Peterborough Bird Club Trip Reports

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Winter Wildfowl and Wind

Thrampston Gravel Pits, 19 February 2005

The Thrapston and Titchmarsh Gravel Pits form the northern end of a chain of gravel pits stretching from Northampton; this chain of gravel pits is nationally important for its wintering waterfowl and regularly holds in excess of 20,000 wintering water birds.

Both complexes allow for circular walks of 2-3 miles or a longer figure of 8 walks of 5-6 miles. The walking is easy although muddy in places and some parts are impassable if the River Nene has flooded its banks. In winter the site is good for common water birds and occasionally turns up something good. In summer the scrubby habitats surrounding the pits are good for warblers and I have seen Nightingales there during spring passage.

The winter of 2003/04 saw 3 Bitterns over-winter at Titchmarsh and it was these and Goosander that were the original target species for the PBC trip. The relatively mild winter of 2004/05 meant that no Bitterns had been seen regularly at Titchmarsh so the walk focused on the water birds of the lake.

Following a late change of meeting place to Thrapston, half a dozen or so keen members braved the biting cold wind to explore the Thrapston/Titchmarsh Gravel Pit complex.

We walked along the edge of Thrapston Town Lake which gave us a chance to look at Pochard, Great-crested Grebes and Goldeneye. The Goldeneye were already engaging in their distinctive “head bobbing” display and proving challenging to try and point out to people. “It’s behind that Pochard… nope, it’s just dived…”; eventually I think the whole group managed to catch up with some.

Town Lake also gave us the first chance to see Goosander, with two females and a male clustered near the bank. Whilst the males are very distinctive we took the opportunity to have a discussion about how to pick out birds in flight (flying cigars) and the difference between female/immature goosander and Red-breasted Merganser.

A Green Woodpecker gave good views in flight to everybody and a lucky few managed to pick it up again as it sat in a nearby willow. At this point we were joined by a flock of Long-tailed Tits and everybody enjoyed watching these attractive balls of feathers as they foraged and twittered nearby.

The walk continued into Titchmarsh Local Nature Reserve, which is managed by the local Wildlife Trust. A Stock Dove was sat on top of one of the owl nest-boxes trying not to get blown off and eventually gave up. We also decided that we had had enough of the biting wind and retreated to the nearby hide to have a closer look at the birds on the main lake. Sharp eyed watchers managed to pick out Gadwall and Tufted duck amongst the flocks of Canada geese, Coots and Mallards. Another 8-10 Goosanders were also seen. Grey Herons were a common sight and were often seen flying in and out of the nearby heronry.

I know the site quite well and know that the Little Grebes are generally only seen on one part of one pit. I’d said this to the group and bet that we’d find some Little Grebes there. Initial looks revealed a flock of Wigeon feeding on the grass banks, their whistling calls immediately transporting us back to the north Norfolk coast; but no Little Grebes… Eventually two were found in a sheltered bay and my reputation was intact!

Whilst people were speculating about the origin of the white Aylesbury duck on the lake, Peter Beesley picked out what for many was the bird of the trip. A superb male pintail! Just as it swam out of view, the “rest of the group” (those people that I hadn’t managed to find at the original meeting point to divert them to Thrapston) arrived. We compared notes, they had seen a Shoveler on a lake that we hadn’t looked at, gave them directions as to the location of the Pintail and went our separate ways. Our walk back to the cars in Thrapston was fairly quiet, with a few Lapwing seen flying over.

In all a total of 40 species were seen, and members were introduced to a new site that holds promise at most times of the year.

A chance phone call in the week told me that a group of travellers had taken up residence at the original meeting point. The car park there is small anyway and would not have fitted both travellers and members’ cars. The decision was taken to move the meeting point to Thrapston. I managed to put this out on Peterbirder but unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to make the changes on PBC website. Despite sitting at the original meeting point until after the start time to re-direct people we still managed to miss a group of people.

I’d like to apologise to those members that I didn’t manage to find and hope that the “self guided” walk made up for it.

Peterborough Bird Club's February 2005 Northamptonshire Trip Report
by Nicola Orchard