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Trading Places – birding adventures from the East End to the east coast

May 29, 2013

This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Birdwatch magazine.

How far is a neglected urban patch in deepest Hackney from an idyllic east coast bird observatory? About half a world, according to Mark James Pearson, but the grass can be as green on either side of the fence – it just depends on your chosen shade.

Filey Brigg

Filey Brigg

After many years dedicated to Stoke Newington Reservoirs, a modest, beleaguered but personally beloved urban patch deep in the dark heart of the capital, the time recently came to migrate towards calmer shores. Thus, as of April last year, Hackney was traded for Filey, and east London’s chaotic dynamism was exchanged for the North Yorkshire coast’s sleepy Victoriana, culture shocks in exelsis, and all-new adventures in birdland. A year down the line and reflecting on the polarised birding experiences of each, their relative rewards and virtues aren’t nearly as unbalanced as might first be imagined.

Purple Sandpiper - a winter speciality on the Brigg

Purple Sandpiper – a winter speciality on the Brigg

For culture shocks, read seismic waves; from the melting pot to the bone china tea set. But then, numerous simple pleasures – ditching the Oystercard for a tide table, rediscovering the joys of a sound nights’ sleep, and opening the front door not to a Bladerunner-esque maelstrom but to the epic, sweeping panorama of Filey Bay, for example – go a very long way to softening such impacts, for a while at least.

Cultural vibrancy and diversity may seem as rare as undisturbed Hen Harrier territories out here in the provinces, but our newly-adopted manor has at least amply provided the desired changes of scene, pace, and perspective – and especially, myriad avian possibilities – that were merely composite parts of a mental wish-list not so long ago.

Snow Bunting, Filey

Snow Bunting, Filey

Of those possibilities, it is, of course, another world entirely. Without noticing, it took just a couple of months to clock up 150 species here, the same tally taking a full six years of increasingly intense coverage at Stoke Newington Reservoirs. But statistics are but a fraction of the true picture, and where the real pleasures of patch birding are concerned, it’s all about context.

Great Grey Shrike, Filey - 5th April 2012

Great Grey Shrike, Filey (April 2012)

Filey recommended
Arriving with the vanguard of spring migrants and with plenty of quality time to kill, it was blissfully indulgent, supermarket spree-style birding from day one. Aware that spring can be (and often is) hard work on the east coast, but repetitively hammering the new patch regardless, April turned out to be the month that kept on giving.

Patrolling the hedgerows for the very first time (and with no expectations), within minutes, nothing less than a pristeen Great Grey Shrike appeared in front of me, illuminated by the spring sunshine; the birding gods had spoken, and the news was unequivocally good. Days later in the same area, three majestic Common Cranes put on an exemplary airshow above me; a few days later still, and an intriguing male Ficedula Flycatcher, showing features indicative of Collared x Pied, flicked up before me.

Woodcock, Filey Brigg, Oct 2012 - this bird was watched coming in over the waves and landing on the rocks

Woodcock, Filey, Oct 2012 – watched coming in over the waves and onto the rocks

More than enough for month one; but April saved the best for its last day. Fog, easterlies and overnight drizzle, and onto Carr Naze – the grassy plateau crowning the serpentine promontory of Filey Brigg – sprinkled with Tree Pipits, Ring Ouzels, Willow Warblers and more at first light, topped off by a Wryneck crouching cryptically before bolting into the mist. A few hours (and many migrants) later in the same spot, and while watching an Osprey lolloping in off the sea at head height, an Olive-backed Pipit briefly materialised on the cliff edge for a few precious seconds before spiriting away into the blue. Magical.

Olive-backed Pipit only the 9th spring record for the UK

Olive-backed Pipit, 30th April 2012 – only the 9th spring record for the UK

Over the course of the rest of the year, numerous memorable days in the field were savoured against the uniquely beautiful backdrop of the North Yorkshire coastline. Autumn was, on balance, below-par – and yet it’s hard to complain when skimming back through the notebook.

Greenish Warbler, Filey, 2012 - one of the highlights of a classic autumn fall

Greenish Warbler, Filey, 2012 – one of the highlights of a classic autumn fall

Examples include an unforgettable stormy day’s skua passage in August, with hundreds passing the Brigg in sudden surges (including Long-tails and Poms), some within metres of the hide; an exhilarating rainy day in September, with Greenish Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Wryneck and Barred Warbler all appearing before me in the same length of migrant-laden hedgerow; five figures of thrushes – one of the biggest falls I’ve ever witnessed – swirling in squadrons in the mid-October fog; a locally poor year for waders, and yet self-found White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, a spring Temminck’s Stint at my feet, and Dotterel, Avocet and Stone Curlew all gracing the memory card; I could go on, but you get the picture.

Temminck's Stint, May 2012

Temminck’s Stint, Filey, May 2012

Truly stoked
Which is all very well, but as an initiation, almost a little too easy. At least, when compared to the challenges of discovering my last, wonderfully productive but somewhat less universally attractive birding playground of Stoke Newington Reservoirs.

To paraphrase the footballing parlance, you don’t choose a local patch, it chooses you, and there’s nothing like finding your own birds on your own doorstep, especially in an otherwise unforgiving urban environment. Hence, the fruits that require the most effort to reach always taste a little sweeter.

Stoke Newington East Reservoir

Stoke Newington Reservoirs

But only after navigating such colourful occupational hazards as being threatened at knife-point, repeatedly stalked, uncovering caches of weapons, and ‘creatively overcoming’ access issues, to name but a few. I still rue the passing of a long gone derelict school on the banks of the reservoir which was, before its sadly inevitable demise under the developer’s bulldozer, a honeypot for a wide variety of both warblers and junkies; on any given day, you just never knew how many, and which types of each, you were likely to encounter.

Siberian Chiffchaff, SNR

Siberian Chiffchaff, SNR

At best ignored, at worst maligned, SNR had little to recommend it, even in a lowly urban context. Two small man-made water bodies surrounded by tower-blocks and housing estates, disconnected from green corridors and traditional flyways, and overshadowed by much larger, productive and accessible sites a little further afield all served to bury its potential. But to me, SNR was a clean slate, full of promise, and a uniquely valuable local haven for birds and wildlife in especially hostile surrounds.

Bittern, SNR - one of the star birds of my time at the reservoirs

Bittern, SNR – one of the star birds of my time at the reservoirs

And for all the trials, it was more than worth it. Over time, casual acquaintance became willful obsession, and what might be considered ‘normal’ patch-working morphed into a uniquely opportunistic study, involving multiple hours per day, upwards of 300 days per year; hence, for example, the chances of connecting with briefly visiting scarcities changed dramatically, from painfully long odds to pleasingly likely.

From little acorns
What may initially appear to be limitations of such places can often be turned into strengths. For example, the island effect of an isolated oasis within the endless urban sprawl is a potential goldmine, especially within the geographical context of Greater London, attracting incoming migrants and stragglers from far and wide; likewise, the modest ring of promising habitat around the open water turned out to be a bona fide migrant trap, as much because of as despite its limited size; and with such a small area to work with, regular, intensive coverage was easily achieved. Whatever appeared, my chances of connecting with it were excellent.

Urban foxes – a constant presence at SNR

Beyond the confines of terra firma, the open sky became the true domain of possibility. It was here that, for all its limitations, with a little creativity and a lot of patience, the opportunity to put SNR on the map was most promising. Hence, sky-watches from the reservoir banks became increasingly lengthy sessions from the purpose-built observation platform, latterly augmented by and made infinitely more productive by gaining access to and setting up studies from the roof of a neighbouring tower block.

Cetti's Warbler

Cetti’s Warbler

Within a couple of years, Honey Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and Ospreys went from almost unthinkable to reliably annual; Red Kites, Hobbys and Common Buzzards from previously unrecorded to routinely expected (and in good numbers); and consistently record-breaking counts of migrants, from Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches to Woodpigeons and Lapwings, were satisfyingly logged.

Less expected but unforgettable treats over the years included two Red-footed Falcons in the space of a week, over a hundred White-fronted Geese almost clipping the tops of tower blocks at dusk, Lapland Buntings coasting by at eye level, and Black Kite, Red-rumped Swallow and Alpine Swift all overshooting in recent springs. All within a crowded urban airspace that most would, understandably, barely take a second glance at.

Bittern, SNR

Bittern, SNR

Back on the ground, the unbeatable satisfaction of turning pipe-dreams into reality via a dedication to the cause was symbolised by the multiple arrival of Bitterns, a star bird of latter years at the reservoirs. Previously nothing but a long-shot at best, much-increased personal coverage during harsh conditions uncovered no less than six individuals over two recent winters, in a reedbed best described as very modest, even by inner London’s standards.

Even less likely, a Golden Oriole somehow found the isolated oaks beneath the tower blocks on the reservoir bank on one memorable May morning, while not one but two Siberian Chiffchaffs chose the limited waterside vegetation for recent stays; once only dreamed of, Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Phylloscopus falls and Firecrests became reliable features of recent autumns. The moral? Be careful what you wish for, even (or especially) if you think the chances are miniscule. If you’ve the time and dedication, anything can happen, even deep within the urban sprawl.

Looking west over the reservoirs

Looking west over the reservoirs

Reservoir Underdogs
While my respective experiences on my patches in the east end and on the east coast may indeed seem half a world away from each other, the satisfaction and enjoyment gained from each is by no means incomparable. After these last twelve months – punctuated by the mercurial thrills of classic east coast birding, the luxuries of habitat variety, truly epic falls, killer seawatches, and the joys of bountiful self-finds – memories of challenging inner-city birding might be expected to be fading fast. But the reality is very different, and if anything the distance has brought the birdng rewards of my former urban enclave into sharper focus.

Litle Gull, SNR - a one-day rarity in spring 2010

Litle Gull, SNR – a one-day rarity in spring 2010

And while it may not seem initially obvious, there is vital common ground connecting each place. Both are, in a sense, the archetypal underdogs, overshadowed by much better-known and more productive birding hotspots nearby, and often overlooked as a result. Whether this appeals to my love of a challenge or just an inherent contrariness is open to question, but there’s no doubt it provides me with a continuity and an added purpose to my patch birding.

Back to the cliché I’m guilty of rolling out time after time when eulogising over the pleasures of birding anywhere, whether serenaded by a honking chorus of Cranes or by the screaming sirens of the Met: It’s all about context.

All words & pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2013

Icterine Warbler, Filey, Aug 2012

Icterine Warbler, Filey, Aug 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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