Tag Archives: Chiffchaff

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.


Paean to Phoenicurus and the other patch-breeding birds

Being away from the Patch when the Autumn passage migration begins is never easy. It is made easier by having the privilege of a second patch in a different country in which to holiday.

Common Redstart has been seen again in the East London patch; a bird I hope to catch up with when I return. But I can’t complain. On the French patch, Common Redstart are also migrants, but they stick around and breed over the summer rather than just pass through as with London.


Immature male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

I love redstarts: they are stunning birds with bags of character and are relatively bold affording us with great views. Sadly, the only bird not showing fantastically well was the mature breeding male – the best shot I managed was this:



Female, left, and young male, right

They will soon head back to Africa. However, their similarly red-tailed relatives, the Black Redstart – that have also bred successfully – will stick around as they are full year residents. The family that breed year after year by the house beat their ‘common’ cousins as being the most showy of the patch birds.


Juvenile Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

It has been great to watch young birds be fed, learn to feed themselves, and grow. Other birds visibly doing the same thing on the French Patch have been Stonechat – with immature birds perching up every now and again, and several of the resident and migrant-breeding warblers. The most successful sylvians here have always been the Subalpine Warblers and I have spent hours this trip watching families of this warbler making the most of the early autumn berry bonanza to supplement their invertebrate diet.


Male Subalpine warbler (Sylvia cantillans)


Male with juvenile


Male feeding juvenile

There are, of course, several other breeding birds on the French Patch that have not proved as easy to observe. August can be a tricky month in that respect as birds are so quiet – there has been very little song. In fact, it can lead one to – sometimes incorrectly – conclude that birds have already migrated. I have only had brief views of Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, and Melodious Warbler with barely even a call out of any of them.


Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

In may and early June the land is alive with the song of prospecting and protective males of multiple species. Most beautiful, of course, is the Nightingale. I haven’t seen a single one of these notoriously shy songsters and had concluded they had left for the South when I was treated to a few grating calls and even a short burst of sub-song from deep within the scrub.

There are also some more exotic migrants which I will return to in a different post.


The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.


Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…


Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.


Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:


Unknown fungi

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.


Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.


Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.


Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.


Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.


Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

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.


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)