On the morning of Friday 13th September the 'Tyttenhanger Birders' met up for their regular Friday full circuit of the site. With its excellent variety of habitats, Tyttenhanger can produce a high day count of species at any time of year, but this visit turned out to be special with a site record 82 species recorded!
Read on for Rupert Evershed's account of their record breaking day which also serves as a good walking route guide around the site.
A single site day count of 82 species must be one of the highest recorded in Hertfordshire. We would love to hear from birders of other Herts sites with their highest day count records. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Rupert Evershed, September 2019:
Making lists and birdwatching go hand in hand and ‘The Tyttenhanger Birders’ are no exception. A fluid group of birders comprised of ‘whoever is around’ on Friday mornings was today made up of myself (Rupert Evershed), Richard Coombes, Steve Blake and Steven Pearce. Four pairs of eyes and ears as usual started scanning the moment the all-important “Tyttenhanger recording area” was entered. (The area is defined and bordered by the A414 dual carriageway, roughly to the north, Coursers Rd to the south, the A1081 to the east and Colney Heath High Street to the west).
Dismissing any nonsense associated with it being Friday 13th we fully expected to run up our usual sightings list of 65-70 different species – a great count for any site but that’s why we think Tyttenhanger is a bit special! However, today was to be unexpectedly special in that somehow we saw nearly all the usual birds and a few extras that brought us to a record day count of 82 species! Here’s how it happened:
We agreed to meet at 8am in Willows Farm car park with Steve Pearce joining us later at 10am. Steve Blake and I, always keen to get going, arrived around 7.30am and by the time Richard arrived at 8am we had already run up a list of 29 species!
The first target bird of the day was the 2 Wheatears reported earlier in the week. They had required considerable patience to locate them out in the middle of the stubbly field but not today! As we drove in a Wheatear very obliging sat up on one of the car park posts and it wasn’t long before we’d picked out the second in the field.
The usual suspects were busy round the car park and pile of bales: Great Tit, Blue Tit, Wren, Dunnock, Robin and the growing flock of Linnets. A few Chiffchaff flitted about the bushes while a Great Spotted Woodpecker chipped from a nearby tree. Over the farm itself Feral Pigeons and Collared Doves flapped around while Pied Wagtails busied themselves on the barn roofs.
Swallows, their numbers greatly down now, twittered overhead while across the fields Woodpigeons, Stock Doves, Carrion Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws occupied the larger dead trees. Signaling the change of season, parties of Meadow Pipits squeaked overhead and a lone Chaffinch also echoed the season’s change. A distant Jay, ferrying acorns, was the first of many we’d see today and the chattering calls of a Nuthatch in the far woods was to be a constant soundtrack for the day.
The car park’s proximity to the lakes means there are always water birds passing too: today, Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls followed by a Cormorant and the noisy Canada Geese. A liquid ‘tseep’ call overhead alerted us to a passing Yellow Wagtail, but it passed unseen. Not to worry, there would be a few more later!
A distant scan - just as Richard arrived - picked out a whirling flock of Starlings towards the entrance drive to Willows and then a diving Sparrowhawk – the reason for their flight! Allowing time for Richard to catch up with the Wheatear we headed down through Willows Farm towards the fishing lakes.
A familiar posse of ‘the usual birds’ joined the list as we crossed the river to the edge of Willows Farm Lake – Coot and Moorhen, Mallard and Mute Swan and overhead, Goldfinches and a few ever-raucous Ring-necked Parakeets. A Blackbird ‘chacked’ from a bush while a party of Long-tailed Tits did their usual rounds along the river.
So far so good – the expected birds had materialized in all their usual places: miss one of them and the day count could be jeopardized! Collared Doves are virtually guaranteed among Willows Farm buildings but not so easy to find elsewhere on site. Similarly the House Sparrows are surprisingly elusive and if you don’t hear them in the hedge as you drive into Willows Farm the next best bet is a small clump of bushes between the river and Willows Farm Lake. But not today, we’d have to move on with the first gap in our usual list!
The farmers at Willows have done the birdlife a lot of favours this year by planting a broad border of sunflowers alongside the weedy fields of potatoes and the ‘Amaizing Maize’ field. Today a Whitethroat hopped up in the bright sun, at first appearing to be a Lesser Whitethroat, but stayed in view long enough to confirm: just a common one! More difficult was a hidden Sedge Warbler that gave itself away with a brief call. A scarce passage bird at Tyttenhanger we unusually found a second one later in the reeds by the scrape and got a brief glimpse!
Further Yellow Wagtail calls eventually allowed us to locate a bird flying away from us. However, the kindly bird circled back and looped round us once more before alighting at the feet of the cattle in ‘Tristan the Tractor’s’ field. We were able to snap a few record shots as it came closer and closer before finally heading off southwards.
Raptor activity was beginning to pick up and a Peregrine gave us great views as it stooped on a lone pigeon before gliding off unsuccessful in its breakfast foray. A couple of Kestrels hunted the stubble – probably the birds that bred near Tyttenhanger House this year. Overhead House Martins and just one Sand Martin completed the hirundine trio for the day.
Coming to the end of the weedy field area and lo and behold a little Stonechat back in its favourite corner on the fence! These weedy fields and dung heaps at the top of the hill are regularly visited by Wheatears, Whinchats and Stonechats on passage so we always scan the fence several times to allow whatever is hopping down and up to come into view.
Crossing back to the river side of the fishing lakes we made our way down towards the fishing huts and café end where the low water has exposed plenty of mud. En route Grey Heron, Coal Tit, Blackcap and Green Woodpecker joined the growing day list.
As hoped the muddy area at the north of the fishing lakes produced some now long-staying waders: a Black-tailed Godwit (present since 2nd), a Common Snipe, 2 Green Sandpipers and a Common Sandpiper. A welcome addition to my monthly list were two Egyptian Geese that had so far eluded me.
More regular was a single Little Egret and some flyover Greylag Geese. Searching the very end of the fishing lakes produced a Grey Wagtail and a Reed Bunting. Moving off to cross the bridge to the Main Pit and a crow caught our eye. Bins to eyes and not a Carrion Crow but a Raven! – a real treat at this site but, interestingly, one of a few sightings in the last week.
We watched the Raven circle higher and higher on the thermals, picking out the first Common Buzzard of the day. Crossing the river again to Main Pit and the scrubby bushes gave up the secretive calls of Song Thrush and Bullfinch taking us to a very respectable 61 species…and we still hadn’t covered the Main Pit yet!
Looking out over Main Pit it wasn’t long before we had added Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Great Crested Grebe. Walking round the edge of the now quite overgrown reed bed two more regulars appeared – a Red Kite cruising low over the pit and a lone adult Herring Gull on the water. A Reed Warbler, still busy with young it seems, gave a brief appearance but showed much better later at the scrape.
Heading up to the high viewpoint we watched a large number of mainly Black-headed Gulls following the tractor and plough as it broke up the stubble field. A Pheasant called from the woods by the Model Railway Club and a Greenfinch called as it flew by. Arriving at the high viewpoint and the gull flock poured into roost and wash on the water giving us a chance to pick out a lone Common Gull.
Teal joined the waterfowl on the list and another long-staying visitor - the Garganey – dabbled out into view and proceeded to upend like the Gadwall and Teal. This rather undid our preconception that Garganey did not feed in this way but maybe it has learnt new tricks at Tyttenhanger?
Somewhat expected but never taken for granted, a Hobby cut through our sightlines before disappearing off towards the scrape. There have been up to five birds this autumn hunting the plentiful supply of dragonflies over the water. We moved on to the ‘Tree Sparrow’ hedge but not before admiring a smart Willow Warbler in the Elder bushes, quietly warbling the remnants of its summer song.
The celebrity Tree Sparrows were vocal but not that visible and I think we finally found a single bird sitting out by the nest boxes. They’ve had a good breeding year – the best for ten years – so let’s hope this little community continues to grow and prosper despite the looming shadows of large-scale housing development.
Passing by the paddocks and 2 more Wheatear, apparently un-phased by all the foot-traffic, sat alert and still on the grass. Maybe they were just biding their time before returning to the neighbouring field currently under the plough.
Our day count had now climbed to 76 and it dawned on us that this put it in one of the higher counts of the year. We had managed to record 81 species back in May but that had been an all day search on what was not the best day for birding. Today we were already at 76 with a fair few common birds missing from the list. With wives, domestic duties and the rest of life calling we kept going, heading back towards Willows car park via Garden Wood. We lingered on the scrape causeway in the hope of Little Grebe and Kingfisher but neither obliged and we had to settle for a single female Pochard.
It now being early afternoon, Garden Wood was very quite with not a squeak from the undoubtedly present Treecreepers and a waning enthusiasm on our part to trawl the wood for them. This decision to continue straight through Garden Wood paid off as we soon paused to add Goldcrest in the yew trees at the back of the wood. Necks strained and eyes upwards, Steve Pearce suddenly shouted out, “Flycatcher!” Sure enough, just above our heads, a Spotted Flycatcher sat, one eye on us and one eye on the next fly.
We waited for the flycatcher to give us better views but it eventually disappeared off into the depths of Garden Wood. There’s nothing quite like a flycatcher in my book – how something so small and drab and grey can set the pulse racing I do not know…but it did!
A new spring in our step we moved on to search out the resident Little Owl. A thorough scan of all its favourite trees yielded no owl and it wasn’t until we turned to move on that the Little Owl swooped down out of the tree next to us and into the next tree. All this excitement then prompted a second Little Owl to pop out of the ‘owl hole’, which was a very nice way to get to 80 for the day.
Back at the car park we congratulated ourselves and headed home for a late lunch, except for Steve Pearce who biked off in search of that still to be found Redstart of the year! A thought occurred to me just before I left that I could check out the bird feeders at InFocus at the back of Willows Farm and see if I could add House Sparrow to the list.
I parked up and was greeted by absolute silence and inactivity. Not a sparrow in sight. I wondered around a bit but it wasn’t until I opened my car door to get back in that a single House Sparrow finally chirruped and flew out of one of the eaves, becoming 81 on the list.
Definitely time to get home but, really through force of habit, I pulled over on the entrance road to Willows Farm to have one final scan of the fences and hedgerows. Nothing on the fences, nothing by the cows or sheep, nothing by the feeding containers and then: a little orangey-brown bird fly-catching atop the hedge! Surely not, it must be another Wheatear…but no, it’s a Whinchat and number, record-breaking 82!
So, there you have it: nothing extraordinarily rare or even uncommon but an amazing array of different species thanks to the very diverse habitats that make up Tyttenhanger. Every season throws up something different and over 80 species have been recorded in every month this year. In April and September, the influx of migrants with lingering winter or summer birds gives the best chance of seeing over 100 species in one month. That said, I would be surprised if you saw 80 or even 70 species on your first visit but as you get to know the site and it’s secrets every visit is rewarding!
There were of course a number of species that were undoubtedly on site that we did not record – most notably Kingfisher and Treecreeper both of which I had seen on almost every visit prior to that. As if to prove that 82 species is only a temporary record, Steve Blake also recorded an additional four species the following day: Little Grebe, Skylark, Wigeon and Lapwing. Who knows what next Friday will bring?