With the grim news of another lockdown, caused by the vast surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths due to the new strain of the virus, early in the month it became clear that I would be spending a lot of my time in January doing local bird watching. A 'local patch' walk on the 6th provided me with a list of 47 species recorded (42 seen), with the 'star' bird being a peregrine, seen on the ground to the west of the Icknield Way at Park Farm before it took off and headed north. This was the first bird of prey, other than the four locally breeding species (kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard and red kite) that I had seen locally in Hertfordshire for almost a year. Around 250 fieldfares were seen in various places along my route. Other birds recorded included grey and red-legged partridges, bullfinches and corn buntings. The young mute swan on Mardleybury Lake had been joined by eight Canada geese.
Monday, 11 January 2021
Happy New Year! For many people, 2020 was the worst year of their lives as Covid-19 wreaked havoc with our way of life. Unfortunately, 2021 has started off in a similar vein with a lockdown imposed early in the month and infection rates and death rates higher than during the first lockdown in March to May of last year. I did get to the coast with my partner on the 2nd, primarily to do some photography and have a walk, but I managed to find a purple sandpiper and a couple of turnstones amongst the sea defences there - who knows when my next trip to the seaside will be?
Following this I restricted myself to short journeys for walks at Tyttenhanger gravel pits (tree sparrow) and Great Amwell, with both sites offering opportunities to add a variety of wildfowl, other water birds and gulls to my very slowly increasing year list. The latter site produced the only real rarity during this period in the form of at least one Caspian gull, the German-ringed individual 'X307', which has been spending a lot of its time at the Fairlands Valley Lakes in Stevenage but sometimes roosts at Amwell. Although this bird is apparently a hybrid (with herring gull), it was accompanied by a second bird that also bore all the hallmarks of a Caspian gull, in particular the large white markings on the primaries and dark grey back colour that can be seen in the image of the pair below.
Monday, 14 December 2020
"The rain it just pours and I'm stuck here indoors" - "last week we had snow, then the fog had a go" - "it's not that I'm idle, but I'll stay inside 'till the weather gets better, it can't get no wetter. If I had a mac and some wellington boots I might go out, but I doubt if I would." ["Weather or Not" by Bronx Cheer, circa 1971]. These lyrics, accompanied by an annoyingly catchy tune, often permeated my mind during December. We had a sprinkling of snow on the morning of the 3rd, thick fog a few days later and lots and lots of rain. With the accompanying short, dark days it was a struggle to motivate myself to go bird watching locally and, when I did, there was very little to see. For the first time in a long while I have failed to see any of hen harrier, merlin, short-eared or long-eared owl on my 'local patch' this year although I did, eventually, track down a merlin a few miles away on the road between Wallington and Baldock on the 4th, where as many as three birds were being regularly reported. November's golden plover flock dissipated, or perhaps they just drowned in the sodden fields. A flock of around 120 lapwings stayed loyal to land in the Reed End area, but no stonechats were recorded either.
Sunday, 13 December 2020
I visited the Norfolk coast on the 1st, with the joint aims of doing some bird and landscape photography. The weather was set fair in Royston, but by the time I made my first stop at Brancaster there was cold wind, scudding clouds and showery rain - not predicted by the weather reports and not at all suitable for photography! After a few hours things finally improved and I was able to do some photography in the late afternoon sun at Hunstanton.
Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Following an exceptionally wet (over seven inches of rain fell between 23 September and 2 November) and windy period, a relatively tranquil and mild few days enabled me to explore the surrounding area following my break in Scotland. Insects were still very much in evidence in the (at times) warm sunshine. Butterflies included a smart red admiral, seen on the 2nd, and a few peacocks, seen on the 2nd and the 4th as they briefly emerged from hibernation. A surprising variety of flies, including three common species of hoverfly, were seen on or near ivy flowers near Royston hospital during the first ten days of the month. Large numbers of wasps were also active here and honey bees and bumble bees were seen, but no ivy bees were present.
I recorded 46 bird species on a walk around my local patch on the 6th. However, there was no sign locally of wintering raptors and owls, other than the 'usual suspects' (kestrel, sparrowhawk, red kite and common buzzard). Three stonechats (two at Reed End and one between Reed village and Barkway) were seen, but perhaps the best sighting was of a flock of about 15 (presumably lesser) redpolls flying between trees on the edge of Jubilee Wood at the west end of The Heath on the 10th. Unfortunately they flew off before I could photograph them. A stunning adult male kestrel was seen on Church Hill on the 4th and a number of juvenile birds were seen on my walks, suggesting a good breeding season for this species in 2020.
During my absence in Scotland the golden plover flock at Park Farm had grown enormously, and on the 2nd they were flying about rather aimlessly to the east of the Icknield Way. I took a few photographs, partly to get an estimate of numbers but also just to have a quick look through them on my PC to see if I could spot anything unusual, such as a 'lesser' (American or Pacific) golden plover (hope springs eternal)! All the 600 or so birds did appear to be golden plovers, although when scanning through my images I did pick out an apparently smaller, darker bird (see the image below). After much head scratching I decided to ask the experts about this bird. It was suggested (Mike Ilett, Barry Reed) that this is a golden plover that has been feeding/standing in peat, hence the unusual dark markings on the body (but not on the wings). Despite its small size, there is no evidence that this one of the rarer species. Ah well, I'll keep trying......
After getting back from Scotland I just had time to nip up to Grafham Water on the 3rd to look for great northern divers (three reported) before the second lockdown started. Unfortunately, on the afternoon that I visited they were not at the dam end of the reservoir, so I returned 'empty-handed'.
Maybe I took a wrong turning when heading to Tesco or perhaps I regarded the opportunity of seeing a 'lifer', in the form of a wader, as an 'essential journey' but on the 12th I found myself striding across the shingle towards Dunwich Pools (Suffolk) to see my first greater yellowlegs. This American wader, a much less common (in the UK) relative of the lesser yellowlegs, performed well and I was able to capture some photos. An eastern ("Alaskan") yellow wagtail in the same area proved elusive, but I did manage to get some nice photos of a little group of snow buntings, including a male, females and juveniles, whilst I was there. Dunwich is a fascinating place, not least because it is slowly falling into the sea, and I managed to have a good look round before returning to the grisly reality of lockdown.
On the 14th I made the much shorter journey to Northill (Bedfordshire) to look for a hoopoe that had been present near the church for a few days. Why a handful of these exotic European birds choose to visit the UK in the late autumn is a bit of a mystery, but I did not want to waste the opportunity of seeing one without having to travel too far. After some searching around the area I returned to find other bird watchers looking at it perched on the front of a school building (thankfully closed, because it was a Saturday). I managed to grab a couple of photos before it flew away.
Thursday, 5 November 2020
The Covid-19 crisis has made this a terrible year for many of us. I have been relatively lucky, being able to spend lots of time observing the wildlife on my Local Patch and further afield in the UK. Being retired there were no work issues and I have, thankfully, avoided catching the virus. The biggest frustration has been being unable to go on holiday, both with my partner and as an individual: usually I spend 6-7 weeks away from home each year. After yet another holiday (to observe raptor migration in Georgia) was cancelled I decided to book a week's holiday with 'Heatherlea' in Nethybridge, near Aviemore. The holiday would involve three days looking for Highland 'speciality' birds and three days (two nights) exploring the wildlife of Aberdeenshire. As it turns out, I was lucky that the holiday (in the last week of October) went ahead as a new English lockdown was announced on the day of my return.
Overall, the holiday was enjoyable and we had surprisingly good weather, considering how unsettled the situation was for the whole week. The two travel Saturdays were wet and windy, but during the week only the Thursday afternoon was a washout and there was plenty of sunshine about. One permanent memory that I will have is of how beautiful the Scottish scenery looks in the autumn (I have never visited Scotland this late in the year), with the vibrant yellow and orange hues of birch and larch leaves contrasting with the greens of the pines.
The holiday got off to a great start on the Sunday: within a few hours we had seen black grouse (several males seen both in flight and on the ground), crested tits and a male capercaillie and had had coal tits feeding from our hands.