After only moving to Hertfordshire from Surrey last summer, Stuart Cossey started his second autumn in Herts with a stunner. Read his account of his excellent find below.

Stuart Cossey:

"Tuesday 18th September 2018

After a long day report writing in the office I decided to go for a short relaxing walk on the way home. I expected some migrants and was still missing Whinchat from my year list. I parked at the Fox and Duck Pub and made my way down the footpath between the houses.

As soon as entering the fields I was hearing the cries of Rooks as an unwelcome Red Kite was seen off. The ploughed fields south of the ridge were full of Rooks and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but nothing else of interest. Reaching the crossroads with the Icknield Way I headed east along the ridge and was slightly disappointed with only a dozen Meadow Pipit calling overhead and the expected groups of Red-legged Partridge.

Not much else was about until something caught my eye; flying low at the bottom of the hill and then out of sight was a large bird of prey. I immediately thought harrier but this was red underneath. My heart started pounding and I jogged further along the footpath to get a better view.

Fortunately I rewarded with amazing views as it cruised past only 100m away. I knew what this was but also knew no one would believe me! The obvious full brown head and collar and lack of black wing tips were dead on for, what I didn’t know at the time, Hertfordshire’s first Pallid Harrier. After sending out the news, I watched for a further five minutes before it disappeared back into its favoured fields and out of view. Still shaking at self-finding my newest lifer, I returned home and saw that my tweet hadn’t gone unnoticed – 10 people had tried and unfortunately failed to see it that evening. I knew as the questions came in that I would need proof and set my alarm for 5.30am.

Wednesday 19th September 2018

With my camera with me this time I took the same route across the fields as the day before. Grey Partridge were singing in the half light and Meadow Pipit and Swallow passing overhead. I started to despair as I saw Red Kites leaving their roosts and not another birder was in sight. I was joined by Barry Reed at 6.30 and not long afterwards the Pallid Harrier was seen briefly over the fields to the north of the ridge and then chasing off a Hobby. I immediately took dozens of photos, as did Barry, they were all awful but fortunately were enough to confirm ID and get the news out. I was so relieved that it stuck around and I hadn’t misidentified a Montagu’s! It was at this point Barry told me that the Herts Bird page had just been updated to include Pallid Harrier.

At 7.30am we were treated to a fly by which ended with the Harrier catching an unfortunate Grey Partridge. It proceeded to the edge of the field 500m away and was still there as I left to go to work at 8.30am. Other birders were soon to arrive and the Pallid Harrier was seen until 10.30 that morning. I still haven’t got Whinchat on my year list…

The bird was seen every day that week in the same fields. At one point it was seen being chased by a Merlin and on Saturday 22nd was photographed sitting on a bird feeder further north along the Icknield Way."

 

As of 25 September the bird is still being seen daily, covering the area along the Icknield Way between Therfield in the south and Grey's farm at the south end of Therfield Heath further north, allowing at times for some excellent views and equally excellent photographs. Along with the star attraction other species recorded in the area while waiting for or watching the Pallid Harrier include Grey Partridge, Merlin, Marsh Harrier, Barn Owl and Short-eared Owl. 

Following on from Barry Reed's Parrot Crossbills at Broxbourne Woods last December and Steve Blake's Tyttenhanger Penduline Tit this April, this is the third species to be added to the Herts list within the last nine months. As Chris Beach pointed out on twitter there seems to be a bit of a "P" theme developing. Question is, what will the next "P" be....!?

Cover photo © Ian Williams