Category Archives: Travel

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…

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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

Face to face: notes from Rutland

I dropped in at Rutland Water today on the drive back from Nottingham. The newish wetland reserve on the western shore is impressive, but I was woefully under-equipped: I tottered around the mud in my brogues and strained my eyes across the vast expanses of water with my bins cursing my lack of spotting-scope. But it turns out that the piece of kit I was to miss most was my camera.

I spent a fair whack of time studying ‘Lagoon 4’ from the three hides. A guy with a scope helpfully pointed out a red head Smew on the far side following a raft of Wigeon. With my binoculars I could just about make out the shape and colouration of the distant speck. In turn I pointed out a Peregrine perched on the man-made Osprey nest in the middle of the water – he hadn’t bothered to study the Osprey nest for obvious reasons (I believe the likely nest occupier is currently in Senegal). As we both watched the Peregrine, it decided to perform.

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Lagoon 4, Rutland Water

The falcon swooped down to a post poking up out of the water and perched right in front of pair of Egyptian Goose. I have never seen anything quite like it: a face-off between the ultimate feathered killing machine – all eyes and razor-sharp bill, but still and unfazed, and an absolutely furious goose spitting and hissing with its face level with the raptor.

I walked around to the other side of the lagoon to see if I could get a better view of the Smew from another hide. I opened the wooden window flap and almost put it straight back down again in disbelief. There, directly in front of me, was the stunning adult drake, pristine in white and only 20-30 feet away from me. A little further away was his entourage of three red heads. If I had my camera and 400mm lens, I could have posted some amazing shots. Instead, I simply had my iPhone…

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Drake Smew (Mergellus albellus)

The fuzzy pixelated image betrays the sharp, clean, contrasted colours and lines of this gorgeous duck, but seeing one up so close was a wonderful experience.

Later, I drove down to the Southern shore of the 12.6 square kilometres of water and counted tens of gorgeous Goldeneye, a pair of Goosander, and distant view of a Great White Egret absolutely still on the shoreline – all three were new birds for my UK year list complementing the Smew, Oystercatcher, Ringed PloverChiffchaff, and a passing flock of Siskin earlier on the reserve. Without a scope, I didn’t really have a chance of finding the Great Northern Diver that has been seen, and I suspected that an interesting grebe or two would have been found somewhere out on the water. But, even poorly prepared and shod, I still had a great visit.

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South Arm, Rutland Water

The tragedy of Colchis

All good classicists know the ancient stories of Colchis. The land where Jason and his argonauts went in search for a certain fleece. It was also the kingdom with a tragic princess, Medea, who – of course – famously avenged Jason’s betrayal by murdering her children (as you do).

Colchis was an ancient kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea where we find present day Georgia. One of the ancient towns was Phasis. It was around here where Western Europeans first came across a bird that they named after the location: Phasianus colchicus, or Common Pheasant. One of the most hunted birds in history. Millions are bred, over-fed, and shot every year in the UK. Some escape the gun, the cars, and the predators and eke out a feral existence across the country.

In the past decade only three or four have made it to the patch. In the past few days another bird made it here and has been patrolling the new paddock in the Old Sewage Works. It became the 112th bird I have seen on the patch:

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Common Pheasant (Phasianus cochicus)

It is the most exciting thing I have seen on the patch so far this year (as in: I haven’t seen much exciting; not, that this is the best of the best). A bird that is undoubtedly handsome, but that … honestly… I simply wish did not exist on these isles at all. One day I would love to see them where they belong, in Asia, and maybe on their westernmost territories, the land of an ancient tragic woman.

Since I have little else to say about my patch birding recently, I will jabber on for a few more lines about another tragic woman of history.

One day I stepped outside the patch boundaries and explored the smaller of our two local giant urban graveyards, Manor Park cemetery. To be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. It is mostly filled with densely packed, and rather gaudy, gravestones and not a lot else. My mood was raised by a small flock of Redwing, but the highlight was a small corner that is not mown to within an inch of its life and appears to have been allowed to rewild.

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The best bit of Manor Park Cemetery

The gravestones are embraced by bramble, holly, and ivy whilst hundreds of saplings have shot up out of the ground (my guess all in the last decade or two) in that race for light that trees-of-the-clearing are designed for.

Somewhere beneath the ground lie the remains of Annie Chapman – a tragic woman in many respects: A poor, alcoholic, TB-ridden prostitute who became the second known victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the East-end slums of Whitechapel. Her family, quite respectable despite the impoverishment that had befallen their daughter, raced her horrifically mutilated body out of East London to a small cemetery in an Essex village. Little did they know that East London would swell and grow and claim Annie back again for itself over time.

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.

Amsterdam

So, Amsterdam, where have you been all my life?

I have actually been to Amsterdam a few times before, but only changing flights at Schiphol so I had never actually seen the famous city. I rectified that last weekend with my wife and in-laws (my sister in-law is lucky enough to live in this amazing city).

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It is, of course, the city that never should have been. A city reclaimed from the sea, with a web of famous canals below sea level while the city itself is propped up by pillars.

The famous canals curve round to feed (or, more accurately, be fed by) the Amstel and the mighty IJ – defined by some as  a river and others a lake, whilst it looks like a narrow strip of sea to me from the map. The Amstel not only gave its name to the beer, but to the city itself.

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The Amstel

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Amsterdam is also famous for bicycles (millions of these!), and art…

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.

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The Rijksmuseum

The Vermeer’s are exquisite , the Rembrandt’s are sublime, and there are some other hidden gems in this huge gallery that drew my attention but wouldn’t, perhaps, be featured in any highlight guide of the museum.

From the titillating (this painting of a young woman removing her stocking and exposing her thighs was seen as so outrageously erotic when first unveiled, it was partially painted over)…

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Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1655-1660

… to the spiritual. I was captivated by this chap (below). His name is Ajita. He is one of the legendary Arhats or lohans, a Buddhist sage tasked with preserving the doctrines until the time when the teachings can be understood. He is listening carefully and serenely to a sutra being recited. In an age where we struggle to listen, I think many of us could learn from Ajita.

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A lohan, anonymous. China, c.1200-1400

I drooled over the museum’s library…

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Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…

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Drake Pintail, Rochus van Veen. 1682

Amsterdam is, of course, famous for one or two other things as well. All I will say on those matters is that if the salesperson in a coffeeshop tells you that a ‘space-cake’ is for sharing between two, don’t eat a whole one!

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Coffeeshop, Amsterdam

Scottish sojourn: Part II (Wildwood)

First came the birches…

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Silver Birch (Betula pendula) wood in Highlands

…and then came the pines…

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Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Rothiemurcus

… and then the oak…

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Mixed woodland dominated by Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), Taynish NNR, Argyll

This is a crude description of the order with which our island became re-forested after the last Ice Age eight or nine thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the trees advanced. In the high mountains of Scotland, the pines were kings. Just about everywhere else, our lands were carpeted with oak dominated woodland. And so the Wildwood became.

To say that we have deforested our ‘green and pleasant land’ would be an understatement of spectacular proportions. Only tiny fragments of ancient forest remain, and nowhere has it been untouched. Nowhere.

But… perhaps the closest we can experience to this original wild woodland is in Scotland. The temperate oak rainforests of the West coast, and the pockets of Scots Pine that remain in the Highlands. I recently visited both.

Taynish and the temperate rainforests

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Taynish NNR

The Taynish peninsula is the westernmost-but-one protuberance on the larger (famously phallic) Kintyre peninsula on the South West coast of Scotland. The main woodland area is dominated by two ridges (one of which can be seen above) and a marshy valley in between (also seen above). Water surrounds. The lochs are fished by Osprey (which I saw there) and Otters (which I didn’t – although I had seen them on Mull the day before).

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Shores of Taynish and Loch Sween

This is one of the few areas believed to have been continuously covered in woodland since the last Ice Age with soil pollen records showing only a dip in the Iron Age when man felled some of the trees and again in the 18th-early 20th Century when the woodland was heavily, albeit largely sustainably, coppiced. For the last fifty-plus years the woodland has been allowed to gently revert, edging closer (even if never reaching) its original pristine state.

The woodland is called temperate rainforest because of the volume of rainfall (well over three times the amount of rain that falls in London), the relatively mild climate (as a sheltered peninsula in the South of Scotland), and the number of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts etc) and epiphytes (that grow on other plants also including moss, lichen, and ferns). It actually reminded me more of Cloud forest (that I have seen in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) rather than rainforest. It is magnificent; I am not sure I have been anywhere in the UK that feels so alive.

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Oak with ferns, mosses and lichens growing on it

The understorey is rich and varied. The diversity of fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, liverworts, slime moulds, ferns, orchids, and other higher plants was just staggering.

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And while I was there, I watched both Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher amongst the tits, treecreepers, thrushes and other common woodland birds.

When out on the heathland and flower-rich carefully grazed areas, I walked amongst more Meadow Pipits than I could count, as well as Lesser Redpoll, Corn Bunting, and Skylark. Apparently Spotted Crake have been recorded here, but they did not show for me. And things get even better when it comes to the invertebrates, with a particularly broad range of butterflies and moths: It is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary, although I was there too late in the year to see them, but was happy with a life first Scotch Argus:

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Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops)

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Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

I visited other temperate rainforests along the coast while I was there, and can say with some conviction that it is my favourite British habitat. I was at Taynish on a Saturday morning and did not see a single other person until I returned to my car. I cannot recommend a visit to this area highly enough.

The Scots Pine woods

Unless you have seen it, it is difficult to emphasise the contrast between the denuded highlands, or the lifeless timber plantations with the wonderfully rich habitats of true Scots Pine wood. Like the ancient oak woodland, these are tiny remnants of the once mighty Caledonian forest that cloaked much of Scotland until a few hundred years ago.

Unlike the semi-natural linoleum of dead needles that cover the floor of dark spruce plantations, the naturally-growing pine forests are carpeted with an array of ferns, juniper, grasses, and mosses. The understorey is teeming with life.

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Forest stream in Rothiemurcus

I came across huge Wood Ant nests, garish fungi, and some rather more familiar life-forms up above the forest floor:

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Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

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Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

But I didn’t go up to Scotland to see Coal Tit. I had other quarry in mind and I got one of my pine forest ticks at the beautiful setting of Loch an Eilein.

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Loch an Eilein

High up in the pines I heard, and then saw, a bird I am used to seeing in the Pyrenees, but had never come across in Britain; the wonderful Crested Tit.

But above and beyond ticking off birds, was an opportunity for me to reconnect with something we have all but entirely lost: our great forests, the wildwood, and quite simply… the wild. My emotional state reflected the woodland I visited; I felt alive.

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Fallow Deer doe (Dama dama)