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.                

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 no 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.