Starling sunset

With starlings nesting in our loft in the spring, generally making a noise up there much of the rest of the time, and frequently taking over the bird feeders in the garden, we tend to forget the winter spectaculars they are famous for.

However, one of the local bird blogs revealed last weekend that there is a starling murmuration at one of our nearby nature reserves, Summer Leys. After a day of DIY, we headed over there late on this afternoon.

It was a bright, completely clear evening as we stood by a gate overlooking some pasture and a reedbed in the distance. It took a while for the first groups of starlings to come into the area but then they just kept on coming…

Summer Leys in Winter

We’re very lucky to have a lot of wetland nature reserves close to us in Northamptonshire; they’re great locations which for winter wildlife. After visiting our nearest sites of Pitsford Water and Ravensthorpe Reservoir over the last couple of weeks, we went a little further afield to Summer Leys today. The national nature reserve, run by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust is a large, flooded former gravel pit about 25 minutes from us. It is located alongside the River Nene, south of Wellingborough and is one of a large network of lakes by the river as it passes through the county.

Parking in the Wildlife Trust’s car park, there is a good circular walk around the whole site and it took us around two hours today. We weren’t racing around, instead, we took our time to stop at most of the viewpoints over the water and we had lunch on a bench at the far end. We also stopped in the various hides, which were all on the second half of the walk (taking a clockwise way around).

It was a quite a dark and gloomy day and it didn’t take long to get quite cold when we stopped but not too cold to shorten our stay. The large open lake, with little bays here and there, is the winter home to a large selection of waterbirds. There were good numbers of duck, with mallard, gadwall, wigeon, teal, tufted duck, goldeneye and pochard all present in varying numbers, as well as small flocks of greylag and Canada geese and some mute swans. We had views of limited numbers little and great egrets, and a grey heron or two, plus quite a few cormorants on the low islands in the centre of the lake.

The most spectacular view on our walk was of a large flock of lapwings and smaller flock of golden plovers which settled on one of the small central islands. There were more lapwings at the reserve than I can remember seeing anywhere for a long time; they seemed to be everywhere. Every so often they would lift as they were spooked by something, with the flock on the central island being particularly large. We didn’t get a good view of what was causing them to lift, but they frequently rose in alarm, circling above together or splitting and taking dramatic evasive action. The lapwings were always the first to return to ground while the golden plover stayed in the air, often much higher, waiting for things to calm down again.

The bird feeding station was also very good with loads of tits, finches and reed buntings coming in and out to take the food put out for them. Someone told us they had seen a brambling but we had no luck. However, the good close views of bullfinches made up for it, with more in one place than I have seen for quite some time. Just around the corner, after hearing them several times on the walk, we saw a green woodpecker feeding on the ground in the open grass between the path and the lake.

In all we saw nearly 50 species during our easy walk around the reserve, almost as many as we saw in the much longer walk around Pitsford, which has a lot more variation in its habitats. It won’t be long until many of these species move on as the winter visitors move back north, and then replaced as summer visitors move in. However, there should be time yet to visit more of the wetland sites nearby and slightly further away before the winter is over.