Friday, 31 December 2010

That was the year that was

One of the final highlights of 2010 was a party of three Bearded Tits,
including two ringed individuals, on my patch at Rainham.

Had I been at Rainham yesterday, or better still alongside Kev Jarvis at Crayford Marshes on the opposite bank of the Thames, I might have added two final year-ticks to my London 2010 list. Kev had both Raven and Gannet on 30 December, rounding off a truly memorable year in which he firmly put underwatched Crayford on the birding map by topping the Patchlist table with 170 species at the site.

But I wasn't there, not being able make it to Rainham until today for a final push. For whatever reason, 31 December didn't live up to the previous day's white-knuckle ride, and despite a good day birding from dawn to dusk, much of it in the enjoyable company of Luke Tiller, there were no new year-ticks, either for my patch or London lists. We did, however, notch up a very respectable 70 species between us, including 10 Pintail, Water Rail, 15 Grey Plover, two Yellow-legged Gulls, three Rock Pipits, a Water Pipit, three Bearded Tits, a pair of Yellowhammers and a Corn Bunting; Luke also had Little Egret and Little Gull before I met up with him.

In the final analysis, I logged 213 species in London in 2010, the second highest total ever recorded in a year in the capital, and three short of equalling Steve Connor's record 216 species in 2003. My total includes Barnacle Goose, having found a wary bird which turned up at Rainham in a cold spell back in January (I saw several others too but their origin seems more doubtful); even without that individual, 212 species would still earn second place. Many thanks to all the birders out there who helped with news - too many to name here, but I intend to write up an account of the year in due course.

I must, however, make mention of Jono Lethbridge, my London year-list 'running mate' throughout 2010. Always good-humoured and selfless with 'gen' (even if guilty of posting actionable photos of me on his blog), we were neck-and-neck for much of the second half of the year, and his final total of 209 was the third-highest recorded in London. Despite me heading the Patchlist competition at various times with my Rainham total, Jono edged ahead in the final month for the site to claim a well-deserved second place with 164 species, three ahead of my 161 species in third place.

All that remains for me to do this year, as undertaken previously, is to calculate my carbon offset cost. At 50p per species in London in 2010, let's call it £110 - a donation for that amount has just been made to the World Land Trust, a worthwhile cause which I urge everyone to support. Happy New Year!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Third time lucky

After two brief previous sightings in recent days, the local Waxwing
flock landed right outside the window today and posed for photos.


Having failed to locate my local Waxwings yesterday, and had a brief visit to a very quiet Rainham where single Avocet and Grey Plover and three Barnacle Geese were the only notebook entries, I had little hope of logging anything significant while at home all day today. How wrong I was, though – the garden delivered a near-record haul of 22 species (exceeded only once before with a total of 24 species several years back). What’s more, the Waxwings came looking for me, and I was delighted to have 26 of these trilling beauties on show right outside my study window.

Up to three Mistle Thrushes have visited the garden to feed on apples in
recent days (above), while this unusually contrasting first-winter
female Blackbird (below) is one of eight counted today.

Today’s haul in full (with peak counts given): Common Gull (4), Black-headed Gull (40), Lesser Black-backed Gull, Feral Rock Dove (2), Woodpigeon (6), Collared Dove, Waxwing (26), Robin, Redwing (15), Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush (3), Blackbird (8), Goldcrest, Blue Tit (6), Great Tit (2), Long-tailed Tit (5), Carrion Crow (3), Magpie (2), Starling (8), Chaffinch (4), Goldfinch (12), Greenfinch.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Survival of the fattest

Small is beautiful: 55 species have now been logged on the garden list.
Welcome to our garden. As you can see, it is a rather small suburban plot, but well planted, and partly with birds in mind. When we moved here in 2001 it was completely overgrown, and we had to strip it back to bare earth - literally - and start all over again. Pretty much only the Lilac tree (at the back on the left) and the Forsythia (front right) are original; we planted the Mountain Ash and the Silver Birch, put in a pond and laid a lawn, and Hazel has built up substantial and varied borders. The result is a relative oasis for wildlife here on the slopes of Muswell Hill, in leafy north London, and at this time of year, especially in such unusually cold conditions, a little feeding goes a long way to increasing that diversity.

I took this photo four days ago, but despite a slight thaw much of the snow has remained. I'm currently keeping six feeders topped up - three with mixed seed, one with sunflower hearts, one with niger seed and the last with a suet treat block (the treat in this case being mashed insects). On top of that is a daily scattering on the lawn of mushy apples, kitchen scraps and a ground-feeding mix containing cereal and raisins as well as mixed seed. Most of the bird food I provide is from Garden Bird Supplies, and excellent it is too.

This male Blackcap is the second in a week to visit the garden.
The result? I have never known anything like it. From my home office window on the first floor, the procession of garden visitors is seemingly never-ending. Today, for example, highlights included the first Song Thrush in about five years (unfortunately driven away quickly by Blackbirds), c 20 Redwings and 10 Fieldfares (though most went straight through), a male Blackcap (the second individual in a week) and a finch flock numbering somewhere upwards of 70 birds (including an unprecedented 50+ Goldfinches, plus five Greenfinches and a male Siskin)

One of today's many Goldfinches. A niger feeder has been specially
acquired
; birds were lured down to feed by playing recordings of calls.
It's easy to be dismissive about garden birds, especially when cold weather brings so many 'headline' species to local reservoirs, rivers and lakes. But for all the excitement of finding some wayward waterbird on the Thames, it's hard to beat the thrill of a major event in your own garden; it's all relative.

Here's what I've recorded in or from the house/garden intermittently over the last eight days (peak counts/number of different individuals given where known): Black-headed Gull (five), Common Gull, Herring Gull (three), Lesser Black-backed Gull (one), Woodpigeon (seven), Feral Rock Dove (two), Collared Dove (two), Ring-necked Parakeet (one), Great Spotted Woodpecker (one), Wren (one), Dunnock (one), Robin (two), Blackbird (four), Song Thrush (one), Mistle Thrush (two), Redwing (20), Fieldfare (10), Blackcap (two), Great Tit (three), Blue Tit (four), Coal Tit (one), Long-tailed Tit (five), Starling (10), Carrion Crow (three), Jay (two), Magpie (two), Chaffinch (five), Greenfinch (five), Goldfinch (50+), Siskin (one).And still no House Sparrows ...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Winter delivers

Eurasian Wigeon 'skypointing' as the snow starts at Rainham (above)
and Redwing in the woodland at the same site (below).


 I have never known a winter like this for birds in London. We’ve had hard winters before, sure, but the constant movement of out-of-place hard-weather migrants across the city is unprecedented as far as I can recall (and I’m going back to the late Seventies).

Here’s an example. Every birder dreams of finding Waxwings, and I’m no exception. Since I started birding in 1972 I have always looked out for them, with no joy; this month, I have found the species four times, three of them in London (at my two local patches of Alexandra Park and Rainham Marshes) and once in Buckinghamshire. Picking them up on call in the woodland at Rainham on my last visit with Luke Tiller and latching on to four birds flying away was one of the highlights of the year. Luke later got lucky with a fly-over Snow Bunting - touché!

Another highlight would have been the Thames at Rainham this week – had I been able to get there. My car was iced in for five days on the grit-free skating rink of a hill where I live, during which time both Smew (a would-be Rainham tick) and Gannet (ditto for London) have both appeared on the river. And then there’s the countless parties of White-fronted Geese, not to mention Bean and Pink-feet, that have been flighting over the city in the last couple of days.

Instead, I’ve been enjoying the birds flocking to my garden feeding station – the best part of 30 species have appeared during the past week, including up to 12 Goldfinches, five Chaffinches and a few oddities such as Blackcap, Redwing, Ring-necked Parakeet and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Oddest of all was the Meadow Pipit which I flushed from a front garden a few doors away – a bizarre sight indeed in the suburbs of north London.

Alexandra Park's first Green Sandpiper since 1985.
Two Water Rails shared the same ice-free flood with the Green Sand.
A drake Shoveler tries to get comfy on the boating pond ice.
Aythya hybrids 1 (above) and 2 (below) on the Tunnel Reservoir in
Alexandra Park - perhaps offspring of the same parents?


I also did a circuit of Alexandra Park on Sunday, and lucked into the first Green Sandpiper there for 25 years – another great find by Gaz Richards. With a couple of showy Water Rails, a duo of lookalike Aythya hybrids and Skylark and Meadow Pipit on the move, it was a timely reminder that there is plenty to be seen right on my doorstep.

Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
161. Waxwing.

Alexandra Park patchlist 2010 update:
90. Green Sandpiper.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Payback time

Violet-crowned Woodnymph: schemes such as the World Land Trust's
will benefit birds and habitats in regions like the Neotropics by helping
to offset emissions, an unwelcome by-product of year-listing.
With Shag and Grey Phalarope added this week, my London year-list now stands at 213 species - the second-highest total ever recorded. That figure includes the Barnacle Goose at Rainham during January's cold spell, a bird regarded as acceptable by many, but I am still missing a few potential additions - take a look at my wants list for details. Four more additions before the New Year would see me set a new London record, so with another wave of cold weather now descending on the UK, it is time for a last roll of the dice - starting tomorrow at Rainham.

But there is another side to year-listing that needs addressing. It is not the most environmentally friendly activity, I freely admit, so in view of the mileage I've covered in and around the capital during the year, I will be making a donation of 50p per species to a wildlife charity/carbon offsetting scheme, which will be more than sufficient to counter greenhouse gas emissions from my driving over the past 12 months. There are a number of such schemes and I need to research the best options, but one likely candidate has to be the World Land Trust's Carbon Balanced scheme; other suggestions are welcome.

Should I be lucky enough to set a new record and reach 217 species, I will double the donation to £1 per species - so there will be a direct benefit to birds from my year-listing efforts. Every tick therefore helps!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Two days, two more ticks

Two of a kind: immature European Shag (standing) and adult Great
Cormorant (swimming) at Walthamstow Reservoirs.
Wikileaks founders Julian Assange has been arrested, United are top of the table, US peacemaker Richard Holbrooke has died, Matt Cardle won the X-Factor and my chest infection is better (thanks for asking). Yes, a lot has happened (of varying degrees of importance) since I was last able to get out into the field, but at last the hunt for new London year birds has resumed - and with some success.

Yesterday there was enough time for a short local diversion to the far side of Tottenham, where the immature European Shag found by Pete Lambert on Sunday continued in residence on East Warwick Reservoir (thanks to Lol Bodini for the update). David Callahan and I were pleased that the bird decided to wake up while we were watching it, and as I was travelling light David lent me his camera to snatch the above record shot.

12 Common Eider, including a few young drakes, head upriver at Grays.
I took this morning off to try and catch up with another target bird, an intermittent Grey Phalarope at Grays. Dave Darrell-Lambert had it first thing, but the bird had absconded by the time I arrived. While scanning the river in case it had ventured further out, however, I picked up a flock of Common Eider on the water. I immediately called Dave who returned to see them, and we both photographed the birds as they took off and headed a short distance back upriver. An impressive number, it was only the third time I had seen the species in London, yet the second in a fortnight. What else will this winter bring?

The Grey Phal gives up playing hard to get and chases around after
slim pickings in the ebbing tide off Grays beach. A class bird.


Eventually, after plenty more scanning in freezing temperatures, I picked up the phalarope to the east of its normal location. It was gone again in a flash, but I finally located it up closer in to the shore, and snatched these record shots. Along with single Eurasian Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit, almost 100 Dunlin and 80 Redshank, four Grey Plover, seven Ringed Plover, numerous Northern Lapwings and three Turnstones, the place was jumping with shorebirds - nine species is excellent going for the Grays foreshore.

One of the four Grey Plovers at Grays today - a good showing locally.
London year-list update:

212. European Shag.
213. Grey Phalarope.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Bring out the bunting

My fifth bunting species in five days at Rainham RSPB, this dapper
Snow Bunting is shown at the entrance to the reserve shop ...
... and perched on the roof of the visitor centre before it absconded.

I went to bed with a bad headache and a tickle in my throat last night, and woke up feeling decidedly grim today. Nonetheless, hoping it would pass, I left early for work the long way round, taking in this fine Snow Bunting at Rainham en route. I was lucky with my early 10-minute stop-over - it took Jono five hours to see the bird later on. Feeling increasingly wiped out as the day progressed, however, I have now succumbed to a nasty infection, resorting to anti-biotics and rest. Thankfully, we've just had press week, so at least the next issue of Birdwatch is already in hand, and should start dropping through letterboxes in the next few days. Meanwhile, time for bed ...

London year-list update:
211. Snow Bunting.

Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
160. Snow Bunting.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Merlin's magic

Sleeker, longer-legged and more elegant than its congeners, this
rather long-billed third-winter Caspian Gull has a Polish colour ring.
Adult Caspian Gull with a shorter bill and dark-looking eye (though the
iris was actually quite pale through a zoom lens). A clean-cut beast.
Another adult Caspian - clearly a longer-billed bird than above. Note the
long, washed-out yellow legs (much brighter in Yellow-legged) and lime
tinge to the bill. A distinctive gull which stands out from the crowd.
This was the second third-winter Caspian from today's session. The dirty
head spoils the bird's jizz, but note bill length, shape and colour, and legs.
The planned search for Merlin at Rainham this morning could scarcely have gone better. First, though, I stopped off at the tip, unable to resist the lure of so many massing gulls, and was quickly joined by a passing Jono Lethbridge. In total we had four Caspian Gulls, including a colour-ringed third-winter (apparently Polish - details to follow), and six Yellow-legged Gulls.

Then it was on to the marshes, where Howard Vaughan was already in position on the mound at Wennington. Within five minutes, Jono managed to pick up a perched female Merlin, which we all then watched as it hunted (unsuccessfully) over the target pools before heading off east. Another welcome year-tick, and one I hadn't expected to fall so quickly.

Such was my euphoria that I refuse to let a much-wanted Snow Bunting which turned up an hour after I left spoil things - it was a great morning by any stretch.

London year-list update:
210. Merlin. 

Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
159. Merlin.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Brass monkeys

Redwing in freezing conditions at Bookham Common today.
It's late, so a brief update after a cold trip out to the western sector of the London Area. With two Red-necked Grebes present in recent days I had high hopes of finally catching up with this rare winter visitor, and it duly came today on the west London reservoirs (where perhaps just one bird has been seen at both Queen Mother and Wraysbury Reservoirs). It was a little too foggy for photography, but the bird showed reasonably through the scope; the bill base was quite strongly yellow, and it had a slight dark line below the rear crown, as if possibly retained from juvenile plumage (but I don't get enough practice ageing Red-necked Grebes - does anyone?). Also noted were a Green Sandpiper, presumably frozen out from a favoured stream or pond nearby, a female Common Goldeneye and at least 20 Great Crested Grebes.

It's a short trip on along the M25 to Bookham Common, a National Trust site famously home to a long-running London Natural History Society flora and fauna survey. I negotiated some icy lanes and by-ways before finally hitting the right location, thanks to directions from Johnny Allan, and met up again with Neil Randon (aka Factor), who alarmingly seems to be acquiring the new nickname of Dipper (I first met him at Chertsey in the summer, when we both missed a Hoopoe - so he has form).

Poor views in fog and at range of at least two Hawfinches at Bookham.
Along with another birder we staked out the blackthorn bushes where several Hawfinches have been seen lately, but after 30 minutes with only a solitary Bullfinch, a fly-over Common Snipe and numerous Redwings for company, I set off on a circuit of the area. Returning back towards the original location, I noted two more Bullfinches and a Roe Deer before hearing several distinctive squeaky tic calls, and saw a bulky finch disappear through the back of a blackthorn - gotcha! I ran round to the other side of the bush to see at least two Hawfinches bounding away up into nearby tree-tops, and shouted across to the others, who had now been joined by Mike Spicer. Unfortunately, only one of them got onto the birds before they flew. And it wasn't Factor.

London yearlist update:
208. Red-necked Grebe.
209. Hawfinch.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Weekend news

Four bunting species at Rainham on Saturday included this male
Yellowhammer (above) and up to nine Corn Buntings (below).

I set a slightly obscure personal record at Rainham Marshes yesterday, with four bunting species in a day - no mean feat in London in the 21st century. First up was a party of six Corn Buntings on the snow-covered saltings (nine were seen by Dave Morrison), followed by a welcome call from Jonathan Lethbridge alerting me to a pair of Yellowhammers - my first at the site since 2006. After a group of us had finished watching them, David Callahan and I proceeded to grill a very large Linnet flock to try and dig out a Twite.

Linnets massing at Rainham, seemingly without any Twite - so far.
Though Linnets dominated the loose gathering of more than 400 birds to the tune of about 90 per cent, there were also varying quantities of Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Reed Bunting. After about 40 minutes some of the birds settled by the path at Wennington Mound, so we worked through them one more time. Very quickly I was stopped in my tracks as the larger form of a brown, streaked bunting with a pale bill, rather plain face, chestnut wing panel and two white wing-bars scurried into view. As I stumbled to articulate what I was looking at, David almost simultaneously shouted: "Lapland Bunting!" He'd also got onto the same bird, and we watched it before phoning the news to Jono and the others. I should have taken photos while I had the chance, however, as before long the flock took off, flew over the edge of the dump, regrouped and settled further away.

Despite 10 of us searching for another two hours or so, we couldn't relocate it in the mass of birds, which were by now spread out more widely away from the path. No doubt it is still present and hopefully it will be refound. Other species of interest included 12 Northern Pintail, Marsh Harrier, Water Rail, six Grey Plovers, several European Golden and Ringed Plovers, c. 1,000 Dunin, one Bar-tailed and two Black-tailed Godwits, and about five Yellow-legged Gulls.

Sunday's routine was interrupted by the astounding news of a juvenile Common Crane which had arrived at Beddington, on the opposite side of the city (amazingly, the second site record this year). Bob Watts and I responded immediately, and fortunately the bird stayed settled on a small island on the main lake. Time was short so we didn't linger, but it was great to see this species in London after the disappointment of the trio at Tyttenhanger that proved to be ringed, and thus probably released birds. Thanks to Franko, Johnny Allan and the Beddington birders for getting the news out so quickly, and for enabling access to the site.

An unexpected addition to my London list: juvenile Common Crane.


London life list:
275. Common Crane.

London year-list update:
207. Common Crane.


Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
158. Yellowhammer.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

From Russia with love

Refugees from the frozen Continent, these Bewick's Swans will have
originated in Russia and probably reached London via the Low Countries.

It’s been an exceptional week, with the early freeze-up providing unprecedented early winter birding in London. On 1st, with the car firmly iced in, I set out on foot across Alexandra Park for the Birdwatch office. I had already notched up a decent tally by the time I got to the filter beds, with 10+ Northern Lapwings (Gareth Richards had another 100+), two Reed Buntings (a local rarity), three Skylarks, Meadow Pipit, Fieldfare and an Aythya hybrid all logged in very wintry conditions. But then came a flock of 10 Waxwings – unbelievable! Though they were on the move, they at least had the decency to fly on past the office window, where Ian and David also logged them. I was delighted with this first site record, but hopefully more will appear and other local birders will get a chance to see them.


Next day saw a lunchtime dash to Rainham, where I met up with Bob Watts to score a Common Eider found by Andy Tweed, Phil Street and Dave Smith (it was a London tick for high-listing Bob). No sign of any of yesterday’s Pomarine Skuas, however, so it was straight back to the office to continue passing January’s Birdwatch for press.


But the party wasn’t over. Today an early morning alarm call from Bob saw me back in Alexandra Park watching a herd of seven Bewick’s Swans that he’d found in the half light - my second patch tick in three days. Three adult-types and four juveniles, they were an extraordinary sight against the backdrop of suburban north London. It turns out that at least 51 Bewick’s Swans were seen in London today, the largest group being 27 which dropped down on the Thames briefly in Aveley Bay; our birds headed off north at 10:28 am. Whatever next?

This Aythya hybrid shows characters suggestive of both Tufted Duck
and Common Pochard - or is another species involved?
London year-list update:
206. Common Eider.

Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
157. Common Eider.

Alexandra Park Patchlist 2010 update:
87. Reed Bunting.
88. Waxwing.
89. Bewick's Swan.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...