Wednesday 8 May 2019

Local birding, but not as you know it ….

…. Jim. Well, James. Do any of my readers remember the Peanut Challenge at all? It was probably back in about 2012 that James A and I decided to have a competition to see whose local work patch was the worst. He worked at Tower Bridge, whilst I was at Canary Wharf. We contemplated a ‘lowest score wins’ format, but ultimately decided against it as too much lying and stupidity would be required. So, a traditional patch list competition, the prize being a symbolic packet of peanuts, reflective of the avian quality of the two patches. In the event is was a dead heat on 42 species each, and so the peanuts were duly shared out. Or maybe James didn’t in fact like peanuts and I ate them all? Regardless, given I can see 42 species in a 20 minute foray onto Wanstead Flats at almost any time of year, it did at least prove that inner city concrete habitats really are quite poor for birds.  This was several years ago, and if anything there is now more concrete in Canary Wharf than there used to be. There are a couple of posts here and here that describe it in a little more detail, but I think I created a separate blog for it that was subsequently deleted.

James H (a different James) is a fellow Wanstead patch birder. He and I are quite unusual for London birders in that we both have jobs and are unable to spend every minute of every day with bins around our necks. The three day weekend we have just had was very much appreciated but was not kind to us on the birding front. Back at our respective desks on Tuesday morning, we were appalled to see a flurry of messages from our Wanstead Flats birding colleagues, who not bound by the constraints of employment were having a whale of time. Multiple Whinchats in the brooms, Swallows moving through, singing Warblers – all of this we had to ‘enjoy’ vicariously. In response James sent a photo of the patch of concrete he can see from his window. As we all know, somebody else’s misfortune always improves another person’s outlook on life, and stuck in exactly the same boat I was highly cheered by this and so sent my own lovely concrete-dominated view. If I am honest I think my view is a lot better, but the bottom line is that neither of us see many birds in Canary Wharf. Firstly we are both supposed to be here working and not staring out of the window, and secondly it is absolutely awful. So awful in fact that I have not bothered birding Canary Wharf since the original Peanut Challenge, there is just no point. 

So naturally I immediately suggested that we attempt a new Peanut Challenge. To say he bit my arm off is not much of an understatement. Even in a place like this the competitive fire burns strong. Or maybe that is precisely because it is a place like this? Anyway, he even beat me in creating a spreadsheet and that takes some doing! Neither am I reluctant of course, and so for the first time in years I found myself back at xxxxxxxxxxxxx (location redacted, this is a serious  competition) eking out a Blue Tit, a Great Tit and a Dunnock, and I took a slightly circuitous route to the tube in the evening to snaffle a suppressed House Sparrow colony. At the time of writing the score is 23-17 in case you were wondering, with probably the current best bird being a Goldfinch. I did have binoculars though…

Every species must be proven beyond doubt

But that isn’t why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because this dumb competition got me out in the field and really enjoying proper birding. I listened, I looked for movement, and do you know what? Even in the urban wastelands there are birds. On my lunch time foray I noted an occupied Great Tit nest box which I never knew was there. I observed a Pied Wagtail feeding two young on a rare patch of real grass. Later on I found five Grey Wagtails in the space of 20 minutes, including two more youngsters being fed by an attentive parent. There were Canada Geese with Goslings, young families of Coot, in short it was great. Well, let me qualify that. I was not sat at my desk. Instead I was out and about and there were birds – unexpected and successfully breeding birds – right where I work.  Alongside the Goldfinch, Grey Wagtail was perhaps the biggest surprise. This is a species I struggle with in Wanstead, indeed my 2019 year list is still missing it. Here however, in an environment that you would have to say is inferior in almost every way, I saw five in short order, including young birds.

Of course yesterday was the easy and exciting day – the January 1st equivalent of the traditional year list competition. From here on in it will get progressively harder and far far less interesting. For now though, there is a Robin to try and find!


  1. Now this is more like it. Proper patch watching, none of your bird rich Wanstead Flats (last year's fire notwithstanding, but good to hear that there remain brooms for the whinchats et al.) or your weekends in Singapore. As a City worker who spends about 60 hours a week in the office (although we are spoiled with bits of green here and there and Black Redstarts most years and apparently a Blyth's Reed Warbler yesterday) this post resonates more than most! Matt

  2. I used to have a view over water, which helped to up the Grebe and Gull variety in the list from my desk - but I've never quite dared to bring my bins into the Wharf.