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!

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