A mild, wet and frequently windy backdrop to the local birding landscape set the scene for the first week of 2023. And while the dynamic duo of Yellow-browed Warblers clearly constituted the main point of focus for the new year, potentially more alluring fare lurked, overshadowed, in the background …
The bird quite literally in question, then, was an interesting-looking drake Aythya duck found during the last hour of daylight on 2nd, at Thrapston GP’s Titchmarsh NR. Initially identified and announced as a Greater Scaup, the subsequent publication of an image and videos quickly led to a debate over its true identity and a dichotomy of opinion has given rise to the emergence of a Lesser Scaup camp versus a pro-hybrid faction. While the quality of the published media do not allow detailed, feather-by-feather analysis, there were some pointers clearly leading the identification away from Greater Scaup.
Most evident was the head shape, which aligns convincingly with that of Lesser Scaup and was instrumental in setting alarm bells ringing. While an assessment of the true feather patterning on the flanks and mantle was just out of reach, there was no ‘write-off’ plumage feature to exclude that species. Plumage does not tell the whole story, however. The perceived size, shape and bulk appeared to match those of nearby Pochards, suggesting that this bird’s dimensions fall outside the parameters generally associated with the more compact appearance of Lesser Scaup and therefore point to a hybrid – suggested by some as being likely between Tufted Duck and Pochard. Advocates of Lesser Scaup point out, however, that there is an overlap in size between Pochard and Lesser Scaup, arguing the point that this bird could simply be one of the latter, at the top end of the size range. The jury is currently out, the bird hasn’t been seen again and hopes are high that it will reappear, providing the opportunity for greater scrutiny, ultimately leading to a positive identification. On the same date this bird was seen, a Greater Scaup was reported from Pitsford Res and, two days later, another was also reported from Summer Leys LNR.
And so from stranger things to things less complicated, a Pink-footed Goose accompanied a flock of Greylags as they flew in to Daventry CP on 6th and the local female Ruddy Shelduck made its first appearance of 2023 at Hollowell Res on 1st-2nd.
This week’s Red-crested Pochards were limited to the long-staying drake at Stanford Res and the female at Hardingstone GP – both remaining throughout the period. Last week’s two drake Smews at Pitsford had grown to three on 1st, dwindling to just one by the period’s end, while a ‘redhead’ was discovered at Blatherwycke Lake on 2nd.
A wholly unexpected visitor to Daventry CP – at least during in January – was an adult Kittiwake, which was found loitering on the dam there during the morning of 5th. Approachable and seemingly moribund, it had departed by the afternoon and was no doubt the same bird which had been exhibiting the same ‘teasing’ behaviour at nearby Draycote Res, Warwickshire the previous day, before flying off strongly with other gulls.
Of far more regular occurrence, this week’s only to be expected gulls included up to two adult Caspian Gulls in the roost, nightly, at Stanford, two adults off the dam at Pitsford on 2nd and 5th and one at Hollowell on 2nd. Surprisingly outnumbered by the previous species, single Yellow-legged Gulls were seen at Pitsford on 1st, Stanford on 4th and at both Daventry CP and Hardingstone GP on 5th.
Remember the male Hen Harrier seen between Mears Ashby and Earls Barton, then later over Summer Leys LNR on 27th December? Well, it’s still around, having been seen again over Sywell Road, just east of Mears Ashby, on the afternoon of 3rd. And following two in the county last week, a male Merlin was seen near West Farndon on 6th.
Turning to passerines it would seem that, as far as Northamptonshire is concerned, flyover Waxwings are in vogue and, as if serving to underline this, a flock of approximately twenty was reported flying ‘well into Northants’ from Buckinghamshire, across the River Ouse, toward Cosgrove on 5th. In the context of the current so-called ‘invasion’, with the vast majority of birds in Scotland and northern England, this double-figure flock constitutes a sensationally large number for a location so far south and inland in the UK. The chance of nailing any down locally seems, at present, equivalent to a lottery win …
This is certainly not the case with the two crowd-pleasing Yellow-browed Warblers at Earls Barton GP, both of which were present until at least 2nd, with at least one remaining until the week’s end. Undoubtedly presenting the best photographic opportunity of all time in the UK, these birds have been highly obliging, regularly showing well and low to the masses, down to just a few metres – so much so that the observation area has now become a veritable mud bath!
Ending with a splash of colour, the week’s Stonechats were seen at Catesby, Earls Barton GP, Ecton SF, Hollowell, Pitsford and Sywell CP.