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Wey Wildlife
Bird Life

There is a tendency when you think of a river to look for ducks and swans, and the occasional coot. Of course there are those in plenty but a great number of other species inhabit or visit the Wey Valley, providing the casual observor and the ultra-keen twitcher with ample variety of our feathered friends to look out for.



click to hear bird call
wherever you see this icon

Angling is the post popular pastime in Britain. The Wey's rich diversity of habitats has nurtured a healthy population of fish. It's not surprising therefore that fishing as a sport is thriving along the banks of the river and its Navigations. Angling clubs operate throughout the valley, with many of these in operation for over a century. The Godalming Angling Society, for example, was founded in 1881. The Disabled Angler's Association works closely with the river's landowners and mainstream clubs to provide access to its members.

“I nurse a nagging sense of disquiet in my soul about new waterway art - this sort of add-on art that seems to be being blue-tacked on to the canals in an attempt to broaden their appeal and make them more like urban parks than a carefully engineered historic transport system.” Tony Lewery - Canal Junction 2004

OXEYE DAISIESclick image to enlarge

Many of the pub names throughout the Wey Valley reflect the industry and politics of the times in which they were first established. Straddling the main thoroughfare between London and the powerful naval ports there are a good number of examples of inns with seafaring names, including the Jolly Sailor, The Anchor, Ye Olde Ship Inn and The Seven Stars. Others refer to the clothing and agricultural industries. The art of pub signs started 600 years ago when Richard II introduced a law enforcing innkeepers to erect painted signs outside, both as indentification for his tax collectors and to guide the largely illiterate clientele of the time.










Native Swan

Relatively common in those parts of the Wey that provide deeper water are the graceful swans. It is most likely you will see Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) rather than the smaller Bewick’s Swan which tend to be winter visitors from Russia between October and March.

An adult Mute Swan on average will measure 60 ins (152 cm) from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, is Britain’s largest bird, and the third heaviest capable of flight in the world.

When swimming it will normally hold its neck in an elegant S-curve, with its orange bill pointing downwards, a totally different poise to the Bewick’s Swan, which tends to hold its neck erect, and at 48 ins (122 cm) is a lot smaller with a yellow bill.

The male is referred to as a cob, his mate as a pen, and their young offspring as cygnets.

One etymological theory is that as the flight feathers from the female swan were favoured as writing implements in olden times they were called quill pens, and eventually the reference to quill was dropped leaving us with the word ‘pen’ that we still use today, even if it’s quills we’re not. A quaint notion really as the most likely origin is from the Latin ‘penna’ meaning ‘feather’, but then perhaps the Roman used the feathers from female swans? Who knows. The word ‘quill’ refers to the hollow shaft of the feather.

Once fit for a King’s dinner, these regal creatures are legally protected today, and quaintly the Queen still has a prerogative over all the swans in England and Wales. Serving one up now could result in a rather nasty penalty and is not to be recommended. Swans are closely entwined with the royal history of England, and were in the Middle Ages a highly sought after commodity regularly traded between noblemen. Such was the control imposed even then all owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of the birds. Although confined now to the Thames and not to be seen along the Wey any longer, the annual process of swan-upping by the Royal Swanmaster still continues to this day.

The Mute Swan can be seen all year round along the Wey Valley and breeds here. The male is distinctive by the larger knob on its forehead above the bill, which is more prominent in spring. Cygnets have uneven mottled brown plumage which gradually whitens as they mature, although even at a year old some will retain darker feathering.

Always an impressive sight is that of a female swan sitting motionless on the river bank atop its huge nest, an air of protectiveness about it that is enough to deter even the most adventurous of visitors from approaching anywhere near. For added protection the male is never far away. The nest, constructed from reeds and rushes, is built by both sexes working together and takes about 10 days to complete. It is usually the male that collects the material, and the female who assembles the structure using her feet and bill, not surprising given that it will be she that has to incubate the eggs for about a month, so comfort must be a prime consideration.

Once hatched, the cygnets usually climb up onto the back of the female when they leave the nest, and ride between their mother’s wings as she paddles up the river. They take the plunge to start learning all about river life a week to ten days later.

Along the river you will commonly see breeding pairs that stay together for life and are extremely territorial. Once the cygnets are mature they will be driven out of the family territory and usually end up consorting with other youngsters for several years, often gathering in large numbers on sites that provide a large area of open water. First breeding tends to be at three years old for females and four for males

The sheer elegance of a swan in flight is quite mesmerising, with its neck fully extended and slow powerful wing-beats making its flight feathers hum in a rhythmic sighing sound that can be heard for up to a mile away.

courtesy of RSPB

Visiting Swans

You’re probably unlikely to see either of the two visiting species of swan very often along the Wey.

The Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus columbianus) mentioned earlier flies in from northern Siberia 3,700 miles (6,000 km) away to overwinter commonly in the Arun Valley in Sussex for those that fly as far as southern England. Temporarily resident from October to March the Bewick is a lot smaller than the Mute Swan and has a lot more black on its bill. Unless the Whooper Swan (Cygnus Cygnus), so named because of its ‘whoop-whoop’ call, has become totally lost this large white swan, recognisable by the large triangular patch of yellow on its black bill, tends not to overwinter in the southern counties of England. The Whooper returns to its homeland of Iceland in March.

Wild Geese

It is likely that any geese seen along the river are Canada Geese (Branta Canadensis) although other species do visit. Measuring 37 ins (95cm) the Canada Goose is the largest in Britain and usually has little fear of humans.

Canada Goose with chicks by Martin Finnis
click on image to go to photographer's website Click to visit Terry Harrison's website

It was introduced into England from North America in the 18th century but only became common after 1945. Another bird that looks majestic in flight as it skims the treetops, and especially impressive when flying in great ‘V’ shaped squadrons calling out noisily to each other in their distinctive drunken “ah-honk”.

The Canada Goose has mainly brown plumage with a long black neck and a white blob under the chin.

courtesy of RSPB


A number of duck species frequent the Wey’s waters, although by far the common is the Mallard Duck (Anas platyrhynchos), the males having a very distinctive green head separated from its purple-brown chest by a white collar. Female adults have a plumage of mixed brown feathers variously streaked and mottled.

At 23 ins (58cm) the Mallard Duck is the largest member of the surface-feeding, or dabbling duck group, and certainly the boldest. They do not dive for their food, although their ducklings sometimes do, instead preferring to snap for flies and dabble for seeds. Their most effective feeding technique though is to play on the emotions of humans who without fail will part with part of their lunch just to placate their consciences.

Other ducks you may sight include the smaller more soberly coloured Gadwall (Anas strepera), the Shoveler (Anas clypeata) and the tiny Teal (Anas crecca). The canny Gadwells who bottom feed, and knowing that Coots do the same but have to bring the vegetation to the surface will often repeatedly steal food from them.

You should have a good chance of an encounter with a Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) or two which are pretty common and sound as though they’re having a pretty fine time. The male will giggle like a misbehaving turkey in response to the female’s very distinctive growling noise. Life on the river must take its toll. Apart from its adolescent behaviour you’ll spot a male Tufted Duck by the drooping crest hanging tuft-like down the back of its head, and its bold black and white plumage. The females look sterner but also have a tuft, albeit much smaller, and are dark-brown in colour.

Male Tufted Duck
Male Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Photo by Andreas Trepte - licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

courtesy of RSPB

If you’re not totally numbed by the thought of more ducks at this point, another to look out for along the Wey is the Pochard (Aythya farina), which are not common but quite pleasing to the eye, and as diving-ducks go, industrious to watch.



Right alongside the river bank look out for Reed and Sedge Warblers. The Sedge (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) is the more common of the two, and although both birds are visitors to the area the Sedge will normally stay longer into October, having arrived in early April. Difficult to separate out by their similar sounding call of “churr” these 41/2 ins (12cm) long-billed birds are different in that the Sedge has a paler breast, a flatter head and a broader tail. The Warblers feed mainly on insects, and can sometimes be seen hovering in order to catch a particularly interesting appetiser.

Sedge Warbler
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)
Photo by Marek Szczepanek - permission under
GNU Free Documentation License

courtesy of RSPB

The rare and endangered Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata) will also be occasionally encountered on lowland heath around the valley. A small bird with an adult measuring 13 cm the bird relies on gorse bushes for nesting.

The Male has a grey back and head with reddish underparts, a red eye and reddish throat spotted with white. The female is paler below. Originally named after Dartford Heath in north west Kent where they became extinct in the 20th century, the species has recovered from an all time UK low of 10 breeding pairs after the severe winter of 1962-3.



Warblers are difficult to find, but even more of a challenge are the much larger Water Rails (Rallus aquaticus). It doesn’t help that they’re quite a shy bird, and so spend much of their time creeping around in the undergrowth at the side of the river, and sadly they’re also quite uncommon. Their strange flattened appearance provides them with a perfect profile for squeezing between the reeds at the water’s edge, their long red bills leading the way as they nod along flicking their tails in a dainty little gait. Twitchers identify the Water Rail by what they describe as a series of “flatulent grunts”, accompanied by squeals, which does tend to let the imagination run riot a little.

Water Rail
Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)
Photo by Marek Szczepanek - permission under
GNU Free Documentation License

courtesy of RSPB


The bouncy flight and dry rattle “chuch-uch-uch” will announce the arrival of this little finch, the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), especially if you’re in an area of birch or alder woodland. Measuring a respectable 5 ins (13cm) for a small bird, the male with its raspberry-pink breast and red forehead looks distinctly prettier than the female. The Redpoll is well adapted at extracting the seeds of the birch tree, and being a gregarious bird and quite friendly with another much smaller finch, the Siskin (Carduelis spinus), will often be seen in their company undertaking a combined raid on alder trees.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea)
Image from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas 1905
- in public domain


Always popular even to casual observers are the Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis), resplendent in their dazzling colours and being gloriously competent fliers are eager to show off their speed, and turn of tail low over the water. If you’re extremely lucky (and I haven’t been) you might even catch a glimpse of one of these blue and orange supreme fishers hovering above the water to pinpoint dinner, before plunging like an arrow deep into the water. If you don’t see one listen out for their distinctive shrill piping whistle, which at a distance can sound like the squeaky brakes of a car.

European Kingfisher
European Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Photo by Phil Armitage - released into public domain

courtesy of RSPB

The Heron

And much disliked by those gardeners amongst us who have tried, usually unsuccessfully, to keep them away from a well stocked and prized pond, are of course the Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea). At 35 ins (90 cm) the stately looking Heron always looks the part with its calculated and deliberately slow movements well practised so as to not scare off the next meal. Watching them fly makes for a little jealousy in not also being able to achieve such effortless movement to cover distance very quickly, and finding a boisterous flock of them is always a memorable experience. Most nests are built high in the trees and look almost surreal, especially with this large bird standing atop long beak into the wind with its crest acting like a purpose-built wind vane.

Grey Heron

courtesy of RSPB

A rare Purple Heron, a migrant from the Mediterranean, was spotted at the Thames Water sewage treatment works at Godalming in 2000.

The Sparrowhawk: Bird Assassin

Another fascinating bird that graces the Wey Valley is the almost sinister Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus). Quite why the fascination, given that this bird is a highly efficient assassin of other birds, is explained if you get the chance to see one in mid-action. A natural strategist, the Sparrowhawk will conceal itself out of sight of a group of sparrows or tits and calculate its approach before launching a high-speed and lethal attack. Once airborne the hawk will often fly low to the ground, typically using a hedge or thick vegetation as cover of its rapid approach, and then lock onto one member of the flock only becoming visible at the last possible moment. If the hapless target is not immediately caught it will be pursued relentlessly as it tries to duck and dive through the vegetation.

Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus)
Image from1903 encyclopedia
- in public domain

courtesy of RSPB

A small killing machine at only 12 – 15 ins (30-38cm), especially if compared to the Goshawk which is double its size, the Sparrowhawk’s under-plumage is a warm orange-brown and as with all birds of prey, the giveaway as to it’s profession are the powerful talons and the sharp curved beak. Not a bird to underestimate, especially if you’re a sparrow. Or a tit.

The Fall and Rise of the Woodlark

The woodlark (Lullula arborea) has suffered along the Wey Valley as the heathland upon which it depends has rapidly become depleted. However their numbers are again beginning to improve due to the efforts of environmental and wildlife groups.

The RSPB (1) owned nature reserve at Farnham Heath (GR: SU859433) just outside Farnham comprises of a mixture of heath and woodland and attracts a healthy variety of species including the woodlark.

Woodlark(Lullula arborea)
Image from Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Naumann 1905
- in public domain

courtesy of RSPB

The RSPB manager at the 400 acre reserve has reported increased sightings of the species which he says is better served by its German name - 'heather lark'.

"It’s a bizarre thing how the woodlark came by its name," said Mike Coates, RSPB reserve manager, "because the habitat it really doesn’t need is woodland. The German name for it – heather lark – is far more accurate."

His theory is that the English name arose from its habit of singing from a perch high in the tree tops dotted around heathland.

The Wey Valley was historically a woodlark stronghold because up to the 19th century it had large tracts of heathland, much of which has since been built over.

"We think of peat fires happening on the Hebrides, but in the heart of what is now the motorway commuter belt, they were still cutting turf off the heaths for fuel up until the Second World War," said Coates. "Woodlarks favour low tussocky vegetation. They prefer open spaces. They feed on the ground, nest on the ground and sometimes even sing on the ground."

But the 20th century saw wholesale destruction of heathland along the valley. This was not solely down to urbanisation but also included forestry plantation by the Forestry Commission who at the time wrongly deemed heathland as non-productive wasteland. The impact on woodlark numbers was devastating with the woodlark population down to less than 300 breeding pairs across the entire UK.

Increasing awareness by conservationists of the importance of heathland, not just to the woodlark but many other wildlife species too, has seen better heathland management and more sympathetic forestry management practices. These allow for the woodlark's need for large open tracts within plantations and consequently although the species is still rated as endangered there are now estimated to be 2,500 breeding pairs across the country.

In the Farnham Heath reserve RSPB have been clearfelling Scots Pines to provide open sandy spaces which have been colonised by heather.

"It's obvious that this must have been heath within the past 70 years because heath seeds in the ground will only remain viable that long," said Coates. "All we have done is felled trees and disturbed the ground. We haven't planted or sown new seeds. The seeds have been in the ground all that time, viable, alive, and just waiting for their chance."

The woodlark looks similar to the skylark but lacks the crest and has a white eye-stripe that meets in a V at the nape of the back of the head. The woodlark's song, which is sometimes performed at night, can be heard from early March until the middle of June.

(1) RSPB - Royal Society for Protection of Birdswas founded in 1889 and is a UK charity whose primary aim is to secure a healthy environment for birds. With a million members it is Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity.

Source: www.telegraph.co.uk 10th March 2007


Other Species

The local birding fraternity have also recorded sightings of the following common and not-so common birds along the Wey Valley over the last few years (from 2003). Not all are native to the region but include annual migrants and passing visitors.

  • barn swallow
  • Bewick's swan
  • blackbird
  • blackcap
  • black-headed gull
  • blue tit
  • bullfinch
  • Canada goose
  • carrion crow
  • chaffinch
  • coal tit
  • collared dove
  • common swift
  • common tern
  • cormorant
  • dunnock
  • Egyptian goose
  • feral pigeon
  • gadwal
  • goldcrest
  • goldfinch
  • great crested grebe
  • great spotted woodpecker
  • great tit
  • greenfinch
  • green woodpecker
  • grey heron
  • herring gull
  • house martin
  • house sparrow
  • kestrel
  • kingfisher
  • lapwing
  • lesser spotted woodpecker
  • linnet
  • long-tailed tit
  • magpie
  • mallard
  • mandarin duck
  • moorhen
  • mistle thrush
  • moorhen
  • mute swan
  • nuthatch
  • pheasant
  • pied wagtail
  • pochard
  • redpoll
  • reed bunting
  • reed warblers
  • robin
  • rook
  • sedge warbler
  • shoveler
  • song thrush
  • sparrow hawk
  • starling
  • stonechat
  • teal
  • tufted duck
  • water rails
  • whitethroat
  • willow warbler
  • winchat
  • wood pigeon
  • wood warbler
  • wren
  • yellowhammer
  • yellow wagtail

Common Kestrel
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Photo by Sannse - permission under
GNU Free Documentation License

courtesy of RSPB

Godalming Wetland Nature Reserve

At first sight it may not seem to be an idyllic location but the Godalming Wetland Nature Reserve (GR: SU994457) by the Godalming Sewage Treatment Works on Trunley Heath Road provides a quiet backwater for a great number of birds.

Bird-watching Hide at Godalming Wetland Nature Reserve

Supported by Thames Water and managed by the Unstead Bird and Wildlife Group the reserve, which is located on redundant grass plots once used to 'polish' final effluent before it was discharged into the river, allows observers to watch birdlife in all weathers from the comfort of a well-equipped custom-built birdwatching hide which can comfortably accommodate half a dozen people. The land was prepared for wildlife use during 1999 and was opened as a reserve in 2000.

82 species of birds were recorded in 2004 in the BTO-Hanson Business Bird Challenge (1). Regular residents and visitors to the reserve include:

  • Little Grebe
  • Sparrowhawk
  • Water Rail
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Mandarin
  • Jack Snipe
  • Shoveler
  • Snipe
  • Teal
  • Whitethroat
  • Garden warbler
  • Whinchat
  • Wheatear
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Green Sandpiper

Other wildlife has settled in the reserve including many insect species. Amongst their number are Holly Blue, Comma and Red Admiral butterflies, and Emperor Dragonfly and Broad-bodied Chaser.

Old effluent treatment plots at Godalming Wetland Nature Reserve

There are information boards at both ends of the long path from the road to the hide but unless you have permission to enter the hide (which is locked when not in use by the Wildlife Group) there is a very restricted view of the wetlands and no footpaths appear to be open to the public beyond (2008). The view from the narrow path is unfortunately completely restricted by vegetation.

Thames Water erroneously states on their website that there is a car park at the reserve when in fact the only possible parking is along the track to the treatment works. They also state that disabled access is possible as the access path is level, but be warned that this would not be suitable for a wheelchair given the encroachment of vegetation (2008).

(1) The British Trust for Ornithology-Business Bird Challenge is run every two years for companies that own and manage bird habitats. Over 100 sites across the UK take part every year where BTO and local birdwatchers undertake the survey.

Waterways Bird Surveys

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) started the Waterways Bird Survey as an initiative in 1974 to provide an annual census of birds and breeding birds along British rivers and canals. 100 plots are monitored for the main census each year by volunteers visiting nine times between March and July and all the waterside birds seen or heard are identified and logged over a two hour period. The breeding birds survey is limited to three site visits between April and June.

The Environment Agency undertake a wide ranging River Habitat Survey to monitor waterways for overall wildlife habitat assessments.

An excellent source of information on identification and behaviour can be found on the RSPB web site (www.rspb.org.uk/). As well as images, the RSPB also provide the opportunity for playing audio of bird calls and provide video footage too.

Common Swift
A common sight in summer along the Wey - Swift aerobatics
(Falco tinnunculus)
Photo by Tomasz Kuran - permission under
GNU Free Documentation License

courtesy of RSPB

Rare Dartford Warbler Threatened
by Housing Development

Property developers were forced to shelve plans to build 20,000 new homes across a 300 square mile expanse of lowland heath, including part of the Wey Valley (May 2006).

The Dartford warbler has hit the top of the list of rare birds in crisis since first attracting the concern of wildlife campaigners as long ago as the 1960s. At that point the bird's population had literally dropped to just a few breeding pairs.

Dartford Warbler
Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)
Illustration by QuiRoH - permission under
GNU Free Documentation License

courtesy of RSPB

The species has managed to recover but still remains on the RSPB's 'amber list' and continues to be threatened with extinction.

The Thames Basin Heaths on which they live and breed have been reduced to one-sixth of the area that they once covered due to building developments. The warbler thrives in gorse scrub and heather but suffers during cold winters when insect populations are particularly affected.

A new law introduced by the European Union in March 2006 effectively stopped the large scale development in its tracks. The law was proposed to particularly protect the Dartford warbler, together with the woodlark and nightjar. The local authorities affected, including those in the wey Valley through Surrey and Hampshire, responded by imposing an immediate moratorium on all large building projects within a cordon around the threatened habitats.

English Nature, the government's wildlife agency, says that a radical plan to adopt new open spaces to relieve pressure on the birds' habitats would provide a solution. SEE GUILDFORD EXAMPLE

The Independent 28th July 2006; www.independent.co.uk 2nd May 2006

A recent survey (January 2010) indicates that the Dartford warbler may have survived in the extreme wintry conditions far better than was originally feared. Confirmed sightings along the Thames Basin Heaths special protection area, with one breeding pair spotted in the Chobham site of special scientific interest.

"Following the cold weather in early 2009 which caused a 90% reduction in warbler numbers, there was concern the heavy snow in January (2010) might have had a similar impact, even to the point of eliminating the species from these former strongholds," said Carole Mortimer, Natural England conservation adviser. "The Dartford warbler is an important species on Surrey's heathlands and we will continue to work to ensure that suitable habitat for them. This species is on the edge of its natural range and is therefore at the mercy of the weather, so it is good to see the signs that the worst has not happened."

The warbler, which has also been recorded in the Surrey Hills and River Wey areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), has often got in the way of development plans and is regularly a thorn in the side of housing developers. Council planners rejected large-scale building plans if they and to encroach upon existing habitats.

"We are delighted to hear that some Dartford warbler's have hung on in heathland sites in Surrey," said Samantha Dawes, RSPB conservation manager however, the surviving Thames Basin Heaths birds are still in perilously low numbers. If these wonderful little birds are to remain on these heaths, it is more important than ever that people take care not to disturb them during the coming nesting season."

Surrey Advertiser 9th April 2010


Threatened Bird Sites

A survey released (May 2006) by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has highlighted ten major UK sites of national and international importance for their bird populations that face major dangers from development. The Wey Valley has areas of lowland heathlands that face the threat of encroachment by housing development. The RSPB is voicing concern that even wildlife using areas set up as nature reserves have no guarantee of protection when there are enormous pressures being placed on land needed to meet targets for housing provision.

"The pressure on wildlife is unrelenting," said the RSPB's director of conservation, Dr Mark Avery. "Some sites are threatened every few years. In such a crowded country we have to protect the wildlife hotspots. The government must do much more to recreate lost habitats. It is falling down on the promises it made to restore habitats on a grand scale."

The RSPB also has concerns that the UK's ministers are not working hard enough to stop European legislation from weakening site protection laws and to ensure that EU and domestic legislation designed to help and protect wildlife is implemented properly.

The lowland heathlands are remnants of once extensive expanses of heath and support populations of rare breeding birds including nightjars, woodlarks and Dartford warblers. The previous threats of heathland being lost to afforestation and agriculture is now being increased by the demand for new housing and associated recreational needs. The RSPB is pushing for solutions to be found for planning housing growth without threatening wildlife.

Secret Nature Reserves

Criss-crossing the valley are unofficial nature reserves that are home to a great variety of rare flora and fauna, and often their presence is flagged by a hovering bird of prey.

Busy road verges are perversely encouraging nature to thrive primarily because these roadside stretches are the least visited areas of land in the country. It's quite common to see for example a kestrel hovering over the stretch of the M25 that crosses the Wey near Byfleet in Surrey, and certainly along stretches of main road elsewhere in the valley. Nationally there are 65,000 acres of grassy verges alongside our roads, which is equivalent in area to the Isle of Wight.

Songbirds under Severe Threat

The Wey Valley like the rest of Britain is suffering from rapidly diminishing populations of some of our most popular birds. Song thrushes, yellow hammers, linnets, bullfinches and tree sparrows join ground-nesting birds such as the skylark, lapwing and curlew as once common birds that are now becoming much rarer to see.

The charity, SongBird Survival has been campaigning hard to raise the public's awareness as to the plight of these birds. The primary causes they cite are a loss of habitats associated with changes in agriculture and the cumulative effect of uncontrolled predation.

In the 1950s and 1960s songbird populations were healthy as landowners and land managers undertook careful management of predators by culling when they reached pest proportions and effectively ignoring them when they weren't being a nuisance.

The primary predators of songbirds are:

  • sparrowhawk
  • magpie
  • crow
  • fox
  • grey squirrel
  • badger
  • domestic & feral cats
  • mink

“Many factors have been blamed for the decline in our songbirds in recent years.The debate about raptors has raised the issue of predation but mammal predation had largely been overlooked,” said Professor Roy Brown, University of London. “I am not blaming the lazy, often overfed domestic cat so much as the deadly feral variety. Both cats and grey squirrels are very widespread and range over habitats from treetops to ground level.”

European Magpie
European Magpie (Pic pica)
Pre-1923 illustration released into public domain

courtesy of RSPB

This account by a birdwatcher of the predatory impact of single pairs of nesting magpies illustrates just how much at threat our songbirds are from predation.

"At one nest, 68 whole small birds were brought to the nest in six weeks, together with a variety of other vertebrates, including more than 40 voles (nearly all field voles) and 26 Apodemus mice. Minor elements included two harvestmice, a water vole, a mole and a variety of large insects.

The 68 small-bird whole corpses included 18 skylarks and 11 or 12 meadow pipits, four wheatears (all nearly-fledged young), three pied wagtails and one grey wagtail, a linnet, a blackbird and four song thrush chicks, a wren, and 17 hatchlings of golden plover, snipe and peewits.

At another nest more than 110 songbirds and other small passerines were brought to four young magpies in four weeks, among a variety of other food. How much meat is there on a wren, or even a thrush?

The magpies’ prey included 21 starlings (including young), 30 skylarks (mostly young), 27 meadow pipits, a corn bunting, a wheatear, a nestling kestrel, 34 finches (mostly chaffinches) and five nestling great tits."

The Cumberland News 6th May 2005

As agricultural techniques shifted to provide more intense farming methods the songbirds feeding areas and nest sites became overwhelmed, their welfare became threatened by the widespread use of pesticides and less control of predators became apparent.

The squeeze on habitats has been made by the removal of hedgerows, a major reduction of permanent pastures, the reclamation of waste and marsh lands, an increase in the proportion of winter crops that are sown in the autumn and an intensification of livestock production.

SongBird Survival do cite however the gains that have been made through an increasing number of farmers undertaking habitat friendly activity on their farms. Over the last decade 24,800 miles (40,000 km) of hedges in the UK have been reinstated. Large areas are being planted with trees, with over 87 million having been established since 1990. The farming community have also in many cases embraced land management schemes being championed by a number of organisations. These include LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Countryside Stewardship, the latter scheme now covering over a million hectares (2.47 m acres).

Their particular concern is over the destructive use of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals are subject to strict regulations and following the legislative withdrawal of compounds like DDT no longer impact directly on the birds physical health if the controls are followed by farmers directly. However the use of herbicides reduces the food supply this being particularly seeds from the weeds being controlled and the loss of insects.

“As a farmer I know that it is not just modern agricultural practices that are to blame. Habitat is actually improving with new agri-environment schemes along with increases in tree and hedge planting. We must look at all the possible causes of decline and that includes predation,” said Robert Middlemarch of SongBird Survival. “We have never subscribed to the popular view that predator and prey achieve a balance; that is pure wishful thinking. We realize that it will only be as a result of genuine scientific evidence that the government can be persuaded to take the necessary steps to restore our biodiversity in general and the population of our songbirds in particular."

SongBird Survival highlight another plight facing songbirds. Windows and patio doors form invisible barriers to birds in flight with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) estimating that of the 100 million birds that collide with windows annually over 33 million die of their injuries.

So what can we do to help our songbirds? Actively supporting organisations that are concerned with birds and their habitats will go a long way but so will thinking about making your garden more bird-friendly. The trend has been to formalise gardens and eliminate cover and foliage for the birds whilst nesting and the insects they feed on. By reversing this trend and providing a good natural habitat you will start to see a return of your favourite songbirds. Sensible feeding of quality bird feeds in predator-free situations (for example well out of the reach of cats) will also provide year-round support.

Rare Bird Habitats under
Pressure in Guildford Borough

English Nature has released a plan (July 2006) to try and defuse a deadlock between Guildford Borough Council, new housing developers and the Government who are threatening to withdraw funds for affordable housing if their deadline is not met.

The plan looks at ways of new housing being able to be built within the 5km planning exclusion zone protecting the six Special Protection Areas (SPA) in place in the borough. The SPAs are there to protect rare birds including the Dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar. MORE HERE

Woodlark (Lullula arborea)
Image from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas 1905
- in public domain

Wey Valley Artist's Bird Collection

Hascombe (Godalming) artist Archibald Thorburn (1860 - 1935), who lived in the village for 30 years, is widely regarded as one of Britain's greatest ornithological artists.

An auction by Sotheby's (August 2006) raised £276,000 when 23 of Thorburn's watercolours went under the hammer. One picture, Winter's Sunset, Pheasants in the Snow sold for £66,000. Two pictures from the collection failed to attract any bids.

"Here at High Leybourne (Hascombe) he was to spend the rest of his life working quietly yet diligently amid the rolling countryside he grew to love so much. It proved an idyllic setting for such a shy and retiring painter." John Southern Thorburn's Birds and Mammals 1986

Western treagopan by Archibald Thorburn
Western Tragopan by Archibald Thorburn (1918)
(not in auction)
image in public domain

The artist so disliked uninvited company that he had an escape door installed in his studio at what his biographer described as a 'substantial residence' so that he could escape any visitors by disappearing into his large garden. Thorburn also disliked motor cars and completely distrusted electricity and so avoided using both at all costs. He used to travel locally by pony and trap.

At the age of 20 Thorburn already had had work accepted by the Royal Academy in London, and in 1887 his reputation in ornithological illustration was secured when he was commissioned to provide illustrations for Lord Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles. 268 of his watercolours were published in the book. Thorburn was also commissioned to paint miniature portraits of Queen Victoria and her family.

Garden Feeding Blamed
for Killing Birds

All across the Valley bird lovers routinely feed the birds visiting their garden. This act of kindness it appears has a hidden danger as the birds feeding from garden bird tables are prone to catching a deadly parasitic disease.

Greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches and house sparrows are among the species being infected by a disease which was once the preserve of doves and pigeons.

The disease is caused by the trichomonas parasite which triggers infections in the throat and gut. The result is birds have difficulty in swallowing and their breathing can be severely affected. Emaciation through lack of feeding follows and eventually death.

The escalation of the disease and spread to other species has come about because of the unusually close contact at bird tables which would not normally happen in the wild.

The Independent 10th October 2006

Wey Valley Birdwatch

2007 Birdwatch

Parts of Surrey including the Wey Valley are some of the few areas in the country where ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) can be regularly seen visiting garden bird feeders. Estimated to have a population of over 30,000 countrywide these exotic birds are going from strength to strength.

Ring-necked Parakeet
Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri)
Photo by Shiva Shankar
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike

The fortunes of this species together with the decline of others was the focus of this year's (January 2007) Garden BirdWatch Survey coordinated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and which is the world's biggest bird survey.

In 2006 over 460,000 people identified and counted the birds they saw in their gardens and submitted their results. The survey provides the RSPB with a snapshot of the winter population of the UK's birds and enables scientists to build up a pattern of bird numbers to allow bird conservation work to be prioritised.

The survey has been instrumental in revealing the huge decline in some of the Valley's most familiar birds including house sparrows (declined by 52% since 1979) and starlings (72%).

The results (March 2007) of Garden Birdwatch Survey, generated nationally by over 10,000 volunteers, has placed the blue tit as the most common bird found in Surrey gardens. 3.24 blue tits per hour on average make a visit. The next most regular is the starling (2.65) and house sparrows (2.46).

The results have provided the Society with a little comfort that the decline of some species appears to have slowed.

"The overall number of birds in Surrey's gardens has dropped, but not much at all," said Adrian Thomas, RSPB spokesman. "It was a fantastic autumn and winter - there were still lots of birds using gardens."

The report that wood pigeons are thriving, registering a 50% increase on 2001 results, has provided good news.

"We don't tend to get sudden climbers, but we are seeing a bird adapt its lifestyle to be more comfortable within a garden environment," said Thomas. "They are now quite happy sitting 10ft above your head just cooing away."

The top species were:

  1. blue tit
  2. starling
  3. house sparrow
  4. woodpigeon
  5. blackbird
  6. collared dove
  7. chaffinch
  8. robin
  9. magpie
  10. great tit
  11. goldfinch
  12. greenfinch
  13. dunnock
  14. carrion crow

Surrey Advertiser 30th March 2007

2008 Garden Birdwatch

The RSPB released the findings of the 2008 survey (March 2008) which confirms the serious decline in common garden species. The survey, completed by over 10,000 bird enthusiasts in Surrey, has shown that the average number of birds of any species has declined by a fifth since 2004.

The major concern is over sparrows which are fewer in number in Surrey than the national average.

"It really is a great concern. It could be for a number of factors, we've got changes in temperatures, it could also be because of a loss of habitat," said Hester Phillips of the RSPB. House sparrows for example tend to nest in bushes and trees, if they can't nest in those their numbers will decline. This is why we are asking Surrey residents to give wildlife a helping hand, whether they have tiny balconies or gigantic country gardens, everyone can help by getting a few window boxes, by having a water feature or growing different lengths of grass, which all encourage birds."

Over the last decade house sparrows, blackbirds and starlings have all decreased significantly. It's not all bad news though as the blue tit seems to be almost holding its own with only a slight decline in numbers from 2007, and four species of finches - siskins, redpolls, goldfinches and bramblings - are now a common sight in Surrey gardens.

Surrey Advertiser 28th March 2008

2009 Garden Birdwatch

The 2009 Garden Birdwatch survey results released in March show that in Surrey blue tits and great tits are the only species to have increased in number. The house sparrow, blackbird and starling continue to be in steep decline.

“We are still looking at a picture of long-term decline, but clearly some birds are doing better than others,” said Paul Outhwaite from the RSPB who run the survey. “The fact that some have gone up is obviously very encouraging and shows that people might be taking more care of the in their gardens. Surrey always seems to buck the national trend. We need to continue to monitor these rises and declines, and particular those going down. The more people taking part in surveys such as this the more likely we are going to spot significant changes.”

The number of blue tits increased from an average of 2.8 to 3.0 per garden. The wood pigeon replaced the starling in second place with an average of 2.7, with an average of 2.0 for blackbirds. House sparrows and starlings came fourth and fifth in the top ten. However their numbers have declined from an average of nine starlings and five house sparrows in 1991.
14,000 Surrey residents took part in the 2009 survey which was conducted over two days in January. 2,100 were in Guildford, up a third on the previous year.

Surrey Advertiser 27th March 2009

Increased Ploughing
Endangers Valley Birdlife

Following the lifting of restrictions by the European Commission the RSPB has highlighted the risk to birds and other wildlife as farmers in the valley increase the extent of land they plough.

The restrictions were originally imposed to help limit agricultural output and compensated farmers to provide set-aside land where no crops were planted.

Lapwings and skylarks were among other bird species that used this land for nesting and foraging. Skylark numbers have declined by 30% in the region in the last 30 years, with corn buntings and lapwings by 50%. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has estimated that this loss of set-aside land will reduce the availability of fallow land for birds by 70%.

"It's got the potential to affect any intensively farmed land and there's quite a bit around the Guildford area," said a RSPB spokeswoman. "Despite repeated efforts from Surrey farmers to manage their land for wildlife, economic constraints mean many simply can't afford to now set-aside has been suspended. Farmland birds are in dire straits and this shocking scale of habitat loss is a further blow to these precious birds."

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
Photo by Daniel Pettersson
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike

Local farmers however feel that the effect on wildlife of the change in set-aside is being exaggerated.

"Farmers are conservationists as well," said Mr Giffin, an East Surrey farmer. "There's an enormous amount of work that has gone on. Farmers are very concerned about the environment and they are not going to go back to ploughing every last acre. We have just taken some set-aside out and traded it off with conservation projects, which will deliver far more than leaving land redundant."

Surrey Advertiser 8th February 2008

Wey Heron Dies
on Angler's Line

A heron was found in a distressed state at Guildford Cricket Club (March 2008) and having been attended to by the Leatherhead-based Wildlife Aid had to be put-down.

Grey Heron
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Photo by Pschemp Permission by GNU Free Documentation License

The bird was entangled with fishing line that was wrapped around its legs and wings and had endured considerable injury whilst trying to free itself. The heron had one fishing hook from the line embedded in its thigh and another in its ankle. A fishing float with a three-pronged barbed metal hook had also become entangled within the stricken bird's feathers.

"This heron has suffered terribly at the hands of man's carelessness," said Wildlife Aid veterinary nurse Hazel Taylor. "We see many injuries which are caused by fishing hooks and tackle, often with water birds swallowing hooks which then get lodged in their throats, ultimately cuasing death by starvation, as they cannot feed any longer. Wildlife Aid urge all fishermen to act responsibly in the management of their lines, hooks and floats and not to endanger the lives of innocent creatures through their own negligence."

Surrey Advertiser 7th March 2008

Woodland and Farmland
Bird Numbers Plummeting

The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) has released details (May 2008) of a study on bird trends around the country. The report is especially worrying as it clearly illustrates the decline in Surrey of woodland birds, this in the county with the highest density of trees in England. Especially of concern are the willow warbler and spotted flycatcher whose numbers have decreased by more than 50% in less than 15 years.

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)
Illustration from Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (1905)
Image in public domain

Over the same period 12 species of farmland birds have also seen a significant decrease with farmland birds found in 34% of Surrey, over 20% less than any other county in the survey. The worst affected species are grey partridge, turtle dove and corn bunting, all of which have declined by more than 50%.

Corn Bunting
Corn Bunting (Phylloscopus trochilus)
Illustration by Ferdinand von Wright (1822 - 1906)
Image in public domain

The decline in woodland and farmland species equates to a rate of three times the national decline of 7% since 1994 and represents the worst of any region. The South East showed a total of 37 species in decline with 28 species showing an increase. The buzzard showed a seven-fold increase.

Common Buzzard
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
Photo by Marek Szczepanek
Permission through GNU free Documentation License

"Defra's findings are terrible news for the South East's birds," said RSPB South East conservation manager Steve Gilbert. "Despite being the most densely wooded region in England and having around 50% farmland, numbers of birds associated with these habitats are plummeting."

The decline has been directly influenced by new farming practices including the use of new fertilisers which have affected insect numbers, climate change and loss of land to development.

"With climate change we can't pin it down to anything specific, but warmer, wetter weather can have an impact on the amount of insects that are around," said a spokesman for RSPB South East region. "Farmland birds are ground nesting and tiny changes like getting rid of just a small grass border can affect them. The reasons behind the declines are complex but many farmers, landowners and individuals are already working hard to help those birds in the region."

Surrey Advertiser 30th May 2008

Increased Threat to Protected Birds

Initial results released (June 2009) from a wildlife survey conducted by the RSPB earlier in 2009 indicate that harsh weather conditions, particularly February's cold snap, have had an effect on the number of heathland birds in Surrey and the Wey Valley. Especially of concern is the decrease by up to 90% of numbers of Dartford warblers. The Wey Valley falls within parts of the Thames Basin Heaths and Wealden Heaths which provide the third and fourth largest breeding grounds for the Dartford warblers. Recently the birds, which are classed as near threatened - one step below extinction - had fared better in the county because of the successful restoration of some heathland.

"Historically, Dartford warblers have always suffered in hard winters," said John Eyre, an ornithologist volunteer for the RSPB. "They were discovered in this country in the early 1800s and as the weather has ameliorated the numbers have gone up and down. As people we cannot switch the weather on and off and there is nothing we can do to prevent any changes. [However] by putting tens of thousands of new homes in close proximity you're bringing three times as many people. All these people will bring dogs and children and they will require areas of recreation."

"The impact of this winter's snow shows what a fine balance there is for these birds between success and failure," said Sam Dawes RSPB South East. "Climate change may well be causing the milder winters and this seems to benefit the country's Dartford warblers, but it is also throwing increasingly turbulent weather patterns our way. This includes sudden cold snaps and cool, wet springs, which is bad news for the species."

Full results are due to be released in the autumn.

Surrey Advertiser 3rd July 2009

Birds of Prey
Safe Haven

The latest report issued by the RSPB (September 2010) into incidents of crimes against birds of prey has revealed that Surrey had only one reported offence against birds of prey during 2009 with an additional two logged against other wild birds.

Throughout the South East region the RSPB received reports of 47 incidents of wild bird crime occurring in 2009, of which 25 were related to birds of prey.

"Thanks to conservation efforts we have seen numbers of birds of prey, such as the red kite and buzzards, increasing in the region," said Sophie McCallum, RSPB South East. "As we see the return of these birds, we need to ensure that they have the necessary protection. Earlier this year the former wildlife Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, was one of more than 210,000 people to sign a pledge to protect birds of prey. This is a powerful voice and we will not rest until their cries have been heard by government." Surrey Advertiser 17th September 2010








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