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Bird notes and observations from Sunday

To the Welsh Harp on an overcast and windy Sunday morning in late November, the intention being to do some birdwatching. Officially called the Brent Reservoir, it’s located in the corner to the west of the Edgware Road and to the north of the North Circ and straddles the boundary between the London Boroughs of Barnet and Brent. It’s a protected area (a Site of Special Scientific Interest, one of 37 such places in Greater London, to be precise). I was rather hoping to be able to spot a few ducks, and colder weather can offer the opportunity to spot a few rarer species that have been known to visit inland lakes or reservoirs in winter; Goldeneye or Smew, perhaps? Unlikely, but if you don’t go and look, you’ll never know.

One duck that I wasn’t going to see (although according to my records I’ve seen one there before, four years ago) was a Ruddy Duck. Brightly coloured, with copper wings and blue beaks, Ruddies are native to the Americas, and in Britain they established themselves in the wild after escaping from captivity in the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately they also spread to Europe, and became a problem in Spain when they inter-bred with the endangered (and closely related) White-headed Duck; this in turn has led to a cull of Ruddies in Britain and Europe which has severely reduced the population (when reporting on this last year, the Telegraph even noted that the Welsh Harp “was a popular ruddy spot but is now, officially, cleansed of them”). This has been supported by the RSPB (to quote its website: “either we act to stop ruddy ducks spreading from the UK, or we stand by and watch as the white-headed duck is pushed ever closer to extinction … failure to tackle the spread of ruddy ducks in Europe could condemn the white-headed duck to extinction”); it’s one of those cases where two options are available, and neither of them are particularly pleasant.

Waterfowl-wise, we quickly spotted the likes of Coot, Mute Swan, geese of the Canada and Egyptian varieties, Tufted Duck, Moorhen and Mallard. Closer inspection with the binoculars soon confirmed that we had Shoveler and Gadwall as well (I have often wondered about Gadwalls, the males of which are not exactly distinctive as far as ducks go and which I don’t recall seeing much when I was younger; had they really been there all along, and I’d mistaken them for particularly grey female Mallards?).

We moved along to a hide (an open-to-the-elements one which, although the metal bench was rather cold, was clean and provided shelter from a small outpouring of rain). From here, we noted Cormorant, Grey Heron and various gulls, and were momentarily baffled by a pair of ducks on the far shoreline which had their heads tucked down, meaning we couldn’t decide whether they were Teal or Wigeon. We waited patiently until one of them decided to go for a swim, following which its red-and-green head left us in no doubt that we were watching a Teal (several more of which were subsequently spotted). Elsewhere, a pair of stationary small-ish brown-coloured ducks turned out, once they moved, to be female Tufted Ducks.

Great Crested Grebes in their winter plumage were noted, although there was one that was a little greyer in the neck and darker in the head that we momentarily thought might be something else (later checks in my copy of the RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe, a volume far too large and heavy for use as a field guide, raised the tantalising possibility that we’d seen a Red-necked Grebe in winter plumage, although a quick peek in the London Bird Report 2013 poured cold water on this, with just two reported sightings having been made in the London area in that year; much though I’d like to have seen a rare water-based bird, I’m not going to kid myself that our sighting was anything other than a Great Crested Grebe). Another, smaller grebe was easily identified as a Little Grebe.

Beyond the water, we took in three kinds of tit, three members of the crow family, some Robins, a Chaffinch and plenty of pigeons. I had wondered if we’d see Bramblings (a winter visiting finch) but that wasn’t to be; some other time, perhaps. Ring-necked Parakeets were heard but not seen. There were as usual several small brown birds that proved to be unidentifiable due to their being too fast for us and/or too well concealed in the reeds. Best of all was a female Kestrel hovering overhead; in all, we notched up 29 confirmed species on a windy but satisfying day watching the birds.

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