Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Ten species of Gull on the patch

Seagull (part of)

This is a post about Gulls. Not in praise of Gulls, just about Gulls. I don't often spend time thinking about Gulls but it has just occured to me that we have had ten species on the patch this year. Ten!  Isn't that amazing? Having just checked the historical records over on the other blog that we collectively contribute to I can see that in fact ten species of Gull is all we have ever had. Incredible therefore to get them all within a few weeks. To save you clicking through (and to flesh out this post - there is only so much I can say about Gulls), here is the relevant extract from our site list. 

Black-headed Gull: Resident, with significant increase in winter.

Counts of 400+ not unusual on the Flats in winter. During flooding caused by heavy rains on Wanstead Flats on 28th February 2010, an estimated 2000+ birds were present.

Common Gull: Winter visitor.
The commonest Gull on the Flats in winter, with counts of 500+ not unusual.
1000+ present on 28th February 2010

Kittiwake: Very rare
A bird flying over the Shoulder of Mutton Pond on 19th August 2011
Wanstead Flats 25th March 2012 (NC)
Wanstead Flats 13th April 2013 (JL)
An exhausted bird on Wanstead flats on the 7th January 2014 (NC)
A 1W on Wanstead Flats 9th February 2021 (RR)

Mediterranean Gull: Scarce annual visitor
A regular returning bird was thought to account for annual winter records
2014 had reports of at least 6 birds, so probably increasing
More recently a long-staying bird over the winter 2020/21 (RR), joined briefly by a second bird on 19th December 2021 (JL/TB).

Herring Gull: Regular winter visitor
Regular in small numbers on the Flats in winter, with larger numbers flying over to and from the Chingford Reservoirs.
The largest count was of 82 on February 28th 2010

Yellow-legged Gull: Scarce visitor
May be found on the Flats, usually in late summer.
2017 was a good year with a number of sightings reported including 2 birds that became resident from September onwards by Alexandra Lake (2w and 3w).
More recently several 2CY birds in early 2021.

Caspian Gull: Rare winter visitor
A bird seen briefly on February 26th 2011 (JL) 
A 1st winter bird from November 2015 on and off to February 2016 (BV)
A 1st winter bird on Alex 4th-5th November 2018 (NC,JH)
Becoming more regular in recent years, latest record of either a single or two 1W birds on 5th April 2021.
Iceland Gull: Extremely rare
A first winter bird toured the Flats 23rd March 2021 and was seen on and off for three days (MH)

Great Black-backed Gull: Scarce winter visitor
Usually as a flyover, most probably to and from the roosts on the Chingford Reservoirs. 
An adult has been regular on the Brick pit in the past few winters
A record of 41 on the Flats on 7th October 2001 is exceptional

Lesser Black-backed Gull: Resident breeder
A few remain over summer in the Park and Flats, with more coming in during the winter. Peak count of 50 on 1st October 2010

Small adult winter Seagull

Most of these gulls are regular. I could go out on pretty much any winter day and come home, figuratively speaking, with four species, and quite possibly five or six. Common Gulls are probably the, err, commonest in winter, with many hundreds loafing around on the football pitches, but the Black-headed Gulls give them a run for their money. There are generally always a handful of Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls around, and in extremely wet weather these numbers can swell dramatically as they paddle-feed on the saturated short grass. Great Black-backed Gull is most often a flyover although they occasionally come down for a bit, and if we have a Yellow-legged Gull they can quite often be faithful to a particular pond or puddle for a few days. The others are little less predictable. Caspian Gull is probably more regular than Med Gull at the moment, but previously it has been the other way around, and Kittiwake remains a very hard bird to get on the list. And as for Iceland Gull.....

1W large but slim Seagull

There are of course notable gaps on the list. Little Gull would seem to be the most obvious one. They're regularly seen on passage on both the river and the Chingford reservoirs and we sit exactly between them yet have never seen one. I once had a small first winter Gull distantly flying away from me over the Flats with that classic W on the back but I could not safely rule out Kittiwake on the views I got. I suppose that one day someone will simply find one bobbing about next to a Mallard, but for now the wait goes on. 

Small adult Seagull (black-legged morph)

Back in the day I would have said that we stood a decent chance of one of the returning wintering Ring-billed Gulls turning up, especially give the number of Common Gulls we get, but that never happened and now of course all those the regular birds have departed (this life probably) and the species has become rare again. 

I've seen Sabine's Gull on the reservoirs and Bonaparte's Gull on the river, both about five miles away. Is there a slim chance of one of those two? And if we can get an Iceland Gull could we also get a Glaucous Gull? I think we can. We just need to have our eyes open and our wits about us, and one day it will surely happen. 

1W large pale Seagull

Monday, 5 April 2021

3D people

My world has become a little bit bigger, a blessed relief. I've left Wanstead a couple of times and visited two different sets of people in their gardens. Not on zoom calls, not via face time, but socialising with actual people. Real live people, what a luxury! When you factor in the nicer weather and longer evenings, and that so many people (including some we visited) have had the first vaccination, it does begin to feel as if a corner has been turned. There is a long way to go before any kind of normality resumes - foreign travel for instance seems a million miles away still, but to be able to leave London legitimately felt important.

Overwhelmingly though most of my time is still spent here in Wanstead, and that will continue for the forseeable future so I had best get used to it. The birding has been just about OK. I've still seen just that one Wanstead Wheatear back in March, but on my daily walks it is clear that Chiffchaff and Blackcap are both in - there is a singing specimen of the latter in my garden. Willow Warbler are being heard most days, and we bagged an early and very very beautiful male Common Redstart at the end of March. The same day I scooped a jammy flyover Yellowhammer, not a bird I see here every year by any means.

Today I added my first hirundines with both Swallow and House Martin, and one last gasp of winter in the form of a Caspian Gull. This is #94 for the year and is easily my best start. I've never managed 100 before the end of April before and so this is now my target. With a lot of birds still to come in I'm mildly hopeful I can get there.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

What do birds like to eat?

The birds in Wanstead are so lucky, every day is a fabulous smorgasbord of tasty morsels from which to choose. On Monday morning the spread was particularly diverse. Let me show a sample stretch of pond margin - all of this was probably in area no more than 20m x 20m adjacent to the car park at Alexandra Lake. It is wonderful to be able to connect with nature like this, to be able to drive to the lake and chuck all your food waste out of your car window.

Come on Wanstead residents, sort yourselves out! It is completely disgusting. This is not kindness, it is sloth - it is littering, it is fouling, it is completely unacceptable. The rat population is out of control and the birds are going to get ill. Anyone who does this should get fined.

Lentils. Birds love lentils.

Brown bread. Mmmmmm.

Seed. Better, but still. Oh, and litter.

Chapatis and whole slices of brown bread. Excellent for birds.

More bread....

Rice. Half in the water, half out. Lovely.

Vegetable peelings and rotten bananas. Just the ticket.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Much excitement on Wanstead Flats

Well what a day. Where to start? Seeing as this is a rare post about birds, indeed a post about rare birds, I think a simple list format might work quite well. A short list, but a good one.

1) Wheatear

2) Iceland Gull

Yes you read that right, Iceland Gull. In Wanstead. But let's rewind a little bit to 5.37am. That's when Rob sent his first Whatsapp message to the local group predicting - correctly as it turned out - that today would be the Wheatear arrival day. He duly followed this up by finding one about half an hour later, before I had even got out of bed, thus handing the trophy to Richard who in all likelihood was also still in bed. This prompted me to get up at least, and with some nice low sunlight I headed out with my camera - a rare event these days. Seeing as the Wheatear finding had already been done I walked in the opposite direction to take photos of ducks, something I have been saying I had wanted to do for ages yet never bothered to actually go and do. There I met the 2021 Wheatear Finder in Chief, who initially did not recognise me (grey hat, a rare departure from red) and thought I was just some weirdo with a camera. As opposed to a weirdo with a camera that he knew. I also met Mary - more on her part in this tale later - and after a brief chat got down to photographing some ducks. The lovely light did not last long but I managed a few frames while it held. Despite the presence of a Wheatear it still feels like winter is clinging on, a few Gadwall and Shoveler are still with us.

Next stop the brooms for a date with a small sub-saharan migrant. I connected immediately, but was prevented from getting anywhere near it by a large fence. What a dumb idea that was!! Whether or not this was the same bird that Rob had found earlier is unknown as his had appeared to depart north, but nonetheless there in the middle of our finally fenced off Skylark area was a very smart male Wheatear. Here it is with the finder in the background.

So, a successful morning but this was just the beginning. Mid-morning word got out that Mary had photographed a pure white gull on Alexandra Lake. Yesterday Mary had also found a very strikingly pale Stonechat that at one stage had us all wondering about an eastern bird. Anyhow a photograph was duly circulated and did indeed show a bright white gull. Retina burning bright. So bright in fact that I thought that it could only be a leucistic bird. In other words a bird to ignore. It was Tony who pointed out that it could just be a hugely over-exposed photo (a bit like the breast of the Shoveler above....), that an Iceland Gull had been seen on the river yesterday, and that wouldn't it be a shame if a patch mega was allowed to slip through our fingers..... Wise words. I phoned Nick to make sure he knew, and was slightly relieved to hear that he did know, had checked Alex, and that there was no sign. Phew. A few minutes later it was back to panic stations again though as the bird was back. With Tony's warning in mind I did not hesitate. To my chagrin I drove - I was extremely time limited today. As I commando-rolled out of the car and clapped eyes on the bird my immediate thought was that surely this was an Iceland Gull with lots of biscuity scalloping that had not been visible in the original photo, but Nick and Sean were soon talking me out of it. I put a couple of photos out onto the London group as Gulls are not my strong suit. Neither are Stonechats - yesterday I had done the same thing with Mary's pale bird. Think parades and heavy rain. Anyway this time there was no doubt and and "Mr Gull" himself Rich B responded instantly with a big thumbs up. As he did so the bird got up and flew west, but not before our own Richard - the Golden Chalice holder-elect - had managed to see it. Tim arrived a few minutes later and was not so lucky.

There is a postscript though. Three in fact. Firstly Bob relocated the Iceland Gull on Jubilee a short while later and some more team members were able to get there, including Tim. Secondly I joked that Bob should flush it so I could get it on my house list. Remarkably - apart from the flushing piece - that is exactly what happened. I was preparing lunch downstairs when Bob phoned to say that it had flown west. I stormed upstairs to the turret and was just in time to see it circle high over the Western Flats a few times and then depart our airspace. Iceland Gull on my London garden list! And thirdly I am going to be following Mary around for the rest of the spring.


Monday, 22 March 2021


I tried, I really did, but the weather has been unkind to me. I went looking on Sunday as well, and this morning too. Nada. Just the same birds I've been seeing for day after day. The same Shoveler on the same pond, the same pair of Gadwall on the same island, the same Dunnocks singing from the same bushes. There is barely any evidence of migration across the whole of London in fact - a few Sand Martin, a singing Willow Warbler. When things do finally start in earnest it will be a lot of fun. For now dejection, and a fond farewell to the Golden Chalice - this was a Blood Orange Martini.

- 50ml vodka

- 25ml  cointreau or triple sec

- 75ml freshly squeezed blood orange juice (approx 1 orange)

- a splash of grenadine (for colour and sweetness)

- shake all ingredients with ice

- martini glass with a blood orange slice garnish

Two players remain - Richard tomorrow, and then Tony on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. And every single day until one arrives. It's a new rule apparently, fully above board and approved by the committee no less. The Chairman, Mr A Brown, was not able to name any other committee members when asked but I'm sure it is all perfectly legitimate.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Big day tomorrow (redux)

As you will likely have surmised from my complete silence, my complete lack of shouting from rooftops, this Tuesday I did not in fact find the year's first local Wheatear. I did go out, and pleasingly I was not alone in my search. For instance as I was heading out I met Bob on his way home. Clearly he had been looking for Wheatears from first light, very decent of him. Later on I met Rob who had carefully scanned a few choice areas with no luck, and then Tim who was diligently checking the new fenced area for Skylarks Wheatears

We all returned empty-handed. Wednesday was one of Tim's days, so I went out to help him look. A lovely north-westerly was blowing :-). Thursday was Bob's first day. By 8am he was looking at Owls in the copses which was a very good sign and I figured my help wasn't necessary. Today was his second day, and to tell the truth I was a little concerned - there had been rain overnight and the sun was out, one of those early short sleeves days. Happily, sorry I mean sadly, by mid morning he was looking at ducks and pulled a lovely wintery Wigeon out of the bag. Another blank day and he will now have to wait until next year for another shot at the title. 

Which brings me to tomorrow. My second day and my last chance to retain the fabulous golden chalice. In truth I am not feeling very positive about it, the weather just feels wrong and the wind does not become favourable until the middle of next week. But some birds just ignore all that, and with every day that passes yet more of them make it to these shores. Could one of them press on against the odds and find itself on Wanstead Flats tomorrow morning? As an incentive we have just installed 249 new Wheatear perches around the rough grassland. And of course tomorrow is Saturday and lots of people will be out looking. All of them will have a single search image in mind.

Sand Martin.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Big day tomorrow

Tomorrow is a very important day. It is my first attempt at retaining the Golden Wheatear Chalice. Although other residents of Chateau L would rather the trophy departed these walls, I would very much like it to stay. As with every year the choice of dates is a sweepstake, with names being drawn out of hat. Each person then chooses two dates. This year I came third, so only four of the choicest dates had already been allocated. I went for the 20th, which is a Saturday and which in theory at least should mean more people are out looking, and for the 16th, my winning date last year.

In truth I expect to be completely alone out on Wanstead Flats tomorrow. It is just the way of things - if you really want that trophy you have to put in the work yourself. I have been out of course, including both days at the weekend, but I wasn't really looking, or at least not very hard. I just wanted to have a chat really, see some people who are not my immediate family.

For me last Friday marked a full year of working from home. I last went to my office on 13th March 2020. That's when I last saw any of my colleagues. When it first started I felt I could handle it, that it would be easy. The comfort of home, the ability to potter around, to water plants, to have the windows open and enjoy it. That seems a far cry from the reality of it a year later. There are things I don't miss of course. The Central Line. A shattering commute after a shattering day. The shattering days still happen of course but at least I am already home when they finish. I think the concept of working from home is OK, the work can get done, and whilst it is harder to work collaboratively and we don't experience the same level of innovation and connected thinking that being around each other would promote, the basics are at least covered. The problem is being trapped at home, as for me a year working from home is actually a year stuck at home. I've not been abroad for a year. I've hardly been anywhere other than here, within the four walls of Chateau L. Weekends blend into weekdays, weekdays into weekends. Home life is work life and work life is home life. There is no distinction, no separation, no balance.

Hopefully this will start to change, the signs are there, but I still think there is a long way to go before we can put this behind us and return to any sort of normality. The kids are back at school at least. It is not ideal, and you can only think that the R rate is going to increase again as a result, but they needed to go back to the classroom for their own sanity. And I think that office types like me need that too.