Monthly Archives: January 2016

 In search of the source. Not quite the Nile.

The City of London Cemetery is enormous.

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At 200 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and has a network of roads making it seem like a town of death. I understand that around one million people have been buried here and there are about 150,000 graves. If the maths of those two figures doesn’t add up to you, that is because the bodies are, literally, buried on top of one another.

The cemetery is not as interesting historically as some of the other London burial sites like Highgate, but it is of interest to me as it is a huge green space almost surrounded by my local patch – with the Eastern end of the Flats on one side and the Roding, Old Sewage Works, and Wanstead Park on the other.

It is full of manicured lawns, gardens, tree-lined avenues, and grave stones by the many thousand ranging from little wooden crosses to enormous, and often very gaudy, monolithic mausolea. But there is also a small corner that is not tended neatly by the groundsmen – a grove of trees clustered by the boundary fence near the Roding – known as the Birches nature reserve:

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X marks the spot of the wild area. Thanks to Google for the map

This small section of woodland is wonderfully wild. I presume that very few people indeed ever visit – partly because those of us likely to be interested in it would have to walk very far out of our way to get there as there is only one entrance to the cemetery and the fence is  high. In fact, it is so poorly known that I can only find one one reference to the fact that it is a nature reserve at all. 

Everything was wet. The leaf litter is so thick that walking around on the mulch is like walking on pillows. With all the mosses, fungi and ferns, it felt like I was experiencing the original Atlantic Oakwood temperate rainforest, not some small sub-urban plot re-wilded a decade ago (although this is wonderful evidence of how quickly nature can take back over if given the chance to thrive without being overly ‘managed’).

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Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

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The edible Jelly Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Indeed there was a lot of water in this grove, but I knew that from often peering through the fence just visible to the right in the photo below:

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That water collects as a pond and is the beginning of the poorly known Alders Brook. I had come in search of its source, and with limited thrashing about, I found it… sort of:

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Culverted source of Alders Brook

The concrete culvert pipe runs through the ditch that I understand was once part of the ‘Great Canal’ dug for the Manor of Aldersbrook. This is the first opportunity to see the Alders Brook. It presumably trickles down from the higher land off the Wanstead Flats (maybe including any overflow from Alexandra pond) and through, or hopefully beneath, the catacombs and graves of the cemetery.

The Alders Brook then flows under the fence and splits North and South. The Northern stream is a dead-end and so the water is stagnant, but South it flows into the Roding.

The Birches reserve is a known site for Woodcock and Snipe – the resident Woodcock seemingly roosts in this area and then flies out in the evening to feed on the Ilford Golf Course at night. I didn’t see any Woodcock and, actually, never have on the patch, but I intend to make an effort this year to tick it off.

I am indebted to Paul Ferris’ excellent Wanstead Wildlife website for much of the background information and history presented in this post.

All photos were taken on my iPhone and for some reason are lower resolution than usual – apologies.

A tale of two winters

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Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:

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‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:

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Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

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Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):

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Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:

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Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:

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Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:

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White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:

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On beginning again

Last year was my first full year on the patch. I finished up on 98 species of bird for the year. It is obvious that I was aiming for 100, but I can’t complain too much – I enjoyed the year, the birds, the patch itself, and the company and advice from the local patch birders.

This year, I have made it out three Saturdays in a row for a few hours each and got up to 63 thus far. It actually took me until March to hit 63 last year but, inevitably, the improvement is mainly because I know the patch better now.

As anyone in Southern England will know, the year began as it finished; mild but rather wet (further North, of course, has been plagued with floods). Assuming the mildness was a factor, I have counted many Song Thrushes singing this year already.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Last year, it took me weeks to tick off all the common winter thrushes. This year, I did it much quicker, although Fieldfare have been relatively difficult to pin down. Nick and I watched 20+ Redwing fly over the Ornamental ponds last weekend and today we watched a couple closer up by the stables on the Eastern end of the patch…

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Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

Winter has now arrived – only a couple of months of late. In fact, last night was the coldest of the winter so far. Today was beautiful with bright sunshine and blue sky but the mercury never rose above 4.5 degrees centigrade.

Nevertheless, I ticked off my first patch warbler of the year (ignoring the regulidae, although I was delighted to have already ticked off Firecrest as well as Goldcrest): a female Blackcap, alongside the Redwing moving among quite thick vegetation next to the stables.

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Blackcap (Sylivia atricapilla)

It was also great to see a Water Rail swim in the swollen Roding today. The usually very shy bird forced more into the open by the water-levels.:

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Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

The year has got off to a good start on the patch, and I look forward to getting out there as much as I can this year to see as much as I can.

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Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) with rodent prey

Winter birds of gorges and valleys

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So far this year, I have spent about six hours on the patch (Wanstead) and have got off to an acceptable start with my year-list (currently 58 from two Saturday morning walks).

French patch update

I have already spent far longer on my second patch, my wife’s land in a remote valley in the foothills of the Pyrenees as we went there shortly after Christmas and spent New Year there. My trip patch-list is very short – just 20 – but interesting.

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I just love how I can watch a Wren in a bush, cast my eyes up and the next bird I tick off is Golden Eagle.

I have watched large dark shapes in the extreme distance before, knowing them likely to be Golden Eagles (although Griffon and even Black Vultures could also turn up here), but this trip I was close enough to confirm it from size and wing shape (but not close enough to photograph).

I watched it soaring over the far side of our neighbouring valley above and beyond the Limestone rock features to the left of the photo below. The trees to the right, only about 500m above sea level, but almost 200m (c600ft) above the valley floor below, are ancient Holm Oak specimens.

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I also confirmed my suspicion that we have Goshawks hunting the land – seeing a huge (probable) female that I almost mistook for a Honey buzzard at first sight. With the summer Eagles in Africa, the only raptor I photographed was a Common Buzzard:

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Blackbirds were the stand-out common bird at this time of year; their numbers likely swelled by northern wintering migrants. The family of Ravens of the land were almost omnipresent as well, flying back and forth from one ridge to another cronking away as they went.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

But I also had two great additions to my patch list:

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

The second bird, I heard long before I saw it. The call was enormous and varied. At first I thought a child was screaming in the wood, but then it stopped and was followed by a thunderous drumming. It could only be one thing, and when it showed itself, with wing-beats that could be easily heard some distance away I was delighted to welcome the largest Eurasian Woodpecker (standing over half a metre head to tail), and second largest in the world, to my patch:

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius)

I spent a lot of time in the wooded parts of the patch, with Firecrests, Goldcrests, and some very vocal Short-toed Treecreeper:

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Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla)

At this time of year, the woody garrigue often acts like velcro as the clouds sweep low up and down the valley. I watched cloud peeling off the hills like skin or appearing as if the forest was on fire:

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Gorge watching

I only took one trip off the patch to watch birds – although I also saw probably the largest starling flock I have ever seen while on a shopping trip (the mega flock -not quite dense enough to be a murmuration in my view – took some minutes to drive past and must have had c100,000 individual birds in it).

I drove to the spectacular village of Minerve:

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Minerve

The place exudes history. The ruined tower to the left dates back to the siege when our very own Simon de Montfort (who springs up in a lot of historical places I know) laid siege to a garrison here just over 800 years ago. This is, of course, the land of the Cathars. They eventually surrendered after the well was destroyed but 140 of the 200-strong garrison refused to give up their faith and were burned at the stake as heretics.

But I was here for the gorge, or more specifically, the inhabitants of the gorge (and not the ghosts of Cathar martyrs). The gorge of the river Cesse is a long and impressive canyon that is not hugely wide but very deep; the land beneath your feet just seems to fall away with a dizzying drop to an unseen (because much of it is underground making the gorge even deeper) river.

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Cesse Gorge

I stood on one side of the gorge and watched the opposing rock-face carefully. I was hunting for a very specific quarry.

A distant flicker of movement and I trained my binoculars on the cliff face. It was not what I was looking for, but nice anyway (albeit too distant to get anything other than a fuzzy record shot):

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Blue rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius)

I stayed still and watched for around twenty minutes before another slight movement gave away a tiny camouflaged bird. Notoriously difficult to spot, I was still not fully prepared for how hard it was to see. The photo below was taken at maximum zoom with the cut-out heavily cropped:

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Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria)

I watched it … err.. creep quite quickly (I would almost use the word scurry if it was on a horizontal surface) up and down and side to side feeding on the wall. It was only when it occasionally opened its wings that I saw how stunning this rarely seen bird was (excuse another heavily zoomed and crop record shot and Google “Wallcreeper” to look at better photos of this amazing bird):

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Wallcreeper with open wings

I had driven for a couple of hours (mainly because I got lost without SatNav) but it was worth it for an amazing life-tick on the very last day of 2015. May 2016 bring me, and you all, wild adventures of a similar nature.