November-December 2022 – Arctic weather follows Arctic swan

An Arctic spell interrupted unseasonably mild weather. How did this affect our birds? We still had some interesting sightings!


Juvenile Whooper Swan with a Mute Swan and two Shovelers (Josephine Porteous)

November-December 2022 – Arctic weather follows Arctic swan

A strange period meteorologically: from 7th to 17th December, severe frosts and then heavy snow brought an arctic blast, but the rest of the period was unseasonably mild. This didn’t seem to affect the birds as much as expected.

Bird of the period was undoubtedly that Arctic swan, a Whooper Swan to be precise, a juvenile which appeared in early November and stayed for three weeks, looking increasingly sickly, until one morning it was found dead. It was seen on a few occasions appearing to be trying to cough or regurgitate something, so we can’t rule out swallowed fishing gear. There has been just the odd dead waterfowl so far – probably an average level of winter fatality – so if it was Avian flu, it isn’t at epidemic proportions. We’ve had Whooper Swans recorded in just 12 of our 62 years of records, so it was nice to see one again.

Wildfowl counts are often strongly affected by icy weather, when as this time the North Lagoons and meadows had frozen over. Before the River Lee flood relief scheme, this often resulted in the South Lagoons being the only open water in the area, and big wildflowl counts often resulted. That doesn’t seem to happen any more, probably because there’s much better feeding at the flood relief areas than at Rye Meads, thanks to the destructive effect of the introduced carp population. Peak counts included 56 Canada Geese, 35 Mute Swans, 3 Egyptian Geese, a pair of Shelducks, 67 Shovelers, 127 Gadwalls, 5 Wigeons, 68 Teal, 37 Tufted Ducks, and just four Pochards..

Another good find was our 11th recorded Great White Egret, the third this year and surely many more to come.

Waders were generally few, as water levels were high in both lagoons and meadows, and then of course it froze. The loafing Lapwing flock peaked at 192 in November. Jack Snipe numbers reached 11 before the freeze, and recovered to 8 after the thaw. Snipe topped at 16 before the freeze and 8 afterwards.

Barn Owls seem to be with us again and we hope may stay to breed. One species that hit a new record count is perhaps less worthy of celebration: the 19 Ring-necked Parakeets that flew over. Also noteworthy was the female first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, seen before the freeze, and after the new year it returned and was caught – sadly she only has one leg, but seems to be surviving well enough.

There seem to be plenty of wintering Chiffchaffs, regularly four or five, with a peak count of 10. They were present throughout the freeze and peaked again at eight afterwards. There have also been regularly one or two Blackcaps. Less expected was the Lesser Whitethroat found in South Lagoons during the December snows. Winter records of this species often prove to be from the eastern race breeding in northern Asia to Siberia – unfortunately we couldn’t get good enough views to look for plumage characteristics that might support this theory.

Our wintering Bearded Tits showed intermittently, and the flock of 10 in November was our best count since 40 in 1979 – so that’s the best for 43 years! In the meadows, up to ten Meadow Pipits were accompanied by just a single Water Pipit, and there have been just two sightings of Stonechat.

There seemed to have been an influx of thrushes with the colder weather, with 70 Redwings, 20 Blackbirds and 8 Fieldfares as it became icy. Meanwhile a roost of Yellowhammers came to the 2nd Meadow, with highs of 34 in November and 24 after the snows in late December.

Finally, Otter footprints were found in the snow both in South Lagoons and near the Warbler Hide. Let’s hope they don’t trouble the Gull colony again next summer.

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