Monthly Archives: December 2015

Hail in the willows

Christmas Eve, Nottingham. Attenborough Nature Reserve. Raining.

I sat in the reserve centre watching mallards and grebes out of the window. I then started to feel this is not what one should be doing on Christmas eve, so ran back to the car – getting soaked as I wasn’t really wearing the right clothes – to drive back to my in-laws’ house. Five minutes in the car and the rain begins to subside. U-turn. Back to the reserve.

Plenty of wintering ducks and even more winter thrushes, including my favourite:

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Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

I was heading for a specific part of the reserve.

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Delta Sanctuary, Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottingham (River Trent to the right)

The Delta Sanctuary is one of the largest willow woodlands in the region. Two days before a Willow Tit had been seen there – the first since 2013.

I watched Blue Tits and Great Tits circle through the bare, but surprisingly thick, branches and bushes, along with a few Bullfinches which I find increasingly uncommon in the South (I didn’t find a single one on the patch in  London this year, although they have been seen).

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Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

I played the odd Willow Tit call, but nothing happened. I stayed in the area for some time – as it was alive with birds and it is rare to be in a woodland so rich in several types of willow tree, along with alders and birches, all in the waterlogged ground; it felt like a mini rewilding project.

But after about half an hour of absorbing bird calls, something stood out. I looked up and saw a small tit making a lot of noise. Unfortunately my camera was still set with very high iso settings to peer into the gloom to see the Bullfinches deep in the bushes. The Willow Tit was on bare branches against the sky and by the time I had corrected this, it had flown deeper into the sanctuary, and I was left with a few washed out photos (heavily edited below) and my memory of this life first for me.

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Willow Tit (Poecile montanus)

The habitat I found the Willow Tit in is exactly the sort of place where it should be found, but seems to be increasingly rare leading to the population crashes that have resulted in this bird being given red conservation status.

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I stayed to get some better shots, hoping the diminutive capped titmouse would come back, but as I waited the sky rapidly darkened again. As I wondered if I should head back to report my find and head home, I quickly realised that the weather was faster than my decision making. I was caught in a hail storm that not only soaked me to the bone, but also stung my skin as the hail stones lashed against the side of my face and hands (I tried to capture it on video when it had subsided enough for me to bring my phone out).

 

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Wanstead patchwork: Part XXI (When is a Caspian Gull not a Caspian Gull?)

In the last few days I have studied 1st winter gulls more than ever before. Here is a 1st winter Caspian Gull:

Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) - PHOTO BY NICK CROFT

Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) – PHOTO BY NICK CROFT

It has been on the patch for a few days and several people have seen it and photographed it (see here and here ). When I first saw a photo of it, I doubted that it was a Caspian. The gonys angle on the bill looked too deep (although not so much in this photo), the eye mask was instantly reminiscent of the Yellow-legged Gulls I had recently seen in Ibiza, and it seemed to have an under-advanced moult when I compared it with my field guide drawings. But now, I can see how wrong I was.

Although I had been looking at a slightly different picture where the tertial feathers were not as clear, I can now see that this bird does have a relatively parallel bill, it has a clear ‘shawl’ of streaks on the neck around the otherwise white head, and it has a white-edged set of tertial feathers that are otherwise uniformly brown. In sum, it is a Caspian Gull.

Today, I was half-fooled by a 1st winter Herring Gull. It had a beautiful white-ish head (although in my photos this doesn’t seem quite as striking as in my mind’s eye), seemingly long legs, and an upright stance.

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

When it flew, it seemed quite pale under the wing:

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

But, it had one thing above all that made me want to believe it was a Caspian Gull: it looked different. It walked about, pecking at bits of rubbish alongside a couple of other Herring Gulls (not shown) that had darker heads and just looked more like proper Herring Gulls.

A couple of us followed it about and took photos of it in various different spots:

Not a Caspian Gull

Not a Caspian Gull

But (yes, another ‘but’), something was wrong. At the time, it wasn’t really careful observation that identified the problem areas, it just simply looked wrong. I just wasn’t happy ticking it off in my mind. Different, maybe; but Caspian… not so much. Now I am home, of course, I have had a chance to study the photos more and I can see how ‘wrong’ it was. The main thing is the tertial feathers, they are chequered instead of pure brown with a white edge like the first photo. Pale head maybe, but no clear streaking on the neck, and the bill is just not long or narrow enough. It was a Herring Gull all along.

Whilst there were plenty with dark heads that I didn’t photograph, as I walked around I saw other Herring Gulls with quite pale heads:

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The one above has quite a round head, whereas the one that confused me was more sharply defined like a Caspian, but even so, this shows that I shouldn’t have been so obsessed with a single feature.

So, no patch or life tick for me, even though the real Caspian Gull was apparently out there today (I look forward to studying the photos of it carefully!) But I have probably learned more about Herring Gulls and Caspian Gulls than if I had seen a definite Caspian, ticked it, and moved on.

I had shown a couple of guys where the ‘Caspian (not Caspian)’ had flown to and was pointing it out by saying “it is just to the right of the Great Black-backed Gull” when one of them said, “are you sure that’s not a Lesser Black-backed Gull?” On that particular call, I am confident that it was indeed a ‘Great’, and not a ‘lesser’. Phew!

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XX (Discovering fire)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

The Firecrest is probably one of my favourite birds. Its minute size compensated by its stunning markings and colours and its restless energy.

Bush Wood is almost like a patch within a patch for me. The wood is right on my doorstep; it is the first part of the patch that I come to and it is where I have spent the greatest amount time, both birding and surveying. It is also relatively ‘under-worked’ by the other Wanstead Birders (for a variety of reasons I expect, including the fact that it isn’t exactly famous for producing rarities).

So, one of my patch-ambitions this year has been to find a Firecrest in Bush Wood. It is believed they may have bred there in the past, but they now seem largely to be winter visitors – almost certainly migrants from the frozen North of Europe. As Goldcrest numbers have swelled this Autumn, I have been picking through each one in Bush Wood willing gold to turn into fire, almost like some next-level alchemy.

So imagine my mix of delight and disappointment, two weeks ago precisely, when I received a text from Jono (the original ‘Wanstead Birder’) saying he had found one (actually two) in Bush Wood (chronicled with his usual wit, here). I was in bed battling heroically with a particularly life-threatening bout of man-flu (I have still to shake the cough two weeks later). My emotions and thought-processes spanned through a range of: “Amazing news!”; “Oh God! I’m too poorly to go out and twitch it”; and, “Why wasn’t it ME finding it dag nammit!”

I dutifully wrapped up so much I could barely bend my joints and waddled out snivelling to search for it. Jono had sent across really quite excellent directions to find this particularly colourful needle in in a haystack, which included a photo of a nearby tree he had cunningly adorned to flag the location (see bottom of blog-post).

I found the secret tree – some way off the beaten track – and stood and wandered about, watching, listening, attempting to pish (Nick told me today that my Firecrest whistle sounded more like a Dunnock which was … lovely of him), and playing a tape of actual Firecrest calls (which do not sound like Dunnock), all whilst sniffing, sneezing, and coughing. After about 30 minutes of not even seeing a Goldcrest, I went home disappointed.

The following weekend, I felt even worse, so I stayed in bed. This weekend I was determined to discover my Firecrest. But I was distracted. Tony had seen the 1st winter Caspian Gull which has been pondered over, definitively identified, and has been seen on and off for a week or two on the patch (assuming it is one and the same bird). Being that is a much rarer visitor than a Firecrest, I couldn’t ignore it, so I walked around a lot of the patch studying every gull I came across (that is many hundred today). It seems to have flown – hopefully just temporarily – and so I dipped it.

I met up with Nick and we walked to Long Wood where he had recently seen and photographed a pair of Firecrest. Nick played Firecrest song and calls as we walked along and we eventually reached the bushes where he had seen them. A few metres further and Nick stopped. I looked where he was looking and saw a red dot in the bush. Literally just a blazing orangey-red dot, but I knew what it was.

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

The male above would relax and tense its burning crown, so that sometimes it was as red as a stop-light and other times yellow and orange:

Firecrest

Firecrest

But it was joined by a second, possibly a female (albeit there are probably fewer females in the UK compared to males – due, I expect, to the need for males to be closer to breeding grounds so they can secure better territories quickly):

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

These photos are not the best, but I am pleased with them as Firecrest never stay still and are damned hard to pin down.

Later on, I left Nick and walked in the rain back to Bush Wood. I had a map in my head of where I was going to walk to maximise my chances of finding fire, and it began with Jono’s secret tree:

Jono's secret tree

Jono’s secret tree

In fact, my search also ended with Jono’s tree. After studying the holly all around me, and listening hard, I brought out my phone and played Firecrest calls. Nothing. I then resorted to playing Firecrest song – not something I particularly enjoy doing in December. After a few seconds, high up over the holly sailed a dart of orange and green straight towards me. When it saw me it turned sharply down and to the side and swung deep into the holly. I watched the Firecrest, another male, flit through the branches until it disappeared deep into the bush, I heard it call a few times more but then like the smoke that follows fire, it faded and disappeared. My first self-found Firecrest in Bush Wood, on the patch, and in London. It didn’t stay still or visible long enough to capture in pixels, but it confirms to me what others already knew, that we have more than one pair of Firecrests on the patch.

My 98th species on the patch this year, but so much more. I had discovered fire in my wood.