I am writing this article on the weekend of the National Garden Birdwatch organized each year on the last weekend in January by the RSPB. In fact I am looking at a virtually birdless garden in the pouring rain with feeders that have been full all week. In most years at this time I am replenishing feeders almost daily to keep pace with voracious flocks of Goldfinches and Tits. So where have they all gone? The assumption is that in this wet winter there is abundant food elsewhere but we will have to wait for the national survey to give us an indication of whether this is a population trend or whether this is an anomaly thrown up by the weather.
It has of course been an unusual winter and wildlife has been reacting accordingly. A frog that should be hibernating is hopping in and out of my garden pond which has on and off been turned into a lake. A local Blackbird that normally starts singing on St Valentine’s Day has been in full song night and morning since early December. A well fed song bird will often warble a subsong out of season perhaps because it has nothing better to do, but to be able to hear one of our finest songbirds in full throttle in December is a bonus for any weary commuter trekking home from Herne Hill Station.
Otherwise we could say this has been a fine winter for ducks. On Dulwich Park lake besides the resident Herons readers may have noticed one or two pairs of Shoveler ducks. These are more striking than the ubiquitous Mallards, the drakes having deep maroon coloured bellies, white breasts and bottle green heads. Both males and females have what look like oversized beaks adapted for filtering out water surface food. They are winter visitors and though some will breed in this country many will have come from the near continent. This is indeed the case with many of our ducks and it is noticeable that the numbers of Tufted Ducks on the lake is far in excess of those seen in the summer. Although still very much wild birds they have become tame and urbanized in the winter months.
The flocks of Black Headed Gulls on our parks and playing fields have been larger than usual this year. Many of these are also tame and taking food intended for the ducks but perhaps fortunately do not invade our gardens. I was however interested to read that ringing records from birds seen on Clapham Common indicated that many came from breeding colonies as far away as the eastern Baltic Sea where clearly the arctic weather is untouched by the Atlantic jet stream. They all depart fairly promptly in April leaving us with a small population of non breeding Lesser Black Backed and Herring Gulls.
By the time this article is read Spring should be with us and we will hopefully start to see the butterflies mentioned in my last contribution. I was interested to hear of a Purple Hairstreak butterfly, normally really difficult to see, had been found in a garden affected by rain but able to return to its canopy when dried out. Such records are the stuff of natural history and of more significance than twitching the appearance on these shores of migratory strays from distant climes.
Peter Roseveare Wildlife Recorder (Tel: 0207 274 4567)