Half-way House

Last year, at the end of May, I took the decision to have a natural-history themed holiday at home, rather than go to the expense and faff of travelling elsewhere. As I've gotten older my wish to remain close to home has strengthened and my curiosity as to what can be found 'from my doorstep' increased. It was a rewarding exercise - I left the car at home and walked miles each day, sometimes exploring footpaths that were unknown to me - and although the birding was quiet (it was early June) some plant and insect discoveries were notable. So, it it was so much fun, why not do it again? And this time, being mid-May, why not just make it about the birds... Surrey birds! There was one change however, and that was that I would use the car at times to head out south-westwards to explore parts of the county that I had no visited for a long, long time. With such thoughts being energising, I expectantly waited for the starting gun to sound, announcing the start of my 10 day Surrey Birding Staycation.

May 11th   Day 1   27.1k walked   69 species recorded

A day largely spent on the scarp and dip slope of the North Downs, centred on Colley Hill. It was sunny and warm, a pleasure to be out birding. There was little in the way of any signs of migration, nothing moving, no passage chats. Once the temperature started to climb by lunchtime the sky above the Buckland farmland started to fill with raptors - 10 Common Buzzards, three Red Kites, a Peregrine and best of all a low hunting Hobby that patrolled between here and the nearby quarry over to the west. I was pleased to find that the summering (if not breeding) Lapwings were still present in the area, the three birds sharing their field with a couple of Red-legged Partridges. A calling Little Owl nearby was welcomed onto the 'staycation' list - I had it in my mind that 100-110 species would be possible. The top fields at Mogador was where at least three displaying Meadow Pipits were located, a scarce breeding bird in this part of Surrey. Warbler song was pleasant background music, with Whitethroats most numerous, accompanying sound notably coming from Garden and Willow Warbler. Four Yellowhammers were located, this decreasing bunting just about maintaining a toehold in the area.

Mid-afternoon I swapped the dry chalky slopes for the sodden sandy soil of Holmethorpe. Highlights here were a family party of Little Ringed Plovers - an adult and three chicks on the quarrying works; a Nightingale that intermittently sang from the edge of Spynes Mere; and two Common Terns that sat proudly on the bouys in the middle of Mercer's Lake, surrounded by water sports enthusiasts. 

May 12th   Day 2   20.3k walked   77 species cumulative total

Parking at Friday Street I set off into the Greensand Hills to end up at Leith Hill Tower, via the open heathland of Duke's Warren. On my return I then set off to explore the footpaths along the Tilling Bourne and further along up onto higher ground. All was accompanied by hot sunshine. Friday Street pond, a small, dark and sunless water body, held two drake Mandarins (one pictured) whose finery lit up an otherwise gloomy scene. Nearby a Grey Wagtail was singing, competing with a small weir alongside a disused watermill. Cuckoos serenaded me along the entire walk (pictured), with a minimum of ten calling birds. Close to Broadmoor both Spotted Flycatcher and Marsh Tit were found, before I left the shade of the beech woodland and conifer plantations to enter the sunny world of Duke's Warren. Here up to four Woodlarks were located, mostly on sandy footpaths with just one bird in song. A family group of Stonechats were entertaining at the same time as a Goshawk decided to announce itself. Garden Warblers were a delight, at least six birds in song (pictured). As I sat on a bench looking out across the land towards the South Downs, coffee in one hand, piece of cake in the other, a Hobby put on a show above me. A good way to spend a day.

May 13th   Day 3   18.8k walked   87 species cumulative total

A morning spent at one of my old haunts, Beddington SF. I was constrained to walking the outer, western footpath and viewing what I could from the three public hides and the numerous gaps in the vegetation that allowed sneaky looks across the forbidden land. It was a visit that craved waders but there was little return on that front, with just two Little Ringed Plovers and two Lapwings. A Little Egret, five Cetti's Warblers and good representation of commoner wildfowl boosted the list.

Staying very local, an afternoon on Epsom and Walton Downs was not without it moments - two Red Kites, a Red-legged Partridge, 30 Swifts, 12 House Martins, two Meadow Pipits - and best of all a high flying Osprey that was heading purposefully south-east at 16.00hrs. 

May 14th   Day 4   9.5k walked   87 species cumulative total still

The plan on leaving home on foot to check out Priest Hill (uninspiring grassland) and Canons Farm (heavily managed farmland) did not result in much at all. Apart from two rattling Lesser Whitethroats (one at each site) the notebook was largely redundant. But if you don't look...

May 15th   Day 5   19.5k walked   95 species cumulative total

Dawn found me out on the boardwalk at Thursley Common, an excellent site that I had neglected to visit for close on 15 years (top image). This lowland boggy mire, of national importance, boasts a suite of specialised breeding birds. Surrey's only Curlews were very quiet, just revealing themselves twice during the several hours that I was present, hopefully suggesting that they were quietly tending eggs. Pudmore Pond was kind, with a drake Teal, two squealing Water Rails and a singing Reed Bunting. At least eight Woodlark were present, with much song. Numbers of Tree Pipit (three) and Dartford Warbler (four) were disappointing, however welcome it was to see them. For me the stars of the show were the Common Redstarts, the woods fringing the edge of the heathland being blessed with their song. A minimum of 11 males were found, many of these perched high up on top of a conifer, singing throughout the morning (below).

If I hadn't visited Thursley for 15 years then I hadn't been to Frensham Common for at least 20! I had forgotten what a large area this is, and spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon walking up and down the steep heathland hills and circumnavigating the Little Pond (really a large lake) - both this, and the larger Great Pond held Common Terns and a handful of gulls but little else. Back on dry ground there was a similar ornithological cast as to be found at Thursley - a Hobby, two Woodlarks and two Dartford Warblers - although one of the Woodlarks turned out to be of great interest...

The bird in question was inadvertently flushed from a track and then landed close by in the lower branches of a pine tree. As I was taking some (ropey) pictures of it I noticed that there were colour rings on its right leg. After taking several images the bird then flew. On my return home I went onto the 'European Colour Ring' website to try and find the scheme that had marked the bird. A bit of detective work led me to Tony Davis, who has been colour-ringing Woodlarks as part of the Thames Basin Heaths project. Going back through my images we were able to confirm that this individual had been ringed as a nestling (one of three) on 30 June 2022 at Bourley and Long Valley, near Fleet, in Hampshire - the left leg with a brown ring above the BTO metal ring; the right leg sporting black ring above a pale blue one. This bird had therefore moved a distance of approximately 15km.


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