Tag Archives: Epping Forest

Running after a frit

The patch butterfly list is a small, but well formed, thing. Only 29 species of butterfly have been found locally (half the UK total). There has been bad news over the years (the disappearance of Wall) and good news – namely in recent findings and growth in numbers of hairstreaks.

My personal patch list has a couple of omissions. Despite working hard to get White-letter Hairstreak, it is still missing, as is the migrant Clouded Yellow. However, my list did grow by one when I became only the second or third person to see Silver-washed Fritillary in Wanstead Park.

Christian M. found the first one ever for our local records just a few days ago and so I was a man on a mission yesterday. A local naturalist, Jack D., and I had tantalising glimpses of a fast flying fritillary whilst we lurked in likely areas. But, kindly, Jack came to call me back after I had moved on when he re-found it settled. I ran faster than I have for some time.

And there, flapping around some brambles and nettles, was the large, orange beauty. I did not have my camera ready and so only managed a distant shot with my iPhone which only barely counts as a record shot.

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Underside showing pale streaks of Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

Luckily, while I was sprinting back (it probably looked more like laboured jogging to the observer, but it felt like a scene from Chariots of Fire to me) Jack had managed to capture some better photos with his camera. I duly stole some back-of-camera shots off him for my records and to remind me of the good, but brief, views we had of this graceful giant.

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My iPhone shot of photo courtesy of Jack Delabye

Considering the first ever Purple Hairstreak was only recorded for the site in the last few years, it is now doing extremely well and can be found in large numbers around the many oaks we have. Let’s hope S-W Frit and others soon follow its success.

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Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus)

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Woodland hunt

WARNING! This blog post contains images which some readers may find disturbing (due to their horrendous quality)

“If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” is something none of the Wanstead birders said ever. Bush Wood is not my local birding colleagues’ favourite part of the Patch, largely because it doesn’t seem to be the interesting-migrant-magnet that other parts, such as ‘the Brooms’, are. However, it is recognised as being useful for patch lists due to the woodland specialist birds that can be found there.

I don’t think I am doing any of the other local birders a dis-service by stating that I have a better relationship with Bush Wood than most. I think this is for a few reasons, but two of which are: it is the closest part of the Patch to my house (alongside School Scrub) and so I feel a certain neighbourly loyalty to it; and, oak -dominated woodland is probably my favourite British habitat (rare birds or no rare birds).

As this weekend began, I was also acutely aware that my patch year list was missing several of the woodland specialist birds that draws even the most grudging Bush Wood birder to undertake a reconnoitre, namely: Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Firecrest, and Coal Tit. All four birds were missing from my list as I walked into Bush Wood rather late yesterday morning (yes, I was a bit hungover).

In case the ensuing field notes and terrible photos are too much to bear, I will cut to the chase and reveal that I ended the day with two of the four birds ticked off.

Field notes

Within a few seconds of entering the wood I heard and saw Goldcrest, but their scarcer cousins were nowhere to be found. I walked through the wood very slowly, stopping whenever I was ‘in the birds’ (I’m sure anyone who has done any woodland birding knows what I mean by that expression). Tit flocks came and went. Great Tit, Blackbird, Robin, and Wren were all out defending territories. Great Spotted Woodpecker chased each other around, at one point with four on a single tree with plenty of calls and drumming involved. There was also the odd yaffle from a Green Woodpecker, and the inescapable squawks of the dreaded Ring-necked Parakeets, but even the parakeets were outvoiced in the woodland that day. Invisble Jays filled the wood with terrible screams as they communicated with each other from within their protected bowers. But even after some time of searching, I had not encountered any of my target species.

I walked to the North East corner of the wood, past the thick twisted girths of the ancient planted Sweet Chestnuts. The area around the keeper’s lodge is, I have found, one of the best places to encounter Coal Tit on the Patch. But it seemed only Blue Tit were to be found darting from oak, through holly, to oak.

At this point a couple jogging emerged – old friends of mine it transpired, so we stopped to talk (or rather they stopped to talk with me – I was already stationary). A little while into our chat, I tried not to appear distracted as a thin and sharp bird call pierced through leaves and pierced through my consciousness. It was the song of the Coal Tit. After my friends jogged on, I peered through holly and eventually caught sight of my quarry:

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Even in the poor quality photo above, the greenish back of our ‘britannicus‘ subspecies is distinctive.

And so I left Bush Wood with only one of my target species ticked off after about one hundred minutes of hard searching. But, I did not leave woodland; I merely crossed the bisecting road into Reservoir Wood (so named because it was once the location of a man-made lake on the grounds of the demolished Wanstead House, called the ‘Reservoir’)

A group of young film-makers in hi-vis jackets were working in the wood making a distraction for dog-walkers and a birder alike. But there was another hi-vis sight I wanted, and soon got. squinting up at the bare tree-tops a couple of Goldcrest moved around, but there was another similar-sized bird that seemed to be behaving slightly differently. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but as it dropped down a little in altitude, the green complemented by those wonderful face markings became, momentarily visible: my first Firecrest for the year, and my first ever in Reservoir Wood came into view. I include the dreadful shot – high bird against blanched sky – below as a reminder, if not a celebration, of the snatched glances of the wonderful feathered jewels that we must normally accept as our experience of a Firecrest.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus)

Eventually emerging from the wood, the great dome of sky opened up and seemed to be filled with the voice of a single soprano. Perched at the very top of an exposed tree next to Shoulder of Mutton pond was the relatively unusual patch sight of the Storm Cock in full song; our few Mistle Thrush do not seem – to my mind anyway – to sing as often as one might expect.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

My search for Nuthatch and Treecreeper continues.

A tale of two winters

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Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:

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‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:

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Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

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Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):

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Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:

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Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:

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Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:

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White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:

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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.

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:

Oak

Or how about this for an interestingly shaped tree?

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
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 XIII (“Look Mum, no feet!”)

Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats is the most southerly tip (albeit disconnected from the rest) of Epping Forest. It is totally surrounded by East London’s urban sprawl. I visited for the first time this weekend (and for less than an hour as I got rained on quite heavily).

If you want to see how a really slick birder blogs about this place, check out the Wanstead Birder (I seem to be blocked from linking to him on this site)

I did not take any good photos, but whilst I was ferreting around in some bushes trying to photograph a Green Woodpecker (honestly Officer!), I looked up through a gap in the branches and saw the unmistakeable shape of my 83rd species of bird for the year: my first swift of the season (rather later than normal). I yanked my camera lens towards the sky and just managed to catch a blurry shape as it whizzed by…

Common Swift (Apus apus)

Common Swift (Apus apus)

The Latin name for the Swift means ‘no feet’. This is not strictly true, but it is true that this unsurpassed natural flying machine does have very small feet indeed. As I like to regale to people in an attempt to impart some wonder as an explanation for my geeky hobby, a young Swift will wobble to the edge of its nest and when it eventually fledges / takes off (if it survives) it will not touch land again for around 3 years until it is old enough to breed (just to re-cap in case anyone hasn’t got what I mean, the bird will be permanently airborne – sleeping and eating and everything – for years!)

I intend to return to Wanstead Flats to explore the birdlife more another time.