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.

4 January 2019

Best birds of Wanstead 2009–2018: No. 1

 Image: Shaun Harvey

Image: Shaun Harvey

No. 1 Slavonian Grebe     3-17th January-2015 on Heronry

Maybe a surprise to some but this uncommon visitor to London had a lot going on in its favour.  A really, really smart bird and ridiculously confiding to start with.  I've seen them on the sea miles off, on the William Girling miles off, and on other London reservoirs miles off.  You get the picture!



Yesterday, lovely weather, and apathy covered me like a high tog duvet.  It was a high tog duvet. Today looked crap. I'll have some of that!

And it was looking crap until I made my way to the Tea Shop of Happiness when a smart looking winter plumaged grebe shoved off from the bank not 10 foot away from me.  OK my initial ID of Black Necked Grebe was erroneous, who gives a fu... It was better, but it took the collective brains of six of Wanstead's, er best, to come up with Slavonian Grebe.  A patch first, and thankfully for Bob, not a BNG, which would only have been a year tick.  Only happy to oblige.

James H:  "Ludicrously good views of Slavonian Grebe in 2015"

"Anyone lucky enough to see this beautiful bird (it is even more stunning in its summer plumage) will notice the red eyes. This feature, along with the horned feathers it has in the summer have led some to call it the devil-diver. 

The Native American tribes of the Blackfoot have a legend that a trickster called ‘Old Man’ persuaded the ducks to close their eyes and dance. He killed them one by one. However, a small duck looked and saw this evil befalling his friends and so alerted them. This ‘duck’ was the Slavonian/Horned Grebe and became renowned for noticing trouble early.

I was pleased to notice the Slavonian Grebe early in the year so it could be added to my patch list, my UK year list, and my life list."

Sean K: "... couldn’t seem to get to the Park at the weekend so bunked off work early to see it …. Just before it got dark at 4 pm  … it was gone a day or so later"

Jono L: " ... just a great, great, patch bird"


Tim H:  "I'd never seen one so close, and to have it visit the patch was incredible."

Tony B: "There's know better way to start the new year than with a a big fat patch tick, and today this was in the form of stunning winter plumage Slavonian Grebe."


3 January 2019

The best birds of Wanstead 2009–2018: Worth a mention

In no particular order

Stone Curlew

A single bird Broom Fields on the Flats on 5-6th April 2011
A single bird 24th March 2013 SSSI
Nick C:  "Rather damp and gloomy....  ....Trudging my way back and already slightly lettuce like, I thought to check out the balloon stands for Wheatear, nada! I had just left centre copse when a strange bird appeared to my right not a hundred yards away casually flying up the centre path by the brooms. Strange gull, I mused. "***&&^%$£@@@@@@ me, a %^&@#### Stone Curlew!"


[The next day]

Jono L:  "I neglected to mention it yesterday as I was weeping too much, but a Stone Curlew flew over the Flats..."

Nick C: 'Stone Curlew flying west past Alex!!!!!'
Movement to my right caught my attention and the Stone Curlew plonked down into the rough grass somewhere west of West Copse. Jesus H Christ.

And disappeared. I mean completely disappeared. Never seen again all day.  Still, from my perspective, pretty damn awesome. Mega grip-back a mere twenty-four later. Quite incredible."

Jono L: "(the second one)–words cannot describe my feelings when I saw this bird flopping across the long grass in front of me"

Barn Owl   20th October 2018

A few historic records from the 1970s
A pair were resident in Wanstead Park throughout 1993
A bird flew around the Flats twice chased by crows early morning of 20th October 2018


Bob's and my bird of the year.  One I've been patiently waiting for down by the Roding as the last light disappears.  They're just down the river at Beckton so not quite as crazy as you think. When they first phoned me I was kinda indisposed.  When it re-appeared I was on my phone to my brother: "Sorry have to go Barn Owl!"  and hung up.

Tony B: "As is the norm with big twitches on the patch other birds after often turned-up but I wasn’t expecting to see a Barn Owl (the first on the patch for 25 years) dart into Long Wood"


Present in the Park during the 1960s, records of 3 birds on 3rd May 1963, with another in 1964.
A single bird flying over the Park on 6th October 1985.
One or two birds Esso Copse 22-24th October 2012
One flew along Long Wood on the 19th October 2016.
Records of two Wanstead Flats on 23rd October 2017, 9 Wanstead Flats on 28th October 2017 and one Wanstead Flats 30th October 2017
A bird in the OSW from 20th January 2018

2017  An eruption year with birds coming in from eastern and central Europe according to the BTO and a bumper year for sightings on the patch (11 records including those from Leyton Flats)

Rob S: "One of my favourite birds and good to see this a couple of times in the OSW"

Tim H:  "Watching a bird with the distinctive flight profile of Hawfinch fly into a poplar, and the feeling of anticipation, the quickening pulse as I lifted bins to eyes for the confirmation

Lesser-spotted Woodpecker

A few pairs formerly bred in Wanstead Park, mainly around the Ornamental Waters.
In 2010, a pair bred on Wanstead Flats and were present all year
1st January 2016 a male was seen by the Basin and a bird heard near the Ornamental Waters
A female (the first for many years) found at the west end of Heronry on the 17th November 2018 was still present at the beginning of 2019 


James H (one of highlights over his short-time birding the patch:  "Finding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the Park in November 2018"

White-fronted Goose

50-60 birds flew over the Flats on 28th January 1979.
One Shoulder of Mutton in the spring of 1987 
Juvenile on Jubilee on 3rd & 10th December 2007
c100 birds over the Flats 22nd December 2011
Fifteen over the Flats 8th October 2016 

Jono L: "15 White-fronted Geese! Utterly sensational, our post-pyhllosc Albatrosses. Grey Geese are not at all common in London, and more often a winter species at sites like Rainham. To have them here is fabulous."

"15 or so birds came in from the west honking, circled Jub a few times and then departed east. It was an incredible patch moment."

James H: "... This, at the same time as the first Yellow-browed Warbler was calling!  I was giggling like a tipsy teenager"

Richard R:  "The YBW/White-fronted Goose moment of patch perfection" 

Tony B: "Patch ticking Yellow-browed Warbler, whilst a flock of wild grey geese circled the Fairground and Ring Ouzels were two a penny was a magical autumn migration morning" 

Only 15, try 100 of them in a long line from one horizon to the other–well almost 


Black-tailed Godwit

A flock of six reported from Shoulder of Mutton pond on 21st August 2010 
Two flying over Wanstead Flats on 31st July 2012 in poor weather (DH).
Individual on Alex 4th August 2018.

Jono L: "This was the start of the autumn of dreams. The Egret had been in January, and it wasn't until August that I got my next patch tick, and one that was the most satisfying of all. I very nearly lost the plot when I found this bird on Alex, to the point of barely being able to type. A standout moment in over a decade of birding here, and fittingly this was my 150th"

" ... my best patch find despite being massively common everywhere. Hands shaking so much I could not type"
Tony B:  "Waders are a premium species on a land-locked patch with very little water, so to see a summer plumage bird parading around the edge of Alexander Lake was shocking & an absolute joy."

Pied Flycatcher

Spring records are rare with most records in late August and September  

Wanstead Flats is easily the best place to catch up with these birds accounting for at least 25% of sightings in the London area.
The Birds of London (A Self, 2014), 

2016: Probably the best year for Pied Flycatcher we’ve recorded with 10 reports totalling 14 birds equalling last year’s 11 records and 14 birds counted, in turn way up on 2014.  What made this year special was that 3 birds were counted on 2 separate days

Sean Kerrigan: “… nice female type in good light early Autumn … nice obliging bird"

Dartford Warbler

Male in the Broom Fields for several days from 31st October 2009


I think it was actually my first DW, a lifer here on the patch.  Stuart F told me that he had only found it as it was flushed by a doggie, so after being good for a long time–back when time was not always on your side thanks to work, pah!–I went and made like a dog.  Bingo!  Thought I might have had another a few years back but time was my friend that day, nor my phone!


A female on the Ornamental Waters on 13th November 2006
Two females on the Roding from 8th February 2012 for about a week 

Nick C: "Arse!  Only the 2nd Smew ever to appear on the patch. Distraught, I had to have a few drinks.

There was the slim chance that it would still be there in the morning. Tim was on the case and ready to be there early doors. I was determined to be there too, hangover permitting.

I could hardly sleep with the excitement/anticipation/trepidation, which is really stupid considering I had seen 3 birds just a couple of weeks previously up the Lee Valley."

One sang briefly near the Plain in the Park on 25th April 2010
3-4th September 2013 in scrub near Long Wood
A singing bird in Motorcycle Wood on the 22nd April 2017 

Nick C: "Oh yes, Dan and my "probable" Nightingale came up trumps this morning as it tried to shake the dew out of its feathers, on a damp misty autumnal morn. I have to admit I thought it was going to be another consigned to the bin of shame you didn't get a better ID/pic/view/go to specsavers etc. But after I managed to side-step all the vagrants it was there in all its, distant,magnificent nightingaleness. Of course by the time the posse had arrived it had finished shaking itself awake and disappeared into a large patch of broom behind the visi-mig point. I dutifully went and did the necessary and flushed three birds, I saw Bob and Jono follow the Greenfinch and the Whitethroat, while the Nightingale sailed over their heads and into the bushes by Long Wood. That's that then"