Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sparrowhawk

Thanks to Keith for this great shot of a male Sparrowhawk, taken in his garden which backs on to Hilly Fields. Keith has feeders in the garden which attract many small birds, so one can see why the Sparrowhawk was lurking. The birds made themselves scarce, however, on this occasion. The reddish/orange colouring at the front and around the neck are the features that identify it as a male. The female has brown chest bars at the front and  a large white stripe over the eye. The female is larger than the male as is often the case with birds of prey (eg. Kestrel and Peregrine) and has a fiercer expression!


According to the RSPB, the Sparrowhawk "is adapted to hunting birds in confined spaces like dense woodland, so gardens are ideal hunting grounds for them." And despite their name, Sparrowhawks do not just go for sparrows. Mark Cocker in Birds Britannica says: "birds form almost the entire diet of the sparrowhawk" and "more than 120 species have been recorded [as prey] from the smaller members of the tit family to the black grouse." A magnificent bird but one that can bring 'nature red in tooth and claw' right into your garden.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Record-Breaking Birdwatch

It was a fine clear morning with some winter sunshine for our 7th Big Garden Birdwatch on 25 January. Lots of people came along and either went around the park by themselves or joined one of the two guided bird walks that took place. We gave out around 70 survey sheets at the stall and as always the children had fun making fat balls and bird feeders.


Most important of all, the birds co-operated. Even before we began, a Mistle Thrush came and perched in one of the trees overlooking our stall as if to say 'Count me in!' And Lawrence pointed out a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers on a tree just beyond the tennis courts.


What was good once we got going was to see some of the 'occasional' species that we know are around somewhere in the vicinity but don't often turn up during surveys: three Redwings, for example - the first sighting this winter, a Coal Tit, a Goldcrest in the garden next to the bothy. And Phil spotted a Song Thrush, the first sighting since the Bird Champion recording scheme began in 2007. These birds helped to boost the final total but all the regulars like the Blue Tits, Magpies, Robins and Wrens were there too.

A Hilly Fields Blue Tit being birdwatched (photo Rebecca Simmons)
A Hilly Fields Robin also being birdwatched (photo Rebecca Simmons)
 The final tally of birds seen or heard was 26 species which is the highest total recorded on Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch day since the event began in 2009. The breakdown is as follows:
Black bird, 6
House Sparrow 9
Wren 3
Redwing 3
Blue Tit 6
Great Tit 3
Goldfinch 9
Carrion Crow 5
Common Gull 15
Black-headed Gull 24
Jay 1
Magpie 4
Feral Pigeon 12
Greenfinch, 5
Woodpigeon, 8
Ring-necked Parakeet, 5
Starling, 24
Robin, 3
Long-tailed Tit 8
Coal Tit, 1
Mistle Thrush, 2
Pied Wagtail, 1
Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2
Chaffinch, 2
Song Thrush, 1
Goldcrest, 1
And don't forget me - I come under 'Other Wildlife' (Photo Rebecca Simmons)
Well done to everyone who took part and helped us in achieving this brilliant total. And thanks in particular to Rachel who organised the stall, to Sue, Phil, Judith and Lawrence for helping with the walks and to 'the other Phil' and Sandy for general hands-on assistance. And by the way, the RSPB were there too with their own stall next to ours and signed up a whole bunch of new members. I'm sure they found it worthwhile.

Next: the Dawn Chorus Walk! But not until spring has sprung. Date to be announced...



Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2015! With updated Bird List 2007-14

This year's Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch organised by the Friends of Hilly Fields will be held on Sunday 25 January from 10.30-12.30. This is part of the RSPB's national Big Garden Birdwatch event which takes place that weekend. The final tally of birds seen during our event will be submitted to the RSPB.


We will have our stall outside the cafe as usual and will issue free sheets illustrating most of the birds likely to be seen. You can go round the park by yourselves or join the guided walk from 11.00-12.00. If you go round by yourselves, please remember the RSPB's golden rules:

(i) only count the maximum number of each species that you see at any one time (to avoid duplication); (ii) don't count birds that fly over without stopping - only birds within the park.

Please bring binoculars if you can (though not essential) and a pen or pencil.


Children are welcome and at the stall will be able to make bird feeders and fat balls which will be hung on trees in the park to help the birds this winter. Children are also welcome on the guided walk. In addition, the Bird Champion Quiz will be available - ten questions which will test your knowledge of avian matters or add to it. The quiz is more about references to birds in folklore and popular culture than obscure ornithological stuff and is graded 'moderately fiendish'.


Our Birdwatch will go ahead whatever the weather and as well as being fun for all the family is part of a nationwide event that contributes to our knowledge and understanding of birds and their conservation. Please come and join in.

Jenny Wren
Here is our updated list of birds seen in Hilly Fields since the Bird Champion scheme began in 2007:

Hilly Fields Bird List: 2007-2014

Everyday

1. Blackbird  (resident)                

2.    Black-headed Gull  (resident - winter months)
3.    Blue Tit  (resident)
4.    Carrion Crow  (numbers vary but thought to be 4 residents)
5.    Common Gull  (resident - winter months)
6.    Goldfinch  (daily visitors in a flock of up to 20 birds on occasion)
7.    Great Tit (resident)
8.    House Sparrow  (resident)
9.    Magpie (numbers vary but thought to be 2/3 residents)
10.  Ring-necked Parakeet  (daily visitors in small numbers) 
11.  Robin (resident)
12. Wood Pigeon  (resident)
13. Wren  (resident)

Regular

14. Blackcap  (summer and occasional winter migrants)

15. Chaffinch  (probably resident)
16. Common Swift  (seen overhead in summer months)
17. Dunnock  (probably resident)
18. Feral Pigeon (small no, easily outnumbered by wood pigeons)
19. Great Spotted Woodpecker  (resident pair)
20. Greenfinch  (probably resident)
21. Jay  (regular pair - possibly resident)
22. Long-tailed Tit  (unsure whether residents)
23. Mistle Thrush  (regular pair - probably residents)
24. Pied Wagtail  (seen on bowling green and on stone pathways)
25. Starling  (as many as 80 seen in winter months; disappear during summer months)

Occasional

26. Chiffchaff  (heard since 2011 at spring and autumn migration times only)

27. Coal Tit (very occasional)
28. Collared Dove  (very occasional)
29. Fieldfare  (Very occasional in winter)
30. Goldcrest  (possibly visitors from nearby Brockley/Ladywell cemeteries)
31. Green Woodpecker  (also possibly visitors from above)
32. House Martin  (not recorded since 2008)
33. Kestrel  
34. Lesser Black-backed Gull 
35. Nuthatch  (very occasional)
36. Redwing   (winter migrants)
37. Sparrowhawk  
38. Stock Dove  (very occasional)
39. Tawny Owl  (heard by Cliffview Road and Eastern Rd residents, not seen)
40. Willow Warbler. Seen and heard for the first time September 2013)

Rare

41. Bullfinch (male, seen by Peter on 19/12/10 on SE edge of the park)

42. Cuckoo  (heard once in May 2011)
43. Mallard  (two seen by Rachel 10/3/08 approx 7am 'waddling up the park end of Eastern Rd')
44. Short-eared Owl  (seen overhead 13/10/12 being mobbed by crows. Probably same bird recorded over London Wetland Centre earlier that day
45. Little Owl (seen 6/10/14 in bordering garden & flew off into the park)Updated Jan 2014



Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Case of the Leucistic Crows

18 December: three days before the winter solstice. After a mild start, the south west wind got stronger and the morning colder as we walked around on our monthly survey.  The birds however seem to sense that the year is on the turn and the small birds in particular were more active and vocal. The day before on Ladywell Fields, we had heard both Song and Mistle Thrush singing. On Hilly Fields, more prosaically, we heard for the first time since summer the two note 'song' of the Great Tit - always a sign that bird brains are instinctively starting to think about procreation.

Great Tit
By the orchard we saw two leucistic Crows which Symon had told us about. Leucism is a condition affecting animal cells which drains colour from part or all of their coats or plumage, turning it white. Albinism is a similar complaint except that only the melanin cells are affected and the white of the albino can sometimes have a yellowish tinge. Also, in leucistic animals, the eyes retain their normal colour whilst in albino animals, the eye is red or pink. The two affected Crows are usually in the tall trees by the Veda Road border and Symon has spent several weeks luring them down to the stone circle with tidbits of food and taking photographs. As you can see, only small parts of their plumage are affected although the condition is more noticeable when they spread their wings.





On Upper Eastern Road, we saw a flock of Greenfinches sitting quietly in the trees - at least 8, an unusual number for Hilly Fields. A large flock of 30 or more Starlings were whistling noisily on the south slopes while in the north field around the cricket pitch, we counted at least 60 Black-headed Gulls with a couple of Common Gulls amongst them. These high numbers are another sign that winter is on the way. Not only do birds like these move inland for greater warmth, but flocks can be swollen by migrants as well. Just after the bothy, we caught a brief glimpse of Britain's smallest bird, the Goldcrest - the first for some time on HF - and in the Cliffview hedge were no less than 14 House Sparrows. 2014 seems to have been a baby boom year for them.

Female House Sparrow
The rest of the roll-call: 10 Feral Pigeons, 7 Robins, 7 Woodpigeons, 4 Crows, 4 Ring-necked Parakeets, 3 Blue Tits, 2 Blackbirds, 2 Magpies and one each of Goldfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Mistle Thrush and Wren making a thoroughly decent total of 20 species in all. And finally this seems like a good moment to announce the forthcoming Big Birdwatch event on Sunday 25 January from 10.30-12.30. This is the weekend of the RSPB's nationwide Big Garden Birdwatch and we treat Hilly Fields as our Big Garden. Our stall will be outside the Cafe as usual and we will offer activities for children as well as a guided bird spotting walk at 11.00 am. More details will be circulated via the Hilly Fields Facebook page and the Friends of Hilly Fields website. Hope to see you there!


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gulls Galore

Sue and I did our monthly bird survey a tad early on 19 November, but were rewarded by variety if not overwhelmed by numbers. Following our usual route from the lower Vicars Hill entrance, we moved slowly along the Veda Rd border through the little wood to upper Eastern Road. En route, we saw and heard Robins, Great Tits and Blue Tits, heard a brief outburst of Wren song and glimpsed a Jay. On Eastern Rd, Sue heard the laugh (or 'yaffle') of a Green Woodpecker without seeing it, I saw a Wren skulking in the undergrowth and caught a brief blue and pink flash of male Chaffinch which we heard calling later. The most reliable presence on Eastern Rd, however, is the family or commune of Blackbirds which appears to be five strong and includes at least one juvenile. I have a feeling that they've nested in the thick bushes along there in past years if not this year and obviously enjoy the red hawberries in autumn.

Spot the female Blackbird...
Around the corner in the trees behind the tennis courts were at least half a dozen Goldfinches tweeting to each other, but the real hotspot was the slope east of the school where we saw Long-tailed Tits and Starlings in the trees and a Pied Wagtail down on the path that leads up from Adelaide Ave. A wander over to the Montague Ave side proved fruitless - we've seen Redwings there in past winters but no sightings so far despite thousands arriving elsewhere in recent weeks from Scandinavia.

Starling in flight
On the playing fields on the north side of the park, a flock of gulls were pecking at the ground. Close examination revealed 7 Black-headed Gulls and 3 Common Gulls - names which are somewhat misleading. During the breeding season (spring and summer), the Black-headed Gull has a dark chocolate-brown head which from a distance looks black. By autumn, this has reduced to a dark spot behind the eye. And the Common Gull is actually far less common than the Black-headed or the Herring Gull. However the Little Gull is the littlest gull and the Lesser Black-backed and Greater Black-backed Gulls are accurately named too. I won't mention the other 5 species of gull found in the UK. No wonder people just call them sea gulls.

Left: Common Gull, yellow legs and bill, holds itself more erect, slightly larger. 
Right: Black-headed Gull, red legs and bill, black spot behind the eye, slightly smaller.
After that, we found 8 House Sparrows in their usual place the Cliffview hedge. And that was it apart from the birds I haven't mentioned: 11 Feral Pigeons, 5 Woodpigeons, 5 Magpies (more than usual), 3 Crows,  2 Ring-necked Parakeets and 1 Greenfinch. And on her way out of the park, Sue heard the call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker - bringing out total to a very healthy 22 species. Are we getting more bird species in Hilly Fields or are we just getting better at seeing and hearing them? Both I hope. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Rainy Day In Autumn

Rain was threatening from the outset on Wed 29th October when Sue, Judith and I did our monthly bird survey. It held off for about an hour and a half but by 11.15  was seriously hampering our efforts (will no-one invent 'windscreen' wipers for glasses and binoculars?) and we decamped to the cafe. Luckily, by then we had seen or heard 17 species, so not a total washout. As so often in the past, we had a quiet start along the Veda Rd border but things picked up on reaching the little wood and the upper half of Eastern Road. Here we saw a family of four Blackbirds including a juvenile male born earlier this year. A couple of Wrens were lurking in the bushes, a Long-tailed Tit was briefly glimpsed, a Great Spotted Woodpecker briefly heard and a fine flock of about ten Goldfinches seen and heard between school and tennis courts. We also had an excellent view of a Mistle Thrush in the trees behind the school.

Juvenile male Blackbird, bill just starting to turn yellow
From then on, the rain got steadily worse. Not even a solitary Black-headed Gull on the north field could lift our spirits even though it indicated that the winter gulls are on their way. The rest of the count consisted of at least 9 Robins in different territories around the park, 6 Blackbirds (including the 4 mentioned earlier), 4 each of Great Tit, House Sparrow, and Woodpigeon, 3 Crows, 2 each of Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, Greenfinch (heard sneering but not seen) and Magpie and a solitary (hurray!) Parakeet. And on her way home from the cafe, Sue saw a Lesser Black-backed Gull on the north field making a grand total of 18. Not bad for a rainy day in autumn.

Robin singing against a grey, grey sky

First sighting this year of a lesser Black-backed Gull, seen twice in 2013
Footnote: I should also mention the impressive flock of about 50 geese that we saw flying high overheard in V-formations around 10.30 am. From enquiries with other birders, these were almost certainly Brent Geese arriving for the winter either from Arctic Canada or Siberia. Several movements of these geese were seen over London that day including a flock above Greenwich Park earlier in the morning.

Photo from http://www.birds.deansfamily.com/

Friday, 17 October 2014

Little Owl

We have a new addition to our bird list - a Little Owl which has the lovely scientific name of Athene Noctua. It was well spotted by Phil on 6 October as it perched on the tree house in his back garden adjoining Hilly Fields. After about 10 minutes, it flew off into the park. There has been one possible brief sighting since.


The Little Owl is indeed little for an owl, being about the same size as a Starling. It hunts from dusk to midnight and just before dawn, but it is not unusual to see it in the early daylight hours as Phil did. It may have seen a mouse in the back garden and may well return. If you are walking along the path that borders the back gardens of Cliffview Road, look and listen out. If you think you hear a cat miaowing, take another look because the Little Owl's call is rather like that.


The Little Owl is not rare, but it is uncommon. I've asked the local birding community and the nearest site where a Little Owl is known to be present is Belair Park, Dulwich. So welcome to Hilly Fields, Athene Noctua - but be wary of the local cats. They may not like the competition.