Monthly Archives: March 2016

Days with rarer birds

With one day as an exception (I was hungover), I have been out on the patch every day for the past few days. I had some holiday to ‘use up’ and we had to wait to finish some ‘things’ before flying to the second patch in France.

But really I was out because I knew I would miss things on the patch being away for 11 days at a crucial migratory period. I knew I had a good chance to see Sand Martin and Wheatear before I left:

  • Sand Martin appeared on the patch by 15 March in 2014 and by 14 March in 2015
  • Wheatear showed itself by 20 March in 2014 and by 18 March in 2015

But, it wasn’t to be. Sand Martin made a fly-by on the patch today (24 March) after I had already flown down to the South of France. Our white-arsed friends still haven’t been seen – despite moving up much of the West of the country. I did get a year tick of Buzzard flying very high over the Broom fields:

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

I also had Peregrine Falcon even higher, and Sparrowhawk flying over the cables between pylons:

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

While scanning the skies for raptors, a Sand Martin, or even an early Swallow, it is easy to forget the bird-of-prey much closer to the ground that frequents the patch:

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Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

On Monday, I gave up after a hard search for migrants and went and got a big fat tick in small park pond in South London. Bizarrely, a female Common Scoter seemingly flew up the Estuary, carried on going, flapped over some concrete and settled  for a couple of days (so far) next to some row boats while school children ran around in circles.

I stayed for over an hour while it stubbornly remained in the middle of the pond. But then, as I finally decided to go, the sea-faring duck paddled towards me and moved into the rays of gorgeous sunshine we had on that day to allow me to get a half decent photo.

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Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra)

Seven Corvids, two days
On the morning I was due to fly to France, I made one last ditch early effort to get a new migrant. I met with Bob and Nick, who told me that Rook – a very rare bird on the patch – had been seen locally. We didn’t get the migrants or a Rook (although Nick did get one today), but we got something even better and rarer. Bob found us a Hooded Crow! Another London tick for me, and I got a photo or two to record the event (albeit not the greatest):

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Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix)

To give you a sense of how unusual an event this was, it is worth quoting Andrew Self’s ‘Birds of London’:

The Scandinavian birds that used to winter in England now rarely venture south due to climate change resulting in very few Hooded Crows now being recorded in Southern England. Since 2000 the only record in the London Area was at Leyton on 8 April 2010.

Nick and Dan actually had a flyover last year, but this time we got photographic evidence.

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 Now, I am in France and have a whole different set of birds to play with (not literally of course!) including new Corvids. Today I have seen our resident Ravens and Red-billed Chough meaning I have seen seven species of Corvid in two days (and that is without seeing a Rook).

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Days with (not so) rare birds

Today, the weather just got better and better. The day began cold, misty, and cloudy, but the sun burnt through and when my eight hour walk around the patch ended, everything was bathed in a warm golden glow.

But it was when the clouds were full and low in the morning that I ticked off my 70th patch bird of the year. At Cat & Dog pond, I found a pair of Reed Bunting; spotting the female first but soon followed by a male.

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Despite others occasionally seeing them throughout the winter, I had previously searched in vain. But within half an hour of ticking Reed Bunting off my list, I found a second pair in the Brooms by Centre Road.

There was no sign of our Winter, or Spring, Stonechats, but on Angel Pond I checked in on the mass of frogspawn and the feeding gulls (now largely in Spring plumage).

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

It is not just the weather that makes me feel Spring is here or near, the bird song increases each time I come out. Three of the most common songs to be heard on the patch (and indeed across the UK) are those of the Robin, Wren, and Dunnock.

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Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Talking of song birds, I always think that a much overlooked avian vocalist is the Starling. The complexity, variation, and mimicry involved, albeit to many we just hear a series of clicks and whistles, is phenomenal.

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Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Great Crested Grebe
Today (or strictly speaking yesterday as the clock has just struck midnight as I type) I spent quite a bit of time watching the Great Crested Grebe on Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. This began with watching some limited courtship behaviour in the last veils of morning mist.

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Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Later in the day I was able to get a bit closer to them, and with the sun behind me, I was lit for the chance of a reasonable photo. I even had a tree trunk to lean on. In such beautiful light I was really hoping to draw out the beautiful colours of the grebe. So imagine my frustration when I glanced down at my view-screen and saw that I had somehow knocked a switch and was taking photos in monochrome.

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Accidental monochrome photo, not just me trying to be artistic

By the time I had rectified the situation, the grebes had resurfaced further away making crisp photos harder to achieve.

But seeing the black and white photos transferred me back in time. Back in time over 80 years ago in fact, long before I was born, to a time when a naturalist called Frank Aspinall Lowe was writing. In his great book , Days with Rarer Birds, Lowe reminds us that Great Crested Grebe were once much less common and widespread than they are now.

One of the reasons I like old (bird) books is the beautiful, if somewhat archaic, language used in the descriptions. Lowe describes hearing the call of the Great Crested Grebe as “a harsh groaning,  like that of a cart axle devoid of grease, rended the quiet of the tarn.

Lowe had to go to all sorts of trouble in a remote area to watch this ‘rare’ species, which is now found on every other largish body of water. The change in fortunes was largely down to the RSPB being founded to protect this bird from persecution for its feathers. Indeed, even back in 1930, Lowe notes an improvement: “Under protection, this bird seems to be expanding its range all over the Country“.

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Today, one of them resurfaced from the weeds with a small Tench. As a former angler, I recognised the dark olive sheen, thick tail and rounded fins and remembered the fight these powerful fish used to put up, as well as the thick layer of slime that coated their fine scales. That slime and power appeared to do this fish no good in the grasp of the grebe’s bill, although I was interested that the bird dived with the fish still gripped, presumably to attempt to swallow it underwater.

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With a small Tench (Tinca tinca) prey

Other great piscators I watched today included:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

…and…

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

As well as other water fowl more generally:

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Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

…and finally this portrait of one of our resident Canada Goose:

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

A tale of two Stonechats

Stonechats are partial migrants in the UK, with around half resident all year. On the patch, we have had a recent first winter bird present.

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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

It has been zipping about in the scrub around Cat & Dog pond (which is not much of a pond at the moment) – point A on the map below. We thought it had gone, but I found it yesterday doing its thing.

MAP 2

But Stonechats are also one of the earliest arriving migrants on the patch. I was pleased to find our first Spring arrival of the year at another pond that is very low on water (but currently full of frogspawn) – Angel pond at point ‘B’ above – on 28 February.

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This male doesn’t appear to have stayed for long and so has probably continued further North on its journey.

Stonechats confuse and interest me in equal measure. They have been the subject of species splits and arguments over sub-species: the British ‘hibernans’ race is fiendishly difficult to tell from the broader ‘rubicola’; and many sources still refer to Stonechats as ‘torquata’ while others demand that is only used for the African Stonechat. They also seem to be increasing in numbers, although the residents can take a battering if we have a cold winter.

On the subject of partial migrants, yesterday I saw my first Chiffchaff of the year. Two or three have been present through the winter, but we will soon be joined by very many more.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

We are all waiting for more migrants and visitors to appear on the patch but I will sign-off with a few shots of other things seen over the past week or two on the patch.

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Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

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I couldn’t resist posting two pics of this beauty

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

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Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

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Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)