Sunday, 24 December 2017

Newbridge, December 24th 2017

Finch feast, plus new 

'first' feeding in a field

The last of the ice has melted, it's dark soon after four, and we're into calm, dull days after the first real snowfall for some years. It's a quiet time for birds, but the first winter visitors have been with us for weeks following an excellent autumn run of local records, including a “first” for the valley and an invasion by a species last recorded locally more than two decades ago . . .

It's the country bus adage, none for ages then two at once. Except that this year we've done even better, with no less than three new species recorded in the Smestow Valley, the first, as reported earlier, a Cetti's Warbler in August, then an Egyptian Goose in September, and the third a totally unexpected CATTLE EGRET seen on October 18th foraging with cows and sheep in a field by the Smestow brook just north of Mops Farm. The bird was found around mid-day and was present for at least 90 minutes before disappearing. Another was reported at exactly the same time at Doxey Marshes near Stafford, and there's the distinct possibility both birds had dispersed from Alvecote pools north of Tamworth where at least three had been reported the previous week. This rare visitor to the UK is now appearing more and more regularly, with reports of breeding, and this year communal roosts of 30-plus birds seen in the South West.
Winter invasions by species from Continental Europe moving westwards as their food sources dry up are not uncommon (last year it was again the turn of Waxwings) but the latest irruptive behaviour involved a species not seen locally for more than two decades. The UK reports began in mid-October, and since then an unprecedented number of Hawfinch records have poured in from across the country, with the Smestow Valley enjoying its fair share. A flock of nine flew south westwards over Wightwick fields on 24/10, and subsequent sightings have totalled 15 birds, not a huge total, but astonishingly the first of their kind seen locally for 27 years. Other autumn and winter finch records include at least 11 Redpoll over Wightwick fields on 16/11, a flock of 30-plus Siskin in alders by the Compton barleyfield on 6/12, at least 12 Goldfinch over Wightwick fields on 16/10, seven-plus Bullfinch at Dunstall Park on 9/10, no less than 100 Linnet foraging on fields by the Smestow brook west of Wightwick on 27/10, two Brambling over Wightwick fields on 26/10, four Greenfinch by Newbridge canal wharf on 16/12, and at least 80 Chaffinch over Castlecroft canal bridge on 26/10. 


Low water levels at Dunstall Park lake have restricted wildfowl counts, but at least 20 wintering Teal have visited the site, with 80 Mallard recorded there at dusk on 5/9. Other lake records include 16 Lapwing on 22/10, thirty Snipe on 15/11, three Jack Snipe on 16/12 and a Water Rail seen throughout November. Three Shoveler flew northwards over the racecourse on 17/12, two Green Sandpiper went south westwards over the lake on 1/12, and two Cormorant flew north westwards over the same site on 4/11. Other racecourse records included passage Redstart, Whinchat and Wheatear, four Rose-ringed Parakeet on 10/10, four Rook on 17/10, twenty-plus Skylark moving south westwards on 6/10, and three Buzzard on 13/12. A Grey Wagtail foraged along the Smestow brook by Aldersley stadium in icy conditions on 12/12, (one was regular autumn visitor to a Wightwick garden), four Grey Heron were near the Smestow brook west of Wightwick in freezing weather on 12/11, and two female Pheasant were flushed in the same area on 27/10. At least 30 Stock Dove were on fields west of Wightwick on 27/10, eight Collared Dove were in a tree by horse fields near Castlecroft canal bridge on 3/12, where a dawn migration watch on 26/10 produced the astonishing total of 2,900 Wood Pigeon. A group of up to 28 Greylag geese have been foraging on the racecourse, where more than 500 Black-headed Gull were seen resting and preening on 22/10. A family of Mute Swan (possibly the birds which bred at Dunstall Park lake this year) were on the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Newbridge on 29/11, at least two Little Grebe have been wintering along the canal, a Great Crested Grebe was at Pool Hall lakes on 4/11, where three male and a female Tufted Duck were present on 12/11.
Wintering thrush records have centred on Dunstall Park, where more than 280 Redwing have been caught and ringed already this year (a total of 764 birds were seen during a dawn watch at Castlecroft canal bridge on 26/10). Other species ringed at the racecourse this autumn and early winter include Stonechat, Green Sandpiper, Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Dunnock, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Treecreeper and Meadow Pipit. Among a run of passage or wintering Chiffchaff visiting the racecourse lake during the last two months was a greyish-plumaged bird caught and ringed on 2/11, a member of the Siberian tristis sub-species, the first record of its kind for the valley. A wintering Chiffchaff was seen by Aldersley stadium along the canal towpath on 12/12, and a female Blackcap was on a garden feeder by Newbridge playingfield on 1/12.
Records from elsewhere along the valley include singing Mistle Thrush by Newbridge playingfield in mid-November, eight Raven over Wightwick fields on 27/11, a Kestrel on phone wires near Mops Farm on 27/10, a Jay bathing in the Smestow brook at Newbridge on 2/12, a male Sparrowhawk flying through St.Michael's churchyard, Tettenhall, on 2/12, Stock Dove display flight and Dunnock wing-waving courtship at Newbridge, two Little Owl together near Mops Farm on 12/11, two Nuthatch in Newbridge wood on 19/12, and 20-plus Yellowhammer along hedges near Mops Farm on 18/10.
Flying fierce and free . . . but only for a week

An addition to the Smestow Valley's list of exotic / escaped birds came with the sighting one night in the late summer of an Eagle Owl in a tree in a Tettenhall Wood cul-de-sac. This huge bird, the largest owl in Europe, had disappeared by the next day, but reports then came in of it having been seen in trees in the Finchfield Hill area. Around a week after the Tettenhall Wood sighting the bird was relocated in trees in the grounds of the Mount Hotel on Tettenhall ridge, was captured and returned to its owner in Compton. Local cat owners could breathe again.
The southern end of the valley has over the years been a something of a hotspot for escaped raptors. A female Lanner Falcon was returned to her home at the Hagley Falconry Centre after being found exhausted and hungry in a garden in Henwood Road on 15/3/1990, and in September 1993 a female Harris's Hawk being flown in Wightwick fields disappeared into Peasley Wood chasing a Wood Pigeon. The hawk was free for three days before suddenly appearing near Wightwick canal lock and flying down to land on the gloved fist of her relieved owner as he walked along the towpath in search of her.