Tag Archives: East london birding

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

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Still waiting

So am I still waiting
For this world to stop hating
Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in

– Sum41, Still waiting

There is a curse. It is the patch birder’s ‘Catch 22’: do you wait for birds to visit your local patch, or do you go out and find them? Do the former and you can be left waiting for indefinite time. Do the latter and you might miss some patch gold.

And so it has been with Waxwing. The irruption of these gorgeous punks this winter has meant we have been waiting expectantly, looking at every berry-bearing tree with the hope of a child on Christmas Eve. Prominent trees have even been laced with apples. But the Waxwing have not come. Or, we have not seen them if they have.

This weekend I cracked. I left my patch and went in search of them elsewhere. We say ‘them’ because we always imagine a flock, but I saw a Rogue One. The lone X-wing… *ahem*, I mean… Waxwing (alright, I’ll quit with the Star Wars puns) has been a regular feature, delighting the crowds at the Rainham Marshes reserve for a few days now.

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Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

“You scoped it?”: This was one of my fellow patch birders’ response when he saw this photo. He has a point. The Waxwing was showing exceptionally well and close in. To understand why I didn’t get a better shot with my camera, instead of a digiscoped view with phone and  scope, is its own little story about patience and waiting: or lack of…

I did get a few shots with my camera, but was unlucky with the position of the light and obscuring branches etc etc. But really, the truth is the fact that makes me a terrible twitcher: I simply hate crowding round a bird like a paparazzi scrum around a Kardashian. Whilst everyone waddled from bush to bush as the Waxwing moved from perch to berry-larder, I sometimes stayed behind and trained my camera on something else instead. Like a Fieldfare for example – only too happy to mop up the excess fruit intended for our Bohemian visitor.

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Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

And then I abandoned the scene altogether to walk around the rest of the reserve in rather more peace.

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Great Tit (Parus major)

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza shoeniclus)

As you would expect with Rainham – the estuary walk from Stone Barges and the reserve itself – there were some pleasurable bird sightings and a total of 15 year ticks for the day – January is great like that. Redshank fed and called loudly to each other across the mud, a few Black-tailed Godwit  scoured the waterline shores whilst flocks of tiny Dunlin whirred over their heads and bigger flocks of bigger Lapwing took to the skies and back down again to the ponds with their characteristic jitteriness. Curlew and Snipe alerted me to their presence by dropping in from the sky. Birding from dawn until after dusk I watched gulls move to and from their roosts, with my first Great Black-backed Gulls of the year marching up and down on the decks of static boats like attentive sea captains.

Hundreds of Teal were joined by even larger flocks of Wigeon alongside a smattering of Shelduck and even >16 Pintail.I also felt a shred of envy as I watched flocks of over thirty Skylark (we never get that many on the patch – the dogs and habitat destruction undoubtedly help ensure that).

Patience was rewarded a little on the river walk…

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Thames at Rainham (I have taken nearly exactly the same picture almost every time I visit).

Rock Pipit bobbed up and down the man-made river banks and flood defences, whilst their  meadow cousins seemed to be put up in the air from almost every patch of grass I walked past. But it was the subtly different markings, and colouration, that drew my attention to a pipit feeding in the mud. It was only when it took off that I could see the bright white on the sides of the tail that I felt fully sure in calling it as the third of the ‘common’ pipits: Water Pipit (a bird I didn’t even see once last year). When I later met another birder  who described seeing a ‘Wipit’ in exactly the same place, I felt even more comfortable about my tick. Unfortunately my efforts to identify it in the field meant that my camera was still in my bag when it flew off towards London.

Later that afternoon, I went back to my patch to test my patience again in my two-year long patch search for Little Owl and Woodcock – they are becoming like patch-bogey birds of mine. My dusk-walks through the copses produced no owls and so I walked over to the Roding to stake-out the Woodcock that apparently, like clockwork, sails out of the woodland and over the river to begin its nocturnal feeding on the golf course every evening. I have tried this waiting game before, and once with serial Woodcock-watcher, Nick, but yet again went home empty handed (or without the tick, in case my metaphor leads you to believe I would be vile enough to join the ‘hunters’ who shoot the declining populations of these wonderful birds).

Standing by the river as the sky turned from red to purple to dark blue, I turned it even bluer as I cursed and muttered about late-evening golfers and a UFO (that’s Unwanted Flying Object, rather than ‘Unidentified’) that buzzed around like some loathsome mechanical insect, and I was sure dissuaded Mr or Mrs Woodcock from leaving his/her daytime woodland lair until after we had all disappeared and (s)he could be alone with his/her darkness and worms.

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Drone over the golf course

And so I went home, still waiting, but happy at a full day of birding. I left the world of the wild and re-entered the human world and reflected on the ‘hating’ and intolerance that seem so prevalent at the moment. My fleeting sadness at not seeing a Woodcock was replaced by a deeper and uglier melancholy over some of the actions our ‘so called’ leaders are taking. The day began with a punk, the Waxwing, and so my post ends, as it began, with the punk lyrics of Sum41:

Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in*

* I am not yet at the stage of punk-cynicism where I have lost hope, but then… I am not a Syrian refugee escaping terror and being told I am not welcome anywhere.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIX (birding in mist and fog)

A foggy patch

The Wanstead Flats often wears a coat of early-morning mist.

Western Flats at dawn

Western Flats at dawn

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Two weekends ago I walked around mesmerised by the familiar landscape and how different it can appear. As the sun rose, the mist disappeared like it was a mirage, and the day blazed with early-autumn warmth.

Water Rail
At the other end of the patch, literally the eastern extremity from my home in the West, I bumped into Bob Vaughn by the river Roding. He had just been watching two Water Rail wade and swim against the flow of the river. We stayed together for a while and eventually Bob spotted one of them in the distance gingerly poking its head out of the reeds in that way that rails do. That was my 94th patch tick of the year.

It was a long way away, but I managed to get this snap of it in the distance:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

If your BS detector isn’t squealing at you now like a water rail, then it should be. The photo above is actually one I took in January of this year at Rainham when I was literally a few feet away from the bird which was out in the open – a highly unusual situation. The actual photo I took in Wanstead wasn’t quite as good:

Water Rail

I stayed ‘with’ the rail for about an hour and was peering at the place where it had been from across the river when a pig started squealing beneath my feet. Of course, it wasn’t a pig. It was the other water rail hidden deep in the reeds below me.

Misty river
The following weekend I drove out to the Thames at Rainham in Essex. The area is known as ‘stone barges’ after the concrete and steel barges moored there – it blows my mind that these things actually floated, but apparently they were actually used during the second world war to transport fuel (I am feeling slightly scared I am being gullible just writing this).

Unlike the low carpet of fog on the patch the weekend before, the Thames at Rainham was engulfed in mist.

I walked along, with my scope, watching Redshank, tens of Meadow Pipits, a probable Tree Pipit, a distant Wheatear, loads of skylark, and a Stonechat (some of them captured far better than I did by local birder, Shaun Harvey, who I met along the way). A dog-walker stopped me and commented that it wasn’t very good weather to take photos. I was a bit confused as I wasn’t taking photos, I was looking through a spotting scope, but I exchanged pleasantries and walked on.

It was only after we had parted ways that I realised how much I disagreed with the man. It is true that the cloud joined earth and sky with a blurring or negating of horizon like some bridge between the elements, but just as watercolour often displays a washed out bleakness in art, so can the camera pick up some of the mood of this weather. Perhaps pathetic fallacy in action, although my mood was pretty good and clear but I just wanted to show I haven’t forgotten my literary terms from my days in academia:

Thames at Rainham

Thames at Rainham

Thames

Thames

Later that day I also visited the nearby RSPB reserve – on the other side of the gigantic rubbish dump from Stone Barges – where I listened to numerous Cetti’s Warbler with their calls exploding out of the mist and watched a distant Heron move through the dense atmosphere; the moisture in the air removing most of the colour from the scene, but none of the beauty:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

And eventually, that evening, when the fog had gone (if you are questioning my use of ‘mist’ and ‘fog’ interchangeably, I believe I am correct in understanding these blurry weather forms are indeed blurred in definition as well), I raised my eyes to the newly blue sky. There in the far and high distance, was a dot. That dot was a soaring Marsh Harrier, that I ambitiously pointed my camera at:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

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
Starling
Goldfinch
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
Wren
Robin
Wood Pigeon
Great-spotted Woodpecker
Long-tailed Tit
Magpie
Carrion Crow
Blackbird
Sparrowhawk
Stock Dove
Cormorant
Goldcrest
Coal Tit
Dunnock
[all the above were seen in Bush Wood apart from the sparrows]
Tufted Duck
Mute Swan
Mallard
Pochard
Great-crested Grebe
Gadwall
Coot
Moorhen
Shoveler
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Parakeet
Buzzard
Kestrel
Greylag Goose
Common Gull
Jackdaw
Grey Heron
Mistle Thrush
Greenfinch
Jay
Green Woodpecker
Egyptian Goose
Pied Wagtail
Linnet
[total seen today: 47]

A Big Birding Year: Part XXV (Mavis the song lover)

Of the 25 most common garden birds, until very recently, two species eluded the click of my Canon shutter as I have sought to photograph as many species as possible this year: Song Thrush and Bullfinch.

While house renovation and one or two other matters have kept me from birding and blogging recently, I did get out a couple of weeks ago and rectified one of those avian omissions.

I don’t think I will get bored of posting early morning shots of the Wanstead Flats…

Wanstead Flats

But instead of walking out onto the flats proper, I took a sharp left and went for a short walk through Bush Wood, the most north-westerly tip of the flats and the most densely wooded part (I have hastily sketched my walk below):

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

In the middle of the wood…

Bush Wood

… I finally caught up with my old friend, Mavis, my 99th species of bird photographed this year:

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

The rather unfashionable girl’s name, Mavis, is actually an ancient word for Thrush:

“I have heard the mavis singing its love-song to the morn” – Charles Jefferys c.1850

The Song Thrush is well named as the male has one of the loudest bird calls for its weight and can sing more than 100 phrases. It is also an expert mimic, able to copy other birds as well as mobile phone rings – basically anything it likes the sound of. The scientific name also reflects this skill; Philomelos means ‘song loving’ in Ancient Greek. [If you want to read a truly harrowing tale of rape, tongue-removal, revenge, cannibalism, and metamorphosis, then read about the ancient greek myth of Philomela captured by Ovid which inspired Shakespeare’s brutal Titus Andronicus]

Mavis had led me on a merry dance this year – a relatively common (although worryingly declining) species that took me 11 months to track her down – but eventually she let me take her photograph (no matter how poorly that came out) only a couple of minutes walk from my home.

I would like to see a resurgence in the popularity of the name Mavis, as it represents one of the most iconic singers in the Eurasian animal kingdom, whilst I believe Philomela is a name so closely related to tragedy that it is best left to antiquity.

A Big Birding Year: Part XX (Room 101)

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” – O’Brien, 1984, George Orwell

I thought I would dedicate my 101st blog post as iago80 to ‘Room 101’. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my, and 25 million other people’s, favourite book. However, instead of really staying true to the 20th century classic novel, I am actually following the model of the 1990’s British television programme, ‘Room 101’, where celebrities would attempt to persuade the host to put their pet hates in 101.

Birding is probably my favourite hobby, and it gives me enormous pleasure, but there are many things about it that drive me up the wall. For the sake of brevity and not whinging too much, I shall suggest the two things which part of me would like to send to Room 101 about birding, but should actually have rejected as they are crucial to the challenge and success of the pastime…

Room 101 for birding

1.People: Having slight misanthropic tendencies or a general need to be away from people for periods of time, you would think that birding would be the ideal hobby for me. In actual fact, to be a good birder, and certainly to be a good twitcher (I’ll explain the difference another time if you don’t already know), you need to rely on other people to work as a community to show each other where interesting birds are lurking. I often and reluctantly sidle up to a group of birders with their scopes trained on some distant patch of water, reed-bed, or bush and hate myself for asking the cliched, “seen anything interesting?”, “anything about?”, or “what have you got?”

2. Birds are always so far away and so frightened of everything! We do our best to make them come near us by: hiding inside funny wooden shelters; wearing camouflaged clothing; attempting to make them think we are one of them by mimicking their voices (the beautifully named, pishing), and using special eye contraptions such as binoculars or spotting scopes. However, to take a photograph of a bird, even with a zoom lens, you need it to be surprisingly and awkwardly close. Unless, that is, you spend half of the Greek deficit on a huge and heavy super-lens.

In this series of blog posts, I have been counting how many species of UK wild birds I could photograph in a year. This has meant I have had to post a lot of rubbish… distant fuzzy blobs that I tell everyone is a rare bird. And so it was with my 93rd species of the year:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This Whinchat was photographed at the Waterworks nature reserve in East London. As its name suggests this small reserve is a former water treatment plant and you can clearly see the different treatment pools from space despite nature reclaiming it (with a bit of help from man) – the red ‘W’ shows where I saw the Whinchat:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Numbers of Whinchat breeding in the UK have sadly and inexplicably halved in less than 15 years. Furthermore, they do not breed in London or much of the South East so this individual was almost certainly a passage migrant, stopping off at this tiny patch of London greenery before continuing its journey to Sub-Saharan Africa where it will spend the Winter.