Winter and Early Spring Birding Highlights 2024

William Legge writes of the sightings on the Reserve:

What a wet few months it’s been! While January’s weather was mixed, it did tick all the right boxes in terms of rainfall, frosts and sunshine, for a typical January.

In February, the floodgates opened with record monthly rainfall and wet overcast conditions continuing throughout much of March.  Temperatures too were well above average in February and March to a concerning tune of 2°C in February and 1.5°C in March, resulting in a very mild winter.

With no cold spells to speak of, birding at the reserve was uneventful until the first inkling of spring migration started to become apparent in early March.

In January, winter wildfowl numbers rebounded from the previous low levels and remained remarkably stable throughout February and March. Tufted Duck took top honors with high counts of 67 in February and 65 in March.  Pochard peaked at 12 on 3rd March and encouragingly ten were still present by the end of the month. Only a handful of Gadwall and Shoveler remained through mid-March with only Gadwall numbers picking-up towards of the end of month, when 15 were logged. Shoveler peaked at a lowly six on 18th February. Less expected wildfowl during the period included the continuing Black Swan which remained in residence up until at least mid-January and a single female-type Goosander seen on 14th and again on 18th March. Up to six Great Crested Grebes were present throughout; there was no sign of the usual spring influx of migrants to boost their numbers, but it is still early. Wintering finches included high counts of 200 Siskin on 7th February, reducing to 80 by 13th March and more notable, 30 Lesser Redpoll (image below) on 20th February, declining to less than ten by the end of March.

The beginning of March always heralds the unofficial start of the spring migration amongst the birding fraternity. It brings with it a renewed enthusiasm to get out into the field in the search for newly arrived migrants, returning summer visitors and the increased chance of encountering the unexpected.  It seems this year’s mild conditions prompted an early start to migration with the discovery of an Avocet

(image above) swimming around the middle of the pond mid-morning on 2nd March, constituting only the 3rd record of this rare inland migrant for Fleet Pond, with the most recent record coming from 4th April 2020. Surprisingly, Avocets can be quite adept swimmers and while I am sure it would have preferred to be standing on a shallow muddy shoreline to rest and feed, a rest on open water was the next best thing given the Pond’s lack of bare shoreline for waders.  Its origin was likely the south coast and its destination probably East Anglia or the Lincolnshire coastal marshes.

More expected spring migrants arrived soon thereafter including the first singing Common Chiffchaff on 8th March, with a total of eight logged by 19th March. Other spring firsts included a Sand Martin on 13th March (one day later than in 2023), a Willow Warbler and two Blackcaps on 22nd March and the first Swallow on 27th March (with an influx 20 Swallows present on the evening of 5th April). Visible migration reports were few, the best being 94 Meadow Pipits heading over north on the morning of 13th March.

A Common Sandpiper (image above) was present on 31st March representing the earliest spring record ever for Fleet Pond. While an expected migrant to the reserve in both spring and autumn, most spring records come from early May! Other notable sightings included single flyover Common Ravens on 10th February and 13th, 24th and 26th March, single adult Mediterranean Gulls on 14th and 22nd March and a male Stonechat at Fugelmere Marsh on 27th March.

Firecrests continued to be encountered with three at Brookly Wood on 13th January, and singles at the Gelvert Stream on 7th February and close to Kenilworth Road on 27th February and 27th March, encouragingly in song on the latter date.

Other potential breeders included a record six Cetti’s Warblers (image below)

heard singing from the reserve’s reedbeds by the end March.  At least seven Grey Heron nests are active this year with one already containing two well grown young, however Little Egrets were few with a count of three on 10th February being the peak for the period and only the one reported throughout March.  The only notable roost count was of 280 migrant Starlings roosting on the evening of 14th March.

With spring migration peaking in late-April and early-May there is plenty to look forward to and if we are lucky, finer weather too.  Good birding!

Contributing Observers: John Clark, Kevin Duncan, N Hayward, Russell Hunt, Jim Jewson, Leonard and Joy Lake, Chris Leonard, Sandy Millin, Spike Millington, Nield, R O’Connor, Graham Stephenson and C H Wan

Bird illustrations credited to: