The alarm went off seemingly five minutes after I went to sleep. "But it’s Saturday" my brain screamed! Saturday or not, today was a day to be up and out as soon as possible. On my way home from work on Friday, a five minute walk through Wanstead Village netted 200 Swallows all streaming steadily north. Deskbound all day, I’d been hearing reports of stunning numbers of hirundines over the patch, and was glad I’d managed to see just a part of it. Nonetheless I felt that there was a real possibility of the passage continuing on Saturday – a quick look out of the study window showed leaden skies with heavy black clouds, potentially ideal weather for pushing birds down and keeping them low. So it was that I hurridly dressed, picked up my trusty bins and nipped out into the pre-dawn to head over to what we call the “VizMig point” on Wanstead Flats.
It was pretty quiet at first, but at around seven somebody turned on the Swallow tap. Birds began to pass me at anywhere from knee height to a couple hundred metres up. A trickle became a steady flow, and then they started coming in waves, predominantly heading north-west. I attempted to count the birds, as the team had done the previous day, but quickly conceded defeat. Sand Martins were coming through in small numbers, and gradually the House Martins began to increase in number, although often higher up than the bulk of the Swallows.
The next hour was a real highlight of the decade I’ve now spent watching the patch here in Wanstead. Tony was also out, and has written about his feelings here, and he has it spot on. It was birding of the highest quality. Visible migration is always exciting as you get a real sense of the seasons and the inexorable approach of a change, but this was the best I’ve ever encountered. That includes Falsterbo so I guess the patch always elevates itself above other places - getting up early on this particular day was perhaps the best decision I’ve recently made. The sky was full of birds – a scan with bins into the far distance revealed thousands, like swarms of west coast midges. You know when you look up at the sky at night with the naked eye and see hundreds upon hundreds of stars, and then look up through binoculars and see the hundreds transform to into hundreds of thousands? It was like that – I could see tons of birds over the copses, but then through bins I realized this was just a fraction of the activity. The threatening skies seemed to push them ever towards me, and facing south east I had a spectacular view of more birds than I think I have ever seen (Hornoya cliffs perhaps being the only real contender) moving steadily through at all heights. As the hour progressed the numbers of House Martin rose, and although I made no attempt to record numbers, it too had to be in the thousands. Whether this was a localized front, or was occurring over the whole of the south-east I have no way of knowing, but my assessment having witnessed this mass movement is that Swallows and House Martins are doing OK in at least some places. I am hoping that one of these places in future will be my house, as I’ve just bought a few Martin ”cups” for my eaves which will be in place next season.
By eight it was mostly over. A few trickles, but as it began to brighten up the birds disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Hopefully they graced a few more patches as the day progressed, but the likelihood is that as the fronts dissipated the birds got higher and higher until they were lost from view. But while it lasted it was bloody brilliant.