Sunday 27 September 2020

"Marco, I've got the Cranes"

The title of this post is a phrase I never thought I would utter, and even now a few hours later it still seems utterly inconceivable, yet there it is. Roll back to 10am this morning, I was out on Wanstead Flats at the spot we call the VizMig Point. It's nowhere special or particularly remarkable, it is just a spot on the main path that happens to have clear lines of sight in almost every direction. It is fairly central and a place that birders tend to congregate once they have done a round of the patch. A place for a chat, close to Gregg's for a coffee. 

I arrived on the patch just after 7am and headed over to Alex where I bumped into Richard and Bob. A wader-free zone. Nothing doing so and together we wandered back along the Ditch of Despair and soon found ourselves at the VizMig Point where we met Sean, James, Mary and Marco. We were entertained by the aforementioned glut of Stonechat and a couple of Snipe but in reality it was very quiet. It was, we agreed, a day for flyovers. Ferocious weather in the North Sea over the past few days has displaced quite a few seabirds and many of us had visions of lost Skuas and Gannets. I for one was reasonably hopeful of something glorious with white wing flashes. 

By 10am the early promise had fizzled to nothing and Marco and I were the only ones left. It would only take one bird though.... I noted that two Common Crane had been seen flying south from Tyttenhanger at 9.40am and was interested enough to look at the map to remind myself exactly where that was. We quickly dismissed any such fanciful thoughts. It is a long way west and anything flying directly south would go over Richmond Park, nowhere near Wanstead. Just like the Skuas and Gannets being seen on the Thames were not deigning to come anywhere near us either. It was all rather boring and we agreed that we could safely leave as there was nobody was left to grip us off.

We had walked perhaps halfway towards where Marco had left his bike when I stopped to have one of my regular scans of the horizon. This is something I try and do often, it is amazing what a difference panning with binoculars makes, you pick up all sorts of birds that you simply can't see with the naked eye. Scanning NW towards Walthamstow I picked up two very distant large birds flying strongly east. Swans surely, maybe Geese. Squinting a bit I resolved them a little better. Long necks, and an almost equal protrusion at the rear end... two toned couldn't be, could it? But it was.

"Marco, I've got the Cranes."

He couldn't believe it. I didn't blame him as neither could I, but there they were. I guided him in over the top of Long Wood and all of a sudden he was converted. Flabbergasted is perhaps a better description. The next few minutes were all a bit of a blur but Marco stayed on them as I put out the first message. There is currently a bit of an issue on the patch with multiple different modes of communication resulting in needing to do everything in triplicate. In the normal course of things this is more or less OK, but with two monstrous rarities absolutely motoring through it all becomes rather stressful. I chose the one with the most people on it, but equally the one which is less likely to trigger the really keen people to leap up and start urgently scanning the sky. I was typing the next message when James phoned in a state of high panic. Unbeknownst to us he was actually still on the patch to our east and "Where?!!!!!" was understandably the gist of his call. I'm not sure I even had time to tell him to look towards the church before he was on to them. Next message out and I moved to the third. The birds were out of view before I realised I'd forgotten crucial directional information. Gah! I quickly added "flying east" before my phone rang again, this time Hawky over in Ardleigh Green wanting to know what direction...... I killed the call (sorry Paul!) and carried on trying to get news out, this time phoning Rob in Ilford who was perhaps in the zone. No answer! I suspect I barely looked at the birds beyond the initial sighting in my desperation to let people know, and frankly it is an impossible situation with birds on the move. What a palava! James later worked out their speed from St Albans on a direct SE trajectory as about 34mph. At that speed they would have been visible over Wanstead for about two and a half minutes, three max. Unless you were on the patch you didn't stand a chance. Thirteen minutes later they were over Rainham where Shaun picked them up, like me incredulous that he had somehow pulled it off.

I didn't have my camera and thus Wanstead's first ever Cranes have passed unrecorded, at least digitally. James tried, but taking a photo whilst having a nervous breakdown is never straightforward and some exposure issues meant his photos looked like a plastic bag blowing in the breeze! It's fine, I know what we saw and so does he and it was epic. I almost don't believe it happened, but in a way that is the magic of a local patch, especially an urban one like Wanstead. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen and yet it has. That a few of us were miraculously present to witness it makes it even more surreal.


  1. Now that is a moment! Absolutely superb...

    1. For me it defines what patch working is all about. Multi-year waits for two minutes of bedlam!

  2. Brilliant! needs a write-up on the golden mallard blog tho....