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.
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.
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.
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.