The first Pale-bellied Brent Goose for Northamptonshire

A great find by Jon Bowley at Boddington Reservoir this afternoon was the first confirmed Pale-bellied Brent Goose for Northamptonshire. Possibly associated with Storm Arwen, its arrival today coincided with that of a Common Scoter at the same locality. Interestingly, both birds remained close together while on the water this afternoon.

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

Pale-bellied Brent Goose is the race hrota, which breeds from the east Canadian Arctic to Svalbard and winters on both coasts of the north Atlantic. It would appear to be exceedingly rare inland and all previous occurrences of Brent Geese in Northants have related to the Dark-bellied race bernicla, which occurs in the county annually in very small numbers, normally as lone individuals joining flocks of Canada Geese for short periods of time during spring and autumn passage.

Adult Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Boddington Res, 27th November 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Identification is straightforward, Pale-bellied showing strong contrast between the sharply-demarcated black breast, pale belly and flanks, with the pale brown upperparts ‘sandwiched’ between black neck and the black feathers of the closed wing. Dark-bellied is much more uniformly coloured. The lack of whitish fringes to the upper wing coverts easily ages it as an adult.

Newsround – 13th to 19th November 2021 

There was little change in this week’s weather, with the westerly airstream still in place and temperatures remaining above average for mid-November. However, vestigial summer visitors were still to be found alongside some classic winter arrivals.

The third Dark-bellied Brent Goose to be found in the county this year was a juvenile/first-winter, which tagged along with the local Canada Goose flock at Clifford Hill GP on 17th.

Juvenile moulting to first-winter Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Clifford Hill GP, 17th November 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Meanwhile, the Hollowell Res Pink-footed Goose remained there throughout the period and despite last week’s speculation that it may have also visited Stanford Res, photographs clearly indicate it is a different bird.

Pink-footed Goose, Hollowell Res, 15th November 2021 (Alan Coles)

The fifteen-strong raft of Red-crested Pochards also remained at Pitsford Res, as did the three at Stanford, both groups still being present at the week’s end, while 17th saw the reappearance of one of the Greater Scaups at Daventry CP – this one being the bird which had earlier been on site between 1st and 4th November.

And the pick of this week’s ducks deluxe was the first Smew of the winter – two to be precise – discovered on 19th on Brightwells Lake, a small body of water that receives scant attention compared to certain other areas of the Ringstead GP complex, of which it is a part. While the November date may seem a little early for this species in the county, a dig into historical records unearths a number of October birds, the earliest of which was at Stanford on 11th October 1993. The first in the UK this autumn was one at Hornsea, East Yorkshire on 13th October.

‘Redhead’ and moulting eclipse drake Smew, Ringstead GP, 19th November 2021 (Nick Parker)

With no reports for the best part of a month, a Bittern resurfaced briefly at Summer Leys LNR on 14th but other herons were, of course, available … and much easier to see, at that. After last week’s record-busting totals, numbers of both Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets nudged higher still, with the first of these two amassing sixteen in a cattle field north of Ringstead on 16th-17th. Many of these joined the egret roost at Kinewell Lake, while fourteen flying north-east at nearby Stanwick GP, at dawn on 14th, were clearly the same birds.

Cattle Egret, between Woodford and Ringstead GP, 17th November 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Great Egret numbers reached a minimum of sixteen at Pitsford on 15th – the highest ever single-site total for Northants – while nine were counted at Ringstead’s Kinewell Lake on 14th. Elsewhere, Hollowell produced five, Thrapston GP four, Stanwick three and Summer Leys two, resulting in a potential current wintering population of perhaps as many as forty birds. Who said they were rare … ?

Also looking set to winter – or at least in no hurry to move on anytime soon – the Pitsford Wood Sandpiper remained throughout, the long-staying Ruff at Summer Leys was joined by another there on 16th and the Common Sandpiper at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North) was still present at the week’s end. The only Jack Snipes found during the period were two near Ravensthorpe on18th.

Ruff, Summer Leys LNR, 14th November 2021 (Leslie Fox)

Gull numbers were once again very low and included a third-winter Caspian Gull at Hollowell on 19th, and an adult Yellow-legged Gull was still at Pitsford on 14th.

In contrast to last week, just one Merlin was seen, this time at Harlestone Lake, on 15th and just when you thought it was all over for Swallows, one was seen flying south-west over Bradden on 13th. It surely is now …

The past couple of weeks has seen a number of late Ring Ouzels moving through the UK and we were not left out. One was found behind Byfield Pool at Boddington Res on 14th and another reported from below Hanging Houghton on 17th, while this week’s Stonechats included four at Thrapston GP on 14th, four at Hollowell between 15th and 19th, two at Earls Barton GP on 15th and one at Sywell CP on 14th and 15th.

Following one last week, three more Hawfinches were reported on 17th, in trees close to the gatehouse at Lilford Park. Unlike the next species, however, they remain in short supply and there would appear to be no sign of an impending invasion.

Newsround – 6th to 12th November 2021 

A predominantly westerly airstream remained in place throughout the period and temperatures were largely above average for early November, clearly suiting some lingering summer visitors.

Against this backcloth, numbers of winter wildfowl were undoubtedly on the increase, some of which, however, were clearly not so wild. Falling squarely into the latter category was the re-emergence of the Cackling Goose, still on the loose in the west of the county, on this occasion with Canada Geese at Stanford Res on 10th. Stanford also played host to a Pink-footed Goose – most likely the Hollowell Res bird – from 9th until the week’s end. Two more Pinkfeet flew east over Nether Heyford on 6th, while the roving female Ruddy Shelduck appeared at Hollowell on 11th.

Pink-footed Goose, Stanford Res, 9th November 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Making a splash this week were Red-crested Pochards, with arrivals at four localities – most notably at Pitsford Res, where seventeen appeared on 6th and fifteen were still in place at the week’s end. Smaller numbers arriving elsewhere included two at Boddington Res on 6th, three at Thrapston GP on 7th and three at Stanford, which were present from 7th until the end of the period.

Red-crested Pochards, Boddington Res, 6th November 2021 (Gary Pullan)
Red-crested Pochards, Pitsford Res, 11th November 2021 (Martin Swannell)

Pitsford also produced a female Greater Scaup – a one-day bird on 7th, while Daventry CP chalked up its third of the autumn this week, with another first-winter from 8th to 10th.

Female Greater Scaup, Pitsford Res, 7th November 2021 (Angus Molyneux)
First-winter Greater Scaup, Daventry CP, 8th November 2021 (Gary Pullan)

At the other end of the county, Cattle Egrets pushed through to deliver an all-time county high with at least fourteen coming into the roost at Ringstead GP on 12th but away from this site only two were seen, at nearby Stanwick GP, on 9th. In parallel, Great Egrets smashed the site record total this week with at least eleven at Pitsford on 7th and 9th, while totting up numbers from Ringstead, Stanford, Stanwick, Summer Leys LNR and Thrapston suggests the total wintering population in Northants currently is likely to be a minimum of twenty. Ignoring possible Nene Valley duplicates, of course, that excludes any which may be lurking at other local bodies of water which would appear not to have been visited by birders this week.

Great Egret, Pitsford Res, 7th November 2021 (Alan Coles)

And now to the curious case of the ‘Desborough stork’. Seen only as an early morning silhouette on a house roof on 8th, before quickly disappearing, it later emerged that a bird appearing to match the description of a White Stork was seen on a house roof in Wellingborough, last week, on 4th …

Arguably less ephemeral, though never overly easy to catch up with locally, harriers were still in the spotlight, with two species putting in appearances for the second week running. On 8th, a Marsh Harrier flew south over Mary’s Lake at Earls Barton GP, while the 7th saw a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier in the Brampton Valley, north of Brixworth, the same bird again being seen within spitting distance, at Blueberry Farm, on 10th. But stealing the limelight was the male Hen Harrier that cruised over the Main Lake and scrape at Summer Leys on 12th, before proceeding to quarter the rough fields either side of Mary’s Lane, its twenty-minute stay enabling a number of on-site birders to catch up with it. However, this was no ordinary male and, sporting an aerial, it has been identified as a satellite-tagged bird known as ‘Apollo’, originating in Lancashire, previously wintering in Spain and more recently having spent time near (the aptly-chosen) Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire before appearing at Summer Leys. The area it was hunting in would seem like ideal wintering habitat but is it enough to hold its interest? Summer Leys or Spain – where would you rather be … ?

Male Hen Harrier, Summer Leys LNR, 12th November 2021 (Alan Coles)
Male Hen Harrier, Summer Leys LNR, 12th November 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)

Topping the bill for waders again this week was the Pitsford Wood Sandpiper, which remained throughout, while others seemingly in no hurry to move on were the long-staying Ruff at Summer Leys and the Common Sandpiper just up the road at Earls Barton GP’s New Workings (North). Which one will crack and go first … or are they all in it for the long haul? A Black-tailed Godwit at DIRFT 3 on 7th and a Jack Snipe at Pitsford on 7th-9th also added to this week’s mix.

Wood Sandpiper, Pitsford Res, 11th November 2021 (Martin Swannell)

By contrast, however, gulls were once again few and far between and included a third-winter Caspian Gull at Daventry on 12th, along with two Yellow-legged Gulls there on thesame date, while an adult Yellow-legged remained at Pitsford until at least 7th.

Continuing last week’s surge, Merlins were found at Sywell AF on 7th, at Harrington AF and in the Brampton Valley on 8th and at Barnwell the following day. We appear to be enjoying an autumn of plenty locally, so far.

In another parallel with last week, two more late Swallows were found, feeding over horse paddocks at Castle Ashby, on 7th, while this week’s Stonechats included one at Pitsford on 7th and twos at Earls Barton on 8th, Thrapston on 9th and Upton CP on 12th. Rounding off the week’s passerines were a Crossbill flying west over Brackley on 8th and a Hawfinch, briefly, at Hanging Houghton on 10th.

Newsround – 23rd to 29th October 2021

Another week with the country under the influence of low pressure saw further strong south-westerlies and heavy showers, although temperatures remained largely above average. This week’s star bird was a bold, brazen, late, lingering Osprey along the Nene.

But before that … A Pink-footed Goose appeared at Daventry CP on 23rd, with perhaps the same bird then moving to Hollowell Res from 25th to 28th. The county struggled to get all its ducks in a row this week, the female Ruddy Shelduck and the escaped drake Cape Shelduck having completely abandoned DIRFT 3 for the more secluded site of Foxholes Fisheries at Crick, where the Ruddy Shelduck was present on all but one day and the Cape Shelduck for only the first two. A first-winter female Greater Scaup was found at Daventry CP on 27th and was still present the following day while, at the other end of the county, two Red-crested Pochards visited Thrapston GP on 26th.

Once again, last week’s Black-necked Grebe remained at the latter site throughout the period.

Oddly, there were no reports of the Summer Leys Bittern this week but the number of Cattle Egrets at the Ringstead GP roost reached nine on 25th, from which they dispersed during the daylight hours to Stanwick GP, where there were five on 27th and to Thrapston/Islip Water Meadows, where there were two on 24th and one on 26th-27th. Two that dropped in briefly at Summer Leys LNR on 23rd may not have been local birds.

Cattle Egrets, Ringstead GP, 25th October 2021 (Adrian Borley)

Great Egrets, meanwhile, were found at Daventry, Earls Barton GP, Hollowell Res, Oundle, Pitsford Res, Ringstead, Summer Leys and Thrapston, with maxima of up to five at Pitsford on 28th and four at Hollowell on 25th and 28th.

Which brings us neatly to the long-staying Osprey, which has now been in the Nene Valley, between Billing GP and Summer Leys, since 11th October. Looking settled, it has recently been favouring the stretch of river between White Mills Marina and Earls Barton GP’s Hardwater Lake – and it appears almost fearless, choosing to hunt by plunge-diving from trees along the river bank, rather than soaring and hovering over adjacent open bodies of water. In so doing, it has been quite approachable, offering superb views as well as great photographic opportunities.

Juvenile Osprey, Earls Barton GP, 28th October 2021 (Mike Alibone)

A juvenile – easily aged by the striking white feather tips to the upperparts and wing coverts, as well as the dark streaking in the white crown and the buffy underwing coverts – it is thought perhaps to be of Scandinavian origin as it is not ringed, like the majority of UK birds appear to be. We can be sure that the same individual accounts for all the sightings as this bird has minor damage in the form of a small nick near the end of the outermost primary of its left wing. How long it will stay is anyone’s guess but the latest record for the county was one which lingered at Stanford Res between 13th October and 9th November 2013, so it has a way to go yet to beat that one.

Juvenile Osprey, Earls Barton GP, 28th October 2021 (David Smith)
Juvenile Osprey, Earls Barton GP, 29th October 2021 (Leslie Fox)
Juvenile Osprey, Earls Barton GP, 29th October 2021 (Ant Hall)
Juvenile Osprey, Earls Barton GP, 28th October 2021 (Mike Alibone)

The weekly selection of Caspian Gulls comprised a second-winter at Boddington Res on 26th and single adults at Stanford Res on the same date and at both Hollowell and Pitsford on 28th. This week’s Yellow-legged Gulls were all seen on 26th, when there were two at Boddington, two or three at Pitsford and two at Thrapston.

On dry land, a Short-eared Owl was seen at Harrington AF on 25th, while a juvenile male Merlin was ay Hinton AF on 24th and an adult male flew over DIRFT 3 on 29th.

Stonechat, Stanford Res, 29th October 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Stonechats were the only passerines of note this week, Hollowell being out in front with five, followed by four at Thrapston, two at Blueberry Farm, Maidwell and singles at Pitsford, Stanford and Upton CP, Northampton.

Newsround – 26th June to 2nd July 2021

A mixed bag of weather had little bearing on the selection of this week’s birds, which more than hinted that early autumn passage was well underway.  

This was not applicable, of course, to the single, presumed resident, Cattle Egret hanging on at Stanwick GP throughout the week, nor to the wandering summertime Great Egret at Summer Leys LNR on 26th and at adjacent Earls Barton GP on 1st.

Ospreys, too, were all likely to have been from the Midlands breeding population – this week’s comprising singles at Hollowell Res on 27th and 1st, Naseby Res on 28th, Daventry CP on 29th and Blatherwycke Lake on the same date.

But it was a Wood Sandpiper at Stanwick on 28th which provided the amuse-bouche for autumn, along with a supporting cast of two Green Sandpipers, while six more Green Sandpipers also appeared together at Deene Lake the following day. Black-tailed Godwits turned up at three sites, which included two at Ditchford GP and one at Summer Leys on 30th, followed by one at Stanwick on 2nd.

Black-tailed Godwit, Summer leys LNR, 30th June 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)

This week’s gulls were pretty much last week’s gulls. An adult Mediterranean Gull was at Summer Leys on 26th, followed by a first-summer at Stanwick the next day. Further gull action came from DIRFT 3’s A5 Pools, where a first-summer Caspian Gull was present on 27th and 2nd, the same site hosting three Yellow-legged Gulls on 27th, one on 29th and four on 2nd.

Male Common Redstart, Stanford Res, 2nd July 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Along with the above waders, underlining that initial taste of autumn was a male Common Redstart, found at Stanford Res on 2nd – no doubt the first of many more to come …

Newsround – 19th to 25th June 2021

A grim week on the weather front, with predominantly north-easterly winds, showers and depressed temperatures AND although a Rose-coloured Starling made the headlines once again, ITS presence was SOMEWHAT short-lived.  

Decidedly more dodgy than the weather, though, last week’s Pink-footed Goose was still at Pitsford Res on 23rd, while the only other wildfowl stepping up to the mark were two Garganeys at Stanwick GP on 20th and one at Summer Leys LNR on 22nd-23rd.

Raptors this week were limited to single Ospreys visiting Stanford Res on 23rd and 24th and, while waders are normally in short supply in June, Clifford Hill GP produced two Avocets on the evening of 24th and DIRFT 3 pulled in a Whimbrel and 2 Curlews on 21st. The latter site also held a first-summer Caspian Gull plus a fourth-summer Yellow-legged Gull on 19th and two first-summer Caspian Gulls plus five Yellow-legged Gulls on 25th. Further Yellow-legged Gulls included a first-summer at Pitsford on 20th and two there on 24th.

First-summer Mediterranean Gull, Stanwick GP, 21st June 2021 (Steve Fisher)

Stanwick produced two different first-summer Mediterranean Gulls on consecutive days, 21st and 22nd.

Presumed Northern Willow Warbler, Stanford Res, 19th June 2021 (Stanford Ringing Group)

Once again, passerines were in the limelight. The Stanford Ringing Group trapped what would appear to be a Willow Warbler showing characteristics of the race acredula, known colloquially as Northern Willow Warbler, on 19th. Although this race breeds from Scandinavia eastwards, birds showing similar characteristics are present in Scotland. All of the county’s previous five records have come from the mist nets of Stanford, the last one as recently as August 2020.

Rose-coloured Starling, Grange Park, Northampton, 19th June 2021 (Mark Oldham)

Some species are less cryptic, however. So, another week, another Rose-coloured Starling, although the images snatched of one in a private garden at Grange Park, Northampton, on 19th do not entirely rule out last week’s bird that spent three days at nearby Clifford Hill GP. The propensity for this ‘Martini’ species to turn up almost any time, any place, anywhere means that they are inevitably chance-encountered without investing any effort into locating and watching local Starling flocks. “Who dares wins” is clearly not applicable to finding them in this case. Simply hang your fat balls out and sit back …

Newsround – 12th to 18th June 2021

High pressure and a south to south-westerly airstream saw temperatures move toward the upper twenties during the period, although the week ended on A somewhat damp note as heavy rain moved in from the continent. However, it was the VERY beginning of the week which produced the goods …

And from day one, Clifford Hill GP was, this week, at the forefront, on the 12th topping the locality leader board for the best in class, although that is not seriously applicable to the first of the two – let’s say ‘unusual’ – species found there on that date. During the morning, seven white morph Snow Geese were discovered feeding on the north side of the Main Barrage Lake. It would appear there has never been anything constituting a flock of this species in Northants before … but the date, coupled with the existence of steadily growing numbers of feral birds at Farmoor, Oxfordshire (103 were counted there on 4th May) unequivocally dashes any hopes of their being wild.

Snow Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 12th June 2021 (Mark Williams)
Snow Geese, Clifford Hill GP, 12th June 2021 (Mark Williams)

There have been a number of flocks seen in the UK over the past six weeks, with forty-two in North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Lincolnshire last month and, more recently, thirty-seven moving through Durham, Cleveland, Northumberland and Lothian. Smaller numbers have also appeared in other counties of late. Interestingly, the Northants seven showed up at Eyebrook, Leicestershire the following day and seven, dubbed by BirdGuides as ‘of unknown origin’ (now, there’s a teaser …), were on the Dumbles at Slimbridge on 17th. It seems likely that these were the same birds.

Still on the wild (or not) goose theme, a Pink-footed Goose was in Scaldwell Bay at Pitsford Res on 15th-17th, while the nearby Brampton Valley continued to host a singing male Quail on 16th. The latter date saw the only Great Egret of the week at Stanwick GP and single Ospreys visited Hollowell Res on 12th-13th and Thrapston GP on 14th-15th. Away from breeding sites, single Curlews flew over Stanford Res on 15th and 16th and two Yellow-legged Gulls were at Pitsford on 17th.

Once again, the far east of the county struck gold – this time at Glapthorn Cow Pasture, where three people who had made the journey from Cornwall to see Black Hairstreaks had excellent views of a male Golden Oriole on the morning of 13th. Two lucky local birders, present around the same time, also connected, enjoying brief flight views. Further attempts to find it later in the day, and again early the following morning, unfortunately met with disappointment by the handful of hopefuls searching for it. This bird follows hot on the heels of the male at Fotheringhay on 2nd June.

Rose-coloured Starling, Clifford Hill GP, 14th June 2021 (Ken Prouse)

Fortunately, quite the reverse situation was true when it came to the discovery of the county’s sixth Rose-coloured Starling. Found at Clifford Hill GP on the evening of 12th, it remained until 14th, allowing many to connect with it, although it became increasingly elusive during its 3-day stay. This was the first twitchable one in Northants for twenty-three years and a full account has already been published here.

Male Channel Wagtail, Stanford Res, 12th June 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

Arguably no less colourful, last week’s male Channel Wagtail paid a return visit to Stanford Res on the evening of 12th, when it was again around the dam in company with Yellow Wagtails.

Spring, it seems, is not done with yet …

The Rose-coloured Starling at Clifford Hill GP

Following a similar event this time last year, Western Europe is, once again, experiencing a late spring influx of Rose-coloured Starlings. Numbers in Spain have recently exceeded 300 and in France numbers had likely reached four figures by 1st June, with the biggest flock totalling 320 birds. Here in the UK, there have been more than 130 records to date but unlike last year, far fewer birds have made it inland and most reports have been restricted to coastal locations.

Against the odds, then, we have been fortunate in having one arrive in Northants and the fact that it was found in a readily accessible location, combined with a stay of at least three days, constitutes a big bonus for local birders.

Discovered by Dave Smith on the evening of 12th June, it was feeding on the grassy, sheep-grazed banks in the vicinity of the north-east corner of the Main Barrage Lake, remaining long enough for a number of locals to catch up with it before the end of the evening.

Rose-coloured Starling, Clifford Hill GP, 12th June 2021 (Dave Smith)

Still present the next morning, although mobile along the full length of the barrage lake, it attracted a steady procession of admirers throughout the day before flying off west during the evening. Fortunately, it reappeared close to the main river bridge early on 14th, after which it quickly became even more mobile and elusive throughout the remainder of the day.

Rose-coloured Starling, Clifford Hill GP, 14th June 2021 (Ken Prouse)

During its stay, it associated with Starlings but, at the same time, doing very much its own thing in terms of behaviour. Its movements while feeding were slower and less ‘frenetic’ and it did not adopt the ‘busy’ attitude of the surrounding Starlings, which were clearly absorbed in collecting as much food as possible and flying off north over the River Nene. This is not unusual, as gait – in terms of vagrants – is described by BWP as ‘often slow and methodical, at least when feeding in grass or weeds’, so suggestions made on the 13th that it might be suffering from ill health would appear to be unfounded.

Rose-coloured Starling, Clifford Hill GP, 14th June 2021 (Ken Prouse)

In terms of sex, the clean bright pink of its upper and under parts point clearly to a male but ageing may be more problematic. Dave’s image, above, clearly shows only the shortest of crest feathers (not long, as can be seen in many photographs of classic adult males), while the excellent images from Ken Prouse show worn – almost bleached – brown (not black) primary feathers, suggesting it is one of last year’s juveniles which has, in part, arrested its post-juvenile, autumn moult. Such delays do sometimes occur and moult then takes place in spring (BWP). Two new tail feathers are also growing with pale, as yet unworn tips. This, combined with the short crest feathers, strongly suggest this is a first-summer male, although this may be pure speculation.

Rose-coloured Starling, Clifford Hill GP, 14th June 2021 (Ken Prouse)

Whatever its age, it’s a fantastic bird, the 6th county record and the first to be truly twitchable in Northants since a relatively long-staying bird in, and around, Woodford Halse for 12 days in September 1998. In addition to the latter, previous records were at Weedon in September 1888, Thrapston in July 1908, Wellingborough in May 2018 and Hackleton in June 2020.

Newsround – 15th to 21st May 2021

Despite the presence of another slow-moving low pressure system seemingly locked over the UK throughout the period, after last week’s relative lull, local birding bounced back with the discovery of a long overdue confirmed county ‘first’, as well as a uniquely flamboyant rarity, which chose not to hang around.

This week’s limited wildfowl action was confined to Summer Leys LNR with, once again, a lone drake Garganey on 18th and the continued presence of the Chiloe Wigeon x Crested Duck hybrid through to 21st.

Recognisable by missing wing feathers as the same individual, Summer Leys also saw the arrival, on 17th, of the Cattle Egret from Pitsford Res after it was last seen there on 15th. Its presence at this Nene Valley site was purely transitory, though, and it did not linger. Four Cattle Egrets were also in the favoured location of Stanwick GP on 16th.

Cattle Egret, Pitsford Res, 15th May 2021 (Dave James)
Cattle Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 17th May 2021 (Alan Coles)

On the raptor front, single Ospreys were seen at both Pitsford and Stanford Res on 17th, Hollowell Res on 19th and Thrapston GP on 20th, while a Marsh Harrier was at Polebrook AF on 15th.

In stark contrast to last week, this week’s notable waders were limited to just two species. Whimbrel numbers at Clifford Hill GP had dwindled to just one on 15th, while the following day saw the arrival of a Sanderling on the dam at Stanford Res, ahead of an impressive double-figure count of ten at DIRFT 3 on 21st.

Sanderling, Stanford Res, 16th May 2021 (Chris Hubbard)

The reputation of the latter site for attracting the scarce and the rare was further elevated this week with the discovery there of the first confirmed Baltic Gull for the county. Found on 16th and seen again on 18th, this second-summer individual was positively identified from the number of a black colour ring on its right tarsus as having been ringed as a pullus in Norway in August 2019 (see here).

Second-summer Baltic Gull, Norwegian ring number J129K, DIRFT 3, 16th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Amazingly, an unringed adult, also showing characteristics of this (sub)species, was then found at DIRFT 3 on 19th, subsequently being seen over the Leicestershire border at Shawell, little more than 5 km to the north. In the absence of a ‘ring of provenance’, the field separation of this bird from dark, long-winged individuals of the intermedius race of Lesser Black-backed Gull is, at the moment, considered well nigh impossible.

Apparent adult Baltic Gull, DIRFT 3, 19th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

We’ve had birds like this before in Northants – see here and here, for example – but in the absence of rings which can identify the individuals, one way or another, they are not acceptable at a national level. Hopefully, this week’s second-summer will enjoy a not too bumpy ride through the scrutineers of the British Birds Rarities Committee.

A first-summer Caspian Gull was also at DIRFT 3, on 15th and from 18th to 20th.

The second rare of the week was found at Croyland Park, in suburban Wellingborough, on 18th. Feeding on freshly mown grass, a magnificent Hoopoe was discovered early in the afternoon, went missing mid-afternoon and was then refound early in the evening. It was not present the following day.

Hoopoe, Wellingborough, 18th May 2021 (Jim Dunkley)

Despite averaging just over one record every two years, there has been a series of blank years during the last thirty, the longest of which was six consecutive years, 1997-2002. How long will the wait for the next one be?

Baltic Gull at DIRFT 3

The first confirmed record for Northamptonshire.

The construction site for the Phase 3 extension of the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT 3) has become renowned for producing some interesting birds over the last 3 years. The area of flood pools alongside the A5 have, to date, attracted a variety of spring passage waders as well as gulls, which are known to commute between the site and nearby Shawell, where there is a landfill alongside other suitable habitat .

By this time of the year, most of the wintering gulls have departed, leaving a much smaller number of non-breeding immatures and a handful of adults, all of which are frequently joined by northbound migrants. It was on the morning of 16th May when, going through some 250 or so gulls at DIRFT 3, I came across a very interesting-looking, sub-adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, which stood out from the crowd by virtue of its startling black-and-white appearance, with almost jet-black upperparts and wings, which appeared virtually as black as the bird’s primary feathers. Closer examination revealed an extremely long primary projection beyond the tail, along with a relatively slim-looking body, lending an almost tern-like appearance.

Second-summer Baltic Gull, ring number J129K, DIRFT 3, 16th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Alarm bells started ringing as I realised I was almost certainly looking at a Baltic Gull, the (sub)species of Lesser Black-backed Gull with a breeding range from certain parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland to the White Sea.

The bird was resting on, and preening in, the water of the A5 pool and all parts of it were visible except for the legs. The bird was aged as a second-summer by some subtle dark brownish tones to some of the scapulars, faded blackish webs to 2 or 3 of the outer tail feathers, 2 small and inconspicuous pale brown feathers on the right side of the breast and a small, blackish subterminal mark on an otherwise adult-type bill. At all times during the observation the legs remained out of sight, below the water level.

Second-summer Baltic Gull, ring number J129K, DIRFT 3, 16th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

I managed a few rather disappointing digiscoped shots and some rather ropey video before the gulls became disturbed by something unseen and took to the air. Although many returned, the gull in question headed off north with a handful of others, appearing to have very long, slim wings, and that, as they say, was that.

Having not seen the legs, it was not possible to ascertain if it was ringed or not … and reading the ring number to determine the bird’s origin and race is currently the only way to positively identify a Baltic Gull of this age in the UK.  

The potential similarity of the other European race of Lesser Black-backed Gull, intermedius, to Baltic Gull, fuscus, means that without ring detail, no UK records of the latter are acceptable to the British Birds Rarities Committee, the only exception being birds in their second calendar year between April and June (and perhaps into summer) through their unique moult strategy. Consequently, there have been only 12 acceptable records of Baltic Gull in the UK up to the end of 2019!

That would have been the end of it but for the fact that I returned to DIRFT 3 A5 Pools two days later … and there it was again – this time out of the water and as luck would have it, it was sporting a field-readable alphanumeric ring on its right tarsus, along with a small metal one on its left. The ring was of the same type used to ring intermedius and fuscus in Norway. I was half-way to getting an ID, one way or the other. Given that the potential interest level had just moved up a notch, I put the news out on the Northants Birds WhatsApp Group and contacted Carl Baggott, Leicestershire Bird Recorder and avid Laridophile with a first-hand experience in Baltic Gull, having recently co-authored a British Birds paper on their breeding at Horsvaer in Norway.

Second-summer Baltic Gull, ring number J129K, DIRFT 3, 16th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Second-summer Baltic Gull, ring number J129K, DIRFT 3, 16th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

The problem was the ring was indecipherable as a result of a combination of heat haze and long range. I persevered and managed a few high magnification digiscoped shots of the ring, which were still very blurry. In the meantime Carl had arrived and had limited time to watch the gull, which had taken to sitting down and sleeping. In a short instance of the gull standing, Carl managed to read some of the ring number, the first two characters of which were ‘J1’. All good so far and then the gulls took flight and the presumed Baltic again flew north.

Later checking and attempting to sharpen my images revealed the last character of the ring as a ‘K’. With just two more characters to decipher I emailed them to Carl, who then shared them with Morten Helberg, gull ringing project leader in Norway. Both Morten and Carl agreed the ‘missing’ characters were ‘2’ and ‘9’. We had it! ‘J129K’, this number subsequently being confirmed in the field when Carl relocated the bird at Shawell later in the evening.

Ring Number J129K

So, with a bit of international cooperation and some ‘high level forensics’, we got there. But what about the bird’s ID? Oh yes, Baltic Gull, ringed as a pullus in Norway on 1st August 2019, as per the details below.

This is currently the only confirmed record for Northamptonshire. Along with the 12 records already accepted in the UK, BBRC is currently considering another half a dozen or so. As the committee quite rightly states, “… the British status of fuscus is being under-stated. In reality, fuscus may be of regular occurrence here.”  So, more will surely follow and a small number of likely candidates have previously been seen in Northants … but all remain unproven.

A big thank you to Carl Baggott (UK) and Morten Helberg (Norway) for their constructive input and swift information dissemination.