Monday, 30 September 2013

I forgot to say yesterday that Paul Turner saw two Hobbies over the Long Water, an adult and a juvenile to which it was passing food in the air. We had thought that our Hobbies had left several days ago, but are not so sure now. On Saturday I thought I heard a distant Hobby call from the Round Pond area, but put it down to imagination. It is possible, but unlikely, that our Hobbies really have gone and that the recent ones are other birds passing through on their way to Africa.

The daily visit to the rowan trees at the top of Buck Hill produced a Carrion Crow which had managed to find a stable place to perch and was eating berries at quite a rate.

The male Little Owl was in his usual tree, taking advantage of a sunny spell.

I know I am publishing a lot of pictures of this bird, but he is irresistible.

A Tufted Duck was diving busily in the shallow water near Peter Pan.

This is a female. The males are recovering from moulting and growing their smart white sides, but are still not very presentable.

The adult Great Crested Grebes on the Serpentine have been fishing very close to the shore in recent days. Presumably there are a lot of small fish there. I have not seen one catch anything but they seem to be able to swallow small fish without surfacing. This one is having a flap.

Its wings look quite tidy, so I think it must have already regrown its flight feathers after the late summer moult. Some of the adults have no flight feathers at all at the moment.

The three young grebes from the poplar tree on the Long Water were playing and diving together. You can tell when a grebe is about to dive. It clenches its feathers to make itself smaller and reduce its buoyancy, and its shoulders sink under water, as here.

This mushroom seen near the recently fallen horse chestnut tree is an Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus), also called Shaggy Cap, Shaggy Mane and Lawyer's Wig.

They are edible, but you must not drink alcohol with the meal because you will feel sick. They contain a substance similar to Antabuse, the drug given to alcoholics.

There was also a large growth of Parasol Mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) -- not the inedible Shaggy Parasol that I illustrated three days ago -- deep in the shrubbery on the east side of the Long Water between the Vista and the martial arts bandstand.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

A pair of Nuthatches in the leaf yard have started coming down to take food again, as they did in the spring. If you put nuts on the fence they perch in the bushes and whizz out at frequent intervals to grab them.

They seem to be taking the nuts away to store them rather than eating them on the spot, a sensible precaution as winter approaches. While they were doing this, occasionally they were attacked by a Robin which considered the bush its territory, but just shook it off in a rather blasé manner.

A male Blackbird was bathing in the little pool at the top of the waterfall in the Dell. He looked tatty and balding around the head, because it is moulting time for Blackbirds. He will be as smart as ever in a week or two.

The pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gull was also at work on the Serpentine, picking the last few bits of meat off the latest victim.

The dark streaks on its head are an adult's winter plumage. In summer the head is pure white, and the other white parts are pure white all year round. Third-year Lesser Black-Backs have more extensive streaks on their white parts, even in summer.

A pair of Coots were fighting near the boathouse.

Outside the breeding season, these fights start for no clear reason, and sometimes four of them all fight each other. Possibly they are trying to establish a pecking order in the tribe. But they seem to enjoy fighting for its own sake, and often make gratuitous attacks on Moorhens and ducks.

The eldest Great Crested Grebe chicks were in high spirits, playing at fishing (though not catching anything) and chasing each other around. Here one of them collides with a parent.

And the Little Owls both appeared, though as usual the female rushed into her tree hole at the slightest movement. The male is now completely unworried by people as long as he is at a safe height in his tree.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

The solitary female Mute Swan who has been in the Italian Garden pond for months seems to have found love. The male arrived several days ago, but it was not until yesterday that I saw them arching their necks and dipping their heads in synchrony -- a swan's courtship display. They were courting again today, and evidently they have bonded.

Of course it is entirely the wrong time of year, but swans mate for life and they have plenty of time. It remains to be seen whether they will venture on to the hotly contested main lake where a junior pair will be most unlikely to win a nest site. They are both only in their second year, as you can see from the rather dull orange of their bills.

A young Blackbird was eating rowan berries on one of the trees on Buck Hill.

But I have still not seen much activity on the four heavily fruited trees at the top of the hill near the gate, or any sign of the arrival of the migrant Mistle Thrushes that eat them.

Mateusz Kociński, who works at Bluebird Boats, has been keeping an eye on the crayfish in the lake. The net at the boathouse is now capturing quite large signal crayfish, as well as the Turkish crayfish that were here earlier. Here are two of his pictures, showing the reddish colour  of the signal crayfish -- the first one is a very dark specimen ...

... and the bright red underside of its claws, which it waves around in the display that gave the creature its name.

Compare this picture of a Turkish crayfish from the lake, showing its lighter build and greenish colour. Both species have been introduced into British waters in recent years and are steadily wiping out the native crayfish. In the Serpentine, it seems probable that they were introduced deliberately by someone who wanted to catch and sell them. In fact they may have been put in a second time, after all or nearly all of the crayfish died in 2008 when algicide ran into the lake from the Diana fountain.

Not far from the boathouse, the Great Crested Grebes are feeding small crayfish to their chicks.

Friday, 27 September 2013

More Shovellers have arrived for the winter, and there were half a dozen at the Serpentine island as well as 20-odd on the Long Water. Some of the males are in full breeding plumage. They are obstinately staying in dark, distant places where you can't get a good picture. There were also three Gadwalls which flew around the Long Water before landing. They arrive and depart randomly throughout the year, and I think they spend some of their time in the garden of Buckingham Palace.

A partly melanistic male Great Tit with black 'trousers' has been visible in the leaf yard for several days.

There was another with this extra dark colouring here a few years ago, so it is not very uncommon. Male Great Tits have more black than females -- a wider stripe down the middle of the breast and more black around the collar, so this one can be thought of as a male who has gone farther than usual.

The Little Owls both appeared this morning, but as usual the female vanished as soon as anyone tried to take a picture of her. The male owl sat unconcernedly on a branch, not bothering to look at the humans below. The only thing that would get his attention was rustling the dead leaves, giving him a momentary impression that a mouse was running through them, so that he peered down for a moment.

Owls' eyesight is acute, but their hearing is super-acute and some species such as the Tawny Owl can catch prey in total darkness.

One of the younger family of Great Crested Grebes was racing towards its father, who was holding out a fish.

At the moment of arrival it slammed on the brakes by holding its large feet out sideways.

I don't think any other water bird has this ability to stop quickly. I have also seen grebes swimming backwards, and this skill is certainly unique to them.

The shrubberies in Kensington Gardens are full of large white mushrooms with shaggy caps, which are a familiar sight every autumn.

But I don't know what they are. At first I thought they were parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera), but they are not tall enough, only about 8 inches against about 12 for a full-sized parasol, and the shape of the cap is too rounded -- parasol mushrooms are shaped like a paper umbrella. Does anyone know what they are?

Update: Mario has kindly identified them: see his comments below.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A new but not very welcome addition to the wildlife of the park: there are now terrapins in the Round Pond as well as in the main lake. Marie Gill saw one yesterday on the edge of the pond, basking in the sunshine. It was a Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), the most popular species kept as a pet. There was another swimming in the water. They must have been dumped by some pet owner who was tired of them, as it seems utterly improbable that they walked up from the main lake, or that they were somehow carried up by gulls when they were smaller.

Marie didn't have her camera handy, and when I went round the pond today there was no sign of them. But here was an entertaining bathing party of Starlings splashing and leaping about.

The newly arrived Shovellers insist on feeding in distant corners where it has hard to see them, let along take pictures. But one of them was relaxing on the fallen horse chestnut tree in the Long Water, alongside a Pochard.

This picture of a Treecreeper is right way up; it was running along the underside of a branch looking for insects in the cracks in the bark. You can see the long curved claws that allow it to ignore gravity.

There are young Great Crested Grebes all over the lakes, ten of them in all, and their loud cries for food can be heard from a hundred yards away.

They have no need to be discreet, as they can crash-dive in an instant when threatened. But their stripy heads are a better camouflage than this sunlit photograph suggests. On a grey day they are really quite hard to see against the pattern of ripples on the water surface.

This rabbit was keeping well away from the fox on the Vista, and was hopping around in the bushes near the martial arts bandstand on Buck Hill. A large hole can be seen near the fence in this area, presumably a rabbit burrow into which it can run if danger threatens.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

It was the day for the monthly bird count, which produced no surprises except for the arrival of four male Mandarins on the Long Water to supplement the existing four teenagers, all of which were also visible. These birds fly in and out from the Regent's Canal via Paddington Basin, which is only a few hundred yards from the north edge of the park, so they arrive and leave freely all the year round. The Mandarin drakes are already in full breeding plumage and looking impossibly gaudy. There were also 17 Shovellers: numbers are increasing. None of the males has yet recovered from eclipse, though their breeding plumage is visibly emerging.

Both the Little Owls made an appearance this morning, though as usual the female went back into the tree at the mere sight of a human being. They were also harassed by Jays and at least one Song Thrush, but when things had quietened down the male emerged and perched on a bare branch of the ancient chestnut tree.

A Magpie was washing on the edge of the Serpentine. Oddly, the only bit that it was washing was its head, which it repeatedly plunged into the water and shook vigorously. Maybe it was relieving a local itch.

Another large flock of Long-Tailed Tits passed through the bushes in Kensington Gardens, with some Blue Tits, at least one Coal Tit and a couple of Goldcrests. These last remained hidden in the leaves, but one of the Long-Tailed Tits came to the front for a few seconds and allowed itself to be photographed.

The Great Crested Grebes from the fallen poplar tree on the Long Water are now too large to ride on their parents' backs, but it doesn't stop one of them from climbing aboard when it gets the chance. The adult tolerated it for some time before shaking it off.

But the chicks' incessant demand for food does try even a mother's patience. This one couldn't stand it any more and chased her loud offspring away.

Ten seconds later it was begging as constantly as ever.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The increasing population of rabbits around the Henry Moore sculpture attracted a fox. This excellent picture was taken by Paul Turner.

Foxes used to be seen here quite often, but when the rabbits were almost wiped out by myxomatosis they disappeared and were more often seen in Hyde Park than Kensington Gardens, perhaps attracted by the richer pickings from Mayfair dustbins.

The rank growth of weird plants under the sculpture has made it impossible to estimate how many rabbits there are now. The largest number seen here and in the surrounding thickets at one time was 13, but that was several months ago and there are almost certainly more now.

A Treecreeper had pulled a small insect out of the bark of the cedar tree behind the Albert Memorial.

Both the Little Owls appeared in the warm sunshine, though the female went in at the sight of an approaching human. The male was then harried by Jays, but when they had gone he came out again.

The Great Crested Grebe family from the east side of the Long Water were having a territorial dispute with the childless couple to the north of them. Grebes bring their chicks to these disputes, as they give the family greater authority when they are making their displays. Here they all are, advancing in a compact group in their low threatening posture.

The stratagem worked and they added a few more yards of water to their territory.

On the Serpentine a grebe was preening and flapping its wings, now missing a few feathers as it is moulting and replacing them.

After they have renewed their flight feathers, they will moult their contour feathers and go into their much plainer winter plumage in shades of grey.

Monday, 23 September 2013

There were a lot of Cormorants on the lake. Some had arranged themselves on the fallen horse chestnut tree on the Long Water ...

... this one was reclining on a post by the Serpentine island ...

and others were trawling in gangs. It is a sign that the fish population of the lake is quite high -- except that when the Cormorants have finished, it's much reduced. Large influxes in past years seem to have fished so efficiently that they reduced the population of medium-sized fish to negligible proportions, after which they left to try their luck elsewhere.

The Great Crested Grebes on the Serpentine had to run the gauntlet of Black-Headed Gulls to feed their chicks. This fish did actually reach the chick without getting snatched, but only after both parent and chick had dived and come up in a different place, which momentarily blindsided the gulls.

This meal, on the other hand, was only suitable for adults. I am still not sure how the grebe managed to swallow this large crayfish, legs, claws and all.

As the Mallards recover from eclipse, some of them remain puzzling. This one appears to be male, judging from its yellow bill.

But I haven't seen this individual in full breeding plumage; it seems to be a new arrival. My guess is that the feathers on its body will turn out black, leaving the white neck patch, as this pattern is quite prevalent among Mallard drakes when the pattern of their plumage is disturbed by some genetic factor.

Andy Sunters drew my attention to a good blog on bird behaviour, 'The Rattling Crow'. This is a subject of great interest to me, and I shall be following it.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

One of the Great Crested Grebes on the Serpentine was twitching his wings up and down in an irritated way. After a successful breeding season their wing feathers are tattered from being used as a nursery for the chicks, and they moult and replace them, so that they are ready to fly again in case the lake freezes and they have to move to the Thames. The process seems to cause itching, and I have often seen birds looking as if they were annoyed by it.

Meanwhile, the business of feeding the chicks went on. Here a female grebe (compare the narrow crest to the one in the first picture), who has brought a very large fish to her chicks, looks on as one is finally able to swallow it after several tries.

The single young Mute Swan on the Long Water was preening, holding out a delicately translucent pink-tinged foot.

It is growing up to be as belligerent as its father, who has driven all intruders off the Long Water ever since the pair started nesting. I have often seen it attacking coots and ducks just for the sake of it, and it is also beginning to have its father's strong objection to dogs swimming in the lake.

The female Mallard that sits serenely inder the fountain in the Italian Garden had been joined by a drake. They really do seem to enjoy sitting in the spray -- and why not, as they are proverbially waterproof?

Several large flocks of Long-Tailed Tits passed overhead while I was in Kensington Gardens, foraging with other species of tit and probably other small birds -- there was at least one Chiffchaff -- as they do especially in winter. You can't photograph them against the sky on a dull day, so here is a picture of one taken two days ago when the sun was shining.

There were about 200 Greylag Geese on the Parade Ground, calmly feeding next door to a game of football. This is another sign of approaching winter, when cold weather brings in large numbers of these geese from smaller parks and gardens to feed on the reliable grass which, on the Parade Ground, is the finest quality that a sports turf supplier can provide.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Little Grebe, previously seen only at a distance across the lake, came quite close when it briskly crossed the gap at the Peter Pan statue. It is already in winter plumage.

Little Grebes hunt for fish and small invertebrates along the banks of the lake, so they are constantly circulating. Later I saw it flying across the Vista, perhaps taking a short cut past an area which was of no interest to it. As usual with Little Grebes, it made no attempt to come down in a conventional way and plunged from the air straight under water, surfacing some distance away under the bankside bushes.

There were other visible changes to plumage as the autumn moult gets under way. One of the Mallard drakes is now already in his full finery, his green head looking wonderfully iridescent even on a dull day because the feathers are brand new. This is an interference colour caused by tiny ridges on the barbules of the feathers, so it becomes less intense as the feathers get worn down by time and preening.

And one of this year's Black-Headed Gull was showing signs of abandoning its tweedy juvenile feathers and growing an adult's grey and white plumage.

Unlike the large gulls, which take four years to achieve full adult plumage, they do it in one year, and only their marmalade-coloured legs show that they are young; later these will turn a deep beetroot red.

The Great Crested Grebe family at the east end of the lake were paddling causually around the netting where their nest was, not doing anything remarkable but it was good to see that they are still all there and in good order.

The area around the Henry Moore statue is looking very odd. The plan was to make a wildflower meadow, something that the park staff have done very well before, producing attractive stands of cornflowers, poppies and other British native plants. However, this area was attended to by contractors who don't seem to have fulfilled their brief. After an early strong growth of thistles some very strange and certaintly non-native plants have come up, including many tobacco plants with flowers of various colours -- not unattractive but definitely North American. Perhaps the strangest arrival is this Squirting Cucumber, Ecballium elaterium.

It is a native of the Mediterranean coast. The seed pods inflate with liquid as they develop and eventually explode, hurling the seeds a considerable distance.

Update: Mario points out that this last identification was wrong. The plant is a Thorn Apple (Datura stramonium) and is poisonous.