In all the excitement of the new year on the patch I forgot to mention the old year on the patch. In terms of sheer numbers it wasn’t that wonderful – 106. Nick duly counts everyone’s scores and apparently this puts me in third place, tied with Tony who lives three miles away. That’s dedication for you. Nick of course is first, he always is, but you can’t compete with that many hours on the patch. Or with Great Snipes and distant Ravens ahem. Bob, freshly unshackled, put a sterling effort in and saw heaps and heaps, disappointingly many of them new for him and everyone else, rather than a succession of historic blockers falling which is what we all really wanted. Red-throated Diver and Black-necked Grebe remain exclusive.
There were many misses which are all richly deserved. For the first time in many years I didn’t see a few “gimme” birds. Lapwing for instance – it’s a rare bird on the patch and requires either harsh weather or a totally random flyover, but you would normally expect to get at least one at some point. I also didn’t get Brambling. Again there were not many records, but if you spend enough time out there at the right time of year, you should hear one wheezing over early morning. I was in bed. Or away. Or in hospital.
However what my 2016 patch list lacked in numbers and some easy stuff, it more than made up for in rarities. Some expected goodies, but also some once in a blue moon birds that by some miracle I was present for. So honourable mentions for the October Yellow-browed Warbler James and I were fortunate enough to bump into in the SSSI, as well as the Cetti’s Warbler that appeared along the Roding in May. Both were located by ear, and I can’t hope to adequately describe the feelings of joy I experienced. The Cetti’s was of course explosive, and happened to be in the bush right next to where I had stopped my bike early one morning. I nearly fell off it! The Yellow-browed I had assumed to be a tape from the other side of the trees until I walked round a corner to find James wondering exactly the same thing. It wasn’t of course, it was the real deal. Rarity value might be diminishing fast, but this is one of my favourite species ever.
There were two real stars though, the first being the Ortolan Bunting in September. This spent a morning being a Corn Bunting, but when we eventually tracked it down in the brooms later in the day it just didn’t feel or sound right. I tentatively suggested Ortolan at some point, but it took Bob’s photos to properly clinch it. Only the 30th record for London so serious quality.
The standout bird is October’s Great Grey Shrike though, found by Tony early one morning in the Ditch of Despair. I’ve been wanting a Shrike on patch, ooooh, forever, so to have this finally fall was a special moment. Some initial panic after Tony’s first distant sighting vanished without a photo, but the bird was soon relocated zooming about the brooms before disappearing into Centre Copse never to be seen again. Bob managed to make it in time, but unfortunately a number of late risers remain sadly gripped.
If I had to pick a moment other than the man hug Tony got shortly after the events described above it would be the magical five minutes soon after the Yellow-browed Warbler. James and I had put the news out and TB had made it along despite a stinking hangover, along with Richard. As the four of us were listening to the Warbler calling its head off, and whilst three Ring Ouzels were circling above Motorcycle Wood, we were alerted to some geese honking. They didn’t sound right – “Get on these geese!!” “There’s barring!! 15 White-fronts came in from the west, dropped down to have a look at Jubilee Pond, and then (very sensibly) carried on east. The three others had just gained two patch ticks in a matter of minutes, and the elation of the moment was plainly evident. Highly emotional, this is what patch birding is all about. It’s very infrequent, but it is these brief snatches of shared joy that keep us all going.