Category Archives: Bird watching

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

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Japan: trip report part I (The Top Ten)

I have just returned from a long holiday in Japan. It was a family holiday with very little dedicated birding involved.

This was a trip of:

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Kinkaku-ji (Buddhist temple), Kyoto

and…

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Tokyo

But, I did see some birds (including 20 life ticks) and so thought there may be some value in a sort of trip report from a non-birding trip. In other words, if you are planning a trip to Japan that will include all the best birding sites and the utilisation of local guides, etc, this may be of limited use. On the other hand, if you are interested in birds but unlikely to have much time to dedicate to birding (as I didn’t), I hope, and aim, for this to be of some value. For these reasons, I haven’t really bothered with logistical aspects as the purpose of this ‘top ten’ is to highlight the birds that can frequently be found all over Japan (on the main island of Honshu where I stayed).

Intro: general comments on birding Japan

At the risk of starting off on a bit of a sour note… there weren’t all that many birds. I am aware that anyone with real experience of living in, or birding in, Japan may have just spluttered on their sushi, but that was my experience. There seemed to be less bird song than I am used to in the UK (although I did love how various street signs played different bird songs/calls as a guide for the blind) and the variety of commonly seen birds also seemed relatively low.

It’s all about the hills. Japan is a country full of contrasts and this includes the topography. Much of Japan seems incredibly flat and low altitude and nearly all of this low-altitude land seems to be taken up with urbanised buildings or agriculture. The hills then seem to appear out of nowhere; they are steep; and mostly covered in forest. It should be no surprise that this is where the wild things are.

The top ten

When I go somewhere new, I often go with very little conception of what I will and won’t see. Taking a bird field guide (in this case, Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil) is obviously useful, but they inevitably include everything you might possibly see with very little indication of what you are most likely to see. With that ‘gap-in-the-market’ in mind, the following list is what I would have found useful to read before I left: A list of the birds (7 species and 3 families) that you would almost struggle not to see.

1.Brown-eared Bulbul – my comment above about lack of bird calls or song should really have a caveat exempting the loud and varied calls of this ubiquitous bird. Before I left, one of my Patch-birding colleagues repeatedly said ‘Brown-eared Bulbul‘ whenever Japan came up. To me it was simply one of the thousands of birds I still hadn’t seen. Little did I know how quickly and thoroughly that omission would be righted when I reached Japan. They. Are. Everywhere!

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

2.Large-billed Crow – I saw a fair few Carrion Crow on my trip, but they were outnumbered significantly by Large-billed Crow. Only marginally smaller than a Raven, these chunky and noisy corvids were frequently found in large numbers in the cities we visited.

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Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

3.Black-eared Kite – look up to the sky in Japan. If you see any birds circling, they are probably Large Billed Crow. If they aren’t, they are probably Black-eared Kite. Again, these birds – like many kites around the world when they aren’t persecuted – seem highly comfortable in densely populated areas and can be seen in large numbers. Unfortunately for my world list, Black-eared Kite is still considered a subspecies of Black Kite, despite several distinguishing features. Apparently, it has evolved quite distinctly and separately from Black Kite for a long time, but the intermingling of genes in the overlap areas have prevented the experts from separating completely.

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Black(-eared) Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

4.The Tits – The first bird family, rather than species on my list. As in the UK, and handful of species of tits are seemingly common and well distributed across Japan, cropping up again and again wherever I went. Japanese Tit, closely related to our Great Tit was ubiquitous, closely followed by the attractively-coloured Varied Tit. Other species encountered were: Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and (although, strictly speaking, not in the Paridae family) Long-tailed Tit.

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Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius)

5.Wagtails – Having lumped an entire bird family into the list above, I feel less guilty about now introducing a genus. Wagtails were one of only a couple of groups of birds where I felt they were more common in Japan than they are in the UK. Japanese Wagtail and Black-backed Wagtail (the subspecies of the familiar European White Wagtail) were most common with Grey Wagtail present as well.

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Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis)

6.Oriental Turtle Dove – I saw this attractive dove frequently. It’s commonness was bittersweet for me as it reminded me how increasingly scarce the closely related, but slightly smaller, European Turtle Dove is in my home country; a bird I haven’t even seen for a couple of years in the UK.

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Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

7.Hirundines – We chose our time to visit Japan to coincide with ‘Sakura’, the cherry blossom, but this also meant I got to experience some of the Spring migration I was missing back in the UK. Just as the swallows and martins are returning North to breed from their wintering grounds in Africa, so swallows and martins have also been appearing all over Japan from their wintering grounds of Borneo, the Philippines, Java, etc. Our familiar Barn Swallow was common as was the Asian House Martin which was a life tick for me.

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Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) subspecies guttaralis

8.Tree Sparrow – Interestingly, this species seems to have filled the niche of House Sparrow almost entirely in Japan and was far more commonly seen than I have ever found this species to be anywhere else that I have seen it. Anyone used to Tree Sparrow in Europe will be able to see that this subspecies has a richer brown hue to it and a large bill.

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus saturatus)

9.Ducks – This section of the anatidae were relatively strongly represented and mostly familiar species to me (more on this in the next blog post), with the exception of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck which was one of the most regularly seen species throughout my travels.

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Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)

10.Japanese White-eye – Lastly, this attractive little bird was a lovely addition to my world list and is relatively easy to pick up in small flocks across Honshu.

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Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus)

Carry on Lapwing

Winter is coming… back. Today was the first of a week full of forecast freezing weather and snow. It was a stunning, sunny, but cold day.

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East Copse on Wanstead Flats

Despite the cold, Spring seemed to be in the air for the Canada Goose flock on Jubilee…

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Mating pair of Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

As always with mating anatidae, it was a typically scrappy affair.

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But other birds were responding more… err… suitably to the cold weather. WhatsApp told me that Tony had 19 Lapwing over the SSSI. Unfortunately, I was all the way over by Alexandra lake but started heading in the right direction, trying to multi-task by frantically scanning the sky whilst speed walking towards SSSI.

What ensued was some comedy ‘grippage’ as Tony and I exchanged phone calls and more Lapwing seemed to appear and disappear all without me seeing them: “ten more James”, “oh, they’re coming back”, “now they’re on the deck”, and “they’ve gone mate”. By the time I reached the SSSI, I could see the distant figures of Tony and Bob, but I had missed all their Lapwing. That was until I found my own flock! By the time I reached the guys we counted the flock of 27 birds as they disappeared into the western distance.

[If you would like to read more about Lapwing sightings on the patch, I have crunched some numbers and written a blog post here]

The comedy antics didn’t stop once I had year-ticked the Lapwing. As I stood by Jubilee, some more Lapwing passed over and this time I tried to get photos of the distant birds. Anyone who has tried to focus on distant dots in the sky will know that just finding and focusing on the bird is a challenge. Whenever I got a bird in focus I snapped away quickly… at one point getting several photos of a passing Wood Pigeon instead of the intended quarry.

A little later still I took some photos of a confiding Jackdaw on the Police Scrape. [My wife saw this photo and said it looks like a “little oily penguin”.]

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Western Jackdaw (Coloeus monedula)

Whilst taking pictures of the diminutive penguin corvid, I became aware of a kerfuffle a little way off. It was another Lapwing being chased off the scrape by a crow. I had been so engrossed in the little oily Jackdaw, I completely missed the fact that the Patch-scarce wader had been on the ground in front of me. By the time I got any usable shots, the Lapwing was already quite high over my head. It felt a bit like ‘Mr Bean goes birding’.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

In total today, we counted at least 108 Lapwing flying over, the largest numbers seen on the Patch for five years (I believe).

I also picked up two more year ticks today: Common Snipe and – embarrassingly – my first Mistle Thrush for the year.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Meanwhile, back on Jubilee a strange and terrible winged beast had appeared. Was this the end of days? Was grimy old Jubilee about to become the lake of sulphur and fire that the Book of Revelation foretells? Or was it just a poor one legged Herring Gull having a mid-air shake?

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European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

The mute’s story: swan song

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Jubilee Pond, Wanstead Flats

I seem to be particularly time poor at the moment. Life is full. But dawn, on Sunday, gave me an hour on the Patch; just enough time to fulfil two duties: read the Jubilee Pond water gauge (74cm in case you were wondering); and do the BTO Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count on the same pond.

In the stillness of a Winter’s early morning, the water was at its most viscous density and the ducks just… shone in the morning light!

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Drake Gadwall (Anas strepera)

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Hen Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

We are still at peak winter swan numbers, with 19 Mute Swan on this relatively small pond. The main breeding pairs will likely soon expel the younger and inferior birds. Courting and territorial-type behaviour has already started with head and neck dances to their own strange primal music of growls, whistles, clicks, and hisses.

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Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

One of the cobs is darvic ringed. Ringed by an East Anglian group, Orange 4CVO was somewhat less well-travelled than I might have hoped. It was ringed just up the road – on Hollow Ponds – in October of last year. It will be good to see if this is one of the successful breeders this year.

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It was good to be out, even if only for an hour.

Watching Gulls… badly

I have been watching our patch gulls quite closely recently. Some of my patch colleagues would see this as a sign of weakness or desperation, but I have actually been quite enjoying it. Partly, this is because there is so much more that can be relatively easily learned just working the Patch, and partly because I am aware there are some guys who come in from off the Patch every now and again and seem to contribute disproportionately to the interesting gull finds that we have (more on them later).

In fact, more on them now, as Jamie P and Dante S had spotted an untimely juvenile Common Gull on the Patch the other day. A day when I too had been out and about but failed to spot anything so interesting. So I went back out this weekend determined to find this bird. I failed. There were plenty, probably 100+, first winter birds, but no juveniles that I could find.

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1st winter Common Gull (Larus canus)

I scanned the large gulls in case there was anything else more interesting in amongst them. There wasn’t. One gull that stood out was this young Herring Gull.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

It really puzzled me. Look how pale it is and how worn the moult is on the coverts and tertials. But the moult was nowhere near developed enough on the scapulars for a 2nd winter, so I assumed it was a 1st winter bird that was weirdly pale and worn. Error! Luckily a better birder than me pointed out that this is simply a somewhat-retarded 2nd winter bird. It seems so obvious now!

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An actual 1st winter Herring Gull

There are other reasons to scan gulls, of course. Ringed gull recoveries can yield interesting histories, and a great time to see rings on gulls is when our ponds are iced over. Our winter resident ‘2LBA’ Black-headed Gull was skating about on Jubilee Pond.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I have photographed this bird on at least five separate occasions now over the last year and it has been around for almost a year longer than that; appearing as a first winter bird in March 2016 having been ringed as a chick (pullus) in June 2015 in Fishers Green only ten miles North of the Patch as the gull flies.

I have bothered to record six colour-ringed gulls on the Patch in the three and a bit years I’ve been birding/living here. The longest distance traveller so far was Green ‘J8M4’, a Common Gull I saw in September last year who was ringed six hundred miles North East of the Patch in Rogaland, Norway.

Aside from ‘2LBA’, yesterday, I also clocked Blue ‘JMP’ on ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pond, an eight-and-a-half year-old Lesser Black-backed Gull ringed in a tip in Gloucester 100 miles West-North-West of the Patch back in May 2010 just as David Cameron was walking into 10 Downing Street for the first time. Gosh – that seems like a long time ago!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

There is one more ringed gull I want to mention. Not a gull with a leg ring, but rather a Ring-billed Gull, the American vagrant that I last saw on a beach in Mexico. The last time one was found in London was nine years ago, I believe! The last time that was… until today! The outstanding young birder, Dante Shepherd (mentioned above), found one at Thames Barrier Park, just five miles South as the gull flies. It is rather longer in the car, but I jumped in, nonetheless, as soon as I heard the news.

In what reminded me of the run-around the Bonaparte’s Gull gave me last year, as I was pulling up at the park, WhatsApp informed me that the gull had just flown East. Jamie and Dante kindly pointed me in the direction of a very distant flock of mixed gulls down-river.

I dutifully scanned through as many as I could, and saw birds (that plural should tell you how I was clutching at straws) that looked possible, but, the truth was, they were simply too far away for me to get enough on them.

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The white smear on the mud is where the Ring-billed Gull might have been

For a short few minutes, the bright golden light of early evening shone on the flock like a sign from the Great Gull in the sky, and I stood peering through my scope as snow flakes fell on me.

Hopefully the Ring-billed Gull will stay around for a bit. Maybe it will follow its closely related Common Gulls and come up to Wanstead – which would be a Patch first. We can but dream… of gulls.

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Thames Barrier sunset at low tide

 

The man with the golden eye

I have already written about today’s antics on the team Patch blog over here. But, I can’t neglect my beloved iago80 followers, so here is a different spin on the same subject.

I find something special about our over-wintering residents. Sure, the Spring and Autumn passage migrants are the sexy ones that we all want to see, but the birds that stick it out on the Patch have a special affinity with those of us who also stick it out through the grim, cold, wet months.

Today I felt this particularly. It rained all day. Not hard, but a permeating drizzle that made me colder than the temperature should have allowed, and put a constant smear on my binoculars making it very difficult to identify anything through them. But I still managed to appreciate a higher-than-normal number of Reed Bunting, I saw both over-wintering Stonechat, and I finally saw the small exultation of our resident Skylark for the first time this year. The five or six birds that stick it out through the winter and will hopefully breed again in the Spring are almost literally clinging on to this last remaining central urban site by their finger tips.

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Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

And so I went home cold, wet, muddy, but not dissatisfied. I was getting changed when I heard the news that Nick had found a female Goldeneye on the river Roding behind the Ornamental ponds in Wanstead Park. Nick hasn’t be able to get out on the Patch as much this year but he struck gold by finding this winter duck on one of the least watched parts of the Patch.

The ease at which such a bird could have gone unseen and unrecorded is not lost on me. I was abroad the last time Goldeneye showed on the Patch over two years ago and so was thrilled to be able to connect today despite the poor light for photos. This beautiful and patch-scarce (8th sighting on record) winter visitor has become my 119th bird for the Patch. I am very grateful that our bird-finder-in-chief was out today. I wouldn’t want to inflate his ego or embarrass him too much, but if anyone deserves the title ‘Man with the Golden Eye’ on our Patch, it is surely Nick Croft.

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

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