Category Archives: Birding

Corbieres Garden Watch: Birds

I normally walk reasonably lengthy distances birding my second patch in the Corbieres region (reminder: think limestone hills and out-crops, medieval villages, scrubby, largely evergreen hillsides, and the beginning ripples of the Pyrenees) in the South of France. On this trip, given the extreme heat (we are a couple of hours drive from the record-breaking areas of 45-46 degree centigrade, but it was still 39 degrees when we arrived in France), and the fact that I now have a small baby, meant that I was a lot less mobile. This, in turn, meant most of my birding was done later in the morning in the shade from the house and sat on the patio looking west down the valley.

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My wife and son and the cypress mentioned in this post

Late June / early July is hardly peak time for passerine song, but three male Nightingale sang for brief periods daily (and nightly) within ear-shot of the house (I counted three more territories elsewhere on the land). Woodlark were not doing the big circling song-flights that I love watching in the Spring, but one or two would occasionally pop up and down for a brief burst and their stubby shapes were regular sights being flushed as we drove to-and-from the house down the 2km track. A new singer for me on the patch was Tawny Pipit; whilst common in the local region, it has eluded me hyper-locally until now.

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Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)

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Classic Tawny Pipit territory – where I found it

Our other key songster, Melodious Warbler, was another daily regular, but was only heard in brief snippets of song once or twice. Our two most common warblers, Western Subalpine Warbler and, the year-round-resident, Sardinian Warbler, were both extra noticeable this year, but mostly not in song. Plenty of successful breeding evidence from both was noted, and family groups of Subalpine Warbler occasionally moved up and down the garden cypress tree with the juvenile birds having their catches supplemented. Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff were much less prevalent but recorded nearby. I got one view, once, of a silent juvenile (or just dull female?) Dartford Warbler.

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Juv Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

That garden cypress tree proved a productive focal point for finches. The local Greenfinch and vocal Goldfinch flock used it, as did an occasional Serin. A Linnet flock of six birds preferred the ground in the scrubby meadow behind the house, and Chaffinch song was heard daily, but they seemed less inclined to come close to the house. Cirl Bunting sang a couple of times near the house, and slightly further up the hill I was pleased to connect with Rock Bunting, albeit disproving my own theory that they only showed up during winter months when the mountains were too snowy and ice-covered.

A row of cypress trees a few metres to the left of our big garden tree housed nesting Firecrest. Amongst the other visitors to the tree during the week, a highlight was Crested Tit which watched me from the top of the tree as I took its photo whilst sat in a deckchair (easy birding!).

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Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Black Redstart continued to perform as one of the most reliable ‘garden’ birds and a fledgling bird, still with oversize-wide bill, hopped around on our patio as I watched it from the kitchen. There were also a pair of semi-fledged Great Tit still being fed by their parents on the floor, only partially covered by undergrowth, right next to the barn and Blue Tits also seem to have had a successful year.

In the spirit of ‘why go to the birds, when the birds can come to me’, Turtle Dove flew over once, but was heard burbling away somewhere nearby more frequently. Also largely invisible, but regularly audible was Cuckoo. Great Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird at all in the scrub land – was heard one day from our nearest pines.

Two years ago I photographed a single colony of 33 Bee-eater fly over the house. I certainly didn’t get a repeat of that, but never have I so consistently seen and heard Bee-eaters around the house. Every day I would hear their calls, and eventually I even stopped scanning the hillsides to see them perched up of swooping up and down. As we drove out on a couple of trips, they perched tantalisingly close on telegraph wires, making me curse the fact I didn’t have my camera handy.

Our local breeding Raven were less of a feature of this trip than almost any I had made before, although I occasionally heard their calls distantly and watched a pair on one of the valley stone outcrops one evening. Jays were the only other corvid on the trip garden list.

Raptor watching was patchy at first and then, at times, truly excellent:Watching six Griffon Vulture kettling over the house was a patch-record and a highlight for me.
Short-toed Eagle, as usual for the summer months was the most commonly seen raptor; mostly sailing over silently, but on a rare walk to the top of our local hill (Mont Major at 541m above sea level), a pair made an absolute racket as they flew past together.
Frustratingly, I fluffed the ID of a suspected Booted Eagle which I saw briefly before it disappeared over a hill: shape and brief view of colouration looked good but my impression of size was that it was noticeably bigger than Short-toed Eagle.
A pair of noisy Peregrine appeared briefly (a rare sight over the patch).
I also got one view of a Kestrel flying purposefully past the house carrying prey.
The patch highlight of the trip was undoubtedly good views of a young Montagu’s Harrier our main ruin on the land. I noticed it almost static in the air some distance away, but it then scythed around the curved contours of the hillsides (a first for me here, although I once had a pair a few miles away over a field).

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

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Underside plumage in transition it seems – reds still visible

On my walk to the top of the hill, I got good views of Crag Martin and Common Swift (I have had Alpine Swift here in the past). Whilst not very exciting for readers, I recorded my first ever House Martin on the French Patch this trip, a small flock passing high over head and hawking with the Swifts. House Martin and Swallows are teeming in the local villages a few miles away, but neither seem to be seen over this wild and remote valley, which is where the wild things are (Crag Martin in this case), so this was a welcome sighting. As with buses, I saw them almost every day after that, so perhaps the local village populations are hunting further afield now.

Whilst not seen from my ‘garden watch’ location, Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge were flushed by the car along the track within the patch boundaries and Hoopoe flew over the car about a mile from our track. The best local (off-patch) sighting of the trip was probably a circling White Stork near the Medieval village of Lagrasse – this is the closest I have seen this species to the Patch and raises the chances that I will hopefully get one one day from the House. Straying from birds, I finally added Hare to my patch mammal list, joining at least two bat species, Stoat, Wild Boar, and Roe Deer (unfortunately I have only experienced Red Deer from the tales of the hunters takings from around (or illegally on) our land).

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Juv European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Considering I barely left the garden, and we were largely being baked by the sun, this was still some enjoyable birding and this hopefully gives a sense to any readers of what can be found with minimal effort in the Corbieres. The butterflies probably outperformed the birds this trip, but I will save that for a separate trip report.

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The scene of most of my observations

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Filling in the gaps

I have been increasingly aware of a few gaps on my Patch list that should be filled by birds generally seen annually. One of these was Green Sandpiper. Bob had a flyover the other day, but when Rob found one on the deck of Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats this morning, I jumped into the car (more about this later) to see it. And see it I did – my 131st bird for the Patch.

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Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

I got home, played with my baby son for a bit, changed his nappy, made my wife some breakfast and was pondering which other bogey birds are still missing from my list… Woodlark… Sedg… it was at this point I saw the news that Bob had found a Sedge Warbler singing by the Roding. Given I had promised that Friday would be a family day, going back out on to the Patch was not ideal, so I jumped back in the car (yes, I still plan to come back to this point) for another smash-and-grab tick (walking would have taken me well over an hour there and back).

I only got brief views in the giant Blackthorn bush, but it sang almost continuously for a small gathering of us until I had to leave (2nd tick of the day, 132nd bird of the patch and made even sweeter by two year ticks materialising whilst I was there: Common Whitethroat and Swallow).

Tony B. recently ran through 24 gaps in his patch list. He is a fair way ahead of me, so he has fewer ‘bogey’ birds, but it has prompted me to think of which 8 species are most likely to take me to 140. Here is what I reckon are the 8 most common omissions or most likely scores over the next year or five:

  1. Jack Snipe – almost annually seen, particularly on Alex. But normally flushed and gone, so rarely twitchable.
  2. Woodlark – another annual bird, but generally just Autumn flyovers.
  3. Golden Plover – spend time looking up in hard weather and I’ve got to tick this off some time.
  4. Marsh Harrier – only three sightings in the last five years, but with the increasing success of these birds at some relatively local sites, I reckon it is only a matter of time before I get one on the list.
  5. Goosander – Only a handful records in the last decade, but… I’m hopeful.
  6. Cattle Egret – very rare to date, but given the increasing preponderance of views over time means I reckon there is a good chance.
  7. Crossbill – worryingly not seen flying over since 2015. Could that mean the odds have gone down, or are we due a few this Autumn?
  8. Dartford Warbler – probably less likely than Grasshopper Warbler to be honest, as we’ve only had one, ever, on the Patch, but I have included it as the habitat feels right for a stray and because our Patch has a strong capability to surprise when we least expect it (evidenced by the fact that I had Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting on my Patch list before seeing a Yellowhammer!).

Of that list, I can probably only class the top three as remaining patch bogey birds. We shall see!

To drive for a Twitch or not, that is the question

I got a fair amount of stick from one or two of my patch colleagues for driving such a relatively short distance to twitch the two birds today. Whilst it was done in a light-hearted way, I did actually feel pretty guilty. I really do worry that we are trashing our environment and heading for climate catastrophe, and me driving to see a bird is certainly not helping matters.

So, why do I do it, and what am I going to do about it?

I do it, because birding is my primary hobby and I love seeing new birds on the Patch. As I currently have significant family commitments with a young baby, I get out less than I would otherwise and have to maximise my time. I wouldn’t have been out today were it not for the fact that I was able to zoom there and back so quickly. There is more I could say about the relative benefits of local patch birding rather than long-distance twitches (which I don’t do), but let’s get on to what I am going to do about it…

  1. Wherever feasible, I will aim not to drive.
  2. From today, I will only drive on to the Patch if it is to try and see a new bird for my Patch list (no more driving for year-ticking).
  3. If I do drive (anywhere) for a bird, I will make a contribution of £20 for every 30 minutes in the car to a charity that specialises in planting trees and restoring nature (see below for my donation made for today’s largesse.
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Guilty much?

I am aware this is still not great. I am also trying rather shabbily to green my life in other ways: switching increasingly to a plant-based diet (I haven’t eaten any beef or lamb for months and am trying to cut out pork at the moment); and looking at alternatives to flying (I recently looked at the train alternatives to a trip to France and the train cost 5 times more than the plane – which reminded me of the need for policy changes as well as action by individuals).

I am clearly no eco-warrior or saint, but I recognise I do need to improve my own game a little if I am going to call on the Government to do more as well.

Duck tales

Last weekend Rob S. found a stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond.

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Garganey (Anas querquedula)

It was a rather incongruous sight on the most urban and densely-visited of our patch-ponds, but the behaviour was all Garganey: highly skittish, and fearful, with no nice overhanging vegetation to hide under and bullied by just about everything else on the pond. It was my first patch tick for the year; my 129th bird locally.

One week later…

Nick C. found a drake Mandarin Duck on Alexandra Lake. I had family visiting so am a little ashamed to say that I jumped in the car to get to the other side of the patch (from my house) and try and bag my 130th bird.

As soon as I approached the lake, I saw it in the distance (“Get in!” – I always think in semi-macho cliches when I see new birds. Maybe also “Back of the net!”) I quickly fired off a record shot in case I was unable to get any closer.

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I shouldn’t have worried. ‘Skittish’ and ‘fearful’ are not words I would use to describe this individual. Without moving around the shore, I noticed the duck swimming in my general direction. No, not in my general direction… at me… at speed. And it did not stop.

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“I need your bread, your boots, and your motorcycle”

I didn’t have any bird seed or bread, but this duck is clearly used to being fed, and possibly being fed directly out of hand, as it had zero fear for me or any of my fellow birders. The contrast with the Garganey of last week could not have been more pronounced. But it could fly and feral populations clearly do move around. As we discussed on the shore yesterday, is there really much difference (apart from maybe a few generations) between Mandarin Duck arriving on the Patch and, say, Canada Goose, or Ring-necked Parakeet? It stayed one day, as reports as I type suggest the Mandarin has departed this morning; maybe back to the Far-East, or maybe just back to Connaught Water.

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A nice way to round off 130 birds on the Patch

 

 

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only recorded 56 species of birds in four patch visits during February. Of the 56, three were new for the year for me.

Highlights were:

  • Connecting pretty quickly with the Rook Bob found on Alexandra Pond on 17 Feb. Probably the same individual as last year.
  • Having a nice low fly-past from my first patch Common Buzzard of the year also on 17 Feb.
  • SSSI seeming to be a magnet for good numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, and very large numbers of Goldfinch.
  • Finding a new colour-ringed Black-headed Gull on Alex on 18 Feb (Yellow TN9T): first sighting since ringed in Poland in June 2018.
  • A very high count of 44 Mute Swan on Jubilee for the WeBS count on 17 Feb.

Lowlights were:

  • Continued to fail to see Fieldfare (probably missed now until the Autumn) or Water Rail.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Seeing 1W Caspian Gull ‘X530’ at Stonebarges in Rainham (but sadly not finding either of the Glaucous Gull that have been around) on 19 Feb.
  • Seeing and hearing my first ever Penduline Tit. In London as well. with added bonus of several Bearded Tit/Reedling present too. All at Crossness in South London on 22 Feb.
  • Flying out to my French Patch (more to be reported for March) and, on first day out and about on last day (28th) of Feb felt like reconnecting with old friends: Sardinian Warbler rattling from bushes in large numbers, Raven courting, Stonechat posing, and Cirl Bunting singing.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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Somewhere in that lot is probably a Glaucous – not that I found it/them

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Record shot of a Bearded Tit at Crossness – sadly wasn’t fast enough to capture the Penduline

January 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I didn’t write a review for December as my birding was limited somewhat by the arrival of my son. In January, the nature of birding has also changed: short trips rather than long patch walks are now modus operandi. I made 10 patch visits during January and recorded a total of 65 species of birds. As it is January, they were all year ticks (obvs!), but no patch life ticks.

Highlights were:

  • Re-finding the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (the one I first found in november last year) about 200 metres south of where I first found it.
  • Finding an interesting Chiffchaff by the stables on 25 January. My initial instinct was ‘Siberian’ (tristis) but perhaps more likely to be abientus race or even just an ‘interesting’ collybita.
  • Connecting with one of Tony’s first winter Caspian Gull on Alex on 19 Jan.
  • Finding Firecrest and Treecreeper in Bush Wood in two short trips on 2 Jan and 4 Jan respectively.
  • Record numbers (11 for me) of Reed Bunting on the deck in the birches in SSSI on 20 Jan.
  • Having some quality time with Little Owl in one of Copses on 20 Jan until a Grey Squirrel decided to jump almost on top of it.

Lowlights were:

  • Realising the Chiffchaff was probably not a ‘Siberian’ despite some initial excitement.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Having a close encounter with a Sparrowhawk and an unfortunate Feral Pigeon on my next-door-neighbour’s door-step (see photo below).
  • Connecting again, this side of the New Year, with the regular wintering, now 5th calendar year Caspian Gull on the hyper-local, but just off-patch, Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook.
  • Finding Bearded Tit (Reedling), a local scarcity, at Dorney Wetlands near Maidenhead.

My birding month in five pictures:

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One of Tony’s 1st Winter Caspian Gulls on Alex

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Jay in Old Sewage Works

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The ‘interesting’ Chiffchaff

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Red Kite over the Jubilee River

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Sparrowhawk and pigeon right outside my house

That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.