Tag Archives: Whinchat

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!

By the early evening light: the Autumnal migration orrery

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Female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This year I have got better at snatching short opportunities to bird the patch: still sometimes at the weekend, occasionally early in the morning, and occasionally after work.

The late summer/early autumn migration – my second on the patch – has delivered old friends from fly-over Yellow Wagtail, to the watchful Muscicapidae (and/or Turdidae depending on whose authority you follow) using our trees and bushes as we might use service stations on a long motorway journey: Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, WhinchatStonechat, Northern Wheatear, and Common Redstart.

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Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

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Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

When seen after work, these birds have often been bathed in the golden light of early evening. Wonderful when the light was behind me (with the birds above); not so wonderful when the light was behind the bird as was the case below.

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Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

Sometimes the flycatching birds – like those above – are mimicked by normally shyer, more skulking, birds. One balmy evening, the air was so thick with insects that the warblers were out darting out of their usual bushes to catch flies mid-air or chase each other around. Whilst a poor quality photo, it was on this evening that I got some of my best views of our resident Lesser Whitethroat – coaxed out of the thickets wearing its bandit mask to attack the mass of airborne protein:

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Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

As Autumn moves closer, some our summer breeders have their numbers swelled by more northerly kin stopping off on their way south: in particular Willow Warbler, Goldcrest and Chiffchaff.

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Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The local birders have all been following mixed flocks with hope and anticipation. The high pitched calls of Long-tailed Tits often the first sign that something interesting this way comes. Moving through the trees, raiding the twigs of invertebrate life as they go with Blue Tit, occasionally Coal Tit (whose distant calls yesterday had Nick and I holding our breath in vain for the hope of Yellow-browed Warbler), and then the comparatively massive Great Tits barging through the leaves like american footballers.

One afternoon in the Old Sewage Works, I watched a particularly large caravan of mixed birds pass by, counting tens of tits along with multiple Chiffchaff, Blackcap, and Goldcrest. I thought that was it, but decided to check with a quick burst of taped yellow-browed and then Willow Warbler. On the second try, almost immediately, up popped a lovely bright bird just a few feet in front of me. I fumbled with my camera like poor old brother Fredo using a gun in the film ‘The Godfather: Part I’ when his father, the old don Corleone, is ambushed while shopping. Fredo’s father is critically injured and he is left facing his own incompetence sat on the side of the road; I was left with photos of a twig where moments before a beautiful had perched just a few metres in front of me. Despite there having been many Willow Warbler through the late summer, I seem to be camera-cursed with them, only snatching this poor shot in near darkness (since my photos of our territory-holding bird in the Spring):

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Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Sometimes my late evening jaunts would mean I literally ran out of light before I had quite finished my birding. And so it was as I walked slowly around our grottiest of ponds, the Jubilee, looking for a relatively long-staying wader. As the sun went down I dodged almost mutantly large rats – fat from the industrial quantities of bread thrown into the pond and rubbish deposited all about (see Jonathan Lethbridge’s excellent post on the problem with this pond, here) – as I continued my search.

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Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus)

After a little while  of searching I eventually saw my quarry through the gloom. It was still feeding on the fringes of the pond island. I scurried forwards to get a photo… the most successful mammal on earth sending the second most successful scurry, in turn, right in front of me and into some undergrowth. I stood right by the rat tunnel to get my shot of the Common Sandpiper, any view of a wader on the patch is a moment to be savoured as they are scarce indeed, just before the light disappeared altogether.

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Breeze Block (Lateres aurita*) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Even knowing the photos would be atrocious quality, I was pleased to have seen this little chap. I walked off into the dusky night  happy, but scratching. Within a few minutes I found a flea on my arm. Within a few minutes more, I had found another. It appears being that close to rats can be rather more hazardous than I had imagined.

Sometimes Autumn doesn’t feel like a season in its own right, but rather as an extended transition between Summer and Winter. Passage migration brings the regular stop-overs and flyovers, and – of course – it sometimes brings something truly special, like this year’s Ortolan Bunting which I feel incredibly lucky to have seen. It also brings gatherings and movements of birds: from mini murmurations of Starlings, to the trickle of South-bound Swallows feeding as they fly, but which have yet to become a great flow.

While some leave, others arrive, like these Wigeon (albeit I doubt these ducks view any of our ponds as their final wintering destination).

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Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope)

Of course, some birds seem untouched and untroubled by the changing of seasons like these two inhabitants of our local river Roding:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

All together, it feels like some ancient astronomical contraption (or Orrery). Different species moving in different directions and at different speeds and orbits, (with some stock still like a pole star) as the single giant cog of time moves inexorably around. Unlike the early scientists observing and turning the wheel, as birders we may observe but there are no wheels for us to turn. Humanity overall is not just an observer though. Occasionally we manage to throw giant spanners in the works. To finish where I started, Whinchat numbers in Britain have more than halved in the last twenty years. As we slow some orbits or break cogs altogether, who knows what damage we are doing to the contraption overall. Will we one day be left with the giant wheel of time turning and no bodies (biological rather than astronomical) to whir around it?

*my translation 😉

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XVIII (The teeming hordes)

“The teeming hordes are sweeping, swirling round” The Teeming Hordes – Mallory Patrick

There is a sense of ‘movement’ amongst many of the migrant birds on the patch as we enter the Autumn passage time.

Some of our Summer visitors are leaving, and others are bunching up in bigger numbers as those on passage from further North stop off to refuel.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

The rather poor shot of a Chiffchaff above was taken in the low light of early morning. Yesterday I came across a flock of Chiffchaff at least 10-20 strong with a few Blue Tits and Great Tits tagging along for the ride (rather than the usual other way around). Chiffchaff breed across the patch, but the current numbers have swelled considerably.

Nowhere near as numerous, but also increased from very low number(s) during the breeding season, are Willow Warbler. The photo below has been puzzling me somewhat – the general colour and brightness point to it being a Willow Warbler and the legs look pale, but … the supercilium is annoyingly narrow and nondescript and as I didn’t hear it call or sing, I can be relatively confident, but not 100% certain, that it is not an aberrantly bright chiffy:

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) - I think!

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) – I think!

Spotted Flycatchers have been an excellent feature bird on the patch for the last few weeks and numbers seem to fluctuate as they pass through. Yesterday I watched as three tussled and fought with each other, zipping from tree-to-tree in the highly productive area called ‘The Enclosure’. I even filmed one for a bit, calling and then flying off (excuse my shaky camera work): click here.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatchers have been seen at numerous locations across the patch although the majority have been found around Long Wood and the Enclosure, reflected in this map of my personal sighting locations (each dot represents a rough location of sightings, not individual birds seen):

Thanks to City of London for the map

Thanks to City of London for the map

South of Long Wood are the brooms and grassland famous for our breeding Skylarks, but more recently the brooms have been alive with Whinchat. Six or seven have been recorded on particular days and have been popular with the local and visiting birders:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) and some of the Wanstead birders blurry in the background

Whinchat

Whinchat

Four Whinchat in a bush

Four Whinchat in a bush

Even more popular than the Whinchat are the slightly less common Wheatear:

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

With a blurry crow for size comparison

With a blurry crow for size comparison

In the last few days I have rectified my lack of Yellow Wagtail on my patch list and have now seen a few pass high over. Meadow Pipits and several types of finches can also frequently be heard high above. But the numbers of all of these pale beside the hirundines; the sky has become increasingly busy with waves of Swallow, Sand Martin and House Martin:

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

Today the Wanstead Birders counted up to 1000 Swallows pass over the flats.

Just as the summer migrants are leaving or preparing to leave, some of the familiar winter avians are starting to return from northerly climes or their coastal breeding sites, such as this Common Gull:

Common gull (Larus canus)

Common gull (Larus canus)

Migrants come and go, but much of the wildlife remains on the patch…

Juvenile Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Juvenile Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Female Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Female Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

With the onset of Autumn, the local fungi has been blooming all over the place:

Parasol mushroom (Macro Lepiota procera)

Parasol mushroom (Macro Lepiota procera)

Unidentified fungus

Unidentified fungus

A different type of late bloomer is this naturalised Cyclamen found in Bushwood:

Ivy-leaved Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

Ivy-leaved Cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium)

August and Early September has been great on the patch, but I am particularly looking forward to the return passage of the Ring Ouzels which I missed in the Spring.

A Big Birding Year: Part XX (Room 101)

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” – O’Brien, 1984, George Orwell

I thought I would dedicate my 101st blog post as iago80 to ‘Room 101’. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my, and 25 million other people’s, favourite book. However, instead of really staying true to the 20th century classic novel, I am actually following the model of the 1990’s British television programme, ‘Room 101’, where celebrities would attempt to persuade the host to put their pet hates in 101.

Birding is probably my favourite hobby, and it gives me enormous pleasure, but there are many things about it that drive me up the wall. For the sake of brevity and not whinging too much, I shall suggest the two things which part of me would like to send to Room 101 about birding, but should actually have rejected as they are crucial to the challenge and success of the pastime…

Room 101 for birding

1.People: Having slight misanthropic tendencies or a general need to be away from people for periods of time, you would think that birding would be the ideal hobby for me. In actual fact, to be a good birder, and certainly to be a good twitcher (I’ll explain the difference another time if you don’t already know), you need to rely on other people to work as a community to show each other where interesting birds are lurking. I often and reluctantly sidle up to a group of birders with their scopes trained on some distant patch of water, reed-bed, or bush and hate myself for asking the cliched, “seen anything interesting?”, “anything about?”, or “what have you got?”

2. Birds are always so far away and so frightened of everything! We do our best to make them come near us by: hiding inside funny wooden shelters; wearing camouflaged clothing; attempting to make them think we are one of them by mimicking their voices (the beautifully named, pishing), and using special eye contraptions such as binoculars or spotting scopes. However, to take a photograph of a bird, even with a zoom lens, you need it to be surprisingly and awkwardly close. Unless, that is, you spend half of the Greek deficit on a huge and heavy super-lens.

In this series of blog posts, I have been counting how many species of UK wild birds I could photograph in a year. This has meant I have had to post a lot of rubbish… distant fuzzy blobs that I tell everyone is a rare bird. And so it was with my 93rd species of the year:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This Whinchat was photographed at the Waterworks nature reserve in East London. As its name suggests this small reserve is a former water treatment plant and you can clearly see the different treatment pools from space despite nature reclaiming it (with a bit of help from man) – the red ‘W’ shows where I saw the Whinchat:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Numbers of Whinchat breeding in the UK have sadly and inexplicably halved in less than 15 years. Furthermore, they do not breed in London or much of the South East so this individual was almost certainly a passage migrant, stopping off at this tiny patch of London greenery before continuing its journey to Sub-Saharan Africa where it will spend the Winter.

Northumberland landscapes

The northernmost English county is a beautiful and wild place.

Northumberland road

Northumberland 1

wall and hill

Stream

We spent time in a remote valley for a wedding, only two weeks after our own (the main reason for Iago80’s recent online silence).

Lily

My wife and I were not really equipped for walking in the hills, but that didn’t stop us.

James

As we walked, I attempted to photograph some of the valley’s avian residents…

A female Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Female Whinchat

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit

Female Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

And Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) fishing in the streams

Grey Heron

It was also rare to look at the sky and not see (unusually) noisy Buzzards, hovering Kestrels, and circling Ravens (although I didn’t get a good enough shot of any of them to share). Seemingly oblivious of the predators, the sky was also often rich with our summer Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and House Martins (Delichon urbica).

Swallows