Tag Archives: Patch birding

Rustic Bunting: Part II

Many people will have woken up early full of nervous anticipation about whether the Wanstead Rustic Bunting will have stayed for the weekend; that nervous energy exemplified by a guy who dropped to his knees when he finally saw it (I’m not scoffing, I remember how I felt on Thursday when I saw the bird).

My early morning was rather more leisurely. I wanted a better photograph opportunity, but I wasn’t going to bust a gut and so enjoyed the misty morning and the ‘VisMig’ (visible passage Autumn migration).

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Coronation Copse

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SSSI

The VisMig was truly excellent with a Ring Ouzel (my second for the year) chattering away as a it flew slowly and low over my head, a couple of Brambling, and Redpoll, lots of Chaffinch, and hundreds of Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon amongst other things.

My focus on the VisMig nearly cost me dearly though. Tony had a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Short-eared Owl and so he and Jono set off in the hope of a better look while I took a different route to cover another angle. With my mind still geared towards VisMig I noticed a finch flying high over my head and at the same time I heard Tony shout at me. I thought he was shouting at me to get an ID on the finch so I strained my eyes and ears but it flew over silently and too high to pick out features.

When I caught up with the guys, they asked if I had seen the Barn Owl? “The WHAAT?!” The last time Barn Owl was seen on the Patch, I was 12 years old! Whilst it used to be resident decades ago, it is the kind of bird you can imagine never returning to be seen again – it just wasn’t even on my radar of the possible. I think Rustic Bunting was less of a surprise.

What followed wasn’t a particularly edifying train of actions on my part, but it involved running around a lot, staring at every crow in case it was chasing something, hearing that half of London’s birders had seen it while I was off looking in a different direction, quite of lot of swearing and self pity, and I even considered climbing a tree at one point, which would have undoubtedly been a very stupid decision. Eventually, after a call from Nick, I caught a glimpse of it as it sailed behind Long Wood with a retinue of crows.

Barn Owl was my 9th patch tick this year (last year I got 5) and my 125th bird species seen overall on the patch. Bob managed to get some incredible photos of it as it flew over the Brooms.

I could now focus back on the Rustic Bunting which was being watched closely by up to 70 twitchers at any one time.

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I am used to walking bumping into two or three birders on the Patch

To be honest, the crowds probably meant I couldn’t quite get the dream photo I was hoping for, but I was relatively happy with a couple of snaps I managed when, by luck, it happened to perch or feed near where I was standing.

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

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Feeding on some of the seed the guys have put out for it

Yet again, Wanstead Flats proves that almost anything can turn up at any point. And it seems, that, over time, it does!

 

Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

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The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

September 2018: Review

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Summary: I made 11 visits on to the Patch during September and recorded a total of 70 species of birds; three less than in August. Simply put, September was disappointing and was the only month, along with famously dire June, when I have not found any new birds for my patch year list.

Highlights were:

  • Tree Pipit flying and calling over Long Wood on 8 September was not a year tick for me, but it was one of only two recorded this Autumn by anyone on the Patch.
  • We have recently had some Autumn passage movement of Meadow Pipit adding to our small resident number, and I may have broken the patch record with 239 personally counted birds over out of a total day count of 257 on 22 September.
  • A single flock of around 70-80 House Martin (largest flock I have counted this year, by some margin) moved lazily through the Brooms on 12 September whilst the last I saw of our small flock of resident breeders was on 15 September.
  • Meanwhile small numbers of Swallow have trickled through on 7 of my 11 visits.
  • I also recorded Yellow Wagtail flying over on 7 out of 11 of my visits, but never more than a couple of birds compared to some of the flocks I had in August.
  • In an attempt to be ‘half-glass full’, I saw Wheatear on three of the patch visits and Whinchat on two.
  • Seeing my third different Yellow-legged Gull on the patch this year; an adult on 22 September.
  • Large numbers of Chiffchaff on the day of the Yellow-browed Warbler, (29 September) with also a few Chaffinch starting to appear in places we don’t normally see them.
  • Not getting stung by a hornet (see lowlight below).

Lowlights were:

  • The fact that for me, and others, it was a pretty poor September given that it should be a prime month for interesting finds. The westerly winds did not help matters.
  • Shockingly I didn’t see a single flycatcher in September, with this now likely to be the only year I have missed out on Pied Flycatcher.
  • Missing a Yellow-browed Warbler by minutes. A bird only seen briefly which passed through Long Wood without calling.
  • And missed a Green Sandpiper passing over head by being about 70 metres too far south and facing the wrong way (one of the most commonly seen birds that I still need for my Patch list).
  • Accidentally standing directly below a hornet nest in Centre Copse and getting hit on the head by one that launched itself or fell on me out of the nest. Miracle I didn’t get stung. (see highlight above).

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Feeling part of a burgeoning movement for change by joining the ‘Walk for Wildlife’ from Hyde Park to Downing Street on 22 September with the promotion of the new People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
  • The bittersweet and extraordinary sight of seeing a Beluga Whale in the Thames.

My birding month in five pictures:

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An obliging Kestrel

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Yellow-legged Gull by Alex

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On the ‘Walk for Wildlife’

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A distant record shot of the Beluga Whale – a once-in-a-lifetime sight

 

Like ships in the light

I woke up full of optimism this morning. The clear skies and wind direction did not point to anything great, but the air just tasted ‘rare’. There is nothing quite like the sense of hope and expectation at dawn during migration season. It is helped by the fact that the misty dawns of early Autumn are some of the most beautiful times to be out on the Patch.

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Low double figures of Meadow Pipit came nowhere close to last weekend’s total of 257 (and my patch PB of 239), but there were also lots of Chiffchaff and few more finches than usual.

My rare-radar is obviously finely tuned as I was thrilled to receive a call from Tony telling me that he had found a Yellow-browed Warbler, only the third ever seen on the Patch, and the added bonus of being during a season where numbers of these Asian visitors have been low. I was less thrilled that, despite a couple of hours of hard searching, three of us couldn’t re-find it – although it felt a bit like the one that got away as I chased a very small warbler with my bins as it raced ahead of me through a canopy, but I got no features whatsoever. A shame for my year-list, but I would have been a lot more sore if it wasn’t already on my patch list.

This afternoon Jono and I had a switch of scenery and followed the masses to get a look at the extraordinary sight that is the Beluga Whale in the Thames. This has been thoroughly well reported on the news and the beast is now in at least its fifth day in the Thames; enormous distances, of course, from its Arctic home.

We gambled with the shorter journey to the Essex shore at Tilbury where the views have been far more distant than from the Gravesend, Kent shore. At first the views were somewhat blocked by some rather big boats.

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Panamanian ‘MSC Florentina’ in from Le Harve and Italian ‘Grande Tema’ in from Hamburg

After one of the ships had been tugged in a full 180 degree turn and got out the way, we were soon pointed towards the narrow strip of water where the pale whale had been seen multiple times already that day. And, sure enough, we were lucky enough to watch it breach on multiple occasions spouting water jets and briefly even poking its bulbous head up. The views with the scope were distant but good, the views through my camera were less so and this is about the best I could manage – the pigment appears dark because we were facing into the light.

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Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

As incredible as it is to see such a rare sight as an arctic whale in my local river, it is clearly worryingly abnormal and I think we all hope it makes its way back out to sea and back up north as quickly as possible.

 

July 2018: review

I have decided to try and complete a short monthly review of my birding activities on and off the Patch. Here is my first attempt for last month: July 2018.

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Summary: I made five Patch visits in July 2018 and recorded a total of 61 species of bird, two of which were new for the year (Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern). There was a record-breaking heat-wave through much of July and every visit was made in hot weather. On the 15 July Wanstead Flats suffered the largest grassfire in London’s recorded history causing extensive damage to the SSSI and Broomfields.

Highlights were:

  • The returning large numbers of Black-headed Gulls, with over 100 birds (and many young juveniles) seen on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • A juvenile Mediterranean Gull with the Black-headed Gull flock on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • Tufted Duck bred successfully on Jubilee with 8 ducklings seen with adult female on 7 July.  
  • Finding two Little Grebe chicks on Alexandra Lake on 28 July (still present as of 19 August).
  • An unseasonal record of 5 Lapwing circling over SSSI and Western Flats on 8 July.
  • My first and, so far, only sighting for the year of Common Tern flying East over Shoulder of Mutton pond.
  • It was a relatively successful July for woodland birds with multiple sightings of Coal Tit and Nuthatch and a single sighting of Treecreeper in Bush Wood.
  • Seeing Skylark, Meadow Pipit, and Lesser Whitethroat (with juveniles) after the fire.
  • A single Red Kite seen over Bush Wood on 21 July.
  • This was a record-breaking month for Little Egret. I counted 14 on 21 July with most on the Ornamentals, but this was surpassed a few days later by Bob with 39 across the Patch!
  • Non-birding highlights were my first White-letter Hairstreak on the Patch (by Heronry on 7 July), and an Elephant Hawk Moth found in the long grass between the Brooms and Long Wood.

Lowlights were:

  • The Great Fire of Wanstead Flats.
  • Missing out on Clouded Yellow and Marbled White.
  • Not seeing any Buzzard in July.

Highlights from ‘elsewhere’

  • Finding my first Yellow-legged Gull (juv) for the year at Beckton Sewage Works.
  • Finding two Mediterranean Gull by the Thames Barrier.
  • Seeing Marsh Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes on 28 July.
  • Also successfully twitching the Red-necked Phalarope at Oare Marshes on 28 July with other good birds including Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and at least nine other species of wader.

The month in five pictures…

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull on the Western Flats

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Tufted Ducklings on Jubilee

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The aftermath of the Wanstead Fire

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A Spitfire over Oare Marshes

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Waders on Oare Marshes

Out of the ashes?

The largest grass fire ever seen in the capital” – BBC News

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Last Sunday, 15th July 2018, more than 220 firefighters battled for hours and continued dampening down for days. By my measurements, around 320,000 square metres of the patch has been destroyed, that is over a fifth of the entire area of Wanstead Flats and could house well over 50 football pitches. The sad irony of the football pitch comparison, of course, is that all the football pitches are fine. The mown grass was barely affected. It was the biodiverse areas of grassland, scrub, and woodland which has been devastated.

The background is that we are suffering the worst drought in London’s recorded history. The parched grass was tinder dry and ready to react to a carelessly discarded cigarette, a mishandled disposable barbecue, or the match of a malicious arsonist. We will probably never know.

Yesterday I went out for the first time to see the damage. It was harder to see than I had imagined. My patch has been devastated and that is how I felt too.

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The charred remains of non-combustible litter and blackened, skeletal trees stand in an ashen desert. No bird song. No butterflies. Nothing.

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There were some small mercies. Whilst the patches of brooms have been almost completely destroyed, some of the grassland just south of this area has survived. I found a single Meadow Pipit song-flighting there, and a couple more chased each other amongst the remaining grass. I also heard a short burst of grounded Skylark song. A small family of Lesser Whitethroat also emerged out of bushes that have been cut back and cauterised by the fire. So hope remains.

If we had lost our Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, we may never have got them back. Only time will tell whether this fire has taken a material toll on their fragile hold of this habitat.

Wanstead Park was welcome relief from the damaged Flats.

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Aspen and Purple Loosestrife in the Ornamental Waters

Water levels are low in the drought and several ponds have had water pumped into them to stop them becoming parched dust-bowls. Little Egret have been taking advantage of this and fishing in the shallow waters. Yesterday I counted 14 of them; a joint record with three years ago, although now beaten today by my colleagues who have clocked up 17 across the Patch.

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12 of the 14 Little Egret yesterday on the Ornamentals

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7 Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Juvenile Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)

In the Old Sewage works there has been more fire damage. The manure heap by the stables was set alight. But then about 100 metres away there was another, and then another patch of grass blackened to nothing. Probably only around 500 square metres, but suspiciously all separate whilst along the edges of one path. Almost as if someone walked along setting fire to the grass as they went.

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A small patch of fire damage by the path and paddock fence in the Old Sewage Works

Apparently some people have had to be told to stop barbecuing next to the fire-damaged parts of the Wanstead Flats. I cannot help draw a comparison and see these ignorant al fresco diners with their disposable bbq next to the blackened husk of a once-lush habitat as a microcosm for humanity and our planet: blissfully continuing with whatever the fuck we want to do as we burn and grind our world into ashes and dust.

“I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky” – David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes

 

 

48 hours back on the Patch

Going on holiday to Japan for almost three weeks at the time when we did is great for cherry blossom, but not so great for the patch list. Missing three weeks of prime Spring migration is not ideal. First world problems, eh!

The silver lining, other than getting to visit a fabulous country, was that I have cleaned up this weekend and even been a little bit lucky, if I’m honest.

I was almost chewing off my hands I was so keen to get out on the Patch after flying back, demonstrated by the fact that I couldn’t even wait for the weekend and went straight out after work on Friday evening.

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Alright, so I took this on Saturday morning, not Friday evening, but still…

Before I stepped on to the Patch I could hear the first year-tick singing away. This is the latest I have ever had Chiffchaff and so I was pleased to hear that familiar sound. Within a minute of being on the Patch, I had chalked up my second year tick, and a scarcer one at that: Shelduck. Today I saw two more and even got a record shot of them flying over.

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Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) – possibly not the last terrible record shot

As I strolled towards two of my patch colleagues in the distance, I saw one of them point at the sky. And so another species (Red Kite) was added to my patch year list. In fact, it was the first Red Kite I had seen on the Patch in almost three years. Like buses, I saw another today.

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Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Within seconds, a Peregrine Falcon flew right passed us as well.

This was all very good, but I had failed to see the Tree Pipit that had been found a little earlier in the day. My colleagues wandered off to go home and, almost immediately, up popped the Tree Pipit. Luckily I was able to call them back, so they could share in this sight as the light faded out of the day – the best, or most prolonged, view I think I have ever had of a Tree Pipit.

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Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

The pace didn’t let up the following morning. I was in search of a young Rook that had been seen for a few days. This is a bird that has always eluded me – and several others – on the Patch. But within minutes of scanning the crows in the trees, I had found it. A juvenile Rook is not easy to distinguish from Carrion Crow (as they have yet to develop the white bill), especially when the light is against you, but the pointy bill and slightly peaked crown (seen on the left) can be contrasted with the sloping culmen on the crow’s bill and the flatter more evenly rounded head shape of the nearby crow on the right.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus) on left and Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone) on right

In similarly speedy time I jammed onto a Brambling which had been seen on the island of Alexandra Lake. This being my first perching Brambling on the Patch, I also have a record shot of it, but rather like an ugly child, it is something only I love, and I won’t inflict it on other people.

The luck didn’t desert me there either. A little later I watched as a Woodcock (only my second on the Patch) was flushed out of Motorcycle Wood to a clump of young birches before deciding it preferred its original daytime hiding place and flew straight back, just about giving me enough time to steal a photo of it moving through the trees. Silhouetted, obscured, poor quality, but still wonderfully woodcock!

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Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

It then felt all a little pedestrian to be taking more bad photos of a passing Buzzard, but this, too, was a late addition to my year list for Wanstead. My excuse for sharing this photo is the interesting fact that this bird is missing its fifth primary feather (or ‘finger’) on its left wing with a gash that seems to reach all the way in to the coverts.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

In a 48 hour period I have added 12 birds to my Patch year list, taking me to a reasonably respectable 87 (although still some way behind the front-runners and with some notable omissions that will be difficult to claw back like Hawfinch and Mediterranean Gull), and, in case you feel everything went my way this weekend, I still managed to miss the two or three Ring Ouzel that were seen briefly this weekend. But, it was still some successful patch birding as well as simply being nice to be wandering around familiar territory that I felt I had left in winter and returned to in Spring.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

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Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

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Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

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.

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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.

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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