Tag Archives: London birds

Starting the year with alchemy, not lists

The year on the Patch often begins a little later for me than my fellow patch-workers as I tend to start the year in France. This regularly leads to me bumping into them and saying things like, “Blue Tit, tick!” whilst they are bemoaning the fact that they haven’t seen a Water Rail or Peregrine yet for the year. But that doesn’t matter as I’m not patch year-listing in 2018. No! Really, I’m not!

So, today was my first day (actually only a couple of hours) out on the Patch when I was absolutely not ticking off Blue Tit, Magpie, Greenfinch, … .

I had already started the year on my French patch – highlights, amongst a lot of strong wind, were daily Hawfinches, Hen Harrier, Crested Tits, lots of walking and flushing of Red-legged Partridges and Woodlark.

Gold to fire..crest

But I also noticed something strange… for the first time in the decade I have been watching birds on the French Patch, I saw almost as many Goldcrest as I did Firecrest. I think Firecrest is probably the most common bird on the French patch, and I have only seen a handful of Goldcrest in all my time there so this was a big departure.

Alchemy was the art of attempting to turn lead into gold, normally using lots of fire. How about turning gold into fire and vice versa? Well the French oddity seemed to be reflected back at me this morning in Wanstead when I saw a Firecrest in Bush Wood before seeing Goldcrest (Firecrest is a tricky winter tick compared with resident Goldcrests) – I still haven’t added Goldcrest to the list that I am not keeping.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) in Bush Wood

The golden light

I met Jono this morning as we tried to see a Little Owl that I wanted to see (not for any listing purposes you understand) – and, whilst he had early views, I missed it. The promise of a bright day seemed a lie first thing as there was a lot of cloud, but, as we stood by Jubilee pond, the rays broke through and bathed everything in golden light that just makes photography a joy.

I know male Tufted Duck are recognised as the good looking one of the pair with their iridescent head and contrasting pied colouration, but in the morning light, the subtle variation of the mahogany colours of the female stood out to me.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

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Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Jono was out with his heavy camera and so I left him doing what he does best. The results on his blog are well worth seeing.

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Jonathan Lethbridge (Homo cameralensii)

‘Among the fields of gold’

I wrapped up 2017 writing about how a Stonechat by Cat & Dog pond ‘bookmarked’ the year for me. It might well do that again in 2018 (if I were year-listing that is) as I found the long-staying (since 18 November) bird there.

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Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

If I had been counting, which I wasn’t, I might say that I have seen 46 species of bird so far on the UK Patch this year. As I was only out for an hour or so, I didn’t visit Wanstead Park, but, even so, am missing some incredibly common birds like Dunnock, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, and Redwing. Still, I have a whole year to add those birds to my… erm… list.

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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.

Gull on black

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;*

Well, I wouldn’t describe the ice as ‘stone’-like exactly, more like a brittle glaze in these climate-warmed times. A wafer-like shelf that could never carry the weight of a man (certainly not a man of my current girth), but, while it lasted, has served as a temporary gull magnet.

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Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook

In the fading light, the diminished promontory of ice blurred the horizons between water in its liquid and solid states, and also between the ‘elements’ (archaic, not chemic) of water and air. As I stood on a pavement (yes, pavement) with the drizzle distorting my binocular’d view, everything took on a one-dimensional blackness. A void only punctuated by the white and grey of gulls with the odd smudge from a brownish juvenile.

One of the punctuation marks in the photo above is an Eastern visitor, a 3rd-winter Caspian Gull. First spotted by Stuart Fisher on ‘Eagle Pond’, and now much photographed by the London gull specialists, including our very own Patch Cowboy. I found out after the fact that the crisp shots taken by these guys – showing every mid-moult feather in all its glory – owe something to cheap bread being used as a lure. All’s fair in birding, love, and war I suppose.

When I saw the Casp, it was not yawning down bread, but rather gnawing on a bone on top of the ice on the other side of the lake. The grainy, cropped, resulting pictures attest… but it is still the closest I have seen this species to my Patch, having missed a younger bird last year.

The Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook is a frontier on a neighbouring patch to ours; the Leyton Flats.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

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This Casp is not the only sub-adult gull I have snapped recently. My micro-patch water gauge yielded a new tick for me the other week in the brief spell of snow that we had; a Herring Gull (now the fourth gull to have graced the post for me, found in the same order as how common they are on the Patch: BHG, Common, LBBG, Herring…).

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2nd-Winter Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

With the snow and drizzle, the seemingly constant water level on Jubilee Pond has finally started to creep up.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

*In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti

Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.

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Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.

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Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.

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This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:

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Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.

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Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.

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Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park

Breaking a curse with a Horned Lark on the shore

The day began – late – by joining most of my patch colleagues in dipping Leach’s Petrel standing in a small park overlooking the huge William Girling Reservoir.

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Birding on reservoirs is often hard in its own right. When you are attempting to see birds when you can’t even get close to the reservoir, I find it verging on impossible. At one point we attempted to see a Great Northern Diver from this spot but looking at a reservoir further north (to the right and out of frame of this picture); but you know something is hard when you hear quality birders say things like “I think I’ve got the GN Diver in my scope, but it might just be a Great Crested Grebe“!!

So Nick and I swapped one set of large reservoirs for another. This time the dreaded Staines Reservoirs. I have blogged about them before as they are my nemesis location; everything I have ever gone there to see (most recently White-winged Black Tern) I have dipped; a 100% failure rate!

After sitting on the M25 for what seemed like half the day (possibly because in total, it was for half the day!), we arrived to see the Shore/Horned Lark*. Whilst it had previously been seen and photographed up close, it was now distant on the western shore, but it was a successful twitch for me at Staines. The curse is finally broken. I even rather foolishly attempted to take a record shot with my camera and phone-scope respectively below:

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Horned/Shore Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

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Looking straight at the camera (albeit across a reservoir)

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The South Reservoir has been drained and looks extraordinarily bleak, with just small pools left.

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A cold day standing by reservoirs and driving around London, so not exactly the wildest of experiences, but successful and interesting nonetheless. On the drive on the M25 on the way home, Nick and I counted raptors ending with a final score of 23 Red Kite, 4 Buzzard, and 1 Kestrel (not all that long ago those numbers would have probably been read in reverse).

*The debate is currently underway as to whether this is a European Shore Lark or the much rarer sub-species, American Horned Lark. I will leave that matter to the experts.

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

Life beginning and ending in the wood

It may not match the scale of the ocean of Bluebells in Blean Woods, but our very own Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park – with a little help from our conservation group – puts on a pretty impressive show every year as well. Even now they are past their best, it is still an arresting sight. The peculiar combination of Bluebells with Beech – the ‘Mother of Forests’ is a true source of wonder – the deep blue-purple of Bluebell combined with the fresh life of new green Beech leaves just… works.

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Chalet Wood, Wanstead Park

I have been spending a bit of time recently in a wood at the other end of Wanstead Park: Reservoir Wood (so called because the large man-made lake that used to be located here in the palatial grounds of Wanstead House). And I have witnessed the hope that comes from the beginnings of wild-life. A Nuthatch – a scarcely seen bird on the patch with a bill full of invertebrates; a sure sign that it has bred successfully and that somewhere close by a nest of gaping mouths awaits.

Much later at night in the same wood I heard the squeaks of new life as well. Two young Tawny Owls squeaking constantly and the occasional contact call of the mother. Nothing seen, but recorded here in a video I took.

I also heard the loud squeaks of a very different sort a couple of days before; or more accurately the squawks of death. A female Sparrowhawk startled me with how closely it swooped past me and, before I could even focus, it had a Starling upside down in her talons. The terrible screams continued for a about a minute after the hawk had taken its unfortunate prey off into the seclusion of branch and leaf. The remaining flock of Starlings circled, alarmed and useless but unwilling to leave the scene immediately as if in hope that their comrade would return to them. But, of course, that was never going to happen. The woodland brought life and death, and… maybe life again as it reminded me of when I watched fledging Sparrowhawks in the neighbouring wood back in 2015.