Tag Archives: twitching

2019 review: crunching some small numbers

2019 was always going to be a lightweight year on the birding front. My son was born just a few weeks before the year started. I get out less often and for less time and rarely travel far beyond the patch as weekends are mainly a time to spend with family.

Nevertheless, I got out on the patch more than once a week on average (60 patch trips in total, albeit sometimes only for an hour or two), and a further 13 non-patch trips in the UK which included some element of birding. Of these 13, ten were within the London recording area. Only five of those London trips could be described as twitches (of which three were successful: Penduline Tit at Crossness in South East London, Great Reed Warbler also at Crossness, and Ring-necked Duck at Fishers Green in the Lea Valley).

Highlights

Overall my UK year list was the lowest in a decade (121 – I am embarrassed to even type it) and my patch year list (103) was third out of the five years I have been birding in the Wanstead area (more on that shortly). But here are the top six highlights of my UK birding:

    The very showy patch-tick drake Garganey on Jubilee on 31 March
    Hearing and seeing a Great Reed Warbler – first for London – at Crossness), only a year after life-ticking this species in Poland
    The long-staying Greenshank on Heronry was probably bird of the year for me (that is the wonderful strangeness of patch birding for you) – seeing it first on 5 September
    Putting a couple of patch bogeys to bed by seeing Green Sandpiper and Sedge Warbler this year (perhaps leaving Golden Plover, Jack Snipe and Woodlark as the three most commonly seen birds still not on my patch list)
    The Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit mini-influx this Autumn which included three Pied Fly in one day on 24 August
    Scoring three Canary Wharf ‘megas’ (two self-finds) with Reed Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, and Common Redstart.
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Great Reed Warbler, Crossness, London

I won’t dwell on the lowlights, although failing to get a Yellow Wagtail on the Patch this year has to be up there. Oh, and there was a disastrous dip – twitching what turned out to be a dirty Common Sandpiper (rather than a Spotted Sandpiper) and involved a lengthy journey on public transport twice after leaving my bag in a hide. At least it reminded me why I rarely twitch things.

Patch year comparison
I have now been birding on Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park for a five full years. I have seen 134 species of bird locally in that time with six new species added to my patch list in 2019. 2018 was my best year with 110 species recorded and this year I got 103 (which is just under my mean average, or third best and third worst as I put it to my patch colleagues when we were totting up our totals).

So far, there have been 84 species I have seen every year (a list which includes Firecrest and Common Redstart). There are 10 more birds which I have only missed once in the five years of birding the Patch: this list sadly now includes Yellow Wagtail, Redpoll, and Common Sandpiper after this year’s performance, but also incorporates: Garden Warbler (2018 gap), Pied Flycatcher (2018), Tree Pipit (2016), Yellow-legged Gull (2016), Peregrine (2015), Shelduck (2015), and Treecreeper (2015). So that takes me to total of 94 species which are at least 80% likely nailed-on each year (although doesn’t take into account whether any of these are declining in likelihood of being seen). I could probably add Little Owl to the list of birds I would really expect to see on an annual basis (despite the fact that I missed it in my first two years).

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Firecrest, Bush Wood – a species I have patch ticked every year I have been birding here

So… that takes me to 95 species I would expect to see each year and only needing five more unusual finds each year. It is in this territory where the motivation to keep working the patch exists: the unexpected! So, this year, that golden list included six patch ticks (Garganey, Mandarin, Green Sandpiper, Sedge Warbler, Greenshank, and Marsh Harrier), but also joined by the following birds which I had only seen on one or two other years: Yellowhammer, Caspian Gull, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Rook, and Wood Warbler.

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Mandarin, Wanstead Flats

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Garganey, Wanstead Flats

France
I managed four trips to my second patch in the South of France in 2019 (including right at the end of the year where I am as I finish writing this blog post). My French patch has a smaller list of more exotic birds (patch list is only 81 – it is tougher birding with some dense vegetation and no water bodies), although, interestingly, of the 10 new species I added this year to my list, several are commonly found back in ‘Patch 1’ in London. So, chronologically listed, the French patch newbies were: Mistle Thrush, Montagu’s Harrier, Wagtail sp (as the only wagtail I have ever seen flying over, despite being a distant, silent silhouette, it gets a slot of its own for the time being), Tawny Pipit, House Martin, Dartford Warbler, Red Kite, Tree Pipit, Northern Wheatear, and Garden Warbler.

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Dartford Warbler, Corbieres

The Montagu’s Harrier was an obvious highlight as was the large number of migratory Honey Buzzard I saw (somewhat un-doing my regular complaint that our French House is not on any migratory flight paths). Slowly building a picture of the avian wildlife of this remote valley in the Corbieres has been a joy.

2020

I can’t imagine time will be very much more plentiful for me in 2020, so I will need to think and act smart to make the most out of my birding. My two patches will definitely play a decent part of the whole picture next year, but I am determined that they do not take up quite such a high proportion of the whole as they did in 2019.

What a Great Reed Warbler!

The mixed blessing of going out birding later than I used to, due to family time, is that I get a good sense of whether the Patch is likely to be productive before I set foot outside.

This morning, it did not bode well and so when I heard news that Rich Bonser had found a Great Reed Warbler at Crossness in South London: a full-on UK tick for me, it was a no-brainer. A lot of my patch colleagues shared that they needed it for London, but it was only when there that I learned this was actually the first ever for the LNHS recording area.

I left the house at 09:50 and had to be back at 12 as we were hosting a lunch for our NCT baby and parent group; it was a race against the clock. I planned it out in my head: 35 minutes drive there, 35 minutes drive back, 15 minutes from the car to bird and the same back would give me 30 minute to locate, hear and hopefully see the bird.

The walk across the meadow took me back to my last time there, in February when I went for the Penduline Tit. It is a great site: a pair of Peregrines were circling each other as I arrived, and there were Cetti’s, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, both Whitethroat species, Skylark, and much more all in full song.

I was amazed when I finally got there that I was only the third birder there and the finder, Mr Bonser was luckily still there. I heard it almost immediately – that distinctive deep croaking that sounds like one of those wooden ‘guiro’ musical instruments and then the louder and gruffer version of the Reed Warbler‘s song.

But the bird stayed well hidden behind a large bramble bush in the reeds as we watched through the metal fencing to keep everyone from the ‘protected area’. We were treated to my best views this year of Sedge Warbler while we were waiting for the star bird to show.

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Eventually, the thrush-sized Acro popped up on top of the reeds some way from where where we had heard it singing after it chased a smaller bird. There were many better photos taken later that day, but ticking a bird in London that is also the first time anyone else could have ticked that bird was special.

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Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus)

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belting out its gruff song

I was in a very good mood, albeit partially dampened when the Satnav told me it was going to take closer to an hour to get home. Slightly late, but, I think, with a pretty good excuse.

As it was car journey solely to twitch a bird, I made a small contribution (as per my new pledge) to a charity to protect some rainforest.

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Filling in the gaps

I have been increasingly aware of a few gaps on my Patch list that should be filled by birds generally seen annually. One of these was Green Sandpiper. Bob had a flyover the other day, but when Rob found one on the deck of Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats this morning, I jumped into the car (more about this later) to see it. And see it I did – my 131st bird for the Patch.

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Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

I got home, played with my baby son for a bit, changed his nappy, made my wife some breakfast and was pondering which other bogey birds are still missing from my list… Woodlark… Sedg… it was at this point I saw the news that Bob had found a Sedge Warbler singing by the Roding. Given I had promised that Friday would be a family day, going back out on to the Patch was not ideal, so I jumped back in the car (yes, I still plan to come back to this point) for another smash-and-grab tick (walking would have taken me well over an hour there and back).

I only got brief views in the giant Blackthorn bush, but it sang almost continuously for a small gathering of us until I had to leave (2nd tick of the day, 132nd bird of the patch and made even sweeter by two year ticks materialising whilst I was there: Common Whitethroat and Swallow).

Tony B. recently ran through 24 gaps in his patch list. He is a fair way ahead of me, so he has fewer ‘bogey’ birds, but it has prompted me to think of which 8 species are most likely to take me to 140. Here is what I reckon are the 8 most common omissions or most likely scores over the next year or five:

  1. Jack Snipe – almost annually seen, particularly on Alex. But normally flushed and gone, so rarely twitchable.
  2. Woodlark – another annual bird, but generally just Autumn flyovers.
  3. Golden Plover – spend time looking up in hard weather and I’ve got to tick this off some time.
  4. Marsh Harrier – only three sightings in the last five years, but with the increasing success of these birds at some relatively local sites, I reckon it is only a matter of time before I get one on the list.
  5. Goosander – Only a handful records in the last decade, but… I’m hopeful.
  6. Cattle Egret – very rare to date, but given the increasing preponderance of views over time means I reckon there is a good chance.
  7. Crossbill – worryingly not seen flying over since 2015. Could that mean the odds have gone down, or are we due a few this Autumn?
  8. Dartford Warbler – probably less likely than Grasshopper Warbler to be honest, as we’ve only had one, ever, on the Patch, but I have included it as the habitat feels right for a stray and because our Patch has a strong capability to surprise when we least expect it (evidenced by the fact that I had Ortolan Bunting and Rustic Bunting on my Patch list before seeing a Yellowhammer!).

Of that list, I can probably only class the top three as remaining patch bogey birds. We shall see!

To drive for a Twitch or not, that is the question

I got a fair amount of stick from one or two of my patch colleagues for driving such a relatively short distance to twitch the two birds today. Whilst it was done in a light-hearted way, I did actually feel pretty guilty. I really do worry that we are trashing our environment and heading for climate catastrophe, and me driving to see a bird is certainly not helping matters.

So, why do I do it, and what am I going to do about it?

I do it, because birding is my primary hobby and I love seeing new birds on the Patch. As I currently have significant family commitments with a young baby, I get out less than I would otherwise and have to maximise my time. I wouldn’t have been out today were it not for the fact that I was able to zoom there and back so quickly. There is more I could say about the relative benefits of local patch birding rather than long-distance twitches (which I don’t do), but let’s get on to what I am going to do about it…

  1. Wherever feasible, I will aim not to drive.
  2. From today, I will only drive on to the Patch if it is to try and see a new bird for my Patch list (no more driving for year-ticking).
  3. If I do drive (anywhere) for a bird, I will make a contribution of £20 for every 30 minutes in the car to a charity that specialises in planting trees and restoring nature (see below for my donation made for today’s largesse.
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Guilty much?

I am aware this is still not great. I am also trying rather shabbily to green my life in other ways: switching increasingly to a plant-based diet (I haven’t eaten any beef or lamb for months and am trying to cut out pork at the moment); and looking at alternatives to flying (I recently looked at the train alternatives to a trip to France and the train cost 5 times more than the plane – which reminded me of the need for policy changes as well as action by individuals).

I am clearly no eco-warrior or saint, but I recognise I do need to improve my own game a little if I am going to call on the Government to do more as well.

Two fuzzy firsts and the call of a Water Pipit

My weekend’s birding began pretty poorly with very little of interest showing on the Patch. So, hearing about Black-throated Diver – found by Lol Bodini – on one of the Walthamstow Reservoirs gave me more than enough excuse to try and get a London tick after lunch. This really was an excellent find by Lol and we are always willing to put aside our friendly patch rivalry when rarities like this appear – the first in East London for a few years.

When I arrived at Walthamstow I was lucky to bump into Lol (not ‘literally’ as we actually stood next to each other at the urinals in the visitor centre, so ‘bumping’ would have been problematic) who gave me the gen. With a bird like a diver on a reservoir, the thought didn’t really enter my mind that I might miss it, so I didn’t even rush.

Lockwood Reservoir is a big body of water, but much smaller than the giants like William Girling and King George V further north in the sequence.

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Lockwood Reservoir, Walthamstow

I was a little perturbed to find a birder who had been scanning for ten minutes with no success. I walked up along the east shore scanning the other shoreline in case it was tucked up against the side. I met two more local regulars coming the other way who passed on some more bad news; they had been watching the Diver (they even showed me some great back-of-camera shots) but then it had dived and hadn’t been seen again. That either meant it had drowned (pretty unlikely for a … err… diver), or that it had come  up a little way off and flown before they had noticed. Dipping a diver that had been seen only a few minutes before now seemed likely and galling.

But then my knight in shining armour appeared in the form of Stuart Fisher (wearing more of a tracksuit than a suit of armour, to be honest), zooming around the reservoir also looking for the recently departed Diver. We met Lol again as well and agreed that our best, but slim chance was to check Banbury Reservoir up the road. The only glitch being that Banbury is locked and inaccessible. But this is where the local knowledge of Stu Fisher was absolutely golden. He knew a spot on a housing estate on a hill where a sliver of the the reservoir was visible. Slim chance, but this was our only chink of hope.

We schlepped up there with me carrying my scope and peered through gaps in blocks of flats to look at the water in the background. By absolute luck, there it was – a whopping great diver with white flashes on its sides. Stu spotted it first and I was almost incredulous, and then elated. I felt a bit creepy and intrusive standing in front of people’s houses and staring through a telescope through gaps between buildings.

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Black-throated Diver (Gavia arctica)

On Sunday I went to Rainham Marshes to try and see the Bittern that has occasionally been showing to people viewing from the Ken Barrett hide. As I sat in the hide I chuckled to myself about my patch colleague’s experience in here the week before, humorously (and rather controversially) recalled on his blog.

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View from the Ken Barrett hide

The Bittern didn’t show, and nor did much else of interest from the hide so I couldn’t bring myself to follow Jono’s lead and sit in there for hours waiting.

The sea-wall of the Thames was much more productive. Almost as soon as I arrived in the morning, I spotted the Black-bellied Brent Goose floating down (and later back up) the Thames (here comes another distant phone-scope record shot).

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Black-bellied Brent Goose (Branta bernicla bernicla)

Two days, and two London firsts under my belt. But the sea wall had more to offer. Good numbers of Dunlin and Avocet occasionally took flight and whirled around the sky when something disturbed them.

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24 Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

By something, I mean like the Marsh Harrier which came in off the Thames and swept low right passed me (sadly while my camera was packed away). Or like the Short-eared Owl which pounced on something right on the water’s edge before slowly flapping away low along the shoreline.

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

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There were plenty of Meadow Pipit, as usual at Rainham, but I also saw and heard Rock Pipit moving up and down the shore. And occasionally a slightly different-sounding single call was heard (as I was able to hear both calls close by at roughly the same time, this is the first time I have been able to distinguish their calls in the field) and eventually a Water Pipit landed a little way off in front of me and fed in the grass – its white tail streaks showing clearly as it flew in and with a much paler breast than the Rock Pipits which also occasionally showed well.

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Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta)

Finally, I also managed to get a year tick in the form of a single Ringed Plover on the Aveley Bay shoreline. I say finally, but it was actually one of the first birds I set eyes on when I arrived, but I never promised to tell my stories chronologically.

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Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

And because I can’t bring myself to sign-off a blog post with a terrible phone-scoped record shot, here was my view for much of the day:

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Looking down-river at Rainham

Little Bunting: a crucial ten seconds in the cold rain

I woke up early this morning and dashed to the window to peak through the blinds. Just as a child on Christmas morning might be disappointed not to see a sprinkling of snow imprinted with fresh sled tracks and reindeer hoof-prints on the roofs, I was disappointed to see rain.

I checked Twitter and typed the words ‘Little Bunting‘ into the search bar and saw someone complaining that Walthamstow Wetlands didn’t open for another hour and a half.

I went back to bed.

I hadn’t slept well. Maybe it was because of the anxiety of whether I would life tick Little Bunting in London today (as one had been found the day before). Or maybe it was because of the huge quantity of caffeine I had imbibed last night to get me through Friday evening work and meetings. *shrugs*

By the time I was up and ready, it was late. I gathered my bins and camera and dashed out of the house at lightning waddle. I jumped into the bird-mobile and sped off … nowhere!

The car slouched forward sickeningly slowly like it was wading through treacle or like it had a flat tire… which it did. A neighbouring street recently suffered an attack where every single car on one side of the road had their tires slashed. Perhaps the perpetrator then came to my road to do one more car for good measure before going home for cocoa and bed, their good work done for the day.

Despite being very close, Leytonstone and Walthamstow are trickily connected (by which I mean Walthamstow has the audacity not to be on the Central Line). I didn’t want to waste precious moments running for buses in the rain, so I called an Uber. No, I am not proud.

Before long I was at the Walthamstow Wetlands (my first time there since they opened it as a new reserve) speed-walking past a very cold Tony who told me that the Little Bunting had just been seen once in the last two hours. I dutifully lined up with the green twitch brigade behind yellow and black tape as if we were witnessing a biohazard spillage.

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I stood in the cold and wet for well over an hour. Every now and then buntings would pop up from the weeds and perch in a tree to survey the line of green, wet, almost-bald apes lined up watching them. None of them were the Little Bunting …until one of them was! Hurrah!

A problem with twitches is that people get a bit bored and lazy. There are so many of you standing and watching a bush that you might as well chat to your neighbours and not really watch as someone else will be definitely be keeping an eye out… won’t they? I had been quite diligent and was watching carefully – only partially listening to people arguing about London and Essex boundaries to my left – and saw a small flurry of activity as a bird flew up from the weeds into a bush. A well known listing birder called it before I had even focused my bins: “Little Bunting!” I didn’t have my scope with me but I stared at the perched bird briefly through my rain-misted bins. It looked rather like I have come to learn a Little Bunting should look like, although the angle with which I was observing was rather acute and the head features weren’t as clear as I would have liked, but reddish cheeks and dark crown were in my mind. This was exacerbated by the distance and rain, but tens of people were looking right at it with me, so, safety in numbers, no?

I then scrambled to get my camera out. The strap had somehow got tangled around the lens, making it difficult to extend it out as a manual zoom. I cursed silently. Eventually I managed to take a couple of shots without having time to adjust any settings. The bird had annoyingly now positioned itself so its head – containing all the crucial identification features – was obscured.

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Obscured bunting

Then – and I realise this is a rather long story – something odd happened.  The bird flew horizontally out of the back of the bush but simultaneously managed to appear vertically and immediately above where it had just been. I didn’t let a minor issue, like the fact that it had broken multiple laws of physics, put me off taking lots of pictures of it in its new clearer position – head showing well and everything.  I was delighted! A life tick and photos to prove it! My delight subsided somewhat when I realised that the new bird I was photographing was not a Little Bunting with the ability to warp time and space, but rather a different bird altogether; a Reed Bunting.

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Female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

A confused minute or two followed as people looked at a female (in photo above) and then at a male Reed Bunting perched up whilst the Little Bunting was nowhere to be seen. There was some discussion about the LB and backs of cameras were studied. People seemed happy.

Soon after Mr B and then Mr L arrived (both of who have written their own accounts of the day on their blogs which you should also read if this one hasn’t sent you to sleep). We stood for a bit and I picked up two more year ticks: Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. As I had seen the Little Bunting, I left them to warm up and go and see the Scaup on Reservoir Number 4 (the area clearly ran out of  names for their reservoirs as they have so many). It showed well in the rain as it bobbed about with a little raft of Tufted Duck.

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Scaup (Aythya marila) with Tufted Duck to the right

Jono and Lee B had great scope views of the Little Bunting whilst I was off looking at the Scaup (no, I’m not jealous at all). Jono and I then got public transport home together, happy with a good couple of hours birding.

But. Something was wrong. I searched back in my memory for the views I had of the Little Bunting. My first ever of the species in the field. They weren’t very good. In those crucial seconds when it was perched, I wasted time getting my camera out, and taking terrible photos. Photos which – as you can see above – don’t help me very much. In fact, photos which make the bird look suspiciously chestnutty in colour, almost as if it might have been a Reed Bunting. So what am I left with to support my life tick? Inconclusive photos, inconclusive memories of relatively poor views, but clear memories of other people calling it as a Little Bunting.

Sadly that is just not good enough. No life tick for me. The last Little Bunting seen in London was just over a decade ago. Maybe I’ll have to wait another decade to see one, or… maybe… I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Reservoir 4 – where the Scaup was

UPDATE: To find out how I got on the following day, click here.

Breaking a curse with a Horned Lark on the shore

The day began – late – by joining most of my patch colleagues in dipping Leach’s Petrel standing in a small park overlooking the huge William Girling Reservoir.

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Birding on reservoirs is often hard in its own right. When you are attempting to see birds when you can’t even get close to the reservoir, I find it verging on impossible. At one point we attempted to see a Great Northern Diver from this spot but looking at a reservoir further north (to the right and out of frame of this picture); but you know something is hard when you hear quality birders say things like “I think I’ve got the GN Diver in my scope, but it might just be a Great Crested Grebe“!!

So Nick and I swapped one set of large reservoirs for another. This time the dreaded Staines Reservoirs. I have blogged about them before as they are my nemesis location; everything I have ever gone there to see (most recently White-winged Black Tern) I have dipped; a 100% failure rate!

After sitting on the M25 for what seemed like half the day (possibly because in total, it was for half the day!), we arrived to see the Shore/Horned Lark*. Whilst it had previously been seen and photographed up close, it was now distant on the western shore, but it was a successful twitch for me at Staines. The curse is finally broken. I even rather foolishly attempted to take a record shot with my camera and phone-scope respectively below:

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Horned/Shore Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

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Looking straight at the camera (albeit across a reservoir)

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The South Reservoir has been drained and looks extraordinarily bleak, with just small pools left.

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A cold day standing by reservoirs and driving around London, so not exactly the wildest of experiences, but successful and interesting nonetheless. On the drive on the M25 on the way home, Nick and I counted raptors ending with a final score of 23 Red Kite, 4 Buzzard, and 1 Kestrel (not all that long ago those numbers would have probably been read in reverse).

*The debate is currently underway as to whether this is a European Shore Lark or the much rarer sub-species, American Horned Lark. I will leave that matter to the experts.

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!

Things I saw while searching for a Nightingale

Dawn on the Patch

I think I carried the scars of missing the patch Nightingale through to this long weekend. I determined that I would find good birds on the Patch and find a Nightingale somewhere. Anywhere.

And so a pretty frenetic three days of birding followed; starting, as it should, at dawn on the Patch…

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Sunrise on the Wanstead Flats

Saturday morning began very early; I was up just after 5am and out shortly afterwards. The combination of the early morning light and our low-lying mist, bathes everything in gold and it reminded me why dawn is my favourite time.

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

The golden light was not auspicious, however. It soon became a beautiful day, but the birding was poor. No interesting new migrants had stopped over, although there were a few Wheatear around (it seems to be an exceptional year for them), which we had fun photographing (see here and here for better versions of my effort below).

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

There were, of course, other birds on the Patch, but none that whet the April appetite of listing birders.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Therfield, Hertfordshire

And so news of Dotterel in a field less than an hour’s drive away had me dashing for my car and promptly missing my second Sedge Warbler (which would have been a patch tick for me) in the space of week.

But I can’t complain. Sometimes we need a change of scenery and seeing Dotterel so far South is always a special occasion and it was an England tick for me, and my first ever clear views.

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Female Eurasian Dotterel (Charadrius morinellus)

Two pairs showed nicely, although the relatively drab males often required re-finding due to their camouflaged plumage.

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Male Dotterel

Watching Dotterel whilst the sounds of Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting provided a wonderful, rustic backdrop (see videos here and here), was, simply, special.

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Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

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Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

East Tilbury

On the way back, I dropped in at one of my favourite Thames-side sites, East Tilbury as I heard that both Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler had been heard that morning. I didn’t find them, but I did enjoy some other year ticks in the form of Short-eared Owl, Cuckoo, and Whimbrel.

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Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

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Common Cuckoo* (Cuculus canorus)

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Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

But even while not ticking off new birds for the year, the birding was excellent. The SSSI scrub and grassland (on the other side of the flood defences and expansive reed-beds and mudflats) are just full of migrant warblers and some very showy pairs of Stonechat amongst other things.

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Male Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

Also videoed calling here.

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Female Stonechat

I love how easily you can get lost in the wildness of the scrub, full of birdsong, be alerted to a flock of Whimbrel calling (I had one flock, or ‘fling’ of 12 birds pass by down the Thames) and then see a 25,000 ton oil tanker pass right by. Surreal!

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‘Baltic Faith’ obviously with full cargo as sitting low in the water

The Blean

I then drove to the other side of the Thames and visited a friend in Canterbury for dinner and drinks. The next morning, while out walking with my friend and his dog, and… hangover aside… partially plotting my best place to find a Nightingale, I heard a … er… Nightingale.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Blean Woods – where we were walking – is known to hold an important population of Nightingale. I had no intention of trying to see this elusive and protected bird, but it flew right up into view (videoed singing here)…

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Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

I even heard a second Nightingale singing as we walked through this truly stunning ancient woodland.

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English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in the Blean

Back to the Patch

So instead of driving around Kent trying to find my favourite bird, I left after breakfast and got back to the Patch to tick off Whinchat for the year – a pair were showing as well as five Wheatear all lined up on the path.

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This morning I gave myself a lie-in, which cost me another patch-life-tick in the shape of Rook, but I was able to get into the Brooms in time to see my first Swift and House Martin for the year, as well as being alerted by Jono to my first patch Common Tern for two years with three flying very high over indeed.

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Record shot of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

Rainham Marshes and the Thames at Rainham

But again, soon, the allure of more exotic birds off patch proved too magnetic and so I whipped down to Rainham Marshes where I dipped Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper, but made up for it by getting year ticks out of Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank, and a full blown London life-tick in the form of Little Gull.

Luckily I was river-watching with a couple of much younger and much better birders than me who helped locate the Little Gull on the other side of the Thames, in time for me to get my scope on it and just about get enough ‘on it’ to tick it for the year. To give you sense of how far away it was, here is the digi-scoped view (although it did look a bit better before my iPhone mashed up the pixels):

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Distant Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) preening on a buoy (bill tucked into feathers)

We then had it (or a different bird??) much closer and on our side of the river. The two young guys dashed off for a photo whilst I stayed with Nick and admired it through the scope as it settled on the mud. When it looked like it was going to sleep I waddled off after the teenagers in comic pursuit. Having stopped jogging a few times due to lack of fitness and a distracting Short-eared Owl on the adjacent marshes, I arrived too late to take its picture (according to Nick who had been watching the scene from afar, the bird ascended rapture-like vertically up in the air and out of sight!!). This is one of the photos Dante took of the same bird; to get an idea of what I should have been posting.

Little Gull

The impressive Dante had already scored big earlier in the day with a Black Tern. This grates a little as I have never seen one, apart from a ‘probable’ over Canary Wharf a couple of years ago (when I was without bins) and another, today, on the other side of the Thames that I watched for a while but couldn’t get enough on to be sure (I still maintain it was smaller, darker, and sleeker than accompanying Commons, but the better birders didn’t come to my rescue – I’m unclear as to whether they didn’t see it or whether they were stood behind me shaking their heads).

It then started raining so hard that we left the hardy young birders to it and went back via the Grasshopper Warbler bush, that was annoyingly empty of Grasshopper Warblers. Its commoner cousins were showing and sounding well across the reserve, including an unusually showy, Sedge Warbler (also videoed in song here).

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Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

So, three days of birding, a couple of big dips on the patch, a few more off the patch, but some amazing experiences and my patch year list nudges up to 91 with four new additions, and my UK year list grows by a giddy 12 to the barely-respectable total of 137 as we enter May (Nick has seen more than that in the month of April alone, but he is properly year-listing at the moment).

Post Scriptum: a legless lizard (and no, that’s not my nickname)

I also got another lifer this weekend, in the form of a reptile in Kent.

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Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)

Which, in turn prompted me to check our own reptile mats back on the Patch:

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Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)

I know this account sounds a bit like a cold ‘tick fest’, but if I had got all poetic over the experiences I had (as is sometimes my want) rather than just quickly listing things I saw, you would probably still be reading this post by the time next weekend appears.

*The photo of the Cuckoo is actually from Rainham Marshes two days after my Tilbury visit, but why allow accuracy to get in the way of narrative!

A Tale of Two Patches (I’m a fungi to be with)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

It was the best of times: a shrike on the patch! The first Great Grey Shrike on the patch in 39 years. I wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye when the last one was seen. And, I’ve never even seen one (I’ve got three species of shrike on my lists and ‘Great Grey’ ain’t one). Brilliant! Except…

It was the worst of times: I didn’t see it.

I had been out the night before and may have had a drink or two. I missed the calls from Jono alerting me to the Shrike, and woke up too late. It had gone. A fantastic find by Tony and well deserved, but devastating to dip.

Nick and I searched hard, but didn’t find it. There were points on my walk around the patch when certain bushes seemed so promising as a shrike-perch that I almost built myself up into a frenzy of expectation and optimism. But it was simply not to be.

I hit a low searching the patch of grassland known as the Forbidden Triangle, which resembles the Bermuda Triangle in that anything with wings that might visit the area disappears and is never seen. But even that was not to be the nadir…

I scraped the barrel by walking into the City of London Cemetery. It was like Piccadilly Circus at the gates with flower stalls doing a roaring trade from the bereaved and hearses gliding past with large entourages. I looked at the three paths roads stretching away in-front of me which, then, in turn, split again like some fractal nightmare of labyrinthine infinity, and I just gave up. I nipped between a processional cortège like a green-clad funeral crasher, and escaped back out of the gothic gates without having seen so much as a robin.

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

By the time I reached Wanstead Park, my optimism of finding the Shrike had all but evaporated.

My mood was poor as I entered the wooded darkness of the dell. I knew I was leaving any likely habitat for a Shrike-stopover.

But as I entered the woodland, my funk was pierced by what sounded like a thousand ultra-high-pitched whistles. As the trees encircled me, it felt like I was surrounded by legion invisible Goldcrest. And, albeit not quite literally, I probably was. Our resident reguli (I feel like Alan Partridge insisting on referring to the plural of his car make as ‘Lexi’) have been swelled enormously by Eastern passage migrants.

It was the age of wisdom: In a better frame of mind I began to see things that were there, rather than hoping to see something that was not (profound no?!). And those things were mostly of a fungal nature.

Autumn can so easily seem like a season of death. But with death comes decay, and with decay comes a bloom as impressive as any Spring floral display. I was surrounded by mushrooms, toadstools, and slime moulds.

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From the large…

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… to the truly minute (I found caps that were just a few millimetres in diameter).

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I found and photographed at least twenty types of fungi. Exhilarated at the prospect of looking them up and listing them somewhere, I longed to thumb through my tome of Collins Fungi Guide and tick off everything I had seen. But the reality was to be somewhat different.

It was the age of foolishness: The Collins guide illustrates over 2,400 species of fungi. It boasts that it is the most complete field guide available, although there are believed to be well over 17,000 species of fungi growing on the British Isles. I hopelessly failed to accurately identify anything – even with photographs and a guide book.

Other than having a broad sense of fungal families seen: Inkcaps, Parasols, Chanterelles, Agarics and the like; I flailed with the scale and similarity of the possibilities. The very fact that this blogpost is posted somewhat ‘after the fact’ (to take a line from Eminem) is a clue to the reality that I spent two nights flicking between photo and guide picture largely fruitlessly.

“…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

It was the epoch of belief: I realised once again what many birders have noted before; birding in Britain sits in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of wildlife hobbies. Enough variety and variation for challenge, but not so much that it becomes a hard science rather than a pleasurable hobby. There are about three hundred species of breeding and regularly visiting birds in the UK, and about three hundred more possibilities of scarcities and vagrants.

It was the epoch of incredulity: Compared with 17,000+ British fungi (it is believed that science has named less than a tenth of the fungi in existence on earth: likely to be in excess of a million species), birding is positively ‘Duplo’-like simplistic fun. I know there are people who will  examine gill filaments and spores of a fungus under a microscope, or indeed the genitalia of a moth, for the sake of identification, but… I prefer birding: “definitely a Chiffchaff. It just went ‘chiff chaff‘”.

“…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…”

It was the season of light: Being in a somewhat philosophical frame of mind off the back of my fungal forays (and still blissfully unaware of the ID enigma I was to encounter at home) I did my best to cheer Nick up over a couple of pints of beer at our patch pub (and failed rather miserably – Nick finds more on the patch than most of the rest of us put together, but was clearly gutted by the GGS dip). [OK! I realise two birders drowning their sorrows is hardly an embodiment of the ‘season of light’, but I have committed to this ‘Tale of Two Cities’ theme now and I am damn well going to see this extended metaphor through to the bitter end! The pub is the ‘Golden Fleece’ after all (although the nearby ‘North Star’ would’ve been even better for my story)]

It was the Season of darkness: [This one’s back on track] The next day was so foggy, that attempting to identify any birds on patch was tricky and photography was virtually useless…

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Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) in broom in the fog


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European Stonechat (Saxicola rubecola) in the fog

“…it was the Spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

It was the Spring of hope: I whirled around the Flats from dawn to check in case our shrike had come back or come out of hiding. But to no avail. My Sunday of hope lay elsewhere: on another patch a few miles down the road (or down river to be more precise)…

A mere stone’s throw from the stone barges of Rainham, a little warbler was skulking around in some bushes. Another local birder, Shaun Harvey had played a blinder (almost literally) and found London’s second ever Dusky Warbler from its “took” or “teck” calls. Most of the Wanstead crew piled over on Sunday morning, along with many other birders to congratulate our neighbouring patch-worker and pay our respects to the diminutive dark phyllosc.

I stood in the twitch line looking at the tangle of gorse, nettle, bramble, and ‘thorn occasionally hearing the odd call from deep in the vegetation. A ‘tick’ from the ‘teck’, so to speak, but I wanted at least a glimpse as well. A Robin, a Wren, a Dunnock, and a Reed Bunting all popped up every now and then to show us how easy it is for a bird to perch in full view while our Asian visitor stayed resolutely hidden.

But eventually, through fence, branch, stalk, and twig, I got a view of an eye under a distinctive supercilium peering out from its thorny bower and then that brown phylloscopus-body moving between twigs. That is how life ticks are made.

It was the winter of despair: Winter is indeed on its way, and the season of crazy passage vagrant arrivals will soon be over, but it is no time for despair. For every fungus that cannot be ID’d, there will be another that can (maybe with practice); for every bird that is dipped, there is another that can be ticked. And with both comes a story to be told, even if not quite worthy of a Dickens novel.

 

Wilson’s and a Wheatear with a river in between

Kent: Part I

A trip to Elmley Marshes in Kent just over a week ago allowed me to get pretty close to a Wheatear:

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheater (Oenanthe oenanthe)

A Yellow Wagtail landed on another post almost as close but flew before I could point my lens at it. On the Safari-style drive out of Elmley, I found another feeding next to a cow:

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flavissima)

Elmley rarely fails to deliver a Marsh Harrier and my latest trip was no exception:

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)

As I have described before, the vast, beautiful, but bleak wetland stretches out to become farmland. I took the photo below in March last year to show (just about) a Peregrine perched on a post outside of a barn:

Peregrine in front of barn

Peregrine in front of barn

I looked back in the same direction on my latest visit and found a Common Buzzard perched in a similar place to the Peregrine 17 months before. I focused my telescope on the Buzzard and it promptly took off. Any birder will know how hard it is to track a moving bird at high magnification, but I more or less managed it. Suddenly there was a flash of white in my eye-piece and I momentarily thought that Buzzard had somehow grabbed a passing gull. The Buzzard and the white bird tussled and span in mid air. It wasn’t a gull though, it was a Barn Owl. As I focused on the mid-air scrap, the Barn Owl seemed to be the better off and had clearly initiated the attack on the Buzzard. The birds parted and the Barn Owl flew back into the large window hole shown in my photo above of the barn. It had clearly taken umbrage at the Buzzard’s presence so close to the barn. I have no photographs of this rapid and distant incident, but it is a memory that will remain etched in my mind.

I walked back to the car park and past the Wheatear again on a slightly different post and now bathed in the golden light of early evening:

Wheatear

Wheatear

The photos are not exactly Jonathan Lethbridge standards, but I was pleased with them nonetheless.

As I left the reserve, the air was thick with Hirundines. Mainly Swallows, but also House and Sand Martins.

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

By the time I was turning out of the reserve I glanced to my right and saw that they had concentrated in a meadow where they almost swarmed quite possibly in their thousands.

I drove off a happy chap and went deeper into to Kent to visit a friend.

Kent: Part II
The following day, my friend and I drove out before dawn to Oare Marshes. The fantastic reserve juts out into The Swale – the thin strip of sea (despite appearances it is not a river) that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the Kent mainland:

The Swale

I had read about recent sightings on the Kent Ornithological Society website where a Messr Wright had written that, “The regular Hobby was in the lone Elder west of the road as usual first thing.” As we arrived in the pre-dawn gloom I looked west of the road and, sure enough, there was the the little falcon in the tree as described (excuse the poor phone-scoping):

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

We walked along the sea-wall and identified a number of waders on the muddy flats of the Swale including Curlew, Dunlin…

Winter plummage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left - it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

Winter plumage Dunlin (Calidris alpina) on the right with unidentified wader to the left – it could be another Dunlin, but the bill looks more Knot-like to me

… and, Golden Plover:

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) still in summer plumage

As we turned down to face the Oare Creek, I saw two small terns fly past in the distance. I am at least 80% sure that they were Little Tern, birds I have only seen before in France, but they were just a little too distant for me to reliably give myself the UK tick.

Back inland, the actual Oare Marshes were coming alive with activity. Soon after we arrived, around 400 Black-tailed Godwit flew in:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Some of the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit

Aside from the ‘Blackwits’, there were snipe, little egrets and Ruff:

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) - a white variant male in breeding plumage

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) – a white variant male in breeding plumage

Essex
Yesterday I drove North of the Thames into Essex to Vange Marsh:

Vange Marsh marked 'X' with Oare as 'Y' and Elmley, 'Z'

Vange Marsh marked ‘X’ with Oare as ‘Y’ and Elmley, ‘Z’ with the River Thames in between

I drove with a specific purpose. It was my first Essex twitch. A Wilson’s Phalarope has remained there for a few days. The rare American vagrant was just too much of a pull to miss, although soon after my arrival a hunting Marsh Harrier almost made sure that nobody else got to see this rarity. Luckily it survived the swooping attack.

After the long walk to the site, the frenetically-feeding tiny wader was just identifiable through the scope at maximum magnification:

Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) just visible in winter plumage

Before screwing your face up too much at the shoddy image, please note that this bird is little bigger than a thrush, is almost a quarter of a mile away and is photographed through an iPhone pressed up to a scope eyepiece!

Distant it may have been, but that is a great rarity to have seen barely 40 minutes drive from my house. Stay tuned for more twitches likely in the future.

My trusty scope and the rest of 'the twitch'

My trust scope and the rest of ‘the twitch’