Average Birding

An unexpected Little Bunting

This week's "please stay there until the weekend" report is a Little Bunting at Walthamstow Reservoirs. (N.B Yes, the cover photo is of a Reed Bunting - read on for tale of why).

This post covers the period of January 15th-21st, 2018. Pronoun guidance: only AB1 would have been up for the expedition described below.

The weekend finally arrives

Saturday is taken up by non-bird plans (!). By the time Sunday arrives, it seems my luck is still, partially, in; the bird is allegedly around. Only partially, mind; it feels like this is the coldest London has been for quite some time and that's before the windchill is factored in. Also, getting to Walthamstow is not particularly straightforward and either involves going in and then out again (Northern then Victoria), or a pesky pair of Overground trains.

This is definitely a twitch. It's a good job AB2 is absent; this would not be her scene. There's a veritable horde of birders waiting around where the bunting's been seen - a firing squad of scopes awaits it. Some of them had success around an hour ago, but nothing's been seen since.

As of now, we all stare at a row of leafless trees. Behind them, the River Lee quietly flows. Behind that stand some apartments, the residents of which must be feeling somewhat tormented by the amount of accidental attention their homes are receiving. Off to our left, the Warwick reservoir sits, contemplatively. Behind us is Reservoir No. 1 (I'm not sure how they have been ranked, but it feels good to be near the top seed).

Nothing is what continues to happen for quite some time. Even the Reed Buntings that were hopping about when I arrived have gone to ground; the longer grass and scrub around the tree line providing excellent cover. There isn't even any relief from the occasional Wood Pigeon; even they have been sensible enough to read the forecast and batten down the hatches.

Speaking of the weather, it starts to get worse. The wind gets up, it starts to snow. Much of the effort that was going into scanning the tree line must now be spent on stamping of feet, cleaning of snow from binoculars, and wondering how long it's possible to stay here without developing hypothermia.

A prominent local birder with a pristine East end accent and a giant golf umbrella is remonstrating with...OK, it isn't clear who with, but what they are remonstrating about is the management of the reserve. Walthamstow was, until recently, managed by Thames Water. Last October (2017), it was opened up as a more publicly accessible site, with trails, and a new name: "Walthamstow Wetlands".

In short, the site went from "out of bounds to everyone except, basically, a bunch of anoraks: fishermen and birders who obtained the necessary permits" (thanks, Guardian) to well promoted outdoor space open to everyone. Our local expert is not impressed with how the change has been managed:

"There's no place for the wildlife anymore". "You get here now and people are jogging along the tops of the reservoirs - think about the disturbance that's going to make to the birds that inhabit the edge" (Indeed, several joggers have done this and, my god, is that a buggy traversing the reservoir now too?). "No-one is enforcing the areas where dogs aren't supposed to go".

There's something mildly entertaining about this litany; he's got a point, and the delivery is excellent. Or possibly it's so cold that I've started to go mad.

The snow gets heavier before it gets lighter. This is borderline ridiculous; the visibility is such that the area where the bird is supposed to be is obscured from view. Several folks head back towards the visitor centre to shelter; the foolhardier of us (a good ten or so) hang about, just in case.

Some time around 1pm the weather starts to clear a bit. I scrunch my feet up inside my shoes, in an attempt to invoke the spirit of Die Hard. A few littlies start to show some movement in the grassy patch in front of us. A group of three birds flaps up into one of the trees at the back of the patch. They're definitely buntings and the one sitting at 10 'o' clock is decidedly paler, even in this half-arsed wintry light (I'm not even slightly regretting not bringing the camera, and I doubt my frozen fingers could operate it even if I had). Our umbrella toting narrator pipes up: "Little Bunting!" and that's exactly what it is.

The bird hangs about for a fair old while at this point; long enough for some of the less hardy crew to return from the warm sanctuary of the visitor centre (some of them with steaming mugs of coffee in hand; bastards) to catch up with it, the lucky sods.

Having found the bird, I take a step outside myself and consider the sanity of having come out on such a twitch. Verdict: non-committal. One thing is for sure - I am far, far too cold to visit the other side of the reserve, where there is apparently a Scaup. I'm too cold to even work out how to say Scaup (scawp? scowp?). The only thing left to do is pick up a celebratory Subway on the way home. What a way to spend half a Sunday.