Sunday, 21 January 2018

Readers continue to send in very fine pictures of birds both in the park outside, for which I am very grateful as I sit here nursing my injured ankle. All contributions are very welcome, and you can send them to kensingtonbirds@gmail.com. This is a better choice than my private email address, as its small inbox can get too full when several people send large picture files.

The weather is absolutely horrible today, and I shouldn't think that anyone was taking pictures in the sleet, though Abigail did heroically venture out to feed the white-faced Blackbird, who is slowly responding and becoming less shy.

Here are three pictures taken by Virginia yesterday. First, a dramatic shot of two Great Crested Grebes on the Serpentine having a territorial dispute. They are sensing the distant approach of spring, and there has already been a preliminary bout of nest building on the island.


A Shoveller drake meditatively scratched his chin.


And a Robin was singing fit to bust.


This striking picture of a flying Mallard is by David Element.


Derek Polley, better known as the Belfast Birder, was visiting the park recently, saw and photographed a crowd of Grey Herons which had assembled near the Dell. He was puzzled by this.


Regular visitors will know that there is a man who walks through the park every day and feeds the herons and other birds. He has a reguar schedule. The herons know about this and turn out just before he arrives.

Another picture from the park, but taken a while ago: a splendid shot by Fran of a Little Owl having a stretch. I think this is the female owl from the chestnut tree near the leaf yard.


The pair tend to disappear into the leaf yard in midwinter, and neither has been seen for several weeks. If all goes well they will be out again in the spring.

Fran also took this picture, probably the most remarkable photograph ever to appear on this blog. It was shot on a visit to Mull. A Common Buzzard landed on the back of a flying White-Tailed Eagle, and stood there like a wingwalker at an air show.


It's hard to guess what the buzzard thought it was doing, but there must have been some intention of stealing a fish if the eagle caught one.

Justyna C. sent this picture of a single file of Mute Swans going through a narrow passage in the ice on a frozen pond in Krakow. It's up to the front swan to break the ice for the others.


I've seen swans breaking the ice in the park. They repeatedly heave themselves on to the edge and sit on it to break it. It's strenuous work.

Two more fine pictures by David Element. First, a House Sparrow, photographed in a dogwood bush at Wandle Park. They are sadly missed in our own park. The last one was seen in 2000.


He has foxes in his garden, who are now so used to him that he can take close-up shots.


Earlier this year there was another unexpectedly tame creature, a Cuckoo at Thursley Park. Tom took this excellent picture of it.


Another picture by Tom, of a female Kestrel, I think at Rainham Marshes.


Here is his video of the Water Rail in Regent's Park creeping furtively through the mud on the edge of the reed bed near the two little wooden bridges.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

While I am grounded by an injured ankle, readers have been kindly sending in excellent pictures of birds both inside the park and out. Please keep them coming. You can send them to an email address I've set up for the purpose, kensingtonbirds@gmail.com.

It's a nasty wet day here, but here is a fine picture by David Element of the female Little Owl near the Albert Memorial enjoying the sunshine a few days ago.


She also sometimes perches at the front of the hole when it's raining. There's a hole in the top of the branch, so she needs to stand forward to avoid being dripped on.

These two pictures were taken yesterday by Virginia. A pair of Egyptian Geese were making a hullabaloo in the Diana fountain enclosure.


The eastern part of the enclosure, away from the watercourse, is not much visited by people. It has become a haven for geese of all kinds to graze on the expensive specially laid turf, and for Herring Gulls to search for worms. Egyptians are territorial birds, and when too many are packed into this fairly small enclosure, disputes tend to break out.

A Black-Headed Gull finished off a preening session by stretching its wings.


Four more recent pictures by David Element. This is one of those tight groups that Common Gulls get into when  they are chasing each other. It's a very difficult subject to photograph, fast moving and only lasting a few seconds, and I've never got a satisfactory picture of it myself.


Sunlight brings up the splendid iridescence of a Mallard drake's head.


Now we leave the park. This Great Northern Diver has just made a catch at Poole Park in Dorset.


This is not a species that has ever been seen in the park here. But Little Egrets, which are becoming more common, have started visting occasionally. Normally birds of the heron family land in trees preciesly and elegantly, but this one missed its footing badly in a willow and only just managed to hang on.


The last four pictures were sent in by Tinúviel, who lives in Extremadura in Spain. House Martins are familiar birds, but you don't often get the chance of a close-up shot of one attending a nest in a doorway. Its characteristic white rump is hidden by its folded wings.


Linnets are also occasionally seen in the park here, though I have only got photographs of them at Rainham Marshes.


A White Stork nested on a ruined house in the village of Logrosán.


A young Griffon Vulture looked down hopefully from a road sign, but the photographer obstinately remained alive.


Vultures are now getting into Spanish towns, where they are often stranded, either because they have not found food and are hungry and weak, or because they have found food and have gorged themselves to such an extent that they are too heavy to fly. They have to be rescued by the police, who turn out with blankets and pet carriers. Here is some amusing and touching footage from Spanish television showing a vulture being rounded up in Toledo.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Sorry to report that I have hurt my ankle and will be off my feet for some time. This is the first time I've missed a visit to the park and a blog entry about it in almost six years. I've kept blogging with flu and with a broken shoulder, but not being able to walk more than a few yards is a definite stopper.

I hope to keep the blog going while I recover, with the help of readers and other friends. Please, if you have interesting news about the park or pictures of birds, not necessarily in the park, send them to me. I have set up a new email address for the purpose, kensingtonbirds@gmail.com. Of course if you know my private address -- which I don't publish to avoid attracting spammers and crazies -- you can send them to that too.

Virginia has just come to my rescue with two fine pictures, one of a Cormorant attacking a Mute Swan on the raft at the east end of the Serpentine, where they both like to sit. It tried to push the swan out of the way but couldn't shift the heavy bird, so bit it instead.


The other is of the female Little Owl near the Albert Memorial looking out of her hole in the oak tree.


While I'm waiting for more contributions, I'll write about the Long Water and the Serpentine, which I have been walking around every day in rain and shine. This was a rainstorm in 2016, so heavy that even the swans were flattened.


They are in fact a single lake, and the fact that it has two names is a historical accident. Until the 16th century the area currently occupied by Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens was an estate called the Manor of Hyde, and it was the property of the monks of Westminster Abbey. In 1536, following his schism with the Catholic Church, King Henry VIII dissolved all the monasteries in England and Wales and seized their lands, a theft which brought him a huge amount of money that he promptly wasted on a pointless war with France. He turned the Manor of Hyde into a private park for himself, in which he could hunt deer. Traces of this use survive in the name Buck Hill, the hill at the north edge of the park just to the east of the lake.

At this time there was a small river flowing through the park from northwest to southeast. It didn't have a definite name: at its south end it was called the Bourne (which just means 'stream'), but where it flows through Bayswater it seems to have been called the Brook. This river still flows but is now paved over and mostly invisible.

In the 19th century a housing development was built north of the park and west of the river, so it was given the name Westbourne. This name has now been attached to the river istelf.

The source of the river is traditionally said to be the Whitestone Pond, oddly situated on top of the steep hill above Hampstead, the highest point in London, but actually it is probably a short way off in the Branch Hill Bowl. As it flows south it is joined by another river, the Kill Burn (which means 'stream stream' in the languages of successive inhabitants), after which the district of Kilburn is named. Where it flowed through the east end of Hyde Park it meandered over a flat valley floor, in which the monks had dug fishponds to provide their Friday meals.

Below Hyde Park the river flowed down what is now Kinnerton Street and the east side of Sloane Street. It crosses the platform of Sloane Square Underground station in a large square metal tube which you can see over your head, before flowing away through Chelsea and into the gardens of the Royal Hospital, finally discharging into the Thames through a large arch in the Embankment just upstream of Chelsea Bridge.

You can see more images of the Westbourne on the Londonist's excellent web site here. There is also an annotated Google map showing the course of the buried rivers of London north of the Thames here.

In 1688 the 'Glorious Revolution', a bloodless coup, deposed the last Stuart King, James II, and he was replaced by the joint monarchs King William III, brought over from the Netherlands, and his wife Queen Mary II, who was a Stuart and thus gave the throne some legitimate continuity. They didn't want to live in the old Whitehall Palace, a rambling and filthy warren associated with the old monarchy, so they had a new palace built at Kensington, then well outside London. They took the west part of Hyde Park as their private garden, which is why this area is still called Kensington Gardens. Hyde Park was open to the public, and was separated from the private park by a ha-ha (a sunken wall and ditch) running along the west edge of what is now the West Carriage Drive. Traces of this are still visible.

Later Kensington Gardens was revamped for Queen Caroline, wife of George II, for whom among other things the Queen's Temple was built. In 1727 work began on damming the Westbourne to make a lake to beautify the park. The dam was built at the east end of Hyde Park. Its middle section has been made to look like a little bridge, and the water flows out through the central arch.


The new lake drains over it to flow away through the Dell, in a little stream which is the only place where the Westbourne flows in the open before it vanishes underground again.


The upper part of the lake in Kensington Gardens was named the Long Water, and the lower part in Hyde Park was called the Serpentine, reflecting the theory of the artist William Hogarth that a curved 'serpentine line' was the most elegant shape. Not that the Serpentine is particularly curvaceous -- it's more of a slack L shape.

The Westbourne originally flowed into the Long Water through three stone arches faced with knapped flints. Here they are in a mid-19th century print.


The upper reaches of the Westbourne were still partly open at this time, and all kinds of rubbish and filth were thrown into it, so that it was very smelly and made the lake foul. Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, fresh from his triumphant organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, determined to remedy this, and had the river diverted around the north edge of the park in a pipe, no small undertaking as the pipe had to be dug into the steep upslope where Buck Hill meets the north edge of the park. A borehole was dug to provide the lake with clean water.

On the spot shown in the print above, he had the Italian Gardens constructed in 1860, with fountains of the newly clean water powered by a steam engine in the back of the loggia.



The three stone arches are still there, hard up against the north side of the loggia in the Italian Garden, but nothing flows through them now.


They are also echoed in the headdress of the river god of the Westbourne which forms the keystone of the central arch of the loggia. He looks miserable. His river has been taken away from him.


The pipe containing the Westbourne joins a tiny tributary stream at the north side of the park above the Ranger's Lodge, and the two flow underground together into the Serpentine near the island (which is an artificial island heaped up when the lake was created). This stream was called the Tyburn Brook. This is not the same as the larger Tyburn river which flows a mile to the east. In very wet weather the Tyburn Brook bursts out of its culvert and forms a small temporary lake in the Meadow, the part of the park west of the Parade Ground.

As the Westbourne flows out of the lake it goes down a waterfall, refinding its original level.


It turns south and leaves the park between what are now the French and Kuwaiti embassies. This is what it looked like in the early 19th century. In the background is Knight's Bridge, which originally was the only crossing of the river for some way in either direction. It was therefore a place where highwaymen lay in wait for travellers.


This is the same place today, with the river buried and the original crossing now the streeet called Knightsbridge, where the only highway robbery consists in the prices charged by the smart shops that line it.


Too much history -- let's have a video I shot a few days ago of a Robin singing in the Rose Garden .


I hope to have some more pictures of birds for you tomorrow.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

A sight of the female Little Owl at the Albert Memorial preening started the day well.


But after that there was not much exciting to see. The cold morning made the Great Tits ...


... and Blue Tits ...


at the leaf yard very hungry, and they flew down in mobs to my hand.

Long-Tailed Tits have no dealings with humans.


There are more and more Jackdaws at the leaf yard, perhaps drawn by people feeding the Rose-Ringed Parakeets. They are getting bolder, and now stand in your way and stare at you till you give them a peanut.


At the Vista a Black-Headed Gull found a whole peanut in the shell (not provided by me) and carried it off, only to be chased by a Coot. Neither of them could have eaten it. Only the larger gulls have the strength to crush the shell in their bill. They can't hold it down and peck it open because their small feet don't much grip.


More Black-Headed Gulls beside the Serpentine: a very similar display is used both between mates and to dominate rivals, and you can't tell the difference until one gull chases the other away, making it clear that it's rivalry.


Like most ducks, Mallards bob their heads as an invitation to mating. The female politely copied the drake but wasn't interested in mating, which is no fun at all for a female Mallard, so she swam away.


I went on towards the Round Pond. On the way there were two Redwings in a tree, allowing quite a close shot.


When the Winter Wasteland is finally dismantled there should be flocks of Redwings looking for worms in the ruined grass, and some Fieldfares and other thrushes. But you can't get at all close to them there, and even a big lens produces mediocre pictures.

On the Round Pond, the sunshine brought out the green iridescence of the head of a Shoveller drake ...


... and the secondaries of an Egyptian Goose.


At Kensington Palace the lawn in front of the Orangery, with its avenue of holly trees, is being ripped up and replaced by a formal parterre which is supposed to copy the design of Charles Bridgeman, who remodelled Kensington Gardens for Queen Caroline, wife of George II. A lot of concrete was being laid, and it looked as if the result would not be at all bird friendly. They have also ripped out the shrubbery behind the Orangery. It's an endless story of habitat loss.

However, a Wren at the foot of the Orangery steps was unconcerned, and looked for insects behind a trailing electric cable.


Yesterday Tom went to Regent's Park and got a picture of the Water Rail which has been there for a while. It was in the reeds on the edge of the lake between the two little wooden bridges.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A pair of Egyptian Geese were mating near the Dell restaurant. They have no idea of the northern seasons and will mate and nest at any time of year. They were also undeterred by the choppy waves and a lot of other birds milling around them.


The dominant pair of Mute Swans on the Long Water were showing their affection by synchronised preening.


There weren't many people around on a cold windy day. A flock of Greylags took advantage of the quiet and visited the Diana fountain to drink.



In winter there are always Pochards sheltering under the trees at the north edge of the Vista, accompanied by the resident Tufted Ducks.


The pair of Mandarins were still at Peter Pan, though the drake was skulking in the bushes.


A Moorhen sat stolidly on the edge of the Serpentine, not budging as runners thumped past inches away.


The pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gull's mate was with him today. We haven't seen her for a long time.


A young Herring Gull on the Serpentine played idly with a leaf. But it wasn't a very exciting toy and was quickly dropped.


Another gull at the Diana fountain found a much more interesting game: catching leaves as they swept down the watercourse.


Some snowdrops have come out near the Dell. A Carrion Crow investigated them.


A Robin in the Dell came out and fed from my hand. I have never had any dealings with this bird before. People must be hand-feeding the Robins here, though I have never seen them.


There was a flock of Long-Tailed Tits in the magnolia trees near Queen's Gate. They stayed for quite a long time. Perhaps the developing buds attract insects.