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.                

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Little Brown Job

We started our September bird survey from the lower Vicars Hill entrance as usual and soon encountered that legendary species, the Little Brown Job - a term used by birders for any small, nondescript, briefly glimpsed bird that can't be identified. We heard a short snatch of song that sounded vaguely familiar, then saw our suspect flitting high in the trees on the Veda Road border, hidden most of the time by trunks or branches or foliage. It had no clear distinguishing features and after a few minutes of craning our necks, we gave up. It was most likely to have been the juvenile Blackcap that we saw last month, but we couldn't be sure enough to count it. A little further along the trail, we saw another bird high in a tree looking down at us disapprovingly. We had little trouble identifying this one. 'Twas our old 'frenemy', the Ring-necked Parakeet.

It was 21st September, a lovely morning and the last day of summer. Robins and Wrens sang frequently and Speckled Wood butterflies fluttered around the margins of the wood, making the most of the sun. We saw three Goldfinches and heard more twittering in the background. Then we came across another oddity on Upper Eastern Road. Flopped unmoving on a branch, grey with an oddly distorted face, it was clearly a pigeon or dove, but which variety?  Eventually, we realised it was a juvenile Woodpigeon lacking the white collar of the adult and with swellings around the mouth. In all probability, it was suffering from trichomonosis or 'canker', a disease affecting various bird species which blocks the gullet and leads ultimately to death from starvation. There was little we could do other than move on. I don't recall seeing the disease before on Hilly Fields and there were 18 healthy Woodpigeons feeding on the grass nearby.

Elsewhere, we saw 5 Crows, 3 Magpies, 3 House Sparrows, 2 each of Blackbird, Blue Tit and Feral Pigeon and 1 each of Goldcrest and Great Tit. We estimated at least 12 Robins present and at least 7 Wrens as well as the other birds mentioned above - 13 species in all. And some definite signs of autumn: leaves starting to carpet the grassland, red berries on the hawthorns and squirrels leaping through the trees and scurrying up and down trunks, gathering nuts for winter storage.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Blue Tits On Our Trail

Sometimes on our monthly bird surveys, we seem to be followed around the park by one particular species: Robins, for example or Chaffinches or Crows. On 31 August, it was the turn of the Blue Tits. All along our route, we heard their churring call and occasionally saw one flitting between the branches. Some may have been young birds born in the spring; the others were back in action after the huge effort of feeding their young and after the moulting period when they're extra vulnerable to predators like the Sparrowhawk. In this clip, the churring can be heard coming from a Blue Tit off camera and the bird you can see is responding to it.

We saw Great Tits too which are slightly bigger than Blue Tits with a black head and a thick black stripe down their breasts in the male (see photo below), a thinner stripe in  the female. Robins were singing more after their moulting period and the occasional Wren burst into its brief song as we passed. These are likely to be the only two birds we'll hear singing between now and the New Year. On upper Eastern Road, we had a brief glimpse of a juvenile Blackcap nibbling at the haws. The ripening of fruit on the trees and bushes is likely to bring more birds out into the open.

Male Great Tit on Hilly Fields (31/8/16)
On the whole, it was a little livelier than the previous month and we recorded a total of 15 species. As well as those already mentioned, we saw 8 Woodpigeons, 7 Goldfinch, 6 Sparrows, 2 each of Blackbird, Crow, Long-tailed Tit and Magpie and singles of Chaffinch, Feral Pigeon and Ring-necked Parakeet. The Sparrows were in the Cliffview hedge and difficult to see clearly in the foliage, but one emerged long enough for a photo opportunity. It lacks the dark brown head and black bib of the adult male, but could be a juvenile male rather than a female. This is the time of year when the new kids on the block can cause confusion!

And finally, more Blue Tits. The clip below is over an hour in length, but just try watching the first few minutes for some great close-up footage of this hopelessly cute little bird.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Silence of the Birds

We were greeted by silence at the lower Vicars Hill Gate on 27 July, at least as far as birdsong is concerned. Traffic was light on the road and, for a minute or two, all that could be heard was the sound of raindrops plopping down from leaf to leaf in the plane trees. It was evident that we had reached the end of the breeding period and entered that quiet season when most birds rest and moult. We began our circuit of the park and although we had a few brief sightings and soundings, things remained uneventful until we reached the upper part of Eastern Road.

Here we saw a small sparrow-like bird scavenging on the roadway which had clearly lost its tail. From its grey head and thin bill, we realised it was a Dunnock - a bird once better known as the 'Hedge Sparrow' although the two species are not related. I would guess that it was a juvenile which had had a close encounter with a predator - a bigger bird or possibly even a squirrel or cat. No worries - it survived. And as a bird's tail is composed entirely of feathers, it will soon grow back again. We see or hear Dunnocks often on Hilly Fields but rarely out in the open like this. They are skulking birds, usually glimpsed in the undergrowth where, unexpectedly perhaps in view of their drab appearance, they lead adventurous sex lives which 'might make Russell Brand blush.'

Female Blackbird: Upper Eastern Rd
Also scavenging on this stretch of road were a family of 4 Blackbirds, presumably the same adults that we saw last year but with different juveniles.  Blackbirds are scrub nesters, ie. they favour bushes and small trees. Upper Eastern Road with its thick vegetation, bramble bushes and hawthorns is ideal habitat for them and, with all the berries and orchard fruit nearby, is almost like nesting in a larder. We also caught a brief glimpse of a Song Thrush further up the road which is only our second sighting this year.

Song Thrush: stock photo
Elsewhere, Wrens sang occasionally and we heard a few wistful snatches of Robin and Blackbird song and both saw and heard a pair of Goldfinches. We may have heard a brief snatch of Blackcap song at one point but were not sure enough to record it. The final list included 7 Woodpigeons, 2 each of Blue Tit, Crow and Magpie and singles of Great Tit, House Sparrow and Parakeet in addition to the birds already mentioned. A total of 13 species in all - a fair drop from last month, but identical to last year's July figure and only one less than July 2014.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Green Leaves of Summer

Our latest survey (on 28 June) was notable for the range of birds seen or heard - 20 species in total. Numbers of each species were not high but the smaller birds are difficult to see at this time of year when the green leaves of summer provide plenty of cover. And the recent weather pattern of alternating rain and sunshine has led to lush growth everywhere. The bird most frequently heard around the park (and seen in the trees on upper Eastern Road) was the Wren which is one of Britain's smallest and most common birds. Its distinguishing features are the stumpy cocked tail and the dark and pale bars along its sides. Its song is a bold and strong cascade of notes ending in a trill. Both tail and song suggest a spirited bird determined to protect its territory and survive despite its small size.

After missing them in May, it was good to record our two migrant warblers again. We heard at least one, probably two Blackcaps singing, and both saw and heard the Chiffchaff. For the last few years, these small birds have been arriving every spring from the Med and North Africa to breed in our cool woodland shade. We also saw a Greenfinch perched high in a tree on Upper Eastern Road,  Apart from its green plumage (with yellow patches on the wings), this bird can be identified by its chunky bill and its sneering call (often described as 'wheezing' in bird books) which somehow seems aimed at us humans striving feebly below. This picture was taken on a winter's day when the sun painted it yellow.

The full roll call was as follows: Blackbird 4, Blackcap 1+, Blue Tit 2, Chaffinch 2, Chiffchaff 1, Coal Tit 1, Crow 4, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 1, Great Spotted Woodpecker 1, Great Tit 1, Greenfinch 1, House Sparrow 4, Magpie 2, Mistle Thrush 1, Ring-necked Parakeet 1, Robin 2, Starling 3, Woodpigeon 2, Wren 9. It is worth noting that we saw no Swifts in the sky above and although I saw 6 one evening a few weeks ago over my garden, their numbers sadly are on the decline. The Coal Tit was heard but not seen. It is an uncommon visitor to Hilly Fields and to our neighbouring green spaces at Ladywell Fields and the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries. Smaller and less colourful than the Great Tit, it can be identified by the white stripe on the back of its head.

Credit: Aviceda

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Feeding Frenzy

Cow parsley at chest height greeted us by the Lower Vicar's Hill entrance on 25 May when Sue and I carried out the monthly bird survey. We were also greeted by the song of the Chaffinch, the Wren and the Great Tit - the latter for once actually sounding like 'teacher, teacher' as Bill Oddie has described it. It is unusual to hear a Chaffinch in that location, but in fact we heard it singing almost everywhere we  went in the park. Either it followed us around or the bird has multiplied. Usually we see only one or two - if that.

Female Chaffinch in the Shade Garden
What became evident as our survey progressed is that the breeding season has become the feeding season. Great Tits, Blue Tits and House Sparrows in particular have chicks to feed and there was much frantic foraging activity by the parent birds. Every year, we have seen how bedraggled Tits become by the end of June, exhausted by the constant to and fro-ing from nest to food source and back again. In fact, there is evidence that Tits time their breeding to coincide with the maximum availability of caterpillars as these are the best and most popular foodstuff for the young. I watched a Blue Tit nest elsewhere last week and estimated that the parents were bringing food 40 times per hour over a 16 hour day. (See here for a charming children's story which describes the cycle). Normally they have only brood per year which is not surprising.

Blue Tit with caterpillar (Credit:Steve Larkins)
Of course, one big risk at this time of year is that the chicks may become food themselves. We saw a graphic example of this in the upper part of Eastern Road when Sue observed a Jay with a fledgling Great Tit in its beak. Before it could get very far, a Magpie descended and, as the bigger bird, snatched the fledgling from the Jay and began to peck at it in the road before flying off with it. In the background, the parent birds were making an almighty noise though rather helplessly. Alas, most Corvids will eat eggs and snatch birds at the nestling or fledging stage, as will Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Sometimes, it's a bird eat bird world.

In the shade garden next to the bowling green, a pair of House Sparrows were repeatedly diving into the cow parsley, then flying off presumably with seeds for their young. And a fledgling Great Tit perched on the branch of a tree was shaking its wings in a begging display while the parents brought it morsels of food. Fledglings will often leave the nest a day or two before they're ready to fly.

Great Tit wing-shake begging display (Credit|: RĂ©mi Bigonneau)
In all, we saw or heard a respectable 18 species during this survey (see below). It  will be interesting to see if the Starlings are still there in June as they and their young tend to disappear in the summer months. The number of Wrens is an estimate as they are difficult to see, particularly when foliage is in full bloom. But they were singing loudly and as they stay in their territories, a reasonably accurate count can be made. Surprisingly, we neither saw nor heard our two resident warblers - the Blackcap and Chiffchaff - but I suspect they're still lurking.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Blackcap Is Back

It was a calm sunny morning on 27 April when we did our monthly bird survey. Just the kind of spring morning midway through the mating season when you might expect to see lots of activity. Instead it was quiet, even along 'the lane' as we call the upper part of Eastern Road where the hawthorns and thick bushes are. We saw two Blackbird pairs and heard plenty of  Wrens singing, as well as occasional bursts of Dunnock song and a Goldfinch. Goldfinches emit a kind of high liquid twittering as they go about the trees, but their song is quite different - fast, chopping and changing, slightly dry.

On the north field, we found a flock of at least 16 Starlings pecking for invertebrates in the grass. But things really improved when we reached the Shade Garden (between bowling green and bothy) where we saw and and heard a male Blackcap - our first of the year - flitting up and down the trees. We heard its fellow spring migrant warbler, the Chiffchaff, singing during March, so this means that both our regular warblers have returned to nest and breed. The male Blackcap has a grey breast and, believe it or not, a black cap which makes it easy to identify. The female has a grey breast and brown cap.

Male Blackcap (Credit: Sandra Palme)

We also saw a Long-tailed Tit in the Shade Garden and a Collared Dove which has soft features, a black ring round its neck and is perhaps the prettiest pigeon on the block. It coos three times, usually with an emphasis on the second coo (U-ni-ted!). Finally, we saw a pair of Mistle Thrushes hopping on the grass in the east field. It's a mystery to me how people don't seem to notice these big bold thrushes with the speckled breasts. Total count: 16 Starlings, 9 Wrens, 6 Robins, 5 Woodpigeons, 3 each of Blue Tit, Crow, Great Tit and House Sparrow, 2 each of Blackbird, Dunnock, Goldfinch, Magpie and Mistle Thrush, 1 each of Blackcap, Collared Dove, Feral Pigeon, Long-tailed Tit and Parakeet. 18 species in total. 

Collared Dove: Hilly Fields