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.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Turning Towards Summer

The weather was warm enough to bring a few sunbathers out onto the slopes of Hilly Fields on 27th May when we did our monthly bird survey. The birds were vocal but not always visible as the growing foliage makes the 'little brown jobs' (birder talk) difficult to see. We heard plenty of Wrens and Chaffinches, for example, but they were well hidden. One bird we did catch sight of and heard repeatedly was the Blackcap, a migrant warbler which arrives every summer from Africa and the Med (there is a smaller winter migration from Germany). This bird seems to be more widespread in Lewisham than ever and is easy to recognise having a grey-white breast and a black 'cap' (male) or chestnut brown cap (female).

The Blackcap has a cheerful, insistent song which can be heard here.

The other common migrant warbler is the Chiffchaff which we heard on upper Eastern Road. Elsewhere, the clamour of chicks caught our attention in the little grove opposite the bothy. We tracked the sound down to a small number of Blue Tit fledglings who were out of the nest being fed by mum and dad in the upper branches. A Long-tailed Tit was hanging around with them as well. A few House Sparrows were lurking in the Cliffview hedge as usual, a dozen or so Starlings were pecking at the grassland (they usually disappear for a while in summer) while soaring above us in the blue sky was the welcome sight of Swifts - five together at one point. They arrive in the UK in the first half of May after a 4000 mile journey from southern Africa. We also saw or heard 5 Robins, 3 each of Blackbird and Woodpigeon, 2 each of Crow, Great Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and one each of Goldfinch and Greenfinch - 18 species in all.

Long-tailed Tit
Meanwhile, in other nature news, the dog and sweet briar roses are appearing in the borders just as the cow parsley and May blossom start to fade. Along with the buttercups, the vetch and plantain in the long grass, these are a sure sign that spring is turning towards summer.

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.