Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Car Trouble Part Three – 12th-13th February 2018

12th February  

Fast forward another few days and The Vroomster was due back at Skoda in Harlow for those pesky, under warranty, repairs so after depositing her in the north of town I headed a little further west into... Herfordshire... (no passport required) to meet up with my friend (and boss) Louise in Hoddesdon.  Leaving Paolo to tinker with motorbikes we headed back down the Lee Valley (and back into Essex) toward Fishers Green.

Now I spent much of my early birding in the Lee Valley, being it wandering the gloom of Walthamstow Reservoirs or the trespassing onto the KGV but mostly it was the area around Seventy Acres Lake and Holyfield that kept our youthful attention be it on a spring YOC walk for Nightingales, Turtle Doves, Grey Partridge and Grasshopper Warblers or a winter walk with guaranteed snow on the ground and a partially frozen river with semi-submerged Goosanders, furtive Water Rails, lonely Great Grey Shrike and the now county wide extinct Willow Tits exclaiming at us en route to the Grebe Hide. There were no Bitterns at this point wintering in the Valley but there more Smew and clouds of finches and Yellowhammers on the farm fields. 

We parked up in glorious crisp sunshine and headed north up towards Holyfield Weir.
I have not been here for many years now and remember the trees in some areas as newly planted saplings and not towering aspens and willows. A buck Muntjac watched us as he grazed across a clearing and was clearly unperturbed by our attention. 


Muntjac - love the face pattern

Some of the Hazel was in full catkin and a big fat Bluebottle angled herself to the sun.   


Calliphora sp
Holyfield Weir

Canada Geese at Holyfield Weir - i love the juxtaposition of mirror calm & moving water

The river was quiet and the surrounding trees held Redwings and a single Fieldfare while Grey Herons were already attending their nests on Holyfield Lake. The Cormorants were in the adjacent alders and were balancing in the top of the birches to break off twigs for nest material. All were strikingly white-headed sinensis birds. 


Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Lou and I got to the spot where the pylon straddles the path and unlike past visits I now had the means to take the ‘looking straight up’ photo that I always wanted. 

It was at this point where I saw the Great Grey Shrike briefly on a very foggy 29th November 1986 – a doubly memorable day as I discovered when we got home that I had become Young Ornithologist of the Year. Thirty-two years ago but still as fresh in my head now as then – the shear incredulity of it.

Now following the Lee proper (rather than the Weir extension) we crossed the Green Bridge and encountered a very large Chaffinch and Linnet flock in a set aside game and kale crop. Nothing else appeared other than the head of another Muntjac so we ambled on to the Bittern Watchpoint. 

I wonder just how many birds were in there?

Being half-term I expected it to be rammed but it was empty  and although the Bitterns were not in attendance, Lou did find us two Water Rails including one that kept exploring right up under the feeder. The light was in my face wherever I stood but it was great to watch this daring little rail dashing around like a tiny Kiwi.

The Bittern Watchpoint - who remember the late October Paddyfield Warbler from here in 1999?

Water Rail

Got to love a Woodpigeon...

oh and a Magpie!

With the bridge back to the car park being closed off there was no real choice but to continue on towards the Fishers Green Lane car park and Friday Lake but the weather was still glorious. Great Crested Grebes dotted the lakes with some calling and posturing taking place and that Lee Valley staple, the Gadwall was present in small numbers along with a Little Egret.

Great Crested Grebe


Mallard - surely one of the smartest ducks - & I mean looks not brainpower!

We had encountered several people who had seen the Red Kites and my eyes to the skies eventually resulted in me picking one up way over Hayes Hill Farm. It was joined by another and they flew purposefully towards us, before engaging a third Kite over our heads in a bit of high altitude dogfighting with a Carrion Crow getting in on the act too.

Red Kite

Red Kites and the Crow - amazing

The Willow Tits and Grey Partridges may now be long gone from the area but there are new players in town with the Egrets, Kites and even the ever expanding Ring-necked Parakeets. Two more Water Rails kipped from the now well established Bittern reedbeds and two Goldcrest showed to just a few feet from where we stood watching the Kite display. 


The loop took us back to the green bridge where the finches still shimmied back and forth and on the river a male Kingfisher dozed in the sunshine while a dog Weasel hunted the back and another Muntjac poked around the leaf litter and all this going on while chattering people and their associated vocal hounds strode on by just a river’s width away.

Kingfisher zzzzzz

Lunch beckoned and the cafe at Hayes Hill Farm was nearly empty despite full car park so with jacket spuds in hand we sat outside in the February sun with the Greenfinches coming down to drink at the pond, Song Thrushes singing in the old orchard (but alas no Little Owls in the old Pear tree any more) and quarrelsome Jackdaws playfully duffing each other up.

Song Thrush

Song Thrush

Some Siskins went over as I de-booted back at the just about still white little Fabia courtesy car before depositing Lou safely back to her family after a fine winter walk down memory lane.

13th February  

The weather today could not have been any more different with low grey cloud and a fierce cold wind but I had a plan in mind after returning cross country from the Lee Valley yesterday via Epping Forest and another of my old haunts, Hainault Forest where an obliging Nuthatch posed for me.  


I had initially thought about going back to Hainault but changed my mind and headed towards Epping and Piercing Hill where I had noticed some nice Yew Trees in St Mary’s church in Theydon Bois and given that this was the haunt in our childhood for winter roosting Hawfinches I thought I should give it a go. 

St Mary’s church

Now, parking around Theydon Bois is a nightmare due to the proximity of the station and the resulting restrictions but I eventually discovered that the church had a little car park that allowed me to explore the old churchyard. There may not have been any Hawfinches but a Firecrest and two Goldcrest, Coal Tits and a stroppy Yew-loving Mistle Thrush got proceedings going.

Having now got my bearings I drove further up the road and found the car park for Piercing Hill, put all my gear back on and ambled off into the woods for a couple of hours on a circuit that took me along the main bridlepath to the spot where we used to watch the ivy covered Beech trees and Holly for the handful of Hawfinches to come in on cold dark winter evenings.  

Much to my delight I heard two birds calling to each other almost immediately and although I could not find them in the swaying branches it made me smile to remember those patient evenings with us kids trying hard to stay still and quiet with equally patient parents (and often dogs) waiting for the chance to go home and get warm. 

Rather bizarrely, whilst digging out my old notebook for the YOC of the year date, I happened to discover that my previous excursions on the 20th and 23rd November 1986 had been to this very spot although I wish that there were still Marsh Tits here to be found.

It looks no different other than some big trees are missing...

A log time ago...

I found two living Beech trees encusted with this rotund orange lichen

I headed towards Epping High Road and popped out into the Long Running clearing with it grass and remnant heath. It seemed larger and more open than I remember it and hopefully that is due to Corporation and EFCV management. I wonder if it will once again ever hold Tree Pipits or even Nightjar?

Long Running

My circuit took me back off the main path and through the ancient pollarded Beech trees and Holly understory with its damp rills and Neolithic hollows. It was very quiet birdwise although I did find several pairs of Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Great Spot along with several vocal Coal Tits. 

A Birch Bracket of some description...

There were no finch flocks to sift through but the highlight was quietly walking up on two young buck Fallow Deer – one spotty and the other of the famous melanistic forest stock. We looked at each other for a couple of minutes before we both went on our ways.

I smugly got myself back to the car without getting geographically misplaced and a quick call to Skoda assured me that the Vroomster would be back on the road by lunchtime. It was still early and the skies were darkening and the wind still increasing but there was still exploring to do.

I had a hankering that there should be Parrot Crossbills somewhere in Essex and remembered some plantations near Theydon Mount and a quick look at the joyous Google Maps told me where I needed to go. It was only a short drive, taking me through Ivy Chimneys and the wonderfully named Fiddlers Hamlet where 70 Fieldfare and 20 Redwing adorned the roadside trees.

Unfortunately the conifers were, like so many places in England, a no go zone with keep out, threats of prosecution and danger signs at regular intervals and not even a single layby for a stop and listen so I followed my nose along the belt of trees and found myself pulling into the Ongar Park Wood car park. 

The heyday of this isolated eastern wing of Epping Forest is long gone and over grazing by feral deer has completely removed the understory and lack of any management has allowed the clearings where Willow Warblers once abounded and Nightjars even churred, to succeed and the birch scrub to mature and fill in the gaps. It used to also have Hawfinch but as with so many other old haunts that have been long devoid of its presence they have now returned following the magnificent autumn and early winter irruption from middle Europe. Phil Street found them here in November and at its peak over 20 were present but in recent weeks there have been no sightings so I was pleasantly surprised to find three on the deck throwing leaves around within 50m of the car including a dazzling male.

Over the next hour they played a great game of hide and seek with me but I ended up with seven birds around me although I only rarely saw them.  They were incredibly vocal though and I was surprised at how it cut through the sound of the wind through the trees.  Nuthatches and Treecreepers flitted about and Great Tits and Chaffinches were also investigating the detritus but with rain finding its way in through the canopy I decided to call it a day and remove the boots for the last time.

More work for Enid... on dead Hornbeam

And lots of these black ones too...

Dog's Mercury getting ahead of the early Bluebells...

Lunch and then up the road a little way to collect the car before a leisurely drive home after another day of childhood reminiscences.

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