Category Archives: history

Rustic Bunting: Part II

Many people will have woken up early full of nervous anticipation about whether the Wanstead Rustic Bunting will have stayed for the weekend; that nervous energy exemplified by a guy who dropped to his knees when he finally saw it (I’m not scoffing, I remember how I felt on Thursday when I saw the bird).

My early morning was rather more leisurely. I wanted a better photograph opportunity, but I wasn’t going to bust a gut and so enjoyed the misty morning and the ‘VisMig’ (visible passage Autumn migration).

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Coronation Copse

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SSSI

The VisMig was truly excellent with a Ring Ouzel (my second for the year) chattering away as a it flew slowly and low over my head, a couple of Brambling, and Redpoll, lots of Chaffinch, and hundreds of Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon amongst other things.

My focus on the VisMig nearly cost me dearly though. Tony had a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Short-eared Owl and so he and Jono set off in the hope of a better look while I took a different route to cover another angle. With my mind still geared towards VisMig I noticed a finch flying high over my head and at the same time I heard Tony shout at me. I thought he was shouting at me to get an ID on the finch so I strained my eyes and ears but it flew over silently and too high to pick out features.

When I caught up with the guys, they asked if I had seen the Barn Owl? “The WHAAT?!” The last time Barn Owl was seen on the Patch, I was 12 years old! Whilst it used to be resident decades ago, it is the kind of bird you can imagine never returning to be seen again – it just wasn’t even on my radar of the possible. I think Rustic Bunting was less of a surprise.

What followed wasn’t a particularly edifying train of actions on my part, but it involved running around a lot, staring at every crow in case it was chasing something, hearing that half of London’s birders had seen it while I was off looking in a different direction, quite of lot of swearing and self pity, and I even considered climbing a tree at one point, which would have undoubtedly been a very stupid decision. Eventually, after a call from Nick, I caught a glimpse of it as it sailed behind Long Wood with a retinue of crows.

Barn Owl was my 9th patch tick this year (last year I got 5) and my 125th bird species seen overall on the patch. Bob managed to get some incredible photos of it as it flew over the Brooms.

I could now focus back on the Rustic Bunting which was being watched closely by up to 70 twitchers at any one time.

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I am used to walking bumping into two or three birders on the Patch

To be honest, the crowds probably meant I couldn’t quite get the dream photo I was hoping for, but I was relatively happy with a couple of snaps I managed when, by luck, it happened to perch or feed near where I was standing.

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

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Feeding on some of the seed the guys have put out for it

Yet again, Wanstead Flats proves that almost anything can turn up at any point. And it seems, that, over time, it does!

 

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Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

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The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

Like ships in the light

I woke up full of optimism this morning. The clear skies and wind direction did not point to anything great, but the air just tasted ‘rare’. There is nothing quite like the sense of hope and expectation at dawn during migration season. It is helped by the fact that the misty dawns of early Autumn are some of the most beautiful times to be out on the Patch.

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Low double figures of Meadow Pipit came nowhere close to last weekend’s total of 257 (and my patch PB of 239), but there were also lots of Chiffchaff and few more finches than usual.

My rare-radar is obviously finely tuned as I was thrilled to receive a call from Tony telling me that he had found a Yellow-browed Warbler, only the third ever seen on the Patch, and the added bonus of being during a season where numbers of these Asian visitors have been low. I was less thrilled that, despite a couple of hours of hard searching, three of us couldn’t re-find it – although it felt a bit like the one that got away as I chased a very small warbler with my bins as it raced ahead of me through a canopy, but I got no features whatsoever. A shame for my year-list, but I would have been a lot more sore if it wasn’t already on my patch list.

This afternoon Jono and I had a switch of scenery and followed the masses to get a look at the extraordinary sight that is the Beluga Whale in the Thames. This has been thoroughly well reported on the news and the beast is now in at least its fifth day in the Thames; enormous distances, of course, from its Arctic home.

We gambled with the shorter journey to the Essex shore at Tilbury where the views have been far more distant than from the Gravesend, Kent shore. At first the views were somewhat blocked by some rather big boats.

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Panamanian ‘MSC Florentina’ in from Le Harve and Italian ‘Grande Tema’ in from Hamburg

After one of the ships had been tugged in a full 180 degree turn and got out the way, we were soon pointed towards the narrow strip of water where the pale whale had been seen multiple times already that day. And, sure enough, we were lucky enough to watch it breach on multiple occasions spouting water jets and briefly even poking its bulbous head up. The views with the scope were distant but good, the views through my camera were less so and this is about the best I could manage – the pigment appears dark because we were facing into the light.

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Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

As incredible as it is to see such a rare sight as an arctic whale in my local river, it is clearly worryingly abnormal and I think we all hope it makes its way back out to sea and back up north as quickly as possible.

 

July 2018: review

I have decided to try and complete a short monthly review of my birding activities on and off the Patch. Here is my first attempt for last month: July 2018.

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Summary: I made five Patch visits in July 2018 and recorded a total of 61 species of bird, two of which were new for the year (Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern). There was a record-breaking heat-wave through much of July and every visit was made in hot weather. On the 15 July Wanstead Flats suffered the largest grassfire in London’s recorded history causing extensive damage to the SSSI and Broomfields.

Highlights were:

  • The returning large numbers of Black-headed Gulls, with over 100 birds (and many young juveniles) seen on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • A juvenile Mediterranean Gull with the Black-headed Gull flock on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • Tufted Duck bred successfully on Jubilee with 8 ducklings seen with adult female on 7 July.  
  • Finding two Little Grebe chicks on Alexandra Lake on 28 July (still present as of 19 August).
  • An unseasonal record of 5 Lapwing circling over SSSI and Western Flats on 8 July.
  • My first and, so far, only sighting for the year of Common Tern flying East over Shoulder of Mutton pond.
  • It was a relatively successful July for woodland birds with multiple sightings of Coal Tit and Nuthatch and a single sighting of Treecreeper in Bush Wood.
  • Seeing Skylark, Meadow Pipit, and Lesser Whitethroat (with juveniles) after the fire.
  • A single Red Kite seen over Bush Wood on 21 July.
  • This was a record-breaking month for Little Egret. I counted 14 on 21 July with most on the Ornamentals, but this was surpassed a few days later by Bob with 39 across the Patch!
  • Non-birding highlights were my first White-letter Hairstreak on the Patch (by Heronry on 7 July), and an Elephant Hawk Moth found in the long grass between the Brooms and Long Wood.

Lowlights were:

  • The Great Fire of Wanstead Flats.
  • Missing out on Clouded Yellow and Marbled White.
  • Not seeing any Buzzard in July.

Highlights from ‘elsewhere’

  • Finding my first Yellow-legged Gull (juv) for the year at Beckton Sewage Works.
  • Finding two Mediterranean Gull by the Thames Barrier.
  • Seeing Marsh Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes on 28 July.
  • Also successfully twitching the Red-necked Phalarope at Oare Marshes on 28 July with other good birds including Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and at least nine other species of wader.

The month in five pictures…

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull on the Western Flats

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Tufted Ducklings on Jubilee

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The aftermath of the Wanstead Fire

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A Spitfire over Oare Marshes

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Waders on Oare Marshes

Now you see me, now you don’t

One of the great things about birding the same patch is you get to build up a sense (or even a monitored trend for those of us who keep spreadsheets) for which birds you see over time. Migration is, of course, a major factor in birds appearing and then disappearing. Our Swift flocks have now gone. They were present on every visit to the Patch from 22 April until the end of July. I missed last weekend as was away so can’t pinpoint their departure. But it never ceases to amaze me how fleeting their breeding stopovers seem to be. One day the the sky seems full of scything screamers and then, like Keyser Söze, they are gone.

Willow Warbler is a species which seems to have a tentative perch-hold on the Patch. I got four records of Willow Warbler in the Spring. The first was probably just a passage pass-through, and then three weekends in a row in April/May when I had one or two birds singing. Almost certainly an attempt at making a viable territory, but not, perhaps, successful. Now we get a second bite at the cherry with the returning birds and I got a bright bird yesterday in Wanstead Park.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

But with other birds, their presence or otherwise seems more arbitrary or subject to annual cycles not connected to migration. It has been a good year for Little Owl on Wanstead Flats. We think two pairs have bred successfully. I looked in their ‘usual places’ yesterday but couldn’t find them, only to hear one calling loudly from a different copse as a dog walker went past it. It stayed put long enough for me to take its picture.

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Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Nuthatch, and even Treecreeper, have also been spotted more frequently this year than in others. But other birds seem not to be doing as well. I’ve seen very few Grey Wagtail this year, for example. Whilst Little Grebe seem to be doing better than I remember before, and have bred on Alexandra Lake, Great Crested Grebe have seemed almost entirely absent; I saw my first for this Spring and Summer on the Shoulder-of-Mutton pond in Wanstead Park on Saturday.

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Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

2016 and 2017 were good years for Wigeon on the Patch. We saw up to a patch-record-breaking 61 birds in 2016. But there were very few sightings of this duck early this year with it not even being on my patch year list. So I certainly didn’t expect to see one today on 12 August! But Nick found one, on the River Roding, and I photographed her as she is the earliest returning Wigeon we have a record of on the Patch.

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Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Other birds are scarce visitors but you come to expect them at certain points in the year. So it is with Yellow-legged Gull. Today three of us were treated with lovely views of a 4th calendar year bird that Nick actually found yesterday by Alexandra Lake. This was a patch year tick for all of us involved.

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Meanwhile, other birds never seem far away. It is a rare day on the Patch not to hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, or to see one sail over your head at some point. However, despite them being common, I don’t often get to watch them close-up, so yesterday I was pleased to get close views of two males; an adult and a juvenile by Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. In my slightly sentimental state as an expectant dad, I like to imagine that this was father and son bonding on the Patch. Something I hope to be able to do in due course.

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Adult male (Picus viridis) aka ‘Daddy’

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Juvenile male aka “junior”

Out of the ashes?

The largest grass fire ever seen in the capital” – BBC News

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Last Sunday, 15th July 2018, more than 220 firefighters battled for hours and continued dampening down for days. By my measurements, around 320,000 square metres of the patch has been destroyed, that is over a fifth of the entire area of Wanstead Flats and could house well over 50 football pitches. The sad irony of the football pitch comparison, of course, is that all the football pitches are fine. The mown grass was barely affected. It was the biodiverse areas of grassland, scrub, and woodland which has been devastated.

The background is that we are suffering the worst drought in London’s recorded history. The parched grass was tinder dry and ready to react to a carelessly discarded cigarette, a mishandled disposable barbecue, or the match of a malicious arsonist. We will probably never know.

Yesterday I went out for the first time to see the damage. It was harder to see than I had imagined. My patch has been devastated and that is how I felt too.

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The charred remains of non-combustible litter and blackened, skeletal trees stand in an ashen desert. No bird song. No butterflies. Nothing.

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There were some small mercies. Whilst the patches of brooms have been almost completely destroyed, some of the grassland just south of this area has survived. I found a single Meadow Pipit song-flighting there, and a couple more chased each other amongst the remaining grass. I also heard a short burst of grounded Skylark song. A small family of Lesser Whitethroat also emerged out of bushes that have been cut back and cauterised by the fire. So hope remains.

If we had lost our Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, we may never have got them back. Only time will tell whether this fire has taken a material toll on their fragile hold of this habitat.

Wanstead Park was welcome relief from the damaged Flats.

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Aspen and Purple Loosestrife in the Ornamental Waters

Water levels are low in the drought and several ponds have had water pumped into them to stop them becoming parched dust-bowls. Little Egret have been taking advantage of this and fishing in the shallow waters. Yesterday I counted 14 of them; a joint record with three years ago, although now beaten today by my colleagues who have clocked up 17 across the Patch.

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12 of the 14 Little Egret yesterday on the Ornamentals

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7 Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Juvenile Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)

In the Old Sewage works there has been more fire damage. The manure heap by the stables was set alight. But then about 100 metres away there was another, and then another patch of grass blackened to nothing. Probably only around 500 square metres, but suspiciously all separate whilst along the edges of one path. Almost as if someone walked along setting fire to the grass as they went.

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A small patch of fire damage by the path and paddock fence in the Old Sewage Works

Apparently some people have had to be told to stop barbecuing next to the fire-damaged parts of the Wanstead Flats. I cannot help draw a comparison and see these ignorant al fresco diners with their disposable bbq next to the blackened husk of a once-lush habitat as a microcosm for humanity and our planet: blissfully continuing with whatever the fuck we want to do as we burn and grind our world into ashes and dust.

“I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky” – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes

 

 

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani

“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” – Led Zeppelin, Immigrant

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Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) – at Jigokudani, Nagano prefecture

There is a place called Hell. A sheer and narrow rocky valley high in the Japanese mountains. It is freezing cold and under snow for several months a year, and yet jets of super-heated steam shoot out of crevices and pools of boiling hot mud bubble malignantly. Jigokudani (‘Hell Valley’) is appropriately named. It is also home to the most famous group of wild macaques.

Japanese Macaque is the most northerly existing species of wild primates, other than humans, in the world, and so also the only primate to regularly inhabit and flourish in the snow.

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The hot spring pool at Jigokudani

Jigokudani is remote and the landscape is inhospitable. Few people would visit the small number of dwellings high in the hills except a few locals taking advantage of the ‘Onsen’  (naturally geo-thermically heated baths) up here. However, something happened in the early 1960’s which was to change that and turn Hell Valley into a major tourist attraction.

During a period of particularly fierce snowy weather, a female macaque and her baby descended from the icy rocks and climbed into the warm water of the man-made Onsen in the tiny mountainous hamlet. This species of monkey exhibits high levels of intelligence and, soon after, large numbers of the group would follow this example and warm up in the baths.

In 1970 a photograph of this behaviour graced the front cover of LIFE Magazine. A new pool was constructed a few hundred metres away to capture the hot spring water and give the monkeys their own place to bathe. Wildlife documentaries and hundreds of thousands of visitors followed. I was one of them.

Although we visited in early April, it was unseasonably warm and so most of the snow had melted. The monkeys roam around the mountain slopes as wild macaques should but their diet is supplemented by grain from the local reserve management which ensures people get a reasonable view of them.

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Watching this large group was utterly fascinating. The social dynamics are highly complex. There is a strict hierarchy from the alpha male (the visitor centre has photos of each ‘boss’ from 1964 to the present) to the lowliest youngster and this was often painfully clear when a juvenile would commit some undecipherable infraction against an angry senior.

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A male exerting his authority

Great howls and screams would sometimes precede slapping, biting and shoving and the series of photos below surely depicts something along the lines of protest, distress, resignation, and submission of a young macaque moments after it was harshly disciplined by the large male above.

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But there were also wonderful moments of tenderness and affection displayed through grooming or parental care.

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Whilst order and discipline is meted out largely by the male hierarchy, the organisation is actually matrilineal in design – females largely staying faithful to the group whilst most males will be expelled at some stage or are nomadic between troops. The females choose who to mate with and when to mate (apparently not always with the alpha male), and shape most of the organisational decisions. A fascinating observation I have read about since my visit is that there are very high levels of homosexuality in this species with females, in particular, likely to show bisexual preferences as the norm rather than the exception.

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Being around such a sociable troop of highly intelligent primates, it is difficult not to relate and anthropomorphise. I defy you not to find this toddler cute…

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I watched this poor little thing picking grains up off the floor for a while and then – in response to something another macaque may have done – it suddenly started bouncing up and down looking like it was dancing while playing an invisible trumpet*.

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Three images stitched together here of our ‘dancing baby’ monkey

It was a shame not to have seen them in the snow, from the perspective of my photographs, but just amazing to get to watch wild primates so closely.

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*None of the behaviour here is trained or induced for human observation. This troop has become used to being watched over the last fifty years and largely ignore the bald primates who mill about a bit every day whilst dropping lots of grain.