Tag Archives: Teal

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 Wanstead Teal and a 92 year old vision for the Park

On the numbers of Teal

“This very prettily marked species, the smallest of our Ducks, but one of the best as an article of food, is an early and constant winter visitor” 

So Mr Yarrell (he of Pied Wagtail fame – the British sub-species is known as ‘yarrellii’) opens his description of my favourite duck when he was writing 170 years ago.

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John Thompson’s engraving of a Teal from Yarrell’s History of British Birds, 1843

In the early Victorian era there seemed to be some confusion about whether Teal actually bred in the UK (BTO estimates about 2000 pairs breed in the UK), although Yarrell gives plenty of examples from his network of contacts to prove that they do.

But we all know that this is largely a winter migrant in the UK when their numbers increase one hundredfold (literally) on the summer residents. The Wanstead Flats/Park patch is not a noted site for Teal, where only small numbers appear, and somewhat irregularly, during the winter. On last weekend’s Wetland Bird survey on the patch, we counted 22 Teal in Wanstead Park and this morning one of the local birders counted 26 on a single lake in the Park – possibly a patch record – especially if any had also been on the Ornamentals or Alexandra lakes at the same time.

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Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But… I haven’t just been reading Yarrell. I was perusing another one of my antiquarian bird book collection *he boasts* and read something very interesting.

In his book, Birds in London (1924), W.H. Hudson writes about Wanstead Park and says: “this park is peculiarly rich in wild bird life, and among the breeding species may be mentioned mallard and teal”.  Teal breeding on Wanstead Park less than a hundred years ago?! This doesn’t sound like a record of a rare occurrence, but rather the statement of a common fact – mentioned in the same breath as Mallard no less (no other ducks were mentioned as breeding here). In Andrew Self’s recent book The Birds of London, historical records of Teal breeding in London are scarce – the first ever recorded being in 1880 at Epsom and then other sites listed, but no mention of Wanstead.

I wondered at first if the lack of mention of Teal was because a hundred years ago, Wanstead was more of an Essex village than a London suburb, but Epsom is even more rural and distant from central London. Hudson could have been wrong, of course, but he was an eminent ornithologist (a founding member of the RSPB no less!) and a London resident who, as we shall see, clearly personally knew the area well. I would be willing to wager he had personally witnessed evidence that Teal bred at Wanstead.

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On a vision for the Park

Furthermore, Hudson’s list of breeding birds in the park contained some other surprises: Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale! I would be delighted to see any of those birds – even fleetingly – on the patch now (I should add that all three have been seen, but are rare birds on the patch), let alone have them breed.

As many know, the three bird species mentioned above all have ‘red’ conservation status in the UK, so the fact they no longer breed in Wanstead Park would not be a surprise to anyone. I am actually quite surprised that they bred as recently as the 1920s.

Hudson was ahead of his time in being conservation-minded, and he was also full of praise and hope for Wanstead Park which he described as: “perfect wildness” (many decades before rewilding was recognised as a ‘thing’). He set out a vision for the park, suggesting: “it would be well to make Wanstead Park as far as possible a sanctuary for all wild creatures.” He also singles out the City of London Corporation for praise in the way it managed the Park:

“The Corporation are deserving of nothing but praise for their management of this invaluable ground. Here is a bit of wild woodland nature unspoiled by the improving spirit which makes for prettiness in the Royal Parks”

Hudson goes on to describe specific practices, or the lack of, which support wildlife.

My concern is that recent ‘management’ of the park has seen a shift in the direction that Hudson clearly saw as a being a threat to nature: valuing ‘prettiness’, or tidiness, over wildness. Those who care about the wildlife on our patch have watched with dismay as a slash and clear policy has sometimes been used in the name of ‘management’ or to (re)create ‘vistas’ (from a long lost age when the park was a private garden) whilst destroying habitats for who knows how many living creatures.

I would encourage the City of London Corporation and those involved in the management of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats to heed Hudson’s words with care otherwise there are breeding birds – Skylark, Song Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat for example – which could go the same way as Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale!

The Saxon Shore

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with a friend. We walked for just over 13 miles from the outskirts of Canterbury, through Blean woods, then up to the North Kent Coast, along the Saxon Shore Way (by the Swale and then down alongside the creek) to Faversham where we inhaled some much needed beer and food. A very rough map of our journey is set out below:

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The highlight of the walk was in the South Swale reserve in the North Kent Marshes (around points A-C in my makeshift map). Before we reached Saxon Shore Way, we walked through fields (point ‘A’ on the map) that were alive with Skylarks in full song flight (I swear winter only lasted for about one week this year!) In fact the number of Skylark and Fieldfare (with the latter in the hundreds) were close to UK records for me. The fields were bordered by water-filled ditches and reed beds with Little Egret, Snipe, and Reed Buntings all showing. We watched Buzzards, Kestrels, a Marsh Harrier, and a probable, distant, Merlin (unfortunately I won’t be counting the latter for my year-list) hunting.

When we reached the Swale, I was a little disappointed at first that it was high tide – the mudflats here are so huge that they even have names (like the South Oaze), but that disappointment soon dissipated when we saw a seal (point ‘B’ on the map). It was as curious of us as we were of it, and resurfaced many times closer to watch us:

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Harbour (or Common) Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Walking along the Saxon Shore Way – named after some of the fortifications built to protect late Roman England from Saxon invaders from the Continent, at a time when the coastline looked very different indeed – we realised another benefit of the high tide: many of the water birds were concentrated in quite small areas of reeds and pebble banks (point ‘C’ on map).

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The Swale

We saw large numbers of Teal and Brent Geese, and huge numbers of Wigeon collecting in a banked off lagoon section, while large flocks of Lapwing flew over.

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Brent Goose (Branta bernicula)

Even greater numbers of Grey Plover and Dunlin, with some probable Knot as well, were huddled together on the pebble banks, at first looking like rocks or weeds:

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Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

There were also reasonable numbers of Curlew, Redshank, and Oystercatcher. We didn’t stop long to look at them – as we were getting thirsty and hungry at this point – and so I entirely failed to see what had put a large flock of Oystercatcher up in the air. It was only when looking at my photographs that I noticed the raptor amongst the flock. At first, I just assumed it was a Peregrine Falcon even though its shape confused me, but comments below made me look again and realise this is almost certainly a Sparrowhawk (I am assuming that it wasn’t hunting the Oystercatcher, which would be out of the size range for prey even for a female, but Redshank or Dunlin were possible targets – who knew Sparrowhawk hunt waders? Not me it seems!) There is also a single Bar-tailed Godwit towards the back of this zoomed-in section of the flock:

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Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa Lapponica), and Common Redshank (Tringa totanus) – The latter two may take some careful studying to find

A flock (or ‘time step’ to choose the very cool collective noun) of one of my favourite waders, Turnstone, whipped past us and settled on a small patch of grassy shoreline where they were belted repeatedly by the waves:

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Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

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Turnstones (one of which is ringed) playing Canute

When we reached the Faversham Creek, we looked across the water at Oare Marshes, and further across at a pub we had our sights set on (point ‘D’ on map). Unfortunately, we hadn’t quite bargained on the lack of mechanism for crossing the water. There were no bridges in sight, and we could see quite a long way. If it wasn’t for cameras and the fact that it was winter, we might have contemplated swimming (that is an opening scene of Casualty right there) or ‘borrowing’ a rusty upturned boat we had found.

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Faversham Creek

So we followed the creek upstream (does a creek even have a ‘down’ or ‘upstream’?) Either way, we were walking away from the Sea towards Faversham in an exaggerated bow. It was here that we saw my first Goosander for the year – apologies for shoddy record shot:

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Goosander (Mergus merganser)

And we ended our rather epic walk in a great pub in Faversham (point ‘E’ on the map) where we drank ales brewed in the same town by the famous Shepherd Neame  – Britain’s oldest brewer.

As this is my first real trip in the UK off the patch this year, a number of the birds listed above were inevitably year ticks. Overall, four species of raptor (not counting the possible Merlin) and ten species of wader is not bad for a morning’s walk.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part X (From Roding with love)

Three little birds on my doorstep
On Saturday morning I set out relatively early on to the patch with the hope that fresh air would cure me of a hangover.

I was rewarded in that, within 20 minutes, I had added a new bird to patch list for 2015. Whilst navigating my way around a number of dead frogs (don’t ask me why) on the fringes of a pond known as Cat and dog, I flushed a snipe (Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago). The long-beaked wader put up in the air in a blur of russet and khaki camouflage and flew over the Flats (where it was later seen by other birders).

A little while later I heard my first warbler of the year, and probably my first summer migrant. A Chiffchaff sang out its name from the island on Alexandra lake.

River Roding
I then took directions from Nick and Josh to go and look for my 65th species of the year, Teal. I had all but given up seeing this common winter duck on the patch as I thought they might have all returned to Siberia.

The hunting ground for my quarry was the River Roding:

River Roding

I walked South, sandwiched between the City of London Cemetery and the little river. On the other side of the water, golfers swung, hacked, and FORE!’d their way around the fairways of Ilford course while the steady hum of traffic on the North Circular served to remind us all that we were contained within the capital’s boundaries, where busy roads serve as walls.

I crept around vainly looking and listening for water rail in the reeds, whilst a few metres away people wearing purple and orange (what is it about golfers and fashion?) hit small white balls around manicured parkland. I was struck almost simultaneously by the sense of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of hobbies (I used to, and occasionally still do, play golf very badly myself – my crap scores must be on account of the drab colours I wear). As silly as many hobbies are, it was at that ludicrous moment that I felt very sorry for anyone who doesn’t have a pastime to indulge in.

Dear Polly
Talking of hobbies…

I often say – to anyone who will listen – that hobbies satisfy many of mankind’s ancient and primal urges to hunt and gather. In our increasingly plastic and sanitised world, some of us seek to retrace the steps – albeit through heavily ritualised and modernised (often safe) means – of our ancestors. I contend that birding satisfies the spirits of hunter (tracking down wild animals) and gatherer (the list element and need to ‘collect’ as many species as possible) that still occupy us.

A hobby that satisfies the gatherer within us, is that of the collector – for example of postcards…

River Roding

This postcard above (a recent purchase that arrived today) is over 100 years old and depicts the Rover Roding. On the other side it reads:

Dear Pollie [sic],

I am enjoying myself allright [sic], went fishing [I am trying to ignore the fact this word looks like “fisting”] here this afternoon did not catch anything, will write tomorrow. With love from Ethel

Ignoring the fact that our long-dead friend, Ethel, seemed determined to make an enemy of punctuation and grammar, I love how she writes to her friend/sibling/lover/relation daily whilst on holiday (?) in a nearby part of London. Polly/Pollie lived in Islington just a few miles away (I actually know the street in the address as I used to live nearby and know that any house she lived in was destroyed in the war or demolished to be replaced with flats).

An even smaller river
The Roding is a small river. It often flows under bridges un-named and unmarked. It eventually seeps slowly into the Thames anonymously or, rather, under the title of ‘Barking Creek’. But this belies the fact that the Roding is an ancient and important water source. The fifty-mile long river – once entirely located within Essex, until London grew – is believed to be named after a Saxon chieftain, Hrodas, and his people, the Hrodingas, who came to Essex and subdued (read ‘slaughtered’) the local pagan tribes.

I would love to see the Roding follow the lead of its western cousin, the Wandle, and become a second London home to wild brown trout.

Not many Londoners – I am quite sure – could name the Roding correctly, and yet there exists an even smaller, sorrier river, a tributary of the Roding, that has a place in this rather lengthy story/post, the Alders brook.

The earliest extant reference to this stream is from the 16th Century. But now, I can find nowhere to tell me where this brook’s source is – other than the admirable – and hopefully correct guess of Mr Ferris in his excellent online resource of all wild matters locally.

I trampled brambles to look at the heavily algae-clogged (if not stagnant) brook and then saw, far up stream, a pair of Teal. They saw me too and swam effortlessly around a bend and behind the locked gates of some allotments.

In my desire to photograph this pair and further explore this poorly-known waterway, I backtracked and and tried to gingerly make my way through the narrow and heavily overgrown bank of the stream that runs alongside the metal fencing of the allotments. The going became impassable and so, probably luckily for them, the Teal remained unphotographed:

Alders Brook

Typically, back in Wanstead Park, I saw more Teal – despite two months of blanking them in the same park:

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But I regretted nothing. Had I not gone in search of Teal in the inaccessible narrow waterways of East London, I may never have set foot on the narrow banks of the shamefully forgotten Alders Brook.

Along the way on my journey, I photographed for the first time this year so far…

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

and…

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) - presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) – presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

… and listened to my first singing Dunnock of the year:

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

… and completely forgot about my hangover.