It has clearly been a difficult year for our wildlife both nationally and locally, most notably in the relative absence of our butterflies that come under the genus Nymphalidae. i.e. the colourful ones. This made the photography of a Comma by Gardner Thompson all the more remarkable for the year’s report. It is I think called a Comma after the comma shaped mark on each forewing most clearly seen on Gardner’s photo rather than the intricate wing shape unique to this species. All this family of butterflies which includes Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells and Peacocks have two broods and the first ones to be seen will have overwintered hibernating in garden sheds or sheltered places. Most of them use Stinging Nettles as the preferred food plant for their caterpillars (not the preferred weed for gardeners) and these are necessary for the second brood most loved in our gardens over the summer. The population of Red Admirals and in some years Painted Ladies is augmented by immigrants from the continent and a few Red Admirals did indeed appear but they were few and far between.
Holly Blues and some of the Grass Butterflies such as Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers did better and I was pleased to see for the first time for a number of years a Humming Bird Hawk Moth taking the nectar of Lobelias, but this will have also been an immigrant.
The status of our birdlife is also somewhat uncertain. Wood Pigeons, Carrion Crows, Magpies, Jays and Parakeets are clearly doing well, but there were notably fewer Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs around than in previous years. David Clark helpfully does a regular early morning count of the birds in Dulwich Park which provides an indicator of the relative stability of the populations. In his latest autumn count Song Thrushes and Starlings were noticeably absent. Song Thrushes can be secretive but they ought to have done well this year from the abundance of snails, so their absence is worrying. It has been noticed nationally that Starling numbers although still reasonably abundant are, like the House Sparrows dwindling, and although we are seeing twos and threes in our gardens the large flocks filtering out the Leatherjackets from our lawns seem for now a thing of the past.
Some or perhaps most of the losses are from factors beyond our control. Climate change can result in a mismatch between hatching and fledging time, and the quantity of the preferred food for the young birds quite apart from the accidents of extreme weather events. Many of our summer visitors seem to be in trouble in their African winter quarters. This would appear to have affected Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats and Redstarts and some Warblers which we would regularly see both as passage migrants and in some cases breeding. There is often now better feeding for migrants in towns than the countryside so it behoves us to provide enough wild places in our parks and gardens for refuge and replenishment.
Populations, particularly of small birds can recover quite quickly as a poor year can result in a food glut next time round which gives greater chances for survival of fledglings and if the weather is right butterflies can achieve good hatches.
This year did provide some nesting success with a family of Sparrow Hawks in Dulwich Woods, at least one family of Tawny Owls, also in the woods and a family of Little Owls in Belair. At the time of writing the summer migrants have gone and the winter visitors have yet to arrive and there are plenty of berries available for them when the time comes.
Wildlife Recorder (tel: 020 7274 4567)