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Autumn Diary 2009

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After the wettest July for two hundred years and an unpromising start to August, the weather finally turned favourable for the harvest, at least in the eastern side of the country. It was amusing to watch a television interview with a farmer in September who had prematurely forecast a wet re-run of 2008 back in July, having to eat his words and admit that conditions for harvest could not have been better. The north and west of the UK remained wet for longer but by mid September conditions became dry almost everywhere.

By early October the talk was of a drought in eastern areas, with East Anglia particularly badly affected. Some oilseed rape, often drilled directly after the cereals have been harvested, failed to germinate, but wheat and other cereals could either wait for the rain or were drilled deep enough to find some moisture.

Freiston Shore
As I have written before, autumn is a long transitional period and for me the first signs are when wading birds begin their return migration from their arctic nesting grounds. Failed breeders are seen on our shores and waterways as early as June coinciding with the later migrants still moving north. By August return migration is well under way and this year in Lincolnshire, some of the largest gatherings of wading birds coincided with some exceptionally high tides. This meant that waders were forced to amass on high tide roosts whilst their feeding grounds were covered by water. Frieston Shore near Boston has one such refuge, recently created by the RSPB, with a comfortable hide affording relatively close views of thousands of waders. Given patience and a telescope it is worth scanning through the hundreds or even thousands of Knot, Dunlin and Oystercatchers in search of something rarer. The diminutive Little Stints might be quite easy to spot but sorting out a Curlew Sandpiper from a similar sized Dunlin poses much more of a challenge.

Grayling on Lucerne

Migrant butterflies, moths and dragonflies which were a significant feature of the drier early part of the summer reappeared on the southerly air streams in September, with Silver Y and Hummingbird Hawkmoths joining the migrant Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Large Whites in our garden. A Lucerne crop I visited in east Suffolk hosted all these species and the rarer migrant Clouded Yellow butterfly in good numbers. Another butterfly that was attracted to the Lucerne flowers was the Grayling, a species of brown butterfly that favours sandy sites, largely near the coast in East Anglia.

Migrant dragonflies caused a stir with Red-veined Darter appearing on Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire in August slightly ahead of the more usual Migrant Hawkers which are still in evidence as I write in October.

By early September the first returning Pink-footed Geese and Wigeon had returned to the grazing marshes on the Wash coast and by early October Brent Geese could be found on the adjacent salt marshes.

King Eider taking off

Autumn migration usually reveals a rarity or two, birds that have migrated in the wrong direction, been blown off course or merely overshot. The latter probably applies to the King Eider that was found moulting and flightless off the Lincolnshire coast; the first ever recorded in the county. I first saw it from a chartered boat in September when it clearly was still unable to fly but when we approached it in another boat in the first week of October it demonstrated its' new grown feathers by taking off in front of us!

King Eider

As well as the King Eider the annual Wash pelagic, something which I always look forward to and enjoy immensely, gave very good views of a number of species which can prove very difficult from the shore. True seabirds such as Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes appeared and Great and Arctic Skuas harassed the last of the migrating terns, mainly Sandwich and Common but also one dark plumaged Black Tern.

Common and Velvet Scoter
In addition to the King Eider we had good views of Common Eider and other sea duck included a large flock of Common Scoter which included two of the rarer Velvet Scoters, easily told apart from their all dark cousins, by the white flashes on their wings as they flew.


For me the real highlight of this trip was a rendezvous with a fishing trawler arranged by the organizer Steve Keightley. Around lunchtime we drew up alongside the trawler and a bag of freshly caught shrimps, cooked on board the trawler, were passed carefully across on a grappling hook. We all then enjoyed the freshest, tastiest shrimps I have ever had, from our boat in the middle of the wash.

Autumn can also be an exciting time to bird your local patch. One area I had overlooked is a small sewage treatment works only a mile away from my house. Lacking the extensive reed beds, lagoons and scrapes that the much larger Marston sewage treatment works, near Grantham has, which I often visit, I have for too long ignored this little works. However from late August right through September it turned out to be a magnet for migrant passerines. Whinchat, Redstarts, Spotted Flycatchers, Yellow Wagtails and at least seven species of warbler all occurred, some in very good numbers. Most controversial were two Icterine Warblers I found, one of which was seen separately by two of my friends. This not only represents a very unusual inland record, but two birds is quite unprecedented which is probably why my claim was rejected by the "experts"! These warblers nest in northern Europe and breed as close to our shores as Belgium and Holland but they are rarely seen in England away from the coast.

In a very short time this site has become locally famous. Bird ringers have set up their nets on a weekly basis and have already ringed an impressive number and variety of birds. My wife does not share my enthusiasm for this site which can be a bit smelly! The clouds of midges and other insects that worry her, are of course part of the attraction for the birds. The fact that the site is bordered by some large and ancient berry laden hedges provides even more valuable food and shelter for departing warblers and arriving winter thrushes.

Which brings me to the end of another Country Eye, when I half hope the open autumn will continue for as long as possible but I also look forward to winter, which always brings some exciting wildlife!

Ian Misselbrook
October 2009.


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