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 …
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …