Saturday 29 April 2017

High Hopes

High hopes dashed! Once again a story of unrewarded effort, unrequited dreams. Out before 6am, and four hours on the patch produced one single year tick, an invisible Yellow Wagtail. Hardly very satisfying given the time put in, and the feeling that a change in the weather could have brought me gazillions of new birds for the year. Once again the weather was too nice. Last week is was not nice at all, extremely cold and unfavourable for migration. Today they mostly sailed right over the top of us. I say mostly as there was a scattering of Wheatears across the Flats. As a number of us were stood around moaning, one of them came and landed near us. It hopped around on the ground for a bit and then perched on a log, thus:

Well that's nice. I wonder if it will stay there? Binoculars off, camera strap discarded, the slow shuffle began. So far so good.

Essentially it never moved, even with three of us gradually converging on it. I got extremely close, possibly closer to a Wanstead Wheatear than I have ever been, and thus the morning turned into one that goes into the annals as a success. Eventually the bird moved off of its own accord, and James, Tony and I got up and dusted ourselves off. Which is when we found Bob surveying this silly scene with some amusement, three grown men lying prostrate on the ground worshiping Wheatear. So in summary there were not many birds, but there was one bird. 

Thursday 27 April 2017

Progress (aka death by numbers)

So my Wanstead year list is on 89. Other local birders have seen far more, but this does unfortunately happen, especially when some of them can bird the patch far more than I can. I don't help myself of course, as I too could bird the patch more than I do. Sadly I have this terrible desire to travel abroad and see better birds, so I frequently miss out on stuff here. For instance had I been here last weekend I could potentially have added another six or so year ticks. As it was I was in Northern Greece lapping up Bee-eaters etc, so I don't feel too sorry for myself.

Despite this negligence I'm actually on about par for the year compared to what I normally see. This is perhaps simply indicative of how regularly I underachieve, but looking at what I've seen, and more importantly what I haven't seen, I'd still have to say that the year is looking pretty good. Let us turn to some stats...

Today is the 27th April. How many birds have I seen by this date over the last few years? I am so glad you asked!

2016: 87
2015: 92
2014: 82
2013: 97
2012: 94

So I'm firmly in the middle of the range, and crucially I have yet to see Sand Martin, Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Hobby - many of the regular migrants basically. I'm already ahead on last year - and that 87 included not only Sand Martin and Redstart, but also Red Kite and a few winter species that this year I'm saving for later. That said it didn't include Red-crested Pochard or Wigeon either, but I still think I'm ahead. In fact if you add the regulars, I think I'm doing better than all years other than 2013. 

2013 was a special year, my best ever on patch with 118. Tons of waders (10 species - I've only ever seen 13!), Crossbill, Waxwing, Kittiwake, Cuckoo..... I doubt I'll ever see that many again, I'm not committed enough these days. Here are those final totals again. You can see that they follow the April 27th marker quite closely. If I had to predict my final total for 2017 I think I'd guess 110.

2016: 106
2015: 115
2014: 102
2013: 118
2012: 113

A propos of nothing at all, here is a Whinchat. I have not yet seen Whinchat on the patch this year either, but I am very much looking forward to that first encounter. Although it is heresy, I am beginning to wonder if Whinchats are possibly on a par with Wheatears....

Whinchat from Greece last weekend

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Common Sandpiper the Redeemer

Predictably all of the decent birds had disappeared by the time I returned to the patch this morning after a weekend away. Such is the price you pay for taking point-blank range photos of Whinchats and feldegg Wagtails in Greece. If I was truly a proper patch-worker I would never leave for fear of missing something. As it is.....

Anyway, had a great time, and thought I'd check the Alex early doors as I understood it had been pretty good over the weekend for patch gold waders, most recently a Common Sandpiper. Obviously there was nothing on it all. After sorting out a response to a fire in one of the copses, and being forced to relive all the weekend's birds by Bob (Tree Pipit, Nightingale, Hobby, Woodlark and the rest), I then pootled off to the local sorting office to pick up a parcel I'd missed. It isn't just birds. Then a message from Bob that he was looking at the Common Sandpiper on Alex. Little git. The Sandpiper, not Bob.

How it eluded me I don't know, as I had walked around the entire perimeter looking for it. Nothing I could do, work beckoned. Work was crap, I mean really crap. On my way home I discovered people were twitching the Sandpiper. It was still there! Maybe something could be salvaged from the day after all. I quickened my pace, picked up my camera on the way past, and was at Alex quicker than you can say "I drove". A short while later I was positioned in a bush waiting for the bird to walk past, which it duly did, albeit in the shade. It seems that my suit is perfect wader camouflage, whereas I thought it was for looking professional in an office. Who knew?

Monday 24 April 2017

Cyprus Weekender

Little did I know when I booked a trip to Cyprus for my daughter and I quite how desperate I would be for a Wheatear fix come April 2017. It had been in the diary for months, but by late April I assumed I would have had quite a few birds on the patch. I have had one. One solitary Wheatear on the 11th March, and I have somehow missed every single other one. There have not been overly many, but still, that's a poor reflection - and I've been working the patch quite hard!

So to Cyprus then, which by the time it came around was sorely needed. The aim was twofold. Show my daughter part of this lovely island (I'm not into the boycotting thing), and point a very large lens at Cyprus Pied Wheatear. This was a great success, and whilst we were only there for a couple of days, I surprised myself with quite how productive I was. The plan was straightforward enough - get up early and spend the best part of the day wandering around Cape Greco and environs, return for breakfast and then do whatever kiddo wanted to do, which was basically swim. Fair enough. We also popped in to Oroklini both to and from the airport.

I've been to Cape Greco on each of my birding trips to Cyprus, it is a wonderful spot and whilst I am sure there are many wonderful spots, if you find a site that you enjoy so much every time, why bother looking for others. On our first morning there we saw no other people for three hours. On our second there were three ladies out for a jog. There were no dog walkers, no motorbikes, no cars, no sirens. Just crystal clear air, a sparkling sea, and birds everywhere. Crested Larks were abundant, Spectacled Warblers nearly so, and Alpine Swifts screamed overhead. And of course there were Cyprus Wheatears.

The first birds we saw were paired up, and no amount of stealth could get us anywhere near them. Being two people probably didn't help, but one bird would always alert the other and as soon as one flew so did the other. Thus the first morning passed relatively fruitlessly, although we had a nice walk and Kate had a nice explore (we took the Shetland radios so that we could keep in touch). After taking almost no photos and instead walking around the headland, we ended up at the picnic site (all sites marked on this map). We didn't go to all the numbered sites, just the ones below.

    1. Although the dump seems to have been capped since my last visit, the tracks below it are still great for birds and this is where the friendly Wheatear was.
      3. Main area of scrub, lots of Warblers and some unfriendly Wheatears!
        4. Cliffs underneath main promontary, with two profitable paths. A lower one at sea-level (red), and another about half way up (orange). There is a link between the two but it's not recommended, instead swap between them at the western end.
          7. Picnic area which is clearly signposted. Cyprus Warbler exactly where I was expecting it.

          The scrub between areas 3 and 6 was very birdy indeed, with a what I think was a Collared Flycatcher on the first morning, as well as the obligatory Hoopoes and various other maquis-type birds. On our way back from the abortive photo mission we drove down to the dump tracks. Before we even got to the end of the road in we found two Cyprus Wheatears actually in front of the car, one displaying to the other with some kind of wing flaps. By the time we got out they had done a runner, but possibly one of the birds was now down by the sea caves right on the coast, singing from one of the danger signs. This bird seemed to allow a very close approach indeed, but unfortunately the light was bordering on harsh now, plus the hotel breakfast was not far away from closing up. Reluctantly we went back to Nissi, only about ten minutes by car, and had a huge feast at the Adam's Beach resort. Bloated, all we could then do was flop by the pool for the rest of the day.....

          The following morning we were up even earlier, the child less than convinced. She gamely got ready but this time stayed in the car with her kindle and the radio. This left me free to pap the Wheatear which thankfully was still exactly where we had left it - singing from the same sign in fact. Now on my last visit I had been armed with a 500mm lens. This time I opted for the 800mm, as after all Wheatears are small birds. I am glad I did (for one thing the other lens has a few issues at the moment as I discovered on more recent trip) as it performed amazingly, including with a 1.1x teleconverter mounted, which took it up to a staggering 1120mm, and that's without my camera's 1.3x crop. Monopod all the way in these circumstances, but many of the images below are with this combination - remember that the light in Cyprus is first rate, none of the rubbish you get here! First up was the need to transform the perches, so I spent a good ten minutes gathering a number of rocks and placing them atop each of the signs that I had seen the bird singing from (I removed them afterwards) before retreating to see what happened. You can probably guess what happened can't you? This:

          And then this:

          And this:

          And then this:

          Get the idea?

          No? OK. Then this, and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and....

          The rest of the day was again spent dallying at the pool, and at 4pm we had to leave to fly home. You could say it is pointless going somewhere for so little time. I might agree, but I also might show you 300 photos of Cyprus Pied Wheatear! We stopped at Oroklini again, and this time managed to find the Spur-winged Plovers in a field opposite the marsh. Loads of Stilts, Garganey, several tonnes of Cattle Egret, and masses of hirundines.

          Saturday 22 April 2017

          Waders – a decade of retrospection

          As I intimated in a recent post, Waders are the holy grail on my local patch. Given the lack of current activity on the patch I thought I might revisit past glories, all 13 of them. Always a lot of blogging mileage in memory. So here are the last 13 years. Slow going? Oh yes.....

          Common Snipe
          For many years I don’t think I recorded a single Wader on the Flats, they were all but impossible. Although I had been birding the patch for around four years by then, I didn’t record my first wader until 2008! This is a combination of me being pathetic and waders being difficult, back then probably more the former. It was of course a Common Snipe, probably the commonest Wader in terms of number of sightings. They’re a winter resident (although not in 2017!) and until recently an amble around the SSSI was likely to see a Common Snipe take off with a throaty rasp from the long grass towards Jubilee. Almost a gimmee really, or that’s what I would have said before this year.

          Wood Sandpiper
          I didn’t get anything else in 2008, but my second Wader on the patch, in 2009, remains one of my best. It was in mid-August and I was just approaching Alex early in the morning. Remarkably I think I got there before any of the dog-walkers, and the next thing I knew a small wader with a white rump was flying fast and low away from me down the south side of the pond. It didn’t make a sound, and it was distinctly brown rather than the black-and-white impression that Green Sandpipers can give. I reflected all day and called it a Wood Sandpiper – probably a little naively in retrospect – I think today I would either have let it go, or more likely I’m just a better birder and would have called it easily. In any event there is a happy ending as a couple of years later in early April 2011 I caught up with a bird on Angel Pond, and this one left no room for doubt at all.

          I first recorded Woodcock on the Flats in the winter of 2009. At the time this was a huge surprise to me, but I think I’ve seen one almost every year since then. Another winter visitor, they tend to bury themselves deep in cover during the day, and either you wait for a regular bird to come out into the open (which is my tactic these days), or it is just pure blind luck that you bump into a day-flying bird. I’ve only ever flushed one bird, which exploded from underneath a bush in the boggy bit of the SSSI. All the others have been fly-bys in broad daylight and have given the most amazing views. Not amazing enough to have ever caught one on film, the one (really good) opportunity I had was when the first one I ever saw cruised by about ten feet above the ground all the way from one horizon to the other when I was stood out in the middle of Wanstead Flats. All I could do was stare at it dumbfounded with my camera dangling uselessly by my side as it crossed my field of vision almost infinitely slowly. Sometimes this is just the way birding should be.

          By number, Lapwing is the most common Wader I’ve seen in Wanstead - 730 birds on the patch over years. This is still largely down to one extraordinary day in February 2012 when I recorded nearly 400. That snowy day also saw my first Jack Snipe and Golden Plover, but it was the Lapwing that stood out as they regularly flew over in groups ranging from 10 or so to over 40. My first were actually in December 2009, I was birding in the Park near Perch Pond and all of a sudden I thought I heard a Lapwing. Then there were 12 birds above me heading north. What a score! I was flabbergasted of course, but retained enough composure to race home and stand in the garden, where shortly after I got another bird flying south. It remains the only one I’ve ever seen from the garden. These days along with Snipe and perhaps Common Sandpiper it is the most likely Wader on the patch, and is most commonly associated with winter movements in hard weather, as on that amazing day in 2012. If you don’t have that however it becomes a lot harder, and it’s entirely possible to have a blank year as I did in 2016.

          I still remember this as if it were yesterday, this tiny wader pottered along the shoreline of Jubilee Pond all day in April 2010. You could practically reach out and stroke it, it had clearly not seen people before, not even the local drunks could phase it. I visited it twice, once I think very rapidly for the pure twitch, and then again later in the day with a camera, though as you can see I did not make the most of it. Still the only one I’ve seen in over 10 years, which makes it one of the rarest patch birds.

          Common Sandpiper
          This is another annually expected bird, though I did not see my first until May 2010. I’ve now seen a total of 19, and they seem to be commonest on the concrete sides of Heronry pond in the months of April and August. I love flicky flight which along with their characteristic bobbing makes them very charismatic little birds. I think my best year was 2011 when I saw seven.

          Little Ringed Plover
          I remember excitedly finding my first LRP sitting in the gravel carpark next to the Alex in March 2012. I was there twitching a Common Sandpiper which had disappeared. I did a double-take as a small wader flew past me that appeared to have a black and white collar. Hang on a minute, Common Sand shouldn’t look like that! Nick crashed over, I think it was a first for him too. Since then I’ve seen another four or five, one was quite a friendly bird that hung about on what we call the Police Scrape for a few days, and more recently a veritable flock of three birds were on a dried-out Heronry pond in April 2017. In a way I am surprised I have not seen more of these, I suspect we do get more that arrive at night but that they are pushed off very early by the almost constant disturbance.

          Stone Curlew
          Remarkably I’ve seen two Stone Curlews on Wanstead Flats – this is a scarce bird in a national context, let alone London. The first was found by Nick one morning in April 2011 and he was the sole observer, but the following morning he found it again, this time flying back west, happily towards where I was. He was over near the forbidden triangle somewhere and I had been on my way home and was sprinting to get past Coronation Copse for a clear view. As I desperately approached the wood, movement to my right caught my eye – the distinctive black and white wings of a Stone Curlew folding up into the long grass near Centre Copse and the VizMig Point. Despite people converging on the area it was never seen again. I thought this would be a blocker for all the ages, but two years later in late March 2013 I was walking west across Wanstead Flats when I noticed a low-flying bird some distance ahead of me. I lost it almost immediately as it flew over Centre Road, but all my senses were screaming Stone Curlew despite the unlikeliness. I made a bold call to put the news out and get people on site, and happily about five minutes later was able to confirm my strong suspicions as I caught it banking over motorcycle wood. It disappeared yet again before anybody else had managed to turn up, but I think about half an hour later a number of people got some prolonged flight views as the bird circled over Long Wood before deciding that Wanstead was a little busy and heading north, probably over my garden!

          Green Sandpiper
          For ages and ages this was my local wader nemesis. I almost always missed birds which were frequently fly-overs, and it seemed for years that I was the only person missing this species. I finally scored over near Alex in July 2011 when 2 birds came off the lake and happily flew more or less past me. Since then I’ve seen few more singles and a flock of four over the SSSI. The only bird on the ground was bird pottering around the edge of Shoulder of Mutton Pond in the park.

          Probably the least satisfying of all my wader ticks, in heavy fog one morning the undmistakable kleep of an Oystercatcher came from the murk ahead of me somewhere. Never saw it on a morning where I could barely see a few paces in front of me. Still, they all count. Earlier this year I had what I thought was another on another murky day, but as it only called once I let it go. As it happened this was the same day where the first returning bird was found on the Thames a short while later. I wonder….

          Jack Snipe
          I’ve seen a couple Jack Snipe, but the first was the most memorable. It was day of 400 Lapwings, and after most of these dried up a number of us were checking out the mostly frozen Alex as there had been a Med Gull. All of a sudden a wader came in, skidded on the ice and came to a halt under the branches. It looked small and the beak looked short. Tim had a clearer view of it as he was standing on the other side of the pond and confirmed our suspicions! We went around to join him and it started to bob…. The second was far less exciting, but Nick cornered a suspect in the ditch near Alex in 2013. It came up and flew to the larger ditch of despair, and then did a nice close flight to allow all of us to see that it was clearly a Jack.

          Golden Plover
          Remember that day I told you about with nearly 400 Lapwings and that Jack Snipe? (Hint, this was in the previous paragraph. If you can’t remember then you have a problem). When we all moved over to join Tim for better views of the Jack Snipe six Golden Plover swept over from the east. My shout, well scream really, could probably have been heard at Rainham. A memorable moment. I’ve seen a few more since then, including twitching some late in the afternoon from my moving car following a stressful journey back to the patch from a national twitch. Astonishingly those two birds were then joined by a third overnight, and relocated to Police Scrape where a short period of crawling through frozen mud allowed some relatively close photos.

          My last and final patch wader, there has been nothing new for me since these birds in 2013. Dan (Dan the wader man) had scored a flock of about a dozen in poor visibility earlier in the morning, and the rest of us were now out and about on the patch hoping for more. And morose. I found Dan and his magic satchel and stuck to him like glue. Sure enough, somewhere near the vizmig point the magic occurred and all of a sudden there were two Curlews over our heads. They must have come from the nearby playing fields as I didn’t see the satchel open, but who knows. It was over in a split second or so it felt like, but I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Needless to say there are no photos, but no photo could really cover the depth of this experience nor convey the absurd excitement.

          Friday 21 April 2017


          More local birding this week produced a Snipe. No wintering birds at all to our knowledge, and then mid-April once birds are on the move we get three in a week. Very odd. I realise that counting individual Snipe is pretty tragic as a past time, but Waders are basically like gold dust here in Wanstead. One day, or perhaps in a future life, I will live somewhere amazing for birding, where Snipe and many other birds are simply a regular part of the landscape. Ubiquitous. Would I then become complacent? Probably I would, in the same way that I ignore Blue Tits and, now, Blackcaps. Do birders lucky enough to live on the coast become numb to the wonders that surround them if that is their daily diet? Is the “good bird” threshold somehow raised to stratospheric levels, where even such irregular species as Redstart and Ring Ouzel are declassified into regular dross, and only BBRC birds are worthy of note? I suppose it is all location location location, which is why for Wanstead even a common Wader is frankly amazing, whereas at Rainham they give up counting Snipe when they reach 100 yet would all run quite quickly for a Redstart. Hey ho.

          Whatever (if you live in Iceland)

          Thursday 20 April 2017

          Back behind a lens and enjoying it

          I cannot remember if I whinged on here about 2017 being the worst year I can ever remember for taking photos. Possibly I wrote it and then discarded the post in disgust – nobody will feel sorry for me because I haven’t absolutely nailed various birds, particularly with the anti-photographer rhetoric so common at the moment. The post was about peaking in roughly 2014, and then gradually diminishing in both quantity and quality ever since. It got to the point a few weeks ago when I wondered about jacking it in as I wasn't enjoying it anymore. Why bother, there are plenty of bird photographers out there, who needs another? 

          So most of this year on the patch (and indeed general birding elsewhere) has seen me with just binoculars, whoever thought that would happen? And even in the absence of many birds to speak of it has been refreshing to be so lightweight and free. Every now and again I have hauled the camera round the patch for no good reason and wondered why I bother – truly London is the pits. When trips to HK and even Hawaii failed to produce anything decent, I began to wonder if travel was in fact holding me back in some way. Or the camera. Was it mis-focussing or was that just my imagination? I couldn’t seem to get anything on target, nothing was tack sharp. My lack of practice or the tools letting me down? It is fair to say the camera is a wreck, a shadow of its former self, at least physically. There are cracks, dents, more scuffs than I can keep track of, and only about 60% of the rubber eyecup remaining. Whilst half of me was wondering about throwing the towel in, the other half of me was thinking dark, expensive thoughts about a new camera.

          Once again it took the 800mm lens to sort things out. I have lost count of the number of times I have nearly sold it. It sits in the cupboard unused for months at a time, nagging at me - I do not deserve it, somebody else should have it. Somebody who will use it to its full potential, every day of the week. It is too heavy, too cumbersome, too large for everyday use. And I am too old, too feeble, and too busy to schlep it round the place. I’ll take the smaller lighter option instead, if anything, and get rid of it. Yes, cash it in. With my mind made up, and just before I get the box out of the loft, I decide to take it out one last time.

          Christ, what a fantastic lens. Heavy, awkward, slow. And magnificent. I took it to Cyprus this weekend – Cyprus Pied Wheatears are small and it was an absolute joy. It makes bird photography a genuine pleasure, the range is incredible. How can 800mm be so much more than 700mm? 49 vs 64 I suppose, an increase in pixels on the bird of 30%. And that’s before any converter – a 1.4x converter almost doubles the number of pixels you have to play with on any lens, but this isn’t any lens. In near perfect light at 6am on Sunday morning I stalked a Cyprus Pied Wheatear at Cape Greco at the eastern end of the island. Crouching then standing, some crawling and some slithering. Constantly adjusting the monopod for the clarity of background. And then just for larks I added the converter as I still had plenty of speed in the clear morning of the eastern Mediterranean. Ooof! I can barely tell I’m using it, the bird zips into focus so easily, and it is huge!

          There is nothing wrong with the camera, it didin't skip a beat that morning. Any previous concerns are all to do with the useless operator I’m afraid. The lessons here are many. Time spent with one aim in mind will always produce better shots than an on-spec wander. A lens on a monopod will deliver better results than one not on a monopod. And when it comes to focal length, longer is nearly always better.

          Wednesday 19 April 2017

          Mute Swan

          Jubilee Pond, the aquatic equivalent of an open sewer, had over 20 Mute Swan on it earlier in the year. Whilst catching Tuberculosis I decided to take a few photos of them, but rather than an entire post of large white birds I thought I would post just the one. It is called restraint, and I am well known for it. Now that spring is underway there are now fewer than 20 on it. Far fewer as it happens, and in fact at some point soon there will likely be only two as all other birds will have been relentlessly hounded off by the dominant pair who for some twisted reason view Jubilee Pond as an asset worth hanging on to. Birds can lack taste too.

          The cob currently spends his entire day cruising around all fluffed up, serenely homing in on the nearest interloper like a guided missile. Rarely does he actually have to flap, the target bird, possibly his own offspring, usually takes off well before that stage. He then smoothly changes direction and with laser-like precision lines up the next victim. The same thing is happening on Alex, so there is a constant traffic of displaced Mute Swans travelling back and forth between the two ponds. At some point they will realise the futility of this and seek pastures new, but for now the air is full of the curious sound of Mute Swan wings.

          And yes, this post is best categorised under "filler". Sign of the times.

          Tuesday 18 April 2017

          A walk to work

          For some reason I was up at 5.30 this morning so I used it as an excuse to go birding on the way to work. A stiff and cold breeze greeted me outside the front door, but it was bright and sunny. I set off in high spirits for the Park. Going directly to work is almost always in low spirits, going birding before work is a great antidote even if you ultimately end up in the same place. Reservoir Wood was alive, and I had it all to myself. Within the wood itself were Dunnock, Blackcap, Blackbird, Robin, Wren and Great Tit, all singing their hearts out. To my left a Great Spotted Woodpecker “kek’d”, and as I reached the scrubbier margins the first Chiffchaffs made themselves known, not forgetting Song Thrush phrases from every point of the compass. Over at the Shoulder of Mutton Pond a pair of Mute Swan drifted on the far side, but only a handful of Mallard now remain. Half a dozen Coot and two Moorhen, but the real interest was the Reed Warbler chuntering away in one of the corners. These birds have been regular patch breeders now for about the last four years – amazing that they or their descendents return to this small unremarkable pond half a world away. I’d missed the bird yesterday on my return from twitching the (expected) Cetti’s Warbler on the Roding, but I hadn’t been worried, I knew they would still be there whereas the Cetti’s was a little less certain.

          A Jay bounded ahead of me as I skirted the southern edge of Heronry. It is a depressing sight at the moment, I do hope something gets done about it. The water is disappearing by the day, and the recently-exposed mud that had attracted the LRPs was now somewhat baked. Areas where the water disappeared some time ago now have that cracked appearance that you associate with African drought. Assuming all the water drains away, which surely it must, the landowner needs to take the opportunity to start from scratch – get a JCB (or four) in there to clear away the years of detritus – branches, the leaves of twenty autumns, rubbish and who knows what else, and once clear work out where the leaks are and repair them. And then restore the flow of water between the ponds which has clearly stopped. Only then can the healing and regeneration begin, but I have no idea what the plans are. Simply filling it up from the river or groundwater supplies would be dodging the problem, even if might then look better.

          Anyhow, no waders on what mud there was, perhaps the Plovers were an abberation? A few motley Canada Geese and Mallards, a lone Moorhen picking its way across. More interest in the trees, where I heard my first Willow Warbler and Chaffinch of the day, as well as coinciding with a feeding flock of Long-tailed Tits, seems they are still at least partly communal in spring. Blackcaps simply everywhere, very heartening indeed, and just before I left a single House Martin, my first, scythed northwards - I am assuming a migrant rather than one of the resident birds that has recently returned to Brading Crescent.

          Cutting through some of the residential streets I was soon on Wanstead Flats. This was quieter than I had hoped, but there was another Willow Warbler in West Long Wood, and a Mistle Thrush feeding on the playing fields, the first I have seen for a while. Cormorants and Canada Geese overhead, and of course the screeching of parakeets from every copse with an occasional sortie. Skylark was notably absent, but a few Meadow Pipits were in the grass.

          Over at Alex were the first Greylags and a collection of Gulls nearby. I ignored them, I was birding. Little Grebe trilled, and Mute Swans were regularly scattered by the dominant pair, flying haplessly over to Jubilee where presumably the same thing happened before realighting on Alex to start the cycle again. Linnet overhead, Bob, and the first Greenfinches. A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the scrub, I later saw it in flight close to the Golden Fleece Pub. I picked out a distant Swallow heading north over Centre Copse, and then it was time to head for work. A pair of Sparrowhawk wheeled overhead clearly showing their size differential, hard to catch up with at the beginning of the year, I now see them on every outing. 41 species was the total for the walk, nothing overly remarkable but it makes for a positive start to the day that is well worth getting up a little earlier for. I won’t do it every day as it would become draining given everything else I have to do, but now and again it is really pleasant.

          Monday 17 April 2017

          Getting there

          Remiss of me not to mention the bonus Grey Wagtail whilst twitching the Little Ringed Plover. How a birder can go over three months without seeing a patch resident is beyond me, I can offer no excuses beyond incompetence. Remedied now but I am still missing a Peregrine, and not for lack of staring at the sky. One day – it is a marathon not a sprint, remember. If patch birding were easy….

          That said it has got a bit easier of late, there has been a bit of migrant movement in this marathon. On an early morning dash around almost the whole of the patch the other morning I picked up Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, and others have picked up House and Sand Martins, and what I assume is a returning Cetti’s Warbler along the Roding. So it is starting, finally. As for the Cetti’s, good news as this has been missing locally for too long. Last year’s bird was brief but we all had high hopes of a return, and dare I whisper it, a colonisation. I’d still describe it as slow overall but it is improving.

          In other non-bird related news, my life remains extremely dull.

          No, we didn't bring a picnic to the Little Ringed Plover twitch. However if you recall, the previous weekend had been extremely pleasant on the weather front. As you can see, this brings out the best in people.

          Wednesday 12 April 2017

          A bit of a turn up for the books

          The weather changed on Monday and so did the birds. Presumably the massive high at the weekend that saw BBQs across the land fired up also saw every migrant sail right over the top of us and onwards north, however with that dissipating and some clouds and headwind appearing, so too did some birds. The patch saw its first Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Redstart, and best of all, Nick's veritable uberflock of waders in the form of three Little Ringed Plovers, feeding on the excuse for a pond that is Heronry. I had thought the Corporation's management of Heronry was a disaster, but now I recognise that leaving it to rot is actually an act of genius. My mistake.

          Only because they stayed all day though, and I was able to twitch them late on after work. Had they disappeared during the day, as I thought likely, then I would probably still be moaning. As it was regular reports were received all day, and a mad dash from the tube in the evening delivered the goods. These three double the number of LRPs I've seen on the patch in the last 12 years, so this is a pretty amazing occurence.

          Tony and James thought so too, falling over senseless soon after arriving and laying eyes on this mega trio, with only Richard retaining any sort of composure. For James this is sensational, only the previous day had we been discussing the paucity of his wader list, and now it has increased by a huge percentage. 

          The birds were actively feeding throughout the time I was there and had been all day, and so it was no surprise that when I returned the next morning with a camera bigger than my phone that there was no sign. Still, I did pick up both the Whitethroat and the Lesser Whitethroat on the way back so it wasn't a wasted journey, not to mention the small matter of six miles under the belt before breakfast.

          So finally a bit of patch success - waders on the deck here is pretty monster, and three for an entire day is very nearly unheard of. More please!

          Monday 10 April 2017

          Vange vistas

          After a dire Saturday in Wanstead I abandoned the patch on Sunday and went somewhere I might actually see some birds. I had a lot to do so didn’t go too far – popped my head in at Rainham to see H briefly, and then headed to Vange to see if the Black-winged Stilts were still there. Two pairs had been reported the previous day at the site, I was keen to see if I could double my previous total of two birds from the same site last year. I couldn’t as it happens, only one pair were present, but they showed very well even just through bins. A shame I hadn’t brought my scope as the views would have been superb, but I was travelling extremely light - it was a beautiful day and I simply hadn’t been bothered to take anything other than the bare minimum. Binoculars and flip-flops helped me stand out in a sea of camo. Not sure where the other pair went, but there is lots of eminently suitable habitat in this area of Essex (and Kent), so perhaps these colonists were not that far away.

          I hadn’t brought my camera either so I have no photos of the birds, but one of the things about birding is that it takes you to the nicest places and you can often get nice landscape shots with just a phone that enable others to get a feel for an area. Vange for example is quite outstanding, you can see why these rare waders were drawn back here again this year. It was good to be somewhere different, somewhere a lot nicer than the devastation of Wanstead Flats frankly, and whilst there are many fine vistas the following two are my favourite.

          Afterwards I went to Aldi in Pitsea to complete the experience. It didn’t disappoint.