpoll
136. Crossbill
137. Bullfinch
138. Reed Bunting
139. Corn Bunting - One breeding season record from 1970 (Birds of Surrey, Wheatley), no further details.


Little Auk - 'One was captured alive in a deep chalk pit near Guildford by a youth' in February 1860 (Bucknill). It's hard to be sure but this could be the chalk pit at the north-eastern corner of the patch.

Two-barred Crossbill - A male of this species was shot in 1849 in 'Unsted Wood' (Bucknill). The wood which borders the western edge of the patch along the old railway line has a sign saying 'Unstead Wood' but I would imagine this record more likely relates to the only Unsted Wood with that spelling on the OS Map, just south of Unstead SF. I merely include the record here for local interest as it's only just outside my patch boundary.

So that's it, as far as I can tell. Species notable by their absence include Shelduck, Pochard, Wheatear, Whinchat and plenty of others. Hopefully I'll be able to add at least one or two more to the list before I leave the area but after that who knows!

Monday, 30 January 2017

A Berkshire outing

A drizzly Monday morning near Newbury might not sound like some people's idea of fun, but today I was a man on a mission.

Growing up near the Hampshire/Surrey border and only really getting into birding properly as the species vanished from its last remaining Surrey haunts, Willow Tit was never going to be an easy bird for me to find. I'd attended a ringing session at Rich Horton's brother's house in Forest Green several years ago where Rich had seen Willow Tit previously, but this attempt proved fruitless despite us playing a tape lure throughout the morning. And to be honest that was the only time I'd actively tried to find the species. It's bad I know but I just assumed I'd see one one day. As the years went by though I realised that simply wasn't going to happen and I was going to have to make a special trip if I wanted to catch up with this enigmatic and rapidly declining species.

As I'd worked on Sunday to help with a presentation my boss kindly said I could take Monday off in lieu. A rare day off in the week; I knew I had to get in some quality birding time, but where to go? The rarest bird within reasonable driving distance was the Pine Bunting in Little Murston, Kent, but having followed the reports it seems people have either been and dipped and said it's a miserable place, or been, waited four hours and seen the bird for a matter of seconds, and still said it's a miserable place. It didn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm. So another option sprang to mind - when better to finally catch up with a long overdue Willow Tit?

Ed Stubbs had mentioned Combe Wood in Berkshire to me last year and we'd talked about going a few times but not yet got round to it. So, with my mind made up and with a bit of help from Google Maps and Chris Burch I found the place, parked up and began walking up the hill towards the wood. The first thing that struck me about the habitat was how entirely unremarkable it was. The footpath followed a wooded corridor up the hill between farmland and eventually opened up into a larger patch of mixed woodland. There were areas of recently coppiced Hazel and grain feeders dotted about all over the place. Really the whole setting could have so easily been lifted out of any number of sites I've frequented in south-west Surrey.
The track up to Combe Wood
The weather wasn't exactly promising with fog and patchy drizzle on the drive down continuing on and off all morning. The visibility only got worse as I clambered up the footpath, the moisture dripping off the trees all around me as I tried not to slip over. Still, there were clearly good numbers of birds around. All the common Tits, along with scatterings of thrushes and finches and, of course, a lot of Pheasants. At one point I flushed a decent-sized covey of Red-legged Partridge from near the footpath and later heard one singing: a year tick! But not the bird I was after today. As the footpath dropped down into Combe Wood proper I began hearing the odd Marsh Tit call. Promising. I'm always reluctant to use tape lures but I knew I might have to here if I was going to find the target species, so gave it a go. A couple of Marsh Tits seemed to show interest but no Willows. Further down the path and a loud 'wuf wuf wuf' alerted me to a Raven flying low overhead just above the treetops which, combined with the increasing murk and total absence of any other people since I arrived, only added to the rather horror movie ambience. A little further along still and the wood opened into a clearing and two more Ravens flew out of a tree ahead of me. Clearly this species is doing well around here as are Red Kites of which I also saw and heard several.

I sensed at this point that I'd walked too far. I managed to get enough phone signal to check Google Maps which indeed told me I'd nearly gone all the way through the wood so I turned round and headed back up the hill with a view to stopping somewhere and hoping the Willow Tits would come to me. Still, I'd been walking for over an hour now and with the rain getting steadier I'd be lying if I said my hopes were not fading a little. I walked up the hill at a slightly brisker pace than I'd descended and surprised myself how quickly I emerged on the other side of the wood again. I was just considering my options as I wiped the rain off my bins and wondering whether to write the whole thing off and come back on a better day when...
That unmistakeable scolding 'chay chay chay': Willow Tit! 'YES!', I said out loud (thankfully there was still nobody in sight). Just the one bird but it was enough for me. For around a quarter of an hour I watched it flitting about, sometimes losing it altogether for a few moments in the brambles. Ravens were cronking around the whole time as I revelled in watching the bird and tried to take a few photos. The irony of blocking out their calls as I strained to keep track of a single Willow Tit was not lost on me and I couldn't help but wonder what a birder from 50 years or so ago might make of it all were they somehow transported to this exact moment. As the bird again disappeared into denser vegetation I decided to leave it in peace and head back to my car. I hoped I might run into another on the way back down the hill as the weather was showing signs of brightening a little, but no such luck. Still, I was delighted to have finally connected with Willow Tit. Whatever other species I might see to take me to my target of 300 on my UK list by the end of 2017, this one will certainly last in the memory for a long time.