A steppe in the wrong direction?

The Long Buckby Lanius and its capricious taxonomic history

On 3rd November 1997, Nick Roberts was driving between Long Buckby and West Haddon when he came across a shrike on a roadside fence post. The bird quickly dropped to the ground, where it remained for a short period. It was still there a few minutes later when Nick returned with Peter Spokes and together they watched it, subsequently identifying it as a Steppe Grey Shrike.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden). This bird spent a considerable amount of its time feeding on the ground, ‘hopping around’ like a wheatear. As a consequence, its bill, legs and underparts frequently became stained with soil.

Local birders were duly notified and many arrived the same day to see it. It remained in the vicinity the following day, by which time it had attracted a growing number of observers, many of whom had travelled from different parts of the UK.

The record was submitted to, and accepted by, the British Birds Rarities Committee as the 12th for Britain. There have been fourteen subsequent accepted British records.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden).

Back in the day, Steppe Grey Shrike was almost whatever you wanted it to be, depending on your choice of taxonomic authority – floating around between being races of Great Grey Shrike, the more recently split (from Great Grey Shrike) Southern Grey Shrike complex, and a full species in its own right. At the time of record acceptance in Northamptonshire it had already been lumped with Southern Grey Shrike (e.g. *Clements 2017) and so constituted a ‘first’ for the county.

However, it was generally recognised as a full species by several authorities (King 1997, Hernández et al. 2004, Panov 2011 – cited by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC)) and has remained as such until this year, being on the IOC World List, which is now followed by the UK in defining what is on (or off) the British list. Unfortunately, because there has never been a true consensus on the definitive taxonomy of this species, last month, the IOC decided to (re)lump Steppe Grey Shrike with Great Grey (see here) ‘pending’, as they say ‘full resolution of this complex.’

It would seem to make better sense to leave it in full species status until the evidence to lump it with Great Grey Shrike is available and undisputed – and in this respect, surely this is a step in the wrong direction.

The above move by the IOC will no doubt prove unpopular – not only with us in Northants but also across the UK as a species is effectively dropped from the British list.

*Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2017. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2017, with updates to August 2017.
References cited above by the IOC
Hernández, MA, F Campos, F Gutiérrez-Corchero & A Amezcua. 2004.  Identification  of Lanius species and subspecies using tandem repeats in the mitochondrial DNA  control region. Ibis 146:227-230
King BF. 1997. Checklist of the Birds of Eurasia Ibis Publishing Company. Vista, CA.
Panov E. 2011. The true shrikes (Laniidae) of the world. Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. Pensoft Publ.
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An exciting new addition to the Northamptonshire List

Completing the latest duck race, Falcated Duck makes it over the line … after a third of a century.

It has only taken 33 years but the drake Falcated Duck, which first arrived with Wigeon at Welney in Norfolk in December 1986, before relocating to Pitsford Res in February 1987, has just been accepted by the British Onithologists’ Union as the latest addition to the British List.Found by Dave Burges and Matthew Rodgers on 15th February 1987, it remained at Pitsford until 5th April and the record was duly submitted to, and accepted by, the British Birds Rarities Committee. It reappeared the following winter, when it turned up at Thrapston GP on 12th December, remaining there until 24th, before relocating to nearby Ringstead GP, from where it commuted to and from Thrapston between 16th January and 6th March.

Falcated Duck, Martin Mere, September 2014 (Francis C Franklin/Wikimedia Commons). Captive for illustration only.

Prior to the return to Northants it was present again at Welney during the autumn. An image of the bird appeared in British Birds 80: 255.

Falcated Duck breeds in eastern Siberia and has wandered to Pacific coast USA, south-west Asia, the Middle East and Europe, where occurrences have often been dismissed as escapes. Its population is currently thought to be 78,000-89,000 individuals.

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Rarity Round-up, 26th January to 1st February 2019

Apart from rain on 29th and some short-lived, light to moderate snow on 1st, this week’s weather remained dry and mainly bright, with temperatures of -6ºC overnight on 30th/31st delivering the coldest night of the season, so far. Many bodies of water froze over, or at least became frozen in part, as a result. Winds varied between north-westerly and south-westerly, swinging easterly to north-easterly during the last two days of the period.

At the eastern end of the Nene Valley, Thrapston GP featured well this week. Along with the long-staying first-winter Whooper Swan came a generous gaggle of winter geese, with the Greylag flock holding a single White-fronted Goose and three Pink-footed Geese, during the last two days of the period.

Adult Pink-footed Goose, Thrapston GP, 1st February 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Adult Pink-footed Geese, Thrapston GP, 1st February 2019 (Mike Alibone)

First-winter Pink-footed Goose, Thrapston GP, 1st February 2019 (Mike Alibone)

Most of last week’s scarce wildfowl remained in place, with up to twenty-three Red-crested Pochards again present at Pitsford Res and two still at Ditchford GP on 31st. Pitsford’s drake Ring-necked Duck spent an increasing amount of time in Pintail Bay this week and a first-winter Scaup put in an appearance there on 26th, while the two juvenile Great Northern Divers remained on site at the until at least 29th.

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Pitsford Res, 24th January 2019 (Beth Clyne)

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Pitsford Res, 31st January 2019 (Rod Baker)

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Pitsford Res, 31st January 2019 (Rod Baker)

Back to Thrapston, where a Bittern was found on Aldwincle Lake on 1st and late news emerged of a Cattle Egret roosting among the Little Egrets on Town Lake in early January. However, it appears to have been a one-night stand and hasn’t been seen since. Thrapston also found itself in competition with Pitsford, bidding to hold the highest number of Great Egrets during the week by increasing its standing total from five to six on 27th. Pitsford scored an equaliser with its own six, four days later, on 31st. Elsewhere, Earls Barton GP/Summer Leys LNR hosted three, Ditchford GP held two and singles were at Ravensthorpe Res and Stanford Res.

Hen Harriers were still in evidence, the Stanford Res juvenile was seen on 27th, while last week’s ‘ringtail’ at Neville’s Lodge, Finedon, was seen on 26th, 27th and 28th and a new bird – a ‘ringtail’ was found near Blueberry Farm, Maidwell on 1st. Once again, the only other raptors of note occurring were the male Merlin seen again in the vicinity of Blueberry Farm on 30th and another near Ravensthorpe Res on 1st.

Like last week, notable waders were restricted to Jack Snipe duos at Barnes Meadow LNR (Northampton) on 26th and Pitsford Res on 28th. Gull numbers, too, were significantly down, with Pitsford producing single Yellow-legged Gulls – an adult on 26th and a third-winter on 27th, followed by a momentary upturn in quality in the shape of a juvenile Glaucous Gull, briefly, on 28th.

Up to three Short-eared Owls continued to be seen around Neville’s Lodge, near Finedon, throughout the week, while reports of Waxwings included six at Staverton on 26th and one at The Plens NR, in Desborough, briefly on 30th. Nailing one down locally this winter has, so far, been well nigh impossible.

It’s been a different story, though, with the highly obliging Great Grey Shrike, which continued to wow visitors throughout the week, close to Blueberry Farm, Maidwell, and up to four Corn Buntings were still present in the seed crop at the same site. Unfortunately, there was no further sign of last week’s Lapland Bunting but the week produced another Nordic Jackdaw – this time at Stanwick GP on 29th

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Rarity Round-up, 19th to 25th January 2019

Winter consolidated its hold on the county this week with a further light fall of snow on 22nd. Subsequent overnight temperatures of below zero and a daytime maximum of just 3º on 23rd ensured it was going nowhere fast, until almost the end of the period. This week it was all about a shrike and a bunting, with another tantalising Waxwing thrown in for good measure.

The first-winter Whooper Swan remained at Thrapston GP throughout the period and Stanwick GP’s single Pink-footed Goose materialised again on 20th, as did the Stanford Res duo on 23rd.

First-winter Whooper Swan, Thrapston GP, 19th January 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Ditchford GP produced two Red-crested Pochards on 19th-20th, while last week’s top count of twelve at Pitsford Res almost doubled to twenty-three on 24th. The drake Ring-necked Duck remained also at this site, wandering south and west to Pintail Bay on the latter date. The Summer Leys drake, last seen on 13th, was reported on the Grendon Lakes section of Earls Barton GP on 21st. The Summer Leys drake Tufted Duck x Pochard hybrid was present there the following day, while the first-winter or hybrid Scaup             remained at Ditchford GP’s Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR throughout.

Drake Tufted Duck x Pochard hybrid, Grendon Lakes, Earls Barton GP, 22nd January 2019 (Mike Alibone)

First-winter female Scaup (or hybrid), Irthlingborough Lake & Meadows, Ditchford GP, 19th January 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Pitsford’s, the two juvenile Great Northern Divers were still present together on 24th and the same site continued to hold up to five Great Egrets, the same number being at Thrapston GP on 25th. Elsewhere, Ditchford GP hosted up to three and singles were at Earls Barton GP/Summer Leys LNR and Stanford Res – again, numbers were a tad down on previous weeks.

Hen Harriers were still on the week’s menu, the Stanford Res juvenile showing some degree of site faithfulness to the area south of the reservoir, between the dam and the Cold Ashby to Stanford on Avon road. After the relatively long-staying second-winter male at Stanwick set its sight on horizons new and visited Neville’s Lodge, Finedon, last week, it went unreported during the period but was bizarrely replaced by a ‘ringtail’ at the latter locality on 20th and 22nd. Once again, the only other raptor of note occurring was a male Merlin seen on three consecutive days, 22nd-24th, at the site formerly known as Blueberry Farm, Maidwell. Much more on this location a little later.

Notable waders are understandably few and far between in mid-January and a single Jack Snipe at Ditchford GP on 22nd was all the week could muster. More surprisingly, however, gulls were in short supply and after the previous ‘white-winged week’, gull action was limited to single adult Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost at Boddington Res on 19th, at Pitsford Res on 23rd and Hollowell Res on 25th, while adult Caspian Gulls were seen at Rushton Landfill on 19th, at Chacombe the following day and two were at Hollowell Res on 25th.

Up to two Short-eared Owls were still present and on view in the grasslands of Neville’s Lodge near Finedon throughout on 20th-21st and two were found at Harrington AF on 22nd, while the appearance of a single Waxwing at East Hunsbury, Northampton on 25th was very short-lived, this bird flying off and eluding those who went to look for it within minutes of its discovery.

Far more obliging however, was, for many, this week’s star bird, appearing in the form of a crisp and frosty Great Grey Shrike. Discovered on 22nd at the site formerly known as Blueberry Farm, Maidwell, it performed admirably for all comers, working its way along a favoured hedgerow, occasionally approaching its admirers closely enough to be photographed.

Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 22nd January 2019 (Martin Swannell)

Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 23rd January 2019 (Martin Swannell)

This species has become much rarer as a winter visitor across the UK over the past thirty years. In its heyday in the 1970s, Northamptonshire records reached double figures annually, peaking at a whopping 20 in 1974. Nowadays it is possible to experience a five-year run with no local records. The flagging up of this

Great Grey Shrike, Blueberry Farm area, 22nd January 2019 (Alan Coles)

understandably popular bird on the internet has led to the uncovering of a hitherto unpublicised and well-photographed individual at Scaldwell last month, in mid-December 2018. Excellent images here depict a light-lored, pale-billed pulse-raiser – a Steppe Grey Shrike at first glance but diving into the detail reveals lightly-barred underparts which do not feature in any plumage or at any age in the life cycle of the latter (sub)species. So it’s an extreme example of a first-winter female Great Grey and clearly not the same individual as our bridleway beauty currently residing below Hanging Houghton and still present at the week’s end.

As if one stunner in this area isn’t enough but parachute a concentration of birders into one small area and other goodies start popping out of the woodwork. In this instance Lapland Bunting – a far rarer bird locally although, for some, perhaps not exerting the same magnetic pull as the charismatic shrike, the presence of which ultimately led to its fortuitous discovery. Found on day 2 of the shrike’s stay, it remained throughout the period within a Skylark flock feeding in millet and stubble. To date, it has been seen and heard only in flight.

This will constitute the 12th county record. The 11th was at Stanford Res in December 2014 and before that we need to go back to September 2000, when one was at Borough Hill. The first for the county was discovered by the same finder as this week’s bird, at Harrington AF in October 1987 and, despite ten subsequent records to date, none has been twitchable. For those who haven’t seen one in the county, then, this bird represents the best chance to catch up with a local ‘lappo’ for thirty-one years. Pinning it down, however, is another matter entirely. Of course, the two or three Corn Buntings also discovered on site look like taking a back seat – at least for the time being …

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Rarity Round-up, 12th to 18th January 2019

Following the swing to northerly winds at the end of last week, the weather for a time reverted to being relatively mild, on the back of a more westerly airstream from the North Atlantic. However, northerlies were back by 17th and the county experienced its first taste of snow this winter, albeit a light dusting. Along with this came another winter first in the shape of three Waxwings, while the first Glaucous Gulls of the season also dropped in.

First-winter Whooper Swan, Thrapston GP, 13th January 2019 (Adrian Borley)

In the absence of any other wild swans, the first-winter Whooper Swan continued to enjoy the environs of Thrapston GP’s Elinor Trout Lake throughout the period and Stanwick GP’s erratically occurring Pink-footed Goose also remained, being seen on 14th and 17th. New in, though, were two more Pinkfeet found on the dam at Stanford Res on 13th, where they were mysteriously replaced by two White-fronted Geese the following day, the latter still present on 16th.

White-fronted Geese, 14th January 2019 (Steve Nichols) and Pink-footed Goose, 13th January 2019 (Chris Hubbard). Both images from Stanford Res.

Pitsford Res was the only locality to hold Red-crested Pochards this week with the maximum count of twelve there on 13th, while the drake Ring-necked Duck remained until at least 16th. This appeared not to be the case with the Summer Leys drake, which was last reported on 13th.

Drake Red-crested Pochard, Pitsford Res, 16th January 2019 (Alan Coles)

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Summer Leys LNR, 13th January 2019 (Martin Swannell)

Staying with the Nene Valley gravel pit chain, at Ditchford GP, the first-winter or hybrid Scaup remained at Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows all week and a drake Smew paid a fleeting visit to Stanwick’s A45 Lay-by Pit on 12th, although it was not seen subsequently.

Back at Pitsford, the two juvenile Great Northern Divers were still present together on 16th, one being seen there the following day and the same site continued to hold at least four Great Egrets, while Thrapston GP also held at least four. Elsewhere, Stanwick GP hosted up to two and singles were at Earls Barton GP/Summer Leys LNR and Stanford Res – a relatively poor showing in comparison to previous weeks.

Great Egret, Pitsford Res, 16th January 2019 (Alan Coles)

Stanwick’s second-winter male Hen Harrier became more adventurous, ranging 5 km to the west to visit Neville’s Lodge, Finedon, where its appearance surprised and delighted local birders looking for Short-eared Owls, late in the afternoon on 12th. It was back there for an encore at the same time the following day, performing well for a small gathering of expectant and elated observers. The juvenile at Stanford Res was also still in the game, appearing there again on 16th and 17th. As with last week, the only other raptor occurring was a female or immature Merlin near Badby on 16th.

Second-winter male Hen Harrier, Neville’s Lodge, Finedon, 13th January 2019 (Angus Molyneux)

At least two species of wader – double last week’s tally – were found this week, with a Ruff at Summer Leys LNR on 12th and five Jack Snipe at Barnes Meadow LNR (Northampton) on 15th.

On to some gull action, then, with a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull at Daventry CP and an adult and first-winter at Pitsford Res – all on 16th. A second-winter Caspian Gull was still at Hollowell Res on 15th but it was Stanford Res which came up trumps with a juvenile Glaucous Gull on 12th and 16th and a second-winter Glaucous on 17th – the same date on which a second-winter Iceland Gull decided to pay a visit to the reservoir. These particular individuals have been present at nearby Shawell Landfill in Leicestershire, only 7 km to the west as the gull flies, since early this month. They usually roost on Draycote Water, not too far away in Warwickshire, so the boys at ‘Stanny’ have been lucky this week!

Up to two Short-eared Owls were present in the grasslands of Neville’s Lodge near Finedon throughout the period – no doubt overshadowed by a certain harrier during the first two days of it. The first Waxwings of the winter were found in Kettering on 16th but their stay was short-lived and they eluded all who went looking the following morning. Still, there’s plenty of time left before they all head back north … Finally, a good candidate for a Siberian Chiffchaff was discovered – but not clinched – at Stanwick GP in the last hours of daylight on the last day of the period. Up to twelve Chiffchaffs were counted at the favoured site for this (sub)species, along the outflow into the River Nene from Ecton SF, on 18th, with apparently no ‘sibes’ in tow.

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Rarity Round-up, 5th to 11th January 2019

Sandwiched between a North Atlantic high and a low over north-east Europe, the country was the recipient of northerly winds from just inside the Arctic Circle for much of the week. Despite this, temperatures did not drop below the expected average for the time of year and the weather remained largely dry. Apart from the discovery of a new Ring-necked Duck, the week saw little change in what was on offer across the county.

Following our best autumn and early winter period for Whooper Swans, the sole survivor, making it through to 2019, was the first-winter at Thrapston GP, which remained throughout the week. Ravensthorpe Res continued to host the distinctive drake Wigeon x Gadwall hybrid, while over at Pitsford Res, Red-crested Pochard numbers remained stable at fourteen until at least 9th but the only others reported were two females at Ringstead GP on 5th.

Drakes and leucistic female Red-crested Pochards, Pitsford Res, 9th January (Bob Bullock)

On 8th, however, Pitsford’s drake Ring-necked Duck found itself vying for attention with a newcomer in the shape on another adult drake found on the main lake at Summer Leys. Immediately after its discovery, this second individual promptly went into hiding but it reappeared, all brute and charisma, to pose for photos on 11th.

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Summer Leys LNR, 11th January 2019 (Bob Bullock)

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Summer Leys LNR, 11th January 2019 (Alan Coles)

Drake Ring-necked Duck, Summer Leys LNR, 11th January 2019 (Alan Coles)

Two Ring-necked Ducks in the county at the same time is a first and it appears these are part of a national influx involving the presence of birds at approximately twenty sites across Britain and Ireland. Also at Summer Leys was a rather striking drake Tufted Duck x Pochard hybrid, adding a sprinkling of spice to the duck mix on 10th-11th, while further down the valley, at Ditchford GP, the first-winter or hybrid Scaup remained at Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows.

At Pitsford, the two young Great Northern Divers were seen on and off throughout the period, usually in the area east of Pintail Bay. The same site continued to host up to five Great Egrets, while Thrapston GP again held at least four, Stanford Res and Summer Leys produced up to two each and singles were found at Ditchford GP/Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows, Earls Barton GP, Ravensthorpe Res and Stanwick GP.

Juvenile Great Northern Divers, Pitsford Res, 6th January 2019 (Doug Goddard)

The popularity of Stanwick’s second-winter male Hen Harrier showed no sign of waning as it continued to put in daily appearances. Conversely, the juvenile at Stanford Res has become far more erratic in its visits to the site, being seen only on 6th. The only other raptor occurring this week was a female Merlin between Oundle and Warmington on 9th.

Second-winter male Hen Harrier, Stanwick GP, 8th January 2019 (Martin Swannell)

Waders were limited to a solitary Jack Snipe at Hollowell Res on 11th, while an adult Yellow-legged Gull also remained at this site throughout week. Further Yellow-legged Gulls included an adult at Chacombe on 6th and a first-winter in the roost at Boddington Res on the same date. Hollowell Res also held an adult Caspian Gull all week, joined there by a second-winter on 6th, 10th and 11th, while an adult appeared in the Boddington roost on 6th and a second-winter was at Rushton Landfill on 11th.

The grasslands of Neville’s Lodge near Finedon continued to attract Short-eared Owls with two or three there on 9th and at least one on 11th, while two Crossbills were seen at Yardley Chase on 10th.

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A very popular raptor

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