Category Archives: history

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Hope Springs Eternal

Wanstead Flats at dawn

Dawn over Wanstead Flats

Patch birding can be an exercise in faith.

As an atheist (albeit a Buddhist one, but that’s another story), I have always struggled with the concept of ‘faith’, or, rather, accepted the fact that I am lacking in ‘it’.

But, without delving into semantics, there is an expression of hope in rising before the sun, following well-beaten paths, and searching for something new. To extend my metaphor, rather like many spiritual journeys, sometimes we set off with an expectation of what we want, or hope, to find… but then find something entirely different. Today certainly felt like that.

This morning began with mist.

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Initially a fine, low-lying blanket, but one which grew and clouded nearly everything from view.

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Things started positively with my first footstep onto the SSSI – trying to blank out the noise of early morning traffic on the road I had just crossed – in that I immediately heard the song of a Willow Warbler (I even briefly video-recorded it singing, here).

It moved through the trees just south of the copse we know as Motorcycle Wood, an area that in the last couple of years alone has been one of the most consistent providers of both Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler, but also local scarcities such as Wood Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. I watched the early morning sun stream through the trees and the light transported me back to all those wonderful moments, and more: these trees shaded the young birches where I saw my London-first Pied Flycatcher; I have watched Ring Ouzel burst out of the upper branches, Spotted Flycatcher perch and feed from middle branches, whilst Common Redstart has flicked around from branch to ground; I have stood by these trees watching Shelduck, Hobby, and Peregrine fly over, and was close-by when several of us watched a skein of White-fronted Goose turn in the sky.

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Motorcycle Wood, SSSI, Wanstead Flats – where the magic happens

The golden morning light seemed to hold these memories in trust for me. It felt like the Copse was reminding me why I come out; these moments are the rewards we get for placing our hope and trust in the patch. But the Copse – in that equilibrium between the bare brown branch of winter, and the leaf-rich green of Spring – also helped to remind me that there is reward in just ‘being’ here in this place. This was lucky, because the song of the Willow Warbler was the peak of a long morning of birding (there were several of us out and searching and there was a general air of disappointment).

The beauty of Spring, over Winter in particular, is that when birds fail to show up, there are, at least, other creatures of the wing to marvel at. In Wanstead Park and surrounds, I counted eight species of butterfly including Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Comma, and Holly Blue as new year ticks for me.

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Comma (Polygonia c-album)


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Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)


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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)


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Peacock (Aglais io)


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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria)

On my way back home from the Park, I was shocked to see that the water levels on Heronry Pond seemed to have fallen even further. Action is apparently planned, but we are heading for a completely dried-out lake quite quickly. The days of herons breeding here are long gone, but the days of them fishing here could also be numbered).

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)


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The lake bed of Heronry

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.

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Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.

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The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.

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Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.

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Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.

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The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.

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And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.

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The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.

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An epic tale of birding the East; or Tick, Dip, BOC

The four most easterly counties of the United Kingdom are, in descending order: Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, and Essex. With a few days leave that I needed to use up and my wife working abroad, I decided to do some birding in all four. The following is my summarised account of: the birds I saw; the birds I didn’t see; and, any other acts of derring-do that I got up to.

Although most of the birding was conducted in those four counties, my journey took me through a total of ten counties (and not just because of incompetent navigating); some 600 miles of driving and around 30 miles of walking. Despite all being within a few days, I witnessed extraordinary changes in weather: I sat and sun-bathed in a T-shirt; I froze my hands blue despite wearing two jumpers, a coat, hat and gloves; I was buffeted by almost gale-force winds; and I was soaked to the bone by torrential rain.

Kent – Oare

Last Thursday I drove down to Kent in the early morning and spent about an hour at Oare Marshes. I didn’t tick off anything too exciting, but just breathed in the fresh air and the early morning marshland cacophony of Cetti’s Warbler, Skylark, Reed Bunting, Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher.

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View across the Swale from Oare, Kent

It was good for the soul, and prepared me for a long day of walking and beer drinking (tough life eh!?)

Kent – River Stour

[Note: the next few paragraphs take a slight detour from my birding account]

A friend and I walked from Rough Common outside Canterbury to Stodmarsh, following the River Stour wherever we could.

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The weather was simply glorious for mid-March, and I felt enveloped by Spring. I counted 19 Chiffchaff singing along the way and saw my first butterflies for the year (Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and an early Speckled Wood). Violets were everywhere, and some of the old woodlands we passed seemed lit up by Wood Anemone:

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

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Wood Anemone carpeting floor of a coppice wood

I was pleased to show my friend his first Kingfisher, plunging into a lake, and we seemed to be followed everywhere by Buzzards.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

It was also Spring for livestock and we walked past fields full of newborn calves. One of which was so new-born that the umbilical cord was still attached. It lay still and the mother helplessly licked its apparently lifeless body. I found the number for the local farm and spoke to the farmer, who arrived a few minutes later, gingerly approached the distressed cow and swung the calf by its hind legs to clear the airway. Seconds later the calf was on its feet and we were being thanked for having helped save a life.

After all of that excitement, we relaxed in the garden of a country pub, ate lots, soaked up the sun and drank pints of beer with a couple of bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

Before I return to birding more specifically, here is a picture of a frog (I’m not quite sure how else to weave in this non-sequitur):

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European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

Kent – Elmley

The following morning, whilst nursing a hangover, I still managed to brave a bit of birding at another Kent favourite of mine and over the other side of the Swale from Oare: Elmley Marshes.

I can thoroughly recommend sitting in a hide and just observing an Avocet feeding (raking its famous bill side-to-side through the mud underwater and tugging out worms) as a good hangover-friendly activity.

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Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Elmley is probably one of the best places I know – due to the slight car-safari nature of the first part of the reserve – to photograph Lapwing.

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

It is also one of the best places I know – near London – where you can almost guarantee sightings of Marsh Harrier; at one point I had three in view at the same time. This was the first year tick of the trip for me (one of fifteen*[see bottom of post] over the five-day period).

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Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

My first big find of these few days of birding was a lone Spoonbill feeding in the ditches at Elmley and flying between pools:

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Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

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Horrendous record shot, but better view of the ‘spoon’!

From cursory research, I believe that this Spoonbill is the first recorded on site for over a year (although I am very aware that the landowners do not report rarities).

Other Elmley highlights included: a close encounter with a Corn Bunting perched on bramble (sadly flushed when I removed my camera from my bag, but which then called well as it flew over my head); the sight of hundreds of Shelduck in flight; similarly hundreds of Wigeon on the Swale; my first Turnstone for the year; and, a hunting Peregrine.

Essex and London

I came back to London where I had a short trip out on the Patch to pick up my first Wheatear for the year (thanks to Bob who found the pair for me after I had drawn an early-morning blank from a couple of circles around the Brooms).

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Male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

After my whirl around the patch, I visited Barking Creekmouth in Essex for the first time, but I shall document this trip separately in a later post. I then drove up to visit my family in Buckinghamshire.

Norfolk – Titchwell

The East Anglian Coast contains some of the most famous and most prolific birding sites in the country. I was lucky enough to visit a few of them over the last couple of days. This began with Titchwell Marsh.

There were large numbers of Brent Goose often grouping in small flocks across the watery pockets of the extensive marshland.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)

After failing to locate a Water Pipit that was apparently on the site, I walked to the beach. Common Scoter and Velvet Scoter had both been seen out to sea. The wind picked up as I walked out, but I was lucky in that I located a raft of bobbing black ducks way out in the waves almost as soon as I arrived.

Sea watching is simply not something I have much experience of and so, commensurately, my sea-bird list is atrociously low (there are common sea birds I still haven’t seen that make me blush with embarrassment). And so I studied this bobbing raft of ducks carefully – expecting them to be largely Common Scoter (a bird I need for my year list, but not my life list) with the hope of maybe a straggling Velvet (a bird I have never seen before) with them as well. To get a sense of what I was dealing with, here is a heavily cropped photo taken at maximum zoom  with a 400mm lens…

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Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Luckily I was armed with more than just my bins and camera as otherwise identification would have been hopeless.

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My scope in better weather near Cley the following day

The photo of the ducks above makes it look like there were two or three of them in view. There were actually ten (or apparently eleven based on what was reported afterwards by other birders), occasionally appearing above and then quickly disappearing out of sight below waves, and annoyingly rarely all in view together despite being in quite tight formation. Through the scope, the white speculum indicating Velvet Scoter seemed to be present on every bird. I was relieved to read that others had also listed this flock as “11 Velvet Scoter”, and so I got the first of my two lifers of the trip.

With all the excitement of a life tick and peering far out to sea, I had failed to realise what was coming in fast from above the waves…

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One of the last photos I took before getting soaked

The weather forecasts had predicted some ‘light showers’, but this is the North Sea. Marine winds un-touched by land since forming in the Arctic slammed the wall of heavy rain at me horizontally from the North as I struggled back to one of the nearest hides for shelter. By the time I got inside I looked like I might as well have just jumped in the sea; I was completely drenched. The pull of a warm shower, and change of clothes from my hotel room meant that the day’s birding ended rather abruptly. However, whilst taking shelter in the hide, I did add Grey Plover to my year list and watched a Chinese Water Deer stare across a saltwater scrape from a patch of reeds.

Kent – New Holkham

I rose very early the next morning with one thought on my mind or, rather, one bird: Pallid Harrier. I had actually spent some of the day before driving around the little country lanes where this juvenile female had been spotted, although had seen no sign of it. On Tuesday morning I started at the crossroads – called Blunt’s Corner – where the highest density of sightings had been recorded.

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The rain from yesterday had passed and the sky was blue, but that arctic wind had not subsided – I could not quite believe how cold it was. 

I almost felt a little silly; a rare bird capable of covering huge distances had been seen here, but what were the chances I would just bump into it?

I walked around to try and keep warm. What really struck me about the agricultural land in North Norfolk was that, despite not looking all that different from anywhere else in the UK, it seemed far richer in wildlife than I am used to. I felt at times like I had been transported back in time seventy years. Almost every field had a partridge or three in it, allowing me to tick off both Red-legged Partridge and Grey Partridge for the year. Skylark song seemed to follow me wherever I went; large flocks of Linnet rose and fell on fields like silk caught on the wind; and, Yellowhammer voices reached out to me from dense holly hedgerows (also a first for year).

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella)

If Partridges were in every field, then hares were in every other…

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European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Buzzards courted and danced over treetops and a Red Kite sailed right above my head seemingly oblivious, or uncaring, that I trampled its hunting ground below.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

I walked up alongside the high hedge in the ‘stubble field’ I’d seen quoted in the reports on the Pallid, flicking my head sharply towards the central copse – which sat like a tropical island or an oasis in the desert – every time a Wood Pigeon came clattering out. But I should have known it was already too late in the morning for a Harrier to be at roost.

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The ‘stubble field’ at Blunt’s Corner

As I turned around to walk back, I raised my bins to check out a grey blob on the hedge in the distance. It could have been anything – a Wood Pigeon or Stock Dove poking out of the top of the hedge – but it wasn’t ‘anything’; it was very much something. I’d only gone and accidentally found a Great Grey Shrike! I was still a long way from it so I crept back towards it with my camera out  – that direction was also my only way back out of the enclosed field – but it flew up in the air almost immediately, its white wing patches flashing in the morning light. It rose way up over my head in a North-easterly direction past the Copse in the photo above. I was left in a state of slight shock and with a couple of crummy record shots.

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Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)

I phoned my find through like a proud child showing his parent a painting they had done at school, only to hear the response: “Oh! Is that still there?” It appears I was more of a re-finder than a finder and that I had missed the reports as I was so focused on a certain Harrier.

At this point I bumped into a couple of other birders who had arrived. After walking around rather aimlessly in a few other directions, I headed back to the crossroads.

Crossroads have always held an important place in folklore. The place where paths meet – the ‘betwixt and between’ – is often believed to be the place where different realms touch and paranormal activity occurs. They are also traditionally a place of death; hangings and the burial places for criminals and suicides.

And so my eyes raised up beyond the crossroads and to the top of the field looking South-West and to a silhouette of a long winged bird that wasn’t right for buzzard or kite. It was something else. And so before I had seen all the distinguishing features; I called it. I literally called out to the other birders – one of whom had already got his bins fixed on it – “That’s it!”

Towards the crossroads it came, not the deathly pale colour of the male, but strangely wraith-like nonetheless, this bird straight out of Africa-on-way-to-central-Asia, but seemingly something straight out of legend. The Pallid Harrier.

I think my hands were shaking as I tried to photograph it, but even in the poor record shots I managed, the sleek harrier shape, the white tail-ring, and golden strips on the coverts of this juvenile female shine out at me.

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Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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The harrier swept across the lane into another field and up out of sight behind a long copse of trees. I couldn’t quite believe it and so kept checking my camera to remind myself what I had seen; I even tweeted a back-of-camera (‘BOC’) image of dreadful quality out to the world, perhaps as a further attempt at ‘making real’ what I had just seen.

For the benefit of those who might be tempted to go, or just for the visually curious, here is a map showing what happened…

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Just left of ‘A’ is the crossroads at Blunt’s Corner; ‘S’ marks the spot where the Shrike was seen, just to the left of the Copse showing as a green pimple; and, ‘P’ is where I first saw the Pallid Harrier, the direction it flew until it disappeared from view in the long copse at ‘?’

Norfolk – Cley and Winterton

Flushed with success, I left Blunt’s corner as the news had started percolating into the arrival of the twitch. I re-lived my Shrike-finder-shame with an elderly local gentleman who arrived:
Me: There was also a GG Shrike in that field just there.
Man: Oh ah! I saw that on compoot’ah.

Cley is, of course, a mini kingdom of birding legend – where so many rare birds have been seen; where the very tribe of ‘birders’ seemed to autochthonously appear in the 1950s and ’60s; where the great stories of the ’70s and ’80s were sown and shared; and, where such things happened as the re-introduction of the Avocet.

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Cley-next-the-Sea from Cley Marshes

To think that Avocet didn’t breed in the UK for around one hundred years seems remarkable now, as I have watched hundreds of them over the last few days, but similar stories are true also of the Marsh Harrier and Red Kite. I watched them all from Cley, along with another suspiciously narrow-winged harrier up over the hill.

But I soon headed further down the coast on reports that 12 Snow Bunting had just landed on the beach at Winterton. I walked the huge  stunning sandy beach and back up over the grassy dunes but there was no sign of the arrivals.

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Winterton

After the Snow Bunting, I then also ‘dipped’ a Cattle Egret and so decided to say goodbye to Norfolk and drove further south to Suffolk.

Suffolk – Minsmere

By the time I arrived at Minsmere, I felt like I was ticking off great reserves, rather than great birds (Titchwell, Cley, and Minsmere have all got to be well ‘up there’ amongst the premier birding sites in the UK).

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Minsmere

I arrived at about 3.30pm and felt a bit hand-held as I was helpfully shown Garganey (year tick) from one side of a hide, and White Wagtail (would be a year tick if it was recognised as a different species) from another:

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Male Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

And with that, my Eastern birding trip came to a close and I can also sign off this rather epic account.

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) at Minsmere

*The fifteen year-ticks during this ‘trip’ were:
Rook
Marsh Harrier
Turnstone
Spoonbill
Avocet
Corn Bunting
Brent Goose
Velvet Scoter (Life tick)
Grey Plover
Grey Partridge
Red-legged Partridge
Garganey
Great Grey Shrike
Pallid Harrier (Life tick)
Yellowhammer

For fun, amongst the birds I tried to see, but failed – the dips – were:
Common Scoter – would’ve been year tick
Water Pipit – not ‘needed’
Cattle Egret – would’ve been year tick
Snow Bunting – would’ve been life tick

The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.

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Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.

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In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

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The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.

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The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

Underneath the bridge

Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling

– Nirvana, Something in the Way

Sometimes, life clings onto existence despite our best efforts.

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Underside of bridge, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf

There is, perhaps, nowhere in the UK as synthetically urban as Canary Wharf. The towers of glass and steel, the steeples of Mammon, that rise out of the graveyard of industrial London’s docklands. Concrete on top of brick on top of mud with the wild ghosts of the ancient marshlands which, for the last two hundred years, have been choked and buried beneath rubble, foundations, and man-made waterways.

But still life pushes its way through, crowding the unloved and functionless corners and crannies. These are places of ‘weeds’ (“a plant growing in the wrong place”); ‘wrong’ as in unwanted.

Underneath a bridge on the eastern boundary of Canary Wharf, pushing aside the pebbles and litter grows a selection of these weeds in the shadows of the graffiti-emblazoned concrete. Catching only the morning sun and occasional spray of horizontally blown rain, these are hardy plants defying the odds of survival like some rarely encountered high-altitude mountain perennial.

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Plants and litter

Amidst the rubble and litter (and yes, those are a pair of pink mens’ boxer shorts), I counted at least 12 species of plant, and there were probably many more.

These are the ‘despite’ organisms. Things that flourish despite the best efforts of humans to sanitise the environs for the office workers like me. ‘Weed’ is a word constructed by humans placing a subjective value judgement on another living being; its life reduced to its value, or in this case ‘lack of’ value, in relation to our lives. This can also be said of the word ‘nature’, almost defined by its ‘otherness’ to the life, existence, and influences of humans, as if, really, we are anything other than just one of the 8.7 million species of lifeforms clinging to this rock as we all hurtle through space.

But perhaps there is an ‘otherness’, not so much of the perceived inferiority of all other life on our home planet, but in the way that we desperately seek to separate ourselves from it, to tame it, to exploit it, or simply to destroy it. That ‘otherness’ has been culturally stamped into us through the centuries by the Abrahamic religions and their comprehensive rejection of anything that might be perceived as ‘animism’. That ‘otherness’ that justifies our subjugation of everything else in the world in the name of ‘progress’.

Setting aside the organisms trampled by ‘progress’ – the birds, butterflies, mammals, and plants now extinct due to the excesses of us – these swarming narcissistic bald apes – a few living beings have the audacity to flourish in our shadows. The ‘weeds’ under the bridge; the gulls that circle the fish market just a short walk from the bridge; the rats that are largely unseen, but we all know are there under the bridge and shudder because of it; and the feral pigeons that roost and brood in the gaps under the bridge. These are organisms that disgust us; feeders on filth, parasites, and vermin. But what really disgusts us? Is it the rats, and pigeons, and weeds, or the fact that they simply reflect the wasteful profligacy with which we live our lives? 

‘Nature’ is ‘good’ when it is beamed into our warm living rooms preserved within the aspic of pixels and remoteness, and preferably with a voiceover by Sir David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. The vulnerability of distant endangered creatures pulling at our heart-strings as we cook, burn, pollute, and trash our planet, whilst the small section of life that has adapted rather well to our appetite for excess and destruction, makes us recoil in fear and disgust.

If you ever want to be reminded that humanity and nature are ‘one’, just take a long hard look underneath the bridge.

If this post was a little hard for you to stomach, don’t worry I shall return with quainter tales of patch birding soon. If this post intrigued you, you may wish to investigate some of these thoughts – more elegantly and thoughtfully put – through The Dark Mountain Project.

Woodland hunt

WARNING! This blog post contains images which some readers may find disturbing (due to their horrendous quality)

“If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” is something none of the Wanstead birders said ever. Bush Wood is not my local birding colleagues’ favourite part of the Patch, largely because it doesn’t seem to be the interesting-migrant-magnet that other parts, such as ‘the Brooms’, are. However, it is recognised as being useful for patch lists due to the woodland specialist birds that can be found there.

I don’t think I am doing any of the other local birders a dis-service by stating that I have a better relationship with Bush Wood than most. I think this is for a few reasons, but two of which are: it is the closest part of the Patch to my house (alongside School Scrub) and so I feel a certain neighbourly loyalty to it; and, oak -dominated woodland is probably my favourite British habitat (rare birds or no rare birds).

As this weekend began, I was also acutely aware that my patch year list was missing several of the woodland specialist birds that draws even the most grudging Bush Wood birder to undertake a reconnoitre, namely: Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Firecrest, and Coal Tit. All four birds were missing from my list as I walked into Bush Wood rather late yesterday morning (yes, I was a bit hungover).

In case the ensuing field notes and terrible photos are too much to bear, I will cut to the chase and reveal that I ended the day with two of the four birds ticked off.

Field notes

Within a few seconds of entering the wood I heard and saw Goldcrest, but their scarcer cousins were nowhere to be found. I walked through the wood very slowly, stopping whenever I was ‘in the birds’ (I’m sure anyone who has done any woodland birding knows what I mean by that expression). Tit flocks came and went. Great Tit, Blackbird, Robin, and Wren were all out defending territories. Great Spotted Woodpecker chased each other around, at one point with four on a single tree with plenty of calls and drumming involved. There was also the odd yaffle from a Green Woodpecker, and the inescapable squawks of the dreaded Ring-necked Parakeets, but even the parakeets were outvoiced in the woodland that day. Invisble Jays filled the wood with terrible screams as they communicated with each other from within their protected bowers. But even after some time of searching, I had not encountered any of my target species.

I walked to the North East corner of the wood, past the thick twisted girths of the ancient planted Sweet Chestnuts. The area around the keeper’s lodge is, I have found, one of the best places to encounter Coal Tit on the Patch. But it seemed only Blue Tit were to be found darting from oak, through holly, to oak.

At this point a couple jogging emerged – old friends of mine it transpired, so we stopped to talk (or rather they stopped to talk with me – I was already stationary). A little while into our chat, I tried not to appear distracted as a thin and sharp bird call pierced through leaves and pierced through my consciousness. It was the song of the Coal Tit. After my friends jogged on, I peered through holly and eventually caught sight of my quarry:

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Even in the poor quality photo above, the greenish back of our ‘britannicus‘ subspecies is distinctive.

And so I left Bush Wood with only one of my target species ticked off after about one hundred minutes of hard searching. But, I did not leave woodland; I merely crossed the bisecting road into Reservoir Wood (so named because it was once the location of a man-made lake on the grounds of the demolished Wanstead House, called the ‘Reservoir’)

A group of young film-makers in hi-vis jackets were working in the wood making a distraction for dog-walkers and a birder alike. But there was another hi-vis sight I wanted, and soon got. squinting up at the bare tree-tops a couple of Goldcrest moved around, but there was another similar-sized bird that seemed to be behaving slightly differently. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but as it dropped down a little in altitude, the green complemented by those wonderful face markings became, momentarily visible: my first Firecrest for the year, and my first ever in Reservoir Wood came into view. I include the dreadful shot – high bird against blanched sky – below as a reminder, if not a celebration, of the snatched glances of the wonderful feathered jewels that we must normally accept as our experience of a Firecrest.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus)

Eventually emerging from the wood, the great dome of sky opened up and seemed to be filled with the voice of a single soprano. Perched at the very top of an exposed tree next to Shoulder of Mutton pond was the relatively unusual patch sight of the Storm Cock in full song; our few Mistle Thrush do not seem – to my mind anyway – to sing as often as one might expect.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

My search for Nuthatch and Treecreeper continues.