Girton Birdwatch - August 2011
July is a quiet month for bird movements although, sadly, there were in excess of 25 Swifts over our house the other day either getting ready to leave Girton or, more likely, passing through from the north. However a chance meeting with Dave Heath alerted me to the presence 'locally' of a Common, or Scarlet, Rosefinch, the first ever recorded in the county, which had turned up near Fowlmere (on the small single-tracked road which passes the RSPB Reserve just before joining the Melbourne Road). The bird arrived on 10th July and is still there on the 18th as I write, the wind crashing through the trees and the rain beating down, as I try to summon the enthusiasm to go in search of it. I would like to say that I'd have no difficulty in finding it [*I went, it was there, I missed it] as, apart from its distinctive song - and this one has apparently set up a territory and is merrily calling away - the mature male has a brilliant rosy-carmine head, breast and rump (with a chunky bill and dark brown wings with two indistinct bars, set off by a white belly). Unfortunately this is not a mature male but a first summer male and therefore more sparrow-like than exotic continental visitor. The bird - the collective name for which is a 'bouquet' - is the most widespread and common Rosefinch of Europe, breeding in Sweden, southern Finland, the Baltic, eastern Germany, Poland, and western Russia across northern Asia to Kamchatka and from Turkey through the mountains of central Asia to western China. It has even been recorded breeding in England, the first time in 1982. In the winter they are found from southern Iran to south-east China, India, Burma and Indochina. In previous years the Scarlet Rosefinch has tended to arrive in these islands in the autumn although recently, as part of a general westward expansion, they have started to show up in the spring/early summer. Southwest England, and particularly Scilly, shares with Shetland and Orkney the distinction of receiving the greatest number of autumn Scarlet Rosefinch records as the birds head east or south-east for the winter. The spring arrivals are more difficult to explain although they coincide with the birds' westward expansion and probably represent over-shoots.
I was fortunate enough to be in Scilly at the end of June - someone has to do it - and no, didn't see a Rosefinch but was delighted to catch a couple of glimpses of a Bee-eater on St. Agnes, the most westerly island. Surely this kaleidoscopic bird must be one of the most beautiful in Europe? I have seen large flocks in France and Mallorca before but it was a privilege, and a first, to see one in this country. In July 2002 a pair nested and raised young at the Bishop Middleham Quarry nature reserve in County Durham, the first for the U.K. in nearly half a century. Three years later a pair attempted to breed in Hampton Bishop, Herefordshire, and were feeding chicks with people being encouraged to get over there for what, it was said, would probably be a 'once in a life-time experience'. (I doubt whether I'll be lucky enough to see a bee-eater in this country again). Sadly, predation by foxes put a premature end to all the excitement.
Bee-eaters are regular, if infrequent, visitors to this country and birds have been sighted this July at Formby Point, Lancashire, the Isle of Man, Dungeness, Kent and, the closest to us, Woolpit, Suffolk, so it's not impossible that a bird might visit Girton. After all, what does Scilly have that we lack? The short answer is probably, bees! We were amazed at how many bumble bees were to be found in Scilly in June (although not many people keep honey bees; 10 keepers and less than 20 colonies. However they are varroa free). Exotic, nectar-rich plants like Echium and Aeonium abound on Scilly, many escapees or colonisers from the famous Tresco Abbey Gardens. I counted upwards of 20 bees on each 12 inch section of Echium, each flower spike anything from 5 to 6 foot tall, and the same was true of the adjacent Aeonium. The nature of bulb-farming on Scilly means that the insecticides and herbicides used are very specific and sparingly applied. The bees, and other insects, benefit and so do the birds. Song thrushes and Blackbirds are plentiful and tame - they'll eat from the hand - and lack many natural predators found on the mainland (some Scilly birders have yet to add 'magpie' to their 'list'). The tall Pittosporum and Escallonia hedges grown to provide shelter from the wind for the narcissi which, along with tourism, comprise such an important aspect of the Islands' economy, give ample cover for nest-sites and prey species. Moreover, our friends' flower farm plays host to 30+ nest boxes all occupied - courtesy of a University of Exeter research project, partly designed to determine the reasons for the amazing success of the local house sparrow population, now so numerous, especially in comparison with the mainland, that they constitute a hazard to the unwary cream-tea consumer.