When is a fly-over not a fly-over? When it’s the 7th Glossy Ibis for Northamptonshire!
On Saturday 13th February, Nick Parker was birding at Thrapston GP when he was lucky enough to pick up a Glossy Ibis flying south at around 11.30. Expectant birders at Stanwick kept their eyes to the skies, hopeful it would appear there. Unfortunately, it didn’t. That would have been the end of it but for Dick Curtiss relocating it late yesterday afternoon on Islip Water Meadows, before it flew off toward Aldwincle. Clearly, it hadn’t gone far since the initial sighting.
Today it was back again on Islip Water Meadows and according to locals, well, it’s been there four or five days …
Unlike all previous occurrences in the county, this one has stayed for longer than an hour and a half and is the 7th for Northants.
Set in context, following a small influx last autumn, November-February has seen several birds wintering in the UK. Three are currently present together at Earith in Cambridgeshire, at least one is wandering throughout Bedfordshire, four are at one site in Devon and singles are ensconced in Dorset and Kent.
From some way beyond Scandinavia, cold Arctic air on the back of so-called ‘Storm Darcy’ delivered little more than a sprinkling of snow during a week in which daytime temperatures reached a low of -3°C. Factor in the wind chill and you were down to -8°C. Associated with these conditions there was also a sprinkling of rather unseasonal waders, along with the discovery of the county’s 9th record of Ring-necked Duck. Other ducks were also available …
And so were geese, with another sizeable flock of Barnacles – this time twenty-four – appearing on land adjacent to Boddington Res on 11th. The same winter gaggle of at least twenty-nine White-fronted Geese continued to find Stanwick GP to their liking, remaining on, and around, the site all week.
Meanwhile, some observers were treated to a white-out at Stanford Res, where eighteen Bewick’s Swans were discovered early on 6th. Seemingly ‘grounded’ in foggy conditions, they were off as soon as the mist cleared, being seen minutes later flying north-east over nearby Sulby. Interestingly, at least two of these birds were identified from the Stanford photos (on bill pattern) as having recently left their wintering grounds at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, setting out on the long journey back to their breeding area. However, they seemingly aborted their migration in the face of adverse weather conditions and returned to Slimbridge shortly afterward. More Bewick’s were subsequently logged in the area, with five south-west over Sulby on 11th and two over, north-east, on 12th, when five also flew east over the Brampton Valley Way between Clipston and Arthingworth.
Quickly glossing over the appearance of the female Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid again at Stanwick on 8th, the focus this week was on the discovery of a fine drake Ring-necked Duck at Ditchford GP on 6th. Mobile between Big Lake and Skew Bridge Lake, it remained until the morning of 12th, after which it promptly did a bunk. To set this occurrence in context, we are in the midst of a sizeable influx, this winter having so far seen almost forty birds across the UK and Eire, with multiples of up to four to be found at some sites.
Vagrants aside – no matter how smart they might be – no winter is complete without that final vital ingredient – a drake Smew. The first one this side of the New Year again put Ditchford firmly on the map, being found on 11th, along with a ‘redhead’, both birds being independently mobile throughout the day before teaming up on Delta Lake at dusk. Neither was seen subsequently.
Demonstratively more dependable, though eliciting seemingly less interest, Pitsford’s juvenile Great Northern Diver remained all week, as did up to three Cattle Egrets at Stanwick. Four localities – Ditchford, Stanford, Stanwick and Thrapston GP – produced between one and two Great Egrets apiece, while Summer Leys LNR notched up at least five on 12th.
Perhaps an indication of just how severe the freezing conditions have been this week was the arrival in the county of a number of waders which would normally be found wintering in coastal locations. Hard weather movements resulted in the unseasonal appearance of a Ringed Plover at Willowbrook Industrial Estate in Corby on 7th, a Bar-tailed Godwit, which remained at Stanwick from 9th until the week’s end and Knots at four localities.
The latter included a flock of thirteen flying NNE over Byfield on 8th, three on floodwater by the River Cherwell near Kings Sutton on the same date, one at Stanwick GP on 9th and one by the River Welland, south of Gretton, from 8th to 10th. This last bird was accompanied by around thirty Dunlins, dropping to about twenty over the following two days. This is an exceptional number in modern-day Northamptonshire – especially in winter! There were more. Five near Kings Sutton and singles at Ditchford GP and Pitsford Res on 8th, up to three at Stanwick between 9th and 12th, five on floods near Barnwell on 10th and two at Summer Leys on the same date. More in season were Jack Snipes, with singles at Hollowell on 6th, Stanford on 7th and Clifford Hill GP on 12th.
Meanwhile, scarce gulls remained just that, with two adult Mediterranean Gulls in the roost at Stanford on 12th, the juvenile Iceland Gull seemingly settled at Rushton Landfill all week and an adult Caspian Gull there on 7th.
‘Scarce’ is also undoubtedly applicable to Short-eared Owls this winter, one of which was seen this week at Harrington AF, on 6th. Surely Northants can do better than this? Two Merlins comprised single females in flight at Pitsford on 10th and Boddington the following day.
Stonechats were present in the Brampton Valley and at Hollowell and Stanford, while after a week with no reports, Crossbills were back, with up to five at Harlestone Heath between 8th and 10th and between five and ten at Hollowell on 9th.
Chilly east to north-easterlies kept temperatures depressed in the first half of the period, after which a mild spell saw a double-figure rise to 11°C, under the influence of a south to south-westerly airstream. The week’s focus was centred firmly on the presence of two White-tailed Eagles, the anticipated easy connectivity with one giving rise to a small, though appreciable, stream of ‘local’ birders to its favoured wetland site.
It was, however, a poor week for wildfowl by recent standards with the thirty or so White-fronted Geese remaining around their chosen fields at the northern extremity of the Stanwick GP complex until at least 2nd and the female Ruddy Shelduck enjoying an away-day at Foxholes Fisheries, Crick on the same date. The infamous female Ferruginous Duck x Pochard hybrid again materialised at Stanwick on 31st, remaining in the area until at least 3rd. In terms of its physical appearance it looks almost the real deal – close but no cigar.
The juvenile Great Northern Diver remained loyal to Pitsford Res all week and, keeping a low profile, between one and three Cattle Egrets were seen at Stanwick GP throughout, while three were on fields immediately south of Irthlingborough on 31st. A rather modest number of Great Egrets was logged, with up to three at Stanwick and singles at Ditchford GP (IL&M), Hollowell Res, Pitsford, Ringstead GP, Stanford Res and Stortons GP.
This week, the county played host to no less than two immature White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of White introduction scheme, their paths almost crossing near Pitsford Res on 1st. Their movements are documented here. Despite not being ‘fully wild’, their majesty, grandeur and sheer enormity were more than enough to captivate, interest, and inspire a number of local birders to make the interpreted ‘permitted short journey to exercise’ at Pitsford to connect with the lingering male, on 31st. He departed to Oxfordshire the following day, when the female arrived, this second bird remaining in the county until moving into Cambridgeshire on 3rd.
Waders’ sole representative this week was a Jack Snipe at Hollowell on 30th-31st but gulls rallied somewhat, with an adult Mediterranean Gull in the roost at Stanford on 4th, followed the next day by a juvenile Iceland Gull at Rushton Landfill – only the second of the winter so far, the previous one having also been found at the same site. Two adult Caspian Gulls were also present there on 5th and another adult visited Hollowell on the same date, while single adult Yellow-legged Gulls visited Daventry CP on 1st, Pitsford on 2nd and Hollowell on 5th.
Juvenile Iceland Gull, Rushton Landfill, 5th February 2021 (Mike Alibone)
Although passerines were poorly represented during the period, suburban Northampton was still delivering the goods in the shape of at least one Bearded Tit, a male, at Stortons GP, where it popped up again in the reedbed on 4th.
Otherwise, Stonechats continued to delight at Hollowell, Pitsford, Raunds, Stanford, Summer Leys and Sywell CP, with no more than three at any one locality.
The cold, northerly, Arctic air brought the first lying snow of winter to the county at the beginning of the period, before giving way to a warmer, Atlantic weather system in the latter part of the week, while a certain large raptor slipped in, unnoticed …
Otherwise, there was little change in the county’s mid-winter mix, with the thirty or so White-fronted Geese remaining around the northern extremity of the Stanwick GP complex throughout and the three Pink-footed Goose at Kislingbury GP on 22nd hanging on until 23rd in the waterlogged meadows of the surrounding Upton CP. A Barnacle Goose was also present there on the same date a, while the Stanford Res bird remained until at least 26th and six were found at Clifford Hill GP on 24th.
Back on the menu, once again, were Whooper Swans, with a mighty large dollop of thirty-five dished out onto the flooded meadows south of Nassington on 24th. This would appear to be the largest flock recorded in Northamptonshire in recent history although, as the swan flies, the location is not too far away from its Cambridgeshire wintering grounds, where such herds are commonplace. Not quite measuring up in many birders’ books, the long-staying female Ruddy Shelduck was still at Hollowell on 26th. In terms of it being taken more seriously, things could change, however, with the recentannouncement by the BOURCthat it is currently reviewing the status of this species on the British List as it is potentially occurring in Britain as a vagrant from established naturalised populations on the near continent. It should, therefore, be treated as a candidate for Category C5 (vagrant naturalised species from outside Britain). We await the outcome of the review with bated breath …
The juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 27th and four Cattle Egrets were still at Stanwick GP on 24th, one was seen there the following day and one visited Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR on the same date. This week’s Great Egrets were at Ditchford GP (IL&M), Hollowell, Oundle, Pitsford, Ringstead GP, Stanford, Stanwick and Summer Leys LNR, with no more than two at any one locality.
Eclipsing all of the above, literally, was the immature White-tailed Eagle, which roosted at Brampton Wood, near Desborough on 28th and just north of Pitsford’s Scaldwell Bay the following evening, on 29th. Yes, he’s back. G393, the radio-tagged immature male from the Isle of Wight’s reintroduction scheme, which visited Northamptonshire last year, slipped into the county after spending five months in West Norfolk from 1st August 2020, before moving west into Lincolnshire and then Leicestershire earlier this month.
It is amazing how elusive the birds from this scheme are proving to be and this individual hasn’t actually been reported since it left Norfolk! Many thanks to Dr Tim Mackrill for supplying the satellite tracking information. Where will it appear next?
Back down to earth and well out of the limelight, a Jack Snipe was found on floods just north of Summer Leys on 25th and three days later, on 28th, fourteen Ruffs were nearby, on the reserve proper – a superb mid-winter total, beating any single-site autumn counts in recent years!
A paucity of gulls this week left just a single adult Yellow-legged Gull at Pitsford on 23rd and this week’s token Merlin was a female, over farmland near Braunston, on the same date.
Stonechats were present at Earls Barton GP, Ecton SF, Oundle, Pitsford, Stanford, Stanwick, Sywell CP and near Towcester, with the highest count of at least five at Pitsford on 28th. Apart from two at Salcey Forest on 23rd, Crossbill sightings were confined to Hollowell, where they were seen on four dates, with a maximum of ten present on 29th.
A largely westerly airstream, bringing intermittent rain, served to top up existing areas of floodwater throughout the county this week. ‘Dry January’ it isn’t and, apart from the rediscovery of the recent Greenland White-fronted Goose, there was little change to the birding mix.
However, the winter goosefest continued apace, beginning with the relocation of the Greenland White-fronted Goose in the Nene Valley, close to Summer Leys LNR, on 16th. It was still present on 19th, when it was also seen on the reserve proper.
Further east, around thirty White-fronted Geese remained at Stanwick GP until at least 19th and following last week’s Pink-footed Goose at Hollowell, more appeared this week – one on water meadows between Thrapston GP and Islip on 22nd and three at Kislingbury GP on the same date. A Barnacle Goose at Stanford Res on 17th was the only one recorded during the period.
Other wildfowl were also available but limited to the long-staying female Ruddy Shelduck at Hollowell on 17th and a female Red-crested Pochard, mobile between the gravel pits at Stortons and Kislingbury from 17th to 22nd, accompanied by a drake at the latter site on 21st.
The juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 21st, the same date that three Cattle Egrets – the only ones reported this week – visited Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows LNR. Great Egrets were still very much in evidence, being seen at Ditchford GP (IL&M), Ecton SF, Hollowell, Pitsford, Stanford, Summer Leys and Woodford, the last two sites producing the maxima of four and three, respectively.
A Marsh Harrier caused a stir at Irthlingborough Lakes & Meadows on 19th. Winter records are on the increase but the species remains scarce at this time of the year, nonetheless.
No waders of note could be squeezed out of the week and winter gulls bounced back from last week’s zero to include an adult Mediterranean Gull at Pitsford on 19th, an adult Caspian Gull at Hollowell on 16th, plus a second-winter in the Stanford roost on 22nd and single adult Yellow-legged Gulls at both Pitsford and Stanford on 16th.
This week’s token Merlin was a male, just west of Hardwick, on 17th. Passerine numbers were somewhat depressed, with the two Bearded Tits at Stortons showing well on 17th and the male only on the following day, 18th.
And this week’s highest Stonechat total goes to … Hollowell, where five were present on 16th. Stonechats were also present at Clifford Hill GP, Ditchford, Irthlingborough, Pitsford, Stanford and Thrapston. Hollowell was also the only locality this week to produce Crossbills – a combined total of up to forty on 22nd.
On 16th January, a White-fronted Goose was reported with Greylags just outside the northern boundary of Summer Leys LNR and it was seen and reported again the following day. Despite it being a good winter for the species so far, under the current circumstances, a lone whitefront was surely worth some scrutiny and on the 18th a visit to check it out was duly made.
And there it was – in the water meadow by the Nene, just north of Wollaston Lock – the tell-tale orange bill, along with the characteristic dark plumage of the Greenland race flavirostris, easy to find among the 80 or so Greylags which it had latched on to.
Closer scrutiny reveals the slightly thicker neck than the nominate albifrons race (‘Russian’ White-fronted Goose), although this is subjective and dependent on the bird’s stance. The slightly darker face is also evident as well as, from the rear, the thinner white terminal tailband than that of albifrons.
The unique patterning of the black belly bars identifies this bird as the same individual which visited Wicksteed Park on 6th January. Interestingly, this bird had also been present at Watermead, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire (approximately 46 km south of Summer Leys) on 31st December 2020. This is the 6th record for Northamptonshire. It is still present today, 19th January.
Greenland White-fronted Goose winters principally in Ireland and western Scotland. Small numbers winter in Wales and small groups can also be encountered in other parts of Scotland and north-west England. The global population of Greenland White-fronted Geese in spring 2020 comprised 21509 individuals, up very slightly on the 21466 (0.2%) on the previous year; 10418 were counted in Ireland and 11091 in Britain (Fox et al. 2020).
Despite a shift toward a warmer Atlantic airstream, northerlies persisted, temperatures remained depressed and more rain added to an already waterlogged landscape. Add the restrictions of ‘local area’ travel to the mix and this week’s rather subdued birding didn’t quite hit the mark …
Still, for those fortunate enough to live on the doorstep of a not too shoddy birding location, there were still birds to be had. Among these, the regular White-fronted Geese at Stanwick GP remained throughout, albeit a little depleted in numbers, with the highest tally nudging thirty on 13th. A Pink-footed Goose at Hollowell Res on 12th was the first to be seen there for three weeks and two Barnacle Geese accompanied the regular canalside Greylag and Canada flock at Braunston on 10th.
Other wildfowl were limited to two Red-crested Pochards at Stortons GP on 11th and what was presumably last year’s femaleFerruginous Duck-type hybrid performing an encore, for one day only, at Stanwick on 13th.
The long-staying juvenile Great Northern Diver was still at Pitsford Res on 10th, as were up to six Cattle Egrets at the northern end of Stanwick throughout the week.
Gleaming white Great Egrets, perhaps visible from space, were to be found loafing in most of the usual places, including Deene Lake, Pitsford, Stanwick, Summer Leys and Thrapston, with a maximum of three at Stanwick on 13th.
No gulls this week and just one Jack Snipe, at Stanford Res on 10th, served to fill the slot on an otherwise empty list of waders.
Continuing a run of winter records, Merlins were seen at Harrington AF on 10th and 11th and over Stortons GP on the second of these two dates, the latter site continuing to provide both sight – on 9th – and sounds, on 10th and 11th, of the two Bearded Tits which were present there on 8th.
Once again, Pitsford produced the highest count of Stonechats, with four on 12th, three were at Clifford Hill GP on 15th and singles at Stanford Res on 10th and Sywell CP on 15th.
Perhaps vying with the Bearded Tits, ‘passerine of the week’ arguably goes to the female Hawfinch seen and caught fleetingly on camera in Weldon on 13th. Hopefully there will be more before the winter is out. Other large-billed finches are available, of course, and this week’s Crossbills were limited to nine at Hollowell Res on 12th and 15th, while the larches of Wakerley Great Wood continued to hold several on 13th.
Unrelenting north-easterlies during the period resulted in below-average temperatures persisting throughout the week, while snow showers early on 6th and 8th were short-lived. New arrivals and hard weather movements of some species duly materialised as a result.
But if the snow was short-lived, so was the stay of Northamptonshire’s sixth-ever Greenland White-fronted Goose at Wicksteed Park, Kettering, on the first of these two dates. Clearly it was not cut out for parklife and those would-be observers who turned up to see it early the following morning left disappointed … and most certainly without a sense of enormous well-being … This individual is believed to be one which was initially found at Watermead in Buckinghamshire on New Year’s eve and subsequently departed. Its approachability has led some to question its provenance.
The five previous records of this distinctive, orange-billed race are limited to an even shorter stop by a radio-tagged female near Aynho on 27th October 2018, a first-winter at Daventry CP on 7th February 2009, a juvenile at Pitsford Res on 27th October 1991, five adults and a juvenile at Pitsford Res on 19th December 1981 and an adult plus three first-winters at Stanford Res between 8th and 14th February 1981.
Apart from twenty-two flying south-west over Laxton on 3rd, nominate race White-fronted Geese were limited to the regular gaggle of thirty-three, mobile about Stanwick GP throughout the week.
It seems highly likely that the aforementioned hard weather conditions resulted in the movements of Whooper Swans, presumably pushed west from the continent. Northants has experienced an increase in numbers recorded annually in recent years, pretty much in line with the general UK trend, which has seen a 210% increase in the wintering population over the 25 years 1992/93 to 2017/18 (Frost et al. 2020). None of this week’s birds lingered, all moving on within a matter of hours or, in some cases, minutes. The first day of the period, 2nd, brought six to Pitsford, from where they moved off west within half an hour of their discovery, arriving at Hollowell shortly afterwards.
Their stay there was also brief and they soon departed north. The following day, three flew south-west over Barton Seagrave, with presumably the same birds arriving at Hollowell an hour later where, again, they did not linger.
Later in the day, two flew south-west over Pitsford – again without stopping. On 5th, five made a short stopover at Stanford Res and seven were discovered at Clifford Hill GP just prior to dusk. They were not present the following morning.
More reliable – though eliciting little or no interest – the female Ruddy Shelduck was still present at Hollowell on 2nd, while two Red-crested Pochards were found at Pitsford on 3rd and one was at Kislingbury GP on 5th.
The sole Great Northern Diver of the winter so far, remained at Pitsford all week, mobile between the dam and the causeway, sometimes showing well off the latter in the early part of the period.
Last week’s Bittern was again seen in flight at Earls Barton GP’s Quarry Walk on 3rd and two flew into the reedbed at Stortons GP, at dusk, on 6th. It was mid-December when six Cattle Egrets were discovered feeding in sheep fields north of Summer Leys, north-east of Wollaston Lock. This week, between 2nd and 5th, five were again there and they could sometimes be seen more closely from the road running through Great Doddington to Wellingborough.
Four were at the northern end of Stanwick on 3rd, two on 4th and one on 6th. Meanwhile, Great Egrets were to be found at seven sites, with a maximum of six at Thrapston GP on 8th.
On 4th, what should surely prove to be a record-busting count of fourteen Jack Snipes was made at Daventry CP, counts scraping into double-figures being highly exceptional. Elsewhere, singles were at Hollowell Res and Stanford Res on 2nd and up to two were on a marshy field pool near Ravensthorpe Res between 3rd and 5th.
Once again, Boddington gull roost produced multiple Mediterranean Gulls – three to be precise – an adult plus two first-winters in the fading light of the 5th. But the true joys of the depths of winter crystallised in the form of an Iceland Gull at Rushton Landfill on 5th. This one, a second-winter, will hopefully be the first of a run of ‘white-wingers’ over the next couple of months. Iceland Gulls have occurred annually, in varying numbers, in the county since 1986.
Rushton also held an adult Caspian Gull on 2nd, plus a first-winter and second-winter on 5th, while another first-winter was in the Boddington roost on the same date, as was this week’s only Yellow-legged Gull.
Back on dry land, Merlins were seen at Helmdon on 4th and near Arthingworth on 6th. But it was the long-absent Bearded Tits which popped up again at Stortons GP on 8th which will no doubt rekindle interest in this suburban reserve. With Bitterns there, too, Stortons looks set to become the legally permissive ‘go to’ site for Northampton-based birders over the lockdown period.
Other ‘tits’ with attenuated rear ends are also available – one such being the Ravensthorpe Long-tailed Tit, resembling the Northern race caudatus, from 3rd to 6th. With its credentials blemished, however, it seems to be a continental europaeus-based intergrade at best (more here).
Pitsford produced the highest count of Stonechats, with six on 5th, while between one and three were present at five other locations during the period. Crossbills were down a little on last week, with the larches of Wakerley Great Wood still hanging on to at least twenty until at least 4th, Hollowell maxing out at ten on 8th and six at Harlestone Heath (or Firs, if you prefer) on the same date.