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Autumn Diary 2011

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Autumn arrived hesitantly this year. First we had unseasonably early autumn gales in September when we caught the remains of Hurricane Katya after it crossed the Atlantic then in late September it turned hot. The hot spell stayed well in to early October breaking all records with highs of 28 or more recorded in many parts of the country.

American Black Tern

The September gales not only caused early leaf loss to many trees whose leaves had already turned brown due to the prolonged drought, especially in eastern England and parts of the midlands but also caused "wrecks" of Little Auks and other seabirds along our west coast. The gale also swept before it transatlantic vagrants most of which ended up in Ireland and the west coast of Britain but some species made it as far east as Lincolnshire. One particularly obliging bird was an American Black Tern which took up residence at Covenham Reservoir. As you can see from the photographs it provided excited birders with excellent views and many photographic opportunities.

American Black Tern Flying

Feeding Tern

Little Stint

If one got fed up with tern watching the reservoir also provided close views of two Little Stints and a fly past by my first Pink-footed Geese of the autumn.

Little Stints

A little earlier in the month a friend chartered a boat from Boston Sluice from which we sailed down the River Witham, in to the Wash and a little beyond in to a very choppy north sea. Sitting at the prow of the boat I got doused in sea water on three occasions but we were rewarded with one of the most productive of the annual autumn pelagics we had undertaken over at least a decade.


Artic Skua
Gannets were fishing everywhere in the Wash but as we ventured further the list of species and the numbers we saw grew. Skuas were harassing the remaining Sandwich and Common Terns and included at least 30 Arctic Skuas, 4 Bonxies (Great Skuas) and two Pomarine Skuas. We were not sure whether the seven or so sightings of Manx Shearwater involved seven individuals or one bird going round and round!

Speckled Wood

Another sunny autumn day was spent on Lincolnshire's Wash coast, firstly at the relatively new RSPB reserve at Frieston Shore to coincide with high tide and later to The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust flagship reserve at Gibraltar Point near Skegness. Highlights at Frieston included all the expected roosting waders plus more skuas, including another "Pom" another Manx Shearwater (or perhaps the same one we saw on the boat trip till flying around in circles) and an overflying Osprey. By the time I got to Gibraltar Point the sun had come out and despite it being the 15th of September I amassed a list of ten species of butterflies. Commas, Red Admirals and Speckled Wood were to be expected but there were also several Small Coppers on the wing which seemed particularly attracted to the Sea Aster which was still in flower.

I was a little disappointed by the lack of warblers in the sueda and other scrub species until I had nearly completed a circuit of the scrub covered dunes. Then a big grey warbler exploded out of a bush, flew across a clearing and seemed not to apply any brakes at all as it crashed in to another bush. It was of course a Barred Warbler and a bird I had become familiar with when watching it in its breeding territory in Bulgaria. Although I did not spot a ring it is likely that this bird was one caught twice at the observatory over a period of nearly a fortnight. Nevertheless, I felt delighted and privileged to see it so far from its east European breeding range.

Steam Thresher

The cereal harvest was very patchy this year with poor yields in the areas worst affected by drought but bumper yields on some of the moister fenland soils. In fact a farm near Spalding broke the record for wheat yield this year.

Nowadays with combine harvesters becoming larger and ever more sophisticated farmers are much more able to exploit any favourable window in the weather. An annual event at Bicker near Boston reminds us of how laborious a job it was with live demonstrations of steam engines driving by belt threshing drums and baling machines as my photograph illustrates. The photograph only tells part of the story as you have to be there to experience the noise, the smells and the dust!

Black Knapweed

A walk in the rolling limestone country just west of the fens in Lincolnshire is always pleasant and on the 2nd of October we contrasted the day with the same walk done back in July. Then there were far more plants in flower and butterflies were prolific; the highlights being a colony of at least 30 Brown Argus butterflies on a grass margin between a cereal field and a wood - a great demonstration of the value of these conservation headlands. Lime loving specialist flowers such as Clustered Bellflower, Toadflax and Restharrow adorned the hedge bottoms and grassy margins where grasshoppers and crickets sang. So on the 2nd of October we had very different expectations despite the temperature of 28 degrees centigrade. However although the clustered bellflowers had long since finished flowering, harebells were still in bloom as was Common Knapweed, Yarrow and Ragwort. Not a flowerless environment by any means. And butterflies, though by no means as abundant as in July were very much in evidence with Common Blue being the biggest surprise but also scores of Red Admirals, Speckled Woods and Cabbage Whites. A few migrant birds were still in evidence, a couple of Chiffchaffs that may well decide to winter as close as Devon or Cornwall and a superb, very orange Wheatear, almost certainly of the Greenland race. Birds of prey soaring on the thermals provided another highlight with no less than 10 Common Buzzards. 5 Red Kites, 6 Kestrels and 2 Sparrowhawks noted on this seven mile ramble.

We did not really expect to get sunburnt and dehydrated on an October ramble in England but all four of us were more than ready to rehydrate in the nearest pub when we finished our walk!


Ian Misselbrook
October 2011


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