Thursday, 31 January 2013

Another beautiful sunny day, and the birds are feeling the approach of spring (perhaps wrongly). A pair of Coal Tits were chasing each other in the shrubbery at the bottom of Buck Hill, calling constantly. The Egyptian Geese are rushing around in pairs looking for nest sites, making a terrible noise that is neither a honk nor a quack, as befits a bird that is intermediate between geese and ducks. Here a pair tries out the Grey Heron's nest on the Serpentine island. If they decide to settle there, they will have a nasty surprise very soon.

The Egyptians on the Vista, which I think were the first pair to arrive and who have bred constantly without a single chick surviving more than a few days, were displaying to each other on the grass near the Italian Garden. After several years of utter failure, it seems unlikely that they will be any more successful this year.

However, a couple of Ring-Necked Parakeets were busy, and are more likely to be successful thanks to a well protected nest in a tree hole.

No sign of the male Tawny Owl again. I think he is only coming out of his hollow tree occasionally in the daytime at the moment. The elusive Little Owls were equally invisible.

The Bearded Tits were easy to see in their reed bed, but hard to photograph in the wind. Here one of them takes advantage of a momentary lull to land on a new reed head.

It is a great shame that they are both female and can't join in the general rush. They were accompanied by a male when they were ringed several months ago, but he has got separated from them.

Here a young Lesser Black-Backed Gull soars elegantly above the mob of feeding birds at the east end of the Serpentine.

All you have to do is to turn up near the Dell Restaurant holding a carrier bag that look as if it might contain food, and you will instantly be surrounded by a screaming mob of Black-Headed and Common Gulls, accompanied by Feral Pigeons and Starlings. And after a few seconds the Mute Swans and various kinds of geese will arrive. Inexperienced visitors are shocked by this reception, and I have heard them muttering about Hitchcock.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

A sunny day with a strong gusty wind. The Bearded Tits were clinging for dear life to the whipping reed heads, and even these tenacious birds were occasionally dislodged.

Like all passerine (perching) birds, they have an ingenious mechanism for holding on. The tendons that clench their toes run around the back of their tarsi -- that is, the backward-facing joints above the feet which correspond to human heels. When they perch, the tarsi bend, which applies tension to the tendons and clamps their feet around whatever they are perched on, without any muscular effort being needed. If you feed Great Tits on your hand you will know that they grip your finger with remarkable force.

It was the turn of the second-winter Great Black-Backed Gull to occupy a post opposite the Peter Pan statue, after an adult took it yesterday. Here it is with a Common Gull, a Cormorant and a Black-Headed Gull, all with their heads into the wind but still being rocked by a sudden gust.

These Great Black-Backs are not gregarious, and whenever you see any of the three on the lake, it is alone.

Some of the little Black-Headed Gulls are almost fully into their breeding plumage, with heads the colour of plain chocolate and deep crimson bills and legs.

But it will be a couple of months before they leave for their breeding grounds along the coast of mainland Europe. The Common Gull from Bremen, with its distinctive red plastic ring, is also still in the park, most recently in the Italian Garden.

Time is also passing for the young Mute Swans from last year. These ones are now largely white.

You can tell that they were hatched on the lake, as they were ringed when they were captured for their compulsory holiday during the Olympic Games. I think that these are two of the five from the reed bed that now has the Bearded Tits, since they were at one end of it. They still regard it as their territory, although their parents may have something to say about that when the next breeding season comes.

Des reports that he has seen the male Tawny Owl, who was not visible when I visited his tree; also a female Wigeon on the east side of the Vista, which I missed too despite having scanned the shore with binoculars. He also notes that the number of Red-Crested Pochard is up to ten; I only saw five of them at the Serpentine island.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A Grey Heron was standing in last year's nest on the Serpentine island  occasionally pulling twigs off nearby branches to rebuild it.

There was no other heron with it. Perhaps the instinctive urge to maintain a nest is irresistible, even outside the nesting season, so when the heron happened to stand in the nest it just had to repair it. Nevertheless, a few weeks ago I saw a Grey Heron far from the nest, beside the Serpentine bridge,  tearing twigs off the waterside bushes in a purposeful way.

On of the Great Black-Backed Gulls was standing on a post near the Peter Pan statue, dwarfing the Black-Headed Gull on the next post.

All three are still here, and have evidently decided to spend the rest of the winter in the park; there are more than enough pigeons to eat. The smaller gull is not the familiar one-legged gull, which is missing its right leg. It may have two perfectly good legs and have folded one of them up.

The Bearded Tits are in their reed bed as usual, busily eating Phragmites seeds. These can't be very nutritious: the plant is a kind of grass and its fat content would be low, and also every time they take a seed they get a beakful of fluff along with it. No wonder they have to eat so constantly.

Yesterday they were mentioned in The Times, which has brought a new influx of visitors. Several of these wanted to see the equally famous Tawny Owl as well, but he was not visible again today. I have a feeling that he may have changed his habits and be staring at us from another tree as we walk blindly past him.

The Diana fountain may not be much of a fountain -- I have often heard visitors saying 'Is that all?' -- but it might have been designed to please geese.

In winter when it is largely deserted by humans, it is constantly visited by Greylags, who appreciate the sparking clean filtered water, the expensive high-quality turf installed by a firm specialising in professional football fields and, above all, no admittance to the dogs that make their life so miserable elsewhere.

Monday, 28 January 2013

It was time to do the monthly bird count around the lake. I found 64 Egyptian Geese on the Serpentine and Long Water, not including those on the Round Pond. One thing is certain: there will be even more next year.

Eleven Mute Swans had arrived on the Long Water, inevitably resulting in a good deal of threatening and chasing. One of the young swans in the Italian Gardens ponds had unwisely chosen this time to try to return to the main lake, and was driven entirely out of the water and sat on the bank looking miserable.

I wonder whether the two young swans went to the Italian Garden because they had been chased off the Long Water. Otherwise it is hard to see why they have stayed in this confined space for so long. At least they seem to have resolved their quarrel with each other; when I saw them yesterday they were peacefully side by side.

The Bearded Tits were in the reed bed as usual, swaying about wildly as the gusty wind lashed the stems.

Behind them, in the Diana fountain enclosure, two Herring Gulls were shuffling their feet briskly.

Presumably this simulates the noise of rain falling on the grass and encourages worms to surface so that the bird can eat them. But it seems unlikely that the bird understands this, and probably it just knows that if it shuffles some worms will appear. Herring gulls certainly learn feeding strategies from other herring gulls -- as witness the outbreak of gulls stealing ice cream from cones held in people's hands, which seems to have started in Dutch towns on the North Sea Coast and has now spread to Cornwall. Pictures here and here.

A Common Gull stares at me.  They don't seem to pester humans, unlike the other three species on the lake, but they are merciless to the smaller Black-Headed Gulls, and if one of these is carrying a piece of food it is likely to find half a dozen Common Gulls chasing it.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The return of mild weather has started the Song Thrushes singing again.

But the Mistle Thrushes and Great Tits, having once started, never stopped at the depth of the cold spell.

Shovellers have also returned to the Long Water after they were forced on to the Serpentine by the ice. But most of them remain in the exact centre of the Serpentine, near the boat hire jetty, where they form an endlessly gyrating circle.

The Bearded Tits were in their usual place near the Diana fountain. The warm sunny day gave a perfect light for photographing them, but the brisk gusty wind made it extremely difficult even to get them into the frame as the reeds thrashed around. I was lucky to get one shot unobstructed by reed stems.

On of the pair of Moorhens on the willow tree near the bridge was eating moss and lichen off the tree trunk.

It is remarkable what Moorhens will eat: pretty much anything of animal or vegetable origin, included the most unattractive fare such as gull droppings. The secret of the success of these modest birds is their adaptability. Their diet is anything they can find, and their living quarters more or less anywhere. I have seen a pair of Moorhens nesting in the ornamental structure at the corner of the Edgware Road and Sussex Gardens, which resembles a fountain but actually has no water, just a bed of sharp chippings of blue glass. Apparently they were going to a lily pond in a nearby block of flats to get something to drink, because I saw them there once. And they would have been eating the discarded snacks of the Edgware Road pedestrians; better than moss anyway.

No sign of the male Tawny Owl, despite the sunshine that might have brought him out of the hollow tree housing the pair's nest. I am sure that he will be out fairly soon, sitting in the notch in the broken top of the tree which guards the entrance to their nest.

Update: in a comment on my post of Friday 25th, which mentioned a Lesser Black-Backed Gull playing with a ball, Joseph writes:
I saw this gull seriously worrying the ball on Wednesday 23 January at the side of the Serpentine near the triangle car park. It was pecking purposefully at it as though it expected to find something inside. Could its activity two days down the line be the triumph of hope over experience?

This is seriously strange. I can't imagine why the gull would keep a ball for two days, as if it were a private toy, or return to it where it had left it. By the 25th, the gull had made a large rip in the ball, so it would have been clear that there was nothing inside. Has anyone else seen similar behaviour?

Later: have just found a YouTube clip of a Northwestern Crow and a Glaucous-Winged Gull playing with a ball on the ice. In this case the crow was the instigator of the game, and it is something you might expect from one of these playful birds.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The milder weather and the weekend have brought out crowds of photographers keen to get a picture of the famous Bearded Tits, which have now been in newspapers and on television. Fortunately these affable birds are continuing to put on a good show.

They must be aware that they are being watched, if only because, when they move to a new place, the crowd follows them. But they seem indifferent to the antics of humans, as long as these are kept firmly in place near the fence. It is a low fence and would be easy to step over, but so far I have not seen anyone do it. It would be an invasion of the birds' privacy and might even drive them away.

People also wanted to see the male Tawny Owl, but unfortunately he didn't oblige. I don't think anyone has seen him since he was in the beech tree on the 17th.

The Egyptian Geese, who believe in breeding early and often, have mostly paired off, and one pair at the Lido were even mating. Afterwards, the female stretches her ruffled wings to settle the feathers in place. Their broad white wing bars make them instantly recognisable in flight.

No doubt there will be Egyptian babies all over the place soon, as these prolific birds increase unstoppably.

The other Pochard-Tufted Duck hybrid showed up on the Serpentine. She has less white on her face than the one I photographed on 20th.

These two are almost certainly siblings; although Aythya species hybridise freely, it would be too much of a coincidence to think that this crossing had happened twice recently.

And there were two male Gadwalls at the Vista, plain-looking from a distance but fascinatingly marked when seen close up. I looked for females, but couldn't see any.

Friday, 25 January 2013

The second-year Great Black-Backed Gull was on the Long Water, standing awkwardly on a post with one leg held up and the foot dangling. At first I thought it had injured its leg, but no, after a while it reversed its posture and stood on the other leg. It flew around the top end of the lake and pounced on some object in the water, which it didn't catch.

Farther down the lake, a young Lesser Black-Backed Gull had a catch, but it was only an old tennis ball. It played with this tatty object for some time, picking it up and dropping it and pouncing on it, before bearing it away. It don't think it believed that it was edible once it had picked it up -- just an interesting object.

There was a brief glimpse of a Yellow-Legged Gull on the Long Water. I looked carefully for the Water Rail that Des had seen earlier on the Serpentine island, but there was no sign of it. As well as being uncommon in central London, they are shy and surreptitious birds.

The hard frost forecast for last night was milder than expected, and the Serpentine didn't freeze, though the ice on the Long Water spread a little. This was good news for the Bearded Tits, as there was unfozen water under the reeds for them to drink. It is impossible to get a photograph of them down here without including a blurred image of the green iron railings.

Still no sight of the male Tawny Owl. He is more likely to be seen at dusk when he flies out to hunt. He is hunting for two now, as he has to feed his mate on her nest. When the owlets emerge he will be even busier, feeding a ravenous family. Fortunately there is no shortage of mice and small rats, not to mention the parakeets that occasionally appear on the menu.

Several large flocks of Long-Tailed Tits were ranging around the park, accompanied by other tits.

It is remarkable how they manage to catch enough insects to live on in midwinter. The tits seem to manage, as do the insect-eating Pied Wagtails that run all around the edge of the lake. But you do notice, if you feed the Great, Blue and Coal Tits, how much more eager than usual they are to come down for food.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Fieldfares remain hard to photograph, and this distant shot is the best I could get.

There are quite a lot of them around. Apart from those in the park, I saw a small flock feeding on the grass in Queen's Gate Gardens half a mile to the south. People keep out of the gardens of London squares in cold weather, so they are good places to see Fieldfares, Redwings, and other winter visiting thrushes.

That includes migrant Blackbirds, of which there are large numbers in the park at the moment. Some of them are beginning to realise that humans will give them food, and have stopped flying away when I throw them a bit of cheese. But they haven't attained the confidence of the residents, which come out and stand in your way, chirping to attract attention, until you give them a snack.

The Bearded Tits remain wonderfully conveniently placed, and I make no excuse for including yet another picture of them.

The seeds of the Phragmites reeds that they eat are covered in fluff, which the birds don't remove before swallowing them. No wonder they need to fly down for a drink of water so often.

No sign of the male Tawny Owl since I photographed him on the 17th. But he has a large hollow tree to shelter him from the freezing wind, and is probably sensibly staying indoors. The Little Owls also remain elusive.

The second-year Great Black-Backed Gull was hanging out with the two pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gulls at the Dell Restaurant.

No doubt they all had the same idea on their fierce little minds. Great Black-Backs routinely kill and eat pigeons. However, they had no success while I was there, and one of the Lesser Black-Backs got too close to a Coot and was chased away.

I don't think a Coot would dare to attack the Greater Black-Back, but you never know with these aggressive birds.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

There is a happy ending to the story of the Great Crested Grebe trapped in the ice. There was no frost last night, and some of the ice melted, increasing the area for the grebe and opening up a narrow passage along the west side of the Long Water leading to the bridge and freedom. When I came past, the grebe, who yesterday had been swimming unhappily back and forth in its small space, was peacefully dozing.

And when I returned a couple of hours later, he had sensibly left and was presumably on the Serpentine. Grebes are normally very wary of being iced in, since they spend their whole life afloat. When frost threatens, most of the grebes on the lake fly to the river. You never see them go, because they fly at night.

Mr Scott, the head of Bluebird Boats, had kindly offered to send one of his motor boats on an icebreaking expedition, but fortunately it wasn't needed. The cold weather is returning for a couple of days, so let's hope this grebe has learnt his lesson. Judging by his dark plumage and the streaks on his white front, he is quite an old bird and should have known better.

There was a Fieldfare in the leaf yard. It remained partly hidden by branches no matter where I stood, so this rotten picture is all I can offer you -- sorry. Will keep a lookout for the chance of a better shot.

The Bearded Tits were still in the reed bed, as brisk and charming as ever.

The partial freezing of the Long Water has forced all the Shovellers out on to the Serpentine, and there were over 60 of them. Some had formed one of their grand processional shovelling circles, which they have been reluctant to do until now, preferring to go around in small groups.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

There are times when you think a bird might be in trouble, but you don't know. This Great Crested Grebe on the Long Water, on the west side of the Vista, was in a small patch of water 10 ft square, surrounded by ice, about 100 yards from the nearest open water by the bridge.

It couldn't fly out, because these grebes need a long takeoff run to get airborne. But it was able to catch fish where it was. And although grebes are extremely bad at walking on their highly adapted legs, I have seen one actually running for an equal distance across ice to reach clear water. But did this bird remember that there was clear water nearby? And was it too desperate to take sensible action? Tonight's frost would reduce the size of its clear patch. When I saw it swimming up and down restlessly, I rang Malcolm the Royal Parks Wildlife Officer, and left it to him to decide if it needed rescuing. It would be well nigh impossible to catch, but he could ask the people at Bluebird boats to send up one of their motor boats tomorrow to break a clear passage through the ice and allow it to escape. They already do icebreaking duty on the Serpentine.

Here, at the Serpentine island, is a pair of Great Crested Grebes one of whom is in summer breeding plumage, and the other still in monochrome winter plumage.

Despite (or perhaps because of) being increasingly hemmed in by ice, they were having a lively territorial dispute with the pair next door. This area between the island and the shore always remains clear in freezing weather, because it gets full of geese and ducks that keep the water moving.

The Bearded Tits are still in their reed bed. The human excitement has died down a bit, and when I came past in mid-afternoon there was no one watching them except me. I felt that I was having a privileged private view of these beautiful little birds.

The pair of Moorhens who roost and nest in the willow tree near the bridge were undisturbed by their tree being covered with snow, and were strolling nonchalantly down the sloping trunk to forage for food on the shore.

Monday, 21 January 2013

A sunny day, and the ice on the lake is melting noticeably -- though we are not out of the freezing weather yet. With the pressure off, there was no remarkable water birds on the lake. Even the familiar Red-Crested Pochards seem to have flown away to join the mob in Regent's Park, which was counted at 74 two days ago.

However, the Bearded Tits were still in the reed bed.

You can tell that they are present from hundreds of yards away, by looking at people coming away from the spot with binoculars and big grins on their faces.

While we were looking at the Bearded Tits, a Song Thrush flew down and perched on the lakeside railings, and looked at us curiously for a minute before flying away across the lake.

Railing are actually a help for the peculiar activity of park birdwatching. They keep people at a respectful distance from the Bearded Tits, just close enough to photograph them but not so close as to scare them away. I was talking to someone about the fact that the birds had been here unobserved since 11 December -- they were seen but the report didn't get through -- and he said that it was a stroke of luck, because it allowed them to get used to the passing crowds, so that when people turned up later to stare at them and point huge lenses in their direction, they were not frightened.

Birds understand that humans stay on the other side of the railings, and will therefore approach you quite closely, reassured by the barrier. Here a Blackbird roots around in the melting snow a few feet from me, unworried by my interest in her.

Birds are long-sighted and can't see objects close to them clearly. But many of them, including Blackbirds, have sensory bristle feathers like whiskers at the sides of their beak which work in exactly the same way as cats' whiskers, helping them to detect objects such as worms.

You can see the whiskers more clearly in this close-up of a Robin.

There was a small flock of Siskins in a tree on Buck Hill, but they were too high up for any attempt at a photograph.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Des McKenzie had arrived in the park early and seen some Golden Plover, a Dunlin, a Snipe and a Woodcock. Arriving slothfully late, I had to content myself with more ordinary birds. But at least the Bearded Tits near the Diana fountain were putting on a good, and well attended, show.

They will get through the cold spell as long as there is a little unfrozen water nearby. There are plenty of seeds on the Phragmites reeds for them to eat, but this dry diet obliges them to drink often.

The other small birds were very hungry, and flocked down to be fed. It is hard being a Blackbird when the ground where you feed is frozen hard and covered in snow.

They are, however, good at finding insects in the leaf litter even when it is under a thin layer of snow, and if you throw them a bit of cheese that sinks into the snow, they will root around and find it. This contrasts with the behaviour of Carrion Crows which, despite their great intelligence, are hopeless at finding things in snow. If you throw a crow a peanut, you have to be careful that it lands in a footprint in the snow so that the bird will be able to find it.

The Pochard-Tufted Duck hybrid turned up on one of the ponds in the Italian Garden. The all-round light reflected off the snow showed that its eyes, which had looked dark brown in earlier pictures, are in fact dark orange, intermediate between the brown of a female Pochard and the yellow of a Tufted Duck.

There were a lot of Pied Wagtails running around the edge of the Serpentine, displaced by the snow from their normal feeding ground on the grass. This first-year bird, still grey and white rather than black and white, was much less shy than Pied Wagtails usually are, and allowed me to get quite close to it although I was obviously following it -- which birds naturally hate.

But it could not equal the amazing nonchalance of the Pied Wagtail in Queensway, which runs around between the feet of passers-by. It was there this morning, and Des was filming it at close range with his mobile when a woman came up and asked him, 'Is that your bird?'

'Yes,' said Des. 'I'm taking my wagtail for a walk.'

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Nothing unusual to see today, apart from the reliable Bearded Tits at the Diana fountain.

They are still drawing a small crowd, not only of serious birdwatchers and photographers, but of ordinary people who have heard of them and have come to see what the fuss is about. Not only are these casual visitors charmed by the beauty of the little birds, but perhaps the sight sparks an interest in birds that may develop. In this way a couple of rarities are doing their bit for the welfare of all our birds.

The Tawny Owl was not to be seen, perhaps sheltering from the cold inside the nest tree. A Little Owl was seen -- not by me -- at the Serpentine Gallery again. I have not managed to see this bird, despite going past the gallery daily. But seeing Little Owls is a matter of luck. Since there have now been several sightings of one or two of them at the gallery, it seems possible that these are a different pair from the ones in the leaf yard. When the Little Owls were first seen in Kensington Gardens last spring, there appeared to be three pairs of them, though it was impossible to be certain that it wasn't one pair ranging around looking for a tree to nest in.

Several hundred Greylag Geese flew from their grazing ground on to the Serpentine.

They may have been disturbed by a dog, or it may simply have been one of those committee decisions that flock of geese take by honking and copying others until there is a majority. They have a well organised society, taking it in turns to be the watch-goose while the rest of the flock have their heads down in the grass. When they are flying in a V, they also take turns to be the front bird, the only one who doesn't get a tow from the slipstream of the bird in front.

The Mute Swans are still threatening and chasing each other, and one was driven off the lake entirely. Here one of the young swans adopts a very adult threat posture. Actually it wasn't threatening another swan, it was just swaggering about playing the tough guy.

The four young Egyptian Geese at the Round Pond are still in good order amid the ice and snow, always attended by their solicitous parents. Here the smallest of the brood stands as his sibling ruffles up his feathers in that peculiarly untidy Egyptian way.