On 28th March 2017, Birdwatch magazine and BirdGuides’ team The Birdwatch-BirdGuides Roadrunners – of which I am a member – will take part in the third Champions of the Flyway bird race, a major international event which is now being staged annually in Eilat, Israel – home of one of the world’s most desirable birding destinations and famous migration spectacles.Last year, nearly thirty teams raced in the event attempting to find, identify and log as many species as possible in an intense 24 hour contest to win the coveted title ‘Champions of the Flyway’. While the racing might be light-hearted, the goal is serious – to raise conservation funding through sponsorship and donations that will help the BirdLife International Partnership tackle the illegal killing of birds in southern and eastern Europe. At least 25 million birds are illegally slaughtered in the Mediterranean every year and some estimates have put this figure much, much higher.
Although the event commences and finishes in Eilat, it covers a well-defined ‘field of play’ extending north-west to Nizzana in the western Negev Desert on the Egyptian border and north-east along the Jordanian border in the Arava Valley.
Again, this is not just a bird race, but a massive fundraising campaign to support conservation work and the proceeds will be channelled this year into action to prevent the illegal annual slaughter of migrant birds in Greece
In 2015 The Birdwatch-BirdGuides Roadrunners (Josh Jones, Alan Tilmouth and myself) won the award ‘Guardians of the Flyway’ for raising the most funds – just over £4,700 – of all the teams entering and in 2016 the team (David Callahan, Mark Avery, Andy Clements and myself) raised a similar amount but we could not compete with the American team which raised $12,000! We would like to better the total in 2017 and the event hopes to raise $70,000 in total. This year the team (Dawn Balmer, Mark Pearson and myself) is looking for individuals and corporate sponsors/donors to support our fundraising efforts. We are nearly halfway toward our minimum target. If you care about the perils which are faced by ‘our’ birds as they migrate to and from the UK and elsewhere in northern Europe then please consider visiting our donation page and pledging even a small amount. The link to the Champions site is http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/ (this gives all details of the scheme), our team’s page is at http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/birdwatch-birdguides-roadrunners from which there is a ‘Donate’ link to our fundraising page at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/COTF17-BWBGroadrunners
More about Champions of the Flyway in my Birding Israel talk at the Northamptonshire Bird Club’s AGM, 1st March, Pitsford Res Fishing Lodge.
The extended round-up period saw the arrival of more traditional winter fair in the shape of white-winged gulls, scarce grebes and more Waxwings, the largest flock of which exceeded fifty. Wildfowl, too, remained prominent, with long-stayers remaining and a few new ones being thrown into the wetland mix.
Like the first on 5th January, the second record of Bewick’s Swan for 2017 consisted of a small, fly-over flock of four flying east along the Nene Valley on 13th, while the adult Whooper Swan remained at Sywell CP until at least 19th.
There were more fly-overs to come as eight Pink-footed Geese were seen heading south over Pitsford Res on 17th and the wintering Eurasian White-fronted Geese appearing to break up, with fourteen commuting erratically between riverside locations at Great Doddington and Whiston between 28th and 8th. During, and beyond, this period there were reports of small numbers elsewhere – possibly as a result of the original flock of twenty-four dispersing and remaining local. In this respect, two visited Wicksteed Park Lake on 28th, six were at Clifford Hill GP on 1st, two remained on Thrapston GP’s Town Lake between 4th and 18th, one was at Pitsford Res between 15th and 19th and a first-winter visited Daventry CP on 20th.
Keeping tabs on escapes which could be future additions to the British List is always worth doing but in the case of the Wood Duck, which turned up at Shelfley’s Lake, Northampton on 14th this could be stretching things a bit as far as this individual is concerned. Nevertheless, this species is always a nice bird to see.
With no more than two at any location, five sites produced Red-crested Pochards, including Earls Barton GP, Pitsford Res, Summer Leys LNR, Thrapston GP and Wicksteed Park Lake, while the long-staying female Scaup remained at on the main lake at Stanwick GP until at least 20th. The two drake Scaup were still at Earls Barton GP on 29th, a drake was at Ditchford GP on 19th and two females visited Daventry CP the following day – all combining to represent a healthier than average showing for this species during the first two months of the year.
Stanford’s Long-tailed Duck, now into its ninth week, remained throughout the period and another sea duck – a female Common Scoter – was reported from Sywell CP on 3rd. Smew have been relatively scarce this winter in comparison to recent previous years and a drake seen at Pitsford Res on 30th, 6th and 7th was probably the same individual which visited Ravensthorpe Res on 4th, 5th and 11th. Elsewhere, single ‘redheads’ were seen at Stanford Res on 5th and 10th and at Earls Barton GP from 16th to 18th.
Skulking Bitterns were present on the Heronry Lake at Thrapston GP on 5th and 12th and another was seen at Stanwick GP on 6th. Rather more obvious, though, was the period’s crop of Great White Egrets and, while there were no stunningly high single-site totals, this species was on show with up to two almost daily somewhere or other in the county, records coming from Ditchford GP, Hollowell Res, Pitsford Res Ravensthorpe Res, Summer Leys and Thrapston GP.
Upstaging Pitsford’s Slavonian Grebe, which remained until at least 21st, a Red-necked Grebe was found close to the causeway there on 13th, thereafter remaining until the end of the period. The only scarce raptor reported was a Merlin at Pitsford Res on 13th. This species has, so far, been unusually scarce this winter. Predictably the only scarce waders were single Jack Snipe at Stanford Res on 4th and 10th, two at Barnes Meadow LNR, Northampton on 16th and one at Ditchford GP on 19th.
While gulls are currently enjoying a good deal of renewed adverse media publicity, the demise of their favourite inland habitat, landfill sites, is making them more sought after by local birders. With apparently just one active landfill in Northants the second best option is a local gull roost in fading light … There was a first-winter Mediterranean Gull at the Boddington Res roost on 18th but, as we move into March, more Meds will appear at roosts as they move through the county on passage. Caspian Gulls have also been visiting our roosts, with Pitsford and Boddington attracting adults sporadically throughout the period. Hollowell, Stanford and Daventry have also produced singles during the day but better by far has been the Rushton Landfill site which has produced up to three adults and a first-winter, on and off, throughout. This site has also attracted two different, ‘one-day’ Glaucous Gulls – a fourth-winter on 18th, quickly followed by a juvenile the following day. An adult Iceland Gull visited Stanford Res briefly on 2nd but, apart from these three ‘white-wingers’ along with the recent Glaucous near Chacombe, the winter has been treating Northants rather meanly. A trickle of Yellow-legged Gulls has included singles at Boddington Res, Chacombe, Daventry CP, Pitsford Res, Thrapston GP and, of course, Rushton Landfill, where two were present on 19th.
Up to four Short-eared Owls were still at Neville’s Lodge, near Finedon, until at least 6th and one was at Twywell Hills & Dales on 13th.
Are birders still looking for them at Finedon or has interest diminished in the wake of the continuing winter Waxwing invasion, which continues to illicit considerable interest from birders and the general public alike? The maximum counts for the nine areas in which they have occurred during the last four weeks are as follows: East Hunsbury, fifty-plus on 23rd; Wootton, forty-five/fifty on 18th; Irthlingborough, forty-one on 7th; Kettering, thirty-eight on 29th; Bush Hill (Northampton), twenty-five on 29th; Boughton Green Road (Northampton), ten on 18th; Oundle, nine/twelve on 13th and Rushton, nine on 6th.
Out in the country, away from all the panache and pizzazz, the second and third Corn Buntings of the year were found: one was with Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings near Warmington on 18th-19th and the other visited a feeding station at Woodford Halse on 20th. Good try in both cases but time is fast running out for the discovery of a Pine or a Little …
After convincing myself to go against my gut feel and better judgement, it would appear I was wrong in my post-observation photo-based identification assessment of the white-winged 4th winter gull at Rushton last weekend as an Iceland Gull.
Mick Ketley kindly contacted me with a solid argument which supports my initial identification as a Glaucous Gull. Here’s what he says:
As you can imagine, I found your account of great interest and of a very similar situation to what we had at Eye Brook Reservoir (EBR) last month, Saturday 7 January. I thought it strange that you changed your mind when it was put out on recent reports. I feel strongly that you were correct in the first place, that it is a 4th w Glaucous Gull albeit a female, considering its size and bill. Your photos show clearly the following features.
TOP PHOTO: It appears MASSIVE compared to the Common Gull (at its primary tips). It is MUCH LARGER than the adult and juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Is MUCH LARGER than the 1st w Herring Gull (beside the Common Gull) and ‘argenteus’ Herring Gulls at the top of the photo. It appears to closely approach the size of the large Herring Gull (left of centre at the top of the photo). Taking these pro-Glaucous features and size of bill into consideration it seems to be a female Glaucous Gull.
SECOND PHOTO: Similar comparisons.
THIRD PHOTO: Self-explanatory, HUGE beside the Lesser Black-backed Gull.
BOTTOM PHOTO: On its own. I would expect the primary projection to be slightly longer on an Iceland Gull. The position of the eye is up nearer to the forehead, the ratio of eye diameter to bill length is well within 1:5 to 1:7. These are certainly pro-Glaucous features. Some Glaucous Gulls can show a primary projection, while others, especially bolt upright, have a ‘very blunt rear end’.
To date my personal tally of local (i.e. EBR and around the Corby area) Glaucous Gulls is 36 individuals and 49 individual Iceland Gulls. I found a personal guide to sexing Iceland Gulls as follows, although they have a different structure, I found BODY MASS to be helpful, in comparison with large male Common Gull, = female Iceland. And with Lesser Black-backed Gull = male Iceland.
This is not the first time nor the last this situation arises re. white-winged gulls, I’ve known a few. On Saturday 7 January, last month, I spent a lot of time at Rushton a.m. as there were three large concentrations of gulls, nothing special. Then I went to RW and arrived at EBR at 3.00 p.m. just as Andy Mackay, Colin Towe and Chris Lythall located a white-winged gull on the water at the inflow. On its own just like your bird, we all agreed to Iceland Gull, small, extremely pale grey mantle and upper wings (pro-Iceland), low profile and long attenuated rear end, even the ‘small’ bill size. However I did remark that the eye was up nearer the forehead. Then other gulls swam alongside it and alarm bells rang. Even ‘argenteus’ were dwarfed by it and it was matching larger Herring Gulls. If you go onto LROS latest sightings, scroll to the 2 photos dated 7 January, it looks like an Iceland Gull (adult), touch on the photos for the bigger picture, no pun intended, and like yours, seems to be a female Glaucous Gull, compared to other gulls with it. The shade of grey appears darker in the photos, it was extremely pale.
I cannot disagree with Mick. Further research throws up the not infrequent occurrence of Glaucous Gulls with ‘long wings’ and, despite the apparently small bill, this gull retains that mean, Glaucous look …
A timely Editorial in the British Birds e-Newsletter
With little more than a month to go before my ‘retirement’ as County Recorder, the following Editorial appeared in the BB e-Newsletter, reproduced here by kind permission of BB Editor, Roger Riddington. The post remains vacant …
Recently, I was talking to Ben, the BB web designer. He had done some work on our website, including the page of current county recorders. He expressed some surprise when I told him I’d be making changes to the content of that page on a regular, probably monthly, basis. I think he’d assumed that county recorders, once appointed, were likely to remain in post for a very long time, possibly forever. There are a few long-term stalwarts, of course, but nationally, there is a good deal of turnover. It’s perhaps not surprising – the volume of work can be significant and for most recorders, that work equates to spare time not spent in the field. I suspect that most recorders would say that the bulk of the records come in with little effort, it’s chasing up the (hopefully small) minority of difficult species and recalcitrant observers that takes such a lot of time. Yet the county recorder network is a foundation for a huge amount of amateur ornithology and citizen science in Britain, and it plays a key part of the main reports in BB, including the Rarities, Scarce Migrants and Rare Breeding Birds reports. We acknowledge this in an admittedly small way by giving current county recorders a 50% discount on their annual subscription to BB. But by and large, county recorders are unsung heroes. So to all you past and present recorders and bird report editors: we salute you, thanks for your efforts. And to anyone thinking of putting their hand up for a vacant position – go on, give it a try; it need not be forever, and you will be making a really key contribution.
This morning I paid my usual weekly visit to Rushton Landfill. In recent weeks it has been pulling in up to 4,000 gulls, including several Caspians, and the chances of finding either Glaucous or Iceland has been on the cards for some time, given the current higher than usual numbers of both species present in the UK this winter.
Gulls frequently loaf in good numbers on adjacent fields and one of the favourite gathering places is the field immediately north of the landfill, at Storefield Lodge Farm. It was here that, going through the assembled flock this morning, I picked out a first-winter Caspian and, at last, found a white-winged gull. My immediate reaction was forth-winter Glaucous as it seemed quite large, looked a little dingy and had a blackish subterminal band on the bill – otherwise it was a winter ‘adult’ with fairly well-marked head streaking, which extended to the neck and upper breast, albeit rather faded. I duly broadcast the news and then went back to getting a proper look.
Next to Lesser Black-backed and Herring it appeared marginally larger, although the bill was not long but the head appeared rather flat-crowned. Given size and proportions I quickly came to the conclusion it must be a small female Glaucous. Over the next couple of minutes I took a few long distance digiscope shots before the bird disengaged itself from the flock and flew a few metres closer. Any potential prolonged observation was quickly cut short at this point, however, as the explosive gull-scarer went off on the adjacent landfill and all the gulls took to the air and quickly dispersed. Despite a search of neighbouring fields I failed to relocate the gull. It was only after later examination of the images I managed to obtain that nagging doubts about the bird’s identity crept in. Although in the first three images reproduced here the bird appears large and ‘mean-looking’ (= Glaucous) in the last of the series of images the true proportions are visible. It lacks the truly hefty proportions of Glaucous Gull, appears attenuated with a long primary projection and has a more rounded head and relatively small, short bill, bearing a resemblance to a Common Gull. This all adds up to it being an Iceland Gull with the size and sometimes flattish, sloping forehead suggesting a ‘butch’ male.