Friday, 27 November 2015

Singing, Siskins & Short-eared Owls

Hemel (BMT): Wednesday morning, as I stood beside the River Bulbourne on Station Moor, a Grey Wagtail flew in and settled onto a sun-drenched, concrete ledge by the water. For the next 3 minutes, without moving from the spot, it preened and sang with abandon. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a moment of crisp, clear winter sunshine. Had I been a little bird, I would have joined him.

In the surrounding hedgerow, the resident colony of c30 House Sparrows were chattering enthusiastically and a few Starlings chipped in with a whistle. Just out of sight, tucked away, a Kingfisher perched over the water and, above them all, on the towpath by the canal, a Grey Heron stood tall and still, soaking up the sun’s rays. When I took the photograph below, its attention had been drawn to a noise behind it, giving me the chance to include in the frame those fiery yellows and reds of the Dogwood.

Earlier in the week, on Monday, I’d walked past this spot and then east along the canal. On the opposite bank, you eventually come to a row of Alders, one of which has somehow hung on to a good proportion of its leaves. And, it was in this tree that I heard and spied a small flock of c8 Siskins. To most, this will mean nothing at all, but I have been hoping to see Siskins feeding in Alders on Trust land for the past 3 winters and this was my first sighting! I was so chuffed. After the steady autumn passage this year, I was hopeful a few birds might give Hemel a go. I celebrated with a shockingly bad, out of focus photograph (insert below) guaranteed to underwhelm the masses, but special to me as the first vibrant yellow male to be seen here wrestling with an alder cone!

Monday afternoon, I pootled up to Heartwood Forest, just north of St Albans. It’s a traditional wintering ground for Short-eared Owls and, this year, 5 birds are vying for voles amongst the sapling trees. The visit was long overdue. Apart from calling in briefly last week, I’ve not been to the site for a good 3 years. What were previously wide open grasslands are now home to hundreds of tender young trees. It won’t be long before the owls have to find somewhere new to see out the colder months.

The area is rich in bird life: Lesser Redpolls, Reed Buntings, Yellowhammers, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Redwings, Kestrels, Sparrowhawk and a handful of wintering Stonechats are all easily spotted without walking too far. On Monday, 3 Short-eared Owls appeared from nowhere at about 3pm and swooped and stalled and clashed over the scrub before regularly diving down for prey. It was too dark for photographs (small sensor, slow lens) but I took some video footage and extracted a ropey looking still (right). I’ve promised myself I’ll return before the winter is out.

Finally, on Thursday, I couldn’t resist another visit to the Siskins on Blackbirds Moor. They were still prizing seeds from the alder cones but getting an accurate count was surprisingly difficult - birds kept coming and going, and they were mixed in with Goldfinches, a Goldcrest and various Tit species. There could easily have been as many as 12 Siskins but I reckoned 9+ was about as precise as I was going to get. Out on Harding’s Moor there were another 5 birds, also in Alder. Conditions were far from ideal for photography or video but my motivations were skewed by patch tick joy and so “Siskin on BMT land” trumps quality, aesthetics and reputation. I hope you'll understand...


  1. Right, I shall keep an eye out on the alders by the River Devon after watching your lovely film!

  2. They're lovely little birds, Si. Glad you liked the video clips. We only get Siskins during passage migration and winter down here in Hertfordshire.

  3. A good find Lucy, not seen these locally, but a flock of 25-30 currently at the lodge. As you say, very tricky to count accurately!

  4. Thanks Martin and it's reassuring to hear I'm not the only one who struggles to accurately count them, lol! That's a really good sized flock you've got at the moment. The icing on the cake would be a Lesser Redpoll or two this winter in BMT land but I'm still waiting for that.