Category Archives: Bird watching

Norfolk Broads and the Common Crane

Sometimes it is good to be out in the wild but not birding. I actually have two weekends of that in a row. This weekend just gone saw five old school friends and me on a boat on the Norfolk Broads (what could possibly go wrong?!) and this weekend coming I will be hill walking with two other friends in the Peak District. On both occasions, I am the only birder.

I could wax lyrical about the history of flooding and marshlands and navigation and… water and wetland generally in East Anglia, but tonight I just don’t have time. As many will know, the Norfolk Broads are flooded peat-works (excavated by the monasteries back in the Middle Ages) and joined by some of the major rivers.

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Historic wind drainage pump on the River Yare

The six of us chugged along in our hired boat doing a spot of fishing, playing various musical instruments, drinking beer, bird watching, sunbathing, drinking beer, playing poker, drinking beer and various other activities that may have also involved drinking beer.

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My pals armed with guitar, harmonica, and fishing rod and comedy captain’s cap of course

But a lot of the time we just enjoyed the expansive waterways, the expansive vegetation, and the even-more-expansive skies.

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Rookburgh St Mary Broad

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Distant rain and rainbow over the marshes

I obviously had my binoculars to hand most of the time, although trying to operate them in one hand whilst standing on a boat and drinking beer simultaneously with the other hand is not all that easy, so sometimes I lay down to do it more easily (you understand?) and was occasionally snapped naturally for a photo.

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Yours truly ready to pounce into birding action

We didn’t spot anything unusual, but by the end of the trip I made sure my friends could all identify a Cetti’s Warbler by its song. I think they struggled a little more with all the Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, but were suitably impressed with the Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, and Short-eared Owl sightings. I didn’t have my camera, so no bird pics this time, just iPhone shots of landscapes and thirty-something-year-old men.

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One of the narrower waterways linking a flooded ‘broad’ with the river

One of the birds you might hope to see in this area is the Common Crane; made extinct but reintroduced to a couple of secret sites in East Anglia. However, it was only when back in London that I heard this bird was at Rainham Marshes – a huge London tick for me and many others, and a first ever site record.

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Common Crane (Grus grus)

This record shot was taken from up on the ridge of the Rainham landfill site and looking down several hundred meters on to Wennington Marsh towards the A13.

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X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

A bad case of ‘telescope eye’ and the DDDs

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Staines Reservoir, South Basin

The Staines Reservoirs are one of the best birding locations in London. The site is also a bogey location for me; something good at Staines probably won’t be there, or be visible when I arrive. Matters aren’t helped by it being about as far away from where I live as you can possibly get whilst still being in London.

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The bisecting causeway

I was drawn there today with the hope of seeing some terns. Anything other than Common Tern would be a year tick at least for me, and I thought I might have a chance with Arctic Tern or even a Black Tern. I had also heard that some rather late Black-necked Grebe were there this morning, which would also have been a year tick.

I scanned the vast expanse of water, first with my bins and then switched to ‘scope, slowly working my way around the fringes, but the only grebes were Great-crested Grebe, and the only terns were Common Tern (although both were here in large numbers).

I don’t know whether other birders have noticed, but using a spotting ‘scope for long periods of time screws you up. Having the vision of one eye vastly magnified for long periods of time, and the vision of the other eye completely restricted; closed to aid focus in the other eye. When I put the scope down, a weird asymmetrical sensation occurs.

I spent a bit of time watching Common Tern on the rafts with all the Black-Headed Gulls.

One pair were getting ‘close’ to each other if ya know what I mean…

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Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

At first, the male didn’t really look like he knew what to do and he just stood on the female’s back for about minute:

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But shortly afterwards things seemed to get … er… going.

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Whilst interesting, it was another ‘day of disappointing dipping’ for me, or ‘DDD’ as I like to call it.

Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

Things I saw while searching for a Nightingale

Dawn on the Patch

I think I carried the scars of missing the patch Nightingale through to this long weekend. I determined that I would find good birds on the Patch and find a Nightingale somewhere. Anywhere.

And so a pretty frenetic three days of birding followed; starting, as it should, at dawn on the Patch…

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Sunrise on the Wanstead Flats

Saturday morning began very early; I was up just after 5am and out shortly afterwards. The combination of the early morning light and our low-lying mist, bathes everything in gold and it reminded me why dawn is my favourite time.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

The golden light was not auspicious, however. It soon became a beautiful day, but the birding was poor. No interesting new migrants had stopped over, although there were a few Wheatear around (it seems to be an exceptional year for them), which we had fun photographing (see here and here for better versions of my effort below).

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

There were, of course, other birds on the Patch, but none that whet the April appetite of listing birders.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Therfield, Hertfordshire

And so news of Dotterel in a field less than an hour’s drive away had me dashing for my car and promptly missing my second Sedge Warbler (which would have been a patch tick for me) in the space of week.

But I can’t complain. Sometimes we need a change of scenery and seeing Dotterel so far South is always a special occasion and it was an England tick for me, and my first ever clear views.

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Female Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus)

Two pairs showed nicely, although the relatively drab males often required re-finding due to their camouflaged plumage.

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Male Dotterel

Watching Dotterel whilst the sounds of Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting provided a wonderful, rustic backdrop (see videos here and here), was, simply, special.

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Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

East Tilbury

On the way back, I dropped in at one of my favourite Thames-side sites, East Tilbury as I heard that both Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler had been heard that morning. I didn’t find them, but I did enjoy some other year ticks in the form of Short-eared Owl, Cuckoo, and Whimbrel.

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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

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Common Cuckoo* (Cuculus canorus)

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

But even while not ticking off new birds for the year, the birding was excellent. The SSSI scrub and grassland (on the other side of the flood defences and expansive reed-beds and mudflats) are just full of migrant warblers and some very showy pairs of Stonechat amongst other things.

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Male Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Also videoed calling here.

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Female Stonechat

I love how easily you can get lost in the wildness of the scrub, full of birdsong, be alerted to a flock of Whimbrel calling (I had one flock, or ‘fling’ of 12 birds pass by down the Thames) and then see a 25,000 ton oil tanker pass right by. Surreal!

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‘Baltic Faith’ obviously with full cargo as sitting low in the water

The Blean

I then drove to the other side of the Thames and visited a friend in Canterbury for dinner and drinks. The next morning, while out walking with my friend and his dog, and… hangover aside… partially plotting my best place to find a Nightingale, I heard a … er… Nightingale.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Blean Woods – where we were walking – is known to hold an important population of Nightingale. I had no intention of trying to see this elusive and protected bird, but it flew right up into view (videoed singing here)…

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Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

I even heard a second Nightingale singing as we walked through this truly stunning ancient woodland.

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English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Blean

Back to the Patch

So instead of driving around Kent trying to find my favourite bird, I left after breakfast and got back to the Patch to tick off Whinchat for the year – a pair were showing as well as five Wheatear all lined up on the path.

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This morning I gave myself a lie-in, which cost me another patch-life-tick in the shape of Rook, but I was able to get into the Brooms in time to see my first Swift and House Martin for the year, as well as being alerted by Jono to my first patch Common Tern for two years with three flying very high over indeed.

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Record shot of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Rainham Marshes and the Thames at Rainham

But again, soon, the allure of more exotic birds off patch proved too magnetic and so I whipped down to Rainham Marshes where I dipped Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, but made up for it by getting year ticks out of Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank, and a full blown London life-tick in the form of Little Gull.

Luckily I was river-watching with a couple of much younger and much better birders than me who helped locate the Little Gull on the other side of the Thames, in time for me to get my scope on it and just about get enough ‘on it’ to tick it for the year. To give you sense of how far away it was, here is the digi-scoped view (although it did look a bit better before my iPhone mashed up the pixels):

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Distant Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) preening on a buoy (bill tucked into feathers)

We then had it (or a different bird??) much closer and on our side of the river. The two young guys dashed off for a photo whilst I stayed with Nick and admired it through the scope as it settled on the mud. When it looked like it was going to sleep I waddled off after the teenagers in comic pursuit. Having stopped jogging a few times due to lack of fitness and a distracting Short-eared Owl on the adjacent marshes, I arrived too late to take its picture (according to Nick who had been watching the scene from afar, the bird ascended rapture-like vertically up in the air and out of sight!!). This is one of the photos Dante took of the same bird; to get an idea of what I should have been posting.

Little Gull

The impressive Dante had already scored big earlier in the day with a Black Tern. This grates a little as I have never seen one, apart from a ‘probable’ over Canary Wharf a couple of years ago (when I was without bins) and another, today, on the other side of the Thames that I watched for a while but couldn’t get enough on to be sure (I still maintain it was smaller, darker, and sleeker than accompanying Commons, but the better birders didn’t come to my rescue – I’m unclear as to whether they didn’t see it or whether they were stood behind me shaking their heads).

It then started raining so hard that we left the hardy young birders to it and went back via the Grasshopper Warbler bush, that was annoyingly empty of Grasshopper Warblers. Its commoner cousins were showing and sounding well across the reserve, including an unusually showy, Sedge Warbler (also videoed in song here).

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

So, three days of birding, a couple of big dips on the patch, a few more off the patch, but some amazing experiences and my patch year list nudges up to 91 with four new additions, and my UK year list grows by a giddy 12 to the barely-respectable total of 137 as we enter May (Nick has seen more than that in the month of April alone, but he is properly year-listing at the moment).

Post Scriptum: a legless lizard (and no, that’s not my nickname)

I also got another lifer this weekend, in the form of a reptile in Kent.

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Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Which, in turn prompted me to check our own reptile mats back on the Patch:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

I know this account sounds a bit like a cold ‘tick fest’, but if I had got all poetic over the experiences I had (as is sometimes my want) rather than just quickly listing things I saw, you would probably still be reading this post by the time next weekend appears.

*The photo of the Cuckoo is actually from Rainham Marshes two days after my Tilbury visit, but why allow accuracy to get in the way of narrative!

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


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Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)