Girton Birdwatch - July 2008
At the end of May we were in Mallorca where every second bird appeared to be a spotted flycatcher and flocks of bee-eaters circled over our bungalow making their distinctive fluting 'pruir' call. We made our usual visit to the S'Albufera marshes and were rewarded by the sight of 15 - 20 Eleonora's Falcons filling the sky as they hunted dragon- and damsel flies. Among this group, apparently, were several Red-footed falcon. I didn't see them; in birding terminology I 'dipped'. Imagine my surprise when, on returning to Girton, I learnt that a female red-footed falcon had been sitting in a tree at the RSPB nature reserve at Fen Drayton displaying for all to see. It arrived on 13th May and was still there on the 29th. A handful of these elegant falcons reach Britain almost every year and, despite their increasing numbers, they are still sufficiently rare to cause quite a stir when they do arrive, usually in May-June. They resemble a small, dainty kestrel although their agile flight is more reminiscent of the hobby, of which there were also as many as 20 at Fen Drayton. However, they do hover frequently like a kestrel and take insects on the ground as well as in flight, together with small mammals. The female and male look very different. The male is slate-black with red feet and rusty under tail-coverts, while the female is grey above with a rufous crown and underparts; both male and female have very long wings. The falcon is the same size as the hobby but has a blunter profile. Filled with excitement I shot off to Fen Drayton, knowing as I did so that my chances of seeing this bird were extremely slim. It was a dull, overcast day and no dragonflies were about - the bird's favourite food - although there were plenty of gnats and mosquitoes and other small insects, so the sky was full of swifts, swallows and house martins. However, there was no sign of the falcon and, much to my chagrin, I dipped again. Just shows how important weather conditions are when looking for a particular bird. Learning that a red-footed falcon had also been spotted flying over the sewage works near Cowley Road on 3rd June, simply added to my disappointment.
I have recommended before that people visit Fen Drayton - if only for a pleasant country walk - but now that it has been adopted as a reserve by the RSPB it makes for an even better birding experience. The reserve is made up of 391 hectares of former gravel workings and traditional riverside meadows, and is criss-crossed by public rights of way and trails. The new guided bus is to pass through the reserve and although this proposal caused a great deal of concern to locals and others when first announced (we'll have to wait to assess its impact) it should certainly increase accessibility, especially as the intention is to incorporate a request stop. The RSPB has already started improving the habitat by removing some willows to open up views, managing the scrub, digging new ditches and pools and providing scrapes and islands to attract and retain a wider variety of birds. There are plans to provide artificial nesting banks to provide accommodation for kingfishers. New hides have been installed, with more to come. When I was there common terns were much in evidence and - this would be worth the trip alone - there were two avocets on one of the new islands. Gadwell are quite common and garganey have been seen recently. (The garganey is a very beautiful dabbling duck, uniquely a summer visitor, which is at the edge of its range in Britain, there only being about 100 breeding pairs). Those of you who were taken with the charm of the goldeneye on Spring Watch might like to know that it's usually possible to see these attractive ducks at Fen Drayton every winter, along with the even less common smew. Moreover, a couple of common cranes flew over on 29th May, while a honey buzzard was there on 4th June. But even if you don't see rare and exciting birds there's always enough interest to make a trip worthwhile.
However, as previously emphasised, it's not necessary to leave Girton to catch sight of unusual or relatively rare birds. On 1st June Dave Heath, while visiting his parents-in-law, reported seeing a red kite circling over the village. His mother-in-law was slightly hurt that this seemed to be the highlight of his visit! (Dave could add this to the osprey he saw down Cottenham Long Drove on 15th May). Another kite passed over our house on Monday 9th June at 17.45. It was flying away from me, quite low, and I originally misidentified it as an osprey, possibly influenced by Dave's recent local sighting. However, Marcus Kohler saw what must have been the same bird passing over the Rec, heading in the same direction, minutes before.
Another bird which I failed to see in Mallorca was the turtle dove. I should have stayed in Girton for, at the beginning of June, one turned up in Bob Benton's High Street garden. It's been 4 or 5 years since I've seen this bird in this country as it's becoming increasingly rare. Harsh weather conditions in Africa have devastated its numbers as have the depredations of continental European hunters, despite protective EU legislation. In one season Maltese hunters alone accounted for an estimated 100,000 of these birds. Agricultural intensification has also exerted downward pressure on the species. This combination of factors has led to the loss of three-quarters of its population, and a quarter of its range, in the last 3 decades.