Category Archives: photography

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

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February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

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

Highlights were:

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

Lowlights were:

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

Highlights from elsewhere were:

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

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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

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

That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

Birding and a baby

Last Saturday started as so many others for me. My alarm went off in the dark and I slipped out of bed as quietly as possible to head out birding. On this occasion, however, my wife was already awake. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, calmly, “my waters have broken and I am having contractions”. My birding trip was to be postponed it seemed.

My wife and I proceeded to have quite a nice day together. Throughout most of the day the contractions were mild enough to allow an almost normal day to be had. At one point, my overdue wife had enough to do that I actually did nip out birding for about an hour. I realise I may be publicly self-nominating myself for ‘worst husband of the year’ award. It was certainly not something I expected to be doing on the day my wife went into labour, but things had progressed so gently, that I was given a clear green light.

Almost exactly a year-on from seeing it in 3rd winter plumage, the Snaresbrook Caspian Gull has returned now as a 4cy bird.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

Here was the same bird on the same location, albeit a little colder given the ice, a year ago.

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Same bird as a 3cy bird taken in December 2017

On the way home I stopped off at Leyton Tip as a local birder had tipped (pun intended) me off that it was a good place to see Herring Gull in the nominate ‘argentatus’ subspecies rather than all the pale-mantled ‘argenteus’ birds we are used to in London. The gen was good, although the views were terrible, so I grabbed a record shot and raced home to be with my wife.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argentatus)

That evening we went for a nice walk, the contractions picked up in pace and intensity and, by 05:32 the next morning, my son, Harry, was born at home weighing in at 9lbs. And so life begins and so my life changes, but this is primarily a blog about birding, so…

Today (with my son now a week old), I nipped out again as my wife’s friend came over to help. Another local lake (Connaught Water) and four Goosander were actually a year tick for me, and first for me locally.

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Drake Goosander (Mergus merganser)

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Female Goosander

Two fuzzy firsts and the call of a Water Pipit

My weekend’s birding began pretty poorly with very little of interest showing on the Patch. So, hearing about Black-throated Diver – found by Lol Bodini – on one of the Walthamstow Reservoirs gave me more than enough excuse to try and get a London tick after lunch. This really was an excellent find by Lol and we are always willing to put aside our friendly patch rivalry when rarities like this appear – the first in East London for a few years.

When I arrived at Walthamstow I was lucky to bump into Lol (not ‘literally’ as we actually stood next to each other at the urinals in the visitor centre, so ‘bumping’ would have been problematic) who gave me the gen. With a bird like a diver on a reservoir, the thought didn’t really enter my mind that I might miss it, so I didn’t even rush.

Lockwood Reservoir is a big body of water, but much smaller than the giants like William Girling and King George V further north in the sequence.

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Lockwood Reservoir, Walthamstow

I was a little perturbed to find a birder who had been scanning for ten minutes with no success. I walked up along the east shore scanning the other shoreline in case it was tucked up against the side. I met two more local regulars coming the other way who passed on some more bad news; they had been watching the Diver (they even showed me some great back-of-camera shots) but then it had dived and hadn’t been seen again. That either meant it had drowned (pretty unlikely for a … err… diver), or that it had come  up a little way off and flown before they had noticed. Dipping a diver that had been seen only a few minutes before now seemed likely and galling.

But then my knight in shining armour appeared in the form of Stuart Fisher (wearing more of a tracksuit than a suit of armour, to be honest), zooming around the reservoir also looking for the recently departed Diver. We met Lol again as well and agreed that our best, but slim chance was to check Banbury Reservoir up the road. The only glitch being that Banbury is locked and inaccessible. But this is where the local knowledge of Stu Fisher was absolutely golden. He knew a spot on a housing estate on a hill where a sliver of the the reservoir was visible. Slim chance, but this was our only chink of hope.

We schlepped up there with me carrying my scope and peered through gaps in blocks of flats to look at the water in the background. By absolute luck, there it was – a whopping great diver with white flashes on its sides. Stu spotted it first and I was almost incredulous, and then elated. I felt a bit creepy and intrusive standing in front of people’s houses and staring through a telescope through gaps between buildings.

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Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica)

On Sunday I went to Rainham Marshes to try and see the Bittern that has occasionally been showing to people viewing from the Ken Barrett hide. As I sat in the hide I chuckled to myself about my patch colleague’s experience in here the week before, humorously (and rather controversially) recalled on his blog.

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View from the Ken Barrett hide

The Bittern didn’t show, and nor did much else of interest from the hide so I couldn’t bring myself to follow Jono’s lead and sit in there for hours waiting.

The sea-wall of the Thames was much more productive. Almost as soon as I arrived in the morning, I spotted the Black-bellied Brent Goose floating down (and later back up) the Thames (here comes another distant phone-scope record shot).

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Black-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla bernicla)

Two days, and two London firsts under my belt. But the sea wall had more to offer. Good numbers of Dunlin and Avocet occasionally took flight and whirled around the sky when something disturbed them.

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24 Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

By something, I mean like the Marsh Harrier which came in off the Thames and swept low right passed me (sadly while my camera was packed away). Or like the Short-eared Owl which pounced on something right on the water’s edge before slowly flapping away low along the shoreline.

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

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There were plenty of Meadow Pipit, as usual at Rainham, but I also saw and heard Rock Pipit moving up and down the shore. And occasionally a slightly different-sounding single call was heard (as I was able to hear both calls close by at roughly the same time, this is the first time I have been able to distinguish their calls in the field) and eventually a Water Pipit landed a little way off in front of me and fed in the grass – its white tail streaks showing clearly as it flew in and with a much paler breast than the Rock Pipits which also occasionally showed well.

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Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)

Finally, I also managed to get a year tick in the form of a single Ringed Plover on the Aveley Bay shoreline. I say finally, but it was actually one of the first birds I set eyes on when I arrived, but I never promised to tell my stories chronologically.

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Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

And because I can’t bring myself to sign-off a blog post with a terrible phone-scoped record shot, here was my view for much of the day:

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Looking down-river at Rainham

One patch tick, but four firsts

This morning started well when I heard a couple of Redpoll flying over and they perched in Motorcycle Wood. In fact there were a flock of six that circled a few times but kept coming back to feed in the birches. They were Lesser Redpoll in old terms – small and noticeably brown tinged, but since they have been lumped together with Mealy Redpoll, just called plane old (Common) Redpoll. The photo below may be really poor but it is the first time I have managed to photograph this species on the Patch (they are normally just migrating flyovers).

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(Common) Redpoll (Acanthis flammea cabaret)

There didn’t seem to be much else to see on the Flats (although a big flock of Fieldfare also perched briefly in Motorcycle Wood), so I walked on and in to the Park.

Calling Treecreeper attracted me to scan inside the wooded strip just north of Heronry pond and there was a pair chasing each other around. If it had not been for their calls, I would never have seen them (still a scarce bird on the Patch, although decreasingly so, it seems), and, more significantly, I would have missed the small black and white bird fly from one trunk to another. My patch-first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and the first one seen locally since January 2016, and apparently the first female seen for several years. This former breeder is now very rarely seen and for a few minutes I had good views of it feeding from tree to tree. My 110th patch bird for the year and my 128th patch bird overall.

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Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor)

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The two other ‘firsts’ my blog post title refers to were a Blackcap in November…

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Female Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

… and then the first time I have seen a Buzzard perching on the Patch. By perching, I mean hidden up deep in wooded cover on the Ornamental Waters in Wanstead Park. I spotted it as I saw a large brown shape swoop in low into the trees. Much as I might dream about it being a female Goshawk, it was, of course, a Buzzard that obviously fancies itself as a Sparrowhawk.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

If the Where’s Wally game is getting boring, here is the same photo again, but cropped heavily.

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Hopefully you can see the Buzzard this time

These birds, and the glorious bright Autumn sunshine, made today a pleasure to be out on the Patch.

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I may not be birding the Patch quite so frequently soon as my wife is expecting our first child very soon indeed.

October 2018: Review

Patch Summary:

I made 8 patch visits during October and recorded a total of 70 species of birds. After a disappointing September, the quality in October shone through with some real star birds: I added four birds to my patch year list and three of those were brand new patch lifers (the most successful month for patch life ticks for a few years for me).

Highlights were:

  • Nick’s Rustic Bunting – a true patch ‘mega’ that stayed for a few days (17 October to 21 October), occasionally showing exceptionally well.
  • Tony’s Barn Owl may have been outshone as it showed on a day (20 October)  when the Rustic Bunting was still an attraction, but it was almost as unexpected, locally. A true patch mega.
  • Completing the set as third patch life tick was a flyover Yellowhammer on a day (27 October) when I saw it fly back and forth (or as separate birds) three times in a morning. As Richard and I discussed, it is extraordinary to think that I had seen Rustic Bunting and Ortolan Bunting on the Patch before Yellowhammer.
  • My first prolonged views of Snipe on the Patch with a pair of birds feeding regularly on Shoulder of Mutton and probably more views of them flushed from the Brooms than any other single month.
  • I broke the record with largest patch Teal count with 57 birds, mostly on Heronry, on 6 October, although this was then broken again a few days later.
  • More records were broken with early and late migrants in October. Several of us had Redwing over on 6 October (the patch earliest for returning birds) and a Redstart on 7 October was only a day off our latest, and was also a highlight for me as only the second one for me this year.
  • Having missed out entirely on Ring Ouzel in 2017 and missed several Spring birds, I was pleased to find a first winter bird in the Enclosure on 13 October and an adult male flew low over my head in the Brooms on 20 October.
  • I have enjoyed the October visible migration with thousands of Wood Pigeon seen, hundreds of winter thrushes and plenty of finches including Chaffinch, Brambling, and Common Redpoll.
  • Getting a garden tick of Lapwing with a flock of 29 on 28 October which I watched fly in over the Western Flats and then fly south from my garden.

Lowlights were:

  • Hearing a single Yellow-browed Warbler call by Alex but then questioning my sanity when it didn’t call again, and so not ticking it (this followed chasing after a tantalisingly small, silent warbler on the day Tony had YBW). No year tick there.
  • Not really birding anywhere other than the Patch and one trip to Rainham. I like to mix it up occasionally.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Finally getting Cattle Egret on my London list. I stood in the rain at Rainham on 6 October and watched one hop up and down off a cow’s back. Excellent!
  • I also watched a Common Scoter float down the Thames on the same day; a year tick for me.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Rustic Bunting – surely one of the best birds ever found on the Patch

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Who are all these people on our Patch? The Rustic Bunting twitch

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Snipe on settled on the ground is an unusual patch sighting

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Just occasionally a crow will let you take its portrait

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Nick Croft – the bird-finder general – legend!