Thursday, 9 May 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings May 2019

The weather continued to lurch between unseasonably warm and unseasonably cold. With temperatures rarely exceeding 12C the latter was true of the first ten days of May. Insect life was extremely limited and late migrant birds were slow to arrive. Numbers of whitethroats continued to increase, however, with every bushy hedge in the fields around Royston seeming to contain one pair. On a long walk on the 6th I recorded a minimum of 27 in the Therfield parish alone! This species clearly had a good breeding season in the hot summer of 2018 and the numbers seen locally this year certainly reflect this situation. Two pairs of tufted ducks were still at Mardleybury pond and I saw my first local house martins (probably passage birds) feeding over Newsells Stud Farm. Swifts were reported over Royston on the 1st but I had to wait until the 9th to see my first local birds.

Tufted Ducks, Mardleybury, 6 May

Skylark, Therfield Heath, 9 May

UK Wildlife Sightings May 2019

As happened in April, May started off with over a week of unseasonably cold weather. With temperatures rarely exceeding 12C not a single butterfly was seen during this period, so I had to stick to watching birds! Having heard that a spoonbill (a Hertfordshire rarity) was at Amwell Nature Reserve I made a visit on the 2nd. The bird (an adult) was roosting in a tree on an island, visible from the White Hide. I hadn't expected it to move from there but I got lucky as it flew down to the water and proceeded to play about with some sticks, wash and get chased around by the local cormorants before returning to the island to roost. Some images of the bird (a Hertfordshire 'first' for me) are below.

Spoonbill and Cormorant, Amwell GP, 2 April

Spoonbill having a Wash, Amwell GP, 2 April

Spoonbill Taking Off, Amwell GP, 2 April

On the 6th I spent the whole day (from 5.30am to 8.15pm) bird watching, both locally (see my other May post) and further afield. I visited Amwell again early in the morning (no sign of the spoonbill, but I did see three common sandpipers, several swifts and a cuckoo there) and then visited RSPB Titchwell Marsh (summer plumaged spotted redshank and my first bearded tits of the year) before finishing near Choseley, where I 'twitched' five dotterel. I saw 90 species in the day, with the dotterel taking my UK year list to 200.

Song Thrush, Amwell, 6 May

Spotted Redshank, RSPB Titchwell Marsh, 6 May

The first significant rainfall for several weeks, on the 8th, coincided with a big passage of black terns through the UK, causing many to stay and feed up over our water bodies before flying on to their breeding sites in mainland Europe. The Tring reservoirs are often a good place to see this species when on migration and did not disappoint, with 17 present at Marsworth and at least ten present at Wilstone. Huge numbers (several hundred) of hirundines and swifts were also feeding over the reservoirs and common sandpipers were seen at Startops End and Wilstone.

Black Terns, Marsworth Reservoir, 8 May

Common Tern, Marsworth Reservoir, 8 May

Friday, 12 April 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, April 2019

April got off to a cracking start when, on opening my bedroom curtains on the morning of the 2nd, I saw a large, bow-winged bird approaching. At first I thought it might be a red kite, but the flight and coloration were wrong, then I considered whether it might be a harrier or a very large gull. However, as it veered away and climbed I realised that it was an osprey! If I had opened the curtains a few seconds earlier or later I would have missed it - how lucky was that! I did wonder whether the bird was heading to Rutland Water: on the 5th 21 ospreys were reported there. The remaining mystery is why the bird was, at least initially, flying so low - there are no suitable lakes for it to fish in around here and I don't think it would be interested in the goldfish in my garden pond....

Thereafter my luck turned back to normal. Good numbers of chiffchaffs and blackcaps had arrived by the first week of April, but there was no sign of passage migrants, with the exception of a swallow on the 5th near Therfield and visible migration of meadow pipits, heading north, in the first week of the month. Ring ouzels were being seen elsewhere in Hertfordshire, but not on my local patch. The weather didn't help: cool north-easterly winds would be ideal for bird passage in the autumn, but were presumably holding up migrants in the spring. At least the pasque flowers were putting on an excellent display on Church Hill.

Singing Dunnock, Royston, 1 April

Yellowhammer, Therfield, 5 April

Pasque Flowers, Therfield Heath, 5 April

Eventually persistence paid off and, during a very long walk encompassing Royston, Therfield Heath, Therfield and Reed on the 12th I found a male ring ouzel at the southern end of Greys Farm. Amongst an excellent total of 48 species recorded (47 seen) on the walk were another swallow at Reed, at least six lapwings (including displaying birds) at Greys Farm and Heath Farm and a flock of 110 common gulls, also at Greys Farm, presumably on passage but attracted by ploughing activity. Yellowhammers and linnets were far more numerous and obvious than they had been during the winter and little grebes were back at Mardleybury lake/pond (too small for a lake, too big for a pond!) for a third consecutive year. A Canada goose there was the first 'local' bird of this species that I had seen for almost a year.

Poor 'Record Shot' of the Male Ring Ouzel at Greys Farm on 12 April

Small White Butterfly, Reed End, 12 April

Migration became more obvious in the second half of the month, despite unseasonably warm and settled weather with southerly winds (ideal now for unbroken journeys to breeding sites). I found a female ring ouzel in a field behind Royston Hospital on the 16th - the third year in a row that ring ouzels have been seen here! Willow warblers (now, sadly, just recorded on passage) were seen and/or heard in several places from the 16th as well and I saw my first local wheatear (found by Mike Ilett) on the 20th, when at least one female ring ouzel was still present behind the hospital (two females were seen by others). The first whitethroats and lesser whitethroats to arrive for the summer were belting out their songs on the 20th and I witnessed an aggressive dispute by two male whitethroats over a female just beyond the top of the Old Rifle Range, with the males chasing each other round and singing aggressively for several minutes. Blackcaps were still coming in and one bird was performing a peculiar mixture of songs, including doing a very good imitation of a song thrush! I've heard this 'mimicry' before with blackcaps - it can be very confusing and presumably relates to songs heard and learnt ('hard-wired') during their first few weeks of life. A tawny owl woke me in the night of the 16/17th, with its 'kee-wick' calls coming from very close to the house. A male mandarin duck was back at Kelshall pond on the 19th.

Images of female ring ouzel(s), Royston, photographed on 16 April (left hand image) and 20 April (right hand image)

Male Blackcap, Therfield, 18 April

Mistle Thrush, Therfield Heath, 23 April

Mandarin Drake, Kelshall 19 April

Not surprisingly the warm, sunny weather had brought out lots of butterflies. New additions to my local year list included orange tip (from the 16th) and speckled wood (from the 18th), making nine species in total.

Speckled Wood, Royston, 23 April

I recorded 50 bird species on a long walk on the 29th. Highlights included two pairs of tufted ducks on Mardleybury pond and at least 17 common whitethroats (mostly singing males) as I travelled through the parishes of Therfield and Reed. Seven lesser whitethroats were also heard and/or seen. A rather late fieldfare was also heard.

UK Wildlife Sightings April 2019

In April I tend to stay fairly local and look for returning summer visitors and passage migrants on my 'local patch' (see accompanying blog post). However, I did pay a visit to the Tring Reservoirs on the afternoon of the 2nd, the only wet afternoon in the first half of April! Huge numbers of swallows and sand martins were coming through, both at Wilstone and at Startops End/Marsworth, but I arrived a day too late to see the brent goose that had taken up residence at 'cemetary corner' for a few days beforehand. A pair of mandarin ducks were seen at Startops End.

Male Mandarin Duck, Startops End Reservoir, 2 April

On the 10th I visited Rutland Water, targeting the American wigeon that had been seen for some days beforehand on Lagoon 4, as well as any recently arrived summer visitors or passage migrants that happened to be around. The wigeon was duly located, as was a little gull that was part of a major passage of this species through the country from the 8th to the 12th. A little ringed plover was also seen here. Moving on to the Lyndon reserve the ospreys were having great fun at their nest site. First the male attempted to mate with the female, who was already sitting on three eggs (I hope they didn't break) and then, later, he came back with a stick as a good will gesture (but what about some fish?). Some of the images from my visit to the two reserves are shown below.

American Wigeon (left hand bird), Rutland Water, 10 April

Little Gull, Rutland Water, 10 April

Ospreys, Rutland Water (Lyndon Reserve), 10 April

Green-veined White, Rutland Water, 10 April

An RSPB coach trip to Pagham Harbour on the 14th provided an excellent selection of waders including whimbrel (image below), common sandpiper, spotted redshank in partial summer plumage and little ringed plover. Warbler passage had been slow for some days previously, due to them being held up by biting north-easterly winds, but sedge and Cetti's warblers were heard on the reserve. Another visit to the Tring Reservoirs on the 16th produced two little gulls and two redshanks at Wilstone and I saw my first house martins of the year at Marsworth, where a reed warbler was singing. Common terns were back at Wilstone, Marsworth and Startops End Reservoirs.

Whimbrel, Pagham Harbour, 14 April

Common Tern, Wilstone Reservoir, 16 April

Little Gulls, Wilstone Reservoir, 16 April

I treated myself to a full day out bird watching on the 19th, visiting RSPB Lakenheath Fen (garganey, two cranes in flight and a brief view of a bittern in flight) and RSPB Titchwell, where I concentrated on photography and didn't add anything to my year list. Possibly my best sighting of the day, however, was shortly after I left Royston in the morning when a cuckoo flew across the A505 near Flint Cross! I haven't seen a cuckoo so close to home for several years.

Sedge Warbler Singing, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, 19 April

Sanderling, RSPB Titchwell Marsh, 19 April

A late evening visit to Tyttenhanger gravel pits on the 23rd provided me with a sighting of my first greenshank of the year, as well as two little ringed plovers. On the following day I went up to RSPB Bempton Cliffs near Bridlington to visit a friend who was staying there. There were surprisingly few puffins around (I only saw three), but otherwise Bempton was the usual hive of activity with gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and fulmars all very busy.

Greenshank, Tyttenhanger Main Pit, 23 April

Gannet Greeting, RSPB Bempton Cliffs, 24 April

Meadow Pipit, RSPB Bempton Cliffs, 24 April

On the 26th I needed to visit Chesterfield in the morning and hoped to do some bird watching afterwards in Lathkill Dale. However, I only got as far as Bakewell before the weather deteriorated to the point that I decided not to go any further. Nevertheless a walk along the river there did allow me to add dipper (two seen) to my year list.

Dipper, Bakewell, 26 April

With poor weather forecast for the start of May I made an early reconnaissance trip on the 30th to Frensham Common (Surrey), where I was due to lead an RSPB Local Group field trip later in May. Recently arrived summer visitors seen included redstart, hobby and reed warbler, whilst several Dartford warblers were seen and/or heard.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Local Wildlife Sightings, March 2019

A bad back, coupled with inclement weather, reduced my activity in the first half of March. I did manage a walk up the Icknield Way towards Therfield on the 4th, when a flock of about 200 golden plover flew across the track, before flying back again.

Golden Plover in Flight, Therfield, 4 March

Much ploughing was being done at Greys Farm. This had attracted several hundred common and black-headed gulls, together with a couple of lesser black-backed gulls, buzzards and kites. Rather disappointingly, however, I couldn't find any of the rarer (for my local patch) gulls.

Gulls following the Plough, Greys Farm (Therfield), 4 March

The first half of March is usually a quiet period for wildlife - insects are few and far between and bird migration and passage have yet to get going. Further short walks in (usually) very windy weather yielded little of interest until the 13th, when I flushed a little owl whilst walking through the Newsells Stud Farm estate on the Greenwich Meridian Trail. Little owls used to be regular in this area many years ago: was this a resident bird or was it just passing through? Time will tell. Up at Hatchpen Farm on the same day the number of mallard ducks and drakes on the farm pond had reached an all time high of 54! An unusual (in so much as I haven't seen one like this before) spider, missing one leg, was seen on Therfield Heath (Old Rifle Range - image below) on the 15th. Nearby a pair of grey partridges gave better than usual views.

Spider (missing a leg!), Therfield Heath, 15 March

Grey Partridges, Therfield, 15 March

A walk on the west side of The Heath on the 18th included a visit to Church Hill, where I was surprised to find that not only were a significant number of pasque flowers blooming, but some were already 'past their best'! I guess that the first flowers must have appeared during the exceptionally warm period in late February. Two pairs of goldcrests were very active in Fox Covert (adjacent to the Therfield Road), but there was no sign of any firecrests. Later in the morning I visited the dung heaps between Ashwell and Eyeworth, where a wheatear had been reported on the 17th. I couldn't locate the wheatear or any water pipits (I saw one here at around this time of year in 2018), but a migratory white wagtail was amongst about 10 pied wagtails and 20 meadow pipits seen.

Pasque Flower, Church Hill, 18 March

On the 19th I ventured out for my first full (Royston - Therfield - Reed - Royston) 'Local Patch' walk since the end of January. Four singing chiffchaffs were recorded on the way round and a treecreeper was a good sighting in Reed Village, whilst eight corn buntings (including a flock of five and a singing bird) were at Hatchpen Farm. Brimstone butterflies were on the wing in warmer weather and I also glimpsed an unidentified 'brown' butterfly. Blackthorn was starting to flower and lesser celandine and violets were also in bloom. My bird list of 44 species (41 seen) was, not surprisingly, the best of the year so far. However I paid for my efforts as the back problem reared its ugly head again and forced me back indoors.

Lesser Celandine Flowers, Therfield, 19 March

Red Kite, Reed End, 19 March

A blackcap was singing in the woodland at the bottom of my road on the 26th, as was a chiffchaff. A holly blue butterfly near the hospital was a surprising find - I don't recall seeing this species so early in the year before. Less surprising were sightings of brimstone, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies in the same area.

Holly Blue, Royston, 26 March

Small Tortoiseshell, Royston, 26 March

The following day I walked up to Hatchpen Farm. Several hares were seen as I passed through Newsells Stud Farm and one gave very good views as it stopped a few feet in front of me (image). Three fallow deer, including a 'white' animal, were also seen here.

Brown Hare, Reed, 27 March

Fallow Deer, Reed, 27 March

UK Wildlife Sightings March 2019

Following a glorious second half of February the weather in the first half of March was completely different, with biting cold westerly and north-westerly winds and showers or longer periods of rain. The second week, in particular, was exceptionally windy with gusts of up to 50mph in Royston bringing down small trees and branches. Coupled with this I developed a bad back, so the orgy of bird watching at the end of February was reduced to a trickle in March. I again failed to see the Siberian chiffchaff (ssp. tristis) when I visited Stotfold Mill nature reserve on the 1st, although ironically a 'normal' chiffchaff and a blackcap were singing on the reserve. Indeed I saw and/or heard quite a few chiffchaffs in the first week of March - presumably individuals that had returned early from their wintering quarters in Iberia during the last week of February. Whilst in North London the following day I visited Grovelands Park, where a female smew posed for my camera.

Female Smew, Grovelands Park, London, 2 March

My first day trip of the month, on the 11th, saw me returning to Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve in Norfolk as I made a second attempt to see Arctic redpoll, followed by an afternoon at RSPB Titchwell. As well as looking for interesting birds I had a new lens (a Sigma 100-400mm zoom, for the record) to test out. At Sculthorpe I ran into familiar ID problems of trying to separate Arctic from mealy (common) redpoll. I had looked on the internet at images of the (Coue's) Arctic redpoll that was coming to the niger feeders at Sculthorpe, so I thought that I knew what I was looking for. When a bird appeared on one of the feeders I convinced myself (and some other non-experts who were also hoping to see the bird) that it was a mealy redpoll. However, looking later at the images I took of the bird I reached a different conclusion. One problem was that the bird looked very different in different lighting conditions - compare the two photos of the same bird that I took (one in sunlight, one in shade) within a couple of minutes of each other below:

Arctic (?) Redpoll (same bird) on Niger Feeder, Sculthorpe Moor NR, 11 March

On the right the bird is in direct sunlight and looks pale enough to be an Arctic redpoll. The rump (see photo above on the left) had only a hint of streaking and the undertail-coverts appeared to be unstreaked (all good for Arctic redpoll). However, the bill seemed to be larger than expected. The fluffy plumage and large white wing bar are consistent with Arctic redpoll. Some of these features can be seen on the images of this (??) bird on the internet. Another image of the bird (on the right) is shown below, together with an image of a redpoll taken on my first visit to Sculthorpe Moor in February. Could that bird have also been an Arctic redpoll? If you are reading this and have expertise in the area, I would appreciate your opinion!

Redpolls at Sculthorpe Moor NR. The bird on the left was photographed on 22 February. The bird on the right is the same Redpoll as that shown in the double image above, Photographed on 11 March

At RSPB Titchwell I added Mediterranean Gull to my year list. The new lens worked well: a few images taken on the day are shown below.

Male Brambling, Sculthorpe Moor NR, 11 March

Mediterranean and other Gulls, RSPB Titchwell, 11 March

Sanderling, RSPB Titchwell, 11 March

Male Teal, RSPB Titchwell, 11 March

I finally connected with the wintering long-billed dowitcher at the third time of asking this year when my RSPB Local Group visited RSPB Frampton Marsh on the 17th. I had planned a trip to the coast on the 20th, but my back problem re-emerged, so instead I had a rather sedentary day in Norfolk, visiting Weeting Heath NWT and Welney WWT reserves. I eventually saw distant stone curlews at Weeting, whilst the bean geese at Welney were showing distantly but nevertheless relatively well. Huge numbers of black-tailed godwits (both Icelandic and UK breeding birds) were also present at Welney. However, my two 'birds of the day' were a big surprise. Firstly a rough-legged buzzard, my second of the year, appeared at Weeting. The bird showed well, circling over a distant wood. The experts described it as an adult female, but to my non-expert eyes it looked more like a juvenile / first winter [female?] from the 'record shot' images that I took. Judge for yourself from the composite of three images shown below. The other potential 'mega' was a beautiful male Baikal teal, seen from the main observatory at Welney at around 2.30pm (discovered whilst I was there by a fellow bird watcher). Unfortunately the bird was too distant to get any decent photos but there was no evidence of a leg ring (through my telescope). The consensus (Birdguides) was that this bird was the 'genuine article' based on photographs and behaviour. However it disappeared overnight, so I was one of the lucky few to see it.

Rough-legged Buzzard (3 images), Weeting Heath NNR, 20 March

After a short holiday I was back on the road on the 29th, visiting RSPB Minsmere before moving on later in the day to Lowestoft. After parking at Minsmere I went up onto Dunwich Heath, where at least three Dartford warblers were seen and I got some ok photos. However, I needn't have bothered going up there because more Dartford warblers were showing on the dunes between the East Hide and the sluice at Minsmere! I managed to get close enough to a stonechat perched on top of a bush to get some detailed photos here - then a Dartford warbler perched up on the same bush and started singing just a few feet away! I managed to take a few photos before it flew down again - lucky me! Also seen at Minsmere were my first sand martins of the year and a Cetti's warbler, whilst a hen harrier flew south and several woodlarks were singing on Dunwich Heath.

Stonechat, RSPB Minsmere, 29 March

Dartford Warbler, RSPB Minsmere, 29 March

Kittiwakes were starting to nest in various precarious places along the sea front at Lowestoft. I went looking for a pair of garganey that had been seen a mile or so away on an inland lake for the previous two days. I had no joy with these, but did manage to see the moulting 'Siberian' chiffchaff (ssp. tristis) that had been reported by the side of the same lake, making up for my lack of success at Stotfold at the beginning of the month (see above). At the end of March my bird year list had risen to 167 species.

Kittiwakes, Lowestoft, 29 March