Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Big BirdWatch 2016

Rain is the curse of bird surveys. It deters the birds from coming out to play and blurs the vision, especially through binoculars and spectacles. So Sunday wasn't the greatest Birdwatch ever! The rain was light but the morning was damp, grey and overcast for the most part. Still, enough people turned up to make it a worthwhile event. Starlings were the stars of the count, seen by most people as they flew noisily in little flocks from trees to trees. 42 was the maximum number recorded. The Black-headed Gulls around the cricket pitch were runners-up with a count of 29. Full stats can be seen on the blackboard below.

 We recorded a total of 19 species in all and had good views of a charm of Goldfinches outside the school and a Dunnock scrabbling around on the ground. We heard a Dunnock singing as well for the first time this year. Towards the end, the sun did fleetingly show itself and a pair of Mistle Thrushes spent some time in the trees opposite the cafe. All you need is to see one beautiful bird thriving in the park like this and it's all worthwhile.

One big plus was to see so many children brought along by their parents. They all had an enjoyably messy time making fat balls and bird feeders throughout the morning. Thanks to Rachel for organising the stall and publicity, to Sandy for helping on the stall, Judith from Glendale for the photocopying (and bringing her mum!), Sue and Keith for helping to lead the guided walks and Lee the park keeper for general support. Here's to next year and hopefully some decent weather. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2016 and Updated Bird List

This years Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch event will be held on Sunday 31 January from 10.30 to 12.30. This is also the weekend of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and there is no reason why you can't participate in both! But do come along to our event if you can. It's organised by the Friends of Hilly Fields with Glendale and you'll find our stall by the cafe. You can either go round the park by yourselves in which case we can give you bird information sheets on which to tick the birds you see. Or you can come round on one of the guided walks with our experienced bird champions. We will have activities for children at our stall such as making fat balls and bird feeders, but of course they are welcome to go bird surveying with parents as well. Please bring binoculars if you can and a pen or pencil (we are non-digital).

If you do the survey by yourselves, there are two basic rules set by the RSPB which must be followed. 1. Only count the maximum number of each species that you see at any one time (to avoid duplication); 2. Don't count birds that fly overhead without stopping - only birds within the park. If in any doubt about the rules, ask at our stall. The RSPB are planning to have a stall at the event as well and if you've thought about becoming a member but never quite got round to it, this is your chance.

'We''ll be there - come and find us' - Starlings

'We may be there - come and look for us' - Pied Wagtails on the bowling green

This will be our 8th Big Garden Birdwatch and last year we broke all records with a total of 26 species seen or heard. Can we beat that this year? Or equal it? Or even get close to it? Much will depend on the weather, of course, but the birds have been getting more and more active despite the confusing signals that nature has been sending. If you want to know what birds you're likely to see, have a look at last year's blackboard record below. And yes - it only has 25 species, but we saw a late Song Thrush after the photo was taken.

So there we are. It's all happening on Hilly Fields on Sunday 31 January 10.30-12.30 and we hope to see as many people there as possible. In the meantime, here's our updated list of birds seen on Hilly Fields since the Bird Champion recording scheme began in 2007.


Everyday sightings
1. Blackbird
2.   Black-headed Gull (winter)
3.   Blue Tit
4.   Carrion Crow
5.   Common Gull (winter)
6.   Goldfinch
7.   Great Tit
8.   House Sparrow
9.   Magpie
10. Ring-necked Parakeet
11. Robin
12. Wood Pigeon
13. Wren
Regular sightings
14. Blackcap (summer)
15. Chaffinch
16. Chiffchaff (summer)
17. Common Swift (summer)
18. Dunnock
19. Feral Pigeon
20. Great Spotted Woodpecker
21. Greenfinch
22. Jay
23. Long-tailed Tit
24. Mistle Thrush
25. Pied Wagtail
26. Starling
Occasional sightings
27. Coal Tit
28. Collared Dove
29. Fieldfare
30. Goldcrest
31. Green Woodpecker
32. House Martin
33. Kestrel
34. Lesser Black-backed Gull
35. Nuthatch
36. Redwing
37. Song Thrush
38. Sparrowhawk
39. Stock Dove
40. Tawny Owl (heard, not seen)
41. Willow War sightingsbler
Rare sightings
42. Bullfinch
43. Cuckoo (heard not seen)
44. Little Owl
45. Mallard
46. Short-eared Owl
47. Spotted Flycatcher

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Do They Know It's Christmastime?

Robins were singing here, there, just about everywhere when Sue and I did the monthly bird survey on 16 December. In fact, Robins sing most of the year except for a few weeks in July/August when they skulk in the undergrowth and moult. But in December, the frequency seems to be increasing. Do they know it's Christmastime? Well, of course they don't, despite having their likeness featured on Christmas cards for the last 150 years or more. But they do seem to sense that the year has reached a turning point and that the mating season is not far off. We watched a pair chasing each other around the upper part of Eastern Road and it was hard to tell whether it was territorial defence or early courtship.

A Song Thrush was singing in the little wood as well, repeating each phrase three or four times. This bird returned to Hilly Fields last year after a long absence but we haven't seen or heard it since last April. It's good to know that it's still around. Another welcome returnee is the Great Spotted Woodpecker which we saw for the first time in six months in the little wood and then later on upper Eastern Road. You can't tell from the angle of my photo (below) but the bird we saw is a female. The male has a red cap, the female doesn't. Both have red 'backsides'.

Although numbers are still not high, we saw a much greater range of birds than in recent months - 22 species in all. It was nice to see both a male and female Chaffinch - a bird we haven't come across since summer. And another Goldcrest in the garden next to the bowling green. We seem to be getting better at spotting these tiny birds, though there has been a winter influx of migrants to boost numbers. A Collared Dove was also in the garden - not that common in the park, although I hear one often on the other side of Vicars Hill. If you hear a pigeon cooing three times ('U-ni-ted!), it's a Collared Dove. If you hear a pigeon cooing five times ('How are you to-day?'), it's a Woodpigeon.

Finally, in the mild weather we sat outside at the cafe and had a good view of two Mistle Thrushes in the trees opposite. This is another bird with a Christmas connection in that it gets its name from its fondness for mistletoe berries. I don't think we have any mistletoe on Hilly Fields, but luckily the Mistle Thrush will eat all sorts of other berries (including the red hawthorn berries) and is fond of invertebrates too. In fact, you're most likely to see it on Hilly Fields picking about in the grass for worms.

Merry Christmas to all and don't forget that our Big Birdwatch event (in conjunction with the RSPB) will be held on Sunday 31 January from 10.30-12.30. More details in the New Year.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Winter Is A-Coming In

The start of our monthly bird survey on 18 November was marked by almost simultaneous sightings of a Crow, a Jay and a Magpie - three members of the same avian family, though with very different plumages. After that, the park was fairly quiet and the counts were low despite fine weather. But by the end of the morning, we had seen a good range of species including some Starlings back from their country retreat and noisily rejoicing in trees by the tennis court. Only half a dozen so far, but the numbers will steadily increase. We've had as many as 80 in winters past.

The garden next to the bothy came up trumps again when Sue spotted a Goldcrest - Britain's smallest bird - up in one of the conifers. We have seen it before on Hilly Fields but not often. It loves conifer trees as its thin little beak is ideal for picking out insects from between pine needles. The Goldcrest gets its name from the bright orange patch on its crown, but it's very difficult to see that from below. We also saw the family flock of Long-tailed Tits again and Judith spotted a female Chaffinch - a bird we see (and hear) more often in spring and summer.

After failing to find any Sparrows in the Cliffview hedge, we thought we would have to settle for 15 species. However, after refreshments at the cafe, Sue and Judith spotted a pair of Mistle Thrushes and another Black-headed Gull (or possibly the same one as last month), raising our total to a respectable 17 species. Here is the full list of birds as recorded in our BirdTrack records.

Although the autumn remains mild on the whole, the leaves are falling fast on Hilly Fields, helped by Storm Barney, the tail-end of which was still blowing as we went round. This will help to make the smaller birds more visible in the winter months to come. And by the way, the Friends of Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2016 event will take place on the morning of Sunday 31 January. There will be guided walks and children's activities, as well as an RSPB stall. More info soon.

Foliage thinning in the little wood.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Did I Mention the Crows?

We seemed to be followed by Crows when we did our monthly bird survey on 30 October. Noisy Crows, mean and hungry looking Crows. Perhaps they were warming up for Halloween next day. And the weather was sombre too, even after the rain stopped which meant many of the birds kept quiet and out of view. We saw most of the regulars, though not in great numbers and heard the occasional burst of Wren song around the wood and Upper Eastern Road. The Crows were there too, waiting for us in the autumnal trees.

We were expecting to see a few gulls on the cricket pitch when we reached the north field. They have been moving into Inner London for the winter. In the event, there was one solitary Black-headed Gull on the ground and maybe three or four up in the sky. That name - and I say this every year - is misleading. In spring and summer, its head is a beautiful chocolate brown colour; in winter, its head is white albeit with a small dark patch behind the eye. Note the red legs and bill.

The best bird of the day - our reward for two hours of trudging - was waiting for us in the Cliffview hedge: a Coal Tit, seen briefly but clearly before flying away. The Coal Tit has a black head, hence its name, and is the same size as a Blue Tit. It has a prominent white patch at the back of the head. We've seen them before on Hilly Fields but not often. By the way, there were some Crows nearby too.

Photo by Ian F, BirdForum 
Actually, Crows are good to have around on the whole. They band together and mob birds of prey, driving them away, thus providing a service for the small bird community. And maybe saving a few pigeons too. Also, if you look closely, you'll see that their plumage isn't pure black but has some very subtle tinges of blue.

The full list of birds seen and/or heard comprises Wood Pigeons, Feral Pigeons, House Sparrows, Ring-necked Parakeets, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Goldfinches, a Coal Tit, a Black-headed Gull, Magpies and, er, Crows. A total of 14 species in all. And so after finishing our circuit, we trudged up the hill to the cafe. You'll never guess which bird turned up there.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Quiet Quarter

Our arrival at the lower Vicars Hill Gate on 30 September was greeted by a faint seep-seep-seep sound from the trees which turned out to be a group of about six Long-tailed Tits scavenging for food. Other than that, our monthly bird survey was another low-key affair and confirmed that July-Sept is the 'quiet quarter' of the birding year on Hilly Fields.

Long-tailed Tit
The bird glimpsed most clearly in flight was a Jay which, as per last month, flew from the direction of the Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries to nab another acorn from the oak tree at the top of the south field. Luckily, this tree has enough acorns left on its branches to feed many more squirrels and birds.

Acorns on oak tree
A Wren was briefly heard singing and a Chiffchaff. The latter was probably preparing for its annual migration back to the Med or West Africa. Apart from the bold Crows and Magpies which strutted in the open spaces, most of the other birds maintained a low profile like the blackbird below, glimpsed in hawthorn foliage on Upper Eastern Road.

Blackbird playing peep-o
Hopefully, by the end of next month, the Gulls and Starlings will have returned from wherever they spend their summer to swell the numbers. Species seen or heard this month: 7 Robins, 7 Woodpigeons, 6 Long-tailed Tits, 5 Magpies, 3 Crows, 2 each of Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit and Ring-necked Parakeets, 1  each of Wren, House Sparrow, Chiffchaff, Goldfinch, Jay and Feral Pigeon.

After a skirmish which ruffled its feathers, this Crow was King of the Bin

Friday, 4 September 2015

Chiffchaffs, Jays and Acorns

The BBC forecast three hours of heavy rain for the morning of 26 August. Naturally, we still turned out for the monthly bird survey. Getting soaked to the skin while unable to see a thing through rain-splattered lenses is all part of the experience (it says here). Luckily the rain was intermittent and we managed to get round the 'course' with only a few raindrops hanging from our stiff upper lips. There were also a couple of highlights. One was hearing a pair of Chiffchaff calling to each other ('huit' 'huit') in the Upper Eastern Rd woodland and getting a brief glimpse of what looked like an adult. These warblers have become regular summer visitors to Hilly Fields and have almost certainly bred there. Could this have been adult and young bird keeping in contact?

Most Chiffchaffs will be preparing for migration back to the Med and Africa which usually takes place later this month. Another bird preparing for winter is the Jay and after hearing its loud screeching, we were lucky enough to see one flying out of an oak tree with something in its beak. It's not difficult to guess what that 'something' was. A new crop of acorns is growing in our oaks and can be seen hanging down on stalks. Jays are famous for storing these (often burying them in the ground), then recovering them later when needed. Occasionally, they'll forget the location and another mighty oak will start to grow...

Image: RSPB
Apart from those two sightings, it was a quiet morning, no doubt partly due to the weather. At one stage, it seemed unlikely that we'd reach double figures, but in the end we recorded 13 species. The other birds seen and/or heard were Wood Pigeons, Robins (now singing again after their moult), Wrens (occasionally singing), Great Tits, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Magpies, Crows, House Sparrows and Parakeets.