My passion for nature did not originate within towns and cities. My first love was for the sea. Misty mornings with the soft sound of waves lapping against the shore and distant whale exhalations awoke me to the joy and wonderment of nature. In my late teens I moved to and lived by the sea for five unforgettable years before returning to the bright lights and big smoke of my home: London. I returned slightly despondent about what I felt was sure to be a lean few years in terms of wildlife encounters. How very wrong I was.
Back in the city, I developed an interest in birds which transcended into a much more all-round approach to wildlife watching. My breakthrough moment came when I happened across a nesting pair of Eurasian Hobby in a very urban setting. As I walked along the nearby river, I developed a passionate interest in what had brought them there: their dragonfly and mayfly prey. Butterflies were next, followed by wildflowers and bees – I was utterly hooked. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know and the beauty was seeing things on a small scale in a little patch of wild London I could claim to be my own.
When I got a job at University College London (UCL) I set out to with a slightly different objective: to share the joy of urban wildlife with others. Set in the heart of London, Bloomsbury must be one of the most urban university campuses in the UK but this fact didn’t put me off. The university is dotted with lovely green squares, large London Plane trees and an increasing number of green roofs. These green spaces are sandwiched between old buildings, the type with those perfect nooks and crannies for birds to nest in. Two years ago, I started recording bird life on campus and when others got involved we found, to our delight, there was much more wildlife than we thought.
Every two weeks, at dawn, a group of dedicated staff and students now gather to walk and record the wildlife around campus. We have found some remarkable wildlife and seen some outstanding behaviour. Primarily surveying the bird life, the group have recorded close to 40 species along the 1km or so transect we walk. Some of the species are the hardy and common British species: the Great Tit, European Robin and Eurasian Magpie amongst those seen on every walk. There is usually a rarity or special sight on each walk. Memorable encounters have included close up Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Grey Wagtails, a grounded Eurasian Woodcock and once, shockingly, a Firecrest in Russell Square!
One of the benefits of wildlife watching in the urban environment is that you can get very close to nature. Binoculars are almost redundant on our walks as we stroll past singing Common Blackbirds just feet away and Grey Squirrels will often follow us, hoping for a charitable handout of a nut of some kind. In addition, walking the same route for several years has allowed us to note some clear changes in the birds we are seeing. The mild winter of 2015-16 yielded very few overwintering migrant birds, but 2016-17 was colder. Several weeks of ground frost and we were inundated with Redwings feeding in roadside rowan trees, and one of our dedicated spotters even spotted a flock of Bohemian Waxwings on his way to campus from King’s Cross. The chitter-chatter of European Goldfinch, rare when we started the walks is now a guaranteed sound alongside the rather harsher bark of the Ring-necked Parakeet.
The stars of the show, however, have always been two little falcons. Towards the end of our walk we approach a brutalist architecture building with tall protruding towers. Most people walk by and see an interesting building – or not – depending on opinion. I, however, walk past every day and have eyes only for the top of the towers in the hope that the Common Kestrels are visible. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the kestrels on my first day at UCL, swooping around the crowded streets. However, they were here, and thriving. We have seen them mating, raising young, hunting worms amongst picnickers and fighting off Lesser Black-backed Gulls twice their size. It lifts ones spirit immensely to see them every day and is the perfect antidote to the constant hustle and bustle going on around you.
NOT COUNTING OUR CHICKENS
Of course all this comes with a warning. It would be remiss of me to talk about London birds without mentioning the House Sparrow. Sadly, despite hours of searching we have never seen so much as a tail feather of a House Sparrow anywhere on campus. This serves as a stark reminder as to the more serious side of our walks. As we count what many may consider common birds, we must remember that what is common now may not be common tomorrow. We must learn from the plight of the House Sparrow and ensure that the local community are able to enjoy this little slice of wildlife in the city for years to come.
Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (open dawn to dusk) are located in the heart of Inner London (City of Westminster and Inner London Sector) and are easily accessible by the many public transport routes that take in the general area.
Both sites, though technically separate, are contiguous and are divided from each other by West Carriage Drive (the bridge). The home to the original Crystal Palace, Speaker’s Corner, Kensington Palace, The Serpentine Gallery, George Frampton’s much loved Peter Pan sculpture, the Albert, Hudson and Diana Memorials, The Speke Monument and Physical Energy, plus many famous concerts and events, the site (as with many within Inner London), is heavily utilised by the general public.
Habitat comprises many old horse chestnuts and limes (particularly in Kensington Gardens), open and amenitised grassland dotted with wooded enclosures, more formal areas, small patches of rough grassland, a lake (The Serpentine in Hyde Park and The Longwater in Kensington Gardens) and The Round Pond (also in Kensington Gardens), long known for its model boat sailing on Sundays.
Some good local birding can be had with a bit of luck and much regular watching. The 625 acres (combined) have had a lengthy birdwatching history reflected in a species list that stood at 188 (in 2008). There is no waterfowl collection here though the occasional bird turns up attributable to one of the nearby collections (St. James’ Park and Regent’s Park).
Early morning is always best for birding purposes, before any disturbance kicks in, and interesting local/London species to have so far occurred have included: Bewick’s and Whooper Swan, Garganey, Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Goldeneye, all three sawbills, Red-throated Diver, Red-necked, Slavonian and Black-necked Grebe, European Storm and Leach’s Storm-petrel, Little Egret, Northern Gannet, European Shag, Red Kite, Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine, Water Rail, Corncrake, Pied Avocet, Sanderling, Little Stint, Bar-tailed Godwit, Eurasian Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Arctic Skua, Mediterranean Gull, Little, Ring-billed, Yellow-legged, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Kittiwake, Little and Black Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill, Little Auk, Turtle Dove, Short-eared Owl, European Nightjar, Hoopoe, Shore Lark, Woodlark, Blue-headed Wagtail, Common Nightingale, Grasshopper and Marsh Warbler, Firecrest, Red-backed Shrike, Hooded Crow, Twite and Snow Bunting. The vast majority of these species are unlikely to be found on any ad-hoc visit and many of the more interesting records are from past decades. However, regular watching should repay with uncommon local species now and then.
Residents and regulars include the most significant Inner London population of Mute Swan (occasionally numbering 100+), Mandarin, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted and Ruddy Duck, Little and Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Stock Dove, Ring-necked Parakeet, Little and Tawny Owls, Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song and Mistle Thrush, Goldcrest, Long-tailed and Coal Tit and Eurasian Nuthatch and Common Treecreeper. Migrant breeders include House Martin at the periphery of the site and Blackcap. A fair range of passage migrants can be expected annually such as Common Sandpiper, Common Tern, Skylark, the three regular hirundines, Tree and Meadow Pipit, Yellow and White Wagtail, Common Redstart, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Fieldfare, Redwing, warblers (including the occasional Wood), Spotted and Pied Flycatcher (the former no longer breeding), Jackdaw, Brambling, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Reed Bunting.
Furthermore, in most years there are records of species such as Eurasian Wigeon and Northern Pintail, which regularly pose questions regarding origins. Some examples are undoubtedly wild, others less likely to be so. There are also regular records of Red-crested Pochard that are always considered to be of dubious provenance.
All in all, the site is a typical, though well managed, urban park – but with a bird list that certainly holds its own.
Having lived and birded in East London for over thirty years I have witnessed a tremendous number of changes in the birdlife of the area – unfortunately not all for the good.
House Martins over Chrisp Street
There used to be huge swathes of derelict land especially close to the River Thames from St Katherine’s Dock in the west (c3 miles from central London) out to Dagenham and Rainham Marshes in the east. However, as a result of the vast amount of ongoing development during this time the majority of wastelands that used to support large numbers of House Sparrows, finches and other insectivorous birds no longer exist resulting in the subsequent huge population declines of several bird species.
Yet despite these losses the area still has some important assets that help keep it a lively and interesting place to watch birds.
The first major feature is the River Thames that along with some other important watercourses act as magnets for birds.
Grey Wagtails inhabit the lower end of the Grand Union Canal in the west near Limehouse Basin. Sharing this stretch are Grey Heron, Common Kingfisher, Mute Swan, Eurasian Coot, Common Moorhen, Mallard, Great Crested and Little Grebes.
As well as Great Cormorant navigating the canal and River Lea, Black- headed and Common Gulls are regular winter visitors, Great Black-backed Gull are seen all year round with Common Tern, hirundines and Common Swifts in summer. Pied Wagtail are the typical canalside birds and Eurasian Siskin have been regular winter visitors in Shandy Park and Harford Street in Stepney.
Victoria Park has a good selection of waterfowl including plenty of Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard and Tufted Duck. Finches and woodpeckers inhabit the woods and gardens whilst Fieldfare and Redwing are regular in winter together with the resident Song and Mistle Thrushes. Stock Dove are also regular as are summer visitors including the common warblers, Spotted Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear and Black Redstart.
The Lea Valley, as much of east London, is a good place to find migrants. One spring I co-found a male Common Redstart on the Grand Union Canal and I have regularly seen Whinchat in autumn on Wanstead Flats and at Barking Marsh.
Just east of the Grand Union Canal is Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park that contains a considerable amount of woodland. This gem has Common Kestrel and breeding Eurasian Sparrowhawk, lots of nesting Great Spotted Woodpecker and at least two pairs of Green Woodpecker. This is also a local haven for Eurasian Jay and large numbers of other woodland birds with the occasional Firecrest.
The Isle Of Dogs is one of the country’s few refuges for the Black Redstart. This is another bird that benefited from the destruction of East London caused by the bombing during WW2. It’s amazing how common this “rare” species becomes as soon as you cross the English Channel. The other spectacular Docklands bird is the Peregrine that breeds at a growing number of sites in the area and can be seen throughout East London.
At the southern end of the Isle Of Dogs is Mudchute Farm, the largest city farm in Europe. It has a good mix of open pasture, scrub and woodland hosting very large numbers of European Greenfinch as well as European Goldfinch and Common Chaffinch. Common Whitethroat breed and Sedge Warbler inhabit the reed beds over on the west side of the farm.
Further east is the beach by the Thames Barrier Park where the occasional wader such as Common Redshank can be found with Common Teal and Common Shelduck offshore. Barking Creek and Barking Marsh, until recently, had breeding Northern Lapwing that incidentally can often be seen roosting on the grassy areas at the east end of the London City Airport Runway. Numbers of Whinchat can be found on Barking Marsh in autumn with regular Common Stonechat throughout the year, the latter much more common further east at Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve.
Coming back into the Borough of Newham and Redbridge, Wanstead Flats still has good numbers of Common Skylark and Whinchat that turn up in the autumn. Canada Geese spend their days on the ponds and fly off to roost on the reservoirs in the Lea Valley. Further north at Wanstead Park are plenty of Common Whitethroat and possible Eurasian Bullfinch.
This has been a brief personal tour of some of the sites I know in East London. There are many others to explore such as the Upper Lea and Walthamstow and Tottenham Marshes where you can see Reed Bunting and in the winter a possible passing Short-eared Owl.
If you were travelling westwards along either of two major routes out of London, you would probably see the well known open space of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. But you might well miss the lesser known, little urban jewel of just over 21 hectares (53 acres) that is Holland Park.
Holland Park was in private hands until not long after the last war and originally laid out for the enjoyment of its occupants: hence the variety of its habitat. This now consists of woodland in the north (including a Wildlife – or “Nature” – Reserve to which the public has only limited access), formal gardens and lawn elsewhere and a sportsfield to the south. There are two ponds in the Wildlife Reserve, Lord Holland’s pond (next to his statue) in the woodland, the Kyoto Garden pond, an ornamental pond in the Iris Garden and another in the Youth Hostel grounds. Although surrounded by typical urban roads and architecture, it is a place where several bird species flourish and is well worth a visit by the urban birder. But get there early if you can (it opens at 7.30am) in order to beat the crowds attracted there at all seasons in fine weather.
You should find the regular garden birds in evidence in most parts of the park, i.e Common Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Robin, Blue and Great Tits, Dunnock and Wren all of which breed there. There are seed feeders in the central Dutch (or “Formal”) Garden which are popular with the tits, European Robins and finches. They are also unfortunately attractive to squirrels, Rose-ringed Parakeets and Feral Pigeons, although new designs of feeder are continually being sought to deny these last three access.
Great Spotted Woodpecker sometimes use the feeders and breed in the northern woodland. European Goldfinch, absent from the park for several years, made a welcome return as occasional visitors in 2006 and you might be lucky and see one or two. Long tailed Tit and Goldcrest can be seen in the woodland where they also breed, as do Carrion Crow, Eurasian Jay and Magpie. A Firecrest was reported in the autumn of 2005 in the walk from the North Lawn to Lord Holland’s statue. The Coal Tit, a comparative rarity in many London parks, is nearly always present and probably breeds.
The sportsfield attracts, among others, Mistle Thrush, Wood and Feral Pigeons, all breeders in the park, also Common Starling that breed nearby. Stock Dove may occasionally be seen in this area as well as in the Wildlife Reserve. In winter, flocks of Redwing have habitually fed here in the early morning but the mildness of the winter of 2006 seems to have deterred them. Other winter visitors to the sportsfield are Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Black-headed and Common Gulls.
The main Wildlife pond (visible from the entrance gate which, incidentally, is an excellent vantage point for birding), Lord Holland’s pond and the Kyoto Garden pond each supports a pair of Common Moorhen, although they move from one to the other and elsewhere in the park. They have bred regularly but with varying degrees of success over the years, being vulnerable to predation from squirrels, rats, foxes, a terrapin in the Wildlife pond and – worst of all – children who throw stones. For good measure, unsympathetic pruning has deprived them of some of their habitat. This is sad because, despite being common wherever there is water in many parts of London, they are such delightful, jaunty creatures that somehow epitomise the wildness of birds despite their urban environment.
Mallard too, although fairly regular visitors, have had very mixed fortunes in breeding: there was probably one successful brood in 2006 (“probably” because it is not certain they were born in the park although happily seven ducklings survived to maturity). Unfortunately, in most parks there is conflict between the gardeners and the supporters of wildlife in which the gardeners seem all too often to gain the upper hand. Holland Park is no exception.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk occasionally visit to hunt, usually in summer and rather more rarely, Common Kestrel. A pair of Tawny Owl have probably bred but seeing “Tawnies” during the day is pretty unusual. Other occasional visitors are Green Woodpecker, Pied and Grey Wagtails (look for them on the Kyoto Garden waterfall) and, rather more frequent, Grey Heron that may be seen on any of the ponds in early morning after a frog or newt – or even one of the ornamental fish. Look up and you may well see Great Cormorant flying to Kensington Gardens and in spring and summer, the amazing Common Swift.
In spring, this little patch is the unlikely host to the cheerful Common Chiffchaff and mellifluous Blackcap. The Blackcap is a regular breeder whilst the Chiffchaff sadly hasn’t for the past two years. A Sedge Warbler was seen on a single occasion last summer, bearing out David Lindo’s famous motto “You never know what’s going to turn up!” Talking of which, a trio of Egyptian Geese on the sportsfield one rainy day last year and two pairs of Mandarin in March this year.