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A wing and a prayer

PUBLISHED: 11:39 27 January 2015 | UPDATED: 11:39 27 January 2015

Little Egret at Lemsford. Photo by HBC member Yves Gisseleire

Little Egret at Lemsford. Photo by HBC member Yves Gisseleire

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Bird populations in the county have undergone huge flux in recent decades, a book out next month shows. Kiran Reynolds talks to its author about the changing fortunes of these fascinating creatures

Whitethroat at Kings Meads, captured by HBC member Simon KnottWhitethroat at Kings Meads, captured by HBC member Simon Knott

‘Radical changes’ have taken place in Hertfordshire’s bird population since the 1980s. The iconic Little Egret which migrated to the UK from France 20 years ago is now nesting here and raptors and woodpeckers have made stunning gains, but woodcocks, starlings and hawfinches once regularly seen, are now rare.

The rise and fall of the county’s 300-plus birds is documented in a book out next month compiled by county bird recorder Ken Smith and the Hertfordshire Bird Club.

‘The purpose of the book is to provide an attractive and readable account of Hertfordshire birds accessible to everyone, as well as to inspire more people to take an interest in birds,’ Smith explains.

Having had a fascination with birds and ‘what makes them tick’ since he was a child, Smith has published more than 150 scientific papers and articles as well as co-writing two books about Herts birds with fellow members of the HBC. A new hardback edition in the series, entitled Birds of Hertfordshire, provides 300 pages of up-to-date information on bird species and numbers as well as conservation challenges in the county.

Green sandpipers at Rye Meads, taken by HBC member Alan ReynoldsGreen sandpipers at Rye Meads, taken by HBC member Alan Reynolds

Smith says, ‘Bird populations are changing all the time and even over the 30 years since the last avifauna was published some remarkably big changes have taken place. It’s important to take stock periodically.’

Moving to Hertfordshire in the 1970s, he conducted bird surveys as a volunteer before taking up the study of birds as a career; becoming Hertfordshire Regional Representative for the British Trust of Ornithology before becoming a research biologist for the RSPB. His studies included the breeding of waders, bitterns, cirl buntings and woodland birds. Now retired, he is chairman of the HBC. Part of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society, it published its first county bird report in 1878 and has done so almost every year since.

There are currently 435 members of the club who share observations to building a comprehensive picture of bird life in Herts; tracking how species are reacting to changing environments. Specific projects like Herts Atlas have increased understanding of breeding and wintering birds, and daily updates on the club website show interesting sightings across the county.

‘It’s great to be part of a group of like-minded people sharing an interest in enjoying and studying birds. And being able to contribute to recording and monitoring our changing bird populations is important,’ Smith explains.

So what is it about birds that draws people to them? ‘People love the endearing nature of birds. They can be so easily spotted and provide background sounds for all of us.’ Smith adds that as they feed, breed, fly and change with the seasons, bird watching is forever interesting.

For enthusiasts or those just considering taking up the hobby, Smith says the best bird watching spots in Herts are wetlands at Tring Reservoirs and Amwell Nature Reserve and woodlands such as Wormley near Broxbourne and Sherrardspark in Welwyn GC. These provide onlookers with the chance to spot some of the county’s most beautiful birds, including little ringed plovers, black-necked grebes, green sandpipers, tree sparrows and Smith’s favourite, the great spotted woodpecker, ‘a highly successful bird’, which he has been studying for over 30 years.

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Birds of Hertfordshire goes on sale in the first week of February, priced at £39, available via the Hertfordshire Natural History Society website hnhs.org. A special prepublication order offer of £29 is available until the end of January.

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Herts winners>>

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Little Egrets started arriving in Hertfordshire 20 years ago from France. Numbers increased rapidly after 2002. The first confirmed breeding in the county was in 2011 at Amwell Nature Reserve, Stocker’s Lake and Tring Reservoirs. The number of breeding sites is still limited but the birds are now widespread in winter.

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Red kites were reintroduced to the Chilterns in 1989, expanded rapidly, and are now found in high numbers all along the Chilterns and throughout Herts. First breeding in the county was in 2005 at two sites. There are an estimated 50 pairs now breeding. Usually seen in ones and twos, the birds form communal roosts in winter.

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Great spotted woodpecker numbers have increased steadily over the past 40 years. Numbers rose during Dutch elm disease and breeding success has also been linked to reduced nest site competition from starlings following their collapse in numbers. Maturation of woodlands has provided more nest sites and foraging opportunities. Garden feeding may also be playing a part.

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And losers>>

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Lapwings, a typical farmland bird, has undergone sustained decline over the past 40 years both nationally and in Herts. The cause is their low breeding success related to intensification of arable farming practices, loss of open habitats in early spring and high levels of nest predation and chick loss. Still widespread in winter but overall numbers are lower.

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Whitethroats migrate from Africa to England to breed in spring. Numbers crashed in the late 1960s as a result of droughts in the Sahel, the ecologically important zone north of the Sahara. In Herts and nationally, numbers have still not recovered fully to pre-drought levels.

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Greenfinch are still widespread and numerous throughout the county, often seen in gardens, but numbers are falling. Survey data shows the species suffered a sharp decline in population from 2005 due to an outbreak of the respiratory protozoal disease trichomonosis. Numbers had been increasing up to this point, but birds are now missing from many former areas.

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