Ask any inland patch birder what their favourite month is and the majority will say April. Growing up watching gravel pits in south Lincolnshire, I always felt that the period from 25 March through to around 15 May was most productive, with the best weeks undeniably coming in the latter half of April and the first days of May.
Thus the arrival of April (and my acquisition of a new bike) was bound to stir my birding juices and finally, on Sunday, I visited Walthamstow Wetlands for the first time, despite having lived within a couple of miles of the site for the best part of a year. While there wasn't exactly much happening, aside the drake Greater Scaup performing well on No.4 Res, I was impressed by the site, both for its size and diversity of habitats. And actually, it wasn't that busy away from the central path, which is most used by the general public (although no doubt the dreary conditions had an impact on that). I was sold, and vowed to return the following morning.
Unfortunately the weather was awful when I woke on Monday; in fact, the heavy rain showers persisted until 10:00, when it eventually brightened enough to sneak out. I can bike to the wetlands in around 10 minutes and arrived on the east bank at Lockwood Reservoir a short while before 10:30. I quite like the vantage point you have from the east side of Lockwood; plus it's the biggest expanse of water at the Wetlands and thus must look the most attractive to any overflying migrants.
It 'felt' like a good day to be out. Low cloud, occasional rumbles of thunder, odd outbreaks of rain and a mugginess to the air. The first indications of passage came at 10:35, when nine Common Terns spent 10 minutes restlessly pacing up and down the reservoir before continuing off to the north. Not long after this, seven Yellow Wagtails moved through (the first of four groups totalling 15 birds) and the first Meadow Pipits also went overhead. I'm not sure if it's normal here in murky conditions, but the birds seemed to be following the east side of Lockwood northwards and thus my position on the bank actually proved quite a decent 'vis-migging' spot. Hirundines moved through in small groups past me and the biggest flock of Meadow Pipits overhead was 24.
The sight of David Bradshaw making his way towards me was seemingly the catalyst for a memorable few hours of birding. Not long after he'd joined me, he got a call to say that at least a couple of Little Gulls had arrived on West Warwick, so he decided to head down there to see them. A couple of minutes after he left me, I noticed four waders flying north up Lockwood: two each of Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Unfortunately they didn't stick, but while we tried to relocate them at the north end, I looked back south to see that two Little Gulls had dropped in – an adult and a second-summer. Very smart, and exactly the result I been hoping for on such a day.
At around 13:00 the gulls went off high to the north, so I decided to cycle down to the south section of the reserve. The male Northern Wheatear was still present at the north end of East Warwick Reservoir and three Yellow Wagtails flew overhead as David and I convened with Eugene Dillon-Hooper. All three dropped onto the reservoir bank and so we set about enjoying them (all those I'd seen earlier were fly-bys). Much to my surprise, one of them transpired to be a pristine male Blue-headed Wagtail. The day was getting better!
The slow meander towards West Wawrick recommenced, but David and I only managed about 50 metres when the local gulls went berserk. A quick glance upwards produced the almost predictable – though nonetheless hugely welcome and satisfying – shape of an Osprey hurriedly tracking north-west at remarkably low altitude, being battered by the LBBGs and HGs. We picked it up late but I managed to rummage for my camera and fire off a few shots which, on subsequent viewing, revealed the bird to be ringed ('PW' on the right leg)! Presumably a Scottish bird, but awaiting details.
The excitement continued when we eventually reached West Warwick, where we were expecting a handful of Little Gulls at best after reports that many had circled up high and departed – but in fact there were no fewer than 25! It was great to sit on the bank and watch them avidly feeding, sitting on the water and even calling to each other – not a sound you hear in Britain often. Hirundines were present in good numbers and a Little Ringed Plover flew over, concluding a truly fine day.
I've been told that it's all downhill from here. Well, it'll probably be a while before it's this good again, but as long as the conditions are decent, you're always in the game.
I had a bit of a shock on Saturday afternoon when a female Bufflehead flew through my scope as I scanned the wader pit at my old patch of Baston & Langtoft Pits. It was a surprise, of that there is no doubt – but the excitement never really built, primarily because it took all of about three seconds to remember the long-staying and wide-ranging escaped female that has toured sites between West Yorkshire and Somerset since it first appeared in summer 2017.
At first the bird was preening its left side and repeatedly holding its (unringed) left leg out the water ... but a text from Northants birding guru Mike Alibone confirmed that I should be paying attention to the other side, as the recent escapee that he'd seen in Northants back in 2017 bore a metal ring on its right leg (more here). The bird started to feed and, on the first dive with the right leg facing in my direction, I was sure I noticed something pale and ring-like – disappointing, but hardly surprising. However, it proved difficult to see subsequently and, on reviewing images of the bird in flight later that afternoon, I couldn't see an obvious ring ... suddenly there appeared to be a glimmer of hope that somehow, just somehow, this was all a massive coincidence and the Baston bird might be wild after all.
One thing not in its favour were the white upperwing coverts, which identified it as an adult female. Had it been a second-calendar-year, I might well have been able to start believing that my luck was in. On returning to the pits with Will Bowell that evening, we managed to see the bird well in flight and several photos clearly depict the metal ring on the hanging right leg as the bird took off from the water. Balls.
So, there you have it. A wary Bufflehead, for a single afternoon, at a seemingly perfect time of year for a vagrant (lots of wildfowl on the move at the moment) ... but wearing a ring, which confirmed it as a bird present in the Midlands for the best part of two years. Oh well.
Other, 'real' birds over the weekend were in relatively short supply, although an adult Mediterranean Gull, a brief Black-tailed Godwit on Sunday afternoon, my first Sand Martins, Swallows and Little Ringed Plovers plus the resident pair of Ravens were all pleasant enough. A few northbound parties of Whooper Swans were also seen, including a group of 15 over my mum's house shortly after sunrise on Monday morning, which was a garden tick.