MONDAY 28 JANUARY
After a long sojourn away from the Home Counties on a 'Round Britain' tour, it was back to reality today and a rush round BEDFORDSHIRE, trying to catch up with those birds many of the locals had already seen.
Following yesterday's foul weather, I was rather surprised to see an overnight frost and by day, temperatures struggled to reach 5 degrees C. It was a nice morning but as the afternoon progressed, the wind increased and as darkness approached, more heavy rain arrived.
PRIORY COUNTRY PARK, BEDFORD (BEDS)
I was very pleased to get an early morning call from Andy Plumb, informing me that yesterday's drake FERRUGINOUS DUCK had returned (per David Kramer) so without any ado, it was there that I headed for first, meeting at the hide with MJP, Pip, Francis Buckle and Roy Nye. The bird was showing very well roosting with 64 Northern Pochards to the left of the hide, mainly asleep but waking up every now and again. In terms of plumage, it was typical of an adult drake, with rich chestnut-red head, breast, underparts and sides, a much darker back and upper tail, and very conspicuous, heavily contrasting, gleaming white underparts. The eye (iris) was typically pearly-white, with an off-white (almost yellowish-white) nictating membrane. The peaked head shape was also spot on. It also preened for a short while, revealing a very conspicuous pure white wingbar.
Ferruginous Duck hybrids are a common sight in Britain and up to 70% of the claims relate to these and so I was keen to get a good look at the bill. Fortunately, the black was restricted to the nail only and did not extend around on to the bill flanges, thus ruling out any obvious signs of hybridisation. It did however show some bluish-white internal markings in the bill often associated with UK in-bred captive Ferruginous Ducks but as this feature occurs widely in the overall World population of the species (and is a feature of all Aythyas), I guess we can safely give it the benefit of the doubt and claim it as a genuine vagrant. Knowing that Welney Refuge had recently had a hybrid Ferruginous Duck (but a very good lookalike), I 'phoned Mark Thomas to ask him to check out the images of it on BirdGuides to see how similar it was. Frustratingly, my mobile then ran out of juice and I was unable to make any further contact with anyone during the day. Steve Blain later confirmed that it was clearly a different bird.
To the right of the same hide was a newly-discovered first-winter BLACK-NECKED GREBE, showing well just in front of the main island. Also seen were 8 Great Crested Grebes, 36 Mute Swans, 22 Gadwall, numerous Tufted Duck and Coot and the aforementioned Pochards.
Driving through WILLINGTON VILLAGE (BEDS) and just beyond produced a Sparrowhawk and at least 350 Fieldfares, with many more Fieldfares and a singing Skylark at the HATCH TURN. Just along ICKWELL ROAD in UPPER CALDECOTE (BEDS), a covey of 5 GREY PARTRIDGES was seen.
I then pulled in for the first of three visits to GYPSY LANE PITS, BROOM (BEDS) during the day, all three resulting in the failure to locate the regular wintering male Merlin - he was just nowhere to be seen. Stomping around the gravel workings did however yield excellent views of up to 9 different JACK SNIPES, this location certainly being one of the hotspots for this tricky-to-find winter visitor. Also recorded were 8 Stock Doves and a Meadow Pipit, whilst on the WEST PIT, a single redhead SMEW was amongst the wildfowl at the south end, as well as 4 Great Crested Grebe, 1 Little Grebe, 15 Wigeon, 36 Tufted Duck and 19 Pochard (3 Smew had been seen earlier).
On the other side of BROOM GRAVEL PITS and to the east of the B 658, a single (long-staying) adult PINK-FOOTED GOOSE was amongst 85 Greylag Geese in fields at TL 168 440.
In SOUTHILL VILLAGE (BEDS), I managed to find 5 TREE SPARROWS chirping in a hedgerow bordering the horse fields along with Chaffinch, 18 Greenfinch, Common Magpie and Blue Tit, but driving wistfully around BIGGLESWADE failed to locate any Waxwings.
Back to WILLINGTON DOVECOTE PITS (BEDS) and not that much to show for the walk - still 404 Barnacle Geese in the usual field with 3 hybrid birds intermingling with them - SISKIN, Robin and Mistle Thrush augmented the tally.
Both Roy and Francis had found a nice (showing) Bittern at the west end of BROGBOROUGH LAKE (BEDS) but by the time that I arrived, Martin and Pip had watched it drop down from the reeds and slither away from view. The GREATER SCAUPS were a great treat though but still the same three I had seen earlier in the month - the adult drake, first-winter drake and female. The SLAVONIAN GREBE was up the west end of the lake too, showing reasonably well in with a flock of Tufted Duck towards the NW bank; at one point, it got spooked, and flew a short way. A total of 31 Common Goldeneyes was counted, with 258 Tufted Duck and 11 Great Crested Grebes also logged. A pair of Bullfinches were noted too.
I then made a brief sortie into NORTH BUCKINGHAMSHIRE where at CALDECOTTE SOUTH LAKE (SP 888 346), the flock of 8 GREATER SCAUPS were still present, consisting of two fine adult drakes and 6 female-types. This is the largest single gathering ever recorded in the county, eclipsing the 6 seen at Boveney Lock on 10-11 February 1991. They were showing very well from the footpath that runs around the western shore of the lake. Very little else of note there, apart from a raft of 29 Tufted Duck.
Checked a few of WOBURN PARK'S LAKES (BEDS) but saw little of interest outside of 83 Tufted Duck, 3 Pochard and 8 Gadwall, whilst STOCKGROVE COUNTRY PARK LAKE was still frozen and totally birdless.
Better success came from WILSTEAD VILLAGE (BEDS), where opposite the entrance to ELMS LANE (LITTLEWORTH) at TL 079 442, I was very pleased to find 8 BRAMBLINGS - a species I failed to find at all in Bedfordshire in 2012.
The weather then got increasingly wet and I gave up for the day