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Bird watchers astonished by rarest bird ever found in Cambridgeshire





By Bob Jarman

The autumn bird migration is in full swing. This autumn the parks and open spaces in Cambridge have had an unusual number and variety of migrant birds that would normally be seen at this time of year along the east coast of Britain.

There was one especially sensational record that astonished birdwatchers.

Pied flycatcher in Cambridge. Picture: Jon Heath (59347852)
Pied flycatcher in Cambridge. Picture: Jon Heath (59347852)

Bird migration usually starts at the end of July and goes on until the end of October. In some years it starts earlier and some years it ends later. Most migrant birds are heading to sub-Saharan Africa.

What happens and when is often weather dependent. Recently, a sequence of low pressures over the East of England have confronted a static high pressure over northern Europe and Scandinavia creating easterly winds which have forced migrating birds to make landfall in the UK. Much of the action happens on the east coast where rare birds turn up attracting the “twitchers”! This year it’s been different, and some migrants have been forced inland.

Whinchat at Ditton Meadows. Picture: Jon Heath (59347854)
Whinchat at Ditton Meadows. Picture: Jon Heath (59347854)

The local action started in mid-August when a wryneck and whinchats were found on Coldham’s Common. Wrynecks are a strange looking member of the woodpecker family, about the size of a blackbird with a prehensile neck they use to extract insects from behind tree bark. Fifty years ago, wrynecks bred in the Cambridge Backs, but they no longer breed in the UK. This bird probably came from Scandinavia. It’s now a sought-after rarity.

Whinchats are robin-sized birds that breed on the moorland edges and hill country of northern Britain. They are regular migrants along the east coast, probably from Scandinavia. To find them inland is unusual and on Coldham’s Common they are certainly unexpected. Another rarity, a pied flycatcher, a bird of oak woodlands, was also found in the woodland edges of Coldham’s Common.

Wryneck at Hobson's Park. Picture: Jon Heath (59347856)
Wryneck at Hobson's Park. Picture: Jon Heath (59347856)

In the first week of September, another wryneck and possibly four whinchats were found at Hobson’s Park, Trumpington, and another wryneck in a horse paddock in Chesterton. One whinchat at Hobson’s Park frequented the allotments and often perched on a very life-like scarecrow! The Hobson’s Park wryneck was very elusive but still attracted a crowd of birdwatchers. There is every chance more unusual birds will turn up, and wrynecks can appear anywhere. The only other recent records of wrynecks come from a garden off Perne Road and a small front garden on Newmarket Road near the entrance to Tesco.

The real sensational bird rarity was found in early August and astonished British bird watchers. Regular watchers at Grafham Water discovered a kelp gull, a bird usually only found in southern Africa. This was an astonishing find and the very first record for the British Isles and of course the rarest bird ever found in Cambridgeshire. It’s a difficult bird to identify and was discovered by observers with exceptional field skills and knowledge.

Kelp gull at Grafham Water. Picture: Bob Jarman (59347850)
Kelp gull at Grafham Water. Picture: Bob Jarman (59347850)

The news sent a shock through the birding world and hundreds of twitchers came to see it to add the species to their life lists.

We should keep watching our gardens and open spaces for more autumn migrants, especially wrynecks. Wheatears are likely arrivals. Some of these birds have one of the longest migrations of all and fly across the Atlantic to nest on the tundra of Greenland and return to winter in southern Africa.

Migration is about arrivals and it’s also about departures. Recently, swallows and house martins have been passing over the city flying south towards the African savannas to spend our winter there. Most of our local breeding swifts departed at the end of July; half the remainder left in mid-August and about 10 remained over Chesterton until the end of August. The last one was seen on the September 3 over Mitcham’s Corner.

I’m always saddened when the swifts leave. I have an irrational fear that they might not return next year, and life will never be the same again!



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