Saturday, 11 January 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings, January 2020

My first local wildlife sighting of the new decade was of a hibernating small tortoiseshell butterfly that had taken up residence in the house and decided to flutter from one bedroom to another on the 1st! A walk around my local patch on the 4th provided me with a couple of interesting sightings - one of an uncommon but increasing species in Hertfordshire (a raven, seen over Therfield Heath) and one of a very common species in Hertfordshire that is exceptionally rare on my local patch (mute swan). The four mute swans that I saw on the pond at Hatchpen Farm trebled the number that I've ever seen within two miles of my home and the other two were only seen, individually, in flight! Other decent early January sightings included corn bunting (30+ seen along the Icknield Way on the 3rd), a marsh tit seen in Reed village on the 4th, ten grey partridge seen on Greys Farm, also on the 4th, and a 'flyover' cormorant, seen from the A10 near the 'Silver Ball', on the 7th. However, there was no sign of and no reports of hen harrier or merlin.

Two of Four Mute Swans at Hatchpen Farm, 4th January

The wintering golden plover flock (200+) was up in the air when I next walked up the Icknield Way towards Therfield on the 13th. Ploughing operations at Greys Farm attracted a large, mixed flock of gulls that included at least five herring gulls - it is unusual to see so many of this species together in the area. A week later I did the same walk: golden plovers were again in the air as I headed towards Therfield, perhaps flushed by a low-flying light aircraft. On my way back I saw a peregrine heading rapidly towards the field where the plovers normally rest, out of my view. I expected lots of drama, but.... nothing, not even a call! A flock of over 100 fieldfares was feeding in the fields to the east of the Icknield Way. There was no sign of redwings here, but I did encounter a flock of around 90 of these birds in trees to the south of Church Hill on an otherwise drab and disappointing walk right across The Heath on the 23rd. One of the redwings briefly sang, introducing me to a tune that I've never heard before.

Gulls and Rooks, Greys Farm, Therfield, 13 January

'Record Shot' of Peregrine in Flight, Therfield, 20 January

Fieldfare, Therfield, 20 January

Friday, 10 January 2020

UK Wildlife Sightings, January 2020

After spending time with family and friends between Christmas and the New Year I was keen to get back to doing some bird watching - so keen, in fact, that I was up at 5.15am on the 2nd to visit various sites in North Norfolk. I started at Titchwell, where 12 species of wader and 12 duck species (including long-tailed duck) got things off to a cracking start. I went on from there to Holkham, where five shore larks and about 70 snow buntings were within the roped off area on the beach. On the sea several hundred common scoters were very active and I managed to once again see and photograph at least one male and one female velvet scoter in flight (see my December 2019 UK sightings blog). I then walked up to Holkham Park, passing a covey of grey partridges close to Lady Ann's Drive, where I was lucky to get close views of a black-necked grebe on the lake. I finished the day having seen 74 bird species.

Grey Partridges, Holkham, 2 January

Black-necked Grebe, Holkham Park, 2 January

On the 6th I visited Abberton Reservoir on my way to do some landscape photography on the Essex coast. In total I saw five 'red-headed' (female) smew and around 20 Russian white-fronted geese there, as well as having excellent views of a long-tailed duck and a female goosander, very close to the Layer De La Haye causeway. A juvenile swallow, flying backwards and forwards along the northern section of the causeway, was my first winter sighting of a bird that should have been thousands of miles away in South Africa. Perhaps if our winters keep getting warmer swallows will eventually not bother to migrate??!

Long-tailed Duck (left), Abberton Reservoir, 6 January

Female Goosander, Abberton Reservoir, 6 January

I was off on my travels again on the 10th, once more heading for North Norfolk. In a very long day I made six stops, targeting difficult to find birds together  with those that I had missed or had not had time to go for on my previous visit on the 2nd. I failed to find hawfinch at my first stop at Lynford Arboretum and things didn't look too good either at my second stop near Sedgeford, where the 'Alaskan' yellow wagtail had gone missing from its usual dung heaps. This rather lost individual (likely from Siberia, not Alaska) led myself and others a merry chase around the nearby fields whilst those with more sense and/or knowledge, stayed patiently by the dung heaps. Eventually the bird came back there and posed nicely for photos! I moved on to Thornham, where I saw some of the wintering twite and several Scandinavian rock pipits, then to Burnham Overy Staithe, where seven cattle egrets showed well once I had negotiated a very muddy track, and finally to Wells, where I was rewarded with good, albeit distant views of the wintering rough-legged buzzard, with a bonus bird (short-eared owl) showing well in the same area. Finally I walked out of Wells along the track towards Warham Greens, hoping to see hen harriers. I had no joy there, but did have good views of a barn owl - an excellent way to finish an enjoyable day.

'Alaskan' Yellow Wagtail, Sedgeford, 10 January

Cattle Egret in Flight, Burnham Overy Staithe, 10 January

Rough-legged Buzzard, Wells, 10 January

Short-eared Owl, Wells, 10 January

On the 15th I headed north to visit two reserves, Welney WWT and Wicken Fen NT. Welney was totally flooded, with access only to the main observatory where few birds could be seen on the vast expanse of water. I did manage to add whooper swan and great egret (two on Lady Fen) to my year list and took a few images of pochards in flight. The area surrounding Wicken Fen (I didn't go on to the NT reserve) proved quite productive. Several barn owls were hunting in broad daylight and I actually saw one of the many Cetti's warblers that were calling and singing. I stayed on to see the harrier roost. Several marsh harriers came in but when I left to head back to my car in Upware I still hadn't seen a hen harrier. However, on my walk back I was lucky to see a beautiful adult male in flight through a gap in the trees.

Pochard in Flight, WWT Welney, 15 January

Hawfinches were reported in Bramfield, less than half an hour's drive away from me. I visited on the 17th but, along with other souls and not for the first time, I was unlucky. Moving on to Lemsford Springs reserve, near Welwyn, I did see a green sandpiper at a traditional wintering site. Also present here were four little egrets, a grey wagtail and a couple of treecreepers.

Green Sandpiper, Lemsford Springs, 17 January

Little Egret, Lemsford Springs, 17 January

We were lucky to have sunny weather for the RSPB Local Group visit to RSPB Lakenheath Fen on the 19th. The star bird here was a water rail, which made regular appearances at a feeding station. I also saw my first bittern and water pipits of the year here.

Water Rail, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, 19 January

Reed Bunting, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, 19 January

Roe Deer, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, 19 January

On the 22nd I visited North Cambridgeshire, looking for rarities that had been reported in the Nene Washes area. I saw four scaup at March Farmers, but unfortunately the red-necked grebe that had been there for weeks had departed overnight. After two visits to a lay-by between Thorney and Thorney Toll and a lot of searching I eventually had distant views of four tundra bean geese there. A single Bewick's swan, in amongst a large flock of whooper swans, brought my UK year list up to a respectable 130 species.

Whooper Swans, March Farmers, 22 January

'Record Shot' of Tundra Bean Geese, near Thorney, 22 January

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, December 2019

After a grim autumn December started with some sunny days, tempting me to do some local walks and look for photographic opportunities. I couldn't find any of the exciting raptors that had been seen in November, but there were lots of farmland birds with large flocks of finches and buntings along the Icknield Way between Royston Hospital and Therfield. On the 5th I counted at least 100 linnets, 65 yellowhammers and 38 corn buntings on this stretch. Quite a few meadow pipits were still in the area and a few posed nicely in a tree for me on the 2nd.

Meadow Pipit, Therfield, 2 December

Kestrel, Royston, 3 December

Red Kite, Reed End, 5 December

The weather deteriorated in the second and third weeks of December, with heavy rain making the local paths extremely muddy. My few visits to the surrounding countryside were uneventful until, after a particularly sustained period of heavy rain on the morning of the 20th, the sun came out in the afternoon and a walk up the Icknield Way was rewarded with sustained, albeit distant, views of a hen harrier hunting in the fields of Greys Farm and Park Farm, either side of the track. I managed a few 'record shots' of the bird (see below), which I'm pretty sure was the same juvenile bird that I saw in the same area in November (but not the bird at Thrift Farm). The colour on the underparts was still present, if somewhat faded, and patches of white had appeared in the wings and tail. These patches could indicate that the bird is a juvenile male, moulting (rather early) into its adult plumage.

Juvenile (Male??) Hen Harrier, Greys Farm, 20 December

I didn't see the harrier on my next walk up the Icknield Way on the afternoon of the 23rd, but flocks of about 30 and 90 fieldfare were seen in the adjacent fields and a barn owl was hunting at Greys Farm at dusk. A long walk around my Local Patch on the 27th produced 46 corn buntings (my highest count of the year) along the Icknield Way. I saw the rather oddly marked white-faced buzzard again here (image below). Further up the track I caught sight of a female peregrine, flying with an enormous prey item (a partridge?) which was just too heavy for it, and it soon dropped down out of view. An impressive 350 linnets were seen in two large flocks. The final bird that I saw in the decade was, rather appropriately, a barn owl at Greys Farm that came to within about ten feet of me at dusk on (of course) the 31st.

Pale Common Buzzard, Therfield, 27 December

UK Wildlife Sightings, December 2019

With very little of interest further afield I looked to boost my UK bird year list by travelling to more local sites, but with the same lack of success that I had had in November. A Pallas's warbler in Cambridge failed to reveal itself on the 3rd (and was subsequently not seen again) and I had a very frustrating visit to Batford (near Harpenden) on the 6th, looking for a black redstart that had been seen earlier in the day but remained out of sight during a 90 minute vigil in wind and squally showers. A ringtail hen harrier, seen at Woodwalton Fen (Cambs.) was the highlight of an 'own transport' RSPB trip on the 8th. Again staying (relatively) local I saw kingfishers at both St Albans (Verulamium Park) and Amwell reserve on the 11th, but little else of interest.

Kingfisher, Verulamium Park (St. Albans), 11 December

On the 13th I went on a pleasant walk around Stockers and Bury Lakes, near Rickmansworth. I saw a couple of red-crested pochards in flight, but there was no sign of the reported wood ducks. However, I was (re)assured by a local birdwatcher that these were very recent escapes, rather than part of the very small (and declining?) population of naturalised birds that have been living wild in the UK for 20+ years (unlike mandarin ducks, American wood ducks find it hard to survive our cold winters and our habitat is largely unsuitable for them).

Common Gull, Stockers Farm, 13 December

Great Crested Grebe, Stockers Lake, 13 December

My last visit of the year to the North Norfolk coast on the 18th involved an early start (up at 5.00am) in order for me to visit four locations (RSPB Titchwell Marsh, Holkham Gap, Thornham Harbour and Hunstanton, in that order) to do some bird watching and landscape photography. The early visit to Titchwell was productive, yielding six drake long-tailed ducks, several red-breasted mergansers and a water pipit, but the high tide visit to Holkham proved even more rewarding. Sea watching provided views of red-throated, black-throated and great northern divers. The black-throated diver showed distantly but well for several minutes. The markings were somewhat atypical of this species, but the behaviour and profile eliminated the lighter-coloured red-throated diver (with the up-tilted bill) and the heavily built great northern diver (which was also seen on the sea). A selection of 'record shots' is shown below: note in particular the image on the top right.

Long-tailed Ducks, RSPB Titchwell Marsh, 18 December

Four Images of Black-throated Diver, Holkham Gap, 18 December

Up to 1,000 common scoters were flying around or loafing on the sea here. Although I couldn't pick out any velvet scoters through my binoculars I did take quite a few photographs of the birds in flight and found that I had inadvertently captured a couple of images in which velvet scoters could be seen - another tick for my UK year list (now up to 236)!

Common Scoters and Red-breasted Merganser in Flight, Holkham Gap, 18 December

Velvet Scoters (White Wing Patches) and Common Scoters in Flight, Holkham Gap, 18 December

Whilst I was in Norfolk an adult whooper swan arrived in Hertfordshire, firstly visiting RSPB Rye Meads and then moving on to Amwell NNR, where I saw it on the following day. This was the first whooper swan that I had seen in Hertfordshire for many years.

Whooper Swan, Amwell NNR, 19 December

My final bird watching trip of the decade, on Christmas Eve, involved a visit to Whipsnade Zoo! Having paid the extortionate entry fee I joined a crowd of people looking at a pyracantha bush where a wild black-throated thrush (a rare visitor from somewhere east of The Urals) had, until shortly before I arrived, been eating berries. I was told that it was still sitting out of view in the bush. Five minutes later, in an adjacent arena, a zoo keeper started to exercise a lanner falcon. Not surprisingly the thrush exploded out of the bush away from us to find cover and that was the last I saw of it for 90 minutes. However, after I returned from visiting the tiger enclosure and other attractions it did show well (in the rain) and I managed to get a few images (below). The bird was a 'lifer' for me and brought my 2019 UK year list up to a respectable final total of 237.

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 24 December

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 24 December

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 24 December

Monday, 18 November 2019

UK Wildlife Sightings, November 2019

Following some internal "planned engineering works" early in the month I was unable to drive until the 13th, when I enjoyed an excellent day out on the Norfolk coast. Parking at Salthouse I walked along the shingle beach towards Cley in order to see the Isabelline wheatear (my second in the UK) that had taken up residence on Arnold's Marsh. The bird showed well for a couple of minutes. Walking back I was able to get some decent photos of some very tame snow buntings. I also found a juvenile red-throated diver fishing just offshore, which allowed me to get closer than I ever have been before to this species. A brief visit to RSPB Titchwell Marsh provided more photo-opportunities.

Isabelline Wheatear, Cley, 13 November

Snow Bunting, Cley, 13 November

Red-throated Diver, Salthouse, 13 November

An RSPB trip to Blashford Lakes in Hampshire provided an interesting challenge: both female scaup and female lesser scaup (the latter a rare American import) were on Rockford Lake, but so were a multitude of tufted ducks, many with white at the base of the bill and some showing features suggestive of hybridisation! Add to that the fact that the scaups were spending most of their time submerged and the task became extremely difficult! However, with help and a bit of luck many of us did identify the two scaups. A long-tailed duck was on Ibsley Water and other interesting birds included both Caspian and yellow-legged gulls, two great white egrets and a brambling.

Long-tailed Duck, Blashford Lakes, 17 November

On the 19th I spent an hour and a half in the afternoon at Amwell Nature Reserve. I had hoped to see bittern there, but missed a bird that had been showing on the 'Bittern Pool' by a few minutes. I did see a flock of 15-20 siskins near the railway crossing and, as usual, there were a few candidates for Caspian or yellow-legged gulls in the late afternoon gull roost. I've attached a composite image, which shows a couple of these candidates in amongst other gulls, below.

Composite of Gulls seen from the Viewpoint, Amwell NR, 19 November

On the 20th, a rare bright day, I revisited Holkham hoping to see the Hume's warblers that had been seen and/or heard there over the previous week. As (bad) luck would have it the birds had gone overnight, but I nevertheless spent an enjoyable few hours wandering through the pines and along the beach, seeing around 55 species including a flock of 68 snow buntings, a juvenile rough-legged buzzard and a ringtail hen harrier.

 Snow Buntings coming in to Land, Holkham, 20 November

Sanderling, Holkham, 20 November

I was back at the Norfolk coast on the 29th, this time parking at Winterton on Sea and walking north to see the grey seals 'pupping' on the beach (images below). Another large flock of snow buntings was flying up and down the beach, a turnstone was feeding on seal placenta and other waders were in evidence on the beach. I had also hoped to see the Eurasian eagle owl that had taken up residence in Winterton and, with a crowd of roughly 30 others, waited at a local recreation ground hoping for a sighting until 4.45, when it was practically dark, before giving up. I was annoyed on my return to see that it had been seen five minutes after I left, but a few days later the bird was noted to have a ring on its left leg and was assumed to be an 'escape', rather than a wild bird.

Grey Seal with Sanderling, Winterton, 29 November

Grey Seal Mother and Pup, Winterton, 29 November

Seals, with Gulls Fighting for Placenta, Winterton, 29 November

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings November 2019

November got off to a quiet start, with walks in the local area producing very little of interest. Indeed, I might have been regarded as "scraping the barrel" by mentioning the satellite moth that I found in my garden waste bin and the candlesnuff fungus found on a rotting log in the woodland at the bottom of the road (images below).

Satellite Moth, My Garden, 4 November

Candlesnuff Fungus, Royston, 4 November

However, things never stay quiet for long hereabouts and once again it was raptors that reignited my interest. On a walk up the Icknield Way towards Therfield on the 5th I noted 40+ lapwings in a field on Greys Farm. Further up the track I heard golden plovers calling and, on turning round, saw an immense flock of birds twisting and turning in the sky. Closer examination revealed, at a rough guess, 275 lapwings and 150 golden plovers, together with a few starlings. Assuming that they had been spooked by a raptor I walked back and examined the lapwing field. There were no waders in sight, but I did see a 'ringtail' harrier briefly hop between bushes on the far side of the field. The bird had orange-red underparts, strongly suggestive of a juvenile, but I was unable to obtain focussed photos until the bird took off some time later. The images (one shown below) were of very poor quality, but the wing structure is strongly suggestive of a juvenile hen harrier, rather than the much rarer (and therefore more exciting!) pallid harrier. Whilst I was waiting for the harrier to move another raptor took off from the centre of the field - a peregrine, carrying a prey item! Presumably it was this peregrine that had caused pandemonium amongst the wader flocks, which now could no longer be seen or heard. Hopefully the harrier will stay in the area over the winter and, with good numbers of short-eared owls coming into the country, maybe one of these will appear locally as well....

Lapwings and Golden Plovers in Flight, Therfield, 5 November

'Record Shot' of Juvenile Hen Harrier, Therfield, 5 November

After a week's enforced absence I revisited the Icknield Way and Therfield Heath on the 12th, the 14th and the 18th (twice - morning and late afternoon). I saw the harrier briefly again on two occasions, but was unable to get any more photographs in order to confirm its ID. The bird was seen by others and described as a hen harrier. The female merlin was seen again on the 12th, presumably attracted by a nearby large flock of linnets (280 seen on the 14th). A barn owl was also seen on the 12th and 14th, hunting over Greys Farm and Park Farm. I followed its path on the latter occasion and managed to intercept it. I was lucky to get some decent photos of this magnificent bird for once, despite having to shoot in near darkness (image below). A brambling was with a mixed flock of finches on the Icknield Way and a stonechat was seen on The Heath on the 18th. Reports of a short-eared owl on The Heath on the 15th and 16th prompted me to take a look at dusk on the 18th: I was fortunate to see it hunting for a few seconds over the Old Rifle Range before it disappeared into the gloom. This was my first local sighting of a short-eared owl in 2019.

Barn Owl, Therfield, 14 November

Linnets on wires, Royston, 18 November

Stonechat, Therfield Heath, 18 November

The golden plovers (350+) were in the air again when I walked up the Icknield Way on the 22nd, but I didn't see the cause of their disturbance. Up to 11 red kites were in the air at the same time, but of more interest was an interesting buzzard which perched distantly in a bush to the east of the track. It had a pale head and my hopes were raised that I might have found a rough-legged buzzard (seen in the area twice in the last decade). However, when it flew there was little white in the tail. The white patches on the upper wings (images below) were unusual for a common buzzard, although this species is known to have very variable markings. I wonder whether this might be a continental bird, over-wintering in the UK. Judge for yourself....

Common Buzzard with Unusual Markings, Therfield, 22 November

On the 25th, yet another bleak day, I did a 'there and back' walk from my home to Kelshall. On the way I took a detour down the Therfield Road to find the wintering flock of golden plover. They were in the middle of a huge arable field to the east of the road and too far away to get decent binocular views, but I reckon about 400 individuals were present. I also took a detour onto the path that leads through Thrift Farm, down to The Heath. Fallow deer are often seen in the top (southern) fields and I was not disappointed on this occasion (image below). I also had my fourth local view this month of a ringtail harrier, flying low over the fields and, as usual, some distance away. This seemed to be quite a large bird and rather 'tatty', so in my view it was likely an adult female hen harrier and therefore different to the bird(s) that I saw on at least the first two sightings (see above), which was a juvenile harrier. Could more than one harrier still be in the area? I couldn't get a photo of this bird - indeed, the only photos I have obtained were of the first bird (with orange-red underparts) that I saw on 5 November. Most of these were quite appalling, but I attach another below in case anybody reading this has harrier ID expertise.....

Appalling Image of the Ringtail Harrier seen on 5 November, with Mobbing Magpie below it.

At Kelshall I found a male mandarin duck on the village pond. I've never seen a female here: the males seem to commute between this pond and one in Sandon during the winter months.

Fallow Deer at Thrift Farm, Therfield, 25 November

Male Mandarin Duck, Kelshall, 25 November