Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Branching out

It's fair to say I've hammered Pulborough Brooks this year, and am now comfortably past my target of 150 species for the year - with Barnacle Goose at the weekend becoming number 153, with still two and a half months to go.

Mind you, reaching this often aimed-for target has taken the pressure off somewhat, and I must say I'm finding myself enjoying my birding more as a result. Indeed, I'm already beginning to plan ahead to next year, when I'm going to be looking to expand my local birding horizons somewhat, partly due to Pulborough overload this year, but also due to the inevitable limitations that will come with bringing up a baby!

I've already started scouting out some other interesting local sights, including some possible skywatch/vismig spots; something I've been keen to do more of locally since moving down here in 2017.

I'm also very excited to say I'll be starting to lead safaris at Knepp from next spring, so I'll obviously be spending a fair amount of time there too. Speaking of which, my Knepp list got a pretty amazing and highly unexpected addition on the 10th of this month when two juvenile Gannets cruised low over our heads in the Southern Block.

Gannets over Knepp (honest!)

Perhaps because I've been feeling more positive about my birding in general just lately, I've actually been lucky to have a few good flyover bits recently too, with my work in Clandon producing first a Hen Harrier heading northwest on the 7th, followed by a Glossy Ibis flying east/northeast on the 11th; the latter a Surrey tick for me and only the 8th record for the County! I'm not much of a county lister really, but I made this my 201st bird in Surrey so, yesterday evening, just for a change, I decided to swing past Reigate on my way home from work to catch up with 202; the returning female Ring-necked Duck on Priory Pond.  

Ring-necked Duck in Reigate

I'll always be a local patcher at heart and certainly don't plan to abandon Pulborough Brooks altogether, but if the past couple of weeks are anything to go by it shows it's good to mix things up now and then. Here's to new adventures in 2022!

A proper record shot! Glossy Ibis over Clandon, 11th October; 8th record for Surrey


Wednesday, 15 September 2021

150! And other news...

As anyone who's been vaguely following my tweets or occasional blog posts will probably know, I confidently announced back at the end of last year, having got to the end of December with my Pulborough year list teetering on 149, that 2021 would be the year I finally reach 150. The first quarter of the year was strong and I was into the 140s by mid-May and feeling confident although, after my 'What doldrums?' post on here in June, things did go rather worryingly quiet for a while. Thankfully, August proved to be typically excellent and I cruised into September sitting pretty on 148. Fast forward to this past weekend and, after a very exciting Saturday evening (more on that shortly), I was all set to write a blog post explaining the events that led to my 149th species of the year, and ponder what might be number 150.

As ever though, the birds had other ideas and on Sunday afternoon I found myself racing back to the reserve to catch up with the big 150, sooner than expected.

It's been four years since the last record of Pectoral Sandpiper at Pulborough, and the species has been on my mind lately, with various inland records around the country. Indeed, as I left the reserve after my early morning whizz round on Sunday I ran into local birder Andrew Rodgers, who was just arriving, and suggested it might be one we see turning up soon. "I'll see if I can find one for us", he said as we parted. As it turns out, it was volunteers Graham Osborne and Neil Buckthorpe who were the lucky ones later on in the day. I'd just got back from Knepp and was finishing lunch ahead of a busy afternoon of various household and allotment chores when the text from Graham came through: "Hi Matt, Pectoral Sandpiper on North Brooks." A little while later it was in my 'scope view, happily feeding away in the afternoon sunshine, in exactly the spot I was hoping to find one earlier. In all honesty, 150 probably would have felt that bit sweeter had I found the bird myself, but I still wasn't going to complain, and graciously thanked Neil and Graham for the find and speedy news.

Pectoral Sandpiper on the North Brooks, photo by Paul Davy

Anyway, back to Saturday evening, because it's really quite an extraordinary turn of events that probably wasn't done justice by a few rather panicked tweets at the time. 

Just after 16:40, Wes Attridge posted on Twitter and the Surrey birding WhatsApp chat that he'd had an Osprey low southwest over Capel. In other words, heading roughly towards Pulborough. I should add at this point that just half an hour or so before this I'd been saying to Kate that if I was going to get Osprey on my Pulborough year list it really needed to happen in the next week or two otherwise the window would likely have closed for the year. I should also add that I'd only had one Pulborough Osprey up until this point, back in April 2019. Indeed, it might be surprising to learn that a search on the BirdGuides app reveals just a dozen or so records for the reserve in the past decade. So, trickier than one might expect for a wetland reserve beside a major river, and very much a case of being in the right place at the right time. 

So, back to this particular Osprey. I decided a good skywatch had to be in order, just for the one in a thousand chance that this bird might actually continue on its flight path and drift overhead. I also gave Gary Trew the heads-up, as he lives a mile or so east of me on the other side of Pulborough. I'd reckoned it would take the bird at the very least 40-45 minutes to reach us, if it didn't deviate from its course, so I was amazed when Gary tweeted at 17:12 that he was watching it flying past his house! I immediately sprang up from the garden chair and sprinted up to the attic window just in time to watch it cruising past on the far side of the Brooks, catching the early evening sunlight as it powered off towards the South Downs. Magic! Amazingly, it's not the first time it's happened either, as a couple of years ago Wes gave a heads-up for those of us up Leith Hill tower that he'd had an Osprey over Dorking town centre heading our way, and we managed to get on that one too. It turns out lightning really does strike twice - especially with sharp-eyed friends like Wes!
Saturday's Osprey, photo by Gary Trew

Me just after seeing the Osprey from the attic, photo by Mrs Matt

My rough guess of the Osprey's flight path, sketched just after it passed Pulborough


So, that's 150 then. Oh, and the other news bit? Well, just as I've completed one big challenge for 2021, it's almost time for the next one to begin...

New addition to the life list - due in November!

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Wryneck

Given the impressive numbers of the species around in the past couple of weeks, I've been really hoping to run into a Wryneck at the Brooks recently, and have been diligently scouting out and regularly checking likely areas of the reserve - so far without any joy.

So it was a nice surprise to receive a message on Monday afternoon from friends who live a short distance from us in Pulborough saying they'd just been watching one in their garden, and would I like to pop round for a look. Of course I said yes and headed straight there after work.

The bird had apparently gone into hiding for a while but thankfully had reappeared by the time I arrived and allowed a brief glimpse of it before disappearing back into bushes. It then re-emerged a little while later and showed well on the recently cut meadow/lawn for a few minutes before flying off into bushes, from which it didn't emerge again, thanks in part to a Robin which chased it even deeper into cover. 

A welcome Pulborough tick for me, and it really does make you wonder how many of these birds must be out there in the wider countryside at the moment!



Sunday, 12 September 2021

Elmley, 9th-10th September

Like most of us, Kate and I have been feeling in pretty dire need of a break this year, so we decided to have a night away at Elmley on Sheppey.

I've visited Sheppey many times for birding day trips over the years but always in the winter, and never stayed the night, so it made a nice change to be there at this time of year - and to wake up looking out across the Swale from our shepherds hut, 'Samphire'.

Highlights of the 36 or so hours included an Osprey fishing in the Swale, Barn Owl hunting right past the hut at dusk, Great Egret, Hobby, 8 Spotted Redshanks, thousands of Starlings and dozens of Yellow Wagtails.

We're booked in for another couple of nights next May and honestly can't wait!


Our home for the night - shepherds hut 'Samphire'

Swallows

Wheatear

Avocet

Spotted Redshanks

Black-tailed Godwits

Little Grebe

Brown Hare

Sedge Warbler

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

What doldrums?

June is typically the month when birding can get rather slow and repetitive, especially on a local patch. Quite apart from the extraordinary run of megas on a national scale in recent weeks, it’s also been pretty good at Pulborough, despite the fact I’ve not had a year tick since the end of May. 

Missing the Sanderling on the 11th was pretty gripping to say the least, especially as as far as I’m aware it’s the first record for the reserve since 2013. Still an excellent find by the Friday crew, just a shame I was halfway to Yorkshire at the time!

Sanderling, 11th June. Photo by Warren B

The Shelduck family are still present on the North Brooks, the six ducklings growing bigger by the day, while the lingering female Pintail is also still about - presumably here for the summer now. 

The lingering Pintail

The best news this past week has been the arrival of the first Avocet chicks of the year, after two failed attempts in the spring. Three chicks have been seen on the pool at West Mead since the weekend, and the adults have been doing a great job of chasing off any passing Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Carrion Crows. The hide at West Mead is still closed, so the best place to get a glimpse of them is with a scope from the tea terrace or by the dipping pond behind the visitor centre.

There have also been up to eight adult Avocets on the North Brooks of late, so perhaps we'll see some more chicks in the coming weeks. West Mead is also hosting a reasonable number of Lapwing chicks at the moment too, which is great to see. Redshank numbers seem to be increasing although I've still not seen any chicks as yet. 

Avocets at West Mead, photo by Andy Ashdown

The first returning Green Sandpipers are starting to trickle through with singles seen on the 17th and the 20th. A Wood Sandpiper on the North Brooks on the 14th was a little unexpected, although strangely the third year in a row we’ve had a mid June record of the species here. Presumably failed breeders returning from Scandinavia.

Highlights along the Arun recently have included regular Kingfisher sightings, good numbers of Reed Warblers (attracting the attentions of a Cuckoo or two) and presumably the same Great Crested Grebe I've seen from time to time here since April. I've only seen one on its own but have heard anecdotal records from a dog walker of two together recently.

Great Crested Grebe

The heath is always good value at this time of year with several recent evening visits producing at least three Nightjars, a roding Woodcock plus the delightful background soundtrack from the Field Crickets, more of which have been recently translocated here from Farnham. 

After a bumper spring for singing male Nightingales around the reserve (at least ten), the scrubby areas around the main trail are now busy with whistling and croaking adults tending to fledglings. The best areas to see or hear one are Adder Alley, the Hanger, or anywhere between the top of the Zig Zag path and Fattengates.

Whilst it isn't exactly a popular topic of conversation among non-birding friends and family, now we've passed the Summer Solstice, we can really start thinking about autumn and the first dispersing migrants. Waders should really get going in July, followed by the first proper waves of returning passerines in August. I'm still missing the likes of Whinchat, Redstart and Tree Pipit for my Pulborough year list, so these will be among the species on my radar in the next few weeks.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Seasoning

I feel like I’ve been saying 'what a weird year' a lot lately, but it’s hard to disagree. The driest, coldest April for decades, dominated by northerlies, clearly held back a lot of migrant species and the exceptionally wet May has undoubtedly taken its toll on both residents and migrants who have managed to breed. Of course, these extreme shifts in weather patterns are sadly no surprise and will only intensify in years to come. One can only imagine the challenges climate change will throw in the way of birds traversing Africa and mainland Europe to reach us each year, but that's a much larger topic for another blog post, perhaps.

From a patch birding perspective, I knew in January if I was going to reach 150 at Pulborough this year then I needed to be hitting 140 by the end of the spring. Having failed to connect with the likes of Whinchat, Redstart and Tree Pipit in the past few weeks, it’s fair to say I didn’t have Brent Goose and Hawfinch on my radar as potential additions to the list come late May. Indeed, the Brent Goose on the 26th was my 140th Pulborough species this year, with this morning’s flyover Hawfinch taking me nicely into the 140s, leaving me with seven months to find another nine. Not quite home and dry yet but feeling quietly confident!

Brent Goose on the North Brooks, 26th May

Photo by Chris and Juliet Moore


The Brent Goose was long overdue after an oddly quiet winter for them at the Brooks, especially considering there had been several records by this time last year. I perhaps should’ve expected to find it on the reserve in the morning as I’d actually thought I’d heard one through the bedroom window the previous evening, but I decided I’d imagined it and thought nothing more of it until my usual early morning scan of the North Brooks.

The Hawfinch was a real bonus, and my first on the reserve since the unforgettable 2017/18 influx. I actually heard it several moments before I saw it. I was walking through the narrow section of Adder Alley and heard what sounded a little like a Reed Bunting call to the north of me, but straight away knew it wasn't quite right for that species, followed by a loud tick slightly reminiscent of a Grey Wagtail. That species is not a particularly common sight on the reserve at this time of year so it was enough to make me look up just in time to see the unmistakable chunky, big-winged, short-tailed shape of a Hawfinch flying straight over my head, quite low, calling several more times as it carried on south over the trees towards the South Brooks. 

With a week of settled weather and easterly winds ahead (at last!), I'm excited to see what surprises this peculiar year throws up next.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Accidental Big Day

I hadn't planned to do it. In fact, I headed out birding in a very leisurely fashion this morning. I'd glanced out of the window at around 05:45 and seen the fog so opted instead for a coffee and a browse through the latest British Birds in bed, before setting out at around 07:15. Quite unlike my normal dawn raid on the patch!

I've only ever managed to record over 80 species in a day at Pulborough Brooks once before, while taking part in the very socially distanced Mole Valley Bird Race in May 2020, when the various teams competed remotely from their respective patches. That day I achieved what I considered to be a very respectable total of 83 species from 04:00 to noon. I'd often wondered if I could beat it and had talked about giving it a go with Ed Stubbs at some stage. 

In the end, today turned out to be that day. The morning started well with a flyover Little Ringed Plover near home, a Great Crested Grebe asleep on the Arun (only my second record here this year) and the usual singing Cuckoo, Yellowhammer and a noticeable increase in Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers.

Great Crested Grebe

A scan of the North Brooks revealed a Wood Sandpiper with the assembled Greenshanks and Redshanks; my first of the year here and always a nice bird to find locally. Soon after finding the bird I pointed it out to Jackie Day and other visiting birders, including Steve Baines, with whom I birded the reserve for most of the rest of the morning, notching up another year tick in the form of a Hobby over Winpenny. That took the patch year list to 135, which felt like a very satisfying morning's effort. 

Distant Wood Sandpiper and Greenshank

After saying goodbye to Steve at the car park and hello to various other regulars and RSPB staff, I decided the North Brooks was worth another scan with rain imminently forecast. In the end it didn't produce a great deal, but as I thought about heading for home early afternoon, it struck me I had topped 80 species for the day list for only the second time. A few more additions including Stonechat and Meadow Pipit took the list to 84, my best ever day tally! Now I could really head home feeling smug, I thought. Halfway down the footpath towards the village, the call of a Greenshank had me looking up to see one being chased by a Peregrine - the latter taking the list to 85!

Peregrine vs Greenshank!

After a brief pit stop at home, a bit of a gardening and a trip to the allotment, I decided a return visit to the Brooks had to be done. Could I reach 90 in a day? There were still so many common bits I was missing. I started with a loop of Black Wood where I soon added Willow Warbler, Jay and Coal Tit, before returning to the North Brooks. An earlier reported Yellow Wagtail was nowhere to be seen but suddenly a Curlew appeared; only my second record here this year, and 89 for the day! By this time, I had been joined at the Hanger by legendary former Pulborough Brooks regular, Jon Winder, who said he'd seen a Great Black-backed Gull earlier, and also heard a Tawny Owl which I'd missed. Gripping! With the light fading we both agreed to head for home, but not before a check of the field by the church produced the hoped-for Barn Owl. 90!

It turns out I also missed the first Spotted Flycatcher of the year earlier in the day, so with that, Tawny Owl and the various other omissions, I'm now wondering whether it would be possible to reach 100 in a day. Maybe one day...