Mayo autumn 2022
Buoyed by a successful trip in autumn 2021 and with the prospect of some excellent westerly weather on the cards, it was with great anticipation that Dan Owen and I arrived on Achill Island on 1 October. This was to be our third consecutive autumn stay on the island targeting American vagrants.
In fact, we couldn't really have timed our arrival better. After a deathly quiet September out west, the first in a series of exciting weather systems arrived overnight on 30th and, for the first time in the autumn, American landbirds seemed a shoe-in somewhere in Ireland. So it proved, with Kilbaha producing Baltimore Oriole and two Red-eyed Vireos, plus a Bobolink in Co Cork. Another REV on Inishmore on 2nd further fuelled our excitement, but hitting the Achill spots hard over the first few days of October produced only a Yellow-browed Warbler as the highlight among a scattering of European migrants.
On the morning of 4 October, a juvenile Little Stint joined the regular male Ring-necked Duck at Lough Nambrack. It wasn't the showiest of birds and was quite nervy, especially when the wagtails it was with got agitated, but I was able to get pretty close to it with some patience.
Dan and I then went round to Sruhill Lough to do the high-tide roost. Sruhill was very kind to me in 2011 (Spotted and four Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope and Sabine's Gull), but I hadn't seen anything significant there since! In fact, it's barely had any birds of note since then, which is all the more remarkable given that it gets a wide variety of waders and often good numbers of birds too, especially Dunlin and Ringed Plover. But it can be a tricky spot to watch, with birds coming and going all the time and, more often than not, a Peregrine or Merlin causing problems.
Fortunately, we got it right that day. Although there weren't many birds on arrival, groups of small waders started coming in as high tide approached, with a lone stint flying right past us, calling and landing on sand at the outflow. It was facing away but the dark-looking, greyish upperparts immediately had us turning to each other and saying: "Semipalmated Sandpiper!"
A couple of record shots were fired off before the bird flew, returning a few minutes later before once again disappearing. The bird's wings were drooped; it looked exhausted and must have just arrived in off the Atlantic. Micheál sadly dipped at Sruhill, but it all ended well when he relocated the bird a few kilometres away on the flooded machair above Achill Rovers, where it remained for another couple of days.
I've seen some very tame waders in my time but this was right up there with the tamest. We'd lie down on the machair and the bird would come pattering past within inches. You could see it catching and consuming all manner of invertebrates, including some sizeable crane flies. It was quite extraordinary to watch and definitely an experience to savour, especially as it turned out to be the find of the trip!
Autumn 2022 will be remembered for the diversity of American vagrants seen not only in Britain and Ireland, but from Iceland and Norway south to France. Relentless westerlies in the first half of October served up a forecast that gave us grounds for optimism throughout our two-week stay on Achill, but that didn't translate into any landbird finds – which was disappointing, as we felt we had a great platform last year on which to build, knowing the best migrant traps as well as ever.
It was particularly galling when Inishbofin – easily visible from Achill on a clear day – produced Ireland's first Alder Flycatcher on 8th, but then also a Blackpoll Warbler a week later. This wasn't the first time this had happened. In 2019, I was at Dooega on Achill, looking out at Inishbofin, when Anthony McGeehan was watching a Black-and-white Warbler there. In 2020, it was Tennessee Warbler and Upland Sandpiper.
Having done three years on Achill now, I have started to wonder if the island is just a bit too big for 2-3 birders to be covering and, given its large area and extensive tracts of cover, how easy it would be for an American vagrant to melt away into spots we visit only once or twice (if at all) each year. This autumn we found migrants in gardens we'd never visited before, such as along Slievemore Road and in the eastern part of Keel. I often mused over how easy it would be for an arriving Yank to filter east and inland, away from the western tip of the island, where cover is lacking. Of course, three American passerines in four autumns (counting the 2019 Baltimore Oriole) is still a decent return, but it doesn't match the recent form of Inishbofin or Inishmore, despite their close proximity.
I guess it sounds obvious, but increasingly I think about the importance of the 'island effect', where a tired migrant makes landfall and does not have the opportunity to continue along a headland and melt away into a huge, underwatched area, as could happen on the mainland. There is a lot to be said for having a limited area to cover and following a well-trodden, familiar route (just look at Steve Millar's track record on Inishbofin over the past few years). Of course, a lot of it is down to luck, but are you slashing your odds of finding something by working a smaller area more thoroughly? I think so. Even the West Beara hot-spots, which are 'mainland' (Dursey aside), are spread over a far smaller area than that we currently work on Achill (the Beara sites probably being equivalent to the distance between Keem and Dooagh, at the west end of Achill). The problem would be partly solved if you could put a dozen birders on Achill and cover it systematically, but realistically that isn't going to happen as there just aren't enough people interested in giving it a bash.
With all of this in mind, we day-tripped Clare Island on 10th. I was very impressed with how easy it is to get to and from the island, which is served by three ferries daily. For the day-tripping birder, it's possible to get out at 8am and return at 5pm – ample time to work some of the best gardens in the east of the island. We didn't see anything particularly notable on our visit, but a nice smattering of European migrants included a Willow Warbler, and we found some stunning spots that must have hosted many rarities over the years.
Still, at least Achill didn't miss out on the Firecrest influx! Large numbers of these beautiful birds were found in western Ireland in October. We spent a day dipping the Alder Flycatcher on Inishbofin, but did see two Firecrests (plus Barred Warbler and Sand Martin). This was followed by a brief Firecrest for me at Dooagh on 13th – the first record for Achill – and then another at Keel the following day which, happily, lingered long enough for both Dan and Micheál to see it. Again, this latter bird was in a garden I'd never checked prior to this autumn.
There appeared to be a mini-arrival of birds on 13th. Along with the Firecrests, at least two Yellow-browed Warblers, a Willow Warbler and several Chiffchaffs also appeared at the west end. It was nice to finally see a few migrants at Corrymore, after a blank couple of years there!
One slightly frustrating moment came on 8th when pishing attracted the attention of a chunky passerine lumbering through some dense willows at Dooagh. The garden which the mystery skulker was frequenting has a shed called 'REV'S Place'(!) and I was convinced it was going to be a vireo on size and movements. Given the blasting westerly and date, you can imagine my disappointment when this popped out!
We did have good reason to sneak away from Achill to the Mullet again this year. Dave Suddaby's fantastic Swainson's Thrush showed why event the scantest cover is not to be ignored when the Atlantic breakers are just metres away. We were getting covered in sea spray as well as the squalls while watching the thrush working its way up a vegetated ditch on 7th. Also nearby was a blue-morph Snow Goose with the Greylags, and a Snow Bunting flew across the road. A very nice twitch with Micheál.
And so, on 16th, our latest Achill adventure drew to a close. I'm sure I'll be back in 2023, but there is plenty to ponder on where else might be worth a try in the coming autumns.
Master of disguise
Wryneck is a bird I have been walking a lot of miles for over the past few weeks, albeit without success. It was therefore a welcome surprise to hear of one found by John Atkins at Ferry Meadows CP, on the west side of Peterborough, this afternoon. Fortunately, Mike Weedon was with John when he picked it up and was able to confirm the ID and get the news out pretty much instantly.
The bird wasn't too shy, although was feeding on the copious number of anthills in an area of long grass and small, scrubby hawthorn and rose bushes, only occasionally popping up into view. In fact, as Wrynecks go, it was fairly confident, and would often happily perch only a few metres away (albeit rarely in full view!). However, this master of disguise's intricate plumage made it a challenge to pick up as it sat, often motionless, among the foliage.
It's funny how fortuitous rare bird finds can be. Had it not been for a party of co-operative Whinchats in the adjacent Long Meadow, which were being photographed by John and Mike when the Wryneck appeared, then it may never have been found at all. The Whinchats were very nice, as they always are, with one or two occasionally coming close enough for decent shots.
Spoilt for waders
The end of August and opening days of September produced one of the richest spells for passage waders on my patch for the past few years at least, with a couple of Curlew Sandpipers lingering for nine days, accompanied at times by Knot, Ruff, Wood, Common and Green Sandpipers, Dunlin, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, and Spotted Redshank. The best part about it all was that most birds showed pretty well, especially the calidrids, giving some brilliant photo opportunities at times.
September Black Tern
Only the second Black Tern of the year dropped in for the day on 5 September. This species is more or less nailed on as a spring visitor, but for whatever reason autumn records are significantly scarcer – this is the first autumn bird I've had since moving back to Lincolnshire in 2020.
A juvenile Curlew Sandpiper dropped in at BLGP this evening, giving me one of the most enjoyable hours that I've ever had on patch. The bird was initially doing the rounds with a skittish juvenile Wood Sandpiper, but ditched its company after a brief visit to Baston Fen.
Once on its own, the outlook for good shots improved exponentially. Over an hour or so spent with the bird, I managed to approach to within close range, although ended up having to lie in goose droppings, mud and stinking water for more than an hour.
As I edged closer, the light was getting better and better as the sun sank away towards the west. Despite being just a few metres away, the bird showed little concern for my presence as it went about its ways.
Then, shortly before 7pm, a small flock of waders flew in to join the Curlew Sand – two Dunlin and three Ringed Plovers. They fed for a few minutes together before all barrelling off high to the south-west. What an experience and a reminder (if needed) of why so little in the world of birds comes close to waders.
The star of summer 2022
When the Gull-billed Tern disappeared off to the south on Tuesday evening, my assumption was that was it. Over the past few years, Wader Pit has a fine track record of producing good birds, but a shocking track record of holding on to them. So it was a nice surprise to check on Wednesday lunchtime and find the bird back roosting on the eastern shore. It went on to linger throughout Thursday as well, but with no sign on Friday and Saturday, evidently decided that three days at Baston was plenty.
I'm particularly pleased I decided to spend some time on Thursday actually sitting back and just watching the bird without any sense of stress or rush, which is something many of us photo-hungry birders often forget to do these days. When confronted by a rarity, the adrenaline levels are high and there's always an air of freneticism as you try to better your views and photos. With some nice flight images in the bag, it was good to sit back and watch the bird do its thing, catching dragonflies and resting. At times it was interesting to note just how 'heavy' this bird appeared, being quite robust and thickset, and powerful yet languid in flight – reminiscent of Caspian Tern in many respects. Class.
I have been pretty relentless in checking my patch this summer. Last June's fleeting Caspian Tern was a reminder that, if the time and opportunity is there, it's worth a look. I've been trying to visit at least once and usually twice a day. So far, in the dry and often sunny conditions, there hasn't been a great deal to see bar the expected returning Black-tailed Godwits and the occasional other wader.
That all changed on 19 July, during record-breaking temperatures. I walked out the air-conditioned office into what felt like a fan oven after a day where the news was filled with fires, melting roads and exhausted emergency services. If I was being melodramatic, it had a 'beginning of the end' feel to it – a worrying glimpse into the future at the very least.
Despite the suffocating heat and 'hairdryer' wind that had whipped up, I decided to have a quick stop at Wader Pit on the way home. First scan: a gaggle of panting Greylag Geese, a few Lapwings, Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls, but nothing much else. No waders. Hmm. A few minutes later, a second scan: Common Tern, Common Tern, Co- ... eh? What the? That's a big tern!
The bird in question was facing away from me and immediate impression was of a Sandwich Tern-sized bird. There hasn't been a twitchable Sandwich locally so far this year so I was gearing myself up for a handy year tick. But something clearly wasn't right: it was a Sandwich Tern on stilts. There could only be one option for a tern with such lengthy pins – Gull-billed – something that was confirmed a couple of seconds later when the bird turned its head slightly and revealed a short and deep black bill. Shit!
Panic. No camera with me – it was at home – and the haze and wind was absolutely shocking. Tripod blowing all over the place, bird shimmering distantly and often little more than a whitish mirage. I rang my mum, who I knew was nearby. She kindly agreed to fetch my camera and bring it over while I stayed on the bird. But, of course, just as she arrived, the bird flew off and I lost it.
Fortunately, it returned to Wader Pit a quarter of an hour later, by which time Jake Williams and Will Bowell had arrived. At least others had now seen it. This pattern of rests on the eastern shore interspersed with feeding forays continued for the following hour or so, with the bird disappearing to feed over fields and trees for up to 15 minutes. On a few occasions it could be heard vocalising, giving a quite nasal, almost wader-like call.
The haze gradually lessened but generally remained a challenge, even if the light was improving. Let's not forget that the temperature gauge was still hovering at around the 37°C mark. By 7pm around a dozen had seen it, before it was watched to fly off south – presumed to be on another feeding flight – but it didn't return, with no further sign by dusk.
Wader Pit does it again. What a fantastic bird to have on the patch. It was a little bit galling not to have managed closer views that weren't being buffeted by a relentless breeze and smothering haze, but I can't complain at the buzz it gave me and the record shots above will certainly suffice. That'll be the highlight of my #LocalBigYear, I'm sure – to sound clichéd, this sort of experience is what local birding is all about and why it can't be beaten!
'Portlandica' Arctic Tern
The patch highlight of June so far was a 2cy Arctic Tern that spent a few days cruising around Baston Wader Pit mid-month, giving a great opportunity to study the so-called 'portlandica' plumage. In my ignorance I hadn't appreciated the origins of this rather broad-ranging, somewhat colloquial term and was fascinated to read that it stems from an initial misidentification by Robert Ridgway, who wrongly thought these immature birds to be a different species, which he called Sterna portlandica.
I seem to recall seeing one or two of these immatures in Arctic Tern colonies on previous occasions, and indeed they're not really all that scarce in some areas (see e.g. here), but I had never seen one locally. So, it was nice of this bird to appear at an otherwise quiet time of year, linger for a while and offer some fine views at times. A lovely bird to watch and one that was much more obvious at certain times than others. The classic buoyant 'looseness' of the flight style (compared to the slightly 'stiffer' action of Common), enhanced by the outer tail streamers, was particularly noticeable at times and some of the images below capture this quite nicely.
The photos were taken on two dates, with the first batch taken on the bright, sunny morning of 16th and the others a couple of days later, when it was overcast.
Early spring highlights
Mid-March saw an impressive influx of Garganey across the southern half of Britain, yet I couldn't buy one across my patches despite daily coverage. So, on 24th, I made the most of clear and calm conditions and visited the Nene Washes with the hope of seeing a few.
The washes are superb in early spring as floodwater recedes, concentrating wildfowl to create a real spectacle. This year, the best fields were just east of the RSPB car park at Eldernell – and the birding didn't disappoint. When you add tens of herons and egrets, a large Common Crane flock, swirling groups of Black-tailed Godwits and other waders, Short-eared Owls, many Western Marsh Harriers and Buzzards, plus the odd Hen Harrier, Merlin and Peregrine, then you really get a sense of what a brilliant place it can be for birding.
I had no fewer than 14 Garganey among the thousands of Wigeon and Teal there on 24th, but these were upstaged by a nice male Green-winged Teal, which I picked up asleep at great distance. The latter went on to linger for at least a week (I saw it again on 29th, when there were still at least nine Garganey), but could be very elusive among the throngs of duck and never came particularly close for images. Neither did the Garganey, but it was just a joy to have thousands of duck to scan through in perfect conditions. The washes can be a chastening, wind-battered place in the winter months!
Additionally, a Dark-bellied Brent Goose there was a great local bird, particularly as it lingered for several days (many prove to be one-dayers locally) and showed alongside two Barnacle Geese, another species that remains strangely scarce in Peterborough despite the large feral populations in counties to the south. Two Little Gulls added further interest on 24th.
Away from the washes there were further signs that migration was slowly picking up, although the return of north-easterlies and clear skies for the third spring running didn't help proceedings and the late March-early April period was actually pretty slow for incoming summer visitors. For example, I didn't see my first Northern Wheatear of the spring until 13 April (although there were quite a few over 13-14th).
It was fortunate, then, that the continuing Ring-necked Duck were proving as reliable as ever. With hormones taking hold, both birds were moving around a lot more and paying close attention to the local female Tufted Ducks. From 23rd into early April, both were at BLGP and often encountered on smaller ponds with just a few birds, offering some decent photo opportunities after a challenging winter for getting shots. However, they didn't find each other and I never got the opportunity to see them side by side. The first to leave was the 2cy bird, which I last saw on 4 April; the adult, meanwhile, was still around all month.
A male Aythya hybrid, perhaps a bird I have seen here on occasions stretching back a decade or more, also appeared in late March. It is very Tufted-like, but lacks the lengthy hindcrown feathers, has lightly barred/mottled grey flanks and the black bill tip is restricted to the nail only (as in Ferruginous or Lesser Scaup). As for what it is, I'm not really sure; logic would suggest Tufted × Common Pochard, but could it be Tufted × Ferruginous?
Other than the odd Eurasian Curlew, which is to be expected in early spring, wader passage was slow to get going. That made a group of three Bar-tailed Godwits at Baston Fen on 27 March particularly surprising when combined with the early date for this species, which is a highlight of any day's inland patch birding.
A Grey Plover at Deeping Lakes on 11 April would prove to be the only individual I saw all spring. A male Garganey at Deeping Lakes on the same day, and often in the same view, was a welcome addition to the #LocalBigYear list.
Eurasian Spoonbill used to be a Peterborough area 'mega', but it has become increasingly frequent in recent years as the UK breeding population grows exponentially. In the space of a few years it has become an expected annual visitor, but catching up with one can be tricky. So it proved with an immature that dropped in during a shower at Baston Fen on the evening of 13 April, but then left to the north a quarter of an hour later. Interestingly, it turned out to be the same individual seen by Mike Alibone in Northamptonshire three hours earlier.
Finally, a few other photo highlights from the opening weeks of spring:
Steady start to the new year
The first winter period of 2022 has proven a pretty samey affair, with a near-complete lack of cold snaps and relatively few storms either, meaning that there was no repeat of the dynamic local birding enjoyed in the early part of 2021.
A constant feature of the past two-and-a-half months has been the wintering Ring-necked Ducks, with both birds still around. The adult spent most of its time to the west of Langtoft, with the youngster to the east. The latter gave some great views at the recently established Penfield NR at times and is now looking largely adult-like, save for a few brown belly feathers. Early in the year it suffered an injury and spent a few weeks swimming lop-sided, although by the time March arrived it was looking much better, with the bare parts brightening up and the last of the brown flank feathers moulted.
Perhaps the highlight of this period, though, was the arrival of a trio of Smew at Langtoft West End on 1 March – a pair of adults and a 2cy female. This set of mature gravel pits is a traditional location for Smew, but with the rapid decline of the UK wintering population over the past 15 years, records here have dried up. So it was great to be able to watch these birds for a couple of weeks, with the immature lingering longer.
As I have said on this blog in the past, I always worry if this will be the last winter that I see Bewick's Swans on my local fen. There were fewer Whoopers around this year, but up to 11 Bewick's appeared for a while in late January, including a couple of families. It seems to have been a good winter for young Bewick's appearing so evidently 2021 was a good breeding season. My local group had gone by the start of February as mild conditions took hold, although a single bird spent 10-11 February at BLGP, allowing for unusually good views (I thought it was sick at first, but it left overnight on 11th).
Winter birding in the Peterborough area usually involves grilling the gulls at Tanholt landfill, but the tipping face and birds' habits meant it was a waste of time this year until February, when the birds suddenly started using the 'new' pit by the Green Wheel cycleway again, after months of loafing elsewhere. Paul Bolton and I put in several visits apiece and it was Paul that found the winter's first white-winger on 8 March – in fact, that day ended up producing two Iceland Gulls (3cy and 2cy) and a near-adult Kumlien's Gull, the last being the regular bird seen widely in Cambridgeshire. Also noted were a small number of Caspian Gulls during that period.
Paul also found perhaps the first winter period's most surprising bird – a male Ring Ouzel at Star Pit, Dogsthorpe, on 14 January. It lingered around 10 days or so before moving on following scrub clearance work in its favoured area. The first I have seen in winter anywhere in Britain.
Late winter and early spring is a good time to be out searching for the more elusive species of the local area, and it was nice to bump into this male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at the first attempt in woods to the west of Peterborough. I watched it for about 10 minutes as it softly tapped away at a broken bough. There always seems to be a branch in the way! This species seems to just about cling on locally, and is almost certainly still under-recorded, but it wouldn't be a great surprise if it's lost in the coming decade.
New oddities were otherwise at a premium during this first winter period, although there were a few signs of movement in the mild conditions of early March. Highlight was a male Red-breasted Merganser at Etton-Maxey on 4 March. Found by Hugh Wright, this is the first adult male in the area for several years.
Also at Etton on 4 March I had my first Sand Martin of the year flying around, which was my earliest ever. Also a new early record for me was a Little Ringed Plover back at BLGP on 12 March.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.