Girton Birdwatch - April 2011
The long harsh winter of 2010/11 was partially responsible for bringing large numbers of fieldfare and redwing to Girton, and also record numbers of bittern to Fen Drayton Pits. The lakes froze and up to eight of these secretive and shy birds were seen out on the ice in a desperate attempt to find food (I chose the day of a thaw to visit and saw but one!). There were also male and female smew, goldeneye and goosander to be found. Barn owls were regularly to be seen around the village and the Rec. Difficulties in finding food meant that they were out hunting during the day and a pair, and single birds, could be seen around Camboro Farm, down the Oakington Rd and across the fields from the Rec to Histon. One day in January, driving back from Tesco's along the Oakington Road, I thought I'd disturbed a crow which had been picking at road kill, but noticed in my rear-view mirror that it had actually been frightened away by a buzzard which promptly took its place. The same day, a little owl - a bird I haven't come across locally recently - was out and about on the Rec.
A while ago I jokingly predicted - so I thought - that we'd soon have buzzards and kites perching on posts around the village, so common were they becoming. Nevertheless, I was still surprised to find a common buzzard on the ground, probably in search or worms, a mere ten yards from me on the pitch side of the 'avenue' bordering the 10 Acre field. It gave me a yellow-eyed stare then flapped languidly away to alight on the tall hedge on the opposite side of the field, where it waited for me to view it again, before flying off. The red kites are still absent!
Probably the most exciting event of recent months, however, nationally as well as locally, has been the vast invasion of waxwings from continental Europe. I know I've mentioned them before, but in the past I have not been fortunate enough to see them on our doorstep in such large numbers. On 26th January, though, I was called down to Oakington Garden Centre car park where a flock of 60+ had descended and were busily stripping the Sorbus trees of their white berries. I reported their presence to the Cambridge Bird Club web-site and hordes of birders duly turned up to view this rare and exotic bird. I hope they bought a plant! Apparently over 80 were still present the next day before they moved off to Tesco's car park at Barhill. The birds are so often to be found in such car parks, even in the centre of large cities, that they've been dubbed the 'supermarket bird'. Waxwings love berries and have been known to eat up to three times their body weight in a day, so these car parks, which are often bordered by cotoneaster and other red-berried bushes, act as magnets for them. Even closer to home, a small flock of about 11 birds was at the junction of Pepys Way and St. Vincent's Close on 3rd February, and about 35 were over Welbrook Court on the 17th. As I write (16th March) reports are still coming in of sightings throughout the city and its environs.
These stunning birds, they're about the size of a starling and may be mistaken for them from a distance - until their distinctive high-pitched sreeeee, sreeeee call is heard - are well worth seeking out for their beauty alone. They are a pinkish brown with a wispy crest and a black throat and eye-line, with white border above. Their tails are broadly tipped with yellow. The wings are dark with white and yellow markings but also sport a line of red, sealing-wax-like droplets, which give the bird its name.
Their visits here are unpredictable and are occasioned, not by harsh winters in their Scandinavian breeding grounds as was once believed, but by problems with their main winter diet of berries. When there's a glut back home there's no need for them to travel so they stay put, but shortages can trigger mass invasions - known as 'irruptions' - when tens of thousands may arrive on our shores. This was such a year.
I was pleased to have redpolls feeding in the garden on 2nd March, and again a few days later. This is the first time they have visited our garden, but you might remember that they were reported from Northfield about the same time last year. They are present all year round in Britain but in winter some migrate to France and some northern birds visit us.
Geoff Hall tells me that a jack snipe has been visiting Camboro Farm on the Oakington Road. This smaller version of the common snipe is only to be found here in the winter (September to April); it has a smaller bill and a distinctive head pattern; two narrow pale streaks in the centre of the crown instead of the common snipe's one broad streak.
I was going to end by encouraging people to look out for returning swallows, but they are here already! The smallest member of the family, the brown and white sand martin, was reported from Paxton Pits on 9th March, while up to 9 have been seen at Fen Drayton (15th-16th March).