That a Hen Harrier should fall out of the sky into a garden near Gipsy Hill is little short of an ornithological miracle. Although she had been given a hard time from the local crows and magpies this bird could not have been luckier. Hen Harriers have been top of the RSPB “need of protection list” as the British breeding population has fallen to about nine pairs and in England there was a single unmated male on a moor in the peak district. Unfortunately they have fallen foul of the northern gamekeepers who believe that they are a danger to the Red Grouse population and who have been illegally shooting them.
In the south of England they are seen in decreasing numbers most usually in the winter on the coastal marshes of Kent Essex and East Anglia and certainly nowhere near the gardens of West Dulwich. This bird is female, fairly uniformly brown but with an owl- like head and a white rump. The male Hen Harrier is a little smaller and a beautiful silvery grey with black wing primary feathers. It certainly needs to be admired rather than shot.
There are other ways in which we might do our birdwatching. One I discovered was to lie on your back in the garden (in good weather) doing your pilates. You may then be lucky enough to see a Red Kite passing overhead. West of London this would be commonplace as the Red Kite has colonized the Thames valley in numbers but they are still unusual sightings here. Another unusual sighting for the summer was a Peregrine Falcon which perched for a while on a roof in Dulwich village. Some Peregrine Falcons have discovered that high rise buildings in London are preferable breeding sites to cliffs with a plentiful supply of pigeon for food, so there are now several pairs to be seen flying over London and occasionally over us.
From the mid summer onwards it is always good to listen for the calls of overflying birds. Waders start to migrate from July onwards and many of them have distinctive calls. A curlew was both seen and heard in July and others may still be reported.
We can also announce the birth of a white Sparrow in West Dulwich of which we have been supplied with a number of excellent photos, one of which we print, accompanying its more usual friends and relations. This is in fact leucism as opposed to albinism where there is complete absence of melanin and the eyes are pink. Leucism is an uncommon genetic mutation that occurs in many species, including Blackbirds and Crows. It is not infrequently seen in Squirrels and there have been a few local reports of white Squirrels. It may be partial or total and is perhaps most frequently seen in Mallard Ducks on our park ponds and lakes. Most of our Christmas Turkeys are leucistic!
Apart from this the news is less good. There has been a drastic fall in our population of House Martins and there are clearly very few breeding pairs, and Swifts are also present in smaller numbers this year. In spite of the good news in West Dulwich the House Sparrow population has fallen again and the long standing colony at the north end of Burbage Road seems to have disappeared.
However, although I reported last time that our Kestrels have gone there was a female and young in Belair park, and after two barren years Little Grebes have managed to produce a chick on the Dulwich Park lake. We will therefore await further records with interest.
Peter Roseveare Wildlife Recorder (tel: 0207 274 4567 )
“Grandma! There’s an eagle in the garden!” Sylvia Fox of Oaks Avenue, who happens, to be a wildlife enthusiast was unconvinced by this breathless announcement. Her curiosity was peaked however, by the cacophony of squawks she could hear and she went to look. There was indeed an ‘eagle’, or so it seemed in her back garden. It was certainly large with over a 3’ wing span. A murder of crows ( the collective noun for crows Agatha Christie once informed us) aided by magpies was harrying it. It gained the cover of an apple tree whereupon the family cat took up the pursuit.
“She looked absolutely exhausted”, recalls Sylvia. What to do? A handy and now unused large yellow plastic toy chest was to hand and Sylvia placed this over the large bird. But how to move it.? A large plastic tray was found and slid under the toy chest. The ‘eagle’ could now be put into the safety of the long-disused Wendy House in the garden.
A call to the RSPCA produced, after some delay, an inspector who carefully examined the bird. Declaring it uninjured but at the last stages of exhaustion – “It must have fallen from the sky like a stone”, the inspector remarked, it was placed in a box and sent to an aviary in Essex and then forwarded to a second aviary where it was fed and allowed to recover. It was released over the Essex marshes. Sylvia was informed that she had saved the life of a rare female hen-harrier who was far, far off course. And of course Sylvia called the Dulwich Society’s Wildlife line.