Monday 30 March 2015

Earthy Tones

On a hedgerow, along Hale Lane, by the entrance to Wendover Woods. Rolling fields and woodland: the background to a Dunnock singing his heart out under cloudy skies this morning.

An evening stroll

Hemel (BMT): After a day of wind and rain yesterday, I took a late afternoon/early evening stroll around Westbrook Hay. Walking up through Dellfield, I could hear a couple of Mistle Thrushes singing. On into Hay Wood and near the pond there’s an area of woodland which is often good for little birds. Perhaps there’s something about the mix and density of trees here which is particularly enticing. Anyway, there was a female Great Spotted Woodpecker, high up. I could hear 3 Goldcrests singing. A Nuthatch. A couple of male Chaffinches singing and at least 3 Great Tits also singing loudly.

Out onto Preston Hill and there were 3 Green Woodpeckers probing the newly softened ground. One pair, which were together, and another single bird. Over Bovingdon Reach, as light rain was blown hard into my face, and on into Ramacre Wood. There, I could hear a Song Thrush and Blackbird seemingly having a sing off. I heard another Nuthatch and more Great Tits chiming out.

As I came to return over Bovingdon Reach, the bank of thick cloud had passed through at last. The scene of the solitary Horse Chestnut was too good to resist and the blustery walk back to the car gave me the chance to dry off.

Friday 27 March 2015

Murderous Rage & Buntings!

Every Spring, I am driven to the brink of murder…the murder of Collard Doves. For a bird lover, that’s extreme provocation! I don’t know if it’s the same pair each year but, if not, they obviously pass on detailed information to the next incumbents. They have decided that sitting in the crook of the down-pipe from the gutters, just outside my bedroom window, is the best place to kukoo-kuc over and over and over again. They start early, just after dawn, and go on and on and on. I suppose there’s something about the sound quality and amplification (yup!), just under the eaves, which makes it a prime coo-ing spot. Anyway, today I was woken at 6am and unless I get out of bed and open the window, the bird sits there for ever kukoo-ing. I got up 7 times before 7am! Flipping birds!

This afternoon, all such frustrations melted away. A short walk and a long sit down on the SE slope of Pitstone Hill. Overhead, puffs of white cloud were passing through an otherwise blue sky and the sunshine would peak in and out as appropriate. I came upon a pair of Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola), both birds regularly calling, creating that unmistakable sound of two stones being bashed together. I think the male even sang a little, which I’d never heard before.

The hillside was the epitome of Spring bird song. Numerous Yellowhammers, a couple of Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, all singing, performing or searching out food and a foothold. I lay down in the sunshine and just soaked up the sounds. A Skylark flew into the air-space over me, singing hard, only to parachute steadily away, taking his trills with him. The Yellowhammers buzzed and sparkled in the sunshine. They have to be one of my favourite birds - so bright and smart and colourful. I wish I was able to do them justice in photographs (today's shots are extremely heavy crops…best viewed small).

Yellowhammer (female)
Yellowhammer (female)
Yellowhammer (male) (through wire fence!)
Corn Bunting
Corn Bunting

Further around the hill, there were 3 Starlings lying on the grass, motionless, doing as I had done earlier, soaking up the sun. Initially, two were hidden and, at first glance, the lone bird looked like a Ring Ouzel…until I realised it wasn't. A small flock of Linnets flew through, chattering to one another and, over Ivinghoe Beacon, I could see 2 Red Kites circling slowly. Ultimately, I wasn’t the only one taking it easy on a Friday afternoon.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Walk Like An Egyptian

Wilstone Reservoir: I missed a trick yesterday. A pair of Egyptian Geese were doing the “walk like an Egyptian” walk and all I had to do was take some video footage and slap in the Bangles sound track. Did I think of that at the time? Did I heck. Quick thinking on 5 hours sleep just doesn’t happen. Oh well, you can always stick on the YouTube rendition whilst browsing a couple of photographs instead. A late afternoon visit, in sunshine and calm conditions. The two Egyptian Geese were in the field behind the jetty and, whilst I was photographing them, the Oystercatcher pair flew in to preen and mooch on the bank behind me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Egyptian Geese. Both birds made me smile as they “walked like an Egyptian”, even holding the pose momentarily before deciding to take the next step.

The sloping bank back up to the reservoir gave me sufficient cover to be able to watch and photograph the Oystercatchers without disturbing them.

I was surprised that when I did finally come back up to the main path, the birds were unfazed and just carried on about their business.

When I got home, I discovered that all the low angle, close up shots, taken along the concrete bank were completely useless due to heat haze. Yes, heat haze, in 9 deg C, in March (I was wearing a woolly hat for goodness sake!). A real shame as they were a series of the pair preening together, each revealing different features of their plumage in unison. I’m always particularly pleased when birds feel safe enough to preen whilst I’m watching/photographing them. Anyway, lesson learnt. A slightly higher viewpoint would probably have salvaged the shots without being too much of a compromise on composition.

In other news, Mr Mistle Thrush is still singing in the woods at the back of the house. Most mornings, he wakes me up and I then have to drift back to sleep for a few more hours. He’s been going strong now for 4 weeks!

Finally, I wanted to thank Sh4rpy for including a link to my Richard’s Pipit post on his blog. I still can't quite believe we watched the poor thing get plucked from the air by a ruthless Sparrowhawk...

Sunday 22 March 2015

Richard's Pipit: A Raptor's Repast

I blame the over zealous, violently vexed Reed Bunting! The Richard’s Pipit at Newhaven, East Sussex didn’t stand a chance. We arrived at the Ouse Estuary Project at Denton a bit before midday yesterday and moseyed on over to join a couple of other birders/photographers watching the Pipit. Having grabbed a few record shots, we were just about to set up the scope when the Pipit vanished. Mild confusion and careful searching ensued....and....Fast forward half an hour and the bird reappeared (thank goodness), on the same bank (ok), and worked its way north around the slope. It eventually ended up on the top of a grassy bank with a thick hedge behind it. If you are a Richard’s Pipit, take note, this is a bad idea...very bad….

Just before Midday: Alive Richard's Pipit

Out from the hedge came a disgruntled male Reed Bunting. He was keen to assert his territory and, as the birds tussled mid-air, just a metre or so above the bank, there was a Whoosh! and that was it! The ubiquitous(ish) Reed Bunting got away. The national rarity got snaffled by a flipping Sparrowhawk! My friend and I were the only ones to witness it and were standing there in disbelief, asking each other, “Did it get the Pipit?!”, when another hopeful observer arrived. We told him the Terrible Tale and, together, we walked towards the area where the Sparrowhawk had gone down. The bird flew up, still holding the obvious, bulky Pipit in its talons and made for the hedge along the Seaford Road. The last we saw of the Richard’s Pipit, its head was hanging limp and its still-warm body squished in the grip of a raptor.

40 mins later: Dead Richard's Pipit

As if to somehow compensate for rare Pipit deaths in the morning, the afternoon was filled with Rock Pipits. 12 or more along the Cuckmere River by Seven Sisters Country Park. Those and a pair of Stonechats were a more cheerful end to the day.

Post Script: It transpires that the “hopeful observer” to arrive just moments after the Pipit was taken was Arthur Greenslade, a keen Wildlife Photographer. When the Sparrowhawk went up with its prey, he was able to get the following photograph, which he tweeted last night. It’s a really superb record of the event.

I took the liberty of lightening the shadows and highlighting the Pipit. I hope Arthur doesn't mind.

Original Photograph by Arthur Greenslade (highlighting/circle added by me)

Friday 20 March 2015

Sea Ducks in Spring: Common Scoter

Common Scoter, Startops reservoir Oct 2013

Tring reservoirs: It is officially Spring. BBC news says so. And, the sun has actually been shining (after its dalliance with the moon). Bees have been buzzing. Butterflies (Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone) fluttering and migrant birds dropping from the skies. Well, a Common Scoter anyway. I wasn’t going to venture far today but sea ducks in Hertfordshire are worth the effort, especially since the last one I saw was nearly 18 months ago (photographed above).

At this time of year, this male is/was heading for a breeding ground. According to the RSPB website the small UK breeding population (estimated at 52 pairs) favours the “lochs in N and W Scotland, especially the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. In winter it is found off the UK coast with concentrations in Carmarthen and Cardigan Bays, along the Moray Firth, and along the North Norfolk coast.” The bird today spent much of its time with its head tucked under its wing, only exerting energy when Coots came over to bother it. Views weren’t great, looking into the sun, 150 meters offshore, but it’s still exciting when these brave travellers drop in for some R&R. I hope he’s able to get himself back into the air and continue his journey north.

The female Scaup was still about, over on Startops reservoir, and was actually doing something other than “resting”. She was a little further out today but I took some video footage anyway.

Bovingdon (BMT): This afternoon, I visited the Bovingdon Brickworks. The Common Frogs have laid spawn in the same flooded gully as last year, not that any of those eggs made it to adulthood. The gully dried up before the tadpoles could reach maturity, unfortunately. A couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers were drumming (one on the east side, the other on the west); 2 Chiffchaffs were singing and there were at least 2 Song Thrushes producing their rich, gloriously strange repertoire. Overhead, 2 Red Kites rode the thermals.

Boxmoor, naturally… The 6 posts from last year which followed the progress of the Common Frog spawn at the Brickworks: 20 March 2014 - 22 May 2014

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Scaup & Snowdrops

Tring reservoirs: The 1st year female Scaup was still on Startops reservoir this morning. Also, 1 Sand Martin zooming about, a pair of Grey Wagtails, and the female Red-crested Pochard.

Snowdrops continue to bloom, more than 2 months after they began.

Up on Ivinghoe Beacon, it was great to hear a couple of singing male Corn Buntings and the Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were in full song and full display.

Monday 16 March 2015

A Cracking Crow

Hemel (BMT): I stopped in briefly at the Gadespring Cress Beds this morning and came upon a Crow (see arrow above) alternating between breaking up vegetation and making movements and noises which seemed to suggest it was cracking its neck vertebrae(?!?). I walked to within a few metres of the bird and took some hand-held video footage. However, I've no idea what to make of it and would welcome any comments on the behaviour.

The sound quality of the clip isn't great but listen for the crunching/cracking sound as the bird elongates its neck and then ripples its head up and down. Weird…

A Chiffchaff was singing at the west end of the reserve and a Fox was prowling around the ringing area.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Rabbit (30 feet up a tree!)

Hemel (BMT): How does the fur of a rabbit get 30ft up a tree?

Fur, ~30 feet up an Ash tree (point A in the photo below)
I love it when I come across these curious clues to the secret life of the woodland. And, even better when a small window into the wider ecosystem opens up. Many of the Trust’s sites have a very healthy rabbit population and, consequently, attract and sustain a fair few Common Buzzards.

When I was scouring the woodland at Lower Roughdown yesterday, I came upon the remains of a rabbit hanging in a low-growing Holly bush. Above it, high up on the branches of an Ash tree, I could see where the rabbit had been held down and its fur plucked. Wisps of fleece were quivering in the breeze. Who knows whether the rabbit was dropped on purpose or accidentally but having frequently come across ground-level plucking areas, it was interesting to see evidence of a bird choosing to prepare and devour its prey high up in a tree.

More on the Rabbits and Buzzards of Box Moor

Rabbits (alive ones): Week 15, Mammal: Whiskers not Whitethroats
Buzzards: Week 30: Frayed Fritillary, Painted Lady & Beautiful Buteo

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Looking for Lesser 'Peckers

Shall I try it?
What do you think? Does it suit me?

Blue Tit, Lower Roughdown, testing the local housing market

Hemel (BMT): My morning began with my neck craned, eyes heavenwards, ears pricked, searching the trees at Lower Roughdown for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. According to the BTO fact sheet, this precious species has undergone a decline of 73% over the last 25 years. I’m no expert but that’s definitely bad news. I was surprised to discover that it’s not even a Schedule 1 species, which means that there’s no law protecting the birds against disturbance at nest sites.

The first and last Lesser Spot I saw was a breeding pair in central Hertfordshire in 2012. Even then, I knew it was something special to be able to watch this House-Sparrow-szed (i.e. dinky with a capital D) Woodpecker excavate its nest hole; incubate the eggs, and then raise its young. Little creamy-topped nestlings popping heads out to be fed or being pushed back inside so that a parent could enter to collect the fecal sacks. I missed the pre-courtship drumming so that’s a sound I’ve yet to experience in real life, although I’ve listened to it online.

Sunshine and strong winds today meant that conditions were not ideal. However, during 75 minutes carefully listening, waiting and watching in the small woodland, I heard 2 short, loud bursts of drumming and found 3 Great Spotted Woodpeckers. A pair, which had obviously already bonded and were feeding together, and a vocal female. She was calling frequently but she also took time to preen extensively whilst clinging to a vertical tree trunk - very impressive it was too. I didn’t have any luck finding a Lesser Spot but that doesn’t mean one isn’t there to be found...

A Chiffchaff sang every now and again, as if it hadn’t quite got into the swing of things. I heard Bullfinches and Treecreepers and the soft whistling of Redwings. Great Tits, Dunnocks and Wrens were loud and proud. The woodland had definitely edged into Spring.

Elsewhere, the smart, male Wheatear was still in the crop field, on the north side of Hemel. Although, I’d be watching him one minute and the next he’d be impossible to find. The area is extremely exposed and the bird was very unsettled, perhaps not enjoying being buffeted on all sides.

Back to the Drummers, and some sounds and notes for reference….and, crossing my fingers that I hear the latter in local woodland this Spring.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Drum-rolls normally delivered in under a second, comprises 8-12 beats and fades away at the end. Individual strikes very fast and difficult to separate.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Drums slower, weaker and longer-lasting affair than that of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Drumming does not peter out at the end.

Great V Lesser

The difference in size of the two Woodpeckers is obvious 
(GSW can be almost twice the size of LSW [GSW L23-26 cm; LSW L14-16.5 cm])

A final word. Not wanting to underestimate the "common". A beautiful pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Warwickshire, that I photographed just over a year ago. Startling red, black and white and I couldn't take my eyes off them...

A call from the Herts Bird Club to keep your eyes peeled for 'peckers. More data on the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is desperately needed in order to halt its decline. Please see THIS ARTICLE on the Herts Bird Club.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The Wily Wheatear

Hemel: The little tinker! Sunday midday, I’d watched him fall gracefully from the sky - obviously coming from the south - and alight on the grass verge by the side of the road. After getting his bearings and taking a good look around, he’d flown into the crop field. The area is exposed, higher ground and the cold wind was gusting hard. I achieved the obligatory record shots and some video footage, which, incidentally, is probably best watched when you’re half drunk. After that, I lost him and presumed he’d flown onwards.

Yesterday, I checked the area again. No sign of the African beauty but I did spot a couple of Partridges waaaay off in the distance. Couldn’t eliminate Red-legged without a scope so planned to do that another time. Today, I was busy most of the day but got out for an hour in the morning. Perfect conditions: light wind, blue sky and blazing sunshine I approached the crop field, a glowing dot seemingly moving. The wily Wheatear was still here! I was pushed for time but improved on Sunday’s record shots (even if they are cropped to within an inch of their lives!) and took some hand-held camera video footage, at long range, which means it’s even worse than Sunday’s efforts. Still, it’s a fabulous little Wheatear, in a field in Hemel Hempstead, happily preening in the sunshine and being dive-bombed by singing Skylarks. Bliss!

Shocking(ly bad) footage of the White-arse...

Sunday 8 March 2015

Skylarks Sing, Wheatears Fall: Spring has Sprung!

Startops reservoir, 26 March 2013

Hemel: I’d like to say that I went out this morning with a cunning plan to find a sparkly migrant. Actually, the situation was fairly similar to my first Hemel Wheatear in October 2012. Back then, I’d just popped out to the local shops to buy a loaf of bread and walked home to find a Wheatear hopping around my driveway! Bonkers eh.

Over the last week, I’ve felt extremely drained and much of my time has been spent doing very little. This morning, I felt particularly washed out and thought what can I usefully do that involves the least amount of effort but enables me to enjoy the outdoors. Having listened to Jerry Hoare’s beautiful Skylark recording last night, I struck on a plan. It involved sitting in my car - window open - watching, listening and recording the Skylarks on local farmland. It required virtually no effort, meant I was comfortable, but gave me the sense of being outside.

There were perhaps 7 or more Skylarks within view. 4 at least were males, singing hard for love and land. In the half hour that I’d sat quietly listening and watching, there had been only 3 bursts of song that were close enough to record. These lasted for between 2 and 3 minutes but I was still waiting for a bird to come right up close, as it had done early on, when, in my weakened mental state, I’d failed to press the record button (ahem)...

…so, anyway...there I was, sitting comfortably, binoculars in hand, when a bird dropped onto the verge about 30-40 meters in front of the car. A WHEATEAR! And, a bright, smart Spring male to boot (not dissimilar to the Startops bird in 2013)! Fantastic! I leaned out of the car window and grabbed some record shots (below). The bird then flew into the crop field and I hauled myself out of the warmth and attempted some video footage. If you watch it, you’ll understand why I never try to video anything with my camera unless it is an extremely still day, but, hey, it’s a Wheatear in Hemel so that’s got to be worth a wobble or two…thousand. The soundtrack is one of the Skylarks from the morning - it’s not great quality but the best I could manage today (barking dog essential apparently).

Saturday 7 March 2015

Prospecting Nuthatch

Nuthatch, Rushmere CP, 2012

Hemel (BMT): I love Nuthatches! They are in every way distinctive and charismatic. Black bandit eye-stripe, steely-blue above and cheery reddy-oranges below. Their call is equally distinctive. It stands out, especially when heard against the backdrop of quietly whistling Redwings and singing Goldcrests, Great Tits, Wrens and Chaffinches, as it frequently was today.

One Nuthatch was particularly interesting this morning in Hay Wood. It was inspecting two potential nest holes and performing some kind of territorial (alluring?!) song and dance. Lots of wing flapping and tail flicking, whilst darting in and out of each hole and constantly calling and clicking. Of course, I didn’t have my tripod with me so no chance of video footage but I recorded some audio and took some photographs. In the image below, the bird is mid-performance!

On the drive home, the car thermometer read 13 deg C and I spotted my first Brimstone of the year whilst sitting in traffic.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Coming Soon: Waders!

Hemel (BMT): I popped in at the Gadespring Cress Beds this morning, whilst out and about. The Trust is developing a new scrape to attract wading birds (yes, you did hear me correctly - waders in Hemel Hempstead - possibly, probably, hopefully. Only time will tell, I guess). Along with the new scrape, there’ll be a swanky new bird hide and the site will be made good for public access. The work is coming along a treat and the excitement is palpable. Above the sound of diggers, I could hear a couple of Kingfishers having a right old barney along the Bulbourne. I wonder if one of last year’s adults has returned and is making his/her presence known.

Other birds of note along the moors east of Old Fishery Lane: Little Egret (2+); Kingfisher (2); Grey Wagtail (1+).

Fields north of Grovehill: Still large flock of Yellowhammers (25+) with Redwing (35+); Fieldfare (15+), Starlings (200+) & Meadow Pipits (heard frequently in the area) all feeding on grazed field.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Red Top & Gold Top

St Albans: Not my preferred choices of milk from the dairy aisle in Sainsbury’s but the variety of forehead/crown colours of the Lesser Redpolls (Carduelis cabaret) at the Watercress LNR in St Albans. It occurred to me at the weekend that I’d gone the whole winter without laying eyes on a Siskin or Redpoll. Shocking! The Hemel moors don’t stretch to such exotic finches, in spite of their relatively tempting mature Alder trees. Anyway, situation rectified with a visit to St Albans on Monday.

I didn’t have a lot of energy so it was a fairly brief stop. But, I do love these dinky little characterful finches. There were at least 10 Lesser Redpolls with Siskin (1+), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Kingfisher (1) and a variety of other Finches, Tits, Robins and Blackcaps around.

The interesting surprise was to see that at least one of the Lesser Redpolls had a Gold poll! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or noticed that before but having googled extensively(!) and enquired of those far more knowledgeable than I am, it seems these things do happen but no-one quite knows why. Suggestions include diet (which is most likely - the phenomenon is more common in captive birds), age and gender (see BirdForum thread)

The Gold Top (left & centre) with a typical Red Top (right)

Some footage of the Red Top & the Gold Top

…And, one bird, properly showing off that red poll at the reserve in 2012

Other websites with photographs of gold/yellow/orangey topped Redpolls:

Finally, Mr Mistle is still singing his little heart out although yesterday he did spend much of the day subdued/silent. I hope he's not giving up and thinking of trying his luck elsewhere...

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Watch The Birdie (Living Magazine)

Some nice news: The local Living magazines for Hemel, Berkhamsted and Tring are running 2-4 page spreads on Birding/Birdwatching in this quarter's editions. Hemel Hempstead Living mentions 3 key local sites: Box Moor Trust land, Tring Reservoirs & College Lake (P16-17). For the other areas: Berkhamsted, see P36-39 & Tring, see P28-29.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Winkle, Barnacle, Oyster

Tring reservoirs & College Lake: OK, I lied about the Winkle….

….but, I did get some video footage of the 1st winter Barnacle Goose at Tring reservoirs this morning & some distant footage of the Osytercatcher and a Redshank at College Lake. The Goose was in the paddock, east of Startops, with a flock of Canada Geese. A couple of Grey Wagtails were flitting about along the canal and a female Red-crested Pochard was mixing with the Mallards, also on the canal.