Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Saturday 5 September

I was driving back from Norfolk after successfully twitching a very confiding first-winter Ortolan Bunting frequenting the East Bank at Cley NWT Reserve, when I took a call informing me of an ALPINE SWIFT at Aldenham Country Park in Hertfordshire. Knowing that my good friend Alan Stewart was the only regular observer at this site, I rang him to find out what he knew. He was in Islington visiting his girlfriend and knew nothing of it. I made further enquiries and quickly discovered that Howard Vaughan was responsible for the news. It soon transpired that the bird had been discovered by East London birder Barry Jones whilst on a casual visit. The bird had been showing well from the main car park at 1725 hours.

It was now 1740 and I had only just driven past Barton Mills roundabout. The race was on to get there before dark. Eating up the miles was easy on the A14 and Cambridgeshire section of the A11 but I soon had to make an awkward decision - due to a fatal accident at the M11/M25 interchange, the M25 was closed and traffic was at a standstill. I chose the A404 route across to Baldock but this coincided with the air show at Duxford and everybody leaving. I spent a frustrating 15 minutes waiting to get through here and then another 10 minutes getting round the Royston bypass. Fortunately though, once through Royston, it was all plain sailing and at 1815, I got confirmation from Darrel Bryant, Barry Reed and others that the bird was still showing. Barry very kindly agreed to keep an eye on it whilst I frantically drove south down the A1.

I eventually parked up on the east side of Aldenham Country Park at 1847 hours and after dumping my car on the only space available on the pavement, ran the 300 yards to the dam where Barry and Mike Ilett were still watching the bird. Out of breath, I eventually managed after a minute to get on to the bird. It was wheeling back and forth over the wooded area on the west side of the reservoir and was consorting with 70 or more House Martins at about 500 yards distance. It was best seen when it flew high above the wood and above the pylon line and in some respects was quite Hobby-like in profile. After a while, I managed to lock on to it in the 'scope and obtain good views.


It was much larger than the accompanying hirundines with long scythe-like wings, dark brown upperparts, undertail coverts and underwings contrasting with gleaming white underparts and throat patch. It was very short-tailed and had a dark band extending from the face and head across the breast in a thin breast-band. It flew with labouring flaps of the long wings and constantly repeated a circuit, gaining height above the trees before dropping at great speed to below the horizon. The flight action was particularly distinctive, being much different to that of Common Swift, with slow flaps combined with deep beats as it enters a descent.

All in all, I had the Alpine Swift in view intermittently for 25 minutes - the bird finally disappearing as light faded at 1915 hours. In this time, some 40 observers connected, including TWA, Phil Ball (the long-haired one), Alan Stewart, Jonathon Lethbridge, Steve Murray, Steve Blake and numerous Hilfield regulars. Several birders arrived after 1715 hours and sadly dipped including the year-listing family clan from Somerset - Chris Craig, Ayesha and their 7 year-old daughter Mya-Rose.


It represented only the FIFTH Hertfordshire record and the first ever twitchable

1) The first involved a bird first seen at Troy Mill GP, West Hyde, on 26 September 1965 which was later relocated in St Albans on 30 September 1965 (British Birds 59: 292 & 60: 334).

2) Another was seen over Hartsbourne Golf Course, Bushey Heath, on 14 May 1977 (A. G. Clarke).

3) Fourteen years later, Geoff Goater discovered one over Hilfield Park Reservoir on 30 April 1990 which was seen independently over Watford town centre by Bob Harris.

4) On an uneventful day on 25 May 1998, Steve Rodwell identified an Alpine Swift on Wilstone Reservoir, feeding high amongst a large flock of Common Swifts.

Lee Evans
The image at the helm of this piece was taken by Simon West the next day, when the Hilfield bird relocated SW to Alexandra Palace Park in London

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