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




Friday, 8 April 2016

March Survey and Dawn Chorus Walk

We had a busy two days at the end of March. On Wednesday 30th, we carried out our monthly bird survey of the park. On Thursday 31st, we set our alarms for the annual Dawn Chorus Walk. The monthly survey was most notable for our first hearing this year of a Chiffchaff - a small spring warbler often quite hard to see in the trees but with a distinctive song of staccato notes. These little birds fly here every spring from the Med and North Africa in order to breed in our cooler climate.


We saw the female Great Spotted Woodpecker again and enjoyed watching 3 Goldcrests flitting among trees in the garden next to the bowling green. Judith played their song on her phone app, as a result of which the birds hung around for some time wondering where this additional bird was! The Goldcrest is Britain's smallest bird and seems to be increasingly common, though its numbers are swollen by winter migrants from Northern Europe. It gets its name from the stripe on its crest which is orange in the male and yellow in the female.

Female Goldcrest (credit Bob the Builder)
We were pleased to see one of our Mistle Thrushes too, hopping about on the grass bank behind the tennis courts. These are bold birds who are not too bothered by humans and can hold their own against bigger species. I saw the resident pair chasing a Crow away from a favourite tree not long ago. We counted 19 species in total including 8 Robins, 7 Wrens, 5 each of Starling and Woodpigeon, 4 Blue Tits, 3 each of Blackbird, Great Tit and House Sparrow, 2 each of Crow, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and a solitary Goldfinch.


Thursday 31st March turned out to be warm and windless and we were pleased that 18 people turned out for the 6 am start. For those who didn't, this is what it looks like. At least there was a promising glow in the east...


The birds were quiet at times, but we heard a Song Thrush singing for the first time this year as well as most of the regulars - Blackbirds, a Chaffinch, Dunnocks, Robins and Wrens. We heard the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and had excellent views of it in a tree near the school, but once again it was the female. Where is the male? Hopefully, he'll turn up before it's too late.

Male GSW has a red patch at the back of the head. Female doesn't. Juveniles have a red patch
on top of the head which goes after their first autumn moult. All have red backsides.
As usual, we went on to the Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, seeing en route a Parakeet popping in and out of its nesting hole in one of the lime trees on Adelaide Avenue. Dawn was over by the time we were in  the cemeteries, but the chorus was ongoing and we had excellent views of a Green Woodpecker on one of the headstones, as well as briefly of a Sparrowhawk and a Greenfinch. We heard a Chiffchaff singing, two Stock Doves calling and towards the end some Goldcrests along the avenue of yew trees. Hilly Fields shares some of its bird life with the cemeteries - Jays, Song Thrushes and their Green Woodpeckers sometimes pop over - so it was good to see what was going on there.

Green Woodpecker. Long bill for digging out ants.  (Credit: Breckland Birder)
Thanks to Mike Guilfoyle of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries for giving us access and to Phil Laurie for sharing his knowledge of the birds there. Thanks to Rachel for helping publicise the Dawn Chorus event, to Sue and Conrad who kept records and to everyone who turned up!


Friday, 4 March 2016

Gearing Up

Sun with very little wind made ideal conditions for our monthly bird survey on 24 February. And the birds seemed to appreciate it too. There was a great deal of activity going on as they gear up for the breeding season with much calling, singing and flitting about, especially among the small birds - the Tits, Wrens and Robins. Dunnocks were heard singing in several areas and finally seen in the garden next to the bowling green where the photo below was taken. The Dunnock is a sparrow-like bird (it used to be called the Hedge Sparrow) with similar chestnut-brown streaks, but has more grey around the head and a thinner beak. Difficult to spot most of the year as it creeps around in the undergrowth, but in late winter/early spring. it will often sing from a tree branch with a sweet rhythmic warble.

Dunnock
A small group of Long-tailed Tits were seen on upper Eastern Road, one carrying a feather in its beak - obvious nesting material. We saw a pair of Mistle Thrushes on the grass in the East Field, a Jay which judging by its direction had flown over from the cemetery and a small flock of Starlings which moved around the park from tree to tree. It was good also to see our old friends Mr and Mrs Great Spotted Woodpecker in the little wood by Eastern Road. Both were perched on the tall bare tree by the green gates on Eastern Road, though the male flew out of the picture below just before I pressed the button/ The male has a red patch on the top of the head, the female doesn't. You can see where she's been pecking at the bark searching for insects.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker

The grand total was 12 Wood Pigeons, 11 Robins, 10 Starlings, 8 House Sparrows, 5 each of Dunnocks and Wrens, 4 each of Crow and Long-tailed Tits, 3 each of Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Parakeet, 2 each of Feral Pigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Magpie and Mistle Thrush and 1 each of Black-headed Gull, Chaffinch, Collared Dove, Common Gull, Goldfinch and Jay - 22 species in all.

Puffed-up Woodpigeon basking in the sun
This is a good point to give you advance notice of our annual Dawn Chorus walk. This year it will be on Thursday 31 March, meeting at 6 am outside the cafe. As in previous years, we'll spend an hour walking around Hilly Fields listening to and looking at the birds. Then we'll go down the hill to the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries to repeat the exercise there. If you only want to attend the cemeteries walk, be outside the double gates on Brockley Grove near the chapel at 7am.