Crane Spotter – September 2016 – When Autumn Gales Create a Birding Storm

Black-throated Diver

When the autumn gales and bird migration kick in then it is worth watching out for emergency avian landings. strange things can-and do- happen.

Last month,  in my ‘Welcome to Cranleigh-on-Sea’ article, we looked  at some of the seabirds who are regular  or rare visitors to Cranleigh and the surrounding villages.

Many  of  these might be  expected – but the  ones featuring in my  column  this  month  certainly  were not.

Take the experience of Cranleigh and District Conservation Volunteers’ stalwart  Tony Fox, for example, who was walking south of Cranleigh on October 26th, 1988,  following gales.

What should  greet  him in a maize stubble  field near Masser’s  Wood  but  a  .  .  .  Black-throated Diver! Cranleigh’s one and only record.  I don’t know who was more stunned  – him or the bird.

It was thought to have hit overhead wires  but was still strong  enough to chase and attack  the finder – and his large dog. A return visit to capture  the bird later in the morning proved  fruitless  until it was relocated in a neighbouring field of long grass after a tenacious hour-long search.

Then it attacked local voluntary RSPB warden  Peter Grundy  before  being  caught  in a blanket  and taken to a local vet for a check-up.

Thankfully it was pronounced fit, released on a Surrey lake, and appeared in good  health  the next day when I checked it out.

The Black-throated Diver,  which  breeds in Scandinavia  and  Scotland, was not located again  so  let’s hope it found its way back  to sea or wherever it was trying to get to before  the winds had their way.

Much smaller,  but just as surprising  to the finders, were Petrels. A Storm Petrel is a dainty and far-travelling seabird, just 16cm  long. They sometimes follow ships  but even then can  look like specks to the naked eye. Most people who like to see birds have never  encountered one.

Yet a Storm Petrel made  it to Cranleigh on September 10 1986  – although  it got no further. It was sadly found dead  by Peter Curtis  and was only the fourth county record.  There was a 13 year  wait for the next one, found by former Cranleigh birder Dave Harris on  a  reservoir at  Walton-on-Thames. This  time  it was a live record.

I have,  unsurprisingly, never  managed to see  the slightly bigger  fork-tailed Leach’s Petrel in Surrey so it still grates that there have been three local records. One  of these hard-to-see-even-at-sea species was picked up dead  in Cranleigh on November 29 1881 and  recorded in The Field  by a Mr Townsend (December 3 1881  p 825).

In 1999  I wrote about a previously unpublished record  concerning a dead  Leach’s Petrel shown  to my friend Murray Hook in the Cranleigh Cricket Club pavilion by the groundsman Bill Coles. This  followed gales in the ‘late 1940s-1950’. The ground was prone to notorious flooding and, it seems, the bird may have mistaken the giant puddle for a lake. Howzat!

The third Leach’s Petrel, was found alive in Cranleigh  on October  31  1952. This  followed  gales resulting in a remarkable wreck  of an incredible  6,700 birds in Britain that year. Four landed  in Surrey.

Auks, total seabirds you might think, have also made it to the village following storms. There are  two records  of Razorbill. One in the Charterhouse Collection in the 19th century was received from Cranleigh. Another  specimen was also  shot  near  the  village and ended up in a collection  built up by William Stafford, in Godalming.

In those  days guns  were  your  binoculars  and  the saying went: ‘What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.’

Another  species prone to get wrecked after a storm is  the  Little Auk.  And,  yes, there  is  a  local  record. This  comes from the archives of the great  Sir John Bucknill,  who wrote The Birds  of Surrey in 1900. He  obtained  a  specimen he  considered to be  one of four collected by William Stafford  over  a 40 year span  in the  late  1800s. It was sold  independently and ‘stated  on the case label  to have been found at Cranleigh.’ No date is given.

Storms may  come  and storms  may  go – and when they do then be alert for what they bring down with them. It’s not just trees.

There have not been any recent  post-storm  rarity sightings around here to my knowledge. I think there should  have been. But it seems people are  just not out there  looking, and  observing, like they  were  in days gone  by.

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