NATURE NOTES: The darker months at the end of the year have been brightened up by huge flocks of non-native birds, and a couple of surprise visitors to the area, as PETER ALFREY, the ‘Birdman of Beddington’, reports
In November and December, probably the highlight sighting of a visiting bird was a twite, recorded at Beddington Farmlands.
The twite is a small, brown finch closely related to the linnet, but with a longer tail and stubbier bill. The bird is normally found in Scotland, North Wales and the north of England, and sometimes winters around the coast of eastern England or Kent. So a record of one in suburban London is a real surprise.
This one had been ringed in the Pennines as part of a study to track the bird’s movements. In previous years the bird has been seen on the Norfolk coast; its arrival at Beddington Farmlands was the first record of this species at this site in 13 years – so a real local rarity.
Barn owls, tawny and short-eared Owls were also recorded at Beddington through November and December and an Iceland gull (a visitor from Greenland and Canada) was present in December. An Iceland gull was also spotted at Coombe Lane playing fields on Christmas day.
According to John Birkett’s Croydon bird-watchers’ site, there were several records of hawfinches over various parts of Croydon in November – part of the national influx of this species this winter.
One of the most interesting records was of a yellow ringed-necked parakeet – a very unusual colour variant of the bird, which is usually a vivid green.
Other wildlife sightings in Croydon last month included several records of marsh tit, a firecrest at Addington Hills on December 23.
While at this time of year there are perhaps fewer different kinds of birds about, it is notable for there being much larger flocks gathered together of those species which have remained here for winter.
Perhaps the most spectacular is the large roots of ring-necked parakeets that roost at Mitcham Common and can be seen flying over the borough as they head from a day’s foraging in the countryside back to the urban green spaces for additional warmth during the long winter nights. It has been estimated that there could be more than 6,000 of these non-natives gathered in this roost.
Large flocks of jackdaws and starlings also head back into the city fringes and recently there have been more than 3,000 starlings flying out at of roost over Beddington Farmlands and a similar number of jackdaws.
Over at the Sutton Ecology Centre in Carshalton, the main pond has been colonised by the invasive, non-native plant New Zealand pygmyweed (Crassula helmsii).
It forms a thick blanket of vegetation both aquatically and terrestrially, smothering and out-competing other plants, so it can reduce the pond’s biodiversity.
It can be spread by even the tiniest fragment, so pulling and raking risks making the problem worse. Because of this, some more creative control methods have been trialled.
Last year, a small area of pygmyweed was covered with pond liner to starve it of light, which worked well, killing more than 90 per cent of the weed. The water level has since been lowered to spray the Crassula with pesticide, which seemed to weaken the plant but not kill it.
A larger area has been covered with geotextile for the next season. It is hoped that through repeated covering and spraying off regrowth, the pond will be an invasive species-free habitat once again.
The small pond by the allotments at SEC, meanwhile, is getting a makeover.
The pond was installed more than a decade ago and was showing significant signs of deterioration and warping. After transferring much of the silt contents of the pond to buckets for transfer, a brand new rigid pond liner was installed.
Once full and appropriately planted, this small woodland edge pond will be a great habitat for amphibians and invertebrates for many more years to come.
The two small raised ponds have upcoming works too – the wooden sleepers supporting them are rotting and need replacing to maintain their structure and ensure safety: 2018 will be the year of the renovated pond.
Care has been taken to ensure biosecurity during these works. This means stopping the spread of any potentially hazardous material such as diseases affecting amphibians or invasive species like Crassula. For more information check out this free online e-learning course on biosecurity.
Carshalton and Clockhouse local area commitee and Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers (SNCV) have funded three new oak benches around the woodland, installed by Little Oak.
One commemorates SNCV’s work spanning the last 30 years. If you fancy walking off the excesses of Christmas, why not pop up to Queen Mary’s Woodland and, when you decide to pause for a few moments, perhaps to check out the wildlife, take a seat?
For wildlife-conscious gardeners, these winter months are a good time to prune hardy shrubs, remembering that wildlife benefits from leaving some dead stalks and shrub branches. Many caterpillars and larvae spend the winter hibernating in dead stalks, to re-appear in the spring as adult insects, so providing them habitat is very important.
Early winter is also a good time to be planting new shrubs and perennial plants. There are so many shrubs and plants that are attractive to wildlife but some of the most easily available and hardy include pyracantha, buddleia, hebes, dog rose and berberis, while trees that are good for wildlife include rowan, hawthorn and fruit trees.
Now is also the best time for pruning trees of all kinds except for prunus trees (cherries and plums), which are best pruned in the summer months.
Providing food for birds and wildlife during the winter really does make a difference to their survival and its also a great way of seeing close up views of winter garden birds including redwings, fieldfares and, if you’re lucky, siskin, redpoll, brambling and, if you’re really, really lucky, a waxwing. Though given the parlous decline of that great emblem of London, many gardeners in Croydon and Sutton these days should be delighted if they can provide some food for sparrows.
Please send us your favourite nature photo of the month for a chance to win a monthly competition. Please send edited jpgs to Peter Alfrey.
Your Questions: Questions regarding identification of something you have seen or questions about wildlife gardening or day trips to nature reserves in Croydon and Sutton can also be sent to Peter Alfrey. We will publish a selection each month.
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