17 February 2008

Back to boyhood - birding in Hertfordshire

Although I am now well and truly a Warwickshire man, I was born and grew up in Hertfordshire - between Watford and St Albans to be precise.

Although I was interested in birds at a very young age, I don't have too many recollections of birding in that area - I think it was mainly garden and park birding to be honest. So this weekend I took the opportunity while visiting my family to sneak out at the crack of dawn for a spot of exploring - visiting the well-regarded Tyttenhanger site (see here for a great site guide from the Herts Bird Club).

Excavation of the Tyttenanger Gravel Pits began in 1982, and they are still being worked today. As is often the way with this kind of quarrying, the result was a series of pools, many now heavily fished but one reserved for birdlife and nature.

The range of habitat is superb, including deep water, shallows and mudflats, open fields managed in a variety of ways, coniferous and deciduous woodland, running water (the River Colne runs through the site) and manmade features (feeding of partridge for shooting, bird nests, bird tables and so on).

As a result, a good number of rare and uncommon birds have been reported here over the years, and on this fantastic first trip there I could see what great potential it has. It was the most beautiful of mornings (although pretty cold, at minus 6 degrees!) and I enjoyed every second of it - once I got used to the forthright signing (see above left - fair enough, it is still a working quarry).

It's a lovely site - quiet at that time of the morning, just the right length of walk (about two hours at gentle birding pace), with good views across the water, an open hide, and great variety of landscape.

In all I saw 36 species, a pretty good haul for any inland site in winter, and even better since I was really exploring rather than birding 'hard' (with a diversion into some woods for Nuthatch, Great Spot, Marsh Tit, Redwing and Fieldfare beyond, for example, I'm sure I could have pushed on well past 40).

However, the birds I did see were a fabulous mix - including Shoveller, Teal and three Shelduck on the open pool, Lapwing and a single Snipe in the margins, Skylark and Red-legged Partridge in the fields and a flock of a dozen on more Tree Sparrows (photo left) near the farm.

Many of these were birds I don't often see on my home territory, and together they made for a first-class morning.

Bird of the Day: Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), the bird that a few years back got me back into birding after two decades away (it's a long boring story) - not uncommon, especially at the coast, but it's always a striking sight on an inland gravel pit or reservoir.

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