Saturday, May 31, 2008

Coots and Mallards on Greenland Dock

On my way to deposit some post in the letter box on Finland Street yesterday I took some bread and seed for three families who have made their homes on Greenland Dock. The two Coot families had chicks that were tiny, but the ducklings were growing fast, and were confident.

I have never seen Coot chicks resting in the feathers of their parent, but as I watched two little red and yellow heads emerged from beneath a black wing.

Coots are ruthless collectors of plastic. One of the nesting pontoons on the dock is a mixture of natural greenery and plastic bags and bottles, all still being collected and arranged by an efficient parent.

As far as I could tell one Coot family had five chicks, and there were ten Mallard chicks accompanied by their mother. The other Coot family were so well concealed in the vegetation of their pontoon that it was impossible to count.

Passing the Ship York I noticed that it now has a set of three recycling bins next to it, which is useful information. For a short period there were bins near Finland Street, but these vanished suddenly and I assumed that they had been moved due to residents complaining about the noise, which from the bottles alone was excessive. It is nice to know where they went!

I went into the RDW from behind the Downtown health centre, a route which I've never taken before. That whole area, which includes some unused land which is growing wild (see picture, right), has been the subject of building planning applications which have been going on for years now, which continue to include some hair raisingly ambitious proposals. If the proposals were accepted Barratts would create a development which would reach right up to the edges of the pond at the Redriff bridge.

At the Redriff bridge in the RDW I spotted the heron standing on the same perch that he had been sitting on on Thursday, overlooking the water. Trying to get a better shot of him I accidentally disturbed a fox who moved like quicksilver on hearing my far from subtle approach.

I later ran into Rebeka from TRUE who was wheeling a bicycle along the path from Stave Hill - it had been abandoned in a hedge and she was taking it back to safety before reporting it to the police. It looks very much as though it was stolen and then abandoned when the brake cable snapped. Rebeka's tasks are certainly varied!

Here are some of the chicks on Greenland Dock. As usual you can click on the small image to see the full sized photograph if required.

Friday, May 30, 2008

More from yesterday

Yesterday was a strange day. I was walking around shedding layers of clothing in the morning because I was so over-dressed for the heat. In the afternoon I was piling the layers back on again as the sun vanished, the clouds gathered and the skies opened - and it rained for the rest of the day. I am sure that the guitar picnic disseminated quickly, which is a shame because they appeared to be having a very nice time. I still can't quite get over the guy on the bicycle pulling along the girl with her guitar in a trailer - a lovely sight.

Here are some photographs of that lovely bush that I photographed yesterday. If you want to see it is in one of my favourite parts of the Stave Hill park - if walk to Stave Hill itself, you will find four exits from the circular path that surrounds it. Head down the exit opposite the one that offers the view to the Gherkin building and turn almost immediately down the track to the right. The pom-poms are on the right. They are delightful but there are roses and other flowers to be enjoyed as well.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

After the rain

I went away over the bank holiday period so I've missed out on a week's blogging - one of the inevitable outcomes of having to abandon my broadband connection from time to time.

After several days of unrelenting rain things have cheered up considerably. My patio garden has welcomed the downpours and burst into an even greater show of colour, with some of the summer blooms showing their faces for the first time. So far this year I've never made it out to the park before around 2pm, so I had a wander over there in the morning, whilst the sun was still shining, to see if the rain had had as much impact on the park as it has on my small garden. It was a delight.

The yellow water irises are in full flower, and they are everywhere. The rainwater has filled pools and channels whose surfaces had dried completely, and the reflections of the yellow irises and the rich greens of all the surrounding plants and trees was remarkable. The main channel that runs from the Greenland Dock entrance to the park all the way down to the boat bridge is now almost completely blocked with stinging nettles and brambles. I don't know if there's a plan to restore the channel for running water again, but I would imagine that the channel would have to be cleared before this could happen. Like all the other plants, they are seriously enjoying the weather!

On one of the trails through Stave Hill I came across a large bush covered in masses of marble-sized orange pom-poms, which wasn't in flower when I was there just over a week ago. The orange pom-pom bush was enchanting, towering far over my head and perfectly highlighted against the bright blue sky. The bees loved it - bumble bees and honey bees covered it, and it was an absolute mass of activity. Behind me a tiny blue butterfly sat and flexed its wings in the sunshine.

Wandering through Stave Hill I was glad to see that the pink and white roses had sprung into action, with bushes covered in delicate colour almost everywhere I looked. They seem so fragile but they have survived the winds and rains to provide a fine array.

Just wandering through Stave Hill shows what a difference a week can make - as well as the larger and more obvious plants, the small wild flowers which trail through the area have begun to show their colours - purples and pins and blues. All lovely.

It was carnage on Globe Pond, with one male mallard determined to rid his world of all opposition as a lady fed the assembled company with bread. The noise, a combination of loud quacking and water being turned over, was quite remarkable. The coot and moorhen chicks are growing fast, and it was funny to see the adolescents - all long ungainly legs and short brown fluffy feathers, still following their mothers around. A duck chick, soft and brown, pottered happily at the water's edge until its mother took to the water at speed when the bread arrived, leaving her chick to follow at a panic-stricken rate, ploughing a tiny channel through the water.

As I sat watching the pond life, a group on bicycles drifted past, the last of them pulling a trailer which held a girl who was strumming a guitar. The things I've been missing in the last year!

All through the RDW it appeared to be snowing - several trees of the same type were shedding delicate pieces of fluff into the air, and people were getting covered with it. Very pretty.

I was working my way back from Globe Pond towards the boat bridge when an amazingly strong sweet scent stopped me in my tracks. If it hadn't been for the perfume I would never have noticed its producer - a climbing white rose whose flowers are a small multitude of tiny white petals. I went and pushed my nose in it and the scent was astonishing.

On my way back home I ran into Charley and his mum who were going to inspect a Spotted Woodpecker nest. I caught up with them after spending some time photographing a heron who was relaxing in a tree by the boat bridge, and although I didn't see the birds (there was already quite a crowd of us) the noise they made suggested that they would rather that we were somewhere else - so we left them to it. There are quite a few woodpeckers in the Woodland. I photographed a few a couple of years ago. According to Charley's mum there is a Green Woodpecker somewhere in the RDW which would be nice to catch a glimpse of.

There were quite a few people in the park today - some people running, women with pushchairs, cyclists, dog walkers, and I could hear the sounds of someone working in the immediate vicinity of Stave Hill itself as I walked on the trail on the other side of a large wild hedge.

The colours and textures were amazing in the sunshine - rich and vibrant, full of energy. I spend several weeks each year in one of the most arid places on the planet, the Egyptian part of the Sahara desert, and although I love it to bits (for much the same reasons of texture and colour) it is such a joy to be able to step back to the opposite extreme and see what the rain can create. As I said to Charley's mum - we are amazingly lucky to live in London with all this lovely wildlife and greenery on our immediate doorsteps.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Nothing special, just some seasonal snaps taken on a wander around the Russia Dock Woodland and Stave Hill Park.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stave Hill Ecology Park

Thanks to Mike Scott for untangling me re the different management arrangements for Stave Hill Park and the Russia Dock Woodland. I have always been a bit confused about how the two areas, which share the same space, actually relate to each other. The London Docklands Development Corporation were responsible for the development of the Surrey Commercial Docks and the establishment of the Russia Dock Woodland and was later handed over to Southwark Council. Stave Hill Ecological Park, on the other hand, has been maintained by the Trust for Urban Ecology.

My personal impression is that when the London Docklands Development Corporation handed over the park to the local council to maintain things went steadily downhill in the Russia Dock Woodland. Watching from the sidelines, it seemed to take a considerable amount of local action to mobilise official interest in resurrecting the site, which had become tatty and decayed.

It says a lot for the local community that not only do they interface closely with the local council to report problems, raise issues and ensure that maintenance work takes place, but some of them contribute voluntary labour to specific projects.

Stave Hill Ecological Park, maintained by TRUE - the Trust for Urban Ecology is seamlessly connected with the RDW at least from the point of view a visitor's experience, although colourful signs indicate where the main routes into Stave Hill actually begin. TRUE now have secure premises on the edge of Stave Hill Ecology Park, which incorporates their "shed". This is a much-needed base for their work and a meeting place for volunteers of all ages. Recently the Shed was decorated by local children. There are some more photos taken at the Shed at the end of this post.

Details of TRUE's projects and of how volunteers can assist are posted regularly around the park, but you can contact Rebeka Clark, who runs the TRUE operation at Stave Hill to find out more. Here's what the TRUE website says about volunteering at Stave Hill:

Volunteers are always welcome at Stave Hill. Tasks are fun, varied and will suit all abilities. Children are welcome, but must be supervised by a parent or guardian. Tea, coffee and biscuits supplied.

The Stave Hill Irregulars meet on the second Saturday of the month, 11am-3.30pm.

The Stave Hill Regulars meet every Wednesday, 10am-4pm

Volunteers may do a half or full day. We meet up at the Green Portakabin, behind Bacon's College.

For further information, or to be included in the mailing list, please email Rebeka Clark or telephone 0207 237 9175

Monday, May 19, 2008

Donkey talk

I took a stroll to the top of Stave Hill yesterday afternoon, taking advantage of an intermittently sunny spell in an otherwise cloudy and overall chilly day, well wrapped up against the cold in jeans and a warm jacket. Even though it was Sunday yesterday the park was quite empty and felt like a week day - a real contrast to last Sunday when the sun was so glorious that I was wandering around in shorts and a t-shirt in a park full of people of all ages enjoying themselves.

I was on Stave Hill to take a set of shots to make up a panorama, with some idea of stitching them together in Photoshop, something I've never tried before (and still haven't attempted). As I stood there admiring the striking view across the myriad of woodland greens towards Canary Wharf a young woman appeared leading a donkey, closely followed by another girl with a second donkey. They proceeded from the Stave Hill Park entrance and walked around the hill, vanishing off down the opposite track. I assume that the four of them came from the Surrey Dock Farm, but quite what they were doing the in the park I can't imagine - I wish that I had had the sense to go and ask! But whatever they were doing they were a lovely sight. Donkeys are immediately engaging.

A piece of donkey trivia. I do a lot of work researching the prehistory of Egypt (a bit esoteric but very satisfying). One of many interesting questions about this period centres on when different animals were domesticated and how they were then used. It has been known for a long time that donkeys were domesticated in northern Africa, but the evidence has been a bit indeterminate about when and where precisely this occurred. Now a recent study has suggested that the donkey was probably domesticated in Egypt, at around 5000 years ago. Donkey remains were found buried in the tomb of an early king who predates the Pharaonic period, at a site called Abydos, and some of the skeletons were found to be morphologically transitional between the wild ass and the modern donkey. So those two little chaps strolling through Stave Hill yesterday were one of the end-products of a process that has taken at least 5000 years and covered many thousands of miles. Quite a thought. If donkey domestication is up your street, have a look at these summaries on the Science Daily and Fox News websites (photograph copyright PNAS/National Academy of Sciences).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sundry views from last week

Just a random collection of photographs taken in the RDW and Stave Hill last week.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Globe Pond coot chicks

In the process of trying to draw a sketch map of the RDW and Stave Hill I found myself somewhat unexpectedly at Glob Pond. There, playing at the edge of the pond near to the path were a family of coots. The mother was feeding the chicks on a variety of unappetizing items, and the chicks were following their parents into and out of the water. They all ignored my presence completely and I was able to sit on the grass only a couple of feet away from them to watch their activities for a good half hour.

Later the same day on Greenland Dock I saw an adolescent grebe squabbling with a coot, who was in charge of her chick, apparently over rights to a particularly desirable corner. The untidy little grebe lost the fight, but the feathers really flew for a few moments.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Russia Dock Woodland rubbish management

One of the conversations that I have picked up on recently in the Friends of Russia Dock Woodland Discussion Group is the issue of rubbish management in the Woodland over the weekend. One post suggested that the problem with litter was mainly due to the fact that the bins were full and people who would have disposed of their rubbish responsibly were leaving their litter tied up in bags at the bases of the bins which was then scattered by foxes during the night.

My tour of the RDW on Sunday suggests that this was very much the case - the bins were all full to overflowing and were surrounded by neatly tied bags of litter. This was already drifting and it was easy to see that this could be torn apart by the foxes that live there during the night. There was no litter visible anywhere else.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Charley and friend

Yesterday I met Charley and friend. I was photographing the bird life on Globe Pond - some coots and their chicks, moorhens, ducks and a large Canada goose. I heard a voice say "look - there's a photographer" and suddenly found myself feeling like a lesser-spotted-something. I turned around to see two lads, one on a bike, one gamboling around alongside. Charley says that he has lived there all his life, and they both attend the colourful school behind Globe Pond. They decided to adopt me.

After showing me the best place to find frogs and newts, and being hugely dissapointed that I wasn't taking any more pictures that day we bumped into Steve Cornish who heard my voice and came to investigate. He shook hands with my young companions and stood and listened whilst they told me of new and exciting places from which to photograph my wildlife. I was quite startled (and charmed) to find friendly youngsters in the park - my previous encounters with the local youth, mainly in the dock area, have been anything but pleasurable.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Plant life thriving

This past week is, to my shame, the first time that I have been over to the RDW in several months. I went to see the new ecological base on Saturday for a meeting about how to develop the Friends of Russia Dock Woodland website, and was impressed with the work being carried out by both the Trust for Urban Ecology (TRUE) and volunteers. I hope to find out more about their work soon.

It was also wonderful to see the wildlife there. Steve Cornish recently photographed a kingfisher, which has made its home on one of the ponds where there is running water, but less unusual residents and visitors are everywhere at the moment. On Sunday a wander round produced coots with their colourful chicks, a heron who was obviously used to all the attention he was attracting, magpies, Great Tits, and an assortment of lovely plant life including bright yellow water irises. Everwhere you look the grass has bloomed with carpets of white and yellow daisies interspersed here and there with buttercups - a lot of people frown on them as weeds but I thought that they truly sparkle in parkland contexts.