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...

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Dawn Chorus Walk: 2 April

This year's dawn chorus walk will take place on Wednesday 2 April. We will meet outside the cafe on Hilly Fields at 6 am - a time when I'm sure most of you are up and about anyway.

As in previous years, we will be extending the walk to take in the Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries. If you want to join us for that part of the walk only, be at the Brockley Grove gate at 7am. This is not the gate at the junction with Ivy Rd, but is on Brockley Grove just west of the bus stop and between Amyruth Rd and Henryson Rd on the other side.

Juvenile Goldfinch
What might we hear and see? Certainly Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Goldfinches, Dunnocks, Great Tits and Blue Tits; probably Long-tailed Tits, Starlings, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Chiffchaffs; hopefully a Mistle Thrush on Hilly Fields, a Song Thrush in the cemeteries and Woodpeckers in both locations.

Do come and join us. It's educational, fun, life-enhancing and good for the soul. Honest!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Signs of Spring

The sun shone on 24 February when Sue, Judith and I carried out the monthly bird survey. It was a day when spring seemed to have arrived early as if to compensate for all the stormy weather of the previous two months. The ground was still sodden in places but buds were growing on the trees, the crocuses were out and the birds were calling and singing all over the park. Blue Tits were particularly active and Great Tits with their insistent repeated calls were particularly vocal. Robins were singing more or less everywhere, Wrens kept erupting in flurries of notes and trills and we heard a Great Spotted Woodpecker drilling for the first time this year on the edge of the wood. But not all the birds were touting for partners. Some, like this Woodpigeon, were happy just to sit in the branches and soak up the sun...

On Eastern Road, someone told me about a small flock of Chaffinches that frequent her Veda Road back garden. This was interesting because we never see many Chaffinches on Hilly Fields and, for that reason,  haven't devoted much blog space to the bird. However, we saw two later that morning including the cute female pictured below in the shade garden shrubbery. The distinctions between male and female Chaffinches can be seen in the Bird Champion notice board pictured at the end of this post, but briefly the male has a blue crown and pinkish cheeks and breast while the female has a grey head and browner cheeks and breast. Both have very distinctive black and white wing patterns. Their song is also very distinctive and easily remembered. The RSPB Handbook describes it as 'a descending series of trills that accelerates and ends with a flourish'. There are plenty of clips on You Tube and I've added one below.

(Credit: Ari Fink)

There were fewer Starlings around this month but they could still be heard in the trees. Starlings are famous mimics and copy all sorts of things including other bird calls, car alarms, phone ringtones and the wolf whistle. In fact, the gift of mimicry makes them potential social historians. The author Henry Williamson, who lived as a boy on Eastern Rd, set one of his novels The Dark Lantern in Victorian Brockley and describes the following: 
'a starling was uttering its medley of local sounds and noises: errand-boy whistles, clopping of horses feet, milko! morning cry of milkman...cling-a-ling! of muffin-man's bell, bleat of sheep on the Hill, thin imitations of the songs of thrushes and other garden birds'. 
I wonder what sounds the Starling might be mimicking a hundred years from now? Incidentally, that reference to 'bleat of sheep on the Hill' refers to a time when ewes and lambs were kept in a fold alongside the 'Grammar school' on Hilly Fields.

After two and a half hours of mooching about, we recorded a healthy total of 20 different species. In addition to those already noted, we saw 16 Common Gulls, 6 Black-headed Gulls, 5 House Sparrows, 3 gorgeous Greenfinches, 3 Crows, 3 Feral Pigeons, 2 each of Blackbird, Goldfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and a single lonesome Dunnock. Finally, thanks to Lee, our park-keeper, for promptly removing the graffiti which some underdeveloped human being had scrawled all over the Bird Champion notice behind the cafe. I'm glad to say it's now restored to its former lopsided beauty.