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.

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.

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


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


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)


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)


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)


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)