Today, the weather just got better and better. The day began cold, misty, and cloudy, but the sun burnt through and when my eight hour walk around the patch ended, everything was bathed in a warm golden glow.
But it was when the clouds were full and low in the morning that I ticked off my 70th patch bird of the year. At Cat & Dog pond, I found a pair of Reed Bunting; spotting the female first but soon followed by a male.
Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)
Despite others occasionally seeing them throughout the winter, I had previously searched in vain. But within half an hour of ticking Reed Bunting off my list, I found a second pair in the Brooms by Centre Road.
There was no sign of our Winter, or Spring, Stonechats, but on Angel Pond I checked in on the mass of frogspawn and the feeding gulls (now largely in Spring plumage).
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
It is not just the weather that makes me feel Spring is here or near, the bird song increases each time I come out. Three of the most common songs to be heard on the patch (and indeed across the UK) are those of the Robin, Wren, and Dunnock.
Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
Talking of song birds, I always think that a much overlooked avian vocalist is the Starling. The complexity, variation, and mimicry involved, albeit to many we just hear a series of clicks and whistles, is phenomenal.
Great Crested Grebe
Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Today (or strictly speaking yesterday as the clock has just struck midnight as I type) I spent quite a bit of time watching the Great Crested Grebe on Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. This began with watching some limited courtship behaviour in the last veils of morning mist.
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)
Later in the day I was able to get a bit closer to them, and with the sun behind me, I was lit for the chance of a reasonable photo. I even had a tree trunk to lean on. In such beautiful light I was really hoping to draw out the beautiful colours of the grebe. So imagine my frustration when I glanced down at my view-screen and saw that I had somehow knocked a switch and was taking photos in monochrome.
Accidental monochrome photo, not just me trying to be artistic
By the time I had rectified the situation, the grebes had resurfaced further away making crisp photos harder to achieve.
But seeing the black and white photos transferred me back in time. Back in time over 80 years ago in fact, long before I was born, to a time when a naturalist called Frank Aspinall Lowe was writing. In his great book , Days with Rarer Birds, Lowe reminds us that Great Crested Grebe were once much less common and widespread than they are now.
One of the reasons I like old (bird) books is the beautiful, if somewhat archaic, language used in the descriptions. Lowe describes hearing the call of the Great Crested Grebe as “a harsh groaning, like that of a cart axle devoid of grease, rended the quiet of the tarn.”
Lowe had to go to all sorts of trouble in a remote area to watch this ‘rare’ species, which is now found on every other largish body of water. The change in fortunes was largely down to the RSPB being founded to protect this bird from persecution for its feathers. Indeed, even back in 1930, Lowe notes an improvement: “Under protection, this bird seems to be expanding its range all over the Country“.
Today, one of them resurfaced from the weeds with a small Tench. As a former angler, I recognised the dark olive sheen, thick tail and rounded fins and remembered the fight these powerful fish used to put up, as well as the thick layer of slime that coated their fine scales. That slime and power appeared to do this fish no good in the grasp of the grebe’s bill, although I was interested that the bird dived with the fish still gripped, presumably to attempt to swallow it underwater.
With a small Tench (Tinca tinca) prey
Other great piscators I watched today included:
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
As well as other water fowl more generally:
Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
…and finally this portrait of one of our resident Canada Goose:
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)