Tag Archives: rare birds

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).


Coronation Copse



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.


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.


Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)


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!

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.


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!

Wanstead Patchwork: Part V (a royal twitch)

I seem to have increased my 2015 patch list by one almost by accident. I was in the graveyard of St Mary the Virgin (the only Grade I listed building in Redbridge don’t y’know?) and watching a Collared Dove when I realised it wasn’t on my list for the year yet. I am not entirely clear if it really was the first CD I have seen on the patch this year, or whether I just overlooked it before. Either way, that is 56 seen on the patch this year now:

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Later that morning I stood on a cold and wet playing field looking at a flock (or if I were to be accurate with my collective nouns, a ‘colony’) of around 280 Common Gulls. Actually, I wasn’t looking at the Common Gulls at all, I was staring at a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls willing them to be a bit bigger, blacker, and have pink legs so I could add Great Black-backed Gull to my patch year list…

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

… I was shaken out of my wistful staring by Nick Croft who joined me to look at the gulls. As Nick already has GBBG for his list, and because he isn’t as silly as me, he was not trying to morph one species into another. But he was studying the colony in case a rarity such as Caspian Gull (only seen once on the Flats) should be concealed amongst the Commons.

We chatted for a while – Nick is a local expert who generously shares his knowledge and tips about where and when I might see what. I had barely turned my back and walked a few hundred yards when Nick informed me via Twitter that he had seen two more species missing from my year-list: Redwing and Fieldfare. By then however, I had gone a bit too far in the rain to turn back, and I must confess another bird was occupying my mind. Before we had parted, Nick told me how a Scaup had been seen in Kensington Gardens. Slap bang in Central London!

I had recently dipped seeing a Scaup in Nottinghamshire, and it was still a lifer (I’ve never seen one before) for me, so I left the Flats and jumped on the Tube to the West End. The weather was miserable, but I arrived at Round Pond – created by George II in 1730 and in view of Kensington Palace – and immediately started scanning the water.

Round Pond

Typically, this rare inland visitor (apparently the first in Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens for three years and only the second in over a decade), was patrolling around in the middle of the lake, about as far from view as he possibly could be … (yes that dot is the Scaup)


Nick had warned me that the bird was ‘scruffy’, and he wasn’t wrong. I think this young male is moulting and just starting to show patches of grey and white that will soon cover it more extensively and smartly (WARNING! – Distant record shot coming up!)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

I left the Scaup and almost immediately bumped into another patch birding expert, Ralph Hancock, who pointed me in the direction of a couple of owl holes. A local Tawny Owl was certainly not showing, and whilst I thought I saw something move in a hole Ralph told me housed a Little Owl, I couldn’t really tick something which could have just as easily been a squirrel.

So, I walked down to the Serpentine – surely the most well-known man-made lake in the UK – and snapped some of the commoner cousins of the Scaup, Tufted Duck and Pochard:

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

I would complain that ‘why couldn’t the Scaup have come that close?’, but Buddhist wisdom teaches that, “complaining erases good fortune”, so I shall hold my tongue and just be grateful that I saw a bird I have never seen before in one of the busiest parks in the heart of London.

Post Scriptum: Sunday 1 February
I nipped out this morning just after dawn for a quick walk around Bush Wood. I glanced at the Common Gulls on playing fields through the trees and saw something big and black & white in the distance. Looking through my bins confirmed that this time I did not have to imagine the size, the blackness, or the pink legs – they were all there. I whipped out my camera and got a shot before walking to get a much closer shot. The gull must have smelt my eagerness on the wind and took off flying incredibly close to a tower block and then behind it in the strong wind. Anyone waking up and looking out of their window and seeing that giant gull a few meters from their face would probably get a bit of a shock. Whilst I was disappointed not to get a closer picture, I did get a fuzzy super-distant shot of my 57th bird on the patch for 2015:

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

A Big British Birding Year: Part V (Harriers and Hares)

The Isle of Sheppey in Kent is not everyone’s choice destination. It has a reputation for being a little rough – so a good friend who was born there tells me – and one in twelve inhabitants on the island is an inmate of one of the three prisons.

But the island does contain the large Elmley Marsh which is a fantastic nature reserve… even in the heavy rain…

Elmley hide

Elmley hide

A winding road takes you a few miles driving through the marshes where you can spot wildlife from your car window – the closest I have experienced to safari outside of Africa. I got remarkably close to hundreds of Lapwing:

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Although, I didn’t get quite as close, it was from my car window that I saw my 50th species of the year:

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

and the 51st…

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Whilst not a new bird for my list this year, I did feel slightly voyeuristic photographing mating Greylags from my car window (the same couple is captured below in several different … er… positions)…

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

Once out of my car, things were a little less pleasant. The wind made it difficult to walk and the rain drove into me horizontally and stung my face. But I walked for a couple of miles (it felt like twenty) and pulled my camera out from under my coat a few times to capture some truly magical wild moments…

A racing hare sprinting around bemused and occasionally startled sheep:

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

And then, I saw the 52nd species of bird this year, the amazing and rare Marsh Harrier, a male (one of only about 350 pairs in the country) seen below flying low and pouncing on unseen prey:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

I also saw a female harrier being harried by a lapwing…


Whilst the weather was about as inclement as it gets in the UK, the benefit was that I was all alone in hundreds of hectares of wild land. All alone, that is, apart from the wildlife.


Birding and blogging frustrations

I had intended to celebrate my first anniversary of blogging by looking back at some of the things I had photographed over the past year.

My intentions were frustrated by a technical problem with my external hard drive (where I store the 40,000 or so photos I have taken in the past couple of years). [*Yawn]

So, not only did I miss my own anniversary, I have also not posted anything for three weeks.

Technical issues drive me up the wall – patience is not one of my virtues – but my passion, birding, can also be frustrating…

Birders travel all over the world to feed their habit: the constant urge to spot ‘new’ species of bird and add them to one of their lists: life/country/window (these are the three I keep). Birders will often visit remote and exotic locations. The other day I travelled to … [dramatic pause] … Staines. For those of you who are not familiar with the South East of England, to put it kindly, Staines is not a town to attract many visitors for its beauty or culture.

Staines recently became Staines-on-Thames. It was a bid to sex up or add class to a town mostly famous for the location of the fictional Ali-G.

Staines does, however, have a set of large reservoirs that are famous in the birding community…

Staines reservoir

Only two of the reservoirs can be viewed by the public via a narrow causeway that runs between them…


Staines reservoir is famous amongst birders because of the large number of rare birds that visit it. I spent nearly two hours travelling across London with the hope of spotting something like… a Long-billed Dowitcher, or a Collared Pratincole, or Whiskered Tern, or how about a mighty Osprey, or Montagu’s Harrier, or the more delicate Bee-eater, or Icterine Warbler. All of these wonderfully named birds have been spotted at Staines Reservoir over the years.

But I was not to be so lucky. I well and truly dipped.

Oh, I’m sorry did I just spring some birding terminology on you there without explaining it?

To dip (v.) to miss a bird that one had hoped or expected to see to add to one’s list

The common birds I did see, and the beautiful views, made up for any real disappointment. Birding wouldn’t be as fun if you always saw what you hoped for.

Mute Swan (Cygnus Olor)
Mute Swan

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

And finally, a rather wistful looking and slightly blurry Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
Pied Wagtail