Tag Archives: Thames

Gulling the Thames

Amongst the gulls returning to London from coastal breeding grounds, there have been a few gems recently. Most notably a Bonaparte’s Gull that was seen over several days at Crossness. But there have also been a few returning Yellow-legged Gull as well.

It was mainly this latter bird that I went out looking for this morning, starting with the Thames Barrier park at low tide.

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Thames Barrier at low-tide

There were large numbers of Black-headed Gull spread pretty evenly along the exposed shoreline (I suppose they don’t really need to huddle together in this heat). There were maybe high double digits of Lesser Black-backed Gull, low double digits of Herring Gull, and a small handful of Common Gull.

It was soon pretty clear there were no Yellow-legged Gull, so I focused on scanning the small gulls. I got lucky and found an adult Mediterranean Gull, always nice to see in summer plumage with its true black head (unlike the choclatey-coloured hood of the mis-named Black-headed Gull). The Med Gull was quite close in, but by the time I had got my camera out and ready, it must have flown. As I packed up and left, I saw one more juvenile Med Gull way down river in the distance so I took a grainy phone-scope shot for my records (and to inflict on my long-suffering readers).

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

By the time I had driven down the road and walked the rather epicly long path down to Creekmouth, the tide had come in rapidly and there was a much-diminished beach.

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Roding entering the Thames at Barking Creekmouth with the flood barrier

I checked the Black-headed Gulls floating around the Roding outflow, but couldn’t pick out any narrow-billed Bonaparte’s candidates, or any more thick-billed Med Gulls, so I turned my attention to the Beckton Sewage Works behind me.

It isn’t easy birding the sewage works but it had good numbers of gulls…

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Beckton Sewage Works

That view above is not typical or illustrative of reality. I managed to take it because my iPhone pressed up against the fence is small enough to get a good view, but a more accurate representation of what I was looking at is:

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I’m not sure quite why the fencing needs to be so narrow and restrictive

The pools in the photo are quite sizeable, and, at 40,000 square metres (Google Maps has allowed me to measure them), they are a third bigger than Heronry Lake on my local Patch.

Creekmouth and Beckton

I quickly found what I was hoping for on the water as one bird stood out quite well, despite the blurry distortions of peaking through such narrow meshing. It was a fair distance away so I didn’t get any good shots, but at least I had found a Yellow-legged Gull.

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Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michaellis)

As it swam about in the treatment pools, it helpfully aligned up with a Herring Gull to give a better sense of size and bill thickness.

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The morning wasn’t all about gulls, a pair of Peregrine performed for me and another local birder who I bumped into, Linnet and Grey Wagtail danced about on trees and posts respectively, and I got some stunning views of Reed Warbler which popped through the reeds and fencing to watch me walk past.

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Eurasian Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus)

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Watching Gulls… badly

I have been watching our patch gulls quite closely recently. Some of my patch colleagues would see this as a sign of weakness or desperation, but I have actually been quite enjoying it. Partly, this is because there is so much more that can be relatively easily learned just working the Patch, and partly because I am aware there are some guys who come in from off the Patch every now and again and seem to contribute disproportionately to the interesting gull finds that we have (more on them later).

In fact, more on them now, as Jamie P and Dante S had spotted an untimely juvenile Common Gull on the Patch the other day. A day when I too had been out and about but failed to spot anything so interesting. So I went back out this weekend determined to find this bird. I failed. There were plenty, probably 100+, first winter birds, but no juveniles that I could find.

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1st winter Common Gull (Larus canus)

I scanned the large gulls in case there was anything else more interesting in amongst them. There wasn’t. One gull that stood out was this young Herring Gull.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus)

It really puzzled me. Look how pale it is and how worn the moult is on the coverts and tertials. But the moult was nowhere near developed enough on the scapulars for a 2nd winter, so I assumed it was a 1st winter bird that was weirdly pale and worn. Error! Luckily a better birder than me pointed out that this is simply a somewhat-retarded 2nd winter bird. It seems so obvious now!

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An actual 1st winter Herring Gull

There are other reasons to scan gulls, of course. Ringed gull recoveries can yield interesting histories, and a great time to see rings on gulls is when our ponds are iced over. Our winter resident ‘2LBA’ Black-headed Gull was skating about on Jubilee Pond.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

I have photographed this bird on at least five separate occasions now over the last year and it has been around for almost a year longer than that; appearing as a first winter bird in March 2016 having been ringed as a chick (pullus) in June 2015 in Fishers Green only ten miles North of the Patch as the gull flies.

I have bothered to record six colour-ringed gulls on the Patch in the three and a bit years I’ve been birding/living here. The longest distance traveller so far was Green ‘J8M4’, a Common Gull I saw in September last year who was ringed six hundred miles North East of the Patch in Rogaland, Norway.

Aside from ‘2LBA’, yesterday, I also clocked Blue ‘JMP’ on ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pond, an eight-and-a-half year-old Lesser Black-backed Gull ringed in a tip in Gloucester 100 miles West-North-West of the Patch back in May 2010 just as David Cameron was walking into 10 Downing Street for the first time. Gosh – that seems like a long time ago!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

There is one more ringed gull I want to mention. Not a gull with a leg ring, but rather a Ring-billed Gull, the American vagrant that I last saw on a beach in Mexico. The last time one was found in London was nine years ago, I believe! The last time that was… until today! The outstanding young birder, Dante Shepherd (mentioned above), found one at Thames Barrier Park, just five miles South as the gull flies. It is rather longer in the car, but I jumped in, nonetheless, as soon as I heard the news.

In what reminded me of the run-around the Bonaparte’s Gull gave me last year, as I was pulling up at the park, WhatsApp informed me that the gull had just flown East. Jamie and Dante kindly pointed me in the direction of a very distant flock of mixed gulls down-river.

I dutifully scanned through as many as I could, and saw birds (that plural should tell you how I was clutching at straws) that looked possible, but, the truth was, they were simply too far away for me to get enough on them.

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The white smear on the mud is where the Ring-billed Gull might have been

For a short few minutes, the bright golden light of early evening shone on the flock like a sign from the Great Gull in the sky, and I stood peering through my scope as snow flakes fell on me.

Hopefully the Ring-billed Gull will stay around for a bit. Maybe it will follow its closely related Common Gulls and come up to Wanstead – which would be a Patch first. We can but dream… of gulls.

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Thames Barrier sunset at low tide

 

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!

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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Still waiting

So am I still waiting
For this world to stop hating
Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in

– Sum41, Still waiting

There is a curse. It is the patch birder’s ‘Catch 22’: do you wait for birds to visit your local patch, or do you go out and find them? Do the former and you can be left waiting for indefinite time. Do the latter and you might miss some patch gold.

And so it has been with Waxwing. The irruption of these gorgeous punks this winter has meant we have been waiting expectantly, looking at every berry-bearing tree with the hope of a child on Christmas Eve. Prominent trees have even been laced with apples. But the Waxwing have not come. Or, we have not seen them if they have.

This weekend I cracked. I left my patch and went in search of them elsewhere. We say ‘them’ because we always imagine a flock, but I saw a Rogue One. The lone X-wing… *ahem*, I mean… Waxwing (alright, I’ll quit with the Star Wars puns) has been a regular feature, delighting the crowds at the Rainham Marshes reserve for a few days now.

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Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

“You scoped it?”: This was one of my fellow patch birders’ response when he saw this photo. He has a point. The Waxwing was showing exceptionally well and close in. To understand why I didn’t get a better shot with my camera, instead of a digiscoped view with phone and  scope, is its own little story about patience and waiting: or lack of…

I did get a few shots with my camera, but was unlucky with the position of the light and obscuring branches etc etc. But really, the truth is the fact that makes me a terrible twitcher: I simply hate crowding round a bird like a paparazzi scrum around a Kardashian. Whilst everyone waddled from bush to bush as the Waxwing moved from perch to berry-larder, I sometimes stayed behind and trained my camera on something else instead. Like a Fieldfare for example – only too happy to mop up the excess fruit intended for our Bohemian visitor.

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Fieldfare (Turdus Pilaris)

And then I abandoned the scene altogether to walk around the rest of the reserve in rather more peace.

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Great Tit (Parus major)

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza shoeniclus)

As you would expect with Rainham – the estuary walk from Stone Barges and the reserve itself – there were some pleasurable bird sightings and a total of 15 year ticks for the day – January is great like that. Redshank fed and called loudly to each other across the mud, a few Black-tailed Godwit  scoured the waterline shores whilst flocks of tiny Dunlin whirred over their heads and bigger flocks of bigger Lapwing took to the skies and back down again to the ponds with their characteristic jitteriness. Curlew and Snipe alerted me to their presence by dropping in from the sky. Birding from dawn until after dusk I watched gulls move to and from their roosts, with my first Great Black-backed Gulls of the year marching up and down on the decks of static boats like attentive sea captains.

Hundreds of Teal were joined by even larger flocks of Wigeon alongside a smattering of Shelduck and even >16 Pintail.I also felt a shred of envy as I watched flocks of over thirty Skylark (we never get that many on the patch – the dogs and habitat destruction undoubtedly help ensure that).

Patience was rewarded a little on the river walk…

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Thames at Rainham (I have taken nearly exactly the same picture almost every time I visit).

Rock Pipit bobbed up and down the man-made river banks and flood defences, whilst their  meadow cousins seemed to be put up in the air from almost every patch of grass I walked past. But it was the subtly different markings, and colouration, that drew my attention to a pipit feeding in the mud. It was only when it took off that I could see the bright white on the sides of the tail that I felt fully sure in calling it as the third of the ‘common’ pipits: Water Pipit (a bird I didn’t even see once last year). When I later met another birder  who described seeing a ‘Wipit’ in exactly the same place, I felt even more comfortable about my tick. Unfortunately my efforts to identify it in the field meant that my camera was still in my bag when it flew off towards London.

Later that afternoon, I went back to my patch to test my patience again in my two-year long patch search for Little Owl and Woodcock – they are becoming like patch-bogey birds of mine. My dusk-walks through the copses produced no owls and so I walked over to the Roding to stake-out the Woodcock that apparently, like clockwork, sails out of the woodland and over the river to begin its nocturnal feeding on the golf course every evening. I have tried this waiting game before, and once with serial Woodcock-watcher, Nick, but yet again went home empty handed (or without the tick, in case my metaphor leads you to believe I would be vile enough to join the ‘hunters’ who shoot the declining populations of these wonderful birds).

Standing by the river as the sky turned from red to purple to dark blue, I turned it even bluer as I cursed and muttered about late-evening golfers and a UFO (that’s Unwanted Flying Object, rather than ‘Unidentified’) that buzzed around like some loathsome mechanical insect, and I was sure dissuaded Mr or Mrs Woodcock from leaving his/her daytime woodland lair until after we had all disappeared and (s)he could be alone with his/her darkness and worms.

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Drone over the golf course

And so I went home, still waiting, but happy at a full day of birding. I left the world of the wild and re-entered the human world and reflected on the ‘hating’ and intolerance that seem so prevalent at the moment. My fleeting sadness at not seeing a Woodcock was replaced by a deeper and uglier melancholy over some of the actions our ‘so called’ leaders are taking. The day began with a punk, the Waxwing, and so my post ends, as it began, with the punk lyrics of Sum41:

Can’t find a good reason
Can’t find hope to believe in*

* I am not yet at the stage of punk-cynicism where I have lost hope, but then… I am not a Syrian refugee escaping terror and being told I am not welcome anywhere.

Ruff weather birding

The great thing about early year birding is that it is relatively easy to find birds to add to your year list.

Ignoring the weather warnings, I drove to three of the best birding sites in the South East to boost my list: Rainham Marshes (a very brief visit, looking through a fence before they opened); Elmley Marshes; and Cliffe Pools.

At Rainham I quickly ticked off:

  • Common Shelduck
  • Eurasian Teal
  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Redwing
  • European Goldfinch

… and then (because I was too impatient to wait for it to open) promptly drove on to Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey …

Elmley Marshes

I first visited Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve in January last year. The wildlife was fantastic despite the terrible weather. Yesterday, it was a bit windy, but a lot nicer. However, when I had a walked a for a couple of miles and turned around to walk back to the car, the strong winds had brought some stormy weather with them. It was like being hit by a wall of stinging vertical rain and hail that was thrown into my face with gale force winds that, at times, stopped me from moving.

I eventually got back to the car, changed my soaking trousers, and drove on to Cliffe.

But, before this, and aside from the 20-30 minute long weather adventure, I also saw some great birds:

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

(That last photo was taken hastily through my car windscreen once I had time to stop the car and grab my camera from its bag. By the time I had wound down the window for a better shot, the Harrier had plunged into long grass)

Aside from these birds, I also added the following to my New Year list:

  • Common Chaffinch
  • Rook
  • Meadow Pipit
  • Reed Bunting
  • Stonechat
  • Pheasant

On the way between sites I stopped to look at an estuary and take a picture of a bridge:

Bridge

Before watching some enormous but very distant flocks of Lapwing and other waders at Cliffe:

Flock

I didn’t get any good shots of birds at Cliffe, but I did add the following three to my year-list:

  • Common Kestrel
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Common Goldeneye

I finished the day with a year list of 58 and watched the Sun set over the Thames Estuary:

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A Big Birding Year: Part XIX (good creature of mud)

This blog has described Rainham Marshes before, (here and here), and Saturday was my second visit as part of my Big Birding Year. There have been numerous sightings recently there of the very rare Spotted Crake, and I always go full of hope to see my first Bearded Tit. Unfortunately, I did not get any life-firsts or see any particularly rare birds, but I did add a tick to my year list.

But first, I want to re-cap a bit on the terrain as it fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Rainham Marshes sits next to the Thames about 18 miles down river from Central London, but the steel and glass spires of London can just about be seen looking West up-river in the distance:

Rainham and view to London

The marshes are now protected from the tidal Thames by some flood defences, although every time I visit, I am struck by how close to the water level the marshes are:

View East

To illustrate this better, I want to return to my new favourite online map tool (topographic-map.com) which shows clearly that most of the marshes sit below sea-(and Thames) level.

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In fact, Rainham Marshes is the lowest lying land inside the M25. Despite its importance for wildlife, I would guess, sadly, that the chances these marshes will still exist in 100 years are very slim indeed.

But, for the moment, the marshes provide refuge to important wildlife, including the bird which has become my 92nd species to be photographed of the year (A Kingfisher nearly became my 93rd as well, but was too fast for me), the Black-tailed Godwit. In the heavily cropped and fuzzy zoom image below, two Godwits can be seen in flight along with a Lapwing and Black-headed Gull whilst you can see another Lapwing in the background and a third (male) Godwit looks on from the right almost nonchalantly:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Godwit, as a word, is from two old English words meaning ‘good creature’, and its Scientific name, Limosa, means mud, which is appropriate as these beautiful birds hunt for small creatures in the mud with their long bills.

Formerly heavily hunted – shamefully it still is in France – even 170 years ago Yarrell noted that numbers of these birds were declining:

Yarrell

In fact less than 40 years after Yarrell was writing, the breeding population was extinct in the UK. Luckily, these migrant waders started breeding again 70 years later in the 1950’s and every year around 100 birds will spend the Summer in the UK, like the birds I photographed, and even smaller numbers will breed.

The UK is already starting to feel a bit Autumnal and soon these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. However, unusually, it is in Winter when you have the best chance these beautiful birds. this is because the UK receives its own Winter migration influx from a slightly different sub-species that breeds in Iceland. Around 44,000 Black-tailed Godwits will winter in the UK, but I was particularly pleased to see the much rarer (in the UK) European form here during breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit has been assigned red conversation status in the UK. If important sites like Rainham Marshes disappear under water, the threat to these birds will increase further and they could disappear from the UK as a breeding bird like they did in the 1880’s for another 70 years, or perhaps even forever…?