Tag Archives: Bush Wood

Starting the year with alchemy, not lists

The year on the Patch often begins a little later for me than my fellow patch-workers as I tend to start the year in France. This regularly leads to me bumping into them and saying things like, “Blue Tit, tick!” whilst they are bemoaning the fact that they haven’t seen a Water Rail or Peregrine yet for the year. But that doesn’t matter as I’m not patch year-listing in 2018. No! Really, I’m not!

So, today was my first day (actually only a couple of hours) out on the Patch when I was absolutely not ticking off Blue Tit, Magpie, Greenfinch, … .

I had already started the year on my French patch – highlights, amongst a lot of strong wind, were daily Hawfinches, Hen Harrier, Crested Tits, lots of walking and flushing of Red-legged Partridges and Woodlark.

Gold to fire..crest

But I also noticed something strange… for the first time in the decade I have been watching birds on the French Patch, I saw almost as many Goldcrest as I did Firecrest. I think Firecrest is probably the most common bird on the French patch, and I have only seen a handful of Goldcrest in all my time there so this was a big departure.

Alchemy was the art of attempting to turn lead into gold, normally using lots of fire. How about turning gold into fire and vice versa? Well the French oddity seemed to be reflected back at me this morning in Wanstead when I saw a Firecrest in Bush Wood before seeing Goldcrest (Firecrest is a tricky winter tick compared with resident Goldcrests) – I still haven’t added Goldcrest to the list that I am not keeping.


Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) in Bush Wood

The golden light

I met Jono this morning as we tried to see a Little Owl that I wanted to see (not for any listing purposes you understand) – and, whilst he had early views, I missed it. The promise of a bright day seemed a lie first thing as there was a lot of cloud, but, as we stood by Jubilee pond, the rays broke through and bathed everything in golden light that just makes photography a joy.

I know male Tufted Duck are recognised as the good looking one of the pair with their iridescent head and contrasting pied colouration, but in the morning light, the subtle variation of the mahogany colours of the female stood out to me.


Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)


Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)


Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Jono was out with his heavy camera and so I left him doing what he does best. The results on his blog are well worth seeing.


Jonathan Lethbridge (Homo cameralensii)

‘Among the fields of gold’

I wrapped up 2017 writing about how a Stonechat by Cat & Dog pond ‘bookmarked’ the year for me. It might well do that again in 2018 (if I were year-listing that is) as I found the long-staying (since 18 November) bird there.


Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

If I had been counting, which I wasn’t, I might say that I have seen 46 species of bird so far on the UK Patch this year. As I was only out for an hour or so, I didn’t visit Wanstead Park, but, even so, am missing some incredibly common birds like Dunnock, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, and Redwing. Still, I have a whole year to add those birds to my… erm… list.

The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.


A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.


I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.


Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.


In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 21.38.14

The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.


The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XX (Discovering fire)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

The Firecrest is probably one of my favourite birds. Its minute size compensated by its stunning markings and colours and its restless energy.

Bush Wood is almost like a patch within a patch for me. The wood is right on my doorstep; it is the first part of the patch that I come to and it is where I have spent the greatest amount time, both birding and surveying. It is also relatively ‘under-worked’ by the other Wanstead Birders (for a variety of reasons I expect, including the fact that it isn’t exactly famous for producing rarities).

So, one of my patch-ambitions this year has been to find a Firecrest in Bush Wood. It is believed they may have bred there in the past, but they now seem largely to be winter visitors – almost certainly migrants from the frozen North of Europe. As Goldcrest numbers have swelled this Autumn, I have been picking through each one in Bush Wood willing gold to turn into fire, almost like some next-level alchemy.

So imagine my mix of delight and disappointment, two weeks ago precisely, when I received a text from Jono (the original ‘Wanstead Birder’) saying he had found one (actually two) in Bush Wood (chronicled with his usual wit, here). I was in bed battling heroically with a particularly life-threatening bout of man-flu (I have still to shake the cough two weeks later). My emotions and thought-processes spanned through a range of: “Amazing news!”; “Oh God! I’m too poorly to go out and twitch it”; and, “Why wasn’t it ME finding it dag nammit!”

I dutifully wrapped up so much I could barely bend my joints and waddled out snivelling to search for it. Jono had sent across really quite excellent directions to find this particularly colourful needle in in a haystack, which included a photo of a nearby tree he had cunningly adorned to flag the location (see bottom of blog-post).

I found the secret tree – some way off the beaten track – and stood and wandered about, watching, listening, attempting to pish (Nick told me today that my Firecrest whistle sounded more like a Dunnock which was … lovely of him), and playing a tape of actual Firecrest calls (which do not sound like Dunnock), all whilst sniffing, sneezing, and coughing. After about 30 minutes of not even seeing a Goldcrest, I went home disappointed.

The following weekend, I felt even worse, so I stayed in bed. This weekend I was determined to discover my Firecrest. But I was distracted. Tony had seen the 1st winter Caspian Gull which has been pondered over, definitively identified, and has been seen on and off for a week or two on the patch (assuming it is one and the same bird). Being that is a much rarer visitor than a Firecrest, I couldn’t ignore it, so I walked around a lot of the patch studying every gull I came across (that is many hundred today). It seems to have flown – hopefully just temporarily – and so I dipped it.

I met up with Nick and we walked to Long Wood where he had recently seen and photographed a pair of Firecrest. Nick played Firecrest song and calls as we walked along and we eventually reached the bushes where he had seen them. A few metres further and Nick stopped. I looked where he was looking and saw a red dot in the bush. Literally just a blazing orangey-red dot, but I knew what it was.

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

The male above would relax and tense its burning crown, so that sometimes it was as red as a stop-light and other times yellow and orange:



But it was joined by a second, possibly a female (albeit there are probably fewer females in the UK compared to males – due, I expect, to the need for males to be closer to breeding grounds so they can secure better territories quickly):

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

These photos are not the best, but I am pleased with them as Firecrest never stay still and are damned hard to pin down.

Later on, I left Nick and walked in the rain back to Bush Wood. I had a map in my head of where I was going to walk to maximise my chances of finding fire, and it began with Jono’s secret tree:

Jono's secret tree

Jono’s secret tree

In fact, my search also ended with Jono’s tree. After studying the holly all around me, and listening hard, I brought out my phone and played Firecrest calls. Nothing. I then resorted to playing Firecrest song – not something I particularly enjoy doing in December. After a few seconds, high up over the holly sailed a dart of orange and green straight towards me. When it saw me it turned sharply down and to the side and swung deep into the holly. I watched the Firecrest, another male, flit through the branches until it disappeared deep into the bush, I heard it call a few times more but then like the smoke that follows fire, it faded and disappeared. My first self-found Firecrest in Bush Wood, on the patch, and in London. It didn’t stay still or visible long enough to capture in pixels, but it confirms to me what others already knew, that we have more than one pair of Firecrests on the patch.

My 98th species on the patch this year, but so much more. I had discovered fire in my wood.

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.

Bush Wood Tree Survey

Between 1975 and 1979, Paul Ferris of the WREN Conservation Group carried out a survey of the Flora of Bush Wood and the Wanstead Flats.

The results of this Herculean undertaking were published in two instalments in ‘The London Naturalist’, the journal of the London Natural History Society, in 1980/81, shortly after I was born.

One small aspect of this study – which to my knowledge has never been comprehensively repeated since – was a survey of the trees of Bush Wood. An updated version of the results of that survey can still be found on Paul’s excellent website, Wanstead Wildlife.

As the summer is not exactly the best time for birding on the patch, I turned my attention to trees; to try and boost my poor dendrological knowledge, and to attempt to repeat this part of Paul’s survey.

My time in Bush Wood has taught me that not all that much has changed from 35-40 years ago, although I did seem to find a few additional species to those originally recorded. Paul describes 22 (and lists 27) species of tree in Bush Wood, whereas to-date, I have found 33 species (with a couple of additional hybrids and two or three more species which are found just outside the traditionally accepted boundaries of Bush Wood).

As Paul notes, the overall character of Bush Wood is made up from four species of tree: English Oak (Quercus robur), Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), and Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). All of these species grow naturally throughout the area.

While those four species may constitute the major content of the woodland, the shape of the wood is dictated more by the planted trees. Bush Wood is bisected by an avenue of the limes, dominated by Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata), although with hybrid ‘Common Lime’ (Tilia x europea) also present. The other parent, Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), can also be found in the wood or nearby.

Leaf comparison of small and large leaved Limes

Leaf comparison of small and large leaved Limes

Around the perimeter of the wood are a number of planted London Plane (Platanus x hybrida):

London Plane (Platanus x hybrida)

London Plane (Platanus x hybrida)

As Paul notes, some of the largest trees in the wood are Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) with the largest, known locally as the ‘Witches Tree’ measuring in excess of 8 metres in circumference, making it one of the largest specimens in London and probably in the top 100 in the UK. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), some of which appear to have been planted, are common in the Northern part of the wood.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) is also common throughout the wood at every stage of maturity, whilst I could only find a couple of examples of the related Field Maple (Acer campestre):

Field Maple (Acer campestre)

Field Maple (Acer campestre)

Paul reported two specimens of Norway Maple in the wood. This was one of only two species in Paul’s survey which I could not find at all in Bush Wood, although there are specimens elsewhere on the Wanstead Flats (Brick Pit Copse for example). The other species in Paul’s survey which I could not find, despite searching the area described, was Whitebeam. However, the clusters of trees and clearing next to the Friends’ House Quaker centre are rich in interesting species, even if some have ‘spilled’ over from the Quaker’s walled garden, and includes several not mentioned in Paul’s survey. False Acacia – or Black Locust – (Robinia pseudoacacia) for example:

(Robinia pseudoacacia)

(Robinia pseudoacacia)

Right next to it is a single specimen of Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides):

Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

Common Laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

In the grassland to the North West of Bush Wood is the greatest concentration of fruit trees in the wood, including Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), Cherry-plum (Prunus cerasifera) [which also appears in its red-leaved variant], Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), a single specimen of domestic Plum (Prunus domestica), Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris), and domestic Apple (Malus domestica). In the updated version on his website, Paul notes that Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is increasingly being found in the wood. I can confirm this but found no examples of mature trees.

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

domestic Apple (Malus domestica)

domestic Apple (Malus domestica)

One part of the grassland is dominated by English Elm (Ulmus minor) suckers and a few young slender trees from which the suckers seem to stem:

English Elm (Ulmus minor)

English Elm (Ulmus minor)

I was also pleased to find a mature example of Wych Elm South of Bush Wood in the ‘school scrub’, but I have not counted it for this list.

Whilst on the subject of suckers, it seems appropriate to mention the collections of poplars at points in the wood, including in the internal clearing. The hybrid, Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) can be found in quite large numbers near its parent, White Poplar (Populus alba) and, to a lesser extent, the seemingly rarer other parent, Aspen (Populus tremula), which took me a while to track down but I have now identified as present in at least two sites.

Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) and White Poplar (Populus alba)

Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens) and White Poplar (Populus alba)

Aspen (Populus tremula)

Aspen (Populus tremula)

Where the grassland clearing meets the road, known as Bushwood, is the single mature and large example of Yew (Taxus baccata) although several smaller specimens also exist. Paul reports that a single specimen of Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) can be found near the keeper’s lodge, but I actually found two specimens after a dawn trespass raid on the empty lodge’s garden. Not mentioned in Paul’s survey is Goat Willow or Sallow (Salix caprea) which can be found as two specimens to the North-West of the upper part of the avenue.

(Salix caprea)

(Salix caprea)

A common shrub/tree throughout the wood is Elder (Sambucus nigra):

Elder (Sambucus nigra) with Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Elder (Sambucus nigra) with Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Not quite as widespread, but found in multiple locations are the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) which are heavily fruiting as I type.

Common, but more location-specific than either of the above, especially to the North-Eastern part of the wood, is Silver Birch (Betula pendula).

Aside from English Oak, relatively young examples of Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) are found at a couple of locations (perhaps the age is why they were never mentioned by Paul), and Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) also grows nearby.

In his online update, Paul credits local botanist, Fred Wanless, with discovering a specimen of Manna Ash near the Bushwood road. I can confirm this is still there and was pleased to find it flowering which helped with identification:

Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus)

Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus)

When the flowers die and there are only leaves, it is only the lack of subtle serrating on the leaves that enables amateur botanists to distinguish between Manna and its commoner cousin, Ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Ash (Fraxinus ornus).

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior).

Finally, two species of trees where I could only find a specimen each, both noted by Paul, are Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica), which is found near the entrance to Friends’ House, and Hazel (Corylus avellana) where a single example near the southern fence is the only specimen I know of across the Wanstead Flats:

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

Hazel (Corylus avellana)

For ease, I include a tabulated version to easily compare the two surveys and the changes/differences noted:


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

Wanstead Patchwork: Part IX (If you go down to the woods at night…)

Blackbird has spoken
On Friday night, I had an hour or so to kill between getting home from work and going out to meet friends. I decided to take a stroll in Bush Wood to see if I could hear or see a Tawny Owl.

As I walked on to the Flats at dusk, I was struck by the amount of bird song. Robins, wrens, thrushes, and dunnocks are all in full song now, and as the light faded they all seemed desperate to belt out their tunes before night properly fell. That evening I heard my first proper Blackbird song of the year:

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

The Blackbird is one of the UK’s commonest birds. In winter their numbers can swell from winter migrants to 10-15 million birds. But now, about 5 million breeding birds will have been left behind. Birds which we have become used to squawking out their alarm calls and nothing else, now perch proudly and sing one of the most popular and widely recognised songs of the British countryside.

After watching this Blackbird and a Song Thrush seem to compete for some time I headed deeper into the woods. And it became darker.


Bush Wood

I walked around listening for owls. At one point I thought I heard one in the distance, but cursed myself for not being sure whether it was really an owl or just a distant human voice shouting. Eventually it became so dark that I realised I should head back.

But I had become hopelessly lost in the dark forest… mwuhahahahaha!

I didn’t really, although I did trip a couple of times and cut myself on brambles. Bush Wood is not a massive forest and street and car lights are quickly visible – including some street lamps lighting a path that bisects this part of the Flats and wood:

Wood lights

Lights in the sky
As I left the wood, I looked up at the stars. The two brightest bodies in the sky – the moon was nowhere to be seen last night – were Jupiter and Venus – so I took their photographs:

Jupiter and Venus

As well as celestial bodies puncturing the darkness, the night was also diluted (or polluted) by the lights of our wonderful city. I stood for some time gazing over the darkness of the flats to the light of London beyond, including my office in Canary Wharf visible a few miles away in the distant glow:

London light

A map of trees

I thought we should take a break from birding, but I wanted to take you back to Bush Wood on my ‘patch’ for a different journey.

The science of studying and making maps, Cartography, is both ancient and noble. It can be a science and/or an art. What I lack in both scientific knowledge and artistic technique, I make up for in enthusiasm. As I paced up and down the confusing set of woodland paths, I started to sketch a map in my notebook. I have since ironed out the more intricate kinks and bends and plumped for a simplistic depiction of where the paths lie projected on to a Google satellite image of Bush Wood. Duh daaa…

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

Rough approximation of where the paths are in Bush Wood

OK. It is a pretty slap-dash job, but I would welcome anyone who can show me a better map of the paths of Bush Wood – the lines shown on an Ordinance Survey map seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the actual footpaths (and no, I wasn’t just reading it upside down!).

Bush Wood is not the most diverse woodland you will have encountered and is mainly dominated by Oak, Hornbeam, Hawthorn, and Holly (the last two of which, along with an enormous quantity of bramble, makes much of Bush Wood – off the beaten tracks – virtually impenetrable). These plants have been expertly documented by Paul Ferris in his survey of the area.

Walking, or – more accurately at the moment given the amount of water – squelching around the paths is a little confusing, but the markers that help provide bearings – for me at least – are some of the more notable trees.

Please note all the following photos were taken on my iPhone as I was too paranoid I might happen upon an interesting bird, I refused to take my zoom lens off my camera.

Some of the trees are so distinctive looking in shapes that they are readily remembered such as this hornbeam:

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Common Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Or this oak with the preposterously long lower branch:

At least I think it is oak - I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

At least I think it is oak – I forgot to check when I was there. English Oak (Quercus robur)

Here is another shot of the same tree(s) but – just to show what a health and safety rebel / idiot (delete as appropriate) I am – with me standing underneath that preposterously long branch:


Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?


The biggest trees in Bush Wood are not oak or hornbeam, but a small number of Sweet Chestnut. And the biggest of all – a tree that is at least 300 years old – is a well hidden ancient giant known as the witch’s tree:

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea saliva)

Unfortunately, my iPhone does not give a sense of scale, but it really is a bruiser of a tree. Even its fallen leaves are big:

Sweet Chestnut

You also can’t see the extent to which the roots are exposed at the bottom. If you are wondering why it is called the witch’s tree, choose whichever of the following explanations you prefer:

1) Around 400 years ago a woman was accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. In the writhing agony of death she was seen to scream out an incomprehensible curse. A great tree grew from a seed on the spot where she died. It had a complex set of exposed roots that were twisted and contorted like burnt limbs. The gaps are easily wide enough for a child, or even a reasonable-sized adult to crawl through. But, those carefree fools who crawl between the roots/limbs of the witch’s tree invariably fall sick, and some die. A coincidence perhaps, poisonous soil perchance, or maybe it is the manifestation of a doomed woman’s curse?

2) As the summer solstice sun sets, they say that young witches dance naked around this hidden tree. Some say that at the right time of year, the tree imparts vitality and extended youth into those who properly worship its wild antiquity.

3) I don’t know why it is called that. Sorry!

Before I get carried away with tales of magic, I wanted to re-post my map, but this time with four of the interesting trees plotted and marked, maybe to help you one day find the witch’s tree and its fellows:

Bush Wood tree map

Wanstead Patchwork: Part VII (Reflections and echoes of wildlife)

Echoes in the woods
This morning I spent several hours carefully ‘working’ Bush Wood in the patch. Bush Wood is the most densely wooded section of the Wanstead Flats and is home, or stopping point, for several species of bird I would like to add to my patch list, namely: Firecrest; Treecreeper; Nuthatch; and, Tawny Owl.

I worked the area hard – slowing walking up and down every path in the wood (in fact I actually sketched out a map as I went, which I may share on this blog another day) listening and looking carefully.

I confess I also resorted to the controversial birding technique of ‘playback’ (also know as ‘tape-luring’) where I used an app to play the bird calls/song of the target species.

I would never use playback during breeding season, anywhere where other birders are likely to be in ear-shot, or for rare birds, but it can be a useful technique. It is certainly a step up from traditional ‘pishing’ where one aims to mimic a bird through whistling etc

I played Treecreeper a few times in select locations and Nuthatch and Firecrest a couple of times each, but had no luck. In fact, I started to wonder whether playback was an effective technique at all, or whether any of these species were anywhere near this wood. So, I tried another bird call. This time, one which I had not seen thus far in the day, but I do already have on my patch list for the year: Coal Tit. The effects were immediate! My phone had barely played a few notes when the tiny bird zoomed onto a nearby branch and was noisily responding to the apparent intruder in its territory. I felt a mix of joy and guilt and watched it move around, calling loudly and obviously listening for the non-existent competitor. As it moved further away, I relaxed enough to remember my camera and tried to get its picture. Whilst the shot below was poor quality, there was no way I was going to pull that stunt again just to get a better photo:

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Corvid reflections
After my careful working of Bush Wood, I walked more quickly around the rest of the patch, which currently has more water on it than I have seen before (although I know that in years’ passed the area has effectively been turned into a giant lake).

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Mirror, mirror, on the floor, who’s the wickedest bird of ‘lore?
Carrion Crow

The crow’s connection with evil is well known, and now – thankfully – people are instead realising that crows are one of the most intelligent species of bird.

Fleeting glimpses
A male kestrel hovered close by me. I began to take out my camera. It hovered lower, and then lower, and then plummeted to the ground so violently it made me jump. I watched to see if it had caught anything and got this picture of it:

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnununculus)

Just as I got to a respectable range to watch it, two teenage girls seemed to appear out of nowhere and ran past, flushing the small falcon. They were almost as startled as the bird as it flapped up right in front of them and flew away (I muttered in annoyance as I never did see if its plunge had been successful).

Shortly afterwards, I watched the resident flock of Linnets flit about near their preferred area around the Jubilee pond – there are sometimes up to 20 in the parcel. Yes, ‘parcel’ is the collective noun for linnets (somewhat less menacing than a ‘murder’ of crows!). One female stopped long and close enough for me to grab a quick shot:

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

Common Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

I only saw the Linnet and Kestrel for a few seconds each, but even more fleeting were a Kingfisher (being chased by a crow in Wanstead Park) and a Common Buzzard flying high and quickly out of sight away from the park, but nevertheless, they were special glimpses for me. The Kingfisher was my second on the patch and only the third or fourth I have seen in London. The Buzzard was a new bird for me on the patch this year and so became my 60th tick for the year.

On my walk back I stopped at one of the smallest ponds on the Flats, Cat and Dog pond (apparently so named because it only really fills up when it rains ‘cats and dogs’ [DIGRESSION: I once had an english student in Spain who would delight in telling me that it was raining cats and dogs if it even so much as spat or drizzled a few drops – bless him!])

I was looking for a Snipe – which would have also been a patch tick for me – and which has been seen there recently. I didn’t see any snipe, but as I approached the water there was a sudden splash of movement below me. I just about caught sight of something brownish that I suspect was a mammal – it would have flown if it was a bird and it didn’t look like an out-of-season amphibian. I suspect it was just a brown rat in the water, but I like to imagine that it was a Water Vole (I have no idea how a water vole could have crossed traffic to get there though). I looked suspiciously at a number of tunnels and holes near the water and wondered, just wondered…

Who's been hiding here?

Who’s been hiding here?

Species of bird seen today: cast in order of appearance
Wood Pigeon
House Sparrow (there is only really one bush where these guys hang out)
Black-headed Gull
Feral Pigeon
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Song Thrush
Wood Pigeon
Great-spotted Woodpecker
Long-tailed Tit
Carrion Crow
Stock Dove
Coal Tit
[all the above were seen in Bush Wood apart from the sparrows]
Tufted Duck
Mute Swan
Great-crested Grebe
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Parakeet
Greylag Goose
Common Gull
Grey Heron
Mistle Thrush
Green Woodpecker
Egyptian Goose
Pied Wagtail
[total seen today: 47]