Category Archives: photography

Getting to know the locals

One of the benefits of working the same patch regularly is that, occasionally, you get to know and recognise individual birds. Sometimes this is made easy for us:

Specific locally scarce or rare birds

The recent Red-backed Shrike on Wanstead Flats was the first of its kind locally for 38 years. I am sure there are other juvenile Red-backed Shrike that look very similar to the one we had stay for around 11 days, but nobody in their right mind would think that it was a different bird from one day to the next.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) – yes, I know I have displayed this photo before

Sometimes relatively common passage migrants might stay a day or two. So it was the other day when two quite distinct young Wheatear were found for two days running in the Broomfields.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Colour-ringed birds

I have mentioned Black-headed Gull ‘2LBA’ before. Recently, I have seen it pretty much every time I have visited Jubilee Pond. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the distinct features of the particular bird, but… I don’t need to as it wears its identity pretty clearly on its leg.

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Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) – ‘2LBA’ 

Distinctive individuals

Whilst not wishing to indulge in any species-ist ‘they all look the same’ kind of rhetoric, it is inevitably hard for most of us – even regular and dedicated birders – to get to understand the individual features of birds within one species. However, I am reminded of the late, great, Sir Peter Scott and his painted studies of individual Whooper Swan face markings. But for us mere mortals there seems to be a spectrum from uniquely marked birds through to subtle differences that only close-up and regular study could allow.

At the easy end of that spectrum, you have birds like this rather beautiful, but also ‘manky’, domestic-interbreed Mallard that I have seen on Jubilee and Alexandra ponds.

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Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Somewhat further down the spectrum are birds like this pale 3cy argenteus Herring Gull, where the distinctive eyes, mantle colour, moult, and bill markings have let me identify the same bird on several occasions in the last week as I have had the opportunity to get out most days.

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10 September: Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

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10 September: Same bird in flight showing missing secondaries

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12 September: same bird, same place (facing different direction)

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August 2018: review

Patch

Summary: I made nine patch visits in August (although a couple were for very short periods of time) as Autumn migration really kicked into gear. I recorded 73 species of bird in the month, including eight that were new for the year and one, very special, brand spanking new Patch tick (Red-backed Shrike). I also made one non-patch twitch.

Highlights were:

  • Almost certainly the stand-out bird for the year will be a stunning, long staying Red-backed Shrike found by Nick in Pub Scrub on 28 August. I was lucky enough to have great views of it early one morning.
  • The return of the Willow Warblers with this species appearing in my lists for the first time since May and being spotted on almost half of my patch visits.
  • Yellow-legged Gull making an appearance for the first time on the patch for anyone this year in August with a recurring sub-adult found by Nick by Alex on the 12 August and a self-found juvenile loafing on the pitches on the 25 August.
  • An extraordinarily early returning Wigeon on the Roding on 12 August was almost certainly our earliest Autumn record.
  • Hobby and Peregrine have both clearly bred successfully in the local area and I have had several great views of both falcons.
  • Fantastic August for passage Yellow Wagtail, with a record patch high for me of 14 over on 30 August, and also my first view of them perching locally, with a flock of 8 that briefly perched in a Hawthorn in the Broom fields on 25 August.
  • Traditionally the best month for Spotted Flycatcher, although lower numbers than some years. I got my first on 19 August and a high of four all perched in the same bare tree in Centre Copse on the evening of 29 August.
  • I recorded Whinchat on three Patch visits with a high of five individual birds on 30 August.
  • A few Wheatear have been seen, but I only recorded one, a male, in the ploughed sections of the Broom fields on 28 August.
  • Seeing my first Redstart of the year in the Brick Pits. For three out of the last four years I have seen my first Redstart in the last week of August.
  • Hirundines have been more visible this month, although the breeding Swifts had all left before I got out, so they were not recorded this month. House Martin fed in low double digits around Jubilee in particular, and were accompanied by a Sand Martin (embarrassingly my first and only one for the year) on 25 August, and a few passage Swallow later in the month as well.
  • Flushing the first patch Snipe of the Autumn from the Brooms.

Lowlights were:

  • Missing the confiding Black-tailed Godwit on 4 August on Alex was gutting.
  • I was disappointed to be one of the only regular birders on the patch to miss Pied Flycatcher in August.
  • I was also unsuccessful in finding Garden Warbler or Sedge Warbler which both showed in August.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Getting Stone Curlew on a late evening twitch to Bowers Marsh.
  • Also finding a Blacked-necked Grebe at Bowers Marsh, both on 12 August.

My birding month in five pictures…

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Our long-staying Red-backed Shrike in Pub Scrub

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Juvenile Peregrine, Centre Copse

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Bowers Marsh, Essex

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull, Alex

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Male Wheatear, Broomfields

A late evening twitch: Stone-Curlew

I woke up last Sunday morning intending to right a wrong. Sadly I don’t mean combating a great global injustice. I simply wanted to add a bird to my UK life list.

A Stone-Curlew had been present at RSPB Bowers Marsh at the top of Canvey Island in Essex, about 22 miles due East of my house. But there was no news on the bird sites or social media, so I stayed locally and saw the sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst other things. It was only much later in the day that late news dripped through that the Stone-Curlew was still present. And so I headed out for the 45 minute drive in the evening, somewhat racing against the fading light.

The reserve is accessible 24/7 although the car park was closed. I had the words of a well-known birder ringing in my ears:

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When I arrived, the small lane was littered with literally hundreds of the tiny nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters and a couple of cars were parked up as people conducted a car sale (I didn’t stop to ask them why they needed to be doing that down a deserted lane). I started the walk not knowing how far it would be until the Stone-Curlew would be visible. In fact, I had no idea where the bird might be as I had never visited the reserve before. The closest thing I had to directions were a tweet from someone saying the bird was visible from the ‘two benches’ area.

The empty car park was not quite empty as a father taught his young son how to ride a mini-motorbike. I walked on.

I stopped briefly at the slightly sorry-looking reserve noticeboard and map which confirmed that the reserve was big. super! I walked on.

The skies opened up and were huge with a few Swift still circling (all of our local ones seem to have long-gone) and a few Swallow trickled through. I walked on.

Sign-posts pointed to different bits of the reserve in different directions with mile+ distances attached. I was running out of time and needed some ‘gen’ or some luck quickly. I walked on.

Most of the wetland parts of the reserve were obscured/protected by high hedges. I walked on.

I saw some people in the distance: a chance for local knowledge/help. I walked on.

They turned out to be a couple out for an evening hack on horses. I asked them if they had seen any birders, to which they replied that they had, but some time ago and some distance away. Oh! Thanks. I walked on.

The light seemed to bleed out of the sky faster than ever. I walked on.

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RSPB Bowers Marsh at Dusk

The wind-pumps add to the sense of desolation and slightly foreign feel of the bleak landscape – it felt more like the US Midwest than Essex. I walked on.

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Bowers Marsh, Essex (not Kansas)

And then I stopped.

There were two benches, diagonally opposed and overlooking the water stretching out back towards the car park from whence I had come. I set my ‘scope up tall and stood on one of the benches to get the best possible view. I scanned the parts of the wetland and grassland that looked most promising  for the Stone Curlew, and just as the light was getting so gloomy that it was beginning to get silly, a distant bird scuttled into the view of my scope. My first Stone-Curlew in the UK. Another rather embarrassing gap filled on a list.

 

It was an odd sight. Not the bird, although Stone-Curlew is a strange large-eyed bird, of course, but me in the landscape. A man stood on a bench looking through a telescope at a distant bird on a vast reserve all alone apart from the midges and the weather. I strained the technical capabilities of my iPhone to photograph the Stone-Curlew through my scope.

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Eurasian Stone-Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)

The output was rubbish, of course, but it just about counts as a record shot of a bird I last saw when I spooked a running gaggle (I don’t know what the collective noun is for Stone Curlew) from the hiding place in a parched field in a remote part of Ibiza. The remoteness was even more intense in Essex, but the landscapes could hardly be more different.

As I watched the Stone-Curlew a tiny Yellow Wagtail pottered past in front of it. I was also pleased to see a Black-necked Grebe (possibly two as one disappeared around a corner and another materialised somewhere else suspiciously far away) in mid-moult. I am not sure these birds had been recorded at the site on that weekend by others so a reasonably nice find, perhaps. I photographed the bird in the murky light and remembered the last time had been watching these birds, in full black and gold breeding uniform, like science fiction fascists, in Japan.

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Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

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And here is a photo I took of them in full breeding plumage in Japan earlier this year

Now you see me, now you don’t

One of the great things about birding the same patch is you get to build up a sense (or even a monitored trend for those of us who keep spreadsheets) for which birds you see over time. Migration is, of course, a major factor in birds appearing and then disappearing. Our Swift flocks have now gone. They were present on every visit to the Patch from 22 April until the end of July. I missed last weekend as was away so can’t pinpoint their departure. But it never ceases to amaze me how fleeting their breeding stopovers seem to be. One day the the sky seems full of scything screamers and then, like Keyser Söze, they are gone.

Willow Warbler is a species which seems to have a tentative perch-hold on the Patch. I got four records of Willow Warbler in the Spring. The first was probably just a passage pass-through, and then three weekends in a row in April/May when I had one or two birds singing. Almost certainly an attempt at making a viable territory, but not, perhaps, successful. Now we get a second bite at the cherry with the returning birds and I got a bright bird yesterday in Wanstead Park.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

But with other birds, their presence or otherwise seems more arbitrary or subject to annual cycles not connected to migration. It has been a good year for Little Owl on Wanstead Flats. We think two pairs have bred successfully. I looked in their ‘usual places’ yesterday but couldn’t find them, only to hear one calling loudly from a different copse as a dog walker went past it. It stayed put long enough for me to take its picture.

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Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Nuthatch, and even Treecreeper, have also been spotted more frequently this year than in others. But other birds seem not to be doing as well. I’ve seen very few Grey Wagtail this year, for example. Whilst Little Grebe seem to be doing better than I remember before, and have bred on Alexandra Lake, Great Crested Grebe have seemed almost entirely absent; I saw my first for this Spring and Summer on the Shoulder-of-Mutton pond in Wanstead Park on Saturday.

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Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

2016 and 2017 were good years for Wigeon on the Patch. We saw up to a patch-record-breaking 61 birds in 2016. But there were very few sightings of this duck early this year with it not even being on my patch year list. So I certainly didn’t expect to see one today on 12 August! But Nick found one, on the River Roding, and I photographed her as she is the earliest returning Wigeon we have a record of on the Patch.

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Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Other birds are scarce visitors but you come to expect them at certain points in the year. So it is with Yellow-legged Gull. Today three of us were treated with lovely views of a 4th calendar year bird that Nick actually found yesterday by Alexandra Lake. This was a patch year tick for all of us involved.

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Meanwhile, other birds never seem far away. It is a rare day on the Patch not to hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, or to see one sail over your head at some point. However, despite them being common, I don’t often get to watch them close-up, so yesterday I was pleased to get close views of two males; an adult and a juvenile by Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. In my slightly sentimental state as an expectant dad, I like to imagine that this was father and son bonding on the Patch. Something I hope to be able to do in due course.

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Adult male (Picus viridis) aka ‘Daddy’

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Juvenile male aka “junior”

Out of the ashes?

The largest grass fire ever seen in the capital” – BBC News

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Last Sunday, 15th July 2018, more than 220 firefighters battled for hours and continued dampening down for days. By my measurements, around 320,000 square metres of the patch has been destroyed, that is over a fifth of the entire area of Wanstead Flats and could house well over 50 football pitches. The sad irony of the football pitch comparison, of course, is that all the football pitches are fine. The mown grass was barely affected. It was the biodiverse areas of grassland, scrub, and woodland which has been devastated.

The background is that we are suffering the worst drought in London’s recorded history. The parched grass was tinder dry and ready to react to a carelessly discarded cigarette, a mishandled disposable barbecue, or the match of a malicious arsonist. We will probably never know.

Yesterday I went out for the first time to see the damage. It was harder to see than I had imagined. My patch has been devastated and that is how I felt too.

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The charred remains of non-combustible litter and blackened, skeletal trees stand in an ashen desert. No bird song. No butterflies. Nothing.

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There were some small mercies. Whilst the patches of brooms have been almost completely destroyed, some of the grassland just south of this area has survived. I found a single Meadow Pipit song-flighting there, and a couple more chased each other amongst the remaining grass. I also heard a short burst of grounded Skylark song. A small family of Lesser Whitethroat also emerged out of bushes that have been cut back and cauterised by the fire. So hope remains.

If we had lost our Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, we may never have got them back. Only time will tell whether this fire has taken a material toll on their fragile hold of this habitat.

Wanstead Park was welcome relief from the damaged Flats.

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Aspen and Purple Loosestrife in the Ornamental Waters

Water levels are low in the drought and several ponds have had water pumped into them to stop them becoming parched dust-bowls. Little Egret have been taking advantage of this and fishing in the shallow waters. Yesterday I counted 14 of them; a joint record with three years ago, although now beaten today by my colleagues who have clocked up 17 across the Patch.

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12 of the 14 Little Egret yesterday on the Ornamentals

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7 Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Juvenile Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)

In the Old Sewage works there has been more fire damage. The manure heap by the stables was set alight. But then about 100 metres away there was another, and then another patch of grass blackened to nothing. Probably only around 500 square metres, but suspiciously all separate whilst along the edges of one path. Almost as if someone walked along setting fire to the grass as they went.

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A small patch of fire damage by the path and paddock fence in the Old Sewage Works

Apparently some people have had to be told to stop barbecuing next to the fire-damaged parts of the Wanstead Flats. I cannot help draw a comparison and see these ignorant al fresco diners with their disposable bbq next to the blackened husk of a once-lush habitat as a microcosm for humanity and our planet: blissfully continuing with whatever the fuck we want to do as we burn and grind our world into ashes and dust.

“I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky” – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes

 

 

Running after a frit

The patch butterfly list is a small, but well formed, thing. Only 29 species of butterfly have been found locally (half the UK total). There has been bad news over the years (the disappearance of Wall) and good news – namely in recent findings and growth in numbers of hairstreaks.

My personal patch list has a couple of omissions. Despite working hard to get White-letter Hairstreak, it is still missing, as is the migrant Clouded Yellow. However, my list did grow by one when I became only the second or third person to see Silver-washed Fritillary in Wanstead Park.

Christian M. found the first one ever for our local records just a few days ago and so I was a man on a mission yesterday. A local naturalist, Jack D., and I had tantalising glimpses of a fast flying fritillary whilst we lurked in likely areas. But, kindly, Jack came to call me back after I had moved on when he re-found it settled. I ran faster than I have for some time.

And there, flapping around some brambles and nettles, was the large, orange beauty. I did not have my camera ready and so only managed a distant shot with my iPhone which only barely counts as a record shot.

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Underside showing pale streaks of Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

Luckily, while I was sprinting back (it probably looked more like laboured jogging to the observer, but it felt like a scene from Chariots of Fire to me) Jack had managed to capture some better photos with his camera. I duly stole some back-of-camera shots off him for my records and to remind me of the good, but brief, views we had of this graceful giant.

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My iPhone shot of photo courtesy of Jack Delabye

Considering the first ever Purple Hairstreak was only recorded for the site in the last few years, it is now doing extremely well and can be found in large numbers around the many oaks we have. Let’s hope S-W Frit and others soon follow its success.

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Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus)

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani

“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” – Led Zeppelin, Immigrant

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Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) – at Jigokudani, Nagano prefecture

There is a place called Hell. A sheer and narrow rocky valley high in the Japanese mountains. It is freezing cold and under snow for several months a year, and yet jets of super-heated steam shoot out of crevices and pools of boiling hot mud bubble malignantly. Jigokudani (‘Hell Valley’) is appropriately named. It is also home to the most famous group of wild macaques.

Japanese Macaque is the most northerly existing species of wild primates, other than humans, in the world, and so also the only primate to regularly inhabit and flourish in the snow.

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The hot spring pool at Jigokudani

Jigokudani is remote and the landscape is inhospitable. Few people would visit the small number of dwellings high in the hills except a few locals taking advantage of the ‘Onsen’  (naturally geo-thermically heated baths) up here. However, something happened in the early 1960’s which was to change that and turn Hell Valley into a major tourist attraction.

During a period of particularly fierce snowy weather, a female macaque and her baby descended from the icy rocks and climbed into the warm water of the man-made Onsen in the tiny mountainous hamlet. This species of monkey exhibits high levels of intelligence and, soon after, large numbers of the group would follow this example and warm up in the baths.

In 1970 a photograph of this behaviour graced the front cover of LIFE Magazine. A new pool was constructed a few hundred metres away to capture the hot spring water and give the monkeys their own place to bathe. Wildlife documentaries and hundreds of thousands of visitors followed. I was one of them.

Although we visited in early April, it was unseasonably warm and so most of the snow had melted. The monkeys roam around the mountain slopes as wild macaques should but their diet is supplemented by grain from the local reserve management which ensures people get a reasonable view of them.

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Watching this large group was utterly fascinating. The social dynamics are highly complex. There is a strict hierarchy from the alpha male (the visitor centre has photos of each ‘boss’ from 1964 to the present) to the lowliest youngster and this was often painfully clear when a juvenile would commit some undecipherable infraction against an angry senior.

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A male exerting his authority

Great howls and screams would sometimes precede slapping, biting and shoving and the series of photos below surely depicts something along the lines of protest, distress, resignation, and submission of a young macaque moments after it was harshly disciplined by the large male above.

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But there were also wonderful moments of tenderness and affection displayed through grooming or parental care.

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Whilst order and discipline is meted out largely by the male hierarchy, the organisation is actually matrilineal in design – females largely staying faithful to the group whilst most males will be expelled at some stage or are nomadic between troops. The females choose who to mate with and when to mate (apparently not always with the alpha male), and shape most of the organisational decisions. A fascinating observation I have read about since my visit is that there are very high levels of homosexuality in this species with females, in particular, likely to show bisexual preferences as the norm rather than the exception.

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Being around such a sociable troop of highly intelligent primates, it is difficult not to relate and anthropomorphise. I defy you not to find this toddler cute…

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I watched this poor little thing picking grains up off the floor for a while and then – in response to something another macaque may have done – it suddenly started bouncing up and down looking like it was dancing while playing an invisible trumpet*.

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Three images stitched together here of our ‘dancing baby’ monkey

It was a shame not to have seen them in the snow, from the perspective of my photographs, but just amazing to get to watch wild primates so closely.

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*None of the behaviour here is trained or induced for human observation. This troop has become used to being watched over the last fifty years and largely ignore the bald primates who mill about a bit every day whilst dropping lots of grain.