Tag Archives: Patch birding

The man with the golden eye

I have already written about today’s antics on the team Patch blog over here. But, I can’t neglect my beloved iago80 followers, so here is a different spin on the same subject.

I find something special about our over-wintering residents. Sure, the Spring and Autumn passage migrants are the sexy ones that we all want to see, but the birds that stick it out on the Patch have a special affinity with those of us who also stick it out through the grim, cold, wet months.

Today I felt this particularly. It rained all day. Not hard, but a permeating drizzle that made me colder than the temperature should have allowed, and put a constant smear on my binoculars making it very difficult to identify anything through them. But I still managed to appreciate a higher-than-normal number of Reed Bunting, I saw both over-wintering Stonechat, and I finally saw the small exultation of our resident Skylark for the first time this year. The five or six birds that stick it out through the winter and will hopefully breed again in the Spring are almost literally clinging on to this last remaining central urban site by their finger tips.


Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

And so I went home cold, wet, muddy, but not dissatisfied. I was getting changed when I heard the news that Nick had found a female Goldeneye on the river Roding behind the Ornamental ponds in Wanstead Park. Nick hasn’t be able to get out on the Patch as much this year but he struck gold by finding this winter duck on one of the least watched parts of the Patch.

The ease at which such a bird could have gone unseen and unrecorded is not lost on me. I was abroad the last time Goldeneye showed on the Patch over two years ago and so was thrilled to be able to connect today despite the poor light for photos. This beautiful and patch-scarce (8th sighting on record) winter visitor has become my 119th bird for the Patch. I am very grateful that our bird-finder-in-chief was out today. I wouldn’t want to inflate his ego or embarrass him too much, but if anyone deserves the title ‘Man with the Golden Eye’ on our Patch, it is surely Nick Croft.


Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)



A Silhouette and a Siskin

2018 has started well from a patch-birding perspective.

Okay, so I have missed the two best birds so far: Mediterranean Gull and Great White Egret (missed because of that minor inconvenience that prevents me from spending every daylight hour in the wild: work).

Okay, so one of my New Year’s resolutions to focus my birding efforts on matters other than Patch Year Listing has not been hugely successful. In fact I am scoring higher than  ever before.

But, I have some great patch birding moments and already have a full fat patch life tick (more on that shortly) under my belt.

Yesterday began in my beloved Bush Wood. Again, a Firecrest came across my path before I had even seen my year-first Goldcrest – which came shortly afterwards. A failed attempt to see perching Lesser Redpoll  – which have been frequenting the SSSI – sent me back to Bush Wood with Nick Croft in search of Treecreeper.

Treecreeper are very tricky on the Patch and none of us can quite understand why they are so scarce. There is plenty of good quality, relatively mature woodland and Treecreeper is a common bird only a short drive away at numerous sites. It took me about 20 months of birding the Patch before I saw my first, and yesterday I saw only my third Treecreeper on the Patch.


Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

I certainly did not get close to the stunning pictures a certain patch colleague has posted, but the diminutive certhian performed splendidly for us; creeping up tree-trunks before dropping like a stone to make its way up another like a little mottled yo-yo. It even sang a bit for us.

We both ticked Coal Tit as it made its way through the tree tops as part of a bigger mixed tit flock.

The/another (?) Firecrest also popped up right in front of us briefly at one point and I completely failed to get what would have been a superb shot – I blame the fact that it was too close to focus, but fear I looked a bit like Fredo Corleone fumbling with his gun at the crucial moment when his father is shot in The Godfather. By the time I was pointing in the right direction with the right settings, the fiery little masked-mobster had retreated a bush or two back to watch us briefly through the brambles before continuing its frenetic search for food.

IMG_6321v1 Firecrest BW20180113

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Luckily I did not fumble quite so badly when presented with a super smart-looking male Siskin in Wanstead Park (part of a small flock of six), which busily and messily fed on alder while Nick and I snapped away.


Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Although I may have missed the short visit from the Mediterranean Gull, whilst sifting through the gulls on Jubilee pond, I did find our most-commonly-seen colour-ringed gull: ‘2LBA’, a Black-headed Gull ringed close-by in Fishers Green in Essex in the summer of 2015 and seen regularly on the Patch since then.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I saw ‘2LBA’ again today on exactly the same perch (is it worrying that I want to call it ‘Alba’? I am not a big fan of naming wild animals) in fact whilst admiring the marbled moult of a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull. I find myself increasingly watching and admiring gulls, but shhhh! don’t tell any of my patch colleagues who may not look kindly on such behaviour – let’s just keep it between you and me, ok?


Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

As the light faded, Nick and I parted ways, but with a plan to rendezvous a little later to put right a wrong. No, we haven’t become superhero vigilantes. I simply wanted to see my first patch Woodcock. By the time I got to the sluice at the Roding, with the necessary equipment to hunt Woodcock (an extra jumper and scarf) Bob had also appeared, as if by magic.

The sun had already set when I arrived, but the light continued to seep out of the sky. The Song Thrush cacophony eventually died down and we stood in the near-dark as the lights of East London painted the horizon purple-pink. It was against this artificially lit backdrop that an open-winged silhouette arc’d down across the sky. I was momentarily confused. I had expected the bird to be visible for longer, I foolishly thought I might see some colour, but the shape was unmistakeable: a Woodcock coming out to feed. My 117th bird seen on the Patch.

I celebrated with a team-selfie (and yes, we have heard the one about the three garden gnomes).


Yours truly with Nick and Bob* and the empty sky against which we had seen the Woodcock

*Don’t ask me what Bob is doing with his hands to make them blur like that. Maybe he is dancing to keep warm. I prefer not to notice. 😉

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.


For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

Macro map Blanes

The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.


Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left


Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

Blanes brookv2

Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.


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.


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.


Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)


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…).


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.


Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

*In the bleak midwinter, Christina Rossetti

A long wait for a Long Wood record shot

When Little Owl recently succumbed to my patch list, Bullfinch (perhaps alongside Woodcock) became my patch ‘bogey bird’: a relatively commonly seen bird missing from my list.

But let’s put ‘relatively common’ in context here. The British Trust for Ornithology ‘Breeding Bird Survey’ shows that Bullfinch numbers have declined by around 39 per cent since 1967, and the decline is steepest in the South East. With the exception of some sightings on our neighbouring ‘Leyton Flats’, I believe the recent Autumn birds are the first Bullfinches seen on the patch for two years: since October 2015.

Yesterday, Tony saw four birds in Long Wood on the Wanstead Flats. This follows several recent sightings in the same area.


Long Wood as seen from the Broom fields on the Wanstead Flats

I was not long at Long Wood this morning before I heard the distinctive melancholic phe-ouw call which I like to describe as a child blowing weakly into a de-tuned harmonica. And through the branches, twigs, and remaining leaves I briefly saw a female Bullfinch. A bogey bird no more; my 116th bird for the Patch and my 105th for the year.

I then stayed another hour or so waiting in vain to get a photo. But with the exception of a brief call, I didn’t see another flicker. However, had I not waited, I would not have caught the flash of airborne movement that revealed a Short-eared Owl being mobbed by crows over the wood. This is only the second SEO seen by anyone on the Patch this year and only my second ever on Patch:


Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

After counting everything on Alexandra Pond for the BTO Wetland Bird Survey (very few winter ducks on the Flats at the moment, but rather more in the Park) I walked back via Long Wood for a second attempt to try and photograph the Bullfinch. I am unclear why I felt such a strong desire to get a photo, but it was definitely niggling me.

I was rewarded with views of at least three birds; two female and one male. I didn’t get any good photos, but securing the record shot flooded me with a sense of relief.


Male Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)



I find the fact that I saw Hawfinch from the Patch before Bullfinch quite extraordinary, but that is just one of the many wondrous uncertainties about  Patch birding.


The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.


200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.


Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.


European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.


12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.


Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.


Hobby (Falco subbuteo)


At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.


Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.


Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and the … err… Lesser Whitethroat): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.


Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.


“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.


Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.


From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.


Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.


Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:


Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.