April 2020 will be long remembered as the month of the garden count!
Following the outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent 'Stay Home' instruction from the Government in late March, the planned county wide bird race on 25th April had to be canceled as did the spring migration routines of most birders in what is of course the most anticipated and often
exciting birding month of the year. It was clear the lockdown was going to last several weeks, so to encourage people to continue birdwatching whilst confined to their properties, and retaining the competitive element from the bird race the Herts Bird Club came up with the idea of a month long garden count competition - The Great Herts Garden Bird Count: How many species can you record from your garden during the month of April? To maximise the species list, flyovers, birds in neighbouring garden/fields/streets, and species heard only, all counted provided you were in
the boundary of your property at the time. One of the (many!) reasons birdwatching is such a great pastime: Can't go out? No problem, we'll just have to spend more time birdwatching from the comfort of our own homes instead. In short, The Show Must Go On!
The competition proved popular, appealing to the competitive nature of birders whilst at the same time allowing individuals to create their own garden watch routines at times that suited them during the day (and night!). The fine weather which extended throughout much of April helped too allowing for a great deal of sky watching whilst perhaps reclined on a sun lounger! Twitter played its part to keep everyone engaged and in contact, allowing people to share and compare their sightings and photos. The vast majority of people sent their records into the website every night meaning that daily updates of the latest county count and running league table could be published on the website.
In total we received over 4,200 garden records from 113 gardens across the county. This ranged from the odd casual record to full lists throughout the month. We would like to thank you everyone who sent in records. At the end of this article there are written accounts from a number of people that took part which are well worth a read.
The final total county count was 123, a number beyond many expectations; the full list can be viewed here. As a comparison, in April 2019, when of course there was no restrictions on movement, 161 species were recorded in Hertfordshire: to achieve over 75% of that number just from gardens is pretty good going, and testament to the dedication, tenacity and skill of Hertfordshire birders. The commonest birds were: Magpie, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Robin, Woodpigeon, Dunnock, Red Kite, Goldfinch, Great Tit, Starling and Carrion Crow, with 19 species recorded just once. There were nine species of raptor, eight species of warbler, eleven species of duck, and ten species of wader.
There was no shortage of highlights and surprises. Leading the way was a Goshawk which offered prolonged views to one lucky observer over a Berkhamsted garden on 8 April and was awarded 'Best Bird' of the month based on the fewest number of historical records. Other raptor highlights included another Goshawk over a garden in Flamstead Village on 11 April, an Osprey over a Hemel Hempstead garden on 19 April, and Marsh Harriers over gardens in Stanstead Abbotts and Wormley. The first Herts Hobby of the year was seen low over a Garston garden on 17th April and Peregrines were recorded from 18 gardens. From the 67 gardens that sent in at least one full count, Red Kites were recorded from all but four gardens with Common Buzzards not far behind on all but seven.
Narrowly missing out on the 'Best Bird' award was a Stone Curlew heard over a Walkern garden just after midnight on the 11th April. Although once a breeding species in Herts, Stone Curlews have become very scarce with just 11 accepted records since 1984. The most recorded wader was Lapwing with records from 10 gardens. Oystercatchers were recorded from six gardens, Whimbrel from five, Little Ringed Plover from three, Golden Plover, Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper and Curlew from two gardens and Green Sandpiper from one. Along with some of the duck species, nocmig certainly helped add some wader records; more on that below.
Blackcap was by far the most recorded warbler with 92 records from 51 gardens with 13 of those records relating to 2 birds and 70% of those gardens submitting full lists recorded Blackcap. The next highest, Chiffchaff, was recorded from 46% of gardens.
The only Herts Great White Egret of the month came from a Royston garden on the 3rd with one over SE at 9am, and Little Egrets were recorded 33 times from 22 gardens.
Ravens were recorded on 27 occasions including 9 records of more than one bird the highest being four over a Nash Mills garden on the 11th.
Common Tern is not the first species that leaps to mind when thinking of garden birds, but they were recorded seven times from five garden the first being on 19th. The same Royston observer that recorded the earlier Great White Egret was treated to a flock of six Arctic Terns heading north over their garden on 23rd April and rarer still a Sandwich Tern was over a Wormley garden on the 5th.
If there was a competition for 'record of the month' then a very strong contender came from a Panshanger garden on 23 April: three groups of Mediterranean Gulls overhead heading NE converged around midday totaling at least 60 (yes sixty!) birds - almost certainly a county record count - with 15 over a Watford garden on the same day.
A selection of other notable records include a Ring Ouzel in a Marshalswick garden on the 10th, a male Redstart in a Benington garden on the 24th, a singing Firecrest from a Berkhamsted garden from the 10th - 12th, and, in what has proved to be a good spring for the species in Herts, Cuckoos were recorded 19 times from 11 different gardens.
There were also records of both Golden and Lady Amherst's pheasant both of which were considered of captive origin, along with a noisy Peacock providing an early morning wake up call for the residents of Harpenden on the 9th and 10th.
A tweet from @ianbennell75 at 9.44pm on 2 April kicked off what became a regular feature of the Great Herts Garden Bird Count - nocmig: sitting in the garden after dark (or before dawn) and listening for birds migrating overhead or other resident species such as owls calling. Ian had heard two flocks of Common Scoter and a Teal over his Hemel Hempstead garden His timely tweet prompted several other Herts birders to switch off the TV and rush out into their gardens, three of whom also added Common Scoter to their lists that night.
By the end of the month we had received 80 nocmig records, producing 24 species. Six species: Common Scoter, Wigeon, Green Sandpiper, Little Grebe, Water Rail and Stone Curlew, were recorded only from nocmig and would have otherwise been missed, and six of the seven Whimbrel records received were after dark. Coot and Moorhen were recorded a number of times at night, perhaps some of which were local birds moving to and from their daytime feeding and roosting locations. Others notable nocmig records included a Curlew over a St Albans garden on 16th, an Egyptian Goose over Wormley on 9th, two Ring Ouzel over St Albans on 5th, a Common Gull over St Albans on 12th, and several Fieldfare and Redwing records up until the 10th. Go to nocmig April 2020 to see a full list.
The bird club would like the encourage nocmig and ask that all records be submitted to the website so we can start to form a better understanding of this relatively new development in birding. Add the word 'nocmig' in the Comment field (with time where possible) and please note whether heard 'live' or from a recording.
On Saturday 25th April 'Super Saturday', the date originally intended for the county bird race, Herts Bird Club Chairman Rupert Evershed organised the first ever Herts 24-hour Garden Bird Race! This event was well received with 31 participants recording 79 species, using GoogleDoc to record their sightings throughout the day. The winner, Chris Gibson, recorded an incredible 50 species from his Stanstead Abbotts garden. Go to Herts 24-hour Garden Bird Race to see the full results.
A 24-hour garden bird race is a competition the Bird Club are considering running again in autumn 2020 so watch this space!
If at beginning of March this year we had asked whether Herts birders would like to spend the whole of April, one of the best months of the year for local birding, watching from their gardens only it's probably fair to say that the response would have been lukewarm at best! But as events quickly developed, the Great Herts Garden Bird Count proved a very welcome distraction from the stress and worry of Covid-19 and the lockdown. Although a situation forced upon us all, many enjoyed the opportunity to slow down a little and connect with their local wildlife, spending more time watching and learning about the birds in and around their gardens, and of course increasing their garden lists along the way!
Thank you to everyone that took part.
WINNER - John Pritchard, Shafford Farm nr St Albans : 77 Species
It was very much the case of a garden in a good location combined with an average birder that led me to top the month of April with 77 species seen or heard. I?m pretty much a patch birder concentrating on the Gorhambury to Redbournbury area ? I?ve never been to Amwell or Tyttenhanger! The Bird Count for lockdown seemed like the perfect way to do a bit more birdwatching and see how my garden compared with others in the Herts Bird Club.
I?m lucky to have the tiny River Ver and open fields to the front which gave me a good view of Moorhen, Coot and Golden Plover on day one. Working from home and good weather meant a routine of breakfast in the garden, a coffee break staring at the skies, lunch outside and the evening waiting to see what might fly up or down the river valley at dusk.
The peace and quiet of week one was the most memorable thing - no planes from Luton and very little local traffic noise. That meant Skylark and Chiffchaff were soon on the list and a lone Brambling under the garden feeder a grateful bonus. The biggest shock of the first week was waking up to find others had been spending the night in their gardens to record overflying Ring Ouzels and Common Scoter!
Week two and I too was hanging out of the bedroom window for an hour after dark which added Little Owl but no overflying migrants. The trickier residents of House Sparrow and Starling finally gave themselves up and I was well into the 60s and feeling that it was going to be very hard to add more from here on.
During the third week I kept lifting my bins to check raptors on the horizon, but they nearly all turned out to be out of focus bee-flies about 2 metres away! A first Hobby spent time hawking insects within view and the moonlit bedroom window routine finally paid off with Little Grebe and a Whimbrel calling eerily on its way north.
Finally into week 4 and a clear lead had emerged but there was no relaxing with some very good birders not far behind. I desperately needed a resident Nuthatch to make an appearance, and there it was, calling at last. Something wasn?t quite right though, it sounded somewhat tinny and wasn?t coming from a tree. It was my sympathetic neighbours over the fence playing a joke on the mad birdwatcher next door. Fortunately, Yellow Wagtails and a first Swift kept my total moving and my sanity intact.
When all said and done it was the local habitat that provided the advantage over the city centre residents who had to work doubly hard for their tally. A River Ver and surrounding wetland, with water in it for once, gave me the edge. The likes of Kingfisher, Snipe, Lapwing and Tufted Duck were definitely among those that made the difference.
Many thanks to the Herts Bird Club for arranging and running the competition and to greenfeathers for the generous prize.
Graham Knight, Hertford : 55 Species
My house is on the south side of Hertford and the garden is small, but has the advantage of being close to a variety of habitats including the River Lea and a small area of woodland. I did not expect too much initially but working from home allowed me to regularly sit outside for short periods during breaks. I developed a routine of an early morning and late evening watch, and even resorted to sitting outside at night in the latter part of the month for my first go at nocmig, although this only produced Coot and Tawny Owl. I added a few new garden species including Linnet, Kestrel and a Pheasant calling, but my favourite moments included a Cuckoo calling continuously for an hour on two evenings, and a crazy five minutes one morning which added flyovers of Redwing and Grey Wagtail followed by a Kingfisher calling as it flew along the river. I missed out on some species that I knew were frustratingly close by, such as Moorhen, Mistle Thrush and Nuthatch, but was very pleased with my final total of 55 species.
Alan Winn, Park Street nr St Albans : 57 Species
My Park Street garden, whilst long, is narrow. It's a garden of shrubs, lawn and some free roaming chickens. It gets most of the usual feeder visitors, but I'm exceptionally lucky that it backs onto Frogmore Lakes.
The lakes are busy and wooded and whilst waders are infrequent visitors, there's still plenty of wildlife around. I like to be up with the larks and so thought I'd rise early for the dawn chorus on the first day and write a list. First on this was a Tawny Owl, a great start. Having panic bought a shed before lockdown, I had a few days in the garden putting it up, whilst keeping an eye and ear out for birds and after five days was up to 40 species
For the rest of the month it was just a case of casual records whilst outside. By the end of the month I'd totalled 57 species. Many more than I was expecting. I had no idea how often Kingfishers flew over my garden or that Linnets also pass over regularly. However, my highlight had to be a Cuckoo, having not seen or heard a single one last year. Also, who isn't delighted to hear Swifts screaming over their house?
Ian Bennell, Hemel Hempstead : 61 Species
There I was looking forward to my first ever 24 hour bird race but the then world shut down due to the virus and so we were given a competition to see how many species we could see/hear from our gardens in the month of April. My hopes of winning weren?t overly high as I?d only recorded 78 species in the 5 1/2 years I?d lived here so I predicted that at most my 90 ft long garden on top of a hill on the east side of Hemel Hempstead I?d only get 35 species.
1st April dawned and I had to carry on working as I?d suddenly become a key worker for the first time in 20 years so garden birding would be limited to say the least. Once home I managed 19 species before dark with a Siskin the main highlight.
2nd April added nothing new in daylight hours but I?d noticed on Twitter that Common Scoters were on the move being heard from the Bristol Channel moving NE. With this I headed out into the garden and just after 9.30pm I heard the distinctive nocturnal call of at least two birds heading NE! I posted the news out on Twitter and this allowed 3 others to add it to their respective lists! I wasn?t done there and within the next 30 minutes I?d had another group go over followed by Teal and Wigeon calls. 2 garden ticks and a second record in quick succession. I could get used to this garden listing!
3rd April saw me set off for work only to safely reverse back onto my drive so I could count a Canada Goose as it flew over!
Saturday the 4th and I was out in the garden at stupid o?clock but the early start was rewarded with my third garden tick already when a male Reed Bunting flew over. The running total at the end of the day was 35 species meaning I?d already reached my predicted monthly total in 4 days!
The next three days added another 11 species the best being a second record of Stock Dove.
Ring-necked Parakeet and Goldcrest were added on the 11th, Rook early morning while checking my moth trap on the 12th and 3 Cormorant heading high east 6 days later on the 18th.
The 19th only added another 3 species but one of them was a long awaited first record Osprey that was seen having a tussle with a Red Kite as it flew north just to the west of me. House Martin and Swift made it feel extra spring like.
The 25th was the original date for the 24 hour race across Herts but instead a separate garden challenge took its place. I was in the garden at 4.40am and just after 5am I heard a Cuckoo calling way off to the NW and so it became garden tick number 5 for the month. Things carried on in a rich vein as I added two further garden ticks during the day with 2 Common Tern and a Treecreeper plus a fly over Yellow Wagtail.
The last day of the month arrived and with it so did desperate measures. About 2 miles to the west are some farm fields and so with the aid of my scope I managed to pick out 3 Pheasant which became species number 60! The last addition was a first summer Black-headed Gull although I did pick out a very distant bird which I?m 95% was another Osprey but I lost it in a downpour before I could clinch it.
So 61 species for the month including 7 new species for the garden list and 40 for the 24 hour challenge. Amazing what you can see from the comfort of your own garden.
Chris Bessant, Maple Cross : 46 Species
Although small, my garden contains two large, mature apple trees, established shrubs and a pond, plus many feeders, that attract most of the normal garden birds, therefore it was no surprise to reach 21 birds on the first day. The flat roof of the garage at the bottom of the garden also serves as a great feeding station. I throw kitchen scraps and seed up there to feed the birds at a safe distance from the neighbouring cats, and this also attracts in gulls, a pair of Crows and Jackdaws. The odd passing Red Kite will also swoop in if it thinks there is something worth grabbing.
However, as well as the garden, it is all about location. Over 30 years ago we chose this house because of the mature field hedge at the back, plus the open field beyond. Although the closeness of the M25 gives a constant background hum of traffic noise, the overriding sound in summer is that of Skylarks. Other arable species flying over the garden include Linnets and Meadow Pipts. One of the main bonuses of living here is the local Yellowhammer population. I spread no-grow mix along the back hedge to supplement their food at lean times of the year and they quickly learnt the source was in my garden. So they often visit to pick up seed under my feeders and were one of the first birds on my list.
The field hedge also acts as a migratory corridor for many species in spring and autumn, but unfortunately this April it really let me down. I had a Chiffchaff in my front garden on the 31st March, which clearly did not count and then struggled to even hear or see a Blackcap. As I write (3rd May) the warblers are finally arriving and I can hear constant Blackcaps and Whitethroats from my garden, but now too late for the count!
As the location of the property is less than a mile from the Colne Valley floor, one would expect ducks and geese to regularly fly over. But this was definitely not the case during the challenge and I only managed to pick up Grey Heron, Mallard and Canada Goose.
Although my all-time garden count is over 80 species, it is still being added to and I can thank this challenge for adding another couple to that count. Again, from its location one would expect Little Egret to already be on my all-time list, but it was not. The other addition was Raven. A pair have recently moved into the area, so although I did not see one fly over, I was happy to settle with hearing one call.
Anna Marett, Moor Lane nr Rickmansworth : 60 Species
Our garden is on Moor lane, Rickmansworth with a view of two fields and the canal. April proved the most intense all-day watching and listening for birds ever, and very enjoyable! I came to realise that the birds were appearing in almost the same order every morning, with a few surprises thrown in! A Whitethroat turned up in the scrubby field and is still (25 May) in full song-flight display, with a female appearing with a beak full of short grass and disappearing into the vegetation.
One surprise was discovering the flood along Moor lane, which I could just view through my scope at a strange angle from the front window! This produced two oystercatchers, one little ringed plover, two lapwings with some flight display, gadwall, nesting coot and lesser black backed gulls, all visible through a narrow window and even narrower field of view!
One eventful day produced a fascinating record of being able to watch a grass snake catch and devour a frog in our pond. This took an hour, and now there is only one frog left in the pond!
I filled a sketchbook throughout the month with quick sketches of the birds, flowers, insects, newts, damselflies and whatever else was happening in the garden, and a total of sixty birds was very satisfactory for an event which will hopefully never need to be repeated!
Rupert Evershed, St Albans : 72 Species
After the emotionally draining experience of having to shut down our family business in mid-flow, with no foreseeable end, April?s garden birdwatch came as a very welcome distraction! Confined to the house and garden and with no incentive to venture further the garden became the ultimate local patch, with a fresh list to build and who knows what might turn up?it was April after all.
I am fortunate enough to have a large garden with plenty of wild areas, mature trees and even a pond. The River Ver, Verulamium Lake and Verulam Golf Course Lake are all within a few km of the house so the potential for flyover water birds is always there.
April 1st started well with 38 species to start off. Highlights included 5 flyover Cormorants, the only pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers for the whole of April and some garden irregulars such as Chiffchaff and Grey Wagtail. Redwing, Fieldfare and Meadow Pipit were also added ? birds that would tail off as the month wore on.
About 30-40 species would provide a daily base count and as the month progressed additions were made ? Little Egret and Skylark on 3rd, Peregrine and Rook on 4th, Sand Martin, Swallow & Lesser Redpoll on 5th, Yellow Wagtail on 12th and Willow Warbler on 19th.
However, what really tipped the balance and was a revelation in itself were the species heard flying over at night in regular nocmig sessions between 10pm to midnight. Starting with the extraordinary ?Night of the Common Scoter? on 2nd and continuing with 2 Ring Ouzels, a Green Sandpiper and Teal on 5th, followed by a Little Grebe on 9th and regular circuits by local Coot and Moorhens. A real highlight was picking out Whimbrel flying north over the garden on two separate occasions and an Oystercatcher also passed overhead on 14th taking my April garden list to 67.
With a few more migrants arriving in Swift took me to 70 on the 21st and, with some very early hours nocmig on Super Sat (25th) I added Gadwall flying around in the dark. A long overdue Mallard and its mate viewed flying over from an upstairs window took me to my final total on 30th of 72.
Starting out at the beginning of the month I had no idea such a total was possible and my all-time garden bird list had been boosted to 93! What?s more I have learned so much about the birds that come and go in the garden, their daily routines and preferred trees and bushes. The Great Herts Garden Birdwatch was bird therapy at its best and a month that will be fondly remembered for a long time