Category Archives: history

The mute’s story: swan song


Jubilee Pond, Wanstead Flats

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

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


Drake Gadwall (Anas strepera)


Hen Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

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


Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

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


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


Watching Gulls… badly

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

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


1st winter Common Gull (Larus canus)

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


Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

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


An actual 1st winter Herring Gull

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


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

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

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

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


Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

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

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

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


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

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

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


Thames Barrier sunset at low tide


Webster’s Land and the Forbidden Triangle

I am an explorer at heart. Disappearing off alone and finding new places is a joy. Sometimes it is more than a joy; it is a necessity.

So when I read about a place only a short walk from the furthest edge of the Patch called “Webster’s Land”, my interest was piqued. My fellow Wren Group member and wildlife surveyor extraordinaire, Paul Ferris, mentions this place on his website.

I walked down the path between the River Roding and the City of London Cemetery, eventually losing the Roding to the Ilford golf course and picking up its tiny tributary, the Alders Brook instead.


The Alders Brook

I left what I consider* to be the end of the Patch by walking through a concrete and brick tunnel underneath the railway track (between Manor Park and Ilford stations). I won’t pretend there wasn’t a little trepidation as I read the writing on the wall.


Apocalypse now? Or light at the end of the tunnel

If the other side of the tunnel looks pleasant, that is because it is the Patch. I turned around to take that photograph for effect, but the Ilford side of the tunnel is somewhat less welcoming… Although the blue-painted concrete walls did match the sky that day.


The concrete continued. After crossing a road or two I wandered through the streets of various housing estates with some bright colour schemes – presumably added to soften the brutalism of bare brick and concrete.



I know many disagree with me but I personally find something aesthetically satisfying about the municipal and social architecture of the 50s-70s. Although even I wondered whether more inviting street names could have been found than ‘Warrior Square’?  The military theme continued when I found ‘Jack Cornwell Road’.

Digression alert: As any military historian would tell you, Jack Cornwell – a local boy from Leyton – was only 16 years old when he fought in the horrific sea battle of Jutland in World War One. His ship, HMS Chester, came under enormous fire and the entire crew that manned his gun were killed except him. He was found manning the huge gun alone, badly (in fact mortally) wounded, surrounded by the bodies of his fellow crewmen, exposed to further fire but refusing to leave his post and just “quietly awaiting orders” as the citation reads. He died of his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his astonishing bravery. He is buried locally and – so I discovered – also had a street named after him. Here ends digression.

Eventually I found the long, narrow strip of grassland that Paul Ferris had written about: Webster’s Land. I had Paul’s photo in my mind (inset in the photo below) which was a mistake. Paul had visited at summer when the grass had been allowed to grow into a pleasant meadow. The bare trees and mown grass was not quite so appealing when I arrived on a cold winter’s day:


Webster’s Land looking down towards Ilford Little Park

I don’t quite know what I expected to find there, but whatever it was, I didn’t find it. I turned around and left.

As I walked back to the Patch, I reflected on what I had seen and what I had been expecting. With the exception of a few local dog walkers and joggers, very few people visit Webster’s Land. Very little is known or written about it. Although Paul explains that it was left to the people of Manor Park by another military figure, a Lt. Colonel Webster. This thin strip of land is sandwiched between a housing estate and the North Circular road. A line of cherry trees hides the busy road. A buffer of common land.

I thought more about this buffer as I walked along an even narrower strip of common ground fenced in between the cemetery and railway line.

Roding railway walk v2

It is a long walk. A necessary evil for those of us needing to connect up two parts of the Patch and can be a destination for few other than drunks and junkies (in case you detect a sneering tone of condescension, I assure you that actually I am grateful for such places and offer no judgement whatsoever on those of us who feel we need to escape ‘civilisation’ or just ‘life’ in body and mind).

At the end of the narrow path, we arrive at another buffer zone. Another no-man’s land in an overpopulated city. A large, bleak place with little human purpose. Not as wild or natural as the Flats, not neat enough to be a ‘park’. A place so insignificant it doesn’t even have a name, although some might consider it to be a continuation of the Flats with just another bi-secting road. We call it the Forbidden Triangle as it seems to offer little prospect of interesting birds. [Edit: The person who initially set out the delineation of the Patch has informed me that it is actually called the Forbidden Triangle, because we can’t count any birds we might see there for the Patch – luckily there seems to be very little there.]

All of the places mentioned in this post could do with being allowed to get a little wilder in my mind, but frankly, I am just glad that these spaces exist at all. If you want to read more about such places, or their slightly wilder counterparts, I can highly recommend Rob Cowen’s excellent book, Common Ground.


The ‘Forbidden Triangle’

Forbidden triangle

1: ‘Forbidden Triangle’ 2: the ‘long narrow walk’ 3: Webster’s Land

 *Others consider that the Patch ends before this point, but I feel that would abandon this small strip of land to a limbo state, so I include it.

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.

France map

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.


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.

Macro map Blanes

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.


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


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.

Blanes brookv2

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.


A long wait for a Long Wood record shot

When Little Owl recently succumbed to my patch list, Bullfinch (perhaps alongside Woodcock) became my patch ‘bogey bird’: a relatively commonly seen bird missing from my list.

But let’s put ‘relatively common’ in context here. The British Trust for Ornithology ‘Breeding Bird Survey’ shows that Bullfinch numbers have declined by around 39 per cent since 1967, and the decline is steepest in the South East. With the exception of some sightings on our neighbouring ‘Leyton Flats’, I believe the recent Autumn birds are the first Bullfinches seen on the patch for two years: since October 2015.

Yesterday, Tony saw four birds in Long Wood on the Wanstead Flats. This follows several recent sightings in the same area.


Long Wood as seen from the Broom fields on the Wanstead Flats

I was not long at Long Wood this morning before I heard the distinctive melancholic phe-ouw call which I like to describe as a child blowing weakly into a de-tuned harmonica. And through the branches, twigs, and remaining leaves I briefly saw a female Bullfinch. A bogey bird no more; my 116th bird for the Patch and my 105th for the year.

I then stayed another hour or so waiting in vain to get a photo. But with the exception of a brief call, I didn’t see another flicker. However, had I not waited, I would not have caught the flash of airborne movement that revealed a Short-eared Owl being mobbed by crows over the wood. This is only the second SEO seen by anyone on the Patch this year and only my second ever on Patch:


Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

After counting everything on Alexandra Pond for the BTO Wetland Bird Survey (very few winter ducks on the Flats at the moment, but rather more in the Park) I walked back via Long Wood for a second attempt to try and photograph the Bullfinch. I am unclear why I felt such a strong desire to get a photo, but it was definitely niggling me.

I was rewarded with views of at least three birds; two female and one male. I didn’t get any good photos, but securing the record shot flooded me with a sense of relief.


Male Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)



I find the fact that I saw Hawfinch from the Patch before Bullfinch quite extraordinary, but that is just one of the many wondrous uncertainties about  Patch birding.


From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.


Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.


As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.


Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.


Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.


Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:


El Hondo


It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.


Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.


Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.


Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)


We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.


Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.


Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.


Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.


Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.


The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.


Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.


Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:


Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

Pond life

I’ve got a new job!

I’m a water monitor. No, not like being a milk monitor at school! This is a scientific job that… err… requires me to photograph a water measurement gauge on one of the Patch ponds (Jubilee) every other week and send the photo to the wardens/ecologist who manage Epping Forest.

The pay isn’t great, by which I mean it is non existent, as by ‘new job’ I obviously mean a small commitment to volunteer outside of my day job. Here is my submission from today:


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

So far I have managed to snap the gauge with Mute Swan and Canada Goose in front of it, and with Black-headed Gull and Grey Heron on top of it. This is what happens when you give a task like this to birder. Maybe one day over this year I’ll photograph a scarce duck or wader with the water gauge? Or maybe a rare gull? Like an Audouin’s Gull – which I believe is still one of the rarest gulls in the world – and which I saw a lot of over the last week as I have been in Ibiza – a bit of a hotspot for these chaps.


Audouin’s Gull (Icthyaetus audouinii)

Or, maybe a little Red-necked Grebe will  paddle past one day – that would be almost as excellent as the Audouin’s, and probably significantly more likely as we currently have a young bird showing well just a few miles away in the Lea Valley Park (I twitched it of course).


Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) and Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

But I suspect I am just dreaming. Jubilee Pond has been host recently, however, to some well known gull individuals – ringed gulls such as our most frequently seen band-carrier:


“2LBA” Black-headed Gull ringed in Essex two years ago



“J8M4” Common Gull (Larus canus) ringed in Norway just over two years ago

I shall keep you posted if and when I find anything else interesting whilst doing my water monitoring.