Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The year of birding locally

'Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey...'

That was going to be my approach to birding locally during 2016. Once again I was going to ignore the birding hotspots of Beddington (helped by having given up my key) and Holmethorpe (which was getting good coverage) and concentrate on the places seldom visited. I had tried something similar in 2015, but there was a poor return and I most probably did too much in the spring which resulted in burn-out and disappointment. If I were going to survive the year and not end up all bitter and twisted about it, then I needed to reduce expectations, not try too hard, and just go with the flow. And as it turned out, it all went very well indeed...

The opening day of January saw me at Canons Farm, and over the following two months, most of my efforts were put here. All was quite sedate until 28th February, when a first-winter Iceland Gull (right) arrived on the freshly ploughed fields, allowing a handful of the locals to catch up with this 'Canons mega'. The gull-fest didn't stop there, as the following day two adult Mediterranean Gulls graced the same fields, including one that decided to indulge in display, its deep calls carrying widely across the ploughed earth. The 'purple patch' on the farm wasn't over yet, as a most confiding Dartford Warbler spent a few hours of the morning of March 9th feeding in the light scrub that bordered the track leading to Perott's Farmhouse.

It all settled down to a more usual fare, with the marked Stonechat (left) passage of late-February/March obvious at Canons Farm, Mogador and Epsom Downs. This species is a firm favourite of mine, and the privilege of watching them so close to home not taken for granted. Highlight for me though was the build up in Chaffinch numbers on the southern most fields, that grew over a period of a week and peaked at 1,100 birds. Diligence paid off as a small number of Brambling were hidden amongst them. These same fields attracted up to 175 Linnet and three figure gatherings of Fieldfare and Redwing, the latter two species becoming more restless as the month advanced. This period of time also witnessed the start of a marked raptor passage through the area, lead by Common Buzzard (peaking at 26 on April 5th) and Red Kite (recorded at several sites). Most of my birding time was still being spent at Canons Farm, where early Ring Ouzel (April 5th) and Common Redstart (below, April 8th) started what was a modest, but enjoyable passage for summer migrants. As the month continued so other notable records came along - Goshawk (Canons Farm, April 12th), Tree Pipit and Yellow Wagtail (Canons Farm, April 24th).

May, June and July quietened down, and the local birding time reduced, due to a combination of switching allegiances to plants, moths, butterflies and Dungeness! However, a few Firecrest were found singing on the north downs and a pair of Raven seemingly resident.

Things picked up again in August, with bonus Woodlark (Walton Downs, 12th) and Honey-buzzard (Banstead, 22nd). The latter had the good grace to fly over the house, initially picked up as I was eating my lunch. By now the return passage was underway, with warblers and chats to the fore. Yellow Wagtail peaked at six (Canons Farm, September 8th), and Whinchat at five (Canons Farm, September 13th) but migrant numbers were generally depressed, with none of the large hirundine gatherings that have been enjoyed over previous autumns.

A Spotted Flycatcher (right) at Mogador on 28th August was the only one of the year. One of the most unexpected happenings of the 12 months did not involve rarity, when a gathering of geese occurred on farmland at Walton Downs on the morning of September 26th - 188 Canada and 151 Greylag were exceptional for the area. Nearby, a gathering of 750 Stock Dove was one of the highest historically recorded in the county. I abandoned the local scene throughout October and into November for the shingle of Dungeness. On my return I had a number of target species missing from the year list. Some of these gave themselves up without a fight - Barn Owl (Canons Farm, November 22nd), Little Egret (Ewell, 25th November), Water Rail (below, left and Common Snipe (Ewell, 9th December) and Woodcock (Walton Downs, 19th December).

I started to spend more time at Priest Hill, a new Surrey Wildlife Reserve on ex-farmland and municipal playing fields between Banstead and Ewell. This was mainly out of convenience, as it is only a ten minute stroll from home, rather than by any perceived birding promise. However, the finding of a small wintering population of Reed Bunting made my 'local' winter, before the most unexpected happened during the morning of December 2nd, when a Cattle Egret flew low overhead, giving excellent views. This was only the second record for Surrey.

The year list currently stands at 106 species, not bad for a virtually dry section of a northern spur of the North Downs. The full list can be seen by clicking here. There were very few Redpolls and Siskins during the year. No Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Common Crossbill. And my success with passage migrants was largely muted (no Cuckoo, Black Redstart, or species acrocephalus warbler). But the unexpected certainly happened. What began as a project to not have to get into a car to go birding has blossomed into one that is driven (excuse the pun) by a wish to visit those largely un-birded areas that can, with a bit of effort, unearth birds. They ARE there. It has been a very enjoyable journey indeed.


Factor said...

You have done well - some birds I haven't seen on the local patch. I have sent you a message via Facebook, by the way, with a question for you.

Steve Gale said...

Thanks Neil. As for the message, I'm on it!

Simon Douglas Thompson said...

I love those redstarts!

Steve Gale said...

I'm in agreement with you there Simon