Monthly Archives: January 2018

Little Bunting: a happy ending

So, following yesterday’s shenanigans, it turns out it was a good idea to go back to Walthamstow today…

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Little Bunting (Emberiza pusilla)

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Little Bunting: a crucial ten seconds in the cold rain

I woke up early this morning and dashed to the window to peak through the blinds. Just as a child on Christmas morning might be disappointed not to see a sprinkling of snow imprinted with fresh sled tracks and reindeer hoof-prints on the roofs, I was disappointed to see rain.

I checked Twitter and typed the words ‘Little Bunting‘ into the search bar and saw someone complaining that Walthamstow Wetlands didn’t open for another hour and a half.

I went back to bed.

I hadn’t slept well. Maybe it was because of the anxiety of whether I would life tick Little Bunting in London today (as one had been found the day before). Or maybe it was because of the huge quantity of caffeine I had imbibed last night to get me through Friday evening work and meetings. *shrugs*

By the time I was up and ready, it was late. I gathered my bins and camera and dashed out of the house at lightning waddle. I jumped into the bird-mobile and sped off … nowhere!

The car slouched forward sickeningly slowly like it was wading through treacle or like it had a flat tire… which it did. A neighbouring street recently suffered an attack where every single car on one side of the road had their tires slashed. Perhaps the perpetrator then came to my road to do one more car for good measure before going home for cocoa and bed, their good work done for the day.

Despite being very close, Leytonstone and Walthamstow are trickily connected (by which I mean Walthamstow has the audacity not to be on the Central Line). I didn’t want to waste precious moments running for buses in the rain, so I called an Uber. No, I am not proud.

Before long I was at the Walthamstow Wetlands (my first time there since they opened it as a new reserve) speed-walking past a very cold Tony who told me that the Little Bunting had just been seen once in the last two hours. I dutifully lined up with the green twitch brigade behind yellow and black tape as if we were witnessing a biohazard spillage.

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I stood in the cold and wet for well over an hour. Every now and then buntings would pop up from the weeds and perch in a tree to survey the line of green, wet, almost-bald apes lined up watching them. None of them were the Little Bunting …until one of them was! Hurrah!

A problem with twitches is that people get a bit bored and lazy. There are so many of you standing and watching a bush that you might as well chat to your neighbours and not really watch as someone else will be definitely be keeping an eye out… won’t they? I had been quite diligent and was watching carefully – only partially listening to people arguing about London and Essex boundaries to my left – and saw a small flurry of activity as a bird flew up from the weeds into a bush. A well known listing birder called it before I had even focused my bins: “Little Bunting!” I didn’t have my scope with me but I stared at the perched bird briefly through my rain-misted bins. It looked rather like I have come to learn a Little Bunting should look like, although the angle with which I was observing was rather acute and the head features weren’t as clear as I would have liked, but reddish cheeks and dark crown were in my mind. This was exacerbated by the distance and rain, but tens of people were looking right at it with me, so, safety in numbers, no?

I then scrambled to get my camera out. The strap had somehow got tangled around the lens, making it difficult to extend it out as a manual zoom. I cursed silently. Eventually I managed to take a couple of shots without having time to adjust any settings. The bird had annoyingly now positioned itself so its head – containing all the crucial identification features – was obscured.

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Obscured bunting

Then – and I realise this is a rather long story – something odd happened.  The bird flew horizontally out of the back of the bush but simultaneously managed to appear vertically and immediately above where it had just been. I didn’t let a minor issue, like the fact that it had broken multiple laws of physics, put me off taking lots of pictures of it in its new clearer position – head showing well and everything.  I was delighted! A life tick and photos to prove it! My delight subsided somewhat when I realised that the new bird I was photographing was not a Little Bunting with the ability to warp time and space, but rather a different bird altogether; a Reed Bunting.

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Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

A confused minute or two followed as people looked at a female (in photo above) and then at a male Reed Bunting perched up whilst the Little Bunting was nowhere to be seen. There was some discussion about the LB and backs of cameras were studied. People seemed happy.

Soon after Mr B and then Mr L arrived (both of who have written their own accounts of the day on their blogs which you should also read if this one hasn’t sent you to sleep). We stood for a bit and I picked up two more year ticks: Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. As I had seen the Little Bunting, I left them to warm up and go and see the Scaup on Reservoir Number 4 (the area clearly ran out of  names for their reservoirs as they have so many). It showed well in the rain as it bobbed about with a little raft of Tufted Duck.

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Scaup (Aythya marila) with Tufted Duck to the right

Jono and Lee B had great scope views of the Little Bunting whilst I was off looking at the Scaup (no, I’m not jealous at all). Jono and I then got public transport home together, happy with a good couple of hours birding.

But. Something was wrong. I searched back in my memory for the views I had of the Little Bunting. My first ever of the species in the field. They weren’t very good. In those crucial seconds when it was perched, I wasted time getting my camera out, and taking terrible photos. Photos which – as you can see above – don’t help me very much. In fact, photos which make the bird look suspiciously chestnutty in colour, almost as if it might have been a Reed Bunting. So what am I left with to support my life tick? Inconclusive photos, inconclusive memories of relatively poor views, but clear memories of other people calling it as a Little Bunting.

Sadly that is just not good enough. No life tick for me. The last Little Bunting seen in London was just over a decade ago. Maybe I’ll have to wait another decade to see one, or… maybe… I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Reservoir 4 – where the Scaup was

UPDATE: To find out how I got on the following day, click here.

A Silhouette and a Siskin

2018 has started well from a patch-birding perspective.

Okay, so I have missed the two best birds so far: Mediterranean Gull and Great White Egret (missed because of that minor inconvenience that prevents me from spending every daylight hour in the wild: work).

Okay, so one of my New Year’s resolutions to focus my birding efforts on matters other than Patch Year Listing has not been hugely successful. In fact I am scoring higher than  ever before.

But, I have some great patch birding moments and already have a full fat patch life tick (more on that shortly) under my belt.

Yesterday began in my beloved Bush Wood. Again, a Firecrest came across my path before I had even seen my year-first Goldcrest – which came shortly afterwards. A failed attempt to see perching Lesser Redpoll  – which have been frequenting the SSSI – sent me back to Bush Wood with Nick Croft in search of Treecreeper.

Treecreeper are very tricky on the Patch and none of us can quite understand why they are so scarce. There is plenty of good quality, relatively mature woodland and Treecreeper is a common bird only a short drive away at numerous sites. It took me about 20 months of birding the Patch before I saw my first, and yesterday I saw only my third Treecreeper on the Patch.

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

I certainly did not get close to the stunning pictures a certain patch colleague has posted, but the diminutive certhian performed splendidly for us; creeping up tree-trunks before dropping like a stone to make its way up another like a little mottled yo-yo. It even sang a bit for us.

We both ticked Coal Tit as it made its way through the tree tops as part of a bigger mixed tit flock.

The/another (?) Firecrest also popped up right in front of us briefly at one point and I completely failed to get what would have been a superb shot – I blame the fact that it was too close to focus, but fear I looked a bit like Fredo Corleone fumbling with his gun at the crucial moment when his father is shot in The Godfather. By the time I was pointing in the right direction with the right settings, the fiery little masked-mobster had retreated a bush or two back to watch us briefly through the brambles before continuing its frenetic search for food.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Luckily I did not fumble quite so badly when presented with a super smart-looking male Siskin in Wanstead Park (part of a small flock of six), which busily and messily fed on alder while Nick and I snapped away.

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Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Although I may have missed the short visit from the Mediterranean Gull, whilst sifting through the gulls on Jubilee pond, I did find our most-commonly-seen colour-ringed gull: ‘2LBA’, a Black-headed Gull ringed close-by in Fishers Green in Essex in the summer of 2015 and seen regularly on the Patch since then.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I saw ‘2LBA’ again today on exactly the same perch (is it worrying that I want to call it ‘Alba’? I am not a big fan of naming wild animals) in fact whilst admiring the marbled moult of a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull. I find myself increasingly watching and admiring gulls, but shhhh! don’t tell any of my patch colleagues who may not look kindly on such behaviour – let’s just keep it between you and me, ok?

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Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

As the light faded, Nick and I parted ways, but with a plan to rendezvous a little later to put right a wrong. No, we haven’t become superhero vigilantes. I simply wanted to see my first patch Woodcock. By the time I got to the sluice at the Roding, with the necessary equipment to hunt Woodcock (an extra jumper and scarf) Bob had also appeared, as if by magic.

The sun had already set when I arrived, but the light continued to seep out of the sky. The Song Thrush cacophony eventually died down and we stood in the near-dark as the lights of East London painted the horizon purple-pink. It was against this artificially lit backdrop that an open-winged silhouette arc’d down across the sky. I was momentarily confused. I had expected the bird to be visible for longer, I foolishly thought I might see some colour, but the shape was unmistakeable: a Woodcock coming out to feed. My 117th bird seen on the Patch.

I celebrated with a team-selfie (and yes, we have heard the one about the three garden gnomes).

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Yours truly with Nick and Bob* and the empty sky against which we had seen the Woodcock

*Don’t ask me what Bob is doing with his hands to make them blur like that. Maybe he is dancing to keep warm. I prefer not to notice. 😉

Starting the year with alchemy, not lists

The year on the Patch often begins a little later for me than my fellow patch-workers as I tend to start the year in France. This regularly leads to me bumping into them and saying things like, “Blue Tit, tick!” whilst they are bemoaning the fact that they haven’t seen a Water Rail or Peregrine yet for the year. But that doesn’t matter as I’m not patch year-listing in 2018. No! Really, I’m not!

So, today was my first day (actually only a couple of hours) out on the Patch when I was absolutely not ticking off Blue Tit, Magpie, Greenfinch, … .

I had already started the year on my French patch – highlights, amongst a lot of strong wind, were daily Hawfinches, Hen Harrier, Crested Tits, lots of walking and flushing of Red-legged Partridges and Woodlark.

Gold to fire..crest

But I also noticed something strange… for the first time in the decade I have been watching birds on the French Patch, I saw almost as many Goldcrest as I did Firecrest. I think Firecrest is probably the most common bird on the French patch, and I have only seen a handful of Goldcrest in all my time there so this was a big departure.

Alchemy was the art of attempting to turn lead into gold, normally using lots of fire. How about turning gold into fire and vice versa? Well the French oddity seemed to be reflected back at me this morning in Wanstead when I saw a Firecrest in Bush Wood before seeing Goldcrest (Firecrest is a tricky winter tick compared with resident Goldcrests) – I still haven’t added Goldcrest to the list that I am not keeping.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) in Bush Wood

The golden light

I met Jono this morning as we tried to see a Little Owl that I wanted to see (not for any listing purposes you understand) – and, whilst he had early views, I missed it. The promise of a bright day seemed a lie first thing as there was a lot of cloud, but, as we stood by Jubilee pond, the rays broke through and bathed everything in golden light that just makes photography a joy.

I know male Tufted Duck are recognised as the good looking one of the pair with their iridescent head and contrasting pied colouration, but in the morning light, the subtle variation of the mahogany colours of the female stood out to me.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

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Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Jono was out with his heavy camera and so I left him doing what he does best. The results on his blog are well worth seeing.

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Jonathan Lethbridge (Homo cameralensii)

‘Among the fields of gold’

I wrapped up 2017 writing about how a Stonechat by Cat & Dog pond ‘bookmarked’ the year for me. It might well do that again in 2018 (if I were year-listing that is) as I found the long-staying (since 18 November) bird there.

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Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

If I had been counting, which I wasn’t, I might say that I have seen 46 species of bird so far on the UK Patch this year. As I was only out for an hour or so, I didn’t visit Wanstead Park, but, even so, am missing some incredibly common birds like Dunnock, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, and Redwing. Still, I have a whole year to add those birds to my… erm… list.

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.

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For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

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The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.

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Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left

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Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

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Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.

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