Northamptonshire’s 6th Caspian Tern shows briefly before heading east.
It was Chris Hubbard’s lucky day as patch persistence paid off this morning with the arrival – and hurried departure – of a Caspian Tern at Stanford Res. Initially glimpsed flying toward the dam, it reappeared almost immediately, flying east over the inlet at around 08.25. Chris was able to grab a series of shots in the 10-15 seconds it was in view before it headed off and away. It was not seen subsequently.
This one follows hot on the heels of the county’s fifth (here), which was seen just under three years ago at Summer Leys LNR on 1st July 2017 before relocating to Clifford Hill GP later the same day. This particular colour-ringed individual ranged widely within the UK, visiting Carmarthenshire, Avon, West Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Buckinghamshire.
Prior to this, previous records were:
1967: Pitsford Res, 2 on 12th July 1968: Stanford Res, one on 3rd June 1998: Ditchford GP/Stanwick GP/Earls Barton GP, one on 1st August 2003: Stanwick GP/ Earls Barton GP, one between 16th and 20th July
Following a westerly blow on 23rd, the warm, dry weather continued throughout the week, the wind turning easterly for the last two days, as a high pressure system became established over north-west Europe, perhaps raising hopes for just that little bit extra as spring ebbs quickly away.
Last week’s Pink-footed Goose was still at Clifford Hill GP on 27th, as were single drake Garganeys at Stanwick GP from 26th to 28th, at Summer Leys LNR on 27th and 28th (with two there on the first of these dates) and at nearby Wellingborough Embankment, also on 28th. The long-staying drake Red-crested Pochard also continued its presence at Storton’s GP until at least 27th.
In an established week for historical rares, the hallowed 29th May (Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, et al) produced nothing in commemoration this year. Nevertheless, there was a fine, summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebe on show at Summer Leys on 25th-26th – bird of the week for many.
Bitterns are now being seen with increasing frequency outside of the winter season, so one flying west at Stanwick, early on 25th, came as no real surprise. The same site continued to host a single Cattle Egret until at least 24th, while lingering late into the season were single Great Egrets at Stanford Res on 23rd and at both Stanwick and Thrapston GP on 28th.
There was also little change on the raptor front this week, with Ospreys at Thrapston on 25th, 27th and 28th, at Stanford on 26th and at Pitsford Res on 27th, while a male Marsh Harrier visited Harrington AF on 26th. Again, scarce gulls were at a premium, with just an adult Mediterranean Gull at Clifford Hill GP on 24th.
Passerines were thin on the ground and included an unseasonal male Stonechat at Clifford Hill GP on 29th. But on 26th, something was brewing in Wellingborough. A house roof, chimney pots, a small flock of Starlings – and a bi-coloured bird looking, well …. decidedly rosy. In the seconds it took to register, realise the potential and grab the camera, it had gone. The exasperation of the moment. The one that got away – an inevitable birding nemesis. A subsequent search of the area drew a blank but to set it in context, it’s not so unlikely. Late May and into June is a prime time for Rose-coloured Starling to occur in the UK and by strange coincidence, the last one in the county was photographed in a Wellingborough garden, almost to the day, on 25th May 2018, during that year’s influx. Said to be larger than that of 2018, another influx is currently underway in Europe, with reported flock sizes of twenty or more reaching Austria a week ago and ‘hundreds’ in France by 28th. With singles on Skomer and in gardens in Essex and West Sussex in the past two days, could this bird have been in the vanguard …?
A balmy south to south-westerly airstream, a hot, dry week with local temperatures peaking at 26°C … and the county’s tenth Red-footed Falcon. What’s not to like?
Almost as unseasonal as the weather, a Pink-footed Goose showed up at Clifford Hill GP on 21st, although May records are not without precedent. More in keeping with the middle of May, however, were single drake Garganeys at Stanwick GP on 16th and at Summer Leys LNR between 16th and 18th, while the long-staying drake Red-crested Pochard remained at Stortons GP throughout the period.
Following last week’s two, another wayward Cattle Egret was mobile around Earls Barton GP on 18th and again, may not have been one of our ‘locals’. Two which most certainly were, though, continued to be seen at Stanwick GP until at least 20th. Seemingly in no hurry to move on, two Great Egrets included singles still at Thrapston GP on 18th-22nd and at Summer Leys on 21st.
The ‘large raptor’ line-up during the period comprised an Osprey at Pitsford Res on 18th and two circling above the A5199 near Hollowell, two days later, on 20th, while single Marsh Harriers flew east over Spratton on 16th and over Summer Leys on 19th. But the early morning stars this week were at least two Common Cranes heard calling at in dawn’s early light, as they moved east of Irthlingborough, on 16th. With continued breeding in East Anglia and the growing population from the reintroduction scheme, The Great Crane Project, in southwest England, it is surprising we do not see more of this species locally.
On the wader front, the only truly ‘new’ visitors this week were two Whimbrels, which arrived at Boddington Res and then moved to the field opposite the car park there on the morning of 18th. Last week’s nominate race ‘Continental’Black-tailed Godwit, stayed in the Wader Bay at Summer Leys until 17th and the Wood Sandpiper remained at Ecton SF until at least 16th.
Scarce gulls and terns were, unsurprisingly, in short supply at this late stage in the spring but Earls Barton GP mustered an adult Mediterranean Gull on 20th, while a Sandwich Tern spent all of five minutes prospecting Clifford Hill GP’s Main Barrage Lake, before quickly moving on, early on 21st.
Bird of the week, then? Or perhaps bird of the year, for some? That honour unquestionably fell to the first-summer male Red-footed Falcon which graced Ringstead GP’s Kinewell Lake for four days from 16th. This, the county’s tenth, put on a great display as it hawked low over the water, videoed shearing the surface by the finder, for the greater part of day one, after which it switched to a much higher aerial hunting mode. This bird was part of a handful of records in the UK at the time as the wider European breeding population returned from its African wintering grounds. Click on the map below to see both live and historical movements.
Out of a dearth of passerines emerged just one bird, a ‘Channel’ Wagtail at Boddington Res on 19th-21st. A welcome discovery during a spring in which Yellow Wagtails have been unusually scarce.
The easing of the government’s Coronavirus lockdown restrictions, with regard to travel and ‘exercise’ this week, has resulted in more observers taking to the field and wider local coverage. Birding – with care – is back on …
Mid-May is not a prime time for wildfowl but it’s a great period in which to find one of our most subtly attractive, alluring and scarcest of ducks: Garganey. A pair was found at Stanwick GP on 14th and two superb drakes were on show at Summer Leys LNR the following day. In a more suburban setting, a long-staying drake Red-crested Pochard remained at Stortons GP all week.
The first and so far, only, Quail of the spring was heard singing in a rape field adjacent to Little Morton Sale, east of Apethorpe, on 12th. Monkey business aside, this species was particularly hard to come by last year so, hopefully, there will be more as the spring progresses.
We return to the Nene Valley for an intriguing story of two smart-looking Cattle Egrets, which stayed for just one day at Summer Leys, on 10th. Given that our handful of now resident birds remain site-faithful to the Ditchford/Stanwick area and are not prone to going off-piste, these two gave rise to speculation that they could be ‘new’ birds. Sure enough, thanks to photography and the communication miracle that is social media, it transpired that these two had been making their way slowly north. First spotted at Lavell’s & Lea Farm Lakes NR, Berks, on 25th April, they then spent 6th-8th May at Simpson, Milton Keynes, before arriving at Summer Leys. Well, that’s the theory. At least two were still to be seen at Stanwick on 14th.
Great Egrets have thinned out appreciably since the last round-up and singles were seen at Summer Leys on 10th and 15th and at Pitsford Res on 12th.
And so to raptors … Just one Osprey was reported during the week, fishing at Elinor Trout Lake, Thrapston GP, on 10th, 12th and 13th. A Marsh Harrier flew over Summer Leys on 12th but by far and away the best bird of the week and surely one of the year’s best, too, ducked the Nene Valley action and appeared at Boddington Res on 11th – a superb female Montagu’s Harrier. Quartering fields in the vicinity of the dam, it was present for a good 15 minutes before eventually heading west toward the nearby Warwickshire border. The last one in the county was a male, apparently holding territory near Juniper Hill for two weeks, in May 2008. News of its presence was withheld by the finders at the time. But you have to go back 26 years for the last local twitchable one: a female in the Harrington AF area between 24th and 30th May 1994. There have now been 17 in the county, the first way back in August 1894.
By this time in spring, numbers of passage waders have usually dwindled but a few quality species normally find their way to the county during May. One such bird was at Summer Leys between 13th and 15th. Colloquially known as ‘Continental’Black-tailed Godwit, this lingering individual was a classic example of limosa, the race breeding in mainland Europe and in very small numbers in the UK, most of the latter being colour-ringed through Project Godwit. Its current status in Northants can only be described as ‘rare’, as just about every Black-tailed Godwit passing through the county – often in flocks – is of the Icelandic race islandica.
Other waders this week included single Whimbrels over Braunston Flood on 11th and at Stanwick GP on 15th, the spring’s sole Sanderling at Clifford Hill GP on 10th and single Wood Sandpipers at Summer Leys LNR on 9th and Ecton SF on 14th. The latter site also produced a Greenshank on these two dates.
One species failing to materialise in any numbers this spring is Black Tern. One was viewed distantly, in windy conditions, off the dam at Hollowell Res on 10th, the same date on which a first-summer Little Gull appeared at Clifford Hill GP.
Although neither scarce nor rare, Hobbies were seen at multiple locations throughout the week but fourteen at Thrapston GP on 15th is noteworthy.
A paucity of passerines resulted in just one Northern Wheatear, near Cransley, on 11th and a White Wagtail at Clifford Hill GP on 10th.
Northamptonshire’s tenth and the first twitchable one since 1997
Right place, right time – the two came together for Nick Parker this morning when he discovered the county’s tenth Red-footed Falcon on a visit to Kinewell Lake at Ringstead Gravel Pits. Found at 10.50, this bird, a first-summer (2nd calendar year) male drew modest numbers of birders throughout the remainder of the day as it put on a fine display, hawking insects among Black-headed Gulls, just above the water’s surface.
On the evening of 13th May, Leslie Fox emailed me an image of a Black-tailed Godwit he had seen at Summer Leys LNR during the afternoon. It was immediately apparent that this did not look like one of the ‘usual’ Icelandic race (islandica) birds we see passing through the county in some numbers each year and blowing up the images revealed a number of characters which were inconsistent with the latter race.
The most striking differences were the complete lack of the extensive rufous ‘tapestry’ of mantle feathers found in typical islandica and the abrupt ending and confinement of rusty feathers to the upper breast and neck. Blowing up the image further revealed a very limited number of broad, warm yellowish-fringed, black-centred feathers scattered on the mantle and the tertials appeared plain and unnotched – both features associated with limosa and not normally exhibited by islandica. Further pro-limosa features were the relatively long, broad-based bill and subtly sloping forehead. The lack of contrast between the wing coverts and the mantle indicated the bird was an adult.
Although the bird was not seen again on 13th, it was still present mid-late afternoon on 14th. Upon request, Leslie sent me some more images before I managed to connect with it on the morning of 15th in an attempt to get to grips with the features in the field. The bird was long-legged and reasonably long-billed (both pro-limosa features) but it was relatively small and its bill was not excessively long, so I concluded it was likely to be a male (females are large and normally very long-billed).
Pleased to have seen it – albeit quite distantly – I sent Leslie’s images off to the ‘Godwit Guru’, Mark Golley, who has probably more experience than anyone else in the UK in limosa godwit identification, which he has distilled into a lengthy paper Notes on the field identification of nominate Black-tailed Godwits in Norfolk.
Many thanks to Mark for providing feedback and comments as follows:
With few left to arrive, only two more spring migrants have turned up over the past week – one of these just a little bit special …
The first Spotted Flycatcher to be seen this spring was at Bradlaugh Fields, Northampton on 6th May. Hot on its heels, two more were then found between Byfield and Boddington on 7th. A shade earlier than last year’s first, which was on 10th May – and nowhere near the earliest, the records being held by one at Duston, Northampton on 20th April 1971 and two at Thrapston GP on the same April date in 1976.
Since those days in the 1970s, Spotted Flycatcher has declined in the county (see here) and according to BirdLife International, its population is declining in north and central Europe as a result of habitat conversion, cooler summers and decreasing insect populations caused by pollution and insecticides. In Europe, trends between 1980 and 2013 show that populations have undergone a moderate decline.
The numbers of Northamptonshire localities this species was recorded at over the last five years are: 2015 (49), 2016 (27), 2017 (47), 2018 (35) and 2019 (40).
There is a remarkable number of instances of migrant Nightjars found roosting along the tops of garden fences. On 5th May, such was the case for one lucky observer in a garden backing onto Overstone Wood in Sywell. This one flew in and alighted before flying off after a minute or so. Prior to this, there have been only twelve previous records in the county this century, the last being in August 2016. These have included some oddball individuals, such as the male churring at the end of a Corby garden from 25th to 28th June 2002 and one on Brackmills Industrial Estate, Northampton on 10th September 2014.
The local status of Nightjar is currently unknown. This species bred in the county until the 1980s but labelling it a former breeder may be quite wrong because of its nocturnal and secretive nature. Considering Nightjar has shown marked improvements in population status, attributed largely to sustainable forest management and targeted conservation action, as well as having moved from the Red to the Amber list (BTO), how many are we missing? But then how many local birders venture out to large, isolated woodland clearings at night …?
A post vacant for more than three years is at last filled!
Having been without since 31st March 2017, Northamptonshire now has a new County Recorder. Stepping into the breach and already well known to many local birders, Jonathan Cook will take on this important role with immediate effect. This is, of course, great news and Jonathan will be warmly welcomed by local and national bodies alike. Jon is, to use his own words, ‘raring to go’ …
Jon’s reference to his interest in photography and his practical skills in this area are depicted in some of his recently produced images below.
Currently working in retail, Jon has a degree in Environmental Studies, the course content of which included ecology, environmental impact and protection as well as other elements of relevance useful to the role. “I’d suggest that to protect our bird life it is more and more important to have robust and comprehensive reporting, so feels like the role can make a difference,” says Jon.
Jonathan is under no illusions with regard to what the job entails and is keen to make an impact, bringing structure and order to the way we record birds locally. We wish him well in his future endeavours.
This week’s summary of summer visitors arriving in the county.
With most of our summer visitors now in, from the handful left to arrive, three more spring migrants have turned up over the past week.
Although the earliest ever was on 5th April 1985, the first Turtle Dove on 25th is by no means late, considering it was found at only five localities in 2019 and its UK population has undergone a 93% decrease since 1994 (BTO). In that year, it was recorded from 23 localities and the first recorded arrival was on 24th April.
While both Wood Sandpiper and Little Tern are summer visitors to the UK, they are only passage migrants in Northants and their arrival dates this year are unremarkable.
As always, an expanded list of general migrant arrival and departure dates, including historical extremes, can be found in the annually published Northamptonshire Bird Report.