Thursday, 31 October 2013

The male Tawny Owl was in his favourite winter place, the notch in the broken top of the pair's nest tree.

He should be visible here often from November to the middle of March. Before his mate settles in to the serious task of nesting and rearing the owlets, which will begin in December, she should sometimes be visible beside him. They may also appear in the hole where a branch has broken off, a bit lower on the other side of the tree.

The Great Crested Grebes at the Serpentine Bridge were having no difficulty in finding fish for their three young; in fact, almost every dive brought a catch. But they were having a lot of trouble with raiding Black-Headed Gulls. Here mother and chick crash-dive in unison as a gull descends. At the bottom left of this picture you can see that she is still holding the fish.

She passed it to the young bird under water, and a few seconds later it surfaced, gulping, and the gull was foiled yet again. Grebes don't lose many fish to these raids, especially when they have gained a bit of experience in how to avoid the gulls.

Meanwhile, under the parapet of the Italian Garden, a young grebe was poking around alone in the reed bed and caught a sizeable fish.

There are still a lot of fallen branches lying around after the strong wind. One had fallen into the Serpentine, and a Moorhen was using it as a convenient perch for titivating its feathers.

A family of Goldfinches can sometimes be seen in the trees flanking the path between Peter Pan and the Italian Garden. Goldfinches are oddly rare in the park when you can see them in hundreds not far away. The nearest reliable place to find them is Molyneux Street, a small street on the east side of the Edgware Road a few hundred yards north of Marble Arch.

Goldfinches like perching high up. This is a street of small houses of c.1800, but just to the east of it there is a tall block of flats which lies between them and the television transmitter at Crystal Palace. So they have to have television aerials on tall masts to 'see' over the large building. Goldfinches find these irresistible, and the street is alive with their chatter.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

There are not many Jays to be seen in the park at the moment. No doubt they are all busy gathering and hiding nuts for the winter.

They have a remarkable memory for where they have cached their food, apparently remembering thousands of locations. Jays are as intelligent as their sharp grey-eyed gaze suggests. It is rather like being looked at by a fox: they know who's boss and they won't stand any nonsense.

Another sharp gaze, as a Black-Headed Gull eyes a Great Crested Grebe passing by under water, wondering where it will surface and whether it will be carrying a fish.

The gull is at a disadvantage, since if the grebe moves more than a short distance away, the refraction of the water will make it impossible to see. The grebe can see the gull's silly little feet paddling in the water from anywhere, and has only to move away before surfacing to make sure its meal is safe. Most of the losses to gulls happen when the grebe is passing a fish to a chick.

Unusually, this young Black-Headed Gull is knocking a senior one off the post.

These gulls get almost completely adult-looking plumage within a year, but for a while they retain the black tips to their tail feathers, and their legs are marmalade-coloured rather than the deep red of a mature bird.

A Pochard shows a beautiful red eye as it splashes about scooping up food from the water.

Pochards eat just about anything they can gather on the surface or off the bottom, both plants and small animals.

This Great Tit has found a hole full of insects in a branch of a swamp cypress.

It stayed at this spot for five minutes, so there must have been a lot of bugs in the hole.

No sign of any owls today. We will keep looking, of course.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A couple of Carrion Crows were bathing in the little pool at the base of the marble fountain in the Italian Garden. It has a stream of water gushing into it and makes a fine jacuzzi for larger birds.

One of the three young Great Crested Grebes at the bridge caught a fair-sized fish, and quickly ate it before the inevitable Black-Headed Gull swooped down to try to grab it.

All the young grebes are showing signs of independence. The ones at the north end of the Long Water were prospecting for small creatures in the reeds. One of the three at the east end of the Serpentine was making a spirited attempt to fly, and actually got a couple of inches off the water before splashing down chaotically. Unfortunately I was behind some reeds when this happened and couldn't get a picture, but I shall be watching them with interest and try to catch one in the air.

Also at the bridge, a Cormorant had landed on a chain and, wobbling precariously, was trying to walk up it to the wooden post.

Eventually it had to fly up. Only Moorhens can manage this climb without using wings.

There are still only a few Shovellers on the lake. This elegant drake was on his own near the Lido, spinning round like a dog chasing its own tail.

Here are two Egyptian Geese coming in from across the Serpentine, attracted by someone feeding the ducks. The large white patches on their wings make them unmistakable in flight -- at least in this country where the similarly sized and coloured Ruddy Shelduck is very rare.

Several visits to the various owls' trees failed to reveal any of them. But the Tawnies at least will be a lot easier to see when the leaves have fallen.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The male Tawny owl was briefly visible in his favourite winter spot on the nest tree, directly above the hole where the pair's nest is. Paul Turner got a quick shot of him before he went inside.

We were worried about the effect of the strong wind on the nest tree, which is tall and hollow, but it stayed up, although a lime tree 50 yards to the south blew down, its stump showing it to be thoroughly rotten. Perhaps luckily, the nest tree, which is a horse chestnut, had been badly hit by leaf miner, and its leaves were shrivelled and about half fallen off, which reduced its wind resistance. Actually the park has not fared too badly, losing only a few trees and a fair amount of branches. It was nothing like the storm of 1987.

The young Great Crested Grebes whose nest was on an earlier wind casualty, the fallen poplar in the Long Water, were fishing for themselves around the wire baskets on the other side of the bridge.

There are so many fish here that even the most inexperienced young bird is bound to catch something, and indeed I saw one of them come up with a fish, only to dive immediately when a Black-Headed Gull swooped. The fish was small enough to swallow under water, so the gull was disappointed.

However, the same young grebes were very happy to be fed by their parents.

Apart from that, there was not much to see, just the familiar park birds on an autumn day. It is easy to forget how beautiful even the most ordinary birds are. I hardly ever take pictures of Great Tits, but they are well worth a close look.

The broad black stripe down his front shows that he is a male. Apparently female tits favour males with the broadest possible stripe. Both sexes seek mates with the brightest yellow colour, an indication that they are well nourished with insects, whose carotenoid pigments are metabolised to astaxanthin, the yellow pigment in feathers.

And even that very ordinary city bird the Feral Pigeon has its moments of elegance. Here are an affectionate couple billing and cooing, with the sunlight lighting up their iridescent neck feathers.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Little Owls' nest tree was full of Ring-Necked Parakeets eating chestnuts. They first have to extract the chestnut from its spiky case, then they have to peck off the shell. But a parakeet's strong, sharp beak is more than up to the task.

The Little Owls were not to be seen, and were probably inside the hollow tree sensibly keeping out of the wind. The Tawny Owls had also moved to a more sheltered spot, and I couldn't find them.

This young Black-Headed Gull is a visitor from Norway, as can be seen from its colour ring marked J0TR -- the first letter on these rings indicates the country.

The bird wouldn't turn round for me to read the number on its metal ring, and all I could see was that it began with K.

The odd couple of a Herring Gull and a Lesser Black-Backed Gull on the south shore of the Serpentine are still waving bright coloured autumn leaves at each other.

Maybe this is not just a game; it may be some kind of bonding ritual. But the smaller Black-Headed Gulls were also carrying leaves around, and even flying with them.

A visit to the Round Pond to see if there were any exotic migrants blown in by the strong wind didn't reveal any, just the reliable resident Pied Wagtails running round the edge in their endless search for insects. The wind constrains them to run in one direction so that their feathers don't get ruffled, so if you stand upwind of a bird and stay still, it will come right up to you. This one is nonchalantly strolling around as a wave is about to break over it, but a quick run towards the shore is enough to save it from being swamped.

The Great Crested Grebes were bouncing around on the choppy waves of the Serpentine, but not doing anything that provided a good picture. So here is a young grebe on the Long Water, already beginning to lose its juvenile stripes and take on a more adult appearance.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The wire baskets near the bridge, full of small fish and of larger fish eating the small ones, have attracted a lot of birds. At first it was only the Great Crested Grebes, which have learnt how to probe through the mesh , both along the edge and from the top. Here is one in the act of grabbing a fish.

They were followed by Cormorants, larger and less good at fishing in confined spaces, but they have been catching quite a few, especially when the bigger fish -- which all seem to be perch -- stray away from the shelter of the baskets.

Now they have been joined by a third species. A Lesser Black-Backed Gull -- I think it was one of the enterprising pair that hunt pigeons -- was having a good try at being a diving bird.

And it was doing rather well: it caught three fish in two minutes as I was taking these pictures.

On the Serpentine, Lesser Black-Backs, Herring Gulls and Black-Headed Gulls were all playing with fallen leaves. They choose red or yellow leaves, just as a toddler prefers bright-coloured toys.

Both the Tawny Owls were in the lime tree where they have spent the last three days, though they were not showing very clearly.

The tree has more leaves and offers better cover than their nest tree, which is a horse chestnut and has been badly hit by the leaf miner, so that the leaves are brown and shrivelled and falling off rapidly. And the owls do need all the cover they can get, as they are often harassed by Jays, Magpies and Carrion Crows. There are also a lot of Ring-Necked Parakeets in the trees nearby, though I am not sure whether they are harassing the owls or just making their usual racket. They always sound furiously indignant, even when they are perfectly happy.

The male Little Owl was also in the same place in his chestnut tree as yesterday.

It was surprising to see him outside on a dark grey drizzly day.

Friday, 25 October 2013

An excellent day for owls. Both the Tawny Owls were on the same branch of the same lime tree as the day before yesterday, sitting a few feet apart so that it was impossible to get a good picture of the pair together. So here they are separately, first the female ...

... and then the male, who was sitting right against the trunk.

It should be easy enough to find the lime tree if you know where the owls' nest tree is.  It's a tall lime about 20 yards south of the nest tree, and the branch is about three-quarters of the way up and can be viewed from the east side of the tree.

The two Little Owls were also together in their usual chestnut tree. Again, their position didn't allow a good photograph of the pair, and this obscured view will have to do.

After a short time the female owl became nervous and bobbed from side to side in an agitated manner, then flew into the hole in the tree. The male stayed out and shifted into a place where he could see and be seen clearly.

It was the day for the monthly bird count, which brought no surprises -- I had been hoping for some picturesque autumn migrants, but even the common park residents weren't showing well. These Wood Pigeons were having a fight in the Dell, which in the past was a place for human duels.

One welcome revelation of the count was that all ten Great Crested Grebe chicks are still alive. The eldest ones at the Serpentine island are now three months old and almost independent, and are beginning to be pushed away, rather than fed, by their parents.

However, the younger brood of two on the Long Water are still being fed, and here is one of them taking a fish in the well stocked area next to the Italian Garden.

The young bird just managed to swallow it before it was attacked by a Black-Headed Gull and had to dive in a hurry.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A vain search for the Tawny Owls turned up several other birds. There are many old trees with rough bark in the area, providing a home for many small insects, so it is the best place in the park to see a Treecreeper ...

... and a Nuthatch.

It would be pleasing to find them on the same tree, the Nuthatch going down the trunk and the Treecreeper climbing up, as they generally do, and photograph them passing each other.

The Little Owl was also visible in the usual chestnut tree, but giving me an unusually wide-eyed look that shows off his beautiful yellow irises.

While I was going over to the tree, a Sparrowhawk passed overhead.

There is a pair that habitually hunt in Kensington Gardens and are probably responsible for most of the little heaps of grey feathers which show that a Feral Pigeon has met its end. I think there is also a second pair in Hyde Park, though it is impossible to be sure that it isn't the same pair as these. Two years ago I saw a Sparrowhawk family -- two adults and two young -- over the Long Water, but only once, so I don't think they were residents.

The young Great Crested Grebes are now diving beside their parents, and staying down for quite a long time. It is not clear whether they are actually helping their parents to fish, or just following them out of curiosity and hunger. It is, anyway, always the parent that comes up with the fish and gives it to the young one.

A difficult moment is coming when when the young have been chased away and left to fend for themselves, when they can catch fish but have to expend much more labour on it than an experienced adult. I once saw a young grebe doing quite well, as I thought, working over a well stocked patch of water and catching a small fish every two minutes. Then its mother came over and caught ten fish inside a minute in the same place.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Both Tawny Owls turned up again today, the first time they have been seen for months. They were in a lime tree a few yards to the south of their nest tree. When they were first seen they were sitting side by side, and Paul Turner got this good photograph of them.

They were being harassed by Jays, and had moved apart by the time I arrived. Pairs of Tawny Owls tend to sit near each other in autumn, as the breeding season approaches. They start nesting in December; since their main prey is mice, which abound in the park, they are not worried by food shortages in winter.

The male Little Owl also appeared in his usual tree, in a place where he could only be seen from directly below. While I thrashed around in the brambles under the tree, he regarded me with mild curiosity.

The wire baskets of twigs under the bridge are being visited by medium-sized perch, which are feeding on smaller fish inside the baskets. The Great Crested Grebes know about this, of course, and are taking the perch to their young, which are now large enough to deal with them; or, of course, eating them themselves.

Other birds know about grebes' skill in finding where the fish are -- not just the ever-watchful gulls trying to snatch the fish, but also fishing birds such as Cormorants or Common Terns, which see grebes fishing and follow them around.

Several large flocks of Long-Tailed Tits, mixed with other small insect-eating birds, were ranging around the park.

The number of Ring-Necked Parakeets is rising inexorably. Paul saw 150 of them around the clump of catalpa trees between Peter Pan and the Italian Garden. The birds extract the seeds from the pods of these trees.

A spell of sunshine brought out the lovely iridescent colours of a Starling waiting to raid a table at the Lido restaurant.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The sight of a Black-Headed Gull knocking another off a post is a familiar one.

I don't know whether they do it purely to establish social dominance, though you do see some gulls that won't be knocked off, and always stand their ground whoever barges into them. But I think there is also an element of fun, and of course competition for a good place to perch.

Cormorants also play this game, but less often.

These large birds can't simply fly at each other as the small gulls do. They are not agile in the air, and there is a risk of injury in a collision. So the attacking Cormorant lands on the chain attached to the post and, balancing precariously, walks up it until its victim has to yield. It is a risky game: if the intended victim stood fast, the attacker would have no way of extricating himself from this position and would fall humiliatingly into the water.

Another Black-Headed Gull was enjoying a dogfight with a Carrion Crow. The larger bird did not have an advantage, and the battle went both ways. Here the gull is chasing the crow, which gave up soon afterwards and perched in a tree.

In the shallow water under the parapet of the Italian Garden, a young Great Crested Grebe was poking around in the fallen leaves, looking for small creatures hiding under them.

Nearby was a large golden koi. It had probably been discarded into the lake because it has an ugly face, and has grown to 2 ft long.

As the weather cleared, the male Little Owl came out on to his favourite branch on the chestnut tree.

He was pestered by a couple of Ring-Necked Parakeets, but they left him alone after a few indignant squawks.