Damp, cold and dark seem to prevail at this time of year. The main autumn migration is over for another year, the start of the breeding season and spring migration seems far away-time to hang up the bins for a few months? Not at all!
Despite us not being in prime winter birding country such as North Norfolk for wintering geese or looking out to sea for winter grebes, divers and sea duck this season does have a few treats in Herefordshire for those willing to get out and enjoy them.
It is here I feel more than a touch hypocritical as I really do spend a lot of my time birding in neighbouring Gwent on the Severn estuary (in fact most of it). However with Covid19 restrictions I have started to look in more detail at the opportunities for winter birding in the county.
So what species can we expect (or hope) to see and where can we find them? I think winter wildfowl are as good a place to start and possibly European White-fronted Geese should be mentioned first. These rather dapper looking small grey geese breed in the dwarf birch and scrub tundra zones of eastern Fennoscandinavia and western Russia. Traditionally a large population of these wintered on the Severn Estuary with other small wintering populations around the country but particularly in Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent. The population however has started to shorten its’ migration with more birds choosing to winter in the Netherlands, probably due to increased feeding opportunities and warmer winters due to climate change. However the last couple of weeks have seen large influxes to of whitefronts to the southeast and geese displaced in fog have occurred in some unusual locations such as London city parks. So a good time to look out for little groups of this dapper goose.
Other wildfowl are often wandering in association with late season migration and mid-season movements often associated with food supply or weather. Gerry Bilbao recently found a Pinkfooted Goose at Wellington Gravel Pits. On the duck front the same observer found a Long-tailed Duck at Brockhall and I stumbled across a juvenile Greater Scaup at Wellington Gravel Pits. Other late migrants and movers often include Common Scoter undergoing an overland migration from the North Sea to the Atlantic, so look out on mornings after fog or high winds on large areas of water in case one of these wanderers has dropped in. Late autumn is also a time when Neartic ducks such as Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon are often found so keep an eye out for these after Atlantic pressure systems have passed through. Hard weather in Scandinavia can often bring larger number of species such as Goldeneye and possibly even some of their crackled china, saw billed relations, the handsome Smew.
The other group of birds that it’s worth focussing on at this season are gulls. First of all just enjoy the beauty and fascinating behaviour of this interesting group of birds. Perhaps then start to try and age the regularly occurring species within the county. We have four regular species that can be found without too much trouble. Starting with smallest the black-headed gull, this species shows two distinct ages at this time of the year, first winter and adult making it a two year gull. Next is the common gull, this is a three year gull with a distinct 1st winter, 2nd winter and adult winter plumages. The two large white headed gulls (LWHG) species, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gull are both four to five year gulls with some advancing more quickly than others. I would highly recommend Klaus Maling Olsen’s ‘Gulls of the World’ for those interested in identification of this challenging group of birds.
Checking gravel pits, flooded areas and recently ploughed arable land will often yield large numbers of gulls and great enjoyment can be had watching the actions of individuals, identifying the commoner species and possibly looking for something rarer.
Several weeks ago Paul and Terry Downes and Nick Pegler recorded both Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls at Wellington Gravel Pits in the afternoon roost and at Brockhall. I found a smart adult Yellow-legged Gull that briefly dropped in for a wash at Wellington Gravel Pits New Workings before it headed off with a group of Lesser black-backs. Another scarce species in inland Herefordshire is Great black-backed Gull, a huge maritime brute of a gull, however John Tilby picked a 1st winter bird out at Wellington back in October. A couple of weeks ago the same observer found a very smart 1st winter Little Gull on the Main Lake at Wellington. However the Larid honours of the winter so far go to Gerry Bilbao on what appears to be a true gem of an American gull, an adult Bonaparte’s found at Brockhall Gravel Pit earlier this week. It was found amongst a flock of Black-headed Gulls, its European counterpart. This is a slightly smaller, marginally darker backed gull with a small black bill and a distinctive crown bar behind the black ear spot (in winter plumage), they also show a grey neck collar (see Olsen as my words are hardly painting a fine imaginative description of this this enigmatic little gull).
As the weather hardens look out for the ‘white-winger’, the cute looking Iceland and Kumlien’s Gulls and the formidable looking Glaucous Gulls moving south from the Arctic in northerly airflows. Let’s go mad, what about a Herefordshire Ross’s Gull, truly the Arctic Gem of the Larids, get out to a gravel pit near you and find some gulls.