After the coldest January in Britain for a decade, February continued the trend with the most biting spell of the winter. It was hyped as the 'Beast from the East 2', but in reality only amounted to a bit of good old-fashioned cold winter weather.
Easterly gales and freezing temperatures, in conjunction with a covering of snow, are classic conditions for generating significant displacements of birds. And, being so close to The Wash, the Peterborough area tends to profit from such spells. In the first week of the month, Woodcock were arriving on the coast in their droves and there were signs that waders were starting to feel the freeze, with coastal scarcities appearing inland. BLGP profited on 8-9th when a Knot appeared, spending a couple of days around the Wader Pit with the wintering Redshank flock before the coldest night of the winter froze the pits solid and forced it to move on. Meanwhile, swan counting south-east of Deeping St Nicholas in sub-zero temperatures on 11th produced two fly-by Turnstones and a calling Curlew!
Deeping High Bank is often at the forefront of cold-weather birding in the local area, and Mike Weedon was on hand to discover a Red-throated Diver on the River Welland north-east of Crowland water tower on 12th. I was out counting Bewick's Swans nearby, so was very happy for a short detour up to the bank to see it – my third in the local area.
The diver proved the first of three great birds in the Deepings area that day, with a Red-necked Grebe discovered at Maxey Pits. Remarkably, it was favouring the exact same pit as a bird two winters previous – you have to wonder if it could be the same individual.
The third in that excellent run of coastal scarcities was a juvenile European Shag, again picked up by Mike Weedon along Deeping High Bank. It's been a while since I've seen one of these locally, and at times it was favouring the same stretch of river as the diver. It was almost dark by the time I saw it on the evening of 12th, but I had some nice views in better light a couple of days later.
With many of the waterbodies starting to freeze over, I decided to cycle to Tallington on the morning of Saturday 13th. This proved a sound decision, as on my third scan a female Ring-necked Duck popped up as I panned through the Tufted Duck flock by the island on the main pit! It was bitterly cold in the easterly gale and views weren't exactly fantastic, but a return visit the following morning produced slightly better opportunities for some record shots. It was great to see it alongside long-staying Greater Scaup, which is now looking quite pristine.
Later that day, I went to feed the gulls at Fitzwilliam Bridge. It was still bracingly cold and two Iceland Gulls were present on the partially frozen Stanground Wash as I arrived. I threw some bread out and unwittingly flushed a duck off the river bank as I did so. It jumped into the water and started swimming away from me and off downstream. Raising my bins, I was slightly taken aback to see that it was a female Red-breasted Merganser – a genuinely scarce bird in these parts nowadays and the first I have seen around here for several years. Although it was wary of me, it was tame enough to allow me to creep into position to take a few decent record shots in the fading late afternoon light.
That was the end to a really exciting couple of days' birding in the local area. Bear in mind that, despite our close proximity to The Wash, each of the birds above is barely annual in and around Peterborough, so to receive such a bountiful delivery off the cold snap was very welcome.
The swans, meanwhile, had also bulked up in number in early February. The Deepings area has recently had more than 500 Whoopers – an unprecedented count for around here – while Bewick's have also enjoyed their best showing for a decade. 'My' regular flock near Tongue End climbed to 20 birds, all adults, during the cold weather, although subsequent milder conditions and south-westerlies seem to have thinned them out again. Meanwhile, I counted at least 13 Bewick's, including three family parties, among a huge group of Whoopers to the south-east of Deeping St Nicholas on 11th.
While freezing temperatures can make the birding all very exciting locally, it's easy to forget just how serious such weather can be for the birds themselves. Behaviour changes so much as birds become hungrier and more desperate. These scarce coastal visitors, thrilling though they are, are often driven inland through exhaustion and desperation. This was sadly exemplified by the Red-throated Diver, which seemed bothered by a problem with its left leg that got worse as the days passed, to the point it was close to exhaustion by the time the weather improved.
Temperatures have rebounded quickly after the cold first half to February, and there's no doubt that spring is just around the corner. Hopefully it will be just as profitable as the past couple of weeks!
In birding terms, the only thing I miss about London is the Thames and its gulls. Regular readers of my blog will know that it is usually stuffed with gull photos and often little else. In terms of setup (read Dante and my article on Thames gulling here), it's hard to imagine a better place for regular views and photos of Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls at point-blank range, with a number of ideally positioned sites from which to look.
Peterborough birding is undoubtedly more varied than London. Its diverse habitats mean plenty of opportunities throughout the year. It's also still 'fortunate' to have a working landfill site at Tanholt, which draws in good numbers of gulls. Yet Peterborough gulling has never been easy. Skittish and unpredictable birds, plus difficult-to-view loafing areas (both pits and fields), makes it frustratingly hit and miss. There are some good days, but these are outweighed by the bad! You never really feel like you've managed to look through all the birds, and viewing is often at distance, through fences, hedges and so on. What Peterborough lacks, or so I thought, was an 'easy' place where you could throw bread and get the birds in nice and close.
A couple of weeks ago, one of the Iceland Gulls started getting seen at Flag Fen sewage works. Shortly after, up to two birds (both seen initially at Tanholt at the end of December) became semi-regular features at the currently flooded Stanground Wash. Since then I'd been vowing to go down and chuck some bread in the River Nene there, to see what happened. Fitzwilliam Bridge seemed to be the obvious place to do it, being close to the birds' loafing area on the wash and within a km or so of the sewage works and nearby Fengate, where gulls feed at a recycling centre. I'll be honest, I wasn't too confident of it working effectively – but it did.
The effect was a familiar one. As soon as the Black-headed Gulls got involved and started making a racket, which took a little time, in came the large. It was amazing to watch from how far they were coming from, and from all directions. On Sunday (31 Jan), 200 or more Herring Gulls were attracted during the time I spent there. Unsurprisingly, there were fewer large gulls on Monday (1 Feb), but on both visits Iceland Gulls came in to the melee. The second-winter showed particularly well on Sunday:
Extraordinarily, Will Bowell and I had all three local Iceland Gulls together on the same spit on Stanground Wash on Sunday afternoon. With thousands of gulls locally, feeding across several sites, what are the chances of that happening? Amazing stuff.
There were also some nice argentatus Herring Gulls in the mix on Sunday. Sometimes they are so distinctive that they really feel like a different species to the local birds, being much more Glaucous-like in many respects.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are also starting to arrive back locally now after a few months away, and this crisp first-winter couldn't resist coming in for a munch.
On Monday I returned, hoping one of the juveniles might be lured in by a few 'freebies' launched into the Nene. There weren't any gulls when I arrived, but a quick chuck of some sliced wholemeal and the second-winter appeared, quickly followed by the darker juvenile. Both tried their luck with the offerings that weren't gobbled up by a ravenous congregation of Canada Geese below the bridge. Unreal!
All in all, this has been a real revelation! Although conditions are undoubtedly helping at present, with the adjacent Stanground Wash in total flood and the river level high, it feels like it could be a decent place for regular winter bread chucking, and my longing for the Thames gulls might finally be quashed for good. I can't imagine it'll be much good in summer, when the floods are fields and the river is low, but we'll have to wait and see on that front. For now, though, I'll enjoy every moment that the Icelands are around.
Plenty of optimism usually accompanies the arrival of the new year, and I was looking forward to my first full year's birding back in the Peterborough area despite the ongoing coronavirus restrictions limiting birding opportunities. New Year's Day saw me out on my bike around BLGP and Baston Fen for a green day list. By dusk I had clocked 84 species, all within a few miles of home, with highlights including two drake Smew (present since 28 December) at BLGP and a couple of Water Pipits at Baston Fen. There were, as ever, some glaring misses and I think a more concerted effort with a planned route could hit 90 species if the weather was kind.
Gulls and wildfowl dominated throughout the month, with 2 January producing three different Iceland Gulls in the Tanholt and Flag Fen area. Strangely, they 'disappeared' for much of the month until I saw the paler juvenile at Tanholt on 24th; after this, Chris Jones picked up two at Stanground Wash and they became regular there until the month's end. I decided to try my luck with bread at Fitzwilliam Bridge and it proved a bit of a success (see above blog post).
Meanwhile, Tanholt continued to produce a steady stream of Caspian Gulls throughout the month, with a mix of ages seen.
Whooper Swans have been reaching unprecedented highs on the local fen this winter, spread in several large flocks between Bourne South Fen and Deeping High Bank, with the biggest concentrations in the Deeping St Nicholas area. Bewick's Swan, however, looked to be set to endure another bleak winter – at least until mid-month, when colder weather took hold. My first of the year was a subadult among 70 Whoopers at Stowgate on 9th. Nicholas Watts rang with news of an adult among Mutes on farmland at Baston Fen on 13th. In fact, there were two present and they gave me my best-ever views of the species locally. They subsequently relocated to a large Whooper flock near Tongue End and were joined by three more by the month's end.
Weekly cycles to Tallington Lakes produced the continuing Greater Scaup, which was looking increasingly smart as each week passed and, by the end of the month, could easily have been overlooked as an adult were it not for the retained brown belly feathers. Diving duck numbers were excellent here; the site comfortably holds the highest concentrations of Tufted Duck and Common Pochard in our area (400+ and 80+ respectively), despite the ongoing construction of mobile homes around the lakes! Meanwhile, a count of more than 30 Goldeneye at Langtoft West End Pits was good by modern standards.
Quite a lot of Red-crested Pochard seem to have abandoned their natal home of BLGP and moved in at Tallington. Can't blame them, really, given the amount of shooting that takes place in BLGP in winter. They tend to be a bit tamer at Tallington, too!
Short-eared Owls could still be seen along the Welland and Glen on the calmer afternoons, but the cold weather towards the end of the month seemed to thin numbers out somewhat.
Passerines were a bit of a sideshow in January. The Siberian Chiffchaff was still at Stamford sewage works alongside several Common Chiffchaffs. A huge Corn Bunting flock at Stowgate was real surprise on 7th. I counted 120, eclipsed by an amazing (by modern standards) 162 on 10th. A total of 16 Crossbills were seen one crisp morning at Southey Woods. Finally, settled conditions early in the month allowed for some really nice looks at the local Bearded Tits, including this super male.
With plenty of leave left left to use up at work before the end of the year, I had quite a birdy December locally. Weather was changeable, with some very chilly spells intermixed with much milder and more unsettled days, and there was plenty of evidence of movement well into the month.
One of the talking points of the final weeks of the year was the large influx of Russian White-fronted Geese into the south-east of England. BLGP and its hordes of Greylags have always been a hot-spot for pulling in this species. Two, an adult and juvenile, arrived on 30 November and lingered to the following day, but then left. Then a superb flock of 21 appeared on the frosty morning of 6th, but were lost to view as fog rolled in and were never seen again. I had three fly over me at Thurlby Fen on 15th and it really felt like we were going to have a fruitful winter for sightings ... but that's where the records dried up, with none again by the end of the year.
As I mentioned in my last post, Pink-footed Geese seem to be showing up in the Peterborough area with ever-increasing regularity – and in big groups, too. A total of 475 birds moved north-west over the BLGP area on 22 December, including a group of more than 280. A handful of birds remain among the local Greylags, although they aren't always seen.
The big revelation of the month came after investing in a thermal monocular. They're not cheap, but I can already see why so many are raving about them – finding and observing Jack Snipe being the classic midwinter example, but it's also been amazing for watching Woodcock feeding at night, as well as finding elusive species such as Water Rail and Long-eared Owl, plus mammals including Badger. I couldn't have dreamed of seeing Jack Snipe so well before this month, and now each one gives walkaway views.
The Siberian Chiffchaff at Baston Fen was still around at the beginning of December, and I picked up a second bird at Stamford sewage works on 17th. It lingered for a few days, but on the final day it called. Initially it sounded like a perfect tristis, giving the typical peep call, but then seemingly went through a phase of giving a quiet hueet call, like a collybita. It responded quite strongly to tristis playback, though.
Stonechats remained numerous. Birds were easily encountered at several sites throughout the month, including two to three pairs at Baston Fen and up to four birds around the BLGP area.
I saw the male Hen Harrier again at Baston and Thurlby Fens on 22nd. This wide-ranging bird has been seen as far away as north of Spalding and south to the Nene Washes. It's amazing how far these raptors will rove in search of food throughout the winter.
Gull numbers built up at Tanholt throughout the month, with at least 10 different Caspian Gulls seen in the week leading up to Christmas. The festive season means that the tip is closed for days at a time, and the same applies around the country. Therefore I always find that this time of year can be very dynamic for gulls, with big turnover in both numbers and makeup as birds traverse the country in search of food. This was certainly the case after Christmas; three days of a closed tip saw the Casps clear out, but 30th produced the first two Iceland Gulls (juvenile and second-winter) of the winter, as part of a push of the species through interior Britain.
And so a strange old year came to a close. Back in those pre-lockdown days in February and March, I'm not sure I would have believed it if you'd told me I'd have moved back to Lincolnshire on a permanent basis by the end of the year. It looks like another lengthy lockdown is on the cards for the opening days of 2021, but hopefully there's light at the end of the tunnel as we head into the spring and beyond.
A second lockdown in November meant I stayed close to home throughout the month. Fortunately, local birding on the Lincolnshire-Cambridgeshire border is generally pretty dynamic at this time of year. And so it proved.
It was almost a week before I got the opportunity to visit the Great Northern Diver found by Mike Weedon at Deeping High Bank. Fortunately it hung around just long enough for me to see it on 16th. My third locally, after one along the High Bank in November 2004 and another at Maxey Pits in January 2014.
Another local rarity was a Hooded Crow found near Castor Hanglands on 20th. I saw it the next morning and then again a couple of days later. It seems quite loyal to a few fields between the reserve and Ailsworth.
On the patch at Baston & Langtoft Pits, up to two Great Egrets have been regular throughout the month. Safe to say that they're becoming part of the furniture here, alongside the resident Little Egrets (which first appeared here in 2004).
Whooper Swans, too, are becoming increasingly frequent. Migrants were passing early in the month, but there are some big wintering flocks just a few miles away on the fens by the River Welland. When I started birding almost 20 years ago, this was a really notable species and we might expect the occasional winter straggler in with the Mutes. Nowadays, it seems it's not unexpected to see them any time between October and March.
Pink-footed Geese also seem to be becoming more frequent. By all accounts they're having a disastrous year in Norfolk, with changes to farming methods seeing the birds' favoured winter food, maize and beet, drilled into the earth no sooner have the crops been harvested. With the added issue of bird scarers being employed, it seems Norfolk's halcyon days as a haven for Pink-feet might be over. That does mean that wandering flocks are getting more regular inland. This group of 58 flew over me while I was checking in on the gulls at Tanholt:
The gulls themselves are still present. Tanholt continues as a working tip, if not a very big one, and is evidently still active enough to draw in at least a few hundred birds. Viewing is never easy at this site, but the pits by the path are being used a bit more routinely now than they were in the summer, which makes life simpler! A couple of 1cy Caspian, a 3cy Yellow-legged and a 1cy Mediterranean have been the best seen in a few visits.
It's proving an excellent winter for Stonechats locally. Nicholas Watts has record numbers on his Deeping Fen farm at present, and there are at least three pairs in the BLGP/Baston Fen area that I have seen. No doubt there are more around as there's plenty of good habitat for them, despite some farmers' intentions to hack, mow or strim just about anything they can.
It seems like most sites I go to at the moment have Chiffchaffs. There are at least four at BLGP, for example, when I often struggle to find one in the winter months. It may be that a properly cold snap will see many of them move off, but for the moment it seems like it's going to be a big winter for the species in south Lincolnshire.
After such a great autumn, there must be so many wintering Sibes to be found in innocuous patches of inland habitat. My colleague Ed has Rustic and Little Buntings together on his Surrey patch, for example. After such a prolific October for them, how many Dusky Warblers must be lurking out there? Dusky remains the dream for now, but a more attainable prize is Siberian Chiffchaff – something I've been looking out for while scouring Chiffchaffs at local pits and sewage works. On a foggy but calm 29th, I scored at Baston Fen. I was lucky that the bird was calling quite a lot, albeit unseen from the other side of the River Glen, as I walked the bank that lunchtime – I would never have clocked it otherwise. A couple of hours later and I had some nice if brief views in appalling light. My first local tristis, and about as good as they come in terms of appearance and voice.
Probably the most eyebrow-raising record of the latter days of the month was a Swallow that I had at Baston Fen for around 10 minutes late afternoon on 27th. It flew off south-west along the Counter Drain and didn't return. Easily my latest ever, but there seem to be a fair few dotted around the country still.
Up to three Short-eared Owls are in the Baston Fen area the moment. It's great to have these brilliant birds back locally this winter. I find them utterly transfixing – no matter how much you watch them, it's never enough.
There are also a couple of Hen Harriers about. A female, which I saw flying over Grummit's Scrape on 22nd, and a brilliant second-winter male, which I had by the Cross Drain the following day. They aren't roosting at Baston Fen, but there are plenty of little reedy ponds on the fen which they can use without being disturbed.
After a bleak year for chancing upon rare or scarce birds, autumn 2020 finally threw me a bone on 9 November – a smart Lesser Yellowlegs on my Sheppey survey site.
The experience wasn't exactly hassle-free, as the first I knew of the bird was its call. I looked up to see a wader flying directly away from me until I lost it as a speck towards The Swale. It was clear what it was (call and then the square white rump seen as the bird flew), but I had no photos or recordings for proof. And, entirely realistically it seemed, that could quite easily have been that, gone for good. It had been hiding in an area of flooded thistles and I'd not seen it when I'd given the pools a customary scan from a distance, hence I'd unwittingly gone and flushed it. All very annoying.
This was about mid-morning. After I'd finished surveying, I spent the next few hours searching the entire Capel Fleet area without any luck, so returned to the site mid-afternoon – and it was back on the same pool! Relief. However, it was very wary and it took a lot of patience to get within distance for reasonable photos.
After an hour or so it became a little more used to my presence, and showed at slightly closer range – although never did it feel like the archetypical fearless 'Yank', and was always edgy. I was a little perplexed by the age of the bird at first, as it looked very monochrome on my initial, distant views, which hinted at an older bird. However, better looks showed it to be a first-calendar-year bird after all, albeit with already very worn remiges. What this means, I don't know – perhaps from a more southerly population and thus an earlier fledging date?
It was calling quite a lot, too, although annoyingly I had broken my mic earlier that morning and had to settle for making recordings with my phone only. The below is probably the best of the lot.
I returned to the site early on Thursday (12th), and sure enough it was still around. Obtaining flight shots was a bit easier in the windy conditions, but the bird was even more wary than it had been on Monday and quickly flew off towards Elmley NNR. It'll be interesting to see if it's still around on my next scheduled visit in December.
Last October, I had an exciting few days' birding on Achill alongside Micheál O'Briain, Derek and Majella Charles, which culminated in the discovery of a Baltimore Oriole in what was an excellent period for Nearctic arrivals in Ireland (and indeed Britain).
I vowed to return at the time but, with the way 2020 has turned out, at times even leaving England seemed like it might be a long shot. As things transpired, restrictions relaxed in the summer, but a two-week quarantine period remained in place if visiting Ireland from Britain. Bearing this and other complications in mind, I ended up booking a cottage on Achill for a three-week period from 20 September through to 11 October.
September started quite well on a national scale, with a good arrival of Buff-breasted and Pectoral Sandpipers giving plenty of early promise that it might be another 'Yank year'. Then came the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on Tiree. But after that the Azores High established rather resolutely and went on to make a nuisance of itself for the entirety of my trip. First it deflected an interesting system up to Iceland, which bagged Alder Flycatcher and others, and Norway, which boasted two national-first Nearctic warblers. At least one Tennessee Warbler was deposited in Shetland. Meanwhile I was basking in summer-like sunshine on Achill, which was as busy as I'd ever seen it with surfers, staycationers and other tourists.
Dan Owen joined me for the second and third weeks of the trip, although he didn't turn out to be much of a good-luck charm! I'd like to make excuses and say that the weather was totally against us but, while we were there, two small systems produced Upland Sandpiper and Tennessee Warbler on Inishbofin, which lies less than 40 km to the south of Achill. To our north, on the Mullet, Derek and Dave Suddaby had managed a couple of Blue-winged Teal. So there were birds turning up, if not many of them. Yet, despite our determined efforts, we turned up not a single significant bird in the three-week spell spent on Achill. Pretty harrowing stuff!
Our first Yellow-browed Warbler arrived on 26 September, one of a handful seen. Excitingly, this was in an area of the island that I had inexcusably ignored on previous trips – Keem Bay. I dread to think what must have passed through here during the 'hot' spell of early October 2019, and indeed in the autumns before that. Above the famous beach, which is usually crawling with tourists, is a valley running westward to the cliffs at the very west end of the island. At the bottom of this valley is a stream, along which there are patches of gorse, bracken and a few stunted sallows. It's rather more akin to birding on Fair Isle, Foula or even St Kilda than most places in western Ireland, with the high mountains and barren terrain giving it a unique feel. It's in an absolutely prime position to pick up freshly arrived American passerines.
I don't really know why it only clicked as a possible migrant trap on this particular visit (perhaps because I was bored of seeing nothing and wanted to find somewhere new!), but that it proved. We ended up seeing Chiffchaffs here on most visits, often feeding on the ground or among the heather, but more often than not clinging on to the only sallows in the area. A few Blackcaps and Goldcrests were here, too, as were two different Yellow-browed Warblers (a second was there on 2 Oct). Nothing American this time, but it will undoubtedly happen here, as it must have done on many occasions in the past.
To give an idea of how slow and tough the birding was at times, days would sometimes pass without seeing even a Chiffchaff. It was a good idea we 'found' Keem, because Corrymore (site of last year's oriole) didn't produce anything better than a Chiffchaff in three weeks! One Redwing for the entire trip wasn't exactly what you'd call a success either, but at least finch numbers were decent. Siskins and Crossbills were noted on several dates, with a Brambling on 7th. All were new species for me on the island.
In fact, probably the highlight of the three weeks for me was a Turtle Dove at Keel, which was found by Micheál before we arrived. It was a rather soggy, sad-looking thing, but is a real Irish rarity these days, so nice (if poignant) to see.
Another notable bird (at least in the context of this trip!) was a Pied Flycatcher in the art gallery garden at Keel. It appeared on 5th, lingering for several days. Also notable were a couple of particularly pale and sandy Lesser Whitethroats, both first-winters and showing extensive white in the tail – presumably blythi, which remains an official rarity in Ireland with just a sole accepted record (but no doubt more common than this). But that really was it in terms of passerines.
"At least we'll get a wader or two to keep things ticking over," I mused, early in the trip. You can count on the odd Yank wader in late September, right? Wrong. Another lean year for quality waders in Mayo as a whole was a reflection of other recent trips out here. The heady days of the early 2010s seem a long time ago now. On Achill, Keel Golf Course rarely held any birds at all due to relentless disturbance. While the Achill Rovers and Sruhill Lough area harboured plenty of birds, there weren't any of the type that might arouse your interests too much – bar the odd Grey and Golden Plover teasing us.
If nothing else, it was nice to watch the season progress and how species' prevalence changed. Willow Warblers, a few of which were around early on, quickly cleared out by the end of September. Duck numbers gradually built up, with Teal and Wigeon numbers increasing as October arrived. From the north-west came Pink-footed Geese – a genuine scarcity in western Ireland and the 175 I counted arriving in off the sea on 22nd might be a record count for Mayo, this part of a huge arrival (and associated displacement) in wretched weather that day between the Outer Hebrides and Co Cork.
When things got particularly tough late in the trip, families of freshly arrived Whooper Swans lifted our spirits as they fed at point-blank range on Lough Doo. It's amazing to think the youngsters are just weeks old, yet have just flown hundreds of km from Iceland to spend the winter here, under the close supervision of their more experienced parents.
Achill, like much of western Ireland, is truly mercurial in its form. When it's good, it's very good. But when it's bad, well ... it's deathly. I remain convinced it must be among the best 'mainland' sites in Ireland for passerines, and this huge potential remains almost entirely untapped. Actual birds were few and far between, it was nonetheless great to explore and discover the island like I've never done before. Several new hot-spots were found, and in future years they will no doubt produce major finds.
Three weeks didn't pay off this autumn, but in another year such a long stay could have been so prosperous. I'll keep visiting Achill, and it'll undoubtedly come good again.
Richard Astle, local wildlife enthusiast and chairman of Langdyke Countryside Trust, seems to emit pheromones that are irresistible to rare Catocala moths. Last week he trapped a Dark Crimson Underwing in his Helpston garden, a first modern-day record for the vice-county. And then, last night, he went one bigger with the first Clifden Nonpareil that I have heard of in our corner of the world.
Richard kindly lent his star find to me this morning, and I was able to take some photos of this moth 'lifer'. What a spectacular creature – much heftier than I had anticipated, even when compared to the more familiar Red Underwing. Wow, and thanks very much to Richard for the opportunity!
In my eyes, being treated to intimate views of shorebirds probably rates as the most satisfying of all experiences that birding can offer. There's something very special about coming across a fearless wader or two although, living in London, such encounters are usually limited to the occasional autumn trip out to western Ireland. Indeed it is the autumn season (and especially September) that offers the best opportunity for coming across showy waders, as it's when southbound juveniles of many species are at their most numerous.
It was therefore nice to welcome in September 2020 with a few confiding youngsters on my Lincolnshire patch at Baston and Langtoft Pits early on the morning of 2nd. A flock consisting of five juvenile Ringed and a single juvenile Little Ringed Plovers, plus a juvenile Dunlin, was feeding on the wader pit as the sun rose. With breeding birds having departed and the troublesome Greylag flock feeding out in the fields, I was able to crawl up to the edge of the pit without causing commotion for once and ended up enjoyed some amazing views.
Both the Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers were utterly fearless, feeding unconcernedly less than a metre from me at times – so close that you could hear them pattering around. I ended up spending the best part of 90 minutes lying in mud and goose shit, but it was completely worth it for an experience that will live long in the memory – certainly the best wader showing I've had on my old patch over the many years I've watched it, even if there wasn't anything unusual among them. It's quite humbling to think that I was probably the first human some of them had seen in their short lives!
Great birds, perfect weather, amazing views ... and all on patch. What could be better?!
Cromer is surely the place in Britain for seeing juvenile Caspian Gulls in late summer. While my visit to north Norfolk coincided with murky conditions and north-easterly airflow over the weekend of 15-16 August, which may have been conducive to them arriving from the Continent, a minimum of 13 birds over three days still suggests that it is something of a hot-spot.
The thing is, it's so easy to see Caspian Gulls there. At least one or two were conspicuous on the beach every time I arrived. Throw some bread out and get a melee going, and more appear. At one point I had a dozen large gulls sat on the beach around me, four of which were juvenile Casps. It has to be seen to be believed.
Geographically speaking, it makes sense. Cromer is situated at the north-eastern corner of one of England's most easterly counties. Directly to the east lies the coast of North Holland. It's perfectly positioned to be the first arrival point for juvenile Caspian Gulls dispersing westwards from mid-July. Much in the way that south-east England seems to be the point for the first arriving Yellow-legged Gulls a couple of weeks earlier.
For anyone interested in gulls, Cromer comes highly recommended for unrivalled opportunities to study Caspian Gulls at point-blank range. I managed to photograph 12 of the 13 individuals seen on my visits, each of which is detailed below. You'll have to forgive the awful light and often misty conditions, which didn't help photography in the slightest (at one point my camera got so wet that it packed up working altogether).
A fourth-calendar-year bird, quite small but with a very distinctive look. This bird has been a regular at Cromer since autumn 2017 (I photographed it in late October that year, it was a beautiful and striking bird at that age; see here).
A second-calendar-year with a particularly striking structure – elegant, small-headed, really long legs, slim bill ... the full ticket. In active wing moult, with p10 yet to be dropped. This bird has been around for some time, having spent last winter along the coast here and been regular in its appearances throughout the spring and summer. Now well on the way towards second-winter plumage.
A big and bulky juvenile, with pale coverts and a generally washed out feel to the plumage. Tertials extensively tipped pale. A typical cachinnans tail pattern, although a fair bit of subterminal 'tiger stripe' patterning on the retrices. Underwing is pale.
This small, slim and elegant juvenile was first seen by Andy Hale on 2 August. It's become quite worn since then and looks a bit messy in the face now. Probably the most distinctive feature at rest is the overgrown upper mandible, creating a hooked tip. Structure and plumage are excellent. The tail band is quite narrow, a pattern seen more typically in Yellow-legged Gull.
In terms of plumage, a bit of a classic. Uniform scapulars with narrow, diffuse fringing, plain coverts with weak internal markings on the greaters, some paling towards the tertial tips and already very white below. The underwing is whitish. However, it's a bit of an ugly creature – there's something about the head, bill and eye that just doesn't make for great viewing. Poor thing.
'Pear-shaped' is a description often associated with a Caspian Gull's head structure. While not always the case in practice, it certainly applies here. This advanced bird has already moulted quite a few scapulars but, more strikingly, quite a lot of coverts, too. The juvenile inner greater coverts show the classic indistinct internal markings, with the outers quite plain and showing a sharp contrast. Tail band is broad, with plenty of 'tiger stripe' markings across the feathers, and the rump is heavily marked.
A funny juvenile that likely has some Herring genes. Structurally, it looked a good Casp, with long legs, rangy structure, small head and long bill. Call was typical cachinnans. However, the greater coverts and tertials are strongly notched (the former rather like a bird I had in London in September 2019), while the juvenile scapulars show that 'oak leaf' pattern you'd expect on your average Herring. It'll probably look quite nice when it's moulted through.
A first-calendar-year with already plenty of scapular moult and a few coverts dropped. Tertials and coverts are crisply fringed, with the former having slightly stronger internal notching than usual. Very long legged, it's a nice bird with great structure. Underwing very white, with quite a narrow tail band. Underparts paling nicely, but a strong brownish shawl is apparent.
Probably my favourite of all the juveniles seen over the three days. Smooth and chocolatey, with an overall concolorous and uniform appearance, especially to the upper parts and flight feathers. But it's the facial expression of this bird that really stands out. Some Caspians are just so distinctive, and this is one of them. The eye shape and position, combined with head and bill structure, are so unlike any Herring or Yellow-legged Gull. Although it's not shown in the below, the underwing was quite pale, but nonetheless muckier than most of the birds featured above. A great Casp doesn't have to have a crisp, clean underwing.
I glimpsed this first-calendar-year on 15th, but it showed much better on 16th. Pretty much ideal in all respects, really. And with the added bonus of a nice, neat tail band. What a belter. I include two images of the same individual from a similar angle just to illustrate how a bird's mood can alter its overall appearance so considerably. Note a few replaced scaps, the classic 'hanging belly', largely white underparts, elegant structure, bill shape etc. One to enthusiastically rub your thighs over.
A juvenile that only appeared offshore on a couple of brief occasions and never came too close. Nice upperparts, typical greater covert pattern with fine notching on the inners, typical tertial markings (pale tips). A little bit more of a gonys than you'd ideally like on the bill, but otherwise decent enough.
See enough Casps these days and you can bet a yellow ring will show up sooner rather than later. Slightly surprisingly, this smart individual – XJCP – originates from a colony at Braunsbedra, central Germany. This colony is even further west than the notorious hybrid colony at Laußig. Often, birds from this part of the world look a bit iffy. But this one looks the full ticket, with great plumage and structure. I particularly liked the broad tail band; very smart!
This was a tiny bird, so evidently a female. It's amazingly long legged, slender and lightweight, but the bill shape isn't exactly typical, being quite short and deep. It reminds me of a tiny bird that I saw in Essex five years ago. Plumage was nice all round, aside the rather well-marked greater coverts, with the moult quite advanced, and perhaps the whitest underwing of all the first-calendar-year Casps seen. But you do wonder whether birds like this are the legacy of Herring genes somewhere down the line. It's almost like a really dainty Yellow-legged, but the call was typical cachinnans.
And, finally, it's worth a quick shout out to the Yellow-legged Gulls. Three or four present on each day at Cromer seafront – but it's certainly not like the Thames, where we're searching for a single Casp among the tens of michahellis!
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.