Dick Fock’s Common – Wednesday 20th March 2024

Slowly, over a period of thirty minutes or so leading up to the advertised meeting time of 10.00am, cars arrived at the entrance to Effingham Forest, until there were thirteen participants; a good turn out for a midweek outing. Three or four other vehicles were already there, making parking a little tricky balancing the need to keep the forest entrance accessible and to avoid the gaping muddy hollows where the tarmac fell away.

There was a constant murmur of bird call and song deeper into the woods and in the tree tops, predominantly of the more common forest species, such as blackbird, blue, coal and great tits, robins and the occasional efforts of a rather under-performing song thrush. But the singing of chiffchaffs was particularly noticeable, presumably fairly recent arrivals keen to make their presence common knowledge.

A foray down the track by those arriving first had spotted the only jay of the day.

Inevitably with a total of thirteen we began to separate into smaller groups as we strolled along the forest track, meaning we did not all see or hear the same birds. One group were particularly fortunate to witness a good sized flock of siskin fly across. Similarly, the difficult-to-catch call of the goldcrest would not be heard by all.

There was already one “regular” birder at the viewpoint. (Some of the regulars, at this time of the year, come here three or four times a week, to spend many hours.) The viewpoint is basically just a small, scrubby, semi-clearing offering views across, and to some extent down, the valley, and with just about enough space for our party to find somewhere to stand. However, as a number of recently planted saplings are now establishing themselves this is unlikely to remain a practical location for much longer.

From the viewpoint by John Birkett

Our “regular” had already had a goshawk, crossbills and hawfinch.

It was not long before we were aware of the first of a number of raptors high above, some very high and distant. These initial ones were common buzzards, but before long our first goshawk came soaring from left to right above the trees opposite. Thanks in part to help from the local experts, (by now three) and managing to get a scope or two on target, over the next couple of hours there would be two buzzards, then a buzzard and a red kite, then another goshawk, perhaps with a buzzard. At one point there was a pair (probably) of buzzards to the left and then another pair to the right. A male goshawk circled for a while, as if trying to tempt a female to join him, and later a (somewhat larger) female appeared alone. Unfortunately, we did not witness any actual joint display activity.

Buzzard by Steve Grayson
Goshawk watching by John Birkett

Once again, the weather defied the forecasts, but this time to our benefit, with the cloud breaking and increasing areas of blue sky, and warm sunshine. This brought out a number of brimstone butterflies and bumblebees. Insect levels were generally low, although we spotted a chiffchaff leap from a high branch to snap at one as if it were a flycatcher.

It was decided we should have lunch here before moving on, during which a sparrowhawk darted past before us at quite close range.

The plan was to follow the track to the east, then through a small wood and head down towards Sheepwalk Lane. Marsh tits are quite common in Effingham Forest but it was only now that we began to encounter them. Here also we spotted a pair of treecreepers visiting a hole in a slender tree, and watched them for a while.

Treecreeper by Steve Grayson

The stretch of woodland proved tricky thanks to thick black mud, churned into a deep paste by horse’s hooves. As we picked our way carefully we could still enjoy a variety of bird song, including more marsh tits. Here we met two women, with two very small dogs which seemed particularly interested in us. Remarkably the dogs appeared immaculately clean, as if they had been spirited there by magic. (Apart from two mountain bike riders this was our only encounter during our walk.)

From the wood it is just a short distance to Sheepwalk Lane and the cottage which is well known for  its very active bird feeders. There only seemed to be blue tits (lots of them) so we did not delay long.

This is an area where we had hoped to find bramblings, and although bird activity was in general clearly higher here, (and increased numbers of chaffinches gave us hope), none were to be found There were many small birds in the tree tops, but most appeared to be blue tits taking a rest from the feeders, although there was also a couple of nuthatches plus wrens, robins etc. Still wishing for bramblings we wandered a little further down the lane before turning back, with the most adventurous being rewarded with a few more siskin. Then, glancing up, a buzzard was seen which  began circling in the gap above our heads, by some degree the closest we had been to any of the  large raptors all day.

The forest ahead of us (towards Oaken Grove) looked promising so we decided to take two sides of a triangle which would bring us to the wood mill at the end of Honeysuckle Bottom We soon heard the first of two (we think) ravens.

By way of variety the mud here was rather browner and less persistent, (we were trying to look on the bright side) although a couple of fallen trees added extra complexity.

A short tea and coffee break was taken by some stacked logs, and almost immediately we picked up – almost a sense rather than a clear sound – of a firecrest. A small bird was dodging through the holly as if staking us out, and eventually it appeared long enough to be identified as the source.

A little further, and to the delight of those who had previously missed the siskin, a good number of them were seen feeding high in a larch, with one male in particular shining bright yellow while the sun briefly illuminated it.

A little further again and it was firecrest time once more, now at least two, and more prominent than before. Unfortunately, from a photography point of view, they stayed mainly just too high in the branches to get proper shots of their distinctive heads, and I had to be satisfied by attempts at chins and bellies.

Firecrest by Steve Grayson

A sharp call to the side, and then a series of calls, at first sounding rather like a green woodpecker. But a repeat performance confirmed a nearby goshawk, probably perched in tree, and very much more aware of our location than we were of its.

Finally we reached the end of the first side of the triangle and after a bit of uncertainty headed for the wood mill. We had been gradually gaining height, so the next leg was downhill. Although this stretch was mainly drier it was rather rocky in places, and it could be seen that in times of heavy rain this would be a stream rather than a path. Continuous downhill walking, even relatively gradual, can put a lot of stress on susceptible knees, and some of us were beginning to suffer the consequences. As much effort was being given to where to put one’s feet as to what was happening in the trees.

So a cunning plan was evolved whereby part of the group would wait at the wood mill (the first place which was accessible by motor vehicle) with all the scopes and heavier bags, while the rest would make for the car park to bring enough cars back to collect everyone, then ferrying back once more to pick up the remaining cars. Thus we would have our own mini, land based, re-enactment of the Dunkirk evacuation.

The initial part of the trek to the car park was a pleasant stroll along the narrow country lane, but where the path turns off up the hill (almost heading towards the view point again) was a combination of our steepest climb yet and some of the worst mud and bog. Nevertheless, we finally made it and were able to take the cars back as planned.

I was surprised to see that according to my mobile phone Fit app we had made fewer steps, and covered considerably less mileage (even including the walk from the wood mill) than we had on the previous Saturday at Cliff Pools. The mud and the uphill and downhill stretches are significantly more consequential.

Once more at the wood mill it was realised that only one car needed to head back to the car park while the others could go directly back towards Croydon. A somewhat unusual end to the day, although we had encountered goshawk, crossbill and firecrest among others. The hawfinches will have to wait for another time.

Species lists

Birds. We ended up having seen or heard 32 species of bird, 13 of which were new for the year* taking total for 2024 to 80:

Pheasant, Stock Dove, Woodpigeon, Sparrowhawk, Goshawk*, Red Kite*, Buzzard, Great Spotted Woodpecker*, Jay*, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Raven*, Coal Tit*, Marsh Tit*, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Chiffchaff, Firecrest*, Goldcrest*, Wren, Nuthatch *, Treecreeper*, Song Thrush*, Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Common Crossbill*, Siskin

Mammals 1 Species

Roe Deer

Butterflies 1 Species

Brimstone, plus a dark butterfly seen but not identified

Others:

Buff-tailed bumblebee