Monthly Archives: August 2015

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XVII (Wryneck)

In my blog post earlier today, I mentioned that we were waiting and hoping for a Wryneck on the patch. Soon after I posted, I got the message through that Bob and Nick had found one in the brooms on the Wanstead Flats.

Soon after I arrived, there were four, then five, then six, then eight birders looking for the Wryneck.

Wryneck hunting

Wryneck hunting

It was there in the brooms and kept us all guessing as it flew between bushes. I was lucky in getting some great, but short, views, but failed to get any photos of it.

That was until right at the end, when most of the guys had left and I just lingered a bit longer (bear in mind, for everyone else this was a patch year tick, for me it was a UK and patch tick). I walked one more time around the broom bushes where we had last seen it and I flushed it up into the hawthorn where Bob had first seen it. A few minutes later I got a couple of quick snaps of it in the small oak right next to the aforementioned hawthorn. The light was fading and the quality was poor, but I believe this is the first photo taken of a Wryneck on the patch in 2015 (the fourth in six years) and possibly the second individual found this year in London. I am very happy.

Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla)

Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XVI (Those magnificent birds and a flying machine)

The Autumn migration has got off to an excellent start on the Wanstead Flats. There have been several Spotted Flycatchers seen at multiple sites across the patch, a few appearances from Pied Flycatchers, a few Common Redstart, Wheatear, Whinchat, daily passings of Yellow Wagtail (the only member of this list I am currently missing as a patch year tick), Tree Pipit, Garden Warbler, many Willow Warbler (compared to only one or two that remained through the breeding season), and Reed Warbler.

The Wanstead Birders have, accordingly, been out in force and taking some great photos including from Jonathan, Tony, and Nick.

My photographs are not … er… ‘quite’ up to some of these standards, but I have been prompted into snapping a few whilst stood in the ‘enclosure’ on the patch as it has been alive with migrants.

Yesterday, there was a point where I watched at least three Spotted Flycatchers perform aerial acrobatics, a couple of Redstart perched and flew around, a Tree Pipit was flushed from the ground up to, where it belongs in, a tree. This was my 90th patch bird of the year. I also had several warblers including my first ‘seen’ Reed Warbler on the patch, which skulked around underneath the flycatchers.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Everyone is hoping for a Wryneck – which is apparently almost an annual visitor on the patch – or something else interesting.

Another airborne rarity that I ticked off yesterday was a bonus fly-past from the “Sally-B” B17 Flying Fortress which starred in the film, The Memphis Belle:

B17 Flying Fortress

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XV (spot the flycatcher)

Despite wiser birding heads telling me it would be the case, I simply found it hard to believe how much more interesting August would be than July on the patch.

I only get out there at weekends, but I sit at my desk during the week and receive texts and twitter updates about all the passage migrants dropping in on the Wanstead Flats. I try not to succumb to envy, but imagine this…

Can you picture my teeth clenched as I congratulated the birders out on the patch while I was at work?

Can you picture my teeth clenched as I congratulated the birders out on the patch while I was at work?

However, just over a week ago I (re)found my first patch and UK pied flycatcher (I have watched them from the house in France). Tony had been rewarded for getting out early on Saturday morning by finding a Pied Fly high in a Lime tree. By the time I, and others, had joined him it was nowhere to be found. After a jaunt around the patch we went back to the limes to try again.

Pied piper calls the wrong tune
This story has been told before, but I wanted to add my spin. We all looked up at the lime tree(s) in the hope it would reappear. Eventually, I got distracted by some movement in the nearby birches and walked over slowly. *rustle, rustle* Blue Tit. But there was more movement and I soon saw a warbler and a Pied Flycatcher move into view at eye level. I called over to Jono and Tony in my loudest whisper: “Spotted Fly and Willow Warbler”. I didn’t realise my hang-over tongue had slipped quite so badly until Tony ‘confirmed’, “Pied Fly and Chiffchaff”. Luckily I had only mis-spoken, and not mis-identified. There was indeed a bright Willow Warbler or two alongside a Chiffchaff and a Pied Flycatcher.

Without wishing to get too ‘Oberon and Titania’ on you all, there really were a few almost magical moments that followed as the birches came alive with warblers and other birds flitting back and forth between the trees in front of us like some avian form of pinball. Perhaps it was the magic, my hangover, or the fact that I was soon surrounded by birders with lenses each as big as my leg, that meant that I didn’t get my camera out to capture the moment.

I must have become one of the first patch birders to tick pied before spotted flycatcher on my patch year list.

Spot the flycatcher!

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

OK, it isn’t exactly ‘Where’s Wally’ level of difficulty in spotting, even with my furry photography.

This photo was taken the following weekend (just a few days ago now) when I became one of the last local birders to catch up with Spotted Fly. I probably saw four on the patch that day (‘probably’ because I cannot be 100% sure that they were all different birds):

Number 1 was when Dan pointed one out to me directly behind me as I had been busily watching a Blue Tit flock in the SSSI.

Number 2 was the bird in the photo above and below. It was at the western end of Long Wood, and was the most obliging of the four. I stood in amongst the brambles and watched it dart to and from a small selection of perches to catch flys (kinda what these guys have evolved to do) for around 20 minutes or so:

Spotted Flycatcher

Numbers 3 and 4 were at the other end of Long Wood in an area aptly named ‘the enclosure’ which has produced some bumper birding results in the last few weeks.

I flushed one from a tree as I turned a corner and watched as it momentarily danced in the air with another before flying off and leaving the one remaining in a hawthorn bush:

The Enclosure

The Enclosure

Raining birds in the Cat and Dog
Saturday was a scorching day – it reached over 30 degrees centigrade probably for the last time this summer. Heat and birding (just like birding while hungover) don’t really go well together. I stood in the sun for some time watching reeds move in the dried out pond known as Cat and Dog. My only glimpses of the bird moving in the reeds would suggest a warbler, but smaller than a Reed Warbler. It will forever remain a mystery like the legendary ‘one that got away’ for anglers (oh boy could I share some stories about these from my fishing days).

At one point I looked down at the brambles next to the pond and saw a plain warbler that, for the split second it was there, was a Garden Warbler. Although I had a relatively clear view of the bird, it was in my binoculars for such a short span that my (over)thinking mind questioned the image my optic nerve had presented when a minute or two later there was a Chiffchaff in the exact same spot.

Wrens, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, and Robins all appeared and disappeared in the very small area. Long-tailed Tits passed through the one or two bushes by the pond like grains of sand slipping through an egg timer and then vanishing. Whitethroat flew in arcs to and from bushes and reeds and even, once, sang a brief song as if they were an echo from Spring. I walked to the other side of the pond and flushed another warbler out of the reeds. The blur of flight was counteracted by my momentary proximity to the bird and, despite the sun glaring unhelpfully into my eyes, the face of the disappearing warbler held the markings of a Sedge Warbler. But a ‘tick’ it was not to be, as I simply do not trust myself enough with such briefly snatched views of a bird in flight.

Better late than never
If I had been several days slower than many of my patch comrades in finding the Spotted Flycatcher, I was several months slower in finally ticking a Nuthatch to take my patch year list to 88. It appeared directly above me, first in a Hornbeam, and then in an oak while a very large mixed tit flock seemed to swirl through the branches and leaves above it:

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

How this common bird has eluded me for so long on the patch, I do not know. But I do know that I was very glad to see it so near my home after so many hours spent fruitlessly looking for it in the woods.

Bush Wood Tree Survey

Between 1975 and 1979, Paul Ferris of the WREN Conservation Group carried out a survey of the Flora of Bush Wood and the Wanstead Flats.

The results of this Herculean undertaking were published in two instalments in ‘The London Naturalist’, the journal of the London Natural History Society, in 1980/81, shortly after I was born.

One small aspect of this study – which to my knowledge has never been comprehensively repeated since – was a survey of the trees of Bush Wood. An updated version of the results of that survey can still be found on Paul’s excellent website, Wanstead Wildlife.

As the summer is not exactly the best time for birding on the patch, I turned my attention to trees; to try and boost my poor dendrological knowledge, and to attempt to repeat this part of Paul’s survey.

My time in Bush Wood has taught me that not all that much has changed from 35-40 years ago, although I did seem to find a few additional species to those originally recorded. Paul describes 22 (and lists 27) species of tree in Bush Wood, whereas to-date, I have found 33 species (with a couple of additional hybrids and two or three more species which are found just outside the traditionally accepted boundaries of Bush Wood).

As Paul notes, the overall character of Bush Wood is made up from four species of tree: English Oak (Quercus robur), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), and Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). All of these species grow naturally throughout the area.

While those four species may constitute the major content of the woodland, the shape of the wood is dictated more by the planted trees. Bush Wood is bisected by an avenue of the limes, dominated by Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata), although with hybrid ‘Common Lime’ (Tilia x europea) also present. The other parent, Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), can also be found in the wood or nearby.

Leaf comparison of small and large leaved Limes

Leaf comparison of small and large leaved Limes

Around the perimeter of the wood are a number of planted London Plane (Platanus x hybrida):

London Plane (Platanus x hybrida)

London Plane (Platanus x hybrida)

As Paul notes, some of the largest trees in the wood are Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) with the largest, known locally as the ‘Witches Tree’ measuring in excess of 8 metres in circumference, making it one of the largest specimens in London and probably in the top 100 in the UK. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), some of which appear to have been planted, are common in the Northern part of the wood.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) is also common throughout the wood at every stage of maturity, whilst I could only find a couple of examples of the related Field Maple (Acer campestre):

Field Maple (Acer campestre)

Field Maple (Acer campestre)

Paul reported two specimens of Norway Maple in the wood. This was one of only two species in Paul’s survey which I could not find at all in Bush Wood, although there are specimens elsewhere on the Wanstead Flats (Brick Pit Copse for example). The other species in Paul’s survey which I could not find, despite searching the area described, was Whitebeam. However, the clusters of trees and clearing next to the Friends’ House Quaker centre are rich in interesting species, even if some have ‘spilled’ over from the Quaker’s walled garden, and includes several not mentioned in Paul’s survey. False Acacia – or Black Locust – (Robinia pseudoacacia) for example:

(Robinia pseudoacacia)

(Robinia pseudoacacia)

Right next to it is a single specimen of Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides):

Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

In the grassland to the North West of Bush Wood is the greatest concentration of fruit trees in the wood, including Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Cherry-plum (Prunus cerasifera) [which also appears in its red-leaved variant], Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), a single specimen of domestic Plum (Prunus domestica), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), and domestic Apple (Malus domestica). In the updated version on his website, Paul notes that Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is increasingly being found in the wood. I can confirm this but found no examples of mature trees.

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

domestic Apple (Malus domestica)

domestic Apple (Malus domestica)

One part of the grassland is dominated by English Elm (Ulmus minor) suckers and a few young slender trees from which the suckers seem to stem:

English Elm (Ulmus minor)

English Elm (Ulmus minor)

I was also pleased to find a mature example of Wych Elm South of Bush Wood in the ‘school scrub’, but I have not counted it for this list.

Whilst on the subject of suckers, it seems appropriate to mention the collections of poplars at points in the wood, including in the internal clearing. The hybrid, Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) can be found in quite large numbers near its parent, White Poplar (Populus alba) and, to a lesser extent, the seemingly rarer other parent, Aspen (Populus tremula), which took me a while to track down but I have now identified as present in at least two sites.

Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) and White Poplar (Populus alba)

Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) and White Poplar (Populus alba)

Aspen (Populus tremula)

Aspen (Populus tremula)

Where the grassland clearing meets the road, known as Bushwood, is the single mature and large example of Yew (Taxus baccata) although several smaller specimens also exist. Paul reports that a single specimen of Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) can be found near the keeper’s lodge, but I actually found two specimens after a dawn trespass raid on the empty lodge’s garden. Not mentioned in Paul’s survey is Goat Willow or Sallow (Salix caprea) which can be found as two specimens to the North-West of the upper part of the avenue.

(Salix caprea)

(Salix caprea)

A common shrub/tree throughout the wood is Elder (Sambucus nigra):

Elder (Sambucus nigra) with Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Elder (Sambucus nigra) with Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Not quite as widespread, but found in multiple locations are the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) which are heavily fruiting as I type.

Common, but more location-specific than either of the above, especially to the North-Eastern part of the wood, is Silver Birch (Betula pendula).

Aside from English Oak, relatively young examples of Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) are found at a couple of locations (perhaps the age is why they were never mentioned by Paul), and Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) also grows nearby.

In his online update, Paul credits local botanist, Fred Wanless, with discovering a specimen of Manna Ash near the Bushwood road. I can confirm this is still there and was pleased to find it flowering which helped with identification:

Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus)

Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus)

When the flowers die and there are only leaves, it is only the lack of subtle serrating on the leaves that enables amateur botanists to distinguish between Manna and its commoner cousin, Ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Ash (Fraxinus ornus).

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Finally, two species of trees where I could only find a specimen each, both noted by Paul, are Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica), which is found near the entrance to Friends’ House, and Hazel (Corylus avellana) where a single example near the southern fence is the only specimen I know of across the Wanstead Flats:

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

For ease, I include a tabulated version to easily compare the two surveys and the changes/differences noted:

trees