Girton Birdwatch - February 2014
This is the time of year to keep a look-out for members of the Diver family. There are three main representatives that we are likely to encounter: the Red-throated, the Black-throated and the Great Northern. A fourth, the Yellow or White-billed Diver, is a vagrant (from Arctic Canada, Russia and northernmost Scandinavia) which has only been seen here on about 200 occasions, with 90% of these records occurring since 1958. The main three, in the breeding season, are usually only found in the far north of the country, in Scotland, but during the winter quite large numbers may be seen off our coasts, particularly in the east. They are sometimes found inland in the winter but in small numbers and often only after gales. This might explain the presence of the Red-throated Diver on the mere at Fowlmere on 2nd December. The Red-throated is the most common species - although Great Northern have been seen at Grafham Water, Paxton Pits and Maxey Pits since at least 5th January and were still at all those locations on the 14th - and also the smallest, although without direct comparison with the others it may be difficult to identify correctly. All the Divers at this time of year tend to be a mixture of white, grey and black and hard to distinguish from one another, but in addition the Red-throated is the palest and the one most likely to be confused with a Grebe or Merganser. In flight the wings are set slightly towards the back of the body, while its back is usually hunched with its head sagging down, fortunately giving it a very distinctive profile.
Ironically, members of the Diver family are most likely to be recognised by many people in this country, not by their appearance but by their calls, although few will have heard these in the wild as they only occur in spring and summer, during the breeding season. However they have been popularised by film directors and others, who use them to evoke an atmosphere of mystery and wildness even if not in a temporally accurate context. The call of the Red-throated diver, for example, has been described as 'a most mournful and eerie, long-drawn, mewling wail or shriek, like (the) cry of a person in extreme pain'. In America the family name for these birds is the 'Loon', which has been suggested to be a corruption of the old Norse Lomr, meaning 'moaning bird'; 'Loon' survives in Orkney and Shetland as a vernacular term for the Red-throated Diver.
The 2nd January 2014 saw a large flock of about 250 Black-tailed Godwit passing over Fen Drayton Lakes. These are large, long-legged, long-billed waders with, in summer, rather attractive russet plumage. In winter, however, both sexes are a uniform grey but are recognisable in flight by their white wing bars and white base to a black tail. They are more commonly seen in our estuaries in the winter when birds from Western Europe are replaced by birds of the Icelandic race (which have slightly shorter bills). They have nested on the Ouse Washes since 1952 after about 100 years' absence, and birds have spread from here to the Nene Washes, but there are still only about 50 pairs nesting in Britain. They owed their original demise to the fact that they were extremely good eating: 'the daintiest dish in England' according to Sir Thomas Browne (1852), and so over-harvested by bird catchers. Wetland drainage and the depredations of Victorian trophy hunters and egg collectors didn't do the birds any favours either.
There was also a Shag at Fen Drayton Lakes on 3rd January. Cormorants are plentiful here - as elsewhere - but, as I've mentioned previously, it is very unusual to find Shags this far inland. In general terms the Shag outnumbers the Cormorant by about three-and-a-half times (there are about 46,000 pairs in Britain and Ireland) but are only, in the main, found inland when 'wrecked' by strong northerly and north-easterly gales. Waxwings have been conspicuous by their absence this year - the mild weather and berry glut in Scandinavia making travel unnecessary - but 10 were spotted over Milton Road, near the Science Park, also on the 3rd.
On the 5th January an Iceland Gull was at both Fen Drayton Lakes and the Cambridge Research Park. These birds are regular visitors to our shores with most turning up in Scotland and its northernmost islands, although there is a long tradition of records at reservoirs in the English Midlands. It's rather smaller than a Herring Gull (52-63cm - 20-25in) with a slightly shorter, less heavy bill. Its wing tips are pure white. It breeds in the high Arctic.