Tag Archives: Red-backed Shrike

That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

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Getting to know the locals

One of the benefits of working the same patch regularly is that, occasionally, you get to know and recognise individual birds. Sometimes this is made easy for us:

Specific locally scarce or rare birds

The recent Red-backed Shrike on Wanstead Flats was the first of its kind locally for 38 years. I am sure there are other juvenile Red-backed Shrike that look very similar to the one we had stay for around 11 days, but nobody in their right mind would think that it was a different bird from one day to the next.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) – yes, I know I have displayed this photo before

Sometimes relatively common passage migrants might stay a day or two. So it was the other day when two quite distinct young Wheatear were found for two days running in the Broomfields.

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Colour-ringed birds

I have mentioned Black-headed Gull ‘2LBA’ before. Recently, I have seen it pretty much every time I have visited Jubilee Pond. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the distinct features of the particular bird, but… I don’t need to as it wears its identity pretty clearly on its leg.

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Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) – ‘2LBA’ 

Distinctive individuals

Whilst not wishing to indulge in any species-ist ‘they all look the same’ kind of rhetoric, it is inevitably hard for most of us – even regular and dedicated birders – to get to understand the individual features of birds within one species. However, I am reminded of the late, great, Sir Peter Scott and his painted studies of individual Whooper Swan face markings. But for us mere mortals there seems to be a spectrum from uniquely marked birds through to subtle differences that only close-up and regular study could allow.

At the easy end of that spectrum, you have birds like this rather beautiful, but also ‘manky’, domestic-interbreed Mallard that I have seen on Jubilee and Alexandra ponds.

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Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Somewhat further down the spectrum are birds like this pale 3cy argenteus Herring Gull, where the distinctive eyes, mantle colour, moult, and bill markings have let me identify the same bird on several occasions in the last week as I have had the opportunity to get out most days.

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10 September: Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

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10 September: Same bird in flight showing missing secondaries

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12 September: same bird, same place (facing different direction)

August 2018: review

Patch

Summary: I made nine patch visits in August (although a couple were for very short periods of time) as Autumn migration really kicked into gear. I recorded 73 species of bird in the month, including eight that were new for the year and one, very special, brand spanking new Patch tick (Red-backed Shrike). I also made one non-patch twitch.

Highlights were:

  • Almost certainly the stand-out bird for the year will be a stunning, long staying Red-backed Shrike found by Nick in Pub Scrub on 28 August. I was lucky enough to have great views of it early one morning.
  • The return of the Willow Warblers with this species appearing in my lists for the first time since May and being spotted on almost half of my patch visits.
  • Yellow-legged Gull making an appearance for the first time on the patch for anyone this year in August with a recurring sub-adult found by Nick by Alex on the 12 August and a self-found juvenile loafing on the pitches on the 25 August.
  • An extraordinarily early returning Wigeon on the Roding on 12 August was almost certainly our earliest Autumn record.
  • Hobby and Peregrine have both clearly bred successfully in the local area and I have had several great views of both falcons.
  • Fantastic August for passage Yellow Wagtail, with a record patch high for me of 14 over on 30 August, and also my first view of them perching locally, with a flock of 8 that briefly perched in a Hawthorn in the Broom fields on 25 August.
  • Traditionally the best month for Spotted Flycatcher, although lower numbers than some years. I got my first on 19 August and a high of four all perched in the same bare tree in Centre Copse on the evening of 29 August.
  • I recorded Whinchat on three Patch visits with a high of five individual birds on 30 August.
  • A few Wheatear have been seen, but I only recorded one, a male, in the ploughed sections of the Broom fields on 28 August.
  • Seeing my first Redstart of the year in the Brick Pits. For three out of the last four years I have seen my first Redstart in the last week of August.
  • Hirundines have been more visible this month, although the breeding Swifts had all left before I got out, so they were not recorded this month. House Martin fed in low double digits around Jubilee in particular, and were accompanied by a Sand Martin (embarrassingly my first and only one for the year) on 25 August, and a few passage Swallow later in the month as well.
  • Flushing the first patch Snipe of the Autumn from the Brooms.

Lowlights were:

  • Missing the confiding Black-tailed Godwit on 4 August on Alex was gutting.
  • I was disappointed to be one of the only regular birders on the patch to miss Pied Flycatcher in August.
  • I was also unsuccessful in finding Garden Warbler or Sedge Warbler which both showed in August.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Getting Stone Curlew on a late evening twitch to Bowers Marsh.
  • Also finding a Blacked-necked Grebe at Bowers Marsh, both on 12 August.

My birding month in five pictures…

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Our long-staying Red-backed Shrike in Pub Scrub

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Juvenile Peregrine, Centre Copse

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Bowers Marsh, Essex

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4cy Yellow-legged Gull, Alex

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Male Wheatear, Broomfields

The valleys

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

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

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

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

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

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

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

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

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

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

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

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

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

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

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

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

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