2012 is turning out to be the year of the challenge. I like a challenge, especially if is to do with birds. I have a separate weight-loss challenge going on, but that’s another story – in January, birds are far more interesting, and it’s much easier to seek out a Great Crested Grebe than it is to not eat a cake. So I’ve already mentioned Anas fantabulosa, the Patch List Challenge, and after the fine start on January 1st I’m currently topping the leaderboard. The rest of the contestants assure me it’s only temporary, and I’m sure they’re right. Most of the birds on a Wanstead year-list are resident. I’ve lived here long enough to know where exactly it is they are resident, and so January 1st is simply an exercise in walking round to those places and ticking them off if they’re there. This time around, most of them were. I reckon I have about eight more that are here somewhere, and then anything else for the whole rest of the year is either a regular summer breeding visitor, or a passage migrant. There are about ten regular summer breeders, about ten regular passage migrants, and the rest, perhaps 15-20 birds, is pot luck. And it’s the pot luck birds that make all of us patch-workers jump up and down, and are the birds that will determine where the Golden Mallard goes this year. I’m not dusting off my mantelpiece just yet.
Then there is the Peanut Challenge. Yesterday was my first day back in the Office. By about lunchtime my work year-list stood on one, a Pigeon. I mean literally one – a solitary Pigeon. Canary Wharf is not conducive to birds. James A, a man with a similarly bird-free work patch at Tower Bridge, commented that he was on the grand total of three for the year. I immediately went and stood by the window until I had seen three more birds, which were two Mallards, a Coot, and a Crow. Hah, four, take that Mr A! Then James went for a walk at lunch and added nine more. Gah! This meant I too had to go for a walk, which netted me a further six, including a Blue Tit! Blue Tits are mega, but I was still behind. Thus was born the 2012 Peanut Challenge. Which of these two awful patches was truly the worst? Which one can consistently produce nothing but dross? Now you can’t have a competition based on who can see the least, as it would end up a no-score draw, so it has to be the other way around. It has to be who sees the most, and anyway, this way, even when one of us “wins”, the other can still feel proud that his work patch is truly the shittest. Everyone’s, as they say, a winner.
The stakes are high. As the name of the challenge hints at, the loser has to buy the winner a packet of peanuts. I worked here for over ten years and my patch list stands at 35. That’s truly terrible. Involve a small snack item however, and all of a sudden I’m birding it like I’ve never birded it before! Today I spent twenty-five minutes strategically placed at the far south-eastern corner of the patch (see map), and stared steadfastly east. Well there’s no point looking back into the patch, is there? I’ve already told you, there aren’t any birds there. No, the peanut-winning tactic is face outwards and strain to see birds on the far horizon that never even come near the patch. This resulted in no fewer than two Magpies, three (yes, 3!) Woodpigeons, and a flock of about 60 Starlings whizzing about over near the Dome somewhere. Closer in were a pair of Tufted Duck, a bird I didn’t think I’d get as I’ve actually reduced the patch boundaries from the previous ten years to exclude the basin they usually get on, a Moorhen, and 11 Great Crested Grebes. Wow, all of a sudden I’m on 16, and have yet to see a Great Black-backed Gull. Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Peregrine and Pied Wagtail should all be relatively easy, but after them there are no expected birds left. My work patch is so awful that it tops out at 22, after which it becomes pot luck, just like Wanstead.
It is basically entirely concrete, and incredibly densely populated by humans. There is a lot of water, but again, it’s almost entirely concrete-sided. So far I have found one floating structure that you might call habitat, but a lot of florescent yellow people are currently demolishing a building right next to it, and one presumes that once they’re finished doing that, a bunch of similarly-coloured people are going to arrive and start erecting a new one. My hopes are not high for anything using this habitat in the near future. There are three green spaces. One is in the middle of a roundabout above an underground carpark. It’s a small circular patch of exquisitely-manicured grass surrounded by a circle of London planes. It was in one of these planes that I was staggered to find the Blue Tit yesterday. The second green space is a rectangular patch of grass between Canary Wharf Tower and Waitrose. It currently has an Ice Rink on top of it, but has not been enhanced by Penguins. Later on in the year it will be covered by cars and stuff, and then by various marquees, stages and bandstands. During the short time that it might actually be grass, there is a slim possibility of a thrush visiting it – I live in hope. The third and final green space is south of here, built on top of the Jubilee line station. It is some kind of exhibition garden complete with some water sculptures. Again, it is manicured to within an inch of its life, and being right next to the station and having a path on it to the new shopping centre, is incredibly busy. I did once see a Grey Wagtail on the water sculpture, boy what a day that was - I can still visualise it now. Needless to say it remains the only Grey Wag I’ve seen here, and likely will be forever.
Given that I don’ t work here every day, it’s difficult to say what I might get to. I had initially thought that 20-25 might be a par performance, but the additional enthusiasm generated by the thought of a free packet of peanuts means that I’m going to raise my target to 35. Yup, I’m going to see as many birds in a year as I did in the previous ten, and from within a smaller area. 2012 truly is the year of the challenge.