Monthly Archives: January 2017

Still waiting

So am I still waiting
For this world to stop hating
Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in

– Sum41, Still waiting

There is a curse. It is the patch birder’s ‘Catch 22’: do you wait for birds to visit your local patch, or do you go out and find them? Do the former and you can be left waiting for indefinite time. Do the latter and you might miss some patch gold.

And so it has been with Waxwing. The irruption of these gorgeous punks this winter has meant we have been waiting expectantly, looking at every berry-bearing tree with the hope of a child on Christmas Eve. Prominent trees have even been laced with apples. But the Waxwing have not come. Or, we have not seen them if they have.

This weekend I cracked. I left my patch and went in search of them elsewhere. We say ‘them’ because we always imagine a flock, but I saw a Rogue One. The lone X-wing… *ahem*, I mean… Waxwing (alright, I’ll quit with the Star Wars puns) has been a regular feature, delighting the crowds at the Rainham Marshes reserve for a few days now.

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Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

“You scoped it?”: This was one of my fellow patch birders’ response when he saw this photo. He has a point. The Waxwing was showing exceptionally well and close in. To understand why I didn’t get a better shot with my camera, instead of a digiscoped view with phone and  scope, is its own little story about patience and waiting: or lack of…

I did get a few shots with my camera, but was unlucky with the position of the light and obscuring branches etc etc. But really, the truth is the fact that makes me a terrible twitcher: I simply hate crowding round a bird like a paparazzi scrum around a Kardashian. Whilst everyone waddled from bush to bush as the Waxwing moved from perch to berry-larder, I sometimes stayed behind and trained my camera on something else instead. Like a Fieldfare for example – only too happy to mop up the excess fruit intended for our Bohemian visitor.

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Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

And then I abandoned the scene altogether to walk around the rest of the reserve in rather more peace.

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Great Tit (Parus major)

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza shoeniclus)

As you would expect with Rainham – the estuary walk from Stone Barges and the reserve itself – there were some pleasurable bird sightings and a total of 15 year ticks for the day – January is great like that. Redshank fed and called loudly to each other across the mud, a few Black-tailed Godwit  scoured the waterline shores whilst flocks of tiny Dunlin whirred over their heads and bigger flocks of bigger Lapwing took to the skies and back down again to the ponds with their characteristic jitteriness. Curlew and Snipe alerted me to their presence by dropping in from the sky. Birding from dawn until after dusk I watched gulls move to and from their roosts, with my first Great Black-backed Gulls of the year marching up and down on the decks of static boats like attentive sea captains.

Hundreds of Teal were joined by even larger flocks of Wigeon alongside a smattering of Shelduck and even >16 Pintail.I also felt a shred of envy as I watched flocks of over thirty Skylark (we never get that many on the patch – the dogs and habitat destruction undoubtedly help ensure that).

Patience was rewarded a little on the river walk…

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Thames at Rainham (I have taken nearly exactly the same picture almost every time I visit).

Rock Pipit bobbed up and down the man-made river banks and flood defences, whilst their  meadow cousins seemed to be put up in the air from almost every patch of grass I walked past. But it was the subtly different markings, and colouration, that drew my attention to a pipit feeding in the mud. It was only when it took off that I could see the bright white on the sides of the tail that I felt fully sure in calling it as the third of the ‘common’ pipits: Water Pipit (a bird I didn’t even see once last year). When I later met another birder  who described seeing a ‘Wipit’ in exactly the same place, I felt even more comfortable about my tick. Unfortunately my efforts to identify it in the field meant that my camera was still in my bag when it flew off towards London.

Later that afternoon, I went back to my patch to test my patience again in my two-year long patch search for Little Owl and Woodcock – they are becoming like patch-bogey birds of mine. My dusk-walks through the copses produced no owls and so I walked over to the Roding to stake-out the Woodcock that apparently, like clockwork, sails out of the woodland and over the river to begin its nocturnal feeding on the golf course every evening. I have tried this waiting game before, and once with serial Woodcock-watcher, Nick, but yet again went home empty handed (or without the tick, in case my metaphor leads you to believe I would be vile enough to join the ‘hunters’ who shoot the declining populations of these wonderful birds).

Standing by the river as the sky turned from red to purple to dark blue, I turned it even bluer as I cursed and muttered about late-evening golfers and a UFO (that’s Unwanted Flying Object, rather than ‘Unidentified’) that buzzed around like some loathsome mechanical insect, and I was sure dissuaded Mr or Mrs Woodcock from leaving his/her daytime woodland lair until after we had all disappeared and (s)he could be alone with his/her darkness and worms.

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Drone over the golf course

And so I went home, still waiting, but happy at a full day of birding. I left the world of the wild and re-entered the human world and reflected on the ‘hating’ and intolerance that seem so prevalent at the moment. My fleeting sadness at not seeing a Woodcock was replaced by a deeper and uglier melancholy over some of the actions our ‘so called’ leaders are taking. The day began with a punk, the Waxwing, and so my post ends, as it began, with the punk lyrics of Sum41:

Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in*

* I am not yet at the stage of punk-cynicism where I have lost hope, but then… I am not a Syrian refugee escaping terror and being told I am not welcome anywhere.

“The cold never bothered me anyway”*

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Frozen Flats

During my recent stay in France, we experienced a gradual fall in temperature which turned into a full-on deadly cold snap across much of Europe. That cold has now followed me home and the photo above was taken in -7 degrees centigrade (coldest day of the year so far) which, for London, is almost exceptionally cold.

Getting out on the patch before dawn yesterday on such a cold day meant that, for a magical hour or so, I was almost entirely alone. The patch was quiet. In fact, it appeared that it was more than just the temperature that was frozen – the landscape almost seemed to be preserved in aspic; time itself seemed to slow.

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Wanstead Flats’ pitches without the footballers and dog-walkers

I don’t think there is any more beautiful time than the hour(s) around dawn; the bareness of winter at this time is particularly special.

The denuded trees of the planted copses on the Flats renders the term ‘copse’ almost ridiculous – more a sparse circle of trees than a wood – but their fractal branches seem to reach up to the sky like beseeching arms and spindly searching fingers.

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East Copse on Wanstead Flats

I too was searching. I spent time looking and listening out for our Little Owl in our copses but saw little else other than the ludicrously tropical sight of our Ring-necked Parakeet flocks peering out at the frozen scene and squawking their fury at the cold.

My new year listing has got off to a slow and steady start despite the lack of owls.

The often-disappointing location of Cat & Dog pond and surrounding scrub has been a temporary winter home, again, to the occasionally-obliging Stonechat:

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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

The same pond has also been host to five Reed Bunting (possibly a patch record for me?):

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Meanwhile, some of the bigger ponds have been expanses of ice with much of the waterfowl gathered around tiny pockets of open water. One such pocket is on the Shoulder of Mutton with our one remaining Wigeon flitting back and forth repeatedly between the tiny pool of near-freezing water and the frozen grass.

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Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Frozen ponds are a great way to watch and photograph wildlife even if only Common Gull:

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

It should be no surprise that a frozen pond can support the weight of gulls, but when it can also support the weight of a slightly overweight (*ahem*) man, you know how cold it truly is.

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But it was on my walk back that I got my biggest boon for the year on the patch so far. I heard the distinctive chatter before I saw the bird, flying South alone in an expanse of frozen blue: a Redpoll (Lesser probably, Mealy… possibly) and our first for the patch of 2017.

*You will be reassured to know that my wife is not a nine year-old girl, and nor do we have a nine year-old daughter (or any age daughter or child for that matter), but through my wife I have more than a passing awareness of the Disney film, Frozen. For the uninitiated, my title is taken from the film’s hit song, ‘Let it Go’.

Winter and the sounds of silence

Silence.

The absence of sound: the concept; the mindset; the state of existence. So rare. As a birder mainly working an inner London patch, it is not something I am used to. But sometimes (most definitely not always) it can be found on my other ‘patch’ in the French foothills of the Pyrenees.

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South towards the Pyrenees

Arriving at the remote house, the silence hit me like a lump hammer. Miles from the nearest road, isolated from any flight paths, the patch is always wild. But the wild was silent too. No bird song, no bird calls (imagine the change from London: no gulls, no crows), no calling insects of the mediterranean. But also, no wind. Just cold air and bright sun. A frozen scene.

Birding the French patch is always a challenge. The birds are more secretive, far less visible, and sometimes silent. At first a sliver of panic set in: “are there any birds here at all?” – the foolish thought passed across my mind like an unwanted shadow.

Of course there were birds here, although the demographics had shifted quite significantly. The first bird I heard on the patch was a Blackbird; a low darting black shape and that ubiquitous furious squawking – its alarm call. But after an hour or so of walking around the maquis, I became aware of more and different thrushes. The chack-chacking of Fieldfare and occasional ripples of flocked flight from tree to tree that told me these winter migrants were here in large numbers. And then, the Song Thrushes. A bird I rarely see or hear on the patch – rather than the resident songbird that we know and love in the UK, and across much of Europe – these hilly foothills appear to be migrant territory only. Occasionally, the alarm calls took on a different pitch and the darting culprit was browner and more spotted than a female Blackbird. Over time, the thrush jigsaw was pieced together: Tens or even over a hundred Fieldfare and Song Thrushes skulking, waiting on the land – deep in the bushes and trees (still largely hidden in this evergreen utopia), and occasionally, rarely, when the sun shone strongest (stretching the temperature from below freezing to over 20 degrees centigrade in a matter of hours), the Song Thrush sang. The silence pierced by one of the most famous songs of the wild.

My winter patch had other surprises for me. Occasionally the silence was broken by a passing Tit flock.

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit. The flocks foraged in the Aleppo Pines on our hillsides joined by their mountain-loving cousins, Crested Tit. Larger numbers than I have ever seen before on the patch. The sparkling white peaks in the distance were a clue that that these stunning birds had moved down in altitude to find food in pines not frozen solid and not covered in a thick coat of snow.

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European Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

We are still several months away from our Summer migrants joining us again (the Nightingale, the Melodious Warbler, the Whitethroat, the Chiffchaff, the Sub-Alpine Warbler are all hundreds and thousands of miles South on a different continent), but there  are some warblers that stick it out. In fact I was blown away how many bushes would tick and rattle at me with Sardinian Warbler and Blackcap, both here in large numbers.

The bushes and trees of the maquis hold other winter secrets too. Firecrest are everywhere – moving through the Box, Holm Oak, and even navigating the tightly twisted branches and densely-spined leaves of the Kermes Oak. I remain convinced that this little king is the most numerous bird on the patch. Short-toed Treecreeper shuffle up and down the narrow twisted trunks of maquis growth, Wren peek out and occasionally call territorially, as does the Robin, ticking like an old pocket watch and signalling places where the ground has been disturbed.

Roe Deer tracks mosaic the mud, but sometimes the disturbance is more complete. I pushed my way through bars and thorns to be inside a Holm Oak wood and could smell and tell the recent presence of Wild Boar.

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Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and boar-disturbed ground

The winter green (as so much of the maquis is evergreen) was occasionally punctuated by the seemingly unseasonal blossom of Strawberry Tree bell flowers whilst other trees of the same species were still full of fruit.

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Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Its name proving to be a misnomer as my wife and Sister-in-Law happily ate several of the crimson balls: ‘Arbutus unedo‘ or ‘eat once’ as their appealing fruit are supposedly bitter.

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Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

The clear blue skies of the patch are rarely crossed by plane or passing bird – I have never seen a gull, duck, or goose fly over the patch, for example. Occasionally a comet of feather would arch over in a parabola from low to high to disappear, again low, in the undergrowth displaying the stumpy tail of the Woodlark – whose song I long to hear again in the warmer months, but who is now, silent.

Sometimes, too, the great silent blue was brought to life by the tinkling of Goldfinch (I counted a flock of thirty-plus one day) or the odd chup-chup of the Chaffinch. Last winter I added Hawfinch to my patch list. This year the silence was broken more comprehensively by a single male Siskin moving through the tops of the pines – it is the first and only Siskin I have seen on this patch in nine years of regular visits.

Goldfinch and Chaffinch were only beaten in their airborne vocal reliability by the cronking of our resident Ravens.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

During this visit, the most complete shattering of the silence – apart, perhaps, from the distant boom of hunters’ guns – was in the gathering of the largest flock of Raven I have ever seen (in fact it was two flocks totalling some 40 birds).

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An unkindness of Raven

The collective noun from, medieval venery, for Ravens is an ‘unkindness’. I consider this to be unkind in itself. I watched them swirl and court and ‘play’ in such a sociable manner high up on the thermals that I: a) could not believe their attention was really on any ground carrion; or b) simply disagree with the noun imposed on them.

To truly work a patch, it helps to have a clear idea of the shape, size and boundaries of it. With my London patch, I know this well as it is set out in maps and was agreed by others before I moved to the area. In France it is not so clear, partly because I am the only birder working the patch. The ownership of the land is not physically marked and is archaically legally patchwork (no pun intended) in nature. The boundaries are flexed by the distance I walk and were pushed to their limits this trip when I found two new birds for my patch list. I now decree it to be the land surrounding the house stretching in all directions up to the immediate vicinity of surrounding roads and villages (I must admit that this makes it really rather huge in size).

On one walk to a nearby village when the houses were in sight, albeit over 100 metres vertically below our hillside track in elevation, I heard and saw the first Carrion Crows I have recorded on the patch.

On another walk from our land to another village I finally saw a bird that has been the top of my patch wishlist for several years: the Griffon Vulture.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

The enormous bird circled around a hilltop several times before flying high right over our heads and fast off South back towards the Pyrenees. It did all of this without beating its giant wings once and, of course, it did it all in absolute silence.

I was mesmerised but very happy. The tenth raptor tick for this patch for me (dare I hold out hope for Lammergeier and Bonelli’s Eagle? Of course I do – I am an optimistic birder! Black Vulture may be pushing it a bit, but I live in hope) and I still haven’t seen Black kite and Booted Eagle on the patch which are both common in the area and I have seen many times further afield.

In the last two days, the weather has changed and the silence has been shattered by strong winds. Tough birding has also just got even tougher, although my wife and I stood on top of a hill yesterday and looked across the valley at a pair of Red-billed Chough battle expertly (but somewhat less acrobatically than in calmer weather) against the wind whilst hugging the rock escarpments known within the family as ‘Eagle Peak’.

30. That is the number of different species of birds I have counted in the few days we have been out here. That is around half what I would expect to tick off on my patch in London at the same time, but the experiences that come with these birds often make me stand still in awe and silence.