Thursley Common is a special habitat which is home to a host of specialised plants, insects and birds. At first sight the sandy heathland with scattered stands of trees and the low lying bogs can seem empty of life, but stand still for a few minutes, or look down closely near where you’re standing, or look up to the skies or just listen and its secrets start to reveal themselves.
The weather promised to be perfect for this site: sunny but not too hot. In addition, over the past few days it had been raining quite heavily so the low lying bog was well filled and there were plenty of ditches full of water. Ideal conditions for dragonflies and damselflies and these in turn ideal for that aerial master the hobby. So it was that within a few minutes of walking onto the heath near the edge of the low-lying bog we had one, two and eventually three hobbies dashing low across the water, capturing and eating their prey in flight, before perching in one of the many ‘dead’ trees. Their displays are quite mesmerizing and there were several groups of people on the boardwalks who had come to witness these masters of the air.
But the hobbies did not have all our attention, there were buzzards soaring on the thermals, a kestrel hovering over the drier heathland, swallows sweeping across the water’s surface and, most enchanting of all, were a pair of nesting curlew, with their aerial display and their almost haunting piping song which evoked a feeling that we were much further north. The day had clearly gotten off to a great start!
One of the more abundant birds on Thursley common are the stonechats, and the striking male birds with their black head, white collar and orange breast were constantly seeking our attention, standing on top of small shrubby bushes and giving that ‘check, check’ call, which does indeed resemble two stones being stuck together. Here on the common, it is always worth scanning behind the stonechats as Dartford warblers often associate with them, looking for insects that the stonechats disturb. However, since the large fire in 2011, which decimated the local Dartford warbler population and their habitat, we have not managed to see Dartfords on our two previous trips, so we had our fingers crossed that this time we would be lucky.
Moving across the boardwalk we observed sundews (like tiny Venus fly traps) growing at the edges of the bog, a red-eyed damselfly and chaser dragonflies – which would not rest (and so proved difficult to firmly identify) and common lizards basking in the sun on the boardwalk itself.
In the stand of trees that are situated in the middle of the bog, we found chiffchaff, linnet and goldfinch. Coming off the boardwalk and turning left we headed to an area that ‘usually’ holds woodlark, but this time it was a family of stonechats that got our attention (again). Slightly further on and a “sweet” chaffinch song was heard followed by a flash of a red tail. Redstart! We got great views as he darted back and forth between the trees. Then flying in low, two small brown birds – did they have short tails? Quickly locating them as they moved through the undergrowth and yes that characteristic eye strip that meets at the back of the neck in a ‘V’ shape cliched it – we had found woodlark. So that was three out of the four ‘promised’ special birds seen and all before lunch.
Like the skylark singing its heart out above us, our lunch was calling, but a chance conversation with a local resident, saw us make a detour. At the spot described we could hear its short, slightly scratchy whitethroat-like song, but the bird remained out of sight. Was that going to be our lot? We walked further up the heath and then ‘ace spotter’ Andy, caught a glimpse of a dark long tailed bird – and yes near some stonechats. It too was elusive, but eventually we got enough glimpses of it to know this was a Dartford warbler. All four ‘target’ birds found and now a somewhat later lunch was definitely calling!
As a leader what more could I offer I was asked. As it was the most memorable sighting of the day was still to come. We sat down to our lunch in a meadow surrounded by deciduous trees. But we had hardly begun to eat than a cuckoo landed no more than 50 metres away on what clearly was his favourite perch – a broken old branch lying on the ground. We all managed to take some great photos. He fly back to ‘his’ tree, did some ‘cuckooing’ and flew back to his perch. And then, behind us we heard a loud bubbling call – it was a female cuckoo, and shortly afterwards she flew out in front of us and the male eagerly followed off into the woods. A few minutes later, he perched directly above us looking very pleased with himself, (if it is possible for a cuckoo to have an expression) .
(Reading other reports – I believe this was the ‘Thursley’ cuckoo who is clearly a well known character!). While we watching the cuckoo we had lovely views of more woodlarks behind him and the star butterfly of the day – a clouded yellow – which had Peter bounding after it across the meadow – another sight to remember! 😉
We gradually made our way back across the heath, mounting one of the higher vantage points and started an encore of sightings – curlew, hobby, redstart together with a few firsts for me this year willow warbler with their lovely trilling song descending through the scales; another bird now more easier found in Scotland than down in the south. Finishing off the day with goldcrest and coal tit, again specialists of the conifer trees of the area, we returned to our cars tired but very happy.
To see more photographs taken at Thursley, please see the earlier ‘taster’ post by Sue.
If you have been inspired to come out and see for yourself some of the great birds and other wildlife Kent and the nearby counties have to offer, why not join us on one of our next trips: Swanscombe marshes (Tuesday 23 May), Broadwater Warren RSPB (Sunday 4 June) and our Minsmere coach trip on Saturday 17 June. You’d be made very welcome.