Sunday, 29 November 2015

Tuesday Teaser: Uncovered

Not quite a monster and not quite a pussy cat, it would seem. But, who wins this week....?

Ben sails* into first place with 4 points: 2 points for being the second person to leave an answer in the comments box and 2 points for correctly identifying the moth and the bird. Very nicely done Ben!

Si has to settle for second place this week with 3 points for the first answer in the comments box. Being quick off the mark nearly paid off, Si!

For anyone wanting to see the thumbnails revealed, here they are.

Bramble Shoot Moth (Notocelia uddmanniana)

Photographed at Roughdown Common on, you guessed it, Bramble leaves.

Spotted Flycatcher

A passage migrant through Hemel Hempstead and breeds nearby in St Albans. I was fortunate to find one during autumn 2012, less than half a mile from my house. It was in a hedge, taking refuge from the pouring rain.

Small Copper

Present in small numbers at the Hemel and Bovingdon BMT sites. This one was taken at Dellfield Meadow.

* awful pun intended for moth-er extraordinaire Mr Ben Sale.

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...

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tuesday Teaser Too: Memories of Summer

Ok, so, last week I failed spectacularly to fulfil my intentions for the Tuesday Teaser. My little bit of fun - a brief distraction from the wind and rain and unrelenting gloom - turned out to be downright impossible. I created a monster only the brave or good-hearted would approach, whilst the majority inspected from a safe distance and then quietly (and very sensibly) retreated. With the benefit of hindsight, and hoping to spread a bit of winter cheer, I thought I’d rustle up a second helping of the Tuesday Teaser. I can’t guarantee that it’s any less monstrous than last week but I have tried. I’ve also included a little something for the Lepidopterists amongst us...

Another impenetrable beast or a tame pussy cat..?

Three photos

A moth. A bird. A butterfly

All were seen in Hertfordshire this summer

Can you name the species from the thumbnail showing only part of the whole?

Comments can be left anonymously. Extra points for early entry. An extra clue given after 3 entries.

Results on Saturday folks!

EDIT: Sorry….make that, results on Sunday folks!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

College Lake: Great Northern Diver & Pintails

While an exhausted Great Skua battled a windy Wilstone last Sunday morning, I snoozed in blissful ignorance. This weekend, the windblown rarity had the good sense to wait until after midday before it was found at College Lake, giving me ample time to sleep and to assemble a vast array of winter woollies. Goodbye balmy 16°C November days; hello finger-freezing, -2°C, 40mph northwesterlies.

The adult Great Northern Diver was riding the waves towards the furtherest end of College Lake when I arrived at about 13:30. I scoped it from the hide nearest the visitors centre and then headed down to the Octagon hide for a closer view. The bird looked pretty lively and in good condition. It dived two or three times, snorkelled for fish and carefully preened its glistening, silvery-white belly, its back and its flight feathers. Unfortunately, it remained a good 350-400 metres away, meaning photos/video were rubbish (case in point, below).

Having spent an easy hour absorbed in Diver antics, I turned my attention to the marsh. Along with the GND, Rob A had found a male Goosander so I was keeping an eye out for that. Instead, I found a couple of Pintail ducks. Initial impressions, viewing into the sun, were of a scruffy male, still moulting out of eclipse, and a female. But, something didn’t sit right and I tied myself in countless knots before help arrived and the fly in my identification soup was plucked out. They were “first winter birds” of course.

I enjoyed the Diver but I learnt a lot more from untangling the features of immature Pintails!

College Lake from hide near visitors centre. Octagon hide circled, right. Great Northern Diver & Pintail pair record shots

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Tuesday Teaser: Revealed

There’s a distinct possibility that even I underestimated my own sneakiness. Having said that, it did inadvertently level the playing field: there was only one way to get thumbnail 2 correct and that was by guessing. Patches of red feathers appear on a number of bird species and there was no way of deducing which one I’d chosen. As for the others, it’s fair to say a good dollop of guesswork was the key to success. Expertise in bird identification was absolutely no use whatsoever in 99.9% of the quiz. Hmm....

And so, to the much anticipated results.

In first place is Si with 4 points (1 correct answer and 3 points for being the first to respond in the comments box).

In second place is Ben with 2 points (2 points for being the second to respond in the comments box).

Thanks guys for jumping in. You’re pioneers of the Tuesday Teaser and I’ll try to be less sneaky next time around, I promise. For you, Ben, I might even throw in a moth or two.

If you're curious to find out what the birds were, here are the (impossible) thumbnails revealed... Did anyone get more than one right?!

Common Crossbill 

During eruptive years, Wendover Woods is the place to look.


A regular passage migrant, frequently found on Ivinghoe Hills.

Black-tailed Godwit

These are juveniles on Startop’s End Reservoir. They're a regular passage migrant at Tring Reservoirs.

Ring Ouzel

A regular passage migrant. This one was on Ivinghoe Beacon

Grey Heron

Resident. This photo of a preening juvenile was taken at Wilstone Reservoir

Water Pipit

In recent years, Tring Reservoirs has frequently been the home to at least one wintering bird. I took this shot at the end of March 2012, at Startop's End Reservoir, when the bird had all but finished its transition into its smart breeding plumage.

P.S. One highlight from this week: during a brief spell of dry weather, when the sun shone weakly over the scrub and saplings at Heartwood Forest (St Albans), 8 Lesser Redpolls and 5 Reed Buntings were taking it in turns to bathe in a big muddy puddle next to their hedgerow perch. All splashes and head dunking and wing flapping. Birds make bath time look like so much fun!

Plus, very glad to still have 2 Coal Tits and 1 Goldcrest visiting garden feeders and bird bath. They seem to hold their own amongst countless Blue and Great TitsBlackbirds, Robin, Wren and Dunnocks. They also have to keep their wits about them in case the local Sparrowhawk chances by.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Teaser on a Tuesday

Here’s the thing. I'm all out of inspiration and energy but thought a quiz might provide a welcome distraction from driving winds and rain. At least for 5 minutes.

Six pictures.

Six bird species.

All have been seen in Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire.

Hopefully, there’s a mix of the easy and the hard.

Can you name the species from the thumbnail section showing only part of the bird?

Results on Friday folks!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Antidote to dusky winter weeks

Hemel (BMT): During the past 5 days, light levels have been bordering on crepuscular. It’s been more gloomy than an episode of River and probably more accommodating to a bat than a human being. However, with the continuation of the rain on Saturday, it did mean that the Little Egrets lingered an extra day and added another un-ringed bird to their number, bringing the total present to 8. This is the highest single count I’ve had along the BMT stretch of the Bulbourne in the 2 years I’ve been monitoring it. It also meant we hit double figures for the number of individuals using the site in the last 9 weeks. TEN birds in an area which is frequently and regularly disturbed is pretty good going.

Moving swiftly on - before someone throws a shoe at me for yet another post on Little Egrets - I’ve caught up with the Fieldfares around BMT land. Last week, there were small flocks, c10 birds, at Westbrook Hay and the Brickworks and less than a handful of birds around the Bulbourne. Fed up with high ISO, desaturated photographs, taken in semidarkness, I thought I’d dig out a few photos from sunnier times. These were taken in Hemel Hempstead in 2012, using the car as a hide. It’s the best opportunity I’ve had to date to photograph Fieldfare and Redwing. It’s also a memory filled with limitless blue overhead, unfettered sunshine and sumptuous colour.

During prolonged winter gloom, it’s a relief to be reminded that it won’t last forever. Eventually, the oppressive sky and turbid light will relent. A break in the smothering cloud is inevitable. Days won’t always feel hard and heavy and stagnant. In just a moment, the sun will blaze, light and warmth will push back horizons, and the palette of assorted greys will be thrown over in favour of every colour in the rainbow.

Trudging through weeks which feel positively resistant to life and movement isn’t much fun. However, I suppose they do provide the most excellent frame in which to place those days which are the antithesis. What do they say? Without the darkness we wouldn’t appreciate the light...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Forget 1D, 9D touches down in Hemel

Hemel (BMT): I know how eager you all are to keep up with the minute movements of Little Egrets in Hemel Hempstead. No comparisons to paint drying, please. This is serious observation. In all weathers. As someone built to thrive in temperatures more commonly occurring in the Caribbean than Hemel Hempstead, I have no complaints about the crazy mild start to November (16°C yesterday & today!). The incessant rain is less compelling and, yesterday, it was supposed to dry up by the afternoon. Indeed, it was dry when I pulled on my wellies and zipped up my waterproof. Two minutes into setting out along the River Bulbourne, across Bulbourne Meadow, and the drizzle embraced me.

An immature Grey Heron and one of the regular un-ringed adult Little Egrets were feeding in the shallows, below the Willow. Further upstream, on Station Moor, the other regular un-ringed adult Little Egret was foot-waggling its way across the river. Fast forward some 20 muddy, murky minutes, upstream, and I was looking at another 5 Little Egrets all gathered together on Fishery Moor. I couldn’t quite believe it and, at some distance, (through air that was more liquid than gas and rain-spattered spectacles), I did momentarily dare to dream they might be grounded Spoonbills or Great Whites. With fantasies well and truly snuffed out, I went through the flock and found that two birds were colour-ringed. One was the caught hind-toe bird, GR24085, hatched and ringed this spring in St Albans; the other was a new arrival: RBM; LAON(9); RAYN(D). This bird was ringed by Barry Trevis on 9th June 2014 as a chick, in the first ever nest at Verulamium Park in St Albans. It had 3 siblings. In Autumn that year, it was spotted by Roy (of recent Long-eared Owl fame) at Startop’s End reservoir, Tring. Finally, the bird was observed in December 2014, in the Chaulden area of Hemel. As to where it’s been for the last 11 months, that's anyone’s guess!

Video still, showing colour-rings of new Little Egret on Fishery Moor, 06/11/2015

9D with the 3 other un-ringed birds, all new in

5 Little Egrets, 06/11/2015, Fishery Moor, looking east to Fishery Road in the background

I should have known really. On the worst of weather days, a new colour-ringed Little Egret calls in to cheer me up. This time, it brought 4 of its un-ringed mates with it, so impressed was it with my commitment to the cause. There’s no denying that their presence made going out in filthy weather just about worthwhile.

In the last 9 weeks, the Box Moor Trust land along the River Bulbourne has been host to at least 9 LITTLE EGRETS: 2 regular un-ringed birds, 3 un-ringed visitors (yesterday) and 4 ringed birds, the latest of which carried the number 9. Interesting eh?!

Ringed birds:
LAON(9); RAYN(H). BTO ring GR24085, first spotted 03/09/2015 (caught toe)
LAON(H); RAYN(F). BTO ring GR24083, first spotted 04/09/2015
LAON(H); RAYN(C). BTO ring GR24066, first spotted 20/10/2015
LAON(9); RAYN(D). BTO ring GR24046, first spotted 06/11/2015

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Little Owl lifts the gloom

Hemel Area: Rain fell for most of this morning and the whole day has been wrapped up tight in grey gloom. I was feeling about as sparky as the weather and it was with some reluctance that I left the house for some fresh air before lunch. I squelched my way along a muddy path and then, suddenly, there, on a fence post, I spied a ball of feathers. It was too small for a Woodpigeon but, of course, once I got the binoculars on it, I found I was watching a gorgeous Little Owl. It was having a spot of bother with a Magpie, which had decided that the grasses below the owl were the best place to forage for food. The owl wasn’t best pleased and kept a beady eye on the Magpie until it got the message and moved on.

I didn’t want to disturb the bird so the photo and video footage were digiscoped from some distance, in very poor light (I’ve removed the audio). Not great quality but hopefully still enjoyable. The section of the video where the owl is turning around and looking at the ground is when the Magpie was below it, chancing its arm.

I think the last Little Owl I saw was at Berkhamsted in 2013. I only heard one calling last year at Westbrook Hay when a friend and I were out searching for Edible Dormice.

Little Owl, Berkhamsted, 2013

Watching any wild owl is pretty special and today’s bird was no different. I forgot my soaked feet, wet jeans and the heavy cloud: all of my attention and emotion were lifted and tied up in this little ball of feathers that was bothered by a Mapgie, cleaned its bill and sat and surveyed the land. Fab!

Monday, 2 November 2015

More in hope than expectation

BMT & Tring Reservoirs: In the spirit of Something is better than Nothing, here I am with a scrap of an update. Over the last 12 days, it’s been the usual mix of walks over BMT land with the occasional sortie elsewhere to keep things interesting. I've run into numerous, entertaining mixed Tit flocks and, although they haven’t included the hoped for Firecrest or Yellow-browed Warbler, they are nevertheless cheerful. Whose spirits can’t be lifted by 9+ tinkling Goldcrests, 11+ chirpy Long-tailed Tits and a smattering of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Chaffinches, all busy searching and flitting through the bare branches of eye-level scrub, as was the case one morning last week at the Brickworks. Energy, life and colour arrive with these restless flocks and seem to leave with the last of their calls, as they disappear onwards and upwards through the trees.

The return of the Redwings to BMT land was nearly 2 weeks ago now and, although I saw Fieldfare locally on Saturday, I’ve not yet sought them out around the Trust.

With Short-eared Owls being reported left, right and centre, and a few Barn Owls obviously moving within the county, I spent last Friday evening staking out a potential local hunting ground. It was a blissful, warm, still nightfall, with a blood-red sunset and, although a few bats and the odd moth came out to play, the owls had other plans. 

This morning, Roy Hargreaves found a Long-eared Owl roosting near the reservoirs. Yes, that was LONG-eared Owl. I don’t know about Roy, but my jaw hit the floor when I heard! More in hope than expectation, I followed up on this with a walk around Tringford and Startop’s End reservoirs late morning. Not surprisingly, I didn’t chance upon an owl with superior tufts.....or one without superior tufts, for that matter. Ah well. The night/winter is still young. And, on into November we go...