Since we returned from Yorkshire we’ve had a number of short day or half-day trips in various places looking for different species. Luckily we’ve had plenty of good weather, so there’s a lot to get through…
Since we failed to find Nightjars in Yorkshire, I mentioned to my dad that they’re found regularly on the Ashdown Forest. Given that it’s only a 25-minute drive from the family home in Surrey, Dad offered to take Jem and I there on the Sunday evening. Jem and I also got our annual permits to the Walthamstow Reservoirs, which are right next to the housing development we now live on. We had a brief wander around part of the site and I saw a distant Kingfisher fly off across one of the reservoirs, as well as a few nice Common Terns swooping around. We also got talking to a local birder who gave us valuable information about what could be seen and where. We didn’t have a lot of time though, so we had to head off and get the train down to Oxted to see Mum and Dad.
We did a bit of research to find the most likely spot for the Nightjars and got there about an hour before dark, and we set ourselves a 10pm cut-off time as we needed to give ourselves time to drive to Croydon where we could get the last trains that would allow us to connect to the Victoria Line back up to Tottenham. Aside from a few Linnets and a couple of Mistle Thrushes we didn’t get much at all, despite perfect conditions. Just as we returned to the car (where Dad was listening to the World Cup Final on the radio) we heard a churring nearby, but we didn’t have time to turn back. As we drove out onto the main road I just caught a split-second glimpse of a Nightjar flit up against the dim sky and then back down into the darkness. I checked the train times on my phone and realised that we had time to go back and have another look, but it would mean we were in the risky situation of having to get the very last train at Croydon. By the time we were back where I’d seen the bird it had got very dark and although we heard more churring from two different locations, we didn’t get another look.
A couple of Sundays later we went back. As it was further away from the Summer Soltice it meant that sunset would be a little earlier, so it gave us a better chance of seeing them before having to leave. And it worked a treat. Conditions were perfect again after another warm and dry day and the insects were back out. All was quiet for the first half-hour, but then we suddenly heard some churring about 100 yards away. As we walked briskly towards it we also heard the brief ‘quip’ sound and the wing-clapping. Straight away a male Nightjar flew straight across the path right in front of us whilst another two did circuits around the trees to our left. For about ten minutes we had at least three birds displaying, although they weren’t easy to spot against the dark trees, so we only saw them as they flew straight over us each time. As suddenly as it had started it all went quiet again and all we got from then on was some churring in the distance. It was worth the effort though, and it meant my lifelist was now up to #405.
Just a few days later I was sat at my desk at work when I saw on Twitter that a Spotted Crake was at Rye Meads RSPB. It was near the end of the day and I wasn’t too busy, so my project managers at work let me sneak out a few minutes early. I don’t consider myself to be a ‘twitcher’, simply because although it’s nice to see new species and I do keep a record of what I’ve seen, I don’t go looking for rarities for the purposes of increasing my lists. I spend far more time looking for birds I’ve seen before and really enjoy watching (and photographing) than I spend looking for new species. However, on this occasion it was a bird that both Jem and I had wanted to see (we’d heard one in Finland earlier in the year), and it was at one of our local patches, so we went. The hide was kept open late so that anybody who was interested could come along and have a look. The bird wasn’t incredibly easy to see given its camouflage against the reeds on the opposite side of the small pond, but it came out several times and pecked around on the mud, so it was a good decision to visit (#406). Whilst we were there we also saw a few Green Sandpipers – my first in the UK this year – and just as we were leaving we watched a frantic peeping Kingfisher being chased around the pond by a Common Tern.
More exploration of the Walthamstow Reservoirs was needed the following weekend, so we decided to check out the site on the north side of the main road this time. Egyptian Geese, Little Egrets and Grey Herons met us as we walked up the left-hand side of the Low Maynard Reservoir. When we climbed the bank to the southern tip of the Lockwood we were greeted by lots of Common Terns, a Grey Wagtail, and a couple of Common Sandpipers (the first in the UK for us this year). We also saw a probable Peregrine flying away from the High Maynard towards the Banbury. We continued to walk around the perimeter of the site, seeing both Sedge and Reed Warblers on the way, followed by a pair of Hobbies overhead flying towards Tottenham Hale. The pathway to the northern end of the site brought us a Common Whitethroat and a battered Emperor Dragonfly, and on the way back round between the Lockwood and High Maynard we had a great close encounter with a Sparrowhawk clutching its prey. The Common Sandpipers were also still there although I wasn’t able to get a good photo.
As we trundled through August we had the trip to Birdfair to enjoy. Lots of Buzzards in particular were seen from the train on the way up. We briefly bumped into David Lindo and Clare Evans promoting the National Bird Vote (I supplied a few photos for this), we enjoyed a fine talk by Chris Packham on the Malta Migration Massacre, Darren Woodhead’s watercolour introduction, Mike Toms’s discussion on Owls (I bought his book straight afterwards which he signed for me), and we finished off with a fun catch-up with Peter Jones who led us around Andalucía last September.
Next it was time to go back to Rainham. With all the moving-flat business and all the other things we’ve done this year, we’ve only managed a couple of visits to Rainham Marshes, so it was time to put that right. A pair of Kestrels and a very distant Marsh Harrier were seen as we skirted the far western edge of the marshes and we made our way down Ferry Lane to the edge of the river, seeing Common Whitethroats, Pied Wagtails and Linnets on the way. A seal was swimming along the river surprisingly close to us, with just the top of its head above the surface, which was like a millpond. We also saw a couple of Common Sandpipers in the rocks, but no Black Redstarts (we haven’t seen any so far this year, and this was our best place for them last year). Plenty of gulls and a few Herons were seen as we passed the Tilda rice factory, but surprisingly few pigeons. The reason for this – as we found out from a cyclist who stopped to chat to us a bit further along – was a Peregrine that had scared them all off. We did see another good Kestrel hovering, and then a Sparrowhawk which floated over the landfill site. On the path we came across a dead Common Shrew…then, a few yards further on, a Pygmy Shrew…and then a bit further on, a rat. All deceased. The tide was much higher than we’re used to seeing and there were a number of anglers trying their luck. As we walked past two of them successfully caught small flatfish. As we neared the reserve there was a second seal out in the river.
In the reserve itself we saw some Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, Dunlin, Teal, an unusually-showy Water Vole, a Common Lizard and another Sparrowhawk. Lots of dragonflies and damselflies were still around, but no sign of any Hobbies. Were were quite late going around the circuit and had to rush the last mile to get back to the visitor centre before they locked up.
Another week goes by and this time it’s off to Amwell for our second visit this year. The weather was great – very warm and sunny – and there were plenty of the usual birds to see: Common Buzzards, Common Terns, a Kestrel, a very unwell-looking Rabbit, a few Blackcaps and Willow Warblers, a lone Common Sandpiper, plenty of Lapwings, a few Shovelers, Grey Herons, lots of Dragon and Damselflies, and lots of good-but-transient Kingfisher action. When we first visited Amwell back in the spring there was a small hide with lots of action around its birdfeeders, and a great Kingfisher just in front in the reeds, but the feeders were empty this time and there was very little going on. Not a great photography day, but a good day of birding nevertheless.
And so this brings us into September and to this weekend. Given the interesting reports I’d seen on Twitter this week, we decided it was time to pay a second visit to Wanstead Flats. As we left the flat and walked towards Blackhorse Road to get the Overground service to Woodgrange Park I briefly saw a Kingfisher fly out of a tree overhanging the narrow part of the Lea River on the eastern perimeter of our close – the closest one we’ve seen to our flat so far. Unlike our first visit to the Flats when we arrived from Leytonstone, this time we started from the Manor Park end to look for Common Redstarts. With on-and-off light spitting rain we struggled to find much of note in the Pub Scrub and Alex Scrub areas, aside from a distant Whinchat associating with a Common Whitethroat, a flyover Great Spotted Woodpecker. a couple of Robins and a few Starlings. We bumped into one of the regular local birders who told us that there were plenty of Spotted Flycatchers following a tit flock around the Long Wood area, so we walked off across the playing fields to see what we could find. I’d only seen one Spotted Flycatcher in the UK before – at RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset on a guided spring tour last year – so I was pretty excited. We saw two playful Kestrels chasing each other across the flats as we made our way westwards, but bird-wise we were generally struggling. Very brief glimpses of unidentified Whitethroat species were seen, and a juvenile Green Woodpecker was yaffling loudly at close quarters. As we found our way to the end of the Long Wood we got a male Blackcap, a Willow Warbler, and eventually found the tit flock, but it was comprised entirely of Blue and Great Tits. Time was getting on so we decided to head back in relative defeat, only to then see an interesting bird perched just ahead of us in a small isolated tree. A quick bit of binocular-wrangling and we had our first UK Spotted Flycatcher of the year, showing very nicely for a few seconds. I wasn’t quick enough with the camera, but it was a good moment nonetheless. Another Kestrel and a Sparrowhawk were seen as we reached the Alex pond, and then we got better views of a pair of Whinchats and a Lesser Whitethroat (again, my first confirmed one of the year). A nice Common Blue butterfly was spotted by Jem just as we were about to leave. A Redstart would’ve been nice, but it had turned out to be a great day’s birding anyway.