Saturday 30 June 2012

A band of 22 immature Herring Gulls were roving around the Serpentine, in addition to the usual dozen large gulls that are always on the lake, mostly Lesser Black-Backed. Perhaps the amount of food dropped by the crowds of weekend visitors attracts them -- gulls are quick to profit from human habits, and learn raiding techniques from each other.

In spite of this, the Coot family from the nest under the ledge of the Dell restaurant had ventured to the edge of the lake, where the parents were finding plenty of food for their young in the debris blown to that corner by the brisk breeze.

And there were no gulls on the Long Water at all, which was good news for this Mallard with a brand new brood of 10, who was making the dangerous crossing of the open water in front of the Peter Pan statue. There are only nine in this picture, as you can't organise ducklings for a photo-op, even by bribing them with biscuit crumbs.

There were 19 Mallard ducklings in all on the Long Water, a better total than in recent years though the losses are always high. Maybe this year a few will make it to maturity.

In the Dell, a Wren was making a tremendous racket. I went to see why, and it was holding a crane fly in its beak. There were no predators in sight, so perhaps it was just congratulating itself. It is difficult to believe that such a small bird can make such a loud noise, which could be heard 100 yards away through the chatter of the human visitors; and also remarkable that it can do it with an insect clamped in its beak.

Friday 29 June 2012

The Great Crested Grebe family were at the southeast corner of the Serpentine island, invisible behind the wire baskets. But is was clear that they were there, because the father arrived carrying a small fish, swimming alternately above and under water to confuse any predator that might the following him, and dived under the basket to get to his family. These floating baskets sometimes break loose from their moorings and have to be towed back and refixed.

In another part of the lake, a grebe could be seen swimming under water, looking for food among the algae. In this picture the bird looks impossibly long and thin because of the refraction in the water -- though they are very slim and streamlined in reality.

After a while, the grebe swam along the shore to get to a better fishing ground, at an underwater cruising speed of 4 mph, so that I had to walk briskly to keep up. They exceed this speed when chasing fish, though I would not like to estimate how fast they can go.

Large wire baskets full of brushwood are being sunk in various places in the Serpentine. Earlier, bundles of the same kind of brushwood were put in the water all round the edge of the island. I spoke to one of the men doing it, and he said that the idea was that the twigs would be colonised by beneficial microorganisms that would clean the water. It can't do any harm.

While I was feeding some Coal Tits off my hand, a Goldcrest turned up and showed interest, though it didn't summon the courage to come down. It would be very pleasing to be able to attract these tiny birds. Even the Coal Tits only started coming to the hand this year. Now they are very bold, though they have to wait until the larger birds have had their turn.

While people were feeding the cygnets of one of the Mute Swans, a Carrion Crow tried to grab some of their food. The mother swan saw it off.

There was a Blue Tailed Damselfly among the wild plants near the bridge, mixing with the Common Blues that I illustrated earlier.

Thursday 28 June 2012

The Mistle Thrushes near the Serpentine Gallery have at least one young bird -- half grown but still dependent on its parents. It was sitting in a lime tree waiting to be fed. 

I heard one of the parents dive-bombing a Carrion Crow and went over to have a look. The intruder disposed of, the thrush was strolling around unconcernedly a few feet away from some picnickers. These shy birds are not bothered by people if they see that the people are quietly getting on with their own affairs and taking no notice of them. But before I could take a picture, a woman talking on her mobile, blind and deaf to the world, blundered on to the scene and frightened it away. It flew into the lime tree, so I went to have a look, and found the young thrush.

Some of the Greylag Geese on the Serpentine have almost completed the growing of their new primary feathers.

Three cygnets, younger than those in the Lido Mute Swans' first brood of seven, have just grown large enough to drive off Coots without help from their parents. Someone was feeding them on the edge of the Serpentine, and they clearly enjoyed seeing off the intruders and grabbing the food for themselves.

There is a family of Goldcrests in a cedar tree at the southeast corner of the Dell. They were loudly audible but wouldn't come out of the shadows to be photographed, and why should they?

Wednesday 27 June 2012

There is another brood of Red Crested Pochards on the Long Water, the second this year. Only small numbers of these birds breed in this country, and the London parks are among the most prolific breeding sites. Sadly, when I photographed them one of the ducklings was in the last few seconds of its life, as it was seized by one of the gang of three Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, borne away and swallowed at a single gulp.

Surprisingly, the two broods of six and four Mallard ducklings were still intact. Their mothers are keeping them well under the bushes, perhaps having learnt from bitter experience what happens when you go out into the middle of the lake.

A Blackbird in the leaf yard had added some fine imitations of Nuthatch and Chaffinch song to his repertoire. Not far away, another Blackbird was doing Song Thrush impressions. The imitations come in the second half of each phrase, after a purely Blackbird opening -- but even the opening is different every time, as these inventive musicians never repeat themselves.

The Reed Warbler at the bottom end of the Serpentine was still singing, in exactly the same place as yesterday. I didn't hear the Reed Warbler in the reeds near the bridge, but there was a pair of Common Blue Damselflies mating. The male is the blue one on the left.

There are more and more Wood Pigeons in the park. Elizabeth saw a flock of 50 a few days ago.

As I was coming home past the Round Pond, I saw some people feeding the birds on the edge of the water: a few of the pond's 60-odd Mute Swans, a Canada Goose, about 200 Starlings and the inevitable pigeons. Then three young thugs turned up and started running at the birds and trying to kick them. Amazingly, at this moment a police van raced up and two policemen leapt out and seized them, actually putting them in handcuffs, and within half a minute another car turned up with two policewomen. I watched this spectacle with a certain vengeful enjoyment.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Today I did the monthly bird count around the Long Water and Serpentine, made difficult by much of the shore being occupied by the Olympic construction site. The number of geese currently on the lake moulting their wing feathers was 333, composed of 282 Greylags and 151 Canadas. Some Canadas have left in the past fortnight.

There was a Grey Heron in the abandoned nest at the east end of the Serpentine island. I think it was just using it as a convenient perch and did not intend to return to it seriously, as it left soon afterwards and stood on a wire mesh plant box instead, staring at the new Great Crested Grebe family who were safely out of reach.

Another heron stood in the Dell, eyeing the large carp in the water. The fish are far too big for it to catch, but herons are always hopeful.

The Coot family under the ledge of the Dell restaurant were out and about. Here one of the parents dives with the usual clumsy splash to bring up some algae for the chicks. They are very buoyant birds and find it hard to stay submerged. As soon as they stop swimming downwards they pop up like corks.

There are two new broods of Mallard ducklings on the Long Water, one of six and the other of four. There was one Lesser Black-Backed Gull in sight, and both mother ducks were keeping their offspring close to the edge, ready to retreat to cover if the gull came nearer.

A Reed Warbler was singing loud and long in the reeds on the southeast corner of the Serpentine. Let's hope that some of them manage to breed before it's time for them to migrate back to Africa.

Monday 25 June 2012

The Great Crested Grebes nesting on the Serpentine island have taken their chicks out of the nest, and they were being carried on their mother's back. Prudently, she had kept behind the wire baskets that surround the island, and it was impossible to count the chicks, let alone take a photograph. Their father, just relieved from his carrying duties, was out in the lake washing off the mess and getting himself comfortable before he went fishing.

He managed to catch several very small fish, which is encouraging both for grebes and for people worried about the state of the lake.

On the other side of the lake, an Egyptian Goose was also having a bath.

The Coots nesting on a bottle crate under the sill of the Dell restaurant have four chicks. Although there were several Lesser Black-Backed Gulls cruising around hopefully, the overhanging concrete ledge was enough to keep them safe. A gull would have to fly over a Coot's nest to snatch a chick; if it went in on the surface the angry parents would see it off.

Often when I walk past the Serpentine Gallery, I see a large female Sparrowhawk heading southwest; she seems to have a daily routine. Today her travel plan was disrupted when a couple of Crows went up and chased her, shouting hoarse insults. She left in a hurry.

Sunday 24 June 2012

One of the Reed Warblers was singing in the patch of reeds on the Long Water by the bridge. Nearby, the Moorhens that nest in the drain have one chick. There are probably more on the way, as one of the adults went into the drain and did not emerge for some time.

The Great Crested Grebes nesting on the island are still in good order. Here is a photograph, too distant but the best I could do, of the two chicks seen so far looking out under their father's left wing. Their mother was out in the lake fishing busily but not catching much. There are now some young fish up to 2 inches long in the lake. It will be easier for the grebes when their young are a little larger and can be taken to the meal instead of having to carry the catch several hundred yards back to the nest.

A Song Thrush was singing gloriously from a dead branch near the Henry Moore sculpture. There is only about a week to go before they fall silent till next spring. Both Blackbird and Song Thrushes develop their songs over the season, so the last song is the best.

A Greenfinch was calling on the other side of the Vista. There are not many of these in the park, nor Goldfinches, for some reason, although Chaffinches are abundant.

Saturday 23 June 2012

A typical midsummer Saturday, and the park was full of people, so there was little unusual to see in the way of bird life. There is a second blond Greylag Goose on the lake, darker than the one that arrived earlier this year.

And here is one of the young Grey Herons gazing pensively across the lake, almost certainly thinking of its next meal.

There was more interest under water. Nigel Reeve had seen my report of 12 May about the return of the crayfish after they had been wiped out in 2008 by an accident when workmen cleaning the Diana fountain released poisonous chemicals into the lake. And he had asked me to get a picture of one of the new crayfish, if possible.

The original ones in the lake were Turkish Crayfish (Astacus leptodactylus), and he thought that the new ones might be American Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), which have become a pest species in Britain over the past few decades. Neither is native, of course, and they are none too welcome as they predate the larvae of native fish. It was noticeable that after the poisoning incident there was a brief boom in the number of fish in the lake.

The boss of the boat hire firm Bluebird Boats, Peter Scott, had told me that his workers had found lots of large crayfish in the lake. I happened to meet him on my way round the lake, and asked him if, the next time he found one, he could photograph it to determine its species. But he very kindly offered to find me one there and then, and sent me out with two of his men in a motor boat to bring one up.

Before 2008, there was a man who set crayfish traps in the lake, quite unofficially, and sold his catch to local restaurants. Now it seems that someone has resumed the trade. There were two crayfish traps in the shallow water between the boathouses, and after we had found them -- with some difficulty because the algae hid everything -- we retrieved two crayfish, one of which was very large, more like a junior lobster.

I thought this must be a Signal Crayfish because of its huge size and massive right claw. But when I got home and looked it up on the web, I changed my mind. Unlike a Signal Crayfish, it doesn't have any trace of red on its body, and it looks just like the Turkish crayfish shown here. So maybe a few survived in 2008, and have gradually bred up to large numbers again. Here is a close-up of the same creature.

Friday 22 June 2012

An afternoon usefully spent with Nigel Reeve, the Royal Parks ecologist, recording the GPS coordinates of the various trees used by Tawny and Little Owls, and also the dead tree where there is a Treecreeper's nest. The information will now go into the park database, and will be used to keep tree cutting in the area to a minimum. This is particularly important because all the trees in question are old and hollow and likely to be thought dangerous.

The birds were obliging. The Little Owl showed up for a moment in the sweet chestnut tree where I last photographed him on 1 May.

When we went past the reeds on the Long Water where the Reed Warblers are probably nesting, the male gave us a brief burst of song. There are also damselflies in the plants around this spot. Here is an Azure Damselfly -- I think, but insects are not my thing and it might be a Common Blue looking a bit pale.

Elsewhere, the imprudent Moorhens that nested twice in the reeds near the Italian Gardens too close to the edge, and lost their eggs as a result, are having a third try, again too far out. If I can see them to take this picture, so can a hungry gull.

The algae in the Long Water have formed tall towers reaching from the bottom to the surface, a remarkable sight when viewed from the bridge. By looking at them you get a sense of how deep the water is in the middle of the lake, maybe as much as 20 ft allowing for the shortening effect of refraction.

At this point the valley of the former river Westbourne, which was dammed in 1727 to make the lake, is still fairly narrow and V-shaped. Father downstream, in the Serpentine, it opens out into a little plain where once the river meandered through a series of fishponds.

Thursday 21 June 2012

At last, a sight of Great Crested Grebe chicks. The pair at the east end of the Serpentine island have at least two, which can dimly be seen in this bad photograph taken at long range on a dull day. Their father is sitting on the nest with the babies on his back, and they are poking their little heads out on either side of his neck.

Grebe chicks can swim and dive from the moment they hatch, as they need to because they often fall out of the nest or off their parents' back when being carried. However, they can't really walk. Even an adult grebe is very uncertain on its feet, which are set so far back on its body that it has to stand in an odd hunched position. The babies are quadrupeds: they crawl about using their wings as front legs, as can be seen in this picture taken last year.

Here, by contrast, is one of the Coot chicks from the nest in the netting near the Lido. Its enormous feet are already doing good service as it hops nimbly over the slime.

The three chicks from this nest are all alive, despite the hungry glances of this Herring Gull a short way along the shore. This is a second-summer bird, losing its tweedy juvenile plumage and beginning to show adult pale grey on its back. It takes Herring Gulls four years to get fully adult plumage.

Reed Warblers were singing from the reeds at the bottom end of the Serpentine and west of the Lido. I am not sure whether the second of these was the one who has been singing just the other side of the bridge. It is possible that there are three pairs.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

The Great Crested Grebes' nest on the Serpentine isalnd is hatching out again. It's very hard to see what's going on through binoculars, and well nigh impossible to photograph. Let's hope these birds have better luck this time. There are fewer Grey Herons than there were when they lost their first brood, and the heron nest close to theirs has been abandoned.

Andrew reports that he heard one of the Little Owls calling yesterday, from the chestnut trees where they were in April. He couldn't see it, hardly surprising as he was looking for a small, perfectly camouflaged bird in dense foliage.

Speaking of perfect camouflage, spot the Treecreeper in this picture.

A Mallard on the Long Water has five ducklings. She was keeping them well into the side of the lake under the bushes as a Lesser Black-Backed Gull flew up the lake.

The Magpies near Rudolf Steiner's bench overlooking the Long Water from Buck Hill are constantly chased by two noisy youngsters clamouring for food.

I met Roy Sanderson negotiating the enormous detour around the Olympic building site. He had been counting House Martins' nests on the French and Kuwaiti embassies, and brought the welcome news that the birds have started recolonising the French embassy. He saw five pairs of birds attending nests, two on the French embassy, three on the Kuwaiti building. I went there later and saw four nests being attended to on the Kuwaiti side, and one on the French side. It is very difficult counting active nests, as a pair of birds may go away and hunt over the lake for a while, and not be counted. There are six nests on the Kuwaiti embassy, but they were built in previous years and may not all be occupied.

Here a Canada Goose flaps its very tatty wings, but you can see the blue wrappings of its emerging primary feathers.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

There is a pair of Reed Warblers in the Long Water reedbed next to the bridge. I saw both of them momentarily, and after that a lot of movement in one spot in the reeds, showing that they are building a nest. Usually there are one or two Reed Warblers every summer, but I have never seen any sign of nesting before in this park.

There was a young Blackcap on the east side of the Long Water chasing its mother and begging for food.

The Canada Geese, which moult a little later than the Greylags, are now also beginning to grow their new flight feathers. And the Mute Swans are beginning to moult too. Here a first-year swan with a bit of grey still showing preens itself; note its tatty wings.

These already bad-tempered birds are made more irritable still by moulting, and I saw an old male chasing a couple of moorhens that had not threatened him in any way.

Here a pair of mallards enjoy the duckweed on the Rima fountain.

And in the Dell, a pigeon (a proper birder would call it a Feral Rock Dove) explores some early mushrooms before deciding that they are not edible.

One seldom sees edible mushrooms of any kind in the park, apart from occasional stands of Giant Puffballs in the shrubbery. I think that this is not because they don't grow, but because when they do, in the autumn, knowledgeable mushroom fans come into the park at dawn and pick them before anyone else gets the chance. Mostly they are Italians and Russians, great mushroom gathering nations.

Monday 18 June 2012

The indomitable Coots in the Italian Garden, after a couple of days mourning for their lost chicks, have reoccupied their nest and got their gonads back in gear and are hard at work making more chicks. They are not glamorous birds, but you have to admire them.

The geese on the lake are now well into regrowing their wing feathers. Here is the wing of a Greylag. The packaging on the feathers is drying up and splitting, and the new feathers are spreading out.

The branch that fell off the willow tree near the bridge is, improbably, still alive in spite of being snapped almost all the way through. It is the cambium layer under the bark that carries the sap to nourish the branch; the wood in the middle is just a mechanical support. Evidently enough of the outer layers of the branch has remained unbroken to allow sap to get through and keep the leaves green. This is excellent news for water birds, since the branches in the water will provide nest sites and good cover. For years the tree was a reliable nesting place for Great Crested Grebes, but after the branch they used was broken when the bridge was being repaired, they lost their site and had to make do with very insecure places. Now -- if only the quantity of fish in the lake would increase -- they can return in comfort.

One of the workmen re-erecting the Henry Moore statue is a birdwatcher. I saw him standing on the scaffolding surveying the lake through binoculars.

Sunday 17 June 2012

The Coots have had mixed fortunes in their breeding season. The pair who nested in the Italian Garden and lost their brood to a gull have now abandoned their nest and were nowhere to be seen. The pair from the netting near the Lido have kept their brood of three, thanks to having chosen a very well protected place. And the pair who eccentrically nested on a bottle crate under the terrace of the Dell restaurant have hatched at least one chick, whose little red head can be seen in this distant shot in the middle of the sunlit side of the nest.

The male Mandarins on the Long Water, so fine a month ago, are now going into eclipse and look sadly tatty. But they will be glorious again.

The male Willow Warbler was singing again from the back of the Lido, though he was impossible to see. There is certainly a nest somehere here.

The bottom of the lake is now a continuous carpet of algae. When the sun shines and warms the shallow water, photosynthesis speeds up and little bubbles of oxygen form on the underside of the strands. After a while they grow large and numerous enough to raise the strands to the surface.

This is why algal blooms seem to appear so quickly in sunny weather. The algae have been there all the time, but now they become visible.

Heaven knows what state the lake will be in by August. Perhaps they could replace the Olympic swimming events with a bog snorkelling race.

Saturday 16 June 2012

There are two singing Reed Warblers, on on the Long Water near the bridge, the other right at the bottom end of the Serpentine in the reeds south of the outflow.

The Coots in the Italian Garden pond have lost all their chicks, though as far as I can see there was never more than one alive at any one time. No eggs were left in the nest of the original seven. This is the work of gulls; the Coots were well protected from other predators, as the water is too deep for Grey Herons and they are out of the reach of humans. They showed no inclination to leave the nest. If earlier years are a precedent, they will start again soon.

I went to the embassies to check on the House Martins. Again, plenty of activity on the Kuwaiti embassy and none on the French. Are the birds ever going to reoccupy what used to be their favourite place?

At the Lido restaurant there was a rather beautiful blond young Starling. I wonder whether it will turn the usual dark colour when it grows up.

Another young Starling was being literally spoon fed by a diner.

There is room for only a few Starling nests in the bandstand on Buck Hill, since the attempt to block up the eaves has left only a few holes. Here a bird performs a difficult landing to get into a downward-facing hole.

Other Starlings have nested in holes in nearby trees, and there was a sound of loud scolding from several birds. After a while a Mapgpie and a Carrion Crow came out, defeated by the harassment, and flew some distance away.

I went to the Round Pond, which was whirling with Swifts and House Martins. The ten young Egyptian Geese were in good order, diving busily to pick algae off the bottom of the pond. There was also a young Pied Wagtail foraging on its own, with no parent in sight.