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.

Friday 18 September 2015

Siskin passage, Wheatears & Yellow Wags

Hemel & Bovingdon (BMT): I can’t say that I have momentous, migrant news, but local birding has been pretty enjoyable this week. Birds have been vocal, varied and plentiful even if the majority have been common. Energy and expectation has filled the air as passage gathers momentum and preparations are made for the winter. The archetypal sight, on Wednesday, was a pair of Jays flying off from Harding’s Moor, each with an acorn in its bill. I couldn’t help but smile.

The two adults and two colour-ringed immature Little Egrets have remained faithful to their areas of the River Bulbourne. And, also on Wednesday, three Kingfishers whizzed past the end of my nose, up stream, each chasing the one in front, high-pitched calls flooding the moors. It’s a fantastic experience when these bolts of blue lightening strike and three in quick succession make the air positively crackle.

Mixed Tit flocks and Chiffchaffs (with even a few occasionally bursting into song) were numerous at both Roughdown and the Brickworks this week. One Roughdown group had even attracted the company of a beautiful Great Spotted Woodpecker. But, the most exciting avian action has been the small flocks of chattering Siskins flying over Trust land. I didn’t see or hear a single local Siskin last year so this is my first record of it on the estate, although I know others have beaten me to it. In spite of several tempting Alder trees on the Hemel moors, it’s not an easy species to see here...

So, there I was yesterday morning, walking amongst the scrub at Bovingdon Brickworks, when a flock of c20 Siskins decided to alight in the tree tops right next to me. I suspect they were drawn down by the noisy gathering of c120 Goldfinches which were nearby. Anyway, I couldn’t have been happier! It’s one thing hearing them fly over, it’s another when they perch up and give you a chance to take a proper look. They stayed just a few moments before, one by one, they fluttered back up into the air to continue south.

Sizzling Siskin

At the increasingly famous horse paddock (aka migrant magnet) on Nettleden Rd, just north of Hemel, regular checks turned up a couple of Wheatears, a handful of Yellow Wagtails and fly-through Swallows and House Martins this week. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before something a little more exotic touches down on the hallowed horse dung. Hope springs eternal.

The 2 Wheatears that dropped in at Nettleden Rd on 17th. Left & centre photos show the same bird; right, the other bird.

Yellow Wagtail, horse paddock, Nettleden Rd (on a very dull, dark day (13/9/2015)!)

Saturday 12 September 2015

More to autumn than bird migration?

What The Flicking-tail-of-a-Redstart has got into me?! OK, I’ll admit, as I wander the Hemel moors and Bovingdon scrub, my ears are pricked for that unusual call; eyes peeled for the leap of a Pied Flycatcher or the hint of grey of a skulking bruiser (aka Barred Warbler). During the last couple of weeks, it seemed like every birder in the county was finding a Wryneck, so, yes, I had hopes. But, how ever warm the welcome or suitable the habitat, the birds aren’t stopping. My piqued senses have to alight on something other than our feathered friends.

Instead of bird calls, it’s the crunch of acorns under foot. There’s a particular Oak at the Brickworks which really is a very fine specimen. I’ve spent many hours stood beneath its branches, hoping for Purple Hairstreaks. This autumn, it’s produced acorns to fit the palm of an angry Bruce Banner. Whoppers, they are!

At Roughdown Common, prompted by Steve Gale’s recent post, I went looking for Autumn Lady’s-Tresses (not that it’s ever been recorded here before). Instead, I found the very pretty Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarella). Its tiny tubular flowers are just beginning to open. I don’t know much about it other than it’s late flowering and favours these dry calcareous grasslands or sand dunes. There's a detailed write up here by someone far more knowledgeable. It’s listed as one of the plants contributing to the SSSI status of Roughdown Common so it’s obviously not commonplace. And, it's clearly spread since the SSSI survey. There, it's listed as present on the slopes of the chalk dell (Lower Roughdown). However, I found an abundance of flowers all across the grassland of Further Roughdown, to the west.

It’s autumn amongst the butterflies too. The most abundant species at the Brickworks this week was the Speckled Wood. There are at least 9 of them around the site with a few remaining Common Blues, Small Whites and the odd Red Admiral and Comma. Four Southern Hawker dragonflies were also still around, which is a bonus.

At home, an autumn moth, an Orange Swift (Triodia sylvina), dropped in for supper one evening this week, landing on the outside of the kitchen window. I potted it up, photographed it and let it back out into the night air. It's a species of "waste ground, moorland and wild places". I'm not sure which of those best describes my postage stamp of a suburban back garden!? The larvae feed on a variety of plants.

And, finally, on Friday, I could resist the draw of the birds no longer. I returned to a stretch of land I used to watch fairly regularly, just north of Hemel, along the River Gade. It’s not Ivinghoe Beacon (a migration watch point) but I’ve had a few nice surprises here. Migrants have included a Spotted Flycatcher, Stonechat and Yellow Wagtails and, one winter, a male Pintail joined the Teal and Gadwall on the fishing pools.

Anyway, my luck was in on Friday and, along with a pair of peeping Kingfishers, I found a flock of 11 Yellow Wagtails amongst the cattle. It’s one of my favourite sights and sounds of migration. Little yellow birds scurrying around the feet of hoofing great cows, chirruping, posing, preening and fluttering together. And, such a lovely mix of colours and markings: from the bright yellow of the adult males to the almost pure white chests of the first winter birds. It was a shame the grass was so long as many of the birds were barely visible on the ground. I managed to photograph 5 of the 11, 3 of which seem to be admiring the big cow casting the long shadow. It is entirely deliberate that not one of them is in focus!

So, there we are. Trees, plants, butterflies, moths, birds and I didn't even mention the abundance of fungi everywhere, thanks to the wet August. Autumn spans the species...

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Little Egrets: no longer a feather in your cap

Colour-ringed Little Egrets on the River Bulbourne

During the nineteenth century, the Little Egret was hunted to near extinction across north-west Europe. It was the height of the plume trade. The more magnificent and plentiful the feathers in a lady’s hat, the greater the fashion statement. The most highly prized adornments were the snowy-white plumes or “osprey plumes” of the various species of egret, known as “little snowies”. Those wishing to display their wealth and prestige would scour the milliner's, selecting a hat which featured the breeding plumes or “nuptial plumes”, grown during the egret’s breeding season. Even the men were not immune. A number of cavalry regiments in the British army incorporated osprey plumes into their uniform. A tradition which was stopped after 1889, thanks to the influence of the Princess of Wales. She had no doubt been influenced herself by ladies such as Emily Williamson who had just formed what we now know as the RSPB.

In spite of these ladies taking a stand against the use of feathers in hats and fashion, the plume trade continued to thrive at the turn of the century. It wasn’t until conservation laws protecting Little Egrets were introduced in the 1950s that the species began to "rebound strongly". It returned to Southern France, spreading north and eventually, in 1996 the first breeding pairs were recorded in the UK, including one pair on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. By 1999, there were between 30 and 36 breeding pairs at 9 localities in the UK. By 2006, that number had ballooned with more than 800 breeding pairs identified that year. And, in 2014, the first breeding pairs were recorded in the Heronry at Verulamium Park in St Albans. In June 2014, four nestlings were ringed there by Barry Trevis et al. This was the first ringing of Little Egret chicks in Hertfordshire’s history! This year, it seems one, two or more of the St Albans youngsters are finding their way over to the River Bulbourne in Hemel Hempstead. An individual photographed by Barry (under licence) as a nestling during ringing, is one of the new arrivals.

© Barry Trevis 2015. Little Egret nestlings [incl RBM; LAON(9); RAYN(H)], 30 May 2015, Verulamium Park, St Albans.

I read the Little Egret's colour-rings RBM; LAON(9); RAYN(H) on Thursday 3rd September by the River Bulbourne. That shorthand is translated as: Right Below the ‘knee’ Metal (BTO ring), then Left leg Above ‘knee’ Orange, with a Black (Noir) digit of 9; followed by Right Above ‘knee’ Yellow with Noir digit of H. This is the bird ringed as a nestling by Barry Trevis at Verulamium Park on 30 May 2015, shown in the photograph above. Barry let me know the BTO ring reads: GR24085

On Friday, another youngster turned up, with colour-rings RBM; LAON(H); RAYN(F). This was also traced back to Barry's ringing scheme at St Albans: ringed as a nestling on 9 May 2015; BTO ring GR24083. One of its siblings has flown to Coventry of all places.

This is the first report of either bird since ringing.

The light was awful but I got the following record shot of the two on Bulbourne Meadow on 4th Sept. They were accompanied by an unringed adult egret (still retaining its head plume).

On Sunday, a 4th bird, another adult, without a head plume, had joined the group.

Two colour-ringed immature birds (circled) and two adult birds on Bulbroune Meadow, 6th Sept

Below, left, the immature bird from St Albans, RBM; LAON(H); RAYN(F), compared to the unringed adult bird on the right which is missing its head plumes but something of the beautiful throat and back plumes remain (photographed 7th Sept, River Bulbourne).

Finally, I thought I'd include a location shot (below). This is where most of the little snowy action is taking place at the moment. Three of the four Little Egrets favour this stretch of the river, including the 2 colour-ringed birds. The adult with the missing head plumes primarily fishes further upstream. However, as it’s all open moor, the birds are easily flushed by walkers/dog walkers/joggers/children with footballs/etc and they can turn up anywhere along the river!

The River Bulbourne and Bulbourne Meadow, looking west towards Harding's Moor

A big thank you to Barry for supplying all the ringing information, the history of Little Egrets in Hertfordshire and the use of his very cute photograph of the nestlings. It's heartening when the constant monitoring of regular birds at local sites is of value not only to myself and the Trust but to others like Barry involved in BTO research. I wonder how many more of the St Albans Little Egrets will venture this way!

Sauces? Yes please. Oh, you mean sources. Ok, here’s a list of the reputable and not so reputable websites from which I pilfered. If you're interested in further information about the history of Little Egrets or the plume trade these are a good place to start.

Friday 4 September 2015

How do you know it's a Ringed Plover?

juvenile Ringed Plover, Startops reservoir

Tring reservoirs: I fancied some easy birding for half an hour this morning, so took a stroll at the reservoirs under gloomy skies. A juvenile Ringed Plover (RP) had stayed overnight on Startops. The conditions were far from ideal for photography but it was a good opportunity to see the juvenile plumage up close. I’d also bumped into a couple of birders earlier and, whilst pondering all things avian, they’d asked how to separate juvenile Ringed from Little Ringed Plovers. So, here we are, some photographs and notes based on info from the Collins guide.

First up, today’s juvenile and the summer plumage adult from Wilstone, this spring. Juveniles and winter plumage adults do not have the striking orange bill-base or the black head markings and breast-band.

Ringed Plover
Left: juvenile; Right: summer adult

On to a direct comparison with a juvenile Little Ringed Plover (LRP) that I photographed at Startops in the exact same location, on the exact same day in 2013. It’s a shame I couldn’t replicate the sunshine today!

Left: juv Little Ringed Plover; Right: juv Ringed Plover

Overall, the RP is more compact, shorter legged and fuller chested. The jizz is markedly different. The bill of the RP is stout compared to the more slender bill on the LRP. Leg colour differs. And, on the RP there is a prominent white supercilium and any orbital ring is indistinct (and certainly not yellow in juveniles). The opposite is true of the juvenile LRP, where the yellow orbital ring is apparent and the supercilium is barely noticeable. There, you see, easy peasy...!?! Now, did someone mention the possibility of sunshine over the weekend...? Please let it be true....

Left: juv Little Ringed Plover; Right: juv Ringed Plover

Startops reservoirs, NW shoreline

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Whinchats like buses!

The chances of finding or seeing good/rare/scarce migrant birds in Hemel Hempstead or, indeed, on the Box Moor Trust (BMT) land that I spend a lot of my time monitoring, are pretty slim, unfortunately. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, and there are a few hot-spots in the surrounding countryside which fuel my hopes for local surprises. When Wheatears can turn up on your suburban-housing-estate doorstep (as one did in Oct 2012), you can’t really rule anything out! And, never let us forget the Turtle Dove that spent a day at the BMT Brickworks in 2009. Anyway, it’s been a good 24 hours for birding within range of Hemel.

Water End/Nettleden Rd: Having recently remarked on the lack of passage Whinchats, it felt quite surreal to find 4 of them in a corn field, just north of Hemel, this morning. Add to that a Wheatear, 2 Yellow Wagtails, a well marked Lesser Whitethroat, more than a dozen Swallows, a couple of Yellowhammers and a sprinkling of Linnets, Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches, Starlings and Pied Wagtails, all without moving an inch, and you’ve got a mighty decent spot to plant your scope. The Lesser Whitethroat was a nice surprise and I was just about to check it wasn’t anything more interesting when a couple of walkers arrived, curious as to what I was doing. Of course, by the time I got back to the bird, it was nowhere to be seen.

Yellow Wagtail, horse paddock, Nettleden Rd

3 of the 4 Whinchats in the corn field adjacent to the horse paddock on Nettleden Rd

All this was on the back of seeing my first Hertfordshire Wryneck yesterday evening, in Wheathampstead. Wrynecks are extraordinary looking birds, a member of the woodpecker family, but I have yet to get a really good view of one. Still, I did manage a record shot this time, which is an improvement on the Ivinghoe bird I saw a couple of years ago.

Wryneck, Wheathampstead, skulking in the bushes!