Saturday, 30 November 2013

As the adult Great Crested Grebes fade into their winter plumage, and the young ones grow into adulthood, they are becoming increasingly similar in appearance. Soon the only visible difference will be that the adults have a faint vertical dark stripe on their cheek, a vestige of their colourful ruff, and the young ones have a faint horizontal stripe, the last remnant of their juvenile stripes.

Gulls of all sizes were bearing off food scraps dropped by the crowds at the funfair, and being chased by others to harass them into dropping their prize. The chase is conducted from below, so that if the quarry drops the food a pursuer can snatch it in a split second.

Black-Headed Gulls were also crowding a group of Tufted Ducks on one of the Italian Garden ponds, for no clear reason as the ducks were not bringing up anything large enough to interest them. On the left a duck is diving in the peculiar way of small diving ducks, in which it jumps up in an arched posture to give it impetus to submerge more deeply.

They need to do this because they are quite buoyant. Grebes can make themselves less buoyant by clenching down their feathers, and don't need to jump unless they are planning to dive very deeply.

The pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gull had been forced off its usual pitch at the Dell restaurant by the mass of humans, swans and geese, and was hunting at the opposite corner of the Serpentine near the bridge. Here it is looking bloody and ominous, but it is only doing what comes naturally to a gull.

The Tawny Owls were in the same place as yesterday, and this is practically the same picture as yesterday's. But how spoilt we are, being able to stroll into the park and reliably see a pair of these beautiful birds.

The little flock of Greylag Geese feeding on Buck Hill had stationed themselves in front of a pretty autumn tree.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A second Little Grebe appeared at the top of the Long Water near the Italian Garden.

I don't know whether there have been two of them for a while, but this is the first time since the summer that anyone has seen two together, and I think the second one may be a new arrival. They seemed to have nothing to say to each other, and in this distant shot one just happened to be passing the other, going in opposite directions.

One of the young Great Crested Grebes was fishing with its father. Here is is, oddly distorted by the ripples on the water.

This is not a fishing lesson as such, I think, though it will certainly help with learning to hunt. The young grebes begin by looking under water to see where their parents are so that they can be first to grab any fish that is caught. Then they start following them, at first only able to dive for a few seconds. And this develops into full co-operation. When they have mates the pair will often fish together, each chasing fish towards the other.

A pair of Egyptian Geese have started their usual winter game of flying to the tops of dead trees and making a loud display.

This is really just a ritual, not real nest seeking for the coming spring, as the trees they choose are quite unsuitable for nesting in.

And a Moorhen was also enjoying the favourite game of running along the chain and knocking the Black-Headed Gulls off their posts one by one. This was the fourth in a row.

It stopped after the fifth because the next bird was a Cormorant and stood its ground.

The Tawny Owls are in exactly the same place in their beech tree. They were awake enough to turn round and look at me as I approached through the rustling dead leaves.

They are very sensititive to rustling sounds, as they hunt mice at night by the tiny sound the mice make as they move. Tawny Owls have excellent vision, including at night, but their hearing is phenomenal, both in sensitivity and in directional accuracy.

Readers interested in the language of birds should have a look at a very interesting piece by Africa Gómez in her blog, The Rattling Crow, on Blackbird calls.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Little Grebe is now often in the reed beds under the parapet of the Italian Garden.

Sometimes you can't see it, but a semicircle of small ripples spreading out from the edge into the open water shows that it is rooting about in the reed stems. As well as the usual small invertebrates that make up much of a Little Grebe's diet, there are also fish of just the right size for this small bird.

Although all this year's young Great Crested Grebes are now quite capable of looking after themselves, they still sometimes beg for food from their parents, and sometimes their parents are indulgent enough to give them a fish.

This one had been fishing quite successfully in one of the wire baskets near the bridge when its mother turned up, and immediately stopped work and started calling to be fed. Teenagers are much the same in many species.

The Tawny Owls were in their usual place in the beech tree. Today the male sleepily opened one eye to look at me, then realised that it was just the usual daily intrusion on his privacy and went back to sleep.

A Song Thrush was waiting in the holly tree for his turn to harvest the berry-laden yew bush between Peter Pan and the Italian Garden.

We know he's a male thrush because he has been singing in a desultory fashion for the past few days. He will not be here for long, as the berries are running out.

In the shallow water at Peter Pan, a couple of very ordinary Feral Pigeons were sitting in the water.

They were shaking themselves gently from time to time, but not bothering to have a proper wash. Evidently this leisurely bath was helping in some way to control the feather mites.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A visit to the Tawny Owls' beech tree found them fast asleep and taking no notice of several photographers running around looking for a good angle. This shot of the male was the best I could do.

There are at least half a dozen Nuthatches in the leaf yard and the surrounding trees. Again, they were not doing photographers any favours. But the solitary Coal Tit is now more confident about taking food from people's hands, and waits in the front of the bushes so it it is noticed and fed.

It followed Jim for 200 yards along the edge of the leaf yard, collecting pine nuts and flying away to cache them in cracks in the bark of trees.

A mob of Black-Headed Gulls was whirling around in front of the Peter Pan statue, catching bits of biscuit that a man was throwing up in the air for them.

It is a delight to see how agile these small gulls are.

A larger relative, the pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gull, was trotting ominously through the crowd of Feral Pigeons eating crumbs near the Dell restaurant. The pigeons are quite aware of what this creature is up to, and flee as it approaches.

This is actually what the gull wants them to do, since the best chance it has of killing one is to chase several of them out over the water, where it can seize one and drag it down and drown it. However, pigeons are quicker from a standing start than large gulls, and usually escape.

The sun came out briefly just before it set, making golden reflections in the Serpentine as these two Shoveller drakes cruised by.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared at the top of a lime tree near the leaf yard.

There are probably two pairs of them in the leaf yard, but they don't usually come out into clear view.

The Tawny Owls were in exactly the same place as they have been in for the past fortnight.

In this position they are facing each other over the top of the branch, and I hope that as they gaze on their mate thoughts of nesting and owlets are beginning to fill their minds.

The yew bush near Peter Pan was again surrounded by Blackbirds, at least one Song Thrush and a gang of Starlings all waiting their turn to plunge into it and eat berries. None of them provided a photo opportunity, so here instead is one of the heavily laden rowans at the top of Buck Hill, which has just attracted a flash mob of Starlings.

The moment only lasts a few seconds: fly in, grab a berry or two and straight out and back to the tree at the bottom of the hill where they congregate. No bird of any species seems to stay in the rowans for long, except for the two resident Magpies. Maybe these are the reason for the rush.

The Little Grebe turned up under the parapet of the Italian Garden, busily poking for food among the reed stems. It is in its plain winter plumage; all grebes look quite similar in winter except for their size.

There are only a few Cormorants now. Probably they have almost exhausted the lake's stock of fish of a size that interests them. But there are still plenty of smaller fish to be had, and this Great Crested Grebe was doing well above the baskets of twigs near the bridge, catching several fish as I watched.

Later there was a territorial dispute when this pair chased off the pair from the Serpentine island.

Monday, 25 November 2013

To raise the tone of my rather indifferent pictures today, here is a splendid picture of the Little Owl taken by Virginia Grey just before I arrived and frightened her away (the owl, I mean, not Virginia).

There were few people in Kensington Gardens. The Tawny Owls, who must have been slightly disturbed by the throng of admirers yesterday, were catching up on their sleep and didn't stir a feather. This is the male.

The female Little Owl emerged briefly, but I approached incautiously and she fled into her hollow tree.

It was time to do the monthly bird count. Many birds have been driven away from the noisy site of the dismal Winter Wonderland funfair: I only saw one small bird in the Dell, a Great Tit. Others are attracted to the rumpus, such as the Mute Swans who know that people will feed them, and the Feral Pigeons, assured of rich pickings from discarded snacks.

The saddest casualty of the constant disturbance of this area is the flock of Song Thrushes that used to live in the trees at the south end of the Parade Ground. The last time I saw any of them, several years ago, it was on the central reservation of Park Lane, which is noisy and filthy but has grass and trees and -- most importantly -- is mostly closed to people.

However, in Kensington Gardens a Song Thrush was singing loudly from the top of a holly tree near the bridge. They have been remarkably vocal recently.

The flock of Starlings on Buck Hill seems to have grown.

They spend most of their time clustered in three tall trees near the Italian Garden, but every now and then a mysterious signal will pass through the flock and they will all leap into the air and settle on the berry-laden rowan trees, or charge off in the opposite direction to see if anyone is feeding the waterfowl on the Round Pond.

Also on Buck Hill, there was a Green Woodpecker.

A pair of these has often been seen and heard around the martial arts bandstand, though I have seen no evidence that they have bred here.

A Grey Heron was standing on the peak of the roof of the Dell restaurant, looking rather like an old-fashioned whaler in a boat waiting to harpoon his prey.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Tawny Owls' tree was constantly visited by their fans. As one party left another arrived.

And the owls put on a good show for them.

These must be the most famous owls in the world -- at least after Bubi, the Eagle Owl who roosted in the Helsink national football stadium and famously interrupted a Finland-Belgium match for six minutes by perching on a goalpost and buzzing the players. You can see a video clip of the incident here; the Finnish team have been called the Huuhkajat (Eagle Owls) ever since. But sadly Bubi died in 2011, while our owls are still going strong and have been breeding in the park for a decade.

There was no sign of the Little Owls, who were wisely staying in their cosy tree on this chilly day.

A Song Thrush visited the small rowan tree at the north end of Buck Hill, near the lodge.

There was an unusual sight on the shore of the Serpentine: a Black-Headed Gull which had almost completely grown its black head feathers for the summer breeding season, many months in the future.

This Common Gull a few yards along the shore has grey legs. The leg colour of the species is remarkably variable: ivory, pale straw yellow, pale green and various shades of grey. The very dark morph found in northern Europe has dark grey legs.

The young Pied Wagtail that hunted around the Lido during the summer is still there. Its grey head shows that this is a first-winter bird. Adult females have grey backs and a black head, and males have black backs and a black head.

Update: more pictures from today on Wendy's blog.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Shovellers were close inshore near the Italian Garden, where there was not much room for them to pursue their usual aimless course. Two of them, moving with their heads under water, ran into each other, and you can see the resulting mild squabble on the right of this picture.

I was looking at this spectacle with Elizabeth, who spotted a small bird moving on the far left, dimly visible just above the rock in the picture above. It turned out to be the elusive Little Grebe, looking for food among the reed stems. It was moving away, but I managed to get a distant shot.

Two young Great Crested Grebes were practising their adult courtship ritual under the willow tree near the bridge.

The basic movements are instinctive for a grebe, and even grebes of a different genus, the big American Clark's and Western Grebes, have the same head-shaking display. But the ritual has to be practised. The culminating dance with bits of water weed is particularly difficult, and you sometimes see inexperienced couples making a complete mess of it, because they can't yet read their partner's body language and get the timing wrong.

Meanwhile the adults, relieved of the long burden of childcare, were having a nice rest.

The Tawny Owls were in their usual tree. The male is still unusually restless, and when I had taken the usual picture of him looking at me over the top of the branch and had walked to the other side of the branch, he changed his position and kept one wary eye on me.

No sign of a Little Owl today. There were also few birds on the yew bush which yesterday was full of Blackbirds, because the number of weekend visitors on the path had disturbed them. However, a Blue Tit in this bush now comes out to be fed as soon as I approach.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The number of Shovellers is building up gradually, though there are still no more than 20 -- not quite the critical mass needed for them to form one of their grand circular processions.

In a good year for them there may be more than 200 on the Long Water.

More winter migrant Blackbirds have arrived, and there were half a dozen in the yew bush or under it picking up fallen berries.

A Song Thrush was singing quietly in an adjacent tree, waiting for the Blackbirds to go away before visiting the bush himself. A single Redwing was seen here this morning, but not by me, so there is no photograph.

The flock of Starlings that has been rushing around Buck Hill for some days decided to visit the rowan trees.

Apart from them, there are still few takers for the fruit. Apparently it becomes more palatable after a frost severe enough to freeze the berries, which are then softer when they thaw.

The Tawny Owls were in their usual place in the beech tree. The male has often been awake and restless in the past few days, a contrast to his usual sleepiness.

But the female didn't stir a feather the whole time I was there.

The male Little Owl was also out making the most of the midday sunshine.

The Great Crested Grebes have retreated from notice in recent days, keeping to the middle of the lake rather than fishing along the edge. The young birds have finally stopped begging and are fending for themselves. Some of the birds on the Serpentine have flown away, possibly sensing the arrival of icy weather. At this time you can often see them on the Thames anywhere upstream of Chiswick. This little family group on the Long Water may just be resting together, but grebes tend to form flocks before they fly, so perhaps they too are thinking of leaving. The young ones, of course, have never been away from the lake, so they will be led by their parents.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Jays seem to have finished burying this year's heavy crop of acorns, and a fair number are turning up to be fed peanuts. Here one looks expectantly at me with a sharp grey eye.

If you put a peanut on the fence, the Jay slams down, grabs it and departs in a fraction of a second, a notoriously unphotographable event. It doesn't matter, though, because they look much better perched in trees waiting for the human to stop taking pictures and get on with feeding them.

Although Jays remember the location of thousands of nuts they have cached, presumably a few acorns must be forgotten and survive to sprout, so these birds must be an important propagator of the oak tree.

Various birds were doing their bit to propagate the yew by eating its berries. Here it was the turn of a female blackbird.

Blackbirds and other thrushes like to keep their distance from their own kind, and there are never more than two in this medium-sized bush at once, while others wait their turn on the neighbouring trees. But when the gregarious Starlings come to feed here, they pile in all over the bush.

The female Tawny Owl came out a little farther along her branch in the beech tree, giving us a better look as this elegant bird than we have had for a while.

A Pied Wagtail was exploring the dead leaves on the shore of the Serpentine.

They don't turn the leaves over as some birds do, but rush around looking for small creatures that have incautiously come out into plain sight.

In the Serpentine, a young Herring Gull was enjoying a wash.