Tag Archives: Little Owl

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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2017 on the Patch

Many of us like to reflect back on the year as it closes. From a patch birding perspective I could have some complaints (it wasn’t exactly full of rare birds), but there was also a lot to celebrate; not least of which is the fact that 105 species of birds on the Patch is a year record for me.

But let’s book-end the year: 2017 is finishing much as it began: with a wintering Stonechat in the scrub by Cat and dog pond.

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Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) – January 2017

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Stonechat – December 2017

Each winter we seem to get a female for a few months. Long may that continue. They are wonderful and enigmatic birds.

Back to the numbers. 105 total species of bird seen on the patch. But I want to break it down a bit. I saw five new species for the patch in 2017. This compares with 13 new species for 2016, albeit recognising this number cannot keep going up. But, when it comes to quality of new birds, 2016 still had the edge over 2017. In 2016 I saw Hooded Crow, Ortolan Bunting, White-fronted Goose, and found Yellow-browed Warbler. 2017 was the year of Hawfinch, Little Ringed Plover, and err… Pheasant.

2017 was the year in which two glaring omissions on Patch list finally fell: Bullfinch and Little Owl.

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Little Owl (Athene noctua)

In terms of significant omissions remaining on my list, most notable now is probably the Woodcock. I am pretty sure if I put in some time in at the right places at the right times, I should be able to put this right.

In terms of gaps for the year, I was disappointed not to see Ring Ouzel this year and to go a second year without Red Kite. Most of my fellow patch birders got both of these this year.

But, whilst on the subject of disappointments, the lowest point had to be missing a singing Nightingale by a matter of minutes. The bird would only have been a few metres away from me, but deeply hidden and silent by the time I had to leave and catch a flight. Nightingale is one of my favourite British breeding birds – I know, I’m not exactly original! Outside of the Patch, I actually only managed to photograph Nightingale in the UK for the first time in 2017.

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Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) – in Kent

Aside from being face to face with a Little Owl, highlights of the year for me included finding and photographing the year’s first (and only?) Pied Flycatcher

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European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

And joining several of my fellow patch birders photographing the most obliging Redstart I have ever seen.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

We had some good quality visible migration, in particular the day in October when thousands of Wood Pigeon were joined by hundreds of Redwing, Fieldfare, Chaffinch, and a smattering of other stuff. That ‘stuff’ included nine Hawfinch, a few Brambling, and a Redpoll. Not a bad morning’s work.

And, of course, the Patch hasn’t all been about birds.

I saw 23 species of butterfly with highlights being Brown Argus and Purple Hairstreak, but missed out on Marbled White, Painted Lady, and – weirdly – Green Hairstreak (weird, given that I saw loads in 2016).

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Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)

And then, there were the galls. I started studying galls this year and recorded 58 on the Patch this year, including one which was new for Epping Forest (Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp). Few are as impressive as Robin’s Pincushion.

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Robin’s Pincushion (Diplolepis rosae)

I began 2017 planning to focus on survey work rather than year listing birds. Aside from galls, I didn’t do much surveying (my plans to do sparrow census were scuppered by the sheer difficulty and time required to do it properly), and instead I carried on with my patch bird year list.

And so looking forward to 2018… I will restate my resolution from last year: more survey work! I will support the first breeding bird survey on the Patch since 2015. I will also try to do a bit more work on galls. But I still won’t be slow to react if a good bird appears.

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.

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

Yarrell

Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.