Monday 31 December 2012

A dark wet day, and no sign of the Tawny Owls, who were probably sheltering in their hollow tree. They may already have started nesting; if the female doesn't reappear within a couple of days we shall know that the long haul has begun.

At the Serpentine island, two pairs of Great Crested Grebes, all of them now in their new breeding plumage, were enjoying a territorial dispute.

There is a favoured nest site behind the basket in the background, and the birds want to put their bid in early. Usually on this lake early breeding grebes don't do very well, and the best time for starting a nest is midsummer. This is probably because there are more smallish fish later in the year. In other places the opposite may be true: for example at Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham nesting begins as soon as possible when the water level is high after the winter rains. As the water falls during the spring and summer, the grebes' preferred nesting sites are left high and dry.

A few yards away from the dispute the youngest grebe, hatched very late in September, was fishing in peaceful solitude. It still has its stripy juvenile face, a sign that it plays no part in territorial claims.

A pair of Moorhens were tightrope walking on the chains across the lake near the bridge. They constantly perform balancing acts, apparently just for the fun of it.

A most unexpected sight just to the north of the park. I was coming home along Queensway in the rainy dusk, and outside Whiteley's there was a Pied Wagtail running about on the pavement. Here it is, against a background of garish reflections from shop lighting.

The bird was absolutely unconcerned by the passing crowds. If anyone came too close it just trotted out of the way. In fact it had nothing to fear, since wagtails can run like the wind and make an explosively quick vertical takeoff, which you sometimes see them doing when an insect flies overhead. But normally they are shy birds, and it is hard to get within 20 feet of them. This wagtail was so bold that it ran around my feet while I fed it with small pieces of cheese.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Time to do the monthly count of the birds around the lake. There were over 60 Egyptian Geese here alone, not counting those on the Round Pond, though it is hard to be sure of the exact number as some of them were flying about. A few days ago Des McKenzie, counting over the whole park, found 80 of them.

I saw one of the adult Great Black-Backed Gulls and the young one; also 24 Herring Gulls, outnumbering 17 Lesser Black-Backed Gulls which are normally more numerous. Most of the Herring Gulls were in a close flock, suggesting that they had flown in together for the day. There were 40 Common Gulls, a good number for these winter visitors but again far from the total, as there would have been flocks of them elsewhere picking up insects from the flooded grass.

Both the Tawny Owls were in their accustomed places on the nest tree. I am always aware when photographing the female that it may be the last sight of her for two months, as she will be on her nest soon.

Female Tawny Owls spend a sixth of their life in purdah, either sitting on their eggs or looking after the owlets until they can fly. All this time, they and their young are fed by the industrious male, who brings them house and wood mice, young rats and, in this park, the odd Ring-Necked Parakeet. Parakeets are swift fliers, and it is not clear how the owls catch them: probably by waiting until one is about to pass under their branch, judging its time of arrival nicely and then falling on it.

The solitary Barnacle Goose was still in the same place, halfway along the south shore of the Serpentine. It now comes over to be fed when I arrive.

A few days ago I mentioned the habit of some people in throwing down large amounts of strange foodstuffs for the birds to eat. Today I found a large deposit of some whitish stuff which had been sprinkled into the lake. On examination it turned out to be raw couscous. Two Egyptian Geese were eating it quite happily when a Mute Swan came over, shoved them away, and started feeding itself.

Here one of this year's young Grey Herons strikes an elegant pose in the fallen horse chestnut tree on the Long Water. This tree has proved a splendid haven for wildlife -- not just for birds, as the terrapins also use it as a place to sunbathe. The tree is now beginning to disintegrate, but no doubt in time another tree will fall into the lake to replace it.

Saturday 29 December 2012

The north shore of the Serpentine near the bridge is now definitely the Egyptian Quarter. The birds wade in the floods and browse on the freshly laid green turf. Some people were feeding them, attracting a crowd of over 60 birds.

Other flooded areas are covered with Black-Headed and Common Gulls, busily eating worms, insects and other small creatures washed up on the surface of the water.

Near the Italian Garden, a Little Grebe caught an inconveniently large fish, which it had some difficulty in swallowing ...

... but finally succeeded.

A reader of this blog alerted me to a strange event reported on the Daily Mail web site on 14 September. An unknown man gave a copy of an illustrated first edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens to an Oxfam charity shop in Alderley Edge, Cheshire; perhaps he was unaware of its rarity and value. This book, written in 1906 and with pictures by the famous illustrator Arthur Rackham, was the inspiration for Sir George Frampton's 1912 statue of Peter Pan beside the Long Water, but is now almost forgotten, overshadowed by Barrie's play Peter Pan of two years earlier.

Some of the pictures are reproduced in the online article. Aside from the fantasy of the story, many views will be familiar to people who know Kensington Gardens: the Serpentine Bridge, the lines of wooden posts in the lake, and the Albert Memorial. The first picture in the article, showing the hidden life of the park unsuspected by a visitor, clearly inspired Ivor Innes's carved Elfin Oak of 1928-30 which now stands at the entrance to the Diana memorial playground.

One of the figures in Barrie's fantasy is a wise old Carrion Crow called Solomon Caw. Barrie lived at 100 Bayswater Road, whose front faces Kensington Gardens in the middle of the large colony of crows in the northwestern corner of the park. He would have had crows in his front garden and it seems likely that he was personally acquainted with some of these intelligent birds. Rackham's caricaturish pictures of Solomon Caw are typical of his portrayals of corvids; see also his illustration to the Scottish ballad 'The Twa Corbies', where the birds are Ravens but look much the same. Solomon Caw doesn't appear on the base of the Peter Pan statue, where the only birds are a couple of bronze House Sparrows (a species now sadly gone from the park). But this hardly matters, because the area in front of the statue is constantly visited by real crows coming to be fed by the visitors.

Friday 28 December 2012

A very mild day, and there was a feeling that midwinter was past -- probably an illusion, as we still have to get through January and February. A Mistle Thrush, a Song Thrush and a Great Tit were all singing. One of the Little Grebes was emerging from its plain winter colours and beginning to show a sign of red on its head. And this adult Great Crested Grebe, one of the parents of the young bird that was hatched in early September, has definitely grown its breeding plumage.

The young grebe is still hanging around with its parents, being an only child and not having a gang of siblings to go around with. It is not pestering them for food, and I have seen the two diving together to do a side-by-side sweep, evidently hoping to chase fish into the space between them where they are close enough for a quick grab.

A young Black-Headed Gull has reached that awkward age where it is growing the dark brown head feathers of its breeding plumage, but has not yet moulted the tweedy juvenile feathers on its wings.

Unlike their larger relatives, Black-Headed Gulls grow to an almost fully adult appearance in the first year of their life, though their legs and feet remain dull orange rather than red for some time.

There was a small flock of Red-Crested Pochards at the Serpentine island, with the males in their splendid breeding plumage.

There are Egyptian Geese wandering around in pairs or small groups everywhere. Two were standing on the Henry Moore arch clamouring loudly. Their habit of perching in high places and making a terrible noise can't be purely because they are seeking a nest site, since this is an utterly unsuitable place.

A large crowd of Coots, sometimes over 100 of them, hangs around the north bank of the Serpentine a few yards from the bridge.

People arrive in their cars at the nearby car park, walk the few steps down to the edge of the water, and feed them. Often the food is just dumped on the edge -- large mounds of pitta bread or rice which looks as if it was the leavings of restaurants. The Coots have become so accustomed to this largesse that sometimes it is hard to get past them, and I practically had to kick them out of the way today.

Thursday 27 December 2012

The young Great Black-Backed Gull was on the edge of the Serpentine. It is a second-winter bird, just beginning to grow the first dark feathers on its back to replace its tweedy juvenile plumage. These slow-maturing birds take four years to achieve a fully adult appearance.

It investigated and discarded a horse chestnut and flew off to search for something more edible, giving a fine view of its 5 ft wingspan.

The female Tawny Owl had found a new perch on the beech tree a few feet to the west of her nest tree. She will be disapearing into her nest soon and may not be seen again until the end of February or the beginning of March.

I met Des McKenzie, writer of the predecessor of this blog and with bird recognition skills that I can never hope to equal, in Kensington Gardens. He had just seen a Woodcock, which had been frightened out of the long grass on Buck Hill by the ambulance helicopter landing there to pick up a casualty. I have only ever seen one Woodcock in the park.

There were Egyptian Geese flying all over the park in various directions. Des reckoned that there were fewer of them than a couple of days ago, when he had counted 80 in the whole park. Nevertheless, the average number of these birds in the park is increasing rapidly, by as much 50 per cent a year. When I counted the number of Canada Geese around the lake at the end of November there were only 79 of these, so the Egyptians are well on their way to outnumbering them.

A few Shovellers had ventured out from the shelter of the Serpentine island into the choppy water at the east end of the lake.

They were having difficulty shovelling up their food in the waves, and frequently upended and dabbled under the surface like Mallards.

Update: Denise Anderson visited the park to make a video of the Tawny Owls, which you can see here. They were, of course, not doing very much during the day, but the soundtrack evokes their noisy surroundings with a colony of Ring-Necked Parakeets on one side and of Carrion Crows on the other.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

One of the Great Black-Backed Gulls was perched on a post offshore from the Peter Pan statue. It is even bigger than the Cormorant two posts behind it, and dwarfs the Common Gull in the foreground.

When you see one of these birds from a distance, without another bird next to it so that you can't see how large it is, the easiest way to recognise it is by the colour of its legs. Lesser Black-Backs, which look pretty similar, usually have yellow legs -- in the case of this handsome example, absolutely custard-coloured.

However, this is not invariable, and I have seen Lesser Black-Backs with pinkish-grey legs. Usually Lesser Black-Backs are not such a dark shade of grey, and usually they have a slimmer bill in proportion to its length. But even these signs are rather variable.

The visiting Barnacle Goose was on the edge of the Serpentine, standing next to a Greylag. You can see that it is quite a small goose. It is clearly park-bred, as it is very tame and unhesitatingly took a piece of biscuit from my hand.

Why is this bird called a Barnacle Goose? In the Middle Ages it was believed that they grew on trees like fruit, and that the 'unripe' stage as it developed was a barnacle -- a sedentary crustacean which has a 'beak' that looks rather like a goose's bill. For this reason the bird was considered to be a kind of fish, and the church allowed people to eat it on Fridays.

The 14th century traveller Sir John Mandeville, who claimed to have passed through much of the Middle East and even reached China, recounted the legend to some people he met: 'I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes. For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man's meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be.' (Travels, chapter 29)

This illustration is from a bestiary in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 58v. How right that unreliable knight's hearers were to trow it an impossible thing.

The two Tawny Owls were in their usual places in the nest tree. There were also two Greater Spotted Woodpeckers and a Nuthatch in the same area -- all birds that nest in holes, in a place full of old trees that provide a profusion of holes for all sizes.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

After hours of heavy rain the park is as wet as it can be. Every flat area is flooded, every step is a squelch. At the bottom of the Vista, the drain that serves the long slope down from Kensington Palace is overflowing and discharging a medium-sized stream across the path, so that people not wearing waterproof boots have to turn back -- there is no way round over the waterlogged grass. All this is much to the taste of a pair of Egyptian Geese.

 It wouldn't be a proper Christmas without a picture of a Robin.

This one is the owner of a large territory on the edge of the leaf yard, from which it furiously expels all birds of equal size or smaller. It is no good trying to feed the Great Tits or Chaffinches in this place, as the Robin will launch itself against them as soon as they appear, much like one of the Angry Birds in the video game.

In the Long Water off the Italian Garden, a Cormorant was looking for its Christmas dinner. Its blue eyes gives it an innocent expression that is at odds with the ferocity of its large beak with a sharp downward-pointing spike on the tip to ensure that no fish escapes.

On the Serpentine, a pair of female Pochards came across briskly for some bits of biscuit.

They are more numerous in winter, when migrants fly in from eastern Europe, but some are resident. Oddly, they don't seem to breed on the lake, although Red-Crested Pochards and Mandarins, which are more exotic species, usually have a try.

Monday 24 December 2012

A dim drizzly day. I saw one of the adult Great Black-Backed Gulls and the young one flying heavily over the Serpentine, just above the water to take advantage of the extra lift. They are not graceful birds, having neither the agility of smaller gulls nor the effortless skimming flight of an albatross. Here the adult sets itself down in the water. The main impression is simply one of hugeness.

 A small group of Red-Crested Pochards had arrived at the Serpentine island.

The movements of these birds are obsure: one day you might see half a dozen, the next day none. Do they visit from Regent's Park from time to time? Do they simply disappear round the back of the island, where they are hidden by moored pedalos and the wire nets of water plants? The front duck on the left side is a female Common Pochard, looking much like a Red-Crested one in this shot, but note her grey back.

A group of four Canada-Greylag hybrid geese, presumably siblings because they are always seen together, has been on the lake for some time.

The female Tawny Owl was in her usual place on the side of the nest tree. She always wakes up and stares severely at me when I visit her, unlike her mate who remains blissfully asleep.

A very happy Christmas to all the faithful readers of this blog who have endured my vague maunderings for months -- especially on a day like this when there is really nothing exciting to see. I will try to get out tomorrow, if only for a short time. They only way to see whether there is anything worth reporting is to go out again and again, and keep hoping.

Sunday 23 December 2012

A mild day, and nothing out of the ordinary to see. The Little Owls were calling to each other in the leaf yard but didn't come into view. The Tawny Owls were in their accustomed places on the nest tree. The number of Cormorants, which had fallen to one or two on most days, has now increased again, for no clear reason, and generally you can see half a dozen.

Several pairs of Coots, having nothing better to do on a winter day, were fighting. This excellent picture by Alan Clubb shows the style of their bouts. Both birds lean back in the water, supported by wings stretched out behind them, and kick each other with their strong feet.

The fringes on their toes stop them from sinking into mud, acting like snowshoes. The smaller members of the rail family, such as Moorhens and Water Rails, are lighter and don't need this adaptation.

I came home down the Broad Walk at dusk, when most people had left and it was quiet. One of the things you notice at these times is the extremely large number of Robins singing.

It sounds as if there was a Robin territory every 50 yards in all directions wherever there bushes for them to sit on. The five-year autumn count in Kensington Gardens in November 2010 found 42 territories, but I am sure that the current number is well into three figures. Numbers are certainly increasing. The 2010 count was was more than 50 per cent greater than that of 2005, and was the highest count since the series of five-year counts began in 1925.

A Carrion Crow was amusing itself by swinging around on the weather vane of the Serpentine Gallery.

And in the Italian Gardens, one of the keystones of the loggia looked thoroughly depressed by having a Feral Pigeon sitting on it.

Saturday 22 December 2012

A soggy day, but it didn't deter this slightly damp Coal Tit from coming out to be fed.

Once a Coal Tit finds someone with food it likes -- pine nuts are the first choice -- it will follow them, often for a hundred yards or more, taking piece after piece. Some of the food will be cached in cracks in tree bark so that the bird can come back later. Unless, that is, a Great Tit has spotted the Coal Tit putting away its morsel and has gone in to steal it.

In the Italian Garden, a young Mute Swan had decided that it couldn't get any wetter and had put its head under the shower.

For the next two photographs, thanks to Wendy and Gina, whom I met in the park yesterday. They had already visited the Tawny Owls' nest tree and taken this fine picture of the male owl being annoyed by a squirrel.

Readers of Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin will remember what happened to the impertinent hero when he taunted Old Brown the owl, got too close to him, and was seized. He wrenched himself away, but lost his tail in the escape. Although red squirrels are smaller than the American grey ones that have ousted them in southern England, they would be too large to be a Tawny Owl's prey, though I am sure that the owl would attack one if it felt threatened.

Here a male Chaffinch feeding on my hand refuses to shift when a female Great Tit tries to land.

Once a Chaffinch becomes confident, it will stay on your hand taking one piece of food after another until it has got as much as it can carry in its beak, and only then will it fly away to eat its takings.

Friday 21 December 2012

All three Great Black-Backed Gulls, the adults and the first-winter one, were visible at different times in different places. I'm never going to get a family group shot. Here one of the adults, on a post near the Serpentine bridge, gets into an odd posture as it stretches its wings.

The bird in front of it is a Lesser Black-Backed Gull, looking lesser by some degree. They are usually paler than Greats, but the difference is exaggerated by the way the sunlight is falling on its back.

Here are some of the large flock of Egyptian Geese grazing in front of the Norwegian war memorial on the north shore of the Serpentine.

They seem to be permanent occupants of this area, to the extent that they have driven off the larger geese to other parts of the park; there was not a single Greylag or Canada on their patch.

A passing Mallard gives a beautiful show of its iridescent head in the low winter sunlight.

These shiny feathers are not green in the ordinary sense. The colour is produced by microscopic ridges on the barbules of the feathers, which cause interference effects when the light waves that fall on them are reflected. When the light is reflected straight out, the distance between the ridges causes mainly green light to be reflected. Where we see the reflection from the sides of the bird's head, the ridges appear closer together because they are viewed obliquely, and the reflected light is of shorter wavelength, so we see blue.

I met some people who asked me whether House Sparrows are likely to return to the park. In the past few decades their numbers have declined from thousands to zero, and the last ones in the park were seen in 2000. They are absent from Central London over an area roughly corresponding with Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. As far as I know, the nearest flock to the park is in St Mary's Catholic cemetery on the west side of Kensal Green Cemetery. However, last year I saw an encouraging sign: a pair of House Sparrows on the Instituto Español Vicente Cañada Blanch, the Spanish school in the Portobello Road just North of the Westway. Here is the male, who attracted my attention with his loud chirping.

Thursday 20 December 2012

A grey rainy day. A Pied Wagtail was foraging on the waterlogged grass, picking up small larvae of a yellowish colour which had floated out of the ground. There seemed to be plenty of them.

There are three Great Black-Backed Gulls currently visiting the lake, two adults and a young one, though I have not seen all three together. They have been here for at least a week, and may be the same as the ones that have come to the park in recent months. I think that they only visit the park for short periods, and spend the rest of the day scavenging somewhere else, possibly on the river at low tide.

The young one has a very aggressive attitude. Today I found it on the shore of the Serpentine eating a stale-looking fish that it had certainly not caught itself. But someone started feeding the swans a few yards away, and it paddled over to get a bit of the action. As it arrived, it was threatened by a Mute Swan, which clearly annoyed it, as it pecked at a Coot and then at an Egyptian Goose, chasing both away.

But it was not satisfied with that, and tried to pull feathers out of a swan's tail.

The swan rounded on it furiously and chased it away. Sometimes even a Great Black-Backed Gull meets its match.

In Kensington Gardens, only the female Tawny Owl was out on her balcony on the nest tree. There was a Green Woodpecker in a tree near the top of the Gloucester Road. They are shy birds, and if you approach them they go round to the back of the tree or fly up to a high branch.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Yesterday I was complaining about the lack of unusual ducks on the lake. Today, to prove me wrong, there was a male Wigeon under the bushes on the east side of the Long Water.

I didn't see a female with him. Sorry about the very distant shot -- the picture was taken diagonally across the lake. There were also a couple of Gadwalls at the Serpentine island, but those are not rare here, just irregular and unpredictable visitors.

There was a Great Black-Backed Gull on the Serpentine again, this time on the posts near the bridge.

The bird behind is a Lesser Black-Backed Gull, and you can see its yellow legs, in contrast to the pinkish-grey ones of the Great.

Hurrying through the rain along the side of the Serpentine, I saw a pair of Great Crested Grebes doing a rather casual display, and took my camera out of its case only to find that the lens was misted up. As I was hastily wiping it with a tissue, I noticed that both of them had dived, and hastily switched the camera on and pointed it in their direction. And I was rewarded by a proper dance with a pretty red plane leaf.

It is completely the wrong time of year, of course. But if you are a grebe there is always time for a dance.

The Tawny Owls were sitting together on the balcony of their nest tree, a sheltered spot on a rainy day.