Girton Birdwatch - February 2013
Girton received two mentions in the January edition of Bird Watching magazine, both appearing in its November UK Bird Sightings section which features rare, but also more familiar although still noteworthy, birds from around the country. The first 'oddity' was the gannet which flew over the village on the 2nd November. Where it had come from, and where it was going, remains a mystery. I suspect this bird is so familiar, and so dramatic in appearance, that no description of it is required. It is not only our largest and most impressive sea bird but is generally recognised as one of Britain and Ireland's great environmental treasures. Moreover, more than two-thirds of the world's population is concentrated in these islands, at just a couple of dozen gannetries. I was fortunate as a boy to make annual visits to my birth place, Edinburgh, and from there to the Bass Rock at North Berwick in the Firth of Forth, one of our largest and oldest gannetries. I retain a strong affection for this bird to this day. It has been said of this stronghold that 'The smell from the Bass gannetry is so strong and carries so far offshore that it can well be used as an aid to navigation and is far superior to a foghorn.'
In the past, as I've mentioned on previous occasions, many of our native birds, understandably enough, made up an important part of people's diet. Nevertheless, I was still taken aback to discover that the gannet is still taken for food and subject to an annual cull, by the inhabitants of Ness, who hail from the northernmost part of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis. The quota, usually about 2000 young birds known as guga, is fixed by the Scottish executive in such a way as to keep the colony viable: 'At the end of the hunt the filleted skins, encrusted with salt and looking rather like brownish-yellow kippers, are ... loaded into the boat. Around four to six ton(ne)s of gannet flesh are then (taken to) Stornoway where (the team) is welcomed by a party of well-wishers. Each of the ten guga hunters receives about 200 birds, many of which are given away to members of the ... community, although they can sell for anything up to £10 a brace and are considered of the same elevated status as "caviar to a Russian"' (Cocker and Mabey). Rather them than me.
Although gannets are present all year, especially on the west coast, the adults disperse off-shore after breeding while the immatures migrate, usually to the coasts of West Africa.
The other noteworthy bird to visit Girton was the firecrest which was seen on 8th November. I don't know exactly where this was discovered but on previous occasions when this bird has visited - 2003 for example - it was found behind the offices of Birdlife International in Wellbrooke Way. It must be difficult to avoid detection here where looking out of the window must surely qualify as work.
The firecrest is the same size and shape as the goldcrest which is generally recognised as our smallest bird (not the wren!). The male has a distinctive orange-red crown and a black stripe through the eye and a white stripe over the eye. It's a rare breeder in the south of England (first recognised as such in 1961) and a scarce passage and winter visitor from the Continent between September and April. Goldcrests have also been seen around the village but, although they are not common, relatively large influxes occur from the Continent between September and April and we are much more likely to see them than the much rarer firecrest.
Milton Tip was also the place to be in January as it was visited by caspian, glaucous and yellow-legged gulls. I must once again admit, shame-facedly, that I would not recognise a caspian or glaucous gull if I fell over it, and 'give up' when I encounter large gull flocks, which is a pity as Milton Tip has a national reputation as being a 'hot spot' for the less familiar gulls. I blame Alfred Hitchcock.
The work that has been done on the reed beds at Fowlmere seems to be paying off as bitterns are regularly being seen there and photographed (see the lovely example on the Cambridgeshire Bird Club's website). Merlin have been there too, and we have had a possible sighting of this attractive little falcon near the village, so keep your eyes open as they don't hang around long.