Fringe Box



Birdwatcher’s Diary No.156

By Malcolm Fincham

Chasing hawfinches around the Surrey countryside had become a bit of an obsession this winter. Not just for me, but for many a keen birdewatcher.

The large irruption of them that arrived in the southern regions of the UK in the autumn last year were still hanging about. And with Surrey being the most densely county populated by trees in the UK, it seemed to be quite an attraction for them.

A lower muddy path of Juniper Top near Dorking on February 18, took good friends Bob, Dougal, John an I in the direction to an area where a flock in excess of 250 hawfinches had been reported in recent days.

Walking along the trail between Juniper Hill and Bramblehall Wood, near Dorking.

Walking the narrow path overhung by trees, we admired the moss-covered ground and around us, growing up small stems, looking like a micro-forest about our feet.

Moss growing up small stems,looking like little trees under the trees.

Occasionally we would stop to admire thick twisting stems, that grew out of the chalky soil and entwined around any convenient support of the surrounding trees, some almost four to five inches in girth.

“Old Man’s Beard” John announced, as our gaze followed up to its hairy seed heads.

The plant is a wild clematis, otherwise known as traveller’s Joy, due to its medicinal usage in days gone by.

Eventually, we found a gap in the trees that looked across the valley to Bramblehall Wood.

Hawfinches at Bramblehall Wood, near Dorking.

Although our prize was just 60 or so Hawfinches on this occasion and quite distant, they were still an impressive sight as they perched in the trees on the neighbouring hillside.

From time to time, taking flight in unison, dipping down and out of sight into the yew trees below them to feed, while a few remained in the tall trees as if on sentry duty.

To add variety from my recent reports (and to add another species to to this year’s sightings) we decided, from there, to follow up on a report of a lesser spotted woodpecker, recently seen behind the leisure centre by the River Mole in Leatherhead. Lesser spotted woodpeckers have declined considerably and are now, sadly, a rare sight in our countryside, with much concern for their future.

For comparison, the lesser spotted woodpecker is roughly the same size as a house sparrow. Also significant is the black and white “ladder” which run downs the back of the bird.

Lesser spotted woodpecker. The lack of a crimson-red crown suggests a female. Almost entirely black and white.

This one was most certainly a female, the clearest feature being the crimson-red crown of the male. Females, on the other hand, are almost entirely black and white.

Lesser spotted woodpecker by the Leatherhead Leisure Centre.

Whereas (though sometimes confused) the great spotted woodpecker is quite a bit larger and on closer inspection, different in much of its colouring.

The only other UK species of woodpecker, and one I photographed recently, is the green woodpecker, which is more easily recognised.

With the first day of spring approaching, (March 1) and despite temperatures remaining below average for February, some signs of spring were starting to appear while on my travels around the Surrey countryside.

I witnessed a blackbird picking up a twig with its beak and carry it in flight, presumably already in the process of nest building.

Common buzzards spending time together.

A pair of common buzzards perched together on a holly tree, some distance away, in a field.

Mute swan relaxing in the winter sunshine.

On sunnier days, both blue as well as great tits could be seen chasing one another around in hedgerows. A mute swan lazily stretched and preened itself on a lake as the sun shone.

Dabchicks (little grebes).

A pair of dabchicks had begun to spend a lot of time in close proximity of each other.

While a pair of grey wagtails, I hadn’t seen for a good while, had returned to the pond where they breed last year. Little did they seem to know, winter might still have a sting in its tail?

Clandon Park.


Red-legged partridge.

A visit to Clandon Park during the last weekend of the month with Dougal also came up trumps with a few more new species to this year’s tally. It included, red-legged partridge.

Little owl in flight at Clandon Park.

Also flying up from a field near to us, although staying low to the ground, was a little owl. Especially pleasing for me was to get a few, not too out of focus, in-flight photos.


Fieldfares were in abundance there, also feeding out on the fields in excess of 50 of them.


Among them in lesser numbers were redwings, also probing the wet soil for worms.

A lucky find awaited us as we made our way back to the car. The sun was by then sinking low in the sky. Soon to set, it was creating an orange glow across the landscape. A bird that had been perched in silhouette at the top of the tree in front of us, dropped down into its lower branches.

Hawfinch in Clandon Park.

My call of it being a hawfinch was immediately confirmed by Dougal. Taking a wide birth, we made way to the other side of the tree, where the weakening sun still lit some of the branches. Fortunately the sun was still partially shining on the branch that the hawfinch remained perched.

It appeared to have taken to its roost, not bothered at our presence and still there as we left.

As February neared its end, the weather turned colder. “The winds of Thor are blowing cold”. As suspected, the beast from the east was finally released as the last few days February approached, with a chilling breath on the breeze from its icy jaws.

Having threatened to do so on numerous occasions throughout the winter, a sudden stratospheric warming pushed cold Arctic air across the UK all the way from Siberia.

Although not an unprecedented event, there is a growing belief among some scientists that it’s due to the continuation of low solar activity causing enlarged fluctuations in the jet stream? 

I’m just grateful it didn’t happen in the middle of winter, when the sun is at its weakest! Wind from the north-east chilled the air, it would soon be snowing out there?

As I conclude this report, much of Kent is now covered by snow. Although having so far dodged such an outcome in Guildford, while writing this report on February 27, in the next few days (and by the time this report is published) a major snow event could have occurred.

Stoke Lake.

One last walk around Guildford’s Riverside Nature Reserve before the month was out saw the scrape near Stoke Lock frozen over.

Teal on the River Wey.

Vacated by the wildfowl, a few of the teal usually on there had taken to the river by the lock.

Teal on Stoke Lake.

A few more had taken to Stoke Lake, as yet, still free from ice.

Gulls fly over the lake.

Joining them was a host of gulls.

Tufted duck on Stoke Lake.

As well as the usual group of tufted ducks.

Kingfisher by Stoke Lake.

Hidden in the sallows by the lake, I picked out a kingfisher. I recognised it, by the orange lower mandible of its beak to be a female.

Water rail near the boardwalk at the Riverside Nature Reserve.

Along the boardwalk near to the open hide there, I also picked out a water rail as it skulked through a patch of watery undergrowth below some trees.

Long-tailed tits along the towpath.

Long-tailed tits seemed to be surviving the winter chill, with flocks still abundant as I walked the tow path of the River Wey in the direction of Bower’s Lock.


A group of 20 or so siskins could be seen, working their way along the alder trees, feeding on their seed cones.

Barn owl at Bower’s Lock.

I was especially pleased to see the barn owl, roosting in one of its favoured spots, still surviving this harsh spell of weather.

A fox, lame in its rear legs.

My heart went out to a fox I had seen a few days earlier, lame in its rear legs, as it limped out of sight into a hedgerow.

Cold is never good for a warm heart. For me, It holds no quarter.

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