Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Ten species of Gull on the patch

Seagull (part of)

This is a post about Gulls. Not in praise of Gulls, just about Gulls. I don't often spend time thinking about Gulls but it has just occured to me that we have had ten species on the patch this year. Ten!  Isn't that amazing? Having just checked the historical records over on the other blog that we collectively contribute to I can see that in fact ten species of Gull is all we have ever had. Incredible therefore to get them all within a few weeks. To save you clicking through (and to flesh out this post - there is only so much I can say about Gulls), here is the relevant extract from our site list. 

Black-headed Gull: Resident, with significant increase in winter.

Counts of 400+ not unusual on the Flats in winter. During flooding caused by heavy rains on Wanstead Flats on 28th February 2010, an estimated 2000+ birds were present.

Common Gull: Winter visitor.
The commonest Gull on the Flats in winter, with counts of 500+ not unusual.
1000+ present on 28th February 2010

Kittiwake: Very rare
A bird flying over the Shoulder of Mutton Pond on 19th August 2011
Wanstead Flats 25th March 2012 (NC)
Wanstead Flats 13th April 2013 (JL)
An exhausted bird on Wanstead flats on the 7th January 2014 (NC)
A 1W on Wanstead Flats 9th February 2021 (RR)

Mediterranean Gull: Scarce annual visitor
A regular returning bird was thought to account for annual winter records
2014 had reports of at least 6 birds, so probably increasing
More recently a long-staying bird over the winter 2020/21 (RR), joined briefly by a second bird on 19th December 2021 (JL/TB).

Herring Gull: Regular winter visitor
Regular in small numbers on the Flats in winter, with larger numbers flying over to and from the Chingford Reservoirs.
The largest count was of 82 on February 28th 2010

Yellow-legged Gull: Scarce visitor
May be found on the Flats, usually in late summer.
2017 was a good year with a number of sightings reported including 2 birds that became resident from September onwards by Alexandra Lake (2w and 3w).
More recently several 2CY birds in early 2021.

Caspian Gull: Rare winter visitor
A bird seen briefly on February 26th 2011 (JL) 
A 1st winter bird from November 2015 on and off to February 2016 (BV)
A 1st winter bird on Alex 4th-5th November 2018 (NC,JH)
Becoming more regular in recent years, latest record of either a single or two 1W birds on 5th April 2021.
Iceland Gull: Extremely rare
A first winter bird toured the Flats 23rd March 2021 and was seen on and off for three days (MH)

Great Black-backed Gull: Scarce winter visitor
Usually as a flyover, most probably to and from the roosts on the Chingford Reservoirs. 
An adult has been regular on the Brick pit in the past few winters
A record of 41 on the Flats on 7th October 2001 is exceptional

Lesser Black-backed Gull: Resident breeder
A few remain over summer in the Park and Flats, with more coming in during the winter. Peak count of 50 on 1st October 2010

Small adult winter Seagull

Most of these gulls are regular. I could go out on pretty much any winter day and come home, figuratively speaking, with four species, and quite possibly five or six. Common Gulls are probably the, err, commonest in winter, with many hundreds loafing around on the football pitches, but the Black-headed Gulls give them a run for their money. There are generally always a handful of Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls around, and in extremely wet weather these numbers can swell dramatically as they paddle-feed on the saturated short grass. Great Black-backed Gull is most often a flyover although they occasionally come down for a bit, and if we have a Yellow-legged Gull they can quite often be faithful to a particular pond or puddle for a few days. The others are little less predictable. Caspian Gull is probably more regular than Med Gull at the moment, but previously it has been the other way around, and Kittiwake remains a very hard bird to get on the list. And as for Iceland Gull.....

1W large but slim Seagull

There are of course notable gaps on the list. Little Gull would seem to be the most obvious one. They're regularly seen on passage on both the river and the Chingford reservoirs and we sit exactly between them yet have never seen one. I once had a small first winter Gull distantly flying away from me over the Flats with that classic W on the back but I could not safely rule out Kittiwake on the views I got. I suppose that one day someone will simply find one bobbing about next to a Mallard, but for now the wait goes on. 

Small adult Seagull (black-legged morph)

Back in the day I would have said that we stood a decent chance of one of the returning wintering Ring-billed Gulls turning up, especially give the number of Common Gulls we get, but that never happened and now of course all those the regular birds have departed (this life probably) and the species has become rare again. 

I've seen Sabine's Gull on the reservoirs and Bonaparte's Gull on the river, both about five miles away. Is there a slim chance of one of those two? And if we can get an Iceland Gull could we also get a Glaucous Gull? I think we can. We just need to have our eyes open and our wits about us, and one day it will surely happen. 

1W large pale Seagull

Monday, 5 April 2021

3D people

My world has become a little bit bigger, a blessed relief. I've left Wanstead a couple of times and visited two different sets of people in their gardens. Not on zoom calls, not via face time, but socialising with actual people. Real live people, what a luxury! When you factor in the nicer weather and longer evenings, and that so many people (including some we visited) have had the first vaccination, it does begin to feel as if a corner has been turned. There is a long way to go before any kind of normality resumes - foreign travel for instance seems a million miles away still, but to be able to leave London legitimately felt important.

Overwhelmingly though most of my time is still spent here in Wanstead, and that will continue for the forseeable future so I had best get used to it. The birding has been just about OK. I've still seen just that one Wanstead Wheatear back in March, but on my daily walks it is clear that Chiffchaff and Blackcap are both in - there is a singing specimen of the latter in my garden. Willow Warbler are being heard most days, and we bagged an early and very very beautiful male Common Redstart at the end of March. The same day I scooped a jammy flyover Yellowhammer, not a bird I see here every year by any means.

Today I added my first hirundines with both Swallow and House Martin, and one last gasp of winter in the form of a Caspian Gull. This is #94 for the year and is easily my best start. I've never managed 100 before the end of April before and so this is now my target. With a lot of birds still to come in I'm mildly hopeful I can get there.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

What do birds like to eat?

The birds in Wanstead are so lucky, every day is a fabulous smorgasbord of tasty morsels from which to choose. On Monday morning the spread was particularly diverse. Let me show a sample stretch of pond margin - all of this was probably in area no more than 20m x 20m adjacent to the car park at Alexandra Lake. It is wonderful to be able to connect with nature like this, to be able to drive to the lake and chuck all your food waste out of your car window.

Come on Wanstead residents, sort yourselves out! It is completely disgusting. This is not kindness, it is sloth - it is littering, it is fouling, it is completely unacceptable. The rat population is out of control and the birds are going to get ill. Anyone who does this should get fined.

Lentils. Birds love lentils.

Brown bread. Mmmmmm.

Seed. Better, but still. Oh, and litter.

Chapatis and whole slices of brown bread. Excellent for birds.

More bread....

Rice. Half in the water, half out. Lovely.

Vegetable peelings and rotten bananas. Just the ticket.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Much excitement on Wanstead Flats

Well what a day. Where to start? Seeing as this is a rare post about birds, indeed a post about rare birds, I think a simple list format might work quite well. A short list, but a good one.

1) Wheatear

2) Iceland Gull

Yes you read that right, Iceland Gull. In Wanstead. But let's rewind a little bit to 5.37am. That's when Rob sent his first Whatsapp message to the local group predicting - correctly as it turned out - that today would be the Wheatear arrival day. He duly followed this up by finding one about half an hour later, before I had even got out of bed, thus handing the trophy to Richard who in all likelihood was also still in bed. This prompted me to get up at least, and with some nice low sunlight I headed out with my camera - a rare event these days. Seeing as the Wheatear finding had already been done I walked in the opposite direction to take photos of ducks, something I have been saying I had wanted to do for ages yet never bothered to actually go and do. There I met the 2021 Wheatear Finder in Chief, who initially did not recognise me (grey hat, a rare departure from red) and thought I was just some weirdo with a camera. As opposed to a weirdo with a camera that he knew. I also met Mary - more on her part in this tale later - and after a brief chat got down to photographing some ducks. The lovely light did not last long but I managed a few frames while it held. Despite the presence of a Wheatear it still feels like winter is clinging on, a few Gadwall and Shoveler are still with us.

Next stop the brooms for a date with a small sub-saharan migrant. I connected immediately, but was prevented from getting anywhere near it by a large fence. What a dumb idea that was!! Whether or not this was the same bird that Rob had found earlier is unknown as his had appeared to depart north, but nonetheless there in the middle of our finally fenced off Skylark area was a very smart male Wheatear. Here it is with the finder in the background.

So, a successful morning but this was just the beginning. Mid-morning word got out that Mary had photographed a pure white gull on Alexandra Lake. Yesterday Mary had also found a very strikingly pale Stonechat that at one stage had us all wondering about an eastern bird. Anyhow a photograph was duly circulated and did indeed show a bright white gull. Retina burning bright. So bright in fact that I thought that it could only be a leucistic bird. In other words a bird to ignore. It was Tony who pointed out that it could just be a hugely over-exposed photo (a bit like the breast of the Shoveler above....), that an Iceland Gull had been seen on the river yesterday, and that wouldn't it be a shame if a patch mega was allowed to slip through our fingers..... Wise words. I phoned Nick to make sure he knew, and was slightly relieved to hear that he did know, had checked Alex, and that there was no sign. Phew. A few minutes later it was back to panic stations again though as the bird was back. With Tony's warning in mind I did not hesitate. To my chagrin I drove - I was extremely time limited today. As I commando-rolled out of the car and clapped eyes on the bird my immediate thought was that surely this was an Iceland Gull with lots of biscuity scalloping that had not been visible in the original photo, but Nick and Sean were soon talking me out of it. I put a couple of photos out onto the London group as Gulls are not my strong suit. Neither are Stonechats - yesterday I had done the same thing with Mary's pale bird. Think parades and heavy rain. Anyway this time there was no doubt and and "Mr Gull" himself Rich B responded instantly with a big thumbs up. As he did so the bird got up and flew west, but not before our own Richard - the Golden Chalice holder-elect - had managed to see it. Tim arrived a few minutes later and was not so lucky.

There is a postscript though. Three in fact. Firstly Bob relocated the Iceland Gull on Jubilee a short while later and some more team members were able to get there, including Tim. Secondly I joked that Bob should flush it so I could get it on my house list. Remarkably - apart from the flushing piece - that is exactly what happened. I was preparing lunch downstairs when Bob phoned to say that it had flown west. I stormed upstairs to the turret and was just in time to see it circle high over the Western Flats a few times and then depart our airspace. Iceland Gull on my London garden list! And thirdly I am going to be following Mary around for the rest of the spring.


Monday, 22 March 2021


I tried, I really did, but the weather has been unkind to me. I went looking on Sunday as well, and this morning too. Nada. Just the same birds I've been seeing for day after day. The same Shoveler on the same pond, the same pair of Gadwall on the same island, the same Dunnocks singing from the same bushes. There is barely any evidence of migration across the whole of London in fact - a few Sand Martin, a singing Willow Warbler. When things do finally start in earnest it will be a lot of fun. For now dejection, and a fond farewell to the Golden Chalice - this was a Blood Orange Martini.

- 50ml vodka

- 25ml  cointreau or triple sec

- 75ml freshly squeezed blood orange juice (approx 1 orange)

- a splash of grenadine (for colour and sweetness)

- shake all ingredients with ice

- martini glass with a blood orange slice garnish

Two players remain - Richard tomorrow, and then Tony on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. And every single day until one arrives. It's a new rule apparently, fully above board and approved by the committee no less. The Chairman, Mr A Brown, was not able to name any other committee members when asked but I'm sure it is all perfectly legitimate.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Big day tomorrow (redux)

As you will likely have surmised from my complete silence, my complete lack of shouting from rooftops, this Tuesday I did not in fact find the year's first local Wheatear. I did go out, and pleasingly I was not alone in my search. For instance as I was heading out I met Bob on his way home. Clearly he had been looking for Wheatears from first light, very decent of him. Later on I met Rob who had carefully scanned a few choice areas with no luck, and then Tim who was diligently checking the new fenced area for Skylarks Wheatears

We all returned empty-handed. Wednesday was one of Tim's days, so I went out to help him look. A lovely north-westerly was blowing :-). Thursday was Bob's first day. By 8am he was looking at Owls in the copses which was a very good sign and I figured my help wasn't necessary. Today was his second day, and to tell the truth I was a little concerned - there had been rain overnight and the sun was out, one of those early short sleeves days. Happily, sorry I mean sadly, by mid morning he was looking at ducks and pulled a lovely wintery Wigeon out of the bag. Another blank day and he will now have to wait until next year for another shot at the title. 

Which brings me to tomorrow. My second day and my last chance to retain the fabulous golden chalice. In truth I am not feeling very positive about it, the weather just feels wrong and the wind does not become favourable until the middle of next week. But some birds just ignore all that, and with every day that passes yet more of them make it to these shores. Could one of them press on against the odds and find itself on Wanstead Flats tomorrow morning? As an incentive we have just installed 249 new Wheatear perches around the rough grassland. And of course tomorrow is Saturday and lots of people will be out looking. All of them will have a single search image in mind.

Sand Martin.

Monday, 15 March 2021

Big day tomorrow

Tomorrow is a very important day. It is my first attempt at retaining the Golden Wheatear Chalice. Although other residents of Chateau L would rather the trophy departed these walls, I would very much like it to stay. As with every year the choice of dates is a sweepstake, with names being drawn out of hat. Each person then chooses two dates. This year I came third, so only four of the choicest dates had already been allocated. I went for the 20th, which is a Saturday and which in theory at least should mean more people are out looking, and for the 16th, my winning date last year.

In truth I expect to be completely alone out on Wanstead Flats tomorrow. It is just the way of things - if you really want that trophy you have to put in the work yourself. I have been out of course, including both days at the weekend, but I wasn't really looking, or at least not very hard. I just wanted to have a chat really, see some people who are not my immediate family.

For me last Friday marked a full year of working from home. I last went to my office on 13th March 2020. That's when I last saw any of my colleagues. When it first started I felt I could handle it, that it would be easy. The comfort of home, the ability to potter around, to water plants, to have the windows open and enjoy it. That seems a far cry from the reality of it a year later. There are things I don't miss of course. The Central Line. A shattering commute after a shattering day. The shattering days still happen of course but at least I am already home when they finish. I think the concept of working from home is OK, the work can get done, and whilst it is harder to work collaboratively and we don't experience the same level of innovation and connected thinking that being around each other would promote, the basics are at least covered. The problem is being trapped at home, as for me a year working from home is actually a year stuck at home. I've not been abroad for a year. I've hardly been anywhere other than here, within the four walls of Chateau L. Weekends blend into weekdays, weekdays into weekends. Home life is work life and work life is home life. There is no distinction, no separation, no balance.

Hopefully this will start to change, the signs are there, but I still think there is a long way to go before we can put this behind us and return to any sort of normality. The kids are back at school at least. It is not ideal, and you can only think that the R rate is going to increase again as a result, but they needed to go back to the classroom for their own sanity. And I think that office types like me need that too.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

The Green mile

I will freely admit it, I had given up. There was no hope, none. No hope that we would ever get a fence to protect the closest breeding Skylarks to central London. I am not a great campaigner, and I have watched the Skylark numbers gradually dwindle to next to nothing for as long as I have lived here. I have berated dog walkers and been abused by dog walkers. I have I have talked about the birds to people, I have written to the landowner, I have complained, I have blogged. Nothing. But others have more fortitude. Others have succeeded where I could not - mega kudos to Tim and the rest of the WREN Group. And so last week a work party appeared on Wanstead Flats with several hundred wooden posts and a vast reel of latticework fencing.

I had heard that it was happening of course, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality. A green wall of happiness stretching to the far horizon. I exaggerate as usual, but this is a serious bit of fencing and a large amount of the Skylark breeding area has been fully enclosed. The main path remains open, but either side of it in the prime habitat has been fenced off, paths and all. 

As I approached the fabled barrier yesterday I could hear the birds singing. At the fence itself the first bird I laid eyes on was a Skylark, pottering around unconcernedly about six feet away, there is no way I can adequately express my joy. We think there are three singing birds. A far cry from the numbers there once were but they are still here, against all the odds. Whether this number is sufficient to allow a recovery I have no way of knowing, the pessimist in me says not, but there is always hope. Members of the WREN Group are out there every day, voluntarily patrolling the fence, performing outreach with the local community. There are signs, there are leaflets. So far so good.

The barrier is temporary. It will go up each March and be taken down again in August. The posts are permanent.

Most people simply never thought about it and they probably don't think about it now. The new fence is neither here nor there, they just walk where it guides them, nothing has really changed. Some knew of course, said they never saw the signs. Indeed some brazenly said they had seen them and didn't care. Doubtless they don't much like the fence, but equally they cannot ignore it and that is all that matters. Hopefully they will soon forget about it, their dogs will crap alongside it rather then inside it, and the birds will be left in peace.

There is the unpleasant possibly that the more militant amongst them are seriously put out. I would not put it past the sort of people who will smash a local school child's drawing of a skylark to the ground to have a pop at the fence. During my walks around it I have already found two spots in which the guide ropes appear to have been slashed with a sharp implement and no doubt the worst is still to come. Repair parties are standing by with materials. It will be a battle of wills, but the longer the barrier can be fully maintained the better chance the birds will have. 

EDIT - this is now believed to be Rat damage, possibly as a result of our numerous rodent buddies looking for nest-lining material.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Not what I wanted to write about

I had intended to write about Skylarks today. At long last there is temporary fencing up on Wanstead Flats to keep people and dogs out of the breeding area. I have not been outside all week and as I approached it this morning there were Skylarks singing from within it. It cheered me up no end. Skirting around the edge of the new fence I met up with a couple of the local birders, and naturally it was our first topic of conversation. 

But this soon changed, and the Skylarks will need to wait for another day. The headlines at the moment are the kind of headlines nobody wants to see. In London this week a woman was snatched off the street, killed, and her body dumped in a wood in Kent. By a policeman of all people. Sarah Everard was her name. Reading about it yesterday I was shocked to hear that this poor lady was just one of over a hundred killed in the UK this year alone. Not all of last year, this year. A little over two months. I had no idea. Think about that for a moment. Two months. Think also about why none of them made the headlines. I have done no research, frankly I don't want to - it is appalling - but the fact of the matter is that without any fear of being remotely wrong about this almost all of those murders if not every single one will have been committed by a man. 

There has been a lot of response on social media. The one that everyone is talking about, at least in the circles that I inhabit, is from Lucy McRobert, a fellow birder. That's what our conversation turned to on Wanstead Flats this morning. You can read what she wrote here and I strongly suggest that you do, particularly if you are a man. There are a ton of awful real life quotes at the end of the article. Women know all this already, men likely do not. I don't know about you but I know very few female birders, the hobby seems to me to be an almost exclusively male pursuit in this country. So if you take that small subsection and extrapolate across the wider population can you imagine the scale? My own daughters have already been exposed to it from a white van window. One is just 13 years old. It is pervasive. It is dangerous. And sometimes and as we have all just heard about, it ends very badly.

Many will argue that a wolf whistle or an "oi darlin'" is just banter, boys will be boys. But that's a very male view. I suspect few women feel that way about it. Banter, however innocent or cheeky, emboldens. The sad fact of the matter is that from quite a young age women feel instinctively threatened by men. It is ingrained. I have experienced it out birding, likely you have too. You are out and about, likely in a quiet spot as these tend to be birdier than busy thoroughfares, and you cross paths with a woman. Immediately you feel awkward. What do you do? How do you signal that you are not one of those men? I subconsciously look through my bins, trying to clearly demonstrate that I am in this neck of the woods for an entirely innocent purpose, but in truth I don't know whether this is of any comfort at all. What else could I do? What should I do? Smile, wave, try and say hello? That feels creepy. Do nothing? Stand back? Walk the other other way? I am not sure there is anything I can do to provide instant reassurance, my gender is unfortunately immediately threatening and off-putting. That's not my own fault, but it is a cold hard fact, and it stems from years and years of abuse through the generations that means that still, in 2021, women are afraid. Afraid of what type of man I might be.

I have an inkling of what this fear is like. About 12 years ago I was mugged by four guys not far from where I live. A violent assault. The experience affected me greatly. For a while I was on edge whenever I was outside of the house. I avoided certain areas, areas where I felt penned in, and I only went where I had clear sight lines and could see people coming from a long way away. I remember frequently looking over my shoulder when walking in built up areas. When enough time had passed that I had stopped doing that, I remember walking down the pavement on my own street and not hearing a jogger coming up behind me - clearly a kind of Michael Holding. I jumped out of my skin. I was so clearly terrified that the jogger actually stopped and apologised. He didn't have to do that but at the time it was so appreciated. Clearly I have not forgotten about this and I never will, but time has proved to be a great healer and when I go birding I do so now without fear. When you read Lucy's article you realise quite quickly that women are not so lucky. They can never feel completely safe, completely at ease. Because of men. It goes without saying that it shouldn't be like this. And only men can change this. 

There has been a huge outpouring of support for Lucy and others who have spoken up. Pleasingly this has been mostly from men. The fact that me and my mates were talking about it this morning is also a good sign. Support has not been universal however. Enter Ronald. Ronald's response to Lucy's article was distinctly unsupportive. It was boorish and unpleasant. I had not been following the online conversation that had stemmed from the article, but when mention of Ronald appeared my heart sank as I knew exactly which Ronald this would be. And it was. I don't know Ronald, he may not even be real, a construct of a bored person's imagination perhaps, but I've had a run in with 'him' before and he is exactly the type of person you would expect him to be. I feel bad about even giving him airtime. Ronald does not like Europe for instance. He also does not like foreigners. Or immigration. He thinks that there are too many black people on the TV. And if he dislikes multiculturalism he absolutely hates woke lefties, remoaners and snowflakes. And so quelle surprise it also turns out he dislikes women enough to abuse them on social media for penning an uncomfortable truth. Way to go Ron. 

Ronald and his version of masculinity are not a rare phenomenon. He is particularly vile of course, and quite publicly so, but I reckon there are many men with similar views on women. Ronald is a jerk, for many reasons. Don't be like Ronald. And don't accept the Ronalds of this world as harmless idiots. 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

A personal Rainham landmark

I started visiting Rainham Marshes regularly in 2007. If I was not wet behind the ears I was almost certainly a little damp. I'd had binoculars for many years, but they had seen little use in the UK as for some reason I believed that birding was something you could only do on holiday. The reasons for this are extremely hazy, possibly they are connected with work and family, or simply age, but for whatever reason something changed and it also so happened that around the same time I caught the listing bug and had started to write things down. I didn't count anything, merely the presence of something was enough to satisfy, and so my first record from Rainham Marshes is a list of 28 species on the 13th January 2007, including such mindbending rarities as Greylag Goose and Mute Swan. I didn't visit again until March but from April onwards my trips there became more regular. Incidentally both of these visits predate my earliest records from Wanstead - although I know for a fact that I had undertaken some preliminary excursions in the Park and on the Flats well before this (we moved here in 2004) I had clearly been insufficiently moved to commit pen to paper.

At around the same time I also discovered the, ahem, joys of twitching, and was beginning to zoom off here there and everywhere. Looking back is rather cringeworthy and not my finest hour - I had two children under the age of four and was soon to add a third. In retrospect perhaps this was a coping mechanism as when the third arrived I probably went birding even more. I feel guilty about this to this day, which is why I have taken on all responsibility for the bins and recycling and always refused to let Mrs L get involved. Errr....

Anyhow, things continued in much the same vein for a further two years, when suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly the global financial crisis came knocking on my door. With a cardboard box. I forget the exact day of the week, but one mid-morning in February I found myself relieved of my building access pass and on the street with a cardboard box under one arm and the world my oyster. Naturally I went birding. 

I didn't immediately visit Rainham - nursery fees were prepaid and so for a short while I went further afield. Real life came back soon enough though, and with the kids at home and a whole host of new responsibilities that I was woefully ill-prepared for I found my horizons drastically reduced. Rainham became a day out. 

The next two years were a delight. I was free of the shackles of work and could devote my time to my family and to my hobbies. Cash was a bit tight, but Mrs L had returned to work full time and we cut back wherever we could. It made little difference to our state of mind so we know we can do it again if we need to. If you are extremely bored you can go and read the archives of this blog - Day Zero is linked to above, but the following two years I think contain the best material I have ever written and likely will ever write. I went to Rainham all the time - planned days out and manic twitches with children and nappies in tow, kept abreast of the latest news by a small band of regulars who had my number on speed dial. The list of good birds is long and distinguished - for anywhere, let alone in the context of London.

By the time I reluctantly returned to work in late 2011 my Rainham list was 184, the final bird being the well-twitched Slaty-backed Gull - amazing to think that a decade has passed without another. My list advanced only slightly faster. In 2012 I added Marsh Warbler and Baillon's Crake, in 2013 Black-necked Grebe, Green-winged Teal and Pec Sand. 2014 and 2015 were blank years, but in 2016 an exhausted Razorbill was found on the pools and Shaun H found a Dusky Warbler at the stone barges.  I followed that up in 2017 with Quail, Black-winged Stilt and Crane, and in 2018 with Marsh Sandpiper and Rough-legged Buzzard. 196 and hard going.

There were some big gaps though, common birds elsewhere but for which Rainham's habitat was not at all conducive. I had to make an effort. I finally connected with a wintering Firecrest in December 2019, and last year I forwent an autumn weekend morning at Wanstead (a risky but ultimately successful strategy) to ensure that I got a Siskin. Another visit in December 2020 added Raven at the umpteenth time of asking for 199. All of which takes me to last Sunday....

At a loose end in lock-down, with a cycle ride to central London the furthest I had travelled for several months, Rich B found a Guillemot on the Thames. He was on the south side at Erith but the bird would almost certainly be visible from the north side. From Rainham. Is Rainham local in these uncertain times? Twenty minutes later as I skipped breezily along the river wall I felt that it probably was, and sure enough under the solid supports of Erith Pier bobbed a smart and rather lost black and white Auk. Hooray. Finally, finally, finally. It has been threatening for a while, and whilst this is of course meaningless in almost every way I cannot help but feel very pleased with myself. 

Monday, 1 March 2021

Getting there

Is March officially spring? I think it is. I frequently get confused as my tropical plant hobby suggests to me that November is definitely winter and it is generally in September or October that I lose my nerve and start moving things to the safety of the greenhouses. The birder in me says November is autumn, which also means that this birder is now getting quite excited.

But first a little recap on the hard winter months that have been made so much harder by being stuck in London. The furthest I travelled from home was about 10 miles, a bike ride into the centre of town. I also nipped up to Walthamstow to reacquaint myself with that site but shortly after I did so they banned bird watching. This is patently ridiculous but I'd rather not get into trouble or have arguments. Therefore tropical feeder cams aside my entire birding life has centered around Wanstead and this has been both extremely dull and very pleasing. Extremely dull because I thrive on variety and that has been strikingly absent. Pleasing because against all the odds my pathetic yearlist which is basically 95% the same year on year with only the order varying has, well, seen the order vary. 

85. Yes, 85. Count 'em and weep. That's not only my best ever total by the end of winter, but also one better than my best ever total by the end of March. The magic bird was a Cetti's Warbler in the Old Sewage Works. This is only my fifth ever record here, and it was only as recently as 2016 that the species even appeared on the patch with any regularity. Having bracketed us for years, happily they seem now to have found us, and whilst I would not go as far as to say that they are here to stay the bank of the Roding does seem to be to their liking. I'm quietly hopeful that this is just the beginning. My 85 was of course boosted by the cold snap - Lapwing is not annual and Golden Plover is positively rare, but both fell during the month which also saw Snipe and Woodcock, and memorably my second ever Kittiwake. With the long-staying Med Gull, Goosander and White-fronted Goose all making it into the start of the New Year I think all the patch workers are probably in much the same position as I am in terms of bumper starts.

85 is of course quite meagre in the grand scheme of things. I knew I would not be travelling abroad of course and had instead made some grand plans for winter birding in the UK which I recently [re]discovered could be fantastic. None of these planned excursions happened and if they have not gone already the birds will soon be heading off - they know nothing of lockdown. Incidentally it appears that some birders also know nothing of lockdown. I'm deliberately not participating in online witch hunts, nothing good can come of them, but even without doing so I can't help but hear of people breaking the rules, continuing to bird as and where they like. Given how miserable the last two months have been for so many of us it is maddening but what can you do?

Anyhow on Saturday whilst gleefully getting an earful of Cetti's song I also heard the first Chiffchaff singing. I'd heard hweeting a few days earlier but the warm sunshine had clearly encouraged the bird to go the extra mile. It was a happy reminder that the long winter is behind us, and now - in March - I am most definitely looking forward. And of course what I am most looking forward to, whatever number it may be, is this:

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Yes, exactly as I remember it

With reports of people around the country firing up their microphones once again I thought I would do the same. The real diehards never stopped of course, and for a while Twitter was full of people comparing how their recording gear had fared in sub-zero temperatures. "Well my H2XYZ4nPRO1 sailed through -20C last night and recorded a flyover juvenile Whooper Swan at 02:57am." and so on. I am not so wedded to freezing balconies at night and sailed through the recent beast from the east mk2 tucked up in bed. Who knows what I missed?

On the strength of last night, nothing. Ah Nocmig, how I have missed you. I very carefully set everything up at about 9pm last night, nice and steady, step by step. And then I tested it just to make sure. No comedy of errors here, no siree. By the time I woke up this morning I had forgotten I had put in out and so trod on the MP3 player as I swung my legs out of bed. I have no idea how it will cope with sub-zero temperatures, but I do now know that it can bear a fair bit of weight and has enough little indentations to rival many pieces of Lego.

Nervously I inserted the SD card into the computer to see if it had survived. Happily it had and I was able to download 8 hours of white hiss interspersed with Foxes yowling, engines revving and various sirens. Yes, this is what is all about, exactly as I remembered it. There was one definitive and close Coot about two hours in, a solitary Redwing seep shortly after than, and the occasional honking of Canada Goose drifted over from the nearby pond. Other than that a solid nothing. Excellent, glad I bothered. That said it is likely the only type of birding I am going to be able to manage this week - work life balance continues to be rather challenging.

In other news the Government just confirmed that I will get to spend my second consecutive birthday in lockdown which is obviously just fabulous. Unfortunately this means that I have had to scrap my nascent plan of flying all my friends out to a palm-fringed private tropical island for a week. Sorry about that, I just felt that the press coverage might have bordered on the negative. Instead I'm scaling it down, staying local. A party in Exmouth shouldn't be a problem should it?

Sunday, 21 February 2021

A Tourist in London

Mrs L and I went for a bike ride yesterday. Not just any bike ride mind you. From our humble estate on the east side of London we pedaled all the way to the middle. All the way down the Mile End Road to the City and St Paul's, onwards to Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street and China Town. A detour to Marylebone to buy some cheese to recover any lost calories, and then along to Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, St James' Park for some exotic ducks and a Pelican, and then down to Parliament and along the Embankment to Temple. A long slog back down the Mile End Road, and then through the Olympic Park and home. 24 miles all told, I feel extremely virtuous. The Langres should see to that.

Leaving early we didn't see many people on the way, just a few deliveroo guys on electric bikes, however there was much lycra on the way back as the middle-aged converts were out in force, steaming along the cycle superhighway in gangs. Earlier on though places like Covent Garden were empty apart from a ballet dancer making a TikTok, Trafalgar Square had a man with a
Harris Hawk, Leicester Square I don't think had anybody at all and how often can you say that? It was eerily quiet, I guess the novelty of London has worn off even for the residents, and so we had much of it to ourselves. As the morning wore on a few hardy tourists appeared, Buckingham Palace still pulls in the selfie takers even during a pandemic.

Surprisingly I felt quite sprightly this morning. I have been plagued with back ache for several weeks now and had been worried that a bike ride might finish me off. It appears to have had the opposite effect, and I was up and into Wanstead Park pretty early. For little success it must be said, in six miles the only new bird for the year was a solitary Chiffchaff. One by one they fall, and slowly I am increasing my lead over all previous iterations of Febraury. Two
 more species and I will be ahead of March...

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Frozen birds

Good grief it was cold this morning. But having been cooped up indoors all week there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me by, and so well wrapped up and with a flask of coffee out I went. Most of the Wanstead crew had the same cravings and as a loose gaggle we scanned the horizons for diplaced waders for most of the morning. It was moderately successful, with over 300 Lapwing for our troubles, and for Rob and I who were just slightly ahead of the crowd (er, I mean, a socially-distanced collective....) a single Golden Plover

I do pity the birds in this weather. Some of the geese had ice hanging off their feathers (one later had to be rescued), and a female Gadwall had a covering of ice over her beak. I think it was just a casing as she seemed to be dabbling successfully, but nonetheless, how cold does it have to be for ice to form on a bird's beak?

The exceedingly tame Shelduck was also still around. Opinions vary on whether or not it is kosher, but I reckon it is just the very cold weather that is inhibiting normal behaviour. I am also able to walk right up to Gadwall and Shoveler, which never normally happens. Apparently it warms up considerably tomorrow, and not before time. The birding has been great but the longer it goes on for the more problematic it becomes for many species. No doubt there are already many casualties, I've seen plenty of coastal birders reporting carcasses on the tideline for instance. 

Here are a few photos from first thing and before I started my Lapwing vigil.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

More freezing deliveries

I failed to mention it yesterday but being locked down at home combined with a big continental freezeout has meant my Wanstead year list has got off to an absolute flyer. I had to look back as far as 2012 to find a year that was even close, 78 by the 11th February. I reached 78 yesterday with that Kittiwake, so there were only two days in it, but I've managed to stay ahead of the curve by adding a 79th today which extends my horizon to the 24th.

This was a pair of Snipe flying down my road like Pigeons. Even during this cold snap 99 out of every 100 distant birds I put my bins up to seem to be Pigeons so this was actually quite a surprise. My desk is underneath a big velux window and because peripheral vision is so sensitive even if I am looking at my screens I will tend to notice anything that passes across it. I don't always leap up to have a look but I did on this occasion and was very pleased I did - only the fifth record for the house list and whilst easily annual it is not a bird I see frequently here and last year it took me until the 20th September to get it on the list.

Of course that is the truth of it. No matter what you see when, when you chart it on a graph the lines all trend to more or less the same place further on in the year at some point, and by the end of April any variance is much reduced. I am what is known as 'ahead of the curve' at the moment, but eventually I'll simply run out of new birds. Nonetheless this can definitely be considered a fine start

Other birds today included 114 Lapwing heading generally west, and a handful of Redwing. And I didn't go outside once, so work notwithstanding I remain hopeful of Golden Plover! That would be a full-on house tick, and this cold represents my best chance ever.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Freezing deliveries

The big freeze has also been the big impetus. Brightly coloured Tanagers being beamed to me from half way around the world have been replaced by the big and now white expanse known as Wanstead Flats. As with all weather events of this extended easterly nature lots of birds have been displaced, and local patch workers everywhere are eagerly seeking them out. This includes me.

It is properly cold outside. On Monday I don't think the temperature even reached zero, the perfect conditions you might think for staying indoors and watching webcams. The happy news for my health is that this weather has had precisely the opposite effect and I have been forced from lethargy and out onto the patch in search interesting birds. 

As ever the Lapwings were the first movers, and yesterday there were over 500 seen across the patch. As I was working I wasn't a big contributor but I did manage to add around 60 from home over the course of the day. The big news yesterday was the discovery of a Shelduck on a local pond, and which saw me scurrying out on a quick tick and run mission. These are more or less annual here, but only ever as very early morning flyovers so it was quite exciting to see one on the deck. As well as to be able to bask in the knowledge that future lie ins are now assured. The bird was unfortunately rather friendly, but at the end of the day it is only a Shelduck rather than anything really scarce, so we are putting it down to it being cold, hungry, and being unduly influenced by the poor behaviour of local Mallards.

Today was even better. Early morning a small flock of Wigeon were discovered on Alex, and whilst these too are annual it is always good to get them out of the way. Plus of course I wanted to be out, out under a wide horizon for that moment when a Golden Plover (or better) tracked across my segment of sky. That didn't happen, in fact as far as I know there were no displaced waders at all today, but on the way back home I jammed a 2W Yellow-legged Gull. I was expecting it to be the same bird that had been present at the weekend but photographic analysis shows it to be a new one. It didn't end there though, as at the perfect time of day for me a 1W Kittiwake was found on Alex and off I trotted for the second time. I had been scanning all the small Gulls in the hope of exactly this, so even though I hadn't found it there was a certain amount of vindication. This is a truly rare bird in a local context and is only the second Kittiwake I've seen here after a glorious adult in spring 2013. For many of the newer local birders it was a patch tick, so quite a few people moved quite quickly. We're not quite sure what Richard has been eating lately, but after the Shelduck and now this we are all very interested in his movements tomorrow. I've already suggest he comes and stands in my garden as he would undoubtedly attract something rare.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Tanager tonic

Tanagers. Anyone who has travelled to South or Central America on any kind of birding trip cannot fail to have seen members of this engaging and above all very bright family. When I went to Costa Rica a few years back they were a constant feature on hotel and lodge feeders. Rather than have a well-earned siesta in the hottest hours of the day I was instead to be found watching Tanagers. Obviously that it is a distant memory, and likely to stay that way for a while yet, but thanks to the magic of the internet real live Tanagers are still possible. And they're good for you. The nobler among you may dismiss the concept of webcam birding as a weak substitute for the real thing. That's fine, you go and enjoy your Dunnocks and get a good soaking. Me, I'm warm indoors and watching the most magical birds. 

Of course I only have half an eye on them - probably less than that - as I'm actually working, a prisoner of a punishing first quarter schedule that even if there were no pandemic would see me chained up in front of various screens with little to no ability to go outside in daylight hours. But if I get a few minutes between meetings then I fire up a feeder cam for a while and sink into the tropics. My current go-tos are as follows:

Septima Paraiso - Ecuador

Canopy Lodge - Panama

At the moment the Ecuador seems to have the edge in terms of visitors, and in a short time I've racked up more species here than Panama, a succession of sublime species. Tanagers, Hummingbirds, Saltators, Euphonias, Motmots and Barbets. And of course you also get the sound to round out the experience - trills, chirps, insects, waving foliage. It's glorious. I've been using background sounds as escapism for a while now, ie "Alexa play rainforest sounds", this is just a notch up I suppose. In a world where you can't travel (or won't travel) this is a real boon, and even though it sounds lame this form of escapism has been extremely useful - calming, stress-relieving and just very pleasant. A rushed watch-checking tramp around a sodden Wanstead, overrun with people trying to avoid each other (or not....), or being whisked away to the tropics? Right now I am a proponent of the latter. This won't always be the case but right now I am finding it invaluable.  

All photos in this post with the exception of the Squirrel screen grab were taken in 2018 on a trip to Costa Rica

There are downsides of course, such as when you fire it up and for the brief five minutes you have all you see is a Squirrel stuffing its face and no birds whatsoever. Squirrels and bird feeders, it is the same the world over. Or the Tayra that came to visit and ate everything in sight, including drinking a fair amount of the sugar water in the Hummingbird feeder. And at night (ie during our morning) bats and nocturnal mammals visit as well. If you can stoop so low I urge you to give it a go, just for a couple of minutes. You'll see.