Our Soho Square bird list is nothing to boast about. Just 25 species in 11 years! But then we are in central London, without a blade of grass for miles, if you discount the obsessively manicured gardens of Soho Square itself. Even this little patch of green is barely visible underneath the masses of random, sun-seeking bodies that fill the square on sunny days, and it’s shaded by tall sterile plane trees that support a lot less microfauna than a good, solid native oak. Nevertheless, we’ve had our moments: the occasional Mallard strolling across the lawns looking for a puddle of water, a fly-over Grey Wagtail, Redwings migrating overhead in winter, and even a Willow Warbler once in August. A Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon caused quite a stir amongst the non-birding staff of our office, and has been seen a couple of times subsequently. A few years ago, a flock of 120 Waxwings descended on Fitzroy Square, just a few minutes to the north of us. This was sensational for Central London, and when we were walking back to the office a flock flew south along Charlotte Street towards Soho Square – but we weren’t there to get it on the list!
This year, after years without an addition to the list, we’ve had two. A pair of Goldfinches has taken up residence in the square. They were first found by Jim, but are now to be heard singing or twittering on most days. Then, a snatch of song on 6th May alerted me to the presence of a Black Redstart in Frith Street. It did not show itself, and a frustrating few days went by before it was heard again. The next time it was a few streets away, but again it was not seen. Finally, I nailed it back in Frith Street, and I was lucky enough to actually see a pair. Since then, it’s been fairly regular in the Frith and Greek Street area, being recorded as far afield as Chinatown and Great Marlborough Street.
We’d been hoping for this city speciality for some time. Jim thought he’d got one a couple of years ago, but it turned out to be someone’s Canary singing away from the balcony of a top floor flat! Black Redstart is a rare breeding bird in Britain. It only started breeding in Britain on bombsites in London in 1940, and its population remains fairly stable at only around 100 pairs in the entire country, mostly in towns or on power stations. So, it’s a pretty scarce bird, and to have a pair around your usually rather birdless office is quite a treat.
*this is a lie.
This week, editor extraordinaire Julie brings us a stirring tale of lice and labour ..
Well it wasn’t when I was a child.
My first experience with nits was exactly a year ago. At eight and a half months pregnant my toddler daughter came home on her last day at nursery with ‘the letter‘.
We’ve timed that well, I thought, after a quick scan of her scalp. She’ll spend the summer home with me and her soon-to-arrive sibling completely nit-free.
Two weeks later I had another squint at her head as I washed her hair. What the hey?! Forcing myself to take a closer look I discovered an impressive infestation.
That night while my daughter played happily in the bath I slathered conditioner on her hair. Nit-comb and tissue paper in hand I was ready to start the eradication process.
One comprehensive round of clearing later I knew I was supposed to wait five days before checking for newly hatched lice. But, with nothing but time on my hands, it became an irresistible daily urge to take a peek every bath-time. Did that speck just move? Is that one? Is it a different colour to the ones I removed before?
I thought I’d just ask my mum to check me. Seconds later she was presenting me with exhibits on a white tissue to examine and confirm. No! NO! Surely not me too? Days from my due date I had to concede that, yes, my cuddly little bed-invading toddler had passed on her infestation.
Action stations. I would not have a baby while there were things on my head having babies of their own!
My mum was a godsend and as the first days after my due date passed I was just relieved. I’ll be able to get rid of the little bleeders before the babe arrives, I thought.
By day ten after my due date I was too hot, tired and emotional to do anything except eat ice lollies, keep my feet elevated and hope that something was going to happen today.
Due date +12: my daughter’s head was looking more louse-free by the day. And I was now so adept at the conditioner/comb combo that, despite my long locks, I could do a pretty good job on my own, then ask my mum to check through my workmanship.
So there I was, sitting on my bed watching Timothy Olyphant being Justified combing through my softly slathered tresses when I thought, “hmm, was that a twinge?” I quickly finished combing, jumped back in the shower to rinse off and realised if it’s making me groan out loud it’s not a twinge, it’s a contraction. And after two weeks wait they came fast.
At 4.30pm I was on the bed with Timothy, by 6.20pm I was on a hospital bed meeting baby.
She was born with a beautiful dark head of hair which, like lice, is subtly changing colour with age, but thankfully within which the little blighters have yet to be found. But now she’s at nursery too I know it’s only a matter of time until I reach for those combs again.
This blog was inspired by the brilliant NIT HEADS blog, by Richard Jones and Justine Crow. Richard and Justine are currently writing The Little Book of Nits – indispensable advice for any parent. Coming soon …
With their emerald-green plumage, bright red bills and raucous calls, Ring-necked Parakeets seem to be everywhere these days. Admittedly rather pretty, these tropical parrots have been ‘naturalised’ as UK birds since the early 1970s. Theories abound on how they got here in the first place; some say they escaped from a studio during the filming of the African Queen; others claim that Jimi Hendrix liberated a few to jolly up London a bit. All enjoyable bunkum, but either way, their population has boomed over the last decade; they are now common throughout the London area, and are spreading fast.
I love Paris in the springtime; I was there a couple of months back. Like many other European cities, Paris, too, now has its very own recently established parakeet flock. I was pleased to watch a group screetching away merrily in some trees outside the Panthéon, before taking off in a swooping green flash across the city.
Later that day, I ambled into the Musée de Cluny, and popped inside to see, among many wonders, one of mediaeval Europe’s most famous tapestries – La Dame à la Licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six imposing, largely red panels, five of which are loosely based on the ‘senses’. Made around 1490, they truly are a wonderful sight. Among the richly detailed needlework, and nestled among the intricate leopards, monkeys and giant white rabbits on the panel known as ‘taste’, I was truly gobsmacked to see this:
Its a parakeet! But on a tapestry made in 15th-century France. It has to be a Psittacula parakeet, but which one? The absence of a red on the wing strongly suggests that this is Ring-necked (as opposed to Alexandrine, the only other contender). How on earth did this exotic wonder crop up in a tapestry in mediaevel France? The bicoloured bill is suggestive of the north Indian subspecies of this bird (as opposed to the geographically closer African one).
A little research suggests that the species has a long history in aviculture, so it may be that the bird our Lady is feeding was actually bred in captivity. Or it might have been traded across from eastern Europe or, who knows, even further afield. Either way, birds of the same introduced exotic species that was swooping above my head some half an hour before were presumably kept in the very same city, more than 500 years before.
So although it seems like they’ve only just bustled into our lives, these noisy green parakeets have been with us in Europe for a long time – I had no idea just how long.
Learn more lots more about parrots in this Helm guide:
A few years back I had a memorable journey through Sri Lanka, and I’ve had a soft spot for the birds of this magical island ever since. I’m currently busy compiling photos for our book Cuckoos of the World, and was drawn to a series of snaps of one of my favourite Sri Lankan endemics, the scarce and rather beautiful Red-faced Malkoha, taken in the famous Sinharaja rain forest by tour guide and photographer Amila Salgado.
A nice portrait, but what really blew my mind was this. Take a look.
A bird carrying nest material? Wrong.
This cuckoo is actually feeding on a gigantic, branch-sized stick insect!
I had to know more, so I had a look at Amila’s blog (his profile claims that he ‘holds the record as the first birder from Colombo to visit the Sinharaja rain forest in a tuktuk’ – very much our kind of chap). Amila took the photo during a trip to Sinharaja in 2004, just days after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami had hit the island. After seeing the bird in one of the mixed-species flocks (or ‘bird-waves’) that are a speciality of the forest, he took photos as the bird gave the insect a good bash, removing the limbs and the possibly defensive chemical-containing thorax, before tucking in.
Far from being any old stick insect, this is actually one of the world’s biggest insects. After an initial misidentification, an expert in the phasmid world told Amila that his malkoha was munching an adult female Phobaeticus hypharpax, one of the largest of the so-called ‘mega-sticks’, with a body length of up to 236mm. What a whopper.
This wasn’t just a great photo of a great bird doing something remarkable. It turns out that prior to the publication of these photos, the range of this insect was mysterious (with the handful of ancient specimens in collections all labelled simply ‘Ceylon’). So entomologists now know a little more about the beast, although its biology remains almost completely unknown.
Mighty though P. hyparphax is, it is some way behind the world record holder – P. chani, Chan’s Mega-stick, which lives on the island of Borneo. Formally described in 2008, Chan’s Mega-stick has a body length of up to 357 mm; its overall length with the limbs stretched out is an astonishing 567mm! Just imagine that.
Read about Amila Salgado and his tours – and see more of his great photos – here.
Amila is a contributor to Cuckoos of the World by Johannes Erritzøe, Clive Mann, Frederik Brammer and Richard Fuller – coming soon.