Tag Archives: Cetti’s Warbler

Little Bunting: a crucial ten seconds in the cold rain

I woke up early this morning and dashed to the window to peak through the blinds. Just as a child on Christmas morning might be disappointed not to see a sprinkling of snow imprinted with fresh sled tracks and reindeer hoof-prints on the roofs, I was disappointed to see rain.

I checked Twitter and typed the words ‘Little Bunting‘ into the search bar and saw someone complaining that Walthamstow Wetlands didn’t open for another hour and a half.

I went back to bed.

I hadn’t slept well. Maybe it was because of the anxiety of whether I would life tick Little Bunting in London today (as one had been found the day before). Or maybe it was because of the huge quantity of caffeine I had imbibed last night to get me through Friday evening work and meetings. *shrugs*

By the time I was up and ready, it was late. I gathered my bins and camera and dashed out of the house at lightning waddle. I jumped into the bird-mobile and sped off … nowhere!

The car slouched forward sickeningly slowly like it was wading through treacle or like it had a flat tire… which it did. A neighbouring street recently suffered an attack where every single car on one side of the road had their tires slashed. Perhaps the perpetrator then came to my road to do one more car for good measure before going home for cocoa and bed, their good work done for the day.

Despite being very close, Leytonstone and Walthamstow are trickily connected (by which I mean Walthamstow has the audacity not to be on the Central Line). I didn’t want to waste precious moments running for buses in the rain, so I called an Uber. No, I am not proud.

Before long I was at the Walthamstow Wetlands (my first time there since they opened it as a new reserve) speed-walking past a very cold Tony who told me that the Little Bunting had just been seen once in the last two hours. I dutifully lined up with the green twitch brigade behind yellow and black tape as if we were witnessing a biohazard spillage.


I stood in the cold and wet for well over an hour. Every now and then buntings would pop up from the weeds and perch in a tree to survey the line of green, wet, almost-bald apes lined up watching them. None of them were the Little Bunting …until one of them was! Hurrah!

A problem with twitches is that people get a bit bored and lazy. There are so many of you standing and watching a bush that you might as well chat to your neighbours and not really watch as someone else will be definitely be keeping an eye out… won’t they? I had been quite diligent and was watching carefully – only partially listening to people arguing about London and Essex boundaries to my left – and saw a small flurry of activity as a bird flew up from the weeds into a bush. A well known listing birder called it before I had even focused my bins: “Little Bunting!” I didn’t have my scope with me but I stared at the perched bird briefly through my rain-misted bins. It looked rather like I have come to learn a Little Bunting should look like, although the angle with which I was observing was rather acute and the head features weren’t as clear as I would have liked, but reddish cheeks and dark crown were in my mind. This was exacerbated by the distance and rain, but tens of people were looking right at it with me, so, safety in numbers, no?

I then scrambled to get my camera out. The strap had somehow got tangled around the lens, making it difficult to extend it out as a manual zoom. I cursed silently. Eventually I managed to take a couple of shots without having time to adjust any settings. The bird had annoyingly now positioned itself so its head – containing all the crucial identification features – was obscured.


Obscured bunting

Then – and I realise this is a rather long story – something odd happened.  The bird flew horizontally out of the back of the bush but simultaneously managed to appear vertically and immediately above where it had just been. I didn’t let a minor issue, like the fact that it had broken multiple laws of physics, put me off taking lots of pictures of it in its new clearer position – head showing well and everything.  I was delighted! A life tick and photos to prove it! My delight subsided somewhat when I realised that the new bird I was photographing was not a Little Bunting with the ability to warp time and space, but rather a different bird altogether; a Reed Bunting.


Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

A confused minute or two followed as people looked at a female (in photo above) and then at a male Reed Bunting perched up whilst the Little Bunting was nowhere to be seen. There was some discussion about the LB and backs of cameras were studied. People seemed happy.

Soon after Mr B and then Mr L arrived (both of who have written their own accounts of the day on their blogs which you should also read if this one hasn’t sent you to sleep). We stood for a bit and I picked up two more year ticks: Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. As I had seen the Little Bunting, I left them to warm up and go and see the Scaup on Reservoir Number 4 (the area clearly ran out of  names for their reservoirs as they have so many). It showed well in the rain as it bobbed about with a little raft of Tufted Duck.


Scaup (Aythya marila) with Tufted Duck to the right

Jono and Lee B had great scope views of the Little Bunting whilst I was off looking at the Scaup (no, I’m not jealous at all). Jono and I then got public transport home together, happy with a good couple of hours birding.

But. Something was wrong. I searched back in my memory for the views I had of the Little Bunting. My first ever of the species in the field. They weren’t very good. In those crucial seconds when it was perched, I wasted time getting my camera out, and taking terrible photos. Photos which – as you can see above – don’t help me very much. In fact, photos which make the bird look suspiciously chestnutty in colour, almost as if it might have been a Reed Bunting. So what am I left with to support my life tick? Inconclusive photos, inconclusive memories of relatively poor views, but clear memories of other people calling it as a Little Bunting.

Sadly that is just not good enough. No life tick for me. The last Little Bunting seen in London was just over a decade ago. Maybe I’ll have to wait another decade to see one, or… maybe… I’ll try again tomorrow.


Reservoir 4 – where the Scaup was

UPDATE: To find out how I got on the following day, click here.


Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)


Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…


2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)


Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

White Wagtail

White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch


Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish


Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.


Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.


Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:


Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.


Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.


Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.


The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.


Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.


Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.


The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.


And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.


The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.


Wildlife notes: On pioneers and procreation on the patch

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

The Warbler of Oz

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

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

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


Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)

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

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

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

Other patch pioneers

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

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


Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Sexual stories

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

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

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


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

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

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

The next stage in the process

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


Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) with young on nest

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

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


Red Fox family (Vulpes vulpes)

Red-crested warbler day

There will now be a short interval before recommencing my Yucatan trip report story.

Back on the patch today with a BANG! Very little time to storytell, so I’ll be briefer than usual

Caught up with this little guy again…


‘Willowchaff’ the Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Before I left for Mexico, this Willow Warbler was jumping between Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler songs like a confused teenager. Today, he did a tiny bit of Chiffchaff, but was largely belting out his own proper song (you can watch the movie here).

Talking of belting out songs, I got a year tick just a tree or two away from old ‘Willowchaff’ with the high-volume songster, the Garden Warbler (you can also watch a video of this here)…


Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

…And later, at the other end of the patch, I was thrilled to hear “tchck…tchacklelacklelack…tchacklelacklelack”. No, it wasn’t the Hungarian Eurovision entry from 1976, it was the song of Cetti’s Warbler. The guys found it while I was away in Mexico (long-story cut short is this, once scarce, warbler is expanding its range and has been some time overdue a presence on the patch). I was worried as it hadn’t been heard for a bit, but I heard it sing its refrain three times (with multi-minute pauses in between) further down the River Roding than where found before, actually on the tiny Alders Brook. Big patch life tick.

So, a great day for Warblers – also a huge number of singing Blackcap and Whitethroat seemingly outnumbering Chiffchaff – was rounded off with a wonderful view of a pair of Reed Warbler on Shoulder of Mutton Pond (and small snippet of song from the – otherwise hopefully satisfied – male):


Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

Watching the Swifts dart around the sky over the ponds today (they arrived while I was away), I bagged another year tick with Hobby in hot pursuit of them or the accompanying House Martins.

In non birding news, I was pleased to catch-up with my first Grass Snake of the year, a juvenile curled up under a mat in the sun:


Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

But perhaps the biggest surprise was finding a feral Red-crested Pochard on Heronry Pond – a rare occasion where I was the finder of a good bird on the patch. A big patch life tick for me, and good patch year ticks for Bob, who arrived five minutes after I found it, and Jono who came along later to see it. At first I struggled to photograph it across the pond, but later walked around to the other side and found a gap just about big enough in the leaves to do a slightly better job of a record short:


Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

Whilst other regular patch-workers traveled off around the country scooping some super birds such as Great Spotted Cuckoo and Red-footed Falcon, I was genuinely without envy on the patch as it was just magical today.


Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)


The Roding and Ornamental Pond

A Big British Birding Year: Part III

To really get my numbers up for BBB, I visited one of my favourite sites just out of London: Rainham Marshes.


It lived up to its name, as it was impossible to walk all the way around without Wellington boots or getting very wet feet following the floods. But I did manage to see 17 more species of birds to get my numbers up to 48 for the year so far. This included some very common species I just hadn’t managed to photograph yet since 2014 began, such as:

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decoacto)

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decoacto)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

I also saw some fascinating behaviour from other common birds, such as great flocking activity from the thousands of Starlings found at Rainham:

Common Starling (Sturnis vulgaris)

Common Starling (Sturnis vulgaris)

… and a Swan feeding on Common Reed-mace – often called Bulrush – (Typha latifolia):

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Scanning the sky, I caught:

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

… and…

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

As is often the way, the most interesting (or rare) birds I photographed were often taken at enormous distances or were heavily obscured such as the merged two shots of a single male (top) and pair (bottom) of Stonechats:

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

…as well as…

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)


Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Rainham marshes is only a couple of big deluges away from succumbing to the mighty Thames estuary which runs right next to it:


The seawall is covered in plastic and other detritus, and I was incredibly lucky to photograph both Meadow and (the rarer) Rock Pipits (left and right respectively on the collage I have made below):

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), and Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), and Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus)

And finally, I was very pleased to capture the rare -ish (around 2000 breeding pairs in the UK) and incredibly shy Cetti’s Warbler. The explosively loud warbler is one of the most recent arrivals to the UK; first recorded breeding in the UK in 1973. Unfortunately, I only got heavily obscured shots like the two merged below:

Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti)

Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti)