Tag Archives: Patch birding

Of songs partially and not heard

My closing words in my last blog post were “And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.” Well, doesn’t it just!

The varied song of a Nightingale is the liquid gold of birdsong, the stuff of poem, prose and legend. It holds a special place in my heart as it does with so many other wildlife lovers: it almost instantly transports me to my French patch where they breed; it also reminds me of the fact that only tiny pockets of countryside remain in the South and East of our island where this famous song can still be heard. Imagine my reaction when I found out that a Nightingale was in full song on my London patch; only the third bird in a decade! Now imagine my reaction when I missed hearing it by minutes. A conspiring set of circumstances meant I simply wasn’t able to encounter what would have been a Patch and London tick, but would have also been so much more.

My French and London patches seemed to converge once more this weekend when another scarce London bird, but a common French bird, was seen this morning: Woodlark. To misquote Wilde, to lose one patch tick may be regarded as misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But lose it I did, or, rather, I never found it. Just like the Nightingale, I missed the Woodlark by a matter of minutes.

I’m fine. NO REALLY! I’M ABSOLUTELY FINE!!… *And breathe!*

My story of patch dipping this weekend doesn’t even end there! But extraordinarily, despite missing out on 3 patch ticks, it was still a good weekend for me in the Wanstead area.

I started early (but not early enough) on Saturday with the news (see Tony’s post here) that Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover had flown towards the Park. So, I did the dutiful thing and headed towards the Park to see if they had come down on Heronry pond mudflat or by the Roding. They hadn’t. The small amount of water left in Heronry was being fished by a pair of Little Egret in the shadow of their larger kin, Grey Heron.

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and reflection of Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A patch tick came like a glitch in the Matrix this weekend when Tony and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Saturday, and then Bob and I watched Hobby fly low and slowly through the Brooms on Sunday.

Swallows darted about throughout the weekend. On the Patch – coming in and out of nowhere, and several times over my car as I drove up to Nottingham and back again. I have allowed myself to to tick off Sand Martin as well, as one flew North extremely high over the Alexandra pond as Nick and I engaged in some energetic skywatching, largely involving lying down on the grass. We also saw a Peregrine emerge from a place even higher in the sky than the Sand Martin. It went from being an unrecognisable dot against the cloud to a hunched missile stooping down through the air – at speeds which for a bird would have, quite literally, been significantly faster than terminal velocity – as it hurtled down (close to where we sat) at some Starlings in a Hawthorn bush before whipping up and around the bush empty-taloned. I think my heart skipped a beat from the giddying speed and potential violence of it all.

I finally ticked off Grey Wagtail (which, ridiculously, came after Yellow Wagtail – also seen this weekend – and White Wagtail this year), and also some tziiping Tree Pipit. At least a couple were seen this weekend, stopping by only shortly whilst their patch-resident relatives, Meadow Pipit sat up on bushes guarding breeding territories whilst unleashed dogs blundered through their nesting areas.

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Nesting activity is, of course, well underway for many species.

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Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) with larval grub

Our common migrant warblers seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There are few bushes which don’t host at least one of: Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff. The most scarce of our regular breeding warblers also made its first appearance this weekend. Bob and I listened as Blackcap sang in various different pitches, almost drowning out an unusually scratchy sub-song that was the only clue to the presence of a Garden Warbler that Nick had found a couple of hours earlier. I went back later and eventually watched it fly up from hawthorn to the  heights of the fresh-leaved oaks of Long Wood.

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Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)


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Another bad record shot of the same bird

I always think the Latin scientific name, roughly ‘songster of the forest’ is so much more apt than ‘garden warbler’ – has anyone actually ever seen Garden Warbler in their garden? I certainly haven’t, although I would love to have the kind of garden one day where this might be likely.

So, it was a disappointing patch birding weekend for me, but it was also a wonderful patch birding weekend for me (I added six new birds to my patch year list).

How can you stay down when you have these guys to look at and photograph – we had several Wheatear on the Patch over the weekend.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…

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2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Woodland hunt

WARNING! This blog post contains images which some readers may find disturbing (due to their horrendous quality)

“If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” is something none of the Wanstead birders said ever. Bush Wood is not my local birding colleagues’ favourite part of the Patch, largely because it doesn’t seem to be the interesting-migrant-magnet that other parts, such as ‘the Brooms’, are. However, it is recognised as being useful for patch lists due to the woodland specialist birds that can be found there.

I don’t think I am doing any of the other local birders a dis-service by stating that I have a better relationship with Bush Wood than most. I think this is for a few reasons, but two of which are: it is the closest part of the Patch to my house (alongside School Scrub) and so I feel a certain neighbourly loyalty to it; and, oak -dominated woodland is probably my favourite British habitat (rare birds or no rare birds).

As this weekend began, I was also acutely aware that my patch year list was missing several of the woodland specialist birds that draws even the most grudging Bush Wood birder to undertake a reconnoitre, namely: Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Firecrest, and Coal Tit. All four birds were missing from my list as I walked into Bush Wood rather late yesterday morning (yes, I was a bit hungover).

In case the ensuing field notes and terrible photos are too much to bear, I will cut to the chase and reveal that I ended the day with two of the four birds ticked off.

Field notes

Within a few seconds of entering the wood I heard and saw Goldcrest, but their scarcer cousins were nowhere to be found. I walked through the wood very slowly, stopping whenever I was ‘in the birds’ (I’m sure anyone who has done any woodland birding knows what I mean by that expression). Tit flocks came and went. Great Tit, Blackbird, Robin, and Wren were all out defending territories. Great Spotted Woodpecker chased each other around, at one point with four on a single tree with plenty of calls and drumming involved. There was also the odd yaffle from a Green Woodpecker, and the inescapable squawks of the dreaded Ring-necked Parakeets, but even the parakeets were outvoiced in the woodland that day. Invisble Jays filled the wood with terrible screams as they communicated with each other from within their protected bowers. But even after some time of searching, I had not encountered any of my target species.

I walked to the North East corner of the wood, past the thick twisted girths of the ancient planted Sweet Chestnuts. The area around the keeper’s lodge is, I have found, one of the best places to encounter Coal Tit on the Patch. But it seemed only Blue Tit were to be found darting from oak, through holly, to oak.

At this point a couple jogging emerged – old friends of mine it transpired, so we stopped to talk (or rather they stopped to talk with me – I was already stationary). A little while into our chat, I tried not to appear distracted as a thin and sharp bird call pierced through leaves and pierced through my consciousness. It was the song of the Coal Tit. After my friends jogged on, I peered through holly and eventually caught sight of my quarry:

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Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Even in the poor quality photo above, the greenish back of our ‘britannicus‘ subspecies is distinctive.

And so I left Bush Wood with only one of my target species ticked off after about one hundred minutes of hard searching. But, I did not leave woodland; I merely crossed the bisecting road into Reservoir Wood (so named because it was once the location of a man-made lake on the grounds of the demolished Wanstead House, called the ‘Reservoir’)

A group of young film-makers in hi-vis jackets were working in the wood making a distraction for dog-walkers and a birder alike. But there was another hi-vis sight I wanted, and soon got. squinting up at the bare tree-tops a couple of Goldcrest moved around, but there was another similar-sized bird that seemed to be behaving slightly differently. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but as it dropped down a little in altitude, the green complemented by those wonderful face markings became, momentarily visible: my first Firecrest for the year, and my first ever in Reservoir Wood came into view. I include the dreadful shot – high bird against blanched sky – below as a reminder, if not a celebration, of the snatched glances of the wonderful feathered jewels that we must normally accept as our experience of a Firecrest.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus)

Eventually emerging from the wood, the great dome of sky opened up and seemed to be filled with the voice of a single soprano. Perched at the very top of an exposed tree next to Shoulder of Mutton pond was the relatively unusual patch sight of the Storm Cock in full song; our few Mistle Thrush do not seem – to my mind anyway – to sing as often as one might expect.

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

My search for Nuthatch and Treecreeper continues.

The tragedy of Colchis

All good classicists know the ancient stories of Colchis. The land where Jason and his argonauts went in search for a certain fleece. It was also the kingdom with a tragic princess, Medea, who – of course – famously avenged Jason’s betrayal by murdering her children (as you do).

Colchis was an ancient kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea where we find present day Georgia. One of the ancient towns was Phasis. It was around here where Western Europeans first came across a bird that they named after the location: Phasianus colchicus, or Common Pheasant. One of the most hunted birds in history. Millions are bred, over-fed, and shot every year in the UK. Some escape the gun, the cars, and the predators and eke out a feral existence across the country.

In the past decade only three or four have made it to the patch. In the past few days another bird made it here and has been patrolling the new paddock in the Old Sewage Works. It became the 112th bird I have seen on the patch:

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Common Pheasant (Phasianus cochicus)

It is the most exciting thing I have seen on the patch so far this year (as in: I haven’t seen much exciting; not, that this is the best of the best). A bird that is undoubtedly handsome, but that … honestly… I simply wish did not exist on these isles at all. One day I would love to see them where they belong, in Asia, and maybe on their westernmost territories, the land of an ancient tragic woman.

Since I have little else to say about my patch birding recently, I will jabber on for a few more lines about another tragic woman of history.

One day I stepped outside the patch boundaries and explored the smaller of our two local giant urban graveyards, Manor Park cemetery. To be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. It is mostly filled with densely packed, and rather gaudy, gravestones and not a lot else. My mood was raised by a small flock of Redwing, but the highlight was a small corner that is not mown to within an inch of its life and appears to have been allowed to rewild.

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The best bit of Manor Park Cemetery

The gravestones are embraced by bramble, holly, and ivy whilst hundreds of saplings have shot up out of the ground (my guess all in the last decade or two) in that race for light that trees-of-the-clearing are designed for.

Somewhere beneath the ground lie the remains of Annie Chapman – a tragic woman in many respects: A poor, alcoholic, TB-ridden prostitute who became the second known victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the East-end slums of Whitechapel. Her family, quite respectable despite the impoverishment that had befallen their daughter, raced her horrifically mutilated body out of East London to a small cemetery in an Essex village. Little did they know that East London would swell and grow and claim Annie back again for itself over time.

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.

2016: Wanstead wrap-up

How will 2016 be remembered?

The year the UK chose to turn its back on the EU?

The year the US chose Donald Trump to be its President?

The year where it seemed that almost every celebrity with any talent popped their clogs?

The year when I saw over 100 species of birds on the patch in a year?

The year I found a Yellow-browed Warbler on the patch?

Okay. So the last two are probably only milestones for me. Two days ago was my last walk around the patch for 2016. I am now on my other patch in the South of France for a few days (undoubtedly more on that later).

It was a quiet and bright day on the Flats and I walked around, working the key areas, finding a few of our favourites but also reflecting back on the year that has been.

The first bird of interest was a Stonechat by the small pond we call ‘Cat and Dog’. This bird framed the year for me: a Stonechat overwintered (2015/2016) in the same place a year ago. Seeing this bird also reminded me of a happy moment in February when I found the first new Stonechat of the year by a different pond (‘Angel’) on the patch.

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Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatas)

I saw our resident Meadow Pipits and Skylarks which have become like friends to me (although I am not sentimental enough to believe that the relationship is anything other than one way).

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Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

I stood by Alexandra Pond and remembered photographing a Hooded Crow there – a very rare sight for London.

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Hooded Crow (Corvus Cornix)

In fact, I stood by Alex for quite some time as I tried to photograph the Yellow-browed Warbler that has been there now for over 20 days! My efforts were barely rewarded with a very (very!) poor record shot…

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

But it also reminded me of just a few months ago when I found the first confirmed YBW in 150 years of records. Without a doubt my best moment on the patch:

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A rather better record shot from October

But this second YBW also brought my mind snapping back from the past and into the future. Given its sticky nature, there is a high chance that it will stay around long enough for the guys to tick it off on their ceremonial 1 January bird walk for their 2017 patch lists. My chances of doing that are very much slimmer as I don’t return from France until 8 January.

Breaking the ‘100’ Patch species for the year was great, but I don’t plan on focusing quite as much attention on my patch year list in 2017. Don’t get me wrong – I shall race out of my door if I hear of anything new and exciting that is out there, but I intend to focus my energies on other activities on the patch. Perhaps spending a little more time surveying.

For example, trying to get a handle on the numbers of these guys on the patch (spread across relatively few flocks on the fringes):

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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Ticks and misses

This year on the patch I have ticked off 13 new birds, taking my ‘patch list’ total to 111. But, there were also some misses. Birds I saw last year but did not see in 2016. In fact, there were nine of them. Some were special birds that I would not expect to see every year, like Slavonian Grebe, Red-legged Partridge, and maybe even Wood Warbler. Others, however, one would hope to see on the patch every year and were glaring gaps, most notably, Red Kite and Common Tern. But there was a net profit – taking my patch year total to 102 – and so I am happy.

2016 was a great year for me patch-birding, and I hope that 2017 is equally rewarding.