Sunday, 7 September 2014

Heading Towards Autumn

It was still fairly quiet on the avian front when Sue and I did our monthly bird survey of Hilly Fields on 29th August. In the aftermath of the breeding season, there are quite a few juvenile birds about and we were welcomed at the lower Vicars Hill gate by a pair of young Blackbirds perched on a tree. As we worked our way along the green border towards the little wood, we saw or heard Great Tits, Blue Tits, a Wren or two and plenty of Robins which are starting to sing again after their annual moult.

Juvenile Blackbird at Hilly Fields
On Upper Eastern Road, we were pleased to see a Great Spotted Woodpecker digging for insects in the bark of a dead tree. We heard a Chiffchaff calling from the little wood ('hui') and also glimpsed a Long-tailed Tit in this area. Later on near the Bothy we heard a Coal Tit calling, which is quite unusual for the park, but it was well hidden. A few House Sparrows could be seen in the usual hedge on the Cliffview border. As always, Crows, Magpies and Wood Pigeons were about on the grassland which is covered in some areas with the small dandelion-like flower Autumn Hawkbit.

Magpie amidst the Autumn Hawkbit
A flock of 10 or more Goldfinches was seen and the dulcet squawks of Ring-necked Parakeets were heard from time to time. Finally, as we sipped coffee at the cafe, a lone Feral Pigeon waddled into view raising the total of species seen to 16 which is respectable for the time of year. We also noticed much fruit on the bushes and trees, a sign that we are heading towards autumn. The blackberries ripened early and have nearly all been picked, but the red haws are plentiful on the hawthorns, the hips are out on the dog roses and elderberries and sloes can be found in the Veda Road border.

Grey Squirrel sampling the haws


Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Return of a Predator

Due to various commitments and crises, Sue and I ended up doing the July bird survey at 4.15 pm on 31 July. Afternoons are not normally the best time for bird watching and we had low expectations about what we'd find. And when we began our circuit around the park, our fears seemed to be borne out. The Vicars Hill and Veda Road borders were virtually silent. We spotted a Magpie and heard the faint churr of a Blue Tit from somewhere, but things were not looking or sounding good. In the little wood, we saw a Robin and heard a Parakeet. On the upper part of Eastern Road, we heard a Greenfinch and saw a small flock of about 5 Goldfinches.

Then, from the brow of the hill between Eastern Road and the school, Sue spotted a predator flapping away eastward, a dark shape difficult to identify in the few seconds that it was visible. A Sparrowhawk? Maybe. We carried on, feeling a little frustrated...but not for long. As we approached the slope above the wildflower meadow, Sue spotted the bird landing on one of the lime trees that border Adelaide Avenue. Soon after, it began an aerial tour of the south slopes and our predator became identifiable. A Kestrel! A female, in fact, and the first one that we'd seen at Hilly Fields since February 2012.

For the next forty minutes, we watched as it circled around, sometimes hovering with rapid wingbeats in that distinctive way Kestrels have, at other times gliding with wings outstretched. At one point, it perched on a tree for a short while and I was able to get some decent pics through the zoom lens. The focus of its attention was the long grass in the south meadow where it would have been looking for field mice and voles. Several times, it swooped down into the grass, but didn't appear to catch anything other than maybe a few invertebrates. A Crow and a Magpie arrived to hassle it at different times, but it simply flew higher and carried on. After about forty minutes, it disappeared over the school heading eastward again. As far as I know, it hasn't returned.

The Kestrel population across the UK has been declining in recent years, though there is some evidence that the decline is recovering a little. It was great therefore to see it at our park again and shows that meadow areas have value for other species as well as invertebrates and wild flowers. To distinguish between male and female Kestrels, you need binoculars or very good eyesight. The male has a grey head and markings like little black diamonds on its brown back. The female has a brown head and black barring across its back. Seen together, the female is a little larger and a slightly darker brown. Both have streaked breasts and their wings taper to a point.

After that, it was back to the common or garden birds. 8 Feral Pigeons, 6 Woodpigeons, 3 House Sparrows, a Blackbird, a Great Tit and a Swift added to the other birds seen made a total of 14 species which is low but comparable with previous years. The breeding season is more or less over now and many birds are resting or moulting. The Swift would have been gearing up for its return flight to Africa and most of its fellows seem to have gone back.

"Now where's that Kestrel gone? You look that way and I'll look this..."
Finally, I'm reminded that our original bird champion Keith saw a Kestrel (female, again) six years ago which did catch some prey in the meadow (as recorded here) and which conveniently posed for the camera though without looking too pleased!

Friday, 4 July 2014

Old Friends And A New Hawk

It was unusually quiet when I arrived at the lower Vicar's Hill gate on 27 June for our monthly bird survey. Not a single bird could be heard - a strange experience after so many months of listening to constant calls and song. Then, faintly in the distance, I heard a Dunnock start up and after a few elegant notes from a Blackbird and a short outburst from a Wren, we were in business. Certainly, the birds seen were fewer in number as Sue and I wandered around the park but by stopping, looking and listening, by waiting for the birds to break cover, we had a list of 20 different species by the end of the morning. And that doesn't include the new species of hawk (Falco plasticus) seen on the bowling green.

We heard Blackcaps singing around the wood and upper Eastern Rd, while down on the north field, it was great to come across our old friends the Mistle Thrush pair who haven't been too visible in recent months. When seen, it is usually on grassland where they forage for worms and other invertebrates. Apologies for the poor quality of the pic below but it is at full zoom.

Meanwhile, on the nearby cricket pitch, a pair of Feral Pigeons were busy gobbling up the grass seed put down by Glendale on the bare patches which, needless to say, are still bare. Their ex-country cousins, the Woodpigeons were feeding on the grassland too - fifteen in total, the highest number of any species seen. For a while, we watched a lone Goldfinch singing from Keith's TV aerial on Cliffview Rd, visible from the park. And then just as we turned to the cafe, a Great Spotted Woodpecker zoomed across the east field in its familiar dipping flight. Other birds seen and/or heard were Starlings (7), Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, a Ring-necked Parakeet, Crows, Magpies, House Sparrows and 2 Swifts circling above.

Meanwhile, in other nature news, the leaves of the horse chestnut trees are once again being ravaged by the micro moth, Cameraria Ohridella. This tiny little creature eats away the leaves from the inside creating a brown staining effect (called 'leaf mines') which gets worse as the summer goes on. What a contrast to their green vigour and white-blossomed glory of only a few weeks ago.

27 June

21 April

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Great Woodpecker Spotted

Hilly Fields is home to at least one pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers who we see around from time to time and who breed in the park most years. In 2012, they nested in a tree on the south field. This year, they chose an ash tree south of the cafe near the vehicle barrier and anyone passing below should have heard the constant clamour of the chicks and perhaps seen one of the parents flying back and forth with food. We were lucky in that Symon monitored the nest daily while being walked by his dog and took these fab photos.

Photo: Symon Knightswood
All Great Spotted Woodpecker chicks are born with a red patch at the front of their heads (as above), but lose that during the first autumn moult. The adult male has a red cap at the back of the head (as below), the female has no red cap. Both have quite visible red feathers under their tails. They will come to bird tables and hanging feeders. People sometimes tell me that they've seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in their garden. This is very unlikely as the Lesser Spotted is now quite rare and such 'sightings' may be due to a misconception regarding the size of these birds. The Greater Spotted is roughly the same size as a Blackbird though it may appear bigger. The Lesser Spotted is as small as a house sparrow and has no red feathers under its tail. By the time Sue and I did our monthly bird survey on 23 May, the nest was silent and the chicks presumably have fledged. They are liable to predation by such birds as Crows and Magpies, but let's hope they are flourishing elsewhere.

Photo: Symon Knightswood
The weather was overcast at first during our walkabout, but Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs around the upper Eastern Rd area began singing as soon as the sun came out. Blackbirds and Wrens were also very vocal, Robins less so and Great Tits and Blue Tits were heard occasionally. A pair of Wood Pigeons could be seen nest-building in an oak tree, while a Chaffinch was singing in its usual territory around the front of the school. We saw or heard 19 species in total including in addition to those mentioned above a Dunnock, at least 2 Greenfinches, 3 Magpies, 8 Feral Pigeons, 5 House Sparrows, 5 Starlings, a Ring-necked Parakeet and a brief glimpse of a Swift flying above. We also saw a lovely Speckled Wood butterfly appropriately enough in the wood.

The May blossom (which began in mid-April) was already fading as we walked around and the cow parsley was starting to die back. In their place, elder flowers and briar roses are appearing in the borders, Common Vetch is popping up in the meadow areas and the little purple flowers of Dove's-foot Cranesbill can be found in the short grassland. Spring marches on!

Dove's-foot Crane's-bill

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Birdsong and Blossom

The first thing that greeted me after toiling up Vicars Hill on the last day of April was the sight and sound of a Robin singing from the top of an ash tree. It seemed to be revelling in the sunshine that had reddened its breast even more. Arriving from a different direction, Judith had already had a clear view of a Great Spotted Woodpecker so our monthly survey was off to a good start. Great Tits were calling repeatedly from the green borders of the park and Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs and Wrens were regularly bursting into song. Only the Blue Tits were quiet, presumably busy with their broods.

Along the Veda Rd border, we heard our first Blackcap of the year and at least one other was singing elsewhere in the park. This was a welcome return for these spring migrant warblers whose presence and song all adds to the diversity of the park. A pair overwintered in the area during 2012/13 but not this last winter as far as I'm aware. Greenfinches, a Goldfinch and a Dunnock were all heard singing in various locations, while a Blackbird seemed to be duetting with a Robin in the little garden next to the bowling green. But as the foliage grows denser, it's getting harder to see small birds and often the only glimpse we got was as they flew away. Here's a You Tube clip of a male Blackcap; the female has a chestnut brown cap.

In addition to those mentioned above, we saw or heard nine Starlings feeding on the grassland, five Wrens, four Crows, three each of Magpie, Woodpigeon and Ring-necked Parakeet and one each of Chaffinch and House Sparrow. We also heard a Magpie chick calling plaintively from its nest in a tree on upper Eastern Rd. Counting small birds in a large park such as Hilly Fields is always difficult, but we estimate there are at least nine robins spread around in different territories and probably more than the five Wrens that we've entered on BirdTrack.

Woodpigeons canoodling in the sun
Meanwhile in other nature news, the May blossom is out on the hawthorns as anybody who's been in the park recently can't help but have noticed. The creamy white 'candles' are on the horse chestnuts and of course the cow parsley is everywhere. In short, it's that time of year when 'everything is beeoodiful' as Ray Stevens warbled back in the 1960s. And the ash trees are finally blossoming too, their green pinnate leaves appearing alongside last year's seedcases (known as 'keys') which have somehow survived the winter gales.

May blossom on the hawthorns

'Candles' of blossom on the horse chestnuts

Old Ash keys and new leaves

Friday, 11 April 2014

Dawn Chorus Walk 2014

This year's dawn chorus walk on 2 April was blessed with good weather and plenty of birdsong. Sixteen people came along as we walked around the green border of Hilly Fields (seeing the sunrise over lovely Lewisham), through the nature reserve and the upper part of Eastern Road, then down St Cyprian's Passage to the Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries. On Hilly Fields as expected, we heard plenty of Great Tits calling and Robins and Wrens singing, but also the newly arrived Chiffchaffs sending out their sharp, insistent song. And of course we heard the Blackbird which starts singing in the 'darkest hour' before dawn. On top of the hill, a Redwing was seen in the trees, a late-stayer as most of its fellows have returned to Scandinavia. And in front of the school, not only did we see Long-tailed Tits and Starlings but the youngest member of our party was able to show us some excellent pictures of them from her Ladybird Book of Birds.

In the cemeteries, the highlight was undoubtedly the Green Woodpecker which was heard almost as soon as we entered. Eventually we found it high in the branches of a tree and I think most people caught at least a glimpse of it. But if it wasn't easy to see, it's laughing call (known as  a 'yaffle' to birders) was very distinct. And amazingly, its cousin a Great Spotted Woodpecker then landed on the same tree, briefly turning it into Woodpecker Central. Further on we heard (and briefly saw) a Song Thrush, again high in a tree, repeating each song phrase several times over as they famously do. We also heard a Greenfinch sneering and, inevitably, a Ring-necked Parakeet.
'There it is!' Spotting the Green Woodpecker...

And here's what it looked like from below...
...and what it looks like close-up [Stock Photo]
In all, we saw and/or heard 19 species on our walk: Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Robin, Wren, Chiffchaff, Woodpigeon, House Sparrow, Redwing, Crow, Blackbird, Magpie, Starling, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Greenfinch, Ring-necked Parakeet and a Mistle Thrush heard singing near the playground as we walked back through Hilly Fields. A good haul and I'm glad that everyone seemed to enjoy the walk. Thanks to Rachel from the Friends of Hilly Fields for publicising it and thanks to the FoBLC and Mike Guilfoyle for enabling early access to the cemeteries.

If you would like a second chance to join a local dawn chorus walk, Lawrence is organising one along the River Pool on Thursday April 17th at 6am, meet outside the Sydenham Sainsbury Savacentre. The River Pool between Bell Green and Catford is one of the natural glories of Lewisham. If we are very lucky, we may catch a glimpse of a Kingfisher or Sparrowhawk, but we should certainly hear Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, probably a Song Thrush and many other birds. Check here for more details.

River Pool

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Return of the Chiffchaff

Our monthly bird survey on 26 March began well with the sighting of a pair of Jays in the trees along the Veda Road border. It is sometimes hard to believe that these birds with their colourful pink and fawn bodies and bright blue wing patches belong to the same family as the all-black Carrion Crow, but they do - as also do Magpies. Further on we saw a Crow with nesting material in its beak and as we worked our way round the park with Robins, Wrens, Great Tits and Blue Tits singing and calling, it was evident that the birds were busy preparing for the mating season.

Crow with nesting material in the children's playground
In the wood, we heard what I'd been hoping for - the song of a Chiffchaff. This is a small warbler with a pale lemony breast and a white stripe above the eye. It migrates to Britain every spring from the Mediterranean and West Africa. This year it got here just before the Saharan dust! It's only in the last 3 years that we've seen or heard Chiffchaffs on Hilly Fields and only last year that they stayed the whole summer and bred. A few days after the survey, I heard two Chiffchaffs singing and there may be a third somewhere in the trees around the Veda Road/Eastern Road back gardens. Their song is very distinctive and easy to remember. Here's a clip I posted on the blog last year

In the trees at the back of the tennis courts, we had some good views of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and later Judith saw a Mistle Thrush on the grass in front of the courts. There was no sign of any gulls - the mild weather has presumably tempted them back to the coasts. Next to the bothy, some sort of territorial skirmish was going on between a plucky little House Sparrow and two Blackbirds. Here's one of the latter peeping out rather cautiously from a bush:

In total, we saw and/or heard 19 different species. As well as those already mentioned, these include no less than 25 Feral Pigeons on the cricket pitch observed by Sue on her way home, 11 Starlings, 4 Woodpigeons, 2 Magpies, Goldfinches and Ring-necked Parakeets, a singing Dunnock and a solitary Long-tailed Tit. All in your local green space on a fine spring morning. I'll update on the Dawn Chorus Walk in a few days...