Friday, 27 November 2015

Winter Is A-Coming In

The start of our monthly bird survey on 18 November was marked by almost simultaneous sightings of a Crow, a Jay and a Magpie - three members of the same avian family, though with very different plumages. After that, the park was fairly quiet and the counts were low despite fine weather. But by the end of the morning, we had seen a good range of species including some Starlings back from their country retreat and noisily rejoicing in trees by the tennis court. Only half a dozen so far, but the numbers will steadily increase. We've had as many as 80 in winters past.

The garden next to the bothy came up trumps again when Sue spotted a Goldcrest - Britain's smallest bird - up in one of the conifers. We have seen it before on Hilly Fields but not often. It loves conifer trees as its thin little beak is ideal for picking out insects from between pine needles. The Goldcrest gets its name from the bright orange patch on its crown, but it's very difficult to see that from below. We also saw the family flock of Long-tailed Tits again and Judith spotted a female Chaffinch - a bird we see (and hear) more often in spring and summer.

After failing to find any Sparrows in the Cliffview hedge, we thought we would have to settle for 15 species. However, after refreshments at the cafe, Sue and Judith spotted a pair of Mistle Thrushes and another Black-headed Gull (or possibly the same one as last month), raising our total to a respectable 17 species. Here is the full list of birds as recorded in our BirdTrack records.

Although the autumn remains mild on the whole, the leaves are falling fast on Hilly Fields, helped by Storm Barney, the tail-end of which was still blowing as we went round. This will help to make the smaller birds more visible in the winter months to come. And by the way, the Friends of Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2016 event will take place on the morning of Sunday 31 January. There will be guided walks and children's activities, as well as an RSPB stall. More info soon.

Foliage thinning in the little wood.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Did I Mention the Crows?

We seemed to be followed by Crows when we did our monthly bird survey on 30 October. Noisy Crows, mean and hungry looking Crows. Perhaps they were warming up for Halloween next day. And the weather was sombre too, even after the rain stopped which meant many of the birds kept quiet and out of view. We saw most of the regulars, though not in great numbers and heard the occasional burst of Wren song around the wood and Upper Eastern Road. The Crows were there too, waiting for us in the autumnal trees.

We were expecting to see a few gulls on the cricket pitch when we reached the north field. They have been moving into Inner London for the winter. In the event, there was one solitary Black-headed Gull on the ground and maybe three or four up in the sky. That name - and I say this every year - is misleading. In spring and summer, its head is a beautiful chocolate brown colour; in winter, its head is white albeit with a small dark patch behind the eye. Note the red legs and bill.

The best bird of the day - our reward for two hours of trudging - was waiting for us in the Cliffview hedge: a Coal Tit, seen briefly but clearly before flying away. The Coal Tit has a black head, hence its name, and is the same size as a Blue Tit. It has a prominent white patch at the back of the head. We've seen them before on Hilly Fields but not often. By the way, there were some Crows nearby too.

Photo by Ian F, BirdForum 
Actually, Crows are good to have around on the whole. They band together and mob birds of prey, driving them away, thus providing a service for the small bird community. And maybe saving a few pigeons too. Also, if you look closely, you'll see that their plumage isn't pure black but has some very subtle tinges of blue.

The full list of birds seen and/or heard comprises Wood Pigeons, Feral Pigeons, House Sparrows, Ring-necked Parakeets, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Goldfinches, a Coal Tit, a Black-headed Gull, Magpies and, er, Crows. A total of 14 species in all. And so after finishing our circuit, we trudged up the hill to the cafe. You'll never guess which bird turned up there.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Quiet Quarter

Our arrival at the lower Vicars Hill Gate on 30 September was greeted by a faint seep-seep-seep sound from the trees which turned out to be a group of about six Long-tailed Tits scavenging for food. Other than that, our monthly bird survey was another low-key affair and confirmed that July-Sept is the 'quiet quarter' of the birding year on Hilly Fields.

Long-tailed Tit
The bird glimpsed most clearly in flight was a Jay which, as per last month, flew from the direction of the Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries to nab another acorn from the oak tree at the top of the south field. Luckily, this tree has enough acorns left on its branches to feed many more squirrels and birds.

Acorns on oak tree
A Wren was briefly heard singing and a Chiffchaff. The latter was probably preparing for its annual migration back to the Med or West Africa. Apart from the bold Crows and Magpies which strutted in the open spaces, most of the other birds maintained a low profile like the blackbird below, glimpsed in hawthorn foliage on Upper Eastern Road.

Blackbird playing peep-o
Hopefully, by the end of next month, the Gulls and Starlings will have returned from wherever they spend their summer to swell the numbers. Species seen or heard this month: 7 Robins, 7 Woodpigeons, 6 Long-tailed Tits, 5 Magpies, 3 Crows, 2 each of Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit and Ring-necked Parakeets, 1  each of Wren, House Sparrow, Chiffchaff, Goldfinch, Jay and Feral Pigeon.

After a skirmish which ruffled its feathers, this Crow was King of the Bin

Friday, 4 September 2015

Chiffchaffs, Jays and Acorns

The BBC forecast three hours of heavy rain for the morning of 26 August. Naturally, we still turned out for the monthly bird survey. Getting soaked to the skin while unable to see a thing through rain-splattered lenses is all part of the experience (it says here). Luckily the rain was intermittent and we managed to get round the 'course' with only a few raindrops hanging from our stiff upper lips. There were also a couple of highlights. One was hearing a pair of Chiffchaff calling to each other ('huit' 'huit') in the Upper Eastern Rd woodland and getting a brief glimpse of what looked like an adult. These warblers have become regular summer visitors to Hilly Fields and have almost certainly bred there. Could this have been adult and young bird keeping in contact?

Most Chiffchaffs will be preparing for migration back to the Med and Africa which usually takes place later this month. Another bird preparing for winter is the Jay and after hearing its loud screeching, we were lucky enough to see one flying out of an oak tree with something in its beak. It's not difficult to guess what that 'something' was. A new crop of acorns is growing in our oaks and can be seen hanging down on stalks. Jays are famous for storing these (often burying them in the ground), then recovering them later when needed. Occasionally, they'll forget the location and another mighty oak will start to grow...

Image: RSPB
Apart from those two sightings, it was a quiet morning, no doubt partly due to the weather. At one stage, it seemed unlikely that we'd reach double figures, but in the end we recorded 13 species. The other birds seen and/or heard were Wood Pigeons, Robins (now singing again after their moult), Wrens (occasionally singing), Great Tits, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Magpies, Crows, House Sparrows and Parakeets.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Days of Rest

There was neither sight nor sound of any birds on 29 July when Sue, Judith and I met at the lower Vicars Hill entrance. This continued for a while as we walked along the Veda Road border, reflecting the fact that July and August are days of rest and moulting for many birds after their mating, breeding and chick-rearing labours during the first six months of the year.Then we heard the churr of a Blue Tit amongst the foliage and the cawing of a Crow which we came across later high in a tree.

At the orchard and little wood, things perked up. A Blackcap sang intermittently and there were occasional song bursts from a Wren. On upper Eastern Road, we had a clear view of a Greenfinch and could hear the high melodic twitterings of Goldfinches without actually seeing them. Male and female Blackbirds were seen and a Robin issued its warning call - a clicking sound like a pre-digital clock being wound up - from deep within the undergrowth. Then things grew quiet again and we took a diversion through the south meadow where butterflies could be seen and crickets heard in the long grass.

Meadow Brown on Tansy in the South Meadow
Eventually we reached the shade garden next to the bowling green and found that last month's Long-tailed Tits were still there - six altogether, flitting around the conifers, as difficult to photograph as ever (see below!). There was no sign of any Sparrows in the Cliffview Hedge - and that was it. 13 species in total - our lowest count of the year. Hopefully, things can only get better - as someone once said, or sang. The birds are still there - just keeping their heads down.

The final tally was: 3 Blackbirds, 1 Blackcap, 2 Blue Tits, 3 Crows, 2 Feral Pigeons, 3+ Goldfinches, 2 Great Tits, 1 Greenfinch, 6 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Magpies, 6 Robins, 8 Woodpigeons and 3 Wrens.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Nuthatch Saves the Day

30 June: starting as usual from the lower Vicar's Hill entrance, Sue and I worked our way along the Veda Road border, following 'the secret path' (as children call it) between tall grass and cow parsley. It was very quiet in the trees, reflecting the fact that for most birds the breeding season is drawing towards a close. Around the wood, however, and the upper Eastern Road area, a Blackcap and two Chiffchaffs were singing continuously, so for them it's not all over yet. The RSPB says of both these species that 'pairs nesting in the south of England' may have a second brood. Perhaps the singing birds were keeping in touch with each other, either from the nest or from wherever they happened to be searching for food. We also saw a Pied Wagtail looking for insects in the grass among the ancient boulders of the stone circle

But we weren't finding very much and were reconciling ourselves to a low count when we entered the 'shade garden' between the bowling green and the bothy. There, within a few minutes, we had a remarkable haul: a Nuthatch, a Jay, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Mistle Thrush and a family of 8 very lively Long-tailed Tits, most of them recently fledged little 'uns. At one point, it felt as if we'd stepped into a Disney film as the cute tweeting Tits raced around the trunk of a conifer tree. The Nuthatch is not a common visitor to Hilly Fields so it was great to see one again. It is the only British bird that can climb down a tree trunk head first in its search for insects within the bark.

This raised our total to a respectable 19. In addition to those birds already mentioned, we saw and/or heard 4 Robins and 4 Wrens, 3 Blackbirds, 2 each of Swift, Collared Dove, Woodpigeon, Magpie and 1 each of Blue Tit, Crow, Great Tit and House Sparrow. So the everyday birds were scarce but the less common birds made up for it. And, for once, we didn't see or hear a single parakeet. What a shame.

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.