Tag Archives: Stonechat

A tale of two winters

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Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:

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‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:

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Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:

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Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

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Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):

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Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:

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Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:

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Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:

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White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:

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Wanstead Patchwork: Part XIX (birding in mist and fog)

A foggy patch

The Wanstead Flats often wears a coat of early-morning mist.

Western Flats at dawn

Western Flats at dawn

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Brooms, Wanstead Flats

Wanstead Flats

Two weekends ago I walked around mesmerised by the familiar landscape and how different it can appear. As the sun rose, the mist disappeared like it was a mirage, and the day blazed with early-autumn warmth.

Water Rail
At the other end of the patch, literally the eastern extremity from my home in the West, I bumped into Bob Vaughn by the river Roding. He had just been watching two Water Rail wade and swim against the flow of the river. We stayed together for a while and eventually Bob spotted one of them in the distance gingerly poking its head out of the reeds in that way that rails do. That was my 94th patch tick of the year.

It was a long way away, but I managed to get this snap of it in the distance:

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus)

If your BS detector isn’t squealing at you now like a water rail, then it should be. The photo above is actually one I took in January of this year at Rainham when I was literally a few feet away from the bird which was out in the open – a highly unusual situation. The actual photo I took in Wanstead wasn’t quite as good:

Water Rail

I stayed ‘with’ the rail for about an hour and was peering at the place where it had been from across the river when a pig started squealing beneath my feet. Of course, it wasn’t a pig. It was the other water rail hidden deep in the reeds below me.

Misty river
The following weekend I drove out to the Thames at Rainham in Essex. The area is known as ‘stone barges’ after the concrete and steel barges moored there – it blows my mind that these things actually floated, but apparently they were actually used during the second world war to transport fuel (I am feeling slightly scared I am being gullible just writing this).

Unlike the low carpet of fog on the patch the weekend before, the Thames at Rainham was engulfed in mist.

I walked along, with my scope, watching Redshank, tens of Meadow Pipits, a probable Tree Pipit, a distant Wheatear, loads of skylark, and a Stonechat (some of them captured far better than I did by local birder, Shaun Harvey, who I met along the way). A dog-walker stopped me and commented that it wasn’t very good weather to take photos. I was a bit confused as I wasn’t taking photos, I was looking through a spotting scope, but I exchanged pleasantries and walked on.

It was only after we had parted ways that I realised how much I disagreed with the man. It is true that the cloud joined earth and sky with a blurring or negating of horizon like some bridge between the elements, but just as watercolour often displays a washed out bleakness in art, so can the camera pick up some of the mood of this weather. Perhaps pathetic fallacy in action, although my mood was pretty good and clear but I just wanted to show I haven’t forgotten my literary terms from my days in academia:

Thames at Rainham

Thames at Rainham

Thames

Thames

Later that day I also visited the nearby RSPB reserve – on the other side of the gigantic rubbish dump from Stone Barges – where I listened to numerous Cetti’s Warbler with their calls exploding out of the mist and watched a distant Heron move through the dense atmosphere; the moisture in the air removing most of the colour from the scene, but none of the beauty:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

And eventually, that evening, when the fog had gone (if you are questioning my use of ‘mist’ and ‘fog’ interchangeably, I believe I am correct in understanding these blurry weather forms are indeed blurred in definition as well), I raised my eyes to the newly blue sky. There in the far and high distance, was a dot. That dot was a soaring Marsh Harrier, that I ambitiously pointed my camera at:

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part VIII (Ode to Spring)

The lark and birders call Spring

This year I reckon I missed the start of Spring by a few days – on account of being squirrelled away in an air-conditioned glass tower for fifty or more hours a week.

However, as soon as I set foot out on the patch on Sunday it was clear that my favourite season had begun. The weather was a bit of a giveaway, but the flora and fauna that were out to play were pretty conclusive signs. Most notably, a number of singing Skylark:

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly after I took this photo, the lark ascended into full song-flight mode. It really does have to be one of the great songbird spectacles and an increasingly rare one in the UK (Skylark is red-listed), and even rarer in London. Wanstead Flats is one of the best, if not THE best, breeding sites for Skylark in the capital. Last year there were seven distinct singing males recorded.

Skylark

I counted at least three discrete singing males, but didn’t have time to try and count more. I had an appointment to make in Wanstead Park that morning, but first I had one more bird I wanted to see. A female Stonechat – probably a passage migrant – had been seen the day before. On Sunday, however, the female had been replaced by an even more splendid male. It was very flighty – understandable as a passage migrant not used to the surroundings:

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

I did not have time to get a better photo, but you can see much better photos of it, and Saturday’s female here, here, and here. Worth noting that all three of these local birders have called Spring in their blogs as well.

That Stonechat was my 61st patch-bird of 2015 and I was very grateful to Tony aka The Cowboy Birder for pointing it out to me given my lack of time that morning. I should also tip my hat to my neighbour, Dan Hennessy, who first spotted the female Stonechat on Saturday.

Counting birds, not just crows
I was rushing through the patch to meet another patch birder, the very knowledgeable Tim Harris, Chairman of a local conservation society I belong to, The Wren Group.

Tim was leading the regular local count for the BTO’s Wetland Bird Survey. We counted birds on all the major bodies of water in Wanstead Park, noticing the inevitable significant declines – even from a month ago – of the winter flocks of ducks and gulls, such as this second winter (?) Common Gull (Mew Gull if you are reading this from the States) on Heronry lake in the park:

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Several of us walked and counted our way around the main acres of water bodies in the park, and I was even kindly given access to the Basin lake on Wanstead golf course which was a rare treat for someone who normally just presses his nose up against the railings from the nearby road like a boy at a sweetshop window:

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

Basin, Wanstead Golf Course

It was during this bird count, when I took a slight detour along the river Roding, that I snapped my 62nd patch bird of the year so far:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Aside from the Egret and the dwindling ducks, we also spotted several clear signs of Spring, including my first butterfly of the year:

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

… and some Spring flora such as Lesser Celandine (recently discovered to be potentially deadly despite having been eaten and used medicinally for years):

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Ode to Spring
To belatedly begin a more literary theme for this post, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s association with this flower. Whilst he may have been more famous for writing about a certain other yellow flower, it is believed he actually preferred the Lesser Celandine to the Daffodil:

I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
T’was a face I did not know.
– Ode to Celandine

In fact our great Romantic Poet was believed to have liked the flower so much that it was requested it should be carved on his coffin. Unfortunately, a different flower, the Greater Celandine was mistakenly carved on it instead. Oops!

Aside from the Celandine, we also saw some other flowers that I have started listing and tracking on a map – yes I really am that sad – although I am not bringing it out for display just yet:

Flowers

I genuinely enjoy all the seasons, but Spring is my favourite (pretty uncontentious in my opinion there I realise) and I am very happy to see it arrive.

Springtime has obviously also been a favourite of poets for centuries, and the Romantic Poets in particular. Rather than celebrating Spring with some other gushingly serious romantic poem, I am reminded of the more light-hearted and rude ‘Ode to Spring’, by Wordsworth’s Scottish contemporary, Robert Burns, which opens:

[WARNING: PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY BAD LANGUAGE OR LEWDNESS]

When maukin bucks, at early fucks,
In dewy grass are seen, Sir,
And birds, on boughs, take off their mows
Among the leaves sae green, Sir;
Latona’s sun looks liquorish on
Dame Nature’s grand impetus
Till his prick go rise, then westward flies
To roger Madame Thetis.

Roll-on the arrival of Spring and Summer migrants!

A Big Birding Year: Part XXIV (Welcome to Wanstead)

We have moved home. I have coincidentally bought a house just a stone’s throw from one of London’s best birding sites: The Wanstead Flats. Wanstead Flats

This morning, as with last Sunday (just after we had moved in), I went out on the Flats shortly after dawn to discover what I hope to be my new ‘patch’. I have to admit that I felt a little bit like I was trespassing as the area is well covered by some very dedicated and experienced birders (many of whom I bumped into on my first Sunday walk last weekend) such as Jonathan Lethbridge aka the Wanstead Birder (whose photos simply blow me away) and Nick Croft aka “Wanstead Birding” and a gentleman named Dan who kindly helped me locate and photograph my 96th bird species of the year [warning: distant dawn-light blurry record-only shot coming up]:

Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

If that bird looks like a Herring Gull but with yellow legs, that’s … er… because it is a Herring Gull with yellow legs. It was designated a separate species about 20 years ago. The UK gets around 1000 YLGs visiting us during the winter. As the name would suggest, we get far more Common Gull (Mew Gull if you are reading this from across the pond) than YLG. However, despite their name, they are not actually all that common. In fact I have failed to photograph a Common Gull so far this year. Wanstead quickly allowed me to rectify that as there are more than you could shake a big camera lens at… my 97th species of the year:

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Common Gull (Larus canus)

Wanstead Flats may be the beginning of Epping Forest, but there are not all that many trees, and the Flats are generally typified by long grass and bushes… Flats … perfect territory for Stonechats …

European Stonechat (Saxicola torquata)

European Stonechat (Saxicola torquata)

… and Skylarks. Several months ago I snapped a Skylark doing its thing – singing away as it rose vertically up into the air – and then stupidly accidentally deleted my photos of the dot in the air. Today I did not delete the photos of the dot, but can now share with you all and insist you believe me when I say that it is a Skylark (and therefore my 98th species photographed this year in the UK):

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

The Skylarks were not the only silhouettes in the sky above the grasses. A hunter also hung in the air last Sunday and was in almost the identical place this morning as well…

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Aside from the fauna, and resident birders, I was also quite impressed with the fungi on my new patch…

Shaggy Parasol? (Macrolepiota rhacodes)

Shaggy Parasol? (Macrolepiota rhacodes)

… and I almost squealed with delight like a little girl when I saw Fly Agaric or Fly Amanita

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

… and no, I did not lick it.