The first week of October was spent on Shetland, which had got off to a good start in the last few days of September with Sabine’s Gull and Melodious Warbler. The weather was dominated by strong westerlies and migrants were rather thin on the ground, but there were still a few welcome surprises. A River Warbler was found in some isolated Iris beds at Houlland on Unst, and hats off to the finder. The bird proved popular but it only hung around for two or three days. Maybe it departed due to its temporary home being pretty much flattened by folk walking directly through the Irises in the hope of a fleeting view as it moved from one patch to another. The habitat looked good on the 1st when it was found but looked like a herd of elephants had been through it on the morning of the 3rd – a rather sorrowful ‘pew’ call of a nearby Golden Plover summed up how I felt, so I headed off to the less apocalyptic surrounds of Norwick Bay. My first Long-tailed Duck of the autumn was seen through the drizzle, a Barred Warbler was present in the village, and a Redwing had made it against the strong westerlies. On the 5th I spent a rather pleasant few hours driving around the fields surrounding Uyeasound looking for a summer plumage American Golden Plover – it bought back happy memories of looking for Lapwings during my PhD days albeit in Shropshire rather than Shetland. The rather impressive bird was eventually found amongst a group of 120 European GPs. During the search I checked one recently cut grass field, no more than a couple of hectares in size, and it had 7 species of wader within it: Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Redshank, Lapwing and Turnstone! On the 6th I eventually tracked down two Yellow-browed Warblers at Clickimin Loch in Lerwick, where up to four had been reported on the previous day. The westerlies had certainly held up their arrival which was confirmed by the reporting rate on BirdTrack which suggests about a week’s delay compared to the historical average.
Whilst on Shetland I set up a ‘mini patch’ at a small roadside inlet near Scatsta airport, which I managed to visit on 5 occasions and count all the waterbirds present. Between 1 and 4 Bar-tailed Godwits were recorded, with Curlew, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Snipe, Ringed Plover and Turnstone all counted at least once. It was interesting watching the same place on several occasions and learning the regular habits of some of the species – the Golden Plover and Lapwings were always in the same spot, the Bar-tailed Godwits roosted in one area and fed in another, and all the Curlews did was sleep!
Marsh Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Citrine Wagtail and Lapland Bunting were all welcome additions to my 2018 year list, and a Red Grouse calling early one morning near my accommodation was my first on Shetland. On my final day on Shetland I managed to locate a couple of Purple Sandpipers at Scatness, which means I don’t have to make my annual pilgrimage to Lowestoft sea front in December! Forty-five minutes watching the Pied-billed Grebe at Loch Spiggie rounded off a windswept but nonetheless enjoyable Shetland trip.
The rest of October was focussed on birding the Wanstead patch as there were still some migrants I needed for the year – I ended up being too late for Tree Pipit, Sand Martins had eluded me, and I missed the spring Ring Ouzels. Up to September I’d managed to see 97 species for 2018 on Wanstead Flats and Park, and most of the other patch regulars had broken the 100 barrier, so the challenge was on! On the 17th, in perfect grey and drizzly conditions, I added an unexpected Short-eared Owl to my patch list (thanks Nick) before heading over to the Park to look out for a few Wigeon that had been seen on the Heronry Pool in the previous few days – 99. Now if someone had asked me what species might be the 100th bird I’d see on the patch in 2018, Rustic Bunting might be about my 400th guess! But Rustic Bunting it was!! After returning home in the early afternoon of the 17th I checked the WhatsApp group to see if any other birds may have turned up in the perfect grey and drizzly conditions – the answer was YES! There was a screen shot of a Tweet from Nick with a rather blurry back of the camera image of a Rustic Bunting and the immortal phrase “Am I going mad here?” I arrived back on the patch as it was getting dark and the bird hadn’t been seen as the evening gloom set in. The overnight forecast was perfect, possible light rain, not too much in the way of wind, ideal conditions for a bird to stay put! Many of the regulars were on the patch at first light, the rain had cleared but our hopes were high. After about 30 minutes, James Heal and I saw a bunting species fly between bushes although the brief views weren’t good enough to be certain it was Rustic rather than Reed. Then a few minutes later a bird popped up on to the top of Hawthorn bush, again briefly, but in all its facial marking, rustic flanked, pale wing-barred splendour!! Only the 3rd record of a Rustic Bunting in London, my 100th Wanstead patch bird for 2018 and my first ever in the UK – patch birding at its finest. There was a great sense of patch birding camaraderie too as the regulars egged each other on, hoping everyone would get to see what is probably a once in a lifetime patch bird – they did.
On the 19th I heard the sad news that my former RSPB colleague, Roy Taylor, had lost his battle with Motor Neurone Disease. Roy was a massive inspiration to me in my early career (and beyond) and it was because of him I decided to pursue a job within the RSPB – something I’ll be forever grateful for. Although the news was expected at some point, it was still a shock, so I closed down my computer and went birding. One of the first contracts Roy had at the RSPB was working on Song Thrushes. As I reached the Old Sewage Works in Wanstead Park I heard a Song Thrush sing, unusual for the time of year, and how poignant.
My Connaught Water WeBS count was rather uneventful on the 22nd, so I headed back to Wanstead Flats, although avoided the hordes of visitors searching for the Rustic Bunting! On the last day of the month I paid a visit to RSPB Rainham Marshes on the off chance a reported Rough-legged Buzzard was still around – it was, distantly over the south bank of the Thames before being seen later on that day over Wennington Marsh – another rather good bird for the month, and two Cattle Egrets were rather nice cherries on the October birding cake!
Overall a rather splendid month with 120 species from 948 records. The 48 complete lists makes October by far the best month of the year ahead of the next best – June with 29. I’m well on track to reach my target of 250 complete lists for 2018 with 224 submitted so far and two months of the year remaining.
October 2018 highlight: can it be anything other than a Rustic Bunting on Wanstead Flats?!
November 2018 target: I’m going to be away on holiday for the last few weeks of the month, but I’m keen to track down a Shore Lark before I head off.