Monthly Archives: February 2015

A map of trees

I thought we should take a break from birding, but I wanted to take you back to Bush Wood on my ‘patch’ for a different journey.

The science of studying and making maps, Cartography, is both ancient and noble. It can be a science and/or an art. What I lack in both scientific knowledge and artistic technique, I make up for in enthusiasm. As I paced up and down the confusing set of woodland paths, I started to sketch a map in my notebook. I have since ironed out the more intricate kinks and bends and plumped for a simplistic depiction of where the paths lie projected on to a Google satellite image of Bush Wood. Duh daaa…

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

OK. It is a pretty slap-dash job, but I would welcome anyone who can show me a better map of the paths of Bush Wood – the lines shown on an Ordinance Survey map seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the actual footpaths (and no, I wasn’t just reading it upside down!).

Bush Wood is not the most diverse woodland you will have encountered and is mainly dominated by Oak, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, and Holly (the last two of which, along with an enormous quantity of bramble, makes much of Bush Wood – off the beaten tracks – virtually impenetrable). These plants have been expertly documented by Paul Ferris in his survey of the area.

Walking, or – more accurately at the moment given the amount of water – squelching around the paths is a little confusing, but the markers that help provide bearings – for me at least – are some of the more notable trees.

Please note all the following photos were taken on my iPhone as I was too paranoid I might happen upon an interesting bird, I refused to take my zoom lens off my camera.

Some of the trees are so distinctive looking in shapes that they are readily remembered such as this hornbeam:

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Or this oak with the preposterously long lower branch:

At least I think it is oak - I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

At least I think it is oak – I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

Here is another shot of the same tree(s) but – just to show what a health and safety rebel / idiot (delete as appropriate) I am – with me standing underneath that preposterously long branch:

Oak

Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?

Tree

The biggest trees in Bush Wood are not oak or hornbeam, but a small number of Sweet Chestnut. And the biggest of all – a tree that is at least 300 years old – is a well hidden ancient giant known as the witch’s tree:

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Unfortunately, my iPhone does not give a sense of scale, but it really is a bruiser of a tree. Even its fallen leaves are big:

Sweet Chestnut

You also can’t see the extent to which the roots are exposed at the bottom. If you are wondering why it is called the witch’s tree, choose whichever of the following explanations you prefer:

1) Around 400 years ago a woman was accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. In the writhing agony of death she was seen to scream out an incomprehensible curse. A great tree grew from a seed on the spot where she died. It had a complex set of exposed roots that were twisted and contorted like burnt limbs. The gaps are easily wide enough for a child, or even a reasonable-sized adult to crawl through. But, those carefree fools who crawl between the roots/limbs of the witch’s tree invariably fall sick, and some die. A coincidence perhaps, poisonous soil perchance, or maybe it is the manifestation of a doomed woman’s curse?

2) As the summer solstice sun sets, they say that young witches dance naked around this hidden tree. Some say that at the right time of year, the tree imparts vitality and extended youth into those who properly worship its wild antiquity.

3) I don’t know why it is called that. Sorry!

Before I get carried away with tales of magic, I wanted to re-post my map, but this time with four of the interesting trees plotted and marked, maybe to help you one day find the witch’s tree and its fellows:

Bush Wood tree map

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part VII (Reflections and echoes of wildlife)

Echoes in the woods
This morning I spent several hours carefully ‘working’ Bush Wood in the patch. Bush Wood is the most densely wooded section of the Wanstead Flats and is home, or stopping point, for several species of bird I would like to add to my patch list, namely: Firecrest; Treecreeper; Nuthatch; and, Tawny Owl.

I worked the area hard – slowing walking up and down every path in the wood (in fact I actually sketched out a map as I went, which I may share on this blog another day) listening and looking carefully.

I confess I also resorted to the controversial birding technique of ‘playback’ (also know as ‘tape-luring’) where I used an app to play the bird calls/song of the target species.

I would never use playback during breeding season, anywhere where other birders are likely to be in ear-shot, or for rare birds, but it can be a useful technique. It is certainly a step up from traditional ‘pishing’ where one aims to mimic a bird through whistling etc

I played Treecreeper a few times in select locations and Nuthatch and Firecrest a couple of times each, but had no luck. In fact, I started to wonder whether playback was an effective technique at all, or whether any of these species were anywhere near this wood. So, I tried another bird call. This time, one which I had not seen thus far in the day, but I do already have on my patch list for the year: Coal Tit. The effects were immediate! My phone had barely played a few notes when the tiny bird zoomed onto a nearby branch and was noisily responding to the apparent intruder in its territory. I felt a mix of joy and guilt and watched it move around, calling loudly and obviously listening for the non-existent competitor. As it moved further away, I relaxed enough to remember my camera and tried to get its picture. Whilst the shot below was poor quality, there was no way I was going to pull that stunt again just to get a better photo:

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Corvid reflections
After my careful working of Bush Wood, I walked more quickly around the rest of the patch, which currently has more water on it than I have seen before (although I know that in years’ passed the area has effectively been turned into a giant lake).

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Mirror, mirror, on the floor, who’s the wickedest bird of ‘lore?
Carrion Crow

The crow’s connection with evil is well known, and now – thankfully – people are instead realising that crows are one of the most intelligent species of bird.

Fleeting glimpses
A male kestrel hovered close by me. I began to take out my camera. It hovered lower, and then lower, and then plummeted to the ground so violently it made me jump. I watched to see if it had caught anything and got this picture of it:

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Just as I got to a respectable range to watch it, two teenage girls seemed to appear out of nowhere and ran past, flushing the small falcon. They were almost as startled as the bird as it flapped up right in front of them and flew away (I muttered in annoyance as I never did see if its plunge had been successful).

Shortly afterwards, I watched the resident flock of Linnets flit about near their preferred area around the Jubilee pond – there are sometimes up to 20 in the parcel. Yes, ‘parcel’ is the collective noun for linnets (somewhat less menacing than a ‘murder’ of crows!). One female stopped long and close enough for me to grab a quick shot:

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

I only saw the Linnet and Kestrel for a few seconds each, but even more fleeting were a Kingfisher (being chased by a crow in Wanstead Park) and a Common Buzzard flying high and quickly out of sight away from the park, but nevertheless, they were special glimpses for me. The Kingfisher was my second on the patch and only the third or fourth I have seen in London. The Buzzard was a new bird for me on the patch this year and so became my 60th tick for the year.

On my walk back I stopped at one of the smallest ponds on the Flats, Cat and Dog pond (apparently so named because it only really fills up when it rains ‘cats and dogs’ [DIGRESSION: I once had an english student in Spain who would delight in telling me that it was raining cats and dogs if it even so much as spat or drizzled a few drops – bless him!])

I was looking for a Snipe – which would have also been a patch tick for me – and which has been seen there recently. I didn’t see any snipe, but as I approached the water there was a sudden splash of movement below me. I just about caught sight of something brownish that I suspect was a mammal – it would have flown if it was a bird and it didn’t look like an out-of-season amphibian. I suspect it was just a brown rat in the water, but I like to imagine that it was a Water Vole (I have no idea how a water vole could have crossed traffic to get there though). I looked suspiciously at a number of tunnels and holes near the water and wondered, just wondered…

Who's been hiding here?

Who’s been hiding here?

Species of bird seen today: cast in order of appearance
Starling
Goldfinch
Wood Pigeon
House Sparrow (there is only really one bush where these guys hang out)
Black-headed Gull
Feral Pigeon
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Song Thrush
Wren
Robin
Wood Pigeon
Great-spotted Woodpecker
Long-tailed Tit
Magpie
Carrion Crow
Blackbird
Sparrowhawk
Stock Dove
Cormorant
Goldcrest
Coal Tit
Dunnock
[all the above were seen in Bush Wood apart from the sparrows]
Tufted Duck
Mute Swan
Mallard
Pochard
Great-crested Grebe
Gadwall
Coot
Moorhen
Shoveler
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Parakeet
Buzzard
Kestrel
Greylag Goose
Common Gull
Jackdaw
Grey Heron
Mistle Thrush
Greenfinch
Jay
Green Woodpecker
Egyptian Goose
Pied Wagtail
Linnet
[total seen today: 47]

Saint Valentine’s twitch

Being a romantic soul, I travelled up to Nottingham to be with my wife – who is currently touring in a play – for Valentine’s day. As she had to rehearse in the day, I spent Saturday birding in the North Midlands.

Local bird alerts informed me that a Glossy Ibis was nearby. About 20 birds visit the UK each year (a marked increase on a decade ago or more) and I believe the British Birds Rarities Committee has removed it from its list because it is understood to be undergoing an expansion of range since it settled and bred in Spain about 20 years ago.

Whatever the official status, for me this is a rare bird, although one I have seen before (a pair visited Dungeness about four years ago while I was there). Somebody had kindly posted a map of the field it had been seen in, in a little village called Gonalston:

Where's Glossy?

Where’s Glossy?

I hoped I might see other birders who could pin-point the bird for me, but arrived early and alone. I had barely had time to raise my binoculars to my face over the hedge when I saw it. Whilst a hedge and birding manners prevented from getting close enough to get a good shot, I at least managed to record my first Nottinghamshire twitch (going in search of specific bird and finding it – in case you aren’t familiar with the proper definition of the over-used term) in pixels:

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

It was feeding busily until other birders arrived. It then decided to tuck its distinctive beak into its wing and sleep (“Early bird” I was thinking smugly).

I drove on for my second attempted twitch of the day. This time not such a rare species as the Glossy, but in many ways more special for me – as they were life firsts.

I drove to Besthorpe nature reserve towards Lincoln where I heard that two of our winter migrant swan species had been spotted a few days earlier.

Besthorpe reserve

Whooper and Bewick’s Swans migrate to the UK in their thousands, but tend to settle in only a few select areas. They are famous at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where the late great Sir Peter Scott studied them.

DIGRESSION ALERT Sir Peter Scott is one of the greatest naturalists of the 20th Century (founder of both the WWF and WWT). My favourite, and poignant, story about his life actually concerned his more famous father, Captain Robert Scott (of the Antarctic): Captain Scott’s last letter to his wife (soon-to-be-widow) as he faced death in the tent with his fellow explorers in the Antarctic blizzard included a line about his son, the young Peter, who he knew he would never see again. It said, “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games”. This wonderfully prescient or inspirational (depending on how you deem it influenced the outcome) comment became truer than he could have ever hoped.

I finished watching some noisy Redshank and a lone Oystercatcher – a far cry from the hundreds I saw the weekend before at Dungeness – and was deciding whether to turn left and walk around the reserve in a circle, or right and walk along the river Trent. As I looked right, I could see a flicker of white through a hedge that looked like a Swan, so I chose ‘right’.

That flicker of white was a Mute Swan – but there were almost 40 swans in the field by the great river:

Swans

There were Mute Swans spread out throughout the field, but in the middle, there was a tight bank of swans keeping to themselves. I admit to being really quite excited when I saw the distinctive yellow on the beaks of these swans. There were 16 Whooper Swans and 2 of the slightly smaller Bewicks:

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)

If we look in more closely, you can see the triangular yellow markings of these Icelandic migrants – the nominate species of the great Cygnus genus no less:

Closer up of the Whoopers

Closer up of the Whoopers

From a distance I started carefully studying their faces as my hands almost froze to my binoculars (I left my gloves in London). Sir Peter Scott – an accomplished artist – kept notebooks with drawings of the facial markings of the swans at Slimbridge – which he also founded – and was able to identify individual birds from their particular marks. I was simply trying find a Swan with slightly less yellow on its face – quite hard as they were far away and often had their heads in the grass feeding.

I eventually found two of the Bewick’s Swans – which luckily chimed with what other birders had reported. There is currently an ornithological debate over whether Bewick’s Swans are sub-species of Tundra Swans or full species in their own right. Either way, I marvelled at how these similar looking swans – Whoopers and Bewick’s – migrated in from vastly different places (Iceland and Siberia respectively) and came together in the same little field in Nottinghamshire alongside our native Mutes. Forgive the the dreadful quality, but I wanted to show that I really did manage to single out a Bewick’s:

Bewick's Swan (Cygnus [columbianus] bewickii)

Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus [columbianus] bewickii) and a Mute Swan in foreground

Three successful twitches in a row! Could I make it four?

I drove back to Nottingham to the wrong side of Holme Pierrepont waterspouts centre. What do I mean by the ‘wrong side’? Well, I mean this:

A52

A52

There is a large lake known as the A52 Pit – because it sits next to the dual carriageway of the A52 – which is the private property of a farmer who does not like birders tramping over his land. As you may be able to see on the photo above, birders dangerously pull over on the dual carriageway to peer from a distance at the water. I parked more safely further away and then walked next to the hurtling traffic for a mile or so.

Not exactly the wilderness or pastoral idyll that many have in mind when they think of the quaint hobby of birding. So why were we doing this? The large and inaccessable lake had hundreds of Wigeon on it. But amongst the Wigeon, was a rare vagrant – an American Wigeon. I was too far away to properly see without a scope, but I did manage to pick out Smew and Goldeneye and took this landscape as a memento for ‘dipping’ one out of a wonderful four:

No American Wigeon in sight

No American Wigeon in sight

Throughout the day, I added six species to my UK year list taking me to 95 for the year so far:

  • Whooper Swan
  • Bewick’s Swan
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Buzzard
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Bullfinch

Sand, shingle, and sky… and a Great White

After a solid day’s birding on the local patch on Saturday, I travelled south on Sunday as far as I could go – which is just under 80 miles to the South Kent coast and the headland of Dungeness.

Any birders or photographers in the UK will be very familiar with Dungeness, but if you are unfamiliar with it, the simplest way to describe it would be to say that it is a wonderfully strange place:

Dungeness

The photo above was taken in the RSPB nature reserve and you can see the nuclear power station in the distance and one hell of a lot of shingle in between. In fact, Dungeness has one the largest concentrations of shingle in Europe. So much so, that it can be seen from space:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Apparently, due to this geology, the Met Office classifies Dungeness as the only desert in the UK. British pub quiz fans may be furrowing their brow now as we are taught that the Tabernas desert in Spain is the only desert in Europe (I once walked for several miles through the Tabernas in midsummer wearing flip-flops – very uncomfortable – with some friends to go to a nudist beach, but… ahem… back to birding). Either way, the shingle is incredible and despite its designation as a desert, it is wonderfully rich in wildlife (as I have blogged about before).

I snapped some common birds, such as Kestrel (c.46,000 pairs in the UK):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Some less common, such as Kingfisher (c.4,000 pairs):

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Common (or Eurasian) Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Some scarce, such as Smew (c.180 birds visit the UK each winter, with several at Dungeness on Sunday):

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Smew (Mergus albellus)

Another scarce bird I should have photographed was the (Eurasian/Great) Bittern, as I watched this incredibly secretive bird take off in front of me – looking at first like a Grey Heron wearing a tiger-print costume – whilst I had my camera in pieces after taking a landscape shot:

This is where the bittern was - doh!

This is where the bittern was – doh!

And finally, I also got a poor quality shot of a downright rare bird, Great White Egret (c. 35 birds visit the UK each winter and at times a significant proportion can be at Dungeness):

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

Great White Egret (Ardea alba)

OK! I admit I shamelessly used the words ‘Great White’ in the title of this blog post to lure people into thinking it was about a large shark

Throughout the day at Dungeness and Romney Sands, I added 9 species of bird to my UK year list to take it to a total of 88).

As well as some of those above, these 9 also included one of the most exciting birding spectacles anyone can ever see: watching the fastest bird-of-prey hunt at high speeds. By the time I got the distant photo below, the Peregrine had narrowly missed a Lapwing it sent spinning in mid-air, and perched on the telegraph pole while thousands – yes, literally thousands – of Lapwing remained in the air and rightly on edge:

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

I also just managed to get this poor shot of the only stoat I have ever photographed as it bounded around in the grass under the inquisitive – but not really very threatening – eye of the kestrel above:

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

I then moved on to nearby Lydd-on-Sea and spent a couple of hours walking on the shingle beach…

Lydd-on-Sea

… and then a sandy beach …

Lydd

… as the sun went down over the largely empty beach at low tide. In the distance, you can see the white line as the waves break. But looking closer, you can see that the first white line is not actually the breaking waves, but instead a line of thousands of gulls and waders:

Beach

I saw Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Sanderling (see below)…

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

… as well as several hundred Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Just to recap on the new birds I saw which added to my UK 2015 list:
– Bittern
– Great White Egret (UK first for me – I have also seen them in Costa Rica)
– Smew
– Bar-tailed Godwit
– Oystercatcher
– Sanderling
– Peregrine
– Red-legged Partridge
– Chiffchaff

Wanstead Patchwork: Part VI (Fair in field and red of wing, the winter thrushes are the kings)

This weekend has seen some epic birding – it has worn me out, but luckily I have a week in the office to recover 😉

Seriously though, I spent almost 8 hours out on the patch yesterday and drove down for a day at Dungeness today. More on Dungeness later, but now, I wanted to get up-to-date on patch antics.

I have been complaining how long it has taken me to spot the winter thrushes. Then, like buses, they all come at once.

Nick alerted me to a single Fieldfare which was flitting between tree and grass as a flurry of joggers and dog-walkers disturbed its feeding alongside two Mistle Thrush. As per always, I won’t win any photo prizes for this, but I thought I had better show as well as tell:

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

I also finally saw a Redwing, but was too busy tweeting my delight to get a photograph (if you think that is a bad excuse, wait until you hear my Bittern story from today). Aside from my slight ineptitude, Fieldfare and Redwing really do seem to have been scarce on the Flats this year so far. There certainly seem less of them than there were pre-Christmas, and other birders have confirmed this. Perhaps there are not enough berries. Nevertheless, those winter thrushes have now taken my patch list for the year to 59.

But my long walk around the patch – which included exploring Leyton Flats and the River Roding for the first time – produced more than just thrushes, albeit they were my only birding patch ‘ticks’…

 Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) - I think

Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) – I think

River Roding

River Roding

Red Fox  (Vulpes vulpes)

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Long Wood

Wanstead Patchwork: Part V (a royal twitch)

I seem to have increased my 2015 patch list by one almost by accident. I was in the graveyard of St Mary the Virgin (the only Grade I listed building in Redbridge don’t y’know?) and watching a Collared Dove when I realised it wasn’t on my list for the year yet. I am not entirely clear if it really was the first CD I have seen on the patch this year, or whether I just overlooked it before. Either way, that is 56 seen on the patch this year now:

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Later that morning I stood on a cold and wet playing field looking at a flock (or if I were to be accurate with my collective nouns, a ‘colony’) of around 280 Common Gulls. Actually, I wasn’t looking at the Common Gulls at all, I was staring at a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls willing them to be a bit bigger, blacker, and have pink legs so I could add Great Black-backed Gull to my patch year list…

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

… I was shaken out of my wistful staring by Nick Croft who joined me to look at the gulls. As Nick already has GBBG for his list, and because he isn’t as silly as me, he was not trying to morph one species into another. But he was studying the colony in case a rarity such as Caspian Gull (only seen once on the Flats) should be concealed amongst the Commons.

We chatted for a while – Nick is a local expert who generously shares his knowledge and tips about where and when I might see what. I had barely turned my back and walked a few hundred yards when Nick informed me via Twitter that he had seen two more species missing from my year-list: Redwing and Fieldfare. By then however, I had gone a bit too far in the rain to turn back, and I must confess another bird was occupying my mind. Before we had parted, Nick told me how a Scaup had been seen in Kensington Gardens. Slap bang in Central London!

I had recently dipped seeing a Scaup in Nottinghamshire, and it was still a lifer (I’ve never seen one before) for me, so I left the Flats and jumped on the Tube to the West End. The weather was miserable, but I arrived at Round Pond – created by George II in 1730 and in view of Kensington Palace – and immediately started scanning the water.

Round Pond

Typically, this rare inland visitor (apparently the first in Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens for three years and only the second in over a decade), was patrolling around in the middle of the lake, about as far from view as he possibly could be … (yes that dot is the Scaup)

Scaup

Nick had warned me that the bird was ‘scruffy’, and he wasn’t wrong. I think this young male is moulting and just starting to show patches of grey and white that will soon cover it more extensively and smartly (WARNING! – Distant record shot coming up!)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

I left the Scaup and almost immediately bumped into another patch birding expert, Ralph Hancock, who pointed me in the direction of a couple of owl holes. A local Tawny Owl was certainly not showing, and whilst I thought I saw something move in a hole Ralph told me housed a Little Owl, I couldn’t really tick something which could have just as easily been a squirrel.

So, I walked down to the Serpentine – surely the most well-known man-made lake in the UK – and snapped some of the commoner cousins of the Scaup, Tufted Duck and Pochard:

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

I would complain that ‘why couldn’t the Scaup have come that close?’, but Buddhist wisdom teaches that, “complaining erases good fortune”, so I shall hold my tongue and just be grateful that I saw a bird I have never seen before in one of the busiest parks in the heart of London.

Post Scriptum: Sunday 1 February
I nipped out this morning just after dawn for a quick walk around Bush Wood. I glanced at the Common Gulls on playing fields through the trees and saw something big and black & white in the distance. Looking through my bins confirmed that this time I did not have to imagine the size, the blackness, or the pink legs – they were all there. I whipped out my camera and got a shot before walking to get a much closer shot. The gull must have smelt my eagerness on the wind and took off flying incredibly close to a tower block and then behind it in the strong wind. Anyone waking up and looking out of their window and seeing that giant gull a few meters from their face would probably get a bit of a shock. Whilst I was disappointed not to get a closer picture, I did get a fuzzy super-distant shot of my 57th bird on the patch for 2015:

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)