Tag Archives: Wanstead Birding

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.

Duck tales

Last weekend Rob S. found a stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond.

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Garganey (Anas querquedula)

It was a rather incongruous sight on the most urban and densely-visited of our patch-ponds, but the behaviour was all Garganey: highly skittish, and fearful, with no nice overhanging vegetation to hide under and bullied by just about everything else on the pond. It was my first patch tick for the year; my 129th bird locally.

One week later…

Nick C. found a drake Mandarin Duck on Alexandra Lake. I had family visiting so am a little ashamed to say that I jumped in the car to get to the other side of the patch (from my house) and try and bag my 130th bird.

As soon as I approached the lake, I saw it in the distance (“Get in!” – I always think in semi-macho cliches when I see new birds. Maybe also “Back of the net!”) I quickly fired off a record shot in case I was unable to get any closer.

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Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata)

I shouldn’t have worried. ‘Skittish’ and ‘fearful’ are not words I would use to describe this individual. Without moving around the shore, I noticed the duck swimming in my general direction. No, not in my general direction… at me… at speed. And it did not stop.

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“I need your bread, your boots, and your motorcycle”

I didn’t have any bird seed or bread, but this duck is clearly used to being fed, and possibly being fed directly out of hand, as it had zero fear for me or any of my fellow birders. The contrast with the Garganey of last week could not have been more pronounced. But it could fly and feral populations clearly do move around. As we discussed on the shore yesterday, is there really much difference (apart from maybe a few generations) between Mandarin Duck arriving on the Patch and, say, Canada Goose, or Ring-necked Parakeet? It stayed one day, as reports as I type suggest the Mandarin has departed this morning; maybe back to the Far-East, or maybe just back to Connaught Water.

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A nice way to round off 130 birds on the Patch

 

 

March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

One patch tick, but four firsts

This morning started well when I heard a couple of Redpoll flying over and they perched in Motorcycle Wood. In fact there were a flock of six that circled a few times but kept coming back to feed in the birches. They were Lesser Redpoll in old terms – small and noticeably brown tinged, but since they have been lumped together with Mealy Redpoll, just called plane old (Common) Redpoll. The photo below may be really poor but it is the first time I have managed to photograph this species on the Patch (they are normally just migrating flyovers).

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(Common) Redpoll (Acanthis flammea cabaret)

There didn’t seem to be much else to see on the Flats (although a big flock of Fieldfare also perched briefly in Motorcycle Wood), so I walked on and in to the Park.

Calling Treecreeper attracted me to scan inside the wooded strip just north of Heronry pond and there was a pair chasing each other around. If it had not been for their calls, I would never have seen them (still a scarce bird on the Patch, although decreasingly so, it seems), and, more significantly, I would have missed the small black and white bird fly from one trunk to another. My patch-first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and the first one seen locally since January 2016, and apparently the first female seen for several years. This former breeder is now very rarely seen and for a few minutes I had good views of it feeding from tree to tree. My 110th patch bird for the year and my 128th patch bird overall.

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Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor)

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The two other ‘firsts’ my blog post title refers to were a Blackcap in November…

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Female Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

… and then the first time I have seen a Buzzard perching on the Patch. By perching, I mean hidden up deep in wooded cover on the Ornamental Waters in Wanstead Park. I spotted it as I saw a large brown shape swoop in low into the trees. Much as I might dream about it being a female Goshawk, it was, of course, a Buzzard that obviously fancies itself as a Sparrowhawk.

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Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

If the Where’s Wally game is getting boring, here is the same photo again, but cropped heavily.

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Hopefully you can see the Buzzard this time

These birds, and the glorious bright Autumn sunshine, made today a pleasure to be out on the Patch.

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I may not be birding the Patch quite so frequently soon as my wife is expecting our first child very soon indeed.

Rustic Bunting: Part II

Many people will have woken up early full of nervous anticipation about whether the Wanstead Rustic Bunting will have stayed for the weekend; that nervous energy exemplified by a guy who dropped to his knees when he finally saw it (I’m not scoffing, I remember how I felt on Thursday when I saw the bird).

My early morning was rather more leisurely. I wanted a better photograph opportunity, but I wasn’t going to bust a gut and so enjoyed the misty morning and the ‘VisMig’ (visible passage Autumn migration).

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Coronation Copse

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SSSI

The VisMig was truly excellent with a Ring Ouzel (my second for the year) chattering away as a it flew slowly and low over my head, a couple of Brambling, and Redpoll, lots of Chaffinch, and hundreds of Jackdaw and Wood Pigeon amongst other things.

My focus on the VisMig nearly cost me dearly though. Tony had a brief glimpse of what he thought might be a Short-eared Owl and so he and Jono set off in the hope of a better look while I took a different route to cover another angle. With my mind still geared towards VisMig I noticed a finch flying high over my head and at the same time I heard Tony shout at me. I thought he was shouting at me to get an ID on the finch so I strained my eyes and ears but it flew over silently and too high to pick out features.

When I caught up with the guys, they asked if I had seen the Barn Owl? “The WHAAT?!” The last time Barn Owl was seen on the Patch, I was 12 years old! Whilst it used to be resident decades ago, it is the kind of bird you can imagine never returning to be seen again – it just wasn’t even on my radar of the possible. I think Rustic Bunting was less of a surprise.

What followed wasn’t a particularly edifying train of actions on my part, but it involved running around a lot, staring at every crow in case it was chasing something, hearing that half of London’s birders had seen it while I was off looking in a different direction, quite of lot of swearing and self pity, and I even considered climbing a tree at one point, which would have undoubtedly been a very stupid decision. Eventually, after a call from Nick, I caught a glimpse of it as it sailed behind Long Wood with a retinue of crows.

Barn Owl was my 9th patch tick this year (last year I got 5) and my 125th bird species seen overall on the patch. Bob managed to get some incredible photos of it as it flew over the Brooms.

I could now focus back on the Rustic Bunting which was being watched closely by up to 70 twitchers at any one time.

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I am used to walking bumping into two or three birders on the Patch

To be honest, the crowds probably meant I couldn’t quite get the dream photo I was hoping for, but I was relatively happy with a couple of snaps I managed when, by luck, it happened to perch or feed near where I was standing.

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

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Feeding on some of the seed the guys have put out for it

Yet again, Wanstead Flats proves that almost anything can turn up at any point. And it seems, that, over time, it does!

 

Rustic Bunting

I am so flabbergasted by the fact that today I saw a Rustic Bunting on my Patch in London (only the third London record ever), that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

It was found, of course, by our very own rarity-finder-in-chief, Nick Croft. The guy really is a patch birding legend.

My experience of the Rustic Bunting saga went something like this (I have emboldened the primary emotions to try and take you on my personal journey):

  1. 17 Oct, 17:00: See on Twitter that Nick has found Rustic Bunting – at first almost literal incredulity. Even looking at a picture of it, I somehow still couldn’t comprehend that it was true.
  2. 17 Oct, 17:30: Realise I am not going to be able to leave work to try and find the bird. Disappointment and strong almost primal urge to be there on the Patch as I look out of my office window a few miles south.
  3. 18 Oct, 01:00: Can’t sleep but realise I will be knackered tomorrow when I get up for the likely fruitless search for the bird before work.
  4. 18 Oct, 07:20: Walking around on the Patch, searching. Not very hopeful.
  5. 18 Oct, 07:50: Rob and I see a bunting fly out from one bush into the burnt area of the Brooms. Hope / anticipation.
  6. 18 Oct, 07:55:Bunting pops up on top of bush. Facial markings perfect for Rustic Bunting. But views are super short. Shock!
  7. 18 Oct, 08:15: After very brief view bird disappeared and nowhere to be seen. My immediate joy is displaced by the seeds of doubt. Did I really just see that?
  8. 18 Oct, 08:30: Realisation that I soon need to go to work and the views I have had (better than most of the other people there looking) were painfully fleeting. Dissatisfaction.
  9. 18 Oct, 08:40: Bird re-found by someone and I am on scene getting the first pictures of the day. Elation! Relief! Rapture!
  10. 18 Oct, all day: Slow realisation of the magnitude of getting a full world life tick on the Patch. Gratitude!
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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica) with Reed Bunting behind

For a little while, the photo above was the best picture that existed of the now-famous Wanstead Rustic Bunting. Throughout the day, as more birders appeared and seed was put down, some far better pictures emerged. But that special moment when I knew in my heart that I had seen and photographed a Rustic Bunting on my Patch will probably never leave me as a great memory.

Soon after the photo above was taken, both buntings took flight circled around the gang of twitchers and disappeared into the glare of the morning sun. As the birders gathered around the long grass where we expected the birds had dropped down into, I took one last picture of the twitch and went off to work a very happy man.

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The ‘twitch shot’ – many others appeared throughout the day

I am delighted to say that all of the Patch regulars managed to see the bird throughout the day, which makes celebration of the find easier. Everyone who saw the bird will have had a slightly different experience and journey of emotions. That is one of the beautiful things about birding.

Nick, I salute you!

The SoM Snipe illusion

Last Saturday I drove back from Rainham Marshes (Cattle Egret and Common Scoter under my belt) and stopped off for a second look at the Patch; this time in heavy rain. I wanted to see if anything had been brought down on the lakes of Wanstead Park. It was a worthwhile trip as I scored a patch record of 57 Teal, all on Heronry, and a couple of Snipe feeding on the inaccessible western fringe of the Shoulder of Mutton. I posted a poor quality back-of-camera record shot on social media and went home to dry off and go about some other business.

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Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

I was busy in a meeting and blissfully aware that people were viewing my photo and noticing that one of the snipe was seemingly smaller, crouching, and strongly marked. Unbeknownst to me, a whole debate ensued about whether it was actually a Jack Snipe. When I eventually logged in I re-checked my photos and assured everyone that the birds were similar size, with very long bills and a pale (not dark) central crown stripe. Debate over. I never doubted this when looking at the birds for one second, even though I had noticed the strong markings on one of the birds.

However, a week later (today), this doubt emerged like a horrid aftertaste in my own mouth. I approached SoM lake with Bob regaling him with the story of how other people had tried to string my Snipe into a Jack Snipe, (Lol!) when I saw them again in exactly the same place.

We crept around the side of the lake to get a better view. One of the Snipe was perching on top of a log and the other was pressed up against it but standing in the water below it. In a matter of seconds a wave of confusion and slight horror passed over me. The bird on the log was noticeably smaller than the partially submerged bird, much more strongly marked and was the only bird to be showing its bill which looked medium in length. This  is roughly what I was looking at through my bins:

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Snipe on log looking apparently much smaller than the one partially obscured next to it

The bird on the log briefly turned its head and we seemed to see a dark crown stripe. Bob and I exclaimed together: Jack Snipe! My emotions were mixed. Jack Snipe is a Patch tick – great! but there were two snipe in the same place last weekend that were definitely both Snipe! Am I going mad?!

But it must have been some form of multiple optical illusion. The Snipe‘s partially obscured bill (covered in mud or sometimes under the mud – as below) looked shorter than it was.

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A seemingly short bill – actually just hidden in mud

The size difference was largely down to posture, and the dark crown stripe was actually a side stripe and the central stripe was light.

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Both Common Snipe after all

So, I still can’t tick Jack Snipe, but at least my sanity and pride are mostly still intact.