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.


  1. Hi Ralph was late coming to the park today so didn't get to see you to wish you all the best for Christmas .
    This afternoon I had a parakeet eating nuts from my hand but it was very fussy , the nuts were mixed and it didn't like cashews , it would throw them on the floor and carry on eating the others .
    I stayed on until the light fell and watched a little owl out hunting which was great , then watched the male tawny fly off in search of food

  2. Congratulations on seeing a Little Owl out hunting. They've been very elusive, and I have only seen them flying from one tree to another. And seeing the Tawny flying was great too, I've only seen him in the air a couple of times over several years. There is now a third parakeet that comes down, another female, and she's a dodgy bird. She bit two people today for no reason. Sounds like your customer. And a very happy Christmas to you too.

  3. Hello Ralph,

    It always saddens me to hear that there are so few House Sparrows in London. Although we still have many of them in Spain (the latest census puts them at around the 170 million mark), the declining trend, especially in larger cities, is worrisome, and it scares me to think that there might come a time when their funny and smart antics will be a thing of the past.

    I recall, though, a host of house sparrows waiting in an orderly and surprisingly quiet half-circle for a traveller to feed them bread crumbs from his sandwhich. This was in Heathrow airport. It was a lovely and unexpected sight.

    All best and merry Christmas!

    1. No one is sure why sparrows have declined in cities, when they have always thrived in the past no matter how much human disturbance there was been. One theory that has been put forward is that they are sensitive to the highly toxic benzene in unleaded petrol, so that they disappear from places where the traffic is particularly dense. It's only the very centre of London that has lost them entirely. I should expect that they are still at Heathrow in reasonable numbers, since airports offer large areas of largely undisturbed grassland.

  4. And I forgot to say, a very happy Christmas to you too, and to all readers of this blog.