2 September 2017

A study in Chiffchaff

As we all keep an eye out for interesting autumn migrants, I have been spending quite a bit of time watching warblers recently.

"One after another, the ‘phyllosc’ warblers flew from the sallow trees across the path and into the birches North west of ‘Motorcycle Wood’ in the SSSI. Possibly a mix of birds that have bred here, but more likely a majority of autumn migration birds stopping over on their passage South."



"This wasn’t the classic case of passage warblers joining tit-flocks, this was a warbler flock in which a small handful of Great Tit and Blue Tit tagged along."

"As they moved across the gap/path I was able to count ten warblers to begin with, which were later joined, in a drip-drip fashion, by about ten more."*

This is just one of several occasions recently where warblers have filled the trees in front of me.

Chiffchaff calls and the slightly longer and more complex Willow Warbler calls are everywhere at the moment, and then occasionally - despite it being Autumn - Chiffchaff have been singing. Today I counted five singers and last weekend even had a singing Willow Warbler.

Given all this exposure to these birds, I have started thinking about variation. Not between the two species, but within each species.

Looking back over my photos, there are no works of wildlife photographic art, but there are enough features showing to be of some interest, I hope.

Let’s begin with what I consider to be a classic Chiffchaff:



Dull-ish brown upper-parts, dull-ish pale under parts, indistinct supercilium, and very dark legs. For ID purposes, this is the Chiffchaff we all want to see.

Now have a look at another classic Chiffy from a different angle:



The primary feathers clearly only project a short way beyond the tertials and are nice and evenly spread. Again, classic Chiffchaff. Lovely!

Just as a point of comparison, here is a photo of a Willow Warbler I took recently. The primaries clearly project far further and the supercilium just pops out at us, even if the bird is not as bright as we might like.



The bird in the photo below looks classic Chiffchaff again at first sight. In fact I think the warm brown tones make this a good candidate for the northern, Phylloscopus collybita abietinus sub-species, although I doubt even an expert could be sure from a single photo alone, and possibly not without analysis of the bird itself.



But look at the rascal’s legs. They appear orangey red, rather than dark! This is clearly a Chiffchaff, but the leg colouration is confusing nonetheless. I am aware that light and angles can make a huge difference with colouration, but normally in the other direction - pale legs made to look darker.

It should be no surprise that some distinguishing features do not show well in some birds, so we might get a Willow Warbler with dark legs, or an indistinct supercilium, or with very little yellow showing on the underside etc etc. But imagine how confusing it is if this combination comes together in a single bird that neither sings, nor calls, nor flicks its tail.

I wouldn't suggest that the following bird falls quite into that category, but I do think it shares a number of features we would expect to see on both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. The leg colour is inconclusive, the primary tips are not showing well, it is relatively yellowy underneath, and the supercilium is more distinct than we normally get with Chiffchaff. It also seemed brighter in the field than it appears in the photo. I would personally come down on the side of Willow Warbler, but I accept I could be wrong (do let us know if you think I am); perhaps this is just on the bright side of the P.c.collybita end of the spectrum.



I am sharing all of these thoughts not to try and bore or patronise our readers, but more as a celebration of the variation found in our warblers and as a reflection of the kind of thought processes that go through my head when I am out in the field.

Finally, here is a picture of what I believe to be a young Chiffchaff showing downy grey undersides.



At least they keep us on our toes! 


The other benefit of watching warblers closely is that occasionally you find something else. So it was near Motorcycle Wood last weekend when I found the Patch first Pied Flycatcher for the year. ;)



*From my field notes

30 August 2017

A few days in August, 2017


No point comparing August with any previous year's, like we usually do, as there was just not the coverage and one can only wonder what was missed and will be missed over the next 2 month's and the best birding period in our calendar?

It was a bit touch and go whether a Pied Flycatcher would be picked out of the dense foliage anytime during the month, but James finally prevailed picking up a real elusive individual on the 28th. More likely were Spotted Flycatcher, because they are commoner, stick around and stick out.  Slightly earlier than in previous years, 2 groups were seen: in the Brick Pits (where the 2 birds remained for most of the week) and a party of 4 birds in the Old Sewage Works on the 13th.  Bob then took things to another level on the 24th, finding 12 birds on the flats alone.

As for chats: A smattering of Wheatear and singles of Redstart though undoubtedly a good few of these were missed on days of no coverage; Whinchat numbers desperately low with only a high of 3 on the 25th–these are birds that seem happiest when in large groups, but it could well be the lack of broom is inhibiting such gatherings.

Yellow Wagtail numbers appear well down on the days we were out and only one record of Tree Pipit is likewise disappointing.

The only bird(s) of note in the destroyed area of the enclosure has been a Spotted Flycatcher or two, none of the Redstart have given it a look in, which may not be surprising as more dogs, cycles and people are using it as a thoroughfare.

The last big movement of Swift graced our skies on the 5th and by the end of the month small groups of Swallow were heading in the right direction for once.  The local House Martin have not been as successful as previous years, which is not good as even in good years there is a high mortality rate from one season to another.

Better news from Rob Sheldon who found the first hard evidence of Little Owl breeding on the flats for many a year finding 3 birds perched out on a limb on the 27th.  A Tawny Owl was seen being harassed by the local Jays in Reservoir Wood on the 30th by Sean Kerrigan.

And better news for the local Skylark with 14 birds being counted in 2 groups (one by Alex, the other in the main brooms area) on the 5th, by the end of the month finding any larks or pipits for that matter was not so easy.

Up to 3 Garden Warbler were on the flats at any one time, with a single Reed Warbler picking its way through the brooms at the end of the month and Sedge Warbler were heard and seen in the park on the 13th.  Whitethroat are becoming harder to find, with some already on their way south, but basically because there are fewer to start with, similarly for Lesser Whitethroat (one seen wearing some bling was not from these here parts) and Blackcap.  With fewer Long-tailed Tit evident on the flats, no large flocks of phylloscs have been noted either–though non local Willow Warbler numbers are probably about par for the time of year and absolutely not a sniff of a Wood Warbler!

A visiting birder from south of the river thought he had a Tree Sparrow on the south side of Alex on the 19th–I think Bob may be the only person living here now who might have been around for the heyday of the Old Sewage Works where they once bred–an almighty local twitch would gave ensued if this could have been confirmed!

3 Common Sandpiper and a Green Sandpiper was the wader action for the month and duckwise the first returning female Teal was seen on the 12th.  Finish on a high!


5th


Wanstead Flats: 300-400 Swift east, 20 House Martin, 4 Sand Martin, Swallow, 15+ Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, 2 Garden Warbler, 4 Lesser Whitethroat, 24 Whitethroat, 2 Goldcrest, Wheatear, 14 Skylark, 2-4 Sparrowhawk, 2 Kestrel, Reed Bunting, 30 + Greenfinch, Gadwall, 3 Little Grebe (2 young birds), Common Gull, Grey Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow (Wanstead Birders)

Wanstead Park: 2 Sand Martin, 5 House Martin, 10 Swift, Linnet, Kingfisher, Great Crested Grebe, 3 Little Grebe, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Brown Argus (Nick Croft/James Heal)

12th



Wanstead Flats: Wheatear, 1-2 Yellow Wagtail, Garden Warbler, Common Sandpiper (Tony Brown/Sean Kerrigan) Common Sandpiper still at 12:00 (Alex), good candidate for Wood Warbler (Alex), 12+ Willow Warbler, 2nd Garden Warbler, 2 Lesser Whitethroat, only 3 Whitethroat, Hobby (feeding in with several hundred Black-headed Gull over Alex), Peregrine Falcon, 2-3 Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, 13 Swift, 6 House Martin, 2 Linnet, Skylark, 5 Gadwall, f Teal, 2 adult and 4 young Little Grebe (Nick Croft)








 
 


 

13th



Wanstead Flats: f type Common Redstart, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, negative on Wood Warbler with the consensus being that the bird in question is just a very white/bright Willow Warbler, 14+ Willow Warbler (probably the first time we've had more migrant Willow W than local Chiffchaff - a bad year locally due to habitat destruction), Garden Warbler, 4 Lesser Whitethroat, 10 + Whitethroat, 2 Yellow Wagtail, 5 Gadwall, f Teal, 3 Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Coal Tit, 3 Little Egret (2 juvs), Swallow, 6 House Martin, Swift, 3 Purple Hairstreak (Nick Croft/Richard Rae/Bob Vaughan)

Wanstead Park: 4 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Garden Warbler, 13 Whitethroat, Nuthatch, 4 Coal Tit, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, 4 Gadwall, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe (Nick Croft/BobVaughan)









14th



Wanstead Flats: f type Redstart still, no sign Spotted Flycatcher, 5 Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, 13 Whitethroat, 14 House Martin, 2 f Teal, 4 Gadwall, Little Grebe + chick, 2 Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Reed Bunting (Bob Vaughan/Nick Croft)









19th



Wanstead Flats: 2 Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear, 6 Yellow Wagtail, 8 + Willow Warbler, 10+ Chiffchaff, 7 Whitethroat, 7-8 Lesser Whitethroat (one carrying some bling = a migrant), 8 House Martin, Hobby on several occasions, 3 Kestrel, 2 Sparrowhawk, 12 Gadwall, Shoveler, 5 Little Grebe (Wanstead Birders) Tree Sparrow reported calling on Alex by a visiting birder though no sign when we looked)


20th



Wanstead Flats: 2 Spotted Flycatcher still, f Wheatear, Reed Warbler, Garden Warbler, 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 10 + Whitethroat, 8 Blackcap, 20+ Chiffchaff, 8 + Willow Warbler, 8 House Martin, 3 Kestrel, 3 Sparrowhawk, Skylark, 5 Linnet (Wanstead Birders)
  

22st


Wanstead Flats: 2 Common Sandpiper (Jub), Redstart (John Wheil)


22nd



Leyton Flats/Snaresbrook: Yellow Wagtail NE approx 8am, Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler, 2+ Goldcrest, Blackcap, Nuthatch, 2 Treecreeper, 3 Coal Tit, 2 Pochard, 6 Greenfinch (Stuart Fisher)



24th



Wanstead Flats: 12 Spotted Flycatcher (just shy of record of 14 birds, though I think that may have included the park too), 3 Wheatear, Yellow Wagtail over, Sparrowhawk (Bob Vaughan)



25th



Wanstead Flats : Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Wheatear, Whinchat, Yellow Wagtail, 2 Willow Warbler, Kestrel, 4 House Martin, Swallow (Bob Vaughan, Simon Worsfold & Rob Sheldon) 3 Whinchat (James Palmer)





26th



Wanstead Flats: 1w m Redstart, 1-2 Whinchat, Spotted Flycatcher, Garden Warbler, 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 6+ Willow Warbler, 20 + Chiffchaff, Reed Warbler, Linnet, 50 + Goldfinch, 2 Skylark, 2+ Common Buzzard, Kestrel, f Teal, 5 Gadwall, 2 Little Grebe (Wanstead Birders)

Wanstead Park: 4 Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher, 4 Gadwall (James Heal)



27th



Wanstead Flats: 3 Little Owl (Rob Sheldon) –first proof of breeding for quite a few years, Green Sandpiper briefly on Jubilee Pond, 2 Redstart (adult m and f type), Whinchat, 4 Wheatear, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, 7 Swallow, 6 House Martin, Sand Martin, 3 Hobby, 3 Kestrel, 3 Sparrowhawk, probable Buzzard north (distant and v high), Yellow Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, 2 Skylark, Linnet, 10 + Willow Warbler, 20 + Chiffchaff, 4 Gadwall (Wanstead Birders/WREN Group)



28th



Wanstead Flats: Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher (both in the SSSI), Tree Pipit (SSSI), Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear, 7 + Willow Warbler, 20 + Chiffchaff, Reed Warbler, 8 Swallow through south, 8 House Martin, Skylark, 3 Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, 5 Gadwall, 36 Egyptian Goose, 49 Greylag Goose (Wanstead Birders et al)



29th



Wanstead Flats: Common Redstart by viz mig tree (Marco Johnson)



30th



Wanstead Flats: 30 Gadwall, Yellow Wagtail (Bob Vaughan)

Wanstead Park: Tawny Owl being mobbed by Jay in Reservoir Wood, Spotted Flycatcher (Old Sewage Works) (Sean Kerrigan), 8 Gadwall, 11 Pochard (Bob Vaughan)

8 August 2017

June/July 2017: Dead and buried


 



I refer to the birding Hades that is summer, but equally I could be talking about the blog, which just about remains on life support waiting for someone to pull the plug.


Not brilliant for birds, but pretty good on the butterfly side of things with a record number of Brown Argus found in the old sewage works, a couple of Clouded Yellow sightings, the first White-letter Hairstreak (a lifer for me at least) for many a year, and a Marbled White sighting in the park (becoming annual) in addition to Purple Hairstreaks that appear in the oaks at this time of year.

  • Cetti's still present till 6th  June at least
  • Singing Cuckoo on the 10th June in the park
  • Little Ringed Plover on Alex on the 25th June
  • Common Redstart on the 2nd July
  • Common Sandpiper on the 8th July on Perch
  • First returning Northern Wheatear on the 20th July 
  • A couple of tern sightings during the month
  • First returning Swallow on the 30th July
Perch's Great Crested Grebe failed as the small young was quickly gobbled by a marauding Lesser Black-backed Gull, but 2 young Little Grebe were seen on the pond at the same time, but probably from elsewhere.  Little Grebe were back on Heronry by the end of the period, but it's probably a bit late for a nesting attempt there.  Meanwhile on Shoulder of Mutton and Alex breeding looks poor compared with previous years.  It is also not clear if the Reed Warbler were successful on the former lake, though 2 birds singing were reported on 2 occasions in July.

It has been a good year for the swans with broods on Alex, Perch and Heronry though the Jubilee young disappeared.  Mallard have seemingly done well but there is no sign of any other duck species having attempted breeding, while numbers of Egyptian Goose were up to 30 birds on the flats by the end of the period with a few 1w birds in their numbers—again it is not clear where these birds have come from. 

We should have had a pick up in the numbers of Kestrel about the place, but again it looks like failure has hit these birds, Hobby sightings are down again and it looks like they have not attempted to breed on site.  On the other hand Sparrowhawk young have been heard from Manor Park Cemetery and adults with food have been seen flying in that direction. A few Kite sightings have increased the months in which they have been seen, and while Bob has yet to record a Buzzard a number were seen during the period.

The large gull creche continued through June and July with the first returning Black-headed Gull boosting their numbers (very few young birds with them) and including a couple of adult Common Gull.  A few brave souls tried to extract young Yellow-leggeds in the melee with varying amounts of success, I am not even going there!

The end of July usually sees the first returning warblers from the north, however with so little coverage this year it wasn't until the first weekend in August that any numbers of Willow Warbler (and a couple of Garden Warbler) were noted.  A lone Reed Warbler in the brooms was the most exciting warbler action in the period apart from the Cetti's still being present on the Roding at the beginning of June.

Hooray! It's now August and we can expect the return of the weekend birders (with me added to that number if and when I can get cover to look after me mum), so anything can happen:  Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Whinchat, Wheatear, Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Wryneck and the special one yet to be found....

















June

1st



Wanstead Flats: 2 Common Buzzard, pr Sparrowhawk, 2 Kestrel, 5 House Martin, 10+ Swift, 5+ Little Grebe, Lesser Whitethroat, 2 singing Skylark, singing Meadow Pipit, Coal Tit, medium sized bat having a drink before going back to roost (I suspect Daubenton's), Painted Lady (Nick Croft)

Wanstead Park: Reed Warbler, 2 House Martin, 20+ Swift, 5 Whitethroat, 3 Painted Lady (Nick Croft)




6th


Wanstead Flats: 3 Gadwall, Pochard, 5 Little Grebe, 100+ Herring Gull, Skylark, Linnet, House Martin, Swift (Nick Croft)

Wanstead Park: Peregrine Falcon tiercel, 20+ Swift, 2 House Martin, Cetti's Warbler, 5 Whitethroat, newly fledged Chiffchaff family, Little Egret, 2 Little Grebe (Nick Croft)









8th

Wanstead Flats: Family of  Lesser Whitethroat


10th



Wanstead Park: singing Cuckoo early morning (Sally Hammond); 2 Grey Wagtail (Bob Vaughan)


18th



Wanstead Flats: Lesser Whitethroat, 4 Meadow Pipit, 3 Skylark, 5 House Martin, 10+ Swift (Nick Croft)

Wanstead Park: Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, 8+ Whitethroat (including fledged young), 3 Nuthatch, Little Egret, flyover Great Crested Grebe, 4 Little Grebe, Black-headed Gull, Little Egret, Kingfisher, Reed Bunting, 3 House Martin, 20 + Swift, Grey Wagtail - dawn chorus walk for WREN Group bio-blitz weekend 05:00 (Nick Croft/Tim Harris)


25th



Wanstead Flats: 1 Little Ringed Plover (Tony Brown)




July




2nd



Wanstead Flats: f/juv Common Redstart (Tony Brown, Bob Vaughan); juv Yellow-legged Gull (Tony Brown, James Heal); 4 Skylark, 2 Meadow Pipit, Reed Bunting, Sand Martin, Red Kite (Bob Vaughan)



8th



Wanstead Flats: 3 Skylark, m Reed Bunting, 50+ Black-headed Gull, 100 + Herring Gull, 20 + Lesser Black-backed Gull, 1st summer Yellow-legged Gull, Sparrowhawk, 20 Swift, 10+ House Martin (up to 5 nest sites), Clouded Yellow (Nick Croft/James Heal)

Wanstead Park: Common Sandpiper (first returning bird of the autumn on Perch) 2 singing Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat (alarm calling to family group), Great Crested Grebe on nest, 2 pairs of Little Grebe, Little Egret, Kingfisher, Nuthatch (Nick Croft/James Heal)










17th



Wanstead Flats: Red Kite, 1-2 Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, singing Meadow Pipit, Skylark, 2 juv Willow Warbler, 10 + Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, 20 + Swift, 10 House Martin, Little Grebe on nest, 50+ Black-headed Gull (4 youngsters), 2 Common Gull (Nick Croft)





Wanstead Park: Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Great Crested Grebe with 1 chick, 4 Little Grebe (2 young), Little Egret, Kingfisher, 50 + Swift, 3 House Martin, White-letter Hairstreak (Nick Croft/KathyHartnett)





18th



Wanstead Flats: 3 Skylark, m Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, 10 House Martin, 20 + Swift (Nick Croft)




Wanstead Park: 2 singing Reed Warbler, 7 Whitethroat, Little Egret, 4 ad Little Grebe, 3 Great Crested Grebe (1 chick), Sparrowhawk, 30 + Swift, 5 House Martin, Migrant Hawker, 6+ Brown Argus in Old Sewage Works (both first for the year) (Nick Croft/TimHarris)


20th



Wanstead Flats: Early returning N Wheatear dropped in 09-15 before rain shower! 4 Skylark, 2 Meadow Pipit, 4 Green Woodpecker (Bob Vaughan)


21st



Wanstead Park: Hobby, 3 Sand Martin, several immature House Martin, Common Tern (Tim Harris)









29th



Wanstead Flats: Common Tern on Jubilee Pond (Tony Brown)





30th



Wanstead Flats: first returning Swallow of the autumn, Sand Martin, 10 + House Martin, 8 Swift, Reed Warbler, 1-2 Lesser Whitethroat, 20 + Whitethroat (Brooms/Alex area), 6 Skylark, 1 juv + 1 ad Little Grebe, 100+ Black-headed Gull, Hobby, 2 Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk (Nick Croft/Bob Vaughan)