Monday, 11 January 2021

Local Wildlife Sightings, January 2021

 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.

Fieldfare, Therfield, 6 January

Another long walk on the 8th took me right across The Heath. Lapwings (10+) were seen at Greys Farm, where around 150 common gulls were feeding on a ploughed field before taking off and 'kettling' (spiralling around) above my head. A pair of treecreepers were busy looking for invertebrates in tree nooks and crevices in Jubilee Wood, at the west end of the heath.

Common Gulls in Flight, Therfield, 8 January

Royston's first rarity of the year (and the winter), in the form of a male black redstart, was discovered by Tony Cobb at the back of the trading estate at the north end of Royston on the 10th.

UK Wildlife Sightings 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?

Purple Sandpiper on Sea Defences, Happisburgh, 2 January

 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.

Caspian Gull(s) with German-ringed Individual 'X307' on the right, Amwell, 5 January

Monday, 14 December 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings, 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.

Fox Covert in Thick Fog, 7 December

I recorded 46 bird species on a walk around my local patch on the 9th. Lots of fieldfares (100+) and redwings (40+) were seen in small groups along the ridge between Therfield and Reed. A young mute swan was a slightly unusual sighting on Mardleybury Lake, although it had the lake to itself. On the 14th a flock of at least 55 linnets was seen going to roost on Therfield Heath at dusk.

Mute Swan, Mardleybury Lake (Reed End), 9 December

On a clear day I can see the folly at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire from the north-facing upstairs bedroom windows, so when I heard that a tundra bean goose and two Russian white-fronted geese were present in the grounds of the hall I decided to 'cross the border' and have a look on the 16th. The birds (part of a large influx of these species into the UK in late November and early December) were feeding with a very large flock of greylag geese and the juvenile bean goose, in particular, showed very well for me. Hopefully the birds will stay into the New Year, allowing me to get these normally hard to find species on to my 2021 year list!

Juvenile Tundra Bean Goose, Wimpole Park, 16 December

This was proving to be the quietest winter for birds in many years in the Royston area, so I moved further afield again, looking for birds between Therfield and Baldock. Raptors continued to prove elusive, but I did manage to find and photograph a couple of wintering stonechats just off the Wallington to Baldock road, near Bygrave, on the 17th.

Mallard on Kelshall Village Pond, 17 December

Female Stonechat, near Bygrave, 17 December

The month ended very quietly, with nothing of interest turning up on the few rain-sodden walks that I managed in the countryside. The only birds worth noting were three marsh tits seen at Scales Park (between Anstey and Meesden), where this species is regularly surveyed. It has been a quiet year for birds on my local patch and, despite spending far more time walking locally (particularly during the spring lockdown) my year list (birds seen within two miles of my home) was only 82, down from 86 in 2019. My garden list was 49 species for 2020, the highest to date, but still far from impressive considering the amount of time I spent in the house and garden with my eyes glued to the sky or surrounding gardens and trees during the spring. Finding two newly-fledged goldcrest chicks being fed by (a) parent(s) in the back garden was a notable highlight, however. The major stories in the Royston area related to two butterfly species, the silver-washed fritillary and the Adonis blue. Silver-washed fritillary became (after dark green fritillary) the second fritillary species to appear on Therfield Heath in the last ten years. Although the habitat is far from ideal for this species, there is hope that this natural coloniser will stay. Meanwhile, Adonis blues went from strength to strength, with maybe as many as 200 butterflies from the second generation on the wing right across The Heath in late August. It looks as if this introduced species is, barring a cycle of cool, wet summers and cold winters, here to stay - making it, as far as I know, the most northerly colony in the UK.

I can't finish the story of 2020 without mentioning the weather, which gets more bizarre with every passing year. May was the driest month since I started keeping rainfall records here in 1992. By the end of June I had recorded just 8.65 inches (22cm) of rain in 2020 - below average, despite a couple of wet months. In the second half of the year I recorded no less than 19.1 inches (49cm) of rain - more than twice as much. This included the wettest October and December on record. Overall, this was the 4th wettest year since 1992 and (easily) the wettest second half, although weather patterns dictate that the second half of the year is usually wetter than the first half. So much for 2020 - let's hope for better things all round in 2021.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

UK Wildlife Sightings 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.

Fulmar in Flight, Hunstanton, 1 December

Having heard of the arrival of a pied-billed grebe, a bird that I have never seen, I made the 300 mile return journey to Chelmarsh Reservoir, near Bridgnorth in Shropshire, on the 8th. The bird was being reported from the north-west corner of the reservoir, near reedbeds, so that's where I headed. However, there was no sign of it there (although a little grebe seemed to satisfy the lists of some of my fellow birdwatchers). Eventually what was probably the pied-billed grebe appeared for a couple of minutes right at the far end of the reservoir - too far away for me to be absolutely sure of its identity, even with my scope eyepiece at full (50x) magnification. Nevertheless, I had some consolation in seeing (after several failures) my first great northern diver of the year, again at the far end of the reservoir but this time unmistakable.

Later in the same week I made a more successful trip, my third of the year, to Thursley Common in Surrey. 'Colin the cuckoo' (see May 2020) was long gone, but in his place were a couple of rare wintering buntings, namely rustic bunting and little bunting, as well as a great grey shrike. I had planned to see the buntings first and then go to look for the shrike, which had been reported on another area of the heath. However, the shrike conveniently came to me, making a few circuits of the 'bunting' area and perching, distantly, in silver birch trees, so I was able to see all three targets without moving! I only saw the rustic bunting once during over two hours of waiting at the site, but the little bunting was more co-operative, feeding on seeds that had been put out for the birds (almost) in the open! I managed to get a few decent photos of this bird, which is separated from the very similar reed bunting by its orange cheeks, conspicuous white eye-ring, black crown with paler central stripe and strong, white supercilium stretching back from the eye (and not in front of the eye). Oh, and it's smaller than the reed bunting of course. Take a look at the images below!

Great Grey Shrike, Thursley Common, 11 December

Little Bunting, Thursley Common, 11 December

Little Bunting, Thursley Common, 11 December

On the 15th I made my annual pilgrimage to see the grey seals pupping at Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk. An additional goal of the visit was to look for one or possibly two first winter Iceland gulls, which had been present on the beach at Winterton for over a week beforehand. This time the sun shone all day and an Iceland gull showed well, flying up and down between the groynes, taking off and landing. I didn't see any seal pups being born on this occasion, but there were one or two fights between bulls and with bulls trying to 'have their way' with females. I also saw a fight between two females, whose pups were very close together. A little action makes photography more interesting!

First Winter Iceland Gull, Winterton-on-Sea, 15 December

Iceland Gull Taking Off, Winterton-on-Sea, 15 December

M/F Seal Fight 1, Winterton-on-Sea, 15 December

M/F Seal Fight 2, Winterton-on-Sea, 15 December

With the imposition of further Covid-19 restrictions and the move into 'Tier 4' I restricted myself to a handful of shorter journeys in Hertfordshire for the remainder of the year. I was lucky to see a first winter male ring-necked duck at Marsworth Reservoir on the 24th, a couple of minutes before it flew off, (apparently) never to return. Earlier in the day I had visited Great Amwell to look for and find three of the red-crested pochards that had taken up residence there (viewed on Hollycross Lake, from the Dragonfly Trail). Finally, on the 30th I drove to near Studham (Beds.) to look for the common crossbills that had been reported just across the Hertfordshire border. I was amazed to find around 100 crossbills whizzing around near a pond between two woods there - probably the most I have seen at once anywhere in the UK! There were significant numbers of siskins in the same area and I also heard a single lesser redpoll trill. On the way home I called in at Kings Meads (Hertford), where a short-eared owl had been reported. I stayed, along with several others, for over an hour. I left at dusk (4.05pm), not having seen the owl. Of course it turned up at 4.15 - typical of my luck in Hertfordshire this year, when my rather pathetic list of 124 species seen was the lowest for ten years - and I can't blame it all on Covid-19!

Male Common Crossbills near Studham, 30 December

Looking back on the year, I suppose that my 'best' bird was the huge, scrawny Lammergeier, likely a 'once in a lifetime' bird in the UK for me, although two surprisingly tame and photogenic 'lifers' (Blyth's reed warbler and greater yellowlegs) were more aesthetically pleasing finds. However, Colin the tame Thursley Common cuckoo gave me my favourite bird watching (and photographing!) experience in 2020. Of course 2020 was, because of Covid-19, an 'annus horribilis' for those who, like me, like to travel widely to watch and photograph birds. Nevertheless I managed to see 241 species - my second highest yearly total and far more than I hoped to see during the lockdown in the spring. Of course I didn't travel abroad this year and my week in Scotland in October added nine Highland 'specialities' to my list, but even so it is surprising how many birds I did get to see in 2021. As I write this on New Year's Day there seems little possibility of anything returning to normal in the next few months, but with two vaccines having been approved for use in the UK, keeping fit and healthy during 2021 will be far more important than chasing birds, or any other sort of wildlife. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Local Wildlife Sightings 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.

Fly, Mesembrina Meridiana, Royston, 4 November

Hoverfly Eristalis Pertinax, Royston, 4 November

Red Admiral Butterfly, Royston, 2 November

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.

Juvenile Kestrel, Royston, 4 November

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...... 

'Bog Standard' Golden Plovers with an apparently Smaller, Darker Bird, East of the Icknield Way, Therfield, 2 November

Disappointingly, my local walks were not producing much of interest and, unusually, there were no sightings of harriers, merlin or short-eared owls in my area although all three of these species were being reported in the Wallington to Baldock area, along the minor Chiltern ridge. I made a few visits to this area, but was only rewarded with views of stonechats, corn buntings and grey partridges. Closer to home there were still plenty of golden plovers around (52 on the 9th, 125 0n the 16th and 174 on the 23rd), although the huge flock seen early in the month seemed to have dispersed. A flock of around 100 lapwings was seen on two occasions at Reed End. A raven was heard in Jubilee Wood on the 16th and two were seen at Greys Farm on the 23rd. A tawny owl was hooting in Therfield towards dusk on the 24th. Insect activity dropped away as the weather got colder, but a handful of hoverflies (Eristalis sp.) were still buzzing around towards the month's end.

Hoverfly, Eristalis Tenax, Royston, 13 November

UK Wildlife Sightings November 2020

 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.

Greater Yellowlegs, Dunwich Pools, 12 November

Greater Yellowlegs, Dunwich Pools, 12 November

Snow Bunting (Female), Walberswick, 12 November

Snow Bunting (Male), Walberswick, 12 November

Snow Bunting (Juvenile), Walberswick, 12 November

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.

Hoopoe, Northill, 14 November

A black redstart turned up on St Mary's church, Baldock, in mid-November. On the 17th I walked from near the village of Wallington in to Baldock, where I managed to see it and grab a couple of 'record shots'. There were persistent sightings of merlin and hen harrier between Wallington and Baldock during November (see my 'Local Sightings' post), but neither was showing on this occasion.

'Record Shot' of Black Redstart on St Mary's Church, Baldock, 17 November

Thursday, 5 November 2020

The Highlands of Scotland and Aberdeenshire October 2020 - Wildlife Blog

 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.

Male Capercaillie, Private Site, Highlands, 25 October

Crested Tit on Feeder, RSPB Car Park, Loch Garten, 25 October

On the Monday we set off for our Aberdeenshire break, stopping off first at Spey Bay where we spent an enjoyable 1.5 hours watching sea birds, land birds and waders (40-50 species) in warm sunshine! However, my favourite moment was watching a pod of bottlenose dolphins, several of which were 'breaching', close to the shore. As usual, I failed to catch the 'decisive moments', the closest I got being shown in the image below.

Bottlenose Dolphin 'Breaching', Spey Bay, 26 October

I have to say that the rest of our Aberdeenshire trip left a little to be desired from a wildlife perspective, although close views of Eider and a good selection of waders near the mouth of the Ythan Estuary were noteworthy. Also noteworthy, and my only holiday 'lifer', was a pod of Risso's dolphins (including juveniles) seen distantly off the coast at Murcar, There was no sign of the king eider that can sometimes be seen here, we were too late to see skuas and shearwaters and too early for white-winged gulls. Despite my best efforts to turn cormorants into great northern divers we only saw red-throated divers along the coastline. Sightings of flocks of coots at two lochans may have been exciting for the local guides, but were of no interest to clients who were all from England. The return trip through Royal Deeside was notable for some spectacular scenery and an almost total lack of birds!

Common Eider Ducks, Ythan Estuary, 27 October

An otter, seen at North Kessock near Inverness on the 29th, swam ashore to consume a fish before crossing the road to disappear into a 'holt'. A raft of over 200 wintering scaup near Jemimaville was by far the largest accumulation of this sea duck that I have seen.

Otter, near Inverness, 29 October

If the middle section of the holiday had been perhaps a little dull, we certainly went out 'with a bang' on the final day, with a trip over to the west coast on a day of sunshine and showers (in other words, extremely good weather for this part of the world in October)! A toilet stop en route at Achnasheen produced the first unusual sighting: a red deer stag munching vegetation in somebody's garden. Our next stop was at Applecross, to look for ptarmigan on a mountain where, on my last visit in April 2018, one of the members of our party had to be air-lifted off the mountain to hospital. On this occasion we only had to walk a few yards up the mountain track before our quarry was spotted. Wandering along the magnificent coastal 'A' road (single track with passing places) I was able to add hooded crow, black guillemot, black-throated diver and white-tailed eagle to my 2020 year list.

Ptarmigan, Applecross, 30 October

Further on, we pulled into a lay-by with parking and were somewhat surprised to meet Callum, a tame red deer stag who is happy to accept food gifts from tourists! His entourage (a doe and a fawn) were quite shy, keeping their distance, but Callum was quite happy to pose with us whilst we had group photos taken (one for each minibus, sticking with Covid-19 requirements which also meant that we had to wear face masks whilst we were travelling). It was getting dark by now, but we had time for one more stop for afternoon tea (and delicious granola cake) near the top of a glen. A golden eagle floated over our heads: a fitting finale for an enjoyable holiday and a particularly enjoyable day.

Callum, the Red Deer Stag, Glen Torridon, 30 October