Is it a Mouse? No, it’s a Wren!

The dry leaves at my feet rustled and a little brown shape flitted out of sight under a pile of leaves.  Before I had time to decide what manner of mouse this was the mouse hopped up through the tangled brambles and flicked its wings, issuing a loud, scolding stream of ‘tuts’ before disappearing again.  I was certain I had been watching a mouse but no, this was the tiny wren: a feathered brown ball and one of the smallest British birds.

Often assumed to be our smallest bird, the wren is pipped to the post by the Goldcrest, a truly miniscule bird that keeps to the evergreen trees and shrubs of parks and gardens.  As you would expect, the Goldcrest’s voice is needle-thin and its song a delicate cascade of squeaky notes.  The wren, on the other hand, despite being only fractionally less tiny, punches well above its weight with one of the loudest songs of all our garden birds.

Its cheerful explosion of musical notes can be heard at almost any time of year throughout Britain but at this time of year, when love is in the air, the wren is more likely to be seen perched up boldly, atop some shrubbery, in full song. It is a business-like song that matches the wren’s busy-ness as it flits and forages in the undergrowth – a song to dispel any winter cobwebs and get us moving!

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A Wren Troglodytes troglodytes – photo by Steve Round

However, in folklore, it is this very voice that got the wren into trouble.  Its scolding warning is reputed to have given away St Stephen’s hiding place leading ultimately to his stoning as the first Christian martyr.  This sorry tale was reenacted, particularly in Ireland, every St Stephen’s Day by young boys going on a ‘Wren Hunt’ to capture wrens and kill them by stoning. The dead wrens would then take centre-place in a parade recalling the bird’s unwitting betrayal.  Thank fully this barbaric activity is no longer practiced and where the wren does appear in St Stephen’s Day celebrations it is only as an effigy fixed to a pole.

This harsh treatment of the wren stands in contrast to the usual veneration given it since the earliest times.  The druids believed it to be a sacred bird and a symbol of wisdom and divinity. Harming a wren, it was believed, could lead to harm for that person in the form of a withered hand or curse.  The Greeks declared the wren the ‘king of birds’ after its fabled victory in a competition to determine the greatest of birds by seeing which bird could fly the highest.  It was assumed the eagle had won the competition as it soared high above all other birds but, hiding on its back, the tiny Wren was declared the victor and crowned the King of Birds!

For such a small, brown bird the wren’s fame throughout history is maybe surprising. But it is perhaps more familiarity than fame or any special feats that have made the wren both famous and infamous. Its scientific name, Troglodytes troglodytes, derived from ‘troglodyte’ or cave-dweller, hints that the wren has been with us from the earliest times, wherever we dwell.  Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear the song of the wren – it greets me as I enter the garden and accompanies me on almost any walk I do.

Just last week, a small ball of brown whizzed past my head as I walked out of the back door into the garden.  It appeared to disappear in the wall of the house but on looking I could seen a small opening by a pipe – this year’s cave of choice for the little wren.  That said, it may or may not see a brood of new wrens as male wrens typically build anything up to twelve nests in a season.  He must trust that one of them will meet with approval from his mate. If it does the hen wren will complete his work with a lining and raise a large family of 8 or 9 young.

If you have any thick ivy or shrubbery in your garden the chances are you will have nesting wrens.  In a few months time you may well see the newly fledged young sitting in a row, freshly spilled out of the nest and awaiting their next meal.  Take a moment to appreciate these larger-than-life characters for they are part of the assumed fabric of our lives bringing a cheery (and often noisy) busy-ness that we’d miss if it wasn’t there.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

 

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The Return of the Egrets

One of my enduring childhood memories is of flicking through the thick National Geographic magazines of which we always seemed to have a great pile.  The glossy pages and sumptuous photos of foreign lands with advertorials of top-of-the-range cameras used by adventurers to capture them, perhaps explained why these beautiful magazines never made it to the bin.  In a family that didn’t travel further than Cornwall it was a chance to explore and travel, at least in my mind’s eye, to far off places often teeming with wildlife.

It was in these magazines that I saw my first egret – a small, white heron sitting on the back of a rhino or hippo in the African swamplands.  It is an iconic image of African wildness and I have since seen photos of egrets riding elephants, cattle and even a moving crocodile! The egret’s pure white contrasted brilliantly with the dark grey of its transport and the lush green of the wet swamp grass seemed to emanate a vibrant hue different to the subtle shades of England that I was familiar with.  It was intriguing and exotic and little did I think that one day, in the not too distant future, these egrets, or at least their cousins, would become a familiar sight, right here in St Albans.

The northwards spread of these elegant white egrets to colonize many parts of the UK has been one of the great features of birding in the last thirty years. At the forefront of this expansion has been the Little Egret – a small white heron with bright yellow feet that can now be found along almost any stretch of river or lakeside in Hertfordshire.  I still remember the buzz of excitement in 1996 when the first pair of Little Egrets to breed in the UK successfully raised three young on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset.  Now, we have regular breeding Little Egrets in the very heart of St Albans – on the island on The Lake in Verulamium Park.

Little Egret Chicks in Nest - Verulamium Lake, 30 May 2015

3 Little Egret chicks in the nest at Verulamium Park Lake, St Albans – photo by Barry Trevis

Though they are now an established feature of the ornithological scenery, Little Egrets nevertheless bring a new elegance and grace to the muddy margins of our waterways.  Now, our farmland may also be about to undergo the same treatment as the close relatives of the Little Egrets – Cattle Egrets – have also begun to arrive on our shores in significant numbers.  This is the egret of elephant-back fame and, while we cannot easily offer them elephants or rhinos, they are quite happy (as their name suggests) with our humble cattle and horses.

Trailblazing the way have been two Cattle Egrets that have spent the winter, seemingly very contentedly, in a small municipal park in Cheshunt in the Lea Valley, unperturbed by dog walkers and the many visiting photographers.  These characterful white herons may well become a familiar sight over the next twenty years if the expansion of the Little Egret is anything to go by.

The Cattle Egrets in Cheshunt

 

Some have suggested that climate change has drawn these egrets northwards and this may well be part of the story.  However, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that egrets were once common in England and that their disappearance was the direct result of man’s continuous persecution.

Historical records show that 1,000 egrets, among numerous other birds, were included in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in 1429.  Not only seen as a luxury dish, egrets were also hunted throughout Europe for their plume feathers.  At the peak of this trade in the 19thcentury one London dealer is recorded to have sold 2 million egret skins in 1887 alone.  Unsurprisingly the Little Egret was reduced to a rare vagrant in Britain and this decline was one of the stimuli for the establishment of the RSPB in 1889.

Little Egret 9-9 Lemsford Springs. Photo Kevin Garrett Sept 2018

A colour-ringed Little Egret showing of its plume feathers – much sought-after in the 19th century – photo by Kevin Garrett

Their return to our shores may well be an indication of climate change but it is also testament to changed attitudes.  Far from being an exotic visitor from far off lands, the egrets are simply returning to lands they once called home.

This weekend sees the start of the RSPB’s Heron Watch 2019 at The Lake in Verulamium Park and a chance to go and see our nesting Grey Herons and their more recent companions the Little Egrets.  Thanks to a ringing programme the offspring of these birds can be tracked and, while most birds seem to prefer to stay fairly local, one Little Egret, fledged from the nest last summer, has been sighted over 1,500 miles south west of St Albans – in the Azores!

The story of the return of the egrets is a fascinating and ongoing one so why not be part of it and pop along to Heron Watch 2019 at Verulamium Lake every weekend from 11am to 3pm until 12th May?

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

 

Credits:

Featured photo of 3 young Little Egrets waiting to be fed – photo by Kevin Garrett

3 Little Egret chicks in nest – photo by Barry Trevis

Cattle Egrets – photos by Rupert Evershed

The Creatures of the Night

It was an atmospheric evening.  I, shadowed by Max the dog, had watched the mist rise up and the sun go down.  Now the excess moisture of the last few days rain and snow-melt hung in the air, enveloping the base of everything and temporarily suspending trees, fence posts and hedgerows in the air, riding on a sea of mist.  Like the snow before it the mist transformed the landscape into something beautiful, offering the less sightly parts a reprieve as edges softened and light diffused in the soft focus.

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As the twilight faded, dusk set in and with it a hush as light conceded to the dark and creatures of the night began to stir.  A ghostly shadow crossed the view in my binoculars and my heart leapt. I’ve seen a hundred or more Barn Owls over the years but not one of them has failed to inspire a delighted awe and wonder as fresh as the day I first saw one.  Not so impressed was a Little Owl who simultaneously yelped as the Barn Owl passed, maybe indignantly or maybe a hunter’s “Tally-ho!” from one night owl to the other.

Unperturbed, the Barn Owl paused on the fence posts and hunted briefly along the line. There is no sound as an owl hovers but I could, were it possible, hear the softness of those white wings and feel the puff of displaced air with every beat.  Not finding a quick snack, the Barn Owl headed off through the woodland towards the more open grassland beyond:  a white apparition of terror to any woodland rodent scurrying along the leaf-littered floor.

The Little Owl meanwhile had held his post, silhouetted against the dying embers of the night sky.  He tolerated the headlight beams of the cars as they passed below for a while before heading to a small coppice, its darkness providing all the light he would need.

I stood at the edge of the wood, peering out over the fields of winter oilseed rape, the darkness encroaching on my vision with every minute that passed. Two Buzzards flew into roost, low and purposefully, as if to avoid the scorn of any crows still on the lookout. A Grey Heron glided down into the field and landed just twenty yards away.  Max was transfixed but it was me who twitched first and the heron lifted off in search of a less occupied feeding spot.  Every now and then little sneeze-like calls let me know that, somewhere out in the dark, Snipe were dropping down to feed in the field for the night, switching the cover of darkness for the daytime cover of reed beds.

It was now properly dark and, as if to confirm it, a Tawny Owl called – an urgent “kwik-kwik”, maybe shaking off the silence of its day or perhaps hoping for a mate’s response in the form of a long, drawn-out “hoooo…”  The response never came though I hoped for it too.  A few years ago the owls bred in the wood and their fluffy white owlets could be seen sitting out in the open as they squeaked helplessly for their next mouse-meal.

I realized how intensely I had begun to listen, my eyes now virtually useless in the dark.  Max sat next to me alert as ever but stilled too by my stillness.  Behind us, in the depths of the wood, the staccato bark of a muntjac broke the silence, making us jump!  Max looked at me quizzically perhaps trying to place that foreign noise – a bark but not a canine one?

Reeve’s Muntjacs were introduced from China at the beginning of the twentieth century and these secretive little animals are now one of the commonest deer in England. Only the other day, on one of the coldest days of the year, I had seen a doe with her little white-speckled fawn trotting by her side – a surprise until I learned that muntjac breed all year round. It is perhaps this hardiness and their ability to disappear during the day, holed up in a clump of bracken or bramble, that have allowed them to spread rapidly throughout most of the British Isles.

The rasping bark added an eerie edge to the now chilled air and, shivering a little, we made own tracks back to the car.  And so we left the creatures of the night and all the rustlings and strange calls of a woodland in darkness.  It was a reminder that while we mostly switch-off at night, for the inhabitants of the wild the darkness brings new freedom and opportunities, and raises the stakes for both predator and prey alike.  We slept well that night, perhaps refreshed and exercised by our dusk-time visit to the wild frontiers of the night.

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

 

Credits:

Featured photo of a Barn Owl in moonlight by Ernie Janes (Shutterstock).

Scene at dusk by Rupert Evershed.

Let Your Imagination Run Wild!

If you go down to the woods today…you will probably be greeted with an almost absolute silence.  If it is a still winter’s day, stepping into a wood or forest has the effect of hushing the senses.  The wide perspective of open spaces is shut down and while a consciousness of a vast and deep expanse remains, trees obscure the sightlines and close in overhead to leave only glimpses through trunks and rides.  Voices sound louder in woods and we are apt to lower ours and become part of the silence too.

My vista, when out in the woods recently, was of a dull, grey-brown blended backdrop of trees and bush branches punctuated every now and then by the dark green of a yew or holly.  It is a vision of the eternal and the ageing: the woodland stripped of its green youthful vigour, stands like a great mausoleum:  a monument to what remains after summer has gone.  But evergreens – yew, ivy, holly and pine – stand as embodiments of eternal youth watching over the fallen leaves and the broken branches. The bone-white trunks of young silver birch provide a skeletal definition to the scene and wherever the light breaks through, the drapes of Old Man’s Beard provide a solemnity to the moment.

It is not hard to see, or at least feel, why woods have been places of liminality in folklore for centuries – portals between the here and now and the magical and eternal.  How often in fairy tales, both old and new, the hero must go into the woods and there invariably discover a world of danger, of magic, transformation and enchantment.  Walk deep into the woods and the paring back of vision and the heightening of senses combine with childhood fairytale folklore to fire the imagination.

One of my favourite childhood authors was the naturalist and illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, known as ‘BB’, who penned his popular children’s books about the last four gnomes in England in the dark days of World War II.  The Little Grey Men and its sequel, Down the Bright Stream, followed the gnomes’ adventures along a woodland stream – the Folly brook – and invited readers into the intimacy of the real natural world mixed with make-believe.  Needless to say, his books provided a welcome ray of warmth in the wartime gloom and have continued to captivate readers ever since.

Believing in BB’s ‘Little People’ might be a stretch too far for you but letting your imagination run wild can be no bad thing at this time of year when the magic of Christmas and the resolution of New Year have faded.  Hopes, dreams and aspirations can find themselves bleakly returning to the norm.  A walk deep into a wood might just reinvigorate a sense of enchantment with everyday life whether the forest is enchanted or not!

For me, some of that enchantment can come from the wildlife of the wood itself. Wait in the wood for a while and eventually the silence will be broken, distantly at first, but growing ever clearer, by the sound of small birds making their way through the woodland in a busy foraging band.  At first only one or two of these birds are heard, maybe a coal tit or a long-tailed tit, but as the flock approaches the trees and undergrowth around comes alive with a feeding party of tiny birds.

Moving through the trees like woodland sprites the arrival of a tit flock brightens the darkest corner of any wood.  Great tits, blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits are often joined by nuthatches, treecreepers, woodpeckers and goldcrests too.  It often feels as if the group has sought me out and for a moment energises the spot where I stand with colour and calls amidst a non-stop movement of tiny warm, feather-clad balls of flesh and blood.  But as fast as they appeared they are gone, through the woodland, out of sight and eventually out of hearing too.

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A Long-tailed Tit – Aegithalos caudatus photo by Steven Round

They are part of the magic of winter woods and never fail to delight.  Such flocks can be found on the harshest of days, their vitality testament to the wisdom of banding together in a tight flock of mixed species to survive the elements.

This weekend sees the RSPBs annual Big Garden Birdwatch, now in its 40thyear!  If you aren’t able to get down to the woods today maybe the roving flock of woodland sprites will visit your garden to get you reaching for your pen and notepad as they flit to and forth bringing their own sense of enchantment to your humble bird table.  Visit the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk where you can sign up to take part and find lots of helpful tips on identifying any woodland sprites that visit your garden!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

Watching Nature Watch

As a birdwatcher I am used to watching.  I like to think that I have honed the art such that not much avian life escapes my notice.  Combined with a good set of ears my walks are walks of watchfulness, looking and listening as a hunter would for nature’s never-ending bounty of sights and sounds. But there are times too when I sense I too am being watched!  If I thought my senses were fine-tuned there are others in the wild whose powers of perception go way beyond what I could hope for.

Yes, binoculars give me an advantage – allowing me unnaturally close-up views from a distance, but often I have been spotted or heard before I’ve even started looking!  Scanning an old oak tree yesterday and the two ‘eyes’ of my binocular lenses were met suddenly with the equally cold stare of a Little Owl!  He had been there all along, a dumpy ball of feathers, enduring the cold and watching me all the while.  Did his heartbeat quicken I wonder as I approached? Or was he not worried about my presence and maybe instead, a little bit annoyed that I was disturbing his daydreaming?  Either way, he didn’t show it but those yellow eyes continued to follow me, unblinking, until I had passed by.

little owl

The watching Little Owl!

Having been a ‘watcher’ all my life I have noticed just how much time is spent watching and waiting by wildlife. Long periods of the day can pass with no apparent activity or even movement but at some point activity resumes either to look for food or to avoid becoming food.  Sometimes this waiting allows the performing of maintenance tasks – I recently watched a Peregrine Falcon preen its feathers and dry off after a quick dip in the nearby gravel pit.  Without this regular bath the falcon’s feathers would become congealed with the blood of its suppers – it is the assassin’s cleanup.

At other times, the inactivity is simply to rest but this is never uncoupled from watchfulness.   For us as humans, sleep is by and large an ‘on-off’ thing – we are either awake or fast asleep – but for birds and a few other creatures the ability to ‘half-sleep’ is a scientifically established phenomenon. Known as ‘unihemispheric slow-wave sleep’ the brains of birds and some aquatic mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have been shown to be able to operate in two halves:  one half of their brain is awake, including an open eye, and the other half shows the electrical signatures of sleep.  This appears to be a protective mechanism, enabling the animal to fly or swim and monitor its environment for threats with one hemisphere while the other gets some rest.

More recently this kind of half-awake vigilance has been shown to extend to humans too.  Tests on volunteers sleeping in an unfamiliar environment showed that one half of their brains remained more active or ‘vigilant’ during their first night of sleep.  Once the environment had become more familiar so their sleep deepened on subsequent nights.  This ability to ‘half switch-off’ has obvious benefits to wildlife, allowing them a secure but not deep sleep, but is perhaps more stressful to the tired human traveller wanting a good night’s sleep on arrival.  I do however believe that I may have perfected the technique to my advantage during some long lectures at university!

Watching the watchers undoubtedly brings a greater affinity between the wild watched and the human watcher.  Not only is an insight into the lives of the birds or animals watched gleaned but also a sense of what they are watching too. A sudden alertness amongst the ducks and gulls heralds the end of the Peregrine’s snooze, the tilted head of a wader – eye to the sky – signals the arrival of a Buzzard overhead and a change in call note of the feeding Pied Wagtails suggests that somewhere out in the distant ether a Sparrowhawk is peeling off in a lethal stoop.

Of course, it is not always threat that concerns wildlife.  After a particularly stormy period of weather I took my dog out for a walk.  The wind had gone, the skies had cleared and the sun sat low, bathing everything in a soft and welcome warm light.  It was a moment to breathe and take in the beauty and I was not alone.  Perched magnificently in the top of a dead tree sat two Red Kites, their rusty tones glowing in the winter sun.  A little way off a lone Buzzard also sat soaking up the rays.  A sense of contentment conjoined the watcher and the watched and all was well in that moment.

Happy New Year whatever you’re watching!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

red kites

Red Kites enjoying the winter sun

The nature on our doorstep needs a voice – will you speak up for it?

I should probably have taken the hint!  Walking out into the garden recently an unprecedented flock of thirty or more crows raucously greeted me from the treetops at the bottom of my garden.

Cawing and croaking these big, black birds clung clumsily to the top most branches and twigs, jostling and flapping to stay balanced in a constant flurry of feathers.  There is always something ominous about crows – they are after all Carrion Crows, the vultures of the bird world – always watching for scraps and weakness that might mean their next meal.

Their presence did not unnerve me but did remind me of their long association in folklore, along with their cousins the Rooks and Ravens, as omens of ill. Perhaps this is why the collective noun for a flock is a ‘murder’ of crows!  It is not a history I take too seriously but it is perhaps fitting that I should find myself, somewhat reluctantly, addressing one of the great sadness’ of loving the natural world.  Any one who loves nature and who regularly gets out to engage with it will sooner or later, and probably sooner, realize that it is under threat from many sides.

Last month I wrote about my ‘local patch’, Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits, and the sense of ‘ownership’ and enjoyment I have from having visited the site regularly for nearly 30 years.  I had not expected to be writing about Tyttenhanger again so soon but events have conspired to compel me to put pen to paper.  I know that my love for the area is shared by many: not just bird-watchers, but dog walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and many people who just enjoy being out in the countryside.

It was with considerable shock then that I discovered an axe hangs over the future of Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits threatening to destroy it and its wildlife forever. The axe takes the form of neighbouring Hertsmere Borough Council’s Local Plan for development for growth – providing more housing and jobs over the next 15 plus years.  While that in its self does not sound like a bad thing and is driven by the need to meet government targets, the consequences for the Greenbelt land of which Tyttenhanger is part would be catastrophic.

The proposed ‘garden village’ for 4000+ homes would swamp the Tyttenhanger area, effectively connecting London Colney with Colney Heath in a new urban sprawl of an additional 6 km2.  Beneath this site would lie the memory of one of Hertfordshire’s best sites for birds and home to a huge variety of other flora and fauna – badgers, deer, foxes, butterflies and orchids.

Most significantly, with the loss of both Tyttenhanger and Coursers Farms the nationally important colony of Tree Sparrows would also vanish.  The Tree Sparrow is a red-listed species meaning that, following their population crash since the 1970s, they are now of greatest concern conservation-wise.  I know from the many visitors that I have guided to the ‘Tree Sparrow Hedge’ at Tyttenhanger that people come from far and wide just to see the sparrows.  For the regulars at Tyttenhanger, Tree Sparrows are seen most visits, but for most people in most of the UK they are absent.

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A Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

Tree Sparrows are of course just one species amongst many.  I walked around Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits this Sunday and the site excelled itself.  Not only did I record 76 different species of bird (the RSPB’s flagship reserve, Minsmere in Suffolk, would struggle to match this) but also among them was a magnificent Osprey migrating south, two rare gull species and four species of wader. In April when numbers are swelled by migrating birds it is possible to record well over 100 species in the month.

There is no doubting Tyttenhanger’s credentials when it comes to birds but it is much more than that.  For many people it is that little piece of wilderness away from the hustle and bustle of built-up areas, a place with wide-open views where the march of the seasons can be witnessed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes serene, but different every day.  It is a place to breath and to have one’s state of mind changed for the better as, if you allow it, nature will always find a way of surprising you, be it in the distraction of a beautiful flower, the watchful stare of a hunting fox or the noisy pandemonium, as on Sunday, of an unexpected Osprey sending every bird skywards in a panic!

So this is a heartfelt plea to take a moment to look at the proposals and, most importantly, express your views!

Have Your Say:

  • Read the document: Final-version-of-sites-document-printed-version (pages 146-149 refer to Tyttenhanger or “H2”)
  • Comment via the Hertsmere Council website portal: Click here and click on “Read & Comment on the Document” then click on “10 – Other Locations” in the left-hand menu.  Scroll down to find “H2 – The Tyttenhanger Estate”.  Then click “Add Comments” at the bottom of the H2 section.
  • Deadline for comments: 20thDecember

Stay up to date:

Follow @TyttGP on Twitter and use the hashtag #savetyttenhanger

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here

A Little Brown Bird’s Shout of Approval!

Just recently I proudly added the 204thspecies of bird to the list of birds recorded at Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  The bird itself was nothing to write home about in terms of looks – a Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced ‘chetty’s’), very similar in appearance to a large wren.  But the sighting was nonetheless very rewarding for this little bird had never before been recorded at the gravel pits despite the regular visits by birdwatchers every week since records officially began in the 1980s.

Though it is just another ‘little brown bird’ that skulks around in the reedy margins of waterways, the Cetti’s Warbler can boast one of the loudest voices of any bird – literally a ‘shout of notes’ that startles anyone walking through the otherwise quiet reed bed.  That voice alone is a pretty good assurance that until a few weeks ago a Cetti’s Warbler had not visited Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits:  if it had someone would have heard it!

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A Cetti’s Warbler shouting out his song.  This photo & featured image by Steven Round

Named after an 18thcentury Italian zoologist Francesco Cetti the Cetti’s Warbler has been expanding its range northwards, first arriving in Britain in the 1960s and appearing in Hertfordshire from the mid 70s.  Unlike many of our native songbirds Cetti’s Warbler populations have been doing quite well though it is vulnerable to harsh winters with the ‘Beast from the East’ decimating populations along the east coast of Britain earlier this year.

Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits has become the latest place to become connected to this little part of natural history and, as I write, the warbler is still shouting out its arrival to birders and dog walkers alike. It is a bird that many birdwatchers would consider long ‘overdue’ at Tyttenhanger, after all the habitat seems perfect and other sites around the county can boast resident Cetti’s. The Cetti’s arrival now suggests, at least to me, that Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits as a natural reserve has come of age.

I have been visiting the site regularly since I first discovered it as a teenager in the late 1980s.  Over the years I have seen the gravel pits develop from a barren treeless landscape, freshly created from the gravel workings (still active today), to one encompassing a huge variety of different habitats, from open water, reed beds, river and grassland to mature woodland, farmland and all the transitional areas in between.

It is a landscape that many would consider man-made and even tarnished by the extraction of sand and gravel.  It is true that the original water meadows of the Colne valley have long gone and a noisy conveyor belt now traverses the site, carrying the excavated material back to the processing plant.  The constant encroachment of the human on the landscape is very evident, be it walkers, dogs, fishermen, horses, bikes and sometimes motorbikes, not to mention the daily activities of farmers and the gravel works.  In the 1990s the woods resounded with paint-balling wars while the surrounding farmland played host to partridge shooting parties.  Disturbance is and always has been the order of the day and yet wildlife abounds.

For me there is a beauty and wildness to Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits that is quite unique, brought about by this constant interaction of the people with the natural landscape.   The ongoing gravel workings ensures daily change, be it in the fluctuation in water levels as water is pumped in and out to wash newly extracted gravel, or in the carving out of new landscapes to accommodate machinery or access. Farmland is ploughed, sown, harvested and then ploughed again.  Pathways and hedges are strimmed and cut back.   The overall effect is as dramatic as a tidal flood – demanding responses from wildlife and people alike.  But what can often feel violent at the time seems to produce exactly the kinds of habitats that attract wildlife, not least birds.

For me, Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits represents my “local patch” – an area fondly adopted by every birder as ‘their own’ local place to birdwatch:  small and near enough to cover in a few hours but large and varied enough to ensure continuing interest.  The ‘ownership’ of such sites is purely in memories built up over years of visits and observations such that the landscape and all it contains becomes personally known and any little changes are immediately evident.

The arrival of the Cetti’s Warbler is the most recent of those memories and is special not so much because of the bird itself but because it hasn’tbeen there previously.  That it turned up on my watch confers a renewed sense of ‘ownership’ on me, at least for now.  With so many actual different owners and invested parties Tyttenhanger’s future as a place for wildlife always hangs in the balance but, to date, it remains one of the best places to see birds in Hertfordshire.

For more information on the flora and fauna of Tyttenhanger please visit http://friendsofthgp.wixsite.com/ornithology

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click Tyttenhanger Gravel Pits