Tag Archives: Great Crested Grebe

Now you see me, now you don’t

One of the great things about birding the same patch is you get to build up a sense (or even a monitored trend for those of us who keep spreadsheets) for which birds you see over time. Migration is, of course, a major factor in birds appearing and then disappearing. Our Swift flocks have now gone. They were present on every visit to the Patch from 22 April until the end of July. I missed last weekend as was away so can’t pinpoint their departure. But it never ceases to amaze me how fleeting their breeding stopovers seem to be. One day the the sky seems full of scything screamers and then, like Keyser Söze, they are gone.

Willow Warbler is a species which seems to have a tentative perch-hold on the Patch. I got four records of Willow Warbler in the Spring. The first was probably just a passage pass-through, and then three weekends in a row in April/May when I had one or two birds singing. Almost certainly an attempt at making a viable territory, but not, perhaps, successful. Now we get a second bite at the cherry with the returning birds and I got a bright bird yesterday in Wanstead Park.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

But with other birds, their presence or otherwise seems more arbitrary or subject to annual cycles not connected to migration. It has been a good year for Little Owl on Wanstead Flats. We think two pairs have bred successfully. I looked in their ‘usual places’ yesterday but couldn’t find them, only to hear one calling loudly from a different copse as a dog walker went past it. It stayed put long enough for me to take its picture.

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Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Nuthatch, and even Treecreeper, have also been spotted more frequently this year than in others. But other birds seem not to be doing as well. I’ve seen very few Grey Wagtail this year, for example. Whilst Little Grebe seem to be doing better than I remember before, and have bred on Alexandra Lake, Great Crested Grebe have seemed almost entirely absent; I saw my first for this Spring and Summer on the Shoulder-of-Mutton pond in Wanstead Park on Saturday.

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Alexandra Lake, Wanstead Flats

2016 and 2017 were good years for Wigeon on the Patch. We saw up to a patch-record-breaking 61 birds in 2016. But there were very few sightings of this duck early this year with it not even being on my patch year list. So I certainly didn’t expect to see one today on 12 August! But Nick found one, on the River Roding, and I photographed her as she is the earliest returning Wigeon we have a record of on the Patch.

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Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Other birds are scarce visitors but you come to expect them at certain points in the year. So it is with Yellow-legged Gull. Today three of us were treated with lovely views of a 4th calendar year bird that Nick actually found yesterday by Alexandra Lake. This was a patch year tick for all of us involved.

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Meanwhile, other birds never seem far away. It is a rare day on the Patch not to hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, or to see one sail over your head at some point. However, despite them being common, I don’t often get to watch them close-up, so yesterday I was pleased to get close views of two males; an adult and a juvenile by Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. In my slightly sentimental state as an expectant dad, I like to imagine that this was father and son bonding on the Patch. Something I hope to be able to do in due course.

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Adult male (Picus viridis) aka ‘Daddy’

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Juvenile male aka “junior”

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Days with (not so) rare birds

Today, the weather just got better and better. The day began cold, misty, and cloudy, but the sun burnt through and when my eight hour walk around the patch ended, everything was bathed in a warm golden glow.

But it was when the clouds were full and low in the morning that I ticked off my 70th patch bird of the year. At Cat & Dog pond, I found a pair of Reed Bunting; spotting the female first but soon followed by a male.

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Despite others occasionally seeing them throughout the winter, I had previously searched in vain. But within half an hour of ticking Reed Bunting off my list, I found a second pair in the Brooms by Centre Road.

There was no sign of our Winter, or Spring, Stonechats, but on Angel Pond I checked in on the mass of frogspawn and the feeding gulls (now largely in Spring plumage).

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

It is not just the weather that makes me feel Spring is here or near, the bird song increases each time I come out. Three of the most common songs to be heard on the patch (and indeed across the UK) are those of the Robin, Wren, and Dunnock.

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Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Talking of song birds, I always think that a much overlooked avian vocalist is the Starling. The complexity, variation, and mimicry involved, albeit to many we just hear a series of clicks and whistles, is phenomenal.

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Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Great Crested Grebe
Today (or strictly speaking yesterday as the clock has just struck midnight as I type) I spent quite a bit of time watching the Great Crested Grebe on Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. This began with watching some limited courtship behaviour in the last veils of morning mist.

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Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Later in the day I was able to get a bit closer to them, and with the sun behind me, I was lit for the chance of a reasonable photo. I even had a tree trunk to lean on. In such beautiful light I was really hoping to draw out the beautiful colours of the grebe. So imagine my frustration when I glanced down at my view-screen and saw that I had somehow knocked a switch and was taking photos in monochrome.

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Accidental monochrome photo, not just me trying to be artistic

By the time I had rectified the situation, the grebes had resurfaced further away making crisp photos harder to achieve.

But seeing the black and white photos transferred me back in time. Back in time over 80 years ago in fact, long before I was born, to a time when a naturalist called Frank Aspinall Lowe was writing. In his great book , Days with Rarer Birds, Lowe reminds us that Great Crested Grebe were once much less common and widespread than they are now.

One of the reasons I like old (bird) books is the beautiful, if somewhat archaic, language used in the descriptions. Lowe describes hearing the call of the Great Crested Grebe as “a harsh groaning,  like that of a cart axle devoid of grease, rended the quiet of the tarn.

Lowe had to go to all sorts of trouble in a remote area to watch this ‘rare’ species, which is now found on every other largish body of water. The change in fortunes was largely down to the RSPB being founded to protect this bird from persecution for its feathers. Indeed, even back in 1930, Lowe notes an improvement: “Under protection, this bird seems to be expanding its range all over the Country“.

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Today, one of them resurfaced from the weeds with a small Tench. As a former angler, I recognised the dark olive sheen, thick tail and rounded fins and remembered the fight these powerful fish used to put up, as well as the thick layer of slime that coated their fine scales. That slime and power appeared to do this fish no good in the grasp of the grebe’s bill, although I was interested that the bird dived with the fish still gripped, presumably to attempt to swallow it underwater.

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With a small Tench (Tinca tinca) prey

Other great piscators I watched today included:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

…and…

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

As well as other water fowl more generally:

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Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

…and finally this portrait of one of our resident Canada Goose:

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)