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.

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