Urban birds: Tails of the Unexpected

Common Kingfisher

It was my lunch break and I was walking by the river to the optician’s in town when a low-flying turquoise flash zipped over the water and into a bush on the far bank. And there it sat, possibly on its own lunch break – a Common Kingfisher, poised to plunge.

It obligingly whizzed off and took up another perch further along the riverbank heading in the same direction as me. I got to admire its rich orange chest and belly. I could clearly see its white chin too – brilliant!

The beautiful little bird carried on flitting from bush to bush until it ran out of scrub to perch on. It had reached the concrete section of riverbank in York city centre, only 100 yards or so from the National Railway Museum, one of the city’s busiest attractions.

It was that very museum that gave me my greatest urban birding moment a couple of summers ago. Holding up my six-year-old son to get a better view from an open carriage on a replica of the famous Rocket locomotive, I spotted a small grey bird on the platform ahead, bobbing its tail. It looked like a wagtail but it intrigued me – there were no obvious wagtail markings. When that bird flew off, my eyes must have nearly popped out and my mouth was probably hanging open.

Its tail was bright orange – a Black Redstart! It flew over to the rooftop of an old warehouse across the track. I’d only seen one once before in my life, when I was a child and had no idea they could be found in my home city.

Black Redstart – female

These two examples are what I love about urban birds. Encounters with them are little moments of magic in a frantic world. And they’re often close encounters (close encounters of the bird kind?), allowing us to pause our lurching from one place to another and appreciate their colours, their voices, their character. I’ve often been stopped in my tracks by the alarm call of a wren, the hedge-top song of a Dunnock or a European Robin along an alleyway or back street on my way into town.

You don’t have to go far to discover other small pleasures in urban birding – the fluffy yellow Greylag goslings near a bus stop for instance, or the first summer-plumaged Black-headed Gull of the year heralding the coming of spring.

Urban birds inspire the imagination. When two Peregrines took up home on York Minster, the city’s most famous landmark, they took on the status of instant icons. The local news programme came to film them and while they were at it they went to see the Pied Wagtail roost right in the middle of the city. The magnificent spectacle of the Peregrines and the wagtails could easily be overlooked if we spent all our time marching along and forgetting to look up, but these moments enrich our lives.

I started my regular lunchtime walks into town as a means of getting fresh air and exercise, and to help me manage stress and depression, which I found myself experiencing a few years ago. The uplifting birding experiences on those walks provided welcome distractions and moments of pleasure that took me away from the dark world inside my head.

Birds are what turn a walk to buy a sandwich into an adventure – a voyage into the unknown. You never know what you might see, whether it’s an unexpected bird in an unlikely place, or a close-up view of a familiar feathered friend.

As Forrest Gump’s momma nearly said: “Birding is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get“.

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