Girton Birdwatch - November 2008
On Monday 6th October I set out for Sutton Gault in search of the most recent rare bird to visit our locality. The town of Sutton itself, which I don't remember visiting before, stands on a ridge at the South West edge of the Isle of Ely, and may be seen from miles around as one approaches. Its impressive church, commenced in 1366, towers over the fen, dominates the skyline such that on misty days travellers from other parts of the country have apparently mistaken it for the cathedral at Ely. It was a beautiful day when I approached, warm and sunny appropriately enough, because I was there looking for a bird which should have been somewhere hot and exotic, the southern Mediterranean perhaps: the Glossy Ibis. This seldom encountered wader is an extremely beautiful bird which, superficially, resembles a long-legged, all-dark curlew. From a distance it appears to be a dull brown but, particularly in spring, its upper body is a deep rich burgundy with purple, green and reddish highlights. Its down-ward curving bill is a dark grey. It flies, often at great heights, with wings and legs outstretched, but the wing beats are faster than a heron's. It's about 56 cm long, quite large, which makes the Sutton Gault bird, alone as it is/was out on the Fen searching out the insects, crustaceans, molluscs, small amphibians and fish which make up its diet, quite easy to spot with the naked eye (when you know it's there!). Normally it's a very gregarious bird - the flock of about 20 which turned up in Orkney in 1907 being then exceptional for Britain (at least a dozen reached Lincolnshire in 2006) - although in the Balkan and southern Mediterranean wetlands where it's normally found its numbers are being reduced by habitat loss. It usually winters in tropical and southern Africa and in Britain has always been regarded as an 'accidental' i.e. a species that has appeared in a given area a few times and whose normal range is in another area; also known as a vagrant. Although it's a wading bird they sometimes alight in trees. The Sutton Gault bird, which would leave the Fen in the late afternoon, early evening, was traced by a co-operating band of birders using mobile 'phones, pagers etc back to its roosting site which, to the chagrin of the warden who had made a special trip to Sutton to see it, turned out to be Fen Drayton. The Cambridgeshire bird is a 'loner' but many authorities believe that it's just a matter of time before the Glossy Ibis, along with the Spoonbill and Cattle Egret, is breeding successfully in Britain, providing another example of the consequences of global warming. The Glossy Ibis which reached Lincolnshire on January 31, and which was ringed in southern Spain in 2006, is thought to have made its way here intentionally rather than simply being blown in by storms. 'Our 'bird, first reported on 28th September, certainly seemed under no hurry to leave and was still here on 15th October when this copy was submitted.
Also out on the Fen when I was there, keeping company with a small flock of Mute Swans, was a Bar-headed goose. This is a medium-sized goose - about 76cm long - with a fairly long neck. It is predominantly light grey in colour but, as its name suggests, has two horseshoe-shaped brownish-black bars over its crown and nape, shading into grey. This falls into an entirely different category to the Ibis. In the wild, Bar-headed geese breed in central Asia (Southeast Russia, Northern India and Western China) and migrate over the Himalayas to spend winter in India and Northern Burma; it doesn't occur as a wild bird in Britain. So the Sutton Gault bird has either been blown wildly off course during migration or, much more likely, has escaped from a local collection. It's possible that a small number may breed ferally in this country and it's true that a larger feral population exists on the Continent and that some birds from there occasionally turn up in the UK. However, escapes from captivity are encountered more frequently, and it is rarely possible confidently to assign a bird to a feral Continental origin rather than a direct escape.
On 20th September Dave Heath and I caught a glimpse of a Hobby as we watched rugby at Grantchester Road. However, the same day a Red-footed falcon was reported over Birdwood Road and another was seen heading over Wimpole Hill, near Eversden, so I'm trying to convince myself that that was what we really saw! (We didn't have binoculars). On 13th October Dave definitely saw a Rose-ringed Parakeet (I usually call this the Ring-necked, which I think is the same bird) flying south over Milton Road, while the week before Andy Bonnett alerted me to the presence of two Common Buzzards, being mobbed by Crows, directly over our house near the school.
On Friday 19th September - remember it was a lovely sunny day? - I was cycling back from Histon and a lizard scurried across the path in front of me. I don't remember seeing this reptile in the county before, except the time we came across one sunning itself on the boardwalk at Fowlmere. Moreover, I had another first on 13th October when a Stoat shot out of the grass of St. John's field a couple of feet in front of me and disappeared into the Bramble hedge bordering Girton Wood. Rabbits are getting increasingly numerous in that area, and the village generally, and no doubt the Stoat was following a regular food supply. I've seen a Muntjac deer taking shelter in that same hedgerow not so long ago, too.