Controversial age assessment of White-fronted Goose

Found by Dave Warner on 17th January, a White-fronted Goose was present with a mixed Greylag and Canada Goose flock at Sywell Country Park and remains there today. Initially aged as a first-winter, it has since sparked some controversy over how old it actually is.

Shortly after Dave had seen it, I found it still with the local geese, in a field on the north-east side of the reservoir and managed to grab a few photos through the park’s rather thick boundary hedge before it walked off over the rise of the field. It initially appeared rather plain-looking but was also sporting a noticeable white forehead.

First-winter White-fronted Goose, Sywell CP, 17th January 2022 (Mike Alibone)

Appearing to lack the black belly bars of a ‘standard’ adult – at least when viewed from its left – I was happy enough that it was indeed a first-winter, albeit with a fairly well-developed white blaze. When viewed from the front, however, it displayed some less conspicuous, thin dark lower belly bars and some on its right side, these normally being associated with more adult plumage.

First-winter White-fronted Goose, Sywell CP, 17th January 2022 (Mike Alibone)

Having tweeted an image out, Tom Lowe made the comment: Pale nail, white blaze, belly bars and squared flank feathers make it an adult, surely? That was based on the image above and it’s difficult to disagree but there are a number of conflicting ID criteria out there.

First-winter White-fronted Goose, Sywell CP, 17th January 2022 (Mike Alibone)

For example, Stoddart (2020) states: Adult Russian White-fronts have a small white ‘front’ (actually the forehead) and highly variable black belly barring. Juveniles and early first-winter birds (the white ‘front’ and black belly markings are acquired during the first winter) lack these features. The keyword here is early. This suggests that first-winters, later in the season, can have black belly bars.

Cramp & Simmons (BWP 1977) states: White forehead appears during first winter but black bars of underparts lacking or incomplete until second autumn. Again this suggests that some black bars may be present during the first winter. Relating specifically to first-winter (and first-summer) birds, it further states: Virtually no black feathers on belly but those of sides of body with contrasting edges like adult.

Relating to first-winters, Reeber (2015) states: Black ventral bars are absent or reduced to a few spots. And furthermore: Second winter identical to adult but adult type birds in autumn/winter lacking black ventral bars (black over less than 10%) could be in their second winter.

So it would seem, from the above references, that it is possible for some (minimal) black to be present on the bellies of some first-winters.

However, this does not explain other features on the Sywell bird being at odds with what is generally accepted as being consistent with first-winter birds.

Looking at the nail of the bill which, despite being illustrated as black by Cramp & Simmons, they state: Bill nail (of juvenile) dark horn becoming white during first winter. This conflicts with Reeber, who states, of juveniles, that the bill has a dark nail but subsequently goes on to say that the bill gains adult colours between mid-winter and spring.

The bill nail of the Sywell bird appears to be pale horn to whitish. Interestingly, Dave Irons’ photo ID gallery shows images of immature Whitefronts taken in November with a pale bill nail, and some in October with extensively dark nails. It is well known that blackish bill nails can remain well into the winter, too. Images of some November birds illustrate a white facial blaze to the same extent as the Sywell individual.

Apart from the extent of black on the underparts, extent of white facial blaze and bill pattern, the stage of moult also plays an important role in ageing.

According to Cramp & Simmons, adults post-breeding undergo a complete moult which is mostly finished before reaching winter quarters. Post juvenile moult, however, is partial. Some moult mantle, scapulars, chest, and longer flank feathers November – January and all body feathers are renewed by February. Also, first-winter/first-summer take on some adult-like feathers. Shape of moulted feathers of mantle and breast square but not as broad as adult. Sometimes medium coverts also moulted but usually many juvenile wing coverts are retained.

Reeber, too, makes similar comments regarding moult. In winter one should expect both adult-type birds and others with an obvious mixture of two generations of feathers among young birds. He goes on to say: until the second pre-basic moult (first summer), the wing feathers are juvenile, often obviously worn, as well as the retrices. And with regard to feather detail: (Adult) feathers of the mantle and scapulars are square-tipped, medium brown with white fringes and black subterminal bars.

Looking again at the first of the above images, it appears (to me, at least) that there is a contrast between what appears to be fresh, second-generation mantle/scapular feathers, with an adult-type pattern described above by Reeber, and the wing coverts, which appear to be faded and worn with abraded tips, indicating retention of first-generation juvenile feathers. The tail feathers also appear pointed and possibly worn, too.

If that’s the case, then the bird is what I would describe as an ‘advanced’ first-winter. If that’s not the case then, taking into account a statement from Reeber that second-winters are generally identical to adults but adult type birds in autumn/winter lacking black ventral bars (black over less than 10%) could be in their second winter, then the Sywell bird might be of that age.

Let’s face it, most birders scanning through a flock of Whitefronts would simply be appreciating the beauty of the flock or looking for other species which might be in the mix, cursorily differentiating between obvious adults and obvious juveniles. It’s only when a lone individual turns up with a local gaggle that it comes under scrutiny …

Newsround – 8th to 14th January 2022

A high pressure system settled over the UK for much of the week delivered calm, though cold, conditions with overnight frosts and a succession of patchy, early morning fogs. Topping the week’s news, a short-staying Glossy Ibis had no difficulty in filling the slot for bird of the week.

But we start, as usual, with the Clifford Hill GP Dark-bellied Brent Goose which, present all week and in contrast to the aforementioned ibis, is now potentially a record-breaking long-stayer for this species in the county, having been on site since 17th November last year. Hopefully, it will remain there to see the winter out. The only Pink-footed Goose on show during the period was the individual mobile around fields between Ravensthorpe village and its reservoir, visiting the latter on 11th. Last week’s three White-fronted Geese remained in the vicinity of Stanford Res throughout the week but they were tricky to pin down, occasionally spending time with the Greylags and Canadas at nearby Stanford on Avon, where they were invariably on the wrong side of the river of the same name.

No Newsround would be complete without the inclusion of the odd dodgy duck, or two, so, enter Wood Duck, a female of which was on the river at Wellingborough Embankment during the last two days of the week. It’s not the first time one’s turned up on the Nene and it won’t be the last. Although a sure-fire escape, this species is currently vying for a place on the British List on the basis of several nationally occurring individuals, favourably located in time and space, all be they lacking other credentials beyond reproach. Over to you, BOURC.

Female Wood Duck, Wellingborough Embankment, 14th January 2022 (James Underwood)

A flash in the pan female Ring-necked Duck was reported from Thrapston GP on 12th. Unsurprisingly, those scrambling to see it went away empty-handed. Drake Smews were more obliging, though, with a good two at Pitsford remaining until at least 12th.

However, bird of the week was, indisputably, the county’s eighth-ever Glossy Ibis. Discovered on the currently flooded Main Lake at Summer Leys, at 09.15 on 10th, despite looking settled, it promptly did a bunk at 09.45 and hasn’t been seen since. Once again, local birders were robbed! In line with all but one previous occurrences, this sharp exiting behaviour represents a true return to form for this species in Northants. The exception was, of course, last winter’s long-stayer at Thrapston GP, which was present between 13th February and 17th April, also visiting Stanwick during the final days of its stay.

Glossy Ibis, Summer Leys LNR, 10th January 2022 video grab (John Hunt)

Its occurrence at this time comes as no real surprise. The UK and Eire are currently enjoying a huge winter influx, with a record minimum of 125 Glossies currently on the romp, from Shetland to the south coast, including double-figure flocks at some locations. So, is it still in the county? Well, that’s the problem because although generally associated with water, these birds are not fussy when choosing somewhere to feed. It appears any old, wet, boggy field will do. Some of us will no doubt have memories of seeing the wintering bird in Weymouth in December 2013, which spent most of its time on and around a waterlogged football pitch. It could be anywhere …

The number of Cattle Egrets roosting at Stanwick GP climbed no higher than eight on 9th and up to four visited Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows reserve on 9th-10th. Stanwick’s magic egret roost also produced the highest number of Great Egrets with a maximum of seventeen there, again on 9th, while Pitsford and Thrapston produced six apiece, Hollowell Res, Summer Leys and Sywell CP each mustered two and singles were found at Clifford Hill, Cranford STW, Earls Barton GP and Fawsley Park Lakes.

And while we’re in the west of the county, following the disappearance of the two first-winter Shags from Pitsford after the 2nd, two were discovered at Daventry CP on 10th and were still present off the dam there on 12th. Undoubtedly, they represented a welcome cache for the 2022 yearlisters who rapidly scurried over to see them.

First-winter Shag, Daventry CP, 10th January 2022 (Gary Pullan)
First-winter Shag, Daventry CP, 10th January 2022 (Bob Bullock)

With everything still in place, no such haste was necessary on the wader front this week. The Pitsford Wood Sandpiper and the Earls Barton Common Sandpiper both rode it out until the end of the period, one Ruff remained at Summer Leys until at least 11th and Jack Snipes were present at Daventry CP, where there were three on 10th, at pools near Raventhorpe, where up to three were present all week and at Hollowell, where one remained on 9th.

Ruff, Summer Leys LNR, 8th January 2022 (Leslie Fox)

Winter gulling continues to be slow, with an adult Caspian Gull at Clifford Hill GP on 9th and a first-winter on the roof of the recycling centre at Rushton Landfill on 13th, while the only Yellow-legged Gull reported was an adult in the roost at Clifford Hill GP’s Main Barrage Lake on 11th.

So far, winter 2021-22 has turned out to be somewhat poor for Short-eared Owls, so one over rough grassland, east of Ellands Farm, Hemington, was a wholly worthwhile find for one observer on 13th. Two airfield-based Merlins were singles at Harrington on 8th and 10th and at Hinton on 9th.

There was no improvement on last week’s thinly spread collection of passerines but who would grumble about the quality – after all, how many showy, mid-winter Black Redstarts are currently at large in the UK? OK, nearby Milton Keynes currently has a handsome male … but it’s not in Northants. Our wintering Borough Hill bird was still playing to an audience this week and remained in place around the summit compound there on 14th.

Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 9th January 2022 (Alan Coles)
Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 9th January 2022 (James Underwood)

With a maximum of four at Upton CP on 13th, Stonechats were found at a further ten localities, comprising Borough Hill, Catesby, Clifford Hill, Earls Barton, Ecton SF, Hollowell, Ravensthorpe, Summer Leys, Sywell CP and Wellingborough Embankment, the image of one at the last of these perfectly encapsulating the foggy, frosty conditions characterising the latter part of this week.  

Stonechat, Upton CP, 12th January 2022 (Tony Stanford)
Stonechat, Wellingborough Embankment, 14th January 2022 (James Underwood)

The other ‘quality’ passerine on show throughout the period was, of course, the one Hawfinch, still in Blatherwycke Churchyard, while similarly remaining were two Corn Buntings in the Brampton Valley, between Cottesbrooke and Hanging Houghton at the week’s end.

Newsround – 1st to 7th January 2022

With many of December’s birds clearly going nowhere fast, it was time to sharpen the pencil as 2022 had local yearlisters off to a sprinting start, stepping out into the dawn of a New Year’s Day which delivered a UK record-breaking balmy high of 16.2°C. Temperatures were to tumble, however, as a northerly blast from the Arctic set in during the latter half of the week, with sub-zero daytime figures and overnight frosts.

Going unreported for a week, Clifford Hill GP’s Dark-bellied Brent Goose was still present on 1st, duly remaining on parade and approachable throughout the period. Back on show, too, was the Pitsford Barnacle Goose on 2nd, as was the Ravensthorpe Pink-footed Goose on 7th and, also making it over the line, the three White-fronted Geese at Stanford Res on 1st but not subsequently. Other Whitefronts were available, however – at least one, anyway – as an adult was seen at Ditchford GP on 2nd and later relocated at Stanwick GP on 6th-7th.

The year’s first Red-crested Pochard was found at Summer Leys LNR on 1st, shortly to be followed by eight at Stanford on 4th, while a female Greater Scaup was reported from Thrapston GP on 7th, the date on which a ‘redhead’ Smew was also reported there. Better looking and more tangible, however, last year’s three drake Smews at Pitsford were all present and correct for anyone wanting to take a peak on 1st and 2nd but only two remained at the week’s end.

Red-crested Pochards, Stanford Res, 4th January 2022 (Chris Hubbard)

Once again climbing into double figures, Cattle Egrets peaked at thirteen at Stanwick on New Year’s Day, followed by smaller numbers there on subsequent dates throughout the week. The Ringstead GP roost on Kinewell Lake maxed out at seven on 3rd and 7th and three visited Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows reserve on the latter date. Stanwick also hosted the highest number of  Great Egrets with a tally of twelve there on 3rd, while Pitsford came second with eight, Thrapston mustered three, Ringstead two and Ditchford and Naseby Res one apiece.

Cattle Egret, Stanwick GP, 5th January 2022 (Mark Tyrrell)
Cattle Egrets and Little Egret, Stanwick GP, 6th January 2022 (Bob Bullock)

With no reports for a week, it could have been considered a bonus when, on 1st, one of the first-winter Shags which had been frequenting Pitsford since 15th December, surfaced by the causeway car park. It remained for the following day but there have been no subsequent sightings.

A male Hen Harrier was reported flying south-east at Bulwick on 5th.

Despite rising water levels and subsequent icy weather, the Pitsford Wood Sandpiper miraculously remained, providing another welcome fillip to 2022 local yearlisting. How much longer it stays remains to be seen.

Wood Sandpiper, Pitsford Res, 7th January 2022 (Tony Stanford)

The two Ruffs at Summer Leys also remained on 1st at least, two Jack Snipes were at Stanwick on 6th and last week’s was still present at Hollowell Res on 7th, while the wintering Common Sandpiper saw the New Year in at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North), again remaining there for another week.

Winter gull flocks are always worth scrutiny and, for that matter, so too are they during other seasons. While nothing breathtaking has appeared so far this winter, two adult Caspian Gulls at Naseby Res on 6th were noteworthy, as were two more at Rushton Landfill on 7th and a first-winter at Ravensthorpe on the same date. Other than that, an adult Yellow-legged Gull was found in the roost at Clifford Hill GP’s Main Barrage Lake on 3rd.

Adult Caspian Gull, Naseby Res, 6th January 2022 (Mike Alibone)

Adding a touch of wholly anticipated magic to the new year’s proceedings, a Merlin was found in the Brampton Valley, between Cottesbrooke and Hanging Houghton, on 2nd and may have been the same bird reported across the other side of the A508, at Harrington AF, later in the week.

And a collective sigh of relief came as the Borough Hill Black Redstart hung on into the new year, duly lining up for a procession of snap-happy admirers throughout the week. Stonechats, normally a popular quarry for toggers, simply had to take a Borough Hill back seat this week, while others were seen at Clifford Hill, Hollowell and Upton CP.

Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 2nd January 2022 (Bob Bullock)
Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 5th January 2022 (Martin Swannell)
Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 7th January 2022 (Linda Honeybourne)

But a big, New Year’s Daze for some was delivered by two superb Hawfinches, found in Blatherwycke Churchyard on 1st and remaining for all good people of the yearlisting congregation over the following four days. This is a site which has earned a reputation for producing winter records of this species over a many years but its appearance there is sporadic and far from guaranteed.

Hawfinch, Blatherwycke, 1st January 2022 (James Underwood)
Hawfinch, Blatherwycke, 5th January 2022 (Nick Parker)

Far less impressively adorned, though, two Corn Buntings were found in the Brampton Valley, between Cottesbrooke and Hanging Houghton, on the last day of the week. Having undergone a massive decline in recent years, they are now a scarce visitor to the county. Get them while you can …

Newsround – 25th to 31st December 2021 

Under the influence of a strong south-westerly airstream, delivering unseasonally mild weather, which culminated in a UK record-breaking high temperature of 16°C on New Year’s Eve, the last week of 2021 saw little respite from the overcast and wet conditions of the previous review period. Once again, unsurprisingly, the focus was on wildfowl, the highlight of which was the discovery of a Ring-necked Duck at Thrapston.

Kicking off this week’s geese, a Pink-footed Goose found at Stanford Res on 26th and remaining throughout the period, may have been the same bird that was in the area during late November, while another Pinkfoot was discovered with Greylags at Stanwick GP on 31st.

Pink-footed Goose, Stanford Res, 28th December 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Joining the Stanford individual were an adult and two first-winter White-fronted Geese on 31st – again, maybe not entirely new birds as the number and ages matched those of last week’s trio which visited Hollowell Res on 21st.

Adult and two first-winter White-fronted Geese, Stanford Res, 31st December 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Which brings us neatly to bird of the week, which appeared in the shape of a female Ring-necked Duck at Thrapston on 30th. As the UK is once again experiencing a sizeable influx, under the circumstances it was really only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, stumbled across one. This bird, only the county’s 10th, follows hot on the heels of the popular drake which, earlier this year, remained at Ditchford GP between early February and late March before becoming more mobile along the Nene Valley.

Female Ring-necked Duck, Thrapston GP, 30th December 2021 (Adrian Borley)
Female Ring-necked Duck, Thrapston GP, 30th December 2021 (Nick Parker)

An altogether meatier Aythya was the first-winter female Greater Scaup which remained at Stortons GP throughout the week, as did Stanford’s female Red-crested Pochard, while eight of the latter were found at Pitsford Res on 27th, with two remaining there on 29th.

Female Red-crested Pochard, Stanford Res, 26th December 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

This week’s Smew action was also confined to Pitsford where, after a report of a ‘redhead’ on 27th, two drakes on 29th were joined there by a third for the following two days.

Drake Smews, Pitsford Res, 30th December 2021 (Steven Peppiatt)

Cattle Egrets were found in their usual hotspots of Stanwick, where there were four on 26th and five on 31st, Irthlingborough, where three were below the church on 31st and at Ringstead GP on the same date, when seven were present on the main island in Kinewell Lake. Compared with recent high counts, the number of Great Egrets was no great shakes, with at least twelve at Pitsford, four at Thrapston, two at Ditchford and one at Stanford.

Following the recent spate of rainfall, water levels have been on the rise, rendering some wetland localities potentially suboptimal for wintering waders. The Pitsford Wood Sandpiper remained, however, the two Ruff at Summer Leys were still in situ and at least one Jack Snipe was present at Hollowell Res on 31st, while the wintering Common Sandpiper also saw the year out at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North).

Scarce gulls were at a premium, or so it appears, with just two Caspian Gulls propping up this week’s Larids – an adult at Hollowell on 29th and a third-winter at Stanford the following day.

On the passerine front, the Black Redstart, mobile around the summit compound and concrete blocks on Borough Hill, saw the year out by still being present at sunset on 31st.

Black Redstart, Borough Hill, 24th December 2021 (Kyle Smith)

The latter site continued to hold two Stonechats throughout, while singles were at both Pitsford and Thrapston on 27th and Upton CP on 30th, with five at Hollowell Res on 31st.

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 …

Newsround – 20th to 26th November 2021 

It was pretty much déjà vu as far as the week’s weather was concerned, with no real let-up in the westerlies until the week’s end, when the winds swung northerly, introducing a colder, more wintry airstream. There were few new avian arrivals, either, but there was still a grand selection of interesting fare to focus on.  

Appearing settled, last week’s Dark-bellied Brent Goose remained with the Canada Goose flock around the Main Barrage Lake at Clifford Hill GP throughout the period. Bets are on to see if it stays into winter proper. Meanwhile, at Stanford Res, the roving, escaped Cackling Goose put in a brief appearance on the last day of the week and just down the road, Hollowell’s Pink-footed Goose had moved to Ravensthorpe Res, where it was seen on 22nd. Hollowell Res, itself, was paid a brief visit by nine Whooper Swans on 21st, obviously choosing not to linger.

At Pitsford Res, Red-crested Pochards appeared to vary in numbers by the day, peaking at sixteen on 21st, while last week’s ‘redhead’ and eclipse drake Smew were the only other ducks of note, remaining on Ringstead GP’s Brightwells Lake until 23rd, after which they did a bunk.

Partial-eclipse drake Smew, Ringstead GP, 23rd November 2021 (Mike Alibone)
‘Redhead’ Smew, Ringstead GP, 23rd November 2021 (Mike Alibone)

After last week’s all-time high, numbers of Cattle Egrets tumbled to just two in flight over Stanwick GP on 23rd and a mere five remained in the fabled cattle field north of Ringstead GP, where the record-busting sixteen had been present on 16th-17th. Numbers of Great Egrets, on the other hand, continued to climb, setting another Northants site total record of eighteen at Pitsford on 21st and 25th. Elsewhere, Hollowell held three and Ditchford GP, two, while singles were also found at Foxholes Fisheries (Crick), Ravensthorpe, Ringstead and Summer Leys LNR.

A ’ringtail’ Hen Harrier was reported from Harrington AF on 21st.

On the wader front, the late, late Wood Sandpiper show continued at Pitsford throughout the week, the long-staying Ruff remained at Summer Leys and the Common Sandpiper at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) was still present at the period’s end.

Gull numbers remained low and included the third-winter Caspian Gull at Hollowell on 22nd and 24th, with another – or the same – visiting Stanford on the first of these two dates, while an adult was in the roost at Boddington Res on 26th. The same roost produced four Yellow-legged Gulls and the adult continued to be seen at Pitsford throughout the week.

Brambling, Harrington AF, 22nd November 2021 (Martin Swannell)

Just two species represented this week’s passerines, with Stonechats found at Clifford Hill, Ditchford, Hollowell, Pitsford and Sywell CP and no more than two at any one locality. Worthy of a mention, if only for sheer numbers, Bramblings came to the fore once again and after last week’s prediction of more to come, an estimated three hundred showed up at Harrington on 21st, falling to around two hundred on 23rd and tens by the week’s end.