From the centre of England – an alternative 2016 autumn My last patch and its hotspot Seventy-three years a birdwatcher, I am back at base camp: a landlocked farmland patch aided only by a multi-skilled countryman Rob Gibbons. So for Dalhousie Castle, Lothian, in the mid 1940s, read Needwood Forest, Staffordshire, from 1985. Therein, every spring and autumn, migrant birds come in sufficient variety to let me avoid the ‘nothing but grief’ that Mark Cocker predicts for all nature students. My most easily monitored migrants occur within the 110 ha of Crossplain, alias Tatenhill Airfield. In spite of ever-faster crop rotations, 40 leisure aeroplanes and a rescue chopper, a ‘mini-steppe’ fringed by hedgerows, trees and a pond has attracted more than 150 species. Alas, I enjoy no longer welly-wearing zigzags through slurried stubbles but I can still drive my car round the perimeter tracks, along field edges and even across the one ‘active’ runway. From my mobile hide, I lose most calls but gain frequent close encounters. My autumn 2016 study aim; contrasting ‘tons’ Recently at Crossplain, Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe have surprised me by becoming commoner in spring than in autumn. In 2013, 8 ha of insect-rich sheepwalk attracted at least 185 northbound birds. Just how did up to 31 birds a day spot this ‘fast-food’ source on the wing? In autumn 2016, I set out to achieve a first full 100 of southbound Wheatears. By 21st September I had logged at least 89 but then my concentration was threatened. That night Mark Thomas (RSPB trusty and builder of the majestic Buckton Heligoland Trap) told me of another ‘ton’ – of Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus, all over Flamborough Head. My rarity libido revived alarmingly. Would I be tempted into the ultimate sin – patch desertion? I resisted – and when, on 27th September, Wheatears reached my target 100 and Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis promisingly passed 364 (their 2015 total), I relaxed. Even better, bird-friendly farmer Bob Hopley decided to leave 12 ha of wheat stubble to ‘green’, and example of what local grovelling can do for birds. The ultimate temptation to twitch? In early October, some minor scores, such as an umpteenth Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans, were totally eclipsed on 9th, as news of Britain’s first Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella delivered instant torture. Once again I felt keenly the loss of my dear friend Alan Amery, all-time gentleman-twitcher. With his company, AWOL would have beckoned... Happily, the next four days reduced my suffering via two huge Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula, two Jack Snipes Lymnocryptes minimus, lots of winter thrushes, a Woodlark Lullula arborea, a laggard Garganey Anas querquedula and the autumn’s 830th Meadow Pipit. Hoodwink and blitzkrieg of Sibes On 15th October, in the last easterlies of the magic fortnight, three visits to Crossplain delivered my autumn’s most diverse passage, with at least 205 birds of 12 species restoring their fitness for travel. The tease of the season was a small, rather short- and square-tailed pipit with a gleaming, Daz-white belly. All I got was a riveting glimpse of it behind two Meadows bathing in a puddle followed by an ascending exit right. Pechora? Maybe but never mind, there was no doubting four ‘grey-and-white’ Skylarks Alauda arvensis which, in direct comparison with typical birds, were distinctly paler and clearly larger. The next October week of full moon and swinging winds produced further arrivals, but with the ‘blitzkrieg’ of Siberian Accentors continuing across Europe my accelerator foot twitched. Still, over the next three days I settled for a pristine Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta, another large, stony-grey Skylark, more winter thrushes and another Jack Snipe. Returning at noon on 23rd, I was gripped by an unexpected phenomenon: pilots not in planes but all over the airfield’s longer disused cross-runway. To reopen it, they were with spades and strimmers destroying 6 ha of chat, lark and pipit food sources and nest sites for Lapwings Vanellus vanellus. A decade ago I had had to watch ancient Byrkley Park (just south of Crossplain) turned into the National Football Centre. In every season, scores of diverse birds lost out to even more one-tribe footballers. Now my patch’s migrant birds faced another ‘blitzkrieg’, upon their best ‘pitstop’. The next eight days delivered only one torrent of Wood Pigeons Columba palumbus, more thrushes, yet another large grey Skylark and two more Jack Snipe. All were dross, however, compared with the Shetland delights detailed on the 27th in a charming handwritten letter from Howard Vaughan. Another RSPB stalwart, his start in our hobby/science had been steered by my little book Watching Birds (Usborne, 1982, £1.50!). So I took much vicarious pleasure from his tales of 10 ‘megas’ in 178 rarities and scarcities in just one fortnight. Strewth! My own October ended in persistent mizzle and just a hint from the pilots that they would leave some runway edge cover. Small mercy? The peskiest gull? On 1st November, the overnight wind had been NNE and when I arrived at Crossplain the only obvious avian target was a large, oddly tall, blackish-backed adult gull on the far northwest ‘terrazzo’ (my shorthand for newly seeded flat brown earth). I drove slowly at it, stopped a short cricket pitch away, put my binoculars on it… and heard myself exclaim: ‘Heuglin’s!’ Next came a rare but sharp regret that I had given up bird photography in 1966, followed by ten minutes of character checks and re-checks. These ended in a fortunate ‘lift off and slowly float on’ view of the bird’s right upper hand – encouragingly in late moult! Back to my library I sped, and straight to Gulls (Olsen & Larsson, 2003); mirabile dictu, most members of a flock in Oman, photographed in November 1998 (p. 404), were dead ringers for my Crossplain bird, complete with similarly ragged hands. Then I remembered a seawatch conversation with Brett Richards, sometime in my Flamborough x Oman period. It had ended in shared despair about the snag of atypical northern Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus. I returned to Crossplain to find only human disturbance; and as for the gone gull, well, inevitably I pressed ‘PAUSE’ (expletives deleted). More puzzling pipits; three other mates In the next two weeks, my only success was non-seduction on 4th November by the sixth really puzzling Meadow Pipit of the autumn. With pairs of pale mantle lines and heavily striated underparts, they strongly resembled Red-throated Anthus cervinus but failed on rump pattern. So adult Meadows in fresh plumage? My self-restraint turned to relief when I learnt that Red-throated Pipits had seemingly not joined in the exodus from northwest Siberia. In the same period, conversations with best friends like James Ferguson-Lees (tutor since 1954), Andrew Lassey (ace expedition organiser since 1974) and Anthony McGeehan (best crack since 1995) coincided with a (for once) readable Bird Study and the splendid Scilly report for 2015. Hence much nostalgia for the years when ‘small was beautiful’ and some modern ornithology. Super Moon; Storm Angus; Lapp and Kenyan friends As November’s super moon waxed, frosts occurred and I drove out into ever-later dawns. On 15th there were 132 migrants of seven species including an ever-thrilling Merlin Falco columbarius and a Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus (a true patch rarity). On 18th came another old friend, a Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus within a flock of Skylarks – ever its carriers. Once almost annual on Crossplain (as to the north in Derbyshire), Lapps have become erratic, in line with much decreased lark numbers. So I gave it a salute as it moved on southwest; perhaps its next pitstop would be 120 km SSW at my late 1960s patch of Frampton on Severn, in Gloucestershire. There, I had added the species to the county list one day short of 49 years ago. On 21st, Storm Angus delivered a half-gale of lashing rain from the ENE. At 14.00 hrs I risked an open-window watch over some flooded grass. The closest puddle held ten Meadow Pipits and a glowing flava wagtail, my latest ever anywhere in Britain. Feeding constantly, it was olive-grey above but cream-white below. After five minutes of drenched lenses, I left it with only a suspected far-east origin but patently putting on weight… Time to give up my autumn watch? No, because the nearby River Dove filled its floodplain with rushing water and food wracks. Wildfowl and two Little Egrets Egretta garzetta took instant advantage. At Crossplain on 22nd, true winter black-headed Starlings Sturnus vulgaris arrived at last. The next day they and winter thrushes were moving up the Dove vale but the one egret below Tutbury Castle was small but not Little. A totally unexpected patch first, a Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis turned out to be no rarity in the 2016/17 winter. Yet I blessed it for transporting me back to my first ‘Buff-backed Herons’, among the big game of unspoiled Kenya in 1952. Small bright tit; biggest ever flypast On 24th and 25th November, a trio of migrant Sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus was terrorising the fences and steaming slurry mounds; small migrants kept their heads down. With the hawks gone on 27th, Meadow Pipits passed 1,000 birds for the season. On 28th (the fifth day of renewed easterlies), I found a really special waif in knee-high brambles, a sparkling Coal Tit Periparus ater with more than enough blue in its upperparts to have come from east of Moscow (see Kees Roselaar’s small print in BWP). Even more prettily dressed than Siberian Accentor, and I loved it. Comparing its tones with those of three local ‘Badger Tits’ (as Coal Tits are called in the nearby village of Newborough), I considered the differences to exceed vastly those used to split male Subalpine Warblers Sylvia cantillans! On 4th December I was to join the BTO’s bird counters at their Swanwick conference but just before sunrise I squeezed in an airfield visit. Passing Anslow Church, I saw that heaven above was jam-packed with 15,000–20,000 Starlings pouring north, the biggest bird movement over any of my patches, ever. Instantly I was back with Mum and Dad enjoying their ancestors in the post-war Trafalgar Square roost, all bustle and squabble under Norfolk’s eternal Admiral. After four days of fog or very dark sky off SSW, I expected nought on 9th December. Yet among the Fieldfares Turdus pilaris gobbling Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna berries was a small, striped sprite: not a Sibe, but a Firecrest, just as perfect as my British first at pre-nuclear Dungeness, 56 years ago. My last ‘stretched-autumn’ visit to Crossplain on 10th coincided with two warm-buff whistleri-type Meadow Pipits. Why does this species and Skylark present such rufous morphs in their first autumn? Perhaps because their plumage tones confer a post-fledging cryptic advantage against predators in northwestern wildnerness? Such questions last longer than ticks! Summing up Buoyed by the ‘ton’ of Wheatears and the ‘K’ of Meadow Pipits, I realised that, compared with 2015, easterly winds had reached my patch on only one more day and that in total Crossplain had yielded just 5,100 migrants of 59 species on 117 autumn days, a whopping 26% reduction on 2015. The chief cause had to be my hotspot’s fastest-ever crop rotation. The resulting monoculture of cereal ‘terrazzo’ favoured only gamebirds (in their canny annual shift away from shoots), larks, pipits and wagtails. They found food throughout the four months but, like the local pigeons and crows that moved away to better food sources nearby, many other migrants staged elsewhere (or did not pass). Clearly the loss of 2015’s ‘one stop diner’ for seedeaters – 4 ha of richly seeded weeds that had grown under a patchy maize crop – was crucial. The local Linnets Linaria cannabina joined larks in ‘terrazzo’ gleaning but no Twite L. flavirostris, no Siskin Spinus spinus and very few redpolls came to repeat the ‘spill down’ of those species from Scotland in 2015 (see Scottish Birds 36: 45, 86–87). Other below-par appearances featured large gulls, Lapwings (only 20 all autumn) and warblers. Were there any signs that the unusual rarity vector delivered birds of truly distant origin to my ‘mini-steppe’? In the end, I fancy just three. The large, pale grey Skylarks remain intriguing but not as compellingly as five unusually grey-and-white Meadow Pipits, on 7th and 19th October and 15th November. Certainly not worn adults, they also reeked of an eastern cline station. Third, the stunning bluish Badger Tit was surely of similar origin. I checked range maps to see whether the trio could have bred sympatrically with Siberian Accentor and discovered the overlays of their ranges converged on the arc formed by the latter’s westward range extension and those of most Siberian vagrants. Hence the ‘spout’ of what I call the ‘tipping bottle’ that in some years (of high breeding success?) becomes a cornucopia. My failure to have added a claimable rarity to the national brothpot matters not, but the autumn’s overall loss of migrant mass does. A rather sad Christmas card from the splendid SK58 Birders (70 km NNE) informed me that they suffer the same trend. To counter an onset of misery, I got my detailed 2016 reports off to the West Midlands Bird Club and Derbyshire Ornithological Society by 10 January. There hopefully they will add to local conservation intelligence… Meantime I have some burgeoning plantations of the National Forest to check. There is hope yet and the ghosts of the ancient field men who from 1666 spotted 66 British firsts INLAND (see Keith Naylor’s Reference Manual of Rare Birds, 1996) keep good company with me still. Enough, I must ring Rob and catch up with his latest Lichfield patch finds or share again our affection for lowly Hedge Accentors. Spirit of IJF-L, please note mention of your favourite bird. D. I. M. Wallace

Volume: 
Issue 7
Start Page: 
422
Display Image: 

Stay at the forefront of British birding by taking out a subscription to British Birds.

Subscribe Now