11 June 2021

Spring 2021 - Summary


This Spring has seen some very odd weather. Spring passage was undoubtedly retarded by some very long stretches of persistent northerly winds. Nevertheless, this year continues its march on as one of, if not, our best ever years for birds if we go by the rather blunt metric of the number of species recorded. Several of us are on track for personal best records.

As a team effort, the total monthly patch lists across the Spring were: March = 86; April = 93; and May = 87. The total spring list (March to end of May) was a pretty healthy 115 species.

More broadly, the health of bird diversity locally is a mixed picture. Action has obviously been taken for our dwindling breeding Skylark population, but we have some concerns that we might have lost or be about to lose Meadow Pipit as a breeding bird. Other species seem to be fairing rather better: Cetti’s Warbler seems to be moving from a patch rarity to a patch regular; Reed Warbler appears to have at least a couple of territories; and the number of Common Whitethroat territories seems strong. Wanstead Flats, in particular, remains a star performer in London for passage passerine migrants. Whilst the Spring passage is never quite as impressive as the Autumn, some of the records (such as a day high of 12 Wheatear) are notable.


Birders generally rate a season by the number and quality of rarities and scarcities. High up on the list was our first ever Iceland Gull found by Mary on 23 March on Alex pond. There was a mad scramble to see this stunning first-winter/second calendar year white-winged gull and much gnashing of teeth from those of us who missed it on the first day followed by significant arm waving, whooping, and socially distanced air high-fives when it appeared again the following day and the day after etc.

2cy Iceland Gull - Tony Brown

If a single day had to be identified as the zenith of our Spring birding, it is probably 24 April. Tony picked up the first Green Sandpiper of the year going north over Alex. A few minutes later and a mile or so west, two Green Sandpiper flew in and landed on Cat & Dog pond right in front of me before dawn and before they saw me and scarpered. Others heard and saw one or two flying around over the next hour or two, and so we settled on a minimum of three birds. Things got better when I picked up three Whimbrel flying east over the Flats (a full patch tick for me) and another flew over shortly afterwards. This all happened before Tony found a singing Nightingale just south of Long Wood. As several of us stood silently near a patch of brambles and brooms listening to the wonderful liquid trills and whistles of the king of songbirds, I certainly reflected that it was quite high up there on the list of most memorable day’s birding on the Patch I have had.

Green Sandpiper on 'Cat & Dog' Pond at first light - James Heal

Mary was clearly not content with having found our first ever Iceland Gull and discovered a wonderful almost-summer plumage Black-necked Grebe on Alex on 3 May. This is the second ever record locally and the first in just over forty years. I won’t spare Bob V’s blushes by saying he saw the first one back when I was six months old. This wonderful golden-eared bird was still present a month after it was first found and having been twitched by a reasonable number of London, and even a few further-afield, birders.

Black-necked Grebe - Jonathan Lethbridge

Talking of twitches, bird-finder general, Nick C (although Mary is catching him up), spotted an Osprey heading west over the Flats on 6 May. He alerted East Central Turret Observatory (aka ‘Jono L’) who located the bird whilst working from home and he in turn cascaded comms to others including to Western Turret (aka ‘yours truly’) who managed to spot it out of my northern hatch (skylight) circling Bush Wood. There was a scurrilous rumour that I made a dash with my bins to the Patch to try and get Osprey on my Patch list, but failed. Clearly such a rumour of uncouth twitching is below the standing of an eminent naturalist and Chair of the Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group and I would deny it strenuously.

Nick also flushed a single Woodlark from near Long Wood on 28 May - our latest ever Spring record. At the time of writing, I am fresh in from listening to a bird sing that was an even better find from Nick, but I don’t want to steal the thunder of a summer write up (which is likely to be somewhat thinner on the ground than Spring).

For those only marginally interested in local birds, you might wish to turn the page or tune out now. For those hardier souls who get a kick out of phenological data, read on...

Spring passage migrants

The table hopefully speaks for itself. If not:

  • The second column (‘bird days’) is quite simply the number of days from March to the end of May when a particular species was recorded. We tend to find this more useful than counting birds on passage e.g. if you see three Wheatear on Saturday and three on Sunday are the birds on Sunday new in, the same as the day before or some combination?
  • The third column obviously relates to the first record of each species on the year. I have included ‘last’ date as this is a Spring review, but obviously some of these species might continue being seen throughout some of the summer months, and hopefully all of them will reappear in the Autumn on the way back.
  • The fourth column and the coloured numbers refers to the first arrival of each species this Spring with green numbers relating to the number of days earlier than the mean average first date locally and red corresponding to those later than the mean average.
  • Average count is mean average number of individual birds seen on each of the ‘bird days’ and high count is simply the highest number of individual birds of one species seen on any of the Spring days.

Whilst some of the poor weather - especially the prolonged northerlies during some of the key migratory periods - undoubtedly retarded the flow of some species by a bit, the table shows that there were still more species showing up for the first time on a date earlier than the mean average than later.

A couple of species are worth drawing attention to...

We saw reasonable numbers of Willow Warbler on passage, including an impressive high-count of 11 singing on 11 April right across the Patch. Sadly, it does not seem that any of these birds stayed as Willow Warbler does not appear to have bred locally for a few years now.

Wheatear seemed to have a good Spring, despite being four days later than the average first arrival (and a full 12 days later than our earliest ever). We had a total of 24 bird days and an average of three birds seen on each of them (with a high count of an astonishing 12 birds on 20 April).

I will let the table on Passage migrants speak for the rest of the records.

Migrant and resident breeders

A quick(ish) canter through some of the breeding birds (albeit most definitely not exhaustive). Swifts first appeared on 21 April (two days earlier than our mean average first for year), and we had a trickle through on most days after that until 1 May when a sudden jump from 2 to 23 birds signalled that our local birds had returned. We have had a couple of days when over 100 birds have been seen across the patch and an average of around 25-30 daily. No comprehensive survey of nest sites has been completed and so it is difficult to draw any conclusions beyond the numbers we see frequently.

Hobby was first seen on 25 April (four days later than the mean average) and one or two local birds seen regularly since then.

We seem to have at least two pairs of Little Owl on Wanstead Flats still and one or two of them were very frequently seen on favourite trees.

Our first Reed Warbler for the year arrived on 29 April (4 days later than the mean average) in Wanstead Park and there have been two singing males in the Park and a third heard on three days during May on the Roding in the Old Sewage Works.

Reed Warbler - Sean Kerrigan

We only have a small colony of locally breeding House Martin. The first record was on 5 April which was just one day earlier than the mean average. Our high count of at least 25 birds on 8 May was followed by only three other days when double figures were reported. The rest of the time we have only had low numbers reported regularly.

It appears that the Roding in the Old Sewage Works has two singing Cetti’s Warbler and there has been another on the Ornamentals in the Park. Fingers crossed that this year or soon we get some breeding successes.

After the odd appearance of winter Chiffchaff and perhaps a couple of early arrivals moving through, we start to see a big influx from March and then with peak counts of singers in April (this year around 13 birds during the second week of the month).

Small numbers of Blackcap also remain resident locally through the winter; particularly in local gardens, but the arrival of migrating birds seems to happen around the beginning of March. This is steep increase in numbers, perhaps as some birds passing through temporarily swell numbers, before declining to numbers of birds with established territories.

I have decided to optimistically include Garden Warbler in the company of our resident breeding birds rather than with the passage migrants although we have no evidence of breeding beyond some persistence in one or two singing males.The first one was recorded by a visiting birder to Wanstead Flats on 2 May (4 days later than the average first arrival) and the local regulars didn’t connect to one until 19 May in Wanstead Park. We had a couple singing possibly for a few days in late May in the Old Sewage Works.

Lesser Whitethroat first appeared this year on 26 April (a full 9 days later than the average first for year). We had a peak of five birds on the day after the first (probably as the migratory flood gates had opened) and have two seemingly established territories on Wanstead Flats and one in the Old Sewage Works.

Common Whitethroat has had another good year if singing males are anything to go by. The first arrival (on 14 April) was only two days later than average. Double figure counts of singing males has been a regular occurrence and we reached a peak of 25 birds counted on 7 May.

The number of Song Thrush territories on Wanstead Flats sadly seems to be declining whilst seeming more stable in Wanstead Park and the Old Sewage Works. Two or three singing males on the Flats has been a reasonable count through the season whilst 5-7 territories in the Park and 4-5 in the Old Sewage Works are also commonly achieved counts.

As anyone local will know, this the first year that the CoL has fenced off the main areas of grassland where Skylark and Meadow Pipit are known to breed. We believe that two pairs of Skylark have established territories and some evidence of breeding over an above singing males has been witnessed. Three singing birds have been heard on a few occasions but we suspect that there may be a ‘spare’ male aside from the two pairs. Let’s hope that the fencing, few disturbances to their habitat will lead over time to more sustainable breeding numbers than hopefully at least two which is where we are now.

Sadly, the story for Meadow Pipits is more dire. Whilst passage/movement birds were counted in the early part of the season, there have been no singing males at all during the crucial stages of the Spring. Hopefully this does not mean that Meadow Pipit is yet another bird to have been lost to us locally as a breeding species. Time will tell.

I won’t attempt to provide breeding survey updates of more of our commonly seen birds as I am not sure the data we collected really formed an accurate view this Spring.

Other birds

Our long-staying Common Shelduck was last seen on 25 March. We had two Spring fly-overs in March.

Mandarin Duck was reported from Wanstead Park on 14 March.

Marco strengthened his game bird credentials by finding a Pheasant on 28 March and then a Red-legged Partridge on 4 April.

Mike M heard the patch’s only Cuckoo on 30 May.

Common Sandpiper was first recorded this year on 3 May (six days later than the mean average first appearance) in the Old Sewage Works and we had one which seemed to stay for several days on Heronry a few days later.

There was a little bit of confusion reminiscent of the double trouble we had with Mediterranean Gull a few months ago when a second calendar year Caspian Gull on 6 April turned out to be two second calendar year Caspian Gulls seen on Jubilee and Alex.

2cy Caspian Gull - Tony Brown

It has clearly been a good year for gulls (with the Kittiwake and Iceland Gull helping us to a record tally of ten species this year) and a late season adult Great Black-backed Gull in Wanstead Park on 10 April was a bit of a surprise.

Great Black-backed Gull - James Heal

Indeed, we have had nine bird days with Yellow Legged Gull this year, the last of which, so far, was seen on 8 May. Our friendly second calendar Mediterranean Gull also stuck around until 12 March.

Unsurprisingly, Red Kite numbers seem to be continuing to rise with 29 ‘bird days’ from March to the end of May (41 Red Kite counted since the beginning of the year). This is still not at the level of Buzzard sightings with 50 bird days during the spring months and a day high-count of 8 birds seen on 13 April. We have also had 16 bird days for Peregrine and up to two birds seen on each of those days.

There were nine ‘bird days’ for Rook this Spring from 8 April until 1 May with a high-count of three birds on 22 April.

Rook - Tony Brown

A nice surprise in April, was a singing Firecrest in the City of London Cemetery. Whilst, strictly speaking, off-patch for the local birders, this individual was actually singing from a Holly Bush visible from the patch boundaries (whether it was audible or not whilst standing on the Patch is really a question one shouldn’t ask a gentleman).

In the spirit of phenological last dates as well as first, it is perhaps worth noting that our last sighting of Fieldfare came on 26 March (only the second year on record where we haven’t continued to record this species into April); a full two weeks earlier than the mean average last sighting. Redwing, however, continued to be recorded until 13 April which is a week later than the mean average last Spring record.

Those at the front of the class may remember that we had a bumper autumn and winter for Stonechat. We had one or two birds that stuck around until 23 March.

Similarly, some of our winter finches stuck around for a while. Our main flock of Linnet has been elsewhere since around mid February, but one or two birds in particular have been seen frequently throughout much of April and May on the Flats. The same is true for Lesser Redpoll (where a single bird was last seen on 27 April) and Siskin (last recorded on 30 April).

And, to finish with Buntings, we had three records of spring Yellowhammer (30 March, 5 April, 18 April). There were also nine records of Reed Bunting - all single birds - from March to May.

Common Redstart - Nick Croft

Canada Goose Gosling - Bob Vaughan

Ring Ouzel - Bob Vaughan

Yellow Wagtail - Nick Croft

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