It was never the intention that Northantsbirds should become a platform for protest but this is the first of two pieces I intend to write in this vein. I am not a seasoned campaigner, nor have I really jumped on the ornithopolitical bandwagon from which a number of birders appear to have launched their own personal crusades. But when changes are made which have an impact on the way we bird locally then I feel I can’t just sit back without comment.
I have been birding at Pitsford Reservoir – or to call it by its more recent, public-popular name, Pitsford Water – since I was a young lad in the late 1960s. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t visit. I do sometimes walk round and I’ve also used the cycle track on several occasions, although the majority of my visits take the form of a quick drop in at the dam end or a stopover on the causeway on my way to, or from, a work-related destination. I have been doing this for many years and it’s a great way to quickly see what migrants are around when I’m too short of time to take a longer walk round and engage in some more leisurely birding.
The causeway is (was) also a great place to park up and sit in wet and windy weather, providing views across the water during howling gales and lashing rain, conditions which have delivered many a seabird along with the other, more common species which pass through.
Great surprise and considerable annoyance ensued, therefore, when I was forwarded at the end of last week an email from a somewhat dismayed birder who, while travelling across the causeway, had witnessed a workman closing off the roadside car park opposite the entrance to the Anglian Water car park by installing yet more wooden stumps. Along with this email I have received further snippets of related information from others who share in this dismay – although I will not name them here without permission.
This is clearly being done in order to prevent vehicle owners and drivers from parking legitimately without charge, as I suspect AW are losing a considerable amount of potential revenue from runners, cyclists, dog-walkers and, of course, birders who use the parking bays at either end of the causeway. As I write, the pull-in at the Holcot end is in the process of being ‘stumped’ and will no doubt become fully closed off when work resumes immediately after today’s bank holiday.
If we ask why this is being done, then I’ve no doubt the authority will play the H&S card on the back of the over-the-top health and safety epidemic which has been sweeping this country over recent years. But there has been no issue over the last 60-plus years. Granted the bays are a little worn and uneven and may need resurfacing at some point but come on …
If AW are so keen to increase their revenue, then why not install pay and display parking meters in the pull-ins (although the meter in the main car park could cover the one at the Brixworth end) and operate the meters on a timed tariff so that if people want to stop for just fifteen minutes then they pay accordingly and not the full whack that AW are currently charging.
Unless this ridiculous decision to stump off the bays is reversed then it will truly be the end of an era for birding at Pitsford – so, come on AW, let’s have a sensible approach to this. And, while you’re at it, why not show your green credentials and grant free parking for Wildlife Trust members – or is that asking too much … ?
Although the period was largely dry, winds from the north-west produced some rain on Saturday, followed by a sunny and relatively warm Sunday, after which it became cooler as north-easterlies set in. In comparison with the previous review period this last week has been rather slow in terms of new arrivals. Ospreys at three sites and a couple of Sanderlings appeared to be the highlights – the migration tap not having been completely turned off but simply left dripping …
The injured Ruddy Shelduck remained at Pitsford Res, where it was present in the vicinity of the sailing club and the drake Garganey at Stanwick GP was seen again on 23rd. Another Quail was heard at Harrington AF on 22nd and then it was straight into raptors but, with nothing as glam as a Lam to look at, a handful of local birders connected with Ospreys at Stanwick GP on 22nd, at Hollowell Res on 22nd and 24th-25th and at/near Naseby Res on 24th/26th.
This week’s only Peregrine was an adult at Earls Barton GP on 26th but it’s also worth flagging up that a Barbary Falcon x Gyrfalcon hybrid escaped from an owner at Wellingborough on 23rd and is still on the loose …
Little Ringed Plovers were reported only from Stanwick GP and Summer Leys, with both sites also producing single Ringed Plovers on 26th and 27th respectively while a Sanderling accompanied the Stanwick individual. More readily accessible and obligingly showy was a Sanderling on the dam at Pitsford Res on 22nd, providing excellent photo opportunities for those who saw it.
There was just one Dunlin this week, at Summer Leys on 27th, but one which didn’t make it into the last round-up is worth a mention for the locality alone – Shelfley’s Lake, West Hunsbury on 15th May – an odd record for suburban Northampton and surely a first for this tiny, mainly tree-lined site. The only other waders this week were the three to four Redshanks present at Summer Leys throughout.
There was no improvement in the Turtle Dove situation during the period with the two still near Newton Bromswold on 19th and two at Harrington AF on 22nd and 26th, while the latter site produced a late Northern Wheatear on the first of these two dates.
The first two weeks of May proved to be particularly rewarding for migration-watchers, the highlight of which occurred during the period 4th to 9th when high pressure over north-east Europe combined with a central European low produced a prolonged spell of south-easterly winds stretching to the UK. These conditions proved conducive to opening the gates for a significant influx of Black Terns while, at the same time, delivering higher than average numbers of waders, both in terms of quantity and diversity. Summer Leys received the lion’s share – primarily as a result of habitat management through the control of water levels. It was also understandably an exceptional period for the spread and proliferation of bird news across the county, with Twitter now seemingly the principal line of communication for much of this. By contrast, the last week of the period was particularly quiet, despite some bouts of overcast and wet conditions towards the end of it, which looked likely to ground a few more migrants. Is it all over? Only the next two weeks will tell …
A late migrant Pink-footed Goose joined the Greylags at Pitsford Res on 14th and was still present the following day and, after an apparent absence, the Ruddy Shelduck returned to the same site on 18th, sadly trailing an injured left wing.
Seven Garganeys were found, including a pair at Summer Leys LNR on 2nd followed by single drakes there on 5th and 10th and at Stanwick GP on 13th and 20th and Ditchford GP on 15th, while the female Scaup reappeared briefly at Summer Leys on 4th.
The first Quail of the year was heard at Harrington AF on 2nd, followed by another at Welford Res on 8th. Neither of these lingered beyond their discovery date. Also on the move, a Great White Egret flew over Hardwater Crossing at Earls Barton GP on 5th and, at adjacent Summer Leys, four Spoonbills arrived from the south on the morning of 7th, remaining on the scrape there for only forty-five minutes before heading off north-west – much to the delight of the handful of birders on site at the time. This is only the 33rd record for the county, with the May being the peak month of occurrence.
Four Marsh Harriers were logged during the period, including singles flying high north over East Hunsbury (Northampton) and in the Brampton Valley below Hanging Houghton on 30th, one at Earls Barton GP’s Quarry Walk on 1st followed by another over Hardwater Crossing there the following day.
Ospreys were seen at Hollowell Res on 30th, 2nd, 12th-13th and 17th and one visited Ravensthorpe Res on 1st. Aside from the fifteen records of Hobbies – including ten at Quarry Walk on 12th – the only other raptors of note were single Peregrines in Northampton on 5th-6th and at Summer Leys on 5th and 10th.
One of the period’s highlights – for two observers at least – was the second appearance this spring of Common Crane in the Nene Valley with one flying east at Stanwick GP on 2nd. There have been less than twenty county records in total.
The small passage of Avocets this spring continued with another at Summer Leys on 1st but a remarkable run of waders kicked off at the same locality on 5th with the discovery there of a Grey Plover, which had become three by the next day, these birds remaining until 7th, after which two remained until the following day.
More Grey Plovers were found on floodwater at Braunston on 9th, at Stanwick GP on 9th-11th and at Clifford Hill GP on 10th-12th. Little Ringed Plovers were present at four localities, with a maximum of five at Clifford Hill GP on 10th, while Ringed Plover passage ramped up with possibly as many as seventy scattered across six localities between 1st and 18th, including one flock of twenty-four at Clifford Hill GP on 11th. Several of these were identified as belonging to the ‘arctic’ race tundrae, including four at Harrington AF on 3rd, the same number at Braunston on 9th and one at Stanwick GP on 18th, although many more – if not all – were probably of this subspecies.
There were few Whimbrels by comparison, with one lingering at Summer Leys between 30th and 6th followed by five there on 10th, three were at Stanwick GP on the latter date and singles visited Stanford Res on 11th and Clifford Hill GP on 15th. Just one Curlew was reported during the whole of the period – one at Stanford Res on 6th. After the recent record-breaking flock of Black-tailed Godwits at Summer Leys, five there on 30th followed by one on 4th seemed meagre by comparison; one also visited Stanwick GP on 1st. Bar-tailed Godwits have been scarce this spring and, if we disregard the unconfirmed report of a flock of forty-six over Aldwincle on 10th, there was just one at Stanwick GP on the same date with two there the next day and two at Clifford Hill GP on 11th-12th.
Turnstones put on a reasonable show, however, with singles visiting Stanwick GP on 2nd and 9th, two there on 11th and four on 12th, while Summer Leys produced two on 10th, four on 11th and two on 13th-14th. Elsewhere, two visited Pitsford Res on 10th and one was at Clifford Hill GP the following day.
Only one site produced any Ruff and that was Summer Leys, where up to four were present between 4th and 13th, including a rather black-looking male.
The waders continued with the first of the few migrant Sanderlings being found on Pitsford Res dam on 10th, followed the next day by two at Stanwick GP and singles at Clifford Hill GP and Summer Leys. On 12th one remained at Stanwick and another was there on 16th and a different individual arrived two days later on 18th.
Dunlins were also on the move with a total of at least seventy-four birds spread across six sites and records almost daily until 16th. Double-figure counts came from Summer Leys, where there were ten on 4th, Clifford Hill GP, with twelve on 10th and Stanford Res, where thirteen were counted the following day.
At least sixty Common Sandpipers were recorded across fourteen localities with a maximum of nine at Clifford Hill GP on 11th, while a rather late Green Sandpiper was found at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows reserve on 7th. One or two Spotted Redshanks were reported over the three-day period 6th to 8th at Summer Leys, with the same site holding up to two Greenshanks between 1st and 8th. Other Greenshanks were at Braunston on 10th, at Stanwick between 10th and 17th (with a maximum of six on 13th) and at Ditchford GP, where four were present on 14th-15th. The scrape at Summer Leys produced another Wood Sandpiper from 6th to 8th, while another visited Stanwick briefly on the latter date.
Aside from potential breeders, Redshanks were also on the move with at least twelve at Summer Leys on 6th, followed by singles at Daventry CP and Braunston on 10th, Pitsford Res and Clifford Hill GP on 11th, six at Stanwick GP on 13th and up to six – possibly eight – at Summer Leys on 20th.
Arguably the most prominent feature of this spring has been the notable influx of Black Terns into the country – primarily as a result of the prolonged south-easterlies during the first week of the month. Records came from nine localities over a ten-day period with well over a hundred birds being logged.
Little Terns, too, were a nice addition to the mix with two arriving at Summer Leys on 10th, another there on 11th and one at Stanwick GP the following day.
Good numbers of Arctic Terns were also on the move at the same time, with Stanwick GP seeing twenty-seven over on 10th and around forty through on 11th; one was also there on 13th. Elsewhere, two visited Daventry CP on 3rd with singles there on 10th and 12th, seven on 11th and six there on 13th and at Clifford Hill GP there were two on 12th, four on 13th-14th and one on 18th.
After all the Little Gulls last month it is surprising that only one was seen during the review period – a first-summer at Stanwick GP on 30th. Stanwick also produced an adult Mediterranean Gull on 11th and two adults the following day, which were doubtless those seen there at the end of last month. Where had they been throughout the intervening period? The only other gull of note was a second calendar year Yellow-legged Gull, which flew over Harrington Airfield on 2nd.
The Turtle Dove situation is currently dire. Just four local records reflect the shocking demise of this species both nationally and in Europe. Singles were purring at Polebrook AF on 8th (but subsequent searches drew a blank) and Old Sulehay on 9th, one flew north over Stanwick on 11th and two were near Newton Bromswold on 15th. A Short-eared Owl was hunting over waterside vegetation at Pitsford Res on 11th before disappearing over adjacent fields, after a relatively poor winter for this species.
Migrant passerines included a short-staying, singing Wood Warbler at Earls Barton GP on 1st, the long-staying, singing male Ring Ouzel at Harrington AF, where it remained until 3rd and two more were found at Borough Hill on 30th, while the last migrant Common Redstarts included single females at Boddington Res, Fawsley Park and Long Buckby – all on 30th and a singing male appeared to be holding territory at Badby Wood from 8th to 15th. Northern Wheatear passage continued quite strongly into the first week of May, with 30th producing singles at Long Buckby and Earls Barton GP and ten at Borough Hill; four were at Clifford Hill GP on 1st with ten there the following day and, at Harrington AF, three to five were present on 2nd, nine on 3rd, seven on 4th and two on 5th, while a male Greenland Wheatear was in the Brampton Valley below Hanging Houghton on 2nd. There were, however, few Whinchats, with the Earls Barton GP bird from last month being joined by a second on 30th, one of which remained until 2nd, singles were at Blueberry Farm and Long Buckby on 30th and, on 4th, one was at Eastcote and two visited Harrington AF. Similarly, there were few White Wagtails with the total of four being made up of singles at Stanwick on 2nd and 11th, Pitsford Res on 3rd and Harrington AF on 5th.
Seven Crossbills flying over Denton Wood on 17th rounded off one of the busiest spring periods locally for a long time.
Clive Bowley came across this super rufous morph (sometimes called ‘hepatic’) female Cuckoo near the feeding station at Summer Leys today.
One was also seen in the vicinity about two weeks ago. I’ve heard it said about 15% of female Cuckoos are rufous but I have no references on this and the proportion may well vary with geographical location. Rufous morph juveniles are much commoner, of course.
Bill deformities are widely recorded in many passerines – and with surprising regularity. Few, though, can be as eye-catching as this Great Tit, which has been visiting a garden bird feeder in Brampton Ash for the last month or so.
Bearing a passing resemblence to a hummingbird, it feeds from a seed feeder that enables its whole beak to enter, allowing it to take a sunflower kernels with relative ease and with apparently no detrimental effect to its health. Identical bill deformities have occurred in other Great Tits (for example, see here) and research by the BTO has uncovered abnormalities occurring in local clusters, suggesting a genetic basis or an effect of shared environmental conditions.
Summer Leys, early morning on 7th May. A steady trickle of interesting waders throughout the previous day had encouraged a handful of birders to occupy Pioneer Hide in readiness for ‘the big one.’ As it happened there were four ‘big ones’, which arrived from the south at 07.45, sweeping in a wide arc over the main lake before landing on the scrape. Spoonbills!
They stayed for approximately forty-five minutes – just long enough for some decent photos and video and for a few locals to catch up with them before they headed off to the north-west. As they flew in it was obvious that three of them were immatures, each showing variable amounts of black tips to the primaries and, on at least two of them, the secondaries also, as Matt Hazleton’s image below nicely illustrates.
Ageing Spoonbills to year is not as straightforward as it might at first seem (see Alexander Hellquist’s analysis). Bill colour, leg colour and the extent of black in the wing are all variable and relate to hatching time, wear and the condition of the bird in general. However, looking at the three immatures, it would appear we have one 2nd calendar year and two 3rd calendar year birds – as well as an adult, of course.
The 2nd calendar year individual shows all the features of a bird of that age, i.e. extensively dark fleshy-yellowish bill with darker grey basal part and yellowish base to lower mandible, plain pale yellowish lores, dark brown eye, lack of short plumes at rear of crown and grey legs. The 3rd calendar year birds show extensively darker bill with paler yellowish-flesh toward tip, blackish base to lower mandible, obvious black loral line, redder eyes, beginnings of short plumes (short tuft) at rear of crown and dark grey-black legs. What is puzzling, however, is the more extensive black tips to primaries and secondaries of the 3rd calendar year birds (both are also different) than the 2nd calendar year. In theory, this should be reversed!
Spoonbills are still rare visitors to Northants. The first county record was as recently as 1965 and there have been thirty-two records in total, the vast majority of which relate to single birds.
A flock of four is not unprecedented, however, with this number having occurred in April 1983 and eight in September 1984 – both records from Pitsford Reservoir. May is the month to find one and there are still three weeks left …
Unsettled and cold weather, with below average temperatures, were the hallmarks of the last week of the month, which was characterised in the main by stiff northerly winds bringing rain, sleet and snow – albeit in mercifully small quantities across the county. Spring migration continued unabated, however, with plenty of new birds turning up to keep local birders busy.
Still very much part of the furniture, Pitsford’s Ruddy Shelduck remained but rather more transient were a drake Garganey at Summer Leys LNR and a drake Common Scoter at Clifford Hill GP – both one-day wonders on 24th.
Another Great White Egret was seen around the north side of Pitsford Res on 25th but, more interestingly, a White Stork reported over Northampton on 23rd has the potential to make it on to the record as the county’s 20th – if anyone bothers to submit a description.
The 23rd also produced a couple of Marsh Harriers – one at Summer Leys and the other in the Brampton Valley below Hanging Houghton – while another was seen moving high north-east over Thrapston GP the following day. Also on 23rd, a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier was at Lyveden but apart from this there were no more scarce raptors reported during the period.
This week, however, belonged to the waders. More specifically – Black-tailed Godwits. While we’ve had ‘big’ flocks before they have not run into triple figures, let alone triple hundreds! But this was indeed the case on the evening of 27th, when an astonishing three hundred and twenty-five descended on Summer Leys, much to the amazement of the handful of birders on site at the time.
Arriving just after 7 pm, the majority had departed by 8 pm, leaving just four or five on 28th-29th, one of which was colour-ringed. Of course, this small group may have been new, later arrivals. This remarkably short-staying flock gives rise to speculation of what else goes through the county that we must be missing. In much smaller numbers other waders included an Avocet at Clifford Hill GP on 25th and Little Ringed Plovers at three sites throughout the week, while the Whimbrel passage continued with one on Mary’s Lake at Earls Barton GP on 23rd, two at adjacent Summer Leys from 23rd until 25th with one remaining until 29th, two at Clifford Hill GP on 24th with three there on 28th and one over Daventry CP on 26th.
Curlews were scarce by comparison with a pair at a potential breeding site on 24th. Small numbers of Dunlin included three at Stanwick GP on 25th, singles at Pitsford Res on 27th, Summer Leys on 28th and Stanford Res on 29th and four at Summer Leys on the last of these dates.
Common Sandpipers were recorded from six localities with a maximum of six at Stanford Res on 29th, while 24th saw Green Sandpipers arriving at Upton Valley (Northampton), Summer Leys and Clifford Hill GP, where there were two. Last week’s Spotted Redshank remained at Summer Leys until 24th, with the same site holding up to three Greenshanks to 27th and the relatively long-staying Wood Sandpiper until 26th. The scrape at Summer Leys provided ideal habitat for Common Snipe, where the maximum count came to at least twenty-three on 24th.
Arctic Tern passage was still very much in evidence this week with five at Summer Leys and ten at Daventry CP on 23rd – with one at the latter site on 24th-25th – fourteen at Stanwick GP and two at Clifford Hill GP on 25th and one at Earls Barton GP on 27th. Two adult Mediterranean Gulls joined the Black-headed Gull colony at Summer Leys on 28th but then chose to move to the Stanwick GP colony the next day, when they were seen displaying.
Migrant passerines included the long-staying male Ring Ouzel at Harrington AF, where it was observed singing on 29th. Common Redstarts were thin on the ground this week with a female at Daventry CP from 24th to 26th, two near Walgrave on 25th, and singles at Stanwick GP on 27th and Summer Leys on 29th, while Northern Wheatears again maintained their presence all week at Harrington AF with the site attracting up to eight on 24th, the same date seeing six at Clifford Hill GP, while two were at Chelveston AF on 26th. The first migrant Whinchat was discovered at Earls Barton GP on 25th, remaining there until 29th and another appeared at Blueberry Farm (Maidwell) on 27th, while single Bramblings in gardens at Hanging Houghton on 25th and 27th and at Kettering on 26th-29th represented the last remnants of winter …