Tag Archives: Patch birding

2019 review: crunching some small numbers

2019 was always going to be a lightweight year on the birding front. My son was born just a few weeks before the year started. I get out less often and for less time and rarely travel far beyond the patch as weekends are mainly a time to spend with family.

Nevertheless, I got out on the patch more than once a week on average (60 patch trips in total, albeit sometimes only for an hour or two), and a further 13 non-patch trips in the UK which included some element of birding. Of these 13, ten were within the London recording area. Only five of those London trips could be described as twitches (of which three were successful: Penduline Tit at Crossness in South East London, Great Reed Warbler also at Crossness, and Ring-necked Duck at Fishers Green in the Lea Valley).

Highlights

Overall my UK year list was the lowest in a decade (121 – I am embarrassed to even type it) and my patch year list (103) was third out of the five years I have been birding in the Wanstead area (more on that shortly). But here are the top six highlights of my UK birding:

    The very showy patch-tick drake Garganey on Jubilee on 31 March
    Hearing and seeing a Great Reed Warbler – first for London – at Crossness), only a year after life-ticking this species in Poland
    The long-staying Greenshank on Heronry was probably bird of the year for me (that is the wonderful strangeness of patch birding for you) – seeing it first on 5 September
    Putting a couple of patch bogeys to bed by seeing Green Sandpiper and Sedge Warbler this year (perhaps leaving Golden Plover, Jack Snipe and Woodlark as the three most commonly seen birds still not on my patch list)
    The Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit mini-influx this Autumn which included three Pied Fly in one day on 24 August
    Scoring three Canary Wharf ‘megas’ (two self-finds) with Reed Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, and Common Redstart.
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Great Reed Warbler, Crossness, London

I won’t dwell on the lowlights, although failing to get a Yellow Wagtail on the Patch this year has to be up there. Oh, and there was a disastrous dip – twitching what turned out to be a dirty Common Sandpiper (rather than a Spotted Sandpiper) and involved a lengthy journey on public transport twice after leaving my bag in a hide. At least it reminded me why I rarely twitch things.

Patch year comparison
I have now been birding on Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park for a five full years. I have seen 134 species of bird locally in that time with six new species added to my patch list in 2019. 2018 was my best year with 110 species recorded and this year I got 103 (which is just under my mean average, or third best and third worst as I put it to my patch colleagues when we were totting up our totals).

So far, there have been 84 species I have seen every year (a list which includes Firecrest and Common Redstart). There are 10 more birds which I have only missed once in the five years of birding the Patch: this list sadly now includes Yellow Wagtail, Redpoll, and Common Sandpiper after this year’s performance, but also incorporates: Garden Warbler (2018 gap), Pied Flycatcher (2018), Tree Pipit (2016), Yellow-legged Gull (2016), Peregrine (2015), Shelduck (2015), and Treecreeper (2015). So that takes me to total of 94 species which are at least 80% likely nailed-on each year (although doesn’t take into account whether any of these are declining in likelihood of being seen). I could probably add Little Owl to the list of birds I would really expect to see on an annual basis (despite the fact that I missed it in my first two years).

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Firecrest, Bush Wood – a species I have patch ticked every year I have been birding here

So… that takes me to 95 species I would expect to see each year and only needing five more unusual finds each year. It is in this territory where the motivation to keep working the patch exists: the unexpected! So, this year, that golden list included six patch ticks (Garganey, Mandarin, Green Sandpiper, Sedge Warbler, Greenshank, and Marsh Harrier), but also joined by the following birds which I had only seen on one or two other years: Yellowhammer, Caspian Gull, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Rook, and Wood Warbler.

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Mandarin, Wanstead Flats

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Garganey, Wanstead Flats

France
I managed four trips to my second patch in the South of France in 2019 (including right at the end of the year where I am as I finish writing this blog post). My French patch has a smaller list of more exotic birds (patch list is only 81 – it is tougher birding with some dense vegetation and no water bodies), although, interestingly, of the 10 new species I added this year to my list, several are commonly found back in ‘Patch 1’ in London. So, chronologically listed, the French patch newbies were: Mistle Thrush, Montagu’s Harrier, Wagtail sp (as the only wagtail I have ever seen flying over, despite being a distant, silent silhouette, it gets a slot of its own for the time being), Tawny Pipit, House Martin, Dartford Warbler, Red Kite, Tree Pipit, Northern Wheatear, and Garden Warbler.

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Dartford Warbler, Corbieres

The Montagu’s Harrier was an obvious highlight as was the large number of migratory Honey Buzzard I saw (somewhat un-doing my regular complaint that our French House is not on any migratory flight paths). Slowly building a picture of the avian wildlife of this remote valley in the Corbieres has been a joy.

2020

I can’t imagine time will be very much more plentiful for me in 2020, so I will need to think and act smart to make the most out of my birding. My two patches will definitely play a decent part of the whole picture next year, but I am determined that they do not take up quite such a high proportion of the whole as they did in 2019.

Filling in the gaps

I have been increasingly aware of a few gaps on my Patch list that should be filled by birds generally seen annually. One of these was Green Sandpiper. Bob had a flyover the other day, but when Rob found one on the deck of Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats this morning, I jumped into the car (more about this later) to see it. And see it I did – my 131st bird for the Patch.

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Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

I got home, played with my baby son for a bit, changed his nappy, made my wife some breakfast and was pondering which other bogey birds are still missing from my list… Woodlark… Sedg… it was at this point I saw the news that Bob had found a Sedge Warbler singing by the Roding. Given I had promised that Friday would be a family day, going back out on to the Patch was not ideal, so I jumped back in the car (yes, I still plan to come back to this point) for another smash-and-grab tick (walking would have taken me well over an hour there and back).

I only got brief views in the giant Blackthorn bush, but it sang almost continuously for a small gathering of us until I had to leave (2nd tick of the day, 132nd bird of the patch and made even sweeter by two year ticks materialising whilst I was there: Common Whitethroat and Swallow).

Tony B. recently ran through 24 gaps in his patch list. He is a fair way ahead of me, so he has fewer ‘bogey’ birds, but it has prompted me to think of which 8 species are most likely to take me to 140. Here is what I reckon are the 8 most common omissions or most likely scores over the next year or five:

  1. Jack Snipe – almost annually seen, particularly on Alex. But normally flushed and gone, so rarely twitchable.
  2. Woodlark – another annual bird, but generally just Autumn flyovers.
  3. Golden Plover – spend time looking up in hard weather and I’ve got to tick this off some time.
  4. Marsh Harrier – only three sightings in the last five years, but with the increasing success of these birds at some relatively local sites, I reckon it is only a matter of time before I get one on the list.
  5. Goosander – Only a handful records in the last decade, but… I’m hopeful.
  6. Cattle Egret – very rare to date, but given the increasing preponderance of views over time means I reckon there is a good chance.
  7. Crossbill – worryingly not seen flying over since 2015. Could that mean the odds have gone down, or are we due a few this Autumn?
  8. Dartford Warbler – probably less likely than Grasshopper Warbler to be honest, as we’ve only had one, ever, on the Patch, but I have included it as the habitat feels right for a stray and because our Patch has a strong capability to surprise when we least expect it (evidenced by the fact that I had Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting on my Patch list before seeing a Yellowhammer!).

Of that list, I can probably only class the top three as remaining patch bogey birds. We shall see!

To drive for a Twitch or not, that is the question

I got a fair amount of stick from one or two of my patch colleagues for driving such a relatively short distance to twitch the two birds today. Whilst it was done in a light-hearted way, I did actually feel pretty guilty. I really do worry that we are trashing our environment and heading for climate catastrophe, and me driving to see a bird is certainly not helping matters.

So, why do I do it, and what am I going to do about it?

I do it, because birding is my primary hobby and I love seeing new birds on the Patch. As I currently have significant family commitments with a young baby, I get out less than I would otherwise and have to maximise my time. I wouldn’t have been out today were it not for the fact that I was able to zoom there and back so quickly. There is more I could say about the relative benefits of local patch birding rather than long-distance twitches (which I don’t do), but let’s get on to what I am going to do about it…

  1. Wherever feasible, I will aim not to drive.
  2. From today, I will only drive on to the Patch if it is to try and see a new bird for my Patch list (no more driving for year-ticking).
  3. If I do drive (anywhere) for a bird, I will make a contribution of £20 for every 30 minutes in the car to a charity that specialises in planting trees and restoring nature (see below for my donation made for today’s largesse.
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Guilty much?

I am aware this is still not great. I am also trying rather shabbily to green my life in other ways: switching increasingly to a plant-based diet (I haven’t eaten any beef or lamb for months and am trying to cut out pork at the moment); and looking at alternatives to flying (I recently looked at the train alternatives to a trip to France and the train cost 5 times more than the plane – which reminded me of the need for policy changes as well as action by individuals).

I am clearly no eco-warrior or saint, but I recognise I do need to improve my own game a little if I am going to call on the Government to do more as well.

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only recorded 56 species of birds in four patch visits during February. Of the 56, three were new for the year for me.

Highlights were:

  • Connecting pretty quickly with the Rook Bob found on Alexandra Pond on 17 Feb. Probably the same individual as last year.
  • Having a nice low fly-past from my first patch Common Buzzard of the year also on 17 Feb.
  • SSSI seeming to be a magnet for good numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, and very large numbers of Goldfinch.
  • Finding a new colour-ringed Black-headed Gull on Alex on 18 Feb (Yellow TN9T): first sighting since ringed in Poland in June 2018.
  • A very high count of 44 Mute Swan on Jubilee for the WeBS count on 17 Feb.

Lowlights were:

  • Continued to fail to see Fieldfare (probably missed now until the Autumn) or Water Rail.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Seeing 1W Caspian Gull ‘X530’ at Stonebarges in Rainham (but sadly not finding either of the Glaucous Gull that have been around) on 19 Feb.
  • Seeing and hearing my first ever Penduline Tit. In London as well. with added bonus of several Bearded Tit/Reedling present too. All at Crossness in South London on 22 Feb.
  • Flying out to my French Patch (more to be reported for March) and, on first day out and about on last day (28th) of Feb felt like reconnecting with old friends: Sardinian Warbler rattling from bushes in large numbers, Raven courting, Stonechat posing, and Cirl Bunting singing.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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Somewhere in that lot is probably a Glaucous – not that I found it/them

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Record shot of a Bearded Tit at Crossness – sadly wasn’t fast enough to capture the Penduline

January 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I didn’t write a review for December as my birding was limited somewhat by the arrival of my son. In January, the nature of birding has also changed: short trips rather than long patch walks are now modus operandi. I made 10 patch visits during January and recorded a total of 65 species of birds. As it is January, they were all year ticks (obvs!), but no patch life ticks.

Highlights were:

  • Re-finding the female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (the one I first found in november last year) about 200 metres south of where I first found it.
  • Finding an interesting Chiffchaff by the stables on 25 January. My initial instinct was ‘Siberian’ (tristis) but perhaps more likely to be abientus race or even just an ‘interesting’ collybita.
  • Connecting with one of Tony’s first winter Caspian Gull on Alex on 19 Jan.
  • Finding Firecrest and Treecreeper in Bush Wood in two short trips on 2 Jan and 4 Jan respectively.
  • Record numbers (11 for me) of Reed Bunting on the deck in the birches in SSSI on 20 Jan.
  • Having some quality time with Little Owl in one of Copses on 20 Jan until a Grey Squirrel decided to jump almost on top of it.

Lowlights were:

  • Realising the Chiffchaff was probably not a ‘Siberian’ despite some initial excitement.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Having a close encounter with a Sparrowhawk and an unfortunate Feral Pigeon on my next-door-neighbour’s door-step (see photo below).
  • Connecting again, this side of the New Year, with the regular wintering, now 5th calendar year Caspian Gull on the hyper-local, but just off-patch, Eagle Pond in Snaresbrook.
  • Finding Bearded Tit (Reedling), a local scarcity, at Dorney Wetlands near Maidenhead.

My birding month in five pictures:

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One of Tony’s 1st Winter Caspian Gulls on Alex

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Jay in Old Sewage Works

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The ‘interesting’ Chiffchaff

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Red Kite over the Jubilee River

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Sparrowhawk and pigeon right outside my house

That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

November 2018: Review

Patch Summary

I made 9 patch visits during November and recorded a total of 70 species of birds (exactly the same as October). I added two new birds towards my patch year total (now a record for me of 110) and both were full patch life ticks.

Highlights were:

  • Finding the first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker for a couple of years on the Patch (by Heronry in Wanstead Park on 17 November) – a patch lifer for me on 17 November.
  • Despite bungling the ID in the field, later realising I had seen my first patch Caspian Gull (albeit a bit of a mucky ‘German’ type) having been found by Nick on 4 November on Alex.
  • My first good views of Redpoll perching on the Patch, with a flock of six feeding in the birches in Motorcycle Wood on 17 November.
  • An unseasonal/over-wintering female Blackcap by Perch Pond also on 17 November.
  • Seeing Lapwing for the second month in a row, with a pair flying over on 9 November.
  • Aside from the Lesser Spot, enjoying good views of several of our woodland specialists through the month, with good number of Goldcrest, two sightings of Treecreeper (including a pair on 17 November in the Park), and several sightings of Nuthatch and Coal Tit.
  • Several sightings of at least one Water Rail on Shoulder of Mutton.
  • My largest ever (anywhere?) flock of Goldfinch, with well over a hundred over Angel Pond and Capel Road on 24 November.

Lowlights were:

  • Missing a pair of fly-over Cattle Egret by a matter of minutes on the 4 November.
  • Messing up the field-ID of the 1cy Caspian Gull offered as a candidate by Nick and so also not alerting other patch colleagues in a timely fashion. Oops!

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Finally connecting with Black-throated Diver on Banbury Reservoir after being found by Lol Bodini on Lockwood on 24 November.
  • Having a great day at Rainham Marshes on 25 November with sightings including Black-bellied Brent Goose, Water Pipit, Ringed Plover, Short-eared Owl, and Marsh Harrier, despite missing the elusive Bittern.

My birding month in five pictures

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My Patch-first, self-found Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – golden!

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Not much of a photo, but this the first time I managed t photograph Redpoll on the Patch

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Another poor pic, but Black-throated Diver was the rarest bird of the month

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Short-eared Owl at Rainham – always a pleasure to see

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Dipping the Bittern at Rainham