Saturday 31 August 2013

The Hobbies were out in Kensington Gardens as usual. While one of them was flying over the Long Water, a Magpie came out and tried to harass it, but was promptly chased away.

The family are still using the American lime tree on the path west of the Tawny Owls' nest tree as their preferred perch. It's a pity that the foliage on this tree is so dense, and they tend to stay in the middle of it rather than come out on an open branch.

One of this year's brood of Mandarins appeared on the Long Water. It now looks almost exactly like an adult female, except that its primaries are not quite fully grown. When they are, they will cross over its tail.

It was time to do the monthly bird count. There were 72 Tufted Duck, an unusually high number for the park, especially as they have no prospect of breeding here. It seems to be a good year for them generally, and over 1000 were reported at the King George reservoir in the Lee Valley on Monday. However, almost all the Cormorants have gone away today, and I only saw one on the Long Water and none on the Serpentine.

There were a dozen juvenile Lesser Black-Backed Gulls on the Serpentine. One of them was playing with a fallen leaf, throwing it away and picking it up.

But it has not yet graduated to the full game of flying with something and dropping it, then catching it in the air. We may see some of this entertaining behaviour in the winter.

The five young Coots on the Italian Garden pond are no longer being fed by their parents, and have started diving for water plants themselves. Being less than adult size, they are quite agile by the standards of Coots, and could even manage to swim horizontally for a short way and surface head first, unlike the ungainly adults' head-down struggle to stay submerged.

Friday 30 August 2013

There was a small flock of Song Thrushes hunting insects on Buck Hill. The long grass here is full of crickets and grasshoppers, but it is too dense for a thrush to move around in easily, so they hop rapidly up and down the edges of the long patches, finding insects that have strayed out of cover. If you stay still, the birds no longer consider you a threat, and this one came right up and stared curiously at me.

I had actually come up here to try to photograph the thrushes in the rowan trees. But evidently they were so well fed with insects that they felt no need of fruit, and after a few minutes flew over the trees without stopping and across the road into Hyde Park.

Some Carrion Crows were also hunting insects, using a different technique. They would stand stock still on the edge of the long grass until the grasshoppers forgot about them and started wandering around as normal.

As soon as one got close, the crow would make a lightning grab and gulp down the insect in a single movement.

These two small pictures show the Great Crested Grebe family that is visible across the Long Water at the Vista. Watching them for a while revealed two chicks: you can just see the head of the second one below and to the right of the more visible one. The first chick has been given a fish that looks too big to swallow, and I was expecting it to give up and drop the fish, which would then be eaten by one of the parents.

But in fact the hungry chick did manage to swallow its meal, and you can see the tail of the fish as it is engulfed.

This Great Crested Grebe family with three chicks was at the Serpentine island, just offshore from the place where there were three closely spaced nests.

This is the family I saw and photographed yesterday. I had supposed that their nest was in the reed bed at the east end of the Serpentine, but they range around so widely that it is impossible to tell where they are from, and it is just as likely to be one of the island nests.

The Reed Warbler family is still in the reed bed near the Diana Fountain. They are not making much noise, but Paul Turner saw one sitting on the fence on the landward side of the reeds.

The Hobbies were out again today, flying over the whole width of the park and visible above the treetops from time to time.

Thursday 29 August 2013

A Common Sandpiper visited the Long Water today. It is not at all common in the park. Nor are wading birds of any kind: they occasionally stray in from the London Wetland Centre or Rainham Marshes, but never stay for any time. Here it is standing on a small rock that you can see from the parapet of the Italian Garden.

There were two other surprises on the Long Water, both visible at a distance across the Vista, so I only managed to get some very dim little pictures of them. There were two Little Grebes, the first I have seen on the lake since the end of April.

They have not done very well in the park, probably because the Long Water is too open and doesn't offer them enough cover. They have been far more successful in Regent's Park, where there are a dozen and they have managed to breed.

And the Great Crested Grebes' nest here has hatched out. I could only see one chick with binoculars, but at this distance it's impossible to be sure, especially when the chicks are very small and hidden by their parent's wings.

On the Serpentine, the three chicks from the nest in the reed bed were easier to see.

This brightly coloured dragonfly was on a rock at the top of the waterfall in the Dell. I think it is a Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum. Again, this species is not common in the park.

The Hobbies were audible again in the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens; I only caught a brief glimpse of them before they sloped off towards Notting Hill. But there was no sign of any Tawny or Little Owls in their usual places.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

The Hobbies have been over Kensington Gardens all day, soaring in the thermals and calling to each other. They were mostly at a considerable height and it was not clear what they were catching. There are still some late dragonflies, but no longer very many.

When I took this picture I thought it was one of them but on later inspection it turned out to be a Red Kite (thanks to Gregor for pointing this out). These have been spreading southeast from Wales and the West Midlands and are just beginning to arrive in London. This is the third sighting of a Red Kite in the park this year.

On Buck Hill, three Mistle Thrushes were in the rowan trees eating the ripe berries.

So far there has been no sign of the big winter flock of Mistle Thrushes that often visit these trees, but no doubt they will be along soon, and I will keep watching for them.

In the shadow of the Serpentine island, the two Great Crested Grebe chicks were saluting each other with the head-shaking display used by adults.

Is the display hard-wired, or do they learn it by watching their parents? They would be bound to notice it, because the adults greet each other with elaborate courtesy even if they have been separated for a few minutes while one of them is away fishing.

The younger grebe family had returned to the reed bed where their nest is. I could briefly see a couple of the chicks, but it is not a good place for viewing. You have to go some way up the south side of the lake to get an angle where you can see them.

The Coots in the Italian Garden pond were diving for bits of water plant to feed their chicks.

It involves furious paddling, head down, to keep these very buoyant birds submerged. As soon as they stop swimming, they shoot up to the surface.

A Coal Tit was singing in a yew tree in the Flower Walk. August is way past their singing time, of course, but the warm sunshine often brings out a bit of song.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

A lucky sighting of one of the Tawny Owls today, most unusual for late August. It is the adult male, I think, though this shot taken in the dim shade at the top of of a tall lime tree is not clear enough to show it certainly.

Before I arrived, Paul Turner heard the male hooting, and went over to find both an owl and the Hobby family being harassed by a motley crew of Carrion Crews, Jays and Magpies a few yards west of the owls' nest tree, beside the path. By the time I turned up the row had subsided, and the Hobbies were circling and calling again. One of them settled in the crown of the enormous basswood tree, and here it is giving me a suspicious glance over its shoulder. Neither the owl nor the Hobby seemed uneasy about being so close to each other, in adjacent trees.

Today's pictures have one thing in common: they were taken from too far away, and are sadly grainy. But better that than no picture at all.

The first Common Gull of the winter season was on a post offshore from Peter Pan, yawning from time to time. Some of these Common Gulls migrate here from Scandinavia, and have a right to be slightly exhausted.

Very occasionally, Common Gulls arrive in Britain from Russia. These are considerably darker than our ordinary ones, and have more black and a smaller white 'window' on their wingtips. They belong to a different subspecies, Larus canus heinei, as opposed to the usual British form L. c. canus, such as the one pictured here. I saw what may possibly have been one of them in the park last winter, but am far from certain about this and never saw it again, so said nothing at the time.

The Great Crested Grebe family from the east end of the lake had come the whole way up to the boat hire platform. Here one of them tries to climb on to a parent's back. This results in the adult being pushed around in a circle, but the youngster always manages to scramble up somehow.

The two parents are quite similar in build, and it is uncertain which is which. On average, males are more heavily built and have wider heads with a broad angle on the upper crest. But there is a good deal of overlap between the sexes, and they have identical markings.

Monday 26 August 2013

A surprise arrival at the east end of the Serpentine: three new Great Crested Grebe chicks. The nest is invisible, presumably inside the reed bed, and you can only get a distant oblique view of the family in the water at the edge of the reeds. This long shot is the only picture I got that shows the heads of all three chicks, which poked out when their mother (in the foreground) brought them a fish.

It was too large for them to swallow, so in the end she gave it to her mate and he ate it.

The grebes from the nest at the island are swimming, diving and playing adventurously in the open water near the small boathouses. Here one of them flaps its little wings.

Although it will not be able to fly for another 10 or 12 weeks, its wings are not as small and underdeveloped as those of some water birds. This is because baby grebes have to climb around on their nest and up their parents' backs. Their legs are set so far to the rear that they can't stand up until they are older (and never very well even then), so they use their wings as front legs in a rather reptilian fashion.

A flock of about 30 Mistle Thrushes passed over the Italian Gardens and Buck Hill, heading southeast towards Dover and the shortest Channel crossing. I expected them to see the bright red berries on the rowan trees at the top of Buck Hill and stop for a feed, so I went over there. But when I arrived there was no trace of them. I think they went slightly too far to the right to be able to see them over a screen of taller trees.

The four Mandarin ducklings are alive and well, and now of teenage size. They were sitting on the grass on the edge of the Long Water when something, perhaps a passing dog, startled them and they rushed into the lake.

This Cormorant near the island was having some difficulty in balancing on the very small projecting tip of a sunken branch.

Sunday 25 August 2013

The Hobby family had moved north of their recent place, and the two youngsters were now in a very tall lime tree about 50 yards west of the Tawny Owls' nest tree and on the edge of the path. This tree is an American lime, I think: a basswood, Tilia americana. It has also been used by the Tawny Owls, and indeed the male has been heard in recent days hooting from that area. However the two species have sorted out their seating arrangements, the dense foliage of this tree makes things hopeless for photographers, so here is a good picture of one of the adults taken earlier by Paul Turner. It is sitting on a dead branch of a European lime, Tilia europaea.

The female Little Owl also put in a very brief appearance in the usual sweet chestnut tree, but ducked back into her hole as soon as she saw that someone was looking at her.

One of the young Great Crested Grebes had wandered a long way from its parents and was in the middle of the lake calling plaintively. It set off in the right direction, so I think they were eventually reunited.

The fountains in the Italian Garden had broken down again, and the Coot family had taken the opportunity to occupy one of them. As you can see, the instinct to build a nest everywhere and constantly had set in already. They will have a rude shock when the water is turned on again.

In the next pool the four teenage Mallards had had a similar idea. Their mother, who has been unusually attentive for a Mallard -- hence the survival of the four young -- had a faceoff with a Coot that came too near, and drove it away.

This is a male Red Crested Pochard in full eclipse, with the red eyes and bill of a male but otherwise in the plain cappuccino-coloured plumage of a female.

Females have brown eyes and brown beaks tinged with pink along the edge. The males will get their fine red, white, brown and black plumage back at the approach of winter.

Saturday 24 August 2013

On a dismal rainy day, both Little Owls made an unexpected appearance. They were in the sweet chestnut tree where they made their nest (and we still have no idea of how successful their breeding attempt was, though the signs are not encouraging). This is the female: larger than the male, and very restless and nervous. She was skittering around the tree, and this is the only shot I got.

The male was much more relaxed, though in the bad light it was not possible to get much of a picture.

The two young Hobbies were parked in their usual plane trees between the Queen's Temple and Physical Energy, but were mostly masked by leaves.

And a Sparrowhawk passed by and briefly perched on top of a tree across the path from the leaf yard before continuing on its rounds. For the few seconds it was there, a group of Feral Pigeons, and another group of Ring-Necked Parakeets, sitting on adjoining trees, watched it without any sign of alarm. This is one of a pair quite often seen in Kensington Gardens. Only the female is big enough to take pigeons, but she does this regularly and you can often see sad little heaps of grey feathers on the edge of the leaf yard.

The rain had kept people out of the park, and the Moorhen family that live under the boat hire platform took the opportunity to explore the pedalos.

I don't think they found anything of interest; they are just curious birds. Moored pedalos in the middle of the lake are sometimes used by Pied Wagtails and Common Terns as a perch to rest on while hunting.

The Great Crested Grebe chicks from the island were mooching around idly by the boathouses, each with its right leg folded up and paddling with the left. For once they didn't seem to be hungry: their parents are feeding them very well and even a young bird gets full sometimes.

After a while they went to sleep side by side.

Friday 23 August 2013

Four Hobbies -- two adults and two young -- were ranging widely over Kensington Gardens, calling loudly and constantly so that even people with no interest in birds were looking up to see what the noise was. This fine picture of two of them was taken by Paul Turner.

The Great Crested Grebe family, disturbed from their normal place next to the island by the arrival of a mob of Cormorants, were out in the open lake, with the chicks running after their parents. Here their mother has caught a substantial fish, which the small young bird had no difficulty in swallowing.

Several broods of Egyptian Geese have now fully grown their flight feathers. None of them has the twisted 'angel wing' that has affected this species in the park since they arrived. This may be pure chance, but I wonder whether the mutation is being bred out of the park birds by natural selection: few affected birds seem to survive more than a year, and I haven't seen any of them breeding. The deformity is said to be spread by inbreeding, but by now there are a lot of Egyptians in central London flying around and spreading a good mix of genes.

This is one of the second brood of Moorhens on the Italian Garden pond. It is racing nimbly along the top of the wire netting for no other reason than because it can.  Note how the claws on its back foot are hooked around the wire.

Moorhens are hatched with long, strong legs which look as if they could never fit into the egg, and can run like the wind as soon as they emerge.

Here is a Brimstone butterfly (Goneopteryx rhamni) perched on a bright yellow anemone (A. ranunculoides) which completely eclipses the yellow of its wings. As usual, it annoyingly folded its wings every time it settled. For some reason, only the red-and-brown butterflies seem to spread their wings when resting.

Male Brimstones -- and this is a male -- are yellow, and females are a very pale yellow and often look white and are mistaken for Cabbage Whites.

Thursday 22 August 2013

The young Great Tits have stopped chasing their parents through the trees begging for food, and are now foraging on their own -- or begging food from humans, of course, just as the adults do. They know that if they alight on a branch and utter a single chirp that food will be provided.

We are not really spoiling them, though. When winter comes and insects are scarce we will help them to get through.

There was a Green Woodpecker on the Vista, poking around in the grass for worms and other small invertebrates.

They are more often seen on the ground than Great Spotted Woodpeckers, which tend to stick to the safety of the trees, and are also usually seen higher up than Greens.

The Hobby family were in their usual place in the plane tree. This is the young one.

Shortly after I took this sadly distant picture -- it is a very tall tree -- it took off and the family slipped out of sight, on the far side of the tree as usual. They seem to dislike being watched, even though the watchers are many feet below them and present no threat whatever. But it would be wonderful if one of them would perch on a lower branch just long enough for a decent photograph.

A few unripe apples are falling from the tree on the north side of the Serpentine near the bridge, and rolling into the water. A Greylag Goose was pecking ineffectually at one of them with its blunt beak when a Coot seized it and rapidly bore it away before the goose could react.

It then used its sharp beak to eat the apple efficiently as it floated in the water.

More Cormorants have arrived: I counted 14 today. Some are congregating in their usual place on the posts at the northwest corner of the island.

This is where the Great Crested Grebes with two chicks had been for some days, but these have wisely left the area. I didn't see where they had gone, so it was probably round the back of the island.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

As the Cormorants return to the lake, there were eight in a row on the posts offshore from Peter Pan -- a fair number but I have seen 24 on these posts. One of them seemed to be feeling hot, although it was a mild day. It held its beak open and panted for several minutes. Interesting to see that the inside of the beak is yellow as well as the outside.

The row of posts also held the usual two Lesser Black-Backed Gulls who hang around the Long Water over the winter, but there is now a fair number of Mallard ducklings  that are large enough not to be in great danger, unless the gulls were feeling particularly ravenous -- remember that they can kill pigeons, and even fly carrying them.

At the Serpentine island one of the Great Crested Grebe chicks was being fed by its father.

The other one had just been fed by its mother. Even when not directly supervised, the young birds are still reluctant to venture out of the shadow of the trees, but they will be running around all over the place soon, protected by their ability to crash-dive in an instant if danger threatens.

The first brood of young Moorhens on the Italian Garden pond were attempting to fly, without much success so far. Since they were only in the air for a moment, the only pictures I got were of them crashing ignominiously into the water plants. But they will be better at it soon enough.

I saw several flocks on Long-Tailed Tits -- or the same flock several times.

It is really impossible to estimate how many Long-Tailed Tits there are in the park, because you can never know whether you are seeing the same lot again and again as they range around the whole area.

I went up to see whether the rowan trees on Buck Hill had attracted any birds, but there was just one Wood Pigeon. I think that the flocks of Mistle Thrushes that favour these trees are winter migrants and have not arrived yet. The berries are ripe now, but they are long lasting -- or at least they last till they have all been eaten, usually by late autumn.

The long grass on the hill is alive with grasshoppers and crickets. I think this one is a Meadow Grasshopper, Chorthippus parallelus.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The Hobbies were in the same place for the third day running. The young one was perched at the top of the tallest plane tree waiting to be fed. Here one of the parents approaches holding something in its talons, which from close examination of the original photograph looks like a dragonfly.

The young Greylag Geese on the Serpentine are now almost fully grown and adult in appearance.

Apart from a generally new and fresh look, the differences are that the young bird's feet are still orange rather than pink, and it lacks the adult's narrow white line along its side where the folded wing meets the body, caused by a row of white-edged feathers.

The four young Mallards on the pond in the Italian Gardens are also now quite large and adult-looking, and are crusing around in a gang like teenagers of many species.

The young Great Crested Grebes near the island are growing fast. Here they apeal noisily to the father for food while he languidly raises a wing to unfurl one of his large feet. Their mother was busily fishing for them near the boathouse.

These grebes will retain their juvenile stripy faces for some time, with traces of stripes lasting through the winter. In early spring they will grow their first set of adult plumage, but will have a rather sparse crest in their first adult year.

The number of Cormorants is steadily rising, and on most days now you can see half a dozen. When the fish hatched last year  have grown a bit more we may see one of their large fishing parties, where as many as 20 of them cruise up and down the lake in line abreast, hoovering up their prey with such greed and efficiency that it almost wipes out the population of medium-sized fish.