Tag Archives: Raven

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

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

Highlights were:

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

Lowlights were:

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

Highlights from elsewhere were:

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

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

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February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

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

Highlights were:

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

Lowlights were:

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

Highlights from elsewhere were:

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

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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

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

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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Winter and the sounds of silence

Silence.

The absence of sound: the concept; the mindset; the state of existence. So rare. As a birder mainly working an inner London patch, it is not something I am used to. But sometimes (most definitely not always) it can be found on my other ‘patch’ in the French foothills of the Pyrenees.

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South towards the Pyrenees

Arriving at the remote house, the silence hit me like a lump hammer. Miles from the nearest road, isolated from any flight paths, the patch is always wild. But the wild was silent too. No bird song, no bird calls (imagine the change from London: no gulls, no crows), no calling insects of the mediterranean. But also, no wind. Just cold air and bright sun. A frozen scene.

Birding the French patch is always a challenge. The birds are more secretive, far less visible, and sometimes silent. At first a sliver of panic set in: “are there any birds here at all?” – the foolish thought passed across my mind like an unwanted shadow.

Of course there were birds here, although the demographics had shifted quite significantly. The first bird I heard on the patch was a Blackbird; a low darting black shape and that ubiquitous furious squawking – its alarm call. But after an hour or so of walking around the maquis, I became aware of more and different thrushes. The chack-chacking of Fieldfare and occasional ripples of flocked flight from tree to tree that told me these winter migrants were here in large numbers. And then, the Song Thrushes. A bird I rarely see or hear on the patch – rather than the resident songbird that we know and love in the UK, and across much of Europe – these hilly foothills appear to be migrant territory only. Occasionally, the alarm calls took on a different pitch and the darting culprit was browner and more spotted than a female Blackbird. Over time, the thrush jigsaw was pieced together: Tens or even over a hundred Fieldfare and Song Thrushes skulking, waiting on the land – deep in the bushes and trees (still largely hidden in this evergreen utopia), and occasionally, rarely, when the sun shone strongest (stretching the temperature from below freezing to over 20 degrees centigrade in a matter of hours), the Song Thrush sang. The silence pierced by one of the most famous songs of the wild.

My winter patch had other surprises for me. Occasionally the silence was broken by a passing Tit flock.

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit. The flocks foraged in the Aleppo Pines on our hillsides joined by their mountain-loving cousins, Crested Tit. Larger numbers than I have ever seen before on the patch. The sparkling white peaks in the distance were a clue that that these stunning birds had moved down in altitude to find food in pines not frozen solid and not covered in a thick coat of snow.

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European Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

We are still several months away from our Summer migrants joining us again (the Nightingale, the Melodious Warbler, the Whitethroat, the Chiffchaff, the Sub-Alpine Warbler are all hundreds and thousands of miles South on a different continent), but there  are some warblers that stick it out. In fact I was blown away how many bushes would tick and rattle at me with Sardinian Warbler and Blackcap, both here in large numbers.

The bushes and trees of the maquis hold other winter secrets too. Firecrest are everywhere – moving through the Box, Holm Oak, and even navigating the tightly twisted branches and densely-spined leaves of the Kermes Oak. I remain convinced that this little king is the most numerous bird on the patch. Short-toed Treecreeper shuffle up and down the narrow twisted trunks of maquis growth, Wren peek out and occasionally call territorially, as does the Robin, ticking like an old pocket watch and signalling places where the ground has been disturbed.

Roe Deer tracks mosaic the mud, but sometimes the disturbance is more complete. I pushed my way through bars and thorns to be inside a Holm Oak wood and could smell and tell the recent presence of Wild Boar.

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Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and boar-disturbed ground

The winter green (as so much of the maquis is evergreen) was occasionally punctuated by the seemingly unseasonal blossom of Strawberry Tree bell flowers whilst other trees of the same species were still full of fruit.

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Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Its name proving to be a misnomer as my wife and Sister-in-Law happily ate several of the crimson balls: ‘Arbutus unedo‘ or ‘eat once’ as their appealing fruit are supposedly bitter.

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Fruit of the Strawberry Tree

The clear blue skies of the patch are rarely crossed by plane or passing bird – I have never seen a gull, duck, or goose fly over the patch, for example. Occasionally a comet of feather would arch over in a parabola from low to high to disappear, again low, in the undergrowth displaying the stumpy tail of the Woodlark – whose song I long to hear again in the warmer months, but who is now, silent.

Sometimes, too, the great silent blue was brought to life by the tinkling of Goldfinch (I counted a flock of thirty-plus one day) or the odd chup-chup of the Chaffinch. Last winter I added Hawfinch to my patch list. This year the silence was broken more comprehensively by a single male Siskin moving through the tops of the pines – it is the first and only Siskin I have seen on this patch in nine years of regular visits.

Goldfinch and Chaffinch were only beaten in their airborne vocal reliability by the cronking of our resident Ravens.

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Common Raven (Corvus corax)

During this visit, the most complete shattering of the silence – apart, perhaps, from the distant boom of hunters’ guns – was in the gathering of the largest flock of Raven I have ever seen (in fact it was two flocks totalling some 40 birds).

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An unkindness of Raven

The collective noun from, medieval venery, for Ravens is an ‘unkindness’. I consider this to be unkind in itself. I watched them swirl and court and ‘play’ in such a sociable manner high up on the thermals that I: a) could not believe their attention was really on any ground carrion; or b) simply disagree with the noun imposed on them.

To truly work a patch, it helps to have a clear idea of the shape, size and boundaries of it. With my London patch, I know this well as it is set out in maps and was agreed by others before I moved to the area. In France it is not so clear, partly because I am the only birder working the patch. The ownership of the land is not physically marked and is archaically legally patchwork (no pun intended) in nature. The boundaries are flexed by the distance I walk and were pushed to their limits this trip when I found two new birds for my patch list. I now decree it to be the land surrounding the house stretching in all directions up to the immediate vicinity of surrounding roads and villages (I must admit that this makes it really rather huge in size).

On one walk to a nearby village when the houses were in sight, albeit over 100 metres vertically below our hillside track in elevation, I heard and saw the first Carrion Crows I have recorded on the patch.

On another walk from our land to another village I finally saw a bird that has been the top of my patch wishlist for several years: the Griffon Vulture.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

The enormous bird circled around a hilltop several times before flying high right over our heads and fast off South back towards the Pyrenees. It did all of this without beating its giant wings once and, of course, it did it all in absolute silence.

I was mesmerised but very happy. The tenth raptor tick for this patch for me (dare I hold out hope for Lammergeier and Bonelli’s Eagle? Of course I do – I am an optimistic birder! Black Vulture may be pushing it a bit, but I live in hope) and I still haven’t seen Black kite and Booted Eagle on the patch which are both common in the area and I have seen many times further afield.

In the last two days, the weather has changed and the silence has been shattered by strong winds. Tough birding has also just got even tougher, although my wife and I stood on top of a hill yesterday and looked across the valley at a pair of Red-billed Chough battle expertly (but somewhat less acrobatically than in calmer weather) against the wind whilst hugging the rock escarpments known within the family as ‘Eagle Peak’.

30. That is the number of different species of birds I have counted in the few days we have been out here. That is around half what I would expect to tick off on my patch in London at the same time, but the experiences that come with these birds often make me stand still in awe and silence.

Firsts in France

Six years ago, on my first visit to the Southern French district of Aude, I saw my first and only Crested Tit. Despite travelling to this part of France at least annually ever since (here is my blog post from my visit last year), it wasn’t until my visit this April, that I saw this beautiful bird again. As with all the birds in the remote valley, they are shy and not easy to photograph, but this time I just managed to capture him in pixels:

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

When the sun shines in the valley, even in April, it can feel like it is perpetually blessed (and sometimes scorched) by Mediterranean heat (my wife’s family home can just be seen to the right of the picture below):

The valley

But lest anyone forgets that the valley sits in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the weather can change with frightening speed (that seems the calling card of mountainous lands); cloudless blue can be replaced by a river of fog in the space of a few hours (normally overnight):

in the clouds

I spent the days creeping through thickets trying to photograph the shy bird-life with only moderate success. Whilst we enjoyed the liquid tunes of several Nightingale throughout the days, the famous singers only let me get within maximum zoom-lens distance…

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

…And despite large numbers of Warblers making themselves known to me through their clicks, calls, and songs, they rarely poked their heads above the thick vegetation to let me snap them (the stunning Sub-Alpine Warbler is joined in the valley by enough of its fellow species to surely be of scientific interest, but watching – or photographing – them closely is devilishly hard):

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans)

I also snapped the slightly bolder Pied Flycatchers near the house:

Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

… and in the same tree, although higher and hidden in the branches, came the high pitched whistles of one of my favourite birds – but one I have never succeeded (until now) in photographing:

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Common Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Each day the valley is crossed, to-and-fro, by the mightiest of the crow family, the Raven, announcing their presence with their distinctive ‘cronking’:

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

Common Raven (Corvus Corax)

But some other dark silhouettes were smaller, faster, more acrobatic, and sharper billed. Their calls were higher pitched and harsher. Whilst I was sad not to see their distinctive blood-red bills, I was delighted to photograph shapes in the sky that were unmistakably the rarest of the European crow family (corvidae):

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Slightly easier to photograph than the birds (although only just at times), were the valley’s array of butterflies, including:

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

… and the stunning…

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

Supposedly even easier to photograph (although I have never really embraced macro-photography), are flowers. The flora of the valley could easily be given a blog post of their own (maybe one day they will), but for now, I just want to broadcast a few of the stunning orchids blooming this spring:

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) with Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

Yellow Ophyrs (Ophrys lutea)

… and then a beauty I snapped in heavy rain with my iPhone…

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

Woodcock Bee-orchid (Ophrys scolopax)

I took many photos of many wonderful things in the valley and in the hills of one small part of Southern France (only a few of which I have shared today), but wanted to finish this post with a slightly obscured snap of the largest wild lizard I have seen on mainland Europe:

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)

Western Green Lizard (Lacerta bilineata)