Spring is here and the race is on to breed. Ringed-necked Parakeets are early breeders and they are normally well on their way before many of our native species begin thinking about where to build a nest. Parakeets are hole nesting birds and they do have the unpopular tendency to claim nest holes before our native birds have the chance to do so. This female, photographed last week, found this tree hole in Kensington Gardens to her liking. The female Parakeets lack the red collar of the males, which gives this species it’s common name. You may also have the heard the alternative common name of Rose-ringed Parakeet.
What a glorious day! The bees are buzzing and the buds are bursting. This willow in East London already has young furry catkins, and at this stage of development is known as pussy willow. Before the male catkins fully develop flowers they are covered in a downy layer of pale fur; the pussies. At all other times of year willow trees are referred to by their normal common name. The pussies appear ahead of the leaves and are an early indication of spring.
Recently we went on a lovely wild wander through Epping Forest; London’s largest stretch of ancient woodland. The excitement started before we entered the forest, in fact we had barely left the tube station when we saw a pair of buzzards soaring together on the thermals. These sizable birds of prey have made a comeback after years of persecution took a severe toll on the population. How wonderful that they can now be seen on the edge of London! The trees of Epping Forest provide them with nest and roost sites and the surrounding fields provide ample supplies of rodents and worms.
As we headed on towards the forest a handsome dog fox nipped out in front of us, ran across the road and disappeared into a hedge.
Epping Forest itself is dominated by beech, a species which makes an impression at any time of year, with its smooth silvery bark, thick canopy of leaves in summer and dense layer of leaf litter in the winter. Among the leaf litter we discovered some delicate bracket fungi growing on a fallen branch.
Many of the older trees here have been traditionally pollarded; the large upper branches were cut back to provide a renewable source of wood. As a result the trees here have some unusual forms, quite unlike a beech tree growing without the influence of man. The practice of pollarding was sympathetic to the forest; creating structural diversity, allowing more light to reach the forest floor and actually prolonging the life of the tree.
A little further into the forest, we came across some evidence of a woodland specialist; a hole made by a great-spotted woodpecker.
This species thrives in areas with lots of deadwood, which are the bird equivalent of a buffet; full of beetle larvae and other tasty beasties. A tree hole is constructed by a woodpecker by repeated pecking with its strong bill. The purpose of the hole is to safely house the eggs and later the chicks. Woodpecker chicks can make quite a racket as they beg for food from their parents, so listen out in the coming months for the sounds of hidden hungry mouths!
All in all, a great day out in the sunshine!
From Hills to High-Water: The Thames as a Wildlife Corridor
Chiswick Pier Trust welcomes Wild Capital’s Brenna Boyle as a guest speaker on Tuesday March 18th.
Brenna was lured away from the mountains and glens of Scotland to London, inspired by the wildlife of the Thames. On Tuesday 18th March at 7.30pm hear her story, and discover how the Thames attracts, supports and spreads wildlife along its diverse and ever changing banks. Prepare to be excited by eels, tickled by terns and seduced by seals.
£3 per person.
To book a place call 020 8742 2713 or email email@example.com
When gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion. So goes the old saying. Thankfully for romantic types, there is usually some gorse in flower somewhere whatever the season. This gorse plant is flowering on Wandsworth Common right now. However, it is in the summer when gorse flowers, and perhaps also kissing, are really at their finest. In summer gorse bushes virtually glow with bright yellow flowers and the sweet coconut aroma drifts through the warm air. This scent is to attract the bees which pollinate the gorse, but it is enjoyed by us humans too!
Some of you may have also heard the old saying “when gorse is in flower, Britain will never will be conquered”.
The timid seeming Moorhen is actual a highly territorial bird. Keep an eye out for their battles at this time of year, as they establish breeding territories and fight over mates. The Moorhen attack position is with the legs out front ready to grasp their opponent. One Moorhen can force another under the water by pushing down on their opponents’ chest with those large powerful feet.
The hazel catkins, or lamb’s tails, are looking good at this time of year. Jan and Feb are the best time of year to see catkins, as they develop before the tree’s leaves. This is a strategy for getting the wind distributed pollen to travel as far as possible, without leaves getting in the way. Hopefully this results in the fertilization of another hazel, possible one which is many miles away. Did you know that one catkin may contain up to 5 millions grains of pollen! Because the pollen on catkins is wind distributed, the tiny flowers of the catkin don’t contain nectar to attract insects. However, invertebrates, such as our bees, still benefit from the catkins by collecting up and feeding on the pollen itself. Learn about trees at any time of year on either our Appreciation of Trees or Winter Tree ID nature walks.
I am meant to be doing office work right now, but I keep being lured to the window by the antics of three Robins. They chase one another along the fence line, hop after one another through the branches of a tree, sing and posture at one another by swelling up their red chests. At this time of year Robins are pairing up, some will already have done so. Getting together involves the female moving into the territory of a male. This can initially lead to some aggressive territorial behaviour from the male, who is used his private bachelor pad. This behaviour will quickly subside if the pair are to one anothers liking.
The dynamics of the three birds out my window are hard to pin down; perhaps a resident male being visited by two interest ladies, perhaps a pair already getting to know one another and being disturbed by an intruder, perhaps three individuals arguing about their own territory boundaries. The lives of these little birds are fascinating, particularly when love is in the air!
We are very in lucky in London to have some wonderful sites for wildlife in the heart of the city. One of my very favourites, which if you are a regular blog reader you have probably guessed, is the London Wetland Centre. Converted from four Victorian reservoirs and opened to the public in 2000, the Barnes site today provides a permanent home, or temporary retreat, for countless species you would never expect to encounter in London!
On a Wild Capital programme earlier this week our luck was really in, as we spotted a wetland bird who is a camouflage specialist. Examine this photography carefully and see if you can spot it (it’s not the Lapwing sitting on the island, although that is very nice too!)
Any luck? If you look really carefully into the reeds, just right of centre, you might spot a slightly paler long thin shape. It’s a bittern.
In case you aren’t familiar with the bittern, a streaked brown heron, smaller than the grey heron, here is a clearer image of what you are actually looking at.
Upon first spotting the shape in the reeds I was only 80% convinced that it was a bittern, and not my eyes playing tricks, however a bit of patience proved it to be the case. At first the bittern was assuming the camouflage posture; standing up straight with its beak pointed towards the sky. In this position all the dark and pale brown streaks in the plumage run upwards parallel with the reeds, allowing the bird to virtually disappear. Yet, as we (and now a hide full of excited watchers) waited, the bird began to move. It looked to the side. The parallel alignment of patterns was broken, just as though it had been an invisibility spell, and the shape of the bird appeared.
With a little more patience we were able to watch the bird slowly and carefully move along the edge of the reeds. Visibly more relaxed, the bird’s mind could turn to feeding. Bitterns, like most herons, have broad tastes in food, with fish, amphibians and insects being the staple, but worms, leeches, molluscs, crustaceans, spiders, reptiles, small birds and even some small mammals featuring on the menu.
The reed like camouflage and the taste for almost every wetland morsel begins to give you an idea of what a superbly adapted bird the bittern is. This brings a question to mind, if the bittern is so good at what it does, why aren’t there more of them? Currently in the UK, we have around 80 breeding males. There are breeding females too, but the counts are done of males because they can easily be accounted for (even if not seen) by their famous booming call. The deep resonating boom of a male bittern can be heard as far as a mile away! I think of this as another tactic for reed bed living; your potential sweetheart can’t see you, so you’d better make your serenade impressive and far reaching! The latin name for a bittern is Botaurus stellaris. The genus part of the name, Botaurus, is derived from the latin boatum tauri which means “the bellowing of a bull”.
In the colder months are resident breeding bitterns are joined by winter migrants, boosting the total number of bitterns to around 600.
At the start of the 19th century, the bittern was a relatively common bird. It was regarded as a delicacy for the dining table and special hunts were organised all round the country; in the fens and broads of eastern England as well as Wales, Ireland and Scotland. After only a few decades the population collapsed as a result of hunting, and also egg collecting and loss of wetland habitat. The last recorded pair of breeding bitterns was in 1868 in Norfolk. A period of around 40 years passed where no bitterns were recorded to breed in the UK.
We have been given a second chance with this wonderful bird. Natural recolonisation of bitterns from the Continent has led to the return of a breeding population to some former British haunts. Sadly however, habitat loss continues to be a problem for this wetland specialist. All animals and birds need a place to live, somewhere which provides food, water, shelter and others of the same species with which to breed.
For me, the London Wetland Centre hits home what a key role humans play in the future of our wildlife. We humans have an unrivaled ability to modify the environment, which sadly so often proves determinantal to our wildlife. Yet here in the most unlikely of places, an old industrial site within our capital city, our environment changing capability has been used to build habitats from concrete, create diversity from sterility and provide a refuge for a species in need.
Some words spring to mind; ”If you build it, he will come”. For the bittern, the London Wetland Centre really is a Field of Dreams.
Read about Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, and one of my personal heroes.
Information about the London Wetland Centre, plan your visit now, the winter is the best time for bittern and also ducks and geese.