Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dawn and Daylight Music

It was cloudy and a little chilly on 29 March when Judith and I carried out the monthly bird survey. Our avian chums were not showing themselves much at first, but were literally singing their hearts out as we're now well into the mating season. Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens led the chorus, while Great Tits and Blue Tits called repeatedly in the background and a trio of Greenfinches sneered at us. We saw evidence of House Sparrows and Magpies nest building, but the Gulls who've spent the winter here have gone away now to make babies elsewhere. A Mistle Thrush sang over by Montague Avenue, while another one gobbled berries in the north field Whitebeam tree. And a brave Pied Wagtail hopped about on the bowling green lawn despite the presence of a Glendale operative mowing the grass.

Lots going on, but the best was yet to come. Somewhere around the little wood or the trees at the top of Eastern Road, a Green Woodpecker called several times. The call is like a shrill repeated laugh and is known to birders as the 'yaffle' (hence Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss). There is a perfect rendition of it about 28 seconds into the video clip below. On this occasion, we couldn't see the bird, but Green Woodpeckers have a striking combination of green plumage (over pale breast), red cap and black 'mask' like a harlequin. They don't drum like the Great Spotted Woodpecker, but have long pointed bills for digging ants out of ant hills and can often be seen on grassland feeding on invertebrates in the soil. They breed in the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries and are known to be occasional visitors to Hilly Fields.

And just as we were about to pack up, we heard and then saw a Song Thrush, perched in a tree on the Veda Road border, singing each phrase several times. It is said to have over a hundred different phrases in its repertoire. The final tally was 19 species: 8 Blackbirds, Great Tits, Woodpigeons and Wrens, 7 Blue Tits, Robins and Starlings, 4 House Sparrows, 3 Crows, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Ring-necked Parakeets, 2 Dunnocks, Magpies and Mistle Thrushes and 1 Chaffinch, Green Woodpecker, Pied Wagtail and Song Thrush.

As if that wasn't enough, I was back on Hilly Fields the next morning at 6am for the Friends of Hilly Fields annual Dawn Chorus walk along with a dozen other light sleepers. The weather was fine, there were clear views of lovely Lewisham and a brightening sky behind Shooters Hill where the sun started to rise about twenty minutes later. We walked around the park hearing many of the same birds from the day before - Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Great Tits in particular. On the lane above Eastern Road, we heard from the Three Finches: a brief burst of Goldfinch song, the descending trill of a Chaffinch and the sneer of a Greenfinch. And by the playground we were treated to the sight and sound of a Mistle Thrush singing from the top of a tree as they often do.

After that we crossed Adelaide Avenue and cut through St Cyprian's Path to the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries where Mike Guilfoyle of the Friends was waiting to admit us. It was broad daylight by now and a fine sunny morning. The cemeteries were a little quieter than expected and Phil, who does monthly bird surveys of the site, suspected that a Sparrowhawk was around causing the birds to keep schtum. Nevertheless, we heard the laughing call of a Green Woodpecker freequently along the route and towards the end some of us heard a brief burst of melody from a Song Thrush and the staccato song of a Chiffchaff - a migrant warbler which arrives every spring from the Med and North Africa. And then we were back at the cemetery gates again and it was time to disperse. But the music goes on every day.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Dawn Chorus Walk 2017

This year's Dawn Chorus Walk will be held on Thursday 30 March, meeting at 6 am outside the cafe. The clocks go forward one hour this weekend so it will be dark at 6am and we will be in time to greet the dawn and the sunrise if weather permits!

We will walk around the park, identifying birds both by song and sight. After that, as in previous years, we'll cut through St Cyprian's Passage to Brockley Grove where arrangements have been made for us to walk around the Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries.

Birds we will definitely hear singing and calling include the Robin, Blackbird, Wren, Great Tit and Blue Tit and hopefully the Dunnock. We may also hear Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Song Thrush and possibly the Chiffchaff.

The walk should finish at around 8am, but people can drop out at any stage. I hope to see some of you there.

Friday, 3 March 2017

That Time of Year

February 22nd was overcast and cold at times, but the birds were active and vocal. An invisible Wren was singing loudly at the lower Vicar's Hill entrance and along the Veda Road back border, Robins sang, Great Tits and Blue Tits called and a pair of Parakeets screeched out football chants overhead. In the little wood, a pair of Long-tailed Tits chased each other around the branches and a Magpie flew by with nesting material in its beak. Yes, that time of year has come round again when birds look for consenting companions. Between Eastern Road and the school, we came across a Dunnock warbling melodiously in the bushes and listening hopefully for a response. Although thought of as dull birds, Dunnocks have a very adventurous love life and this particular bird had scrubbed up well for the mating season.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker was sighted in the trees behind the tennis courts. The absence of a red patch on the head indicated a female, probably the same pecker we saw during January's Big Birdwatch. Let's hope the male is around somewhere or not much will be happening there. Over the ridge, a seemingly vast array of gulls lay before us on the north field. Judith counted 67 Black-headed Gulls and 6 Common Gulls which is the largest gull presence we've had this winter. The Black-headed Gull is white-headed in autumn and winter, but is now developing the darker feathers on the head which constitute its breeding plumage and give the bird its name.

One bird glimpsed briefly which will not be breeding here was a Redwing - a migrant thrush which will soon be winging its way back to Scandinavia. The full list of birds recorded is as follows: 67 Black-headed Gulls, 7 each of Robin, Starling and Woodpigeon, 6 Common Gulls, 5 Goldfinches, 4 Wrens, 3 each of Blackbird, Crow, Great Tit and House Sparrow, 2 each of Blue Tit, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and 1 each of Great Spotted Woodpecker and Redwing - 18 species in all. And the daffodils are starting to flower...

Friday, 10 February 2017

Big Birdwatch 2017

Another Sunday in January (29th), another Big Birdwatch on Hilly Fields. Last year, it rained depressingly throughout the event and our final count was low. This year did not look promising. It was dry when Sue and I started leading the walks, but the gentle rain from heaven was soon pitter-pattering on our heads. After a while though, it stopped and after another while, the sun came out. Best of all, the birds came out all the way through and by the end of the event, we'd chalked up 25 species - almost a record - on our famous blackboard.

Joint leaders were the Common Gull and Starling - both with counts of 30. In second place, a flock of approx 13 Goldfinches and in joint third place - the Black-headed Gull and the humble Woodpigeon with counts of 10 each. Highlights included sightings of four different species of thrush - a Mistle Thrush camouflaged almost to invisibility against a backdrop of dead leaves, brief glimpses of a Song Thrush and Redwing (winter migrant from Scandinavia) and 9 Blackbirds which are also fully paid-up members of the Thrush family. Other highlights included clear views of a female Great Spotted Woodpecker chipping at tree trunks in two different locations, a lively little flock of 5 Long-tailed Tits, two Dunnocks, a Greenfinch and a Herring Gull on the south field grassland. 

Spot the Mistle Thrush (Pic: Rebecca Simmons)
The remaining birds seen were 9 Great Tits, 7 each of Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, House Sparrow, Ring-necked Parakeet and Robin, 3 each of Crow and Magpie, 2 Wrens and 1 each of Chaffinch and Collared Dove. Meanwhile, outside the cafe, Rachel and her helpers were handing out information and showing a total of 18 children how to make seed balls and bird feeders, hopefully sowing the seeds of bird awareness amongst the young.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker (Pic: Rebecca Simmons)
Thanks to everyone who came along and helped, particularly Conrad Ellam whose bird knowledge and keen eyesight were particularly useful. Thanks also to Lawrence for his support, to Sue and Judith, to Rachel, Phil, Sally and the Friends of Hilly Fields, to Lee the parkie and to our community-minded cafe. Dawn chorus walk next at the end of March!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Herring Gulls Have Landed (And the Big Birdwatch Is Coming)

Our last bird survey of 2016 was on the frosty, misty morning of 30 December when sensible folk were staying in bed unless they had work to go to or dogs to walk. Your intrepid bird champions, however, ventured into the outdoors to watch, listen and count the birds and occasionally (dare I say it?) twitch with cold.

Thankfully, the birds were active. We were particularly pleased to see a small flock of Long-tailed Tits for the first time in months and a large flock of Goldfinches twittering around the trees beside the school. Great Tits were calling regularly - an early sign of hormonal awakening - and Robins were singing all along the trail. In the little wood, one Robin was so keen to get his photograph in this blog that he came daringly close.

We saw a Mistle Thrush near the Whitebeam tree and watched a pair of delicately-fluttering Collared Doves descend on trees beside the bowling green. We glimpsed a pair of foxes there too - one of which ran off across the green! They will be out and about more in daytime as the weather gets colder and foraging for food becomes more urgent.  We counted 25 Common Gulls on the north field and one Black-headed Gull, but the real highlight was the presence of two Herring Gulls by the cricket pitch - one adult and one juvenile. Herring Gulls! - I hear you shriek. That mean-looking bird with the blood-red spot on its bill that steals your chips at the seaside? The very same. And it's the first time we've recorded them actually on Hilly Fields (instead of flying over high in the sky), which brings our Bird List total to 48 species since the bird champion surveys began.

Juvenile and adult Herring Gulls
The final tally was 25 Common Gulls, 15 Goldfinches, 12 Robins, 8 Long-tailed Tits, 6 each of Feral Pigeon and Woodpigeon, 3 each of Blue Tits, Crows and Parakeets, 2+ of Blackbird, Collared Dove, Great Tit, Herring Gull and Magpie, 1 each of Black-headed Gull, House Sparrow and Mistle Thrush. A total of 17 species in all.

Our next survey will be one that anyone can take part in as it's our annual Big Birdwatch event. The date is Sunday 29 January from 10.30-12.30 on Hilly Fields and as well as providing a guided bird-spotting walk around the park, we'll give out ID sheets for anyone who wants to go it alone. The Friends of Hilly Fields will have a stall outside the cafe where there'll be bird-related activities for children and information for adults. We'll chalk up the 'scores' on our blackboard as usual and send them off to the RSPB as part of their national Big Garden Birdwatch that weekend. Hope to see you there.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Winter on the Way

November 23rd was a quiet and windless autumn day for our monthly bird survey. We heard the Ring-necked Parakeets more than usual, perhaps because they're building up to their breeding season which starts in January, earlier than other birds. They did seem to be checking out an old Ash tree by the school access road which they've nested in before.

Robins were singing and clicking along our route and we heard the occasional Wren too. The resident family of Blackbirds which hang around the Upper Eastern Road area were very active and one of the male juveniles was foraging in the shrubbery at the back of the school. Maybe because he's still young and less wary, I could get closer to him and the photo below shows the plumage not glossy black yet and the bill still turning orange.

On the north field, we saw a juvenile Pied Wagtail (as per last month) but only four gulls - two Black-headed and two Common - so numbers have still not built up. We also saw a couple of Starlings. Like the gulls, their numbers will increase as winter sets in and they flock to the less exposed inner suburbs. A pair of Mistle Thrushes were in the trees showing their fine speckled breasts. They like the red berries on the nearby Whitebeam.

Whitebeam tree in the foreground hung with red berries
A single House Sparrow could be seen in the Cliffview hedge, but others were chirping nearby. Our final bird before absconding to the cafe was a Blue Tit silhouetted on the Vicars Hill border. In all, we recorded a better-than-expected 18 species: 12 Feral Pigeons, 9 Robins (at least), 7 Blackbirds, 5 Woodpigeons, 4 each of Blue Tit, Crow and Parakeet, 3 Great Tits, 2 each of Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Goldfinch, Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Starling and Wren, 1 each of House Sparrow, Jay and Pied Wagtail.

Finally, last month I mentioned the beautiful pink fruits and orange seeds of the Spindle tree near the bothy. One month later, the seeds have all gone, fallen to the ground or eaten by birds, and the lobes of the fruit are darker and decaying. It's autumn still, but winter is on the way.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Something 'Black', Something Pied, Something Pink

Things were quiet again during the first part of our bird walk on 19 October. The dull, cloudy weather didn't help and it seemed  as if we were in for an uneventful time. Robins were singing here and there, safeguarding their territory until the mating season in January. A flock of five Goldfinches tweeted each other as they flew overhead. A Jay screeched in the little wood. Not much to write home about or fill a blog post. But thankfully things got better when we walked over the ridge to the north field where the cricket pitch is - normally an area frequented only by pigeons and wintering gulls. And sure enough there was our first Black-headed Gull of the winter, treading the grass all on its ownsome apart from a friendly Woodpigeon. Other gulls will arrive as they do every year when the weather gets colder. Incidentally, the BHG only has a 'black head' during the breeding season but it's stuck with the name all year round, poor thing.

The gull was only the start of things. As we walked down the slope to get a better look, a Pied Wagtail landed on the cricket pitch and was soon followed by a second one, a juvenile with brown upperparts rather than black. Nice to know they're continuing the family line. We see Pied Wagtails from time to time in the park, usually on short grass including the bowling green, but sometimes on the paths. They're not too fussed by human presence and, unlike the BHG, live up to their name by wagging their tails almost continuously. After that, Sue and Judith saw a Mistle Thrush, then all three of us saw a female Great Spotted Woodpecker in trees opposite the bothy, pecking at the bark for insects. It had been worth getting out of bed after all.

Adult Pied Wagtail on the cricket pitch
In total, we saw and/or heard 16 species during our survey. The final tally was 23 Woodpigeons, 17 Feral Pigeons, 5 each of Crow, Goldfinch, Great Tit and Robin, 3 each of Blackbird, Blue Tit and Ring-necked Parakeet, 2 each of Magpie, Pied Wagtail and Wren and 1 each of Black-headed Gull, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay and Mistle Thrush. And finally, Sue spotted a Spindle plant near the bothy which has beautiful pink fruits at this time of year and orange seedcases within. Spindle is a classic hedgerow plant, fed upon by small birds such as sparrows and tits and by the larvae of several moths. Great to see it in the park whether planted by humans or Mother Nature.