Friday, 29 January 2010

Patchlist: ton up!

Some of today's Rainham birds, from top: Corn Bunting, Rock Pipit, Ringed Plover with Northern Lapwings, and third-winter Yellow-legged Gull.

With rain lashing against the windows as the alarm went off at 5.30 am, it was hard summoning the will power to head out for an early start at Rainham. But I'm glad I did, because it proved to be a very productive session - by no means sensational in Rainham terms, but almost everything fell into place, despite the weather.

It was a certainly a damp and dismal start at first light. Walking along the seawall at Aveley Bay I picked up two distant passerines in flight that were almost certainly Corn Buntings, but they were heading away and the visibility was poor. My frustration was quickly forgotten, however, with my first Barn Owl of the year. I walked the seawall towards Coldharbour Point, where thousands of gulls were massed on the foreshore. They were mainly small gulls, and I felt sure there must be a Med among them. After 20 minutes of scanning, bingo - a first-winter walked into view. The hordes were then flushed by a birder walking the seawall from the other direction, but I imagine this bird was probably the one reported later, with an adult, on the other side of the river.

Shortly afterwards a call from Dave Morrison put me onto a very distant Knot on the saltings back at Aveley Bay - presumably the same bird seen earlier in the week. I continued beyond Coldharbour Point and, as luck would have it, then picked up a definite Corn Bunting in flight. Fortunately, it circled around and came back down on the tip slope to give itself up nicely for the scope and the camera. A search along the foreshore nearby failed to produce the still-needed wintering Common Sandpiper, so I headed back to the car and drove to the reserve, where Dave had had a Ringed Plover - another year-tick - from the Ken Barrett Hide.

On arrival, no one inside the hide had seen the bird, but a quick scan showed it was there sure enough, hunkered down among the Lapwings, which promptly started to give it some grief. Pleased to have notched up another year-tick for the site, I realised I was now on 99 for Rainham for the year. Could another be found for the big 100? I walked the scrub hoping for a Great Spotted Woodpecker or Mistle Thrush, but no joy, so for a last gasp attempt at the ton I then checked the ditches near the entrance gate - yes! A Kingfisher flew up from the main channel, my first at Rainham for the year. The icing on the cake was a female Sparrowhawk raiding the feeders at the centre for patch-tick number 101. The best of the rest included a minimum of seven Yellow-legged Gulls (at least four adults, two third-winters and a first-winter) , but unlike last week there were no Caspian Gulls today.

Those patch-ticks in full:
95. Barn Owl.
96. Mediterranean Gull.
97. Knot.
98. Corn Bunting.
99. Ringed Plover.
100. Kingfisher.
101. Sparrowhawk.

Thanks to Paul, Howard and especially Dave for feeding me their news today.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Local news

Having been away from the Birdwatch office yesterday, I missed out on a rare local sighting of Peregrine from the office window, which overlooks Alexandra Park. It’s a few years since I saw my only other local Peregrine, so I should have been feeling gripped this morning – except that, amazingly, we were treated to a repeat showing today.

Flushed with that unexpected success, I headed into the park for a break at lunchtime, following up on David Callahan’s report that the first Gadwall of the year were still present on the reservoir. Out of sight on an initial scan, I then discovered them close in against the southern bank, lurking out of sight much of the time. As a general rule it takes at least two, often three, scans with binoculars or a scope to get an accurate picture of what birds might be present at a given site. I’m glad I made a third scan today, because it was repaid with a distant drake Common Teal perched at the water’s edge at the far end of the reservoir. This unexpected find is another local rarity, and was my second patch second of the day, as it were, after my first (also a male) in January last year.

As I was leaving the park, I bumped into a couple out birding who I haven’t seen locally before. They were occasional visitors from Palmer’s Green and, to my surprise, had seen a pair of teal fly in – the female must have been asleep out of sight along the bank. It was a short-lived stay, though, as they had gone by the time Bob ‘Hardcore’ Watts checked in late afternoon.

Along with Mallard, Northern Shoveler (at the boating pond), Tufted Duck and Pochard, today’s underwhelming total of six duck species was nonetheless probably the most I’ve seen in one day at this site. The patch additions, which for the first and probably last time this year put me on the same year-list total for Alexandra Park as Bob, were:
54. Peregrine Falcon.
55. Gadwall.
56. Common Teal.
57. Mistle Thrush.
58. Sparrowhawk.

Where there's muck ...



Today's gulls are well fed, with an option on surplus food worth £18 bn each year in Britain's landfills.
The propensity for waste in modern society knows no bounds, and the scale involved is staggering. “Food charities estimate that more than 17 million tonnes of surplus food, including fresh produce, is dumped by supermarkets in landfill every year,” according to The Guardian (23 January). However, every cloud has a silver lining, and it’s somehow reassuring to know that the relentless westward march of Caspian Gulls is being fuelled by the provision of unwanted mange tout, croissants and chicken nuggets on an industrial scale (not to mention food waste in even larger quantities).

The same goes for other gulls, too, and burgeoning landfills no doubt play a part in the changing distribution of species like Lesser Black-backed Gull, which was known largely as a summer visitor to Britain when I began birding back in the early 1970s, but which is now abundant in winter too. Similarly, it’s easy to forget that Yellow-legged Gull wasn’t recorded in Britain until about the same time, yet is now expected in many parts of southern England, especially in late summer, and gatherings sometimes reach three figures.

The ready availability of food at landfill sites, especially those along major estuaries such as the Thames, must play a part in this, and perhaps history will repeat itself with Caspian Gull. We might not find them quite so fascinating in 20 years’ time, but we’ll only have ourselves to blame. In the meantime, for the gull buffs out there, I’ve uploaded a longer sequence of Caspian Gull images from Rainham to my Flickr site (where comments are welcome).

Below: second-winter Caspian Gull.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Birding in brief

I hadn't planned a patch visit today, but a call at lunchtime from Jono Lethbridge (to whom thanks) saw me head rapidly down to the stone barges at Rainham, from where three Common Scoters were viewable distantly on the river in the direction of Crossness - patch tick number 93 for the year. I also had 118 Redshank and 24 Dunlin on the mud and as many as 110 Common Gulls on the jetty, while nearby at Aveley Bay were adult and third-winter Yellow-legged Gulls and a single Eurasian Curlew out on the mud.

Driving back near Chingford but running out of time, I calling in briefly at Mansfield Park - not for long enough to nail the Black-throated Diver distantly on William Girling Reservoir, but at least the Great Northern was on view, as were four Black-necked and 57 Great Crested Grebes, a single Common Goldeneye and both Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the park itself.

STOP PRESS: Having reconciled this year's totals this evening, I realise I have inadvertently left European Stonechat (of which there have been regular sightings) from my Rainham patchlist. Today's Common Scoters are therefore species number 94 for the year.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Day to remember


Images from top, all at Rainham today: Whooper Swans (with Pintail in foreground), juvenile Glaucous Gull, Slavonian Grebe and Tundra Bean Geese.

News came too late yesterday of a potential London tick in the form of five Whooper Swans on the Thames at Crossness - another great find on John Archer's patch. But a call from Dave Morrison just before dusk revealed that the birds had later flown east along the river and settled at Rainham, presumably for the night.

It's not every Sunday that I like to be woken at 5 am, but needs must today and within the hour I was on the road to Rainham. Already, two silhouettes on the seawall in the darkness indicated I wasn't the first - Andy Tweed and Howard Vaughan, who texted me the positive news, had already made out the Whoopers by moonlight. Gradually, as the sky lightened, we were able to enjoy superb views of these birds, though conditions were obviously not great for photography (hence this 'noisy' image). The birds briefly got out of the water and grazed, at which point a yellow darvic ring (code P65) was noticed on one of them, but then at 7.46 am they took flight and departed high to the north-east.

With the pressure seemingly off we checked the rest of the scrape, noting a very long-billed Bar-tailed Godwit, and then I walked the woodland and scrub, notching up my first site Jay of the year, before reaching the Target Pools, where Les Harrison had reported a juvenile Glaucous Gull. It was still on show, and seemingly the smaller of the two individuals reported recently. Funny how birding goes; I'd seen none here before this month, and yet this was my fourth Glaucous encounter in a couple of weeks. At least four Cetti's Warblers and a Common Chiffchaff showed in the reedbeds on the return walk, as did a male Blackcap in the scrub, but I left sharply to follow up a report of two Marsh Harriers over Wennington Marshes.

A Common Buzzard on the drive round was a bonus bird and it was on show again from the tip entrance, but despite assistance from Paul Hawkins and Martin Blow no harriers could be located. They moved on to look for Serins and I went to check Aveley Bay, where a Great Crested Grebe was showing distantly. Then I took a call from a breathless Paul, who had trumped the possibility of Marsh Harrier with a Slavonian Grebe in a nearby dyke - an outstanding Rainham. I was there in minutes, watching the bird fishing just a few metres away from the gathering crowd. Barely had we time to take that in than texts came in from Franko and Howard, the former having just refound two Tundra Bean Geese on the reserve. A hasty call home to warn of a delayed return, followed by a speed walk along the seawall, resulted in distant but satisfactory views of another major London bird.

Days like this don't usually come along too often, but that's three London ticks this month alone, all at Rainham. As for my 2010 patchlist for the site:
88. Whooper Swan.
89. Jay.
90. Common Chiffchaff.
91. Slavonian Grebe.
92. Tundra Bean Goose.

And a quick Alexandra Park patchlist update from yesterday:
53. Siskin.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Caspianfest


Caspian Gulls, from top: at least two first-winters (upper three images), a second-winter and a fourth-winter, all at Rainham today.

It was good weather for ducks, as they say, but it proved even better for gulls. Irritated that a morning appointment meant I couldn't get to Rainham until early afternoon, I was positively gutted when I did finally pitch up at a rain-lashed Aveley Bay to discover that not only had the overnighting Tundra Bean Geese long since departed, but also I'd missed an adult Iceland Gull by 10 minutes.

I dashed round to the stone barges and scanned the river with Jono Lethbridge and Russ Sherriff, who had seen the bird drifting upstream on the rising tide towards Coldharbour Point. Our reasoning that it should continue to drift within sight of the barges was sound enough, but a single adult Yellow-legged Gull proved to be the best larid, while many dozens of Black-tailed Godwits on the far shore were the only other species of note.

I then briefly checked Wennington Marshes, where there were two more Yellow-legged Gulls but no obvious white-wingers among the hordes, so reckoned the Iceland was most likely on the tip. This bid for another Rainham year-tick was also unsuccessful, but I quickly forgot about patchlisting as a striking first-winter Caspian Gull caught my eye. It stuck around long enough for the camera, and once it had flown I soon managed to locate another.

Thereafter, the rest of the session was an unprecedented Caspianfest. I had at least two first-winters, very similar in plumage but one with a metal ring on its left leg, and possibly a darker-looking third bird. These were then followed by a second-winter, and finally a fourth-winter type; four different individuals appear in photographs here. It was enlightening to be able to watch them for long periods at a reasonable distance, and to be able to obtain a useful series of images. This is my favourite large gull, at the same time elegant and imposing, even aggressive, and all these birds held their own in a throng dominated by argentatus Herrings and a hefty contingent of Great Black-backs. When time permits, I'll upload more images to my Flickr site.

Another adult Yellow-legged Gull was also present among the masses, and for a moment I thought I had one of the two recent juvenile Glaucous Gulls flying overhead. On closer inspection, however, the large and rather biscuit-toned larid proved to have some dark brown in the outer primaries, and was obviously not a pure 'Glauc' but (presumably) a Glaucous x Herring hyrbid. A graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull with a red colour ring bearing a white code was, I imagine, from the Orfordness colony in Suffolk (I've seen these birds on the Thames in London before), and when examining the images back home I also noticed a colour-ringed Herring Gull I hadn't seen in the field. But it was the Caspians that were the unequivocal highlight.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

On target

Stuart and Gaz at Aveley Bay, after another memorable Rainham visit.

There was a sense of déjà vu about this morning's routine. For the third consecutive change between day and night I was patrolling the wooded margins of the approach road to Rainham Marshes RSPB, only this time in company with Gareth Richards and Stuart Harrington.

Our target, once again, was Woodcock. Am I becoming obsessed with this species this winter? I hope not, but for a bird usually very difficult to find in London which is right now temporarily numerous, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Hence once again I was happy to have twigs flick back into my face in the half light as I stumbled helplessly into foxholes and the remnant foundations of wartime blockhouses, all in the name of Scolopax rusticola.

And then it happened. Not with any fanfare, but with an audible whirring of wings and disturbing of vegetation somewhere not far away. I emerged from deep cover to find that a Woodcock had flushed ahead of me, but been glimpsed only by Stuart. Further scouring of the area led to nothing, so instead we checked the woodland and scrub around the old cordite store. Logging a Cetti’s Warbler but otherwise drawing a blank, and now with the sky properly illuminated, we headed back to the reserve centre via the play area.

And then it happened again. A dumpy brown wader rose out of a bank of dry grass and brambles as we approached, kept silent, low and purposeful, and disappeared within a second around the corner. It was so quick that we almost had to pinch ourselves to register that it was indeed the second Woodcock of the morning. Not the most satisfactory encounter, granted, but enough to enable us move on to the second target of the morning, a juvenile Glaucous Gull reported again on – appropriately enough – the Target Pools. A text from Paul Hawkins signalled our chances were good, and in due course I managed to pick up the bird fairly quickly, though very distantly, from the ‘mound’ overl0oking Wennington Marshes.

This was also the site for target number three, Serin, which we had to work harder for but eventually located in the rain – this time it was the duller of the two wintering individuals. The fourth and final target, however, didn’t give itself up in the same way; we trawled the saltings and got Rock Pipit and several ‘exploding’ Common Snipe but no definite Water Pipit, the sole candidate flushing too far for a firm ID. Nonetheless, it was a successful morning, despite the grim weather. One Rainham patchlist addition for the year:
87. Woodcock.

At home in the afternoon, a casual eye on the garden was rewarded with five Redwings, a male Blackcap (which also appeared two days ago) and, scarce here, two Coal Tits. I was surprised to note while photographing them that one was sporting a leg-iron, and a quick text to Gerry Rawcliffe revealed that it was probably one of the birds he had ringed previously in his garden nearby. Without a mistnet of my own, though, its exact history will remain a mystery.

Below: Redwing, the ringed Coal Tit and Great Tit.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The thaw delivers


I'd planned to be out at first light this morning, but didn't get to Rainham early enough. Instead, a text from Dave Morrison told me the price I'd paid - a Woodcock along the approach road to the reserve centre. By the time I did manage to get to the site there had been two further sightings, and Dave, still on a roll, produced 10 unseasonally early Oystercatchers flying down river which I just caught in time.

I walked the roadside scrub anyway, without joy, and while cursing my luck I idly scanned the distant scrape through the fence. A flock of Greylags was unsurprising, but as I panned left through them a flash of black, white and grey caught my eye - Barnacle Goose! It was slightly apart from the flock, but also not associating with a group of Canada Geese nearby. I called the centre to put the news out and went straight round to get a few record shots.

Clearly unringed, it fed continuously while it was in view. Was it a hungry migrant, on the move after the thaw? Although odd feral Barnacles occur in the Lea Valley and elsewhere in London, they never seem to appear at Rainham. Interestingly, it appeared to have moved on by late morning, and couldn't be refound.

After that and a group of five Ruff on the scrape, I headed round to Wennington Marshes where there was an impressive gathering of several thousand gulls opposite the tip. I hadn't gone through more than a few hundred before my gaze fixed on a juvenile Glaucous Gull, standing out like a sore thumb among Black-headeds and Commons. This was my bogey larid for Rainham, and one of two reported here in recent weeks. Andy Tweed turned up moments after it had moved on, unfortunately, but he had more success on the river nearby with a drake Ruddy Duck among the wigeon and teal on the rising tide - a rare bird at Rainham these days.

Having twitched that, I decided to head back to the reserve centre for lunch, veering off at the last minute to the Stone Barges in case John Archer's two Bar-tailed Godwits at nearby Crossness had joined the 'Blackwits' at their roost. Bingo - they had! I also diverted back to Aveley Bay, where Andy's earlier Corn Buntings had now departed, but a single Serin (the brighter of the two birds) put on a brief show nearby.

After late refreshments back at the reserve, a last scan of the river on the falling tide produced a Grey Plover lying towards the Kent side, where it eventually landed. I also upped the day's Yellow-legged Gull total to six - three adults and single first-winter, second-winter and third-winter. With the light now fading fast, the day ended as it had begun - with me failing to find Woodcock, though I did get a Blackcap as a consolation prize. Tomorrow is definitely another day.

Rainham patchlist additions today (Barnacle Goose excluded for the time being):
81. Oystercatcher.
82. Glaucous Gull.
83. Ruddy Duck.
84. Bar-tailed Godwit.
85. Grey Plover.
86. Blackcap.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Woodcock: the search concludes


This Woodcock, picked up apparently unharmed in central London, was released in Alexandra Park on 15 March last year, but was later found dead. Would there be a happier outcome in the search for the species today?

Just as we thought the thaw had come, the snow returned overnight. I couldn't get the car out again today, so at the last minute it was on shank's pony into a very wintry-looking Alexandra Park. I walked the fruitless Woodcock walk through the mid-slope copses, trudging from bramble to beech in an effort to find one. Another set of footprints in the snow caught my attention, but they turned out to belong to David Callahan, who texted me with news that he had just found ... a Woodcock.

I rushed to the site and did three careful circuits, pausing briefly only to exchange pleasantries with its resident homeless person, who had woken from his slumber in the freezing cold and was hanging out his bedding to air on branches, despite the driving snow. He says he has enough food. But definitely no Woodcocks visible here, or at the stream where we found footprints at the weekend, and where the only brown creature showing well was a rat. My first two Stock Doves of the year nearby were scant reward, but at least I have now reached the 50-species mark here since 1 January.

To paraphrase Jonathan Lethbridge's comments on Woodcock, they can be likened to trouble - don't go looking for them, because eventually they will probably find you. But tired of waiting for them to show, I conceived a change of strategy this evening and emailed the other local birders - anyone fancy braving a night-time visit to the park to try and find one out feeding? I say brave, because it is not entirely advisable to be in Alexandra Park after dark using phrases like "It's hard getting Woodcock" for reasons which I can't go into here. But suffice to say, there are probably safer places.

Then, at about 9.40 pm, no more than 20 minutes after I sent the email, the phone rang. "Dom, I'm with Gareth at the cricket pitches - he's found two Woodcock." Bob Watt's astonishing news saw me out of the door in moments, dicing the thawing ice on the hill and speeding round to the other side of the park, where the three of us then watched two birds shuffling and probing in the snow before they spotted us, or the prowling Fox that ran past us, and took to the wing. Truly stunning.

A short while afterwards we picked them up again further away, interacting with the same or another Fox, and it was amazing to watch them in the artifically light night with so much snow cover. It was an unforgettable moment enjoying a new species for my park list (excluding last year's released bird shown above). Moments after the Woodcock sighting, a Tawny Owl in a nearby tree was the icing on the cake.

Patch ticks for the year, for the record:
50. Stock Dove.
51. Woodcock.
52. Tawny Owl.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Tracks and trails




It felt a touch milder this morning as I headed into Alexandra Park, meeting up with Andrew Gardener and then Bob Watts and Stuart Harrington for a spot of Woodcock-watching. That was the theory, anyhow. We scoured every patch of suitable habitat on the lower slopes and the east side, but with no joy. The closest we got - if it was close at all - was a distant shape flushing away through the trees near the pitch 'n putt course.

But I also found these tracks (top picture) in snow next to a tiny ice-free stream in the Conservation Area (or Gobblers' Gulch, to use its less savoury local name). The £2 coin I placed next to them measures 29 mm in diameter, making the length of the middle toe some 35-40 mm. This fits closely to the measurements quoted in Birds of the Western Palearctic (Vol III) for a series of Dutch specimens, and the outer toe is also described as "c. 71% of middle, inner c. 68%, hind 28%". These ratios could possibly also fit, though the problem with prints in damp snow is that they don't leave a firm and accurate impression. Even with my present determination to see a Woodcock on one of my patches I don't think I can face a return visit at midnight with a spotlight; I'll keep trying with more conventional means.

The other point of this morning's visit was to erect a feeder near the reservoir - a necessary measure in this prolonged cold spell. Subject to a ceasefire from the local youth, this may become the first contribution to what could eventually be a fully fledged feeding station. On the reservoir itself the Eurasian Wigeon was spending its second day - a good bird around here, and only the second I've seen in the park. A few other bits and pieces gave themselves up today, including a pair of Northern Shoveler back on the ice-hole on the boating lake, but there was just a single Fieldfare and fewer Redwings than last week. The new year-ticks for my Alexandra Park patchlist were:
45. Goldfinch (actually already seen, but omitted from the list).
46. Nuthatch.
47. Eurasian Wigeon.
48. Collared Dove.
49. Lesser Redpoll.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Ice station Rainham





It took half an hour to defrost the car and dig it out of the snow this morning, almost as long as it takes to drive to Rainham, which is where I headed shortly after dawn. The temperature was about -4 C, higher than I had expected. Having negotiated the ice rink of a hill on which I live, it was a breeze heading to the Thames, and I arrived well before opening time at the reserve to discover that Les Harrison was already on the milkman shift. We spoke on the phone briefly and he told me the lock was frozen solid, so access was via the gate near the main entrance. That gave me a chance to walk the verge on the approach road, looking for Woodcock, but there were none.

Once inside, I scoured the scrub and the cordite for more non-existent Woodcock, doing several circuits, and was eventually rewarded by flushing a large brown bird from the undergrowth - a female Pheasant. I finally moved on towards Aveley Pools, seeing very little en route and very little there, though the gulls looked great as they sat out a snow shower on the ice - there's almost no open water left now. I thought I glimpsed a third-winter Caspian Gull, but almost all the birds sat down as soon as the snow started. There were quite a few brutish argentatus above).

While there, I got a gripping text from Andrew Gardener to say he had flushed not one but two Woodcock at my other patch, Alexandra Park, where the species is barely recorded annually. Back at the reserve centre, Brenda - who'd just finished photographing a Water Rail under the seed feeders - told me she'd seen a Woodcock from the car as she drove along the approach road on the way in. It seems they are everywhere. I left to work the road again, but paused to scan the river and picked up what looked like a second-winter Caspian Gull on the Dartford shoreline - again, too distant to be confirmed. I birded the verges again but left empty-handed, except for a boot full of seed from the reserve shop and two year-ticks for the Rainham patchlist:
79. Ring-necked Parakeet.
80. Green Woodpecker.

Back home, I replenished the feeders and put out some ground seed and a few chopped-up apples. Amazingly, the first bird I saw was a Fieldfare - only the second occasion on which one has appeared on the deck in our small suburban garden. It proceeded to defend its territory, driving away several Blackbirds and Redwings for the rest of the day. It ignored the apples, however, preferring the remaining few pyracantha berries; it may even have roosted in our creeper.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Local news

Little to report bird-wise today, with just Coal Tit (heard) and Grey Wagtail new for my Alexandra Park year-list (the 43rd and 44th species respectively), but two Fieldfares over to the west and another north, plus a Skylark heading east, were also locally notable. Almost all the wildfowl have left the main reservoir now, which has a small ice hole dominated by Coots, and they are apparently sheltering on the Tunnel 'Reservoir' which is actually a wide stretch of the New River, and so mainly free of ice. Where the path crosses the New River at the filter beds two Little Grebes were the only other waterfowl of note.

I decided to work the scrub in case any Woodcock were sheltering in there. It is far less of a thicket now that the habitat has been 'managed', and while trudging through deep snow there I remembered the man we discovered living secretly within its densely vegetated recesses during the autumn. Astonishingly, as I approached an area of brambles, there he was again, lying under tarpaulins in the snow. I was shocked, and stood there disbelieving that someone could be sleeping out in thick snow in these temperatures. He began to stir, sensing my presence, so I retreated hastily, not wanting to alarm him. I was filled with sympathy, but also admiration that he is soldiering on out here. What affects a life so much that it comes to this? Many reasons, presumably, but to choose this existence over a shelter or hostel is desperate indeed.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

More on the weather


Image:NEODAAS/University of Dundee (with thanks to Des McKenzie).

This prolonged snow is going to be pretty bad for birds, as this satellite image shows. Snow cover is widespread and deep across much of the country. Huge numbers of birds are being displaced, and finding food in these conditions is going to be very tricky.

As I crunched my way up my road through the snow and ice this morning, I inadvertently flushed a tree full of thrushes - mainly Redwings, but also Blackbirds and a single Fieldfare - most of which would never be spending the winter around here. More Fieldfares, eight in total, passed overhead as I entered Alexandra Park, and further on a lost-looking Common Snipe flew around in circles for a while over the snow-covered waste that used to be the cricket pitches, attempting to land briefly on the pavilion 'lawn' before realising that the snow was too deep, and flying off again. In such a scene, the ringing calls of a Ring-necked Parakeet seemed particularly out of place.

Other notable local birds this morning included two Skylarks heading high to the south, another sign of weather-related displacement, the lonely Jackdaw again, an adult intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gull on ice with 70+ Common Gulls, and a Song Thrush with a Blackbird-style alarm call - the first time I've heard this.

Last night it was apparently down to -18 C in Oxfordshire, and tonight is going to be even colder. Then there will be howling east winds and blizzards at the weekend. Interesting times.

Alexandra Park year-ticks today:
37. Fieldfare.
38. Ring-necked Parakeet.
39. Greenfinch.
40. Common Snipe.
41. Green Woodpecker.
42. Skylark.

Alexandra Park this morning.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The frozen north



It could be Minnesota or Hokkaido, but it isn't. There are no Great Grey or Blakiston's Fish Owls here. But snow is a great leveller of landscapes, and a white-out has the capacity to change your perspective in more ways than one. This frozen setting is north London, where we are now apparently in the grip of the worst British winter for 30 years, and after trudging for miles through the snow to work and back today it certainly feels like it.

In the absence of large owls en route in Alexandra Park (pictured), I contented myself with a Water Rail obliged to feed in woodland in a small stream, open still for the moment, along with Great Spotted Woodpecker and a selection of waterfowl and gulls largely forced to stand on ice (which now covers more than 95 per cent of both the reservoir and the boating pond). Among the larids are a number of young Common Gulls still retaining their juvenile scapulars, while others are much more advanced into first-winter plumage. A single first-winter Herring Gull stands out among them like a sore thumb.

No really big surprises in the morning, but the long-staying young Jackdaw (now looking more adult-like) was again present and there were three more year-ticks for my Alexandra Park patchlist:
34. Water Rail.
35. Little Grebe.
36. Song Thrush.

The evening walk home in the dark surprised me with a single species - a Chaffinch calling as it flew over the east side of the park.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Back at the patch



Having worked my day off yesterday, I returned to the office today tooled up with the idea of a quick outing to Rainham if the Glaucous Gull reappeared. Sure enough it did, so I left the office mid-morning and was there just after 11am.

I met Howard Vaughan at Aveley Bay, and almost immediately we heard a Lapland Bunting - a distinctive call which we both know. The bird must have been on the wing, and we assumed it had probably pitched down on the saltings. But we were torn between an immediate search for it or trying to locate the Glaucous Gull, which we knew was in the area, and a first-winter Caspian Gull which Howard had found just before I turned up. We decided to get the gulls out of the way first but could locate neither, despite helpful gen on the Glauc by phone from John Archer. We did, however, get onto a different first-winter Caspian along the foreshore between the bay and Coldharbour Point. I ran back to the car to get my long telephoto lens, but naturally it had wandered out of view among the thousands of gulls present in the meantime. My first site Great Crested Grebes of the year, five on the river, and a Ruff on the foreshore were little compensation.

Before hitting the saltings we lucked into a Serin, conveniently pinned down by Andrew Verrall and Reston Kilgour (to whom thanks), and then the search for the Lapland Bunting began in earnest. With swelled ranks now, we spread out and walked the saltings, flushing 30+ Common Snipe, a Jack Snipe, three Rock Pipits and a Water Pipit in the process, but sadly no 'Lap'. With hindsight, it had presumably come off the saltings and was flying up towards the dump; hopefully it will reappear another day.

I then went down towards Coldharbour Point, scanning the gull throng distantly from the south end, and had two more Caspian Gulls - a cracking summer adult which on size and structure was a female, and a smart third-winter type. Photos were all but impossible, especially as I was asked to vacate my position by one of the site staff just as I got onto the third-winter; I understand that Andy Tweed, watching from another spot, had four different Caspians on the dump (two adults and two first-years) , so it seems that the Rainham total today could be as high as a record eight individuals (with several of the first-years individually identifiable) . Also in the area were five Yellow=legged Gulls (three adults and two first-winters), a large first-winter gull which seems to have been a Herring x Glaucous hybrid, and another Herring type with a very Caspian-like bill profile.

After calling in at the Stone Barges car park, where a quartering Short-eared Owl over the dump slope was another welcome find, I zipped round to the reserve centre in time to catch a pair of Bearded Tits (above) at incredibly close range along the boardwalk nearby. A Cetti's Warbler was also calling in the reedbed.

I got back to the office a little later than expected, but it was a very worthwhile foray with five additions to my Rainham patchlist:
74. Lapland Bunting
75. Great Crested Grebe
76. Caspian Gull
77. Jack Snipe
78. Short-eared Owl

Saturday, 2 January 2010

2010 patchlist underway

I spent all of today at Rainham with Andrew Gardener, kickstarting my yearlist for the site as part of the London Birders' Patchlist Competition, and trying to get to grips with a few tricky species.

Beginning at dawn on the silt lagoons, we were disappointed when any owls failed to show, but pleasantly surprised by a Common Buzzard departing its roost. It was attacked by crows within a minute of taking to the wing: what a thankless task it is to be a large raptor at Rainham. We were also treated to the spectacle of a huge flock of Common Starlings leaving (or a)their reedbed roost and making straight for the dump for breakfast, and an aerial and vocal Green Sandpiper.

After a thrash around the river walk by the side of the dump, during which the most potentially interesting sighting was a brief glimpse of a possible Woodlark among a large Skylark flock (it couldn't be relocated), we then failed to find the Great Skua from Aveley Bay (as I understand did everyone else today) but walked straight into the Serin near the mound. We also found the grey female Stonechat by the seawall in Aveley Bay, well away from its usual home on Wennington Marshes. Departing Coldharbour Lane at 12.25pm, House Sparrow became our 60th species.

After a brief lunch in the reserve centre, we repaired to the sea wall in an ultimately successful bid to nail Water Pipit. In doing so, we also scored Little Egret on the river and then the bird of the day, a single Bearded Tit which we saw and heard in the small reedbed on the foreshore in front of the centre, right on the cusp of a very high tide. It was then onto the reserve where other ticks for the day (and year) included Cetti's Warbler, Little Grebe, Peregrine and two Ruff, included a smart white-headed male.

Yesterday's two Bitterns failed to fly in to the same spot at dusk, so we closed proceedings on a very healthy 72 species. The day ended as it began, with a swirling Starling cloud in the distance over the Ferry Lane end, indulging in an aerobatic display before returning to their roost.

Friday, 1 January 2010

New Year, new list, London tick

Flew in to Heathrow on the New Year red-eye at 8.15am this morning, leaving behind falling snow in New York. The last bird I saw in the US was Common Starling and the last mammal Grey Squirrel; how appropriate in the age of globalisation that these two trash species were also the first I saw in the UK, on the cab ride home. Trash is an unkind moniker, especially as roles are reversed and the pestilential introduced Common Starling in the US is a fast-declining native species here; but I'll stick with it for Grey Squirrels, which are acceptable in Central Park but not Regent's Park. (As an aside, how come we don't get the blackish morphs which are so frequent in the US?).

I passed the time on the journey home by kicking off my yearlist, reaching a heady 11 species by the time the taxi reached our house in north London. But my listing rhythm was broken by a text message from Ruth at Rainham, telling me that a Great Skua was - amazingly - still there for its fourth day. How often is it that good ticks turn up when I'm out of the country? Not wishing to get the year off to a bad start by deliberately avoiding a long-awaited London (never mind Rainham) bird, as soon as we got in I was off again with camera, scope and bins around the North Circular Road towards the tidal Thames. After an anxious 40-minute scan another birder picked it up distantly on the Kent side of the river, drifting upstream on the rising tide. After a while it flew and I got some incredibly poor record shots, but I'll try again tomorrow.

In the meantime, the debate has already begun - as it inevitably does - about the identity of any 'Great' Skua turning up in British waters in midwinter. Can South Polar be excluded? What about Brown? What age is it, and what's its moult state? Too many questions to answer at this stage, and with such distant views as today's it'll go down as a Great Skua until proven otherwise - like all bar two of the other countless Catharacta skua sightings in Britain over the years.

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