Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Goodbye winter, thanks for the memories

Has there ever been a winter as good for birding as the winter of 2016/17? I'm not sure that I can remember one. With winter now fast slipping away and signs of spring all around us, it seems a good oportunity to reflect on what has been an exceptional few months for birding.

Of course, a good winter for birding does not necessarily mean a good winter for birds or for weather. I suppose it depends on how you define a good winter. Personally I'd like to see a lot more frost with bright blue sparkly skies, and a bit more winter like weather generally between December and February. Mild, dull, rainy and windy days such as we seem to get a lot of these days are not really my cup of tea and are actually quite alarming in the overall scheme of things. 

Then there's the birds themselves. Some species may benefit from a mild winter, especially birds such as Cetti's and Dartford warblers whose populations can suffer badly in harsh, cold winters. On the otherhand insectiverous birds may suffer in the spring if a mild winter encourages flowers and invertebrates to emerge earlier in the year and thus too early for the hatching of young chicks which depend on them for food. Mild winters may also encourage pests and diseases to affect invertebrate populations in a negative way during the winter, which again will affect the productivity of nesting birds in the spring. And finally, is it really good news if we have influxes of certain species into the north-west? Does it mean that there is something wrong in their more traditional wintering grounds either here in the UK or in Europe? I don't know, I can't answer these questions. So perhaps I'd better re-phrase the first sentance above:

"Has there ever been a winter which seemed as good for birding as the winter of 2016/17?".........

The meteorlogical winter starts on the first day of December and ends on the last day of February. In most winters during that period I can usually expect to pick up one, perhaps two new UK ticks. In 2016/17 I saw five new birds. Not only that, in the case of two of the five (black-throated thrush and pine bunting) I managed to see two different individuals. I guess that the appearance of these birds, along with that of the dusky thrush in Derbyshire, was a result of the exceptional autumn we had for Siberian vagrants in 2016.

Fig. 1: Dusky thrush in Derbyshire. Found whilst I was in Cyprus at the beginning of December, it was identified, twitched, accepted by British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC), gone and fortunately refound before I got back.

Fig. 2: Black-throated thrush St. Asaph, North Wales.

Another welcome addition to my UK list during the winter was the Pacific diver in Northumberland. Not exactly local, but it saved me the long drive to Cornwall for the annually returning bird near Penzance. Amazingly even though it obliged by presenting itself to us at point blank range at Druridge County Park, it wasn't even the winner of the best diver of the winter award. That honour went to an awesome white-billed diver cruising down the river near Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. Not a lifer for me but a strong contender for the bird of the winter award.

Fig. 3: Pacific diver Northumberland.

Fig. 4: White-billed diver Lincolnshire.

I can't remember a winter as good for geese in the north-west. North Lancashire put on a particularly good show, with several scarce or rare species joining the many thousands of pink-feet around Pilling and Eagland Hill. In a single day it was possible to see around 10,000 pink-footed geese, adult red-breasted goose, up to 30 European white-fronts, several each of tundra and taiga bean, a few barnacle geese, pale-bellied brent goose, greylags, blue phase lesser snow goose, Greenland white-fronted goose and Todd's Canada goose. Nearby around 200 whooper and 30 Bewick's swans and a wintering black redstart were a bonus.

Fig. 5: Red-breasted goose with up to 25 European white-fronts north Lancashire.

Fig. 6: Red-breasted goose.

This was a pattern repeated in many places across the country, with lots of small scattered flocks of European white-fronts and both species of bean goose. One such flock in Essex contained potentially the first genuinely wild lesser white-fronted goose seen in the UK for many a year. An exceptional year for geese! What I can't say is if these scattered flocks represented additional birds to those in the regular wintering flocks, or if they were just the same birds, more thinly spread across the UK. A good winter for birding is not necesserily a good winter for birds.

Fig. 7: Taiga bean goose north Lancashire.

Fig. 8: Juvenile glaucous gull Lyme and Wood Pit tip, Haydock.

White-winged gulls were also around in higher than usual numbers. Locally Pennington Flash had a juvenile glaucous gull on several occasions in the roost and possibly up to three Iceland gulls, with an adult on at least three occasions and a juvenile present on most evenings for a couple of months. The same birds, or others, were seen regularly for a week or so at Lyme and Wood Pit tip at Haydock and in the Newton-le-Willows area, whilst slightly further afield at Gowy Meadows near Chester, at least three glaucous and two Iceland gulls were regularly present. Other local roosts also had visits from both species, with Kumlien's gull also reported from sites in the north-west on a couple of occasions. Nationally the east coast in particular had good numbers of white-wingers, with several birds seen at some sites.

Fig. 9: Adult Iceland gull Vista Road, Newton-le-Willows.

Fig. 10: Juvenile glaucous gull Vista Road, Newton-le-Willows

Other gulls were also around in good numbers, with at least three 2nd winter, a 3rd winter and a couple of adult yellow-legged gulls at Pennington Flash. Mediterranean gulls were present over the winter at the Flash, peaking at four birds, with one in almost complete summer plumage from January and occasionally seen coming to bread.

Fig. 11: 2nd winter Yellow-legged gull, Pennington Flash. This bird spent a single day at the Flash. Note the yellow and black bill.

Fig. 12: This 2nd winter yellow-legged gull with a completely black bill virtually overwintered at the Flash in 2016/17, present on many days from just before Christmas to at least March, it could sometimes be seen coming to bread on the car park.

The north-west also shared in the waxwing invasion of 2016/17. At its peak there were many flocks of 50 or more birds seen throughout the region, with particularly good numbers in North Wales, and locally the VW garage in Warrington was the place to go.

Fig. 13: Waxwing St Asaph.

Egrets have of course been getting commoner for years, but the winter of 2016/17 saw a real explosion of birds. The long predicted yet so far painfully slow colonisation of the UK by cattle egrets now seems a real possibility, with many flocks of four or five birds at several sites across the UK, including up to 10 birds in the north-west alone. Surely breeding will take place somewhere in 2017? Meanwhile great white egrets have also greatly increased dramatically, with double figure counts on the Dee estuary, which also had a spectacular 12 marsh harriers roosting. I managed 12 great white egrets in the same scope view on one occasion from Burton Point. Little egrets are now so common that they are counted in the hundreds at some north-west roosts, including Burton Mere Wetlands and Southport marine lake. Even so 2016/17 seemed a better than average year, with an unprecedented three, possibly four birds present on occasion at Pennington Flash, where previously just one was a good record.

Fig. 14: The cattle egret flock at Burton Mere Wetlands trying to outcompete  a similar sized flock at Southport.

Fig. 15: Unprecidented numbers of great white egrets were on Burton Marsh.

Other highlights for me over the winter included a cracking desert wheatear at Lytham St. Annes, a stunning hooded merganser in Scotland, a slightly dodgy blue rock thrush in Gloucestershire and a wonderful pallid harrier in East Yorkshire, plus the usual early year goodies such as hawfinches, leking black grouse, firecrest and many, many more. So yes, I think it's fair to say that the winter of 2016/17 was a good one for birding!

Fig. 16: Caspian gull Shaw, Oldham also seen at Audenshaw Reservoir.

Fig. 17: Blue rock thrush Stow-on-the-Wold.

Fig. 18: Drake hooded merganser, Clyde. This bird was seen displaying to goldeneye and teal.

Fig. 19: Lesser snow goose with greylags in north Lancashire.

Fig. 20: European white-fronted geese with pink-footed geese in north Lancashire

Fig. 21: Desert wheatear Lytham St Annes. A typical end of year bird, this one was exceptionally obliging.

Fig. 22: Juvenile pallid harrier in Lincolnshire, also seen in East Yorkshire in January. The most beautiful of the harrier species at this age in my opnion.

Fig. 23: This 1st winter long-tailed duck spent the whole of the winter on Pennington Flash, and was one of several in the north-west.

Fig. 24: Up to five scaup spent the whole of the winter at Pennington Flash, almost unprecidented in recent times, and this was an event repeated at many reservoirs and lakes across the region.

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