Saturday, 17 March 2018

Dawn Chorus Walk

The next Dawn Chorus Walk will be held on Thursday 29 March. Meet outside the cafe at 6 am for a walk around Hilly Fields and the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries. Listen to the birds greeting the dawn, see the birds and, depending on weather conditions, see the sunrise. You'll feel so much better for it.

Birds we should definitely hear include Great Tits, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens. Birds we may hear include Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, Goldfinches and Starlings. We'll be finished by 8 am though people can get away whenever they need to. Hope to see you there.

Blue Tit

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Redwings have been seen twice this week on Hilly Fields, twittering in the trees and feeding on the ground near the stone circle. I counted circa 40 birds on Monday afternoon and Rachel saw a similar number this morning.

Redwings are members of the Thrush family, as are Blackbirds, Fieldfares and of course the Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush (and, further north, the Ring Ouzel). Redwings get their name from a red patch under the wing which can clearly be seen in my photos but isn't always visible. The stripes around the head are a more reliable ID feature, particularly the creamy white stripe over the eye. They have a similar spotted breast to other thrushes. Their twittering is a form of 'subsong' which the dictionary describes as 'an unstructured, often rambling vocalisation of low volume'. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Most of the Redwings seen in Southern Britain are migrants from Scandinavia. They arrive in autumn and feed on fallen fruit and berries. They get through the winter mainly on a diet of earthworms and depart in early spring. It's unusual to see so many on the ground in Hilly Fields, but they would have been frustrated by last week's snow and are making up for it now. They'll also be 'feeding up' for the flight home. The 'subsong' is usually a sign that they're thinking of departure and also of courtship when they get back. It's lovely to see and hear them. Let's hope they return in similar numbers in the autumn.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Big Birdwatch 2018: the Results

Thanks to everyone who came along to this year's Big Birdwatch event on 28 January. The weather was reasonably kind to us - mild, no rain and not much wind either. As usual we ran a stall outside the cafe where children made fat balls for the birds and we took two groups around the park on bird spotting forays. By the end of the event, we had recorded a very healthy 23 species on the Big Blackboard.

The stars of the survey were undoubtedly the two Great Spotted Woodpeckers who drummed on tree trunks by the lower Vicars Hill entrance for most of the morning. Lots of people saw them and 'Have you seen the woodpeckers?' was a regular refrain as we walked around. This is the time of year when the drumming can be heard and it is almost exclusively made by the Great Spotted variety of the woodpecker clan. The Green Woodpecker rarely drums and sadly the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is now quite rare. The main purpose is to establish their territory before the mating season begins in earnest. Interestingly, we couldn't see a red patch on the back of either bird's head which means that they were females possibly trying to attract a male. Let's hope they were in luck!

Pic: Rebecca Simmons
The final tally was as follows: 40 Starlings, 24 Black-headed Gulls, 11 Woodpigeons, 8 Robins, 7 Feral Pigeons, 5 Blackbirds, 4 each of Blue Tits, Common Gulls, Goldfinches, Great Tits and Ring-necked Parakeets, 3 each of Crows, Long-tailed Tits and Magpies, 2 each of Chaffinch and Great Spotted Woodpecker and 1 each of Collared Dove, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, Stock Dove and Wren. The results will be forwarded to the RSPB.

Pic: Rebecca Simmons
Many thanks to Rachel as always for running the stall, to Judith from Glendale for the bird seed, to Sue for leading one walk and Lawrence for helping with the other, to Rebecca for her photos of the 'pecker' and to ranger Lee and the cafe for their support. Next Big Event is the Dawn Chorus walk on Thursday 29 March at 6 am. See you all there!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Big Birdwatch Event: 28 January 2018

It's time for the annual Big Birdwatch event on Sunday 28 January organised by the Friends of Hilly Fields. This is held to coincide with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch on the same weekend and the aim is to count the number of different birds seen in the park. As before, we'll have a stall outside the cafe with activities for children such as making fatballs to hang from the trees. We'll also have bird ID sheets that you can use if you wish and our blackboard on which we'll aggregate all the reports that people provide. The event runs from 10.30-12.30.

There will be a guided bird walk around the park at 11.00 am or you can go round by yourselves. If you do the latter, please observe the RSPB 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.

We hope to see you there.

Ps. If you want some bird spotting practice, see if you can put the names to the birds below, all photographed on Hilly Fields during 2017. Some are obvious, some perhaps not so. In different order, the birds are Collared Dove, Dunnock, Jay, Ring-necked Parakeet, Robin and Starling.

Monday, 5 June 2017

At Home In Our Trees

The big deal during May was to find our Great Spotted Woodpeckers en famille again. We heard the shrill call of young peckers from a tree on the edge of the children's playground and located the nesting hole high up on the trunk. Soon an adult woodpecker appeared with food in its beak and after it had gone, two chicks took turns to peek out from the hole. One can be seen in the photo below. Like all juvenile GSWs, it has a red patch on its head which will disappear in the autumn moult. It's an odd place to choose for breeding purposes, being alongside the busy top path and next to the tennis courts, but Mistle Thrushes have bred in the same tree before. This is the third time in six years that we've come across woodpeckers nesting in the park and it's nice to know our trees are appreciated!

Elsewhere, Blackcaps, Chaffinches, Robins and Wrens were all singing and we also heard a few notes from the Goldcrest and Coal Tit,  Blue tits were quiet, no doubt busy finding caterpillars for their young. A flock of Starlings seemed to follow us around the park, sometimes in the trees, sometimes feeding on the grassland. Sue counted 35 in total.  And over Eastern Road, a Jay harassed a pigeon before settling on a branch to give a clear view of its blue and black wing bars. Interesting to reflect that this colourful bird belongs to the same family as the jet-black Crow and the dark blue and white Magpie.

In all, we recorded 19 species during our survey as follows: 35 Starlings, at least 7 Robins and 7 Wrens, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker and 2 juveniles, 3 Woodpigeons, at least 2 each of Blackbird, Blackcap, Crow, Great Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and 1 each of Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Feral Pigeon, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, House Sparrow and Jay. Numbers are down a little but, as so often at this time of year, you can't see the birds for the foliage. The little fellow below was no problem to spot however.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Black Caps and White Blossom

Wrens, Robins, Goldfinches and Great Tits were all singing or calling at the lower Vicar's Hill entrance when we arrived for our monthly survey on 28 April. Much the same as last month except that as we moved deeper into the park, we heard two new songs. Every spring, Hilly Fields welcomes two migrant warblers from North Africa: the Blackcap and the Chiffchaff who fly thousands of miles to breed in our cooler climate. The Blackcap's song - which we heard in brief bursts on upper Eastern Road - is usually described as 'fluting' but it has a scratchy undertow and an insistent quality. It's hard to find a good film recording, but the clip below does at least show the simple beauty of this bird with its silver-grey breast and black 'cap'. Not to be outdone, the female has a lovely chestnut brown cap.

In this location, we saw a Dunnock singing, heard a Greenfinch sneering and watched two Blackbirds building a nest. A Wren was pouring out its song from a bare tree, its stumpy tail upturned as usual. On the south slope, Starlings were digging for invertebrates in the grassland - their glossy plumage and bright yellow bills a sign that they too are enjoying the breeding season. The staccato song of the Chiffchaff was heard briefly in the bothy area where we also heard very clearly the laughing call of the Green Woodpecker. This bird has either become a regular visitor or is nesting in or around the park.

By the end of our survey, we had seen or heard 23 species - a very healthy total. By far the most numerous bird was the Starling with a flock of 20, followed by 9 Robins, 7 Woodpigeon, 6 Wrens, 4 each of Goldfinch and Great Tit, 3 each of Blackbird and Parakeet, 2 each of Blue Tit, Crow, Feral Pigeon, House Sparrow, Magpie and Mistle Thrush and 1 each of Blackcap, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker  and Song Thrush.

Meanwhile it's a 'white-out' in certain parts of the park as cow parsley blooms and the white blossom appears on the orchard trees, on the hawthorns and on the candle like flower spikes of the horse chestnut. The magical month of May is upon us!

Cow Parsley

Apple blossom

The 'May blossom' on the hawthorn

Horse chestnut 'candles'

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Dawn and Daylight Music

It was cloudy and a little chilly on 29 March when Judith and I carried out the monthly bird survey. Our avian chums were not showing themselves much at first, but were literally singing their hearts out as we're now well into the mating season. Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens led the chorus, while Great Tits and Blue Tits called repeatedly in the background and a trio of Greenfinches sneered at us. We saw evidence of House Sparrows and Magpies nest building, but the Gulls who've spent the winter here have gone away now to make babies elsewhere. A Mistle Thrush sang over by Montague Avenue, while another one gobbled berries in the north field Whitebeam tree. And a brave Pied Wagtail hopped about on the bowling green lawn despite the presence of a Glendale operative mowing the grass.

Lots going on, but the best was yet to come. Somewhere around the little wood or the trees at the top of Eastern Road, a Green Woodpecker called several times. The call is like a shrill repeated laugh and is known to birders as the 'yaffle' (hence Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss). There is a perfect rendition of it about 28 seconds into the video clip below. On this occasion, we couldn't see the bird, but Green Woodpeckers have a striking combination of green plumage (over pale breast), red cap and black 'mask' like a harlequin. They don't drum like the Great Spotted Woodpecker, but have long pointed bills for digging ants out of ant hills and can often be seen on grassland feeding on invertebrates in the soil. They breed in the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries and are known to be occasional visitors to Hilly Fields.

And just as we were about to pack up, we heard and then saw a Song Thrush, perched in a tree on the Veda Road border, singing each phrase several times. It is said to have over a hundred different phrases in its repertoire. The final tally was 19 species: 8 Blackbirds, Great Tits, Woodpigeons and Wrens, 7 Blue Tits, Robins and Starlings, 4 House Sparrows, 3 Crows, Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Ring-necked Parakeets, 2 Dunnocks, Magpies and Mistle Thrushes and 1 Chaffinch, Green Woodpecker, Pied Wagtail and Song Thrush.

As if that wasn't enough, I was back on Hilly Fields the next morning at 6am for the Friends of Hilly Fields annual Dawn Chorus walk along with a dozen other light sleepers. The weather was fine, there were clear views of lovely Lewisham and a brightening sky behind Shooters Hill where the sun started to rise about twenty minutes later. We walked around the park hearing many of the same birds from the day before - Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Great Tits in particular. On the lane above Eastern Road, we heard from the Three Finches: a brief burst of Goldfinch song, the descending trill of a Chaffinch and the sneer of a Greenfinch. And by the playground we were treated to the sight and sound of a Mistle Thrush singing from the top of a tree as they often do.

After that we crossed Adelaide Avenue and cut through St Cyprian's Path to the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries where Mike Guilfoyle of the Friends was waiting to admit us. It was broad daylight by now and a fine sunny morning. The cemeteries were a little quieter than expected and Phil, who does monthly bird surveys of the site, suspected that a Sparrowhawk was around causing the birds to keep schtum. Nevertheless, we heard the laughing call of a Green Woodpecker freequently along the route and towards the end some of us heard a brief burst of melody from a Song Thrush and the staccato song of a Chiffchaff - a migrant warbler which arrives every spring from the Med and North Africa. And then we were back at the cemetery gates again and it was time to disperse. But the music goes on every day.