Newsround – 23rd to 29th January 2021

The cold, northerly, Arctic air brought the first lying snow of winter to the county at the beginning of the period, before giving way to a warmer, Atlantic weather system in the latter part of the week, while a certain large raptor slipped in, unnoticed …

Otherwise, there was little change in the county’s mid-winter mix, with the thirty or so White-fronted Geese remaining around the northern extremity of the Stanwick GP complex throughout and the three Pink-footed Goose at Kislingbury GP on 22nd hanging on until 23rd in the waterlogged meadows of the surrounding Upton CP. A Barnacle Goose was also present there on the same date a, while the Stanford Res bird remained until at least 26th and six were found at Clifford Hill GP on 24th.

Back on the menu, once again, were Whooper Swans, with a mighty large dollop of thirty-five dished out onto the flooded meadows south of Nassington on 24th. This would appear to be the largest flock recorded in Northamptonshire in recent history although, as the swan flies, the location is not too far away from its Cambridgeshire wintering grounds, where such herds are commonplace. Not quite measuring up in many birders’ books, the long-staying female Ruddy Shelduck was still at Hollowell on 26th. In terms of it being taken more seriously, things could change, however, with the recent announcement by the BOURC that it is currently reviewing the status of this species on the British List as it is potentially occurring in Britain as a vagrant from established naturalised populations on the near continent. It should, therefore, be treated as a candidate for Category C5 (vagrant naturalised species from outside Britain). We await the outcome of the review with bated breath …

Female Ruddy Shelduck, Hollowell Res, 23rd January 2021 (Jon Cook)

The juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 27th and four Cattle Egrets were still at Stanwick GP on 24th, one was seen there the following day and one visited Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR on the same date. This week’s Great Egrets were at Ditchford GP (IL&M), Hollowell, Oundle, Pitsford, Ringstead GP, Stanford, Stanwick and Summer Leys LNR, with no more than two at any one locality.

Great Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 26th January 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)

Eclipsing all of the above, literally, was the immature White-tailed Eagle, which roosted at Brampton Wood, near Desborough on 28th and just north of Pitsford’s Scaldwell Bay the following evening, on 29th. Yes, he’s back. G393, the radio-tagged immature male from the Isle of Wight’s reintroduction scheme, which visited Northamptonshire last year, slipped into the county after spending five months in West Norfolk from 1st August 2020, before moving west into Lincolnshire and then Leicestershire earlier this month.

G393 Satellite tracking data.

It is amazing how elusive the birds from this scheme are proving to be and this individual hasn’t actually been reported since it left Norfolk! Many thanks to Dr Tim Mackrill for supplying the satellite tracking information. Where will it appear next?

Back down to earth and well out of the limelight, a Jack Snipe was found on floods just north of Summer Leys on 25th and three days later, on 28th, fourteen Ruffs were nearby, on the reserve proper – a superb mid-winter total, beating any single-site autumn counts in recent years!

Ruffs, Summer Leys LNR, 28th January 2021 (Leslie Fox)

A paucity of gulls this week left just a single adult Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford on 23rd and this week’s token Merlin was a female, over farmland near Braunston, on the same date.

Stonechat, Stanford Res, 24th January 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Stonechats were present at Earls Barton GP, Ecton SF, Oundle, Pitsford, Stanford, Stanwick, Sywell CP and near Towcester, with the highest count of at least five at Pitsford on 28th. Apart from two at Salcey Forest on 23rd, Crossbill sightings were confined to Hollowell, where they were seen on four dates, with a maximum of ten present on 29th.

Newsround – 16th to 22nd January 2021

A largely westerly airstream, bringing intermittent rain, served to top up existing areas of floodwater throughout the county this week. ‘Dry January’ it isn’t and, apart from the rediscovery of the recent Greenland White-fronted Goose, there was little change to the birding mix.

However, the winter goosefest continued apace, beginning with the relocation of the Greenland White-fronted Goose in the Nene Valley, close to Summer Leys LNR, on 16th. It was still present on 19th, when it was also seen on the reserve proper.

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, Summer Leys LNR, 19th January 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Further east, around thirty White-fronted Geese remained at Stanwick GP until at least 19th and following last week’s Pink-footed Goose at Hollowell, more appeared this week – one on water meadows between Thrapston GP and Islip on 22nd and three at Kislingbury GP on the same date. A Barnacle Goose at Stanford Res on 17th was the only one recorded during the period.

Pink-footed Geese, Kislingbury GP, 22nd January 2021 (Mike Alibone). Two of three present on this date.

Other wildfowl were also available but limited to the long-staying female Ruddy Shelduck at Hollowell on 17th and a female Red-crested Pochard, mobile between the gravel pits at Stortons and Kislingbury from 17th to 22nd, accompanied by a drake at the latter site on 21st.

The juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 21st, the same date that three Cattle Egrets – the only ones reported this week – visited Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR. Great Egrets were still very much in evidence, being seen at Ditchford GP (IL&M), Ecton SF, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Summer Leys and Woodford, the last two sites producing the maxima of four and three, respectively.

A Marsh Harrier caused a stir at Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows on 19th. Winter records are on the increase but the species remains scarce at this time of the year, nonetheless.

No waders of note could be squeezed out of the week and winter gulls bounced back from last week’s zero to include an adult Mediterranean Gull at Pitsford on 19th, an adult Caspian Gull at Hollowell on 16th, plus a second-winter in the Stanford roost on 22nd and single adult Yellow-legged Gulls at both Pitsford and Stanford on 16th.

Second-winter Caspian Gull, Stanford Res, 22nd January 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

This week’s token Merlin was a male, just west of Hardwick, on 17th. Passerine numbers were somewhat depressed, with the two Bearded Tits at Stortons showing well on 17th and the male only on the following day, 18th.

Male Bearded Tit, Stortons GP, 17th January 2021 (Bob Bullock)

And this week’s highest Stonechat total goes to … Hollowell, where five were present on 16th. Stonechats were also present at Clifford Hill GP, Ditchford, Irthlingborough, Pitsford, Stanford and Thrapston. Hollowell was also the only locality this week to produce Crossbills – a combined total of up to forty on 22nd.

Greenland White-fronted Goose at Summer Leys

Sometimes hunches pay off. After the incredibly short stay of the Greenland White-fronted Goose at Wicksteed Park, Kettering on 6th January, it seemed logical to assume it might emerge somewhere else in the county – if we were lucky.

On 16th January, a White-fronted Goose was reported with Greylags just outside the northern boundary of Summer Leys LNR and it was seen and reported again the following day. Despite it being a good winter for the species so far, under the current circumstances, a lone whitefront was surely worth some scrutiny and on the 18th a visit to check it out was duly made.

And there it was – in the water meadow by the Nene, just north of Wollaston Lock – the tell-tale orange bill, along with the characteristic dark plumage of the Greenland race flavirostris, easy to find among the 80 or so Greylags which it had latched on to.

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, near Summer Leys LNR, 18th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Closer scrutiny reveals the slightly thicker neck than the nominate albifrons race (‘Russian’ White-fronted Goose), although this is subjective and dependent on the bird’s stance. The slightly darker face is also evident as well as, from the rear, the thinner white terminal tailband than that of albifrons.

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, near Summer Leys LNR, 18th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, near Summer Leys LNR, 18th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, near Summer Leys LNR, 18th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)

The unique patterning of the black belly bars identifies this bird as the same individual which visited Wicksteed Park on 6th January. Interestingly, this bird had also been present at Watermead, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (approximately 46 km south of Summer Leys) on 31st December 2020. This is the 6th record for Northamptonshire. It is still present today, 19th January.

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, Wicksteed Park, 6th January 2021 (left, Nick Parker) and near Summer Leys LNR, 18th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Greenland White-fronted Goose winters principally in Ireland and western Scotland. Small numbers winter in Wales and small groups can also be encountered in other parts of Scotland and north-west England. The global population of Greenland White-fronted Geese in spring 2020 comprised 21509 individuals, up very slightly on the 21466 (0.2%) on the previous year; 10418 were counted in Ireland and 11091 in Britain (Fox et al. 2020).

Newsround – 9th to 15th January 2021

Despite a shift toward a warmer Atlantic airstream, northerlies persisted, temperatures remained depressed and more rain added to an already waterlogged landscape. Add the restrictions of ‘local area’ travel to the mix and this week’s rather subdued birding didn’t quite hit the mark …

Still, for those fortunate enough to live on the doorstep of a not too shoddy birding location, there were still birds to be had. Among these, the regular White-fronted Geese at Stanwick GP remained throughout, albeit a little depleted in numbers, with the highest tally nudging thirty on 13th. A Pink-footed Goose at Hollowell Res on 12th was the first to be seen there for three weeks and two Barnacle Geese accompanied the regular canalside Greylag and Canada flock at Braunston on 10th.

Other wildfowl were limited to two Red-crested Pochards at Stortons GP on 11th and what was presumably last year’s female Ferruginous Duck-type hybrid performing an encore, for one day only, at Stanwick on 13th.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 10th January 2021 (Angus Molyneux)

The long-staying juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 10th, as were up to six Cattle Egrets at the northern end of Stanwick throughout the week.

Cattle Egret, Stanwick GP, 9th January 2021 (Adrian Borley)

Gleaming white Great Egrets, perhaps visible from space, were to be found loafing in most of the usual places, including Deene Lake, Pitsford, Stanwick, Summer Leys and Thrapston, with a maximum of three at Stanwick on 13th.

Great Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 14th January 2021 (Leslie Fox)

No gulls this week and just one Jack Snipe, at Stanford Res on 10th, served to fill the slot on an otherwise empty list of waders.

Continuing a run of winter records, Merlins were seen at Harrington AF on 10th and 11th and over Stortons GP on the second of these two dates, the latter site continuing to provide both sight – on 9th – and sounds, on 10th and 11th, of the two Bearded Tits which were present there on 8th.

Once again, Pitsford produced the highest count of Stonechats, with four on 12th, three were at Clifford Hill GP on 15th and singles at Stanford Res on 10th and Sywell CP on 15th.

Stonechat, Clifford Hill GP, 15th January 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Perhaps vying with the Bearded Tits, ‘passerine of the week’ arguably goes to the female Hawfinch seen and caught fleetingly on camera in Weldon on 13th. Hopefully there will be more before the winter is out. Other large-billed finches are available, of course, and this week’s Crossbills were limited to nine at Hollowell Res on 12th and 15th, while the larches of Wakerley Great Wood continued to hold several on 13th.

Newsround – 2nd to 8th January 2021

Unrelenting north-easterlies during the period resulted in below-average temperatures persisting throughout the week, while snow showers early on 6th and 8th were short-lived. New arrivals and hard weather movements of some species duly materialised as a result.

But if the snow was short-lived, so was the stay of Northamptonshire’s sixth-ever Greenland White-fronted Goose at Wicksteed Park, Kettering, on the first of these two dates. Clearly it was not cut out for parklife and those would-be observers who turned up to see it early the following morning left disappointed … and most certainly without a sense of enormous well-being … This individual is believed to be one which was initially found at Watermead in Buckinghamshire on New Year’s eve and subsequently departed. Its approachability has led some to question its provenance.

Adult Greenland White-fronted Goose, Wicksteed Park, Kettering, 6th January 2021 (Nick Parker)

The five previous records of this distinctive, orange-billed race are limited to an even shorter stop by a radio-tagged female near Aynho on 27th October 2018, a first-winter at Daventry CP on 7th February 2009, a juvenile at Pitsford Res on 27th October 1991, five adults and a juvenile at Pitsford Res on 19th December 1981 and an adult plus three first-winters at Stanford Res between 8th and 14th February 1981.

Apart from twenty-two flying south-west over Laxton on 3rd, nominate race White-fronted Geese were limited to the regular gaggle of thirty-three, mobile about Stanwick GP throughout the week.

It seems highly likely that the aforementioned hard weather conditions resulted in the movements of Whooper Swans, presumably pushed west from the continent. Northants has experienced an increase in numbers recorded annually in recent years, pretty much in line with the general UK trend, which has seen a 210% increase in the wintering population over the 25 years 1992/93 to 2017/18 (Frost et al. 2020). None of this week’s birds lingered, all moving on within a matter of hours or, in some cases, minutes. The first day of the period, 2nd, brought six to Pitsford, from where they moved off west within half an hour of their discovery, arriving at Hollowell shortly afterwards.

Adult Whooper Swans, Pitsford Res, 2nd January 2021 (Bob Bullock)
Whooper Swans, Hollowell Res, 2nd January 2021 (Jon Cook)

Their stay there was also brief and they soon departed north. The following day, three flew south-west over Barton Seagrave, with presumably the same birds arriving at Hollowell an hour later where, again, they did not linger.

Whooper Swans, Hollowell Res, 3rd January 2021 (Adrian Borley)

Later in the day, two flew south-west over Pitsford – again without stopping. On 5th, five made a short stopover at Stanford Res and seven were discovered at Clifford Hill GP just prior to dusk. They were not present the following morning.

Whooper Swans, Stanford Res, 5th January 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

More reliable – though eliciting little or no interest – the female Ruddy Shelduck was still present at Hollowell on 2nd, while two Red-crested Pochards were found at Pitsford on 3rd and one was at Kislingbury GP on 5th.

The sole Great Northern Diver of the winter so far, remained at Pitsford all week, mobile between the dam and the causeway, sometimes showing well off the latter in the early part of the period.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 2nd January 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Last week’s Bittern was again seen in flight at Earls Barton GP’s Quarry Walk on 3rd and two flew into the reedbed at Stortons GP, at dusk, on 6th. It was mid-December when six Cattle Egrets were discovered feeding in sheep fields north of Summer Leys, north-east of Wollaston Lock. This week, between 2nd and 5th, five were again there and they could sometimes be seen more closely from the road running through Great Doddington to Wellingborough.

Cattle Egret, Great Doddington, 3rd January 2021 (Ant Hall)

Four were at the northern end of Stanwick on 3rd, two on 4th and one on 6th. Meanwhile, Great Egrets were to be found at seven sites, with a maximum of six at Thrapston GP on 8th.

On 4th, what should surely prove to be a record-busting count of fourteen Jack Snipes was made at Daventry CP, counts scraping into double-figures being highly exceptional. Elsewhere, singles were at Hollowell Res and Stanford Res on 2nd and up to two were on a marshy field pool near Ravensthorpe Res between 3rd and 5th.

Once again, Boddington gull roost produced multiple Mediterranean Gulls – three to be precise – an adult plus two first-winters in the fading light of the 5th. But the true joys of the depths of winter crystallised in the form of an Iceland Gull at Rushton Landfill on 5th. This one, a second-winter, will hopefully be the first of a run of ‘white-wingers’ over the next couple of months. Iceland Gulls have occurred annually, in varying numbers, in the county since 1986.

Iceland Gull, Rushton Landfill, 5th January 2021 (Mike Alibone). Tertial pattern and extent of barring in flight feathers indicate advanced second-winter rather than third-winter.
Temporal distribution of Iceland Gulls in Northamptonshire. Background image: second-winter Iceland Gull, Rushton Landfill, 10th February 2018 (Bob Bullock)

Rushton also held an adult Caspian Gull on 2nd, plus a first-winter and second-winter on 5th, while another first-winter was in the Boddington roost on the same date, as was this week’s only Yellow-legged Gull.

Back on dry land, Merlins were seen at Helmdon on 4th and near Arthingworth on 6th. But it was the long-absent Bearded Tits which popped up again at Stortons GP on 8th which will no doubt rekindle interest in this suburban reserve. With Bitterns there, too, Stortons looks set to become the legally permissive ‘go to’ site for Northampton-based birders over the lockdown period.

Male Bearded Tit, Stortons GP, 8th January 2021 (David Smith)
Female Bearded Tit, Stortons GP, 8th January 2021 (David Smith)

Other ‘tits’ with attenuated rear ends are also available – one such being the Ravensthorpe Long-tailed Tit, resembling the Northern race caudatus, from 3rd to 6th. With its credentials blemished, however, it seems to be a continental europaeus-based intergrade at best (more here).

Pitsford produced the highest count of Stonechats, with six on 5th, while between one and three were present at five other locations during the period. Crossbills were down a little on last week, with the larches of Wakerley Great Wood still hanging on to at least twenty until at least 4th, Hollowell maxing out at ten on 8th and six at Harlestone Heath (or Firs, if you prefer) on the same date.

‘Northern’ or Intergrade Long-tailed Tit?

County Recorder Jon Cook relays his account of finding a Long-tailed Tit showing some northern race characteristics.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 3rd January, I visited Ravensthorpe Reservoir. As I reached the north-eastern end of the dam, I paused to watch a group of three Goldcrests which were feeding among the ivy-covered walls of the opposite side of the spillway. A Chiffchaff was also occasionally visible and audible in the tree canopy further downstream. At 14.06 I became aware of a small mixed tit flock approaching from my left, comprising 3-4 Long-tailed Tits, a couple of Blue Tits and a Great Tit. I noticed immediately that one of the Long-tailed Tits was strikingly white-headed. I managed to get a couple of front-on photos before the flock moved away downstream.

Presumed Continental intergrade Long-tailed Tit, Ravensthorpe Res, 3rd January 2021 (Jon Cook)
Presumed Continental intergrade Long-tailed Tit, Ravensthorpe Res, 3rd January 2021 (Jon Cook)

With its mostly white head, I felt that the bird had some characteristics of the Northern race caudatus, but having seen the bird only briefly and not from all angles, this was far from clear cut, and a quick check of the literature on the topic described many subspecies, intergrades and other pitfalls which made me very cautious about calling this bird a pure caudatus.

I often include a circuit of Ravensthorpe Reservoir in my daily exercise, so have been able to go back twice since. On Monday, 4th January, I was unable to re-find the bird, but the following day I relocated it close to the original location, but further into the wood and higher in the canopy. Again, a fleeting view of the bird as it moved through the trees this time with a larger group of about 12 Long-tailed Tits.

Presumed Continental intergrade Long-tailed Tit, Ravensthorpe Res, 5th January 2021 (Jon Cook)

On both occasions this bird immediately grabbed my attention as being noticeably white-headed, lacking a dark lateral crown stripe. Underparts were clean white with rosy flanks. Black at nape extending towards ear coverts seems to be a key feature ruling out a pure caudatus. The white on the head, although striking, was not the pure snowy white I’ve seen on some photos. I didn’t manage to get a clear view of tertials so couldn’t see extent of any white there. On balance I feel that the features and characteristics of this bird make a case for it to be an intergrade europaeus / caudatus. On the other hand it could of course be simply an aberrant British ssp rosaceus. Given the multiple possibilities, this record will probably remain inconclusive, but whatever its provenance it was a strikingly attractive bird and the sighting has led me to brush up on my knowledge of this fascinating species, so it has also been a valuable learning experience.

Many thanks to Mike Alibone and to all the other birders who, via Twitter and email, have offered views, thoughts and knowledge to help with this ID challenge.

Jon Cook, County Recorder 

Newsround – 26th December 2020 to 1st January 2021

The week kicked off with two severe flood warnings, indicating a potential threat to life, in place at Cogenhoe Mill and on the River Nene at Billing Aquadrome as Storm Bella swept in from the Atlantic. Following this, local temperatures struggled to reach 3°C throughout the greater part of the period as winds swung north to north-westerly before we crossed the dateline into 2021.

Again, the focus was very much on wildfowl, the latter dominated by the growing number of White-fronted Geese in the Nene Valley. While eight – seven adults and a dissociated juvenile – remained at Stanwick GP on 31st, last week’s twenty-three at Summer Leys LNR had become twenty-six by 27th, remaining in the vicinity until 31st, when they were seen to fly off east.

White-fronted Geese, Summer Leys LNR, 31st December 2020 (Mark Tyrrell)

On New Year’s Day they were at Stanwick, bringing the site total there to at least thirty-three. A single Barnacle Goose remained at Stanford Res, visiting nearby Stanford on Avon on 1st and at Hollowell Res, the female Ruddy Shelduck extended her already protracted stay by another week.

Bewick’s Swans, Welland Valley, 27th December 2020 (James Underwood)

Following last week’s fleeting Yuletide trio at Pitsford Res, two more Bewick’s Swans were found – this time in the Welland Valley, between Rockingham and Gretton, on 27th. Staying on-trend they, too, had done a bunk by the following day.

Juvenile Great Northern Diver, Pitsford Res, 27th December 2020 (Martin Swannell)

In for the long haul, it seems, the juvenile Great Northern Diver remained at Pitsford all week but after a 30-day stay, the four Black-necked Grebes failed to see the new year in at Stanford, having departed by 30th. A Boxing Day Bittern was the reward for patience at Summer Leys, after which it – or another – was seen at Earls Barton GP’s Quarry Walk the following day and again on 29th.

Bittern, Summer Leys LNR, 26th December 2020 (Ricky Sinfield)

Up to seven Cattle Egrets remained at Stanwick throughout, while ten sites held Great Egrets, the highest counts being of six at Summer Leys on 27th and five at both Ravensthorpe Res on 26th and Stanwick on 30th.

Great Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 29th December 2020 (Ricky Sinfield)

Jack Snipes single-handedly filled the wader slot this week, with up to three at Hollowell throughout the period and one at Stanford on 27th, the latter site sucking in a one-night-only Kittiwake to the gull roost on 28th, taking this highly productive site’s 2020 final species total to a record one hundred and sixty-four. Meanwhile, down to the south-west, the Boddington gull roost produced a first-winter Mediterranean Gull on 30th, joined there by an adult on 1st. Caspian Gulls were found at three localities this week, with an adult at Hollowell on 28th, two adults at Rushton Landfill on 30th and 31st, being joined there by a first-winter on the first of these two dates, and a first-winter in flight over Harrington AF on 1st. The only Yellow-legged Gull, however, was an adult at Pitsford on 30th.

Adult Caspian Gull, Rushton Landfill, 30th December 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Harrington also produced a female Merlin on 27th while, back at Hollowell Res, a Siberian Chiffchaff was discovered on 26th and the latter site also held the highest number of Stonechats, with five there on 1st. Between one and three Stonechats were present at four other locations during the period.

Stonechat, Upton CP, 1st January 2021 (Tony Stanford)

Still on the up, Crossbills were again seen at five sites, with the Wakerley Great Wood count pushing fifty on 30th. Maxima elsewhere were twenty-three at Bucknell Wood on 31st, at least twenty at Fineshade Wood on 28th, seven at Hollowell on 1st and three at Badby Wood on 30th.