Rarity Round-up, 23rd to 29th March 2019

The week remained dry, largely sunny and pleasantly mild, with a predominantly light westerly to south-westerly airstream – conditions which were again conducive to migration. The birding wasn’t too shoddy, either. Cattle Egret, White Stork, Common Crane and Hooded Crow were the new in highlights, alongside some more of the expected summer migrants, including the first Swallows on 24th.

Time must surely be running out for the first-winter Whooper Swan and the three Pink-footed Geese still ensconced at Thrapston GP at the week’s end, as the arrival of a drake Garganey at Summer Leys LNR on 25th heralds the onset of ‘wildfowl spring’ and sets the clock ticking for their departure. Last week’s drake Red-crested Pochard remained at Pitsford Res until at least 26th and after missing a day, the drake Ring-necked Duck was back at Thrapston for 23rd-24th only.

Just one Great Northern Diver was seen at Pitsford on 23rd and 26th and this same locality pulled back a Great Egret on 28th, after an absence of several weeks. Top counts of this species at other sites comprised three at Summer Leys and twos at Stanford Res, Stanwick and Thrapston. A Cattle Egret also (re)surfaced in the Nene Valley. Following unconfirmed reports of one off Ditchford Lane last week, one was located on 25th, roosting in trees around the Cormorant colony at Ditchford GP’s Delta Lake. It was still present on 29th, having visited nearby Stanwick GP on 27th.

White Stork, Sawbridge, Warwickshire, 28th March 2019 (Bob Hazell)

Continuing the herons, storks and allies theme, a White Stork which roosted in Warwickshire, little more than a kilometre from the county boundary, on 27th, entered Northamptonshire airspace early the following morning as it made its way north-east over the A45 toward Barby. During the early afternoon of the same day it, or quite possibly another, was seen circling low over the A6 and the eastern end of Ditchford GP before drifting off west over Higham Ferrers. This is/are about 23rd/24th records of this species for the county, following a well-documented Dutch-ringed individual at Clifford Hill GP last year. There have been several reports around the UK so far this spring and the likelihood of their being different individuals is commented upon here.

Keeping eyes to the skies produced two Ospreys this week – one over Deene Lake on 26th and another flying west over Honey Hill, near Cold Ashby, on 29th but up there with them, in the troposphere, were two, four or six Common Cranes, depending on how you cut it. Two were seen flying east over Brixworth on 23rd, two flew south over Moulton late in the morning of 26th and on the same day, about 90 minutes later, two were over Holcot, heading toward Pitsford Res. Given the close geographical proximity of these reports, it seems logical to assume the same birds accounted for all sightings. These, then, constitute about the 27th record, following on from the ‘gang of five’ over Daventry CP last September, the migration path of which was tracked as they moved south over the UK.

Avocets, Summer Leys LNR, 23rd March 2019 (Bob Bullock)

On the wader front, Summer Leys attracted two Avocets on 23rd and further down the valley, Stanwick played host to sixteen Ruffs for the morning of 28th. A Jack Snipe was also found at the latter site on 26th, while another was at Thrapston GP two days earlier, on 24th.

In a week perhaps unsurprisingly devoid of scarce gulls, late news of the second-winter Iceland Gull revisiting Stanford Res on 22nd emerged too late to be included in last week’s round-up.

Short-eared Owl, Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR, 29th March 2019 (Tony Vials)

Two Short-eared Owls remained at the much favour’d locality of Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) all week, one was still at Lilbourne Meadows on 23rd and another was watched being mobbed by Carrion Crows over Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows on 29th. Which brings us neatly on to the rarest bird of recent times, Hooded Crow, one of which was seen in flight with Jackdaws, just beyond the northern boundary of Summer Leys on the same date. This is only the second county record this century, following one at Alderton in November 2018, which prompted this status review.

Hooded Crow, Summer Leys LNR northern periphery, 28th March 2019 (Ady Leybourne)

Meanwhile, the Great Grey Shrike remained in the Blueberry Farm area all week, and the first Firecrest to be found this year was in Pitsford’s Scaldwell Bay on 28th. Following the spring’s first Northern Wheatears last week, further singles were seen at Mears Ashby on 23rd, in the Blueberry Farm area on 24th and 29th and at Harrington AF on the latter date. Crossbills managed to keep up their recent weekly appearances, albeit scantily, with flyovers at Scotland Wood (Kelmarsh) on 23rd and Pitsford Res (two) on 27th. At least one Corn Bunting remained in the Blueberry Farm area again all week.

Rarity Round-up, 16th to 22nd March 2019

The storm before the calm saw a continuation of last week’s gale force westerlies for the first two days of the period, before high pressure built over the country to deliver conditions more conducive to migration. On that theme, the first Osprey was seen cruising north and Northern Wheatears made landfall at three localities.

Maintaining the status quo, the first-winter Whooper Swan – now developing some yellow bill pigmentation – and the three Pink-footed Geese remained at Thrapston GP all week, as did the two Pink-footed Geese at Stanford Res.

First-winter Whooper Swan, Thrapston GP, 17th March 2019 (Adrian Borley)

A drake Red-crested Pochard was present at Pitsford Res between 18th and 21st and a drake Ring-necked Duck paid a fleeting visit to Thrapston GP on the latter date. Tempting, though it is, to believe this was a reappearance of the Earls Barton/Summer Leys/Stanwick bird, with more than twenty individuals scattered across a dozen sites this winter, the fact that remains that it could simply be another of its kind on the move.

Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 19th March 2019 (Alan Coles)
Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 20th March 2019 (Ken Prouse)

Pitsford’s two juvenile Great Northern Divers, now having moulted a good proportion of their pale-fringed juvenile feathers, stayed all week, ranging widely between the causeway and the dam, while dwindling top counts of Great Egrets were restricted to three at Stanford Res, two at each of Summer Leys and Thrapston, and singles at Ditchford GP and Welton.

Back at Pitsford, an Osprey flew north over Brixworth CP on 18th and a fly-by Merlin was seen south of the causeway the following day. At the time of compiling this report, five Ospreys have now returned to their Rutland Water breeding site.

Aside from the first spring migrant Little Ringed Plovers at Stanwick on 18th and at both Clifford Hill GP and DIRFT3 on 21st, other waders on the move this week were single Black-tailed Godwits at Stanwick on 18th and Summer Leys the following day, while Hollowell’s wintering Jack Snipe was still present on 17th and further singles were discovered at Pitsford Res on 18th-20th and at Stortons GP on 21st.

Black-tailed Godwit, Summer Leys LNR, 20th March 2019 (John Moon)

More Mediterranean Gulls came through this week, including single adults at both Clifford Hill GP and Stanford Res on 17th and at Daventry CP the following day. Two days later, on 20th, Daventry also hosted a juvenile Glaucous X Scandinavian Herring Gull hybrid, commonly dubbed ‘Viking Gull’ but it did not linger. Elsewhere, the first-winter Caspian Gull was again at Hollowell on 17th, while a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull visited Pitsford on 16th and a second-winter dropped in at Hardingstone GP on 18th.

Second-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Hardingstone GP, 18th March 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Remaining site-faithful, two Short-eared Owls were still at the regular location of Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) on 21st and one was still at Lilbourne Meadows on 20th, while the Great Grey Shrike remained in the Blueberry Farm area, becoming even more mobile and elusive towards the week’s end. The spring’s first Northern Wheatear was discovered on 17th at Clifford Hill GP, where it remained the following day, while the second appeared at Blueberry Farm on 20th, followed by a third at Borough Hill on 21st.

Northern Wheatear, Clifford Hill GP, 17th March 2019 (Mike Alibone)

After last week’s White Wagtails at Hollowell, further singles appeared at Clifford Hill GP on 17th and at nearby Hardingstone GP the next day and Crossbills were back on the menu at Wakerley Great Wood, where seven or eight were present on 18th, including one noticeably large-billed individual. Two Corn Buntings remained in the Blueberry Farm area all week, fuelling speculation that they might breed locally. Let’s hope so …

A ‘large-billed’ Crossbill at Wakerley

The last few weeks have seen various numbers of Crossbills found at six localities, one of which is the stand of larches immediately adjacent to the car park at Wakerley Great Wood. For many veteran county birders, this area will no doubt bring back fond memories of seeing Northamptonshire’s first Parrot Crossbill, a female, there in November 1990, along with a male Two-barred Crossbill with up to fifty-five Crossbills present at the same time.

At least three Crossbills were there on 1st March and up to twelve were present on 3rd-4th March but they have been mobile and not always on show, with no further sightings until 18th March, when seven or eight were seen by James Underwood.

Among these was a rather large-billed male with a deep, hefty bill, of which James managed to capture a couple of images. At no time was it suggested it was a Parrot Crossbill but the photos portray a Crossbill with a super-large bill, the first image of which certainly sets the pulse racing.

Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 18th March 2019 (James Underwood)

The second image, however, perhaps depicts the true proportions of this individual, which enables a more balanced assessment to be made. The bill appears shallower (but still very large) and the head appears to be in ‘correct’ proportion with the body, i.e. it does not seem to have an overly large head like that of a Parrot Crossbill. Additionally, the visible depth of the lower mandible at its base does not appear to be deep enough for Parrot Crossbill.  But these are simply two images and how accurately do they convey the true dimensions of the bird and its bill?

Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 18th March 2019 (James Underwood)

According to Shirihai and Svensson’s Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds (2018), the bill of Crossbill overlaps in size with that of the larger-billed Scottish Crossbill which, in the past, has been mooted as a race of Parrot Crossbill. Crossbill taxonomy is, however, far from straightforward. The IOC checklist (now adopted by the BOU) recognises nineteen races of Crossbill (Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra) with the nominate race curvirostra occupying northern, western and central Europe, including the British Isles and Scottish Crossbill is retained in the list as a full species, Loxia scotica. Shirihai and Svensson, however, regard the latter as simply a race of Crossbill but recognise the British breeding population as an additional race ‘anglica’. So, during periodic Crossbill irruptions, are we seeing local movements of British birds ‘anglica’ or are they continental curvirostra – or both? Furthermore, does the supposedly sedentary scotica ever move south? And if so, how far? Only time (and DNA) will tell …

Rarity Round-up, 9th to 15th March 2019

A succession of low-pressure systems, scudding rapidly across the North Atlantic, brought intermittent gales and rain on predominantly north-westerly winds. A fallout from this was the year’s first Kittiwake – one of a series of inland records during the period.

At Thrapston GP, the first-winter Whooper Swan was still present as the week came to a close and the three Pink-footed Geese were still on site on 11th, although only one could be found there on 15th. At Stanford Res, the two Pink-feet remained until at least 14th, while a Barnacle Goose, along with a drake Red-crested Pochard, at Clifford Hill GP on 9th, unsurprisingly elicited little interest.

Pink-footed Geese, Stanford Res, 15th March 2019 (Chris Hubbard)

Pitsford’s two juvenile Great Northern Divers were hunkered down well north of the dam all week and Great Egret numbers rallied a little against last week’s low, with maxima of four at Summer Leys, three at both Stanford Res and Thrapston GP and singles at Ditchford GP, Foxholes Fisheries (Crick) and Stanwick GP. An unconfirmed report of a Bittern from Summer Leys’ Pioneer Hide on 14th remained just that, with no sightings the following day.

In the raptor zone, a male Merlin was again in the Blueberry Farm area on 10th-11th and the Hollowell Res Jack Snipe was the only wader of note this week.

Kittiwake, Stanford Reservoir, 10th March 2019 (Chris Hubbard)

From a gulling perspective, it’s hard to see Stanford Res as anything more than playing second fiddle to Draycote, just over the border in Warwickshire but it came to the rescue to provide the best selection of this week’s larids in the form of an adult Kittiwake, for just a few minutes on the morning of 10th and the second-winter Iceland Gull from nearby Shawell Landfill (Leicestershire) again on 14th. A second-winter Yellow-legged Gull visited Pitsford on 12th but that was about it …

Just one Short-eared Owl showed during the period at the regular location of Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) on 11th and after a couple of weeks of radio silence, the Great Grey Shrike was reported again in the Blueberry Farm area on 11th and 15th. The only passerine migrants discovered during this week’s turbulent weather were two early White Wagtails at Hollowell on 9th. Hopefully, next week’s forecast of calmer conditions will open up the gates for more summer visitors with Garganey, Osprey and Northern Wheatear as odds-on favourites for arrivals over the forthcoming seven days.

Rarity Round-up, 2nd to 8th March 2019

Winds this week remained south-westerly to westerly and frequently blustery, with sporadic showers, although temperatures were still above average for the time of year. Highlights included an Iceland Gull in the north-west of the county and more Crossbills in the north-east and close to the county town while, apart from a certain roving Ring-necked Duck, the reservoirs and the Nene Valley remained cool, calm and collected …

The week opened with two Whooper Swans flying east over Duston, Northampton on the morning of 2nd, while the first winter remained in situ on Thrapston GP’s Town Lake until 4th. At least two Pink-footed Geese remained at the latter site until the week’s end and the two Pinkfeet showed up again at Stanford Res on 8th, after going AWOL for the previous six days. The only Red-crested Pochard of the week was a drake at Hardingstone GP on 5th and the drake Ring-necked Duck relocated at Stanwick GP on 28th remained until 2nd, before vanishing for the rest of the period.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 5th March 2019 (Beth Clyne)

Pitsford’s two juvenile Great Northern Divers were still ensconced, north of the dam, on 7th but there was a marked decline in reports of Great Egrets, with four at Thrapston on 2nd dwindling to one by the week’s end, three at Summer Leys throughout and three at Stanford Res on 5th, dropping to one on 7th.

Single Jack Snipes were at both Hollowell Res and Stanford Res on 2nd and at Boddington Res the following day.

Second-winter Iceland Gull, Stanford Res, 6th March 2019 (Chris Hubbard)

March is a prime month for passage Mediterranean Gulls – check your local roosts for one of these fine, black-hooded beauties. Two or three adults were seen this week, including singles at Daventry CP on 4th and 7th and at Stanford Res on the latter date, this last locality also producing a second-winter Iceland Gull in the roost on 6th. A third-winter Yellow-legged Gull visited Pitsford on 2nd and the adult was still at Hollowell Res, along with the first-winter Caspian Gull still, on 5th and an adult Caspian again visited Boddington Res on 3rd.

Male Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 4th March 2019 (Ken Prouse)
Female Crossbill, Fineshade Wood, 5th March 2019 (Tony Vials)
Male Crossbill, Fineshade Wood, 5th March 2019 (Tony Vials)

With Irchester CP appearing to have fallen out of favour with Crossbills this week, Wakerley Great Wood took on the mantle, hosting up to a dozen birds in the vicinity of the car park between 2nd and 4th. On the opposite side of the A43, at nearby Fineshade Wood, two were present on 5th, a single female was found in the pines in Hollowell’s Guilsborough Bay, on 2nd and up to eleven were at Harlestone Heath on 8th.

Rarity Round-up, 23rd February to 1st March 2019

The surge from the south continued to deliver a heady taste of spring, with local temperatures peaking at 17°C on 25th and 26th. However, it all went pear-shaped for the last two days of the period, when an area of low pressure brought showers and a corresponding fall in temperature, which remained above average for the time of year. The first true summer visitors, Sand Martins, arrived on cue on 28th – the same date a drake Ring-necked Duck was discovered at Stanwick. A Cattle Egret also remained at large in the Nene Valley.

At Thrapston GP, the first-winter Whooper Swan and the three Pink-footed Geese remained until the week’s end and the two Pinkfeet were still present around Stanford Res until at least 25th, while the adult White-fronted Goose visited Thrapston GP again the following day. The three Red-crested Pochards remained on Mary’s Lake, at Earls Barton GP, until 24th and a drake was found at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR on the same date. On the other side of the A6, at Stanwick GP, the roving drake Ring-necked Duck appeared on the main lake on 28th and was still present the following day.

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Stanwick GP, 1st March 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Over to Pitsford Res, where the two juvenile Great Northern Divers were still in situ, north of the dam, on 28th but no Great Egrets were reported from there this week. Topping the bill for numbers of this species was Summer Leys, with five on 25th, while Thrapston managed three, Stanford two and singles were seen at Cransley Res, Earls Barton GP, Ditchford GP/Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows, Hollowell Res and Ravensthorpe Res. On the last day of the period, a Cattle Egret, paid a brief visit to Stanwick before disappearing – albeit likely on a temporary basis.

Great Egret, Stanford Res, 26th February 2019 (Matt Jackson)

In the absence of any other raptors, Hen Harrier narrowly makes it into this week’s report with the juvenile female again seen at Stanford on 1st March. Waders were also represented by just singles of Jack Snipe at Hollowell Res on 23rd and Black-tailed Godwit at Clifford Hill GP on 27th.

Mediterranean Gull, Summer Leys LNR, 26th February 2019 (Ken Prouse)

Gulls, too, were thin on the ground, with only a fine, summer-plumaged adult Mediterranean Gull on the scrape at Summer Leys, briefly on 26th, the adult Yellow-legged Gull and a first-winter Caspian Gull again at Hollowell Res on 23rd, and an adult Caspian Gull in the roost at Boddington Res on 26th.

Short-eared Owl, Lilbourne Meadows LNR, 26th February 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Up to two Short-eared Owls continued to be seen at Neville’s Lodge throughout the week and another was found at Lilbourne Meadows LNR on 25th-26th. At Irchester CP, last week’s eight Crossbills had fallen to two on 23rd and one on 1st but at least four were in Yardley Chase on 28th and three at Wakerley Great Wood the following day, on 1st.

Male Crossbill, Irchester CP, 23rd February 2019 (Debra Hall)

Rounding off the passerines, a Corn Bunting was found with a winter flock of Yellowhammers, south of Culworth, on 24th. Both sadly and bizarrely, this species is now rarer in Northamptonshire than Great Egret …