Thursday, 6 August 2009

Autumn Harrier Harvest, a juvenile Wood Sandpiper and baby grebes delight

Today's juvenile WOOD SANDPIPER at Wilstone Reservoir (Dave Bilcock). BLACK-NECKED GREBES have fledged at least three juveniles (Gary Thoburn) and at last, Marsworth Reservoir has yielded a single juvenile Great Crested Grebe (Tim Watts)

A belt of heavy rain moved across the area overnight eventually fizzling out early morning. The skies then cleared, giving way to hot sunshine and light SE winds. It soon became very oppressive, with temperatures climbing to 26 degrees C. Cloud started to gather again later in the afternoon and at 1700 hours, a further belt of heavy rain arrived from the south and continued well into the evening.

The rain resulted in our second WOOD SANDPIPER of the year in the Tring Recording Area and in the afternoon a single BLACK TERN associated with a widespread inland influx. I also spent part of the day enjoying the incredible raptor fest in the east of the county as well as noting further pairs of breeding Black-necked Grebes.

(0849-1000 hours; with SR, Mike Campbell, SW, Joan T, Johnne Taylor, Mike Collard)

Steve Rodwell followed up visits by the dawn patrol and after the rain had stopped discovered a WOOD SANDPIPER feeding with two GREEN SANDPIPERS to the right of the Drayton Bank Hide. He quickly put the news out and after 17 minutes, I peered my head over the bank from the car park. I set my 'scope up and quickly located the bird, still feeding to the right of the hide. Satisfied that I had actually seen it, I then made my way round to the hide where I joined SR, MC and JTa). The WOOD SANDPIPER was feeding 55 yards to the right of the hide on the increasing muddy margin and with its very fresh attire, bold upperwing spotting, diffuse breast patterning and bold white supercilium, could be clearly aged as a juvenile. It was busy probing the soft mud with its medium-length bill and was obviously longer-legged (and paler-legged) than the two Green Sandpipers it was accompanying (it also differed in its breast pattern, head pattern and plumage shading) and when disturbed on one occasion, flew with its legs trailing beyond the tail. It shared an extensive white rump with the two Greens but was more finely barred on the upper tail and had a rather pale underwing rather than the almost black underwing of Green. It also uttered a distinctive high-pitched alarm call when flushed, very different to the typical call of the Green Sandpipers.

The bird remained for the rest of the day eventually being enjoyed by over 30 observers, including JT, Mike Collard, Geoff Young, Jeff Bailey, Ian Williams, Roy Hargreaves and Dave Bilcock. Dave of course got some reasonable images of the bird, two of which are reproduced above.

This is our second Wood Sandpiper of the year following an adult at College Lake BBOWT on 11 June and follows the six birds we had at Wilstone last autumn, detailed in full on page 77 of the 2008 Tring Reservoirs and environs report.

Otherwise, Wilstone Reservoir yielded the following species -:

Great Crested Grebes (15+)
LITTLE EGRET (feeding in the muddy bay in the SE corner)
Mute Swans (39)
Common Teal (6)
Shoveler (large overnight increase with 15 birds now present)
Lapwing (398)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (two different nests located, the usual one in Poplars by the Drayton Hide and another in the small coppice near the church in Drayton Beauchamp - both contained at least two whining juveniles)
Stock Doves (2 birds feeding on the mud)
Sand Martins (8 but remarkably no other hirundines - major clearout)

PAINTED LADY (1 flew along the bank)


Following Sue Rowe's note, I was delighted to see the 3-day old GREAT CRESTED GREBE chick - still riding on mum's back for protection. This is only the second juvenile fledged at the reservoirs this year - that particular bird still doing well on Wilstone. Both parents were in attendance.

The presumed escape adult female Red-crested Pochard was still showing to three feet distance with Mallards whilst WESTERN REED WARBLER numbers were at least 20, including many juveniles.

Two CETTI'S WARBLERS were also seen in the reedbed, the local pair fledging 7 juveniles this year.


Still acres of mud but few takers - 2 Great Crested Grebes, 28 Mute Swans, 64 Greylag Geese, 1 Gadwall and the female Tufted Duck with her four growing chicks.


Great Crested Grebe (4)
Mute Swan (8)
Tufted Ducks (33 plus adult females with three ducklings and five respectively)


There was no sign of the juvenile Mediterranean Gull that Steve Rodwell had seen earlier on Wilstone and yesterday roosting with 350 Black-headed Gulls here. In fact, the Black-headed Gull flock numbered just 116, with an additional 4 adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls (SR later had 9)

Two Stock Doves were drinking and 17 Little Grebes present.

(SR had also seen 9 Mandarin Ducks by the island - and a peak of 12 there yesterday)

RECORD FOR MIC WELLS: Sadly, yet another freshly dead BADGER, in immaculate condition, on the verge of the eastbound slip-road of the A41 adjacent to Ashlyn's School, Berkhamsted, at SP 988 067.

(1300-1500 hours)

In a sweltering afternoon with heavy skies and light winds, a marvellous raptor feast was to be had for the second day in a row. I perched myself up on the panoramic overlook just below the crest of Deadman's Hill (at TL 296 367) half a mile south of the A505 and 'scoped south and SE the recently harvested barley fields and rolling chalk hillsides. In the general area of Chestnut Hill just NW of Sandon, feeding and playing raptors filled the air.

Pride of place went to the adult male MONTAGU'S HARRIER, presumably the same bird that has been present since late May. Although now fairly worn through summer wear and bleaching, he still retained his black outer primaries and still had some black feathering on the secondary bar, albeit fairly faded. A narrow white rump was still apparent as well as the blue-grey of the upperparts and as it banked and swerved just clipping the tops of the hedgerow, the underwing was heavily barred and extensively black on the outer hand. He hunted low over the fields, mainly those north of Lodge Farm (TL 299 346), for over 20 minutes, following the line of the hedge before suddenly arcing, and then stooping down quickly after potential prey.

Whilst following him, another harrier crossed its path, again with an obvious white rump, but with overall dark and fairly uniform upperparts (apart from the pale panel on the wing coverts), I soon realised that this was the very tatty first-summer HEN HARRIER that I had seen in the area previously. It was even tattier now, with several primaries and secondaries heavily abraded, and tail feathers all worn. This bird followed the line of the contours and soon crossed the road and Bury Barns before heading up and out of view towards Rain Hill (TL 315 359).

Where the fields had been harvested, yesterday's recently fledged juvenile MARSH HARRIERS were still present, playfully hopping from field to field. They spent long periods sat on the stubble, occasionally jumping sidewards and pecking at some morcels disturbed by the harvest. They were in two distinct pairs and kept some 400-500 yards apart, moving between Chestnut Hill and the ridge SW of Sandon and to the east of Roe Wood. They were very dark chocolate-brown on the underparts with contrasting golden-buff crowns and throat patches and were in immaculate flight feather condition. The adult female was also present but commuting between the two sets of juveniles and when close, they would fly up from the stubble or hedgerows where they were roosting and almost tussle in flight and talon-grapple. These are almost certainly the pair which bred in neighbouring Cambridgeshire and have appeared almost to the day when six birds did the same in August 2008.

The same fields also attracted in 3 different RED KITES, 5-6 Common Buzzards, a hunting PEREGRINE, two HOBBIES and at least 5 Common Kestrels - a total of 8 raptor species in total. Awesome !

I found that by wandering a couple of hundred yards along the gravel track towards Chestnut Hill afforded much better views of the birds, accessed from the Sandon road at TL 313 354. Please park sensibly and carefully along this country road.


The COMMON GREENSHANK was still present on the extensive sandy spit, along with 7 Common Terns and 163 Black-headed Gulls. Wildfowl included 2 Common Teal and a single Shoveler whilst the Great Crested Grebe (1 of 4 adults) was busily feeding its single youngster.

(Just after I left, a juvenile MEDITERRANEAN GULL dropped into the gull roost and a female-type MARSH HARRIER drifted over NNE)


Grebes continue to do very well on this reservoir with at least four broods of Great Crested (2+3+2+5), 5 of Little Grebe and much more significantly - of BLACK-NECKED GREBE. A total of 7 adults were seen, all still bearing full breeding plumage, with the well-grown and independently fledged juvenile that I had seen several weeks ago and two more recently fledged juveniles still being tended to by both parents.

I was also delighted to see 1 female RUDDY DUCK being accompanied by a single duckling (along with two adult drakes), whilst other wildfowl were represented by 19 Pochard.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls, including a good percentage of this year's juveniles, were dropping in to bathe almost non-stop, along with 5 adult argenteus Herring Gulls.

WILSTONE RESERVOIR (1740-1800 hours)

A last look at Wilstone just before the heavens opened revealed the presence of a moulting adult BLACK TERN in the SW quarter (and intermittently roosting on the bank in front of the hide) - one of a widespread overland passage this afternoon including 24 on Staines Reservoirs, 54 on Queen Mother Reservoir and 29 at Grafham Water.

Two COMMON SANDPIPERS were active on the algae bunds, with a juvenile Grey Wagtail on the bank below the car park (Lee G R Evans)

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