Category Archives: London

2019 review: crunching some small numbers

2019 was always going to be a lightweight year on the birding front. My son was born just a few weeks before the year started. I get out less often and for less time and rarely travel far beyond the patch as weekends are mainly a time to spend with family.

Nevertheless, I got out on the patch more than once a week on average (60 patch trips in total, albeit sometimes only for an hour or two), and a further 13 non-patch trips in the UK which included some element of birding. Of these 13, ten were within the London recording area. Only five of those London trips could be described as twitches (of which three were successful: Penduline Tit at Crossness in South East London, Great Reed Warbler also at Crossness, and Ring-necked Duck at Fishers Green in the Lea Valley).

Highlights

Overall my UK year list was the lowest in a decade (121 – I am embarrassed to even type it) and my patch year list (103) was third out of the five years I have been birding in the Wanstead area (more on that shortly). But here are the top six highlights of my UK birding:

    The very showy patch-tick drake Garganey on Jubilee on 31 March
    Hearing and seeing a Great Reed Warbler – first for London – at Crossness), only a year after life-ticking this species in Poland
    The long-staying Greenshank on Heronry was probably bird of the year for me (that is the wonderful strangeness of patch birding for you) – seeing it first on 5 September
    Putting a couple of patch bogeys to bed by seeing Green Sandpiper and Sedge Warbler this year (perhaps leaving Golden Plover, Jack Snipe and Woodlark as the three most commonly seen birds still not on my patch list)
    The Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit mini-influx this Autumn which included three Pied Fly in one day on 24 August
    Scoring three Canary Wharf ‘megas’ (two self-finds) with Reed Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, and Common Redstart.
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Great Reed Warbler, Crossness, London

I won’t dwell on the lowlights, although failing to get a Yellow Wagtail on the Patch this year has to be up there. Oh, and there was a disastrous dip – twitching what turned out to be a dirty Common Sandpiper (rather than a Spotted Sandpiper) and involved a lengthy journey on public transport twice after leaving my bag in a hide. At least it reminded me why I rarely twitch things.

Patch year comparison
I have now been birding on Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park for a five full years. I have seen 134 species of bird locally in that time with six new species added to my patch list in 2019. 2018 was my best year with 110 species recorded and this year I got 103 (which is just under my mean average, or third best and third worst as I put it to my patch colleagues when we were totting up our totals).

So far, there have been 84 species I have seen every year (a list which includes Firecrest and Common Redstart). There are 10 more birds which I have only missed once in the five years of birding the Patch: this list sadly now includes Yellow Wagtail, Redpoll, and Common Sandpiper after this year’s performance, but also incorporates: Garden Warbler (2018 gap), Pied Flycatcher (2018), Tree Pipit (2016), Yellow-legged Gull (2016), Peregrine (2015), Shelduck (2015), and Treecreeper (2015). So that takes me to total of 94 species which are at least 80% likely nailed-on each year (although doesn’t take into account whether any of these are declining in likelihood of being seen). I could probably add Little Owl to the list of birds I would really expect to see on an annual basis (despite the fact that I missed it in my first two years).

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Firecrest, Bush Wood – a species I have patch ticked every year I have been birding here

So… that takes me to 95 species I would expect to see each year and only needing five more unusual finds each year. It is in this territory where the motivation to keep working the patch exists: the unexpected! So, this year, that golden list included six patch ticks (Garganey, Mandarin, Green Sandpiper, Sedge Warbler, Greenshank, and Marsh Harrier), but also joined by the following birds which I had only seen on one or two other years: Yellowhammer, Caspian Gull, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Rook, and Wood Warbler.

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Mandarin, Wanstead Flats

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Garganey, Wanstead Flats

France
I managed four trips to my second patch in the South of France in 2019 (including right at the end of the year where I am as I finish writing this blog post). My French patch has a smaller list of more exotic birds (patch list is only 81 – it is tougher birding with some dense vegetation and no water bodies), although, interestingly, of the 10 new species I added this year to my list, several are commonly found back in ‘Patch 1’ in London. So, chronologically listed, the French patch newbies were: Mistle Thrush, Montagu’s Harrier, Wagtail sp (as the only wagtail I have ever seen flying over, despite being a distant, silent silhouette, it gets a slot of its own for the time being), Tawny Pipit, House Martin, Dartford Warbler, Red Kite, Tree Pipit, Northern Wheatear, and Garden Warbler.

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Dartford Warbler, Corbieres

The Montagu’s Harrier was an obvious highlight as was the large number of migratory Honey Buzzard I saw (somewhat un-doing my regular complaint that our French House is not on any migratory flight paths). Slowly building a picture of the avian wildlife of this remote valley in the Corbieres has been a joy.

2020

I can’t imagine time will be very much more plentiful for me in 2020, so I will need to think and act smart to make the most out of my birding. My two patches will definitely play a decent part of the whole picture next year, but I am determined that they do not take up quite such a high proportion of the whole as they did in 2019.

October spider walk: Wanstead Flats

On 13 October David Carr led the way with another spider field trip/survey on Wanstead Flats. This followed the very wet but successful trip on 27 July and a couple of solo visits he has made since. There were about nine of us: members of the Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group and the London Natural History Society.

Unfortunately, the day was another wet one as with the July visit, although it was luckily mainly just overcast and drizzly with one heavy shower. The focus of the visit was on the copses on the Flats (on this occasion, Long Wood and Coronation Copse) with a few spiders found nearby in the grassland, broom and scrub, and single specialist found on the margins of Angel/Bandstand Pond. David employed the methods of bush/tree beating, some sweep-netting, and some leaf-litter sorting. A number of the species mentioned below required microscopic examination for confirmation to species level.

The July visit had been tantalising with a find of an immature spider suspected to be Anyphaena numida, a nationally rare buzzing spider. Whilst we were not able to confirm that find, David had a confirmed adult male on a solo visit a few weeks later. And so we were delighted to find another on the October trip by beating the same oaks where he found a specimen before on his own. There are only three species of the Anyphaena genus found in the UK, with two of them being very rare and recent finds for the UK, and all three having been found locally by David. Whilst A. numida was undoubtedly the rarest find of the day (only a handful of specimens have been confirmed nationally), David also found a number of other scarce and interesting spiders.

After meeting and gathering in Centre Road car-park, we began the spider-search in Long Wood, aptly named as a long and narrow bisected copse running from east to west along the northerly part of the largest section of Wanstead Flats and dividing the Brick Pit fields to the north from the broom field grasslands to the south.

In the first round of tree-tappings and undergrowth sorting, David quickly picked up Harpactea hombergi, a small stripey-legged woodlouse hunting spider. With the exception of the very rare, H. rubicunda, H. hombergi is the only species in its genus likely to be found in the UK.

We also found the very common Amaurobius similis in this location, the lace-webbed spider. I learned that ‘similis’ part of its binomial refers to its similarity to the closely related A. fenestralis. The latter is more likely than the former to be found outside of buildings, but on this occasion we clearly happened across a ‘wild’ outdoor specimen.

Another common ‘domestic’ species found in this bit of woodland was the large house spider, Eratigena gigantea. A pale specimen was hiding in a crevice surrounded by leaf litter. We also found the false widow spider now almost ubiquitous in built-up areas in the South East; Steatoda nobilis.

In this environment we also came across one of the two species of pinkish goblin spiders, from the Oonops genus. David later confirmed that this was Oonops pulcher, a spider he had not previously recorded on Wanstead Flats.

It was no surprise to find the orbweb spider, Araneus diadematus (commonly called Garden Spider), on a web with its distinctive white cross-like shape on the abdomen. However, Anke Marsh, who had joined us for the day with her daughter, was particularly thrilled to find a lifer, Agalanatea redii, another orbweb spider on Broom just south of Long Wood (it was a also a lifer for me, but as a arachno-newbie, that is not a great surprise).

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Agalenatea redii (an orb weaver spider)

Just outside of the wooded areas we also found a chunky wolf spider that David identified for us as Trochosa terricola and the commonly-found nursery web spider, Pisaura mirabilis.

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Trochosa terricola (a wolf spider)

As the rain started again we went back into a wooded area to the east of the gap in Long Wood. This was where David had found Anyphaena numida a few weeks earlier and on the first few taps of the oak, we had an adult male. It is worth noting that there have still been fewer than 20 confirmed finds of this species in the UK.

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Anyphaena numida (a rare buzzing spider)

David also got a likely immature Philodromus praedatus (one of the tricky running crab spiders) from the oak in the same location (Philodromus dispar was also recorded on the day, although I appear not to have been paying attention at that point as I have no photos of it). We also got to study one of the larger money spiders (Linyphiidae), which seems somewhat misnamed as Lepthyphantes minutus considering it is at least two or three times the size of an average expected money spider.

Another interesting find nearby, and another new species for the local area, was Megalepthyphantes sp. near collinus. This species has still to be fully studied and properly named in science (hence it is just a species similar to/“near” M. collinus) and has just a double digit set of records in the UK, all in the South East. David actually found and confirmed male and female specimens of this enigmatic species.

Heavy rain then temporarily stopped play and the small party of spider hunters adjourned to a nearby cafe for a spot of lunch. A little later when the rain was slightly less of an impediment to arachno-detecting, we went back to a different copse; known locally as Coronation Copse. David focused on sorting through the top layers of loose leaf litter. It was a productive method in a productive location.

Another linyphid appeared almost straight away: Microneta viaria, and things just got better from there. A chunky looking ground spider turned out to be Haplodrassus silvestris, a woodland native that is not often recorded and has apparently been in decline, so lovely to find in a semi-urban site. This was another first for our location.

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Haplodrassus silvestris (a ground spider)

Next out of the leaf-litter was one of the ant-mimic spiders, Phrurolithus festivus. And then something truly extraordinary came fell out of the plastic soil sieve. Another linyphid/money spider, a male with extraordinary boxing-glove-like pedipalps, and an even more extraordinary thin stalk-like protuberance on its head which is where the male’s eyes are situated. The spider’s name is Walckenaeria acuminata. There are a range of species in this genus, but surely none are quite as strange as this particular species.

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Walckenaeria acuminata (a money spider)

We also found another wolf spider, but did not identify it to species level, so it remains Pardosa sp. in our records.

David and I then bid farewell to the last of our spider-finding team, Anke and her daughter, and made our way down to the swampy circle that used to be a small lake, called Angel. Sifting through the litter there did not seem to prove very productive until one small spider fell through the sieve. It was the last spider David found for the day and was not only new for the local area, but also a nationally scarce spider: a member of the Theridiidae (or ‘tangle web’) spiders, called Robertus arundineti.

Overall, it proved to be another great day of spider finds, yet again showing Wanstead Flats to be a fantastic location. I am sure we will organise further surveys/field trips in the future, so please do keep an eye out.

Spider key

What a Great Reed Warbler!

The mixed blessing of going out birding later than I used to, due to family time, is that I get a good sense of whether the Patch is likely to be productive before I set foot outside.

This morning, it did not bode well and so when I heard news that Rich Bonser had found a Great Reed Warbler at Crossness in South London: a full-on UK tick for me, it was a no-brainer. A lot of my patch colleagues shared that they needed it for London, but it was only when there that I learned this was actually the first ever for the LNHS recording area.

I left the house at 09:50 and had to be back at 12 as we were hosting a lunch for our NCT baby and parent group; it was a race against the clock. I planned it out in my head: 35 minutes drive there, 35 minutes drive back, 15 minutes from the car to bird and the same back would give me 30 minute to locate, hear and hopefully see the bird.

The walk across the meadow took me back to my last time there, in February when I went for the Penduline Tit. It is a great site: a pair of Peregrines were circling each other as I arrived, and there were Cetti’s, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, both Whitethroat species, Skylark, and much more all in full song.

I was amazed when I finally got there that I was only the third birder there and the finder, Mr Bonser was luckily still there. I heard it almost immediately – that distinctive deep croaking that sounds like one of those wooden ‘guiro’ musical instruments and then the louder and gruffer version of the Reed Warbler‘s song.

But the bird stayed well hidden behind a large bramble bush in the reeds as we watched through the metal fencing to keep everyone from the ‘protected area’. We were treated to my best views this year of Sedge Warbler while we were waiting for the star bird to show.

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Eventually, the thrush-sized Acro popped up on top of the reeds some way from where where we had heard it singing after it chased a smaller bird. There were many better photos taken later that day, but ticking a bird in London that is also the first time anyone else could have ticked that bird was special.

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Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)

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belting out its gruff song

I was in a very good mood, albeit partially dampened when the Satnav told me it was going to take closer to an hour to get home. Slightly late, but, I think, with a pretty good excuse.

As it was car journey solely to twitch a bird, I made a small contribution (as per my new pledge) to a charity to protect some rainforest.

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Filling in the gaps

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

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Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duck tales

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

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Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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

One week later…

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

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

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

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

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

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

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A nice way to round off 130 birds on the Patch

 

 

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

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

Highlights were:

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

Lowlights were:

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

Highlights from elsewhere were:

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

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

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

Highlights were:

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

Lowlights were:

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

Highlights from elsewhere were:

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

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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

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