Category Archives: London

Winter fresh

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

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

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 This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive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

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Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

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

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

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

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

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

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

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

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

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

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Breaking a curse with a Horned Lark on the shore

The day began – late – by joining most of my patch colleagues in dipping Leach’s Petrel standing in a small park overlooking the huge William Girling Reservoir.

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Birding on reservoirs is often hard in its own right. When you are attempting to see birds when you can’t even get close to the reservoir, I find it verging on impossible. At one point we attempted to see a Great Northern Diver from this spot but looking at a reservoir further north (to the right and out of frame of this picture); but you know something is hard when you hear quality birders say things like “I think I’ve got the GN Diver in my scope, but it might just be a Great Crested Grebe“!!

So Nick and I swapped one set of large reservoirs for another. This time the dreaded Staines Reservoirs. I have blogged about them before as they are my nemesis location; everything I have ever gone there to see (most recently White-winged Black Tern) I have dipped; a 100% failure rate!

After sitting on the M25 for what seemed like half the day (possibly because in total, it was for half the day!), we arrived to see the Shore/Horned Lark*. Whilst it had previously been seen and photographed up close, it was now distant on the western shore, but it was a successful twitch for me at Staines. The curse is finally broken. I even rather foolishly attempted to take a record shot with my camera and phone-scope respectively below:

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Horned/Shore Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

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Looking straight at the camera (albeit across a reservoir)

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The South Reservoir has been drained and looks extraordinarily bleak, with just small pools left.

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A cold day standing by reservoirs and driving around London, so not exactly the wildest of experiences, but successful and interesting nonetheless. On the drive on the M25 on the way home, Nick and I counted raptors ending with a final score of 23 Red Kite, 4 Buzzard, and 1 Kestrel (not all that long ago those numbers would have probably been read in reverse).

*The debate is currently underway as to whether this is a European Shore Lark or the much rarer sub-species, American Horned Lark. I will leave that matter to the experts.

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.

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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:

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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.

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Male Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

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Female

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.

 

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:

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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.

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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).

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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:

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

and…

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“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.

 

Red start to the Autumn

Autumn didn’t start today, of course. Many birds have already long gone South, but there was something about this morning that just felt and looked truly Autumnal.

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Dawn over the Western Flats

I waded through to the mist straight to the SSSI where I got dew-soaked looking for Wryneck … or… anything really.

There wasn’t much to see apart from the glorious morning light.

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SSSI, Wanstead Flats

And so I followed the siren voices of my fellow patch birders (by which I mean their WhatsApp messages) to the Brooms and a staggeringly friendly Redstart.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

We all took lots of photos.

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I am used to getting close to Redstart at my other patch in France, but this was something else.

Whilst our attention was mainly on this grounded passage migrant, other migration was happening all around us. As the clouds came in, tens of Swallows, plus a few Martins moved through, at least one Yellow Wagtail and several Grey Wagtail flew over and Meadow Pipits swirled confusingly around (are these our Mipits, Mipits I have just seen fly in a different direction, or different ones altogether? – the answer, of course, is surely “all three”). Training my binoculars on the cloud often yielded dots passing by, although I wasn’t always sure what those dots were.

Today’s Redstart wasn’t the first of the Autumn passage, but it was the one I shall remember the most.

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.

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Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.

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Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:

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Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.