Saturday 27 December 2014

Week 49: Christmas Week Oak

Just a short post this week. I swapped the grey gloom of Hemel for the grey gloom of Warwick on Tuesday, heading off to feast with family over Christmas. However, I did explore Box Moor briefly on Monday in the mild (12 deg C) but overcast, dark and windy conditions.

I started at Lower Roughdown and then walked up and out onto Further Roughdown, where there were 14 Magpies, 8 Mistle Thrushes, 4 Redwing and both a Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Late morning, I arrived at Dellfield where there were more thrushes feeding on the ground: 5 Redwing, 3 Mistle Thrushes and a single Fieldfare. There was little I could do about the lack of light so I went for a close up of the Oak this week, with its exposed winter branches.

I had a bit of a play in photoshop, with the aim of bringing out the textures and shapes… 

Next week we'll be into a new year…!

Saturday 20 December 2014

Week 48: Wintering Chiffchaff & Buntings in the Reed Bed

Buntings in the Reeds
Just five days until Christmas! I feel as though I should be in a state of Yuletide hysteria and sporting inadvertent smatterings of glitter accidentally acquired from cheap Christmas cards. Actually, I’m marvelling at how the year has flown by and that it won’t be long before the Oak and I part company. However, this isn’t the time for reflections. I shall save those for the new year, once the project has finished.

At the start of the week, when temperatures were only just above freezing, I walked both the Hemel moors and the Bovingdon Brickworks site. I was struck by the quiet, cold, stillness. The Brickworks in particular were largely devoid of bird song or movement, there was little breeze and no noticeable insect life. But, all around is potential and promise, with fresh new buds formed on otherwise bare, leafless trees.

On Monday, I wrapped up warm and went Bunting Hunting. Dan Forder had found a couple of Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus) flitting about near Old Fishery Lane and I was keen to include them in this year’s project. I got lucky and discovered the pair loitering in the tiny reed bed beside Fishery Moor.  Unfortunately, they were up and off to the Gadespring cress beds before I could say "my toes are cold and I have a hankering for a hot mince pie". One of the birds is obviously the ringed male, photographed by Dan last week. The other is either an unusually dark-headed female or is in fact another male. I didn’t get a good look. Anyway, they were lovely to see, especially in their typical habitat, a reed bed (not something we have a great deal of in Hemel Hempstead!)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), feeding on nettle seeds
The south-facing hedgerow, running along the south side of the Bulbourne (as it passes through Fishery Moor and Station Moor), is one place I can guarantee at least 12 species of common birds. It is something of a winter refuge and is particularly lively at the moment. There’s plenty of shelter from chilling winds and, when the sun is shining, birds push through to the outer-most branches and sit or preen in the available warmth.

One not so common species at this time of year, is the Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). Many (sensible) UK breeding birds migrate south to the Mediterranean and West Africa. Some Scandinavian, mainland European and even Siberian birds migrate from their breeding grounds to winter in Britain. And so, during the coldest months in the UK, there is this sparse population of multinational Chiffchaffs, of varying sub-species, and from a variety of breeding grounds. It made my morning this week when, along the Bulbourne hedgerow, I came across one of these little birds, intently feeding on Common Nettle seeds. I’m no expert in determining sub-species/race but, from the little I know, I think this bird is a fairly standard nominate form P. c. collybita rather than anything Eastern and exotic. Even so, they do make me smile and it was a cheery sight on a frosty winter’s day.

Further up, where the river bends and cuts across Station Moor, a male Kestrel was perched in a sapling, eyeing up the small birds. None appealed and he returned to the air and to patrolling the grass. Over on Harding’s Moor and beyond, I came across 3 Little Egrets and, of course, the Kingfishers were active along the river.

From the footbridge over the Bulbourne. Left (west) is Harding's Moor; right (east) is Bulbourne Meadow

Both the young male and the young female bird were fishing in their favoured areas. I heard at least a third bird and saw what I think was a fourth bird. It’s quite difficult to keep track of them, especially if all you experience is a jet propelled fly past.

Finally, before I get to this week’s Oak photograph, I’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas. Roll on the Turkey and the ill-advised but irresistibly large quantities of chocolate!

Saturday 13 December 2014

Week 47: Birds along the Bulbourne

I fancied a spot of pre-Christmas birding this week, concentrating on the River Bulbourne between Two Waters Road and where it meets the canal on Station Moor. I’m a sucker for our feathered friends. They have a unique effect on me. I spy a bird and I’m transported to a state of simple, primitive happiness. As my brain catches up: what’s not to like about a creature that is covered in thousands of perfectly formed, downy quills, arranged in patterns subtle or pronounced and which require tending to, with delicate care, through a fascinating life cycle of moult and wear? No other organism can look you in the eye, spread its wings and then rise into the skies come rain or shine. Each species, and each individual within that species, has a unique character or pattern of behaviour which, when observed over time, gives a sense of one connecting with, and relating to, that which is fundamentally wild and free. There’s nothing like it!

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), preening
And so, on a bright Monday morning, I set off for the river. At one point, I was crouching down on the bank, photographing the immature female Kingfisher, when a Grey Wagtail flew in. It landed close to me, perching over the water, and began to preen in the sunshine. S/he wasn’t concerned by my watching and spent a good five minutes poking its bill into its feathers, smoothing them out, fluffing them up and doing a very good impression of a contortionist. It’s at moments like this that observing with a camera really comes into its own. Movements which are complete in the blink of an eye are frozen in time and you give yourself the opportunity to see exactly what’s going on. The photographs opposite show the bird grasping a single feather and then running its bill along the length of the shaft to bring each vane into line. Such care and precision. Beautiful.

Just fifteen minutes earlier, the young female Kingfisher had made a similar approach. She’d been perched across the river from where I was sitting but suddenly decided to fly towards me. She touched down only a few metres away and just sat there. I felt as though I should hold my breath, concerned that even the slightest movement would scare her off. Magical.

Other birds along the length of the river included the bobbing, diving Little Grebe; a handful of Mallards; at least 7 Moorhens; a Little Egret; one adult and one immature Grey Heron; flocks of Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits and Blackbirds; 4+ Wrens; 15+ House Sparrows and 40+ Starlings; c12 Black-headed Gulls; 7+ Magpies; a handful of Jays, Crows, Jackdaws and Woodpigeons; a few Mistle Thrushes and a number of territorial Robins. Green and Great-spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatch and Greenfinch are regularly around but I didn’t see/hear them on Monday. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel frequently patrol the area but, again, neither came through whilst I was there at the beginning of the week.

Black-headed Gull

I willed this little Robin to look up before taking flight but telepathy failed

It’s The Box Moor Trust’s volunteers’ Christmas lunch next week so if you’re involved in that, I shall look forward to seeing you there. In the meantime, I’ll finish off with this week’s Oak photograph, taken on Wednesday, just before midday.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Week 46: Winter Sun & Ravens Over Dellfield

Unlike this morning, a number of days this week really have been the epitome of Dickensian, winter gloom. Headlight days, I call them, where, even at midday, cars run on dipped beams. On Monday, in the dusk-like milieu, I walked the length of the moors (from Bulbourne Moor, west, all the way to Dellfield). It was not a day for nice photographs unfortunately, but the bird life was cheerful and absorbing. One of the two regular Little Egrets was in the river on Harding’s Moor; 3 Jays were squabbling with Magpies; Crows fought over some bread one of them had found, and the two young Kingfishers were perched over the river on Bulbourne Meadow, eyes trained on the shallows. Close to the Two Waters Road bridge, a Little Grebe bobbed and dived in the company of a pair of Mallards; flocks of Blackbirds stripped berries from Hawthorns along the canal, and a charm of at least 30 Goldfinches was feeding in Alder trees. The two young Herons were doing their best to look like statues at odd locations on the moors; Robins flitted in and out of bushes, and a Grey Wagtail chirped and flew overhead.

On Wednesday, with clear skies forecast, I rose early, hoping to catch the Oak in the first light of day. With dawning realisation (pun intended), it became apparent that at this time of the year, the Oak doesn’t even glimpse sunlight until at least 11am and, in fact, stands cold, mostly in the shade, until, I’d guess, around 1pm. By 3pm, it is back in full shade. The sun skirts its way around, behind Hay Wood, and then dips behind Westbrook Hay school. So, this week’s Oak photographs are a little different. The first was taken at 10:30am, when the Oak was in full shade but the sun was breaking through the tree tops of Hay Wood, casting long shadows across Dellfield. With some tinkering in photoshop, I came up with this (the original is here)...

Photo-art. Into the Sun. The Oak and Scots Pine with the low Winter sun blazing through from behind Hay Wood

Up on Preston Hill, a Mistle Thrush was bathing in the pond and 2 pairs of Bullfinches and a handful of Redwing darted through the scrub. Into Hay Wood and I found some lovely fungi. New ones to add to the list were a coral-like growth. I think the genus is Ramaria, the species is likely Ramaria Stricta (Upright Coral)? The other was a tiny, delicate but beautiful sessile “cap” of the genus Crepidotus. Both species were growing on dead wood and likely saprobic.

Coral-like fungus (Ramaria Stricta) growing on rotting wood. Max height approx 11cm.

Tiny "caps" growing on dead wood. Approx diameter 7mm
Genus: Crepidotus

As I walked onto Bovingdon Reach, a Red Kite flew up from the grass and lazily rose into the blue skies. By midday, I was walking down through Barnfield meadow and on into Ryders. As I was standing amongst the Limes and furtive bunnies, photographing the view across Dellfield, a pair of large birds caught my eye. I then heard the distinctive “kronk, kronk, kronk” of Ravens (Corvus corax). Through binoculars, it was easy to see the diamond-shaped tail and their sizeable wing-span (similar to a Buzzard’s). Unfortunately, by the time I’d changed lenses, both birds had flown behind the Limes and I failed to get even a decent record shot, much to my annoyance. Still, a great way to end the morning and my first sighting of this species in Hemel or over Trust land.

From Ryders, looking north-east across Dellfield at 12:10pm. Off to my right, a pair of Ravens kronk'ed and drifted west.

On Tuesday 18th November, I'd collected a fresh Barn Owl pellet from Trust land. It was a lot smaller than previous pellets, just 3cm long and about 1.5-2cm wide, which made it ideal for dissection one dark, dank afternoon this week. Interestingly, it contained the fur and bones of just one mammal. A Field Vole (typically 13cm long + tail of 4cm). It provided the perfect opportunity to get an idea of exactly what one of these little fellas consists of...

Frankenstein's Field Vole

From one small Barn Owl pellet (3cm long): the remains of a single Field Vole, crudely and likely inaccurately(!) reconstructed. Scale in mm 

I have no idea how many ribs or vertebrae a Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) is meant to have. Nor do I know which way around the various bones go (i.e. which is left and which is right) but above is my “artisitic impression” of a Field Vole skeleton. It’s not a good sign when you have bones left over (top right hand corner) but my excuse is that you can’t really place damaged and crushed bones very easily (especially when you barely know what you’re doing to begin with!). I'm missing a humerus and the bones of the feet/toes are “absent” or unidentifiable. Anyway, it was an interesting exercise and well worth the time and patience required. (For more detailed info on pellet dissection and bone identification see my previous post).

Field Vole (Microtus agrestis): Jaws & Teeth


If you’d like to see photographs of these little mammals before they get snaffled by Barn Owls, Biodiversity Gatwick were involved in a small mammal survey recently. The relevant post is here and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and browsing their images.

I'll finish off with a photo from my Monday walk and Wednesday's Oak in the shade.

Black-headed Gull on Station Moor footbridge

The Oak in shade at 11:20am