Monthly Archives: September 2018

Like ships in the light

I woke up full of optimism this morning. The clear skies and wind direction did not point to anything great, but the air just tasted ‘rare’. There is nothing quite like the sense of hope and expectation at dawn during migration season. It is helped by the fact that the misty dawns of early Autumn are some of the most beautiful times to be out on the Patch.

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Low double figures of Meadow Pipit came nowhere close to last weekend’s total of 257 (and my patch PB of 239), but there were also lots of Chiffchaff and few more finches than usual.

My rare-radar is obviously finely tuned as I was thrilled to receive a call from Tony telling me that he had found a Yellow-browed Warbler, only the third ever seen on the Patch, and the added bonus of being during a season where numbers of these Asian visitors have been low. I was less thrilled that, despite a couple of hours of hard searching, three of us couldn’t re-find it – although it felt a bit like the one that got away as I chased a very small warbler with my bins as it raced ahead of me through a canopy, but I got no features whatsoever. A shame for my year-list, but I would have been a lot more sore if it wasn’t already on my patch list.

This afternoon Jono and I had a switch of scenery and followed the masses to get a look at the extraordinary sight that is the Beluga Whale in the Thames. This has been thoroughly well reported on the news and the beast is now in at least its fifth day in the Thames; enormous distances, of course, from its Arctic home.

We gambled with the shorter journey to the Essex shore at Tilbury where the views have been far more distant than from the Gravesend, Kent shore. At first the views were somewhat blocked by some rather big boats.

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Panamanian ‘MSC Florentina’ in from Le Harve and Italian ‘Grande Tema’ in from Hamburg

After one of the ships had been tugged in a full 180 degree turn and got out the way, we were soon pointed towards the narrow strip of water where the pale whale had been seen multiple times already that day. And, sure enough, we were lucky enough to watch it breach on multiple occasions spouting water jets and briefly even poking its bulbous head up. The views with the scope were distant but good, the views through my camera were less so and this is about the best I could manage – the pigment appears dark because we were facing into the light.

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Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

As incredible as it is to see such a rare sight as an arctic whale in my local river, it is clearly worryingly abnormal and I think we all hope it makes its way back out to sea and back up north as quickly as possible.

 

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Getting to know the locals

One of the benefits of working the same patch regularly is that, occasionally, you get to know and recognise individual birds. Sometimes this is made easy for us:

Specific locally scarce or rare birds

The recent Red-backed Shrike on Wanstead Flats was the first of its kind locally for 38 years. I am sure there are other juvenile Red-backed Shrike that look very similar to the one we had stay for around 11 days, but nobody in their right mind would think that it was a different bird from one day to the next.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) – yes, I know I have displayed this photo before

Sometimes relatively common passage migrants might stay a day or two. So it was the other day when two quite distinct young Wheatear were found for two days running in the Broomfields.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Colour-ringed birds

I have mentioned Black-headed Gull ‘2LBA’ before. Recently, I have seen it pretty much every time I have visited Jubilee Pond. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the distinct features of the particular bird, but… I don’t need to as it wears its identity pretty clearly on its leg.

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Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) – ‘2LBA’ 

Distinctive individuals

Whilst not wishing to indulge in any species-ist ‘they all look the same’ kind of rhetoric, it is inevitably hard for most of us – even regular and dedicated birders – to get to understand the individual features of birds within one species. However, I am reminded of the late, great, Sir Peter Scott and his painted studies of individual Whooper Swan face markings. But for us mere mortals there seems to be a spectrum from uniquely marked birds through to subtle differences that only close-up and regular study could allow.

At the easy end of that spectrum, you have birds like this rather beautiful, but also ‘manky’, domestic-interbreed Mallard that I have seen on Jubilee and Alexandra ponds.

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Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Somewhat further down the spectrum are birds like this pale 3cy argenteus Herring Gull, where the distinctive eyes, mantle colour, moult, and bill markings have let me identify the same bird on several occasions in the last week as I have had the opportunity to get out most days.

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10 September: Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

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10 September: Same bird in flight showing missing secondaries

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12 September: same bird, same place (facing different direction)

August 2018: review

Patch

Summary: I made nine patch visits in August (although a couple were for very short periods of time) as Autumn migration really kicked into gear. I recorded 73 species of bird in the month, including eight that were new for the year and one, very special, brand spanking new Patch tick (Red-backed Shrike). I also made one non-patch twitch.

Highlights were:

  • Almost certainly the stand-out bird for the year will be a stunning, long staying Red-backed Shrike found by Nick in Pub Scrub on 28 August. I was lucky enough to have great views of it early one morning.
  • The return of the Willow Warblers with this species appearing in my lists for the first time since May and being spotted on almost half of my patch visits.
  • Yellow-legged Gull making an appearance for the first time on the patch for anyone this year in August with a recurring sub-adult found by Nick by Alex on the 12 August and a self-found juvenile loafing on the pitches on the 25 August.
  • An extraordinarily early returning Wigeon on the Roding on 12 August was almost certainly our earliest Autumn record.
  • Hobby and Peregrine have both clearly bred successfully in the local area and I have had several great views of both falcons.
  • Fantastic August for passage Yellow Wagtail, with a record patch high for me of 14 over on 30 August, and also my first view of them perching locally, with a flock of 8 that briefly perched in a Hawthorn in the Broom fields on 25 August.
  • Traditionally the best month for Spotted Flycatcher, although lower numbers than some years. I got my first on 19 August and a high of four all perched in the same bare tree in Centre Copse on the evening of 29 August.
  • I recorded Whinchat on three Patch visits with a high of five individual birds on 30 August.
  • A few Wheatear have been seen, but I only recorded one, a male, in the ploughed sections of the Broom fields on 28 August.
  • Seeing my first Redstart of the year in the Brick Pits. For three out of the last four years I have seen my first Redstart in the last week of August.
  • Hirundines have been more visible this month, although the breeding Swifts had all left before I got out, so they were not recorded this month. House Martin fed in low double digits around Jubilee in particular, and were accompanied by a Sand Martin (embarrassingly my first and only one for the year) on 25 August, and a few passage Swallow later in the month as well.
  • Flushing the first patch Snipe of the Autumn from the Brooms.

Lowlights were:

  • Missing the confiding Black-tailed Godwit on 4 August on Alex was gutting.
  • I was disappointed to be one of the only regular birders on the patch to miss Pied Flycatcher in August.
  • I was also unsuccessful in finding Garden Warbler or Sedge Warbler which both showed in August.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Getting Stone Curlew on a late evening twitch to Bowers Marsh.
  • Also finding a Blacked-necked Grebe at Bowers Marsh, both on 12 August.

My birding month in five pictures…

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Our long-staying Red-backed Shrike in Pub Scrub

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Juvenile Peregrine, Centre Copse

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Bowers Marsh, Essex

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull, Alex

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Male Wheatear, Broomfields