Tag Archives: London wildlife

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…

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Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.

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Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:

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Unknown fungi

┬áIn search of the source. Not quite the Nile.

The City of London Cemetery is enormous.

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At 200 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe and has a network of roads making it seem like a town of death. I understand that around one million people have been buried here and there are about 150,000 graves. If the maths of those two figures doesn’t add up to you, that is because the bodies are, literally, buried on top of one another.

The cemetery is not as interesting historically as some of the other London burial sites like Highgate, but it is of interest to me as it is a huge green space almost surrounded by my local patch – with the Eastern end of the Flats on one side and the Roding, Old Sewage Works, and Wanstead Park on the other.

It is full of manicured lawns, gardens, tree-lined avenues, and grave stones by the many thousand ranging from little wooden crosses to enormous, and often very gaudy, monolithic mausolea. But there is also a small corner that is not tended neatly by the groundsmen – a grove of trees clustered by the boundary fence near the Roding – known as the Birches nature reserve:

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X marks the spot of the wild area. Thanks to Google for the map

This small section of woodland is wonderfully wild. I presume that very few people indeed ever visit – partly because those of us likely to be interested in it would have to walk very far out of our way to get there as there is only one entrance to the cemetery and the fence is  high. In fact, it is so poorly known that I can only find one one reference to the fact that it is a nature reserve at all. 

Everything was wet. The leaf litter is so thick that walking around on the mulch is like walking on pillows. With all the mosses, fungi and ferns, it felt like I was experiencing the original Atlantic Oakwood temperate rainforest, not some small sub-urban plot re-wilded a decade ago (although this is wonderful evidence of how quickly nature can take back over if given the chance to thrive without being overly ‘managed’).

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Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)

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The edible Jelly Ear Fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Indeed there was a lot of water in this grove, but I knew that from often peering through the fence just visible to the right in the photo below:

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That water collects as a pond and is the beginning of the poorly known Alders Brook. I had come in search of its source, and with limited thrashing about, I found it… sort of:

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Culverted source of Alders Brook

The concrete culvert pipe runs through the ditch that I understand was once part of the ‘Great Canal’ dug for the Manor of Aldersbrook. This is the first opportunity to see the Alders Brook. It presumably trickles down from the higher land off the Wanstead Flats (maybe including any overflow from Alexandra pond) and through, or hopefully beneath, the catacombs and graves of the cemetery.

The Alders Brook then flows under the fence and splits North and South. The Northern stream is a dead-end and so the water is stagnant, but South it flows into the Roding.

The Birches reserve is a known site for Woodcock and Snipe – the resident Woodcock seemingly roosts in this area and then flies out in the evening to feed on the Ilford Golf Course at night. I didn’t see any Woodcock and, actually, never have on the patch, but I intend to make an effort this year to tick it off.

I am indebted to Paul Ferris’ excellent Wanstead Wildlife website for much of the background information and history presented in this post.

All photos were taken on my iPhone and for some reason are lower resolution than usual – apologies.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part I (The devil-diver of Wanstead Park)

A Big Birding Year was SO 2014. As a relatively new birder, I have set myself two birding-related resolutions for 2015:

1) To increase my ‘Life List’ of birds.
2) To intensify my understanding of the birdlife in a particular small area or ‘patch’ – in my case this is now the Wanstead Flats and surrounding parkland.

This morning I was delighted to be able to make progress against both.

A Slavonian Grebe (Horned Grebe if you are reading this from across the pond) – a rare-ish winter visitor to London – made an appearance in Wanstead Park yesterday and has kindly stayed long enough for me to take its picture:

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus)

Anyone lucky enough to see this beautiful bird (it is even more stunning in its summer plumage) will notice the red eyes. This feature, along with the horned feathers it has in the summer have led some to call it the devil-diver.

The Native American tribes of the Blackfoot have a legend that a trickster called ‘Old Man’ persuaded the ducks to close their eyes and dance. He killed them one by one. However, a small duck looked and saw this evil befalling his friends and so alerted them. This ‘duck’ was the Slavonian/Horned Grebe and became renowned for noticing trouble early.

I was pleased to notice the Slavonian Grebe early in the year so it could be added to my patch list, my UK year list, and my life list.

Here are a couple of maps with ‘X’ marking the spot on my patch where the grebe was to be found:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

In case anyone is interested how my patch list is going following a couple of hours out this morning and about 20 minutes in the rain yesterday, here you go:

3 January
1) Feral Pigeon
2) Blackbird
3) Black-headed Gull
4) Blue Tit
5) Robin
6) Magpie
7) Carrion Crow
8) House Sparrow
9) Starling
10) Great Tit
11) Sparrowhawk
12) Wood Pigeon
13) Jay

4 January
14) Ring-necked Parakeet
15) Song Thrush (note that it took me months to photograph a Song Thrush last year)
16) Long-tailed Tit
17) Mute Swan
18) Wren
19) Canada Goose
20) Gadwall (very large numbers of Gadwall on the lakes around Wanstead)
21) Mallard
22) Coot
23) Tufted Duck
24) Great Crested Grebe
25) Pochard
26) Wigeon
27) Great Spotted Woodpecker
28) Moorhen
29) Common Gull
30) Shoveler
31) Cormorant
32) Grey Heron
33) Slavonian Grebe
34) Greylag Goose