Monthly Archives: March 2015

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XII (Hearing is believing)

I was blind, but now I see
I woke up this morning blind. My eyes were glued together by the revolting discharge that is caused by conjunctivitis. A cold I have been fighting – and twice smugly proclaimed victory over – has finally bloomed and seems to have infected my eyes as well my respiratory system.

I am sat in bed useless and ill but quietly pleased I have not been missing too much on the patch as the weather is atrocious.

Yesterday, before this rhino of a virus (do you see what I did there?) charged me down, I went out early to conduct my breeding bird survey of Bush Wood.

A job for ears, not eyes
Even before my corneal membranes became infected, my eyes were somewhat redundant as this survey is all about singing birds, not about birds seen, and I often don’t see the birds I am ticking at all.

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Some bird counts were up (Chiffchaff arrivals were clear), some were the same (as with the Song Thrush above), and some were down (sadly I didn’t hear any singing Coal Tit or Goldcrest – although I am sure they are still there). It will need more weeks of work before any really useful trends can be drawn.

But I did also witness some wonderful breeding bird behaviour including a fascinating courtship dance between a pair of Green Woodpecker on a tree trunk which followed shortly after this chap chased a female around for a bit (I have noticed recently how much courting Woodpeckers – Great Spots in particular – love chasing each other around):

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Drinkers beware!
With my ears straining to cut through traffic noise, Blue Tit song, and the cackling and cawing corvids to be able to hear the songs of the birds I am counting, as well as peering up at the trees (in the vague hope of seeing an elusive Nuthatch or Treecreeper), my survey work means I am probably missing a lot of stuff at ground level. If there are any new wildflowers out, I didn’t see them, but I did see this mini fungal jungle which I may well have mis-identified:

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap gets its name from the black liquid produced after being picked or by the withering cap – in antiquity it was used as ink.

However, this fungus has another name – Tipplers bane. The mushrooms are edible, but only if you are teetotal. The chemicals contained in this fungus are hyper-sensitive to alcohol and will cause palpitations and severe nausea if ingested even within days of sipping alcohol.

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part XI (68 singing males)

Bird auditing

This morning I got up just after dawn to conduct a breeding bird survey of Bush Wood on my local patch. Tim Harris, Chairman of the Wren conservation group had walked me around last weekend and so I had some data to compare my morning count with.

I walked around feeling a little precocious with a clipboard and got some strange looks from early-morning dog-walkers, but I scribbled numbers on to a roughly sketched map of my area. I am following quite a strict rule of only counting singing males.

"I have a clipboard so I'm very important!"

“I have a clipboard so I’m very important!”

Later, at home, I added up the numbers and was staggered by how similar the results were to the week before (with some welcome additions from Coal Tit and Chiffchaff):

Breeding Bird Survey

If you are wondering why there seem to be some obvious omissions, that is because I discounted Blue and Long-tailed Tits because: a) there are large and healthy numbers of both; and b) they move around so much, it would be almost impossible not to double or triple count. Other birds were noted down that I saw but which weren’t singing, including Chaffinch, Goldfinch, as well as corvids, pigeons, and gulls.

I will try and do this weekly (with one or two breaks when I will be away) for the rest of the breeding season.

Bird tennis
I then hid my clipboard away – so I wouldn’t get the p!$$ ripped out of me by other birders (note how I didn’t say ‘anyone else’ as I suppose birders get laughed at by most people anyway) – and went out on to the Flats to find another bird.

Rewind a couple of days … I had been fidgeting like a dog with fleas as I have been unable (due to work and other commitments) to get out on to the patch and see the Wheatear (or two) that have graced us with their presence. Wheatear cause a lot of excitement on the patch amongst the local birders, and I am no different. In fact, when I got home from work early on Friday evening, I even dashed out to see if I could find the smart chap, but I had left it a little too late and so just got to watch the sunset instead:

Can you see the Wheatear? … neither can I.

Can you see the Wheatear? … neither can I.

But today was different. I had more time, and I had help on my side. Dan H. pointed out the bird to me on a football pitch near to where it had been seen before. I got as close as I could to get this shot (as always, no prizes for quality here):

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

One of the longest distance migrators among small birds, this male is probably just stopping off for a few days before flying on further North and possibly over the ocean to Iceland and Greenland or even Canada from its starting point in sub-Saharan Africa.

I was joined by Jonathan L. and his eye-wateringly large lens as the bird flit between tussock, post, football pitch, and path as we snapped away:

Not the usual sport played on a pitch

Not the usual sport played on a pitch

I strongly recommend that you go and look at Jono’s photos of the same bird, because they are truly stunning (in the case of lenses, size really does make a difference)… have you looked yet? If not, then try this other website of his as well. Also, it is Jono’s birthday tomorrow, so why not give him some extra web traffic as a present.

I then left Jono to it and walked around the rest of the patch vainly hoping I might accidentally flush Dan’s Woodcock (I realise that might sound a little … er … odd if you are not a birder) and generally just enjoying the sights of spring:

Blossom

Mute Swan

Wanstead Patchwork: Part X (From Roding with love)

Three little birds on my doorstep
On Saturday morning I set out relatively early on to the patch with the hope that fresh air would cure me of a hangover.

I was rewarded in that, within 20 minutes, I had added a new bird to patch list for 2015. Whilst navigating my way around a number of dead frogs (don’t ask me why) on the fringes of a pond known as Cat and dog, I flushed a snipe (Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago). The long-beaked wader put up in the air in a blur of russet and khaki camouflage and flew over the Flats (where it was later seen by other birders).

A little while later I heard my first warbler of the year, and probably my first summer migrant. A Chiffchaff sang out its name from the island on Alexandra lake.

River Roding
I then took directions from Nick and Josh to go and look for my 65th species of the year, Teal. I had all but given up seeing this common winter duck on the patch as I thought they might have all returned to Siberia.

The hunting ground for my quarry was the River Roding:

River Roding

I walked South, sandwiched between the City of London Cemetery and the little river. On the other side of the water, golfers swung, hacked, and FORE!’d their way around the fairways of Ilford course while the steady hum of traffic on the North Circular served to remind us all that we were contained within the capital’s boundaries, where busy roads serve as walls.

I crept around vainly looking and listening for water rail in the reeds, whilst a few metres away people wearing purple and orange (what is it about golfers and fashion?) hit small white balls around manicured parkland. I was struck almost simultaneously by the sense of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of hobbies (I used to, and occasionally still do, play golf very badly myself – my crap scores must be on account of the drab colours I wear). As silly as many hobbies are, it was at that ludicrous moment that I felt very sorry for anyone who doesn’t have a pastime to indulge in.

Dear Polly
Talking of hobbies…

I often say – to anyone who will listen – that hobbies satisfy many of mankind’s ancient and primal urges to hunt and gather. In our increasingly plastic and sanitised world, some of us seek to retrace the steps – albeit through heavily ritualised and modernised (often safe) means – of our ancestors. I contend that birding satisfies the spirits of hunter (tracking down wild animals) and gatherer (the list element and need to ‘collect’ as many species as possible) that still occupy us.

A hobby that satisfies the gatherer within us, is that of the collector – for example of postcards…

River Roding

This postcard above (a recent purchase that arrived today) is over 100 years old and depicts the Rover Roding. On the other side it reads:

Dear Pollie [sic],

I am enjoying myself allright [sic], went fishing [I am trying to ignore the fact this word looks like “fisting”] here this afternoon did not catch anything, will write tomorrow. With love from Ethel

Ignoring the fact that our long-dead friend, Ethel, seemed determined to make an enemy of punctuation and grammar, I love how she writes to her friend/sibling/lover/relation daily whilst on holiday (?) in a nearby part of London. Polly/Pollie lived in Islington just a few miles away (I actually know the street in the address as I used to live nearby and know that any house she lived in was destroyed in the war or demolished to be replaced with flats).

An even smaller river
The Roding is a small river. It often flows under bridges un-named and unmarked. It eventually seeps slowly into the Thames anonymously or, rather, under the title of ‘Barking Creek’. But this belies the fact that the Roding is an ancient and important water source. The fifty-mile long river – once entirely located within Essex, until London grew – is believed to be named after a Saxon chieftain, Hrodas, and his people, the Hrodingas, who came to Essex and subdued (read ‘slaughtered’) the local pagan tribes.

I would love to see the Roding follow the lead of its western cousin, the Wandle, and become a second London home to wild brown trout.

Not many Londoners – I am quite sure – could name the Roding correctly, and yet there exists an even smaller, sorrier river, a tributary of the Roding, that has a place in this rather lengthy story/post, the Alders brook.

The earliest extant reference to this stream is from the 16th Century. But now, I can find nowhere to tell me where this brook’s source is – other than the admirable – and hopefully correct guess of Mr Ferris in his excellent online resource of all wild matters locally.

I trampled brambles to look at the heavily algae-clogged (if not stagnant) brook and then saw, far up stream, a pair of Teal. They saw me too and swam effortlessly around a bend and behind the locked gates of some allotments.

In my desire to photograph this pair and further explore this poorly-known waterway, I backtracked and and tried to gingerly make my way through the narrow and heavily overgrown bank of the stream that runs alongside the metal fencing of the allotments. The going became impassable and so, probably luckily for them, the Teal remained unphotographed:

Alders Brook

Typically, back in Wanstead Park, I saw more Teal – despite two months of blanking them in the same park:

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But I regretted nothing. Had I not gone in search of Teal in the inaccessible narrow waterways of East London, I may never have set foot on the narrow banks of the shamefully forgotten Alders Brook.

Along the way on my journey, I photographed for the first time this year so far…

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

and…

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) - presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) – presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

… and listened to my first singing Dunnock of the year:

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

… and completely forgot about my hangover.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part IX (If you go down to the woods at night…)

Blackbird has spoken
On Friday night, I had an hour or so to kill between getting home from work and going out to meet friends. I decided to take a stroll in Bush Wood to see if I could hear or see a Tawny Owl.

As I walked on to the Flats at dusk, I was struck by the amount of bird song. Robins, wrens, thrushes, and dunnocks are all in full song now, and as the light faded they all seemed desperate to belt out their tunes before night properly fell. That evening I heard my first proper Blackbird song of the year:

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

The Blackbird is one of the UK’s commonest birds. In winter their numbers can swell from winter migrants to 10-15 million birds. But now, about 5 million breeding birds will have been left behind. Birds which we have become used to squawking out their alarm calls and nothing else, now perch proudly and sing one of the most popular and widely recognised songs of the British countryside.

After watching this Blackbird and a Song Thrush seem to compete for some time I headed deeper into the woods. And it became darker.

Mirkwood

Bush Wood

I walked around listening for owls. At one point I thought I heard one in the distance, but cursed myself for not being sure whether it was really an owl or just a distant human voice shouting. Eventually it became so dark that I realised I should head back.

But I had become hopelessly lost in the dark forest… mwuhahahahaha!

I didn’t really, although I did trip a couple of times and cut myself on brambles. Bush Wood is not a massive forest and street and car lights are quickly visible – including some street lamps lighting a path that bisects this part of the Flats and wood:

Wood lights

Lights in the sky
As I left the wood, I looked up at the stars. The two brightest bodies in the sky – the moon was nowhere to be seen last night – were Jupiter and Venus – so I took their photographs:

Jupiter and Venus

As well as celestial bodies puncturing the darkness, the night was also diluted (or polluted) by the lights of our wonderful city. I stood for some time gazing over the darkness of the flats to the light of London beyond, including my office in Canary Wharf visible a few miles away in the distant glow:

London light

Wanstead Patchwork: Part VIII (Ode to Spring)

The lark and birders call Spring

This year I reckon I missed the start of Spring by a few days – on account of being squirrelled away in an air-conditioned glass tower for fifty or more hours a week.

However, as soon as I set foot out on the patch on Sunday it was clear that my favourite season had begun. The weather was a bit of a giveaway, but the flora and fauna that were out to play were pretty conclusive signs. Most notably, a number of singing Skylark:

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly after I took this photo, the lark ascended into full song-flight mode. It really does have to be one of the great songbird spectacles and an increasingly rare one in the UK (Skylark is red-listed), and even rarer in London. Wanstead Flats is one of the best, if not THE best, breeding sites for Skylark in the capital. Last year there were seven distinct singing males recorded.

Skylark

I counted at least three discrete singing males, but didn’t have time to try and count more. I had an appointment to make in Wanstead Park that morning, but first I had one more bird I wanted to see. A female Stonechat – probably a passage migrant – had been seen the day before. On Sunday, however, the female had been replaced by an even more splendid male. It was very flighty – understandable as a passage migrant not used to the surroundings:

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

I did not have time to get a better photo, but you can see much better photos of it, and Saturday’s female here, here, and here. Worth noting that all three of these local birders have called Spring in their blogs as well.

That Stonechat was my 61st patch-bird of 2015 and I was very grateful to Tony aka The Cowboy Birder for pointing it out to me given my lack of time that morning. I should also tip my hat to my neighbour, Dan Hennessy, who first spotted the female Stonechat on Saturday.

Counting birds, not just crows
I was rushing through the patch to meet another patch birder, the very knowledgeable Tim Harris, Chairman of a local conservation society I belong to, The Wren Group.

Tim was leading the regular local count for the BTO’s Wetland Bird Survey. We counted birds on all the major bodies of water in Wanstead Park, noticing the inevitable significant declines – even from a month ago – of the winter flocks of ducks and gulls, such as this second winter (?) Common Gull (Mew Gull if you are reading this from the States) on Heronry lake in the park:

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Several of us walked and counted our way around the main acres of water bodies in the park, and I was even kindly given access to the Basin lake on Wanstead golf course which was a rare treat for someone who normally just presses his nose up against the railings from the nearby road like a boy at a sweetshop window:

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

It was during this bird count, when I took a slight detour along the river Roding, that I snapped my 62nd patch bird of the year so far:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Aside from the Egret and the dwindling ducks, we also spotted several clear signs of Spring, including my first butterfly of the year:

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

… and some Spring flora such as Lesser Celandine (recently discovered to be potentially deadly despite having been eaten and used medicinally for years):

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Ode to Spring
To belatedly begin a more literary theme for this post, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s association with this flower. Whilst he may have been more famous for writing about a certain other yellow flower, it is believed he actually preferred the Lesser Celandine to the Daffodil:

I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
T’was a face I did not know.
– Ode to Celandine

In fact our great Romantic Poet was believed to have liked the flower so much that it was requested it should be carved on his coffin. Unfortunately, a different flower, the Greater Celandine was mistakenly carved on it instead. Oops!

Aside from the Celandine, we also saw some other flowers that I have started listing and tracking on a map – yes I really am that sad – although I am not bringing it out for display just yet:

Flowers

I genuinely enjoy all the seasons, but Spring is my favourite (pretty uncontentious in my opinion there I realise) and I am very happy to see it arrive.

Springtime has obviously also been a favourite of poets for centuries, and the Romantic Poets in particular. Rather than celebrating Spring with some other gushingly serious romantic poem, I am reminded of the more light-hearted and rude ‘Ode to Spring’, by Wordsworth’s Scottish contemporary, Robert Burns, which opens:

[WARNING: PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY BAD LANGUAGE OR LEWDNESS]

When maukin bucks, at early fucks,
In dewy grass are seen, Sir,
And birds, on boughs, take off their mows
Among the leaves sae green, Sir;
Latona’s sun looks liquorish on
Dame Nature’s grand impetus
Till his prick go rise, then westward flies
To roger Madame Thetis.

Roll-on the arrival of Spring and Summer migrants!

The smallest kingdom in the world

Some believe that the tiny Island of Tavolara off the coast of Sardinia was the smallest kingdom in the world. They are wrong. The smallest kingdom is on the border of Wales and England.

It lies on a river. The fifth longest river in the UK to be exact. A river which helps form the border between England and Wales. The river Wye:

River Wye

River Wye

A much smaller tributary of the Wye also forms the border between England and Wales and runs through our pocket-sized kingdom: it is called Dulas Brook. As I stood on a bridge this weekend gone, straddling England and Wales with a leg in each and peering through a curtain of vines, I saw a pair of some my favourite British birds, the water-bound Dipper:

White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)

White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)

The Kingdom is nestled in a valley overlooked by the northern outpost of the Black Mountains, Hay Bluff – a plateau peak carved out of ancient sandstone by the glaciers from past ice ages:

Hay Bluff in the distance under the sun

Hay Bluff in the distance under the sun

Walking back down to the village kingdom from a morning in the hills, a friend and I stopped by some woods to look for Crossbills. We didn’t see any, but we did get neck ache from watching so many soaring Red Kite and Buzzards. Closer to earth, we also watched a busy Nuthatch, as I reflected on how hard I have tried in vain to see this bird in my local London patch:

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Storytime: The Kingdom of Hay
Once upon a time there was a bibliophile, a man who loved books so much, he made them his life. This man lived in a small beautiful village on the border.

The man was saddened by the slow death that befalls many small places as their young inhabitants leave to work and live in bigger cities. It felt as if the life-blood of these small communities was being sucked away.

He wondered how he could save his own village from this ignominious fate. He found the answer in books. Not inside a book, but in books generally.

This man took the strongest men from his village across the Atlantic ocean and started buying up cheap books and carrying as many back to Hay as he could find.

This was the beginning of making Hay one of the most famous destinations for books in the world.

He further secured the village’s place on the map by declaring it an independent kingdom with him as its king.

The King of Hay still runs a bookshop in the village to this day, and the smallest kingdom in the world, though not recognised as a state officially, has secured its place in the world. Long live the King! Ling live Hay-on-Wye!