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.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A gap in the water plants made it possible to see that the Great Crested Grebes at the island really are building a nest.


This is far too early to succeed, of course. But this pair have already nested in spring several times, which is what grebes normally do but seldom succeeds in the park, where the supply of small fish for the chicks is inadequate till late summer. However, they did manage to get one early chick through last year.

Two Cormorants were quarrelling on a fallen tree in the Long Water. The one on the left, which was smaller, was pushed off.


A young Herring Gull found a floating stick at the Lido ...


... and took it up to a height to play drop-catch ...


... but was chased by another gull which wanted it.


(These pictures were taken within seconds of each other -- the backgrounds are different because the sky was partly cloudy.)

A Common Gull glided effortlessly low over the Round Pond.


A pair of Shovellers fed peacefully together ...


... and a Tufted Duck gleamed in the sunshine.


The shallow water in front of the Peter Pan statue makes it easy to watch Tufted Ducks diving to collect small water creatures.


There is always a family of Moorhens poking around at the edge of the Vista. They had a nest in a bush, and this blog has had pictures of the chicks as they grew up.


A daily routine: the white-faced Blackbird perches on a branch to get noticed, then flies down under a bush and waits to be given some sultanas, which she collects and eats. You can hear the Italian Garden fountains in the background.


Some of the Blue Tits are sleek and smart ...


... and some of them are really scruffy. It's not this one's fault: it has lost a foot and can't preen the feathers on its head.


But it was coping very well, and flying around with a group of Long-Tailed Tits.

Monday, 15 January 2018

A Starling was finding plenty of wireworms in the grass near the Serpentine Gallery. A Magpie saw this and slammed down on the spot to take the wireworms for itself.


The pair of Mistle Thrushes who nest near here flew by, rattling loudly, and landed in a tree.


The Robin at the corner of the leaf yard perched on a bramble under an oak, perfectly matching a fallen leaf.


Beside the Long Water at the foot of Buck Hill, another Robin ticked irritably. The cause of its annoyance was a group of Rose-Ringed Parakeets in its tree.


A small flock of tits flew past, led as usual by Long-Tailed Tits which are always the leaders of these mixed flocks.


The female Little Owl poked her head out of the lime tree for a short while, but disliked the drizzle and went back in.


A Jay took a very careful look around before flying into the open. There have been Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and Peregrines over this spot.


One of the Peregrines was back on the barracks tower. It flew out and returned to the ledge.


Now that the crowds around the funfair have gone, the pigeon-eating Lesser Black-Backed Gull has returned to his usual beat near the Dell restaurant.


The second pigeon eater was also back in his usual place at the Triangle car park, after a fortnight's absence.


The two Grey Heron nests were occupied. One of the two birds not in the nests stood on the solar panel roof of the electric boat.


A pair of Mute Swans charged down the Serpentine and hauled themselves into the air.


The dominant swans on the Long Water had chased all the others away under the bridge, and retired to the top of the lake to relax and preen.


But when I went past again an hour later, the intruding swans were creeping back. Keeping a whole lake clear is a full-time occupation.