Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Wanstead Teal and a 92 year old vision for the Park

On the numbers of Teal

“This very prettily marked species, the smallest of our Ducks, but one of the best as an article of food, is an early and constant winter visitor” 

So Mr Yarrell (he of Pied Wagtail fame – the British sub-species is known as ‘yarrellii’) opens his description of my favourite duck when he was writing 170 years ago.

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John Thompson’s engraving of a Teal from Yarrell’s History of British Birds, 1843

In the early Victorian era there seemed to be some confusion about whether Teal actually bred in the UK (BTO estimates about 2000 pairs breed in the UK), although Yarrell gives plenty of examples from his network of contacts to prove that they do.

But we all know that this is largely a winter migrant in the UK when their numbers increase one hundredfold (literally) on the summer residents. The Wanstead Flats/Park patch is not a noted site for Teal, where only small numbers appear, and somewhat irregularly, during the winter. On last weekend’s Wetland Bird survey on the patch, we counted 22 Teal in Wanstead Park and this morning one of the local birders counted 26 on a single lake in the Park – possibly a patch record – especially if any had also been on the Ornamentals or Alexandra lakes at the same time.

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Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But… I haven’t just been reading Yarrell. I was perusing another one of my antiquarian bird book collection *he boasts* and read something very interesting.

In his book, Birds in London (1924), W.H. Hudson writes about Wanstead Park and says: “this park is peculiarly rich in wild bird life, and among the breeding species may be mentioned mallard and teal”.  Teal breeding on Wanstead Park less than a hundred years ago?! This doesn’t sound like a record of a rare occurrence, but rather the statement of a common fact – mentioned in the same breath as Mallard no less (no other ducks were mentioned as breeding here). In Andrew Self’s recent book The Birds of London, historical records of Teal breeding in London are scarce – the first ever recorded being in 1880 at Epsom and then other sites listed, but no mention of Wanstead.

I wondered at first if the lack of mention of Teal was because a hundred years ago, Wanstead was more of an Essex village than a London suburb, but Epsom is even more rural and distant from central London. Hudson could have been wrong, of course, but he was an eminent ornithologist (a founding member of the RSPB no less!) and a London resident who, as we shall see, clearly personally knew the area well. I would be willing to wager he had personally witnessed evidence that Teal bred at Wanstead.

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On a vision for the Park

Furthermore, Hudson’s list of breeding birds in the park contained some other surprises: Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale! I would be delighted to see any of those birds – even fleetingly – on the patch now (I should add that all three have been seen, but are rare birds on the patch), let alone have them breed.

As many know, the three bird species mentioned above all have ‘red’ conservation status in the UK, so the fact they no longer breed in Wanstead Park would not be a surprise to anyone. I am actually quite surprised that they bred as recently as the 1920s.

Hudson was ahead of his time in being conservation-minded, and he was also full of praise and hope for Wanstead Park which he described as: “perfect wildness” (many decades before rewilding was recognised as a ‘thing’). He set out a vision for the park, suggesting: “it would be well to make Wanstead Park as far as possible a sanctuary for all wild creatures.” He also singles out the City of London Corporation for praise in the way it managed the Park:

“The Corporation are deserving of nothing but praise for their management of this invaluable ground. Here is a bit of wild woodland nature unspoiled by the improving spirit which makes for prettiness in the Royal Parks”

Hudson goes on to describe specific practices, or the lack of, which support wildlife.

My concern is that recent ‘management’ of the park has seen a shift in the direction that Hudson clearly saw as a being a threat to nature: valuing ‘prettiness’, or tidiness, over wildness. Those who care about the wildlife on our patch have watched with dismay as a slash and clear policy has sometimes been used in the name of ‘management’ or to (re)create ‘vistas’ (from a long lost age when the park was a private garden) whilst destroying habitats for who knows how many living creatures.

I would encourage the City of London Corporation and those involved in the management of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats to heed Hudson’s words with care otherwise there are breeding birds – Skylark, Song Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat for example – which could go the same way as Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale!

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

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The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

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Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

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The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

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Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

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Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

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Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

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Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

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Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.