Sunday 31 March 2013

The Little Owl appeared on his usual sweet chestnut tree this morning -- and went in a couple of minutes before I arrived and didn't emerge, so no picture. This tree is the second tree from the path at the southeast corner of the leaf yard. Still no sign of the Tawny Owl family despite several people searching the area.

There were singing Greenfinches beside the Long Water, and a small flock of chattering Goldfinches.

On the Serpentine island, a Grey Heron had restarted nest building after an interval of inactivity. Here it its having a desperate struggle to wrench off a twig, nearly overbalancing in the process ...

... and here it has succeeded and brings the twig back to its huge and chaotic nest.

This is a nest left over from last year and you might have thought it was big enough for the most demanding bird, but apparently for a heron there is no such thing as a nest that is too large.

A pair of Mandarins has come under the bridge from the Long Water on to the Serpentine. Since they nest in trees, they are not particularly tied to any place on the water.

In contrast, the Great Crested Grebes at the east end of the Serpentine, whose nest was taken over by Coots, have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Here they are ostensibly resting, but actually crowding the Coot so that it feels uncomfortable and has stood up defensively.

They can tip it off its nest any time they like, but Coots come back time and time again, and eventually win these contests by sheer persistence.

Here are two second-year big gulls. Last year they would have been hard to tell apart, but the adult feathers beginning to grow on their backs reveal that the one on the left is a Lesser Black-Backed Gull and the one on the right is a Herring Gull.

Saturday 30 March 2013

A quiet and sadly owl-less Saturday. A Great Crested Grebe was taking it easy.

You can see the little fringe of ripples around the bird's waterline where the well-oiled waterproof feathers refuse to be wetted.

There were a lot of Pied Wagtails all along the southern side of the Serpentine: some at the water's edge, others running around on the grass, and two on the white plastic buoys that mark the boundary of the Lido swimming area.

There are no insects on these buoys, but they are a convenient station for darting out to grab a passing gnat.

During a brief sunny spell one of the Dunnocks at the Lido came out of the bushes and perched on the railings, giving a fine view of this modest little bird.

On the bank near the Italian Garden, a Song Thrush was effortlessly blending into the scenery.

The picture shows the effect of counter-colouring -- being paler on the underside than the top. This reverses the effects of light and shade, so that you don't see the shape of the bird. Add some spots to further disrupt the outline, and it becomes virtually invisible.

I went up the Edgware Road to see if there were any Peregrines on the Hilton Hotel tower. One was high up on the usual ledge, too distant for anything but the fuzziest of photographs. Then into Church Street market, where the proprietor of the fish stall has made pets of a couple of Herring Gulls. They sit on the fabric roof of the stall and he throws them occasional scraps. They are probably from the nearby tribe of Herring Gulls that hang around Paddington Station. These are permanent residents, and breed in the locality.

Friday 29 March 2013

An hour of searching over quite a wide area failed to find any owls. It is, of course, quite possible that the owlets are out in some unvisited place and we just haven't found them.

However, there were other encouraging signs of activity. This Starling -- note the pinkish base to her bill which shows that she is female -- went into a hole in one of the plane trees near the small boathouses, stayed there, and had not emerged when I went away ten minutes later. There have been pairs of Starlings hanging around the three nest holes in this tree, but this is the first time I have seen one staying inside a hole for some time.

These Ring-Necked Parakeets near the Speke obelisk in Kensington Gardens had the same idea. The female -- on the right in this picture, note the absence of a neck ring -- also retired into her nest hole, and her mate flew off.

On the shore of the Serpentine, a Wood Pigeon was perched on the railings and reaching up to eat spring blossoms.

Their diet of buds and berries involves them in a good deal of climbing around trees whose twigs are too weak to support these bulky birds, so you often see them clinging on in absurd postures to stretch for some morsel. They flap clumsily in and out of bushes with their wings flailing through the leaves, and it is remarkable that their wing feathers don't get completely shredded long before their annual replacement.

Here is a Chiffchaff at the Lido, searching for insects under the red stem of one of the sumac bushes planted here.

It is probably the same one as the bedraggled bird I photographed on 24 March in the rain while it was being chased along the edge of the lake by a Pied Wagtail, but here it is looking rather elegant in the quiet colours of a typical warbler. The Dunnock pictured yesterday was foraging in the same bush.

Although I have heard a Chiffchaff singing in Kensington Gardens, I have not heard any sound from this bird, so I think it is a solitary female.

Thursday 28 March 2013

No owls of any kind were to be seen despite two visits, and even the Kingfisher at the Italian Garden, brilliantly visible for the past week, seems to have found a new fishing station farther away from human disturbance.

However, it was quite a good day for other small birds. A Coal Tit in the leaf yard, which had been hanging around enviously while the larger tits were fed, has finally plucked up courage to take food from my hand. Once they start doing this they become enthusiastic, and this one now follows me along the railings for some distance, dashing out at intervals to take another pine nut.

Near the Serpentine Bridge a Goldcrest was leaping about industriously in a bush. Although not shy, they are hard to photograph because they are so restless and often obscured by twigs, so I was grateful to get this slightly motion-blurred shot of one in mid-leap.

On the shore of the Serpentine a Pied Wagtail had caught a tiny midge.

Despite the cold weather, there are clouds of these insects in sheltered spots along the lakeside path, and plenty of Pied Wagtails running around the lake to catch them.

A Dunnock in the hedge near the ticket desk of the Lido obligingly came out for a close-up shot.

Even from this small distance, it is remarkable how perfectly they melt into the background, thanks to their unobtrusive stripy brown plumage further disrupted with patches of grey. There are not many of them in the park, but I am sure that the number seems smaller than it is because they are so discreet.

On a netting fence neat the Italian Gardens, a young Grey Heron was showing off its balancing skill. Not content with standing on this unstable perch, it was doing it on one leg. It was able to remain perfectly still for several minutes in this posture.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

A pair of Mute Swans were wandering about just outside the Italian Garden. Here they are under a Victorian Portland stone relief of children playing in the water, which they would not be allowed to do in these safety-mad times.

At first I thought they had been chased up there by the dominant pair on the Long Water, but it turned out that they were the dominant pair, engaged in their long search for a nest site. They soon abandoned this area and waddled back into the water.

Although they now have all the lake north of the bridge to themselves, it is still hard to find a place to nest. The male of the pair lost his mate to a fox attack last year, when their nest was on the east shore of the Long Water, about 50 yards from the Italian Garden. He will not want to go back there with his new young mate. Anyway, as the rabbits return there will be more foxes here and everywhere. In fact there are no really good nest sites anywhere on the Long Water, since all are open to attack and there is no safe island as there is on the Serpentine. Nevertheless, swans have succeeded in raising broods on the Long Water, and these swans are just going to have to choose a place and do their best.

They have penned up the two young swans in the Italian Garden ponds for months. One of them ventured on to the lake a few days ago and was driven off again. Here they are disconsolately eating algae.

Meanwhile, on the Serpentine there is swan anarchy. I counted 49 there yesterday, courting and fighting and begging food from visitors. Soon several pairs will try to nest -- the prime spot is the island, of course -- and will harass the others so much that they have to creep back to the Round Pond with the other low-ranking swans.

On the edge of the Serpentine a pair of Black-headed Gulls were displaying noisily with wings akimbo to make themselves look larger. The one with the dark head was presumably the male, as he was making more noise and holding his head in the low position that is part of the ritual.

Just up the shore, a Lesser Black-Backed Gull thought it was time for a nice lie down.

Several people, including me, did a tour of Tawny Owl territory without finding anything. They are very late this year -- but then everything is late this year. It is not time to start worrying yet.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Time for my end-of-the-month bird count. Usually when I do this in the last week of March almost all the Black-Headed Gulls have already left. But today I found 383 of them, nearly all now in full breeding plumage, hanging around ready to go but not gone yet.

A postscript to Andy Sunters's helpful comment on the entry for 24 March about the Black-Headed Gull playing with a stick. He has made a sequence of pictures of a gull playing the whole game of dropping a stick and then flying down to catch it in midair; well worth a look. Today on the lake, our gull was playing with a bigger stick but still dropping it in the water rather than catching it as it fell.

Some Shovellers are still here, though I only found 17 on the Long Water and two on the Round Pond.

There were several Pied Wagtails flitting round the edge of the Serpentine, hard to count as they whizz out of sight and you are not sure whether the next sighting is of the same bird. Here one perches in a tree, looking quite unlike the strongly patterened black and white bird you see when they are running around on the ground.

There was a small flock of Goldfinches flying around trees near Kensington Palace, hard to see clearly against the sky but instantly recognisable by their excited chattering.

More news about the shells of oriental Golden Clam (Cornicula fluminea) found in boats on the Serpentine -- see my entry for 3 March. It is now almost certain that this identification is right, and the London Invasive Species Initiative and the Environment Agency are concerned about the invasion. The species has already been found in the Thames at Twickenham and Ham. When very small, the clams can stick to the plumage of birds and thus be carried long distances. It is possible that they came over on gulls from Holland, for example, where these clams are already established. They have a harmful effect on fish, as small clams grow as a parasite in their gills. Colonies of clams have also caused trouble by blocking water filters. They are normally thought of as a species of warm climates, and have revealed unexpected powers of survival in cold conditions.

Monday 25 March 2013

Prolonged rain followed by frost has left much of the park a half-frozen swamp. Here a pair of Mallard enjoy a flooded path behind the Albert Memorial.

Yesterday I showed a picture of a young Lesser Black-Backed Gull playing with a stick on the edge of the Serpentine. Andy Sunters commented, 'As they get a bit older they actually fly up with their "toys" and drop them and chase them down, grabbing them again.' And today the gull, a few yards offshore from where it was yesterday, had taken the next step in the game, dropping its bit of stick into the water and diving to grab it.

It had not yet mastered the trick of catching it in the air, which obviously needs practice.

One of the Great Crested Grebes under the willow tree near the bridge was maintaining their nest, bringing bits of twig and dropping them rather haphazardly on the messy tangle they call home.

The nest had sunk noticeably lower than it was yesterday, and needed building up. It's less work for the birds when they nest in reeds, where the nest doesn't sink daily. The pair near the reed bed at the east end of the Serpentine, however, have put nesting on hold until the weather improves.

The east end of the Serpentine is also where large numbers of low-ranking Mute Swans from the Round Pond congregate to choose mates and try their luck at getting a nest site. Here a pair -- the right-hand two -- are interrupted in their courtship by another male, who is trying to take over the female.

Surprisingly with these violent birds, it didn't come to a fight. The pair simply ignored the intruder, and after a couple of minutes he went away, leaving them to their courtship display.

Sunday 24 March 2013

A raw day, but spring continues unstoppably. At the east end of the Serpentine a pair of Egyptian Geese were canoodling among the budding daffodils.

These are almost certainly the two that successfully raised eight young last year. There are only two pairs of Egyptians where the female completely lacks a brown eye patch, and the other one is the hopeless pair on the Long Water who hatch brood after brood and lose them all in a few days.

The Great Crested Grebes under the willow tree by the bridge have repaired their neglected nest with more twigs and plane leaves dredged from the bottom of the lake, and have reoccupied it.

Plane leaves are very slow to decay, because they have a waxy cuticle that makes them waterproof. Since plane trees are abundant in the park, it causes the gardeners trouble because they take so long to rot down into leafmould.

On 25 January I showed two pictures of a young Lesser Black-Backed Gull playing with a ball. Today I saw what might or might not be the same bird playing with a stick.

It kept picking it up and waving it about and dropping it. The stick was obviously inedible, and there was no doubt that the gull was simply amusing itself.

There was a Chiffchaff running along the edge of the Serpentine in just the same way as a wagtail. In fact I thought it was one of the Grey Wagtails when I first saw it. It was harassed by a Pied Wagtail and chased away, and this poor shot is the best I was able to grab in the brief time I had it in view.

I went carefully all over the area where there might be a Tawny Owl family, but could see no sign of them. The Little Owl was also out of sight. Who could blame them for staying indoors in this weather?

Saturday 23 March 2013

I went round the park with members of the London Natural History Society (LNHS) on their annual bird walk. No doubt they had chosen the date because it would be a nice spring day with encouraging signs of birds nesting. But it was bitterly cold and snowing, and nature was on hold.

But there were birds to see. Great Tits and Robins and one Blackbird were still singing, and a Nuthatch also gave us a brief burst of song in the leaf yard, where one of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers could be seen climbing around the dead tree they nest in. Nearby, a lone Redwing was foraging with a Song Thrush.

It has been a poor year for Redwing, in and outside the park, and I have not seen any of the flocks in London squares that are a common winter sight in other years.

The pair of Mandarins obligingly turned up near the Peter Pan statue, and one of the two female Pochard-Tufted Duck hybrids, which have not been seen for several weeks, was diving on one of the ponds in the Italian Garden.

The young Great Black-Backed Gull had also returned. Here it is between two Lesser Black-Backs, which give an idea of its impressive size.

And here is a strangely bedraggled first-winter Black-Headed Gull on the edge of the Serpentine.

None of us could understand how it came to look like that. Is it a genetic abnormality? Had it lost the natural oils in its feathers through some accident and been wetted by the snow? After a while it flew off, revealing perfectly normal-looking wings.

The Great Crested Grebes under the willow tree near the bridge, who had neglected their nest for several days, were back on it. But it had sunk badly into the water, and they will have a lot of work building it up again before it is fit to lay eggs in.

Update: Michael Robinson, who was on the LNHS walk, saw a Redshank at the Round Pond as he was going home to Notting Hill.

Further update: I went to the Round Pond at 2.45. The Redshank was in the air, and circled the pond before heading off to the southwest, maybe towards the Wetland Centre at Barnes. No chance of a photograph of a small bird flying 50 yards away in driving snow.

Friday 22 March 2013

On a chilly day with a biting northeast wind I seemed to be the only person looking for owls, and didn't find any.

But cold or not, the year advances. A Dunnock near the entrance to the Lido was singing from a safe place inside an evergreen bush. I got a brief glimpse of him when he came down to the ground.

Few other birds are singing: the Blackbirds and Song Thrushes have shut up till it gets warmer, and even the Great Tits and Robins are a bit subdued. But over the past few days a Jay has been singing in the leaf yard -- if you can call it singing, an odd mixture of clucks and moans and squawks.

The familiar Black-Headed Gull with ring number EY09813 was looking smart in breeding plumage, and will soon be away with the others. This bird was ringed as an adult only last year, on 18 January in Kensington Gardens, and no one knows where its summer residence is.

A Long-Tailed Tit paused for a moment in a bush near the Serpentine Bridge.

I have not yet seen any of them on the ground, which would be a sign that they have started building their nests. They pick up small feathers to make the lining. The main body of the large spherical nest is made of  spider webs and moss, and sometimes the birds fly into the pedestrian tunnels under the Serpentine bridge to gather cobwebs from the ceiling. In previous years I have tried to photograph this, but the shadowed light and the swiftness of the birds have so far defeated me.

I think that this Pied Wagtail in the Diana enclosure had just eaten a spider, to judge by the silk thread hanging out of its beak.

I have read that the principal food of Swifts is spiders rather than insects. The spiders travel on the wind, parachuting on their own threads, and can reach considerable altitudes. Unlike insects, they can't dodge an oncoming bird, which makes them easier to catch.

One of the pair of Grey Wagtails that nest under the little plank bridge in the Dell has been seen. The gardeners are still in the Dell razing practically everything to the ground, but they have moved away from the bridge. I am hoping that the lack of cover won't deter these lovely birds from nesting again.

Thursday 21 March 2013

The male Tawny Owl was heard hooting this morning somewhere to the north of the nest tree. A search didn't find him. If the owlets had been with him they would have been much easier to find, but the adults tend to sit close in to tree trunks, and they blend into the bark of most trees. Anyway, this raises the possibility that the owlets are going to appear north of their usual place. Last year they were well to the south of the nest tree. A larger area to search, but we will keep it up.

No sign of the Little Owl today, but it was quite chilly and probably he was sheltering inside the usual tree.

The top of the Long Water next to the Italian Garden was again busy with fishing birds. This time it was the Grey Heron that chased the Cormorant away. The Kingfisher has a favourite perch on the willow tree 20 feet from the edge of the Garden, and I managed to get quite a close shot of it by crawling up behind the balustrade and poking the camera through it. If you are visible above the parapet and seem to be taking any notice of this shy bird, it will be away in a blue flash.

Two Grey Herons on the Serpentine island were having a dispute over the ownership of the largest nest.

Just after I took this picture the upper bird was driven off and settled in a very small nest on another tree. It would be tempting for a heron to take the largest nest available, to save the considerable labour of gathering twigs to make one of these large messy constructions from scratch.

Also at the Serpentine island, there was a row of four gulls of different kinds: impossible to resist taking a picture. From left to right they are Common, Lesser Black-Backed, Herring and Black-Headed Gulls -- the last of these with the dark brown head of its breeding plumage.

The two pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gulls were amicably sharing a fish.

It looked rather stale, and had probably died of natural causes some time ago. But gulls aren't fussy about such things.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

There were clearly a great many fish at the top of the Long Water by the Italian Garden. They had attracted a Kingfisher ...

... a Cormorant in full breeding plumage and a Grey Heron.

These two are on the just-submerged metal grating covering the old intake and outlet of the fountains in the Italian Garden (the fountains are a closed system now). One of the panels of the grating is missing; the gap is just visible at the bottom right corner of this picture. The Grey Heron has been standing on the edge of the gap, waiting for a fish to come into view, a technique that is generally quite successful. But it has been frightened off its station by the arrival of the Cormorant, which swam around for a bit and decided that the missing panel was not large enough for a big bird to be able to manoeuvre, and gave up and went away.

Meanwhile, under the willow tree, the Kingfisher and a Great Crested Grebe were doing better, catching smaller fish among the trailing branches.

A pair of Sparrowhawks were circling over the leaf yard at a considerable height. The small birds didn't seem to be bothered by them, and no doubt they were after larger prey. Here a Great Tit deals with a pine nut. This rather expensive food never fails to please.

Two Lapwings were seen yesterday on the Parade Ground, which is currently being restored in a huge operation after it was wrecked by the London Live event last summer.  I went around this area without seeing anything unsual, but it is all fenced off and covered with heaps of earth, and it would be possible to miss any interesting birds that were there. The entire surface is being covered with fresh soil and at least a hectare of high quality sports turf, which must be appallingly expensive. The usual summer concerts are scheduled, which will ruin it again.

The Little Owl emerged briefly from the same sweet chestnut tree that he has been in for the past three days. I only had time for this distant shot before he went back in.

It seems very probable that the pair are nesting in this tree. But a careful search for the Tawny Owl family has still not found them. Last year they weren't found till the 23rd, but when they were found, a long way from the nest, it was clear that they had been out for several days.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Little Owl was out in the same sweet chestnut tree as yesterday, but as I arrived he was harassed by three Jays and retreated into a hole. Although the sun came out later, the owl didn't. He will be back.

No sign of the Tawny Owl family either, despite several people searching likely spots.

The plane tree between the Albert Memorial and the Physical Energy statue, just to the northeast of the corner with the signpost, now has two Ring-Necked Parakeets' nests on opposite sides of the trunk, both in old Green Woodpecker holes. Here the female flies out while the male stands beside the nest hole.

Everyone I talk to about parakeets in woodpecker holes seems to think that the spread of the parakeets is forcing out the woodpeckers. I don't think so, at least not in the park. There are tens of thousands of trees suitable for woodpeckers, and I constantly hear the drumming and calls of Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and often see them. I don't think the population is falling.

There is, however, a limited number of waterside nest sites for Great Crested Grebes and Coots. This Coot tried to take over the grebes' nest opposite the Peter Pan statue, and was forced off and escorted away by the occupants.

This was quite a gentle manoeuvre. I have seen Great Crested Grebes attcking Coots in the most furious way and holding them under water to subdue them.

The mild spell has brought out a lot of small insects. The reed bed under the balustrade of the Italian Garden was full of Blue, Great and Long-Tailed Tits feeding on them.

The Wren that nests at the northeast corner of the lake was also in the reed bed, singing.

The recent heavy rain has caused a growth of brown algae in the Long Water, which I think must have been stimulated by nitrate and phosphate runoff from the surrounding grassland. While unpleasing to the human eye, it is good news for Mallards.

Speaking of Mallards, Andy Sunters left a very interesting comment on yesterday's blog about colour variation in Mallards, and a link to a page that explains the genetics involved. Recommended to anyone who wants to understand this phenomenon.