What’s there to play for in February?
If you looked at our review of February 2013 you might think that the answer is ‘not a lot’! It’s almost certainly the shortest monthly review we’ve ever put together, with merely a paragraph devoted to a rundown of the best birds seen. No doubt we could have spun it out a little, but the message was clear. Last February seemed quiet!
As with this January and last, the two Februarys showed a lot of crossover between the good birds recorded as patch highlights. Gulls dominate, but this year saw additional Sabine’s and Bonaparte’s Gull, as well as more white-wingers. Wildfowl were also well represented in both years, but again, on top of the usual suspects in 2014 we had Ring-Necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and American Wigeon. Glossy Ibis showed face on 3 patches, compared to none last year, and we’ve also had a Pied-Billed Grebe!
So February 2014 seems to have been much livelier, although of course, a meaningful comparison between this year and the last is difficult, in terms of lists of good birds. This is mainly because the number of patches being entered has pretty much doubled – and with that, there’ll always be an increase in the number and variety of goodies reported. Looking more closely at the numbers we can see that there’s a wee bit of difference between the average scores now and at this stage last year. The ‘average patch’ by now would have recorded 66.9 species in 2013 and 61.4 in 2014, working out as 76.3 points compared to 76.4 respectively. You would therefore be correct in thinking this would indicate that 2014 has been marginally better than last year, both in terms of quantity and quality. We can use the points per bird (PPB) score as a crude measure of quality, with 2014 a whole 0.1 PPB ahead of 2013. This may not seem like an awful lot, but the range of patch PPB scores last year was between 1.0 and 1.9, so the difference between 1.14 and 1.24 this year is probably quite telling.
Several species prevail as being prominent highlights from this January. Common Redpoll remains a popular highlight, and Siberian Chiffchaff was reported from 4 patches. I hinted back in February that the good numbers of tristis being reported might be down to it having been a mild winter, temperature wise. While you probably don’t need me, or a list of birds to tell you that it’s been warmer than usual, there is another bird that was frequently reported that bears this out. Cetti’s Warbler was reported as a highlight from 5 different patches. If we map where these records were from, four of them fit very neatly within the areas that the Bird Atlas 2007-11 show to have been recently colonised by this species. One record, at Fairburn, was quite a bit further north than the rest, and pretty much at the northerly limit shown by the Atlas. Could high winter survival rates account for the increase in reporting this species, and how far north could it spread? There are recent records from Northumberland – but how long will it take before the species makes it into Scotland? Scottish birders may welcome the chance to add this to their national lists, with the only record so far being a bird found dead in the middle of Edinburgh! Of course, with the expansion of this species strongly linked to rising temperatures, any celebrations on finding one might be muted…
Despite all this talk of the warmth, we still had plenty of arctic visitors. The map below shows patchers records of white winged gulls in February, with red markers indicating Glaucous Gull, yellow Iceland, and green Kumlien’s. I think this map might indicate a few things to us – firstly, it indicates that we shouldn’t read too much into the distribution of birds based upon what has been reported to us as a highlight! Where these birds are more numerous, they are less likely to be brought to our attention – and as such, in this case, wouldn’t make it onto the map. That aside though, there are a few interesting patterns. Good numbers of white wingers were reported in the South West, and both Glaucous and Kumlien’s Gulls show a bias towards coastal areas, and away from the eastern side of the country. On the contrary, Iceland gulls appear to love it on the East coast and don’t mind mixing it a little inland. Like I said, this sort of thing should be taken with a huge pinch of salt, but I’m sure that Glaucous and Kumlien’s gulls would be reported as highlights on the East coast, so perhaps this does reflect a dearth of records of these two ‘species’ from North Sea coasts. Does it also indicate a more western provenance for our Glaucs? I think I’ll stop there before I get into the realms of over-speculation…!
Last month I suggested that looking at where you’d made gains in previous winter months might be the best way to advance your score during these ‘small change’ periods. Well, what do I know? It looked like my best bets for February would be to look through eider flocks and concentrate on the more mature bits of cover. I gave this a good go and it returned exactly zero points, with my biggest advances coming from waders (4th record of Grey Plover – nice!) a flock of Snow Bunting, and a jammy Siberian Chiffchaff. I think I’m definitely over thinking it, as none of those birds were predictable at all. What this suggests to me is that time in the field is perhaps as important as anything else, although there is still merit in focussing on specific targets. And with time available for the field increasing every day through March, there should be no excuses for making big gains this month. Happy Patching!