wood warbler

Forgive me, for I have been a lazy diarist, a foot-dragging chronologer, a tardy almanacker. It’s not the birds’ fault, nor the weather’s, nor the ever peaceful surroundings of the lower Lea valley.

If I have an excuse it’s that a week of over-warm afternoons dulled enjoyment of anything and everything, and I am a creature of great inertia. Which is to dress up the fact I’m a lazy bastard, particularly when it’s too hot.

So what have you been missing? Rather a lot, as it happens.

Summer continues to wind down. Blackcaps no longer sing, reed warblers utter the odd short sequence of churrs — a pale shadow of May’s rap battles — and the sedge warblers have all but vanished. Only the Cetti’s warblers sing with any enthusiasm — apparently, being non-migratory, now is the time of year for this year’s young to establish territories. The flocks of tits and warblers still roam the waterside willows looking for food, though the number of willow warblers remains low, yet to reach its post breeding peak.

On the day the rains finally hit (well, that first day they dribbled, all told) I walked around Lockwood in the early evening to feel the drizzle on my skin and search for waders. A few common sandpipers, as always (I counted 15 by the end), but the highlights were my first wheatear of the autumn and a young peregrine treating the top corner of the lake like an werial velodrome, circling several times low down before eventually departing for Tottenham. The ducks and coots remained remarkably calm, somehow sensing something amateurish in the young an ineffective birds movements. On another of the reservoirs a heron — a more seasoned predator apparently — swallowed a large red-finned fish whole (a roach, I believe). And a cool, quiet kingfisher whirred from one shady spot on a wooded island to another, in search of smaller prey. After a notable absence in the spring (they usually breed here), one or two have returned for the winter.

Some of the commoner resident birds’ habits are changing with the season too. Collared doves have, after hiding away in the residential streets for a long while, started to become more common on site, with little flocks of twos, threes and fours popping up all over the place. I have a soft spot for these dainty, least vermin-like pigeons. Linnet numbers are still high, with a flock of around 40 one day, and today I saw my biggest starling gathering of the summer — around 200 birds feeding at the riding paddocks.

At the wekend I ventured out of London properly for the first time since February, and it will not surprise you to know that it was in search of a bird. Only just North of the city limits and cycleable, were it not for the unpredictable downpours and post-heatwave lethargy, I nevertheless took the train to Amwell in Hertfordshire, where a Temminck’s stint has been spending the last few days doing its common sandpiper’s baby sibling routine in full view of the only part of the reserve still properly open to the birdwatching public — how considerate of it. A new species for me and it was gratifying that it “performed” well enough for me to convince myself that I could have picked it out and identified it myself.

While there I pointed it out to a journeyman with binoculars. I asked if he knew where was best to look for the stint and, despite looking more the birdwatching part than I do — green anorak, bulky binoculars and over fifty — it turns out that he and his friend were mainly doing a spot of fish-watching, a pastime I had no idea existed. After I pointed him in the direction of the sparrow-sized wader trotting about the ducks like an antelope around the elephants, he told me they’d only stopped off briefly at the viewpoint on the way to look for some carp, and didn’t really know too much about birds. It’s quite refreshing ot have this sort of chat from time to time. Keeps things interesting.

I returned to London and Walthamstow and wetlands in the mid afternoon, just in time for the rain proper to arrive. A walk around the Warwicks, all the numbered reservoirs, and East Warwick again gave me a soaking wet pair of trousers, a daliance with a lapwing that’d taken up residence for a couple of days and a visceral sense of being. That is more than adequate compensation for the bloody-minded reluctance of the rare birds to drop down for a break from the downpour. As, after three hours, the rain drew back into the cloud like a card trick, I listened to the herring gulls heralding their triumph over the storm, and waltzed back home.

Yesterday was, finally, to have been the day I sat down to write. Tales and tales and tales to tell, and a morning off work to do so. The early morning stroll saw plenty of colour. The largest swift gathering in weeks (around 50 birds) marched around the sky in a fairly regimented peloton. They were joined by a few sand martins and the local colony of housemartins, who have not even begun to think about leaving yet. Over on West Warwick my first common gull of autumn rested its tired body atop a post, and a dwindling number of sandpipers (I counted only three) peeped from the safety of their rocky perches.

Approaching No. 5 a disgruntled, but eventually convivial, fly fisherman (who mistook my mumbled reply to a good morning as an aloof ghosting before I put him straight) told me about the constant feud between his kind and the coarse, carp fisherman. He pointed to his net and rod carrier — only slightly bulkier than the snooker player’s kit — and said the carp fisherman are jealous of how light they travel. Their rivalry recalls those that might exist between cavalry and infantry, RAF and navy. And there was me thinking they were all on the same fish torturing, bird entangling side. He pointed towards the dozens of large trout paddling about in the shallows, dorsal fins and tail-tips slicing the surface. He tells me they’re difficult to catch, though he caught one the other day. I can’t imagine they are very motivated to chase after flies, real or otherwise. I keep seeing them dead — in the water, belly up, or on land, rotting and eyeless — and I think now must be the season to mate and make way for the young.

So home. To write.

And the phone tells me a pied flycatcher has been seen on Tottenham marsh. Given a choice between spending an hour writing about birds, and spending an hour looking for a delightful little black and white creature… I don’t need to tell you which one won that contest. Leading myself and a few others up the garden path for about half an hour, I eventually refound it flitting discretely between a large sycamore and a large hawthorn. Its pied plumage had faded to post-breeding greys, and it looked not unlike a neat chaffinch from behind, but still a big-eyed, plump treat to view up close.

So this morning I set off across Walthamstow marsh in search of my very own migratory treat — delightful though “other people’s” birds are, it’s always so much more rewarding to find your own.

But almost nothing around in the pleasantly damp morning air, save for one of the kestrels that appear to have bred successfully locally.

And then the rain.

And an intense day of work.

Both of which ended at 6 o’clock on the dot, and suggested how I might end my day.

Again, the drizzly aftermath of a downpour and again a lengthy traipse around the reservoirs dredged up no waterlogged rare terns or waders seeking shelter. But the trees were, at least, alive with small birds, cramming in as many insects as they could in the narrow window of opportunity between fly-swatting deluge and hunt-calming night. As I walked along the west banks of No’s 4 & 5 I came across several small flocks, although the area around the fisherman’s hut was oddly quiet. Towards the north end, with the light dying and looking into the diffused, but still silhouette inducing, brightness of the sun through the clouds, I paid unusually close attention to surely the last flock of the day I’d pass, despite the poor visibility. I think I was hoping for goldcrest, which are always enjoyable to watch, and was also briefly enchanted by a thoroughly wetted reed warbler.

And then I saw it. A head with a very prominent yellow supercillium (eyebrow) poking out from behind a leaf. In the time honoured birdwatcher’s rapid rifling through the mental filofax I arrived at the possibility of it being a Wood Warbler — the yellow was lemony, the eyebrow flared out at the back (as opposed to the willow warblers more “plucked” and under control facial grooming) and there was just something quite strong about its facial expression. The willow warbler, I feel, looks as if it was playing in mum’s make-up box when it drew on its eyebrows — a child’s idea of how it’s supposed to look — whereas the wood warbler has the confidently overstyled panache of a new romantic.

Not quite enough to go on, I prowled about the willow tree for what seemed like hours, and was about to put out the word to look out for a possible wood warbler in the morning when the thinning flock rendezvoused once more on the edge of the clearing I stood at. I watched a long-winged, dark-backed, biggish warbler swoop out of the leaves, turn its bright white belly up and dive back in again. Over the next few minutes I found it a few more times, getting a good long look at its crisply clean features before it and its coterie of commoner types vanished into the gloaming once more.

Thsi has been a long post, I know, but indulge me a little longer.

A litle while ago I was talking to Dave who, when I told him about the whinchat I’d found, confided that the male whinchat is his favourite British bird, which got me to thinking; I have a favourite bird — The alpine chough, for obvious reasons — but it’s not found in Britain. So I drew up a shortlist of what my favourite bird might be. Turnstone was a contender (this was on the day I just missed one at the Wetlands), as was Lesser Whitethroat (a neater bird you will not find), and the little tern (pluck in a bird), but I eventually settled on wood warbler.

They have the most astonishingly beautiful song, and sing it in the most beautiful settings. Last year myself and some friends rented a place in the highlands and in the woods next door a wood warbler sang. I traipsed up the slope, following its superlative trill from tree to tree until I foudn it perched a little above head height, its entire body shivering with effort of delivering each mellifluous phrase. The first time I ever saw and heard one was in the Lake District, at the age of about eleven. I was bored and waiting for my mum to finish some social gathering with the Wrexham Rambling Club, and so walked out of the end of the hotel’s garden and a little up the neighbouring wooded slope, where I stood in a natural amphitheatre of hillside and cavernous old oak canopy and soaked up the stupefying sounds this tiny bird was creating.

I think this roughly coincides with when I started to properly birdwatch; I knew enough to know it was a warbler, but mistakenly identified it as a willow warbler at first, so evidently hadn’t been at it very long if I still didn’t recognise one of our commonest summer birds.

So me and the wood warbler go waaaaay back. And now, as if to reward me for remembering it in the tight race to be crowned “Bird of Britain”, one turns up on my doorstep. Scarce in Wales and the North, wood warblers are a real treat in London. By far the rarest bird I’ve found myself, only a few will be seen in London this year, and it’s one of only a handful ever seen at the reservoirs.

Hours later, still a little damp from the downpour that followed soon after, and growing tired of the time spent today at the computer, I am, however, still smiling.

rain island

Main image credit