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. 😉


Starting the year with alchemy, not lists

The year on the Patch often begins a little later for me than my fellow patch-workers as I tend to start the year in France. This regularly leads to me bumping into them and saying things like, “Blue Tit, tick!” whilst they are bemoaning the fact that they haven’t seen a Water Rail or Peregrine yet for the year. But that doesn’t matter as I’m not patch year-listing in 2018. No! Really, I’m not!

So, today was my first day (actually only a couple of hours) out on the Patch when I was absolutely not ticking off Blue Tit, Magpie, Greenfinch, … .

I had already started the year on my French patch – highlights, amongst a lot of strong wind, were daily Hawfinches, Hen Harrier, Crested Tits, lots of walking and flushing of Red-legged Partridges and Woodlark.

Gold to fire..crest

But I also noticed something strange… for the first time in the decade I have been watching birds on the French Patch, I saw almost as many Goldcrest as I did Firecrest. I think Firecrest is probably the most common bird on the French patch, and I have only seen a handful of Goldcrest in all my time there so this was a big departure.

Alchemy was the art of attempting to turn lead into gold, normally using lots of fire. How about turning gold into fire and vice versa? Well the French oddity seemed to be reflected back at me this morning in Wanstead when I saw a Firecrest in Bush Wood before seeing Goldcrest (Firecrest is a tricky winter tick compared with resident Goldcrests) – I still haven’t added Goldcrest to the list that I am not keeping.


Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) in Bush Wood

The golden light

I met Jono this morning as we tried to see a Little Owl that I wanted to see (not for any listing purposes you understand) – and, whilst he had early views, I missed it. The promise of a bright day seemed a lie first thing as there was a lot of cloud, but, as we stood by Jubilee pond, the rays broke through and bathed everything in golden light that just makes photography a joy.

I know male Tufted Duck are recognised as the good looking one of the pair with their iridescent head and contrasting pied colouration, but in the morning light, the subtle variation of the mahogany colours of the female stood out to me.


Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)


Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)


Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Jono was out with his heavy camera and so I left him doing what he does best. The results on his blog are well worth seeing.


Jonathan Lethbridge (Homo cameralensii)

‘Among the fields of gold’

I wrapped up 2017 writing about how a Stonechat by Cat & Dog pond ‘bookmarked’ the year for me. It might well do that again in 2018 (if I were year-listing that is) as I found the long-staying (since 18 November) bird there.


Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

If I had been counting, which I wasn’t, I might say that I have seen 46 species of bird so far on the UK Patch this year. As I was only out for an hour or so, I didn’t visit Wanstead Park, but, even so, am missing some incredibly common birds like Dunnock, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, and Redwing. Still, I have a whole year to add those birds to my… erm… list.

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.


For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

Macro map Blanes

The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.


Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left


Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

Blanes brookv2

Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.


2017 on the Patch

Many of us like to reflect back on the year as it closes. From a patch birding perspective I could have some complaints (it wasn’t exactly full of rare birds), but there was also a lot to celebrate; not least of which is the fact that 105 species of birds on the Patch is a year record for me.

But let’s book-end the year: 2017 is finishing much as it began: with a wintering Stonechat in the scrub by Cat and dog pond.


Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – January 2017


Stonechat – December 2017

Each winter we seem to get a female for a few months. Long may that continue. They are wonderful and enigmatic birds.

Back to the numbers. 105 total species of bird seen on the patch. But I want to break it down a bit. I saw five new species for the patch in 2017. This compares with 13 new species for 2016, albeit recognising this number cannot keep going up. But, when it comes to quality of new birds, 2016 still had the edge over 2017. In 2016 I saw Hooded Crow, Ortolan Bunting, White-fronted Goose, and found Yellow-browed Warbler. 2017 was the year of Hawfinch, Little Ringed Plover, and err… Pheasant.

2017 was the year in which two glaring omissions on Patch list finally fell: Bullfinch and Little Owl.


Little Owl (Athene noctua)

In terms of significant omissions remaining on my list, most notable now is probably the Woodcock. I am pretty sure if I put in some time in at the right places at the right times, I should be able to put this right.

In terms of gaps for the year, I was disappointed not to see Ring Ouzel this year and to go a second year without Red Kite. Most of my fellow patch birders got both of these this year.

But, whilst on the subject of disappointments, the lowest point had to be missing a singing Nightingale by a matter of minutes. The bird would only have been a few metres away from me, but deeply hidden and silent by the time I had to leave and catch a flight. Nightingale is one of my favourite British breeding birds – I know, I’m not exactly original! Outside of the Patch, I actually only managed to photograph Nightingale in the UK for the first time in 2017.


Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) – in Kent

Aside from being face to face with a Little Owl, highlights of the year for me included finding and photographing the year’s first (and only?) Pied Flycatcher


European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

And joining several of my fellow patch birders photographing the most obliging Redstart I have ever seen.


Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

We had some good quality visible migration, in particular the day in October when thousands of Wood Pigeon were joined by hundreds of Redwing, Fieldfare, Chaffinch, and a smattering of other stuff. That ‘stuff’ included nine Hawfinch, a few Brambling, and a Redpoll. Not a bad morning’s work.

And, of course, the Patch hasn’t all been about birds.

I saw 23 species of butterfly with highlights being Brown Argus and Purple Hairstreak, but missed out on Marbled White, Painted Lady, and – weirdly – Green Hairstreak (weird, given that I saw loads in 2016).


Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

And then, there were the galls. I started studying galls this year and recorded 58 on the Patch this year, including one which was new for Epping Forest (Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp). Few are as impressive as Robin’s Pincushion.


Robin’s Pincushion (Diplolepis rosae)

I began 2017 planning to focus on survey work rather than year listing birds. Aside from galls, I didn’t do much surveying (my plans to do sparrow census were scuppered by the sheer difficulty and time required to do it properly), and instead I carried on with my patch bird year list.

And so looking forward to 2018… I will restate my resolution from last year: more survey work! I will support the first breeding bird survey on the Patch since 2015. I will also try to do a bit more work on galls. But I still won’t be slow to react if a good bird appears.

Gull on black

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;*

Well, I wouldn’t describe the ice as ‘stone’-like exactly, more like a brittle glaze in these climate-warmed times. A wafer-like shelf that could never carry the weight of a man (certainly not a man of my current girth), but, while it lasted, has served as a temporary gull magnet.


Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook

In the fading light, the diminished promontory of ice blurred the horizons between water in its liquid and solid states, and also between the ‘elements’ (archaic, not chemic) of water and air. As I stood on a pavement (yes, pavement) with the drizzle distorting my binocular’d view, everything took on a one-dimensional blackness. A void only punctuated by the white and grey of gulls with the odd smudge from a brownish juvenile.

One of the punctuation marks in the photo above is an Eastern visitor, a 3rd-winter Caspian Gull. First spotted by Stuart Fisher on ‘Eagle Pond’, and now much photographed by the London gull specialists, including our very own Patch Cowboy. I found out after the fact that the crisp shots taken by these guys – showing every mid-moult feather in all its glory – owe something to cheap bread being used as a lure. All’s fair in birding, love, and war I suppose.

When I saw the Casp, it was not yawning down bread, but rather gnawing on a bone on top of the ice on the other side of the lake. The grainy, cropped, resulting pictures attest… but it is still the closest I have seen this species to my Patch, having missed a younger bird last year.

The Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook is a frontier on a neighbouring patch to ours; the Leyton Flats.


Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)


This Casp is not the only sub-adult gull I have snapped recently. My micro-patch water gauge yielded a new tick for me the other week in the brief spell of snow that we had; a Herring Gull (now the fourth gull to have graced the post for me, found in the same order as how common they are on the Patch: BHG, Common, LBBG, Herring…).


2nd-Winter Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

With the snow and drizzle, the seemingly constant water level on Jubilee Pond has finally started to creep up.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

*In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti

Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.


Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.


Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.


This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:


Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.


Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.


Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park

Breaking a curse with a Horned Lark on the shore

The day began – late – by joining most of my patch colleagues in dipping Leach’s Petrel standing in a small park overlooking the huge William Girling Reservoir.


Birding on reservoirs is often hard in its own right. When you are attempting to see birds when you can’t even get close to the reservoir, I find it verging on impossible. At one point we attempted to see a Great Northern Diver from this spot but looking at a reservoir further north (to the right and out of frame of this picture); but you know something is hard when you hear quality birders say things like “I think I’ve got the GN Diver in my scope, but it might just be a Great Crested Grebe“!!

So Nick and I swapped one set of large reservoirs for another. This time the dreaded Staines Reservoirs. I have blogged about them before as they are my nemesis location; everything I have ever gone there to see (most recently White-winged Black Tern) I have dipped; a 100% failure rate!

After sitting on the M25 for what seemed like half the day (possibly because in total, it was for half the day!), we arrived to see the Shore/Horned Lark*. Whilst it had previously been seen and photographed up close, it was now distant on the western shore, but it was a successful twitch for me at Staines. The curse is finally broken. I even rather foolishly attempted to take a record shot with my camera and phone-scope respectively below:


Horned/Shore Lark (Eremophila alpestris)


Looking straight at the camera (albeit across a reservoir)


The South Reservoir has been drained and looks extraordinarily bleak, with just small pools left.



A cold day standing by reservoirs and driving around London, so not exactly the wildest of experiences, but successful and interesting nonetheless. On the drive on the M25 on the way home, Nick and I counted raptors ending with a final score of 23 Red Kite, 4 Buzzard, and 1 Kestrel (not all that long ago those numbers would have probably been read in reverse).

*The debate is currently underway as to whether this is a European Shore Lark or the much rarer sub-species, American Horned Lark. I will leave that matter to the experts.