After a great time in Scotland the next day out was a damp Saturday where we headed over to Wimbledon Common in the hope of finding the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that had been there, but to no avail. Plenty of Great Spotteds probably didn’t help, but we did get an interesting close look at a Kestrel that came down to the path and promptly ate an earthworm. We also found a nice flock of Redpolls in the tree canopy. We made a detour on the way back to have a look for the Firecrests at Tower Hamlets Cemetery, but we had no luck with those either. Just as we were leaving we did get our first Blackcap of the year, a male by the entrance.
The next trip was on a pouring Sunday. Jem wanted to have a look at the North American Horned Lark at Staines so we prepared to head off down there. Before we left there were reports of Red-crested Pochards and a Green Sandpiper on the Reservoirs, so we popped in there first and after a bit of a wait we eventually got both. As we arrived at Staines Reservoir – with the rain having finally moved off – we struggled to get the Horned Lark. Instead we added a stunning summer-plumage Black-necked Grebe and three Little Ringed Plovers to the yearlist. At one stage we stopped and looked straight down the causeway path ahead at the multitude of Meadow Pipits and we both thought there was a larger bird that looked very lark-like. Jem got the scope on it just before it disappeared and we’re pretty sure it was the Horned Lark. Just a shame we couldn’t get a good view of it this time.
The following weekend – the first of April – a mix-up of reports of a Hoopoe meant Jem and I ended up missing out on it by just ten minutes. On the Friday one had been seen at Brent Reservoir, and then a late evening report had been assumed to have been the same bird. By the following morning it had been cleared up that in fact a second bird had been seen, this time on the central path on our own reservoirs. Some of the patch birders managed to get brief views before it went into cover. Unfortunately it didn’t reappear and it wasn’t to be seen again. On the plus side we did get our first Stock Doves of the year and an exhausted-looking Swallow that flew over us as we were leaving. The following morning I got up early to take a walk around the reservoirs with some of the patch birders, namely David, Paul, Jamie, Lol and Fran, in the hope of relocating the Hoopoe. We didn’t find it but we had a good walk that covered the central path and the Lockwood and I got my first Sand Martin of the year as a bonus. Later that afternoon Jem and I went over to Wanstead Flats for the first time in a long while to try to find a Ring Ouzel. We didn’t find it, but we had some great close views of our first Skylarks of the year instead.
The following week brought in a double whammy on the Reservoirs: a Ring Ouzel at the same part of the site that had held the Little Bunting and Serin, and a flock of Brambling beside the fisherman’s hut between Two and Three and Four and Five. I dashed home from work and got into the site in time, but to begin with I couldn’t see the Ouzel. Luckily Jamie came along and pointed it out to me and I watched it and grabbed photos in the rain until Jem came along. Jamie had been over to look for the Bramblings but they’d disappeared for the evening, but I decided to get up early on the Friday morning to have a look. They were still there and after some persistence I managed to grab a few photos of a male. The Saturday was glorious so we went back out again, and the Ouzel was still around. Jem, Jamie, Fran and I watched it preening (and pooping) before it finally took off and headed directly north, probably signalling the end of its stay. Jem and I spent the rest of the morning wandering around the southern half of the site, adding our first Sedge and Willow Warblers to the yearlist, and getting views of a Red Kite soaring overhead too – the first we’ve seen on the Reservoirs. Jem and I then decided to head to Rainham Marshes on the Sunday with the recently-reported pair of Short-eared Owls being the main target. Reports of the owls were few and far between over the previous winter so it was a big surprise for a couple of them to turn up and hang around during the spring. We did the long walk from Rainham along the Thames Path, adding Common Tern to the list on the way, and reached the visitor centre in time for lunch. Afterwards we headed up towards the Serin Mound to scan the marshes for any sign of the owls, but in wind and rain we eventually decided to call it a day and head home. We were nearing the Purfleet end of the river wall when the rain stopped and bright sunshine burst through the clouds behind us. I decided to stop and have a look back and something caught my eye perched on a fencepost right by the river path. I called to Jem to come back with her scope and we had a look. For a moment we thought we had a Buzzard, but eventually it looked right at us and we could see the bright yellow eyes and angry-looking brows of a Shortie. I hoped to edge closer to get photos but the owl took off and began to hunt around the reserve. We stood and watched it for close to an hour as it quartered in front of the MDZ and flapped from perch to perch. A pretty good result!
The following morning I got up to look for a reported Wheatear on the Reservoirs, but instead had to make do with close-up views of a Chiffchaff of the Siberian Tristis subspecies – possibly the same individual that I’d seen a few weeks earlier. I got much better photos this time and again submitted to the London Bird Recorder (having had some welcome help from Jamie with the identification and diagnostics). More early walks during the week got me my first Lesser Whitethroat and, finally, a Wheatear. This brought me up to 163 for the year, equalling last year’s total. A Whinchat also turned up on the Reservoirs for a day, but by the time I’d got back from work and met Jem on the site it had gone – the consolation being managing to get some nice photos of a Cetti’s Warbler. On the Saturday we added Reed Warbler to the list after patiently waiting for one in the reeds at the top of Reservoir #1 to finally make an appearance. On the Sunday afternoon we went for another walk, this time around the Lockwood, in warm sunshine. Lots of Wheatears had been reported so they were the main target, but we were surprised to find a group of five all together on the path in the south-west corner. I used the bank as cover to sneak up and get without doubt the best Wheatear photos I’ve managed to get to date, including some of one individual which had some kind of beetle sat on top of its beak. We reckon we had seven Wheatears in total (Jem saw a couple flying past while I was photographing the party of five), and a circuit of the reservoir also brought Sand Martin and Common Sandpiper which Jem hadn’t seen yet this year. The following week saw an early morning report of a Red Kite over the Reservoirs. Having already seen them we didn’t make the effort, but a while later the report was changed to Black Kite – which would’ve not only been great for the yearlist, but would’ve also have been a UK first for us. The same bird, presumably, was then seen all over London during the course of the day but it stayed out of our range.
I finally made the bold decision to get some new binoculars too. My Nikons have served me very well and they were astounding for the price I paid back in 2012 (£380 in an end-of-line sale, knocked down from about £750), but every year at Birdfair I’m blown away by the image quality of the wares of the big three brands (Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss). I’d heard so many anecdotes of Swarovski’s outstanding customer service that I’d decided that those were the ones for me. A pair of mint-condition boxed 10×42 ELs came up on eBay and I bit the bullet (with Jem’s blessing). In fact, when they arrived I was astounded that they didn’t look as though they’d been used at all – and I’d saved more than £500 on retail price – and I could still register them with Swarovski to get the full warranty and aftercare.
A productive April came to an end with a visit to Mum and Dad’s and a morning walk around Old Lodge on Ashdown Forest. The main target was Cuckoo, but despite three reported very active the previous day, we had not a peep of one. Instead we got our first Common Whitethroat of the year, our first Redstarts, our first Woodlarks and our first Tree Pipit. I also got to test the new binoculars out and I wasn’t disappointed. The exit pupil distance is a bit different to my Nikons (which I’ve now passed on to Jem) and takes a bit of getting used to, particularly in very bright conditions, but I’m very pleased with the purchase.
A couple of mornings later I headed around the Reservoirs to look for Yellow Wagtails. I was originally planning to go down the central path, but at the last minute I went for a circular walk around the outskirts of #1, #2 and #3. I bumped into birder who’d just seen two Yellow Wagtails fly across #4, but I couldn’t find them. There was a nice Wheatear sunning itself there instead. I had to head off to work and just as I was getting on the train, Jamie reported a Cuckoo – on the central path! I was pretty gutted. I tried again myself the following morning but failed. Just as I was getting on the train it was reported calling again and showed nicely for anyone wanting a look! Over the following days I also tried hard to get Arctic Tern onto the yearlist, but everything I thought might be Arctic turned out to be Common.
A Saturday walk around the Reservoirs in the heat didn’t bring us a great deal aside from more Common terns and some good views of Lesser Whitethroat (we missed a Greenshank that had dropped in earlier on), but on the Sunday we decided to head over to Staines Moor for the first time in a while. The targets were Hobby, Cuckoo, Garden Warbler and perhaps a Yellow Wagtail. On arrival we got Hobby straight away, circling in the sky. Lots of nice Reed Buntings and a couple of terns and eventually, after some persistence, we managed to get views of a singing Garden Warbler by the Stanwell Moor boardwalk. This took me up to 172 species for the year, and then it was time for a little trip to Norfolk…