Girton Birdwatch - December 2010
It seems that I only have to leave the area for a few days and interesting birds fly in! We went to see daughter Eleanor in Leeds a few weeks ago and took the opportunity while there to visit the RSPB's Fairburn Ings reserve near Castleford. The feeder outside the visitor's centre was alive with Tree Sparrows; very attractive birds which are getting increasingly rare. I advised Elly to take a good hard look as there was every chance she'd never see them again. The receptionist informed us that all RSPB reserves in Yorkshire now play host to these birds. I've seen them at Rutland Water but not any closer to home. I was surprised, therefore, but delighted, to learn from Del and Libby Cull that the birds had been recent visitors to their garden in Thornton Close. Regular readers might remember that in April 2010 I reported that attempts were being made to attract Tree Sparrows to the Town End Close nature reserve, but that we shouldn't 'expect miracles'. I don't know whether that attempt has been successful, but their presence in Thornton Close gives cause for considerable optimism. The Tree Sparrow may be distinguished from the House Sparrow by its smaller size, and combination of chestnut (not grey) crown, smaller black bib and black spot on each cheek. With Christmas approaching, now might be a good time for parents to consider gifting their youngsters a half-decent pair of binoculars which, who knows, could lead to a life-time of interest and pleasure (and could also double up as a means for watching rock concerts!).
Fen Drayton Pits would repay a visit at this time of year, with a telescope being an even better option than binoculars. Binoculars would suffice to pick up the Cetti's Warblers, Chiff Chaff and Siskins that were reported there on 14th November, but a telescope would allow better views of the interesting gulls - Caspian and Yellow-Legged - there on the 13th, along with a female Smew and two Red-Crested Pochard.
There's every chance that the cold weather will bring Siskins to your garden feeder. This small yellow-green finch was once much admired as a cage-bird, when it went under the name aberdevine. Trapping for the cage-bird trade probably suppressed the native population, although escapees also helped 'seed' new communities, but nowadays the winter population has been dramatically boosted by a much more humane activity: the growing bird-seed industry.
The Chiff Chaff - a small green bird with paler under-parts and a light stripe over the eye, similar in appearance to its close relative the Willow Warbler - is usually a harbinger of spring, arriving from the Mediterranean in late March. However, a few hardy specimens overstay here and brave the cold. They don't sing in the winter (they 'do what they say on the tin' in spring, while the Willow Warbler has a fluent, wistful song) and binoculars are needed to examine their legs which are usually, not always, black in the Chiff Chaff and more flesh coloured in the Willow Warbler.
The Cetti's Warbler, named after an 18th Century Jesuit priest, was once extremely rare in Britain, the first record coming in 1961, but it has enjoyed a rapid expansion since. Given that it was originally a bird of the Mediterranean, its habit of staying here during winter is surprising. It also sings in winter, which makes it easy to identify in the relative absence of other song. Their song, sometimes characterised as: 'What-yer Â... what-yer Â... what-yer Â... come-and-see-me, bet you don't Â... bet you don't', is most appropriate for such an elusive bird.
If you only have a casual interest in birds you might be wondering about the Yellow-Legged and Caspian gulls. Many people will be familiar with Black-headed, Herring (of 'Desert Island Discs' fame), Great and Lesser Black-Backed and Common (not that common!) gulls, but we are also visited by much rarer migrants/vagrants, many of which I've never seen, such as Mediterranean, Little, Bonaparte's, Ring-Billed, Iceland, Glaucous, Armenian, Sabine's, Ivory - as well as the afore-mentioned Yellow-Legged and Caspian gulls.
The Yellow-Legged gull is the 'easy' one, and a rare visitor to Britain. Although it is still considered by some authorities as part of the Herring Gull complex, it is increasingly viewed as a species in its own right - it has yellow legs! 'Our' Herring Gull has pink legs although, confusingly, those with yellow legs are not unknown. The Caspian Gull is somewhat similar - once thought to be a sub-species of Herring Gull but now more usually recognised as a species. I'm not going to attempt to describe it - one web-site I visited included eleven tightly- packed pages of description - suffice to say that one of the few places that this rare bird has been known regularly to visit is Milton tip.
The Red-Crested Pochard, on the other hand, is a duck which is hard to get wrong. The male is marked by an over-large head and a rich orange-rufous crest and red bill. However, it is the Smew that one should try not to miss, because the adult male is quite simply stunning. It is white, with a large head and vermiculated grey flanks, with narrow black lines extending over its back and flanks. A black mask encloses the eye. The old wild fowlers called it the 'white nun' because of this splendid black and white plumage, although this description only fits the drake: the female has a reddish-brown crown. Because females (and young) winter further south and west than their mates, many early naturalists never saw the males and females together and so assumed they were separate species. Let's hope a male also turns up at Fen Drayton.
A Ross's Goose was seen on the Cam Washes on 13th November by Dave Heath. This almost pure white bird is often confused with the Snow Goose, although it's much smaller, and is a native of North America - a very rare sighting! However Dave didn't get too excited, as this particular bird has been doing the rounds for a few years now, always accompanying Greylags, and has also been seen at Fen Drayton Pits and Kingfishers' Bridge. It has been labelled a 'presumed escapee', but is nevertheless an attractive bird of which to catch a glimpse.