5 September 2019


Few fellow patch workers have seen a Greenshank on home territory, I've been very careful who I am with when I get one–today I blew it. My 7th, but nice to get one on the deck for a change.

No apologies for the number of images, when we do get a wader they can be obliging.

12 June 2019

Spring birding summary

Trying to get back into the swing of recording on this site the birds that we see (novel, eh?), here is my take on the pick of the birds over the spring months - also to be published in more-or-less this format in the Wren Newsletter…

Spring passage migration may not be quite as productive (from a birding perspective) as autumn, but the added benefit of returning summer breeding migrants, makes it a favourite time of year.

One of the first spring migrants to be seen locally is normally Wheatear, and so it was this year. The first Wheatear of the year is always a special moment, so-much so that the patch birders add to the drama by holding a sweepstake. Yours truly picked the lucky day this year and Tony B found the bird by Alexandra lake (‘Alex’) on 17 March (only a day later than the first returning one found in London); I took the photo reproduced here a little later that morning when it had moved to the Broom fields on the Flats.

Wheatear - James H

A few days later the first Sand Martin and the first House Martin appeared back on the same day (23 March). This was about average for Sand Martin, but was extraordinarily early for House Martin; in fact this smashed our earliest-seen record by a whopping ten days. And it was not the only record to be broken this spring.

Our first Swift appeared back on 17 April, another early record. Sadly, a much more worrying record has probably also been broken this spring with our hirundines; and that is the shockingly low numbers of Swallow that we have seen pass through. In fact, BirdTrack stats tell us that our observations are in line with the low numbers seen so far this year across the country.

On the 2nd April - joint earliest date - our first Common Redstart for the year appeared on the island of Alex. This good looking male bird stayed for 7 days, occasionally ventured across to fly-catch around the birches on the shore before disappearing into the dense vegetation on the island again.

Chiffchaff started singing from mid March, but Willow Warbler have been very scarce locally this year, with several of us having missed them altogether so far (perhaps suggesting that no breeding territories have been established). I am pleased to say, though, that the story for many other warblers has been more positive, in terms of raw numbers. This has been reassuring following the extensive habitat damage caused by last-summer’s fire.

Blackcap territories seem healthy, we have had a few Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat numbers are marginally down, and - despite fears to the contrary - numbers of Common Whitethroat seen or heard singing are very high this year. What we don’t know is what the impact of larger numbers of Whitethroat competing over smaller potential territories means for the future; as they are condensed into the reduced amount of scrub.

On the same day that our first spring Wheatear appeared (17 March), Marco J also found our first Cetti’s Warbler for two years, singing in the scrub by Alexandra Lake. The Alex bird appears to have been joined by a mate and has hopefully bred successfully, and we also have another bird by the Roding in the Old Sewage Works.

Cetti's warbler - Nick C

It has also been a very good spring for ‘Acros’. The first Reed Warbler appeared on 1 May, and I am pleased to report that we have a record of five of them singing on the patch; two on the Roding and three by Shoulder-of-Mutton. Sedge Warbler also made an appearance on the Roding. I say ‘made an appearance’, but I largely mean ‘made itself heard’. This was actually a bogey bird for me on the patch and so I was pleased to finally get it on my list on 17 April (hat-tip to Bob V, the finder), a day in which another bogey bird also succumbed to become a notch on my list: Green Sandpiper (found by Rob S on Alex).

But let’s get back to Acros. There was a brief period of time for local birders when this genus of birds seemed to be our entire focus. The birds above were all showing up on the patch, I found a singing Reed Warbler at Canary Wharf - a first for me and a rather incongruous record for such a built-up area, and London’s first ever Great Reed Warbler was found at Crossness in South London (a bird I unashamedly twitched). Then, a non-local visitor thought they heard a Marsh Warbler in Wanstead Park on Heronry - this would be a truly astonishing find if correct so all of the local birders mobilised. The first three there did hear some interesting calls - amidst the cacophony or more typical bird-song - and there is even a recording. Watch this space.

Reed Warbler - Nick C

Putting aside the possible Marsh Warbler, the best warbler find this spring was a Wood Warbler in Long Wood, identified first as an oddity by a visitor and then identified and confirmed by Tim H. This was the first one on the patch for four years, and it occasionally sang from high in the canopy and then showed its lovely bright features every now and again slightly lower down.

Whilst on the topic of rarities, there was the small matter of the White Stork on 16 April. This bird was tracked by several birders as it made its way north-west across London and Nick C was lucky enough to pick it up as it crossed Wanstead Flats (a truly amazing addition to our patch list (only two off 200 now).

White Stork - Nick C

On the last day of March, we were treated to a wonderful find from Rob S: a drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond. Despite being skittish, being out in the open on a small body of water like Jubilee, meant that we were all afforded great views of this stunning patch rarity.

Garganey - Jonathan L

On the weekend after the Garganey appeared, another duck graced our year-list: Mandarin. Found by Nick on Alex on 6 April, it was the opposite of shy. It swam directly towards any of the birders who came to see it and would waddle out of the water expectantly.

Mandarin Duck - James H

Nick also had a beautiful Yellow Wagtail on Alex, pottering about on the shore, on 30 April; despite the good numbers of fly-overs in spring and even better numbers during autumn migration, we rarely get this bird on the deck.

Yellow Wagtail - Nick C

Other birds of note this spring have included: Whinchats on 21 April and 7 May, with the latter being a particularly showy individual; flyover White-fronted Goose on 26 March; Pheasant on 3 April; Ring Ouzel on 11 April; Short-eared Owl on 16 April; Shelduck on 4 May; Yellow-legged Gull on 6 May; and Spotted Flycatcher on 7 May. Overall, some pretty good birding.

Whinchat - Nick C

31 March 2019

The one where Rob S finds a Garganey

Garganey: Very rare

A pair on Heronry 23rd April 2009 is the most recent record.
A male spent the morning on Jubilee on the 31st March 2019 

Mr Sheldon earned his corn this morning finding this...

which caused this...

25 January 2019

An interesting wintering Chiffchaff

The Stables in between Wanstead Park (right next to Perch Pond) and the entrance to the Old Sewage Works has to be one of the most reliable locations for over-wintering warblers on our patch. I've had more January Chiffchaff and Blackcap there than anywhere else.

Setting the scene for you
Several of my patch-working colleagues had already added Chiffchaff to their 2019 lists, but as the straggler with a new baby, when I heard from Tim that there was a chiffy in the area, I thought I would drop by today. I was on my way elsewhere so was in the car. As soon as I parked and got out, I saw a Chiffchaff. It came pretty close. Close enough for me to see that it had a slightly dodgy eye.

Great. Always good to tick off Chiffchaff in January. Job done. 

But then I saw another. I had my camera ready anyway so I fired off a few shots as the two birds moved low around the hedges and then flew higher up in a tree to fly-catch over the manure heap. I noticed this second bird was duller, but they had moved on before I could give them too much thought. In the whole time I was with them, neither called once.

Back at home, looking at my pics I noticed that the second bird wasn't just duller, but had a distinctly grey tone. Candidate for Siberian Chiffchaff?

Buff supercilium, grey in mantle, but green in wing look good for P.tristis, but the lack of brown tones seems to point against (although in the photos below the ear coverts do seem a bit brown-tinged) and perhaps there is a bit too much olive in the crown and mantle. Things got even worse when Nick re-found it and said it called like P.collybita. Maybe P.c.abietinus? Maybe just an aberrant P.collybita? Could P.tristis still be a possibility? I don't know, but I do know that it is an interesting Chiffchaff and spiced up my day a little.

Here are two more pics of the same bird. As always, any thoughts or comments welcome.

6 January 2019

The Top Ten: Annually appearing birds

Let’s leave birding frippery and frivolity behind in 2018 and take forward only serious ornithological study into 2019. Breeding bird surveys? Behavioural studies? Migration patterns? No… I’m talking about a Twitter poll to find out what your/our favourite birds are. 

OK. Leave your condescending looks at the door. I know it’s a bit silly, but how do we choose which ten annually appearing (no rarities in this list) birds should make the top ten? Each of the regular patch workers has a slightly different view (one of us even wanted to include the plastic fantastic that is our long-staying White-cheeked Turaco!) So, I had the brain-wave of democratising the decision and putting it out for decision on a Twitter poll. 

I may have very slightly steered the results by ensuring that Skylark, Wheatear, and Redstart didn’t all sit in the same group, for example, but this was largely an exercise in testing the wisdom of the masses (although look where that has got this country with a certain referendum). And to be fair, the “hive-mind” does have its benefits; think how accurate ‘ask the audience’ was in relation to asking an expert through ‘phone a friend’ on a certain TV quiz show.

I think we have established that this wasn’t rocket science, but there was a little process. I started with a list of around 47 possible candidates and then whittled it down to 20 with the help of my patch colleagues (some steered clear of the exercise altogether, others argued over whether Woodlark was regular enough for inclusion, and I was outvoted with a decision to exclude gulls). Then the 20 went out in five polls, each with a group of four and the top 2 from each group making it into the final 10.

Pretty clear that Ring Ouzel and Little Owl made the final 10 in this group

The following list is the winning 10, organised from the lowest share of the vote to the highest.


10 - Woodcock
Photo by Nick Croft

Occasionally flushed in the SSSI or in one of our woods during the day, but the most regular spot to see one on our Patch is as night falls in winter watching one sail over the Roding from the woodland in the CoL Cemetery to the Ilford Golf course to feed on the fairways at night. I think I am being fair if I say this wader is only really an annual bird for Nick Croft, but this declining bird (despite still being a target for game shooting) obviously resonates with the public and beat the likes of Fieldfare and Stonechat to scrape into our list at number 10.

9 - Whinchat
Photo by Jonathan Lethbridge

Thank God this made it into the list otherwise I may have faced mutiny or the cold shoulder from some of my colleagues who treasure this, largely autumnal, passage migrant. Wanstead Flats has to be one of the best sites in London to observe passerine migration stop-overs and hanging around in the Brooms in late August/ early-September gives you as a good a chance as any to get reasonable views of this cracking bird. Somewhat scarcer (as with most of our migrants) are Spring views, but we do occasionally get singing Whinchat.

8 - Short-eared Owl
Photo by Nick Croft

This is certainly not an annual bird for everyone (I’ve had three sightings in just over four years), despite being commonly seen a little further East at sites like Rainham Marshes, but it is a much-loved visitor. Spend enough time scanning the skies locally in late Autumn and there is a chance you might get a fly-by. If you are really lucky you might get a perch-up bird like in Nick’s photo.

7 - Pied Flycatcher
Photo by Tony Brown

Probably the scarcest of our annually seen migrant passerines, finding one of these on the Patch often gets listed by our crew as a highlight for the year. I found the only bird seen in 2017 but didn’t see any in 2018 (there were only two days when they were seen last year). That is the way patch birding goes and everyone agrees that Pied Fly is super, but often tricky, bird to see locally.

6 - Little Owl
Photo by Tony Brown

The first one on our list that is a resident breeder with 2018 being a particularly successful year for these charismatic birds in the small copses spread out across Wanstead Flats. 

5 - Common Redstart
Photo by James Heal

I regularly bird a site in France where this species breeds, but I have never had better views of Common Redstart than on Wanstead Flats. In 2018 we had five days of Redstart sightings in Autumn and three in the Spring; somewhat lower than average.

4 - Firecrest
Photo by Tony Brown

Wanstead Flats and Park is, of course, the southernmost tip of Epping Forest. Whilst it has far less tree cover than most of the forest, there are patches of dense woodland, with one of the largest being Bush Wood (just a couple of minutes walk from my house as luck would have it). The most coveted sighting of a woodland bird (given that Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is sadly no longer recorded annually) is surely, the stunning Firecrest. One of my favourite birds overall, I can’t imagine there are many locations in London where Firecrests are so frequently recorded as in Bush Wood.

3 - Ring Ouzel
Photo by Nick Croft

Another tricky bird. Rarely likely to stick around to have their photos taken like Wheatear and Whinchat, but Wanstead Flats remains a good London location for views of this bird with two or three sightings normally in the Spring and about double that in the Autumn. Several of us will remember a day a couple of years ago when we had Yellow-browed Warbler, Ring Ouzel, and White-fronted Goose within minutes of each other. Can patch birding in London get much better than that?

2 - Wheatear
Photo by Jonathan Lethbridge

I don’t think there can be another regularly-seen bird which gives the local patch-workers as much pleasure as Wheatear. The first arrivals in Spring and Autumn are a genuine source of delight. Unlike Pied Flys which skulk about or Ring Ouzels which are seen distantly and then scarper, Wheatear’s generally hop about and perch up and perform. We all agree that 2018 was a poor year, locally, for Wheatear, but there were still at least 15 days between August and October when they were seen.

1 - Skyark
Photo by Jonathan Lethbridge

This list has been dominated by passage migrants, but it is perhaps fitting that the top spot is reserved for a year-long resident breeder. It is no accident that the Wanstead Birding crew chose to have the Skylark as our mascot and logo. There is no location closer to the centre of London where more Skylarks regularly breed than Wanstead Flats. Their song-flights delight almost anyone who visits here, whether committed birder or not. Unfortunately, the wonderful sight and sound of these iconic birds is far from guaranteed for the future. Where once there may have been 20+ breeding pairs on the Flats, now 5-7 pairs hold on by a thread with their ground nests under constant and encroaching threats whether from dogs off the leash or fire. I wonder if Skylark would still feature in a list for annually-seen birds in a decade’s time?

So there we have it, according to the Twitterati, the Skylark really does rule over all it surveys on the Wanstead Flats and local surrounds. If I’m honest, I would have ordered and populated the list slightly differently; Meadow Pipit is a big omission in my mind, as is Spotted Flycatcher. Also, I think it is a shame we didn’t have any finches (Siskin would have been my favoured choice), the Wanstead Flats is an important roosting site for Common Gull in London and Wanstead Park has had large numbers of Gadwall, but… the people have spoken and at least this is one ‘favourite bird’ survey that wasn’t won by the Robin.