Friday, 24 April 2020

The Upside Down Bird

In the past, the Nuthatch has been an infrequent visitor to Hilly Fields, but since last September we've seen or heard them on our surveys every month. Now as recounted in the previous post we've discovered that a pair are nesting in the park, which means that new little Nuthatches should soon be on the way. 

Credit: David Chapman
The Nuthatch is about the same size as a House Sparrow. It has a long pointed bill, blue-grey upperparts and buff underparts with chestnut flanks. It also has a long black stripe running through its eye to the back of its head. This and the pointed bill make it easy to identify. According to the RSPB, it is the only British bird which 'descends a tree trunk head first'. Why do Nuthatches go up and down tree trunks? To dig insects out of the bark, which is what the pointed bill is for. They also eat seeds which they store sometimes in cracks in the bark. And believe it or not, Nuthatches eat nuts which they wedge within cracks in the bark and crack open - again with that powerful bill. 

Nuthatch on Hilly Fields just behind the tennis courts
The female on the right is displaying to the male. Mating took place shortly after.
Usually, Nuthatches nest in tree holes and have a well-known habit of plastering the rim of the hole  with mud to reduce its diameter, thus preventing larger birds (eg. Magpies) from stealing the chicks or nestlings. On Hilly Fields, however, they're using one of the newly-installed Schwegler nest boxes which have small predator-proof holes.

The most common call of the nuthatch is easy to remember: a single note rapidly repeated, rather like someone whistling melodiously for their dog. It can be heard from 19 seconds onward in the video below.

Finally, Nuthatches do visit garden bird feeders and can be quite assertive towards other birds while doing so. This picture shows one in Keith Ward's garden which backs onto Hilly Fields. It seems even on feeders they prefer the upside down approach!

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Dawn Chorus Walk 2020

Rupert King has provided this report on the two person Dawn Chorus Walk on 2 April!
Sadly, as with so many community events, the 2020 Dawn Chorus Walk around Hilly Fields Park had to be cancelled. So instead I met Rachel at 6.00am in the Shade Garden (next to the Bowling Club) to do our own Dawn Chorus Walk – while maintaining social distancing of course! It was a chilly start, overcast but still. The first songbirds we encountered were a blackbird, a robin, a wren and a dunnock, while a great tit called loudly above us. As we moved south along the perimeter path we came upon the large flock of resident sparrows busily chattering away in the dense bushes that line the rear gardens. Such a joyful sound!

The walk began to liven up as we reached the southeast boundary of the park with its rich mix of trees and shrubs: a song thrush singing loudly, some wood pigeons cooing softly and a greater spotted woodpecker hammering out his message across the park. We saw a small flock of redwings – winter visitors that will soon be flying north back to Scandinavia.

By the time we reached the Nature Area (south of the Stone Circle) the sun was rising – there was a brief blaze of colour on the eastern horizon before the sun disappeared behind a bank of cloud. As we hoped the Nature Area provided a proper chorus of birdsong this time including two rival blackcaps, a chiffchaff (our first summer visitors) and some twittering goldfinches. We were very pleased to see that a pair of great tits is now building a nest in a new Schwegler nest box – just 2 weeks after it was put up!

Male Blackcap
As we listened intently to the birds we couldn’t help but notice how quiet the background noise was for a change. Just two planes passed overheard during our walk and traffic along the busy Adelaide Avenue has been reduced to a trickle.

Male Chaffinch
We carried on up Eastern Road with its rich mix of hawthorn and bramble scrub – perfect habitat for birds! Plenty of birdlife here and we discovered a wood pigeon sitting on a nest concealed in ivy. As we reached the top of the road we came upon two male chaffinches behaving very differently: one singing from a tree, the other attacking its own reflection in the wing mirror of a parked car! I have seen this obsessive behaviour before with dunnocks and pied wagtails. Indeed the bird was so obsessed we were able to approach to within a few feet to record it. When we saw a female chaffinch nearby we wondered aloud which male she might prefer?!

The highlight of our walk was undoubtedly the sight of two noisy nuthatches who have taken over another Schwegler nest box near the tennis courts. This is a remarkable development. Personally I only started seeing nuthatches for the first time in the park and nearby cemetery last autumn. Now they are nesting in the park!

Nuthatch at nestbox
During our walk we also saw several carrion crows (two pairs are nesting in the park), magpies, ring necked parakeets, starlings and blue tits. On our return to the Shade Garden we saw a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers and a solitary stock dove high up in the canopy – a bit of a rarity in the park. So in all we saw 21 bird species and heard a lot of birdsong. A successful walk and a delightful way to start the day!

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Birds Are Still Singing

Everywhere is closed except for supermarkets. Everything has been cancelled or 'postponed' while we hide from Covid-19. Brockley Max has been postponed until August ('fingers crossed'). The BrocSoc Midsummer Fayre has been postponed until autumn ('hopefully'). And now to top it all the Friends of Hilly Fields Dawn Chorus Walk has been cancelled. Not postponed. Not resting. Cancelled. It is an ex-walk. There is no dawn chorus to be heard in August or autumn - it's a thing of the spring. But if we're very, very lucky, we might be able to hold one next year.

The Lane
The good news is that the birds are still singing. The residents such as Blackbird, Robin, Song Thrush and Wren can be heard every day on Hilly Fields and have been joined by the usual spring migrant warblers - Blackcap and Chiffchaff. And even more good news, we seem to have a resident pair of Nuthatches who've been seen and heard regularly over the last few weeks. Hopefully, they will nest in the park. So why not go up there on your daily exercise walk and have a listen? It doesn't have to be at dawn, but morning is the best time. A good place to hear the warblers is the lane that runs into the park from Eastern Road with all the trees on either side and the little wood beside it.

If you fancy learning a few bird songs to while away the time, there are loads of recordings on You Tube and the RSPB's website has audio recordings of all British birds along with identification features. A good one to start with is the Chiffchaff which has a simple repetitive song of staccato notes as per above. It's unforgettable. Listen to it on the web, then listen to it on Hilly Fields, but hurry. In the last two years, it hasn't hung around for very long. After that, you can try the more varied and melodious songs of the Blackcap and Song Thrush. Good luck and don't forget the social distancing! I'm going back into my bunker now.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Big Birdwatch 2020: The Results

This year's big birdwatch took place on the morning of 26th January. The sky was overcast most of the time, but the weather was mild and about a dozen people came with us on the guided walk. We spent a hour walking through most areas of the park and saw 24 species which is not a record, but a  respectable tally. The highlights were a pair of nuthatches and 15 Redwing all seen in the east field.

The nuthatch has blue-grey upperparts, buff underparts, a black stripe across the side of its head and a long pointed bill which it uses to dig insects out of tree trunks. It is very agile and the only British bird that can descend a tree trunk head first. There are better photos on the web, but the one above (taken in Sydenham Hill Wood a few years ago) shows it in action. It has a distinctive call which can be listened to on the RSPB website. The fact that we saw two together is a hopeful sign that they will nest and breed in the park this coming spring.

Redwings on Hilly Fields: 2018
The Big Birdwatch is the first time we've seen Redwing in the park this winter. Redwings are thrushes which migrate here in the autumn from Scandinavia and depart in the early spring. Berries and fruits are their food of choice but when those are running out, they'll make do with worms and insects. The red under the wing which gives them their name is not always as obvious as in the above photo, but the white stripe arching over the eye is another distinctive feature.

The rest of the count as recorded on the Big Birdwatch Blackboard is as follows: 35 Black-headed Gull, 20 Starling, 12 Common Gull, 10 Goldfinch, 10 House Sparrow, 5 each of Great Tit, Robin and Woodpigeon, 4 each of Blue Tit, Crow and Ring-necked Parakeet, 3 each of Feral Pigeon and Magpie, 2 each of Blackbird and Chaffinch, 1 each of Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit, Song Thrush and Wren.

 Rachel and Emily did a sterling job on the Big Birdwatch Table outside the cafe and persuaded numerous children to make seedballs which hung from nearby trees at the end of the event. Thanks to the 'other bird champion' Sue and to Conrad, Lawrence and Rupert for lending their expertise, to Judith from Glendale for her support and to the cafe as always just for being there. Our Dawn Chorus Walk will be on Thursday 2nd April at 6.00 am. See you there!

Monday, 6 January 2020

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2020

Our annual Big Birdwatch event on Hilly Fields will take place this year on Sunday 26 January from 10.30 - 12.30. As usual, this is timed to coincide with the RSBP Big Garden Birdwatch weekend. The Friends of Hilly Fields will have a stall outside the cafe with fun activities such as seed ball making for children and illustrated guide sheets to help you identify the birds you see in the park. Just remember the two 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. Return your findings to us and the Friends will collate the results on the Big Blackboard. If you don't want to attempt it on your own, come on the guided tour which will start at 11.00 approx.

Our last three monthly surveys of 2019 have been encouraging with the count rising steadily from 17 species in October, 19 species in November, 24 species in December including both Song and Mistle Thrush, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Greenfinch. Last year, a strong north wind meant one of the lowest counts we've had for January, so let's hope for decent weather this time round.

Mistle Thrush, Hilly Fields, 19/12/19
We've had several reports of a Tawny Owl being heard in or near the park. I heard one 'hooting' (it's actually their song) a few nights ago from the direction of Hilly Fields and my house is about 300 yards away as the owl flies. So if you live in the vicinity, keep an ear open. If you're lucky enough to see one in the park, please let us know. Nb. the Tawny Owl is smaller than you might think, averaging about the same size as a Woodpigeon.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Falcon Over the Fields

Our monthly bird survey on 27 September was almost over, when Conrad spotted a Hobby being chased by Crows over the north field. We had only a brief glimpse at first, but it reappeared having shaken off its pursuers and spent five minutes gliding and swooping over the park. The Hobby has long wings for its body size and catches most of its prey in flight, so its aerial abilities are quite special. It feeds mainly on small birds (though it does catch Swifts) and insects including dragonflies. In this case it was feeding around the plane trees that line Hilly Fields Crescent and we saw it transfer an insect from claw to beak in mid-flight. The plumage was not as dark as usual, so our bird may have been a juvenile. It was either too high or too fast to get a photograph - the image below is from the NatureSpot website.

Photo: Chris Lythall
The Hobby is one of four wild falcons which can be seen in Britain. The other three - Peregrine, Kestrel and Merlin - are resident all year round, whereas the Hobby is a spring migrant which flies here from Africa to breed in our cooler climate and returns in autumn. The hobby we saw will be away any day now. Its scientific name is Falco subbuteo and yes - the fingertip football game Subbuteo is named after it. Its inventor Peter Adolph was a bird lover and first tried to patent the game under the name of 'The Hobby'. When that was turned down as being too general, he used the species name instead which in Latin means 'near to' (sub) 'a buzzard' (buteo).

We recorded twenty other species that day which is a good record for the time of year. These were 14 Woodpigeons, 11 Feral Pigeons and 11 Magpies, 5 Robins (at least), 4 Great Tits, 3 each of Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Crows, Goldfinches, Jays and Wrens, 2 each of Black-headed Gulls, House Martins (passing over) and Song Thrushes, 1 each of  Chiffchaff, Herring Gull, House Sparrow, Nuthatch, Ring-necked Parakeet and Starling. The Hobby can be celebrated as the 51st species on our list, but let me also put in a word for the Crows. They tend to get taken for granted but are vigilant birds and defenders of the realm and they do draw attention to birds of prey.

Carrion Crow on Hilly Fields, 27-9-19

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Big Five-O

After more than ten years surveying birds on Hilly Fields, we have recorded our 49th and 50th species: a Redstart and a Linnet. The Redstart (a summer migrant) was a one-off sighting on the Cliffview Road edge of the park. The Linnet (a member of the Finch family) was seen in the same area and then heard singing for 2-3 weeks afterwards from one of the long Veda Road gardens that back onto the park. It may have nested and bred there. A revised list is at the end of this post. Thanks to Rachel Mooney and her neighbour Eddy on Cliffview Road for reporting these sightings. The images below are from the website of Bob Jones, aka Bob the Birder.


The results of our monthly survey in June are as follows:

6 Blackbirds, 3 Blackcaps, 1 Blue Tit, 7 Crows, 1 Collared Dove, 6 Goldfinches, 1 Great Tit, 1 Greenfinch, 1 House Sparrow, 2 Magpies, 1 Nuthatch, 1 Ring-necked Parakeet, 3 Robins, 2 Song Thrushes, 1 Swift, 4 Woodpigeons, 8 Wrens and 2 Starlings. 

A total of 18 species which is good considering that the main breeding season has come to an end and bird life in the park is calming down. It was particularly nice to see and hear the Song Thrushes and to hear the Nuthatch. Nuthatches have been seen on at least one local bird feeder, so presumably have nested somewhere in the neighbourhood.

Song Thrush



1. Blackbird
2. Black-headed Gull
3. Blue Tit
4. Carrion Crow
5. Common Gull
6. Goldfinch
7. Great Tit
8. House Sparrow
9. Magpie
10. Ring-necked Parakeet
11. Robin
12. Woodpigeon
13. Wren


14. Blackcap
15. Chaffinch
16. Chiffchaff
17. Common Swift
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


27. Coal Tit
28. Collared Dove
29. Fieldfare
30. Goldcrest
31. Green Woodpecker
32. Herring Gull
33. House Martin
34. Kestrel
35. Lesser Black-backed Gull
36. Nuthatch
37. Redwing
38. Song Thrush
39. Sparrowhawk
40. Stock Dove
41. Tawny Owl (heard, not seen)
42. Willow Warbler


43. Bullfinch
44. Cuckoo (heard not seen)
45. Linnet
46. Little Owl
47. Mallard
48. Redstart
49. Short-eared Owl
50. Spotted Flycatcher

* = rare on Hilly Fields, not nationwide