According to the Met Office, July 19, 2022 was the first time 40°C (104F) has been recorded in the UK. It was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, exceeding the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations across the UK exceeded the previous UK record of 38.7°C.
The date for the BirdFair had been set months before, it was just bad luck that the two would coincide that weekend. Because, if we were going to drive 260 miles each way to the BirdFair, we might as well have a look at some nature reserves while we’re in that area.
The British Birdwatching Fair had been going for several decades, but, like nearly everything else, came to a stop during the pandemic. It was revived this year, under the title ‘Global BirdFair‘, moved from its usual Rutland Water Nature Reserve site to the Rutland Showground, and was a rather smaller affair than before.
We travelled to Rutland on Thursday 15th, stayed at the Market Harborough Premier Inn, thought we’d have Friday at the BirdFair before the weather got too hot, then go on to Bempton Cliffs and maybe a few other places in the north. Day by day the weather forecast was changing – always for the hotter. Saturday was going to be the hottest, then Sunday, and finally they were saying Monday would reach 40C – previously the British Record had been set at 38C in Cambridge a couple of years ago.
The Friday was somewhat cool and cloudy. We were stuck in traffic for the last half mile of the journey, but still got into the showground soon after the BirdFair opened. It really was much smaller in scale than before – perhaps because it was like a new event, perhaps the pandemic had meant fewer people were travelling, perhaps inflation was getting in the way . . . Who knows. Bob said it lacked atmosphere, but really, Fridays were always the quietest days. It was the day when stall-holders did their networking, talking business, and especially networking between overseas holiday companies and local guides.
We bought a few books, looked at some photographic equipment, went to a couple of talks, met up with Ian S and Anne and later with Ian T – who had (inevitably) just negotiated an exotic birding trip to somewhere on the other side of the world.
The bird fair isn’t just about birds. Any conservation can be part of it, and this photo was taken at the Mammal Society stand.
When the BirdFair was at Rutland Water, the entrance fee also gave visitors access to the adjacent Rutland Water Nature reserve, so you could split your visit between bird watching and the hustle of the fair. It’s disappointing that we can’t do that now – well you can, but the two sites are several kilometres apart.
We left as the fair closed for the day, most people had already gone, and we missed any rush-hour traffic jams. The journey to Lincoln Premier Inn was uneventful. (My sister) Jane and Bill having moved back to Edinburgh meant we couldn’t stay with them this time.
The BirdFair raises money for international bird projects. This year it was the turn of the ‘Revive la Janda’ project which aims to revitalise a lake in Andalucia, Spain, that has largely been drained for agriculture. It is a vital link for migratory birds en route between the UK (and elsewhere in north-west Europe) and Africa. Water birds still attempt to spend winter on the semi-flooded fields, but the area available for them is decreasing drastically, and the nutrient status has been damaged by farming practices.
The total sum being donated by Global Birdfair to the 2022 Conservation Project is an incredible €100,000
RSPB Blacktoft Sands
Previously the BirdFair had been held in mid-August, so we would go on to visit a few sites good for bird migration as part of the same trip. Migration starts in July, perhaps even late June, but as it’s mostly birds that have failed to breed successfully in the early part of the season, there might be nothing much to see anywhere. So I didn’t have much expectation for the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the south shore of the River Ouse, where it meets the River Trent and becomes the Humber Estuary. Weather mostly warm and muggy.
A sign on the visitor centre door said ‘back in 15 minutes’, so we turned east and walked to the Singleton Hide, which was at the end of the trail. It was too hot to hurry, so we admired dragonflies and damselflies, and other insects along the way. The view from the hide was quiet – plenty of birds, but not doing much in the heat. We listed 20 species, and took a few photos.
After a while we moved to the Townend Hide, which at first seemed even quieter. However, there was more exposed mud, and we began to see a few things happening – birds coming and going, a distant marsh harrier looking for lunch, a greater variety of waders, etc.
And then some small brown birds on one patch of much at the base of the reeds. It took a while to sort them out through the heat haze, even through our long telephoto lenses. They were juvenile bearded reedlings presumably looking for seeds or invertebrates on the mud. Twenty-five species seen from this hide.
The First Hide is the one nearest the visitor centre. A magpie pattered around on the hot tin roof for a while before investigating why the occupants weren’t feeding him. The other occupants threw out a few crumbs, and he obviously wasn’t shy. Eventually, he got bored and went elsewhere. Fewer species here, but again including the elusive bearded tits. There was less open water to be seen, but something moved along the channel below the hide, hidden by the reeds. Probably a deer, but no-one actually saw anything.
By the time we got back to the visitor centre itself, the warden was unlocking the door. He had been checking a water pump – pumping water into one of the lagoons while there was still any water to pump anywhere. We had a drink and flapjack while he told us what was going on at the site. Then we moved on slowly to the hides to the west, missing out on the Xerox hide because it wasn’t in use, and then settling in at the Marshland hide (above). This is usually the best hide for wader-watching, and overlooked the lagoon that the water was being pumped into. We didn’t get around to asking if they filled naturally on high spring tides (the reedbeds kept the estuary itself out of sight), or by water from drainage ditches, but if there was no water, there would be no food for birds, and therefore no birds to watch. When the water pump ran out of fuel, we enjoyed a short period of quiet before the warden came out and fuelled it up again. There was another hide, further west, but the afternoon was just too hot for us to want to make the effort to get there.
Still, we had 27 species here, and a tally of 44 species for the site today.
It was late afternoon as we continued our journey north, following the satnav directions to the Wrangham House Hotel near Filey. The place seemed to be a bit of a madhouse, but this was explained as a big celebration that had been delayed since last year (or was it the previous year) because of covid. Fortunately, it was quiet in our room, and we managed to book a late dinner when the partygoers (or at least the younger generation of them) were winding down.
RSPB Bempton Cliffs
The RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs was only a short drive away – I might have been tempted to walk if it wasn’t for carrying camera stuff in the heat. A cool offshore breeze made the day more bearable, but stop long enough in a sheltered place and you got covered with tiny flies that didn’t want to leave.
The gannet colony was as noisy and busy as expected – but a few dead birds had Bob speculating that the dreaded bird flu may be affecting them here – some seabird colonies in Scotland are already being badly affected.
Like most seabirds, gannets are long-lived (20-30 years) and produce only a single chick per nest per year.
On our last visit – August 2019 – gannets were the only species here, but now, earlier in the season, the ledges still held quite a few razorbills and guillemots with some well-grown chicks.
There were also plenty of active kittiwake nests (above). The two birds in the middle are chicks, and those dark markings on the neck remind the adults that these are youngsters to be looked after rather than rivals to be chased off. Unlike most other gulls, these nest on sheer cliffs, and it’s a long way down if you fall off! As with other species of gulls, each pair can lay three or four eggs, though usually only one or two chicks will survive to fledge.
Many people were keen to see the albatross that has taken up residence here. Apparently it has a regular spot on the cliffs, though it can really only be seen from a distance, and it was difficult to make out which of the mostly-white birds it was – people with telescopes were convinced it really was there. But later it took to the air, flying amongst the swirling gannets. I was trying to video the gannets in flight along the cliffs, though it was difficult with the bright sunlight on the LCD screen. It wasn’t until we were back home that I could be sure I really had got the albatross in there too.
Someone mentioned a Daurian/Isabelline Shrike – a vagrant from the area between the Caspian Sea and China – and told us roughly where to find it. Having walked to the southern end of the reserve, we thought we might as well cross the two fields to see the bird while we were here. A few others birdwatchers were already there, and the bird had been showing well along a particular hedge. The lack of a huge crowd for it could be put down to the bird having been there a few weeks already, so it had been seen by most avid twitchers long ago. I didn’t bother getting the camera out – a distant small brown bird through the heat haze wasn’t worth the effort. It worked its way along a hedge, until eventually a couple of cyclists on the track on the other side of the hedge caused it to move further away. So we headed back to the visitor centre for a late lunch. Then we spent the afternoon looking at the cliffs along the northern end of the reserve.
While bird flu didn’t seem too obvious during our visit, later in the summer things definitely got worse. At Bempton, most of the losses took place in August, when hundreds of gannet chicks died in the densest area of the colony, and some dead adult birds were recorded on the sea. For most of the 13,000 pairs of gannets nesting elsewhere in the colony, the impact “has been thankfully very small”, according to site manager Dave O”Hara in an interview for the Yorkshire Post “We are not complacent for next year – it will be a worrying time.”
Meanwhile, the good news is that kittiwakes had the best breeding season for over ten years with 44,000 pairs producing around 30,000 chicks.
With the forecast for record-breaking temperatures still in force for the Monday, and recommendations that people should stay indoors with the curtains shut where possible to keep the heat out and avoid heat-stroke, we had to consider our plans. By leaving very early in the morning, we should get past the area predicted to be the hottest long before lunch, and probably get home by Monday evening. And maybe there would still be an opportunity to stay out somewhere overnight near another nature reserve.
The hotelier agreed it was sensible, but no, they couldn’t do us breakfast THAT early – not that we had asked them to. However, they had a portable fridge which we could have in our room, along with milk, yoghurt, fruit, cereal, etc.
We started out about 6am, with guidance from the satnav on my phone rather than using the old unit which has a few quirks likely to send us off to parts unknown. Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours, but then came a warning that there would be a delay of up to twenty minutes due to a vehicle fire on one section of motorway. We found a different route through a town, feeling that keeping the car fan going on the move was better than sitting still in an oven. The motorway was just clearing as we rejoined it. The newscasts kept us up to date with the temperature situation, and we kept going (apart from a comfort stop) to the RSPB Burton Mere reserve on the west side of England.
RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands
Burton Mere was hot. Very hot, and quite dry – though really we’d only seen it in early spring before. We had a quick look around the visitor centre, then walked out to the Marsh Covert Hide. Despite the 360 degree views from that hide, there was not much to see as the water levels were so low, but at least it was a chance to stretch our legs for half an hour. There was no shade between here and the further hides, so we walked slowly back through the woodland to the visitor centre.
There was more water in the area in front of the visitor centre, so we sat there in the shade for a while and enjoyed a coffee and snack – they weren’t keeping much food in the shop because of the heat. Altogether, we had 33 species of birds – the last of them being something of a surprise. A huge skein of pink-footed geese flew in, calling as they swirled around and then landed in grassland some distance away. Surely these geese should not be arriving until September, at the earliest? But the staff said they had been around for the last few days.
Record temperatures in Wales
On through North Wales, and more warnings about the heat on the news. The car’s AC hasn’t been working properly for a while now, so the best we managed was the ordinary fan on cold. Better than nothing. The west coast was supposed to be the coolest area, so we went that way. The Craft Centre at Coris was open, and we managed to get a decent, but late, lunch there. Further south, as we went through Bow Street the car thermometer was reading 36C – which is what we were hearing on the radio, and at the time it was said to be the highest temperature in Wales. Later, when all the data had been looked at, apparently the hottest place in Wales – 37.1C – was at Hawarden which we passed soon after leaving Burton Mere.
There didn’t seem to be much point in stopping anywhere else en route. Another time, we would have added a couple more nights and a few more reserves into the itinerary.
It was a relief to get home with the car and our sanity intact.
Click on covers for more information
Sadly out of print, but worth looking out for – covers all the RSPB reserves at the time of publication
An interactive guide to use on an iPad on-site at Bempton – sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen it myself.
The standard guide to birdwatching places in Britain – there are some regional versions too.
Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.
More places to go nature-watching in England
Europe can be as fascinating for wildlife in winter as it is in the warmer months. Here are some ideas on the best places to go in January
A visit to the RSPB Pulborough Brooks Reserve in Sussex, England, is about far more than birds.
There is plenty to see along the Dorset coast – scenery, geology, birds, flowers, butterflies, rare reptiles.
Even if you are not a bird-watcher, a visit to a red kite feeding station is a spectacular event.
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