Friday, December 30, 2016

Patch 2016 - final thoughts

This year saw a quite intensive watch of the patch. Many of the highlights are in the previous posts but the first Red Kite for the patch – seen three times- and breeding Sparrowhawk deserve a mention.

Even so, given the first half of the year and the history of birds on the patch, the second half was a bit of a disappointment. A bit like your favourite football team holding on to win 2-1 having been 2-0 up at half time. Some birds were noteable by their absence – no Whinchat, Redstart, or Wheatear. No unusual ducks on the pond, despite all the UK dabbling ducks having been seen here in the past. And there were some absences of a more serious nature. Yellow Wagtail, which used to breed over the railway line, not seen once. Grasshopper Warbler, which a few years ago bred at four sites along this stretch at the valley including the patch, now reduced to one possibly two sites. The decline of these trans-saharan migrants continues.

Despite this, my enthusiasm remained undimmed during the year. There was something very relaxing about heading off for a couple of hours catching up on events on the patch. An influx of Blackbirds in December. Stonechat relocated slightly down river beyond Pishiobury Park. Two thousand Woodpigeons in the air at once.

The reality of the patch is that there are wildlife stories everywhere. The seasonal ebb and flow brings drama on every trip. So next year, even if it’s a rarity-free zone, I will be out searching for the next story from the patch.

Just to illustrate the point, here’s a picture from the garden. Its some blackfly, with some Ants in attendance. Why are the ants there? Its in the section under ecology here.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Patch 2016 - Things that fly that aren't birds.

I tried to expand my interests into all things flying, so Bees, Butterflies, and Odonata (Moths I will keep for another year). It didn’t really work this year.

I had hoped to expand on my single cuckoo bee of 2015, but no such luck. And telling apart the four black/yellow/white species didn’t really work out well. I had fun with Red-Tailed and Tree Bumblebees but next year I need to make a proper effort.

One of those black/yellow/white ones
I saw a few dragonflies – Banded Demoiselle were everywhere, Common Blue, Azure, and Blue-tailed Damselfly on the river, Common Darter, Brown Hawker and Emperor Dragonfly, but White-legged Damselfly and Willow Emerald Dragonfly were seen on the Stort, but not by me.  So some work to be done on this group of insects.

male Azure Damselfly
 Butterflies went slightly better. The stand-out ones for me being Marbled White in the field below Nursery Wood in late June, and getting some Essex Skippers later in the year. No sign of any hairstreaks in Pishiobury Park, or a repeat of the large orange floaty thing there from last year either.

Essex Skipper I believe - black-tipped antennae.
In previous years I've seen Pipistrelle and Noctule Bats in the park. I didn't try particularly hard for b at this year, but still didn't see either. Not good news for our local Bat population ...

So for 2017, some more attention to those cuckoo bees and nailing the commoner ones. And maybe some more attention to those odonata.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Patch 2016 - The pond and back to Nursery Wood

juvenile Mute Swan making a rare appearance at the pond.
Back to the bridge, turn east through a bush and follow the path up toward the railway. The land rises and from here you can look north towards the housing estate of Lower Sheering/Sawbridgeworth. Immediately north is what was formerly an ordinary pasture. In 2006 the drain keeping the field dry was blocked with the intention of creating a pool for shooting wildfowl, and a shallow flood formed in the South western corner. We had a purple wader patch in 2007 and into 2008, but the field and surrounds has become overgrown. The pond usually dries out in summer but is full during the winter periods, and for the last few years has become home to a variety of wildfiowl and associated water-loving birds

There are often a variety of species of duck on the pond. Teal in winter, peaking at 9 in the first half but over 30 on 16 Dec this year, Mallard peaking at 14, Gadwall usually build up in late winter with a maximum of 5 this year but double figures in previous years, Shoveler are occasional with a peak of 5 on 22 Feb. Coot and Moorhen are usually present but rarely reach double figures. Mute Swan occasionally appear – two pairs breed further down the river.

Noteable this year was a pair of Little Grebes that were present in early summer and may well have attempted breeding, but the presence of Lesser-Blacked Backed Gulls from Harlow and the resident Crows make breeding hazardous for any water bird. Otherwise a Water Rail was heard in the first winter period, and Little Egret and Grey Heron are seen here on occasion. The surrounding vegetation also gets birds with Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Whitethroat all present in the breeding season with at least one Reed Bunting pair present.

Shoveler on the pond in early Spring this year.

The rough field by the footpath has regular Yellowhammer (peak of about 30 in January) and Chaffinch in the hedges (also peaked at 30 on the patch in mid Jan), and Meadow Pipit in the field in winter.

Occasionally I walk up beyond the railway line following the footpath onto farmland.. The main noteable sighting this year was a Hobby perched on the ground here for 10 minutes – the only decent view on the patch this year.

We’ve nearly finished. Just time to return back to the footbridge, head north then almost immediately turn left along a path that skirts a very wet field. Frequent Goldcrest, tit flocks, and Whitethroat in summer here, and Jays which may be seen anywhere on the walk are slightly more common here. A Barn Owl flew through late one day in December.

The path leads into Nursery Wood, a small but mature woodland in the Eastern corner of the Park. It was possible to stand in a spot in June and see three nest-holes in action; Nuthatch, Great-Spotted Woodpecker, and a honey-bee nest. Tree Creeper are occasionally present here too.

juvenile Starlings in Nursery Wood in June. Not a common bird on the patch.

That just about finishes the walk. Just time to sit on the bench by the gate and look back over the park and add some species to the list. I had a pair of Greylag Goose fly over on 19th April, the only patch Lapwing on 1st April, and the only Patch Snipe on 24th October (there are probably Snipe round the pond and possibly Jack Snipe but there seems little point in disturbing them).

So that’s the walk complete. Next I’ll do a round up of some of the features of the patch not covered in the last few posts.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Patch 2016 - Feakes Lock

Carrying on down river we get to Feakes Lock. This area is the nexus of a number of types of habitat, and forms a small oasis of lowland heaven in mid summer. The river/canal itself has a small tributary just below it, and this area is overgrown with bushes and trees. Beyond is a rough pasture used for horses and rearing pheasants. There is a single large tree on the corner – The Cormorant Tree, so called because it is the single most reliable spot for this species. Opposite the lock is a couple of small rough wet fields with some patches of reeds, and beyond them is the wooded fringe of the grounds of Pishiobury House. Meanwhile behind is an overgrown corner of a field, the field itself, rising toward the railway line, as fringed by a ditch with a few willows and bushes along it.

Cormorant Tree just below the Lock
This is my favourite spot on the walk. From here there are Cetti’s Warblers in the reeds and river edge, Grey Wagtail is a feature during summer together with a large number of warblers.  In winter there are thrushes and finches. The wooded corner of the field held a mixed flock of finches during February/March this year, up to 30 Linnets, 20 Goldfinches, a Bullfinch or two and up to 5 Lesser Redpoll, no doubt part of the mini-invasion around this time. There are often ChaffinchesYellowhammers, the odd Reed Bunting, Song Thrush and Dunnock here too. Further up in the field was a pair of Stonechat on 22nd October with the female seen again on 2nd November. In summer this area is alive with Whitethroats in the field and Blackcaps in the hedges. This area also hosted a Little Owl, seen occasionally hiding in bushes over the summer period but not in either of the winter periods.

Buzzards may be seen anywhere on the walk, but the back of Pishiobury is a favourite spot.

Finally mention should be made of this year's star bird, Black Redstart, on 12th April. First seen in a tree in the field on the Herts side of the lock, it spent about ten minutes hopping around on a log.

Little Owl being shy and bashful.

Black Redstart
One of the Lesser Redpolls
Looking north over the rough farmland  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Patch 2016 - The River

On leaving the Impenetrable Forest we head down towards the river. The river is, for the length of the patch, a canal which is frequented by canal boats. The river also has a path alongside it with dog walkers, joggers and cyclists, so never a dull moment along here and I frequently find myself discussing the birds of the area with passers by.

small area of mature woodland by the Stort

The Stort in winter ...

... and the Stort in summer.

The path down passes down some open woodland or alternatively cut back up slightly toward Sawbridgeworth and pass through some very old trees. The tall tree by the boardwalk often has a Cuckoo calling from it, and one was seen on a few occasions this year passing through the patch calling. The Cuckoo was first seen on 11th May and then not after the end of the month. I have never seen young Cuckoos on the patch and assume they do not breed, though previous years have seen two birds here.

A surprise visitor this year to this area was a male Turtle Dove singing in the cuckoo tree on 21st May. Sadly it didn’t hang around, and presumably the same bird was seen at Sawbridgeworth Marsh a mile north later that day.

Turtle Dove in the Cuckoo tree 21st May

The stretch along the river has many bushes and is a good area for warblers. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, and Whitethroat are all common along here although sadly Grasshopper Warblers no long breed here. In autumn small groups of chiffs are frequently found in the Willows, with 5 Willow Warblers being seen on 5th August. A Reed Warbler singing from a bush was a surprise on 7th May, although this species nests further north up the Stort at a number of places. 

Further down the river we get to the three bridges area. The first two bridges are over overflow streams with a wet field between them, and then there is the Horse field just before the bridge over the canal. One year Lapwing tried to nest here but they were constantly fighting off crows and eventually lost the battle.

boggy field between the river and the park
The Horse field has many crows, up to 10 Magpies, and often a selection of Jackdaws, Crows, and Rooks. There was a White Wagtail on 12th April. This field also became the sight of some goose action in Spring. Two pairs of Canada Geese appeared briefly, looking as though they were contemplating nesting. They soon wisely disappeared. And an unexpected bird for the list came with a pair of Egyptian Geese here briefly on 7th May, no doubt venturing from the flock a few miles down river at Roydon. In the first winter period a Little Egret was often seen here

Little Egret in the horse field. Note the boggy line in the field behind, often hosting ducks.
The horse filed in early summer with Pishiobury House in the background.
It is often useful to pause here and look up to the Park. There is often a good number of the three black corvids (including a small rookery near Pishiobury Houise), Wood Pigeons with a few Stock Doves in the trees, and a Green Woodpecker regularly on the field. The first Swifts of the year were 5 seen here on 1st May moving north through the park, and a movement of 30 north over the park on 24th July was counted from here.

typical crow-filled tree by the park.
At the back of the horse field is a small dip and in March this flooded resulting in a number of water birds being seen here. A pair of Wigeon and 2 male Shoveler on 16th March, a Green Sandpiper on 4th and 7th April, with Gadwall also seen here. Grey Herons are also often seen in this area.

The river itself has had occasional Kingfisher along here, a single Common Tern on 20th June. Mallard, and Moorhen are regular on the river, with an occasional Little Grebe or Coot. Grey Wagtail occurs along here regularly.

So that's the river to the bridge. Next stop Feakes Lock.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Patch 2016 - The Impenetrable Field

The first port of call on the patch walk is the Impenetrable Field. Left to grow wild, this has become a mass of impenetrable hawthorn, bramble, and now other tree species beginning to emerge such as oak. Its one of the most difficult parts to watch as so little of it is visible. Generally I can hear birds but not see them.

What I hear in winter is Bullfinch, usually giving those quiet piping notes, and if you stand long enough a pair flies over, Chaffinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Goldcrest, Wren, RobinDunnock and Magpie. Usually a Blackbird too. Quite often there are Redwings in the bushes possibly up to twenty or so but they chatter away unseen in the depths of the field. Occasionally a small flock of Linnets up to 20 in number flies up from the far corner.

Come Spring and this is warbler heaven. The only regular Willow Warbler on the patch songs from the Eastern Edge, this year first heard on 19th April. Chiffchaff (25th March) and Blackcap (7th April) are regular in here, as are Lesser Whitethroat on the southern edge of the field, first heard on 12th April. The only Garden Warbler on the patch was first seen on 12th May and heard from the field on a few occasions after.

Green Woodpecker are regularly seen on the southern edge of the field too.

One other resident of the field this year was a very vocal Muntjac Deer. Here’s a photo of the beast showing the density of the bushes in the field behind, and a newly arrived Blackcap on the plot.

It will be interesting to see how this field develops; whether some taller trees begin to crowd out the bushes, and also what birds these changes bring.

The Patch 2016 - Where is it?

My patch is the few fields just south of Sawbridgeworth. Helpfully labelled "The patch" on the Google Maps screenshot below. 

The screenshot shows a few other areas for orientation. The most notable feature is not highlighted but its the river Stort that flows through Bishops Stortford in the top right south to Sawbridgewoerth and Lower Sheering and then swings west to cut across the north of Harlow and meet the River Lee around Roydon. The mass of gravel pits around the Lee provides the areas best known reserves Amwell and Rye Meads. Kings Meads is unmarked but is just west of Ware under the A10.

The Stort valley is fairly wet and frequently holds flood water. I believe this makes the whole area linked up as far as water birds are concerned, and we know of one bird - a Black-Tailed Godwit, that injured its leg on the patch and then turned up at Amwell later. The variety of some of the waterbirds seen on the patch makes sense if you link them with the larger flocks to the west at these reserves.

Finally two more local patches are marked; the high ground is around the old airfield at Allens Green to the north and west of Sawbridgeworth, and in the top right of the screenshot is Hatfield Forest. Just south of this is marked Pincey Brook which in fact runs all the way to join the Stort near Sawbridgeworth, but near Hatfield Broad Oak has an open area of marshland.

In close up below is that patch itself. I've labelled on some features that frequently occur in write-ups. My standard walking route is shown in white so I will take you on a quick walk. The Google Maps view is over 10 years old and the landscape has changed significantly. The main feature that makes this such a productive small area can already be seen; the land to the east of the railway line is farmed in a modern way, but the land to the west of the railway line up to the Park is used by the farmer for recreation and other projects and has largely been left to go wild.

Start off at the Northern point. From here one can walk into an overgrown field labelled The Impenetrable Forest. At the time of the screenshot this was a field but has been left its own devices and now is a dense mass of hawthorn and other bushes and trees. It is practically impossible to see into this field apart form the path through it.

Out of the forest take a left and walk down to the river. There are a choice of paths and one takes you through the small old woodland with some truly massive trees down to the Stort. The tallest of the trees by the boardwalk is where the Cuckoo usually sings from - hence the name. 

The field opposite the river at this point is labelled the Pond. In 2006 this was a grassy meadow. The farmer blocked the drain in the SW corner and a flooded area developed which briefly produced a fantastic wader list. Over the years this has become overgrown and now is a pond with reeds round the edges and bushes all over.

Following the river downstream we come to an area known as Three Bridges, so called because there are three bridges. Two of these are over overflow streams from the river which is a canal at this point (and for the entire length through the patch) and one takes us over the river. I regularly stand by the bridge over the canal looking over the horse field up to the park. There are often horses in this field - hence the name - and there is a slight dip behind to another field and then the mass of trees that lead up to the park.

Crossing the bridge we have a choice. Straight on along the river to Feakes Lock, or through a bush and follow a public footpath up to the railway line. Along the river takes us along a bush and tree lined path to the Lock which is my usual end point. There is a large tree here with usually a Cormorant sat in it. It is possible to walk on about half a mile to overview Old Harlow Meads, but I usually turn back. On occasion I have cheekily walked up the tractor path along the edge of the field by the lock up to the railway line and then north to where the public footpath meets the railway line, but obviously this is private farmland and not a public right of way.

There is a stile and walk way over the railway line here. Check the signals, and don't cross if one of them is green. The Stansted express can come round the corner very quickly. It is possible to walk on up to Lower Sheering Road, and carry on for a field or so to look back and down over the patch.

Returning to the three bridges area my walk back to the village takes a public path along a small stream up towards the park. This is a damp area so boots or wellies are essential at most times of the year. We meet the park in the Eastern corner where there is a small but rich woodland called Nursery Wood. There is a bench here where you can sit and look over the patch, but usually I return walking the path along the back of the houses to the start.

The Park is a significant area but is mainly open grassland. I often walk here with Mrs D and the three dogs. Its a great park to meet other dog walkers and have a pleasant chat, but birds are scarcer here. There is a central line of tall trees along a high point, then down in a dip a tall overgrown hedgerow with a pond and some scrub at the SW end which is the best area for birds in the park.

So that's the patch. I will in the next few posts revisit this walk with more detail in the birds seen here in 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Other Blogs.

Jono is bemoaning the disappearance of birding blogs. What's the point? Good question, and one I frequently ask as my posts are viewed by a mere handful of regular readers and most comments are spammers trying to sell me something.

It is clear that different bloggers blog for different reasons. Everyone has their own perspective, but a few "types" stand out. Some use it as a kind of birding notebook to record their observations. I've done this myself on occasion, as sometimes it seems a better way of recording sightings than a page of dry records in a notebook no-one will ever read. Others use it as a place to post their photos or other artwork. Some use it as a place to discuss areas of expertise, birding, natural history, or other, and some use it as a kind of open diary - a Facebook without the interfering adds. I think all these are valid reasons, and knowing full well the time it can take up for no obvious return I salute all those who put fingers to keyboard to provide information and enlightenment for the birding public. Thank you for lighting up my birding year.

Here are a few personal current favourites from my sidebar. Some are here because they are local to my birding, others because they just coincide with my particular point of view. I'm sure others in different locations will have their own worthy favourites.

  • Pewit. Graham Catley has a superb photographic eye for a shot, is a hugely accomplished and knowledgeable birder, and does great work join his patch and elsewhere. He brings all this to his blog which is surely a must-read for all birders. An outstanding blog. Like having a National Geographic online magazine dedicated to humberside.
  • Wanstead Birding. Jono Lethbridge's blog is full of fantastic bird shots from around the world as well as closer to home, and a lot of prose about life, birding, and everything. Always worth a read. If I have one complaint it is that the quality of birds he sees in Wanstead shows me what I'm missing just twenty miles or so up the road on my patch. Oh and his photography is really a lot lot better than mine.
  • Brett's Goosey Ganderings. Brett is a fantastic Dorset birder with an unparalleled record of finding and identifying scarce birds. I've bumped into Brett on a few occasions round Weymouth and he is always welcoming and generous with his time, knowledge and expertise. He doesn't post very often but when he does they are always top quality posts.
  • North Downs and Beyond is Steve Gales's blog from the Surrey Downs. A blog full of wisdom and insight as well as a wealth of wildlife knowledge and experience. In addition to producing a blog full of intriguing wildlife vignettes from his local area, Steve conveys the highs and lows of birding and makes you feel you are with him on his excursions.
  • Non-Stop Birding. Peter Alfrey is a force of nature who seems to pack more into a year than folks like me get into a decade. His blog is full of personal views and opinions, music, campaigns, as well as trips to exotic places. There's a certain sense of anticipation on clicking on a new posting; what's he up to now? Where is he? Always an intriguing read.
  • The Grumpy Ecologist. A professional ecologist who post only occasionally, mainly on the practical ecology of wetlands. for birders who like to go beyond the list and are interested in the interactions of habitat and creatures, this blog is a must.
  • A Dorset Diary. Fantastic photography from one of the UK's premier areas for wildlife backed up by expert knowledge. A fantastic blog which if turned into a book would surely be a wild-life best-seller. 
  • Stewchat. Stewart's account of his birding and wildlife adventures in coastal Northumberland. This is the area that got me started on this hobby during school holidays. I'd always thought this was a fantastic area for birds and Stewart proves that to be the case. Stewart's blog makes me want to move to rural Northumberland. 
Finally some favourite local blogs:
  • Seymour Birdies. Alan's blog takes in the local Herts, Essex, and Breckland sites. He goes to the same places as me but always seems to end up not just seeing more than I do but taking fantastic photos of them too. I like his style - minimal text, then lets the photos speak for themselves.
  • Little Hadham Birding. Jono Forgham is a top local birder (and excellent speaker at RSPB and similar meetings) who has over recent years expanded into moths and other creatures. His blog contains lots of insights from both the local area and also his frequent trips to Norfolk. A classic naturalist's blog.
  • David's blog. David Sampson is first and foremost a photographer who takes fantastic photos of whatever is around, and when there are birds around he takes photos of those. A great eye for a picture.
Its quite likely I've omitted a blog from my list which should really be in here, so apologies if its yours sort one of your favourites. Anyway I hope you enjoy this list.

As for my own undiscovered turd gem of a blog, I've tried a few different approaches, but in the absence of photographic skill and not visiting birding hotspots enough its a bit of an uphill struggle. I've tried to convey the experience of birding rather than the results. I even put some stuff out on global warming but I feel it is fair to say it went un-noticed by the majority of the country. I think I will ring the changes next year, for no other reason than there doesn't seem any point in having the same year twice. Watch this space!

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