Well, that was a tough May. The cold conditions dominated right up until the final days of the month, and there was so much rain!
Despite the difficulties, there were a few obvious silver linings which helped my local year list reach 187 by the end of the month. Given that the Peterborough area was something of a forcefield for deterring quality birds throughout the month, and with neighbouring counties scoring multiple Temminck's Stints, Red-necked Phalaropes, Golden Orioles and the like, this is a pleasingly high total – largely thanks to the brilliant spell we had back during the cold weather in February. The only issue is that there aren't any easy species left now, and the lack of bonus birds in May might be telling in the quest for the elusive 200 mark (a feat never achieved in the area).
One of just three additions to my local year list during the period from 11-31 May was European Turtle Dove. This ever-scarcer species is just about clinging on in the Peterborough area, largely due to a resilient (yet still perilously small) population clinging on in the Etton-Maxey area, thanks to habitat creation and supplementary feeding (shout out to Langdyke Trust for their role in this). This is presumably the source of other, satellite territories in the Deepings area: I had three singing males at two sites away from Etton-Maxey in the month. At one of these, which has particularly nice TD habitat, I started supplementary feeding as soon as I clocked the birds were back. Hopefully it helps them out.
Spotted Flycatcher is another bird that has declined dramatically – especially in the east of England. It was never particularly numerous in the Peterborough area, at least in my time birding, but it too seems to be largely gone from here, with many of the sites that had birds when I started out 20 years ago now flycatcher-less. It was good to see a pair back at Southey Wood on 20th, after Paul Bolton had picked them up there the previous day – this site now appears the only regular publicised spot for them in our area.
The third addition was another 'Spotted' bird, this time a crake. This species is an annual summer visitor to the Peterborough area, although some years are better than others for them. As far as I know, this singing bird is the only individual heard in the area so far this spring.
While some of the aforementioned species become ever trickier to find locally, one species that is doing well is Bittern. Six nests were found local to me this year, with birds booming at several sites and the likelihood being that there are even more breeding pairs than these figures suggest. Despite the weather, with so much cold and rain, all six nests did well and fledged young. It's a bird really on the up and further habitat creation through the regeneration of former gravel pits will no doubt continue to see it do well. I was thrilled to be involved in monitoring of these birds and was able to assist in ringing one nest (under licence). Amazing things!
Meanwhile, I have been doing survey work on a site in North Wales on a monthly basis. Despite the continuing cold and wet weather, it was nice to enjoy Pied Flycatchers, Common Redstarts and the like on territory. Hearing these species singing – and indeed seeing them in their spring finery – is an experience that passes me by in most years, so it's been a welcome treat to get reacquainted with them. They were upstaged by Wood Warbler in the Clwydian Range not far from my dad's, which was a nice surprise, showing brilliantly and singing at eye level in an area of regenerating birch forest.
The period between 20 April and 10 May is what I always think of as the absolute peak time to be birding an inland patch, with the possibilities that this three-week spell offers about as varied as it gets at any point in the year. But for it to be fruitful, you need promising weather – and 2021 offered a real mixed bag, with some really dynamic spells intermixed with deathly quiet days.
One of the month's hits was Bar-tailed Godwit passage, with the fourth week of April producing the best inland movement of this species for several years. A male at BLGP on 20th was followed by two males at Baston Fen on 21st, then groups of eight and nine at BLGP on 23rd and 24th respectively.
The 24th proved to be one of the best days of the 'peak spring' period, with six Whimbrel and a Greenshank also moving through at BLGP, plus a couple of Little Gulls during the afternoon. This was capped off with a pristine, if brief, Spotted Redshank at Baston Fen in the evening – perhaps the most beautiful of all spring waders. It was a good season for Whimbrel, with BLGP also netting seven on 25th and up to three regularly seen at Baston Fen.
The period of 23-25th proved a truly mega few days for Little Gulls nationwide, with many counties netting record counts. Frustratingly, these unprecedented numbers largely bypassed us, but I enjoyed the views of the aforementioned birds – both pristine adults – on 24th. The only other record was a 2cy on 18th.
This few weeks is also prime time for Black Tern, although it proved a relatively poor spring for the species across the country. A single bird on the calm and overcast morning of 27th was the showiest individual I have seen at the pits, flying by within metres and putting on a great show. A further four followed the next day and were joined by a group of eight Arctic Terns for a time in the evening sun, providing one of those unforgettable spring patch experiences.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, Kittiwake is not a guaranteed bird locally each year, so I was pleased to see my second move through the so-called 'big pit' at Etton on the morning of 4th. It was present for all of a minute or two and was a classic example of a bird that makes you think about what else must we be missing locally each spring.
On 2 May I did a 'big green day' (or, as it was, half day), covering 60 km on the bike and taking in BLGP, Baston Fen, Castor Hanglands and Maxey Pits. In total I managed 105 species, which far exceeded my hopes given I was unable to commit the full day to it. A singing Quail at Baston Fen (also heard on 30 April) was the earliest I've had locally, but the highlight of the day was a singing Firecrest at BLGP. This was a patch tick for me and the first I've seen anywhere locally. It was very vocal but difficult to see when I first found it, and I couldn't hang around as I needed to press on with the day list. I managed to return later in the afternoon and the bird showed much better, but it had gone very dull by that point and the photo opportunities were poor. This was a fantastic example of a bird I'd simply have driven by had I been bird-racing in the car, such are the advantages of birding on a bike. I very much look forward to investing a full day on green 'racing' in 2022.
Passerine movement was largely disappointing during this period, with very little seen. Despite many miles walked or cycled, the only Whinchat I saw all spring was a male that I twitched in horse paddocks at Etton! Wheatear numbers were unremarkable at best and there were no other more unusual surprises to be had. Spring Whinchats really are good value though, aren't they?
Smaller waders started to move in the first week of May, but it wasn't long after this that the wind and rain set in. By 10th, we'd had so much rain that Wader Pit was back to winter water levels. Coupled with a particularly aggressive pair of Lapwings nesting on the remaining bit of shoreline, any arriving waders were quickly seen off. This made for a frustrating May, but not before a nice trickle of Dunlin (including 16 on 4th), as well as singles of Sanderling and Turnstone, moved through.
In an uninspiring few weeks for weather, coupled with the high water levels, it was probably optimistic to hope for much in the way of quality. My second patch Spoonbill was therefore very welcome when it appeared at Baston Fen on 7th, lingering into the next day.
In stark contrast to spring 2020, it's been a bitterly cold April so far, the arrival of spring migrants has largely been a slow and disappointing affair (as always, there have been some exceptions).
At the beginning of the month I bumped into the female Ring-necked Duck at Langtoft West End. It wasn't a great surprise to find it here; presumably it had been lurking in this mature and secluded collection of pits since it disappeared from nearby Tallington in mid-February – although I did look for it here on a couple of occasions in March without success. It went on to linger until the final week of the month, but could be quite elusive and took some finding at times, which made me feel a little less embarrassed about overlooking it for several weeks.
Several local birders came for better views of it at Langtoft (having suffered distant looks at Tallington Main Pit during a freezing gale in February). One of them was Mike Weedon, who remarkably found an adult Kittiwake here on the evening of 3rd. Despite the bird initially disappearing, I relocated it feeding in a hidden corner of the main lake and enjoyed some nice views in the evening sun. Never an easy species to see locally, this was a handy one for the year list.
Despite the cold weather, spring 2021 seemed to be starting quite strongly in the Peterborough area, with a Sandwich Tern the next quality bird to appear. First seen fishing along the River Nene on the afternoon of 4 April, it relocated to Ferry Meadows that evening and, thanks to awful weather overnight, lingered throughout a bitterly cold and breezy 5th. Sandwich Tern is a bit of an early April speciality around here; last year, I had one at BLGP on ... 5 April! In 2018 I had a flock of seven move through on 7th.
It's not often I see Sandwich and Arctic Terns before Common, but 2021 was playing out in bizarre fashion on many levels. That said, my first Commons of the spring were flying around at Tallington Main Lake on 19th, seen just minutes after picking up a single Arctic there. This proved one of the very few days in the month where it felt remotely warm!
Wader passage was slow to pick up, although a group of eight Ruff lingered at Baston Fen for a couple of weeks. The bitter, snowy and windy 5th - Sandwich Tern day - also produced a female Bar-tailed Godwit at BLGP, more closely resembling an ashen rock more than a regal wader as it clung to one of the few remaining tiny islands on the T-junction Pit. The first Whimbrel of the spring appeared on the evening of 16th, quite an early date for the species around here.
With overnight frosts, clear skies and a cold northerly dominating the first few weeks of the month, passerines were thin on the ground. A male Common Redstart at Langdyke's Etton-Maxey reserve on 17th eventually gave great views after a long search – it proved the only gettable individual of the entire month for me. Northern Wheatears were unsurprisingly slow to get going in the conditions, but a few eventually started passing through at BLGP.
So, early April produced a few handy birds for the year, but the quality and quantity was rarely there. With almost nightly frosts, bitter conditions and scant birding reward, it was hardly what you'd brandish a vintage start to the spring.
After the cold weather of the first half of February, the rest of the month proved a significantly milder affair. Correspondingly, the Peterborough area returned to a more routine state of play after the flush of brilliant birds during the freeze.
This winter's run of divers continued, with a Great Northern Diver seen at Ferry Meadows on 20th and, a week later, another Red-throated Diver at CEGB Reservoir. It was a little surreal to watch this bird take off as I arrived and fly off high to the east (it did return, and later spent a few days at Ferry Meadows).
After a winter without sightings, I spent some time searching for Little Owls during the calm evenings at the end of February and was pleased to find at least five territories without too much effort. This is a species that seems to become increasingly difficult to see. I remember as a kid seeing them without any effort, often sitting out very conspicuously around the fens. I wonder if the increase in Buzzards, Red Kites and corvids has driven them to become more elusive, at least in the daylight hours?
After several weeks without a sniff, a sudden arrival of Russian White-fronted Geese in the local area at the beginning of March produced singles at BLGP and Deeping High Bank (the latter joining up with the former after a few days) and a nice group of six near Etton-Maxey Pits. They may have been 'trash' birds this winter, but the species is great value for the local patcher and I always enjoy seeing them around here. Handsome birds, too.
Pink-footed Geese are a little more predictable around here in winter, yet views aren't always as good as the below – a harvested beet field by the Langtoft Fen road gave great photo opportunities for a week or so until it got ploughed. The bird shown was one of two that also spent time at Deeping Lakes and along the High Bank.
I visited the Nene Washes a few times during the month. The washes were looking absolutely fantastic throughout as floodwater receded and tens of thousands of waterbirds made the most of the feeding opportunities. Among the hordes of godwits, Golden Plovers, Lapwings and dabbling ducks were some nice scarcities: Spotted Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover were all handy additions to the year list, especially as each can be very tricky to catch up with in most years. When you add in Little and Great Egrets, Common Cranes and the odd raptor dashing through, the whole experience amassed to quite an addictive spectacle.
Perhaps the biggest excitement of March came on 20th, when a report of a large bird of prey near Greatford had me sniffing around the area. Thanks to some intel from Tim Mackrill it quickly became apparent that it was White-tailed Eagle 'G371' from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme. It took me a couple of hours to track down this impressive beast circling high to the north of Braceborough. It then went down near Toft, where I managed some much better views, before it gained height again and was lost as a speck to the south-east. The irony was that it then spent the best part of three hours sat in a field at BLGP, completely unbeknown to me!
Cattle and Great Egrets continue to increase around here, with the former still admittedly a few years behind the latter. It doesn't quite feel the red letter day it used to when seeing either of these species, but the latter especially is always a joy to watch. A Cattle took up residence near Frognall mid-month, while Greats were seen at a few sites.
Common Cranes, too, seem to be becoming an ever-more frequent sight in the Deepings area. This pair hung around Deeping and Baston Fens for a week or so in late March before moving on, presumably due to the lack of suitably undisturbed breeding habitat.
Will Bowell found a 2cy Dark-bellied Brent Goose at Deeping Lakes on 18th, which is always a good one to get on the local year list as they tend to possess the lethal combination of being scarce and tricky to catch up with. Funnily enough, I had another 2cy in fields at BLGP at sunrise on 27th, although it quickly flew off into the pit complex, out of view, and I never saw it again!
One feature of March birding around here is Whooper Swan passage, and the final 10 days of the month produced a fantastic show of what is one of our most impressive, yet under-appreciated, migration phenomena. My Twitter thread says it all, but suffice to say that watching hundreds of these birds moving low north overhead, shortly after commencing their journeys to Iceland, is a sight I will never tire of.
Despite many other birders enjoying their earliest-ever dates for a range of summer migrants, I found that spring was slow to arrive in my corner of the Lincolnshire fens. Temperatures were hampered by a northerly breeze for much of March, making it feel really quite chilly (although there were a few much warmer days here and there). I only managed my first Sand Martins at BLGP on 19th, which is a slightly later-than-average date (but far better than the embarrassment of 1 April last year!). My first White Wagtails of the season were at Stowgate on 26th.
But it is really the first Northern Wheatear of the year that gets spring properly up and running. In 2020 I had to wait until mid-April to see one, so was really pleased when a long stroll along the River Welland at Cradge Bank on 27th produced a male and female in just about the last sheep field on my walk. I'm not going to lie, I fist-pumped when I first saw that white rump and tail flitting away from me!
In fact it was 27th that proved the day that really signalled the turning of the seasons for me. As well as the wheatears and Brent Goose, BLGP suddenly got 'hot' and produced a northbound Osprey (with distinctive white upperwing coverts on the left wing) at 08:10.
Then, an hour or so later, my earliest-ever example of perhaps our most beautiful summer migrant: this pristine male Yellow Wagtail. So luminous, and not a feather out of place!
The run continued on the final day of the month, with my first Willow Warbler singing at the pits and a couple of Little Gulls dropping in. Meanwhile, a male Garganey gave me the run-around, first at BLGP and then at Baston Fen, where I eventually connected with it in the evening. It was very unsettled and elusive, though, and had gone by the next morning.
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.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.