Category Archives: Bird watching

Rustic Bunting: Part II

Many people will have woken up early full of nervous anticipation about whether the Wanstead Rustic Bunting will have stayed for the weekend; that nervous energy exemplified by a guy who dropped to his knees when he finally saw it (I’m not scoffing, I remember how I felt on Thursday when I saw the bird).

My early morning was rather more leisurely. I wanted a better photograph opportunity, but I wasn’t going to bust a gut and so enjoyed the misty morning and the ‘VisMig’ (visible passage Autumn migration).

IMG_9762v2

Coronation Copse

IMG_9763v2

SSSI

The VisMig was truly excellent with a Ring Ouzel (my second for the year) chattering away as a it flew slowly and low over my head, a couple of Brambling, and Redpoll, lots of Chaffinch, and hundreds of Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon amongst other things.

My focus on the VisMig nearly cost me dearly though. Tony had a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Short-eared Owl and so he and Jono set off in the hope of a better look while I took a different route to cover another angle. With my mind still geared towards VisMig I noticed a finch flying high over my head and at the same time I heard Tony shout at me. I thought he was shouting at me to get an ID on the finch so I strained my eyes and ears but it flew over silently and too high to pick out features.

When I caught up with the guys, they asked if I had seen the Barn Owl? “The WHAAT?!” The last time Barn Owl was seen on the Patch, I was 12 years old! Whilst it used to be resident decades ago, it is the kind of bird you can imagine never returning to be seen again – it just wasn’t even on my radar of the possible. I think Rustic Bunting was less of a surprise.

What followed wasn’t a particularly edifying train of actions on my part, but it involved running around a lot, staring at every crow in case it was chasing something, hearing that half of London’s birders had seen it while I was off looking in a different direction, quite of lot of swearing and self pity, and I even considered climbing a tree at one point, which would have undoubtedly been a very stupid decision. Eventually, after a call from Nick, I caught a glimpse of it as it sailed behind Long Wood with a retinue of crows.

Barn Owl was my 9th patch tick this year (last year I got 5) and my 125th bird species seen overall on the patch. Bob managed to get some incredible photos of it as it flew over the Brooms.

I could now focus back on the Rustic Bunting which was being watched closely by up to 70 twitchers at any one time.

IMG_9765v2

I am used to walking bumping into two or three birders on the Patch

To be honest, the crowds probably meant I couldn’t quite get the dream photo I was hoping for, but I was relatively happy with a couple of snaps I managed when, by luck, it happened to perch or feed near where I was standing.

IMG_6475v2

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

IMG_6401v2

Feeding on some of the seed the guys have put out for it

Yet again, Wanstead Flats proves that almost anything can turn up at any point. And it seems, that, over time, it does!

 

Advertisements

Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
IMG_6318v2.jpg

Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

IMG_9745v2.jpg

The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

The SoM Snipe illusion

Last Saturday I drove back from Rainham Marshes (Cattle Egret and Common Scoter under my belt) and stopped off for a second look at the Patch; this time in heavy rain. I wanted to see if anything had been brought down on the lakes of Wanstead Park. It was a worthwhile trip as I scored a patch record of 57 Teal, all on Heronry, and a couple of Snipe feeding on the inaccessible western fringe of the Shoulder of Mutton. I posted a poor quality back-of-camera record shot on social media and went home to dry off and go about some other business.

IMG_6083v2

Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

I was busy in a meeting and blissfully aware that people were viewing my photo and noticing that one of the snipe was seemingly smaller, crouching, and strongly marked. Unbeknownst to me, a whole debate ensued about whether it was actually a Jack Snipe. When I eventually logged in I re-checked my photos and assured everyone that the birds were similar size, with very long bills and a pale (not dark) central crown stripe. Debate over. I never doubted this when looking at the birds for one second, even though I had noticed the strong markings on one of the birds.

However, a week later (today), this doubt emerged like a horrid aftertaste in my own mouth. I approached SoM lake with Bob regaling him with the story of how other people had tried to string my Snipe into a Jack Snipe, (Lol!) when I saw them again in exactly the same place.

We crept around the side of the lake to get a better view. One of the Snipe was perching on top of a log and the other was pressed up against it but standing in the water below it. In a matter of seconds a wave of confusion and slight horror passed over me. The bird on the log was noticeably smaller than the partially submerged bird, much more strongly marked and was the only bird to be showing its bill which looked medium in length. This  is roughly what I was looking at through my bins:

IMG_6197v2

Snipe on log looking apparently much smaller than the one partially obscured next to it

The bird on the log briefly turned its head and we seemed to see a dark crown stripe. Bob and I exclaimed together: Jack Snipe! My emotions were mixed. Jack Snipe is a Patch tick – great! but there were two snipe in the same place last weekend that were definitely both Snipe! Am I going mad?!

But it must have been some form of multiple optical illusion. The Snipe‘s partially obscured bill (covered in mud or sometimes under the mud – as below) looked shorter than it was.

IMG_6261v2

A seemingly short bill – actually just hidden in mud

The size difference was largely down to posture, and the dark crown stripe was actually a side stripe and the central stripe was light.

IMG_6218v2

Both Common Snipe after all

So, I still can’t tick Jack Snipe, but at least my sanity and pride are mostly still intact.

 

September 2018: Review

Patch

Summary: I made 11 visits on to the Patch during September and recorded a total of 70 species of birds; three less than in August. Simply put, September was disappointing and was the only month, along with famously dire June, when I have not found any new birds for my patch year list.

Highlights were:

  • Tree Pipit flying and calling over Long Wood on 8 September was not a year tick for me, but it was one of only two recorded this Autumn by anyone on the Patch.
  • We have recently had some Autumn passage movement of Meadow Pipit adding to our small resident number, and I may have broken the patch record with 239 personally counted birds over out of a total day count of 257 on 22 September.
  • A single flock of around 70-80 House Martin (largest flock I have counted this year, by some margin) moved lazily through the Brooms on 12 September whilst the last I saw of our small flock of resident breeders was on 15 September.
  • Meanwhile small numbers of Swallow have trickled through on 7 of my 11 visits.
  • I also recorded Yellow Wagtail flying over on 7 out of 11 of my visits, but never more than a couple of birds compared to some of the flocks I had in August.
  • In an attempt to be ‘half-glass full’, I saw Wheatear on three of the patch visits and Whinchat on two.
  • Seeing my third different Yellow-legged Gull on the patch this year; an adult on 22 September.
  • Large numbers of Chiffchaff on the day of the Yellow-browed Warbler, (29 September) with also a few Chaffinch starting to appear in places we don’t normally see them.
  • Not getting stung by a hornet (see lowlight below).

Lowlights were:

  • The fact that for me, and others, it was a pretty poor September given that it should be a prime month for interesting finds. The westerly winds did not help matters.
  • Shockingly I didn’t see a single flycatcher in September, with this now likely to be the only year I have missed out on Pied Flycatcher.
  • Missing a Yellow-browed Warbler by minutes. A bird only seen briefly which passed through Long Wood without calling.
  • And missed a Green Sandpiper passing over head by being about 70 metres too far south and facing the wrong way (one of the most commonly seen birds that I still need for my Patch list).
  • Accidentally standing directly below a hornet nest in Centre Copse and getting hit on the head by one that launched itself or fell on me out of the nest. Miracle I didn’t get stung. (see highlight above).

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Feeling part of a burgeoning movement for change by joining the ‘Walk for Wildlife’ from Hyde Park to Downing Street on 22 September with the promotion of the new People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
  • The bittersweet and extraordinary sight of seeing a Beluga Whale in the Thames.

My birding month in five pictures:

IMG_8608v2

IMG_5931v2

An obliging Kestrel

IMG_5957v2

Yellow-legged Gull by Alex

IMG_9578v1 WalkForWildlife Hyde Park20180922

On the ‘Walk for Wildlife’

IMG_5964v2

A distant record shot of the Beluga Whale – a once-in-a-lifetime sight

 

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.

IMG_8608v2

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.

IMG_9962v2

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.

IMG_5964v2

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.

 

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.

IMG_5520v2

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.

IMG_5887v2

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.

IMG_5848v2

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.

IMG_5770v2

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.

IMG_5729v2

10 September: Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

IMG_5739v2

10 September: Same bird in flight showing missing secondaries

IMG_5835v2

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…

IMG_5520v2

Our long-staying Red-backed Shrike in Pub Scrub

IMG_5252v2

Juvenile Peregrine, Centre Copse

IMG_8587v2

Bowers Marsh, Essex

IMG_5031v2

4cy Yellow-legged Gull, Alex

IMG_5429v2

Male Wheatear, Broomfields