Most exceptional records in winter tend to be weather related so a mild wet winter produces very few. A Buzzard has taken up residence in Sydenham Hill woods which is perhaps not exceptional as they have become widespread throughout southern England. It is however thought to be a female and should a mate appear it is not impossible that they should breed here. Firecrests have once more been recorded and our gardens that have had berries have been visited by Redwings. Euro wintering Blackcaps are once more unexpected visitors to our garden feeders with their brown capped females which are less easy to identify. Stephen Hepburn has had a very friendly hen Pheasant in his garden which he hopes did not fall prey to a fox.
Jill Alexander has kindly passed me a copy of an article written by Mathew Frith who is Director of Conservation for the London Wildlife Trust and with whom I have made contact. He had received details from the Branscombe family of records made by the late Professor Peter Branscombe while he was a pupil at Dulwich College during the terrible winter of 1947. I am old enough to remember this winter vividly though not to birdwatch. Apart from the massive falls of snow and floods my memory was of frozen cold feet and chilblains from toasting them in front of a coal fire as there was no central heating. My older birdwatching friends told me of picking up huge numbers of dead Redwings at the time.
Although I cannot reproduce Mathew’s paper here it is interesting to compare what appeared in this exceptional winter with what we experience in these warmer times when I doubt if local doctors ever see a chilblain. Branscombe recorded fifty bird species over that winter with flocks of finches the most numerous of which being up to three hundred Linnets but also many Chaffinches, Bullfinches and possibly Redpolls. He also records Rooks which roosted at the college but whose numbers dropped in the winter. The main bird of prey was the Kestrel and exceptionally he recorded between ten and twenty on one day. Kestrels have now almost disappeared, perhaps in the wake of the House Sparrows which according to local pellet analysis was a big element of their prey, but they have been replaced by Sparrow Hawks which Branscombe has not mentioned.
It is difficult to imagine that we could ever see this number of Finches even if the winter were to turn suddenly very cold (the 1947 winter did not start till 20th January). Linnets are never seen here now, Bullfinches are occasional and Chaffinch numbers are small with the national populations of these birds all having fallen markedly. Most surprisingly he records Hawfinches and Marsh Tits which previously existed here in significant numbers and appear to have been driven out by the hard weather of that year, never to return. One assumes however that many of the common species to us such as Robins and Blackbirds were all seen although it was known that numbers everywhere were impacted by the excessive cold.
In his records he did have the occasional exception the most notable being a Woodlark on the border of the golf course that gave him a very good view. This is a very uncommon bird with a song of exceptional musicality whose nearest breeding sites are the Surrey heaths beyond Guildford. I don’t know of any other record of a Woodlark being seen in Dulwich.
The origin of our rather intrusive Parakeets appears to be settled and the myth that they were escapes from a film set of the Indian Queen in Elstree has been dispelled. The general view is that the population is the result of multiple releases and escapes from captivity possibly exacerbated by a Psittacosis health scare some years ago. I noted that they were abundant in Lisbon last year and I have heard their unmissable calls in television outside broadcasts from other European cities, so we are not unique. Most cage bird escapes such as Budgerigars perish but these south Asian birds have found a European niche. The problem of non-native birds that settle is that they are potentially competitors to our indigenous species, Parakeets can empty a full garden feeder in a day to the detriment of our tits and finches and also compete for nest holes much needed by Nuthatches and Starlings. Time will tell if we can safely accommodate these birds.