Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Spotted Flycatcher

Another new bird has been added to the Hilly Fields Bird List - a Spotted Flycatcher, seen by Rachel and Phil on 4 June in the border with Hilly Fields at the end of their garden. We were unsure what it was at first, but sent photos to our friendly expert Conrad (bird champion for Brookmill Park) and he identified it.


The Spotted Flycatcher is a sparrow-sized summer migrant which arrives here from Africa in late May. Its most distinctive features are brown streaks on the crown, lighter streaks on its grey-white breast and a longish bill. The Collins Guide says: "Numbers have declined in recent years but around 30000 pairs still nest in the UK, favouring open woodland with sunny clearings, parks and gardens.' It is a quiet bird and you are mostly likely to notice it by the distinctive feeding habit from which it gets its name. Perched upright on the branch of a tree, it shoots out to catch an insect in mid-flight, then returns to the branch.


Another 'Spot Fly' was recorded in Ladywell Fields on 19 May and a possible third bird was seen in Brookmill Park on 11 June. It has a low presence in the Greater London area with only six breeding pairs recorded in recent years, so Lewisham has been lucky. All three of the birds stayed for only a day before moving on. This is the second unusual bird Rachel and Phil have seen in their back garden, the other one being a Little Owl last year. It helps to back on to a park, of course, but any garden with trees and plants is 'wildlife-friendly' to some extent and worth keeping an eye on. You never know what might turn up.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Turning Towards Summer

The weather was warm enough to bring a few sunbathers out onto the slopes of Hilly Fields on 27th May when we did our monthly bird survey. The birds were vocal but not always visible as the growing foliage makes the 'little brown jobs' (birder talk) difficult to see. We heard plenty of Wrens and Chaffinches, for example, but they were well hidden. One bird we did catch sight of and heard repeatedly was the Blackcap, a migrant warbler which arrives every summer from Africa and the Med (there is a smaller winter migration from Germany). This bird seems to be more widespread in Lewisham than ever and is easy to recognise having a grey-white breast and a black 'cap' (male) or chestnut brown cap (female).


The Blackcap has a cheerful, insistent song which can be heard here.

The other common migrant warbler is the Chiffchaff which we heard on upper Eastern Road. Elsewhere, the clamour of chicks caught our attention in the little grove opposite the bothy. We tracked the sound down to a small number of Blue Tit fledglings who were out of the nest being fed by mum and dad in the upper branches. A Long-tailed Tit was hanging around with them as well. A few House Sparrows were lurking in the Cliffview hedge as usual, a dozen or so Starlings were pecking at the grassland (they usually disappear for a while in summer) while soaring above us in the blue sky was the welcome sight of Swifts - five together at one point. They arrive in the UK in the first half of May after a 4000 mile journey from southern Africa. We also saw or heard 5 Robins, 3 each of Blackbird and Woodpigeon, 2 each of Crow, Great Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and one each of Goldfinch and Greenfinch - 18 species in all.

Long-tailed Tit
Meanwhile, in other nature news, the dog and sweet briar roses are appearing in the borders just as the cow parsley and May blossom start to fade. Along with the buttercups, the vetch and plantain in the long grass, these are a sure sign that spring is turning towards summer.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Come Rain Come Shine

It looked as if our monthly bird survey on 29th April was going to be a wash-out. Heavy rain and a chilling wind made conditions very difficult for the first 45 minutes. We heard a Blackcap or two and a Wren or two singing, as well a Great Tit calling, but otherwise the birds were silent and hidden. We lingered for a while in the shelter of the little wood, admiring the wild garlic and wondering whether to go for a coffee. Then in the space of five minutes, everything changed. The rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine. Emerging onto upper Eastern Road, we were greeted by a Blackbird high in a bare tree.


Before long we'd heard the first Chiffchaff of the year singing, heard and seen a Dunnock, glimpsed a Jay - our first for several months - and a pair of Mistle Thrushes. A Greenfinch sneered, a Chaffinch trilled and Robins began to pipe up too. On the south slope, Starlings searched for worms in the wake of the Glendale tractor as it mowed the grass.


On the north field, a Crow waddled past the newly painted gym equipment without being tempted to try it. And in the garden next to the bowling green, four House Sparrows chased amongst the white flowering cow parsley. But by now, ominous clouds were re-appearing and the rain soon started to fall again. This time, we made straight for the cafe, but with a respectable 19 species recorded.


The total list: 25 Starlings, 8 Wrens, 4 each of Great Tit, House Sparrow, Robin and Woodpigeon, 3 each of Blackbird and Dunnock, 2 each of Blue Tit, Ring-necked Parakeet, Blackcap, Crow, Chiffchaff and Mistle Thrush and 1 each of Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Magpie, Feral Pigeon and Jay. Your spotters: Tom, Sue and Judith.

Starling
Footnote; earlier this month I heard a Song Thrush singing for three days running from the direction of the wood. Back in January, we mentioned how Phil - who does a monthly bird count in the Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries - had seen one during our Big Birdwatch event. This was the first recorded sighting of a Song Thrush on Hilly Fields since the Bird Champion scheme began in 2007. This month, Phil saw no less than 5 Song Thrushes in the cemeteries, so hopefully we'll see and hear more of them in the future.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

March Survey and Dawn Chorus Walk

Spring is here and that was evident from the birdsong on 30 March when Sue and I did our monthly survey. Great Tits were calling incessantly, Wrens and Robins burst into song with great frequency and Blackbirds and Blue Tits joined the chorus. In the little wood, the effect was almost orchestral. There was also much chasing between branches. Things were not quite so harmonious on upper Eastern Road where a very noisy battle was taking place - no doubt over territory or a nest - between two Mistle Thrushes, a Magpie and a Crow. Eventually it settled down, but the Mistle Thrushes remained on the alert.


 The gulls that have been wintering in the park are gone - another obvious sign of spring. On the bowling green, we spied a Pied Wagtail prospecting for worms while in one of the plane trees above the green, a pair of Crows were repairing last year's nest and settling into it. By this time, cloud and strong winds were building up and after checking that at least some House Sparrows were hopping about in the Cliffview hedge, we legged it to the cafe. Our final list totaled 21 species: 11 Robins, 7 Woodpigeons, at least 6 Wrens. 5 each of Blackbird, Great Tit and Starling, 3 House Sparrows, 2 each of Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Crow, Long-tailed Tit and Mistle Thrush, 1 each of Dunnock (singing), Feral Pigeon, Goldfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Greenfinch, Jay, Magpie, Pied Wagtail and Ring-necked Parakeet.

Crows nest above the bowling green
Next day we were back again at 6am for the Dawn Chorus Walk which covered both Hilly Fields and the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries. The attendance was good - over 20 people turned up - and the birds were singing lustily as on the previous day. However, the 42 mph winds which had been blowing all night had still not abated and this made it a little difficult at times to hear even the well-known songbirds such as Blackbird, Robin and Wren, especially for some of the enthusiastic beginners with us. However, we persevered, had very good views of a pair of Mistle Thrushes, heard the 'laugh' or 'yaffle' of a Green Woodpecker and some of us heard the song of a late rising Chaffinch. The Goldfinches disgraced themselves by staying in 'bed' - wherever that was.

Dawn on Hilly Fields [Photo: Annie Cole]
In the cemeteries, it was calmer and quieter. We heard a Song Thrush singing from some distance away, then heard a Chiffchaff singing and tracked it down so that some of the group could actually see it. Chiffchaffs are warblers named after their staccato song, migrants from Africa and the Med which come here to breed in the spring. By now it was full daylight and within a few minutes we were lucky enough to see three Jays and catch brief glimpses of a Sparrowhawk and of the elusive Goldcrest which is Britain's smallest bird.  After that, everybody went home or off to work!

Daylight in the B&L Cemeteries [Photo: Rachel Mooney]
21 species were seen or heard: Blackbird, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Crow, Dunnock, Feral Pigeon. Goldcrest, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker, Jay, Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Ring-necked Parakeet, Robin, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Starling, Woodpigeon, Wren. Many thanks to all who made the effort to come along, to the Friends of Hilly Fields and Brockley Central for publicising the event and to Mike Guilfoyle of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries who made possible our access.


Monday, 23 March 2015

Dawn Chorus Walk 2015

This year's Dawn Chorus walk will take place on Tuesday 31 March. We will meet at 6 am outside the cafe on Hilly Fields. As in previous years, we will walk around both Hilly Fields and the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries. If you wish to join us just for the cemeteries, then please be at the side gates on Brockley Grove just past the bus shelter at 7 am. The event will finish at 8 am.

Wren
What will we hear and see? Nature is unpredictable, but it can almost be guaranteed that we'll hear Robins, Blackbirds and Wrens singing and Great Tits and Blue Tits calling. We may hear Dunnocks, Chaffinches and a Chiffchaff too. We may hear a Song Thrush and/or a Mistle Thrush singing. We may hear Goldfinches twittering and Greenfinches 'sneering'. We should see quite a number of these birds too. We may also see a Great Woodpecker or hear it drumming. We may see a Green Woodpecker or hear its laughing call as we did last year in the cemeteries.


Whatever we see or hear, it should be a good experience. Bring binoculars if you can, but if you can't - don't worry. Be an early bird and come along.




Thursday, 5 March 2015

A Bit of Parakeet Cheek

Our monthly survey on 25 February got off to a great start when we spotted a woodpecker in trees along the Veda Road border. Yes, folks, it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker - a female as it lacked the male's red patch behind the head.


Later, we discovered that last year's woodpecker nest (see here) has been commandeered by a pair of parakeets who start breeding earlier than the other birds. If you walk due south from the front of the cafe with the tennis courts on your right, there is a traffic barrier and to the left of that an ash tree. The nest is in a hole (which the parakeets have widened a little) about 20 feet up the tree. To the best of our knowledge, we have only one pair of woodpeckers in the park and they generally choose a different site every year so war is unlikely to break out. But it's a bit of parakeet cheek. I bet they never asked...


The small birds were all very active as we would expect given it's their mating season. Great Tits were the most vocal, but Robins and Wrens were also singing loudly. While most of the tits and finches were flitting around, a Greenfinch sat still for quite some time in the top branches of a tree on upper Eastern Road, evidently enjoying the sunshine.


Counting the gulls on the cricket field was difficult as they came and went, but we estimate 50 Common Gull (yellow bill and legs) and 8 Black-headed Gull (Red bill and legs). Hilly Fields is one of the few sites in Lewisham where Common Gulls congregate in such numbers. Sue saw a pair of Collared Doves which is unusual in the park. And just when we thought it was all over and were refreshing ourselves outside the cafe, we saw a pair of Redwings in the trees next to the basketball court. These are thrushes which winter here from Scandinavia and have a patch of red under the wing, hence the name.


In addition to the birds already mentioned, we saw 12 Starlings, 9 House Sparrows, 6 Feral Pigeons, 5 Woodpigeons, 5 Crows and 5 Dunnocks, 3 Blackbirds, 2 each of Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Long-tailed Tit and Magpie and 1 each of Mistle Thrush and Goldfinch - making an impressive 23 species in total. Incidentally, 5 Dunnocks is a new record for Hilly Fields and two of them engaged in a mid-air courtship display which involved flapping their wings at each other. All in all, a busy and rewarding morning.

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.