Category Archives: philosophy

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.

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The woodpecker in the cherry blossom

Why am I a birder?

There are many reasons. Here is one…

Twenty miles South East of Mt Fuji, the world famous volcano appears to be floating in the sky like some fantasy in the imagination of the great animator, Hayao Miyazaki. This other-wordly image is not something I can share with a photograph as the ghostly white shape seems to disappear like a mirage if you photograph it through the haze of distance as if the mountain gods simply prohibit images.

Ohiradai is a village in the hills served by a small mountain train.

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Across the tracks and down a narrow, steep path, there is a small, abandoned, wooden house with an old cherry tree growing next to it.

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I was stood watching a small flock of Japanese White-eye, when a tiny woodpecker sailed over my head onto the mossy trunk of the cherry tree: Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

The diminutive dendro, or petit piciform (depending on where you place it, taxonomically) proceeded to forage for insects meticulously right in front of me. As you can see in the photo of the scene, above, the tree was in heavy shade so this was not really an opportunity for good photos. But, for a several minutes, early on a Spring morning I just watched this stunning little bird feeding in this shady pocket of picturesque Japan.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

After a little while, my reverie was broken as the JPW wisely flew off on the arrival of one of the international scourges of small garden birds.

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker is not in any way scarce in Japan and I was to see the species on several other occasions through my trip, but this was my first sighting and the moments I shared with this bird were truly special, albeit unremarkable for the bird one would imagine. That is birding at its best for me; a bird, and a unique moment I shall never forget.

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

The mute’s story: swan song

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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!

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Drake Gadwall (Anas strepera)

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Gull on black

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;*

Well, I wouldn’t describe the ice as ‘stone’-like exactly, more like a brittle glaze in these climate-warmed times. A wafer-like shelf that could never carry the weight of a man (certainly not a man of my current girth), but, while it lasted, has served as a temporary gull magnet.

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Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook

In the fading light, the diminished promontory of ice blurred the horizons between water in its liquid and solid states, and also between the ‘elements’ (archaic, not chemic) of water and air. As I stood on a pavement (yes, pavement) with the drizzle distorting my binocular’d view, everything took on a one-dimensional blackness. A void only punctuated by the white and grey of gulls with the odd smudge from a brownish juvenile.

One of the punctuation marks in the photo above is an Eastern visitor, a 3rd-winter Caspian Gull. First spotted by Stuart Fisher on ‘Eagle Pond’, and now much photographed by the London gull specialists, including our very own Patch Cowboy. I found out after the fact that the crisp shots taken by these guys – showing every mid-moult feather in all its glory – owe something to cheap bread being used as a lure. All’s fair in birding, love, and war I suppose.

When I saw the Casp, it was not yawning down bread, but rather gnawing on a bone on top of the ice on the other side of the lake. The grainy, cropped, resulting pictures attest… but it is still the closest I have seen this species to my Patch, having missed a younger bird last year.

The Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook is a frontier on a neighbouring patch to ours; the Leyton Flats.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

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This Casp is not the only sub-adult gull I have snapped recently. My micro-patch water gauge yielded a new tick for me the other week in the brief spell of snow that we had; a Herring Gull (now the fourth gull to have graced the post for me, found in the same order as how common they are on the Patch: BHG, Common, LBBG, Herring…).

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2nd-Winter Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

With the snow and drizzle, the seemingly constant water level on Jubilee Pond has finally started to creep up.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

*In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti