Tag Archives: Shelduck

Third time lucky: Bonaparte’s Gull

Having only been to Barking Creekmouth for the first time recently, it may seem a little excessive to pay two visits in one day. In fact, it seemed a little excessive to me as well. The monotonous mile and a half walk alongside the Beckton sewage works is bearable once or twice, but four times in one day is tough going.

But such is the pull of birds. Such is the ‘twitch’. And this wasn’t just for a year or London tick, this was for a full fat life tick: Bonaparte’s Gull. But oh boy did this diminutive larid give a couple of us the run-around on Sunday!

One benefit of the walks was seeing the Roding at different stages of Thames tidal-flow; an easy comparison of just how radically different it makes the place look. This is a photo I took a couple of months ago at low tide:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, low tide

And this was almost the same view (slightly different angle) taken on Sunday at high tide – this had nothing to do with the flow of the Roding, which was similar on Sunday to the flow in the photo above:

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Roding at Barking Creekmouth, high tide

By the time I arrived, the finder of the American vagrant gull, Paul Hawkins, was leaving, not having seen his his bird for about fifteen minutes. This didn’t bode well.

Those of us there studied every Black-headed Gull present carefully, and twice, and then probably all over again. Luckily some of the guys I was with are truly excellent gull specialists and helped point out the first cycle Yellow-legged Gull which was a year tick for me and I would have almost certainly overlooked were it not for them.

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Poor record shot of 1st Cy Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Nick, Marco and I even drove for twenty minutes to get a view from the other side of the Roding, a mere 100 metres away as the gull flies, but with no extra luck.

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Nick and the tidal barrier where the Roding meets the Thames at low tide

After some driving around the dystopian mini-rust-belt that makes up the Barking dock area, I headed back to give my wife a lift to the airport. Fast forward a few hours and I heard the Bonaparte’s Gull was back and was soon-after joined by a young Caspian Gull (another potential year tick). Nick and I missed both by a matter of minutes. Super!

I consoled myself marginally with the sight of three very cute Shelduck chicks.

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Common Shelduck and three chicks (Tadorna tadorna)

The expert view was that our best chance of finding the main prize (only a few are seen in the UK each year) was to try down-river and on the other side of the Thames. A mere forty minute drive and twenty minute walk (please inject sarcasm if not apparent) despite being just a few flaps of wings even for a small gull.

As Nick and I marched down the south bank in the early evening light we had the extraordinary sight of over a hundred terns (we presume mostly or all Common Tern) but didn’t really have time to scan or photograph properly so you just get this iPhone shot of about thirty of them. I have certainly never seen that many tern in London before.

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The white dots are mostly Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

From one sewage works to another, Nick and I finally arrived at Crossness and scanned the Thames around the sluice mouth.

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Thames from Crossness with rain clouds to North-West. The Bonaparte’s is one of those dots

There were only a couple of dozen black heads to look at this time, and it was only a couple of minutes before I was exclaiming that “I’ve got it!” All the driving, and walking, and scanning, and sewage smells were worth it. My life first Bonaparte’s Gull and an important tick for Nick’s big London year list quest as well:

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Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

As any American readers will know very well, the Bonaparte’s Gull is the third smallest gull in the world (I had ticked off the smallest, Little Gull, just a couple of weeks earlier). It is named, not after the similarly diminutive French emperor – which was my assumption – but his exploring ornithologist nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

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Bonaparte’s at the back just about showing overall size difference and dainty bill compared with Black-headed Gull in the front (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) and different stages of moult obvs!

I was thrilled, and the walk back to the car after a long day of driving and walking, seemed like the shortest yet. I was even in a state of mind to enjoy the sunset.

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The twenty-year-old, 100m long hopper dredger, Sand Fulmar, on its way to Southampton*

*Not that I’m a secret ship-spotter you understand!

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.

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Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.

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The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.

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Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.

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Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.

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The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.

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And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.

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The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.

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The land and water of King Lot

We spent Easter in Edinburgh with family.

The city of Arthur’s Seat:

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Along with the mound on which Edinburgh Castle is built, Arthur’s Seat has to be one of the most famous extinct volcanoes in the world. Presumably, although not definitely, it is named after our greatest legendary king (I am a big fan of Arthurian legends). Edinburgh’s connections with Arthur don’t stop at the famous hill. The whole area – Lothian – is presumed to be named after an ancient king, sometimes called Lot: the father of Sir Gawain of the Round Table.

Some (hi)stories suggest that the ‘noble’ pagan king, Lot, committed an act of Talibanesque logic and brutality by throwing his Christian daughter off a cliff for having the temerity to be raped by a Welsh pillager Lord called Owain. The pregnant victim, later known as Saint Teneu, miraculously survived her fall and gave birth to Saint Mungo or Kentigern, the Patron Saint of Glasgow.

Flowing through the kingdom of Lot is Edinburgh’s main river, the Water of Leith:

Water of Leith

Water of Leith

This river rises in the Pentland Hills amongst the ferns, birch, heather, and moss:

Bavelaw Marsh

Bavelaw Marsh

… where I watched Meadow Pipits rise and fall in their dancing song-flights.

The many streams that help form the Water of Leith are damned to form the Threipmuir and Harlaw reservoirs which provide much of the drinking water for Edinburgh.

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Threipmuir Resevoir

Harlaw Reservoir

Harlaw Reservoir

From these hills, the water tumbles down into the city and flows into the mighty Firth of Forth estuary.

A mile or two up the beach from where Water of Leith enters the sea, is Cramond Beach:

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

Camond Beach and Cramond Island in the distance

At low tide Cramond Island, way out in the Estuary, is linked to the mainland by a causeway:

Cramond Causeway

Cramond Causeway

Either side of the causeway is a sandy, muddy magnet for wading birds. Unfortunately, I had neither a camera (all the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone), nor a spotting scope, but throughout the day – whether in the hills or at the beach – I took a few photos of birds I saw through the ‘make-do’ method of holding my phone up to my binocular lens…

Left side, top to bottom: Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) in Balerno; Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata) one of very many at Cramond Beach; one of my favourite birds, the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) at Harlow Reservoir.

Right side, top to bottom: Common Redshank (Tringa totanus); Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus); Goosander (Mergus merganser) swimming up the River Almond Estuary from Cramond Beach; and, Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) also on Cramond Beach:

Birds… honestly!

Birds… honestly!

A Big British Birding Year: Part X (distant dots)

We are now in Spring. The weather shows it, the flowers show it, and the birds know it. However, the calendar tells us we have another 5 days to go in the UK. The calendar is wrong, or rather, it is inflexible. I spend enough time out in the wild to back my judgement on this one.

Two weeks ago today was also a beautiful day, but there was a definite sense that we were still within the grip of Winter. But even in the dying days of Winter, the harbingers of Spring were starting to break through, such as the first Bumblebee I have seen this year:

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Cliffe Pools is part of the scientifically important Northern Kent marshes. They sit on the Hoo Peninsula in the Medway right next to the Thames Estuary.

Cliffe Pools

Sheep

Rather like the song, Moon River, the Thames at Cliffe is, quite literally, wider than a mile:

Thames

Everything here is big: the sky, the river, the lakes, and the wild marshes. Unfortunately, this scale has implications for a birder: the birds I photograph are often far, far away. My bid to photograph as many species of birds as possible in a year went well on the day, but, as you will see, the shots of birds are sometimes atrocious quality or distant dots.

It was a great day for raptors. The first of four birds of prey to be added to my year list on the day was the Kestrel (seen below in two merged photos silhouetted against the sky and being harried by a Black-headed Gull):

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Also in the sky, doing its best impression of a vulture, was a Common Buzzard – the most common British raptor:

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The Buzzard caused havoc amongst an enormous number (well into the thousands) of waders attempting to roost on islands deep in the centre of one of the lakes:

Flock

Peering slightly deeper into the swirling cloud of waders, I was able to identify two new birds for the year, albeit admittedly two of our commonest water birds, Dunlin and Redshank. There were well over 1000 Dunlin present – the smaller bird consisting of a sizeable majority of this flock – and a few of the much larger Redshank to the bottom of the shot:

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Whilst both of those waders are a fairly common sight on wetlands, less common is the iconic Avocet, which I could only photograph at the other side of one of the largest lakes:

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

As well as waders, there are also hundreds of ducks at Cliffe, most of which I have already photo-recorded this year. However, I photographed my first Shelduck of the year:

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

… and my first ever photo of a the sea-faring Goldeneye duck:

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Female Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

So Cliffe added 7 new species to my year list of photographed birds, but it should have added 8. I heard a familiar song and scanned the sky to find a distant speck rising vertically with its call: despite the great distance, it was unmistakeable in song and behaviour as a Skylark. I lined it up in my lens and got a few snaps. Back at home, going through my hundreds of photos, I had just finished deleting a set of images of an unrecognisable dot in the sky when the memory of the skylark came flooding back. I cursed… a lot.

I left Cliffe in the afternoon and drove back to Elmley Marshes which I had visited a few weeks earlier. The weather on my two trips could not have been more different. Last time I struggled to walk in the driving rain and icy wind. This time the water was as flat as a millpond and the sky was blue.

Elmley Marshes

I got some more snaps of friends I made there last time, such as Curlew:

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

… and more Little Egrets than I have seen before (I got a great video of the Egret hunting, by stirring up the silt with its colourful feet in a sort of shaking dance and catching a couple of fish and a snail, but unfortunately I can’t upload videos on to this blog, so you shall have to make do with a photo):

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Elmley also delivered a new wader for me for the year, a couple of distant shots of the colourful Oystercatcher:

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

I got somewhat closer to a Reed Bunting (although I have already photographed this smart species this year):

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

I met a ‘peering’ of birders (I have decided that should be the collective noun for birdwatchers) gathered around spotting scopes (normally a good sign) who told me there were a couple of “short-ears” around and who also kindly let me see a Peregrine about half a mile away on a post through their powerful scopes. Unfortunately, I had left my iphone in the car and so had to try and snap it with my 300mm lens. The main photo below is at maximum zoom and in the digitally further-zoomed section, you may be able to see a grey/blue shape on top of a post with a patch of white near the head. This was the first time I had ever photographed the fastest bird in the world – it was just a shame it so distant and fuzzy:

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I left the birders (seen below with billowing chimneys behind them) to go in search of the Short-eared Owl – which would be a lifetime first for me.

Birders

Last time I came to Elmley (click here) I was lucky enough to photograph rare Marsh Harriers with their distinctive low-flying hunting technique. Two weeks ago I spotted another doing exactly the same thing way off in the distance. I swung my lens towards the movement and snapped away, taking many shots. I then looked at my view screen and zoomed in on the harrier to see it was strangely pale and had a wide round face. It wasn’t a Harrier at all, it was my first sighting of a Short-eared Owl:

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

I had walked for several miles in two bleak but beautiful wetland environments in Kent and added ten new species to my year list, taking me to a total of 72 species so far for the year. As I left Elmley with an amazing Kent sunset, I could not have been happier:

Elmley sunset

Elmley sunset 2