RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

It’s citizen science time again. I got thirteen species this year, which is actually about par; my record is nineteen, but I’ve had several years which were much worse.

Carrion Crow × 3
Magpie × 2

Feral Pigeon × 1
Woodpigeon × 1

Blackbird × 1
Robin × 1
Dunnock × 2

Blue Tit × 1
Great Tit × 4
Coal Tit × 1
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Goldfinch × 1

It’s a rather boring list, even by suburban London standards; no sparrowhawk, nuthatch, woodpecker, siskin, greenfinch, stock dove… but never mind.

Bird of the Year 2014

I added eight birds to my life list this year, all in Portugal; including two species of vultures, five eagles, two storks, two bustards, bee-eater, roller, hoopoe, golden oriole, two kinds of shrike, two kinds of swift…

Among the species I’d seen before, highlights included Montagu’s Harrier, which is an elegant, long-winged bird of prey that I had wonderful views of; Southern Grey Shrike, which I’d seen before in Morocco and Spain, but certainly never so well; Black Stork, a species I last saw over twenty years ago on the day I did a bungee jump at Victoria Falls; Pallid Swift, because I had previously ticked it on the basis of a somewhat dodgy sighting, so a really good sighting was a weight off my mind (and also because it was picturesque to see them nesting on cliffs overhanging the sea). Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are certainly worth mentioning as well, although neither were particularly good views.

And there are all those Mediterranean species which are always a pleasure to see: Black-winged Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, Crested Lark, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Serin, Cirl Bunting.

One of the particular attractions of the trip I took was the unusual cliff-nesting storks. These are White Storks, the ones better-known for nesting on chimneys (and bringing babies). Along this particular bit of the Portuguese coast they’ve developed the habit of nesting on rocks just offshore. I think there are probably at least ten or eleven nests in this picture, although admittedly you may have to take my word for it:

storks

You should at least be able to make out the streaks of guano, and the flying white bird with black wingtips in front of the left-hand rock. Here’s a photo, taken through binoculars, of a nest which was unusually close to the cliff:

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Of the eight species I saw which were new, the least interesting was Iberian Chiffchaff: a bird which is effectively identical to the (very common, small, drab) Common Chiffchaff, but with a different song. I didn’t even definitely see one — I saw chiffchaffs that weren’t calling and heard Iberian Chiffchaff singing — but I’m ticking it on the song.

Then there was Western Bonelli’s Warbler, another little greenish bird in the same genus as the chiffchaffs. I have to say, it was a much more attractive bird in person than you would think looking at illustrations; but that’s not saying much.

Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture, if you want to avoid confusion with the New World species) is a cracking species — the largest bird of prey apart from the condors, with a wingspan from eight to ten feet — but again, not particularly good views. Spanish Imperial Eagle (or as my Portuguese guide tried to persuade me it was called, Iberian Imperial Eagle) is a majestic species which used to be the rarest eagle in world until good conservation work managed to upgrade it to the second rarest*; there were estimated to be 324 breeding pairs in 2012. Again, though, very distant views.

I also saw some Black-bellied Sandgrouse — the sandgrouse are ground-living desert pigeons, sort of — which was the first sandgrouse I’ve seen in Europe. And quite good views of a pair of Stone Curlew, which is a magnificent, goggle-eyed bird.

But when I booked a birding guide for a day, there were three species I particularly wanted to see: Little Bustard, Great Bustard and European Roller.

The roller is a truly spectacular species, a big electric blue bird the size of a crow with deep, royal blue patches on the wings when it flies. We spent a while watching them, and it would almost certainly be my bird of the year if it hadn’t been my winner for BOTY 2007.

Little Bustard is also a great species, and we saw them reasonably well; but my Bird of the Year 2014 has to be Great Bustard. I believe the world’s heaviest recorded flying bird was a Great Bustard; with the slight caveat that the particular individual may have been too fat to fly. On average it’s the second-heaviest, after Kori Bustard, and it’s a big beast of a thing. Here’s the distant, hazy photo I posted for BOTY:BPiaSR:

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Here it is zoomed into the centre a bit, clearly showing five birds:

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The two in the middle [enhance! enhance!]:

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But what’s so good about bustards is what they do to attract a mate. Stick with this video for at least a couple of minutes to get the full effect:

Amazing. I didn’t get views like that, sadly, but I did see them a bit closer than in my photos, and I did see them displaying, and they are brilliant birds.

*The massive, monkey-eating Philippine Eagle is now the rarest.

Bird of the Year 2013

Notable birds from last year: Whitethroat was a new one for the garden list; a fine male Red-backed Shrike at Barnes WWT was a real treat (and incidentally a London tick).

A Glossy Ibis was the first I’d seen in Britain although I didn’t get great views of it.

Bonaparte’s Gull — an American species — was a first for me, although it was a distant bird in winter plumage that had to be pointed out to me, so it was nice but not as exciting as it could be.

I picked up the two ‘other buzzards’ this year: Rough-legged Buzzard, which was a new species for me, but came with just enough niggling doubt that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have. Firstly because it was in May, which is pretty late for RLB, although by no means ridiculous. And also because I had good but brief views, which gave me time to note down enough key ID features to count it as RLB but not quite all the details I would have wanted, ideally, to tick a new species. In this case, I noted the wing and tail pattern carefully but didn’t make a mental note of any markings on the chest and belly… and it’s amazing how, even a few seconds after seeing something, if you didn’t consciously pick out a relevant detail, there’s no way you can recover it from memory. Birdwatching really undermines your faith in the idea of eye-witness testimony.

The other other buzzard, by contrast, was the ideal sighting. It was a Honey Buzzard which was spooked up into the air by a passing Common Buzzard, so the two of them were flying around together for a minute or so, giving me the chance to make a direct comparison of size, shape, and behaviour; and gratifyingly, my mental notes matched up pretty perfectly with the ID features listed in the book. Very satisfying. And that was a British tick for me, although I have seen Honey Buzzard before in France.

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But my bird of the year for 2013 was Spotted Crake; a new species for me, an attractive bird, and one which showed well — after a long and patient wait for it to show itself. I’ve spent a lot of time staring into ditches over the years, and it doesn’t always pay off; but this time it did.

» That’s not my photo, sadly. It is © Noel Reynolds and used under a CC-by licence. You can see a photo of the actual individual bird I saw at this post, if you want, but I needed a CC-licensed photo.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

I got 19 species this year, which equals my previous best.

blue tit × 4
great tit × 3
long-tailed tit × 2
coal tit × 1

chaffinch × 3
greenfinch × 1

dunnock × 2
robin × 3
nuthatch × 1

blackbird × 2
redwing × 1
song thrush × 1

ring-necked parakeet × 3
great-spotted woodpecker × 1
magpie × 2
carrion crow × 2

pigeon × 7
woodpigeon × 1

sparrowhawk × 1

It’s the first time I’ve seen redwing during the count; on the other hand no goldfinch(!) or goldcrest, wren, siskin, starling.

Code-switching warblers and birch sap bingers

It’s a lovely time of year to be out and about, now that the horrible weather has lifted: all the summer migrants are just arriving, some a bit late because of the weather, and the countryside is absolutely ful of birdsong: I went to the Lee Valley yesterday, and there seemed to be a whitethroat behind every leaf.

But for once I have a couple of natural history observations, rather than just a list of birds seen, both from Bookham Common a few days ago.

The first was birds feeding on birch sap. Birch trees sometimes produce enormous amounts of sap in spring; I was once in Richmond Park and was puzzled that I could apparently hear a tap dripping: it turned out to be a birch tree. Traditionally people used to collect the sap to make wine.

Anyway, at Bookham there was a silver birch with sap trickling down the trunk in various places where branches had broken off, and I saw first a male blackcap, then a blue tit, then a female blackcap, all coming to drink the sap. Which was neat.

It’s not a behaviour I can remember hearing about before, but it’s not surprising, really, birds are pretty adaptable. Google throws up a reference to it in British Birds from the 50s.

My other curious sighting was a warbler that was singing two songs, switching between chiffchaff and willow warbler.

Right at the beginning and the end (1.31) you can hear what it was doing when I first heard it, a combined song with a few notes of chiffchaff mixing straight into willow warbler; most of the rest is basic chiffchaff, with a burst of stand-alone willow warbler at 1.18.

This is apparently a reasonably common phenomenon, I found several discussions of it online: Birding Frontiers, Gwent Birding, and a whole thread on Surfbirds.

I did wonder if it was the result of hybridisation, but the general consensus seems to be that it is some kind of error or mimicry. I’m not sure if mine was a chiffy pretending to be a willow warbler or vice-versa, because I was focussed on trying to get a recording of it and TBH I’m not entirely confident of my ability to accurately split them by sight anyway.

Bird of the Year 2012

Starting with my garden, the most surprising record was a woodcock. Sadly not tickable, because it looked like this:

Presumably the fox got it. Which is a pity, although if it hadn’t I never would have known the woodcock had visited.

The other notable bird, also nocturnal and also slightly frustrating, was a little owl. I knew they were breeding nearby: I still haven’t seen one, but I did hear one calling when were eating in the garden this summer. So that’s one for the garden list.

Widening out a bit, I had my first local wheatear, in Crystal Palace Park, and great views of a firecrest in Dulwich Woods.

I suppose strictly speaking my ‘best’ London bird last year was probably a pair of common scoter, on the river at Rainham Marshes. Other nice London sightings: tawny owl in Kensington Gardens, a big flock of yellow wagtails at Barnes, green sandpiper at Crayford Marshes.

And, not-in-London-by-any-sensible-definition-but-within-the-London-Natural-History-Society-Recording-Area: I started off the year by finally managing to track down a lesser-spotted woodpecker at Bookham Common, after many attempts, and then a couple of weeks later also managed to see hawfinch there.

A fulmar at Oare Creek, brought down by bad weather, was an unexpected bonus.

My rarest bird of the year, and a spectacular species, was this:

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I know, isn’t that just the most amazing… oh hang on a minute, let me zoom that in a bit for you:

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It’s the one on the left, a red-breasted goose, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. And actually I had a better view of it than the photo would suggest: the iPhone/binocular combo doesn’t really do it justice.

But it’s not my bird of the year, because firstly, there’s every chance it’s not a wild bird; they are common in ornamental wildfowl collections so it’s possible it’s an escape. It was consorting with a huge flock of wild Brent Geese who had come in from Siberia, so that is in its favour, but who knows.

Also, because they are common in collections, I have seen many of them before, even if I haven’t seen wild ones. Also taken with my phone, no need for binoculars:

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And I went to twitch it, which is never quite as exciting as finding something for yourself.

No, I think my bird of the year ought to be the one which I was actually most excited by, which was: turtle dove.

Turtle doves have been in horrendous decline, down over 95% in the UK since 1970, and when I found one at Oare I was just thrilled. It was just completely unexpected — although when I pointed it out to a local birder they were totally unimpressed, so perhaps I should have been expecting it. But that would have made it less fun.

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And they are just lovely birds.

That’s not my picture, sadly; Tórtola común 30 de junio de 2011 is © Paco Gómez and used under a CC by-sa licence.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

This year’s list:

robin × 3
blackbird × 2
dunnock × 2

great tit × 2
blue tit × 4
coal tit

chaffinch × 3
siskin × 3

carrion crow

ring-necked parakeet × 2
starling × 2

pigeon × 4
woodpigeon

Which is pretty terrible, frankly. The siskins were a pleasant surprise, but I’m missing long-tailed tit, goldfinch, magpie, jay, song thrush, both woodpeckers, wren, nuthatch… even the numbers are a bit disappointing. But there you go.

Birds in London by W. H. Hudson (1898)

I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg after reading Hudson’s novel Green Mansions. The novel — a rather peculiar romance about a wild girl found living in the Venezuelan jungle — has has not aged particularly well; personally I found Birds in London much more interesting, although non-London non-birders will inevitably find it less so.

Some of it is interesting as colourful period detail; some of it simply as evidence of long term trends in bird numbers. Here’s a bit of period colour before I get onto the geekier stuff:

My friends, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Melford, of Fulham, are probably responsible for the existence in London of a good number of wandering solitary jackdaws. They cherish a wonderful admiration and affection towards all the members of the crow family, and have had numberless daws, jays, and pies as pets, or rather as guests, since their birds are always free to fly about the house and go and come at pleasure. But their special favourite is the daw, which they regard as far more intelligent, interesting, and companionable than any other animal, not excepting the dog. On one occasion Mr. Melford saw an advertisement of a hundred daws to be sold for trap-shooting, and to save them from so miserable a fate he at once purchased the lot and took them home. They were in a miserable half-starved condition, and to give them a better chance of survival, before freeing them he placed them in an outhouse in his garden with a wire-netting across the doorway, and there he fed and tended them until they were well and strong, and then gave them their liberty. But they did not at once take advantage of it; grown used to the place and the kindly faces of their protectors, they remained and were like tame birds about the house; but later, a few at a time, at long intervals, they went away and back to their wild independent life.

My reaction after a couple of chapters was that Hudson would be delighted by the number of birds that have returned to central London, and horrified by the number that have been lost from the surrounding countryside. And of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s broadly true. So, writing about small birds in the central parks (Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park), Hudson says:

Even the old residents, the sedentary species once common in the central parks, find it hard to maintain their existence; they have died or are dying out. The missel-thrush, nuthatch, tree-creeper, oxeye [great tit], spotted woodpecker, and others vanished several years ago. The chaffinch was reduced to a single pair within the last few years; this pair lingered on for a year or a little over, then vanished. Last spring, 1897, a few chaffinches returned, and their welcome song was heard in Kensington Gardens until June. Not a greenfinch is to be seen, the commonest and most prolific garden bird in England, so abundant that scores, nay hundreds, may be bought any Sunday morning in the autumn at the bird-dealers’ shops in the slums of London, at about two pence per bird, or even less. The wrens a few years ago were reduced to a single pair, and had their nesting-place near the Albert Memorial; of the pair I believe one bird now remains. Two, perhaps three, pairs of hedge-sparrows inhabited Kensington Gardens during the summers of 1896 and 1897, but I do not think they succeeded in rearing any young. Nor did the one pair in St. James’s Park hatch any eggs. In 1897 a pair of spotted flycatchers bred in Kensington Gardens, and were the only representatives of the summer visitors of the passerine order in all the central parks.

The robin has been declining for several years; a decade ago its sudden little outburst of bright melody was a common autumn and winter sound in some parts of the park, and in nearly all parts of Kensington Gardens. This delightful sound became less and less each season, and unless something is done will before many years cease altogether. The blue and cole tits are also now a miserable remnant, and are restricted to the gardens, where they may be seen, four or five together, on the high elms or clinging to the pendent twigs of the birches. The blackbird and song-thrush have also fallen very low; I do not believe that there are more than two dozen of these common birds in all this area of seven hundred and fifty acres.

Nearly all of those species can now be found in those parks. Not necessarily in huge numbers, but they’re all there, even the ones which had completely disappeared at the end of the C19th.

The only exception is the spotted flycatcher, which is a species that has declined by over 70% since 1970. When I was a child, we had a pair breeding in the garden in south London; I haven’t seen one around here for many years. And that points towards the other big pattern: the loss of birds in the countryside. Obviously the book is about London, but it does cover the suburbs where London blends into the countryside; which in 1898 meant places like Hampstead, Dulwich, Clapham, and Kew.

And Hudson’s lists for those places are a depressing reminder of how much we have lost. Tree pipit, redstart, wood warbler, barn owl, red-backed shrike, wryneck, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale, grasshopper warbler, cuckoo, yellowhammer, hawfinch, marsh tit: it’s extraordinary to think that all these birds were breeding within five miles of the centre of London. Some can still be found in a few places within the M25 if you know where to look, but some, like red-backed shrike and wryneck, are effectively extinct in the UK. Others, like the turtle dove, are probably going to join them sooner rather than later.

So, against this background of general decline, why are there more birds in central London than a century ago? Hudson blames the lack of birds in Victorian London on three main things: persecution, insensitive management, and cats. One thing he doesn’t mention, incidentally, is pollution. The fact that the Thames was too dirty to support many fish must have been one reason there weren’t any herons in central London, and it seems likely that the very smoky air would cause similar problems for birds, either directly or through an impact on insect numbers. And sometimes it must be that birds adapt to a new way of life: when Hudson was writing, the woodpigeon had recently changed from being a rural species with a few pairs in the older parks to a common London species. Perhaps there was some subtle change in the habitat, but it seems more likely that there was a change in the birds’ behaviour.

Of Hudson’s three suggested causes: well, there are still lots of cats in London, although there may be fewer strays, thanks to neutering campaigns and organisations like the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. And habitat management has certainly improved; local councils and the Royal Parks now see it as part of their job to encourage wildlife. Even in the past ten or fifteen years there has been a change, I think, and it’s clear walking around London parks that the traditional urge towards tidiness has been replaced by a willingness to leave areas of grass uncut, to leave dead trees in place, to allow patches of brambles and ivy. And among the public as well, there is more interest in wildlife gardening and more people putting up nestboxes and feeding the birds.

But the biggest cultural shift has been to do with human persecution. Already the passages I’ve quoted make reference to jackdaws being sold for trap shooting and wild greenfinches being sold as cage birds; the book also refers to the popularity of bird’s-nesting (i.e. egg collecting). All those things are now illegal and, perhaps more importantly, socially unacceptable. And the credit for that has to go to people like W.H. Hudson, who was a founder member of the RSPB.

A lot of birds were also simply shot. Shooting some species of bird is still legal under some circumstances, either for food or ‘pest control’, but clearly both gun control laws and environmental protections are vastly stricter than they used to be.

The other story was of a skylark that made its appearance three summers ago in a vacant piece of ground adjoining Victoria Park. The bird had perhaps escaped from a cage, and was a fine singer, and all day long it could be heard as it flew high above the houses and the park pouring out a continuous torrent of song. It attracted a good deal of attention, and all the Hackney Marsh sportsmen who possessed guns were fired with the desire to shoot it. Every Sunday morning some of them would get into the field to watch their chance to fire at the bird as it rose or returned to the ground; and this shooting went on, and the ‘feathered frenzy,’ still untouched by a pellet, soared and sung, until cold weather came, when it disappeared.

The most obvious beneficiaries have been birds of prey and crows, whose populations are still recovering from the impact of persecution and pesticide use. There were no birds of prey in Hudson’s London; even when I started birding 25 years ago, kestrels were about the only species. Since then, peregrines, buzzards and ravens have all returned to the southeast of England, and there are peregrines nesting in the centre of town. The sparrowhawk has replaced the kestrel as London’s commonest bird of prey. And thanks to a reintroduction program in the Chilterns, there is the occasional wandering red kite, raising the possibility that a bird which used to feed on the rubbish heaps of Elizabethan London might return after an absence of 235 years.*

I knew that birds of prey and ravens were recovering from very low numbers; before reading this book I didn’t fully appreciate that the same story was true of the smaller crows. Hudson spends a whole chapter on the now-common carrion crow, ‘the grandest wild bird left to us in the metropolis’, which he thinks is in danger of being lost from London, thanks partially to persecution by park-keepers who want to protect ornamental wildfowl. But even more surprising to me was this passage about magpies, which are now a very common and visible London bird:

The magpie is all but lost; at the present time there are no more than four birds inhabiting inner London, doubtless escaped from captivity, and afraid to leave the parks in which they found refuge—those islands of verdure in the midst of a sea, or desert, of houses. One bird, the survivor of a pair, has his home in St. James’s Park, and is the most interesting figure in that haunt of birds; a spirited creature, a great hater and persecutor of the carrion crows when they come. The other three consort together in Regent’s Park; once or twice they have built a nest, but failed to hatch their eggs. Probably all three are females. When, some time ago, the ‘Son of the Marshes’ wrote that the magpie had been extirpated in his own county of Surrey, and that to see it he should have to visit the London parks, he made too much of these escaped birds, which may be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Yet we know that the pie was formerly—even in this century—quite common in London. Yarrell, in his ‘British Birds,’ relates that he once saw twenty-three together in Kensington Gardens. In these gardens they bred, probably for the last time, in 1856. Nor, so far as I know, do any magpies survive in the woods and thickets on the outskirts of the metropolis, except at two spots in the south-west district.

I did actually know that magpies have spread into London relatively recently, because I have a copy of Atlas of Breeding Birds of the London Area from 1977, and it shows few breeding pairs in inner London. But the fact it had been completely extirpated from Surrey is really startling.

And while on the subject of crows, here’s a nice passage on jackdaws:

I have often thought that it was due to the presence of the daw that I was ever able to get an adequate or satisfactory idea of the beauty and grandeur of some of our finest buildings. Watching the bird in his aërial evolutions, now suspended motionless, or rising and falling, then with half-closed wings precipitating himself downwards, as if demented, through vast distances, only to mount again with an exulting cry, to soar beyond the highest tower or pinnacle, and seem at that vast height no bigger than a swift in size—watching him thus, an image of the structure over and around which he disported himself so gloriously has been formed—its vastness, stability, and perfect proportions—and has remained thereafter a vivid picture in my mind. How much would be lost to the sculptured west front of Wells Cathedral, the soaring spire of Salisbury, the noble roof and towers of York Minster and of Canterbury, if the jackdaws were not there! I know that, compared with the images I retain of many daw-haunted cathedrals and castles in the provinces, those of the cathedrals and other great buildings in London have in my mind a somewhat dim and blurred appearance. It is a pity that, before consenting to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren did not make the perpetual maintenance of a colony of jackdaws a condition. And if he had bargained with posterity for a pair or two of peregrine falcons and kestrels, his glory at the present time would have been greater.

I couldn’t agree more. Sadly there are still no jackdaws on St Paul’s, but Hudson would be delighted to know that there are peregrines nesting on the Houses of Parliament. Which seems like a suitably upbeat point to end on; I could keep talking about this stuff for ages, but this post is quite long enough already. If you really still want more, you might as well read the book.

* to quote Hudson: “Brave and faithful starlings! we hardly deserve to have you back, since London has not been too kind to her feathered children. Quite lately she has driven out her rooks, who were faithful too; and long ago she got rid of her ravens; and to her soaring kites she meted out still worse treatment, pulling down their last nest in 1777 from the trees in Gray’s Inn Gardens, and cutting open the young birds to find out, in the interests of ornithological science, what they had eaten!”

» The three pictures were all taken by me in London.

Ring-necked parakeet is a species which had been breeding in the London area for decades but the numbers have absolutely exploded in the last ten years. There are various urban legends about them being descended from birds used in the filming of African Queen, or from birds owned by Jimi Hendrix, but really there’s no need for a special explanation for escaped cage birds; feral parakeet populations are also found in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Miami, Madrid, Amsterdam and so on.

Woodpigeon was a newly urban species when Hudson was writing at the end of the C19th and is still common.

Coot was not found in London in 1898 but is now present in very large numbers; every scrap of water seems to have a large untidy coot’s nest on it.

The Thames path, Crayford Marshes to Charlton

Crayford Marshes is a patch of grazing marsh on the south bank of the Thames east of London — Dartford, roughly. I heard about it as a birding spot, and a few weeks ago I went to check it out.

But it’s quite a small site and quite a long way away, so I decided to combine it with walking a section of the Thames Path. When I was walking the Thames path a few years ago I walked east to west, starting at the Thames Barrier at Charlton and eventually getting as far as Teddington; this time I added a section to the beginning of that walk.

Crayford Marshes itself was nice enough: it’s basically a fragment of the landscape which would once have been typical of the whole area, and which, thanks to some strict environmental protections, is still found all along much of the north Kent coast. It’s not actually a natural landscape — it’s managed for livestock and there’s a whole system of drainage ditches and embankments to keep the sea out — but it certainly feels wilder than most of the space around London, and it’s important for wildlife.

Crayford Marshes is less impressive than some of the larger areas of marshland out in Kent, but has the advantage, for birders who like to keep lists, of being in London: i.e. anything you see there can be added to your London list. It’s within the modern boundaries of Greater London, as well as the more generous London Recording Area as defined by the London Natural History Society, which is within 20 miles of St Paul’s cathedral — a somewhat arbitrary area which thankfully includes several of my favourite birding spots which would not be included in a more sensible definition of London.

I didn’t get any very spectacular birds, but I did see my first swallow and whitethroat of the year, and lots of linnets, and green sandpiper, and the lapwings were calling, which is my favourite noise in the world. And I saw little egret, which is sort of my first for London.*

Just in the middle of the marshes there’s some light industry — a scrap metal yard and some yards that looked more like distribution centres than actual manufacturing. I was just taking pictures of rusty metal textures and a man from the Environment Agency come over to say “I’m not being funny, but you want to be careful taking pictures here” and explained that the owners of the scrap metal place had been quite aggressive and accused them of taking pictures when they hadn’t even been doing it, and that they seemed to be “a bit funny about photography”.

And of course, it’s not difficult to imagine why scrap metal dealers might not want people taking pictures of their premises; particularly people from government agencies. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they were paranoid nutters rather than criminals. Either way, I took the advice and was discreet with the camera for a bit.

Once you leave the marshes and go past Erith Yacht Club, it’s a mixture of industrial stuff and housing pretty much the whole way. Among the identifiable things are the familiar piles of gravel and sand waiting, presumably, to be turned into concrete somewhere; a big sewage treatment plant, and a site generating electricity from waste incineration.

The most striking thing, for me, was that when I walked west from Charlton originally, I was walking past a similar mix of housing and industry, and I had a sense of being out on the fringes of London. This walk reminded me that I was nowhere near the edge of London that time; there is miles and miles more of that stuff stretching out along the river.

The sewage treatment plant at Crossness is on the site of one of the Victorian pumping engines installed as part of Joseph Bazalgette’s great scheme to build sewers for London. There was one pumping station on each side of the river, and Crossness was responsible for pumping all the sewage of south London into the Thames. Apparently they didn’t actually treat the sewage in those days, they just timed the release into the river to coincide with the tide going out and let the tide sweep it out to sea. Which sounds pretty horrifying by modern standards, but was a huge step up from not having a citywide sewer system at all.

It’s fitting that the Thames Path goes past the old pumping station, because in central London, a lot of the route is directly above Bazalgette’s main sewer, which runs along under the Embankment.

Also at Crossness there is a little nature reserve that gets a few decent birds, but much of it is closed to non-members. I had a quick look but didn’t see much.

Most of the way, though, what you’re walking past is miles of big, modern, self-contained housing developments. These are generally pretty ugly, which is not really a surprise if you’ve spent any time in English suburbia. There is very little evidence, looking around Britain, of the building trade putting any emphasis on beauty when building mass-market residential property. And they are probably right about the commercial logic; compared to location, facilities and price, the physical beauty of the exterior of the property must come a long way down most buyers’ priorities. But the cumulative effect is pretty deadening.

There are a couple of bits of variety: the old Woolwich Arsenal has been converted into a rather more upmarket area of housing and offices, and at Woolwich itself, you at least go near a real town centre. It’s a pretty dismal town centre, but at least there’s some sign of the variety of human life, instead of the endless ranks of apartment blocks.

Incidentally, although the Thames Path represents an admirable modern effort to create a shared public space, it doesn’t aways feel very welcoming and communitarian. You spend a lot of your time walking along next to coils of razor wire, or outside eight foot concrete walls topped with downward-pointing spikes. It seems appropriate when you’re passing commercial properties, but it does feel hostile when you’re going past residential estates — although I appreciate that families don’t want their stuff nicked either.

The Thames Path was sent on a temporary detour at the end, so I didn’t actually get to walk along the river to the Thames Barrier where I started the first time. Which was a pity.

Anyway, you can see more photos from my day on Flickr, and pictures from the rest of the route as well. The other blog posts about the Thames Path are here.

* ‘sort of’ because, from memory, it’s my first in Greater London but not my first in the London Recording Area.

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.

Furry great tits

The cats are shedding at the moment — at times recently Dolly has seemed like a walking cloud of hair with a cat faintly discernible somewhere in the middle.

So I got a Furminator to help collect some of the excess, and that means great big clumps of cat hair to dispose of, so I put it out for the birds to use as nesting material. And it has been gratifyingly popular.

Incidentally, it is amazing how much you can rescue a picture taken in RAW format. I didn’t have the right camera settings when I took these pictures and they were all overexposed; especially that last one. This is what it looked like when I downloaded it from the camera:

And basically all I did was turn down the ‘Exposure’ setting in iPhoto, and a little bit of fiddling with the sharpness and the white balance. The adjusted version is hardly perfect, but when I saw it I assumed it would be completely unusable, so I’m pretty happy with the result.

Happy spring, everybody.

There has been plenty of evidence of spring for a few weeks now — crocuses, bumblebees, birdsong, hay fever — but yesterday was the vernal equinox, which is the cue for lots of people to say that it’s ‘officially’ the first day of spring. I don’t really see why astronomy should get to trump biology; the self-importance of the mathematical sciences, probably.

Though actually, if you must fit messy old nature into tidy human boxes, it’s not a bad approximation for when spring gets properly underway. The first spring migrants have just started arriving in the past few days: yay wheatears.

Meanwhile the pond has been full of toads gettin’ jiggy with it. Except that suggests something lively and maybe even fun, whereas toad sex appears to be a grim, attritional feat of endurance. The males clamp onto the females for days at a time; often you find two or three attached to the same female. And sometimes the females drown under the weight, so you find several males clasped implacably to a corpse. Romantic!

In other garden wildlife news, we have this exciting bundle of feathers:

Exciting because it used to be a woodcock, which is a really unexpected addition to the garden list… except that it can’t actually go on the list because it’s just some feathers. Still, a nice meal for one of the local foxes. Or possibly a cat? Not one of our cats, partly because they’re shut in at night but mainly because they definitely would have brought it into the house. Which is what Oscar did with this (you can see the shadow of his ears at the top):

It’s a big beetle grub; I’m pretty sure it’s a stag beetle, although they normally live underground so I don’t know where he found it.

I went along to the north Kent marshes a couple of days ago. More signs of spring: a comma (the butterfly, not the punctuation) and a lizard, plus I saw a few wheatears, which would be one of my favourite birds even if it wasn’t the first spring migrant every year.

Plenty of the winter visitors were still there, though; brent geese, godwits, plovers, and most pleasingly a short-eared owl. I also saw peregrine, marsh harrier, buzzard, and had great views of a group of four bearded tits, which was bird of the day. But I don’t have photos of any of those, so I’ll leave you with this highland cow which was more willing to pose for pictures.

Mooooo.

Foggy finches

I made yet another trip to Bookham Common today, about my third this winter, to try and see the hawfinches there. People have been seeing them in ones and twos for some time, but over the past week there have been sightings of five or six, so it seemed like time to try again.

And: success! But slightly frustrating success. Because it turned out to be a foggy day, so I had what would normally be a pretty good view, not particularly close but perched out in the open, and instead of looking like this…

…it sort of looked more like this:

It was clearly the right species, but rather unsatisfying. A tickable view, but not much to show for a couple of hours walking around in the fog. Still, it was the first hawfinch I’ve seen in decades, so I shouldn’t complain.

It’s odd, birdwatching in fog. It’s hard to judge size and colour, and everything looks just different enough that it takes fractionally longer to identify even the commonest birds. And if you’ve gone somewhere particularly to look for a specific species, and the fog is just getting in the way, it’s mainly frustrating.

On the other hand, wandering through the mist, all your attention focussed on sound, every squeak and rustle around you… it has a pleasure of its own, if you’re in the right mood.

» The photo is © Rudo Jureček and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Wild geese

I went along to the Swale yesterday — on the Kent side of the Thames estuary — on what turned out to be a startlingly warm day, for February. Bare arm weather! And very nice it was too, to have several hours of uninterrupted warm sunshine.

Spring was breaking out all over: loads of skylarks all over the place singing their hearts out, my first singing chiffchaff of the spring, my first butterfly of the year (a peacock), a great big bumblebee, and less appealingly, clouds of black midges.

But the overwintering seabirds were still there; big flocks of lapwing, curlew, golden plover, avocet, and most spectacularly, brent geese:

This is the kind of place that George Osborne was referring to in his Autumn Statement when he said “we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

I can only assume the Treasury has a rule of thumb that, if conservation is actually working, it must mean we’re trying too hard.

It’s not just the wildlife itself which I think has value: it’s the fact that there is a place so near to London which actually feels a bit wild, a place where a person can feel small in Nature.

That wildness is a bit of an illusion; it’s a landscape gridded with seawalls, groynes and drainage ditches, all there to keep the sea and land decorously separate.

It must have been an amazing place in its truly natural state: a shifting, complex landscape of mudflats, saltmarsh, reedbeds, lakes, wet woodland, changing with the seasons and the tides. A wetland to compare with any in the world.

That landscape is lost forever. But at least we can try to hang on to what we have left. Not just as a refuge for the geese, so they can take a break from the Siberia tundra, but as a place where people like me can take a break from London.

Bird of the Year 2011

As I mentioned in BOTY:BPIASR, I’ve been a bit slow about this because it wasn’t a particularly interesting year for birds.But there were a few things worth a shout-out, including some I’d forgotten — I’m not very efficient with the records.

Last year waxwing was my Bird of the Year, and I could do worse than go for the same again, because in January the great waxwing invasion was still going strong and some of them turned up near my house, to give me more amazing views of what is after all an amazing bird. I’ve got the crappy pictures to prove it:

But it seems silly to give it to the same bird two years running.

I had a trip to Provence, but it was really out of season for most of the classic Mediterranean species, so I didn’t see much there, apart from lots of black redstarts and a couple of pied flycatchers.

A few trips to the Lee Valley have been very nice without throwing up anything earth-shattering. While it was wintry at the start of the year I saw some lovely smew and great, if brief, views of a bittern. Later in the year I got the usual Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, and hobby, and saw the very obliging kingfishers at the Rye Meads reserve.

Bookham Common provided me with marsh tit and bullfinch, as well as small tortoiseshell, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary, while continuing to frustrate my attempts to find purple emperor or lesser-spotted woodpecker (although, spoiler alert for BOTY 2012).

A couple of trips to the north Kent marshes gave me red-breasted mergansers, yellowhammers and bearded tit, as well as the usual shedloads of waders and ducks (curlews and oystercatchers and godwits and plovers and avocets and shelduck and teal and what have you… it’s a gorgeous place. Boris is a complete fucking philistine for wanting to turn it into an airport).

And on a jaunt down to the coast, to Rye Harbour, it was great to see the breeding Mediterranean gulls, little terns and Sandwich terns, as well as lesser whitethroat, although I managed to pick one of those days when it’s glorious sunshine but you have to walk at an angle to stay upright against the wind.

On the listing front… I don’t think I added anything to the garden list this year. A ring ouzel at Rainham Marshes was certainly a London tick, as was a Ruff at Barnes. Scaup was one for the British list. And I just had a couple of lifers this year. One was mealy redpoll, at Barnes. The other was woodcock, in Richmond Park, as well as a Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck hybrid which is sort of half a tick.

But my Bird of the Year is something I’ve seen plenty of times before: in Wales, in the Alps, in Arizona. Even so, when I was walking on the South Downs and heard that amazing grroonk sound that meant there was a raven nearby… that was my most exciting bird moment of 2011.

Ravens are wonderful birds; they’re huge (four foot wingspan!), jet black, and with a beak that looks like it could punch a hole in a car door… or make short work of your fleshy parts, given the chance. They’re intelligent and playful; you see them indulging in aerobatic tumbling, apparently just for the fun of it. And that amazing atmospheric sound:

Given their general awesomeness, it’s not surprising that they’re so culturally resonant: the ravens of the Tower of London; the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness; the two ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) who flew out every day to bring back news to Odin; and in some Native American mythologies, Raven the trickster god who created the world.

But the reason I was so excited to see one was simply that it came as a complete surprise. Not very long ago, and certainly when I started birdwatching, you had to go to the wilder parts of this country to have a chance of seeing ravens: mountaintops, windswept moorlands and craggy sea cliffs.

And so in my mind they are birds of wild places; but actually it was just that they had been hunted, trapped and poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers. And since I only keep up with bird news casually and sporadically, I was only vaguely aware that, like a lot of our predatory birds, better legal protection is allowing them to make a comeback. So that grroonk was a total shock and a happy surprise. Just as I never thought I would see peregrines over central London, I never thought I would see ravens over the South Downs.

So there you go. Raven is my winner of Bird of the Year 2011. Congratulations to the raven, and thanks to Leo called me that day and suggested it was a nice day for a walk.

» The raven photo is © Sergey Yeliseev and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. The alder wood bowl in the form of a raven is from the British Museum; it was made sometime in the C19th by the Haida people of British Columbia.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2012

It’s time for some citizen science again. I got 19 species, which turns out to equal my previous best. Not that I saw anything very surprising; it was mainly that I didn’t miss any of the very common species. As usual, the counts are for the maximum present at any one time.

feral pigeon × 5
woodpigeon × 5

blue tit × 5
great tit × 2
long-tailed tit
coal tit

chaffinch × 4
greenfinch × 2
goldfinch

robin × 2
wren
dunnock × 2
starling × 2

blackbird × 4
mistle thrush

great spotted woodpecker × 2
ring-necked parakeet × 3

carrion crow
magpie × 3

There’s certainly scope to beat that number — jay might be the most obvious missing species, and heron, goldcrest, green woodpecker, siskin, sparrowhawk, song thrush, collared dove, stock dove and nuthatch are all entirely plausible — but I’d have to get fairly lucky.

‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

The next sacrifice on the altar of mammon: British wildlife

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was pretty depressing all round, but there was one particular part of it that seems worth a comment. Which is that they will ‘review the implementation of the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives’. The Chancellor said:

We will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.

You might think that the Conservative party would instinctively see the value of trying to preserve something of our shared natural inheritance, so that there is still something there to hand on to our children and grandchildren. It seems like a good, traditional conservative instinct. But no, for George Osborne the environment is just another kind of red tape that is getting in the way of the only thing that matters: private enterprise.

I’m never quite sure what’s going on with people who place so little value on the environment. The first possibility is that they just don’t care. They’ve never had any interest in wildlife, they couldn’t recognise the most common birds in their own garden, they’d rather see a well-manicured golf course than a scruffy bit of pasture with wild flowers growing on it. They’ve never had an emotional relationship with the natural world, and so the idea of habitats being destroyed and species going extinct simply has no resonance for them. And if you feel that way, then if the choice is between creating jobs or preserving a piece of habitat… well, there’s no conflict to be resolved.

And I’m sure there are those people: people who regard the whole idea of ‘the environment’ as ridiculous sentimental tosh. But I’m not sure they’re the majority. Most people at least like to see butterflies and hear birdsong, they enjoy the bluebells in spring and the leaves changing colour in the autumn. But there is an idea, I think, that environmental concerns are exaggerated. Because if you walk through the British countryside in May, everything is an incredible lush green, the hedges are thick with white hawthorn blossom, the verges are full of cow parsley and oxeye daisies, and there is a bird singing in every bush. Everything seems right with the world.

But actually the British countryside is profoundly ecologically impoverished. Just this week we had the release of new official government figures showing that farmland bird numbers are at their lowest ever, down 50% since 1970. That’s a 50% decline over a period when the environment has been a relatively strong political issue; and 1970 was hardly some kind of pre-industrial idyll anyway. And even that 50% figure doesn’t tell the whole story, because that’s the overall number: when you dig into the details, it turns out that some species have held up relatively well — which means that others have declined catastrophically.

The list of badly-hit birds makes incredibly depressing reading. It includes many of the species that once would have been seen as the most typical species of the British countryside, the birds that we have poems, Christmas carols and nursery rhymes about: cuckoo, skylark, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale. Others are less famous but no less typical: yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit, redpoll. Some of them are generally much less common and harder to find; others have been eliminated from large parts of the country altogether. Many of the species I’ve mentioned are down by 70%; the worst-hit, like the turtle dove and the grey partridge, are down by over 90%.

And it’s not just birds. Take butterflies, for example; many of the less common butterflies in the south of England are downland species: that is, they live on chalk hillsides, preferably grazed by sheep. Well, there’s chalk all the way across the country, and there are still plenty of sheep, but if you want to find those butterflies, you have to go to special sites managed for wildlife by conservation charities. Think about what that means: those species coexisted with agriculture for thousands of years. No-one made any special effort to protect them. Now they only hang on in little scraps of land which have to be specially managed for their benefit.

There was a time when the normal farmland which makes up the vast bulk of the British countryside was a fairly rich habitat, supporting a wide variety of wild flowers, insects and birds. But with modern farming practices that’s really not true anymore. There are various different reasons — pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are part of it but not the whole story — but the result is that a lot of modern British farmland is biologically pretty sterile.

That BBC News article has a telling quote from Harry Cotterell, the vice president of the Country Land and Business Association:

Finally we might see a time when human beings are treated with about the same importance as bats, newts and dormice.

The thing is, I can entirely see that it can be incredibly frustrating for someone who is trying to run a farm or some other small business, when some government bureaucrat tells them that they can’t drain a pond because it has rare newts living in it. But the idea that human self-interest is being continually thwarted because we as a society are bending over backwards to put wildlife first… it’s just ludicrous.

Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

Wildlife round-up

I’ve actually done quite a lot of birding this spring, making the most of the freakishly hot weather, but I haven’t really blogged about it. So here are some pictures and whatnot.

First, some audio; this is all recorded with the built-in microphone on my phone, so apologies for the quality. These are marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes in Essex.

A nightingale, at Brede High Woods in Sussex, with what I think must be a blackcap in the background.

Birdsong in the evening at my local train station. A mixture of chiffchaff, song thrush, blackbird, and automated train announcement.

Another nightingale, this time from the Lee Valley, with ducks and geese in the background.

Man Orchid. So called because the flowers look like little men, although it’s hard to see that on this photo (even more amusingly man-like is the Italian Orchid, which isn’t actually Orchis berlusconii, but probably should be).

Some kind of broomrape. Maybe Ivy Broomrape? There’s something deeply fascinating about these parasitic plants.

A couple of Little Grebes.

An out of focus peacock on blackthorn.

Some sea-kale, growing down on the shingle by the sea-side at Rye.

And bringing us right up to date, a beetle I found in the garden today which I don’t remember seeing before. This is the Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietis. I initially thought it was some kind of parasitic wasp hunting for food or somewhere to lay its eggs, so I guess the mimicry is working.


Wasp beetle a video by Harry R on Flickr.

Birding again

The glorious summery weather is back, and I had a good day of birding today, just out of London. On the spring migrant front: masses of chiffchaffs and blackcaps, the odd willow warbler, a single swallow. Also treecreeper, nuthatch, buzzard and so on, but the bird of the day was bullfinch. To capture my immediate, pseudo-spontaneous reaction, here’s the tweet I posted at the time:

Wow. Bullfinch. What a genuinely incredible bird. I must try to see it more often.

And seriously, a male bullfinch in peak spring plumage is as beautiful as any bird I have seen anywhere, including barbets and toucans and hummingbirds… it is a proper cracker.

That’s not my picture, obviously, apart from anything else, it certainly wasn’t snowy today… but what a gorgeous beasty.

So, it was a lovely day out. The sky was blue, there was masses of blackthorn covered in bright white flowers, I saw about seven or eight species of butterfly*. Tasty.

And I was amused to find this on the pavement near my house:

Apparently the local drug dealers are sufficiently well organised these days that they sell their product in cute little cannabis-themed bags. I had no idea. The bag still smells of weed; oh the nostalgia. It almost makes me want to roll up, tune in and drop out.

* Definitely Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Orange-Tip; and I think Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell.

» The photo Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) male is © Steve Garvie and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Sumer is icumen in

Well, not actual summer, obviously. But it has been a week of glorious spring sunshine here, and I’ve been out and about enjoying it and doing some birding.

On Monday I  failed yet again to see Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in Richmond Park *shakes fist in general direction of south-west London*, but that was more than made up for by two birds. One was a woodcock — a sign that winter hasn’t quite left us yet, because they certainly don’t breed in Richmond. It was the classic brief view of it appearing from the leaf litter, flying a short distance and disappearing again, but it was a lifer for me so yay.

The other was the duck I used to illustrate my last post. I took the picture because it was an obviously odd-looking Tufted Duck, presumably a hybrid but I wasn’t sure quite what; turns out to be Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck. Which is cool, because Ring-necked Duck is an American species and a bit of a rarity in Europe, while Tufted is a European species and occasional visitor to North America… but like an anatine Romeo and Juliet, one pair obviously overcame the obstacles. If, that is, the parents were wild birds. I saw a black swan yesterday, and I’m quite certain that it didn’t fly here all the way from Australia. Not to mention the Mandarin Ducks, Egyptian Geese and Ring-necked Parakeets that breed in Richmond Park.

Still, it was an interesting bird. And the first time in a while, incidentally, that I regretted not having a paper field guide with me as well as the iPhone one, but fortunately the photos I took were good enough to let me work it out later.

And yesterday I had a good day up in the Lee Valley. I kind of hoped I might see a migrating Osprey, which didn’t work out. But I saw about eight species of duck, including Goldeneye, had a good view of a Water Rail, and the Chiffchaffs and Cetti’s Warblers were singing. And I saw my first Sand Martin of the year (that’s Bank Swallow if you’re American), and the best bird was a Pink-footed Goose in among the greylags.

And lastly, on Wednesday I went for a walk with a friend on the South Downs, and the skylarks and meadow pipits were singing, which was nice, but the most surprising thing was to suddenly hear a distinctive groonk groonk — raven!

I still think of ravens as birds of the really wild places; Welsh mountain tops, Scottish moors. Which they were, when I started birding twenty years ago. But actually they’re one of the most adaptable species in the world, living everywhere from deserts to the high Arctic. The fact that, when I was a child, you didn’t see them circling high over rolling farmland in southern England: that was a historical accident. It was the result of them being wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. And now they are protected, they are coming back; like the buzzards, the peregrines, the sparrowhawks. And they are a joy to see.

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