We know surprisingly little about House Martins despite the fact that they breed alongside us, using our houses on which to build a nest made of hundreds of beakfuls of mud. Critically, we do not know why this species is in rapid decline in the UK. Currently, it is ‘Amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern listings, compiled by the UK’s leading conservation agencies.
The BTO is looking for volunteers to help with this year’s House Martin Nest Study. If you have House Martins nesting in your area, you could help collect vital data.
With most of the common summer visitors having arrived by the end of the period, the focus was clearly on wetland migrants in what has undoubtedly become the best spring, locally, for many years. More specifically, the period produced waders and terns in numbers, the likes of which we have not seen for a good few years, including a few potentially broken records. The main contributory factors were, firstly, the weather – particularly in the second week – when low cloud and rain combined with a prolonged period of easterlies to ‘down’ migrants across the county. Secondly, we have been blessed with lower than usual water levels at our reservoirs, following a rather dry winter. The draw-down at Stanford has also been a major influencer, providing the ideal habitat to attract migrant waders, twenty-five species of which have been recorded there so far this spring. Aside from all this, the county notched up Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt (again) and Red-rumped Swallow during this fast-moving five-week period.
Two winter visitors which have lingered or appeared later than the norm, giving rise to speculation, in some quarters, that their origins may be somewhat suspect, are the Whooper Swan at Stanford Res from 5th to 8th May and the long-staying – though mobile – first-summer Eurasian White-fronted Goose.
From Pitsford to Daventry to Hollowell to Stanford, this individual has engaged in a reservoir round-robin. It was last seen at the latter site on 23rd May and, having appeared during a good winter for this species locally, it is likely to be a non-breeder in no hurry to depart, and perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt. Back to things more seasonal and Summer Leys LNR was the principal location for Garganey, with probably three different birds over the period 6th to 23rd May, including two showy drakes on the scrape. Single drakes also visited Stanwick GP on 10th and 20th May and Clifford Hill GP on 18th May. Red-crested Pochards were still popping up here and there, with two at Thrapston GP on 30th April – one remaining until at least 13th May – one at Pitsford Res on 1st May and singles at Ditchford GP between 9th and 20th May, two there on 26th May and one at Stanwick GP on 20th-22nd May. The latter site held on to its long-staying female Scaup – believed by some to be not 100% genetically pure – until 18th May and another(?) female turned up at Daventry CP the following day, remaining there until 22nd May.
Stanford’s similarly long-staying first-year drake Long-tailed Duck remained there until 29th April, seemingly breaking all records for length of stay for this species locally, while another drake north of the dam at Pitsford Res added spice to a local bird race on 13th, remaining there until the following morning. Both of these reservoirs were clearly destined to deliver more sea ducks before the period was out, with two Common Scoters at Pitsford on 23rd April and one at Stanford on 12th May.
In keeping with the maritime theme, a chance Saturday evening visit by one birder to Pitsford, on 6th May, produced the first Black-throated Diver for five years. Those intent on catching up with this fine summer-plumaged Gavia had to move quickly – it was airborne and off north at 05.20 the next morning …
Many have been wondering how long it will be before Bitterns breed in the county as they edge ever closer, as well as being seen with increasing frequency outside the traditional winter season. Hopes were raised and dashed as one was seen at Summer Leys on 28th and 29th April but it disappeared thereafter. Next year, perhaps, unless Great White Egrets beat them to it. This may not be as unlikely as it sounds, as this is another species pushing the winter envelope and appearing increasingly later in spring – frequently in summer dress. Three during the period included one flying north over Clifford Hill GP on 28th April and singles at Summer Leys on 1st, 6th 9th and 10th May and at Pitsford Res on 2nd, 6th and 7th May.
We can forget breeding, though, for one species which continues to tease and tantalise as far is its appearances in the county are concerned: Glossy Ibis. Itchy feet does not even begin to describe the condition afflicting all five individuals which have now visited Northants since the species was first recorded here in 2002. So, the one discovered at Summer Leys at 11.30 on 23rd May duly conformed and was up, up and away at 13.35, never to be seen again – or was it? Three days later, an early morning scan across the pools immediately south of Irthlingborough, west of the A6 bridge and … there it was! Within minutes, however, it had flitted further west, ending up on an island in one of the lakes off Greenway before quickly, and mysteriously, melting away …
Migrating raptors, it could be argued, are also difficult to catch up with. The period’s best included a male Honey Buzzard west over Great Brington on 16th May, single May Marsh Harriers at Summer Leys on 7th, over Billing GP on 8th, Stanford Res on 13th, Stanwick GP on 22nd and Boddington Res on 23rd, while a male Hen Harrier flew west between Irchester and Wollaston on 12th May.
Meanwhile, Ospreys continued to drift around north Northants, with singles on several dates at Pitsford Res, Naseby Res and Harrington AF, while two Rutland-ringed individuals visited Welford Res on 21st May.
Topping the bill of the wader listing, the Black-winged Stilts returned for an encore at Stanford Res on 23rd April. Photographs suggested they were two of the three present three days previously, on 20th April but perhaps they were not.
Stranger things have happened. The same site produced an Avocet briefly on 18th May, following one at Summer Leys on 6th May and two there on 10th. And so started a remarkable run of waders at the reservoirs and in the River Nene Valley.
The first Grey Plovers appeared on 30th April, when three were at Clifford Hill GP and two arrived at Pitsford Res – the exposed mud between the dam and the mouth of Moulton Grange Bay subsequently proving a popular draw for a number of waders during the period. Stanford managed at least four – possibly six – between 1st and 7th May and singles were at Clifford Hill GP on 1st, Earls Barton GP on 5th and 6th, Stanwick GP on 5th and 12th (with two there on 9th), five were at Summer Leys on 6th – four of which departed east and were seen shortly afterward over Ditchford GP – and two were at Ditchford GP on 9th May.
Back on the border with Leicestershire, Stanford was continuing to do well, producing the highest spring count of ‘Tundra’ Ringed Plovers (twenty-seven on 17th May), while five localities between them produced a total of thirty-five Whimbrels between 22nd April and 14th May, with a maximum of seven at Pitsford Res on 30th April.
What Black-tailed Godwits lacked in number of records they made up for in numbers of birds. Apart from singles at Stanford on 24th April and Ditchford GP on 7th May, a flock exceeding three hundred flew north-west near Scaldwell on 28th April while, not on quite the same scale, Bar-tailed Godwits also appeared in respectable numbers. The largest flock comprised at least thirty-two in flight over Summer Leys on 5th May in addition to five on the ground there on the same date.
Stanford produced singles on 22nd and 24th April, at least eight there on 30th April, followed by two on 5th-6th May and three the following day. Elsewhere, Clifford Hill GP enjoyed a run of two on 30th April, three on 1st May, followed by seven on 5th May and singles visited Hollowell Res on 1st-2nd May, Summer Leys on 3rd May, Daventry CP on 5th May and Ditchford GP on 9th-10th May.Respectable numbers of Turnstones also appeared during May, with three at Stanford on 5th followed by two there on 16th, singles at Ditchford GP on 5th, Summer Leys on 8th and Stanwick GP on 12th, two at Daventry CP on 19th and one at Pitsford Res on 25th-26th.
Much scarcer, however, was Knot, of which there were three, including one colour-ringed individual on the mud at the mouth Pitsford’s Moulton Grange Bay on 30th April followed, uncannily, by a different, unringed bird in exactly the same place the next day. Proof, if ever there was, that the ‘two-bird’ theory should sometimes be given more credence than it actually is! The third was found at Summer Leys on the evening of 5th May, remaining only until the early morning of 6th. Ruffs were scarcer than might have been expected under the circumstances. One remained at Summer Leys between 22nd and 24th April, further singles visited Ditchford GP on 29th April and Clifford Hill GP on 5th May and four were at Stanford Res on 3rd May.
Early evening on 9th May marked the discovery of a Temminck’s Stint just south of the causeway at Pitsford Res. It was the first in the county since May 2013 and it obligingly remained there through the following morning. Pitsford also produced the spring’s only Little Stint – again on the Moulton Grange mud – on 14th May. The ‘magic month’ continued with a far stronger Sanderling passage than is usual, with all records falling within the first twenty days. On 1st, there was one on that hallowed mud at Pitsford and two at Clifford Hill GP, one of which remained the following day. Two appeared at Stanford on 6th, followed by singles at Pitsford and Hollowell Reservoirs on 8th and 10th respectively, while the 12th saw two more at Stanford, another at Pitsford and three on the new diggings at the western end of Earls Barton GP. The 17th, however, was the species’ big day, with three at Stanwick GP and a massive thirteen at Stanford – the latter likely to be a record-breaker, at least in recent history – and a lingering bird at Pitsford on 19th-20th is likely to have been the last one for this spring.
Among the many Dunlins passing through – the maximum being eighteen at Stanford on 17th – came the county’s second and third ‘Greenland’ Dunlins – one with the aforementioned Stanford flock and the other at Hollowell Res on 23rd May. This diminutive arctica race must surely occur more here frequently but it is less than straightforward to identify.
Surprisingly, with all that beckoning mud, there was only one record of Spotted Redshank during the period – two at Stanford Res on 5th May but it was not wasted on Greenshanks, numbers of which were almost on a par with those we expect to see in autumn. In summary, eight localities produced more than thirty individuals between them, including the maximum count of nine at Stanford Res from 5th to 9th May.
Wood Sandpipers appeared in marginally above average numbers, though, with the first at Earls Barton GP on 29th-30th April moving to nearby Summer Leys on the latter date, where numbers varied between one and three from 6th to 9th May.
Stanford of course produced its own, with singles in May on 1st-2nd and 5th and a potentially record-breakingly late Jack Snipe also remained there throughout the period. Frequently to be found feeding well out in the open on the Leicestershire bank, it crossed the line when it flew and entered Northants airspace on 15th May.
But enough of waders. The county enjoyed its best spring for Little Terns for a good many years as seven made their way through during the seven-day period, 29th April to 5th May. The first was at Summer Leys on 29th, followed by singles at Pitsford Res, Stanford Res and Daventry CP the next day. Further singles appeared at Summer Leys on 1st, Stanford on 3rd and Pitsford on 5th. There was also a half-decent Black Tern passage between 23rd April and 14th May, during which between ninety and a hundred were recorded from a total of nine localities. Double-figure counts – all on 30th April – came from Pitsford Res, with two flocks of twelve and twenty-three, and Thrapston GP, where there were eleven on Aldwincle Lake. Following earlier records, the spring was not yet done with Sandwich Terns, one spending just five minutes at Hollowell Res on 30th April and two less than half an hour at Stanwick GP on 19th May, while Arctic Terns appeared in good numbers between 22nd April and 20th May. The big day for this species was undoubtedly 27th April, when at least one hundred and ten were at Stanford Res and one hundred and twelve Sterna terns – the majority Arctics – were at Thrapston GP. In summary, records came from a further five localities, with sizeable flocks of approximately fifty-five at Pitsford and between thirty and thirty-five at Boddington Res – both on 30th April.
In comparison to terns, Little Gulls were in surprisingly short supply. On 29th April, an adult visited Mary’s Lake at Earls Barton GP, followed the next day by another adult at Pitsford Res. On 1st May, an adult and a first-summer were at Clifford Hill GP and on 11th May seven – all first-summers – visited Stanford Res, where one remained the following day. Single adults were also found at both Daventry CP and Summer Leys on 19th May.
Two adult Mediterranean Gulls appeared at Stanwick GP on 24th April and then caused a stir at Summer Leys between 3rd and 5th May, when it looked as if they might be taking up residence in the Black-headed Gull colony there. However, it was not to be and they were subsequently back at Stanwick on 6th. One of these, or another, was seen flying west along the River Nene at Wellingborough Embankment on 10th and then came a run of first-summers – involving at least two different birds – from Stanwick on 12th May and daily there from 18th to 22nd May with one also appearing at Summer Leys on 13th May.
Not to left out, larger scarce gulls were slimly represented by a Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford Res on 22nd April and a first-summer Caspian Gull at Daventry CP on 11th May.
With all the wetland action, passerines and anything not exclusively associated with water have seemingly taken a back seat. Or have they? As if to redress the balance, Northamptonshire’s fourth-ever Red-rumped Swallow appeared with an influx of House Martins at Daventry CP on 15th May. Present from mid-afternoon until at least 18.30, it remained highly mobile, distant and would disappear for lengthy periods. Three out of the county’s four have now been at Daventry CP – and they’ve all been found there by Gary Pullan! The first was at Ditchford GP in September 1984 and the subsequent two at Daventry were in April 1999 and May 2009. We can surely expect more to come …
Just one Wood Warbler appeared this spring – a singing male at Pitsford Res on 29th April, which became increasingly difficult to see as the day progressed, similarly only one Pied Flycatcher was reported, via Birdtrack, at Hinton-in-the-Hedges on 6th May.
A Black Redstart was present on buildings in Wellingborough town centre on 23rd May – again, another poor spring for this species as well as for Common Redstart with singles only at Pitsford Res on 29th April and Clifford Hill GP the following day, although a singing male has been present in a suitable breeding area in the west of the county for the past four weeks. It’s been the same sorry story for Whinchats in what surely must be the worst spring for many years for this species – just two, one at Earls Barton GP on 29th April and one the following day at Clifford Hill GP.
In contrast, there were still plenty of Northern Wheatears coming through, including some identified as ‘Greenland’ Wheatears, although most – if not all – are likely to be of this race in late spring. In April, Harrington AF held up to five between 23rd and 28th, two were at Earls Barton GP from 23rd to 29th, two also visited Priors Haw on 24th and singles were at Ditchford GP on 26th, Desborough Airfield on 28th and Clifford Hill GP on 30th, followed by six at the latter site the following day and one was at Gretton on 11th May.
Continuing a run of records, another male ‘Channel’ Wagtail paid a brief visit to Stanford Res on 3rd May and single female-type Blue-headed Wagtails were at Pitsford Res on 1st May and at Hollowell Res on 12th May. And, after a fantastic showing of White Wagtails earlier this spring, numbers dwindled to four at Stanford Res on 24th and, on 30th, one was present there, one was at Pitsford Res and three visited Earls Barton GP.
As part our exceptional wader movement this spring, there have been two reports of Greenland Dunlins – that’s the scarcer race, arctica, which turns up in much smaller numbers than the much more commonly occurring schinzii and alpina. One was with the mixed small wader flock at Stanford Reservoir on 17th May and the other, nicely illustrated in the photos by Bob Bullock here, was at Hollowell Reservoir six days later, on 23rd.
Features associated with this race, breeding in north-east Greenland and Svalbard, were described in Northamptonshire’s first, which was at Summer Leys on 9th May 2013. The excellent images by Bob illustrate the most of the key identification features but they are far from straightforward – particularly on a lone individual, which cannot easily be compared with other Dunlins.
In summary, arctica is slightly smaller than the other two races. It has a shorter bill and it appears generally greyer and less rusty/chestnut on head, mantle, scapulars and coverts. The black belly patch is smaller and usually less solid and the breast streaking is noticeably finer compared with that on schinzii and alpina.
Sounds easy but it isn’t. There is variation. There is also the added complication of first-summer Dunlin of one of the other races, which frequently has reduced black belly patch and may also appear greyer through not attaining full adult plumage. There is also first-summer arctica to consider … so a full suite of characters is the best way to nail one.
In spite of the fact that there was no size comparison made, the Hollowell bird ticks all the boxes, apart from one – and that’s the bill length, which looks longer in some images than in others. This may be as a result of sex, with females being marginally larger and having longer bills. Associating with other Dunlins, the Stanford bird on 17th was, according to the observer, Gary Pullan, short-billed, small and almost stint-like (as well as showing all the other correct features). Apart from tertials and coverts, which are very worn, the rest of the plumage is fresh and ‘classically’ arctica, with the mantle fringes cinnamon-yellow and not rusty-chestnut.
Richard Chandler has commented, “Yes, looks quite good for arctica, with the right cinnamon tones to the upper parts, and a smallish breast patch. The relatively late date for Dunlin on migration is also supportive. Complications are the rather massive bill – but may be a female – and the worn plumage, especially tertials and wing coverts, which suggest a first-year bird and might be the reason for the rather pale plumage. But I can’t see any obvious retained juv feathers as they are too worn to show the classic juv dark feather tips. And would have been good to have had another bird for size comparison. But if I have to put a race to it arctica seems the most likely …”
Gary Pullan also stated, “It does look quite good, it seems to be a 1st summer and probably a female given the length of the bill, so that doesn’t help to be absolutely sure in my humble and rather poorly-informed opinion. Saying that the new scaps etc are not particularly bright and the belly patch rather restricted (age related though?), both good points. Shame it was on its own, and I didn’t see it! The Stanford bird had a remarkably short bill, rather stint-like, I estimated it comparable in length to the distance from the bill base to just about the ear coverts, whereas this bird seems to have a bill the same length as the head itself. It was markedly small too and was probably a male.”
Many thanks to Richard Chandler and Gary Pullan for their comments.
The words ‘Glossy Ibis’ and ‘Northamptonshire’, when occurring together in the same sentence, are now predictably accompanied by adjectives such as ‘short-staying’, ‘fleeting’, or ‘transient’ to describe this species’ visits to the county. The first one to occur in spring followed the now well established occurrence pattern seemingly mandatory for Glossy Ibises in Northants. This individual managed little more than two hours at Summer Leys today, having been discovered at 11.30, before flying off west at 13.35. Images below from Alan Coles.
This is only the fifth county record, following singles at Ravensthorpe Reservoir on 20th September 2002, Pitsford Reservoir on 17th September 2010, Stanwick GP on 12th October 2013 and Daventry CP on 28th September 2016.
Late spring sees small flocks of Ringed Plovers inland, moving north. Most, if not all will be ‘Tundra’ types, probably of the Scandinavian/Russian/Siberian race tundrae, but possibly also psammodroma, which breeds no further away than Iceland, with its range extending to Greenland and north-east Canada. Both races are very similar, being slightly smaller, darker and marginally smaller-billed than our ‘own’ nominate race hiaticula (more here).
There have been a handful of reports this week, including 5 at Earls Barton Gravel Pits on 6th and one there on 7th, plus 6 at Stanwick Gravel Pits and 7 at Pitsford Reservoir yesterday.
This one at Earls Barton GP appears to be a female as the ear coverts are not solidly black and the band around the neck is thin and brownish at the rear but it was noticeably smaller and darker than the accompanying bird, which is presumed to be a breeding hiaticula.
The images from Alan Coles, below, capture a rufous morph Cuckoo in flight over Summer Leys LNR on 5th May. This is interesting on two counts – firstly, because this colour morph is generally uncommon, with only one or two reported in Northants per year and secondly, because records in recent years have come from Summer Leys/Earls Barton Gravel Pits (last year’s here) suggesting this may be the same returning individual.
Colour polymorphism in birds is determined genetically and the similarities between plumages of rufous females and Cuckoo fledglings (see here) suggest that the rufous morph is simply a colour alternative to the grey morph and might have arisen through paedomorphic retention of juvenile plumage to adulthood (see Trnka, Trnka & Grim).
A stunning summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver was found by John Friendship-Taylor at Pitsford Reservoir during the closing hours of daylight yesterday evening (6th May). Visible from the feeding station area at the mouth of Scaldwell Bay, it was still present at dusk and remained there until 05.20 this morning, when it was seen by Antony Taylor to fly off north.
This is only the 20th record for the county, following the last in 2012, when one was at Stanford Reservoir. Fifty-five percent of all records have come from Pitsford.
The amazing variability in the plumage of Common Buzzards of two widespread races – ‘our’ local buteo and eastern vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) – is well known, with some examples of both being almost impossible to tell apart.
Confronted with one such individual at Fineshade on 2nd May, Jeff Blincow was quick to capture some images of what, he says, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to identifying as a Steppe Buzzard had he been in Africa or the eastern Mediterranean region. Having seen Jeff’s excellent photos, reproduced here, I would have reached the same conclusion. “It was obvious with the naked eye,” Jeff said, and it immediately stands out with a conspicuous light rufous tail and foxy underwing coverts.
With an apparently dark eye and barred, rather than streaked, underparts, it would appear to be an adult or near-adult. But is it a Steppe Buzzard? The rufous element to the plumage, apparently less obvious in the images than in the field, are the only pro-Steppe features, although many darker Steppes can look remarkably similar to Commons and, just to complicate matters, there is an intergrade zone in eastern Europe where the two races meet.
There are more pro-Common features with this bird, however, with the barring on the secondaries being quite broad and extending well on to the primaries which, themselves are not solidly dark-tipped (some broad barring still present immediately beyond the dark). There is also a less intense underparts pattern than exhibited by typical Common Buzzards, i.e. dark head, neck and chest separated from variable dark flanks by a whitish or vary pale breast band.
Compare the Fineshade bird with a typical Steppe Buzzard, which has narrower, finer and more restricted barring against a whiter background on the underwing. The individuals in the images below, taken by Mark Pearson in Israel in March, shows more evenly patterned underparts, although the ‘ghost’ of the underparts pattern described above is still apparent.
And a first-year individual, pale, streaked not barred and with a pale iris …
The Fineshade bird is interesting. It is likely to be ‘just’ a Common Buzzard but may also be an example of an eastern European intergrade – and we have had a relatively prolonged period of easterly winds recently …
Comments welcomed and many thanks to Jeff and Mark for their images!