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Birding central London

If your time is limited and you cannot join us on a trip, there are still opportunities to see birds right in the centre of the city. Below is an article you might find helpful:

Some 26 million visitors arrive in London each year. Good numbers of these travel from North America to see the many historic and cultural sights that the largest city in Europe has to offer. So what about the birders amongst them? What can they expect to find, not too far from their central hotels?

London sprawls over a large area of south east England. The urban extremities of Greater London extend 15 miles or so on all sides of the centre, into the counties of Surrey, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. To get out of the city to open habitats for birding takes perseverance, local knowledge, private transport and plenty of time. If none of these are possible the central area can at first look a little bleak for finding birds. However, there are some opportunities for serious or casual birding as an alternative to sightseeing.

Dunnock

Dunnock © Chris Mills.

Two habitats commonly attract birds in central London: The River Thames and the numerous Royal Parks, which act as green ‘lungs’ for the city.

The river is tidal and reveals a little muddy foreshore at low tide. Once it was virtually lifeless because of pollution but in recent decades there has been a remarkable change and the river now supports considerable amounts of wildlife, including migratory fish such as salmon. The waters may still look brown and uninviting but this is silt stirred up by tidal action.

The Royal Parks vary in their attractiveness to birds. The requirement for beautifully manicured lawns and flowerbeds does not allow much room for nature. However, birds are nothing if not tenacious and birders that look carefully can find a reasonable variety. Parks with the added interest of water are the best. Regents Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park and Hyde Park, give a rough order of quality with waterless Green Park still worth a visit. Arriving early in the day will definitely increase the number of birds seen in any of them.

One great advantage of birding in the London parks is that the birds have lost much of their fear of man. Birds in Britain tend to be rather more timid than their North American counterparts, though this could just be because we have had longer to abuse them! Species which are sporting quarry in the countryside where they are very difficult to approach, such as the Woodpigeon, are difficult to avoid in St James’s Park, near Buckingham Palace, where they are likely to try and mug you for your sandwich lunch.

You will also see many small squares, some public and some private, which act as gardens for the surrounding residents. They are havens for some of our common songbirds and allow the beautiful songs of species such as the European Robin, Song Thrush and Common Blackbird to be heard over almost the entire city.

The time of year will also affect the species you may find. Winter is a good time to look at the lakes in the parks for wildfowl. Flocks of wild species such as Common Pochard and Tufted Duck join the pinioned wildfowl collections at sites such as St James’s, Regent’s and Hyde Parks. Be careful to eliminate the tame birds though: Red-crested Pochard is common and breeds in the park but cannot be counted as a wild bird at this location. The Common Pochard also breeds here but can be counted as it does not derive from captive stock.

If the weather is hard a few ‘winter’ thrushes such as Redwing and Fieldfare may be found in open areas of the larger parks such as Regents Park and Hyde Park. These species nest in Scandinavia and retain more of their timidity and are difficult to approach unless they are very hungry when they will feed avidly on berry bushes at close quarters.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull © Chris Mills.

The River Thames can be very productive at this season with the largest numbers of gulls present; many often loafing on the moored barges or coming to bread supplied by visitors. Lesser Black-backed Gulls can be seen throughout the year in small numbers but are easiest in winter when the dark grey backs and yellow legs of the adults compare easily with their larger, pink legged and black-backed relations. Black-headed and Common are the most numerous small gulls. The former is so tame, sitting on the hand rails of the bridge in St James’s Park, that the ring numbers of banded birds can be read and prove that they come for the winter from countries such as Denmark and Sweden. The immature Common Gulls display their clean white rumps and sharply black-banded tails which are distinctive enough to speculate a possible split from the North American Mew Gull.

Great Cormorants are easily seen on the river in winter and increasingly throughout the year; sizeable breeding colonies are now to be found in the Lee Valley, north east of the center. They also frequent the park lakes and have even been spotted sitting on the cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Winter and early spring, while there are few leaves on the trees, are probably the best times to look for woodpeckers. Britain has only three species and all are found in the parks, but only the Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers breed regularly, in Regent’s Park and Hyde Park.

Early spring is also the best time to see Grey Herons as they visit their nests on the island in the lake at Regent’s Park. The colony is restricted to about 20 pairs because of the lack of nest sites. The adults are handsome in their nuptial plumes and their bills flush red at the height of their display. The edge of the lake, and nearby grass areas, are good places to find Pied Wagtails which also breed here.

Resident birds begin to breed early, perhaps encouraged by the slightly warmer temperatures found in the city center. We have found Common Blackbirds sitting on eggs as early as January, but this is exceptional. By the end of March, however, breeding is in full swing with Mistle Thrushes usually building early nests. This species has a wild and far carrying song and likes to sing from the tops of trees, even in bad weather, earning it the local name of storm cock. The Dunnock too starts nesting early. This boring looking brown bird repays further study. It is, on close inspection, quite handsome with a grey head and neck, brown and black striped back and wings and a fine bill, which defies its otherwise sparrow-like plumage. It is well known for its very complex breeding relationships, when pairs practice polygamy, polyandry and every combination in between!

On the park lakes Great Crested Grebes look stunning in their breeding plumage and display to each other with head wagging actions. They nest in Regent’s Park, St James’s Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The scarcer and less obvious Little Grebe can be found breeding in Regent’s Park, and does occur on other lakes in winter. Because of its small size and the yellow flanges at the gape making it look like a juvenile, it has the alternative name of Dabchick.

Also breeding on all the park lakes are Common Moorhens and Eurasian Coots. Suitable nest sites are at a premium so you can find a Coot sitting on its nest within feet of the heavily used paths. Around 30-40 pairs nest in St James’s Park alone.

Blue and Great Tits nest a little later to coincide with the hatching of arboreal caterpillars. These are common birds but the diminutive Coal Tit is scarcer and should be sought near conifers, its preferred habitat. Other breeding birds of the parks include Eurasian Wren, Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit, Chaffinch and European Greenfinch. The once ubiquitous House Sparrow is now very rare and you will need to visit the Zoo in Regents Park to find this species taking advantage of spilt animal feed.

In the right conditions in March, April and May passage migrants may stop for a short while, using the parks as islands in the surrounding sea of buildings. Common Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps can be found singing in the bushy areas whilst rarer species such as Garden Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher occasionally occur.

Summer birding is a time for plenty of young birds in confusing plumages, but then most of our old world warblers start that way anyway! July often sees good numbers of Common Swifts seeking insects high above the streets. The colony of Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls near Euston Station have the first young birds of the season trying their wings. To see them just take a tube to Euston and take a short walk along Euston Road towards Warren Street and they are hard to miss.

Crow numbers too are boosted by young birds but the population of Carrion Crows has increased generally with gatherings of over 60 birds possible in some of the larger parks. Common Magpies are common but Eurasian Jays are more difficult; Regent’s Park is the best place to try as up to five pairs per year have bred.

Being an island, Britain has few species of raptor and only three can be expected in the city. Common Kestrels hang in the air currents of tall buildings and birds can often be found somewhere around Victoria Station. They breed on convenient ledges and will sometimes occupy the window box of an apartment in places like The Barbican. Eurasian Sparrowhawks have increased enormously in Britain over the last 25 years and have recently re-colonised London, breeding in the parks. The male is very handsome if seen well but the usual view is a glimpse of a bird as it flaps and glides over the trees. Another recent re-colonist is the Peregrine which can be found nesting near the Tate Modern and Battersea Power Station. Tawny Owl breeds in London and, whilst quite common, its strictly nocturnal habits means it is difficult to see and the distinctive calls at night in late winter and early spring are often the best one can expect. It can be found, along with Little Owl, in Kensington Gardens.

Fall brings more passage warblers returning south and, if you rise early and look skywards, visible migration of Skylarks, pipits and occasional flocks of Northern Lapwings can be noted in the right conditions. If the weather turns to rain, you can expect gatherings of House Martins, and some Bank and Barn Swallows, over the park lakes where the birds can still locate insects.

So, whatever the time of year or weather conditions, there are always opportunities in London for those with the desire to find birds.

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