Thursday 17 December 2015

The year of the teeny weeny

As we hurtle towards the end of another year, I thought I’d better squeeze in a review of the last 12 months. As regular readers will have gathered, much of my time is spent locally, trying to keep up with (i.e. as best I can, monitor and record) the wildlife across land managed by the Box Moor Trust. I’m not alone in this endeavour. Experts in moths, in butterflies and in bird ringing - to name but a few - also regularly monitor species on the land. Together, as a team of volunteers, we’re simply hoping to be of use in conserving and managing the local wildlife.

So....this year, my main aim was to keep my eyes peeled for new species but also to ensure that there weren’t any obvious or significant losses. I wasn’t able to replicate the level or breadth of coverage that I’d managed in 2014 but it was still a rewarding year. I hope you'll enjoy taking a look back with me. First up, what's new Scooby-Doo?

New species 

(not previously recorded on Trust land & all teeny weeny!)

Little Longhorn moth

Adela (Cauchas) fibulella on Germander Speedwell (8-11mm wingspan). A scarce day-flying micro moth in Hertfordshire. At the beginning of June, inspired by moth expert Ben Sale, I found colonies at the Brickworks & Westbrook Hay

Heath Speedwell &
Wild Strawberries

Heath Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) (far left, next to Germander Speedwell) & Wild Strawberries (Fragaria vesca) (right) were both newly recorded at the Brickworks in June. Both plants are UK Red Listed (near threatened or vulnerable) and although seemingly "common" locally are valuable additions

Small Blue

Small Blue (Cupido minimus) (wingspan 18-27mm). At the beginning of June, I spotted a single butterfly at Dellfield meadow, Westbrook Hay (the first to be recorded on Trust land). This led to the discovery of a small breeding colony nearby and the possibility of attracting this rare Hertfordshire species to Box Moor Trust land. It’s early days but it was one of those rare moments where spotting a single creature led to all sorts of revelations, learning and possibilities.
(see BMT Small Blue Project

Brassy Longhorn moth

Nemophora metallica on Field Scabious (wingspan 15-20mm). A rare day-flying micro moth in Hertfordshire. It was a real delight to come across a small colony at the Brickworks in July

Sticking with the good news, it's on to the welcome returns...

Welcome returns

(from my 2014 records or others' previous records)

Green Hairstreaks

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi). A rare species in Hertfordshire. The small breeding colony at Roughdown Common remains. I spotted my first adult this year on 20/04/2015

Dingy Skippers

It was a good year for Dingy Skippers (Erynnis tages) at Bovingdon Brickworks. And, it was a privilege to watch a pair come together and mate one sunny day at the start of May. Another rare species in Hertfordshire

Brown Argus

Having found the Brickworks colony at the very end of last season, it was fantastic to be able to confirm in the spring that the species did breed and emerge onsite.
A locally scarce butterfly 

Grass Rivulets

Another rare Hertfordshire moth and, for the second year running, it was recorded at Dellfield meadow, Westbrook Hay. I was glad to manage a half decent photograph this time too!

Lesser Whitethroat

Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca) is not an easy species to catch up with locally. It has been recorded on Trust land before but not by me. I was really pleased to come across this singing male at Bovingdon Brickworks at the end of June. It stayed a good few weeks as well

Painted Ladies &
Silver-washed Fritillary

Throughout August more than 20 Painted Lady butterflies came through the Brickworks as well as at least one male Silver-washed Fritillary. It was also great to record a couple of Hummingbird Hawk-moths at the site


The Kingfishers were a constant throughout last year's project and the same was true through 2015. At least 2 pairs attempted to nest along the Bulbourne river and youngsters were evident late summer


 Siskins (Carduelis spinus) have previously been recorded on Trust land but, again, not by me. This year was my first sighting of them locally with numerous singles & small flocks passing through in autumn. By the beginning of December, more than 30 birds were feeding in Alders on Blackbirds Moor. Fantastic stuff!

Not photographed, but the swathe of c150 Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera) flowered on Bovingdon Reach meadow in June. A very welcome return.

Feet firmly planted in optimism, there were just 3 species to give me cause for concern...


  • During 2014, I heard Cuckoos at Westbrook Hay and Bovingdon Brickworks. During 2015, I heard none
  • During 2014, I found 5-Spot Burnet species at Bovingdon Brickworks. During 2015, I found none
  • During 2014, the Brown Argus were flying right up until the start of September. During 2015, the spring brood was small (perhaps less than a dozen specimens) and I'm not sure if there was a second brood. It'll be interesting to see if this species is present in 2016. I do hope so

The Future

Thinking about the future, there are two very obvious species to note for 2016
  • During 2015, at least 10 individual Little Egrets passed through the Hemel moors, along the Bulbourne, during autumn. At least 3 of these were young birds from the breeding colony in St Albans. It’ll be interesting to see how the River Bulbourne numbers vary throughout 2016, especially post-breeding & during the river restoration works
  • Following the autumn planting of Kidney Vetch at Roughdown Common and Bovingdon Brickworks to attract Small Blues, it’ll be fascinating to see how the project progresses in 2016

Finally, a big thank you to those of you who have encouraged me, shared snippets from your own experiences and/or come alongside with kind or interested comments, either on or offline. It does make all the difference to know that the bits and pieces I put together might actually be enjoyed or be of use or interest. Thank you.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Mud, murk & mystery solved

Sparkling oak leaf at the Brickworks

Bovingdon (BMT): The weekend doesn’t seem to have incorporated a great deal of daylight. Darkness, yes. Drizzle, yes. Rain, yes. And, at the Brickworks, mud. Lots and lots of mud. I also have a sore throat, which of course adds to the general sense of gloom. However, in spite of all that, I thoroughly enjoyed my muddy wander this morning.

Views in the murk and mud at Bovingdon Brickworks this morning

As I walked through the mudow (that’s mud/meadow) (top left "view"), a Song Thrush was singing in the trees to my right. A crystal clear, full-bodied melody of flutes and whistles, projected far and wide. It was better than sunshine. Up ahead of me, I spotted another 5 Song Thrushes together in a bush and, behind me, 2 more. There were at least 10 around the site. A flock of 40+ Goldfinches were feeding on thistle seeds, along with Chaffinches and a mix of Tits. Last week, I’d counted at least 20 Blackbirds within the scrub and, easily, 5 Green Woodpeckers. 3 Jays gave me glimpses of white rumps and a couple of Fieldfare swapped one tree for another. Towards the end of my squelching, I chanced upon a Robin quietly singing his pretty sub-song. It was as though he was testing the air to see if anyone was listening. Delicate yet sure and another ray of sunshine.

The main reason for my visit today was to retrieve the trail camera, which had been out overnight. I modified the set up slightly by a) moving the camera much closer to the burrow entrance and b) reducing the glare of the red LEDs with some sheer red fabric taped over the top. As before, I aimed the lens into the distance, again to reduce glare, and I put out a few peanuts and sunflower hearts to entice little creatures to do more than dash, dart and streak across screen. The results weren’t bad.

I’ve put together 60 seconds worth from the 120+, 14 second clips that were captured. All occurred between 21:00 and 00:00 yesterday.

So, the mystery homemaker is definitely a mouse and we have at least 2 living in this burrow. They’re likely Wood Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) but I think only daytime footage would clinch it (fur colour). I confess, I had hoped for Bank Voles but, even so, it’s been useful to get some experience with the trail camera and learn more about the habits of Wood Mice.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Snapshots from the cycle of life

Hemel & Bovingdon (BMT): I thought you’d all be pleased to hear that a) no-one has nicked the chicken wire off the Kidney Vetch and b) the Kidney Vetch has not yet been eaten by slugs or rabbits. So far, so good.

Out on Blackbirds Moor this week, a Mistle Thrush has started singing. According to garden-birds, they’re the first of the Thrushes to begin singing in the lead up to spring, getting started in December. The Blackbird follows and then the Song Thrush. I really do love how nature seems to approach winter with outright optimism: buds are already formed, birds are starting to sing and the year’s end is still 3 weeks away. It’s as if nature shouts “spring is coming!” from the moment it ends until the moment it arrives.

Wednesday bucked the trend and was actually sunny. Blue sky, heart-lifting sunny. Earlier in the week, the Siskin flock by the canal had increased to more than 30 birds and I hoped that I might be able to get some photographs or better video footage. I achieved neither. Either the birds were obscured by cones, catkins or other inconsiderate portions of tree. Or, the light was so harsh and awkward that only bits of bird were visible whilst the rest was lost in pitch black shadow. This photographic farce was mercifully curtailed by the flock only staying about 10 minutes out of the hour or more I was there. By mid-morning, it was time to do something else.

At the Brickworks, two curious burrows have appeared. Each is located on the side of a bank of earth, with a circular entrance 40-45mm diameter (see above). Something has obviously dug extensively, piling up soil like larva in front of the holes. Yesterday, I set up a camera trap to run overnight, hoping to solve the mystery.

Early this morning, I was greeted by the resident Kestrel (top photo) and the trap had been triggered. Only 2 clips were of any use. A couple of more knowledgable friends suggest the small mammal might be a Wood Mouse. Having encountered youngsters on site back in July, we know they're present. Better footage would certainly help, so, if I can achieve that ahead of Christmas, I will. With a bit of luck, the beady-eyed Kestrel won't have eaten them all before I can identify them!

Saturday 5 December 2015

If you build it, he will come

Hemel & Bovingdon (BMT): I’m fairly certain that the Box Moor Trust didn’t hear whisperings in the cornfield à la Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. There is no predestined certainty here but the passionate hope is that by creating a habitat suitable for the rare Small Blue butterfly, it might just wander on over to Trust land and find a safe haven.

Yesterday morning, 4 of us pulled on our wellies and got properly muddy planting Kidney Vetch at Bovingdon Brickworks. This was the second morning of furious autumn industry. At the end of November, more than half a dozen enthusiastic helpers (from trustees, staff and volunteers) had planted some 350 Kidney Vetch (KV) seedling plugs and sown KV seeds at Roughdown Common. Across both locations, the plants need to survive rabbits, slugs, frost and anything else that might get thrown at them this winter. Then, in the spring, they need to bed in, germinate and reproduce. If the plants and seeds manage all this then they might, just might, attract Small Blues to the sites. Forget a field of dreams, a vigorous patch of Kidney Vetch would do nicely!

For the complete Small Blue story, check out the “BMT Small Blue Project” tab above. If hope and the sheer longing to see rare and scarce wildlife recover were enough, we’d be guaranteed success. As it is, we’ll have to wait and see...

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...

Wednesday 21 October 2015

H is for Little Egret

. . . & all is not black and white

Hemel (BMT): It is bizarre but it seems that only Little Egrets ringed with the letter “H” turn up in HhhhhhHemel HhhhhhHempstead. And, I first find them on days when the sky is thick with cloud and the light is flat and all is gloom. Perhaps they decide I'm in need of novelty to compensate for days like that. Yesterday was the arrival of bird number 3. Colour-rings LAON(H); RAYN(C). BTO ring GR24066.

Video still showing colour rings LAON(H); RAYN(C), 20 Oct 2015

The bird was ringed as a juvenile (age code 3 i.e. hatched earlier that year) at Lemsford Springs on 2 September 2014. It hung around Lemsford for a while before heading NW to Leagrave Marsh in Luton in February, and then, in May, was spotted at Trimley Marshes in Suffolk! A month later, it was back in Bedfordshire, at East Hyde, before finally taking it’s little orange “H” to Hemel Hempstead.

It’s no Red-flanked Bluetail or Hume’s Leaf Warbler but these ringed birds add a little interest to my walks along the River Bulbourne. I enjoy the simple satisfaction of spotting them, getting close enough to read the rings and adding to the growing picture for each individual. However, it’s not always straightforward. There is a quirk to the colour-rings.

In the photo above, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Little Egret’s left leg has an orange colour-ring with a white “9”. Actually, both the “H” and the “9” are written in black. It’s not a photographic/digital artifact either. In the field, even when the bird is walking or shifting position, the letter/number can consistently appear pure white to the naked eye. I spent a few head-scratching sessions with this bird, wondering what were the chances of a second individual, turning up at the same site, with the exact same letter/number combination, but written in white rather than black. The mystery was solved when I saw that “both” birds had their right hind-toe caught in the metal BTO ring i.e. it was the same individual. This must have happened soon after ringing. It looks mighty uncomfortable but the bird seems to be absolutely fine.

Video stills showing the black "9" appearing white, and the single caught hind-toe

The obvious Siskin passage continues, with another handful of birds flying SW over the river yesterday. It looks like the rest of this week is more gloom and drizzle, so, who knows, perhaps another ringed Little Egret will pop in.

Many thanks to ringing scheme co-ordinator, Barry Trevis, for the details and background on these Little Egrets.

The River Bulbourne is currently hosting:
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
The blog post relating to the birds first spotted in September can be found HERE.

Friday 16 October 2015

The clash of Kings on the River Bulbourne

Hemel (BMT): It’s that time of year when monogamous Kingfisher pairs separate and set up alone to see out the winter. The young too disperse, finding their own stretches of water to patrol and to sustain them through the colder months.

I had been away for a few days, attending a family funeral, so, in spite of the gloom and drizzle yesterday afternoon, it was good to catch up with life along the river. One of the colour-ringed Little Egrets is still a regular fixture, together with the two adults. And, of course, there are the Kingfishers, now in the throws of establishing and defending winter territories.

Just after 3pm, beside the river on Harding’s Moor, approaching Station Road, I could hear two Kingfishers having a right old barney. Insistent calling from both parties and, when I finally located the female, perched precariously on grasses overhanging the river, she was posturing continually, bowing her head and staring with murderous intent.

Disturbed by a man looking for fish(?!), the birds flew up in to the tree on the opposite bank and here they remained for at least the next 2 hours, barely moving except to posture, flinch and mirror one another. Apart from the rise and fall of their chests as they breathed, you could be mistaken for believing they were playing statues - to move was to lose the battle.

The female had clearly staked out her spot but the male seemed to slowly but surely decrease the distance between them. Unfortunately, it started to rain quite heavily towards 5pm and I had to call it a day, leaving the pair locked in this subtle but fierce battle. I wonder if this location on the river is a boundary between adjacent territories and they were asserting their lots? The male, I think, is a first winter bird and the female an adult. Perhaps mother is trying to encourage son to stop raiding the food cupboard and go out and find his own supplies! I had watched the female fishing downstream last week, again in the gloom and drizzle.

Female Kingfisher, River Bulbourne, 6 Oct 2015. A selection of video stills from handheld video footage, in the rain!

One of these days, I’ll come across the Kingfishers when there’s enough light for nice photographs at a reasonable ISO. In the meantime, here are some 90 seconds from the 2 hour stand-off, to give you a flavour of the determined patience of these birds when holding their ground. The tension of battle is palpable but made all the more obvious when the young male jumps at the sound of the female’s sudden call. Their focus was such that they completely ignored me, standing less than 10 metres away, as conspicuous as a pink elephant.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Delicious autumn

I made the most of last Sunday, knowing that during the following 3 days we were in for a thorough soaking. A little clichéd perhaps but the stillness and warmth of the day created a kind of calm, gentle and quiet sense of rescue as I walked the paths at the Brickworks in the afternoon. Some days you feel more vulnerable than others but find that you are met, in this tender state, by a natural world which is perfectly in tune. There are no harsh, discordant notes or searing shocks to the system, only harmony and a gentleness of light, warmth and colour. You take it in with ease and relief, and your breathing slows, your muscles relax and your mind expands.

One of the trails at Bovingdon Brickworks

And....then you spot the first blooms of Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). It may well be a common plant of “waste grounds, grasslands, roadside verges and hedgerows”, but it’s bright, sunny and delicious to behold. It’s common name of “Butter and Eggs” is no accident. It’s all yellows and oranges and frilly and interesting. You can’t help but take a closer look.

As the days shorten and the trees lose their leaves, these hardy bloomers may well go on flowering right through November. For the herbalists amongst us, if you happen to be bloated or constipated, this yella fella is right up your street. It has strong laxative and diuretic properties, as well as containing painkilling and anti-inflammatory effects to help heal wounds (not that I’m advocating Toadflax stew or the like, you understand). Yes, it’s common, but at the right time, in the right place, it can feel like you’ve stumbled upon trumpets of autumn sunshine.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Ring-necked Duck: another quacker at Startops

Tring reservoirs: Hmmm....with a pun like that in the title, is there any hope for the ensuing post? I’ll crash on regardless.

I’ve been about as dynamic as a hibernating hedgehog for the past few days. The chance of anything vaguely creative, even accidentally finding its way here, is pretty slim. Still, with a self-imposed goal of hitting the publish button at least once a week(ish), I’ve climbed out from under the duvet, left Don in yet another whiskey-induced spiral of self-destruction (Mad Men, season 6) and gone to see a bird.

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just a Tufted Duck, without a tuft, and with the addition of a couple of flashy bands around its bill. It isn’t, honest. It’s a very smart American, male, Ring-necked Duck. It turned up at Wilstone reservoir on Friday evening, disappeared Saturday, and reappeared today at Startops, long enough for the young, the old and the middle-aged and infirm (i.e. me) to drag themselves out into the blissful warmth and sunshine, and be dazzled by rarity. The last (and first) one I saw at the reservoirs was a dull juvenile at Wilstone in 2013. Prior to that there had been less than 15 county records.

View across Startop's End Reservoir, from SW shoreline + digiscoped inserts. Distance to bird approx 200 metres

Saturday 26 September 2015

Osprey at Weston Turville Reservoir

An Osprey, fishing in a reservoir in the middle of Buckinghamshire, for more than a week. That isn’t the start of an ironic birding joke, or the bird watchers' equivalent of “pigs might fly”. It’s true! I kid you not. Just north of Wendover is Weston Turville Reservoir (WTR) and this has been the main feeding ground for a young Osprey for well over a week. On Wednesday, I finally got to take a look.

I arrived around 10am to discover the bird had just caught a huge fish and disappeared. It would likely be perched up for the next hour or more, whilst it fed. Fair enough. Bird’s gotta eat. Tring reservoirs are just down the road, so, I headed there to kill time. Three Wheatears and a couple of hours later, I was back at WTR watching an Osprey approach from the south. Magical. Set against a deep blue sky, bathed in sunshine, it hovered high over the water before retracting its wings and plunging like a stone. I couldn’t see whether it emerged with a catch but, mid air, it purposefully stalled, shook itself like a wet dog - spray showering down - before continuing its flight into a dead tree. There it stayed for the next 30 minutes, giving me enough time to walk around to the hide and get a few digiscoped photos. (Conditions were far from ideal: busy hide/constantly shaking floor/scope, strong winds, distance of 120+ metres to bird and use of 50x eyepiece magnification meant paper thin plane of focus).

At 12:30, the bird flew back over the SE end of the reservoir, quickly caught a medium sized fish and disappeared east. What a spectacle. I’m still shaking my head in disbelief. If I’d had the energy, I would have hung around for the chance at some flight shots but, by this point, I’d run out of steam and had to call it a day.

I wonder how much longer it’ll put off the necessary migration south? In the meantime, it really is the local highlight of the far.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Strike a pose!

Tring reservoirs: It was a beautiful, sunny morning today and I had the chance to call in at Startop's End Reservoir. On the NW bank, I spied 3 Wheatears, gazing wistfully south and soaking up the rays. One of the birds raised its little feathery hand and beckoned me over (really, it did). With its head cocked and a cheeky glint in its eye (you know the look), it suggested that I drop down onto the shingle and grab a few studio shots. I think it was rather taken with the way the warm light caught its peachy, buff tones and had been hoping for just such an opportunity to really show them off. Happy to oblige, I settled into position. Chattering throughout, the Wheatear could be heard to say....

"I may not be an Acadian Flycatcher but....Here. Here. Look! Aren’t I beautiful... "


"Do you see my rich, rufous cheeks and silky, silvery supercilium?"

"Is this any better...?"


"Don’t you just want to tickle my tummy...!?"

And, finally, I suggested the little chap might like to turn around...

"Yes, yes, the back. You’re right, still beautiful....see!?"

I could only agree.

Sadly, our photo shoot was brought to an abrupt end by the approach of the inevitable bounding dog. Thankfully, I had other fish to fry but more on that later this week.