Sunday, 29 March 2015


Save Our Skylarks!

The signs are in place and the birds are singing and displaying, but it remains to be seen if the last few remaining pairs of Skylarks on Wanstead Flats are given the chance they need to successfully breed this year.

Early indications suggest there are as little as five pairs of Skylarks currently holding territory on this important grassland habitat on Wanstead Flats. This small fragile population are on the verge of being lost forever on one of London's last remaining breeding sites. This once common bird of our British countryside has seen a dramatic decline in its numbers, and has worryingly slipped onto the BTO's Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern in the last few years, having seen more than a 50% decline in its UK breeding population in the last 25 years. 

The biggest threat to our Wanstead Skylarks isn't the loss of suitable breeding habitat or the changes to agricultural farming methods but something much simpler...DISTURBANCE.

Sign, Wanstead, Skylark
Keep a look out for these signs around the breeding areas of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits on Wanstead Flats
That's right disturbance - it's a minor miracle that Skylarks have ever breed on Wanstead Flats considering its geographical location and its popularity, but somehow they do and that's worth fighting for. 

So what can be done about it? It's quite simple really, as the sign above clearly shows, between the dates of the 31st March through to 31st August - stick to the well trodden paths which criss cross the Flats and always keep your dog under control and on a lead when in the clearly signposted conservation areas, and that's it - simple.

Let's all play our part in helping and protecting this wonderful songster on Wanstead Flats...before it's too late!

Ground Nesting Birds, Wanstead
The Skylark and its typical ground nesting habitat on Wanstead Flats

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Woodcock clinched

Two glaringly obvious winter birds missing from my little old patch list are Short-eared Owl and Woodcock - both were becoming somewhat frustrating as I should have nailed them by now. I've missed Short-eared Owl on three occasions, and as for Woodcock, I've searched every piece of suitable habitat I know over the last few winters with no luck, as others continue to stumble across them all around me - but finally this all changed today.

After spending a large portion of the morning with Jono, which included a fair bit of time tracking down and then photographing another or the same smart male Wheatear I had earlier in the week - it'll be rude not to point the camera at such an appealing subject again. We met up with Nick (regular finder of Woodcock) and after exchanging typical bird related musings, we all headed over to what's left of the SSSI area - recently trashed carefully managed and cut back by the City of London Corporation! With time ticking I decided to call it a day, leaving Jono and Nick I walked the short distance back to the car, cutting through the Broom and passing my favourite cluster of Hawthorn (old Wryneck haunt) hearing the rustle of leaves, I turned around and bursting out of the scrub came a bloody Woodcock - get in, patch tick and not before time - I was beginning to think another winter would pass without catching up with one - now if someone could quickly find me a SEO, this winter wouldn't quite be as unproductive as I first thought.

Earlier, I also added Blackcap to the patch year list, bringing that total up to 73. Just 27 more to add if I want to reach my target for the year of a century - not especially significant number, but as I'm the only regular birder on the Flats who doesn't live within a stones throw of the patch, having to jump into the car each and every time I want to visit or to catch up with something someone else has found - I think that target is commendable.

male, spring, Wanstead
Not a Woodcock...
Male, Spring, Wanstead
...not a Woodcock
Male, Spring, Wanstead
...and not a Woodcock!
* Just the three photos SG ;-)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A Wanstead Wheatear

They have finally arrived - well one has!

News of the first Northern Wheatear on the Flats eventually filtered through to me - I'm not sure who this years lucky finder was as our usually reliable Wanstead bird news service (NC's Twitter feed) was putting in an early shift at work with presumably no access to a mobile, but I think it was Tim or Bob or even Dan who stumbled across the patch's first Wheatear of the year - around these parts it's always a good reason to celebrate.

Not knowing if the bird had quickly done a bunk or had even been savaged by a dog (I jest, but this is Wanstead) I chanced my arm and headed to the Centre Road car park for a late afternoon forage, and soon enough I found this smart male Wheatear parading up and down one of the well trodden pathways which criss cross the Flats. As expected with Wheatears in the spring it was quite flighty and wouldn't let me get too close with the camera, quickly flying across the road onto the open expanse of the fairground field, here looking more settled, I managed to grab a few shots before I had to dash off again.

I'm hoping these images will bring a smile to Steve Gale's face.

Male, Spring, Adult

Male, Spring, Adult

Male, Spring, Adult

Male, Spring, Adult

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A horny Chiffchaff

Seeing your first returning summer migrant is always a welcome sight, and my first this year was a rather predictable singing Chiffchaff in Long Wood on the Flats at the weekend.

There's always a small question mark over whether these early singing Chiffchaffs are actual migrants or just birds which have wintered in the UK and have now found their voice as we enter the start of spring.

Polen Horn, migration
Chiff-Chaff, Chiff-Chaff
But as the photos below show, this individual is showing a thick 'pollen horn' (a matted mass of feathers around its bill) which indicates this is a nectar feeding bird. As many of our nectar rich trees are yet to reach full blossom, this would suggest this bird has been using nectar as a high energy food source along its migration route in warmer climates (Spain, Portugal, etc) where spring is in a more advanced state and trees from the Citrus family are already in flower - so with confidence I'm happy to believe this little fella is a true summer migrant and not one of our UK wintering Chiffchaffs - welcome back.

Polen Horn, Chiffchaff

Heavily cropped photo showing the 'Pollen Horn' in a bit more detail - a messy combination of pollen, nectar and matted feathers

Sunday, 8 March 2015

At last...a little spring in my step

After a sterile few weeks, when birding on the Flats had become all to predictable and dull, actually very dull with a big fat capital D. It was good to finally receive news of a little bit of movement, with a Stonechat seen in the Broom fields - OK, it's hardly big news but it was something, and getting excited about a single Stonechat goes to show just how quiet it's been around these parts recently.

Stepping on to the Flats for the first time this year without wearing a hat or gloves, and to be greeted with blue skies and the feeling of warmth from the early morning rays of spring sunshine felt great. I soon found what I presumed to be yesterday's Stonechat in the Broom, but on checking the photos on my fellow patch workers blogs, it was clear this striking adult male was different to yesterday's 1st-winter bird - ooer, that's two birds in two days, the floodgates have opened!

Over the next couple of hours I did my best to try and find that 1st returning summer migrant without any joy, but I did add a Peregrine Falcon to the patch year list (68) and later enjoyed a Costa Coffee with Mr Croft as we watched at least two pairs of Skylarks displaying over the grasslands - it was a close call, but I think the Skylarks just edged the coffee for sheer enjoyment.

Wanstead, London

The rise in temperature had also encouraged a couple of our hibernating species of butterfly out from their over wintering haunts, I recorded both Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies, my first of the year and both looking in pristine condition.


Monday, 2 March 2015

Risk and Reward

On a recent trip to Rainham and the area around the Stone Barges, this Lesser black-backed Gull grabbed my attention as it flew from the direction of the landfill site. As it crossed the skyline I could clearly see it was dragging a foreign object along for the ride. What looked like a polythene bin bag had become entangled around one of the birds legs, and although it didn't show any real issues when flying this all changed when I followed its flight and it landed on the river Thames - it then started to struggle and failed to take off again!

Rainham, Gulls

Rainham, Gulls

Rainham, Gulls

Rainham, Gulls

Even a large, powerful Gull like a Lesser black-back couldn't find the strength needed to lift it self out of the water and take flight, as the additional weight taken on from a wet and saturated bin bag kept it firmly grounded. I continued to watch the bird struggle as it drifted down river on the tide, constantly flapping without success, with only a small hope of the polythene bag tearing and breaking free from around its leg, I can only imagine one inevitable outcome for this unlucky bird.

Whilst tip feeding Gulls scavenging on the remains of human waste will always reap the rewards of an ever wasteful society, there are risks for those Gulls who choose this unnatural but ready available means of food source, as sadly this Lesser black-backed Gull found out too its cost - stealing chips from unsuspecting day-trippers at the seaside might have been a lot safer option!