Girton Birdwatch - February 2012
This is the time of year to make trips to local fens or large expanses of water since a wide range of water fowl and waders has been present for months now, and there's always the chance of a rarity or relative rarity turning up. I was at Fen Drayton gravel pits a few weeks ago and there were plenty of Goldeneye to be seen, although nowhere near the 133 reported from Grafham Water on 15th January. We stopped to take a last look at the lakes as we were leaving and were delighted to get close-up views of two Egyptian Geese. These birds look rather out of place in this country (as I suppose they should, having been introduced from Africa) and are decidedly odd looking. They have a pale pinkish-brown plumage with large, dark 'burglar-bill' eye patches and huge white wing-flashes. Their legs are a very attractive bright pink. Despite having been introduced to this country almost three centuries ago, the authorities proved reluctant to accept the Egyptian goose as a true British bird and it was only relatively recently that it was accorded a place on our official list, consequently very little is known about its behaviour, distribution and ecology. It's not a true goose but is more closely related to the Shelduck whose hole-nesting habit it shares. It is also quite willing to colonise trees and its down-filled nests have been found in hollow stumps 80-odd feet above the ground while it's even been known to take over old buzzard and crows' nests.
I last saw this bird on the Thames at Richmond, which is not too surprising as the first introduction was to the king's collection at St. James's Park in 1678. However, despite similar introductions of birds to Devon estates at Crediton and Bicton, Gosford in East Lothian and the Duke of Bedford's Woburn Abbey, most of the British population is to be found in Norfolk (90% according to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust). Freely breeding colonies were established in Victorian times on the lakes of such estates as Holkham, Blickling, Gunton and Kimberley where the combination of old woodland and extensive open water seemed to meet the birds' requirements so satisfactorily that they were reluctant to disperse too widely, despite having the ability to do so.
Mid-January has also seen male Smew, Bittern and Short-Eared Owls at Fen Drayton, while a goosander has also turned up. However it wasn't necessary to make the trip to Fen Drayton to see a Goosander as David Heath, on 11th January, reported one from just down the road at Dickerson's Pit, Milton Country Park, which was still present on the 13th. If the Smew is the smallest of our sawbill ducks, the Goosander is the largest. The sawbills, which are fish eaters, derive their name from the sharp backward-pointing projections on their rather un-duck-like beaks. These allow them to grasp the small slippery fish which make up the main part of their diet. It is this liking for fish which has made them very unwelcome visitors to rivers and lakes in Scotland where trout and salmon fishing is popular. Up until the 1970's, on the Scottish river Tay, a 20-pence bounty was paid for dead Goosander. Furthermore, the species was not protected by the 1954 Protection of Birds Act, while provision for their licensed shooting was made under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and, in Scotland in particular, these licences are regularly sought. Fortunately the Goosander does not run the risk of being shot in this vicinity where it is more likely to be regarded as a welcome visitor. Indeed it is difficult to envisage a more handsome 'pest' than a male Goosander with its glossy bottle-green head with hints of amethyst, sitting atop white underparts suffused with a soft salmon-pink (the female is duller, with a brown head). If you haven't seen a Goosander before (or its close relative the Red-breasted Merganser) don't expect it to look conventionally 'duck-like'. They have long necks and long flat-backed bodies which they often hold very low in the water; the Goosander also has a slender red, and very un-duck-like, beak and might be mistaken for a diver or large grebe.
Yesterday, 17th January, as I was approaching the village from the bridle-path to Histon a couple of strikingly white birds flew in over the stables and alighted in the adjacent field, before flying off toward the Rec. They were Little Egrets, the most spectacular recent addition to our breeding list. Until 1989 these would have been considered a Mediterranean bird but after establishing a winter roost site in Dorset that year it was not long before, in 1996, they were confirmed to have bred there. There are now anything from 146 to 162 breeding pairs in this country and about 1600 birds are known to over-winter here (from Oct-March), with some authorities suggesting that these numbers may be boosted to around 5000 by dispersing Continental youngsters. In recent years the waters have been muddied, so to speak, by the arrival in the south-east especially, of the closely related Cattle Egret, which looks almost identical although it has a yellow bill (the Little Egret has a black bill and legs and yellow feet) and its feathers have yellowish pastel tints.