US social scientist Kenneth Boulding : ‘If you believe exponential growth can go on in a finite world, you are either a madman or an economist’.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

30/1/10: Frost, Bittern

Another early start for a London Natural History Society meeting, this time the destination was the Lee Valley Country Park at Cheshunt, a range of flooded pits by the canal and bits of the original river Lee/Lea. The ground was covered with a mix of frost and a thin layer of snow when I left the house, and the final leg was a replacement bus service due to rail engineering work. But it turned out to be very well worth while. I saw 48 species. There were a few more that others saw but I missed.

The leader, Roy Woodward, did an excellent job of trying to make sure everyone saw everything, and gave a good commentary on the key distinguishing features of the species we were observing. Both he and others generously invited participants that didn't have them to take a look through their telescopes for a better view.

Mainly due to other's expertise I got to see several species I'd never seen before, or had only seen rarely a very long time ago. I was impressed by some people's ability to identify a black speck in the sky miles away that I couldn't even see well before thay swung their bins and telescopes into use!

The absolute highlight was a fantastic view of a Bittern, very close to the Bittern Information Point hide on Seventy Acre Lake. For a long time it was lurking in the Phragmites bed where it was extremely well camouflaged, and several folk in the hide just couldn't pick it up however well those that had it in their sights tried to describe where it was in relation to a still-green patch of sedges. When it did move it could be seen turning its head to one side low to water to cut out the effect of ripples and reflections, but it didn't catch anything.

At one point I had what might best be described as a 50% view, with the complete outline visible, but half the bird obscured by reed stems. I expected that to be as good as it would get. But after a patient wait by the assembled throng it finally came out in the open, stood by an old door in the water

[there's a picture part way down this page of bird at exactly the same spot a few days previously entitled 'Bittern - Seventy Acres Lake - 28th January - Tony Coombs']

and stood, a golden tan in the low sun, facing the hide, and ruffled its wings. The camera shutters were going like crazy and it felt as if there was about to be a spontaneous round of applause. Someone said out-loud exactly what I was thinking, that they were tempted to clap.

I've never seen a Bittern before - it's very rare but gradually recovering in numbers due to active conservation efforts. Also, according to the 24th January Observer 'This winter's bitter cold has seen record numbers of bitterns fly to Britain from northern Europe and has led ­others to adopt unusual feeding grounds.' Some of the experienced birders in the hide said it was the best view of one they'd ever had.

Neither words, nor probably photographs can adequately convey the subtlety of the darker markings and effectiveness of the camouflage of this bird. Stunning. Fantastic.

The Bittern rather eclipsed the equally good view of 2 Water Rail right up near the hide. Reed Bunting were also active in the Phragmites beds here.

Views from the Bittern Information Point hide. Water Rail were observed crossing the channels cut in the reeds, and the Bittern stood briefly out in the open in the mouth of the channel on the left of the top picture.

Elsewhere I had a telescope view of a Snipe. Several Goldeneye were seen, Wigeon, 2 Little Grebes and male and female or immature (red-headed) Smew.

Water birds were rounded off in style with great views of a flotilla of 8 Goosander, both male and female, in the late evening sun, with others flying in. Around 17 were counted at this first location, with a few more scattered around the area. On the same body of water was a female Red-crested Pochard, not a native species.

1 Barnacle Goose was spotted in a flock of Canada Geese in a field

Several Siskin were observed feeding in Alder. A few Redpoll were seen and I had a very good view of 1 of them. A distant sight of a female Bullfinch was had.

On the raptor front we saw at least 4 different Buzzards, including two circling together, high overhead in the clear blue sky. Also 1 Sparrowhawk and 1 Kestrel.

All in all a superb outing.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

26/1/10: Closer encounter

Broad daylight. 'Horseshoe' the Fox either wasn't paying attention or wasn't bothered. It came up the steps to the upper part of the garden without noticing that I was at the end of my big greenhouse. Ordinarily it would have stopped to assess the situation, but this time just carried on regardless, sniffing round the base of a fruit tree about 6 feet away. I followed it round the top of the garden, and it paid no attention even when I whistled. The Foxes herabouts tend to stop and at least look round if you do that. It disappeared over the wall into next door, barked, and slipped away.

Monday, 25 January 2010

25/1/10: Today's local 'spots'.

14 Starlings on St. Paul's church roof, Mill Road (yes, there used to be a Windmill here), plus Great Tit, Blue Tit and Blackbird in the grounds.

11 Wood Pigeons in trees lining Barnehurst School Drive.

Noticing from a distance that one of the 'lumps' silhouetted in a garden tree on Barnehurst Avenue, opposite Coniston Rd, didn't look quite like a Wood Pigeon, I whipped out the bins. It was a Mistle Thrush, which flew off to a nearby TV aerial where it took minor offence to being joined by a second Wood Pigeon. 2 Long-tailed Tits arrived in the same garden shortly afterwards.

For the second time in four days I inadvertently disturbed a Wood Mouse in one of my back garden compost bins.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

24/1/10: Coppicing in Lesnes Abbey Woods

Re-coppicing Sweet Chestnut stools with Lesnes Abbey Conservation Volunteers this afternoon. Took my own trusty pruning saw, which I rightly surmised would be better than the stock bow saws. The poles will be split at a future event to make fence palings for use elsewhere in the wood .

Sweet Chestnut being re-coppiced

Tree silhouette, Lesnes Abbey Wood

Silver Birch and bracken near the heathland area, looking across a valley through the wood

A fabulous bracket fungus

Oak, Silver Birch and Heather in the heathland area

Saturday, 23 January 2010

23/1/10: East Finchley and Cherry Tree Wood

Had a planning meeting that finished at lunchtime, so I decided to go and get a daylight verification of something I'd spotted in the dark some time ago.

It was indeed several Shining Crane's-bill (Geranium lucidum), up against the bottom of the gabions, at the foot of the Northern Line embankment just before it crosses the Great North Rd. and runs into East Finchley station. There is also Geranium pyrenaicum here. There were two Teasel flower stems, a Broom and some Holly.

On the north east side of the line is the small Cherry Tree Wood, which I'd not visited before. Like the woods down in Highgate, it's Oak and Hornbeam.

Nothing out of the ordinary, but 2 Redwing and a Great Spotted Woodpecker were seen, along with a Brown Rat and 1 Stinking Iris (a native plant, though this was very close to gardens, from which the seed may have come).

There were some good patches of fungi on logs lying on the ground

This Grey Squirrel was obviously used to being fed and came close enough that even my mobile phone cam could get a reasonable picture .....

Hornbeam holding its leaves through winter

The absence of much in the way of ground flora was compensated for by the subtleties of the greys and algal greens of some of the tree trunks

Self Heal was in the grass by High Rd flats opposite Bedford Rd, and at Stokes Court, Diploma Avenue. 16 Ring-necked Parakeets flew across the High Rd towards East Finchley station.

23/1/10: Hurrah - some new big street trees

Station Rd., Islington, north of Tufnell Park tube. Narrow pavements, railway line immediatly to the left of the photo. Not the most promising location for a great avenue of trees. But here we have a long line of London Planes on both sides of the road, interspersed every other tree with a smaller species (to be taken out years hence?). OK, maybe the railway and distance from buildings on the other side limit the 'risk', but good for Islington for thinking ahead to the next generation of large street trees, and not just playing safe with the small stuff (not that I've got anything against smaller species and cultivars - indeed there are lots of places where there's way too much concrete and small trees or shrubs could be planted if there was the imagination and political will to really green things up).

Monday, 18 January 2010

17/1/10: Croydon Tramlink is Cortaderia corridor .....

I posted about South American Pampas grass colonisation on 10th December 2009. But here's Cortaderia central - unless someone knows better .....

Finding myself at Mitcham Junction station I decided to have my first ever trip on the Croydon Tram system. I first went west to Wimbledon, then decided to go back the other way, finally getting off at East Croydon.

On the way to Wimbledon there were:

- 4-5 Cortaderia shortly after Mitcham towards Belgrave Walk

- 1 just before the bridge before Morden Road

- 1 just before Merton Park

- 1 just after Dundonald Road

all these on the north side of the line.

On the way back (to East Croydon):

- there were 2 between the main line running lines just outside the south end of Wimbledon station

- 1 on the south side of the line just before Belgrave Road

- 1 on the south side of the line just after Ampere Way

All these records (11 or 12) were of plants inside the tramway fencing. Only one was noted in an adjoining garden. Perhaps the construction of the tramlink (started in 1997) provided ideal conditions for the germination and establishment of this species along the margins of the line.

East of Mitcham junction Silver Birch, Gorse and Clematis vitalba were noted in various lineside locations.

17/1/10: Mitcham Common - gorse of course

Hopped off the bus on the way back from Beddington/Hackbridge when I realised we were passing a tract of gorse. I'm not familiar with this part of London - and hadn't appreciated we'd be passing the BedZed low-energy eco-village either ......

Anyway, it was Mitcham Common. Here are a few shots showing Gorse, waterlogging, fire damage and old ant hills.

Other species seen were the remains of a Black Knapweed, Bracken, Blue Tit, Great Tit and 2 Redwing.

There was a Rabbit right by the road as I approached Mitcham Junction station on the main road. It seemed unperturbed by my appearance and loped off slowly, after I'd got to about 7 feet from it.

17/1/10: Beddington - glorious mud + Tree Sparrows

Went to Beddington (Hackbridge, South West London) - a former sewage works, now a landfill site, large chunks of which are being re-worked to improve habitat for water birds - on a London Natural History Society field trip. Had to get up too early again - 6 a.m. this time Not my idea of fun!

Although it was a sunny day, so wet had it been that most of the trackways, even those along the top of high embankments, were like something out of a First World war battlefield. All recently sculpted by machinery. Bare, sodden and sticky clay with flints adhering to the wellies in unfeasibly large quantities.

Up on the 'hill' there was a gaggle of hard core twitchers trying to relocate the Lapland Bunting that had been seen for several days in a row, and earlier today. But there had been no sign of it by the time we left.

The main purpose of our trip was to see the only known (breeding) population of Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) in London, which we duly achieved. I saw 5 in fairly open positions along a line of low scrub near the site entance. This is a Red Listed species due to a serious decline in numbers -

I also saw:
- a Stonechat
- Green Sandpiper
- Skylark
- Kestrel
and 10 or more Herons

There were huge numbers of Carrions Crows on those parts of the waste tip yet to be buried. Various duck species were on the 'completed' lake, but nothing unusual.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

16/1/10: Apsley in Dacorum, Herts

I had to go to Apsley in Dacorum Borough, Hertfordshire, to run a training session.

There was a large number of what I took to be Common Whitlow Grass along an otherwise fairly bare edge to a closely mown verge, on the London Road by the 'Dunelm Mill' premises.

A Barbarea sp. (American Land Cress) was in a grass verge by the industrial estate on Kents Avenue.

In a wide grass strip on Stationers Place, leading towards the canal, there were quite a few large, badly frosted Goats Rue, and a lot of Vetch type plants in the turf - possibly Hairy Tare (although there were 6 pairs of leaflets on the sample I picked).

Behind platform 1 of Apsley station there was a lot of Ox-eye Daisy, some Wild Carrot, Common St. John's Wort and Black Horehound amongst other things.

The binoculars enabled me to get a positive ID on a couple of Jays high up in trees bordering parkland over by the 'down' side of the line, despite the gloomy conditions.

There was some Gorse at the top of the cutting side before Watford junction, and a long stretch of it, with Oak and Silver Birch, immediatly south of Bushey.

Friday, 15 January 2010

15/1/10: Winter fungus, Barnehurst station

Fungus growing on dead log behind 'up' platform, Barnehurst station (London Borough of Bexley). 15th January 2010.

ID suggestions welcome - not got a grip on fungi yet.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

12/1/10: River Cray and Thames Rd wetland/Dartford Marshes

The Cray Riverkeeper Volunteers are taking over the man-made wetland between the River Cray, Thames Rd, railway and Sewer Pipe embankment. More on this sometime in the future.

Having done a basic botanical survey in the summer, I thought the snow would increase the possibility of some interesting bird life using the water. But it was almost entirely frozen over. A couple of things I couldn't identify flew up and disappeared back into the dead reed/bulrush stems, but that was it.

Up on the embankment there was a small party of Chaffinches (I think) and 2 Redwings.

Before I checked the wetland there had been 3 Mute Swans just upstream of the Thames Rd bridge, and when I came back out there were 2 Cormorants on the river, giving a close view as they took flight in a hurry.

Mute Swans on the Cray near Thames Road

Man-made wetland area next to where Thames Rd crosses the River Cray. This former field was excavated to below the already high water table, and planted with Reemace and other species. The raised strips of ground with channels between are designed to attract Water Voles.

Numerous animal tracks in the snow leading up to the Sewer Embankment - it's not just Thames Rd that has heavy traffic!

There was a Redwing in a tree in the canalized 'gulley' on the downstream side of Thames Rd. A Heron flew over just as I came under the railway line.

Just before it got too dark to see what was going on, 2 female Shoveler duck, a probable male in flight and a male Pochard were seen on a ditch on Dartford Marshes. 3 Lapwing were spotted, one flying within a few feet of me on the inside the Council compound's fence as I made my way back to the main road.

Around 54 Starlings were in the air behind the 'Jolly Farmers' pub.

25 House Sparrows were seen (and judging by the sound there were more) in low hedging by the 'Imagination' company building on Thames Rd, and more were heard in the bushes in the centre of the Perry St roundabout.

12/1/10: Snow Patrol, Barnehurst to Crayford yields Fieldfares

On leaving the house I had a very good close-up view of the local Wren, hopping along a branch in a gap in my Holly 'Golden King' cultivar in the front garden.

A Collared Dove was sitting on a lamp post down the hill from my home.

6 Redwings and a female Blackbird were feeding on large ornamental Hawthorn type fruits in a street tree opposite the bottom of my road.

Another Collared Dove on a lamp post was seen in Beverley Rd.

30+ Starlings took flight over Barnehurst Golf Course. Large numbers of Wood Pigeons were twice spooked into flight. There must have been at least 60 birds along the western, English Elm-lined boundary of the site alone.

A large Thrush was sitting at the top of a tree in an exposed location and I couldn't get too close, but size-wise, and from its quite heavy markings and this behaviour, I judged it to be a Mistle Thrush.

5 Redwing were seen. The Green Woodpecker was feeding on the ground in the wildlife 'rough' again.

Attractive bark on a pine tree, Barnehurst Golf Course

Another shot of Gorse in flower, Barnehurst Golf Course

There was quite a lot of bird activity in the 'horse field' bounded by Mayplace Rd East, Manor Rd, Perry St and the church graveyard. 2 Lapwings were on the ground. Great Tit, Blue Tit and a Long-tailed Tit were seen. 6 Redwing were foraging on clear ground under trees and shrubs, along with a Chaffinch.

I was delighted to see my first Fieldfares - three of them - sitting aloof in a smaller tree in a hedge line bisecting the field.

Monday, 11 January 2010

11/1/10: Snow Patrol, North Heath

If it's going to be cold, I rather like the snow - makes urban areas look a lot more natural, or at least covers up a multitude of ugly sins perpetrated by the human species, including my pet hate of 'car-parked-over' front gardens.

As is often the case, I took a rather round-about route to the local shops and back, including Northumberland Way, Birling Rd, Ramsden Rd, Buxton Rd, Elm Grove, Lesney Park, Park Crescent, top of Birch Walk, Carlton Rd, Cavendish Av, the alleyway behind Brantwood Av and Brook St. After which I made a circuit of Bursted Woods.

There were good numbers of House Sparrows in Northumberland Way, where a number of properties have older style eaves, also 3 Blackbirds. 3 Collared Doves were seen in this road, and 2 more up to Lesney Park.

14 Starlings were feeding on the grass embankment next to the school on Colyer's Lane, and there were significant numbers along my route. 4 Black-headed Gulls were on roofs in Ramsden Rd. A Great Tit, House Sparrows and a Robin were at the junction of Ramsden Rd and Avenue Rd.

2 Magpies were seen in Park Crescent.

Very large numbers of Wood Pigeons were seen, usually sitting in the crowns of larger trees.

There was a Redwing, 2 Blackbirds and a couple of Grey Squirrels at the top end of Birch Walk. A Fox was seen foraging on the north side of the path.

2 more Redwings (possibly 4 in total) were seen around Brantwood Avenue.

A Pied Wagtail was on the roof of the Nat West bank on the corner of Limewood Rd/Bexley Rd. Another, or possibly the same individual, was later seen foraging on the ground outside a fast food outlet at the junction of Brook St and Mill Rd. There were also 8 Feral Pigeons here.

4 Redwings were in a tree in a garden behind Sussex Rd. They too could have been the same ones seen earlier.

There were several Magpies in Bursted Woods. A couple of Brown Rats were seen, and squabbled briefly. A Wren was foraging on the ground in patches kept free from snow cover by brambles. At the west end of the wood 2 Ring-necked Parakeets were seen, and more than 30 Wood Pigeons took to the air.

A Dunnock was later seen in my back garden.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

10/1/10: Heron and Hop Trefoil

A Heron flew over the top end of my north Barnehurst garden today - possibly the same one as seen flying low over a nearby road yesterday. Couldn't help wondering whether it had located an artificially ice-free fish pond ....

There were two Grey Squirrels and the Fox.

I was very surprised to see some heads of Hop Trefoil flowers poking out of the snow. This species appeared in the garden, for the first time ever, last year. I haven't seen it anywhere else in the vicinity yet. I transplanted the resulting seedlings elsewhere because the site is now occupied by my large greenhouse. These are presumably precocious seedlings that ought to flower later on, or transplants that struggled to get going in the dry summer.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

6 - 9/1/10: Redwings come closer as Fox gets bolder

On the 8th one, possibly two Redwings were in a Sycamore in the next garden west of mine. A Dunnock was in the Forsythia at the top of the garden. The Collared Doves have been conspicuous by their unusually low profile of late, but today one was sat in the large Horse Chestnut just down the hill. Rather worryingly, the binocular view revealed a number of long splits in the bark, which at some points was peeling away very badly in large sections. I wonder if it's the dreaded canker. My ultimate concern is that when big trees like this are taken down around here, they are replaced only with small species, if at all. There is a tall Eucalyptus beyond, and a number of others in the area, but I've looked a few times and the birds don't seem to use them for some reason - even just for perching in.

I heard what I thought might be a Chiff-chaff a little way away, but couldn't see it and am not competent on birdsong yet.

On the 9th 9 Redwings were in a Willow in a back garden of a house on the grassed square off Colyers Lane, near to Erith School's playing field. All of a sudden these and approximately 14 other birds took to the air from more hidden shrubbery, and I'm assuming they were all members of this species.

A Heron flew very low over my head on Northumberland Way, giving an excellent binocular view.

There always seem to be a number of Gulls riding the wind in the vicinity, if for no other reason than they enjoy flying. If I could get my head around identifying them I might be able to add a couple more species to my local list .......

The latest Fox to 'adopt' the back garden has got bolder as it's got colder, and has been out and about in daylight a lot. On the 6th it came round the far end of the compost heap without realising I was there. It stopped in its tracks, but was more intent on watching something in the lower part of the garden than running off, although it eventually thought better of it and retreated. On the 8th it came up the steps past the Holly before noticing I was working by my big greenhouse. This time it stopped momentarily, then decided I was no threat and climbed up behind the cordon fruit trees, snuffling the ground only 6 feet from me before nonchalantly carrying on with its perambulations. I could be wrong, but as far as I've seen, whichever individual has come in over the years has tended to stick to pretty much the same route round the garden at this sort of time of day. This one looks very healthy, although the latest close view did reveal a dark horse-shoe shape on the left flank, which could be down to fighting I guess.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

7/1/10: Lengthening bird list is pain in neck

Spent the afternoon wandering round Martens Grove and Barnehurst Golf Course in the snow, and am beginning to think I'm getting a grip on this birdwatching malarky.

It was all very pretty, but I hadn't expected to get so engrossed, so had no gloves which eventually made focussing the binoculars in a hurry and writing notes a bit difficult, as my fingers kept getting rather numb.

Also, standing in a wood and repeatedly tilting ones head back 45 degrees for extended periods of time, so as to try and see the bird you can hear is up in the tree above, but is somehow remaining out of sight despite the lack of leaves, gets a bit uncomfortable. As opposed, say, to staring at the ground looking for obscure plants .........

On the way, 10 (+?) Redwings had shot out of a Holly in a front garden on Barnehurst Rd as I approached. The plant was narrow and only about 12 feet tall. One bird had stayed behind and carried on eating the berries.

A number of 'usual suspect' species were seen at both sites - Wood Pigeon, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Ring-necked Parakeet, Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Long-tailed Tit. Plus lots of Grey Squirrels.

The highlights in Martens Grove were:

A Treecreeper. This was spotted near the Stephen Rd. entrance, and good views of it were had working its way up the trunks of mature trees next to gardens on that road. If I've seen this species before it was a very long time ago, and I don't remember doing so. If I have, I doubt it was in the Barnehurst/Bexleyheath area.

Also a Nuthatch calling from the top of a big tree. Had a lot of trouble getting a clear view of this one - and I'm no good at identifying birds from their song yet. This is another species I've not seen in these parts before, at least since I picked up my wildlife recording baton again about 5 years ago - so making use of winter conditions to look out for birds properly is starting to pay dividends.

Martens Grove near the Stephen Rd. entrance

A couple of Oaks still had a lot of leaves attached

Footpath along the north side of Martens Grove

The uncommon Butcher's Broom near houses by the above-mentioned footpath. Possibly a garden escape, this is the only specimen I've found on this site, and the only other 'wild' one I know of in Bexley at present is in Lesnes Abbey Woods

The highlight of Barnehurst Golf Course was the Green Woodpecker that flew up from the rough 'wildlife area' on the north side of the site. A Wren was also feeding on the ground here.

The 'classic' view at the Barnehurst Golf Course site, looking north to the Cedar, Taunton Close and the railway line

Wildlife area looking east towards the Thames and Essex

There are two Gorse bushes here, one in a shady spot, and this superbly dome-shaped specimen out in the open and already in full flower

Gorse (one of my favourite native plants) in flower in the snow

Another indicator of the heathland 'heritage' / potential of the area: these are some of a handful of young Broom plants along the tree line at the foot of the bank to one side of the hole 3/12 fairway

Handsome specimen tree at Barnehurst Golf Course

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

4 + 5/1/10: More Bexleyheath and Barnehurst birds.


There were 5 House Sparrows in the Rhododendron and Juniper in my garden, a species that although still fairly common in the area tends to be seen on house roofs and guttering.

A wander through Bursted Wood en route to Bexleyheath Broadway didn't turn up much, but the low winter sun certainly highlights the subtle colours of the tree trunks at this time of year. Even the Wood Pigeons, sitting high up in the trees, now looked a more exotic pinky buff in the golden glow.

There were 35 Starlings in a tree between St. Audrey Av. and Francis Av, 10 more in a tree behind the garage at the junction of Francis Av. and Long Lane, and 62 in trees along the boundary of the Bexleyheath School field east of Belvedere Rd. and north of Upland Rd.

13 Wood Pigeons were sat in a modest-sized tree 'behind' 'The Yacht' public House, and east of Hyde Rd.

On the way home a young Fox was seen after dark on the raised grass/shrub bed in the centre of Mason Close, Bexleyheath.


There were 3 Redwings (and probably 6 - others were seen flying away from a distance) using the upper branches of a large Beech at the junction of Barnehurst Av., and Barnehurst Close as a base from which to go to and fro.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

2/1/2010: More garden birds

There were 2 Grey Squirrels in the garden today.

I had a good binocular view of a Wren as it came down through a Forsythia and onto the ground to search for food.

A Coal Tit (or was it - I must check for the white nape as I'm starting to wonder whether I'm overlooking Willow Tits) was foraging around the extremities of a large Pine a couple of gardens away.