Author Archives: iago80

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)

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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)

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani

“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” – Led Zeppelin, Immigrant

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Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) – at Jigokudani, Nagano prefecture

There is a place called Hell. A sheer and narrow rocky valley high in the Japanese mountains. It is freezing cold and under snow for several months a year, and yet jets of super-heated steam shoot out of crevices and pools of boiling hot mud bubble malignantly. Jigokudani (‘Hell Valley’) is appropriately named. It is also home to the most famous group of wild macaques.

Japanese Macaque is the most northerly existing species of wild primates, other than humans, in the world, and so also the only primate to regularly inhabit and flourish in the snow.

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The hot spring pool at Jigokudani

Jigokudani is remote and the landscape is inhospitable. Few people would visit the small number of dwellings high in the hills except a few locals taking advantage of the ‘Onsen’  (naturally geo-thermically heated baths) up here. However, something happened in the early 1960’s which was to change that and turn Hell Valley into a major tourist attraction.

During a period of particularly fierce snowy weather, a female macaque and her baby descended from the icy rocks and climbed into the warm water of the man-made Onsen in the tiny mountainous hamlet. This species of monkey exhibits high levels of intelligence and, soon after, large numbers of the group would follow this example and warm up in the baths.

In 1970 a photograph of this behaviour graced the front cover of LIFE Magazine. A new pool was constructed a few hundred metres away to capture the hot spring water and give the monkeys their own place to bathe. Wildlife documentaries and hundreds of thousands of visitors followed. I was one of them.

Although we visited in early April, it was unseasonably warm and so most of the snow had melted. The monkeys roam around the mountain slopes as wild macaques should but their diet is supplemented by grain from the local reserve management which ensures people get a reasonable view of them.

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Watching this large group was utterly fascinating. The social dynamics are highly complex. There is a strict hierarchy from the alpha male (the visitor centre has photos of each ‘boss’ from 1964 to the present) to the lowliest youngster and this was often painfully clear when a juvenile would commit some undecipherable infraction against an angry senior.

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A male exerting his authority

Great howls and screams would sometimes precede slapping, biting and shoving and the series of photos below surely depicts something along the lines of protest, distress, resignation, and submission of a young macaque moments after it was harshly disciplined by the large male above.

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But there were also wonderful moments of tenderness and affection displayed through grooming or parental care.

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Whilst order and discipline is meted out largely by the male hierarchy, the organisation is actually matrilineal in design – females largely staying faithful to the group whilst most males will be expelled at some stage or are nomadic between troops. The females choose who to mate with and when to mate (apparently not always with the alpha male), and shape most of the organisational decisions. A fascinating observation I have read about since my visit is that there are very high levels of homosexuality in this species with females, in particular, likely to show bisexual preferences as the norm rather than the exception.

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Being around such a sociable troop of highly intelligent primates, it is difficult not to relate and anthropomorphise. I defy you not to find this toddler cute…

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I watched this poor little thing picking grains up off the floor for a while and then – in response to something another macaque may have done – it suddenly started bouncing up and down looking like it was dancing while playing an invisible trumpet*.

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Three images stitched together here of our ‘dancing baby’ monkey

It was a shame not to have seen them in the snow, from the perspective of my photographs, but just amazing to get to watch wild primates so closely.

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*None of the behaviour here is trained or induced for human observation. This troop has become used to being watched over the last fifty years and largely ignore the bald primates who mill about a bit every day whilst dropping lots of grain.

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.

Birding Eastern Poland: Part I (Marshes)

For some time a place has existed in my imagination. A pristine forest in Europe with the remnants of the prehistoric fauna that man has otherwise done its best to erase from our sterile narrative and existence. Last weekend I was able to replace my imagination with the reality of visiting Białowieża forest and some of the surrounding wetlands.

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Six of us – mostly my local fellow-patch-workers (we even created our hashtag of #WansteadOnTour) – made the trip, and two of them have written up the trip-report excellently and fully here and here. So I will not really attempt to replicate their work, but, here are some of my experiences and highlights. I shall split the weekend into two, by the broad habitat grouping: marshes and forest. This first post is dedicated to the marshes.

BIEBRZA MARSHES
In the UK, we get excited if we have managed to preserve or restore a few hectares of marshy wetland. Biebrza is over 1000 square kilometres of lowland marshes that have thankfully been spared drainage for agriculture.

As we drove past one open wetland meadow my eyes seemed to deceive me. What looked like an enormous goofy looking dog was just stood knee-high in water a little way in the distance. It wasn’t actually an enormous goofy dog, but rather my first wild encounter with an Elk (if you are reading this from the US, this is your Moose; what you call an ‘Elk’ is a totally different deer species). By the time we walked back from a parking spot to get a better view, the Elk had moved into the tall vegetation and was almost completely hidden from view. Almost.

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Elk (Alces alces)

In the middle of the marshes, a famous wooden boardwalk stretches out far into the vast reed beds in a straight line for around 350 metres. Walk out from the small road and a sea of low-growing vegetation surrounds you.

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Długa Luka boardwalk

Whilst extraordinary, this area is not fully wild. It is managed to keep it from over-growing to protect the star species: Aquatic Warbler. Numbers of this elusive ‘acro’ warbler have declined significantly and there are now believed to only be around 15,000 individuals remaining, with Belarus and Poland holding the bulk of these in the summer and marshes in Senegal home to the majority over the winter months. We heard, and then watched, around six individuals in song flight and occasionally climb up the reeds to be visible through binoculars and scope. The distance meant I didn’t get any good shots of this stunning pale-marked bird but I took some record shots anyway.

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

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The ‘we’ve just seen an Aquatic Warbler’ twitch selfie

The site also delivered the first of many views we got of Lesser Spotted Eagle as well as views of Honey Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, and Marsh Harrier.

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Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Just a mile or two south of Długa Luka in the Biebrza marshes there was an open water pond surrounded by another huge expanse of reeds. In view were around 100 marsh terns: mainly White-winged Black Tern, but also a handful of Whiskered Tern and a single Black Tern. The spectacle of this concentration of marsh terns was almost a little too much to take in and impossible to render sufficiently into pixels.

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White-winged Black Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)

Białowieża marshes
Biebrza was the largest and most impressive marshland we visited on our long weekend, but it wasn’t the only one. Skirting the edge of the Białowieża forest itself were quite substantial reed-dominated wetlands.

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Białowieża marshes

We didn’t encounter any more Aquatic Warbler, but the closely related – and far more familiar for us Brits – Sedge Warbler was well represented.

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

As were Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler and some of the locustella warblers: namely the metallic buzz of Savi’s Warbler and a lifer for me in the rather nondescript shape and colour of River Warbler.

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River Warbler (Locustella fluviatilis)

To give a sense of how good the birding was here, at one point we had River Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Rosefinch and Black Woodpecker all around the same tree within a matter of minutes.

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Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina)

Upper Narew Valley
Saturday was our only full day birding in Poland with ‘full’ being the operative word. As we got up at around 3.30am and finished well into darkness, Saturday included nearly 18 hours of birding (a definite record for me)! Darkness fell for us over another wonderfully unspoiled wetland area: the Narew Valley.

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Our guide leading us to the Great Snipe site in the Upper Narew Valley as the sun sets

My patch colleagues have recorded this section very well in their trip reports so I shall be brief. We watched invisible Corn Crake move vegetation right in front of us while they “CREX CREX”‘-ed louder at us than I thought was possible. This cacophony all but drowned out the reeling Grasshopper Warblers. Nightjar‘s churred, Woodcock ‘pssip’ed’ while Roding, and Cuckoo‘s… err… cuckooed around us, but the highlight was the display dance of the Great Snipe. Despite being under attack from swarms of mosquitos, the experience was superlatively good.

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White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)

This Hobby of mine

Spring has been, temporarily (?), catapulted into summer on this first May Bank Holiday. Record breaking temperatures and clear blue skies. Perfect for raptors. I’ve already seen four Red Kite this Spring, which is four more than I saw last year, and the year before that! And yesterday I saw two birds, including this one with a missing eighth primary feather on its left wing.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

It was also a fantastic day for Hobby. All over East London good numbers were seen. I can’t be sure exactly how many birds I saw in the multiple sightings I had, or whether they were all repeats, but I can be sure there are at least two as I watched a pair circle each other effortlessly, getting higher and higher over the Old Sewage Works, their bright red trousers showing well in the sunshine.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

At one point I even saw one of them sweep past me with avian prey in its talons. This was possibly the first hirundine I saw on the day as there seem to be strangely few around the Patch yet. I picked up a few Swift distantly over Ilford and, later, when dozing in the sun on the Western Flats, I eventually watched a couple of Swallow fly overhead in the early evening. But I have now gone longer through the year than any previous year without seeing House Martin and Sand Martin.

The advanced and unseasonably hot weather enhances the feeling that Spring passage migration is over, emphasised even more by the lack of Wheatear on the Patch. I have probably missed the chance for Spring Redstart, Whinchat, and – most sadly – Ring Ouzel.  We have had record Ring Ouzel for the Spring, but I have seen none of them. I shall have to wait for their return in Autumn when they are normally slightly easier.

But it is hard to be too disappointed when watching birds in glorious weather. Lesser Whitethroat are singing in multiple locations, we have a couple of singing Willow Warbler, territorial Reed Bunting, and a singing Reed Warbler. All of these are small and fragile numbers across the Patch, but still more common than our warbler hopes of Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Garden Warbler which are all still missing from the Patch list so far this year.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)