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.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2014: The Results

It rained. Not heavily but fairly persistently throughout our Big Birdwatch event on 26 January. Were we downhearted? No. After all, we're British and used to it, especially this winter. We set out our stall under the sheltering roof of the cafe, stiffened our upper lips and got on with it. And thankfully people came along, many bringing their children to experience that unique phenomenon known as 'the outdoors'. Lard and seed were moulded into fatballs and hung from nearby trees, bird badges were made and, as always, people either took a survey sheet and went round by themselves or came round on one of the guided tours. And by the end of the event, we'd seen 20 species, only one less than last year which considering the weather is a bloomin' miracle.

Bird badge making
Two species tied for highest number present: the Starling and the Black-headed Gull at 50 each. When it comes to ranking them though, I'm going to put the Starling first because there were so many flitting through the trees around the playground (and some on the ground as well) that I'm sure 50 was an underestimate. Next came the Common Gull with 16 being the max count, then a wonderful flock of 12 Goldfinches outside the school which, at one point, rose up together from the ground with a spectacular 'whoosh!'. There were also a pair of Greenfinches with them which are always nice to see (their numbers have fallen in recent years) and we had some very clear views of a Great Spotted Woodpecker just outside the wood and 2 cute little Long-tailed Tits in the garden next to the bowling green.

Starlings [Stock photo]
The full list is as follows:
  1. Starling - 50+
  2. Black-headed Gull - 50
  3. Common Gull - 16 
  4. Goldfinch - 12 
  5. Feral Pigeon - 7 
  6. Wood pigeon - 5 
  7. Blue Tit, Crow - 4 of each
  8. House Sparrow - 3
  9. Blackbird, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie, Robin - 2 of each
  10. Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush, Ring-necked Parakeet, Wren - 1 of each

The gulls are a major presence in the park at the moment and we're still being asked how you tell Black-headed and Common apart. There are various distinguishing features but the simplest details to remember are as follows:
  • Black-headed Gull - red legs and bill, black spot next to the eye
  • Common Gull        - yellow (or greenish-yellow) legs and bill, slightly bigger
The Black-headed Gull has a white head in autumn and winter and a dark chocolate brown head in spring and summer when it's breeding. From a distance that can look black, which is how it got its name.

Common Gull left, Black-headed Gull right  at Hilly Fields
Thanks are due to Rachel from the Friends of Hilly Fields and Judith from Glendale who ran the stall, to my fellow bird champions Sue, Keith and Terry, to Rachel Hale for bringing the badge making kit, to Fred and Ruth from the cafe and to our ever helpful parkie, Lee. Our next bird event will be the famous Hilly Fields Dawn Chorus Walk (oh, stop groaning) on a date yet to be fixed in late March/ early April. See you all then!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2014! With Updated Bird List 2007-13

This is your final reminder. The Friends of Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch takes place next Sunday 26 January between 11.00-14.00 on - wait for it - Hilly Fields. This is the weekend of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and we will submit the final results to the RSPB's national survey. Is Hilly Fields a big garden? Well at forty acres, it's big even if you have your own garden. And the RSPB says we can do it in parks (the big birdwatch, that is), so there.

Big Birdwatch 2013
What do you have to do? Well, turning up would be good. With binoculars would be even better but not essential. Our rendezvous desk (or gazebo depending on the weather) will be by the cafe. Take one of our bird id/count sheets and either: (i) go round by yourselves or (ii) go round on one of our guided walks. Remember the RSPB 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. If in any doubt about the rules, ask at the desk.

Big Birdwatch 2012

Children are welcome and and could try their skill at making bird feeders to hang from the trees. Adults can try the Bird Champion Quiz - ten moderately fiendish questions which are more about references to birds in folklore and popular culture than boring ornithological stuff. And of course, the cafe will be open to nourish your bodies and brains.

Jay on Hilly Fields
As regular readers of this blog will know, we do a bird count every month at Hilly Fields. The annual Big Birdwatch also acts as our monthly count for January, so you are helping us to monitor bird life and the health of the park as a habitat. For the last three years, we've counted 21 different species each time. Can we beat that this year? Come along and help on Sunday 26 January between 11.00-14.00.

Blackbird in Hilly Fields wood
That was your final reminder. Don't say you haven't been reminded. See you on Sunday!

Postscript: Here is an updated list of all birds seen or heard in the park since 2007 when the Bird Champion scheme began:

Hilly Fields Bird List: 2007-2013


1. Blackbird  (resident)                

2.    Black-headed Gull  (resident - winter months)
3.    Blue Tit  (resident)
4.    Carrion Crow  (numbers vary but thought to be 4 residents)
5.    Common Gull  (resident - winter months)
6.    Goldfinch  (daily visitors in a flock of up to 20 birds on occasion)
7.    Great Tit (resident)
8.    House Sparrow  (resident)
9.    Magpie (numbers vary but thought to be 2/3 residents)
10.  Ring-necked Parakeet  (daily visitors in small numbers) 
11.  Robin (resident)
12. Wood Pigeon  (resident)
13. Wren  (resident)


14. Blackcap  (summer and winter migrants)

15. Chaffinch  (probably resident)
16. Common Swift  (seen overhead in summer months
17. Dunnock  (probably resident
18. Feral Pigeon (small no, easily outnumbered by wood pigeons)
19. Great Spotted Woodpecker  (resident pair)
20. Greenfinch  (probably resident)
21. Jay  (regular pair - possibly resident)
22. Long-tailed Tit  (unsure whether residents)
23. Mistle Thrush  (regular pair - probably residents)
24. Pied Wagtail  (seen on bowling green and on stone pathways)
25. Starling  (as many as 80 seen in winter months; disappear during summer months)


26. Chiffchaff  (heard since 2011 at spring and autumn migration times only)

27. Coal Tit (very occasional)
28. Collared Dove  (very occasional)
29. Fieldfare  (occasional in winter
30. Goldcrest  (possibly visitors from nearby Brockley/Ladywell cemeteries)
31. Green Woodpecker  (also possibly visitors from above)
32. House Martin  (not recorded since 2008)
33. Kestrel  (very occasional)
34. Lesser Black-backed Gull (very occasional)
35. Nuthatch  (very occasional)
36. Redwing   (seen more in winter/early spring 2013
37. Sparrowhawk  (possibly the birds that are known to have bred in Brockley Cemetery)
38. Stock Dove  (very occasional)
39. Tawny Owl  (heard by Cliffview Road residents in  autumn/winter 2012/13, not seen)
40. Willow Warbler. Seen and heard for the first time September 2013


41. Bullfinch (male, seen by Peter on 19/12/10 on SE edge of the park)

42. Cuckoo  (heard once in May 2011)
43. Mallard  (two seen by Rachel 10/3/08 approx 7am 'waddling up the park end of Eastern Rd')
44. Short-eared Owl  (seen overhead 13/10/12 being mobbed by crows. Probably same bird recorded over London Wetland Centre earlier that day

Updated Jan 2014

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Through All Kinds of Weather

The wind was gathering force again as Sue and I met on 27 December for the last monthly survey of 2013. It rained for a while too though we found shelter in the wood where a brief outburst of song from a Wren briefly lifted our spirits. Then, just as we were cursing for not checking the weather forecast, out came the sun and brought a few more birds with it. Eventually, we ended up with a healthy total of 18 species. Blue and Great Tits were very active in the trees and quite vocal with Great Tits calling more frequently as if aware that a new year is on the way. Robins were singing around the park too though were not so easy to spot. Near the bothy, we saw a few Long-tailed Tits, very pretty birds but fast-moving and difficult to photograph. My effort below does at least show the length of the tail although the camera angle makes the tail seem as long as the body when in fact it's longer. When you see them in the trees, you notice how small their bodies are compared, say, to the Blue Tit.

A large flock of gulls was spread across the cricket field with Black-headed Gulls (40) outnumbering Common Gulls (5) on this occasion. A Lesser Black-backed Gull was seen there too, though keeping its distance from the others. This was the second Lesser Black-backed sighting of 2013. Sue also glimpsed at separate times the male and female Great Spotted Woodpeckers. And the Starlings are back from wherever it is they go to in the summer - a flock of about 30 was moving noisily tree by tree from near the playground down to the north field. Sadly, the RSPB estimate that the Starling population has fallen by 66% since the mid-70s and it is now red-listed as a bird of conservation concern.

In their usual territory - the Cliffview garden hedges - we saw no less than 12 House Sparrows, slightly more than usual. This is another once common, now red-listed bird which still finds a home on Hilly Fields. Elsewhere in the park, we saw 12 Feral Pigeons, 4 each of Woodpigeon and Crow, three Blackbirds, a pair of Magpies and a single Chaffinch and Ring-necked Parakeet. And so it remains only for me to wish you a very Happy New Year and remind you of what will undoubtedly be the greatest birding event of 2014 if not of all time (weather permitting)...

This is part of the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch weekend. Bring binoculars if you can. We will provide survey sheets. Children are welcome and we will have material for bird feeder making if they are interested in that. You can also have a go at our Fun Bird Quiz which, without being too ornithological, will challenge your common knowledge of our feathered friends. See you there!