Category Archives: wildlife

The mute’s story: swan song


Jubilee Pond, Wanstead Flats

I seem to be particularly time poor at the moment. Life is full. But dawn, on Sunday, gave me an hour on the Patch; just enough time to fulfil two duties: read the Jubilee Pond water gauge (74cm in case you were wondering); and do the BTO Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count on the same pond.

In the stillness of a Winter’s early morning, the water was at its most viscous density and the ducks just… shone in the morning light!


Drake Gadwall (Anas strepera)


Hen Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

We are still at peak winter swan numbers, with 19 Mute Swan on this relatively small pond. The main breeding pairs will likely soon expel the younger and inferior birds. Courting and territorial-type behaviour has already started with head and neck dances to their own strange primal music of growls, whistles, clicks, and hisses.


Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

One of the cobs is darvic ringed. Ringed by an East Anglian group, Orange 4CVO was somewhat less well-travelled than I might have hoped. It was ringed just up the road – on Hollow Ponds – in October of last year. It will be good to see if this is one of the successful breeders this year.


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


Watching Gulls… badly

I have been watching our patch gulls quite closely recently. Some of my patch colleagues would see this as a sign of weakness or desperation, but I have actually been quite enjoying it. Partly, this is because there is so much more that can be relatively easily learned just working the Patch, and partly because I am aware there are some guys who come in from off the Patch every now and again and seem to contribute disproportionately to the interesting gull finds that we have (more on them later).

In fact, more on them now, as Jamie P and Dante S had spotted an untimely juvenile Common Gull on the Patch the other day. A day when I too had been out and about but failed to spot anything so interesting. So I went back out this weekend determined to find this bird. I failed. There were plenty, probably 100+, first winter birds, but no juveniles that I could find.


1st winter Common Gull (Larus canus)

I scanned the large gulls in case there was anything else more interesting in amongst them. There wasn’t. One gull that stood out was this young Herring Gull.


Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

It really puzzled me. Look how pale it is and how worn the moult is on the coverts and tertials. But the moult was nowhere near developed enough on the scapulars for a 2nd winter, so I assumed it was a 1st winter bird that was weirdly pale and worn. Error! Luckily a better birder than me pointed out that this is simply a somewhat-retarded 2nd winter bird. It seems so obvious now!


An actual 1st winter Herring Gull

There are other reasons to scan gulls, of course. Ringed gull recoveries can yield interesting histories, and a great time to see rings on gulls is when our ponds are iced over. Our winter resident ‘2LBA’ Black-headed Gull was skating about on Jubilee Pond.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I have photographed this bird on at least five separate occasions now over the last year and it has been around for almost a year longer than that; appearing as a first winter bird in March 2016 having been ringed as a chick (pullus) in June 2015 in Fishers Green only ten miles North of the Patch as the gull flies.

I have bothered to record six colour-ringed gulls on the Patch in the three and a bit years I’ve been birding/living here. The longest distance traveller so far was Green ‘J8M4’, a Common Gull I saw in September last year who was ringed six hundred miles North East of the Patch in Rogaland, Norway.

Aside from ‘2LBA’, yesterday, I also clocked Blue ‘JMP’ on ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pond, an eight-and-a-half year-old Lesser Black-backed Gull ringed in a tip in Gloucester 100 miles West-North-West of the Patch back in May 2010 just as David Cameron was walking into 10 Downing Street for the first time. Gosh – that seems like a long time ago!


Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

There is one more ringed gull I want to mention. Not a gull with a leg ring, but rather a Ring-billed Gull, the American vagrant that I last saw on a beach in Mexico. The last time one was found in London was nine years ago, I believe! The last time that was… until today! The outstanding young birder, Dante Shepherd (mentioned above), found one at Thames Barrier Park, just five miles South as the gull flies. It is rather longer in the car, but I jumped in, nonetheless, as soon as I heard the news.

In what reminded me of the run-around the Bonaparte’s Gull gave me last year, as I was pulling up at the park, WhatsApp informed me that the gull had just flown East. Jamie and Dante kindly pointed me in the direction of a very distant flock of mixed gulls down-river.

I dutifully scanned through as many as I could, and saw birds (that plural should tell you how I was clutching at straws) that looked possible, but, the truth was, they were simply too far away for me to get enough on them.


The white smear on the mud is where the Ring-billed Gull might have been

For a short few minutes, the bright golden light of early evening shone on the flock like a sign from the Great Gull in the sky, and I stood peering through my scope as snow flakes fell on me.

Hopefully the Ring-billed Gull will stay around for a bit. Maybe it will follow its closely related Common Gulls and come up to Wanstead – which would be a Patch first. We can but dream… of gulls.


Thames Barrier sunset at low tide


Webster’s Land and the Forbidden Triangle

I am an explorer at heart. Disappearing off alone and finding new places is a joy. Sometimes it is more than a joy; it is a necessity.

So when I read about a place only a short walk from the furthest edge of the Patch called “Webster’s Land”, my interest was piqued. My fellow Wren Group member and wildlife surveyor extraordinaire, Paul Ferris, mentions this place on his website.

I walked down the path between the River Roding and the City of London Cemetery, eventually losing the Roding to the Ilford golf course and picking up its tiny tributary, the Alders Brook instead.


The Alders Brook

I left what I consider* to be the end of the Patch by walking through a concrete and brick tunnel underneath the railway track (between Manor Park and Ilford stations). I won’t pretend there wasn’t a little trepidation as I read the writing on the wall.


Apocalypse now? Or light at the end of the tunnel

If the other side of the tunnel looks pleasant, that is because it is the Patch. I turned around to take that photograph for effect, but the Ilford side of the tunnel is somewhat less welcoming… Although the blue-painted concrete walls did match the sky that day.


The concrete continued. After crossing a road or two I wandered through the streets of various housing estates with some bright colour schemes – presumably added to soften the brutalism of bare brick and concrete.



I know many disagree with me but I personally find something aesthetically satisfying about the municipal and social architecture of the 50s-70s. Although even I wondered whether more inviting street names could have been found than ‘Warrior Square’?  The military theme continued when I found ‘Jack Cornwell Road’.

Digression alert: As any military historian would tell you, Jack Cornwell – a local boy from Leyton – was only 16 years old when he fought in the horrific sea battle of Jutland in World War One. His ship, HMS Chester, came under enormous fire and the entire crew that manned his gun were killed except him. He was found manning the huge gun alone, badly (in fact mortally) wounded, surrounded by the bodies of his fellow crewmen, exposed to further fire but refusing to leave his post and just “quietly awaiting orders” as the citation reads. He died of his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his astonishing bravery. He is buried locally and – so I discovered – also had a street named after him. Here ends digression.

Eventually I found the long, narrow strip of grassland that Paul Ferris had written about: Webster’s Land. I had Paul’s photo in my mind (inset in the photo below) which was a mistake. Paul had visited at summer when the grass had been allowed to grow into a pleasant meadow. The bare trees and mown grass was not quite so appealing when I arrived on a cold winter’s day:


Webster’s Land looking down towards Ilford Little Park

I don’t quite know what I expected to find there, but whatever it was, I didn’t find it. I turned around and left.

As I walked back to the Patch, I reflected on what I had seen and what I had been expecting. With the exception of a few local dog walkers and joggers, very few people visit Webster’s Land. Very little is known or written about it. Although Paul explains that it was left to the people of Manor Park by another military figure, a Lt. Colonel Webster. This thin strip of land is sandwiched between a housing estate and the North Circular road. A line of cherry trees hides the busy road. A buffer of common land.

I thought more about this buffer as I walked along an even narrower strip of common ground fenced in between the cemetery and railway line.

Roding railway walk v2

It is a long walk. A necessary evil for those of us needing to connect up two parts of the Patch and can be a destination for few other than drunks and junkies (in case you detect a sneering tone of condescension, I assure you that actually I am grateful for such places and offer no judgement whatsoever on those of us who feel we need to escape ‘civilisation’ or just ‘life’ in body and mind).

At the end of the narrow path, we arrive at another buffer zone. Another no-man’s land in an overpopulated city. A large, bleak place with little human purpose. Not as wild or natural as the Flats, not neat enough to be a ‘park’. A place so insignificant it doesn’t even have a name, although some might consider it to be a continuation of the Flats with just another bi-secting road. We call it the Forbidden Triangle as it seems to offer little prospect of interesting birds. [Edit: The person who initially set out the delineation of the Patch has informed me that it is actually called the Forbidden Triangle, because we can’t count any birds we might see there for the Patch – luckily there seems to be very little there.]

All of the places mentioned in this post could do with being allowed to get a little wilder in my mind, but frankly, I am just glad that these spaces exist at all. If you want to read more about such places, or their slightly wilder counterparts, I can highly recommend Rob Cowen’s excellent book, Common Ground.


The ‘Forbidden Triangle’

Forbidden triangle

1: ‘Forbidden Triangle’ 2: the ‘long narrow walk’ 3: Webster’s Land

 *Others consider that the Patch ends before this point, but I feel that would abandon this small strip of land to a limbo state, so I include it.

The man with the golden eye

I have already written about today’s antics on the team Patch blog over here. But, I can’t neglect my beloved iago80 followers, so here is a different spin on the same subject.

I find something special about our over-wintering residents. Sure, the Spring and Autumn passage migrants are the sexy ones that we all want to see, but the birds that stick it out on the Patch have a special affinity with those of us who also stick it out through the grim, cold, wet months.

Today I felt this particularly. It rained all day. Not hard, but a permeating drizzle that made me colder than the temperature should have allowed, and put a constant smear on my binoculars making it very difficult to identify anything through them. But I still managed to appreciate a higher-than-normal number of Reed Bunting, I saw both over-wintering Stonechat, and I finally saw the small exultation of our resident Skylark for the first time this year. The five or six birds that stick it out through the winter and will hopefully breed again in the Spring are almost literally clinging on to this last remaining central urban site by their finger tips.


Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

And so I went home cold, wet, muddy, but not dissatisfied. I was getting changed when I heard the news that Nick had found a female Goldeneye on the river Roding behind the Ornamental ponds in Wanstead Park. Nick hasn’t be able to get out on the Patch as much this year but he struck gold by finding this winter duck on one of the least watched parts of the Patch.

The ease at which such a bird could have gone unseen and unrecorded is not lost on me. I was abroad the last time Goldeneye showed on the Patch over two years ago and so was thrilled to be able to connect today despite the poor light for photos. This beautiful and patch-scarce (8th sighting on record) winter visitor has become my 119th bird for the Patch. I am very grateful that our bird-finder-in-chief was out today. I wouldn’t want to inflate his ego or embarrass him too much, but if anyone deserves the title ‘Man with the Golden Eye’ on our Patch, it is surely Nick Croft.


Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)


Little Bunting: a crucial ten seconds in the cold rain

I woke up early this morning and dashed to the window to peak through the blinds. Just as a child on Christmas morning might be disappointed not to see a sprinkling of snow imprinted with fresh sled tracks and reindeer hoof-prints on the roofs, I was disappointed to see rain.

I checked Twitter and typed the words ‘Little Bunting‘ into the search bar and saw someone complaining that Walthamstow Wetlands didn’t open for another hour and a half.

I went back to bed.

I hadn’t slept well. Maybe it was because of the anxiety of whether I would life tick Little Bunting in London today (as one had been found the day before). Or maybe it was because of the huge quantity of caffeine I had imbibed last night to get me through Friday evening work and meetings. *shrugs*

By the time I was up and ready, it was late. I gathered my bins and camera and dashed out of the house at lightning waddle. I jumped into the bird-mobile and sped off … nowhere!

The car slouched forward sickeningly slowly like it was wading through treacle or like it had a flat tire… which it did. A neighbouring street recently suffered an attack where every single car on one side of the road had their tires slashed. Perhaps the perpetrator then came to my road to do one more car for good measure before going home for cocoa and bed, their good work done for the day.

Despite being very close, Leytonstone and Walthamstow are trickily connected (by which I mean Walthamstow has the audacity not to be on the Central Line). I didn’t want to waste precious moments running for buses in the rain, so I called an Uber. No, I am not proud.

Before long I was at the Walthamstow Wetlands (my first time there since they opened it as a new reserve) speed-walking past a very cold Tony who told me that the Little Bunting had just been seen once in the last two hours. I dutifully lined up with the green twitch brigade behind yellow and black tape as if we were witnessing a biohazard spillage.


I stood in the cold and wet for well over an hour. Every now and then buntings would pop up from the weeds and perch in a tree to survey the line of green, wet, almost-bald apes lined up watching them. None of them were the Little Bunting …until one of them was! Hurrah!

A problem with twitches is that people get a bit bored and lazy. There are so many of you standing and watching a bush that you might as well chat to your neighbours and not really watch as someone else will be definitely be keeping an eye out… won’t they? I had been quite diligent and was watching carefully – only partially listening to people arguing about London and Essex boundaries to my left – and saw a small flurry of activity as a bird flew up from the weeds into a bush. A well known listing birder called it before I had even focused my bins: “Little Bunting!” I didn’t have my scope with me but I stared at the perched bird briefly through my rain-misted bins. It looked rather like I have come to learn a Little Bunting should look like, although the angle with which I was observing was rather acute and the head features weren’t as clear as I would have liked, but reddish cheeks and dark crown were in my mind. This was exacerbated by the distance and rain, but tens of people were looking right at it with me, so, safety in numbers, no?

I then scrambled to get my camera out. The strap had somehow got tangled around the lens, making it difficult to extend it out as a manual zoom. I cursed silently. Eventually I managed to take a couple of shots without having time to adjust any settings. The bird had annoyingly now positioned itself so its head – containing all the crucial identification features – was obscured.


Obscured bunting

Then – and I realise this is a rather long story – something odd happened.  The bird flew horizontally out of the back of the bush but simultaneously managed to appear vertically and immediately above where it had just been. I didn’t let a minor issue, like the fact that it had broken multiple laws of physics, put me off taking lots of pictures of it in its new clearer position – head showing well and everything.  I was delighted! A life tick and photos to prove it! My delight subsided somewhat when I realised that the new bird I was photographing was not a Little Bunting with the ability to warp time and space, but rather a different bird altogether; a Reed Bunting.


Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

A confused minute or two followed as people looked at a female (in photo above) and then at a male Reed Bunting perched up whilst the Little Bunting was nowhere to be seen. There was some discussion about the LB and backs of cameras were studied. People seemed happy.

Soon after Mr B and then Mr L arrived (both of who have written their own accounts of the day on their blogs which you should also read if this one hasn’t sent you to sleep). We stood for a bit and I picked up two more year ticks: Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. As I had seen the Little Bunting, I left them to warm up and go and see the Scaup on Reservoir Number 4 (the area clearly ran out of  names for their reservoirs as they have so many). It showed well in the rain as it bobbed about with a little raft of Tufted Duck.


Scaup (Aythya marila) with Tufted Duck to the right

Jono and Lee B had great scope views of the Little Bunting whilst I was off looking at the Scaup (no, I’m not jealous at all). Jono and I then got public transport home together, happy with a good couple of hours birding.

But. Something was wrong. I searched back in my memory for the views I had of the Little Bunting. My first ever of the species in the field. They weren’t very good. In those crucial seconds when it was perched, I wasted time getting my camera out, and taking terrible photos. Photos which – as you can see above – don’t help me very much. In fact, photos which make the bird look suspiciously chestnutty in colour, almost as if it might have been a Reed Bunting. So what am I left with to support my life tick? Inconclusive photos, inconclusive memories of relatively poor views, but clear memories of other people calling it as a Little Bunting.

Sadly that is just not good enough. No life tick for me. The last Little Bunting seen in London was just over a decade ago. Maybe I’ll have to wait another decade to see one, or… maybe… I’ll try again tomorrow.


Reservoir 4 – where the Scaup was

UPDATE: To find out how I got on the following day, click here.

A Silhouette and a Siskin

2018 has started well from a patch-birding perspective.

Okay, so I have missed the two best birds so far: Mediterranean Gull and Great White Egret (missed because of that minor inconvenience that prevents me from spending every daylight hour in the wild: work).

Okay, so one of my New Year’s resolutions to focus my birding efforts on matters other than Patch Year Listing has not been hugely successful. In fact I am scoring higher than  ever before.

But, I have some great patch birding moments and already have a full fat patch life tick (more on that shortly) under my belt.

Yesterday began in my beloved Bush Wood. Again, a Firecrest came across my path before I had even seen my year-first Goldcrest – which came shortly afterwards. A failed attempt to see perching Lesser Redpoll  – which have been frequenting the SSSI – sent me back to Bush Wood with Nick Croft in search of Treecreeper.

Treecreeper are very tricky on the Patch and none of us can quite understand why they are so scarce. There is plenty of good quality, relatively mature woodland and Treecreeper is a common bird only a short drive away at numerous sites. It took me about 20 months of birding the Patch before I saw my first, and yesterday I saw only my third Treecreeper on the Patch.


Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

I certainly did not get close to the stunning pictures a certain patch colleague has posted, but the diminutive certhian performed splendidly for us; creeping up tree-trunks before dropping like a stone to make its way up another like a little mottled yo-yo. It even sang a bit for us.

We both ticked Coal Tit as it made its way through the tree tops as part of a bigger mixed tit flock.

The/another (?) Firecrest also popped up right in front of us briefly at one point and I completely failed to get what would have been a superb shot – I blame the fact that it was too close to focus, but fear I looked a bit like Fredo Corleone fumbling with his gun at the crucial moment when his father is shot in The Godfather. By the time I was pointing in the right direction with the right settings, the fiery little masked-mobster had retreated a bush or two back to watch us briefly through the brambles before continuing its frenetic search for food.

IMG_6321v1 Firecrest BW20180113

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Luckily I did not fumble quite so badly when presented with a super smart-looking male Siskin in Wanstead Park (part of a small flock of six), which busily and messily fed on alder while Nick and I snapped away.


Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Although I may have missed the short visit from the Mediterranean Gull, whilst sifting through the gulls on Jubilee pond, I did find our most-commonly-seen colour-ringed gull: ‘2LBA’, a Black-headed Gull ringed close-by in Fishers Green in Essex in the summer of 2015 and seen regularly on the Patch since then.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I saw ‘2LBA’ again today on exactly the same perch (is it worrying that I want to call it ‘Alba’? I am not a big fan of naming wild animals) in fact whilst admiring the marbled moult of a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull. I find myself increasingly watching and admiring gulls, but shhhh! don’t tell any of my patch colleagues who may not look kindly on such behaviour – let’s just keep it between you and me, ok?


Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

As the light faded, Nick and I parted ways, but with a plan to rendezvous a little later to put right a wrong. No, we haven’t become superhero vigilantes. I simply wanted to see my first patch Woodcock. By the time I got to the sluice at the Roding, with the necessary equipment to hunt Woodcock (an extra jumper and scarf) Bob had also appeared, as if by magic.

The sun had already set when I arrived, but the light continued to seep out of the sky. The Song Thrush cacophony eventually died down and we stood in the near-dark as the lights of East London painted the horizon purple-pink. It was against this artificially lit backdrop that an open-winged silhouette arc’d down across the sky. I was momentarily confused. I had expected the bird to be visible for longer, I foolishly thought I might see some colour, but the shape was unmistakeable: a Woodcock coming out to feed. My 117th bird seen on the Patch.

I celebrated with a team-selfie (and yes, we have heard the one about the three garden gnomes).


Yours truly with Nick and Bob* and the empty sky against which we had seen the Woodcock

*Don’t ask me what Bob is doing with his hands to make them blur like that. Maybe he is dancing to keep warm. I prefer not to notice. 😉