Tag Archives: Wanstead birder

Wetting my lips: the call of the Quail

On the Patch it already feels like June is on us. I was out early this morning, but it did not feel very rare at all. Tony and I stood in the Brooms watching nothing, bemoaning nothing, and then went our separate ways. My Patch story from today was short, but didn’t quite end there as I got a lucky patch year tick from three Shelduck flying low over the School Scrub as I walked home.

My ‘way’ took me back to Rainham. This time to Stone Barges and the three mile walk to Rainham Marshes – as I arrived too early to park in the reserve.

Wheatear dotted along the path kept me company on the walk, as did the omnipresent sound of singing Skylarks on the tip, and a steady stream of Swallow that whipped past me as I walked East, and the occasional screams as large numbers of Swift gathered.

But it is also a long, and rather odd walk: past the concrete barges; alongside the rising tidal Thames lapping at the mud with the occasional Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, or Whimbrel to break the monotony; gulls circling over the landfill site and – depending on wind direction – the odd whiff of the stench of waste; a smell replaced by a strange sickly molasses odour as I walked past hundreds of old damp wooden pallets mixed in with the brackish smell of the estuarine Thames. The strange combination of industrial and marshy wildness is occasionally decorated with the bizarre; perhaps a statement of the uncertainty that exists in urban fringes.

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Eventually the marshy reserve stretches out in front of you with the mud of Aveley Bay to your right and the pregnant grassy mound of filled-in-tip to the left. It was here that I saw Shaun; a super guy as well as being a good birder, but looking slightly agitated. I was greeted with a question: “is that your phone? Are you playing Quail James?” Before I even had time to answer, the distinctive, but short, song of Quail reached my ears too. There were a few tense minutes of slight uncertainty before others joined us and louder bursts of the song of this elusive summer bird sealed the deal. Despite a reasonably sizeable twitch of watchers for much of the day, nobody saw the diminutive galliforme, but my lips were wet (apologies if the birding in-joke doesn’t make sense): this was a big London-first tick for me and a lovely addition to my UK year list. I think I owe Shaun a pint in the not-too-distant-future as this is not the first excellent bird he has found that I have enjoyed.

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The view from ‘Quail hill’ with the reserve to the extreme left, the mud of Aveley bay to the centre left and the Thames stretching away to the sea

When I left, I focused more on waders. I had some good scope views of three Wood Sandpiper on the reserve and was then treated to a super mixed flock of waders on Aveley bay (where last week I had watched Little Gull).

This time Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, and Redshank were also joined by some super smart Knot – all in breeding plumage.

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Red Knot (Calidris canutus), female Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), and Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

Whilst, again, I missed lots of good birds I had hoped to see (Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Ring ouzel, Grasshopper Warbler being first in mind, and if I were a better birder I may have been able to nail a probable first year Caspian Gull) I still nudged my patch year list up to 92, and took my UK year list up to 140 with four new additions.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Patch birding can be tough going.

I’m sure many of us get almost existential jitters: “why on earth am I walking around semi-urban scrub regularly to tick off birds on a list?” amongst other thoughts. The general consensus is that things on the Patch are a bit rubbish at the moment (many of my fellow local tribe would probably use stronger language than that to describe things). It is true that hirundines seem later and scarcer, and some of the other migrants seem few and far between, not to mention the fact that we have watched much of the habitat trashed recently, but… I have to say I refuse to be cowed and give in to the birding funk.

Recent positives (for me at least) include:

1. Patch first Little Ringed Plover (times 3!)

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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

… and just to prove that there were three of them…

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2. More Willow Warbler than I have seen before on patch (I ticked seven singers the other day)

3. Actual views of Yellow Wagtail on visible migration (rather than usual faint squashy call in the ether)

4. Finding a Treecreeper in Bush Wood (these guys are scarce and tricky locally)

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Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

5. Finding a Cetti’s Warbler – only second ever on Patch (probably a returning bird)

6. Seeing a pair of Raven just off patch – highly scarce locally

7. Getting some photos of a White Wagtail – although not a new patch species tick, the continental race and cousin to our ‘pied’ variety is still always of interest when found on our island

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White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba)

8. Getting a photo (however bad) of a Snipe on patch

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

9. We have had some glorious weather (one early April day even went over 25 degrees C)

10. Getting close enough to a Wheatear to have a photo that is better than my usual rubbish

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

So things could undoubtedly be better, but I still get pleasure from just being on the Patch in Spring. And, as we have seen time and again, the Patch always has the ability to surprise us with a magical moment.

Good Friday for warblers

Last year Willow Warbler seemed like a scarce find on the Patch. One male stayed and sang a lot in a copse we call Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI. In fact it spent much of its time mimicking Chiffchaff with its song slurring from one to the other … “chiff chaff chiff chaff-chew-chew-cheew”, somewhat resembling the famous lyrics from the Beatles’ I am the Walrus: ‘Goo goo g’joob’. And that seemed to be it. Maybe one or two other passage WWs passed through, but it seemed to be a one bird show from that part of the phyllosc family spectrum.

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

This year is different. On Good Friday, I counted seven singing male Willow Warbler (video here) on my walk around the Patch – which smashed my previous Patch record – and the following day, two were heard in an area I didn’t even visit. I was particularly pleased to pick up one singing in the hyper-local Bush Wood – a first for me. There is every possibility that they number in double figures.

There were, of course, lots more Chiffchaff.

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Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

But even the singing Chiffchaff were significantly outnumbered by singing Blackcap – they must have exceeded peak saturation point now, and I imagine some will soon be moving on to find territories elsewhere.

I was out on the Patch to find the early arrivals of one of the Blackcap’s Sylvian cousins: Whitethroat. But none of their scratchy songs could be heard in the prime real estate locations of the scrubby SSSI. However, I did pick up a short arching refrain from Lesser Whitethroat deep within Hawthorn whilst watching a much showier Willow Warbler perform.

Bob had relayed news of a singing Whitethroat by the Roding, so I trekked across the Patch to listen out. Still no sound, but I did hear the explosive burst of something even even more welcome; Cetti’s Warbler. Two fast bursts of song and then nothing. No sight, and no further sound. But none was needed – Cetti’s was back. Last year we had our first ever record on the Patch! As this species spreads across territories and its population increases, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but I was still delighted to find it. As I write, most of my patch colleagues have now caught up with it.

Talking of impressive bird song, I had stopped in the area known as the Old Sewage Works to listen to a singing Mistle Thrush and was amazed to hear what I believe is car alarm mimicry – audible towards the end of this short video clip.

Aside from Lesser Whitethroat, and Cetti’s, I increased my Patch year list with a third tick in the form of a flushed Snipe in the Brooms following an earlier tip-off:

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Bob, Richard and I also watched a crow chase and harry a Sparrowhawk way up above the Broom fields.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

Smash and grab birding

Sometimes birding can be an almost spiritual experience: alone in the wild; seeking; observing; experiencing. And sometimes it is… err… not.

I had little time for the patch this weekend, with other commitments. But when our resident larid enthusiast, Tony, found a Mediterranean Gull on Alexandra pond (the first since the likely demise of our annually-appearing old timer, Valentino), or rather when I woke up to see that Jonathan had just seen it on the Western Flats (barely a skip and hop from my front door), I thought I had better check it out.

I found a large flock of Black-headed Gull and Common Gull all facing into the strong wind on the football pitches, and immediately began a thorough scan. I adjusted my position several times to get better views of some of the obscured gulls and scanned again, and again. Despite Jono having seen the Med Gull just half an hour or so before I arrived (and posting photographic proof), I could not find it.

My best find in the large flock was a colour ringed BH Gull. There is something exciting about ringed gulls – to get a sense of the age and provenance of a bird. Was it ringed in Norway, or Germany, or even further afield? When I finally managed to get enough of a view of the markings, I was very quickly a little disappointed. This particular gull, let’s call him ‘2LBA’ now, has already been recorded at least twice on the patch before (once in March of last year, and then again just a few months ago in December), and from Tony’s list, I could see that it was ringed in the exotic location of Fishers Green… just a few miles up the road in June 2015.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) ringed ‘2LBA’

Tony advised me via a certain restricted character social networking platform to ‘try Alex’. I was hungover, I had a meeting I needed to get to on the other side of London, it was very windy. I questioned how much I wanted a Med Gull on my patch year list. But I went. Right across the whole flipping patch in search for this gull. When I got to Alex, my heart sank, most of the gulls seemed to be circling high in the wind and the rest were spread all over the donut-shaped water and the muddy beaches. It would take a lot of time to scan everything, and I did not have time. To cut this rather lengthy story much shorter… I failed. Gave up. Walked back in the wind, and raced off to my meeting.

Rather like the great Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, I woke up this morning to more alerts on my phone telling me that the Med Gull was still out there. On the Western Flats again, where it had last been seen, and where I felt sure I had thoroughly checked the day before. I had even less time than yesterday to find it, but I shot out once again, with a buddhist chant on my determined lips – more as a superstitious good luck charm than any profound spiritual incantation. By the time I arrived, today’s ‘finder’, Bob, had already left. Yet again, there was a – slightly smaller this time – flock of grounded gulls. But this time, after a matter of seconds of scanning, I saw it: Initially its smudgy mid-moult head was turned back and its distinctive bill was hidden in its plumage in roost. But its clean, pure white wing-tips were unmistakeable. Before long the big red bill was out and we exchanged glances, I rattled off a couple of distant pics and I let the gulls be.

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Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

If that was ‘tick and run’ birding, then an hour or two later I descended into a ‘smash and grab’ exercise. Jono – looking for the Med Gull again – stumbled across a friendly female Red-crested Pochard on Jubilee pond. With my wife and mother waiting in the car, I quickly dashed out around the pond to grab a couple of pics. I was struck by the difference in behaviour between this female – without any fear of humans and clearly looking to be fed – and the male I found last year on Heronry pond that stayed well away from everyone. Perhaps they were both feral. Perhaps this female was, and the male was a true vagrant visitor. I doubt we will ever know. What I do know, is that my slow-moving year-lists increased by ‘two’ today.

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Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

 

The tragedy of Colchis

All good classicists know the ancient stories of Colchis. The land where Jason and his argonauts went in search for a certain fleece. It was also the kingdom with a tragic princess, Medea, who – of course – famously avenged Jason’s betrayal by murdering her children (as you do).

Colchis was an ancient kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea where we find present day Georgia. One of the ancient towns was Phasis. It was around here where Western Europeans first came across a bird that they named after the location: Phasianus colchicus, or Common Pheasant. One of the most hunted birds in history. Millions are bred, over-fed, and shot every year in the UK. Some escape the gun, the cars, and the predators and eke out a feral existence across the country.

In the past decade only three or four have made it to the patch. In the past few days another bird made it here and has been patrolling the new paddock in the Old Sewage Works. It became the 112th bird I have seen on the patch:

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Common Pheasant (Phasianus cochicus)

It is the most exciting thing I have seen on the patch so far this year (as in: I haven’t seen much exciting; not, that this is the best of the best). A bird that is undoubtedly handsome, but that … honestly… I simply wish did not exist on these isles at all. One day I would love to see them where they belong, in Asia, and maybe on their westernmost territories, the land of an ancient tragic woman.

Since I have little else to say about my patch birding recently, I will jabber on for a few more lines about another tragic woman of history.

One day I stepped outside the patch boundaries and explored the smaller of our two local giant urban graveyards, Manor Park cemetery. To be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. It is mostly filled with densely packed, and rather gaudy, gravestones and not a lot else. My mood was raised by a small flock of Redwing, but the highlight was a small corner that is not mown to within an inch of its life and appears to have been allowed to rewild.

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The best bit of Manor Park Cemetery

The gravestones are embraced by bramble, holly, and ivy whilst hundreds of saplings have shot up out of the ground (my guess all in the last decade or two) in that race for light that trees-of-the-clearing are designed for.

Somewhere beneath the ground lie the remains of Annie Chapman – a tragic woman in many respects: A poor, alcoholic, TB-ridden prostitute who became the second known victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the East-end slums of Whitechapel. Her family, quite respectable despite the impoverishment that had befallen their daughter, raced her horrifically mutilated body out of East London to a small cemetery in an Essex village. Little did they know that East London would swell and grow and claim Annie back again for itself over time.

Patch perfect

I went out onto the patch this morning with one intention: finding a Yellow-browed Warbler. It has been a bit of bogey bird for me: every year there are many, many that visit the UK, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time, and when I have been, I have still missed them.

And so I worked hard to get one. I carefully looked, but even more carefully listened as I walked first through Bush Wood and then around the SSSI. Bush Wood seemed full of Goldcrest calls, but there was little else there.

It seemed a little odd to be trying so hard to find a bird that has never been found on the patch, with the exception of a single call once heard. I thought of all the hours Nick puts into the patch and he has not seen one here. But then I thought about the number the guys from the patch were seeing up in Shetland, the fact that more do seem to be coming each year, and the fact that one had been heard nearby in Snaresbrook the other day as well as one or two others on key London sites. So I persevered.

I remained almost totally focused on my goal until I was distracted by a bird high up in Motorcycle Wood. I couldn’t see any colouration at first, but the shape and size pointed singularly at Ring Ouzel. Patch year tick! It then started chacking loudly to put its ID beyond doubt. When it flew down into the birches, it revealed its stunning crescent and was followed by another one – a pair (and later we would see a total of three together and another possible in the Copse to the East of Alexandra lake – the most I have seen anywhere!)

I followed the Ouzels for a bit and walked out of the trees to try and get a better view from the South of Motorcycle Wood. It was here that I heard that wonderful, unmistakeable high-pitched reverse wolf whistle. Yellow-browed Warbler. I could not believe it. In fact, at first, I literally did not believe it. The call was repeated over and over again, but I couldn’t see a thing. I decided it must be another birder playing a tape on the other side of the trees.

Then, a strange succession of things happened in a very short space of time: I wanted to walk around and check for another birder; I wanted to stay and find the bird; I wanted to believe my ears and tweet it out to alert the world to my triumphant find – first conclusive YBW on the patch ever and I was the finder. So, I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Jono. As the thought flashed through my mind that he must be the culprit playing the recording, the calls got closer and louder. I looked up and saw a small Phyllosc warbler moving through the birches. I then saw Jono come around the corner asking me if I was playing tape; I was very pleased to be able to say ‘no’. Yellow-browed Warbler finally ticked off: a new life bird for me (very pleased to have got over that embarrassing hurdle), my 106th bird on the patch, and 97th for the year on the patch.

Jono and I continued to hear the calls – sometimes incessantly for a minute or two, but didn’t get any good views. Not for ID, but for the love of birds I wanted to see what I had only seen on paper and pixels: that super citrus supercilium and those wonderful wing-bars on that great green plumage.

We were soon joined by Tony, then Richard, and then Simon. At first the bird was silent. Never before have I so wanted others to experience a bird I have already heard and seen. It is difficult to explain, but the desire to share that wonderful experience (and maybe a slight sense of wanting to ensure everyone believed what I knew to be true) was very strong. We did that thing that birders and horror film victims always do: split up to have a better chance of finding the bird. I stayed put whilst the others walked off. Soon after, the calls started again like a tiny avian car alarm: I looked over at Tony and Richard who were still just about visible but they had obviously not heard anything so I ran over, gesticulated and cupped my hand to my ear whilst pointing at the tree from where the call came. Jogging down, we were all soon sharing the same experience.

Whilst in the middle of this happy mayhem, I noticed a Skylark calling from the Police Scrape, and then we saw a skein of geese circling . I was some way from the others and simply noticed that the geese were calling very strangely. I had no idea what they were, I just knew they weren’t Canada or Greylag. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait as the guys behind me started shouting. I stared hard through my bins and made out the barring that conclusively confirmed what I had heard Tony say: White-fronted Goose. 15 of them, and the third sighting in a decade on the patch if the records are correct. This, at the same time as the first Yellow-browed Warbler was calling!  I was giggling like a tipsy teenager.

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Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

When we eventually all saw the YBW briefly on a branch, it was pure birding magic. It is not an ostentatious bird, but at that time it truly felt that I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

But it was only hours later, when I was back on the patch, that I managed to get a photo or two of this amazing bird.

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

So the day is ending with me having found (or joint found), heard, seen, and photographed a life first, got anther patch life tick and got a year tick – finishing the day on 98 birds for the year (tantalisingly close to my century target and equalling my score last year). But so much more important than a tick is the fact that I got to experience this patch birding magic with others – birding can be an amazing experience alone in the wild, but I increasingly learn how much better it can be when with others.

When Jono and I finally got photos of the bird this afternoon, we were with his daughters. How many 9 and 11 year olds have seen a Yellow-browed Warbler in inner London? My guess is very few indeed. And that highlights how truly special today has been.

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Whether a wind-blown vagrant or, as science increasingly seems to believe, a pioneering radical avoiding the normal migration routes (like the small percentage of bees programmed not to follow the hive when there is bountiful nectar found to ensure new pastures are also sought out), I shall never forget this bird or this wild experience just a few minutes walk from my terraced London house. Wanstead Flats is a genuinely incredible place.

 

 

 

Peregrine: hit the deck!

So there I was, doing my tree survey (more on that another time) and minding my own business when a delinquent juvenile came and shook everything up. Literally!

I was by Alexandra lake when I noticed a lot of bird alarm calling. Then everything hit the deck or the water… crows, gulls, and pigeons all happily circling a minute earlier were suddenly grounded. I ran out from under the trees expecting to see a Peregrine passing high overhead. But it wasn’t. It was dive bombing birds on the ground!

There is a steep hillock on the western side of Alex and the Peregrine was out of view so I ran some more along the northern shore and around the side of the hill to hopefully get a better view.

“Be careful what you wish for” old people like saying. I now think they have a point. As I emerged into view of the pitches, the Peregrine was hurtling straight towards me at head height! For half a second I genuinely thought it was going to attack me, and even with hindsight, I think for half a second it actually contemplated it, but it pulled up hard and over me and it was then that I realised what was ‘wrong’. As it exposed its undersides to me, in my closest ever experience with a wild Peregrine, I could see the heavy streaking rather than the usual barring; it was a juvenile.

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Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

I thought it would take a lot to top my Peregrine experience last week. But, this was something else. For the next ten minutes or so, I watched this youngster race around like some kind of avian joy-rider. Nothing was going to stop it and it would quite like to kill EVERYONE! I watched it plummet on a grounded crow, knock it sideways, and then try and jump on it from just a few feet away (this second time sidestepped by the stunned corvid).

It circled around the pitches like it was a Nascar racer. There was none of the careful watching from on high, followed by a well-aimed stoop, this was just hit and run. Soon, the grounded birds got fed up, or rather, pissed off. Some of the gulls and crows took off to mob this angry annoyance.

Thousands and thousands of generations of genetic programming have turned the Peregrine into a fine tuned killer. Every one of its physical attributes, its senses, and – most importantly perhaps – its instincts are honed to kill. This juvenile had those instincts in spades – possibly heightened by teenage hormones (I am clearly making this up now, but watching it did make me wonder), but not all that much of the skill or preciseness of an adult.

Courageous crows would mob the Peregrine, but then – using manoeuvring that would not be out of place in a Star Wars space battle scene – the falcon would turn the tables and attack its attackers. At one point, it sped towards a London Plane tree, surprised a perched crow and snatched at it with its talons sending the corvid spinning. The crow survived, the Peregrine had only a black feather in its talons.

If my description thus far has failed to persuade you that this falcon was a furious, feathered teenager, then try this out for size… it kept hold of the feather and landed on the football pitches where it proceeded to jump and stamp, and tear and rip at the feather like petulant brat…

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Peregrine attacking crow … err… feather

I am not sure who was more breath-taken: the falcon or me. It looked up angrily as gulls dive bombed it before taking off and repeating the process all over again. It landed three more times! Hopefully this youngster will soon improve its hunting skills.

Last week, I saw a family of Peregrines, and today I watched a juvenile practise hunting, all on the patch. They have clearly bred close by and I hope today’s experience is the beginning of more close encounters with these fantastic birds on the patch.