Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Westminster conduit

The Coal Tit in the yew tree at the bridge stayed still for long enough to be photographed. This only happens occasionally.

The Robin perched on a spike at the railings as Great Tits flocked down for pine nuts.

It will come to the hand in due course, after seeing their example. There is no way to encourage it, it needs to make up its own mind. But once a Robin has attached itself to you it's unstoppable, like the Robin in the Flower Walk who now thinks of me as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The Chaffinch here is equally demanding and follows me for hundreds of yards expecting pine nuts to be thrown into the air for him to catch.

On cold days fifteen or twenty Great Tits collect in bushes in the Flower Walk to be fed -- you can't count them as they constantly come back for more.

The Rose-Ringed Parakeets which now infest the Flower Walk thanks to ignorant feeders have not yet stripped the myrtle bush of fruit as you might expect. I think they find the flavour too astringent and really want incautious humans to give them something tastier.

Starlings also flock in when they see any other bird being fed. They are genuinely native, beautiful and in decline nationally as the countryside is more and more poisoned by agricultural chemicals, but feeding them is a mistake as they will never leave you alone if you give in to their demands. They are perfectly able to look after themselves. Here is one hunting wireworms in the grass at the leaf yard.

A Carrion Crow on the Parade Ground was hauling bits of loose turf around to check if there were any worms in them.

There are still only a few distant Redwings here.

A Wood Pigeon flew into the arbutus tree in the Dell to see if there was any fruit left.

There wasn't. It went down to the stream and washed its face for no particular reason. It wasn't drinking, something that all pigeons can do with greater ease than other birds, I think by rolling up their tongue and pressing it against their bill to make a kind of drinking straw. Most birds drink by taking a beakful of water and tossing their head back to swallow it.

The male Peregrine was on the tower. His mate flew in to join him.

The Black-Headed Gull at the landing stage was back at his post in undisputed ownership of his territory.

The Black Swan had made a brief expedition to the Serpentine and may have had another run-in with the killer Mute Swan, as today he was back on the Round Pond. Someone was feeding the swans and he barged his way to the front as usual. Virginia tells me that he's broken up with his girlfriend.

A squirrel poked around in the sprouting daffodils along the edge of the Serpentine Road. Squirrels eat bulbs but dislike daffodil bulbs, so it would have been looking for something more appetising.

However, only one kind of bulb is planted here, a hundred thousand of them put in by schoolchildren a few years ago. These are not yet in bloom, but there is a large patch of a different variety flowering beside Rotten Row.

Mention of the swampy patch east of the Dell yesterday started a train of thought. There seems to be no reason why this area, which is halfway down a shallow slope, should be so wet. But it is on the course of the old water conduit to Westminster, and the remains of this might be causing the upwelling of water.

The conduit ran from a spring at the north end of the Dell and led down to Westminster Abbey. This spring emerged considerably higher than the old course of the Westbourne river as it crossed what is now the southeast corner of the Serpentine and ran away through the area now called Belgravia. The pipe carrying the water would have been made from the trunks of elm trees hollowed out and fitted together with the top of one trunk inserted into the bottom of another and the joint sealed with pitch. The joints would not have been able to resist pressure, so the conduit would have had to have a steady continuous downslope. Here is a view from the site of the spring down the hill towards Westminster. The waterlogged lawn is in the background beyond the two people on the path.

The urn in this picture is a memorial to the old conduit. A bronze notice on the west side of its plinth gives some information. Until 1536 the area that is now Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was the Manor of Hyde, farmland belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey. In that year it was stolen by King Henry -- the wonderfully respectful word on the plaque is 'resumed' -- when he dissolved the monasteries in a fit of pique and greed after the Pope wouldn't annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

There is another notice incised into the stone on the east side of the plinth. It is now badly eroded and the last line is completely gone, but the rest of it can just be read:

On this site stood a Conduit House which supplied the Precinct of Westminster with water till the spring was cut off by drainage in 1861. The building was removed in 1868 and this memorial erected in 1870 to mark the place where it stood ...

Evidently the spring was from an aquifer running down what is now the Parade Ground from the general area of Marble Arch. There is now an underground reservoir on the western edge of the Parade Ground under the public lavatories, probably filled from the same source, but it seems that some water is still getting through beyond that.

I can't find any illustration of the old Conduit House. But here is a view drawn around 1660 by the great topographical artist Wenceslaus Hollar of the lower end of the conduit, with another little house probably covering some kind of sluice. St James's Palace is on the right and Westminster Abbey on the left.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Round Robin

It was an unexpectedly chilly morning after the recent mild spell. A Robin near the Flower Walk was fluffed up completely spherical against the cold.

Another was singing in the woodland beside the Henry Moore sculpture ...

... and a third appeared at the bridge, interested because I was feeding Great Tits but not yet daring to come closer.

A Great Tit pecked at a pine nut.

A Wren near the leaf yard gave the camera a severe stare.

The Redwings on the Parade Ground have been most disappointing so far this year. There are maybe half a dozen when normally by now we should have a substantial flock. They are also staying too far away from the fence to be seen and filmed clearly.

On my way home I had run out of peanuts. A Jackdaw gave me a reproachful look.

There was no sign of activity at the Grey Herons' nest on the island, but as usual the mate of the sitting bird was waiting in the next tree.

Herons sometimes perch on a small disused nest at the east end of the island, probably built by a Carrion Crow or a Magpie.

The young heron was waiting hopefully at the edge of the lake by the Lido restaurant.

A Cormorant fishing under the Italian Garden suddenly scooted away in a great hurry. I got a distant picture of it disentangling a fish from a bit of weed. Possibly in catching the fish it had disturbed one of the large and lethal pike that hang around at the top of the Long Water.

Cormorants on the fallen horse chestnut in the Long Water in three states: on the left, in breeding plumage; front right, in normal plumage; and behind it a young Cormorant still with a juvenile off-white front.

A large flock of Canada and Greylag Geese grazed by the Round Pond.

This pair of Canadas nest on the edge of the island every year, but Jenna tells me that they have never succeeded in raising young.

Last year the Greylags did better than the Canadas. Jenna reckons that this is because they are living a more natural wild life, while the Canadas have become over-dependent on humans feeding them.

Even moderate rain turns the middle of the lawn east of the Dell into a swamp so soggy that you literally can't walk through it. This delights the resident pair of Egyptian Geese.

One of two foxes which have taken up residence in the Dell could be seen on the grass. It had a scratch and disappeared into the bushes.

Monday 29 January 2024

More from the Song Thrush

A better view of the Song Thrush singing beside the leaf yard, encouraged by a mild day with hazy sunlight. It doesn't take much to set a Song Thrush going in winter.

There is now a fair-sized flock of Jackdaws beside the Round Pond, mostly near the bandstand.

A Pied Wagtail ran along the gravel strip in the pond, hunting insects in the bird droppings.

As the afternoon light faded a band of Common Gulls mobbed a young Herring Gull. When you see a tight flurry of circling gulls, it's usually been started by Common Gulls, which enjoy high-speed manoeuvres.

The Czech Black-Headed Gull had knocked its rival EZ73323 off the No Swimming sign again.

Not content with this, it buzzed a Carrion Crow minding its own business on the edge of the lake. It did this several times but I only filmed it once, so this is a very short video. There was no reason for the attack. Gulls just wanna have fun.

A Wood Pigeon ate the fruit of a cabbage palm Cordyline australis beside the Dell waterfall. This is a remarkably tough and frost resistant plant. Its little fruits are much liked by birds, which spread the seeds in their droppings. It therefore crops up in the most unexpected places, though this is one of a group planted deliberately as ornaments.

Both Peregrines were on the barracks, unsociably separated by the concrete partition.

A pleasing picture by Mark Williams, taken in St James's Park. Two Blue Tits were examining the selection of food on offer before deciding what to take. (This doesn't happen to me, as the only thing on the menu is pine nuts, which fortunately they love.)

When birds see you carrying a bag of any kind they tend to think you're going to feed them. On the edge of the Serpentine by the Triangle car park, a young Grey Heron flew in and landed a few feet in front of me. But I don't carry anything a heron would want.

I was feeding a peanut to a Magpie at the time. The heron grabbed it, discovered it couldn't eat it, indignantly threw it away, and flew off.

No activity was visible in the herons' nest on the island. As usual, the mate of the sitting bird was waiting patiently in the next tree. It was having a doze.

The same Moorhen was in the same place in the planter in the Italian Garden for the third day. It really seems to be comfortable here.

There are still lots of Pochards on the Long Water ...

... but all the Shovellers have gone as far as I can see. A drake lingered on the Round Pond.

A fox in the Dell came down to the edge of the stream to drink. Malachi the gardener tells me that there are two here regularly, the other one a cub. So much for the park management's futile attempt to get rid of them.

There are definitely no rabbits left in their old place by the Henry Moore sculpture, and foxes must be largely responsible for that though there was also an outbreak of myxomatosis. However, I saw this hole on the other side of the Long Water a few feet from the turnstile at Temple Gate, and it looks very like a rabbit hole. This is something to keep an eye out for.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Robins beginning to pair up

This is a poor picture of a Robin in deep shade in the bushes near Peter Pan, but it's significant because there was another Robin nearby and they were tolerating each other. It looks as if they're beginning to come out of their winter isolation and pair up.

The usual male Chaffinch ...

... and a Blue Tit chased me from the Flower Walk to the Round Pond demanding pine nuts all the way.

Despite the mild sunny weather, the Little Owl didn't feel like coming out. She was probably put off by the Sunday crowds. Also, several Jackdaws had perched in her tree.

Starlings looked for wireworms in the grass beside the pond. They're completely unafraid of people, and mill around under your feet. Their rocketlike takeoff keeps them safe from harm.

There was a slightly closer view of a Redwing hunting on the bare earth at the Parade Ground, but they really aren't helping the photographer.

It's hard to say how many there are at the moment, as they keep flying up into the trees and disappearing, but I think no more than half a dozen.

The female Peregrine was by herself on the barracks tower.

A Grey Heron flew into the big Chinese privet tree at the northwest corner of the bridge. They've been here before in past years, and a pair even started building a nest and mating, but it didn't come to anything in the end. If they were to go through with it, I think it would be the first time herons nested in Kensington Gardens.

Some baskets were put up in the trees nearby to encourage them, but the herons ignored these. They were quite right, as the baskets weren't properly fixed and one of them fell down. The same happened with the baskets on the island.

Three herons on the island: one of the pair attending the chicks in the nest, the other below on a post, and the widowed heron in its old nest, still without a new mate.

A pair of Great Crested Grebes, now in their full breeding finery, displayed at the Vista.

A Cormorant fishing under the marble fountain at the edge of the Italian Garden was also in breeding plumage with white bristly feathers on its head.

A Mooorhen poked in the algae at the base of the fountain.

In the Rose Garden, the sunshine brought out a Buff-Tailed Bumblebee on the Mexican Orange bush which is beginning to flower ...

... and a White-Tailed Bumblebee (judging by its yellow stripes) on a mahonia bush.

A Star Wars stormtrooper was rollerskating on the Serpentine Road.

Vinny had a rare sight at Southend: a White-Billed Diver (also called a Yellow-Billed Loon). Here it is to the left of a Great Northern Diver (which in North America is called a Common Loon). As you can see, it's bigger: it's the largest species of diver (or loon).

Untroubled by the naming confusion, it caught a flatfish.