Saturday, January 6, 2018

so that was 2017 ...

The total number of bird species recorded on my completely uncontrolled and unauthorised spreadsheet in 2017 was 124.

Highlights include:
Raven seen first on 29th Jan then occasionally during the year. Fingers crossed for breeding in Hatfield Forest in 2018 of this charismatic corvid.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on 6th March. We will be doing well to record this species again in 2018.
Black-Necked Grebe at SAL on 19th April. A stunning summer plumaged bird.
Ruff at SAL in April
Corn Bunting singing at Tharbies on 1st May was sadly a one-off and not a return of a lost breeding species.
Nightingale singing in Hatfield Forest.
Grasshopper Warbler and Marsh Harrier at Thorley Wash in June
White Stork reported from Little Hadham on 10th August
Black Tern at SAL on 5th Sept.
Osprey over central Stortford on 1st October
Hawfinch in Hatfield Forest from mid-October onwards.

Notable misses include: 
Pochard. Surely present but not recorded.
Dunlin, Ringed Plover, always potentially passing through somewhere in the area but not this year.
Turtle Dove - none recorded in the area this year.
Yellow-legged Gull, Mediterranean Gull, both can be found in autumn in freshly ploughed fields, but not this year.

So there are some decent target birds to keep us going, and who knows what else 2018 will bring!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hawfinches in Hatfield Forest in early winter 2017-18.

For many birders the Hawfinch is a special bird. A large and distinctive finch, it is a shy bird of mature woodlands in the UK eating mainly Hornbeam fruit. Hawfinches used to be a regular bird in the Stortford area mainly in Hatfield Forest and also in other local woods, but since the turn of the century this bird has become hard to see with just a few scattered records mainly from Hatfield Forest and no records at all for the last few years. Local birders wanting to see Hawfinches have either had to go to Bramfield Church near Hertford to get one of a handful of wintering birds, try their luck in the vast expanse of Broxbourne Woods or join the crowds at the roost at Lynford Arboretum in Norfolk.

All that changed this autumn with an influx unprecedented in living memory. On 14th October birders across the south-east started recording Hawfinches flying over their local patches and watchpoints. Former Stortford-area birder Stephen Patmore had several birds flying over his new patch in south London and let Sawbridgeworth birder Mike Harris know Hawfinches were on the move. Mike immediately drove up to Shingle Hall Farm at Trims Green on the high ground and soon had a flock of 5 birds flying south – the first local birds records for a number of years. Whatever the cause of this influx (suspected to be widespread beech-mast failure in Eastern Europe driving birds to flee in search of food) this influx has become the principal birding event of the autumn  

Hawfinches continued to be seen across the country flying over watchpoints. As the records continued Mike and I(JS) started wondering if these birds were not just passing over but settling in woodlands, in which case were they in Hatfield Forest, the former local stronghold? Hatfield Forest is a large ancient forest of 4km2 in area. It is a series of discrete coppices with rides of varying widths between them, and birding in the forest is always quite a challenge due to the small size of the target birds and dense woodland. We went on 25th October to have a look and chose Wall Wood, just off the SW corner of Hatfield Forest as a suitable place as the most recent records were from this area. We saw none in this wood or in the neighbouring SW corner of the Forest.

Mike learned from Stephen that a favoured area had been Elgin Coppice on the east edge near Bush End car park where there were Hornbeams. We returned on 31st October parking at Bush End car park and headed off to Elgin Coppice. We saw no Hawfinches, and continued on to Elgin car park. From there Mike saw a small flock of short-tailed Redwing-sized birds way over on the west side of the forest, so with no better plan we headed over. We came across a flock of Redwing and Bullfinch feeding on the edge of a plantation just out the back of the Warren cottage and as we approached Mike heard a distinctive call and a sausage-shaped bird with white wing-bars flew out – Eureka! After many blank years Hawfinch was back feeding in the forest. Shortly after another bird flew out, then two more, and slowly more flew out until we had nine birds. We decided to head off back to the car park and as we left a further flock of five flew over and then as we walked across the dam a flock of nine birds were seen flying north over Gravel Pit Coppice on the eastern bank of the lake. A total of 23 birds (assuming no duplication).

We put the record on the EBWS site and subsequently many other birders came to the forest and started seeing and photographing the birds. It soon became apparent that birds were feeding in Hornbeams between Bush End car park and Gravel pit coppice by the lake. No criticism is intended in saying that whilst many birders stayed in this area and had great views of these birds, this gives little information about how many birds are in the forest in total. Was it just the 23 we had seen? Was it over a hundred? We had no way of knowing.

We returned with David Sampson on 10th Nov and went from the car park round the lake and back through Elgin Coppice. We saw a total of nine birds mainly in the car park / gravel pit coppice area. On 21st MH and JS had a 5 hour walk round the Forest with the exception of the south west section and saw a total of 30 birds. Birds were seen well in open wooded habitat north-west of the lake up from London bridge as well as the area near the car park, and in the early afternoon flying west over the dam area in small groups. Was there a roost on the western edge? If we found it would we be able to get a more accurate total for the Forest? On 27th November JS spent the early afternoon drawing a blank in the only unchecked area of the forest in the SE corner near the Doodle Oak gate and then went to a likely-looking area in the centre of the Forest. At 2pm a single bird flew into a tree , then shortly after another, then at 3 pm five more appeared and went into some deciduous grees where they sat quietly to be joined by two more. This seemed like roosting behavior but with just a small number of birds. MH and JS returned on 8th Dec and saw just a few in this area before fading light and freezing cold meant we gave up for the day.

What do these observations tell us about the total number of Hawfinches in the forest? The maximum count is 30 birds. Are there 100 birds? I consider it unlikely. Extensive looking has not revealed flocks away from the Gravel Pit Coppice/car park area or the central area stretching from the lodge up to the Portingbury Hills. The roost site did not indicate large numbers of birds coming in. Also, our experience has been that whilst the calls (now widely known as being an electric "Tsiipp" settled contact and a flight "tseet" call) are quiet and brief, Hawfinches are, like Bullfinches, chatty birds that let you know they are around. Most of our observations started with hearing one of these calls and then seeing the birds, so I don’t think our blank searching in parts of the forest will have missed signficant flocks.  Other birders have spent considerable time in the forest judging by the times given on EBWS site records and whilst seeing many birds have not exceeded the number seen by MH and JS. It is possible that there are areas of the forest where birds are feeding quietly, or possibly feeding outside the forest and flying into an undiscovered roost, but I see little evidence to indicate a maximum number of more than, say, fifty birds.

Mike’s experience as a ringer sheds light on winter finch flocks. What can seem like a single static flock is often a highly transitory flock with birds spending only a few days; over-flying birds are drawn in by calls from the current flock, and others having exhausted the food they can find move on. So the flock may be variable in number through the winter, and we may have already seen the peak.

One feature of the interest in the Forest’s Hawfinches is that a thorough watch of the Forest has taken place. In addition to the Hawfinches there have been 2 Ravens seen a few times, several Marsh Tits, maxima of 30 Jay and 24 Bullfinch throughout the forest as well as the commoner woodland birds. There have however been no records of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker so this bird continues to be at best very scarce in a former local stronghold.

Just a final personal thanks to Mike Harris for sharing his expertise, patience and enthusiasm in this quest for Hawfinch in Hatfield Forest and for finding the birds that have brought birding happiness to many local birders.

John Slee

Sunday, November 5, 2017

South Sawbridgeworth Patch Roundup

Some highlights from my patch (Pishiobury Park east to the railway line, south of Sawbridgeworth as far as Feakes Lock) from Oct to early November.

Little Egret 2 on 30th Oct
Buzzard max 4 on 1st
Little Owl seen occasionally.
Red Kite 2 on 4th October
Hobby last sighting on 9th Oct
Great Black Backed Gull 1 through on 28th
Magpie 22 in a field by Nursery Wood pre-roos 31st October
Ring-Necked Parakeet 6 seen in the Park Osier beds on the morning of 5th November
House Martin100+ N on 1st October
Swallow last was 4 s over the park on 14th Oct
Redwing 1st on 22nd Oct. 14 W on 30th Oct
Fieldfare 32W on 30th Oct
Starling 42W on 30th Oct
Stonechat female on 28th
Pied Wagtail 1 sous on 31st October was the first of the year
Hawfinch 2 seen in flight with a small finch flock on 28th
Lesser Redpoll 2 by Feakes Lock on 28th
Siskin 2 over on 9th Oct

patch list currently at 91 for the year.


Visited Hatfield Forest this morning 8.45 to 10.30 only saw one Hawfinch but got more photo's in better light.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Hatfield Forest

Visited Hatfield Forest this afternoon looking for Hawfinch (thanks to John's report earlier this week ) and had almost give up when I spotted at least five at the top of a large oak, not far from
Bush End car park to left of entrance road.
See photo, record shot, poor light and very high up.

Monday, October 2, 2017

List update + Osprey

An Osprey seen heading south over Bishop's Stortford on 1st October gives me a chance to update the list.

also in there are Greenshank and Common Sandpiper taking the list to 121.