Thursday 28 February 2013

Every day I walk past the Vista I am met by a Black-Headed Gull, ring number EY09813, which trots expectantly up to my feet to be given a couple of pieces of biscuit. Normally I would never feed gulls, but this one has become a client after I threw it some crumbs to keep it still while I read the ring.

Gull ring experts will note that this is a recent number; the gull was ringed as an adult on 18 January 2012 in Kensington Gardens, so it has no particular history.

I met Alan Gibson, a very serious gull ring recorder, on the side of the Serpentine with his powerful scope. He had a very good haul of sightings of Black-Headed Gulls ringed in Germany, Poland, Sweden and Finland.

The two Egyptian Geese who had a brood on the Vista and, as always, lost them all within three days, are now wandering around Buck Hill shouting noisily at each other, and no doubt they will be breeding again soon, to equally little effect.

How do you describe the noise that Egyptian Geese make? It is somewhere between the honk of a 'proper' goose and the quack of a duck, fitting for these birds which are neither one nor the other.

A pair of Mallards were resting on the north shore of the Serpentine near the bridge. They have been hanging around this place for several days, and probably plan to nest in the shrubbery just across the path.

There were two Little Grebes in the reeds under the parapet of the Italian Garden, calling to each other and fishing busily. Each one caught two in five minutes as I watched them.

A friend sent me a link to some pictures from the weekly illustrated newspaper The Graphic,  in its issue of 18 November 1922. They show the newly created bird sanctuaries in the park, which we are familiar with but didn't exist until then: all along the east shore of the Long Water, around the greenhouses in Hyde Park, and the Dell. Probably the shrubbery behind the Peter Pan statue and around the leaf yard was included in the scheme, though there is no picture of that.

The date may be significant: the naturalist and popular novelist W.H. Hudson, who had studied the birds in the park, had died three months earlier. Possibly he had campaigned for the creation of these sanctuaries, or they were a tribute to his memory. Three years later the Rima fountain was installed in the sanctuary around the greenhouses, commemorating Hudson with a figure of the heroine of his jungle romance, Green Mansions.

The Dell had a lurid history in previous centuries, as it was the place where the London aristocracy fought their duels. It was secluded and fringed with trees, which made it very convenient for the purpose as duelling was illegal. Much blue blood was spilt. Some accounts of duels are given here.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Blue Tits are beginning to claim gas lamp posts in preparation for nesting. This male perched on the cast iron column, sang a few phrases, and then flew to the next post and sang again.

Presumably the hole in the top of the post where the gas pipe emerges is just large enough to admit a Blue Tit and not a larger bird such as a Great Tit, because I have never seen any other bird use a lamp post for a nest. The behaviour is widespread: I have seen seen half a dozen of the Hyde Park gas lamps used in this way. There is a bulge in each column just below the top which would give just enough space for a nest.

The Moorhens in the Italian Garden ponds seem to be making first attempt at nesting, though they have not gathered enough material to make it certain whether they are beginning in earnest.

One of the Grey Herons' nests on the Serpentine island has been continuously occupied for several days. However, the bird in it has been standing up every time I see it. When herons are actually sitting on eggs, they subside into the huge tangle of twigs and sometimes become invisible.

A crowd of Jays to the north of the Albert Memorial were making a loud protest around a tree with a hole in it. It is possible that the male Tawny Owl, who has not been seen since mid-January, is spending the day here. The tree is close to the one in which he was first seen with the owlets last March. On the other hand, the bird in the hole may have been a Little Owl, since the place is near the Serpentine Gallery where Little Owls have been seen. Or maybe these excitable birds were making a fuss about nothing. By the way, a Little Owl was heard calling in the leaf yard yesterday, but not seen.

A Little Grebe made a welcome reappearance on the Long Water, under the willow tree next to the Italian Garden. Here it caught a fish, by no means a small one and maybe near the maximum size it could cope with. First the victim is given a good shake to stun it ...

...then down it goes, head first.

This female Gadwall is clearly showing the white 'speculum' which distinguishes her from a female Mallard when she raises her wings a little. Mallards of both sexes have an iridescent blue speculum. The feathers that are visible are the tertials, the innermost flight feathers.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

For those of you who had been wondering why a female Tufted Duck has a tuft on her head, here is the answer: it's a convenient handle for keeping her in place.

Sadly, Tufted Ducks have not succeeded in breeding in the park for many years. The big gulls eat their attractive chocolate-coloured ducklings. But at least this pair have not given up. The Tufted Ducks on the nearby canals, where there are more waterside bushes and fewer gulls, have better luck.

This picture was taken under the willow tree on the Long Water next to the bridge, a place where a pair of Great Crested Grebes are thinking of nesting. One of its attractions is the submerged wire baskets just the other side of the bridge, which are full of twigs and provide a perfect habitat for young fish just the right size for feeding grebe chicks. Here one of the pair patrols the side of the basket to seize any fish foolish enough to stick its head out.

This is one of the pair that I photographed dancing on Sunday, in the same spot.

At the east end of the Serpentine the Coots have firmly established their hold on the nest outside the reed bed that was started by Great Crested Grebes. They pile all kinds of junk on to their nests, whether for decoration or utility. The piece of plastic sheet serves well as an access ramp.

There are still large numbers of Egyptian Geese in the enclosure of the Diana fountain. This pair has flown into a tree. The male has just lost his footing walking along a branch, and is flapping wildly to keep his balance.

The feet of Egyptian Geese are of a very ordinary webbed design, ill suited to life in the branches. Mandarin Ducks, which also nest in trees, have proper claws on their webbed toes and can climb quite well.

Monday 25 February 2013

It was time to do the monthly bird count. The most notable sight was 57 Egyptian Geese crowded into the enclosure of the Diana fountain, out of a total of 71 around both lakes (not counting the Round Pond). There was a good deal of chasing and yelling, but nothing that made a good photograph. You have seen mobs of Egyptian Geese before, and these will get bigger and louder as these prolific birds continue their unstoppable rise. The park people artificially restrict the numbers of Canadas and Greylags by finding their nests and pricking their eggs, but they can't do that to a species that nests up trees.

On the Long Water, nine Mute Swans were also chasing each other. Here the dominant male hauls himself into the air as he charges at a rival.

He and his new mate have still not chosen a nest site, but they have the Long Water under control and can take any place they fancy. On the Serpentine things are much less definite, with 40 swans present today, of which only two were displaying to each other when I was there. Once a few dominant pairs have organised themselves, most of the others will be driven back to the Round Pond, the home of low-class swans.

The Grey Herons were also struggling for dominance -- not on the island where their nests are, but all around the Long Water. One of last year's young birds, which you would have expected to have a subordinate position, won a dispute with some elders and even pecked them, and can be seen here strutting around the Vista while the others lurk in the distance.

A tremendous whirring and clattering from a bush in the Flower Walk revealed a Wren, making a noise that you might have expected from a bird three times its size. The effort of creating this racket is so great that the bird's whole body vibrates.

And here is a male Chaffinch, looking very fine in his fresh breeding plumage, waiting for me to stop taking pictures so that he can come and take some seeds from my hand.

Often they remain for some time, picking up a good beakful of pine nuts and sunflower seeds, while other birds flutter impatiently around waiting for them to finish.

Sunday 24 February 2013

The Mute Swans on the Long Water are thinking about nesting. After several minutes of neck-arching display they came ashore under the parapet of the Italian Garden and explored a possible site among the reeds.

But it was clearly too exposed, not least because a group of RSPB volunteers had three telescopes on tripods pointing at it, so they soon abandoned it and went off to look for a better place.

The pair of Great Crested Grebes near the bridge were dancing, waving bits of rotten but symbolic plane leaf at each other.

There is an excellent sheltered nest site in the partly collapsed willow tree near the bridge, which they have been interested in for some time, and I think that they will start to build there soon. At the east end of the Serpentine, the disputed nest site that was recaptured by Great Crested Grebes yesterday has now fallen to the Coots again, who have built it up higher and twiggier than before. It is not a good site, being far too exposed to attacks from gulls, and the grebes would be well advised to abandon the struggle and find somewhere better.

On the Serpentine island, a pair of Carrion Crows were clearly in love.

And a pair of Pied Wagtails were running along the edge of the lake.  They seemed more interested in food than each other. I don't think I could distinguish their courting behaviour from the normal actions of two birds hunting bugs on the shoreline.

But the Egyptian Geese on the Vista have lost all their young now, as they always do. They will breed again soon and exactly the same thing will happen. They are just no good at raising a family, and perhaps it is best that they don't have any offspring to carry on their incompetence into a new generation. There are plenty of other Egyptian Geese that are much better at this game.

At the Round Pond, the last surviving young Egyptian Goose from last year's late brood is still with us. The parents have done well to have even one survivor in this exposed place overrun with out-of-control dogs.

Saturday 23 February 2013

A very cold day, but spring has started and continues unstoppably. A Wood Pigeon was precariously balanced in a bush eating fresh flower buds.

The smaller birds are now appearing in pairs. There were two Goldcrests in a tree on the edge of the Bayswater Road, calling quietly to each other as the traffic roared past. A pair of Song Thrushes were perched in a tree near the Round Pond, looking splendidly spotty but not doing anything very exciting.

In the car park of the Diana fountain, a Dunnock was foraging arround unobtrusively, its quietly coloured plumage camouflaging it against any background, even tarmac.

The Great Crested Grebes at the east end of the Serpentine had just driven the Coots of their nest when I arrived. After a celebratory dance, they contemplated the task of making the nest fit for their own use again, which will involve pulling off all the large twigs that the Coots have piled on it. The nest may change owners several times before one species definitely claims it, and be built up and demolished again and again.

It is not just that Great Crested Grebes prefer small, low-lying nests. With their feet perfectly adapted for swimming but not much use out of the water, they simply couldn't climb on to anything so tall and twiggy.

Coots, on the other hand, are quite agile. I have seen Coots' nests built on a reservoir where the water level fell constantly in spring, so that the nest was left high above the new water level. The Coots built a ramp of twigs to reach the nest, which they had to extend every day until it was at least six feet long, sloping down at an angle of about 45 degrees. They ran up and down this causeway without the least effort.

The female Peregrine was circling high over the Edgware Road -- not a typical Peregrine habitat but usefully full of pigeons.

Friday 22 February 2013

A dismal chilly day with occasional flakes of snow didn't stop the Great Crested Grebes near the bridge from dancing.

At the east end of the Serpentine, the pair which had built a nest were not having good luck, as the site had been claimed by Coots.

You can see from the large twigs that the most recent work here has been done by them. The grebes are hanging around, and are quite capable of driving the invaders away, but they will return again and again and usually win these disputes. The grebes would be best advised to make another nest a bit farther along the reed bed when the weather gets milder.

One of the Peregrines was circling high over Kensington Gardens, too far away either to see which one it was -- females are considerably bigger than males -- or to photograph it.

There was a small flock of Greenfinches in a tree near the Diana memorial, but they would not come out for a picture either. They tend to perch high in trees, which is not much use when you are underneath trying to see through the branches.

The family of Moorhens from last year's nest in the Italian Garden pond has stayed in residence all winter. Here is one of last year's young, just developing adult colours with the beginnings of a red bill and yellow-green feet.

And here is a very faded Carrion Crow, one of a number of crows in the park with greyish feathers.

They are not typical leucistic birds with white patches, and I am not sure what has produced these pale feathers. It is always the wings that are affected, while the rest of the bird is a normal glossy black.

Thursday 21 February 2013

There were 11 Mute Swans on the Long Water this morning, far more than would fit on this quite large area of water without causing a scene. The first priority was to chase the low-ranking youngsters away before the adults could get down to fighting for precedence.

One couple have been trying to find a nest site near the bridge for a few days, but have still not found an ideal spot. Later they were chased off in the general rumpus.

This disorderly scene is very different from what you could see on the lake a few years ago, when one dominant couple owned both the Long Water and the Serpentine, and 'the lower orders knew their place' -- which was on the Round Pond.

However, all this ill-natured jostling is strictly between swans, and other birds are not affected. Here a young swan passes within inches of the Great Crested Grebes' nest in the reeds at the east end of the Serpentine, and all is calm.

But when people are throwing bread to a large gathering of water birds, it is every bird for itself, with swans, gulls, ducks and geese all jostling for position and pecking each other out of the way. There are some permanent antagonisms. Great Crested Grebes don't like Grey Herons at all, especially when the latter are near their nest, threatening their eggs and chicks. They dive and dart in under water to peck the heron's ankles, scooting away again before the heron can deploy its dagger beak against them. And no one likes Coots much -- not even other Coots, so they live in perpetual conflict.

The two Grey Heron nests on the Serpentine island remain occupied despite the colder weather. It looks as if the breeding season has started in earnest.

The pair of Egyptian Geese on the Vista still have two of their brood of three. I don't think any of their young have survived for three days before. Can they finally have got it right after years of utter failure?

The ornithologist Martin Garner, whom I showed around the park on 6 February and was severely bitten by a Ring-Necked Parakeet, has put a record of his visit on his blog, which you can see here.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Two pairs of Grey Herons on the Serpentine island are now paying serious attention to nesting, with two birds standing in each nest, and occasionally flying out to circle the island before returning. This one was photographed on the second downstroke of its enormous magic carpet wings as it heaved itself into the air. Note the patch of feathers lifting at the trailing edge of the left wing. This is caused by turbulence when the wing has a very high angle of attack for maximum lift.

A minute after I took this picture I met Des, who told me that the two Peregrines from the Metropole Hilton hotel had passed behind me as I was pointing my camera in the wrong direction. Oh well, you win some and you lose some. Later I saw the male Peregrine speeding over the roof of the Dell restaurant in a vain lunge at a Feral Pigeon, which fled to the shelter of a tree. The pigeons here are used to aerial attack because this is the hunting ground of the predatory Lesser Black-Backed Gulls -- though these are feeble amateurs compared to a Peregrine.

On the path between the restaurant and the Dell, a Goldcrest was hopping around behind the railings. This picture gives a good view of the brilliant gold stripe that gives the bird its common name, and also its scientific name Regulus regulus, 'little king', because it was thought to resemble a crown.

Again nearby, in the reed bed at the east end of the lake, the Great Crested Grebes were adding to their nest. When they make nests from reeds, they build a higher and wider structure than the usual sloppy platform of twigs and weed. But no one could say that it is a very skilled construction.

Speaking of reeds, it seems that the famous Bearded Tits have now flown east from Regent's Park along the Regent's Canal as far as the Lea Valley. There was a report of them at Amwell Quarry, though this is not certain as the observer couldn't see whether they had rings (which 'our' Bearded Tits both have).

The pair of Egyptian Geese at the Vista have lost one of their three young. On past form, it doesn't look as if the remaining two will be with us for much longer. A moment's inattention and a Lesser Black-Backed Gull will have an easy meal.

Here is one of the three speckled Canada-Greylag Goose hybrids, spreading its wings to show that their markings are as eccentric as those on its head.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

I went to see if the male Tawny Owl was visible, and he wasn't. But at the bottom of their nest tree, the hole which had a Starlings' nest in it last year now has a Ring-Necked Parakeet in it.

These birds had better watch out, because the tenant upstairs would like to eat them. The two plane trees beside the Serpentine, just west of the two small boathouses, always have one Starlings' nest in each of them, and two pairs of Starlings had already claimed them. But higher in the eastern tree, another Parakeet had also taken a hole.

It is all part of the unstoppable spread of these birds. But there are so many trees in the park, and so many holes, that there is really no pressure on space, and it is not as if Starlings, or Great Spotted or Green Woodpeckers, or Nuthatches or Treecreepers, are being forced out. There is, however, competition for what are seen as the best holes.

There was a Coot carrying a twig to a nest site under the willow tree near the Italian Garden, so they are getting ready too. And a Blue Tit was also alternately singing and exploring a hole on a tree just to the south of the Serpentine Gallery.

The tree is one of the park's exotic species, a Manna Ash, Fraxinus ormus, from southern Europe, and carries a label saying so. Will keep an eye on this place and see how the tits get on. But there is another spell of cold weather coming that may delay all these preparations.

On the Serpentine, I watched the two Great Crested Grebes who have a nest in the reed bed at the east end. They swan briskly up the lake and another grebe got submissively out of their way. This bird didn't have much of a crest, and I think she is their offspring from last year's nest -- certainly a female, as you can tell from her slim build. She came over to the north side of the lake and hunted for small fish along the shoreline.

I saw her catch one, but she swallowed it immediately under water.

Not in the park, but quite nearby in the Harrow Road, there were 15 Waxwings in a crab apple tree. These lovely birds seldom visit the park, though you would think there were fruiting bushes to attract them.

Monday 18 February 2013

The Bearded Tits have moved to Regent's Park, where they were seen in the reed bed near the boat hire building. Well, we have had our show and it is time for it to open at another venue.  It is also, from their point of view, excellent news. There are only two lakes with reed beds in central London, and they have shown that they can move from one to the other. So they are not as disoriented as we supposed, and it is not too much to hope that they know their way home, wherever that is.

While I was looking for them this morning, there was a furious fight between two male Egyptian Geese in the gap in the reed bed. A female was looking on, encouraging them with hoarse cries.

On the Vista there was a much more peaceful scene: the year's first brood of Egyptian Geese.

However, this couple are hopeless parents. They were the first pair of Egyptian Geese to arrive on the lake, at least four years ago, and have an unbroken record of breeding failure. Their young seldom survive more than a couple of days, and then the pair breed again and lose another brood. By the way, there are two pairs of Egyptian Geese on the lake in which the female has no eye patch, and the other pair are the skilled parents on the Serpentine who hatched eight young last year and brought them all through to adulthood. What a contrast in parenting skill.

At the outflow of the Serpentine, the pair of Great Crested Grebes who made a nest in the reeds during the last mild spell, and abandoned it when the cold weather returned, are having another try.

This time they have made their nest outside the net, a less good idea than the previous place. The blue plastic bag is their idea of domestic ornament, though they prefer red objects if they can find them. Plastic bags are also used in the construction of the nest, laid on in the same way as strands of algae but, from a grebe's point of view, much more extensive and durable.

A Mistle Thrush was sitting in a tree across the road from the Serpentine Gallery.

This is not the usual place for them, and I think they have been scared away from their territory near the Albert Memorial by the protracted and noisy construction of the hideous marquee for the Burberry sales event. Collins Bird Guide points out that the pale brown patch across the bird's rump shows that it is a first-winter bird. There was only one young bird from the nest in this area last year, so evidently this is the same one.

Sunday 17 February 2013

The Bearded Tits were seen in the reed bed near the Diana fountain about 9 am, and then flew to the other reed bed at the east end of the Serpentine and were lost to view. So instead, here is a picture of a Long Tailed Tit flying out of the lion's mouth in the parapet of the Italian Gardens, where it had been looking for insects in the crevices of the stonework.

Bearded Tits were originally classified as tits because of a faint resemblance to Long-Tailed Tits. Now, thanks to modern taxonomy, they are no longer classed as tits and, since no one knows where to put them, have been put in a family of which they are the sole member, the Panuridae. Long-Tailed Tits have also been thrown out of the tit family and are now in the Aegithalidae -- but at least this is a real family and contains 11 species of not-quite-tits.

The new Great Crested Grebes' nest on the Long Water can be seen from the other side of the lake by the Peter Pan statue, where it is just to the south (right) side of the line of posts crossing the lake. Here its owners display proudly in front of their creation, which is that muddy platform barely above water level at the right side of the picture. They don't make themselves very comfortable.

On the Serpentine, two Mute Swan couples at uncomfortably close quarters were alternately courting and threatening each other. The male swan on the left has his wings raised because he has just been having a go at the male of the other couple.

Courting and threatening are not far apart in many birds' range of behaviour. Chasing away other birds makes the dominant one more attractive, and you often see this in species as disparate as gulls, grebes and geese, where one of a pair will see off a rival and immediately return for a triumphant display of affection.

Not far away, a swan peacefully on his own was enjoying a good wash.

Saturday 16 February 2013

The Bearded Tits have returned to the reed bed in front of the Diana fountain, to the pleasure of the photographers who had turned up on a sunny Saturday.

The RSPB have set up their caravan in the park and were taking people to see these famous birds. Normally the celebrity for their annual visit is the male Tawny Owl, but no one knows where he is at the moment.

Elsewhere there was a flurry of nesting activity. Three Grey Herons' nests on the Serpentine island are occupied, but when I looked closer I saw that one of the occupants was an Egyptian Goose.

They have been in this nest before in recent days; it is the big old nest from last year. It will be interesting to see if there is an attempt to throw them out. Egyptian geese are aggressive but the heron's terrible beak would win the argument, I think.

A pair of Stock Doves were exploring nest holes in a tree at the bottom of Buck Hill.

Looking back to the bird I photographed in the rain on 10 February, and thought was a Stock Dove, but someone else thought was a Wood Pigeon, I think I was right. They do look similar seen from below when there is no clue as to their size, and you can't see the Wood Pigeon's white collar or the Stock Dove's distinctive dark eyes. From any other angle the difference is immediately obvious.

A common town pigeon, or Feral Rock Dove as one should say (but who does?), was trying his luck with a female, all puffed up to make himself look as large and attractive as possible. She was not interested, and flew away.

On the Long Water, a pair of Great Crested Grebes are building a nest in the bushes opposite Peter Pan, and if they persevere with it there should be quite a good view. While I was watching, a Coot tried to claim it and was promptly chased off. You can tell from the nest's slovenly construction that it was started by a Great Crested Grebe; a Coot's nest is a much more robust thing made properly out of twigs.

A pair of Mute Swans is also showing interest in nesting under the willow tree next to the Italian Garden, but it is too early to say whether they will settle there.