This has so far been an extraordinary winter although there may yet be a sting in its tail. But with temperatures in double figures and early spring flowers mingling with the residual blossoms of the autumn we have yet to see some of our characteristic winter visitors. Instead I watched a newt swimming vigorously around my pond when it should have been respectably hibernating. But the high winds and heavy rain have so far been the main feature and these have brought huge numbers of gulls, with flocks into the hundreds in our parks.
We have four species of gull that regularly visit us. The commonest is the Black Headed Gull, without its black or more accurately dark brown head in the winter, and these stay in increasingly large numbers from August to about April 1st when they all abruptly leave for their breeding grounds out of town. The Common Gull, a little larger in size also visits for the winter but is less familiar as it is quite shy and does not join the Black Headeds in the quest for bread being fed to the ducks, but departs at the same time to the north of England and Scotland where it breeds. This gull looks in appearance much like a smaller version of the Herring Gull, the third of our visitors, familiar as the characteristic noisy seaside gull, but with us in smaller numbers. The fourth Gull is the Lesser Black Backed Gull which is often the only Gull to be seen here during the summer. These gulls do not breed for the first two or three years of their lives, so these youngsters are not welcome on the breeding grounds and hang around with us. Many of the brown gulls that we see are in fact young Lesser Black Backs that have not yet achieved adult plumage.
I have not recently seen the editor's Mandarin Ducks that we featured in the last issue. But visitors to Dulwich Park may notice along with the regular Mallards and Tufted Ducks a pair of Shovelers. These are smaller than the Mallards but with huge spade-like beaks for filtering through surface weeds. The male has a green head like a Mallard but with a white front and a deep maroon belly, and is a handsome addition to the park fauna.
The other feature we are all noticing is the rapid expansion of the numbers of Parakeets. These are quite the noisiest birds and of course alien introductions. They seem to assemble in Dulwich Park at roosting time so that it perhaps sounds more like a park in Jaipur than south London! They often use old Woodpecker holes for breeding and may displace Starlings, which seem to be diminishing in numbers, so we must reserve judgement on whether they are really welcome. But many of our small resident birds are thriving in mild temperatures, so we should have good breeding populations of Robins and Wrens and Tits this summer. People have been reporting hearing birdsong at night. These birds are principally Robins but also some Song Thrushes appear to regard London street lighting as a harbinger of dawn. Sparrow Hawks still hunt through our gardens. The one in the accompanying photograph, which looks like a young male, had killed a Wood Pigeon in Kingswood Drive and had returned for a meal which had unfortunately been removed from the patio where he left it.
Just as we were about to go to press, two unusual sightings were made at the end of January, probably the result of the cold snap then experienced. A Woodcock was seen on the Rosendale Allotments and David Paget reported a Great Crested Grebe on the lake in Belair - the first recorded in Dulwich.
If the winter becomes more wintry there will no doubt be more to report in the next issue, so please continue to report your sightings and observations.
Peter Roseveare Wildlife Recorder
(tel: 020 77274 4567)