Wednesday 31 October 2012

A day of strong wind and whirling gulls. These Black-Headed Gulls were after worms exposed by the digger working on the drains on the Parade Ground. They were completely unfazed by this huge contrivance, and jumped nimbly out of the way of the blade as it bore down on them.

Roy Sanderson reports that one of the gulls whose ring I photographed yesterday, ET 34537, is 13 years old. It was ringed on 15 December 1999 in Kensington Gardens. It was seen again in the park in March 2001, January 2002, January 2003, January 2004 , February 2005 and February 2006. It had not been reported since then.

The Grey Wagtail had returned to the top of the waterfall in the Dell, and I make no apology for showing another picture of this beautiful bird, its colours set off by the autumn leaves.

One of the Ring-Necked Parakeets has developed a taste for digestive biscuits. She grasps this heavy snack  in her strong foot, with its zygodactyl arrangement of two 'fingers' and two 'thumbs' giving an excellent grip. This is the bird that Roy Sanderson ringed earlier this year, and had his finger bitten to the bone in the process.

I went up the Edgware Road and came to the tower of the Metropole Hilton Hotel just as the Peregrines landed on it. Here is one of them on the usual ledge near the top of the 300 ft tower. You would need a lens the size of a main drain to take a good picture of this lofty station.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

There are two Kingfishers on the Long Water, and they are making themselves quite easy to see -- a change from their usual behaviour on the lake, when you might be lucky to see a momentary blue flash once a year. This is a very poor picture, but it was taken at a distance of 100 yards, from the balustrade of the Italian Garden. The bird is stationed on a leaning post on the west side of the water, just to the north of the fallen horse chestnut tree.

The two Tawny Owls were sitting side by side in the beech tree next to their nest tree, but they were doing the photographer no favours and I am not going to publish the ridiculously bad picture I took of a few brown feathers and one dark eye watching me through a mass of leaves.

Here instead is an easy shot of a Pochard looking rather fine with the low sun illuminating his rusty head and brilliant red eye.

Some of the male Tufted Ducks are already in their full breeding plumage of smart black and white. They breed and moult later than other ducks (though they have not managed to breed on our lake for several years). Here one of them dives to escape a Mallard trying to steal a piece of bread from him.

Some Feral Pigeons were enjoying a meal of curry and rice which someone had strangely put out for them. Birds cannot taste capsaicin, the substance that makes chilli seem hot to us. This is a nice piece of evolution. The chilli plant's seeds are dispersed by being eaten and excreted by birds, whose fast digestive systems don't kill the seeds. The ripe fruit is red, a colour that birds can see but most mammals can't, and the hot taste deters mammals, but not birds, from eating the fruit.

Yesterday I photographed a ring on a Black-Headed Gull, an ordinary British ring with the number EP 24143, and emailed Roy Sanderson about this. He told me that this bird was ringed in Kensington Gardens on 19 December 2002, and it has been seen here in the winters of 2005/6, 2006/7, 2010/11 and 2011/12. Today I got two more numbers of rings on Black-Headed Gulls, EP24656 and ET34537. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is known about their history.

Monday 29 October 2012

More Common Gulls have arrived for the winter. The usual game begins: the big Black-Headed and Herring Gulls beat up the medium-sized Common Gulls, and the Common Gulls beat up the small Black-Headed Gulls.

But sometimes there is a surprise. This Black-Headed Gull made a daring raid over the head of a young Herring Gull to seize a piece of bread, and got away with most of it. A Coot took the rest, and the Herring Gull, which had supposed itself able to beat all comers, was left with nothing.

The male Tawny Owl is still in the beech tree next to the nest tree, and still very difficult to see. When he returns to the nest tree he will be clearly visible, since this tree has been badly attacked by the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner Cameraria ohridella and has already shed most of its leaves. The pest attacks horse chestnuts that stand in long grass, and the trees where a mower passes underneath remain relatively unscathed. This is because it can overwinter in the long grass, and emerges in spring to lay eggs on the leaves.

The Little Grebes were out together on the Long Water. Here they pass under some brambles.

A Wren had come out on to a rock near the waterfall in the Dell to drink and bathe. It was too small to stand in the fast flowing water on the edge where I photographed the Grey Wagtail on Saturday, and had to content itself with splashing around on the edge of the pool under a berberis bush.

Sunday 28 October 2012

There is a place in the Serpentine near the bridge, at the south end of the line of posts that cross the lake, where for some reason fish are particularly plentiful. The Great Crested Grebe family from the bridge have been making good use of it, but today they were pushed out by a Cormorant. A few minutes later another Cormorant arrived and attacked the first one, and there was a fast-moving fight, mostly underwater. I managed to snatch one blurred shot as they broke surface for a moment.

The Tawny Owl was in his usual beech tree, though as usual very hard to get a clear sight of.

There was a brief glimpse of a Kingfisher crossing the Long Water near the Peter Pan statue. These birds are seen only occasionally, but always in this area. I have seen them more often on the Grand Union Canal, and it is possible that they visit the lake from the canal near Paddington Station.

All three Little Grebes were visible together, which is unusual. They were near the fallen horse chestnut tree, just allowing a distant shot to be taken from the Italian Garden.

If the weather gets seriously cold there will be more of them, as they come to the Long Water when their usual small ponds freeze. There is a place where the water comes out of the borehole to feed the lake which never freezes, even in the iciest weather, and the local Little Grebes seem to know about this and use it as a place of last resort.

At the Round Pond there was yet another Canada-Greylag hybrid goose, this time with yellow feet and traces of yellow on the bill. The colours of these hybrids are extraordinarily variable, though the species of their parents is never in doubt.

The very late brood of Egyptian Geese at the Round Pond is down to six from the original ten, but the survivors are now big enough to be out of danger from gulls. Here they are huddled up for warmth in the cold wind, and one of them has a yawn before settling down to sleep.

Saturday 27 October 2012

One of the Grey Wagtails that nest every year in the Dell put in an appearance at the top of the waterfall. The ledge where the shallow stream runs over the edge is popular with all kinds of small birds which go there to drink and bathe; for the wagtail there is also a chance of some insects on the stones and around the edge of the little pool.

The yew tree beside the path from Peter Pan to the Italian Garden has produced a reasonable crop of berries, and is much visited by Blackbirds and Song Thrushes such as this one.

For some reason I have never seen a Mistle Thrush in this tree, although these birds eat other kinds of berries, especially rowan. But I suppose that all species have their preferences. The taxonomic name of the Mistle Thrush is Turdus viscivorus, the mistletoe-eating thrush, but mistletoe is a rare plant in Britain now and I have never seen this and a thrush at the same time.

No sign of a Tawny Owl today. There was a sharp wind and they are probably sheltering in the hole in their nest tree.

A small party of Great Crested Grebes have arrived on the Serpentine; I counted five new arrivals. You can tell that they have just flown in because they are peacefully fishing side by side. They abandon their territorial claims when travelling -- 'migrating' is the wrong word here, as they usually just move around inside a fairly small locality to whichever place suits them best at the time.

There are a lot of first-year Lesser Black-Backed Gulls on the Serpentine. Here they are quarrelling over a piece of bread thrown into the lake by a diner at the Lido restaurant. A Greylag Goose took it first but promptly lost it to a swooping gull, and the fight moved out into the middle of the lake.

A pair of Egyptian Geese found an attractive background to match their plumage.

Friday 26 October 2012

Autumn has set in with a vengeance, and it is grey, cold and soggy and the thickets are full of fungi of various kinds. These never seem to be of species you would want to eat, but I think this is because Italians and Russians (both notable mushroom-hunting nations) come in at dawn and grab all the good ones.

Anyone wanting to visit the Tawny Owls at the weekend should be aware that the male owl switched to another tree two days ago. It is a beech tree immediately to the west of the familiar horse chestnut that contains their nest, and he likes to sit neat the top. You can see him from the south side after a certain amount of wandering and peering, but it is not an easy place to find with the leaves still on the tree. Beeches keep a lot of their dead leaves through the winter, so it will remain a well hidden perch.

The odd couple of a Herring Gull and a Lesser Black-Backed Gull are still together, and today they were exchanging affectionate calls. These two species are closely related, and so are Yellow-Legged Gulls, and all have been known to interbreed and produce fertile offspring whose identity causes a lot of confusion.

The Henry Moore sculpture on the Vista has become a popular perch for Carrion Crows, whose black feathers make a good contrast with the bland limestone. Today a Grey Heron tried it out, possibly as a vantage point to look for rats in the grass at the base of the sculpture. It soon flew away.

Near the Bluebird boat hire platform, four Coots were passing the time by having a fight, as Coots will. A young Black-Headed Gull ignored their unseemly behaviour.

Thursday 25 October 2012

It was the day for the monthly count of birds around the lake. The total of Common Pochards was high at 48, and there were 166 Greylag Geese, though the total of the latter in midwinter can exceed 200, especially in frosty weather when a lot of them come in from other lakes.

There were also several foraging flocks of Long-Tailed Tits, accompanied by Blue, Coal and Great Tits and in one case by a couple of Goldcrests. As I left through Albion Gate on the north side of Hyde Park, a flock came out at the same time and accompanied me up Albion Street and all the way to Sussex Gardens before it turned left to range down this tree-lined avenue. The flock moves at about walking pace and you can stay with one for several minutes, which gives a misleading impression of there being an enormous number of birds; actually it was only about 20 in all.

The number of Canada-Greylag hybrid geese continues to increase, and I counted 6 today. The one shown here is new to the park, I think; a more elegant bird than some of the hybrids which often look rather awkward.

The Great Crested Grebe family from the bridge now spends a lot of time under the willow tree next to the bridge, to get away from raids by Black-Headed Gulls. In fact the gulls often follow them in, but are unable to snatch fish because there is no room under the overhanging tree for them to fly. It is quite a good spot for catching small fish, which gather under the shade of the tree.

Two of the three Little Grebes were also under a willow tree next to the Italian Garden, fishing and collecting small invertebrates from the twigs hanging down into the water. This one has now changed into pale winter plumage; the other one is still brown and ginger.

The fallen horse chestnut tree on the Long Water is now occupied by Cormorants, as there is no longer any room left on the line of posts across the lake opposite Peter Pan. Here two of them are accompanied by a Grey Heron.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

A large flock of Carrion Crows suddenly erupted noisily from the shrubbery that encloses the Lookout teaching centre in the middle of Hyde Park. Normally there is not a very large number of these birds in the area, as they congregate and nest in the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, I think to be close to the rich scavenging area of Queensway with its many snack bars. Perhaps an overturned dustbin or a dead animal, or some similar tasty snack, had attracted them to the Lookout, and then something had disturbed them.

On one of the parts of the Parade Ground where there is still some grass, a Pied Wagtail regarded me curiously from a safe distance before returning to the hunt for small insects on the ground.

Contractors are putting in more land drains here, which are clearly needed as the place threatens to become a marsh. The impervious London clay soil allows it to become completely waterlogged although the ground is on a gentle slope which, if the soil were more porous, would drain naturally. The whole park suffers from this problem and flooding is a regular occurrence. When it rains heavily, the little valley of the buried Tyburn Brook, halfway along the north shore of the Serpentine, turns into a small lake. (The Tyburn Brook is not the same as the river Tyburn, which crosses Oxford Street next to Bond Street Tube station.)

On the Serpentine, the father of the youngest of this year's Great Crested Grebe chicks was taking a moment off duty to have a good stretch. There is no need to search for this family: you can hear the youngster calling for food from 300 yards away.

And on the Long Water, a Cormorant enjoyed a tumultuous splash to wash the parasites out of its wings.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Another dull grey day, but at least there is a bit of autumn colour to be seen.

The male Tawny Owl has been sitting in precisely the same spot in a lime tree every time I have visited it during the past week. With their offspring now dispersed, and the new breeding season not yet under way, there is nothing to disturn their routine. An investigation of the pellets that they regurgitate showed that by far the largest part of their diet consists of house mice, with fewer wood mice and some smaller rats -- adult rats are too larger for them, of course. You hardly ever see house mice in the park. However, they seem to be abundant in the areas of the park where the grass is left to grow long over the summer. It is mown once a year, which happened several weeks ago. The man who operates the tractor-driven mower said that, from the height of his seat, he could see hundreds of mice fleeing as the machine bore down on them.

There was a Pied Wagtail beside the lake, normally a common sight but they are only just returning to their usual haunts after the Olympics. It is hard to know what drove them away, since they are quite often seen and heard in the streets, but probably it was the disturbance to the area where they congregated, which was in the southern half of the Parade Ground.

At the edge of the reed bed by the Diana fountain, a Robin was investigating some seed heads for something to eat. The small birds that I feed in Kensington Gardens have become noticeably hungrier in the past few days, as the first signs of the approach of winter begin to appear.

The Jays are perpetually hungry and will swoop down rapidly from the trees for a thrown peanut.

Monday 22 October 2012

It was a dull misty day. Here is the view looking along the Long Water from the Italian Garden, with a Grey Heron standing on the raft that was meant to provide a nesting place for Common Terns.

After this was built and moored in the lake, it should have been covered with rounded white stones and equipped with a bucket on its side to provide the terns with camouflage for their eggs and shelter for their chicks, but this was not done and I have never seen a tern near it. Instead, it provides a perch for Grey Herons, Egyptian Geese, Mute Swans, and any gulls that happen to be passing. Common Terns have bred in central London, though not in the park as far as I know. Five years ago I saw a young tern parked on one of the wooden posts near the bridge while its parents brought it fish. But I have not spotted a tern on the lake this year. They are easier to find on the Grand Union Canal on the far side of Paddington Station.

There were a lot of Ring-Necked Parakeets, including a large flock of about 50 wheeling and screeching over Kensington Gardens. Their bright green feathers, such a good camouflage in summer, makes them absurdly conspicuous when they perch in leafless trees.

There are still only a few Common Gulls, though more should arrive soon. Here one perches next to some Black-Headed Gulls on the buoys around the Lido swimming area.

Even in the murk of a dull day, the brilliant white feathers on the belly of a Great Crested Grebe show up brilliantly as the bird turns on its side to preen them.

Sunday 21 October 2012

On a dull drizzly autumn day, most of the activity on the lake came from the Great Crested Grebes. There are only fourteen adults and ten young ones, but they seem to be everywhere, fishing and calling and displaying -- pairs of adults stay together for life, and even outside the breeding season are constantly saluting each other, even when one of them has only been around the other side of the island for ten minutes.

The four youngsters are trying to fly. Grebes have small wings for their size, and consequently need a very high speed to take off. This is achieved by a headlong foot-propelled run, which the young birds have already perfected in their races to take food from their parents.

Now they add a bit of wing flapping to the run, which also confers a little extra speed.

And soon they will discover that they can get airborne, though it hasn't happened yet for any of this brood. An adult Great Crested Grebe needs a 50-yard run to unstick in still air, though it can be shortened by heading into the wind. And, of course, they can only take off from and come down on water, so flying is a chancy business, to be undertaken only when necessary.

A far more airworthy creature, a Greylag Goose comes down on the water, feet outstretched forwards to act as water skis. This bird is slowing down as hard as possible, with a very high angle of attack and on the brink of a stall, and tail outspread to add extra air braking.

On land, the wet weather has brought a plentiful crop of fungi.

This is part of a 'fairy ring', a circle of fungi that spreads out wider every year, leaving a permanent dark green mark on the grass where the decay of the mushrooms has added a little extra fertility. The 'fairy rings' in the park are composed of Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea, a species that grows over the rotted roots of dead trees, rather than the classic Fairy Ring Mushroom Marasmius oreades, a small, and slim pale brown mushroom. Both species are edible but uninteresting in flavour; country people used to gather Fairy Ring Mushrooms and string them on threads across the ceiling to dry as a stock of extra winter food.

The male Tawny Owl is still in the lime tree where he has spent the past few days.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The young Great Crested Grebes at the bridge are now catching their own fish quite successfully. But if a parent should surface within sight carrying a fish, there is still a wild rush to be first.

On the Long Water, a Little Grebe had climbed rather unsteadily on to a branch to do a bit of preening. While I watched, it fell off and climbed back twice. This picture was taken right across the lake from the shore at the Peter Pan statue, which is why it is not as clear as it might have been.

Roy Sanderson provided some more useful information about the recent sighting of Jackdaws in Kensington Gardens. They nested regularly till 1969, in elm trees between the Physical Energy statue and the Albert Memorial. Then Dutch elm disease arrived. The trees went, and so did the Jackdaws. It would be excellent if they found a place to nest again.

To answer Elizabeth's question on Wednesday about whether it is common for big gulls to have dark-spotted irises: yes. Here is a picture taken in summer 2011 showing a Herring Gull with exactly the same kind of eye colours as the Lesser Black-Backed Gull in the previous picture. You can see it is summer because the plumage of the bird's head and neck is pure white. In winter it has dark streaks.

And speaking of eye colour, here is a Cormorant with the light catching its surprisingly bright blue eye.

Friday 19 October 2012

More news about the Manx Shearwater. It was not in such bad condition when found as I had heard. It was found on 28 September beside the Long Water by Kensington Gardens manager Ray Brodie who, unsurprisingly, could not identify this unfamiliar creature. He put it in the injured bird box and called Malcolm, the wildlife officer, saying that it might be a cormorant. By the time Malcolm arrived from Richmond the bird had perked up, so he decided it was all right and released it. No one has seen it since. Thanks to Roy Sanderson for this information.

Roy was also wondering whether the report of the Long-Tailed Duck seen on the Long Water on 10 October could be a mistaken identification of the Manx Shearwater, seen at a distance without binoculars. Both are black and white birds, and no one would be expecting a shearwater in Kensington Gardens and might have made a more likely identification. But I don't think so. The report on the London Bird Club Wiki was made by one of their regulars, Michael Mac, and he would probably have had binoculars and would not have made such an error. Also, a certainly identified Long-Tailed Duck was seen on 7 October on the King George Reservoir near Epping Forest, and again on 15-16 October on the adjacent William Girling Reservoir. It was not seen there between these dates. It seems possible that the duck made an expedition into Central London, didn't like it, and flew back to where it had started.

On a grey drizzly day in the park, a Carrion Crow was uneasily sharing a fish with a slightly odd-looking gull which I suppose is a Lesser Black-Backed Gull with pinkish-grey feet rather than the usual yellow ones. It is not big or dark enough for a Great Black-Back. The amount of dark marking on its neck suggests that it might not be fully adult.The two diners did not actually come to an open dispute, but it was noticeable that when one approached the fish the other backed off.

I walked over the ruined Parade Ground, where a small party of Pied Wagtails were hunting insects in the barren expanse of wood chips and pools of water. It was good to see them back in their old haunts. This one is a juvenile, not yet in the natty black and white plumage of an adult.

But if you have not seen this area you would not believe what a mess the park authorities have let it become. This used to be a pleasant green expanse where people from Mayfair offices came out for their lunch, and the staff of the American Embassy had a regular Sunday game of softball; now it is smashed and deserted. Here a pair of young Grey Herons contemplate the soggy wasteland. In the background, a hamburger van and a row of portable lavatories suggest that further officialy sponsored vandalism is under way.

A few weeks ago I spoke to an American woman in Kensington Gardens who had just flown into Heathrow. She said, 'What's happened to Hyde Park? I saw this huge orange area when I flew over, and I couldn't believe my eyes.'

This relief of armed and dangerous Victorian children in the Italian Gardens is pretty, but reminds us that the chief threat to wildlife everywhere is from humans.