October & November 2021 Wetland and Seabirds of Note at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe NNR

Cliff Morrison

Writing from Lincolnshire, our regular bird blogger Cliff Morrison shares his notable seabird sightings this autumn.

Throughout the early autumn and well into October, guillemots were regularly seen close into the shore, many being washed up dead. This was part of a mass mortality event that reached across the North Sea. Many were apparently starving, but perhaps the real cause was a phytoplanktonic poisoning? Whilst unrelated, there is currently a bird flu outbreak, and the public are being advised by government not to pick up sick or dead birds.

Pink-footed geese, arriving from Iceland in September, continued to be a major feature throughout October with many flocks seen flying south along the coast to winter on the Wash and Norfolk. Over 2,500 also continue to roost out from Rimac, providing a spectacular and noisy sight each morning as the flight inland to feed, often returning after dark.

Whooper swans, the majority again of Icelandic origin, were also very much in evidence, with daily counts of up to 40 flying south in family groups. As with the geese, a number stopped off for some time, roosting out from Rimac, but most have now moved on.

The period was characterised by frequent N & NW guest gales, particularly in early October and November, culminating in storm Arwen at the end of November. These weather events resulted in migration disruption and displacement for many bird species.

On 10th October, 5 rare Tundra bean geese were seen over Rimac, with 1 north of Saltfleet and probably the same 6 birds flying north the next day off the Cleethorpes Dunescape project area. A further 2 were clearly seen on the 12th, one in flight with pink-footed geese on 17th and a bean goose probably of this species on December 1st. There is a small wintering population in Scotland, so perhaps these birds were blown off course on their migration. Two pale bellied Brent geese were also along the tide edge on 28th November, a subspecies breeding in Spitzbergen and wintering in Denmark and further north along the UK coast. They appear quite different to the dark bellied species, breeding in NE Siberia that commonly winters here.

Two small black and white birds stand at the edge of the waves on the beach

Pale-belled Brent Geese Rimac, Photo Cliff Morrison

a black and white little auk bird flies low over a small beach wave

Little Auk flighting north along tide edge, Photo thanks to Graham Catley   

Little auks, looking rather like miniature snub-nosed guillemots and not much bigger than starlings, are a high Arctic breeding species typically wintering south of the pack-ice. They can be picked up by northerly gales and arrive in the southern North Sea from late October, but quickly move back north as the weather quietens down, often following the tide edge, providing excellent opportunities for the patient photographer. They were first was noted on Oct. 23rd, with 2-3 on 5 dates throughout November.

Grey phalarope is a typically marine wader breeding mainly in the high Arctic that migrates well off the western seaboard to coastal tropical waters off western Africa and eastern South America. The strong winds brought a number down the North Sea, with several being reported along the Lincs coast. There was one off Saltfleet Haven on 2nd November and a different one, based on plumage pattern, north of the haven on the 8th.

From the same latitudes, an immature glaucous gull was present on the 21st November before then flying north.

a white and grey sea bird stands on dried grass

Grey Phalarope feeding on tide wrack at Saltfleet, Photo Cliff Morrison 08/11/21

A grey and white gull seabird stands on the sand in front of the waves

Glaucous Gull at Mablethorpe tide edge. Photo Owen Beaumont 21/11/21

Following the glaucous gull, the next day there was a Mediterranean gull on the beach at Mablethorpe. This species now breeds in the southern half of the UK but isn’t often noted here. A Polish ringed black-headed gull was also present and Dean Nicholson who saw the birds had previously logged a York ringed herring gull and a Norwegian ringed great black-backed gull, referred to the tideline as being a meeting point for the United Nations of gulls.

Also, on the beach from 24th was a purple sandpiper (still present) with a lugworm. This is a scarce species on sandy shores that typically winters along rocky coastlines. However, it seems to be taking advantage of the concrete blocks protecting the outfall as an alternative, since there is abundant marine growth present.

A small brown and white sea bird with an orange bill pulls a worm from the sand

Purple sandpiper with a lugworm. Photo Dean Nicholson Nov. 24th

Apart from the scarcer birds, sea bird movement yielded some interesting records over the period, with young gannets leaving colonies further north regular, peaking at about 600 over a 2-hour watch on Oct. 6th down to very few by the end of November. Arctic, Pomarine and Great Skuas were all regularly recorded, as were red, black-throated, and great-northern divers. Ducks included 2 scaup on Oct 6th, goldeneye, red-breasted mergansers, goosanders, and pintail, along with regular teal and wigeon moving. A red-necked grebe noted flying north at Gibraltar Point on October 23rd was seen at Huttoft a little while later and picked up here just 38 minutes later. There was a second one recorded, also flying north on Nov. 23rd.

Shearwaters are regular, but not common along the Lincolnshire coast, but several Manx were noted flying north over the period and there were 2 sooty shearwaters, also flying north on Nov. 21st. The latter species breeds on islands in the southern Atlantic, undertaking a circular oceanic migration to the north Atlantic, with small numbers entering the N. Sea in the autumn. However, a real surprise was a Great Shearwater, also breeding in the S. Atlantic, that was first recorded flying along the tide edge at Mablethorpe by Tony Houseman, a Grimsby birder, and then picked up at Huttoft and Gibraltar Point on December 2nd. This was a new species for the NNR and only the 9th record since November 1882 (Birds of Lincolnshire)

The regular common scoter flock, mainly to be seen between Mablethorpe and Crook Bank increased in size from 500 to 800 birds and attracted several other species, with up to 4 each of velvet scoters, eiders, 8 long-tailed ducks and wigeon, but perhaps the biggest surprise was a redhead smew on 24th November.