Tag Archives: Birding in London

Wildlife notes: On pioneers and procreation on the patch

Warning: the text that follows is relatively lengthy. These are taken from some of my observation notes from walking around the patch. It is also possible that some people may find some of the subject matter distressing, although I would hope not.

The Warbler of Oz

I have already noted how the first Cetti’s Warbler has recently arrived on the patch. Cetti’s are, of course, famously elusive. Often incredibly difficult to even get a glimpse of. Although their shyness contrasts with their explosively loud territorial song.

Where they are common, it often seems as if they are protecting a relatively small patch of reeds, not needing to sing-out from the reed/tree tops like other birds because of their penetrating voice. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz, a relatively unassuming bird hiding behind a curtain of reeds and some trickery to make their voice appear supernaturally loud.

The new Wanstead Cetti’s is elusive to type – this is the best photo I have managed to steal of it, just an eye peering out from behind a curtain of Blackthorn:


Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

But in other ways, the Wanstead Cetti’s is atypical. It clearly does not have an established territory yet and is highly mobile – I have heard it call at different places up and down the Roding, Tony and I followed it from bush to bush the other weekend although only getting fleeting glances, and we think it is the same bird that was also singing on Alex lake, several hundred metres away.

The only explanation I can think of is that it is a pioneer. As the species expands its numbers across the area, young birds are forced to find new territories. Males like ours find a new suitable habitat and spend time finding the best parts and, of course, singing for a mate.

As a classicist, I foolishly attempt to apply literary terms and motifs to natural phenomena, but even I am struggling with this one. A territorial song delivered where there is no rival to defend your territory from? A love song designed to attract a mate that is not there? It is like some sort of anti-soliloquy: rather than a monologue delivered to nobody but always heard by an audience; it is more a monologue aimed at an audience that is simply not there. Unless of course a few birders count as the audience.

Other patch pioneers

If it is any consolation, the Cetti’s, whilst alone, is not alone. Elsewhere on the patch, we have other birds singing to no-one. Our Chiffchaff-mimicking Willow Warbler is probably singing somewhat futilely now – although I am not 100% sure that a mate has not arrived. Similarly, its neighbour in Motorcycle Wood, the Garden Warbler, is still singing full pelt which might suggest it has not succeeded in drawing a mate out of the sky… out of thin air almost.

In Wanstead Park, we have two or three singing male Reed Warbler. At least one is quieter now and I have seen it with a female. But another is still singing its little heart out across the pond in the vain hope that it will woo a taken female, or summon a new female down from above.


Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Sexual stories

Some resident birds have less trouble ‘attracting’ a mate. Today I was lucky enough to watch Coots mating at close quarters. Coot is a common water bird, and they always seem to be fighting, displaying, f***ing, or rearing young. But, actually, I realise today I have never really watched ‘the act’ itself as closely as I might have imagined. Here are my notes from today:

Male following female closely but slowly through the water. Male, insistent, neck outstretched, flat, and emitting loud ‘pitt!’ call repeatedly. Female swimming away, but clearly deliberately not escaping, given speed. Suddenly, female seems satisfied, turns body to side and plunges head beneath the water raising rump in the air. The male climbs on top of the female with its feet on her back. Initial motions seem almost ceremonial, female raises head briefly for breath, then plunges again and lifts rump and ruffles feathers more. Coitus clearly occurs although both birds’ cloaca remain invisible throughout. Act lasts a few seconds, and birds swim off although remain close by each other.

Not exactly romantic, but somewhat ritualistic like waterbird courtship. Fascinating! There  is, of course, another water fowl’s sexual antics which is infamous.


The picture above hangs in my house. It can be looked at in many different ways, but I like to think it is a light-hearted warning against anthropomorphisation of animals. Every bird depicted is a predator and labelled, not by name, but simply as ‘murderer’. With one exception: the Mallard (‘rapist’). Anyone who has witnessed Mallards mating knows why this is. Here are my notes from a few weeks ago, also from Perch pond:

Perch pond. Two drake Mallard pursuing female frantically. Both attempting to mate. One appears more successful and is pinning the hen using typical neck-biting technique, although often both males are biting her. Female is struggling to stay above water as both males are on top of her. Vigorous thrashing and struggling lasts for some time. [I am genuinely fearful for the hen’s safety. I have never witnessed a drowning, but know that they occur] Eventually one of the drakes appears to give up and swims a little distance away. Copulation appears to continue, although may have just begun. Successful drake dismounts and swims off in opposite direction. Hen Mallard pursues successful drake, appearing intent on remaining close to copulating partner.

Of course, from human eyes, the act appears violent and abhorrent. It is literally difficult to watch. I was willing the female to get out of the water so that, at least, the risk of drowning was removed. Part of me even wanted to scare the drakes away, although my better self put such a silly idea aside. The aspect that fascinated me most was the hen’s behaviour after coitus. She pursued the successful drake closely, but without any signs of distress or violent intent. I can only imagine that if the act was successful and her eggs are fertilised then it is in her interest to remain close to her mate… successful brood rearing is more likely if both parents are present.

The next stage in the process

New life is everywhere on the patch at the moment. Every bush seems to emit the high-pitched begging calls of chicks. Nests are sat on and young are being demanding – the cycle of life that has existed ever since that first egg hatched (the egg definitely came before the chicken by the way – although species allocation is a human construct, and delineation between species is never clear-cut – at some point, there had to be a switch-over when an egg contains a chicken but the parents would have been designated as the closely related predecessors to a chicken).


Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with young on nest

Today I witnessed another scene that is difficult for modern human sensibilities. A Lesser Black-backed Gull swooped down and plucked a young coot chick from the nest with the mother sitting on top of it! I have seen many a cootlet and duckling taken from the water, but never from underneath the mother on the nest. There was a moment of squawking from the parents, but then the  Gull was off and the chick was swallowed.

If you are not feeling great reading this, let me end on a more cheerful note. I defy you not to find the photo below cute. This is actually just off the patch and in a garden near where I live and was taken a few days ago. A rather scraggy vixen and her two cubs:


Red Fox family (Vulpes vulpes)

A tale of two Stonechats

Stonechats are partial migrants in the UK, with around half resident all year. On the patch, we have had a recent first winter bird present.


European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

It has been zipping about in the scrub around Cat & Dog pond (which is not much of a pond at the moment) – point A on the map below. We thought it had gone, but I found it yesterday doing its thing.


But Stonechats are also one of the earliest arriving migrants on the patch. I was pleased to find our first Spring arrival of the year at another pond that is very low on water (but currently full of frogspawn) – Angel pond at point ‘B’ above – on 28 February.


This male doesn’t appear to have stayed for long and so has probably continued further North on its journey.

Stonechats confuse and interest me in equal measure. They have been the subject of species splits and arguments over sub-species: the British ‘hibernans’ race is fiendishly difficult to tell from the broader ‘rubicola’; and many sources still refer to Stonechats as ‘torquata’ while others demand that is only used for the African Stonechat. They also seem to be increasing in numbers, although the residents can take a battering if we have a cold winter.

On the subject of partial migrants, yesterday I saw my first Chiffchaff of the year. Two or three have been present through the winter, but we will soon be joined by very many more.


Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

We are all waiting for more migrants and visitors to appear on the patch but I will sign-off with a few shots of other things seen over the past week or two on the patch.


Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)


I couldn’t resist posting two pics of this beauty


Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)


House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)


Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)


Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)


Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)


Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

A tale of two winters


Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:


‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:


Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:


Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)


Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):


Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:


Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:


Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:


White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:


Wanstead Patchwork: Part XVI (Those magnificent birds and a flying machine)

The Autumn migration has got off to an excellent start on the Wanstead Flats. There have been several Spotted Flycatchers seen at multiple sites across the patch, a few appearances from Pied Flycatchers, a few Common Redstart, Wheatear, Whinchat, daily passings of Yellow Wagtail (the only member of this list I am currently missing as a patch year tick), Tree Pipit, Garden Warbler, many Willow Warbler (compared to only one or two that remained through the breeding season), and Reed Warbler.

The Wanstead Birders have, accordingly, been out in force and taking some great photos including from Jonathan, Tony, and Nick.

My photographs are not … er… ‘quite’ up to some of these standards, but I have been prompted into snapping a few whilst stood in the ‘enclosure’ on the patch as it has been alive with migrants.

Yesterday, there was a point where I watched at least three Spotted Flycatchers perform aerial acrobatics, a couple of Redstart perched and flew around, a Tree Pipit was flushed from the ground up to, where it belongs in, a tree. This was my 90th patch bird of the year. I also had several warblers including my first ‘seen’ Reed Warbler on the patch, which skulked around underneath the flycatchers.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Everyone is hoping for a Wryneck – which is apparently almost an annual visitor on the patch – or something else interesting.

Another airborne rarity that I ticked off yesterday was a bonus fly-past from the “Sally-B” B17 Flying Fortress which starred in the film, The Memphis Belle:

B17 Flying Fortress

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XV (spot the flycatcher)

Despite wiser birding heads telling me it would be the case, I simply found it hard to believe how much more interesting August would be than July on the patch.

I only get out there at weekends, but I sit at my desk during the week and receive texts and twitter updates about all the passage migrants dropping in on the Wanstead Flats. I try not to succumb to envy, but imagine this…

Can you picture my teeth clenched as I congratulated the birders out on the patch while I was at work?

Can you picture my teeth clenched as I congratulated the birders out on the patch while I was at work?

However, just over a week ago I (re)found my first patch and UK pied flycatcher (I have watched them from the house in France). Tony had been rewarded for getting out early on Saturday morning by finding a Pied Fly high in a Lime tree. By the time I, and others, had joined him it was nowhere to be found. After a jaunt around the patch we went back to the limes to try again.

Pied piper calls the wrong tune
This story has been told before, but I wanted to add my spin. We all looked up at the lime tree(s) in the hope it would reappear. Eventually, I got distracted by some movement in the nearby birches and walked over slowly. *rustle, rustle* Blue Tit. But there was more movement and I soon saw a warbler and a Pied Flycatcher move into view at eye level. I called over to Jono and Tony in my loudest whisper: “Spotted Fly and Willow Warbler”. I didn’t realise my hang-over tongue had slipped quite so badly until Tony ‘confirmed’, “Pied Fly and Chiffchaff”. Luckily I had only mis-spoken, and not mis-identified. There was indeed a bright Willow Warbler or two alongside a Chiffchaff and a Pied Flycatcher.

Without wishing to get too ‘Oberon and Titania’ on you all, there really were a few almost magical moments that followed as the birches came alive with warblers and other birds flitting back and forth between the trees in front of us like some avian form of pinball. Perhaps it was the magic, my hangover, or the fact that I was soon surrounded by birders with lenses each as big as my leg, that meant that I didn’t get my camera out to capture the moment.

I must have become one of the first patch birders to tick pied before spotted flycatcher on my patch year list.

Spot the flycatcher!

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

OK, it isn’t exactly ‘Where’s Wally’ level of difficulty in spotting, even with my furry photography.

This photo was taken the following weekend (just a few days ago now) when I became one of the last local birders to catch up with Spotted Fly. I probably saw four on the patch that day (‘probably’ because I cannot be 100% sure that they were all different birds):

Number 1 was when Dan pointed one out to me directly behind me as I had been busily watching a Blue Tit flock in the SSSI.

Number 2 was the bird in the photo above and below. It was at the western end of Long Wood, and was the most obliging of the four. I stood in amongst the brambles and watched it dart to and from a small selection of perches to catch flys (kinda what these guys have evolved to do) for around 20 minutes or so:

Spotted Flycatcher

Numbers 3 and 4 were at the other end of Long Wood in an area aptly named ‘the enclosure’ which has produced some bumper birding results in the last few weeks.

I flushed one from a tree as I turned a corner and watched as it momentarily danced in the air with another before flying off and leaving the one remaining in a hawthorn bush:

The Enclosure

The Enclosure

Raining birds in the Cat and Dog
Saturday was a scorching day – it reached over 30 degrees centigrade probably for the last time this summer. Heat and birding (just like birding while hungover) don’t really go well together. I stood in the sun for some time watching reeds move in the dried out pond known as Cat and Dog. My only glimpses of the bird moving in the reeds would suggest a warbler, but smaller than a Reed Warbler. It will forever remain a mystery like the legendary ‘one that got away’ for anglers (oh boy could I share some stories about these from my fishing days).

At one point I looked down at the brambles next to the pond and saw a plain warbler that, for the split second it was there, was a Garden Warbler. Although I had a relatively clear view of the bird, it was in my binoculars for such a short span that my (over)thinking mind questioned the image my optic nerve had presented when a minute or two later there was a Chiffchaff in the exact same spot.

Wrens, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, and Robins all appeared and disappeared in the very small area. Long-tailed Tits passed through the one or two bushes by the pond like grains of sand slipping through an egg timer and then vanishing. Whitethroat flew in arcs to and from bushes and reeds and even, once, sang a brief song as if they were an echo from Spring. I walked to the other side of the pond and flushed another warbler out of the reeds. The blur of flight was counteracted by my momentary proximity to the bird and, despite the sun glaring unhelpfully into my eyes, the face of the disappearing warbler held the markings of a Sedge Warbler. But a ‘tick’ it was not to be, as I simply do not trust myself enough with such briefly snatched views of a bird in flight.

Better late than never
If I had been several days slower than many of my patch comrades in finding the Spotted Flycatcher, I was several months slower in finally ticking a Nuthatch to take my patch year list to 88. It appeared directly above me, first in a Hornbeam, and then in an oak while a very large mixed tit flock seemed to swirl through the branches and leaves above it:

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

How this common bird has eluded me for so long on the patch, I do not know. But I do know that I was very glad to see it so near my home after so many hours spent fruitlessly looking for it in the woods.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIII (Grip* Gropper)

Wanstead Flats has come alive in April. Collectively, the local birders have now seen 106 species of bird this year so far, with some of the most dedicated guys approaching 100 in their personal patch year lists – I am on 74, which is only just about respectable as I only make it out on to the patch about once a week.

New migrants are appearing regularly, with the highlight being the extraordinary-voiced Grasshopper Warbler (affectionately known as a ‘Gropper’). I spent a couple of hours on the evening of the day it was seen, hoping to hear it sing as darkness came, but with no luck.

I did, however, get to see another rare visitor – A Red-legged Partridge has spent a few days on the patch which is the first time in several years:

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)


A more frequently visiting migrant has also delighted the birders with its first appearance this year so far:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

The recent spate of summery weather, coupled with the arrival of so many migrants really has lifted spirits amongst the birders. My own bird surveying work, as well as that of some of my colleagues, has shown that Chiffchaff and Blackcap numbers are going through the roof…

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

And we also now have a few singing Willow Warblers arriving:

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Here are a few more Spring-sights from the patch:

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

A parakeet almost too fat for its front door (parakeets do not make their own holes and this one has squeezed into a woodpecker hole):

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Butterflies are now out in force:

European Peacock (Aglais io)

European Peacock (Aglais io)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

*To grip (off): To see a bird which another birder missed and to tell them you’ve seen it.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part I (The devil-diver of Wanstead Park)

A Big Birding Year was SO 2014. As a relatively new birder, I have set myself two birding-related resolutions for 2015:

1) To increase my ‘Life List’ of birds.
2) To intensify my understanding of the birdlife in a particular small area or ‘patch’ – in my case this is now the Wanstead Flats and surrounding parkland.

This morning I was delighted to be able to make progress against both.

A Slavonian Grebe (Horned Grebe if you are reading this from across the pond) – a rare-ish winter visitor to London – made an appearance in Wanstead Park yesterday and has kindly stayed long enough for me to take its picture:

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Anyone lucky enough to see this beautiful bird (it is even more stunning in its summer plumage) will notice the red eyes. This feature, along with the horned feathers it has in the summer have led some to call it the devil-diver.

The Native American tribes of the Blackfoot have a legend that a trickster called ‘Old Man’ persuaded the ducks to close their eyes and dance. He killed them one by one. However, a small duck looked and saw this evil befalling his friends and so alerted them. This ‘duck’ was the Slavonian/Horned Grebe and became renowned for noticing trouble early.

I was pleased to notice the Slavonian Grebe early in the year so it could be added to my patch list, my UK year list, and my life list.

Here are a couple of maps with ‘X’ marking the spot on my patch where the grebe was to be found:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

In case anyone is interested how my patch list is going following a couple of hours out this morning and about 20 minutes in the rain yesterday, here you go:

3 January
1) Feral Pigeon
2) Blackbird
3) Black-headed Gull
4) Blue Tit
5) Robin
6) Magpie
7) Carrion Crow
8) House Sparrow
9) Starling
10) Great Tit
11) Sparrowhawk
12) Wood Pigeon
13) Jay

4 January
14) Ring-necked Parakeet
15) Song Thrush (note that it took me months to photograph a Song Thrush last year)
16) Long-tailed Tit
17) Mute Swan
18) Wren
19) Canada Goose
20) Gadwall (very large numbers of Gadwall on the lakes around Wanstead)
21) Mallard
22) Coot
23) Tufted Duck
24) Great Crested Grebe
25) Pochard
26) Wigeon
27) Great Spotted Woodpecker
28) Moorhen
29) Common Gull
30) Shoveler
31) Cormorant
32) Grey Heron
33) Slavonian Grebe
34) Greylag Goose

A Big Birding Year: Part XXII (a dip and a scrub)

Wormwood Scrubs in West London is famous for its prison. It has housed everyone from Britain’s “most dangerous” prisoner, Charles Bronson, to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. The prison is named after the scrubland that neighbours it: Scrubs The prison can be seen in the satellite photograph below at point ‘A’ at the bottom of the image: SCRUBS map Point ‘B’ on the map shows the wooded area that covers much of the perimeter walkway around the Scrubs: woodland I walked through the woods largely undisturbed and occasionally wondering if there was any wild fauna aside from the odd Speckled Wood butterfly…

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Quiet woodland will often come alive when a large mixed flock of Tits moves in to the area where you are standing. In particular, Long-tailed Tits can suddenly make the woodland come to life , albeit only temporarily…

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Whilst the high pitched chirping and chattering of tits alerts you to their presence, other birds require spotting first, such as this woodpecker:

(Dendrocopos major)

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

But the most interesting part of Wormwood Scrubs are the scrubs themselves, to the west of the mown playing fields and marked by a point ‘C’ in the map above. Pedestrian traffic is limited here to protect the large number of breeding Meadow Pipit – which meant I only got some distant shots of a pair in flight as they flew up out of the long grass. In fact no other ‘Mipits’ (as they are labelled by birders) breed closer to central London than these.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

All great, but unfortunately, this visit was one of a small minority where I did not add any new species to my UK year list – a ‘dip’ as it has become known in birding and twitching circles.

A Big Birding Year: Part XIX (good creature of mud)

This blog has described Rainham Marshes before, (here and here), and Saturday was my second visit as part of my Big Birding Year. There have been numerous sightings recently there of the very rare Spotted Crake, and I always go full of hope to see my first Bearded Tit. Unfortunately, I did not get any life-firsts or see any particularly rare birds, but I did add a tick to my year list.

But first, I want to re-cap a bit on the terrain as it fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Rainham Marshes sits next to the Thames about 18 miles down river from Central London, but the steel and glass spires of London can just about be seen looking West up-river in the distance:

Rainham and view to London

The marshes are now protected from the tidal Thames by some flood defences, although every time I visit, I am struck by how close to the water level the marshes are:

View East

To illustrate this better, I want to return to my new favourite online map tool (topographic-map.com) which shows clearly that most of the marshes sit below sea-(and Thames) level.


In fact, Rainham Marshes is the lowest lying land inside the M25. Despite its importance for wildlife, I would guess, sadly, that the chances these marshes will still exist in 100 years are very slim indeed.

But, for the moment, the marshes provide refuge to important wildlife, including the bird which has become my 92nd species to be photographed of the year (A Kingfisher nearly became my 93rd as well, but was too fast for me), the Black-tailed Godwit. In the heavily cropped and fuzzy zoom image below, two Godwits can be seen in flight along with a Lapwing and Black-headed Gull whilst you can see another Lapwing in the background and a third (male) Godwit looks on from the right almost nonchalantly:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Godwit, as a word, is from two old English words meaning ‘good creature’, and its Scientific name, Limosa, means mud, which is appropriate as these beautiful birds hunt for small creatures in the mud with their long bills.

Formerly heavily hunted – shamefully it still is in France – even 170 years ago Yarrell noted that numbers of these birds were declining:


In fact less than 40 years after Yarrell was writing, the breeding population was extinct in the UK. Luckily, these migrant waders started breeding again 70 years later in the 1950’s and every year around 100 birds will spend the Summer in the UK, like the birds I photographed, and even smaller numbers will breed.

The UK is already starting to feel a bit Autumnal and soon these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. However, unusually, it is in Winter when you have the best chance these beautiful birds. this is because the UK receives its own Winter migration influx from a slightly different sub-species that breeds in Iceland. Around 44,000 Black-tailed Godwits will winter in the UK, but I was particularly pleased to see the much rarer (in the UK) European form here during breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit has been assigned red conversation status in the UK. If important sites like Rainham Marshes disappear under water, the threat to these birds will increase further and they could disappear from the UK as a breeding bird like they did in the 1880’s for another 70 years, or perhaps even forever…?

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:


Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.