Blinked and you’ll have missed it. A phrase equally applicable to two Northamptonshire winter firsts this week. We’re talking snow and Waxwings – bohemian in more ways than one.
And where were all the wildfowl? Ducking and diving, no doubt and not a rare goose or cygnus in sight. So it was left for long-legged wetland wanderers to fill the gap, this falling to at least four Cattle Egrets still on Ditchford GP’s Chester House Lake on 25th-26th and the usual scattering of Great Egrets, with threes at Thrapston GP and Summer Leys LNR, twos at Ditchford, Pitsford Res and Stanford Res and singles at Kislingbury GP and Stanwick GP.
Waders crept into the picture, literally, with three Jack Snipe at Hollowell Res on 22nd and one at Stanford the following day, while unseasonal Dunlins were found at Summer Leys on 24th and at Stanwick on 27th.
This week’s larid line-up was a little more down to earth compared to that of the last period, featuring single adult Mediterranean Gulls at Hollowell on 25th and Rushton Landfill on 26th. The same two sites produced the bulk of the week’s Caspian Gulls, with an adult at Hollowell on 22nd, an adult at Rushton on 25th and 26th, along with a third-winter there on the first of these two dates, while a first-winter was in the roost at Stanford on 28th.
A new site for Short-eared Owl emerged on 23rd, when one was found near Brixworth, while the Borough Hill three were still performing on the same date and one remained at Harrington AF throughout the period. The week’s token Merlin – a female – was hunting around the DIRFT 3 area, which had played host to the Great Grey Shrike earlier in the year, on 27th.
But the undoubted stars of the week were three Waxwings at Harrington AF on 17th. Their disappointingly short stay resulted in only a lucky trio of birders connecting with them before they quickly moved on.
Stonechats bounced back from a rather poor showing last week, although no more than two were on show at the nine localities which hosted them, including Borough Hill, Ditchford, Hartwell, Hollowell, Kettering, Kislingbury, Naseby, Pitsford and Polebrook AF.
Another week of wind and wuthering saw most of the action taking place in Northamptonshire’s northwest, which produced a second for the county – albeit briefly.
In a lean week for wildfowl, the nine Pink-footed Geese continued to be seen daily at Stanford, on the Northamptonshire side of the River Avon, until 18th.
So far, proving unusually scarce this winter, a Bittern was seen in flight close to Stoke Bruerne on 16th but a search of suitable habitat in the vicinity turned out to be fruitless the following day. This was, of course, not the case with Great Egrets, which were found at six localities during the week, with a maximum of up to three at Thrapston GP on 16th.
Making an all too brief sortie into the county, from across the border in Leicestershire, was this winter’s first Iceland Gull, an adult, found in the roost at Stanford Res on 18th.
As if that wasn’t enough, a third-winter Kumlien’s Gull from the same Leicestershire stable appeared in the same roost! A double whammy, a county second and more than ample reward for the time invested at this site by its single, relentlessly enthusiastic observer. “It’s only a ‘sub’, chap,” the cynics may say but a great bird, nonetheless. The first acceptable record was as recently as March 2016, at Daventry CP. The only Caspian Gulls this week also appeared in the Stanford roost – a first-winter on 17th and a third-winter on 21st.
Just two reports of Short-eared Owls included the Borough Hill three on 17th and the one still at Harrington AF on 20th, the latter site also producing a Merlin on 17th.
Back up at Stanford, at the field with the Percy Pilcher Monument, last week’s cute corvid showing characteristics of Nordic Jackdaw was again on show on 21st, while Ecton SF’s Siberian Chiffchaff was also still in situ on 17th, along with at least ten Common Chiffchaffs.
Stonechat numbers were down from last week, with singles only at Pitsford Res, Stanford and Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering). Now, if we can only lose those winds …
For those who like their isobars squeezed, then this was the week. It was time to batten down the Nuthatches as Storm Ciara felled trees indiscriminately across the county, during the strongest winds experienced for seven years. There was, however, little change to the birding scene.
Nine Pink-footed Geese, which had been residing on the Leicestershire side of Stanford Res on 7th, entered Northamptonshire airspace the following day, when they flew over the reservoir toward Stanford Hall. There they stayed throughout the week – on the ‘wrong’ side of the Avon – until 14th, when they ventured, albeit briefly, across the border to the water-logged fields around the Percy Pilcher Monument.
The only other wildfowl of note were the two first-winter drake Greater Scaups, which remained at Clifford Hill GP until at least 8th.
Great Egrets were found at eight localities this week, with a maximum of three at both Stanwick GP and Thrapston GP.
From one white bird to another (well, almost) as this week’s Mediterranean Gulls – both adults – were seen at both Daventry CP and Stanford on 14th, while the third-winter Glaucous Gull, found in the roost at Stanford on 7th, did the decent thing and lingered there throughout most of the following morning.
It failed to return to the roost in the evening, during which a near-adult Caspian Gull provided a consolational ‘by-catch’ for a small handful of hopeful observers. Further Caspians were a fourth-winter at Pitsford Res on the same day and an adult at Hollowell Res on 8th-9th. An adult Yellow-legged Gull visited at Daventry on 10th and two – an adult and a second-winter – were in the roost at Boddington Res on 11th. Waders on parade this week were limited to just three Jack Snipes at Hollowell on 14th.
Short-eared Owls were reported from three of last week’s localities, with Borough Hill again producing a performing trio on 12th, while singles remained at Harrington AF until at least 11th and Stanford until 13th. Back up at the field with the Percy Pilcher Monument, a Nordic Jackdaw (or one showing characteristics thereof) within a large corvid flock on 11th provided an interesting distraction but hardly constituted a monumental find.
Oundle’s Black Redstart continued to pose on St Peter’s Church on 8th but there were no subsequent reports, although it did roam to nearby dwellings and proved to be elusive.
Stonechats were recorded at five sites, which included Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Thrapston and Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering), with a maximum of four at Pitsford on 14th.
Continuing mild weather was the order of the week, with local temperatures hitting a high of 13°C on 2nd. There was even a touch of avian spring as two species of wader were back at potential breeding sites in two river valleys during the period.
Hollowell Res’ female Ruddy Shelduck again made it into the week, still present there on 1st, while last week’s Greater Scaups – the two first-winter drakes at Clifford Hill GP and the female at Stanwick GP – remained firmly in place throughout.
A quick check of Ditchford GP’s Chester House Lake revealed the five Cattle Egrets to be all present and correct on 6th and 7th, along with a Great Egret and several Little Egrets on the same body of water – a sight which would never have been envisaged a couple of years ago. Great Egrets remained at seven localities, with a maximum of four at Stanwick on 6th.
A dearth of raptors saw just a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier hunting over ploughed fields alongside the A605 near Warmington on 1st.
On a cursory note, a couple of waders provided a ‘heads up’ that spring is just around the corner as Oystercatchers returned to the Nene Valley at Thrapston GP on 6th and Clifford Hill the following day, while a Curlew was bubbling away in south Northants on 5th. A locally unseasonal Dunlin was found at Daventry CP on 4th while, more in keeping with winter, Hollowell produced a high total of nine Jack Snipe on 1st.
Gull numbers picked up significantly from last week, at last including the first ‘white-winger’ of the winter. Single adult Mediterranean Gulls visited Daventry CP on 4th and 7th, Boddington Res on 5th and Stanford Res on 7th, when a third-winter Glaucous Gull was also found in the roost there. Earlier in the week it had been seen at nearby Shawell, just over the border in Leicestershire. Three Caspian Gulls – two adults and a third-winter – were at Rushton Landfill on 6th and an adult Yellow-legged Gull visited at Daventry on 4th.
There was no change on the Short-eared Owl front, last week’s four localities continuing to host birds seemingly eager to perform to a steady stream of appreciative onlookers. Borough Hill, topping the bill for both popularity and numbers, produced four, Stanford three and Harrington AF and Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) one apiece.
Ecton SF hung on to at least one Siberian Chiffchaff throughout and up to two more were discovered with up to eight Common Chiffchaffs at the nicely compact and insect-rich location of Islip STW on 3rd-5th. This (sub)species is probably commoner in winter than we think, although it would appear there are both good and bad winters as far as numbers nationally are concerned. Sewage works are a favoured winter habitat.
After last week’s Black Redstart in Corby, another was found in the much more easily accessible location of Oundle Church on 6th and it was still present there the following day, albeit after several hours’ absence. Sunday’s churchgoers could be in for a bonus … manna from heaven, maybe?
Stonechats were recorded at five sites, which included Borough Hill, Hollowell, Stanford, Thrapston and Barton Seagrave, with a maximum of three at Hollowell on 1st.
The mild Atlantic airstream once again ensured traditional winter weather was kept firmly at bay, with local temperatures hitting a high of 12°C during the last two days of the period. The early part of the week, however, had birders ducking and diving when it came to confirming the identification of a problematic Aythya, discovered at Stanwick on day one.
Hollowell Res continued to play host to the female Ruddy Shelduck until at least 27th but it was a different shade of brown which brought a quickening of the pulse to the finder of a controversial quacker, sparking much debate over its identification during its stay at Stanwick GP from 25th to 27th. Initially looking very good for a female Ferruginous Duck, subsequent close examination revealed a hybrid in hiding, the game was up and on 29th it duly scarpered to Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows reserve.
Not so controversial were this week’s Nene Valley Greater Scaups, which included the female still at Stanwick and two very different looking first-winter drakes at Clifford Hill GP from 25th – all birds remaining until at least 30th.
Sticking with said valley, the five Cattle Egrets were still present at Ditchford GP on 25th but they appear to have attracted little interest since. Eager to stay in the frame, though, Great Egrets were present at ten localities with Stanwick and Thrapston GP mustering three apiece. An adult Caspian Gull joined the melee of scavengers at Rushton Landfill on 25th but no ‘white-wingers’ have yet emerged at this, the county’s last bastion of larid-luring putrefaction, during the mild winter we have experienced to date.
Short-eared Owls maintained their presence at last week’s four localities, the Neville’s Lodge three performing well between 25th and 29th, at least three – if not four – were at Borough Hill on 25th, two were still over setaside east of Stanford Res until 31st and one was still patrolling the bunkers at Harrington AF between 25th and 27th.
At Ecton SF, just one Siberian Chiffchaff – the original bird found on 7th – was present throughout the week, along with at least fifteen Common Chiffchaffs on 28th but bird of the week, at least for one person, was the Black Redstart which played hide-and-seek in an extensive landscape of untidy heaps of scaffolding on an industrial site in Corby on 28th-29th.
Stonechats were recorded at six sites, which included Borough Hill, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Thrapston and Kettering, with a maximum of five at Pitsford on 28th.
It’s not called ‘Fudge Duck’ for nothing. Closely resembling the real thing, hybrids abound, enticing observers into a ticking temptation trap, in which nothing is quite what it seems …
When the news broke of Ferruginous Duck or hybrid at Stanwick GP, at around midday yesterday, it was clearly a sensible move to throw in that cautionary caveat – the dreaded ‘h’ word – as rare ducks are notorious for carrying rogue genes. Although looking good at first sight, this was one such bird which, upon closer scrutiny, clearly did not pass muster. OK, it could be said it was mainly but unfortunately, not wholly, Ferruginous. The following assessment is based upon published images of the bird and follows the most up-to-date ‘hybrid checklist’ of features given by Reeber (2015).
It is assumed the bird is an adult female on account of the iris being dark brown (paler in juvenile/first-winter). In terms of size, it’s too large for a Ferruginous Duck. Two of the images below suggest it is virtually the same size as a Pochard. It also appears too bulky. Ferruginous Duck is small and any bird close in size to, or larger than, Tufted Duck is likely to be a hybrid.
Head shape is not perfect for Ferruginous Duck and is similar to Pochard. On close inspection, the head shows two slightly paler brown patches, one at the bill base and one on the rear cheeks, which is strongly indicative of hybridisation with Common Pochard. The bill colouration also indicates a hybrid as the pale subterminal mark extends along the sides of the bill, which would form a ‘U’ shape when seen from above. The subterminal mark should not extend in this way (although many published images of so-called ‘pure’ Ferruginous Ducks show it – including some of Reeber’s – so its validity may be questionable). There also appears to be fine traces of black at the bill base – another hybrid characteristic.
The belly is not sharply demarcated as it should be for an adult and it appears a little smudgy. Also, there appears to be a slight demarcation between the breast and the flanks, which is not right for Ferruginous Duck.
All the above features exhibited by this bird indicate a hybrid origin. Reeber suggests that hybrids are relatively frequent in the wild and even goes as far as stating that in Western Europe, hybrid-like Ferruginous Ducks are commoner than pure individuals!
With the country sitting underneath a slow-moving area of high pressure for the majority of the week, the weather delivered its own rarity in the form of overnight frost during the first four days. Otherwise, generally mild weather ensued and the range of birds on offer was distinctly narrow – nevertheless new discoveries were made as the week progressed …
The female Ruddy Shelduck, again at Hollowell Res on 18th and 24th, was the closest thing approaching a dapper dabbler this week, while rather more demure divers in the form of Greater Scaup were the first-winter female at Daventry CP all week and the female back at Stanwick GP from 20th to 24th.
Great Egrets remained faithful to Daventry, Ditchford GP, Hollowell, Pitsford Res, Stanford Res, Stanwick and Summer Leys LNR/Earls Barton GP, with a maximum of three at Stanwick on 20th and the same number at Summer Leys on 24th. Summer Leys also produced the first Black-tailed Godwits of the New Year, with two there on 23rd, while three Jack Snipe at Hollowell on 18th and two on 24th ensured this species remained firmly on the radar this week. Hollowell also produced the only rare larid of the week, an adult Caspian Gull on 24th.
Short-eared Owls extended their presence to four localities, kicking off with up to three at Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) between 18th and 24th, one still at Harrington AF between 19th and 23rd, up to two still over setaside east of Stanford Res between 21st and 24th and three at Borough Hill on 21st.
Down in the Nene Valley, at Ecton SF, the Siberian Chiffchaff remained throughout the period, being joined there by a second individual on 19th. This new bird was what is often described as a classic ‘Mackintosh-buff’ colour and on close examination it was readily distinguishable from the original bird first discovered on 7th. Twelve Common Chiffchaffs were also present on 20th-21st.
Meanwhile, Stonechats were recorded at five sites, which included DIRFT 3, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford and Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering), with a maximum of five at Pitsford on 21st. Now, the Siberian version of this species would be a most welcome addition to the county list …
In off the Atlantic, Storm Brendan struck in the early part of the week, while the winds were consistently from the south-westerly quarter, reaching thirty miles per hour locally on 14th. Considerable rain topped up and extended local floodwater and while temperatures remained relatively high throughout, a lull ensued in the discovery of new birds during the period.
Perhaps ironically, waterfowl numbers were at a low ebb, with the female Ruddy Shelduck remaining at Hollowell Res on 11th and the drake Red-crested Pochard still present at Summer Leys LNR on 12th. Just along the Nene Valley, two Red-crested Pochards were found at Ditchford GP on 17th. A report of four Greater Scaup at Stanwick GP on 13th remained unconfirmed, while a presumed hybrid female – showing some Tufted Duck characteristics – was at Pitsford Res until at least 14th. The first-winter female, meanwhile, remained at Daventry CP throughout the week.
With no more than two at any one site, Great Egrets were all over the shop, appearing again at eight localities, this week including Clifford Hill GP, Daventry CP, Ditchford GP, Ecton SF, Pitsford, Stanford Res, Stanwick and Summer Leys.
The five Cattle Egrets were present at Ditchford throughout the week, roosting on Wilson’s Pits and favouring the small area between the Watersports Pit and the River Nene during the day. Four of them strayed to nearby Stanwick on 15th.
Waders were again in short supply this week with just a Jack Snipe at Ditchford on 12th, while single third-winter Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls at Daventry CP on 10th were the only scarce larids on offer.
Hunting on both sides of the Leicestershire/Northamptonshire county boundary, a Short-eared Owl was found close to Stanford on 12th, another re-emerged at Neville’s Lodge (Finedon) – a proven reliable wintering site for this species in recent years – on 15th and was seen again on 17th, while the Harrington AF bird was seen again on 16th. Others are surely out there, aren’t they! A Merlin was also in the vicinity of Harrington AF on 15th.
Sustained by an apparently inexhaustible supply of small mammals, the DIRFT 3 Great Grey Shrike repeatedly performed well during the period, while the constantly warm area around the processed sewage outflow stream at Ecton SF continued to provide the perfect microclimate for the Siberian Chiffchaff, still present on 14th, along with up to seven wintering Chiffchaffs.
Just east of there, at Summer Leys, a Firecrest was reported along the old railway track on 14th. Stonechats were recorded at four sites, which included Earls Barton GP, Pitsford, Stanford and Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering), with a maximum of two at Pitsford on 14th.
Exceptionally cold air across Greenland this week helped to fuel a strong Atlantic Jetstream, bringing wet, windy and very mild weather to the UK from as far south as the Azores. Not that it made any real difference to the birds we were seeing but it clearly put paid to any hard-weather movements which might have been in the offing at this time of the year. Highlights included the ever-popular, long-staying Great Grey Shrike and a newly discovered Siberian Chiffchaff.
Since the recent disappearance of the adult Whooper Swan which was on the cards to winter at Thrapston GP, this species looks set to revert to its former ‘connection not guaranteed’ status. However, seven dropping into Summer Leys LNR on the afternoon of 4th gave rise to hope they might remain until the following day which, unsurprisingly, they didn’t. On 5th, two flew from Oxfordshire into the upper Cherwell Valley but were not seen subsequently.
Meanwhile, the female Ruddy Shelduck was back at Hollowell Res on 4th, being seen there again on 10th. The female Greater Scaup continued to be seen at Stanwick GP until 4th and the elusive first-winter female was showing again at Daventry CP on 10th, while the drake Red-crested Pochard remained faithful to Summer Leys LNR’s Main Lake throughout the week.
Great Egrets, now considered part of the winter furniture, were at eight localities, including Ditchford GP, Hollowell, Kislingbury GP, Pitsford, Stanford Res, Stanwick, Summer Leys and Thrapston, with Stanwick holding a maximum of four on 5th. In contrast to last week, however, Cattle Egrets maintained a low profile, with just one at Stanwick on 4th and three at Ditchford GP the following day, on 5th.
Waders remained uncommonly scarce with up to three Jack Snipe remaining at Hollowell throughout the week being the only species of note during the period, while a Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford on 10th was the only one reported. Away from the wetlands, the Harrington AF Short-eared Owl was again seen on 5th and the Great Grey Shrike remained ever-popular at DIRFT 3 throughout the week.
Not quite matching the latter’s charisma but with its own unique, charming character, was a Siberian Chiffchaff, discovered on 7th in the insect-rich vegetation along the banks of the outflow from Ecton SF into the River Nene. For many years this has been a favoured site for wintering Common Chiffchaffs and it has attracted the odd wintering ‘sibe’ from time to time, including a popular trio in 2013.
Siberian Chiffchaff is an almost annual visitor to the county, averaging 1.6 records per year over the last two decades, with more recorded on passage during November than in any other month.
This week’s Stonechats were ensconced in their favoured wintering sites at Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Thrapston and Wicksteed Park (Kettering), with a maximum of four at Pitsford.
The week which straddled two decades and contained the magic ingredient – a bank holiday – saw renewed vigour among local birders keen to kick off their yearlists with the overspill from 2019. The weather was not a key influencer in this respect and remained mild and dry throughout. However, curious things were afoot …
Wildfowl again featured heavily during the period, kicking off with two Dark-bellied Brent Geese paying a brief visit to Hollowell Res on the morning of 31st before quickly departing. A Barnacle Goose bearing what could be a genuine ‘ringer’s ring’ at Clifford Hill GP between 1st and 3rd gave rise to suggestions that it might just be wild as opposed to one from the ever-growing UK feral population.
Also on site there, two adult Russian/European/Eurasian White-fronted Geese (capricious nomenclature, so choose your own name) were present from 2nd until mid-morning on 3rd while, just like buses, more Bewick’s Swans came along this week when two flew south-west over Ditchford GP on 28th.
The itinerant female Ruddy Shelduck reappeared briefly at Hollowell on 31st before quickly relocating to Foxholes Fisheries (Crick) later in the day, remaining there until 1st, while similarly making it into the New Year was the drake Red-crested Pochard at Summer Leys LNR, on 1st-3rd. Two more drakes were subsequently found at Pitsford Res on 1st, remaining until at least 2nd. The last day of 2019 produced a first-winter female Scaup at Daventry CP ahead of another female found at Stanwick GP on 1st, remaining there until the week’s end.
Smew numbers dwindled to just one, last week’s drake, still at Pitsford on 30th but inconveniently going AWOL just before the New Year and, adopting the same tack, Hollowell’s two Velvet Scoters did a bunk after 28th.
With no more than two at any single location, Great Egrets were liberally sprinkled throughout the county being noted at Billing GP, Clifford Hill, Daventry CP, Ditchford GP, Earls Barton GP, Foxholes Fisheries, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford Res, Stanwick, Summer Leys and Thrapston GP.
After their rediscovery at Ditchford GP last week, up to five Cattle Egrets were mobile between the latter site and Stanwick throughout the period, having apparently chosen Wilson’s Pits at Ditchford as a roost site. Will they breed again in 2020?
Far away from the Nene Valley, an eclectic collection of birds included a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier at DIRFT 3/Lilbourne Meadows on 30th, up to five Jack Snipes at Hollowell between 28th and 1st and an adult Caspian Gull at Rushton Landfill on 31st while, somewhat vexingly, the Leicestershire gull mecca of Shawell, a mere five kilometres north of Lilbourne Meadows, was enjoying the likes of Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull and Kumlien’s Gull during the same period. Two sites produced single Short-eared Owls – Harrington AF on 31st and DIRFT 3 the following day, with the latter site continuing to host the highly amenable Great Grey Shrike, enjoying a resurgence in popularity as the New Year broke.
Which brings us to the curious case of the ‘might be’ Penduline Tit, photographed in vegetation around the Ditchford flood pool in which the aforementioned Cattle Egrets had set up temporary home. The blurry photo taken at some distance had all the makings of a monster rare and the suggestion that it was simply an empty drinks can just didn’t hold water.
An investigations team was duly parachuted in the next day, recordings were played and forensics deployed but there was neither sight nor sound of the cameo culprit. While the jury is still out on this one, it’s worth noting that Northamptonshire’s one and only accepted Penduline Tit also occurred at Ditchford, on 22nd October 1983, barely 1,500 metres from the very spot …
Back down to earth, this week’s Stonechats were singles at Billing GP (Whiston Locks), Clifford Hill, DIRFT 3, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Thrapston and Wicksteed Water Meadows (Kettering), with a maximum of four at Hollowell Res on 30th.
Will 2020 prove to be a record-breaking year on the rarity front? This can only be determined by local birders’ activities in the field, so get out there and pioneer some new sites – you never know what you may find!