Monthly Archives: July 2018

Summer waders

Yesterday a lot of London birders were waiting with anticipation to hear if London’s first Marsh Sandpiper in 34 years was still going to be at Rainham Marshes after it was spotted the evening before. It was. Howard Vaughan kindly opened the reserve two hours early, but by the time the first of us got there a couple of reserve volunteers who had been checking ahead of the crowd informed us that the bird had flown high and south towards the Thames with a couple of Redshank just minutes beforehand.

In pathetic fallacy, the sky seemed to reflect my disappointed mood. Bob and I walked back towards the car via the sea-wall on the off-chance we could pick it up on the Thames shoreline. Luckily we were only side-swiped by the wall of rain and wind that swept across the reserve accompanied by thunder and lightning.

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Even the odd ping of Bearded Tit didn’t really lighten my mood. By the time we reached the sea-wall, I was further dismayed when I saw hundreds of godwit and other waders take-off across the river. There was a mini Wanstead birding reunion as Bob, Rob, Tony and I scanned the shore. Some Greenshank took flight and Bob and Tony noticed that one of the four seemed much smaller than the others. Shortly afterwards we heard that the Marsh Sandpiper was back on Aveley Pools – and that it had come in with three Greenshank!

I think I must’ve come close to breaking the trans-reserve racewalking record, encumbered as I was with scope, camera, bins etc, but this time I didn’t miss it. As Jono, who we met there as well, remarked, ‘all’s well that ends well’. William Shakespeare couldn’t have put it better! I was thrilled! Lots of the guys needed Marsh Sandpiper for London. For me, it was a full fat life tick.

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Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)

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Another record shot with Common Sandpiper to the right for size comparison

As I stood and soaked in views of a bird species last seen in London when I was three, I overheard other birders mention that Red-necked Phalarope had been found 50 kilometres down-river at Oare Marshes – one of my favourite south-eastern reserves. I am not really a twitcher, but I had the time, I had tasted success, and I like Oare, so I was soon zipping down the M2. By zipping, I mean at times crawling, and others being diverted through industrial parks, but it was worth it.

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Oare with one of the big godwit flocks

It was obviously wonderful to connect quickly with the Red-necked Phalarope in the record shot below sandwiched between the Mallard and the Black-tailed Godwit and with Dunlin behind. We all know that phalarope are small, but being reminded that they are barely bigger than a Dunlin was more of a surprise than it should have been.

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Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)

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Oare delivered more than just the phalarope with five Curlew Sandpiper and five Little Stint probably taking the podium places, but the full cast of waders yesterday included:  Avocet, Little Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Redshank (I seem to have missed Spotted Redshank, but hear they were showing), Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Snipe, Red-necked Phalarope, and Ruff. 18 species of wader, many of which were in summer plumage, is not bad for a summer’s day (and I could probably have picked up one or two more if I had bothered to check the sea shore).

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Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

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Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

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Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) left of Dunlin between gulls

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Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

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Out of the ashes?

The largest grass fire ever seen in the capital” – BBC News

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Last Sunday, 15th July 2018, more than 220 firefighters battled for hours and continued dampening down for days. By my measurements, around 320,000 square metres of the patch has been destroyed, that is over a fifth of the entire area of Wanstead Flats and could house well over 50 football pitches. The sad irony of the football pitch comparison, of course, is that all the football pitches are fine. The mown grass was barely affected. It was the biodiverse areas of grassland, scrub, and woodland which has been devastated.

The background is that we are suffering the worst drought in London’s recorded history. The parched grass was tinder dry and ready to react to a carelessly discarded cigarette, a mishandled disposable barbecue, or the match of a malicious arsonist. We will probably never know.

Yesterday I went out for the first time to see the damage. It was harder to see than I had imagined. My patch has been devastated and that is how I felt too.

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The charred remains of non-combustible litter and blackened, skeletal trees stand in an ashen desert. No bird song. No butterflies. Nothing.

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There were some small mercies. Whilst the patches of brooms have been almost completely destroyed, some of the grassland just south of this area has survived. I found a single Meadow Pipit song-flighting there, and a couple more chased each other amongst the remaining grass. I also heard a short burst of grounded Skylark song. A small family of Lesser Whitethroat also emerged out of bushes that have been cut back and cauterised by the fire. So hope remains.

If we had lost our Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, we may never have got them back. Only time will tell whether this fire has taken a material toll on their fragile hold of this habitat.

Wanstead Park was welcome relief from the damaged Flats.

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Aspen and Purple Loosestrife in the Ornamental Waters

Water levels are low in the drought and several ponds have had water pumped into them to stop them becoming parched dust-bowls. Little Egret have been taking advantage of this and fishing in the shallow waters. Yesterday I counted 14 of them; a joint record with three years ago, although now beaten today by my colleagues who have clocked up 17 across the Patch.

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12 of the 14 Little Egret yesterday on the Ornamentals

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7 Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Juvenile Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)

In the Old Sewage works there has been more fire damage. The manure heap by the stables was set alight. But then about 100 metres away there was another, and then another patch of grass blackened to nothing. Probably only around 500 square metres, but suspiciously all separate whilst along the edges of one path. Almost as if someone walked along setting fire to the grass as they went.

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A small patch of fire damage by the path and paddock fence in the Old Sewage Works

Apparently some people have had to be told to stop barbecuing next to the fire-damaged parts of the Wanstead Flats. I cannot help draw a comparison and see these ignorant al fresco diners with their disposable bbq next to the blackened husk of a once-lush habitat as a microcosm for humanity and our planet: blissfully continuing with whatever the fuck we want to do as we burn and grind our world into ashes and dust.

“I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky” – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes

 

 

Gulling the Thames

Amongst the gulls returning to London from coastal breeding grounds, there have been a few gems recently. Most notably a Bonaparte’s Gull that was seen over several days at Crossness. But there have also been a few returning Yellow-legged Gull as well.

It was mainly this latter bird that I went out looking for this morning, starting with the Thames Barrier park at low tide.

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Thames Barrier at low-tide

There were large numbers of Black-headed Gull spread pretty evenly along the exposed shoreline (I suppose they don’t really need to huddle together in this heat). There were maybe high double digits of Lesser Black-backed Gull, low double digits of Herring Gull, and a small handful of Common Gull.

It was soon pretty clear there were no Yellow-legged Gull, so I focused on scanning the small gulls. I got lucky and found an adult Mediterranean Gull, always nice to see in summer plumage with its true black head (unlike the choclatey-coloured hood of the mis-named Black-headed Gull). The Med Gull was quite close in, but by the time I had got my camera out and ready, it must have flown. As I packed up and left, I saw one more juvenile Med Gull way down river in the distance so I took a grainy phone-scope shot for my records (and to inflict on my long-suffering readers).

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

By the time I had driven down the road and walked the rather epicly long path down to Creekmouth, the tide had come in rapidly and there was a much-diminished beach.

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Roding entering the Thames at Barking Creekmouth with the flood barrier

I checked the Black-headed Gulls floating around the Roding outflow, but couldn’t pick out any narrow-billed Bonaparte’s candidates, or any more thick-billed Med Gulls, so I turned my attention to the Beckton Sewage Works behind me.

It isn’t easy birding the sewage works but it had good numbers of gulls…

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Beckton Sewage Works

That view above is not typical or illustrative of reality. I managed to take it because my iPhone pressed up against the fence is small enough to get a good view, but a more accurate representation of what I was looking at is:

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I’m not sure quite why the fencing needs to be so narrow and restrictive

The pools in the photo are quite sizeable, and, at 40,000 square metres (Google Maps has allowed me to measure them), they are a third bigger than Heronry Lake on my local Patch.

Creekmouth and Beckton

I quickly found what I was hoping for on the water as one bird stood out quite well, despite the blurry distortions of peaking through such narrow meshing. It was a fair distance away so I didn’t get any good shots, but at least I had found a Yellow-legged Gull.

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Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michaellis)

As it swam about in the treatment pools, it helpfully aligned up with a Herring Gull to give a better sense of size and bill thickness.

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The morning wasn’t all about gulls, a pair of Peregrine performed for me and another local birder who I bumped into, Linnet and Grey Wagtail danced about on trees and posts respectively, and I got some stunning views of Reed Warbler which popped through the reeds and fencing to watch me walk past.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

When both laziness and labour pay off

On being lazy
This weekend was going to be about butterflies again. I started early on Saturday morning walking purposefully towards Wanstead Park in the hope of finally clinching White-letter Hairstreak.

Walking through ‘School Scrub’ and then up Evelyn’s Avenue towards Bush Wood, I glanced to my right at the pitches and saw a large number of Black-headed Gull loafing. Only recently back from their breeding territories, I had a quick scan through these early-ish returners. Out of 98 birds, I spotted a small handful of juvenile birds and so WhatsApped my patch-colleagues the news but walked on.

My mind was fixed on hairstreaks, not gulls, but Tony’s reply asking about juveniles made me turn back, just as a jogger and dog put many of the gulls in the air. Some flew and about 40 were left with seemingly no juveniles. I spotted one remaining right at the very back of the flock. As I walked towards it, I started to spook the closest gulls which seem less tolerant than they get later in the year, so I fired off a few shots and sent a back-of-camera shot to the guys.

Again I walked on. But, something niggled me. Here is how it played out on our WhatsApp group…

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Through my slapdash approach and my impatience to be somewhere else, I forgot to actually check if my juvenile Black-headed Gull was actually a Black-headed Gull at all. It wasn’t. It was a textbook juvenile Mediterranean Gull instead. Tony had not only prompted me to go and look at the juveniles, but he was also faster at concluding the identity of my bird. Without him, I wouldn’t have got this record shot of my first Med Gull for the year.

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

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Just to prove I do know what a juvenile Black-headed Gull looks like (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

On labouring hard
Walking around in the sweltering heat is hard work at the moment. I seem to have a perpetual ruck-sack-shaped sweat-patch on my back and shoulders (too much info?) and beads of sweat carry suncream into my eyes.

When I finally reached the elm trees in Wanstead Park where I fancied White-letter Hairstreak may show-up, I was already very hot, slightly de-hydrated, and rather worn out, but I had dragged Nick along to help me look for quarry.

Hairstreaks are hard! They are small, rather nondescript, some of them look very similar, and they flit about restlessly high up in trees. We watched hairstreak after hairstreak flit about and failed to get enough identification on the majority of them to discern between Purple and White-letter. Occasionally one would settle for long enough to ID as a Purple Hairstreak.

Eventually, after Nick’s patience was undoubtedly wearing thin (he has seen one before), we got enough on one of the elm-settled specimens to positively ID as my first patch White-letter Hairstreak. It may be ragged with some of orange and ‘W’ missing, but it is still my first photo of this patch-tick for me.

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White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album)

So, whilst I didn’t expect the weekend to be about birds, I got patch-year ticks in the form of Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern and also got a good summer record of five passage Lapwing (probably failed breeders).

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Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

And with the patch tick White-letter Hairstreak, following last week’s tick with the Silver-washed Fritillary, this hot spell in early July is being more productive than I could have hoped. Especially, when there are bonuses like this beauty…

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Elephant Hawk Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

Running after a frit

The patch butterfly list is a small, but well formed, thing. Only 29 species of butterfly have been found locally (half the UK total). There has been bad news over the years (the disappearance of Wall) and good news – namely in recent findings and growth in numbers of hairstreaks.

My personal patch list has a couple of omissions. Despite working hard to get White-letter Hairstreak, it is still missing, as is the migrant Clouded Yellow. However, my list did grow by one when I became only the second or third person to see Silver-washed Fritillary in Wanstead Park.

Christian M. found the first one ever for our local records just a few days ago and so I was a man on a mission yesterday. A local naturalist, Jack D., and I had tantalising glimpses of a fast flying fritillary whilst we lurked in likely areas. But, kindly, Jack came to call me back after I had moved on when he re-found it settled. I ran faster than I have for some time.

And there, flapping around some brambles and nettles, was the large, orange beauty. I did not have my camera ready and so only managed a distant shot with my iPhone which only barely counts as a record shot.

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Underside showing pale streaks of Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

Luckily, while I was sprinting back (it probably looked more like laboured jogging to the observer, but it felt like a scene from Chariots of Fire to me) Jack had managed to capture some better photos with his camera. I duly stole some back-of-camera shots off him for my records and to remind me of the good, but brief, views we had of this graceful giant.

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My iPhone shot of photo courtesy of Jack Delabye

Considering the first ever Purple Hairstreak was only recorded for the site in the last few years, it is now doing extremely well and can be found in large numbers around the many oaks we have. Let’s hope S-W Frit and others soon follow its success.

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Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus)