Things I saw while searching for a Nightingale

Dawn on the Patch

I think I carried the scars of missing the patch Nightingale through to this long weekend. I determined that I would find good birds on the Patch and find a Nightingale somewhere. Anywhere.

And so a pretty frenetic three days of birding followed; starting, as it should, at dawn on the Patch…

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Sunrise on the Wanstead Flats

Saturday morning began very early; I was up just after 5am and out shortly afterwards. The combination of the early morning light and our low-lying mist, bathes everything in gold and it reminded me why dawn is my favourite time.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

The golden light was not auspicious, however. It soon became a beautiful day, but the birding was poor. No interesting new migrants had stopped over, although there were a few Wheatear around (it seems to be an exceptional year for them), which we had fun photographing (see here and here for better versions of my effort below).

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

There were, of course, other birds on the Patch, but none that whet the April appetite of listing birders.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Therfield, Hertfordshire

And so news of Dotterel in a field less than an hour’s drive away had me dashing for my car and promptly missing my second Sedge Warbler (which would have been a patch tick for me) in the space of week.

But I can’t complain. Sometimes we need a change of scenery and seeing Dotterel so far South is always a special occasion and it was an England tick for me, and my first ever clear views.

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Female Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus)

Two pairs showed nicely, although the relatively drab males often required re-finding due to their camouflaged plumage.

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Male Dotterel

Watching Dotterel whilst the sounds of Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting provided a wonderful, rustic backdrop (see videos here and here), was, simply, special.

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Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

East Tilbury

On the way back, I dropped in at one of my favourite Thames-side sites, East Tilbury as I heard that both Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler had been heard that morning. I didn’t find them, but I did enjoy some other year ticks in the form of Short-eared Owl, Cuckoo, and Whimbrel.

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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

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Common Cuckoo* (Cuculus canorus)

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

But even while not ticking off new birds for the year, the birding was excellent. The SSSI scrub and grassland (on the other side of the flood defences and expansive reed-beds and mudflats) are just full of migrant warblers and some very showy pairs of Stonechat amongst other things.

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Male Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Also videoed calling here.

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Female Stonechat

I love how easily you can get lost in the wildness of the scrub, full of birdsong, be alerted to a flock of Whimbrel calling (I had one flock, or ‘fling’ of 12 birds pass by down the Thames) and then see a 25,000 ton oil tanker pass right by. Surreal!

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‘Baltic Faith’ obviously with full cargo as sitting low in the water

The Blean

I then drove to the other side of the Thames and visited a friend in Canterbury for dinner and drinks. The next morning, while out walking with my friend and his dog, and… hangover aside… partially plotting my best place to find a Nightingale, I heard a … er… Nightingale.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Blean Woods – where we were walking – is known to hold an important population of Nightingale. I had no intention of trying to see this elusive and protected bird, but it flew right up into view (videoed singing here)…

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Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

I even heard a second Nightingale singing as we walked through this truly stunning ancient woodland.

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English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Blean

Back to the Patch

So instead of driving around Kent trying to find my favourite bird, I left after breakfast and got back to the Patch to tick off Whinchat for the year – a pair were showing as well as five Wheatear all lined up on the path.

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This morning I gave myself a lie-in, which cost me another patch-life-tick in the shape of Rook, but I was able to get into the Brooms in time to see my first Swift and House Martin for the year, as well as being alerted by Jono to my first patch Common Tern for two years with three flying very high over indeed.

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Record shot of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Rainham Marshes and the Thames at Rainham

But again, soon, the allure of more exotic birds off patch proved too magnetic and so I whipped down to Rainham Marshes where I dipped Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, but made up for it by getting year ticks out of Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank, and a full blown London life-tick in the form of Little Gull.

Luckily I was river-watching with a couple of much younger and much better birders than me who helped locate the Little Gull on the other side of the Thames, in time for me to get my scope on it and just about get enough ‘on it’ to tick it for the year. To give you sense of how far away it was, here is the digi-scoped view (although it did look a bit better before my iPhone mashed up the pixels):

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Distant Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) preening on a buoy (bill tucked into feathers)

We then had it (or a different bird??) much closer and on our side of the river. The two young guys dashed off for a photo whilst I stayed with Nick and admired it through the scope as it settled on the mud. When it looked like it was going to sleep I waddled off after the teenagers in comic pursuit. Having stopped jogging a few times due to lack of fitness and a distracting Short-eared Owl on the adjacent marshes, I arrived too late to take its picture (according to Nick who had been watching the scene from afar, the bird ascended rapture-like vertically up in the air and out of sight!!). This is one of the photos Dante took of the same bird; to get an idea of what I should have been posting.

Little Gull

The impressive Dante had already scored big earlier in the day with a Black Tern. This grates a little as I have never seen one, apart from a ‘probable’ over Canary Wharf a couple of years ago (when I was without bins) and another, today, on the other side of the Thames that I watched for a while but couldn’t get enough on to be sure (I still maintain it was smaller, darker, and sleeker than accompanying Commons, but the better birders didn’t come to my rescue – I’m unclear as to whether they didn’t see it or whether they were stood behind me shaking their heads).

It then started raining so hard that we left the hardy young birders to it and went back via the Grasshopper Warbler bush, that was annoyingly empty of Grasshopper Warblers. Its commoner cousins were showing and sounding well across the reserve, including an unusually showy, Sedge Warbler (also videoed in song here).

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

So, three days of birding, a couple of big dips on the patch, a few more off the patch, but some amazing experiences and my patch year list nudges up to 91 with four new additions, and my UK year list grows by a giddy 12 to the barely-respectable total of 137 as we enter May (Nick has seen more than that in the month of April alone, but he is properly year-listing at the moment).

Post Scriptum: a legless lizard (and no, that’s not my nickname)

I also got another lifer this weekend, in the form of a reptile in Kent.

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Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Which, in turn prompted me to check our own reptile mats back on the Patch:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

I know this account sounds a bit like a cold ‘tick fest’, but if I had got all poetic over the experiences I had (as is sometimes my want) rather than just quickly listing things I saw, you would probably still be reading this post by the time next weekend appears.

*The photo of the Cuckoo is actually from Rainham Marshes two days after my Tilbury visit, but why allow accuracy to get in the way of narrative!

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


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Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…

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2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

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).

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

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

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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.

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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

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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.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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

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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.

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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

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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

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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.

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400kV Thames Crossing Pylon

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

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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.

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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).

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Sun-day

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

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

Hope Springs Eternal

Wanstead Flats at dawn

Dawn over Wanstead Flats

Patch birding can be an exercise in faith.

As an atheist (albeit a Buddhist one, but that’s another story), I have always struggled with the concept of ‘faith’, or, rather, accepted the fact that I am lacking in ‘it’.

But, without delving into semantics, there is an expression of hope in rising before the sun, following well-beaten paths, and searching for something new. To extend my metaphor, rather like many spiritual journeys, sometimes we set off with an expectation of what we want, or hope, to find… but then find something entirely different. Today certainly felt like that.

This morning began with mist.

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Initially a fine, low-lying blanket, but one which grew and clouded nearly everything from view.

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Things started positively with my first footstep onto the SSSI – trying to blank out the noise of early morning traffic on the road I had just crossed – in that I immediately heard the song of a Willow Warbler (I even briefly video-recorded it singing, here).

It moved through the trees just south of the copse we know as Motorcycle Wood, an area that in the last couple of years alone has been one of the most consistent providers of both Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler, but also local scarcities such as Wood Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler. I watched the early morning sun stream through the trees and the light transported me back to all those wonderful moments, and more: these trees shaded the young birches where I saw my London-first Pied Flycatcher; I have watched Ring Ouzel burst out of the upper branches, Spotted Flycatcher perch and feed from middle branches, whilst Common Redstart has flicked around from branch to ground; I have stood by these trees watching Shelduck, Hobby, and Peregrine fly over, and was close-by when several of us watched a skein of White-fronted Goose turn in the sky.

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Motorcycle Wood, SSSI, Wanstead Flats – where the magic happens

The golden morning light seemed to hold these memories in trust for me. It felt like the Copse was reminding me why I come out; these moments are the rewards we get for placing our hope and trust in the patch. But the Copse – in that equilibrium between the bare brown branch of winter, and the leaf-rich green of Spring – also helped to remind me that there is reward in just ‘being’ here in this place. This was lucky, because the song of the Willow Warbler was the peak of a long morning of birding (there were several of us out and searching and there was a general air of disappointment).

The beauty of Spring, over Winter in particular, is that when birds fail to show up, there are, at least, other creatures of the wing to marvel at. In Wanstead Park and surrounds, I counted eight species of butterfly including Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Comma, and Holly Blue as new year ticks for me.

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Comma (Polygonia c-album)


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Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)


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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)


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Peacock (Aglais io)


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Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria)

On my way back home from the Park, I was shocked to see that the water levels on Heronry Pond seemed to have fallen even further. Action is apparently planned, but we are heading for a completely dried-out lake quite quickly. The days of herons breeding here are long gone, but the days of them fishing here could also be numbered).

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)


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The lake bed of Heronry