Azores High?

Possibly. I was driving back from a meeting in St Neots when, at about 4 pm, the phone buzzed and a tweet from Steve Fisher flashed up: Azorean type ad layby islands stanwick @bonxie #northantsbirds By good fortune I was just turning on to the A45 at Higham Ferrers …

Still under observation by Steve, accompanied by Bob Webster, the bird was on the nearest part of the island to the causeway which divides the A45 Lay-by Pit. Although largely against the light, and hampered by the blustery wind, I was able to shoot some video through my scope during the time the bird was present. At about 4.20 pm it flew off north over the willow scrub and appeared to be heading toward the main lake, where large gulls regularly gather in the late afternoon prior to roosting elsewhere. A quick walk round to the lake drew a blank. The gull was nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first adult gull showing characteristics of the altlantis race of Yellow-legged Gull. There have been two before – both at Stanwick GP. Remember the last one from September 2013? See here for a discussion on ID features of that bird and UK status and some thoughts. Adult 'Azorean' Gull, Stanwick GP, 21st October 2014Today’s individual appears almost, if not completely, identical although this time we have a clear view of the legs, which are a deep, rich ochre, not bright yellow.

Adult 'Azorean' Gull, Stanwick GP, 21st October 2014Adult 'Azorean' Gull, Stanwick GP, 21st October 2014And there’s that broad, dark grey band on the underside of the secondaries extending on to the primaries again. Is that significant? Is it also coincidence that individuals turning up here also have that striking bill pattern of largely ‘dirty’ dull base contrasting strongly with extensive and prominent orange gonys spot, sandwiched between blackish subterminal band and yellow tip? What are these birds if they are not Azorean Gulls … ? Comments welcomed.

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The Week in Focus: 11th to 17th October 2014

Atlantic low pressure systems shaped the weather for the week, a particularly deep low crossing the UK on 13th, bringing with it strong north-easterly winds and rain and displaced seabirds inland in several counties. Northamptonshire’s share was, as usual, meagre compared to neighbouring counties, nevertheless this was arguably the most exciting week of autumn so far.

Aside from the lingering escapes and ferals – specifically Cackling Goose still at Stanford Res on 11th, the two Barnacle Geese still at Hollowell Res all week and the female Wood Duck coming out of the woodwork (where else) on the River Nene in downtown Northampton on 14th, the number of wildfowl remained unremarkable. On 15th-17th the two Ruddy Shelducks were again at Pitsford Res, where sixteen Pintails were counted on 11th and 25 Red-crested Pochards were present the following day. The count for the last species also reached double figures at Stanford Res with ten (eight drakes) on 11th.

An immature Gannet at Pitsford Res on 14th was the chief prize delivered by the previous day’s low pressure system, although it remained on site for little more than one hour after its discovery.

Second calendar year Gannet, Pitsford Res, 14th October 2014 (Dave Jackson)

Second calendar year Gannet, Pitsford Res, 14th October 2014 (Dave Jackson)

The same locality collected yet another Great White Egret – a colour-ringed individual from France – bringing the total there to three from 11th to at least 15th, with singles still at Thrapston GP on 12th and Summer Leys LNR on 14th. Following the two Black-necked Grebes at Pitsford Res last week, two, perhaps the same, were discovered at Thrapston GP on 11th and remained all week.

An immature Merlin flew over Boddington Res on 16th, two Peregrines were at Rushden on 11th and 13th and singles were seen at Polebrook AF on 12th, over Northampton on 14th and at Hollowell Res on 17th.

Passage waders enjoyed a resurgence this week. Single Golden Plovers appeared at Stanford Res on 11th and Boddington Res on 14th with ten over Blueberry Farm, Maidwell on 12th and 2 at Hollowell Res on 13th, although two hundred at Harrington AF on 11th are presumably set to winter in the area. A Grey Plover visited Thrapston GP on 14th and a Dunlin appeared at Summer Leys LNR on 12th and 13th, with two more visiting Hollowell Res on the second of these two dates. Hollowell also produced a Little Stint on 14th as well as the first of this week’s storm-driven Grey Phalaropes briefly on 13th, which was quickly followed by two more equally briefly at Pitsford Res the following day. One of these – or perhaps a different individual – was relocated at the southern end there on 15th. A dapper first-winter, it initially showed well and remained until the week’s end, becoming increasingly elusive during its stay.

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 16th October 2014 (Clive Bowley)

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 16th October 2014 (Clive Bowley)

Late Common Sandpipers visited Stanford Res on 11th and Boddington Res on 16th, with 2 there on 17th, while a single Green Sandpiper remained at Pitsford Res to 17th and four were at Ravensthorpe Res on the same date. Spotted Redshanks continue to remain scarce migrants in Northants and the one which visited Sywell CP for minutes on 14th didn’t do anything to reverse its current status while, on the following day, a Redshank and two Greenshanks visited Pitsford Res and another Greenshank was at Ravensthorpe Res from 15th until 17th.    A Woodcock – perhaps the first of the many continental migrants – was at Harrington AF on 15th and single Common Snipe were at Stanford Res on 11th and Boddington Res on 16th with twelve at the latter site on 17th.

Lone, straggler terns are often encountered inland in late autumn so a juvenile Arctic Tern at Thrapston GP on 12th was not unusual so neither was the juvenile Common Tern seen there over the following two days … More unusual – although not entirely unexpected – was one of the largest flocks of Kittiwakes in the county for many years, in the wet and windy conditions at Pitsford Res on the evening of 13th; another visited Summer Leys LNR during the afternoon on the same date. Thrapston GP produced a juvenile Little Gull, an adult Mediterranean Gull and a second-winter Caspian Gull the following day, at which time a first-winter Mediterranean Gull was at Pitsford Res. The usual single, lingering adult Yellow-legged Gulls remained at Pitsford Res, Hollowell Res and Ravensthorpe Res and one visited Boddington Res on 17th, although three adults were present at the first of these four sites on 14th.

Site-faithful Short-eared Owls returned to Blueberry Farm, Maidwell from 10th with two there on 12th and singles on 14th and 16th, the southernmost set-aside fields having consistently held varying numbers of this species in recent winters. For the second year running, an October Hoopoe was found in Northants, this time visiting a garden near Towcester Racecourse only briefly on 13th. While two Ring-necked Parakeets were seen flying over Eastfield, Northampton on 14th, late news emerged of a ‘colony’ consisting of three nest-holes in trees at a locality in south Northants. This species is still on the up in the UK but numbers recorded in the county remain low. Potentially the last Swallows, three at Pitsford Res on 15th, and the last House Martin, one at Polebrook AF on 12th, were recorded this week and a late Willow Warbler was trapped and ringed at Stanford Res on 15th. Among the many northern thrushes coming through during the week – five hundred Redwings being notable at Thrapston GP on 14th – a juvenile Ring Ouzel was found at Blueberry Farm on 12th and the first Fieldfares, approximately sixty, were seen nearby in the Brampton Valley the following day. The same area hosted four Stonechats throughout the week, while the same number was at Thrapston GP on 16th, up to six remained at Hollowell Res on 15th and two were still at Harrington AF on 12th.

Northern Wheatear, Pitsford Res, 16th October 2014 (Clive Bowley)

Northern Wheatear, Pitsford Res, 16th October 2014 (Clive Bowley)

Perhaps the year’s last Northern Wheatears visited Harrington AF on 11th and Pitsford Res on 15th-17th and up to two Rock Pipits were at Hollowell Res on 13th-14th, with singles at Thrapston GP on 14th and Pitsford Res on 14th-15th and again on 17th.

Rock Pipit, Pitsford Res, 14th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Rock Pipit, Pitsford Res, 14th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Finally, Bramblings moved in: two or three at Blueberry Farm on 11th, six at Thrapston GP on 14th and singles at Harrington AF and Hanging Houghton on 15th and 17th and at Castle Ashby Lakes and Pitsford Res on 16th. Winter is here … nearly.

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Grey Phalarope

Mid-October, low pressure, tightly-packed isobars, strong winds and rain = inland seabirds, although not many – as is usual for Northamptonshire. After a couple of foul weather fly-bys, including one watched briefly by Gary Pullan at Hollowell Res on Monday (13th) followed by fleeting views of two at Pitsford Res by David Arden yesterday, Bob Bullock finally nailed one at Pitsford at lunchtime today.

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 15th October 2014 (Bob Bullock)

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 15th October 2014 (Bob Bullock)

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 15th October 2014 (Bob Bullock)

First-winter Grey Phalarope, Pitsford Res, 15th October 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Grey Phalarope is by no means an annual visitor to Northants, with many previous records relating to storm-driven individuals in late autumn.  Dark, rufous-fringed tertials, strong salmon wash to breast and predominantly dark bill age this bird as a first-winter.

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French Made

Clues to the origin of our Great White Egrets

Tempting as it is to believe that our Great White Egrets originate from The Netherlands (and some may well do so) it appears that the colour-ringed individual currently at Pitsford Reservoir has channel-hopped from France.

Great White Egret, Pitsford Res, 1tth October 2014 (Adrian Borley)

Great White Egret, Pitsford Res, 11th October 2014 (Adrian Borley)

The combination of ring colours allows it to be identified as one ringed as a nestling at Lac de Grand-Lieu (Loire Atlantique), in western France, on 14th May 2014. In addition, it also bears a numbered metal ring inscribed CA76915 on its right tibia.

Great White Egret Rings 11 Oct 2014 (Adrian Borley)Before it arrived at Pitsford it was also seen at Amwell Nature Reserve, Hertfordshire, on 6th August. This adds to the growing number of British records of other known colour-ringed individuals which originate in France. The returning Blashford Lakes (Hampshire) bird – also ringed at Lac de Grand-Lieu and now enjoying its 12th great UK winter – is a prime example and strongly suggests that wintering birds are site-faithful.

Thanks to Adrian Borley for finding the bird and supplying the images and many thanks to Loïc Marion, the ringer of this bird at Lac de Grand-Lieu, for providing the above information. The Lac is the most important site in France for this species, with a recent breeding population estimate of 144-165 pairs (2008-2010).

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The Week in Focus: 4th to 10th October 2014

A succession of Atlantic lows introduced intermittent periods of rain on predominantly south-westerly winds, which brought temperatures back in line with the average for the time of year.

A Cackling Goose – undoubtedly an escape – was found at Stanford Res on 5th and the two Barnacle Geese were still at Hollowell Res on 10th, while the number of Pintails at Pitsford Res had jumped to twelve by 5th. The same site continued to host a juvenile Garganey by the dam until at least 6th, while Ravensthorpe Res similarly held on to its long-staying juvenile until at least 7th.

Garganey, Pitsford Reservoir, 5th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Garganey, Pitsford Reservoir, 5th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Capture

Meanwhile, back at Pitsford, the lingering Red-crested Pochard flock had risen by three to sixteen on 5th and five drakes, plus a female hybrid, were at Stanford Res on the same date.

Great White Egrets came to the fore this week with the Summer Leys/Earls Barton GP individual remaining until at least 7th and new birds turning up at Pitsford Res on 5th, being joined there by another on 7th with both still present on 10th, while another was at Thrapston GP on 9th-10th. Two Black-necked Grebes appeared by the dam at Pitsford Res on 9th but appeared to be absent the next day.

Black-necked Grebe, Pitsford Res, 9th October 2014 (Bob Bullock). One of two present at this site.

Black-necked Grebe, Pitsford Res, 9th October 2014 (Bob Bullock). One of two present at this site.

A female or immature Merlin visited Daventry CP on 10th, probably the last of the summer Hobbies were two at Thrapston GP on 4th and at least one adult Peregrine remained at a locality in the Nene Valley on the same date, otherwise the week was notable for its lack of raptor reports.

Adult Peregrine, Northamptonshire Nene Valley, 4th October 2014 (Simon Wantling)

Adult Peregrine, Northamptonshire Nene Valley, 4th October 2014 (Simon Wantling)

Dwindling passage waders included four Ringed Plovers at Pitsford Res on 6th and a single Golden Plover at Stanford Res on 5th while numbers at Harrington AF built further with approximately eighty there on the same date. Two Ruff were still at Pitsford Res on 4th and single Common Sandpipers visited Stanford Res and Stanwick GP on 5th, while the same date produced single Green Sandpipers at Pitsford Res (and again on 10th) and Stanford Res, followed by one at Daventry CP on 8th and 10th and two at Ravensthorpe Res on 8th with four there on 10th. A handful of Common Snipe included up to three at Summer Leys LNR and two at Ravensthorpe Res and Pitsford Res mid-week.

Yellow-legged Gull numbers were again low with just single, lingering adults at Pitsford Res, Hollowell Res and Ravensthorpe Res on 5th and 8th plus an adult and a first-winter at Daventry CP on the last of those two dates.

Passerines were poorly represented this week, the best being a late Reed Warbler trapped and ringed at Stortons GP on 5th, single Stonechats at Pitsford Res, Blueberry Farm (Maidwell) and Harrington AF on 5th and at least four at Hollowell Res until 8th

First-winter male Stonechat, Harrington AF, 5th October 2014 (Simon Hales)

First-winter male Stonechat, Harrington AF, 5th October 2014 (Simon Hales)

and one at Clifford Hill GP on 10th, while a Northern Wheatear visited Pitsford Res on6th and up to four Rock Pipits were at Hollowell Res between 6th and 10th and another at Ravensthorpe Res on the latter date and a White Wagtail was at Hollowell Res on 10th.

Northern Wheatear, Pitsford Res, 6th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Northern Wheatear, Pitsford Res, 6th October 2014 (Mike Alibone)

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White Noise

Great White Egrets in Northamptonshire

CaptureI remember when they were rare. A long drive to Scaling Dam Reservoir in North Yorkshire with Chris Ingram in June 1974 ended in a car crash, the journey to site completed by bus, followed by a long train journey home, sadly returning empty-handed. At the time, it was only the 11th or 12th for Britain and it was to be a few more years before I eventually caught up with one.

News of Northamptonshire’s first (and, by now, Britain’s 57th) broke late in the afternoon on Sunday, 5th July 1992. A quick dash to Stanford Reservoir and there it was, feeding quietly in the shallows of Blower’s Lodge Bay – a shimmering vision in white on a sunny summer’s evening.

Further records followed – the next briefly at Thrapston GP on 18th February 1994, before being seen at Earls Barton GP two days later, and then the first long-stayer, which was found at Billing Aquadrome on 27th November 1997. It remained in the Nene Valley until March 1998, visiting Ecton SF, and gravel pits at Billing, Earls Barton, Ditchford, Stanwick and Thrapston during its four-month stay. As well as setting the trend for the now emerging pattern of records of overwintering in the county, this individual elicited considerable interest because of its apparently wholly black legs, including tibia, and bright orangey bill – characteristics which, at the time, were believed to be strongly indicative of the Nearctic race egretta. This race is not officially on the British list.

Great White Egret, Billing Aquadrome, November 1997 (Keith Stone)

Great White Egret, Billing Aquadrome, November 1997 (Keith Stone)

We now know better as many of our visiting Great Whites appear to have blackish tibia in winter as standard, as well as brightly-coloured bills, while egretta is said to average 10% smaller, although determining the size of a lone individual in the field is likely to be problematic. According to the British Birds Rarities Committee differences in bare-part colours between European nominate alba and egretta do exist but they may be only average differences and efforts to establish practical identification guidelines are underway; biometrics are diagnostic, however.

The next occurrence in Northants was also interesting but for a different reason: it involved the first flock to occur locally. Three together in flight over Stortons GP on 7th October 2002 was an amazing sight for Chris Coe on his local lunchtime patch and three remains the largest number seen together anywhere in the county to date.

The graphs below provide an overview of occurrence since the species first appeared in Northants in 1992.

GWE Records by yearIn both histograms only the first date of arrival is used within the statistics, i.e. two birds arriving together at Pitsford Reservoir in October and staying until February the following year constitutes one record and appears just once, in the column for October, for that one year only.

GWE Records by monthThere is a clear trend emerging, with the highest number of birds arriving to winter during the last quarter with a distinct peak in October, clearly the best month in which to find your own.

Aside from the first breeding in Somerset in 2012, the records for Northants mirror those nationally and reflect this species’ recent increase on the near continent as this species continues to expand its range westward.

It seems likely that Great White Egrets will follow in the footsteps of Little Egret – at least to some degree – and they are therefore likely to become an increasingly regular sight at our local bodies of water during the winter months.

Great White Egret, Summer Leys, 28th March 2013 (Bob Bullock). Note signs of breeding condition - mainly dark bill and pinkish legs.

Great White Egret, Summer Leys, 28th March 2013 (Bob Bullock). Note signs of breeding condition – mainly dark bill and pinkish legs.

Great White Egret, Summer Leys, 28th March 2013 (Douglas McFarlane). Same individual as above.

Great White Egret, Summer Leys, 28th March 2013 (Douglas McFarlane). Same individual as above.

Great White Egret swallowing European Perch, Summer Leys, 30th September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Great White Egret swallowing European Perch, Summer Leys, 30th September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 22nd September 2014 (Alan Coles)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 22nd September 2014 (Alan Coles)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 22nd September 2014 (Clive Bowley)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 22nd September 2014 (Clive Bowley)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, September 2014 (Simon Wantling) www.simonwantlingphotography.com

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, September 2014 (Simon Wantling) http://www.simonwantlingphotography.com 

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 27th September 2014 (Simon Hales)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 27th September 2014 (Simon Hales)

I would like to thank Clive Bowley, Bob Bullock, Alan Coles, Simon Hales,Douglas McFarlane, Keith Stone and Simon Wantling for supplying the images used to illustrate this post.

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Two Weeks in Focus: 20th September to 3rd October 2014

The dry weather persisted throughout the two weeks of this period, although the winds  became predominantly westerly and light. Some long-staying ‘favourites’ remained, wader passage predictably dwindled and a couple of scarce migrants made all too brief appearances in suburban gardens.

A Pink-footed Goose arrived from the north at Ravensthorpe Res and promptly joined the Greylag flock there on 25th, while the two Ruddy Shelducks at Pitsford Res were still present on 20th, although they were not reported again until 2nd. On site there the lingering flock of Red-crested Pochards remained at thirteen throughout, the leucistic drake was again at Clifford Hill GP on 21st and the eclipse drake was still at Stanford Res on 20th with three Pintail there on the same date. Up to two more Pintail were at Pitsford Res between 29th and 2nd and up to three Garganeys were on view at Summer Leys LNR between 20th and 28th, while one remained at Ravensthorpe Res until 25th and another was at Pitsford Res on the same date.

Garganey, Summer Leys LNR, 20th September 2014 (Simon Hales)

Garganey, Summer Leys LNR, 20th September 2014 (Simon Hales)

G&TA Bittern visited Summer Leys briefly before heading west on 21st and the same site hosted a Great White Egret the following day, remaining there until 30th. In the west of the county, Daventry CP’s Red-necked Grebe was last seen on 23rd.

Bittern, Summer Leys LNR, 21st September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Bittern, Summer Leys LNR, 21st September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 29th September 2014 (Martin Dove)

Great White Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 29th September 2014 (Martin Dove)

‘Cream-crown’ Marsh Harriers visited Blueberry Farm, Maidwell on 22nd and Harrington AF two days later and Ospreys visited Pitsford Res on 21st and Thrapston GP on 26th, while male Merlins appeared at Harrington AF on 20th and Blueberry Farm, Maidwell on 25th. Up to two adult Peregrines remained at a locality in the Nene Valley throughout the period, the regular adult female was seen at Blueberry Farm and Harrington AF on four dates and singles visited Summer Leys on 22nd and Hollowell Res on 25th.

Peregrine, Northamptonshire Nene Valley, 25th September 2014 (John Broadbent)

Peregrine, Northamptonshire Nene Valley, 25th September 2014 (John Broadbent)

Two Little Ringed Plovers were still at Clifford Hill GP on 21st with single Ringed Plovers there on 23rd and 26th and further singles at Summer Leys on 23rd and Pitsford Res on 25th, while Golden Plovers were recorded at there, as well as Brampton Valley and Harrington AF, with a maximum of approximately fifty at the latter site on 22nd. The only Black-tailed Godwit this week was one at Clifford Hill GP on 23rd, where there were also two Ruff on 21st and 25th. Another Ruff visited Earls Barton GP on 20th and two were present at Pitsford Res from 27th to 30th and two Dunlin were at Clifford Hill GP on 21st and 26th. Just one Common Sandpiper – at Daventry CP on 23rd – preserved this species’ status as a weekly reportee in these summaries, while single Green Sandpipers were seen at Stanford Res on 20th and Hollowell Res on 25th and three were present at both Daventry CP on 23rd and Ravensthorpe Res on 24th-25th. Seven reports of Common Snipe included singles at Pitsford Res on 20th and 30th with three there on 25th, six at Moulton Quarry on 22nd with four there on 2nd, four at Summer Leys on 22nd and three at Ravensthorpe Res on 25th. Yellow-legged Gull numbers dwindled to just two at Hollowell Res on 24th and 30th and three at Pitsford Res on 25th with one there on 2nd but no counts were received from the established ‘stronghold’ at Stanwick GP, which had hosted ninety on 18th September.

A Ring-necked Parakeet flying over Riverside, Northampton on 27th was unremarkable but a Wryneck photographed in a Rushden garden on the same date was a bit more on the money, as was a probable Yellow-browed Warbler, glimpsed in a Great Billing garden on 23rd! Potentially the two best birds of the month, they were not seen again after their initial sightings. The first autumn Redwings, four, flew over Harrington AF on 28th and, after the huge run of Common Redstarts this autumn, only two were seen during the period: one between Pitsford Res and Walgrave on 21st and the other trapped and ringed at Stanford Res the following day. Similarly, Whinchat numbers began to tail off with one at Clifford Hill GP on 21st, at least four at Blueberry Farm until 23rd and singles at Thrapston GP on 23rd and at Hollowell Res on 27th and 30th but it’s proving to be a good autumn for Stonechats with records of singles at Pitsford Res and Clifford Hill GP, up to two at Blueberry Farm and up to four at Hollowell Res until 30th.

Stonechat, Hollowell Res, 27th September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Stonechat, Hollowell Res, 27th September 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Northern Wheatears continued to remain scarce, however, with two still at Harrington AF to 23rd and one at Blueberry Farm the following day while two White Wagtails visited Hollowell Res on 24th and a Rock Pipit visited the scrape at Summer Leys LNR on 3rd before being flushed by a Sparrowhawk, never to return …

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