By the early evening light: the Autumnal migration orrery

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This year I have got better at snatching short opportunities to bird the patch: still sometimes at the weekend, occasionally early in the morning, and occasionally after work.

The late summer/early autumn migration – my second on the patch – has delivered old friends from fly-over Yellow Wagtail, to the watchful Muscicapidae (and/or Turdidae depending on whose authority you follow) using our trees and bushes as we might use service stations on a long motorway journey: Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, WhinchatStonechat, Northern Wheatear, and Common Redstart.

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Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

When seen after work, these birds have often been bathed in the golden light of early evening. Wonderful when the light was behind me (with the birds above); not so wonderful when the light was behind the bird as was the case below.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Sometimes the flycatching birds – like those above – are mimicked by normally shyer, more skulking, birds. One balmy evening, the air was so thick with insects that the warblers were out darting out of their usual bushes to catch flies mid-air or chase each other around. Whilst a poor quality photo, it was on this evening that I got some of my best views of our resident Lesser Whitethroat – coaxed out of the thickets wearing its bandit mask to attack the mass of airborne protein:

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Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

As Autumn moves closer, some our summer breeders have their numbers swelled by more northerly kin stopping off on their way south: in particular Willow Warbler, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The local birders have all been following mixed flocks with hope and anticipation. The high pitched calls of Long-tailed Tits often the first sign that something interesting this way comes. Moving through the trees, raiding the twigs of invertebrate life as they go with Blue Tit, occasionally Coal Tit (whose distant calls yesterday had Nick and I holding our breath in vain for the hope of Yellow-browed Warbler), and then the comparatively massive Great Tits barging through the leaves like american footballers.

One afternoon in the Old Sewage Works, I watched a particularly large caravan of mixed birds pass by, counting tens of tits along with multiple Chiffchaff, Blackcap, and Goldcrest. I thought that was it, but decided to check with a quick burst of taped yellow-browed and then Willow Warbler. On the second try, almost immediately, up popped a lovely bright bird just a few feet in front of me. I fumbled with my camera like poor old brother Fredo using a gun in the film ‘The Godfather: Part I’ when his father, the old don Corleone, is ambushed while shopping. Fredo’s father is critically injured and he is left facing his own incompetence sat on the side of the road; I was left with photos of a twig where moments before a beautiful had perched just a few metres in front of me. Despite there having been many Willow Warbler through the late summer, I seem to be camera-cursed with them, only snatching this poor shot in near darkness (since my photos of our territory-holding bird in the Spring):

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Sometimes my late evening jaunts would mean I literally ran out of light before I had quite finished my birding. And so it was as I walked slowly around our grottiest of ponds, the Jubilee, looking for a relatively long-staying wader. As the sun went down I dodged almost mutantly large rats – fat from the industrial quantities of bread thrown into the pond and rubbish deposited all about (see Jonathan Lethbridge’s excellent post on the problem with this pond, here) – as I continued my search.

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Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)

After a little while  of searching I eventually saw my quarry through the gloom. It was still feeding on the fringes of the pond island. I scurried forwards to get a photo… the most successful mammal on earth sending the second most successful scurry, in turn, right in front of me and into some undergrowth. I stood right by the rat tunnel to get my shot of the Common Sandpiper, any view of a wader on the patch is a moment to be savoured as they are scarce indeed, just before the light disappeared altogether.

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Breeze Block (Lateres aurita*) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Even knowing the photos would be atrocious quality, I was pleased to have seen this little chap. I walked off into the dusky night  happy, but scratching. Within a few minutes I found a flea on my arm. Within a few minutes more, I had found another. It appears being that close to rats can be rather more hazardous than I had imagined.

Sometimes Autumn doesn’t feel like a season in its own right, but rather as an extended transition between Summer and Winter. Passage migration brings the regular stop-overs and flyovers, and – of course – it sometimes brings something truly special, like this year’s Ortolan Bunting which I feel incredibly lucky to have seen. It also brings gatherings and movements of birds: from mini murmurations of Starlings, to the trickle of South-bound Swallows feeding as they fly, but which have yet to become a great flow.

While some leave, others arrive, like these Wigeon (albeit I doubt these ducks view any of our ponds as their final wintering destination).

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Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

Of course, some birds seem untouched and untroubled by the changing of seasons like these two inhabitants of our local river Roding:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

All together, it feels like some ancient astronomical contraption (or Orrery). Different species moving in different directions and at different speeds and orbits, (with some stock still like a pole star) as the single giant cog of time moves inexorably around. Unlike the early scientists observing and turning the wheel, as birders we may observe but there are no wheels for us to turn. Humanity overall is not just an observer though. Occasionally we manage to throw giant spanners in the works. To finish where I started, Whinchat numbers in Britain have more than halved in the last twenty years. As we slow some orbits or break cogs altogether, who knows what damage we are doing to the contraption overall. Will we one day be left with the giant wheel of time turning and no bodies (biological rather than astronomical) to whir around it?

*my translation😉

Scottish sojourn: Part II (Wildwood)

First came the birches…

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Silver Birch (Betula pendula) wood in Highlands

…and then came the pines…

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Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Rothiemurcus

… and then the oak…

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Mixed woodland dominated by Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), Taynish NNR, Argyll

This is a crude description of the order with which our island became re-forested after the last Ice Age eight or nine thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the trees advanced. In the high mountains of Scotland, the pines were kings. Just about everywhere else, our lands were carpeted with oak dominated woodland. And so the Wildwood became.

To say that we have deforested our ‘green and pleasant land’ would be an understatement of spectacular proportions. Only tiny fragments of ancient forest remain, and nowhere has it been untouched. Nowhere.

But… perhaps the closest we can experience to this original wild woodland is in Scotland. The temperate oak rainforests of the West coast, and the pockets of Scots Pine that remain in the Highlands. I recently visited both.

Taynish and the temperate rainforests

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Taynish NNR

The Taynish peninsula is the westernmost-but-one protuberance on the larger (famously phallic) Kintyre peninsula on the South West coast of Scotland. The main woodland area is dominated by two ridges (one of which can be seen above) and a marshy valley in between (also seen above). Water surrounds. The lochs are fished by Osprey (which I saw there) and Otters (which I didn’t – although I had seen them on Mull the day before).

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Shores of Taynish and Loch Sween

This is one of the few areas believed to have been continuously covered in woodland since the last Ice Age with soil pollen records showing only a dip in the Iron Age when man felled some of the trees and again in the 18th-early 20th Century when the woodland was heavily, albeit largely sustainably, coppiced. For the last fifty-plus years the woodland has been allowed to gently revert, edging closer (even if never reaching) its original pristine state.

The woodland is called temperate rainforest because of the volume of rainfall (well over three times the amount of rain that falls in London), the relatively mild climate (as a sheltered peninsula in the South of Scotland), and the number of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts etc) and epiphytes (that grow on other plants also including moss, lichen, and ferns). It actually reminded me more of Cloud forest (that I have seen in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) rather than rainforest. It is magnificent; I am not sure I have been anywhere in the UK that feels so alive.

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Oak with ferns, mosses and lichens growing on it

The understorey is rich and varied. The diversity of fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, liverworts, slime moulds, ferns, orchids, and other higher plants was just staggering.

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And while I was there, I watched both Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher amongst the tits, treecreepers, thrushes and other common woodland birds.

When out on the heathland and flower-rich carefully grazed areas, I walked amongst more Meadow Pipits than I could count, as well as Lesser Redpoll, Corn Bunting, and Skylark. Apparently Spotted Crake have been recorded here, but they did not show for me. And things get even better when it comes to the invertebrates, with a particularly broad range of butterflies and moths: It is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary, although I was there too late in the year to see them, but was happy with a life first Scotch Argus:

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Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops)

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Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

I visited other temperate rainforests along the coast while I was there, and can say with some conviction that it is my favourite British habitat. I was at Taynish on a Saturday morning and did not see a single other person until I returned to my car. I cannot recommend a visit to this area highly enough.

The Scots Pine woods

Unless you have seen it, it is difficult to emphasise the contrast between the denuded highlands, or the lifeless timber plantations with the wonderfully rich habitats of true Scots Pine wood. Like the ancient oak woodland, these are tiny remnants of the once mighty Caledonian forest that cloaked much of Scotland until a few hundred years ago.

Unlike the semi-natural linoleum of dead needles that cover the floor of dark spruce plantations, the naturally-growing pine forests are carpeted with an array of ferns, juniper, grasses, and mosses. The understorey is teeming with life.

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Forest stream in Rothiemurcus

I came across huge Wood Ant nests, garish fungi, and some rather more familiar life-forms up above the forest floor:

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Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

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Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

But I didn’t go up to Scotland to see Coal Tit. I had other quarry in mind and I got one of my pine forest ticks at the beautiful setting of Loch an Eilein.

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Loch an Eilein

High up in the pines I heard, and then saw, a bird I am used to seeing in the Pyrenees, but had never come across in Britain; the wonderful Crested Tit.

But above and beyond ticking off birds, was an opportunity for me to reconnect with something we have all but entirely lost: our great forests, the wildwood, and quite simply… the wild. My emotional state reflected the woodland I visited; I felt alive.

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Fallow Deer doe (Dama dama)

Scottish sojourn: Part I (Raptor)

Scotland is beautiful.

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I actually can’t quite remember where this

This statement is so uncontroversial as to render it almost irrelevant. But it was driving almost 1000 miles around Isle of Mull, the South West coast, and the Cairngorms recently that it made this truism a truth again for me.

The lochs and the hills. So famous. And home to some spectacular wildlife, including some of the rarest and most impressive birds of prey in the United Kingdom.

Three of us travelled to Mull in search of eagles. Actually we may have been searching for different things, but I was definitely searching for eagles. White-tailed Eagle in particular. I had never seen one of these re-introduced giants before.

Despite there being two specially monitored breeding sites for tourists to see the eagles, the chicks have now fledged and are often away from the nest sites. And so it was when we visited. But we did have three sightings of these ‘flying barn doors’ all around the spectacular sea loch, Loch na Keal…

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Loch na Keal, Mull

On our first day we secured views of an adult and a juvenile on the hillside overlooking the loch. But on our second day, we were phenomenally lucky. We sat eating on the North East shore when an Eagle came straight towards us across the water. At first it resembled a Golden Eagle, but better views proved it to be a juvenile White-tailed- one of this year’s chicks. It was just an awesome being to behold. The largest bird of prey in the UK, and the fourth largest eagle in the world.
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Juvenile White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

We didn’t get as close to Golden Eagle, but they were there – sometimes just tiny specks soaring over the ridges, occasionally perching. Even when not seen, there is a sense of presence from these mountain gods looking down from their olympian heights at everything beneath them.

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Glen More, Mull

Buzzard are everywhere on Mull, helping to put context on the scale of the eagles. There is also another raptor I was searching for on Mull. A bird I know only from France, and from stories. A bird facing almost certain extinction in England due to horrific persecution from some criminally managed grouse estates. The ‘sky dancer’, a bird I have identified as a grey ghost. The Hen Harrier. We watched this male hunting over the moorland at one of the highest road-accessed points on the island, but were also lucky enough to see two ring-tails as well on  separate occasions…

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Record shot of Male Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Back on the mainland, I went to see the Osprey breeding site at Loch Garten (a rare occasion where I can show you a protected bird on a nest without breaking the law). Meet ‘Rowan’ the fledgling:

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Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

But I was also lucky enough to see this species twice more, including over the lochs around the ancient oak rain-forests (more on them in a later post) of the West coast:

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My experiences with these raptors were personal moments of some profundity to me. Each of the species above has experienced persecution. In the case of White-tailed Eagle that persecution has led to UK extinction, eventual reintroduction and now a slow recovery. In the case of the Hen Harrier the persecution continues and extinction gets closer. In this sad context, small victories are important like the petition to ban the sham of a country sport, driven grouse shooting, (note I am not necessarily against the hunting of grouse, just this particularly environmentally destructive practice) passing 100,000 signatures yesterday. Please do click here to sign up if you live in the UK: Sign here

Birding the Yucatan: Part V (The Island)

My wife on Isla Contoy

My wife on Isla Contoy

There exist few hospitable places left on earth that can claim to be truly ‘untouched’ or ‘unspoilt’, but given its accessibility, the small ‘Isla Contoy’ off the coast from Cancun, gets pretty close.

Only just over five miles long, this narrow strip of rock, sand, and mangrove only just peeks up above the turquoise waters of the Carribbean sea.

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boart

Isla Contoy seen on the approach from a boat

Much is made of the unspoilt wild beauty of the island, and it is very beautiful, but all is not quite what it seems. The island has secrets, and one of them is quite deadly.

First of all, it is certainly not a pristine habitat, untouched by the meddling influence of man. The scene of tropical paradise below is perhaps somewhat tainted if you realise that the palm trees should not actually be there at all, but were planted or introduced by humans…

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Introduced palm trees

In the foreground of the photo, and covering much of the island, is one of the four species of mangroves (more on them later as they are a clue to the island’s deadly secret).

The palms are not the only signs of the human touch. There are a few buildings, although literally only a few (in single digits), including a dock where visitors arrive, an observation tower where they look out, and a couple of habitations for the four or five rotating temporary conservation workers who are the only human residents. Aside from guides and scientists, only 200 tourists are permitted to visit a day, and must abide by a number of rules to protect the ecosystems (such as not wearing sun cream).

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View from the highest point on the island with dock and observation tower visible

While the human presence is thankfully small, there are large numbers of birds. Frigate birds in their many thousands use the islands as a breeding ground.

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Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

The chicks perch precariously (frigatebirds don’t actually ever truly perch, they just sort of rest on something) in the mangroves above the lagoons while large fish swim around menacingly below. Sometimes the chicks fall in the water.

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Frigatebird chick

Wading shorebirds visit the islands in large numbers as well. I stood on a small jetty photographing the Spoonbills (below) in the distance on a lagoon when a guide brought his tourists to look at them. He pointed at them and said in Spanish “Mira! Flamencos” (“Look! Flamingos”) – I didn’t embarrass him and, to be fair, they were quite far away and flamingos do apparently visit the island in large numbers, although I didn’t see any there.

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Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

There are good numbers of ibis, herons, and all manner of waders, big and small, including the the ultimate ‘shorebird’…

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(Ruddy Turnstone) Arenaria interpres

I photographed this chap on the beach as we boarded our boat home. The reason it fills the  whole frame is I couldn’t step back far enough or change my lens fast enough to get a more pleasant aspect.

Terns and other sea-birds can also be found circling, or come on to the island to roost or breed. And that’s it. I mean, we are talking over 150 species, so not bad for such a small island, but there are no passerines whatsoever on the island.

The reason there are no resident perching/song-birds or anything similar, or any resident mammals, is the same reason why the island has never been been fully inhabited by humans. There is no freshwater. No rivers, no springs, or ponds, just very salty lagoons.

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Lagoon and the ocean

Humans have visited the islands for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Mayan pottery and carved shells have been found, but these were likely left by visiting sea-farers. The island has only ever been accessible by boat.

On approach and departure from the island, for miles, the sea is shallow and almost impossibly turquoise. We did some snorkelling, although the reefs in this area are not large or in great condition. More impressive is the odd dark circular shape that we saw as the boat moved through the sea. At certain points these rock-like shapes were really quite numerous – and sometimes almost the size of a small car. And they were moving. The island and the sea around it is an important breeding area for sea turtles. In fact all four of the major turtles breed on the island’s beaches: Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, and the largest turtle in the world, the Leatherback.

We saw other dark shapes in the sea. From a distance it appeared to be a small black island, and then a floating mat of some sort. We got closer to see a densely packed flock (or ‘gulp’) of several hundred, maybe thousands, of cormorants…

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Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

As our boat powered alongside them, we all watched transfixed as the tightly packed gulp became a flight. The black shape, turned black and white by the splashing wings and feet, soon became an elongated cloud that stretched further than my camera lens could encompass and passed alongside and then out beyond the boat. It was a magnificent wild spectacle of the first order that is only poorly translated into pixels.

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Cormorants in flight

Trip list

Having finally come to the end of this rather long, serialised trip report of my time in Mexico, I can now include the trip list of species positively identified while we were out there.

As I said in a previous post, the list is nowhere near as long as it should have been, but it includes a number of life-firsts (marked below by a star*), and there were an even greater number of fantastic memories. The double-crested cormorants above, were not rare or unusual, but seeing this huge flock on a turquoise sea was an incredible experience I shall never forget. If you have the opportunity to visit the Yucatan, I heartily recommend it.

  1. Spotted Sandpiper
  2. Wilson’s Plover*
  3. Willet*
  4. Mangrove Warbler*
  5. Red-winged Blackbird
  6. Groove-billed Ani
  7. Tropical Kingbird
  8. Least Tern*
  9. Great Egret
  10. Palm Warbler*
  11. Dunlin
  12. Greater Yellowlegs*
  13. Black-necked Stilt*
  14. Mangrove Swallow*
  15. Mangrove Vireo*
  16. Tropical Mockingbird*
  17. Tri-coloured Heron*
  18. American Flamingo
  19. Royal Tern*
  20. Brown Pelican
  21. White Pelican
  22. Laughing Gull
  23. Caspian Tern
  24. Turnstone
  25. Sandwich Tern
  26. Ring-billed Gull
  27. Ruddy Ground Dove
  28. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher*
  29. Yellow Warbler
  30. White-winged Dove*
  31. Golden-fronted Woodpecker*
  32. Osprey
  33. Green Heron
  34. Black Vulture
  35. Northern Jacana
  36. Anhinga
  37. Altimara Oriole*
  38. Social Flycatcher
  39. Magnolia Warbler*
  40. Cinnamon Hummingbird*
  41. Black-crowned Night Heron*
  42. Pygmy Kingfisher*
  43. Lesser Scaup
  44. Double-crested Cormorant
  45. Reddish Egret*
  46. Vermillion Flycatcher
  47. Lesser Yellowlegs*
  48. Blue-winged Teal
  49. White Ibis
  50. Great Blue Heron
  51. Wilson’s Phalarope
  52. Empidonax (sp?) Flycatcher
  53. Turquoise-browed Motmot*
  54. Hooded Oriole*
  55. Clay-coloured Thrush
  56. Yellow-olive Flatbill*
  57. Greyish Saltator*
  58. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  59. Lesser Greenlet*
  60. Spot-breasted Wren*
  61. Turkey Vulture
  62. Hawk (sp?)
  63. Brown Jay
  64. Great-tailed Grackle
  65. Bronzed Cowbird*
  66. Great Kiskadee
  67. Red-throated Ant Tanager*
  68. Rose-throated Becard*
  69. White-bellied Wren*
  70. Myiarchus (sp?) Flycatcher
  71. Plain Chachalaca*
  72. Roseate Spoonbill
  73. American Golden Plover*
  74. Cave Swallow*
  75. Euphonia (sp?)
  76. Barn Swallow
  77. Northern Cardinal
  78. Collared Dove
  79. Black-cowled Oriole*
  80. Common Ground Dove*
  81. Feral Pigeon
  82. Yucatan Jay*
  83. Snowy Egret
  84. Yucatan Wren* (heard only)

*= Life Tick.

Peregrine: hit the deck!

So there I was, doing my tree survey (more on that another time) and minding my own business when a delinquent juvenile came and shook everything up. Literally!

I was by Alexandra lake when I noticed a lot of bird alarm calling. Then everything hit the deck or the water… crows, gulls, and pigeons all happily circling a minute earlier were suddenly grounded. I ran out from under the trees expecting to see a Peregrine passing high overhead. But it wasn’t. It was dive bombing birds on the ground!

There is a steep hillock on the western side of Alex and the Peregrine was out of view so I ran some more along the northern shore and around the side of the hill to hopefully get a better view.

“Be careful what you wish for” old people like saying. I now think they have a point. As I emerged into view of the pitches, the Peregrine was hurtling straight towards me at head height! For half a second I genuinely thought it was going to attack me, and even with hindsight, I think for half a second it actually contemplated it, but it pulled up hard and over me and it was then that I realised what was ‘wrong’. As it exposed its undersides to me, in my closest ever experience with a wild Peregrine, I could see the heavy streaking rather than the usual barring; it was a juvenile.

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Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I thought it would take a lot to top my Peregrine experience last week. But, this was something else. For the next ten minutes or so, I watched this youngster race around like some kind of avian joy-rider. Nothing was going to stop it and it would quite like to kill EVERYONE! I watched it plummet on a grounded crow, knock it sideways, and then try and jump on it from just a few feet away (this second time sidestepped by the stunned corvid).

It circled around the pitches like it was a Nascar racer. There was none of the careful watching from on high, followed by a well-aimed stoop, this was just hit and run. Soon, the grounded birds got fed up, or rather, pissed off. Some of the gulls and crows took off to mob this angry annoyance.

Thousands and thousands of generations of genetic programming have turned the Peregrine into a fine tuned killer. Every one of its physical attributes, its senses, and – most importantly perhaps – its instincts are honed to kill. This juvenile had those instincts in spades – possibly heightened by teenage hormones (I am clearly making this up now, but watching it did make me wonder), but not all that much of the skill or preciseness of an adult.

Courageous crows would mob the Peregrine, but then – using manoeuvring that would not be out of place in a Star Wars space battle scene – the falcon would turn the tables and attack its attackers. At one point, it sped towards a London Plane tree, surprised a perched crow and snatched at it with its talons sending the corvid spinning. The crow survived, the Peregrine had only a black feather in its talons.

If my description thus far has failed to persuade you that this falcon was a furious, feathered teenager, then try this out for size… it kept hold of the feather and landed on the football pitches where it proceeded to jump and stamp, and tear and rip at the feather like petulant brat…

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Peregrine attacking crow … err… feather

I am not sure who was more breath-taken: the falcon or me. It looked up angrily as gulls dive bombed it before taking off and repeating the process all over again. It landed three more times! Hopefully this youngster will soon improve its hunting skills.

Last week, I saw a family of Peregrines, and today I watched a juvenile practise hunting, all on the patch. They have clearly bred close by and I hope today’s experience is the beginning of more close encounters with these fantastic birds on the patch.

The Two Towers

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers, Leytonstone

I was surveying trees on the patch when something caught my eye above the tree-line. Four shapes danced and tumbled together acrobatically in the air. It was a family of Peregrine. They raced, swerved, practised food hand-offs, and span, all with dizzying speed. These were the closest and best views I have had of Peregrine on the patch – they normally seem to be on their way somewhere else, but today this bit of sky was their play and bonding ground.

With no cliffs or hills on the ‘Flats’ (the clue’s in the name), the falcons eventually came to rest, split up and perched on the two towers:

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco perigrinus)

The towers they perched on are 50 years old this year. They are the tallest local structures and stand like sentinels over the Wanstead Flats. When I return from a day on the patch, I head towards the towers as that is my direction home. I can even see them and their neapolitan-style colouration (representing the green of the flats, the beige and grey of the urban, and the blue of the sky – or so I assume) from my office window several miles to the south in Canary Wharf.

I have always had a soft spot for the best of the 1960’s brutalist architecture: the scale, the clean angles, the functionality, and the fact that so many people love to hate them. These local features mean something to me and so I recently bought some original artwork to celebrate them:

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Hand drawing of ‘Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers’ by Sarah Evans aka Oscar Francis

In the shadow of the towers stretches something much older: Evelyn Avenue and the grass land, scrub, and copses of the semi-re-wilding ‘School Scrub’ of the Wanstead Flats.

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Evelyn Avenue

This time last week, I assisted with a wildlife walk in the area…

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Me showing a temporarily captured Small Heath butterfly to a group of locals

Shortly after this was taken I also found the first ringlet butterfly on the patch this year. This evening, after heavy rains, the grasses only gave up the odd Skipper butterfly as well as hundreds of tiny Garden Grass Veneer micro moths (Chrysoteuchia culmella).

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Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

In recent weeks I have seen all three resident species of the Skipper family in the area (the other two being the ‘Large’ and the ‘Essex’). All being grassland specialists, they seem to be doing well on the patch. The Wanstead Flats is surely the richest grassland habitat in London, and possibly in any major city.

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Grasses in School Scrub

Wildlife notes: On pioneers and procreation on the patch

Warning: the text that follows is relatively lengthy. These are taken from some of my observation notes from walking around the patch. It is also possible that some people may find some of the subject matter distressing, although I would hope not.

The Warbler of Oz

I have already noted how the first Cetti’s Warbler has recently arrived on the patch. Cetti’s are, of course, famously elusive. Often incredibly difficult to even get a glimpse of. Although their shyness contrasts with their explosively loud territorial song.

Where they are common, it often seems as if they are protecting a relatively small patch of reeds, not needing to sing-out from the reed/tree tops like other birds because of their penetrating voice. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz, a relatively unassuming bird hiding behind a curtain of reeds and some trickery to make their voice appear supernaturally loud.

The new Wanstead Cetti’s is elusive to type – this is the best photo I have managed to steal of it, just an eye peering out from behind a curtain of Blackthorn:

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Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

But in other ways, the Wanstead Cetti’s is atypical. It clearly does not have an established territory yet and is highly mobile – I have heard it call at different places up and down the Roding, Tony and I followed it from bush to bush the other weekend although only getting fleeting glances, and we think it is the same bird that was also singing on Alex lake, several hundred metres away.

The only explanation I can think of is that it is a pioneer. As the species expands its numbers across the area, young birds are forced to find new territories. Males like ours find a new suitable habitat and spend time finding the best parts and, of course, singing for a mate.

As a classicist, I foolishly attempt to apply literary terms and motifs to natural phenomena, but even I am struggling with this one. A territorial song delivered where there is no rival to defend your territory from? A love song designed to attract a mate that is not there? It is like some sort of anti-soliloquy: rather than a monologue delivered to nobody but always heard by an audience; it is more a monologue aimed at an audience that is simply not there. Unless of course a few birders count as the audience.

Other patch pioneers

If it is any consolation, the Cetti’s, whilst alone, is not alone. Elsewhere on the patch, we have other birds singing to no-one. Our Chiffchaff-mimicking Willow Warbler is probably singing somewhat futilely now – although I am not 100% sure that a mate has not arrived. Similarly, its neighbour in Motorcycle Wood, the Garden Warbler, is still singing full pelt which might suggest it has not succeeded in drawing a mate out of the sky… out of thin air almost.

In Wanstead Park, we have two or three singing male Reed Warbler. At least one is quieter now and I have seen it with a female. But another is still singing its little heart out across the pond in the vain hope that it will woo a taken female, or summon a new female down from above.

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Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Sexual stories

Some resident birds have less trouble ‘attracting’ a mate. Today I was lucky enough to watch Coots mating at close quarters. Coot is a common water bird, and they always seem to be fighting, displaying, f***ing, or rearing young. But, actually, I realise today I have never really watched ‘the act’ itself as closely as I might have imagined. Here are my notes from today:

Male following female closely but slowly through the water. Male, insistent, neck outstretched, flat, and emitting loud ‘pitt!’ call repeatedly. Female swimming away, but clearly deliberately not escaping, given speed. Suddenly, female seems satisfied, turns body to side and plunges head beneath the water raising rump in the air. The male climbs on top of the female with its feet on her back. Initial motions seem almost ceremonial, female raises head briefly for breath, then plunges again and lifts rump and ruffles feathers more. Coitus clearly occurs although both birds’ cloaca remain invisible throughout. Act lasts a few seconds, and birds swim off although remain close by each other.

Not exactly romantic, but somewhat ritualistic like waterbird courtship. Fascinating! There  is, of course, another water fowl’s sexual antics which is infamous.

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The picture above hangs in my house. It can be looked at in many different ways, but I like to think it is a light-hearted warning against anthropomorphisation of animals. Every bird depicted is a predator and labelled, not by name, but simply as ‘murderer’. With one exception: the Mallard (‘rapist’). Anyone who has witnessed Mallards mating knows why this is. Here are my notes from a few weeks ago, also from Perch pond:

Perch pond. Two drake Mallard pursuing female frantically. Both attempting to mate. One appears more successful and is pinning the hen using typical neck-biting technique, although often both males are biting her. Female is struggling to stay above water as both males are on top of her. Vigorous thrashing and struggling lasts for some time. [I am genuinely fearful for the hen’s safety. I have never witnessed a drowning, but know that they occur] Eventually one of the drakes appears to give up and swims a little distance away. Copulation appears to continue, although may have just begun. Successful drake dismounts and swims off in opposite direction. Hen Mallard pursues successful drake, appearing intent on remaining close to copulating partner.

Of course, from human eyes, the act appears violent and abhorrent. It is literally difficult to watch. I was willing the female to get out of the water so that, at least, the risk of drowning was removed. Part of me even wanted to scare the drakes away, although my better self put such a silly idea aside. The aspect that fascinated me most was the hen’s behaviour after coitus. She pursued the successful drake closely, but without any signs of distress or violent intent. I can only imagine that if the act was successful and her eggs are fertilised then it is in her interest to remain close to her mate… successful brood rearing is more likely if both parents are present.

The next stage in the process

New life is everywhere on the patch at the moment. Every bush seems to emit the high-pitched begging calls of chicks. Nests are sat on and young are being demanding – the cycle of life that has existed ever since that first egg hatched (the egg definitely came before the chicken by the way – although species allocation is a human construct, and delineation between species is never clear-cut – at some point, there had to be a switch-over when an egg contains a chicken but the parents would have been designated as the closely related predecessors to a chicken).

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Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with young on nest

Today I witnessed another scene that is difficult for modern human sensibilities. A Lesser Black-backed Gull swooped down and plucked a young coot chick from the nest with the mother sitting on top of it! I have seen many a cootlet and duckling taken from the water, but never from underneath the mother on the nest. There was a moment of squawking from the parents, but then the  Gull was off and the chick was swallowed.

If you are not feeling great reading this, let me end on a more cheerful note. I defy you not to find the photo below cute. This is actually just off the patch and in a garden near where I live and was taken a few days ago. A rather scraggy vixen and her two cubs:

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Red Fox family (Vulpes vulpes)