There is usually something new to report in the regular wildlife article and this time it is the first proven breeding record of Hobbys in our woods and the accompanying photograph taken by Daniel Greenwood is of the two recently fledged juveniles. The flight silhouette of the Hobby has often been likened to a large Swift and this photo amply demonstrates this. The Hobby is the one transcontinental summer migrant falcon, following its prey to Africa for the winter. It is an extremely aerobatic aerial feeder specializing in large insects such as Dragonflies and also Martins and Swallows. It is not surprising that the adults were not often seen here as they travel rapidly over a wide range taking feed at heights of over 100 feet and the actual nest was not found. When observed with binoculars they can be seen to be transferring prey from talon to beak in full flight which shows that there must be a surprising wealth of large insects flying at this height.
Other wildlife news is not so good. Our once thriving House Martin colony was down to one pair, that arrived late, reused an old nest, and appeared to fledge just one young at the end of August when they immediately departed. Matthew Oates, writing the wildlife column in The Times from somewhere out in the country described his colony of twelve or more nests each producing one or two broods of young. So what has happened to ours? Clearly they are not producing enough young birds to withstand winter and migration losses and I am tempted to think that there may be a significant reduction in the flying summer insects here for their adequate food. Is the London pollution level which we are told is so damaging to our health also affecting our insect population and therefore the resulting food chain?
The availability of food is key to the survival of many of our well loved species and although we often provide winter feed, a long dry spell as we have had in the south east through the high summer to early Autumn will have made difficulty for ground feeders to find invertebrate food and there may have been losses. It has so far, perhaps because of this, been a quiet Autumn with fewer Starlings, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Finches showing themselves in our gardens than in previous years. Nationally too it has been one of the worst years for home grown butterflies which surprised many of the experts. One explanation may be that the heavy rains of the early summer may have drowned all the caterpillars. However migrant butterflies such as Red Admirals did turn up in small numbers and the Holly Blues have survived. We will have to hope for better luck with Peacocks Tortoiseshells and Commas next year, as well as the less spectacular species such as Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and Skippers which also suffered this year.
There are reports of winter migrants arriving in good numbers on the north east winds and as there is a good berry crop there may be good winter watching. We already have reports of Firecrests singing in the Sydenham Hill woods which are clearly annual winter visitors. Just before going to press a Water Rail visited Dulwich Park and was photographed by Daniel Greenwood. Water Rails are similar to and most closely related to Moorhens but smaller with brown upper parts and attractive blue grey breast and belly. They spend most of their lives concealed in reed beds and often the only evidence of their presence is a call note that is rather like the squeal of a piglet. They do migrate in the Autumn which is perhaps the best time to see them. This bird could elect to stay here as a few spend the winter at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, but you need to be lucky to see it. A record in Dulwich Park is a first at least for many years and a benefit from the planting of reeds around the margin of the lake.
As ever I shall be grateful for your records in particular any hedgehog sightings as there is a current investigation on their decline. Any comments or observations you may have on your experience of our local wildlife will be most welcome.
Peter Roseveare Wildlife Recorder (Tel: 020 7274 4567)