Barnes

I popped along to the London Wetland Centre at Barnes and had a very pleasant day; it was chilly but, crucially, not raining for once. The most unexpected birds were a flock of at least fifteen yellow wagtails. It’s a very attractive bird, and a species which has declined dramatically over the past few decades, so I don’t see them very often. So that was nice.

The other particular treat was seeing a couple of lapwing chicks. As you can see from this link, like most baby waders they are seriously cute. They were a bit distant to fully appreciate the fluffiness, but it was still nice to see them.

Almost the best thing, though, after a horrible wet april which has been holding back the migrants, was that the whole place was absolutely swarming with swifts, swallows, house martins and sand martins. I could watch swifts and swallows all day.

Here’s a recording of one of the Cetti’s warblers that was singing away in their normal invisible way:

And here’s a picture of one of the nice tame red-breasted geese in the wildfowl collection.

It may not be real birdwatching, but what a cracking bird.

Christmas food debrief, bitterns etc

I should note in advance: the bitterns are not part of the food debrief. I daresay they turned up on Henry VIII’s dining table, but not mine.

Food notes: the fruity stuffing was good, the pistachio one mainly tasted of parsley and garlic, which was pleasant enough but not very christmassy. The prunes in bacon were delish, a much better addition than sausages in bacon. Cooking a whole boned ham leads to Too Much Ham. I’m quite glad I did it this once, but I won’t again.

And actually I don’t think I’m going to do turkey next year; even with a (very expensive) free range organic slow-grown turkey, cooked beautifully, though I do say so myself, it’s just a big boring. The stuffing is much better than the actual bird. Maybe I’ll do a big joint of beef instead.

I had a great day birding today: I’d heard via the London Wetland Centre’s Twitter feed (@wwtlondon) that the cold weather had produced an unprecedented influx of bitterns. They aren’t sure whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or from the continent, but yesterday and today they’ve had 6 or 7 on site. Now bitterns are notoriously skulky and difficult to see, being streaky reed-coloured birds that live in reedbeds — and incidentally, I believe the American Bittern is rather easier to see than the European, for comparison — and last time I went bitterning at Barnes I saw diddly-squat, but I figured I’d never get a better chance.

And sure enough I had six sightings of bittern, each closer and clearer than the one before. The water was mainly frozen over, and they were presumably desperate enough for food that they were stalking along the ice just by the edge of the reeds, with their surprisingly large feet sliding with every step.

I also had great views of water rail, the bird you may remember me mentioning before which has, according to the book, ‘a discontented piglet-like squeal, soon dying away’. I saw four pairs, including telescope views of a pair preening each other about thirty feet away.

And my last special bird of the day was jack snipe, a smaller, less elegant and generally more self-effacing version of the normal snipe, but my second lifer of the day after the bitterns.

So some early contenders for the Bird Of The Year Award 2010. I do btw still intend to do BOTY 2009, but it can wait until my computer has been fixed. Using the iPhone for blogging works better than you might think but it’s no substitute when it comes to long posts with links and pictures.

Barnes birding

Had a nice day’s birding at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust place at Barnes. Didn’t manage to see or hear the Lesser Whitethroat which was apparently there this morning, but I did see Little Ringed Plover, which scratches one more species off my ’embarrassing gaps’ list: i.e. birds I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’ve never seen.

Other mildly notable sightings include Buzzard, which is common as muck over most of the country but not in the south east of England, loads of chirruping Sand Martins (i.e. what Americans call ‘Bank Swallows’), Lapwings making those extraordinary noises they make. And nice views of Reed Bunting:

bunting

Not a great photo, I know, but I’m just amazed I managed to get anything at all by holding the camera of my iPhone up to the telescope eyepiece.

Full bird list after the jump, (unless I’ve forgotten something; wasn’t taking notes).

The Thames path, Putney to Kew

And two months later, I get back on the Thames Path again. One exciting addition to the routine: sunscreen. Yup, proper sunny weather; spring turning into summer. And it made for a very pleasant walk; this section of the path feels almost rural. Admittedly, for much of the walk the rurality consists of little more than a few trees and about five feet of weedy verge, but in the full greenness of May, that was pretty good. In November, the impression of being in the countryside would no doubt be a bit weaker.

And if I list some of the plants that were in flower, it certainly sounds rural. Cow parsley, white deadnettle, wild garlic, lady’s smock (cuckooflower), hawthorn, elderflower, forget-me-not; I just love the names. And at this time of the year, everything is so green and full of life: even the sycamores, a tree I basically think of as an exceptionally big ugly weed, looked pretty good.

path somewhere towards the Kew end

There were some non-floral points of interest, though. Soon after Putney Bridge, you start walking past the boat houses owned by various schools and rowing clubs, and people rowing on the river. In fact my walk was pretty much the route of the Boat Race. Over the river you can see Craven Cottage, the stadium of Fulham FC, the football club owned by Mohamed “Prince Philip is a Nazi Frankenstein” Al-Fayed. For non-Londoners, Fulham (both the area and the football club) are best defined by the fact that, as much as they’d like to be, they just aren’t Chelsea.

Alexanders and Craven Cottage

The path here was originally a towpath, I believe. In fact, I think most of the Thames path from here on up to the source of the Thames follows the old towpath: that it, the path used by horses towing the canal boats along the river. I can’t quite imagine the logistics of it: what happened if someone needed to overtake? Or two boats approached from opposite directions? Was the whole river a big cat’s cradle of towropes?

It’s odd to think that, especially before the railways, the canals were the industrial arteries of Britain. They had advantages though: apparently one reason Josiah Wedgwood was a keen investor in canal-building was that, sending his porcelain from Staffordshire to London by road, 30% of it would break on the journey.

The path goes past a couple of nature reserves. One of them, the London Wetland Centre, describes itself as ‘the best urban site in Europe to watch wildlife’. I don’t know enough about the urban sites in Europe to judge that claim, but they’ve certainly done a really impressive job there. It was built on the site of a water treatment facility, I think, and they’ve created an impressive wetland area. Their headline success, I suppose, has been to attract bitterns in winter, but they also get a variety of waders and ducks, nesting terns, and a colony of sand martins (US: bank swallows). None of which is apparent from the Thames path, it has to be said, except for the sand martins which I watched for a while hunting for insects overhead. These are not sand martins; it’s a crow mobbing a heron.

While I’m writing about birds: it was mostly the usual stuff. Great views of a wren, singing beautifully with its little tail cocked up behind it; good views of a couple of blackcaps, singing even more beautifully and with impressive volume. A couple of exotics: the more unexpected was Egyptian Goose, a bird which is fairly well-established in England but I don’t see that often. No surprise at all to see Ring-necked Parakeets nesting in a tree by the path. They’ve been spreading out from further up the Thames valley for decades now, but in the last four or five years, numbers seem to have exploded: you hear them screeching in any bit of green space in London.

Nesting ring-necked parakeet

There are two marvellous urban myths about the parakeets. 1) They are all descended from a few birds kept by Jimi Hendrix when he was living in London. 2) They are all descended from parakeets used on the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Shepperton Studios. But no special explanation is needed for feral populations of exotic cagebirds — there are loads of them around the world. A couple of years ago, I had to resort to parrot-fancier websites to work out what species I’d seen in a park in Seville.

Rather unusually, the other nature reserve was designed to protect an exotic species: the Two-Lipped Door Snail, which, according to the informative sign, “is thought to have been originally been introduced accidentally by the Romans from mainland Europe, where it is much more common.” I support any excuse for protecting patches of urban woodland, but an exotic species of snail which is common in its native country seems like a low priority. But it has been here for a couple of millennia, so I guess we can grant it honorary native status.

Tommy Cooper

The path also goes past St Paul’s School. When I was on the school bridge team we once played a fixture against the St Paul’s E team. I think it may have been one of the few matches we won, so they can’t have been very good, but the fact the school could field five bridge teams still seems slightly extraordinary. In case you’re interested, I also represented the school at chess and fives. I was pretty rubbish at those too. No killer instinct.

» All these photos and a load of others have been posted to my Flickr account. You can see the whole Thames Path set or just the set for Putney to Kew. I’ve geotagged them so you can see them on a map but to be honest the locations are rather approximate.

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