Tag Archives: Firecrest

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.

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The Maquis

The Maquis is a fictional terrorist/paramilitary organisation in Star Trek (DS9, TNG, and VOY – if you don’t know what these abbreviations mean, you probably won’t want to know) that has been formed to fight against the Cardassian (think quasi-fascist, sharp witted, scaly aliens)/Federation (the ‘goodies’ in Star Trek) alliance. They are roughly based on…

The Maquis were a terrorist/paramilitary organisation in France and (later) Spain fighting against fascist Nazi-dominated Vichy France and later the quasi-fascist Franco regime. They were named after the type of terrain they were famous for occupying and carrying out their activities…

The Maquis is a shrubland biome/ecoregion, that, along with the even scrubbier garrigue, is recognised as typical mediterranean habitat. It happens to be a major feature of the land in my birding ‘patch’ in the extreme South of France.

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Maquis on the patch, with a hunters’ track carving through it

Rather like the barren uplands of the UK that many, who haven’t read George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’, perceive to be the epitome of British wilderness, people are mistaken in thinking that  this is ‘natural’ or ‘original’ (whatever that word means in evolving ecosystems) Mediterranean habitat. Hundreds and thousands of years of agriculture has deforested (and then inevitably de-soiled) the land leaving it only fertile enough for stunted and hardy plants to grow.

On steep hillsides where soil erosion has been most intense, the Maquis has diminished to the extent that it resembles alkaline garrigue biome:

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Sparse hilly maquis resembling garrigue, also on the patch

Sometimes the vegetation is further cropped by a herd of voracious mouths whose bells give away their presence long before you see them:

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But in other parts of the patch, less affected by agriculture or, at least less recently affected, a natural process of rewilding is occurring and thicker, denser, taller forest is returning (looking much closer to how the land would have looked before the spread of human civilisation and agriculture) – impenetrable apart from wild boar paths and where the hunters’ tracks carve through the landscape like giant ochre scars:

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Holm Oak, Phillyrea, and Box woodland

It is fascinating to observe how the wildlife changes depending on the subtle variations of maturity of the Maquis. Inevitably, the thickest woodland, often on steep slopes, is the hardest to monitor, but is well populated with Short-toed Treecreeper which occasionally break out of the woodland and make an appearance closer to the house:

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Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) on ‘Heinrich’ the totem/statue

It seems – certainly in Spring when they call and sing a lot – that Firecrest is the most common bird on the patch. As long as there is a bush or two, Firecrest are common throughout every level of vegetation:

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Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

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Firecrest with crest on full display

Sardinian Warblers are present throughout the year in the bushes, and had started singing – occasionally even conducting low flurries of song-flight before disappearing back into their bushes (often Kermes Oak I have noticed). By the time we had arrived in late March, the Subalpine Warblers had arrived in large numbers. In Spring and Summer, they appear to be the most numerous warbler, overtaking their resident sylvian cousins, the sardis.

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Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

If the Subalpine and Sardinian warblers take the 1st and 2nd spot, Chiffchaff (which had also arrived in March) must be number three:

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I would allocate the fourth podium (when is there ever a fourth podium?) back to the sylvians with Blackcap – some of which probably overwinter closing off the warblers I saw whilst there for a couple of weeks early this Spring.

Melodious Warbler, a relatively common summer breeding bird on the patch had not yet arrived even by the end of the first week in April (incidentally, neither had our watch of Nightingales).

Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits seem to love the variety of Maquis vegetation, whilst Blue Tits are frequent, but less common. Crested Tits will occasionally show themselves in the Aleppo Pine woodland on the hill, but I didn’t find any on this trip (higher up in the Pyrenees, they are everywhere!) And, of course, where there are lots of tits and other small woodland birds, you inevitably also get:

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Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Sparrowhawk is common, but perhaps not seen as frequently – in season – as Short-toed Eagle:

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Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Sadly I did not see any Hen Harrier on this visit to the patch (although I did see one elsewhere in France) as they are true masters of the Maquis scrub.

Whilst the maquis may help dictate the type of avifauna found, almost anything can soar above it. On this trip I was genuinely thrilled to see a pair of Golden Eagle soaring effortlessly over the hills:

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Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Just as oblivious as to what vegetation is on the ground, was my first patch crag martin.

Falling back to earth and thinking back to the Aleppo Pine, a rather unwelcome resident is the Pine Processionary Moth, or rather its caterpillars which march nose-to-tail across paths like blind mice. The hairs on this caterpillar can cause extreme irritation – especially if inhaled or if blown into your eyes. Allergic reactions to this have proved fatal for dogs and other animals. The caterpillars feed on pine needles, and if infested with multiple nests, the de-nuded trees might become susceptible to other forms of parasitic attack, but research shows that they are not quite as damaging to trees as some fear. I would also love to see research on the strength of the silk they weave as their nests are phenomenally tough:

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Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)

In more open areas of the Maquis, different birds seem to thrive.

Cirl Bunting are common and flit between bushes and trees to deliver their fast rattling songs, but I was even more pleased to find Rock Bunting for the first time on the Patch:

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Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia)

Occasionally, on walks, I would push through the spikes of Juniper or Kermes Oak bushes (almost everything on the patch has a defence mechanism) and flush some ground dwelling larks. On my patch in London, Skylarks are the feature bird, delivering their famous songs from high in the sky and often rising and fluttering down almost vertically. In the French patch, Woodlarks fill this niche and perform their songflight in great circling loops.

In the most open areas – on paths, meadows, and lawns near the houses, the Black Redstart is king. I find the male’s song quite extraordinary, sounding like crushed gravel after a bunch of initial whistles. They breed in the houses and ruins:

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Female Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Occasionally, the clearings and paths attract the stunning Hoopoe. This time I stopped the car to take photos of it on the track in to the house:

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Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Overall, it is a fascinating privilege to watch the birds utilise different aspects of the varied stages of maquis development, and to watch the land slowly, but inexorably rewild.

 

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XX (Discovering fire)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

Firecrest (Regulus ignacapilla)

The Firecrest is probably one of my favourite birds. Its minute size compensated by its stunning markings and colours and its restless energy.

Bush Wood is almost like a patch within a patch for me. The wood is right on my doorstep; it is the first part of the patch that I come to and it is where I have spent the greatest amount time, both birding and surveying. It is also relatively ‘under-worked’ by the other Wanstead Birders (for a variety of reasons I expect, including the fact that it isn’t exactly famous for producing rarities).

So, one of my patch-ambitions this year has been to find a Firecrest in Bush Wood. It is believed they may have bred there in the past, but they now seem largely to be winter visitors – almost certainly migrants from the frozen North of Europe. As Goldcrest numbers have swelled this Autumn, I have been picking through each one in Bush Wood willing gold to turn into fire, almost like some next-level alchemy.

So imagine my mix of delight and disappointment, two weeks ago precisely, when I received a text from Jono (the original ‘Wanstead Birder’) saying he had found one (actually two) in Bush Wood (chronicled with his usual wit, here). I was in bed battling heroically with a particularly life-threatening bout of man-flu (I have still to shake the cough two weeks later). My emotions and thought-processes spanned through a range of: “Amazing news!”; “Oh God! I’m too poorly to go out and twitch it”; and, “Why wasn’t it ME finding it dag nammit!”

I dutifully wrapped up so much I could barely bend my joints and waddled out snivelling to search for it. Jono had sent across really quite excellent directions to find this particularly colourful needle in in a haystack, which included a photo of a nearby tree he had cunningly adorned to flag the location (see bottom of blog-post).

I found the secret tree – some way off the beaten track – and stood and wandered about, watching, listening, attempting to pish (Nick told me today that my Firecrest whistle sounded more like a Dunnock which was … lovely of him), and playing a tape of actual Firecrest calls (which do not sound like Dunnock), all whilst sniffing, sneezing, and coughing. After about 30 minutes of not even seeing a Goldcrest, I went home disappointed.

The following weekend, I felt even worse, so I stayed in bed. This weekend I was determined to discover my Firecrest. But I was distracted. Tony had seen the 1st winter Caspian Gull which has been pondered over, definitively identified, and has been seen on and off for a week or two on the patch (assuming it is one and the same bird). Being that is a much rarer visitor than a Firecrest, I couldn’t ignore it, so I walked around a lot of the patch studying every gull I came across (that is many hundred today). It seems to have flown – hopefully just temporarily – and so I dipped it.

I met up with Nick and we walked to Long Wood where he had recently seen and photographed a pair of Firecrest. Nick played Firecrest song and calls as we walked along and we eventually reached the bushes where he had seen them. A few metres further and Nick stopped. I looked where he was looking and saw a red dot in the bush. Literally just a blazing orangey-red dot, but I knew what it was.

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

Look at the crest on that! Phwoar!

The male above would relax and tense its burning crown, so that sometimes it was as red as a stop-light and other times yellow and orange:

Firecrest

Firecrest

But it was joined by a second, possibly a female (albeit there are probably fewer females in the UK compared to males – due, I expect, to the need for males to be closer to breeding grounds so they can secure better territories quickly):

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

Female or just the same/different male with a yellowy tightly closed crest?

These photos are not the best, but I am pleased with them as Firecrest never stay still and are damned hard to pin down.

Later on, I left Nick and walked in the rain back to Bush Wood. I had a map in my head of where I was going to walk to maximise my chances of finding fire, and it began with Jono’s secret tree:

Jono's secret tree

Jono’s secret tree

In fact, my search also ended with Jono’s tree. After studying the holly all around me, and listening hard, I brought out my phone and played Firecrest calls. Nothing. I then resorted to playing Firecrest song – not something I particularly enjoy doing in December. After a few seconds, high up over the holly sailed a dart of orange and green straight towards me. When it saw me it turned sharply down and to the side and swung deep into the holly. I watched the Firecrest, another male, flit through the branches until it disappeared deep into the bush, I heard it call a few times more but then like the smoke that follows fire, it faded and disappeared. My first self-found Firecrest in Bush Wood, on the patch, and in London. It didn’t stay still or visible long enough to capture in pixels, but it confirms to me what others already knew, that we have more than one pair of Firecrests on the patch.

My 98th species on the patch this year, but so much more. I had discovered fire in my wood.

Summer stories of France: Part II (A melody of warblers and Lulu)

Apparently, the collective noun for warblers is a “bouquet”, or a “fall”, or a “wrench”! If that isn’t confusing enough, another term for a group of warblers is a “confusion”.

In my ‘patch’ in the Aude region of the extreme South of France there are Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs much as I would find back in my home patch of the Wanstead Flats. But these are outnumbered massively by Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers:

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia Cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia Cantillans)

In the mediterranean scrub that characterises the area, there seems to be barely a hedge that doesn’t contain a ticking or rattling warbler. Despite their prevalence, both species remain well hidden and often unseen, only rarely showing themselves.

Conversely, the Melodious Warbler is far bolder and sings loudly from prominent perches:

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta)

Indeed, one of these polyglots followed me for some time, sounding its alarm call loudly as it flitted angrily from branch to branch (undoubtedly protecting a nest) – a scene I briefly tried to capture on video (click here to watch or here to watch one sing)

Melodious Warbler

Another bird which I suspect breeds on the land, and which I videoed singing its wonderful declining song, is the Woodlark, or Alouette lulu in French (I think the French definitely win with that name). Many of us will know the song “Alouette, gentille alouette” as a cute French children’s song. But we might find it a little less cute if you know enough French to translate it:

“I’ll pluck the feathers off your back.
Off your back!
Off your tail!
Off your legs!
Off your wings!
Off your neck!
Off your eyes!
Off your beak!
Off your head!
Little lark!
O-o-o-oh”

…All for the crime of disturbing someone with its song!

The house in France is old and stone and has previously been used by nesting Wrynecks. This year, somewhere in the house, barn, or ruin, were a family of Black Redstart. By the end of our stay, I had counted three fledglings along with the adult female and male:

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Here is the full list of birds I recorded on the patch during our week there (cast in order of appearance):
Meolodious warbler
Cirl Bunting
Cuckoo
Nightingale (video)
Serin
Subalpine Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Blackcap
Short-toed Eagle
Blackbird
Great Tit
Greenfinch
Goldfinch
Black Redstart
Barn Swallow
Raven
Linnet
Stonechat
Firecrest
Dunnock
Red-legged Partridge
Honey Buzzard
Bee-eater
Woodlark
Swift
Chaffinch
Crested Tit
Turtle Dove
Long-tailed Tit
Hen Harrier
Wood Pigeon
(31)

P.S. It blows my mind how many common birds aren’t present on the land, but how some wonderful birds seem to take their place e.g., no Carrion Crows or Jackdaws, but Ravens and Choughs instead. If you didn’t know you were in mountain country from the scenery, the birds present would soon tell you.

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Firsts in France

Six years ago, on my first visit to the Southern French district of Aude, I saw my first and only Crested Tit. Despite travelling to this part of France at least annually ever since (here is my blog post from my visit last year), it wasn’t until my visit this April, that I saw this beautiful bird again. As with all the birds in the remote valley, they are shy and not easy to photograph, but this time I just managed to capture him in pixels:

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

When the sun shines in the valley, even in April, it can feel like it is perpetually blessed (and sometimes scorched) by Mediterranean heat (my wife’s family home can just be seen to the right of the picture below):

The valley

But lest anyone forgets that the valley sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the weather can change with frightening speed (that seems the calling card of mountainous lands); cloudless blue can be replaced by a river of fog in the space of a few hours (normally overnight):

in the clouds

I spent the days creeping through thickets trying to photograph the shy bird-life with only moderate success. Whilst we enjoyed the liquid tunes of several Nightingale throughout the days, the famous singers only let me get within maximum zoom-lens distance…

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

…And despite large numbers of Warblers making themselves known to me through their clicks, calls, and songs, they rarely poked their heads above the thick vegetation to let me snap them (the stunning Sub-Alpine Warbler is joined in the valley by enough of its fellow species to surely be of scientific interest, but watching – or photographing – them closely is devilishly hard):

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

I also snapped the slightly bolder Pied Flycatchers near the house:

Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

… and in the same tree, although higher and hidden in the branches, came the high pitched whistles of one of my favourite birds – but one I have never succeeded (until now) in photographing:

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Each day the valley is crossed, to-and-fro, by the mightiest of the crow family, the Raven, announcing their presence with their distinctive ‘cronking’:

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

But some other dark silhouettes were smaller, faster, more acrobatic, and sharper billed. Their calls were higher pitched and harsher. Whilst I was sad not to see their distinctive blood-red bills, I was delighted to photograph shapes in the sky that were unmistakably the rarest of the European crow family (corvidae):

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Slightly easier to photograph than the birds (although only just at times), were the valley’s array of butterflies, including:

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

… and the stunning…

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Supposedly even easier to photograph (although I have never really embraced macro-photography), are flowers. The flora of the valley could easily be given a blog post of their own (maybe one day they will), but for now, I just want to broadcast a few of the stunning orchids blooming this spring:

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

… and then a beauty I snapped in heavy rain with my iPhone…

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

I took many photos of many wonderful things in the valley and in the hills of one small part of Southern France (only a few of which I have shared today), but wanted to finish this post with a slightly obscured snap of the largest wild lizard I have seen on mainland Europe:

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)