Newsround – 19th to 25th December 2020

Northerly winds and sub-zero overnight temperatures, followed by heavy rain and widespread flooding, did little to dampen this week’s festive fare.

Wildfowl were again very much the order of the week, with White-fronted Geese coming to the fore as twenty-three made landfall at Summer Leys LNR on 20th, while the two adults remained at Clifford Hill GP until the same date. Similarly, the eleven Pink-footed Geese held out at Hollowell Res until 22nd but were not reported subsequently. Two Barnacle Geese visited Summer Leys on 24th and the one at Stanford Res remained until at least 21st while, back at Hollowell, the female Ruddy Shelduck took rising water levels in her stride, remaining throughout and this week’s Red-crested Pochards were a drake at Thrapston GP on 21st, a female at Ravensthorpe Res on 22nd and one of each at Stanwick GP on 24th.

White-fronted Geese, Summer Leys LNR, 20th December 2020 (Ricky Sinfield). Part of the flock of 23 which visited the site on that date.

As the 25th dawned crisp and bright, many sites remained devoid of birders and, while most were tucking into their Christmas roasts, a handful of lost souls (or old stalwarts, depending on your perspective) were out there, finding what were arguably the best birds of the week. On the menu, then, were five Smew, including one fine drake, found in Pitsford’s Scaldwell Bay along with three Bewick’s Swans, the icing on the cake, though all had quickly melted away by the time Boxing Day came round.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 25th December 2020 (Clive Bowley)
Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 25th December 2020 (Clive Bowley)

At the opposite end of said reservoir, a juvenile Great Northern Diver emerged from Pintail Bay before cruising down to the dam, where it subsequently remained. Speculation that it’s ex-Hollowell seems prudent, as it was not reported from the latter site after 22nd. Stanford’s four Black-necked Grebes also remained all week.

Bittern, Summer Leys LNR, 19th December 2020 (Ricky Sinfield)
Bittern, Summer Leys LNR, 19th December 2020 (Joe Savage)

A little Christmas magic saw Summer Leys pull a Bittern out of the hat, presenting flight-only views on 19th and again on 21st, while Cattle Egrets once again became fair game at Stanwick, where eight were present at its north end on 22nd and 25th. The latter site was also one of nine to produce Great Egrets, with Thrapston holding the highest count of five on 19th.

Great Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 24th December 2020 (Ricky Sinfield)

Three of the larger bodies of water hosted Jack Snipes this week, with singles at Hollowell on 19th and Stanford on 20th, while five were found at Daventry CP on 24th but the only other wader of note was the regularly roosting Curlew at DIRFT 3 on 20th and 22nd. The same site on the same dates produced the week’s only Caspian Gulls, with two adults on both dates being joined by a third-winter on 22nd, up to three Yellow-legged Gulls were at Pitsford between 21st and 25th and another visited Daventry CP on 24th.

After neither sight nor sound at the locality for several weeks, a Bearded Tit was heard at Stortons GP on 20th. It seems the installation of a grit-tray in the reedbed, designed to keep them there, seems to have had the opposite effect. Sod’s law, as they say …   Not so difficult to come by, though, were wintering Stonechats, which were prominent at six sites in all, with a maximum count of five at Ditchford GP on 19th.

Stonechat, Great Doddington, 25th December 2020 (Adrian Borley)

After last week’s low, Crossbills rallied somewhat during the period. Five sites accounted for this week’s modest haul of at least twenty at Wakerley Great Wood on 19th, three at Harlestone Heath on the same date, with approximately ten there on 22nd, two at Hollowell Res on 20th and singles at Pitsford Res and at Brookfield Plantation, Corby on 22nd.

The 2019 Northamptonshire Bird Report is out!

Published this week, the latest annual report takes on a smart new look, along with a format which allows colour reproduction throughout its entire contents. In addition to this, the report welcomes a new County Bird Recorder as Jon Cook has boldly stepped into the role and ended several years of the job being shared by several different committee members. It is not by any means a simple job and entails a lot of time-consuming effort. We should all, as birders interested in the general welfare of our County’s birds, be grateful to Jon and wish him well as he takes up the challenge.

As well as the systematic list, which summarises the records and status of each species occurring in the county in 2019, included this year is an article by Barrie Galpin about the history of the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey in Northants and some of the local characters who were in at the beginning of this long-running and vital survey. Another important job carried out by volunteers for the BTO is the monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) and there is a need for more surveyors at several sites in the County. Further details are outlined within the pages of the report.

Following serious population declines and diminishing occurrences, the report committee has added several new species and subspecies to the ‘requiring description’ category, these being Red-breasted Merganser, ‘Continental’ Black-tailed Godwit, Turtle Dove, Willow Tit, Wood Warbler and Corn Bunting. These and all other species in this category can be found in the Birds Recorded list on page 46.

It is noticeable that the majority of records received from observers are from a limited number of well-known sites – river valleys, reservoirs etc and this is understandable as a large variety of birds can be seen at these localities. But there are vast areas of the County that are underwatched and whilst perhaps at first sight they are large agricultural wastelands (as far as birds are concerned), tucked here and there are small woods and copses, ponds and damp areas that must hold interesting species and even the large, seemingly barren, cereal fields could be holding birds such as the declining Corn Bunting. Why not explore these places more often, you never know what might turn up!

As always, the 2019 report will be available by post from R W Bullock, 81 Cavendish Drive, Northampton NN3 3HL at a price of £9.00 each, including postage. Cheques should be made payable to ‘Northamptonshire Bird Report’. Back issues from the ‘early seventies’ are also available.

A limited number of copies will also be on sale at the Oundle Bookshop, 13 Market Place, Oundle PE8 4BA from 23rd December.

Newsround – 12th to 18th December 2020

As we dig deeper into what would traditionally be the coldest season of the year, right on cue, the first true ‘winter’ duck pays a fleeting visit to the county’s most heavily watched reservoir … and is gone in a flash …

But it’s geese which continue to dominate the local scene and elicit the most interest. While there were no reports this week of the ‘Clifford Hill 20’, two Barnacle Geese appeared at Thrapston GP on 14th and the one at Stanford Res remained until at least 16th. Meanwhile, eight northings down, at Hollowell Res, the eleven Pink-footed Geese hung on all week.

However, the Nene Valley further cashed in on this winter’s generous offering of White-fronted Geese, with Saturday 12th delivering double figures to both Summer Leys, where thirteen arrived, and Thrapston, over which ten flew south-west. In addition to last week’s juvenile – which remained until at least 15th – seven were discovered at Stanwick GP on 14th, remaining there until the week’s end and nine were at Earls Barton GP, opposite Summer Leys, on 15th. Additionally, the two adults from last week remained with the Greylags at Clifford Hill GP throughout the period.

Adult White-fronted Goose, Summer Leys LNR, 12th December 2020 (Jim Dunkley)
Adult White-fronted Goose, Summer Leys LNR, 12th December 2020 (Jim Dunkley)
Adult White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 12th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)
Adult White-fronted Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 12th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)
Adult White-fronted Goose, Stanwick GP, 15th December 2020 (Steve Fisher)
Adult White-fronted Geese, Stanwick GP, 15th December 2020 (Steve Fisher)

On 12th, two adult Whooper Swans completed a brief stopover at Stanford, where a ‘redhead’ Smew – the first of the season – topped this week’s ducks deluxe, equally briefly, on 15th. Back at Hollowell, the female Ruddy Shelduck was still putting in appearances, on and off, until at least 16th and a drake Red-crested Pochard was seen at Pitsford Res between 13th and 17th.

Once again, Hollowell hung on to its juvenile Great Northern Diver throughout the period and Stanford’s four Black-necked Grebes also remained all week.

Black-necked Grebe, Stanford Res, 14th December 2020 (David Smith)

The first Cattle Egrets to be seen in the county for a month were six with sheep in a field beyond the northern end of Earls Barton GP on 12th-13th, while another was discovered in a horse field at Grendon on 16th, before flying off west.

Eliciting rather less excitement – if any at all – between one and four Great Egrets continued to languish at the usual sites, which included Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Stanwick, Thrapston and Summer Leys, with six reported from the latter site on 12th. Additionally, singles were seen at Billing GP on 17th, Ringstead GP on 18th and Thorpe Malsor Res on 12th.

Great Egret, Pitsford Res, 17th December 2020 (Tony Stanford)
Great Egret, Billing GP, 17th December 2020 (Leslie Fox)

In a week when uncommon waders failed to feature, the number of scarce gulls also remained low, with a third-winter Caspian Gull at Hollowell on 12th, an adult there on 16th and an adult at Rushton Landfill on 15th, while a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull was at Hollowell on 16th.

A Short-eared Owl was seen at the northern end of Summer Leys on 12th, the same site being one of six from which wintering Stonechats were reported, along with Earls Barton GP, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford and Yardley Chase.

Male Stonechat, Pitsford Res, 15th December 2020 (Bethan Clyne)

Scarce passerines came to the fore this week in the shape of two Firecrests along the northern side of Stortons GP on 17th, while belated news from earlier in the month concerns a Mealy Redpoll, seemingly moribund, and photographed in Salcey Forest on 7th December, representing only the third record for the year after two at Stanford during October.

Mealy Redpoll, Salcey Forest, 7th December 2020 (Mike Taylor)

Which just leaves Crossbills. They were down this week to appearing at only two localities – Harlestone Firs, with at least twenty-six on 17th and Hollowell, where four were present on 15th and eleven on 17th …

Newsround – 5th to 11th December 2020

Winter wildfowl and a period of little change was the order of the week, in which temperatures remained largely below average, murk prevailed and wind direction appeared to make little difference to any new arrivals on the scene.

Looking at home and grazing happily in the flat grassland of the Nene barrage, the twenty Barnacle Geese held their ground at Clifford Hill GP throughout the period and the one at Stanford Res remained until at least 9th.

Barnacle Goose ‘H1’, Clifford hill GP, 5th December 2020 (Bob Bullock). An individual from the feral population in Bedfordshire.
Barnacle Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 5th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)

At Hollowell Res, the seven Pink-footed Geese were joined by four more on 6th and 8th and several more were heard calling as they flew over Wakerley Great Wood on the first of these two dates. Pink-footed Goose now appears to be turning up more frequently in the county and in greater numbers, after enjoying a ten-fold increase in population over the last seventy years. This may be only the crest of a wave, though, as it’s said to be facing an uncertain future (more here).

Pink-footed Goose, Hollowell Res, 8th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)
Pink-footed Geese, Hollowell Res, 8th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)

After what was thought to have been a fleeting visit to Stanwick GP last week, the juvenile White-fronted Goose was relocated there with Greylags, at the north-eastern end of the complex, on 7th-8th. Two adults were subsequently discovered – again with Greylags – at Clifford Hill GP on 5th, remaining there until at least 10th. One of these exhibited some interesting characteristics, offering food for thought and optimistic conjecture (see here).

White-fronted Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 5th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)
Juvenile White-fronted Goose, Stanwick GP, 8th December 2020 (Steve Fisher)
White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Up in the north of the county, three adult Whooper Swans were reported from Deene Lake on 6th but they were not present subsequently. Back at Hollowell, the female Ruddy Shelduck was seen on 5th, 8th and 10th.

Female Ruddy Shelduck, Hollowell Res, 8th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)

Hollowell also hung on to its juvenile Great Northern Diver throughout the period and Stanford’s four Black-necked Grebes also remained all week. One or two Great Egrets were reported from seven sites, including Cottingham, Deene Lake, Hollowell, Pitsford Res, Stanford, Stanwick and Summer Leys LNR with, once again, the eighth site of Thrapston logging the week’s highest site count of six, which were present throughout.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Hollowell Res, 8th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)
Black-necked Grebes, Stanford Res, 8th December 2020 (Theo de Clermont)
Black-necked Grebe, Stanford Res, 9th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)

After a raptorless seven days, last week, a Marsh Harrier flew east over Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows on 5th and a ‘ringtail’ harrier sp., presumably a Hen Harrier, flew low over the dam at Stanford on 7th.

Waders bagged during the period were the solitary Curlew on the DIRFT 3 A5 pools again on 5th and five Jack Snipes on a field pool close to Ravensthorpe STW on the same date.

This week saw same three species of gull as the last, with a first-winter Mediterranean Gull at Rushton Landfill on 8th along with a second-winter Caspian Gull there on the same date, while the usual adult Yellow-legged Gull was at Hollowell on 10th.

Stanford logged this week’s fly-over Merlin on 9th, as well as again being one of the six localities to hold wintering Stonechats, along with Deene, Deenethorpe AF, Earls Barton GP, Thrapston and Hollowell, the latter site laying claim to the week’s maximum of five on 8th.

Stonechat, Hollowell Res, 8th December 2020 (Bob Bullock)


/> bbbbbbbbbCrossbills, Wakerley Great Wood, 5th December 2020 (Stewart Short)

The number of sites from which Crossbills were reported was up this week to five. Unsurprisingly, Wakerley Great Wood took the lion’s share of thirty on 6th, while twenty-five were seen at nearby Fineshade Wood on 6th and 10th and Hollowell’s maximum during the period was seven on 8th. Elsewhere, singles flew over Badby Wood on 6th and Deenethorpe on 7th.

Variation in the Clifford Hill White-fronted Geese

It was only yesterday when I managed to catch up with the two adult white-fronts at Clifford Hill Gravel Pits (or, if you prefer the newbie name, Nene Washlands). These birds were first discovered on 5th December and they appear to have settled in with the local Greylags, which are normally in the vicinity of the eastern end of the Main Barrage Lake.

While they are clearly part of the UK influx of ‘Russian’ White-fronted Geese, which took place during late November, one of these two birds shows some interesting characteristics.

White-fronted Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Larger than the other, it has an unusually extensive white facial patch, which is very striking in the field. While these patches can vary in size, I have never seen one this extensive, nor can I find any images which match it in terms of its broadness – including a spike extending to the eye – or in its reach on to the crown. There is also a white area extending below the gape line to the sides of the chin as the images here show.

White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

The difference between the two birds is obvious when they are together and the bill of the larger bird is also longer, broader, shows a very pale basal area (further contributing to the impression of a large white face patch) and an orange wash, albeit restricted, on the proximal part of the culmen, while the tip is potentially ‘teat-shaped’.

White-fronted Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 10th December 2020 (Mike Alibone). Inset: Tule White-fronted Goose (Reeber, 2015)

According to Reeber (2015), many of the above features are characteristics shown by the race elgasi, Tule White-fronted Goose which, breeding only in Alaska and wintering in California, is the rarest and has the most restricted range of all races of White-fronted Goose.

However close (or not) the resemblance appears, though, there is a good deal lacking. Elgasi is large, longer legged, longer necked, longer billed and generally much darker than ‘Russian’ White-fronted Goose. In general, male white-fronts are larger and slightly longer billed than females, which explains the size difference between the two Clifford Hill birds. However, there is still the extensive white facial patch, the bill shape and colour which add interest to this bird and make it stand out. Is this bird simply at one end of a range of variation or are there some Tule genes in there, somewhere? Alaska is not far from Siberia as the goose flies …

Newsround – 28th November to 4th December 2020

It’s official. This week saw us cross the date-line into meteorological winter and to mark the event, the wind turned to a chilly northerly on the day. In conjunction with this, a run of easterly winds over the preceding days produced conditions conducive to the inbound movement of some notable winter visitors, intent on escaping increasingly inclement conditions on the Near Continent.

The goose theme continued this week with the twenty-strong Barnacle Goose flock still at Clifford Hill GP on 29th and the one at Stanford Res remaining all week. Up to seven Pink-footed Geese lingered at Hollowell Res until at least 1st but more significant was a juvenile White-fronted Goose, new in at Stanwick GP on 28th. ‘Russian’, ‘European’, ‘Eurasian’ – whichever name is currently de rigueur – it had moved on by the next day and was clearly part of a national influx, with more than 100 sites between Norfolk and the Isle of Wight having logged this species since 29th November. This included plenty of single birds, such as the Stanwick individual, as well as small flocks, some of which were in counties where groups are rare, including Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey. Clearly Stanwick’s bird was in the vanguard. The only other record this year was two adults at Clifford Hill GP on 2nd-3rd January so, if nothing else changes, it looks like 2020 will end up being an exceedingly poor white-front year, locally … but there is still time for things to turn around. And then there was Bewick’s Swan, four of which paid a brief visit to Pitsford before flying off north-west on the morning of 4th. In so doing, it narrowly preserved its status as an annual visitor to the county and if there are no more in 2020, this year will rank alongside 2002 and 2010 as the worst on record, with just one occurrence in each.

Greater Scaups, 1st December 2020. Left: drake, Stanford Res (Chris Hubbard). Right: first-winter, DIRFT 3 (Mike Alibone)

Besides up to three Red-crested Pochards remaining at Pitsford Res and a female being found at Deene Lake on 30th, two Greater Scaups were discovered on the afternoon of 1st – a drake at Stanford Res and a first-winter at DIRFT 3 – only the 2nd and 3rd records in this half of the year, following one at Pitsford Res on 31st October. More transient winter wildfowl appeared in the shape of two female-type Common Scoters at Clifford Hill GP on 28th and six more at Thrapston GP, two days later, on 30th.

At Hollowell, the juvenile Great Northern Diver remained throughout. Meanwhile, a stone’s throw to the north-west, Stanford magicked up four cute Black-necked Grebes on 30th – the record-breaker for the number of species logged there in one year. They remained all week.

Black-necked Grebe, Stanford Res, 1st December 2020 (Matt Jackson)
Curlew, DIRFT 3, 1st December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Great Egrets were again reported from seven sites with, once again, Thrapston logging the week’s highest site count of five on 28th and 1st.

On 1st, just one Curlew was seen to come in to roost on the DIRFT 3 A5 pools prior to dusk, while other large, long-legged waders this week were two Black-tailed Godwits at Summer Leys LNR on 29th and one at Stanwick GP the following day. The only Jack Snipe reported during the period was one at Pitsford on 28th.

Winter roost-watching produced an adult Mediterranean Gull at Pitsford on 30th and a first-winter Caspian Gull at Boddington Res on 1st and the semi-regular third-winter Caspian was again at Hollowell on the same date. Nine Yellow-legged Gulls were in the Boddington roost on 1st but elsewhere, it was single adults at Hollowell on 28th, 30th and 3rd, Pitsford on 28th and 30th and in the roost at Thrapston on 30th.

Wintering Stonechats were limited to Deene, Hollowell, Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering), Stanford and Pitsford, with a maximum of four at the latter site on 30th. On 2nd, Pitsford also produced – albeit very briefly – the second Water Pipit of the year in 2020 – the first was at Ditchford GP on 13th March.

Male Crossbill, Hollowell Res, 1st December 2020 (Jim Dunkley)

Lastly, we come to cone-crunchers’ corner, in which the male Parrot Crossbill was again reported from Wakerley Great Wood on 1st, the same site continuing to host up to a dozen Crossbills, this number being well down on last week’s total of sixty-plus. The only other site at which Crossbills were reported this week was Hollowell, where a maximum of eleven was seen on 28th.

Female Crossbill, Hollowell Res, 1st December 2020 (Jim Dunkley)

As we stand on the brink of further invasive cold air from the Arctic, hopefully there will be more exciting winter visitors in the offing over the forthcoming weeks.