Saturday, 30 April 2011

International Dawn Chorus Day - May 1st

Common Whitethroat (Russell F Spencer)
Had an interesting morning at The Scrubs yesterday. It was a fairly cloudy day with an occasional hint of blue sky and a northeasterly blow. The birdlife on show was nothing out of the ordinary with both species of whitethroat, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Song Thrushes and Great and Blue Tits leading the parade.

Then out of the blue, or to be more precise, out of the grey headed over a flock of nine Bar-tailed Godwits that were moving purposefully east. Virtually any wader seen at The Scrubs is an oddity, seeing as we have no standing water or established marshy bits. The exceptions are the Snipe that are regularly flushed from the grassland, the recent regular occurances of Woodcock during the winter months and the occasional passing Lapwing. The godwits were part of a massive movement of birds across southern England including thousands past Portland Bill and the Patch at Dungeness along the south coast. A Common Tern heading north capped off what was eventually to be an interesting session.

Off to bed early tonight as tomorrow is International Dawn Chorus Day. I'm leading a walk bright and early on my patch hopefully to accompanied by a crowd of song bird lovers.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Diving Kestrels

'Common' Kestrel (Bill Black)
Trawling through my Facebook newsfeeds earlier today, I noticed that the London Wildlife Trust are encouraging Londoners to count Kestrels across the capital. Brilliant idea! It's all part of the Trust's 30th anniversary celebrations. They conducted a count 23 years ago that indicated the presence of around 400 nesting pairs around the metropolis. Since then it has been common knowledge that their populations have taken a plunge not only in London but across the nation.

I heard the other day that the humble Kestrel is Britian's only decreasing raptor and has been overtaken in terms of populations by the Common Buzzard and Sparrowhawk - facts that I find totally unbelievable. I think that I heard a figure of around 30% decrease in population being mooted, which is unthinkable. (Perhaps someone could let me know the official figure.) Also, their decline seems to be inexplicable. A drop in vole numbers?

I have noticed a sharp fall in the sightings of these lovely falcons in recent years. My Kestrels at The Scrubs have gone from being a daily occurrence to a once a month treat. Are there still many of these adorable 'motorway hawks' where you live?

Other news in The Urban Birder world included being a judge in the Observer Ethical Awards 2011 at the Guardian's plush offices in Kings Cross, London. It was great hanging out with my fellow judges, all of whom where great fun. I rubbed shoulders with people like Rob da Bank (founder of Bestival), Lily Cole (model), Ben Fogle, Deborah Meaden (businesswoman supreme), Sue Perkins and Gordon Roddick (co-founder of Bodyshop). The entire proceedings was chaired by my mate Lucy Siegle, the Green Goddess and The One Show presenter. The results of our debating will be announced in early June.

I think that's it. Oh and by the way, there's supposed to be a wedding going on in London somewhere.....

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Feel the heat, summer's heat

Summer in the city
Hasn't the weather been fantastic?

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time doing the final tickles on my forthcoming book - The Urban Birder. Today after months of toil it is safely with the publishers being lined up to be printed. It will be out during August and I must admit, I am nervous.

Down at The Scrubs, the migrants have been streaming through with the highlights being a Turtle Dove very briefly on Monday morning and over the weekend another singing Nightingale in Chats Paddock was discovered. This particular male had a different singing voice to the one found the other week. This one's song was briefer, quieter and dare I say, less musical. Also back in reasonable numbers were Common and Lesser Whitethroats plus a fair number of Blackcaps. Dissappointly, only one singing Willow Warbler has stuck around compared to three singing males this time last year.

If you are around the west London next Sunday morning at around 5am then come and join me for a Dawn Chorus walk at The Scrubs to celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day.

Better go now. I'm one of the judges on the Observers Ethical Awards 2011 tomorrow morning at the newspaper's HQ. I'll be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kate Humble, Deborah Meaden, Brian Cox and Sue Perkins. I've got to fill out around a million judging forms before getting my beauty sleep.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Searching to find the one

Ring Ouzel (Stephen Daly)
I've come back from Bonny Scotland to the sights and reports of more migrants flooding through Wormwood Scrubs - my inner city Fair Isle.

Today, a cracking male Ring Ouzel was discovered along the 'Forbidden Path' in the grassland, making it our 5th spring 2011 record of this enigmatic montane thrush. Easily the record spring showing for our site.

I still feel that a biggie is on its way.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Spey Sight

Findhorn Valley - Dippers, Oystercatcher & Common Gull
Findhorn Valley - Golden Eagle (that I missed!)
Findhorn Valley - Merlin & Ring Ouzel
Findhorn Valley - Pink-footed Geese
Lossiemouth - Buzzard and nearby Osprey

Special thanks to Kirsty Sharratt and all at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey, Moray.

More tomorrow

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Blackcap question

Blackcap with Goldfinch (Yvette Spencer)
Has anyone ever heard of Blackcaps eating sunflower hearts?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Who needs Berkeley Square!

Nightingale (Mike Weston)
April is a fabulous time to be stalking Wormwood Scrubs because you never know what you might find. After 18 years, I have built up a very interesting picture of the birdlife that frequents my inner city Fair Isle.

It is during this month that you are most likely to encounter migrant Ring Ouzels, Whinchats, Northern Wheatears, Common Redstarts, Swallows, Cuckoos and Nightingales. The last two species are of particular interest because whilst the previously mentioned migrants are more or less annual, the latter two have been absent from our April score sheet since 2008.

This morning, I arose from my cosy pit at 5.30am and blearily made my way to The Scrubs. For the past couple of visits I have half-heartedly been on the lookout for passage Nightingales. At The Scrubs they have historically turned up between the 20th - 27th April for one morning and were invariably detected by their glorious song. This particular morning I thought that I would give it a bit more of an effort. For nearly 2 hours I scoured the bushes and strained my ears listening for the merest strains of its song.

I arrived in Chats Paddock, a small fenced off area of gorse and brambles that has the distinction of having the best record of all the areas of The Scrubs for scarcities and rarities. Almost every good bird that has appeared on my patch have either flown over or hung out in this small area. At first, the only thing I saw was a Dunnock and a woman that I bumped into who was walking around 10 dogs. As I passed her I heard a heavenly sound. A Nightingale singing quietly literally yards from where I was standing. I was euphoric. I quickly rang my fellow Scrubbers and 15 minutes later three were with me trying to locate the songster. The only problem was it had stopped singing before they came. Typical.

After a few minutes, we heard a strange repeated croaking call coming from the opposite side of the paddock near some sallows. It sounded like a cross between a frog and a crow. Puzzled, I checked my Collins guide and suddenly realised that we were listening to a calling Nightingale. No sooner had that realisation set in the original bird suddenly burst into loud song nearby - an event that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. What a beautiful song and one that sounds so out of place in an urban park in heavily populated west London.

I had to leave it singing to go to a meeting but moments after I left a Scrubber called me to say that I had just missed a female Ring Ouzel - our second of the spring - and a Shelduck - our 4th ever record. You may be thinking what's so special about a Shelduck, well, the last one recorded the The Scrubs was on April 22nd 2008 - the same day that our last Nightingale was recorded here.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

All good

Long-tailed Tit
A good day in the office was had at The Urban Birder Towers. United beat Chelsea and I finally finished proof reading my book. Well, to be honest, you never finish proof reading when you've written a book. Like a vulture circling over a carcass you find yourself forever picking at pieces moving off only to come back to pick again.

Wrote an article on urban wildlife for BBC Wildlife sitting in bed at 6.30am whilst taking a break from laborious proof reading. All the while I wanted to be on my patch checking out the latest migrants and counting breeding pairs of the commoner species like Robins and Long-tailed Tits.

Roll on the dawn.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Yet more Wheatears at The Scrubs

A fine male along the 'Forbidden Path' in the grassland (Nick Gibson)
A closer look (Nick Gibson)
What a few days down at The Scrubs recently. Eight Wheatears until today's influx of between 4-5 birds in the grassland plus an incredible Ring Ouzel on Saturday morning that materialised whilst I on the football pitch sweating between the sticks.

Although I didn't see it, I was glad that we recorded that fine wild thrush for the 7th year in a row.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Mini fall at The Scrubs

Wheatear (an autumn bird)
It was a magical morning at The Scrubs today with not one but two male Common Redstarts in the grassland along with three Whinchats (including two males) and a handsome male Northern Wheatear. Add to that mix a lone Swallow heading north and several Willow Warblers in song then I would say that it wasn't a bad haul for a site surrounded by urban sprawl.

Things are heating up. My guess is that something really special is just around the corner.....

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

That's more like it!

Today was a glorious day in the city and although I didn't make it to The Scrubs this morning, the reports that came back to me included a sighting of yet another fine male Common Redstart, this time in the grassland.

I had my eyes peeled watching the sky all afternoon whilst I was out roaming my hood. I didn't see any overflying raptors although I got a text from someone who had spotted a Common Buzzard over Shepherds Bush, of all places.

Keep looking up all!

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Urban Birder in The Podding Shed

Jay - looks like a pair's on territory at The Scrubs (Russell F Spencer)
Unfortunately, I didn't make it to The Scrubs this morning and as a consequence missed out on two male Common Redstarts and six Willow Warblers. I have to delve into the history books to read about the last Common Redstart spring influx. It occurred in 2006 when at one point we had five redstarts in Chats Paddock. An unprecedented influx.

Instead, my day was spent proof reading my book. Later this evening I took part in a Charlie Moores (he of 'Talking Naturally' fame) The Conference Call skype podcast in his Podding Shed along with The Drunk Birder, John Hague, Birding Blogs' Tom McKinney and of course Charlie. I was on for around 20 minutes being quizzed about Urban Birding, The Scrubs and my new book.

The promotional roadshow has begun.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The migrants are coming!

Female Common Stonechat (Andy Cook)
I didn't get to The Scrubs this morning as I was over in Sunny Walthamstow, East London. A stroll through Wanstead Flats in the vain hope of rediscovering the two Ring Ouzels discovered yesterday by the Wanstead Birder drew a blank. It was however, one of those mornings and indeed afternoons when you instinctively felt that it would be good for raptors.

Evidently that was the case with London-wide reports of a juvenile Marsh Harrier over Brent Reservoir and generally, Common Buzzards, Red Kites and a supporting cast of Sparrowhawks and Kestrels. I scored a kettling Common Buzzard and maybe three ultra high Sparrowhawks.

Meanwhile, over at basecamp a male Common Redstart graced the embankment and a female Stonechat was also found. The latter species has gone from being a regular migrant to scarce visitor.

This is getting exciting!

Friday, 1 April 2011

It's Tower 42 season!

A sunny day on the Tower (Jon Osborne)
For the second year running we will be ascending the many floors and scampering up ladders to scan the skies over London in the hope of catching some migrating raptors - provided we get some nice weather, good winds and good luck. Our inaugural observation date will be next Friday.

I get really excited climbing those final stairs to the roof and if we don't see any birds, the views across the capital are just magical. Unfortunately, things are not so magical over at Canary Wharf. My proposed spring bird survey looks like it's off. After many phone calls and emails I got very little feed back and no indication of interest in the project from the powers that be.

You can't win them all.