Tag Archives: birding

August 2018: review

Patch

Summary: I made nine patch visits in August (although a couple were for very short periods of time) as Autumn migration really kicked into gear. I recorded 73 species of bird in the month, including eight that were new for the year and one, very special, brand spanking new Patch tick (Red-backed Shrike). I also made one non-patch twitch.

Highlights were:

  • Almost certainly the stand-out bird for the year will be a stunning, long staying Red-backed Shrike found by Nick in Pub Scrub on 28 August. I was lucky enough to have great views of it early one morning.
  • The return of the Willow Warblers with this species appearing in my lists for the first time since May and being spotted on almost half of my patch visits.
  • Yellow-legged Gull making an appearance for the first time on the patch for anyone this year in August with a recurring sub-adult found by Nick by Alex on the 12 August and a self-found juvenile loafing on the pitches on the 25 August.
  • An extraordinarily early returning Wigeon on the Roding on 12 August was almost certainly our earliest Autumn record.
  • Hobby and Peregrine have both clearly bred successfully in the local area and I have had several great views of both falcons.
  • Fantastic August for passage Yellow Wagtail, with a record patch high for me of 14 over on 30 August, and also my first view of them perching locally, with a flock of 8 that briefly perched in a Hawthorn in the Broom fields on 25 August.
  • Traditionally the best month for Spotted Flycatcher, although lower numbers than some years. I got my first on 19 August and a high of four all perched in the same bare tree in Centre Copse on the evening of 29 August.
  • I recorded Whinchat on three Patch visits with a high of five individual birds on 30 August.
  • A few Wheatear have been seen, but I only recorded one, a male, in the ploughed sections of the Broom fields on 28 August.
  • Seeing my first Redstart of the year in the Brick Pits. For three out of the last four years I have seen my first Redstart in the last week of August.
  • Hirundines have been more visible this month, although the breeding Swifts had all left before I got out, so they were not recorded this month. House Martin fed in low double digits around Jubilee in particular, and were accompanied by a Sand Martin (embarrassingly my first and only one for the year) on 25 August, and a few passage Swallow later in the month as well.
  • Flushing the first patch Snipe of the Autumn from the Brooms.

Lowlights were:

  • Missing the confiding Black-tailed Godwit on 4 August on Alex was gutting.
  • I was disappointed to be one of the only regular birders on the patch to miss Pied Flycatcher in August.
  • I was also unsuccessful in finding Garden Warbler or Sedge Warbler which both showed in August.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Getting Stone Curlew on a late evening twitch to Bowers Marsh.
  • Also finding a Blacked-necked Grebe at Bowers Marsh, both on 12 August.

My birding month in five pictures…

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Our long-staying Red-backed Shrike in Pub Scrub

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Juvenile Peregrine, Centre Copse

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Bowers Marsh, Essex

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull, Alex

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Male Wheatear, Broomfields

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July 2018: review

I have decided to try and complete a short monthly review of my birding activities on and off the Patch. Here is my first attempt for last month: July 2018.

Patch

Summary: I made five Patch visits in July 2018 and recorded a total of 61 species of bird, two of which were new for the year (Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern). There was a record-breaking heat-wave through much of July and every visit was made in hot weather. On the 15 July Wanstead Flats suffered the largest grassfire in London’s recorded history causing extensive damage to the SSSI and Broomfields.

Highlights were:

  • The returning large numbers of Black-headed Gulls, with over 100 birds (and many young juveniles) seen on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • A juvenile Mediterranean Gull with the Black-headed Gull flock on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • Tufted Duck bred successfully on Jubilee with 8 ducklings seen with adult female on 7 July.  
  • Finding two Little Grebe chicks on Alexandra Lake on 28 July (still present as of 19 August).
  • An unseasonal record of 5 Lapwing circling over SSSI and Western Flats on 8 July.
  • My first and, so far, only sighting for the year of Common Tern flying East over Shoulder of Mutton pond.
  • It was a relatively successful July for woodland birds with multiple sightings of Coal Tit and Nuthatch and a single sighting of Treecreeper in Bush Wood.
  • Seeing Skylark, Meadow Pipit, and Lesser Whitethroat (with juveniles) after the fire.
  • A single Red Kite seen over Bush Wood on 21 July.
  • This was a record-breaking month for Little Egret. I counted 14 on 21 July with most on the Ornamentals, but this was surpassed a few days later by Bob with 39 across the Patch!
  • Non-birding highlights were my first White-letter Hairstreak on the Patch (by Heronry on 7 July), and an Elephant Hawk Moth found in the long grass between the Brooms and Long Wood.

Lowlights were:

  • The Great Fire of Wanstead Flats.
  • Missing out on Clouded Yellow and Marbled White.
  • Not seeing any Buzzard in July.

Highlights from ‘elsewhere’

  • Finding my first Yellow-legged Gull (juv) for the year at Beckton Sewage Works.
  • Finding two Mediterranean Gull by the Thames Barrier.
  • Seeing Marsh Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes on 28 July.
  • Also successfully twitching the Red-necked Phalarope at Oare Marshes on 28 July with other good birds including Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and at least nine other species of wader.

The month in five pictures…

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull on the Western Flats

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Tufted Ducklings on Jubilee

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The aftermath of the Wanstead Fire

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A Spitfire over Oare Marshes

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Waders on Oare Marshes

A late evening twitch: Stone-Curlew

I woke up last Sunday morning intending to right a wrong. Sadly I don’t mean combating a great global injustice. I simply wanted to add a bird to my UK life list.

A Stone-Curlew had been present at RSPB Bowers Marsh at the top of Canvey Island in Essex, about 22 miles due East of my house. But there was no news on the bird sites or social media, so I stayed locally and saw the sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst other things. It was only much later in the day that late news dripped through that the Stone-Curlew was still present. And so I headed out for the 45 minute drive in the evening, somewhat racing against the fading light.

The reserve is accessible 24/7 although the car park was closed. I had the words of a well-known birder ringing in my ears:

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When I arrived, the small lane was littered with literally hundreds of the tiny nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters and a couple of cars were parked up as people conducted a car sale (I didn’t stop to ask them why they needed to be doing that down a deserted lane). I started the walk not knowing how far it would be until the Stone-Curlew would be visible. In fact, I had no idea where the bird might be as I had never visited the reserve before. The closest thing I had to directions were a tweet from someone saying the bird was visible from the ‘two benches’ area.

The empty car park was not quite empty as a father taught his young son how to ride a mini-motorbike. I walked on.

I stopped briefly at the slightly sorry-looking reserve noticeboard and map which confirmed that the reserve was big. super! I walked on.

The skies opened up and were huge with a few Swift still circling (all of our local ones seem to have long-gone) and a few Swallow trickled through. I walked on.

Sign-posts pointed to different bits of the reserve in different directions with mile+ distances attached. I was running out of time and needed some ‘gen’ or some luck quickly. I walked on.

Most of the wetland parts of the reserve were obscured/protected by high hedges. I walked on.

I saw some people in the distance: a chance for local knowledge/help. I walked on.

They turned out to be a couple out for an evening hack on horses. I asked them if they had seen any birders, to which they replied that they had, but some time ago and some distance away. Oh! Thanks. I walked on.

The light seemed to bleed out of the sky faster than ever. I walked on.

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RSPB Bowers Marsh at Dusk

The wind-pumps add to the sense of desolation and slightly foreign feel of the bleak landscape – it felt more like the US Midwest than Essex. I walked on.

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Bowers Marsh, Essex (not Kansas)

And then I stopped.

There were two benches, diagonally opposed and overlooking the water stretching out back towards the car park from whence I had come. I set my ‘scope up tall and stood on one of the benches to get the best possible view. I scanned the parts of the wetland and grassland that looked most promising  for the Stone Curlew, and just as the light was getting so gloomy that it was beginning to get silly, a distant bird scuttled into the view of my scope. My first Stone-Curlew in the UK. Another rather embarrassing gap filled on a list.

 

It was an odd sight. Not the bird, although Stone-Curlew is a strange large-eyed bird, of course, but me in the landscape. A man stood on a bench looking through a telescope at a distant bird on a vast reserve all alone apart from the midges and the weather. I strained the technical capabilities of my iPhone to photograph the Stone-Curlew through my scope.

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Eurasian Stone-Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)

The output was rubbish, of course, but it just about counts as a record shot of a bird I last saw when I spooked a running gaggle (I don’t know what the collective noun is for Stone Curlew) from the hiding place in a parched field in a remote part of Ibiza. The remoteness was even more intense in Essex, but the landscapes could hardly be more different.

As I watched the Stone-Curlew a tiny Yellow Wagtail pottered past in front of it. I was also pleased to see a Black-necked Grebe (possibly two as one disappeared around a corner and another materialised somewhere else suspiciously far away) in mid-moult. I am not sure these birds had been recorded at the site on that weekend by others so a reasonably nice find, perhaps. I photographed the bird in the murky light and remembered the last time had been watching these birds, in full black and gold breeding uniform, like science fiction fascists, in Japan.

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Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

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And here is a photo I took of them in full breeding plumage in Japan earlier this year

Now you see me, now you don’t

One of the great things about birding the same patch is you get to build up a sense (or even a monitored trend for those of us who keep spreadsheets) for which birds you see over time. Migration is, of course, a major factor in birds appearing and then disappearing. Our Swift flocks have now gone. They were present on every visit to the Patch from 22 April until the end of July. I missed last weekend as was away so can’t pinpoint their departure. But it never ceases to amaze me how fleeting their breeding stopovers seem to be. One day the the sky seems full of scything screamers and then, like Keyser Söze, they are gone.

Willow Warbler is a species which seems to have a tentative perch-hold on the Patch. I got four records of Willow Warbler in the Spring. The first was probably just a passage pass-through, and then three weekends in a row in April/May when I had one or two birds singing. Almost certainly an attempt at making a viable territory, but not, perhaps, successful. Now we get a second bite at the cherry with the returning birds and I got a bright bird yesterday in Wanstead Park.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

But with other birds, their presence or otherwise seems more arbitrary or subject to annual cycles not connected to migration. It has been a good year for Little Owl on Wanstead Flats. We think two pairs have bred successfully. I looked in their ‘usual places’ yesterday but couldn’t find them, only to hear one calling loudly from a different copse as a dog walker went past it. It stayed put long enough for me to take its picture.

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Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Nuthatch, and even Treecreeper, have also been spotted more frequently this year than in others. But other birds seem not to be doing as well. I’ve seen very few Grey Wagtail this year, for example. Whilst Little Grebe seem to be doing better than I remember before, and have bred on Alexandra Lake, Great Crested Grebe have seemed almost entirely absent; I saw my first for this Spring and Summer on the Shoulder-of-Mutton pond in Wanstead Park on Saturday.

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Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

2016 and 2017 were good years for Wigeon on the Patch. We saw up to a patch-record-breaking 61 birds in 2016. But there were very few sightings of this duck early this year with it not even being on my patch year list. So I certainly didn’t expect to see one today on 12 August! But Nick found one, on the River Roding, and I photographed her as she is the earliest returning Wigeon we have a record of on the Patch.

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Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Other birds are scarce visitors but you come to expect them at certain points in the year. So it is with Yellow-legged Gull. Today three of us were treated with lovely views of a 4th calendar year bird that Nick actually found yesterday by Alexandra Lake. This was a patch year tick for all of us involved.

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Meanwhile, other birds never seem far away. It is a rare day on the Patch not to hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, or to see one sail over your head at some point. However, despite them being common, I don’t often get to watch them close-up, so yesterday I was pleased to get close views of two males; an adult and a juvenile by Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. In my slightly sentimental state as an expectant dad, I like to imagine that this was father and son bonding on the Patch. Something I hope to be able to do in due course.

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Adult male (Picus viridis) aka ‘Daddy’

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Juvenile male aka “junior”

When both laziness and labour pay off

On being lazy
This weekend was going to be about butterflies again. I started early on Saturday morning walking purposefully towards Wanstead Park in the hope of finally clinching White-letter Hairstreak.

Walking through ‘School Scrub’ and then up Evelyn’s Avenue towards Bush Wood, I glanced to my right at the pitches and saw a large number of Black-headed Gull loafing. Only recently back from their breeding territories, I had a quick scan through these early-ish returners. Out of 98 birds, I spotted a small handful of juvenile birds and so WhatsApped my patch-colleagues the news but walked on.

My mind was fixed on hairstreaks, not gulls, but Tony’s reply asking about juveniles made me turn back, just as a jogger and dog put many of the gulls in the air. Some flew and about 40 were left with seemingly no juveniles. I spotted one remaining right at the very back of the flock. As I walked towards it, I started to spook the closest gulls which seem less tolerant than they get later in the year, so I fired off a few shots and sent a back-of-camera shot to the guys.

Again I walked on. But, something niggled me. Here is how it played out on our WhatsApp group…

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Through my slapdash approach and my impatience to be somewhere else, I forgot to actually check if my juvenile Black-headed Gull was actually a Black-headed Gull at all. It wasn’t. It was a textbook juvenile Mediterranean Gull instead. Tony had not only prompted me to go and look at the juveniles, but he was also faster at concluding the identity of my bird. Without him, I wouldn’t have got this record shot of my first Med Gull for the year.

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

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Just to prove I do know what a juvenile Black-headed Gull looks like (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

On labouring hard
Walking around in the sweltering heat is hard work at the moment. I seem to have a perpetual ruck-sack-shaped sweat-patch on my back and shoulders (too much info?) and beads of sweat carry suncream into my eyes.

When I finally reached the elm trees in Wanstead Park where I fancied White-letter Hairstreak may show-up, I was already very hot, slightly de-hydrated, and rather worn out, but I had dragged Nick along to help me look for quarry.

Hairstreaks are hard! They are small, rather nondescript, some of them look very similar, and they flit about restlessly high up in trees. We watched hairstreak after hairstreak flit about and failed to get enough identification on the majority of them to discern between Purple and White-letter. Occasionally one would settle for long enough to ID as a Purple Hairstreak.

Eventually, after Nick’s patience was undoubtedly wearing thin (he has seen one before), we got enough on one of the elm-settled specimens to positively ID as my first patch White-letter Hairstreak. It may be ragged with some of orange and ‘W’ missing, but it is still my first photo of this patch-tick for me.

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White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album)

So, whilst I didn’t expect the weekend to be about birds, I got patch-year ticks in the form of Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern and also got a good summer record of five passage Lapwing (probably failed breeders).

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Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

And with the patch tick White-letter Hairstreak, following last week’s tick with the Silver-washed Fritillary, this hot spell in early July is being more productive than I could have hoped. Especially, when there are bonuses like this beauty…

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Elephant Hawk Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

This Hobby of mine

Spring has been, temporarily (?), catapulted into summer on this first May Bank Holiday. Record breaking temperatures and clear blue skies. Perfect for raptors. I’ve already seen four Red Kite this Spring, which is four more than I saw last year, and the year before that! And yesterday I saw two birds, including this one with a missing eighth primary feather on its left wing.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

It was also a fantastic day for Hobby. All over East London good numbers were seen. I can’t be sure exactly how many birds I saw in the multiple sightings I had, or whether they were all repeats, but I can be sure there are at least two as I watched a pair circle each other effortlessly, getting higher and higher over the Old Sewage Works, their bright red trousers showing well in the sunshine.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

At one point I even saw one of them sweep past me with avian prey in its talons. This was possibly the first hirundine I saw on the day as there seem to be strangely few around the Patch yet. I picked up a few Swift distantly over Ilford and, later, when dozing in the sun on the Western Flats, I eventually watched a couple of Swallow fly overhead in the early evening. But I have now gone longer through the year than any previous year without seeing House Martin and Sand Martin.

The advanced and unseasonably hot weather enhances the feeling that Spring passage migration is over, emphasised even more by the lack of Wheatear on the Patch. I have probably missed the chance for Spring Redstart, Whinchat, and – most sadly – Ring Ouzel.  We have had record Ring Ouzel for the Spring, but I have seen none of them. I shall have to wait for their return in Autumn when they are normally slightly easier.

But it is hard to be too disappointed when watching birds in glorious weather. Lesser Whitethroat are singing in multiple locations, we have a couple of singing Willow Warbler, territorial Reed Bunting, and a singing Reed Warbler. All of these are small and fragile numbers across the Patch, but still more common than our warbler hopes of Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, and Garden Warbler which are all still missing from the Patch list so far this year.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

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Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)