24 February 2008

The waders are coming (and so is spring)

Family commitments meant my weekend's birding comprised another quick morning trip to Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits in Hertfordshire today (with apologies to any regular Warwickshire readers), with plenty to add to last week's enjoyment of this splendid little site.

As I arrived on a picture perfect morning, I found a little cluster of birders who were already enjoying the day's star attraction, a newly arrived Curlew. Although these are more often seen here as fly-overs, this one had obligingly settled, and indeed was still there when I left two hours later.

Sitting close by were a pair of Ringed Plovers, and on a nearby bank was a Green Sandpiper. Together these wading birds were sure fire evidence that spring is on its way, with these species being among the first to pass through as they head north to breed.

But these were not the only new species which I could add to last week's list. A few Linnet flew close by, a pair of Wigeon whooped out on the main pond, and a Kestrel hovered over one of the sheep field (which, incidentally, were even more alive with Sky Larks than last week - I counted more than a dozen in view at one point). It would have been even more but I again missed out on the resident Water Rail (a real bogey bird for me), and on a Stonechat reported near the edge of those same sheep fields.

Never mind, they'll both be something to look out for on my next trip, which I'm sure won't be far away. So far, a couple of trips have turned up well over 40 species, and with spring on its way, there is bound to be plenty more just around the corner.

Bird of the day: Curlew (Numenius arquata), the largest European wading bird, with a distinctive downward curving bill and a once-heard-never-forgotten 'bubbling' call.

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.

15 February 2008

Back to basics - garden birding

I guess most people first get interested in birds when they see the ones in their garden. For the last couple of weeks, with no real opportunity to get out and about, I have been once more confined to watching this most local of patches.

Fortunately the temperature has dropped, and that always drives birds into the garden in search of food. Our hour spend doing the RSPB's great garden birdwatch at the end of January turned up everything we would expect to see (Wren, Robin, Dunnock, Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Starling, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Magpie), but since then a few of the less common locals have started to appear.

First there was a noticable increase in the number and frequency of Long-tailed Tits, wonderful little delicate birds that are equally at home on the fatballs and the peanut cage (archive photo by the way). A couple of these have almost been guaranteed most mornings for the last week or so.

Then the Song Thrush began singing every morning, a joyous addition to the start of every day. In the distant farm fields you can hear the Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming out for territories and mates (and perhaps the odd Green Woodpecker 'yaffling' by).

And then earlier in the week we got a surprise return from one of our rarest visitors, Siskins. A pair of them alighted momentarily on our seed feeder, giving great views of their vivid streaky yellow flanks and black-blob heads. Sadly they were quickly off, and haven't been seen since, but they were the first we have recorded in the garden since 2004.

Bird of the week: Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a small, lively finch which is a resident breeder in Scotland and Wales but only a winter vistor to these parts. There are plenty around at this time of year, but they are still scarce enough to be a nice surprise.

3 February 2008

More about birds at Ufton Fields

I had a couple of new sources of information today about Ufton Field - first a chance encounter with a working party, then an email from a former warden.

From Dave (the current warden?) on the working party I learned that the site currently holds Woodcock, a bird I'd love to see in Warwickshire, as well as Snipe and one or two others I'd like to find. And then, having shared a bit of chit-chat about the place, I arrived home to find an email explaining the birding history of the place.

I was pointed to this site here, which lists all the birds seen on the reserve since the 1970s - although as it points out, it was much more open in the early days, hence records of Black Tern and Bewick and Whooper Swans for example. Even so, the list is amazing - Pied Flycatcher, Redstart, possible Wood Warbler, Long-eared and Short-eared Owl, Tree Pipit and Great Grey Shrike, for example, are all staggeringly rare in Warwickshire.

I don't know whether to be enthused and motivated, or dis-heartened and gutted! Might they all be a possibility for the future, or has the reserve's hey-day long gone? I guess the only way to find out is to keep going - after all, I was excited to learn that my 2004 Mandarin Duck was almost certainly a reserve first.

Picture: a Pied Flycatcher from Dinas, Mid Wales, 2005 - will I ever find such an elusive creature at Ufton Fields though?!

Back in love with Ufton Fields

After a fairly lengthy period of neglect, Ufton Fields is very much back on my list of favourite reserves, and I enjoyed another very pleasant walk there this morning.

Plenty of thrushes around - more than a dozen Blackbirds before I had even left the carpark, Fieldfare and Redwing in trees and all over two fields, a couple of Song Thrushes, and at least three, maybe five (might have seen one pair twice), Mistle Thrushes giving great views (as I noted last week, this is quite rare for me, so I was well chuffed with this). The only finches I found were a of Bullfinches (this is a great location for those) and Greenfinches (plenty of those), and there were lots of the other usual sightings - Robins, Dunnocks, Blue Tits, Great Tits etc.

On the Horseshoe Pool things initially looked quiet, but 15 minutes of watching was rewarded with first two, then six Teal (three pairs), a few Mallards, three Moorhen, a couple of Coot, and super views of a Kingfisher which sat by the side of the pool for maybe 10 minutes.

As I left I got to watch two Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk have a brief tete-a-tete. I also learned plenty of new things about the reserve today, but I'm going to save that for another post.

Bird of the day: Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), vivid, exotic, flies like a neon-blue lightbulb across the dullest of days - and yet can be infuriatingly elusive. Never a disappointment when you finally get good views of one.