Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gulls Galore

Sue and I did our monthly bird survey a tad early on 19 November, but were rewarded by variety if not overwhelmed by numbers. Following our usual route from the lower Vicars Hill entrance, we moved slowly along the Veda Rd border through the little wood to upper Eastern Road. En route, we saw and heard Robins, Great Tits and Blue Tits, heard a brief outburst of Wren song and glimpsed a Jay. On Eastern Rd, Sue heard the laugh (or 'yaffle') of a Green Woodpecker without seeing it, I saw a Wren skulking in the undergrowth and caught a brief blue and pink flash of male Chaffinch which we heard calling later. The most reliable presence on Eastern Rd, however, is the family or commune of Blackbirds which appears to be five strong and includes at least one juvenile. I have a feeling that they've nested in the thick bushes along there in past years if not this year and obviously enjoy the red hawberries in autumn.

Spot the female Blackbird...
Around the corner in the trees behind the tennis courts were at least half a dozen Goldfinches tweeting to each other, but the real hotspot was the slope east of the school where we saw Long-tailed Tits and Starlings in the trees and a Pied Wagtail down on the path that leads up from Adelaide Ave. A wander over to the Montague Ave side proved fruitless - we've seen Redwings there in past winters but no sightings so far despite thousands arriving elsewhere in recent weeks from Scandinavia.

Starling in flight
On the playing fields on the north side of the park, a flock of gulls were pecking at the ground. Close examination revealed 7 Black-headed Gulls and 3 Common Gulls - names which are somewhat misleading. During the breeding season (spring and summer), the Black-headed Gull has a dark chocolate-brown head which from a distance looks black. By autumn, this has reduced to a dark spot behind the eye. And the Common Gull is actually far less common than the Black-headed or the Herring Gull. However the Little Gull is the littlest gull and the Lesser Black-backed and Greater Black-backed Gulls are accurately named too. I won't mention the other 5 species of gull found in the UK. No wonder people just call them sea gulls.

Left: Common Gull, yellow legs and bill, holds itself more erect, slightly larger. 
Right: Black-headed Gull, red legs and bill, black spot behind the eye, slightly smaller.
After that, we found 8 House Sparrows in their usual place the Cliffview hedge. And that was it apart from the birds I haven't mentioned: 11 Feral Pigeons, 5 Woodpigeons, 5 Magpies (more than usual), 3 Crows,  2 Ring-necked Parakeets and 1 Greenfinch. And on her way out of the park, Sue heard the call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker - bringing out total to a very healthy 22 species. Are we getting more bird species in Hilly Fields or are we just getting better at seeing and hearing them? Both I hope. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Rainy Day In Autumn

Rain was threatening from the outset on Wed 29th October when Sue, Judith and I did our monthly bird survey. It held off for about an hour and a half but by 11.15  was seriously hampering our efforts (will no-one invent 'windscreen' wipers for glasses and binoculars?) and we decamped to the cafe. Luckily, by then we had seen or heard 17 species, so not a total washout. As so often in the past, we had a quiet start along the Veda Rd border but things picked up on reaching the little wood and the upper half of Eastern Road. Here we saw a family of four Blackbirds including a juvenile male born earlier this year. A couple of Wrens were lurking in the bushes, a Long-tailed Tit was briefly glimpsed, a Great Spotted Woodpecker briefly heard and a fine flock of about ten Goldfinches seen and heard between school and tennis courts. We also had an excellent view of a Mistle Thrush in the trees behind the school.

Juvenile male Blackbird, bill just starting to turn yellow
From then on, the rain got steadily worse. Not even a solitary Black-headed Gull on the north field could lift our spirits even though it indicated that the winter gulls are on their way. The rest of the count consisted of at least 9 Robins in different territories around the park, 6 Blackbirds (including the 4 mentioned earlier), 4 each of Great Tit, House Sparrow, and Woodpigeon, 3 Crows, 2 each of Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, Greenfinch (heard sneering but not seen) and Magpie and a solitary (hurray!) Parakeet. And on her way home from the cafe, Sue saw a Lesser Black-backed Gull on the north field making a grand total of 18. Not bad for a rainy day in autumn.

Robin singing against a grey, grey sky

First sighting this year of a lesser Black-backed Gull, seen twice in 2013
Footnote: I should also mention the impressive flock of about 50 geese that we saw flying high overheard in V-formations around 10.30 am. From enquiries with other birders, these were almost certainly Brent Geese arriving for the winter either from Arctic Canada or Siberia. Several movements of these geese were seen over London that day including a flock above Greenwich Park earlier in the morning.

Photo from

Friday, 17 October 2014

Little Owl

We have a new addition to our bird list - a Little Owl which has the lovely scientific name of Athene Noctua. It was well spotted by Phil on 6 October as it perched on the tree house in his back garden adjoining Hilly Fields. After about 10 minutes, it flew off into the park. There has been one possible brief sighting since.

The Little Owl is indeed little for an owl, being about the same size as a Starling. It hunts from dusk to midnight and just before dawn, but it is not unusual to see it in the early daylight hours as Phil did. It may have seen a mouse in the back garden and may well return. If you are walking along the path that borders the back gardens of Cliffview Road, look and listen out. If you think you hear a cat miaowing, take another look because the Little Owl's call is rather like that.

The Little Owl is not rare, but it is uncommon. I've asked the local birding community and the nearest site where a Little Owl is known to be present is Belair Park, Dulwich. So welcome to Hilly Fields, Athene Noctua - but be wary of the local cats. They may not like the competition.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

September Highlights

We had mixed weather on 24th September for our monthly bird survey, starting with a clouded sky which led to rain, then clearing to blue sky and sunshine. The birds were reasonably active for the time of year and there were three particular highlights. Firstly, clear views of a pair of Chiffchaffs in the hedging along the eastern boundary of the school site. One bird .in particular hovered with fluttering wings in front of the trees and bushes as it looked for food. The Chiffchaff's main diet consists of insects including plant aphids, but it will sometimes eat berries of which there was a supply in the hedge. At this time of year, they will be building up fat and energy reserves for the migratory flight back to the Med and West Africa. Difficult to photograph because of their quick movements but the pic below shows the pale, lemony breast, white stripe above the eye and black line through the eye. The Chiffchaff is about the same size as a Blue Tit.

The next highlight came when Sue spotted a Jay flying over the south field from the direction of the Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries. It landed in an oak tree, but after only a few seconds flew back the way it had come.  We walked closer to the tree and soon discovered why its visit had been so short. There were already two Jays sitting in the branches and Hilly Fields is their territory. No way were they going to share their acorn supply. The Jay is the most colourful member of the Corvid family with its pink breast and the bright blue wing patches which often give away its presence when deep in foliage. Its call is a wild raucous screech.

Jay in Hilly Fields Wood
The third highlight was the arrival of a small flock of Long-tailed Tits in the garden next to the bowling green. We became aware of them suddenly in the branches above us, twittering quietly to each other as they hopped around. Long-tailed Tits are very pretty birds but flit about so quickly that they're difficult to catch on camera. My photo taken from directly below shows the pale fluffy underbelly and the long tail which almost merges with the tree branches. I've added a photo from the Web which gives a clearer view of the whole bird.

Photo by Joe Cockram
Elsewhere, Blue Tits and Great Tits were active in the trees and we even heard the latter's two-note 'teacher, teacher' call briefly. Robins were singing again now that their moulting period is over and we estimate there are at least 11 of them holding territories in the park. The fact that Robins are so territorial and don't move around much makes it easier to do an accurate count. There were 18 Wood Pigeons feeding on the grassland, 8 Feral Pigeons wandering on grass and pathways and at least 8 House Sparrows in the Cliffview hedge. The rest of the count: 5 Swallows passing overhead, 3 each of Blackbird, Crow and Magpie, 2 Ring-necked Parakeets and one apiece of Goldfinch and Wren. Giving us the same total as last month: 16 species.

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