Tag Archives: Essex birding

Two fuzzy firsts and the call of a Water Pipit

My weekend’s birding began pretty poorly with very little of interest showing on the Patch. So, hearing about Black-throated Diver – found by Lol Bodini – on one of the Walthamstow Reservoirs gave me more than enough excuse to try and get a London tick after lunch. This really was an excellent find by Lol and we are always willing to put aside our friendly patch rivalry when rarities like this appear – the first in East London for a few years.

When I arrived at Walthamstow I was lucky to bump into Lol (not ‘literally’ as we actually stood next to each other at the urinals in the visitor centre, so ‘bumping’ would have been problematic) who gave me the gen. With a bird like a diver on a reservoir, the thought didn’t really enter my mind that I might miss it, so I didn’t even rush.

Lockwood Reservoir is a big body of water, but much smaller than the giants like William Girling and King George V further north in the sequence.

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Lockwood Reservoir, Walthamstow

I was a little perturbed to find a birder who had been scanning for ten minutes with no success. I walked up along the east shore scanning the other shoreline in case it was tucked up against the side. I met two more local regulars coming the other way who passed on some more bad news; they had been watching the Diver (they even showed me some great back-of-camera shots) but then it had dived and hadn’t been seen again. That either meant it had drowned (pretty unlikely for a … err… diver), or that it had come  up a little way off and flown before they had noticed. Dipping a diver that had been seen only a few minutes before now seemed likely and galling.

But then my knight in shining armour appeared in the form of Stuart Fisher (wearing more of a tracksuit than a suit of armour, to be honest), zooming around the reservoir also looking for the recently departed Diver. We met Lol again as well and agreed that our best, but slim chance was to check Banbury Reservoir up the road. The only glitch being that Banbury is locked and inaccessible. But this is where the local knowledge of Stu Fisher was absolutely golden. He knew a spot on a housing estate on a hill where a sliver of the the reservoir was visible. Slim chance, but this was our only chink of hope.

We schlepped up there with me carrying my scope and peered through gaps in blocks of flats to look at the water in the background. By absolute luck, there it was – a whopping great diver with white flashes on its sides. Stu spotted it first and I was almost incredulous, and then elated. I felt a bit creepy and intrusive standing in front of people’s houses and staring through a telescope through gaps between buildings.

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Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica)

On Sunday I went to Rainham Marshes to try and see the Bittern that has occasionally been showing to people viewing from the Ken Barrett hide. As I sat in the hide I chuckled to myself about my patch colleague’s experience in here the week before, humorously (and rather controversially) recalled on his blog.

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View from the Ken Barrett hide

The Bittern didn’t show, and nor did much else of interest from the hide so I couldn’t bring myself to follow Jono’s lead and sit in there for hours waiting.

The sea-wall of the Thames was much more productive. Almost as soon as I arrived in the morning, I spotted the Black-bellied Brent Goose floating down (and later back up) the Thames (here comes another distant phone-scope record shot).

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Black-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla bernicla)

Two days, and two London firsts under my belt. But the sea wall had more to offer. Good numbers of Dunlin and Avocet occasionally took flight and whirled around the sky when something disturbed them.

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24 Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

By something, I mean like the Marsh Harrier which came in off the Thames and swept low right passed me (sadly while my camera was packed away). Or like the Short-eared Owl which pounced on something right on the water’s edge before slowly flapping away low along the shoreline.

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

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There were plenty of Meadow Pipit, as usual at Rainham, but I also saw and heard Rock Pipit moving up and down the shore. And occasionally a slightly different-sounding single call was heard (as I was able to hear both calls close by at roughly the same time, this is the first time I have been able to distinguish their calls in the field) and eventually a Water Pipit landed a little way off in front of me and fed in the grass – its white tail streaks showing clearly as it flew in and with a much paler breast than the Rock Pipits which also occasionally showed well.

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Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)

Finally, I also managed to get a year tick in the form of a single Ringed Plover on the Aveley Bay shoreline. I say finally, but it was actually one of the first birds I set eyes on when I arrived, but I never promised to tell my stories chronologically.

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Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

And because I can’t bring myself to sign-off a blog post with a terrible phone-scoped record shot, here was my view for much of the day:

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Looking down-river at Rainham

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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)

Wilson’s and a Wheatear with a river in between

Kent: Part I

A trip to Elmley Marshes in Kent just over a week ago allowed me to get pretty close to a Wheatear:

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

A Yellow Wagtail landed on another post almost as close but flew before I could point my lens at it. On the Safari-style drive out of Elmley, I found another feeding next to a cow:

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Elmley rarely fails to deliver a Marsh Harrier and my latest trip was no exception:

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

As I have described before, the vast, beautiful, but bleak wetland stretches out to become farmland. I took the photo below in March last year to show (just about) a Peregrine perched on a post outside of a barn:

Peregrine in front of barn

Peregrine in front of barn

I looked back in the same direction on my latest visit and found a Common Buzzard perched in a similar place to the Peregrine 17 months before. I focused my telescope on the Buzzard and it promptly took off. Any birder will know how hard it is to track a moving bird at high magnification, but I more or less managed it. Suddenly there was a flash of white in my eye-piece and I momentarily thought that Buzzard had somehow grabbed a passing gull. The Buzzard and the white bird tussled and span in mid air. It wasn’t a gull though, it was a Barn Owl. As I focused on the mid-air scrap, the Barn Owl seemed to be the better off and had clearly initiated the attack on the Buzzard. The birds parted and the Barn Owl flew back into the large window hole shown in my photo above of the barn. It had clearly taken umbrage at the Buzzard’s presence so close to the barn. I have no photographs of this rapid and distant incident, but it is a memory that will remain etched in my mind.

I walked back to the car park and past the Wheatear again on a slightly different post and now bathed in the golden light of early evening:

Wheatear

Wheatear

The photos are not exactly Jonathan Lethbridge standards, but I was pleased with them nonetheless.

As I left the reserve, the air was thick with Hirundines. Mainly Swallows, but also House and Sand Martins.

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

By the time I was turning out of the reserve I glanced to my right and saw that they had concentrated in a meadow where they almost swarmed quite possibly in their thousands.

I drove off a happy chap and went deeper into to Kent to visit a friend.

Kent: Part II
The following day, my friend and I drove out before dawn to Oare Marshes. The fantastic reserve juts out into The Swale – the thin strip of sea (despite appearances it is not a river) that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the Kent mainland:

The Swale

I had read about recent sightings on the Kent Ornithological Society website where a Messr Wright had written that, “The regular Hobby was in the lone Elder west of the road as usual first thing.” As we arrived in the pre-dawn gloom I looked west of the road and, sure enough, there was the the little falcon in the tree as described (excuse the poor phone-scoping):

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

We walked along the sea-wall and identified a number of waders on the muddy flats of the Swale including Curlew, Dunlin…

Winter plummage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left - it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

Winter plumage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left – it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

… and, Golden Plover:

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

As we turned down to face the Oare Creek, I saw two small terns fly past in the distance. I am at least 80% sure that they were Little Tern, birds I have only seen before in France, but they were just a little too distant for me to reliably give myself the UK tick.

Back inland, the actual Oare Marshes were coming alive with activity. Soon after we arrived, around 400 Black-tailed Godwit flew in:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Some of the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit

Aside from the ‘Blackwits’, there were snipe, little egrets and Ruff:

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) - a white variant male in breeding plumage

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – a white variant male in breeding plumage

Essex
Yesterday I drove North of the Thames into Essex to Vange Marsh:

Vange Marsh marked 'X' with Oare as 'Y' and Elmley, 'Z'

Vange Marsh marked ‘X’ with Oare as ‘Y’ and Elmley, ‘Z’ with the River Thames in between

I drove with a specific purpose. It was my first Essex twitch. A Wilson’s Phalarope has remained there for a few days. The rare American vagrant was just too much of a pull to miss, although soon after my arrival a hunting Marsh Harrier almost made sure that nobody else got to see this rarity. Luckily it survived the swooping attack.

After the long walk to the site, the frenetically-feeding tiny wader was just identifiable through the scope at maximum magnification:

Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Before screwing your face up too much at the shoddy image, please note that this bird is little bigger than a thrush, is almost a quarter of a mile away and is photographed through an iPhone pressed up to a scope eyepiece!

Distant it may have been, but that is a great rarity to have seen barely 40 minutes drive from my house. Stay tuned for more twitches likely in the future.

My trusty scope and the rest of 'the twitch'

My trust scope and the rest of ‘the twitch’