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.

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.

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