Tag Archives: Wanstead Park

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)

Song of Spring

Lo! where the rosy-bosom’d Hours, 
Fair Venus’ train appear, 
Disclose the long-expecting flowers, 
And wake the purple year! 
The Attic warbler pours her throat, 
Responsive to the cuckoo’s note, 
The untaught harmony of spring: 
While whisp’ring pleasure as they fly, 
Cool zephyrs thro’ the clear blue sky 
Their gather’d fragrance fling.
– Thomas Gray, Ode to Spring

I genuinely enjoy all the seasons, but I won’t be original if I admit that Spring is my favourite. Yesterday, the Patch was screaming with the sights, sounds, and smells of early Spring.

It feels like we must must be close to peak Chiffchaff territory saturation; they are singing everywhere.

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

I also caught up up with my first Blackcap on the Patch for the year, finding a singing male just South of Heronry Pond on Wanstead Flats.

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Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

We are obviously still waiting for most of our Summer migrants to arrive, and all the patch birders have been hoping for an early, interesting, passage migrant. It looks like we will have to wait a little longer. I got my hopes up momentarily when a finch briefly perched in a small tree in the Brooms early on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Twite, but a female Linnet – despite my naive hopes based, partly, on the fact that Linnet are rarely seen on the Patch far from around the Jubilee pond.

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Common Linnet (Linaria cannabina)

Spring is showing her wares in other, non-avian, forms too. The yellows have it with the March flowers at the moment on the patch.

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Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

The dandelion above may be common in name and status (amongst that huge and complicated plant family) but they are so magnificent when you stop to look at them; like staring into the sun with its layers and flares and knowing that it will also produce a moon of seeds later in the year. But even more impossibly yellow – albeit also very common on the Patch – is the celandine.

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Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

These early pollen providers, seem to be competing only with the nettles and Blackthorn on the Patch at the moment in terms of nectar for our early butterflies.

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Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

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Blackthorn flower in detail

Without these early pollen traps there would be no early butterflies. We have now had most of the butterflies we could expect for this time of year, although I am still missing Comma, but yesterday saw Brimstone, Peacock, and Small Tortoiseshell around the Patch.

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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Like so many species, the common nature of the Small Tortoiseshell can obscure the fact that it should be far more populous and has undergone shocking falls in numbers in the past few decades.The Spring air made me search for evidence of reproduction in every corner of the Patch, whether it was the mating Robins, or the:

Paired up Stock Dove in the Dell:

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Just one of the pair of Dell Stock Dove (Columba oenas)

A circling pair of Sparrowhawk.

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Female Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nissus)

I was also pleased to tick off a calling Nuthatch, finally found – in a very vocal mood – in the Reservoir Wood.

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Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

So, nothing to report that will elicit much of a twitch on the patch, but nonetheless it is just great to be out on a beautiful Spring day.

The sounds of Mirkwood

“As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer.” – J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Tonight, I ventured into a mirky wood. Not the Mirkwood of myth and Middle Earth, but my local Bush Wood. I went to listen for Tawny Owl, but heard the sound of monsters instead; not a giant spider, but something far worse.

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A Bush Wood Tawny Owl for 2017 eludes me still.

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I trod carefully through the wood tonight, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the silver light of the moon (albeit somewhat softened by the urban glow) illuminated the paths quite well for me: hardened mud tracks glimmered softly and reassuringly; whilst darker patches warned of churned up mud; and, puddles shone clearly like warning beacons.

Even taking deeper woodland paths was easy enough and when I reached the space known as the ‘clearing’, the grass glowed.

The wood itself was silent; no owls, no birds at all except a single short alarm call from a Blackbird.

During the day, I often notice how the sounds of traffic quieten as you move deeper into the trees; wood, leaf, mud, and moss seeming to muffle the urban roar and allowing the sounds of the wood to be heard more clearly: most particularly the calls and songs of the woodland birds. But tonight, that magic of the daylight hours appeared to have worn off; even deep within the wood, the traffic sounds filled my head. Our flight paths seemed to have got lower and louder, and the bell-ringers in the local church chimed long and loud.

There was incongruity between the eerie shadows of being alone in a wood at night, and the familiar scream of the metropolis which pervaded every corner absolutely. Any fear of the unknown was drowned out by the sounds of the only-too-familiar.

Turning my camera phone to the trees, the flash-light picked out the branches like green fingers stretching out from the darkness.

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Where my eyes picked up the nuances of the woodland shadow, the camera flash replaced them with the sharp contrast of close and far; light and dark. Only very faint ghostly lines appear out of the darkness in the images, where my eyes could at least pick out a range of silhouetted shapes.

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In the dark, so much more than the day, the wood seemed to be betrayed by the artificial lights and the mechanised noise of the surrounding city.

Was it the wood that was betrayed? Or was it me and my sensibilities? I had come in search of an owl, but I had also come to embrace the peace of the wood at night. The trepidation that still exists in adulthood towards a wood at night, a fear that must have truly primeval roots felt like something ‘real’ I wanted to experience; but it was somewhat shattered by the W19 bus, the Boeing 777 from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, or the motorbike going past at double the local speed limit.

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The moment the Boeing 777 passed over my head, thanks to Flightradar24.com

I keep returning to the wood to look for ‘something’ but I clearly need to look and listen a little more deeply; to the wood and to myself.

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The ‘green glimmer’ of a street light, not Shelob’s lair

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.

2016: Wanstead wrap-up

How will 2016 be remembered?

The year the UK chose to turn its back on the EU?

The year the US chose Donald Trump to be its President?

The year where it seemed that almost every celebrity with any talent popped their clogs?

The year when I saw over 100 species of birds on the patch in a year?

The year I found a Yellow-browed Warbler on the patch?

Okay. So the last two are probably only milestones for me. Two days ago was my last walk around the patch for 2016. I am now on my other patch in the South of France for a few days (undoubtedly more on that later).

It was a quiet and bright day on the Flats and I walked around, working the key areas, finding a few of our favourites but also reflecting back on the year that has been.

The first bird of interest was a Stonechat by the small pond we call ‘Cat and Dog’. This bird framed the year for me: a Stonechat overwintered (2015/2016) in the same place a year ago. Seeing this bird also reminded me of a happy moment in February when I found the first new Stonechat of the year by a different pond (‘Angel’) on the patch.

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Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatas)

I saw our resident Meadow Pipits and Skylarks which have become like friends to me (although I am not sentimental enough to believe that the relationship is anything other than one way).

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Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

I stood by Alexandra Pond and remembered photographing a Hooded Crow there – a very rare sight for London.

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Hooded Crow (Corvus Cornix)

In fact, I stood by Alex for quite some time as I tried to photograph the Yellow-browed Warbler that has been there now for over 20 days! My efforts were barely rewarded with a very (very!) poor record shot…

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

But it also reminded me of just a few months ago when I found the first confirmed YBW in 150 years of records. Without a doubt my best moment on the patch:

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A rather better record shot from October

But this second YBW also brought my mind snapping back from the past and into the future. Given its sticky nature, there is a high chance that it will stay around long enough for the guys to tick it off on their ceremonial 1 January bird walk for their 2017 patch lists. My chances of doing that are very much slimmer as I don’t return from France until 8 January.

Breaking the ‘100’ Patch species for the year was great, but I don’t plan on focusing quite as much attention on my patch year list in 2017. Don’t get me wrong – I shall race out of my door if I hear of anything new and exciting that is out there, but I intend to focus my energies on other activities on the patch. Perhaps spending a little more time surveying.

For example, trying to get a handle on the numbers of these guys on the patch (spread across relatively few flocks on the fringes):

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House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Ticks and misses

This year on the patch I have ticked off 13 new birds, taking my ‘patch list’ total to 111. But, there were also some misses. Birds I saw last year but did not see in 2016. In fact, there were nine of them. Some were special birds that I would not expect to see every year, like Slavonian Grebe, Red-legged Partridge, and maybe even Wood Warbler. Others, however, one would hope to see on the patch every year and were glaring gaps, most notably, Red Kite and Common Tern. But there was a net profit – taking my patch year total to 102 – and so I am happy.

2016 was a great year for me patch-birding, and I hope that 2017 is equally rewarding.