Newsround – 18th to 24th December 2021 

This week saw little brightness between the clag and haar as rather damp and gloomy conditions prevailed in the run up to Christmas. Nevertheless, the weather failed to put the dampers on birding and new birds were still being found in addition to the established long-stayers …

In the latter category, the first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose remained at Clifford Hill GP until at least 22nd, while Pitsford’s Barnacle Goose, not quite in the same league, was again present on 21st.

First-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 22nd December 2021 (Mike Alibone)

This last date saw an obvious and noteworthy movement of wildfowl across the county as more geese added flavour to the week’s proceedings. A Pink-footed Goose joined the local Greylags at Thrapston GP, where it remained the following day and the Ravensthorpe bird was still in the area on 23rd, feeding in fields between Ravensthorpe village and the reservoir causeway. White-fronted Geese were also added to the mix on 21st, when four flew south over the causeway at Pitsford and three arrived at Hollowell Res. Three were also found at Stanwick GP the following day.

White-fronted Geese, Hollowell Res, 21st December 2021 (Jon Cook)

It was back in October when we last saw a big day movement of Whooper Swans, echoed this week on 21st when, following two at Pitsford the day before, three flew south-east over the causeway and five appeared there in The Narrows during the morning, before moving up to Scaldwell Bay as daylight faded, late in the afternoon. The morning also saw two adults on Clifford Hill GP’s Main Barrage Lake, while two flew south-east over Denton Wood late in the afternoon, when one was also found at Stanford Res. None remained the following day.

Adult Whooper Swan, Stanford Res, 21st December 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

With the highest number of six, at Kislingbury GP – again on 21st – Red-crested Pochards made a bit of a comeback this week and this also included two at Ditchford GP on 20th-21st and a female at Stanford Res from 20th to 22nd. A first-winter female Greater Scaup was also found at Stortons GP on 19th, remaining throughout the week.

First-winter female Scaup, Stortons GP, 20th December 2021 (Mike Alibone)

After an apparent week’s absence, the ‘redhead’ Smew resurfaced on Thrapston GP’s Aldwincle Lake on 20th but it was nowhere to be seen the following day, while the two dapper drakes, last seen at Pitsford on 15th, were relocated at Hollowell on 21st.

Smew, Hollowell Res, 21st December 2021 (Jon Cook)

Cattle Egrets rallied somewhat this week, with the fields below Irthlingborough Church mustering eight on 18th and four on 22nd, while nearby Stanwick GP produced up to four during the period, as well as the week’s highest total of at least seventeen Great Egrets coming in to roost there on 18th. Top totals elsewhere were three at Pitsford on 23rd, two at Ditchford GP on 19th and singles at Summer Leys on 20th and at Stanford Res from 20th to 22nd.

Pitsford’s juvenile/first-winter Shag total doubled to two on 18th, falling back to one from 19th to 21st – at least that’s what it looked like, although the bird on the latter date was seen off the old Scaldwell road and therefore well away from its/their usual haunt of the pontoon at the north end of the sailing club.  

Juvenile/first-winter Shag, Pitsford Res, 20th December 2021 (Bob Bullock)

There was no real movement on the wader front this week, with the Wood Sandpiper remaining at Pitsford throughout the period and the long-staying Ruff, or two, lingering at Summer Leys until at least 20th and the wintering Common Sandpiper also remaining at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) on 22nd. Jack Snipe was well represented this week with six at Ditchford on 19th and seven apiece at Ravensthorpe on 23rd and Daventry CP the following day.

Common Sandpiper, Earls Barton GP, 21st December 2021 (Leslie Fox)

An adult Mediterranean Gull dropped in to Daventry CP on 21st but there were more Caspian Gulls this week, with adults in the roost at Stanford Res on 18th and 23rd and a third-winter there on 20th. At Rushton Landfill, a first-winter was present on 21st and an adult visited Hollowell Res on 23rd. Aside from the regular adult at Pitsford, present all week, a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull was seen at Rushton Landfill on 21st, where the number of gulls appears to be down on previous winters.

A Short-eared Owl was reported from Harrington AF on 19th, while star of this week’s passerines proved to be a Siberian Chiffchaff, calling frequently and showing well, close to the causeway car park at Pitsford on the last day of the week. In second place, a Black Redstart, scarce at any time but even rarer in winter, was found near the summit compound on Borough Hill on 22nd and was still present there on 24th.

Male Stonechat, Earls Barton GP, 19th December 2021 (Leslie Fox)

Stonechats, on the other hand, were well represented by two at Ditchford from 18th to 20th, three at Lilbourne Meadows on 19th, four at Upton CP on 22nd, when two were also at Borough Hill, and three at Hollowell Res on 23rd.

Newsround – 11th to 17th December 2021 

There was no drama in regard to this week’s weather, which remained settled and largely dry, with temperatures above average.

Emulating the weather, many of the previous week’s long-stayers also remained settled, among them the first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, which was still at Clifford Hill GP when checked in on, on 14th. The Barnacle Goose, last reported at Pitsford Res on 3rd, was relocated there on 16th, the same site continuing to hang on to its star attraction of the two debonair drake Smews until at least 15th.

Drake Smews, Pitsford Res, 13th December 2021 (Martin Swannell)

A drake Greater Scaup was also reported there on 14th and, after a week without any, two Red-crested Pochards were at Daventry CP on 16th-17th.

Back at Pitsford, a Black-necked Grebe was reported on 14th and Cattle Egrets hit rock bottom this week with just one at Stanwick GP on the same date. Conversely, Great Egrets reached a new record high on 16th, when nineteen were counted coming in to roost at the latter site. Top totals elsewhere were up to eight at Pitsford on 16th, three at Thrapston GP on 11th, two at Stanford Res on 12th and singles at Upton CP on 15th and at Stortons GP and Summer Leys LNR on 16th.

Arguably the period’s top bird, in terms of rarity, was the juvenile/first-winter Shag found at Pitsford on 15th and still present there as the week drew to a close on 17th. Given that most records of this species are in autumn, December records are few and far between, this one likely to stir memories for many a local birder of the highly approachable, fearless first-winter that took a shine to Abington Park Lake in suburban Northampton, from 17th December 2006 until 4th February 2007.

Juvenile/first-winter Shag, Pitsford Res, 16th December 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Again, it was a case of as you were, on the wader front, with the Wood Sandpiper remaining at Pitsford and the long-staying Ruff lingering at Summer Leys until at least 16th, last week’s Black-tailed Godwit remaining at the latter locality until 12th and the wintering Common Sandpiper also staying put at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) at the end of the period. Jack Snipe was added to the mix this week, with one near Wicksteed Park (Kettering) on 11th and five at Daventry CP on 16th.

Gulls fared better, with an adult Mediterranean Gull at Summer Leys on 12th, a third-winter Caspian Gull at Stanford Res on 11th, accompanied there by 2 adult Yellow-legged Gulls, while the usual, single adult Yellow-legged Gull was seen at Pitsford on 16th-17th.

Hardly a week passes without a Merlin these days, so one in a field adjacent to Ravensthorpe Res on 14th served to keep the species on the radar and comes as no real surprise.

On the passerine front, the number of Stonechats remained low, with up to four at Upton CP to 15th, two in the Brampton Valley on 13th and one at Borough Hill on 17th.

Male Stonechat, Upton CP, 15th December 2021 (Tony Stanford)

And it looks like the recent supply of Water Pipits has now dried up, with just one remaining on view at Summer Leys’ scrape until 11th, after which … nothing.

sand martins get new home

News In Brief

Today marked the ‘Grand Revealing’ of the new Sand Martin ‘bank’ at Stanford Reservoir.

The artificial ‘sandbank’, in the form of two raised cabinets, was recently constructed on the southern (Northants) bank, on the western side of Blowers Lodge Bay. Providing a total of 96 artificial nesting tunnels, the cabinets, designed and built by West Yorkshire-based Green Future Buildings, are prefabricated with the outer shell manufactured from 100% recycled plastic. The front sand-coated panel and the nesting chambers are made from Extreme Fibreboard. They were installed in just one day, following two days of scrub clearance.

In a nod to the festive season, the mulled wine and mince pies came out as key players involved in the project came together at Stanford this morning to officially declare the new nesting facility open. Given the seal of approval by Ian Martindale from the Severn Trent Water Authority, the project was managed by Peter Norrie of the Stanford Ringing Group, which provided 10% of the funding, while Tarmac, represented on site by James Pripa, provided the bulk of the financial assistance through the established landfill tax communities fund.

All images Mike Alibone

Hopefully now a magnet for Sand Martins and with early spring not too far away, the results are eagerly awaited.

Newsround – 4th to 10th December 2021 

Pushing on into December and Arwen’s successor, Storm Barra, swept in off the Atlantic during 7th and 8th but appeared to have a negligible impact on local bird movements. New in, and undeniably topping this week’s celebrity bill, were two handsome drake Smews, found at Pitsford Reservoir at the eleventh hour …

But the wildfowl line-up kicks off with the first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, remaining faithful throughout the period, to the eastern end of the Main Barrage Lake at Clifford Hill GP. The Ravensthorpe Pink-footed Goose was still with Greylags at Ravensthorpe Res on the last day of the week and a ‘small flock’ flew south, calling, over the Brampton Valley near Hanging Houghton, after dark on 9th.

A female Greater Scaup was reported from Summer Leys LNR on 6th but our ducks deluxe highlight was provided by the two dapper drake Smews, discovered at Pitsford Res on the last day of the week. With the two recently at Ringstead GP and the ‘redhead’ currently settled at Thrapston GP’s Aldwincle Lake, things look like they’re shaping up nicely for the usual sprinkling of this species over the winter – a far cry from last year, when local Smews were very much in short supply.

Drake Smews, Pitsford Res, 10th December 2021 (Alan Coles)
Drake Smew, Pitsford Res, 10th December 2021 (Tony Stanford)
Drake Smews, Pitsford Res, 10th December 2021 (Bob Bullock)

This week’s capricious Cattle Egrets were unpredictable in terms of where they might be reliably encountered. The much-depleted Ringstead roost, seemingly now out of favour with this species, produced three, in from the nearby horse paddocks, on 10th, while at least eight were seen leaving the former roost at Stanwick, early on 5th. On the latter date, the same roost also produced the week’s highest count of Great Egrets when nine also emerged at first light. Elsewhere, Pitsford held at least six – well down on the recent record high of eighteen – and singles were at Clifford Hill, Foxholes Fisheries (Crick) and Summer Leys.

Great Egret, Pitsford Res, 10th December 2021 (Alan Coles)

A Marsh Harrier flying west at Stanford Res on 10th was the period’s only raptor of note.

Once again, this week, the county remained in a winter waderland, with the Wood Sandpiper remaining at Pitsford throughout, the long-staying Ruff lingering at Summer Leys, again being joined by another on 4th, while a Black-tailed Godwit dropped in there on 10th. The wintering Common Sandpiper was also still present at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) at the week’s end.

Ruff, Summer Leys LNR, 7th December 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Common Sandpiper, Earls Barton GP, 9th December 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Propping up the Larids, as usual, single adult Yellow-legged Gulls were at Pitsford on 9th-10th and at Clifford Hill on the first of these two dates.

Passerines were limited to last week’s two Water Pipits on Summer Leys’ scrape until 5th, with one remaining until the week’s end. A quick analysis of the records for the last twenty years reveals a trendline indicating a slight decline in numbers, November being the peak month for occurrences and, historically, Ditchford accounting for the majority of those seen during the winter months.

Water Pipit, Summer Leys LNR, 8th December 2021 (Leslie Fox)
Female Stonechat, Earls Barton GP, 10th December 2021 (Leslie Fox)

The number of Stonechats was down on last week, with just two at Upton CP on 8th and the same number at Earls Barton GP on 10th.

Newsround – 27th November to 3rd December 2021 

A true taste of winter was delivered by the much-publicised Storm Arwen as the week opened on day one. Gale force northerlies sucked in high Arctic air, bringing snow showers to the county on 27th-28th, along with a daytime wind chill of -4°C. Winds subsequently wavered westerly mid-period, providing a short, milder interlude before again turning northerly.

Few would deny the above meteorological cocktail played a significant part in delivering a Northamptonshire ‘first’ in the form of a Pale-bellied Brent Goose, to Boddington Res, on 27th. Initially reported simply as a ‘Brent Goose’, it was rightly flagged up by John Friendship-Taylor as a Pale-bellied Brent, when he called in to see it shortly after its discovery. It had gone by the following morning and if it hadn’t been for JF-T, well, the frightening prospect of it slipping through the net is likely to have been a stark reality and simply doesn’t bear thinking about …

Adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Boddington Res, 27th November 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Pretty much an ‘inland mega’ in its own right, our Pale-bellied Brent was one of a number to be recorded inland during the weekend of 27th-28th. Wetlands away from the coast in Cambridgeshire, Durham, East, West and North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire were similarly paid visits by short-staying individuals. Latest estimates put the British wintering population of Pale-bellied Brents at approximately 5,000 in contrast to some 98,000 Dark-bellieds (Frost et al 2019).

Adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose and first-winter female Common Scoter, Boddington Res, 27th November 2021 (Bob Bullock)

While current taxonomic classification lumps Pale-bellied with Dark-bellied Brent and Black Brant, it has been proposed to treat them as three separate species. This is based on a number of factors, including distinctive plumage differences, the apparent rarity of hybrids and the fact that where the wintering ranges of Pale-bellied and Dark-bellied races overlap, flocks do not usually mix, their activity rhythms are often different and interactions between them do not seem higher than those between other species of geese (Reeber 2015). So, who knows what the taxonomic future holds? But don’t hold your breath …

Other Brents were also available, of course, this comment referring specifically to the first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, now into its third week at Clifford Hill GP. This may well be a unique event in history when Northants plays host to both pale- and dark-bellied races of Brent Goose at the same time.

First-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 29th November 2021 (Bob Bullock)

However, as December kicked in, of undeniably dubious origin was a Barnacle Goose found at Pitsford Res on 1st and still present at the week’s end. Although the same might be said about lone Pink-footed Geese, they tend to enjoy a smoother ride, currying favour with local birders when they join local Greylags, as did this week’s at Ravensthorpe Res, ex-Hollowell, from 27th to 29th, while last week’s Stanford bird was still present on 27th and another – perhaps Arwen-induced – dropped in at Boddington on 28th.

Barnacle Goose, Pitsford Res, 2nd December 2021 (John Watts)

And while we’re back on the storm theme, a blow-in of Common Scoters was clearly evident over the weekend of 27th-28th, with a first-winter female apparently enjoying the company of a certain Brent Goose at Boddington on 27th, followed by two there on 28th, when two were also in deep water at Pitsford Res.

Common Scoters, Pitsford Res, 28th November 2021 (Ant Hall)

Pitsford also continued to hold good numbers of Red-crested Pochards with a maximum of eighteen there on 27th. Out east, in the Nene Valley, a ‘redhead’ Smew was found at Thrapston GP on the last day of the week – perhaps one of the two which went missing from nearby Ringstead GP after 23rd November.

Maintaining last week’s low profile, Cattle Egrets continued to take a back seat and just five were seen on 29th and 1st, in fields below Irthlingborough, close to the lakes and meadows of the same name. In contrast to the last two weeks, Great Egrets narrowly scraped into double-figures with just ten at Pitsford on 28th while, elsewhere, Thrapston held six, Stanford four, Stanwick three, Clifford Hill and Summer Leys two, while singles were also found at Ditchford GP, Hollowell and Ringstead.

On the wader front, the Wood Sandpiper remained at Pitsford all week, the long-staying Ruff kept up its presence at Summer Leys, being joined there by another on 28th and the Common Sandpiper at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) crossed the timeline into meteorological winter and can now be declared as ‘officially wintering’. Other scarce waders were two Jack Snipes at Thrapston on 27th.

Wood Sandpiper, Pitsford Res, 2nd December 2021 (Tony Stanford)

Gull numbers were their poorest for a long, long time, with just one Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford on 27th. In the coming weeks we can hopefully look forward to some ‘white-wingers’, Arwen having failed to deliver any locally.

Single Merlins were seen this week at Summer Leys on 28th and at Harrington AF on 2nd-3rd.

This week’s passerines were shaping up nicely, starting with four Stonechats at Hollowell, twos at Denton, Thrapston and Upton CP and one at Clifford Hill.

Female Stonechat, Denton, 29th November 2021 (Steve Brayshaw)

But the best turned out to be a Water Pipit or two at Summer Leys. Showing nicely for long periods from the Paul Britten Hide, the first was discovered on 30th and was subsequently joined by another there on 3rd.

Water Pipit, Summer Leys LNR, 1st December 2021 (Alan Coles)
Water Pipit, Summer Leys LNR, 3rd December 2021 (Bob Bullock)

These were undoubtedly the most easily observed Water Pipits in recent years and certainly since the regular wintering birds at Ditchford GP, which were always difficult to pin down, often being seen only in flight. Talking of which, one also flew north-east over Harrington, calling, on 29th as did three Hawfinches later the same day. Meanwhile, staying with Harrington, this winter’s Brambling bonanza continued with an estimated two hundred still present there at the week’s end.

Flyovers aside, with some of the above birds appearing settled, it looks like we could be in for an interesting winter …