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.....


  1. With the exception that my trundling was on a bike rather than on foot, and my definition of 'local' a bit more liberal as a result, I can relate completely to your final para. To the extent that I will also be on Shetland in a few weeks time, if all goes to plan IN THE SAME CAR AS YOU!

  2. Will have to take a trip over from SE London sometime - what time of day is best do you think?

    1. Hard to say. I'd say the good birds (flycatchers, redstarts, whinchats etc) are probably better mid morning, but they're tailing off now. For me it's all about an early morning flyover, and also we're entering ring ouzel territory and they are a first thing bird.

    2. Do you ever give guided tours of the patch?

    3. I have done in the past yes, in return for wine, cake etc, and from time to time the local wildlife group (The WREN Group) do organised bird walks.

    4. Well we're wine society members ...working on persuading husband to make the trek (we live in SE London)