If you read this page and have any interesting bird sightings or indeed any wildlife please let me know by email firstname.lastname@example.org or 01582 792843
Bird Notes - January 2014
The Ver Valley's First Great White Egret - Photo by Tim Hill HMWT
It is not often we get a rare bird along the Ver, so on the first Sunday in November I had a very unexpected surprise as I was walking my dog near Redbournbury. The stretch of the Ver downstream, from where it passes under the road to the Veolia Waste Plant, is always worth a close look and recently a widgeon, green sandpipers, common and jack snipe have all been seen, also there is almost invariably a little egret about 100 metres downstream. However this morning the white bird I could see looked a bit big and it had a bright yellow bill rather than the black bill of the little egret. This was the Ver Valley’s first ever great white egret, so I immediately phoned my long term birding friend, Ernie Leahy, who abandoned his breakfast to join me within a few minutes. Little egrets have gradually colonised the UK over the last 20 years and will probably nest with the grey herons on Verulam Lake before too long, as they have nested in Hertfordshire in the last two years. Great white egrets are following in their wake and are now breeding at Dungeness in Kent and on the Somerset Levels. They could be a regular sight along the Ver in the next few years, so look out for a white bird as big as a heron and with a bright yellow bill. I took a record shot of the great white, but later Tim Hill of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust was in the area and he took this great picture of this special bird as it flew over and later as it waded in the Ver.
Another rare sighting was in Verulamium Park where Paul Thrush who is based at Grebe House, the HMWT Headquarters, found a lesser spotted woodpecker in the trees close to Grebe House. I have seen these before in Verulamium Park but not in recent years and hey have declined so much that they are now a very rare sight in Hertfordshire. Paul managed get this photo but despite some searching it was never found again.
A few days later Ernie and I led a walk for the Redbourn U3A along the Ver It was a miserable start as we made our way through Gorhambury in constant drizzle and we had to clamber over several trees that had fallen across the path, victims of the late October storms. We did see a couple of red kites and lots of pheasants, but by the time we got to Shafford the sun was breaking through and we found a lovely grey wagtail perched on the fence rail of Shafford Mill.. As we walked on towards the Veolia Plant I hoped we might see the great white egret, but alas there was only the usual little egret. However standing on the bridge over the Ver we saw at least 10 snipe fly off from the river margins. Things were getting better and then someone spotted a kingfisher flying downstream! We watched it fly into a bush and everyone in the group was able to watch it perched over the river for a few minutes. On the opposite side of the road a group of starlings were perched on the overhead wires and with them were two fieldfares and also two corn buntings. The latter are quite a rarity around Redbourn these days but this year has been a good one for them. Another treat was a flyover group of about 30 lapwings.
In early December I walked up Beesonend Lane from the East Ford at Redbournbury and the Hammondsend Farm fields which have been left with winter stubble have attracted flocks of yellowhammers and skylarks. I counted 20 yellowhammers in one stretch of hedge and there were more on the field together with at least 40 skylarks. I searched for the elusive corn buntings but only found a few reed buntings.
Finally at last some good news about our barn owls. A pair has been seen at Verlam End and one was seen flying from the nest box so the box is being used as a day roost. Really pleased that at least one pair have survived this terrible year for the VVS barn owls. Hopefully they will last the winter and breed next spring.
If you have any interesting bird sightings I would be pleased to hear from you on 01582 792843 or email email@example.com.
Bird Notes - October 2013
In my previous notes I mentioned that the Ver Valley barn owls were failing to breed this year and I am afraid to say that as it is now mid September it is unlikely that any will breed this year. This will be the first year we have failed to have at least one active nest box since the first pair bred in 2006. I think it is just that there is a dire shortage of voles this year. Voles are the staple diet of barn owls and kestrels but kestrels are a bit more versatile in their diet and they will take small birds and insects such as beetles. So far kestrels have not used any of the VVS kestrel boxes but a pair have raised five young from a box in an open sided barn on the Rothamsted Estate. I am now monitoring the boxes on Rothamsted and it was quite a shock for me as this was the first time I had been present at a young kestrel ringing. Being so used to young barn and little owls who are so quiet and docile when taken from the box, I was surprised to see how really noisy and boisterous the young kestrels were. They were all very healthy and would have flown from the box within a week or two of the ringing.
The two pairs of little owls and their youngsters have done very well and are regularly seen at Shafford and Verlam End. Gary Hare took this picture of the little owl at Verlam End.
The quails seemed to be around right up to the time the cereals were harvested in August. Although they were first heard near Hill Farm to the west of the A5183 they seemed to be heard for much longer in the field to the north of Beesonend Lane and it is likely that they bred there. I was actually walking in the area when the farmer was combining the field and I just wondered if a quail might fly out as at the huge machine worked its way across the field. So to sum up, I heard quails in two different places probably on about six different days spread between mid and mid August and sometimes they were within 3 or 4 metres. I have still never seen one..
Beesonend Lane, which is the lane that runs east from the East Ford at Redbournbury back towards Harpenden, was quite a birding hot spot this summer. Apart from the quail, corn buntings were seen regularly, usually perched on the overhead wires singing their plaintive song which has been likened to a jangling bunch of keys. They are a rare bird in Hertfordshire and they have been seen more this year than I can ever remember. Howard Roberts of the nearby Hammondsend Farm now farms 100% organically, which means there are plenty of weeds on his land, which are a real benefit to birds like corn buntings and I am sure this was a big factor in their successful return. Howard is our guest speaker at our January meeting in Redbourn and he will be telling us all about organic farming in the Ver Valley. You may have seen Howard and Justin James of Redbournbury Mill star in the Paul Hollywood TV programme about bread making
I saw a hobby a couple of times flying in this area and there were numerous reports by others so it is possible they bred as well. Hobbies are notoriously secretive at their nest sites which are normally high in big trees. They do take birds like swallows and martins but more often they feed on any flying insects which they catch with their feet.
41 vvsbirds 09-2013
Bird Notes - July 2013
Most years we get yellow wagtails near Redbournbury in early spring and again on their return migration and a pair or two have usually stayed to breed. However this year there have been up to eight pairs in the fields around Redbournbury. The best area has been either side of Hill Farm Lane. It was while looking for these that my committee colleague and long term birding friend, Ernie Leahy, discovered a real rarity for the Ver Valley - a quail. The quail is like a very small partridge (about half the size of a partridge) and is very secretive as it creeps along the ground in a growing corn crop. They are seldom seen but are easily recognised by their distinctive “wet my lips” call. Ernie and I spent a long time listening to its regular calling but although it seemed to be only a few feet from us we never even got a glimpse. There was a report last year of one calling on the east side of Redbournbury but it was only heard on one day. This one called for several days and was a first for Ernie and me in the Ver Valley.
A bird that is becoming a rare breeder locally is the spotted flycatcher and I always go out in early June to see if I can find a nesting pair. Usually there is a pair near Mayne Farm on the Gorhambury Estate but this year I searched around there in vain. I eventually found a pair with a nest next to a drain pipe on another estate house further up the drive. I think we have lost the cuckoo as a local breeder. I did see and hear one near Shafford in early May but as far as I know it only stayed for a day or two, as I never saw or heard it again. I was in Scotland later in May and cuckoos were abundant there, as were willow warblers, which are another species that have declined in southern England. I always hear willow warblers singing in April near the river but I doubt if any stay to breed.
The heronry on the lake islands had a poor breeding season due to the bad weather in the spring but I have seen a few juveniles along the valley, so some have thrived. Little egrets are now regular each winter, with up to four present most years, but this year one is staying with us through the summer and I live in hope that one year a pair will breed alongside the herons on the lake.
Last year we had our best ever year with the VVS Barn Owl Project, with 5 pairs producing 21 owlets, then in early 2013 I had more reports than ever before of barn owl sightings in the Ver Valley, many of these in daylight. The good news is that many seemed to have survived the hard winter but maybe a poor supply of voles was forcing them to hunt by day. When we checked the boxes in mid May and later in June most boxes had fresh pellets, so they are using the boxes to roost but none have started to lay eggs. I think the problem may be that there are not so many voles around this year and although they are surviving they are not feeding well enough to get into breeding condition. Hopefully we will get some late broods, but from laying the egg to the young flying takes over 12 weeks so they will be very late in the year.
The good news is that little owls do not seem to have been similarly affected and this year we have two pairs nesting in barn owl boxes and we have already ringed 2 youngsters from each box. The diet of the little owl is a lot more varied than the barn owl’s and the damp conditions have ensured a good supply of worms which little owls happily devour but barn owls do not..
Banded demoiselles are a stunning looking damselfly and they are regularly seen in summer along the Ver. One of the best places is near Pre Mill where there is fairly dense vegetation overhanging the river which is their preferred habitat. You will see from the photograph taken by my friend Ken Miller that they are a vivid metallic blue with large blue black “bands” on either wing.
Bird Notes - December 2012
Last winter very few waxwings were seen in the UK but this year they began to arrive for mainland Europe in October. In late November they arrived in Hertfordshire, with small groups being seen in Hemel Hempstead, Watford and over 50 feeding on berries in the middle of the Campus roundabout at Welwyn Garden City. One was seen at Shafford Cottages catching flies from a lofty perch.
Waxwing – Bob Harris
Along the valley redwings and fieldfares have arrived and we saw over 100 of each in the field near Shafford one afternoon. I saw about 80 golden plover and 30 lapwings flying over the A5183 in early December but they did settle in their usual field opposite the Punch Bowl (KinK). I had a report of an amazing 2000 golden plovers near Friars Wash one day in late November and I am sure we will get big numbers later this winter.
With the three late broods we ended up ringing 21 owlets this year from 5 breeding pars– easily our best ever year. We have just put up another 2 nest boxes and we now have 12 Ver Valley Society boxes as well as 4 provided. by others. I would like to record our thanks to all the farmers and land owners for their enthusiastic cooperation which has enabled this project to be such a success. We would also like to thank Peter Wilkinson, who has advised us throughout the project and now ringed 56 Ver Valley owls,
Three Juvenile Barn Owls – John Fisher
Little Owl – Luke Massey
A couple of notable sightings recently were a migrating osprey seen from a Redbourn garden and
a marsh harrier over Shafford. Needless to say I missed both
Bird Notes - September 2012
In the last newsletter I reported that it looked as though we would have our best ever year with the VVS Barn Owl Project. For the first time we have 5 pairs of barn owls breeding in the valley and by early August we had ringed a total of 11 young barn owls from 4 nests. .Despite the damp spring and early summer the four pairs are obviously finding plenty of voles and mice as all the ringed owlets were up to a very healthy weight. Also for the first time since our first ever brood in 2006 we have in one nest a clutch of 5 and the project has now delivered 41 young barn owls since 2006.
One nest box which only had a single surviving owlet from 4 eggs was particularly interesting as the adult female had continued to roost in the box with the youngster. Normally once the eggs are all hatched the parents do not stay in the box. We managed to net the adult female and I was a bit disappointed that it was not a bird we had ringed from one of the nest boxes in previous years. So we ringed the owlet and the adult female who was the fattest barn owl I had ever seen and it was obvious when we weighed her that she was carrying a second clutch of eggs.
Each year I do a check of the boxes in early September, to see if we have any late or second broods. Every year since we started in 2006 I come home disappointed having looked into about a dozen empty boxes but this year we have no less than 3 late broods! The pregnant female we ringed in July had 2 youngsters and 2 eggs still to hatch and another box had a single owlet and no less than 7 eggs. Another box we put up in early 2010 had a first but very late brood with 2 youngsters and 2 eggs.
This means we will have had an amazing total of 7 broods this year. These late fledging youngsters will have it tough, as by the time they fledge and leave the nest it will be late October. They do have an advantage since, with the harvesting in full swing at the moment the adults will have easy pickings, as the voles and mice lose the cover provided by the growing crops.
It is reckoned that in the past 25 years spotted flycatchers have declined by 75%. They are long distance migrants arriving late in May when flying insects become plentiful. Most of the time they perch out on an exposed tree branch waiting for passing prey, then suddenly they launch themselves and snatch the unfortunate flyer in mid air before returning usually to the same perch.. I suppose they are a pretty dull looking bird but it is this stunning hawking technique which sets them apart. Although they are a rather drab mousy brown they have amazing dark eyes. You may have guessed by now that they are favourites of mine and I set out to find a pair each May but it is getting harder every year. There is usually a pair or two on the Gorhambury Estate and they used to nest around Redbourn. This year one was seen at Redbournbury just before it migrated back to Africa.
Also from Redbournbury I have had several reports this summer of yellow wagtails and there were three little egrets downstream from the Mill in mid September. Little egrets have not been seen so much this summer as in 2011 but I expect they will be with us now right through the winter. Maybe next year they will join the herons in Verulam Park and breed on one of the islands. I am really pleased to have seen all four of the juvenile little owls together at Shafford. These were ringed in late June so they have done well to all survive their first 2 months out of the nest.
Bird Notes - June 2012
It looks as though we will have our best ever year with our Barn Owl Project. I checked all our boxes in mid June and for the first time we have 4 pairs of barn owls breeding in our valley. There are 2 pairs with 4 young each, a pair with 2 young and 2 eggs to hatch and one pair in a barn roof space with 6 eggs. When I check the boxes I always look to see what prey they have in the “larder” as this is a good indicator as to how well the young are being provided for. Usually there are a few wood mice and voles but this year we found a rabbit in one of the boxes. It was only a quarter size rabbit but still rather a large prey item for a barn owl and I understand is quite unusual.
Also a first this year, we have a box being used by little owls. Although we provided a special little owl box with a long tunnel to give them the dark conditions they favour they chose to ignore this box and use the nearby barn owl box. When I opened the access door of the box it seemed empty but tucked into a corner of the box was an adult and what turned out to be 4 brown downy owlets – see the picture taken when we ringed the four. Because their fledging period is only about 30 days compared to 60 for barn owls the four healthy owlets have already been ringed. By the time of our July meeting we should have ringed the barn owls and I will be able to report on a really successful season. It is just possible we will be up to 50 ringed owlets since 2006.
Red kites and buzzards are seen so regularly now that they hardly merit a mention. Twenty years ago I would never have thought I would ever say that. I have not seen much of our little egrets since April, whereas last year they stayed with us throughout the year. They are breeding elsewhere in the county and I rather hoped they might attempt to join the herons at Verulamium Lake but I have not seen any.
A couple of quite rare birds put in brief appearances near the Frogmore lakes. First a male pied flycatcher turned up on passage one Sunday in mid April, staying just one day before moving on to its breeding territories, probably in Wales or Gloustershire. My friend, David Evans, managed to take this really good picture of the bird. A wood warbler, in fact probably two, also stayed in a woodland glade at Frogmore for about 4 days in late May before moving on. I understand that they sang very loudly but when no females responded they moved on. Although not rare birds for the western and northern regions of the UK they are significant records for Hertfordshire.
Spotted flycatchers, which still breed in small numbers in Hertfordshire, have been seen regularly in their usual territory near Mayne Farm on the Gorhambury estate.
A small party of yellow wagtails were at Redbournbury towards the end of June feeding on the insects attracted by the cattle. A pair bred in the Rothamstead fields near Redbourn in 2009 and 2010 but has not returned the in last 2 years. I think the wet spring and early summer will be disastrous for tits and warblers breeding, which is an awful shame. I have heard a few reports of cuckoos at Redbournbury but they no longer seem to stay long these last few years.
Bird Notes - March 2012
I have had several phone calls and emails this year and nearly all of them have been about concerns regarding the disappointing numbers of garden birds this winter. I think the main reason for this is that mainly it has been a mild winter and there has been an abundance of berries and seeds in the countryside so that birds have not had to rely so much as usual on garden feeders. I was away in a warmer part of the world in early February so I missed the sub zero temperatures and the snow. I understand that there was a massive influx of redwings in local gardens and I am sure this explains why my cotoneaster bushes, which were covered in red berries when I left, were stripped bare on my return. So I missed the redwings but I did get to see Magnificent Frigate Birds and White Tailed Tropic Birds – now you don’t get many of those in the Ver Valley!
Rose ringed parakeets are now well established as a breeding bird in the UK and are gradually spreading out from the original colony in Surrey. They are of Asian origin but were kept as caged birds in most European countries and escaped birds have survived spectacularly well. There is an urban myth that the UK population stems from birds released by Jimi Hendrix in the sixties. With their bright green plumage, long tails and raucous calls they are unmistakable, but last month was the first time I have heard of one on garden feeders in Redbourn. In St Albans they are present most of the time at The Watercress Association’s Nature Reserve, which is alongside the Ver at Riverside Road. If you have a spare hour in St Albans this place is well worth a visit. They regularly have siskins, redpolls, bull finches, water rail and heron as well as the parakeets, which love them or hate them, are here to stay. Our winters are no problem for a bird that survives in the foothills of the Himalayas.
On the first Saturday in March Ernie Leahy and I led a group of Redbourn WI ladies on a bird walk along the Ver. We started off in drizzle at St Michaels but by the time we had walked through Gorhambury and arrived at Shafford the sun was shining and red kites and buzzards were soaring over the valley. We were treated to great views of several pairs of both raptors with one pair of kites flying very close to us. We also saw a few pairs of lapwings, green woodpecker, kestrel, heron and little egret. Also impressive were several singing skylarks. The sad thing is that with the last two dry winters the Ver has been dry north of Redbourn for sometime and by mid summer it is likely to be dry right through to St Albans.
Nest month we are looking forward to taking two colonies of Redbourn Beavers on bird walks around Verulam Lake mainly to see the heronry on the lake island. The RSPB have their “Heron Watch” in place again this year which finishes in mid April but there still should be some activity during late April -well worth a visit. In early March, nine nests were occupied, and at the end of March one nest had three well developed young. This is a disappointing as in previous years there have been as many as 15 nests. I have heard that up to four pairs of herons are nesting at Frogmore Pits so possibly this accounts for the low number on Verulam Lake.
For the last few years we have seen huge flocks of golden plover sometimes numbering 2000 along the valley. They always seem to favour the field between Redbourn and St Albans usually opposite the old Punch Bowl pub and just right at the end of March my old friend the VVS President and I found a flock of about 200 in the usual field. They blended in well with the freshly ploughed earth and were resting before flying north to their moorland breeding territories. I saw a similar small flock in the autumn on there way south so it seems this field is like a golden plover transport café.
The committee have just approved the purchase of another 2 barn owl boxes and these will be put up during the summer, ready for the 2013 breeding season. Last year only one box was used so I am hoping we have another really good year. Barn owls are a fantastic conservation success story with numbers recovering to levels not recorded for decades. It is reckoned that as many as 75% of barn owls now nest in boxes. When I was out the other day I found a little owl perched on the platform of one of the VVS barn owl boxes so I am really hoping it may use it for nesting. We will have to wait and see.
Bird Notes - January 2012
2011 has been the most unusual year weather-wise starting with a really cold winter (remember the New Year freeze) and ending with one of the mildest ever autumns and it seems as I write just after Christmas that we are still waiting for the real winter to begin. This has made a massive difference to which birds we are seeing in the Ver Valley this winter. Although golden plovers and lapwings have passed through, the numbers I have seen are very modest compared to last winter when we had flocks of up to 2000 golden plovers in the fields between Redbourn and St Albans. This year the biggest flock has only been about 200 and they only stayed for a few days. Even redwings and fieldfares seem to be less common this winter. Other regular visitors to the Ver margins, such as snipe and green sandpipers, have also been few and far between.
On my regular walk along the Ver through the Redbournbury Water Meadows I always hope to see a rare bird but usually I just have to be content with the kites, buzzards, little egrets, kingfishers, snipe and grey wagtails. Not a bad cast and we did play host to a ring ouzel once and occasionally we get a merlin or a peregrine. Short eared owls and hen harriers are two of my favourite birds and I have made it up the Orkneys a couple of times in recent years where they are abundant. To watch a pale grey male harrier quartering his territory is one of nature’s most spectacular sights and you can see why they are known as “sky dancers”. Short eared owls are also spectacular flyers and unlike our barn owls they do fly in broad daylight and you get to see them before it’s too dark to see! Unfortunately although protected species hen harriers and short eared owls are routinely and illegally persecuted on the upland moors of England as they are a threat to the young of the red grouse. According to the RSPB, last year only 4 pairs of hen harriers bred in England where there is sufficient suitable habitat to support 100’s and unless this illegal activity can be stopped the hen harrier will be lost as an English breeding bird. Persecution of peregrines, kites, buzzards and sparrow hawks has largely been stopped over the last 20 years and the RSPB believe the potential for diversionary feeding will provide a lifeline for the recovery of the English hen harrier and a way for grouse moor managers to maximise the number of grouse without killing all the harriers.
However every winter in southern England we do get hen harriers and short eared owls as winter visitors from Europe and this winter they have turned up in record numbers, probably due to a really successful breeding season following a super abundance of lemmings and voles. There are at least two sites in Hertfordshire where both species are being seen on a regular basis this winter and maybe one day one of these iconic species will turn up over Redbournbury. It would be even better if it was a bird that had bred on Yorkshire Moors or Teesdale. Maybe one day?
Bird Notes - September 2011
Towards the end of September on a glorious late sunny summer day I walked with members of the Hemel Hempstead RSPB Group to show them the birds of the Ver Valley. We started at St Michaels and from the car park we heard, then saw a nuthatch, before moving to the churchyard where we stood under the big yew trees listening out for the goldcrests. After a while we all managed to see at least one or two albeit briefly before they disappeared back into the foliage. We also saw two mistle thrushes perched at the top of churchyard trees. Unfortunately the permissive path through Gorhambury was closed owing to the Saturday shoot so we had walk north along the A5183 to Shafford but on the way we saw three coveys of red legged partridges, one on the estate and two of 6 and 12 birds on the NE side of the road. Red legged partridges are an introduced species rather like pheasants and they to are bred in pens for release for shooting. Unfortunately our native grey partridge is largely absent from this part of Hertfordshire and it a couple of years since I have seen one locally. Also on the recently ploughed field was a buzzard feeding on insects and probably earthworms. Although they are majestic fliers as they soar on the thermals they are quite ungainly on the ground as they swagger along the furrows left by the plough. I always think they look like chickens when they are grounded.
The walk become a deal more pleasant once we left the traffic behind to walk through to Shafford Farm. House martins breed here each year but they had all left earlier in the month. However we did see one flying high over us as we walked. Probably the best sighting of the day was an adult little owl perched in an open doorway of a small shed near Shafford Mill. Although little owls laid eggs in the nearby VVS box they did not successfully raise young from the box but I am sure they bred in a tree hole nearby as juveniles were seen in August. This bird was most likely one of the parents now released from “childcare” duties. Although it appeared to be dozing, its huge yellow eyes were watching our every move, but it was a mobbing chiffchaff which forced it to fly off into a nearby bush. We could still see it but it was unlikely we could have found it there if we had not seen it fly in.
As we walked we saw the usual Ver birds like kite, more buzzards, heron, little egret, skylark, and a female reed bunting on a wire. One of our party even saw a kingfisher flying rapidly along the river near the Irish Weir but it was gone before most us could react.
Another good sighting was a hobby in flight which was first seen by one of the younger birders. It was really good to have a couple of teenagers in our party as they have such keen eyes and ears. This hobby was most likely a first year juvenile as the adult hobbies have probably already started their return migration. Hobbies have bred occasionally in the Ver Valley but as far as I know not this year.
At Redbournbury I told the party about the success we have had with the Barn Owl Project but pointed out it was extremely unlikely we would see one in the midday sun. I was right - we didn’t!
At the Redbournbury Mill we saw pied and grey wagtails but sadly there was no sign of the yellow wagtails where up to 50 had been feeding alongside the cattle for the last couple of weeks. Most of the party then visited the Bakery to buy bread before returning to St Michaels in the cars Mandy James had kindly allowed us to leave in the Mill Car Park
Finally some really good news. Little egrets have bred at Tring and Amwell this year which I think are the first breeding records in Hertfordshire. I think little egrets will now be seen along the Ver every month of the year whereas up until now they were only visiting from September to April. I have seen at least one every month in 2011. Maybe they will join the island heronry in Verulam Park next year.
Bird Notes - July 2011
This year has been somewhat disappointing regarding our barn owls. Last year, our best year ever, we had three boxes used and were able to ring 10. This year when I checked the boxes in mid June it seemed we only had one brood of just two owlets. However when we returned later for the ringing there were actually four. Two who were very small were hiding behind their much larger siblings. When they are ringed they are sexed, weighed and measured to assess their age and condition. All four were very underweight and with practically empty crops, probably due to heavy rain the previous night when the adult owls would have found it hard to find prey.
Luckily the next few nights were fine and when I checked the box again in early July there were three well developed owlets who were well on the way to fledging. I could not see any sign of number four and I will go no further but those of you who watched Springwatch will have an idea of her fate. Incidentally all four were females.
We have now ringed 31 young barn owls in the six years since 2006 and 21 of these have been from the same box which has been used every single year. What a return on our investment of funds and time!
As far as the other boxes are concerned it was pleasing to find pellets in a few of them indicating that they had been used for roosting. Also there was a little owl’s egg in the special box we had only put up near Shafford in March this year. Disappointingly they had deserted the box but as adult little owls and later a juvenile were seen regularly in the Shafford area they must have found a tree hole site close by.
One morning in May I saw a tawny owl fly from a box but again this was just a roosting rather than a nesting bird. I will be checking all the boxes again in mid August to see if there are any late broods.
Apart from owls other birds breeding successfully in the valley are grey wagtails, pied wagtails, house martins, swallows and whitethroats that seem to get more numerous every year. Spotted fly catchers no longer seem to breed in the valley apart from on the Gorhambury Estate.
Bird Notes - March 2011
First some sad news. One of the owlets we ringed at Redbournbury on 30 June last year was found “freshly dead” at Luton Airport on 1 September by a staff member of Luton Airport Operations Ltd. She sent the ring into the British Trust for Ornithology who keep the records of all birds ringed in the UK and our ringer Peter Wilkinson got a report of the recovery. It would seem that it had been hunting over the rough grassland next to the runway and had been struck by a plane. It had only lived 63 days but had travelled about 10 km from its nest box. However the positive from this is that one of the VVS birds successfully fledged and was able to find new territory.
Another barn owl casualty was seen by VVS member John Pritchard who phoned me to say he had seen a dead barn owl by the side of the A5183 on his way to work. I collected this one within a few minutes of John’s call and it was obvious it had been hit by a passing vehicle while it was hunting along the grass verge. As it was near Shafford I initially assumed it was one of the VVS barn owls but once I had reported the ring number it was quickly established that it was a barn owl which had been ringed at Radlett last summer. The sad thing here is that it was probably going to use one of our boxes this year. As this was a relatively undamaged specimen I was asked to keep it in our freezer for a few days while a special return package was being sent to me. It has now been sent to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme at Lancaster who will perform an autopsy. They like to get good specimens so they can establish what contaminants are being digested by predators which are at the top of the food chain.
Unfortunately barn owls evolved long before the days of planes and motor vehicles so they do have any innate defence against these modern threats.
This winter we have put up 2 kestrel boxes, a tawny owl box and a little owl box and we have resited a barn owl box which had been used by grey squirrels every year since 2005. Hopefully they will not use it again as it is a “lousy” job clearing all their debris at the end of the season.
We now have a total of 80 boxes for small birds like tits, robins etc. This included 10 along the river near Drop Lane which we only put up in March this year. 60 of the older boxes were checked this year to remove the old nest material and it was good to find that over 40 showed signs of being used.
As I write these notes in mid March our early summer migrants such as chiffchaff, wheatear, sand martin and little ringed plover are due to arrive on our shores from their winter quarters in Africa. So far all I have seen are chiffchaffs. At the same time our winter visitors are gathering to leave for their northern breeding grounds. I have seen huge flocks of up to 200 fieldfares and smaller ones of redwings. This year must have been the best ever for waxwings and they have been seen in big numbers in St Albans and Hemel Hempstead throughout the winter. If you did not get to see one enjoy the amazing sight of the one in the photograph.
Residents like skylarks and lapwings are displaying in readiness for the breeding season and in their very different ways they are a great sign of spring after a hard winter. Other interesting recent sitings include water rail, a pair of grey wagtails and a little owl.
Bird Notes - December 2010
As I write these notes winter has set in really early bringing in massive numbers of winter visitors. Perhaps one of the most charismatic of these is the waxwing and it is reckoned that as many as 6,000 arrived in Scotland from Northern Europe in mid November and they are now moving steadily southwards. Their full name is Bohemian Waxwing which relates to their origin rather than their life style. Mind you with their flamboyant crest they always remind me of 80’s punk rockers. They are called waxwings because they have red and yellow tips to their flight feathers which looked to our forefathers as though they had been dipped in sealing wax. Not sure if we can call them a Ver Valley bird just yet but they have been seen in a number of residential areas in St Albans. The nearest I have seen them to our river is a few years back when some were feeding just near the Waitrose supermarket.
Other arrivals in good numbers have been fieldfares, redwings, golden plovers, lapwings and snipe. Up to 500 golden plovers and 100 lapwings were seen for several days in the fields opposite the old Punch Bowl pub. Later in the winter, numbers could build up to a few thousand. I saw at least 20 snipe feeding along the edges of the Ver when the freeze meant that all the ground away from the river was frozen solid. Their long bills can only penetrate soft ground.
Red kites are seen every day now in the upper Ver Valley. It is amazing how quickly they have colonised the area and as they so much bolder than buzzards you see them often over residential areas where they scan the ground for carrion.
The little egrets arrived earlier this year and I wonder how long it will be before they breed locally. They could well be joining the heron nesting colony on the island in Verulamium Lake maybe next year even.
Peregine falcons have been seen from time to time but they usually only stay around for a day or two. One has roosted during recent winters on the BT building in Hemel Hempstead but it is always gone by the spring. It can not be long before a pair breed locally and it is reckoned that the stone clad face of St Albans Abbey could prove to be just right for a peregrine. To them it is just like a stony cliff face which is their favoured natural nest site. Peregrines have nested in recent years on the Tate Modern, Coventry Cathedral and Grantham Cathedral so why not St Albans? They would not starve with all our pigeons.
Over the last few years we have put up a total of 60 nest boxes for small birds and 8 barn owl boxes. Following the success with the barn owls your committee have agreed to fund some other bird of prey boxes and I have stored in my garage 2 kestrel boxes, a tawny owl box and a little owl box all waiting to be put up hopefully in some warmer weather in January. We also need to check the 60 small boxes to see if they have been used and to clear out old nesting material.
Bird Notes -October 2010
Often people stop me in the street, phone or email to tell me about birds they have seen in their garden or around the village. Many times this is about the notorious “love them or hate them” sparrowhawks. Personally I think they are magnificently efficient flying machines and when they catch a blue tit at your garden feeder they are only doing what they have done for thousands of years and really it is no different to a blackbird eating a worm from your lawn. Certainly this predator is getting bolder and they have recovered in numbers from a low point in the sixties when they were badly affected by the pesticides that are now banned. These pesticides such as DDT had the effect of softening their egg shells, which meant that the eggs were crushed by the incubating parent. The RSPB have proved that sparrowhawks do not have a significant effect on the numbers of small birds. I even have seen one with prey on the pavement by the Red House in the High Street.
With red kites and buzzards now a common sight around Redbourn I wonder how long it will be before we have our first Redbourn raven. Like buzzards they have colonised from the west. I saw one recently near Gorhambury House, which is just outside the parish boundary, but it cannot be long before one flies over Redbourn. They are not always easy to distinguish from other corvids like crows and rooks but they are a bit larger and they have distinctly wedged shape tail. You can be really sure you have seen one if you hear them call as they have a really deep “cronk”.
Little egrets returned to the valley even earlier this year and the first reported sighting was in late August. In the first week of September I saw four near Redbournbury. Green sandpipers have also been seen and again this is very early. As I write these notes I am still waiting to see my first redwings and fieldfares of the winter but golden plovers have already returned to the fields along the Ver Valley.
Over the last three years we have put up 60 small bird nesting boxes in and around the Ver Valley and I have got 10 more in my garage which we will be putting up around the Millennium Site where the old Redbourn Station once was. This is now a very pleasant picnic site with wheel chair-friendly access from the High St up to the Nickey Line track.
People who read my bird notes may be interested in the January Ver Valley Society Meeting at the St Mary’s Transept Hall on Monday 31 January at 7.30 pm. The speaker will be John Tylor a naturalist on "The Changing Wildlife of the Chilterns - From coral seas, through the Ice Ages, tundra and forest to the farmland of today”. John will take us through a hundred million years to trace the origins of the Chiltern landscape and the wildlife that it supports, and speculate about what the future might hold.
Bird Notes - September 2009
In mid July I was so pleased that once again our barn owl boxes had been used and we were able to ring no less than 6 youngsters. In the Redbournbury box two almost fully grown birds were within a few days of fledging so there is little doubt that these would have flown from the nest as they were healthy and both had full stomachs. The Shafford box was being used by a much later breeding pair but they had four, one of which was only a few days old and another was in a poor condition so the chances are that another two will have flown from this box by now.
I did visit both boxes in August and saw fully grown barn owls on both occasions. There was also a large youngster waiting to be fed on the roof of the second box. We have now ringed 15 young barn owls from the Ver Valley Society boxes since 2006 and I think this is a fantastic return on our investment. I am sure that these charismatic birds would not have returned to our valley without this assistance as natural nest sites just do not exist any more.
Although kingfishers breed on the lower reaches of the Ver south of St Albans they usually only venture up stream after the breeding season. I have seen kingfishers at Redbournbury and on the River Red in Redbourn this month. Another interesting sighting I had was of a black pheasant on the Redbournbury Water Meadows. This is not a separate species, just a rather rare variant on our standard pheasant.
I am told an osprey has been seen near the Ver at Park St. In previous years they have been seen along the Lea near Wheathamstead and the Gade at Water End so it is quite possible that they will be seen along the Ver either on their migration from or to Africa Best look at those buzzards and kites carefully especially in April and September.
In April this year I was lucky enough to be able to photograph a water rail at the Burydell Lane bridge at Park Street. VVS members Alan and Barbara Vernon who live nearby see a pair of water rails regularly so if you want to see this usually elusive species get along to Park Street. The Ver upstream from here is also a very good stretch for kingfishers.
If you have any interesting bird sightings I would be pleased to hear from you on 01582 792843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bird Notes - June 2009
Back in March I was hopeful that little ringed plovers would breed and it was a great thrill to see them return to the flooded fields along the Ver in late March. This is the first time I had seen them in Redbourn since the great floods of 2001 when four pairs bred. This year two pairs were present for a long time and both pairs raised three young right up to the stage where they were ready to fly. In the same area at least 5 pairs of lapwing bred as young chicks were seen before the vegetation grew up giving them the essential cover.
Redshanks were also present in early April but did not breed along the Ver Valley. Maybe next year! A new bird for the Ver Valley in April was a ruddy shelduck which is a beautiful duck from Eastern Europe. It is more than likely that this bird was an escape from a wildfowl collection but it certainly was a colourful addition to the flood plain for a while as it commuted between the Upper Ver Valley and the fishing lakes at Tyttenhanger.
Yellow wagtails are another welcome visitor this spring with pairs probably nesting near Verlam End, Scout Farm and in the fields around Hogg End and Punch Bowl Lane. Like the little ringed plovers they are not regular breeders.
At the end of May, when we did at last have some warm evenings, I was able to see a pair of barn owls near Redbournbury. It was nearly dark before I saw one adult fly into the nest box and then just as it was almost impossible to see a second adult flew in and perched on the platform in front of the nest box hole. It stayed there for about 5 minutes staring at me and there I was thinking I was hidden behind a bush! Eventually it flew off and I trudged off home with the happy knowledge that we may have young barn owls later this summer for the fourth successive year. There could well be a second pair breeding in another of our boxes as I saw an adult barn owl with prey close to this box in late June when I was watching a tawny owl at 10. pm.
On the downside I have not heard or seen a cuckoo along the Upper Ver this year and I always reckon to see one before the end of May. They are now on the “Red List” so this is a national concern. House martins seem to be very much reduced in numbers this spring but I have just learnt that the long established Shafford Stables colony have just relocated to the Shafford cottages. Spotted flycatchers are another species which seems to be in decline but just as I was writing these notes in late June I was lucky to see 5 adult birds one sunny morning within a mile of the Ver. Not so long ago this was a regular but not abundant breeder at several locations along the valley and until I saw these five I thought we had lost them as a breeding species.
One May morning as I was walking my dog I amazed to see about 20 painted lady butterflies in just a few minutes. I later found out that there had been one of the largest invasions ever recorded as thousands made it from their wintering area south of the Atlas Mountains. It always amazes me that a fragile creature like a butterfly is able to fly thousands of miles across Africa and Europe and arrive on our shores. The warm spell in late June resulted in a lot of banded demoiselles, marbled whites, speckled woods and meadow browns on the wing.
There is no doubt that badgers are around in good numbers along the valley, but as they are seldom seen it was a great thrill to spend a warm summer evening just before dusk watching an adult and three youngsters emerge from their sett and forage around in a field for about half an hour before it got too dark to see. We waited for an evening with an easterly wind as we knew that if you are not down wind you have little chance of seeing any action since badgers have an amazing sense of smell but very poor eyesight. While waiting for the badgers we saw a fox with the most amazing rusty red coat.
Bird Notes - March 2009
As I write these notes in late March we are at the time of the year when our winter visitors such as snipe, golden plover, fieldfares and redwings are leaving for their breeding territories in the north and our summer visitors are just beginning to arrive. So far I have seen wheatears, chiffchaffs and a little ringed plover (not strictly in the Ver Valley but close by) which along with sand martins and ring ouzels are traditionally the earliest arrivals. The annual influx is spread over quite a long period and it will probably be almost two months before late arrivals like spotted flycatchers turn up.
The little ringed plover is one of my favourite birds not just because they are one of the first indicators of spring but also because they have a strong local connection. The first pair to breed in the UK was at Tring Reservoirs in 1938 but it was not until after the war that they became an established breeding species in the UK. On mainland Europe they had bred mainly on the shingle banks of rivers. In the UK they were helped considerably by the gravel workings necessary for the post war building boom which provided just the right ground conditions for them to form their nest scrapes. It still seems strange that they used these basically industrial sites. The slightly larger ringed plover can be seen throughout the year whereas the little ringed plover is very much a migrant but can hardly be called a summer visitor as it turns up in mid March. The little ringed plover can be distinguished by its yellow eye ring. Also it has flesh coloured legs and a dark beak, not the orange legs and beaks of ringed plovers. They are very vocal, especially around their nest sites and they are usually heard before they are seen
In 2001 four pairs of little ringed plovers and eight pairs of lapwings successfully raised broods on the flood plain on the western side of the Ver near Luton Lane. That winter the Ver was at its maximum flow in over 30 years and this winter we have conditions approaching this with some huge flood ponds all along the Ver Valley, so it could be that little ringed plovers will breed again. 2001 was easily the best year in my memory for bird watching locally and hopefully 2009 will be as good. That spring ringed plovers, dunlin, common sandpiper, redshank, greenshank and even a marsh harrier were all seen.
This winter has been especially good for snipe with at least 30 resident for most of the winter and at least one green sandpiper feeding on the shrimps in the Ver. Apparently they need several thousand of these every day to survive. Although snipe used to breed in the Ver Valley up to the seventies they will all be gone by the time you read these notes.
My best recent sighting was a water rail from the Burydell Lane Bridge at Park Street. No doubt there are several water rails along the Ver as they betray themselves by their pig like squeals. However they are seldom seen but this one was feeding right out in the middle of the river and it obligingly stayed there while I got my camera out and took a record shot. Not the best photo in this newsletter but one I did not expect.
Bird Notes - December 2008
Often people ask me somewhat accusingly if I am a “twitcher”. The easiest way to explain this is that for every “twitcher” there are probably a 1000 birdwatchers and I certainly fall into the latter category. “Twitchers” have mobile pagers and dash all over the UK to add rare species to their life list, which are often vagrants who have crossed the Atlantic or the entire European mainland in misguided migrations caused by strong winds.
The Female Merlin on a Fence Post Downstream of Redbournbury 23 October 2008 - A Painting by Ernie Leahy
Having said all this I must admit it was a real joy to find a rare bird in the Ver Valley in November when a merlin turned up near Redbournbury. A merlin is not a real U.K rarity but it is restricted to our northern heather moors in the summer, spending the winter mainly in coastal areas so in Hertfordshire it is very rare. For Ernie Leahy, my companion that day, and me it was our first for the County. A merlin is the smallest of the European falcons and is very much like a small peregrine. In flight they are often confused with sparrow hawks but this bird was perched on a fence post so we had a really good view and we were sure it was a female merlin. As with most birds of prey the female is larger but with a dull brown plumage compared to the slate grey of the smaller male. On the moors they capture their usual prey of meadow pipits in a fast low level flight without the spectacular stoops of the peregrine. I think this was one was probably preying on the starlings.
In mid December I was lucky enough to see a 2000 strong flock of golden plovers in the fields off of Punch Bowl Lane, which runs to west of the A5183 midway between Redbourn and St Albans. In previous years these same fields have played host to golden plovers and it is a bit of mystery why they favour these fields. It could be lack of disturbance, good sight lines to see predators or an abundance of grubs for feeding. They usually only stay a day or two before moving further south probably to the south coast estuaries or mainland Europe. As usual there were a smaller number of lapwings with them, probably 250, but it is when both species take off and fly in formation that they become a true spectacle. The same day we saw 4 buzzards and a sparrow hawk either on or over the same fields
The little egrets have turned up even earlier than normal in the Ver Valley this year with up to four being present from mid October and it cannot be long before they breed locally. Kites and buzzards must have had a good breeding season as more and more are being seen, with family groups of four now not uncommon.
On the downside small birds seem to have had a poor year and many people have remarked to me that they are not seeing tits and finches in anything like their normal numbers. We have been checking the 40 nest boxes along the Ver Valley just recently and results have been particularly disappointing with many nests built but not used or containing dead fledglings. It was a very wet and cold spring and maybe our boxes were put up a bit late but I think the conditions meant that many youngsters just did not get fed. We have just put up a further 20 and as these are all in position before winter they will hopefully be used for winter roosting and then for successful breeding in 2009. A warm and dry spring is needed in 2009 to allow the numbers to recover.
Up to three barn owls have been using the kestrel box and a big hollow oak for day roosting along the Ver Valley Walk near Redbourn so we are going to put up another barn owl box nearby in the hope that another pair will be encouraged to breed.
Bird Notes - October 2008
In early June the barn owl box at Redbournbury Farm had one live youngster, just a few days old, a still warm dead one and an unhatched egg. When we returned on Saturday 19 July Peter Wilkinson, our barn owl man, was able to ring two healthy youngsters. There was no sign of the dead chick and if you watched Bill Oddie on Springwatch you will know of the gruesome contribution this bird made to the success of its siblings. This makes a total of 11 reared in this box in the last three years. It is estimated that these two were 57 and 45 days old respectively but as they were in a healthy condition and had obviously been well fed they would have flown after 60 days. In some ways 2 is disappointing after 3 and 5 in the previous two years; however as this has not been a good year nationally for barn owl breeding this is a real success in a wet and cold summer. The Hudgell family who run a beef herd from the farm have been very keen on the project from day one and take a great interest in its success. I think this pair has been particularly successful because they have a readily available supply of mice and rats from the farmyard. On behalf of the VVS and the barn owls I would like to thank the Hudgells for their enthusiastic support.
In the Shafford box two adults were roosting in June and we were hopeful that they would be late season breeders. However when we looked in July the box was empty although there were feathers and pellets to indicate that the box was still being used as a roost. I did see a barn owl flying at dusk in the area one mid summer evening just as is was getting dark so although this pair did not breed this year I remain hopeful they will breed in 2009. I suspect that they were just not feeding well enough to get into breeding condition.
Red kites are being reported every day now and there are probably at least two pairs breeding in the valley. Nationally they are doing extremely well and I expect they that will increase their population rapidly in the area. On a recent afternoon I saw three red kites, six buzzards, two sparrow hawks and a kestrel along a two mile stretch of the Ver.
It has not been a good breeding year for small birds and in particular the house martin colony at Shafford Stables has been badly affected by the poor summer weather. We did put up 40 nest boxes this spring for tits, robins, nuthatches and finches. These were all sited between Redbourn and St Albans but this autumn I have a further 20 to put up so if you know of any suitable areas along the valley, particularly in the lower reaches of the river please, let me know.
BIrd Notes - July 2008
There is more good news this year regarding barn owls, as a pair has bred again for the third successive year near Redbournbury and it looks as if a second pair will breed late near Shafford. It will be interesting see which strategy pays off. You have to be licensed to even check a barn owl box so in early June I watched while our barn owl man, Peter Wilkinson, looked into all 6 of the boxes we now have along the Ver Valley. One box had one live youngster, just a few days old, a still warm dead one and an unhatched egg. Barn owls are very dependent on voles and mice which may be in short supply this year and of course the very wet May would have made it a difficult hunting time for the adults. Hopefully there will be two healthy young barn owls when we return to ring them in early July. In the other box two adults were roosting and as there is still time for them to produce a brood before the autumn we are hopeful. This pair had bred late in 2007 as there was one dead fledgling still in the box from last year’s brood. It is likely that two or three youngsters flew from this box in September or even October. Our barn owls are very elusive and to see them you need to be around at dusk as they seldom hunt in daylight. Two breeding pairs of barn owls in the Ver Valley must a first for decades.
I saw my first cuckoo this year on the very last day of May, having heard my first on 26 April. As with most years I found that the best local area for cuckoos are the water meadows just north of Shafford where a lot of reed warblers nest which are probably the hosts for our cuckoos. I heard cuckoos calling several times in early May, including the strange bubbling call of the female, but could never manage to get a sight of one until on this late May evening I saw the very distinctive profile of a cuckoo on the top of a fence post. Cuckoos have very long wings which when they are perched extend beyond the tail and it is this feature which I think makes them unmistakeable.
Buzzards and red kites are both now firmly established around the valley and although red kites live mainly on carrion I saw one take live prey while on an early morning walk through Gorhambury. Several pairs of lapwing are breeding this year along the Ver and it’s great to see the swooping flight and hear the plaintive calls of these wonderful birds. It was these calls which first drew my attention to a pair mobbing a red kite. This is normal behaviour especially when they have young to defend from predators but in this case the defence did not work as the kite dropped down to the ground and grabbed a lapwing chick and then was pursued into the distance by the furious lapwing pair. Hopefully they had another two or three chicks hidden in the grass which will survive. I am afraid this is nature at this time of the year when the success of one species depends on preying on others. Even your garden blue tits depend on caterpillars which are really just like the young lapwing.
Bird Notes - April 2008
Last year the Society agreed to buy 40 nest boxes and I arranged for some friends of mine who are Watford RSPB members to make and supply them this winter. Watford RSPB have been making nest boxes for several years and the great thing about their boxes is not only are they really well made but the marine ply they use is donated and cut by a supporter and they are put together by volunteers. This means that practically all the money they raise from selling the boxes goes directly to the RSPB and their conservation programmes.
All 40 boxes have been put up now ready for the spring breeding season. They have been sited on trees along the Ver Valley Walk between Redbourn and Redbournbury. They have a range of hole sizes to suit blue tits, great tits, sparrows and one for a nuthatch. We also have a few open fronted boxes which we hope will attract spotted flycatchers as they are now only occasional breeders in the valley. The committee have just agreed to buy a further 20 boxes for later this year and with more time available I may be able to put these up a bit further from Redbourn! Any suggested sites – please let me know. I would like to thank Ernie Leahy and my son Martin for their help with putting up the boxes and Mandy James for the loan of the Redbournbury Mill ladder.
Some of you will know about the barn fire which destroyed one of the barns on the north east side of Redbournbury farm. Our barn owl box which has been successfully used in the last 2 years was not affected but I am concerned that the construction work to replace the barn may disturb this year’s breeding. We do have another 4 boxes in the valley so hopefully if there is a lot of disturbance they will relocate to one of these boxes.
This winter has been notable for even more regular sightings of little egrets with up to 4 present at times. Snipe are not being seen so often this year which is particularly disappointing but I did see one right up near the junction 9 of the M1 where the river is flowing for the first time in about 5 years. Flocks of lapwings have been seen along the valley throughout the winter and also the occasional flock of golden plover.
My good friend Ernie Leahy saw a female peregrine in late March in a field to the east of the river near Shafford. I have heard of occasional peregrine sightings along the valley before but I have yet to see one so close to home.
Bird Notes - January 2008
We luckily chose a fine dry sunny autumn day for a walk from Park Street back to Redbourn and it started off really well when we saw three kingfishers along the river where it flows through the water meadows behind Park Street village. In fact we spent so long watching these kingfishers that it took us over an hour to cover the first mile but it was a good day for hanging around and not route marching on.
One kingfisher was particularly unconcerned by our close presence and as it perched on several overhanging branches and fished it moved ever closer and closer to us. We just stood still amazed that this kingfisher, a species which is notoriously skittish, seemed completely comfortable with us so close. The bright electric blue and the rusty orange of the breast are I think are one the best “colour schemes” of the English countryside. Have you ever noticed the blue T on the back of the kingfisher which stretches right down its back or how the bright blue changes to green in different light? We watched so long that my attention drifted further upstream where the river was shallower as it raced over a pebbly bed strewn with water crowfoot and I was really surprised to see a water rail wading through the fast moving water. I am sure water rails are regular along the river but I seldom see them as they are even shyer than kingfishers. The water rail is similar in habits to the moorhen but tends to feed in reed beds rather than in open water. It has a red dagger of a bill and subtle brown and grey barring. They have an amazing call which is like a pig squealing and you are more likely to hear this than see one.
Eventually we walked on seeing a soaring sparrow hawk and a few kestrels along with the usual winter flocks of noisy chattering fieldfares and the quieter redwings.
Another surprise was when we reached Verulam Lake where we found an unusual goose amongst the motley crew of greylags and Canada’s. It was an Egyptian Goose which is a species now well established as a breeding population in the UK after numerous escapes from wildfowl collections. They are an African species but seem to cope well in our climate and are now seen all over the south east. But this was the first one for me in the Ver Valley.
Little Egrets have moved into the UK of their own accord and as many as four have been seen this winter along the Ver. Still waiting for a Great White or a Cattle Egret to show up on the Ver.
Perhaps the best news this winter is that it seems likely that water voles have returned to the Ver after an absence of probably 20 years. Now mink are being caught and disposed of throughout Hertfordshire there is a good chance that they will restablish themselves. They are a great sight and I am really looking forward to seeing my first Ver water vole since about 1980. That distinctive plop as they enter the water and the struggling swimming style is so characteristic of “Ratty” of Wind in the Willows.
Bird Notes - October 2007
I have been travelling a lot this summer so I have not been seeing as many birds along the river as in most years. However just this week I did find a splendid male stonechat close to the river in Redbourn and it will be interesting to see if stays around or if it is just passing through on migration. Stonechats are both a resident and a migratory species. I think it has been proved from ringing records that birds from the same brood often are split between stayers and movers. Stonechats do not normally breed in Hertfordshire so most of the stonechats seen locally are passage migrants with a few staying through the winter.
I have also noticed that numbers of skylarks have been building up on the winter stubble fields but I have yet to see any fieldfares and redwings.
Following the success with barn owl boxes we have decided to put up 40 nesting boxes for small birds like tits and robins this winter at various site along the valley. As with the barn owl boxes these will be made by our friends at the Watford RSPB Group and once again our payment will provide funds towards all the good work that the RSPB carry out. This is because Watford RSPB get the wood free from a local supplier and uses their own volunteers to make the boxes. So our funds are simply recycled into more conservation work. I have in mind a few suitable areas for the boxes but I welcome suggestions from any of our members
Bird Notes - April 2007
This winter has not been a particularly good one. I think the milder winters on mainland Europe have meant that we are getting less winter visitors. Siskins and redpolls have been few and far between and waxwings, which we have come to expect in recent years, have only been seen near the East Coast.
My favourite visitors this winter have been a delightful pair of stonechats which have been along the Ver just south of Redbournbury all through January. Stonechats are always very conspicuous as they tend to perch on fence rails or on the top of bushes waiting to drop down to feed on the ground. There is a photograph on the web site of the male stonechat taken by Ernie Leahy. We often get stonechats passing along the valley but they seldom stay very long. The wet meadows are an ideal habitat for wintering snipe and very few have been seen this winter. I have seen two green sandpipers, one in the flooded meadows to the south of Prae Mill and one near Redbournbury Farm.
Buzzards are now really common and provided the conditions are right I expect to see at least four on Ver walk these days. Buzzards prefer sunny dry days so they get good thermals on which to soar from mid morning onwards. If it is wet you are unlikely to see a buzzard.
The kestrels which have nested in the big oak on the green lane on the way to Porridge Pot Meadow for the last two years, raising 5 young, lost their nest to the winter gales. However recently I have seen a pair building a nest right at the top of the tree so hopefully they will have another successful breeding season.
Following the successful barn owl breeding last year when 5 young were fledged the Society has taken delivery of 3 more boxes. These have been made by members of the Watford RSPB Group and they have received a donation of £250 which will be channelled straight back into conservation. One of the boxes has been sponsored by a long term VVS member, Ron Such, as a memorial to his son Phil who died of Motor Neurone Disease five years ago. Phil who was only 38 was a sports journalist specialising in his major interest Rugby Union.
Two of the boxes will be sited near Shafford Mill and the third in a tree close to Kettlewell’s Farm. Kettlewell’s Farm are also making nesting platform for barn owls in one of their barns. This will mean we will have 6 nesting sites along the valley. Not all of these will be used for nesting but barn owls like alternative roosting spots. We hope to have another successful brood this year in at least one box.
Bird Notes - April 2007
It is not often we get a rare bird in Redbourn so it was a real surprise when a ring ouzel turned up in the Redbournbury Water Meadow one Monday morning in late April. Ring ouzels are the mountain version of the blackbird with a distinctive white collar and pale wing panels. They pass through the southern counties each spring on their way to their breeding areas in the uplands of Northern England and Scotland. Most springs I get to see them for a few days either at Stepps Hill near Ivinghoe Beacon or Blows Down in Dunstable. These are traditional stopping off points where they recharge before continuing their migration northwards.
April was very dry this year which meant that the usual sites were probably poor feeding areas so I think this bird found better conditions at this lower and damper site. This bird was first seen at about 7.30 am and remained in the area all day as it was seen again later that morning and in the early evening. I heard a report that it was seen on the Tuesday but after that it was not seen again. This was just a brief stop over by a very special visitor to Redbourn.
Male Ring Ouzel at Redbournbury Water Meadows
This splendid but solitary male ring ouzel was first seen at about 7.30 am on 23 April 2007feeding on the damp water meadows along with a pair of mistle thrushes. It was very wary and flew off into the nearby hedges at the slightest disturbance. This picture was taken by Ernie Leahy at about 7.00 pm in dismal light. These birds normally are found on high spots like the Ivinghoe Beacon and Dunstable Downs as they stop off on migration to their northerly upland breeding areas. The dry conditions this April have probably forced them down to lower and damper areas. For most people this will be their first ring ouzel in the Ver Valley - it was for me!
A pair of kestrels has nested again along the green lane which is a section of the Ver Valley Walk that runs from Harpenden Lane to Porridge Pot. For the last two years they have raised a total of 5 young in an old crow’s nest in a fork in the huge oak tree but during the winter gales the nest was blown out. Early this spring a pair of crows started building a nest at the top of this same tree and the kestrels, which will not build a nest from scratch, were battling to take over the nest. Eventually the crows won and were seen feeding their young in early June. The kestrels eventually moved to another crow’s nest in a smaller oak tree which had been used by probably the same crows last year. The kestrels also seem to be successfully raising a brood again in their new premises.
One of the VVS barn owl boxes has been used again this year and four fledglings were ringed in late June and another of the boxes was used by a pair of stock doves. After been seen along the valley this spring I was delighted to learn that a pair of tufted ducks had bred at Redbourn Fishery. No doubt the deeper water here suited this species of diving ducks. A few pairs of spotted flycatchers have been recorded and it is highly probable that they have bred. Lapwings which usually only breed in the Ver Valley in Gorhambury have been seen with young close to Redbournbury. This is the first time they have bred in this are for many years.