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Sunday, 12 February 2012

HEMEL MEGAS: Search for PINTAIL at Water End turns up WATER PIPIT, JACK SNIPE, GREY PARTRIDGE, WATER RAIL, WIGEON & more!


Drake PINTAIL at the flood meadow at Water End.

After hearing that Lucy Flower had amazingly found a Drake PINTAIL on one of the small private fishing pools at Water End two days ago, I decided to cycle in the snow to see if it was still about, & to add it to my Hemel Life List. From looking at her photo & my previous experience finding other 'good' ducks there I could tell that it was on the small pool surrounded by trees NW of the 'S-bend' bridge, on the Great Gaddesden side of the hamlet.

Unusually for me on my way there I headed straight past my usual haunt at Piccotts End Pools without stopping, knowing that the pools were frozen solid. In doing so I saw a single LAPWING in the horse field between the pools & Leighton Buzzard Road & as I passed I saw 2 BUZZARDS flying low around Thrift Wood just beside the road, including one particularly large bird.

As I passed the Red Lion & entered Water End I glanced across onto the River Gade in case the PINTAIL had moved to this actually more likely spot, but there was no sign of it there so I continued & arrived at the metal gates on Nettleden Road & made my way across the snow covered rough grass...

Once at the private fishing pool at 14.50 I refound the Drake PINTAIL sitting on the ice under the bushes on the far bank with a few TEAL. After a while it swam around the corner out of view & I didn't see it again until 16.20 when Lee Evans & myself attempted to refind it. It had moved further upstream & was often commuting with a group of TEAL between the very shallow stream, basically in Great Gaddesden, & the most Northern part of the weir-dammed private fishing pool, both in the main flood meadow area S of Piper's Hill. There weren't really any opportunities for a proper photo but I did take a few record shots.

The Drake Pintail with Teal in its favoured area
on the secluded private fishing pool, Water End.

Drake Pintail with Teal & Mallards, Water End.

Now on setting out today my goal was to find the Pintail, but as I like to find my own birds I set myself a target bird to find, which was Jack Snipe. Well to my disbelief, before I'd even arrived at the Pintail pool, I rounded the corner of the lightly fenced off bog area to see a JACK SNIPE sat beside the steam! As I took it by surprise (though I don't think it was as surprised as I was) it took off vertically in typical Snipe fashion although not as hurriedly, less panicked & in a straight line in comparison to the urgent, explosive & zig-zagging take-off of a Common Snipe. As well as looking tiny it also appeared more floaty in flight with shorter, more rounded wings & the short bill held more downward pointing than a Common. I remember thinking this when I found two Jacks at Boxmoor the previous winter & in fact on seeing a Jack Snipe fly they remind me more of a miniature Woodcock. After a few seconds it landed only meters away in the long wetland grasses growing across the stream & as soon as it alighted between the tussocks it became invisible. I then didn't see the bird for a while until looking hard for it again once Lee Evans arrived, where he found it at the edge of the stream once again. A BROWN HARE was also hiding in the long grass for the whole time I was there & I didn't notice it until it darted out from between the tussocks, across the stream, & towards the field to the W where Hares usually congregate.

1 of 2 Jack Snipe at Boxmoor during Winter 2010/11.

Almost instantaneously after seeing the Jack Snipe a WATER RAIL ran through the vegetation just beside me in the small area of bog. I managed to grab a quick shot but with the bird being so well camouflaged, climbing between branches, & moving quickly in the dim light it isn't fantastic. Shortly after I saw the bird again, then again running around the fence on the snow, then again after a while, flying a short distance down stream. A bit later I saw a 2nd WATER RAIL walking on the ice at the Pintail pool with Lee, no Lee wasn't walking on the ice with the Rail, though a rail would be handy when doing so, Lee pointed the Rail out to me.

Water Rail at Water End.

Whilst talking to a lovely couple that I met, & admiring a GREY WAGTAIL with them, I was alerted by the call of a Pipit that sounded too sharp to be a Meadow Pipit. I looked up & saw a pale looking Pipit fly in from the S & land on the wooden bridge over the stream about 30m NE of where we were stood. I couldn't get a good look at it in the short time it was perched on the hand rail due to how far away it was, the misty air & dull light, but I did notice that it had some odd features. The details I could make out were rousing my suspicions towards a certain rare Pipit that strangely migrates North for the winter from its mountainous nesting grounds in the Alps, to vegetated water-bodies in the Northern Continent. I snapped a couple of record shots to look at later just incase, & it was just as well because after that the bird flew out of sight & I didn't see it for the rest of the day.

Now into the future... Well, on analysing & sharing my rubbish pics the next day I realised my suspicions were very valid, because the Pipit was in fact, a WATER PIPIT! a bird I definitely didn't have on my 'expect-the-unexpected-list', unexpected it certaily was, especially in the Hemel area. Now I hope to see the couple again as it would be nice to let them know they'd too seen a Wipit. Details of realising the identification are > HERE <.

Water Pipit at Water End.

Water Pipit at Water End.

Grey Wagtail at Water End.

Shortly after I arrived I noticed two large birds in flight looming out of the mist coming up stream, it was 2 CORMORANTS in Adult breeding plumage who seemed to be looking for somewhere unfrozen to land. Despite the low light & mist I went for a photo at high ISO. Now it isn't great, but does show in fact that the trailing bird is a 'CONTINENTAL' CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensisas you'd expect for an inland bird in this area of the South of England, & you can clearly see the wide angle at the back edge of the gular pouch. On the other hand, the leading bird is an 'ATLANTIC' CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax carbo carbo) which you'd usually only expect to see at coastal locations around the British Isles, given away by the narrow angle at the back edge of the gular pouch. Both birds had noticeably different head & bill structures & I wonder if this is attributed to different habits of each of these subspecies. 

The 'carbo' bird also looked much more robust & thick set compared to the 'sinensis', as is often the case, & I wonder if this is down to the 'carbo' living in a much harsher environment where you need to be tough. It lives on wave-beaten, gale-blown rock edges of the coast, where they may have to fight over a tiny ledge to bring up their young. Compare this to the relative peace & tranquillity of the abundant lake-side trees where the 'sinensis' resides, where all of the fish it eats are contained within the water body it lives at, there's really not such a need for the 'sinensis' to be beefed up, it has it easy in comparison.

This has me thinking... so do these subspecies' digestive systems & bodily functions work differently, as seabirds such as the 'carbo' need to be able to maintain salt balance using their salt glands whereas freshwater birds such as 'sinensis' do not need to use these mechanisms? One for another day I think.

Any way... both birds went out of view, circled again about 5 minutes later looking to land, but ultimately I didn't see them again all day.

'carbo' Cormorant (left) & 'sinensis' Cormorant (right) both in breeding plumage, Water End.
[Ignoring the typically mentioned, though actually unreliable, ID feature of the amount of white feathering on their heads, note the acute rear angle of the yellow gular pouch on the 'carbo' & the right-angled to obtuse rear angle of the 'sinensis's' yellow gular pouch. - For a diagram pointing out the differences in gular pouch shape see down the page > HERE <.]

As I was leaving the area at nightfall a GREY PARTRIDGE was calling from the field to the W where a few BROWN HARES were just visible in the dark. This is a bird I have never been able to find locally until now, not helped by the fact they are becoming increasingly rare, & just hearing one in the Hemel area made me extremely happy & topped off a great few hours in the field.

The full list of birds of note seen throughout the day just within this area include...

LITTLE GREBE 1 on Pintail pool.
(sinensis) 'CONTINENTAL' CORMORANT 1 over.
(carbo) 'ATLANTIC' CORMORANT 1 over.
GREY HERON - at least 1 about.
4 MUTE SWAN 1 pair on Pintail pool & 1 pair nr. Red Lion.
GADWALL c.5
PINTAIL Drake on private fishing pool surrounded by trees.
2 WIGEON a pair on Pintail pool.
TEAL c.8 in the area.
c.2 BUZZARD
SPARROWHAWK
GREY PARTRIDGE calling from field to W at TL 03169 10264 nr. Nettleden Rd. at night-fall.
2 WATER RAIL 1 in small fenced bog area & 1 on Pintail pool.
COOT a single bird on Pintail pool.
LAPWING a single bird in Jack Snipe grass at dusk.
c.4 SNIPE about 4 in the area..
JACK SNIPE at least 1 just S of wooden bridge.
c.5 COMMON GULL c.5 inc. 1 1st Wint. low NE early pm.
KINGFISHER 1 on Pintail pool.
2 GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER a pair courting in trees S of wooden bridge.
WATER PIPIT 1 on wooden bridge.
2 PIED WAGTAIL a pair frequently visiting stream S of wooden bridge.
GREY WAGTAIL at least 1 frequently visiting stream S of wooden bridge.
SONG THRUSH at least. 1 in the area.
REDWING a few birds noticed in the area.
MISTLE THRUSH at least. 1 in the area.
FIELDFARE a few birds noticed in the area.
LONG-TAILED TIT 1 in bushes near small bog area.
c.7 GOLDFINCH c.7 in treetops neat small bog area.
GREENFINCH a few birds in bushes across river near gardens.
2+ REED BUNTING at least 2 in the area.
YELLOWHAMMER atleast 1 near pond on W side of flood meadow.

All of this & I didn't even get to properly watch the area of proper river just N of the Red Lion, look at the wide area of vegetated river next to Wyevale Hemel Hempstead Garden Centre, or visit the flood meadow N of the garden centre. In fact ALL of the species I saw apart from YELLOWHAMMER were on the 200m stretch SSE from the Pintail pool!

Details of my WATER PIPIT ID here > HERE <.
Details & map of WATER PIPIT location > HERE <.
Details related to CORMORANT subspecies ID > HERE < & > HERE <.




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