An entire night huddled in the garden listening for over-flying ducks, leaning from a bedroom window to hear Whimbrel and an extravagant cry of 'YES!' on sighting a Starling were among the more eccentric moments of 'lockdown birding' recalled at the 2021 Herts Bird Conference on Saturday 20 March.
Yet despite outdoor movement restrictions in response to the Covid pandemic, the number of species seen in Hertfordshire in 2020 is expected to equal the 198 recorded the previous year and may – once rarity verfication is complete – pass the 200 mark.
The conference, jointly organised by the Herts Bird Club and British Trust for Ornithology – drew an online audience of over a hundred who heard how the lockdown had stimulated bird watching and recording, even though travel was largely banned. No fewer than 23,000 records were submitted – an increase of 6,000 on the previous highest total.
Graham Knight (pictured right), reviewing the highlights noted the rare species recorded included over-flying calls from Common Scoter ducks and Stone Curlew as well as sightings of Goshawk, Red-necked Phalarope, Temminck's Stint, and singing Marsh Warblers. There was also a Long-tailed Skua at Tring Reservoirs that – if accepted – would be the first in Herts for more than 30 years.
Anna Marret, John Pritchard and Rupert Evershed – three leading participants in the Great Herts Garden Bird Count, organised last April by the Bird Club – shared their lockdown experiences with Herts Bird Report Editor, Clifford Smout (pictured left). John, who won the competition by seeing or hearing 77 species from his home near the River Ver, included Snipe on his list and narrowly avoided being hoaxed by a neighbour into mistaking a Nuthatch recording for the real thing!
Bird photographers were also active during 2020 within the limits imposed by Covid, producing a fine shortlist of 10 candidates for Herts Bird Photograph of the Year. Voting, via the Bird Club website, made Ian Cunningham's striking image of a flying Yellowhammer against a grey field background (see above) a worthy winner. The runner-up was Stuart Fox's delightful picture (right) of a Wren singing at full-throttle.
Looking forward to a spring and summer when more 'normal' outdoor activity may again be possible, Jenny Rawson and Tim Hill (pictured left) reported on the 'Action for Swifts' being taken in a growing number of Herts locations to encourage breeding. Nationally, the number of breeding Swifts fell by half between 1975 and 2015 - a decline attributed to loss of suitable nesting places and declines in insect populations.
Jenny urged the audience not only to record Swifts when seen or heard, but also to adopt insect-friendly gardening and consider errecting Swift nesting boxes or include 'Swift bricks' in walls. Tim described encouraging partnership arrangements between the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and local authorities, building companies and other organisations to encourage Swifts to nest.
A presentation by Samantha Franks (pictured right), a Senior Research Ecologist at the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) focused on an even more endagered breeding species; the Curlew. Populations have contracted from 17 per cent of their former range in Britain and as much as 75 per cent in Ireland. Research into poor breeding success has hightlighted habitat loss and degradation contributing to increased predation of eggs and chicks. Fencing and other predator control measures offered a 'sticking plaster' solution, but she said there would need to be overal measures to improve the quality of habitats in the long-run.
The conference also heard from Herts BTO reps. Martin Ketcher and Murray Orchard about opportunities to join the team of volunteers who carry out bird survey work in the county, including the annual Breeding Birds Survey (BBS), Waterway Breeding Birds Survey (WBBS) and a Breeding Waders of Wet Meadows survey posptoned rom last year's lockdown. Murray was congratulated on receiving the Jubilee Medal for his devotion to BTO work in Kent as well as Hertfordshire.
Warm thanks go to all the speakers, to HNHS Events organiser Tim Hill, Treasurer Dan Fletcher, Bird Club Chair Rupert Evershed and to everyone involved in making the online conference a success.