Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Gulls Have Landed

We were joined by Judith from Glendale for our monthly survey on 25 November. Judith helps to manage the Lewisham bird champion scheme and also assists at our annual Big Birdwatch event (for news of which see below). There wasn't anything exciting to show her such as woodpeckers or birds of prey or a partridge in a pear tree, but we found 16 different species including most of the regulars and a couple of irregulars. The latter consisted of a Dunnock flitting around in the bushes at the back of the bowling green and a small flock of at least 5 Greenfinches seen in the Eastern Road area.

Greenfinches [stock photo]
Perhaps the most significant event, however, is the return of the Gulls for their winter residence on Hilly Fields. Only 10 were counted on this occasion but the number will increase as winter progresses and, based on past experience, they will be with us until early April. The gull most often seen in London (and in Lewisham) is the Black-headed Gull, but Hilly Fields bucked the trend last year with a higher proportion of Common Gulls present. That seems set to continue as eight of those we saw in November were Common and only two were Black-headed. How do you tell them apart? The Black-headed Gull has a red bill and legs, the Common Gull has a yellow bill and legs. The Black-headed Gull has a black spot next to its eye in winter, the Common Gull doesn't. The name 'Black-headed Gull', by the way, is misleading. It has a white head in winter and even in its spring/summer breeding plumage, the head is dark chocolate brown rather than black. These things are sent to test us.

Common Gull left, Black-headed Gull right
Elsewhere around the park, we heard plenty of Robins singing and occasionally saw one, the full complement of 10 House Sparrows was present in the Cliffview hedge, the Blue and Great Tits were active in the trees and a flock of at least 10 Goldfinches flew over. The rest of the list: 5 Blackbirds, 4 Crows, 4 Woodpigeons, 3 each of Feral Pigeon, Magpie and Ring-necked Parakeet and a solitary Chaffinch. And also elsewhere in the park, mysterious 'fairy rings' of storm-damaged tree stump have been appearing. I don't suppose the Friends of Hilly Fields could have had anything to do with this?

Time marches on and we will soon be holding our annual Big Birdwatch event at Hilly Fields to coincide with the RSPB's Big Birdwatch weekend. Our event will be held by the cafe on Sunday 26 January between 11.00 - 14.00. You can either pick up a bird guide sheet from our stall and do your own survey or come round on one of our guided bird-spotting tours. We will also be offering activities for children and a fun bird quiz! Hope to see you then.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

After the Storm

Our October survey took place a day after the so-called St Jude's storm. By then, the wind had dropped, the clouds were white and fluffy and there was even some blue sky and sunshine. When we entered the park halfway up Vicars Hill and saw a Dunnock sitting on a branch in the border scrub, I knew we were in for a good morning. This is the area where we heard it singing in the spring and is presumably its main territory. Seen from below, the Dunnock appears rather nondescript and similar to a House Sparrow. In silhouette, however, a needle-point bill can be seen quite unlike the chunky beak of the sparrow. Although the Dunnock is still sometimes called the 'hedge sparrow', the two birds are completely unrelated.

Dunnock in the Vicars Hill border
We were then distracted by a small gang of Blue Tits chasing each other at high speed around the trees and performing their usual acrobatics among the branches. This reoccurred elsewhere and was probably a release of pent-up energy after the end of the moulting period. On the eastern wall of Prendergast School, a rainwater gully attracted the Tits attention, perhaps as a drinking and dunking hole. A Pied Wagtail was also spotted nearby. Great Tits were out and about and were even heard calling although rather faintly. They don't normally get into their two-note stride until after Christmas. Among the Eastern Rd hawthorns we were pleased to see a small flock of Long-tailed Tits which are also fast and agile movers. The RSPB Handbook's description of them as 'restless' seems pretty accurate.

Blue Tit inspecting the drains
Another highlight was the sighting of both male and female Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the Eastern Rd area. How can you tell them apart? The male has a red cap at the back of its head, the female doesn't (see photo here). Both have bright crimson feathers under the tail and all juveniles have a red patch at the front of the head (see below) which disappears with the first moult. In total, we counted 19 species during our walkabout. As well as those already mentioned, we saw or heard at least 15 Wood and 6 Feral Pigeons, 7 House Sparrows in and around the Cliffview hedge, at least 5 Robins calling, 5 Crows, 2 Magpies and 2 Blackbirds. We also heard a Chaffinch, a Goldfinch, a Ring-necked Parakeet, at least one Wren and caught brief glimpses of a Mistle Thrush and a Starling. The Starlings have not yet returned in force from the outer suburbs but should be back soon along with the Black-headed and Common Gulls.

Woodpecker nestling in 2012
As for the storm, what damage has it caused on Hilly Fields? Several trees have been felled including, sadly, one of the two crack willows on the south slope. Lots of branches and whole limbs have been broken off including one in which our Great Spotted Woodpeckers nested in 2012. On the whole, though (and despite the dramatic looking photos below), St Jude's storm wasn't in the same league as the great overnight storm of 1987 which killed 18 people in England, felled an estimated 15 million trees and of course immortalised a certain weatherman.

One of the two crack willows on the south slope
The Woodpeckers' nesting tree in 2012

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Sparrowhawks and Willow Warblers

September was a difficult month to organise a bird survey as the Hilly Fields bird champions slipped away on holiday at various times. It was in any case a quiet month for bird activity on the whole (as it was last year) for various reasons including the fact that some birds are still moulting, that the mighty effort of attracting mates and finding food for the young is over and that the need to defend territory is not quite so important. There is also a lull before the hordes of winter migrants arrive and before some non-migrant birds such as starlings and gulls return to the inner city. I did a walkabout one overcast morning and counted only 10 species, all of them common birds. However Sue had much better luck on the very last day of September and found 16 species including a Sparrowhawk and a Willow Warbler, so naturally we are recording that as our main survey of the month!

The Sparrowhawk was soaring for some time over the south field adjoining Eastern Rd and Adelaide Ave and was probably hunting. It disappeared eventually in the direction of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries. The Willow Warbler is the first to be recorded on Hilly Fields, pushing our grand total since 2007 up to 42 different species. They are summer migrants and not uncommon in Lewisham, so I suspect it has visited the site before but not been detected. Its appearance is very similar to that of the Chiffchaff, although its song is quite different. Once it stops singing as most birds do around July, the observer has to try and make out 'paler legs, longer wings, slightly longer body,cleaner yellow underparts, clearer stripe above eye' (RSPB Handbook). Luckily, in this case, the bird was at eye level on a bush between the park and the Veda Rd back gardens and Sue could identify it fairly easily. By now, it will be well on its way back to West Africa. Let's hope it stops by again next year.

Willow Warbler (Credit: Andreas Trepte)
In addition to those already mentioned, Sue also recorded 8 Woodpigeons, 6 Blue Tits, 5 of Long-tailed Tit, Goldfinch and Robin, 4 of Blackbird, Great Tit and Ring-necked Parakeet, 3 of Crow, Feral Pigeon and Magpie and 1 each of House Sparrow, Chiffchaff and Goldcrest. Looking ahead, winter migrants are already starting to arrive in the UK and those that we're most likely to see on Hilly Fields are Redwings and Fieldfares, as well as - we hope - a few wintering Blackcaps from Central Europe. The Black-headed and Common Gulls should be moving inland and arriving late October. The Fieldfare which often goes around with Redwings (both being members of the Thrush family) is a handsome bird which I particularly hope to see again as we spotted only a small number last winter.

Finally, a date for your diaries - 20 October. The Green Fair is coming! Lots of fantastic activities as listed below and some may even involve birds. Do come along and join in.

Footnote 1: I almost forgot to mention that a Tawny Owl was heard again during the month in the Eastern Rd area. No further information as yet but it was heard last year from September through to January, so a consistent pattern may be emerging. Please let us know via the comments facility if you hear it.

Footnote 2: Redwings and Fieldfares seen today (10 October) on Ladywell Fields.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Last Days of Summer

August 28th was a fine sunny day for our monthly survey but the birds weren't coming out to play. We heard more than we saw and our final tally was only boosted to 13 species by the screeching of an unseen Jay and the brief glimpse of a Green Woodpecker which was probably visiting from Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries. Great Tits and Blue Tits were fairly active in the trees and small flocks of Crows, Magpies and Woodpigeons followed us about the park. The good news is that Robins are singing again after their summer moult when they retreat into the undergrowth and sulk. We estimated that we'd seen or heard 7 in total on our rounds.

We saw only one Blackbird which is unusual and heard the occasional Goldfinch. Three House Sparrows, two Ring-necked Parakeets and a Feral Pigeon made up the total. The week before, Sue had seen even fewer birds but had at least the excitement of watching a Sparrowhawk being chased by a Crow! Before going for a coffee at the cafe, we took a look at a recently vacated Robin's nest just inside the bothy gates which Lee the park keeper had pointed out to us - a cup nest created in thick ivy against a wall. I wonder how many chicks were born here and how many survived?

Elsewhere in Lewisham, a few Swallows have been seen which means they're probably starting to think about heading south. And in other news, blackberries are ripening again after having had just the right amount of sunshine and rainfall in the last few weeks. I haven't sampled the Hilly Fields crop, but tried some at the RSPB Rainham reserve in Essex and they were delicious. On the park grassland, buttercups have given way to swathes of little dandelion-like flowers. These have been identified for me by Nick Bertrand (ace Creekside Centre botanist) as Autumn Hawkbit. Taken together, all these signs can mean only one thing. The last days of summer are upon us.

Postscript 3rd September: heard a Chiffchaff singing again on Eastern Road this morning. I mentioned last month that a pair of Chiffchaffs had produced at least one youngster on Hilly Fields this summer. It's possible that they could overwinter here, but more likely that they'll be off back to the Med in 2-3 weeks time. And who can blame them?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

It Ain't Half Quiet

Time drifts on and we approach another transitional point in the bird year. The sounds of silence, or at least quietness, are upon us. There are still cheeps and chirps and calls to be heard out there, but song is on the way out. The 'dawn chorus' this morning consisted of a single Wren and some Herring Gulls mewing in the distance. The Blackbird which has been heard from 3.45 am during June and early July is resting its vocal cord and will not be singing again until next year. Likewise, Thrushes and Dunnocks. The Robin is also silent while it undergoes its moulting period, but it will sing again during the autumn. The breeding season is almost over.

Wren in my garden 
It wasn't quite so quiet when Sue, Terry and I did our monthly survey of Hilly Fields on a hot and windless 22nd July, but it was getting there. We heard a Blackcap sing for a short spell in the wood by Eastern Rd and a Chaffinch holding forth again from a tree near the school (see last month's post). But the only bird really belting it out was the Wren - several of them, in fact, repeatedly. Could this have been an avian lonely hearts club band? At a mere 10 cm in length (max), the Wren is almost Britain's smallest bird (beaten to that title by the Goldcrest and Firecrest) and is certainly our most common bird (click for link) with an estimated population of over 17 million. For such a small bird (weighing as little as a £1 coin), the Wren with its famous cocked tail is quite stocky and emits a loud and powerful five second song. Here's a You Tube clip...

The other striking feature of Hilly Fields bird life at the moment is the number of juvenile birds which is of course to be expected. The most significant was a young Chiffchaff which Terry spotted in the Eastern Rd hawthorns. We also saw one of the adults. This is good news for it means that the birds have bred in the park which is a "first" as far as we are aware in the six year duration of the bird champion scheme. In the past, Chiffchaffs have been heard only at the beginning or end of their migratory period. This year, two of them stayed around to mate and raise at least one little one. There were plenty of juvenile Tits as well, their colouring not yet as rich as their parents, and I spent some time tracking a young Robin which had not yet acquired its red breast, but it was hard to get decent photos of any of these small birds through all the foliage. The best image I could manage is the juvenile Wood Pigeon below which hasn't yet gained the white collar or the plumpness of its elders. It reminds me of that old chestnut of a question: why do you never see baby pigeons? The answer is because you don't look in their nests! Baby pigeons are fed such a rich diet by their parents and grow so fast as nestlings that by the time they fledge, they're as big as their mum and dad, or almost.

Juvenile 'Woodie'
We saw 17 species in total during our two hour walkabout. We also saw butterflies galore - in fact, thanks to the prolonged sunshine, urban green spaces are alive with them at present which makes it a great time to do the Big Butterfly Count (click for link). On Hilly Fields, the wildflower meadow is full of Meadow Browns while you might also see the Burnet 6 Spot, an attractive day flying moth, and you will certainly see a lot of very busy bees. In the wood and Eastern Rd area, the lovely Speckled Wood butterfly can be found.

Meadow Brown on Tansy in the wildflower meadow

Speckled Wood in the wood

STOP PRESS - Sue did another Hilly Fields walkabout on 30 July - 17 species seen including four Mistle Thrushes. Normally, we see two so it's safe to assume that they have successfully bred. She also heard a Nuthatch - an occasional visitor - and saw House Martins flying overhead with Swifts. A good result.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bedraggled Birds of June

It was an overcast but warm day on 26 June when Sue and I carried out our monthly survey. The tree foliage is now quite dense which makes it harder to spot the small birds but what we couldn't see, we heard - at least 8 Blackbirds and 8 Great Tits, at least 5 Blue Tits and 5 Wrens and at least 4 Robins. Sue also heard a quick burst of Chiffchaff song and, earlier in the month (18 June), actually watched it singing for some time in the Eastern Rd area, so it does seem as if the bird has stuck around this year. It was noticeable how bedraggled and frazzled some of the birds looked which is hardly surprising given the demands of the breeding season - the constant daily search for food, the need to defend the nest and distract predators (and bird watchers). An exception was the Great Tit below which left its tree trunk nest at a speed greater than my camera could cope with (I won't try the old 'artistic blurring' excuse)...

We saw three Long-tailed Tits, heard both a Blackcap and a Dunnock singing in the Eastern Rd/wood area, saw a single Swift overheard and also saw or heard Goldfinches, Magpies, Crows, Feral and Wood Pigeons, Ring-necked Parakeets, Starlings, House Sparrows and a single but very vocal Chaffinch - 19 species in all. We haven't paid that much attention to the Chaffinch on this blog partly because, although it's a 'regular', it's not very numerous on Hilly Fields. It's an attractive bird and, nationally, one of our commonest - the RSPB estimates nearly 6 million breeding pairs in the UK. One can usually be found singing around the front of the school building in the trees next to the playground and tennis courts (anyone who came on this year's Dawn Chorus walk will remember the fine view we had of a female Chaffinch singing outside the school) and, like the Chiffchaff, has a song that's very easy to remember - a series of fast descending notes ending in a short trill. This clip gives a fine view of the male Chaffinch (the female is drabber and greener) and a recording of its song:

Meanwhile, in other nature news, the May blossom on the hawthorns has gone along with the white cow parsley and creamy horse chestnut flowers. It's now the turn of the Elder trees and bushes to put on their white floral display along with briar roses in the borders and Pyracantha. All three could be found last week behind the school with the magnificent Pyracantha attracting bees by the busload. Go and see it while it's there!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bird List: 2007-2013

It is almost six years now since the Hilly Fields Bird Champion Project was launched by Lewisham Council. To provide some feedback, I submitted a report to the Lewisham Biodiversity Partnership in April which included a list of all bird species seen in the park since the project began. The report was discussed at the May meeting of the Partnership and was welcomed. A further initiative may derive from it which I will report on at a later date.

I will not rehash details of the report here as it can be read on the Lewisham Nature Conservation blog. However, I have reproduced the bird list below with the addition of a Lesser Black-backed Gull seen since the report was submitted. The birds are classified under Everyday which means you should see or hear them every time you visit the park; Regular which means they should be seen or heard often (in their season), perhaps at least once a week; Occasional which I think is self-explanatory; Rare which means rare to the area and to Inner London as a whole. Indeed, if a Cuckoo or Short-eared Owl were to stay on Hilly Fields for a while, it would almost certainly attract a few twitchers!

Although I suggest in the report that bird population levels in the park have been stable since 2007, Keith has pointed out that local House Sparrow numbers have declined during this period. As the original bird champion, he recorded as many as 50 during 2007-8, whilst 10 is the highest number seen nowadays. The sparrows are usually in and around the Cliffview hedge (see the site map) and the answer may lie in the fact that roof repair work carried out in some adjoining Cliffview Road houses not long ago may have disturbed their nests. It is likely therefore that some of the sparrows have simply relocated elsewhere in the neighbourhood which is not short of this once ubiquitous bird. I've noticed a thriving population recently, for example, along the Ravensbourne at Cornmill Gardens.

A word about the Chiffchaff which is number 26 on the list. This is a warbler which usually arrives on our shores in late March and April. It is not by any means rare or even 'occasional' at other local sites. It can be heard regularly at Ladywell Fields and Brookmill Park, for example. At Hilly Fields, however, I've heard it only three times this spring and have suggested that it simply rests here before moving on elsewhere. On 2 June, however, I heard it singing from the top of an Eastern Rd tree for about 15-20 minutes as if it were seeking out a partner.

Could it be breeding in the park? The photo above was taken at full zoom against the sky and is not very clear, but this earlier post includes a clip of the Chiffchaff's short simple song which begins nine seconds into the video. It is perhaps the easiest of the warblers to identify. Please let us know if you hear it.

So here is the bird list - 41 different species identified since 2007. Onwards to the half century!

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; disappeared during 2012 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

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Tit Without A Tail

I had seen it twice in the third week of May. Up in the hawthorns on Eastern Road - a very small bird looking from below like a ball of pale fluff, always in the company of a Long-tailed Tit and moving rapidly between branches and trees. It kept making a high "tseeping" sound and I had thought: Goldcrest? Very recent fledgling of some sort? At times, it hovered between branches fluttering its wings as if to keep airborne, but usually it had no problem flying fast or in a reasonably straight line.Then, on 22 May while doing the monthly bird survey with Sue, we both saw it and  reached the conclusion that what we were looking at - from the visible head markings and general behaviour - could only be a Long-tailed Tit without a tail.

Back home, a quick surf through Google proved that tail-less tits, though not common, are seen from time to time. The lack of a tail is usually the result of an accident or a predator attack. It doesn't seem to affect their ability to forage and frolic (like a "manic pom-pom" is how one tail-less tit is described) and the tail normally grows back after about four weeks. I haven't been able to photograph the Eastern Rd pom-pom, but here's a pic from the web::

From Asigaru's Nature Diary
Long-tailed Tits are nesting in the densest bramble scrub you could find on Eastern Rd where their chicks should be safe until fledged. This is good news as they are one of five key species among Hilly Fields regulars which re-assure me that the park is still providing a good diverse habitat. The other four are: Blackcap, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay and Mistle Thrush. Yes, I know you could add the "at risk" House Sparrow, the Dunnock, the Greenfinch (not seen often and in decline nationally), but I'll stick with my "big five" for now.

Sue and I saw four of those five key species during our May survey, the only absentee being the Mistle Thrush. There were plenty of birds singing, but the foliage is back on the trees and seeing the smaller birds is getting harder again. Our list for that day (of birds seen or heard) is as follows: Blackbird (6), Blackcap (1), Blue Tit (4), Crow (3), Chaffinch (1), Chiffchaff (1), Collared Dove (2 - an unusual sighting on Hilly Fields), Dunnock (1 - singing in the Vicars Hill border), Feral Pigeon, Goldfinch (3+), Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Great Tit (4), House Sparrow (2), Jay (1), Long-tailed Tit (3), Magpie (2), Ring-necked Parakeet (1), Robin (5), Starling (6), Swift (2 - soaring overhead), Woodpigeon (3) and Wren (5+).  22 species - one of our best results. The Chiffchaff is only the second we've heard on Hilly Fields since their arrival in the UK in late March/April.  And it occurred to me that the Jay would be able to hide itself better in thick woodland or scrub without that bright blue wing patch which gave it away this time. Here's a photo of one I took a few days earlier on the open edge of Hilly Fields wood:

Around the park in general, spring has sprung with a vengeance after the extended midwinter cold. All of the trees are in leaf, the horse chestnuts have their creamy-white flowers, the May blossom has appeared on the hawthorns, there are daisies and bulbous buttercups and even the occasional bee or butterfly. And one particular plant - as you can't fail to have noticed if you've been there recently - is romping away:

Yes, you can hardly see the trees for the cow parsley.

Monday, 6 May 2013

April Bird Survey: Springtime Song

Sue and I did our monthly bird survey on 30th April - a warm sunny morning with just a slight chill here and there to remind us of the cold winter not long left behind. Most of the trees were in leaf, the cow parsley was beginning to flower and the birds were in full springtime song. Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits and Chaffinches could be heard abundantly around the park and we also saw and heard at least three male Blackcaps. There were brief glimpses of the Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Goldcrest and we spent some time trying to get a clear view of a silent warbler that was flitting about high in the branches of a leafy tree. In the end, we concluded that it was probably a Chiffchaff. The only regulars that were missing were Goldfinches and Mistle Thrushes though they have both been seen and heard since.

Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs are the only warblers we seem to get on Hilly Fields and only the Blackcap stays around for the summer. Those we saw would be spring migrants, recent arrivals and will already be in the throes of nest building and breeding. The wintering Blackcaps will by now have returned to central Europe. Blackcaps are just a tiny bit smaller than House Sparrows and it is only the male that has a black cap; the female's being a sweet chestnut brown. Often, though, the easiest way to spot them in the bush is by the white downy breast. You will hear them singing at this time of year though not as often as the songbirds I've mentioned above. Their song is very attractive, starting in a scratchy stuttering manner and becoming more "fluting" towards the end. Here's an example:

Our final tally was 19 species: 8 Blackbirds, 3+ Blackcaps, 3+ Blue Tits, Chaffinch, 5 Feral Pigeons, Great Spotted Woodpecker, only 1 House Sparrow (unusual), 2 Long-tailed Tits, Ring-necked Parakeet, 4 Starlings, 3+ Wrens, 2+ Carrion Crows, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, 4+ Great Tits, Jay, Magpie, 6+ Robins, 3+ Woodpigeons. This is one of the few months in which the Feral (or 'London') Pigeon has outnumbered the plumper Wood Pigeon (the one with the white collar). The House Sparrows must have been out and about. We have now recorded 41 different bird species at Hilly Fields since the Bird Champion Project began in 2007 and I will publish the full list in our next post or you can read our report on the Lewisham Nature Conservation website here. The most recent new sighting was a Lesser Black-backed Gull seen here in splendid isolation near the cricket pitch on 20th April:

Friday, 12 April 2013

Turning Point

I don't want to sound wildly optimistic but I think we may have reached a turning point. With temperatures soaring into double figures (19°C promised on Sunday), things are changing on Hilly Fields and no doubt elsewhere. On Wednesday morning, at least a dozen Redwings (with a few Fieldfares mixed in) were twittering excitedly in the West Field trees alongside Montague Avenue. It sounded as if they knew that the time was approaching for their delayed (by bad weather) flight back to Scandinavia. Sure enough, when I led a group of dawn chorus walkers over there the following morning at 06.30 hrs, the trees were silent.
Redwing in one of the West Field trees - red under the wing and a white stripe over the eye
The Black-headed Gulls departed sometime over the weekend. Today, Friday, I noticed one or two Common Gulls overhead but there was no sign of the usual flock on the grass, so they too have presumably gone forth to multiply. I also saw this morning, however, the two resident Mistle Thrushes singing for the first time this year and heard a Chiffchaff singing in one of the Eastern Road hawthorns. The Chiffchaff is a spring migrant which flies to the UK each year from the Med and West Africa - an olive brown warbler about the size of a Blue Tit. They have been arriving more slowly than usual, presumably because of the weather and there have been reports of them flopping in exhaustion on reaching the south coast beaches. But one at least has made it this far and they've also been heard in other nearby locations. The Chiffchaff is not always easy to spot, but its song is very distinctive and easily remembered.

Elsewhere, nest building is going on apace. A Crow's nest can be seen high in one of the London Plane trees on the northern border of the bowling green and the resident Magpies are nesting at the top of one of the Eastern Road hawthorns. A little further down Eastern Road just past the green gates, Long-tailed Tits have built a nest in a bramble bush, but it seems to have been abandoned. We can't be sure why, but it is a bad location - too close to the pavement and too vulnerable - and their nests also suffer from a high level of predation by other species.

Changes are visible in the plant world too where there really are "green shoots of recovery" to be seen. Cow Parsley is spreading across the ground, particularly around the lower Vicars Hill entrance, ready to accompany the May blossom next month. And the wild Sweet Violets which Nick Bertrand pointed out to us on the Rivers and People walk last month are now coming into flower. Look for a bright green patch just off the path which runs alongside the Cliffview Rd border. On the whole, there is much to look forward to in the coming weeks.

The dawn chorus walk on Thursday was well attended. 15 people turned up at 6 am after a night's rain which was still lightly persisting. Naturally, we heard Great Tits calling everywhere, Wrens with their mighty trilling song, a Blackbird singing beautifully on Eastern Road and saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker high in a tree on the Adelaide Avenue border. Nothing spectacular but sometimes the simplest things can mesmerise. People were much taken by the sight of a female Chaffinch singing on a low branch only a few feet in front of us outside the school. After Hilly Fields, we went on to the Brockley and Ladywell cemeteries where we heard Robins (strangely quiet on Hilly Fields), a Dunnock and, in the distance, the laughing call of a Green Woodpecker - though not everybody heard that, including me! However, everybody did hear a Song Thrush repeating its varied phrases (as many as a hundred in its repertoire) from the top of a tree.

Here's what a Green Woodpecker looks like and what it's laughing call or "yaffle" sounds like:

 The cemeteries are of Victorian origin and, as well as containing much local history, they are in effect a nature reserve in the heart  of Lewisham. In fact, the council has listed them as a Grade 1 Site of Borough Importance for biodiversity and nature conservation purposes. The Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries have their own website - - and hold guided walks. The next one is on Sunday 21st April starting from the Brockley Road gate at 2pm and lasting about 1 hour 45 mins. Thanks to Lewisham Council for allowing us access to the cemeteries outside normal hours, special thanks to Mike Guilfoyle from the Friends who came along at 7 am to unlock the gate for us and thanks to Rachel for publicising the event via Facebook and

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Dawn Chorus Walk - Hilly Fields/Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries

This years dawn chorus walk will take place on Thursday April 11 starting at 6am. This is an hour later than usual (by public demand), but should still be close to dawn as the clocks went forward last weekend. We will meet outside the cafe on Hilly Fields, walk around the park and then go on to Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries which together are listed as a Grade 1 Site of Borough Importance for nature conservation purposes.

Birds we can expect to hear on Hilly Fields include Blackbird, Robin, Wren and probably one of the Dunnocks which have been vocalising frequently in the last few weeks. In addition, we should hear Magpies chattering, Crows crowing, Blue Tits/Long-tailed Tits tseeping and, almost certainly, that 'Johnny Two Note' - the Great Tit. If we're lucky, we may hear a Mistle Thrush singing (seen but not heard so far this year) or a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming its bill against a tree trunk.

Mistle Thrush in one of the Eastern Road hawthorns, 24 March
In the Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, we may hear a Song Thrush (as we did last year) and see/hear a Green Woodpecker and Britain's smallest bird, the Goldcrest. We may also catch a glimpse of one of the Sparrowhawks which have nested there in recent years. If a 6.00 am start is too horrific to contemplate, we will be entering the cemeteries at 7.00 am via the side gates on Brockley Grove which are opposite house no. 212 and between Amyruth and Henryson Roads. You are welcome to join us there. Please bring binoculars if you can. The walk will finish by 8.00 am but you can drop out at any stage.

Just time for a brief mention of the March bird survey which Terry and I carried out on the 28th of last month. The birds were a little quieter than usual but by the end of our walkabout, we had seen or heard 18 species. It was good to see a small flock of Redwing in the south field, to hear a pair of Dunnocks serenading each other and to see Chaffinches, Long-tailed Tits and Mistle Thrushes. The north field held a flock of about 60 gulls with Common Gulls again living up to their name and outnumbering the Black-headed Gulls by 2:1. However, the Black-headed Gulls are also living up to their name and have developed their 'black' heads (actually a dark chocolate colour) which makes it dead easy to tell the two different types apart. This is their breeding plumage and they will soon be off elsewhere to look for nest sites and partners.

Black-headed Gulls, Hilly Fields, 18 March
In addition to the above, we also saw and/or heard Wrens, Magpies, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Wood Pigeons, Robins (all over the place), Crows, House Sparrows, Greenfinches, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and, last but least, a lone Parakeet.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Good News, Bad News, Sad News

The good news is that the Lewisham Rivers and People Project is coming to Hilly Fields. "The Hill Is Alive! Birds, Beasts and Wildflowers in an Urban Park" is the title of a walk taking place on Thursday 28 March starting at 10.30. Meet on the corner of Adelaide Avenue and Eastern Road. The walk will be led by Nick Bertrand, the legendary Deptford botanist, which means that expert and entertaining commentary about flowers and trees in the park is guaranteed. There will also be input on bird life from the Bird Champions group. We might see a Blackcap like the one in this photo by Keith Ward taken in his back garden which adjoins Hilly Fields:

Or the Great Spotted Woodpecker (below) 'spotted' by Mike Keogh near the lower Vicars Hill entrance on 5 March:

Not sure what "beasts" we'll encounter other than dogs and squirrels, but you never know. Perhaps some bees and butterflies will have appeared by then. I saw my first bumble bee of 2013 last week in Kelsey Park, Bromley.

The bad news is that these are the last months of the Rivers and People Project. After holding regular nature events in Lewisham since April 2010, funding is running out and the project comes to an end in July. Before then, however,there is a packed programme of walks, wades, river dippings - even an introduction to "Pressing and Mounting Wildflowers". The next event is this Saturday (23 March) at Oxleas Wood, starting at 2pm - "a walk around this magnificent ancient woodland". See the Lewisham Nature Conservation website for more details - - or take a look at the programme pinned up outside the cafe.

The sad news is that our ex-parkie, Keith Seabrook, passed away on 28 February after a long illness. Many park users will remember Keith who can be seen in the background of this photo from our RSPB Big Birdwatch event in January 2012.

Always friendly and helpful, Keith kept the park in good order and was very supportive of both the Friends of Hilly Fields and the Bird Champion project. He would often fill up the bird feeder for us if we couldn't get to it and then complain when the parakeets descended on it! The funeral is on Monday March 25 at 9.30 am at Hither Green Crematorium. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

February Bird Survey

26 February: such a cold overcast day that I approached Hilly Fields with low expectations, only to hear a Dunnock singing in the Vicars Hill border as soon as I got there. Joined by Sue and Tony, we started off on our usual path alongside the Veda Road back gardens with Great Tits calling almost non-stop from the trees and bushes. Around the corner, a pair of Jays were screeching to each other from opposite ends of the little wood. Shortly afterwards, I managed inadvertently to flush one out of its hiding place and saw it land on the other side of Eastern Road before flying back over the wood to find its mate. The trees along the road also revealed a pair of Greenfinches, a brief sighting of a Mistle Thrush, a Magpie evidently building a nest there and a flurry of Goldfinches twittering around the high branches before shooting off elsewhere. So much activity! It seemed as if the birds were saying: "we have business to conduct whatever the weather". Greenfinches, by the way, are known for the so-called "wheezing" call they make when trying to attract a mate, although it always sounds like a sneer to me. Have a listen to this RSPB recording...

Greenfinches: credit DJS Photography
A few minutes later, we saw two Mistle Thrushes driven out of a tree beyond the playground by a group of noisy Crows. On the north field, another tree held about 30 Starlings going through their repertoire of sound effects while a flock of 30+ gulls was spread around the cricket pitch and along the slope. The great majority were Common Gulls (Sue counted 30) which has been the trend since the start of the year, a reversal of the usual Black-headed Gull dominance and unusual for an Inner London park. After that, it was so cold and drizzly on the high ground that we headed quickly for the Cliffview Road border where there were rather more House Sparrows than usual - up to 10, I would say (as reported by "Hilly" in the comments on the previous post) - and then back uphill to the sanctuary of the cafe. A good morning, though, despite the elements with 18 species seen or heard including 12 Wood Pigeons and small numbers of Robins, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Parakeets and a Chaffinch in addition to those birds already mentioned.

Common Gull on Hilly Fields
The other news is that a few days before our survey, Sue saw a pair of Collared Doves on Hilly Fields which is another "first" for the site, at least during the time that we've been recording. These birds have a softer look about them than the Feral Pigeon which they resemble from a distance, as well as a black ring around the neck. Although numbers in London have increased considerably since 1995, they still seem fairly uncommon in the Inner Boroughs. You'll know if you've heard one though. In fact, you'll wish you hadn't. Their insistent three note cooing makes the Wood Pigeon sound almost lyrical.

Collared Dove: credit Hawk Conservancy Trust

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Predators in the Park

Some interesting news has turned up via the Comments column in my previous post. Gavin reports seeing a Short-eared Owl over Hilly Fields on 13 October last year. It was being mobbed by crows at the time and after a few minutes drifted away eastward without landing. Earlier that day, the same bird had been seen over the London Wetland Centre near Barnes where it was being mobbed by gulls. Just one of the perils of being a day-flying owl. We can be reasonably sure it was the same bird in both places as Short-eared Owls are quite scarce in London. Meanwhile, the Tawny Owl that we've mentioned in earlier posts has not been heard since mid-December, but as one correspondent pointed out, local residents tend to have their double-glazed windows firmly shut at this time of year. All owls are predators and prey on other birds as well as small mammals, which accounts for the preemptive mobbing. In this pic, a Short-eared Owl is about to make short work of a vole.

Photo: Mark Hancox
'Hilly' reports seeing a probable Sparrowhawk yesterday in the cherry tree by the Bothy. Sparrowhawks have nested in Brockley Cemetery for at least the last two years and sightings are reported from time to time.  See the blog post for 7 September 2008 by Keith for a record of his close encounter with a Sparrowhawk. Interestingly, when Keith started this blog back in 2007, he reported seeing quite large numbers of House Sparrows on the Cliffview side of the park, as many as 50 on one occasion. Nowadays, the most we see is 8. I wonder where they can all have gone? Unfortunately, "gardens have become one of their favourite killing fields" says Mark Cocker of the Sparrowhawk in his excellent book Birds Britannica. He notes also that they eat a wide range of birds "from the smaller members of the tit family to black grouse". Perhaps we could interest them in parakeets...

The other predator seen over Hilly Fields is the Kestrel. Sue recalls watching them nest and breed in the school building back in the 1980s (before it became Prendergast), but they are not quite so common around the park now. Only one sighting in 2012 as far as I know. The Kestrel is famous for hovering in one spot, almost standing still in mid-air while it searches the ground for prey. It does take small birds and chicks, but mice and voles are preferred. Keith (again) stumbled across one back in 2008 tearing apart what was probably a mouse at the edge of the meadow and got this photo of it standing over its prey.

So there we are - it's a bird-eat-bird world out there, sometimes. But at least their food chain gives birds of prey one big advantage over us. They always know what they're eating.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2013

After much rain beforehand, the sun came out just in time for our Big Birdwatch on Sunday 27 January. The event was well attended with some people taking a bird ID sheet and going round the park by themselves while others joined our guided walk. The birds were a little quieter than usual but between us we
clocked up a respectable tally of 21 species as indicated below. Particularly good views were had of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers and the Long-tailed Tits in the garden next to the Bothy, while the Common and Black-headed Gulls provided the highest numbers.

Meanwhile, back at the cafe, the Friends of Hilly Fields set up stall and provided activities for the little ones including the making of many suet balls and popcorn strings. If they eat everything that was hung from nearby trees, the birds will be too fat to fly for the next few days. Jason from Tlon Books came along too and sold copies of the appropriately themed children's book Brenda's Bottom and Her Birds by local author Clare Stanhope.

Thanks to Terry for helping to lead the guided walk, to Rachel and Andrew from the Friends and Judith from Glendale for running the stall and the childrens activities, to Phil for the work of art that was the blackboard (until we spotted more birds than he had room for), to Lee - the ever-helpful parkie from Glendale - and to Fred for letting us take over half the cafe terrace. Next event: the legendary Dawn Chorus Walk sometime this spring!

Incidentally, if you did the Birdwatch with young children this weekend, whether at Hilly Fields or at home, you can download a certificate for them from the RSPB website:  It opens in Adobe Reader which allows you to insert a name and make it look more official. You should also be able to get your printer (look under Properties) to add a touch of colour.

Finally, Colm dropped by to report that he'd seen 14 Fieldfares in the West Field the previous day - a day too early for our Birdwatch but we will add the sighting to Birdtrack, the national recording scheme that we use regularly. Fieldfares are thrushes and winter visitors from Scandinavia, usually found in flocks. They stand erect, grey heads, yellow bills, speckled breasts with a yellow-orange tint and brown backs and wings. Fieldfares are often seen at SE London locations including Ladywell Fields, but this is a first for us since we've been recording. They are a nomadic species flying to wherever they can find food, so now that they've found Hilly Fields, let's hope they return in future!

Fieldfare  [photo John Richardson, Old Man of Minsmere blog]

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Big Birdwatch Reminder: 27 January

Just a reminder that as part of the RSPB's nationwide bird survey this weekend, we will be holding our own Big Garden Birdwatch on Hilly Fields in conjunction with the Friends of Hilly Fields and Glendale.

Details are as per the poster above. There will fun activities for the little kiddies and a guided bird walk around the park. Or grab one of our bird ID sheets and do your own survey, but report back to the blackboard monitor (see below)! Please bring binoculars if you can. See you there: Sunday 27 January 10.30 - 12.30.