5 December 2019

Autumn Bird Report: Summary and some phenology

Summary and highlights
Autumn 2019 on our Patch will not exactly go down as being a great vintage in the way that 2018 did (anyone remember Rustic Bunting, Red-backed Shrike and Barn Owl? You may not, however, remember the 'untwitchables' of: Gannet, Yellow-browed Warbler, Cattle Egret, and Merlin).

Despite being pretty pale in comparison with 2018, autumn 2019 has had some solid bird records which were patch ticks for several of us. Highlights included:
  • Tony's Osprey over the Brooms on 28 September (a bird I sadly missed), followed just a week later by...
  • A Marsh Harrier on 5 October, also flying east over the Brooms (spotted jointly by Jono and Tony).
  • Also on 5 October Tony flushed our first Jack Snipe of the year by Heronry.
  • A few mostly-annual birds (if you are part of a very small and elite sub-section of our most committed workers) fell in quick succession this autumn with Yellowhammer on 7 October, Rock Pipit and Woodlark (both latter birds I have yet to etch on to my patch list and were found by Bob), and Lapwing on 24 October, found by Nick.
  • A Short-eared Owl was seen on both 22nd and 23rd October.
  • It was a good autumn for Yellow-legged Gull, with at least two different individuals being seen on 8, 9 16, 19, 22, 24 and 29 September as well as 1, 6, and 10 October.
  • Nick also had Goldeneye over the Park on 10 November, only the sixth occasion this species has been recorded on the patch in the last decade.
  • The bird of the autumn for almost all of us, certainly in terms of how well viewed it was, must be the long-staying Greenshank on Heronry. First seen on 5 September (found by Simon Raper, although misidentified at first as he was in a rush taking his children to school) and staying 12 days (!) until 17th. This was the first time this species had been seen on this lake since it was drained over 20 years ago. Ludicrously, it wasn't even a patch year tick for Nick, but still his first on the deck.
Greenshank - James Heal
Jack Snipe - Tony Brown

The last of the summer breeding birds
Most of our breeding Swift had departed by early August, but the last passage bird was seen by Nick on 1 September (apparently, the last one seen in London this year was on 14 September).

Garden Warbler hasn't been a breeding species on Wanstead Flats since 2014, but I include it in this section more out of hope than expectation. Autumn birds appeared from 1 August with the last one being seen for the year on 14 September.

Willow Warbler also did not establish any breeding territories, sadly, and was also last seen for the year on 14 September. Aside from the departure of Garden Warbler and Willow Warbler, the 14th was also the last day we had Common Redstart and Yellow Wagtail on the Patch and saw the autumn arrivals of Stonechat and Reed Bunting, so a real point of transition. The weather was very fine over 14 and 15 September with top temperatures of 25 degrees, clear evenings and low winds so perhaps a good time for migration.

Hobby had a successful breeding year locally and they left us in swelled numbers for warmer climes on 23 September. According to London Bird Wiki, the last London sighting of Hobby occurred just up the road in Walthamstow on 8 October.

Hobby - Nick Croft

Our last Common Whitethroat seemed to depart on 30 September, only a day before the last London record of this species for 2019. Lesser Whitethroat followed shortly after, with our last bird being seen on 2 October and the London-last three days later on the 5th.

Nick also had the last Reed Warbler of the year on 2 October. This was a patch record latest and was also the London latest for the year. Reed Warbler seemed to have a good year on the Patch with territories on Shoulder of Mutton and on the Roding by the Old Sewage Works although no nests were seen.

Reed Warbler - Nick Croft

I stopped seeing our dwindling population of House Martin after 19 September, although the last record of a passage bird was on 8 October. This was three days later than the mean average and 9 days earlier than our record latest ever.

Swallow are no longer breeding birds, but they are also being included in this section. Our last sighting was on 16 October, pretty much spot-on as the average last day that we see them (although I am aware that the last London record for this species in 2019 was 3 November).

We occasionally have one or two over-wintering birds, although the last Blackcap we recorded this autumn was on 22 October.

The passage migrants
In the summer summary (here), I ran through the seven key species of regular passage migrants that began with a Wheatear on 8 August. We now have a full picture of the autumn migration window: it was exactly two months long ending on 8 October with the last Whinchat for the year.

The table below attempts to give a picture of what our patch autumn migration looked like with first and last dates for each of the key species (I left out Ring Ouzel as they are just a bit too scarce and Willow Warbler was missed off as it was a recent breeding bird on the patch). The number of 'bird days' refers to the number of days each species was recorded on the patch, not the length of 'window' between first and last. And, 'high count' is hopefully obvious as the peak number of individual birds seen of each species on any particular day.

Northern Wheatear - James Heal

To pick out a few key observations (otherwise I shall let the data table speak for itself):
  • To borrow Nick's lingo, the autumn was a bit 'meh!' for Wheatear. The 28 bird days were, interestingly, split exactly between August and September with the mean average number of birds seen slightly weighted in favour of September.
  • Whinchat not only had the widest migration window (53 days) but also the highest number of bird days (40). In September Whinchat was seen on 19 days in total.
  • Common Redstart numbers reached their peak at the end of August and beginning of September with an average of five birds a day between 29 August and 2 September.
  • It wasn't exactly a bumper year for Spotted Flycatcher, although a total of 33 bird days through the autumn and 15 days in September is not bad. There were rarely high number of them, and so 12 birds on 13 September was a bit of an anomaly as the second highest count was 6 birds (and that was the day before).
  • Pied Flycatcher had the lowest number of bird days of the group, but this was still a record breaking autumn for this species on the Patch, although only three of the 13 bird days were in September.
  • As I mentioned in the last summary, it was a very poor autumn for passage Yellow Wagtails although the high count of 11 birds was recorded on the first day of September.
Spotted Flycatcher - Nick Croft

Autumn arrival
Autumn depart
Bird days
High count
N Wheatear
8 August
22 September
16 August
8 October
C Redstart
12 August
14 September
Spotted Flycatcher
11 August
2 October
Pied Flycatcher
11 August
21 September
Tree Pipit
11 August
17 September
Yellow Wagtail
13 August
14 September

Ring Ouzel was an October bird this autumn with a total of four sightings in the fortnight between 7th and 21st October.

Autumn/Winter arrivals
The first Linnet of the autumn appeared on 10 September and since then we have had our usual flock often congregating around Jubilee Pond, Police Scrape and in the Broom Fields. On 18 November, Tony counted 39 of them (although apparently there used to be c50 in our Linnet flock(s).

The first autumn Stonechat was recorded on 14 September (actually three birds) and they have been almost a constant feature since then in both the Brooms and SSSI with up to five birds being seen on any given day.

Stonechat - Tony Brown

The first Redpoll of the autumn was seen on 15 October, but there have been very few records since. Rather more frequently recorded on the Flats this autumn has been Woodcock. Bob scored the first of the season on 31 October and there have been regular sightings of up to two birds since, although still evading yours truly for my list despite one flying over my head whilst I was carrying morning coffees back to my patch workers. I'm not bitter.

Of winter thrushes, the less said the better. The first Redwing of the autumn flew over on 2 October, but numbers haven't exactly been epic since then; reflecting what has felt like pretty poor visible migration to me more generally. Fieldfare was first recorded on the patch on 7 October this year. I didn't think I could top the embarrassment of blanking Yellow Wagtail on the Patch this year, but it is now looking increasingly likely that I will go the whole year without ticking off Fieldfare (I saw literally hundreds last year).

Whilst on the topic of visible migration, there have been good numbers of locally gathering Greenfinch (tens), Goldfinch (high tens), and Parakeet (700+), with some impressive counts of flyover Jackdaw (hundreds), Woodpigeon (many hundreds), and even the odd murmuration of Starling (1000+), although Chaffinch, Brambling, and other finch numbers seem to be down on average, and you can forget about Hawfinch.

Here are some more pics:

Sparrowhawk - Nick Croft

Lapwing - Nick Croft

Kingfisher - Nick Croft

Teal - Nick Croft

6 October 2019

Summer bird report: a summary and some stats

Hello! Hello! Is this thing on?... The following is an update of key birds and stats from June-end-of-August on the patch (a very similar update to below also appears in the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group newsletter) 

Early summer and breeding bird update
A summer bird report would be very lean indeed if it was not for the fact that the traditional ‘summer’ month of August happens to coincide with the beginning of Autumn migration for birds.

So this is really a report in two halves and we will start with the true summer months of June and July before we get into the early stages of Autumn migration.

It has been a mixed year for our breeding birds. We know that Lesser Whitethroat bred around Long Wood, but think we only had three territories due, most likely, to loss of habitat. There were a few concentrated areas of the patch where there seemed to be a lot of young Common Whitethroat with our first newly fledged birds on 5 June. Chiffchaff territories appear to be down on normal and Willow Warbler almost certainly didn’t breed locally this year.

Reed Warbler showings were strong with a pair on the Roding (5 June) and two singing birds on the Shoulder of Mutton.

Our Meadow Pipits were seen carrying food on 9 June in Brooms, but this species still seems to be hanging on by a thread as a breeding species; we had four territories earlier in the year. Similarly, our iconic Skylark - although still singing - did not display any evidence of having bred successfully this year.

Little Owls have been seen on numerous occasions, although we are not sure whether they have bred successfully this year and we sadly also found a predated corpse. Our small colony of House Martin were seen over their usual colony on Aldersbrook Estate and up to 33 birds were seen by the end of the breeding season with around 12 birds staying on into September after the main departure. 

Little Owl - N Croft

Great Crested Grebe bred on Perch Pond but sadly we don’t believe any of the chicks made it to fledging. 

House Sparrows seem to be doing very well in the small number of colonies in the area with over 100 birds seen around Jubilee. Goldfinch and Greenfinch numbers both broke records this year; interestingly, they may actually be beneficiaries of the new growth in the fire-damaged parts of the Flats. But Reed Bunting, like Willow Warbler, sadly seem to have been lost as a breeding species (whether permanently or temporarily, only time will tell).

A Common Tern was seen on 8 June (400 metres East of Wanstead Park). But first on Patch (taking it strictly by the birders’ definition) was a month later with a very obliging bird that perched up for Nick C on Shoulder of Mutton on 8 July and probably the same bird seen fishing on the Basin the following day. Nick also saw a young bird later in August. Several of us have missed C Tern for the year.

Common Tern - N Croft

We had at least two different Yellow-legged Gulls at slightly different stages of maturity and present on numerous days, normally to be found loafing with the other large gulls on the pitches. The first one to appear was on 8 July.

Yellow-legged Gull - T Brown

The first returning Black-headed Gull, and indeed first juvenile gull of the season, was seen on 1 July. For those impressed by juvenile gull plumages, we think Black-headed Gull youngsters are among the most pleasing to the eye. My second favourite juvenile gull is the Lesser Black-backed Gull and we got some of these lovely dark chocolate birds back on 19 July. 

Juv Black-headed Gull - J Heal

The first returning Common Gulls always arrive later than the Black-headed Gulls, and we got the first ones back on 15 July, with numbers only really picking up later in the autumn. Later in the season Nick also picked up a lovely juvenile Mediterranean Gull on Heronry that almost caused a twitch before it flew off (first for the year) on 30 August.

Hobby seemed to have a successful year on the Patch and we believe that two birds fledged successful from the breeding pair that were seen frequently through the summer (one of which I was thrilled to add to my garden list in Leytonstone).

Bullfinch have been seen on several occasions around the Old Sewage Works with four birds seen on 11 June, although they were very difficult to pin down and I seem to be going through a second year in a row without seeing or hearing any.

Our first Common Sandpiper for the year appeared on Alex on 27 July - found by Tony B with  a Green Sandpiper found by Rob S on Heronry on the 14th August. 

August and Autumn Migration
August happened with a bang. Most (but not all) of the birders stopped taking pictures of invertebrates and raised their eyes to tree tops and skies again as migration began. In fact, this year autumn migration seemed to take off properly on 11 August. Chart 1 shows some of our core passage migratory bird sightings stacked up across August reaching a zenith on 29 August when we had 12 Wheatear, seven Common Redstart, and six Whinchat amongst other things.

Chart 1: Total sightings

The Spring had been dreadful for Willow Warbler and we did not seem to have any sticking around as regular singers (as already mentioned), but the passage migrating birds started to appear from the first day of August. In fact, Willow Warbler were seen on 21 of the days in August with individual bird high counts of seven on four separate days.

The 1 August also produced our first Garden Warbler since 25 June (a pretty narrow gap between ‘end of Spring’ and ‘beginning of August’, I am sure you will note, and one which most likely reflects outlier birds).

And if Swallows make a summer, then surely their departure marks the end of summer? If so, we started seeing southward-bound birds on the move from 2 August (although the major flow may well not have started yet). We don’t have breeding Swallows anymore, but even the numbers of passage birds seen were down by around 60%.

Our shortest staying summer breeders are, of course, Swift. Checking my own records, they were a constant feature this summer from 6 May until 3 August. On the weekend of 3 / 4 August, they were screaming around above my house and parts of the patch. The following weekend, like Keyser Soze (I’m afraid you either get this 90’s film reference, or you don’t), they were gone. Actually, ‘gone’ may not be strictly correct as we have still been picking up passage birds moving through, and the last ones seen were only a day off our ‘latest’ record and watched by Nick C from the Old Sewage Works on 1 September. Although the number of days these birds were seen were normal, we believe the numbers of resident breeders were down by up to 70% on previous years.

For the first year ever, we recorded Wood Warbler in both Spring and ‘Autumn’, both in a similar location in Long Wood, with the Autumn bird found by Nick on 7 August. We believe this was the first Wood Warbler recorded in the Autumn across London.

Wood Warbler - N Croft

Amongst a set of core passage birds (Tree Pipit, Wheatear, Whinchat, Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, and Yellow Wagtail), Wheatear, as usual, kicked things off with the first returning Autumn bird on 8 August found by Nick C. Since then numbers have mostly been lower than usual. The peak day on 29 August with 12 birds was exceptional as the second most productive day this August saw three.

As already mentioned, 11 August felt like the day that Autumn Migration really started; Tony B found Pied Flycatcher in Motorcycle Wood in the SSSI which only Bob V was quick enough to twitch successfully. But the rest of us need not have worried. There were to be plenty to go around. 2018 was the only year in my five years of birding locally that Pied Flycatcher failed to feature on my year list, so I was extra keen to secure one this year. Luckily, it turned out to be a record year for them. Pied Flycatchers were recorded on each day from 23 until the end of August, with the 24 August seeing a total of six birds; doubling our previous day record.

Pied Flycatcher - J Heal

Spotted Flycatcher are often the dead certs of the Autumn migration period, but, unlike their slightly scarcer pied cousins, 2019 hasn’t been fabulous for them. Nevertheless, this species was recorded on 16 out of the 21 last days of August with a peak of five birds on 27 August.

Spotted Flycatcher - J Heal

The first Autumn Whinchat appeared on 16 August, and, since then, were recorded every single day through the rest of the month with a high-count of ten birds on 27 August.

Whinchat - J Heal

It was a record-breaking season for Tree Pipit. Last year I had the only Tree Pipit of the Autumn; a single bird calling low over my head near Long Wood. This year we had a short but tremendous run of sightings, also with record numbers of birds and mostly seen perching, sometimes circling, and flying up and down from ground to tree. From the first sighting on 11th August until the end of the month, there were actually only three days when Tree Pipit were not seen at all, and we have had up to six birds in a day.

The passage migrant that has been most disappointing is Yellow Wagtail; normally one of our strongest performers with double figures of fly-overs common in the Autumn days. Indeed, partly due to the poor run, and more probably because young family duties mean I don’t get out early in the morning very often, I have actually missed this species altogether on the patch this year. And so now is a good time to study ‘Chart 2’ which shows just how low the numbers of Yellow Wagtail have been compared to last year. 2018 and 2019 is perhaps not a fair comparison as our most devoted patch watcher was around a lot less last year, so I have tried to iron this inconsistency out by plotting the average number of birds seen divided by the number of days the patch was actually watched. This shows both how good 2019 has been overall, but how poor it was for Yellow Wagtail.

Chart 2: 2018 and 2019 comparisons

To plot a year-on-year comparison slightly differently, ‘Chart 3’ shows the total number of core passage migrant birds recorded per day with Yellow Wagtail removed (so, Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Whinchat, Redstart, Wheatear). Some of the long flat red lines for 2018 show some of the days when nobody was out recording, but the relative size of the peaks compared to blue 2019, again shows what a good year it has been.

Chart 3: Totals compared for 2018 and 2019

This now leads me to make another conclusion, not about the year, but about the location. On 29 August, Wanstead Flats had double the number of Spotted Flycatcher of any other site in the London Recording area, it had 50% more Pied Flycatcher than any other location, 12 times as many Wheatear, seven times as many Common Redstart, and 50% more Whinchat. The 29 August may have been a good day for Wanstead Flats, but we had more of those migrant species on our first, second, and third best days than any other London site had on their best day. Wanstead Flats surely remains the pre-eminent location for passage passerine migration in London which is just one of many reasons why holding a summer music festival on this site is such a poorly considered idea. 

Other August birds of note included a pair of fly-over Greenshank on Wednesday 14th from Nick C. Nick was one of a very select few who had ever seen Greenshank from the patch. That was soon to change quite dramatically, but that is a story for September and will be in the next Newsletter.

On a number of days through August, from 14th onwards, a female Mandarin was present on both Jubilee and Heronry (we are assuming it is the same bird).The first returning Water Rail for the Autumn appeared in Wanstead Park on 25th August. A Great [White] Egret flew over the Wanstead Flats on 27th August.

Female Mandarin - N Croft

Tantaslingly, there are always the ‘ones that get away’, such as a possible Nightingale on 21st August on the Flats, but that’s birding for you!

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