When I saw my first Marsh Harriers at Minsmere in the early 70s I felt privileged. They were one of the rarest breeding species in Britain and records in Northamptonshire averaged one per year. Thankfully their numbers have increased, and with the current UK population numbering around four hundred pairs, they have become much more frequent in the county. If I see one locally, or anywhere else for that matter, I still feel privileged as they are magnificent birds and great to watch hunting over European meadows or migrating with other raptors high over the arid mountainous terrain of the middle east. That is one thing which will never change.
Down to earth and local. There are few good images of Marsh Harriers in Northants but yesterday Alan Coles managed to capture some of the second calendar year male which has been hanging around at Summer Leys, on and off, for the past couple of weeks.
This young male is still showing much immaturity – particularly on the upperparts, which retain extensive pale yellowish mottling on the mantle and forewing. Some male characteristics are clearly evident, though, with greyish-spotted primary coverts, and largely grey tail.
It still has a diffuse ‘female-type’ head pattern and largely dark underparts, although the ‘male’ pale greyish secondaries and inner primaries with broad blackish tips are prominent. Males are essentially polymorphic, with some adult males appearing identical to adult females.
In Northants we have seen an increase in records over the past twenty-five years, with ‘good’ years producing in excess of thirty records, although individuals are mobile and may or may not be present for extended periods, so actual numbers are difficult to determine. Our first wintering bird was in the Nene Valley – predominantly at Stanwick GP – during 2001-2002.
It was back to a week of westerlies, which also included one day of heavy rain. Migration, however, continued unabated with waves of winter thrushes, Skylarks and finches moving through the county along with a handful of new, scarcer arrivals.
Falling into the latter category – and part of a national movement – a Whooper Swan joined the Mutes at Blatherwycke Lake on 18th, while a Barnacle Goose was again at Clifford Hill GP on 20th and two were at Pitsford Res on 23rd. The latter site continued to host last week’s Ruddy Shelduck until 23rd, as well as producing the highest count of Pintails so far this autumn with twenty-four there on 23rd, while the drake remained at Wicksteed Park Lake on 20th, another visited Clifford Hill GP on the same date and one was at Daventry CP on 23rd. One juvenile Garganey remained into this week – the Ravensthorpe Res individual, which ultimately proved to be a male and was still present on 19th.
Up to thirteen Red-crested Pochards were at Pitsford Res on 21st, this location also continuing to host three Great White Egrets until 23rd, when five were counted north of the causeway – a record number for the site and equal to the county’s previous single site record at Summer Leys on 20th February this year. One also visited the latter site on 17th, followed there briefly on 20th by a first-winter Spoonbill, which had spent the previous three weeks at Eyebrook Res in Leicestershire.
Summer Leys also produced a Marsh Harrier between 17th and 19th, while a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier was seen at Harrington AF on the last of these dates. Single Merlins – or just one mobile individual – were in the Brampton Valley at Merry Tom crossing on 17th, near Brampton Halt on 18th and at Blueberry Farm on 18th-19th and Peregrines visited Harrington AF on 18th, Blueberry Farm on 19th-20th and Daventry CP on 23rd.
Numbers of Golden Plover ramped up this week with maximum site counts including three hundred at Thorpe Waterville on 18th, one hundred and sixty-five at Daventry CP on 23rd, one hundred and fifty at Harrington AF on 19th and thirty-four at Hartwell on 22nd. Other waders included two Ringed Plovers at Hollowell Res on 17th and 23rd, 2 Dunlin and three Common Snipe at Pitsford Res and 2 Common Snipe at Hollowell Res – all on 17th – and two Green Sandpipers at Ravensthorpe Res on 19th with three at Daventry CP on 23rd. Scarce larids included a first-winter Mediterranean Gull at Daventry CP and an adult Caspian Gull at Hollowell Res – both on 23rd and up to two adult Yellow-legged Gulls remaining at Pitsford Res and at Hollowell Res, while one was at Hartwell and three at Daventry CP on 22nd.
North Northants produced four Short-eared Owls – two each at Harrington AF and Blueberry Farm – all on 19th and the following day saw two Firecrests appear, one of which was a female trapped and ringed at Stanford Res and the other a male in a mobile tit flock at Hollowell Res. Another Black Redstart was found this week – one around ‘The Granary’ at Fawsley Park on 23rd, while a very late Whinchat was discovered at Stanwick GP on 20th, the same site also hosting up to two Stonechats on 20th-21st. More Stonechats included the regulars at Blueberry Farm, where up to three were present all week, two at Hollowell Res on 23rd and one at Harrington AF on 19th. As late autumn became even later more Bramblings were found this week and the quota included fourteen at Stanford Res on 17th, one at Polebrook AF on 18th, two at Harrington AF on 18th with eight there the following day, two at Blueberry Farm on 18th and 20th and at least four at Walgrave on the last of these dates. A Corn Bunting around the bunkers of Harrington AF on 18th would appear to be only the second record of this species in the county this year.
With most having long departed for Africa, there are probably fewer than ten Garganeys left in the UK at present. I first found this one at Ravensthorpe Reservoir on 20th September and, though not reported for a couple of weeks in late September/early October, it has a poorly marked face pattern and is readily identifiable as the same individual. It was still present yesterday.
To my eyes, juvenile Garganeys stand out from the crowd of Teal – with which they often loosely associate – even when the face pattern can’t be seen. That combination of dark, oily-rust breast and flanks, contrasting sharp, whitish edges to the tertials and no white line along the outer edge of the under tail coverts is really quite eye-catching. The feeding habit of swimming around with the head partly submerged and rarely up-ending like Teals do is also a useful initial pointer. This particular individual is clearly a juvenile based on plumage tone and the solid dark belly (female and eclipse drakes have a whitish belly) but a quick flap of the wings, revealing a greenish speculum bordered by very broad white borders, was enough to sex it as a male.
In the accompanying, rather ropey, video there also appears to be the beginnings of a male breast band – demarcated from the belly – coming through. This does not appear to be mentioned in the literature as appearing quite so early on in the autumn but I guess it has to start sometime.
As it’s been present for a month it will be interesting to see how long this bird stays around. Wintering birds are rare but not unheard of!
An established easterly airstream flowing from well beyond the Baltic persisted throughout the week, bringing a combination of low temperatures and largely dry weather as well as some interesting migrants from the east.
Back on the menu this week was one – presumably of the original two – Ruddy Shelduck which, after almost four weeks’ absence, was again by the dam at Pitsford Res
on 12th. Beyond this, however, there was little to write home about with just two Pintails at Pitsford Res and three at Earls Barton GP – both on 12th – plus two at Stanwick GP on 16th and the two juvenile Garganeys remaining at Pitsford Res and at Ravensthorpe Res until 10th. On 12th, five Red-crested Pochards visited Summer Leys LNR and a female was at Pitsford Res – both of these localities also hosting Great White Egrets with three at Pitsford on 10th-11th, of which at least one remained until 14th, and singles at Summer Leys on 11th and 16th. In the generally underwatched south of the county a Bittern was present in reeds on small lake just south of Farthinghoe NR before flying off low to the north-east on 13th.
This week’s raptors were few, but varied, and included possibly the twentieth county record of Rough-legged Buzzard, which flew low west over the chippings compound at Harrington AF at 10.30 on 12th. Interestingly one – possibly the same – was seen to arrive at Clayhanger Marsh, West Midlands, 80 km WNW of Harrington AF at 12.50 later that same day. Now, assuming a flight speed of 35 km an hour … There was also one in Cambridgeshire on 15th. Somewhat overshadowed by this event were Marsh Harriers at Summer Leys on 14th and 16th and a Merlin at Stanford Res on 14th.
Waders during the period were limited to a count of one hundred and twenty-five Golden Plovers at Daventry CP on 11th and forty at Stanwick GP plus a Dunlin on 16th, two Green Sandpipers at Ravensthorpe Res on 10th and one at Pitsford Res the following day, the first Jack Snipe of the autumn at Stanwick on 16th, plus a sprinkling of Common Snipe, which included approximately forty in a field between Pitsford Res and Scaldwell on 13th, up to seven at Pitsford Res proper on various dates to 14th and one at Hollowell Res on 10th.
A first-winter Arctic Tern arrived at Stanwick GP on 15th (late October records of this species are not unusual) and the same site produced a putative adult Azorean Gull on 10th – echoes of this time last year. Will we ever discover what they really are …
‘Standard’ Yellow-legged Gulls included ten at Stanwick GP on 10th, single adults at Hollowell Res on 10th, Wicksteed Park Lake on 12th-13th and one again at Stanwick on 16th plus two at Pitsford Res on 14th. A first-winter Caspian Gull visited Stanwick on 10th.
The remarkable run of scarce passerines trapped at Stanford Res over the years continued this week, bearing testament to the many hours spent on site and sheer persistence of the Stanford Ringing Group. With the winds full of eastern promise, the team struck silver (if not gold) on 12th with a Yellow-browed Warbler trapped and ringed, followed quickly by Northamptonshire’s second-ever ‘Eastern’ Lesser Whitethroat being pulled from
the net only an hour or so later. Subspecific identification of this species can be tricky – even in the hand – so a couple of feathers which became dislodged during processing were quickly despatched to the University of Aberdeen for DNA analysis … Looking dapper but a lot less rare was the Black Redstart which spent 12th-16th around Dentonwood Lodge
(Yardley Chase), while the only Stonechats reported this week were two/three in Brampton Valley on 12th. Joining a mixed finch flock at Geddington Chase on 12th, a Brambling served as a reminder that winter is surely on its way …
We are in the midst of a Siberian invasion. The fallout from the arrivals en masse on the east coast – and elsewhere – has clearly penetrated far inland with the county’s second Yellow-browed Warbler of the year being trapped today at Stanford Reservoir. But that’s not all. Also pulled from the net was an ‘eastern’ Lesser Whitethroat – this hot on the heels of the presumed blythi individual which wintered in Northampton in 2014.
Adam Homer kindly provided some quick initial images (more to come) and an overview of the external features of the Lesser Whitethroat:
The biometrics pretty much matched up to the nominate race curruca so it looks likely to be blythi. We have ruled out halimodendri due to no white pattern on the 5th tail feather.
The bird was noticeably brown all over the mantle, rump and down to the tail.
The flanks were buff and belly was white. The head was brown with a slight greyish tone surrounding the black mask. Straight away whilst extracting it MickTownsend noticed that its eye was brown not unlike an adult Dunnock’s. Legs were slate-grey and soles of feet were cream. The upper mandible was blue-grey and lower was light grey at the base and blue-grey towards the tip.
Feathers which became detached during processing have been retained for DNA analysis, which Dr. Martin Collinson (the legendary ‘Doc Martin’) at the University of Aberdeen has kindly agreed to undertake to help determine subspecific identity. Results are eagerly awaited !
Sandwiched between two high pressure systems, an Atlantic low crossed the country mid-week, bringing heavy rain and a short burst of north-westerly winds before calm weather and easterly winds returned at the week’s end.
The three Barnacle Geese remained at Clifford Hill GP throughout the period, while up to six Pintails were at Pitsford Res from 3rd with singles again at Wicksteed Park Lake on 3rd and Daventry CP on 6th. Having been absent for a couple of weeks, Garganeys reappeared in exactly the same places at Pitsford Res on 6th and at Ravensthorpe Res on 7th. They appeared to be the same individuals as previously observed, so where had they been during the intervening period?
A Red-crested Pochard was found at Stanford Res on 3rd – the same date that the Pitsford flock increased to seven and a ‘surge’ in Great White Egret records occurred. On this date, one flew over Hollowell Res and two were found at nearby Ravensthorpe Res with the latter remaining in place at the same time that two more arrived at Pitsford Res, where one was already present. One remained at Ravensthorpe Res from 4th to 7th and three were at Pitsford Res on the latter date with at least two there to 9th. It appears, therefore, that at least five different individuals were present in the county this week.
One, possibly two, Marsh Harriers were present at Polebrook AF on 4th and another was seen near Raunds on the same date, while the week’s only Peregrine was at Higham Ferrers on 4th-5th and what may be the year’s last Hobby flew south over Harrington AF on 7th.
The latter site stumped up just three Golden Plovers on 6th and 7th but a more respectable one hundred and ninety-eight were counted at Daventry CP on the first of these two dates, while single Ringed Plovers visited Clifford Hill GP on 3rd and Pitsford Res on 6th. Pitsford also produced the week’s only Dunlin and Clifford Hill GP the only Common Sandpiper – both on 3rd. Green Sandpipers were still to be found at three sites with both Pitsford Res and Ravensthorpe Res producing one on 3rd-4th and three on 7th, while another was as Bozeat GP on 8th. A Spotted Redshank flew east at Clifford Hill GP on 3rd – the same date that three Redshanks visited Ravensthorpe Res and single Common Snipe were at Pitsford Res and Hollowell Res, while six were at Clifford Hill GP; eight more were counted at Bozeat GP on 8th. An adult Yellow-legged Gull was at Hollowell Res on 3rd and up to two adults remained at Pitsford Res throughout the week.
On the scarce passerine front, a Firecrest trapped and ringed at Stanford Res on 9th did its best to make up for the absence of any more of the much anticipated Yellow-browed Warblers resulting from the continuing nationwide invasion.
Otherwise, there were single Stonechats at Thrapston GP on 3rd, Hollowell Res on 7th, Bozeat GP on 8th and Borough Hill on 9th with last week’s four remaining at Blueberry Farm, Maidwell until at least 3rd,
while four Northern Wheatears comprised singles at Clifford Hill GP on 3rd, Pitsford Res and Naseby Res on 7th and Harrington AF on 8th, with the Naseby individual identified as a Greenland race individual.
A high pressure system stationed over the UK brought the longest period of settled weather for some time, resulting in largely sunny days, dry conditions and a constant flow of light easterlies.
One Barnacle Goose at Clifford Hill GP had become three by 1st, while the week’s only Pintail was at Pitsford Res on 27th – the same site continuing to hold up to five drake and one female Red-crested Pochards, one of which was a leucistic individual.
North of the causeway there, two Great White Egrets remained from 26th until at least 1st.
An intriguing record of a ‘ringtail’ harrier at Abington Meadows LNR, adjacent to Clifford Hill GP, involved two sightings three hours apart on 29th. Unfortunately it remained unidentified, in contrast to the readily identified juvenile Marsh Harrier at Pitsford Res two days prior to this and another at Summer Leys LNR on 2nd. Three Peregrines were seen during the period with singles at Harrington Airfield on 26th and at both Higham Ferrers and nearby Ditchford GP on 30th.
This week’s waders included a surprise – and brief – visit to Stanford Res by an Avocet on 1st, while thirty Golden Plovers were near Warmington on 30th and Ringed Plovers were represented by five at Pitsford Res on 26th and one at Clifford Hill GP on 1st. Single Dunlins visited Pitsford Res on 26th and Hollowell Res on 30th while Green Sandpipers numbers held up to some extent with up to three at Pitsford Res on 26th-27th, one at Summer Leys LNR on 26th and three at Ditchford GP on 29th but the week’s only Common Snipe were two at Pitsford Res on 30th. The almost resident adult Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford Res was reported between 27th and 1st but there were, apparently, no more this week.
Two late (or should that be too late?) Turtle Doves were at Harrington AF on 27th but the week’s star bird was a Yellow-browed Warbler, which was trapped and ringed at Kingswood, Corby on 29th. This was only the 7th County record and the first since 2010.
The first of the autumn’s Black Redstarts was a first-winter at Desborough on 30th and, what must surely be the last now, two more Common Redstarts were trapped and ringed at Stanford Res on 28th and perhaps the last Whinchats were two at Blueberry Farm on 30th. The latter site continued to hold at least four Stonechats and another was present at Pitsford Res on 30th-1st, while the only Northern Wheatear was at nearby Harrington AF on 26th. The week ended with the autumn’s first Rock Pipits at Hollowell Res and Pitsford Res on 30th followed by two at the latter site on 1st.