Rarity Round-up, 19th to 25th January 2019

Winter consolidated its hold on the county this week with a further light fall of snow on 22nd. Subsequent overnight temperatures of below zero and a daytime maximum of just 3º on 23rd ensured it was going nowhere fast, until almost the end of the period. This week it was all about a shrike and a bunting, with another tantalising Waxwing thrown in for good measure.

The first-winter Whooper Swan remained at Thrapston GP throughout the period and Stanwick GP’s single Pink-footed Goose materialised again on 20th, as did the Stanford Res duo on 23rd.

First-winter Whooper Swan, Thrapston GP, 19th January 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Ditchford GP produced two Red-crested Pochards on 19th-20th, while last week’s top count of twelve at Pitsford Res almost doubled to twenty-three on 24th. The drake Ring-necked Duck remained also at this site, wandering south and west to Pintail Bay on the latter date. The Summer Leys drake, last seen on 13th, was reported on the Grendon Lakes section of Earls Barton GP on 21st. The Summer Leys drake Tufted Duck x Pochard hybrid was present there the following day, while the first-winter or hybrid Scaup             remained at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR throughout.

Drake Tufted Duck x Pochard hybrid, Grendon Lakes, Earls Barton GP, 22nd January 2019 (Mike Alibone)
First-winter female Scaup (or hybrid), Irthlingborough Lake & Meadows, Ditchford GP, 19th January 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Pitsford’s, the two juvenile Great Northern Divers were still present together on 24th and the same site continued to hold up to five Great Egrets, the same number being at Thrapston GP on 25th. Elsewhere, Ditchford GP hosted up to three and singles were at Earls Barton GP/Summer Leys LNR and Stanford Res – again, numbers were a tad down on previous weeks.

Hen Harriers were still on the week’s menu, the Stanford Res juvenile showing some degree of site faithfulness to the area south of the reservoir, between the dam and the Cold Ashby to Stanford on Avon road. After the relatively long-staying second-winter male at Stanwick set its sight on horizons new and visited Neville’s Lodge, Finedon, last week, it went unreported during the period but was bizarrely replaced by a ‘ringtail’ at the latter locality on 20th and 22nd. Once again, the only other raptor of note occurring was a male Merlin seen on three consecutive days, 22nd-24th, at the site formerly known as Blueberry Farm, Maidwell. Much more on this location a little later.

Notable waders are understandably few and far between in mid-January and a single Jack Snipe at Ditchford GP on 22nd was all the week could muster. More surprisingly, however, gulls were in short supply and after the previous ‘white-winged week’, gull action was limited to single adult Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost at Boddington Res on 19th, at Pitsford Res on 23rd and Hollowell Res on 25th, while adult Caspian Gulls were seen at Rushton Landfill on 19th, at Chacombe the following day and two were at Hollowell Res on 25th.

Up to two Short-eared Owls were still present and on view in the grasslands of Neville’s Lodge near Finedon throughout on 20th-21st and two were found at Harrington AF on 22nd, while the appearance of a single Waxwing at East Hunsbury, Northampton on 25th was very short-lived, this bird flying off and eluding those who went to look for it within minutes of its discovery.

Far more obliging however, was, for many, this week’s star bird, appearing in the form of a crisp and frosty Great Grey Shrike. Discovered on 22nd at the site formerly known as Blueberry Farm, Maidwell, it performed admirably for all comers, working its way along a favoured hedgerow, occasionally approaching its admirers closely enough to be photographed.

Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 22nd January 2019 (Martin Swannell)
Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 23rd January 2019 (Martin Swannell)

This species has become much rarer as a winter visitor across the UK over the past thirty years. In its heyday in the 1970s, Northamptonshire records reached double figures annually, peaking at a whopping 20 in 1974. Nowadays it is possible to experience a five-year run with no local records. The flagging up of this

Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 22nd January 2019 (Alan Coles)

understandably popular bird on the internet has led to the uncovering of a hitherto unpublicised and well-photographed individual at Scaldwell last month, in mid-December 2018. Excellent images here depict a light-lored, pale-billed pulse-raiser – a Steppe Grey Shrike at first glance but diving into the detail reveals lightly-barred underparts which do not feature in any plumage or at any age in the life cycle of the latter (sub)species. So it’s an extreme example of a first-winter female Great Grey and clearly not the same individual as our bridleway beauty currently residing below Hanging Houghton and still present at the week’s end.

As if one stunner in this area isn’t enough but parachute a concentration of birders into one small area and other goodies start popping out of the woodwork. In this instance Lapland Bunting – a far rarer bird locally although, for some, perhaps not exerting the same magnetic pull as the charismatic shrike, the presence of which ultimately led to its fortuitous discovery. Found on day 2 of the shrike’s stay, it remained throughout the period within a Skylark flock feeding in millet and stubble. To date, it has been seen and heard only in flight.

This will constitute the 12th county record. The 11th was at Stanford Res in December 2014 and before that we need to go back to September 2000, when one was at Borough Hill. The first for the county was discovered by the same finder as this week’s bird, at Harrington AF in October 1987 and, despite ten subsequent records to date, none has been twitchable. For those who haven’t seen one in the county, then, this bird represents the best chance to catch up with a local ‘lappo’ for thirty-one years. Pinning it down, however, is another matter entirely. Of course, the two or three Corn Buntings also discovered on site look like taking a back seat – at least for the time being …

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