With its mix of people and culture, our capital is an amazing place, but normally the wildlife gets missed completely. Generally we think we need to be in a rural setting for that. But it’s possible to see snakes, butterflies, deer and an array of different birds in London. Where do you start? David Darrell-Lambert, author of Birdwatching London tell us about five places to visit, all easy to get to on public transport.
We’ll start by heading east along the River Thames to the edge of London, and just before the Dartford Bridge is the vast nature reserve of Rainham Marshes owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It spans from Rainham village at its west end to Purfleet at the east. This site was once used as a firing range, a place to dump sludge from the bottom of the Thames, and a small part of it is still an active rubbish dump.
The RSPB have built a lovely visitor centre with a great café (the cake was great the other week!) There are reedbeds, scrapes for wading birds to feed on, meadows, large bodies of water (sometimes they do dry out a bit!), a small wood and a muddy bay exposed at low tide. This wealth of habitat means wonderful birds: Marsh Harriers are now a daily sighting, and it isn’t unusual to see several on the wing at one time. You’ll notice the masses of Redshank and Lapwings getting up when they’re spooked by them. From the dykes cutting across the reserve Marsh Frogs call during the summer, and their reed-fringed edges provide cover for breeding Sedge and Reed Warblers. Cetti’s Warbler only first reached the UK in the middle 1900s, but now numerous pairs breed here. They’re noisy here throughout the year. Beautiful Bearded Tits breed in low numbers – listen for their pinging call. Thousands of wildfowl arrive in winter: whistling Wigeon and Teal in their hundreds.
Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park
Sometimes the best wildlife places are right under your feet. Grass, trees and a large lake. In this massive park the mature trees provide the ideal feeding ground for Tawny and Little Owl – the latter are active during the day. They’re also great for woodpeckers: Green will mostly be found on the ground, Great Spotted high up in the canopy.
The lake wasn’t designed for wildlife but does have some lovely boat-free areas, which means Great Crested Grebes breed here, with a small population of Grey Herons. You’ll almost fall over all the Coots and Moorhens. During the winter hundreds of ducks and gulls charge out of mainland Europe for winter here.
Access here is restricted to open days organised by the Friends of the reserve – google their website for more details. Down just beyond Croydon is the River Wandle, which runs beside an old sewage farm, and in the old days of sludge beds this was amazing for wildlife. The site lies on a migration route and has an amazing track record for rare birds, from Citrine Wagtails to Hoopoes and, amazingly for a few hours, a Glaucous-winged Gull from the Pacific.
But Beddington also holds one of the largest daytime roosts for Grey Herons in the country, and is currently the main site for Tree Sparrows in London – in fact the only spot. Currently they’re not doing well, with only a few pairs, having peaked at over 50. If you think House Sparrows have it bad in London, Tree Sparrow got it right between the eyes!
North again to what used to be called Walthamstow Reservoirs. The London Wildlife Trust is now managing the site for wildlife, but its ten active reservoirs still store water for the capital’s population. There are just over a hundred pairs of tree-nesting Cormorants, and Walthamstow is of national importance for Tufted Ducks: thousands come here in early autumn. Other ducks use it as a staging post on migration too, like hundreds of Shovelers.
This is a great place to see Kingfishers, but often you’ll just hear their piecing call as they dart across the water. Little Egrets – beautiful all-white herons from southern Europe – have spread north and now breed here too. Among the great run of rare birds, last winter a Little Bunting decided to spend the winter here rather than in SE Asia! Don’t ask why. . .
There are many small birding sites across the capital which most people don’t know about. One is Queen’s Wood in north London, an ancient woodland managed by the local Friends of Queen’s Wood, who do a wonderful job. It really comes into life in the spring. From February the dawn chorus starts as the first amber rays of light kiss the horizon, peaking in April and continuing into July. Remember, the later in the year you want to hear a dawn chorus the earlier you have get up! The wood is almost deafening with bird song. Robin, Blackbirds and Song Thrush first; then the rest join in. Woodpeckers drum for territory, and pigeons and doves put on display flights to attract a mate.
Birdwatching London by David Darrell-Lambert £12.99 is available now.