Autumn at Brandon Hill has really flown by. The short days and a busy work schedule have meant that over the last month, I have spent less time there than any period since I first moved to Bristol, nearly a year ago.
A bit of distance from the Hill has meant that during the long Autumn nights, I have either been kicking myself thinking about all of the great stuff I must have missed, or finding myself frustratingly becoming a little disconnected from the place.
Being more of a visitor than feeling like part of the proceedings has made me realise that in some ways I have been taking Brandon Hill for granted. Over the past 12 months, as I have slowly gotten to know the place like the back of my hand, I have learnt when the best times are to go to its hidden corners and what to look out for when I’m there. Just recently though, as my fleeting visits have caused me to begin to lose touch, I have occasionally found myself wandering about the place, not really knowing where to begin and starting to think that perhaps Brandon Hill is nothing special – just an ordinary city park, with not much going on apart from its less than exciting, run-of-the-mill urban wildlife.
It has become easy to see why those less well acquainted with Brandon Hill – perhaps visiting for the first time to look at the views over Bristol or maybe just passing through on their way to work might consider it to be simply the conventional green city space, with little to offer apart from somewhere to walk the dog, kick a football around or take a quick lunch-break.
But I know from the experiences I’ve had when I’m not just visiting or rushing through, that you have to do little more than scratch the surface to discover something new and special about Brandon Hill. So as soon as I have started to feel a bit detached, I have forced myself to slow down and take some time to watch and listen and take it all in – and it is never long before I am rewarded for my patience. I first discovered a year ago that you get out what you put in, and even though Brandon Hill might be a city park, if you open your eyes and expect the unexpected, something exciting will happen – and if you have the opportunity and are willing to invest the time, it can happen every day.
Not long after my last post, the leaves were really beginning to turn bronze and red and the autumn light was clear and golden. I was working during the day, but would quickly sneak out to the Hill before it got dark to stretch my legs and get some fresh air, and found that by following the same route each day at around the same time, that others had a similar routine. Just down by the old bowling green, the long-tailed tits and other mixed songbirds would congregate in the trees and shrubs for some reason just before dusk. A sparrowhawk was obviously aware of the daily occurrence and would stop in the early evenings to circle above and look for some dinner on its way home to roost. I watched it every night for over a week, and could always tell from which direction it would appear above the treetops from the direction of the first alarm calls.
The Cabot Tower migration watches ended with a bang in early November. Conditions were looking good for the first time in a while – with high pressure building over the UK and Scandinavia, northerly winds over the North Sea and a cold front moving down from the Arctic into eastern Europe – so we organised 2 sessions over the first weekend, on the mornings of Friday 4th and Sunday 6th. I was hoping that we would see some decent woodpigeon movement, as the first big push of winter thrushes had already arrived and woodpigeons were pretty much the only species left to arrive in the south that we would be likely to count in any abundance. Friday was mainly business as usual, with trickles of finches (mainly chaffinch and goldfinch, with a few siskin and linnet), a few late meadow pipits, a couple of large groups of fieldfare and our first taster of the winter woodpigeon migration with a single group of 55 heading south-west. Sunday was definitely woodpigeon day though and we had already counted over 400 by 8:15 am. In total, we counted 655 woodpigeons making their way south-west over Bristol by the end of the session at 9:30 am.
Cabot Tower was also home in early November to some large harlequin ladybird roosts. Harlequins (so called because of their many colour variants), first arrived in the south-east of England in 2004 and have been invasively spreading ever since. They advertise their communal roost sites by releasing pheromones to attract others to join them in preparation for hibernation. Harlequins often invade houses in late October and early November too, looking for a cosy corner to over-winter, which has given them the nickname of “Halloween lady beetles” in North America, where they are now the most widespread ladybird species on the continent. They can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from our native ladybirds, but are generally bigger, have brown legs and are often branded with a black ‘W’ on the pronotum (area that covers the thorax, between the head and wing-cases/elytra). Cabot Tower isn’t exactly the cosiest place to spend the winter, but it is probably one of the best spots in Bristol for insects to use the breeze to advertise their whereabouts and carry their pheromones as far as possible.*
By mid-November, I had noticed the local peregrines using the Wills Tower as a perch more regularly, and on the night of the 15th, I was treated to the rare sight of a pair making use of the city lights to hunt nocturnally. Peregrine falcons are naturally diurnal predators, which stoop vertically downwards at their prey at speeds of up to 200mph, often using the Sun’s glare to disguise their approach. Since moving into cities however, peregrines have learnt to hunt birds by flying up at them from below, as species migrating under the cover of darkness are lit up by the city’s streetlights** – a cruel twist of fate, being that their natural countershading to camouflage against predators often makes them glow even brighter!
I was walking through Brandon Hill just after 8:00pm and could hear the female peregrine calling in the sky somewhere above me, perhaps over towards Berkeley Square. As it was so late and so dark, I quickly rushed over to the Wills Memorial Tower to see if I could see what the commotion was about, and saw her bring in a kill, shortly followed by the smaller tercel. Fortunately it wasn’t too windy and I managed to catch some of the plucked feathers as they floated down to Park Street below. At first, I found a large clump of tertials, which were still warm, but I wasn’t 100% on the species – they had a slight green sheen, but it wasn’t a magpie. After scouring the streets, taking into account the direction of the wind, I found the distinctive tail feather which confirmed the catch as a lapwing! It was pretty exciting to discover that lapwings must have been flying right over my head at night, as they make their way over the city. I have never seen one locally (although there are reports of them over Bristol after a heavy snowfall or frost) and it makes me wonder what else could be going over after dark that I have been completely oblivious to. The image below was taken the next day and as you can see, the iridescent green and purple hues are much more apparent in daylight.
Another nocturnal surprise was the recent discovery of my first ever Brandon Hill tawny owl. It was just after 8pm on the 23rd, and as I was making my way through the park, I heard the call of a lone male in one of the fir trees, just next to the Charlotte Street entrance. He was calling quite vociferously for about an hour, but he obviously didn’t have much luck, as he hasn’t been back since. I assume it was a young male looking for a territory, that had made its way down the hill from the Downs, as they are relatively more common up there and it gets a bit too urban further south.
The foxes have been up to their usual tricks – burying bits-and-pieces in the leaf-litter and sleeping under the shelter in the nearby car-park, where they like to rest on the canvas roofs of the parked convertibles – but they seem pretty thin on the ground at the moment and aren’t looking too healthy either. They should be in their prime at the moment, dressed in thick winter coats, but I think they all suffered quite badly with sarcoptic mange earlier in the year and I’m sure a few of the cubs didn’t make it. I’ll get a better idea of numbers in January and February when they get back to courting and fighting and are generally a bit more busy making a nuisance of themselves.
The weather throughout the Autumn has for the most part, been unseasonably mild, bright and Summery. It has been confusing for the wildlife at Brandon Hill, and it hasn’t been uncommon to see trees with a sprinkling of blossom, blue tits investigating nest-sites, butterflies and late flowers including this teasel.
There has also been some impressive fungal displays popping up about the place, including this honey fungus, growing mainly around a stump in the patch that has recently been dug-over in preparation for the planting of a herb-garden at the base of Cabot Tower.
This genus of honey fungus is impressive in more ways than one, as the fruiting bodies are connected by rhizomorphs or “bootlaces”, which spread underground, parasitising and feasting on the roots of nearby trees, sometimes causing them to excessively flower or fruit in a desperate attempt to pass on their genes before becoming diseased and dying. Some species of honey fungus have even been known to spread so extensively that they can be considered to be some of the largest living organisms on the planet, with the largest single example ever recorded covering nearly three and a half square miles, which was believed to be thousands of years old. Not surprisingly, it is considered a pest by many gardeners and might not necessarily be a welcome addition to the more than moderately manicured beds and borders of Brandon Hill.
Just recently, it’s finally starting to feel like winter, and in the last week or two, the fiery colours of autumn have given way to stark, gaunt bones of leafless boughs and there has even been a dusting of snow across Bristol’s rooftops. I’m hoping to have the opportunity to spend a bit more time at the Hill in the coming months and reflect on my year spent there, now I know it a bit better. Now that Cabot Tower is open, I’m hoping to see if anything interesting flies over this Winter after the snows come too. The lapwing was definitely a memorable surprise, but I remember hearing an oystercatcher overhead after the snow this time last year, and I’m sure that if I get up early enough when conditions are rosy, that I might sight something even more magnificent.
** Ed Drewitt has been studying the feeding habits of urban peregrines since 1998, including their nocturnal hunting activities. For more information, visit his website here.