Girton Birdwatch - December 2009
The last few months have been very exciting for birders in Cambridgeshire with rare birds turning up all over the place. These have included Goshawk, Pallid Harrier, Dotterel, Red-Rumped Swallow and Puffin. Yes, Puffin! We are lucky, of course, in having Goshawks 'on tap' at Thetford Forest, although sightings, as I know to my cost, are rare. These Goshawks were much closer, being seen at Wilbraham Fen (27th September) and Grantchester (27th October). The Goshawk is often confused with the Sparrowhawk but it is much larger, especially the female which is the size of a Buzzard; it is the smaller male which can sometimes be mistaken for a Sparrowhawk. It is usually confined to woodland areas and is a fast, skilful hunter, using its sudden bursts of speed and great agility in confined spaces, to catch birds in flight. However, it also hunts low over open fields and meadows. At Wilbraham Fen, however, the hunting male was observed at tree-top level.
There is some dispute about whether the Goshawk is originally a 'native' British bird. It is to be found over a wide range, breeding from Morocco, Iberia, Scandinavia, across Eurasia to the Bering Sea and Japan, and is even to be found in North America. In Britain they are much rarer and comprise a mere 250 to 350 pairs (compared with about 40,000 pairs of Sparrowhawks) but its secrecy makes it difficult to determine its exact status. There are undoubtedly genuine colonists from the Continent amongst its numbers but these have been boosted by deliberate releases by 'falconers' and other owners (the technical term for someone who keeps and trains this bird is 'austringer'). They have been kept for centuries in this country and were so desirable that their ownership was reserved to nobility among both the Normans and their Saxon predecessors. Their present scientific name: Accipiter gentiles - or noble - is further indication of the high esteem in which they were held.
The Pallid Harrier which turned up in Haddenham on 7th September caused even greater excitement. This migratory bird of prey is a very rare vagrant to Britain and Western Europe. It breeds in southern parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and winters mainly in India and South East Asia, so to encounter one just down the road is truly amazing! The bird resembles a smaller version of the Hen Harrier and Montagu's Harrier, which are both whitish grey with black wing tips; the Pallid is lighter coloured, has narrower wings and a different wing tip pattern.
Then we had the Red-rumped Swallow which turned up at Witcham on 27th October. I have never seen a Pallid Harrier and have only seen one Goshawk, and that was in Southern France, but have encountered a Red Rumped Swallow (I'm afraid my wife and I, rather vulgarly, always call this a 'buff bummed' swallow). You will know that you have seen something different if you catch a glimpse of this bird. It is similar to the Barn Swallow but its tail is shorter and lacks the white spots. Its rump is a reddish buff, with whitish buff upper-tail coverts, and it has a thin chestnut eye-stripe and collar. We saw ours on Tresco, Isles of Scilly, on 16th April, 1979, the only one to visit Scilly that year. At the time there had only been 35 records of this bird in Britain, with all but three occurring since 1949. It is a vagrant to Britain, mostly in April-May and September-November, and has become an increasingly frequent visitor to our shores in recent years. It has over-summered once (?) in Dorset.
Not to be outdone, the next day, the 28th October, a Dotterel turned up on Ouse Fen. As you may know, this beautiful and endearing wader is one of the very few birds to nest on the arctic-alpine heath of Britain's mountains, such as the Cairngorms. The female Dotterel, unusually, is more brightly coloured than the male and takes the leading role in courtship. The cock bird assumes almost all the duties of incubation and chick rearing. Although the Cambridgeshire bird was on its way south to Africa, its presence here should not be regarded as that surprising given it was once widespread. However - familiar story - it was persecuted in the 19th century, early 20th century because it made good eating and its feathers were highly prized for fish-fly making. Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey point out that South Cambridgeshire once had a deserved reputation for the bird; there is a Dotterell Hall near Balsham and a Dottrell Hall four miles north-east of Royston. In Royston the whole town used to turn out for 'Dotterel Day' in the second week of May, when the birds provided a marketplace treat. King James I maintained a hunting stables near Newmarket and was a regular on the high chalk country round Royston, especially 'at ye season for shooting dotterails'.
The strangest bird report, perhaps, came from near Mepal on 10th November. A well-known local birder, Stuart Elsom, was told by a work colleague about a mystery bird seen by a friend swimming and diving in the river. On being e-mailed an image of the bird he was astounded to find it was not the Cormorant or duck he was expecting but either a small-billed adult or juvenile Puffin! There have been several other sightings of Puffin in this area in the past but, nevertheless, one of those 'can't believe my eyes' moments.