Saturday, 13 February 2021

RSPB Big Birdwatch 2021

 We've been holding Big Bird Watch events on Hilly Fields on the last Sunday in January since 2009. Alas, Covid-19 put a stop to that this year, but we managed to do a survey on Friday 29 January in two groups of two. Alas again, it rained from start to finish, probably the worst weather that we've ever surveyed in. Water was streaming off the hill. In the circumstances, a count of 19 species was not too shabby, particularly as it included 150 Black-headed Gulls in the north field which is probably a site record, 60 Redwings, 26 Starlings, 25 House Sparrows, 12 Robins and 10 Magpies. Sue also heard a Nuthatch calling and it's good to know that they're still around.  Also recorded were 3 Blackbirds, 3 Blue Tits, 3 Crows, 1 Collared Dove, 7 Common Gulls, 1 Dunnock, 5 Goldfinch, 5 Great Tits, 2 Herring Gulls, 4 Ring-necked Parakeets, 3 Woodpigeons and 1 Wren. We sent our results off to the RSPB for their annual survey.

Black-headed Gull - winter plumage

The reason why we had so many gulls is simple. Rain brings worms to the surface. They listen to the rhythm of the falling rain and slink upward from their burrows. We saw them everywhere on the surface, on paths as well, and the gulls had a feast. Some of the other birds were joining in including the Redwings and Starlings.

Black-headed Gulls breeding plumage in spring

Just a reminder about our new booklet 'Birds of Hilly Fields'. It's been selling well, despite lockdown, and the feedback has been good, but we still have plenty of copies in stock. At present, it's available online (see link below) and can be purchased either by itself at £3.50 or with a tote cotton bag and postcards for £10. We deliver to your door within a radius of 2 miles and all profits go to the Friends of Hilly Fields. It can also be bought from the Hilly Fields cafe when open.


Friday, 15 January 2021

'Birds of Hilly Fields'

'Birds of Hilly Fields' is a new 32 page booklet produced by the Friends of Hilly Fields. Based on the surveys we've conducted since 2007, it includes our bird list and 'pen portraits' of all 51 species recorded during that time, as well as selected photographs, habitat description and advice on how to  learn more about birds and how you can help them. Copies are only £3.50 and all profits go to the Friends of Hilly Fields. For the time being, please buy it from here...although you can also buy copies directly from the Friends if you're friendly with us. 

We managed to keep the bird surveys going during 2020 despite the pandemic. The list of species recorded shows winter and spring as the peak months for activity (finding food, nest-building, mating, feeding chicks, arrival of spring migrants), the low point between July- Sept ('the quiet quarter') and then the gradual increase in numbers as gulls and starlings return for the winter and the cycle begins again.

 Jan    Feb    March    Apr    May    June    July    Aug    Sept    Oct    Nov    Dec

24        24        16        21        16        17        13        11        12        17        22        22        

 March was a low count as we had only one observer and he didn't stick around for long (I can tell you)  as other people threatened his 2 metre space. 'Social distancing' was still a new concept. 

Nuthatches about know.

The highlight of the year was a pair of nuthatches who bred successfully for the first time in the park as far as we know, using a nest box near the tennis courts. Blackcaps and chiffchaffs returned in the spring and this time chiffchaffs stayed for the summer. It was nice to see greenfinches again in October, a pair of pied wagtails in November and a coal tit in December. Our friend Conrad saw a peregrine high overhead in December as well, though we don't count flyovers. Anyway, here's to 2021, more birds in Hilly Fields and hopefully a happier year.

Friday, 24 April 2020

The Upside Down Bird

In the past, the Nuthatch has been an infrequent visitor to Hilly Fields, but since last September we've seen or heard them on our surveys every month. Now as recounted in the previous post we've discovered that a pair are nesting in the park, which means that new little Nuthatches should soon be on the way. 

Credit: David Chapman
The Nuthatch is about the same size as a House Sparrow. It has a long pointed bill, blue-grey upperparts and buff underparts with chestnut flanks. It also has a long black stripe running through its eye to the back of its head. This and the pointed bill make it easy to identify. According to the RSPB, it is the only British bird which 'descends a tree trunk head first'. Why do Nuthatches go up and down tree trunks? To dig insects out of the bark, which is what the pointed bill is for. They also eat seeds which they store sometimes in cracks in the bark. And believe it or not, Nuthatches eat nuts which they wedge within cracks in the bark and crack open - again with that powerful bill. 

Nuthatch on Hilly Fields just behind the tennis courts
The female on the right is displaying to the male. Mating took place shortly after.
Usually, Nuthatches nest in tree holes and have a well-known habit of plastering the rim of the hole  with mud to reduce its diameter, thus preventing larger birds (eg. Magpies) from stealing the chicks or nestlings. On Hilly Fields, however, they're using one of the newly-installed Schwegler nest boxes which have small predator-proof holes.

The most common call of the nuthatch is easy to remember: a single note rapidly repeated, rather like someone whistling melodiously for their dog. It can be heard from 19 seconds onward in the video below.

Finally, Nuthatches do visit garden bird feeders and can be quite assertive towards other birds while doing so. This picture shows one in Keith Ward's garden which backs onto Hilly Fields. It seems even on feeders they prefer the upside down approach!

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Dawn Chorus Walk 2020

Rupert King has provided this report on the two person Dawn Chorus Walk on 2 April!
Sadly, as with so many community events, the 2020 Dawn Chorus Walk around Hilly Fields Park had to be cancelled. So instead I met Rachel at 6.00am in the Shade Garden (next to the Bowling Club) to do our own Dawn Chorus Walk – while maintaining social distancing of course! It was a chilly start, overcast but still. The first songbirds we encountered were a blackbird, a robin, a wren and a dunnock, while a great tit called loudly above us. As we moved south along the perimeter path we came upon the large flock of resident sparrows busily chattering away in the dense bushes that line the rear gardens. Such a joyful sound!

The walk began to liven up as we reached the southeast boundary of the park with its rich mix of trees and shrubs: a song thrush singing loudly, some wood pigeons cooing softly and a greater spotted woodpecker hammering out his message across the park. We saw a small flock of redwings – winter visitors that will soon be flying north back to Scandinavia.

By the time we reached the Nature Area (south of the Stone Circle) the sun was rising – there was a brief blaze of colour on the eastern horizon before the sun disappeared behind a bank of cloud. As we hoped the Nature Area provided a proper chorus of birdsong this time including two rival blackcaps, a chiffchaff (our first summer visitors) and some twittering goldfinches. We were very pleased to see that a pair of great tits is now building a nest in a new Schwegler nest box – just 2 weeks after it was put up!

Male Blackcap
As we listened intently to the birds we couldn’t help but notice how quiet the background noise was for a change. Just two planes passed overheard during our walk and traffic along the busy Adelaide Avenue has been reduced to a trickle.

Male Chaffinch
We carried on up Eastern Road with its rich mix of hawthorn and bramble scrub – perfect habitat for birds! Plenty of birdlife here and we discovered a wood pigeon sitting on a nest concealed in ivy. As we reached the top of the road we came upon two male chaffinches behaving very differently: one singing from a tree, the other attacking its own reflection in the wing mirror of a parked car! I have seen this obsessive behaviour before with dunnocks and pied wagtails. Indeed the bird was so obsessed we were able to approach to within a few feet to record it. When we saw a female chaffinch nearby we wondered aloud which male she might prefer?!

The highlight of our walk was undoubtedly the sight of two noisy nuthatches who have taken over another Schwegler nest box near the tennis courts. This is a remarkable development. Personally I only started seeing nuthatches for the first time in the park and nearby cemetery last autumn. Now they are nesting in the park!

Nuthatch at nestbox
During our walk we also saw several carrion crows (two pairs are nesting in the park), magpies, ring necked parakeets, starlings and blue tits. On our return to the Shade Garden we saw a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers and a solitary stock dove high up in the canopy – a bit of a rarity in the park. So in all we saw 21 bird species and heard a lot of birdsong. A successful walk and a delightful way to start the day!

Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Birds Are Still Singing

Everywhere is closed except for supermarkets. Everything has been cancelled or 'postponed' while we hide from Covid-19. Brockley Max has been postponed until August ('fingers crossed'). The BrocSoc Midsummer Fayre has been postponed until autumn ('hopefully'). And now to top it all the Friends of Hilly Fields Dawn Chorus Walk has been cancelled. Not postponed. Not resting. Cancelled. It is an ex-walk. There is no dawn chorus to be heard in August or autumn - it's a thing of the spring. But if we're very, very lucky, we might be able to hold one next year.

The Lane
The good news is that the birds are still singing. The residents such as Blackbird, Robin, Song Thrush and Wren can be heard every day on Hilly Fields and have been joined by the usual spring migrant warblers - Blackcap and Chiffchaff. And even more good news, we seem to have a resident pair of Nuthatches who've been seen and heard regularly over the last few weeks. Hopefully, they will nest in the park. So why not go up there on your daily exercise walk and have a listen? It doesn't have to be at dawn, but morning is the best time. A good place to hear the warblers is the lane that runs into the park from Eastern Road with all the trees on either side and the little wood beside it.

If you fancy learning a few bird songs to while away the time, there are loads of recordings on You Tube and the RSPB's website has audio recordings of all British birds along with identification features. A good one to start with is the Chiffchaff which has a simple repetitive song of staccato notes as per above. It's unforgettable. Listen to it on the web, then listen to it on Hilly Fields, but hurry. In the last two years, it hasn't hung around for very long. After that, you can try the more varied and melodious songs of the Blackcap and Song Thrush. Good luck and don't forget the social distancing! I'm going back into my bunker now.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Big Birdwatch 2020: The Results

This year's big birdwatch took place on the morning of 26th January. The sky was overcast most of the time, but the weather was mild and about a dozen people came with us on the guided walk. We spent a hour walking through most areas of the park and saw 24 species which is not a record, but a  respectable tally. The highlights were a pair of nuthatches and 15 Redwing all seen in the east field.

The nuthatch has blue-grey upperparts, buff underparts, a black stripe across the side of its head and a long pointed bill which it uses to dig insects out of tree trunks. It is very agile and the only British bird that can descend a tree trunk head first. There are better photos on the web, but the one above (taken in Sydenham Hill Wood a few years ago) shows it in action. It has a distinctive call which can be listened to on the RSPB website. The fact that we saw two together is a hopeful sign that they will nest and breed in the park this coming spring.

Redwings on Hilly Fields: 2018
The Big Birdwatch is the first time we've seen Redwing in the park this winter. Redwings are thrushes which migrate here in the autumn from Scandinavia and depart in the early spring. Berries and fruits are their food of choice but when those are running out, they'll make do with worms and insects. The red under the wing which gives them their name is not always as obvious as in the above photo, but the white stripe arching over the eye is another distinctive feature.

The rest of the count as recorded on the Big Birdwatch Blackboard is as follows: 35 Black-headed Gull, 20 Starling, 12 Common Gull, 10 Goldfinch, 10 House Sparrow, 5 each of Great Tit, Robin and Woodpigeon, 4 each of Blue Tit, Crow and Ring-necked Parakeet, 3 each of Feral Pigeon and Magpie, 2 each of Blackbird and Chaffinch, 1 each of Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Dunnock, Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit, Song Thrush and Wren.

 Rachel and Emily did a sterling job on the Big Birdwatch Table outside the cafe and persuaded numerous children to make seedballs which hung from nearby trees at the end of the event. Thanks to the 'other bird champion' Sue and to Conrad, Lawrence and Rupert for lending their expertise, to Judith from Glendale for her support and to the cafe as always just for being there. Our Dawn Chorus Walk will be on Thursday 2nd April at 6.00 am. See you there!

Monday, 6 January 2020

Hilly Fields Big Birdwatch 2020

Our annual Big Birdwatch event on Hilly Fields will take place this year on Sunday 26 January from 10.30 - 12.30. As usual, this is timed to coincide with the RSBP Big Garden Birdwatch weekend. The Friends of Hilly Fields will have a stall outside the cafe with fun activities such as seed ball making for children and illustrated guide sheets to help you identify the birds you see in the park. Just remember the two golden 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. Return your findings to us and the Friends will collate the results on the Big Blackboard. If you don't want to attempt it on your own, come on the guided tour which will start at 11.00 approx.

Our last three monthly surveys of 2019 have been encouraging with the count rising steadily from 17 species in October, 19 species in November, 24 species in December including both Song and Mistle Thrush, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Greenfinch. Last year, a strong north wind meant one of the lowest counts we've had for January, so let's hope for decent weather this time round.

Mistle Thrush, Hilly Fields, 19/12/19
We've had several reports of a Tawny Owl being heard in or near the park. I heard one 'hooting' (it's actually their song) a few nights ago from the direction of Hilly Fields and my house is about 300 yards away as the owl flies. So if you live in the vicinity, keep an ear open. If you're lucky enough to see one in the park, please let us know. Nb. the Tawny Owl is smaller than you might think, averaging about the same size as a Woodpigeon.