I wrote the following look at the birds of Wanstead Flats in 1980. It might be worth comparing the observations then with the situation now, so I have added some notes based around casual observations in 2000, plus some updates up to the present time.
WANSTEAD FLATS - NOT BAD FOR BIRDS - 1980
Although Wanstead Flats may not be as popular with bird-watchers as nearby Wanstead Park, the Flats are, nevertheless, quite popular with the birds!
For a few years now I have made fairly frequent visits to Wanstead Park and have become used, in some degree, to the variety of bird species that occur there. However, living adjacent to Wanstead Flats I tend to visit these more often than the Park and have learned what this relatively unrecorded area has to offer.
Naturally, the focal point for birds, animals and man anywhere tends to be water. In the case of bird and animals this provides a feeding and watering place, but for present-day man it may be simply for its aesthetic or recreational values. The lakes and ponds on the Flats are no exception, and of these Alexandra Lake is perhaps the most popular - for both man and a wide variety of bird species. Of these the waterfowl are the most obvious and not surprisingly Mallard are the most numerous. The numbers of the resident population increase during the summer as ducklings are reared and also during the winter due to the influx of birds from other parts. A few pairs of Tufted Duck may also stay during the summer, though these have been less successful at their attempts at breeding. Winter visitors too augment the numbers of this species, and this season usually brings some Pochard, which rarely stay during the summer. These are the usual ducks to he seen on Alexandra Lake although other species have occurred and include Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal and Goldeneye, in order of how frequently they have been seen. For some years until 1976 there were two Egyptian Geese usually present on the Lake, their origin unknown, but a somewhat exotic couple to have around. Mute Swans are often present, sometimes staying all the year and attempting to breed. Canada Geese are frequent - mainly winter - visitors in varying numbers. There is usually some "domestic" type waterfowl in the form perhaps of white Aylesbury Ducks, other aberrant Mallard and Muscovey Ducks.
The other large pond, that by Dames Road, may have at some time any of the above, but more usually Mallard, Tufted Duck, Canada Geese or Swans. The small round pond by Capel Road offers little protection and sparse feeding, so that Mallard are the more usual waterfowl to frequent it, if any.
Alexandra Lake also has a resident and a winter-visiting population of Coot and Moorhen, both of which species are quite successful at rearing young here despite the disturbance and abuse that this lake is prone to. Great Crested Grebes are seen occasionally, but never stay long. Until 1980 I had never seen a Little Grebe on the lake, but in that year there were three that stayed during the summer and a pair of them raised young. In the winter, gulls are very common on the lake, spilling over from the vast flocks that stand about on the playing fields nearby. The gulls that arrive in the autumn may sometimes be seen attempting to perch on the very top twigs of the trees on the lake's islands, trying to feed. It almost appears that they get better at this each year. The winter flocks of gulls consist mainly of Black-headed and Common Gulls, the former being the more numerous. Lesser Black-backs occur in much smaller numbers, and Herring Gulls and Great Black-backs are rarities.
Though close to the busy North Circular Road, it is human disturbance as opposed to that caused by road traffic that particularly seems to inhibit the number of waders that might otherwise visit the lake. It is only in the very early hours of the morning, even before dawn, that these may be seen. A visit, if possible before any other person arrives (a difficult undertaking!), during the migration periods may reveal, perhaps, a Common Sandpiper. A this time of the morning a Heron may be disturbed, otherwise these are more usually seen flying over, apparently looking but not stopping. Careful observation has shown Sandpipers - up to three in 1980 - which have stayed for several days, but this is not to be expected and they are difficult to see during the daytime. The one or two occurrences of Dunlin, on the other hand, have shown them present during the daytime on the perimeter bank of the lake and seemingly very "tame". This is possibly due to their being individual birds that would more normally be in large flocks, so that they are receiving none of the "danger" signals from other birds that would otherwise cause them to take flight at the approach of a human being. Ruff were seen in the area in the winter of 1976 and harsh weather conditions may bring other species.
Other birds particularly associated with the lake are the Wagtails, Martins and Swifts. Pied Wagtails are present all year, and often breed. Yellow Wagtails and Grey Wagtails are to be seen annually, but infrequently. Many House Martins feed over Alexandra Lake as well as the other waters on the Flats, and may be observed in the early summer collecting mud from the pond sides for their nests on nearby houses. Sand Martins are regular passage migrants in small numbers, but do not breed locally, whereas Swifts may be seen over the lake throughout their somewhat short summer visiting season. These breed in nearby houses in Wanstead Park Avenue. Swallows are also seen feeding over the lake, but perhaps just as often tend to be flying over the grassland of the Flats.
Of course many birds not otherwise particularly connected with water visit the lakes to feed and to drink. There does appear to be a resident population of House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons by Alexandra Lake that take advantage the food brought by people feeding the ducks. A few Chaffinches also make use of this food supply, as do Blue Tits and Great Tits. As well as Chaffinches, other finches commonly occurring on the Flats include Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Linnet, the latter especially being associated with the gorse and broom areas by Centre Road.
The bird I associate most with Wanstead Flats as opposed to other localities in the area, is the Skylark. At most times of the year at least one, and sometimes a good number, can be heard singing high over the grassland. Although a Skylark or two may be seen on the Plain in Wanstead Park, facilities for nesting there are very much more restricted than the Flats, even though much of these consist of playing fields and not the necessary rough grassland. Still, a few birds do manage to nest successfully each year and these are certainly supplemented by numbers of non-breeding birds, During the short nights of mid-summer, Skylarks are often singing before dawn. On a fine summer night at 2am I tracked down such a bird and found it to be singing from the ground, which they may do even during the daytime. At the same time I disturbed another bird which flew up and commenced singing in flight, and meanwhile a Tawny Owl had began hooting from somewhere near Alexandra Lake. Owl and Skylarks together at two in the morning!
Meadow Pipits are more often seen during the winter, although they are occasionally present in the summer. Different winters produce varying numbers of this species, depending it seems on the severity of the winters, as most are seen during cold periods. This is true also of the Yellowhammers, which are most often seen in the Hawthorns to the east of Alexandra Lake in flocks of up to twenty-five birds. They feed in the rough grass here and when disturbed, or while roosting, seek the security of the trees. These Hawthorns and the nearby small mixed woods are favourite spots for numerous species of birds, as is the area known as Long Wood further west towards Centre Road. Blackbirds particularly are abundant in these Hawthorn Woods, flying between it and the wooded islands of the lake. Song Thrushes, and in the winter Redwings, may also be seen here. Redwings and their associates the Fieldfares - again particularly during the more severe winters - may be seen anywhere on Wanstead Flats, often feeding on the playing-fields but more usually in the vicinity of Hawthorns for their berries. I have seen many of the trees near the junctions of Centre Road and Aldersbrook Road, where there are some fine berry- producing Hawthorns, absolutely covered in these two species. In 1980 flocks of Redwings were dropping out of a stormy autumn sky early one morning, trying to find a place to rest in the trees near Alexandra Lake. This was quite a spectacle, especially since House Martins were still very much in evidence.
Particularly during the late winter - and usually it seems when a strong wind is blowing - the powerful song of a Mistle Thrush may be heard, and the bird tracked down at a much greater distance than was supposed, sitting high in a tree top and facing into the wind as if in defiance. A few pairs of these birds are usually present somewhere on the Flats.
In the spring, a bird I look forward to seeing is the Wheatear. The cock in spring appears to be one of the most handsome and well-groomed of birds. For some reason this species seems to find football pitches singularly attractive, especially if there is a nearby bush, tree or almost any other object to retire to if disturbed. On early spring mornings or late spring evenings I often go to one particular area where they inevitably occur, in small numbers, each year. In autumn too they turn up, but whether they are less regular in their attendance, or I am, I'm not sure. By the time the Wheatears arrive the winter birds will be mostly gone, and shortly after the Wheatears the first Swallows or Martins will arrive. Again, Alexandra Lake is an ideal spot to await the first arrival of these, and it is always a great pleasure after a few evenings of watching an "empty" sky over the lake when suddenly there is a Martin or a Swallow. At this time too, a Chiffchaff may be heard, usually from one of the islands, and soon afterwards, Willow Warblers. Compared with Wanstead Park the comparative lack of tree cover on Wanstead Flats means that there are not many of these species around, but there are usually some. Sedge Warblers have occurred by the lake, but are unusual, and I have only ever seen two Lesser Whitethroats on the Flats. The first of these, in 1974, actually built a nest and laid eggs in a Bramble, but - as was almost inevitable - these were stolen. Spotted Flycatchers are not unusual, a few breeding pairs sometimes being present. Again the lake area us a good place to see these when they are feeding on insects over the water. By the late summer, House Sparrows appear to have been making careful observations of the Flycatcher's methods, and more careful observation on the part of the birdwatcher proves that most of the flycatchers jumping off the branches are in fact Sparrows. I have also on occasions witnessed nifty Pied Wagtails apparently intercepting a House Martin's prospective meal, and in the chase by the angry/hungry Martin that has ensued, it is amazing how fast and evasive a Wagtail can be. This "theft" is possibly the reason for the chase of a feral Pigeon by a persistent House Sparrow that one sometimes sees. Often this ends when the Pigeon suddenly alights on perhaps a rooftop, at which point the Sparrow seems to give up, perhaps because the stimulus to chase is removed when the quarry no longer flees.
Feral Pigeons are often to be seen feeding by the roadsides adjacent to houses. This is true also of the Wood Pigeon, particularly so along Capel Road; these birds probably come from Manor Park Cemetery where they are abundant. Collared Doves, in one or a few pairs, are sometimes present in the trees near to Alexandra Lake, and in this case there seems to be an association with these birds and the nearby City of London Cemetery. Carrion Crows are perhaps the most conspicuous of the year-round birds to be seen in any general glance at the grassy expanses of Wanstead Flats. At most times there are several birds, very often two or three dozen, and on occasions over a hundred. Magpies are also regularly seen, and nest very successfully in many of the small woods and copses that are scattered across the Flats. The only resident accipter is, as would be expected, the Kestrel. At times there may be one or two pairs present and these are often to be seen hovering over the grassland. For a short time in 1976 there was the exciting spectacle of a Lanner Falcon to be seen, either sitting in trees, soaring or stooping, but this was an escaped bird. Occasionally, Sparrow-hawks have been flown on the Flats by falconers. Other escapes that have occurred have included Budgerigars, Ring-necked Parakeets and an Australian Cockatiel.
The wide horizons of Wanstead Flats do provide an opportunity to see individual or flocks of birds flying at a distance. The most regularly seen in this manner are the Cormorants flying to and from their feeding grounds on the Thames and their roosting grounds at Walthamstow Reservoirs. The sight of up to thirty of these birds flying in a "V" formation is a lovely and unusual sight in this part of the country. Apart from one apparently unique individual that seemed to be making a personal inspection of the local lakes in 1980, Cormorants are usually only seen flying over the area. Herons are also well observed by scanning the horizon, but more often as single birds, and these may well come in low over the lakes and do sometimes land. Flocks of Lapwings are occasionally seen, as well as the more obvious Starlings on their evening flights from the outer fringes of London to their roosting places further in to the town. One such site nearby is just south of Stratford Station. A more unusual sighting of a flock of birds was that of fifty to sixty White-fronted Geese in January 1979.
As is often stated regarding birds "anything can turn up anywhere", and watching the sky with a good field of view as can be had from Wanstead Flats could well show other species that at least fly over, even if not attracted enough to land. Indeed, from the air and particularly during migration periods, with its few stretches of open water readily evident, the Flats might well seem an ideal place for a stopover for a weary bird. Some do, and some stay, but there is considerable disturbance to contend with. However, it must be remembered that if the area was not required for human recreation - and thus disturbance - Wanstead Flats may well have been developed into flats of another kind.
By no means all of the species that do occur or have occurred have been mentioned, and so a list of species known since 1974 is included. It will be seen from this that the total number of species that have been recorded from Wanstead Flats is 85. This compares with 111 species recorded from Wanstead Park or elsewhere in the Wren Conservation Group's study area. Considering, perhaps, the small number of recorders of the Flats' bird-life, the area can provide a good selection of birds. From my experience, just a casual walk around Alexandra Lake - viewing also the adjacent playing fields and trees - can often show some twenty species. This may not be a great number when compared with some of the world's great bird-watching spots, but is not bad for a location so close to London. A good day in spring, looking more carefully over the Flats as a whole might show perhaps forty or more species.
So all in all, Wanstead Flats is not a bad place for birds - or birdwatchers!
WANSTEAD FLATS - BIRDS IN 2000
Comparing the above article written in 1980 with the situation in 2000, a number of changes may be observed.
Alexandra Lake remains a focal point, and normally has a large number of birds present. One major difference is that Mallards are now almost rare!
Tufted Duck numbers appear to be similar and winter still produces a few Pochard and Shoveler. Gadwall - which I didn't even mention in 1980 are now a common winter bird, small numbers even staying well into the summer months. Wigeon and Teal and other species may occasionally occur. A pair of Mute Swans have bred regularly for years now. Canada Geese are are now present throughout the year in huge numbers - it is sometimes possible to count 200 or so birds. These are encouraged by a tremendous amount of feeding, not infrequently even local baker's vans stop and tip loaves of bread at the waters edge to say nothing of plastic bag loads of a wide range of foodstuffs deposited by well-meaning but poorly informed people. The edges of the lake can often be seen to be full of decaying food which has given rise at times to very poor quality water. There are usually a few feral Greylag geese with the Canadas, and occasional a hybrid. A few "domestic" type waterfowl are still present, though no Egyptian Geese nor Muscovey Ducks. There are numbers of Moorhen and lots of Coot, which breed readily. Some years Little Grebe succeed in rearing a brood, and less often, Great Crested Grebe. A bird that may be seen soon on Alexandra Lake is the Ruddy Duck - which has been seen in nearby Wanstead Park.
Common Sandpipers occasionally frequent the lake in Spring and Autumn, and Heron and nowadays Cormorants can sometimes be seen.
Dames Road pond has been in a bad state of repair for many years now and only after periods of rainfall is water present to any degree. Thus the species that may be seen there will consist mainly of Canada Geese and gulls - Black-headed, Common and some Lesser Black-backed. Angell's Pond by Capel Road, since it was dredged actually retains a better level of water and has over the years accumulated more vegetation around its edge, so more birds perhaps than in 1980 make use of it. These tend to be Canada Geese, Coot, Moorhen and Gulls.
Roosting on the Flats themselves, Lesser Black-backs are much more numerous now, and Herring Gulls are frequently heard, though Great Black-backs are still very rare. Occasionally a Mediterranean Gull has been identified in Winter.
Yellow and Grey Wagtails continue to be seen annually, but infrequently, though Pied Wagtails are present all year, and often breed. The House Martins that used to be so common over Alexandra Lake as well as the other waters on the Flats are rare now, whereas Swifts are extremely common and still breed in nearby houses in Wanstead Park Avenue. Sand Martins may still be seen in small numbers on migration and Swallows may be seen from time to time.
After a period of absence, a resident population of House Sparrows have returned, particularly in the vicinity of the southern edge of the Flats by Capel Road and at the north-western edge by Leytonstone. Feral Pigeons continue to mass in large numbers by Alexandra Lake, taking advantage of the excess food mentioned regarding the Canada Geese. As in 1980, a few Chaffinches also make use of this food supply, as do Blue Tits and Great Tits, which are still common local birds. Other finches, however - the Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Linnet which used to be fairly common - are now rarely seen. The flocks of Starlings that were once a familiar evening spectacle are very much diminished, though these birds are still present locally. Green Woodpeckers sometimes make use of the Flats, and occasionally Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
Skylarks, I am pleased to report, are still doing very well on Wanstead Flats and every effort ought to be made to enhance their environment and allow them to flourish. The Tawny Owls that I mentioned in 1980 are almost never heard now - particularly it seems after the cutting down of many trees in nearby Manor Park Cemetery. Meadow Pipits are still present, winter and summer. Yellowhammers are now much scarcer. Blackbirds, though not uncommon, are fewer in number now as are Song Thrushes. Mistle Thrushes seem to be as frequent as ever and young ones may be seen after breeding. Redwings and also Fieldfares may occur in winter.
Wheatears probably still occur during their spring and autumn migrations, though it must be said that there has not been too many recent records of this species. That is probably due more to lack of local observers than to lack of birds. Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers are still likely to be heard particularly from the vicinity of Alexandra Lake in spring. Sedge Warblers are still uncommon visitors as are Lesser Whitethroats, and there have been few recent reports of Spotted Flycatchers. Common Whitethroats are usually present in summer, particularly in the copses near the junctions of Centre Road and Aldersbrook Road.
Feral Pigeons have already been mentioned in association with Alexandra Lake, but these are less common now near to houses. Wood Pigeons remain more or less the same, and the numbers of Collared Doves may have increased slightly. Carrion Crows are still plentiful with sometimes hundreds being present. Magpies too have maintained if not increased their numbers. These crows have now been joined by another - Jackdaws. From a small number in the vicinity of Snaresbrook Crown Court twenty years ago, they seem to have gradually made their way into Wanstead, then Wanstead Park, and now Wanstead Flats. They are frequently heard and seen now in the vicinity of Alexandra Lake. Kestrels are perhaps not as common as in 1980 - it is now just as likely to see see a Sparrowhawk instead. Hobbies are a species that wasn't mentioned in 1980, but may be seen most summers over or near Wanstead Flats.
A number of breeding pairs of Little Grebe were noted (but not counted) around Alexandra lake in 2004. Mentioned but not seen on Wanstead Flats in 2000 were Ruddy Ducks. As predicted, they arrived and bred, producing three young in 2001. These are now a common sight on Alexandra Lake, having bred again this Spring. A pair of Greylag geese also bred, presumably on Alexandra Lake, but sightings alternated between this lake and the newly refurbished Jubilee Pond. This was before the goslings were able to fly - so they must have walked back and forth between the lakes! It was noted that Jackdaws are now a frequent visitor to Jubilee Pond which since its renewal has acted as home, refuge and/or feeding station to large numbers of Canada Geese. Even prior to the refurbishment, bird-feeding enthusiasts had encouraged Feral Pigeons - to such an extent that one of the new islands has been unofficialy dubbed "Pigeon Island".
Casual observations during 2005 seemed to show that Mallard numbers were increasing and that Ruddy Ducks were now quite frequent in small numbers on Alexandra Lake. During a period of low water-level in Alexandra Lake in the latter part of September, about a dozen Teal were present - apparently taking advantage of the change in habitat. Canada Geese and Feral Pigeons were still present in large numbers - these still taking advantage of the masses of feeding that persistently takes place. Kestrels are infrequent on the Flats these days, although Sparrowhawks are often present. A new species has been reported in the last couple of years from one of the copses - Little Owl. Stonechat have been reported, and also Red-legged Partridge apparently for a couple of years now. A Tawny Owl was heard in nearby Manor Park Cemetery for some nights in September.
2009 saw not just some new birds, but also some new birders in the area. The presence of more pairs of eyes especially during the Spring migration showed a number of species to pass through that we might have missed in the past. Wheatears showed up as usual with the first males on 15th March. Thereafter there were sightings into mid-April. During this period, a Whinchat was seen and also a Ring Ouzel. Is it possible that the latter species might regularly use the Flats as a stop-over and there just haven't been observers to see them? Later on Reed Buntings were singing in the gorse, Chiffchaffs and Whitethroats started to move in, and Whitethroats. The common Whitethroats were even joined by some Lesser Whitethroats by May - a species I haven't seen here for many years. In mid-April too, the first Swallows flew across the Flats, with Swifts appearing a week or so later. There were a few Meadow Pipits present all winter, and the Skylarks started singing in March.In 2000 I mentioned that the Skylarks were doing well; I could have added that it would be easy on a stroll across the Aldersbrook section of the Flats to here perhaps six singing. On 10th May the Wren Group did a skylark survey across the whole Flats and 12 or 13 singing birds were noted. Wanstead Flats really is remarkable for its Skylark population. How many other areas of London within the boundaries of the North/South Circular Roads support this many. We should be doing everything we can to ensure their survival, and even to enlarge the habitat for them. This is possible: there are area of the Flats that are mowed even though they do not form football pitches or other necessary-mowed areas such as the Model Aircraft flying area.
Other small birds commonly encountered are Starling, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and, by some roadsides, House Sparrows. Song Thrushes, Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds are all common.
Little Owls are still present, with one in particular often stared at by dog-walkers and bird-spotters alike. The bird just stares back. Both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers are frequently seen or heard in the copses, or flying between them. Kestrels. Sparrowhawks and, in summer, Hobby are seen occasionally but do not seem common.
Carrion Crows are present in their usual, sometimes enormous, numbers and Jackdaws are a very frequent sight and sound. Magpies and Jays are not unusual.
After many years, some Egyptian Geese started to frequent the lakes on the Flats during April. Whether they will remain like the two in the 70's did remains to be seen. Other waterfowl remained much as always, although my perception was that Alexandra Lake is not so varied as it used to be. Hundreds of Canada Geese still flock there - as do feral pigeons - and Greylag and Canada/Greylag hybrids are often present in small numbers. There are still Little Grebes, but Great Crested Grebes don't seem so common. A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were often seen well into April with obviously potentially good pickings off the ponds and the playing fields. Numbers of Common Gulls compared to Black-headed appear to have risen.
Overhead, Herons are not unusual, sometimes landing by the lakes for a fishing expedition, and the flights of one, two, three or four Cormorants usually NW to SE in the mornings and SE to NW in the evenings continue. A species which I have only encountered on Wanstead Flats before as an escape is Ring-necked Parakeet. Two separate sightings of a group of three birds belting from the direction of the City of London Cemetery towards Manor Park Station were reported in April, and as is well known now, these birds are almost certainly part of the continuing expanding colonisation of this species in Britain.
Little Egrets have been sighted one or two times over the last few years in the area. In July 2009 one was reported to be present by the Heronry Pond in Wanstead Park, and a week or so later on the 20th, thre were two. The mass invasion came on 3rd August, when seven were present on the pond. At least some of these were present for about a week, taking advantage of the low water levels whilst the pond was undergoing maintenance.