I've been getting out on my bike for a little while each day throughout the past couple of weeks, which makes a nice break from working and being sat inside. I'm very fortunate to have such a fantastic array of gravel pits just out the back of Langtoft, the closest of which are little more than a few hundred metres away from the front door. There is also no-one about, especially early in the mornings, which is a far cry to the bustle of Tottenham, where I normally reside.
This is, of course, where I cut my teeth as a birder. So, almost 20 years on, it feels like I've come full circle somewhat. I could never have envisaged such an opportunity at the start of this year, and likely would have been doing the minimum of birding in London at the moment had this been a 'normal' year.
There are so many joys to birding a patch throughout the year (see Ed Stubbs' article on this in the May issue of Birdwatch) – but particularly in spring, when common summer migrants are returning. Following a well-trodden route around your patch brings with it a remarkable dynamism, as species composition changes daily. Since coming back to Lincs over a month ago, I've been really looking forward to April, and in particular from mid-month onward. These are very much the good times for inland patchers especially, with the list of possibilities growing rapidly as the month progresses.
After such a wet winter it seems outrageous that we could already be facing a drought, but the recent blocking high that has been causing sunny and dry conditions throughout late March ended up persisting for much of April. As such, the two weeks of mid-April were bright, sometimes very warm and almost entirely rain-free. Not much use for grounding passing migrants of course, and indeed it was only on 18th that I finally managed my first Northern Wheatear of the spring! A great count of seven that day, including a flock of six in fields on the fen to the east, was most welcome, and proved the start of a decent run of at least a dozen different birds over the following week.
No redstarts, Ring Ouzels or Whinchats, yet at least, but it was nonetheless great to chart the arrivals of the familiar summer species. In my last update I mentioned the early arrivals of Common Whitethroat and Reed Warbler. Well, there weren't any other particularly outstanding early records, although my first Common Swift of the year on 22nd was only a day later than my earliest ever (in 2007).
Sedge Warblers started piping up on 11th, when there were suddenly six in song, most of which were clearly migrants. A welcome sound on 12th came in the form of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler in the same spot as last year; this bird lingered until 22nd, when two were there, but this proved the last day they were present. Garden Warbler is always one of the latest migrants to arrive in my experience; the first was singing on 21st, with this quickly building to a handful in the following days. Lesser Whitethroat was a bit late this year, on 23rd, while there was also a clear and obvious arrival of both Reed Warbler and Common Whitethroat from around 20th. I heard my first Common Cuckoo on 21st, and there are now three males between the village and pits (I also heard a female bubbling one morning).
Meanwhile, wintering birds were gradually slipping away, typically in far less detectable fashion than the summer songsters. A few flocks of Fieldfare were still passing mid-month, with the odd Redwing sound-recorded over the garden until 22nd. Wildfowl included a single Pink-footed Goose that called in for a day on 21st (not one of the recent pair). A single Goldeneye remained at the pits; Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler also dwindled to the point you could count each species on one hand.
Another highlight in the local area was a booming Bittern for a couple of weeks mid-month, which I even heard distantly from the house at dusk one evening. Early one morning I saw two birds flying around at great height, seemingly in a display flight, with the male, with his neck feathers puffed out, vigorously chasing a presumed female, who looked utterly unimpressed by her hopeful suitor. On another morning I was able to get within perhaps 30 metres as he boomed, which allowed me to make a decent recording of his remarkable song. Have a listen below – you can hear a series of clicks, followed by the bird inhaling, before he booms four times. Sadly the male seems to have now moved on, but is another sign that this once-critical species is really bouncing back. Contra to common belief, Bitterns don't need huge reedbeds to feel at home, and will happily set up shop in reedy ditches or – as with 'our' bird – patches of marshy waste ground.
Then there are the Marsh Harriers. One particularly fine male has been skydancing in the area on a few occasions now, and really threw me the first time I heard him one morning. He was remarkably high, a silver-and-gold speck glinting in a sea of blue, catching the light as he somersaulted. Awesome to watch and listen to. At least five different birds are in the area, one of which has lost its tail; I'm sure it must have been shot at not too long ago.
Despite the almost unbroken sunshine of the fortnight, wader passage did at least start to pick up. Three Greenshanks on 17th were followed by singles on three further dates by 24th. The first Common Sandpipers (three of them) dropped in on 22nd. My favourites, though, were the seven Ruff which dropped in on the afternoon of 18th, including a few males, already sporting plenty of breeding colour. A Whimbrel grounded on 19th gave a rare opportunity to appreciate this underrated species on the deck here; it was seen alongside one of two individual Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits (on 17th and 19th). What will probably be the final Green Sandpiper for a couple of months dropped in on 22nd. Our early-breeding Oystercatcher pair had two well-grown chicks to around 20th, but both were scoffed in quick succession after that date by the local large gulls. A graphic reminder of just how tough waders find it to get their young to fledging.
Every April, inland patchers look forward to connecting with that Holy Trinity of passing Laridae: Little Gull, and Arctic and Black Terns. Each is a perennial birders' favourite, and without doubt they all sit highly on my list of most-loved species. Every encounter is one to be cherished, with all three being the classic pin-ups of that dynamic April-May period that patch birders look forward to each year.
April 2019 was a brilliant month for Little Gull. As well as seeing nearly 30 at Walthamstow Reservoirs, I had groups of seven and 21 at BLGP in a couple of visits when I was back over Easter, the latter mixing with a handful of Black Terns to create a pit full of eye candy. Conditions this year haven't been all that different to 2019, with prevailing north-easterlies and largely clear skies – but the Little Gulls have been significant in their absence. I was therefore very pleased to connect with a first-summer in among the Black-headed Gulls hawking over the Wader Pit on the evening of 19th. A few days later, the first Black Tern of the spring – an all-too-brief bird on the Wader Pit, which disappeared a couple of minutes after I picked it up. Fortunately, two more on 24th were a little more co-operative, even if too distant for good pics (as they always seem to be here). Meanwhile, just one Arctic Tern was seen in the two weeks – bizarrely picked up coming across fields one morning, past me and gone again in a matter of seconds. The first Common Terns showed up on 12th, with both local breeders and a few obvious migrants in evidence since then.
Completing daily visits, it's interesting to note how things have changed since I first covered the pits properly in the early 2000s. There are some obvious winners – for example, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are well up in terms of territories, while we now have Cetti's Warblers right across the site, breeding Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls, Little Egrets and so on. However, there are some losers, too. Common Nightingale is long gone (last record was 2004) and, although there's still time for a surprise, it seems a safe bet that Turtle Dove is extirpated here (I think around 2010 was my last territorial male). Willow Warblers are down on 15 years ago, perhaps by a third. Corn Buntings are down (albeit Yellowhammers seem stable). Common Tern has no islands to breed on now (60 pairs bred in the mid-2000s). What is really shocking is the lack of Meadow Pipits – they seem to have almost totally disappeared from here as a breeding species.
And so that was mid-April over all too quickly. A very enjoyable – if not exceptional – two weeks of patch birding around my home village, with a good spread of classic species of the season showing up, but just not really lingering long in the glorious spring sunshine.
The end of March and first third of April have been dominated by a blocking high, causing dry, sunny and at times very warm conditions across much of Britain. As such, it's been a real struggle for most inland patchers, with migration having been rendered largely invisible as birds pass straight through overhead.
This has meant relatively little reward (at least in terms of unusual sightings) for the hours invested in birding the Baston and Langtoft area. Still, it's been a couple of weeks to savour the weather and spend time exploring the area for the more difficult local breeders, some of which just about cling on locally. I've come across pairs of Little Owl and Grey Partridge, for example – neither of which I've seen in the immediate vicinity for a number of years. Simple pleasures, but great examples of those personal moments that make watching a patch such a rewarding exercise.
In terms of arriving summer migrants, late March was a real struggle. Although Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were singing in force by the turn of the month, and I lucked upon a fly-through Swallow on 26th (which I think is my earliest ever), I didn't see my first Sand Martin until 2nd – my latest ever.
Fortunately the weather turned very quickly after that and, demonstrating just how fickle migration can be, the second wave of summer migrants was actually very early. I had my earliest Common Whitethroat by some 10 days on 7th, when a bird was singing on the rough ground opposite ARC Pit. Then, on 9th, a Reed Warbler was singing at the pocket park – again a good week or so before I can remember seeing the species previously here. The first two Willow Warblers were in song on 5th, a slightly later than average date (but only by a day or two).
Bird of the fortnight was a Sandwich Tern early morning on 5th. It had evidently been roosting, unknown to me, on the ARC Pit 'beach', as I only noticed it flying from there, over my head and away to the south as I approached the pit. It all happened a bit suddenly and quickly, not being the species I expected to see on a crystal clear morning, and my camera was still in my bag. A lesson that I should have learned a long time ago: always anticipate something decent, even when it seems most unlikely.
With days of unbroken blue skies, wader passage was lean at best. Add to that the record rainfall over the past 10 months absolutely flooding out the Wader Pit (the old islands are now at least a couple of feet under water, perhaps more) and the site actually has greatly reduced wader potential this year. It's a great shame for this previously brilliant site. Nonetheless, a couple of Avocet records (a pair on 27th and a single bird on 7th) were pretty typical for this time of year and groups of three Black-tailed Godwits were seen on 8th and 11th. A small trickle of Green Sandpipers passed through as normal, while Redshank numbers quickly dropped away after a peak of 11 on the final day of March. Meanwhile, the local waders are wasting no time in settling down – an Oystercatcher was already sitting on eggs in late March and these hatched overnight on 8-9 April, easily the earliest brood I've seen here (and by some weeks). Little Ringed Plovers arrived back on 26th, which is a fairly typical date, and at least two pairs seem to be about.
A wintry arrival concerned a couple of Pink-footed Geese on 9th. I tend to find that any sort of prolonged coverage of the pits between September and March usually produces one or two of this species, but it was a surprise to see these turn up so late in the season.
I've also dipped my toes into the murky waters of noc-migging since the end of March. On the first night I stuck the recorder out at home in Langtoft, on 30 March, I had a flock of Common Scoter fly over, as well as some Teal. A bit of beginner's luck, perhaps, but some interesting bits have been recorded subsequently. Water Rail, Moorhen, Coot, Barn and Tawny Owls, Wigeon and Golden Plover have all been passing over East End during the hours of darkness.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.