Watching this space…


Ahead of the Wanstead Wildlife Weekend, James Heal offers his tips for birdwatching on the local patch

Some of the local birders (me included) have been around for a while. I will spare the blushes of one of my fellows who has been ticking stuff locally since before I was born. There are a range of capabilities and specific interests (some of us like gulls, some like surveying breeding birds, some use nocturnal migration recorders and heat sensory binoculars, and some like taking the best photos of birds possible), but this group of core local birders have kept the records flowing over the last decade and more and found some amazing birds. I dread to think about the number of combined hours we have put into birding Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park – it would be a very large figure indeed. Most of us are out at least weekly, and some of us almost daily!

Birding is about so much more than numbers, but there are few committed birders who are not at least somewhat interested in the numbers game. Birders, as we know, like lists, with several of us now contributing regularly to centralised applications, most notably eBird, which enable our bird data to contribute to wider ornithological science. 

I moved to the local area in late 2014, and 2023 is now the ninth year I have been regularly birding the patch. In that time, I have been lucky enough to record 148 species of bird (I say record rather than ‘see’ as two species on my list are ‘heard only’: Quail and Tawny Owl). There are six local birders who have all got over 150 species on their patch lists. I am not going to indulge in false modesty here; for a relatively small and unassuming site, those are impressive numbers! And with 150 years worth of records, and almost 15 years of very comprehensive records, the total patch list is just over 200. Quite phenomenal, really!

Anyhow, I need to get to the point! I realise that for someone early on in their journey of birding, knowing where to start or how to start amassing a substantive list may be a little daunting. So, for the benefit of those who are starting out on their birding journey, or for those who don’t quite visit often enough to make building a big list easy, the following tips are for you.

Get to know the patch
Spend time walking around the local area as regularly as you can. Note what you see, where you see it and when (time of year, but also time of day – these factors can make a massive difference). We have a map on the Wanstead Birding website with some local names for things: Motorcycle Wood, The Gates of Mordor, The Ditch of Despair and the Forbidden Triangle are all on there.

Go out across all four seasons
You don’t need to be a daily or even a weekly birder to clock up some good birds locally, but you do need to get out relatively regularly. You will also build a disproportionately strong list by focusing on birding during the spring and autumn migration periods.

Study your targets
To keep a list, you need to be able to accurately identify your targets by sight (and often at distance) and sound (learning flight calls is essential for the passage migration period). If you are starting from a low base of knowledge, I would suggest using a field guide like the Collins Bird Guide and looking up the birds you see while you are out and about.

Build a base of easy targets
One of two gifts to you from this article is a list of 71 species which should be pretty much guaranteed if you follow the steps above. Admittedly, some of these ‘easy’ birds are easier than others – I doubt I have ever set foot on the patch without ticking off a Robin, whilst I have managed to get several months into the year without adding Grey Wagtail to my year list, but I would be shocked if I didn’t add it before the year is out. Against each of the 71 species, I have put where and when you are most likely to see them. 

Devise a list of more challenging targets
Once you have your foundation species, you can now set yourself a target of the species which should be doable within a typical year. Your second gift is a list of 39 species setting out the largely annual birds which can be tricky, but with some dedication, should be largely doable within any given year. As with above, some are easier to get than others. There are arguments that birds like Snipe, Little Owl, Coal Tit and Yellow Wagtail should really be in the ‘easy’ list, while others such as Short-eared Owl and Yellowhammer could be considered too difficult for a list of this nature. However, this is a target list of birds you might reasonably expect to see, and so even if you only got two-thirds of the list in a year, you would be well on your way to getting 100 birds for the year.

Be ready to engage in twitching
Every year, we get a small smattering of rarer birds than those on the lists provided. If you get serious about your patch list or patch year list and would like to see interesting birds locally, you probably need to be ready to respond to news and come out to try and see the good birds when the news goes out. I remember that within a few months of moving to the area, a Slavonian Grebe showed up on Heronry Pond. It was the first record for the patch and the only one to date. If I hadn’t made the effort to go and see it, there was no guarantee that opportunity would come up again locally.

Building a patch list can be a great way to develop your understanding of birds – a stronger sense of the ordinary will give you greater intuition for the extraordinary. If this article was of use to a small handful of people who then go on to strengthen the network of local birders, the more trained eyes there are out on the patch, the better. Not only from a rarity-finding perspective but also to contribute to the understanding of what birds we have present locally and what is happening to their numbers.

For more information on the Wren Wildlife Group and Wanstead Wildlife Weekend (24 and 25 June), visit wnstd.com/wren

To view the bird lists in the group’s latest newsletter, visit wnstd.com/birdlists