Category Archives: Flora

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

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One patch tick, but four firsts

This morning started well when I heard a couple of Redpoll flying over and they perched in Motorcycle Wood. In fact there were a flock of six that circled a few times but kept coming back to feed in the birches. They were Lesser Redpoll in old terms – small and noticeably brown tinged, but since they have been lumped together with Mealy Redpoll, just called plane old (Common) Redpoll. The photo below may be really poor but it is the first time I have managed to photograph this species on the Patch (they are normally just migrating flyovers).

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(Common) Redpoll (Acanthis flammea cabaret)

There didn’t seem to be much else to see on the Flats (although a big flock of Fieldfare also perched briefly in Motorcycle Wood), so I walked on and in to the Park.

Calling Treecreeper attracted me to scan inside the wooded strip just north of Heronry pond and there was a pair chasing each other around. If it had not been for their calls, I would never have seen them (still a scarce bird on the Patch, although decreasingly so, it seems), and, more significantly, I would have missed the small black and white bird fly from one trunk to another. My patch-first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and the first one seen locally since January 2016, and apparently the first female seen for several years. This former breeder is now very rarely seen and for a few minutes I had good views of it feeding from tree to tree. My 110th patch bird for the year and my 128th patch bird overall.

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Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor)

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The two other ‘firsts’ my blog post title refers to were a Blackcap in November…

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Female Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

… and then the first time I have seen a Buzzard perching on the Patch. By perching, I mean hidden up deep in wooded cover on the Ornamental Waters in Wanstead Park. I spotted it as I saw a large brown shape swoop in low into the trees. Much as I might dream about it being a female Goshawk, it was, of course, a Buzzard that obviously fancies itself as a Sparrowhawk.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

If the Where’s Wally game is getting boring, here is the same photo again, but cropped heavily.

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Hopefully you can see the Buzzard this time

These birds, and the glorious bright Autumn sunshine, made today a pleasure to be out on the Patch.

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I may not be birding the Patch quite so frequently soon as my wife is expecting our first child very soon indeed.

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

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

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

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

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

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

The Woodpeckers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

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

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

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

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

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

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

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

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

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

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

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

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

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

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

The trees

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

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The fringes

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

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

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

Birding Eastern Poland: Part I (Marshes)

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

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

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

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

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Elk (Alces alces)

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

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Długa Luka boardwalk

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

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

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

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

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Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

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

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White-winged Black Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)

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

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Białowieża marshes

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

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

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

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River Warbler (Locustella fluviatilis)

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

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Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina)

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

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

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

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White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)

The woodpecker in the cherry blossom

Why am I a birder?

There are many reasons. Here is one…

Twenty miles South East of Mt Fuji, the world famous volcano appears to be floating in the sky like some fantasy in the imagination of the great animator, Hayao Miyazaki. This other-wordly image is not something I can share with a photograph as the ghostly white shape seems to disappear like a mirage if you photograph it through the haze of distance as if the mountain gods simply prohibit images.

Ohiradai is a village in the hills served by a small mountain train.

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Across the tracks and down a narrow, steep path, there is a small, abandoned, wooden house with an old cherry tree growing next to it.

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I was stood watching a small flock of Japanese White-eye, when a tiny woodpecker sailed over my head onto the mossy trunk of the cherry tree: Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

The diminutive dendro, or petit piciform (depending on where you place it, taxonomically) proceeded to forage for insects meticulously right in front of me. As you can see in the photo of the scene, above, the tree was in heavy shade so this was not really an opportunity for good photos. But, for a several minutes, early on a Spring morning I just watched this stunning little bird feeding in this shady pocket of picturesque Japan.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

After a little while, my reverie was broken as the JPW wisely flew off on the arrival of one of the international scourges of small garden birds.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker is not in any way scarce in Japan and I was to see the species on several other occasions through my trip, but this was my first sighting and the moments I shared with this bird were truly special, albeit unremarkable for the bird one would imagine. That is birding at its best for me; a bird, and a unique moment I shall never forget.

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

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Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.

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For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

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The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.

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Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left

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Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

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Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.

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Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.

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Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.

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This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.

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Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park