June, 2008

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  • Ringing success

    Twenty four birds successfully netted, one escapee. The London House Sparrow Research Project has been running for a couple of years now, and this week I joined two of the team as they weighed, measured and ringed sparrows in Islington.

    Recording field dataWithout taking any ages in to account I can reveal that the average weight of the sparrows was equal to that of a two-pound coin and a one-pound coin combined. Average wing length was about that of my index finger (7.5 cm) and the average tarsus, 2.5 cm or the same as the width of my thumb knuckle. Of course these averages are a bit of a nonsense because our sample included tiny juveniles and older males and females, but it is quite a low weight.

    Netting is not selective so we also measured and weighed two blackbirds, two great tits, one lovely little robin and a starling. A typical selection of the species found on the site, a small park in Islington's Laycock Street. We were of course, primarily interested in sparrows.

    The research project is trying to find out why sparrows are vanishing from London. Their numbers have dropped dramatically compared with the populations recorded in the 90's. No disease has been found to account for the losses and even when predation by cats and birds of prey are taken in to account, the speed and depth of the decline suggests something else is to blame. We know that a lack of food and shelter have had an impact so studies continue to look at other possibilities while supplying both food and shelter for some colonies.

    House sparrow numbers reached an artificial high in the UK when our streets were full of horses chomping on oats and doing what horses do when their stomachs are full! When the internal combustion engine put horses out-to-retirement, house sparrow numbers started to drop to a more natural level. That was expected, but the decline we're concerned with is more sudden and recent. At present, it remains a mystery, but we're determined to crack it.

    Sticking with red-listed birds. Last week we lost one of this year's new batch of peregrines. The female had to be put-down after badly injuring herself in a collision. Since then I've been finding out just how many peregrines hatched in Greater London this year. We had a nice round-figure of ten chicks from our six breeding pairs. It seems this is one threatened species  that is on the long, slow road to recovery.

    We've been having a lot of calls to the London Office from people who've found young birds unable to fly. Rest assured these are youngsters and that they have a higher chance of surviving if left alone than they do if you intervene. The parents will be nearby and can help if required, so please resist temptation, enjoy the encounter and move on. If you want to know any more about the work of the RSPB and some of the amazing wildlife sharing our Capital city, come and find us on Hampstead Heath this Friday and Sunday.

  • Death of a maiden

    Friday was a black day. We lost an eight-week-old female peregrine.

    Peregrines at play in mid-air, photo kindly supplied by David ShawThese magnificent birds have taken to London in a big way. We now have half a dozen breeding pairs living wild in the Capital and probably double that in single birds - not yet at breeding age.

    The female was found on Thursday last week, badly injured on the ground in London Wall near the Museum of London. She was taken by one of our volunteer peregrine experts to London Zoo for treatment but they decided she'd have to go to the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover for specialized care. X-rays showed a fractured hip but her back was badly dislocated and survival was not possible.

    This was the only daughter of Misty and Bert, the peregrines that usually roost on the Tate chimney. They had four chicks this year; three males and the female. They don't appear to be registering her loss and are not searching for her. At eight-weeks, the female had learnt how to fly, hunt and generally look after herself.

    The area around London Wall has a lot of glass and steel structures and it's entirely possible that she collided with one of these. It seems the Capital is not as welcoming and safe a place as we had thought for peregrines. It is warmer than the surrounding countryside and with its large pigeon population, resembles a well-stocked larder for a hungry peregrine.

    Glass buildings and birds are not a great mix. Another young peregrine was found dead last year. It too had collided with something. There are well documented cases of birds flying in to glass buildings, but it's not a major problem and is more common in US and Canadian cities where there are more high rise buildings. Peregrines are the fastest creatures on this planet. It must be tough, even with their powerful eyesight, to detect glass structures, especially if they're diving at top speed (more than 100 mph). Accidents happen and it's a sad loss.

    I was telling a journalist friend the story of the juvenile peregrine. They didn't appear to register any reaction and when I'd finished they said "So what?" I'd be the first to admit that the loss of a single wild bird cannot compare with the loss of a child, a parent, a colleague or friend. It's just sad when any young life ends abruptly and this was the young life of a species that came close to extinction. Happily, she wasn't the last of her type. However, if you look at the statistics in London, we're seeing more male peregrines than females. If that trend continues, extinction remains a real threat!

    So, take advantage of these magnificent birds being in London by visiting us at the Tate this July. Repairs to the storm-damaged lightbox on top of the Tate Modern's chimney are running on longer than planned. It will soon be fixed, but with work teams around, the peregrines are unlikely to use the Tate roost as they normally would. It seems our Tate Peregrine Watch may start on July 19 without the regular presence of the birds. As soon as the people on the chimney have finished and gone, we're expecting the peregrines to return. We'll be there as planned, so come and see us to find out more about Birds of Prey in London.

  • Lapwings precarious return

    I cheered, then my heart sank, then it soared again, finally it swelled with pride. This was all while listening on a crackly mobile phone as RSPB Local Group leader Bob Husband explained where he was and what he was doing.

    He was in a field in Barnet, near the M1. It’s normally home to some horses from a nearby Rescued lapwing chicks (c) Evening Standard photographer, Graham Husseystables but is also frequented by skylarks. Hence, Bob’s presence; accompanied by fellow North West London RSPB Local Group volunteer, Fay Broom.

    They’d come across three pairs of nesting lapwings (cheer) but the field was about to be harrowed and rolled (heart sank). Bob and Fay had safely scooped up the chicks and were keeping them safe until the work was done (heart rises and swells). The stable owner, Susie Lloyd and farmer Clive Baldwin aided by his son Peter, were all helping with this rescue and restore operation.

    Lapwings are an amber listed species, which means their future is in doubt because their population has fallen significantly. Breeding records show there haven’t been lapwings breeding on the site for forty years. The care and effort that went in to looking after the lapwing chicks is amazing. If we all took their actions as an example, London would be the world’s most biodiverse city. These are the sort of actions the Queen's birthday list should reward.

    Buoyed by this fantastic story I set-off to meet Ros Saunders, one of the founders of a new community garden in North London. King Henry's Walk Gardens are an amazing mix of allotments, woodland and community space with education resources for local schools, voluntary groups and the adjoining youth centre. It's a mosaic of fresh, healthy looking salad, fruit, veg, grasses, trees and shrubs. It was buzzing with wildlife and there are plans to install bird and bat boxes. A wildlife pond is under construction and the organisers are seeking more funding to make this space work even harder. They've an open day coming up on the afternoon of Saturday 28 June.

    Cormorants like this can be seen at Wimbledon.On the same day, but halfway across London in Wimbledon Park you'll be able to chat to some RSPB staff and volunteers about the diverse range of wildlife sharing our City. It's another one of our Aren't birds brilliant events, find us by the main lake every day from 21 June right through to 6 July. It is of course Wimbledon week, so expect some showers.

    Meanwhile, our Tate Modern peregrine chicks have fledged and are being taught by Mum and Dad how to hunt, play and generally look after themselves. The three boys and one girl will join some fourteen other juveniles in the skies over London. They hunt mainly in the mornings and evenings, which is when you're most likely to hear their harsh cries.