Tuesday, 7 March 2017
In recent years I've largely gone birding off-piste - looked for places where others tend not to go, not so much to get away from the crowds, but more a case of trying to find areas that have potential. There is, of course, very good reason why some places are free from birders, and that is because they are bird-poor, or hard work, or even both! However, sometimes such effort is rewarded. It happened with Canons Farm, which was not on the birding radar when I first came across it a few years ago. Over the course of four/five years - mostly on my own - and with the finding of such species as Goshawk, Woodlark and an enormous flock of Brambling, the jungle drums started to sound and a small band of observers built up. This has culminated in a website and annual bird report that are dedicated to the farm - and not a year goes by without further birding highlights being added to its growing avian history. From little acorns.
And now I think I might have stumbled across another. When I first visited Priest Hill it was a vast area of abandoned playing fields, overgrown and used as a dumping ground, part-time traveller's camp, dog-walkers paradise, illicit motor-bike scrambling track, haunt of smoking school-boys and one very occasional birdwatcher. There were breeding Skylarks and Meadow Pipits and I would sometimes come across the odd Stonechat. My visits were highly irregular. When the Surrey Wildlife Trust were presented with it over three years ago, the place was fenced off, tidied up and became an easier proposition to systematically watch. I offered to carry out a breeding bird survey for them and was handed a key, that gave access to some quite wonderful scrubby bits and a magnificent hedgerow. And it started to dawn on me that there was potential here - I was soon picking up chats on passage in both spring and autumn (and in good numbers), with the odd surprise (Red-legged Partridge, Common Redstart) and a bit of movement overhead, but my visits were still erratic. Last November I decided to give it a proper go...
Since then I have attempted to bird here at least once a week - some weeks have seen up to three visits and so far in March I've made the trip four out of the seven days. Most visits are quiet, it can be hard work, but it has started to pay dividends...
Highlights so far have been: a wintering flock of Reed Buntings (up to 13 with some turn-over); Stonechats throughout (with the spring passage so far peaking at 8); Woodcock (one flushed in January); Cattle Egret (an early-December second record for Surrey that flew low northwards); and then today, a Jack Snipe, flushed from long grass adjacent to a number of small ponds on the eastern boundary. In typical JS fashion it rose low and silently, pitching back down quickly. I let it be.
Now, I realise that the highlights mentioned above might be it - no more surprises. The next few months could be a hard slog for little return. But I reckon it's worth the gamble. I do intend to get over there as much as possible, an hour here, two hours there. If I can rustle up a Cattle Egret and a Jack Snipe in just a few short visits then what could a regular band of birders find?
No bird photographs from today's visit (I did take some more Stonechats, but you've surely had enough of them) so please accept two flowers - Cheery Plum (top) and Coltsfoot (below).