Chiswick Gardens

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Chiswick Gardens are the largest and most wooded park close to Chiswick High Road. According to one of the information plaques, the landscape architect responsible for the current look of the gardens took the “revolutionary approach” of making them look more natural. Hence, although there is, of course, the obligatory lawn area, Chiswick Gardens also feature interesting nooks such as the “wilderness” where brambles and wildflowers are allowed to grow. The shallow lake is home to a gaggle of Canada and some Egyptian geese, a bunch of mallards and tufted ducks, this one heron you can rely on to be there every day, and moorhens, coots and a flock of street pigeons which have cottoned on to the fact that despite “don’t feed bread to ducks” warnings, visitors still readily throw bread at the waterfowl, and that the bread sometimes lands on the ground instead.

Below is a juvenile street pigeon sunning itself by the lake. Its young age can be deduced from the still dark cere and lack of iridiscent feathers around the neck.

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Unfortunately, I do not know what fish can be found in the lake, but as for amphibians, there are likely to be smooth newts there. I found one on the street just outside the park one day in late March and released it into the lake (a good distance away from the ever-watchful heron), hoping that that was where it came from.

A pair of coots constructed a nest in the most prominent location possible – just past the park’s signature bridge. Here is the bridge…

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And here is the nest, with one parent preening, and some of the brood (the rest was swimming nearby, following the other parent who was bringing food).

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There were five or six chicks. Coots are only “loving parents” as long as there is enough food to go around. As soon as things get tough, they get increasingly annoyed by their young begging to be fed, and start pecking them. The weakest give up begging and die of starvation. It’s tough being a coot chick. My bets are on the two that chose to stick with the parent foraging for food rather than stay in the nest and wait for the meal to be delivered.

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But let’s move on to a bramble patch, which, sheltered from the wind and warmed by the sun, was filled with the buzz of hoverflies, bumblebees, and other flying insects, some of them pretending to be something they are not. Here is a common wasp, just soaking up the sun…

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And here is a Myathropa florea hoverfly, whose genus is described in Britain’s Hoverflies as “a wasp mimic, but not very convincing”. Well, it tries its best.

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The distinctive pattern on the thorax is not clear in the picture, but it is commonly likened to a skull, which gave the hoverfly the common name of dead head fly. Britain’s Hoverflies authors however are committed to improving the public image of hoverflies, and call it a “Batman marking”. Perhaps one day these unsuccessful wasp mimics will come to be known as Batman hoverflies? Spread the word and it may just happen!

Several species of butterflies fluttered about by the brambles: holly blue, speckled wood, orange-tip and comma. One very drowsy comma simply couldn’t be bothered to fly away whenever someone stopped to take a close look at it.

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Among all these colourful creatures suddenly something else caught my attention – a small black ball of fuzz with two long trailing strings. Once it settled for a spot of sunbathing, it turned out to be a green longhorn moth. Now these are impressive antennae! He must be able to catch a whiff of a female from quite a distance.

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Down by the path, herb robert was in flower. The small pink flowers are so picture-perfect they look as if they had been painted by someone, or designed in some graphic editor, but for one detail which breaks this unreal symmetry. Instead of each petal being covered by another one side only, there is one which is on top of its neighbours, and next to it, one which is overlapped on both sides.

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The ornamental shrubs and trees in Chiswick Gardens are quite attractive as well, and effortlessly fit into the landscape. For a garden-type park, this one is well-balanced with areas that look more natural, space for wildlife, ornamentals to delights the eye, a grassy area for dogs to play on and people to sunbathe. A reedbed or a mini-meadow would be great as well…but now I’m being too picky! It’s great to have a place like this so close to the high road.

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Leg of Mutton Nature Reserve, Barnes

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When talking of bird-and-other-wildlife-watching spots in Barnes, the main attraction surely is London Wetland Centre, a great place to spend a whole day. But if you’re looking for a smaller, pretty place to drop by while hiking along the Thames, Leg of Mutton fits the bill. It’s tucked away right by Thames Path, halfway between Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge. What has it got to offer? A lake with reedbeds and nesting rafts, good mix of hedgerow shrubs and trees, a heronry. There are some well-placed benches too, and on sunnier late March days it’s quite lovely with robins, great tits, wrens, chiffchaffs and blackcaps singing all day, and the first butterflies and drowsy queen bumblebees fluttering by.

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Green alkanet was one of the few wildflowers in bloom. Buff-tailed bumblebees as well as some hoverflies congregated around the precious few nectar sources. Green alkanet grows well without any care and its flowers are very attractive, so it’s confusing to me why it’s considered a weed. How exactly does a plant earn its status as a flower suitable for a garden, I wonder. Is there some informal requirement for the size of its flowers, or their density? For difficulty in maintaining it? For appearance different from the common plants one might encounter on a meadow, or, much more likely in England, on a grass verge that escaped mowing for some time?

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Below is another underdog of the flower world – the white dead-nettle. Nettle-like plant which does not sting, has whorls of flowers which look like a clearly marked tunnel entrance with a landing pad and an awning over it, and is popular with bees.

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There are more and more bees and bumblebees around, but wait, some of them look a little strange. In fact, despite their golden fur, they’re not bees at all. But they try their best to blend in. This Large Bee-fly took a short rest from feeding on nectar to warm up a little more in the sun.

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Meanwhile, the still mostly leafless trees allow a clear view of birds. On gloomy days, the reserve may appear somewhat desolate, but nothing brightens up a grey landscape like a robin.

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Long-tailed tits no longer hang out with other tits in flocks. They mostly keep together with their mate, searching for nesting material, foraging for insects and feeding on tree pollen.

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Chiffchaffs are usually a challenge to take a picture of (at least for me!), tiny as they are, sitting high among branches, as if they knew my camera would never be able to focus on them. But as this one kept hopping from one perch to another in between bursts of song, he afforded me a rather good view.

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On the river bank just outside the reserve carrior crows were overturning stones, looking for tasty invertebrates. A yellow-legged gull picked up a stick and was showed it to its mate time and again, but the other gull was not impressed. The stick-carrying gull dropped the item and picked it up again, but after a while gave up, and when the mate started the trumpet call, the stick was forgotten as the second gull joined in.

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Adjacent to the reserve is a tiny park, Small Profit Dock Gardens, a place of the closely-mowed grass plus sparse trees variety. A surprising find there was a cowslip, a gorgeous wildflower, the only one in the park. It escaped the lawnmower, sheltered under a bench, growing in between pavement slabs. A spring-time beauty rising against a grey background, with a cigarette butt behind.

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Winter Wildlife in Istanbul, Turkey

What’s there to see wildlife-wise in the dead of winter in the busy, car-crowded city of Istanbul? The streetwise, urbanised resident species, which benefit from plentiful food left on the streets for feral cats and dogs as well as pigeons and doves. The number of homeless doggies (mostly large breeds) and moggies strolling down the streets was quite remarkable. Once neutered, they are released from shelters back into the city. Packs of dogs playing by a busy road or sleeping on a roundabout, cats curled up on restaurant chairs, dog kibbles under a wall in an alley, rows of shabby cat houses in a corner of a park are all common sights.

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On the one hand, ferals put pressure on the local wildlife, but on the other, the food bonanza does not go unexploited. Hooded crows seem to quite like hanging out near the dogs.

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Based on casual obervation, hooded crows are the most common corvids in the bustling European part of Istanbul, far outnumbering jackdaws, rooks and magpies.

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Surprisingly, in some central areas it wasn’t the urban pigeons that were the most common birds to see. A smaller, daintier pigeon, the laughing dove, took the spotlight.

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These little guys are quite tame, although they don’t get as close to people as the brazen urban pigeons. With their small size, gentle nature and delicate pinkish plumage, no wonder they get so much love (in food form) from the human city residents.

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But there is even more feeding going on, far from the streets, in the middle of the Bosphorus Strait. It seems to be a popular pastime to throw bread to gulls from the ferries plying between the European and Asian side of the city.

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This photo shows the three most common species of gulls in January: black-headed, yellow-legged and common gulls. Gulls hang out by the moored ferries and follow them as they cruise, holding the passengers sitting on the outer deck in their steady gaze, measuring their worth by the presence (or absence) of treats.

 

Istanbul has its share of introduced bird species – escaped pets which managed to get established. There are the parakeets, Alexandrine and ring-necked, and common mynas. The mynas seem to have an extremely small range in the touristy part of the most busy area.

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But enough about birds, what about other animals? Well, the only non-avian vertebrate besides cats, dogs and people that I managed to encounter during my brief stay was a Caucasian squirrel in Yıldız Park, looking slightly aghast at having been spotted.

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Late Autumn Yokohama, JP

As trees started losing foliage and weather took a turn for the gloomy, my urban birding days were brightened up by Japanese white-eyes. The little birds appear in small groups, often following tits, like flashes of fresh green standing out against the naked branches of trees which close shop and go dormant early, such as this cherry. Your camouflage isn’t working, buddy!

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Brown-eared bulbuls, once done raising offspring, spend even more time quarreling with other bulbuls, chasing one another around, or screeching with raised crown feathers in an intimidating posture.

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Although it is merely a personification, the tree sparrow look-out appeared very nonplussed by the constant intrusions from the hot-tempered bulbuls.

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The local pond was being slowly re-populated by the overwintering ducks. Spot-billed ducks hang around all year, but there are usually more of them in winter. They do not confine themselves only to the pond area, but like to venture out further along a stream, or to a nearby river.

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Apart from tufties, which are wary and prefer to stay well away, the winter newcomers were mostly northern pintails, such as this fine-looking male.

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The moth and butterfly season was coming to an end, yet several species were still making the most of it, visiting both wild and planted flowers in the park. Below is a female Indian fritillary to the right of a skipper…

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…and here is a male Indian fritillary, with his fancier wing pattern.

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A box tree pyralid moth also fancied the Tagetes flowers, arriving by sunset, as soon as the butterflies had gone.

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Now, for the more plain-looking species! A grape plume moth clinging to the wall of a house, trying to blend in and not attract the attention of a flock of sparrows in a hedge just by it. It does fit the colour scheme fairly well.

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Below is a very worn-looking butterfly, a poignant sight in mid-October. It is difficult to tell what an understated beauty she used to be now that her blue scales have all rubbed off, the soft edges to her wings have frayed, and all that is left to identify her by are the pale spots on the hindwings, and a subtle hint of little “tails”. She is a short-tailed blue butterfly who has been through a lot.

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Moorhens and Rosemary Beetles at London Wetland Centre

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The captive birds at London Wetland Centre certainly envy the resident moorhens. You’ll find moorhens in the tundra area, the wooded patch, the swampy spot, completely at home next to the non-native collection species from all over the world. Every little enclosure has got its moorhen. They are even taking advantage of the feed provided for the other birds in some surprising ways…

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(Dear reader, I apologise in advance if you are eating while reading this post. The topic in the next paragraph is a little revolting.)

Here are two moorhens, a juvenile with a parent, keenly watching the emperor geese. What are they looking for? Fresh droppings. When no uhm… second-hand food was coming for a while, the moorhens even pecked the slow-digesting geese under the tail. Most geese didn’t seem to mind it, only one got angry and chased the impatient moorhens away. While it may be a good way to get a meal with little effort, it carries a high risk of getting parasites and contracting diseases from the geese. Fortunately, it’s not a very common behaviour when other sources of food are available.

Coots are known for their cantankerousness, but the related moorhens also don’t shy away from a good fight.

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The quarreling pair soon attracted an audience (of other moorhens; the ducks took no notice whatsoever).

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All nearby moorhens rushed to see what the fuss was about. Short fights broke out among the spectating birds, which apparently got too excited watching the main duel. Five minutes later the commotion died down and the moorhens calmly swam away to get back to what they had been doing before.

The South side of the Wetland Centre features some beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Although I’m not sure how much they have changed over the years, one has had a lavender patch for at least a couple years. In early October the lavender was way past its prime, yet it attracted attention with small spots of vivid colour. The rosemary beetles.

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These stunning beetles arrived in the UK about 20 years ago on garden plants imported from Southern Europe. They are considered pests, for their larvae feed on rosemary, lavender and thyme. I wonder how the lavender patch at the Wetlands is doing, and how it will fare next year. Will the resident birds be enough to keep the beetles in check and prevent too much damage to the lavender? Or will the plant suffer so much that the WWT staff will have to take action by removing the beetles manually when spotted? Spraying the garden with chemicals (hopefully) isn’t an option, considering that the residents of the bug hotels located therein would also suffer. The beetle larvae should be hatching now. Let’s see what happens.

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Autumn Bedfont Ringing Update

Our main target species in the small nature reserve in Bedfont Lakes Country Park is the reed warbler. The ones that breed on our site have all left weeks ago, followed by the young birds who hatched in Bedfont this summer. To our surprise, we’re still catching reed warblers on migration from northern parts of the UK, later than ever before. Most of them have very little fat on, which may be what’s keeping them from moving on. If they attempted the long journey with no fat reserves, they would likely not make it.

There is a good number of blackcaps turning up in our nets. While UK blackcaps mostly leave for North Africa, some populations from central Europe choose UK to overwinter in. Below is a close-up of a female blackcap’s head.

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And here is a photo of her wing:

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We aged her as a bird born this year based on the moult limit in the greater coverts and narrow, pointy tail feathers. The moult limit may be hard to see depending on light and angle. In the photo only two outer greater coverts have distinctly more brownish edging, but if I remember correctly, there were more old greater coverts… I keep tilting the laptop screen backwards and forwards, trying to see it now to no avail. This is why it’s important to rely on more than one feature in ageing birds!

We also get a fair number of blue, great and long-tailed tits (below), which form flocks at this time of year.

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Chiffchaffs have also been turning up in good numbers.

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Last Wednesday we sat very close to the nets and had the opportunity to observe how birds reacted to seeing others in the net. While social birds like tits will hang around their trapped flock-mates, and especially long-tailed tits will repeat the flocking call, reluctant to leave, I didn’t expect to see a similar behaviour in chiffchaffs. One fell into the net and another kept flying up and hovering next to it, returning to a nearby branch, then repeating it again and again. It wasn’t trying to get across to the other side as it would only hover right by the other bird, looking at it. I know we shouldn’t project human emotions onto birds because they are likely to think in ways vastly different to ours, but it did seem like the chiffchaff was concerned about the other one and did not want to move on without it. The behaviour was too persistent to be just curiosity. Perhaps chiffchaffs bond with each other during migration?

We’ve been getting birds with ticks quite often towards the end of summer and beginning of autumn, mostly thrushes and blue or great tits. Ticks attach themselves to the nape or neck, where birds cannot reach them, and even little birds like blue tits may be carrying multiple ticks. A wren we netted had a tick the size you might find on a dog – imagine what a burden that must be! Our ringing group removes ticks, but not everyone does that. While I can understand the argument that we should not interfere, on the other hand we already affect the birds’ lives by netting them, causing them stress, preventing them from feeding for a short time, potentially leading to some birds becoming separated from their foraging flocks, so personally I think of removing ticks as a small favour we can do for them. Our impact on the tick population is negligible, and although we are not tick experts, the ticks we find do not seem to be host-specific. Of course, there will always be different opinions on the subject of when it is okay to try to help a wild animal.

The bat group who checks bat-boxes in the park kindly showed us a pipistrelle:

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Gloves must be worn when handling bats, which may carry rabies. Bird ringing in city parks is a much less dangerous activity, as basic hygiene is all you need not to catch any disease or parasites: don’t reach for a biscuit with poop-stained hands. Although veteran ringers have been known to lose all fear of germs and parasites, or perhaps their biscuit cravings are too strong for hygiene concerns to stop them…

More Japanese Urban Wildlife

In summer the only garden birds which visit seed feeders in Yokohama seem to be the ever-present tree sparrows, Japanese tits (Parus minor) and oriental turtle doves. While sparrows flee at the slightest movement of the curtain, turties don’t mind being looked at through a window. Sometimes they even sit at the balcony rail and peek inside the house curiously. Below is one of the three regulars, surveying the garden from the feeding station before descending onto the feeding table with racing pigeon seed mix that it likes very much.

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Turtle doves show amorous behaviour throughout much of the year. Their courtship display is quite amusing to watch and listen to. The male first makes a sound resembling someone breaking wind to grab their mate’s attention (yes, you read that right), then proceeds to bow while purring: trrr-trrr-trrr. Turtle dove males seem very insistent, displaying for a long time while following their female, stepping on food trays from which she’s eating, hopping into water dishes from which she’s drinking. I’m not sure if there is a difference between courting an unmated female or displaying to a mate hoping for some intimate moments. All the turties I’ve watched seemed to already be couples.

Japanese tits come to the garden for sunflower seeds, adding some variety to their mostly invertebrate-based summer diet.

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An unusual find on the porch one day was this cuddly death’s head hawk-moth. I moved it away from the street, as Japanese children like to pick up creepy crawlies and take them home to keep as pets. It’s usually mantises and large beetles (rhino, stag) that fall prey to children, but a moth of this size might also attract attention and end up in a plastic tub…

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Despite their scary-sounding name, these moths are prime candidates for the cutest moths out there. When disturbed, such as when picked up, they squeak. It’s the most adorable squeak ever. There are youtube videos of squeaking moths, so you can hear what it’s like without the need to go around poking sleepy death’s head hawkmoths.

Around this time of the year the city parks become very noisy – with the chirps and droning of insects. The day shift of cicadas hasn’t yet fully started but crickets are making quite a racket. Soon insect song will drown out the traffic noise. To me, that’s a wonderful thing. Most of the exciting large invertebrates stay out of sight during the day and taking photos at night just doesn’t work for me, so here are some day-time easy-to-photo highlights. First, an Orthetrum melania dragonfly (male; the females are yellow), the most common dragonfly at this time in Yokohama, or at least the parks I’ve been to.

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One day hiking in a larger park I was cursing my luck for having seen not a single reptile, amphibian nor bird that I could’ve seen in any residential district in Yokohama. I was feeling quite dispirited and decided to put away the binoculars and change the focus of the trip to smaller critters. As soon as I had a closer look at leaves of the nearest shrub, I noticed a beautiful tiny animal, a Mesorhaga nebulosus fly with a colourful, metallic shine to its body. It belongs to the long-legged flies family and likes sunny spots on the edges of groves and forests.

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And this is a parasitic wasp, I think the giant ichneumon. The long ovipositor is used to lay eggs deep in the branches or trunks of living trees.

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Finally, a bird! It’s a Chinese Hwamei, a non-native species in Japan. The wild-living population originated with escaped pets. I didn’t get close enough for a good shot, but you can see the white “spectacles” which make identifying this species very easy.

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Lastly, some fungus, growing in a soil-filled hole where a tree trunk split into two, as if in its own pot. I don’t have a book on Japanese fungi, so I cannot say much about it. It makes me think of four cap-wearing individuals having a secret meeting in a secluded spot, with a fifth one eavesdropping at the back. The two spots of dirt on one of the fruiting bodies even look like eyes…

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