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.

Newsround – 8th to 14th May 2021

Compared to the last two, this week was somewhat mellow, belonging rather more to the hangers-on than the newly arrived. A low pressure system centred over the British Isles for the majority of the period delivered unsettled weather and ‘false southerlies’, resulting from a northerly wrap-around, rather than anything originating from deep down in southern Europe. So, the foot was off the gas for high octane birding … but is that it for the spring?

Well, it would certainly appear so as far as wildfowl are concerned, since the week’s only pukka ducks were single drake Garganeys, at both Summer Leys LNR and Stanwick GP on 8th. However, it was the latter site which dipped more than one toe into muddy waters as, bobbing on the surface, was last week’s and the week before’s Pink-footed Goose – now looking distinctly suspect in terms of origin.

Pink-footed Goose, Stanwick GP, 11th May 2021 (Steve Fisher)

But looking further into the murky depths revealed some unquestionably dodgy fare in the shape of a Chiloe Wigeon x Crested Duck hybrid on 8th, which proceeded to make its way to Summer Leys for 11th. And if that wasn’t enough, just to add insult to injury, a Barnacle Goose x Cackling Goose hybrid followed two days later, accompanied by a ‘pure’ Barnacle Goose.

Relying principally on cast-offs from Thrapston and Ditchford GPs to keep it afloat, Stanwick has, so far, come in decidedly under par this spring. But it ain’t over till the fat lady sings … or so they say.

One thing Stanwick is reliable for, of course, is Cattle Egrets, four – or possibly as many as six – of which were present there on 9th, while the one which turned up at Pitsford Res at the end of last week remained throughout. Pitsford was also one of the four sites producing Great Egrets this week, with one still there on 12th, while singles were also seen at Thrapston on the same date and at both Clifford Hill GP and Summer Leys on 8th.

Cattle Egret, Pitsford Res, 11th May 2021 (John Moon)
Cattle Egret, Pitsford Res, 13th May 2021 (Ant Hall)

Raptor sightings this week were limited to single Ospreys at Thrapston on 9th and 12th, Pitsford on 10th, Hollowell Res on 11th and Stanford Res on 14th.

If last week belonged to waders, then this week followed suit – albeit at a less prestigious level. Two Grey Plovers – relatively scarce so far this spring – were found at DIRFT 3 on 8th and two Ringed Plovers of one of the tundra races also turned up there on 14th.

Waders at DIRFT 3: Dunlin and Grey Plovers, 8th May and Tundra Ringed Plover, 14th May (Gary Pullan)

The long-staying Whimbrels, present at Clifford Hill GP from last month, notched up a mammoth stopover of 18 days this week, although their numbers had dwindled from a maximum of eight to just three by 13th. In contrast to last week, they were recorded from no other sites.

Whimbrel, Clifford Hill GP, 12 May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Away from breeding sites, the week’s only Curlew was also found at Clifford Hill on 8th, while this week’s Black-tailed Godwits consisted of two at Summer Leys from 8th to 10th and one there on 11th. Two also flew west over DIRFT 3 on 9th.

Hot on the heels of the year’s first Turnstone at Clifford Hill last week came four more at the same site in the murky weather of the 8th, the same day also seeing two paying a fleeting visit to Summer Leys and one at DIRFT 3. Clifford Hill produced further singles on 9th and 13th-14th.

Turnstones, Summer Leys LNR, 8th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Turnstone, Clifford Hill GP, 13th May 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Following a series of unseasonal occurrences during the second week of February, the first Knot of the spring appeared at DIRFT 3 on 13th, remaining there the following day, while last week’s Ruff lingered at Summer Leys until at least 12th.

Knot, DIRFT 3, 14th May 2021 (Gary Pullan)

Sanderlings, too,were again on the menu, with the 8th delivering five to Clifford Hill, three to DIRFT 3 and one to Summer Leys, while the following day, two remained at DIRFT 3 and another was found there on 13th. All the blow and bluster of the 8th saw many more Dunlins moving through during the miserable conditions of the day. DIRFT 3 produced sixty (in two flocks, of fifty-one and nine), Clifford Hill held at least fifty-one, twenty-five were at Summer Leys, twenty at Ecton SF and ten at Earls Barton GP’s new workings (north). It was all over by the following day, though, with just three at Clifford Hill and singles were at Stanwick on 10th and at DIRFT 3 on 13th-14th.

Dunlins, Ecton SF, 8th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

The 8th also brought single Wood Sandpipers to both Stanwick and Summer Leys, as well as a Greenshank to the latter site, which continued to hold on to one of its long-staying Spotted Redshanks, remaining there until at least 13th.

Spotted Redshank, Summer Leys LNR, 12th May 2021 (Mark Tyrrell)

In contrast to the continued high velocity wader movement, gulls and terns were at a low ebb. A Little Gull visited Stanford on 12th and the following day saw two first-summer Caspian Gulls at DIRFT 3, while a first-winter Yellow-legged Gull visited the latter site on 8th and a third-winter was at Pitsford on 9th. With most already having moved through, single-figure counts of Arctic Terns included two at Stanford on 8th and one at Summer Leys on 11th, while single Black Terns visited Clifford Hill, Pitsford and Summer Leys on the consecutive days of 8th, 9th and 10th, respectively.

Another week, another Wood Warbler – this one being even more fleeting than last week’s. Stanwick was the venue, the bird singing for ten minutes and remaining out of sight, early in the morning of 11th. This week’s Whinchats were all on 9th, when four were at Borough Hill and one was at Clifford Hill, while Northern Wheatears still continued to filter through, some showing characteristics of the Greenland race, which tends to be prevalent the deeper we move into May.

Northern Wheatear, probably Greenland race, Willowbrook Industrial Estate, Corby, 9th May 2021 (James Underwood)
Northern Wheatear, probably Greenland race, Stortons GP, 9th May 2021 (Tony Stanford)
Male Greenland Wheatear, Clifford Hill GP, 11th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Male Greenland Wheatear, Clifford Hill GP, 12th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)

Clifford Hill produced the most, with three on 8th and ten there the next day, 9th, which also saw seven at Willowbrook Industrial Estate, Corby, six at Borough Hill and one at Stortons GP. Singles were again at Clifford Hill on 10th, 12th and 13th, with two there on 11th and further singles were at Harrington AF on 11th and Boddington Res on12th.

Blue-headed and Yellow Wagtail variants at Summer Leys

A male Blue-headed Wagtail has been present in fields adjacent to Summer Leys LNR since its discovery on 12th April. Being a scarce migrant in Northants and the UK in general, it has attracted a lot of attention from local birders and scrutiny of the accompanying Yellow Wagtails has also thrown up some interesting plumage variants, sparking much debate on origins and racial identity.

Fortunately, the site routinely attracts a wealth of photographers, who have been on hand to capture a range of images, allowing subsequent at length plumage examination.

So, here they are …

Blue-headed Wagtail

A straightforward, classic individual featuring all the diagnostic characteristics of a male nominate race flava, i.e. sharply demarcated bright blue head with ear coverts and lores darker than the crown, a striking white, long supercilium extending from the base of the bill and over the ear coverts, obvious broken white eye-ring and white flecks in the ear coverts. It also has a yellow throat with a thin white side border.

Male Blue-headed Wagtail M. f. flava, Summer Leys LNR, 13th April 2021 (Ant Hall)
Male Blue-headed Wagtail M. f. flava, Summer Leys LNR, 13th April 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Blue-headed/‘Channel’-type variant

A not so easy to analyse individual. This bird has a much more diffuse head pattern, with green tones permeating the blue, which is paler than that of the male Blue-headed Wagtail, above. It has a largely white throat and remnants of a ‘necklace’ and the worn-looking outer greater coverts suggest it may be a first-summer bird. The overall appearance closely matches female Blue-headed Wagtail and it may indeed be just that. However, a degree of caution is normally urged when trying to assign females of the ‘yellow wagtail group’ to race …

Female Blue-headed Wagtail/’Channel’-type variant, Summer Leys LNR, 13th April 2021 (Martin Swannell)
Female Blue-headed Wagtail/’Channel’-type variant, Summer Leys LNR, 13th April 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Yellow-headed Wagtail-type variant

A very interesting bird, which appears to show characteristics of the race lutea., i.e. strikingly deep yellow underparts and head, the latter with only a hint of dusky lores and a ghosting of green on the crown, which is said to match lutea perfectly (Shirihai & Svensson 2019). However it lacks the broad yellow tips to the median and greater coverts normally exhibited by this race, the coverts in this case conforming to those of standard flavissima Yellow Wagtail.

Male Yellow Wagtail variant resembling Yellow-headed Wagtail M. f. lutea, Summer Leys LNR, 12th April 2021 (Don Lorraine)
Male Yellow Wagtail variant resembling Yellow-headed Wagtail M. f. lutea, Summer Leys LNR, 13th April 2021 (Bob Bullock)

This race breeds in the lower Volga, middle Ural region and possibly north-west Kirghiz Steppe. While birds resembling lutea have been recorded in the UK, the race is not on the British list and they are generally considered to be variant flavissima. Feathers or faecal samples allowing DNA analysis would be highly desirable in proving subspecific ID in this case.

Newsround – 27th March to 2nd April 2021

Although local temperatures reached only 22°C, the 30th hit the headlines as the UK’s warmest March day for 53 years, largely as a result of south to south-westerly winds sweeping in from beyond the Iberian peninsula. Unsurprisingly, spring migrants came in thick and fast, these balmy conditions acting as a catalyst for northbound migration. It was all change during the last two days of the week, however, as winter reminded us it was not done with yet, bitter north-easterlies kicked in and temperatures dropped like a stone …

Showing no signs of going anywhere soon, the adult Dark-bellied Brent Goose remained at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR throughout the period, while new in was a Pink-footed Goose, which flew west over Ecton SF on 1st before dropping in to join local Greylags in the adjacent riverside meadow at Cogenhoe Mill.

Pink-footed Goose, Cogenhoe Mill, 1st April 2021 (Mike Alibone)

The same date saw the arrival of the year’s first Garganey, at Clifford Hill GP, where four pitched up during the morning, appearing to have moved swiftly on by the end of the day.

Garganeys, Clifford Hill GP, 1st April 2021 (Bob Bullock)

Meanwhile, the wintering drake Ring-necked Duck showed further signs of itchy feet this week, appearing again at Stanwick GP on 27th-28th and 30th before heading west to Clifford Hill, where it was seen on 31st and again on 2nd.

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Clifford Hill GP, 2nd April 2021 (Bob Bullock)

In contrast, the smart drake Greater Scaup, accompanied the presumed female Greater Scaup x Tufted Duck hybrid, remained site faithful, off the dam at Pitsford Res all week while, back in the Nene Valley, Ditchford GP’s drake Smew resurfaced on Delta Pit on 27th before being seen at Stanwick the following day and again there on 2nd.

Ditchford also produced a one-day wonder in the shape of a flamboyant, summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebe at Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows on 31st.

Further down the valley, with no departure date in sight, the local star that is Glossy Ibis clocked up eight weeks of residency at Thrapston GP, spending more of its time on Aldwincle Lake. It will be missed when it finally chooses to move on, although after such a long stay, this species is never likely to be viewed in quite the same light when the next one hits the county.

Talking of which … four Cattle Egrets remained at the favoured locality of Stanwick on 27th-28th, while numbers of Great Egrets continued to decrease, with singles at Summer Leys on 28th and Hollowell on 30th, up to two at Pitsford on 31st-1st and up to five at Thrapston on 31st.

Great Egret, Summer Leys LNR, 27th March 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)

With Ospreys back in the game, singles were seen at Billing GP, Hollowell, Pitsford and Ravensthorpe Res – all on 27th, Ravensthorpe again on 29th, Oundle on 1st and Hollowell Res again on 1st-2nd. Three pairs have bred in the county over the past few years and with numbers increasing nationally, we must be on for a fourth in the not too distant future. Two single Marsh Harriers flew east through Stanwick, within minutes of each other, on 2nd.

Osprey, Ravensthorpe Res, 27th March 2021 (Bob Bullock)
Osprey, Hollowell Res, 2nd April 2021 (Jon Cook)

On the wader front, two Avocets were mobile between Summer Leys and Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR throughout the week, while single Curlews flew over Stanford Res on 27th, Pitsford on 1st and two worked their way from Ditchford along to Stanwick on 2nd. Last week’s first-summer Black-tailed Godwit remained at Summer Leys until 28th, being replaced there by three from 31st to 2nd. Three also visited Stanwick on 31st.

First-summer Black-tailed Godwit, Summer Leys LNR, 27th March 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)
Adult Black-tailed Godwit, Summer Leys LNR, 2nd April 2021 (Ricky Sinfield)

With only singles at Clifford Hill on 30th and DIRFT 3 A5 Pools on 1st, Dunlins were thin on the ground this week. A Jack Snipe remained at Hollowell until at least 30th, the same date on which one was found by chance at Harrington AF.

Pumping up the larid-action, there were gulls for everyone this week – after all, who doesn’t love a Little Gull? One of these delicate, diminutive beauties visited Daventry CP on 31st and another obliged by staying two days at Thrapston on 1st and 2nd. The last of these two dates also saw a first-winter Kittiwake heading south-west over Pitsford, apparently without stopping. Mediterranean Gulls were again largely confined to the two Nene Valley locations of Stanwick and Summer Leys, where they continued to be seen almost daily, the latter site holding three on 29th. The exception was two adults seen south of Burton Latimer, on 27th. The week’s token Caspian Gull, a first-winter, appeared on DIRFT 3’s A5 Pools on 1st, accompanied by another, which wasn’t quite the full shilling in terms of genetic make up, as well as one each of both adult and third-winter Yellow-legged Gulls. Two of the latter species also frequented Pitsford during the week.

Then the summer visitors kicked in. Two Sandwich Terns flew east through Stanford on 31st, followed by two more, east through Stanwick, the following day.

But the first Hobby, on 30th, smashed it, being the first ever to be recorded in March and beating the previous earliest record of 1st April, in 2012.

The first Willow Warbler was a male singing in suburban Northampton on 28th, followed later by one in Corby and, just before the month of March was out, the first Common Redstart appeared on Borough Hill with, hot on its heels, another at Harrington. Both were males. Following last week’s Black Redstart, three more were reported: Harrington AF on 30th, Hanging Houghton on 1st and Borough Hill on 2nd – all strangely vanishing immediately after their discovery. A Stonechat at Summer Leys on 28th was effectively the last man standing.

Unsurprisingly, more Northern Wheatears appeared this week, with the eight localities of Brackley, Chelveston AF, Clifford Hill, Harrington, Hinton AF, Polebrook AF, Stanford and Thrapston producing a couple of dozen between them. The highest counts were nine at Hinton on 29th and five at Clifford Hill GP on the same date.      

Male Northern Wheatear, Clifford Hill GP, 27th March 2021 (Bob Bullock)
Female Northern Wheatear, Brackley, 30th March 2021 (Mike Alibone). This individual has a parasite attached to its forehead.

Clifford Hill also delivered the first Yellow Wagtail of the year, on 1st, two more being seen at Stanwick later in the day, while White Wagtails continued to come through in small numbers, with Earls Barton producing one on 27th and two on 2nd, while another was at Aldwincle on 1st.

A brief stopover was made by a Water Pipit at Hollowell on 30th before it flew off south. In fact, as Water Pipit must be the only species flying south in spring, this surely constitutes the identification clincher from the often very similarly-plumaged Scandinavian Rock Pipit which, of course, flies north-east. Simple, isn’t it?! The answer was there all along! Well, maybe … Two more Water Pipits were at Earls Barton GP’s new workings on 2nd.

Mealy Redpoll, Wakerley Great Wood, 2nd April 2021 (Stuart Mundy)

Caught on film at Wakerley Great Wood, a Mealy Redpoll visited the feeders there on 2nd, when there were still at least four Crossbills in the same area.

Male Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 29th March 2021 (Angus Molyneux)

Ten were counted there on 29th, while the only other localities continuing to produce this species were Hollowell, with a maximum of five on 27th and Pitsford, where up to four were present on 31st.