Tuesday 26 December 2023

Wanstead: Bird of the Year 2023

Some of the local birders had a small gathering at the pub before Christmas to talk about how rubbish 2023 had been and how 2024 was going to be so much better we were going to do something totally different next year. It has been a poor year for sure, with many migrant numbers well down and most people's annual tallies suffering for the same reason. There is a school of thought that says that the physical boundaries of a patch end up becoming a mental barrier for enjoyment, and I can definitely see how that could be the case. For instance I am stressing about the now high likelihood that I won't see a Wigeon on the patch this year, which for me would be the first blank year for that species since 2009. I am having similar Snipe anxieties, a blank here would be the first ever. This is despite the fact I have seen lots of both of these this year elsewhere, often extremely well.

Birding a patch is an exercise in futility and stupidity, and as a number of us remarked that Saturday evening, it is the hope that kills you. With the year nearly up I have submitted 118 eBird lists from the patch. 118 trudges around the local area, almost all of which have been incredibly dull from an avian perspective. Clearly you can't see good birds on every visit, but the times that you do are incredibly few and far between. But when you do, oh boy.....

This year there have been no stand-out birdy events. There has not been a cold snap that has delivered hundreds of Lapwings. There has not been one of those mass hirundine events that has you gasping in wonder. There have been no noteworthy migrant falls of any kind. I think we had a couple of days where we had 10+ Wheatear but something that will long in the memory? Nope. Our usual stalwarts like Redstarts and Flycatchers were well down, a small concentration towards the end of August that was over nearly as soon as it started, so nothing really on that front either. There was a big movement of Redwing one morning, and some large Woodpigeon migration, but those actually happens with some regularity and so cannot really qualify. That only really leaves new birds, the event that all patch birders live for. Patch ticks. 

I had three in 2023, an unexpected improvement on the last two years, especially as it gets progressively harder to add anything the more you have seen. 

Corn Bunting - June

I had been engaged in some high stakes gardening, trimming a tree down to allow more sunshine to penetrate my greenhouse. After a full day of death-defying clambering with no health and safety considerations whatsoever I had finally finished and was just sitting down with a cool drink when I noticed I had missed a number of WhatsAspp and text messages during the previous 40 minutes. I got to Wanstead Flats with about two minutes to spare before the bird flew off never to be seen again. Phew. So a very brief encounter but nonetheless a major improvement on the sorry tale of October 2020 when I was standing at one end of Centre Path seeing people looking at a Hawthorn and taking photos down the other. Not a word was spoken at the time but later that evening, or maybe even the following day, photos emerged of a juvenile Corn Bunting. Those who didn't see it were distinctly unamused!

Pintail - September

Another bird that nearly escaped, this patch mega was photographed early one morning but as the species was unknown to the observer, not circulated until early afternoon asking something along the lines of "What's this funny Duck?". By that time the bird was no longer present on the pond it had started on, so a search of local water bodies was undertaken, with negative results. Much later that evening a photo from this search emerged clearly showing.....a Pintail. Cue a third search for the bird and this time news went out straight away and everyone saw it. Now I was in America at the time and so was just watching this whole debacle unfold on WhatsApp whilst consuming a large box of popcorn, but it was still present the next day. And the one after that. Now the nerves began to kick in! I arrived back from the US and managed to make time that same afternoon to go and look for it. Thankfully it was still present, but it was a very rapid tick and run and by the time I had any meaningful amount of time on my hands it had gone. The only previous sighting of Pintail since 1975 had been in 2020 when a bird was seen so appallingly that the first time it flew over it went down in someone's notebook as a Godwit, so this species definitely has form with bamboozling local observers. Like the Corn Bunting my main feelings were of relief rather than delight.

Whooper Swan - November

I've only just recounted this one as it was last month, but in a nutshell there had been strong northerly winds the day before and the following morning a couple of central London patches managed to record an initially nine-strong flock of displaced Whoopers. By the time they flew over Wanstead they were down to five, and our views in the field were not especially conclusive even though we had been alerted that they could be coming our way by other observers on the river. Photographs, even at distance, saved the day, and remarkably this was actually a first for Wanstead. 

Photo by Tony Brown

Whooper Swan is my bird of 2023 without a doubt. Despite the fact we knew they were on their way it was not a given they would be visible, and so for me this was easily the most satisfying of the three patch ticks as despite the distance and the brevity as I was actually involved in the find rather than playing catch-up. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Cranes that flew over in September 2020, the sheer unlikelihood of the trajectory and that anyone would be present in the right spot at the right time to intersect elevating the sighting.

So was it worthwhile? Are these golden, sometimes incredibly brief moments worth the 115 other visits where you nearly died of boredom? We might grumble about how poor it has been, but we all live for these moments. As such do we all feel trapped by the patch? The trouble is that the margins are so fine that it would have been incredibly easy to have missed all three, and that's where the problem lies. I still remember the story of a well-known and very dedicated Beddington birder missing a mega on his patch and putting his binoculars down there and then. Possibly throwing them down. That same evening he deleted his blog and resigned from the local records committee. Maybe it had been a long time coming, but for him it was the final straw. He never visited again.

I'd like to think that birding in Wanstead would never affect me in this way. If that were going to happen then there have been more than a few birds over the years that could have been a trigger, but I just plough on. If I miss something I miss something, I am away sufficiently often that I am actually amazed I don't miss more. Imagine being too scared to leave the patch? No, not me. It's just one place I go birding. A lot for sure, but the world is a bigger place.

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