Monday 24 May 2021


Blogging is not going well. Quantity is well down, but more worryingly so is quality. All I seem to be able to dredge up is "I saw this" or "My Wanstead year list is now x" type posts. It's 113 in case you were wondering, but as I'm even beginning to bore myself I hadn't planned on mentioning it. It was a Garden Warbler by the way. Or a Common Sandpiper, did I mention that one? No?

I have no news, which is definitely a sub-optimal way in which to start a blog post.  Hmmm. Ah, I know, yes!  My dreams of salad self-sufficiency in 2021 are in tatters. Yes, that's much better. If you are reading this in the UK then you will not need me to tell you that the weather in May has been nothing short of abysmal. It is so bad that some of my tomato plants died, and those which didn't are looking utterly dismal. Meanwhile the lashings of rain have encouraged legions of slugs and snails to emerge from wherever they have been hiding and beat a path direct to my tastiest nascent/ailing vegetables. I have hundreds of plants in my garden, how can it be that both I and a million molluscs are only interested in eating the same ones? I am not sure I am going to win this war.

Talking of wars I have other news. I made the mistake of briefly joining the "culture war" and called out somebody on Twitter for a bit of casual racism, as you do. I also pointed out various very basic spelling inaccuracies while I was at it which probably exacerbated my mistake. Anyway, by way of response I am pleased to tell you that I have been labelled a Marxist Communist turd. There is no better sign that I'm winning frankly, although I am curious to understand if one can be a Marxist without being a Communist? Honestly I don't know why I bothered, what was I hoping to achieve. Well I do actually. I knew I would achieve nothing, just like when I confront dog walkers. And like those encounters, this one would probably only end in abuse and indeed that is exactly what happened. Occasionally I make a foray into this unfriendly territory and I almost always immediately regret it. The alternative is stark. Say nothing, do nothing. 

I am not a warrior. Far from it. I don't champion causes, I don't go on marches, I don't chant slogans. For the most part I keep my head down and I mind my own business. There are, I suspect, many people like me. People who hate a lot of what they see happening. Either in person or in the press, or, more likely these days, on social media. I - we - despair at the entrenched attitudes prevailing in this country and indeed more widely. I sometimes feel as if I could write for a month without stopping about the current levels of stupidity, greed, self-harm, corruption, lying, conniving, injustice, outrage, persecution, racism, exclusion.....the list just goes on and on for so long that it becomes exhausting even thinking about it. I have other things to do, and perhaps more importantly it upsets me - I saw somebody call themselves a worrier rather than warrior and I knew exactly what they meant. And so largely - and this is pathetic but I hope nonetheless that it will resonate - largely I ignore a great deal of it. Some sections of society will no doubt castigate me for my inaction despite being of the same general ethos. If you're not out at the barricades then you're basically a tool of the State, à la JFK, Burke or John Stuart Mill (opinions vary apparently).

All I can say is that every opportunity I get to make my democratic feelings known on a ballot paper, I take. I vote for whoever I think can bring about change, whoever can dial back the assault on nature, humanity, humility and basic decency. My feeling is that hope lies with young people. The fire burns far more strongly within them and they're the future. If I think about that long list of things that upsets me at the moment, a lot of it is perpetuated by the older generation. Not all of course, but it seems to me that it is a meaningful amount, and to bring this back to birds for a moment, if you happen to chance upon an online argument or (more likely) slanging match about inclusion, diversity and - whisper it - change within birding, then the dissenters are almost certainly going to be old white men repeating the same old tired clichés. I'm generalising of course, it is unavoidable, but the same is true of Brexit, politics, the environment, immigration, migration, COVID - on almost every issue of the day battle lines are drawn with surprising regularity along the same demographic boundaries. I find this fascinating but I think I have written enough for one day, and strayed somewhat from the stated brief.

I would sum it up as follows. The groups of people who want things to stay as they are are the ones who have had their time. The world is moving on - with or without them - and they're upset that their stars are waning. They're clinging on and they know it, and so they're lashing out. That's all they can do and if I get called a turd then so be it. That is not to say that there are not young people who want to perpetuate the status quo, who don't believe in equality or in science, but within my admittedly narrow bubble I'm not seeing that at all and that gives me a lot of hope. The thing I am most afraid of is disengagement, particularly when it comes to politics, and of the amount of time young people spend on vacuous celebrity and image to the exclusion of almost everything else. And on that note, I am off to lecture my kids on some or all of the above. 

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Week off

Reed Warbler, Wicken Fen

I've just returned to work after a week off. The plan was to relentlessly twitch an incredible run of rarities the likes of which have never graced these shores. Instead what happened is that other than a Calandra Lark on Fair Isle nothing I "needed" turned up. The rarities that did turn up promptly buggered off again, in some instances before I even found out about them, although obviously as none of them were Calandra Larks I was fairly sanguine about that. It also rained quite a lot and as a consequence I had a far more relaxed week than I anticipated.

But I did see some birds. I've sat at home for a very long time now, despite the weather I was keen to go further afield. I visited Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, as well as a fair amount of birding here in Wanstead on the days where I needed to be at home (more school-related COVID fun and games).

Reed Bunting, Fen Drayton

The biggest news I have is that I have now seen a Blackbird in Cambridgeshire. Although I lived in Cambridge for the first twenty or so years of my life and surely saw many Blackbirds there was no record of this. My eBird list for Cambridgeshire is basically the product of a few trips between 2008 and 2012, largely twitching rarities in the fens like Black-winged Pratincole and Pallid Harrier. This glaring omission is now rectified along with quite a few others although none quite as basic. More importantly it provided the kick up the backside I needed to actually get in the car and go somewhere, and that truly is the value of having targets however daft they appear to be. The result is two days of non-stop birding around some of my old haunts, driving through villages which prompted repeated flashbacks about who it was that I had known as a child that had lived there, where had my Mum taught, which of their friends had lived where and things like that. Swavesey, Oakington, Over, Histon, Cottenham, Burwell, Witchford, March, Harston, Foxton, Great Shelford, Stapleford.... I knew all of these places, knew the village ponds, the colour of the bricks, where the bend in the road was. And now where a good spot for Grey Wagtail is, where I'm likely to hear Bittern, where might be good for winter Swans. A lot of these places are less than an hour away - I have not moved very far during my lifetime it appears yet it seems a world away. 

Stonechat, Cottenham

I won't bore you with a list of what I saw where, although the Woodchat Shrike in Rochford was an absolute beauty and I wish I could have spent more time watching it. It is now very much back to the daily grind - so the odd foray onto the patch, a bit of nocmig, a bit of skywatching. Familiarity. Ease. No pressure. This is 2021. This is the new normal.

Saturday 15 May 2021

The Wanstead 'Akiapola'au

I had a mooch around the Park yesterday, my week off has ended up being something of a damp squib versus my admittedly lofty aspirations. I've seen some nice birds, including a stonker of a Woodchat Shrike in Essex, but given the time of year I was really hoping for some stellar quality. I had the time and the means, normally so hard to achieve, but the birding Gods did not see fit to deliver.

Or at least not until yesterday, when I discovered Wanstead's first endemic Honeycreeper in the Park. Ooof, what a stunner. We are rather lacking in Māmane here, but it seems to find the bushes around Heronry to its liking.

It is of course a House Sparrow with a rather incredible beak deformity. I've seen all sorts of birds with elongated mandibles, normally the upper one for some reason - Blue Tits, various Gulls and a Starling all spring to mind, but this one beats the lot. At first I thought the bird was carrying some prey, a worm or a slug perhaps, but soon realised this was a permanent fixture. It seems able to eat still, and has adapted its technique by picking up food sideways. What this means for its long term health is anyone's guess and I can't help but feel sorry for it, life must be tough.

From the Park I carried on to the long-staying Black-necked Grebe, hoping for another chance at some photos. It was not to be, a photographer was already there unfortunately. Her main technique seemed to be standing right in the open at the nearest spot to the bird which very sensibly stayed right at the other side as far away as it could get, and so I am not hopeful of her images being much cop. However she seemed to be having fun, and so not wanting to get in her way I left her to it and pottered off to the brooms where I saw nothing at all. Well, not nothing, more photographers actually. They were after Little Owl so I gave them a bit of help, not too much though as the birds are probably breeding. Mind you, the arctic theme camo jacket with red maple leaf highlights would likely have rendered them fully invisible.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Black-necked Grebe

The smart Black-necked Grebe is still here over a week later, bobbing about very incongruously on Alexandra Lake. I dashed to see if it was still there as soon as saw the initial photo of it, and as soon as the word got out it sparked a mass rush to the Flats from all the local birders. We need not have bothered to cancel meetings, abandon wives and children and so on, anyone could have just strolled up and seen it at their leisure. Which is what a lot of people from all over east London have been doing, although I have typically been there so early that I have seen very few of them.

I think I have had three looks at it now beyond the initial one, and it has been showing better and better each time. Or more likely I am understanding the bird better, what it likes to do, when it likes to do it, and where the best spots to intercept it for a photo are. Where I can get a black background, where I can introduce green, where I can avoid twigs and so on. I've used almost all my various cameras and lenses at this point, but I won't bore you with all of that. The bird seems very healthy, diving very frequently for food. It is relentlessly bullied by the many Little Grebes on the pond, and seems to find itself in the middle of Swan vs Canada Goose agro or full-on Coot warfare quite frequently. More than once I've been on the verge of a promising situation only to have other birds intervene and send the Grebe skittering back to the shelter and safety of the overhanging vegetation. Still, I am quite pleased with these - I have not had to join the throngs up at Swillington Ings, I've not had to worry about the restrictions surrounding breeding birds, I've just been crouched on the edge of my local pond making intelligent decisions about when to move and when to stay very still. This is probably one of my favourite birds to ever grace the patch, a real star performer.

Sunday 9 May 2021

Wheatear interlude

I have not seen very many Wheatears this "season" and photographed only a handful. Some swine put up a fence and it is now impossible to get anywhere near them. Pffffff. Just kidding! The fence does preclude birding quite a large area, but I would take that any day in order to retain (and hopefully grow) our nearly extinct Skylark population. I've been hearing birds signing nearly every day, but my sense is that there are now two pairs, possibly three, and I have seen birds collecting nesting material in the long grass, so fingers crossed! Our new worry is the seemingly complete disappearance of our breeding Meadow Pipits, which in theory also benefit from the protection offered by the fence. I have not seen a single song-flighting bird, and only hear calls very occasionally, and nobody knows why.

You can see the Skylark fence in the background

Saturday 8 May 2021

Yellow Wagtail on the deck

I got a proper soaking this morning for very little reward. Hopes of Waders, Terns and southern overshoots went unfulfilled, and my waterproof trousers proved not to be waterproof any more. At the Alex the Black-necked Grebe was still in situ, and much closer to the bank than before. Did I have my camera? No I did not! I returned with it once the rain had eased, but the wind had got up and the Grebe was likely sheltering under the bank somewhere. On my fruitless tour of the edge however I came across all three regular Wagtails. I managed to briefly get ahead of the brightest one as it pottered along - I very rarely see these like this, normally there is an invisible tseeep from on high somewhere as I strain into an empty blue sky. It probably stayed for less than a minute, mostly feeding around the base of a tree, and then was off. Would that it had not been blowing a gale under a grey sky, but you take what you can get. I suppose that had it been nice and calm and sunny then this bird would have been a heard only as it sailed through.

Friday 7 May 2021

Good news

Good news - the Swan fence has been dramatically improved, the whole of the southern section now has webbing, albeit that the northern half still just has the rope and signs. Further good news is that there has been loads of rain and there is loads more forecast, which tops up the levels, increases the distance dogs and foxes would need to travel. Also the Swans on Heronry now have fledged young so perhaps the Angel birds are now not that far away - I first saw the pair there on the 6th March, then again my earliest report of sitting on eggs was the 18th April. If that was the start then they still have a long way to go, but I did not visit every day so they may well have started a lot earlier. Let's hope so.

After yesterday's Osprey excitement today was only ever going to be very dull and so it proved. Here is a Jackdaw.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Garden Mega

Just a quick update from me tonight as I am still absolutely buzzing. Around 5pm patch stalwart and pond digger Nick phoned me. I was at home (this is the 2020s, I am always at home). Whenever he calls, you have to pick it up, you will regret if you don't, possibly for ages and ages. I am so glad I picked up.

That is my third patch Osprey and more importantly, my first garden Osprey. As usual a bit of a blur. Answer the phone, listen, panic. Grab bins. Scan. Ask frantically for increasingly precise vectors. Scan. Panic some more. Scan. I can't see it!! See it! Relax! No, panic! Write message to local WhatsApp group. Bird still coming, take a photo, seems to be slowing up and circling. Panic some more! Phone three people inside of two minutes who stand a chance of getting it on garden lists. Only one picks up - call lasts a very concise 11 seconds before I move to the next! 

Of course the things I forgot to do in the heat of the moment were to give an adequate heads up to London birders north of Wanstead, it took me half an hour once back into work meetings to realise I hadn't done that so many apologies. Or to send out to the wider Wanstead community via Twitter but such is the way of modern birding communication, and the bird was probably almost off the patch when I first saw it. On the whole I think it went marginally better than the last big panic when the Cranes went over, but it is a close run thing. Your brain just glazes over at moments like this and you become utterly fixated on only one thing - see the bird. When that is accomplished then you realise you need to communicate, to give directions of your own, but crucial time has been lost by this point. Still, at least one other person got it so that's better than nothing.

Interestingly the bird is colour-ringed on the left leg - thanks to the twitterati for spotting that. It looks to be blue darvic, and the position suggests a Scottish bird. With the damage to the first and second secondaries on the left wing I would not rule this bird being seen again somewhere, and I would love to know its final destination.

This is bird 111 for my patch year list so I need to hop everywhere until I see a Common Sandpiper. I am simply miles ahead of where I normally am - 111 is a September or October tally. Some years I don't even get there! Most importantly it is #96 for the garden - I am getting palpably close to a nice round number. Oh dear.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

On Swans

Wanstead Flats has two permanent water bodies, Alexandra Lake and Jubilee Pond. It also has two impermanent water bodies, Cat & Dog Pond, and Angel (aka Bandstand). We also have something like 50 Mute Swans. As many birders will know, Mute Swans tend to be bad at sharing, and the dominant male of a breeding pair will relentlessly pursue and chase off any other Swans (or Geese) from his chosen breeding pond. This is what has happened on Alex - one pair, the female on a nest, the male on endless circuits to intercept interlopers. On Jubilee the picture is a little different. Here roughly 46 Swans coexist in perpetual brownian motion, with birds forever arguing, getting booted off and having a fly around. Any male dumb enough to breed there would die of exhaustion, so I think the pond is simply used for jockeying and training purposes. Cat & Dog is simply too small to have been considered, however Angel looked pretty good at the start of the year and a canny pair snuck off from Jubilee to give it a go.

What they didn't factor in was seasonality. This winter was particularly wet, and Angel has been looking fantastic. However an incredibly dry April has really taken its toll, and the margins have been receding by the day. The nest mound that was once nicely surrounded by water is soon going to be on dry land, and this raises the ugly possibility of disturbance.

Only yesterday I watched in horror as "Ziggy" charged directly at the Shoulder of Mutton male Mute Swan, causing it to rear away in terror to deeper water. Would that the dog had followed and then been drowned by it. The owners, an older couple, were of course utterly ineffectual and didn't bother with a lead even after this near miss, and also completely ignored my attempts to educate, quickly walking away. I have their number though (and photos), they must live locally as they returned via the other side of the pond, sneaking glances at me all the time as I watched them through my bins - they knew they were bang out of order but obviously are not man enough to admit it. The Angel birds will soon not have the protection of the water, and that is a problem waiting to happen.

The Corporation have been great and put up a temporary rope fence, and some good signage too, but all it will take is one out of control dog. The rope fence is just that, a visual barrier but not a physical one. The signs will almost certainly be ignored by the more militant of the dog owners, and so I am extremely worried that there is going to be a horrible tragedy in the coming days. There is still water in the pond, and if the eggs can hatch soon and the cygnets can grow enough to swim out then we may yet get away with it. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Why counting Gulls is bad

Yesterday I had a leisurely stroll around the patch. Ideally I would have seen the Common Sandpiper from within the patch, but unfortunately both it and I were slightly beyond the Gates of Mordor. The gates mark the very arbitrary patch boundary within the Old Sewage Works, I suspect that one day long ago I decided I had walked far enough and that this point provided a convenient and visible place to stop and turn around. Like all patches, various places end up being given silly names by the people who know them best. Mordor is a fairly obvious one, but then there are ones like Motorcycle Wood, which for a few months about a decade ago had a burned-out moped in it, and which since its removal results in an absurd and quite meaningless name. There is Dead Dog Ditch, again pretty obvious, and less obviously the Ditch of Despair which actually once had a Great Grey Shrike in it but for most patch workers consistently has nothing in it. There is the Reggae Reggae tree which in the summer months sometimes pumps out Wailers tunes amid a herbal fug, and finally the Wryneck Bush of which no trace remains as it burnt to the ground in 2019 yet is still fondly recalled on maps.

But enough of that, the point is that Common Sandpiper is at the time of writing not on my year list, but the fact that it is so close has had some patchworkers questioning the legitimacy of the original boundary - not me I should hasten to add, I am not so shallow, but it is a fair question and there is no earth-shattering reason why the line is where it is other than a knackered old metal fence that may once have had a gate. I actually have no idea if the gate is still there or not, for as long as I have birded here it has never been closed and may not actually be present at all. It may never have existed in the first place, who knows, the patch works in mysterious ways.

I came back onto the patch the long way, along the bottom of the City of London Cemetery and then up alongside the railway line until I reached the Forbidden Triangle. Despite the name this is a legitimate part of the patch, and it has only become known as the FT because nobody can be bothered to go there. It is at least a triangle though, and I crossed over it without much thought. I was keen to get to Alexandra Lake and see how many Gulls were there today.

I arrived at the south east corner, gave it the once over, saw nothing, and continued to the western end where the Gulls typically hang out. For some reason this year has seen an ever increasing number of large gulls here, not sure why, and counts of 60 became 80 became 100+. Yesterday was exceptional though. Wow! I have rarely seen so many, and they were basically impossible to count so I ended up estimating their numbers and taking a photo to get an accurate view later on. Almost all the birds were immature Herring Gulls, with a handful of adult LBBs and a single 2CY Yellow-legged Gull. Don't forget that this is May - we should not have this many large Gulls on the patch, this should be the off season where we can look at other things and not worry about mantle shades and tertials and so on.

As it turns out I woefully underestimated the numbers. I started at 200+, upped my guess to 300, but the actual number when I counted them on screen was 406 Herring Gulls, 10 Lesser Black-backed (which I counted at the time as I knew the photo would just be white blobs) and the single YLG. The photo above has almost all of them in it - at the same moment there were 20 HGs and a LBB loafing on the pitches behind me. Satisfied with my work I went home and once the counting was done thought no more about birds all day.

Fast forward to this morning and a photo appears on our local birdy social media. The comment said something along the lines of having been "taken yesterday on Alexandra Lake but only checked today, a Little Grebe that looks almost like a Black-necked Grebe." The photo shows a Canada Goose and bobbing beside it.....a spanking summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebe!! I think we need to explain to Mary, who found this absolute belter (and if you recall, also the patch first Iceland Gull), the key difference between the words "almost" and "is", and to back herself a little more! The only other patch BNG occurred in 1981 when Bob was just a mere slip of a lad, and is one of the all time great blockers. Unfortunately for Bob the weather last night was totally disgusting, high winds and lashings of rain. Any Grebe with any sense would surely still be bobbing about exactly where Mary had seen it, and of course exactly where I had walked past yesterday.....

I hopped on my bike and pedalled there in high spirits, knowing what likely awaited me. Looking for small birds bobbing on the water I recorded a Little Grebe, and then another Little Grebe. And then...OMG.

It turns out that almost all of us were at Alex at some point yesterday, and to man we all failed to notice this major local rarity. It took Mary to look properly. To be fair it did spend a lot of time either underwater or underneath overhanging branches so I can understand how it could have been missed, but were we looking properly? Or were we too casual, too sure of ourselves? Like the Iceland Gull it is only thanks to the diligence of a brand new birder and a slice of good fortune that we have now all seen it and it very nearly went begging. Imagine if the photos hadn't been looked at until next weekend, or if it had been clear, calm night? A very different outcome, and, I suspect, probably a lot more introspection!! I'm writing this to try and ensure that introspection happens regardless! As it is the Wanstead collective have thankfully snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, but it was a close run thing.

Shortly after I put out the positive news Bob arrived with a brick, but the bird was too far out and he had to accept that Red-throated Diver is now the biggest remaining prize. It is only fair, for far too long now the majority of the good birds that have turned up are ones that Bob has needed. Only last week he scooped Whimbrel and extended his lead once again for instance, and I cannot remember the last time one of his blockers fell - it might have been the Red-legged Partridge in 2015. So a great result, my 161st patch tick, and for at least one other birds a milestone bird, but you can read about that elsewhere!

Next up, the decision-making of Mute Swans.

Monday 3 May 2021

Away day

Sedge Warbler

This was not however an April bird, as on the final day of the month I got the hell out of Dodge and went on a little excursion through Essex and Suffolk and up to Norfolk - the school run. There are many great birding spots between here and my son's school and whilst it does mean taking a day of holiday to actually fit any of them in, in the absence of needing to save my allotted days for proper trips I felt I might as well. 

Started off at Abberton where I picked up some extremely distant Black Terns right out in the middle, but far more interesting was the old track to the north of the big causeway - I had been checking out a small wader on the shoreline that had just flown in (LRP) and thought I heard a snatch of Nightingale from the woodland behind. Walking the track turned out to be a good move - six singing birds in a really small area, just wonderful. And astonishingly they were not all totally invisible. 

Carrying on I visited a recommended site in west Suffolk near Ipswich, a flash and some flooded fields. Avocets and Greenshank in the shallow water, breeding Lapwing in the fields, and my first Suffolk Raven. All very nice and good to be somewhere different. Skirting around the top of Ipswich I made my way over to Hollesley area where I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon - some really excellent habitat and tons of birds including some late-staying winter Geese. And that was it really - a slow cross-country drive up to the school and then home for a family reunion via the Prof's local Stone-Curlew.

I think I saw just over 80 species across the four or five sites I visited, many of them birds that I would not expect to see at home. I was back on the patch the next day for when Bob found a Sedge Warbler on the edge of Alex so the patch year list marches on. I have no more targets really - I mean I could try and beat my end of August total by the end of May, but actually what I expect to happen is for the curve to now start to flatten dramatically. After all, what is the next month?