Girton Birdwatch - February 2006
The pre-Christmas period saw the return en masse of the usual Scandinavian visitors to the Rec and Ten Acre field. Most days in December and January mixed flocks of Fieldfares, Redwings, Mistle Thrushes - plus the more usual Starlings - in numbers well in excess of a hundred and fifty, could be found probing the ground or resting temporarily in the surrounding trees. These are birds which repay a closer look through binoculars -especially the Fieldfares and Redwings - as they really are handsome birds.
I omitted to mention 'last year' the possible sighting of a Bittern passing over the village. The 'reportees' were a little reluctant to claim this as a 'definite' but, as both are knowledgeable observers, I think they were probably right. If so, this bird was possibly on its way to Fen Drayton gravel pits where 3 or 4 are known to roost and where they can be observed at dusk heading for the reed beds on Holywell Lake. There are Goldeneye and Smew out there at present for those of you who want to make the trip and brave the mud!
A bird which I can personally vouch for and which was a great thrill to see around the village in December was the Barn Owl which flew over my head as it emerged (the owl that is) from the 'orchard' behind the new bungalow one evening as the light was fading, only to disappear into the 'Girton Wood'. A variety of people have reported seeing Blackcaps - both male and female - around their gardens and hedgerows last year (spring, summer, autumn and winter). As its name suggests this bird's cap - glossy black in the male and red-brown in the female - makes it the easiest of our 13 breeding warblers to identify. A further aid to identification is its rich and melodious song, which has won it a reputation as the 'northern nightingale'. The arrival of Blackcaps in very early April, or even late March, is one of the best indicators of the transition from winter to spring. It is a very adaptable bird which can survive in much more limited scrub or tree cover than other warblers and this may help to explain its recent rise in numbers; Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler are now the only family members that are more common.
The bird's status as a winter visitor is another recent development. The majority of our breeding Blackcaps migrate southwards to the Mediterranean areas of Europe and North Africa where, especially in Tuscany, Malta and Cyprus, they still risk being killed and eaten. Indeed, across the whole region, the annual total of spring and autumn migrants being trapped for the pot has been estimated at 900 million. (This is illegal under European law). Small numbers of Blackcaps have long been known to occur here during the winter but not to any significant degree or extent. In the 1940's and '50's most appeared in the milder south-west but, even so, the average number of wintering individuals was estimated to be a mere 22. This south-west bias has continued, but birds have now appeared as far north as Orkney and are regular visitors to northern Scotland generally. By the 1970's the average, nation-wide, was 380, while a census in the long hard winter of 1978/9 revealed a count of 1714 birds.
I was surprised to learn that, although the year-round presence gives an impression that some birds are resident, the winter population is also migratory, arriving from Germany and Austria just as our breeding Blackcaps leave. Today the winter total is estimated at several thousand. This rise has been attributed to our increased habit of feeding winter birds and, although they regularly eat garden fruits like windfall apples, cotoneaster, viburnum and ivy, they are also routine and welcome visitors to birdtables where they will devour a whole range of bread, meat and fatty scraps. They've also been known to hang from peanut bags and fight off their more usual tit visitors. Before Christmas Dave Heath, over at Milton, had left some mistletoe - which he assures me he'd only bought in order to try establish it on his apple tree! - draped over his Christmas tree in the garden, only to have a male Blackcap attempt to strip it of berries for him.
Ken.Sheard2 at ntlworld.com