Category Archives: philosophy

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


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Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…

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2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

Concrete at Creekmouth

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

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

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

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

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The barrier at Creekmouth

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

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

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

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Beckton sewage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kent – Oare

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

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View across the Swale from Oare, Kent

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

Kent – River Stour

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

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

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

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Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

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Wood Anemone carpeting floor of a coppice wood

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

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

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

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

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

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European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

Kent – Elmley

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

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

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Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

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

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Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

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

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Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

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

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Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

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

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

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

Essex and London

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

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Male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

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

Norfolk – Titchwell

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

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

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicla)

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

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

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Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

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

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My scope in better weather near Cley the following day

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

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

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One of the last photos I took before getting soaked

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

Kent – New Holkham

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

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

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

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

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citronella)

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

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European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

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

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

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

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The ‘stubble field’ at Blunt’s Corner

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

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Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus)

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

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

Screenshot vPallid

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

Norfolk – Cley and Winterton

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

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

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Cley-next-the-Sea from Cley Marshes

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

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

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Winterton

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

Suffolk – Minsmere

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

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Minsmere

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

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Male Garganey (Anas querquedula)

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

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

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) at Minsmere

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

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

The sounds of Mirkwood

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

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

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underneath the bridge

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

– Nirvana, Something in the Way

Sometimes, life clings onto existence despite our best efforts.

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Underside of bridge, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf

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

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

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

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Plants and litter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter and the sounds of silence

Silence.

The absence of sound: the concept; the mindset; the state of existence. So rare. As a birder mainly working an inner London patch, it is not something I am used to. But sometimes (most definitely not always) it can be found on my other ‘patch’ in the French foothills of the Pyrenees.

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South towards the Pyrenees

Arriving at the remote house, the silence hit me like a lump hammer. Miles from the nearest road, isolated from any flight paths, the patch is always wild. But the wild was silent too. No bird song, no bird calls (imagine the change from London: no gulls, no crows), no calling insects of the mediterranean. But also, no wind. Just cold air and bright sun. A frozen scene.

Birding the French patch is always a challenge. The birds are more secretive, far less visible, and sometimes silent. At first a sliver of panic set in: “are there any birds here at all?” – the foolish thought passed across my mind like an unwanted shadow.

Of course there were birds here, although the demographics had shifted quite significantly. The first bird I heard on the patch was a Blackbird; a low darting black shape and that ubiquitous furious squawking – its alarm call. But after an hour or so of walking around the maquis, I became aware of more and different thrushes. The chack-chacking of Fieldfare and occasional ripples of flocked flight from tree to tree that told me these winter migrants were here in large numbers. And then, the Song Thrushes. A bird I rarely see or hear on the patch – rather than the resident songbird that we know and love in the UK, and across much of Europe – these hilly foothills appear to be migrant territory only. Occasionally, the alarm calls took on a different pitch and the darting culprit was browner and more spotted than a female Blackbird. Over time, the thrush jigsaw was pieced together: Tens or even over a hundred Fieldfare and Song Thrushes skulking, waiting on the land – deep in the bushes and trees (still largely hidden in this evergreen utopia), and occasionally, rarely, when the sun shone strongest (stretching the temperature from below freezing to over 20 degrees centigrade in a matter of hours), the Song Thrush sang. The silence pierced by one of the most famous songs of the wild.

My winter patch had other surprises for me. Occasionally the silence was broken by a passing Tit flock.

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit. The flocks foraged in the Aleppo Pines on our hillsides joined by their mountain-loving cousins, Crested Tit. Larger numbers than I have ever seen before on the patch. The sparkling white peaks in the distance were a clue that that these stunning birds had moved down in altitude to find food in pines not frozen solid and not covered in a thick coat of snow.

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European Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

We are still several months away from our Summer migrants joining us again (the Nightingale, the Melodious Warbler, the Whitethroat, the Chiffchaff, the Sub-Alpine Warbler are all hundreds and thousands of miles South on a different continent), but there  are some warblers that stick it out. In fact I was blown away how many bushes would tick and rattle at me with Sardinian Warbler and Blackcap, both here in large numbers.

The bushes and trees of the maquis hold other winter secrets too. Firecrest are everywhere – moving through the Box, Holm Oak, and even navigating the tightly twisted branches and densely-spined leaves of the Kermes Oak. I remain convinced that this little king is the most numerous bird on the patch. Short-toed Treecreeper shuffle up and down the narrow twisted trunks of maquis growth, Wren peek out and occasionally call territorially, as does the Robin, ticking like an old pocket watch and signalling places where the ground has been disturbed.

Roe Deer tracks mosaic the mud, but sometimes the disturbance is more complete. I pushed my way through bars and thorns to be inside a Holm Oak wood and could smell and tell the recent presence of Wild Boar.

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Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and boar-disturbed ground

The winter green (as so much of the maquis is evergreen) was occasionally punctuated by the seemingly unseasonal blossom of Strawberry Tree bell flowers whilst other trees of the same species were still full of fruit.

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Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Its name proving to be a misnomer as my wife and Sister-in-Law happily ate several of the crimson balls: ‘Arbutus unedo‘ or ‘eat once’ as their appealing fruit are supposedly bitter.

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Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

The clear blue skies of the patch are rarely crossed by plane or passing bird – I have never seen a gull, duck, or goose fly over the patch, for example. Occasionally a comet of feather would arch over in a parabola from low to high to disappear, again low, in the undergrowth displaying the stumpy tail of the Woodlark – whose song I long to hear again in the warmer months, but who is now, silent.

Sometimes, too, the great silent blue was brought to life by the tinkling of Goldfinch (I counted a flock of thirty-plus one day) or the odd chup-chup of the Chaffinch. Last winter I added Hawfinch to my patch list. This year the silence was broken more comprehensively by a single male Siskin moving through the tops of the pines – it is the first and only Siskin I have seen on this patch in nine years of regular visits.

Goldfinch and Chaffinch were only beaten in their airborne vocal reliability by the cronking of our resident Ravens.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

During this visit, the most complete shattering of the silence – apart, perhaps, from the distant boom of hunters’ guns – was in the gathering of the largest flock of Raven I have ever seen (in fact it was two flocks totalling some 40 birds).

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An unkindness of Raven

The collective noun from, medieval venery, for Ravens is an ‘unkindness’. I consider this to be unkind in itself. I watched them swirl and court and ‘play’ in such a sociable manner high up on the thermals that I: a) could not believe their attention was really on any ground carrion; or b) simply disagree with the noun imposed on them.

To truly work a patch, it helps to have a clear idea of the shape, size and boundaries of it. With my London patch, I know this well as it is set out in maps and was agreed by others before I moved to the area. In France it is not so clear, partly because I am the only birder working the patch. The ownership of the land is not physically marked and is archaically legally patchwork (no pun intended) in nature. The boundaries are flexed by the distance I walk and were pushed to their limits this trip when I found two new birds for my patch list. I now decree it to be the land surrounding the house stretching in all directions up to the immediate vicinity of surrounding roads and villages (I must admit that this makes it really rather huge in size).

On one walk to a nearby village when the houses were in sight, albeit over 100 metres vertically below our hillside track in elevation, I heard and saw the first Carrion Crows I have recorded on the patch.

On another walk from our land to another village I finally saw a bird that has been the top of my patch wishlist for several years: the Griffon Vulture.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

The enormous bird circled around a hilltop several times before flying high right over our heads and fast off South back towards the Pyrenees. It did all of this without beating its giant wings once and, of course, it did it all in absolute silence.

I was mesmerised but very happy. The tenth raptor tick for this patch for me (dare I hold out hope for Lammergeier and Bonelli’s Eagle? Of course I do – I am an optimistic birder! Black Vulture may be pushing it a bit, but I live in hope) and I still haven’t seen Black kite and Booted Eagle on the patch which are both common in the area and I have seen many times further afield.

In the last two days, the weather has changed and the silence has been shattered by strong winds. Tough birding has also just got even tougher, although my wife and I stood on top of a hill yesterday and looked across the valley at a pair of Red-billed Chough battle expertly (but somewhat less acrobatically than in calmer weather) against the wind whilst hugging the rock escarpments known within the family as ‘Eagle Peak’.

30. That is the number of different species of birds I have counted in the few days we have been out here. That is around half what I would expect to tick off on my patch in London at the same time, but the experiences that come with these birds often make me stand still in awe and silence.