Birding and a baby

Last Saturday started as so many others for me. My alarm went off in the dark and I slipped out of bed as quietly as possible to head out birding. On this occasion, however, my wife was already awake. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, calmly, “my waters have broken and I am having contractions”. My birding trip was to be postponed it seemed.

My wife and I proceeded to have quite a nice day together. Throughout most of the day the contractions were mild enough to allow an almost normal day to be had. At one point, my overdue wife had enough to do that I actually did nip out birding for about an hour. I realise I may be publicly self-nominating myself for ‘worst husband of the year’ award. It was certainly not something I expected to be doing on the day my wife went into labour, but things had progressed so gently, that I was given a clear green light.

Almost exactly a year-on from seeing it in 3rd winter plumage, the Snaresbrook Caspian Gull has returned now as a 4cy bird.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

Here was the same bird on the same location, albeit a little colder given the ice, a year ago.

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Same bird as a 3cy bird taken in December 2017

On the way home I stopped off at Leyton Tip as a local birder had tipped (pun intended) me off that it was a good place to see Herring Gull in the nominate ‘argentatus’ subspecies rather than all the pale-mantled ‘argenteus’ birds we are used to in London. The gen was good, although the views were terrible, so I grabbed a record shot and raced home to be with my wife.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argentatus)

That evening we went for a nice walk, the contractions picked up in pace and intensity and, by 05:32 the next morning, my son, Harry, was born at home weighing in at 9lbs. And so life begins and so my life changes, but this is primarily a blog about birding, so…

Today (with my son now a week old), I nipped out again as my wife’s friend came over to help. Another local lake (Connaught Water) and four Goosander were actually a year tick for me, and first for me locally.

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Drake Goosander (Mergus merganser)

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Female Goosander

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Two fuzzy firsts and the call of a Water Pipit

My weekend’s birding began pretty poorly with very little of interest showing on the Patch. So, hearing about Black-throated Diver – found by Lol Bodini – on one of the Walthamstow Reservoirs gave me more than enough excuse to try and get a London tick after lunch. This really was an excellent find by Lol and we are always willing to put aside our friendly patch rivalry when rarities like this appear – the first in East London for a few years.

When I arrived at Walthamstow I was lucky to bump into Lol (not ‘literally’ as we actually stood next to each other at the urinals in the visitor centre, so ‘bumping’ would have been problematic) who gave me the gen. With a bird like a diver on a reservoir, the thought didn’t really enter my mind that I might miss it, so I didn’t even rush.

Lockwood Reservoir is a big body of water, but much smaller than the giants like William Girling and King George V further north in the sequence.

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Lockwood Reservoir, Walthamstow

I was a little perturbed to find a birder who had been scanning for ten minutes with no success. I walked up along the east shore scanning the other shoreline in case it was tucked up against the side. I met two more local regulars coming the other way who passed on some more bad news; they had been watching the Diver (they even showed me some great back-of-camera shots) but then it had dived and hadn’t been seen again. That either meant it had drowned (pretty unlikely for a … err… diver), or that it had come  up a little way off and flown before they had noticed. Dipping a diver that had been seen only a few minutes before now seemed likely and galling.

But then my knight in shining armour appeared in the form of Stuart Fisher (wearing more of a tracksuit than a suit of armour, to be honest), zooming around the reservoir also looking for the recently departed Diver. We met Lol again as well and agreed that our best, but slim chance was to check Banbury Reservoir up the road. The only glitch being that Banbury is locked and inaccessible. But this is where the local knowledge of Stu Fisher was absolutely golden. He knew a spot on a housing estate on a hill where a sliver of the the reservoir was visible. Slim chance, but this was our only chink of hope.

We schlepped up there with me carrying my scope and peered through gaps in blocks of flats to look at the water in the background. By absolute luck, there it was – a whopping great diver with white flashes on its sides. Stu spotted it first and I was almost incredulous, and then elated. I felt a bit creepy and intrusive standing in front of people’s houses and staring through a telescope through gaps between buildings.

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Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica)

On Sunday I went to Rainham Marshes to try and see the Bittern that has occasionally been showing to people viewing from the Ken Barrett hide. As I sat in the hide I chuckled to myself about my patch colleague’s experience in here the week before, humorously (and rather controversially) recalled on his blog.

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View from the Ken Barrett hide

The Bittern didn’t show, and nor did much else of interest from the hide so I couldn’t bring myself to follow Jono’s lead and sit in there for hours waiting.

The sea-wall of the Thames was much more productive. Almost as soon as I arrived in the morning, I spotted the Black-bellied Brent Goose floating down (and later back up) the Thames (here comes another distant phone-scope record shot).

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Black-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla bernicla)

Two days, and two London firsts under my belt. But the sea wall had more to offer. Good numbers of Dunlin and Avocet occasionally took flight and whirled around the sky when something disturbed them.

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24 Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

By something, I mean like the Marsh Harrier which came in off the Thames and swept low right passed me (sadly while my camera was packed away). Or like the Short-eared Owl which pounced on something right on the water’s edge before slowly flapping away low along the shoreline.

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

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There were plenty of Meadow Pipit, as usual at Rainham, but I also saw and heard Rock Pipit moving up and down the shore. And occasionally a slightly different-sounding single call was heard (as I was able to hear both calls close by at roughly the same time, this is the first time I have been able to distinguish their calls in the field) and eventually a Water Pipit landed a little way off in front of me and fed in the grass – its white tail streaks showing clearly as it flew in and with a much paler breast than the Rock Pipits which also occasionally showed well.

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Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)

Finally, I also managed to get a year tick in the form of a single Ringed Plover on the Aveley Bay shoreline. I say finally, but it was actually one of the first birds I set eyes on when I arrived, but I never promised to tell my stories chronologically.

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Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

And because I can’t bring myself to sign-off a blog post with a terrible phone-scoped record shot, here was my view for much of the day:

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Looking down-river at Rainham

One patch tick, but four firsts

This morning started well when I heard a couple of Redpoll flying over and they perched in Motorcycle Wood. In fact there were a flock of six that circled a few times but kept coming back to feed in the birches. They were Lesser Redpoll in old terms – small and noticeably brown tinged, but since they have been lumped together with Mealy Redpoll, just called plane old (Common) Redpoll. The photo below may be really poor but it is the first time I have managed to photograph this species on the Patch (they are normally just migrating flyovers).

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(Common) Redpoll (Acanthis flammea cabaret)

There didn’t seem to be much else to see on the Flats (although a big flock of Fieldfare also perched briefly in Motorcycle Wood), so I walked on and in to the Park.

Calling Treecreeper attracted me to scan inside the wooded strip just north of Heronry pond and there was a pair chasing each other around. If it had not been for their calls, I would never have seen them (still a scarce bird on the Patch, although decreasingly so, it seems), and, more significantly, I would have missed the small black and white bird fly from one trunk to another. My patch-first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and the first one seen locally since January 2016, and apparently the first female seen for several years. This former breeder is now very rarely seen and for a few minutes I had good views of it feeding from tree to tree. My 110th patch bird for the year and my 128th patch bird overall.

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Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor)

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The two other ‘firsts’ my blog post title refers to were a Blackcap in November…

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Female Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

… and then the first time I have seen a Buzzard perching on the Patch. By perching, I mean hidden up deep in wooded cover on the Ornamental Waters in Wanstead Park. I spotted it as I saw a large brown shape swoop in low into the trees. Much as I might dream about it being a female Goshawk, it was, of course, a Buzzard that obviously fancies itself as a Sparrowhawk.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

If the Where’s Wally game is getting boring, here is the same photo again, but cropped heavily.

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Hopefully you can see the Buzzard this time

These birds, and the glorious bright Autumn sunshine, made today a pleasure to be out on the Patch.

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I may not be birding the Patch quite so frequently soon as my wife is expecting our first child very soon indeed.

October 2018: Review

Patch Summary:

I made 8 patch visits during October and recorded a total of 70 species of birds. After a disappointing September, the quality in October shone through with some real star birds: I added four birds to my patch year list and three of those were brand new patch lifers (the most successful month for patch life ticks for a few years for me).

Highlights were:

  • Nick’s Rustic Bunting – a true patch ‘mega’ that stayed for a few days (17 October to 21 October), occasionally showing exceptionally well.
  • Tony’s Barn Owl may have been outshone as it showed on a day (20 October)  when the Rustic Bunting was still an attraction, but it was almost as unexpected, locally. A true patch mega.
  • Completing the set as third patch life tick was a flyover Yellowhammer on a day (27 October) when I saw it fly back and forth (or as separate birds) three times in a morning. As Richard and I discussed, it is extraordinary to think that I had seen Rustic Bunting and Ortolan Bunting on the Patch before Yellowhammer.
  • My first prolonged views of Snipe on the Patch with a pair of birds feeding regularly on Shoulder of Mutton and probably more views of them flushed from the Brooms than any other single month.
  • I broke the record with largest patch Teal count with 57 birds, mostly on Heronry, on 6 October, although this was then broken again a few days later.
  • More records were broken with early and late migrants in October. Several of us had Redwing over on 6 October (the patch earliest for returning birds) and a Redstart on 7 October was only a day off our latest, and was also a highlight for me as only the second one for me this year.
  • Having missed out entirely on Ring Ouzel in 2017 and missed several Spring birds, I was pleased to find a first winter bird in the Enclosure on 13 October and an adult male flew low over my head in the Brooms on 20 October.
  • I have enjoyed the October visible migration with thousands of Wood Pigeon seen, hundreds of winter thrushes and plenty of finches including Chaffinch, Brambling, and Common Redpoll.
  • Getting a garden tick of Lapwing with a flock of 29 on 28 October which I watched fly in over the Western Flats and then fly south from my garden.

Lowlights were:

  • Hearing a single Yellow-browed Warbler call by Alex but then questioning my sanity when it didn’t call again, and so not ticking it (this followed chasing after a tantalisingly small, silent warbler on the day Tony had YBW). No year tick there.
  • Not really birding anywhere other than the Patch and one trip to Rainham. I like to mix it up occasionally.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Finally getting Cattle Egret on my London list. I stood in the rain at Rainham on 6 October and watched one hop up and down off a cow’s back. Excellent!
  • I also watched a Common Scoter float down the Thames on the same day; a year tick for me.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Rustic Bunting – surely one of the best birds ever found on the Patch

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Who are all these people on our Patch? The Rustic Bunting twitch

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Snipe on settled on the ground is an unusual patch sighting

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Just occasionally a crow will let you take its portrait

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Nick Croft – the bird-finder general – legend!

Rustic Bunting: Part II

Many people will have woken up early full of nervous anticipation about whether the Wanstead Rustic Bunting will have stayed for the weekend; that nervous energy exemplified by a guy who dropped to his knees when he finally saw it (I’m not scoffing, I remember how I felt on Thursday when I saw the bird).

My early morning was rather more leisurely. I wanted a better photograph opportunity, but I wasn’t going to bust a gut and so enjoyed the misty morning and the ‘VisMig’ (visible passage Autumn migration).

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Coronation Copse

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SSSI

The VisMig was truly excellent with a Ring Ouzel (my second for the year) chattering away as a it flew slowly and low over my head, a couple of Brambling, and Redpoll, lots of Chaffinch, and hundreds of Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon amongst other things.

My focus on the VisMig nearly cost me dearly though. Tony had a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Short-eared Owl and so he and Jono set off in the hope of a better look while I took a different route to cover another angle. With my mind still geared towards VisMig I noticed a finch flying high over my head and at the same time I heard Tony shout at me. I thought he was shouting at me to get an ID on the finch so I strained my eyes and ears but it flew over silently and too high to pick out features.

When I caught up with the guys, they asked if I had seen the Barn Owl? “The WHAAT?!” The last time Barn Owl was seen on the Patch, I was 12 years old! Whilst it used to be resident decades ago, it is the kind of bird you can imagine never returning to be seen again – it just wasn’t even on my radar of the possible. I think Rustic Bunting was less of a surprise.

What followed wasn’t a particularly edifying train of actions on my part, but it involved running around a lot, staring at every crow in case it was chasing something, hearing that half of London’s birders had seen it while I was off looking in a different direction, quite of lot of swearing and self pity, and I even considered climbing a tree at one point, which would have undoubtedly been a very stupid decision. Eventually, after a call from Nick, I caught a glimpse of it as it sailed behind Long Wood with a retinue of crows.

Barn Owl was my 9th patch tick this year (last year I got 5) and my 125th bird species seen overall on the patch. Bob managed to get some incredible photos of it as it flew over the Brooms.

I could now focus back on the Rustic Bunting which was being watched closely by up to 70 twitchers at any one time.

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I am used to walking bumping into two or three birders on the Patch

To be honest, the crowds probably meant I couldn’t quite get the dream photo I was hoping for, but I was relatively happy with a couple of snaps I managed when, by luck, it happened to perch or feed near where I was standing.

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

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Feeding on some of the seed the guys have put out for it

Yet again, Wanstead Flats proves that almost anything can turn up at any point. And it seems, that, over time, it does!

 

Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

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The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

The SoM Snipe illusion

Last Saturday I drove back from Rainham Marshes (Cattle Egret and Common Scoter under my belt) and stopped off for a second look at the Patch; this time in heavy rain. I wanted to see if anything had been brought down on the lakes of Wanstead Park. It was a worthwhile trip as I scored a patch record of 57 Teal, all on Heronry, and a couple of Snipe feeding on the inaccessible western fringe of the Shoulder of Mutton. I posted a poor quality back-of-camera record shot on social media and went home to dry off and go about some other business.

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

I was busy in a meeting and blissfully aware that people were viewing my photo and noticing that one of the snipe was seemingly smaller, crouching, and strongly marked. Unbeknownst to me, a whole debate ensued about whether it was actually a Jack Snipe. When I eventually logged in I re-checked my photos and assured everyone that the birds were similar size, with very long bills and a pale (not dark) central crown stripe. Debate over. I never doubted this when looking at the birds for one second, even though I had noticed the strong markings on one of the birds.

However, a week later (today), this doubt emerged like a horrid aftertaste in my own mouth. I approached SoM lake with Bob regaling him with the story of how other people had tried to string my Snipe into a Jack Snipe, (Lol!) when I saw them again in exactly the same place.

We crept around the side of the lake to get a better view. One of the Snipe was perching on top of a log and the other was pressed up against it but standing in the water below it. In a matter of seconds a wave of confusion and slight horror passed over me. The bird on the log was noticeably smaller than the partially submerged bird, much more strongly marked and was the only bird to be showing its bill which looked medium in length. This  is roughly what I was looking at through my bins:

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Snipe on log looking apparently much smaller than the one partially obscured next to it

The bird on the log briefly turned its head and we seemed to see a dark crown stripe. Bob and I exclaimed together: Jack Snipe! My emotions were mixed. Jack Snipe is a Patch tick – great! but there were two snipe in the same place last weekend that were definitely both Snipe! Am I going mad?!

But it must have been some form of multiple optical illusion. The Snipe‘s partially obscured bill (covered in mud or sometimes under the mud – as below) looked shorter than it was.

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A seemingly short bill – actually just hidden in mud

The size difference was largely down to posture, and the dark crown stripe was actually a side stripe and the central stripe was light.

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Both Common Snipe after all

So, I still can’t tick Jack Snipe, but at least my sanity and pride are mostly still intact.