Rarity Round-up, 20th to 26th July 2019

Sandwiched between an unusual kink in the North Atlantic Jetstream and a high pressure system to the east, winds for the majority of the week emanated from North Africa and the UK enjoyed its potentially hottest day on record, on 25th, when Northampton hit a sweltering 36°C. Although it appeared to have little local influence on migrants, it no doubt contributed significantly to the continued evaporation at local reservoirs, exposing more muddy margins for waders, ahead of the slowly unfolding autumn passage.

But it was already déjà vu in many respects, with not a great deal of change to the birdscape this week. Still enjoying the company of local Canada Geese, the first-summer female Ruddy Shelduck remained at Hollowell Res, while an eclipse drake Garganey, which arrived at Stanford Res on 23rd, was still present at the week’s end. Pitsford’s two drake Red-crested Pochards once again became three on 24th and another drake was found at Ringstead GP on 21st, remaining there also until 24th.

Eclipse drake Garganey, Stanford Res, 23rd July 2019 (Chris Hubbard)

Cattle Egrets maintained their prominence in the Nene Valley, the trio of adults undertaking multiple commutes daily between their highly favoured herd of cows at Stanwick GP and their nest – this week proven to contain four juveniles – at nearby Ringstead GP. Somewhat overshadowed (and rightly so), two Great Egrets were at Pitsford Res on 23rd, with at least one still present the following day.

Cattle Egret, Stanwick 24th July 2019 (Steve Fisher)

Now mucking in with free-range chickens in a large country garden in north Northants, last week’s Sacred Ibis was said to be enjoying domestic hens’ food, cream crackers, toast and sea sticks – the latter sourced from Heron Foods, no less! Despite the laudable efforts made by the landowner to locate the collection it has clearly escaped from, none of the many contacted has stepped forward to reclaim it. Still present at the week’s end, it looks like it will be around for some time to come but for anyone with this species on his or her bucket list, the nearest truly wild population is in Mauritania.

Sacred Ibis, private site, north Northants, 24th July 2019 (Dot Crowe)

With no records last week, single Ospreys put in brief appearances at Hollowell on 21st-22nd and Pitsford on 22nd.

Set against a backcloth of small numbers of commoner species, wader passage ebbed somewhat during the period, with just two Black-tailed Godwits visiting Stanwick on 23rd and a Greenshank at Stanford Res on 26th.

Meanwhile, as is usual for late summer, numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls began to increase, with up to five at Pitsford and ones and twos regularly at Hollowell, Ravensthorpe and Stanwick.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, Pitsford Res, 20th July 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Passerines of note this week again featured Common Redstarts, with two at Harrington AF on 24th-26th plus one in the Brampton Valley below Hanging Houghton on 25th and a female Common Crossbill at Ravensthorpe on 26th.

Rarity Round-up, 13th to 19th July 2019

With national weather conditions nothing to shout about, the influence on local migrants was seemingly minimal. Wader passage ramped up somewhat and despite being mid-summer, it was the white stuff that dominated the news this week ….

Not surprisingly, the first-summer female Ruddy Shelduck stayed put at Hollowell Res all week and the two Red-crested Pochards, ensconced in Walgrave Bay at Pitsford Res, remained until at least 16th.

News that Cattle Egrets have bred successfully in the county for the first time became widespread in recent days. Two, possibly three, well-grown young are being raised in a nest attended diligently by the same trio of adults which has been present at Stanwick GP regularly throughout spring and early summer. More details here. Meanwhile, the period’s token Great Egret reappeared at Pitsford Res on 16th but causing rather more excitement, an adult and three immature Spoonbills flew over Stanwick without stopping, late in the afternoon of the 17th, before presumably the same quartet was relocated at Rutland Water the following morning.

Adult (left) and three immature Spoonbills, Stanwick GP, 17th July 2019 (Steve Fisher)

Rounding off the white stuff and presumably of little interest to most local birders, a roaming Sacred Ibis, photographed at Clipston on 3rd July, was again caught on camera as it flew high over both Ravensthorpe Res and Long Buckby on 16th, appearing two days later in a large garden at the latter location. Although a likely escape, a large feral population is established in France and this species breeds no further away than Brittany.

Sacred Ibis, Ravensthorpe Res, 16th July 2019 (Gary Pullan)
Sacred Ibis, Long Buckby, 18th July 2019 (via Adrian Bryan)

The heat was turned up a little on this week’s wader passage when three Avocets were found at Clifford Hill GP on 14th and a Whimbrel appeared at Stanwick the following day, while transient Black-tailed Godwits included one at Stanwick on 14th, ahead of three there on 16th, followed by three at Ravensthorpe Res on 18th and two in flight at the same locality on 19th.

Black-tailed Godwit, Stanwick GP, 14th July 2019 (Steve Fisher)
Black-tailed Godwits, Ravensthorpe Res, 18th July 2019 (Jon Cook)
Black-tailed Godwits, Ravensthorpe Res, 18th July 2019 (Jon Cook)

Summer Leys LNR produced two Ruffs on 17th and more unusually, a very short-staying Little Stint on The Slips there on 14th. Back at Stanwick, single Greenshanks were present on 15th and 17th and two visited Hollowell on 18th.

Thrapston GP has been quiet of late – until the appearance of a Little Tern on Aldwincle Lake for just fifteen minutes on 17th. This is the second record for the site this year, following a similarly short-staying individual on 25th April. Larids this week were restricted to sightings of Yellow-legged Gulls, including the first juvenile of the autumn at Ravensthorpe Res on 19th. Additionally, single adults were at Thrapston on 16th, Stanwick and Ravensthorpe on 16th and at Hollowell and Daventry Res on 19th. Multiples – all on 17th – included two adults on ploughed land at Little Addington, two at Thrapston and four at Stanwick.

Again, the only passerines making it into this week’s report were Common Redstarts, with records including one at Hanging Houghton on 13th, two at Harrington AF on 18th and a juvenile again at Denton Wood on the same date.

Cattle Egret – a new breeding species for Northants

It may come as no surprise to many but Northamptonshire now joins Cheshire, Dorset, Devon, Essex, Hampshire and Somerset as counties which have played host to breeding Cattle Egrets in the UK.

Discovered by Steve Fisher on 8th June, an adult apparently incubating eggs, within a mixed Little Egret and Grey Heron colony in the Nene Valley, gave rise to optimism that we were only a few weeks away from seeing successful local breeding.

Cattle Egret, Ringstead GP, 9th June 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Formerly a very rare vagrant, Cattle Egret has become a more regular sight in the UK in recent years, following several large influxes. The first in 2007 saw over 200 arriving throughout Britain and Ireland and resulted in successful breeding in the Somerset Levels in 2008. Another influx in 2016 brought even larger numbers, with further successful breeding in Cheshire in 2017, during which two more colonies were discovered, giving rise to a total of 10 pairs.

In Northamptonshire, Cattle Egret was first recorded in 2006, when one was present at Summer Leys LNR from 11th to 13th August. Others soon followed and individuals of this species were recorded in five of the twelve years between 2006 and 2017, with the first ‘multiple’ (two together) occurring only as recently as 2018. Up to 4 made a protracted stay at Stanwick GP between mid-October and mid-December 2018, after which singles appeared there and at nearby Ditchford GP in March this year, with 3 adults at Stanwick regularly from late May.

Breeding then followed and after hatching successfully, young were observed in the nest for the first time on 1st July. A week later they were looking significantly bigger and today (17th July) one was standing on the nest, stretching, walking and preening and fledging appears likely within the very near future. Because of the vegetation cover, it is not possible to be certain if there are 2 or 3 young at this point. One adult was in attendance and two more adults – making up the original ‘Stanwick three’ – flew in to join it after being observed with cattle at Stanwick some ten minutes earlier.

Interesting behaviour followed as two of the birds attended to ‘housekeeping’, one of the arrivals passing a stick to the attendant, which then proceeded to add it to the nest platform before breaking off another twig from a nearby bush and repeating the behaviour. According to BWP, both sexes engage in nest-building, the female taking sticks passed to her by the male, one at a time, before putting them in place, with material continually added to the structure during incubation and long after hatching.

Of further interest is that all three adults appear to be involved in the family business, i.e. the breeding pair has a helper, or even a ‘nanny’, if you will. Again, BWP states that temporary trios of two females and one male are not infrequent at the start of the breeding season but these three appear to have stayed together throughout.

Northamptonshire is not alone in producing a breeding pair in 2019. Others have bred in Hampshire and Essex, away from the initial location in the Somerset Levels.

The information on breeding has now been released on the basis that anyone who wants to see a Cattle Egret will have done so by now. Surrounded by water, the site is largely inaccessible and will therefore not suffer from disturbance, successful hatching precludes the possibility of potential egg-theft and the young will shortly leave the nest. It is also unlikely the site will be used again … but who knows?!

Rapid population growth and range expansion is characteristic of Cattle Egret, which is now probably the most widespread species of bird on the planet, having colonised Europe, the Middle East, and North America from Africa, and Australia from Asia.

Rarity Round-up, 6th to 12th July 2019

A more temperate period followed the previous week’s hot air and humidity as the wind mix became light northerly and westerly. Long-staying Cattle Egrets remained in the Nene Valley, while wader passage continued to trickle along and included increasing numbers of more common species.

Seemingly in for the long haul, the first-summer female Ruddy Shelduck remained at Hollowell Res all week, and the first Garganey of the autumn appeared at Stanwick GP on 6th-7th. The two Red-crested Pochards at Pitsford Res remained until at least 10th, being joined there by another on 8th, while birders at Stanford Res enjoyed an afternoon stopover by four drake Common Scoters on the same date. These birds are part of the annual, post-breeding moult migration, which initially involves largely adult drakes and immatures moving to traditionally favoured coastal localities, such as the east coast of Scotland, Carmarthen Bay and west coastal France, where they are joined by females and juveniles from mid-August (BTO Migration Atlas, 2002).

Two Bitterns were found this week – one at Stortons GP on 6th and the other at Summer Leys two days later, on 9th. Both gave only the standard flight views typically associated with this species as birds quickly move for one patch of reeds to another. Further east along the valley, up to two Cattle Egrets remained at Stanwick throughout the period, while a Great Egret took up temporary residence in Pitsford’s Scaldwell Bay between 8th and 10th.

Cattle Egret, Stanwick GP, 7th July 2019 (Steve Fisher)

Another lean week for Ospreys produced singles flying east over the A43 near Deenethorpe, north of Corby on 7th, over Thrapston GP on 8th and over Deene Lake on 9th.

Set against a backcloth of more common waders, e.g. returning Green and Common Sandpipers (six of the latter were at Hollowell Res on 12th), Black-tailed Godwits continued to be seen – their numbers including up to twelve at Summer Leys on 7th, one at Stanwick on 9th and two at Ditchford GP on 10th. A Ruff visited Stanwick on 11th and a Greenshank was at the same locality on 10th.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, Ravensthorpe Res, 4th July 2019 (Paul Crotty)

Another autumn ‘first’ was an adult Mediterranean Gull at Hollowell Res on 9th and the adult Yellow-legged Gull present there last week moved to nearby Ravensthorpe Res, where it remained until at least 9th. Elsewhere, singles visited Stanwick on 6th, Daventry Res on 8th-9th and Pitsford on 10th, with two at the latter site the following day.

Following last week’s adult and a juvenile Common Redstarts near Badby, a juvenile appeared at Denton Wood in Yardley Chase on 11th. Its rather fresh, unmoulted juvenile plumage, coupled with the relatively early arrival date, gives rise to speculation that it had fledged locally. This species has occasionally bred in the county and, although there have been summer females with active brood patches there are no records of proven breeding this century.

Rarity Round-up, 29th June to 5th July 2019

As Southern England basked in 34°C on the first day of the period, Northampton hit 30°C ahead of an overnight drop as cooler air moved in from the Atlantic, sweeping away the humidity and setting a dry and bright scene for the remainder of the week. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ‘first’ for Northamptonshire caught locals off guard, leaving them somewhat dazed, but is it really all over … ?

While the first-summer female Ruddy Shelduck remained at Hollowell Res, two Red-crested Pochards were at Pitsford Res on 3rd-4th and the peripatetic, post-captive female Bufflehead was once again back in the county, visiting Sixfields Lake at Stortons GP on 29th. It then decided to ‘do’ neighbouring Buckinghamshire, appearing at  Floodplain Forest NR, Old Wolverton on 2nd – just across the county line.

Female Bufflehead, Floodplain Forest NR, Wolverton, Buckinghamshire, 2nd July 2019 (Angi Harrell)

The run of largely unavailable Common Quails continued with one barely audible individual reported from Harrington AF on 1st. It’s now looking like a tricky year for this species.

Cattle Egret, Stanwick GP, 4th July 2019 (Steve Fisher)

Meanwhile, Stanwick GP’s two Cattle Egrets stuck around to feed by the main lake until at least 4th but another long-legged, largely white, wetland bird in the shape of a Sacred Ibis made headlines at Clipston on 3rd, as it sat around on a house roof, eyeing up the local chickens. An escape most likely but a wanderer from the established French feral population cannot be ruled out.

Sacred Ibis, Clipston, 3rd July 2019 (Steve Carpenter)

In a lean week for Ospreys, one flew over Deene Lake on 2nd and another was at Pitsford Res, early on 5th.

Black-tailed Godwits, Summer Leys LNR, 30th June 2019 (Ricky Sinfield)

Wader passage continued to trickle along with Summer Leys monopolising Black-tailed Godwits, the site producing one on 29th, four and a further eleven on 30th, 2 on 1st and thirty-five on 2nd.

Black-tailed Godwits, Summer Leys LNR, 30th June 2019 (Adrian Borley)
Black-tailed Godwits, Summer Leys LNR, 2nd July 2019 (Ricky Sinfield)

Double-figure flock sizes are no longer unusual – a far cry from when this species was an ‘irregular passage migrant’ in the 1970s, when there were just two or three records per year. Were all those birds islandica or did we get any limosa, during an era when they were more abundant in Europe? There have been large and well-documented declines in the mainland European breeding population of the nominate subspecies of between 50-60% (BirdLife International 2015). For example, in the Netherlands the population decreased dramatically from 120,000-135,000 pairs in 1969 potentially to 33,000 pairs in 2015. The population of islandica, in contrast, has been increasing dramatically over the past few decades, although this increase may be levelling out and this subpopulation represents a relatively small part of the global population. A recent analysis based on published literature, survey data and expert opinions from throughout the species range suggests that, overall, the global population may have declined at a mean rate of approximately 23% over 25 years leading up to 2015 (BirdLife International 2019). Also at Summer Leys, a male Ruff appeared on 5th.

Moving on to Larids, single Yellow-legged Gulls appeared at Hollowell Res on 2nd and at Stanwick GP on 3rd, ahead of the now established late summer build-up.

Yellow-legged Gull, Stanwick GP, 3rd July (Steve Fisher)

On the passerine front, there were 2 Common Redstarts – an adult and a juvenile – at  Arbury Hill, west of Badby, on 2nd. But making the most noise this week, a little gem pulled from a ringer’s net in Pitsford’s Walgrave Bay on 4th was quickly logged as the county’s first Red-breasted Flycatcher – a moulting adult female. Well, we didn’t see that one coming! The anticipated mass turnout for this Northamptonshire ‘first’ simply didn’t materialise and the resulting, incomprehensible lack of observer coverage subsequent to the event surely played a significant part in its not being relocated. A quick scamper through the literature reveals that July records are not unprecedented and Sharrock (Scarce Migrant Birds in Britain and Ireland, 1974) identifies an occurrence window between late April and early July and classifies these as spring migrants, with all records from mid-August onwards categorised, quite rightly, as scarce autumn visitors. Adults moult on, or close to, their breeding grounds between July and September, suggesting this is a non-breeder. Is it still out there … somewhere …?