Girton Birdwatch - December 2013
It's difficult to be topical given the time-lag between writing this report and its appearance in the News so I don't feel too guilty about going back as far as August in order to cover the appearance of the Osprey - or probably Ospreys - which visited the area that month. One was at the Milton Country Park on the 29th and seemed to linger until the 3rd September. (What may have been the same bird was seen over Lovell Road on the 2nd, while a different youngster was at the Cam Washes on the 31st August). There is a good series of photographs on the Cambridgeshire Bird Club's website which shows the Milton bird taking quite large fish from the gravel pits.
Even greater excitement was generated when a Sooty Shearwater made an overnight stop on Grafham Water on 26th September. This probably represented the first-ever inland record of this highly pelagic (frequenter of the high seas) species in Britain, never mind Cambridgeshire. We are very familiar nowadays with the Manx Shearwater which gets regular exposure on television nature programmes, partly because of its tendency to nest underground, spending the evening off-shore in large 'rafts' before venturing on land to occupy old rabbit holes etc. This is a bird which is most at home at sea and its legs are set far back on its body to facilitate swimming, but at the cost of making it extremely vulnerable to gull and skua attack, hence its 'underground' breeding solution. The Sooty Shearwater is not a rare bird and may be seen off almost any British and Irish coastline in autumn by those inclined to seek it out and with strong stomachs, but has never been seen inland before (there have been disputed sightings). Encounters with the bird at sea are noteworthy not for their rarity but for the fact that every bird seen in our waters represents the end point of a journey of about 10,000 miles. 'Sooties', as birders call them, breed at the other end of the earth, mainly on offshore islands in the southernmost Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The 'wintering' birds we see in our hemisphere, being out of the breeding season, do little vocalising but on their nesting grounds, the Falkland Islands for example, are renowned for making the 'most ghastly sounds like choking cats grating and choking with noise like gurgling intake of breath'. Grafham fishermen are rumoured to have gone home early that night.
October/November in the county was notable for the arrival of the winter migrants. Thousands of Redwings were reported flooding into the county from Scandinavia, although they have avoided the Rec as yet, but more unusually eleven Barnacle Geese were seen off Huntingdon Road (15th October). In this area we are much more familiar with the more common and similar-looking black and white Canada Geese, with Barnacles preferring the wilder reaches of Scotland and Ireland. In November 30,000 of these delicate-looking birds arrive on Islay alone, grazing on improved pasture land much to the chagrin of local farmers. Juvenile Gannets have also been seen passing over the city and at Fen Drayton Lakes and near Wimpole (13th October), while large flocks of Golden Plover, like the 547 reported from Hilton, can be founded dotted around our local countryside. A medium-sized flock could be seen from the Guided Busway near Swavesy on the glorious Sunday of 10th November. A pair of Red-Crested Pochard was at Fen Drayton RSPB Reserve on 9th November. The Common Pochard is a familiar bird in this country and region, especially in the autumn when the small British and Irish population is joined by a large continental influx and numbers reach as high as 60,000. Of our more common ducks most people are familiar with the Mallard, but of the other three the Pochard is the one with the chestnut-brown head and silvery-grey back, the Wigeon has a striking yellowish forehead and crown and the Teal sports an emerald-green eye-patch. The Red-Crested Pochard was a rare vagrant in Britain and Ireland until the early 20th century, but since then its numbers have dramatically increased. This is no doubt due to a genuine expansion in its European range, but it is also a product of its widespread inclusion in ornamental wildfowl collections and inevitable escapes. So now there are about 100+ in Great Britain in most years though the main world population is to be found in Central Asia, west to the Caspian and Black Seas. The drake has a large head with a prominent crown of erectile feathers, although its main distinguishing feature is a bright red and rather pronounced bill.
It's been a good autumn for birds of prey so far with Peregrine Falcons regularly cavorting around King's College Chapel throughout October and November and a pair hunting over the Dept. of Chemistry on the 30th October. A Hobby was at Bar Hill Golf Course on 2nd October and two Honey Buzzards were over Cambridge on the 17th.
I was surprised to see a lone House Martin on the Rec on 11th November; surprised because they usually leave these shores in September or October. But this has been a strange year and many birds had to delay their breeding because of the bad weather. In Scilly the Puffins leave the islands at the end of July and head out to sea; this year birds were still feeding youngsters well into August, and good numbers, 25-30 birds, were hanging around on the sea anxious to be off. Strangely enough we still do not really know where House Martins spend the winter. An estimated 90 million of the birds leave Eurasia each autumn in the direction of Africa but exactly where they go is unclear. Of the 290,000 birds ringed in Britain and Ireland only one example has ever been recorded south of the Sahara. It is thought likely that many spend their African months feeding unseen at high elevations, possibly over uninhabited forested areas where they come to earth only to roost.