Tag Archives: Birdwatching

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!

By the early evening light: the Autumnal migration orrery

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This year I have got better at snatching short opportunities to bird the patch: still sometimes at the weekend, occasionally early in the morning, and occasionally after work.

The late summer/early autumn migration – my second on the patch – has delivered old friends from fly-over Yellow Wagtail, to the watchful Muscicapidae (and/or Turdidae depending on whose authority you follow) using our trees and bushes as we might use service stations on a long motorway journey: Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, WhinchatStonechat, Northern Wheatear, and Common Redstart.

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Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

When seen after work, these birds have often been bathed in the golden light of early evening. Wonderful when the light was behind me (with the birds above); not so wonderful when the light was behind the bird as was the case below.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Sometimes the flycatching birds – like those above – are mimicked by normally shyer, more skulking, birds. One balmy evening, the air was so thick with insects that the warblers were out darting out of their usual bushes to catch flies mid-air or chase each other around. Whilst a poor quality photo, it was on this evening that I got some of my best views of our resident Lesser Whitethroat – coaxed out of the thickets wearing its bandit mask to attack the mass of airborne protein:

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Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

As Autumn moves closer, some our summer breeders have their numbers swelled by more northerly kin stopping off on their way south: in particular Willow Warbler, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The local birders have all been following mixed flocks with hope and anticipation. The high pitched calls of Long-tailed Tits often the first sign that something interesting this way comes. Moving through the trees, raiding the twigs of invertebrate life as they go with Blue Tit, occasionally Coal Tit (whose distant calls yesterday had Nick and I holding our breath in vain for the hope of Yellow-browed Warbler), and then the comparatively massive Great Tits barging through the leaves like american footballers.

One afternoon in the Old Sewage Works, I watched a particularly large caravan of mixed birds pass by, counting tens of tits along with multiple Chiffchaff, Blackcap, and Goldcrest. I thought that was it, but decided to check with a quick burst of taped yellow-browed and then Willow Warbler. On the second try, almost immediately, up popped a lovely bright bird just a few feet in front of me. I fumbled with my camera like poor old brother Fredo using a gun in the film ‘The Godfather: Part I’ when his father, the old don Corleone, is ambushed while shopping. Fredo’s father is critically injured and he is left facing his own incompetence sat on the side of the road; I was left with photos of a twig where moments before a beautiful had perched just a few metres in front of me. Despite there having been many Willow Warbler through the late summer, I seem to be camera-cursed with them, only snatching this poor shot in near darkness (since my photos of our territory-holding bird in the Spring):

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Sometimes my late evening jaunts would mean I literally ran out of light before I had quite finished my birding. And so it was as I walked slowly around our grottiest of ponds, the Jubilee, looking for a relatively long-staying wader. As the sun went down I dodged almost mutantly large rats – fat from the industrial quantities of bread thrown into the pond and rubbish deposited all about (see Jonathan Lethbridge’s excellent post on the problem with this pond, here) – as I continued my search.

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Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)

After a little while  of searching I eventually saw my quarry through the gloom. It was still feeding on the fringes of the pond island. I scurried forwards to get a photo… the most successful mammal on earth sending the second most successful scurry, in turn, right in front of me and into some undergrowth. I stood right by the rat tunnel to get my shot of the Common Sandpiper, any view of a wader on the patch is a moment to be savoured as they are scarce indeed, just before the light disappeared altogether.

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Breeze Block (Lateres aurita*) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Even knowing the photos would be atrocious quality, I was pleased to have seen this little chap. I walked off into the dusky night  happy, but scratching. Within a few minutes I found a flea on my arm. Within a few minutes more, I had found another. It appears being that close to rats can be rather more hazardous than I had imagined.

Sometimes Autumn doesn’t feel like a season in its own right, but rather as an extended transition between Summer and Winter. Passage migration brings the regular stop-overs and flyovers, and – of course – it sometimes brings something truly special, like this year’s Ortolan Bunting which I feel incredibly lucky to have seen. It also brings gatherings and movements of birds: from mini murmurations of Starlings, to the trickle of South-bound Swallows feeding as they fly, but which have yet to become a great flow.

While some leave, others arrive, like these Wigeon (albeit I doubt these ducks view any of our ponds as their final wintering destination).

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Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

Of course, some birds seem untouched and untroubled by the changing of seasons like these two inhabitants of our local river Roding:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

All together, it feels like some ancient astronomical contraption (or Orrery). Different species moving in different directions and at different speeds and orbits, (with some stock still like a pole star) as the single giant cog of time moves inexorably around. Unlike the early scientists observing and turning the wheel, as birders we may observe but there are no wheels for us to turn. Humanity overall is not just an observer though. Occasionally we manage to throw giant spanners in the works. To finish where I started, Whinchat numbers in Britain have more than halved in the last twenty years. As we slow some orbits or break cogs altogether, who knows what damage we are doing to the contraption overall. Will we one day be left with the giant wheel of time turning and no bodies (biological rather than astronomical) to whir around it?

*my translation 😉

The land and water of King Lot

We spent Easter in Edinburgh with family.

The city of Arthur’s Seat:

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Along with the mound on which Edinburgh Castle is built, Arthur’s Seat has to be one of the most famous extinct volcanoes in the world. Presumably, although not definitely, it is named after our greatest legendary king (I am a big fan of Arthurian legends). Edinburgh’s connections with Arthur don’t stop at the famous hill. The whole area – Lothian – is presumed to be named after an ancient king, sometimes called Lot: the father of Sir Gawain of the Round Table.

Some (hi)stories suggest that the ‘noble’ pagan king, Lot, committed an act of Talibanesque logic and brutality by throwing his Christian daughter off a cliff for having the temerity to be raped by a Welsh pillager Lord called Owain. The pregnant victim, later known as Saint Teneu, miraculously survived her fall and gave birth to Saint Mungo or Kentigern, the Patron Saint of Glasgow.

Flowing through the kingdom of Lot is Edinburgh’s main river, the Water of Leith:

Water of Leith

Water of Leith

This river rises in the Pentland Hills amongst the ferns, birch, heather, and moss:

Bavelaw Marsh

Bavelaw Marsh

… where I watched Meadow Pipits rise and fall in their dancing song-flights.

The many streams that help form the Water of Leith are damned to form the Threipmuir and Harlaw reservoirs which provide much of the drinking water for Edinburgh.

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Harlaw Reservoir

Harlaw Reservoir

From these hills, the water tumbles down into the city and flows into the mighty Firth of Forth estuary.

A mile or two up the beach from where Water of Leith enters the sea, is Cramond Beach:

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

At low tide Cramond Island, way out in the Estuary, is linked to the mainland by a causeway:

Cramond Causeway

Cramond Causeway

Either side of the causeway is a sandy, muddy magnet for wading birds. Unfortunately, I had neither a camera (all the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone), nor a spotting scope, but throughout the day – whether in the hills or at the beach – I took a few photos of birds I saw through the ‘make-do’ method of holding my phone up to my binocular lens…

Left side, top to bottom: Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) in Balerno; Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) one of very many at Cramond Beach; one of my favourite birds, the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) at Harlow Reservoir.

Right side, top to bottom: Common Redshank (Tringa totanus); Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus); Goosander (Mergus merganser) swimming up the River Almond Estuary from Cramond Beach; and, Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) also on Cramond Beach:

Birds… honestly!

Birds… honestly!

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.

The salt marshes of Southern France

The town of Gruissan sits on the Southern french mediterranean coast next to Narbonne.

L'etang de Gruissan

L’etang de Gruissan

The salt marshes there are harvested for table salt and the water is the most extraordinary colour…

Salt pans

The shallow salty water attracts a large number of waders. They are shy and I was unable to get closer than about 20 metres to any (and many stayed much further than that), but walking in between the salt pans…

Salt pans

… allowed me to get just about within photography distance of:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

and the closely related Black-winged Stilt (which I last saw on Safari in Africa)…

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

I was also pleased with a life-first view of a Kentish Plover (albeit at great distance for such tiny birds), seen characteristically scuttling up down looking for food:

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)

Another life first for me was this Little Tern:

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

And most pleasingly was the view I got of a bird I just do not associate with Europe at all. Whilst not a life first, I was delighted with my European first sighting of Greater Flamingo:

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

As the sun beat down harshly, and a strong hot wind blew salt into my face as I walked for a couple of miles out through the marshes and onto the mediterranean beach, I reflected on how I was in one of only a small handful of sites in France where you can see Flamingos. To misquote some communists, there is an irrepressible joy and lightness of being in the wild:

Gruissan plage

A Big British Birding Year: Part XI (other creatures of the wing)

As I had already called Spring before its official arrival, I felt vindicated last Sunday walking around Walthamstow Marshes in blazing sunshine.

I had heard tales that butterflies had already taken wing and felt a pang of envy that I had not seen any yet this year. I rectified this quickly on the marshes, and within an hour I had seen:

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

Comma (Polygonia c-album)

European Peacock (Inachis io)

European Peacock (Inachis io)

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Small White (Pieris rapae)

Small White (Pieris rapae)

I also photographed my second species of bee of the year:

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

… As well as my first Bee mimic of the year:

Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax)

Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax)

The Walthamstow Marshes also provided my 73rd species of bird for the year so far:

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I then walked up to the Walthamstow Reservoirs, the largest collection of still water in London, and peered through the fence at the famous Cormorant nesting island on the imaginatively named, Reservoir number 5:

Cormorants

I got a couple of character portraits of:

Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

I then turned south and stared through the even more imposing fence protecting the Coppermill Lane waterworks. This is a known spot for roosting gulls and delivered my 74th species of the year:

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

From there, I walked back to the old Victorian water filter station that is now the Waterworks nature reserve where I finished my day by voyeuristically snapping this blended series of a mating pair of Pochards:

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

A Big British Birding Year: Part VII (60/40)

Today is the 40th day of the year.

Today I photographed my 60th species of bird this year.

It is a common garden bird that I have been surprised not to have seen until now. So, I was delighted that the 60th species should turn up in the garden of my London flat.

European Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

European Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)