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