Girton Birdwatch - October 2006
I don't know what happened to August this year, although September has started off in a blaze of glory. I hope the birds aren't confused because I certainly am! By the time this appears Autumn should be well on the way and with it the arrival of plenty of migrants. They may not be conspicuous in Girton yet as it's a bit early for the arrival of the Scandinavian thrushes, so this might be a good time to explore the near-by wetlands and stretches of open water. We are lucky to have the Ouse and Nene Washes, Fen Drayton Gravel Pits, Wicken Fen, Fowlmere, Milton Country Park and Grafham Water on our doorsteps. They all attract unusual birds at this time of year, while providing pleasant places for early morning or late afternoon walks. It's still worthwhile keeping one's eyes on local skies, field and hedgerows, though, with Chris Starling spotting a circling Buzzard over his garden and an Osprey seen exploring the skies over Shire Hall, possibly the same one which spent time fishing Grafham Water recently, stocking up for its long journey South.
I can't recommend Fen Drayton Gravel Pits highly enough at this, or any other time of the year, as they have become one of the most important areas for bird-watching in Cambridgeshire, perhaps only taking second place to the Ouse Washes in terms of numbers of species recorded. The extraction of gravel began there in 1953 and since that time over 213 species have been reported, with 65 of these being regular breeders. In Autumn and Winter the pits swarm with wildfowl and attract relatively unusual birds such as Smew, Goldeneye, Lesser Scaup, Ferruginous and Ring-necked duck, as well as numerous waders and interesting members of the tern family such as Whiskered and Black-winged tern. (In this country we are more likely to come across Little, Arctic, Sandwich and Common tern). Regular readers might remember that a few months ago I suggested that this is a good place - if you're very lucky - to encounter that elusive bird, the Bittern, as one at least has been over-wintering here, with often two present, while recently, during a particularly harsh cold snap, three were seen.
You might be even luckier - although this is more likely in the Spring or Summer than Winter - and come across that bizarre white creature, the Spoonbill. This is another bird that is almost impossible to misidentify. It's a large bird - about 31-34 inches, 78-85cms - with a long (almost as long as the bird!) greyish-black bill, widening at the end into a yellow spoon-shape. This is not just a decorative oddity but is used to swish from side-to-side, picking up and filtering a varied diet of water plants, small fish and water insects. It has white plumage, with a yellow ochre chin. In the breeding season it has a crest behind its head and sports a yellowish breast-band. It flies with its head and neck outstretched, with its neck sagging slightly. They are usually silent birds but will give the occasional grunt or rattle their bills in excitement. A few years ago my wife and I were just leaving the RSPB's reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk, when a small flock arrived to begin feeding - my first and only sighting (I've just checked: this was in 1990 - Oh dear!). The Spoonbill nested in East Anglia until the 17th century but the drainage of the Fens almost certainly eliminated an important breeding area and, by 1651 when Vermuyden completed his work, it was close to extinction. In 1996 a flock of 19 visited Minsmere and constituted the largest gathering for decades, leading many people to hope that a re-colonisation had begun; two years later this hope was fulfilled and a pair fledged young at an undisclosed location, bringing an end to a 330-year breeding absence.
It is a little disappointing to have to report that the Red-flanked Blue-tail which caused such excitement when it was seen in the village last year, has not been accepted by the British Birds Rarities Committee as a record. This does not mean that it wasn't here, but that too few people were able to verify its presence. The BBRC has very exacting standards and - in the highly competitive world of 'professional' birding - has an unenviable task weighing all the pros and cons (and 'cons' do occur!) of particular cases. However, this bird has been seen on the West coast this year so who knows?
Other villagers have had the pleasure of watching Humming bird hawk moths in their gardens, with one found down Fairway (K.G.), also feeding on geraniums. Joe Hodgson, who was reading the GPN on the Net, wrote in from Aspatria, Cumbria, to say his geraniums, too, had attracted the moth. This is a long way North but they have apparently reached as far as Orkney and Shetland. Remarkable, as most of the insects in this country travel all the way from Southern France.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com