A series of easterly moving Atlantic lows delivered both southerly and northerly airstreams during the period, along with both sunshine and showers, none of which appears to have had any bearing on the week’s produce. However, following on from last week, there were further sure signs of early autumn movements across the avian spectrum.
Deemed almost obligatory to receive a mention, the decidedly dodgy Pink-footed Goose from back in June popped up again at Pitsford Res on 4th. Without it, there would be no wildfowl appearing in the week’s line-up …
Also scraping in was a/the one-day Cattle Egret at Stanwick GP on 6th, while the Great Egret total doubled from last week’s one to singles at Stanford Res from 3rd to 5th and at Earls Barton GP on 4th.
Single Ospreys visited Stanford on 4th and Thrapston GP on 8th.
Another Wood Sandpiper – again an all too brief stayer – topped the waders bill this week, making a short evening stopover at DIRFT 3 on 5th. The same site also hosted seven Curlews on 3rd and another was calling north-east of Pitsford on the same date. DIRFT 3 also produced three Black-tailed Godwits on 3rd, five on 5th, one on 6th and two on 9th.
Elsewhere, five were at Summer Leys LNR on 9th, with four on 3rd, one on 4th-6th and one at Pitsford on 7th, the latter site also producing the first Greenshank of the autumn on the same date. With small numbers of Green Sandpipers now trickling through, a double-figure count of ten at Lilbourne Meadows LNR on 8th was noteworthy.
As usual, DIRFT 3 was the place to be when it came to all of this week’s Caspian Gulls, with two first-summers there on 3rd, a third-summer on 5th, 6th and 8th and at least three first-summers on the latter date.
Yellow-legged Gull numbers continued to build there, also, with up to six from 3rd to 6th and between twelve and fifteen on 8th. Elsewhere, four were at Pitsford on 9th, two on 5th and one on 6th-7th, while an adult was at Stanwick on 6th.
The autumn’s first Common Redstart, found at Stanford Res last week on 2nd, was still present and remained until 5th, neatly followed by single females at Pitsford Res on 6th and Lilbourne Meadows from 6th until the week’s end.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
Stanwick produced two different first-summer Mediterranean Gulls on consecutive days, 21st and 22nd.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the country sitting under high pressure all week and the calm after the storm finally with us, there was a lull in birding activity as things went seasonally quiet.
Therefore, some excusable barrel-scraping seems justified in terms of flagging up the continued presence of the Chiloe Wigeon x Crested Duck hybrid, at Summer Leys LNR, on 5th.
Apart from that, the wider horizons of the Brampton Valley were the backdrop for a singing male Quail from 7th until 10th and another was singing near Geddington on 5th.
Two Cattle Egrets maintained the species’ weekly appearance at Stanwick GP on 7th and single Great Egrets – or perhaps the same bird – were seen in flight over Stanford Res on 6th and 11th.
On the raptor front, an Osprey, ‘blue T3’, a male from the Rutland project, hatched in 2016, visited Pitsford Res on 7th and Hollowell Res on 9th.
Adult male Osprey ‘T3’, Hollowell Res, 9th June 2021 (Martin Swannell)
Adult male Osprey ‘T3’, Pitsford Res, 7th June 2021 (Helen Redpath)
Waders were, unsurprisingly, in short supply but away from breeding sites, 2 Curlews dropped in at Summer Leys on 5th, while three late spring Knots paid a brief visit to Stanwick on 10th.
Summer Leys also produced two adult Mediterranean Gulls again on 5th and a first-summer of the same species visited Clifford Hill GP on 6th, while a third-summer Yellow-legged Gull was at Stanwick on 10th.
Channel Wagtail, Stanford Res, 8th June 2021 (Glynn Preston)
Scarce passerines were thin on the ground and represented this week only by a smart male Channel Wagtail, which appeared around the dam at Stanford during the evening of 8th.
May goes out with a bang at the eleventh hour and, as we usher in meteorological summer, a high pressure system delivers warm south-easterlies and a nugget of gold to the far eastern part of the county.
With the spotlight firmly on the Nene Valley this week, four Cattle Egrets were at Stanwick GP on 30th and at least one was present on 1st. The 30th also saw a Great Egret in flight over Castle Ashby Lakes and what was presumably the same individual was subsequently seen just a stone’s throw away from there, at Earls Barton GP’s Quarry Walk, on 4th. One also visited Thrapston GP on the same date.
Last week’s hide-packing Purple Heron was still on show at Summer Leys LNR on 29th before flying off north-east during the evening of the same date. How far it actually went is a matter of conjecture as, on 2nd and 3rd, it was seen at Quarry Walk, 2 km south-west of Summer Leys.
On the raptor front, Marsh Harriers were logged at two sites on 1st – a wing-tagged bird at Summer Leys and possibly the same individual at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR. But in the north of the county things went large when a satellite-tagged White-tailed Eagle from the IoW reintroduction scheme was tracked skimming the southern flank of Stanford Res before passing over DIRFT 3, prior to entering Warwickshire, early in the afternoon of 29th.
This was second calendar-year male ‘G461’, the fourth individual from the above scheme to be recorded in Northants, following female ‘G318’ in spring 2020 and winter 2021, male ‘G393’ during the same two periods and female ‘G405’ during spring this year. Flying from The Wash to the Mendip Hills in Somerset, it covered approximately 300 km in two days.
Back in the Nene Valley, things hotted up when, once again, the easybirdin’ site of Summer Leys delivered the goods, in the last hours of 31st, with the discovery of the first Red-necked Phalarope in the county for five years. It proved to be a popular draw throughout its evening stay but was nowhere to be seen the following morning.
Apart from one on 30th April and one on 25th June, all previous spring records fall into an 11-day window between 29th May and 8th June, while 75% of all autumn records have been in September.
Other waders were, of course, available – most notably a Knot, which dropped into Stanwick early in the morning of 3rd, remaining into the afternoon.
Summer Leys also produced two adult Mediterranean Gulls on 2nd, while immature, non-breeding gulls of note were restricted to a second-summer Yellow-legged Gull and a first-summer Caspian Gull – both at DIRFT 3 on 3rd.
Two Black Terns visited Thrapston GP on 1st but … a little further down the Nene Valley …
Fotheringhay came to the fore with the flash sighting of a male Golden Oriole just outside the village, briefly, on 2nd. Twenty-four hours elapsed before the news came to light and, needless to say, it couldn’t be found the following day – which was a shame because the last accepted record in Northants was ten years ago, in May 2011. This bird falls neatly into this spring’s mini-influx of nearly sixty records, nationally, mostly in eastern England inland to the Midlands.
Our own county has seen only fourteen records in the last fifty years, with eight in May, four in June and singles in September and October. The only one to be ringed in Northants was at Ecton SF on 1st May 1971 – which some of us will remember – and it was trapped by Chris Whittles, who was subsequently the founder of CJ WildBird Foods Ltd, now known as CJ Wildlife.
The majority of the week saw cool, low pressure-dominated air delivering thunder clouds and rain from the Atlantic. But in the last two days of the period, high pressure moved in and the winds swung southerly, resulting in long overdue sunshine and blue skies. Indisputably, however, this week belonged to the colour purple …
… and with the rush of migrants well and truly over, after what has been an almost legendary spring in the county, the last of the regular summer visitors rolled up right on cue and, as always, fashionably late. So, with an element of site predictability, the first Quail to sound the summer in was singing in the Brampton Valley, between Hanging Houghton and Cottesbrooke, on 26th, remaining until the week’s end.
Keeping a low profile, at least two Cattle Egrets remained in the favoured location of Stanwick GP on 23rd-24th but it was a different kettle of fish altogether that became this week’s birding blitzer. Snapped and subsequently flagged up by the Summer Leys photographic fraternity, a smart adult Purple Heron broke cover onto the scrape on 27th before allegedly disappearing. But, next day, there it was again, as it happened, going on to please all comers from dawn until dusk, albeit partly obscured by reeds for the majority of the time.
Purple Heron, Summer Leys LNR, 28th May 2021 (Mike Alibone)
With visits more frequent in the last century, it’s been a long, 10-year wait since the last one, in 2011, with the 1980s enjoying records in 6 out of 10 years, including annual occurrences in the 4 consecutive years of 1984-87. This year’s bird is the 20th county record.
On the raptor front, single Marsh Harriers were at Harrington AF briefly on 25th and over Stanford Res on 27th.
This week’s wader action – such as it was – was confined to DIRFT 3, where six of last week’s ten Sanderlings remained on 22nd and a Tundra Ringed Plover put in an appearance on 26th. The same site also continued to produce gulls of note, including five Yellow-legged Gulls on 22nd and two on 27th, when two first-summer Caspian Gulls were also present.
Another first-summer Caspian Gull visited Pitsford Res on 23rd, when a Black Tern was also discovered there. This was followed by another which lingered at Earls Barton GP and Summer Leys from 25th to 27th.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.