Big bird watch on the 18th January 2023 in Forster memorial park with James Newton RSPB. 18 bird species viewed.
James gives us an introduction.
The 2 main reasons for the timing of the RSPB Bird watch survey, which takes place at the end of winter, are:
Visibility; during the winter months most of the woodland trees are deciduous and bare, without foliage or blossoms to obscure any bird sightings. Sightings are made far easier when on the bare limbs and trunks. However, many species initially appear to perform a camouflage act against the tree bark!
The birds born last spring and summer will now have grown their adult plumage (full colour feathers) some species look similar when they’re still young.
A total of 21 Adults and children walked around the woodland paths, with binoculars to look up in to the skies and trees.
This whole area was previously Downham farmland. Much nature is still present as we explore the woodland perimeter which surrounds the park.
A robin red breast, our first sighting, sat up in the area behind the cafe. It took flight, although we were treated to several more along the way.
We watched as a woodpecker glided across the sky, with a particular dart-like appearance; a taste of what was to come.
A blue tit (yellow and blue…) skulked in the shrubbery.
Turning left into the wood chipping yard, beside the remaining discarded evergreen Christmas trees, we see a magpie (distinctive black and white) and a Stock dove (similar to a pigeon with shimmering green and purple feathers)
Wood pigeons (larger, grey birds frequently seen amongst the leaf litter searching for grubs) eating hawthorn berries and rose hips.
Then, continuing along a muddy entrance into the meadow to the right; the apple tree orchard.
A Greater Spotted woodpecker makes an appearance, hopping on a trunk. James tells us that their numbers are doing well across the country. We hear their ‘drumming’ as they bore holes into trunks with their long beak.
Black headed gulls fly overhead and a Blackbird sits in a tree.
We watch where we walk, as clusters of daffodils emerge amongst the grass, towards the path .
An orchestra of birdsong follows us as we head through to the north kent wood oaks for further sightings: Red wings (similar to a thrush with a reddish underwing.
There are 2 main species of Thrush:
The taller, graceful Mistle thrush (with a clicking call)
The smaller Song Thrush (which has a darker back and speckles)
The Parakeets (a vibrant green, non native, relative of parrot ) squawk overhead around us. They roost in tall narrow Poplar trees in the crematorium and at the Grove Park Nature reserve, alongside Greenfinches.
It’s common to feed them in urban back gardens and rather than having a detrimental affect, they can actually protect smaller, native birds, as when predators approach, they squawk loudly and fly off quickly. Theories aren’t clear on the origins of their increasing population although it’s unlikely that they’ve descended from a pair released by Jimi Hendrix in 1960s!
James points out several large wooden Owl boxes, fixed to the old tree trunks. He hears them hooting regularly between December and February. Although these have yet to be witnessed in the park.
We study several Nuthatches feeding in the trees. ID: Nuthatches climb up trees. Whereas Tree creepers display the opposite behaviour and creep sideways and downwards.
James shares additional news that Ravens have been observed around the East coast and Ashdown forest. Other more local sightings include a Sparrow Hawk and a Red Kite (with a forked tail).
We conclude our bird species sightings: 18 within a single hour.
During the day we held a couple ‘taste and touch guided tours’ in the sensory garden with adults and children.
To taste: several thymes, sage, tarragon, parsley and fennel seeds.
To smell: The uplifting scent of the geranium (kind donation from Liz Gill). The surprising aroma of the curry plant.
To feel: The soft lambs ear leaves and feathery achillea leaves, the silky artemisia powis castle.
We admired the stature and seeds of the sunflowers.
Wild food guided tour with safety guidelines
We walked across the field and observed dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and plantain (Plantago major) along the pathway.
We continued to the woodland edge and discussed the difference between deadly Hemlock (not found in this park) and the delicious cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), which is prevalent and with low growing foliage during the cooler time of the year. Garlic mustard / Jack by the hedge (Alliaria petiolata), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), chickweed (Stellaris media) were also studied.
In the woods we saw stinging nettles (Urticae dioica) and burdock (Arctium).
At the end by Glendale’s entrance, we observed young Shaggy Inkcap mushrooms (Coprinuscomatus) growing in the grass, which when older yield a black ink-like liquid, suitable for painting!
Plus a Ganoderma fungus close to the old tea hut building.
We completed our day with a / Our day culminated / in a wild food feast made and prepared by Effat Batul, who set up our ‘sofre’ picnic style tablecloth on the grass to sit around.
Forest feast gourmet salad menu
Buckwheat, sunflower seed and chickweed pâté served with Beetroot, marrow and tomato salad. Date, apple and ginger and apple dessert with Fresh Rose hip jelly was Served on avocado tree leaves and eaten with wooden cutlery.
Art: Our colourful, striped stems from the Tree Spinach plant found new delight used in decorative mobiles.
We are looking forward to organising a new winter session for more visitors to enjoy the garden.
On Sunday Sept 11th, Nick Bertram, from Creekside Discovery Centre in Deptford, led a Tree Walk round the park, telling us lots and lots of things we had no idea of. Starting from the cafe, a group of about 25 of us, headed towards the woodland path nearest the main Whitefoot entrance, where we very slowly made our way towards the Longhill entrance. On the way, Nick told us that:
The playing field is an assert, which was a clearing in the ancient woodland, and is easily seen on very old maps of the area. Forster Park, like Beckenham Place Park and The Woodland walk in Downham, is an area of Ancient Woodland. The official definition of this is woods before 1600, but there are ancient woodlands which are primeval and go back to the last Ice Age. Wildflowers such as native bluebells (another name for which is wild jacinth), anemones and wood mellick, are ancient woodland (or ancient hedgerow) indicators, especially if found together.
We then looked at trees along the path:
Hornbeam- Carpinus Betulus – can be an ancient woodland indicator. Has a silvery snakeskin diamond patterned bark. The leaf is tooth edged, then each tooth serrated, so the leaf is doubly serrated. The wood is slow growing and extremely hard. In the past, each species of wood had its own use, wood was used for everything, – keeping warm, furniture etc. Woods survived because they were coppiced- cut low down to produce many stems, producing a regular supply of wood. Deciduous trees were coppiced, in rotation, depending on the species, maybe a 5 year to 25/30 year cycle. Coppicing stopped some years ago and woods aren’t managed in the right way now.
Field maple- Acer Campestre- a truly native maple. The other maples which can be found are sycamore (originally from Mediterranean) and Norway maple.
Oak- 2 native species – peduncular and sessile, which do hybridise. And 3 Mediterranean species – Turkey oak, cork oak and Holm oak (evergreen), which have gone wild.
The Peduncular is also called the English oak, Quercus Robur, and is the dominant one in London. It has a short stem to the leaf, with rounded lobes (ears?) at the base of the leaf. The Sessile oak, Quercus Petrea, likes more acid conditions, has no stalk, and no lobes, the base of the leaf just slants in.
Elm- we saw plenty of Wych Elm, this is native (unlike the so-called English Elm which was brought over by the Romans!). Wych elm leaves are very big, about 5 inch, pointed, serrated, lop sided at the base. Whereas English elm leaf is about a quarter of the size.
Rough hairy feel to the leaves. Dutch Elm disease (so called because a Dutch scientist worked out what it was) – we lost nearly all the mature Elm trees in UK in 70s and early 80s to this disease – they were tall distinctive trees, a great loss to the landscape. The fungus was a different species to before, arrived cos of world trade (we were then still moving tree trunks around the world with the bark still on). The fungus was carried on the back of a female beetle which bore holes in the bark to deposit eggs. The tree would react to the presence of the fungus by shutting down its up and down transport system – xylem and phloem. The disease hasn’t gone away. Wych Elm reproduces by seed and can only grow to a certain height. The English Elm does not die back, it spreads by roots, and new trees spring up from them, but not tall.
As we walked down the first path, on the left, set back a bit, we saw many coppiced Wych Elm, perhaps 4-500 years old, and maybe the oldest trees of all species in the park. Some trees are much older or younger than they look.
Ash – this is one the two most common native species in London. There are several Ash trees in the park – most seem to be ok, this one was recently felled due to ash dieback. It has pinnate leaves – several leaflets arranged opposite each other on a stem, making one leaf.
Hazel- fairly low growing, leaves are alternate, broad and roundish, with doubly toothed edges, ending in a short tip. Leaves feel soft.
He pointed out that there wasn’t much of a shrub layer, as it used to be cut back by park management, though not now. Where there was a break in the canopy we saw some young wild trees – hawthorn, wild cherry, ash, and wild rose. But cutting that shrub layer has meant loss of native bluebells, anemones etc. Woodlands need to be managed for biodiversity. Oak don’t regenerate much within woodlands- there’s a mildew affecting them- though they can grow at the edge of woodland or outside it. He recommended Oliver Rackham as an intellectual author who really knows species, for a broad understanding of issues.
Just before the end of the first path, before the bin, on the left we came across stinking iris which grows wild in woods, then a snowberry shrub, with very round leaves- this is a North American shrub which has been planted.
We turned the first corner (!). away from the Longhill entrance and saw an old Oak just on the left, where half the trunk all the way up, was different to the other usual half. Could be the effect of lightening a while back but seems like healthy growth higher up. Old oak trees hollow out, and this actually keeps them stronger, so they live longer. There is a huge range of age of trees in the woodland- unlike a plantation- and this is all part of what to understand about the woodland.
Elder- we saw several, and they were all very affected by the drought. Many dead leaves and dead thin branches. Looks like the rain came just in time, because there is new growth. Elder has pinnate leaves, leaflets arranged in opposite way around the stem, like ash but fewer leaflets – commonly about 5 leaflets. Elder trees fruits early, which is great for birds.
Holly- this has a negative effect on woodland, tends to take over, like ivy does. Holly used to be broken down and used for animal winter fodder, and therefore was cut back and managed. Ivy can be a nuisance, especially when it trails the woodland floor, preventing other species. Ivy flowers, berries however are good for wildlife, as food and as a habitat. Should be managed though.
Hawthorn- saw two types- the usual Crataegus Monogyna, and the Woodland, (or Midland) Hawthorn. The latter is an ancient woodland/ hedgerow indicator. You can tell by picking a haw (the ‘berry’) and finding 2 stones inside it. Monogyna only has one. The woodland hawthorn was halfway down this section on the right.
We got to the end and crossed over, down toward a field. Nick showed us his maps again. This time an aerial photo from 1947, clearly showing that all the fields and meadow areas were used as allotments then. At the bottom of the fields are Lombardy Poplars, in a straight line – and clearly were planted, as were the Scots pines down the side of Conisbrough College. Looking at the field, what is missing? Wildflowers. Nick said it was in a very poor state. Wildflower meadows are hard to create, but it can be done by collecting local wildflower seeds, and possibly wildflowers from destroyed sites.
About planting acorns- can collect acorns, grow on at home and plant near Oak trees, and fence off, but we need to really really understand what is already there, and what the long-term affect would be, and what management would be required. Don’t rush into planting. Rapid mass tree planting has ruined many landscapes with rare wildflowers all over UK and other countries, and as happened only in Greenwich.
Turning left along the woodland edge, we came across an Oak with leathery leaves, probably a hybrid, possibly with Holm Aak, or looking at the bark, could be with cork oak. Turning left into the woodland at this point, we walked up back towards the corner of playing field closest to the lower Whitefoot entrance. There we came across several wild service trees.
Wild service tree – an ancient woodland indicator, also found in BPP, and in large numbers in Oxleas Woods. Distinctive leaf shape, with several sharp points, very symmetrical. Also called the Chequer tree.
We went back on ourselves in search of the oldest Oak trees These have been pollarded, and some are about 350-400 years old. Pollarding is being cut back high up so animals can still graze and not eat the tree. England has one of the highest concentrations of pollarded trees, and BPP and Mayow Park also have many. Pollarding stopped over 100 years ago. Pollarded trees are often on the edge of woods or planted along footpaths as parish or other boundaries. Many of our ones are along the top edge of the dog walking enclosure.
There we finished, and didn’t have time to see the Whitebeam, a native tree though here it was planted, as it prefers chalk soil, and our one is along the west side of the playing field. Nor to see the Silver Birch, Blackthorn, and others.
As a conservationist, Nick emphasised the importance of understanding and preserving the whole ecology of the woodland, the problems of introduced species, poor management and climate change, which is increasing the number of evergreens in woodland. We learned so much, and hope to see Nick again, in a different season, as there is so much more we can learn about our park.