LONDON SUMMER BIRDS, MID-AUGUST
Spent much of a rainy Sunday birding in London's Regents Park. Nothing unusual as the inland migration is not really underway here yet. Shorebirds ("waders" in English) stick to the coast line for the most part.
Just over 30 species during the rainless hours. The usual pattern here is intense rain for a few minutes, some mist, then some sun, occasional breezes preceding each individual rain shower. Little accumulation so the cracks in the ground remain. The annual rainfall in London averages about the same as San Francisco. Unlike San Francisco, the London humidity stays high all the time. The sun only rarely shines and there is not often any wind to desiccate. On rare occasions when it does rain hard, the clay and chalk soils are not absorbent and flash floods occur. Western and northern England generally get much higher rainfall than this southeast facing Thames River valley.
Best birds in Regents Park were the adult Little Grebe with two zebra-striped half-grown juveniles. Smaller than Pied-billed, these grebes are uncommon breeders in the city.
Saw five Great-crested grebe, three adults and two zebra-striped youngsters. The adult males still have their feathery horns and rusty face coloring--both will go away before winter when they begin to look very much like heavy-necked Western Grebes.
There were also Long-tailed and Coal Tits, a few House Martins, and a group of 3 Crows mobbing a Sparrowhawk along Regents Canal.
One mild evening when the clouds hovered but only pretended rain, I took a simple picnic dinner into the central park of The Barbican. It’s a big complex of harsh cement and gravel exteriors, a handful of high-rise and numerous other buildings clustered in some architect’s idea of a modern planned community. It's really a corroding set for “Bladerunner I” which could be filmed here around 2015 when the cement has eroded into stalactite and stalagmites, today’s oozing leaks have become gushers from pipes nobody bothers to fix.
The ingredients of the meal cost about £5, the entertainment was free. The cast of the freewheeling, improvisational theatre were already spread across the lawn.
One pair of Magpies played like eight year siblings, fussing and chasing and feinting aggression. The two would chase, swoop into trees, play fly ‘n hide, then do a low glide across the top of the short-clipped grass and land on stiff legs to bounce at least three times while still moving forward. Magpie as ping-pong ball. Then other Magpies entered the play. A lone bird at the far side of the sixty yard square lawn was carefully hunting for morsels on the ground. The Magpies, up to seven at a time ran about, strutted and faced off in faux duels, looking for a contest. One nervy squirrel trotted out to the large walnut tree, hoping to check for fallen nuts. He was driven from the field by a rambunctious Magpie. One stolid Wood Pigeon strode too close to the Magpie playground and it too was driven back to the edge of the lawn. Despite the pigeon’s superior girth he was no match for a flapping, charging Magpie.
The Magpies were in constant motion, rarely stopping to even pick at their playground lawn. They would form small groups, or a solitaire would make a rapid flight to some target, then stop suddenly. Three wooden benches were placed on the open grass to form a rough U-shape. These had slatted backs and bottoms so the Magpies could see through them. Evidently no finer play structure could be devised for the Magpie mind. One Magpie will fly down from a low branch in a drooping arc, bounce across the lawn and come to rest precisely under the slatted bench seat. Another Magpie already perched on the back of that bench will feign fear, flapping its wings and rising suddenly to escape the bogeyman beneath the bench. This was a game played several times to great enjoyment of all apparently.
A clueless squirrel made a smooth move, hanging onto a limber limb until it dropped to earth, then he slid onto the ground, only to find himself amidst the Magpies. Instantly from over his back comes a flashing black and white devil that drives the speeding squirrel thirty feet to the next tree, where he scrambles up and hides behind the chestnut leaves.
There is also the time-honored Magpie see, Magpie do game. Here one bird will take off to be followed and imitated exactly by another flying just above and behind. This game always ends in some tree. The front bird can swerve, climb steeply, or try to out-run but the second bird seconds every motion.
Scattered about the lawn are a walnut, a half dozen chestnuts, a tiny magnolia, an acacia and a rim of saplings and brush around the edges. When a human couple move onto a bench near the park’s center, the Magpies vanish without a sound. Up into the trees. The many Blackbirds who have been picking on the lawn near the edges now move toward the center. At a distance they are large burned croissant, head and neck curled up on either end. Like their American Robin cousins they’re listening for a slight sound among the blades.
A number of Wood Pigeons amble into the open. Greenfinches flit from tree to tree, with small chipping sounds while in flight. Then a phalanx of feral pigeons float down from the sky and waddle across the lawn like a gang of old men looking for a lost contact lens. One of the meaty Wood Pigeons takes up a stately pose atop the back of a bench. He has the glossy slate gray coat, the fine white semi-circular collar. Elegant—until he coasts down from the bench. His butt bounces on the turf, his tail feathers drag, and he stumbles to a halt. None of that fine finesse of Magpie play.
When the other people stop walking through the park with groceries and the young couple go off to the pub, the Magpies immediately drop out of the trees and begin their games. One strides proudly across the middle, his tail held at a thirty-degree angle to the ground, his black and white head nodding forward and backward with every other step. His simple black and white pattern is nature’s besting of human ones and zeros. In this dim evening light you cannot see the purples and sheen of green that mark the Magpie in brighter sunlight. Soon a trio of is playing the bench game again. Then the first of the evening’s Carrion Crows drops onto the lawn, hops toward the scattering Magpies. Then a second crow and a third. The Magpies cold-shoulder the bigger birds and go play elsewhere. One Crow hops onto a bench. Nothing happens. This guy doesn’t have the flair, or the dramatic tail.
The feral pigeons are far across the lawn. One Magpie flies over to see if they found anything. He drives them before him, a farm boy with his reluctant flock. An old human comes and sits on a bench to read. The Crows and Magpies find him harmless and don’t leave. The black croissants are back to working the edge of the lawn. The Crows have gathered beneath the walnut in case the squirrels have overlooked anything. The Magpies are still in motion. I watch as one glides, a black and white paper airplane, the flanged tail, diamond-shaped is open and ruddering. The bird glides smoothly up into a chestnut tree. To fly like that would be an evening’s joy.
In Regent’s Park on a rainy Sunday I stopped to check out the goose field, next to one arm of the big lake filled with exotic waterfowl. It’s mid-afternoon and only three Crows are seen on the short grass. Nearby a there’s a performance of “Wind in the Willows” in the outdoor theatre. Drums, cello moans for wind, whistles, chants drift across to the field. The Crows are pacing about, checking for morsels. Suddenly there’s a sharp caw from the trees along the slough fifteen yards to the north, and a fourth Crow drops down at the back of a Crow on the ground. The victim squawks and flaps away. The other two field Crows respond with a counter-attack, calling and driving the interloper back into his trees. The three field Crows confer, with head bows and some cawing toward the fence and the trees beyond. Two of the Crows patrol the fence, just in case. There is no second attack.
I scan the grass. Only one other bird can I find. A slowly moving Wood Pigeon occasionally stops of a nibble of green salad. Then moves on.
The fence along the slough side of the field has open gate. After a few minutes I see a pair of Hawaiians walk through it. Now this field is off limit to people and dogs, fully fenced off. These Hawaiians are Nene, seemingly doing well in this strange land ten thousand miles from their native volcanic highlands. Head erect, #1 Nene moves into the field. He's giving a plaintive creaky whistle. It is the sound you hear from a heavy wooden door, not from it’s metal hinges. It is the sound of bare wood on the bottom of the door heavily moving across the raw wood of the door jamb. It’s that whistling creak.
The field is more weed than grass, and the lead Nene takes only a couple of absent-minded nibbles. Then the goose moves slowly toward me, whistling. Perhaps I resemble one of the caretakers here in this royal park, and the bird expects a handout. The second Nene hangs back by the gate, watching. I dumbly stare at the bird, with no answer for his whistles. He loses interest in me and turns away, joined now by the relieved goose from the gateway. These fine geese in shades of chocolate and tan have those deep grooves in their neck feathers--ventilation slits for the tropical heat or simple good grooming? Then a gang of nine Red-breasted Geese come through the gate close together. None of the deliberateness and care of the Nene, they immediately lower their heads and begin the salad course. Their striking black and scarlet patterns are set off brilliantly by white piping. If there's a more beautiful goose on earth I have not seen it. The Red-breasteds are small, rounded, short-legged. They remind me of portly gents in fine veterans uniform, perhaps veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. They graze like a flock of sheep, long necks sloped down, heads in the grass, clipping stubble steadily as they fan out.
Four more Nene appear and the six move carefully through the field, perhaps only occasionally finding anything that suits their Pacific Ocean appetite. How very different these plants must be from what they would eat in Hawaii. Yet here they are safe and thriving while their native cousins must struggle for the survival of the species as a wild bird. I see them easily here, having missed them more than once in Hawaii.
Still more geese arrive for a mid-afternoon snack: 10 Ross’s Geese each with a single black feather showing over each rump, 2 Barnacle, a Canada and six White-fronted. It’s a goose promenade. Bizarrely there is a Brant as well. How different this dry hard pasture is from Pacific eel grass. These geese also find plenty to eat.
As I watch the ambling mixing goose groupings, a tuft of grass suddenly rises at the limit of my vision. The green sprouts wings and flies into a small willow across the field. It’s the Green Woodpecker. As I scanned the field earlier I had looked, expected, not found. I have seen this bird here before. Water, big trees, open field. This is made for Green Woodpecker. He was here but I missed him, or he was hidden. He clings to a large branch in full view. The zinfandel-colored Zorro mask is set off by the dusty green of his neck and shoulders. His eye is dark. He turns his back to me and the rump has been smeared with Gulden’s mustard. Then he drops back into tall weeds beyond the mowed field, there he'll look for ants and other ground insects. But after less than three minutes he flies on chlorophyll wings into the big willow, then drops onto the short grass where he must have spotted an ant hill. He stands facing me, constantly stabbing down into the grass, then lifting his beak to the angle familiar from Red-throated Loons. I see him swallow each time he lifts his beak.
When I look away I see the Brant and the Barnacle Geese strutting back through the gate. The Red-breasted had first spent their allotted minutes and returned to the slough. The others then followed. Except for the Hawaiians. The drizzle has started and stopped and a mild sun is warming the softest grass where the six Nene settled down for a nap. It was not a warm sea breeze off the Kona Coast. But it was soft, and safe and a little sunny. They were nodding off, beaks being tucked beneath wings, eyes sleepily going shut. Neither they nor I really belong on this far northern island, but for us for the moment it is England at its cozy best.
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