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Summer waders

Yesterday a lot of London birders were waiting with anticipation to hear if London’s first Marsh Sandpiper in 34 years was still going to be at Rainham Marshes after it was spotted the evening before. It was. Howard Vaughan kindly opened the reserve two hours early, but by the time the first of us got there a couple of reserve volunteers who had been checking ahead of the crowd informed us that the bird had flown high and south towards the Thames with a couple of Redshank just minutes beforehand.

In pathetic fallacy, the sky seemed to reflect my disappointed mood. Bob and I walked back towards the car via the sea-wall on the off-chance we could pick it up on the Thames shoreline. Luckily we were only side-swiped by the wall of rain and wind that swept across the reserve accompanied by thunder and lightning.


Even the odd ping of Bearded Tit didn’t really lighten my mood. By the time we reached the sea-wall, I was further dismayed when I saw hundreds of godwit and other waders take-off across the river. There was a mini Wanstead birding reunion as Bob, Rob, Tony and I scanned the shore. Some Greenshank took flight and Bob and Tony noticed that one of the four seemed much smaller than the others. Shortly afterwards we heard that the Marsh Sandpiper was back on Aveley Pools – and that it had come in with three Greenshank!

I think I must’ve come close to breaking the trans-reserve racewalking record, encumbered as I was with scope, camera, bins etc, but this time I didn’t miss it. As Jono, who we met there as well, remarked, ‘all’s well that ends well’. William Shakespeare couldn’t have put it better! I was thrilled! Lots of the guys needed Marsh Sandpiper for London. For me, it was a full fat life tick.


Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis)


Another record shot with Common Sandpiper to the right for size comparison

As I stood and soaked in views of a bird species last seen in London when I was three, I overheard other birders mention that Red-necked Phalarope had been found 50 kilometres down-river at Oare Marshes – one of my favourite south-eastern reserves. I am not really a twitcher, but I had the time, I had tasted success, and I like Oare, so I was soon zipping down the M2. By zipping, I mean at times crawling, and others being diverted through industrial parks, but it was worth it.


Oare with one of the big godwit flocks

It was obviously wonderful to connect quickly with the Red-necked Phalarope in the record shot below sandwiched between the Mallard and the Black-tailed Godwit and with Dunlin behind. We all know that phalarope are small, but being reminded that they are barely bigger than a Dunlin was more of a surprise than it should have been.


Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus)


Oare delivered more than just the phalarope with five Curlew Sandpiper and five Little Stint probably taking the podium places, but the full cast of waders yesterday included:  Avocet, Little Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Redshank (I seem to have missed Spotted Redshank, but hear they were showing), Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Snipe, Red-necked Phalarope, and Ruff. 18 species of wader, many of which were in summer plumage, is not bad for a summer’s day (and I could probably have picked up one or two more if I had bothered to check the sea shore).


Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)


Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)


Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) left of Dunlin between gulls


Little Stint (Calidris minuta)


Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

The Hawthorn and the Two Towers: Save Swanscombe Marshes

Just outside the M25, the Thames has a final sharply-angled kink before spilling into the sea. On the South bank, that kink manifests as a peninsula that is one of the wildest of the remaining flood plains – the North Kent Marshes as we know them. A range of habitats exist on this peninsula; collectively known as Swanscombe Marshes.

A mixture of scrub and marshland stretch out before reaching the mudflats of the Thames. A long shadow is cast by the enormous – almost 100m tall – chimney of Britannia Refined Metals – who, I believe, kindly support the habitat (an excellent example of corporate citizenship which can be contrasted with the example I refer to at the end of this post).

chimney v2


Neatly maintained paths cut through dense and well developed thickets of Hawthorn.


Clearings, ditches, meadows, and ponds break up the scrub… and wildlife seems to proliferate.


Green-veined White (Pieris napi)

Having followed the maze-like hawthorn walks, I found one reed-filled clearing that was alive with the complex buzzing chatter of Sedge Warbler – my first for the year.

The reed beds dotted throughout Botany Marsh frequently exploded or buzzed with the song of Cetti’s Warbler and Reed Bunting.


Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Further to the West, a much greater expanse of reeds known as Black Duck Marsh can be found.


Black Duck Marsh

I spent some time here, walking slowly around the perimeter and catching glimpses of two more reed specialists that are firsts for 2017: Reed Warbler and Bearded Tit.


Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Above the reeds, a pair of Marsh Harrier were patrolling.


Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

On the edges I found a Stonechat, and then ticked off Common Whitethroat for the year, where I found some of the males actually performing song flights – albeit somewhat more tentatively than Skylark which were also present.


European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)


Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) in song-flight

Earlyish returning swallows swooped along the contours of the land. Higher up, Buzzards soared and Kestrels hovered. But the stars of the sky for me were a pair of Raven which flew back and forth, perched, called, and generally did raveny things.

Intermission/digression Although I am used to Raven at my other patch in France, the range of calls I heard (Collins Bird guide describes: “Shows spring feelings with various rather odd calls”), made me re-think some large corvids I had seen without bins a couple weeks earlier near my house. The un-raven-like calls and general scarcity made me doubt my eyes which otherwise were sure the size and shape were right for Raven – I am now comfortable revising my doubts and am sure I home-ticked Raven! End of digression


Common Raven (Corvus corax)

The huge refinery chimney is impressive, but pales into insignificance next to the pylons straddling the Thames from the Kentish peninsula to Essex on the other side. They are, indeed, the tallest pylons in the UK, towering close to a dizzying 200m (more than 650 feet!) over the Thames.


400kV Thames Crossing Pylon

The scrub and marsh eventually give way to the mud and water of the estuarine Thames…


Black-headed Gull bobbed in the water like so many other bits of plastic and litter, and were joined by Shelduck, Mallard, a pair of Gadwall, and even a surprisingly late-staying Wigeon.


Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) with pair of Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Whilst I failed to hear Nightingale – heard the day before – or tick off an early tern or two, in a couple of hours I saw well over fifty species of bird and was impressed with the maturity of the habitats. But all of this is under threat. For such important ecosystems, in fragile and important flood plains, supporting so many threatened species (there are nationally scarce bees and spiders breeding here, aside from the birds), I find it truly astounding that it could all be destroyed to make way for a theme park. If like me, you think this sounds like a ludicrous idea, please sign the petition here and maybe think about making a visit (see website here).


Having seen very little of avian interest on Saturday, I walked out onto the patch with a slightly dented set of expectations.

I caught up again with our recently-arrived Willow Warbler in the part of the SSSI we call the ‘boggy bit’.


Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

It was in good voice and singing loudly from the top of the branches in several trees, moving around restlessly to find new perches to announce to the world (or the Phyllosc world at least) that it was here. Then it stopped. I presumed it had flown to a new perch or was taking some time off singing to eat some insects. I walked around the SSSI and on the other side of the Motorcycle Copse picked it up again, singing about 150m to the North East in the new growth birches. I walked back to the Copse in between the two singing perches and then heard both; confirming we have at least two males in the SSSI.

By the time I reached the Brooms, the morning was heating up. As I write this, it is 25 degrees centigrade (77 Fahrenheit!) in the shade in East London in early April (that deserves two exclamation marks)!!

Eyes to the sky, but still no hirundines yet. Eyes to the ground and there’s a bird on a log. It soon ditched its log, but it was clear we had a Wheatear.


Female Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

By the time I was joined by other birders (Bob and Richard), it was showing nicely in one of our vis mig trees.


Wheatear in tree

With little else seemingly around, I walked home. I found one more pleasant surprise in the sky though, Embarrassingly my first Buzzard on the patch this year. Sharing the same experience with Richard.

I jumped in the car to Vange Marsh to pick up the pair of Black-winged Stilt that have been there for a day or two. The sun was behind them, but by Vange standards, they were showing well.


Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Then, a cool beer and the garden beckoned. Not bad for an April Sunday.

“The cold never bothered me anyway”*


Frozen Flats

During my recent stay in France, we experienced a gradual fall in temperature which turned into a full-on deadly cold snap across much of Europe. That cold has now followed me home and the photo above was taken in -7 degrees centigrade (coldest day of the year so far) which, for London, is almost exceptionally cold.

Getting out on the patch before dawn yesterday on such a cold day meant that, for a magical hour or so, I was almost entirely alone. The patch was quiet. In fact, it appeared that it was more than just the temperature that was frozen – the landscape almost seemed to be preserved in aspic; time itself seemed to slow.


Wanstead Flats’ pitches without the footballers and dog-walkers

I don’t think there is any more beautiful time than the hour(s) around dawn; the bareness of winter at this time is particularly special.

The denuded trees of the planted copses on the Flats renders the term ‘copse’ almost ridiculous – more a sparse circle of trees than a wood – but their fractal branches seem to reach up to the sky like beseeching arms and spindly searching fingers.


East Copse on Wanstead Flats

I too was searching. I spent time looking and listening out for our Little Owl in our copses but saw little else other than the ludicrously tropical sight of our Ring-necked Parakeet flocks peering out at the frozen scene and squawking their fury at the cold.

My new year listing has got off to a slow and steady start despite the lack of owls.

The often-disappointing location of Cat & Dog pond and surrounding scrub has been a temporary winter home, again, to the occasionally-obliging Stonechat:


European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

The same pond has also been host to five Reed Bunting (possibly a patch record for me?):


Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Meanwhile, some of the bigger ponds have been expanses of ice with much of the waterfowl gathered around tiny pockets of open water. One such pocket is on the Shoulder of Mutton with our one remaining Wigeon flitting back and forth repeatedly between the tiny pool of near-freezing water and the frozen grass.


Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Frozen ponds are a great way to watch and photograph wildlife even if only Common Gull:


Common Gull (Larus canus)

It should be no surprise that a frozen pond can support the weight of gulls, but when it can also support the weight of a slightly overweight (*ahem*) man, you know how cold it truly is.


But it was on my walk back that I got my biggest boon for the year on the patch so far. I heard the distinctive chatter before I saw the bird, flying South alone in an expanse of frozen blue: a Redpoll (Lesser probably, Mealy… possibly) and our first for the patch of 2017.

*You will be reassured to know that my wife is not a nine year-old girl, and nor do we have a nine year-old daughter (or any age daughter or child for that matter), but through my wife I have more than a passing awareness of the Disney film, Frozen. For the uninitiated, my title is taken from the film’s hit song, ‘Let it Go’.

On birding and blogging

This is a response to this, this and this. If my post is to make any real sense, it might be sensible to click the links and read them first. Off you pop!

The author of those blog posts, The Wanstead Birder (who occasionally goes by the name of Jonathan or Jono), is a fellow birder on my local patch. He can actually say ‘his’ patch with some authority as he was highly responsible for re-energising and organising the birding activity on the Wanstead  Flats and Park. He is also one of my favourite bloggers and takes an okay photo too.

So, you can imagine I was somewhat alarmed when I read that Jono might be throwing in the towel on the whole blogging malarkey. I even pleaded with him (on a well known 140-character-limit social media site that rhymes with ‘titter’) to think of his fans and keep on putting fingers-to-keyboard.

As you will have read, Jono gives a number of reasons why he feels that blogging may be a dying medium and why he may quit. I can personally relate to several of them; most notably that I find it very difficult to find the time to blog.

But, I wanted to approach the issue from a slightly different angle, and set out why I think blogging and birding go hand-in-hand so well and, at the risk of being grandiloquent or hyperbolic, I think are actually an important combination.

A tribe called ‘birder’

Jono also recently lent me an excellent book…


Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker describes what makes a ‘birder’ and why we do what we do through a number of anecdotes and stories. Amongst the stories, he relates the role of the trusty notepad to a birder. Going out of fashion now in this digital age, the notepad used to be an essential item of kit for a birder, second only to binoculars: listing what you have seen and, in the days before common ownership of super-zoom lens cameras, noting down observations to be able to accurately record the sighting.

Now, spreadsheets hold the lists and twitter can be updated with what you see real-time. For more detailed observations, as well as capturing the experience in full (everything from the scenery, weather, the trials involved, and the emotion), blogs serve a wonderful purpose. Birding is about more than lists of birds, and a blog fills the space of those truly detailed notebooks and diaries with the added benefit of being able to be read widely by others as well.

A skill I have always been highly envious of is the ability to draw. I adore the sight of a notebook with detailed sketches of birds, or even just bits of birds adorned with pencilled notes about the relative length of primaries or the particular shape/size/colour of a supercilium. This is just not something I could do; my sketches would be so comically imprecise and childish to render them useless. Occasionally some of my record shot photographs are not much better (exhibit ‘a’ below taken today as an example), but photos do fill a gap and, I think bring a blog post alive.


This work of art is titled: ‘You wouldn’t catch Jono posting a pic like this’, or ‘Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)’, or ‘my 99th patch bird for the year, and patch tick’

Now imagine you can combine good photography, some semblance of wit in your storytelling, having enough variety of activity to record (maybe patch birding supplemented by plenty of interesting trips further afield, or even abroad), throw in some maps, some lists, some trivia or history, some personalities (etc etc) and you have a blog that works. It captures and records memories as well as any notebook, it allows others to share in the adventure and sometimes compare similar (or even the same) experiences – as with our recent find of a Yellow-browed Warbler told on three separate blogs here, here, and here. So, if you can imagine all of those elements done well, then you may well be imagining Jono’s blog. Which is why I was concerned that he may be stopping, and why I hope he will reconsider.

Every birder has a different journey to make: are we twitchers, or diligent patch birders, or photographers, or conservationists, educationalists, ornithologists, ringers (hopefully not stringers), call recordists, travellers, artists, or do we just like a nice walk involving watching a few birds along the way? I am not at all sure yet what my journey will look like, what combination of this wonderful hobby I intend to make my own, but I am certainly enjoying the process of finding out. I share my attempts, my triumphs, my failures, my experiences, and my musings on this blog. This is the closest thing in my life to a form of creative expression.

And that is an important point that I know Jono has acknowledged: we write primarily for ourselves. This is my notebook. If others read and get any form of pleasure or utility from what I have written, then I see that as a bonus. At its best, as with our patch multi-author blog wansteadbirding, it can be a genuinely useful resource. Today Nick and I saw a Swallow fly over. I was immediately able to check when the latest sightings of swallows were seen over the past few years on the patch by bringing up his blog on my phone. We are all aware how the internet has been the greatest enterprise in mass information sharing ever attempted in history: blogs play a small, specialist, and personal part in that enterprise.

Just why?

Wildlife blogs are the medium through which the wild and the digital come together; a gateway to share and preserve what one has experienced outdoors.

Wanstead Flats and Park is our patch. It pales next to the parts of the world or even spots in the UK that are truly renowned for wildlife. It will not be the subject of a programme like ‘Springwatch’, or an Attenborough documentary, it will not have a dedicated periodical or newspaper column written about it, but it is recorded through the efforts of few people through some blogs that anyone can read. It is a green space in inner London that faces threats and challenges, but holds on to being one of the best birding sites in one of the best cities in the world. If it wasn’t for the encyclopaedic listing of life recorded on the patch found here, or the conservation efforts of a local group captured here, or the progress of the local birders found here, as well as the occasional offerings from the weekend contributors like Jono, Tony, and – if you will excuse my immodesty – me,… then, this place would not be known or understood anywhere near as well. Through social media, websites, and blogs we can let the world (or as much as might want to look) know what is happening and we can be, perhaps, better armed when threats to this habitat or others occur.

I am well aware that I didn’t answer Jono’s essay question, and I am also well aware of the many factors which make it difficult to keep a blog going. But I also worry that, at the moment, without the regularity of reporting through a blog (its great benefit, or curse, over a simple website), then places like Wanstead Flats could be far more easily forgotten or ignored. Maybe one day, some new medium, making an online blog seem as quaint as a paper notebook, will render sites like this one irrelevant, but until that day comes, I hope people like Jono (who really show people like me how it should be done) keep taking some time to tell the world what they are seeing and experiencing.

Scottish sojourn: Part I (Raptor)

Scotland is beautiful.


I actually can’t quite remember where this is

This statement is so uncontroversial as to render it almost irrelevant. But it was driving almost 1000 miles around Isle of Mull, the South West coast, and the Cairngorms recently that it made this truism a truth again for me.

The lochs and the hills. So famous. And home to some spectacular wildlife, including some of the rarest and most impressive birds of prey in the United Kingdom.

Three of us travelled to Mull in search of eagles. Actually we may have been searching for different things, but I was definitely searching for eagles. White-tailed Eagle in particular. I had never seen one of these re-introduced giants before.

Despite there being two specially monitored breeding sites for tourists to see the eagles, the chicks have now fledged and are often away from the nest sites. And so it was when we visited. But we did have three sightings of these ‘flying barn doors’ all around the spectacular sea loch, Loch na Keal…


Loch na Keal, Mull

On our first day we secured views of an adult and a juvenile on the hillside overlooking the loch. But on our second day, we were phenomenally lucky. We sat eating on the North East shore when an Eagle came straight towards us across the water. At first it resembled a Golden Eagle, but better views proved it to be a juvenile White-tailed- one of this year’s chicks. It was just an awesome being to behold. The largest bird of prey in the UK, and the fourth largest eagle in the world.

Juvenile White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

We didn’t get as close to Golden Eagle, but they were there – sometimes just tiny specks soaring over the ridges, occasionally perching. Even when not seen, there is a sense of presence from these mountain gods looking down from their olympian heights at everything beneath them.


Glen More, Mull

Buzzard are everywhere on Mull, helping to put context on the scale of the eagles. There is also another raptor I was searching for on Mull. A bird I know only from France, and from stories. A bird facing almost certain extinction in England due to horrific persecution from some criminally managed grouse estates. The ‘sky dancer’, a bird I have identified as a grey ghost. The Hen Harrier. We watched this male hunting over the moorland at one of the highest road-accessed points on the island, but were also lucky enough to see two ring-tails as well on  separate occasions…


Record shot of Male Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Back on the mainland, I went to see the Osprey breeding site at Loch Garten (a rare occasion where I can show you a protected bird on a nest without breaking the law). Meet ‘Rowan’ the fledgling:


Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

But I was also lucky enough to see this species twice more, including over the lochs around the ancient oak rain-forests (more on them in a later post) of the West coast:


My experiences with these raptors were personal moments of some profundity to me. Each of the species above has experienced persecution. In the case of White-tailed Eagle that persecution has led to UK extinction, eventual reintroduction and now a slow recovery. In the case of the Hen Harrier the persecution continues and extinction gets closer. In this sad context, small victories are important like the petition to ban the sham of a country sport, driven grouse shooting, (note I am not necessarily against the hunting of grouse, just this particularly environmentally destructive practice) passing 100,000 signatures yesterday. Please do click here to sign up if you live in the UK: Sign here

Birding the Yucatan: Part I

Disclaimer: If you are looking for a standard trip report, this multi-part meander may not be for you, although you could zip through the text focusing in on the species in bold, and the photos – I will also give a few location details in later sections. 

Introduction and an excuse

The Yucatan Peninsula is the Southern claw of the crab of land that stretches around the Gulf of Mexico (the Northern claw is Florida) – or that is how I have always looked at it on a map.

Tropical, lush, and archaeologically rich, with hundreds of miles of beaches and coral reefs (second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size). Little wonder it attracts vast numbers of tourists; mostly crowded together in holiday towns like Cancun and Playa del Carmen or in one of the many huge gated resorts where they roll from the all-you-can-eat buffet to the sun lounger and back again, seemingly oblivious to Mexico that is happening all around them. If my tone appears to be sneering, I should add that for almost a week of my two weeks in the Yucatan, I stayed in one of those resorts and can certainly see some of the appeal.

We were there for a wedding, we did touristy things, and partied a few times like my 35 year-old body can barely manage anymore. But I also attempted to do some birding.


Magnificent Frigate Bird (Fregata magnificens) – rarely out of sight on the coast

I say “attempt”, because I am a little embarrassed by my species haul (only 87). This is partly down to the fact that it was not a birding holiday and so I was often doing other things, but also because I failed to be out early enough (due to a combination of: not planning ahead, driving too far and so arriving too late for the best birds (it was often over 40 degrees centigrade), and the fact that going to bed at 7am is not conducive to getting up at… err… 6am to go birding (if you know what I mean). I also did all of the birding alone and without a guide, although I realise that is nothing to brag about in this day and age.

But, excuses aside, there were some birds that were almost impossible to miss…

The Ubiquitous

The first bird I saw, soon after stepping off the plane was Tropical Mockingbird – a life tick for me (its range skirting many of the countries I have visited before) that seemed to rarely be out of eye-line or ear-shot.


Adult Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) with young

If any bird could compete with the above in terms of common presence and volume of voice, then it was surely the Great-tailed Grackle. A bird I remember well from Costa Rica and the southern states of the USA where these jack-of-all-trade opportunists have massively expanded their range; they are brazen and omnipresent even in the urban centres.


Male Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) gaping in the stifling heat at Chichen Itza

While on the subject of scavengers, it was also difficult to raise your eyes to the skies and not see an American Black Vulture (almost half the size of its Eurasian namesake) or Turkey Vulture (maybe someone can explain to me why some Americans call this vulture a Buzzard?) soaring on the thermals or cruising over the treetops sniffing out carrion.


American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)


Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

As with Costa Rica, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Tropical Kingbird were present in almost every location we visited, but I was disappointed not to add Boat-billed Flycatcher to my list.


Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis texensis)

I didn’t see many species of dove, but those I did see were common flavours nearly everywhere I went: White-winged Dove (these guys are everywhere), the introduced Collared Dove (that I am well familiar with back in the UK), Ruddy Ground Dove (one of my favourite miniature doves), Feral Pigeon, and Common Ground Dove [listed in approximate declining order of commonality].


White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica mearnsi)


Ruddy Ground Dove (Columbina talpacoti)

Once these common birds had been ticked off the list, many others were somewhat harder to find, but they shall be the stars of my next instalments.

To be continued…