Girton Birdwatch - October 2007
October is a month when anything can happen and anything can turn up; a month of comings and goings when watching the skies is even more rewarding than usual. Many species are undertaking inter-continental journeys back to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa while others, which have bred further north, are moving to winter here. There are also more localised movements as resident British birds move from upland breeding grounds to winter on the coasts. One bird which 'came' at the end of August, but which was probably 'going', was the solitary spotted flycatcher which visited the feeders in Linda Miller/Chris Wilson's garden. Apparently it used them as a perch (the feeders) from which it sallied forth in characteristic manner to grab flies, returning for a brief rest before repeating the operation. It didn't linger long and presumably set off on its journey south. Similarly, there were a few swallows and house martins passing over Girton in early/mid September, but these were almost certainly not 'our' birds but northerners off to Africa. We were in Scilly during the lovely weather at the end of August and the island skies were crowded with swallows and martins eagerly taking advantage of the insect life encouraged out of 'hiding' by the welcome warmth and sunshine. Some were undoubtedly summer residents but were supplemented by migratory birds stopping off to lay down fat for their imminent journey. The headlands were alive with wheatears, also on their way through, and it's worthwhile looking out for them locally as they move south. We were lucky to get amazing views of an osprey as it came in off the sea and spent the day hanging around our friends' flower farm on St Mary's. The Rutland Water birds should be coming this way soon - a bird was seen at Grafham on 10th September - so there's still a slight possibility of catching a glimpse of one of those overhead. Ospreys have had so much exposure on television recently that they'll be a familiar sight to many; moreover their pronounced white under-parts, pale head and dark eye-band, together with their 'crouched' flying position, make it difficult to confuse them with other raptors. Having said that, quite a few honey buzzards have been seen on migration locally (at Yaxley and the Ouse Washes for example), and they have much paler under-parts than the common buzzard and might possibly be mistaken for osprey. If you should encounter one of these look out for its narrow neck and distinctive cuckoo-like projecting head.
October, then, is a month which can send twitchers racing around the country, their hearts racing with them. Not only are there masses of birds on the move but there is also the prospect of unpredictable October weather bringing a 'fall'. This occurs when birds which have set off from one location in fine weather, later run into bad weather and are swept off course. Birds can find themselves fighting for their lives as they are battered by wind and rain and consequently they flop down exhausted at the first land they encounter. This, because Britain is geographically so well-placed, is often on our shores. The results can be sensational for, not only have birders been delighted to have robins, chats and warblers raining down on them at certain coastal hot spots, but there have been memorable occasions when, for example, 10,000 goldcrests 'fell' into Holme, Norfolk, and 700 ring ouzels ended up in a Kent field. To come across such a fall is exciting in itself but often within these flocks, which are often predominantly of one species, there is always the possibility of something rare and unusual.
One such rarity is the wryneck, which has turned up occasionally in Cambridgeshire in October (at Grafham and Woodwalton fen for example). In the 19th century the wryneck was a common bird of the British lowlands, often kept by country children as a pet, but has steadily declined since and is now effectively extinct here, although a regular passage migrant with October a good month to see it. One could say that the bird is 'jinxed'. It's a member of the woodpecker family and its Latin name is Jynx torquilla. According to Cocker and Mabey the bird's generic name - Jynx - originates in ancient Greece and Rome where wrynecks were associated with fertility rites involving a rotating wheel-like charm known as an Iynx (ed. This isn't a typo). The bird was spread crosswise in the wheel as it was spun, when the device was thought to have the power to charm a prospective partner or bring back an errant lover. But why should such powers be thought to reside in a small brown species of woodpecker? The answer apparently lies in the ancient world's 'scientific' observation of the bird's behaviour. The torquilla part of the scientific name means 'little twister', a reference to the wryneck's ability to writhe its head round in a highly reptilian fashion. Both young and adults are known to hiss and flick out their long tongues in the face of threat in a remarkably snake-like manner. This led the Greeks and Romans to ascribe to the bird the associations of fertility and eroticism which they had long fixed on the snake itself. Lest the impression has been given that the wryneck is an 'ugly' bird it should be added that, despite being predominantly brown, it is renowned for the intricately mottled beauty of its plumage.