Black-tailed skimmer – Wanstead Park
Flower Bank – Whipps Cross Road
Wanstead Gadwall enter the record books
On Saturday 7 December a count of all Wanstead Park’s lakes produced a combined total of 307 Gadwall, a new record for the site. This comes just 10 months after the record was last broken, on the February WeBS count when Wren Group counters noted 258. With both Nick Croft and Dan Henessey reporting 200-plus of this subtly beautiful dabbling duck on the Park’s lakes during early December, it seemed right to cover all the lakes. About 150 were on Heronry, with small numbers on Perch, the Ornamental Waters and The Basin. Up to 1,700 pairs of Gadwall breed in the UK, but the winter population (October to March) swells to 25,000 as continental birds migrate to this country to avoid the freeze further north and east. As recently as 2009 the December total in the Park was only 111, so something is happening to encourage more of these ducks to visit us. They seem to have taken a liking to those parts of our lakes with overhanging vegetation, presumably because this offers them added protection. Favoured areas include the south side of Heronry Lake, the west end of Perch Pond, around the islands in the Ornamental Waters and around the fringes of The Basin. Our local wintering birds are quite easily spooked, usually swimming away – though rarely flying – if approached. What is gratifying to know is that we have more than 1 percent of the nation’s wintering Gadwall. This makes Wanstead Park a site of national importance for the species!
Preparing Chalet Wood
Beneath a canopy of brown, orange and even mauve leaves, the Wren Group practical work team finished the bramble clearance in Chalet Wood, in preparation for next spring’s bluebell display. This annual ritual ensures that visitors can enjoy the best possible show of these ever-popular flowers. While we were at work someone presented organiser Peter Williams with a Hedgehog she had found in an exposed position on a track, and Peter duly found a well-brambled corner of the wood in which to place it. This was the last practical work Sunday of the year, but we will reconvene on Sunday 5 January 2014, probably to clear scrub on the old sewage works site. Also planned for early 2014 is a session to clear invasive pennywort in Perch Pond. Watch out for details!
The Annual Fungus Foray – 20th October 2013
On 20th October the Wren Group Fungus Foray in Bush Wood was led – as is traditional – by Tricia Moxey. Fortunately the timing was impeccable and the walk took place between two bands of heavy rain, meaning that although the forest was appropriately damp to be looking for fungi the people were not and the occasional shafts of sunlight made the forest a beautiful place to be on a Sunday morning.
As always when Tricia leads a walk it was both informative and entertaining for the 25 people (and one dog) who attended. There were, however, distinctly fewer fungi than on the same walk, in the same area at about the same time last year. For example, where last year there was a carpet of Brown Deceivers this year there were only a few and where, under some trees, there had been a large number of Cloudy Agaric, this year there were none. In part this was because the grass had not been cut and was therefore long and hence effective in hiding fungi, but otherwise the reason is unclear. However, still they ranged from the very small Eyelash fungus to a large bracket fungus.
There were also Brown Deceivers and Funnelcaps as well as a number of others that Tricia identified. Altogether, it made a most enjoyable walk.
Bottom picture-Fairy bonnets by David Giddings , top picture – Candlesnuff fungus by David Giddings
Practical work team make a splash
October 6th came as a gloriously bright and unseasonably warm sunny Sunday, the perfect day to be out and about in Wanstead Park. For nine Wren Group members it proved a particularly fun morning, boating across the Ornamentals to Lincoln Island and removing brambles and the like that threatened flowers that grow there, especially the daffodils. Planted some years ago, the daffodils, though not wild, are a joyous and unexpected herald of spring.
As Edmund Burke said “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing”. Though I wouldn’t call brambles evil, keeping them under control is necessary to prevent them destroying the habitat of other species. Having the boat also provided the opportunity to remove some branches that had fallen into the water and which add to its silting up.
Practical work helps maintain an accessible and interesting Park with a variety of species and habitats. But it also brings personal rewards – fresh air, exercise, companionship and a sense of achievement. And, with nature all around, there is always something new to learn, see and enjoy. Last Sunday this included many Common Frogs (Rana temporaria), Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) which have made the island their home.
If you come along to a practical work session be assured you can choose to make whatever contributions you wish. As a non-swimmer, I stayed on the bank, explained the group to passers by and took some pictures.
Bats in the Park
“I can hear one over there,” nine-year-old Jacob told me, pointing to the north side of Perch Pond. He meant a bat, but I could hear nothing. Moments later the bat detector I was holding began to emit the characteristic “chip-chop” rhythm of an echolocating Noctule, probably the same individual that Jacob had heard. Proof, if any was needed, that young ears are able to hear higher-frequency sounds than adults. The Noctule actually flew in front of us, over the pond, which was still conveniently reflecting the brightness of the half-lit western sky. The high-pitched ‘shouts’ it was emitting operate as a kind of radar, with the reflected sound indicating the presence of food – moths and other flying insects.
In fact, for half an hour our group of 27 listened and watched in amazement as bat after bat flew over our heads, around the trees of The Dell, and over the water – all the time giving their own distinctive echolocation calls, which were translated to frequencies audible to human ears (even grown-ups!) by the detectors. The vast majority were Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, but we did have a couple of Daubenton’s Bats and another Noctule. At times, the sound of our battery of bat detectors was cacophonous. We spent some time by the Cedar of Lebanon, in the hope of getting some views of Daubenton’s hunting over the Ornamental Water, but with no luck. Then, returning to our starting point at the tea hut, we were treated to more swooping, gliding and careering pipistrelles. Since the demand for places on the 15 August walk had been so great, another was organised for a fortnight later, and this time nine participants were able to enjoy a repeat performance.
There was other batty activity in Wanstead Park during August, too, namely the Waterways Survey conducted for the Bat Conservation Trust to enumerate Daubenton’s Bats along the River Roding. Myself and Sharon Payne conducted two nighttime surveys along a stretch of the river and recorded a good number of ‘passes’ of Myotis bats (Myotis is the genus to which Daubenton’s belongs, but it is not its only member!). Getting views of the bats skimming the water surface (a requirement for clinching their ID) proved very frustrating since only short stretches of river can be seen at any one place. With the exception of one obliging individual, the bats we kept picking up could have been Natterer’s or Whiskered, though my money would still be on Daubenton’s. One surprise on our second transect was picking up the very distinctive echolocation ‘shouts’ of a Serotine, the first of this large bat species I have encountered locally.
Thanks to Mark Harris and Richard Oakman for their assistance on the 15 August walk. If you’d like to find out more about the UK’s bats, take a look at the website of the Bat Conservation Trust: ttp://www.bats.org.uk/
Photo: Discussing the evening’s plan of action, by Anita McCullough
Deer and fritillaries in Hatfield Forest
Although Hatfield Forest is only a runway’s length from Stanstead Airport, that should deter no-one from visiting. I found myself enchanted by this ancient landscape almost as soon as I’d passed through its gates. The forest is now owned and managed by the National Trust and I get the impression that they do a very good job. The pattern of woodland blocks separated by areas of grazing land with trees was created by people in Norman times – probably even earlier – and has been maintained as such ever since. Originally it provided good hunting, grazing land and wood from coppiced trees. Today it provides enjoyment for thousands of people every year.
On one of the hottest days of late July a small party of Wren Group members visited to see for themselves. Ably led by Andrew Spencer, who knows the location very well, we first investigated the newly restored wet grassland around The Lake, along with some of the wooded areas. What struck me was the large number of butterflies, especially Ringlets, not a species I see that often. I estimate that we saw more than 150 during our visit.
After a lunch break at the excellent café Andrew took us along several glades running through tracts of forest. Very noticeable were Silver-washed Fritillaries, with probably at least a dozen seen during the afternoon. On several occasions quiet approach work rewarded us with views of grazing Fallow Deer, including some fawns. And near a small wetland called Old Woman’s Weaver we watched for several minutes as a male Broad-bodied Chaser defended its territory – not much more than an oversized puddle! – from all-comers, including skippers a fraction of its size.
Apart from a good selection of invertebrates and the aforementioned deer, not surprisingly Hatfield Forest is also a great place to practise plant and tree identification. We puzzled over one particular Hornbeam – usually a very easy tree to identify – for several minutes before concluding that was what it was!
Did everyone enjoy the trip? Emphatically, yes. So much so, that we will be organising a return visit for those who missed out first time around.
Male Broad-bodied Chaser by David Giddings
Awayday to Wat Tyler Country Park
For the second in an occasional series of Wren Group ‘awayday’ trips, fourteen WG members visited RSPB Vange Marsh and the Wat Tyler Country Park, both nera Pitsea in Essex, on 16 June.
According to the RSPB, “Vange Marsh is a mosaic of wetland habitats. Fresh and seawater lagoons attract breeding Avocets, Common Terns, Little Ringed Plovers, Lapwings and Reed Buntings. In winter, Wigeons, Teals and Shovelers visit the site and Bearded Tits thrive in reedbeds. Scarce Emerald Damselflies buzz around the reserve in summer. The site has a population of Adders, and Barn Owls can be spotted hunting over the marshes.”
So it seemed as if there were good prospects of seeing some wildlife which we don’t usually see in our own patch. On leaving Pitsea rail station we crossed the road immediately opposite, and walked past a small industrial area before reaching Vange Marsh. Alongside the industrial area was a small wild area, where we saw several Common Blue butterflies flitting around. We walked onto the Marsh itself and saw and heard Reed Warblers and Reed Buntings in – not surprisingly! – the reeds around us, and also heard a Cetti’s and Sedge Warblers. We finally reached a bird ‘blind’ overlooking one of the lagoons, where we vied for position to watch the various birds on the lagoon. These included elegant Avocets and Lapwings, a single Greenshank and Oystercatchers, whilst Swifts and House Martins soared overhead.
Leaving the Marsh, we spotted a Greenfinch family in some trees, and stopped to watch the parents feeding their hungry offspring. Retracing our footsteps to the road opposite the station, we walked south a few minutes’ walk to Wat Tyler Country Park. This park covers an area of 125 acres with a variety of habitats, hosting a rich diversity of species. The site has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Basildon District Council took control of the park in 1969, naming it after Wat Tyler, who was one of the leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, as the Revolt was begun by the men of nearby Fobbing. There is much history associated with the site, but on this day we concentrated on the natural history. Two new buildings have been added to the site in recent years: The Wat Tyler Centre opened in July 2009, and includes a cafe and rooms available for hire for business and private events; and the Green Centre opened in 2011, where visitors can learn more about environmental matters. The RSPB also have a small visitor centre on site, and the Essex Field Club is based in the Green Centre.
We entered a hide and watched a variety of birds on and around the water through our binoculars, and had some even closer views courtesy of Tim’s ‘scope. After this we decided it was time for some refreshments, so we made a beeline to the cafe in the Wat Tyler Centre, before later heading on out into the general area of the park. We walked along paths surrounded either side by hedgerows, and then came to a more open area which led to Vange Creek. The tide was out, so the little boats were moored on the mud. The mud looked like good habitat for any waders. We saw various gulls, more Oystercatchers, Common Terns and a Redshank, and even saw a Pied Wagtail scuttling about on one of the boats. One channel leading off Vange Creek led to a large abandoned boat, which was covered in vegetation. Back among the hedgerows a little later, Paul Ferris drew our attention to a high-pitched birdsong nearby. This very distinctive trill we were listening to was that of a Grasshopper Warbler – a fairly rare bird to hear/see. This bird’s trill can be sustained for several minutes without a break, and has been likened to the mechanical sound of an angler’s reel. So high pitched is the sound, that some humans cannot hear it. As we were leaving WTCP, we saw a Marsh Harrier on patrol in the skies, and Tim saw a Turtle Dove.
I recorded 59 species of birds, five species of butterflies, seven other kinds of insects and 40 plant species on the trip. List is available to look at here.
Photos: Common Blue butterfly and Avocets by Kathy Hartnett.
A Midsummer Evening’s Walk
For those of us who had ventured out on last year’s Midsummer Wildflower Walk, we walked, cycled or drove to the Riding Stables at the end of Empress Avenue with a certain degree of trepidation this time. Because although we had seen some interesting plants in 2012, we also got wet. Very wet. However, this year the botanical gods smiled on us and – despite a weather forecast to the contrary – the evening stayed pleasantly warm and dry.
Tricia Moxey is a very safe pair of hands when it comes to finding and identifying plants. But, more than that, she has a fascinating story to tell about each one. Accompanied by the fluty notes of a Blackcap we first looked at the beautiful bright blue flowers of a patch of Green Alkanet, just yards from the entrance to the stables. Tricia explained how dyes were extracted from the tap-root of these plants, “alkanet” apparently being derived from the Arabic word for henna, al-hinna. And, silly me, I had thought these were Forget-me-Nots!
Venturing into the old sewage works we stopped in turn to look at the small yellow flowers of Black Mustard; to discuss the enormous variety of invertebrates dependent on Brambles; and examine a fine patch of Ox-eye Daisies. Close by, examination of some Hemlock prompted a discussion on how similar this plant looks to harmless Cow Parsley. Of course, they are both umbellifers, but all parts of Hemlock are very toxic to people and animals, the toxicity remaining even after the plant has died.
A Cook’s tour of Red and White Clovers, Yarrow, Burdock, two very different shades of Dog Roses (pink and white) and Comfrey led us to the west bank of the River Roding. Since there hadn’t been much recent rain, the water level was very low. It was too late in the day to see any patrolling damselflies, but patches of Water Crowfoot in the gently flowing water made a pleasant sight. It was now8:30 and the birds’ evening chorus had built to its peak. Wrens, Blackbirds and Blackcaps all made a contribution but Song Thrushes dominated, this area being their local stronghold.
Turning around and walking towards where the sun had descended behind the trees, it was hard to believe that we were in East London. This could have been a heath in the New Forest (albeit without the Gorse and Heather). Absolutely beautiful! And there were still plants to see, including Woody Nightshade, Weld and Shiny Cranesbill. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is now more determined than ever to commit all these plants to memory.
Pictures by Jackie Morrison
Alive with flowers
The site of the Old Sewage Works (sometimes called the ‘exchange lands’) is now awash with yellows, pinks, mauves and blues. It has become a wonderful wildflower meadow and deserves a visit if it is not already on your walking schedule. This is also a good place to see Peacock, Small White and Orange-tip butterflies at the moment. Along the river you can watch Banded Demoiselles and other other damselflies. And if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a Grass Snake. The Old Sewage Works lies between the allotments at the eastern end of Empress Avenue and the River Roding.
Why not join Tricia Moxey as she leads an evening walk around the area to look at its wildflowers? Date: Thursday 20 June. Time: 7.30pm. Place: outside the entrance to the riding stables in Empress Avenue.
Kite surprise on Waterworks trip
On Sunday 12 May about a dozen Wren Group members visited Waterworks Nature Reserve and Middlesex Filter Beds, just off the Lea Bridge Road.
Martha Smith (aged 9) takes up the story: “On the walk, we saw many different species of butterflies, birds and even a Fox or two. Our journey began when we looked in the bushes for butterflies, but while doing so we heard Wrens singing their merry tune in the distance. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see a Wren although we tried.
After searching the bushes for a few minutes we surprisingly came across a Small White butterfly and a Green-veined White butterfly! Afterwards we discovered a few kinds of plants and I found out which kind of nettles sting and which don’t. We also came across some male Blackbirds squabbling over their territory.
To our surprise, we found another wonderful species of butterfly, a Speckled Wood. Next we came to the hides, so first we looked out of a hide window and immediately spotted a male and female Mute Swan. If we were patient and waited long enough we would be able to see the nesting female’s eggs when she stood up; we finally spotted four eggs when she started preening.
Slowly but surely we made our way round every single one of the hide windows. Round the outside of one of the enclosures we saw a Fox prowling round and I assumed he/she was after the swan or her eggs. While looking, we also found some more Small Whites flying around quite sharply.
On the way out of the hides one of the group spotted a Red Kite flying high above and I got rather excited.
As it got later, with the sun beating down relentlessly, we decided to scour the meadow for some more fascinating species of butterfly. First we saw an Orange Tip butterfly but after a while of finding nothing we had almost given up. Suddenly one of us shouted to the others that she had just found a Peacock and sent Jacob to inform the others of their spectacular discovery. Fortunately they arrived in time to get some shots of this flaming deep-red butterfly laying its eggs on nettles.
Then one of the older members of the group heard the faint tap, tap, tapping of a far-off woodpecker and while most of the group went to get a closer look, I had to make my journey home.”
Birds seen or heard: Mute Swan (2), Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard (12), Tufted Duck, Little Grebe (2), Cormorant, Grey Heron, Red Kite (1), Hobby (1), Moorhen, Coot, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Feral Rock Dove, Woodpigeon, Common Swift, Green Woodpecker (2), Sand Martin (1), Swallow (3), Grey Wagtail (2), Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Reed Warbler (10+), Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Chiffchaff (1), Willow Warbler (1), Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Jay, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Starling, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch.
Butterflies seen: Small White, Green-veined White, Orange-tip, Holly Blue, Brimstone, Peacock, Speckled Wood, Small Tortoiseshell.
Picture credits: Anita McCullough
The bluebells are out in Chalet Wood in
The bluebells are out in Chalet Wood in Wanstead Park! They are expected to be at their peak during next week. Come and enjoy!
An explosion of spring
Nature always finds new ways to surprise. On Sunday 14th April winter finally relinquished is icy grasp and it was great to be walking around without a thick coat for the first time in months. A group of Wren group members gathered in warm sunshine in Wanstead Park to conduct the last waterbird count of the 2012/13 winter season. Our first impression, looking out over Heronry lake, was how empty it was. Yes, there were lots of Coots on their stick-island nests. And yes, there were small groups of Tufted Ducks, the males resplendent in their black-and-white plumage, and loafing Mallards. But gone was winter’s flock of Pochard. And gone, too, were the record-breaking numbers of Gadwall that we’d grown so used to seeing. It did not promise to be a particularly dramatic count!
But first impressions can be wrong. David had already seen two Brimstone butterflies by the time he joined us, and as we were walking around the old sewage works an Orange Tip flew past. We weren’t able to get good views of this early-season species but were luckier with several Commas in the area cleared by the practical work team during the icy months. Andrew had had the foresight to bring a camera and managed to get some nice shots of one of this species nectaring on some brilliant yellow Coltsfoot. As we worked our way up the eastern side of the Ornamental Waters we saw several more Commas and the day’s butterfly variety was added to later with a Peacock near Shoulder of Mutton.
At the southern end of the Ornamentals a large mass of frog spawn got us all peering into the water. Sure enough there were several Common Frogs, some in amplexus, and at least two Common Toads. Then I heard a call of “Bat!” as Linda, Andrew and David saw what was probably a variety of pipistrelle flying through the trees. After an all-too-long winter in hibernation, bats are now desperately hungry and will emerge during the day to feast on any flying invertebrates. Not to be outdone, Pam saw a medium-sized fish, which she later identified as a young Perch.
By this time we had successfully worked our way through all the classes of vertebrate animals. (Earlier, two sunbathing Red-eared Terrapins were spied on a log at the western end of Perch pond. OK, they’re not native to the UK but they’ve been here a long time and I think they’re still of interest.)
Despite all these distractions our focus on waterbirds remained. Although we made no dramatic finds, we discovered that 16 Gadwall and seven Shoveler remained on the park’s ponds and lakes and that Little Grebes were paired up at both ends of Heronry and on Shoulder of Mutton. Also, that the Great Crested Grebes remained on the former lake. There was other bird interest, too. Three Swallows flew over during the course of the morning; we were able to watch a pair of Sparrowhawks displaying over Warren Wood; and a Common Buzzard, closely attended by Carrion Crows, drifted south over the Glade.
All in all, a great morning to be out and about. It’s amazing what a splash of warm sunshine can do.
Picture: Comma on Coltsfoot by Andrew Spencer
STOP PRESS: 15 April: 27 Wheatear, 5 Common Redstart, 3 Whinchat, Ring Ouzel on Wanstead Flats.