I told you so! – October 2020

Easterly winds from across in the first and second weeks of the month brought in an exceptional number of far-eastern vagrants to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. Many more must have filtered inland, a Radde’s Warbler was a brilliant find in north Cambs (see below) but many more probably passed unnoticed and some even through our project area.

The 3rd October was the wettest day in the country since records began in 1891 with an average of 1.24” or 31.7 mm nationwide. It was ideal rare bird migration weather with a low pressure over eastern England and a high pressure on the continent. Sure enough exceptional numbers of Radde’s Warblers arrived (I did catch up with the one in the overgrown corner of Southwold’s campsite) and Dusky Warblers followed. A first for the County, Radde’s was found at Peakirk on 4th October. Then – perhaps the most sought-after autumn rarity showed – Red-flanked Bluetails along coastal Norfolk and the remarkable occurrence of the Rufous Bush Chat (Robin) (eastern race syriaca) that was mob-twitched* at Stiffkey.

These arrivals followed a period of NE winds from central Europe. Perhaps just as remarkable was the influx of Goldcrests that arrived overnight on 14th/15th October: 400+ were at Holme Bird Observatory (HBO) and I saw 100+ around Southwold town. A further arrival was recorded at HBO on 26th October. They were not just in the conifers; every Sycamore – with or without leaves – was alive with Goldcrests feeding desperately. I rarely see them in my garden but hear them daily in the Leylandii just 50 m away where they stay put; even isolated conifers in the city – Coldham’s Lane, Roseford Road, St Andrew’s cemetery in Chesterton – have their own “endemic” Goldcrests. At Southwold they were feeding almost exclusively in the Sycamores and occasionally on the ground for insects after their North Sea migration flight. They will filter inland. How this tiny bird – weighing just five to six grams – makes this migration over the North Sea and at night is quite remarkable.

Migration is not without fatalities. I saw a Starling pitch into the sea just 75 m from land and was swallowed whole, alive and flapping by a Great Black-backed Gull. An exhausted Fieldfare landed on the beach to be instantly chased as prey by a mob of gulls; it made it to safety.

There is an excellent article on the latest Bird Guides web site by Simon Gillings of the BTO about “noc-mig” – the night time recording of overflying migrants and the identification of species by their calls. Simon cites the Tree Pipit which is a county rarity but he has recorded it 29 times over Chesterton in the last three years. On 23rd October Simon recorded Hawfinch, Brambling and Lesser Redpoll over his Chesterton home (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). (There is a very good web site – Xeno-Canto – with recording of bird calls and songs).

On 5th October Simon Gillings had a Gannet over Newmarket Road heading towards the City centre! and 12 Crossbills over Chesterton (cbcwhatsabout.blogspot.com). On 7th October a late Swallow was over Huntingdon Road and on 10th October Jon Heath photographed a fine male Hen Harrier over his house in north Cambridge.

I told you so! I expected that Great (White) Egret would be the next new bird (tick!) in our project area (blog September 2020) – sure enough Jon Heath recorded one flying over his north Cambridge garden on 15th October. Little Egrets** were seen at Hobson’s Park and Coe Fen during the month and one flew over Elizabeth Way on 29th heading towards the city centre.

Great White Egret

On 7th October the first few overwintering Black-headed Gulls were around Jesus Lock and by 22nd October numbers has increased to about 55; on the same day there were 100+ at Hobson’s Park. These appeared to have had a poor breeding season with only 2-3% first-year birds but the Black-headed Gulls at Milton Country Park numbered 55 with 9 first calendar year birds.

During the month Nuthatches were seen/heard in the Botanic Gardens, along “The Backs” and in Chaucer Road.

Water Voles were seen regularly at Logan’s Meadow and a Hedgehog is now regular into my small garden after I cut a gap in the base of my garden gate (for the cat!). The City Council have a project “Hedgehog Highway” that offers to cut access points for hedgehogs in enclosed gardens. On 23rd October about 20 Siskins were feeding in the Alders on Newnham Recreation Ground.

Coal Tits, like the Goldcrests stick to the nearby Leylandii and rarely make it into my garden; when they do its always single birds, a quick snatch of a sunflower seed then up and away back to the cover of the Leylandii. Two Red Kites were on the northern edge of our project area near Histon on 25th October and a Grey Heron was standing on the chimney pot of a three stores house on Mitcham’s Corner on 26th October! Two to three Buzzards were seen at Eddington throughout the month, one to two over the Milton/A14 roundabout and the Cormorants’ roost in Logan’s Meadow is active.

A red-head Goosander was at Milton Country Park on 28th October (Jon Heath).

*Twitching/to twitch/a twitch – travelling distance to see a new/rare bird – was a late 1960’s humorous turn-of-phrase. It originated in Norfolk from a birder called Dave? who exhibited a tweak/twitch in his cheek when told of a rare bird he had not seen! **In those days Little Egrets were twitched as exceptional rarities! Two London birders travelled to South Wales overnight from Cley, Norfolk on a Lambretta 175 scooter to “twitch” a Little Egret.

Grey Herons are becoming very confiding along the river.
(picture from a punt by Seun Oratokhai)

Bob Jarman 31st October 2020