Tag Archives: Siskin

A Silhouette and a Siskin

2018 has started well from a patch-birding perspective.

Okay, so I have missed the two best birds so far: Mediterranean Gull and Great White Egret (missed because of that minor inconvenience that prevents me from spending every daylight hour in the wild: work).

Okay, so one of my New Year’s resolutions to focus my birding efforts on matters other than Patch Year Listing has not been hugely successful. In fact I am scoring higher than  ever before.

But, I have some great patch birding moments and already have a full fat patch life tick (more on that shortly) under my belt.

Yesterday began in my beloved Bush Wood. Again, a Firecrest came across my path before I had even seen my year-first Goldcrest – which came shortly afterwards. A failed attempt to see perching Lesser Redpoll  – which have been frequenting the SSSI – sent me back to Bush Wood with Nick Croft in search of Treecreeper.

Treecreeper are very tricky on the Patch and none of us can quite understand why they are so scarce. There is plenty of good quality, relatively mature woodland and Treecreeper is a common bird only a short drive away at numerous sites. It took me about 20 months of birding the Patch before I saw my first, and yesterday I saw only my third Treecreeper on the Patch.

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

I certainly did not get close to the stunning pictures a certain patch colleague has posted, but the diminutive certhian performed splendidly for us; creeping up tree-trunks before dropping like a stone to make its way up another like a little mottled yo-yo. It even sang a bit for us.

We both ticked Coal Tit as it made its way through the tree tops as part of a bigger mixed tit flock.

The/another (?) Firecrest also popped up right in front of us briefly at one point and I completely failed to get what would have been a superb shot – I blame the fact that it was too close to focus, but fear I looked a bit like Fredo Corleone fumbling with his gun at the crucial moment when his father is shot in The Godfather. By the time I was pointing in the right direction with the right settings, the fiery little masked-mobster had retreated a bush or two back to watch us briefly through the brambles before continuing its frenetic search for food.

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Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla)

Luckily I did not fumble quite so badly when presented with a super smart-looking male Siskin in Wanstead Park (part of a small flock of six), which busily and messily fed on alder while Nick and I snapped away.

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Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Although I may have missed the short visit from the Mediterranean Gull, whilst sifting through the gulls on Jubilee pond, I did find our most-commonly-seen colour-ringed gull: ‘2LBA’, a Black-headed Gull ringed close-by in Fishers Green in Essex in the summer of 2015 and seen regularly on the Patch since then.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I saw ‘2LBA’ again today on exactly the same perch (is it worrying that I want to call it ‘Alba’? I am not a big fan of naming wild animals) in fact whilst admiring the marbled moult of a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull. I find myself increasingly watching and admiring gulls, but shhhh! don’t tell any of my patch colleagues who may not look kindly on such behaviour – let’s just keep it between you and me, ok?

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Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

As the light faded, Nick and I parted ways, but with a plan to rendezvous a little later to put right a wrong. No, we haven’t become superhero vigilantes. I simply wanted to see my first patch Woodcock. By the time I got to the sluice at the Roding, with the necessary equipment to hunt Woodcock (an extra jumper and scarf) Bob had also appeared, as if by magic.

The sun had already set when I arrived, but the light continued to seep out of the sky. The Song Thrush cacophony eventually died down and we stood in the near-dark as the lights of East London painted the horizon purple-pink. It was against this artificially lit backdrop that an open-winged silhouette arc’d down across the sky. I was momentarily confused. I had expected the bird to be visible for longer, I foolishly thought I might see some colour, but the shape was unmistakeable: a Woodcock coming out to feed. My 117th bird seen on the Patch.

I celebrated with a team-selfie (and yes, we have heard the one about the three garden gnomes).

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Yours truly with Nick and Bob* and the empty sky against which we had seen the Woodcock

*Don’t ask me what Bob is doing with his hands to make them blur like that. Maybe he is dancing to keep warm. I prefer not to notice. 😉

Face to face: notes from Rutland

I dropped in at Rutland Water today on the drive back from Nottingham. The newish wetland reserve on the western shore is impressive, but I was woefully under-equipped: I tottered around the mud in my brogues and strained my eyes across the vast expanses of water with my bins cursing my lack of spotting-scope. But it turns out that the piece of kit I was to miss most was my camera.

I spent a fair whack of time studying ‘Lagoon 4’ from the three hides. A guy with a scope helpfully pointed out a red head Smew on the far side following a raft of Wigeon. With my binoculars I could just about make out the shape and colouration of the distant speck. In turn I pointed out a Peregrine perched on the man-made Osprey nest in the middle of the water – he hadn’t bothered to study the Osprey nest for obvious reasons (I believe the likely nest occupier is currently in Senegal). As we both watched the Peregrine, it decided to perform.

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Lagoon 4, Rutland Water

The falcon swooped down to a post poking up out of the water and perched right in front of pair of Egyptian Goose. I have never seen anything quite like it: a face-off between the ultimate feathered killing machine – all eyes and razor-sharp bill, but still and unfazed, and an absolutely furious goose spitting and hissing with its face level with the raptor.

I walked around to the other side of the lagoon to see if I could get a better view of the Smew from another hide. I opened the wooden window flap and almost put it straight back down again in disbelief. There, directly in front of me, was the stunning adult drake, pristine in white and only 20-30 feet away from me. A little further away was his entourage of three red heads. If I had my camera and 400mm lens, I could have posted some amazing shots. Instead, I simply had my iPhone…

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Drake Smew (Mergellus albellus)

The fuzzy pixelated image betrays the sharp, clean, contrasted colours and lines of this gorgeous duck, but seeing one up so close was a wonderful experience.

Later, I drove down to the Southern shore of the 12.6 square kilometres of water and counted tens of gorgeous Goldeneye, a pair of Goosander, and distant view of a Great White Egret absolutely still on the shoreline – all three were new birds for my UK year list complementing the Smew, Oystercatcher, Ringed PloverChiffchaff, and a passing flock of Siskin earlier on the reserve. Without a scope, I didn’t really have a chance of finding the Great Northern Diver that has been seen, and I suspected that an interesting grebe or two would have been found somewhere out on the water. But, even poorly prepared and shod, I still had a great visit.

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South Arm, Rutland Water

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.

A tale of two Stonechats

Stonechats are partial migrants in the UK, with around half resident all year. On the patch, we have had a recent first winter bird present.

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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

It has been zipping about in the scrub around Cat & Dog pond (which is not much of a pond at the moment) – point A on the map below. We thought it had gone, but I found it yesterday doing its thing.

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But Stonechats are also one of the earliest arriving migrants on the patch. I was pleased to find our first Spring arrival of the year at another pond that is very low on water (but currently full of frogspawn) – Angel pond at point ‘B’ above – on 28 February.

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This male doesn’t appear to have stayed for long and so has probably continued further North on its journey.

Stonechats confuse and interest me in equal measure. They have been the subject of species splits and arguments over sub-species: the British ‘hibernans’ race is fiendishly difficult to tell from the broader ‘rubicola’; and many sources still refer to Stonechats as ‘torquata’ while others demand that is only used for the African Stonechat. They also seem to be increasing in numbers, although the residents can take a battering if we have a cold winter.

On the subject of partial migrants, yesterday I saw my first Chiffchaff of the year. Two or three have been present through the winter, but we will soon be joined by very many more.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

We are all waiting for more migrants and visitors to appear on the patch but I will sign-off with a few shots of other things seen over the past week or two on the patch.

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Common Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

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I couldn’t resist posting two pics of this beauty

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Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

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Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

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Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part III (a rail cheat)

This weekend I spent several hours walking around my local patch (Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park) trying to build up my patch list of birds. Wanstead Flats With several common birds missing from my list so far this year, I have got up to a barely-acceptable 53. Additions from this weekend were:

  • Linnet
  • Jackdaw
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Egyptian Goose
  • Kingfisher
  • Goldcrest
  • Coal Tit
  • Little Grebe
  • Siskin

Ticks on a list never, of course, tell the full story. Take the Siskin as an example: Several local birders told me where Siskins had been seen on Saturday. I went to the wooded area and stared up high into the tall trees, but with no luck. I returned on Sunday morning determined to find them. I knew Siskins travelled closely with charms of Goldfinches. This morning I spent more than 20 minutes scanning the tops of trees and peering at every distant Goldfinch and Blue Tit closely. When I eventually saw a pair, I felt like I had earned that tick, but more importantly, it heightened my enjoyment of watching these beautiful little birds knowing the effort I had taken to find them.

I have also heard that a Water Rail has been seen on the Wanstead Park lakes, but I could not find him. However, rather like a Bloodhound, when the scent of a species of bird is with me, I can be pretty stubborn about finding it. Even if that means cheating a little. I whizzed down to Rainham, where I knew I might see one, and for a general change of scenery…

Rainham Marshes

Indeed the change of scenery came with a change of birds and I added a few to my other list for 2015: my UK year list…

  • Golden Plover (too distant for photos I’m afraid)
  • Snipe
  • Barn Owl (seen through a scope in a man-made tree box)
  • Water Rail

With several of the new Wanstead birds counting twice, this took me to 73 species for the year in the UK thus far.

Water Rail are not uncommon, although only about 1000 pairs breed in the UK (supplemented by Winter migrants), but they are exceptionally difficult to see. They skulk around deep in reeds, rarely showing themselves, but occasionally giving themselves away with their distinctive calls which have been described as ranging from ‘squealing piglets’ to the ‘purring of contented squirrels’. I would normally be very pleased with a photo like this:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

But recently at Rainham, the rails have been showing-off: Water Rail I love lists, and I love new ticks on my bird lists, but the joy of getting so close to such an elusive creature transcends any satisfaction of ‘collecting’ or ‘ticking’.

A Big British Birding Year: Part VI (Oh Sandy!)

This weekend my quest to photograph more species of bird took me to one of the spiritual homes of birding: the RSPB HQ at Sandy in Bedfordshire.

Despite being deep inland, it is Sandy by name and sandy by nature; largely covered with heathland:

Heath

Although also with beautiful birch…

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

… and other, mixed, woodland…

Woodland

It was walking through these woods that I saw one of our introduced mammals, descended from a few escapees from private collections from the 19th century onwards…

Reeves' Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)

Reeves’ Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi)

They are the oldest known deer species, appearing in Europe up to 35 million years ago.

Muntjacs were not the only introduced species I snapped at Sandy. Two more, also additions to my bird list for the year, were:

Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

… and the more naturalised…

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Other birds I added to my year-list were:

Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

… and the rather distant shots (merged below) of…

Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis flammea cabaret)

Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis flammea cabaret)

… as well as a shy and hiding…

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

But I also managed to take some slightly better shots of birds already on my list, including:

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)

… and…

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

My list building did not stop at Sandy either. I nipped into the Summer Leys reserve in Northamptonshire and scooped a Pochard…

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)

Then I went back to my family home and added the 59th species of the year to my list from the back-garden:

Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)