Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Surrey … 14th – 29th December 2011-12-29

The first-winter or female GARGANEY was at Spynes Mere and the adjacent pit again on the 14th and 15th and an adult MEDITERRANEAN GULLwas at Mercers Lake on the 16th, presumably the same small individual seen on the 22nd November.

A female GOLDENEYE appeared at Mercers West Pit on the 17th and has remained there since, sometimes in the company of a second female.

A pair of GOOSANDERS flew west over Mercers Lake on the 18th and a Little Egret was at The Moors NR on the 19th.

The 20th produced the two female GOLDENEYES on Mercers West Pit, a drake Shelduck on Spynes Mere and a Peregrine over The Moors NR.

The male Shelduck was seen again on the 24th and 25th and another Peregrine sighting occurred on the 24th. Gordon also found a BARN OWL roosting at Mercers Farm on the 25th but it hasn’t been seen since.

A Little Egret was at The Moors on the 26th and 27th and two Little Owls were at Mercers Farm on the 26th.

On the 29th, Ian relocated the GARGANEY at the western end of The Moors.
It was distant and elusive amongst Teal on the flooded area near the railway line. During the two weeks since it was last seen, it seems to have advanced in plumage and is now looking far more like a first winter male than a female. Its head, neck and breast all seem darker brown and its flanks appear pale grey. There are also signs of developing greyish scapulars.

Hopefully it will remain into the New Year.


Holmethorpe SPs, Surrey … 17th Nov – 13th Dec 2011

The 17th November produced some decent sightings at Holmethorpe SPs with a BRENT GOOSE briefly in the morning and a female Mandarin hiding up in the bushes by the bank at Spynes Mere, A Shelduck also flew in at Spynes Mere. In the afternoon, local birder Jerry found the FIRECREST in Mercers Country Park car park, with Phil Boswell finding it again in the same area the following day.

Sibelco, the mineral extraction company that own most of the local pits, have been hedge-cutting at Spynes Mere and Mercers West, and have done an excellent job, making viewing these areas much easier now.

We had to wait until the 22nd for the next good bird, an adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL on Water Colour Lagoon 1. Gordon found this bird and I joined him to photograph it. It was a surprisingly small bird compared to other Med Gulls I have seen.

On the morning of the 23rd I found the FIRECREST in Mercers CP car park and it showed reasonably well for some time but, frustratingly, never kept still enough to photograph it.
The following day, Gordon picked out an adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL amongst the gull roost on Chilmead Farm and, on the 25th, I counted 46 Rooks at the same site – not usually a numerous bird in the recording area at Holmethorpe.

Gordon found the FIRECREST again near the car park at Mercers CP on the 26th and Ian managed to locate it there on the 27th. Lapwing numbers had been slowly increasing during this period and by now were up to about 600 birds at Spynes Mere and Mercers West Pit.

The 28th produced two GOLDEN PLOVERS over Mercers West Pit and a Water Rail at The Moors and, on the 29th, Gordon relocated the adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL, first at Chilmead Farm and later at Mercers Lake, and he found it again the following day at Chilmead Farm.

On the 2nd December, I found the YELLOW-LEGGED GULL roosting at Chilmead Farm but it was quiet at our local patch until the 7th when Simon Elson noted a Little Egret at The Moors NR and Gordon found a mystery duck with the Teal at Spynes Mere. Paul managed to get photos of it late in the afternoon and there were various suggestions to its identification mainly centred around aberrant-plumaged or hybrid Teal, juvenile Baikal Teal and first-winter or eclipse male Garganey – it would be some time before we eventually identified it for certain.

Gordon saw this duck again at Spynes Mere on the 10th and also had an immature Peregrine fly over.

On the 11th, Ian found a Little Egret at The Moors and the following day Gordon located the unidentified duck again at Spynes Mere. I joined him and managed to get more photos of it. This time, all the orangey tones on this bird seemed to have disappeared and we now believe that either the low sun, when the bird had previously been seen, had contributed to the apparent colouration, or the bird had advanced in its moult. It now looked likely to be a first-winter or female GARGANEY. This was later confirmed to be the case.

Gordon located the same bird again on the afternoon of the 13th and we are now hoping that it will extend its stay in the area. Winter records of Garganey in the UK are never numerous.

Our resident Little Owls have been showing well on sunny days throughout this period and it seems that there are at least three birds in the area.

So far this year, 141 species have been noted at Holmethorpe, only two behind the total for 2010.


Brent Goose at Holmethorpe SPs, Surrey ..... 16th November 2011

Holmethorpe has a pretty good track record when it comes to geese.
Past records have included Tundra Bean, Barnacle, Brent, White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese as well as the regular Greylags, Canadas and Egyptian Geese.
There have also been escaped/feral Emperor and Bar-headed Geese, and a Chinese Swan Goose put in an appearance on one occasion.

Personally, I still haven’t seen Bean Geese or wild Pink-foots locally and have only recorded Brent Goose on one occasion over the years.

After the unidentified gull from yesterday failed to appear this morning at Water Colour lagoons (more on that in a minute), I was about to head further round the local patch when I noticed a smallish goose heading in from the north-east and splash landing onto the lagoon.
A BRENT GOOSE no less.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised as there have been Brents over Canon’s Farm at Banstead and Beddington SF, where one touched down briefly, in the past week or two.

The Brent soon teamed up with a few Mallards and headed to the far bank of the lagoon, where it dabbled around in the shallows for about five minutes, before being spooked by the noisiest jogger in the area - a chap that you can hear coming from a mile away (exaggeration) by his loud huffing, puffing and grunting.

Not surpringly, the Mallards and Brent took off in a panic and the goose circled the lagoon calling persistently before heading off to the west. A new bird for the year at Holmethorpe.
I wandered further round the local patch and after checking the pits at Spynes Mere and Mercers West, I headed back across Mercers Farm when I noticed it, or another, Brent heading towards me from the west. It circled over Mercers Farm before heading back toward Mercers West Pit and out of sight.

Despite the lousy photo, I can assure you that it was a Brent Goose!

The only other bird of note appeared as I was watching a flock of 15 Lesser Redpolls (still no Commons found locally) and the flock suddenly took off in a panic as a male PEREGRINE flew overhead heading east.

Two decent birds in a day will do just fine, so I headed back to the Water Colour lagoons to check the gulls again. Still no sign of yesterday’s oddity.
So far there have been three suggestions as to what the gull was (Azorean Yellow-legged Gull, a small argentatus Herring Gull or a very pale graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull) but, as the photos were so poor, we will probably never know for certain, unless it appears again.
My money is on it being a small female argentatus Herring Gull.

I can only hope that it is seen at Beddington SF where the birders are far more experienced at gull identification than any of the Holmethorpe birders.


Mystery gull at Holmethorpe Sand Pits ... 15th November 2011

This gull was picked out by Gordon Hay at Water Colour Lagoon 1 at Holmethorpe SPs late this morning.
I had already noticed it a couple of minutes earlier and had dismissed it as being a scruffy-looking Lesser Black-backed!
On closer inspection, it had the mantle colour of a Yellow-legged Gull but that species should be showing a white head by this time of year and the bird we were looking at had anything but a white head. The fine streaking giving it a hooded effect. It was darker mantled than the Herring Gulls it was accompanying but lighter mantled than graelsii Lesser Black-backed. In fact the grey tone was closer to that of a Common Gull.

We ran through the likely identifications. Argentatus Herring Gull? It didn’t have the bulk and brutish expression to be that.
Azorean Yellow-legged Gull? Not sure. I suppose it is possible but I need to get better photos.
I am hoping it will still be around tomorrow.
Opinions would be welcomed but I appreciate that from the poor quality of my photos, it won't be easy!


Holmethorpe Sand Pits … 16th October – 7th November

On the 16th October, Gordon Hay found an adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULLon the sand spit at Spynes Mere. I made my way to add this locally scarce species to my year list but, five minutes before arriving at Spynes Mere, Gordon phoned to say the bird had just flown.
Earlier in the day, Ian Kehl had found our first local Fieldfare for the autumn.

The 19th October produced a Peregrine over Mercers Farm carrying prey and on the 20th I found a drake Pintail on Mercers West Pit, another new local year tick. A couple of the other local birders saw it but it only stayed for the one day.

On the 21st, Gordon and I spotted a Peregrine heading east over Mercers Farm and, on the 23rd, Ian Kehl saw our first Little Egret since May. That bird didn’t stay long enough to be refound.

The 27th produced two Common Crossbills for Gordon flying east over Mercers Farm - another new species for the year – and yet another year tick came on the 28th when Gordon spotted a SHORT-EARED OWL being mobbed by corvids over Mercers West. Paul and I were at the eastern end of Spynes Mere but, despite a call from Gordon alerting us to this bird, we failed to see it.

On the 29th, Gordon struck lucky again with 12 Common Crossbills flying west over Spynes Mere and on the 30th he found a Stonechat out on The Moors NR. I managed to find the Stonechat the following day but it hasn’t been seen since then.

No really notable birds were seen until the 6th November when Gordon found Holmethorpe’s third ever FIRECREST in the car park at Mercers Country Park, another bird that unfortunately didn’t hang around long enough for others to see. On the same visit, Gordon also had a Redshank flying south and calling.

The 7th November proved rewarding when I met up with Gordon at first light and he almost immediately spotted a SHORT-EARED OWL being mobbed by corvids over Water Colours. It eventually shook of the crows and headed south – the second for Gordon this year, the first for me and, surprisingly, only the 6th local record of this species. About an hour later we picked out a first-winter LITTLE GULL at Water Colour Lagoon 1. It only stayed for ten minutes before flying off to the south. Later in the morning we saw the first two Golden Plovers for the year at Holmethorpe, flying north over Mercers West Pit.

The Holmethorpe year list now stands at 138 species, which is the same number that we had recorded by the end of November last year.


Black-necked Grebe at the local patch ... Wednesday 12th October 2011

An early start at our local patch at Holmethorpe Sand Pits proved a wise decision.
Arriving at 6.45 a.m., it was hardly light enough to see anything, so I waited at the Water Colour lagoons for the sun to lighten the sky but there wasn’t much about, apart from 600+ Starlings that left their roost in the bushes by one of the lagoons, so I headed for Mercers Lake.

I went to the western end and immediately noticed a small grebe close in to the bank.
To my surprise, it was a BLACK-NECKED GREBE, possibly a winter-plumaged adult but there was a tinge of buff on the cheeks that indicate that it was possibly a first-winter bird.
This is only the sixth record for Holmethorpe Sand Pits, the last being in April 2000.

I had arranged to meet Gordon Hay, but he had yet to arrive and so, as the grebe had headed towards the north bank of the lake, I headed round the perimeter path but failed to relocate it.
Shortly afterwards, Gordon rang and asked me where I was and I told him what I had found and, as I headed back to the western end, he joined me.

It must have taken a good 20 minutes to relocate the grebe, which was now quite distant and in the middle of the lake.
Gordon phoned Paul who soon joined us, as he had been birding further to the east at Spynes Mere. By now the grebe was heading back towards us and we had reasonable views of it, although the light was still not particularly good for getting photos.


After a while we headed round the lake and spent some time at Mercers West Pit and Spynes Mere before Gordon and I headed across Mercers Farm to take a look at the huge Linnet flock of over 1000 birds that had appeared. Paul had to head home but, when he reached Mercers Lake, he phoned us to say that the Black-necked Grebe was still showing well in the middle of the lake.


Gordon and I headed back but by now there were dinghies out on the lake and we failed to spot the grebe. We hoped that it had just hidden itself under the overhanging bushes somewhere, but it wasn’t subsequently found so, presumably, it had flown off.

Other birds noted were 3 Kingfishers at Mercers Lake, 71 Redwings over, 10 Siskins over, a Grey Wagtail, one Lesser Redpoll, a Blackcap and a Chiffchaff, a Treecreeper and a Goldcrest, a male Wigeon and 28 Gadwall, around 25 Skylarks heading west, a couple of Yellowhammers at Mercers Farm along with one Little Owl.

Graham, Paul & Gordon

Holmethorpe Sand Pits, Surrey ... 27th & 29th September 2011

Although it has been fairly quiet over the past few days, the 27th Sept produced a couple of notable birds.
The first was a result of a text message from Johnny Allan at Beddington SF, which is a few miles directly to the north of Holmethorpe SPs. I received the message at 11.40 a.m. and it read "f/imm Marsh Harrier just flew south."
At 12.10 p.m. Sue and I were watching from our kitchen window as it flew south-east over Mercers Lake. A distant and misty view, but definitely good enough to identify it as a MARSH HARRIER.

Was there a raptor movement in progress? I continued to watch the sky for a while but nothing else appeared so I gave up. Then, at just before 1.30 p.m. Sue called to me from the kitchen. She had spotted a large raptor heading towards us from the direction of the local patch. We were then treated to the sight of a RED KITE circling over the gardens to the rear of our flat.
We also added a Hobby, two Common Buzzards and Sparrowhawk to the days's raptor list.

On the 29th Sept, Sue and I decided to spend a while up on Nutfield Ridge to make the most of the weather and get a bit more raptor-watching in.

We managed to spot up to eleven Common Buzzards over the North Downs plus a Hobby, two Sparrowhawks and a Kestrel. It was incredibly hot and we decided to head back home after about an hour. On the way, we walked along Cormongers Lane and, as we reached the point where the cycle path between the landfill site and The Moors begins, I thought I heard a Treecreeper calling quite loudly. We stopped and looked for it and the call seemed to be coming from an ivy-clad oak tree at the start of the cycle track. I could see a small bird flitting amongst the ivy and eventually it showed itself - a FIRECREST!

We watched it for about fifteen minutes but I was getting anxious that we hadn't brought our mobile phones with us and I needed to get the news out to the local birders.

This is only the second record for Holmethorpe SPs, the first being found by a visiting birder, Mark Stanley, in March 2008 at Mercers Country Park.

We headed for home after getting a couple of record shots, which were difficult as, not only was the bird constantly on the move, it was often deep in shade amongst the ivy, hence the blurry photos.

As I now need to use a walking stick, hurrying back home to get the news out was probably an amusing sight. Frustratingly, contacting the regular birders proved difficult as either their phones were switched off or the locals were out of the area. By the time they became aware of this bird, it could no longer be found.

I am hoping that it may have joined a roving tit flock and may still be in the area, but that may just be wishful thinking.


Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex .... 28th September 2011

Our intention was to visit Arlington Reservoir again but, on arrival, we failed to find a parking space either in the official car park or on the road opposite the entrance.

There seemed to be an amazing number of elderly people there, some being even older than us, all intent on making the most of the hot and sunny weather. We drove around for a while before returning to the car park but there were still no spaces available.

Rather than waste the day, we headed for the Cuckmere Valley, between Seaford and Beachy Head, and parked on the western side of the valley by the Golden Galleon pub. This side of the valley is much quieter than the eastern side and normally produces a few good birds (and the parking is free too!).

It was immediately obvious that many hirundines were present and I estimated that at least 150 House Martins and 300 Swallows were in the area.
Heading along the track towards the sea, Sue pointed out some birds flitting down from the bushes and catching insects on the path - fours Whinchats.

A little further on, I could hear two Greenshanks calling but failed to spot them but, whilst scanning the grazing marsh, I picked out a Wheatear and a Whimbrel. Also out on the grass were 27 Curlews and an amazing count of 32 Little Egrets.

I also picked out a wader that I was initially unable to identify. My gut feeling was that it was a Wood Sandpiper as it had a very prominent supercilium but, after it headed for a ditch and gave better views, it was apparent that it was just a Common Sandpiper.

In the bushes along the path there were about a dozen Chiffchaffs, a couple of Willow Warblers and a Common Whitethroat, but not much else.

The number of Meadow Pipits in the area must have been well over 200 birds, they were everywhere.

Eventually we reached the Coastguards Cottages by the beach and went in search of a bench to sit and have a coffee.

As we headed up the cliff, we found that there was a film shoot in progress and as we walked past, we noticed Hugh Dennis of 'Mock the Week' and 'Outnumbered' there.

We found a bench a little further on and sat and ate our sandwiches and downed our coffee whilst scanning the sea. An hour's seawatch produced two Common Terns - but nothing else!

As we headed back, the film crew had packed up and were all sitting on the grass and Sue had me in stiches when she said that Hugh Dennis had smiled at her. It seemed to be the highlight of the day for her. I now dread watching him on the TV as I know that, every time his face appears, Sue is going to remind me that he smiled at her!

We returned by the same route and noted that the Whimbrel was still present and a couple of Oystercatchers were out on the grazing marsh with the two elusive Greenshanks now on show.

Most of the hirundines had now disappeared but Sue picked out what may have been the cause - a distant Peregrine flying east.

A Kingfisher flew along a ditch at a rate of knots and that was the last notable bird of the day.

Graham & Sue