Wednesday 22 September 2021

Sound recording saves the day

Early one morning about a week or so ago a Plover flew over Alexandra Lake heading east. It did not call, I did not manage to take a photograph, and against the light all I could get was a silhouette. I can only hope it wasn't the Dotterel that appeared later that morning a bit further down the Thames estuary. The balance of probability of course, or Occam's razor as it is otherwise known, is that it was a Golden Plover, even though strange things happen during the autumn. In the event it went down as nothing at all, and it still irritates me even a week later. Any wader here is a rare event, to miss even a Golden Plover is highly annoying.

This morning the same thing nearly happened, except this time we were saved by technology. I had been hanging around at the Vizmig point for nearly two hours and had seen and heard very little. Par for the course. I decided to walk further down the main path to see a Whinchat so that my day list would have at least something half-decent on it. I couldn't find it. Also par for the course. Meandering back up towards where Bob and David were standing, I heard and then saw a distant Plover species flying west over Esso Copse. "Plover!" I shouted, and started running to get a closer view - it was a Golden-sized Plover and that was my first thought, but equally it could have been a Grey Plover and that would be mega around here. The bird continued to fly west, calling all the while, but the less drawn-out calls of these birds can be remarkably similar and I simply don't hear enough of them to instantly and confidently ID them. The guys heard my shout, heard the bird, and started looking upwards, but finding just one bird in large blank sky is not the easiest, and dare I say that Bob and David have more than a few years between them now and that perhaps their best days of visual acuity lie behind them? One day it will happen to me I am sure, and bright young things will do their best to get me onto birds that I simply cannot see.

By now the bird was gone. I tried to get news out in case it could be seen by some of the guys who live just off patch, but to no avail. We turned to discussing what we had just seen/heard. Playing Plover calls was no help at all, in fact it probably hindered our thought process as we found Grey Plover calls that were really quite different from the longer disyllabic Grey Plover calls that you most often hear at the coast. I didn't even have a camera this morning so that wasn't an option. But throughout all this sitting quietly on the top of the VizMig post was Bob's MP3 recorder. Bob's fully-charged, switched-on, free-space-on-the-card and running MP3 recorder! (as if there could be any other type!) And that saved the day, as once he got home it produced this.

I tried valiantly to turn it into a Grey Plover of course, I am getting quite excitable as I near the patch year-list record, but a period of reflection on Xeno-Canto and consulting other people kept me on the straight and narrow. A European Golden Plover - I've circled the calls. In the longer recording you can hear me bellow "Plover!" a couple of time, and Bob, much nearer to the microphone, shout "Yes!". Without Bob's recording I would probably still be trying to string it into something even better. Sorry, I mean I would have regretfully thrown it away like the clear-eyed birder I am, just like I did with the last one. How I wish Bob and his MP3 player had been there ten days ago when a Corn mystery Bunting flew over and called five times.

I am becoming more and more convinced that along with cameras and photographs, MP3 recorders and sound files are an essential part of bird identification. Ironically I have both, yet inexplicably dislike walking about with them, seemingly more so with each passing week. They are generally to found gathering dust near the front door which is very stupid of me. I need to get my act together and start to treat these miraculous items with the same reverence as my binoculars. I did explore wandering around with a microphone running, but a few experimental outings saw me quickly frustrated with the constant sound of my rustling clothing and booming footsteps. But if you're simply standing around sky-watching, putting it on a post is a brilliant idea. As is taking out a camera if you happen to own several.....

Tuesday 21 September 2021


It occurred to me the other day that barring a single two hour visit to Rainham at the very end of August I had not left Wanstead since I arrived back from Scotland a month ago. I have been so fixated on the patch that I have had no desire to go anywhere else. I've also been so exhausted by a succession of tough weeks at work that come Saturday morning the very last thing I want to do is get up early and go anywhere. But the weekend just past I realised I had been seeing the same birds for nearly three weeks and it was time to do something different.

Enter Suffolk. Or rather, I entered Suffolk. I got up at the usual time I would normally wake up to go out on the patch, had a quick check of Alex to confirm that there were no waders present again (which just like every other morning there were not) and then drove to Colchester. There I met Bradders, and ditching one car we joined forces and drove to the coast at Thorpeness. There I saw a Gannet, several in fact, which was very pleasing as per some shoddy records I once kept I have allegedly never seen a Gannet in Suffolk before. A couple of Arctic Skua also flew past, not a bird I see many of at all, and whilst this was not a classic sea-watch it did allow me to eat the largest pain au chocolat I think I have ever seen whilst contemplating the day ahead.

That day mainly involved lots of waders at Hazlewood Marshes, an ideally-timed visit on the rising tide, which also included a flock of 33 Spoonbill and the best views of Osprey I have ever had anywhere other than Florida. The day also involved a fair amount of piddling about in short sleeves at a number of other sites around Snape and Aldeburgh, seeing nothing particularly outlandish but enjoying just being out and about somewhere different. Of note was the complete lack of any other people (other than Bradders but what can you do?) which is generally quite high on my list of wants from a day of birding. 

At some point during the day the ever-present target of 100 species was discussed. We were surprisingly close having not really even thought about it, as always seems to be the case. I think we may have been in the mid-eighties when it first occurred to us, and after that we started looking that little bit more keenly. It then became rather hard work of course, but we persevered and gradually got into the nineties. 

The lure of the what would be my first Lesser Yellowlegs since 2014 took us away from the coast and to a site near Ipswich, and there we also found LRP and a rogue Mandarin Duck. Mid nineties now, but I had the advantage of that early morning visit to the peerless Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats, where I'd clocked Pochard, Tufted Duck and of course our long-staying Black-necked Grebe so I think I needed two more at that point. 

Enter Abberton. This has happened before and will no doubt happen again. If I am out that way it is a banker for quite a few species that a visit to the Suffolk coast are harder to procure - Great White Egret most obviously. There were 23 in the roost when I arrived, quite remarkable when you think about it. Better that this though was a Pectoral Sandpiper in Wigborough Bay - a species I have not seen since 2013. My lack of focus on UK twitching, instead concentrating on patch and foreign birding over the last few years, has meant that I've simply not seen 'padders' like this and Lesserlegs for ages and ages. The last species I saw before heading home was Great Crested Grebe, which to be fair I do see a lot of in London, and that took me to 101, which in my book that it is very good day. Better than any absolute number however was the variety. As I mentioned at the top of this post I have seen very little of any habitat apart from Wanstead Flats for days and days, and I needed a change. I needed water, mud, reeds, sand, vistas and sky. I didn't need football pitches, brooms and inconsequential ponds which never have anything on them.

Happily I saw lots of the former and little of the latter, and that was exactly what I wanted. And equally as importantly I didn't miss anything back home on any of those ponds! Can you imagine? The one day that I leave the patch due to apathy and boredom is the day that something great decides to arrive on our three square metres of mud! Thankfully that didn't happen, and the next day I was back on the patch seeing nothing again. But that was yesterday and today was a different story. But that is also a story for a separate post!

Have a good evening!

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Effort vs Reward

I am a fair weather birder for the most part. A big soft oh it looks nasty out I'll stay at home birder. Trudging around the patch getting soaked through is generally not for me. But when it rains overnight during one of the prime months of the year even my vigourous dislike of getting wet can get put to one side.

Waders. Oh yes. Surely overnight rain would have downed something lovely on the shore Alexandra Lake. I donned my waterproof jacket, pulled on my wellies and set out just after 6am in a light drizzle. Halfway there Simon messaged to say that Alex was a wader-free zone. Curses! Had I received this news a quarter of an hour previously, perhaps with just one welly on, there was a good chance I would have taken it off again and retreated to the kitchen. However I was now out and perhaps there might be a flyover, a good reason to stick it out. My spirits and sense of expectation were soon buoyed by news of a significant movement of Terns up the Thames. Sandwich Terns were going west (ie towards Wanstead, ish) in flocks of up to 20. Common Terns were in flocks of 100. With visibility poor and more rain on the way I felt that there was at least a possibility that some of these birds could get confused and head overland.

I headed to the well-known vizmig spot to keep watch. I was all alone, the usual joggers and dog-walkers had very sensibly decided to postpone. What wusses. The rain started to fall harder and it became quite difficulty to see anything at all, but on the river the Terns kept coming. Gradually my bins filled up with water. So too did my pockets which I had forgotten to zip up. More Terns came up the river. Meanwhile the number of Terns passing over Wanstead remained steady at precisely zero-per-hour. I later learned that they were all just hanging around a bit further up the Thames and showing no inclination at all to go anywhere or do anything. Quite sensible in the conditions really. 

I gave up after two hours and came home to dry off and get ready for work. I poured out my pockets into two satisfying puddles on the tiled floor, and then hung my jacket up to dry where it created a third and much larger puddle. I was soaked through. Nothing ventured nothing gained I suppose, but I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't disappointed. A special effort and for diddly squat. However there is one, err, positive to take from the morning that I would like to share with you. A selfie.

This blog and indeed my entire social media presence sees very few selfies. It's not that I have a face for radio per se, it's just that I don't like narcissism or self-aggrandisation and selfies seem mainly to be all about that. Some people seemingly cannot write anything at all without first plastering a photograph of themselves online - the telling of a successful twitch for example starts off not with a picture of the bird but with a picture of the grinning or pouting self. This is not my style, it's as close to a cardinal rule as exists here, and so in over ten years of this blog I would doubt very much if there have even been ten photos of me. I can't be bothered to check, and neither I suspect will anyone else so I reckon I am on safe ground. But today I wanted to show the rest of the local birders how much fun I was having out on Wanstead Flats without them, and thus succumbed to the temptation... 


Monday 13 September 2021

Slogging and flogging

There has been a lot of local birding since I last visited this page with words in mind. This is the time of year when Wanstead Flats is at its best. Numerical rewards have been minimal, with a Marsh Harrier courtesy of Nick the sole addition to my year list. Instead there have been spiritual rewards.

I suppose I have been out every third morning on average. A typical route would be from my house out onto the Flats close towards Esso Copse. From there I would skirt the edge of the enclosure and emerge onto the edge of the largest section of football pitches and make a bee line for Alexandra Lake and the possibility of early morning waders. As I say, the rewards have mostly been spiritual. A sense of ease and familiarity with my surroundings as I walk towards the small sandy rises in the distance, the day breaking to the east accompanied perhaps by the shrill tswee-eep of a Yellow Wagtail passing overhead. Usually I am alone, London has not yet fully awoken. When I reach Alex I head for the south-east corner - this is where all the waders hang out, or would hang out. There is a kind of beach, a fragment of muddy shoreline. Almost every wader I have ever seen here has been along this edge - Dunlin, Wood Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit the best of them. This season I've seen just a single Common Sandpiper there, but I am still trying despite the diabolical success rate. It only takes one bird for the enthusiasm to return to stratospheric levels.

I'll usually spend a few minutes scanning the edges - waders can be remarkably small. Recently I've been doing a full circuit of the pond just in case a bird is hiding around the other side. The chance is vanishingly small but it only takes a few minutes, and who knows a rare duck might be around that hidden corner. Back in what we call the pub scrub I'll wander a few paths but at this time of day it is often very quiet here and I don't linger. I want to be back at the VizMig point with its clear and uninterrupted views of the sky, and with the hawthorn pockets and southern edge of Long Wood an easy scan away. Mostly I'm scanning the sky, listening intently for a giveaway call. Last weekend I heard what I very strongly suspect was a Corn Bunting overhead - it called five times as it headed east but remained unseen. I have little experience of the species, but I immediately sought out Buntings to play a few flight calls to myself. Yellowhammer wasn't quite right but Corn Bunting was seemingly perfect. Unfortunately with no recording and no photos I am loathe to do much with it - a rare patch species like this (a tick in fact) requires a higher degree of proof - my peers and I are a pretty unforgiving bunch! A shame to let it go, and there is a persistent and nagging feeling of being convinced I am right. But I'll get over it.

But it is events like this, and the infinitesimally small chance of adding to my local wader tally that keep me coming out, and that tether me to the patch. This weekend I could have driven to East Yorkshire and seen an incredible list of rarities. One of them, Green Warbler, would have been a UK tick and a world lifer. I kind of regret not going - it would now be in the past, the long drive a fading memory, and I could look back at a cracking weekend of twitchery and tons of birds. I would have seen the Albatross again! But I didn't. This wasn't a carbon decision, I just couldn't face it and photos of the twitch on Friday didn't help. Instead a couple of trundles around the patch were sufficient to satisfy my birding desires which when you think about it is good news. And anyway, in a few weeks time I'll be on Shetland, and that is the kind of birding I really enjoy - in a way all the peering at bushes on Wanstead Flats recently has been to whet the appetite for this upcoming trip, to get me in the mood. It's important to be in the right frame of mind for a week of westerlies.....

Sunday 5 September 2021

Uncharted Waters

I have never had a year like this one on the patch. I thought last year was the year that would trump all others, that would stand the test of time - my highest ever total and so many good birds seen. But as the pandemic has continued I have continued to find comfort in the green space right on my doorstep. For a fair part of the year it has not been either allowed or sensible to go anywhere else, and because I have spent so much time here again I've also seen a lot of birds here again. A correlation that I simply could not have guessed......

I wrote some posts earlier this year about being several months ahead of where I might normally expect to be at a given point in time. I thought that all that would happen would be that the line would level out and trend to more or less the same place I end up every year. Not this time, I am currently in uncharted waters. 

I came home from Scotland on 116, already my third highest annual patch total courtesy of many birds that are not by any means annual. Only the collective spirit from local birders ensures everyone sees everything, and I have really benefited this year with loads of great birds - Kittiwake, Osprey, BN Grebe, Iceland Gull, Nightingale, Quail - it is a strong list from anywhere in the country let alone TfL Zone 3, but there was no way I could predict quite how well the last fortnight has gone. Within a couple of hours of getting home I had added Tree Pipit and Cuckoo, which at the time felt ridiculously jammy but I've since seen the Cuckoo several more times and added quite a few more Pipits. Under a week later Rob found a Garganey on Alex, the fourth patch record, and the next day Nick got me on a flyover Raven, only the second or third we have ever had. A couple of days after that I jammed a Great White Egret flying over during a ten minute visit to Alexandra Lake on the way somewhere else, and when I got back I got in on some Pied Flycatcher action thanks to James, and have now seen half a dozen. The Egret equalled last year's record total, the Flycatcher surpassed it.

Roll forward to this weekend. Yesterday I was seeking out migrants on the Flats and came across a Wryneck, remarkably my fifth on the patch but the first one I've ever found, and then today whilst poking around Long Wood some Curlew flew over. This was a moment that urban patch workers live for and that happens only about every two years. One bird gave a short but instantly recognisable call, and upon turning round I had the quite unbelievable sight of six birds flying low towards me. I'd just separated from a gaggle of Wryneck twitchers and so desperately tried to shout, type a WhatsApp message and take photographs all at the same time, with predictable results. As it turned out they had all heard and seen the birds too, and no doubt the visiting birders were a little perplexed as why all thoughts of Wryneck had been abandoned by the locals who were now excitedly gathered around camera screens and reliving the moment. This is only the third time I've seen Curlew on the patch in over fifteen years of living here - properly mega, and a flock of six is quite simply sensational.


All this means that since the 21st August I've added eight birds to what I thought was an already pretty decent haul, and there are still nearly four months to go. The patch record is apparently Nick's 127, and now on 124 I am mildly hopeful of overhauling it. We shall see. Stacked against me are a trip to Shetland during prime time, and the ever-looming prospect of a more permanent return to Canary Wharf. But not apathy, not this time. I love this place.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Well that was some month - August 2021

And so another month passes without any foreign travel. Checking back at my notes the last time I travelled abroad was March 2020 which seems an inordinately long time ago. This is a first world problem but I miss it terribly - for me at least it severely limits the scope and diversity of my birding and life more generally. When it might return is anyone's guess, not soon would be mine. On the plus side by cutting out flying almost entirely (I've done two domestic sectors to visit my parents in Scotland in the last 18 months) I've drastically lowered my carbon footprint. Better than that though I have rediscovered UK birding which had tended to take a bit of backseat these past years. August 2021 is a case in point, and what's more I'd classify it as almost entirely local birding, or local-ish at any rate. I have not been chasing rarities, hooning up and down the country, Cornwall one day, Merseyside the next. In fact I've not been on a single big twitch at all which I think makes seeing 150 birds in August even more special - there is not a rarity amongst them.

This takes me to eBird, which is how I know I've seen 150 birds in the UK this August. Before eBird I would not have been able to monitor a stat like this. I kept a UK year list and an annual patch list and that was more or less my limit. Now though I can keep as many lists as I want, or rather I can look up just about anything and it will tell me the answer. So it was that I was able to discover that my highest UK month list was 175 in May 2009 when I was momentarily enthused by year listing. I don't plan on doing that again, but I was intrigued to see I'd seen 150+ birds in a month only seven other times since then. Not everyone will agree, and perhaps those who see themselves as more noble and pure birders than I will at this point decry the so-called numbers game. However for me numbers and lists are an integral part of birding. Yes I like the birds, why else would I still be birding after all these years, but part of what makes me get up and go are the lists. Inconsequential lists of numbers play an essential part in getting me out of the house and onto Wanstead Flats or to Rainham Marshes or wherever - they always have and probably always will. And in August 2021 I also spent some time in Fife and the same was true there.

My parents live in Fife. They have not always done so, but for all the time that I would consider myself as having been a birder that's where they have lived. I keep a garden list for their house, a patch list for their village, and in the same way as I keep a London list I also keep a Fife list. For obvious reasons, namely that I am only there for a few days a year, none of these lists are very large. One consequence of the ongoing pandemic and the demise of foreign holidays, as well as its effect on the now eye-watering cost of UK holidays, is that I am spending a lot more time there. It's a lovely part of Scotland and terrific for birding. Most habitats are represented, but for me as a repressed urbanite it is the sea and the miles of coastline that sing their siren song. And as my parents will testify after my recent visit, you cannot hold me back!

Tentsmuir Sands

We all went up in mid-August for a break from London. This is not the ideal time to be birding in Fife it has to be said, but it was good enough for this habitat-starved birder. The sea-watching season is just beginning, there is a bit of passerine migration, and the wader passage is in full swing. I had a brilliant time. The intention was to stay quite close to my parents' village, in birding speak within what you would call a 10MR ( a ten mile radius), but it did not pan out exactly like that for various reasons. For instance I did some Vizmig at North Queensferry, and a seawatching session at Fife Ness, and there were various family excursions over the week to the East Neuk, St Andrews and Tentsmuir, as well a day where we went even further to the Angus Highlands. In fact having looked up my mileage over the week I'm actually a bit disappointed, I drove far more than I had thought. Seawatching at Fife Ness for example is a 50 mile round trip, so perhaps my definition of local should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, almost all my birding was within Fife so it all felt pretty local.  I just need my parents to move to Crail, but then Loch Gelly and Letham Pools would be miles away.


Highlights included finding a Garganey at some local gravel pits - both a Fife and Scotland tick, and picking up some new waders, Ruff and Green Sandpiper. A good sea-watch (pro sea-watchers would call it a terrible sea-watch!) produced a handful of Manx Shearwaters, a single Sooty Shearwater (also a Fife tick), several Arctic and Great Skuas and a good number of Little Gulls. Vizmigging on the apex of North Queensferry was a real eye-opener - more Tree Pipits than I have seen on Wanstead Flats in ten years flew south over the bridges in the space of two hours, and this was a pretty low passage. Interestingly this phenomenon is relatively newly discovered - a birder who moved up to Fife from down south and did not want to schlep all the way across to the East Neul and Fife Ness all the time went searching for good birding locations close to home. He - Graham - discovered that actually North Queensferry was a gem of a site - not only is autumn passage augmented by the funnel effect a la Falsterbo or Gibraltar, but the Forth itself acts as funnel, and seabirds and waders coming up it end up at the crossings and have a decision to make. Do they turn around and head back out, or do they gain height and power across to the west coast? While I was there several Bonxies did exactly that, and the day after a Long-tailed Skua was seen. I saw well over 100 species in the county over the week of which seven were new, a pretty good ratio I thought. The one disappointment was that despite trying very hard I was not able to find a Roseate Tern at any of my regular spots even though there were good numbers being seen, and since arriving back in London Fife Ness has had both Great Shearwater and Fea's Petrel!

Ferry Hill looking east, North Queensferry

I left Wanstead mid-month with 50 species. I returned a week later with 136 - unlike last year we didn't twitch anything on the way home even though the Elegant Tern was crying out for a detour (nasty weather on the west coast). However down in London it was holding off, and within an hour of arriving home I was back on my spiritual home of Wanstead Flats and in the hunt for local year ticks. I found a Tree Pipit almost immediately, followed by jamming the long-staying juvenile Cuckoo. I should mention at this point that having spent pretty much the whole year at home my patch list has been going rather well, but that singular exhilaration is best saved for an entirely separate post as the jam has not been confined to Cuckoos.

Over the next few days I made it a priority to seek out new August birds in Wanstead before work, and carried on my person was a little yellow post-it note with a list of targets that I gradually crossed out over various early morning patch visits. And so by the time the long weekend arrived I was within spitting distance not only of my best August ever (146 in 2020) but also that magical round 150. It was possible locally but could not be done in Wanstead alone - I had to make a trip to Rainham which in theory would have got me over the line in one go but the morning I chose was hard work and I could only add three rather than the required six. Wanstead added two more later that weekend, and rather than wait until the last minute to go and find Tawny Owl in Bush Wood I popped up to Epping Forest for an all-important Mandarin Duck. Good thing I did as I had heard Tawny at the start of the month during a middle-of-the-night comfort break.

Team members walking the Ditch of Despair for no reward

I have never before really thought of August as a really good birding month. Sure there is the sea-watching season, and autumn passage is starting, but in my head I always think of May , September and October as the prime months. Actually though there is a lot of good birding to be had, often quite close to home. I've enjoyed the challenges I've set myself, highly individual and tailored though they are. I won't do this every month of course, it could become boring and procession-like. But they ensured I went out birding when otherwise I might have simply stagnated in the same room I spend nearly all my waking hours in, on for that reason I'm quietly satisfied with my birdy endeavours. I still wish I lived on the coast of course, but when I am in Fife I can pretend I do.