Tag Archives: BTO

Mipit madness

My fellow patch birders found the first Northern Wheatear in London for the year yesterday; 11 March being a very early find. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around to see it and couldn’t find it anywhere today, but well done to Tony, Jono, and Rob.

I did get to experience some other of our early migrants though; Chiffchaff are now singing at several points across the Wanstead Flats (and are apparently in the Park too). Our numbers of Meadow Pipit (full-year residents on the patch) have clearly swelled as well, although I imagine this will be more of a passage stop over as I don’t think this many could be sustained to breed. I stopped on the path as a small flock started to squeak past right in front of me… “2, 4, 7, 9″… but they just kept coming: 32 birds passed just a few metres in front of my face, which is a ground bird record for me in London (Edit: what was I thinking?! I have seen far more at Rainham, but it is a patch and Inner London record).

A few minutes later I saw four more Mipits in another part of the broom fields, and later stopped on the way back from my water bird survey count and watched the little brown birds jump up and down in the grass making it look like the land had a bad case of avian fleas.


You can’t see them, but there are over 30 Mipits in this grass

And it wasn’t just Meadow Pipits in the grass. Our Skylark have been very active singing in the air, on the ground, courting, fighting, and calling; I watched at least six birds act out their own life drama in snippets today.


Skylark (Alauda arvensis) in full song on the ground

Summer migrants start to arrive, bird numbers temporarily swell, resident birds find their song and re-establish territories, but we also say goodbye to other birds.

Our WeBS count survey today revealed that ducks are starting to be counted in the low tens rather than the hundreds. It will also not be long at all before our gulls make their way to coastal breeding sites, emphasised by the fact that we are in the narrow time window where the majority of our Black-headed Gull population wear their full chocolate-coloured breeding hoods on the patch; and very dashing they look too.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

And I shall sign off with a pic of another handsome gull:


Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XII (Hearing is believing)

I was blind, but now I see
I woke up this morning blind. My eyes were glued together by the revolting discharge that is caused by conjunctivitis. A cold I have been fighting – and twice smugly proclaimed victory over – has finally bloomed and seems to have infected my eyes as well my respiratory system.

I am sat in bed useless and ill but quietly pleased I have not been missing too much on the patch as the weather is atrocious.

Yesterday, before this rhino of a virus (do you see what I did there?) charged me down, I went out early to conduct my breeding bird survey of Bush Wood.

A job for ears, not eyes
Even before my corneal membranes became infected, my eyes were somewhat redundant as this survey is all about singing birds, not about birds seen, and I often don’t see the birds I am ticking at all.

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Some bird counts were up (Chiffchaff arrivals were clear), some were the same (as with the Song Thrush above), and some were down (sadly I didn’t hear any singing Coal Tit or Goldcrest – although I am sure they are still there). It will need more weeks of work before any really useful trends can be drawn.

But I did also witness some wonderful breeding bird behaviour including a fascinating courtship dance between a pair of Green Woodpecker on a tree trunk which followed shortly after this chap chased a female around for a bit (I have noticed recently how much courting Woodpeckers – Great Spots in particular – love chasing each other around):

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Drinkers beware!
With my ears straining to cut through traffic noise, Blue Tit song, and the cackling and cawing corvids to be able to hear the songs of the birds I am counting, as well as peering up at the trees (in the vague hope of seeing an elusive Nuthatch or Treecreeper), my survey work means I am probably missing a lot of stuff at ground level. If there are any new wildflowers out, I didn’t see them, but I did see this mini fungal jungle which I may well have mis-identified:

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap gets its name from the black liquid produced after being picked or by the withering cap – in antiquity it was used as ink.

However, this fungus has another name – Tipplers bane. The mushrooms are edible, but only if you are teetotal. The chemicals contained in this fungus are hyper-sensitive to alcohol and will cause palpitations and severe nausea if ingested even within days of sipping alcohol.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XI (68 singing males)

Bird auditing

This morning I got up just after dawn to conduct a breeding bird survey of Bush Wood on my local patch. Tim Harris, Chairman of the Wren conservation group had walked me around last weekend and so I had some data to compare my morning count with.

I walked around feeling a little precocious with a clipboard and got some strange looks from early-morning dog-walkers, but I scribbled numbers on to a roughly sketched map of my area. I am following quite a strict rule of only counting singing males.

"I have a clipboard so I'm very important!"

“I have a clipboard so I’m very important!”

Later, at home, I added up the numbers and was staggered by how similar the results were to the week before (with some welcome additions from Coal Tit and Chiffchaff):

Breeding Bird Survey

If you are wondering why there seem to be some obvious omissions, that is because I discounted Blue and Long-tailed Tits because: a) there are large and healthy numbers of both; and b) they move around so much, it would be almost impossible not to double or triple count. Other birds were noted down that I saw but which weren’t singing, including Chaffinch, Goldfinch, as well as corvids, pigeons, and gulls.

I will try and do this weekly (with one or two breaks when I will be away) for the rest of the breeding season.

Bird tennis
I then hid my clipboard away – so I wouldn’t get the p!$$ ripped out of me by other birders (note how I didn’t say ‘anyone else’ as I suppose birders get laughed at by most people anyway) – and went out on to the Flats to find another bird.

Rewind a couple of days … I had been fidgeting like a dog with fleas as I have been unable (due to work and other commitments) to get out on to the patch and see the Wheatear (or two) that have graced us with their presence. Wheatear cause a lot of excitement on the patch amongst the local birders, and I am no different. In fact, when I got home from work early on Friday evening, I even dashed out to see if I could find the smart chap, but I had left it a little too late and so just got to watch the sunset instead:

Can you see the Wheatear? … neither can I.

Can you see the Wheatear? … neither can I.

But today was different. I had more time, and I had help on my side. Dan H. pointed out the bird to me on a football pitch near to where it had been seen before. I got as close as I could to get this shot (as always, no prizes for quality here):

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

One of the longest distance migrators among small birds, this male is probably just stopping off for a few days before flying on further North and possibly over the ocean to Iceland and Greenland or even Canada from its starting point in sub-Saharan Africa.

I was joined by Jonathan L. and his eye-wateringly large lens as the bird flit between tussock, post, football pitch, and path as we snapped away:

Not the usual sport played on a pitch

Not the usual sport played on a pitch

I strongly recommend that you go and look at Jono’s photos of the same bird, because they are truly stunning (in the case of lenses, size really does make a difference)… have you looked yet? If not, then try this other website of his as well. Also, it is Jono’s birthday tomorrow, so why not give him some extra web traffic as a present.

I then left Jono to it and walked around the rest of the patch vainly hoping I might accidentally flush Dan’s Woodcock (I realise that might sound a little … er … odd if you are not a birder) and generally just enjoying the sights of spring:


Mute Swan

A Big Birding Year: Part XXI (zoom and zoom again)

In my last post, I had a little whinge about how difficult it is to photograph birds unless you have huge lenses worth many £thousands.

Well, the whinge continues. Generally bird photography falls into two categories:

Aesthetic – where one is searching for the perfect image. Light, composition, sharpness are all super important. You generally need reasonable equipment and to be close to your subject, or professional standard kit and be up to medium distance from your subject. This often means that the best photos are often of relatively common and reasonably tame birds

Record – essentially just a step up from putting a tick in a box or writing the name of a bird in a notepad. The photo shows that you saw ‘x’ bird at ‘y’ location on ‘z’ date. If you are human as well and not an ornithological wizard, photos can be handy to verify a sighting or even identify a bird in the comfort of your own home hours or days later.

Unlike ‘Aesthetic’, ‘Record’ photos are generally squirrelled away in some hidden folder on your hard-drive and rarely will anyone else have the misfortune of squinting at the fuzzy and blurry dot which you have labelled as a bird. Unless, that is, the amateur photographer in question has decided to share his records/list of every bird through the year. Hence anyone who has read more than one or two blog posts this year by iago80 cannot help but have noticed the propensity to post some absolute bilge (case in point below).

I want to give a sense to you (excuse my patronisingly didactic tone, but I am assuming not all readers are birders or photographers) of what taking a photo of a bird in the wild is often like when out in the field. The photo below is the view West from Peacock Tower, the impressive three storey hide at the LWC. It’s a nice view over the main lake and grazing marsh. The inset photograph is taken from the same place but at maximum zoom with my 300mm lens. You may just about be able to make out a tiny splodge, through the wire fence in the middle of the image, that could be a bird if you really put your mind to it.

LWC Main Lake

Now let’s take that zoomed in image and look a little closer at it (below). This time the inset image is a heavily cropped section of the main image. Now that splodge is a bit bigger and you may even say with confidence that it is a bird. But could you identify what species it is? Well, neither could I. Even through my binoculars it was tricky. But luckily, there was a chap on hand with a powerful spotting scope. I had a quick look and could then see that the splodge was in fact a Wheatear…

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Although you can’t see in the sorry excuse for a photograph, the Wheatear is actually a beautiful bird. They spend the summer generally breeding in grassy hilly parts of the country. As the breeding density map below shows – from the excellent Bird Atlas from the BTO (You would not even be able to guess at the scale of millions of hours of volunteer work it would have taken to compile that book) – Wheatears are generally not found in London.

Bird Atlas

However, when the birds’ internal alarm-clock/calendar goes off they fly South and often take a few re-fuelling stops. We are lucky that the LWC appears to have been chosen on this occasion as one such stop and us Londoners get to see a bird that normally only the Scots, Welsh, northerners, and Cornish get to enjoy.

By the way, that Wheatear, was the 94th species of bird I have photographed this year. About ten minutes later, I got my 95th (as you can see, I won’t be framing this photo above my mantelpiece either, although this time you can actually tell what the bird is):

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

That dinky little fellow (barely bigger than a Starling) was scuttling about on his own making nearby Coots look enormous.

And just to show you how my photos improve (although only marginally as even this photo is a little too noisy and blurry for my liking) when I get slightly closer to my subjects, here is a posing Heron:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)