The Summer Leys Spoonbills

Ageing and Local Status

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.

Spoonbills, Summer Leys LNR, 7th May 2016 (Matt Hazleton)

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.

Spoonbills, Summer Leys LNR, 7th May 2016. Comparison of 2nd calendar year (left two) and 3rd calendar year (right three) birds.

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.

Northamptonshire Spoonbills. Monthly distribution, all records. Background image: Mike Alibone.

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 …