Spring migration got well underway during the month, but I seem to have missed most of it! Work commitments limited birding opportunities to the first few weeks of the month and the last cold, wet and windy weekend. Early April was surprisingly slow even when the conditions seemed suitable for an influx. The focus was very much on the local Wanstead patch, and hirundines were hard to come by, and the usual early arrivals of Willow Warbler and Whitethroats appeared delayed.
After three years of birding the local patch (although I usually miss the peak migration periods due to work) I finally broke the 100 species barrier. A rather delightful male Brambling bought up species 99 on the 11th and I joked with Bob that hopefully I won’t see a Rook to bring up the century. Bob – “The immature Rook has been seen in one of those trees,” I made the mistake of scanning half a dozen corvids perched in the said trees. Me – “Check the bird second from the left, peaked crown, dagger-like bill – it’s a Rook.” Bob – “yep, that’s a Rook.” My 100th Wanstead patch bird was a Rook. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Rooks, they are not a common bird on Wanstead Flats so it is great to see one. It’s been a good spring for Rooks on the patch and a first for many of the local birders. But sometimes for a milestone like a century you’d want a birding equivalent of a swashbuckling boundary shot, a Redstart or Cuckoo would have done!
On the 14th, I visited one of my old stomping grounds, Baggeridge Country Park in Staffordshire. I used to visit here occasionally when I first started birdwatching as a kid and I don’t remember much about the place, it has been almost 40 years! The hub around the carpark, tea room and kids playground was busy, but just a few hundred yards away and you are in some pretty good habitat, and it’s relatively quiet. Blackcap and Chiffchaff were noticeable – my young nephew now knows the song of Chiffchaff, and later that day when walking to the pub he called out “is that a Chiffchaff?” I heard my first Willow Warbler of the year, which is rather late. And we found some frogspawn, the kids loved it almost as much as I did!
In a recent publication from the BTO there was a request for more WeBS counters, and I looked at any sites local to me, and noticed that Connaught Water in Epping Forest wasn’t being counted. I often visit Connaught Water first thing in the morning before the dog-walkers and joggers arrive, so it made sense to enlist as a counter for the site. So on the 16th I made my first ‘official’ visit which produced nothing spectacular, although I had a few cracking views of male Mandarin Ducks. There is something quite satisfying when your birding is not only enjoyable but also contributes, in a very small way, to national datasets that help our understanding of bird population trends and distribution.
An annual highlight is always the sound of the first Cuckoo and on the 21st one could be heard calling in the distance from the seawall at Rainham Marshes. Almost as soon as this bird stop calling another cuckoo flew in from the Thames before landing and perched obligingly on a fencepost. It gave the impression it had just completed an arduous journey – maybe it had, thanks to the BTO we’re learning more about the migration of the Cuckoo and the challenges they face. A Grasshopper Warbler was reeling from more or less the same location as last year – in situations like this I always wonder if it is the same bird returning from its annual perilous journey or is it a young bird from last year returning to its place of birth? Also on the 21st I explored a new area that I’ve heard about many times but never visited – the concrete barges south of Rainham Marshes. I’m not sure why I’ve never been here before, but I’m glad I’ve discovered it and it will become a regular feature of my local birding. An unexpected surprise was at least 2 singing Corn Buntings. And about 200m from where I could hear Corn Buntings I could see an Iceland Gull perched near one of the concrete barges. There can’t be too many occasions where you will see Iceland Gulls and listen to the jangle of Corn Buntings simultaneously.
For the final weekend of the month I’d set aside day trips to two of my favourite birding places. Despite the rather horrendous forecast the weather wasn’t too bad at RSPB Frampton Marsh on the Saturday. It was cold (single digits), the wind was strong, and it was wet for most of the day, mainly drizzle, but definitely wet. The conditions certainly weren’t ideal, but the thing I like most about Frampton is birds. It doesn’t seem to matter when you go there are always birds, always in good numbers, and nearly always something of interest. The place always seems busy with waders, whether breeding, wintering or on migration. The site staff, and a special mention to Toby Collett, have got this place spot on for birds. Follow Toby on Twitter (@BoyWonderBirder) as he is always explaining what they do at Frampton, and why. Anyway, despite the weather, there was at least one Red-rumped Swallow which I managed to get fabulous views of as it drifted in front of a line of expectant birders staked out by the Marsh Farm Reservoir. The bird then spent several minutes circling a small group of cattle picking of the few insects that got kicked up in the drizzle. What do hirundines eat when the weather is so poor that the food resources must be limited? The Red-rumped Swallow is lost, will it find its way back home? There was also a Dotterel, which is probably used to poor weather, but the Green-winged Teal that had been reported the day before was not to be found (by me at least). Small groups of Golden Plover in pretty much full breeding plumage looked rather regal, and I saw my first Little-ringed Plovers of the year. I like Frampton a lot, it’s what I call a birders reserve, I hope it stays that way.
The following day I ventured to RSPB Minsmere, stopping off at Westleton Heath NNR for my annual fix of Woodlark and Dartford Warbler. I arrived in rather good time, and it was just getting light as I got out the car. At least 2 Nightingales were singing, not full on, check me out singing, but singing nonetheless, a magical start to any day. The weather was pretty grim, but one Woodlark put in a brief performance, but he clearly wasn’t impressed with this damp and wet spring day. Dartford Warblers struggled to warble too much, was this a symptom of the morning’s weather or have the numbers been impacted by the Beast from the East a few weeks back – only time will tell. The main scrape at Minsmere was its usual cacophony of sound, dominated by Black-headed Gulls and calling Lapwings and Redshank. A splendid drake Garganey in front of North Hide was a nice surprise. There were a few snippets of locust like reeling at the Island Mere Hide belonging to what seems to be the now annual Savi’s Warbler. An Otter also passed in front of the hide and ended up in a small pool area close by, a trail of bubbles clearly visible as it swam away.
As for April’s targets, well I couldn’t find the time to get down to Devon to see Cirl Buntings so this will have to be put back to later in the year. Perhaps not surprisingly I failed to see any Lapwing chicks on my final weekend when I would have expected to see them. At both Frampton and Minsmere there were plenty of birds incubating and sitting very tightly trying to keep their clutches warm, but there was no sign of any young broods – probably a good thing as they may well have struggled in such poor weather. Even so, BirdTrack tells me that I managed to record 131 species during the month from 904 records and 22 complete lists.
April 2018 highlight: Probably the Corn Bunting at Rainham on the 21st due to it being so unexpected
May 2018 target: Turtle Dove
Photo credit: The Rook by Tony Brown (@TheCowboyBirder) and read about his very own Rook experience