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 …
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.
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 …
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.
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.
From a balmy 15°C on 4th, to bone-chilling northerlies and a touch of the white stuff on 6th, weatherwise, this week had it all. And from long-legged things to classy passerines, the birds were not to be sniffed at, either …
So, inching into what was undoubtedly another great early spring week in the county, the adult Dark-bellied Brent Goose at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR was still present on 3rd although, apparently, not subsequently. Unsurprisingly, then, there was no further change to the line-up in geese with another – or perhaps last week’s relocating – Pink-footed Goose, dropping into Stanwick GP for one day, on 9th.
Two Garganeys were discovered at Summer Leys LNR on 6th, remaining until the week’s end, when they were joined there by two more – the striking and intricately patterned drakes posing within spitting distance of the hides and drawing many a murmur of appreciation from observers and photographers alike.
Two stops west along the Nene, the drake Ring-necked Duck continued its stay at Clifford Hill GP throughout the period, after first showing up there on 31st March. As we move deeper into spring, its days there are now surely numbered and perhaps this is already the case with the drake Greater Scaup and the presumed female Greater Scaup x Tufted Duck hybrid, neither of which has been reported from Pitsford Res since 6th.
Reaching out across the night sky, Scaldwell’s nocmig tracking station picked up a migrating flock of Common Scoters as they passed over at 23.15 on 4th. So far, this spring, none has yet been nailed on the water during the hours of daylight … but there is still time. Back in the Nene Valley, the drake Smew commuted daily between Ditchford GP and Stanwick and was still present at the week’s end.
The latter site was also nicely in line to be the first to receive the now mobile Glossy Ibis, which had established a pattern of being seen there early in the morning before heading back to Thrapston GP later in the day. At least, that’s what it looked like initially but by the end of the week, its appearances at Thrapston had become far more erratic.
Not to be entirely outdone, Summer Leys LNR attracted what later transpired to be two somewhat capricious Spoonbills, which were first seen flying west over the reserve early in the afternoon of 8th before later returning to settle on the scrape. Their stay there, however, was short-lived and by late afternoon they were picked up flying south-west over Stanwick before being seen again over the same site little more than an hour later, this time flying north-east. The following day, they were relocated in trees near the Cormorant colony on Ditchford’s Delta Pit during the early part of the afternoon, before again flying off north-east. The conduct of these two conforms nicely to the ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ behaviour, which has been the stuff of late for this species in Northants.
The opposite is true, of course, for Cattle Egrets, at least two of which continued to be seen at Stanwick while Great Egrets were still on the wane, with Thrapston producing four, Pitsford two, and Stanford Res and Summer Leys one apiece.
Away from the all the Nene Valley razzamatazz, Daventry CP pulled in two very short-staying, first-winter Shags – presumably on an awayday from nearby Draycote Water, just over the border in Warwickshire, where three have seen the winter out and any number of which sometimes go missing.
Collectively, the seven sites of Harlestone Lake, Hollowell Res, Pitsford, Ravensthorpe Res, Stanford Res, Stortons GP and Thorpe Malsor Res accounted for daily sightings of Ospreys during the week but the only other raptors were a Marsh Harrier at Stanwick on 3rd and a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier close to the A14, near Kettering on 4th.
On the wader front, what were presumably last week’s two Avocets worked their way down the Nene, turning up at Thrapston GP on 7th, while single Curlews were at both Stanford and Summer Leys on 3rd. Three Black-tailed Godwits were at Summer Leys on 3rd-4th, three visited Stanwick on 3rd, with two still present on 5th and three dropped in to Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR on 4th.
Ruff is quite uncommon as a spring migrant locally and on reflection, these days, autumn is not much better, with numbers over the last few years also being relatively low. So, a ‘flock’ of three together at DIRFT 3 A5 Pools on 8th-9th was a nice find for the site. Dunlins remained thin on the ground this week, with just singles at Clifford Hill and Summer Leys – both on 3rd, while a Jack Snipe remained at Hollowell until at least 5th. And the last wader in this round-up is actually the first – that is, the first Common Sandpiper of the year, appearing on 7th Apr on the new workings at Earls Barton GP, a site within a site, which is rapidly gaining in popularity with birders. It covers a sizeable area and for the purposes of pinpointing individual birds is perhaps best regarded as two sub-sites, split as ‘New Workings (North)’ for the pits between the A45 and the River Nene and ‘New Workings (South)’ for the actively quarried area between Whiston Road and Whiston Lock.
In an even more eventful week for gulls, DIRFT 3’s A5 Pools came once more to the fore – and quite rightly so. This somewhat unique, arguably transient habitat may not be to everyone’s taste but there’s no denying it does deliver the goods from time to time.
April 8th proved to be one of those times when, in addition to the aforementioned Ruffs, diligent roadside viewing returned a juvenile Glaucous Gull, second-winter Iceland Gull, second-winter Caspian Gull plus second-winter and third-winter Yellow-legged Gulls. Two of the latter species were also present at Pitsford at the week’s end, while up to three adult Mediterranean Gulls were still on the loose at Summer Leys throughout and two were at Stanwick GP on 9th.
The month so far continued to deal out more Kittiwakes, single adults being seen at Thrapston GP on 5th and at Stanwick, two days later, on 7th. Sandwich Terns, too, were not done with yet, with another, much more obliging bird loafing for a couple of hours on a semi-submerged post in Ditchford’s Watersports Pit on 9th. A male Merlin flew north over Raunds on 4th, on the same date as the county’s first Common Whitethroat of the year, at Hardingstone GP, on 4th, beating the previous earliest, on 5th April 1998, by one day.
More Common Redstarts appeared in the wake of last week’s, with one at Fawsley Park on 7th and up to two near the River Tove, between Alderton and Shutlanger, on 3rd-4th, the latter site also producing a Black Redstart on the same dates. Coincidentally, another Black Redstart was also in a private garden in Wellingborough on these dates and another was found at Chelveston AF on 4th, crossing the county boundary into Bedfordshire shortly after its discovery.
Other chats were, of course, available in the shape of Northern Wheatears, with up to four favouring the above site at Chelveston on 4th and 5th, singles at both Harrington and Hollowell on the last of these two dates and three south-east of Mawsley on 9th.
White Wagtails continued to trickle through, with two at Ravensthorpe Res on 8th, while singles were at Clifford Hill on 8th and DIRFT 3 on 9th.
For the second consecutive week, Hollowell was again the place to be for Water Pipit with one on the dam there, albeit briefly, on 3rd.
The same scenario came in to play with Wakerley Great Wood and Mealy Redpoll, with a new bird – a male – in the same area as last week’s on 8th, while up to four Crossbills also remained there throughout and two were still at Hollowell on 6th.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a cool start to the week before northerly winds quickly gave way to westerlies and south-westerlies, temperatures rose a touch and migration began to gain a little more momentum. In fact, with the arrival of more spring migrants, some tantalisingly brief encounters and long-staying rarities still on tap, it was a great week for late March, whichever way you slice it …
Geese made a comeback this week, albeit in minimum numbers. Among them, an adult Dark-bellied Brent Goose at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR from 23rd until the week’s end – a species which has established itself as a regular spring passage migrant over recent years.
A first-winter White-fronted Goose joined local Greylags at Stanford Res over exactly the same period while, overnight on 22nd, microphones pointing skyward picked up a calling Pink-footed Goose on nocturnal migration over Scaldwell.
The same migration station also picked up flight calls of seven Common Scoters (groups of one, 4 and 2) over an hour’s duration, late in the evening on 24th. How did we ever manage without ‘nocmig’ in the past?
The appearance of a drake Ring-necked Duck at Stanwick GP, for one day on 21st, sparked interest and speculation that it was a new bird, as opposed to the Ditchford drake on an awayday. The latter was still in situ on 25th, so who knows … Also sticking it out for the duration was the drake Greater Scaup, accompanied the presumed female Greater Scaup x Tufted Duck hybrid, off Pitsford dam. A puzzling individual which is more ‘Greater Scaup’ than anything else and in the right light, shows a green sheen to the head. Work that one out! It also roamed to the causeway on at least one occasion.
Star rarity of the winter, the Thrapston Glossy Ibis, remained settled in its favoured horse field throughout the period.
Four Cattle Egrets were at the established feeding site of Stanwick on 20th, while Great Egrets were at Pitsford, Stanford, Summer Leys and Thrapston, with a maximum of four at the last of these sites on 23rd.
And if the above is old hat, then from now on our county’s bodies of water will be livened up somewhat with the return of this year’s Ospreys, the first of which was seen flying north over Spratton on 21st. Others quickly followed, with one over Bulwick on 24th and reservoirs at Hollowell, Ravensthorpe and Pitsford each receiving a slice of the action on 25th.
So, from the tangible to the intangible. Enter … another White-tailed Eagle from the Isle of Wight – the third to have visited us so far this year. This week’s, a second calendar year female, G405, flew north from Wiltshire on 22nd and amazingly, chose to roost is in exactly the same location, near Silverstone, as G318 a few weeks ago. Her journey north continued the following day, having left the roost site at 08.30 and taking two hours to fly north-east through the county and on into Lincolnshire. Again, it’s astonishing that such a large bird can slip through unnoticed. Clearly nocmig and satellite tracking are helping us to ‘see the unseen’ – although clearly not in the same context as suggested in the tagline of one leading optical manufacturer …
Continuing on the ‘big bird’ theme, though arguably less spectacular, a Common Crane flew north over Thrapston GP, late in the morning, on 24th.
On the wader front – and somewhat predictably these days – the first Avocets started to come through, beginning with a short-staying bird on floods at Lower Barnwell Lock on 20th, followed by an all-day stayer at Clifford Hill GP on 23rd and two at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR the following day.
Single Curlews were at DIRFT 3 Pools on 21st and in flight, north, over Pitsford on 24th, while a first-summer Black-tailed Godwit remained at Summer Leys from 22nd until the week’s end. Apart from two at Stanwick on 20th and the same number at Pitsford on 23rd, Summer Leys grabbed the lion’s share of this week’s Dunlins with up to six between 20th and 23rd. Single Jack Snipes were at Hollowell on 20th and 23rd and at Clifford Hill GP on 21st.
In contrast to last week, Mediterranean Gulls were confined to the two Nene Valley locations of Stanwick and Summer Leys, where they were seen almost daily, the first of these sites producing up to three on 23rd and Summer Leys, one throughout the period. All were adults. At least one Yellow-legged Gull continued to frequent Pitsford and Caspian Gulls materialised in the form of an adult at Hollowell on 23rd and a first-winter at Boddington Res on 25th.
Coming to a gravel pit near you: Common Tern at Thrapston on 26th just misses earliest ever, on 23rd March in 2005. In the vanguard for our summer breeders, it’s the first of many more soon to come.
Meanwhile, Harrington Airfield’s Short-eared Owl was still present on 22nd, as was the female Merlin there and a male turned up on site on 24th, while another was seen at Stortons GP on the same date. It’s been a good winter for them locally.
To passerines and an early House Martin, at Raunds on 21st, constitutes another near miss, just two days off the earliest ever, on 19th March in 2001. And upholding the scarcity flavour of the week … a Black Redstart, seen only briefly at Ashton STW on 24th. Two Stonechats clung on to the ashes of winter still this week, with one at Summer Leys on 20th and another at Clifford Hill on 21st, subsequently being replaced by Northern Wheatears – the first being at Wigsthorpe on 22nd, followed by one at Clifford Hill on 26th. Two were also reported from the Blueberry Farm/Brampton Valley area on 22nd. They have arrived in the county a little later than expected this year. Two more White Wagtails arrived this week – one at Ecton SF on 22nd and the other at Thrapston the following day but neither beats a nice spring Rock Pipit, one of which paid a brief visit to Stanwick on 21st before flying of east.
All of this week’s Crossbills were seen at Hollowell between 20th and 23rd, with a maximum of fifteen there on 22nd.
A Black-tailed Godwit has been present on the scrape at Summer Leys LNR since 22nd March and by all accounts, it’s still present today. Because of its rather drab colouration, it seems to have attracted little interest – after all, it’s not the type of super-rusty, spangled-mantled individual which usually finds favour with photographers. So, let’s take a closer look.
Its overall grey appearance suggests three main possibilities: it’s an adult which has not yet developed full summer plumage, it’s an adult which has attained summer plumage but remains largely grey, or it’s a first-summer which will not develop full summer plumage this year. It also raises the question, which race is it?
Probably 99.9% of the Black-tailed Godwits passing through Northants are of the Icelandic race, islandica. In full summer plumage they are extensively rusty below and spangled rusty-chestnut and gold on the upperparts – more so in males. The much rarer ‘Continental’ Black-tailed Godwit of the nominate race, limosa breeds in very small numbers in the UK, no further away than the Ouse Washes. They are less extensively and less intensively coloured, frequently being much greyer (especially females) and subtly structurally different, i.e. generally longer-legged, longer-necked, with broader-based, longer bills. For an excellent, detailed, in-depth analysis, see the definitive paper documenting 30 years of study by Mark Golley here.
So, on a closer examination of our Summer Leys bird, it becomes immediately apparent that it’s not uniform grey. There’s an area on the wing, which is lighter and zooming in through a telescope, this light area can be identified as very worn and faded coverts, which look quite pointed and ‘tatty’. These are old juvenile coverts, which may be retained for up to 12 months, becoming worn, while the remainder of the body plumage is, in comparison, fresh, non-juvenile plumage. The tertials are similarly worn.
This puts the bird in the first-summer age group, which will not have developed conventional adult summer plumage. Easy on good views. But what about race? That’s a little more tricky. As far as structure is concerned, the legs are largely hidden (although the tibia looks short), the neck and bill do not seem overly long, nor does the bill look particularly broad-based, although from different angles all these features appear to vary, as evidenced in the accompanying images. On balance it does not stand out as being an obviously large, lanky individual. However, it may be a male – which is smaller and shorter-billed than a female.
Though assessing the structure is tricky, the clue lies in the plumage. Zooming in again reveals the feather colouring of the few adult-type feathers which have emerged on the scapulars being the rather orangey/gold and black of islandica – versus the pale yellowish and black of limosa – and there is even one very ‘chestnutty’ one showing, while those on the breast, where colour is visible, are rather dark rufous-chestnut instead of limosa’s paler rusty wash.
So, after a bit of detective work, there we have it: first-summer Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit. There’ll no doubt be many more of these godwits to come as we move deeper into spring and early summer.
In stark contrast to last week’s rush of early spring migrants, blustery north-westerlies, quickly followed by cold north-easterlies, effectively put the lid on any further arrivals of summer visitors. Meanwhile, Thrapston’s long-staying Glossy Ibis remained top of the leaderboard as far as rarities were concerned.
There were no new wildfowl, either – ‘nocmig’ notwithstanding, of course. The two Barnacle Geese which arrived at Pitsford Res last week were still in place on 17th, with another appearing at Summer Leys LNR on the same date. Pitsford also retained its showy drake Greater Scaup off the dam, with the female Greater Scaup x Tufted Duck hybrid in tow, all week, while Ditchford GP’s drake Ring-necked Duck remained until at least 15th, as did the drake and ‘redhead’ Smew there.
Which brings us neatly to this week’s ‘nocmig’ events. The nocturnal equivalent of visible migration watching, employing sound recording equipment to capture the flight calls of migrating birds, is gaining in popularity. After delivering the county’s earliest-ever Little Ringed Plover last week, Scaldwell’s migration station was again tuned in, producing recordings of flocks of migrating Common Scoters during the hours of darkness on 15th and 18th. As we enter the peak season for this species, hopefully there will be some more tangible, ‘on the ground’ birds found during the next week or two.
Arguably best new bird of the week – at least for those who were in the vicinity of Summer Leys on the last day of the period – was Black-necked Grebe. One found on the main lake there during the morning was shortly followed by the discovery of two more over the other side of Mary’s Lane, on the lake of the same name, early in the afternoon. Three of these dapper, summer-plumaged birds in close proximity is unusual but still falls short of matching the recent ‘flock’ of four at Daventry CP in April 2019.
Meanwhile, further down the Nene Valley, last week’s rumours of the Glossy Ibis frequenting the horse field behind the lay-by on the A605 east of Thrapston, morphed into reality when it was found to be feeding happily there on 14th. It remained settled for the next three days, after which it became more elusive.
Glossy Ibis, Thrapston GP, 16th March 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Also more elusive this week were Cattle Egrets, with sightings at Stanwick limited to one on the ground on 15th and two flying over, two days later, on 17th. And as for Great Egrets, well, they were restricted to just the five localities of Ditchford – where there were potentially up to eight on 17th, Pitsford, Stanford, Summer Leys and Thrapston.
After last week’s Marsh Harrier at Summer Leys, another flew over Byfield on 19th, and then we entered the unidentified raptor zone, with the same day producing a harrier sp. flying north-east over Little Irchester and, potentially more exciting, an eagle sp. flying over Byfield in the direction of Fawsley later in the day. The latter escaped positive identification but was presumed to be a White-tailed Eagle and with the Isle of Wight reintro birds criss-crossing the country in recent weeks, that would seem to be the logical conclusion. Now, that would have been the end of it, except for the fact that, praise be to satellite-tracking … none of the IoW birds was in the area at the time. What with a ‘wild’ White-tailed Eagle moving through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire earlier in the week, speculation is rife …
In terms of species selection, this week’s waders were … last week’s waders. Single Curlews visited Stanford on 14th, Pitsford on 15th and Summer Leys on 15th-16th, while, of two which were present at Clifford Hill GP on 16th, one was multicolour-ringed, the combination of which narrowed it down to one of five or six individuals from the population breeding in the Brecks. This is currently being monitored by the BTO with the aim to better understand how habitat is influencing breeding success and how management may be better targeted to help the species, which is currently in decline. A rather smart, summer-plumaged Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit visited Summer Leys from 14th to 16th and the same site produced a Dunlin on 15th-16th and three on 19th. One also visited Stanwick on 17th. Two Jack Snipes were at Pitsford on 15th and one was found at Ditchford on 17th.
Hot on the heels of last week’s first-winter at Boddington Res came more Kittiwakes and Stanford was in line to receive its own in the well-watched gull roost there on 15th. This was followed by an adult at Stanwick on 16th and sadly, an adult was found dead at Hollowell on 17th. Caspian Gulls made a comeback on 16th, when a first-winter appeared at Daventry CP and a second-winter was found in less salubrious surroundings at Rushon Landfill.
Daventry also produced a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls, with a third-winter on 15th and a second-winter the following day, while up to two were at Pitsford throughout the week. The recent run of Mediterranean Gulls also continued with Stanwick stealing the crown from Stanford in terms of numbers. Three were present on 19th, two on 13th and one on 14th-16th, while Stanford’s gull roost held single adults on 13th and 17th plus a second-winter on 14th. Elsewhere, single adults were at Daventry CP on 15th and Summer Leys on 19th.
On dry land, Harrington Airfield’s Short-eared Owl made it through to another week, being seen again on 16th, when the onsite Merlin was also present until at least 18th. Another Merlin flew north at Boddington Res, also on 16th.
Passerines mustered two Stonechats – one at Harrington on 14th, the other being at Clifford Hill on 18th, while Crossbills held steady with in excess of twenty at Salcey Forest on 16th, several still at Wakerley Great Wood on 14th, three at Hollowell on 15th and one at Pitsford on the same date.
This week was very much a tale of two halves, the first of which saw us under a relatively mild southerly airflow that proved to be highly conducive to spring migration. The second half of the period delivered persistently strong to gale force west to south-westerlies, with gusts topping 55 mph but as far as spring migrants were concerned, we were very much in the zone …
The wildfowl line-up didn’t change appreciably and beyond two Barnacle Geese putting in an appearance and settling at Pitsford Res from 6th until 11th, the only really new arrivals were a briefly staying Pink-footed Goose at Daventry CP on 12th, a White-fronted Goose at Priors Hall, Corby, for one day only, on 7th and a drake Greater Scaup, off the dam at the aforementioned reservoir, on 9th.
It was still present at the week’s end, accompanied by a female which showed the hallmarks of a Greater Scaup x Tufted Duck hybrid, although it appeared to display mainly Scaup characteristics. The other hybrid of the back end of this winter – the female Ferruginous Duck x Pochard – surfaced again at Stanwick GP on 8th. The ongoing presence of Ditchford GP’s drake Ring-necked Duck continued until at least 9th, as did that of the drake Smew there, accompanied by the fidgety ‘redhead’ for one day only, on 6th.
Further down the Nene Valley and after a week with no reports, the Glossy Ibis was back on Thrapston GP’s Aldwincle Lake – if only intermittently – on 7th-9th. Prior to this it was rumoured to have been frequenting the horse field behind the lay-by on the A605, just east of Thrapston. Also in the same area, a Cattle Egret was seen in fields between the edge of the town and the footpath from said lay-by to Town Lake during the evening of 11th, before being relocated on the nearby Heronry Lake the following morning. Likely though it is to be one of the Stanwick troop, a new bird can’t be fully ruled out and up to five were still at the latter locality on 6th-7th. Thrapston also trumped all other sites for Great Egrets this week, with up to six there on 11th, while three were at Summer Leys, on and off, and singles were seen at Blatherwycke Lake, Clifford Hill GP, Pitsford, Stanford Res and Stanwick. Arguably more attractive and undoubtedly more difficult to get to grips with than any of the above this week, was the Bittern that dropped into reeds at Summer Leys on 7th.
Summer Leys also briefly attracted a Marsh Harrier for half an hour on 9th, another Marsh Harrier went through at Stanford Res on 7th and in the north of the county, a ‘ringtail’ Hen Harrier coasted over the road between Deenethorpe and Upper Benefield on 6th.
So, more on that Little Ringed Plover touched on above. A single call on a nocmig recording device, at 00.03 hours on 7th was all it took to make its way into the record books as Northamptonshire’s earliest ever spring record, beating the previous earliest, which was on 10th March 1983. Now, imagine if it had been four seconds earlier … Following this one, another was seen flying around the new workings at Earls Barton GP on 9th.
Single fly-over Curlews occurred at Stanford Res on 6th and 8th and this week, other large waders were also available in the form of Black-tailed Godwits, with singles on 8th and 9th at Pitsford and the same two days at Stanwick, while one which flew over Ecton Brook, Northampton on the morning of 9th seems highly likely to have been the same individual located at Ecton SF later in the day.
Single Dunlins visited Stanwick GP on 9th and 11th and two were at Summer Leys on 10th, while wintering Jack Snipes were up to four at Pitsford and three at Hollowell Res.
Associated with that big south-westerly blow was a first-winter Kittiwake, which joined the gull roost at Boddington Res on 11th. It was not entirely alone as others were also seen well inland in Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire during the adverse weather.
Mediterranean Gulls continued to appear nightly at Stanford’s gull roost, which peaked at three on 7th, while last week’s Thrapston individual was again seen on 9th and single Yellow-legged Gulls appeared at three sites, which included adults at Hardingstone GP on 8th, Stanford on 12th and at least one at Pitsford all week.
Continuing the poor winter for this species, the Harrington Airfield Short-eared Owl remained until at least 9th.
Well, if last week delivered our first Sand Martin of the year, this week it was the turn of the first Swallow, with two appearing at Clifford Hill on 9th. Once again, these proved to be record-breakers, the previous earliest being a full week later, on 16th March 1977. Wow! It wasn’t quite the same for White Wagtail, though, with this week’s birds at Thrapston and Stanford on 7th, Hollowell on 9th and by the A14 east of Woodford on 12th coming nowhere near the earliest, which was on 25th February 1995.
Another sign that winter is in full retreat was, once again, the lack of Stonechats, with just one being seen, at Welford Res, on 11th. Crossbills still abound, however, with as many as fifteen still at Hollowell on 7th and nine still on 9th, while 6th saw one at Bucknell Wood and two at Scotland Wood, 7th saw three still at Wakerley Great Wood, four flew south over Denton Wood on 8th and two flew south-west over Harrington AF on 12th.
Under the influence of a southerly airstream, the mild weather continued into the early part of the week, bringing with it a waft of Saharan dust which, having entered the atmosphere, resulted in some spectacular sunrises. Along with this came our first summer visitor … and another eagle.
In the first gooseless week since early October last year, we were left with barely a handful of quality quackers propping up the local wildfowl cohort. On which note the drake Ring-necked Duck remained settled on Ditchford GP’s Big Lake throughout the period while, on the adjacent Skew Bridge Lake, the drake Smew also saw the week out, although the accompanying ‘redhead’ appeared to be absent after 27th. Another – or perhaps the same – ‘redhead’ appeared at Summer Leys LNR on 3rd. Colourful but no cigar, a drake Red-crested Pochard was found at Clifford Hill GP on 4th.
Cattle Egrets continued to feature regularly in their favoured Stanwick feeding area but four were also found among sheep on the reserve at Summer Leys on 28th. In stark contrast to last week, Great Egret numbers were down, with no more than three reported at any one of the seven localities they were found at.
Another week, another White-tailed Eagle or, more correctly put, ‘G318’ paid a return visit. After her previous visit last month, the ‘Lady from the Island’ flew west into the county from Buckinghamshire on the afternoon of 3rd and ended up roosting in a small wood approximately 2.5 km south of Grimscote. The following day, she flew 18.5 km south and roosted in Bucknell Wood near Silverstone before leaving the county on 5th and moving 66 km south-west through Oxfordshire. If such a large bird can slip through the county unnoticed, what else are we routinely missing?!
This week saw numbers slide on the wader front, with three Ringed Plovers returning to an undisclosed breeding site on 1st and single fly-over Curlews at DIRFT 3 on 28th and Stanford Res on 4th. Dunlins were limited to singles at both Clifford Hill GP and Stanwick GP on 4th, while the only Jack Snipes were two at Pitsford Res on 3rd.
Conversely – and unsurprisingly – numbers of Mediterranean Gulls ramped up considerably, with Stanford’s gull roost claiming the lion’s share of at least two different birds over 27th, 1st-2nd and 5th. Boddington Res also produced its own duo in the roost there on 28th. Others were more readily available during ‘normal’ daylight hours at Thrapston GP daily on 3rd to 5th, at Earls Barton GP on 3rd, at Stanwick on 4th and Daventry the following day. Again, all birds were adults. Rushton Landfill’s long-staying juvenile Iceland Gull chalked up twenty-eight days on site this week, still being present there on 4th, while more meaty fare in the shape of a first-winter Caspian Gull was at DIRFT 3’s A5 Pool on 28th and single Yellow-legged Gulls were seen at Pitsford on 2nd and 5th.
The Harrington Airfield Short-eared Owl – one of the very few in the county this winter – remained throughout the week but it’s proving to be a good one for Merlins, this week’s comprising singles at both Rockingham and Upper Benefield on 1st and Pitsford Res on 3rd.
Topping the passerines, the male Bearded Tit resurfaced at Stortons GP on 28th and fittingly, out of that Saharan dust, came our first Sand Martin of the year, at Summer Leys on 3rd. Otherwise, it appears numbers of Stonechats plummeted this week – Pitsford being the only site from which they were reported. But we’re hanging on to our Crossbills, with as many as ten still at Hollowell throughout the period and fifteen still at Wakerley Great Wood on 5th.
A south to south-westerly airstream ensured temperatures remained above average throughout the period. This week the spotlight remained firmly on Thrapston.
Barnacle Geese came to the fore in this week’s wildfowl line-up, with nine at Stanwick GP, apparently replacing the White-fronted Geese there on 23rd. In fact, the only White-fronts during the period were two in flight over Byfield on 20th, while single Pink-footed Geese were at both Ringstead GP and Stanwick on 20th.
Stanwick was also paid another visit by the itinerant female Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid on 21st, the day on which the drake Ring-necked Duck was refound back on Ditchford GP’s Big Lake, where it was still present at the week’s end. Paralleling this, last week’s two Smews at the same locality also re-emerged on Higham Lake on 23rd and on the same date, a new ‘redhead’ was discovered on Thrapston GP’s Aldwincle Lake, where it, too, remained until the end of the week.
Looking set to see the winter out, Pitsford’s juvenile Great Northern Diver stayed mobile between the causeway and the dam there until at least 23rd.
The focus of attention remained, however, on Thrapston’s Glossy Ibis, having abandoned its regular haunt of Islip Water Meadows in favour of Aldwincle Lake, where it appeared settled throughout the week, mercifully free of human disturbance.
Thrapston’s purple patch continued with the appearance, albeit briefly, of a Cattle Egret on 21st – seemingly the first record for this locality while, further up the valley, up to three remained at the usual Stanwick stronghold.
Back at Thrapston, a milestone was reached this week in the shape of a single-site, double-figure count of Great Egrets, with a likely ten there on 25th. So it looks very much like the county’s wintering population is now twenty plus, the majority of which are in the Nene Valley. Common as muck, as they say …
No so common and, in reality, at the other end of the scale, a White-tailed Eagle was seen drifting high over the Boughton Estate, north of Kettering, on 21st. With those from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme floating around off the leash, it might not ordinarily have raised too many eyebrows but we have it on good authority that all the satellite-tagged birds were accounted for elsewhere. Boom! Somewhat overshadowed, under the circumstances, was a Marsh Harrier, which passed through almost unnoticed, at Stanford Res on 20th.
Numbers held up on the wader front this week, with Stanwick’s Bar-tailed Godwit continuing to occupy the prime slot until at least 22nd, while new in was a Black-tailed Godwit at Summer Leys LNR on 21st. Also new were single Curlews at Stanford Res on 21st, Lilbourne Meadows on 22nd and at Clifford Hill GP on 25th, while numbers of Dunlins again fell to just four at the DIRFT 3 development area and 2 at Stanwick GP – all on 21st. Only two localities hosted Jack Snipes with possibly up to eight present in suitable habitat near Ravensthorpe – again on 21st – and up to four at Hollowell between 23rd and 26th.
With only a few more days to go until March, the prime spring month for the movement of Mediterranean Gulls, a few have already started coming through. Stanford’s gull roost held two on 24th and 26th, while the second of these two dates saw one in a gathering of gulls at Hollowell during the last hour of daylight. All birds were adults. By contrast, a young bird with nowhere to go anytime soon was the juvenile Iceland Gull at Rushton Landfill, which remained there throughout the period.
This week’s Yellow-legged Gulls were all adults, with singles seen at Ditchford GP on 20th and sporadically throughout at Pitsford, plus four at Hollowell on 26th.
The 23rd saw Merlins at Sutton Bassett and Harrington AF while, on the passerine front, Stonechats were found at ten sites this week, with no more than three at any one of these.
Although it’s late February and Crossbills should be breeding, it appears we still have flocks locally, with up to twenty at Wakerley Great Wood on 25th-26th and up to fifteen still at Hollowell between 21st and 26th. Maybe our birds are from further north …
This week, the meteorological pendulum swung in the opposite direction and almost at the flick of a switch, temperatures soared from well below, to significantly above, average. South-westerlies were back and the ice melted as one celebrity bird ended the long wait for many local birders to catch up with it in the county.
But first things first and new on the scene this week were more Pink-footed Geese – one at Stanwick GP from 13th until at least 17th and two just along the valley near Ringstead GP on 17th with at least one remaining until 19th. Back at Stanwick, the wintering White-fronted Geese topped thirty-three – a highly respectable total for the county in recent years.
All the pizzazz exuded by Ditchford’s glitzy drake Ring-necked Duck quickly evaporated as it seemingly vanished after 14th, the date it was last seen on Higham Lake. It might just be that no one has looked since, of course. Perhaps the same could be said about the two Smews at the same locality – the ‘redhead’ not having been seen since the day it was found and the drake coincidentally appearing to do a bunk after 14th. What is it about Valentine’s Day?
Perhaps the drake making a brief appearance in Pitsford’s Holcot Bay on 16th was the same bird. Some consolation was subsequently provided by a bevy of three ‘redheads’ which turned up at Ravensthorpe Res on 13th, remaining there until 15th, after which only one appeared to be present the following day. Across the road, at Hollowell Res, a female Greater Scaup was discovered on 14th, remaining there until the week’s end.
Meanwhile, fast fading into the background was Pitsford’s juvenile Great Northern Diver, which was reported only on the first day of the period.
In a bizarre and unexpected turn of events, however, it was a species hitherto notoriously difficult to catch up with locally that stole the limelight this week. After multiples in neighboring Cambridgeshire and a roving bird in Bedfordshire this winter, a Glossy Ibis finally found its way into Northants. First seen flying south over Thrapston GP on 13th it was subsequently discovered three days later on Islip Water Meadows, only a stone’s throw from where it had originally been seen in flight. Providing respectable views from the track running down the western flank of Thrapston’s Town Lake and from Islip’s Mill Lane, unlike the previous six seen in the county, it did the decent thing and settled there throughout the remainder of the week, allowing many a local to catch up with it. Hopefully, it has now dug in for the rest of the winter.
First-winter Glossy Ibis, Islip Water Meadows, 18th February 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Undoubtedly overshadowed by the above, just two Cattle Egrets were reported, not a million miles away, at this species’ favoured location of Stanwick on 13th. Nine wetland localities produced between one and four Great Egrets apiece this week with, once again, Summer Leys LNR laying claim to the lion’s share of seven on 13th. A Bittern was reported from Thrapston on 19th.
Some of last week’s hard weather waders remained in the county throughout the period, most notably Stanwick’s Bar-tailed Godwit, which crossed the A6 to visit Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows LNR on 16th before returning to Stanwick to see out the remainder of the week. A single Knot further contributed to putting Islip Water Meadows firmly on the map during its brief visit on 13th, while Dunlins maintained a presence of sorts, with lower numbers this week including up to four at Stanwick and Clifford Hill GP, three at Earls Barton GP and one at Pitsford. Only to be expected were Jack Snipes at the usual locality of Hollowell, where there were up to three and at the less renowned sites of Wicksteed Water Meadows, Kettering – again with three and two at Clifford Hill GP.
Apart from an adult Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford on 16th-17th, a gull with ‘form and history’ visited Stanford Res on 13th, identifying itself to observers as a Polish-ringed, first-winter Caspian Gull by way of its decorative legwear. Yellow ring, number P:PW6, enabled its movements to be followed since being ringed as a nestling at Mazowieckie, Poland on 16th May 2020. On 12th December 2020, it visited Zeeland in The Netherlands, subsequently crossing the North Sea to appear at Tanholt Landfill, Peterborough on 26th January 2021, before being seen again at Shawell Landfill in Leicestershire on 5th February – a distance of 1522 km from its Polish colony.
On dry land, last week’s Short-eared Owl remained at Harrington AF throughout and another was seen nearby, in the Brampton Valley, on 14th, while a female Merlin was at Harrington on 13th.
Stonechats were found at eight sites this week, with Hollowell producing the highest count of six between 16th and 19th, as well as solely accounting for this week’s Crossbills the highest number of which was eight or nine on 13th.
That would be it, other than for the fact that we now know the first summer visitors have arrived in the UK this week, with South Wales producing the first Northern Wheatear and Sand Martin, Dorset seeing the country’s first Swallow and the first Ring Ouzel appearing in Devon. Dare we hope the forthcoming week will deliver at least one early migrant to our own county … ?