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!
There's a general feel that things are a bit late this summer in terms of returning gulls. Certainly that seems to be the case with Yellow-legged Gulls, as alluded to in my last post, but also the relentless westerlies of July seem to have stemmed the westward march of Caspian Gulls, too.
Still, a few began to pop up after the first in (where else but) Norfolk on 21st. It was welcome to see Rich pick up the first London juvenile on 23rd. So, all of a sudden, I felt confident for the weekend.
Arriving at the pier mid-afternoon on Saturday, it became apparent that it wasn't going to be a vintage session. Overall numbers were quite high, particularly when birds left the tip (which closed around 1 pm), but the Yellow-legged tally was down on the previous weekend and it just didn't 'feel' like a productive day.
Greenhaven Drive was also a bit poor, and it was absolutely tipping it down by the time I returned to the pier late afternoon. Several more loaves went into the Thames and then, after some time (yet quite suddenly), the distinctive sound of a young Casp came from within the melee. And there it was. It's often the way, they sneak in unnoticed and, when the bread is shelled out, you hear them before you see them.
It quickly transpired that this was the bird from 23rd, with a very impressive bill on it and the same nick out of the greater coverts on the left wing, plus the obvious individual features in the rump and tail pattern.
Last year, I had my first juvenile Caspian of the summer on 28 July. Several more followed in the first half of August, all giving great views at the pier. Hopefully 2020 provides a similar story!
I've been down in London a little more of late, which means gulls are back on the cards. July brings with it the start of a new season of gull watching in the capital, with the first juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls really marking this as they begin to arrive in the opening days of the month. Numbers of this species and our commoner residents begin to swell as July progresses, with returning adults accompanied by a good crop of fresh youngsters. In short, it's a dynamic time to be birding on the Thames.
Rich, Jamie and Dante scored a June juvenile Yellow-legged this year, when they had one fly through at Thamesmead on 28th. That aside it's proven a relatively slow build-up for this species, with cool westerlies dominating the opening couple of weeks of July and stemming the usual flow of michahellis into the capital.
In fact it was only on 16th, after a couple of blank outings, that I finally clapped eyes on a juvenile Yellow-legged at Erith Pier. By Sunday, a much-improved picture saw Rich and I tally 20 birds at the pier, including 17 juveniles. More of what you'd expect.
The early signs would suggest it's set to be a better year for Mediterranean Gulls, with a greater proportion of juveniles coming and going up the Thames in mid-late July. Last year was a poor summer for breeding success among both these and Black-headed Gulls, with parts of Europe suffering a particularly wet season and this seemingly having a knock-on effect on productivity. Of those seen in recent days, one at King Henry's Wharf on 19th wore a white ring '3461'. Slightly unsurprisingly, it had been ringed in June near Antwerp, Belgium.
The signs were that things were hotting up yet further when I visited Rainham with Niall and Rich on 23rd. At least 55 Yellow-legged Gulls, most of which were juveniles, plus adult and second-summer Caspian Gulls. Rich later gripped us off with the first juvenile Casp of the year at Erith Pier at high tide.
Highlight of the day, though, was an unringed White Stork that seemed to lift off Rainham tip at around midday and, after gaining height, drifted off south towards Crayford Marshes. It is presumed to be one of three birds from the White Stork Project, which have also been seen at Bowers Marsh in Essex and latterly at Crayford. The other two wear the project's coloured darvic rings.
Birding in June quickly died down locally, although the breakdown of the spring's dry conditions eventually happened in the opening week of the month, with the rain and heavy cloud producing some nice visitors, including two patch ticks for me.
The month opened with a Common Quail singing for around five minutes in barley fields north of Wader Pit early on 1st, followed by a second-calendar-year Red Knot late evening on second. Then, early on 3rd, my first-ever BLGP Little Tern was an exciting arrival, although it was typically brief. Flushed by a Lesser Black-backed Gull, it flew around the pit calling for a few minutes before motoring off to the north-east. On 7th, another patch tick – a Spoonbill – flew through (after leaving Deeping Lakes around 15 minutes previously, thanks to Hugh Wright for the tip off!). The latter then settled at Baston Fen for a couple of days.
Two different male Garganey made appearances during the first half of June, with one regularly spending the afternoons dozing on the east bank of Wader Pit. Things naturally quietened after 10th, although two Black Terns on 13th were a nice midsummer surprise. The first Green Sandpipers were already moving back through by the second half of the month, and a count of nine Common Sandpipers on 30th was amazing for June.
With a major invasion of Rosy Starlings underway, especially early in the month when they were still arriving, I spent quite a lot of time cycling or driving around housing estates and other suburban settings during June. Lots of scenes like the below – but no pink prize, of course.
With birding taking a back seat, attention switched to orchids and insects. I did plenty of moth trapping throughout June, with some decent catches enjoyed including Lime Hawk-moth and numerous Eyed Hawk-moths in the Langtoft garden, plus other entertaining beasts such as Leopard Moth, Small Ranunculus and various beautiful 'micros'.
I found good numbers of Bee Orchids at BLGP this year, although unfortunately many were bulldozed by ongoing quarry workings before I had the chance to transplant them. I did manage to rescue a couple, though, and there were plenty more flowering safely some way away from the works. The dry spring had evidently restricted numbers at Swaddywell Pit, where they were both a bit weedy and few in number.
A visit to Leicestershire on 6th found three Frog Orchids flowering at the only known site in the county, although they were inconspicuous and somewhat singed from the hot weather. A stop at a nearby site in south Lincolnshire produced a couple of Greater Butterfly Orchids in flower, although the strong winds had caused the largest to be rather floppy and limp towards the top.
After such a glorious spring, June proved a bit of a poor month weather wise. Days were often cool, cloudy, windy or a concoction of all three. Nevertheless, there were some brighter days and I made the most of these to look for Purple Emperors at Castor Hanglands. They don't very co-operative here, rarely floating down to earth in the manner that so many seem to enjoy at established sites like Fermyn Wood, but with patience it was possible to enjoy nice flight views of battling males, and a female that briefly came down to head height.
Earlier in the month, I had an overdue butterfly tick in the form of Black Hairstreak. I had intended to try them at a few local sites, but decent weather wasn't in particularly plentiful supply.
The bright and breezy conditions proved to be a theme of mid-late May, which in turn had a big impact on one of the month's big features for the inland patcher – wader passage.
Out on Deeping Fen, the flooded field at North Drove quickly dried up in the drought-like conditions, although not before it gave me a few great sessions to remember it by (for various reasons, this field will never likely flood again in the way it did in 2020). One of these was on 18th, when a beautiful summer Sanderling dropped in with a handful of tundrae Ringed Plovers.
Strong winds on 22nd produced the best day of the month for waders, with another Sanderling at North Drove alongside Ringed Plovers, Dunlin and three Greenshanks.
That day also produced a few Greenshanks and a couple of different Sanderlings at Baston & Langtoft Pits, including a bright bird which spent time feeding around a single tiny island until pressure from the local gulls got too much and it was tossed eastwards in the relentless gale.
Avocets also took up residence at North Drove and decided to try and nest, although the dwindling water there means they're most likely doomed when it dries up. Ironically, this site (which wouldn't have existed were it not for one of the wettest winters on record) would no doubt have attracted more interesting visitors in a more typical, wetter spring, and would have also retained water for longer. As you tend to find with patching, you can't have it all!
Nicholas Watts' fields on the south side of Baston Fen have been producing a trickle of waders since late April, and this spot also has good numbers of breeding Redshank, Lapwings and Oystercatchers, plus regular Avocets and the odd visit from up to two Garganey. 'Build it and they will come', as they say.
On the sometimes very warm days, the slower pace of birding meant a change of focus at times. Probably the biggest surprise was finding Green Hairstreak at BLGP. As far as I can tell this is not only a site first but also a bit of a range expansion.
The Black-headed Gull colony seems to be having a better year than last, no doubt spurred on by the favourable conditions. As is usual for this site, the first fledged youngsters started appearing in the final few days of the month.
I spent quite a lot of time walking likely spots for unusual 'Acros' during the final week of May, buoyed by an influx of both Blyth's Reed and Marsh Warblers to southern and eastern areas. Just the common species, though ...
All in all, it's been a decent spring on patch. The weather wasn't conducive to any big movements and lots of stuff must have gone straight overhead, unnoticed. On the other hand, the beautiful weather encouraged songsters and good shows of raptors overhead. It's been an amazing year for Garden Warblers, of that there is no doubt. Hearing a Nightingale at the pits again was a red-letter moment. Scarcities such as Cattle Egret, Grey Plover and Sandwich Tern kept me going, and the trickle of migrating waders – always my favourite family of birds – was dynamic enough to keep me interested day to day.
Rediscovering the joys of patch birding has been a real revelation for me this spring. It was an opportunity I wouldn't have foreseen even as recently as February, but I've loved it. Appreciating the intricacies and nuances of a patch, understanding how it works, finding the best spots and observing the advancing spring at an altogether more relaxed pace than I am typically accustomed to in London has made this a truly memorable couple of months.
In this fast-paced, sometimes chaotic world in which our consumption all too often outweighs what we give back, it is so easy to forget what great pleasure the simplicity of watching a local spot can bring through the seasons. It is a highly rewarding pastime. Every slow, unproductive visit makes the good days even sweeter when they come. There is huge satisfaction in finding a locally interesting species (bird or otherwise!) close to your front door, even if it might be common in nearby suitable habitat, on the coast or otherwise.
A great deal can be learned from patch birding and, if you're lucky enough to live close to somewhere accessible and with even a modest array of habitats, I would urge you to give it a go if you don't already. Although re-calibrating individual expectations is an inevitable part of the process, there is little doubt that, in time, you will find that birding can be just as enjoyable within a few miles of home as it can be anywhere else on this planet. That's certainly been the case for me.
The final week of April and first 10 days of May produced some steady patch birding around Langtoft. Weather conditions haven't really been ideal for most of this spring and passage wasn't as good it might have been. Nonetheless, the week started with a new species for the patch – two Common Cranes, which slowly made their way south over the site and over Langtoft village (although agonisingly just a few hundred metres away from being visible from the garden). I was fortunate that they were so vocal, as I suspect they would have just circled high overhead and remained unseen if I'd not heard them calling.
A small trickle of Northern Wheatears continued to appear until the last, two males on 1-2 May. On 3rd, a fantastic male Whinchat appeared by the Cross Drain, and was even giving some sub-song for a time.
At sunrise on 7th, a rich song floating across the site transpired to be a male Common Nightingale – having checked notes, my first here since 2008, and certainly not a bird I thought I'd be hearing this spring. This is a species on the brink of being lost from Lincolnshire; its remnant site near Lincoln had only one pair in 2019. So, the significance of this bird setting up territory cannot be underestimated, at least at county level. With the weather so balmy and calm, conditions were perfect for making recordings. Here's seven minutes' worth for your ears – press play and keep reading ...
Baston Fen is looking in great condition this spring, with the recently created wet fields attracting good numbers of breeding and migrant birds. Highlight was a breeding-plumage Cattle Egret on 4th, although it appears to have been a one-day bird with no sign since. A few small groups of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers have been dropping in here, with Common Sandpiper and Greenshank also making the odd appearance. A lingering Whooper Swan also remains, having been injured earlier in the spring and presumably now set to summer locally.
On the subject of waders, which always play a big part in the local birding here as April turns to May, things have been fairly steady, although the best movements have tended to come on clearer days when the north-easterly has picked up throughout the afternoon, dropping birds in. BLGP has seen a small turnover of Dunlin and Greenshank (the latter enjoying a good showing this spring). The first Wood Sandpiper of the year dropped in briefly on the evening of 27 April, followed by a second flying straight through the following morning. Another appeared on the evening of 9 May, which I managed a fairly poor recording of as it flew around the pit.
A Black-tailed Godwit also dropped in on 3rd, but the highlight of early May was a beautiful Grey Plover on 5th. It was fairly tame and, with a bit of careful stalking (during which I managed to sink up to my waist in quicksand), I had the bird within 10 metres and enjoyed easily my best views of this species locally.
There have been precious few visits from any notable terns or gulls over the past two-and-a-half weeks. On a good day for the species across the south, I had four very brief Arctic Terns drop in on 28 April – in fact, so brief that I picked them up just as they were circling up to into the stratosphere and powering off to the north-east. I'd scanned the pit fully no more than a minute or so before and seen no terns at all. I wonder if anyone else finds that with Arctic Terns, that they're so inconspicuous in their arrival sometimes that they seem to appear from nowhere, and then disappear again just as effectively?! I had the same happen a few times last year, too. They make it look so easy, even into a brisk headwind. Thankfully a group of five hung around for a while on the afternoon of 10 May, allowing the first opportunity to really appreciate the species at the pits this spring.
There are plenty of brown fields around this spring, which will make the odds of winning the lottery that is finding Dotterel across the fens of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire even longer than usual. However, one such field on Deeping Fen, just a couple of miles from the pits as the bird flies, is still quite extensively flooded after the winter's rain and is attracting a few migrant waders. These have so far included Dunlin, Greenshank and Ringed Plover in the main, although a beautiful male Ruff dropped in on 9th. Two Whooper Swans were also a late surprise, but quickly moved off to the north, and a pair of Garganey also called in one day. There must have been so many birds using it during the winter; wish I'd known about it at Christmas!
Meanwhile, back at the pits itself, there are at least four male Cuckoos about and I've heard females bubbling on a few occasions. While its national trends make for grim reading, it does seem that they are persisting and even thriving in areas of regenerated gravel pits, at least around here, which offer a variety of habitats and are gradually expanding across the fens of the Deepings area, replacing the monoculture of crop fields (hopefully for the better in terms of biodiversity). It also seems a real boom year for Garden Warbler – I can't get over how many are singing at the pits at the moment, with 19 territorial males counted on 3rd.
The Bittern I included in my last blog post has resurfaced, now singing at a private site a few miles from where I originally had it. It's great to listen to, but his transient wanderings would suggest that he is unfortunately unpaired this year. I was, however, able to make a nice recording, this time uninterrupted by gulls, woodpeckers and a nearby generator!
Recent warm weather has made things feel very summery, and (prematurely no doubt) there's been a real end-of-spring feel locally. However, the weather has today [10 May] turned almost wintry, with a bitter northerly and icy showers quickly taking hold. For waders at least there's still a good few weeks to go, although as we go further into May it's more about the occasional, big bird rather than the good all-round spread of migrants that the past few weeks has produced. Still, it's exciting times ahead ... and hopefully there'll be more to talk about towards the end of this month.
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 musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.